Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
Southeast Asia - October 2007 through March, 2008From 2007 to 2008, I spent six months in Southeast Asia, traveling through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia with smaller trips to Malaysia, Burma, and Singapore. What follows are my journal entries. The comments in square brackets were comments from my emails rather than entries in my journal.
October (Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore)
November (mostly Thailand)
December (Thailand and Laos)
January (Laos and Cambodia)
February (Cambodia and Thailand)
[Date: Mon Oct 15, 2007 7:41 am
My next adventure starts in about 24 hours.
After spending much too much time over the last few months doing a human rendition of a pincushion at the local travel clinic, getting addlebrained while trying unsuccessfully to figure out an appropriate round-the-world ticket itinerary, and dealing with the vagaries of international visa requirements, I leave Boston tomorrow morning with a one-way ticket to Bangkok, Thailand.
I expect to have a "soft" landing there while I visit a friend, Ruth, living in Bangkok who is not only providing accommodations, but has already helped me immeasurably with advice and suggestions for pretrip planning.
Because of those vagaries of international travel and visa requirements, I'll only be spending a few days in Thailand before I leave to spend two weeks in Malaysia, at least partially with Ruth. After that, I have no set plans. Most likely, I'll go back to Bangkok to travel a bit in Thailand, then travel overland through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam before returning to Thailand. There, I hope to find a room to rent for a month or two, perhaps in the northern part of the country. I'm not usually much of a beach bum so the southern coastal areas may not hold enough appeal for me to "settle" there for that month or two. Of course, I have friends in the south so you never know...
At this point, I'm thinking I'll spend about six months in Southeast Asia. After that, I may return to the US or may continue west to spend another six months or so in eastern and southern Africa. But, I have no need to make any decisions this far in advance.
I expect to have frequent internet access throughout most of Thailand. I'm not sure what to expect in Laos and Cambodia though I suspect the cities in Vietnam will also have plenty of access.
If anyone else is going to be traveling in the same area, get in touch and maybe we can meet up (yes, stranger things have happened). If anyone has suggestions for things off the beaten track and not listed in the guidebooks for those areas, please feel free to forward those suggestions.
Tuesday, October 16 and Wednesday, October 17 - Boston to Bangkok
With a 9:00am flight out of Boston, I knew I was going to have to get to the airport early. My friend Reed dropped me off around 6:45 and I was soon checking in only to discover that although I made sure I had my passport and eticket confirmation number with me, I had apparently neglected to make sure I had my wallet. A frantic phone call later, and the wallet was found at my sister's house where I had crashed the night before. Reed, on his way home already, detoured around, picked up my wallet, and now in full rush hour traffic, brought it to me at the airport. I owe him big time!
Thankfully, I didn't actually need the wallet to check in (my passport was enough), so I was able to check in while waiting for Reed. Even though my pack was small enough to carry on, I had no desire to schlep it through four airports and happily checked it through to Bangkok. I then went outside to wait for Reed and my wallet. Once I got the wallet, I had only 15 minutes to boarding time. I was a bit worried about getting through security but there was no line to speak of and I was through in no time.
Apparently there has been some change in policy and you now have to pay extra for bulkheads and exit row seats. With my long legs, I was crammed into a seat with my knees literally pushed into the seat back in front of me. I felt sorry for the woman in the seat ahead as she would end up feeling my every move and couldn't have put her seat back if she tried. But, I had made it clear, with the help of the flight attendant that she shouldn't even try. The only possible outcome would have been an injury to me. The Boston to Chicago leg was my shortest leg and I was soon dreading my upcoming transoceanic flights.
In Chicago, I had just enough time between flights to buy 15 minutes of internet time and copy down the directions to my friend's place in Bangkok. I had meant to print them in Boston but just plain forgot. It was in Chicago that I got a happy surprise. They were able to put me in a bulkhead seat for the 13 hour flight to Tokyo. For me, that meant I wouldn't be able to stretch out my legs fully, but at least I wouldn't have to worry about someone pushing their seat back into my knees. It was a worthwhile trade-off, in my book. I would be able to get up and move about to stretch my legs easily without needing to as I was sitting there.
On this flight, I was seated next to a man who was part of a Sri Lankan dance troupe. He and his troupe have traveled to over 80 countries and have been performing long enough to have performed for Princess Diana. He is their dance instructor and not only teaches the members of his troupes, but gives workshops to locals along the way.
On this flight, we crossed the International Date Line and I lost a day. Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of Boston. Bangkok, once I get there, is 11 hours ahead. So, it'll be today in Asia half a day before it's today in the Eastern Time zone of the US. Hmm, I think this means that once daylight savings ends in the US, it'll be 12 hours difference, an easy difference to remember.
At the airport in Tokyo, I found myself talking with one woman from Bangkok as well as a father/son pair from the US. After a while, we finally realized that Panwasa, the woman, lived right near where I was going and actually knew the building as her boyfriend lived there. We made plans to share a taxi. In the meantime, she had a friend who ran an apartment rental where the father/son could stay for a couple of nights. After a flight in which I was once again able to get extra leg room (this time an exit row), I quickly changed some money, retrieved my backpack, and after Panwasa saw the other off to their apartment, grabbed a taxi to head towards my friend's place. The ride was much longer than I had remembered from 10 years ago and with good reason... The airport is new and much further from town.
We found my friend, Ruth's, building without any problems and I was soon shown up to the apartment. I was too tired to settle in and just crashed without even waking Ruth up but she woke up just to make sure I had gotten there OK just as I was dropping off to sleep
Thursday, October 18: Bangkok
I woke up to find myself in a three bedroom luxury apartment occupying and entire half of the 12th floor of the 12 story building. Even though Ruth was there alone, with a husband and three kids, she was entitled to such digs. The apartment had tons of built in shelving and storage, views of the city out of every window, and all the conveniences of any "western" house.
Ruth made me feel immediately at home and gave me plenty of tools to find my way around the city, country, and region. It was information overload of the best kind.
We had a lazy morning as Ruth gets to work fairly late and then I was off around town. I started with an early lunch at the first roadside stand I found. For 30 baht (less than $1), I got a meal of rice with a chicken and shrimp dish (it looked like larb but wasn't - it was, however, delicious) as well as some vegetable dish of some sort of greens. I took it to the local park to eat. This park has a 2.4km track as well as a smaller one, a large pond with paddle boats for rent, an entire outdoor gym with what looked like decades old decrepit machines, and more. As I left the park, I stopped to look at the large statue of the king. I watched as one enterprising young woman sold garlands and incense to three Japanese or perhaps, Singaporese tourists. These offerings were left at the base of the statue. I was to see many more statues with offerings during my wanderings though that was the first with a woman selling garlands and incense right there. All day long, I would pass shrines, both small and large, tucked into corners along roads, fences, and buildings. Larger than life-sized portraits of the king in elaborate gilded frames are all over town. He's usually alone in them but at least one had an image of him helping a girl on crutches.
Foot massage places abound. Most also offer traditional Thai massage and other types of massage but it's apparent that it's the foot massage that brings people in. After walking around, I can understand why. Many of the women teeter on heels while walking on the uneven and broken pavement that is the norm. You don't have to be a farang (foreigner) to twist an ankle. I've seen the locals go off balance after a misplaced step.
If I ever feel a bit homesick, I can step into any one of the following familiar establishments: McDonalds; Burger King; KFC; 7-Eleven; Staples, Swensen's (no longer in the US but still here); Subway; Pizza Hut; a Sizzler Steakhouse, and more. Prices here are less expensive than at home (~$3 for an extra value meal at McD's) but still pricey given the abundance of full meals that can be had for ~$1.
I spent the day walking and riding both the river boats and canal boats. For just 13 baht, I road the river boat upstream from the Central Pier at the southern part of the city to stop 13 near Khao San Road, the traditional "backpacker" area, near the northern part. I had intended to see the sights along the way but was soon distracted by the man sitting next to me. Once again, I was seated next to a dancer. This time, a ballroom dancer who told me about lessons in the park I had walked through just that morning. when I return from Malaysia, I'll give him a call and get some more information, perhaps about dances rather than just opportunities fro lessons.
If the river was wide, giving plenty of room for boats to pass, making for a relatively smooth ride, the canal was not. The narrow canyon-like canal has concrete lined walls containing the rapidly moving water. With nowhere to go, wakes from the speeding boats ricochet off the walls and form tricky currents for the drivers to deal with and give an exciting ride for those of us unfamiliar with this particular mode of transportation. These low slung boats require a bit of gymnastics to get on and off. From the pier, step onto the narrow platform at the edge of the boat and while ducking under the canopy, step down onto the seat and then onto the floor. Reverse the process to get off. The men selling tickets move back and forth on those narrow platforms, taking money, making change, and handing out tickets while balancing and if necessary, grabbing the canopy to stay on board.
Back at the apartment, I took a very sound nap and then joined Ruth and Dare (another State Dept. employee) for dinner at Me Kitchen, a local place with both outdoor seating a fishbowl-like indoor air conditioned seating area. It had cooled off enough to sit outside so we dined al fresco. We ordered four dishes for the three of us as they're typically smaller than a typical American portion. It came with a complimentary sushi appetizer. The shrimp with greens dish was delicious, as with the sizzling beef dish. The garlic pork dish was quite good, but I wasn't too crazy about the chewy chicken dish.
Friday, October 19: Bangkok
I had long known that medical care here in Bangkok was considered top-notch even by US standards. As such, I knew that if at any point during my travels, if I needed medical care, I would return to Bangkok, not the US. It was only while doing some research before coming here that I had realized that, not surprisingly, the same was true for Thai dentistry. Not only is it highly regarded, but there's a large and thriving business of dental tourism, where people come here to get their dental work done rather than do it at home. For those that need extensive dental work, the savings for the work can more than pay for their entire trip to Thailand.
For me, I didn't need anything that extensive, but with a cavity at the margin of one of my crowns, I needed to have one crown pulled off, the cavity filled, a temporary crown, and then the new crown put on. In the US, it would have been a four week process which I would have finished just before flying off to Asia, with no chance to have anything fixed should something go wrong. It would have also cost me 50% of the $1200 my dentist would have charged. After checking out the recommendations of numerous other travelers and looking up the potential costs for the same work in Thailand, I canceled my stateside appointment and made an appointment to see a dentist in Bangkok.
I showed up at the dentist's office this morning and had my initial appointment. After an x-ray and a quick exam of the tooth, we decided to put off the work until I returned from Malaysia. I left the office with a complete schedule of the costs involved...
X-ray: 500b (already done and paid for) (they use digital images here)
Maximum total: 21,000b
I could get a porcelain crown for less but given this is my rear molar, I would rather pay the extra ~$150 for the most durable crown I can get.
I'll get a 10% discount because I booked the work on-line. And my dental insurance covers 40% of out of network care. So, all told, I'll end up paying closer to $360 (max) rather than the $600 I would have owed at home. And once they start the work, it only takes four days, not weeks, to get the permanent crown.
Saving $240 may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things in the US, but around here, where lodging can be had for less than $10/night and meals for $1, $240 goes a very long way.
After spending half and hour at the dentist, I hit the local Tops supermarket, bought a salad from the salad bar, some baked goods (sweet, potato buns, anyone?) from the bakery, some kiwi juice (the selection of boxed juices here in Bangkok is amazing), and some cookies and walked home to eat lunch.
Rosalie, Ruth's Filipino housekeeper came in while I was eating and I was soon being called Miss Mara. That's OK, she calls my host, Dr. Ruth. ;-} I don't think she knows who the more well-known Dr. Ruth is. Rosalie is delightful, charming, and funny. She's been here in Thailand for the last 10 years, working to put her daughter through college. Her daughter will finish in just one more year and Rosalie is hoping she'll join her here.
My lack of sleep caught up with me and I crashed this afternoon and took a two hour nap - dead to the world and all the construction banging going on the neighboring apartment. I snoozed for another hour after that and woke up feeling more refreshed than I have felt in weeks. I just hope I can sleep tonight - I'll be taking a Benadryl just to make sure...
Ruth cooked a wonderful dinner of eggplant, chickpeas, onion, and tomato. And I liked it! I don't generally like eggplant but this preparation worked for me.
For those who have traveled, you may have been wondering what I was thinking to buy salad from a salad bar. Well, one of the most pleasant surprises I've encountered here was the fact that the tap water is potable and the food, including stuff that can't be boiled or peeled, generally safe to eat. The restaurants all use commercially prepared ice and bottled water so I've had to restrict myself very little since I've been here. I do take my water with ice here though (I usually prefer "no ice") as the water is otherwise room temperature. Room temperature around here is rather warm so cold water really is preferred.
[Date: Wed Oct 24, 2007 7:26 pm
Just wanted to head off any concerns...
I'm in Malaysia and while Indonesia is a neighboring country, the latest earthquake (just hours ago) in Indonesia has had no affect here in Kuala Lumpur. There was no tsunami warning issued and I'm not in a coastal area.
I've seen news of the California fires and hope things are brought under control there as soon as possible. While the cities and highly populated areas get most of the coverage, I can only hope those friends of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) who live in the smaller communities but also in areas of high fire risk are OK.
Here's my latest from SE Asia...
Saturday, October 20: Bangkok
This morning, I went with Ruth to visit the commissary that the Embassy employees use. It was strange to walk into a store where everything was labeled in dollars and the method of payment was also in dollars. There was no Thai lettering to be seen. There were however, Halloween decorations there. While the employees were Thai, none of the shoppers appeared to be Thai. The prices were all over the board. Some were more than the outside markets, some much less. Some about the same or only a bit more than the US, some many multiples of prices seen in the US.
After we dropped our stuff back at the apartment, Ruth took me on a tour of the local shopping opportunities. We visited neighborhood markets, expat markets, upscale Thai markets, upscale expat markets, malls with high end boutique stores, malls with incredible displays of floral arrangements on each of the seven stories around the central escalators, and more. We had lunch in an upscale Movenpick style cafeteria that primarily focused on Asia food.
We then met Dare and Mary Beth to go see a movie. I had to turn over my camera in order to go into the theater - not that it could take feature length movies. The seats were assigned seating and there were less expensive and more expensive seats. They were comfortable seats with plenty of leg room. The movie cost about $5. In other theaters, you could pay more and have lounge seating with food service at your seats. As with theaters in the US, there were ads before the movies, some of which we could tell the product for sale, some of which we couldn't. Then there were the trailers for upcoming movies. After that, we all stood for the National Anthem which was played while scenes from the country plied the screen. All are required to stand for the National Anthem and it's considered an affront to the beloved King to do otherwise.
We saw "the Kingdom" which was a very powerful, and rather disturbing, film. It was a bit too gory and bloody for my taste but the story line and attitudes of the people involved were telling. Unfortunately, until such attitudes change, it's going to be a very long time before peace breaks out in the middle east.
After the movie, we visited one more mall, the Pantip Plaza, an incredible computer (IT) mall. Dare needed a modem and this was the place to find it. While there, we also visited a DVD shop and those who lived in the area stocked up. At less than $2.50 a DVD, it's cheap entertainment and they have all the latest movies and TV shows (available by season).
Sunday, October 21: Bangkok
I tried to help Dare install her modem today but ran into problems that required technical support from her ISP. I'll try again tomorrow when we can get them on the phone. Being Sunday, it was a slow day on the street so we went back to Mi Kitchen for lunch.
Back at Ruth's apartment, I crashed and took a long nap. I'm still not sleeping great at night but then I wasn't sleeping all that great before I left for Asia.
Dare, Mary Beth and I got together for dinner at a Lebanese place. I had a chicken schwarma sandwich and fries with a bottle of water for about $2.50.
I've been in and out of a lot of food markets over the last couple of days. Believe it or not, it's generally cheaper to buy street food or even have a restaurant meal than it is to try to buy and cook for yourself. So, the trick is to buy for myself when there's something I want to cook for myself. Otherwise, eat out.
I spent the evening looking over a book I borrowed from Dare, "Jim Thompson, the House on the Klong." It's a coffee table book about an American in post-WWII Bangkok who settled here and created an international market for Thai silk, and industry that had almost died out before he discovered it. He also created his own housing compound on the local klong (canal). I'll visit the house, now a museum, tomorrow.
Monday, October 22: Bangkok
After such a good nap yesterday, I was surprised to sleep so well. Even so, I was up early. No problem, it'll be nice to get out before the full heat of the day hits. I left early and had plenty of time to walk to the Jim Thompson house before it opened at 9:00. It's an oasis of jungle in the middle of Bangkok.
In addition to revitalizing the Thai silk market, Jim Thompson collected and reassembled traditional Thai houses on his compound. These houses remain some of the only such houses in Bangkok. He also collected area art and has what is considered to be one of the most important collections in the area.
On a trip to Malaysia, he disappeared on day during a walk in the Cameron Highlands. No sign of him was ever found. The Highlands are one area I may visit in my own upcoming trip to Malaysia. I'll keep an eye out for Jim but I suspect he's hanging out with Elvis.
For more about the house, check out: www.jimthompsonhouse.com
After my visit to the Jim Thompson house, I revisited some of the shopping centers I had been to a couple of days earlier. I got my hair cut at Cut and Curl. It wasn't any cheaper than the Supercuts haircuts I get at home but it was a much better experience. It started with a three rounds of shampoo and conditioner, all applied with a fantastic and relaxing head massage. This was given from a well cushioned reclining lounge type chair/couch. Once my hair was clean and conditioned, I was passed off to the cutter. It was a fairly standard cut but with the time and detailing of a high end shop rather than the quick cuts typical of a Supercuts.
After another round of shampoo, massage, etc. and a blow dry, the cutter came back to do a final trim with meticulous detail to symmetry and the use of razor scissors to soften the layers. All this for 400 baht, less than $12.
In the same mall, I stopped to take a few pictures of the incredible balloon display associated with the world championship. There was a huge jungle scene complete with life-size King Kong figure. Back to Chitlom Central Mall to get pictures of the floral displays along the central escalators. it seemed like something out of the Rose Bowl Parade. There were birds of paradise, entire giraffes out of flowers, rose pillows, live birds, and more.
Late lunch of leftovers back at Ruth's place. Later in the afternoon, I went back to Dare's place and after a marathon call to tech support, I got her modem working. I didn't get here airport working but at least she can get online, albeit tethered.
Tuesday, October 23: Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur (Kuala Lumpur)
This morning, I organized, did laundry, and packed for two weeks in Malaysia. I went to the store to buy stuff for both lunch and dinner. Lunch I ate at the apartment. Dinner would be for before (and maybe during) the flight to Kuala Lumpur. Kuala Lumpur is how everybody refers to Kuala Lumpur - even in Kuala Lumpur.
I took my first land-based public transit in Bangkok today. I took the elevated Skytrain, a wonderfully clean system to the end of the line. From there, I hopped the bus for the long ride to the airport. All told, less than $2 to travel 30 miles or so.
Having mostly only observed the roads from the perspective of a pedestrian, the bus ride was confirmation of a suspicion I had. In Bangkok, the lane markings are merely suggestions and are usually ignored in favor of speed no matter what the vehicle type. While the motorbikes are the worst offenders when it comes to weaving in and out, cars, trucks, and even the buses are also always jockeying for position.
At the airport, I met a couple from Hungary. We chatted in line to check in, then again in the waiting area, and then, on this flight with no assigned seats, after I managed to snag an exit row seat with extra leg room, they joined me there as well. By the end of the flight, Veronika, Marton, and I had plans to see some of the Kuala Lumpur sights together over the next couple of days.
We lost each other at the airport so I was on my own to get to the city. No problem though, buses for 9 ringgits, less than $3, were waiting to take us the 30 miles or so into the city. On my bus ride, I met a mother and her 15 year old daughter. They were Malaysians but as I put it to friends, their English was better than mine. They offered me suggestions for my trip as well as interesting discussions of food, language, and the diversity of the people and religions in Malaysia (they are Muslim). They also pointed me in the right direction for the train once I got off the bus.
Taking the train to my stop was easy. Getting from there to the hotel should have been easy but an ill-fated question to a local had me walking far in the wrong direction to the Su Casa hotel instead of the Mi Casa hotel. Sigh. By the time I realized the error, it was late, and having passed one homeless guy lying on a pedestrian overpass with his privates lewdly hanging out, I just grabbed a taxi. No meter so the guy offered to take me for 10 ringgits. I told him it seemed high and he looked sheepish like he knew he had tried to pull one over on an unsuspecting tourist. He immediately came down to 7, I offered 5 and he accepted. It was a very short trip.
Wednesday, October 24: Kuala Lumpur
I was up early and out by 7:20. I met Veronika and Marton in the basement of the Petronas towers and hung out with them and hundreds of other waiting in line for free tickets, until the ticket both opened at 8:30. We got tickets for the 10:45 tour. They went for breakfast while I went to the Thai Embassy to try to get a visa. It wasn't meant to be. I got there, got in line, but when I realized it took over half and hour just to get through the first 5 people and I was number 33, I had to leave to get back to the towers. At least I had managed to grab some pancake-like street food for breakfast along the way.
At the time of completion (1998), the Petronas Twin Towers were the tallest towers in the world. That lasted for all of five years. Now they are the tallest twin towers in the world. It's possible to get a tour of the Skybridge that connects the two towers at levels 41 and 42 but that’s as high as visitors are allowed. Even still, it's well worth watching the propaganda, err marketing, video (in 3D, no less) shown before each tour in order to go up to the Skybridge.
They give you about 15 minutes on the Skybridge before ushering you back down no the high speed elevators. The towers themselves are an engineering marvel. Back at the bottom, there's an exhibit/museum that shows more about how they were built. Fascinating.
We spent the afternoon at the Lake Gardens, a huge park within Kuala Lumpur. We spent $5 to see the butterflies. We passed on the $10 world’s largest aviary though I may go back. Then we wandered the orchid/hibiscus garden. Orchids are everywhere in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur but to see so many varieties in one place was amazing. We were still there during and afternoon downpour but took shelter in one of the roofed over areas.
We found a meeting place for tomorrow morning and parted ways. I went back to the hotel, met Ruth, and then wandered more until we ended up back at the KLCC (towers) to eat at Nando's a Portuguese restaurant with African influences.
Ruth's plans have changed and she's heading to Fiji this weekend so I'll be traveling on my own for the rest of my Malaysia trip.
[Date: Wed Oct 31, 2007 5:32 am
It's been a while since my last update... Since then, I've seen more of Kuala Lumpur and spent the weekend in Singapore. Singapore, for those unfamiliar with the geography of the region, is at the very tip of the SE Asian peninsula. It is a country, an island, and a city.
While some people collect states and countries (yeah, yeah, I do a bit of that, too), I'm beginning to think I should keep track of the various maladies I've had while traveling... I seem to be fighting yet another issue on this trip: Impetigo. Thankfully, it seems to be under control already. Although it still itches, the origin, some insect bites on my hands, are no longer painful and the impetigo seems to be getting smaller and is no longer spreading. I go into a bit more detail starting on the 28th but hopefully not too much - or too gross.
Oh yeah... Just a note of reassurance... If you've heard of bombing in Thailand, I'm aware of them. They are contained in southern Thailand in an area I don't intend to visit. I will be returning to Thailand on November 4.
Thursday, October 25: Kuala Lumpur
The buffet breakfast at the hotel with Ruth included typical "western" choices as well as a variety of Asian choices including rice, noodles, curries, rice porridge, and more.
I met Veronika and Marton at the bus stop for a trip to Batu Caves. The bus ride, all on city streets, was uneventful but brought us through some suburban neighborhoods.
The caves, discovered just 100 years ago, are amazing. The primary cave with its soaring ceiling has been turned into a Hindu shrine with 272 steps leading up to the entrance. There is also a huge golden statue standing next to the stairs dwarfing all who choose to climb up to the cave. Oh yeah - no need to count the steps. The numbers are stenciled right onto them.
Monkeys abound ready to take handouts or steal from unsuspecting tourists. At the top of the steps, we entered the huge cavern. It's free to go in but there are touts selling postcards and other kitsch. Everywhere you look, in every niche, there are Hindu shrines. Further in, there was a whole open air temple.
There were very few features such as stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, etc. in the primary cavern.
We skipped the guided tour through a more "natural" stretch of cave where those features were sure to be visible. Normally, I think I would have hopped at the chance but I was beat, the heat was getting to me, and all I could think of was a long nap in the air conditioned hotel room.
Back in town, lunch in Chinatown was a bust. Neither the food nor the prices were particularly good. We said our good-byes after lunch and I went back to the hotel for that much needed nap. Dinner with Ruth at Mari and Norgay's place was phenomenal. Norgay, trained as a chef in the US and has worked for such notables as Wolfgang Puck, grew up in Nepal. His talents in the kitchen were well appreciated and we enjoyed some of the best Nepali food I've ever had. Ruth and I weren't the only guests... Wendy and Maury were there as were Scott and Gary. Mari and Norgay's two boys (teenager-ish) joined us for dinner but made themselves scarce after that.
Friday, October 26: Kuala Lumpur to Singapore
Breakfast with Ruth again - and said goodbye. I spent the morning at the highly recommended Islamic Art museum. Well worth the visit to see the beautiful Qur’ans, paintings, textiles, pottery, metalwork, coins, and architecture. Not just limited to local Islamic tradition, this museum concentrated on the differences between different regions and how they influenced each other.
When I got back to the hotel, I realized that I had just enough time to get to the train to Singapore. I had decided not to go when potential housing fell through but realized there were hostels with reasonable rates so I might as well visit. I was a last minute decision that almost got derailed when the subway system experienced highly unusual delays. I made it through ticketing and onto the train with about two minutes to spare.
Mechanical problems meant no canteen on board so they stopped at one station for a ten minute break. I bought a mystery meal in a Styrofoam box that ended up being rice with chicken, a fried egg, and a bunch of tiny little fish to eat whole. It was all good.
It would have been more cost effective to have taken the overnight train in both directions but I wanted a chance to see whatever could be seen from the train. As with many (most?) trains, in the populated areas, we primarily rumbled through people's backyards. Between communities however, we passed kilometers and kilometers of palm "orchards". It's in these trees that the get palm oil. There may have been other varieties of palms but I never did find that out one way or another.
Being in the tropics, the days are basically 12 hours long. Both sunrise and sunset are about 7:00 and both dawn and dusk are very quick affairs.
At the last stop in Malaysia, just before the border with Singapore, the Malaysian authorities came on board and collected our departure cards. Just a few minutes away in Singapore, we all had to disembark with all of our belongings, go through border control (immigrations and customs) and then wait while the train was fully inspected - complete with what I'm pretty sure was a drug sniffing dog. Then we all had to reboard for the last 30 minutes or so to the Singapore train station.
Singapore is known as a nanny state for all the social regulations and restrictions the state places on the lives of the people living there. While some may grate at the oversight, most also agree that such restrictions have done wonders for the people and economy of the area both of which are thriving. As a visitor, you need to be aware that offences as simple as jaywalking and littering are enforced and fines may be significant. For those inclined for to drug trafficking, be aware that the death penalty is in place for traffickers. Caning is also a way officials mete out fines.
When I got off the train in Singapore, I met Laura and Aled, a couple from Wales. They arrived earlier than expected and didn't have hotel reservations until the next day. They decided to tag along with me to find my bottom of the barrel accommodations. After a wrong turn based on yet another incorrect map, we found the hostel and ended up sharing a three bed family room for S$40 (about US$24 or $8 each). Like the cheapo hostels in Bangkok, this one had walls that didn't reach the ceiling, a fan but no A/C, and no window in the interior room. Turning off the light however was only partially effective as the light in the hall outside remained on all night. I'm beginning to think that bringing my silk sleeping bag liner for a sleep sack may have not been the best idea. We'll see how things go but here, it's too hot to get inside and the sack is too narrow if I'm not in it to really cover much of the bed.
The small arrow printed on the ceiling in our hotel room points towards Mecca. In this land of the built in furniture, sometimes the arrow may be "hidden" in a drawer.
Ruth, whose territory includes about 14 countries, keeps her money alphabetized by country. Heading into my fourth country in a week, I'm beginning to understand the benefit to such organization.
I'm getting a lot of exercise crossing streets. With as many as twelve or more lanes to cross, many city streets have pedestrian bridges. Climb up one side, cross over the street, and descend down the other side. Sometimes these bridges are integrated into area shopping centers so you can enter the mall on the second floor without first descending to street level.
Calls to prayer from area mosques can be heard at certain times of the day while traveling throughout the city. Running late, some men will run towards the nearest mosque. Today, I saw a group of men praying outside a local mosque at the outskirts of the busy KLCC area.
Yesterday, I saw a group of men playing a local sport that involved either heading or kicking a rattan ball over a net about five feet high. No hands allowed except for one player who starts play by "serving" to a teammate to kick over the net. Hmm, I love Google... one search on Malaysian rattan ball sport yielded this Wikipedia entry for the game Sepak Takraw.
Saturday, October 27: Singapore
Woke up to rain showers that turned to thunder as I was about to get in the shower. I waited until the cell passed and grabbed a quick shower. Then the thunder returned. I had fairly good timing this morning.
Breakfast, included in the price of lodging, included scrambled eggs, hot dogs, tomato, cucumber, carrot sticks, hard boiled eggs, hot dogs (probably chicken), white bread (plenty fresh which is hard to do in Hot Asia) but with a toaster available, and a type of pink skinned fruit with juicy white flesh and black seeds. It was pretty good though not amongst my favorite fruits. A Google search yielded its name and a good description of Dragon Fruit.
As with the others staying at the hostel, I made a point to eat a large breakfast in order to keep my lunch needs to a minimum.
Given the rain, I rethought my plans and headed for the Asian Civilizations Museum only to find it closed with a note pointing to their other building, a 20 minute walk away. Along the way, I got side-tracked by a rugby tournament at the Singapore Cricket Club grounds. I'm no sports fan but I do feel like it's good to have a basis upon which to form an opinion. I had seen a bit of the sport on TV but never watch in person before. I stayed long enough to learn a bit about the game, take a couple of micronaps, and wake up in time to watch the US Eagles slaughter their opponent. When the tournament broke for lunch, I meandered my way to the museum but by then, needed a snack first. I strode the length of Boat Quay (pronounced: key), and ignored the touts at all of the restaurants with riverside seating. A yoghurt from a local 7-Eleven was enough after my big breakfast followed by an ice cream in an attempt to cool down.
Once at the museum, I joined the tour. Our guide was able to put the collection in perspective but as is usually the case, didn't give us much time to actually see the collection so after the tour was over, I went back and saw more of the museum on my own. I ran into Laura and Aled just as I was about to leave the museum. They were just arriving.
I meandered my way over to the Raffles Hotel, named for the man who founded Singapore. It's now a posh hotel with beautiful architecture that makes it a destination of its own even for those not staying there. Quite unexpectedly, I found some reasonable options at Eng's Bakery (I think that's the name) and ended up making dinner of a delicious Asian Chicken pie with a soaring flaky pastry top and then a piece of Chocolate Fudge Cake, a dense, moist cake with chocolate fudge frosting and pieces of raspberry chocolate and a fresh raspberry for decoration. The cake alone would have been enough food for dinner but I'm glad to have had the chicken pie as well. Each of these items was a rather surprisingly reasonable S$3.50 (or about US $2.50).
An unfortunate incident happened in the ladies room there... The guidebook that I had borrowed from Ruth, managed to fall into the toilet as it was flushing. Argh!! I had to fish it out, rinse it a bit, and then find a plastic bag in which to carry it for the time being. Looks like I'll be doing a bit of shopping to replace this one. Argh!
I caught the MRT from Raffles to the Ang Mo Kio MRT station and was looking for a bus when touts offered free shuttle service to the zoo. Sure enough, if I bought the ticket from them at no premium, I got the ride to the Night Safari, a location adjacent to, and sharing a parking lot with, the zoo. Sure enough, it was a zoo alright. And I'm not talking about the animals. I'm not sure if it was because it was a Saturday night, or the Saturday before Halloween, but the place was packed and the people there seemed to forget that they were there to see nocturnal animals is as realistic a setting as could be provided given the situation. I had a ticket for the tram but one look at the line and I started walking instead. And I walked right into a Halloween themed walk complete with ghouls, mummies, Bridges of Hell, and more. The costumes and frights would put the Salem, MA goings on to shame.
Thankfully, the screaming kids were shortly left behind and I could start to enjoy the walking night safari. Subdued lighting was just enough to see the pathways and to light the animals in their enclosures. Flash photography is forbidden as is the use of tripods. As such, I soon realized that my camera would be useless and I soon put it away.
By the time I finished the three walking paths, I knew I would miss the shuttle back to the bus station if I took the tram ride I had paid for. But, with the crowds, I figured I could get a ride. Then I found out about an express shuttle back to the city for just S$4. Perfect.
I got in line for the tram ride and avoided the Halloween Horrors tram and took the regular tram with the naturalist on board. The walking trails and the tram ride rarely overlap territory so I saw a whole new set of animals on the tram than I had while walking. Both experiences were worthwhile. I think my most memorable experience of the evening was in the Giant Flying Squirrel exhibit. I was there for feeding time and a naturalist, studying the habits of the animals was in there. She not only used her flashlight (prohibited for the rest of us) to light the animals so we could take pictures, but answered any other questions we had. At one point, one glided so close overhead, I had to duck and could feel the breeze formed by the passing animal. The squirrels were very cute though very large. These flying squirrels were the largest of all flying squirrels - and they were BIG.
Sunday, October 28: Singapore (to Kuala Lumpur)
Happy Birthday, Mom!
Breakfast was a carbon copy of yesterday's except the fruit du jour was watermelon instead of dragon fruit. I soon headed out to walk to the Botanical Gardens by way of Orchard Road, "the" shopping district complete with Timberland, Rolex, Orange Julius, and more. A stop in the tourist office yielded useful information such as information about a free shuttle to and from the Dobi Ghaut to Chinatown and Little India. They also have bottled water from which I could refill my own bottle. And a good map with the entire area on one page.
I continue to the Botanical gardens, walked a bit, napped under the Monkey Pot tree (aptly named one you see the seed pods), and then made my way to the Orchid Gardens, worth every bit of the S$5 I paid to get in. There are 1000 native varieties of orchids represented as well as 2000 hybrids, ranging from the size of my thumbnail on up. It seems every visiting head of state gets an orchid named for them, even if they are a dictator. I learned some stuff there including the fact that pineapples are bromeliads and are comprised of many little fruits growing together rather than one big fruit.
I started raining as I walked out with a group of librarians. the rain mostly held off until after I "found" a market and "discovered" a local treat of seafood mixed with spices and other ingredients and cooked in banana leaves. Based on the recommendation of someone buying some, I tried one each of the fish and the prawn. Delicious. My sugar cane and lime beverage was also delicious.
After that, the rains came for real with an hour long downpour complete with thunder and lightning. The rainy season is just getting started this far south in Singapore. I walked quite a few blocks going from awning to awning but then got stuck at the "last" awning for a while. My talk with the local luggage proprietor was interesting. We talked about the restrictions that make Singapore a nanny state such as the reportedly strict enforcement of jaywalking laws, littering laws, capital punishment for drug trafficking, etc. The system has its benefits. It's a clean city, and the saying is that there's low crime not no crime just reflects how infrequent infractions really are.
When the rain abated, I finally moved on to Little India and ate at the Banana Leaf Apolo restaurant. I didn't order from the preprepared food so waited quite a while for my food. No problem, it came hot and freshly cooked. True to its name, my food was served directly on the banana leaf that was used as a placemat in front of me. First a scoop of rice was served, then my curry in a separate bowl from which I could scoop onto my rice. My pakora were small bite sized pieces but delicious. My Malai Kofta was filled with melted paneer, very different from at home but a very nice variation.
By the time I emerged from my early dinner, the street scene had changed dramatically. it was now teeming with people. Not so much Deepavali preparations, but just a normal Sunday night. It's the night when all those of Indian origin or descent come out to see or be seen, meet with friends, go to temple, etc. The street vendor business thrives on Sunday and the streets are lit up like a Christmas tree - err, like daylight. Traffic is squeezed through the bottleneck formed when lanes are taken over by pedestrians or closed completely. When stopping to watch a woman get her hands henna'ed (amazingly quickly and intricately), I ended up talking with her and her husband only to find that he would be fasting the next day on her behalf.
I walked to a nearby hostel where a free walking tour of Deepavali was offered. The tour repeated much of what I had just experienced on my own but I still learned a lot. We saw a man making bangles out of wax, some to order, learned about how stickers on the floor have taken the place of the more time consuming artwork that women used to paint outside their houses, learned the differences between Indian and Chinese style gold jewelry at a jewelry store, and meandered through a Hindu temple where many of the men were preparing for a firewalking ritual early the next morning.
The tour ended and I made my way back to the hostel, stopping just a block or so from it when I saw a couple with the guy on crutches struggling with a backpack. There was only one place they could be going in the neighborhood so I offered to carry his pack and showed them to the hostel. I couldn't stick around so I just grabbed my pack and then made my way to the train station, with a stop to spend the last of my Singaporean money.
On board the train, I found myself on the top bunk where I couldn't sit up. My sleeper berth was about 6' long, just long enough when I sleep on my side. So, I should be OK. My pack has to share my space though so I'm glad I pack small because it's going to be tight. At least I could put my smaller bag and camera bag in the window area.
While everything seems to be going OK, I did wake up with a "sensitive" scalp. It’s not itchy so I hope it's nothing, but I do fear lice form a crappy hostel like McKenzie's. Then today, at the Botanical gardens, I got bitten, unseen and unfelt at the time. Angry red welts, looking like blisters but not fluid filled, have popped up on my hands. Other areas also seem to be forming.
Monday, October 29: Kuala Lumpur
I arrived via overnight train back in Kuala Lumpur having slept better than expected but no nearly as well as I had hoped. After a false start on the bus ( I tried to board but couldn't find my ringgits), I scoured my pack and finally found my Malaysian money and boarded the next bus going in my direction. I had no problems checking into the Pudu hostel. For 12 ringgits (<$4)/night, I have a bed in a four bunk dorm room. It's clean, I get sheets and a towel, and the bathroom and showers are pretty nice, too. Beats McKenzie’s by a long shot.
I left my pack and beat it to the subway to Ampang Park and then walked to the Thai embassy, this time prepared to wait for hours. Sure enough, that's what it took. I waited for hours, then took five minutes to turn in my passport, application (always scary to give up your passport in a foreign country), and money. I'll return tomorrow to pick up my passport with visa.
Exhausted, I beat it back towards the hostel but with rain starting right as I got to Chinatown, I found an el cheapo umbrella to buy. I brought rain gear with me but just can't bear to put it on given the heat. Umbrellas are the way to go. I took the time to find one with a silver exterior surface. Mine has a plaid interior. The silver will be good if I ever use it for sun protection.
At the hostel, I reorganized, made my bed, and then hit the internet cafe. A bit of research and I'm pretty convinced I'm dealing with impetigo. My red "bites" from yesterday are extremely painful and were probably the start. I scratched them and spread the infection to other areas. The other affected areas are different and conform to everything I read and saw pictures of on-line. I sent an email to try to make an appointment to see a doctor and also asked Ruth if she had recommendations for area clinics to either confirm or refute my self-diagnosis. Plus, I'm curious as to whether my case warrants oral antibiotics in addition to the topical ointment recommended by a number of web sites.
I've taken to avoiding touching much of anything and wiping surfaces I have touched with alcohol spray - at least for the first couple of days.
In the meantime, I had hoped to travel further afield in Malaysia than Kuala Lumpur but the discomfort from the infection gets so much worse when I'm outside that I'll probably stay put where I can escape into the A/C. Ah well, dealing with this at home would be hard enough but while on the road, it's really annoying. Of course, had I been at home, I probably wouldn't have experienced any of this - but then that's the price you sometimes pay for international travel.
Back at the hostel after buying my antibiotic ointment, I showered changed into clean clothes, and applied to ointment. Given I was wearing my hiking clothes and couldn't really go anywhere while all the rest of my clothes were being watched, I'm stuck in the internet cafe and hostel until morning.
Tuesday, October 30: Kuala Lumpur
WOW!!! I went to sleep around 11:00 and didn't wake up until nearly 10:00. eleven hours of sleep. I really needed that. I guess there's an advantage to a windowless room, with A/C, and walls that actually reach the ceiling and block out not only the light, but the noise. The other occupants came in after me and I never heard them. One left before me and I barely woke up but turned over and went back to sleep. I'm hoping I'm now mostly caught up on sleep.
After breakfast, I made it to the Thai embassy and got my passport complete with visa. Thankfully, there was no wait to pick up completed visas. I stopped at Central Market on my way home. Looked around a while, and ended up eating lunch of delicious Tom Yum soup.
At the hostel, I got in touch with Mari, and basically had my diagnosis and treatment confirmed over the phone, saving me a trip to a clinic. I'll give the antibiotic ointment a week to work and if it doesn't, I'll see a doctor in Bangkok. In the meantime, I'm going to limit my activities a bit, if only to limit my discomfort.
I did go out again to the KL tower to catch sunset. What a view! Watching the lights come on in town and the Petronas towers light up was well worth the long stay on the observation deck of the tower. It was late by the time I got back, my dinner options limited, so I grabbed a salad at KFC, and a bottle of apple soda (why can't I get apple soda in the US?), and went back to the hostel to eat and watch Babel.
[Date: Sat Nov 3, 2007 5:23 am
Well, my skin infection is slowly clearing up even though I'll be using the antibiotic ointment for another few days. Unfortunately, I'm now dealing with a nasty cold. Sniffling, sore throat, runny nose and sneezing are the order of the day. Plus, I'm just too run down even though I'm still sleeping 8 or more hours a night. The heat and humidity are hard enough on me when I'm healthy. Now, I just plain force myself to get out at least once a day.
Tomorrow, I head back to Bangkok. I'll probably continue a low key existence until I'm healthy again.
For right now, I'm at the Malaysia Tourist Center where I've found some more free internet access.
Wednesday, October 31: Kuala Lumpur
Happy Halloween! Every now and then since I've been in Asia, I've run into a few Halloween decorations here and there. Today, I walked past the Hard Rock Cafe and the dudes on the "chasing motorcycles" above the door were dressed and masked for the holiday.
I woke up this morning after a good nine hours sleep. That makes two nights in a row. I hope this is the start of a new trend. It's nice to be able to go all day and feel rested.
Breakfast of baked goodies (sweet kaya, anyone? It's green, but I have no idea what it really is) [A bit of research yielded "Kaya, is a coconut jam made from coconut milk, duck or chicken eggs which are flavored by pandan leaf and sweetened with sugar."]. I bought it at 7-Eleven. Eventually, I got out and stopped at the Telecommunications museum. It's associated with the KL Tower (a telecom tower). It was about the history of communications in Malaysia but in another sense, it mirrored how communications developed everywhere. Off particular interest was how cable was laid across bodies of water. I've always found that concept fascinating. I also found free internet access there - as long as I didn't mind standing up. It was good for checking email - bad for transcribing my journal.
Afterwards, I went back to the KL tower for the free 45 minute guided tour of the 9 hectare rainforest in the middle of the concrete jungle that is Kuala Lumpur.
Then, I circumnavigated the Tower and eventually got lunch at a no name (that I could read, anyway) hole-in-the-wall place. Rice, chicken, and sprouts for 4.50RM (~US$1.50). Then I spent a couple of hours in the internet cafe two floors down from the hostel to bring friends and family up to date with my whereabouts.
I reconnected with Sergei who I had met at the hostel the previous evening. He's traveling with laptop and enough camera equipment to fill a large daypack. He's also carrying a tripod. I had a chance to look at his pictures and they truly are fantastic. Something to aspire to though I have no desire to carry that much stuff around with me. He's a former computer graphics programmer from Moscow who quit his job some months ago and has been traveling ever since. He reiterated his offer from the precious evening to burn a DVD for me.
I'm carrying an external hard drive so I have somewhere to offload my 4 gb worth of photo cards. But, once I reformat my photo cards, I still don't have a back up so I'm hoping to burn CDs or DVDs periodically to use as backups. So, I went out for dinner of noodles with chicken and shrimp on the street (4.50RM) and bought a DVD. Sergei, whose own travels will bring him to similar destinations as me tried three times to create a DVD but the combinations of unfamiliar software on his new PC and Vista failed each time. In the meantime, Tim, another traveler with a laptop, offered to burn one for me and with and older XP machine and Nero, succeeded.
With Tim, I was at least able to offer some technical services in return for his help and we both came away feeling like we benefitted from the other. With Sergei, there was nothing I could do so as with many things like trail magic, I'll just pass forward the kindnesses shown to me.
While dealing with the DVD, I've been watching the latest Bourne movie. The large screen TV here is usually showing some downloaded movie or showing some pirated DVD. I don't know if you can even buy legitimate DVDs here in SE Asia but if so, they're much harder to find than the pirated stuff.
Thursday, November 1: Kuala Lumpur
I had my laundry done this morning. As far as I can tell, there are no laundramats around where I could do my own. But for 4RM (ringgits) per kg, it's not too expensive. I headed out for a dance performance but got side-tracked and never made it. I wandered around town and ended up near the Masjid Jamek (Jamek Mosque) and decided to buy a 1RM cone at McD's so I could sit and wait in the A/C until 2:30 when the mosque would reopen to the public. I'm not sure if my skirt is long enough or if my bandana would suffice for a head covering, but if not, they provide headscarves and robes to those without proper dress.
Well, as it turned out, my bandana was sufficient but not my skirt, So, I put on the robe (as did other visitors, including men and women), and walked around. We couldn't go inside but since it was primarily open air, we didn't miss much. There were mostly large open buildings with nothing in them except space for worshippers to pray. They had mostly cleared out after the afternoon prayer session but there were still some men praying and many more just sleeping. I had seem similar in the mosque near the KLCC. These mosques appear to provide refuge, not just a prayer space so if you can sleep on a hard floor and are Muslim, it seems you can stay.
Afterwards, I walked back to the hostel by way of Central Market. My curiosity had me watching a street vendor frying up some mystery substance. When the woman offered me a small piece to try, I did. I was fish. They were frying up various forms. The vendors couldn't speak English but the customer next to me told me it was just 1RM for a bag full. So I got a bag of three different types of fried fish stuffs. It made for a good lunch. Inside the market, I couldn't resist the brownie and paid 4.50RM for that. It wasn't worth it. ;-}
Movies at the hostel rounded out the day with another trip to the street for dinner. I took pictures this time, and stopped first at the corner Hindu temple behind the hostel. I was taking some pictures outside when one of the men suggested I go inside and that it was OK to take pictures. So, I stripped of my shoes and socks and wandered in awe at this small temple devoted to Ganesh, the elephant headed god. The entire temple was devoted to Ganesh. There were a pair of elephant statues on the way in, and then lining an upper shelf along the walls, maybe 50 more statues of Ganesh, each different from the others. Some with two heads, some with three heads, in different poses, etc. I was curious about a tree trunk that was inside the building - apparently it was spared during construction and now devotees make a point of circumnavigating the trunk twice as they walk around the building.
When I finally got dinner, I had a clay pot Chinese meal - much more similar to the meal I had in China than the Bi Bim Bap I get in a clay pot at home. But, it still wasn't the same. For dessert, I bought some fresh pineapple and watermelon from another street vendor.
Friday, November 2: Kuala Lumpur
I woke up this morning with a sore throat that I can't blame on a dry morning. Knowing that both flus and strep throats I've had in the past often start this way, I dread what that may mean. Knowing I would soon need them, I stopped to buy some throat lozenges (Riccola) on my way out of the hostel.
Moving slowly, I managed to spend the better part of the day at the World's Largest Covered Bird Park at the Lake Gardens. This aviary was huge. Part of it encompassed a restaurant, too, so it's possible to dine and watch free-flying birds at the same time. A variety of hornbills are featured in the park. There were also owls, egrets, songbirds, a variety of endangered species, an albino crow, and more peacocks and peahens than you could shake a stick at - too many, if you ask me. I caught the hornbill feeding, the bird show, fed some ostriches, and watched the eagle feeding.
Over the course of the day, I could feel my throat getting worse and my glands getting swollen and sore.
I meandered back to the hostel, stopping along the way fro more antibiotic ointment, having run out earlier in the day. I took a nap, and went for dinner at the Indian restaurant next to the Ganesh temple with Courtney, one of my roommates in the hostel, and Zane another hosteller. Zane's a tarot reader who seems a bit down on his luck and is trying to figure out what to do about it. Courtney has already been traveling for ten months. At the restaurant, our set dinner was once again served on a banana leaf, apparently the norm in these parts. Fingers are the generally accepted way to eat if you're a local or have just gotten used to the custom though silverware is available if you want. Given all the antibiotic ointment I've been spreading on my hands, I opted for the silverware.
In restaurants like this, there are sinks in the dining room. It reminds me of the crawfish places in Louisiana.
Saturday, November 3: Kuala Lumpur
The excessive honking I heard from the hostel this morning didn't register as unusual until I left the hostel late this morning. The next block is home to the Maybank Menara (Tower). In front of the bank was a huge demonstration. The workers were protesting either not receiving a bonus or not receiving enough of a bonus. The protesters were well organized. There was a significant police presence but even they were pretty laid back. I found out later that this was a periodic protest so nothing new or unusual to those in the area for a while. But I didn't know that at the time. I kept my distance but took pictures and even some movies, including one of the crowd singing something to the tune of "When the Saints Come Marching In."
From there, I finally made my way to the Malaysia Tourism Complex. My literature indicated a dance performance at 2:00 but when I got there, the time had been changed to 3:00. No problem. This was a nice place to hang out. There was free internet access, comfortable chairs where I ate lunch, an exhibit of traditional Malay, Chinese, and Indian dress, instruments, and other elements of daily life. A four piece band including two drums, a fiddle, and an oud played traditional music.
At 3:00, the performance started and it was quite the display of constantly moving and transitioning dancers performing traditional dances of the Malay and immigrant cultures. The 45 minute performance was rather amazing and included one performer who used a blowpipe to burst balloons held by other performers.
Afterwards, I took the monorail for the first time to get to the BB plaza where electronics are supposed to be even less expensive than at the Pantip plaza in Bangkok. They did have the Panasonic battery that would fit my camera, but not the longer life aftermarket battery I was looking for. On my way out of the plaza, I was handed some trial size packets of gum. Dentyne has two new flavors out... One Green Tea Mint, and the other an Apple Mint. It was raining so I was glad to have my umbrella with me as I walked back to the hostel.
Feeling worse, I didn't feel hungry but stopped at the same Indian restaurant for a Dosa masala. However, I seemed to get hungrier as I ate it and ended up ordering another one. Total bill 3.40 ringgits - less than $1.50.
Sunday, November, 4: Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, Thailand
My cold has been following its usual progression and has finally moved beyond a sore throat and sniffles to coughing. I managed to make to Central Market for a late breakfast of fried rice, fried egg, and chicken curry. I bought some buns for munchies for my preflight snack.
I've been sleeping better than I have in months at this hostel. The interior room has no windows so no light gets in and it's pretty soundproof, too. I rarely hear anything going on in the hallway. But with this cold, even though I slept well last night, I still dozed on and off on both the bus to the airport and my flight. That said, getting back to Bangkok was pretty uneventful except when I retrieved my backpack and found that even though I had it bagged in a heavy duty plastic bag, something still ripped the bag, put a 2-3" long rip in my pack, completely removed my thermometer and crushed the cordlock on the exterior bungie on my pack. I realized this at the airport, submitted a claim, and was reimbursed 300 baht right then and there. It's less than ten dollars but it'll probably be enough to cover the patch if I can get it done here in Asia.
Monday, November 5: Bangkok
With my cold still raging (now, I'm sneezing, too), I'm not too inclined to spend much time out of the A/C and in the heat, humidity, and vehicle exhaust that just seems to hang in the air, here. But, I'm still going to try to get out at least once per day.
Today, I went back to Pantip Plaza to see if they had the batteries I'm trying to find for my camera. It's frustrating to realize that in a place where finding CDs and DVDs that aren't pirated is difficult, I had a hard time finding anything other than the official Panasonic battery with 710mAh that fits my camera. There were a couple of other brands I stumbled across here and there, but they topped out at 800mAh. Since I already have one that's 1000mAh, I know they exist and I was able to find them on-line. Plus, all of the battery options I found at Pantip cost loads more than the same batteries in the US.
So, I ended up ordering a couple from the US and had them sent to Ruth.
Tuesday, November 6: Bangkok
I stayed in today with a short foray to the street for lunch. Spring rolls, Green curried chicken over noodles, and fruit made a nice lunch. For dinner, I went to the Villa market down the street for some supplies.
Wednesday, November 7: Bangkok
With Golden Mount as my goal, I set out this morning and made my way to Klong San Sap to catch the water taxi which would bring me right to the Mount. When I got there, I was crossing the bridge in the direction of the Mount when I stopped to admire the carvings on the bridge. A local stopped to talk and ended up giving me some good information for the day... It was a Buddhist holiday and the mount wouldn't be open to the public until the afternoon. But, due to an unusual promotion with the tuk tuk drivers, many of the other area temples would be free today and the tuk tuk drivers would only charge 20 baht rather than their standard 30 for the one hour tour of these temples - that of course, includes stops at a variety of stores where they hope you'll buy something and then they get a cut.
So, still fighting the cold, I grabbed a tuk tuk instead of walking and managed to see the standing Buddha, the lucky Buddha (also known as the black Buddha even though it's gold), and the Marble temple. I almost got to see the King as he returned home from the hospital but a stop at a jewelry shop took too long and I missed out.
With today's tuk tuk promotion, they were getting vouchers for free diesel just for stopping at certain stores so not being in a rush, I had no problem stopping at a couple of places along the way. The one place that I was interested in was the TAT (The Tourism Authority of Thailand). they are the official tourism sight and can book tours, etc. Unfortunately, they didn't want to talk with me unless I was ready to book a trip. Sigh. I just wanted information just so I could figure out where I wanted to go next. Oh well.
The tuk tuks are three wheeled open air vehicles. They are loud and with bad shocks, not particularly comfortable to ride in. Being tall, once I was inside, it was hard to see much of anything above as the roof sloped down a bit. So, I spent a lot of time looking behind us as we drove around.
I'm not sure the tuk tuk rides were a good idea for me. They put you right in the middle of the busy roads with all the inefficient vehicles spewing exhaust. I was beat after a couple of hours and got a ride back to the klong. By now, I'm riding the water taxis like a local - at least when I'm going somewhere I'm already familiar with.
For the things I've bought frequently, I know what things should cost and handle money quite easily in the markets and with the street vendors.
I bought lunch on my way home and it just all happened to be fried... Fried shrimp, fried chicken (these were ball like nuggets of solid chicken - easier to eat than the fried chicken quarters also available), and fried banana. Along the way, I also saw the fastest moving game of checkers I've ever seen. Playing on a piece of cardboard with bottle caps either up or down, they moved so fast I couldn't keep track of each player’s moves.
I ate my lunch once I got back to the apartment and took it easy the rest of the day.
Thursday, November 8: Bangkok
After yesterday, I was wiped today and just stayed in. I'm so glad I have a nice place to hang out right now.
I made it out to the street to buy lunch. More spring rolls were delicious but the two varieties of grilled bananas I tried today surprised me and weren't palatable. It was too bad. I've always liked cooked bananas and was surprised not to like these. But, the chocolate chip pastry I got for ten baht was delicious - buttery, flaky, chocolately - Yum!
I got two dishes for dinner at Mi Kitchen: a spicy seafood dish served with rice that was nearly enough for a whole meal and I had to try the Pad Thai. The Pad Thai was different but similar to the same dish in the US. Fewer noodles, more vegetables and more shrimp. No chicken but there was egg, I think - and maybe tofu. Anyway, it wasn't as spicy as the fish dish but there was a bit of a kick to it. I stopped at Villa market on my way home to pick up some supplies and bought an 18 baht little banana cake that would last me for two desserts.
More western businesses seen during my travels: in Kuala Lumpur: Gold's Gym; TGI Friday's, Hard Rock Cafe, Famous Amos (free smells of the baking chocolate chip cookies), and more. In Bangkok: I've run across Haagen Daaz, Amway, the International Herald Tribune, TNF, and any number of other stores commonly seen in malls.
Friday, November 9: Bangkok
Saturday, November 10: Bangkok
I took the water taxi up the klong to get to my long delayed dentist appointment today at the Thantakit Dental Clinic on New Petchaburi Rd. the clinic is in a large building with floors (I think seven levels) devoted to different types of dental work. They have an in-house lab that will make my new crown in a week rather than the 3-4 weeks I could have expected back in Boston.
There was a comfortable waiting area with couches, love seats, and individual seats. Having arrived early, I sat and read one of the magazines - this one targeting the ex-pat community in Thailand.
Once fetched from the waiting room, I was brought into the room where my dentist and her assistant were waiting for me, a nice twist. Everything in this the room seemed to be the latest high tech equipment regardless of the fact that the practice was started over 60 years ago. While I don't know that much about the actual dental equipment, even the water system for rinsing my mouth seemed the latest technology with a cup that automatically refilled to just the right level as soon as I replaced the cup under the dispenser.
Everyone in the clinic was extremely professional and there were even a few niceties I might mention to my dentist when I get back home. In particular, I liked the little wedge between my teeth on the far side of my mouth from where the work was being done. It enabled me to bite down gently, relaxing my jaw, while still holding my mouth open at the right angle for the dentist to work. With TMJ, it meant no jaw soreness after spending a couple of hours with my mouth open. Something I truly appreciate.
After having a crown removed, a cavity filled, and a temporary crown put in place, I was out the door in about two hours.
I was headed back to the water taxi when I noticed the elaborate roofline of a nearby temple so I went and explored a bit. As usual, while taking pictures of the exterior, someone pointed out where I would be allowed to go inside so off my sandals came and in I went. This temple was off the tourist track and a bit more austere than most of the other temples I had been in. The walls were plain and the decorative molding fairly simple compared to most. The Buddha statue of course was gold and mush of the accompanying statuary were also as elaborate as anywhere else.
Something I had seen a bit elsewhere but in relative abundance here were the gold leaf squares that devotees buy to apply to the statuary. Some were barely attached to the statues making them look like they had a disease that caused peeling skin, in this case of gold leaf. Strange. But many of the gold leaf squares were applied to statues that hadn't seen too much gold leaf yet and the squares, about 1.5cm sq. were well visible as squares of gold against the dark or black painted figures.
When leaving, I stopped in a large open paved area to take pictures of the exterior of the large building when I was aggressively challenged by a pack of what looked like small domestic dogs. These didn't look like the soi dogs that live off the streets. They cornered me, barked, growled, and bared their teeth but didn't attack and were chased off by some harsh words form some local women. Bangkok is not known for dogs showing aggression to people though some soi dogs may show aggression to domestic dogs being walked through their territories.
The evening found me going to a party with Dare and a couple of other Consular employees from the Chaing Mai area. Most of the people were the younger set from the Embassy with a few other friends and family of employees mixed in. We arrived shortly after 8pm after taking the Skytrain and then hopping on motorcycle taxis for the last stretch to the party. The motorcycle taxis are not known for their safety but for this ride, along the soi, it seemed a reasonable option. Along the road to the party, we passed a full grown elephant. Unlike the majority of elephants, working as beggars for their own food, I think this one may have been an actually working elephant, used to move and haul heavy loads. Moving along on the motorcycle taxi however, I really didn't get a good look so I could be wrong. In any case, I still don't like seeing elephants on the city streets.
It was a good party with delicious food and interesting people. I didn't look at my watch once until well after midnight. But, my cold was catching up to me, and the choice of people to talk with who weren't drunk was getting smaller so I called it quits an hour or so later and got home by 2am or so. For what it's worth, there are no worries about those who drink making it home OK. Nobody seems to have their own car here and everybody just takes taxis or other forms of public transit everywhere.
Sunday, November 11: Bangkok
Monday, November 12: Bangkok
Nothing like being in the right place at the right time. The Bank of Thailand Museum is only open to groups and Ruth just happened to organize a group from the Embassy to visit. It's Veteran's Day in the US so the Embassy employees have a holiday but it's not a holiday in Thailand so the Museum would be open and tours were available. Being a guest of Ruth's, she was able to include me in the group.
The Museum is housed in the Bangkhunprom Palace, built between 1902 and 1906 by an Italian architect in the Renaissance style with Baroque and Roco influences. An addition, built for the queen when she had to move out of the primary palace was built with more art nouveau influences. The palace was only occupied until 1932.
While the main objective of the museum is to preserve and teach about the history and evolution of currency in Thailand, it's the buildings themselves that attract many of the visitors.
For those with the opportunity, the museum was well worth a visit.
Afterwards, Ruth and Dare ran errands while I went back to the apartment and crashed.
Ruth, enjoying having someone to cook for, made chicken tikka masala and aloo ghobi for dinner.
[Date: Sat Nov 17, 2007 11:51 pm
The Bangkok Marathon is today. It seems a good day to avoid downtown. That said, according to the web site, the race is over already. It started at 3:30 this morning with some variants earlier, and some later. The awards ceremony was at 8:00am. Why so early you ask? I'm sure it's to avoid the worst heat and humidity of the day, not to mention with fewer vehicles on the road, the air has got to be healthier. It also prevents fewer traffic tie-ups in the city during the day. Still nothing like running in the middle of the night. Of course for those coming from the US, for example, the nighttime running could prove an advantage. no need to get over jet lag. That said, I'm still avoiding going downtown today.
If I don't manage to get another journal update out beforehand, Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Tuesday, November 13: Bangkok
Another low key day in the apartment finds me getting organized in anticipation of my finally leaving Bangkok to explore other areas of Thailand next week. I could finally focus and started doing research both on-line and in the guidebooks available here at Ruth's. I'm excited to have found some hiking opportunities west of here and hope to spend a few day hiking in some of the National Parks known for their waterfalls and exploring the history of the area including riding the train along the Burma-Siam Death Railway, visiting Hellfire Pass, and seeing the Bridge over the River Kwai. The river had to be renamed from Mae Khlung after Pierre Boulle, knowing the railroad paralleled the river, incorrectly assumed it was the same river the infamous bridge crossed. Thousands of POWs and tens of thousands Thais lost their lives building the railroad under the harsh direction of the Japanese.
Wednesday, November 14: Bangkok
I had my first full day on the town in quite some time today.
I started out heading for the line of the BTS (Skytrain) I hadn't been on yet only to realize I could get some shots of the apartment building from there. I took the elevated train to the Central Pier and hopped the water bus (erroneously referred to as a water taxis in my previous entries). Having done it once before, I'm now an "expert: and made the transaction quickly and easily. My stop was at pier 8, across the river from Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. To get across the river, for 3 baht ($.10), I hopped on board the ferry.
Across the river, I explored the temple. As with many temples, there was a courtyard with Buddhas lining the walls and an interior temple building for which we must take our shoes off. It's these interior temple buildings that house the biggest Buddha of the site, usually festooned with garlands, gold, smaller statuary, incense, and anything else deemed an appropriate offering. This particular building also had walls covered with detailed murals. Those in the know can probably find Buddha’s teachings illustrated in these murals. The rest of us can only wonder at them.
For 50 baht, I entered Wat Arun. It has a primary tower (prang) surrounded by four smaller ones. It's possible to climb the primary tower though many afraid of heights can't get past the first of three terraces. the stairs to the first terrace have a large rise. The stairs to the second terrace are quite steep though with handrails along the narrow steps, it's possible to hold on with both hands as you go up. the stairs to the third level, are steeper still, more like a ladder. From the second terrace, we had great eye level views of the smaller towers surrounding the primary tower. From the third terrace, we had great views of the city and the Chao Phraya River that sill plays an important role in the commerce of the city. These temples are covered with porcelain, originally used for ballast in Chinese ships. I also saw some huge cowry shells incorporated into the decoration. If those shells were still being used for money at the time the temple was built, then it would have jacked up the price of construction.
Descending the tower or at least from the third level was best done backwards, as is frequently done on boats.
Back across the river, I stopped at the riverside restaurant at the ferry for lunch. the names of the dishes on the menu were in Thai but the descriptions were in English. So, I ordered a noodle dish only to have a vaguely embarrassing moment... Only after I pointed to the description did I realize why it sounded good... The waitress turned around and called in an order of Pad Thai to the kitchen. Silly me - I couldn't recognize it by its description.
So, for 60 baht, I enjoyed my pad thai from a riverside seat, watching ferries, water buses, longboats, barges, and tourist boats coming and going with Wat Arun in the background on the far side of the river. At home the view would have doubled the price of the meal - and the meal would have cost 5 times more to begin with anyway.
After lunch, it was a quick walk past the vendors selling dried seafood products and across the main drag to Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. I walked around the ground first to avoid the group heading in to see the Buddha. I declined the massage from the students of massage here at the temple thought to be where the Thai Massage started and admired the prongs and the large rock gardens scattered around the grounds. There was also a school there and it was strange to see a basketball court in the middle of all the spiritual buildings. Back at the main temple, I took off my shoes and entered the temple. As with everyone else entering the temple, I was in immediate awe. This reclining Buddha is huge. It's on its side with its head leaning on its hand, looking down on those passing below. it's impossible to get a good picture of the statue not only because of the columns supporting the building, but the building itself would be too narrow.
A visit to the reclining Buddha is always accompanied by the jingles of coins in the monk's bowl lining the wall. Here, there's some significance to the 108 bowls so people buy bowls of coins to drop one-by-one, into each of the bowls.
Discrimination has been in the news here in Bangkok and this was one place where it was easily documented. There was a separate door for Thais (no charge, perhaps?) and a separate rack for their shoes than the rest of us visitors. It's my understanding that the National Parks charge those who look western 400 baht - ten times more than those that look Asian. On the street, so far I haven't been taken, but there's news of those that wear expensive clothing and jewelry being charged more than those that seem to be of more modest means. Here in Bangkok, I may look like I have a western face, but my clothes definitely don't stack up to the usual professional crowd either in this tony expat neighborhood or even the other tourist areas I've visited. We'll see what happens when I go further afield
By the time I left the reclining Buddha, I was tired so started making my way back to the apartment with a stop at the Big C, a huge supermarket/department store. I went to buy a tent and sure enough, they had them there. I turned down the smaller one person tent for 700 baht and bought a 4.5 pound 2-3 person (Thai sized) tent for 390 baht - $12. I'll probably only use it this upcoming week in Kanchanaburi but it'll be worth it, I hope. My tent at home is only 1.5 pounds but it requires my hiking poles and I didn't want to deal with them while traveling. This tent, like most mass marketed tents, comes with its own poles.
Thursday, November 15: Bangkok
With only some slight congestion leading to an occasional cough, after another full day today, I seem to have regained most of my energy. About time...
I started the day heading to Lumpini Park to try to find the ballroom dance lessons held there two mornings a week. First, I came across some dancers practicing in an outdoor band shell - but it was an Asian style of dance and as I approached to both watch and ask if they knew where to look for the ballroom dancing, I was met with an enthusiastic response be someone who couldn't wait to press a CD about the Falun Gong into my hands. These folks are highly repressed in China and subject to many human rights violations. That said, I was more interested in their dance but since they more interested in telling me about the plight of their organization and less about introducing me to their form of dance - and they had no idea where to find the ballroom dancing, I moved along.
I then found a building the seemed to be used for many purposes including a senior center. Upon entering, I was immediately assaulted with the hubbub of prerace registration for the Bangkok Marathon to be held this weekend. 40,000 people are expected to participate. I'll avoid downtown this weekend. It was fun looking around though. There were vendors set up for both running types and others. Why someone selling jeans would want to set up at a running event is beyond me. But, I certainly understood the presence of New Balance, one of the sponsors of the race. I got to talking with one of the NB guys and was told they carried up to men's 12 at the race but could order larger sizes if need be. I started out my trip with a pair of brand new NB shoes so I'm probably all set until I get home but it's nice to know I can get shoes if necessary. Of course, unlike the locally produced goods, NB shoes are made primarily in the US and will be more expensive there than in the US - and a lot more than where I usually buy them at the NB factory store in Boston. When I mentioned that, he gave me a big grin as if visiting the NB store in Boston would be like visiting Mecca. Well, perhaps that's an exaggeration, but not by much.
Looking around, I realized that this auditorium must be where the dancing usually takes place. There was a stage at one end and a parquet type dance floor large enough for quite the crowd. If I'm back in town again on a Tuesday or Thursday, I'll try to check it out again.
As I was heading out of the park, I first got side-tracked by a bunch of mostly older men playing a chess-like game. Nobody gave me more than a glance though and it really seemed like I was intruding. Moving on, I dodged the sprinklers watering the somewhat thin lawn. The soil here, being mostly clay, isn't as flat as it looks. The whole thing is full of hard clumps, nice to look at but not at all pleasant to try to walk on. This sort of looks like a good place to throw a Frisbee around but you would sprain an ankle trying to chase one down. Too bad.
I then walked down Wireless Road, certainly not named because there are no wires. This road, like all others in Bangkok, has a tangle of wires overhead - or well, mostly overhead. There are times when I have to duck. I had to stop at Ruth's workplace because she'll be gone all week and I want to pick up my new batteries which were mailed to her. This way, I'll have time to charge them before heading out next week. I returned to Big C to pick up some brownie mix to bake for a dinner party this weekend. This market is huge. There's an entire aisle devoted solely to fish sauce. The meat section was a bit unusual. The raw meats were spread out so shoppers could pick through and package the cuts they picked out.
I then crossed the road via the pedestrian bridge and took in an incredible display of photography at the Zen store in Central World. Earlier this year, 52 world class photographers including Steve McCurry (of National Geographic Afghan Girl fame), as well as others who've worked for NG or other well known publications, spent nine days taking pictures throughout Thailand. Many had specific regions or topics to cover but as many aspects of life in Thailand as could be covered were. The results have been published in a book, "Thailand: 9 Days in the Kingdom," and many of the pictures are currently on display in the Zen store event gallery on the eighth floor. Expecting to spend a few minutes there, I spent a couple of hours, at least, viewing the individual pictures on the walls, and then sitting watching a video of how some of the photographers worked during their nine days. The pictures were amazing.
The inspiration for this effort is the King's upcoming 80th birthday. The King is revered through the country and is known as an avid photographer himself. Twenty years ago, a similar book about seven days in the Kingdom was produced. This book updates this snapshot of the country at this time period.
At $50, the book is a bit steep for my wallet so perhaps I'll find a secondhand copy somewhere in a few years.
Walking back, I found an upscale street fair showcasing the seafood options at the local shopping center restaurants getting underway. Some of the food was already on display and ready for sale, but it was a bit pricey from my perspective these days. However, it looked great and watching the chefs prepping the food was also fun. It was early, the bugs were biting anytime I stood still, I was beat and it was going to be a couple more hours before the entertainment started so I went home.
Friday, November 16: Bangkok
Another day in the apartment - low motivation to get out and perhaps I overdid it a bit the last couple of days. I did have a couple of new items for lunch from the street market... One was a rather ordinary, but tasty Indian rice dish with a chicken thigh. The other was these little crepes. After the crepe is put on to fry, a small speckled egg (quail, I believe), is cracked onto the crepe, mixed with a bit of soy, and left to cook. Once the egg is cooked, some ground meat (pork?) is added and a piece of the ubiquitous hotdog-like sausage is added. I bit of hot sauce - or is it ketchup? - is added, the crepe rolled, and then the batch is put into the bag for you to take away. They were tasty but the crepes would have been better with Nutella and banana.
Yellow Shirts. Anyone who has been to Bangkok in the last year or so will have an image conjured up their heads just by the mention of the phrase "yellow shirts." Around Bangkok, on any given day but especially on Mondays, a fairly large percentage of the population wears yellow polo-style shirts usually adorned with an embroidered royal crest.
In the Buddhist system, color plays a role and can carry different meaning depending on the color. Also, the day of the week can play a role as well. Certain colors are also associated with certain days of the week.
Last year, the King wore yellow on one auspicious occasion and the populace saw fit to emulate him and started wearing yellow. While different days of the week apparently have different colors, yellow remains the predominant color. Two weeks ago however, the king, having spent a few weeks in the hospital following an episode where there was reduced blood flow to the brain, left the hospital to return home wearing pink. Within hours, there was a run on pink shirts. Manufacturers couldn't produce them fast enough and some stores reported disruptions from too many customers waiting to buy too few shirts.
This past week however, when the king went to visit his sister, a cancer patient, in the hospital, he wore green and that started yet another run, this time on green shirts.
In addition to the yellow pink, and green shirts, blue, orange, and other colors also have their role and significance in local culture.
[Just found this in the Lonely Planet Thorn tree site (posted by Callippo):
1st day = Sunday - Red (Sun)
Here’s the relevant Thai Solar Calendar Wikipedia entry.
The King. I came to Thailand with a healthy skepticism of the loyalty bestowed upon the King by the people. After all, there are lèse majesté laws in effect here which can put critics not just of the king, but of the royal family, in jail for up to 15 years. As a result, I certainly didn't expect to see much, if anything, written against the king. And I haven't. Almost everything I seen written out him has been quite positive. However, it's clear the people here obviously hold him in high reverence. There is no decree that the people emulate the king and wear the same colors he does. They choose to do so. With the lèse majesté laws, the people may get an unbalanced view of the monarchy, but even so, if there weren't enough positive reasons to honor the king, I believe they wouldn't honor him nearly as much as they do.
In an interesting twist, unless the King of Thailand has renounced it, he can claim American citizenship. He was born in Cambridge, MA when his father was studying medicine at Harvard. He is somewhat of a renaissance man with a wide variety of interests and talents. Here’s the Bhumibol Wikipedia entry.
Saturday, November 17: Bangkok
Devoured Ruth's Apple Oatmeal Pancakes for breakfast. Yum!
Later, after lunch, I went to the dentist to have my permanent cap put in place. Talking with my dentist, she confirmed something I had read when doing my research into Thai dentistry. The vast majority of Thai dentists are female. She said in her class alone, men represented only 10% of her class. We got onto the discussion when as I was watching her make adjustments to my crown, I mentioned she was not only a dentist but a sculptor. Apparently at some point during her schooling, someone had asked her if she sculpted. I'm not sure, but perhaps they were looking for people with such experience or an artistic bent, etc.
Back at the apartment, I baked up a batch of brownies for this evening. Dare was hosting a dinner party primarily of divers. Hearing about their experiences got me excited once again about the prospect of diving. Perhaps when I return to Thailand later this winter, I may head down to Koh Lanta and splurge for a day or two. Lanta Divers comes highly recommended and I liked what I saw in the DVD we watched that had been produced aboard the boat for the divers who had been there.
[Date: Wed Nov 21, 2007 9:30 pm
I'm about to head out for three days and two nights (or so) to a couple of National Parks with spectacular waterfalls, hiking trails, and camping. Back on Saturday, most likely.
Sunday, November 18: Bangkok
My last full day in Ruth's luxurious digs. With the marathon in town, I avoided downtown today. Actually, I avoided everything and spent the day mostly inside, transcribing my journal, packing, and planning for tomorrow.
Monday, November 19: Bangkok to Kanchanaburi
Up early doing laundry and running last minute errands so I could finish packing. I bought more insect repellant and was rather shocked at the price. $12 for a medium sized bottle of 50% DEET. Pricey. Bought lunch on the way back to the apartment to eat there.
It was 10 minutes until I planned to leave the apartment when the fire alarm went off. I grabbed my stuff and was heading out the door when it stopped so I went and listened in the stair well. There were people about and the elevator was running and nobody was vacating the premises so I went back in, did a few last minute things, and got on my way.
Today my timing wasn't so good. I had to wait a long time for the Skytrain. Then I had to wait a long time for the waterbus. Then the waterbus didn't stop at my stop so I had to walk back to the train. I got there five minutes before it was leaving - which I suppose is much better than 5 minutes after it left. I was wondering though because only the official web site had the train leaving as late as it did. And around here, the official web sites are often not nearly as up to date as unofficial ones. That extra five minutes gave me time to run across the street and get some water and a soda for the train trip.
This train runs along the tracks of the Death Railway, so named for the 100,000 plus people who died during its construction. It was built by conscripted locals and POWs under Japanese oppression during WWII.
I'm not sure, but it seems the cars I was riding in may date from nearly that period. The doors are narrow, the seats, while giving plenty of leg room, were straight backed wooden seats with no cushioning.
It also saw fit to rain today. It started while I waited for the waterbus and continued on and off all day after that, following me from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. It was still raining when I got off the train but stopped by the time I got to the first of five guest houses it took for me to find one with reasonable room rates. At the Sugar Cane Guest House, for 150 baht, I got a room with its own bathroom and cold water shower, as well as mosquito netting over the bed. Not bad for $5. I may try the $2/night place tomorrow.
I ate chili basil chicken for dinner at the restaurant at the Gust house overlooking the river, watching the karaoke barges go by blaring music with people who can't sing. Talked with other guests and then walked through town a bit.
The mosquitoes are biting so I'm glad I brought DEET and started on my Doxicycline a couple of days ago. There is potential for malaria here so hopefully the doxy will keep me protected. Thankfully, I haven't had any stomach upset with the antibiotics. It's also not been sunny enough to worry about sunburn.
Back at the GH, the barges stopped early and a cool breeze came off the river. It's the first time I've been cool while outside since arriving in SE Asia.
Back in my room, a gecko scurried as I drew the curtains. Better geckos than mosquitoes. When I finally turned out the lights, I realized that for the second time this year, I was staying in a place where I could see light through the roof - and I wasn't getting wet when it rained. The roof is made of reeds, the walls of concrete blocks or bamboo.
Tuesday, November 20: Kanchanaburi
With a noon check out, I wanted to get to and back from the Bridge over the River Kwai before then. Unlike most tourists, I walked. It would have been a reasonably nice walk if it hadn't been for the construction but the traffic was light so I didn't feel threatened walking in the streets.
I stopped at the WWII and JEATH museums on the way. These tired and dusty museums weren't all that well organized but had many artifacts from the war era. There was also a fantastic view of the bridge from the roof.
Then I spent some time at the bridge, meandering back and forth across it. It is and "active" railway but with a very well known schedule, a number of platforms on which to bail if necessary, and a speed limit of 10kph, there were no worries while on the bridge.
I made it back to my part of town in time to go to the Jolly Frog and get a room for 70 baht before going back to the Sugar Cane and checking out. The Jolly Frog seems to have more longer term travelers. The dining area, not on the water, is large and well organized. The menu is huge so I took advantage of the relatively cheap prices and ordered a whole fish for lunch. This dish, at home, would probably have cost $20. I got it for 80 baht, about $2.50 and one of the more expensive options on the menu. It was probably meant to serve two people but I didn't have any problems finishing it. It was cooked perfectly and was delicious.
I got stung by a bee or something this morning while eating breakfast. The sting area continues to hurt and be itchy. Hopefully, it'll get better without getting worse.
My new digs at the Jolly Frog have no mosquito netting and I'm now sharing bath and shower. In order to get power in my room, I must insert my key fob into a slot in the wall. That means I can't recharge my camera batteries while I'm not in the room. The bed is so hard, I may have to use my sleeping pad. We'll see if I mange to sleep tonight.
After walking to the bridge at one end of town this morning, I walked to the other end of town this afternoon to get some information from the TAT office. They were very helpful though to my disappointment, they strongly discouraged me from taking a motorbike to Sri Nakharin, a NP with no public transit. I may try to see if I can get a ride from Erawan. I go great information about the public bus to Hellfire Pass where I'll be going tomorrow.
Along the walk to/from the TAT office, I passed schools letting out for the day, a Wat, and two large cemeteries including one Thai with interesting raised graves covered with grass and then the POW cemetery with nearly 7000 buried there. They died during construction of the Death railway.
After such a nice lunch, I was disappointed with the Pad Thai at the GH that I ordered for dinner. Sat around watching the movie du jour (something about a modern/jazz dancer and a hip-hop dancer). Used the fan in my room to dry some clothes I rinsed out.
Wednesday, November 21: Kanchanaburi
Up early but I blame it on the rooster who was crowing well before the break of dawn. But my alarm was set for 6:30 anyway. Breakfast of strange but delicious batter dipped French toast with jam. It was a quick walk to the main drag where I flagged down my bus rather than going all the way to the bus station at the other end of town (near the TAT office). My wait, maybe 5 minutes.
It was an uneventful ride to Hellfire Pass along well maintained and marked roads. There were stops all along the way to pick up and drop off passengers or for the cashier to run out for fresh flowers to pray over for the bus. The locals all had to show their papers at an immigration stop but they just ignored me. One benefit of being a westerner?
At Hellfire Pass, I walked to the museum, walked around to get an idea what to expect, and then prepared to set out. Those just going to Hellfire Pass need not take any special precautions. For those who choose to walk the length of the 4 km of cleared rail, they want you to check in and carry a two way radio with which to check in every thirty minutes. I also carried an mp3 player they have (free of charge) to listen to at various points along the way. The 4km stretch goes through a good number of cuts, trestle areas and bridge areas. With no trestles or bridges in place, it means a lot of stairs. Where the rail bed remains, it often involves walking on the coarse gravel bed, hard on the feet and ankles. Some places had trail to the side that's a bit easier on the feet.
It's amazing to think about how this railway was made given the conditions of the POWs - often bare foot with one or two meals of rice per day, basic tools with compressors used in only a few of the cuts, and no mosquito repellant, etc. I was getting chewed even though I had repellant on. I can't imagine being here working, without much clothes, etc. The cuts are amazing. Normally they would be tunnels but it was faster to cut because more people could work on a cut than a tunnel.
Back at the museum, I talked with the Bill, the manager, and Roger (?), the researcher, about questions I had... There are yearly fires along the route, there are tree planting efforts underway to restore the diversity of trees in the area, protecting the land is an issue unto itself, etc.
The entire museum experience is free but I left a donation. it was well worth it.
I grabbed a plate of Chicken rice back at the road, scarfed it down and caught the bus with moments to spare. Perfect. Would have been better if I hadn't slept through my stop in town. I ended up walking back to the GH. No problem, just took an extra 30 minutes.
Pizza for dinner. Banana pancake with honey for dessert - delicious. And a watermelon fruit shake (I think just fruit and ice) to wash it down refreshing. Fran, a tall dyed blond, tattooed, pierced, Dutch woman form Britain is to blame for reminding me about the delicious pancakes here in Asia and for suggesting the shakes.
Sting update: the 3 square inch area around the sting is a bit swollen, warm, and hard. Weird. Doesn't look all that bad though. It's still very itchy though doesn't hurt so much anymore.
[Date: Wed Nov 28, 2007 12:19 pm
So I've been back in Bangkok for the last couple of days and now I know it's time to get out of here... I can't believe I was hearing Christmas songs today. Nothing like hearing "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" in the middle of Bangkok. I have to believe I won't hear much more of that once I get to Laos. But, with yesterday's fun at the dance, I want to stay in Bangkok another day and go to tomorrow's dance.
I had hoped to leave town after the dance but much of what I was supposed to accomplish today got usurped by today's fiasco with a compromised memory card and the loss of about 500 pictures including all of my pictures of Hellfire Pass and the Erawan waterfalls, not to mention the unknown status of my hard drive which may also harbor the same virus. So now, I don't think I'll be able to get out of here until Friday morning.
I am more than slightly frustrated...
Thursday, November 22: Kanchanaburi to Erawan National Park
Eggs and delicious crusty rolls for breakfast. Though never colonized by Europeans, the French influence is alive and well in the delicious bakery style bread available here in Thailand. I imagine it'll be even more so in other parts of SE Asia.
I spent 1.5 hours emailing and transcribing, left a bunch of stuff at the hotel, checked out, and headed for the main drag. I must have just missed a bus because I ended up waiting for 40 minutes. then once the bus came, after just two blocks, he pulled into a gas station and parked. He was done driving for the day and we had to get out and wait for the next bus, just five minutes behind him. Our driver then got on and acted as cashier for that next bus. We soon stopped snacks. Then for gas which was delivered through a nozzle under the seat just inside the door - something I had never seen before.
The driver of my initial bus was personable and at one point, when he saw my curiosity as he kept shaking a small plastic bottle and then opening it to sniff the contents, he handed it over to me. I of course, couldn't read the outside of the bottle so I opened it up to find a small handful of cloves. He said they were only 20 baht and came from Myanmar as if coming from Myanmar was a good thing. That I didn't get because when we were getting gas earlier, he told me the gas station attendant was from Myanmar as if that were a bad thing. But, I think he was just enjoying his fun.
The bus drove into the park and we paid our tourist entrance fee of 400 baht (maybe 10 times what the locals pay). I quickly signed up for a campsite, left my backpack at headquarters so I wouldn't have to carry it all day or leave it unattended at the campsite, crossed an incredibly rickety pedestrian bridge that would have been condemned anywhere else, checked out the beautiful camping area along the river, and then got lunch. I ended up talking with a Swedish couple and got distracted so I didn't start for the falls until 1:30. That left me with only a few hours but I don't feel like I missed anything.
Erawan is known for it's seven layers of falls. In fact, there were falls tourists couldn't get to so there are more than seven falls. Anyone who has visited the falls below the Havasupai Reservation in the bottom of the Grand Canyon will recognize the formations. The limestone laden blue-green waters form beautiful travertine pools in this area. Some of the falls here are tall and narrow, Some wide and shallow. Some multilevel cascades. Some a single drop. Some have rocks to slide on from pool to pool. It's possible to swim at just about every level. The fish will come nibble at you but cause no damage. But they are disconcerting and some are quite large (20cm+/-). Since I was a bit rushed for time, I decided to leave my swimming for the lower levels but by the time I got down, I just couldn't get into the cool (but definitely not cold) water fast enough to enjoy a swim.
I then went to set up my tent and chose a site in a gazebo that had been vacated since my earlier visit to the camping area.
Back at the parking lot, it seemed mostly deserted but there were still a few vendors willing to cook up a meal. Not your typical Thanksgiving dinner, I made do with basil, chili chicken over rice with an apple soda and ice cream on a stick for dessert. My only company, other than the proprietor's, during dinner were the geckos hanging out by the lights snagging the insects that flew by. All day today, I had met just one other American. We wished each other a Happy Thanksgiving but then she had to rush back to her tour group.
I hung out at the headquarters building which had lights in order to work on some puzzles. It may be warm into the night, but it gets dark early and it was more comfortable to hand out there, in nice seats, working on puzzles, than it would have been using my headlamp at my tent.
Back at the tent, a stray that had tried to adopt me as I set up my tent was still waiting for me. I couldn't chase it off so I just tried to make sure it was far enough away from me and the tent to keep any fleas off. It was still only 9pm or so when I turned in.
Friday, November 23: Erawan to Kanchanaburi
It had been so warm, I left my jacket behind in Kanchanaburi. I should have brought it with me. I had my silk sleeping bag liner with me but no sleeping bag. I could have rented one but didn't realize I would get cold enough to want it. But, it wasn't so bad, I just draped myself with my extra clothes and made it through the night OK.
My canine friend was still there in the morning and as I made my way across the field to the bathroom, her boyfriend joined me, waited for me, and then followed me back to my gazebo. I couldn't do anything to make either dog go away so just tried to avoid them. As much as I like dogs, and there's no doubt these are very sweet dogs, they scratch all the time and are probably riddled with fleas.
The campground is a beautiful riverside area with a few gentle hills, shade trees, and grass. There's a large field suitable for sports. The bathrooms have outdoor sinks and the toilets each have a shower - as is typical even in the hotels in town. Who knew I could have showered here? But I left my shower toiletries in town.
After packing up this morning, I made my way back to headquarters where I found the entire staff apparently in prayer. It was short though and it seemed the head honcho gave everyone a pep talk afterwards and they quickly dispersed, heading to their respective jobs as I approached.
I checked out, hoping to spend the next night at the Huai Mae Khamin waterfalls.
I grabbed some "pieces of bread fried in egg" (ie. French toast, Thai style) for breakfast. I was served with something that might have been sweetened condense milk. They said it was "milk" and "sour" but it was sour cream and it was sweet. I quite enjoyed it, actually.
After breakfast, I inquired about a ride to the town, two kilometers away, struck out, and started walking. I had barely gotten out of the parking lot, when pickup pulls over and motions me to the back. I crawl in and he gives me a ride almost all the way. I offered some cash but he wasn't interested. There were no motorbikes for rent and the only taxi in town wanted 1000 baht to go to Si Nakharin National Park. That was a bit out of my budget. But while trying to figure out what to do next, one man comes up and says he was there yesterday - as in I could have ridden with him. Another comes up with his girlfriend and they just got back - and their ride will be going back in a couple of hours. A couple of phone calls later and I have a ride. I need to hang out for 2.5 hours - too short to bother going back into the park so I settle into the market and wait.
At noon, there's no sign of my ride. I waited and waited. Gave up and then I had to wait until 2:00 for the next bus back to Kanchanaburi. A whole day wasted. Oh well.
In Kanchanaburi, all the 70 baht rooms were taken but I managed to get a 150 baht room. It's in a raft right on the water. The room could be anywhere on dry land. these rafts are like houseboats and ours has three rooms on it. I have to cross an interesting hinged dock to get to the shared bathrooms on shore. My neighbors are a couple of Dutch women and a guy from England. David, the 22 year old Brit with knowledge and a world view well beyond his years has been traveling since earlier this year and after spending 5 months traveling the length of Africa, I want to pick his brain. But, he's just 22 and shows a significant change in his conversation, demeanor, and judgment after spending the evening in a bar in town.
Saturday, November 24: Kanchanaburi
I woke up early to use the bathroom and was treated to the sight of five hot air balloons taking off. One seemed to have a few problems and landed right across the river from where I was staying. The others went up high and went much further - well out of sight. I found out only later that another had a few problems and touched down on the river itself but finally managed to lift off and continue.
I had breakfast with Fran this morning and got to hear all about the cooking course (a popular option for tourists and travelers) that she had taken. Then sitting in a hammock on the lawn, I started talking with a guy reading a Ludlum novel, one of my favorite fiction authors (I was a fan long before the recent spate of Bourne movies). After over an hour, we both were about to try to get 70 baht rooms when we made the obvious jump... We each checked out the others' room and with mine on the water, he ended up vacating his room and sharing mine. We finally introduced ourselves to each other. Stevie is 27 and an environmental consultant from northern Ireland and my ideas for how to spend the next couple of days appealed to him.
We ended up visiting the wonderful Railroad Museum created by none other than Rod Beattie, the same researcher that I had the opportunity to talk with at Hellfire Pass. The museum shop also had a number of books written by Beattie for sale.
In the evening, we rented automatic motorbikes (aka scooters) for our trip the next day and used them for getting around this evening. We first went a bit further downstream to join the throngs celebrating Loy Krathong in honor of the Goddess of Water. There we found a huge festival where about 1 kilometer of road was cordoned off, trucks bearing large floats to be judged were parked for viewing, another street had a huge stage with musical productions and rows of food vendors. Along the river, we watched as people released small floats made out of banana trunk or bread and festooned with banana leaves, orchids, burning incense, candles, and more to float away. Overhead, large paper Japanese lantern type floats were burning... these were tubes of lightweight paper sealed at one end, like a can with one end opened, and a disk of material attached to wires at the other end. This flammable material was then lit, the air inside the paper heated, and like a hot air balloon, it would float away. To me, it seemed like a major fire hazard with the hundreds or thousands floating overhead as we did see some come down. but I guess most fully burn out before coming back to earth.
We took a break and sat down along the walkway by the river and not five minutes later, the fireworks started. What timing. Then we went back for food and found the crowds had grown huge. Being done, we made our way to the bridge to watch the light show there only to find there was no show tonight. it would be tomorrow evening. Argh!
We went back to the Jolly Frog where I got my riverside porch sitting time in... This time with floats going by from upstream. Only then did the fireworks down by the bridge start going off. If we had known, we could have stayed and watched.
Sunday, November 25: Kanchanaburi
Up early, Stevie and I hit the road before 7:00am heading for the Si Nakharin National Park and the Huai Mae Khamin waterfall. With scooters, we could go at our own pace and stop along the way if we wanted to. We saw an old, bricked in Wat, a giant dragon, elephant crossing signs (and I always thought running into a moose would be bad news). Knowing we had a long ride ahead of us, we stopped to refill our gas tanks at Erawan and kept going. Immediately thereafter, the nature of the road changed. We entered a mountainous area with twisting and winding roads and little to no development. When we emerged, we stopped at the first roadside establishment for breakfast and may be the first non-Thai tourists they had ever fed. Sign language sort of worked and we got rice, fried egg, and some pork tom yum soup for breakfast.
Moving on, we found the first of two ferries. We were the first to board and had no idea how long or how much it was going to cost. In just a few minutes a bunch of other vehicles also boarded and we were off. For 20 baht for both of us and our bikes. Cheap!
Some miles down, we took the turnoff for the second ferry and the road soon turned to dirt. But it was well graded and presented no real difficulties except when passing vehicles churned up dust. Once again when we got there sign language helped. We found out we were in the right place and the ferry was running and we would have to wait. But, we had no idea for how long. it turns out it was probably only 20 minutes or so which wasn't bad given that it was a 45 minute ferry ride. This one cost 40 baht each. Still cheap. Seven more kilometers of dirt road on top of the 4 we had already done wasn't so bad. The only problem here was a couple of yahoos on a bike trying to race us and setting off firecrackers in our path. Punks - you find them everywhere - including rural Thailand.
We had no problems finding the Si Nakharin National Park but it was clear not many approach from the direction we came. The first gate wouldn't take our money. Then the second gate pointed us into the park. It was only at a checkpoint there when they realized that we didn't have tickets that we realized we should have insisted on paying at one of the previous checkpoints. They finally got us straightened out, took our money, and let us in. After some initial confusion as to where to go, we parked and started walking. This waterfall, like Erawan, has seven levels. The primary one is near the park entrance so saving the best for last, we headed off for the smaller, upper falls, that were further away. They saw us going in the "wrong" direction and sent someone after us on a bike but we explained that we intended to see all of the falls and that we were up for the walk. This set of falls is a much easier walk than Erawan, being only 2km total with a lot less elevation gain and very little rough terrain.
It's clear that while there are tourists that come to this park, they are almost all Thai. All of the signs were in Thai only. It was fun to look at the interpretive signs and come up with out own interpretations. I'm quite certain that in a few cases, I actually could tell what the subject matter was from looking around... there were stands of young bamboo at one point, much smaller than the others. One certain type of tree was singled out. There was a wonderful vine that also had a descriptor. Wish we could read about it. Oh well.
At one point, we saw a large (~1m) lizard that ran across our path and into the water. We saw where it went but lost sight of it once it was in the river. As best I can figure out, it was some sort of water monitor but this one was fairly clearly striped black and white across its back. The stripes were a few centimeters with and a bit irregular. The images I've seen on-line of Asian monitors just don't have the stripes we saw. Anyone else have any ideas?
The three upper falls were nice with the last being nicest.
Of the lower falls, the 4th tier is the most spectacular. It's a large series of cascading travertine pools. Below the 4th tier are three others, also well worth visiting.
Comparing the waterfalls at Erawan and Mae Khamin... Each of the falls at Erewan is spectacular while only four of the Mae Khamin falls are spectacular. That said, the 4th level at Mae Khamin blows away all of the levels at Erawan.
There is camping at Mae Khamin but it's right at the parking lot and more functional than appealing. I'm sort of glad we didn't decide to camp there. that said, there were quite a few tents at Mae Khamin in comparison to the two tents total at Erawan. it actually started to rain while we were there but never amounted to more than sprinkles - good thing as I wouldn't want to negotiate dirt roads on a bike in the rain. Plus, I didn't go dressed for rain.
When we left, we decided on the shorter route. We knew there would be some dirt road but we didn't realize that it would be 30km and that it would mostly be in bad condition. It took us two hours to cover the 40km to Erawan from Mae Khamin but then it was a quick trip back to Kanchanaburi though in the dark. I took off my sunglasses and squinted to try to keep the bugs out of my eyes. Stevie wore his glasses and chanced not seeing well at night.
We finally made it back and then went directly to Apple's for dinner of Green curry chicken and a rice dish.
We then went back to the bridge for the show we had missed the previous two nights only to find out it had been earlier tonight and we missed it again. We were both pretty bummed as we were both leaving K'buri the next day and lost our last chance.
Ah well, at least I've got one more night of porch sitting with gentle swaying when a passing boats makes a wake, geckos forming and Escher-like painting on the ceiling above my head, and tonight, no karaoke boats or political trucks squawking messages and disturbing the peace.
Monday, November 26: Kanchanaburi to Bangkok
Up early and had breakfast with Stevie. He left directly from breakfast for points north. I rented a bicycle which promptly got a flat but had it filled and it seemed to hold. I used it to run to the bank as the ATMs in Thailand have been having problems and the bank ATMs are less susceptible to having bank card info stolen. Then I went back to the bridge to find an artist I had seen working a week earlier. I was waiting for him when he pulled up and wasn't he surprised to see me. he offered me the same deal this time as last but I got and even better deal with a volume discount.
I returned the bike, checked out, and grabbed a taxi going to the bus station. this one was a motorbike with a bench seat side car. Someone else was already going so I shared with him. I slept on the bus ride back to Bangkok, beat the 50 baht taxi rides to the BTS and caught a local bus, and was soon back in the comforts of Ruth's apartment. I had dinner with Ruth and Dare. Ruth heads out early tomorrow morning so I was glad to have a chance to see her again before I head out for two or three months.
Tuesday, November 27: Bangkok
I finally made it to the dance this morning. Normally a lesson, the teacher couldn't make it so it was just a dance/practice session. I had mostly anticipated just watching but a number of men asked me to dance and I ended up having fun. I didn't bring my dance shoes so I was dancing in socks which were a bit too slippery at times but for the most part, I held my own. Ray, the man who had told me about the dance on the water bus weeks earlier was there so it was nice to dance with him, too.
The dancing was more similar than different but there were differences. I found the cha cha almost bouncy here. Most were counting American style though Ray and a few others were clearly more international. The Paso Doble was interesting to watch with everyone doing the same routine. One curious thing... Everyone here is Thai but all the counting was done in English. So, even though I knew lessons would be given in Thai, I guess they still count in English. At first I thought it was just my partner to me but then I realized I was hearing others counting in English, too
The swing was mostly jive (no surprise) but Ray was a willing swing dancer.
Later, I hung out with Dare, used her computer to clean up my hotmail, and we grabbed dinner at the open air restaurant next to her apartment. We enjoyed pork lap (larb), fried shrimp, roasted chicken, and Morning Glory. As far as I know, the morning glory is the same plant as the flower. We decided not to have the "Some Inner Organs like a tube below the Stomach". Yes, that's exactly how it was listed in the menu. I'm sure it's tripe - I think.
Wednesday, November 28: Bangkok
Fiasco today. One of my camera disks has contracted a virus and I'm missing all of my Hellfire pass and Erawan pictures. I spent the day trying to fix the problem and even went to Pantip Plaza where we thought we had eradicated the virus only to find it was still there and had infected the guy's computer who was trying to help me. I bought a couple of more memory cards and will save my corrupted one until I get home and can try to use some photo restore software to try to recover my pictures.
Pizza for dinner at Pan Pan with Dare.
Notes to self: http://www.filedudes.com/Undelete_SD_Card-download-44525.html
[Date: Fri Nov 30, 2007 12:54 am
I'm heading out in a few minutes for Ayuthiya and then northeast towards Laos. Ruth is in the US visiting with family already so I said good-bye to her earlier this week, but I'm still going to miss her and the other friends I've made here in Bangkok. As much as I'm not too crazy about hanging out in the city, I will be looking forward to returning in a couple/few months to see friends again. I really hadn't expected to make friends of locals, whether embassy folks like Dare or dancers like Ray, so much as other travelers I meet along the way.
I guess when you're not in a rush, you end up having the time to get to know people. Cool!
Thursday, November 29: Bangkok
After such a depressing day yesterday, I had a great day today.
I went back to the morning dance session at Lumpini Park and was able to participate in the foxtrot lesson there. It was a basic lesson but the instructor (name?), a successful competitive dancer, put a great deal of emphasis on technique and form and I was able to learn a lot having not been doing much ballroom dancing in the last 10-15 years. Ray was there again and took it upon himself to be my partner and interpreter for the morning. Given that he usually partners with Ang (sp?), I was sure to thank her, too. I talked with Ang for a while and got a lesson in the proper positioning of my hands to wai and then Ray forced me to actually start using the wai for the rest of the day. The wai is the prayer like position Thais use while they say hello or thank you to others.
Afterwards, Ray took me to Chinatown for lunch. We took the subway to get there, something I hadn't yet experienced. It's a new, clean, and very efficient system. Chinatown was like Chinatowns in many areas. Bustling with small shops, interesting odors, and great food. Then we had a walking tour of nearby neighborhoods. There was the hardware section, the clothing and fabric section, and the electronics area. it's hard to describe why these would be interesting in writing, but imagine, narrow alleys and aisles with tiny shops on each side, signs and wires overhead for anyone approaching 6' to duck under, a steady throng of people moving through these areas, trying to find niches into which to duck into to make way for passing vehicles, whether hand carts, or a full blown pickup that made it through one alley with less than an inch to spare on either side.
Then we went into Siam Plaza where I had my first durian experience. Durian is a fruit that is known for its unpleasant odor. It's banned in many hotels and some airports and flights. It was sold in a creamy sauce over sticky rice. My first surprise was that there was no unpleasant odor emanating from the stand. Jackfruit, available much more widely around town, has a much stronger and more distinct odor. Then I tried the fruit. It wasn't bad. It's wasn't great, either. As I had been told, it was creamy. Quite an unexpected texture for a fruit. It wasn't bitter like someone else had told me. I wasn't crazy about it so gave up the rest of my portion to Ray who enjoyed it much more than me.
We then went to a coffee shop to sit for a while. They had watermelon frosties on the menu, the same as the fruit shakes I was eating in Kanchanaburi. Delicious. It was here that I figured out why Ray's English was so much better than the average Thai. He's got dual US/Thai citizenship having spent most of his life in the US. His two kids are grown and living in the US while he and his wife live here in Thailand. It also helped explain why his dancing was so good in that he learned to dance in the San Francisco Bay area at a place where I've actually danced during one of my trips to California (Metronome?).
Then it was time for a trip across the river to go to yet another foxtrot lesson. This time, they were at the end of a three week series where steps and a long sequence were taught. We got there early and I was able to pick up a good bit of the sequence but after so many years, I was still a bit shaky. The steps seemed familiar. The names of the steps were familiar. Pairing the two together proved a bit more difficult but very helpful when I could remember their names. Memories of round dancing came back to me... I redeemed myself when we danced a couple of cha chas. I'm much more confident and capable there and felt right at home on the dance floor.
The highlight of the evening for me though was when I was honored by the teacher (Tun). He put on a traditional Thai dance. I participated at first and really had to work to get the hand movements and shapes. Finally, as the dance got more complex, I stepped out and was content to watch.
Afterwards, Ray and I grabbed dinner and shared our table with a cockroach - one of the first I've actually seen in Thailand. We moved to a different table when one opened up.
Back across the river on a ferry, we then took the BTS home, Ray's stop being the one before mine.
[Date: Sun Dec 2, 2007 1:56 am
I'm spending one more day in Ayuthiya today. Not doing much though I'll probably take a boat tour tonight. Tomorrow, I'll hop a train for a seven hour ride to Koen Kaen (sp?).
Friday, November 30: Bangkok to Ayuthiya (Ah-you-tee-ah)
I did a bunch of last minute on-line stuff this morning, unpacked from Kanchanaburi, did laundry, repacked, and left a lot of stuff behind at Ruth's to pick up when I come back through Bangkok in a few months. It's so nice to be able to use Ruth's place as a base.
I left the keys and got out of the apartment around lunchtime. I picked up some spring rolls to eat on the train. Taking the subway involves opening all bags to show to the security guards. Of course, with my backpack, my stuff quickly overwhelmed the small table they had. But, after pulling out just a couple of items, they gave me a bemused smile and waved me on into the subway station.
At the train station, all of the ticket windows except one were closed while all the employees at lunch. I guess they haven't heard of staggering their lunch schedule for better coverage. Once they reopened, I got a ticket for a train to Ayuthiya with just 10 minutes to spare. The ticket cost 15 baht ($.50) for a 1.5 hour train ride. Granted, it was the local and stopped at almost every possible train station, and it was another hard wood seat with no A/C, but still just 15 baht?
After exiting the city, the train went through many rice paddies, small towns, and lots of recently or currently burning areas. I'm sure most were set and nobody seemed to be paying them any attention. Mostly it was the grass along the road margins and I imagine they use burning instead of mowing. Still from the train, it was acrid and the ash flew in the wide open windows.
Once in Ayuthiya, I ignored the touts, walked to the ferry, and crossed the river for 3 baht. Then it was just a few blocks to the guesthouse... The first one I stopped at was full. The second one, the P.U. Guesthouse (hmm, not aromatically descriptive, thankfully) had a third floor room with a shared bath on the first floor. I almost didn't take it but decided I would rather see the sites than take a tour of guesthouses. It was good enough for me. I ended up leaving my stuff in the left luggage room and just taking upstairs to my room what I would need to sleep.
I ate overpriced green curried chicken at a nice restaurant opposite one of the wats, planning on being there when it was lit up for the evening. Even though the wats are officially closed at night, many are lit up between 7 and 9pm. After dinner, I made good use of found objects, usually fence posts, as tripods. The night scenery mode gives exposures up to seven seconds on my camera so I ended up making extensive use of that mode and the timer. I even got a picture of a ghost dog which I can't wait to see on a larger computer screen. After setting up my camera to take a picture of a fence in the foreground and a prang in the background, a watch while a dog jumped up on the fence and got into the picture. It even stopped long enough to show in the frame - sort of. Anyway, it looks interesting on the small 2" screen on my camera.
As I wandered, I had a few interesting encounters. Once, while setting up my camera on a curb, the police stopped to make sure I was OK. When I explained what I was doing, they told me to be careful and to have a good evening. Then, a few minutes later, another vehicle stopped. They had passed me a few minutes earlier while I was sitting on or stooped over the curb and came back to make sure I was OK. Wow! I was surprised to have Thai strangers show such concern over a westerner. Granted, it was a dark stretch of street where tourists probably don't hang out at night, but there was a great view of a temple across a pond.
Back at the hotel, I hung out with German, Dutch, and Canadian guests.
And oh yes, the wonders of phonetic spelling (or should that be fonetic spelling)...
Ayuthiya is one of the Thai words I've seen with the most variety of spellings... Aottiya, Ayothiya, Ayuthiya, Ayuttiya, Ayottiya, and more. But it's the pronunciation that counts and for this town, it's pretty easy.
Saturday, December 1: Ayuthiya
I met Jitka (pronounced yitka) this morning. She's Czech but living in Australia. She had the same plans for the day so we ended up going around town together on rented bicycles. We started at the TAT office to get some good maps of the town, then went to the elephant camp and visited seven wats in total. I'm nearly wated out for a while. We saw a huge seated Buddha, an outdoor reclining Buddha draped with huge sheets of saffron colored cloth, Khmer style prangs, and a Buddha’s head that has been encased in the roots of a huge banyan tree.
We then had dinner where I introduced her to the wonders of the Thai fruit shake - after having to return my watermelon shake - it tasted bad. I had it replaced with banana which was delicious.
Jitka went off to repeat the after dark tour I had taken yesterday while I took a short local walk and then sat down with a borrowed guidebook, trying to figure out what to do next.
For dessert, I bought a delicious, artery clogging, banana-egg pancake. The dough was formed sort of like pizza dough and it was green. Someone told me the dough was made of banana and egg, too. I don't know though... Her English wasn't great and my Thai vocabulary is still probably fewer than ten words.
Sunday, December 2: Ayuthiya
Not feeling motivated, I didn't get out of town today so I planned for tomorrow's seven hour train ride, walked around the market where I saw live eels, catfish, turtles, and frogs all being sold for food. Nearby, I saw tiny furry critters similar to tailless mice (but smaller) being sold along with guinea pigs and hedgehogs all being sold for pets. The folks at the shop selling whole pig's heads had obviously seen tourists' reactions before and weren't at all surprised when I pulled out my camera. There were entire stalls selling nothing but a variety of chili pastes. Cooked meat on a stick were available - turtle and frog next to beef and chicken. There were noodles in pink, green, and yellow in addition to "normal."
With my stomach acting up (hence my lack of motivation), I avoided Thai for a meal and made do with a cheeseburger and fries from McDonald's for lunch. I followed up with a KFC chocolate soft-serve ice cream, something I hadn't seen in Asia to date. Even the DQ doesn't sell chocolate ice cream. I'm not sure that American fast food is better for my stomach than street food, but the restaurant is certainly cleaner and it's nice to sit down in the A/C for a while.
The local internet cafes cater to the local kids playing games and wouldn't allow me to download pictures off my camera onto my hard drive so I emailed while all the kids around me were gaming, mostly on large TV screens.
I arranged to take the afternoon boat tour and got a deal by walking around the corner from the hotel. I ended up with the same group, anyway. We stopped at three wats off the island and had 20 minutes at each of the first two and 30 at the third. We were rushed the whole time but it was still worth it. The long-tail boat was the first I had taken and it completely circumnavigated the island of Ayuthiya during the course of the tour. It was dark by the time we finished and the boat dropped us off at the Night Market. Most of our group wandered back to the hotel but I stayed to explore with Susan, a guest of a nearby hotel. We each had a grilled corn on the cob - delicious but then nothing else really appealed and when I mentioned the decadent banana pancake that I had the night before, we scrapped all other dinner ideas and hoofed it to the corner with the pancake dealer. He laughed when he saw me again as he had served me a pancake last night, too. And this time, I brought a friend. I had the same banana with egg and condensed milk but Susan did without the egg and milk. But, she still enjoyed hers enough to order a second one. And while we were munching, a couple of other tourists wandered by looking curiously so I gave rave reviews to them as well and they ordered a couple of pancakes. The pancake dealer certainly was glad to have me around.
Monday, December 3: Ayuthiya to Khon Kaen
With a 9:40 train, I got up early enough to eat breakfast and do some shopping before heading for the train station. While I knew there would be food vendors on the train, I didn't want to leave my options to chance and picked up some food from the local supermarket - and market for the journey. At the train station, I ran into Ken and Yim. I had met the couple during my evening walk on my first night in Ayuthiya. We stood and talked for an hour and had never exchanged names. Now, we caught up a bit and Ken sent Yim to help me buy a ticket to Khon Kaen (pr. cone cane). Ken and Yim are a typical American/Thai pair. He's a bit older, she younger. They met on-line and have been together for the last three years - when Ken isn't working in the States for half the year.
Yim (means smile) helped me get the ticket and I splurged on a 2nd class ticket. Benefits include reserved seating, air con, and cushioned seats. Drawbacks include air con (means no open windows from which to take pictures), reserved seating (meant I couldn't sit with Ken and Yim) and an extra 5 dollars. I ended up spending some time straddling on the bogie joint between train cars trying to get some pictures.
We passed lots of rice field, sugar cane, some palm trees, and huge areas of flooded shallow terrain. It seemed too deep to be rice paddies. The train ran on trestles through this area and made huge sweeping turns as it did so. We also went through an area with dramatic mountains and a 20 second tunnel.
Some of the area looked like savannah but much was working fields. Cattle grazed and beautiful wading birds predominated. I saw what looked like varieties of heron, egret, ibis, and more. Perhaps I'll be able to find a reference and further identify them.
Khon Kaen is not at all a tourist town. It barely gets a page in the Southeast Asia guidebook I've borrowed from Ruth. But Yim used to work here and she drew a map for me. I made good time to the hotel and wasn't bothered by taxi touts as I would be in tourist towns. It was quite refreshing in a way.
There were few signs in English though thankfully the main streets were labeled in English. And, there was little to no sign of vendors and businesses that cater to tourists along the way - or certainly not to non-Thai tourists.
I came here because it was a good stopping point between Ayuthiya and Nong Khai. Udon Thani, the usual tourist stopping point was two hours further and I would have gotten in after dark. Plus, the guide books made it sound like it was now a struggling tourist place since the US base pulled out of town. Plus, Khon Kaen is a university town and I figured I would have fewer problems finding a good internet cafe where I could download my pictures.
Not only that, late November and early December is when there's a huge festival in town. This would give me an opportunity to see what a festival would be like without all the tourist influences that places like Kanchanaburi, Bangkok, and Ayuthiya have during festivals like Loy Krathong.
I checked into the Saen Samran Hotel, supposedly the oldest hotel in town. It's easy to see how it once was a nice place with towering 10' plus ceilings and wood floors and walls in places. Now, it's a tired place but for 200 baht, I got a large double room, with a bath (cold water only). There's a little bar of soap here, two towels, water glasses, plastic stools to sit on and a few pieces of mismatched furniture. They even give you a bottle of water upon check in. The toilet flushes (rather than bucket and bowl to flush) but they don't provide toilet paper. (Us westerners get used to carrying our own.)
This is no Motel 6 however. The sheets are perpetually mismatched and very well worn in these hotels. Thankfully, they do mostly seem clean. The sheets on this bed have a bunny on roller-skates with the word "gymnatics" [sic] on one panel alternating with a mouse dribbling a basketball and the word "motion" on the other panel. Typical kids stuff that probably can't be sold in the US due to the spelling error.
I started the evening at the festival. It was huge with lots of vendors selling everything from food to clothing to furniture. There were a few stages set up but the sound systems, all large and loud, were competing for attention and made none of the venues worth listening to. So, I walked around and sampled the local cuisine. There were these pounders pounding something green that I tried. Not bad but not good enough to buy. I ate three types of noodles, a couple pieces of meat on a stick, a rice pancake of a sort that grew on me as I ate it, a bottle of fresh squeezed OJ (always hard to resist), and some strange wispy pancake batter concoctions rolled into tubes. I approached the fried insect dealers many times trying to get up the guts to at least try a small grasshopper or grub but couldn't manage to even pick one up. I cheered to myself when I saw an escapee grasshopper who managed to avoid the wok. But, I'm sure it will have gotten trampled instead of cooked. Oh well.
After spending a couple of hours at the festival, I moved on and spent some time at the internet cafe near my hotel where I was able to download my pictures. Then I went back to the hotel, worked on a puzzle or two and went to sleep.
[Date: Sat Dec 8, 2007 6:08 am
Happy Hanukkah to all my friends who celebrate the holiday. It started on the Kings Birthday here so I sort of celebrated something on that day. Met a NJ Jew the next day and he just laughed when I mentioned it was Hanukkah. He hadn't a clue it was Hanukkah until he had gotten an email that day, too.
I looked into my visa situation and realized that since it's taken me so much longer to get out of Thailand than I originally thought, it's not going to pay for me to buy a permit to reuse the rest of my two month tourist visa when I get back to Thailand so it's likely the best option for me to just get another tourist visa on my way back in a couple/few months. As such, I now have plenty of time to fritter away on my current visa and since I like hanging out at the Mut Mee, I'm not in a rush to get to Laos anymore. It's right across the bridge anytime I choose to go so if I wait a couple more days, no harm done.
Tuesday, December 4: Khon Kaen to Nong Khai
I finished my spun pancake for breakfast and made it to the internet cafe when it opened at 8:00am. One hour later, I had finished downloading the rest of my pictures onto my hard drive - this time, with no evidence of a virus. But I've also learned... There's a way to lock camera memory cards for write so I can use my camera as a card reader plugged into a pc and not worry about the pc being able to write viruses onto the card. Of course, I occasionally forget to unlock the card and try to use the camera but that's an easy mistake to fix with the only downside being the potential loss of a picture opportunity.
As I was leaving, I met a couple , Mark and Brooke, from the Yukon in Canada. They gave me some great tips about the bus from Khon Kaen to Nong Khai. I figured I would end up taking the early afternoon one as I had a temple I wanted to visit.
So, I said goodbye and hopped the number 8 mini-bus which is a sort of caged pickup truck with benches lining the back that ply the roads all over Thai towns. A short while later, I was at the seeming modern temple, very different from others I had seen so far. It's square and 9 levels. When I got there, there was chanting going on (great to listen to) so I didn't feel it appropriate to go inside so I circumnavigated the place and took some pictures. Even the exterior levels were amazing. The first couple of levels had mosaics made with huge polished pieces of stone in the shapes of deer, elephants, people, and believe it or not, dinosaurs. I think dinosaur bones have been found in the area so perhaps that's why they were incorporated in this temple. The inside of this temple wasn't all that special but the climb ups the nine stories and the view from the top was.
When I made it back to the hotel, I realized I had 10 minutes to catch the earlier bus so I beat it to the bus station with moments to spare - then realized that the bus left at 11:30 and not 11:00. I needn't have rushed. Had I know, I would have grabbed some food. I knew I was going to be hungry by the time I got to Nong Khai.
I chatted with Mark and Brooke on the bus every now and then. When we got to Nong Khai, we all ended up walking to the Mut Mee Guesthouse, the GH of choice in this town. I scored a 90 baht dorm bed and they got a nice bungalow. The room is great and I could stay here for a long time quite easily.
The Mut Mee is a beautiful sanctuary on the banks of the Mekong River. Like many guest houses, it has its own restaurant and this one has both Thai and western food. It's a bit more than street food but the tables overlooking the river are worth it.
Met another interesting couple... Akira, a Japanese Swede and his girlfriend, Jennykell. Akira has ridden here on his Enduro motorbike from Sweden. Jennykell just joined him here in Bangkok for the journey from here to Japan.
Wednesday, December 5
It's the King's birthday today. [When I wrote this, I had forgotten it was Hanukkah, too.] All of Thailand is celebrating. Some stores are closed. Others have reduced their hours.
Mark, Brooke and I spent the day walking the 6km (each way) to the Salakaewkoo Sculpture park. Its sculptures include elements of both Buddhism and Hinduism as well as elements from western culture. It's all made out of concrete and some of the statues tower 25 meters. It easily exceeds Oslo's Vigeland park for the weird and bizarre.
The Mut Mee web site has much better information:
Along the way too and from, we passed lop eared cattle, fighting cocks, and walked through the market where I bought sticky rice on a stick, grilled. It was basically the same as the grilled rice patty I had at the festival in Khon Kaen.
At sunset, we took a cruise aboard a boat leaving from the Mut Mee dock. Akira and Jennykell joined Mark, Brooke, and me. It was a really nice ride for just 100 baht ~$3. The sun, frequently obscured by clouds or haze made a nice appearance behind the Friendship Bridge, one of only two bridges across the Mekong - this one connecting Thailand and Laos.
After the cruise, we spent the evening at the GH celebrating the King's birthday with a 170 baht, AYCE (all you can eat) buffet. There was barbecued chicken, beef, and pork, all served on sticks, lasagna in both vegetarian and meat (pork), spring rolls, Geng Massaman (potato curry), salad, and fruit. Fantastic!
A trio played including Jennykell, a Swede who plays Irish fiddle who joined the band with just a day's notice.
Thursday, December 6: Nong Khai
A very lazy day at the guest house. Did laundry - or rather, had my laundry done for me. Checked email and found out it was Hanukkah. Sat overlooking the Mekong all day. Said goodbye to Akira and Jennykell as they were heading into Laos. Brooke is laid up in bed with a bad back - hope she's better soon. I have to decide whether to go to Laos tomorrow or head to the historic park, 70 km away. It entails renting a motorcycle as there aren't scooters readily available. I spent the evening talking with and playing UNO with a couple of Brits, Emma and Caroline. Julian, the owner of the GH joined us for interesting conversation.
Friday, December 7: Nong Khai
French toast made with Baguette was a wonderful start to the day. Then I bit the bullet and rented a motorbike for the day. I'll have to shift but there's no clutch to worry about. I had no company to join me on this trip but it was much less remote and the road in good condition the entire way so I felt OK about going on my own.
Ban Phu Historic Park is a fascinating place with naturally formed balanced rocks, used as shelters, and occasionally blocked in, in the style of the cliff dwellings in the southwestern part of the US. This site even has eerily familiar pictographs. I missed finding the hand prints but did find the red ocher buffalo and human figures as well as some more abstract images. Some of the balanced rocks have been turned into temples and the entire site is explained with the Tale of Nang US-A.
Pictures and a link to the story on this Mut Mee site.
As a Boston driver, I have managed to adapt to the crazy driving here in Thailand. But, it's not for the faint of heart to ride a bike here. Riding a car would be easier but it is more expensive to rent a car. On a bike, most Thai ride to the side of the road, often in the breakdown lane which ends up staying clear of sand and glass as a result. Also, driver have come to expect the bikers to ride on the side so oncoming cars will pass each other "knowing" you'll be in the breakdown lane and don't need your own lane. Also, bikes, motorbikes, and other smaller and lesser powered vehicles also feel free to use your breakdown lane to go in the "wrong" direction for short distances if it's too complicated for them to get to their own side of the road. But, once you understand all this and know to watch for it, life gets much easier on the roads.
I get a lot of smiles from people along the road once they realize I'm a farang (foreigner), riding like a Thai.
This time, I got back to town just as it got dark so didn't have to worry about bugs in my eyes. Oh yeah... There are a lot of bugs around here so it's absolutely necessary to ride with one's mouth shut. As a matter of fact, many Thai wear various forms of face masks.
At dinner time, I bantered with Benny, one of Julian's sons and helped with a bit of origami. I also met Johnny, the other son. Not sure if I'm met Julian's wife yet but I have sat with his mother, visiting from England for three months over the winter.
I've finally managed to learn the dog's names as well... Scruffy, is, well, scruffy. Daisy probably has some Aussie in her. Dong is a beautiful red dog and sure enough, Dong means red.
I finished the day with a walk along the riverside promenade watching and listening as bats went after the bugs attracted to all the lights along the way.
[Date: Mon Dec 10, 2007 4:37 am
Mut Mee, the guesthouse where I've been staying for almost a week now, is giving me flashbacks to my time spent at Miss Janet's earlier this year. I ended up there for almost three weeks. Don't know if I'll be here that long, but we'll see...
Saturday, December 8: Nong Khai
Now that I've realized that I'm not going to have enough time on my visa to bother getting a permit to use the remaining portion of it when I leave Thailand, there's no pressure to leave the country. I took a lot more time getting to the Thailand/Laos border than I had originally anticipated. So, with plenty of time left on my visa, and a really nice place to hang out for a while, I may do just that. Hang out here and relax, and then move on.
Sunday, December 9: Nong Khai
This morning, the gongs at the neighboring wat sounded at 6:50. I guess I wasn't too surprised when I heard chanting going on at 7:00. Since I wasn't going to sleep anymore, I decided to get up and go listen to the chanting. Another Mut Mee guest, also out, indicated that they weren't even chanting in Thai, but rather another language, Pali.
Being out early, I got to see a bit of morning routine around town, people exercising along the promenade, full tennis courts by the local 7-Eleven, the streets and temple grounds being swept, etc.
I had another low-key day. I made it to the market for lunch where I found a fish dish served in a banana leaf bowl in a delicious sauce. I ate that with sticky rice on a stick (yes, even rice is served on a stick here in Thailand, along with whole chickens, head and feet included, entire fish stuffed with who knows what, etc.).
Then I found a banana pancake vendor of the same artery clogging variety I had in Ayuthiya. I couldn't resist.
I spent the afternoon puzzling over the Bangkok Post crossword puzzles with Kate (the Gaia bartender) and Julian's mother, spending the English winter here. I spent the evening with Christella and V_____ on Gaia, the floating bar. Ben, my Aussie dorm mate joined us for part of the evening, too.
[Date: Fri Dec 14, 2007 5:36 am
Well, about a week past due, I'm finally planning on getting out of here - again. This time, I'm about 99% sure I'm going to go to Laos tomorrow.
We'll just have to see where you hear from me next.
Laos should prove interesting. I'm going in with dollars and baht. I'll buy some kip where I get there but at 8000 kip to the dollar, it can be hard to carry much kip around. Many establishments take dollars though so it'll be interesting to see what happens.
I had intended to spend a month each in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. I'll see as I go along, but there's a good chance I may skip Vietnam for the time being so that I can get back to Thailand an spend time in Chiang Mai during the cooler dry season where I hope to trek a bit. I could go to Vietnam later - or on another trip or... who knows?
That's all for now... Next update likely from Laos.
Monday, December 10: Nong Khai
Walked to Tesco Lotus, a supermarket that's part of a chain in Thailand. It's kind of like a Wal-Mart with a large supermarket section and a large department store section. It's in a mall complete with KFC, Mr. Pizza, Swensen's, and the usual complement of cell phone vendors, sporting good vendors, etc. They had both a Boots and Watson's (pharmacy stores) where I bought some after bite type cream.
The OTOP (local crafts) store was a disappointment so I'll go looking through the market again. I may buy some local, mut mee fabric.
Intestinal problems kept me close to Mut Mee GH for the afternoon.
I've been meeting more and more of the local ex-pat crowd. They're already joking about how "stuck" I've become and offering me hints at how to find local apartments. But, while I could stay another week or so, this place won't become home.
Tuesday, December 11: Nong Khai
Last night was interesting. I was so tired, I went to sleep before 10:00. A pee run at midnight. Then at 4:00am, the guy in the bed across from mine fell out of bed - and brought the mosquito netting down with him.. That resulted in my doing another pee run. then the monks started the gong again at 5:00. 70+ hits of the gong. At 7:00, the yoga class in the next building started up. I'm not paying for it but can hear every word the instructor utters.
Wednesday, December 12: Nong Khai
Visited a couple of Village weaver shops including the one with the factory but was disappointed not to be able to see worker at it. There were a few there but not working. These shops train and employ local girls who might otherwise be sent to Bangkok to end up working as prostitutes. The crafts, fabric, and other products available here are all sold in Bangkok so I'll defer any purchases until I'm back there. No need to buy here and carry it around with me.
I took a nap to the drone of the yoga class and the snoring of my dorm roommate.
Thursday, December 13: Nong Khai
Friday, December 14: Nong Khai
I made it back to the German bakery for breakfast. I had roast potatoes and eggs. They were probably some of the most delicious potatoes I've had - ever! Yum! The brown bread rolls were also delicious. It's the type of stuff that's very hard to find in Asia. Got some goodies to go, too. The cheese Danish was delicious and the pretzel, while good, didn't seem to be made with high gluten flour - probably hard to find in these parts.
Lunch at Mut Mee with a nice gang, talking about, among other things, American politics. I feel so removed from all that right now. A trip to the bank and the internet cafe rounded out my preparations to leave Laos tomorrow. This time I really do mean to leave.
I had dinner will Will, a long-distance bicyclist riding around SE Asia until April or so. We went to DD's a fantastic restaurant for Morning glory, roast duck, seafood salad, and one other veggie dish.
I hear the food in Laos is also supposed to be varied and quite good. I'm looking forward to it - especially the French influence. We'll see if I end up at any French restaurants.
[Date: Sun Dec 16, 2007 5:48 am
Well, I've finally moved on. New town. New country. New capitol city. New food. New language. Even driving on the right side of the road again which is taking me a day or two to get used to. I'm glad the bus driver gets to deal with it and not me - for the time being.
I'm liking Vientiane. Its reputation isn't so good but I'm not seeing the down side too much.
Saturday, December 15: Nong Khai, Thailand to Vientiane, Lao PDR
I had a nice hot shower this morning and wondered when I'll get my next hot shower knowing I may be relegated back to the realm of cold showers. At least the cold water here isn't as cold as at home.
I had my last meal at Mut Mee and made it the Tropical Muesli with yoghurt, fruit, muesli, sesame seeds, and peanuts along with a baguette and cheese. I made plans to meet Mark and Marika at reception at 11:00, check out time. None of us were in a rush to leave Mut Mee. I ran to the German bakery for some last minute goodies, then the internet cafe for one last email from Thailand, did the last of my packing, and checked out of Mut Mee. Yes, I really left this time.
Mark, Marika, and I took a tuk tuk to the bridge. There, we waited in line to leave Thailand. Then we took a shuttle bus across the bridge to the Lao PDR where the bus went through a bit of a wash and waited at a light to cross to the other side of the road, Lao being like the US with driving on the right side of the road. We got our applications, filled them out, and handed them in. Mark and I owed $35 for the application fee plus $1 for overtime (it's a Saturday). Marika, being a Japanese citizen, needs no visa and it costs nothing for her to cross into Lao.
While we were waiting for our passports to be returned, we nervously contemplated life in no man's land. But, that only lasted 5-10 minutes. Only after we got our visas did we go through immigration. Once again, waiting in line. But once we got to the head of the line, they recorded our entrance on-line, stamped our passports, and we were soon negotiating for a tuk tuk to Vientiane, the capitol city, 20km away. The tuk tuk dropped us at our relevant hotels after we made plans to meet later for dinner at Silapa, a French restaurant owned in part by Julian, the owner of Mut Mee.
I checked into the Mixay guesthouse which has $2 dorm beds - on the fourth floor. Then, I made my way to one of the only ATMs in Vientiane that accepts Visa cards. I took out 200,000 kip only to realize that it was only $20. Sigh. Then, I stopped for lunch at the Scandinavian Pastry shop and had a delicious ham and cheese sandwich on mini-baguette with French fries. Dessert was a little chocolate covered chocolate cake which looked great but was only good. The cashew treat I had was delicious.
Back at my hotel, I met some of my neighbors, and ended up completing one end of a walking tour with Irene, a woman from Switzerland. We finished early walked along the Mekong a bit and marveled at the huge sand flat that was being used as a football (soccer) field. Then we hung out at one of the many open air establishments on the shores of the Mekong river. Irene had the ubiquitous Beer Lao and I enjoyed my first watermelon shake since Bangkok.
Then, I made my way to Silapa, a wonderful French restaurant and had one of the most amazing duck dishes - medallions of medium rare duck served on greens, over lentils, and with a mango sauce. It was fantastic. At home in a similar French restaurant, I'm sure it would be a $20-$30 meal. Here, $12 - and yes, the prices were in US dollars. For dessert, I couldn't resist the chocolate crème brulee - more like chocolate mousse with a chocolate burnt sugar topping. Fantastic but I want the recipe. I normally don't frequent such restaurants, but this one came with such a wonderful reputation, and the price was right by western standards, I couldn't resist. Then, Mark and Marika ended up treating me anyway. What a wonderful treat.
We walked back to the fountain together, going a bit out of our way to see the Mekong and then I parted with tentative plans to meet in the morning. I had plans already with Irene but invited Mark and Marika to join us.
Sunday, December 16: Vientiane
I didn't sleep well last night. It was hot in the dorm room which on the fourth floor, had been baking in the sun all day. I don't mind using fans at night to keep cool but this one rotated so it was on me, then off, then on, etc. all night. That's more disconcerting than not while trying to sleep. But turning it off was much too stifling an option. And if there were mosquitoes around, moving air does help keep them at bay.
Irene and I both left our respective rooms and left our luggage at reception, hoping to share a better room.
We met Mark and Mariko (this is the correct spelling) at the Scandinavian bakery for breakfast. A continental breakfast of hot chocolate, chocolate croissant, and pineapple shake for $2.20 was delicious.
A stop at the ATM afterwards made me a millionaire. Knowing I was going to be in the country for a while, I took out the maximum. 1,000,000 kip. About $100. Even in 50,000 kip notes, it makes quite a wad in my wallet.
We walked past That Dam, one of Vientiane's oldest Buddhist stupas. Then past the imposing fortress-like walls of the US Embassy, and made our way to Patuxai, a concrete edifice built in the 60s with US supplied concrete intended for a new airport. It has more than a passing resemblance to the Arc du Triomphe in Paris. Having already been up, Irene stayed below while Mark, Mariko and I climbed to the top for great views of the city and the manicured park below. Then we hoofed it to Pha That Luang, the most important national monument in Laos.
From there, we took a tuk tuk to the bus station, ignored the efforts of the tuk tuk drivers there to go to our destination for $30 and $20, and got the regular bus which we took for $.40 each for a one hour ride to the Buddha park, a sculpture park built by the same guy that built the one in Nong Khai. It was equally weird. Irene and I crawled about inside a pumpkin like building with levels representing hell, life, and heaven (or some such arrangement) and then climbed on top for a great view of the rest of the park. There was also a huge reclining Buddha built of concrete (the usual medium for these two parks).
Back in Vientiane, internet cafes charge 100 kip per minute. Then a shower, then met Mark and Mariko for a 7:00 dinner only to remember that we said 7:30 - but we eventually met up and had a great dinner of Vietnamese food. We made spring roils at the table, ate barbecued pork sausage. And both fresh and fried spring rolls. Then, we couldn't resist and returned to La Silapa for more chocolate crème broulee - it was that good. The chocolate mousse there was also delicious but not light - it was dense and rich - more like fudge.
Monday, December 17: Vientiane
Up early. Riverside breakfast with Irene. Found a wonderful card store where Irene found postage and I found cards. Then she was off to a massage and I back to the hotel to read the guide book. I figured out where I could find a pharmacy to buy the ingredients for Excedrin (aspirin, Tylenol, and caffeine). Well, red bull is available for palatable caffeine (I don't drink coffee, tea, or cola).
At at the Scandinavian place again. The quiche was not so great but the apple cake and lemon square were both wonderful.
Spent the afternoon at the hotel, waiting for my migraine to pass. Then met Mark and Mariko for the Lao Traditional Show. Similar to the show I saw in KL, it's always a bit strange to see folk dances used as performance art.
Indian dinner afterwards at the Taj Mahal. Then Khap Chai for drinks/dessert. I had another fruit shake - fruit, sugar water, and ice. The sugar water is probably pure cane juice as sugar cane is readily available in town.
Tuesday, December 18: Vientiane to Vang Vieng
I tried a French cafe down the street for breakfast and had a true croissant with my fruit and yogurt for breakfast. Both were delicious and the croissant was much better than the Scandinavian version I had tried previously. I took the time to download my pictures at an internet cafe for 100 kip per minute (one cent per minute or 60 cents and hour) and was able to transcribe my journal at the same time. I checked out of my hotel, made my way to the Scandinavian bakery for some goodies for the road and was five minutes from the bus station when I saw the 10:30 bus go by. I ended up waiting until the 11:30 bus left. C'est la vie.
It was a $2.50, 4.5 hour trip through changing terrain, quaint Lao villages, and neighbors on the bus transporting everything from fruits and vegetables to a couple of live chickens. The bus pulled into the bus station which was on one side of the long gravel air strip. I ignored the touts and walked across the strip, through town to the river, and grabbed a room in the first place I came to. For $5, I have a double with bath, overlooking the water. Toilet paper and a towel weren't in the room but were available for the asking.
Vang Vieng is at the base of some beautiful limestone karst mountains, just like the area around Lijung, China I was traveling in ten years ago. This is a party town that held little appeal to me on that account but the nature may end up keeping me here longer than planned.
I took a walk after checking in and stopped on the bridge to the island to take pictures of local boys and girls playing in the river. Deiter, someone I knew from Mut Mee came along and I ended up joining him on the island to take pictures of the sunset. We ended up joining a game of Frisbee and then hanging out at the river until dark. We then went to town to grab dinner.
I then took a walk around town, grabbed dessert at a bakery that was dry, stale and left a lot to be desired but the place was a nice place to sit and write this journal entry. A top at an internet cafe rounded out the evening.
I was too late to get in on a kayak tour tomorrow so I'll probably end up spending my birthday this Thursday, on the river, kayaking and exploring some nearby caves. I could think of worse things to be doing. ;-)
Wednesday, December 19: Vang Vieng
There's an organic farm in (or near) town that has a guest house on their premises where people can stay and volunteer if they so wish. They also have a cafe in town and their specialty is the mulberries they grown on the farm. I went there for breakfast and had their Mulberry Set breakfast, a mulberry pancake and a mulberry shake. They were both delicious. I'll probably go back tomorrow. Then I found out from someone who is staying at the farm that mulberries are out of season and the people staying there can't even get mulberries. I have to wonder if they freeze a bunch for the off season.
I then did a bit of research and made tentative plans (in my mind, anyway) for the next few days. I grabbed lunch at a new restaurant (just opened today) and was sorely disappointed... Everything took forever and they got my meal completely wrong - but I ate in anyway and was sorry... it was noodles drenched in overly salty sauce like chicken stock with a bunch of vegetables including all too much cauliflower - not my favorite vegetable in the world.
I picked up some cookies and water and made my way across the bridge (4,000 kip for foreigners on foot) hoping to find my way up the nearby peak that looms over the town. But, villagers are not particularly forthcoming with information and I made do with a visit to a local cave. I had to get past a girl who wanted to be my guide though following the flagged trail was as obvious as could be. The woman behind me wasn't so lucky and ended up paying her 10,000 kip - the same as the entrance fee for the cave.
After climbing to the cave entrance, I found four others who had just come out and hadn't brought water with them. I shared mine with them. They shared their sunscreen with me. The sun around here is very intense.
I ended up going into the cave with the "guide" and the other woman she found to pay her. It was only 100 meters or so long, if that, and rather worn with painted handprints from the tourists who visit these unimproved and unregulated caves.
Leaving the cave, I had a rather urgent request by the time I got to the first store and the proprietor there was kind enough to let me use her toilet. I bought a soda from her and sat around to cool off a bit before going on my way.
My next stop was at Marlyn's Guest House. Jo (Jophus), the owner, gave me directions for a local hike. I got the impression if I managed that, he might be willing to give me information for a larger hike. We ended up chatting quite a bit. It's always interesting to hear the impressions of the ex-pat guest house owners. Their perspective changes over time, not only of their own surroundings in their adopted countries, but of where they had come from in the first place. Part of Jo seemed quite bitter, but I suspect it was more show than anything else.
By the time I meandered back to town, I was hungry for dinner and ate at Erawan, one of the few places without a TV blaring non-stop episodes of Friends. I had pad thai and at first I wondered if they had gotten it wrong (for the second time in a day), but then I just realized it was a souped up version with a lot of vegetables you don't normally see in the dish. I was delicious.
I had intended to get a Roti (those artery clogging, street food pancakes I've described previously) for dessert at there multiple roti vendors on every block around here when I saw fried bananas in butter sugar sauce on the Erawan menu. I went for that instead and was glad I did. It was another delicious dessert.
Vang Vieng has few interesting food options compared with Vientiane. But, they cater to the party crowd who don't seem too picky.
My birthday plans have changed. I'm pushing my kayaking day out a couple of days in order to take advantage of a two day trip. On Friday, I'll spend a day trekking up a mountain and through a cave to a "Secret Eden" and spend the night in a local village. The next day, I'll spend kayaking and exploring caves en route back to Vang Vieng. For tomorrow, I was thinking of renting a bicycle and actually found one that I could make tall enough for me to ride, but then I realized that it was the same price to rent a trail bike as it would be to rent a motorbike. I may have to pay more in tolls and gas renting the motorbike, but it should speed up the day a bit and allow me to get more done before the worst heat of the day hits in the afternoon. Hmm, we'll just have to see how I feel in the morning...
Weird coincidence... While signing up for my two day trip, I met a guy there whose birthday is also tomorrow. He said he was here with his twin and his Mom. Then, in a nearby internet cafe, unbeknownst to me, I was sitting next to his brother and his Mom and only figured that out when he walked in. So, what are the chances that three farang (foreigners) sharing the same birthday would end up sitting next to each other in any one of the 20 (or more?) internet cafes in Vang Vieng, Lao PDR? Weird. It's also weird that those twins, together, aren't as old as I am. They're turning 19 tomorrow. Me? 42. It was also strange to be wished "Happy Birthday" by them as they left and to be able to say "you too" and really mean it.
I've got a bit of time before I want to turn in tonight. I think I'll go wander town again and marvel at the stoned and drunk hoards watching Friends.
[Date: Sun Dec 23, 2007 11:06 pm Subject: 12/20-23: Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang
I've made it to Luang Prabang, the true tourist center in Lao and with good reason. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site so the main street has retained its charms even though almost all businesses now cater to tourism. It's a pretty town to wander. It's also a bit more expensive. The tourists here seem older than in Vang Vieng - no surprise given the party culture there.
I may be taking off as early as tomorrow for a boat trip to places with limited electricity so might be off-line for a while.
I'll be in touch when I can,
Thursday, December 20: Vang Vieng
Turning 42 today - does that mean I know the answer to life, the universe, and everything? [couldn't help the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy reference there.]
Up early for more Mulberry pancake and shake at the organic cafe. Then I rented another motorbike for all of $3/day. But, I put that much gas in it too and then spent another $1 on the toll to the west side of town. I spent the day riding a long loop on dirt road. I stopped at one cave which was much bigger and a lot more interesting and more fun than yesterday's cave. This one had a huge cavern in the front with a lot of natural light coming in from multiple sources. But, when we kept going, it went back about 400 meters and lights were absolutely necessary. In some seasons, there's a large lagoon inside where people go swimming. But, it was dry when we were there so we just walked around and had a look. I think it was the usual fare for limestone karst caves. Stalactites, Stalagmites, ribbon, and shiny crystalline bits. Very pretty at times.
I found a small colony of bats when I noticed their guano on the cave floor. I'm guessing it used to be a much larger colony. I know many of the other caves also have bat colonies.
Continuing on my motorcycle, I had to ford a river. That was interesting. Especially when the bike stalled out on me so I had to put my feet down and get my sneakers wet and push the bike the rest of the way across. Thankfully, it started right up again. But the kids I passed a few minutes later got a laugh. They knew to look at the feet of passing tourists on motorbikes and saw my wet feet and knew what had happened. On the way back, I got the line better and managed to get across without stalling. But I got my feet wet again on a different crossing. Oh well. I hope my sneakers dry my tomorrow so I can wear dry shoes for my trek but I doubt that'll happen.
The most interesting part of the whole day was the nonstop views of the mountains. They are all vertical limestone formations and are quite spectacular to look at.
I missed a turn for another cave I had intended to visit but that was OK. I was pretty satisfied after the first one and I was tired. I stopped for a late lunch at Maylyn's but didn't dawdle as I needed to get back to town to get my laundry done. It should be ready in the morning. It better be ready because I need to wear those clothes tomorrow.
I ran into Mark on the street and made tentative plans to meet later for dinner. They had transportation problems and didn't get out of Vientiane until yesterday.
Back at my room, Sue, the twins’ mother, had checked into the room next to mine. She would have had no idea which of the many guesthouses I was staying in. She was on her own as her boys decided to spend their birthday on their own on the island, known for partying. I headed back to the internet cafe and Sue ended up finding me there. Just as well, she was joining me for dinner so we could go and hopefully met Mark and Mariko together. But Mark and Mariko never showed (we had very tentative plans so no surprise). We at the bakery where I had gotten some stale cake a couple of days earlier so we could take in the movie of the day. It turned out to be The Kingdom, the same movie I had seen in Bangkok. A very good movie though quite gory for my taste.
After dinner, I spent more time at the internet cafe. I was having a hard time downloading my pictures onto my hard drive and I'm hoping I don't have more problems with my camera. It works, just very slowly. Wrote in my journal on the porch in front of my room. Very nice.
Friday, December 21: Vang Vieng
It's winter. Happy Solstice. Here in the tropics, winter still doesn't mean much but don't tell that to the locals who can be seen in warm jackets, hats, etc. Even the light doesn't change much with about 12 hours of daylight year round.
Up early for more Mulberry pancakes. Then I dropped off my motorbike and picked up my laundry. Back to the room to pack. This time, I had to pack one bag for a day on the trail, another bag for overnight and the next day of kayaking, and the remainder in my backpack to be held at the outfitter for my return tomorrow. Green Discovery, the outfitter tries to be a bit more sensitive to environmental concerns and cultural impact than most other outfitters. As a result, they cost a bit more but they also have English speaking guides and good safety practices. How they use their money is also transparent and the clients know where their money is going. It's a nice practice.
At the outfitter, I met the other three people on my "Secret Eden" tour. Bruce, his 19 year old daughter Brittany, and her 19 year old boyfriend, Alex. They've been traveling together for weeks and spent time trekking in Nepal before coming to Laos. Bruce has done quite a bit of adventure travel over the years and is trying to instill that sense of adventure in his kids. He's taking turns, each year, traveling to remote parts of the world with them.
We hopped into the back of one of the pickups with bench seating and made our way 13km out of town to our starting point. We walked across a long bamboo bridge and visited Elephant Cave, a shallow cave with a temple inside. Then we started across rice paddies. The dry ones were easy. If you stepped off the dike, you were on dry ground. But not all were dry and you didn't want to step off the narrow dike into the flooded paddies. We all made it across OK. Then we had to take our shoes off to ford a stream and sit on the teak leaves of a young plantation to dry our feet and put our shoes and socks back on.
Our first climb was 300m (~1000 feet) up a steep trail that would have felt right at home with the hard trails of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. That said, the rocks, limestone Karst with jagged and holey and the tropical vegetation completely different so there was no doubt where we were hiking. Pan, one of our guides, cut me a bamboo hiking staff which proved invaluable to me both getting up but especially down the mountains.
We climbed through one col and started down into the Secret Eden that gave our tour its name. This area is completely surrounded by mountains and has no roads. The river here goes through a cave. We had lunch at the cave entrance but did not enter the cave. The river comes out of the cave in the village where we had started the day but nobody has ever been able to follow the river through the cave. It sounds like there are underground waterfalls and channels that are completely submerged.
Our lunch was an ambitious treat of skewered beef and vegetables on fried sticky rice with baguette eaten on the banana leaves the rice had been packed in. It was delicious and way better than any trekking lunch I would have come up with.
We then crossed the valley, passing bags of mountain rice that had been harvested earlier and were being carried out of the valley on people's backs, over the same strenuous trails we were hiking on. These bags were 50kg each - over 100 pounds. And the Lao people are small - some probably only weigh100 pounds. So much for only carrying 30% of your own body weight. We passed a few of the people carrying these bags up the mountain as they took a break.
We walked over another mountain and through another col and were passed by one of the rice carriers before descending to a Hmong village. They shared some of their Lao Lao (homemade brew or wine) with those that cared to partake. We also saw one woman rendering a large wok full of pork fat.
We took a very leaky fishing boat/ferry across the river to get to our village for the night. The Eco lodge was a simple building with rooms that each had two mattresses on the floor. The beds took up so much space the doors couldn't open all the way. They did have mosquito netting though. We had shared bathrooms and a hot shower downstairs. The shower drew so much current that the lights went out if the water was hot. But, who needs to see to take a shower?
We relaxed before dinner with drinks from the little "cafe" next door. I bought some chips to pass around, as well. Dinner at the local "restaurant" was pork with ginger, cabbage, Lao salad (salad with pork and egg), and soup. Bruce grabbed half of one of the two plates of pork without regard for the rest of us who were left shortchanged. Then put too much fish sauce on it and left most of it uneaten. But we were able to fill up on salad though that didn't hold me for long. Papaya, not my favorite fruit, was served for dessert so I went back to the cafe to buy some Oreos and ended up with strawberry filling. They were OK but not as good as the original.
Saturday, December 22: Vang Vieng
After an early night, I woke in the middle of the night unable to sleep so I worked on puzzles until I was tired again and then slept until 7:15 - still the first one up.
Breakfast at 9:00 was uninspired eggs and baguette with a rather warm and flavorless apple/pineapple shake as I don't drink the coffee and tea normally provided.
Then we changed into our kayak clothes for the day, packed our dry bag, and left the rest of our stuff to be brought back to town in the truck. I was impressed not only with the paddling lesson, but the whitewater safety lesson which was barely necessary on this slow moving river with very few riffles exceeding class one. It seemed the same standard lesson that I've received in the US.
We left at 10:00 and after one hour stopped for our first cave of the day. We left Pan behind to prepare lunch while Lay, our other guide took us to the cave. This one required a short trek to the cave, then Lay lit a torch fueled by a candle. As we waited to enter the cave, a guy carrying a rice bag came out of the cave with a blazing torch. This cave goes through the mountain and saves a hard climb up and over so the locals use it for transporting goods. We descended into the cave on ladders, made our way through the cave and ascended the other exit on more ladders. It's hard to imagine carrying 100 pounds of rice through the cave. As we exited, two guys each carrying long pieces of lumber were entering the cave. Oy!
To get back to our kayaks, we climbed over the mountain. Along the way, we stopped to look at a nearly dead tree covered with many bee hives. We also saw a meter long, finger width, bright green snake. It's a poisonous snake but wasn't at all threatening and moved along with a pulsing motion. Very pretty.
We made it over the mountain but I was wishing I still had the bamboo pole Pan had cut for me yesterday.
Back at the river, we sat comfortably on the side of our kayaks to each lunch, a repeat of yesterday. We watched a rather large water bug on the river stay right in front of us as the current tried to take it downstream.
Our next stop was another cave. My fuddy duddy companions didn't want to go in as they would have to get their shoes wet. So Pan brought me in. We waded in up to my waist in water. It was kind of cool. Pan pointed out where the water would be during high water and a section of cave where if the water was high, we could swim to go see. But with the low water level and no ladder, there was no way up.
We then passed a bunch of riverside bars that cater to the tubers with cheap Beer Lao and huge trapeze-like water swings. Yes, here, tubing and beer go hand in hand.
We stopped at the organic farm that produces the mulberries used in the shakes and pancakes I had been eating in town. No mulberries available here so I had a banana shakes while the others had tea.
We paddled past the island to our take out point where the truck met us with the gear we had at the Ecolodge. I walked into town and got a room at the same guesthouse, much to the amusement of the woman who runs it and wasn't expecting me back. I got the room next to the one I had before... this one a bit warmer due to more sun exposure but fewer ants and a convenient table. Otherwise, it was the same.
I had Indian for dinner with delicious samosas but a strange dosa that tasted OK but looked funny.
I finally figured out why my pictures were downloading so slowly - I have to remember to turn off virus protection when downloading. Argh!
Sunday, December 23: Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang
Up early and was disappointed with the mulberry pancake at the cafe today. They made me the wrong one - twice. I ate the second one anyway. A quick internet session and then I walked to the airport and bought a minibus ticket to Luang Prabang. They are more cramped than the VIP bus but leave earlier and take an hour less time to get there with two stops along the way instead of one.
Our driver was crazy. he left late then made up time along the way passing vehicles left and right around blind curves. He passed a gas truck once and we almost ended up in a head on collision as a result.
The terrain was mountainous the entire way with hairpin turns, climbing and descending. I was in the jump seat next to the door that tried to fold up with me on it every time we went around a right hand curve.
I connected with a German PhD. pharmacologist along the way and once in town, ended up in a neighboring guesthouse with plans for dinner. I dumped my stuff, changed, and went out to wander town a bit. Drums and cymbals at the neighboring wat drew my attention and so I went to watch and listen. I met Zina, a French woman there and we hung out for a couple of hours, almost catching sunset from Phu si, the big hill that dominates town. Then back to my guesthouse to shower, change, and meet for dinner. We wandered town some more and found a less trafficky restaurant for salad, a fish and coconut milk dish, and a duck curry dish.
I may end up doing a river trip with the German and possibly with Zina, too. No definite plans with either so we'll see if we manage to meet up again.
[Date: Tue Dec 25, 2007 10:31 am Subject: 12/24: Luang Prabang
I hope all those who celebrate Christmas have a great holiday. I've been wished a Merry Christmas three times this year. I'm quite certain this is a lifetime low for a season. I'm not the only one here who finds the minimal Christmas decorations and wishes quite refreshing.
I'm taking off tomorrow morning to take the slow boat to Nong Khiaw and Muang Khua. it should take a couple of days to get to Muang Khua and I'll probably be staying in a town with only a few hours of electricity each day, tomorrow night.
After that, I'll probably take the bus to Udomxai and Luang Nam Tha. I might be able to get on-line there but if not, it could be a few more days or a week before I head back to Luang Prabang.
Gotta run. The internet cafe is closing...
Monday, December 24: Luang Prabang
Slept in. Breakfast at the Scandinavian Bakery - same setup as the branch in Vientiane. Walked around the town following the shore of the Mekong and then the Nam Khan Rivers. Watched a woodcutter making a beautiful panel, a monk in a boat with a dog, boys swimming in the Nam Khan, monks crossing a bamboo bridge with umbrellas, fighting cocks, and more.
Crepes for lunch - first ham and cheese, then vanilla and banana. Both good. More wandering in the afternoon. Caught another drumming session at a wat in the afternoon and then spent the better part of an hour talking with Pan (aka Novice Phon Thansone AKA Pep Thin AKA Alec after a football player with the Japanese National Team). I learned that the drumming was not an every day event and that yesterday was to signal time for the monks to get their heads shaved.
Mara may also mean flower or the scent (perfume) of a flower in Lai).
At 5:00, I went up Phu Si to see the sunset from this prominent hill in the center of town. I wasn't the only one with the same idea.
I met Zina on the street and ended up having dinner at the Coconut Restaurant [sic]. It was nice, inexpensive, and the food was good. She went off for a massage and I wandered the market and met Stephanie who was looking to buy quantities for her business back in Oklahoma. Got some insight as to where stuff really comes from and how much it really costs. We had dessert of Roti and once again, met Simian and friends, a group that I've met often and repeatedly since Vang Vieng.
[Date: Fri Dec 28, 2007 9:57 am Subject: Back on-line...
After two days spent on the Nam Ou River heading north from Luang Prabang and one day on buses from Mueng Khua, I'm now in Luang Nam Tha, another town that has a significant enough tourist base to harbor internet cafes. As I sat down to check email, I found out from the man next to me about the Bhutto's death. I'm sure it'll be the main topic in the news over the next few days and since I just happened to check into a room with TV for the first time during my travels, I'll probably catch some coverage on CNN or whatever other English language news channel I can find.
I'm too beat to type more now but just wanted to let you know I'm back on-line and will likely have frequent access for the time being.
From northern Laos - near the Chinese border and not far from either the Burma or Thai borders, too...
Tuesday, December 25: Luang Prabang
It's Christmas. There area few decorations here and there.
Breakfast at the bakery again. It's a nice place to sit and read days old newspapers. I couldn't finish my meal so saved the bagel for later. I tried to meet Zina with whom I had loose plans this morning but the Palace Museum where we planned to meet was closed today. No sign as to why it was closed until I got to the tourist office a few minutes later and they explained that it's always closed on Tuesdays. They also had some good information about the boats going upstream to Nong Khiaw and beyond as well as other local attractions.
I walked across the street to head towards the Tha Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre when the German guy came after me trying to get my attention. He was also planning on visiting the Palace Museum so was disappointed to find it closed. We sat while he waited for and then ate his breakfast of Jackfruit. I finally tried it but didn't care for it at all. I found it worse than the durian I had already tried. We also finally exchanged names... His is Andreas.
We made plans to meet for a walk in the afternoon and then I was off to the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, a small but well put together and thought out museum of Laotian textiles and cultures. It just opened in 2006 and is not listed in any of the guidebooks. I found it when I happened upon a pamphlet. The museum really helped me understand the relationships between the many groups and subgroups in Laos as well as the traditional costumes I've seen both in towns and even while zooming through villages on buses.
I ran into Andreas at the wat near our hotels and we ended up moving up our plans for the afternoon. So, I quickly changed, grabbed a crepe and a banana shake (my first beverage served in a plastic bag - surprising because beverages are frequently served this way all over SE Asia), and went to meet Andreas. Sure enough, the confusion over boat landings in town came up and I ended up waiting in the wrong area. But when I saw another boat cross the river, I made my way to the right area, grabbed the next ferry (a small flat bottomed boat resembling a large canoe that holds 14 people in pairs along seven planks crossing the bottom of the boat) and walked to the first wat where I found Andreas happily talking in German to three kids in monks dress. They couldn't understand a word he said but it made no difference to Andreas. We continued on what was supposed to be a three wat, 6km walk. We took a long break at the next wat n the top of a hill with a great view across the Mekong of Luang Prabang. There two other boys made out acquaintances. I took pictures of them and one of them took a picture of me - with my own camera. It's always fun with digital cameras to take pictures of people and show them with the screen on the back of the camera.
At the third wat, we toured the wat, then a nearby cave but Andreas wasn't interested in it so I didn't stay inside too long, then continued on our walk. We came across a fourth, long abandoned wat, and continued our walk. the trail at this point was no longer obvious. There were criss-crossing trails so we studiously kept to the biggest ones and noted our return path. Crossing one small bridge, I failed to notice some barbed wire on the far side and with a short warning from Andreas, managed to avoid the worst of the situation by putting my hands down and kicking my feet over in a move my niece (who likes gymnastics) would have been proud of. I ended up with only one shallow scratch but I'm glad my tetanus shots are up to date.
We got a place where we couldn't figure out the way forward so we backtracked as sunset was going to happen and we didn't want to be in the jungle then. Ferry back, then a stop for a shake and a beer. I went back for a shower, hit an internet cafe, and then had dinner. I sat down, was then joined by someone from the internet cafe, and finally we ended up talking with another solo guy sitting at the next table. I really like the social atmosphere in Luang Prabang. That rarely if ever happened in Vang Vieng. I'm not crazy about the kids selling trinkets and coming into restaurants to do so, but I had to smile at the one enterprising young man who was selling Santa caps instead of the usual bracelets, birds (yes, little birds in little cages - to be released with a wish, perhaps),
I found something interesting today in town... There's a Chabad House in town. This may be the first town I've ever been to that has a "permanent" Jewish presence but no Christian buildings (that I've noticed, anyway). While most Israelis who travel are secular and don't practice (like myself), the few who do practice and try to keep kosher can have a hard time. At least here, the Chabad House which also has a little cafe, offers a kosher meal to those who care.
My left shoulder has been bothering me ever since the kayak trip. It doesn't really feel like I reinjured the shoulder, but we'll see how long this weird discomfort remains. It's not affecting my mobility or strength so for now I can ignore it pretty easily. Plus it seems to get worse during the day so I rarely even notice it earlier in the day.
Wednesday, December 26: Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw
Plans to meet Andreas for the 8:00am boat almost derailed when I woke up with a stomach bug at 6:00am. I was on and off the toilet for the better part of an hour but either my stomach calmed down, or the Imodium kicked in. I went to grab some breakfast and ran into the long column of monks out for their morning breakfast "begging". I crossed when a break in the line came my way. I got a couple of bagels to go but had no appetite so only ate a bite or two. I checked out and met Andreas shortly before 8:00 only to find our boat doesn't leave until 9:00. After being assured the boat has a toilet, I bought my ticket for the 6 hour boat ride. We walked to the market for fruit and went back to wait for the boat to leave. We were all westerners on board this boat and the bathroom was locked. Sigh. Thankfully, with just one more Imodium, I got through the day OK, except at one point, I started having body aches and chills, too. I was not happy though I think I was better off on the boat than I would have been stuck in my dreary hotel room in town. I only needed one of the two toilet stops. Finally, the toilet in the back was unlocked but only a couple of people ended up needed it late in the day.
The ride was great and the scenery beautiful. Much better than a bus ride. There were water buffalo, bamboo rafts, flat bottomed boats, terraced fields, and vertical limestone karst mountains to see.
All day, I ate 2/3 of the bagel I started at breakfast and one banana. In Nong Khiaw, after checking into a large, clean hotel room, I had a banana shake and managed maybe half a bowl of noodle soup with chicken. I really needed the liquid and salt. I took some ibuprofen to counter the body aches. We'll see how I feel in the morning. Right now, my symptoms are too nebulous to figure out what I'm dealing with. I just hope it's not malaria. I'm not particularly good about taking my prophylactic doxycycline.
Thursday, December 27: Nong Khiaw to Mueng Khua
I woke up feeling much better though not yet good. The body aches were mostly gone and I had an appetite. Sort of. I was hungry and I ate half of my omelet. My stomach problems may be better or the effects of the Imodium haven't worn off yet. Today's boat doesn't leave until 11:00 so we enjoyed breakfast at a restaurant overlooking the river. We watched boats coming and going, laden with human and other cargo.
Only four falang made the trip today. One Lao got off part way and another Lao family got on for a while. Then one more Lao for the last part of the trip. The captain's wife was the helper.
Once again, the terrain was beautiful. At one point, we rounded a bend and the mountains began to drop and become more gentle and rounded rather than the vertical relief of the karst. The rapids were more exciting today and may have approached class three. It was exciting at times as we pushed upstream.
The bamboo rafts we had seen with motors yesterday finally resolved themselves into generators, the propellers turning with the force of the water sending electricity up a wire to the villages or individual homes. For 80km upstream, we never went more than a few minutes or maybe half a kilometer without some sign of human riverside activity. fishing nets, fishing traps, other boats, water buffalo or cattle, villages, fields, plantations. This is a working river that sustains a lot of people. But, the people seem to live within their environment, not dominating their environment.
The children wave as we pass - or dance a jig - or show off with their swimming or boating skills. The small ones are usually naked. The older boys usually wear their underwear as bathing suits. We wave back. Their parents sometimes smile but sometimes it's apparent they're not particularly happy with the western influx.
Our boat wasn't a "local" but we made a few stops along the way. To let off and on a few passengers as well as drop off a light bulb or a letter. This boat had no toilet and we had just one toilet break all day. It was OK though and if I or anyone else had needed more, we only needed to say so.
A blue backed, red breasted kingfisher flashed by at one point.
Pulling up to shore is always interesting. It's a tossup if the captain can find a beach at the right angle to let us off on sand or if we get our feet wet. Thankfully, I'm wearing sandals that can get wet.
In town, I was more picky than usual, trying to find a room with a western toilet but unwilling to spring for the big hotel. I settled on a squat toilet in a nice clean place - a bit more cushy than my usual fare but when I'm not feeling well, it was worth it.
The extra bed in my room was the perfect place for a pack explosion as these places rarely offer any tables or counter space.
Andreas and I dumped our stuff and went back to the first place we had rejected for dinner with a group of Germans. I was the odd one out and the conversation was mostly in German but that's OK, most of the others I could hear in the restaurant were German, too. Strange.
With public power only from 6 to 10pm, we went back to our rooms in plenty of time to grab showers. Hot water is universally supplied with electricity through individual on-demand units in each bathroom. Andreas was in for the evening so I took a walk, found the bus station, found a wat, and walked down the road to the beach. The stars were fantastic. Then I stopped in the "other" restaurant in town and joined yet another group of Germans. They were drinking Beer Lao and Lao whiskey. I stuck with Fanta Green (apple). We left as they closed shop around us at 9:30.
Friday, December 28: Meuang Khua to Luang Nam Tha
I found Andreas at breakfast, at a banana pancake. We almost didn't fit on the morning bus. It was full but we bought tickets anyway once we saw there were rice bags to sit upon. Rice is hard but it does conform a bit so it could have been worse. Actually, it got worse after the first pit stop where I dropped trou in the rice field with the local women, I found my seat had been usurped by a local. But I grabbed one of the two bags he had and made my own seat. Not as comfy as the first time but to as bad as the ride from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, either. This 22 passenger minibus had 34 people on board, only 6 of which were kids.
I had intended to spend a night in Udomxai but changed my mind when I got there and found the bus to Luang Nam Tha wouldn't leave for three more hours. Plenty of recovery time from the morning bus ride. Andreas and I grabbed bowls of Pho and then went our separate ways. I almost had to fight to keep my seat with leg room on the second bus but ended up moving anyway. At least the back didn't have all the kids that were prone to motion sickness. Blech.
This time, there were four Israelis and myself and the rest packed with Lao. I ended up talking with Anya, one of the Israeli's originally from Belorussia, for the entire ride. She's not Jewish but her boyfriend is. The other two Israeli's are practicing and trying to get to Luang Nam Tha before sunset but it wasn't going to work. They had tried to hitch but it wasn't working. Then again, I wouldn't pick them up based on their appearance so I'm not surprised. They should have tried neatening up a bit.
It was dark when we got to Luang Nam Tha bus station which wasn't in town. We grabbed a jumbo, and they were all happened to head for the same guesthouse I picked out. Sure enough, it was full so they pointed us around the corner to a brand new place, the Ulanan Guesthouse. It was great. New rooms, clean, big, TVs, hot water, western toilets, new linens and towels, soap, and bottled water, all for $5/night regardless of twin room or double. And being new, it's not in any guide books so no competition.
A quick internet stop and I found out about Bhutto's assassination. Lot's of changes about to happen in Pakistan - and probably not good. I'll probably catch info on TV. Dinner at the Manyhchan GH with Elad and Anya.
This town seems much smaller than I thought it would be. We'll see what it looks like during the day tomorrow.
[Date: Mon Dec 31, 2007 3:02 am Subject: 12/29-30: Luang Namtha
Happy New Year!
Laos is 12 hours ahead of the east coast of the US so I'm guessing I'll be celebrating a bit earlier than most (all?) of the people on this list. Is anyone out there ahead of me? :-)
So, I hope the next year is happy and healthy for everyone and while I'm throwing out wishes, I'm hoping for world peace, too. (never hurts to hope)
Saturday, December 29: Luang Namtha
I woke up feeling yucky again so I stayed in my room and near the bathroom all morning. Didn't really need to use the toilet, but I never really knew. Ah well... Such things happen to travelers. At least I had TV for a change of pace so I caught the world news on CNN and the saw most of the Sound of Music. There aren't that many English language channels. Sigh.
I got out for lunch and spent time culling pictures at the local internet cafe in preparation for burning a DVD for backup. Didn't get around to burning the DVD so that'll wait until some other time.
This town is truly smaller than I thought it would be. The light of day didn't do much to change my perceptions. There's not much here but this is a town that's used as a jumping off point for a lot of trekking, mountain biking, and kayaking in the nearby Nam Ha National Park. I'll give myself another day or so and then decide what I'm going to do. I'll either plan a trek and/or kayak trip or give up on northern Laos and make my way south back through Luang Prabang, maybe through the Plain of Jars, and to Vientiane and then figure out how best to get to Cambodia from there.
I did meet some folks and went to the boat landing with a nice group including the Elad and Anya, two Brits, two other Americans (there are so few of us here), and one Swede. It's strange, the Swede just happens to be a traditional Swedish dancer (and swing and ???) and was surprised that I did Scandinavian folk dancing amongst other dances. What's more interesting is that she's deaf and just uses the visual cues (more than sound vibrations) to stick to the beat and participate.
Sunday, December 30: Luang Namtha
Another day of not feeling quite right. Better than yesterday but I still wouldn't want to head out onto a trail or river feeling like this. It's kind of frustrating. Oh well, I'll probably spend New Year's eve here though it's about as low key here as Christmas was and then make my way back to Luang Prabang and points south.
I managed a walk around town and made my way to the market. For the most part, it was like most others. Entire sections of oranges, chilis, fish, poultry. There was one area with unique selections though. There, I found not only little whole frogs, about 4cm long each), on a stick (with 4-5 frogs on each stick), but one large bowl of 2cm long black beetles, moving about on their own steam in their bowl in one teaming mass.
I have yet to try an insect - on purpose. I'm sure I've eaten plenty in my life as a hiker and bicyclist, but that's different. :-)
Oh yeah... The other day in Udomxai, we saw rats on a stick, already grilled and ready to eat. In my time in China, I never saw them there although there was always talk of them, so it took my going to Laos to actually see it.
[Date: Fri Jan 4, 2008 8:59 am Subject: 12/31-1/3/08: Luang Namtha to Phonsavan
I forgot Australia and New Zealand are ahead of Laos so I wasn't the first in the Travels and Trails group to celebrate the New Year. Glad to know you "early risers" are out there... ;-)
It's late here today but I haven't yet written today's journal entry. It's a hard one to write after all I've seen and heard about here today. More about the CIA's "Secret War" and it's current affect on Laos tomorrow (if I have time to write - and type). That plus the amazing Plain of Jars...
Monday, December 31: Luang Namtha
Another blah day. I still don't feel up to hard physical exertion or being away from "civilization" such as it is but I'm still not badly ill - just a bit of persistent stomach ache.
At least I was able to get a DVD burned today, sent and replied to some emails, and just took it easy. I spent much of the afternoon and evening at the Manychan Restaurant with an ever changing group of people but with never more than one person from any one country. While the locals also celebrate the New Year, it is by definition a low key celebration because there's a permanent nationwide curfew of midnight. So, in theory you're supposed to be back in your home or guesthouse by midnight. Makes it hard to party with friends that way.
Tuesday, January 1, 2008: Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang
Happy New Year!
Well, I finally got out of Luang Namtha today. I'm not going to miss the annoying "ethnic" women who beg you to buy their junk and don't take 'no' for an answer. They get in your face, interrupt your meals while you're sitting in restaurants, and I've even seen them sit down at tables with other diners who had no interest in their wares, either.
This morning, I went to the bus station thinking I would take the bus to Udomxai but I got there plenty early, realized that the bus to Luang Prabang had plenty of room, and changed my plans. I bought a ticket all the way to Luang Prabang. The reason why I wasn't going to go all the way to Luang Prabang was because it can be hard to find a guesthouse if you get there late. And with a nine hour bus ride scheduled, leaving at 9:30, I wasn't looking forward to the guesthouse search starting at 6:30 - and that's only when we get to the bus station, then you have to take a tuk tuk to town.
So, leaving Luang Namtha, I'm heading back south and east, away from a greater percentage of brick houses and back to wood and bamboo.
We drove through a village with a billboard advertising the fact that the poppy crop has been replaced. It makes me wonder if I've seen any poppies and if so, where. Chances are though that any vestiges of poppies that are visible from the road would have been eradicated first. I'm sure there are still some poppy crops out there, but they are will hidden from tourist and government alike.
On the way to Udomxai, our bus had a flat. I was pleasantly surprised how fast they had the spare on. I wasn't surprised to see the condition of the spare. It was completely bald and even what was left had chunks taken out of the rubber. We took bets how long the spare would last..
We pulled into Udomxai for it's 30 minute scheduled break. We had enough time to get bowls of foe (noodle soup). Given the rats on a stick being grilled nearby, we all opted for "no meat". We picked up some munchies for the rest of the ride knowing it was supposed to be an eight hour trip but with the flat we would be running late.
Unfortunately, our predition that the spare wouldn't last came true maybe within 25km of Udomxai. You would think they would have taken the opportunity to put a new tire on the wheel while in town but that's not the way things work in Laos. They did, however, put a new tire in the back seat of the bus. So, the entire bus disembarked again to watch the proceedings as they took the old tire off the wheel and put the new tire on the wheel. I suppose it's nice that they can do that roadside. At home, changing car tires seems so much more complicated than changing the truck tire. No such thing as balancing the wheel though. We did catch sight of the well used, dry and cracking tube they put in the truck tire and wondered out loud if we were doomed to have a third flat before the day was out.
The flats did give us an opportunity to see a few houses and businesses that would otherwise never see us falang (foreigners). Thatched roof huts with satellite dishes. Mountainside huts on such steep hills the only play space is the road. I have to wonder how many kids are hit my passing vehicles.
There were a few things that made all the delays bearable. It was a new bus and the space between rows of seats was vaguely variable and I found a row with some extra leg room. Plus I ended up with two seats to myself. And, there were some really nice people seated around me with whom to pass time with good conversation. Mary, a Kiwi, and Quinton, a Zimbabwean, were seated behind me and are both living and working in China on holiday in Laos. They were interesting and we could compare China then and now notes. A couple of Aussie women rounded out the fun group. Once in town, we all found rooms at the Mala Guesthouse, the place I had stayed the week before. The fact that they had three empty room available in the evening was weird. We dropped our packs and headed for the Coconut Restaurant. We were the only party seated upstairs and out of sight was definitely out of mind. So we gently stepped on toes occassionally by putting in appearances on the first floor and eventually got what we had ordered.
Wednesday, January 2: Luang Prabang
Breakfast at my old standby, the Scandinavian Bakery. For some reason, my scrambled eggs had cheese in them. Delicious. As usual, the hot chocolate and two breadstuffs were too much so I took one bagel away with me for later.
I finally took in the Royal Palace (ie. National Museum). Things I found of unusual interest were a series of 16 paintings telling the story of a deposed ruler and his family living in isolation and finally being able to return to their home city. Also, gifts from the US included a small Lao flag mounted with tiny pieces of the Moon from the Apollo 11 lunar landing. It was either that one that came from JFK or either that or another that had come from Nixon.
I spent time wandering the craft stores and textile shops and realized how much better the good in the stores were than the goods in the night market. But, then, you paid for it, too. After watching Quinton eat a pizza last night, I couldn't resist one for lunch. It was pretty good but not great.
After lunch, I finally succumbed to the temptation to get a massage. They are available for cheap all over Laos and Thailand. But, many of the places that offer massage also do aromatherapy and those scents tend to get at my allergies. I took a chance that the Red Cross which only offers basic services, had nothing to bother me and for $3.20, I had a one hour long full body massage. And as part of the revenue generating arm of the local chapter of the Red Cross, it was to benefit a good cause, too. The going rate on the main drag for the more upscale places was all of $5/hour.
I finally scored a functional souvenir for myself. I had been looking for a decorative scarf and found one at the wat across from the Red Cross. It was the only one like it on the table. The woman who sold it to me wouldn't bargain but I bought it anyway. I think she had bought it for herself somewhere but she wouldn’t, couldn’t, or didn't understand when I said I would like to buy more and wondered where I could find more. I hadn't seen any like it in the shops or the market even though it was clearly woven in the local style. Even asking around town afterwards, either nobody sold any like it and/or nobody could tell me where to look for more.
This evening, I went to the theater and caught a performance of one story from the Ramayana where a woman gets kidnapped amongst other song and dance performances. A walk through the night market and another late dinner followed.
Thursday, January 3: Luang Prabang to Phonsavan
Early risers get to see the long procession of monks out to receive their morning alms in the form of breakfast. Most seem to give rice though I saw at least one giving out what looked like energy bars of a sort. It's mostly the women who do the giving, while kneeling on their knees though I did see one man offering alms though he did so while standing.
More happenstance than anything, I've now caught the early morning procession three times. It crosses the top of the street my guesthouse is on.
This morning, it was cold so I caught a quick breakfast of Hot Chocolate and bagel, bought some extra goodies to go, and grabbed a tuk tuk to the bus station. There, I caught the 8:30 bus to Phonsavan, either a seven hour or ten hour trip depending on who you talk with or what you read. I didn't end up with extra leg room and I did have a seatmate but for the most part, the trip went a bit more smoothly than the last one. No flat tires but one hill was so steep, the bus couldn't make it up with us on it. We all got out and started walking. Those in the front, took the road while a bunch of us in the back, took a shortcut trail cutting the switchback (OK for people, not for buses.). Apparently, when everyone realized a bunch of us were "missing", they tried to get the bus to wait for us, not realizing that we were waiting for them. But the driver knew better and then soon found us waiting by the side of the road. Meanwhile, while waiting, I noticed two guys sitting by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. One was playing guitar but wouldn't let me take a picture - then I realized he had his rifle with him. Hmm...
During our one long break, a westerner pulled out juggling balls to entertain the local kids. I took some pictures and it's always fun to take pictures of the kids and then show them on the back of the camera.
We eventually transitioned from the mountains to the high plains, which at 1,200m, surprisingly resembled some of the high plains I have seen in the western part of the US. There were pine trees and open grassy rolling hills with bigger tree covered mountains in the background. The views were surprisingly expansive.
We were within 20km of our destination when the bus stopped. We were boarded by some men who were obviously looking for something. But, when they laid hands on our (the falang) bags, we each claimed the appropriate bags and they left our bags alone. They did look in some of the other bags and then started looking at some of the bags under the bus and on top of the bus. But, they were obviously looking for something specific and eventually pulled out one suitcase and a bag that looked like a potato bag. Nobody seemed to claim it and after everyone stood around for a while wondering whose it was and what was in it, the bags were taken away, put on the pickup of the men who had searched us, and then we reboarded and continued on.
We have no idea if it was drugs, live animals, bombs, or maybe just somebody's dirty laundry.
I climbed aboard a tout's minivan and ended up at the Kong Keo guesthouse, a really nice place off the main drag in a quiet area. I have a bungalow with two double beds, and bath with hot water. Since I had wanted a $3 room but they had none left, they gave me a break on the $5 room and charged me $4. Sweet!
The guesthouse played a video of a CPB show called Bombies where I learned quite a bit about America's secret war in the 60s. Afterwards, a few days late, the guesthouse was celebrating New Years and put on a big spread of curries, duck, French fries, and more. I have no idea if or how much I'll be charged for it, but it was nice not to have to wander back into town. We sat around the bomb casing fire pit to stay warm. It was cold enough for frost this past morning and they're expecting more cold weather. I've put tights on under my pants in an effort to stay warm. I'll be fine under the warm quilts on my bed, but there no heating anywhere I've been in Laos. As a matter of fact, the windows are all louvered so you can't really close them tightly against the cold. Mr. Kong, the owner of the premises, is sleeping in a tent on the lawn. Nobody seems to believe him - or me for that matter - that his tent is going to be the warmest place to sleep on the premises. He has a "regular" place to sleep but knows how much warmer he is in his tent. In a way, I sort of wish I had one of my tents with me - but then again, I'm glad not to be carrying it.
The old airfield in front of the guesthouse provided a big open area from which to do a bit of stargazing. And the stars are phenomenal in an area with limited light and none extra to waste on lighting up the night sky. We're far enough off the main drag to be in a quiet area - except for the noise we generate and with the musical instruments and singing, fueled by plenty of Lao Lao, we generated quite a bit of our own.
Mr. Kong, or King Kong as his brother (or uncle) calls him, is the owner of the guesthouse and is in his early 30s. He's quite the joker and as I've found of guesthouse owners with a world view, quite the cynic.
Some quotes of note from Kong: "85% of talking here is bullshit," "go fishing at the bus station for falang," and "falang are like ATM."
[Date: Sat Jan 5, 2008 5:16 am Subject: 1/4: Phonsavan
This was a long, hard journal entry to write... but with more important information than most entries...
Friday, January 4: Phonsavan, also known as Xieng Khuang (the name of the province)
Frost again this morning. Much too cold to take a much needed shower. I helped feed the fire to keep us early risers warm this morning until the sun rose enough to help out. This guesthouse doesn't have a full fledged restaurant but serve a limited breakfast. I opted for the banana pancake. I'll save the omelet for the morning I leave. Today's journal entry is more of a separate write-up so I've given it a title of a sort...
Bombies, a Secret War, and Really Big Stone Jars
I'm used to hiking where the biggest danger to me is falling off a mountain, twisting an ankle, or contracting giardia. Today, a misstep could have literally blown me to pieces.
I'm in the area to see the Plain of Jars. In this region, there are twenty sites with groups of hundreds of these mysterious jars. They are made of stone, top out at 2.5 x 2.57 meters and 6 tonnes (a tonne, or metric tonne, is 1000 kilograms or 2,205 pounds). Who made them, when, and why have been lost to history. There are many theories floating around but nothing has been proven. The jars were not carved on site from existing boulders. The boulders came from areas between two and ten kilometers away and then moved to their present positions. There is nothing dangerous about the jars.
They are huge with some easily large enough to sleep in or stand in depending on whether they are standing up or not. The smallest ones were probably .6m and still heavy. If there were any even smaller then that, they've been removed, most likely by looters, but there doesn't seem to be too much evidence of that. Smaller artifacts that were here when a French woman first investigated these jars in the 1930s are long gone. Wandering around the sights, looking at the size of these jars, just made them seem all the more bizarre. I keep wondering how and why they were put here. Just the act of hollowing out the boulders must have been a huge task not to mention moving them.
The Plain of Jars is on the high (1200m) plateau in the northeastern part of the country. The area very much reminds me of the US western plains states. The mountains have trees including some sort of long leaf pine tree and the lower rolling hills are covered with golden grass in this, the dry season.
These plains were heavily bombarded in the 1960s and 1970s by the CIA's "Secret War." Secret because the bombing violated the terms of the Geneva Convention that the US had signed in 1962. There were two areas of bombardment. In the north, the campaign was trying to end the control of the Pathet Lao (the Lao communist movement) and in the south, the US was trying to disrupt the use of the Ho Chi Minh trail. It's the result of this bombing that makes this area so dangerous.
From a poster in the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) Visitor Information Center in Phonsavan:
"The two million metric tonnes dropped on Laos is more than the combined total dropped on Japan and Germany during World War II. Over half a million bombing missions were carried out; 50% more than over North Vietnam.
It has been estimated that the US dropped one plane load of bombs on Laos every eight minutes for nine years. This was equivalent to about 20 tonnes per square kilometer in the areas that were bombed, or more than one tonne for every person in the country at the time."
Had every bomb exploded when it hit the ground, then the Lao would have been able to get on with their lives and rebuilding their economy long ago, but the use of cluster bombs, meant that there are tonnes of unexploded ordnance (or UXOs) still littering the landscape. Years of growth also means that these are not necessarily sitting on the surface where they are easy to see, but are often buried on layers of dirt, waiting for an errant shovel or plow to dig them up.
Children find them and think the yellow bombies (bomblets) look like fruit they are used to eating. Or don't understand the danger, after all, it seems most of the houses around here have many relics from the war in their own houses. With limited land on which to grow crops, the Lao also resort to collecting scrap metal. The metal detectors do not distinguish between live UXOs, shrapnel, and other material. So, they dig, trying to be careful, and sometimes aren't careful enough. Some who uncover UXOs also try to open them for the valuable gunpowder contained within and lose that bet. It's been over 40 years since the bombing campaign started and still, the people are rightfully scared to venture into their own fields.
I had read about UXOs (unexploded ordnance) in my guidebook but this is the first time I've actually been in the affected area. On our tour, we started with the third Plain of Jars sight. We paid our $.70 admission fee and started across rice fields. Areas and corridors cleared by MAG are clearly marked with concrete markers delineating the cleared and uncleared area. The corridor we walked on through the rice fields was all of 1 to 2 meters wide. The entire area with the jars had been cleared so we could walk around there with impunity.
From the third site, we walked a couple of kilometers to the second sight. All along the way, we could see bomb craters scattered across the fields. Some have been turned into fish ponds. Some just have growth because the crater walls are too steep to plow. At one point, we had to walk through a field that hadn't been cleared. There was a well used trail and we all were very careful to step only on areas that had already been well trodden. I was conscious of the fact that I weigh considerably more than the average Lao, but also that this was the trail used by most falang on the same tour I was taking. It's also likely used by cattle so I felt reasonably safe. We were soon back on a cleared corridor. This time it was a bit more interesting. There were small and very recent craters where I had to be careful not to step into them and break a leg. These were created by the bomb clearing team when they exploded bombies that had been found there. Out in the fields, they explode them on sight rather than try to move them. There were sandbags blown open by the blast still lying around.
Other smaller holes were created by metal hunters out with their metal detectors. If the detector sounds, they dig a small hole, just big enough to twist an ankle. If the trail had been a rough trail, it wouldn't have mattered but the trail was nice a smooth so we had to be careful not to get lulled into forgetting to watch where we were walking.
Our van met us at the second site where we saw trees that had grown inside of cracked jars, splitting them further apart.
We then drove to site 1 where we saw the only jar that had been carved with the form of a human. These jars also have lids though many of the original wood and sandstone lids are long gone, the lids made of the same harder stone are still scattered about. There are definite differences in the jars from place to place and even within the sites. The rims are carved differently, the lids may be different, and the inner rims also vary. This site also had a reminder about the cultural loss of the wat. There was a large jar on the edge of a bomb crater. It looked undamaged while other nearby jars had been broken. Countless jars were obliterated during the bombing.
This first site also has a cave where the Lao took refuge during the war. This one, while it had a very high roof, didn't have that much room so not many people stayed there. Another nearby cave was large enough to hold hundreds and survived many bomb attacks until one low flying plane made a run and got a bomb right into the cave. It exploded killing 374 people. It was three days before things cooled off enough for anyone else to enter the cave.
The night before my visit, I viewed a film called "Bombies" which gave me an excellent overview of the entire situation both then and now. From the Bullfrog Productions web site: "Between 1964 and 1973 the United States conducted a secret air war, dropping over 2 million tons of bombs and making tiny Laos the most heavily bombed country in history. Millions of these 'cluster bombs' did not explode when dropped, leaving the country massively contaminated with 'bombies' as dangerous now as when they fell 30 years ago. "
Driving to and from these sites, we had a few other stops including a family making Lao Lao, a Russian tank left over from the war, fields being burned for the next planting cycle, and a group of girls in traditional dress tossing a ball. This game is only played for a few weeks each year and is for the girls to flirt with the boys of their choice. They were really nice about it and when asked would usually consent, with a few giggles, to have their pictures taken. I had a bit of fun and silliness with them taking pictures and showing them the results on the back of my camera - especially with the girl who was wearing her boyfriend's motorcycle helmet while tossing their ball.
Back in town, it had warmed up enough to take a much needed shower though my water was at best luke cool. I brought my laundry in to be done, and got dinner at a local restaurant. When I walked to the back of the restaurant to get a menu, I realized the mostly girls running the place were watching a traditional dance video and were trying to learn from it. I couldn't resist and with their encouragement (it didn't take much) stepped right in. Soon a bunch of us were doing a rather simple dance... And a newcomer found it easier to watch my steps rather than try to figure out what was happening on TV. How did I come to teach Lao (or more likely Thai) traditional dance?
A long internet session followed where I was once again reminded that life continues at home even while I'm half a world away. My Mom is in the hospital, confused about the situation, but will hopefully be going back to her assisted living facility soon. Some friends lost a young relative. But, I've also received good news from friends while I've been traveling, too. I wish I could be there for my family and friends but also have to remember that even when I'm at home, I'm not always close enough to get to my friends and family to either help out in a hard situation or help celebrate a happy situation.
Saturday, January 5: Phonsavan
In bed until 9:30. Spent the day wandering the market where I was a great source of amusement and amazement to the locals. They stared, they pointed. I had some fun with some of the Lao women who would sidle up to me and look up to see exactly home much taller I was. Lunch, puzzles, and a nap back at the guesthouse. I guess I still haven't really kicked this bug. Tried to change money today but neither the bank nor the exchange place were open. Oops! Not to good at money management the last week or so. I had a long hard stint on-line. Another freebie dinner at the Kong Keo guesthouse. Sat around the fire staying warm until I was ready to crawl into bed at 10:00.
Sunday, January 6: Phonsavan to the middle of nowhere
An early morning to catch an early bus. I scarfed down a banana pancake at 7:00 and the guesthouse shuttled me on a tuk tuk at 7:15 to catch my 8:00am bus which left at 7:55. It really can pay to get to the bus early.
Once again, I found myself well off the beaten path today. I was the only westerner on the bus for what was supposed to be a ten hour ride, 180km ride on a dirt road. Well, the first 10 km were paved. Then the next 100 km were in pretty good condition for a dirt road. The scenery was beautiful and the mountains we were driving through were spectacular. We started paralleling a stream that grew into a river as we descended further and further. No complaints other than the dust - as was expected. Then the fun began. After lunch, the road conditions deteriorated badly. The road was no longer well graded. Streams were to be forded, not bridged. It was at one of these fords, a double ford, that the fun began.
I forget who said something to the effect that "adventure is what happens when plans go awry" but my plans were about to get thrown out the window. I had planned to get to Pakson and beyond today. But, there was a soft patch leading to the ford and as we tried to plow through it, there was a loud thunk that did not sound good. The bus came to a halt and we were soon all out of the bus to examine what was going on. The right front wheel looked fine, but the left wheel wasn't pointing in the same direction. Oops!
I anticipated the future and soon climbed back on the bus to shed the tights I was wearing under my pants. I also changed out of my socks and shoes and into my sandals. Being prepared, I think I surprised the Lao when I waded into the water to take some pictures and to see what was on the other side. Lo and behold, there was another ford immediately on the other side of this ford.
In the meantime, the bus mechanic got to work.
Over an hour later, everyone waded across and the bus followed us only to stop in a better place to undergo further repairs. Two hours later including jacking up the bus multiple times and having the bus fall off the jack at least once (everyone got clear in time), we were once again on the road. I had high hopes this time of at least limping into town sometime this evening but those hopes were dashed within a few kilometers when the bus stopped once again for more roadside repairs. Shortly after we parked, a slightly heated discussion ensued and a couple of guys walked off from the direction we had come from. By now, it was almost completely dark, and most of us stayed warm on the bus. I changed back into my tights and put my skirt on top of my tights and pants. I soon put all my layers on top including the scarf I had bought in Luang Prabang. I'm glad I had overpacked the lunch stuffs and I still had a baguette and cheese for dinner. I decided to save the last of my munchies for the potential breakfast I might have on the bus. It seems everyone else also overpacked and it wasn't long before the Lao also pulled out food for dinner, too.
My headlamp was also a source of amusing scrutiny on the bus, especially when I was using the red light to write my journal entry and work on puzzles.
For what it's worth, to the driver's credit, I never felt like he was driving in any manner other than carefully. He took the twists, turns and bumps as slowly as necessary and practical for the bus. It was a noisy ride with all the honking before every blind curve. There were a lot of blind curves.
Our bus was an old rattletrap with extra internal poles that looked like they were installed for rollover protection. Some of the window sort of closed, or sort of opened depending on your perspective - and the whether outside. one of the outside panels was peeling off the bus - it looked like it had been smashed in at some point. The dust raised from passing vehicles soon permeated everything on the bus just as it coated all of the vegetation outside turning the roadside jungle khaki instead of bright green.
Monday, January 7: the middle of nowhere to Pakson and Ban Khum Khan
At 11:00pm last night, after snoozing on and off for a few hours, they started the bus and we were soon rolling again. There was nothing to see in the pitch black save the occasional glimpse of Orion. The road remained bad, even in sections where heavy equipment was obviously working on the road. It took another almost 4 hours to get to Pakson. At 3:30 in the morning, they tried to drop me of at a guesthouse that, like all guesthouses was closed and locked tight for the night. I told them 'no' to just bring me to the bus station where I would sit and wait for 2.5 hours when the morning market would be opening. In a sense, once the trip got so late, I hoped it would take even longer, but as it was, it wasn't too bad, there was activity all night at the bus station.
A bowl of foe never tasted so good as it did for breakfast this morning. Then I had another wait until the bank opened at 8:30. There, I changed the remaining traveler’s checks I'm carrying. I'm going to have to hit a bank that'll give me cash form a Visa card soon, a tall order in this MasterCard country. I'll be taking out enough dollars, not kip, to get me through eastern Cambodia and to Phnom Penh. One in Phnom Penh, I'll be able to get dollars from the ATM machines.
I then caught a Sawng Theaw for the trip south to Vienh Khun and then another for the trip to Ban Khun Kham, for a total of ~140km in a sawng thaew. I had them drop me before hitting the market at the Mi Thma restaurant and guesthouse where I was supposed to get some good information about my trip tomorrow but English speaking help was hard to come by as were most of the options on the menu. Other guests filled me in on some options. I ate lunch, moved on and found a room at a guesthouse near the market, then back to Mi Thuna to rent a motorbike. They let me use a bicycle overnight as the motorbike wouldn't be available until morning.
[Date: Fri Jan 11, 2008 10:55 am Subject: 1/8-10: Ban Khun Kham to Pakse
If you're receiving this and wondering why, perhaps you're a caver who I thought might be interested in the section below on Tham Kong Lo, a cave in southern Laos. Since I'm not always aware of who's already on the list already, please pardon any duplicates.
Anyway, the cave experience wasn't the usual physical challenge on hands and knees squeezing through tight spaces, but it was still an interesting cave experience, highly recommended if you or anyone else you know gets to this part of the world. And you don't have to be a caver to enjoy it.
Thursday, January 8: Ban Khun Kham
I rode my borrowed bike back to Mi Thuna Guest house at 7:15 this morning. It took forever to order, eat breakfast, get a boxed lunch, and get the motorcycle. I finally got on the road at 8:30. Although mostly dirt, the road was in great condition and it was easy riding, at mostly better than 40kph. This road is being prepped for paving so with the exception of the dust raised by passing large trucks, it was a fun ride.
The environment I was riding through was mostly huge flat rice fields. In the background, rising straight up were mountains with huge vertical faces. I stopped to ask direction at a couple of places where it wasn't obvious which way to go but the locals are used to us falang asking directions and just point us in the right direction when they see someone looking confused. There was one ford that took a bit of courage to cross after my last couple of fiascoes but this one was easy and I shouldn't have worried.
I got to the end of the big road and found a smaller track. I double checked to make sure that was the way and sure enough, it was. Then just a km or so down, I found the boat landing in a very pleasant wooded area. I waited 1.5 hours to see if someone else would come by with whom to share a boat but no such luck. Boats are 100,000 kip ($10) whether you have one passenger or three. Nobody showed up so I bit the bullet and hired the boat myself. It came with two boatmen, each of whom had strong lights.
Tham Kong Lo
The whole point of this little adventure is to take a boat ride through a 7.5 km long cave. It's the dry season so the water is low. That means a lot of scraping bottom in the flat bottomed canoe and a lot of getting out and wading while we pushed, pulled and lifted the heavy canoe past the shallow areas. We took one side trip to a high and dry section to see a bunch of stalactites and stalagmites. The locals refer to these as thaat (or stupas) as they resemble those portions of the local temples. There were some flat bacon formations, too.
Each time we had to get out to get past a shallow area, we also bailed the boat. I think the boatmen were surprised to find me helping, but anything I could do meant more time in the boat and less time waiting. At first, they kept telling me where to go to get out of the way but when they were having problems and I stopped in and was an obvious help, they appreciated it. During the easy walks, I let them do all the work while I took pictures, but if they were having a hard time, I helped.
Most of the cave was a huge arching channel, worn out by water and yearly floods. There were plenty of irregularities and it was obvious the boatmen knew exactly where the sandbars, protruding rocks, and overhangs were. That said, it was huge and our headlamps only provided dim light except when we got close to the walls or rocks in the water.
Once through the cave, on the other side of the mountain, we stopped at a nice park. I ate lunch in a gazebo there and then we were soon going back through with some other boats. But we soon outpaced the others, especially when they had me stay in the canoe as we went through the first set of rapids. Of course, the boat swamped a bit but we just bailed and were soon on our way again. The long outboard motor was also a problem at times and had to be lifted off the boat at least once on the way out, but not on the way back. The return trip took only 30 minutes or so even though the trip out took over an hour.
I was still wet when I climbed back on my motorbike for the return trip to town.
Back on the main road, I took the time to visit the two viewpoints on either side of town. The one to the south and west was fantastic. The one to the north and east not so worth it.
I stopped at my guest house to drop stuff off before returning the motorbike to the Mi Thuna guest house. At the market, I met a woman who was in a bit of a pickle. She and her boyfriend had a rented motorbike but he was sick and couldn't ride. They were thinking of taking the bus to a hospital but didn't know what to do with the bike. When I found out where the bike had come from, I was able to give them another option. I was headed for the same place and was comfortable riding a motorbike. I could return it the next day for them.
Back at the Mi Thuna guest house, Clark was feeling much worse and they decided to take me up on my offer. We made plans for the next morning and then they went off to the clinic in town to try to get him some strong painkillers and to allow him to spend the night where he could be supervised.
Wednesday, January 9: Ban Khum Khan to Tha Khaek
After another bad night with two hours spent on the toilet, my health is once again affecting my ability to do and see what I want to see. So, I stayed in bed much longer than usual and got up in time to meet Erin when and if she brought the motorbike by. At 8:30, I was surprised to see Clark and Erin drive up on the bike. Clark looked so much better having been given a shot of very strong painkiller at the company clinic he had visited the night before. But he still wasn't up to the long drive so they grabbed breakfast, left me the motorbike, and grabbed jumbo to get to the main road where they could get a bus to Tha Khaek. I would follow later with their motorbike and we had plans to meet at the Tha Khaek Travel Lodge, a nice guesthouse in town.
I had hoped to walk to a waterfall but held off on my decision until after I made my way to Mi Thuna for a breakfast of toast. That went down well but my stomach was still sensitive so I decided against the 6km hike to see the waterfall.
I checked out, put most of my heavier stuff in the basket on the front of the motorbike, and carried my backpack on my back. I then hit the road for the140km trip to Tha Khaek. Erin and Clark felt like I was doing them a big favor and yet they were giving me an opportunity to have some more fun riding their bike.
The bike, somewhat laden with more than I usually have on a motorbike, handled a bit differently and was a bit harder to shift, but was still easy to drive. The pack on my back got old fast and I took a couple of breaks to give my shoulders a rest. I'm just glad I had such a small pack to begin with. Plus while this ride was 140km, it was an easy ride on good roads. Once I got to route 13, it was fast, too, with long straightaways with excellent visibility and little traffic. During those long stretches between towns, when there weren't people, cattle, or goats on the road, I was actually pretty comfortable going 80kph, the speed limit, on the little 100cc motorbike. The funny thing is, I feel like I go so much faster on this motorbike than I do on my bicycle even when I'm going the same speed I would go on my bike. 50kph feels so fast and yet routinely hit 35mph on my bike. I can ride at 20mph on my bike and yet 30kph feels fast, too. Weird.
Running low on gas, I thought I could make it to town but decided a liter of insurance would be worth it. I stopped at a Caltex gas station and took a look in the Star Mart convenience store. From the outside, it looks just like the ones n the US. But wandering around, it was the same stuff as in every other little Mom and Pop shop found throughout Laos.
In town, I missed a turn so did a loop around town. I found an internet cafe that wasn't listed in the guidebook, passed the bank listed as giving cash advances on Visa cards, and then found the Travel Lodge. It was another one of those charming lodges where I could spend a lot of time without ever needing to venture out to town. Unfortunately, my time in Laos is running out as my visa ends on the 13th.
As I was checking in, I met up with Clark and Erin again. We ended up having a late lunch together and then struck out when we got to the bank after it had closed. They went to run errands and return the bike while I went back to the lodge to take a much needed shower and get on-line.
By then it was dinner time, shortly after I joined a gentleman from Hamburg, Erin and Clark joined us. We hung out until 11:00 and then hit the sack. We're back in the land of very inexpensive lodging. I'm in a dorm room for $2.50.
Thursday, January 10: Tha Khaek to Pakse
I treated myself to a baguette and Nutella this morning. Nutella is not something readily available around here. Then I packed and walked to the bank to get a cash advance in dollars in anticipation of entering Cambodia soon. Cambodia does have its own currency, the riel, but the dollar is apparently readily accepted throughout the country - and sometimes (always?) preferred. I'll plan to use dollars, accept change in Riel and use that for small purchases. We'll just see how that works. I've already got three currencies in my wallet. With any luck, I'll leave Laos with no kip (can't exchange it once out of the country) so perhaps will only have to deal with three currencies again - The Thai Baht is also accepted in western Cambodia.
Back at the lodge, I got a sandwich to go, checked out, and caught a tuk tuk to the bus station. The bus stations throughout Laos have all been moved some kilometers out of town. I think it was a move designed to give the tuk tuk drivers more business. I caught the 10:30 A/C bus to Pakse. It was a nice comfortable bus for the seven hour trip. But I missed being able to open the window and take pictures. Then again, there wasn't much to take pictures of. The landscape has flattened out to mostly rice fields. The few hills visible in the distance are rounder and more gently sloped than in the north.
Here's a couple of random topics...
Personal Habits of Southeast Asians...
One of the worst parts about bus rides is the personal habits of many southeast Asians. Excessive coughing, clearing of the throat, and spitting is the order of the day. To top that off, the locals are notoriously prone to motion sickness. Plastic bags are routinely distributed on buses. Once used, they are usually just tossed out the window to litter the roadside. Or if no bags are handy, the riders often just toss their cookies out the window. It's pretty gross if you're sitting behind someone. It's even worse if you're on the road when a bus passes by with a sick passenger.
The spitting and clearing of throats happens not only on buses but anywhere and offenders make no effort to spit away from anyone else.
Litter is also just tossed out bus windows or in the case of a man sitting in front of me eating a grilled chicken on a stick, when he had a piece of bone in his mouth, he would just spit in on the floor of the bus. These are the same habits I observed in China ten years ago.
Cats and Dogs
I've gotten used to restaurant cats. Most places I've been to sit down for a meal have cats hanging around. Some are pets, some are strays that are usually not only tolerated, but welcomed. They are all very sweet and enjoy whatever attention you're willing to give them.
Some places have dogs who not only enjoy your attention, but your leftovers. Once again, some are pets, some tolerated strays. By the end of many guesthouse stays, many guests wish they could take their favorites home with them.
These animals provide a welcome "fix" for those pet owners who have had to leave their pets behind. Unfortunately, some also provide a fix of fleas, too, but the guests with pets left behind just don't seem to mind. There are some that are definitely well taken care of, complete with flea protection, grooming, and appropriate diet.
But not all dogs I've seen are well taken care of. There are plenty of street dogs hanging around but even so, they usually look like they are eating well.
On my ride from Ban Khum Khan to Tha Khaek however, I was passed by three trucks with huge loads stacked on their flatbeds. As best I could tell, they were crate upon crate of stinking, howling dogs. These crates were not the type we in the US would use to transport our pets, they were small, flat, wire-mesh crates with no solid flooring between layers. As best I could tell, the dogs couldn't stand up or move around in these crates. They were stacked maybe 3m high on the backs of these trucks. I have no idea where and for what use these dogs were being transported but PETA would take great offense, as I did, at the treatment these animals were subjected to on what was obviously a long ride.
Date: Mon Jan 21, 2008 2:18 am Subject: 1/11-13 : Pakse, Lao PDR to Stung Treng, Cambodia
It's been a while since I've been able to transcribe my journal. I've been busy or had slow or expensive connections for the last week or so. So, I'll start to try to catch up a bit.
As I've alluded to in my entries below, my Mom's been in the hospital. Just so you're not left hanging, she's doing better and will soon be going home.
As for me, I've managed to catch another cold, so I'll probably have plenty of time to catch up on transcribing now that I'm in Phnom Penh with cheap access and no motivation to spend time sightseeing in the heat.
I'll start with this... More after a nap, or after dinner, or maybe tomorrow? We'll see...
Friday, January 11: Pakse
Ercan and I decided to rent a motorbike and drive down to Wat Phu Champusak. I had to try to drive the bike with him on board as he wasn't into driving. But, it was OK so we went. Ercan is an interesting guy from Turkey. He worked with the Turkish foreign ministry and ended up living in a variety of places around the world including Houston.
The ride was interesting. it turns out that when you share a motorbike, you're close enough to actually be able to talk with each other. We joked that we were wearing helmets to protect ourselves when we bumped heads.
Once we figured out where to go, the ride was uneventful with the exception of the ferry ride across the Mekong. It's the dry season so the river is low. That means just getting down to the river means riding down the sandy embankment. But, the sand was well enough packed given the amount of other traffic also using the ferry. Still it was sketchy enough that I had Ercan walk down while I wrestled the bike down the embankment. Getting onto the ferry which was just two flat bottomed large canoe-like fishing vessels with a platform lashed on top involved riding across a plank. I let the ferry driver do it. Had I missed, the bike would have ended up in the river. Two motorbikes fit on the ferry.
On the other side, we carefully maneuvered over the pothole riddled road for the last 9km to the temple. Wat Phu Champosak is a Khmer style wat that pre-dates Angkor Wat. The buildings have warning signs indicating not to enter due to dangerous conditions. They don't need signs. The rocks forming the walls are falling down and many are precariously placed so I wouldn't want to venture near enough to enter these buildings.
It was really hot and Ercan, not a hiker, decided to stay on the lowest level while I climbed to the upper levels. There were more ruins and a somewhat more complete smaller temple on the upper level that I could enter. It’s still being used as an active shrine. The top level was shady and had a breeze making it a nice cool place to hang out. It would have been a good place for a picnic but I didn't bring food and Ercan was waiting for me below so I toured around and then made my way, very carefully, down the incredible set of stone staircases leading down. Having built stone steps as part of some trail maintenance weekends, I can't imagine how much work went into building these massive stones steps. The frangipani trees have beautiful flowers but no leaves. Too bad. We could have used the shade while on those steps.
We stopped at a guesthouse in town for a late lunch overlooking the Mekong River. Our ferry ride back was interesting. We kept being told to wait in different places. Finally, we got a ride on the big car/truck ferry. This one had a similar board ramp but at least it was over the sand and was a bit wider so I managed to load the motorbike myself. I won't say it was elegant but that's not what matters. And this ferry, while much larger, was very much built like the motorbike ferry. Three larger fishing vessels lashed together with a larger platform on top. We load from the side.
Our ride back to town was uneventful. Then we spent time riding around time on the motorbike, crossing a tributary river on the one way bridge (lights control thee direction as it switches back and forth), and then the big bridge over the Mekong. Dinner of grilled salted fish stuffed with lemongrass was tasty but incomplete so we stopped at the Indian place for a pancake (me) and Beer Lao (Ercan). Oh yeah, Beer Lao is the most common brand, and often only brand of beer available in Lao. But, it's made by Carlsberg.
Saturday, January 12: Pakse
$18 dollars for a one day tour to the Bolavan Plateau east of Pakse. We took in a tea farm and learned about picking, drying over the fire, and then sampled the tea. It doesn't taste any better having learned about the process. Oh well. The big, 120m high waterfall was disappointing because we couldn't get very close but the view was still nice.
I learned about coffee at another plantation, Mic, Arabica, Robusta, and more. It was surprising to me how different the trees were for these different types of coffees. Some types of trees were short, some towered overhead. Some leaves were palm sized, some bigger than my head. I declined the coffee sample.
We got to see the Tad Giang waterfall from below and above. Quite impressive. With more time, it would have been fun to swim though a bit cool. We got to meet our guides wife and one month old daughter Tuktik. Her family has a coffee plantation.
Lunch at the coffee plantation was boring but that was OK, it just needed to be food. Mostly it was fun to have the rooster, pig, and cat crawling around our feet while we ate.
We stopped at Alak and Kato villages. I may be getting "villaged out" but these were interesting. They keep coffins at the ready under their houses or outbuildings. Some carved out of wood, others made of concrete. There were also bongs all over the place. They are used to smoke tobacco and everyone from small children to adults partake. It was very weird seeing a small child smoking a bong. These people also don't speak Lao but smiles and laughter go far.
Our last stop was the Tadlo waterfall, another beautiful falls with good wading if we had more time. But we didn't so we climbed back into the Sawng Theaw for the ride back to town. Up on the plateau, it was surprisingly cool and I wish I had brought my jacket. Back in town though, it was comfortable. The two women I had been hanging out with and I went for dinner and ended up joining Ercan and John. It was a nice evening.
With my Mom in the hospital, I bought some Skype minutes to give my sister a call. It's a nice service. It'll be good to stay in touch with home. But, I'm also now going to stick with places that have internet access for the time being.
Sunday, January 13: Pakse, Lao PDR to Stung Treng, Cambodia.
After a vaguely reassuring phone call from my sister, I bought a ticket to go to Cambodia today. My Lao visa expired today and it was either Cambodia to continue my travels or Thailand to make my way back to the US. I did however make sure my day's destination was a town with internet access.
I boarded a bus filled with those going to the 4,000 Islands, an R&R spot in Lao near the Cambodian border. Once all the partiers were dropped off, I was shunted onto another van headed for Cambodia. They were going to have to make a side trip to drop me off at the border town where I would find another bus. Instead I was able to buy my way into Stung Treng on the minivan. But we didn't get far before those of use heading into Cambodia were shifted once again, this time into a Toyota Camry with right hand drive. It was the first car I had been in since Bangkok and to see right hand drive in a country where you drive on the right was strange. The road to the border is being expanded but thing had to get worse before better and it was a few kilometers of rough dirt road.
The border crossing itself was uneventful. One little shack to leave Laos. Drive 100m. then a bigger building to apply for and receive our Cambodian Visas and another little shack to get our new visas stamped at immigration.
On the Cambodian side, the road was in great shape and even had a yellow line down the middle and white lines for the breakdown lanes, something I hadn't seen since Vientiane, maybe?
The Riverside lodge was bustling when I got there but they had a $3 room for me. I waiting until all those catching buses caught their buses and then things calmed down considerably. I ate lunch, checked out the internet cafe but it seems internet was down all over town. and eventually went for a walk with Hannah. We found this church youth center and wandered in. I heard music and immediately realized there was a dance lesson. We went up into this building and sure enough, they were dancing but it was in preparation for a performance. We talked with a western woman visiting her parents who live there. Then continued our walk.
We avoided dinner at our guesthouse as a wedding next door was just too noisy. Dinner with Andrew, Christophe, and Hannah was interesting. With no internet access, I made a phone call home. Things are sounding a bit better for my Mom.
[Date: Tue Jan 22, 2008 9:41 am Subject: 1/14-17 : Stung Treng to Kratie
OK, here's a few more days’ worth of journal entries...
My cold, following its usual course, is getting worse but I want to get out of Phnom Penh. I'm going to try to make it to Kampok tomorrow. We'll see if I can muster the energy in the morning to find a bus.
I'll be returning to Phnom Penh in a week to meet Tom and we'll do some sightseeing here together so no need to hang out here now.
'nuff for now...
Monday, January 14: Stung Treng to Ban Lung
I was up early, checked out, and walked to Richies for breakfast and to catch the bus that was $.50 less than at my hotel which ended up being the same bus that picked up at my hotel. Our minivan was loaded with a huge bag of sugar, rice, and other goodies. It took up not only cargo space, but floor space where we would normally put our feet. There were three of us westerners and four locals in addition to the driver, his wife, and their toddler. The drive out was along a very dusty dirt road in mostly good condition. I felt very sorry for all the people on motorcycles who continually got dusted every time cars, buses, and trucks passed them by.
Christophe (from France), Alice (from Australia), and I hit it off on the bus, and ended up sticking together in town. We declined the first guesthouse that the driver tried to get us to stay at - it was a bit too far out of town. Then we all checked into the Ratanak with its good sized rooms, soaring ceilings, and TVs, known as a hangout for backpackers. We ate lunch, arranged for a tour for the next day with another couple, Paul (Scottish), and his girlfriend Alec (Cambodian). Alice spent a quiet afternoon while Christophe and I rented a motorbike and drove out to the volcanic or crater lake. Nearly perfectly round with dimensions similar to Walden Pond, it was beautiful. Even though I didn't wear swimwear, I was soon in the water. The locals all wear their regular clothes in so I was still underdressed by their standards... I had left my goggles at the hotel or I would have had a nice long swim. Tomorrow.
Back at the hotel, Christophe, Alice and I walked around the market, grabbed a quick internet session at a pricey place ($3/hour), ate dinner at the Ratanak, and then watched Alec play two good rounds of snooker with the hotel staff. I spent some time at the further internet place that was cheaper. ($2/hour)
Tuesday, January 15: Ban Lung
Today was the day of our tour. For $30, we had hired a Toyota Camry and driver for the day. The five of us piled in and we were on our way. I was glad we had arranged the car instead of motorcycles as the dust even in town was horrible. Our first stop was the elephant village. Our elephants were waiting for us when we got there. With five of us, the others were paired off and I ended up on an elephant of my own. Our ride was 1.5 hours along dusty roads, hillsides, and through a rubber plantation. It was really interesting to see how they cut the trees and harvest the rubber, sort of similar to harvesting maple sugar sap. But here, the rubber sap runs year round.
Our destination on the elephants was a waterfall. As our car was meeting us there, we dismounted there and the elephants and their trainers were on their own to get back to their village. We started at the top of the waterfall and then went down to the bottom, being very careful at the bottom of the slippery stairs. It was a beautiful falls but not the best I had seen. However, this one had a cavern behind it and we could walk behind the falls. Very cool!
We then visited our second falls of the day. This one was beautiful both on top and from below. It was the tallest of the bunch. but we didn't get wet here.
Our third and last falls had a beautiful wading pool. It was a bit too cold for me to swim so I just waded in up to my waist. It was nice to cool off.
We went back to town for lunch and ate at the Gecko, a wonderful restaurant with extensive menu that was much better than the hotel. Then it was off to the same lake I had visited yesterday. Today I was prepared though with appropriate clothing for swimming and goggles. After a 45 minute walk around the lake, including a stop at the little environmental and cultural center, I dove in and started swimming across the lake. There is no shallow entry into this lake so there are a couple of places with wooden steps leading all the way into the water that make entry, and especially exit, easy.
It took me 45 minutes to swim across and back. For me when I haven't been swimming regularly, that's usually a one mile swim. Not bad for my first swim since September, I think. For what it's worth, I think this may be the best swimming hole I've ever swam in. If not number one, certainly in the top three. I just can't think of a better one at the moment. The water is clear and deep. There were a few small fish near the shore but no fish or vegetation one more than a couple of meters from the water's edge. Sweet!
Back at the hotel, I took a shower which flooded my bathroom. Like with all showers, there's no separate shower or bath stall, the shower just lands on the floor and it drains down the drain. But mine didn't drain well so left a couple of centimeters of water on the floor. Argh!
Alice and I walked to the Gecko for dinner. It's a haul from the hotel but worth it. We were joined there by Paul and Alec. Afterwards, I stopped at the less expensive internet cafe for a while. Christophe came in while I was there. I was invited to a boxing match in town but declined.
These internet sessions are the best way I've been able to find to keep in touch with home as is very important with my Mom's condition. I got some encouraging news today but will keep staying in close touch with home for the foreseeable future.
Wednesday, January 16: Ban Lung
I was up early so had breakfast with Christophe before seeing him off on the bus to Laos. I decided to stay in town an extra day to do absolutely nothing of note. I watched bad movies while working on puzzles in the morning, met Alice for lunch and then we arranged for a car with one other guy to go back to the lake for the afternoon. This time, I walked around the lake on my own. As it was earlier in the afternoon, there wasn't anyone else out on the trail and I saw or heard a lot more wildlife today. I saw a skink scurry out of my way, saw a lot of rustling that was probably other lizards, and saw a long (<1 meter) brown snake cross the path a few meters in front of me. It was headed downhill towards the water but I'm not at all sure what type of snake it was (water snake or other?).
I stopped at the "other" platform today, went for a swim but didn't stay long. There was a large group of Koreans there, singing Christian songs, and having some sort of service. I went back to the main steps into the water and hung out on the deck there. Occasionally going back into the water to cool off. I rented a tube with Alice and was on and off that for a while, too. We met Riana and Rolf there, a couple we had seen at the hotel. Jody and Gavin were there, too. I had first seen them in Luang Prabang. As we left, we made plans for everyone to meet at the Gecko at 6:30.
Back at the hotel, I grabbed a shower in Riana and Rolf''s room - theirs was hot and didn't flood. Jody had inspired me earlier to go out and buy some sponge type cakes I had seen earlier, I grabbed enough for all of our desserts at the restaurant which not surprisingly didn't have dessert on the menu. Getting out of the hotel was interesting. I knocked on Alice's door and together we knocked on Riana and Rolf's door. As we were about to leave, Rolf realized he had left his key in his room. Then Alice realized she had also left her key in her room. Oops! This was after through no fault of their own, the key to the motorbike that Rolf and Riana were driving. it fell out on its own. But the bike will start with any long flat object so no major loss.
We met Jody and Gavin at the restaurant, had a nice dinner, and then some fun when I pulled out the very welcome desserts which we shared all around.
Thursday, January 17: Ban Lung to Kratie (krah-chay)
My bus left at 6:15 this morning. I managed to buy a baguette and roll to tide me over along with a bottle of water. I also had one of the long forgotten Luna bars that I had been carrying from the US and just "rediscovered" in my pack. Alice, Rolf, and Riana were all on the same bus but with tickets paid through to Phnom Penh. Turns out, Cambodia is the only place I've been where the bus seat assignments matter. They asked me to move to my assigned seat but when they realized they would lose a seat by doing so, they had the guy in the seat with the extra room switch with me. I don't like to seem like I'm pulling the "privileged westerner" card but this time, it really did mean they could get one more person on the bus. This was a medium sized bus with two seats on either side and each row had a jump seat in the middle. By the time we got to Stung Treng, every seat was full and there were people standing at the front.
Alice had also decided by that time to get off in Kratie. She had been sick the entire ride from Ban Lung to Stung Treng and we were very worried about her. She really wasn't in any condition to travel. Thankfully, from Stung Treng to Kratie, the road was paved and in good condition. We quickly checked into a hotel that had been open only 3 weeks. They had nice rooms for only $5. Alice went right to sleep and I took a walk, ordered a brownie for later that day, and went back to my hotel for lunch of French bread pizza. The cheese was excellent but the sauce left a bit to be desired. Tomato sauce here seems to always have a bit of Asian flavor to it.
After lunch, I spent two hours on the internet. The computers were available right in the hotel, on the wall opposite the tables where I had eaten lunch. The strange thing was when I sat down and started to type in the URL for my own web site, it was already in the history. Someone sitting at that computer three hours earlier had been looking at my web site. I wish I could figure out who it was. Probably someone from my travels.
Anyway, a friend of mine, Tom, from my spring 2007 trip on the Appalachian Trail in the US, is planning on joining me for a month or so. It was necessary to spend some time emailing him some logistical information.
Given the planning I needed to start doing in preparation for Tom's arrival, I spent the afternoon perusing the guide book for Cambodia and picking the brains of the people there, most of who had already toured through much of the rest of the country.
Then I walked around the market, watched the sunset, and went to dinner at the appropriately named Red Sun Falling restaurant where I had a wonderful Khmer beef and peanut salad dish called Plear. According to others, it's not on menus in most of Cambodia so I was glad to have it here. Especially since it's probably my favorite ethnic food discovery so far during my travels though I may have had something like it in the US. It's also the kind of dish that I might not order in many restaurants but would at Red Sun Falling, owned by an American, Joe from Chicago, who understands a bit more about food safety than locals.
I hung out at the restaurant talking with Joe and Andy, another expat. At 9:00, I went to check on Alice who wasn't doing so well... I remembered my emergency stash of Gatorade and gave it to her so she could start getting some calories into her as she hadn't eaten all day.
One last internet session rounded out the evening.
My hotel room may be new but still has its problems. The fan screeches as it oscillates and the button to stop the oscillation doesn't work. As is typical of plumbing in this region of Asia, the sink drain leaks onto the floor. And as has happened to me once before, the bathrooms may look good, but leave them for a couple of hours and they start smelling horribly. Also, as is apparently typical in Cambodia, I'll have to get used to weird polyester sateen type sheets instead of cotton.
[Date: Fri Jan 25, 2008 1:58 am Subject: 1/18-24: Kratie to Kampot
I make it to Kampot a couple of days ago. It's a somewhat depressed looking town in southern Cambodia. I expect to take it easy for another day or two, then maybe play tourist again before heading back to Phnom Penh.
Sorry about all the typos that keep creeping into my journal entries. I try to use Firefox when I can which automatically spell checks as I type but when I'm stuck with IE, I rarely take time or remember to spell check or my typos end up being words themselves so don't show up.
My last email contained one confusing typo... The long snake I mentioned was GREATER than one meter long. It should have read >1 meter. Sigh.
OK, well, at least this cold gave me a chance to catch up on my transcribing.
Friday, January 18: Kratie
This morning, I got worried when Alice hadn't come down to breakfast by 8:00 or so. So, I went up and knocked on her door. No answer so I assumed she was in the bathroom. 15 minutes later when I knocked on her door again, still no answer. Given how wan she had been the night before, I started getting more worried. I went down and had one of the hotel staff bring a key upstairs so we could check on her.
On one hand, I've known Alice for only a few days. While we've been on the same schedule, we're not travel partners or close friends. On the other hand, she is traveling on her own, as I am, and I know how bad it can be to be sick when you're traveling and not have anyone else around who either cares, or knows to care. So, who am I to barge in on her? Well, I put myself in her shoes as best I could and decided I would rather have the intrusion if I was well than not have the intrusion if I were passed out and needed the help.
So, we knocked on her door one more time before the hotel staffer would have used her key to open the door and lo and behold, Alice answered. Sure enough, she had been taking what was apparently a long shower and hadn't heard the knocking. She looked so much better than the night before and said she was also feeling a lot better. So, our plans for the day were still on.
An hour later, Alice and I were renting a motorbike. Now, Alice isn't quite as tall as me but she's still tall. I alone make the little 100cc motorbikes look tiny. The two of us together must have made it look ridiculous. But, it was the easiest way to get where we wanted to go so off we went, driving 15km north of town to a boat landing. We bought our tickets, and then waited to see if anyone else would come to help keep our costs low. We sat overlooking the Mekong River for a while and from the shore, managed a couple of sightings of the object of our current outing.
The endangered Irrawaddy dolphin lives in this stretch of the river. This area of the Mekong is rich with a variety of fish which helps this small group thrive here. They are regularly seen by almost all who venture out to go look. While some areas of the river are protected, fishing does threaten the local population which do not necessarily stay within the boundaries of the protected area.
We saw one dolphin from shore but it was quite far out in the river. We were soon joined by a group of four others also looking for the dolphin. We hopped on board our boat and were soon making our way slowly across the river, keeping a lookout for the one dolphin we had seen from shore. When it didn't show, we continued completely across the river and soon found a group of other dolphins. It was clear that we would be better off watching form the shore than from our boat so we hopped out and were soon watching a group of 5-9 (as best I could figure) dolphins.
There was a male/female pair, a pair of babies or youngsters, and other random sightings. At one point, we watched a small fish continually jumping high out of the water as it made beeline for shore, obviously being pursued by a dolphin. It didn't make it and we soon saw its pursuer heading back into the deeper waters of the river.
Our hour wasn't enough time so we each pitched in another $1 and our boat captain agreed to stay another half an hour. By then, we were joined by local village kids. One of our group sat down and started making sketches of them to leave with the kids. Others started playing soccer with them. I used the opportunity to take more pictures.
We eventually reboarded our boat and went back across the river. Alice and I road up to the bridge near the rapids but decided against going down.
We then went to Phnom Sambok, a hill on the way back to Kratie with an active wat. There are some horrific murals there. At first, we couldn't find the road up and Alice wasn't up for the stairs climb but when I went up and saw the top of the road, I went back down, got Alice, and managed to ride up the road. Even in first gear, the bike needed help and I was half riding/half pushing the bike up the hill with my feet. It was steep.
I walked up the steps to the other parts of the hill and got some good views of the river. Driving down, the rear brake wasn't enough so I stopped the bike, applied the front brake and then rode down very slowly, using the rear brake as control. This was probably not particularly good for the bike, but it's what worked under the circumstances. The drive had teak leaves on it so we had to be careful not to skid out. And there was a sharp turn near the bottom so just going fast wasn't an option, either.
We went back to town. Alice to nap. I had lunch, walked around the market, took a sunset ride on my own around town. I met up with Alice and we went to Red Sun Falling, the aptly named restaurant I had been to the day before. Today, we had both put in our brownie order so enjoyed dinner. Once again, I had Plear, a beef and peanut salad dish served with rice that is apparently not on most menus in the country. It's also they type of dish I wouldn't order in most restaurants but this one, run by an American ex-pat, has better food handling practices so I was willing to take my chances. Charlie, an Aussie ex-pat, and Carlotte, a VSO, joined us for a while. It's always interesting getting the perspective of expats living overseas. I now have an intro to Simon, and Kampong Cham.
Oh yeah, when showering today, the water stopped suddenly. Of course, I was fully soaped up with shampoo and soap at the time. At first I couldn't open the door because my hands were so soapy. I used the corner of my packtowl to open the door, grabbed my terry cloth blanket to wrap up in, and wandered downstairs to complain. They turned my water back on and I completed my shower. When I went back down, I handed them my blanket to be washed and dried. Of course, that night when I went to bed, they didn't have any extra blankets. But it was hot, and I had my silk sleeping bag liner, so I didn't really care.
Saturday, January 19: Kratie to Kampong Cham
It was an easy bus ride on a mostly empty bus on lots of dirt road which surprised me after the fully paved sections further north. It took less then three hours to get to Kampong Cham. In town, I ignored the moto taxi tout that followed me from the bus station. I was walking and he was riding along next to me. Weird. I ended up in a crappy hotel with a fantastic view of the Mekong. This time, I'm on the other side of the river so no sunset view, but I'll have a good view of the sunrise over the new bridge.
I ate lunch at Joe's Mekong Crossing, got some good information. Checked my email, and then back to the restaurant where Joe set me up with a friend's daughter who had a motorbike to rent out. It turns out she spoke excellent French but only about as much English as I spoke French. I pulled what little French I could out of my brain and together we managed to communicate. I was supposed to rent the bike but she ended up joining me for part of my intended route. She showed me around the wat that incorporated the ruins of an old Khmer style wat into a new wat. Then we went to Man Hill to see the monkeys and the wat. Then she went on her way and I went on to Woman hill on my own.
Then I stopped at the airstrip. It's the biggest airstrip in town, built to accommodate the American B-52 bombers. It's long disused as an airstrip but is now used as a street of a sort. I visited the pillbox bunker that overlooked the airstrip. It was weird, there was a guy hanging out there in a sarong. I think he was just there to admire the sunset, too. But, I didn't want to stay long as they area didn't have the best reputation after sunset.
Sunday, January 20: Kampong Cham to Phnom Penh
I got up early to catch sunrise over the Mekong.
I had plans for the morning and I wasn't going to let an ominous little cough stop me. So, I ignored it knowing that I couldn't do anything about it anyway. I had a cold coming on. Sigh.
After breakfast of Muesli, fruit, and yogurt, The first element on my itinerary for the day was a walk over the bridge. I didn't have to go all the way across, but I did go halfway. From there, I could look down on the fishing vessels below and see how they fish. It was really interesting to watch. I even took some video clips of it.
Two boats, each with five or six people spread a net out in a circle. It's held up to the surface by floats. After the boats complete the circle, they start pulling the net in. They shake the next to force all the fish to stay in the net and step on the portion of the net they pull into the boat. The boats eventually pulled together with a short piece of net between them., They could then scoop up hundreds of small fish with a net and dump them into a waiting boat for sorting and I'm assuming transport to market. All this time, the whole ensemble is drifting downstream. They have to be careful not to drift into the bridge.
I also took the time to get some pictures of transport options in Cambodia. I got pictures of horse carts, overloaded minivans with people riding on top, motorcycles loaded up so much they were as wide as cars, and more.
I then headed for the other bridge in town. This one going to an island, is not a permanent structure. Each year, during the dry season, it is rebuilt from scratch using mostly bamboo. It is narrow. Just wide enough for one car. I walked across and back, paying a $.75 toll. The woven bamboo surface of the bridge felt "soft". It sunk down each time I stepped on it. It seemed impossible for this bridge to not only support the usual pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcycles, but also horse carts, Toyota Camrys, and Landcruisers. That said, more supports were being added to the bridge as I walked over. During the rainy season, a ferry is used to get to and from the island.
Afterwards, I checked my email, checked out of my hotel, and had lunch at Simon's place which is for sale. He's moving to Australia.
I made my way to the bus station only to find out I had just missed one bus and the next was full. So, I got a ticket for the one leaving in two hours and settled in with my puzzles. The bus eventually left and even though it was a short trip we had a long break along the way. There, I saw the usual kids selling the usual drinks, pineapple and other fruits, and one other thing. There were women walking around with platters piled high with something black. I had heard about it but had to get up close to confirm what I was seeing. They were large spiders for sale to eat. (Fried Spider) Then I noticed one girl wearing a live tarantula like a broach as she was selling fried spiders. Someone was even selling bags of live spiders - possibly for pets, or to take home and cook yourselves. I'll eat crab and lobster, but I won't eat spider. Right now, it's just too weird.
After our break, the last 75km to Phnom Penh went slowly as the road got more and more congested. Having not been in a large city since leaving Bangkok, I went through culture shock when I got here. it's not so large, but it seems it after spending so much time in rural communities and smaller towns. Once again, I had a hard time with the touts when getting off the bus so just walked. I got a tip from someone on the street and so checked into the International Guesthouse. The biggest problem with this place as that the second floor was as high as the fourth floor in most other buildings. I wasn't in the mood to climb much. I relaxed a bit, watching TV, and then went for sinner at the Kiwi restaurant. There, I ran into Jody and Gavin. I ended up having dinner with them and then made plans to meet the next day for dinner again.
Monday, January 21: Phnom Penh
Stayed in bed until late. Back to Kiwi for brunch. Long internet session. Long nap was badly needed. Dinner with Jody and Gavin where I got to try Gavin's frogs. Delicious, like really moist white meat chicken. Caught a documentary about Pol Pot and then bed.
Tuesday, January 22: Phnom Penh
Stayed in bed until after noon. Walked through the market. Found the Lucky market which is a big mall with good supermarket and upstairs food hall, similar to those in Bangkok. Walked around looking for a guesthouse for when Tom gets here. Figured he might appreciate a hot shower for his first few days in Asia. Saw the independence monument. saw some craft shops. Internet session. Dinner at a place that benefits children. I had seen part of a dance performance there the night before. More internet. Bed.
Wednesday, January 23: Phnom Penh to Kampot
I managed to get up and out at a reasonable hour this morning and made my way to the central market. Not finding anything that looked like breakfast, I went to the bus station and bought a ticket to go to Kampot. Then I made my way to Lucky Market, a mall type store with a supermarket on the first floor and a food court on the fourth floor, very much like the malls I had visited in Bangkok. I bought some breadstuffs and yogurt and went up to the food court to sit, eat, and hang out in the air conditioned building for a while.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped into USA Donut, a shop that made me think I was back in the US. Not only did they have US style donuts, but a whole store filled with American goods. I just wanted an ice cream but I could have bought American cereals, Chips Ahoy cookies (Oreos are available everywhere), Snickers, Mountain Dew, and more.
I checked out of my hotel room at noon, went back to the Lucky store to buy lunch for the bus ride, and hit an ATM machine. For the first time since being in Asia, the machine exacted a fee. Then again, for the first time in Asia, the machine dispenses American Dollars. Yup! That's right, the ATMs in Cambodia dispense dollars, the currency of choice in this country. Basically, like in Laos, there are no coins here. For purchases, dollars are preferred but change smaller than one or five dollars is given in Riel, the Cambodian currency. So, for small purchase, I make an effort to use up my riel, and for large purchase or to pay hotel rooms, etc., I use dollars. In any case, the fee wasn't so bad and I just used my bank account that reimburses fees, anyway.
The bus ride was uneventful, through incredibly flat landscape with the occasional mountain rising up in the distance. We drove through Kep, a town I may stop in on the way back to Phnom Penh next week.
In Kampot, the first two guesthouses I went to were both closed so I ignored the rest indicated in my out-of-date guidebook and look at some others, hoping to find one before the sprinkles that threatened turned to rain. I finally found the Moul Mith Guesthouse and checked into a twin room with bath and fan for $5/night.
Thankfully, the sprinkles stopped and I could walk to a nearby restaurant for a Sri Lankan dinner along the river that I couldn't see because it was too dark. I ate with an ex-pat living in Sihanoukville but visiting Kampot for a night. My plans for an internet session were cut short when the power went out around town.
Thursday, January 24: Kampot
I woke up early in the morning to the sound of heavy rain, the first real rain I've heard since Malaysia.
Still fighting this cold so just taking it easy. Got out of bed for lunch, an internet session, and then a walk along the riverfront. I'm now in a town along the Tonle Sap river. it's quite a bit smaller than the Mekong.
Friday, January 25: Kampot
Another longer heavy rain this morning, but still in the wee hours of the morning. Today, the rain actually left puddles and wet sand around the streets in town. I stayed in again this morning and got out in time for lunch at Coco. Then my daily internet session followed by a nap and TV.
Dinner at Coco again. Many of these places have remarkably similar menus so if you want a standard selection, you can go anywhere. Coco is a nice place to hang out, and the prices are right so I keep going back. Tonight, I was eventually joined by five others. We hung out until 10:00 when it seemed apparent that they might be trying to close up shop. It was my latest night in quite a while. The beverage of choice amongst the others at the table was beer which reminded me to include the following...
Beer. I don't drink it but much gets consumed here. In Lao, it was all Beer Lao, a brand produced by Carlsberg. Here in Cambodia, the "national" brand is Angkor Beer. Which presents a unique problem. Another common beer sold here is Anchor Beer. So when ordering beer, how do you distinguish between Angkor and Anchor? Simple. Pronounce Anchor with the "ch" sounding like cha cha. Whatever works...
Saturday, January 26 to Tuesday, January 29: Kampot to Phnom Penh
For the last few days, I still haven't done much of note. I stayed in Kampot until yesterday, January 29. I took a couple of walks around town, exploring weird traffic circle statues. There's one large 2000 with what looks like an oversized dove on it. Another of a couple representing salt works. I knew Kampot was known for its pepper but not for its salt. It took a day or two to find out about the salt works near town.
During my second larger walk, I was joined by Alain who I had first met in Kratie. He's going around the world. Who knows? There's a chance I may see him later this year when and if he comes through the Boston area at the end of a cross Canada bicycle trip. We walked over the bridges in town, explored the market, seeing garfish and large mollusks for sale amongst the usual collection of animals and animal parts.
The weather has been interesting. In the evening and at night, we've had some heavy rains. It's the first rain I've had since Malaysia, I think. At one point, a frog meandered into the restaurant. When the rains subsided, Alain tried to catch it a couple of times but was new to catching frogs and the frog escaped. Having caught a few in my life, I tried and managed to catch and relocate it across the street, closer to trees and the Tonle Sap river.
I had hoped to visit the Bokor Hill Station but the road closed the day before I got to Kampot. It'll be closed for two years. It is possible to hike up to the top of the hill and normally, I would have but this cold was sapping all my energy even though I was mostly feeling better. Just a bit of congestion left.
I had also intended to go to Kep, a picturesque oceanside town, but when I heard there wasn't much to do there and the town was spread out a lot, I decided to stay in Kampot. Then I decided to go on a day trip tour but woke up that day having not slept much so I went back to sleep instead of to Kep.
I also realized that I'm down to the last ten or so puzzles from the huge book of more than 200 Japanese logic puzzles I started with. As I've been ripping pages out as I've finished both sides, it's gotten very skinny and much lighter, enough so that I'm now willing to carry a book while I travel. So, I checked out the book store and found "First They Killed My Father," by Loung Ung. I had heard an interview on NPR with her and had wanted to read the book. When I saw it in the bookstore, I picked it up. While it is an easy read, it's also difficult because of the subject matter. It's about Ung, who as a young girl of five was forced to flee Phnom Penh in front of the Khmer Rouge and the experiences she had during that time.
Once again, like when in Phonsavan, Laos, I've realized just how ignorant of even the modern history of this region I am. As a child, I vaguely remember Asian children being adopted by Americans in my own town and other areas. It never occurred to me why they coming to America. Then, even in high school, a year of American history around 1980 didn't even touch on the American involvement is SE Asian politics and wars. Our world history class was lucky to even get to World War II, much less recent conflicts. So, until now, I really had no idea what happened here other than the occasional news stories which always seemed disjointed in the grand scheme of things.
Amongst other things, imagine an entire capitol city being evacuated in just a couple of days time and then being left empty for nearly four years while the Khmer Rouge killed as many as two million people by some estimates, including anyone they thought to be educated, members of previous government organizations, or even just businesspeople from the city. Then imagine them people starving to death because the crops they were growing were being sold to China in exchange for guns instead of going to feed the people. I still have a lot to learn and have been saving some of the harder tourists sights here in Phnom Penh for when Tom gets here...
The trip back to Phnom Penh yesterday was filled with the usual animals trying to commit suicide by running in front of the bus, people hanging onto the tops of vans and other vehicles barreling down the road in front of us, major bumps that sent us airborne - even on the paved sections, etc. I don't like seeming like any sort of "privileged" westerner on these buses but on some of them, I just can't sit in the majority of seats. Unlike in Thailand and Laos where bus seats are first come first served, in Cambodia they are assigned. Today's bus was one with limited leg room, I played musical chairs with the seats that had the most leg room and eventually, when the woman who was assigned to the seat I had settled on in front got on, she agreed to switch seats with me. That was very nice of her. This was another situation where if I had been forced to sit in my assigned seat, I would have had to sit sideways for the entire journey with my legs not only blocking the aisle, but also preventing people from being able to sit in the aisle. At least in the front, I don't take up more than one person's space. As it was, even in the seat I had, I had to sit sort of sideways, which was just as well for the guy sitting next to me, also a westerner who didn't quite fit in the seat. He was glad to be able to shift slightly sideways as well.
When I made it back to Phnom Penh, I checked into the City Star Guesthouse. It's a reasonably nice place that opened just four months ago so the mold hasn't yet had a chance to completely take over the grout in the bathrooms. I've checked into a fan room but when Tom gets here, we'll check into a room with A/C and hot shower. I figure after two full days of airline travel, he'll want a bit of R&R in a nice place. I'll save introducing him to the joys of the cold shower, fans rooms I've grown accustomed to until he's had at least a bit of time to get over jet lag.
My room even has a refrigerator so I made a trip to the supermarket to get a few things to keep in the room for the next couple of days. Juice, milk, yogurt, soda, etc. There's internet access right here in the hotel so life's pretty easy here.
Wednesday, January 30: Phnom Penh
My hotel charges to do laundry by the piece. It would have been $5 for my tiny load. Around the block, by the kilo, it was $1.60. Unfortunately, by the time I got around the block, I realized I probably wasn't going very far today. When I got back to Phnom Penh, I did a little splurging on Western food in advance of Tom's arrival, figuring that he would probably want Asian options more frequently than me. Well, I think that did a number on my digestive system. With any luck, it'll be short lived and I'll be back on track tomorrow.
I did manage some delicious fried rice with shrimp for dinner at a restaurant with seating overlooking a busy corner on Sihanouk Blvd. Another westerner staying at my hotel saw me there and came up to have a cup of coffee - only to realize that this restaurant doesn't have coffee. Oh well...
Thursday, January 31: Phnom Penh
I took a moto (motorcycle taxi) to the airport today to pick up Tom. Having shaved his beard, he looks different than I remembered from the Appalachian Trail. I had last seen him on Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the end of March. He had continued on while I was visiting friends.
Back at the hotel, I moved my stuff to a twin hotel room with A/C and hot water. I figured after two days of travel, Tom might want some comforts.
We grabbed a tuk tuk to Wat Phnom on the only hill in town. there was a very large clock, probably 6 meters across keeping time built into the hill. Monkeys were everywhere. For me, visiting the wat was just another wat. This one also had some gruesome murals as I had seen in others but for Tom, it was a whole new thing - to see a wat, the statues, the murals, the donation boxes, the beggars, and more.
We made appointments for that afternoon at the Seeing Hands massage clinic and then made our way to the lakeside to eat lunch overlooking a lake that was mostly covered with water weed. Then back to the massage place.
This massage place employs blind masseurs who are well trained in massage. They give full "pajamas" to wear. Our one hour long massage was $6. I enjoyed this one much more than the Red Cross massage I had in Luang Prabang. This time, I found it relaxing. There were a few painful parts but not many.
We meandered along the riverside, checked out the interesting delicacies such as vaguely post-amniotic birds, tarantulas, grubs, grasshoppers, beetles, and some huge other insects - not sure what - but they were bigger than the birds. The most normal item on the cart was some cooked shrimp.
We grabbed a drink at a riverside restaurant and then made our way to a restaurant known for its Khmer food. For the second time since I've been in Lao, I've found plear on the menu. This one tasted just as good as the first time but was more similar to a description my sister found on line. The "thinly sliced" beef seemed more minced than sliced. there were very thinly sliced onion, bell pepper, lemongrass (I think), and peanuts that were identifiable to me. The onions didn't look cooked but their texture reminded me of those seen in pickle jars. I think they might be pickled. There were other herbs and flavors. it's the kind of meal that wouldn't normally appeal to me but this one has just the right combination of flavors. Yum!
Got a slice of chocolate fudge cake to go from the nearby bakery. Back at the hotel, Tom fell asleep immediately. I watched TV and also crashed pretty early for me.
Friday, February 1: Phnom Penh
Tried the Europe Asia Bakery for breakfast. They have delicious rolls and pastry.
Tom and I walked to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21 (Security Prison 21). Originally a school, the classrooms were converted to torture chambers or cells by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Prisoners were shackled in long leg irons with 20 others in a row and their movements severely restricted. Some rooms were divided into small cubes where some prisoners were kept chained. Many of the rooms where torture was carried out still have the beds in them, no mattresses, just the flat springs. Some of the torture and/or killing devices and iron leg shackles were still on display in some classrooms.
Between 17,000 and 20,000 prisoners were imprisoned and tortured there. Some 2,000 were killed here and the rest marched to the nearby Killing Fields. Representative pictures from the torture chambers were hung on the wall as the Khmer kept both written and photographic records. Pictures of many of the victims were also on display as were pictures of various skulls with different types of wounds such as knife, hammer, gunshot, etc.
Only seven people who went into Tuol Sleng survived. The grounds still look just like the schools of the area, complete with playground bars and more.
It was a hard visit to make and reminded me of the time I visited Dachau, near Munich. But here, it's much more recent, having taken place during my teen years.
Walking on, we came to a wat with a grade school. The construction of the school had changed little since the days of the Tuol Sleng but the children running around provided more marked contrast than any building design could account for.
We then walked to the Russian Market where heat overwhelmed my ability to make any decisions about buying anything. We did find a wonderful cafe for lunch. At Yejj, I ate smoked salmon and grilled shrimp over couscous with hummus, pita bread, olives which I gave to Tom, and salad. (~$4.00). Brownie and chocolate gelato for dessert. It seems weird to write about such a lunch after learning about such brutality at the museum. But it was nice to take a break from the hard message of the museum, especially knowing what was to come in the afternoon.
We then took a tuk tuk to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where many of those tortured at S-21 were force marched or trucked and killed. This was just as hard a visit as was Tuol Sleng. Here, 17000 people or more were killed. With bullets in short supply, many were bludgeoned to death with hammers, hoes, machetes, or electrocuted.
There were many mass graves here. Some were exhumed immediately after the war in 1980 but some were left. When wandering the grounds, the ragged clothing that seemingly litters the ground isn't littler. It's the clothes of those who were buried there and are still buried there. Many white fragments of bone push their way up to the surface of the pathways.
I huge memorial built in the shape of the main Angkor Wat temple houses hundreds or thousands of the skulls of those excavated. They show through the glass in a startling display. We could go inside and see some of the skulls up close. Our guide pointed out the difference between the different types of death tools that were used.
It's amazing to think that while I was a teenager, learning about WW II and thinking that nothing like the Holocaust could ever happen again, it was still happening in Cambodia.
Less than a kilometer from the Killing Fields, I had noticed some children doing traditional dance on the way to the fields. So we stopped at this school of music and dance on our way back. It looked like they had just stopped practice for the day but once they realized they had an audience, they were excited to dance for us. In no time, they put on a whole performance for us. We must have spent a good 45 minutes there. As is usually the case, at the end they invited us up to dance. I of course, did so, and had a great time dancing with the kids. They guys were both fuddy duddies and just watched. It was a wonderful performance, almost as good as the professional ones I had already seen. But with such a personal touch given that there were only three of us westerners in the audience. The rest of the audience was probably parents, and other teachers of the kids. After such a depressing visit to the Killing Fields, seeing the performance was a welcome change.
We then met Tom (the 'other' Tom) at the Royal Hotel, a very posh place for happy hour. I had first met him in Kampot and we just bumped into him again at the Fields. He had also joined us for the dance performance. It was nice to hang out at the beautiful Royal Hotel for happy hour. Then dinner of steamed fish at Mama's, a rather ordinary place, local to Tom's guest house. Yum.
Saturday, February 2: Phnom Penh
Back to the bakery for yet another selection of treats. The croissants there are delicious. From the bakery, we walked past the Independence monument and the friendship monuments along beautiful esplanades on the way to the Royal Palace. We spent the morning on the palace grounds including such locales as the throne room, the silver pagoda so named for the 5000 silver tiles paving the floor, the iron house, the Ramayana mural, a silk weaver, and more. We didn't leave until they were closing up for the lunch break.
Then lunch at a riverside Khmer place.
In the afternoon, we visited the National Museum to see amazing Khmer art - or at least whatever was left by the Khmer Rouge who had destroyed much of the collection. Tom's shoulder, still bothering him, brought us to another massage place. We tried a different seeing hands place. It was OK, but not quite as nice as the first place. We killed some time, sitting by the river, watching the boat traffic going by on the water while trying to ignore the beggars and touts on the other side. We walked to Central Market to buy bus tickets to go to Siem Reap. We braved a moto taxi with the two of us on board. (that was fun) to go back to the Russian market area. Then another moto to go back to the riverside area. Drinks at the FCC where we ran into Tom again. Then the three of us had dinner at a hotpot restaurant near our hotel. Delicious.
Sunday, February 3: Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
Up early, tuk tuk to Lucky Market. We were early so found another ATM, then back to the market when it opened to buy goodies for breakfast and lunch on the bus. Yogurt and rolls worked for me. It was a six hour ride, with two stops, on mostly good road to get to Siem Reap. At our first bus stop, Tom was introduced to the incredibly persistent children that get in your face trying to sell pineapple, mango, books, postcards, and more. It doesn't matter that there's already three other children surrounding you, more will come up and try to get you to buy from them. It doesn't matter that you're not even buying anything. You can walk away and they follow. You can say 'no' and they keep whining and pleading with you to buy. "Buy from me mister." "Postcards 5 for one dollar - OK - I give you deal 10 for one dollar." "You buy mango." "You buy pineapple." Over and over again. Tarantulas, both live and dead, were also available here.
Thankfully, our second stop wasn't quite as touristy and we could approach vendor's tables unmolested. Unfortunately, neither had the sticky rice sticks I had bought at a stop south of Phnom Penh. I wonder if I'll ever see them again.
Once in Siem Reap, we grabbed a tuk tuk and checked out a couple of hotels before settling on one for $8/night. My standards are going up now that I'm traveling with Tom.
I find that with Tom here, I want everything to go as expected and of course, it never does, so I get more frustrated and more impatient than when I'm on my own. I'm guessing things will get better after he's been here a while. We're still getting used to each other. Ah well...
We hung out with three Swedes on the porch outside of our room on the third floor and then made our way to the Khmer Kitchen, a restaurant, for dinner, and the Blue Pumpkin for dessert. I think we'll be frequenting the Blue Pumpkin quite a bit during our stay here. It had good ice cream and good looking baked goods. We wandered the streets and the Night Market getting our bearings.
[Date: Fri Feb 8, 2008 9:34 am Subject: Book Review: "First they Killed my Father: A daughter of Cambodia remembers" by Loung Ung. c. 2000
Normally, I don't email book reviews to this list, but since this book is particularly relevant to my current travels, it seemed reasonable to share this rough review...]
"First they Killed my Father: A daughter of Cambodia remembers" by Loung Ung. c. 2000.
Within the last year or two, I had heard an interview with Ung on a local NPR station. It must have been a repeat of her 2000 interview which they were probably playing with the release of her new book in 2005. The interview piqued my interest but I hadn't gotten around to reading the book. When I was looking for a book in the Kampot book store and saw this one, I picked it up. it was timely as I was just learning about the role of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodian history.
In this book, Ung tells the story of her life during the Khmer Rouge regime and in its aftermath, from 1975 to 1980. As a solidly middle class family in Phnom Penh, her family was forced to flee the capitol city with the rest of the population in April of 1975, the day the Khmer Rouge marched into the city. They took their vehicle as far as the gas lasted but them spent six more days on foot. Then began four years of scrambling to find shelter in villages that did not want the newcomers, separations that tore the family apart for months and years at a time, and the death of four of her family members. She was forced to pretend to be an orphan until it was no longer pretend and she was forced to be trained as a soldier. She was reunited with her family at the end of the war but as a refugee, was once again separated from her family when she and one of her brothers were sponsored to go live in America. Her resilience through this time is remarkable for a 5-10 year old.
It was amazing to read this book while traveling through Cambodia, seeing the areas Ung traveled through, seeing what's changed and what hasn't in the last thirty years. The book made me wonder what her life has been like since immigrating and Ung does have another book, "Lucky Child, a daughter of Cambodia reunites with the sister she left behind" which addresses this. I'll have to read that one at some point.
All in all, it was a fantastic read, even if you're not in Cambodia.
[Date: Fri Feb 8, 2008 9:43 am Subject: 2/7:Siem Reap: Concert for Cambodian Children's Hospitals
Sorry for the flurry of emails today. I had hoped to catch up on all of my journal transcriptions but it wasn't meant to be. So, I thought I would at least get this out first.
We've been in Siem Reap visiting the amazing Angkor Wat amongst other ruins. In the evenings, we've found a variety of shows to attend. Last night's show was one with a message. Once again, I think the message stands on its own so I present it here rather than embedded in a longer email.
While Phnom Penh is the political capitol of Cambodia, Siem Reap is the tourist capitol. That brings in a lot of dollars to the economy, some of which stays here, but much of it goes back to the country of origin of the business owner, often Vietnamese or some other Asian nationals. Poverty remains rampant.
Yesterday, after visiting Angkor Wat, we stopped at the Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital for a free concert by Doctor Beat Richner. He offers these concerts once per week throughout the year and twice during tourist season. As a cello player, he calls his show Beatocello and plays songs by Bach, a few originals, and Kol Nidre, a tune by Bruch. These concerts may be free but it is a show with a cause (hence the additional concert during tourist season) so we went prepared to learn about the plight of children in Cambodia. They are apparently much worse off than children in other SE Asian countries and even Africa. We also learned about the surprising international community's take on treated people in poor countries. (More at Beatocello .)
[Umm, the facts I present here are as best I can remember from Dr. Richner having not taken notes yesterday. Please pardon any mistakes but I think I got the figures right.]
65% of the Khmer people are infected with tuberculosis (TB). Last year (2007), Cambodia had the worst outbreak of Dengue Fever known to have ever occurred in the world with 14,000 cases and yet nobody outside this area has even heard about the crisis. However, when there was one case of bird flu near the Vietnam border last year, there was a huge outcry and response from the international community. Why the difference? Dengue fever kills children in poor countries. The mosquitoes that cause it travel no more that 110 meters. In places like Singapore, when a case is reported, authorities go to the child's home and eradicate any potential sources of the disease carrying mosquito. The WHO earmarked $3 million for a similar program in Cambodia but with rampant corruption, when such cases are reported, nothing happens. Where did the money go? The birds that cause bird flu can travel further than 110 meters and can travel to places where wealthier westerners can be put at risk. Why the disparity is response? Economics.
Dr. Richner started the first Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge uprising in 1975. Then years later, after the Khmer Rouge were ousted, he was asked to come back and restore and restart the clinic. There are now five hospitals. The Khmer Rouge had killed all but about 50 of the doctors here in Cambodia so at first the hospitals were staffed with western medical staff. Now, there are only two western staff remaining including Dr. Richner. The rest is staffed by locals. They are paid well so there is no corruption. Most patients are treated on an outpatient basis and though many are admitted if necessary All care is administered free of charge. The mothers usually stay with the children and their calming presence usually plays a healing role in the recovery of the children. This has apparently been scientifically documented based on t-cell counts of the patients.
Then there's the surprising take on medical care for the international health community. They feel care should be provided only to the extent the locals can pay for it. Here in Cambodia, the locals can't afford to pay for any care. So, the children suffer through no fault of their own.
The WHO still advocates the use of some medicines based on cost. There are medicines that are supposed to be used in poor countries that are now not only banned in western countries, but if doctors were to give them out, they would lose their licenses. And yet, they are supposed to be good enough for those in poor countries even though the side affects are horrible. In the west, there are alternative medicines. The reasons why they aren't used in these poorer countries is pure economics. The alternatives cost 20 times as much.
These children's hospitals here in Cambodia offer the best health care for the lowest cost - WORLDWIDE (I don't remember the citation.). It costs a mere $170 to keep a child for an average inpatient stay of 5.5 days. That's total cost, not per day. The hotel next door to the hospital where the visiting dignitaries from the WHO and other groups stay costs $340/night. And yet they say the facilities at these hospitals are too good for the people here. The CT scan saves so many lives of children who come in with mild diarrhea and yet have meningitis - a diagnosis that can only be made with the scanner. The death rate amongst these patients is now down to .75%.
The western standard blood work done prevents the use of blood infected with TB and HIV from being used on children. That alone saves almost 20 lives per day and yet, according to the international medical community, the expense is too high for such 'extravagances' in a poor country.
These facilities are paid for almost exclusively by private donations. Administrative costs use only 5% of the cost of running the hospitals. The rest goes to medical treatment and wages for the medical staff. They look to the tourists for donations of both money and blood. If I hadn't woken up sick - yet again - yesterday, I would have donated blood. Instead I write about it and hope that getting the word out about what's happening here and how the international community views the situation, maybe something will change.
As an aside, if it weren't for the Secret War waged by the CIA, the Khmer Rouge would likely have not taken power and the civil war wouldn't have happened here. In the 1960s, the medical community here was on par with other places such as Singapore but the civil war sent it back to the dark ages. Now, as an adult, if I were to need medical care, I would evacuate to Bangkok. Under no circumstances would I trust any of the care or medicines available here. 80% of all medicine available here is counterfeit. And the corrupt medical staff has no incentive to perform - even if they had the right facilities. The one exception being if you're a Cambodian child or expectant mother and can get to any of the Kenta Boppha clinics. So once again, I wonder if the US should take some greater role in the financial recovery of places like Cambodia, so decimated by US foreign policy and bombs. ]
[Date: Sat Feb 16, 2008 3:10 am Subject: 2/4-9 : Siem Reap to Battambang
Sorry about the long delay in getting updates out. But, I've been keeping busier than usual now that I've been traveling with Tom. That's a good thing, by the way.
Anyway, I'm still way behind in my updates but seeing as I'm about to go on a three day live aboard dive trip, I figured I would send out what I could, first.
I'll be back in a few days but have no idea how long it'll be until my next update.
Monday, February 4: Siem Reap
Our Tuk tuk driver failed to show up and ended up sending his brother over an hour later than we had planned. So we ended up changing our plans and skipped Angkor Wat for today. Instead, we went to a silk farm and learned about the process of making silk.
We learned that there are 18 varieties of mulberry plant. Silkworms can apparently be finicky. We learned about the life cycle of the silkworm. They eat for two days and then sleep for one day. What a life? We watched them being fed. They're kept on large flat baskets and the leaves they eat are spread out on top of them. They do not live on the mulberry plants themselves as too many birds would find them a good feast. All supports for the building they are housed in are surrounded by water to prevent ants from getting in. And if they do get in, the legs of each piece of furniture and worm housing are also kept in a bowl of water to ensure ants are kept out.
When the worms turn yellow, they are ready to make silk. They are then removed from the trays where they have been eating and placed in a large tray with a spiral of rattan to spin their cocoons.
Once done, the silk thread is about 400 meters long. The outer part of the cocoon is the raw silk and it at least 100 meters. The inner part is the fine silk and at least 200 meters long.
The cocoons are placed in boiling water. The number of cocoons determines how many strands go into each thread. 40 strands is pretty typical and makes a very thin thread. The threads are then cleaned by hand with irregularities picked off with fingernails or cut off with scissors. We saw them dying thread and learned that some thread is dyed tie-dye style to produce silk in certain patterns.
We then learned how plain silk, brocade, and combination silk is made on the looms.
Our driver for the day brought us back to the hotel for a break, then to the Old Market area for lunch. We stopped to check email, got massages, and then went back to the hotel for a nap before our driver picked us up to head to Angkor Wat to get out tickets for tomorrow and to climb to the Bakheng Hill ruin for a good view of the sunset. We stopped at Angkor Wat on the way back to get some pictures of it lit up Niagara Falls style, with changing colors.
Dinner at Viva, a Mexican cafe was a nice change of pace. The food was surprisingly good. The Blue Pumpkin again for dessert - this time for marble cheesecake. It was OK but I should have stuck with the ice cream.
Tuesday, February 5: Siem Reap
The reason everyone comes to Siem Reap is Angkor Wat. Today, we finally started our three day visit. Angkor Wat is just one area within the complex of temples people come to visit. Given the distances involved, we hired a tuk tuk driver on a day to day basis. There are two loops near Angkor Wat. We did the outer loop today leaving Angkor Wat for another day. These complexes are amazing. They put so much effort into building and carving these temples. The history behind many of the temples seems to be well known. Who built them, when, even some of the personal traits of the kings or wealthy men who had them built.
The list of temples we visited today includes: Banteay Kdel, Sra Srang (the lake), Pre Rup, East Mabon (in the dry reservoir), Ta Som, Preah Khan (huge with hall of dancers and two story house of swords), and then in Angkor Thom, the Terrace of the Leper King (maze-like corridor), the Terrace of the Elephants (long with elephant bas relief and garuda figures), and Bayon (faces and bas relief stories).
We visited places where trees have grown through the cracks in the temples. Restorers know they can't remove any of these trees as they are now the glue that holds the temple walls together. The lintel carvings are phenomenal. Some of the bas relief murals are huge and tell whole episodes of the stories of Ramayana or the Mahabarata.
We've ducked through so many doors and climbed up and down mountains worth of stairs. The steps are often so steep that we use our hands to steady ourselves on the way up and often turn around to go down backwards or at least sideways.
It's hot business visiting these sites in the heat of the day so I've finally started making use of the umbrella I bought in Malaysia. It not only keeps me dry when it's raining, but with a silver matte finish on the top, it reflects sun, too, and keeps me in the shade.
The touts are annoying at each temple with multiple touts coming up to you to beg you to buy water "from me" or pineapple, or mango, or a sarong, etc. If you don't buy on the way in, "you'll buy cold water from me when you finish" or origami stars, or fried rice, etc. They whine at you and follow you. Many are just little kids. Some school age kids do go to school and sell stuff on their time off, but for many, the chance to make some money keeps them out of school altogether. I try not to buy from the kids and even the older touts, and go to the tables directly, often the one that's not trying to get my attention.
In Thailand, there were touts but as soon as you said 'no', they left you alone. Here, they don't take 'no' for an answer. The beggars usually sit in one place and beg as you pass. In Cambodia, they wander the sidewalk restaurants and come begging at your table while you're eating. You can wander down a street lined with tuk tuks, obviously not interested in taking one and yet the next one you come to, the driver will still not only ask, but insist on getting an answer to "tuk tuk?" or "where you going?" It's really annoying.
Back at the hotel, I grabbed a shower and Tom grabbed a nap. Then we went to town, found a place to kill some time, and then went to "The Temple", a restaurant where we not only had dinner, but had a chance to watch some Apsara dancers performing traditional dances, at least one of which, (with the coconuts) was the same as one we had seen the kids doing when we had left the Killing Fields. As seems to be normal, one of the performances was a chapter from Ramayana.
Wednesday, February 6: Siem Reap
Once again, we ignored Angkor Wat in favor of some even more remote sites including Banteay Srei known for it's amazingly intricate carvings and Kbal Spean, a nice hike through woods to a stream where there are numerous carvings in the stream bed itself. In the dry season, some are left well clear of the water, but in the wet season, I imagine many more are covered.
After lunch, we visited the land mine museum. There I learned about the use of land mines not only in Cambodia, but in other parts of the world and how they are still a problem here just as the bombies are a problem in Laos. I do know that we see many more land mine victims in Cambodia than we saw bombie victims in Lao. Some of the reasons for the difference may be cultural. There may be less stigma here. Some may be numbers. There are just more people in Cambodia. And some may be regional, it was the area that bordered Thailand that was most heavily mined. The Khmer Rouge were trying to prevent as many Khmer from leaving the country as possible. Perhaps most of the people who would have been victims there have stayed in the more touristy parts of Cambodia which also correspond with the western part of the country.
After the museum, we stopped at a roadside souvenir table where our driver had spotted a woman mixing something at the side of the road. It was treacle - or basically, sugar from the sugar palm tree. She was mixing a thick syrup. We sampled the sugar candy, too. Yum!
Then we visited one more ruin.
Tonight, we had dinner at a place that featured a shadow puppet show. Like with the dance shows, they had a couple of straight music/acting scenes, and then they acted out a scene from Ramayana. As luck would have it, it was the same scene I had seen acted out in Luang Prabang. Good thing, too... there was no explanation and everything was in Khmer. I was able to explain a bit about the story to Tom. It was also nice because we were able to go walk behind the screen and seen how they performed the scenes. The people handling the puppets were not the same people that did the voices. And the light that cast the show was a good 2-3 meters from the screen.
Thursday, February 7: Siem Reap
Today we hired a guide. Our driver can only take us around to places but can't go into temple sites to explain what we're looking at. Given that we were finally getting to Angkor Wat, we thought a guide would be in order.
Unfortunately, I woke up sick again. But, with this being the third day on our three day pass, I wasn't going to give up the opportunity to see Angkor Wat. But we still left that for last. In the morning, we visited some temples we had missed the first couple of days, revisited Angkor Thom to see the areas we had missed on day one. It was fascinating to see the bas relief walls at the wat and learn the stories behind them. We did learn quite a bit more than we had touring around on our own the previous days.
Then we took a long lunch break and went back to town for lunch and a nap. Then back to the temple to visit Angkor Wat in the afternoon. Finally. But the crowds were amazingly bad, and the upper levels of the temple are closed for repair/renovation/restoration.
Instead of going all the way back into town after the temple, we got dropped at the children's hospital. I had intended on giving blood but feeling as crappy as I do, I didn't think it would be a good idea. So we just went to the free concert offered by Dr. Richner who advocates for the children and the resources available to the hospital to make sure the children get the care they need. [See separate diatribe for more.]
Friday, February 8: Siem Reap
After three days of temple overload and my still being under the weather, we had a very lazy day today. We walked through the Central Market and then headed for the Artisans d'Angkor but got distracted by the lion dancers going around during the Chinese New Year. After watching them a bunch of times, we finally made it to the artisans’ shop where we saw them working on woodcarving, stone cutting, silk painting, and more. I spent much of the day on-line with interruptions for lunch, more lion dancers, dessert, pre-dinner drinks, and eventually dinner.
Saturday, February 9: Siem Reap to Battambang
So yes, there really is a town named Battambang. I haven't found any corresponding towns nearby called Battaboom though.
To get here though, we had a 6:10am pickup that came in the form of a 6:30 minivan. We were the first ones in but then the van rove in circles around town picking up enough people to more than fill the vehicle. By now, it was well past the 7:00 time our boat was supposed to depart and we still hadn't driven to the lakeside dock. Hmm...
On the way to the dock, it became clear we weren't the only latecomers. There were others we were passing in Sawngthaw, tuk tuks, and pickup trucks. I guess I can't complain about our packed in luxury of an air-conditioned minivan. We took these vehicles out of the city to the Tonle Sap lake with the road getting worse and worse along the way and ending in a rutted and muddy dirt road. Along the way, we went through the village of houses built on high tilts with extremely steep ladders for access. Many had "gates" of sorts to prevent the children from falling out of the houses.
Once on the lake, it was amazing how much aquaculture there was. Our boat had to squeeze between poles supporting net almost all the way across the lake. At one point, we had to stop for a while. I think we might have snagged a net.
The bird life here is phenomenal. No surprise that there's a bird sanctuary at the northern end of the lake that we either went through or went quite near. There were multiple types of cormorants, egrets, herons, maybe a stork? And a variety of other birds as well including a beautiful smaller bird with triangular wings, a yellow head and back tapering to green and then a blue tail with an extra long tail feather in the middle trailing perhaps 3 centimeters longer than the rest of the tail.
We went through floating villages where even churches floated though the wats were always on nearby dry land. The kids paddled their smaller boats as easily as most of the city kids rode their bicycles.
At one point, we switched from our overloaded and top heavy boat to an even smaller boat with less leg room. It soon became apparent why. The river got smaller, the turns tighter, and the larger boat wouldn't have made it through the shallower stretch of river. As it was, our boat had a helper who was constantly watching out for shallow stretches and pushing the bow off the river banks when the boat couldn't make the tight turns.
In the wet season, this trip can take as little as three hours. But now in the dry season, it took us nine hours. As the river got narrower, we watched the people living along its banks transition from a lifestyle based on water to one based on the land with boats used just for transportation.
Once in town, we took a van to our hotel. Tom is now getting a feel for just how cheap Asia can be. We're on the "traveler" circuit here instead of the "tourist" track. We're in a $5/night room that's substantially the same as everywhere else we've been. Fan room, TV, cold water shower. As Tom put it, you can't even get a campsite in much of the US for $5, much less beds with linens.
We wandered town and made plans for the next few days. Dinner at the Smokin' Pot, internet, and then Tom had a massage while I did some research for tomorrow's activities.
[Date: Wed Feb 20, 2008 4:52 am Subject: Earthquake and tsunami warnings...
I'm back from my three day live aboard trip which was fantastic. On day three, all three dives had us diving with a huge manta ray. It was beautiful, graceful, and awesome.
As for the current earthquake, I know about the earthquake and I am along the Thai coast but this particular area is not considered a tsunami risk. Ranong came out unscathed from the '04 tsunami and there's no local tsunami warning.
OK, enough for now... One of these years I'll get some more of my journal transcribed.
Sunday, February 10: Battambang
We had breakfast on the roof of the Royal Hotel where we probably should have stayed. We then found the taxi stand and figured out how the taxi option works. Then we found the bus and figured that was a much better option. It makes me wonder why the taxi option is so popular. The Chinese New Year is still being celebrated and we see lion dance troupes touring the city. We see strings of firecrackers hanging but as one hotel owner told me, nobody paid off the police this year so nobody is setting them off. Well, very few people are setting them off.
We went to the "other" popular tourist hotel and got two moto driver/guides to give us a tour of the area. We stopped at a rice wine making house where they were making rice wine with 40% alcohol. It seemed the same or similar to the Lao Lao I had seen being made near Phonsavan, Laos. The funny part of this is the leftover mash is fed to the pigs. They apparently live in a constant state of drunkenness. That said, they did look fat and happy.
I learned what kapok trees look like, as well as dragon fruit, and others. We stopped at two "Mountains", one of which had the Killing Cave, where like in Phonsavan, they dumped people or bodies in from the top. It's unclear if they always killed people first or if they counted on the drop to kill people. After the war, many, many bones and skulls were found there, some of which are still stored there in a glass fronted stupa of a sort.
Another little walk to the top of an adjoining peak brought us to a bunch of embattlements with German cannon.
At the next mountain, it was a long climb up a straight set of stairs to an old temple area that some say may have been the inspiration for Angkor Wat. That said, many do dismiss that theory. We met a group of boys there who were just there having fun. It was one of the few interactions we had with locals who were not after us to buy stuff or give them money.
We then passed a cock fight and stopped for Tom to have a look. I had already seen this in Luang Prabang and it's pretty gruesome. I walked over to the ring, regretted it almost immediately and walked back to wait with our guides. Tom followed a short while later.
Finally, we made our way to the bamboo train, one of the primary attractions in Battambang. This train consists of two axles that span the train tracks one of which has a drive belt attached, a bamboo platform, and an engine. We piled not only ourselves, but our motorbikes and guides onto our train. Our ride to the next station took about 15 minutes along tracks that were warped and had lots of gaps. It was a rough ride and explained a lot about why the once per week train from Battambang to Phnom Penh tops out at 30kph (about 20mph). Nobody takes the train to get anywhere in a rush.
Back in town, I was ready for a shower. Then we made our way to the local seeing hands massage for my best massage yet. We spent the entire evening at the White Rose Restaurant seated next to Annalise and William, a non-couple from Belgium.
During the evening, we got very silly planning a mythical SE Asian party for when we got home, complete with soggy toilet paper in the bathroom, toilet paper instead of napkins on the table, no knives to eat with, all Thai dishes with cucumber and tomato garnish, no shoes, flooded bathrooms, etc. It got very silly.
After a short internet session, we went back to the hotel to find a segment on the Discovery Channel about a way to burn land mines while demining instead of setting them off. After our trip to the Land Mine Museum, it was very apropos.
Monday, February 11: Battambang to Poipet
I woke up with more stomach problems but managed to get to the Sunrise Cafe and slowly ate a bagel. I hung out there for a while and managed a cinnamon roll, too. It was nice having some of these western treats.
The bus ride to Poipet, a Cambodian border town, was mostly along good road with a few shorter stretches along road currently under construction. Even that was mostly in good condition and we made good time.
In Poipet, the bus dropped us off at the border. Not wanting to cross until tomorrow, we settled into a border hotel. A walk to find a restaurant for lunch bombed until someone pointed us to the border. We were trying to figure out how to cross the border without crossing the border. It turns out, you can go through the departure area without departing. One in the "no man's land" of a sort, we were in the casino area. This area is accessible to Thai's who want to gamble but don't want to officially enter Cambodia. From the Cambodian side, as long as our visas are still good we can enter the casino area and return through Cambodian immigration without actually having to go through immigration. Though we didn't really know that at first and were a bit concerned that they would stick us for another round of Cambodian immigration fees when we went back through the Cambodian border are to our hotel. Thankfully, after lunch at a Chinese dim sum restaurant in a casino hotel, we went back and nobody really gave us a glance.
Back at the hotel, I took a nap while Tom wandered the town. Then we watched a movie, and finally we went back to the casino area for dinner. Tom's dinner never came so he finished what I couldn't eat of mine. Language was an issue here.
Tuesday, February 12: Poipet, Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand
We are both early risers so were up and at the Cambodian departure border area at 7:00 when it opened. It actually opened a few minutes before the hour which was strange as the national anthem plays at 7:00 and the entire area came to a standstill for the duration. This included the vehicular traffic. I'm not sure this is true throughout the country but it happened here. We stopped at a cafe inside the Cambodian side for some breakfast and then walked through to the Thai side.
Thankfully, there were no holdup entering the country and after Tom hit an ATM, we grabbed a tuk tuk to the border town, and then a bus to Bangkok. Once in Bangkok, we were, as usual, targeted as taxi patrons but I knew better. It took a bit of doing, but we found our way to the local buses, and found a bus that would drop us at the Mochit sky train station. We changed trains at the Siam station and got off at the Rachadamri station. From there, there's a great view of Ruth's building. So, I pointed that out to Tom even though we weren't starting there.
We soon walked past the building, stopped at Soi 5 and 6 where we caught the last of the lunch vendors, grabbed some treats and found our way to Dare's building where she had a key waiting for us. We gladly dumped our stuff and then just hung out for an hour or so until Dare got home. We watched her pack for her upcoming trip to Egypt and then brought our stuff to Ruth's on the way to Siam Paragon where Dare did some shopping and we all grabbed dinner.
Wednesday, February 13: Bangkok
Tom and I dealt with a variety of personal administrative stuff today. We took the water bus down the klang (canal) to the Golden Mount and climbed up to get a good view of the city. Then we hung out at Khao San Road, the usual backpacker hangout area that I had stayed in for one night ten years ago. I'm glad I don't have to stay there this time. But, we grabbed lunch, and had an internet session there. Then we walked to the Chao Praya River and grabbed the water bus there to go to the Central Pier. I was too tired to walk back so we took the Sky train back.
Thursday, February 14: Bangkok
We had a lazy day, watching TV in the morning, having another Soi 5 lunch at the apartment, and then wandering to Siam Paragon to see Atonement at the theater there. Tom was not only surprised at the assigned seating in the theater, but the luxurious seats, and the standing for the national anthem before the movie played.
We grabbed dinner at a spicy noodle place and then took the Sky train to the subway to the Lumpini Park station to go back to the night market. We picked up some stuff that we had picked out the night before and then walked back to the apartment.
Friday, February 15: Bangkok to Ranong
We were up and out early today to grab the local bus to get to the southern bus station. It took a while to finally figure out the bus but we eventually got to the bus station with time to kill before the next bus left anyway. We grabbed some breakfast goodies for the road. The 9:40 bus took about 10 hours to get to Ranong. I delayed it at one point with an emergency delay when I really needed the toilet. I am back on azithromycin to try to kick this stomach bug.
Once in town, we checked into the Sin Tavee Hotel, found an internet place, and tried to get in touch with Stuart, a friend I had met and traveled with years earlier in Australia. (see journal entries) We eventually connected over the phone while Tom and I ate dinner and then we walked to a nearby pub to meet Stuart.
It was fun to meet him again and see where he had been living for most of the time since I had met him in Australia. I had gotten all sorts of emails since then with stories of his life in Thailand including through the time of the tsunami. It was great to get to see him again.
Earlier in the day, I had asked Tom if he was interested in scuba diving and got a straight and unequivocal "no." All of a sudden, talking with Stuart, he's starting to sound interested. Stuart is a PADI dive instructor and is heading out on a three day live aboard to teach both a dive master student and an advanced open water student. If Tom wants to learn to dive, he can do the entire course on the live aboard. I could just go and do the 11 dives over three days that is the main focus of the dive trip. Of course, I wasn't expecting to dive, didn't bring my certification along or any of my gear. We would decide the next morning after Tom had a chance to view the PADI Open water video required of students learning to dive.
Saturday, February 16: Ranong to Paradise Dive Boat on the Andaman Sea
After breakfast in town, we spent the entire day at the dive shop today. It took just the first couple of section of the PADI open water dive video for Tom to decide that he wanted to learn to dive and to do it here where he would be committed to three days of diving aboard a live aboard boat. That was a pretty big commitment.
Sunday, February 17: Andaman Sea
A four dive day.
Monday, February 18: Andaman Sea
Three dives today. I skipped the night dive.
Two dives at Koh Ban and one at Koh Tachai
A frustrating day for me... I hit my shin, cut my toe on board the boat, got a cut on my finger from some coral, and got stung most likely by some jellyfish though I never saw it. By the end of the day, I was too beat for the night dive. Probably good that I didn't go as I ended up with a nasty migraine.
Tuesday, February 19: Andaman Sea to Ranong
Three dives at Richelieu Rock today.
The most amazing diving day! All three dives along this reef had us swimming with manta ray. It was 3-4 meters wide and so graceful as it "flew" through the water. On each successive dive, we ended up closer and closer to it. On the last dive, it probably came within two meters of me at one point. It was truly awesome. It wasn't in much of a rush so we actually swam along with it for a short while. I always knew they were large so the width and length didn't surprise me, but I was surprised that it was maybe 70cm thick.
Other sightings over the course of the three days include: nudibranchs, trumpetfish, common lionfish, bearded scorpionfish, brown marbled grouper, shaded batfish, western clownfish (aka Nemo), unicornfish, Andaman butterflyfish, cube boxfish, black spotted pufferfish, varicose wartslug, zigzag oysters, whip coral, giant fan coral, featherstars, ghost pipefish, painted spiny lobster, a huge barracuda and a school of smaller ones, ornate ghost fish, cuttlefish, mantis shrimp, triggerfish, sea urchins, sea stars, leopard sharks, hermit crabs, giant moray, white eyed moray, and a lot more. Many of these are extremely common. Some not so common.
The cast of diving characters on board the boat included:
Stuart (Instructor) - British, Petros (divemaster) - Greek, Misha (divemaster student) and Carmen (Advanced Open water student with ~30 dives) - from Switzerland, Martin (150 dives) and Barbara (80 dives) - from Germany, Peter (750 dives - camera) - from England, Tom (Open Water student), and myself (~30 dives).
We were diving with AIDC out of Ranong. The food was fantastic and the boat crew just amazing.
Wednesday, February 20: Ranong
Hung out at the dive shop this morning while Tom finished off his Open Water certification by taking the final test. He passed with flying colors. Thankfully, the shop has a couple of computers available so I could pass the time on-line.
We rented Preben, the owner of the dive shop's, motorcycle for the day. After lunch, we settled into Stuart's place, hung out, went back to the shop, went to the hot springs which were amazingly built up but still free. Then back to the dive shop and followed Stuart to Saphon's Hideaway for dinner with a big group from the boat and dive shop. Preben, Stuart, Petros, Carmen, Misha, Peter, and a few others. Preben treated us to an appetizer of smoked tenderloin that he had just done at home. Then back to Stuart's for the night.
Thursday, February 21: Ranong to Phuket
We had an uneventful bus ride to Phuket from Ranong today. The six hour ride seemed easy compared to the ten hour ride we had from Bangkok to Ranong. We checked into the Wanasa Guesthouse only to find that Stuart had made us a reservation. It's the only place I've stayed so far where the beds really are truly too soft. I have to dig myself out of bed every time I get up.
We walked around town, got our bearings, checked internet, talked with both Stuart who is also in town, and Glenn (aka Fiddlehead in long-distance hiking circles), got dinner, more internet, and called it a day.
Friday, February 22: Phuket
Glenn picked us up at the guesthouse this morning with his pickup and we drove to Au Chalong Bay to meet Stuart and friends for breakfast. Then, Glenn drove us around the southern part of the island, showing us the views, pointing out areas that had been affected by the tsunami in '04, and eventually going to Jungle beach where we went swimming.
We had lunch together and then Tom and I took a sawng thew back to town, showered, met up with Stuart, had dinner, and then went to Patong, the area bet known for it's party atmosphere, It's also known for the kratoy, or lady boys. Given that there's some sort of election going on, things were rather subdued as most of the bars were closed. But, we still saw many "ladies" on the street, many of whom were female, and many of whom were not. Sometimes, it can be very hard to tell - one glance is not enough.
Back to Phuket Town where we're staying with our taxi driver, a single dad who's driving around with his son.
[Date: Fri Feb 29, 2008 12:11 am Subject: 2/23-28: Phuket to Bangkok
I'm back in Bangkok where I just saw Tom off after a great month of traveling together in western Cambodia and the Andaman Coast in Thailand. I'll miss him but I'm also looking forward to a few more weeks of travels in northern Thailand.
I've got a doctor's appointment scheduled for tomorrow to check out my shoulder. For the last week, I had significant discomfort even though there's been no loss of mobility or strength. It may be a nerve problem but there's no shooting pain, just discomfort that makes we want to change position but that gives no relief when I try it. Neither ibuprofen, Tylenol, nor Celebrex seem to help. Depending on what the doctor says may determine what I do next. It's not fun traveling while in pain.
Assuming I can get some relief for my shoulder, I plan to book a plane ticket back to the US for later March. If anyone (especially in the Boston area) knows of an older Ford Taurus wagon for sale at the end of March, let me know. Also, if you or anyone you know is going to be away on vacation and needs a housesitter, I'll be available - say for the April 1 timeframe - with a lot of flexibility. I could be available for days, weeks or months - maybe longer for the right situation.
Saturday, February 23: Phuket (pr. poo ket)
We had breakfast with Stuart at the On On Guesthouse where scenes from The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio were filmed. Then Stuart and I had long internet sessions while Tom went off for a haircut and some shopping for postcards. Tom and I then left Stuart for the day and had lunch, then a traditional Thai massage at a very nice spa. At 300 Baht, (<$10) this was the most expensive massage we've had yet.
I don't usually let people walk all over me, but in this case, that was part of the deal. Unlike the seeing hands massages we had in Cambodia which were very much like massages I've had from trained massage therapists in the US, the Thai massage was very different. Not only was there more positional body manipulation, but the woman giving the massage used much more of her own body for leverage as she manipulated me, a much larger person. She would sit pressing here with her foot while pulling there with her arms. On at least one occasion, she was literally standing on the backs of my legs while manipulating my upper body. I don't usually let people walk all over me but I made an exception for this massage.
As always, I wonder what these people giving me massages must think. I have very loose connective tissue throughout my body and in the US without fail and at least once in Cambodia, the person giving me a massage has commented on it. I suspect more here in SE Asia would comment on it but most just don't speak enough English to do so.
It was a good massage though it didn't seem to help a shoulder problem I've been having for the last few days. At least it didn't hurt it and it felt good otherwise. This is not the same shoulder I separated a year ago but rather something different - maybe with a pinched nerve or something. If it doesn't resolve itself soon, I'll see a doctor in Bangkok.
After our massage, Tom and I took a sawng thaew to Karon, a resort area and beach town on Phuket. We killed a couple of hours walking on the beach and then walked to the Hilton where we were to meet Stuart at 6:00. We got to the ticket counter at 6:00 and there was no Stuart, Then we realized we weren't at the "main" ticket counter. Oops! We hopped the shuttle and soon met up with Stuart. We were at the Hilton for the Phuket Blues Rock Festival where we were going to see Glenn (aka Fiddlehead) playing in the first set.
We even had time to do Glenn a favor and run out to fill his truck with gas. The gas stations were likely to be closed by the time we left the festival. It was a small festival with tables and chairs for sitting and a dance area near the front. There were six groups performing in succession. With elections on, there was no beer for sale so we had brought our own, only to find that they were giving out beer at the festival. I don't drink alcohol (can't stand the flavor) so am glad I brought my own soda and water.
The music at this festival which drew 1,200 people was great. Stuart is now going to plan on returning to the festival if he's got the time. It's always fun, as a traveler, to introduce a "local" to something in their own backyard. Granted Stuart lives in Ranong and not Phuket, it's still relatively close.
Stuart on his motorbike left a bit earlier than the rest of us and then I drove Glenn's truck back to Phuket Town from Karon. As always, I enjoy driving - and it was especially fun while driving on the left side of the road, with motorbikes all around, going over the "mountain", and shifting with my left hand. Thankfully, I relearned quickly and only signaled with my wipers once. Toyota moves the turn signals to the right side of the steering wheel for their right hand drive cars. Not all manufacturers do that.
Sunday, February 24: Phuket Town to Koh Phi Phi (pr. Ko pee pee)
An early breakfast with Stuart at On On again. Then Tom walked back to the hotel while I went with Stuart to the bus station. Then I took his rented motorbike back to the hotel. Phuket is the only place where people really seem to wear helmets (and apparently police enforce the helmet law) and given that Stuart had brought his own, I ended up having to go the few blocks without. But there wasn't much traffic and it was a quick ride. Getting off the bike, I'm always careful to avoid the hot exhaust pipe. This time, I didn't realize that the next bike over had just been parked and was hot. I managed to burn myself on that bike. Sigh. I got ice on it within a few minutes but it looked pretty bad. But, it never really blistered so I'll just have to watch it. Right now, it looks more like a brand than anything else.
I also realized that Stuart left at least his pocketknife on the motorbike key chain. But they said the rest of the keys were the bike owner's. They were wrong - but I only found that out later. So, I grabbed the knife intending to mail it back to Ranong.
Tom and I caught a sawng thaew to the pier and grabbed the next boat to Koh Phi Phi (koh means island). Along the way, we saw dolphins in the boat wake, Tom saw a sea turtle, and I saw flying fish from the boat.
The island was inundated when the tsunami hit. it has been almost completely rebuilt and the tsunami warning systems looks pretty impressive. There are blinking yellow lights facing the beaches to know where to try to exit the beach areas. The pavement has arrows painted on it to know the shortest and quickest way to the high ground. There's almost no motorized transport so everyone walks or rides bicycles. We saw a couple of electric bikes and one motorbike on the island. To get to other communities on the island, it's necessary to hop a water taxi.
We found a basic windowless room for 800 baht a night. Expensive by Thai standards but not by Phi Phi standards. It smelled a bit like mold but otherwise seemed clean enough.
We wandered town and went to the beach on the backside of the island. It was too shallow to swim (knee depth when I got there) and within a couple of hours, the tide was so far out the boats were sitting on the mud and the locals were playing soccer where the Sea had just been. It was getting later when we heard yelling behind us and I looked around to see a group playing (takraw, the game similar to volleyball but played with a rattan ball, no hands, and only the head and legs used to get the ball over the net. I had seen it played before but never on a "real" court with obvious rules. Three players on a side, three hits per side but can all be by one person, smaller court and lower net than volleyball.
Restaurants are expensive here but still cheaper than the US. We ate, then wandered town. We walked through the resort area and then the boat beach. We saw a puffer fish blown up and being watched by some French tourists who I think thought it was dead. But when they lost interest, we watched it return to normal size. It was pretty cool.
There was a kitten on the beach that took a liking to my feet and kept trying to trip me up. It was very cute. And there were crabs all along the beach that would retreat into their holes at the first sign of danger. A little patience and I think I got a couple of pictures.
Monday, February 25: Koh Phi Phi
Tom's weird funk and sneezing have turned into a full-fledged cold today. So, we're taking it easy rather than take a tour as we had thought we might do. At the same beach we spent time at yesterday, the tide was back in this morning and what was knee deep and then high and dry later in the afternoon was now up to my neck. I managed to get in a good swim - maybe a mile or so - and then went back to the hotel to shower. Tom just lounged on the beach watching our stuff. He met me back at the room and then we grabbed lunch together. I then left him on the beach again and went for a walk. I'm not much of a beach person so sitting on the beach for hours at a time holds very little appeal to me.
I rejoined him on the beach, caught up with my journaling, and then we went back into town for dinner. We got caught at the coffee shop after dinner when Tom stopped for a cup of coffee. It was about the best place we could have gotten stuck though. We were stuck because it started pouring down buckets. At one point, it let up a bit and Tom went back to our room to pick something up only to find our room was flooded. Oh well. Most of our gear was high and dry though my pack, and the few items I had left in the bottom got a little damp. I spread them to dry overnight.
Tuesday, February 26: Koh Phi Phi to Phuket
Tom and I are early risers and today we were catching a morning boat. So, once again, we found ourselves wandering a mostly tightly shuttered town in the morning. There were a few places open for breakfast so we went back to Unni's where we had dinner the night before, to have bagels for breakfast. Bagels are a fairly rare treat in this part of the world.
Our boat back to Phuket was much smaller than the one we had come on but they packed us in. We were amongst the first to board and laid claim to sitting on the cooler at the back of the boat. Tom eventually decided he preferred the floor and I ended up sitting with a German woman. It was a great place to sit though we did have to get up every time someone wanted to buy a bottle of water or can of beer. Not a problem though. It was always nice to be able to stretch my legs at those times without worrying that someone would take my seat.
In Phuket, we waited an hour or so for Glenn to come pick us up at the pier. Then we went to an AYCE (all you can eat) buffet at the Metropolitan. Great food and lots of it. Back at Glenn's place, we helped him pack a bit - mostly by staying out of the way, and then Glenn, Thum (his wife), and Simon (his two year old boy) as well as Tom and I piled into the pickup truck and headed north along the coast of Phuket. We stopped here and there to sight see, and eventually got to Ban Mai Khao (Mai Khao Beach) where Tom and I rented a large tent that came complete with mats, blankets, towels, beach mat, pillows, and breakfast. Shortly after we got there, a herd of water buffalo wandered up the waterline with a backdrop of a great sunset. We also watched planes taking off from the nearby airport.
Thum cooked a fantastic dinner of squid, chicken skewers, and grilled shrimp. Thai superstition had us leaving the light that was provided for us on all night but Tom and I were tired enough to sleep through anything at that point.
Wednesday, February 27: Phuket to Bangkok
Took a walk on the beach this morning. Munched on fried dough type food for breakfast. Hung out. Eventually, we all stopped for a more substantial Thai style breakfast of rice and pork with red sauce and soup. Then Glenn dropped us at the airport.
I had left my passport in Bangkok but before I made our reservations, the airline had assured me that a copy would be enough for the domestic flight. Sure enough, I had no problems checking in - not even a raised eyebrow at either check in or the security/documents desk.
Our flight was uneventful - the best kind. Then it took almost an hour for Tom's baggage to come through and then another long wait until our bus left for town. But we were soon back at Ruth's place in time to get cleaned up before Ruth came in.
Thursday, February 28: Bangkok
It's nice having someone with connections here in Bangkok. Ruth made a couple of phone calls and set up an appointment for me to get my shoulder checked out on Saturday. I hope the doctor can figure out what's going on so I can get some pain relief. It's not fun traveling in pain and it has affected what I've been doing and how I've been doing it. If I can't get relief, I may come home early. Hopefully that won't be the case.
Tom and I visited the palace and saw the emerald Buddha. Some of the grounds were closed for the rest of the year (Thai year ends in April, I think?) but we still got to see enough.
Came back to the apartment and grabbed lunch on soi 5 and 6. Dinner with Dare rounded out Tom's last day of relaxing in SE Asia.
[Date: Thu Mar 6, 2008 3:48 am Subject: 2/29-3/6: Bangkok
Now that my shoulder pain is manageable, I'm off to northern Thailand tonight on a night bus that should take 12 hours to get to Chiang Rai.
I'll be doing a border run to Burma to get another month's visa exempt stay here in Thailand. I can cross to the local market without getting a visa in advance. If I had wanted to travel in Burma, I would have needed a tourist visa from the consulate before getting to the border. Then once back in Chiang Rai, I hope to find some good trekking in the area.
In the meantime, I've had a very low key week here in Bangkok.
I hope my next batch of journal entries gets a bit more interesting. In the meantime, here's what was notable in the last week.
Friday, February 29: Bangkok
I said good-bye to Tom this morning. I'm going to miss having a travel partner but I can also appreciate the "freedom" of traveling alone. That said, I am looking forward to spending some time in the northern part of Thailand, assuming I can get the shoulder pain sorted out. I spent much of the rest of the day catching up on and transcribing my journal.
Saturday, March 1
My shoulder pain has continued to worsen so I saw Dr. Mason Porramatikul at the orthopedic clinic at Bumrungrad Hospital. Believe it or not, he trained at Harvard Medical School. He diagnosed a muscle spasm and showed me a stretching exercise to do. It was the same one that Tom had been doing all month for a problem he had been having with his shoulder. The doctor also prescribed Arcoxia, a cox-2 inhibitor after finding out that neither ibuprofen, acetominophen, nor Celebrex had been helpful in reducing pain. Arcoxia is not available in the US. If it works, this wouldn't be the first time I've benefited from medication not available in the US. He also prescribed Norgesic, a muscle relaxant.
I spent the rest of the day touring the M. R. Kukrit House, a grouping of traditional Thai houses brought to Bangkok by Kukrit, Thailand's 13th Prime Minister, a writer, and traditional dancer. Unlike the Jim Thompson house I had visited earlier in my trip, these were reconstructed as they had originally appeared, as individual houses.
Then I visited the fantastic Hindu temple I had walked by during my first day in Bangkok. The detail of the place was amazing. There's no photography allowed inside so I took a few pictures from outside.
Unfortunately, medication that "may cause drowsiness" such as the muscle relaxant tends to put me to sleep. So, I ended up fighting that and walking around in a bit of a fog as I had taken one of the Norgesics before I left the hospital.
Back at the apartment, I took a nap.
Sunday, March 2: Bangkok
The only thing I managed to do today was walk to Central World and get another much needed haircut. But, taking the Norgesics after every meal essentially puts me to sleep. I took two long naps today, and still went to sleep early. Something has got to give.
Monday, March 3: Bangkok
I made a trip to the immigration office today to get the stamp in my passport fixed. It had been stamped 11 MAY instead of 12 MAR on my way into the country from Cambodia. I knew if I tried to leave without having it fixed, I could be liable for a 500 baht per day fine for every day over the 30 days the permit should have indicated. I had also hoped to apply for an extension while there but realized I would be much better off just doing a run to the border.
Tuesday, March 4: Bangkok
Wednesday, March 5: Bangkok
I continued planning for my return to the US and managed to purchase a plane ticket to get back to the US. I'll be leaving from Bangkok on March 31 and flying on Etihad Airlines. I had never heard of them before. They are based out of the United Arab Emirates so I'll be flying to JFK by way of Abu Dhabi. That will make this my first ever trip truly around the world.
I joined Dare and some other of her friends and coworkers at Coyote for dinner of Mexican food. It was delicious and a nice change of pace. Afterwards, we piled onto the BTS Skytrain and went to Folly's, an Irish pub to play pool or shoot darts. At one point, Karl, who I had earlier been talking about dancing (he and his wife are swing dancers), turned to me and referencing the music, asked if I did Cajun dancing. In short order, I was doing a Cajun dance, in an Irish pub, in Bangkok, Thailand.
We certainly attracted the attention of just about everyone in the pub. I suspect that may have been the first time anyone had ever did a Cajun dance there. Too bad Tom, who's from Cajun country in Louisiana, couldn't have seen it.
Wednesday, March 6: Bangkok
Friday, March 7: Night bus to Chiang Rai
As with all long haul bus rides, we stopped for a long break in the middle. Only this one was a break from 12:30 to 1:00AM. But, it's obvious a lot of buses make this stop. The stop was open for business with vendors peddling munchies and a restaurant serving noodles and the usual quick eats. I'm pretty sure the stop as at Sukkothai, a place I expect to stop on my way back to Bangkok.
Back on the bus, we continued for another few hours and then my seatmate was one of the first to disembark giving me room to spread out for the remainder of the ride. We were woken up about 30 minutes before arriving at Chiang Rai. Moist towelettes and tea were passed around by the flight attendant, err, bus attendant. More like stewardess though in her tight miniskirt and makeup. I didn't see any guys in that position on any of the other buses pulling out of Bangkok. In all, the trip took 11.5 hours. I realized I got up less often on that bus ride than a flight of similar duration. And my feet showed it when I pulled my sandals on in the morning. My feet were a bit swollen and the sandals were tight.
The town was small enough that I could ignore the taxis and walk to a street with a bunch of guesthouses. I took the first room I saw. For 100 baht ($3), I got a room with a bed. The shared bath was outside. The Korean owner was interesting and complained about the deceit of the Thai women he had met. I chatted with him while I ate some breakfast and then I crashed for a couple of hours. When I woke up, I was surprisingly quite refreshed and realized I must have gotten some pretty good sleep on the bus ride.
At the TAT office, I got some good information about things to do within walking distance for the afternoon and for other things to do within motorcycle distance if I were to rent a bike for a few days. I even got tips on places to camp. I spent the rest of the morning visiting two wats, one of which got my vote for most beautiful setting. Even in the middle of the city, it was green, with lots of plants and flowers and a turtle pond, too. But, what brings people to this wat is the Emerald Buddha. The one I had seen in Bangkok was the original that was found here years ago after a lightning bolt split the plaster that had shrouded it for years. So the local wat had an almost exact copy made. It's 1mm smaller than the original. Unlike the one in Bangkok, you can get close to this one, and take pictures.
I then found my way to Doi Chaang, a wonderful cafe, if pricey, for a panini, strawberry shake, and piece of apple cake. I also used the internet there. It's a fairly quiet place with nice music in the background and a waterfall inside the building. I went to the night market to see some more traditional dancing, had a roti for dinner, and then back to the guesthouse where I spent time working on puzzles before bed.
Saturday, March 8: Chiang Rai to Chiang Saen Lake
Back to the cafe for breakfast with two women from British Columbia traveling by bicycle. After finding the motorcycle place closed, I ended up renting from the guesthouse next to where I had been staying. So, I checked out, left a bag at the new place, climbed aboard the rental bike, and took off.
It was a nice easy ride, even on the busier roads. I guess I really am a Boston driver. Nothing even here in Thailand fazes me anymore. Taking a secondary road to my destination, I came across a huge wat under construction with a huge fat and happy Buddha on top. It's only the Chinese Buddhas that are fat and happy. The others in the region are svelte and serene.
I climbed the huge staircase for views of the surrounding area. As I got closer to the huge Buddha, I could see it had some unusual growths. It was covered with bees’ nests. If there are nests on the Buddha's knees, does that make them the bee's knees? (Sorry!)
I got to the lake and tried to circumnavigate it but failed to find the promised camping area on my own. So after turning back, I turned into a resort only to find that they offered camping for a very reasonable fee. I might have taken them up on it but they were able to point to the free camping, just a few hundred meters away, in a bird sanctuary. The resort owner however, gave me a tour of the place. It was beautiful! Had I had 1800 baht/night to spend, I might have stayed in a bungalow. At 100 baht to camp, I almost camped there regardless of the free camping. The bathroom itself was worth it but the thought of camping in the bird sanctuary under trees and away from the road beat the open field at the resort.
I spent the afternoon at the bird sanctuary, wandering the boardwalk over the lily pad covered lake. There were a lot of birds there but none I could identify on my own.
Back to the resort for a delicious salad with the first Ranch dressing I have had since leaving the US. Then back to the sanctuary to camp for the night. What is it with Thais and lighting? I finally had to trace the line and pull the plug on the lights so I could sleep in relative darkness. Even still, I had to put my tent in the shadow of a stand of snake plants to get away from the building's porch light.
Sunday, March 9: Chiang Saen Lake to Mae Sai
Up with the birds - quite literally today. With sunrise, came the activity of thousands of birds. It was great to watch them from the boardwalk. The sun rose over the lake as well from my perspective and was quite spectacular. Given that it's burning season, there's always a lot of haze in the air making for spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The glowing red orb visible through the haze is unreal.
I went back to Viang Yonok for breakfast. Not the cheapest place, it was still quite reasonable for a place that offers luxury accommodations.
After breakfast, I rode to Chiang Saen, a walled and moated city. The moat is long drained and the wall breached at quite a few locations but it was still impressive to see this massive brick wall surrounding the town. I took in the Chiang Saen National Museum with many items excavated locally and a great deal of information about the history and movement of the people who populated the area.
Then I made my way past the Golden Triangle, the area where Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet. While the immediate area where the three countries meet is known as the Golden Triangle, the entire region within these three countries is also known as the Golden Triangle and is known primarily for the drug trafficking that has gone on here. While the opium trade has diminished significantly, it still exists and other drug trade such as meth also uses this area for transporting drugs across international borders.
It is here that Thailand has the Hall of Opium, a museum dedicated to the history of opium use and abuse in this area and around the world. The place is fairly new and quite extensive. It is extremely well done and oriented to the English speaking tourist. As expected, I spent over two hours there. Most would take three hours as there's a lot of reading in addition to videos to watch to get the full experience.
From there, I rode to Mai Sai, the northernmost point of Thailand. I found a place to park near the border crossing (it's nice to have a motorbike instead of a car), and headed straight across the border. I wish I had brought dollars with me. It was $10 or 500 baht to cross the border. So, I paid in baht and took the extra $7 hit. Oh well.
I would like to travel in Burma sometime and almost used this trip to do so, but spending an hour in Talichek is not anything like the rest of Burma. It's just an extension of Thailand. Kind of like going across the border to Tiajuana from California. It is Mexico but not really. Here everyone took baht and the entire market was about the day tourists who come across. For me, it was just a border run to get a new Thailand exempt stamp in my passport. I wasn't interested in Saddam Hussein playing cards, "Marlboro" cigarettes, or any of the other items for sale. There were vendors selling animal pelts as well as monkey skulls, deer skulls, horns, elephant teeth, and more. I got some fried treats from a Muslim vendor. Spring rolls, falafel, samosas, and more.
I killed and hour wandering around and then happily recrossed the border back to Thailand. As expected, there was some confusion with my mixture of exempt stamps and one tourist visa, but the Thai immigration people do know what they are doing and I soon had the last Thai stamp that I'm eligible for - at least for this six month period.
Back in town, I tried to make my way to Doi Tung but found a wat to climb on a huge hill. So I went up to get a view of the city. Then, I ended up driving up the hill that I had just climbed and descended in a failed attempt to find the road to Doi Tung. At this point, it was getting late so I found a place to stay in Mae Sai at Chad's Guest House. It was a nice place that reminded me more of a cabin with the exposed wood walls. It also had covered area I could park my motorbike and a gate the closed at night. Perfect.
I took a ride looking for internet access and instead found a market going on in a local Tesco Lotus supermarket parking lot. This market was complete with two bands playing for the crowds. I ended up finally sampling a local chain and got some sliced duck and rice for 55 baht (less than $2). That and a yoghurt from the supermarket and a piece of cake from a bakery and I had dinner. I went back to the guest house to eat. The duck from MK's was delicious though the portion was small. The "Sacher Cake" was nothing like the dense Sacher Torte it looked like but it was passable chocolate cake.
I spread my tent out to dry over a chair outside my room. Then I went to take a shower. It was the first time I had used a gas on demand system and it worked very well. By the time I got back, my tent was dry. As I packed it up, it started raining. I had dried it under cover so it wasn't in danger of getting wet again, but I'm glad I took the time to dry it. Otherwise, I would have been on my bike getting soaked in the rain. I decided to stay in for the evening.
A few random notes...
A couple of days ago, I noticed my left second toenail looked like it was bruised underneath. It still does. I don't remember any trauma and I've been wearing sandals so it's not like I was hitting the front of my shoes. Oh well. It doesn't hurt and if I end up losing the nail, it'll probably be months from now.
As for going home, part of me is very ready for the ease of life in the west. I'm also looking forward to spending time with family and friends. But, after a month or so, I have to wonder if I'll be happy that I came home "so soon." I'm already thinking of other things to do and places to be once I'm back in the US. I may even do another stint on the AT this May/June timeframe. But, I'm not sure what I'll end up doing this summer or where I'll end up being. It'll probably be where I can spend a lot of time on a computer that I'll probably have to buy once I get home. I've got over 50gb of photos to sort through from the last year and my web site hasn't been updated in over a year.
Monday, March 10: Mae Sai to Lamnamkok National Park (Khun Kam Waterfall)
What a day! After breakfast at the Guesthouse, I got directions to get on the road to Doi Tung. It was rather simple from the guesthouse. I was also encouraged once again to take the scenic route which I had heard was rather challenging. So I did.
To get to Doi Tung, I would have to traverse a number of mountains stretching west from Mae Sai along the Burmese border. The road was a slow winding road. At first, I didn't think it was all that bad. I "found" another new wat being built with a view over Thailand and Burma. I was able to drive in third gear with an occasional downshift to second. Not so bad for mountain driving. I passed through no fewer than three army checkpoints. This border area has had skirmishes as recently as 2001 that I'm aware of. Only at the first checkpoint was I asked to show my passport and asked where I was going. I said Doi Tung and had no further problems as the checkpoints I came to. It was only as I got closer to Doi Tung that the road got more challenging. I found myself driving primarily in first gear on road that had I been bicycling, I would have had a hard time keeping the front wheel on the ground on some of the ascents. While descending, I stayed in first gear and was going so slowly, that I could safely use the front brake on occasion to give my rear brake a break.
I took plenty of scenic stops along the way and was frequently overlooking Burma. Unfortunately, the haze prevented pictures from capturing the scenery. At one stop, I climbed a set of steps only to realize it wasn't a scenic overlook, but rather an army bunker complete with pillbox and sandbagged protective areas. Oops! Nobody challenged me but I didn't stick around long. Then I almost ran over a red snake about the size of a large garter snake. I stopped to try to go look at it but it had slithered off the road. I found out later it may have been a type of cobra. I wish I could have gotten a better look at it.
I decided to bypass the beautiful arboretum on the way into Doi Tung. I went straight to the Royal Villa and Mae Fah Luang Royal Gardens. The Princess Mother (the king's mother) had a villa built here in the hopes that a royal presence would inspire the locals to give up the opium trade. There were a number of programs established here and through Thailand to help the poor both with health care and alternative means of making a living.
The villa itself looks like it was inspired by Swiss Chalets - no surprise given that the Princess Mother lived in Switzerland. She kept her hands busy and made an assortment of crafts - sold as fund raisers. She was an avid reader and included Christie and Gardner in her collection. The huge gardens adjacent to the villa were also worth a visit.
I did find it interesting that there was a point to keep all the tours in Thai and other interpretive information about the Princess Mother was in Thai. This was surprising given her international lifestyle and fluency in multiple languages as well as her goal to educate people. Oh well... Normally it wouldn't bother me except given this particular focus from one person who would normally appreciate the international visitor taking an interest.
I took the easy way back to Chiang Rai but kept going and went to the White Temple, south of town. It really is white. Startlingly so. Even more startling is the murals inside. Like others, they represent what was going on at the time the temple was built but usually, the murals represent local wars and so on. This time, I was shocked to see the twin towers, one in flames. There were images of Superman, Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, a gas pump feeding a demonic being, and lots of other Science Fiction robots and other beings. It was weird. outside, the fish pond had not only the usual selection of large goldfish, but also 1-2 meter long catfish. Wow!
I then met Renate and Vlad who had also just toured the temple and we ended up having an early dinner at a little shop near the temple and then driving to the waterfall together. I was camping there but they had to drive back to town so we made it a quick trip up to the falls. We got to the waterfall, a 1.5km hike just before nightfall. On the way back, I lit the way with my headlamp. The guard came looking for us though with a flashlight and was probably surprised to find I had one and we were in good spirits. I said goodbye to Renate and Vlad and then set up my tent with the guard, who spoke no English, watching me - probably out of boredom. I think campers are unusual here and he had nothing else to do. Then he kept me company as I wrote my journal entry in the overlit gazebo. Finally, when the lights went out at 9:00 (thankfully!), he brought over a pillow and blanket for me. He had no idea that I was planning on being quite cold that night. I didn't use the pillow but did make use of the blanket and was glad to have it.
Tuesday, March 11: Khun Kam Waterfall to Chiang Rai
It was cold last night so I was very glad for the blanket. My silk liner wouldn't have kept me nearly warm enough though I would have "survived" the night, albeit uncomfortably. I slept well in my $12 tent and hope I find more opportunities to use it in the next couple of weeks. I woke up with the sun and was crawling out of my tent when Boonsuoy Panyee, the night guard who had kept me company yesterday evening pulled up. I was able to return his blanket and pillow with a hearty thank you. I left my tent set up in the hopes that it would dry by the time I got back to it. Then I started up the trail, back to the waterfall.
When I got there, I found the sun was slowly crawling its way down the falls to the base. I had timed my arrival perfectly and just a few minutes after I arrived, the entire 70 meter waterfall was in full sun. It was beautiful. I could even see rainbows in the spray at times.
On my way back, I found a pile of dung that looked similar to bear dung in the eastern US. I took a picture of it and figured it was either bear or monkey dung. When I got back to the park headquarters where I had camped, I found the staff had changed over to the English speaking day staff. They were able to confirm the dung as monkey scat. They were also able to suggest that the snake I had seen yesterday was a type of cobra.
I packed my tent, still a bit wet, and got on the road back to Chaing Rai by about 8:30am. In town, I found the cheap internet place someone had told me about but it was closed when I was there and too far to bother to walk to later in the day once I had returned my motorbike. When I returned the motorbike, I checked into the Jitaree Guesthouse for the night. It was early enough to get some laundry in to be done that day.
I also managed a shower before heading off to Doi Chaang's, what has turned into my favorite coffeehouse, for breakfast. It's a standard meal of eggs, toast, "chicken slide" (chicken hot dog), fresh squeezed OJ, and hot chocolate made with steamed milk. All for less than $3. Still it's expensive by Thai standards but the setting itself is worth the extra. Without anything specific on my docket, I took the time to read some of my book, read the newspaper, get on-line, and chat with whoever wanted to talk. All in a peaceful setting with good music (jazz, blues, Latin, classical, etc.) playing softly in the background. In the "outer" room, there is additional seating with a very pretty waterfall running inside the building. The place is air conditioned, too.
I spent hours there, then stopped at the TAT office to confirm my travel details for the next day, went back to the GH to take a nap, then back to the cafe for another internet session. I needed to download my pictures. Unfortunately, my 2gb card will no longer "unlock" so I can't delete what's on it and use it to take more pictures. Then when trying to figure out the problem, the locking slide actually fell off the card and is now permanently lost. I now only have 2gb worth of memory cards to take with me.
Wednesday, March 12: Chiang Rai to Tha Ton
I thoroughly enjoyed my last breakfast at Doi Chaang's. I'm going to miss that place. Wish I could take it home with me but the prices would at least triple. This time, I got a muffin to go - I wasn't sure what food I would be able to get along the day's journey.
After breakfast, I checked out of the guest house where the wrinkled old lady had taped a piece of red paper over my bathroom door to remind me to duck as I went in and out. But, I've been ducking through many doorways for the last five months so it was no problem.
I walked the couple of kilometers to the boat landing and only had offers from tuk tuk drivers as I got close to my destination. I was the first to buy a ticket for Tha Ton today but another guy with the same destination was right on my heels. There was a comedy of errors as the incompetent cashier tried to make change for my 1000 baht bill and the next guy's 500 baht bill.
We sat down to chat while we waited the near hour before our boat was to leave. As we waited, others came up but were only going for a short river cruise. At 10:30, we all boarded the same boat going upstream on the Mae Kok river. Everyone else would be getting off after one hour and Lee, the other guy going to my destination, and I were to stay on board for three more hours to Tha Ton. We essentially had a private boat for the rest of the trip, something others pay 2200 baht for, we had paid just 350 baht each.
After one hour, we stopped at the elephant camp where we saw elephants lumbering down the river with tourists on their backs. After everyone else disembarked, we had a long break here so got out to see what this stop had to offer other than elephant rides. There were also three pythons, one of which was 120kg. For 300 baht, they would take one out and drape them on whoever had paid and take their pictures. I like snakes but have held many before and declined the experience. One of the snakes had just shed. They all eat frequently, two chickens per week, and all were used to being handled so there was nothing dangerous as long as they weren't allowed to wrap themselves around your neck.
The ride after the elephant camp got even prettier and reminded me of the two day trip I had taken up the Nam Ou river in Laos. But, our pilot miscalculated once and we ground to a halt on a sand bar. Thankfully, I knew this was a possibility and had dressed for the occasion in shorts and sandals. The three of us were soon out of the boat and pulling it into a deeper portion of the river. We got going the wrong way but a u-turn later and we were back on track. It's near the end of the dry season so the river is about as low as it's going to get.
Thankfully, the rest of the ride was uneventful. We had the usual assortment of children swimming in the river, fishermen stretching nets for their daily catch, water buffalo lazing on the river banks, pump boats pushing river water up the hills, denuded hills, cultivated hills, and plenty of long tail boats, like ours, going in the other direction. Anywhere else, we would have been seeing forest fires. Here, the fires were intentionally set. So, the hills were on fire, unmanned, uncontrolled, but not a concern. Weird.
We found Tha Ton to be quite pretty, clean by Thai standards, at least at first glance, but also deserted. We eventually found a guesthouse that cost a bit more than the first we had looked at but the woman who ran the place was a character and worth the extra, herself. I settled in, took a break at the bar, drinking green Fanta, and then took a walk. The town was small and I soon saw most of it. I found a couple of sheds packed full of garlic. I think I must have stumbled in the Gilroy of Thailand. In addition to the sheds, there were overloaded trucks rumbling by loaded with garlic.
Then, I walked up the hill, through the wat, past the White Buddha, past the weird Chinese style artificial rock and statue park, and finally past the seated Buddha on the seven headed Naga, to what I call the Muslim Chedi. It wasn't Muslim but the onion shapes on it were clearly influenced by Muslim design. I saw the sunset there and ran out of time to get to the Standing Buddha.
On my way back down the steep hill, I stopped at the wat to listen to the monks droning in their unfamiliar Pali. From there, as it got dark, I could see the fires in the hills much more clearly now. Like with the forest fires I've seen in the US, they are pretty to see from a distance, like strings of beads draping the hillside.
Back in town, I ate Chicken and cashews at a local cafe and finished it off with chocolate cake and ice cream. Lucy, an outdoor /environmental educator, living and working in the area was interesting to talk with. Had I had that as an option when I went to school, I might have lived another type of life, but then, I wasn't active outdoors until after my college career. But, I can certainly appreciate those that choose that route and am jealous of their personal insight to find those opportunities. But, I have few regrets for the computer career I followed that allowed me, with proper planning and priorities to retire at 36. Hmm, perhaps if Buddhism really is the way, I'll come back as an outdoor/environmental educator in my next life.
Thursday, March 13: Tha Ton to Chiang Mai
A chilly morning and last night's breeze had turned into actual wind, some of the first I've felt in months.
After an early breakfast, I ignored the passing Akha women who were trying to get me to buy their handicrafts. I finally escaped their pleas when my bus came. thankfully, I had no problems flagging it down. I was sorry to be leaving such a nice little town and the character who owned Kwan's Guest House, but I was glad to be getting out of the guest house with the paper thin bamboo walls that shook with every passing vehicle.
the bus, a local, cost 90 baht, (<$3) to go 175 kilometers in four hours. In Chiang Mai, I found the Saewng Thaew that took me to the neighborhood with the guesthouses for 20 baht for the maybe three kilometer ride. I checked into Julie guesthouse even though I'm going to have to leave there tomorrow (they're already overbooked) and spent the afternoon chilling out there. the evening got me out of the guesthouse but not far, just around the corner to the internet cafe. I needed yet another day of not doing anything.
[Date: Fri Mar 21, 2008 2:17 am Subject: 3/14-20: Chiang Mai to Pai, Soppong, Pai, and Chiang Mai
I'm down to my last ten days here in Thailand. With no particular plans, I'm planning on relaxing a bit. I've got a host lined up for a couple of days starting Sunday (expats, not locals). I may stop at Sukkothai on my way back to Bangkok or skip it altogether and just hang out here and Bangkok until I leave.
Oh yeah... The shoulder injury seems to have responded to drugs and stretching and is no longer a problem.
Friday, March 14: Chiang Mai
I was up early but with the guesthouse overbooked for today, I was told there was no way I could get a room. So, I went for a walk and found a suitable room at the third guesthouse I tried. Not bad!
I went back to Julie's for breakfast, met Marilyne there, and organized my day. Marilyne would join me. So, I checked out of Julie's, brought my laundry to be done down the street, brought everything else to my new place, and then went with Marilyne to rent a motorbike for a week.
We then spent the day first going to the Hill Tribe museum. Then had lunch, then a visit to a Hill Tribe crafts center, then another street market. Back to our guesthouses to drop stuff off and clean up a bit. Then we hopped back on the bike to go to the Monk Chat, a thrice weekly event at a nearby wat where the monks gather to practice their English and help disseminate information to those of us curious about their way of life, Buddhism, or anything else that comes to mind. We had a good time chatting with Sawanch, Bunthan, and Chantaa. Then we made our way back across town to the night market which was HUGE! We stopped for dinner at an Indian place - delicious - and then walked through the market some more.
Marilyne was a real trouper today. Just retired with kids in their 20s and a husband at home who is still working, she's been traveling on her own since December. The motorbike thing was new to her and we went all over town, in traffic. It's some of the worst type of driving you can do, but she was a great passenger and I think managed to have fun. She'll soon be joined by her husband who will hopefully learn to enjoy her manner of travel. I don't know if she'll ever rent a motorbike or scooter on her own, but she probably won't just dismiss it out of hand if the opportunity presents itself.
Saturday, March 15: Chiang Mai to Pong Duat Geyser
In this town of primarily young travelers who stay up late, us early risers must often wait for the rest of the town to wake up. So today, with no seating area in my new guesthouse, I made my way back to Julie's, got comfortable, and ended up eating breakfast there again.
I collected my laundry, repacked my bag, dropped my extra stuff at Julie's for safekeeping while I hit the road, and finally dropped off the extra helmet Marilyne had been using yesterday.. Driving in town isn't much fun but it's handy to be able to go wherever, whenever I want to get somewhere. Away from traffic however, driving the motorbike is fun.
I was headed for Pai today but got sidetracked by the Mork Fah waterfall along my route. It was a National Park so they charged me 200 baht - plus 20 to park the bike. I wandered to the falls and did a bit of wading but didn't go all the way in. The shiny bits in the water looked like gold, but were probably pyrite, fool's gold. I did take the time to wander up to a bat cave. I had to duck to go in but then it opened to a large and high chamber. I didn't spend much time in there once I realized I was disturbing the bats. I then walked back the long way on a nature trail that had bird viewpoints marked along the way.
Continuing along the road, I saw a sign for a geyser 10km ahead. I was hungry so decided to stop at the first eatery I came to before getting to the geyser. Turns out the tour groups were stopping there as well. Oh well. Even though I started after them, I was still out of there before the group.
I then stopped at the Mae Sae Wildlife Sanctuary but after viewing the information center, I was sort of discouraged from doing any more exploring so I went directly to the Geyser, next. It was 6.5 km off the main road. Then there was a 350m boardwalk to the geyser. It bubbled up about a meter. It used to be as high as two meters but clear cutting had reduced the amount of water the trees could hold on the hills, and reduced the level of the water table so it doesn't shoot that high any more. This was small compared to Yellowstone but I'm still fascinated by geysers and hot springs. The shifting wind had us shifting as we watched. It was no fun breathing in the sulfuric steam. Once again, most people went back the way they had come, I continued on the nature trail 500m to another area with services for tourists.
By now, I had hatched another plan. There was a trail that tour groups take from near the geyser. I could camp at the headquarters and then walk the trail in the morning. So, I paid my 30 baht to camp, borrowed a sleeping bag, and set up camp. Then back to the food service place to get some dinner and write my journal entry. Finally back to go to sleep under the thundering teak trees. The leaves blowing around sound like heavy foot falls. The leaves blowing in the treetops sound like traffic heading for me. I like to camp under trees but perhaps teak aren't the best options.
Sunday, March 16: Pong Duat Geyser to Pai
I woke up this morning and hit the trail about 6:45. The geyser and the stream that flowed from its pool were sending up clouds of fog in the cool air. It was beautiful and much more impressive than what I had seen in the heat of the day.
I had a nice hike and stumbled into a Karen village after just a couple of kilometers. One of the smaller groups I had seen yesterday had spent the night there. Turns out, one of them had gotten very sick. When he asked if I could bring my bike around and evacuate him to the nearest hospital, I knew things were bad. It was only when we asked his guide how I could get back there that the guide finally started taking him seriously. It took a while, but they finally got him on board a motorbike already in the town for the 7 kilometer trip to the main road. From there, the guy could catch the bus to Chiang Mai. It would be much faster and easier than had I drove him.
I went straight back to the geyser, packed up my camp, and then hit the road, looking for this guy, to make sure he had gotten the bus. I didn't see him so assume he had gotten a ride.
Then, it was a mountainous ride to Pai (pr. like pie), through areas high enough to have pine trees, similar to the ones I had seen in the mountain on the border with Burma on my trip from Mae Sai to Doi Tung.
Once in Pai, I drove around looking unsuccessfully for 100 baht bungalows. so I stopped for lunch of a bagel and then tried again,. I found the right bridge and eventually the bungalows. These come with privileges at the guesthouse in town so I made us of the free internet access there and the pool. I hung out there with Kent from Pennsylvania, Andrew from France, and Kevin, the caver, from Vancouver. I eventually went for dinner with Kevin and we met up with four others and ended up sharing six dishes, Thai style. I then introduced some of the newer travelers to roti before Kevin and I went in search, unsuccessfully for music.
Monday, March 17: Pai
It's the 9th anniversary of the start of my '99 thruhike of the Appalachian Trail. I'm traveling in Thailand and SE Asia, doing what some people only dream of doing and yet, I still have a bad case of Springer fever. I've managed to keep busy for most of the day. My cabin isn't as quiet as I had hoped so I was up early. I went back to Duang's for another bagel, this time for breakfast. Then I went to an internet cafe in town to download some pictures. With my free internet access at the Unicorn Guesthouse, I don't need to pay for internet access to. I took some time to wander around town and check out the shops. This is the "artsiest" town I've been in on this trip with a lot of hippies hanging around, music if you can find it, and more.
Back at the guesthouse, I talked with Isabelle and Umberto, a couple from the French speaking part of Switzerland. I had lunch from a place with the largest menu I've seen - perhaps ever - at Pai Country, across from Duang's. I then took a ride to a nearby waterfall, that wasn't so much fun to get in as it was to watch the local kids playing in the pools and sliding down the rocks, sometimes seated, other times standing and sliding on their feet. Yikes!
I didn't stay too long in the hot sun and ended up going to Pai Canyon for sunset. Once I got there, I realized I should have gone earlier. There's hiking to be done there. Actually, for the best hiking, I would get there at dawn. It's hot there in the afternoon with the exposed sand and eroded ridges. I hadn't seen anything quite like it elsewhere in my travels. The ridges are like knife edges with steep drops on both sides of the narrow trail crossing the ridges. There were light breezes when I was there but in a heavier wind, I wouldn't go near the ridges.
I got there a bit before sunset so had maybe half an hour to wander around. I wish I had a few hours. It looked like you could actually walk down the ridges to some of the nearby villages.
Back at the guesthouse, Isabelle and Umberto were about to hit the sauna and invited me to join them. So I did a couple of short stints in the too hot sauna with refreshing (almost too cold!) dips in the pool in between and then grabbed a shower - perfect temperature. In the meantime, Kaya, a German with a Turkish heritage, living in Spain, and speaking French serenaded us at the poolside with wonderful acoustic Spanish guitar. Then Umberto took a turn and did some folk songs in French. It was a wonderful start to the evening. The four of us then went out for dinner at a restaurant with yet another man and guitar serenading us. Unfortunately, Kaya ended up getting sick and going back to the guesthouse.
Well, one of the songs the guitarist played while we were waiting for dinner was "Take me home, Country roads" and given that the song is pretty popular with thruhikers as we walk through the Blue Ridge and Shenandoahs, it got me going again and I had to explain to my dinner companions why I was tearing up. Springer Fever had struck yet again.
Tuesday, March 18: Pai to Soppong
An eventful day today... I got up early, packed and started out on my motorbike only to realize I wasn't wearing my helmet. Hmm... It wasn't on my bike where I had left it last night. So, back to the guesthouse. Nobody was up so I just looked around and eventually found it. I think the dogs had somehow knocked it off my bike and gone after the salt in the helmet lining. Most of the Styrofoam was intact but I shook out a few of the loose pieces, wiped it out, and put it on. I had no choice. There was no place else to buy another helmet - especially at this hour.
I had felt a slight back spasm this morning and worried that the bike ride would exacerbate it. I could feel it every now and then but for the most part, it was OK and I had no problems getting to Soppong. Soppong has a Tuesday morning market that caters to the locals, not to tourists. I had heard that many of the hill tribe people come here to do business, both shopping and selling. Sure enough, it was packed. The tribe most represented were the Lisu with their embroidered jackets, the men in baggy silk trousers, and many wearing colorful hats. There were other tribes represented though none of the long necks that would have been most interesting. I had intended to go on to Mae Hong Son primarily for the local market experience but having gotten to Soppong on a Tuesday morning, I felt I could relax a bit and skip the far end of the loop that I had intended to take but would have taken much too long.
At the market, I ran into Kent, a guy I had first met in Chiang Mai and then seen in Pai. He had a map of local trails and caves. I had a bike. Together we decided to team up and go exploring. Well, when we started out, I explained that on steep hills, he had to move forward on the bike and keep his weight as far forward as possible. I forgot to remind him when we hit the hills and while we made it up the first few steep turns, we hit one that was particularly steep. I had already dropped the bike into first gear and was trying to take the turn on the gentlest slope we could safely take, but our weight was too far back and in slow motion, but still much too fast for me to be able to react differently, the front wheel lifted off the ground and we went down sideways. At only 10-15kph max, maybe less, this wasn't a bad accident or anything. Kent landed on his bum with no scratches or bruises whatsoever. I landed on my side and ended up a bit bruised where I had bumped into various motorcycle parts on the way down. But going as slow as we were, there's no road rash, one scratch that never even bled where my arm hit the mirror and that was it. When we righted the bike, one of the foot pegs was bent and a mirror had come loose. So, needing to get the foot peg fixed so I could shift down, I dropped Kent off at a cave near town, then brought the bike to a fix it facility. Bang, bang, bang and the foot peg was bent back where it belonged and with a couple of twists of a wrench, the mirrors were tightened back into place. It took two minutes and they wouldn't take any money for it.
I went back to the Coffin Cave trailhead where I had left Kent and climbed up the steep and sandy trail on my own. I found Kent at the cave, did some exploring, climbing in and out of various parts of the cave, and got to see some of the teak logs, hollowed out like dugout canoes, that were used as coffins between 1700 and 2200 years ago. They were placed in the caves on scaffolding about two meters high. I have to wonder if the logs were harvested right at the cave or if they were brought up the steep hill from the village below.
I stopped in town at the Eden guesthouse and had a sandwich for lunch, then moved on to Cave Lodge, a place started about thirty years ago by an Australian ex-pat. I was soon joining a crew going through the Lod Cave on inflatable kayaks. There really wasn't enough water and we were in and out of our kayaks trying to find the deep enough water to stay afloat. It was a bit annoying and I would only really recommend kayaking in the wet season or earlier in the dry season. This is close to the end of the dry season and all water sources are low. As it is, when we got to the end of the cave, we had to carry our kayaks around the bamboo dam that was holding enough water in the cave to float through. Having spent some time in kayaks before I had a few tricks that could keep me in the kayak for longer, but it was still an exercise in frustration at times. I just tried to amuse myself by watching the antics of the others going through the cave.
No surprise when I ran into Kent, doing his own thing going through the cave on the bamboo raft.
At the end of the run, I started to help load the truck and then realized nobody else even tried to lend a hand. Weird. Oh well...
After returning to the lodge, I set off back to the cave to watch the swifts returning in the evening and the bats emerging. Again, I ran into Kent coming back from the cave exit as I was heading out to see the swifts. As John, the lodge owner said, it's mostly just swifts. Sure enough, shortly after I got there, the biggest group of swifts entered the cave. They hang out on the stalactites overnight. We could hear and see a few of the bats, but the mass exit I had hoped for, a la Carlsbad caverns, didn't happen. It got too dark so I gave it up.
Back at the lodge, I ended up talking with a French ex-pat and his Thai wife and their kids, who took great delight in playing with me. They are the same ages as my niece and nephew so it was a reminder of things to come when I get home.
Wednesday, March 19: Soppong to Pai
I had hoped to get away from the highly touristy Lod cave today but woke up feeling quite sore. I almost didn't do anything but when a Swedish couple staying at the lodge was headed to the cave, I joined them for the walking tour. In the kayaks, we couldn't get out and explore the three side caverns. Today, our guide who spoke about 10 words in English took us to the three caverns. She pointed out white elephant (flowstone), popcorn, soda straws, and mostly left it up to us to read the interpretive displays. I remembered bacon and learned about helictites and rimstone dams. Our guide couldn't answer any questions. We did end up taking the bamboo raft to the cave exit which is where the coffin cavern is in this cave. Had we known, we could have done it on our own yesterday while waiting for the swifts. Sigh.
I had lunch at the lodge and then hit the road.
Even having dumped the bike yesterday, I was enjoying the ride as I set off. Unfortunately, that didn't last all that long. Shortly after I got to the most mountainous area, I ran into an accident scene. Two army guys had obviously been sharing a bike and had gone down. Either they had been hit by the guy in the van that was now on the phone and waving me past, or more likely, had been going too fast coming down the mountain. One was up walking around with a handkerchief to his mouth. The other was immobile and still lying in the middle of the road.
There wasn't anything I could do except continue but seeing that scene brought back memories of 15 years ago or so when over the course of two or three years, I had either witnessed or come upon the immediate aftermath of three or four really bad accidents. I hadn't been involved in any of them but they were rather gruesome and tended to put a damper on life for a while. Well, here I was back in that same mode.
I was glad to get to Pai and know exactly where I was going. I rented the same cabin I had before, went back to the guesthouse, got on-line, went swimming, and then spent the evening with Donal and Lauren, an Irish couple I had met poolside.
Thursday, March 20: Pai to Chiang Mai
After breakfast of a huge bowl of fruit salad yogurt and muesli, I spent the morning catching up on-line, checked out just before noon, and hit the road shortly thereafter.
I'm still a bit sore and down from seeing yesterday's accident and the ride was a long four hours from Pai to Chiang Mai but the ride had its fun moments and the scenery was beautiful even with the haze. At one point, an SUV passed me and Kent stuck his head out. He managed to hitch a ride to Chiang Mai. That's the best ride down. It beats the bus buy a long shot and is more comfortable than the motorbikes. My butt was sore after less than 30km and the ride was over 100km.
But one stop was when Kent's ride stopped and I pulled up to say hello. Kent was on his way to do a border run and then sped 10-21 days at a retreat with monks and a vow of silence. Could be interesting but nothing I would want to do.
Back in town, I checked back into my old room at Ginny's (Julie's was full) but spent the evening hanging out at Julie's with a great crowd that ranged in age from 18 to 61.
[Date: Mon Mar 31, 2008 3:27 am Subject: 3/21-30: Chiang Mai to Bangkok
This is my last email from Asia. Tonight, I leave Bangkok for JFK by way of Abu Dhabi, not a language popularized by the TV show Zoom (yeah, yeah, I'm dating myself), but the capital of the United Arab Emirates. It'll mean that I've truly gone around the world on this trip. It'll also be the first time I've been to anywhere in the Middle East. But my time there will be limited to a couple of hours in the middle of the night.
I'll be visiting my friend Michele in NJ on my way back to Boston so won't be getting to Boston until Friday.
Friday, March 21: Chiang Mai
I went to return the motorbike I had been riding around all week and ended up just exchanging it for a less expensive bike that was suitable for riding around town. I would need it for a few days when staying with some Hospitalityclub.org hosts in a couple of days.
I found another breakfast place and even though it's nice hanging around Julie's, it's nice having other places to eat.
I took it easy today and just napped, spent time online, and after dinner at Julia's, went to the night market with a group including Rachel, Lee and Vickie.
Saturday, March 22: Chiang Mai
Vickie and I hung out today. We started the day shopping in some stores we had seen on the way to the night market last night. Then we made our way to the National Museum. I know it's one of Thailand's Hidden secrets or part of the "Unseen Thailand" campaign I come across every now and then. So many tourist attractions are so well marked along the roads that I expected the museum to be. Its sister museum up in Chiang Saen was well marked from the road. But this one, we drove past twice without seeing it. It's set back quite far from the road in a compound that looks more like a wat or school than a museum. There's no road sign just some discreet lettering on the fence gate - also set back from the road.
Being associated with the Chiang Saen Museum and a few others around the country, its set up and design were similar. As usual, it was information overload but still interesting.
Vickie had dinner plans so Lee, Rachel and I headed out to hit the Indian restaurant I had been to before my trip to Pai. It's called Le Spice and it's on the road to the Kalare Night Bazaar at the night market. Along the way, we ran into some friends of Lee's whose favorite street food vendor was nowhere to be seen so they joined us for dinner. That made 12 of us. I was hoping the restaurant was as good as I remembered as there were now 11 others counting on a good meal. At the restaurant, I had no idea how they would seat all of us until they brought us to the back garden, just big enough for one large table that could seat 12. We were having out own private dinner back there. Perfect. Dinner ended up being delicious and we made it easy on the staff by all ordering one of three set meals.
I gave my contact information to Rachel who was heading for Pai the next day and would look for my battery charger and battery.
Sunday, March 23: Chiang Mai
I had breakfast with Lee at the "other" breakfast place I had found. I like this one because there's always a mix of western and Thai and the food is good and inexpensive.
I packed up, checked out of my hotel, but left a bag there in anticipation of returning in a couple of days.
I then met Melva and Tom, hospitalityclub hosts at their church just after their services had ended. I was surprised to find them eating lunch outside with the entire congregation. It was only then that they mentioned it was Easter.
Tom and Melva live in a beautiful house in a gated suburb of Chiang Mai. It takes a good 15 minutes or more to get to town from their place. Tom and I didn't have all that long to get to talk as he was off on a business trip but Melva and I chatted quite a bit. They are missionaries and Tom's directing an Asia group doing development work. Without a work permit, Melva, who has taught high school math and science and is also a nurse volunteers her time periodically at the church run school. They have lived all over and have kids who are also world travelers. They are not at all evangelical and have a most liberal outlook on life, at least where others are concerned.
Monday, March 24: Chiang Mai
Well, I thought I was going to make it back to the US having only needed the two courses of Azithromycin I had brought with me but the last few days made that suspect. Today, I decided to do something about it without waiting for a week or more like I had done the first couple of times. Plus, I really didn't want to deal with travelers troubles while on the long flight back to the US. So, I made my way to the Big C today which also has plenty of other stores in the mall-like facility. The Boots pharmacist wasn't there but they pointed me to the other pharmacies in the building. The first one was a shock when they wanted nearly $20 US for a three day course of Azithromycin. I could have gotten a five day course of norflaxocin for less than $3 but since I'm so bad at taking drugs, I figured I should at least ask at the last of the three pharmacies. There, it was still expensive but closer to $15 for the scrip so I went with that one. As usual, since it's not a narcotic or opiate, no script was required.
I went looking for but didn't end up swimming at a nearby pool. It was sort of big enough for laps but there were quite a few kids and adults playing there and it really wasn't set up for lap swimming.
Tuesday, March 25: Chiang Mai
I managed to take the first of three days worth of Azithromycin yesterday but today, I'm worse than ever. I gave the plumbing a good bit of exercise this morning with an urgency I hadn't experienced before with this bout of tourista. I just hope this responds to the Azithromycin, anyway.
Melva's cinnamon rolls made a delicious breakfast. Then I piled onto the motorcycle to head back to town where I checked into Ginny's for the third time.
I sat around for an hour or so waiting for my stomach to settle and then ran errands to the train station and the bus station. I settled on taking the day bus back to Bangkok tomorrow. It wasn't as cheap as the train or some of the private buses from the guesthouses, but the public buses are more reliable and frequently more comfortable.
Wednesday, March 26: Chiang Mai to Bangkok
I'm sitting next to a young woman wearing slippers for shoes and whose phone laughs instead of rings. It's been a long ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. I ended up in a prize seat, upstairs in the front of the bus with room for my bag on the platform in front of me. I can't stretch my feet out on the floor but I can put them up on the same platform with my bag. I can see front right and left through the windows.
Most of the landscape is typical Thai with lots of plantations, rice fields and more. Every now and then, I get a taste of something different. There were the hills near Chiang Mai. Then there was the boulder field that could have been every bit as much of a tourist attraction as the Garden of the Gods or the Devil's Marbles. But it was just another forest plantation by a farmer who probably curses the rough landscape.
Army checkpoints abound but this time, even though the bus was stopped a number of times, they never boarded to look at papers. Perhaps the locals had to show their papers just to get tickets? I'm sure we went through no fewer than six checkpoints along the way, likely more. In a departure from the norm for me, I actually did fall asleep a couple of times during this trip and could have missed a few checkpoints while sleeping.
I continue to marvel at the paint jobs on these buses. They have nothing to do with the bus company, but rather the whim of the painter. Right now, I'm looking at images of Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Daisy on the back of the bus in front of us. Other images I've seen include Spiderman, anime, fantasy, native American Indians, Buddhist and Hindu figures, geometric patterns, Nemo, astronomical images, and more.
Thursday, March 27: Bangkok
A day of relaxing and doing very little. I packed a large box to mail home rather than lug stuff all over on my way home. And I enjoyed some of my favorite treats from Soi 5 and 6 for lunch. No more $1 lunches once I get home.
Friday, March 28: Bangkok
With Ruth's help, I was able to mail my box this morning. Then I got some stuff at the Tops supermarket in the All Season's Plaza to hold me until Monday. other than that, it was another low key day. It's kind of nice to relax a bit before heading home.
Saturday, March 29: Bangkok
A busy day... After Ruth made cinnamon rolls for breakfast, I ran some errands with her. We went to a furniture store to arrange delivery of some beautiful teak furniture she had made. Then to a great book store that had a reasonably good non-fiction section. Most of the used book stores I've been to didn't have many good non-fiction books. Then to a Crafts Fair where I got to see some unique crafts.
We stopped at Central to pick up a replacement glass for one that broke in her kitchen and got a few extra to have in anticipation of future breakage once Ruth moves on from Bangkok. We grabbed lunch at the food court.
Back at the house, the furniture arrived and I think the delivery people were confused when Ruth didn't want it put anywhere but in the living room. It's not for use here, but for her house in the DC area.
At 8:55pm, we remembered that it was Earth Hour here in Bangkok. Sure enough, we looked outside and it was noticeably darker looking over the city and we could see a few stars - an unusual occurrence in this city. There were many decorative lights and billboard lights out that would normally be on. As I watched the clock hit 9:00, many lights flickered back on.
Sunday, March 30: Bangkok
After unwrapping Ruth's furniture from the meters and meters of bubble wrap it had been swathed in, I said good-bye as she was off on another business trip. Then, I made my way to the Chatuchak Weekend market, a huge market that is a tourist attraction in and of itself. I wandered the market for a couple of hours and didn't come close to seeing even a small fraction of it. Having mailed most of my stuff home, I had some space in my backpack so made a few purchases while I was there.
It was hot so I made my way back once the heat of the day fully hit. The highs have been well into the 90s here.
In the evening, I went once more to the Suan Lum night market, walking distance from Ruth's place. Dinner at Home Kitchen rounded out the night.
[Date: Thu Apr 17, 2008 5:10 pm Subject: Back in Boston
My trip back from Thailand was mostly uneventful. On both flights, I was stuffed into cramped seats to start but managed to switch once in flight with someone who wanted to move away from their bulkhead seats. So, on both flights, I was sitting in bulkhead rows with more small children that I have ever seen on a flight before. I wonder if it was a cultural difference as most were with Muslim families. Every bassinet was taken on both flights. And some families had small children too big for the bassinets with them as well.
I took a flight to JFK instead of Boston to visit with my friend Michele in NJ for a few days. She's the one I had visited in China ten years ago. She and her parents were heading to Boston to visit with friends a few days after I got there so I just rode up to Boston with them.
I've now been back in Boston for a week and a half. I've found myself a room in Arlington, right on Spy Pond for the month of April. There's a bike path just meters (or should I say feet) from the house and a playground where I've already taken my niece and nephew to play.
For the first time in my life, I just got a cell phone. I've taken over a contract that has six months left on it so that if I choose to travel again this fall, I won't be saddled with a two year contract. This is the first time I've had a cell phone.
I'm still looking for a car but connecting with sellers will be a lot easier with a phone.
I expect to be in the Boston area until early May. Then I hope to hit the road again, and head south to visit with friends and make my way to Trail Days in Virginia. With any luck, I'll get in some hiking, perhaps starting where I left off last year. Then I expect to be visiting a friend in Wisconsin and perhaps house sitting in upstate NY for part of the summer.
I'll probably resume some sort of journal entries as I make my way along during those travels.
Just as there were all sorts of things I had to get used to when I got to Asia, there are things I'm having to get used to having just returned to the US. I'll end with those... see the lists below...
Things I'm getting used to now that I'm back in the US:
Things I'm missing:
Things I'm not missing:
Last updated, June 18, 2010.
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