A Travellerspoint blog

January 2012

Kouang Si Waterfall and Muang Ngoi

Note that this was first posted out of order and should be listed prior to Xiamen. On the main chapter page it has been corrected, but that is why subscribers received it after the Xiamen post.

After a week, we were ready for an day triip to Kouang Si waterfall. We set off on a cool, misty morning with a bunch of young folks and our friend Terry from Nicaragua. We all piled into a sangtheaw to get there, about an hours ride away . Because it was Sunday the place was full of Lao families and monks on what I assume was their day off. There were a series of turquoise pools that reminded me very much of Semuc Champey inGuatemala, but the water was a bit colder. We spent the afternoon lounging about and swimming.


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The piece de resistance was climbing up to the top of the falls.



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We noticed that there was another pool, high on the cliff. To get there we had to descend slightly and then climb up another steep, but small waterfall, A bit hairy, but luckily the rocks were not at all slippery, so you could walk right up where the water was cascading down. It was a magical place with small and medium falls plunging down all around and very lush tropical vegetation. In the middle there was a large pool with. yes, a rope swing to jump into the deepest part. It's hard to convey the beauty of the place, and unfortunately I did not take the camera for fear of dropping it on the way up.

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After a few more days, we were ready to take a longer excursion further into the mountains, first to Muang Kuai by minibus, and then an hour boat ride through rapids on the Nam Mu River to Muang Ngoi. It was a quaint village with thatched roofs and bamboo houses, but it was not undiscovered. No matter, the cows, chickens, water buffaloes, and people, were all friendly. As soon as we got there, we ran into our young friends from the Kouang Si waterfall trip who whipped out a case of BeerLao and handed us a cold one upon arrival. They were all sitting around a fire trying to keep warm, because unfortunately the weather had taken a turn for the worse. It was unusually cold, and overcast.



The Gang's All Here
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Author with Local Woman
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Streets of Muang Ngoi
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We went on a hike through fields




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to a couple of smaller villages and some caves. Lots of bats and these were the first caves that I have ever been in where the air was warmer inside than outside. It felt a little like a sauna. These villages were relatively untrammeled, but not that many people were about, perhaps because of the cold.



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Even the water buffalo huddled together to stay warm.



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We returned to Muang Ngoi the same day and again sat around a fire while the locals went about their business.





Making Hooch
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The next day, the weather was even worse, drizzling and colder, perhaps upper 40's F, so we decided to return to the comforts of Luang Prabang. After an hour back downriver though, we were unable to get a minibus, and so had to take a sangtheaw , basically an open pick-up truck with small uncomfortable seats. We shivered for the entire bone jarring ride. Needless to say, we had left our warmest clothes in Bangkok, never thinking we would need them in tropical Southeast Asia.

Posted by jonshapiro 13:38 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

Luang Prabang, Laos

No longer the sleepy provincial capital it was just a few years ago, this small city has come of age with expresso bars, upscale restaurants and lodging. Despite that, it retains much of its charm with quaint alleys and somewhat dilapidated old French mansions. There are many wats, and young monks, as Luang Prabang is the center of Buddhist training for all of Laos. They are often eager to engage in conversation to practice their limited English.



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Daily ritual of monks with begging bowls
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Every evening the monks chant in the wats and you can hear them all over town as you walk by. It sounds vaguely familiar to us, maybe because of the time we have spent at other Buddhist monasteries. Sometimes we would join them for 20 minutes or so.


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And then go off to a Mekong riverside cafe to enjoy a Beer Lao, while watching the sun go down.




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The food is simply incredible. For about $10 US the two of us can eat like royalty. My cooking class. which I took at our favorite restaurant, Three Elephants, was a gastronomic delight. We spent the better part of a day making several Lao curries and salads from scratch, and then we got to invite our spouses or traveling companions to join us for the feast.


Three Elephants
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While I took my class Nanette had what she called her hair adventure. . She decided it was time to get her hair colored and figured it would be easy to just repeat her natural brown color without speaking any Lao. At the hair salon she pointed to one of the hairdressers and tried to tell her that she wanted the same color. Midway through the process she realized the color was going to be a cross between red, pink and orange. She started to feel scared that she would come out looking like a clown, just in time to teach English in China in two weeks. She tried to explain that there was a serious problem. Although they didn't understand her words , they could see from her body language and the hair color that something was amiss. After washing and drying another attempt was made to change the color to a dark brown. The process took two hours. Now the roots look bright red in the sun and dark brown on the surface.

As Nanette says, " It's a little psychedelic." A few days later it didn't look too shabby, but it was whole lot straighter.



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On a rather different note, we have met a number of interesting people here, including some Americans. Yesterday, we ran into a woman who runs a hotel in Granada, Nicaragua, who invited us and about 100 other people to have Thanksgiving with her when we were there two years ago. See the entry on Granada, Nicaragua for more details. How incredible to just run into her in the street here. She has been all over the world, including Iraq and Afganistan, working on various aid missions for different NGO's. Then there's Basil, who's having a foot message next to me, a doc and a philanthropist with his brothers money, working in a hospital in Siem Reap . Ilene, an Irish woman close to 70, has worked for 20 years with US soldiers who have AIDS. She comes to Thailand and Laos every year for 3 or 4 months on her own, speaks some Thai, and has also volunteered in some of the hill tribe villages north of Chang Mei.

Not everyone is helping others. Last night we had dinner with Jim, who we also just met on the street.



Main Street
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He's about our age, and although he is relatively sedentary now, for 23 years he constantly traveled throughout the States, Mexico and Canada in his van. At some point he reconciled with his estranged, but wealthy mother, and when she died she left him some money. He bought land in Santa Fe and converted his van into a permanent home. Hardly a hippie, he is a Cornell and RISD dropout, who now gives talks on the radio about the stock market and the devaluation of the US dollar. A very bright, if eccentric misfit.





Another place to meet people is the outdoor vegetarian buffet near the nightly craft market.





Setting Up for the Market
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You load up your plate with noodles and veggies for about 75 cents and sit on benches at a long table. Next to you might be someone local, a young euro-traveler, or someone with a doctorate in anthropology or physics. It's quite a social scene.


I can't say enough about the Lao people and their extraordinary grace, joy in living and generosity. As I was typing this, one of the women who works in our guest house was sitting down to eat fish soup with her daughter. She asked me if I wanted to share her meal with her. I can't think of too many other places where this might happen. The Lao feel that to eat with others is always a happy occasion. They are very social and are often laughing, cracking jokes, and teasing each other in a good natured way. They remind me very much of the Sherpas in Nepal and the Ladakis in India. I can't help thinking that Buddhism, which is so much a part of daily life here, has infused the culture with its values of acceptance and serenity.

The contrast between the government and the people is extreme. We talked with a well known Laotian artist who divides his time between Canada, where he is now a citizen, and Luang Prabang. He told us about the massive corruption, and how, in the past, the Pathet Lao would often confiscate property, especially of Laotians who lived abroad. There have also been many disappearances of anyone who has challenged the ruling junta. Right now things are modestly better, but the government does little to help the average person, and there is still, as he puts it, a climate of fear. We knew most of this, but to hear it from someone who has lived through it is something else. The interesting thing is, you don't really get a sense of heavy police or military presence.


It's also hard to imagine that Nixon dropped more ordinance on Laos then was used in all of WW2 on a per capita basis. Most of this was not around Luang Prabang, but near the Cambodian and Thai borders.


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Posted by jonshapiro 07:28 Archived in Laos Tagged cities_postcards Comments (3)

Angkor Wat

Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, is a boom town with new hotels springing up overnight, though one wonders if they will ever fill up all the rooms despite the two million farangs who come here each year. We have met people from China, Korea,Japan, South Africa, New Zealand, Britiain, Singapore, and a few from the States, some of whom are teaching in international schools in China.

The ruins are vast and we were lucky to have the services of Bon, our indefatigable tuk tuk driver who accompanied us everywhere, knew some of the history, and even told us where to eat lunch.


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In the main temple area there are archways upon archways opening into each other, and creating a sense of perspective that suggests infinite space. We have been told that it symbolizes the beginning of the universe with Mt. Mera, a sacred peak, at the top. There is also a blending of Indian and Khmer influences, Hindu and Buddhist, that have been built up over successive generations. Unfortunately a number of old stone heads and other artifacts have been stolen by private thieves and museums, and of course, Pol Pot did his best to destroy the place. But no matter, Angkor has survived all of these things, and continues to impress with its sense of timelessness. I am bigger than all of those of have tried to destroy me, it seems to say, and I will be here long after you are gone



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While the architecture is Khmer, some of the carvings are clearly Indian in origin.

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One of my favorite places was the temple of Bayon, with its enormous 30+ feet high Buddhist heads. It is part of Angkor Thom, which is even older than Angkor Wat, dating back to 800-900 AD.



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In Ta Prahm, the jungle is taking over.



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Even in three very full days we did not see it all.


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We continue to be amazed by the Cambodian people. Yesterday while we were at the ruins, we were approached by a ten year old girl trying to sell us postcards and water. Nothing unusual about that. Then she asked" Where you from?"

" New York", I said.
"Where in New York?"
"Near New York City," my standard response.
Then she said, "Capital of New York not New York City. Capital Albany."
"That's where we live." I said.

This of course, was quite impressive, but she then proceeded to rattle off the names and capitals of all 50 states, something not many ten year olds could do in the states.

"How did you learn all that"?
" Oh, she says, "Just talking to tourists like you."

Just to give the full picture, this was not a well off educated kid, but basically a street kid living by selling things at Angkor. Whereever we went, just about everyone spoke some English, essential I guess to trying to get ahead. Even the tuk tuk drivers, are studying English dictionaries when they are waiting for their customers. What spirit.


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Of course, there are always two sides to getting ahead. Yesterday we got into a long conversation with the cook at our hostel, who happens to be the niece of the owner. She told us all about her uncle, Kim, who runs the Okay guest house in Pnom Penh. As the oldest brother, he is the family patriarch and determined to become wealthy and help out his extended family. Based on what we saw, he seems well on the way to doing this. Kim has already helped a different brother buy a guest in another part of Siem Reap. This makes three owned by the same family. Mostly they are modest places, but as business picks up I'm sure they will go on to purchase more upscale hotels. At the same time, our tuk tuk driver Bon, who we pay $15 a day, hardly sees any of this. He works for the the guest house, and they only pay him about $20 a month, plus he has to help out in 'the restaurant after driving all day. We have grown quite fond of him and tried to help out as best we could by giving him a big tip, and also showing him how to use the internet to create an email address. He got a big kick out of this, but unfortunately we never heard back from him.

We fly to Luang Prabang tomorrow afternoon.

What they say around here is that the Cambodians plant the rice, Thais sell the rice, and the Laotians listen to the sound of it growing.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:55 Archived in Cambodia Tagged postcards tourist_sites Comments (4)

Pnom Penh, Cambodia

After spending the night in Koh Kong, a rather seedy border town in Cambodia, we continued on a minibus ride with several river crossings. We either had to walk over four incomplete bridges or be ferried across on two canoes that were lashed together. We finally arrived in the Capital in late afternoon and are now ensconced at the Okay Guest House, highly touted both in the Lonely Planet, and in person by touts at the bus station, who were there to greet us in force. It would be hard to beat our 4th floor room with fan and AC for about $10 US. Okay, we had to walk up, but worth it none the less.


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We spent time walking along the Mekong riverfront. There was a promenade, always full of action with Buddhist ceremonies and live Kymer music. There was a constant parade of different kinds of people, food and flower stalls, and there were Wats (temples) on both sides of the road. It does not feel dangerous here, at least during the day.

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On another day we hired Bim, ourtuk-tuk driver to take us around town.



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We went to the genocide museum, which is located in an infamous jail where Pol Pot and his brigades tortured many people. Looking at the city now it is hard to imagine that at one point it was practically empty. Everyone was forced out to work in the countryside.

Outside of the Museum
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On a very different note, we also went to the National Museum which had ancient Kymer objects and some art work. These next shots were taken in a small pond in front of the building.


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Lunch was at an restaurant, Friends, run by an NGO to help street kids get training in cooking, waiting tables, restaurant management etc. It was excellent, and just a small example of some of the work being done here to help this devastated country get back on its feet.

In the afternoon we continued on to the the Royal Palace, which has extensive grounds and many buildings.



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We spoke with some young Americans at our guest house, which was unusual, as we have met so few of them on our travels. One of them told us that the owner of Okay was also a travel agent, so we had him purchase air tickets from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang, Laos. What we didn't know was that I would have to pick them up on the other side of town. To get there I went on a wild ride on the back of a 50cc motorbike, which is mostly what they have here. The bikes seem to come in swarms, and it feels and sounds like you have just stepped on a nest of yellow jackets lurking in the grass. The lights are often useless, and the drivers careen at you from all directions, which necessitated that we do the same. While my driver was madly changing directions, I hugged his back like a long lost lover. He didn't seem to mind, and more importantly we got there and back safely.




Praying to Buddha can only do so much under these circumstances
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After three days in this city, we have found the Cambodians to be gracious and friendly people, especially when you consider their history. A surprising number of them speak at least some English and some of them seem willing to talk about their experience with the Khmer Rouge. One local internet owner told us of his personal experiences having to work in the fields after marching for weeks to get out of the capital. He burned one arm badly, and his other arm was broken by Pol Pot and company because he wasn't working fast enough. He was 13 at the time and still has the scars to show for it.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:55 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cities_postcards Comments (3)

Bangkok to Ko Mak

I won't bore you with too many details from this busy city since they can be found in an earlier post. Suffice it to say that we returned to Khao San Road, where, like Alice's Restaurant, you can get anything you want, literally. We spent an extra day recouping here, translate that to mean Nanette wanted a mani-pedi and a massage, all to be had for about 15 bucks. Despite the traffic and the heat, there are some interesting sights, most notably the King's Palace.

Detail From the Palace
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Head of a Large Standing Buddha
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Before long, we headed for the island of Ko Mak. Most of the better known beaches in Thailand, Phuket and Ko Samui for example, are in the south and require a plane ride or a VERY long bus ride to get to them. Ko Mak, not as well known as these or the nearby Ko Chang, is about 4 hours by bus to the north. It is a quiet place, mostly with young German and Swedish families, as well as some older couples like us. Perfect for lazing around for a week.

We managed to find a very nice bungalow right on the beach.

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We spent our time reading, swimming, and eating various Thai fish curries at different restaurants, though we often didn't make it past the German run TK Hutte, right next door. Not only was the food good and cheap, but they also made mango and pineapple shakes that were even better when we brought them back to our place and added rum. We met an older (than us) German couple there who we have shared some meals with and long walks down the beach.


It is never crowded and usually the sea is very warm and calm.

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So far we have not been able to motivate ourselves to check out another nearby island for what we are told is mediocre snorkeling. We did manage to find a beach side masseuse for another massage, and occasionally Nanette is moved to arrange shells and other collectibles.


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Last night, Gerard, a Frenchman about our age, came over to borrow the Lonely Planet. He proceeded to tell us a good deal of his life story, which was interesting, although he talked rather too much about himself. After his second divorce, it seems he spent five years wandering and fucking around the Islamic parts of the Phillipines. He said it was a miracle he wasn't killed or didn't get aids. He then went to other parts of Southeast Asia for a few more years before ending up in Luang Prabang. Here he met his current wife, now in her early 30's. It is apparently illegal for Laotian women to hook up with foreign men, in contrast to Thailand where it seems to be the norm. Her family more or less disowned her, and the government threatened to arrest her. They went back to France, and now after several years, she has a French passport and they are going home for a visit with their seven year old son. I'm afraid that telling him we were shrinks, after he asked our occupation, only encouraged him to go on at greater length. We ran into him again in Laos under very different circumstances.

With some regrets, we managed to pull ourselves away from Ko Mak after a significant rainstorm seemed to signal a change of weather.


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Posted by jonshapiro 07:57 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

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