Gregory T. Wilkins
Cambodia/ Vietnam/Laos (2010)
December 11, 2010
$100 USA = 1,949,000 Cong Waking up at 4:30 a.m. to begin your day can be unpleasant, even for the most adventurist soul. Rising to turn on the light and check my watch, I debated if I should try to sleep or get up and start my day. Knowing how the day before was cast, I chose to rise, read email, and then begin my day in the park. The place was buzzing with activity – badminton, tai chi, kung fu, walkers, jobbers, aerobics, and women in too high of shorts shaking their booty on a metal platform with grandmas following pursuit. I located the circus tent and considering going tonight even though I heard the animals were stuck in cages too tiny for their size, but the acrobatics were worth their dong (dollars). I eased my way down the promenade in search of the blind association that I am told gives great massages at a reasonable rate. I tried to find it yesterday but ended up in the wrong direction. I have never been one for maps let alone one in another language. I had given up by afternoon with the intention of today being my revised goal …and find it I did. I plan on going there later in the morning after I exchange money at the bank. The other thing I would like to do today is to visit some of the pagodas, return to Notre Dame for pics, and watch the day unfold. I want to get back to the cathedral b/c yesterday when I took pictures, I did not have the proper setting and the light was too strong for a quality photo. And I walked, and walked, and walked today –forever and a mile. One of my goals was to find some authentic tribal gear but was to be found. When I did find something that even look half appealing, she wanted $58 US!....crazy. I passed on the joys of big city living. I hope that once I get to Sapa I can get myself some deals. To come this far and to leave empty handed will be a sad day indeed. I was hoping to get a few pagodas but that did not transpire. As I meandered through the city streets, l I did find a neighborhood store with a cinema. I tucked inside to find an odd assortment of counterfeit items and made my way to the upstairs and found the film theatre. I thought what better way to cool off than to sit in a/c for a couple of hours. Three films were showing, and I settled for “Narnia” in 3D. It cost 90,000 dong w/popcorn and Pepsi for another $42,000.? the theatre was not your normal viewing experience for a developing nation. In fact, uit6 would rival new cinemas in the USA. When I purchased my ticket, the agent brought up a computer image of the available seats. They were each numbered. There were VIP seats in the middle of the theatre, general seats for a few less dong, but they were just as good as the others. I got mine 2 rows up from the VIP in the middle of the room. I had to wait for 45 minutes until the earlier show was over, so I meandered through the mall to look around at the assortment of knockoffs. As the hour approached, I made my way back the escalator, and I was ushered into the theatre – old school style with flashlight in the hand. After the film, I made my way outside and was greeted by the noise of the city knocking me down by the commotion. I look forward to getting out of the hectic pace of HCMC. I eased my way back to the center of tourist hell and stopped by a salon to get a manicure and pedicure minus the polish. With tip it was $100,000… $40,000 for nails and toes and $1USA for each attendant. The funniest thing about the whole experience was when they were done, I gave them $10,000 dong and $100,000 dong. I thought at first, they were trying to swindle me, but we had a good laugh at my error. The other thing what was quite interesting was each attendant was done to nines—dress, heels, make-up. They looked like pin-ups. The one young lady kept asking if would come back for a massage and figured it was probably more than a salon (wink wink). For there I leap frogged it to the blind massage. Tucked off a corner and you would miss it if you blinked. I got to the place via a sign on a tree and an error on my part. For $40,000 dong I would get a one-hour long massage. I was handed a square coupon and told to follow the hallway to a room with draped “rooms”. I was to undress, given a towel, and got on a metal table draped with a bed sheet and pillow for my head and feet. A young man in his early 20s came, asked me where I was from, and began to work on me. I must admit, the massage was under whelming. He poked and prodded my body rather than give me a deep tissue massage. I am glad it was only $2US. My masseur talked to other therapists adjacent to my room. It felt that it was just another day at the office with side chit chat and little focus…. Oh well. Sunday, December 12, 2010 COSTS 40,000 same day express laundry – 1 kilo – included 10,000 for a pant repair (30,000 for laundry) If I would wait laundry would be 12,000 300,000 black Armani pants (knock-off) 5,000 doughnut 435,000 3 Ralph L:auren polos (kno0ck-off) 300,000 pig tooth pendent with Buddha 200,000 sterling silver back for the Buddha 194,000 2 Ralph Lauren polos (knock-off) , 2 drinks and a dental floss 20,000 2 corn on the cobb 35,000 Vegetable rice for dinner 60,000 circus ticket I asked at the My Ahn Hotel the cost of laundry, and like all places around the plant, it’s more pricey. The bellhop told me to head to the backpack area for a better deal, and that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t want to walk forever and so I turned down a lane that twisted and turned. No laundry could be found after much to about nothing. I found myself back on the main drag and discovered a tin shack of a place. For express service it would cost 30,000 dong for a kilo --ne short sleeved shirt, 3 undies, and a pair of trousers. It came to exactly one kilo and with a small repair to my pants for another 10,000 dong it was settled. If I had 2 days, the expense would have been dropped by more than ½, but time was a luxury I did not have b/c I had to be off first thing tomorrow. My items would be ready by 5 and had to be there before 6 when they closed. I meandered up Le Lai through the park. The usual business of the day was at hand with runners, badminton, and tai chi. I sat a moment to take in the morning dancing under the pavilion –salsa, samba, bebop, waltz, etc. What a way to start a day. The heat of the day was only beginning, and the sweat dripped down my aback keeping me shirt firmly pressed against my back. And to think this was the winter and not their hot spell. I could only imagine how scorched it could be depending on the right time of the year. It’s a good thing I came during the winter without the scorching heat, monsoon rains, and dripping in sweat. I had the entire place to myself without a care in the world. Oh, before I forget to mention the rest of my morning, I cannot forget to note breakfast. The last few days I have been eating at a place on the street. Well, I had completely forgotten that it was included in my hotel bill. I got a clue when the Japanese pulled up a chair and got served. Well, know me and a deal. Why spend dollars or dong when I can eat here before the day unfolds. And that’s exactly what I did – 2 scrambled eggs with a side of sliced cucumbers on the side, a baguette, and coffee. Now I will say this French influence on Vietnam, they sure know how to bake well. It was absolutely scrumptious—flaky on the outside, crisp when broken, and soft interior. I was truly flawless. The coffee came back black and thick. It was a puddle in the cup, not a full glass. At first, I thought it peculiar to be so little but when I drew it up to my lips, I could appreciate why it was so – any more would have me bouncing from the walls. The milk, as they called it, was thick and sweet. It had the consistency of sweetened condensed milk from Carnation; you know the one, the kind I use to make my world-famous key lime pie. I stirred the contents from the cup imaging it would take the edge off the black coffee, but the coffee was going to have none of that. I supped from the cup to help wash down the eggs and baguette, and I could not manage how I would finish it. I wish my flight did not leave so early tomorrow or I would have enjoyed another serving in the morning. Monday, December 13, 2010 COSTS $100,000 Hotel to Airport 88,000 airport breakfast – iced coffee with milk, baguette with cheese and jam 50,000 Cyclo around Hue 225,000 wine (bottle) as a thank you gift 20,000 crab soup 12,000 large Huda beer for dinner 40,000 dinner – noodles and veggies 28,000 French bakery – NGO – citrus coconut cake with a Sprite Trying to sleep with the fear of not waking up to catch a taxi to the airport is the worst. Catching four hours of sleep, waking at 2 a.m., and then every forty-five minutes there after driving me mad and delirious. I brought an alarm clock to keep me on track, but even with that my fear of using it and forgetting to turn it on correctly keeps racing through my mind. I set and re-set the alarm to be sure it was ready. But even with this, I was restless—and good thing too b/c I must have set it up wrong b/c the alarm off in the wee hours. That only set my despair in my mind deeper b/c I had now lost faith in technology-- primitive as it may have been. And so, the endless cycle begins—sleep, wake abruptly, toss and turn, check my watch, curse the night, and back to rest. This is what purgatory must be. By 5:3 0a.m. I had given up and decided to begin my day. I’d rather fall hostage to this curse than miss my morning flight to the Hue, the former capital of Vietnam. Yesterday, I came to the realization that no matter how many attempts I was going to not get ripped off, the idea is futile. The joy of traveling and the privilege of seeing the world is the fact that in the world of the haves and the have-nots, those who could spread their wings and fly were going to the have the last laugh at the rest of us. It doesn’t help that I like a great value for the dollar. I have been known to walk a mile to save a buck. It’s in my nature. I work too hard for the few pennies I am able to save to toss them in the wind to be consumed by ordinary circumstance. Some would say it’s an ailment, an obsession, a trick of the devil in this post-industrial state of mind. The only resemblance of peace I get is if my mind and heart is to live with what I believe is a fair price. The sickness sets-in when I find a better value and knowing what I originally paid. An example, of this is the other day when I got a manicure and pedicure for 40,000 dong each and gave 20,00 don tip. Last night I found one for 20,000 each—1/2 price. The same was true yesterday afternoon when I purchased corn on the cobb. It felt the price was high – afterall it was only corn and comparable to what I might pay at a local fair in the USA. The seller was laughing all the way back home. It’s the ying and yang of life as long in the end I get more wins than loses I’ve done well. Oh, to be “ripped off”. What the heck does that mean anyway and what standard? I arrive to Hue, I had a cyclo driver approach me and asked if I wanted a ride. Secretly I wanted a ride but was not going to let on that I did. I was first set on walking, but after a few blocks I gave up on the idea and was going to be seduced into laziness. The cycle driver asked for 80,000 dong! I laughed at him for even suggesting it. I hammered and hawed as the he spotted about all the things, he would show me. I had no interest in any of it b/c I was going to see it all on my you’re the following day. I did however want to go to the market and grocery. As the drier continued to chat about the city, I casually walked away. As soon as I did the price came falling down from 80,000 to 40,000. I snagged him on my fishing line and caught him at 20,000 and was set to go at 25,000. I settled in and we were off to the market. It’s a good thing to b/c I would not have wanted to walk in the hot sun. Weaving in and out of mopeds and taxis, I was tickled that more people did not crash with this commotion. It’s truly complete and utter chaos. We get to the main market by the river and know immediately IU was to the disappointed. Row after row after row of plastic and western attire emerged. There was nothing of interest to me, and I mean absolutely nothing. That says a lot for the man who loves to shop and can’t get enough of going through the racks for the perfect outfit. But there not one thread of morsel that peaked my imagination. What was even more amusing was that there were two floors of this crap, and I made it through it all. How did they even eke out a living in this alley way of commercialization of polyester and faux fur is beyond me. At each corner, one glimpse of a light kept me praying to locate some miraculous find -- he proverbial needle in the haystack. But my finger was never pricked. I wasn’t even tempted at the allure of a possible find. I was frustrated at my choices when I finally got the idea of sandals. I needed a new pair after all. The market was slathered though in plastic shoes, flip flops, and such. I had no interest in plastic shoes. My driver witnessed my disappointment. We mazed our way out of the stalls and slithered my way to back to our cart. The driver said he knew of a place that would carry what I wanted. At this point he did not re-negotiate the price of my 25,000 dong. If he was not going to mention it, I wasn’t either. We left the new part of town and went past the citadel to the center. We arrived at our designation, and would it figure that they would have one that fit. Row and after row of shoes, and not one. We returned to where I began my journey, and he let me out. I went to pay the 25,000 dong, and the price went immediately to $20 US! Ridiculous, I let him know it. He insisted it was fair, and I eloquently told him he was crazy. He began to shout at m (very un-Vietnamese). I explained to him I was not going to give him $20 US. I handed him the 25,000 dong we agreed upon, and he continued to make a ruckus. He then moved to say forget $20 US, he wanted 180,000 dong. I reiterated I would give him 25,000 and counted it out—10, 10, and 5. He wanted more. Another driver on a moped saw the squabble and came over to me. He told my diver to leave me alone. I told my driver I would pay but only on the agreed price. I finally stuffed 50,000 into his hand and walked away. He did not pursue me. Bent down to my backpack and pulled out my notepad and gestured I was making notes. I slowly turned my head, and he had disappeared. To my astonishment as I looked up, there was a leather show store in front of me. Just as before there was rows and rows of shoes, and not one that fit. The saleswoman dug through over 70 boxes – one pair was discovered. It fit like Cinderella’s slipper. I snatched them up at $225,000 dong and made my way to the street.
December 14, 2010 COSTS 50,000 Wood with shell inlay necklace 55,000 Citadel 55,000 2nd King Tomb 55,000 Unfavored King Tomb 55,000 Mosaic King Tomb 10,000 Garden House, King’s Daughter 22,000 2 bamboo bags 40,000 noodles with veggies and Huda beer Yesterday afternoon when I left the shoe shop, an elderly man came up to me to say hello. He said his day was almost done and wanted to know if I would join him for a beer. I went back and forth in my head if I should and decided why not? The adventure is part of the thrill. I hopped on the back of his motorcycle, he gave me a helmet, and we were off. We drove up to the roadside bar and made our way to a table. We ordered two large Huda beers. What I failed to mention above was when we first chatted, he told me he was a teacher. I too told him I was also an educator. He wanted the opportunity to talk with another professional in the field. He had 2 children, and both are away at university. He fought in the war on the side of the Americans, and he lost his father in the fighting. He teaches two levels of high school, and his class is about 55 student – too big he says but he has no choice. His sister married an American man she met during the war, and they live in Oregon. They have 2 children. He has other family in Boston, San Francisco, New York, and Florida. This is good to have family in the USA b/c they help him financially. His 2 children were going to come spend the week celebrating the New Year with him b/c during Tet they would have to work. They get every other year off to visit him during Tet. The amusing thing about it all is he smiled and smiled his toothless grin. He was so jovial. When there would be a lull in the conversation, he would, “To teacher, good health and New Year”. In the course of an hour, he said it at least 6 to 8 times. It got to be a joke as I would parrot it back to him, “To teacher, good health and New Year”. His children and family were gathering in the evening to celebrate the New Year. He was going to pick them up from the airport and have fiends over to his house --neighbors, relatives, other teachers, etc. He paid for the Huda beers, and he asked if I would but him a bottle of whiskey to celebrate with his family. It felt like a come-on, but I told him I would depending on the cost. We got back to his bike and headed back in my direction for the hotel. We stopped and asked a lady for a mid-level whiskey. She wanted 200,000 dong. The good thing is I only had a few dong in my pocket. I pulled out a wad and glad I did not have enough ---just in case I was getting my leg pulled. I had 150,000, and he tossed in another 50,000 dong – all was settled. So, my time with him may have cost me $7.50 US, but in the end I didn’t care. He had a story to tell his friends and family. I had a memory. Old Citadel – the wall protecting the former palace must have been impressive indeed back in the day. The main gate was audience for the king with the middle being reserved for him. Those to the left and right were reserved for his mandarins (governors) and military to the side of that. Above the gate were large areas with the upper tier reserved for the First Lady and concubines of which the people would not see because of screens. They would look out but not vice versa. The interior was extensive with separate living quarters for concubines, eunuchs, First Lady, King, library, etc. Much of what remains today was “blessed” to casualties to war; however, the majority was devastated and collapse during the Vietnam War. Tragic indeed! Admission to Vietnamese is free with separate entrance while the tourists have to pay $2.75 – while nominal in expense it always ticks me off with the sliding scale. I grimace and fork over the bills. What I so enjoy in this labyrinth of buildings is that each peeling of the layers rests another surprise behind a door or wall or hallway. It truly makes me giggle. Many of the buildings are in ruin – either completely to the earth or in ram shackles. The blessing is that UNESCO is preserving this space. There is much to do and most likely will not happen in my lifetime. At least they are baby steps forward inching back to the day of glory. The last king abdicated and died in France in 1990s. While visiting the grounds men and women were busy repairing one of the buildings – frescoes of birds, flowers, and water -- bloomed in color as a relief picture rose to the roof of blood red and deep gold. Ornate dragons cast away as roof cornices held steady the winter air. The one disappointment was being hurried out of the citadel in an hour. There was more to see beyond the plazas and terraces but there would be no time for that today. Whisked away by our motor coach, we drove through the streets to the house of the former king’s daughter who was ill when she was young and died. After her death, the king sold it to a mandarin living there who did not have children; his niece is now carrying for the place. She moved back to Vietnam form France, and she is in her 80s. The house faces south. To cool the heat of the south (Fung sui) a pond rests in the garden as well as a tree front to keep away evil spirits and to protect against the weather. The traditional houses are also part of UNESCO, and few remain. The house has three rooms. The main reception honoring the ancestors and rooms to the left and rights. The wood to build there is strong indeed. I think it’s called iron wood. What I did not expect was it being so dark inside. A wall of doors opens to the garden bring in the morning light. The guide took us through the garden of which I was unimpressed. It’s the house that is a gem and worth the 10,000 dong for a peek into the past. We were then escorted to the Thein Mu pagoda. It looks over the river and nice despite the bustle of dusty roads and beeping horns. There are young monks that reside here (2 or 3) and go to school with other school children. They remain in traditional clothing and return back to the pagoda for additional lessons and meals. I can’t imagine doing that at the age of 6 or 7. They get to see their family on weekend and family come to visit. We all then went to a buffet lunch at a Stop-n-Go with the afternoon focused on the tombs of Ming Mang, Khai Dinh and Tu Duc.
The tombs of the kings are a drive away from the bustle of the city. If it was not for the guide, I would have never found them. Twists and turns into the country we went. The 1st tomb, Ming Mang, was in a park-like setting. A courtyard opens to another with a small lake throughout. It was very peaceful here and surprised to not see other Vietnamese here--only tourists. The 2nd tomb, Khai Dinh, was more impressive but found that he was not liked by the people. You would climb over 250 steps to his tomb with a grand gate and courtyard with stone statues of soldiers, elephants, and horses to greet you. The tomb itself was completed before the king died, and he used it as a house. The main gallery has mosaic tiled walls with intricate patterns. It’s very fine indeed and definitely worth the 55,000 dong to enter. I also liked the tomb was on a hill overlooking the valley with a commanding view. While an unpopular king, he left his mark. The final tomb I visited was Tu Duc; it was in need of repair. What I liked most about it was the lake and terraced house beneath the tomb.
Upon our return, we took a boat to town on the Perfume River. It derives its name from the flowering trees in the mountains, and while there is no true perfume scent, it smells more like pollution and an occasional rotting fish.
December 15 & 16, 2010 Rain and cold greeted me as I came into Hanoi. I was glad I had packed a Patagonia fleece. It made a world of difference. I had long, black, silk underwear in my pack and was going to brave it out as long as I would before trying to locate them. The same was true for my L.L. Bean suede shoes. They were in my pack but was going to hold-off with my current sandals since my arrival to Vietnam. I have yet to sleep an entire night. Usually around midnight or so I wake, check my alarm, and return to bed. Then my body does this back-and-forth tag of sleep, wake, and sleep and wake. It’s rather quite maddening. Last night when I was out and about, a young lady was selling doughnuts from her bamboo basket. She said it was 10,000 for a bag. She filled it up, and I handed her the money. She then asked me for 20,000 dong. I said, “no”. She insisted and proceeded to clutch the money tightly in her hand. I exclaimed, “no!” again, but she insisted. I clutched her hand, peeled her fingers back 1 by 1, and retrieved my money. She quickly changed her tune and said 10,000 was fine. I told her no and left. As soon as turned my back, she said 10,000 was fine again, and I proceeded to continue to head to the corner. There was no turning back for me. I am all fine with a fair price – not a bait and switch the price. It’s the principle of doing the right thing and not trying to steal a few dong from the tourist. My impression of Hanio is not so my favorite. Maybe it’s the rain and cold that has soured me. Or maybe it’s the hustle of the city, and the constant pace of being bamboozled. Or, then again, it could be the city life of everyone out for themselves with no care for the others, especially tourists. Whatever the reason, I look forward to being rid of this place. My hotel, Le Bach, is a bit run down with the only saving grace is that it is close to everything and easy to find b/c of the cathedral. The goal is to get a good night sleep b/c tomorrow the day starts early with a three-hour bus ride to Halong Bay. Come to think of it, the reason why I think I am also souring of this place is b/c I can feel I am getting sick. The first on set of illness came with the city smog in HCMC and got a sinus infection which has now moved into a head cold – body aches, difficult to breathe, pang behind my eyes, stiff neck and chest. Traveling with weary bones and a running nose while knowing you are going to get worse is a lot to ask of anyone, let alone a traveler in a strange and foreign land. The bus ride though the backpacker tourist bazaar had its many twists and turns not knowing what avenue or streets were going to lead me next. I am not sure if I lived here if it would ever make since of the city as it snakes in and out of alleyways and boroughs. Somehow it makes sense, and the common folks have learned the grid – even more fascinating on the motorbike, the constant blaring of the horn, and even at times texting o the phone. We headed our way out of town and into the countryside. We stopped for a half an hour by a roadside stand made for tourists and hustled inside to keep warm. The walls within held the cold as the salespeople even patted their hands and stomped their feet to bring circulation to the outer extremities. We then headed off again and made our way to Halong Bay. Arriving to the bay and unpacking the bus one by one, each person held their own as we filled boats – possibly 30 or 40 of them. Our boat rose above the others and was impressive – dark wood with three levels and grand staircase beckoned us forward. The side door opened, and we were swept within — our baggage fast behind. I had a private room and bath that for exceeded my expectations. In fact, it’s better than the hotels I am staying. We were then whisked away and guided to sail as a welcome drink set us off in motion through the bay. We passed island after island and took us into this majestic wonder. Halong Bay has over 3000 islands – some with names and other not. No matter where you glanced, a view was captured in camera. We chartered our course to the grand and magnificent cave, Sung Sut. Arriving, we took the smaller boat to the steps as the rose upward. Not knowing exactly what to expect, it was a surprise indeed. The caves were discovered when a French explorer was taking photos of the wildlife – namely monkeys. A monkey disappeared, and he went to follow, and the rest is history. Each cave opened to another more majestic than the one before. And I must say, I too was impressed. At one time the ocean had covered these islands and now what remains is most impressive. Stalagmites and stalactites emerge from the roof and carved by the salt water over time. As water splashed against the surface cutting away at the limestone, the ceiling is textured. After caving, we went to a floating village and kayaked. I decided to remain seated and watch b/c I did not want the cool temperatures to exacerbate my cold and potentially get my sicker. We eventually reboarded our vessel, set off into the water even further, with a scrumptious dinner that waited us that was purchased from floating village vendors – fish, prawns, etc. I’m glad this part of trip worked out and has so far been a highlight of my trip. I look forward to sleeping and rising to the greeting sun as these wonderous islands continue to mesmerize. The emerald-colored water of the Gulf of Turkin dance as the boats pass. The name Halong (Ha Long) means “where the dragon descends into the sea”. It is said a great dragon lived here in the mountains. The dragon would chase its shadow cutting inlets into the land and where his tail landed it filled with water. COSTS $3US 2 soft drinks on the boat $2US boat tip to staff 220,000 wool sweater 60,000 Chinese New Year celebration flag 160,000 2 bone rings 54,500 2 loaves of bread, large water, 2 bottles of juice, 2 packages of sweat crackers/cookie 160,000 dinner splurge at a tapas restaurant – 2 pieces of French bread with tomatoes, a potato cake with scallions, 2 Sprites and a coffee ice cream with Kalua 20,000 coffee 40,000 Oreo cookie pack
Friday, December 17 I returned back to Hanoi after spending the morning on Halong Bay. The three-hour trek back seemed longer this time. It was the exhaustion and cramped quarters that kept me squirming. Once back to the city, I waited a couple of hours before my train departed. I purchased a wool turtleneck sweater b/c I heard the temperatures in Sapa were cold. I found the youth hotel a few blocks away and had a chance to review my email accounts. There was no time to do much more. I left my larger backpack at the tourist office and made my way through the city streets. I met my guide that would take me from the office to the train station, and we were off on his motorcycle. I was a bit nervous with mt backpack on my back, and smaller one with him between his legs and handlebars and me holding tight onto the driver’s shoulders. If I was going down, he was coming with me. I had faith in his driving – not my balancing act. By the luck of Buddha, we made it in one piece. I fetched my ticket as I waited in the busy terminal. Minutes passed and I was escorted to the train. I had a sleeping birth –nothing fancy by any means but accommodating. There were six bunks in a room—thee to a side. I had the middle bunk. I tossed my pack into the end with my smaller one fast behind and squeezed myself into the cubicle. You had to be careful not to rise too quickly or you would bump your head and be smashed. What drove me bonkers were 2 things -- 1) the radio that blared constantly and not on the station clearly and 2) the Vietnamese lady in the top bunk that would not shut off her cell for two seconds to talk. She talked and talked as if it she was the last person on Earth. Just as soon as I thought she would say goodbye, anther call would come, and the hen in the hen house would continue again. I finally gave up on the possibility of getting any shut eye, and so I dug my ear plugs out of my pack and place them into my lobes. Even this would have little impact on her chatter. I turned to my side to shield myself from the ruckus with the hopes that the rocking of the railroad cars would calm me and call me to sleep. It was thru sheer exhaustion that I was finally able to get some rest. I knew I got some sleep because I would recall waking. The one blessing is that no one snored. WINNING! Thank God too I am thin. A typical fat American would have never made it in the bunk and let alone be able to squeeze into the envelop cubicle opening. The cabins were mostly filled with Vietnamese and a few courageous tourists were tossed into the fray. It looked like most westerners took the 1st class route, I was middle class, and thankful to at least stretch out compared to the 3rd class with tight seats and little leg room. It would have been tight sleeping for a westerner. The train made its way down the track –clackity clack, clackity clack – from time to time I would wrestle about as it would pull into a station and the car man would tap on the doors announcing the place of arrival. I would not have to think much as my train was the last stop destination – Lao Cai. Easing into the station, all was dark minus a few streetlamps. I woke and made my half dreary eyed self down the aisle with pack in front and back down a lone cement raised platform. My head rose above the 5-foot tall, black-haired people. All were sleepy and like zombies we half marched and half droned forward. U was tired. We moved off the platform, across the tracks, and herded to the main terminal. My guide greeted me, and I was to wait for the minibus to fill. I took the front seat. I was afraid if I took anything else, the twists in the roads to Sapa would make me ill, and glad that I did. Tight hairpins turn left me queasy. I took a deep breath and tried to rest with the hour-long excursion up the mountain to Sapa.
Friday/Saturday – December 17 & 18 COSTS 54,000 mittens 320,000 bamboo backpack (told 250,000 is the Vietnamese price) 250,000 tribal x-stitch shirt 200,000 tribal x-stitch shirt 350,000 Hmong x-stitch blanket 350,000 Hmong x-stitch scarf (brown and green) 50,000 Hmong hat with x-stich orange color 15,000 Coke 10,000 3 small purple ornaments with x-stitch 20,000 3 large Hmong x-stitch ornaments 250,000 Hmong x-stitch jacket (orange color) 300,000 silk-machine made scarf 90,000 dinner at nice restaurant (La Rue beer, noodles with veggies, spring roll appetizer) 10,000 chocolate tart –late night snack Arriving to the Emotion Hotel was a good relief after being cooped up in a train car all night and on hour long drive up the mountain. I will say however it was a very satisfying to finally be here. We were greeted at the door and sent to the reception. I was not expecting to be able to check-in, but to my surprise I as given a room—and what room it was indeed. My window opened to a small balcony with the view of the mountains! FABULOUS!! The morning sun was just beginning to greet the day, and I quickly scooped up the camera for a picture. The vista of the mountain peaks are impressive as they reach upward toward the sky, mist filled with dancing clouds on the horizon. While my room was satisfactory, it had definitely seen better days. The walls were worn from luggage, the curtains barely hung from the rod, and the room was very cold. I had not bathed in 2 days and quickly tested the shower for warm water. I was in luck – steam! The rooms are not heated and was concerned with how I was going to sleep with the chill in the air. My greatest blessing besides warm water was the rain and cold temperatures of the mountains had passed, and I was going to be blessed with sunlight, day hikes, and warming of the earth. While my room was very cold as it held the chilled air within the walls, I was happier to shower than freeze. I took layer after layer off and shivered my way to the bathroom. Rushing to the hot water, it was triumphant to have a fresh shave. It is amazing what a little hot water and clean clothes can do for a person. Instead of taking a much-needed nap after bathing and the long trip to get here, I hurried down the stairs for a traditional breakfast of noodles, bread, cucumbers, and watermelon and to wash it all down with black coffee with sugar and sweetened condensed milk. Breakfast was served each day from 7:30 to 9:00 am., and I devoured what was before me. Finishing my second helping of fruit, I made my way the open market. It was up the hill from the hotel and would give me a chance to see what goodies were in the store for me. I had no longer been there for five minutes when I saw a bamboo basket-like backpack. These packs are open topped vessels and would hold an assortment of goodies. I had brought my other backpack with me and sized them up. I wanted to find one that would hold my western backpack with the intention of tucking one inside the other for my trip home on the plane when I retuned stateside. The workmanship was gorgeous – tightly woven layers of bamboo with a solid frame. The braces were made of woven nylon webbing and the lip of the basket covered in the same. I was delighted! I asked about the cost, and I was told 450,000 dong. I knew this must be outrageous because how could the common people sue them at such a price? I quickly countered at 200,000. The man and I went back and forth and settled at 320,000. I knew that was too much but for $16US how could I go wrong? (I later asked my guide what a fair price and was told 200,000 to 250,000 – oh well. He was happy and I was happy. I was going to tell others if they asked that I got it for 250,000.) I put the pack within my new find and was off to see the rest of the market. I had about an hour before my guide would arrive to the hotel, and I was going to make the most of my time. I turned a corner and immediately found traditional x-stitched clothing. Now, this is the Vietnam I was after when I was in Hue at the market. It just goes to prove that location is everything. I also realized too that the prices were going to be better b/c a bag I had seen in Hanoi for $25US was for $10US without haggling. I saw a tribal shirt that was thick with x-stitch – back, front, and wrists. She wanted 450,000 but got it for 250,000. The best part about it was that it did fit properly b/c it was too big, and she went to it with her scissors and sewing machine to make it right as well as made the side vents longer so it would fall correctly on my hips. She was happy, and I was delighted. Returning back to the hotel, I was swarmed by Hmong. Everyone wanted me to buy something; these ladies could sell! They weren’t going to let me get away w/o something from Sapa. I quickly learned that no was not an option nor a promise to buy something later b/c they would remind you of your promise. I then told them maybe later and I was not going to make promises I could not keep. They understood this sentiment, and while quick to make a sale, they were not pushy. If you looked at something for a second, they would catch your eye and be all over you. The other things that was amazing was if you got something from one person, the next one would be in line and want a sale too. I felt like a flower with honeybees. Swarming. They did it all with great humor and grace. These people were delightful and charming. They stood at about 4 ½ feet tall with plastic sandals on the well-worn feet. Their legs were wrapped in black velvet-like cloth that reminded me of leg warmers and stayed put with colorful ribbons. They were embroidered skirts with x-stitch patterns and a belt that was would around their waist several times and colorfully x-stitched in green, blue patterns. Their top matched the skirt and on it lay silver necklaces with chains, and from their ears multiple silver earrings with elongated lobes. Most ears have at least one earring with many having 4 to 6. On their backs was the same kind of backpack I purchased earlier at the market and deep inside them are bags of goodies tucked well inside. And protruding from the top was an umbrella ready for inclement weather ort the all too hot sun on the skin.
Swarms of Hmong wanted a sale, but once the tour began the art of selling went aside and guiding was at hand. My group was small – 2 from Montreal, 1 German woman (univ. student), the guide, and myself. What I did not expect was the flock of women that followed us to the village hike. There were a dozen young and older women who came with us down to the village. Sapa is Vietnam I always envisioned – mountains, valleys, rice fields, stray dogs and cats here and there with grazing livestock. The views were spectacular with each turn down the muddy path! We were blessed to have wonderful weather b/c the last few days had precipitation, overcast skies, mist and rare views of the mountains. Clear skies above meant less mud on shoes and trousers. Inching our way downward, we occasionally skidded out way to the next path in the road. I could only imagine how treacherous it must have been with rain. Water streams from the mountains found their easiest point of least resistance and into farmland and well-worn oaths. The test of time had withered steps into the steep hillsides, a balancing act for some. Teetering at a point and scouring the path ahead for stepping stones, I delicately placed my feet one after another. Others were not so fortunate. I would hear the, “oh shit”, and down they would go. I would giggle and try to not let everyone know my amusement because it would not be long before I would get a laugh. Give it my yoga training or blessings from gods above, I stayed upright with only a few falters. I snap photo after photo along the way but even looking into the lens I know it would not do this place justice. The human eye and shutter couldn’t capture the beauty justly. Regardless, I continued to take pictures hoping that at least one or two would give some truth to this grandeur before me. When we first began the trip, I was dressed in several layers – undershirt, silk undershirt, turtleneck, turtleneck wool sweater, and Patagonia fleece. It was not long past, and I had gone down to one layer. The day was definitely on our side. The Lao Chai were such gracious escorts. As one would fumble, they were there to brush us off, giggle, and raise the sprits. They were also very talkative and loved practicing their English. They did not learn it in school but through tourist conversations. Amazing to say the least and so different from the rest of Vietnam, of which I was thankful. When we got to the valley, a stream cut the land into two with Lao Chai on one side and Ta Van people on the other. We ate a pleasant, traditional lunch along the river before our guides would have to say good-bye. But to do these saleswomen justice, they went in for one more kill of which I broke down and made some deals – a blanket and a shirt. The Rzoa (sp?) people – aka Ta Van were significantly poorer than the others. You could see it in their homes and cleanliness. The 2nd part of the hike was much quieter and with fewer people along the way. I made another purchase here – a large x-stich scarf with bright green stitching and brown base for $350,000. The Canadians giggled at the way I would shop and bargain, but when they heard of my scarf that asked if I would them purchase something too for them but not as grand of long. I got his for $5 US. One good thing about this part of the trip was we would not have to walk back up the hill. A mini bus greeted us at the turn in the road, and we were off to upper Sapa for a nap, snack, and more shopping. You me…I went for more shopping! Sunday, December 19 COSTS 30,000 2 drinks (one for me and one for my guide) 420,000 blue tribal scarf 20,000 beer 25,000 2 pastries 250,000 Hmong Tribal scarf 71,000 lunch – spring roll, pumpkin soup, 2 cokes
This morning at 9:30 a.m., my guide greeted me for an excursion to the black Hmong village and waterfall. There was a heavy mist in the early morning which quickly passed to full sun and warm temperatures. This was not high season, but it was for me when comparing Minnesota snow to glorious sun. The hike was downhill to the hydroelectric dam that the French built. The shadows of the mountains made the climb down very pleasant, though the late morning sun found us on the other side of the mountain. At least the sound of rushing water kept my mind at ease. We were back by 11 a.m. and darted off to shop. The advantage of being here off season is that I did not have to check-out of the hotel. I got to stay in my room until my departure. (This would not have been an option if I was in the USA.) The Swiss couple that I made met before in Hanoi were there in the hotel lobby, we sat for a spell exchanging stories of the dramatic and not so adventurous. I told them where I ate the night before (Nature Bar and Grill) and how to get there. They were exhausted from the overnight train travel and were going to spend the day relaxing and catching-up with sleep. I also ran into the Malaysian guys from Halong Bay. They were going to take the same night train as I was going to on. By the time we were picked-up by the mini-van to go back down the mountain to Lai Cai, I was going to sleep. The van was packed to the rafters with people and luggage. The trip down was like the Indianapolis 500. In and out of traffic we swerved and against the tight curves in the road. Some on the journey got sick and could hear them barfing in the back. One after another I hear them barfing. A part of me wanted to call for the drive to stop, but he had time to time to make if we were going to make the train. Then as things settled, I would hear another person yacking in the back. It was like a bad comedy sketch for the sick and twisted. I did what I could to not laugh and was thankful to be sitting in the from seat to keep my eye on the road—which significantly made a difference to not toss my cookies. I would never have thought to pack a personal barf bag. Would you? No wonder the driver passed them out before we began our trip. Once we grounded in town, he let everyone out with barf bags in tow. One of the locals got off and was off on a motorcycle to her place in town. I said a little prayer for her in passing. We quickly unloaded the van, and I threw on my backpack and scurried to the train. The place was all a bustle, and I had an idea where I was going from the day before. All the signage was in Vietnamese. So, I headed for where the guards were standing figuring this had to be the way. A few people ahead of me were turned away, but I made it through. Walking to the platform, I found my train, cabin, and berth. A family had taken up residence there before I got there and had spread out dinner. I smiled, nodded, and pointed to my bed. No sooner had the father glanced in my direction with a welcoming smile did I jump into the space – body plus 2 packs, tussled by shoes off, I found my eye glass case, removed my glasses, and settled into sleep. 15 minutes did not pass, and I was out only to be rocked to sleep as I felt the train cars leave the station. It was going to be 9 hours of sleeping if I could and was going to capitalize on this moment b/c tomorrow the train would return to the station at 4 a.m. and would have to hail a taxi to the office. One thing I wanted to mention was my Hmong backpack of bamboo. It was a hit! I got some amazing giggles from young girls with the older ladies always asking me, “how much?” I asked my guide what the big deal was, and she told me that many people (tourists) do not get bamboo packs b/c they are for the locals. She appreciated that I took an interest in it as well as all the lovely hand stitch pieces I bought. Now the real question I keep asking myself is will it fit in the overhead compartment on my plane back to the USA?
Monday, December 20 COSTS 50,000 taxi from train to travel office 10,000 motorbike ride to Laos Airline office $135US ticket (one-way) to Ventienne, Laos Laos exchange rate – 8 Kip to $1US 250,000 taxi to Hanoi Airport 87,000 Breakfast – French toast, hot chocolate, 2 scoops of ice cream
$16USA/nite Thawee Guest House 6 LG bottle of water 45 dinner – minced chicken, sticky rice, beer 10 sesame candy $6US taxi to town My train arrived at Hanoi from Sapa at 4 a.m. I was instructed to get a taxi back to the office and was concerned with the hour of the day that it would be challenging. A Vietnamese boy asked if I needed a taxi, and he got me one. It was priced at 50,000 dong, but I had no plans in walking and at $2.50 US, it was a steal. He dropped me in a familiar area by the Catholic cathedral. All was quiet for Hanoi, a rare thing indeed. I took my packs and rested them close to my feet and sat on the cold marble stair waiting for the office to open. I was going to do everything humanly possible to not fall asleep on the sidewalk. (I was a perfect candidate for a robbery.) I would have to keep my wits about me. One thing I was expecting but did not see were street rats. For such a large city and being in tourist central I was thankful to not run into any. The night/day was dark – nothing was not out but the occasional taxi passing and asking if I needed to find a room. I pulled my pack closer. By 5:30 a.m. I was starting to nod. My goal was to stay awake until the sun came up around 6. A guide stopped by the office, and I was told the was office I was waiting for had closed and moved. I showed him my travel itinerary, and he shrugged it off. I was not going to budge. My bus was to come at 7 a.am., and I was not going to miss it. By 6:30 a.m., the temple down the corner began morning prayers. One by one motorbikes pulled to the sidewalk and mostly women filled the courtyard. The sun began to turn the black sky into shades of blue. Roosters began to greet the day, and at 7 no one came to pick me up – no one. I was not happy.
At 7:30 a.m., the gate was pulled back from inside, and a man greeted me. He told me that the bus never comes at 7 a.m., and the travel office in HCMC was wrong. The bus to Laos was not until 5 pm! I was clearly upset. I did not want to waste away a day meandering the streets for 5 p.m. to come. I was over Hanoi. The bus would arrive at 5 p.m., the trips would take all night, and arrive at 8 a.m. the next day. This is not what I had panned, and after recalling Juliet Bayle telling me how cramped and hot the bus was, I began to make other plans.
I decided to fly to Laos. The price was $135 plus a luxury tax. I was ready to leave Hanoi. It would depart at 4:30 p.m. with me being at the airport at least one hour before. I arranged for a taxi to pick me up at 2 pm., paid for my flight, and knowing that by 7 pm I would be walking the streets of Ventienne. I did not have a visa for entrance but was told I could do that at the airport upon arrival. I had a picture ready in my travel documents and $35US cash for the visa. I was off to success with no more Hanoi buzzing in my ears. In an hour and a half, I was in Laos. The weather was hot and dramatically different from Hanoi. I peeled off my wool turtleneck sweater, Patagonia jacket, and black cotton turtleneck shirt. I was whisked away though customs, went to the bank to exchange baht that I had left over from 7 years ago, paid my taxi, found a room, and off to explore. I asked my taxi driver for a hotel recommendation b/c the tourist desk was closed at the airport. He asked how much I wanted to spend and told him $15-20US. He took me to the first place on the street – Thandee. The lady showed me a picture of the room, and it looked nicely appointed. I paid for the room in advance for 2 nights. I was escorted upstairs, and when the door opened to my space it was not what I saw at the desk brochure. I immediately went downstairs and complained. I told the lady I was not happy with what I saw, and she said what did I think was okay. I said the city had better rooms for less and offered $15; we agreed at $16. I still think I would have probably gotten a better rate, but I wanted to be settled and not have to dart from one end of the street tot eh next. I ran upstairs, cranked on the a/c, and made my way to the strip. I did an 8-block radius to get the layoff the land. I went to ta few shops of Lao weaving and was surprised in the process. It was pricier than expected. I was told that Ventienne was more expensive that other part s of Laos. Time will tell if that comes to fruition. During my look-see about the neighborhood, I found a laundry or 10,000kip/kilo. I look forward to having my pants washed as well as my polo t-shirt. I had been surviving them one day too long and none worse for the wear. The laundry opened at 7 a.m. each day, and I was going to be there on the dot. I ate dinner at a family run restaurant. I appeared clean but looks can be deceiving. The one obstacle was the three children darting in and out of the place. This was their playground, and I was their romper room. When traveling I have found how much I enjoy silence. This was anything but quiet. My other observation is like Thailand here appears to be a lot of western men and Asian women together --some quite young (if not children). I did not want to make an assumption, but I am sure many are ladies of the night, the oldest profession. I always wondered why men would hire a woman – companionship, chit-chat, safe travels here and there. There was one particularly old, old man on my plane who had hired a lady of the night b/c she could not even speak English, and she fluttered about him. She could have been his nurse, though doubt it. I returned back to my hotel early. I was exhausted from the day and glad to be asleep. Flipping through the random channels on the television, I rested on Fashion TV as it lulled me to sleep. While the journey has been delightful, I remind myself that challenges are to be conquered. They are not to diminish you but make you strong and praise the better days. I am thankful to have the ability to travel b/c so many on Earth will never have the privilege. Thursday, December 21 COSTS 20,000 bike rental for full day (7am – 9 pm) 2,000 toilet at wat 15,000 double chocolate ice cream sundae 35,000 Thai massage at Wat Sok Pal Vang 20,000 silver circle necklace 91.10US flight to Luang Prabang from Ventienne 207US flight from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap, Cambodia 60,000 taxi to airport on 12/22 45,000 dinner – spring roll, pumpkin soup, beer 19,000 2 scoops of coffee ice cream I woke early to get my two kilos of clothing to the laundry, rent a bike, and find my way to the large gold wat that Ventienne is famous. I got my things to the laundry w/o difficulty, and they promised to stitch the seam of my pants for no charge. I had brought my bamboo pack with me to hold my Lonely Planet book, camera, and odd assortment of things. One pleasant surprise is that the streets here are very manageable w/o traffic honking no way of escape on the road. No one minded me pedaling. The one challenge I tend to always have in minding a map. It is not my strong suit to say the least and then to toss in a foreign language of squiggles and scratches it makes me even more hysterical. Despite my handicap, I found the wat. All was silent on the property. I had the place more-or-less to my myself. The vendors hadn’t even set up their carts to hawk their cheap souvenirs. I was lucky. The day too was still cool w/o the scorching heat against my back. I snapped the usual photos and, in the distance, heard chatting. Rising up a platform of stairs, the guttural tones of prayer could be heard. By mid-point up some stairs, an assortment of shoes was scattered with the collection growing toward the top. I removed my shoes and entered a large room. Pillars of red and gold held the ceiling up with Buddha frescos lining the walls. Monks in marigold sat in a raised platform with the leaders sitting on a gold throne holding a large purple and gold embroidered spade shaped staff. A gong about 5 feet in diameter was struck and chatting continued. The men of the wat sat in the front closest to the monks and priest, with women behind. All were seated on the floor with their legs off to the side, tucking their feet close behind. Each person carried a bowl or basket of goodies filled to the brim with fruits, rice, candy, candles, incense, and money. It rested in front of each person. As the service ended, each person rose and went in single file to a large table with larger bowls and baskets. Each person took elements from the offering and placed in into the bowls. This was going to for the priests and monks. It was different here versus Thailand when the monks would process the streets at 5:30 in the morning. As things drew to a close, I returned outside and put my shoes on. I walked to the other wat, and they too were ending this service. I will say I do like the splendor of this form of Buddhism compared to what is practiced in Vietnam. Here it is strongly influenced to Thailand with similar temple formations, grand plazas, and ornate colors and paintings. Each has their place, but this has more of a wow factor. I do love pomp and circumstance.
The one aggravation today was no on seemed to be able to tell me how to find Lane Xang. It is a major thorough fare. It is so major in fact that it is the on the same street as the Arch d’Triumph. It’s off this street that there is good shopping – only to find it is a mall-like structure with the usual junk. But to find this street took great determination on my part b/c each time I would ask someone I would get a giggle and pointing, but no direct answer. (Maybe they are only trying to be polite?) It’s like asking someone in DC where the White House is, and no one is able to answer—crazy but very true. Despite my finest failed attempts, I was able to finally find it. I was dismayed at how easy it is and chuckled that no one would tell me how to get there. I popped my head into the mall after chaining my bike to as light pole. I was in and out of the place in a NY minute. The city was beginning to get hot, and I was going to try to find Wat Sok Pal Vang. What really tickled me was people looking back at me in their cars and motorbikes to see a tourist pedaling his bike with a bamboo backpack. I got some interesting stares. I was told the wat was 3 to 4 kilometers from the center of town. I pedaled into the countryside with no sign of a wat. I had wanted to go here for a massage b/c I was told they were affordable as well as helped the Buddhist community. I was also interested in not getting groped by a “handsy” therapist. I pedaled past the supreme court of the country and figured I had gone too far. I made my way back and asked the security guard. I did not speak Laotian, and they did not speak English. They did understand wat and had me turn around to the next road turn-off. Before I went down a wild goose chase, I found some young school children all wearing school uniforms, and I asked them. They knew English and assured me I was going in the correct direction. As I bike pedaled away, I looked back and saw mobile phones capturing me riding away. I must have been a site to see, and I must be a rarity to get so much attention with my bike, and bamboo pack in tow. Even here ½ way around the world, I make a statement. Wat Sok Pal Vang could be missed in as moment if you were not looking and know what you were intended to see. There are no distinguishing signs to inform guests you have arrived other than it’s a wat like most wats with an entrance gate, pitched roofs, and ordained with red and gold. It would be passed over. If you’ve seen one, you seen them most. When I pedaled down the sandy road, I had no idea what would be in store for me. Tuktuks lined one side of the path, but I moved forward looking for an entrance, sign, or friendly wave. I didn’t even see other westerners. What I thought interesting too was these monks who did see me did not even ask I was there…very peculiar indeed --a part of me even thought that possible I had come to the wrong location. The living quarters for many of them were raised platform-like structures. They appeared more as shacks in a Louisiana swamp than religious spaces. Once I entered the grounds, I had no idea where I was going. I casually meandered here and there on my bike, occasionally getting stuck in the sand. Thinking after about 15 minutes, I thought I possibly went in the wrong direction. I asked a nun if she could direct me. Between charades and simple English, she got me to where I needed to go. I walked up a wooden staircase, rickety and worn – to an elevated room in the tree canopy --low lying beds and sheets rested under canopy roof. I was told the sauna was not ready and I was fine with that b/c my true interest was in a massage. I took off my shirt and stretched out on the platform. I received a traditional Thai massage—first on my back then sides, and front. It was deep tissue massage but rather pressure pointed with ease. At first, I didn’t care for it, but after relaxing, it got better, and my mind began to ease. At first, I was the only one present, but slowly a few other couples came. When he was done, I did not have enough kip to pay him, so I paid in dollars. He gave me change back in kip. I rode my back to town and charmed knowing that for about $4US and some change, I was treated well. I was glad I got here the evening before to get a feel for the town, Between last night and today. I would say I had a taste of Ventienne. Most who know of Ventienne know of Pha That Luang, the national monument. It is a symbol of both the Buddhist religion and Lao nation. At one time there were 4 wats that surrounded the property, but only two remain today-Wat that Luang Tai (in the south) and Wat That Luang Nua (in the north), The one in the North is the monastic residence of the Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism. The walls and ceiling are painted with bright images, and they are fantastic to see. Behind it is a sleeping Buddha on its side. The entire structure of all the wats is a must see when in Ventienne. The other point of interest I rode by was the Patuxai a.k.a. the Arch d’Triumph. Traffic goes to either side of the large cement structure. The cement to build this was donated by the United States in 1969 for a new airport. (I guess the airport wasn’t built?) The arc, while impressive from a distance, is in poor shape. It is crumbling and rough around the edges. While there, I saw a few tables and chairs underneath and got a refreshment. 22 December Today was the first day that I slept the entire night. I did not stir at all – may be if had to do with the fact that I did not have to be at the airport until noon or maybe it’s because I had a room in the back of the building and not woken up by the morning traffic on the street. No matter the reason, it was nice to finally relax and not be abruptly awaken. This morning I literally did nothing at all but arranging my bags, chatting in the lobby with the hotel clerk, and having a small snack of water and cookies. While the plane cost less than $100 USA, the bus trip was $15. I’m told the scenery is truly spectacular, but you can never rely on the bus making it in time. The trip if all goes as planned should be 9 hours but most usually make it in 11 hours b/c the vehicle usually breaks down, and you are put on the side of the road until later. The plane costs 6 times more and up/down in 45 minutes. I got to the airport in plenty of time. I wanted to take an earlier flight but was told it was full. From the looks of the airport, I did not believe that statement for a moment. The place was desolate, and I had my choice of chairs in the waiting area. I could have made stink at the check-in desk, but I chose to keep what I was granted and not make a fuss. Afterall, this is a holiday and who wants to spoil a good thing? I finally also lost the count of my days…. a good sign to know that R& R had set in. I had to ask some tourists this morning from Australia what day it was. This is good, very good. A man who is always on the go had lost track of time -- a rare thing indeed for me. When I boarded the place, there were three monks that sat in front of me. One was wheeled into the plane by a special chair. He was very old—perhaps late 80s/early 90s. His two escorts kept an eye on his every need and very attentive. Three bald heads in saffron robes bobbed up and down. They did not eat the plane food or drink the water. What I found amusing was that they pulled from beneath their robe a small, digital camera. They each took turns, the younger men taking photos of themselves as well as of their mentor. To be graced in spirit and wearing such simple clothes while seeing the old and new emerge together was refreshing. I had heard from Lao that Luang Prabang was known as a tourist city – full of foreigners. Once landed, I knew this was the case b/c the airport had hotel signs all in English, no Laotian and spelled correctly with good grammar. Before arriving, I had tried to arrange a room but had no luck. I even sent air mail w/o an answer. With so many visitors, you would think that there would be more web presence when searching on Google – then again this is a western comfort, and a developing nation is still in growth. So, I had luggage but not an idea as to where to sleep. From what I could tell on the internet, it’s a bit more expensive than Vietnam and with so many expats ready to splurge, finding an affordable place might prove to be a challenge. At the airport, I saw an information counter. I walked up and found it staffed by a young man who was may be 15 years old. I told him I was seeking a room and told him between $15-20. He made a phone call and space was available in one room but couldn’t tell me if it was vacant the rest of the week. I needed five nights. I guessed this might be better than none and accepted it site unseen. I figured if it was a dump once I got there, I could always say no. I saw the room for $17 – clean with a window, a/c, hot water. The minus is that it was on the street. I agreed instead to a room in the back which was larger but cost $22. (If I had a travel companion, this price would be ideal.) I paid $110 US (5 days at $22) in full and rode a bike into town to explore. The midafternoon sun was not too hot, and we were close to the excitement. Meandering up the Mekong, cafes dotted the coast. Before leaving the hotel, I heard from the desk staff that young boys steal bikes so I should keep it close and locked up. In fact, even if it’s locked up bandits would still find their way of snatching it. Advice in hand, I stopped for lunch. What I immediately noticed about this town is the quiet – peaceful. No beeping, little traffic, no boom boom of the base – so refreshing! 8,000 kip = $1 US
Thursday, December 23 COSTS $22USA/night Muong Lao Guest House 90,000 Dragon metal bracelet 10,000 Toffee brownie 5,000 Lg water $20USA Royal ballet theatre ticket for December 25 30,000 Palace entrance fee 25,000 American breakfast – 2 eggs, coffee, baguette, butter, sausage, bacon and ham 160,000 braided leather with silver and jade 18,000 Large plastic bag with zipper 5,000 Lg water 28,000 Dinner – pad thai, Sprite 16,000 banana bread and mango bread Rising early, morning mist filled the air. It felt good against my bare arms, almost too cool. The town was silent except for the occasional car passing as I turned down the road. The Mekong River greeted me as I made my way into town. It was going to be a good day. The one advantage to rising early is that the streets are not filled, and the streets are empty. It’s a good sign that the temples are empty. And I was right; the palace grounds were silent with only a few people scattered throughout the garden. The palace has taken up about one block of a city street. Within the space are a temple, house, gardens theatre, and outer buildings. The temple is the grandest part of the enclosure, surrounded by a white cement gated wall with a bright, cherry red gate. The palace was built in 1904 along the gentle Mekong as a home for King Sisavangvang and his family. He died in 1959, and his son inherited the throne. In 1975, he and his family during the revolution were exiled to northern Laos. The family never returned, and the palace was converted into a museum. The gold Buddha, Pha Bang, of which the town is named, is held these walls. The house, while large, is not over the top and quite simple in today’s standards. What I admired most were some gifts country’s gave to the king. I was particularly intrigued by the gifts from the Chinese and India. A jewelry box from India has the smallest piercings and looks like lace. You can look right through it. Equally as nice if not even higher workmanship is the gift of Chinese balls. Each ball rests within another – getting smaller and smaller. The balls turn inside each other. The skill and technique are the finest quality and is probably a lost art and non-replaceable. They truly are extraordinary. They are held behind a bookcase inside the waiting reception hall. Most people didn’t even glace at them, but fool that I am, I had to point it out to a few passing thought he rooms just to witness their admiration. Yesterday evening, I sat and chatted with one of the other guest house staff. He shared with me that he makes $2USA/day. When he first started, he made a little over $1USA/day. The disparity in income is overwhelming. If he makes 16,000 kip/day I wonder how he manages to survive but survive he must because he has been doing it for the last 20 years. The crazy thing about making 16,000 kip/day is a large bottle of water is 5,000 – roughly 1/3 of his salary. He says he gets water from the guesthouse. My meal cost 28,000 kip -- or 1 day and ½ salary. And the bracelet I purchased for 90,000 is little more that 5 days wage. That is purely outrageous! Take for instance I made $250/week in the USA, or $50 a day. My meal here would be the equivalent of $75, water 417, bracelet $250, etc. My hotel room here for my stay is $22/night of which is beyond my budget and is like spending for him 1 night to 11 days of work is for me more than $500/night in USA. It makes no sense to me. No wonder they think we are rich, especially if I am pilfering 1/3 of my salary on a bottle o water. I can only imagine what those in the nicer hotels are spending at $100/night…the mega rich. I also wonder what they do if tourism was not their bread and butter. What kind of living would they eek out if their existence? My driver today for example went to school to be a schoolteacher, one of the lowest paid professions here, but there are no jobs. He scrambles to make a living to support himself – forget about retirement. And to think I worry about my old age and lack of possible payment for healthcare. He will have nothing. The young woman at the guest house restaurant works at the hotel, goes to school full-time, takes English classes, and works another part-time job. She asked me how I stay looking so young – I told her good food, water, and exercise. She said she did not want to get fat and old looking for fear she would not find a husband…all at the tender age of 19. She said between work and school and daily pressures she has a hard time sleeping. I have her some breathing exercises that would help her tension. She also said she gets headaches. I showed her pressure points on her hand that may assist her. What I will say that do to see if their intense passion for wanting to learn and succeed. They are willing to work hard, make sacrifices, and study. They truly are the future of this nation; one I hope will bring prosperity. Luang Prabang’s most majestic temple is at the tip of the peninsula. It was but in 1560 and was given royal patronage until the war (1975). A tree of life mosaic is outstretched on the wall. At the gate stands a magnificent 12-meter-high funeral chariot which rests inside the royal funeral chapel. There are urns within to hold the remains of the royal family. The majestic gold chariot is impressive indeed, and if you didn’t pass within the walls, you would have no idea what surprises rests within the walls. On the exterior of the chapel’s walls are gilt panels depicting erotic episodes from the Ramayana. To the east of the center of the town is Wat Wisunaklat which was built in 1898 after a great fire in 1887. The wat was built originally in 1513. There are several things I like about wats: * sloped roofs with fabulous tiles and wispy ends * intense color on the walls and doors * many Buddha images * tiny piercings of windows to cast in the light * erotic paintings and stories of history * the combination of blood red and marigold * Detail in wood that hold up the roof * silence as one enters * no shoes * Reverence of people who enter * Plaza entrance and porch * Roof crown * the welcome of women as nuns and holy persons * Stray cats full of wonder * Buddha behind Buddha behind Buddha * Jackie, the temple dog (woof!) Friday, December 24 50,000 waterfall transportation 20,000 waterfall entrance fee 5,000 pineapple/mango shake 10,000 veggie/cheese sandwich (lunch) 10,000 veggie buffet – dinner at night market 18,000 2 banana breads, 1 carrot bread Kunag Si Falls beckoned me. Resting 29km south of the city, this multi-tiered waterfall and turquoise lagoons is something movies are made. The park hosts an Asiatic bear rescue at the entrance and picnic tables throughout the park. Getting there early before the tourists emerge is a good idea, but in this time of the year they are particularly intrusive. I packed extra clothes in case I decided to go in for a swim. The morning was chilly, and when I dipped my toe in it was too cool for me. There were some polar bear Germans having a ball despite my hinderance. Each twist and turn in the path led to another view, very dream-like. I hiked all the way to the top which is not for faint of heart. It’s an uphill climb and slippery footings throughout. Once I arrived at the top, I made my way to the rushing sound of water to the top of the falls. Guarded by bamboo fence and warning signs of danger, I kept my firm grasp as I entered the water. After such a climb, the cool water was refreshing. In the middle of the river are vistas go far. It was very peaceful. Hiking back down was far easier and less exhausting. I treated myself to a fruit shake in my triumph. One sad piece of U.S. history here is that between 1964-73 the U.S. government bombed this country to pieces. The US spent $2.2 million/day and over 580,000 missions with over 2 million tons of dropped bombs. 70% of the bombs went off, while 30% still remain active today. The country is littered them. Even today, people lose lives and appendaged to this ugly reminder of the past. Between 1973-96, over 11,000 accidents happened b/c of them. Some areas are so dangerous that land cannot be farmed. You will even find in the market bomb casings, rockets, mortar, etc. Some are fashioned into furniture, lamps, and knives. In 1994, the British began clearing away undetonated bombs, but there is much more work still to be done. It’s estimated that it will take 100 years to clear them all. More info can be found at mag.org.uk. While I understand war happens, not being responsible and removing them after the war is unacceptable. It creates ill will and hatred. Theses people are so kind and gentle. How they to do not hate Americans is truly humbling. It’s also a history that no one speaks about or if they do, they always say they fought on the side of the USA.
Saturday, December 25 Merry Christmas to me! It was strange last night not going to church, and singing the traditional carols, the buzz of the holiday in the air, and twinkling lights, etc. I wandered to the Blue Ice Hotel/Bar because I saw an advertisement ringing in the holiday. It was early, maybe 8ish, but the place was somber. I was handed a leaflet on the street. It looked like festivities were going to start around 9ish with folks then going to church at 11:30 p.m. for the midnight service. I contemplated the thought of going, but I veered away knowing that today was going to be busy at the Pak Ou. I was told to be ready at 8 a.m. for the tutktuk to the riverboat. I arrived at 7:45 and waited and waited. At 8:45 a.m., I asked the staff to call the manager who arranged the trip. He quickly came the guest house to find me sitting. He told me to jump on his motorbike, and we would get me to the boat. Long story shirt, the boat left at 8:30. I was not a happy camper and expressed my disappointment. He told me for $17 U.S. I could take a tuktuk. I told him no. I paid for a slow boat, and he promised me a service that was not being delivered. I told if anyone was to pay more it would have to be him. He said I could wait for the afternoon trip, only if more tourists wanted to go. I told him this not okay. I paid for a morning slow boat to enjoy Christmas and my next to last day in Luang Prabang. He got on the phone and called his brother. He volunteered to take me on his motorbike, and I was going to pay extra. He said he would also have his brother stop at the Whiskey Village, a wat, and a craft market. I was delighted! This error turned to my favor. I got to explore the countryside and see/do more that I originally planned. The one hitch was if the police stopped us, I could not let them know I was a tourist. LOL! I would be “family” and going to visit for the holiday. (Yea, right?) With helmet in hand, I was off. I changed from my shorts to pants b/c of the dirt and concerned my legs would get scratched. I firmly grasped my backpack, the driver put it between his legs, and I hopped on the back while clasping his shoulders, and we were off. The way there was relatively painless, on a gravel road, and once we turned off the gravel it proved more adventurous. I was glad he was steering this wheel. He checked back every once in a while, to see that I was well. Other than my ass half sliding off the seat, all was well. He had to stop once and ask someone coming from the other way direction if he was going the right way, only to find he had been there only once by himself. When we arrived, he paid the attendant to watch his bike, and I walked to the river for crossing. It was another 10,000 Kip plus entrance 20,000. The boat was long and narrow—barely enough to sit and would wobble at the slightest hint of a wave or bump. I did not want to fall in – or worse my backpack falls into the water with my camera and equipment. We docked at the cave. Others were already there but not throngs. Pak Ou is about 25 km from town and up the Mei Kong. (What I though was the Mei Kong when I first arrived is actually the Nam Khan River.) There are two caves –one upper, the other lower. The upper cave is a short climb with worn cement steps and bamboo rail. It is a large, cavernous hole and unable to see inside w/o a flashlight. There are scattered images throughout – some lining the wall and others in niches. The more spectacular of the two is the lower one with over 4,000 Buddhas. They are brough here when the need repair and not in good condition…like a cemetery for the worn statues. I was expecting the space to as grand as the upper cave, but more images were in the lower cave. Not all would go to the upper cave, but I am glad I did despite the lack of images. I retuned back to my boat for the trip back but found it would leave when the boat was full. I waited for about 30 minutes and got back to my driver. Returning back, we stopped by Ban Xang Hoi, aka the Whiskey Village. Yes, they are known for miles around for their liquor. I didn’t purchase any (lao lao), but I did purchase a lovely black and white scarf that was hand woven. I even got to meet the artist. We also made it to the wat right outside of Luang Prabang that is modern in design. There was no admission fee but gave 500 kip for upkeep and maintenance. The unique thing about this wat was as each floor rises it gives way to another even smaller floor…going up 4 stories. It’s a child’s tree house dream of a space and very cool. You can see all of Luang Prabang from the balcony, and looking down into the courtyard young, adolescent children abound. I got back by mid-afternoon with time for a quick nap and prep before the theatre at the royal palace. I had purchased a ticket to the theatre ($20US) for a front row seat only to be disappointed by the overall show and production. This one performance I would skip and not recommend to others. It’s frankly not worth the money. If you feel you must go, get the $8 ticket and sneak up front if there are open seats—of which there were many The one thing I did enjoy after three weeks of casual dress was getting dressed up – Armani pants (black), black shirt (short sleeve cotton with copper stitching), black slides, new jade and leather necklace, and large serpent bracelet. COSTS 90,000 cave tour 20,000 cave admission 10,000 round trip boat to cave from village 130,000 black & white scarf, handmade cotton and took 4 months to make $15 US 5 silk and cotton scarfs as gifts $1 US tip to motorbike driver 5,000 mango/pineapple shake 5,000 mango/pineapple shake afternoon snack 12,000 1 banana bread, 1 mango bread
Sunday, December 26 COSTS 6,000 internet 500 monk offering 21,000 Large Lao Beer and spring roll (lunch) 6,000 7-Up at Dyen Sabai 10,000 large bag of doughnut holes 40,000 tuktuk reservation to airport To have a day totally to myself with nothing on the itinerary is rare indeed. I woke at 5:15 a.m. to greet the passing monks with their silver urns for alums. The day was broken to their 5 a.m. beating drum calling the neighbors from their slumber and to remind them to give thanks to God. I did not want to miss this day, even though it happens every day. Rising and seeing sleepy eyed monks peek from behind their gate and glance down the street made me chuckle. The boy at the guest house front desk asked me if the monks passed on the street where I lived. I told him no, and that is why this moment was so special for me. One by one in single file they left the temple and walked down the street. Quickly passing to keep the morning brisk air from beneath their golden robes, they made this way around the corner. I was told there was an even larger procession at the main part of town. Morning began to break the sky pulling away the darkness to reveal the light. Women with bamboo canisters came to their knees giving each monk a small portion of their tithing and placed it into the pail. No words were spoken – no gratitude, no utterance of thanks. It was understood. As quickly as they appeared, they vanished into the crevices of gates, walls, and gilt columns. There was a calm about this passing…simple, true. What kept going through my mind is the scripture that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. These men were split between two worlds – one ancient and the other modern. But in second thought, it was not they who were caught; it was I. I was mesmerized by their reverence and ability to not get swept up in the daily grind of the have and the have nots. The world buzzed about them like angry wasps ready to sting. They however remained steady glancing upward to acknowledge the present but not faltering into the quicksand of pop culture. I returned back to my guest house and to bed. I was ready to be awake, but it was my last day to totally chill without stress of feeling I had to be a cog in the system. Waking again at 9 a.m., I showered and began my day. I paid for my tuktuk in advance, checked my email, downloaded my camera pics, and decided to hike down the road to see what kind of mischief I could get into for the day. I was greeted by three elementary school students that wanted me to buy a trinket from their carboard treasure box. I told them no; I was not going to buy anything today. They were fine with my response, but could I sing a Christmas carol with them? Who am I to say no to a holiday song? And what song did they sing?… Jingle Bells. They had learned the words in school wanted to practice their English and so we sang Jingle Bells up the hill, around the corner, and to the top of the peninsula. We sat at the point and rested as they practiced their English and letters. They would write letters on found carboard scraps and ask me what they wrote. Some it made sense but more often than not they were just letters on a page. And I played alone with them giggling in sheer delight. This game went on for 2 hours, and in the in between moments, they would ask, “Do you want to buy?” The other thing I did was take their picture with my DSL. They were delighted to see their image. Across the street is a wat. Young monks would peer from behind the columns and play this game of hide and seek/peekaboo. The trick would be if I would capture them on film before they scampered away into oblivion. This made them roar with laughter. Then with a thumb up or thumb down we would decide if the pic was a keeper or not. Monday, December 27 3,800 real = $1 USA COSTS 8,000 taxi/motorbike from airport to guest hose 2,000 large water $40USA Angkor Wat entrance - 3-day pass $3.75 USA 3 tacos and 1 beer The tuktuk picked me up at Muonglao Guest House promptly and drove to the airport. I wanted to make sure it was going to pick me up on time b/c yesterday was challenging. It was time to move on and try a new city, new country – Cambodia, Siem Reap to be exact. I tipped my housekeeper a couple of dollars, and she was surprised by my gesture. It’s the least I could do, especially cleaning my bathroom and making my bed. It was also a small gesture to say “thanks” for not pilfering my things. The night before, I threw up; yes, tossed my cookies. I woke at quarter to 12 at night and felt clammy. I had that feeling before and knew what was in store. I was praying it was going to be over and done so I could get on with sleeping. I even thought about putting my finger down my throat to expedite the process. The good thing is that nature took control before I had to intervene. I threw up in the toilet 4 times and then thought I had the shits. I sat on the john and sure enough…EXPLOSION! It ran like rainwater. And to make matters even more unpleasant, I was to my toss my cookies again while on the ceramic throne. Ass in hole and head in basket is never a pretty sight, and I was a sight for sore eyes – reality TV would love this. I kept thinking to myself. The episode did not last long and in less than 5 minutes later I was back in bed and hoping to not get up again…and I did not. Thank you, God! The plane to Cambodia boarded late but sooner than Vietnam Air going the same direction. One thing I get a chuckle about is security. I wonder if they truly look through the x-ray machine. In the USA for example we cannot bring beverages or liquids more than 3 oz. I see some packing bottles of water in their luggage and backpacks. I make sure when I go through the x-ray that they see my USA passport, why exactly is a mystery. It’s as if it’s a secret card for entrance or sign on my forehead that says, “I’m not dangerous”. The plane had a 20-minute stop in Pakse before going to Siem Reap. In no time at tall we were loading. And what a surprise… Siem Reap Airport – WOW – very developed. I could tell tourism had arrived. Visa application was painless and out the door. A taxi stand waited -- $2 motorbike, $5 tuktuk, $7 minivan…motorbike it was for me. I asked my driver what he suggested for a good guest house around $10 USA. He knew the perfect spot, and in no time we were there. The room had a fan for $10/night or with AC $15. I took the fan. The space was gracious in size, clean with a high ceiling, free internet, free laundry, free bike…perfect! My driver suggested I go to Angkor to see the sunset and was part of the same 3-day admission fee w/o additional cost. I jumped at the chance. He got me in and out of the ticket book line in seconds flat. My driver is named Lem. He was a Buddhist monk for 3 years, before driving a tuktuk. He is a married with child and another on the way. We would meet each day for the temples and a taste of Cambodia. We agreed between $10-15 per day, pending what I thought sufficed. I plan on using his service for 5 days = $50. The lines for the admission ticket to Angkor is Disney-like – 1 day, 3-day, 1 week. The lines cue, take pic, pay $, and on the go. I did not expect there to be so many tourists, what a zoo. The place was crawling with foreigners. The best part was all the languages surrounding me. You did not have to travel far to be earshot from someone who was from afar. It was the UN!
We parked near Phnum Barbeng, and I climbed my way to the top with the throngs of sunset onlookers. And yes, it was a circus. One too many people sat on the ledge eyeing go the best spot to watch the day end and the salute to the evening. What was also remarkable was the steep climb on the side. The stone wore away by hundreds of thousands of feet has made the foot holds not very tight. Not one foot was squarely fit into the step-- ½ foot, ½ air is the message of the day – balancing ever so delicately so as to no go tumbling into the ramble below. If these were the pyramids of Guatemala, the “steps” off these would be closed. I’m surprised that no major accidents have happened. Then again, maybe they did, and no one lived to tell. It’s truly a catastrophe waiting to happen. One too many seesawing their way to the top to see God’s handiwork. It reminded me of the Towers of Babylon and its legend…. rising, rising, until collapse with thousands of tongues speaking many languages. Here too are faces of every nation abound. I strike up a conversation with some Brits who are from India. We share travel excursion stories, and I mention my plan of going to India, possibly next year. The woman strongly encouraged me to do so and said I would be delighted by the sounds, sites, and architecture. She said if I like my SE Asia trip then India would fit my lust for adventure. She also encouraged me to look up homestays as they give a taste of town and helpful families aid you in the process. I am sold! She suggested that I get my rail tickets early, at least 6 months prior. They are a better value early and get pricier the longer you wait and seat fill-up. My ride back to the hotel was amusing – tuktuk, minibus, motorbike, bike peddlers all heading in one direction – out. It was a mad dash. On your mark, get set, go! One after the other, tuk-tuk would pass. Inching our way forward for cheap city beers and margaritas, it was a crazy on the road. Being a good listener, I was off to Plar Chaa for a quick bite, random conversation, tourist gawking, and souvenirs hawking. Siem Reap is a town I am going to enjoy for the next week.
Tuesday, December 28 I got up at 4:30 a.m. today because my driver was going to pick me up at 5:15 a.m. for Angkor sunrise. I slept well overall in my room, despite the light from the hallway and the protruding lights from the window curtains. Despite the fact that I threw up the night before, I faired well. Because my Luang Prabang experience was iffy with my driver, I was unsure if my Siem Reap driver would be any better. But no, not only was he on time he was there early. WINNING plus 2 points! We boarded the tuktuk into the crisp morning air. I was glad I had my Patagonia fleece. It truly made a difference. The line of tuk-tuks heading to the temples was rather hysterical and caught myself giggling. Putt-putt-putt…taking an off to a sunrise all had read about was amazing only to e mesmerized by hordes of people surrounding a small lake hoping to catch the first rays of light. It was truly tragic. I inched my way to the water like so many before me and sat on a small rock perched like a bird in a cage. I was not going to move. Shortly after a Japanese elderly quarreling could join me to the left blocking my reflection on the water from their Styrofoam take away container. It was truly maddening, and they were clueless. Part of me wanted to have words with them, but I refrained. The last thing I need was a morning international incident around a pool of water. In the end, I found it amusing because half of the pics I took were catastrophic. I veered away from the watering hole and made my way to the temple. The throngs of tourists remained clustered around the pond, And I was going to step into the temple proper without the headache of crowds mashed against me. The fewer the tourists the better, as I knew they were to cloud my shots and create a commotion around me ruining my peace and quiet. Before I go into the temple, I must not forget now amusing it was to cross the moat to the pond. Flashlight in hand, people shuffled forward like cattle to be slaughtered – unknowing of what was to come. I gathered my senses and was off like a racehorse. Why teeter and linger with a flashlight? There was light a plenty by the commoners. Angkor Wat is truly the largest religious structure on planet Earth. It is truly awe inspiring. To think people built this before mechanical advanced equipment is powerful and realizes the will of the human spirit. Soaring towers and bas reliefs line the area/ Built in the 12th century, it was erected to honor Vishnu. The king (Surgavarman II) created it as his funerary temple and to honor Vishnu. The central temple has three levels, of which not all are accessible because of renovation. Each level encircles a square surrounded by additional galleries. Surrounding the temple is a huge moat, it forms a vast rectangle. Words alone cannot express he vast numbers of people it took to erect this temple. It’s humbling. We continued to Angkor Thom just north of Angkor Wat. This fortified city is remarkable with faces peacefully staring down art your as they gaze your every move. Climbing its stairs after walking up its entrance was powerful. Each corner of the edifice had another amazing view. No matter where I turned, I was in awe. No, I have errored, this temple was not Thom; it is Banyon. There are 216 faces with Angkor Thom. This bas relief shows over 11,000 figures reflecting the daily life of the people. Other temples visited – Baphum, Terrace of the Leper King, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Prah Khan. Prah Weak Pean, et. al. Ta Prohm is quite impressive with tis massive tree roots strangling the temple walls. According to legend, it took 80,000 people to maintain the temple. Wednesday, December 29 COSTS $1.50 – 2 hour use of internet $5 – tuktuk driver $4 – dinner – 2 beers, steamed rice, cashew nut chicken dinner with green pepper and onion $1 – beer with Cambodia dance show $2 – 3 scoops of ice cream – one coconut, two coffee We started the day at 6:30 a.m. departure. As usual he was prompt. I admire his attention to keeping a schedule. We ventured further today to Banteay Srei. While small in stature it’s truly a splendid work of art. Elaborate carvings adorn doorways and walls. And while most are roped off for preservation, it does not deter from the experience. I think what intrigues me about the temples overall is they are grand b/c of the fine detail in doorways, walls, etc.; it’s so intricate. The number of human hours taken to create these masterpieces must have been staggering. The staff alone to build them must have been staggering. It amazes me what the human spirit can do with perseverance and passion while being inspired by the concept of God. One sad thing in history is that no matter how inspired we may be to build and erect, it takes but a moment to destroy. And the war with the Khmer is evident everywhere you turn. Images of Buddhas were destroyed, beheaded, cast down, and temple bombed into ruin. How someone could do this saddens me. Yes, I know war is ugly and people do atrocious acts, but somethings are a crime and should be sacred. Artifacts of splendor are a national treasure. We started early this morning which was nice b/c I was able to beat the morning tourist jam. Yeah! While my first temple had one bus load of tourists, it was not alarming, despite the absent-minded Japanese who were clueless when blocking a photo shot. I jetted off the Kbal Spean—the river of a thousand lingas. It was “rediscovered” in 1969. It’s a jungle-like setting up a steep hill or rock, sand, and twisted vines. While a short trek, it’s an interesting hike, especially if you can beat the bus loads – which I did! The place was peaceful, to hear the birds escape into the wood and full of song made my heart swell. The rock climb was an exertion, though worth the climb. I could only imagine how magnificent it must have been with water gushing down the riverbeds. What was amazing was how the jungle had twisted rocks into a woodland embrace, not letting go the massive rock formations. Tight fisted and held fast, tons of rock kept the arms of the vines and roots. Hearing the river up ahead beckoning, I made it to the shrine. While simple, it’s intriguing how people carved into the stone homage of Lord Buddha. As the water gushed, it rippled across the lingas. They were all so perfect in formation that some could be swindled into believing that they were machine made and not human made. The water stream was sample and fortunate to catch it flowing before dry season began. Following it downstream to the waterfall, I caught more lingas and a remnant here and there of where something more spectacular might of have been and now looted by a pirate or opportunist. For lunch, Leon took me to this house. I did not know exactly what to expect. But I was delighted to have been given an invitation. Past the tourist area, we followed the road along a small river/stream. Turning inf off, we scurried down a sandy lane with small potholes. A locked fence and discarded wood made for a gate, and we entered the compound. Simple houses all on stilts, some with a sandy floor and others were paved. Stray dogs darted in and out of the driveways chasing chickens and small children without bottoms and cute, tanned fannies. He parked the bike and invited me into his home. The house was simple to Western standards – sandy floor, fire put, raised brick area, collection of pots and pans, hammocks, a small barn being erected, and a large cement pot about 2 meters wide filled with water. His son named Gold was sleeping in the hammock, and his wife welcomed me with a smile. Leon stripped off his trousers and put on a sarong. He went to the barnyard, took water from the cement vessel, filled a red basin and gave it to his wife, and began to wash with the other plastic ladle – hands, feet, face. The red basin was for me, and he invited me to wash and change into a sarong. He then asked me to join him and wash our feet. His place was humble, and he was gong all out to welcome me. His son awoke and at 2 ½ was a bundle of energy. His wife was expecting a second child in 6 weeks, and she looked ready to burst. She finished lunch for us as Leon and I chatted. What I thought was an extra tall dinner table with short seats was actually a dining platform. What I thought were two stools was a stepping ledge to get onto the platform. I took off my shoes/ rubber sandals Leon had provided me and joined him on the platform. Sitting cross-legged, I mimicked my host to ensure I was not going to misstep. He asked me to help myself to the food. His wife had scooped rice into my bowl and provide me with a spoon and fork. I placed the spoon that was resting on the side of the dish into the ginger chicken, I scooped a small serving into my plate/bowl. Leon immediately stepped in and told me I was eating like a westerner. He told me if I was going to be Cambodian, I needed to eat like a Cambodian. He instructed me to take my spoon, dig into anything on the serving tray, and eat it from it. I should not take small servings, place it in my bowl, and then eat. I watched him, and I copied is acts. His actions were very quick – almost too quick for me – and I slurped the juices from the vegetable broth as he instructed. There were three main dishes –chicken with lemon grass, a green spinach dish with fish (amok), and fish stew with vegetables. The meal was fantastic. His son joined us and was a ferocious eater much like his father. Gold loved chicken, but when we got to the lemon grass in his mouth his face would sour and spit it out. I asked Leon if his wife was going to join us, and he assured me that she had eaten already. Her role was to serve the men our meal. When we were done eating, he scooted of the platform ding area, and asked me to join him in the hammock. This was a very authentic Cambodian experience. He told me it was time for a rest for about an hour. Hammocks were spun around the wood columns of the stilt house and were stretched from pillar to pillar. The whole family and I took an afternoon nap. I definitely fell asleep because I remember waking; however, the hammock was a tight experience. I remember thinking my legs were going to fall out and my neck felt strained. After our nap, his entire extended family walked up the sandy lane to greet me – grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and children. They all wanted to shake my hand. It was so precious and something I will never forget. Beer alley – how about fifty cent beers at happy hour? I find it amusing that the beer is cheaper than the water. Last night I was paying for two and was given another one for free. And food…watch out foodies. The stretch of 2 blocks in one direction not including parallel streets side off shoots has something for everyone (except fast food) and to eat a full dinner with appetizer, beer, and dessert for $5 is indeed a bargain. And it’s not just some skimpy readymade food but fresh, prepped, and stylishly served. While it may be considered expensive to Cambodian standards, it’s a delight to my budget. The one thing that is overpriced is ice cream – $3.50 for 3 scoops, though found one restaurant that sells it for $2. (Yes, I have an ice cream problem.) I am gluttonous fool when it comes to sweets. When ordering my food last night, I saw on the menu that Aspara in Temple restaurant had a free dance show. You can’t beat free, and to boot it was pretty good – far better I thought than the $20 I spent in Luang Prabang. While there, I met a young guy my age who has been traveling for the last three years on a frugal budget and has tramped his way across the planet visiting more than 100 countries. He sold his business in the USA before taking on this adventure, yet he said he has some regrets – though never said what they were. On his elbow was a woman of the night. He met her here in the town a week ago. She was 37, pleasant, and talkative. She has done this work her entire life and enjoys it. She definitely lived above the poverty line, lived in Phnom Penh at one time, and was here visiting when they met. He wants her to go with him to Thailand, but she is afraid to travel. She said her friends told her that the Thai were criminals. My guess is those same friends rarely travel or have been out of the area. Thursday, December 30 COSTS 4,000 – 2 strawberry jam turnovers at French bakery 3,000 – 1 hour internet $5 US – foot scrub $36 US – tuk-tuk driver for 3 days plus sunset day before $3.25 US – 2 beers, 4 spring rolls .25 US – shoeshine Leon has his brother join us today. He is his younger brother, want to go into tourism, and likes to practice his English skills. He is a nice guy and looking forward to finding a girlfriend. He escorted me into a couple of temples, but I could tell he was bored. The last tie he was here as ½ a year ago and seemed rather dulled at crumbing rocks deteriorating around him. All the same, it was nice to chat with him. He wanted to know how to get better grades and improve his studying. I gave him a few ideas, and I linked learning to what he knew, farming. I compared learning to me working in a rice field. I have no experience with rice so I read, talk to experts, hear ideas, and then try my hand at growing. I may fail the first two attempts, but each time I learn and taken mental notes. By season 3 or 4 I should be able to have success. He totally got the correlation. Friday, December 31 Yesterday afternoon, Leon drove me around town to find an orphanage to volunteer. One place we went is run by an Australian foundation, and I was greeted at the gate by a guard. He said the manger was out until 330 p.m., and I would have to come back and talk with him. While I was chatting with him, Leon was conversing with someone at the gate in Cambodian. I told Leon they told me to come back in the afternoon. Leon told me not to waste my time. He said they were only being polite. He said the other man told him in Cambodian that they didn’t need volunteers. He drove me further down the road to another place. I told the guard I was interested in volunteering. He escorted me into the courtyard, showed me the school, grounds, kitchen, etc. and said I would be able serve for one week and teach English. The came the hook. To volunteer he expected me to pay him $70 for the “privilege”. I told him I was providing him my services for free and had no money. I politely told him no and was on my way. Leon told me that often times they say the money is going to feed the children but what happens instead is that it fattens the headmaster’s wallet and belly with booze and women. I must say it's disappointing. I know there are more tourists like me who would be interested in giving our time if there was a stronger presence of opportunities. The needs are vast; it takes but a moment to go down the side streets to see the poverty. I am not sure if there is no interest or the lack of someone to lead it. Flies. I am not a big fan of them. Flying about and getting into my food, crawling on my arms and legs and cavorting. They drive me mad. Who knows what they have been nibbling on or where they stop. Sweat? Garbage? Feces? Wrangling up their tine front legs together as if there were sly and had a secret to tell, only to tease you along and fly off before the punch line….nasty little critters. I had a foot massage with reflexology this afternoon as a treat. With so many items on the menu, I decided that each day I am going to get a different one. For $5 for the hour, I was going to sit back and let talented hands take my thoughts away. I had never gotten reflexology and interested to see/feel what it all about. I sat back on a long chair with pillow and relaxed, shut my eyes, and enjoyed it. The foot massage was what I had expected – kneading, pulling of toes, etc., and she worked her way up my leg to the knee. The reflexology was different – with a stick she would apply pressure to each of my toes, down the arch, and to my heel. It was just enough pressure to make you wonder if it as pleasure or pain. The one aggravating element about the entire experience was that she and her girlfriend working on the client next to me and would not stop talking. Chatter boxes they were. Sigh! I so wanted to have peace and quiet. The noise of the outside world I wanted to pass. Their voices were low but still it nerved me. On and on they went. What was so important? I have no idea as it was all in Cambodian. A part of me waned to tell them to hush, but I refrained. I was at her mercy with feet exposed. Another part of me felt that this would a been of her training and silence is golden. I would try to focus on her touch of my feet and lulled reality every 10 seconds wit her voice. I decided to et the hour pass, pay my bill and not return. I had wanted to let the manager know afterward, but he was upstairs and could not be found. In the end, I will vote with my feet and go lese where tomorrow…next door. This morning I took an early bike ride to explore some of the city before it got too hot. I wanted to see what it would be like to ride to the children’s hospital. There is a theatre there that hosts free music on Saturdays at 7:15 p.m. Surprisingly, it was closer than expected. Returning back, I stopped into some stores along the way. OMG! Tourist traps. One place wanted $10o US for a stingray wallet when I have seen them elsewhere for $25. Even at one of the finer hotels it was $33. Another place wanted $25 for a polo shirt. With this ammo in hand, after I finished morning breakfast, I found an off the rack market. I got the sting ray wallet for $15 and 2 polos for $17. I can appreciate a mark-up but not thievery. When I went to the store that had the stingray wallets and told them what I got mine for, they insisted it was less quality only to prove to them it was not. I giggled my way back to town. I stopped at the convenience store for a coke (40 cents US), less than the guest house (60 cents). I rode my bike into the park, sat on the grass, and enjoyed the shade. A security guard told me I could not park my bike and drink my coke in the park. The Coke was not the problem; the problem was my bike. I pretend to not know what he was saying. I smiled a big tourist smile and asked him to repeat what he said. He said his English was not good and couldn’t explain. In truth I knew exactly what his point was, but I was not going to be moved from some arbitrary rule about no bikes in a park? Are you kidding me? So, I remained under the tree, drinking my Coke, and enjoying the mid-day until was done and ready to go. I smiled again at the guard as I as packing to, wished him well and a happy New Year, and I whistled my way down the boulevard. COSTS $3 US – breakfast – toasted bread (2 slices), scrambled eggs, sausage (hot dog), bacon, ham with mango juice $15US – stingray wallet $17 US – 2 polo shirts (black and orange) $1 US – 2 over proved strawberry turnovers .40 US – Coke at gas station $5.25 US – 2 beers, 4 spring rolls, ice cream (3 scoops) $5 US – foot massage with reflexology .25 US – shoe shine This morning when I got my breakfast, I was a bit hesitant. It was outside the usual market area in a different part of town. The last thing I want to do is get sick again, let alone on December 31 of all days. It was your typical breakfast – scrambled eggs, toast, roasted tomato – but still in the back of my mind I was nervous. I want to trust the food and kitchen it’s prepared. I take for granted in the USA the lack of thought I take when eating. We are so hyper vigilant on cleanliness. I never second guess what I am to eat. Here however I think about it and reminded often --is the ice in my drink good, how are the plates washed, is the lettuce okay to consume, is the grease/oil used okay, etc. Saturday, January 1 I thought I was going to have enough energy to break-in the New Year. I had an early dinner –2 beer, 3 scoops of ice cream, 4 spring rolls. I looked at the revelry that is Pub Street and knew the place is going to be jumpin’ tonight. The police very present at the barricaded streets more than usual. Tigre beer banners were strewn across the way from one pub to the next/ Restaurant owners were setting up bars right on the street, and the prove began to climb -- $1/beer, $3 cocktails. All the same, it’s still a good value but tis the season and location, location, location. I walked back to the guest house with the thought of catching a nap and venturing back out. I arrived to the hotel to find it also preparing for a good time. A ½ dozen round tables with red plastic chairs circled the area with even more chairs stacked in a corner. I was greeted by Leon. He was there to toast the New Year with his brother, and he escorted me to a table. Beers were passed all around; no one was to go thirsty tonight. 1 beer after the next, he put them away. Now I know where he got his Happy Buddha belly. Popping another, he placed the empty can under the table; this was the Cambodian way. I could see the cans piling up from beneath the tables.
The guest house owner made his welcome at each table with a toast. He brought over plates of vegetables and beef thinly sliced. To the side of the festivities was ½ of a cow roasting on a pit BBQ. The tables had an assortment of wrapped chopsticks and people were eating Cambodian style. Aussies, French, German, Italians mixed in between the locals – more locals than tourists. It was fantastic time. Leon kept encouraging me to have another beer. After the 2nd, I had my fill. I already had 2 at dinner. I wanted to enjoy this celebration but to excess. Everyone was having fun – music pulsating, beer flowing, plates filled, bellies laughing. Leon wanted to go from the guest house to the main hub later. This was not on my list. I wanted to have fun but at the same I wanted to be safe. I did not know what was in store for me. He had driven his tuk-tuk, and I was concerned with his ability to drive, especially after watching his alcohol consumption. As his brother (Sambo) got up from the table, I waited momentarily before doing the same. Ducking down a side corridor, I made my way to my room. I thought I was going to rest for a moment only to find myself asleep within the hour and waking at midnight to fireworks and cheers. Part of me wanted to rise up out of bed and join the festivities but decided to stay in my room and sleep. Siem Reap knows how to party. What kept going through my head was I hoped theta Leon did not think me rude in my disappearance. Before my departure to bed, I did manage to chat with him about the couple from NYC. I had recommended to the couple Leon and his tuk-tuk. Between emails we were able to get to him in contact with then via his cell phone. He escorted them to see the sunset and to the temple the following day. He was thankful to have the work and also said they welcomed him to the join them for breakfast and lunch. Airport travel had not been confirmed for them today, but it sounded like he would get them there once plans were finalized. I was delighted to have aided both Leon and the couple. COSTS $3 US breakfast – scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, baguette with jam, OJ .75 – one hour internet $5US – Thai massage $2.50 – fish nibble feet with Coke, 20 minutes $2 US – braided necklace $2.25 – 1 beer, 2 spring rolls (lunch) $6 US – wide noodle with shrimp and veg, Sprite, 2 scoops ice cream Sunday, January 2 Plastic straws and bags are everywhere, especially after the New Year celebrations, have the littered the streets. The amount of trash is exhausting. The people do a great job of removing the rubbish off the street and sidewalks; the poor collect plastic bottles and glass for money. I heard on the news yesterday that Italy as a country is forbidding plastic bags. I have to applaud their efforts. The first place I recall making this effort was San Francisco, California. It really is sickening when you think about it. In the countryside I saw ducks wadding about with bags around their neck looking like necklaces. There is other animal life that is strangled or made sick by eating plastics. When I was in Mekong, I saw incredible vistas of hillsides with gardens, mountains in the distance, and gentle rushing water. With a closer look, I saw trash to the side of causeways, down hillsides, and entering waterways. To be so beautiful, yet so ugly, conflicts me. Do the people see it, or has it become part of the landscape? The streets of almost any city are the same. A simple thing like a bag or straw could easily be recycled. It’s the convenience of plastic we have been accustomed and a convenience we will pay dearly for because it remains as a pollutant for thousands of years. Bags and bags, heaps and heaps, landfill after landfill --- but out of site is out of mind with so few asking why; they could be part of the solution.
Funny what people think is cold. It is currently cold season in Cambodia – hardly cold at all; it’s all relative. Mornings are in the high 70s and climb as the day unfolds. I love it in the early morning. If on a tuk-tuk you would need a jacket because the wind chill will get you. On a pedal bike, it’s perfect. Lucky Mall is not so lucky, three stores of concrete and glass with empty stores. The one plus is the place had a/c. The upper floor is dedicated to a kids play space, middle level to Lucky Burger and a small department store and the lower level to a grocery. The place is rather pathetic. Why would someone shop at the department sore is beyond me because the prices are ridiculous. For ex., they wanted $57 for a simple, long sleeve shirt that I could get back at home for $15. The young man wanted to know if I was interested. I told him at that price, “no way”, and followed it up with what I could get but at home for. The price in the old and central markets are better than this. I did stop and get a $1 sundae; I do love my ice cream. I truly wonder what I am going to with my time the next few days. I have done Siem Reap – all but the night market and plan to do that tonight. I will also give blood at the children’s hospital tomorrow. I am ready to head back to work in the USA. It’s been a good holiday. Last night I went to a concert at the Angkor Children’s Hospital. The man who played the cello, Dr. Bert Richner, was a young physician in the 1970s when he was forced to leave b/c of the war. Pho Pot came into power and slaughtered the nation. Where there was once one prison in the country, there were now 300. Schools became prisons cells and school yards became gravesites. The country at the time had over 1900 doctors in the medical field, after the random killing only 50 remained. The King of Cambodia asked Dr. Richter to return in 1991 to help rebuild the hospital. From nothing, it has evolved into a center or hope, health, and prosperity. For ex., the infant death rate was 85% and now down to 2%! The hospital is financed primarily by private donations. Operating costs exceed $20 million with 3% coming from the Cambodian government. All the services are free. The majority of the medication in the country is counterfeit or even toxic. The hospital has to import all the drugs they use. It costs roughly $240/child for a week at the hospital, all-inclusive of surgery, medicine, food, etc. What is disturbing is that W.H.O. and corporate “experts” say this kind of medicine is beyond the needs of Cambodia. These are the same “experts” that stay in Hotel Sofitel at $350/night. It’s truly disgusting. The other problem is most of Cambodia is corrupt – kickbacks and bribes are rampant. To resolve this in the hospital all are treated fairly with regards to care. Even doctors and nurses are paid a fair wage for Cambodia -- $250 to $1,000 per month pending if they are a nurse, doctor, or custodian worker. What started as a team of 65 doctors/nurses from around the globe are now predominantly Cambodian (1900) with visiting specialists. The only full-time non-native doctors are on staff – Dr. Richtner and a Swiss Doctor who runs the blood department. Each year the hospital sees 600,000 sick children, 55,000 severely sick children, 9,000 surgical operations, 100,000 vaccinations, and 5,500 births. Daily they see 1,000 children with the average hospitalization of 5 ½ days. It is estimated that monthly 2,800 children would die if it was not for this healthcare. 95% of the families in Cambodia are poor and unable to pay even for basic care. The work that is being done here is exemplary. COSTS $3 US – omelet with OJ (breakfast) $1 US – sundae at Lucky Burger .40 US – Coke $7 US – facial with $1 tip $4 US – hammock $7 US – recycled fish food duffle bag $3 US – dinner… BBQ shrimp with Sprite and rice on the side .50 US – mango/pineapple shake Monday, January 3 I do not have plans to eat on the street for any more meals. Yes, it’s less cost but not worth any potential discomfort (diarrhea). This morning I felt a little queasy and with the runs. I took some anti-diarrhea pills to help counter the effects. I want it to pass and out of my system before I spend 20+ hours traveling back to the USA. this morning I rode my bike from Kantha Bupa hospital to give blood. I was escorted into a clean space with a/c and was asked some basic questions – allergies, IV drug use, have a hired a sex worker, etc. What I find surprising is that in my own country my blood is discriminated against because I admit I am a gay man who has had sex with men, but here my blood is welcomed. the proves went rather quickly and without difficulty. I was given a Coke, as well as a t-shirt and some vegetable crackers. I was also given a Ziplock bag of 2 pills to be taken daily for iron and vitamins. I waited in the room to finish my drink, left the hospital and rode my bike to a Le Meriden hotel for journal writing – nothing is finer than writing in a 5-star hotel with a/c, fresh flowers, and soothing music. When I came this time, I was asked if he could be of assistance and replied I was here waiting for a friend on business. No more quested asked, and I pretended I know what I was doing and plopped my things down on a couch… “waiting”. to order an Angkor draft or not?.... Oh, the joys of giving blood. What the hell, draft it is. I am in no hurry today and can relax with lunch of Khmer Lok Lak and jasmine rice. It will be good to get some food in my belly after not eating breakfast. I should have probably eaten this morning but decided against it. I did not want to travel to the night market area and after feeling a bit on the blah side I didn’t want to get too far away from home. Instead, I made it to the children’s hospital to give blood. No regrets. One thing I will miss about SE Asia and Cambodia in particular is the food. The price is a treat. I can eat very well for $5 with fresh veg, perfect rice, excellent presentation and not to forget to mention a draft beer. I could never have eaten out in the USA for this price and quality. I am also delighted to not see McDonalds on every corner. Yes, there are local burger joints but not the same corporatization of food that is “affordable” like it is in the USA. While in the IUSA it’s affordable, it’s definitely not good for you. Here the price is right and tasty. I would like to return to Cambodia and explore more of what it has to offer in the surrounding towns, cities, and beaches. Another place I want to travel is Burma, Myanmar. It look glorious, despite the brutal military regime that enslaves the people and fears democracy, the wats and people are what pulls me there magnetically When I return to Cambodia, I would also like to see Burma up close and personal and if time allows possibly to Singapore or Malaysia. The other day when the fish were eating my dead cells off my feet, a spiritual man with a turn and approached me . He said he was a fortune teller. He wrote something on a piece of paper and lower my hand around it. He said the last two years of my life were in transition (2008-2010) but not to worry as the next five years were going to be bountiful. He said I trusted pepe too much gave a great deal of who I am away, and I should hold on go some of my “secrets” to myself and not be so free with what I tell and give to others. H also said that until February we, I should not wear black on Saturdays He said I should try to find love, but my love line was scattered on my hand. Love is attainable but need to ne available to it. He then wrote down the number 1 -10 on a piece of paper and asked me to say which one was best for me. He then asked what my favorite color is. He said that on the piece of paper in my pal, had it written down, and if it was correct great wealth would be store for me. The was he wanted me to pay him $20-60 US! I told him I had no money. He said I should go to the ATM. I told him my card and money were at the hotel (all lies by the way). The amazing thing was I when I unfolded the paper in my palm, the number and color I thought about were there. Coincidence or amazing feat I have no idea but pretty amazing if it was a gimmick. $50US – 5 nights at Green Town Guesthouse for a single bed COSTS $3.25 Chicken Lok Lak, Angkor beer (Lunch) 4.00 Mani/pedi .50 tip 1.00 3 turnovers .40 Sprite at gas station Tuesday, January 4 First at hand today is to get a haircut. I pedaled down the block to the local barbershop. A very basic, barebones kinda place – a.k.a. a hole in the wall. Dust on the street kept a film of grime on the windows but once inside, all was well kept. I was greeted with an ice cold glass of water with lid to keep the dirt out. I signaled my interest in getting a haircut and was told in English $2. I probably could have gotten a better price, but the joy of being a tourist, I decided this time I was not going to haggle. And for $2, it’s a good value compared to back in the USA. Yes, I know it’s not the USA, when in Rome… He did not cut my hair with a buzzer but rather pair of scissor-like tool with a flat head. He was very persistent in making sure I was happy and checked-in with me several times. I closed my eyes. I know I was in good hands. The cut also involved a head and shoulder massage and a shave. GREAT for $2! The shave was not just any shave but a nice ol’ fashioned straight blade. He wanted me to see that he was using a fresh blade which I thought was very professional. He opened a package of red/yellow paper blades and drew one out. He opened the paper carefully and placed in on the tool. He tilted my chair back, lathered my face, and swiftly removed my whiskers. I only had a day’s growth but could feel the slight tug of the follicles. I love a straight razor, close., precise, clean and free. Bringing a cool towel, he laid it across my eyes and cleaned the remaining lather from my face. Between the facial 2 days ago and now this, I feel like a new man, and my face feels graceful and smooth---silk-like awe! To be honest, I have done nothing today but relax. This is a hard thing for me to do as I like being on the go. Having absolutely nothing to do feels awkward. I feel as if I am not being productive. I strip off my clothes when I get back to my room, shower scrub my head of any small fine hairs, and moisturize my face, neck, and arms. I return to bed and turn on the television. I watch a HBO move and fashion TV… all mindless dribble. By 1:30 pm. I’m up and off to the bank and make my USA currency smaller and then to my usual restaurant for a small bite to eat – spring rolls and beer for $1.75 and refill beers for 50 cents. I am in pure bliss. I do love the feel a fresh spring roll. The clear wrapping of the outer case reminds of a foreskin. The ay the wrapping folds, peels back, and grasps the contents is pure artistry. I always think about getting something different and fall back on this fail save delicacy. From time to time I may eat Lak Lak or a Khmet dish with chicken, but I always return to the fresh spring roll. One thing I look forward to doing up my return to the USA I to weigh myself. I wonder if I am still 150? I feel like I am but a scale will tell. The beer alone has kept the pounds on my sides as well as a my deserved (or not) ice cream that always brings me sweet joy.
Most people who come to Cambodia, or better yet, Siem Reap, are usually gone in 4 days. I’m here for 10 days. If time would have allowed and distance between one place to the next was easier, I would have liked to have explored more of the country. Penang Phen and Silkville in particular are to my liking. I am told the capitol is not much, but the silver pagoda is lovely. I had hoped that transport to the capitol and then the beach would have been possible but by the time I compared times to here and there it was not going to be possible. 1 day to Capitol 1 day to see the city 1 day to the beach 1 day to enjoy 1 day to return to capitol 1 day to Sie reap and home I could have pushed this itinerary but in the end decided against it. Between 10-hour bus rides, not sleeping, and rushing about, I thought it would be best to stay firmly planted in Siem Reap. My time here has been plenty and look forward to moving on to the USA. I’m not sure what o do with tomorrow. I’ve got to be out of my room by 11:30 a.m. I’ll lag about. I’ll probably head to pub street and have a long lunch while drinking a pitcher of gin and tonics. I might even play a game or two of pool to pass the day. I was contemplating on taking a Khmer cooking class for $10 but think I would rather sleep in, pack-up, and chill. What I will do is spend a day of leisure. In the evening I went to see Beatcello. I rode my bicycle to the concert. I waited to get there early to park my bike and find the place. On my way over, I heard in back of me a crushing of metal and rubber. Looking behind me, a boy on his bike had been hit by a motorcycle. The motorbike kept going. The boy was on the ground and clearly shaken. I stopped my bike, and I called over to him to see if he was alright. He said he was fine. Another tourist and Cambodian woman helped him up. The boy shook it off and pedaled away. The most disturbing thing was that the bike was right behind me; he could have been me. And to top it off, the words the soothsayer kept going over in my mind was I should not wear black on Saturday and what I was wearing?....BLACK from head to toe: trousers, shirt, sandals, bracelet, and necklace. Maybe there was an element of truth in his words or at least a warning of caution. It would make for a great “Outer Limits” episode.
COSTS 2.00 haircut and shave 2.25 4 spring rolls and one beer 5.00 1 hr foot and leg massage .50 tip for massage 6.00 chicken anok, 1 beer, 3 scoops of ice cream with tip 1.00 Sprite at Temple restaurant with show Of all the places to sit in the Apsara dance performance and I would have to select a chair nu two screaming children. With a death stare, I glared at them when the youngest went ballistic, threw himself on the table, knocked over drinks, and yelled at this mother in a foreign language. I couldn’t it pick-up but sounded like Russian. The parents looked in my direction and smiled; I did not know show my amusement. The eldest began playing with the ice in his glass—picking it up with fingers, putting it in his mouth, spitting it back out, etc. and this went on over and over again. Little beasts. It makes you appreciate why some animals in the animal kingdom eat their young. Their father is about 40 years old, ponytailed, bad teeth, and his wife is slightly better kept but bit by much. At least she is trying to sooth the savage beasts that are her sons. U and down they would go from table to chair, to lap to floor, to mom to dad, under the table and back again, I only pray that once the music starts, they will settle down. The one saving superlative is the children are at least adorable to look at – curly hair, luscious lashes with big eyes. Let’s hope they remain cute and not grown into eh parental skin. Oh my, the monsters were uncontrollable; they went on the stage with the performers!