Steve's Travel Blog
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THE SOUTHEAST ASIA GREAT ADVENTURE – 2014
Our trip begins uneventfully at 10:15 PM with a police escort to the airport by the cutest police office, none other than our Sabrina aka Pooh Bear. I know she has taken the high speed car chasing courses, but the girl did not seem to realize we were not in hot pursuit of any bad guys. We made it to the airport in record time. A hug to each of us and she was off in a flash. One thing about a flight leaving at 2:00 A.M. – there is no line for the TSA security screening. And the airport which is generally a hub of chaos is eerily still. But then the gate for the flight to Vietnam is full with families on the way to Vietnam – and the flight is full! As it turns out, this is a great time to leave – by the time we are at altitude the body is yearning for sleep. Although, sleeping in coach is no certain affair. Nonetheless, we both caught enough sleep to be awake for the 3 hour layover in Taipei. We were then on our way to Hanoi where our guide Ha and driver were waiting for us. The 45 minute drive from the airport to Hotel l’ Opera in the heart of the city took us from rice paddies to an eye opening crowded bustling city. Wow, we have seen a lot of the world, but this is a world all its own. I thought drivers in Rome and Paris were madmen – Hanoi is Rome on steroids! There are thousands of motor scooters everywhere – and in those instances where there is actually a lane marker – forget it – it isn’t even a suggestion. They drive on the right side with oncoming traffic on the left just like we do – except they don’t. We had scooters coming directly at us even though we were supposedly on a divided highway. And there is no such thing as simply going straight ahead! Oh no, it appears the game is to see how much you can weave in and out and around the cars and other scooters. And the closer you come to them the more points you get. This is better than any video game just watching them! We finally arrived at our hotel with our driver making a death defying U-turn in the face of hundreds of oncoming scooters. His name is Tuin. But his new nickname is “Mad Max”. Safely checked in we were shown to our room. This is most obviously one of the finest hotels in Hanoi – you would never know you were in a third world country unless of course you go outside.
Once unpacked and cleaned up after far too long in the air, we headed outside to explore. Sunday doesn’t slow down the pace of life here. Nor does the 90 degree temperature with relative humidity to match. Five minutes into the exploration, that refreshing shower was a distant memory replaced by sticky and damp skin. And it is clear that deodorant is an expensive luxury here (although to be fair it is no worse than many places in Europe). The first thing we noticed here is a lack of police presence – in fact, a major lack. Well, that is not quite correct – there are lots of uniforms i.e. blue, green and brown. But many of them are snoozing or otherwise disengaged. Despite that, we actually felt much safer than in South America or Africa. There are clearly a lot of pickpockets and bag snatchers, but they are endemic in all major cities popular with tourists. They are perhaps a bit better here as we are told the motor scooter snatch has been refined to a high art form. We found one of the most difficult operations was simply crossing the street. Just because there is a red light doesn’t mean the drivers will actually stop – in fact, a significant number just ignore it. And then there are the green and red walk indicators – well some are obviously wired backwards – and much of rest just don’t work. So you walk very slowly as the motor scooters and cars literally whiz by the front and back of you close enough to feel them brush against your clothes. And you PRAY like hell it isn’t your time! We had an interesting day just wandering around Hanoi’s old French quarter. It turns out they really do not like the French. But then they do not like the Chinese either. And the American war is Johnson and Nixon’s fault and not the American people – so they seem to like us. After walking many miles, we were fading fast so made our way to Quan an Ngon restaurant. This was an amazing restaurant situated in a huge courtyard full of communal tables. Along the periphery were 20 to 30 cooking stations for everything imaginable – and some that you could not. It was amazing just watching the action. We had a great dinner – not sure what everything was – but it was definitely tasty. Our table mates could not speak English, but universal sign language works fine. The bill was the shocker – 220,000. My brain dulled by well over 24 hours without sleep went into shock. Then I recovered realizing it was in Vietnamese dong! A whopping $11 for a great dinner washed down with draught tiger beer! We finally left barely able to keep our eyes open. But the streets are still crowded. The brightly colored lights spanning the streets provided a red and blue brick road to follow back to the hotel. The nights are quite lovely and easily give Times Square a run for its money. Sleep came easy. And we both awoke more or less adapted to the local time.
After far too much food for breakfast, our guide Ha and driver met us for a tour of the temples in Hanoi. It is great to have our guide to explain the meaning of the intricate symbolism. After a busy morning of sightseeing, we drove to an off the beaten path restaurant for a long leisurely lunch. We enjoyed another wonderful meal. On this trip, we decided to have our travel agent include some meals into the itinerary. In places like this, it eliminates the guesswork of trying to determine whether the place is good or bad, how to get there, and how to pay (and whether you will be charged too much). They tend to err on the side of very good restaurants, so we have found this is the way to go in some countries. We then went back to the hotel for a brief rest before boarding our cyclocabs for a bird’s eye tour of the old city. It takes some getting used to as these cabs get right in the middle of the mass of traffic and the cars literally brush you or come within inches before stopping! But what an incredible way to see the old city while getting some great pictures. Each street is unique – a panoply of sights, sounds and smells. It is almost overwhelming. Surprisingly, we survived unscathed and made our way to the theater for the water puppet show. This was fun. But the most fun was watching the 3 or 4 year old girl sitting next to me – she was completely thrilled with the water puppets. We made our way back to the hotel after a long day of sightseeing and collected our thoughts. We had decided to go back to the restaurant we enjoyed on our first night. But we stopped to chat with the concierge and he suggested a fifth floor roof restaurant with a great view and food. We decided to go for it and he eagerly made reservations. This restaurant was right alongside Hoan Kiem Lake which is stunning at night with lights all around the lake. Ushered to our table, we surely had the most coveted table in the place with an uninterrupted view. Since we were literally along the edge of the roof, we were hoping the panel of glass separating us from an “edge too far” was well anchored. What an amazing dinner – Cong Go Lay prepared tableside was the highlight although everything was excellent. I did splurge and have a very nice glass of French wine. This time the bill came out to about $40 USD. There is a lot to like here if only every car and scooter on the road would quit beeping or honking their horns. Like virtually every place in the world, in-city real estate has skyrocketed so most of the 7 million Hanoians live in crowded quarters or further out in suburbia. We literally crashed after a long enjoyable day.
The next morning we caught a cab for a thrilling ride to the museum of ethnology. This fascinating museum explores the origins and life of the 53 ethnic groups living in Vietnam. After several hours in the museum, we went outside where they have recreated several traditional village huts for various groups. We finally decided to catch a cab and make our way back to the hotel. Our guide has warned us to only take a cab from either of two companies. Of course, we ran into all the other companies and definitely understood why he said to be cautious. We finally saw a cab from one of the companies going the other way. I hailed him anyway and pretty soon here he comes to pick us up. We arrived back at the hotel and tried to tip our driver but all he would accept was the fare. We had lunch and then headed for the Women’s museum which was not far from the hotel at least theoretically. But a dot on the map does not necessarily equate to the right spot. And, of course, navigating some sidewalks with areas of crumbling or missing pavers, electric wires sticking out and holes makes looking at the ground imperative. Even where the sidewalks are pristine (you have to ignore the garbage to get pristine here), they are often impassable due to the parked motor scooters.
Wednesday morning we left Hanoi for the four hour trip through the countryside to Ha Long Bay. It was most interesting seeing all the rice fields and villages large and small along the way. This is truly a country on the cusp of change. And change has been rapid. Vietnam was a completely closed country until 1995. And it is a farming economy – often subsistence farming. Today, there are new factories sprouting up everywhere with heavy investment from Japan as well as funding for vocational schools. We passed a new Canon camera factory – there were literally thousands of scooters in the parking lot. We finally arrived at Ha Long Bay – and it is stunningly beautiful. Ha explained there are all kinds of boats here for the tourists to cruise this UNESCO World Heritage site. There is the “backpacker” boat which was from all outward signs in bad shape. As Ha explained “you can save a lot of money on backpacker boat, but may sink”. Of course, safety is not a primary consideration here. Fortunately, our travel planner booked us on a beautiful boat with only five cabins for our two day exploration here. I have not yet determined if we are simply lucky – or if people avoid usJ We ae the only passenger on this boat. In Africa, our trip was to have up to six people in our group – but it ended up being only us for all but a couple days – truly a private guided trip in the wilds of Africa. After we got our gear situated, I heard the anchor capstan and asked our guide where the other guests were? He explained that it was just us for this trip, so we have the whole boat to ourselves. It seems we again are blessed with amazing luck – and in one of the most magical and beautiful places in the world. We started with a long leisurely lunch comparable to any five star restaurants. The day cruise through 1,969 islands is just stunning. The water is a rich green similar to our glacial rivers in the North Cascades. After a visit to a fishing village, we set anchor for the night. The vegetable chef then arrived to give us lessons in carving fruit and vegetables for the perfect presentation. This was great fun. Pat and I adjourned to the upper deck for gin and tonics while slowly watching the sun sink in the sky. The dinner bell rang and we both looked at each other with hope this would be a small dinner. But no, the menu indicated a beautiful five course dinner beginning with two different and more than ample fresh prawn appetizers. The prawns were purchased from the fishing village. We were ready for the main course, but a cabbage and shredded chicken salad intervened. My main course was exquisite beef tenderloin with copious vegetables. Bursting at the seams, we finally made it to dessert of rich cake frosted with coconut cream and then melted chocolate. Dinner was spectacular although far too much food. After a long enjoyable dinner, we waddled to the upper deck to enjoy the warm night air, stars and a night cap. In the morning, we made our way to Ti Top Island which is one of the few islands you are allowed to go ashore. I climbed the 500 or so stairs to the top of the island (not only the first one to the top but I beat several young bucks who had to stop and catch their breath) for a commanding view in all directions. Well worth the climb although going down proved much more difficult than ascending as the steps are high and narrow. We took a shuttle craft back to the boat to clean up and pack as our vessel navigates back to the harbor. We were met at the dock by our guide and Mad Max brought the car to whisk us back to Hanoi.
We stopped at an artisan marble shop along the route where skillful craftsman carve blocks of marble into beautiful art forms. I wanted to buy one, but the Rabbit nixed that idea. Not only are they a bargain, but many of the carvers suffer from the long-term effects of Agent Orange. There have been too many people we know who were exposed to it and have died from cancer too young – no coincidence. Here, the Viet Cong drank their water from the rivers which were often full of Agent Orange runoff. Several of the workers here reminded me of the thalidomide debacle (you need to be older to know what this is). On the way back to Hanoi, we stopped at one of the rural cemeteries where Ha explained the local custom. Here they bury people in a wooden coffin and the grave dirt is piled high. Then after three years they dig up the coffin and clean the bones. They are then transferred to a clay container and placed in permanent housings which you see all over the rice fields. We arrived back in Hanoi late afternoon and headed for the massive market area which can truly be overwhelming – anything and everything is here.
Friday morning we went to the military museum. Although it was closed we were able to walk the grounds and see one of our crashed airplanes. They also proudly display the MIG that downed 14 U.S. jets during the war. It is all in your perspective. We hailed a cab and headed for the museum of history which proved to be a treasure of interesting artifacts. None of the ancients artifacts were dated BC – they were all BP. It took me a while to figure out that BP means “before present”. From there we made our way to the Fine Arts Museum which was interesting, but clearly not a match for any European museums. We finished the day at the “Hanoi Hilton” museum. We watched their explanatory movies which give you a whole new perspective on propaganda. It was very depressing to think of all the people who died in this place. Friday night we are scheduled to depart for the train station and the overnight train to Loa Cai and then on to Sapa located in the mountains of Vietnam. Friday afternoon an epic battle between good and evil erupted in my stomach. While I felt terrible, we had to check out of the hotel and stop for a great dinner (which I really could not eat at that point) in an old French manor house. After dinner, we proceeded to the train station to catch the Victoria Express train. Our agent booked us in a luxury car which allowed us to wait in a private area and best of all provided a concierge to take our luggage to the cabin. Once in the cabin, I literally crashed. And it was not a fun night! But by morning I was beginning to feel almost human again, albeit without much sleep. About the middle of the night it occurred to me that the evil in my gut may triumph – and being in a remote area in the mountains of Vietnam was not the best place to be. Fortunately, the grim reaper will have to wait for another day.
We arrived in Loa Cai and Ha immediately met us with a driver he hired to take us to Sapa located about 30 kilometers from Loa Cai. But the mountain road is so bad that if takes almost two hours to make the trip. In many places it is only one lane – and there are many large trucks on the road for the dam construction. Mad Max’s driving was frightening, but it had logic to it. This driver aka brain dead seemed to think that he had to pass every car, truck or scooter on the road, BUT only at a turn where there was no way to see what was coming at you. I was ecstatic to see Ha fire him as soon as we arrived at the hotel. Sapa is a stunning mountain area with many of the hills sculpted for rice farming. We drove a few miles down the road and then started walking to the Black Hmong and Red Hmong villages. We were immediately joined by a group of Hmong women who were eager to share their handicrafts. Many of them have actually picked up some English so it was interesting talking to them. We also had an opportunity to visit a Black Hmong house and a Red Hmong house. This was about a three mile walk – and the intrepid ladies walked all the way with us. Needless to say, I had to reward their perseverance by purchasing some of their handicrafts. Ha chastised me for paying too much – but they are so poor it was better to pay too much than too little. We finally stopped at a local restaurant for a long, leisurely lunch. I had ginger and honey tea which was truly amazing. We then walked through the market in Sapa – what an eye opener. I thought the market in Morocco was one of the least sanitary I have ever seen. But this definitely tops it. Butchered beef slabs are lying on wooden counters of sorts and the trimmings cover the floor. And, of course, there is no refrigeration here or in the homes. It is the same for fish and everything else. There is lots of garbage on the floor that doesn’t seem to bother anyone besides me. While this should have dimmed our appetites, we put it out of minds. The dinner at Victoria hotel is heavily French influenced and was exceptional. As was the ample breakfast buffet with everything and more. We find the pork and beef here (the good quality ones) to be exceptionally flavorful. Apparently, many Vietnamese make the journey here to buy meat for special occasions. We left Sapa early in the morning for the trip to Bac Ha to see their famous Sunday market which has been operating for over 300 years. There are many people who walk 20 to 30 miles to come here. The journey there is through the beautiful mountainous country of Vietnam. We arrived and wandered into the biggest market I have ever seen. It certainly has anything you could imagine. Chickens, birds, horses (and lots of horse meat stews on the cookers), water buffalo, fruit, vegetables, hardware, fabrics, clothing. It is all here. They are cooking stews and foods everywhere on charcoal stoves or wood fires so the air is heavy with smoke. And it is just as dirty as the market in Sapa – no probably worse. But what a photo opportunity – this is a portrait photographer’s paradise. After spending a lot of time here, we left to visit a Flower Hmong village. They are readily identified by their colorful and beautiful dress. They are more advanced than the Black Hmong and their animals seldom live in their houses. But they do live in very close proximity so you know the pigs and water buffalo are nearby. All have dirt floors and a fire pits for cooking – and most have old fashioned tube TVs. We are right on the red river which separates the border of China and Vietnam. Apparently, the Chinese sell pirate satellite dishes so villagers can get a signal without paying for it. As we neared Loa Cai, we saw a long line of trucks filled with rice bags. As it turns out, the government official for this area in Vietnam has been bribed to look the other way – and the same on the Chinese side. Then we saw the trucks driving onto a huge barge where they were ferried across the river and unloaded on the Chinese side before their return trip back to the Vietnam side. A great way to avoid government imposed taxes on rice exports – and it happens in plain daylight. From here we went to the legal border crossing to China. But they refused to let us in. So after a long day we stopped for dinner in Loa Cai before boarding the Victoria Express at 8:30 PM back to Hanoi. The train is one of the glorious old trains left from the days before they threw the French out in 1954. And our cabin and the dining car clearly reflect the old days of luxury train travel. Although, the tracks are much narrower and the cars do a lot of rocking so it is quite an experience. We arrived in Hanoi at 6:00 AM and were promptly met by Ha and driver. We stopped at a highly regarded Pho restaurant for a delicious bowl of pho with chicken and pork. We made a quick stop at the flower market which I had wanted to see and then on to the airport for the flight to Vientiane and on to Phnom Penh. Our guide Ha has been great – he is clearly well educated and extremely knowledge about the country and its economy which made our visit much more meaningful.
Clearing customs in Cambodia is a real pain, but we finally got through and were quickly met by our guide Sam and driver. Since the U.S. does not have relations with Cambodia, it is a bit more daunting here – and we are informed not many tourists from the U.S. come here. The country is clearly poorer than Vietnam and it shows as we make our way to the hotel. And then we arrive at a hotel with a different name than on our itinerary. But we find we have been upgraded to their new five star hotel. And it is unbelievable. We were met by the general manager of this hotel and the GM of the hotel where we were scheduled to stay. We are not sure why, but this is truly VIP treatment. And all the staff took note so we have the royal treatment. Now if everyone would just quit bowing! Every time we encounter staff at the hotel they start bowing – I told them to knock it off but alas they do not speak English. We went out for dinner and had an amazing dinner – the highlight was fish a mok, but there were many delicious foods. After a great dinner, we retreat to the luxury of our hotel to prepare for a long day of sightseeing tomorrow.
Sam and driver met us to start our journey in Phnom Penh at the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Even though it is early morning, it is already very hot and humid and the sun is brilliant. The structures are impressive architecturally and the courtyard has several grand stupas containing ashes of the monarchs. The silver pagoda contains the golden Buddha made of approximately 200 pounds of solid gold and studded with almost 10,000 diamonds. There is also a large emerald Buddha and we were able to catch the sunlight passing through it. From here we drove to the Cheung Ek aka one of The Killing Fields. The journey became a bit more exciting as our driver took a shortcut to avoid the long delay due to construction on the main road (don’t think of it like a road in the U.S.). And a shortcut here is not like a shortcut at home. Here, we had to navigate dirt roads barely wide enough for one car and with gargantuan potholes, large rocks and fully submerged roadway (roadway is a generous descriptor). At one point, we bottomed out in the middle of a huge pond and I had a very real fear that we were not going to get out. We finally arrived at Cheung Ek. After absorbing the horrendous history of this place, we entered the killing field where so many people were cruelly executed. Bullets were expensive, so they were generally beaten to death with clubs or hoes while the children had their skulls crushed against the killing tree. It is a gut wrenching place. We are still in the rainy season and clothing and bones are still being unearthed by the rains – at one mass grave we saw a jawbone and some clothing as the mud was washing away. When we visited Auschwitz, it was haunting to think something like that could actually happen. And yet, here in 1975 through 1979 it did as they exterminated over three million people – over one-third of the Cambodian population. And the brutality of how they did it is so immense it is hard to understand. After virtually annihilating the population, the Khmer Rouge started killing each other. From the gut wrenching and haunting experience of this place, we go to the prison S21. Here is brutality reflected on an inhuman scale. The methods of torture here were many and horrendous. Those who actually survived the torture were taken to Cheung Ek to be killed. The jail cells still hold the dried blood of the prisoners on the floors as a stark reminder. And the cells are now full of pictures taken when a prisoner arrived and of their corpse when they died. And the thousands of pictures of corpses evidence terrible brutality. The three story prison has razor wire on every balcony. I thought this was to prevent escape, but our guide explained it was actually to prevent an inmate from committing suicide to escape torture. There were only seven survivors from S21 and we were able to meet one of the two still living. We purchased his book as a reminder this can always happen again.
Lucky and driver met us early for a long morning of sightseeing and then lunch a restaurant on the Tonle Sap River – a beautiful setting for a long leisurely lunch. We then went to an artisan silk store and found silk scarves so exquisite we could not resist. Then on to the marketplace – it is not nearly as interesting as most we have visited – and generally filled with costume jewelry and cheap clothing. But the average monthly income here is $200 so people do not have money for anything but essentials. The Khmer Rouge was intent on taking the country back to the Stone Age and very nearly succeeded. So change has been slow here. And being the second most corrupt country in the world does not help. But it does explain why many of the surviving Khmer Rouge perpetrators of the genocide have yet to be tried for crimes against humanity. After our stay in Phnom Penh, we boarded a plane for the short flight to Siem Reap. Upon arrival, our new guide Sam and driver met us and took us to our hotel. While it is not nearly as opulent, it is certainly a notch above most. After getting situated, Sam met us for the drive to the temple Phnomh Bakheng to catch the setting sun from its top. We climbed to the top of temple and took in the commanding view of Angkor Wat from here and waited for a spectacular sunset. We descended after the sunset i.e. in the dark and make our way back to the hotel. Dinner was a spectacular buffet at a huge restaurant geared to serve the large number of tourists here. We were impressed with the quality of the food and sheer number of offerings. Dinner was accompanied by the ubiquitous Apsara dance show. One of the things we both find disconcerting here in Cambodia is the lack of personal space. Whether in a restaurant or a shop, the staff will literally cling to you and pepper you with incessant questions. And the damn bowing with the hands together as if in prayer – you would think I was a saint - enough already. I sort of miss Poland where it took an act of God to get someone to wait on you.
Thursday, we got an early start for a long day exploring Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. It is very hot and humid and the sun is bearing down as we wander through the ancient city of Angkor Thom. It is hard to describe the scale and magnificent carvings all around us here. It is simply impressive to see so much so well preserved. And there is much preservation left to do as Cambodia lacks the resources for basic infrastructure let alone historic preservation. Every time we leave the car, we are surrounded by barefoot little kids selling postcards, books, trinkets, or anything else. And they are persistent little sales people – our “no thanks” is followed up by “I wait for you come back’. And one little girl who could not have been more than four changed up the normal “10 postcard for dollar” pitch to “one postcard for dollar and nine free”. Too cute – but they should be in school and instead are condemned to a life of poverty. We spent the afternoon wandering through Angkor Wat. It is much more impressive than I had imagined. The sheer extent of the intricate stone carvings is breathtaking. After a long hot day we headed back to the hotel for much needed showers. After a lot of walking and climbing oversize steps, we decided to have dinner at the hotel and catch their Apsara dance show. We met an Aussie and hit it off while nibbling delicious appetizers so decided to have dinner together which was great fun. We ended up closing the place.
Friday we started our exploration at Banteay Srei which is one of the smaller temples. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in the richness of the stone carvings. This is one of the best temples we have seen. After a nice lunch, we drove to Ta Prohm which is one of the least restored temples. But the overgrown roots covering the walls give it a haunting appearance. Angkor Wat has been an incredible experience. It represents a far advance culture for the 11th century. One more long and hot day that hs been richly rewarding. We caught a Tuk Tuk to go to the Haven restaurant. This restaurant was started by a Swiss couple to train kids who must leave an orphanage at age 18 and would otherwise end up on the street. It has been a very successful and the food is excellent. This restaurant is so popular that it is impossible to get in without reservations in advance. We were fortunate to get in.
We were on our own Saturday so we started out at the National Museum. This is a new museum and it is strikingly well done. It turns out that Thailand had looted many Cambodian artifacts and they funded much of the design and construction of the museum as well as returning many artifacts. We also got in some shopping here today. After a long day, we got cleaned up and boarded a Tuk Tuk for a recommended French restaurant. We got the city tour from our driver before getting to the restaurant. I made the mistake of not negotiating the price before we boarded so was somewhat concerned about what it may cost. When I asked how much, he responded “you tell me”. You can generally get anywhere in a Tuk Tuk for $2, so I offer $3. He was obviously happy with his shrewd negotiation and insisted on picking us up after dinner. The Frenchman who runs this restaurant is a true character – but he knows good fresh food. We ordered a very nice Cote du Rhone wine and started with a smoked duck and beet salad that was excellent. I ordered lamb loin with mushrooms and thyme sauce for my main course and the Rabbit ordered pork loin with mushroom sauce. Both were exquisite. My lamb loin was wrapped in succulent Cambodian bacon which imparted great flavor. We decided it was only fitting to end such a meal with dessert. The Rabbit ordered a nice crème brulee and me the black forest cake – a lovely end to a very nice dinner. And the cost was a quarter of what you would pay in Paris. After a long dinner our trusty Tuk Tuk driver was patiently waiting at the gate to take us back to the hotel.
Sunday we left early for a cruise and visit to a fishing village on Tonle Sap Lake. Well, cruise is the wrong word – we boarded a Cambodian fishing boat for the trip. It is made of wood and pieced together with all manner of parts = and judging from the amount of water being pumped from the bilge it leaks like a sieve. There is the old car steering wheel with cotton rope wrapped around it and running to the propeller for steering – not exactly responsive but at least it does turn. And then there is the car engine mounted at the back albeit without a muffler. The sound is ear splitting. There seems to be no such thing as “junk” here, everything has a use. The fishing village is interesting although filled with depressing poverty. The floating homes keep their catch in net cages under the boat for a ready food source. And many also keep crocodiles which they raise for the hides. Back on land (and getting back was not a foregone conclusion), we gathered our luggage and headed for the airport where we bid our guide and driver adieu. Cambodia is called the Kingdom of Wonder. Our guide Sam says “you wonder why everyone is so poor, you wonder why the roads are terrible, you wonder why the electricity doesn’t always work, you wonder why the president has been in power for 35 years, you wonder about many things”. To that I would add – you wonder why they cannot pick up their garbage which seems to be everywhere; you wonder why they cannot fix their sidewalks so you do not break your neck; you wonder why they have to park on the sidewalks so they are impassable even if they were in good repair; you wonder why they do not enforce mandatory education for young children; you wonder about many things.
We caught the flight to Luang Prabang without incident. It was once again a pain going through customs, but we were officially admitted to Laos and met by our guide Oumsouk and driver. The hotel is an old French manor house and our room is huge. And we are located right in the heart of Luang Prabang. After unpacking, we walked literally down the street to the famed night market. And it clearly lives up to everything we have heard about it. The hand woven textiles and embroidered textiles are beautiful – and embarrassingly inexpensive. And there is everything you could imagine here. And this city is in stark contrast to what we have seen in Vietnam and Cambodia – the electric wires are organized although missing the thousands of illegal taps we saw elsewhere, the roads are decent, and there is very little garbage littering everywhere. Perhaps that is why it is a UNESCO world heritage site. We had breakfast in the courtyard and found the morning market is held every day on the street in front of our hotel. And it is fascinating with every imaginable fruit, produce, meat, poultry, squirrels, live moles (a delicacy I am told), bats, a big chunk of fresh python, larvae, fried grasshoppers, barbequed fish and meats, foraged jungle greens, and lots of things for which I am at a loss to describe. Let’s just say they eat a lot more adventurously than we do. Our tour of the city and royal residence was most interesting. The royal residence is quite nice albeit without a king any longer. The official storyline is that he just ended up being deposed and eventually died. The real story is he and his family was not able to be reeducated and died in prison of malnutrition and torture (but you cannot say that here). The country is solidly Buddhist and the temples are fascinating to see – and we saw many. This is a place where you could simply stay and enjoy the people and natural beauty as it is situated in the valley with mountains surrounding all around.
After a long day of exploring, we headed out through the night market to the Coconut Garden restaurant which is highly regarded here. We ordered an ambitious and delicious dinner. Luckily, just as we were about to finish the sky parted and the rains came. And did they ever. The Rabbit had the presence of mind to suggest we retreat to the cover of the bar just before everyone else had the same idea. Indeed, a torrential downpour ensued and then stopped at which time the waiters promptly pulled the tarps off the tables. Having finished our dinner, we forked over the egregious $20 or so dollars (including a nice bottle of French wine) and headed back to explore the night market. About that time, the monsoon decided to show itself one last time! We retreated to the cover of a lady selling dresses. Needless to say, the Rabbit now has a stunning Laotian tie died dress – quite trendy for a Rabbit. Since the rains showed no sign of abating, we started out for the hotel. At Least our feet became quite clean as there had to be three inches of water gushing down the street to our hotel. And the side benefit was we did not need to have our clothes laundered as we were soaking wet in the warm rainJ
Our next exploration was the trip to Khuan Si waterfall. It was a long and interesting drive through the countryside of Luang Prabang province. This is a huge waterfall with brilliant green water from the limestone walls. I only wish I would have brought my bathing suit to swim in this beautiful water at the base of the falls. After the day here, we regrouped and headed to Tamnak Lao, a cooking school and restaurant, for a great dinner on their street side veranda. What a way to watch the world go by. We started with the fresh water seaweed from the Mekong and fresh spring rolls (there is always trepidation with fresh greens as they are generally washed with local water which is a sure way to become intimately familiar with the bathroom). The seaweed is amazing – it is hand gathered, dried, coated with sesame seeds and deep fried for seconds – it is ambrosia. The fresh spring rolls (there was more than some trepidation here) were made with handpicked jungle greens and are better than either of us have experienced. We then proceeded to the Luang Prabang stew served on sticky rice which was wonderful. This was followed up with an exquisite platter of deep fried pork with an amazing dipping sauce. Alas, no room for dessert. We wandered leisurely back to the hotel perusing the night market offerings on the way.
We are exploring Laos in depth and Wednesday morning we were off for the trip through the mountains. We drove through the outskirts of Luang Prabang and onto Highway 13 which is our road for the rest of the day until we reach Oudomxay nestled in a mountain valley (here 13 is lucky). Highway 13 is the main road (probably the only road) spanning from the bottom of Laos and North to China. It seemed reasonably good – similar to a maintained country road at home although a bit narrower. Then, after a few miles it more or less resembled a logging road. Disregarding the condition of the road here, I thought the old mountain road to Sisteron in France was dangerous. But this road gives dangerous new meaning with sheer cliffs literally inches from the edge of the car. And there are many trucks on this road bringing supplies from china – it is a bit too thrilling. But the beauty of these mountains is breathtaking. We stopped for lunch in a very small mountain town. We wandered by one restaurant, but the owner was too busy buying live mountain moles (about the size of a small cat) to accommodate us – I suspect he was going to put on a gourmet dinner that night. The next restaurant had an unrefrigerated glass case with chunks of cooked meats on trays. As I was scanning the array, I noticed the skin on the chunks in one pan looked very much like python skin. And another was either crocodile or iguana. And the young lady proprietor proudly explained the two I could not identify were frogs and wild cat (We can never tell little Belle our kitty about this). We decided this was the spot for lunch. But our way to the tables was blocked by an old man negotiating a price with our hostess for what looked like a five foot or so crocodile in a net bag. The deal was done and these must be a delicacy because the big guy sold for a bit over a million kip. Finally, seated I decided to use the restroom (that is a misnomer in Laos – it is sheer terror as you never know what you will find). While I really had to go, there was a serious problem – the nice lady laid the bag with the critter right in the doorway to bathroom – and the critter was not happy. I prayed I had enough spring in my legs to jump over the critter lest my bladder burst – and I barely made it – on both counts.
After a long day of road massage we reached Oudomxay where we stayed for the night. Our guest house is not bad – no poisonous spiders or scorpions that I could find after a good search. Of course, the bathroom does not have hot water. We built up an appetite and headed out to find a restaurant. The first stop was a Chinese restaurant. The problem was no menu and no one spoke English – so we reluctantly abandoned this option although the food on the tables looked pretty good. Instead we found a typical Lao diner – open air with little tables, a couple of barbeque cookers and a huge pot of soup boiling away. It took a while to figure out they do not come to take your order – you have to wander over to the makeshift kitchen. And they do not speak English so universal sign language aka point at what you want works. After ordering, I went over to the small refrigerator and grabbed a large Beer Lao. The food was satisfying and the light lager Lao beer is excellent. Once done, I wandered over to the ladies to pay. After much ado, the bill came to 40,000 kip – I had a 50,000 in my pocket so I gave it to them and said keep the change. That almost gave one of the girls heart failure – apparently they never get tips. We had a fine meal and beer for $5. I thought I would take a shower despite the fact the shower is only a floor drain in the bathroom – well, it was too damn cold so no shower. And now the shiny tile floor is slick as can be i.e. slicker than the proverbial snot.
Breakfast is Lao coffee and a large bowl of pho at a local restaurant. We then boarded our van for the beautiful drive. We stopped many times to take pictures and visit several villages along the way. There are many children in the road at each village you come to along the way. I asked our guide how it is they survive since they seem almost oblivious to cars and trucks. Our guide said many of small villagers here are Hmong and “if you hurt them, the men in the village will hunt you down and it be very bad for you”. No wonder everyone slowed down and gave the kids lots of room.
The most memorable village was one known for distilling rice whiskey. We stopped at a house here and a middle age lady walked us through the mud and garbage to the back of her house (a generous term) where approximately 50 black 20 gallon garbage cans were lined up neatly in rows. We opened one and the smell took me back (I believe the colloquialism is “it would gag a maggot”) – fermenting sticky rice. Alas, there was another foul odor that I quickly found to be the adjacent pig sty. This is true “green and clean” at work. They feed the sticky rice to the pigs after they are done brewing the hooch. There were two 50 gallon barrels sitting on top of wood fired burners with funnel shaped pans and cold water running into them. The water from the pans gets hot and is drained onto the dirt and as needed they use it for washing clothes, dishes, greens and God knows what else. Four of the fermented sticky rice cans are poured into the barrel along with some water. As the steam rises, it condenses on the water pan covering the top of the barrel and a pipe catches the condensation and funnels it to a dirty looking 5 liter container. The lady produced a small drinking glass to sample her wares (I was pretty sure the alcohol would kill any germs) and surprisingly it was pretty darn good. I asked if we could buy some and she said she did not have any containers small enough for the quantity we wanted. So we drained a couple water bottles and bought a liter of her hooch. After she filled our water bottles she produced a hygrometer and put it in one of the water bottles and gave it a satisfied OK. It tested at 60% alcohol – so 120 proof. I had to part with 10,000 kip for her hooch – about $1.20. As we were leaving, she gave what appeared to be an admonition – our guide and interpreter said she was warning us not to confuse a water bottle with the hooch bottle. At this point, I really needed to use the bathroom so our guide took us to the outhouse (they are all outhouses here). Let just say if I was not close to peeing my pants there would be no way I would walk through that door! We finally arrived in Meuangkhua and had a late lunch overlooking the Ou River. We are staying overnight here and our guest house also pretty Spartan, but the toilet works pretty well and the mattress is not too bad so life is good. We had a long leisurely dinner overlooking the Ou River with a raucous frog serenade. And one of the pet dogs found us easy marks so we have a little buddy lying at our feet for dinner. We got up early for our river journey and I decided I could not subject our guide and driver to my odor any longer so decided no matter what I would take a shower. The problem is that the bathroom is all of three feet wide and the biggest feature is the toilet followed by a small sink. And a hand held shower coming out of the wall and a small floor drain in the corner. I could see this was not going to be good – and it wasn’t! But at least I smell a bit fresher than before.
As we headed for the boat, the purpose of our trip suddenly became clear as I opened the top secret dossier hand delivered to me by a clandestine CIA operative. He was 15 minutes late for the rendezvous and I almost left the designated meeting place. His explanation was that he was to meet me at a vendor stall selling Chinese stuff. But when he got here he found they all sell Chinese stuff here. While I had some hesitation he might be a double agent, the explanation made sense and I decided he was on the up and up. It appears I am being pressed into service for one last mission. Opening the dossier, I find my mission – an American colonel has gone mad and is carrying out rouge missions with his Hmong warriors. I am to proceed far up the Nung River deep into Hmong territory, find Colonel Kurtz and terminate him with prejudice. While the brass knows I only operate alone, this time they have forced me to take a female operative with me as backup. Her code name is “The Rabbit” and I find through the grapevine she is lethal with her Lady Glock. When I gave the coordinates to our skipper, he refused to go. He said he has taken many Americans to that place and none has ever returned – and he is clearly frightened. While he is till scared to death, his fright seemed to dissipate when I told him Uncle Sam and the Pentagon would pay whatever his price was for the trip. As they say, money talks and bullshit walks. We finally started up the river. The jungle is deep and forbidding – a prescient reminder of the dangers to come. We finally pulled the boat to shore and I was about to debark when The Rabbit said “don’t you remember what Chef said “Never get off the boat”. I quickly jumped back aboard just as a tiger lunged from the underbrush – a close call. As we were approaching our coordinates, we were attacked by Hmong warriors with arrows and spears. It was a narrow escape although a deck hand took a spear and didn’t make it. And shortly thereafter we drifted into a dense fog shrouding everything. And then we floated into the apparition of Colonel Kurtz’s camp. It is clear he is obviously mad – hundreds of pumelos garishly stuck on spears mark the path to Kurtz’s cave. I decided the best attack was a mano a mano with knives. But the Hmong and their machetes outflanked me. Just as I accepted the realization I would be another American who would not return, The Rabbit opened up – and the girl is deadly! But wait – this is just a bad dream – Apocalypse Now Redux.
Back to reality, we are on the Ou River and trip is amazing – simply spectacular scenery through the mountains in a small Laotian boat. The scenery changes at every bend in the river. We debarked at Ban Sopjam – a village known for its weavers. And are they good. We bought five beautiful wraps and a skirt – all hand woven and generally taking a week or more of labor to complete. These are all hand died with the natural plants and seeds. The cost was $5 to $10 – sure I could have gotten them for less but just did not have the heart to bargain. They are truly works of art and each family has different designs they weave. Back on the boat, we continued on through breathtaking scenery to another village for lunch. This is an adventure travelers paradise. After a great lunch and walk through the village we boarded the boat and proceeded through stunning sheer cliffs to our destination for night in Nongkhiaw. The sad thing here is that dropped over a ton of bombs for every single Laotian during the Vietnam war. And Laos is littered with unexploded bombs (about 30% were duds) and cluster bomblets that did open and spray the landscape with small lethal bomblets. And they are still killing people today. We are staying at an eco-lodge right on the river and it is beautiful. We broke out the hootch and settled into the deck chairs to watch the river pass by. This cute young lady’s mom sold us some exquisite weavings. After many years of training, she too will be a weaver.
We finally arrived in Nangkuang which is nestled in the mountains on the Ou River. We are staying at an Eco-Lodge here and it is made up of 14 little houses situated right on the river. The houses are fairly true to local construction with thatch roofs and lots of openings for critters. The highlight is the lovely deck facing the river and the sheer mountain which comes right down to the Ou. I did the usual critter inspection and gave The Rabbit the all clear – no spiders, scorpions, snakes or other undesirables to be found. After a cocktail hour of rice hooch, we wandered to the main lodge for dinner. We are quite a long way from the lodge and it is pitch black (thank God I always carry a really good flashlight). After a nice dinner we retreated to our lodge to catch up on some internet work. But here as in most of this mountain trip, internet has been abysmal – it just plain did not work here. We lowered the mosquito netting and turned out the lights. About that time a chirp started very nearby and it seemed to be from a sizable critter. I grabbed the flashlight and did a quick search, but found nothing. Just as I was dozing off, the chirps started again from a different place – and it seems reinforcements have arrived. Another empty search. Finally, sleep overtook me until I woke up for the dreaded visit to the bathroom. In working up the courage to go to the bathroom, I glanced toward the window beside me which was bathed in bright moonlight and recoiled in horror at the cobra about to strike. Waking The Rabbit I now had two cobras about ready to strike! It turned out to be the reading lamp on my nightstand. It would have been less punishing to be bitten than wither the tirade from a pissed off Rabbit. And those damn chirps were everywhere so sleep was a bit worrisome. After breakfast, I asked Oumsauk if he had any idea what the chirps might be? He said “oh yes, they are geckos”. We had to have the luck of getting GEICO geckco trying to sell insurance to Gordon Gecko. Remember the quote “money never sleeps” – well it should have been “Gordon never sleeps”. We are now on the way back to the relative civilization of Luang Prabang. As I think about our primitive four days through the mountains of Laos – a journey of a little over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles), I thought of my mother’s frequent admonition “make sure your underwear is clean in case you get hit by a car”. It was not until many years later that it occurred to me if I get hit by a car no one is going to care about my underwear. Funny what comes to mind on these trips. The mountains of Laos are rough traveling but the beauty and experience is something that is simply amazing.
We arrived back in Luang Prabang and checked into the Palace hotel. We are shown to our room and it is unbelievably luxurious by any standard. Our host explains this hotel was the former royal palace and we have the largest room in the hotel. We are not luxury travelers, but after the trip through the mountains it is nice to experience the Yang after a lot of the Yin.