Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bokor Hill Station, Cambodia

At 8am, standing at the foot of Bokor Hill, we were already sweating buckets, not a good sign considering we had a 2.5 hour hike ahead of us. The previous night's thunderstorm left the air full of moisture, even though the temperature itself was quite pleasant. At our first water break the other American in the tour group, Ali-Ï'm from Philly but live in Seattle"- made us play the name game. The group consisted of Danny, who proved to be our useless guide, a young dutch coupe, an oder French coupe, an engaged British and Scottish pair, 3 teenage British boys, a solo Dutch guy with a love of insects, and a Spaniard named Roberto. We began complaining in unison as the trail turned vertical through a muddy, jungley landscape. We complained until we heard that a Hong Kong woman was attending the ascent in flip flops. When we saw her approach at our second water break Mason and I could not hold in the giggles- nor could the other 20 people gathered there. It wasn't just the flip flops, it was the fact that she was wearing a floral sarong as a dress, tied around her neck, with a fanny pack around her waist. Clearly no one told her this wasn't going to be a day at the beach.
In 2.5 hours we ascended 1km, where the "bus"waiting to take us the remaining 30km turned out ot be a construction site dump truck. all 15 of us piled into the bed, including the Äk-47 toting "park ranger" who was there to "protect"us. The most uncomfortable hour of my life then ensued. we were bounced and jostled into each other's mud-covered shoes and the metal railing, all the way up to Bokor Hill Station. The station is the site of the abandoned Bokor Hill Palace, a casino/hotel, destroyed in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge due to the fact that is was a bourgeoisie symbol. A new hotel/casino is underway, funded by a Cambodian company. by the looks of the artist's drawing the place will rival any in Vegas. The Palace ruins were amazingly creepy, covered with orange lichen and shrouded in fog. gass shards still hang from the window panes and the ceiling is caving in. great place to take photos. just as we were beginning to recover from the trip up and enjoy the company of our group members, we had to begin the brutal journey in reverse. All in all worth the $23? Not so much.

Friday, March 26, 2010

What to Expect for $3

'When you are sleeping do not smoking' announces an inscrutable 'Law in Guest House' sign on the door. The room's the size of a milk carton and as sturdily built. As if to confirm the metaphor, part of the wall has been repaired by inserting a sheet of galvanized iron, stamped 'Siam Box Company'. Other walls are haphazardly hammered, rough wooden planks whose mosquito tempting gaps previous occupants have attempted to plug with assorted rags and grimy wads of toilet paper. In a different context this would be a contender for the Turner prize. But if you're crossing the room don't look up to admire. You'll need all your concentration to negotiate a safe path across the rough bare floorboards with the minimum of splinters -- another inappropriate house rule is 'no shoes'.

The bed seems clean enough: the under sheet is discolored, but by years of hand-washing rather than by anything more sinister. Of course if you want a top sheet you bring your own. This being a relatively luxurious place there's an attached bathroom. Once you've stepped across the malarial pond at its center theres a slip seated western toilet and beside it a bucket into which soiled toilet paper should be thrown to prevent blocking the cantankerous sewerage system. The droopy showerhead has fallen from its dangling hook and nestles unappetizingly against the grimy bog-brush. The water pressure is far too low to make the jerry-built water heater funtion, but who cares -- the engrossing ant and gecko show is performed free, 24 hours a day.

I had to share this hilariously vivid account of budget accomodations in Lao from our Graphical Guide to SE Asia (a collection of hand drawn maps of towns). It was written in 2003, and while its wildly accurate, it's also been seven years. And most of these places haven't changed - they've merely added perks such as rat nests (with occasional appearances by said rats), roosters living under your floorboards -- a bird that is quite challenged with being able to tell when the sun actually rises, and light-magnet bugs (bugs that swarm around lights in masses only to have nowhere to go but to you when you turn the light off) - we should be so grateful for the electricity.

Yes folks, there is a difference between 'cheap' and 'getting what you're paying for.'

Sleeper Bus in Lao

I spent the summer of 2006 sleeping on a bus while on Warped Tour. I found that my best nights of sleep were on good ole bus number nine - cradled to sleep by the swaying of the bus and roaring of the engine. So when I heard we could take a sleeper bus from Vientiane (northern Lao) to Pakse (southern Lao), I immediately told Kelly we weren't even going to look into other forms of transportation - we were definitely taking a sleeper bus.

We were picked up from our guesthouse in Vientiane by a massive tuk tuk filled with about 12 foreigners around 8pm and were whisked off to the sleeper bus terminal, a good 20km outside of town. As we waved goodbye to the guesthouse staff they replied "Good Luck!" Questionable. Didn't think we had anything to worry about - I was beyond excited about the journey. Once we arrived we realized that no one running the buses spoke a single word of English. So we followed the crowd and boarded a bus. On Warped Tour there are mainly two types of buses: the slightly roomier 12 bed buses, and what veterans call 'the slave ship' buses which sleep 18. In Lao they've managed to find a way to sleep 48. YEAH. Two people to a bed and beds popping out of nowhere - clearly not made to fit westerners. (To Warped Tour Production: imagine all the money and gas you'd save with Lao sleeper buses!)

Unfortunately we did not arrive in time to score lower bunks nor did anyone seem to know where a bathroom was. But even more startling were the new bus tickets we received. Everything was written in Lao except two words at the bottom: Good Luck.

The lack of bars to hold us into the bed on the many curves was a bit disturbing but I guess they figure you're already in close quarters, what harm would a little closer spooning do to hold on to the outside person?

Nevertheless, we made the 10 hour journey to Pakse. It wasn't quite as soothing as the nights on Warped Tour, but we got there in one piece. To any solo travelers lookin' for lovin' out there, a night on the sleeper bus is a sure bet to get someone in your bed.

Tubing in the Vang Vieng

Welcome to Vang Vieng. On your right you'll see the river, popular for tubing in, on your left you'll see opium dealers posed as sugarcane stands, and straight in front you'll find a cafe with a TV playing Friends. Yes. Vang Vieng is quite the backpacker hotspot, nestled a little more than halway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. A perfect town for breaking up the bus ride, it's a tragedy to see what years of rowdy backpacker demands amounts to.

We began our day of tubing just like any other tuber (extreme sarcasm) - a 9am 3km bike ride to the organic farm for a breakfast of mulberry pancakes, fresh goat cheese on baguettes, and fresh fruit juice.

By 12:30pm we decided the tubing course must be well and active by now. Wrong. We were tubers numbers 15 and 16... We should have known not to start so early. How silly of us to think anyone else would be awake and on the river at that hour. Nevertheless, we jumped on a tuk tuk for a ride upstream, tubes in hand. We were immediately greeted by about 20 bars -- all of which hosted a free shot with the purchase of a drink. Oh -- and no jumping off the rope swing until you buy a drink! (Because that always ends well...). So we jumped on our tubes in the chilly, rather stagnant water and began our journey downstream. In the wet season the route takes about an hour. In the dry season...it was going to take a much longer time.

Two seconds after jumping on our tubes we quickly realized that "Tubing in the Vang Vieng" does not mean tubing at all; it means floating from riverside bar to bar. We desperately tried to avoid this but the bartenders were not taking no for an answer so we spent the first 30minutes dodging plastic-bottles-attached-to-ropes being thrown at us with the hopes of reeling us into their bars. How this Pirates of the Caribbean-esque village of bars started, I have no idea. It's truly unique, and worth youtubing the title of this blog to find some videos to see for yourself.

The next two hours dragged on very slowly and we realized that maybe the bar part wasn't so bad after all...we would have used far less muscles as holding on to a plastic bottle wouldn't have taken too much effort. Paddling with our hands down a 4 inch deep river dodging large rocks on the other hand...

Around 3pm we passed a sign saying "2km to end of tubing." Not so bad, right? We must have gone 4km at this point. About an hour into this 2km 'drift' we realized no one, and I mean no one, has probably ever actually tubed the entire 'tubing route' distance. Instead of dodging rocks and bars we now encountered an entire water buffalo herd lounging in the middle of the river, a kayaking tour group, and motor boats. This was far more dangerous than dodging roped plastic bottles. And the water was dead still. Just as Kelly began to 'float' by the herd a big daddy water buffalo stood up. "This is it," I thought, "I'm going to have to explain to the tubing authorities that not only did we not support their bar businesses, but we also tried to tube the entire river route...at which point my friend was attacked by a water buffalo." They would never believe us. But lucky for us the water buffalo was merely walking over to protect the calves, and we continued on down the river dodging kayaks and motorboats until we finally reached the end. 4:30pm. I'd probably recommend just hitting up the riverside bars by foot in the late afternoon and foregoing the $6 tube rental fee next time.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The first 36 hours in LPB

In my intensive research the night before flying from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, Laos, I stumbled upon this article: http://travel.nytimes.com/2008/05/18/travel/18hours-1.html
36 Hours in Luang Prabang, Laos. Since we didn't have any set plans for our time in this cute colonial town we decided to follow the article- almost exactly- then compare and critique.
On Friday March 12 around 5pm we somewhat begrudgingly trudged up the 300+ stairs to the top of Mt. Phousi. We were a bit skeptical at first, knowing we wouldn't see much of a sunset, considering the sun wasn't very visible layers of haze and smog. Instead of setting the orange orb slowly faded in the haze, quite undramatically. The mountain is clearly a tourist "trap"- costing 20,000 kip, but I'd say it's still worth it, just to get a sense of the city's layout and a glimpse of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers.
By the time we returned to the main street the night market was in full swing. Locals lay out their handicrafts and Beerlao t-shirts for the tourists to peruse, but we were hungry and headed straight to the baguette sandwiches- a delicious and cheap Parisian dinner, just one of the many great things left behind by the French colonizers.
We were not so excited about Saturday morning's activity which required getting up early. But we did it, although not quite early enough. We caught a glimpse of a line of monks, walking single-file to find their next hand out, but not the spectacle mentioned in the article. So we went back to bed. This morning however (Tuesday), I decided to try again- this time what I found were a bunch of obnoxious tourists acting like papparrazzi as the monks tried to collect their morning meal. We've read and seen many warnings around the city to be respectful of this tradition, but most people don't seem to care.
At 10am we opted for nap time over arts& crafts time, but made up for in in the following days. There are many great shops along the streets here, a few of which also have galleries displaying the artwork process. Today we visited the Ock Pop Tok weaving village 2km outside of town to see where their silk is made, dyed and woven into beautiful scarves, ties and more.

At noon we ate lunch at the recommended Tamarind, which is part of the Stay Another Day foundation, giving tourists meaningful ways to spend time and money in the city. We ordered the vegetable dipping platter which came with 4 dips and a basket of sticky rice to dip with. Mason quite enjoyed it. I had the warm noodle salad which was also really good. If nothing else, we came away with a desire to eat more sticky rice.
At 2pm we boarded a 6-person long boat headed for the Pak Ou Caves. The journey took 2 hours upstream! While monotonous at times, we appreciated being on the water and were in awe of just how low the Mekong really is. Our "captain" expertly weaved through rocks and banks until we pulled up in front of an impressive limestone cliff with a large hole carved out. The lower cave, which is as far as we got, is really just a big Buddha shire, but the geology is awesome. The highlight of the trip came as we headed back, when we stopped at a river-side whiskey village and were given 3 taste-test shots of the potent stuff. We each came away with a bottle of the unfiltered version- a little less hard on the system.
While we knew it might be our most expensive meal, we decided to go for it and even made a reservation at 3 Nagas (which was quite unnecessary, I think we were one of 3 sets of diners at time). Our pizza appetizer was great- although more than we expected. The meal itself was less than stellar. We had difficulties communicating our orders- involving 3 waiters- and clearly something was lost in translation. When they brought a whole fish to the table we went into momentary shock. We have no idea where they got that idea from. We were left with unexciting steamed veggies for Mason and mashed potatoes oozing with butter (in a bad way), and my pasta was missing the protein.

The NY Times redeemed itself through it's Sunday breakfast recommendation. JoMa cafe quickly became our new fav place when we saw they had chocolate chip muffins- and when we tasted them they were delish! Lots of choc chips! We've been back twice since then. And the best news is that thereis a JoMa in Vientiane, which we will surely seek out once there in a few days.

After breakfast we toured the Royal Palace/National Museum which is shrouded in mystery since the royal family was abducted by the communists in 1977. To this day no one knows the story, or where they are now.

The one thing we did not complete was the Wat-lingering. We chose to rent Hello Kitty bicycles and explore instead!
On Monday we visited the beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls- definitely recommend fitting that into the 36 hours (or just spending more time in the adorable town.) Today, Tuesday, is our last day here so we are trying to hit up some of the cafes we've missed, and tonight we are going to a fashion show at the local bar!
Off to backpacker mecca, Vang Vieng, tomorrow.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Fav place in the World

Chocolate Fact. This is a cafe in Chiang Mai, Thailand that serves ONLY chocolate goods and drinks...and we have spent 3 afternoons there. Unfortunately we left Chiang Mai today after spending 3 days there (and 2 nearby at Elephant Nature Park), but we have already tracked down homemade chocolate brownies at the internet cafe we are currently at in Chiang Rai, so I think we'll be fine.
Chiang Mai was a great place to hang out for a few days. The pace is much slower than Bangkok, itss much cleaner and there is less traffic to dodge. We stayed at an aborable guest house called Green Tulip co-owned by a hilarious energetic woman named Stella, who was continually making animal noises, hugging us, or dancing with other guests.
There is a plethora of great food to be had in Chiang Mai. On our first night we came across a crowded restaurant called Lemongrass while walking through the Night Bazaar. The pad thai (which I've tried in many Thai restaurant at this point), was one of the best. The night before leaving for the Elephant Nature Park we went to their affiliated vegetarian restaurant, Taste from Heaven- which pretty much lived up to it's name. And last night we stuffed ourselves with the falafel plate- including hummus, baba ganoush, pita, and more- at Jerusalem Falafel.
However, by far our favorite meal was probably what we cooked ourselves on Thursday at Thai Orchid Cooking school. The menu: tom yum (Thai soup), spring rolls, green and yellow curry, and pad thai! Absolutely delicious. A, the owner, was a really sweet lady who's culinary talents are all passed down from her family members. Halfway through the day, allowing us time to digest the first 2 courses, she took us to the local market to show us all the fresh ingredients we were using. We were totally stuffed by the end of the day but since Chocolate Fact. happened to be right around the corner..... we couldn't resist! The cute French family that was in the class with us even showed up shortly thereafter, due to our recommendation!
Yesterday was our first real splurge day of our travels thus far- after a very leisurely morning we headed toward the massage parlor, Lila Thai, that was founded by a former director of the Chiang Mai Women's Prison. Inmates can learn the massage craft and thereby set up a career for themselves after being released. Ironically, when we changed into the "outfits" they gave us pre-massage, we were the ones that looked like prisoners. They top and bottom were bright orange, baggy, and just generally the most unflattering pieces of cloth you've ever seen. We opted for the Thai body massage- it was quite relaxing other than the fact that they had us turn over about 3 times. I could have used a little more power too- for an ex-prisoner she didn't seem to have much upper body strength!
Last night we got caught up in the shopping frenzy that is the Sunday Walking Street-loads of vendors set up shop along Chiang Mai's main street. We ended up buying a lot of fun souvenirs!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Save the Elephants

Jokia is a 50 year old elephant that looks well beyond her years. Her spine is crooked, her ears are torn, her body is scarred all over, and she is blind in both eyes. These aren't signs of age however, they are all human inflicted wounds. Jokia, like most of Thailand's domestic elephants, worked in the logging industry for many years, and when logging was banned in 1989, her owner kept her in the trade as he persued logging illegally. Her mahout, elephant keeper, was ruthless. While she was pregant he forced her to continue hauling logs up and down the steep hillside, and one day she gave birth while trudging uphill. The baby rolled away from her and her mahout would not allow her to turn back and try to save her newborn. When she was finally allowed to seek at out baby at the end of the day, it was dead. Jokia fell into a deep depression. The mahout used cruel techniques to prof her to work, but she did not respond. He used a slingshot to shoot rocks at her eye, blinding her, and still eliciting no response. So he used a bow and arrow to shoot her other eye.
Unfortunately this type of treatment of elephants is not uncommon. In addition to logging, many of Thailand's only 2500 remaining domestic elephants work in the tourist trekking business, hauling people on their backs for 6-8 hours a day, or even worse, as street beggers, prowling city streets at night temping foreigners to pay their mahout for the chance to feed and pet the overwhelmed creatures.
Luckily for these abused animals there is a woman named Lek Chailert, who has a deep love of elephants. In 2003 she opened the beautiful 150 acre Elephant Nature Park an hour north of Chiang Mai, and began buying elephantseir freedom. Now 33 elephants graze on her land, are fed watermellon and sweet corn, and romp in the nearby river at their leisure.
In our 2 days and 1 night at ENP Mason and I learned many of the personal and tragic stories of the rescued elephants, and were absolutely shocked. We became close with one elephant, Medo, a young girl in her early 20s who is severely handicapped yet loving her second lease on life.
We spent time feeding and bathing them, and oogling over the two babies- 11 mo. old Faa Mai and 8 mo. old Chang Yim.
The organization is extrememly well run with the focus being on education, so that all of thier visitors can inform others about the plight of elephants, and hopefully, change the face of elephant tourism in Thailand.
We highly recommend a visit!