2010 Trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos

October 27, 2010


It is Wednesday morning, October 27 and it is the start of Shannon and my third day in Bangkok. 

Flying to  Asia is always one of my least favorite experiences. We left Saturday afternoon on a flight to Tokyo that ended up taking an hour less than planned so we were only on it for 10 1/2 hours. We lucked out on this leg and the same leg on the return trip in that we had exit row seats, so we actually had a decent amount of room.


I figured that I would try and sleep most of the way which I am normally not able to do. So I took and Ambien and also took a Xanax. I only ended up sleeping for about three hours but I really didn't care, I think I am now a believer in taking Xanax on long flights as I think it did improve my attitude at being stuck in a seat for so long.

We landed at Tokyo Narita and ended up with about a two hour layover. I always find Japan fascinating even it is in an airport. The Hello Kitty merchandise in the stores, the advertising on TV are just a step in a different direction from what I normally experience in life.

Then it was back on the plane for another 6 hour flight to Bangkok. This one was a newer Airbus with in-flight entertainment systems which is nice but we didn't have exit rows and the seats were narrower. Both of us were pretty of tired at flying at this point so it was a somewhat trying experience. We then finally landed in Bangkok it was almost midnight Sunday and after having made it through immigration, customs and the trip to our hotel it was almost 1:00am on Monday.

This hotel, and most of the hotels we are staying at on this trip, is a  hotel. On my last trip to SE Asia in 1997, you really only could stay at western chain hotels or local lower end guest houses. The place we are currently staying in is called SilQ, and is probably 20 rooms or so with modern design features and in this case, it is the Trip Advisor #4 ranked hotel out of something like 586. Really nice place for the same price we would pay for a Holiday Inn Express back home.

The hotel is located off of a main street called Sukhumvit. It is more of a trendy neighborhood with higher end shopping, resurants and hotels. It also has a permanent traffic jam. 24 hours a day going back 15-20 years there is non-stop traffic. Fortunately there is a skytrain stop right here that we can take to many parts, but not all, of the city.

On Monday we went via skytrain to the mall district. We were up pretty early and there before they opened. We wondered around for a while and went through the iconic scam where a very friendly local starts a conversation and ends up letting you know that it is a holiday and whereever you want to go isn't open because it is a holiday but that that you should go see the lucky buddha  (which doesn't specifically exist as such) and someplace that is having a once a year sale. The goal is for them to take you someplace that they will try to sell you stuff which is much more expensive than you can get anywhere else and get kickbacks on whatever you buy. It is so bad that they have signs around not to trust strangers as there are a lot of people that do this where ever there are tourists. They try to get people that have recently arrived or have not done their research as once you are aware it just becomes a minor annoyance.

A few things about Thailand and Bangkok. Thailand is booming. I was here in spring 1997 the first time and a few months after I left the economy collapsed it took them a while to recover and they learnedd a few things so oppossed to everywhere else Thailand is doing phenomenaly well. They have a lot of manufacturing. In Bangkok that means a lot of construction. It is definately developing with some of the older concrete buildings you see throughout the poorer parts of Asia, a lot of skyscrapers and lots where the old buldings are coming down. You have the new middle class and the poor. It is also very big with 14 million people.


The mall that we went into is called MBK. It is not really like the malls we are used to. While there are some normal stores, several floors are more like booths like you would find in a market. We went there for two things. One was to get a sim card for Shannon's iPhone and the second was for some clothes for her. There is one floor, and this is a pretty big mall, that is nothing but electronics and most of it is cell phones. I apparently didn't unlock her phone when I jailbroke it so we paid an extra $10 for them to unlock it. While we were there, there were several buddhist monks that came to the booth we were at and one 
of them bought an iPhone case. iPhones are pretty expensive here, in between $700-800, but you still see quite a few of them.

We had an hour long foot and shoulder massage for $10. Thai massage uses pressure points and it is different from other types of massage and is truly wonderful experience. 

I recommended that Shannon  not bring a lot of clothes as she would be able to find a lot of stuff really cheap. Between the mall and shopping yesterday she has bought several shirts and skirts for $5-6 a piece.We left the mall and went outside where the mall was holding their annual tattoo contest. One of the things that I have found related to counties modernizing is when they start to develop subcultures and you see alternative self-expression start to appear. Last time I was in Asia, the only place you saw this was in Japan. It is alive and well in Thailand. There were several hundred people who had lots of very good tattoos there. There were 10 or so tattoo shops, 10 or so Harleys and some custom cars 
including a low-rider with hydraulics.

Then the rain started. This is the end of the rainy season and right now the weather is a low of 77 and a high of about 90 every day with 80 percent humidity and the occasional thunderstorm. We went through a couple of the other malls, which are just what we are used to and nothing too exciting and then caught the skytrain back to the neighborhood where are hotel is.

There are tailors everywhere in Bangkok. Literally maybe into the thousands. Most of them offer 1 suit, 2 pants, 2 shirts and a couple of ties for something like $199 and they are crap. I did a lot of research before I came on the good tailors and finally settled on one to have some shirts made. His shop is right near our hotel and so we went in, selected fabric and got measured. This evening I will go back for a fitting and then when we come back at the end of our trip the shirts will be ready. Each shirt is costing me $40 so it is a pretty good deal but a little more expensive than most of the tailors all over town. We came back to the hotel for a break and then out for dinner at a collection of street vendors that were recommended. Street food is everywhere, it is very cheap, very good and for the most part safe. For the most part if it is a busy stand, we can eat there and won't get sick. We had chicken satay from one stand and fruit smooties from another. The smoothie stand had a table so we sat there and then went and ordered the satay and just pointed to our tablee and they delivered it. 

We then went to the Patpong night market which is basically a tourist market with all off the vendors selling the same variation of things. Bootleg DVDs, jeans, purses and then some tourist souvenirs. The only difference between this and other markets is that it is in the middle of one of the redlight districts. So you walk by the booths on one side and on the other are hookers in theme outfits, bikinis and dancing inside bars they are trying to get you in. Every 10 feet there are people trying to get you into a pingpong show.
River Taxis on Khlong Saen Sab in Bangkok


Tuesday we went to the old city via a canalboat. There used to be a lot of canals across Bangkok and they used to be a primary means of transportation but most of them have been built over. There is one, Khlong Saen Sab (Khlong being canal) that is still a primary means of transportation across the city. They have boats that hold sixty people or so that pick people up at fixed points and it is one of the fastest ways to go across the city to places the skytrain or subway don't go. It is an interesting experience to take. The boat comes up very fast and stops for 15-20 seconds. You have to jump off the pier onto a narrow 
rail on the boat, grab onto a roap and crawl into the boat. You don't want to fall into the water. They have tarps that come up the sides to prevent splashing on you as the water can make you pretty sick.

Bangkok is really relatively young, having been made the capital a few hundred years ago after the old capital was sacked. The old city contains several Wats (or temples, there are 60 or so in Bangkok) the palace, and national museum. We went first to the Golden Mount, which is a cheddi (stuppa) from which you have views of the city. We then went to an amulet market next to one of the wats.

So Thais are very into amulets. You see them wearing them around there necks, on the dashboards of their cabs and sitting on their desks. They have them of different Buddha’s from wats, of various monks, of Hindu gods, in statue form and in medallions. There were at least twenty vendors that sold amulets and statues with mainly monks and locals as customers, Shannon and I were the only westerners there.

We then went to Khao San road. This area started with the hippies in the 60’s.It is a street that is now  the center of  backpacker travel in SE Asia. There are a number of vendors focused at tourists including tons of t-shirts that no one older than 20 would be caught dead in, fake diplomas from places such as Berkley and the University of Melbourne, hippy clothes, cheap guest houses and restaurants.

We took a short break, Shannon bought some clothes, I ate some Phad Thai from a street vendor for $1.20 which was delicious and we were overwhelmed with touts trying to get us to go with them on a tuk-tuk ride (a type of covered motorcycle sort of thing with seats in the back) where they will give you a cheap price with one stop so that they can take you somewhere where they get a kick back or a slightly higher price if they take you straight there.

We then went to the Grand Palace. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with a highly revered King and Queen. A picture of the King is on the money and you can go to jail if you where to do something disrespectful to it or to any image of him, such as the picture of him on the front page of the newspaper. Because of that, the newspaper must now be treated respectfully. They no longer live at the palace but it is still

 

used for ceremonial purposes. You are able to see the throne room and a few other areas like an arms museum with weapons from Thailand’s past but the main reason to go there is for Wat Phra Kaew or the wat of the Emerald Buddha. The Buddha isn’t actually made from emeralds but from jade. It was taken from a wat in Laos that we will be visiting later in the trip.

Wat of the Emerald Buddha, National Palace, Bangkok

When you enter a wat you need to be properly dressed meaning shoulders covered and normally wearing pants although women can wear longish skirts. Shannon was wearing tights under a long flowing shirt and they wouldn’t let her in. We are pretty sure that it is because of her tattoos. So we had to leave and she had to buy a sarong.

Next we went to Wat Pho which is right next door. Wat Pho tends to be on many of the must do things in Bangkok as it has the world’s largest reclining Buddha at 150 feet long and about 50 tall covered in gold leaf. It is very impressive.

Buddhism is pervasive in Thai life. Most Thai males become monks at least once during their life if only for a few months when they are young. You see monks of all age, from 8 or 9 to the elderly. Most homes and businesses have shrines, many outside. Along with the food vendors, there are a lot of flower vendors who sell small wreaths for shrines that are replaced every few days. In the past some of the primarily Buddhist countries would have as many as 30% of the male population as monks, with everyone else not only supporting themselves but also all of the monks. We are going to be visiting a lot of wats and may overload on them, it is very easy to do as there are so many of them and they are so varied in their style, age and significance.

We then had dinner at the Arun Residence which is on the Chao Phraya river which cuts through Bangkok. It has an impressive view of Wat Arun on the over side of the river. As we are staying in this part of town at the end of our trip, we will be visiting Wat Arun at the end of our trip. Dinner was wonderful, great view of the river and the wat and the food was very good.

We had a little bit of a late start this morning but after we got up and moving we caught a commuter ferry that runs up and down the Chao Phraya. There is no one good means of transportation in Bangkok. The traffic means that taxis can take a long time but are relatively cheap (we caught a taxi back to the hotel last night and while it took us 30-45 minutes it cost $3), the boat we took yesterday on the canal was both cheap and fast (less than $1 each) and the subway and skytrain only go to certain parts of town. This morning we took the final way which is the ferries that move up and down the river, inexpensive (less than $1 for both of us) and relatively quick to where we were going. We had to take a skytrain to where the two skytrain lines meet, change over to the other line and then go to the river.

We got off after a few stops in Chinatown. It is an interesting area. It is a major shopping district but in a slightly unusual way. There are sections devoted to different items. You will walk along and there will be several stores in a row that all just sell platic shopping bags in different types and colors, go a block over and there are several selling bags. Sections with electrical supplies, street vendors in a section that all sell calculators. It is all tight and narrow with lots of people and heavy traffic but one of the places to really see is called Sampeng lane. It is very narrow, with no more room than two people walking a breast and there are tons of very small shops selling a wide variety of inexpensive items. Lots of cloth, buttons, beads, very cheap plastic watches. It was bit overwhelming, too many vendors and way too many people but it was worth seeing. I am glad I don’t have to go shopping there on a regular basis.

We then went to Central World which is the biggest of the the malls. It is mid-range, very similar to the upscale malls back home with very few shops you would recognize (other than Cold Stone, KFC, Dunkin Donuts and one I thought I would never see, Sizzler). Many Thai designers with a few mid-scale western ones like the Gap. This was our last sight of traditional western style shopping for a few weeks.

Tomorrow we fly to Phnom Penh and start out Cambodian part of the trip. I will try and get some pictures from the trip thus far posted and will write more in a few days.

 

November 2, 2010

Sorry, it took me a couple of days to get this posted. New photos are up on my Picasa page as well.

It is Sunday October 31 and Shannon and I have just gotten back on a bus from a lunch break in a town named Khromp Thom mid way between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Before I discuss what has happened since my last post, Shannon found something that we did in Bangkok that I didn't discuss.

When we went to Wat Pho we had a full body Thai massage. Wat Pho is were they developed Thai massage several hundred years ago and they have a massage school there at which you can get a massage from students. I had previously mentioned the use of pressure points and in addition to this you are fully clothed during the massage. It was incredible, one of the highlights for me is when she laid back with one of her feet between my legs, grabbed a hold of my foot and then used her foot at various pressure points along my inner thigh. I have never had a massage where someone could put sufficient pressure along where and it was truly wonderful the way that they did it.

So we ended up flying out of Bangkok Thursday afternoon. Bangkok has a relatively new modern airport that I kind of like. It I a main hub for Asia so it is interesting seeing all of the people from various countries, the languages spoken and the various destinations listed on the departures board such as Novosibirsk and  Vladivostok in Siberia. It also has an interesting design with one of the biggest differences from any other airport I have seen is that the gates are all on the first floor and the walkway on the second which makes walking to the gate a much nicer experience.

We arrived in Phnom Penh and got through immigration and customs around 5:00 which was just in time for rush hour traffic which was an interesting experience. Quite a bit has changed in Phnom Penh since I was here last. When I was here in the '90s, there were not many cars at all, a decent number of mopeds and cyclos (rickshaws). Now there are quite a few cars, 5-10 times the number of mopeds, lots of tuk-tuks and almost no cyclos (I read an article a few weeks ago that said 10 years ago there were over 1000 and now there are 60).

Last time I was here there was no where near the amount of traffic but what was there was in total chaos. There literally were no lanes and all sorts of traffic was just going everywhere. Now the main roads have dividers with traffic staying on the right side of the road and for the most part they obey signals. Where they have signals (they don't have them everywhere they need them and there are no stop signs), they show the amount of time in seconds left whether it is green or red. So they will all take off a few seconds early on a red changing green and keep going for anger seconds more on a green changing red which makes things interesting. Most people from the US dropped into this traffic would be scared to death and probably rightly so because there are a lot of accidents an many of them are fatal.

The hotel we stayed in in Phnom Penh was a converted former French villa, with walls surrounding a courtyard with a small pool and lots of tropical plants. It was nice to walk into after experiencing the chaos of the city.

That night we walked down to the riverfront to explore some of the shops and  restaurants. Phnom Penh is located along the Tonle Sap river where it meets the Mekong. As it is  the end of the rainy season a unique phenomenon is occurring. Due to the amount of rainfall in the rainy season the Mekong literally backups the  Tonle Sap and the river fills a lake that is normally huge (in '97 I took a speedboat up the lake and there was a good 3-4 hours during which we never saw land and that was at the end of the dry season when the lake is at it's smallest).

After exploring for a little while we had Pho (the Vietnamese noodle soup) and another massage. This massage was $7 and pretty good in my opinion but the one odd thing was that both Shannon and I had to undress in front of the girls who did our massage.

On Friday we went to the National Palace (Cambodia is also a Constitutional Monarchy) which contains the Silver Pagoda a eat with a 5 ton silver floor.

We then went to Tuol Sleng or S-21 which was a grade school until the Khmer Rouge took control of the country at which time it became a detention facility. Nearly 18,000 people were sent there and all but 7 were killed (the 7 just lucked out as they were there when the Vietnamese invaded in 1980). The Khmer Rouge kept detailed records and pictures and it gives you a good sense for the horrific things they did there.


Tuol Sleng


We then went to one of the markets which has clothes ,food and souvenirs so you get an interesting mix of locals and tourists. As an example of how the country has improved, last time I was here I was offered a huge bag of marijuana and you could buy hand grenades, AK-47s and land mines there and you no longer can. We then spent some time back in the courtyard of the hotel.

Cambodia and Laos are interesting in that they were both a part of French Indochina until after WWII. This has left them with some incredible architecture and really good bread.  A number of the buildings were built during the late 18th or early 19th century and are truly phenomenal. Or they have been built in the last 50 years and are in a style that I like to think of as Asia Concrete. It is all over Asia and is truly hideous.

Thailand was pretty inexpensive, Cambodia even more so and I expect Laps will be even cheaper. A significant number of the people are a part of the one billion on Earth that live on less than a dollar a day. There are complaints from some people in the west about the wages paid to the garment workers who make our clothes. In Cambodia it is about $60 a month and while I would like to see them make more it is a live-able wage and the people who have these jobs are much better off than most Khmer (the ethnicity of most Cambodians) where 15 years ago. A tuk-tuk driver will be paid $8-12 a day if someone uses them for a full day. So a pretty good job here is about $300, but many of the people who make this sort of money is working 12+ hours a day everyday.

Competition is tough. A huge percentage of people are entrepreneurs starting at the bottom with vendors selling books or newspapers, sunglasses or other small items off of their hips (frequently children), people who have 'gas stations' where they sell gas from Pepsi bottles to people on mopeds, moped or tuk-tuk drivers and people who have stalls in the markets.

In the markets, many of the stalls sell the same things. A stall can be competing with 30 others within a free hundred yards. It is obvious everyone is desperate for business and that many of them go days with out making a sale and given how cheaply goods are sold, when they do make a sale they make next to nothing off of it. As a tourist you are constantly approached asking if you want a tuk-tuk and in the markets it is "Sir, Madame, you buy something?" withe the proprietor then launching into the various items they have that you really need to buy with them. They are very hardworking and industrious.

So on Saturday morning we went to Cheoung Ek of the Killing Fields. This is where most of the people from Tuol Sleng were brought to be killed. There were about 15,000 bodies in mass graves. Most were killed using farm implements although one of things that you do see is a tree that they would swing babies against to kill them, frequently as their mother watched just before she was killed. They have excavated just short of 9,000 bodies which are in a 13 level stills withe the skulls separated by race, age and sex. As you walk around you are walking on unexcavated graves with victims teeth, jawbones and other bones and clothing on the surface as the rains basically make it rise to the surface. It is my second time visiting her as well as Tuol Sleng and I don't think it gets any easier or that you get any closer to understanding.


The Killing Tree at the Killing Fields


The weather on Saturday was almost cold, low to mid 70's. It seems kind of odd to say that it felt cold given we were in 35-55 degree weather just over a week ago. For the most part the weather has been very hot and humid, lows in the mid to high 70's and highs approaching 90 with 80 percent humidity. The first few days were brutal but now I think we have adjusted. A few times we have had rain or thunderstorms in the evenings or at night but the days have remained dry.

While we were at the killing fields it started to drizzle a little and then stopped. We then went to the Central Market which is in and around a very cool art deco building. We then went for lunch and then to the National Museum which has a pretty good collection of pre-Angkor and Angkor period statues and other items.

We went and had another massage last night, this time at an actual spa where we paid $26. It was in a very nice facility and they used nice oils but it wasn't really my sort of thing. The massage was great but I don't see myself as a spa sort of person and second my masseuse was a guy. He touched my butt. Do I need to say more.

Shannon started to get a cold last night and then got nausea and barely slept last night. She did not have a gods morning and I don't think the bus ride helped at all. The bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was 5 1/2 hours (we have since arrived in Siem Reap and are now in a part of town called Pub Street at a cafe with wi-fi).

Siem Reap is the town just out side of Angkor. When I was here in '97 it has a very quiet and sleepy town. There were no expensive hotels and only a few guest houses, they didn't have power 24 hours a day as it was shut off between something like 10pm and 6am. I can't recognize anything, I don't know where I am now in reference to anything I knew from then. There are a truly ridiculous number of hotels, lots of restaurants, green areas and parks where before there was just dirt.

For the next three days we tour Angkor and the area. I will post more later.

 

November 6, 2010

We are currently in a car on our way back from a town named Battambang on our way back to Siem Reap. We will spend one night there and then board a plane tomorrow for Vientiane, Laos.

Arriving in Siem Reap after 13 years was quite a shock. When I was here before it was a very sleepy town that didn't have power 24 hours a day, with it being shutoff at 9:00 at night and then back on at 6:00 or so the next morning. While I was there they were in the process of building the fist luxury hotel.

Now there are hundreds of hotels and thousands of visitors. It is the gateway for Angkor and a number of the tour groups from places like S Korea fly in for a few days and just stay in Siem Reap. While we were here we only saw a few ithers from the US, it was mainly Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Europeans and Australians. Most of the Europeans were French. 

Shannon likes the town and I am trying to decide whether or not I do. Don't get me wrong, it is a nice town, I just compare it to a time when it was more like a normal Cambodian town and not a tourist destination.

We are staying at the one US chain hotel this trip, Le Meridien. Normally I would like this hotel but after getting used to free wi-fi and breakfast the thought of $16.95 Internet and $15 breakfasts are not appealing. The only reason that we are here is because Le Meridien is a Starwood property and they will have points + $ promotions. We had some Starwood points and are able to stay here for $45 a night when the room rate is close to $200.


On Monday we went to Angkor (the term to describe the complex of various temples) and the first area we visited was Angkor Thom which has walls and gates. Inside the first place we visited was the Bayon. The Bayon has a number of towers built at different heights all with four faces. From a distance, it looks like a pile of rocks, but once you enter you see all of the faces looking out in a directions, frequently both above and below you. It is one of my favorite structures in the world.


The Bayon


There are a number of ways to visit the different ruins at Angkor. Most of them are too far a part to walk. Last time I was here I rode on the back  of a moped. This time we hired a tuk-tuk driver named Sam.

Angkor was built by one of the great civilizations, like the ancient Egyptians or the Incas. They built these temples over several hundred square miles from 800 to just after 1200 AD (C.E.) going as far as across what is now the Thai border. Like many of the Mayan structures in the Yucatan, the people lived in wood structures so all that we have left today is the temples. At it's height, well over 1 million people lived at Angkor.

There were about 20 kings which built all of the structures at Angkor over the nearly 500 years. Some of the later kings Jayavarman VIII, who modified structures started by previous kings. Additionally, some of the earlier kings were Buddhist and some of the later were Hindu. So in some of the structures there are images of Hindu gods like Vishnu, Shiva and Brama.


Monk at Ta Prom


The next place we went to was Ta Prom. This one isn't quite as spectacular a structure as the Bayon and needs a considerable amount of work but it is this that provides it's character. It has been left in a partially original condition. There are walls the have fallen and trees which have roots that wrap around walls.


Ta Prom


Almost everywhere you go at Angkor there is work being done. A lot of the projects are funded by other countries and goes on for years. One of the temples had been dismantled back in the '60s but during the reign of the Khmer Rouge all of the documents were lost so they are now working on what has been described as the worlds largest jigsaw puzzle.

That afternoon we went to Angkor Wat. It is really hard to describe how awe inspiring it really is. It is the largest religious structure in the world and to give you a sense for how big the complex is, it us surrounded by a moat 200 yards wide by over a mile long on each side. There is a causeway that leads over the moat to the outerwall and once through you are able to see all of the 5 spires which represent Mt Meru from Buddhist mythology. There are two libraries built out in front and then once you pass these and actually enter the main building you are able to see the floor to ceiling bas-relief carvings which surround all four sides.

When I was here before you could climb up the original staircases which are narrow steep and warn. They have now built wooden stairs over the top of the originals and limit the number of people who can go up at one time. I spent two different days at Angkor Wat when I was here last. The first day was on the Khmer New Year when Cambodians flood Angkor and the next was a couple of days later when it was basically deserted. By going in the hottest part of the day we avoided the crowds but there were still a couple of hundred people there.


Bas-relief at Angkor Wat


That night we went into a part of Siem Reap known as pub street. This has a number (40?) of tourist oriented bars and restaurants. There are some nice restaurants through here serving  Khmer, Thai, Vietnamese and western food. The most famous of these is the Red Piano which was Angelina Jolie's hangout when they filmed Tomb Raider here.

After dinner we went and got a massage. This place was $8 for a full body massage and was pretty good for both ambience and the quality of the massage. I did kind of freak out the girl who was doing mine. In much a similar way to previous massages, they led both Shannon and I back into a room with a number of futons on the floor, low lights and mellow music. They lead us over to a couple of beds and wait for us to undress. It sounds like the girl doing my massage was new and when I dropped my underwear, she screamed and turned around very quickly so I got the message I was supposed to leave them on. The one thing that they did which none of the others did was to walk on our legs and backs. For the most part I really liked this but I think my girl stepped somewhere she shouldn't have as my lower back has been bothering my ever since.

On Tuesday morning we went to a number of smaller ruins and I am not going to go into any detail but have posted pictures on Picasa.



That afternoon we went to a floating village. The one that we went to is the closest to Siem Reap and is therefore a little touristy but is an interesting experience if you have never been to anything like it. I have talked before about the Tonle Sap lake and as it grows substantially during the rainy season the villages around it must be capable of the change in it's shores. They have done this in two different ways. The first is to build a house away from the edge of the shore during the dry season but on stilts high enough that the house remains dry in the wet season. Some of these houses are on stilts 3 stories high.

The second is to build a village that literally floats. So they build these houseboats that are basically moored to trees and that can be moved as the shoreline moves. They not only have there homes but also schools, a church, stores and restaurants.


Floating Village


On Wednesday we got up at 4:15am to go see Angkor Wat at sunrise. Because we are in the tropics, the point at which the sun rises and sets remains relatively constant throughout the year and so the sun rises directly behind Angkor Wat year round. There were a lot of people there to see it but it is still worth it.


Sunrise at Angkor


After a break, we then went to two places I hadn't been able to visit the first time. These are a little far by tuk-tuk so Sam drove us in a van.  The first was Kbal Spean or the 1000 Lingams which are small round cylinders (to represent the penis) which are carved into the bed of a river (I never knew that running water over 1000 penises would cleanse it). It was a little bit of a uphill walk but worth it.


Kbal Spean


The second place was Bantaey Srei. I tried to go here last time but a year before the Khmer Rouge had killed a couple of tourists there so it was closed. I did find someone who was willing to take me there with armed guards for $100 (which at the time was 3 months salary for someone with a good job and more than most Cambodians would see in a year) but decided not to take them up on it.

Banteay Srei is small compared to some if the others but is carved out of a pink stone that has the most beautiful carvings. The carvings held up better due to the stone type and the  quality of the carvings is high so you really get a sense of what the stone carvers were capable of.

The one thing that I have not talked about is the theft of statues and carvings which was rampant for a number of years. Most of the statues that are still here are missing heads, ate heavily damaged in some other way or are replacements. During the '80s and '90s people would come into the temples, cut out bas-reliefs and steal heads or in some cases whole statues and then sell them at the Thai border. When I was here in '97, the Raffles hotel in Singapore had a shopping center in which was a store that sold authentic Angkor statues and other carvings for $7-15,000.

That trade has pretty much stopped. In many cases they took the original statues and put them into storage. You can now see some of these in a museum that no one goes to as it is expensive for here $10 and they only display a few things.

In a display of the types of corruption that occur here, they have blocked off the center portion of temple that has most of the best carvings as the spaces are relatively tight and there are too many people coming through and had they left access open there would have been damage. You are able to see most of it fine but a Cambodian police officer came up and asked if I wanted to go closer. I indicated I did and so he let me through along with another guy but wouldn't let Shannon through. I was able to take some pretty good pictures because of this but probably would have gotten them anyway. For this he wanted $2.


Bantaey Srei


We then went to the landline museum which was started by a guy named Aki Ra who was a Khmer Rouge child soldier who defected to the Vietnamese army when they invaded and were going after the Khmer Rouge in 1980. He later started deactivating landmines and has over the years deactivated something like half a million of them. Cambodia still has several million in the ground and there are people everywhere which continue to be severally injured from landmines placed by the Cambodian government prior to the Khmer Rouge, the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese. Hell, when I was here last time you could but an AK-47, hand gernade or landmine in the Phnom Penh market. He has also setup an orphanage and training center for children who have been injured by landmines. Aki has just been named one of 10 CNN Heroes for 2010 and there will be a TV special on November 25 which will include him and his work.

On Thursday we had Sam take us to Battambong which is the second largest town in Cambodia and about three hours from Siem Reap. He is a really nice guy, single and 28, finishing his degree in business. I have paid significantly more by using Sam that I would have any of the other drivers around but it has been worth it. While some Cambodians will not express their opinions about the government, he has been willing to.

After a several hour very scenic drive through the rice paddies, we arrived in Battambang and spent some time exploring the town. It really reminds me of what both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap were like when I was first here. I think the best way to describe it is as un-sophisticated. There is a simplicity to Battambang that no longer exists in the other towns. It doesn't get many tourists so we could be quite the entertainment for children. They would all say hello and wave, act shy at times and then burst out laughing.

Our hotel in Battambang was the La Villa, which is converted 1930's villa. It only has 7 rooms and is beautiful. It is owned and managed by a French gentleman and his Khmer wife. It is truly a wonderful place, the only problem being they are building a new hotel next door and the construction noise is irritating.

On Friday we had a tuk-tuk driver named Salone who took us around. He suffered from polio as a child (and he is about my age) and walks with a limp and was not well accepted by Cambodian society. He ended up finding out that foreigners accepted him and has become an excellent tour guide. He took us to a number of out of the way places including a traditional Khmer house from around 1900, a Wat that had a ceremony going on, the market to see crickets,eels and all of the other odd things they sometimes eat. We stopped by a blacksmith shop to get some tire repair tools (which became very important later on), we went to one of the Angkor temples, saw a newer wat that has bas-relief carving with Khmer Rouge attrocities from when the wat was used by them as a prison, went to a wat on top of a mountain, saw te cave where Khmer Rouge threw victims to their death and saw the beginnings of a 1 1/2 hour process where 20 million bats leave a cave  at night to feed (truly amazing, it is an unending stream of bats that moves through the sky like a snake).

The most unique activity was taking the bamboo train. This started in the 1980's with a rarely used train track. They have a bamboo platfrorm with what is essentially a lawn mower engine connected to some wheels that run on the tracks. When another of these trains is coming in the opposite direction they both stop, disassemble one of them, move the other past it, reassemble it and then they are both on there way. We took one of these for aways where we had to go through this process and then reached the next 'station'. We stopped at this business which served drinks and snacks and had a break. Shannon's mom had given here several Tootsie-Pops and Shannon gave these to their kids that were there. They loved the Tootsie-Pops, they shared them with one another and at one point with their dog. The boy then took us on a tour of their brick manufacturing plant. They have clay there which they cut and them bake in kilns for two days using rice husks as fuel. After the tour it was back on the train to our original 'station'. While most of the users appear to be tourists, we saw regular people using it so it is a valid form of transportation.

While coming back to town from seeing the bats at the end of the day, we had the second of two flat tires. While we were touring the wat on the mountain Salone was working on fixing the first one, which he finished shortly after he finished our tour. The second came in the middle of now where and it was after dark. Fortunately I had a flashlight and this brought the attention of the people who lived nearby, so at one point I think there was a group of 10 or so children and adults who watched Salone change the intertube and reinflate the tire while I held the flashlight. All in all it was great day and I think we are both glad that we spent quite a bit of time to travel there for a relatively short time

 

November 16, 2010

So we have been in Laos for a week. Laos is a definite change from Cambodia and not in a way that I expected. I spent just over a day here when I was here in ’97, in Vientiane, which is the capital and largest city. That isn’t saying much, then or now. It has to be the smallest and quietest capital ciity in the world. If you didn’t know it was the capital, you would never really be able to tell, other than one thing which I will get to in a minute.

Laos is one of the few remaining communist countries in the world. The communists took over in 1975, basically at the same time that the US withdrew from Vietnam which is the same time that the Khmer Rouge (also communists) took over Cambodia. They still fly the hammer and sickle flag that the USSR used, it isn’t the flag for the country, just the communist party, but it is pretty weird to seeing flying around. There are a few weird rules because of this. There is a nationwide curfew at midnight but some leniency is given to foreigners; it is illegal for a foreigner to have sex with a Laotian (unless they are married), there is no free press and yet from my perspective those are about the only things I have noticed.

Laos was one of the poorest countries in the world, last time I was here and it still is. But from the places we have been you wouldn’t be able to tell how poor most Laotians are. The poverty is much more apparent in Cambodia, there isn’t a city that we visited that it isn’t obvious. Last time I was in Vientiane, the roads were mainly dirt, there were very few cars and only a few more mopeds. Now, in a reverse of Cambodia, there are a lot of cars and only a few mopeds. The streets are now paved and infrastructure has obviously improved.

Once you get away from the tourist hubs you start to see more poverty. The average income here is $400 per year. Once you see some of the ethnic villages (there are something like 50 different ethnic groups in Laos) you do see signs of extreme poverty. International aid is the reason why it doesn’t look like this is one of the poorest countries on Earth. They have frequently been rated among the 10 poorest countries, as such they have been able to get a lot of aid from other countries and this means that they have infrastructure in the capital and the areas tourists frequent but I don’t think it goes much it of anywhere else.

Many Lao depend on tourism for income, it is one of the highest recommended destinations in the world. The New York Times ranked it as the number 1 must see destination in 2008. And it does draw a lot of tourists; mainly Europeans and some people from other Asian counties like South Korea. The biggest draw is the town we are currently in, Luang Prabang.It is a beautiful and exotic country and was it wasn’t open for tourism for many years is now quite a draw.  I digress, and will get back to our first few days here in Vientiane.

So I had mentioned that there was one way that you could tell that Vientiane is the capital. When we arrived we noticed signs for the international convention on cluster munitions. Laos as one other  distinction, it is the most bombed country on Earth. The Ho Chi Minh trail ran through Laos  in the Vietnam War and the US dropped more bombs here than were dropped by all countries during all of WWII. A number of the bombs dropped where cluster munitions which are essentially big bombs composed of a lot of smaller bomblets. The problem is that not all of the bomblets explode when dropped. Laos still averages 60 people, mainly children, killed every year from bomblets that didn’t explode when dropped but do when they are picked up or disturbed. So this makes Laos the perfect host for a conference on a ban which 105 countries agreed to banning cluster munitions.

The reason that this makes it obvious that this is the capital is that both on the previous visit and on this visit I saw police escorts for officials where they make all of the traffic pull over so that they can go by. The only reason I ever heard a siren is for a police escort.

There isn’t much to talk about our couple of days in Vientiane. It isn’t a really exciting city with a lot of stuff to do. There is a copy of the Arc d’ Triomph, which was built from concrete donated by the US in the 1960’s for a new runway for their airport (and is referred to as their Vertical Runway), the Presidential Palace (which you are not allowed in), a few Wats (which really aren’t that exciting because the city was sacked by the Thai’s in he 1800’s and so everything was rebuilt), Buddha Park and food.

Buddha Park is the result a man deciding to build an outdoor park with a lot of statues of Buddha. In addition, there are a number of other statues. It is very unique and one of the main tourist sites in Vientiane.

Buddha Park

The other thing in Vientiane is food.  There is a quite a bit of really good and relatively inexpensive food in Vientiane. Good bread is a given as is good coffee. The grow pretty good coffee here, but it doeesn’t really make it out of the country at all. As Vientiane has grown over the last few years there have been a number of pretty good restaurants that have opened, in addition to several restaurants that have been open for years. As an example we ate at a restaurant called Aria – Italian Culinary Arts that is rated #1 in Vientiane on Trip Advisor at which for a total bill of $29 for the two of us, I ate some of the best Italian food I have ever had – it rate right up there with the best I have had in New York City and Buenos Aires.

In general, the food on our trip has been great. Thai food tends to be very hot, much hotter than back home. Cambodian and Lao food isn’t as spicy but is similar. Everything that we have had has been good, cheap and healthy. We have eaten many meals for less than $5 for both us and most tend to be $10-12. The most expensive was dinner at a French restaurant a few nights ago and it was $40 for both of us.

Our first night here we went out for a walk along the river. Vientiane is right on the Mekong just across the border from Thailand and has a wide area between the road with shops and restaurants and the river itself. It was Sunday and normally a number of locals come out to walk along the river but there were a lot of people. As we walked down towards the other end of town we noticed that they had a celebration going on. Come to find out later, they were having the unveiling of a statue of a former King. The status is big, 50-60 feet and there are hundreds of people including dignitaries and high ranking monks. It was interesting to see.

We spent a few days in Vientiane, part of it relaxing as we had been on the go for a while. We went to a Wat, Buddha Park and just wandered around town. As hotel was the Hotel Khamvongsa and was not more than a couple of years old, nice but very inexpensive. We were on the fourth floor (no elevator) with no balcony but we had all of the other amenities, including a pretty good free breakfast, for $30 a night.

We then had a few days that I hadn’t booked anything. I had booked all of our flights and hotel rooms prior to our departure this trip except for three days following the three nights we spent in Vientiane. We had potentially talked about going to the Plain of Jars, which is the region which was most heavily bombed by the US. It is literally a plain which has jars between 3-6 feet tall made out of stone. There are a few thousand years old and no one knows who made them or why. I would like to see that area but it would have involved 20 hours of total bus trips or some relatively expensive flights and there is nothing else to really see other than the jars and bomb craters.

So we ended up going to Vang Vieng, which is 3 hours north of Vientiane by bus. We had read that it was nothing but drunken debauchery filled with backpackers in their early 20’s. It was ‘discovered’ and published in the first book on Laos that Lonely Planet had published in 1996 and since then has been on the backpacker trail in SE Asia. It is located on a small river with views of karst cliffs on the other. We took a bus from Vientiane and stayed for two nights. There was one hotel that we had tried too book when we were in Vientiane but it was full and as we didn’t have room booked we had to look for one and carried our bags for a ways until we found a small row-house sort of bungalow for $10 a night. They were doing an upgrade to the power infrastructure so there was no power in town, but the advantage of this is that we were still able to get hot food because they cook with wood or propane.

The town is small and is very similar to what Khao San road in Bangkok was like when I visited in the ‘90s. It is mainly composed of tour companies/travel agencies, small shops selling clothing and some small souvenirs and restaurant/bars. The difference with the restaurants here is that many of them have booths with pillows and low tables that you can basically lay in and basically all of them show Friends episodes in endless loops although a couple of them show the Family Guy. You will be sitting in one of these restaurants (which serve Thai/Laotian and international backpacker food – pasta, pizza and burgers with meat of unknown origin). Watching an episode off Friends and a couple of big LCDs while you hear two other restaurants nearby showing different Friends episodes. I think that someone started doing this a number of years ago, it worked some everyone else started doing it and why change? What else are they going to show (on Khao San rd in the ‘90s it was endless loops of bootleg movies)?

So during the day all of the backpackers tube. They ride inner tubes down the river and stop at bars that have been setup on the riverbanks, several of which have setup waterslides, zip lines and swings into the water. In one of the forums that I read before we stopped here someone had posted that they stopped here for a few days and that while it was beautiful they didn’t see the point. Someone else replied that it was because they didn’t spend enough time here, that it really takes two or three weeks to get the point.

So the one full day that we where in Vang Vieng, as we are older, more sophisticated and above all of this tubing thing, we took a kayaking trip down the same stretch of water and stopped at one of the same bars. We also made a detour into one of the many caves nearby, this one was called the sleeping cave as during the war several thousand peop0le would hide in it to avoid the bombings. That night we were able to move to the hotel that we had originally wanted to stay at, which had a third floor balcony overlooking the river. The view was beautiful.

View from Elephant Crossing balcony in Vang Vieng, Laos

All in all, we didn’t think it was that bad at all. A little different yes, but I think I might need to come back for a few weeks to make sure that I really understand the point.

We then took a 7 hour bus ride north to Luang Prabang. Most of buses here will pick you up at your hotel. We had a choice between a 6 hour minivan ride or the 7 hour VIP bus. Now some of the VIP buses are pretty nice double deckers and we thought that while the trip took longer we would have more space because they pack as many people into a minivan as will possibly fit. We got picked up in a bus that was falling apart. Fortunately we did go to the bus terminal where we were transferred to a bus that was in a little bit better condition but not much and definitely not would I would consider nice, but it was only $11 per person.

The ride while long was beautiful. I had heard that this was one of the most spectacular rides in Asia and II don’t think that there is much that can beat it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures of the best parts, but the views where of karst cliffs and dramatic drop offs. A lot of it was uninhabited but you wouldn’t go anymore than 30 minutes or so without driving through small village. You started to see more poverty, people living not in buildings but more huts with thatch walls and roofs. The drive was less than 150 miles but it took a little longer than 7 hours with 15 minute stops here and there (there was no bathroom on the bus).

I was somewhat jealous. The hotel that we stayed at in Vang Vieng had a Thai motorcycle club staying there. There were a couple of BMWs but probably 20 or so Harley’s. The difference was that all of these were built to tour, they had added so much onto them that they looked like Honda Goldwings. I do have to say that every time they passed our bus, I was jealous because they would have had an absolutely incredible ride. That evening we finally arrived in Luang Prabang, a day earlier than planned. Fortunately, the hotel that we had booked (the Lotus Villa, which is a small hotel built in a reconstruction of the French villa that was on this site and falling a part a couple of years ago) did have a single room so we didn’t even need to change hotels, but we did need to change rooms.

Luang Prabang is a World Heritage site. It is a very cool little town. They have an incredible number of nice buildings from the French period and 43 wats. There are way too many wats to see and many of them would only appeal to people who are really into them. As opposed to Vang Vieng, it does draw a lot of older well to do travelers. You can pay $500 a night for a room here. This means that there are few good restaurants and some higher end shopping as well.

Luang Prabang is at the convergence of two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan. Right now as I sit in our room we are within a couple of hundred yards of both rivers. It is a really beautiful location.  The first day we didn’t do much as we have been pretty busy for a quite a while, but we did do some exploring around town.

Wat Xieng Thong Luang Prabang, Laos

The next day we went to one of the wats, Xieng Thong, which dates from the 16th century and went in the afternoon to one of the waterfalls which is just a little ways out of town, Kuangsi falls. A really beautiful place with a few too many tourists.

Kuangsi Falls

There is one high waterfall which then descends into different pools. The water is a great shade of blue, isn’t that deep and is relatively warm and is therefore great for wading and in some areas, swimming. One thing that I haven’t mentioned is that the weather had been pretty nice lately, while things had been cloudy in Cambodia which kept things cool, it has been pretty sunny in Laos. It gets up into the high 80’s for a few hours in the afternoon and until, we got to Luang Prabang, warm into the evening. In Luang Prabang, it is a little cooler in the evenings and morning but I would say perfect. Night before last we went to a restaurant named to Lao Lao Garden. It is outdoors and built terraced into a hillside. Really good and very reasonably priced food, but the ambience was very unique. It was a neat place, I can now see it as a chain restaurant across the US.

We got up early the next day to go to morning alms. It starts at 6:00, and has about 300 monks from the different wats around the town walking to recive food. The people giving the food gain merit and improve their karama. It was very interesting to watch but the are many tourists who were not respectful and it felt like we invading something private.

Morning Alms

Yesterday after morning alms we went to Elephant Village. Laos was called land of 1 million elephants. Now they have about 1500, of which about 500 work in the timber industry (China is in the process of trying to deforest Laos as they no longer have any good forests left). The elephants that work in the forests live a hard life, in many cases they are worked to death. Elephant Village has 14 retired elephants who now lead much easier lives. Tourists now come and spend time with them which pays for their support. There were nine of us (from the US, Australia, the UK, Belgium, and the Netherlands) who took the full day mahout training. There were probably 20 other people there that took half day packages or multiple day with the resort that they have. The half day package gives you a one hour ride in a basket on their back. Our package allowed us to learn how to handle them, give them directions, ride on their necks, ride in a basket and take them bathing. After we finished we then went upriver a little ways to spend an hour at a nearby falls.

It was fun. Shannon had never really spent any time with them and my exposure was a couple of hours trekking, rafting and visiting the hill tribes my last time here in Chiang Mai. Riding in a basket is fun for about 10 minutes. Riding on their necks is a completely different experience. You are about 15 feet in the air and the trail to the river is pretty steep, it took a while to start to feel like you weren’t going to fall off. The most enjoyable part was taking them down the hill and into the water to bathe. The river was probably 6-8 feet deep and when all of us got out in the deepest part, we (and their actual mahouts) gave the command ‘seung’ which means they are supposed to lay down with all four legs bent. This basically put us in the water with them and we then used brushes to scrub them down (I find it curious that we will pay to scrub an animal down). The visit to the falls afterward was a nice way to end the day as we were kind of hot and sweaty at that point.

Elephant Village

Last night we went to a place called Tamarind for dinner. It was tough to get into, only a few tables and previous nights they were fully booked. We went early and were able to get a table. It has a little bit og international attention. They serve tradional Lao, which basically means no utensils for most of their dishes. Traditional Lao food is normally sticky rice (which is very sticky) and other dishes which can be eaten with your hands. We shared a few dishes, including a appetizer set with Luang Prabang sausage (very good), some lettuce rolls filled with different things (one of which was really good, the other wasn’t bad), dried water buffalo (tough, like jerky but not bad); lemon grass stuffed with chicken and spices with dipping sauce and a third which was barbecued pork (it was also wrapped in some kind of grass and then barbecued. A very good meal, I am glad that we went, but not someplace I would want to eat at again.

Today we have been lazy. We have one more full day here and then we fly to Chiang Mai, Thailand on Thursday. I have been uploading photos (Internet access isn’t the best in Laos, we have had problems everywhere we have gone), writing and reading. It has just been a nice relaxing day which is something we haven’t gotten many of on this trip.

 

November 23, 2010

We arrived in Bangkok yesterday after a few days in Chiang Mai. We just heard about the tragedy wtih the hundreds of people stamped and drowned in Phnom Penh at the boat festival. We were actually hoping to go to that but timing just didn't work out.

We only have a couple of days left, so I don't think I am going to have time to right anything but will write about the last part of our trip this weekend once we are back home. I have added a few pictures below that I wasn't able to post prreviously duee to bad Internet connections.

 

 

November 27, 2010

It is Saturday morning. We got back to the US Thanksgiving morning so we have been back in the US for two days and I am questioning why we live in the Pacific Northwest. 

The day before we left we went to Wat Arun in Bangkok, which you can climb the outside of. It was about 11:00 in the morning. Bangkok's coolest time of the year is now, but this means that the low is mid-70's and the high around 90, with 80% humidity. This makes the time from 11:00 until about 4:00 miserable if you are out and moving around. I complained to Shannon about the weather and mentioned that I was glad I was going to home because I was sick of the weather. We arrived to wet and cold and looking outside it is just depressing, the bare trees and grey skies. Right now I would go back to wearing a shirt soaked from my sweat because we just walked up a few flights of stairs. 

We spent our last day in Luang Prabang wondering around some of the wats and climbing to the top of Mount Phousi, which has a couple of wats and an incredible view over the city. Then, in late afternoon we hired a boat to take us out on the Mekong. It is an absolutely beautiful area with gorgeous views of the surrounding hills. It was nearing sunset, so we had the driver pull into town and found  a bar that had setup a few tables overlooking the river and watched the sunset.

Sunset over the Mekong

We flew to Chiang Mai the next day. Chiang Mai is a relatively large city of 2 1/2 million in northern Thailand. The last time I was here I didn't have much time to explore the city, I used it as a transit point for trekking a little farther north. Chiang Mai is another city with a lot of wats, over 300. There is an old city, which is surrounded by a moat and remains of walls at gates which are the only access points in or out. These are the historic pieces, but Chiang Main is in many ways just a large modern Asian city. It is really only in a few places where you are able to turn a corner and have a view which expresses the age of the city, look down many streets and you will see mobile phone shops, banks and Starbucks. 

Chiang Mai has been on the SE Asia tourist trail since the late '60s. Because of this it has developed quite a reputation for shopping. The night of our arrival we went to the Night Bazaar. At first it really didn't really look any different from any of the otter night markets we had been to, other than the fact it was obviously in a much larger city. The tuk-tuk driver pulse up in front of a large western homeland you see the vendor booths lining the sidewalk on both sides of the street. It is only after we walk around for a while do we really start to realize how big it is. THe vendors on the streets go for several blocks in different direction and throughout the area are multicolor buildings that have vendor booths and then turn another corner and you are into a are open space filled with more vendors and restaurants. I am sure that the number of vendors here has to be into the thousands. 

Shopping on this trip has been interesting. The items available this trip have changed slightly by country, the prices very buy location and sometimes between markets. You have certain things in Cambodia that you don't in Laos or Thailand and vice versa. Thailand is the king of knock-offs; clothes, purses and watches. In both Cambodia and Thailand you also have stuff that is essentially intentional overruns. A major clothing company orders 10,000 of something and the factory then makes 11,000 and sells the extra 1,000 locally at ridiculously low prices. Laos almost everything is handmade, Cambodia has a decent amount as well and in Thailand it is truly the arts and crafts stuff, manufactured items are in the majority here. The most common item is silk scarves. 

The vendors are more in your face in Thailand and Cambodia and less so in Laos. Walking through a market you are constantly being asked to buy something, show interest in an item, either slowing down to look at something or picking something u and you instantly have the vendors full attention. They normally won't name a price unless you ask and when they do you are expected to counter offer, they will come back with an offer and that is about what you are going to pay. I normally counter with a price 40-80% below their first price depending on whether I think they are really asking to much and how much I like them. I find it hard to old asking 80% off with a 6 year old girl, I am just as hard going back and forth negotiating with them but I think I tend to give them a little more in the end.

Another interesting thing that happens with many of the vendors is that after they make the sale and get the cash from you (no credit cards accepted in any of the markets, high end restaurants, stores and hotels only) they then tap the cash against their merchandise and say something in their language in a ritual where they ask for good luck and more sales. 

The next morning our intent was to go to a few tows outside of Chiang Mai, so we hired a taxi for the day ($30) to take us out to a few towns the first of which was Bo Sang or the umbrella village. It didn't quite work out the way we planned. Instead we ended up going to 'factories' the first of which was called the silk village. It is really a big tourist store. The silk village actually showed silk worms and how they get silk and then how silk is hand loomed. They then have a large store attached with some really nice stuff and relatively high prices to go along with it. 

He then took us to a giant jewelry store, when we expressed our displeasure and we told him that we wanted to go to Bo Sang or the umbrella village, he ended up taking us to a large store where they made and sold hand painted paper umbrellas. They had some nice stuff, but our understanding was that there was actually a whole village that had small stores and vendors selling them. Not what we where expecting.

We then went to the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs. It had gardens and then bathing areas available for rent and a swimming pool. I was really hoping that it was a cool swimming pool but it was very warm. Nice all the same.

We then had the driver take us to Tiger Kingdom. Back when we were in Vientiane we ended up talking-to a German couple for three hours. They had travelled everywhere (they had been almost everywhere I had been and a lot of places I haven't like the Philippines and India) and they had come through Chiang Mai and told us about it. They breed tigers and you can pay to spend 15 minutes with them. The price is based on size, you pay more for the younger ones and less for the older ones. We payed for 15 minutes with the smallest and 15 minutes with the largest. After a wait, we were able to go in with the oldest which were 3 21 month old  tigers (they send them off to zoos when they turn 2). All of them were sleeping but you can literally lay on them.

Shannon and I at Tiger Kingdom

We then spent 15 minutes with a 2 month old. Her name was La La and she was quite a hand full. When we first walked into their enclosure, she was standing up on a table and wanted down, she then ran out to an area overlooking a pool where some of the slightly larger ones were and finally here handlers tried to get her over to a corner where we could sit down with her. She then noticed Shannon's pants and for the next 5 minutes or so basically attacked Shannon.

She was very playful and ended up crawling all over Shannon, biting her pants, her butt, her neck and her hair. She was actually very gentle doing all of this but did leave a mark once when she bit Shannon's finger. While she would paw at Shannon occasionally she never used her claws. Her trainers where impressive, obviously they need to make sure that the tigers learn how to behave around people and when she would get out of hand she would get  tap on the head with a stick about the thickness of a pencil. You could tell that there were times she didn't like being tapped but she would behave. A really neat experience.

On Saturday we went to the Chiang Mai zoo. The hotel that we were staying at, Villa Duang Champa, is another one of the converted villas and is a neat little place. One of the employees was getting married that weekend so there was one woman who worked the entire time we where there which worked very well for us. She was incredibly nice and one of the things that she did for us was showed us how to us the shared taxis. Basically, they are a small pickup with a canopy and bench seats along the sides and are painted red. If you want to go somewhere you flag one down and tell them where you want to go. If they are headed in that direction they will tell you how much, if not they drive off and you find another one. 

So we caught one of these shared taxis ad went to the zoo which is on the outside edge of town on a hill. They do have a trolley that runs around but I ended up making a mistake as I didn't want to wait due to tons of people waiting near the gate and suggested we just walk to the next stop. About two hours later after having walked by a number of different animals and a deserted aviary which filled a huge draw, we finally arrived at the reason why I wanted to go to the zoo, the pandas. 

I had never seen pandas before. For the most part I am not a zoo person and just never been to a zoo that has pandas. The Chiang Mai zoo now has three. THey had two who were donated by China a few years ago and then used artificial insemination to have a baby panda (which is no longer really a baby). They each have there own enclosure, both the baby and the mother were sleeping but the father really wanted to go in with the female so we were able to watch him wander around something similar to OCD pacing. It was neat to see considering how few of them are left. We then caught the trolleys are rode around the remainder of the zoo.

We lucked out with our timing on arriving in Chiang Mai. The weekend we where there was during the full moon on of the 12th lunar month which is when they celebrate Loi Krathong in Thailand. Loi Krathong is a celebration in which they float (loi) krathongs or banana and flower 6-12" rafts  with candles or incense into rivers and other waterways. They will include a small coin as an offering and sometimes fingernails or bits of their hair to symbolize getting rid of the bad parts of oneself but the act is meant to get ride of bad emotions and the bad things that you may have down so that you can start anew. 

The advantage of Chiang Mai is that there is a second festival that occurs at the same time. Yi Peng occurs in Lanna or Northern Thailand. Over Friday and Saturday nights thousand of sky lanterns where lit and sent up. These lanterns are made from paper and are a couple of feet across and maybe four feet tall. There is a candle sort of thing in the middle and the hot air makes the lantern rise.

Saturday night we went to watch the opening ceremony for Yi Peng (interesting but not that impressive) and the over to one of the gates leaving the old city to watch a parade. The parade was supposed to start at 6:00 and we got there shortly thereafter. Everyone was lined up at the start and ready to go. It started about an hour later at which point we were kind of feed up with the people and we started to walk past the start point past all of the groups involved. They had people carrying flags, lanterns lit by candles, large floats with electric lights and was very impressive. 

After we had viewed all of the parade we went down to the river to watch. You can see the whom loi or lanterns from anywhere in town, but the krathongs are mainly released at the river. What normally would have taken 5 mintues on tuk-tuk took us like 1/2 an hour. Between traffic due to the parade and the number of people at the river.  

There were thousands of people, krathongs floating down the river, vendors selling krathongs, food and fireworks going off all around. At anyone time there were hundreds of lanterns in the air. It was all very impressive and one of the best festivals I have experienced.

Yi Peng in Chiang Mai (not my photo- I don't have a good one and found this online)

Sunday morning we went to a few of the more impressive wats in town, had a massage at a plae which trains women released from prison (very good massage, Shannon said it was the best she had on the trip) and then in the evening were going to go to the Sunday market. In addition to the Night Bazar, there is also a day market, the weekend market and the Sunday market. The Sunday market was on the road in front of our hotel which I thought was going to be nice. What I didn't realize was that there was another parade that night which went down through the market on the street. Way too many people in too small of a place. We stopped and had dinner for a while and where later able to make it through the market but it was a frustrating experience. 

We flew to Bangkok the next day. This time we stayed in Banglamphu, the backpacker district. Whereas last time I stayed in this area it was in a $4 a night guest house which did have a bathroom and AC, but no top sheet nor blanket on the bed, we stayed in the most expensive hotels room of the trip which had a balcony overlooking the Chao Praya river and a roof top pool.

On Tuesday we caught a river taxi to downtown, picked up the shirts I ordered at the start of our trip and went to MBK,the mall we visited at the start of our trip. We had lunch at McDonald's which is one of my things that I do on any trip when they have them in the country (I had a Samurai pork sandwich which was pretty good).

On Wednesday we went to Wat Arun, which is just down the river from the hotel . Wat Arun is different from most of the wats and one that I wasn't able to go to on my last trip. It stands on the river bank and is composed of impressive towers, the middle of which you can climb. We then went to Wat Po, which has the reclining Buddha we visited at the start of the trip and got another massage. We then packed and prepared to leave early Thursday.

Wat Arun

For dinner Wednesday night we went to Thip Samai. It was harder to get to than I expected. Our tuk-tuk driver didn't know where it was and while we had walked down the street it was on earlier in the trip, we walked by during the day, it wasn't open and I didn't know we walked by it. Our driver stops we get out and I get confused on direction. We walked around the block and through a street market which was the last thing either of us needed. By the end of the trip we were both kind of overwhelmed with too many people in too small of a space. But as we make our way around the block I don't see any signs for it. 

This is is a place that serves what is supposed to be the best Pad Thai in the world. They have a website and have been in business since 1966. We do walk by a place that is very busy with lots of tables on the street. They are basically cooking in a doorway with some tables behind it, but in very few places in world could these be called a restaurant. When I look at the tables and what people are eating it is nothing but Pad Thai so we find a table and sit down. Once we open a menu we do find that this is in fact Thip Samai. While all of the tables are taken we are the only westerners there.

The menu is simple, 6 kinds or so of Pad Thai from $2-4. We both order Pad Thai with prawns. You get a basket with sprouts and lime and have sugar, pepper flakes and crushed peanuts to customize your food. We get our orders, and unfortunately only get chop sticks which isn't a problem for me but Shannon has only used them a few times. It was very good. It isn't very hot nor is it as sweet as many served in the US and the flavors are more complex. 

When I say we had to leave early Thursday I mean early. We got up at 2:15 to make a 5:30 flight. It took u a while to get to the front counter and get checked in. It then took a long time to get through immigration and while we arrived 2 hours before the flight (they recommended 3) we have to hurry to make it to the get on time. We then go through the whole new TSA style pat down which I find truly ridiculous. 

After a 5 hour flight we land in Tokyo, have about an hour layover and are then off for an 8 and a half hour flight to PDX. I took two Ambien to sleep and take them before takeoff. I don't remember takeoff. I also barrel remember being woken because someone bumped Shannon's tray and her tea spilled on me. Unfortunately I only sleep for 4 hours. We land at 7:30 Thanksgiving morning but both Thursday and Friday are a blur. In between jet lag and a head cold we both come down with, neither day goes well from a metal capacity perspective.

In someways I really glad this tip is over. I am exhausted. We tried to do too much in too short of a time and didn't end up with much downtime on the trip. At the same time it was one of the best trips I have ever had. I truly love the region (although I will never get used to the heat and humidity), the people are great (especially in Cambodia), beautiful landscape (especially in Laos). Bangkok is one of the best cities in the world, Angkor the best of the ancient ruins. The food was incredible, we stayed at great hotels and met wonderful people. I can't wait to go back.