Monday, April 26, 2010

Kratie, Cambodia

I can’t believe I made it to Cambodia! This is my sixth country in five months. Wow, has it been five months already? Where does the time go? Crossing into Cambodia from Laos was easier than I’d anticipated. It cost $23 for a visa on arrival, plus another $3 in corruption fees. Once I made it through the border crossing I hopped back onto the bus and traveled to Kratie, with a brief stop in Stung Treng. Once I arrived in Kratie and exited the bus, I was immediately bombarded with tuk tuk drivers who were pressuring me to go to their friends’ hotels. I decided to do what I normally do… and walk. After walking around town searching for a reasonable hotel, I eventually found one along the Mekong River for $4 per night. Not too bad, I guess. However, I found another one later that night for $2. Darn it! Anyways, once I got settled and established in my hotel room, I went downstairs and hired a motorbike taxi to take me to see some freshwater dolphins.

The main reason I decided to visit Kratie was because of the Irrawaddy dolphins. I didn’t see them when I was in Myanmar or Laos so I thought that Kratie would be my best bet, as I’d read that this was the best place in Cambodia to view the freshwater dolphins. And since I wasn’t sure if I would be staying in Kratie for more than one night, I made sure to see the dolphins that evening for sunset. The Irrawaddy dolphins are normally found at Kampi, a town located 15kms north of Kratie. There were two prices to view the dolphins by boat: the first option was to pay $7 and be with a large group of people, and the second option was to pay $9 and have an entire boat to myself. I chose the latter.

Within 2 minutes on my boat, slowly drifting down the Mekong River, I spotted the dolphins. So exciting! I can’t imagine seeing dolphins in Missouri swimming around in the big muddy Mississippi River. I spent an hour coasting along the Mekong River viewing the dolphins. This experience alone was definitely worth the visit to Kratie.

Once I made it back to my hotel I ventured off into the streets of Kratie. I was excited, as this was my first night in Cambodia. The only thing that stinks about traveling to a new country is that you have to begin learning the country’s language. Every time I learn a handful of phrases that allows me to somewhat communicate day-by-day, I have to start all over from scratch once I enter a new country. That part is a bit frustrating.

That evening while walking alone along the Mekong River I met Sambath, a local Cambodian, who was sitting and enjoying the nice breeze and clear skies.

“Hello,” he said. “How are you?”

“Hello,” I replied. “I’m great, thank you. How are you?”

I could feel that this friendly guy was radiating with positive energy so I approached him, introduced myself, and engaged a conversation with him. After about 30 minutes he asked me if I would like to join him to his friend’s house and help tutor his friend English. I took me all but two seconds to respond.

“Yes, I would love to join you,” I said without any hesitation, as this seemed to be a great opportunity to tap inside the local scene.

“Really?!” Sambath said, with a surprised tone in his voice, “Aw, wow!”

As I rode on the back of his motorbike with my arms wide open as if to be an eagle soaring through the air, I thought to myself, ‘Man, now this is what traveling is all about.’

Sambath’s friend lived in a stilted wooden house off a dark, dirt road. Stray dogs could be viewed from the porch frequently entering and passing through the dim streetlights before quickly dissipating back into the darkness of shadows. Besides the nightly call to prayer from a local mosque, it was a rather quiet neighborhood, one that didn’t receive many westerners, if any EVER at all. Sambath’s friend, a woman, was a 30-year-old Muslim Cambodian. When she saw that I was with Sambath, her face illuminated with joy. She expressed her desire to learn English before she attempts to move to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I really enjoyed helping Sambath teach his friend English. We stayed for a few hours before leaving.

The next morning Sambath picked me up and took me to his village, located about 25 kms outside of Kratie in rural Cambodia. The village was home to many tall, stilted wooden homes. When we arrived at his parent’s house, his mother and sister were working on packaging the tobacco that they had just grown, which would soon be sold to a businessman from Phnom Penh.

video

Everyone in his village seemed so excited to have me as a guest. And because no one spoke any English in the village, people would speak to me through Sambath, who translated everything. Speaking of being excited, when Sambath’s grandfather received word that an American visitor was present in his village, he exited his home and approached me, slowly, and with a wide smile and arms extended. As he shook my hand he said, ‘welcome,’ and asked how I was doing. Again, Sambath translated all of this. A few minutes later I noticed a couple of men gesturing for me to visit their home. After climbing the steep, narrow steps of the stilted home—which I had to walk up sideways, as my feet were too large for the steps—I was greeted by a roomful of men who immediately began offering me food and forced me to drink alcohol with them. With every sip everyone would lean in and touch glasses.














“Cheer! Ha Ha Ha! Cheers!” All the men would shout.

After a long motorbike ride back to my hotel, now completely caked in dirt giving me a dusty, fake tan, I repeatedly thanked Sambath and gave him money for some petrol. As Sambath was walking towards his motorbike he stopped, turned around, and asked me if I would remember this day. I told him it was a surreal experience that I would never forget. Sambath, who was looking down and slightly to the left of me, smiled, said thank you, and drove away.

-Adam

Next Stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Don Det, Laos (the 4,000 islands)

My overnight sleeper bus arrived in Pakse early in the morning. From here I transferred onto another bus that took me to Ban Nakasang. At Ban Nakasang, I found myself amongst many backpackers waiting in line to purchase a ticket for the ferry to Don Det. I had heard nothing but good things about Don Det so I was anxious to board the ferry and see what the island(s) had to offer. I told myself that once I made it to Don Det I was going to keep to myself and hide out. Many people ask me, especially from the States, what is it like to travel by myself, and if I ever get lonely? And to be honest, I’m hardly ever by myself. I’m always meeting people and traveling with someone. So I figured the only way to be by myself was to find a nice quiet bungalow and hide out—which I did. I found a bungalow located in a quiet area on the western side of the island where I enjoyed beautiful views of the sunset.

The bungalows where I stayed were a bit rustic. All of them were stilted wooden bungalows with a mosquito net, a balcony with a hammock, and shared showers/bathrooms with a squat toilet. Pretty basic. Oh yeah, I didn’t realized until I was about to go to sleep that my bungalow didn’t have a fan. Ugh! So amateur. And it was scorching hot outside too. I probably took about 4-5 showers a day just to keep cool. I barely slept a wink the first night due to the heat.

The next day I decided to walk to the Tat Somphamit waterfall, located on Don Khon Island. People suggested that I rent a bicycle to reach the waterfall. However after looking at the bicycles that were being offered I decided that I would walk. Plus, the path from Don Det to Don Khon was extremely rocky and I would’ve probably gotten a flat. So I got up bright and early and headed out for a long journey. The walk to the waterfall was long but pleasant. I really enjoyed the waterfall; it was an extremely powerful one. In the wet season I’m sure it’s even more spectacular. For me, waterfalls never get old. I’m always down to see a waterfall.


video


Afterwards, I hiked a trail that led to the river just south of the waterfall. I climbed a large rock and enjoyed the view of the river with interesting rock formations surrounding it. The best part about it was that I was able to experience it by myself. There weren’t any tourists around. I’m glad that I got up early because by the time I started to walk back, I crossed paths with many tourists making their way to the waterfall. Phew!

All in all, I felt that Don Det and the 4,000 islands were a bit overrated. People tend to romanticize the word ‘island’ and seem to believe it’s synonymous with the word ‘paradise.’ Well, I’m here to tell you that the 4,000 islands were far from paradise. When you break it down, an island is nothing but land surrounded by water. The next time you drive over a bridge and look at the river, notice all the little islands that you see—nothing special, right?—and that’s basically what comprises Don Det and the rest of the 3,999 islands. I realize I may be a bit harsh here. But remember, EVERYONE that I’ve spoken to about the islands had nothing but positive things to say about it. To each there own, I guess.

The itchy feet factor kicked in real quick while I was here, so I decided to buy a ticket for Cambodia. Yeah, buddy! I love traveling to new countries. Let’s go!

-Adam

Next Stop: Kratie, Cambodia

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Vientiane, Laos

Georgios and I finally pulled ourselves away from Vang Vieng and made our way to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. We made it to Vientiane early in the evening and I was surprised to see how relatively small the capital was. I mean, the population of Laos is roughly 6 million so I shouldn't have been TOO surprised, I guess. As soon as Georgios and I exited the bus we immediately darted towards the city's center. Georgios had been here before and knew how quickly the hotel rooms can fill up—which they did. All the budget accommodation hotels and guesthouses didn't have any rooms available, so we had to settle for a hotel that was a bit more upscale for our liking, which, in the end, was fine as I would only spend two nights in the capital. That night we ate dinner outside along the Mekong River, which was quite pleasant. Afterwards we laid out on a large mat and pillow, which were provided at the restaurant and enjoyed nice conversations under the dark clear skies.

I devoted the following day strictly for uploading pictures from my camera to my Flickr account. Thank goodness the hourly rate for the Internet was cheap because I spent ALL day at the Internet cafe, as the connection was extremely slow. I reported my progress throughout the day to Georgios every hour, who was accessing free Wi Fi with his laptop across town. After spending hours in front of a computer uploading pictures, Georgios and I met up and had dinner at some Indian restaurant near our hotel. Over dinner we discovered we both shared a passion for lucid dreams. It was refreshing to talk to someone who experiences lucid dreams, too.


After dinner I craved something sweet, and found an Indian guy selling banana pancakes with chocolate. Yummy. As I was enjoying my pancake, Georgios noticed a Dutch guy walking up the street that he recognized from Luang Prabang. The Dutch guy approached us and asked Georgios if he was interested in buying his motorbike. Now what was so funny about this, is that Georgios had just expressed his interests to me about purchasing a motorbike. And as I’ve mentioned in one of my previous blogs, Georgios travels strictly by looking for signs, inspired by a book he’d read called The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. So when Georgios was asked if he was interested, we both looked at each other as if to say ‘follow the signs?’

After dessert, Georgios saw me off from our hotel. I was leaving by an overnight sleeper bus to Don Det, located in southern Laos amongst the 4,000 islands. I really enjoyed my days traveling with Georgios and hope to cross paths with him again someday, the traveling Gods willing.

Oh yeah, a few days later I received an email from Georgios: He’s currently cruising around Laos by motorbike—and loving it.

Follow the Signs.

-Adam

Next Stop: Don Det, Si Phon Don (Four Thousand Islands)

Friday, April 16, 2010

New Pictures Available...

New Thailand, Laos and Cambodian pictures are available here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/44025721@N04/collections/

-Adam

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Vang Vieng



Georgios and I took a minivan from Phonsavan to Vang Vieng, which, quite surprisingly, didn't take that long (5-6 hours). Immediately after we were dropped off at the bus station I ran into Jesse and Sabine, a Dutch couple, who I'd met and hung out with in Luang Prabang. It was so random running into them there. I mean, when we were in Luang Prabang we discussed the possibility of meeting up in Vang Vieng but I didn't think we would arrive at the exact moment! Strange. So the 4 of us began looking for rooms. Georgios and I looked a bit longer in order to find cheaper accommodation, which we found (30,000 kip/per person/per room).

After we got settled into our rooms we anxiously hit the streets to see what the city had to offer. I've heard many things about this city. Vang Vieng seems to be a city that is either loved or despised. It's a fairly small town with various restaurants and bars (where reruns of Friends and The Family Guy are played throughout the entire day), guesthouses, and expensive Internet cafes. The city center shuts down between 11-12 pm, but the bars and clubs located across the bridge stay open until the roosters crow.

Vang Vieng is really known for its tubing. That's right... tubing. If you were to tell someone that you were going to Vang Vieng it's highly probably that you'll be immediately asked if you're going tubing or not. So the 4 of us (Jesse, Sabine, Georgios and I) went out to experience this seemingly Laos phenomenon. When the tuk tuk dropped us off at the river, with our big tubes in hand, I noticed that hardly anyone had a tube. From the looks of it, everyone was pretty blitzed and had stationed themselves at the bars located along the river. I felt like someone who thought they were attending a costume party, only to find out after arriving that everyone was dressed in their normal clothes. Wa Wa Waaaaaa.....

It was a bit disgraceful, really. I mean I was standing beneath awesome, gorgeous scenery with massive green limestone mountains towering over me; natural beauty I couldn't wait to tube along side of. It was a pity to see people choosing to ignore something so amazing, only to choose to get completely intoxicated and loaded up on whatever drugs people were taking. Now I'm not knocking the whole partying scene or anything, this is something I did every night in Vang Vieng. I'm just saying it's a shame that people choose to ignore Vang Vieng's natural beauty. Isn't this what drives people to travel to Laos, for its nature, wilderness, wildlife, vegetation, for its... for its geography, essentially? Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now.

One of my favorite places to chill out and relax was at this restaurant (sorry, I forget the name of it) where you could watch any movie that's in stock upon request--and on a big flat screen television, I might add. The place was co-owned by an American named Steve, who Georgios and I always referred to as Burt, as in Burt Reynolds. I forgot to take his picture but this one should suffice. I mean the guy looked exactly like him, only, well... a gayer version. Again, as I mentioned before in my earlier blogs, not that there's anything wrong with that!




We never had solid proof that he was but there were a number of reasons that we felt he was: (1) he never spoke about women, (2) he continually made jokes that referred to a significant member of the male anatomy, and (3) one day he entered the restaurant wearing this open leather vest, something straight out of The Village People, the disco musical group. I could hear the song "Y.M.C.A." as he entered the restaurant.

"Okay. There's no more discussion about it anymore," Georgios said to me, as Bert walked in wearing the leather vest.

As I mentioned before, Georgios and I went out every night.






We spent our last day riding bicycles through the countryside where we visited a blue lagoon and a cave, both of which were highly recommended by Burt. The countryside was so beautiful, too. It was amazing how far away I felt from Vang Vieng's town center once we crossed the bridge to explore its countryside. Literally, I felt as if I'd been teleported a hundred miles away once we crossed it.





All in all, I had a really good time in Vang Vieng. There's more to the city than its social scene if you're not into that sort of thing. There's plenty of beautiful scenery and nature to be explored just minutes away by bicycle. The city is essentially what you make of it. For me, it was nothing but good times.

Next Stop: Vientiane

-Adam

Phonsavan, Laos

After a delicious breakfast along the Mekong river, I left Luang Prabang by minivan for Phonsavan to see the mysterious Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars are essentially Laos' Stonehenge, which are precariously scattered around the surrounding areas of the city. These large stones shaped like, well... jars, are a bit of a mystery. The origin of the jars are still unknown and, to my knowledge, questions as to how and why they were created have yet to be determined. Blake and Jessica joked with me when I told them my interests in seeing the archaeological phenomenon. They laughed and said how bored they got just by viewing the advertisements for the jars.

"Wow," said Jessica in a monotone voice. "Those are some cool jars. Woohoo."

I mean I had to agree with them somewhat, as the pictures of the jars that I'd seen from the advertisements didn't have much aesthetic appeal. Eh, but since I was in the neighborhood I thought I'd check them out and formulate my own opinion.

The ride to Phonsavan from Luang Prabang took about 7 hours to reach. There were only six of us in the minivan, four of which were just stopping through on their way to Vietnam. I guess the other tourists shared the same sentiments as of Blake and Jessica. And that was fine by me. The less tourists the better.

The road to Phonsavan from Luang Prabang is quite scenic with a mountainous landscape. One of the passengers - a girl, of course - got motion sickness. The reason why I said of course, is because for some reason it's always the women who have gotten motion sickness during my travels. Just an observation. When we were driving to Phonsavan a woman in the minivan informed us that the very road we were driving on was, up to a few years ago, the most dangerous road in Laos due to... terrorism! Gulp! We all looked at each other in horror. I always hate driving on roads that are heavily prone to terrorism. Dammit.

There's very little to see or do in Phonsavan. It was strange, I didn't feel like I was in Laos. The city had a different feel/vibe about it. Maybe it had to do something with the climate as it was quite chilly due to its altitude. It also looked as if the city was being developed rather quickly, as there was a lot of construction visible. The city also had an almost wild, wild west sort of feel to it too. I don't know. Eh...I digress.

After we arrived I got acquainted with Georgios (pronounced: Your-Ghos), from Sweden, who I'd met in the minivan. Georgios has that reggae backpacker look: he's tall, thin, with facial hair and long dreadlocks. Over dinner we decided we would rent a bicycle and bike our way to the Plain of Jars the following morning, that way we wouldn't have to pay for an overly expensive tour, plus, renting a bicycle is always a great way to see a city.

So the next morning we rented our bicycles and headed out to the Plain of Jars, located about 10 kms outside of the city. Georgios and I spent about 2 hours roaming around the jars, taking pictures and enjoying the scenery. The Plain of Jars are really an oddity. It was rather neat seeing the jars scattered all over the hillside. We were also the only tourists present, which was nice.





On the way back to town we stopped at the Lao/Vietnam War Memorial. When we first arrived the gates were closed; however, after about 15 minutes, some old brittle man (the gatekeeper) who looked as if he was homeless, opened the gates for us. I have to say: the memorial, well... it wasn't much of a memorial. There were a few statues and monuments that were pretty neat, but that's about it. It looked as if the memorial hadn't finished being constructed, and that we were the first visitors in about a decade to stop in and see it.

Later that night I went to the town's UXO-Visitor Information Center and learned about America's "Secret War" in Laos that occurred during the Vietnam War. Apparently from 1964 and 1973 1-2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos, indiscriminately killing thousands of people, including children. There were two reasons why the U.S. decided to conduct "one of the largest sustained aerial bombardments in history." (1) Because northern Laos was controlled by the Lao communist movement, and (2) to disrupt the use of the Ho Chi Minh trail. This trail "consisted of a network of roads, paths, and rivers running through Laos and Cambodia, used to smuggle people and equipment from north to south Vietnam."

Here are 2 more harrowing statistics that are a direct result from the U.S. bombing in Laos:

The statistics I list below were provided by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a UK based non-governmental organization, which were featured in the UXO-Visitor Information Center located in the center of Phonsavan.

* Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), is the term used for both air-dropped weapons and battlefield munitions that did not detonate as intended. Up to 30% of some types of ordnance used in Laos did not explode, and remain dangerous.

*At least 50,000 UXO causalities between 1964-2005. Over half of all accidents over recent years involved children.

For information about MAG, visit there website here: http://www.maginternational.org/

[Below, watch the documentary, Bombies ]


[Here's another movie called Bomb Harvest]


After watching the documentary and walking through the exhibit, I inquired with one of the Lao employees if there is any negative sentiment among the Laos citizens towards the U.S.? He said there isn't any with the young/new generation; however, he said his grandfather and some of his uncles still resent the U.S. and are still vengeful over what happened. Apparently, many of his family members were killed by the bombing.

I was extremely happy that I decided to visit Phonsavan.

Georgios and I decided that 1.5 days in Phonsavan was sufficient, and bought a ticket for Vang Vieng (100,000 kip/ 5-6 hours). I've heard both positive and negative things about Vang Vieng. I was excited to see it for myself.

Next Stop: Vang Vieng

-Adam

Nong Khiaw/ Muang Ngoi, Laos

Jess and I arranged for a minivan to pick us up from our hotel at 8:30 am. After 3 days in Luang Prabang we decided to travel north to Nong Khiaw (60,000 kip/3.5 hrs), where we would take a boat further north to Muang Ngoi (20,000 kip/45 min). Jess woke up early to see the monk alms giving and, since she used my watch for its alarm clock, I was depending on her to be MY alarm clock when she got back.



When I woke up, however, I noticed Jess wasn't in the room, so I walked over to her bed to check my watch to see what time it was.

"Oh, crap!" I yelled, as it was already 8:20. And it wasn't but 2 seconds later that I heard someone running up the stairs, huffing and puffing.

Jess opened and dashed through the door. "Sorry, I totally lost track of time!" Jessica said, while gasping for air.

Luckily I'd packed everything the previous night and only had to brush my teeth. However, we'd forgotten that the minivan was going to pick us up at 8:30... on Laos time. Which meant after we grabbed our things, ran downstairs and out of our hotel we ended up waiting around for a half hour before the minivan picked us up. Punctuality in Southeast Asia doesn't exist.
















Nong Khiaw was a small, quiet town with beautiful scenery. Immediately upon arriving, we purchased our boat ticket for Muang Ngoi and went searching for food, as we had an hour to spare. As we were on the prowl looking for something to eat, a woman darted out of a restaurant, jumped into my arms and gave me a big hug.

It was Tiziana!

I'd met Tiziana when visiting Lod Cave, just outside of Pai, Thailand. So Jess and I had lunch with her and the group of people she was traveling with. Unfortunately, Tiziana and I had conflicting schedules so our reunion was short lived.

After lunch, Jess and I headed back to the boat. The previous night I received unsettling news that the boat we were about to embark on sunk a few days ago.












And I was told that if I had any valuable belongings, i.e. electronics, that I should place them into a waterproof bag or container of some kind--something that I didn't have.












Supposedly, this is something that occurs once a year, so, I mean, statistically speaking I had nothing to worry about, right?

It took about 45 minutes to reach Muang Ngoi. It was a fairly smooth and scenic ride.

Speaking of which: Muang Ngoi was beautiful. It's an extremely small village nestled in between gorgeous limestone mountains overlooking the Nam Ou river, which locals from the village still use to wash cloths and bathe in. I have to say, I was a bit surprised how primitive it was. I mean, I'd just arrived from a city with loads of tourists, boutique shops and restaurants. And Muang Ngoi had just one road, a dirt one, and electricity until 10 pm. There wasn't much to do but relax and enjoy the scenery. There are some villages and a cave that can be reached by foot in an hour or two. Oh yeah, you won't find any motorized vehicles here either. You feel like you've gone back in time when you visit Muang Ngoi.

Jessica and I found a bungalow for 50,000 kip (25,000 kip each/per night) and for the next two nights we pretty much lounged around and did nothing. Seriously. Nothing. Eh, but it was nice. Jess realized, however, that she needed to leave for Cambodia earlier than she'd expected, so we both left together. I traveled back to Luang Prabang for one night where I hung out with friends I'd met during my travels. I also bought a bus ticket for Phonsavan (100,000 kip) for the following morning, a nice launching point to see the mysterious Plain of Jars.

Next Stop: Phonsavan

-Adam