Thursday, January 22, 2009

Laos the land of Elephants

Well Laos definitely takes the cake, in fact it may be one of the most amazing places i have ever visited. The people are so kind and gentle, the landscape is amazing, ranging from rice fields and islands along the mekong to the south and mountains and valleys filled with vibrant folliage to the north. Our visit to Laos started in Si Phan Don (4000 islands), these islands along the mekong change number depending on the time of year and the height of the river. But they are all lush with palm trees and rice fields, beaches and waterfalls. Life here could not get any more simple and peaceful. Laotians are the most relaxed people i have come across. As the french said "the Vietnamese plant the rice, The Cambodians watch it and the Laotians listen to it" It is actually quite easy to hear it too, as it is so quiet on these islands.

Ancient Ruins

Cambodia continues to get better and better. We arrived in Siem Reap and after a very long hotel hunt we nestled into our hotel, arranged for a tuk tuk for the temples and went to sleep after another delicious meal. The next day we arouse early, as usual, and set off to Angkor. It was a chilly morning and we were not entirely prepared for it but we made it and when we pulled up outside of Angkor Wat, it was all worth it. It was absolutely ridiculously phenomonally awesome. The ancient kingdom angkor was huge with hundreds, maybe thousands of temples all over Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The best are all in a relatively small area of northern Cambodia. I have never experienced anything quite like it, partly i think because they are so close together and partly because they are still in very good condition considering they are only about 800 yrs old.

The overall appearance of the temples of course is astounding, but the sheer detail that is in every little piece of stone is the most impressive thing i think. Everywhere there are slabs of rock still attached or not with some design, person or story engraved into them. My favourite would have to be the Apsaras, a female deity who appears to be dancing all the time. In all we spent two days exploring the temples; the first from 9 am to sunset and the second from sunrise to 3pm. but i could have without a doubt have easily spent a week or even a month examining all the intricate little details. The only problem which you can never get away from is all the people, my god it is amazing that the temples are not more warn out with millions of people stomping all over them. In fact partly because of this my favourite temples were the small that were not as busy. Probably the best time spent in the temples was at sunrise on the second day.

We went to Angkor Wat as everyone does, but instead of waiting outside and taking the customary photo of the sun rising over the spires of Angkor we went inside. We journeyed through the dark corridors and climbed up the steps to come to the far side of the inner sanctum of Angkor. There we made ourselves comfy on the ledges hang out of the windows and we sat and watched the sunrise with not a soul in sight. It was remarkable and so peaceful. I could see and feel what life would have been like when people lived there. Monks and scholars, kings and queens, small children, soldiers and workers all talking, working and playing in this grand place. it would have been an incredible place to live i am sure.

As for the town Siem Reap was the usual tourist town with a centre full of Western restaurants charging 4-10x the normal price, guest houses all around ranging from cheap run down old buildings with decks covered in mattresses and mosquito nights you can have for a $1 to magnificient hotels and resorts running along a beautiful little river bank. A strange and surreal world in comparison to the life of the locals and that of Angkor.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Oh my dear sweet Cambodia

After a mere three days in Cambodia how can i express to you my deep love for this amazing country. From the minute we arrived (after a all day boat trip up the Mekong from Vietnam) people smiled and were quick to help without that same aggression that the Vietnamese have. We entered Phnom Penh driving down the beautiful boulevards with palm trees and french colonial buildings with motorbikes and tuk tuks driving along side us and fireworks in the air. See we had the good fortune to arrive on the day of independence from the Khmer Rouge and the city had an amazing energy to it.

As we were cruising along on this bus i happened to see a huge poster of Jurassic 5 near the river (why was this poster there in cambodia, i asked myself). Arriving at the sister hotel of our boat company our fortune continued to grow. There we met Lucky, a very chill tuk tuk driver with excellent english. We were immediately charmed by his nature and we hopped into his tuk tuk to head to the lake district. He took us to his sister hotel and we were shown some rather shabby but cheap rooms. This was not what sold us, what really sold us was the patio. Hanging over the water on stilts with hammocks and big beanbag chairs, good music and free pool. How could this not be the place for us? I knew it was the minute Ching offered me some sweet maryjane and thanked god i was not in Korea anymore.

Well i sat myself down on that chair and began to roll when an aussie fellow came up to us and asked if we had heard that J5 was coming to town and that they were playing tonight. Did i hear right? Some girl had seen the poster up close and knew where it was. At last my search was complete, i was in heaven. First we ate the best food i have eaten since coming to Korea then we hopped into a tuk tuk. Our driver ended up being an interesting fellow as he liked to drive slower than a bicycle whilst looking back at us and saying things we could not understand or hear and attempting to pick up random girls and tell them to come with us. We decided he must have been smoking something real special and it was probably not a bad thing he was driving so slowly. When we arrived at Pontoon, a boat restaurant with a dock party floor beside it, our driver disappeared into thin air and i crawled my way to the middle of the dance floor. just then the crowd was asked to move back and clear the dance floor and i was lucky enough to remain at the front for all of the amazing festivities, first the B-Boy competition (Cambodians can really twist and turn their little bodies), then for a beautiful lady from the states singing to us, then a friend of Akil's and finally Akil the MC (so it turned out to be Jurassic 1) himself stepped out and honoured us by spouting some fantastic rhymes. By the end of the night i could not have been more exhilarated.

I could go on and on about Cambodia, but it might take a really long time so here is a brief snapshot of what i love about Cambodia so far:

-the smiling helpful people

- the amazing, decadent, delicious food from all over the world

- the market, oh my god i could have spent a week just at the market: clothing, fabric to make clothing, rip offs of anything you could imagine, or the real thing that is sold at factory prices because here is where they are made. Caitriona got two dresses made and i got one skirt made. this actually turned out to be the very best and cheapest shopping of our whole trip.

It all started in Saigon

What can i say about Vietnam, well to be honest it was not my favourite spot on our trip. it is an intense onslaught on the senses and boy do they know how to get foreigners and milk them for everything. We arrived in Saigon and went to our hostel and spent the first evening wondering around the backpacker's district. It was so strange to see so many foreigners (non-asians) in one place. The sites and sounds and smells were incredible. It is so nice to be somewhere with lots of life in it again. Reminds me how tame Korea is.

In the morning we wondered around for an hour or so and then got out of the city as soon as possible. We hired a taxi to take us to My Tho in the Mekong Delta. The ride was quite interesting, watching thousands of motorbikes trying to compete for space with cars and trucks. We finally arrived and of course were taken straight to a tour place. And after much haggling we decided to do a tour of the mekong for $5 a head. It was definitely well worth it. We got to go to eat some delicious fruit and listen to traditional music on Unicorn island and then went for a canoe ride down one of the small canals. Then we went to a bee farm and got to drink amazing honey tea. After filling up on tea we hopped back on our boat and got taken to a coconut candy workshop. Yummy, there i got to taste coconut and banana candy as well i got to drink snake wine (imagine a huge 10L container filled with dead snakes and ginseng that had liquid floating surrounding it which had been fermented and turned into wine; it sort of tasted like whiskey) and coconut wine. Our final stop was at the temple of the coconut monk, a man who after studying engineer in France returned to Vietnam to eat and drink only coconut and call himself buddha. The temple was pretty wild and very colourful. After a hot day in the sun we returned to My Tho and got ourselves a hotel on the river for only $3 a piece (with a bathroom and a tv) and we took a rest. Once refreshed we wondered around town and found an all vegetarian restaurant which made the most amazing vietnamese noodle soup (the best meal i had in all of vietnam). After dinner we wondered throught the market which reminded me of Tanzania with vendors spread out all over the dirt hill with clothes and shoes and any other random thing you could imagine. After our fill of being stared at there, we wondered on and happened across quite possible the coolest thing ever. An amusement park in the middle of town. Though only a child sized amusement park, it was still fabulous. With a ferris wheel and carousel, a mini drop of doom and a roller skating rink. The games had juice and food as prizes instead of toys and the main stage was holding a bingo game, with the announcer calling numbers in a song to the music blaring out of the speakers. Boy were we a hot ticket here. Katiria, juan and i had all sorts of vietnamese teens coming up to us to tell us how cool our tattoos were and when Karen (originally from the west indies and very black) and i walked beside each other people did not know what to do. Some children were scared, some people stared with their mouths open, others giggled and said hello. I always find it so funny to be the attraction in a place i go to visit. I guess it sort of makes things even though.

The following day we attempted to hop on the bus to Can Tho but of course it had left at 5am. So some very kind and helpful motorbike taxi drivers offered to take us to the main highway. After a very fun ride through small streets past beautiful houses and rice fields we came to a small restaurant on the highway and there we waited for the bus. Naturally this bus driver was a friend of our motorbike driver and wanted more a ridiculous amount of money, playing on our weakness saying it is the only bus until tommorow morning they got us although not for the original price requested. We arrived in Can tho to be followed to our hotel by another woman who was selling tickets for the tour to the floating markets. We didnt actually realize she had followed us until after she left. They are so on it here. So the next morning before sunrise we hopped onto some little boats and cruised out on to the mighty Mekong. The floating markets were well worth the money (i think $9). People traded all sorts of fruits and veg and other things on these cool boats that they actually lived on. They were boat gypsies. I totally want to be a boat gypsy it was so cool. Definitely the best part of Vietnam.

Ringing in a new year

The end of 2008 was a most memorable one. Of course i was living in Korea, but little did i realize that that would cause me to suffer from the worst food poisoning of my life in a Korean hospital. Well it wasn't that bad as hospitals are quite fascinating places and all my little old lady roomies took great pity on me esp since i could not eat. I am not entirely sure where the food poisoning came from, maybe the japanese restaurant. It was really nasty beginning on sunday in the middle of the night and lasting pretty much until i had arrived in Vietnam. My first two days were spent mainly in my bathroom and i will save your from those details. By the time i crawled into the hospital with some help from my friend darryl i hadn't eaten or drank anything in two days and was so thirsty. Originally i was just thinking i would be given some fluids to rehydrate and go home later that day. But no in korea they are keen on loading you up on all sorts.

So i was admitted, tested and hooked up to an IV of antibiotics and rehydration fluids in a mere 45 mins. My room consisted of 8 beds mainly filled with Ajummas (older woman) and one other young woman. They were all exceptionally curious about me and tried jibbering at me in Korean. When that didn't work they asked the nurses. My first day was rather boring but i was so out of it, it didn't really matter and fortunately i had many visitors. When it came to sleep though my problems seemed to get worse. As i had been in and out of sleep all day i found it very hard to go to sleep with bright lights glaring down at me and the tv turned up full blast drilling horrendous korean into my incredibly headachy and dehydrated brain. I don't know what time it all finally ended but the next thing i know it was 5am and i was being pumped full of more antibiotics. There was something about these antibiotics that caused my arm to burn intensely.

Fortunately by 11am i was feeling much better and couldn't wait to get out of this place. After my test results came back saying there was no extending damage from the food poisoning i asked my doctor to go home. She said yes, thank god as i couldn't handle another night in that place, esp new years eve. So i finally made it home around 3pm and rested until 9 when i attempted to get ready to go out, alas i was so tired after a shower and putting some clothes on. I couldn't do it, so i spent the night at home relaxing and i am very happy i did, as it might have ruined my holiday.