A Travellerspoint blog

Laos - Vientiane

After Cambodia, I find Vientiane delightfully relaxing. Nobody is bothering you, no one wants anything from you -- such a welcome reprieve from incessant begging and hustling in Cambodia. The capital is a sleepy town, as it's often referred to, but to me, it very much resembles Costa Rica, albeit with an Asian flavor. People are gentle and accommodative, rather than the smile-for-a-dollar attitude of many in Cambodia. Traffic is measured and polite, as I experienced during my long ride all around town on my pink beach-cruiser bicycle. Though I was one of the very few bicycles on the road (contrary to my expectations set by the guidebook that painted the town as almost devoid of cars, a place where bicycles rule), and though I was unable to keep up a decent speed (I blame it on the goofy bike!) I heard no honking, neither of the annoyed kind that you hear in Cambodia, nor of the communicative/defensive kind you hear in Vietnam.

Having thought of Laos as a backwater of SE Asia, I was shocked when, attempting to book a hotel a couple of days before my arrival, I discovered that most of the places are sold out. Luckily, I was able to secure what proved to be a great place on the river, for an 'outrageous' by Cambodian standards price of $45/night -- though prices are still cheap by Western standards, it's quite a bit more expensive here than in Cambodia. Apparently, this sold-out situation is normal course of business for the high season (dry season, running from November until early Spring). It's an accepted wisdom among travelers that there isn't much to do in Vientiane itself. So why are people flocking here, then? I suspect it's for that untouched relaxed feel that's such a welcome change from some of the surrounding territories. Not uncommon for the town, the river-front road in front of my hotel, located just several hundred meters from the city center, is not paved, though major riverfront works are being implemented (by the Chinese, of course). Soon I suspect Vientiane will have a riverfront to rival Phnom Penh.

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Should you wonder why the hammer and the sickle are so prominently displayed by the Australian-owned hotel... that's because Laos, full name for which is Lao People Democratic Republic (PDR) is a socialist country. Though private enterprise has been encouraged since mid-80s (same as Vietnam, though commercialization here is not as prevalent yet), on special occasions such as the current festival month, people are 'strongly encouraged' to display the national flag along with the party flag.

Here are a few more pics of the town:

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This holiday procession was happening to the sounds of 'Buddhified' Lambada streaming from the temple's speakers.... unreal!

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This one strangely reminds me of VDNH in Moscow:

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Sunset over the Mekong and Thailand:

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I considered staying here for a little longer, as the town practically invites you to stay for a few days of mid-day napping. However, I decided to continue North, anticipating that what lies ahead is even more alluring. Tomorrow I'm taking a bus to Vang Vieng.

Posted by kgbgirl11 01:14 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Cambodia - Siem Reap & concluding thoughts

After my experience in Phnom Penh, I braced myself for something worse than that in Siem Reap, the nearest town to Cambodia's main attractions Angkor temples. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the situation here, though in the same key, feels less acute. Don't get me wrong, there are probably more beggars here than in Phnom Penh, and poverty is just as high if not higher -- the picture below was taken just a few hundred meters from the local Le Meridien hotel. However, the majority of the population feels a bit less savage. Maybe it's being away from the hustle-and-bussle of the capital, but here I met some locals who, despite having a tough life, retained some sense of humor and ability to see the positive in the world. r

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I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of local restaurants (even before factoring in the value, a whopping price of $7 for a full high-quality dinner, including $0.5 beers), and was encouraged to see that two of the locally-run restaurants that I tried out produced dishes that not only tasted delightfully, but were presented in a very modern sophisticated fashion. One of them even offered a complimentary traditional Khmer dancing show for the patrons:

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Another noteworthy thing I tried here in Siem Reap was 'fish massage' or 'fish pedicure', as I think it was referred to in the US for its brief appearance there before most states outlawed it (the fish didn't meet the licensing requirements for this trade... yeah, really!). In short, it works like this -- you put your feet down in a fish tank that's stocked with a certain type of 'cleaner' fish, and the dozens of fish promptly get to nibbling on your feet, thus cleaning away dead skin. I first tried the fish tank with smaller fish, and spent the next several minutes in uncontrollable bursts of giggles because the experience felt like a tickle torture. After a few minutes, the feet got used to it, so I moved on to the tank with bigger fish. Some of the fishies there were waaay too big for comfort (though their brains might have been big enough to pass the licensing tests), but luckily, they didn't have teeth. It was a very interesting experience, and I was happy to see that my tired heels did, in fact, come out more rosy-looking.

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I have also had my very own traffic accident experience. I have already commented how here, driving is still haphazard, but it's clear that the good-natured intent to get along is not quite there, not like in Vietnam. I was in a tuk-tuk with my driver here, going back to the hotel, when the car in the opposite lane attempted to make an aggressive left turn right in front of us. My driver honked at the car, the driver of which acknowledged our presence with a split-second hesitation, yet proceeded to make the left turn no more than 2 meters ahead of us. Apparently 2 meters is not enough to bring a tuk-tuk to a complete stop. My driver swerved to the side of the road to avoid a head-on collision, but that was not enough. I watched it all happen in slow motion. Luckily the collision was minor (and boy was I glad I wasn't in the back of a motorcycle!) and the only damage was a scratch and a dent to the car's rear door. The driver, a young 'rich' kid who didn't even look old enough to drive, was adamant about the fact that it was my driver's fault, and called the cops. Now, I did read in my guidebook that should a tourist be driving and should they get into an accident, the tourist is not to call cops as there is no chance such dispute would be resolved in the tourist's favor. I thought, however, that the situation is different for locals. Well, after the cops finally arrived, they spent some time talking to witnesses, making some measurements for the report, and ruled that my driver was to pay for the repair or the car, $40 (which here is half a month's work). The most outrageous part, however, was when the cops also demanded $5 from him, for the job well done! My driver was distraught. He didn't have that kind of money, at least not on him, and if he didn't produce it on the spot, his tuk-tuk would be impounded and if not bailed out quickly enough, would be sold to cover the damage... and the policeman fee! He asked me if I have any cash on me, and if so, if I could pre-pay him the $40, which I did, so we were able to avoid impounding. It's clear that he deems this a loan, as he was quivering when he dropped me off at the hotel, I think from the realization that he just lost just about all of the money he would have made on me, after expenses. I sent the poor guy home for the night, giving him $5 so he has some cash, as he paid off the cop with the final scarps of cash in his pocket. This guy was very good with me, hardworking and professional, and what I value highly is that he wasn't presumptuous, none of that 'you tip me now' attitude that I can't stand. So I think I will consider the $40 a tip, and still pay him the full amount we agreed upon on top of that, I know that's going to make his day (month?), and I like giving out of my own volition and when it's appreciated, rather than coerced or presumed.

On Cambodia as a whole, here are a few things that stood out, to me:

1) Socio-economic observations: The bulk of the country is extremely poor, with $70 the monthly salary of government jobs like teachers, and jobs such as a hotel receptionist (in the capital, it may be 2x, but still, you get the scale). Having a roof over one's head is not a given, and I've seen plenty living on wooden platforms about 2m by 2m on the side of the road, at times without any roof. Yet, there is a very visible elite class in Cambodia -- the most popular car make here is a Lexus, most of which are brand new and have 'Lexus' proudly imprinted in big letters on its side. These guys drive around with an unmistakable aura of masters of the universe -- so reminds me of Russia in the '90s. How these guys make their money I'm not sure, but I suspect corruption has something to do with it. During the 4hr ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap along the main road, there were very few producing business enterprises that I noticed, a lot fewer than in Vietnam. The only public works project, a new bridge that was getting finishing touches, was built by China Road and Bridge Corporation. Seems that the only production that goes on here is farming, and even that is fully for internal consumption. The tourist business is booming, however, and it seems that locals are getting a good-sized piece of the action. It also seems that education is taking hold, so hopefully over time, Cambodia will be able to climb out of its ditch. But it won't be quick.

2) On religion, temples and monks: I was struck by the huge number of Buddhist monks I saw every day. Being new to Asia, I didn't have the basis for comparison with other countries, so I began digging by asking locals for various bits of info on the subject. What I gathered challenged my perception of what being a monk was like, and was about. Apparently, here it's been a long standing tradition for men to become ordained at some point during their youth, and many such monks later return to the secular world. Officially, Cambodia practices a form of Buddhism similar to that of Thailand, which apparently is particularly known for it's soul-searching and truth-searching tradition. In practice, the people's religion is really a mixture of animism, Hinduism and Buddhism. I admit that my observations were very cursory, however I didn't witness much introspection of any kind from the laypeople attending pagodas. In fact, I think that it's probably the shortest average prayer time I've observed anywhere, with often not much more than a quick bow to the statue of Buddha. However what they lack in quality of prayer, they make up for in quantity of offerings brought to the before mentioned statue. This being my first trip to Asia, my experience with Buddhism until this has been limited to theoretical education, as well as encountering a few of the Western intellectuals who practice Buddhism as a faith that's most closely aligned with their philosophical views. Well, the Buddhism here is certainly not that kind of Buddhism, and I would risk to guess not quite what Buddha envisioned (although that can, probably, be said about most religions these days).

3) Cuisine: I quite liked Khmer cuisine, which seems to be closer to that of its Western neighbor Thailand than its Eastern neighbor Vietnam. The welcome aspect, however, is that it's not really spicy. Like in Vietnam, dairy is pretty much nonexistent, I suppose due to the fact that milk goes bad in this tropical climate too fast to be of use. One thing that they use happily, though, is MSG -- apparently even in such indigenous-sounding dishes at the local market as ant salad -- my guide was shocked when I told him that stuff is not good for you. Once I get back home, I may even try to make one of their signature dishes, Amok (the MSG-free version), at home upon my return.

For those contemplating a trip to Cambodia, my suggestion would be to skip Phnom Penh altogether and just go to Siem Reap (this is a suggestion I was given by several people, yet chose to experience the culture more fully). If you still decide to go to Phnom Penh, at least do it before you go to Siem Reap, as if you don't enjoy it, you will at least have the temples to look forward to, an in my opinion, the town's more friendly attitude. Going to Siem Reap first, I'm afraid, will make for a rather depressing then-and-now compare-and-contrast, a case study of how great kingdoms fall. Unfortunately, exploring off the beaten path is not really an option, as you quite literally risk being blown up -- the country is still littered with land mines. To me, that was enough to make me avoid national parks.

Posted by kgbgirl11 08:24 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Cambodia -- Angkor Wat and surrounding temples

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The temples were built over the course of three centuries, between 900-1200 years ago by several Khmer kings, at a time when population of the city was 1mm while London's population was only 50k, the temples truly are amazing, both in their grandeur (Angkor Wat is believed to be the largest religious building in the world), and stark yet delicate sensuality. Though it was somewhat disappointing that Angkor Wat's iconic towers were covered in green restoration mesh, there were some positive surprises too, such as tranquil nooks and crannies I was able to find in this wildly popular attraction, and undisturbed scenes I was able to steal:

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Another pleasant surprise was that one of the temples, which is really a complex of ponds with a temple islands, which according to my guidebook haven't been filled with water for centuries were full to the brim with water, thanks to record-high rains this year which flooded much of the region:

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I was amazed that one was allowed to climb just about anywhere at most of the temples -- 'proceed at your own risk'. I don't think that will be the case for much longer, and some of the more fragile portions of the complex are already getting a 'traffic management' pattern a visitor must follow. I suspect ropes will be installed everywhere, as soon as the government can afford to buy these ropes. Restoration works also seem to be picking up steam. So for those who are thinking of visiting, my suggestion would be, go soon! though the temples will probably/hopefully be standing for a long time, the quality of experience one gets seem to be diminishing and will likely continue to do so.

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Posted by kgbgirl11 07:03 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Cambodia -- Phnom Penh

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Two days ago, I took a speedboat from Vietnam, up the Mekong River, to Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. For most of the journey, the view on the Cambodian side of the border wasn't any different than on the Vietnamese side, with fishing boats and shacks on stilts. However, as the boat was pulling up to Phnom Penh, I was thoroughly impressed with its grand riverside promenade, with Khmer architecture peering through the landscape. Well, the idyllic vision ended quite abruptly even before we got off the boat, with scores of tuk-tuk drivers swarming the boat, and using rather manipulative tactics of trying to get the tourists' attention -- 'Miss, you have to hire me, you nodded to me from the boat'. Observing people during my tuk-tuk ride to the hotel furthered the uneasy feeling I had. After spending two weeks among the Vietnamese, with their beehive-like social behavior and men's bashfulness towards women, Khmers' more aggressive driving style and the savage looks I was getting from some of the young men were certainly a contrast. I felt that I 'got' the Vietnamese very fast, and with that, was able to lower my guard and enjoy the country. After two days in Cambodia, I can't say the same, in fact I spent the past 48+ hours in a state of uneasiness.

So, first on the Khmers, as the people of Cambodia are known. They are rather distinctly looking from the Vietnamese (the latter, to me a Westerner, look quite similar to the Chinese). The Khmers are darker-skinned, some bordering on deep brown, and many have 'meatier' facial features. The language, unlike many Asian languages, is non-tonal, and is written in a unique alphabet, and apparently that's where the Thai alphabet got its start. The Khmers had a glorious past back in the day, as illustrated by some of their remaining monuments, Angkor Wat most notably, however their recent past has been anything but glorious. Like most of the region, the country had its share of troubles under the French rule of Indochina, but the real troubles started when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. Those who still believe in socialist/communist utopia should study that dreadful chapter in history -- a classless self-suficient agrarian society may sound nice theoretically, but this seems to be one of the most atrocious attempts at achieving the communist utopia. The aftermath was a decimated society, with about 20% of the population dead from either executions, starvation or deceases, and the remainder psychologically if not physically scarred by years of genocide.

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Being aware of this history, I understand why the national psyche isn't anywhere near the state of nirvana. However, to an empathetic person who can see through the riverfront facade, this is a difficult environment to stomach. There is a lot of poverty, but what makes it even harder is that unlike in Vietnam where begging is nearly nonexistent, here begging, often by children, is very prevalent. It seems that asking tourists for money is the national employment, and they've learned to play on tourists' sensibilities, like 'pay a dollar to set a bird free' scam (the birds are known to fly back to the cage), or 'gifting' a tourist with a flower, even despite the tourist's protests, just to find out that the flower is to be placed next to the nearest Buddha statue with a collection plate beneath it (this is practiced even inside the National Museum, where the price of admission is neither free nor nominal). While there are plenty of real sad stories among the people, the youth has perfected the art of 'playing the violin'. I find it exhausting, and the constant begging and at that, asking for amounts exorbitant by local living standards, attributes to a situation where rather than feeling good about having made a difference, I feel that I'm constantly disappointing.

This took a long time to write, as it's a difficult subject matter... so on the plus side, I did enjoy the unique Khmer architecture -- places like the Royal Palace are a feast for the eyes.

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During today's trip out of town, I also got to sample some unique dishes when we stopped for lunch at a country marketplace, namely turtle meat and eggs, and frog. I passed on the ant salad...

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Tomorrow, I'm heading up to Siem Reap, in order to see Angkor Wat and adjacent temples, which are the main tourist attraction in Cambodia.

Posted by kgbgirl11 06:35 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Vietnam - Mekong Delta

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What a difference two hours’ drive from Saigon makes! Life in the Mekong Delta, which I spent the past 3 days traversing on a bike-and-boat tour, is nothing like Saigon. Like many great rivers – and Mekong certainly deserves that description as the world’s 10th longest river – Mekong River delta provides for an ecological and societal microcosm, which 18 million Vietnamese call home. While the whole region is very much connected to the river, rice being its main crop, the society of the delta is particularly intertwined with it.

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The people here live not just near the river, and not even on the river, but practically IN the river. Even in towns, they use the river for transport, for back yard, for farming (fish and ducks), for cleaning. And in the countryside, the river comes for a visit rather frequently, judging by the many flooded front yards that we witnessed. Seems that the people are so used to it, they don’t even try to fight it. Some of the places we rode through didn’t even have a road other than a muddy bike path to speak of, the river was their ‘highway network’. Seeing a local manipulate the motorboat rudder with his/her feet, or in a split second diving under the water to fix something on the bottom, leaves no doubt that they are part of the river.

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The tour was very well arranged, and different bike and boat segments connected seamlessly taking us through the delta. Biking through the network of canals that make up the delta (most natural and some man-made), we passed through areas that don’t normally see tourists, witnessing many scenes that were most certainly original. A woman doing laundry in the river’s muddy waters… fishing boats employing all kinds of fishing methods… many monkey bridges, which are nothing but a couple of sticks of bamboo tied together and extended across the water, with just one support rail made of a thin strand of bamboo on one side… suddenly, we come across what looks like a warehouse chock-full of bananas – apparently this is the ‘export warehouse’; locals from all around the area bring down their crop, some by boat, some by motorbike, some by bicycle, and it’s then taken down the river in large boats and exported… no Del Monte here!

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The most 'wholesale' food operation that I've seen here, other than the banana house, was the floating market in Can Tho. Wholesale boats from different villages come to offload their produce to smaller middlemen (no retail purchases happen here). Each seller boat (the big boats in the picture) specializes in a certain kind of produce, which they display on a raised pole. The sellers are lucky to offload their freight over a couple of days; sometimes it may take up to a week for them to sell out, thus allowing them to go back. All this time, plus the journey to- and from their village, they live on the boat.

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The people here are very friendly and usually in a genuine way, and the children are just such a joy. Even when we were riding through some serious mud following a major storm the night before, and on very little sleep as the island ‘guesthouse’ we stayed in, with its leaking roof and no walls, wasn’t the definition of restful sleep, I couldn't help but smile at cheerful ‘hello!’ from just about every house we passed, sometimes unable to even see the little person on the other side from behind the fruit trees planted in front of the house. I’ve witnessed scenes of kindness from the locals that were certainly not financially motivated, like when one of the people in our group, a young Australian woman on her honeymoon, had her bike slip in the mud and got herself a bit dirty. As she was walking towards us with her bike, the woman in the nearby house took out a dish with some water and a rag, gesturing to her to come over and clean up. As she did, the local woman, assisted by our tourguide, complimented her on her pasty white complexion, which is much prized in this part of the world.

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I'm writing this from Chau Doc, having traveled from Hanoi in Northern Vietnam to this delta town near the border with Cambodia. I can already see bits of what awaits across the border, as Chau Doc has a sizable Khmer population, as easily recognized by its distinctly non-Latin alphabet (Vietnam, luckily for us westerners, uses a modified Latin alphabet). Tomorrow, I take a boat across the border, to Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh.

Posted by kgbgirl11 06:44 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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