Kelsey and I took a trip to Bangkok, Laos and Cambodia for two weeks. We met up in Bangkok on the evening of Saturday, February 6 and she flew out of Phnom Penh at night on Sunday, February 21; I left twelve hours later.
The trip was nearly imperiled due to the heavy storm coming into DC, which prompted Kelsey to move her flight up to Friday the 5th – a wise choice. By the time she landed in steamy Bangkok, snow was pounding DC, and would be for much of our vacation. And that’s not all – I had a company dinner the Friday night before my 9:15 AM flight, which in true Asian fashion included plenty of drinking and the necessity of everyone in the room individually toasting everyone else in the room. I set my alarm for 5 AM the next morning so I could be sure of having everything well-packed and a refreshing shower before getting on the first airport express train. I even put the phone several strides away from the bed on my desk, where I would be required to get up to turn it off (I usually keep it behind my head between the mattress and the wall).
I came to in the gray light of dawn at 7:20 AM. Three seconds after opening my eyes and seeing the time, adrenaline coursed through my body and my heart raced while I cursed loudly to myself “NOT THIS FLIGHT! NOT THIS FLIGHT!” Within fifteen minutes I had everything shoved into my backpack and I donned my travel clothes, tailored for the occasion (many thanks to Zeek and Fashion Tailor in Silk Street Market). I carefully descended my bedroom stairs lest I fall like I have before, picked up the pace down the six stories to the ground and dashed the three hundred meters from my apartment door to the main road, Dongsishitiao. It was 7:40, and although a train would be more reliably fast, the time it takes to get to the train station and the risk of waiting too long for one to arrive meant that only a taxi could deliver me to salvation. I was terrified that there would be the usual choking traffic to put the final nail in my self-made coffin of tardiness, but by the will of the coming Golden Tiger there was scarcely a bump in the road on the airport expressway. I actually managed to get through to the boarding line in time to wait for fifteen minutes.
I settled into my window seat and the plane took off as the powerful rush of adrenaline turned off at the tap and my heart beat at a normal level, forcing my already substantial hangover courtesy of last night’s dinner to cohabit with the new adrenaline hangover. The flight, which lasted three hours to Guangzhou, was uneventful as I slept most of the time, but when I was awake stunningly beautiful mountains rose from the cloud-covered landscape as if they were created by a fantasy film set designer with the powers of the Maker.
Guangzhou’s emigration line was so long and inefficient that I worried my return flight, which had only an hour layover, would surely force me to be delayed to Beijing. The flight from Guangzhou to Bangkok had one of the more beautiful window views I have experienced: as the Sun dipped westward, it colored the clouds with rich golds, violets, and reds. I imagined that I was looking out over my own cloud-empire. Suppose it was just the one-two hangover.
At Suvarnabhumi Airport, they have immigration cards galore but no pens at all. There were huge lines of people sharing one or two pens which other passengers reluctantly offered up. Once I had waited twenty minutes to use one, I passed through immigration easily and my pack was one of the first on the carousel. An involuntary smile developed on my face. I was seconds away from seeing my girlfriend for the first time in six months.
There are several exits from baggage claim to the terminal atrium, and I chose the farthest away; Kelsey was not there. I walked in the direction of the “meeting point” signs and saw her from afar, looking into the door back to baggage claim. I successfully snuck up right in front of her face and had to vocally alert her of my presence. We taxied into town to the hostel she had secured, I put my stuff away and then we set out to walk in the traveler-drenched Bangkok night.
Bangkok is the Southeast Asian hub for cheap travelers, drifters, and interesting folk of all kinds. Trinket vendors, heavenly street-food carts, and tuk-tuk drivers all feed off the river of people that flows through Bangkok. Some Westerners look like they have been there for months or years. It’s interesting, but not even close to “authentic.” Of course, Bangkok is a massive city and we only had about 40 hours to spend in it, so all we saw were tourist sites and the backpacker ghetto. Worth seeing, even if only for the cheap street-side massages and the unforgettable food.
We had street food, enjoyed the chance to talk to each other face-to-face, and sipped on delicious fruit shakes (dragonfruit was my favorite) and Chang and Singha beers. Eventually exhaustion set in and we got rested up for a day of sightseeing.
After awakening at 9, we set out in the direction of the Grand Palace. While studying a tourist map on the side of the road, a friendly man who worked for the palace museum (he had the shirt to prove it) pointed out the places we should see in our Lonely Planet guide. He even hailed a tuk-tuk driver and instructed him on where to take us on the map. He got the “locals price” of 80 baht ($2.50) for the both of us. The driver took us to each site and waited while we explored.
First we went to Wat Intharawihan where locals were offering prayers. The temples in Southeast Asia are visually beautiful, but the most striking sensation was the near-musical clinking of prayer coins which people dropped into small metal bowls. After making a small donation in front of a Buddha statue, Kelsey and I joined in with the numismatic supplication.
This temple boasts a huge golden statue of the Buddha. It is so large that a person can comfortably sit on one toenail as if it were a chair. As there were several people offering prayers and burning incense I tried to be conscientious, but it is difficult to come into such a place with a camera in hand and not feel as if you are disturbing the reverent atmosphere.
The tuk-tuk next took us to a temple that was more out-of-the-way and far less crowded. I enjoyed the quiet and we sat for several minutes, meditating in our way. Outside some old men were eating chicken and playing a kind of chess. A boy kicked around a soccer ball. There was no hustle and bustle of cars, as the temple was safely nested inside a neighborhood with small roads. Here was some peace inside the city.
The next stop was our only disappointment for the day. The museum worker recommended that we go on a boat ride where we could see some waterside neighborhoods and the “floating market.” Unfortunately the ride was disappointing, overpriced at about $30 for the both of us, did not stop by the few docked boats that were selling food, and had an included tourist stop at a “traditional Thai house” to pay an extra $10 to see Thai boxing. The house looked more like a riverside Thai version of the Brady Bunch home. Finally, we had to pay a 20 baht “dock fee” at the end of the ride. At least the cheap, wonderfully tasty food at the market where we docked made up for the ripoff ride.
Next was the famous Wat Pho complex, which also houses a large statue of a reclining Buddha. By this time we definitely wished we had a guide and a bit of rest, because the heat and walking were exhausting and we couldn’t interpret anything except what our guidebook told us. This did not reduce the impact of how strikingly beautiful these temples are. To me they are like something out of a fantasy painting. Their colorful glazed tiles gleam brilliantly in the sunlight.
It was about 16:00 when we left Wat Pho, which left us only time enough to hit one more sight. We went for the Museum of Siam, a new-ish museum about the history of Thailand and its people. Luckily, because we arrived after 16:00 entrance was free!
The Museum of Siam is in my top quarter of museums I have visited. It doesn’t have the collection or overwhelming beauty of the Louvre or the British Museum, but its information is presented in a fun and enlightening way and is frequently interactive. The exhibit begins with the rise of human beings in the area tens of thousands of years ago, and presents how the Thai people have always been culturally and racially heterogeneous to an extent I have never seen before in a museum. Most interesting to me was how it flatly stated which part of Thai customs come from indigenous animism, which come from Buddhism, and which come from Chinese-influenced religions. This clear explanation of how syncretic the Thai Buddhist religion is would be a strange thing to see in other countries I think, and is a mark of the openness of the Thai people. Further exhibitions denounced more nationalistic previous regimes and sought to include multiple ethnic groups as integral to the cultural banner of Siam. The most interesting interactive feature was a short computer “game” in which you are presented with a map of the Siam region as it would have looked without cities, and it includes resource icons like wood, farmland, animals and so on. The viewer can connect dots to determine the borders they would like for a country to include certain resources. This user-created political boundary is then overlaid with the current political boundaries of Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia and discusses what it is like to have your land suddenly divided for economic and / or military reasons. This is a clear reference to ongoing conflict with Cambodia over Preah Vihear Temple and as regret over the loss of western territory to Burma when it was under British rule.
After the Museum of Siam we sipped down another fruit shake, gorged on more street food, enjoyed a shisha and sipped beers while receiving an intense (and ticklish) foot and leg massage outside our hostel. The next morning we awoke for one more delicious Thai breakfast and got on a bus at the hostel bound for the airport, destination: Luang Prabang, Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
The kind check-in attendant at the airport informed me that the visa for Laos (which is a visa-on-arrival for tourists) would occupy my last fully blank page on my passport, and that since we were headed to Cambodia next I would have to get more pages in my passport in Laos since Cambodia also requires a full-page visa. This was not something we had anticipated. I had only ever received full-page visas when sending in my passport for a pre-approved visa to Russia, China and Spain. Chalk it up to poor research. Thankfully we were able to insert a trip to Laos’ unremarkable capital, Vientiane, at the end of our stay in that country to complete the consular deed.
We flew into the tiny airport of Luang Prabang, the northern anchor city and former capital of Laos, in the mid-afternoon on Monday. I was struck by how truly under-developed Laos is compared to Bangkok and China. Just 103k people live in Luang Prabang, which is Laos’ second-largest city. Under-developed, however, is part of why travelers love to come to this country, and why Kelsey and I fell in love with it as well. Luang Prabang’s entire old downtown, located on a peninsula between the mighty Mekong river and a tributary, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightfully so. It has beautifully preserved French colonial architecture and the whole city near the peninsula is like a living period movie set.
We found room at the Odomphone Guest House just near the peninsula for 80,000 Lao kip per night (about $9). Luang Prabang, and seemingly most of if not all of Laos, does not have the European-style backpacker hostels in which unruly youths in search of a good time (such as yours truly) pay bottom dollar for a glorified flophouse complete with excessive drinking and mass bunk beds. Luang Prabang is dignified by its agreeable guest-houses, which are much nicer and only marginally more expensive. Pair that with a laid-back attitude throughout the town and a 23:30 curfew on all businesses, and one can see how Luang Prabang is spared corners of iniquity like those that spring up in other towns catering to travelers, including Vang Vieng in Laos. Travelers can’t stay up until the earliest hours drinking Beer Lao, generating trash and ill will among the locals. This works well with the balance of the Laotian day, since everyone wakes up with the sunrise. More sunlight in my day and better rest made me wish this was the norm everywhere.
One of the many tuk-tuks which make travel in Southeast Asia work.
The boat landing on the Mekong, just a block from our guesthouse.
Amidst the fading light, Kelsey and I wandered out to browse the night market. All kinds of souvenirs, clothing, jewelry, and artwork could be had for prices affordable to most any traveler with the means to get to Laos. I’m not one for shopping much, but Kelsey drooled over all the clothes and jewelry, and it was interesting to talk to some of the salespeople. In Laos, unlike many places with souvenir-heavy markets, the people selling the souvenirs are actually directly involved in producing the items themselves or are family members of the articles’ producers. The majority of them seem to be independent workers who take home 100% of what people spend on their handicrafts. Many of the patterns on different articles are the same between different salespeople and stalls, but after I witnessed villagers hand-crafting these same articles later in the trip, I’m convinced there are not just one or two Laotian factories churning these things out.
Near the night market lay the other great tradition of Southeast Asia: street food. A whole long alley was lined with families selling all kinds of Laotian delights. Laotian food is broadly like its Cambodian and Thai counterparts (they have traditionally formed a kind of geographic cultural hegemony until more recent centuries), with some differences. Laotian food is more hot-spicy and less savory than Thai food, while maintaining higher standards of freshness. At our first street-food dinner we ate some tom yam soup, delicious fried and fresh spring rolls with a sweet sauce, chicken on a stick, and for dessert sweet fried coconut balls – and the ubiquitous Laotian delight, Beer Lao, which deserves its reputation as Southeast Asia’s best (and cheapest) beer. Just before we sat down, a Western man who was loading up on food turned to us and said “It’s hard to go broke eating in Laos.” Truer words have rarely been spoken – our gut-busting feast set us back less than $5 apiece, with Beer Lao accounting for about 35% of that.
We happened to sit across from a young Canadian couple who had traveled all over Indochina for the last five months. Over many Beer Laos and two different venues, we discussed a number of topics, from what it’s like to travel for so long to which part of Laos is the best for travelers, and ending with the guy in the couple espousing the virtues of Zeitgeist: The Movie and demanding the veracity of the “Amero” conspiracy theory. When the 11:30 curfew rolled around we kept chatting in the street for another 30 minutes before finally rolling into our room to crash – our first shut-eye in Laos.
We arose bright and early the next morning: we signed up the previous day for the “Lao-licious” cooking class administered by the daughter of Oudomphone’s friendly owners, a pretty young woman named Hen. We first went with Hen to buy the ingredients for the three dishes we chose at the morning market. While we wandered the length of the busy alley, Hen explained what each kind of exotic food was and what people used them to make.
Once we had the many ingredients we needed, we returned to the back courtyard of Oudomphone guest house and Hen directed us in the ways of Lao cooking.
The satisfying meal which we cooked! From bottom to top: Mauk (fish and various vegetables steamed inside of a banana leaf), Laap (like Thai larb, the Lao “national dish”), and papaya salad (made with spicy shrimp paste, interesting but not that desirable to our tastes) and the container of freshly steamed sticky rice.
After we finished our meal, we wandered in the pleasant heat of the afternoon up the peninsula that forms Luang Prabang’s old city. There are many old Buddhist temples in the city, and while we moved our feet despite the laziness that comes from filling oneself with good food, we visited some of them.
When we came to the northern tip of the peninsula, we walked down the path through the trees to the edge of the water, where we saw a bamboo bridge over the mouth of the tributary into the Mekong river. Several monks were crossing it from the other side, where we could see a further path. Laos is full of Buddhist monks; it is a tradition for boys to become monks for at least three or so months, and many of them stay monks for much longer, if not a lifetime.
As we continued on the path on the other side of the river, we came to the banks of the Mekong, where a small bamboo shack was perched on the edge of solid ground. They sold food, tropical drinks and Beer Lao with a beautiful river vista. We bought a couple of beers and welcomed the chance to sit in the shade after walking in the sun. We both pulled out our books and began to read and relax.
After about fifteen minutes or so, a traveler named Salman asked if we would join him to go net fishing a bit upriver, since it was cheaper for a group than for an individual. We agreed and one of the shack’s owners, Ay (pronounced like the letter “A”) prepared his net and his small boat for the three of us to go about a kilometer up the Mekong to learn to fish with a net. Salman had traveled around Asia for a couple of months after finishing a study-abroad program in Hong Kong (or was it Singapore?) Kelsey and I couldn’t help but be jealous of the many travelers we met who had the luxury of several months of travel time throughout this wonderful land. Our two weeks seemed increasingly like we were just getting our feet wet.
As the sun set over the Mekong, we three spent about an hour and a half learning to cast the net from Ay. None of us caught anything but the experience was delightful. The rocks were sharp though – this was one time I regretted not bringing my sandals to Asia.
As we floated back to the other side of the river, Ay mentioned how he takes people up the Mekong to other towns. We had heard great things about Nong Khiaw to the north, which Ay said was one of his favorite boat trips due to the beautiful scenery on the way. We agreed to meet him at 06:00 the next morning to set out at sunrise for a seven-hour ride north to Nong Khiaw. Later I found out that we probably overpaid a bit, but it was worth every penny.
That evening Hen invited us to go to eat with her at a restaurant where “real” Lao people eat. We borrowed bicycles from the guesthouse and Hen led us out of the old city about 5 km away, to a Korean barbecue-style restaurant with no foreigners in sight. It was delicious and a great experience, and even cheaper than the already cheap restaurants on the main street of Luang Prabang. She took us next to a sweet bun / ice cream restaurant where we had dessert. Upon reaching the guesthouse again, we decided to head to bed since were to rise early the next morning.
We woke up in the dark of the morning, grabbed our packs and found a tuk-tuk to take us to the peninsula bridge. When we reached the shack we had to awaken Ay and his family, who were still asleep. Unfortunately we had to wait a further couple of hours due to planning and bureaucratic issues: Ay had to get “the stamp” from the government office to be able to legally take us up the river and since that was going to take a while, he got his brother to take us. This turned out for the best, since his brother’s boat was far more comfortable than Ay’s boat and even though he normally was able to charge more for its use, since we had already paid down an agreed price we were able to use it at no extra charge. The next seven hours was a thoroughly pleasant journey up the fantastically beautiful Mekong, which winds through the northern highlands like a sapphire avenue.
We stepped out onto the western bank of Nong Khiaw, a tiny town spanning the Nam Ou river. As soon as I got off the boat I began to feel an ominous discomfort in my stomach and a heated wooziness in my cranium. By the time we found affordable accommodation on the other side of the river it was confirmed: I had picked up some sort of traveler’s bug. My stomach was cramping painfully, I sweated and felt mildly feverish, and I had to stay close to, you know, the facilities. This upset us in a non-physical way as well, since we planned to spend two active days in Nong Khiaw enjoying nature treks and tubing down the river. Kelsey went out to research the details on these treks while I tried to sleep in the rustic guesthouse. Thank the Maker I had brought ciprofloxacin antibiotics with me to Asia, or over half our trip could have been ruined – and after all that bullet-dodging with the hangover and the DC snowstorm!
When we woke up the next morning and I felt no better, we decided to make the best of it and just chill out, hardly a tall order in Nong Khiaw. The view from our guesthouse balcony was breathtaking, the weather sublime, and it is a supremely non-busy place.
By the end of the day I was no longer a hopeless case, although the mild fever persisted. We boarded a tuk-tuk bound for Luang Prabang at 08:00 the next morning. We shared the bumpy four-hour ride with some young Israeli travelers who had just finished a few weeks backpacking in Burma, a Canadian window-washing business owner from Squamish BC, one of the principal towns of the newly in-session Winter Olympics, who reserved every January and February to take great trips the world round, a hardcore Norwegian backpacker who shared his laolao (Lao moonshine) with the rest of us (I regrettably had to decline due to the antibiotics), a quiet but irritable Western drifter, and a number of Laotians, one of whom spat on my jacket in his attempt to spit out the side of the tuk-tuk.
When the tuk-tuk came to Luang Prabang, the Western drifter spoke in Laotian to the driver. Intrigued, we asked him how long he had been living in Laos. “Six years,” he answered dismissively. Kelsey then asked him where he was from, and he responded, “I don’t like to say.” After a couple of seconds, he offered up “I don’t like my country at all.” He said nothing the rest of the short ride to our drop-off. His accent limited him to being either Canadian or American, and I don’t think anybody who is Canadian hates it that much. Kelsey theorized that he may have been an American serviceman during the Vietnam war who had participated in the “secret” bombing of Laos and had come back to make peace with his past. During part of the Vietnam war, something like a ton of bombs was dropped every nine minutes on Laotian soil. Laos is still overloaded in much of the country with unexploded ordinance, which frequently causes deaths and injuries. I had only heard about it offhand before coming to Laos but after hearing the stories of locals and reading more about it, I have a sickening feeling about being a taxpayer in a country that could so something so vicious and destructive to such a beautiful people.
That afternoon in Laos we secured our travel to Vientiane for getting pages added to our passports, and from there on to Siem Reap, Cambodia. We had three days until our flight to Vientiane, so we booked something we had wanted to do for the next two days: the elephant experience with All Lao Tours.
Early the next morning a minivan picked us up and drove us to the All Lao Tours ranch and mahout lodge. That whole day we learned how to ride and direct the elephants. It was a fun but uncomfortable affair – riding on the elephant’s neck is like being forced to use a butt-buster exercise machine for four hours! And the professional mahouts have to threaten the elephants with sharp blades and even jab them a bit when they are “naughty” as they say.
At the end of the day, we were responsible for bathing the elephants. It was chilly but hilarious and fun.
After showering in our bungalow and an hour of reading, we headed to dinner at the open-air dining hall. The meal was okay, but the conversation lasted for about four hours and constituted my favorite night of the whole trip. We sat with the other elephant riders of the day: George and Lindsay, two teachers from the UK who had quit their jobs and begun a round-the-world trip nine months ago and got engaged in the in-between time; Kamille and Mickael, a young husband-and-wife pair from Africa-via-Kentucky and southern France who were on vacation from teaching English in Xi’an, China; and our elephant expedition guide, a Laotian man who had made good in his time with All Lao Tours. The evening’s conversation represented everything I love about traveling and travelers. I felt positively boring compared to everyone else. George and Lindsey were excellent storytellers and had seen and done a lot in their nine-month trip, including competing on The Price is Right and winning a prize but failing to claim it due to trouble with the show’s rules about international shipping. Kamille was raised the daughter of missionaries in Africa and she and Mickael had been big-rig drivers in the US for a couple of years before deciding to try something new in China. Our guide had us all riveted with stories from his childhood, including his three-month illness from malaria when his family had to sell all of their water buffalo, and his time as a monk. Since he is now successful he has handsomely supported his parents who sold their livelihood to save his life. Although his stories were great and heartfelt, he had funny ways of talking about death: when he was near death, he “was nearly finished with my life,” or if you enrage an elephant or other dangerous animal, “you will be finished with your life.” He also told the story of a man whose arm was bitten by a deadly snake, so he cut off his arm and hung it on a tree to keep the venom from flowing to his heart. A couple of days later he decided he wanted his arm back, so he reattached it to his shoulder, and instead of dropping dead right there, “he had to die immediately.”
We washed our elephants once more the next morning and then Kelsey and I split off on our trek for the day: 17 km up and down mountains to visit Hmong hill tribe villages. The weather was hot and the hiking was hard, but normally this wouldn’t be such a problem. Unfortunately for me, that morning I took the last pill of the three-day antibiotic regimen, and I did not drink nearly enough water at breakfast. Antibiotics dehydrate, and combined with the steep hiking and the beating sun, I was quite dehydrated by the time we were about 1/3 of the way through with the hike. I was unable to eat any of the rice that was packed for our lunch, and I spent the whole 45 minutes panting while lying on my back in the shade and drinking as much water as possible. Thankfully the rest of the hike was less up-and-down, but I was still exhausted and uncomfortable. The views made up for it, mostly.
Our guide told us that the Hmong in the area used to live on top of this mountain, where they made their living selling opium. The government “convinced” them to give up opium farming and move down from the mountain in exchange for aid. The Hmong often suffer government oppression because they collaborated with the US against the Pathet Lao Communist movement in the 1970s.
That evening back in Luang Prabang I was still woozy, and even though I drank lots of water it was not digesting into my system since I had eaten very little. Embarrassingly, I vomited up a belly full of water over the river embankment wall, but after we sat down to a filling meal on a balcony over the Mekong (including some fantastic garlic bread) I was finally well again – no more stomach illness and no more dehydration! In retrospect, I think I picked up the bug from the Lao barbecue meal that Hen took us to. That’s always a risk to be run at cook-it-yourself meals.
The next day was spent relaxing and chatting with each other, and then with George and Lindsay when they wandered past the cafe where we lounged. Later that afternoon we said our goodbyes to them and headed to the airport, where we traded money for time and flew for 50 minutes south to Vientiane, the Lao PDR’s capital city on the Mekong where it borders Thailand.
Dusk was on the face of the Earth as we touched down in Vientiane. We took a taxi ride to the center and walked around the few blocks where a number of guesthouses and hotels are situated, searching for a room. All of the cheaper guesthouses were unfortunately booked, so we found a hotel with reasonably more expensive rooms (something like $14 instead of $7). We stayed for two nights.
The next day (Tuesday) we visited the US Embassy as soon as it opened in the afternoon to add pages to our passports. The process is free and easy, and I recommend it to anyone who has time to kill and happens to be near a consulate on their travels. We were the first to enter consular services as it opened at 13:00. We filled out the necessary forms and turned them in along with our passports. For the next 45 minutes we sat and read in the small waiting area while about eight other US citizens trickled in, almost all of them for the same purpose. When we picked up our newly fattened passports, they had double the amount of visa pages. Instead of being sewn in as the consular website said, the new pages were taped in to the middle of the book, and the first page on this addition had a printed statement of amendment of the passport. This was only a few days before my 24th birthday, so I can honestly say that I have filled my passport at the age of 23.
We found out too late that the Beer Lao factory is a 30km ride outside of Vientiane, since it closes at about 15:00 and we heard about it at 14:00. It was hot outside so we just parked at JoMa, a slick modern coffee house with air conditioning, where we enjoyed some Laotian coffee (which purports to be the world’s finest) and read. While there, I noticed a familiar face walking in the door: Raluca, whom I had met as a trainee in Beijing. We chatted for a few minutes about her Southeast Asian travels, which included Burma. Plenty of people have gone to Burma and loved it, so I am intrigued to visit it at some point – but apparently you have to take all your cash into the country since it has no ATMs. After that completely unforeseen meeting and a few more coffees, Kelsey and I headed back to the hotel for a shower and to find some dinner.
Dinner that night was one of the two best eating experiences from our whole trip. The restaurant is called YuLaLa and is owned by a young Japanese couple. There are only about six or so tables, and half of them have pillows for seats; good music fills the air and a large blackboard with changing specials announces what’s good to eat (hint: everything). Kelsey and I got different entrees and we loved both of our dishes, but my favorite item by far was the home-made ginger ale. I went wild for it and ordered two. I cannot recommend YuLaLa enough if you are stuck in Vientiane.
That night we watched some of the Olympics before turning in early in preparation for our 6 AM flight to Siem Reap.
We touched down in steamy Siem Reap at 09:45 Wednesday morning. While we went through immigration, an absent-minded German woman latched onto us in her search for random information about the Shadow of Angkor Guesthouse III, where she was determined to stay and had just chosen out of her guidebook. We paid for our visas in US dollars, which are the only accepted currency for this action, just like in Laos. Even the ATMs only disburse US dollars, and all businesses take US dollars. I have often heard and read in guidebooks about many different countries that “they will accept US dollars,” but I have never, not once, found this to be true until I went to Cambodia, where they practically want you to forget they even have their own currency, the riel (KHR).
The taxi driver who took Kelsey, the strange German woman and I from the airport to Siem Reap’s downtown insisted that he would show us some particular guesthouses. This is standard practice in Asia, as the taxi drivers get a kickback when they take you to a particular hotel. He kept insisting that the German woman’s Shadow of Angkor Guesthouse III “is closed” and said so when we brought up a number of other guesthouses; it was a clearly canned answer. The German woman strangely enough was inclined to believe him. When he let us out at one of his kickback hotels we saw the depressing interior room and decided to keep looking. Thankfully the woman had wandered on elsewhere.
We ended up at the Golden Temple Villa, which was fantastic. It is slightly off the main road, as affordable as any other guesthouse, and had the most comfortable beds of any of the places we stayed in on the whole trip. We put our things down and rented some bicycles, then set off southward towards Tonle Sap lake. This was a fool’s errand as it was several tens of kilometers away, but we saw some nice countryside. We got as far as Phnom Krom, site of a joint Korean-Cambodian friendship village where the Republic of Korea has invested aid money to improve living conditions.
Unfortunately, not fifteen minutes after we struck out on the bikes, Kelsey began to get harsh stomach cramps. She had picked up an even more vicious travel bug than the one I hosted in Nong Khiaw. When we got back to the guesthouse we were stuck there for the rest of the night as she was in serious discomfort and couldn’t keep anything down. Finally by the end of the night she was able to take some cipro and thus began a holocaust of antibiotics to destroy the vermin inside her stomach.
We took it easy for the early part of the next day but made it out to Banteay Srei, a beautiful temple on the northern edge of the Siem Reap region which is usually referred to as a “little Angkor.” The stone here has a beautiful rosy hue in the late afternoon. The tuk-tuk also took us to Kbal Spean, “The River of a Thousand Lingas,” where fertility images – such as a bunch of ancient penis carvings – adorn the top of a waterfall after a two kilometer hike. It was underwhelming for the amount of popularity it receives. Probably because people are tittering prudes.
In order to see any temples at all you have to have a pass. These are the rules, and they take your picture. I sweated a lot and had the pass in my pocket, so the next morning I had to get the picture taped back – be warned! They are serious about this.
That evening the Golden Temple Villa showed The Killing Fields film at the restaurant. While eating tasty spring rolls and curry soup we received our first in-depth education on the horror that swept over Cambodia only 35 years prior. It was another early night for us, as we had made plans to arrive at Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise.
I love Angkor Wat. It inspired me to write a BrainCanvas post. It is huge, and has such beautiful proportions. For all the glory that the Roman Empire gets in our history textbooks, I have never seen anything like Angkor Wat – and there are like 40 other temples in the area that also blow doors down!
We left one in Big Sur, now we’ve left one in Siem Reap. I think I left one in Busan as well.
Due to the large number of people, we rushed to get into the compound on the side while others continued to watch the sunrise. This way we were able to appreciate the vast emptiness of the temple before it was full of tourists. Tourists like us.
We stayed in the temple area for a little over an hour, but just as the inner sanctum opened for ten people at a time to visit, we had to return to our driver who waited to take us to about ten other temples that day. I wish we had planned ahead and had gotten in line to see the inside, but perhaps that is for another day. After a strange Western-style breakfast outside the wat, we hopped back in the tuk-tuk to see Angkor Thom, the other most famous temple in Siem Reap.
Notice how steep the steps were. Some of the temples had such steep steps that I nearly got vertigo while climbing down. As my old man would say, “There’s a lawsuit right there.” Except you’re in Cambodia.
Angkor Thom is a large walled complex that used to be the capital of the Khmer Empire at its height, when it supported around 100,000 people. Angkor Thom may have been the most fun temple to explore. In the giant citadel you could get into corridors and small plazas where the temple seemed to go on forever and no land reference could be seen – a Khmer version of Blade Runner’s “endless city.” Large faces are carved on all of the towers, and in the very center there is a small shrine where people pray and burn incense. It was fantastic for the imagination.
The next six or so hours was a wearying scramble over many different wats and monuments, broken only by rides in the tuk-tuk to the next destination and a stop at an overpriced and unimpressive dining house. Most of the names escape me, but one very memorable temple was Ta Prohm, which is largely un-restored and has giant trees growing in and on the ancient buildings in a way that recalls Star Wars’ Yavin.
Outside of a few of the temples, musical groups composed of unexploded ordinance survivors plied their sonic craft and asked for donations. I always donate to street musicians, and their cause was especially needy. Like Laos, Cambodia has been cursed with crime-against-humanity levels of unexploded ordinance which maims and kills innocents long after the guns of war are withdrawn.
We were exhausted from climbing up and down temples in the heat of the day for eight hours, so we napped for a bit before going out for our last night in Siem Reap. First we scoured the nearby market for souvenirs – Kelsey is much better than I am about buying for people. I rarely even buy them for myself. After her munificent appetite was sated, we found a popular streetside cooking operation where dozens of people tucked in to tasty Khmer street food. There were no extra tables so we found a seat with two Dutch guys who had taken a semester off of university to teach English in Cambodia. The power repeatedly went out on the lights and the stoves, but we eventually got our dirt-cheap food and sipped on agreeably malty Angkor beer while chatting with the Dutchmen. We headed to a bar for one more beer before hitting the sack in preparation for another early morning: the bus to Phnom Penh, our final chapter in this all-too-short tale.
The day we traveled to Phom Penh on a wild bus ride also happened to be my twenty-fourth birthday.
Upon arriving in Phnom Penh at about 14:00, we found board at the Last Home guesthouse, which had a very high-ceilinged and spacious room. Our time was limited: we had less than 36 hours until Kelsey flew back to DC, and thus the end of our trip. We quickly decided to visit Tuol Sleng prison with the remaining time in the day.
Tuol Sleng used to be a high school, but during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-9 it was converted by Pol Pot into a special prison for whomever the Khmer Rouge felt like murdering. In its four years as a prison, over 20,000 people were housed and tortured and killed within its walls. Only seven people survived to be liberated by the Vietnamese army. Our tour guide was a woman whose whole family had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge. There are pictures of many of the people, including very young children, whose lives ended in the prison, and some of the rooms had the original wooden cells which held the prisoners until they were brought out for fifteen minutes to one hour of torturing per week. They defecated into the same box they ate from, and they were waterboarded, and they withered away tied to bedframes with no mattresses. On the bottom floor where the torturing rooms were (these used to be classrooms!) each room is left exactly how it was found by the Vietnamese, sans the bodies, and in each there is a photograph of the room as it was discovered with the bodies the main focus of the image. Sitting in the late afternoon light on the bench in the courtyard of Tuol Sleng, while a few children wrestled in the green grass and some teenagers and young adults played footbag, it was more surreal than the frozen majesty of Angkor Wat that only thirty-one years prior blood-curling screams and moans replaced the chirping of the birds in the trees.
We splurged that evening on a great meal. The restaurant called Malis was recommended to us, but it was closed for the day. Thus we wandered into another nice place which was just perfect, but whose name I cannot remember. The food was excellent and we sat on pillows on the floor where we could walk barefoot on the perfectly smoothed wood of the open-air deck. After a healthy hour and a half at this place, we wanted to continue to celebrate my birthday. On the way back to our guesthouse we came across a small open-air with agreeable prices on Angkor and which was occupied by only two people: a Khmer publicaness and a thirty-something American man, sipping on a beer at a table next to the road. We decided to grab a round here and he began to chat with us. It was established that he is the editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post, one of the two major expat newspapers in Cambodia. He had been living in Cambodia on and off for a decade (or more?) and had even covered some of the last gasps of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1990s. He had been to Iraq and Afghanistan as a war correspondent, and the Khmer woman pouring the beer was the owner of the bar and his wife. He eventually put on one of Johnny Cash’s American albums and kept pouring us more beer as he shared stories of living abroad and seeing war face-to-face. At some point during this evening my mother called me on Skype to wish me a happy birthday.
The next morning we needed heavy re-energizing on Western comfort food. The dastardly journalist had been too generous with his beer.
Our only tourist thing to see on our last day was Choung Ek Killing Field, the most notorious of the murder and burial grounds for the Khmer Rouge’s victims. Words cannot do the place justice. Only the pictures suffice.
Out of fear of revenge, or perhaps just for fun, the agents of the regime also murdered the infant children of their adult victims. At Choung Ek, they held the babies by their ankles and beat their heads against this tree until they were finished with their life.
The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing at a cafe and recalling the wonderful (and harrowing) things we had seen on our trip.
Kelsey’s flight was at 23:00 so we got to the airport at 21:00. After checking in we thought we had said our last goodbye until my return to the States in the fall, but she was halted as she tried to get on the escalator: she hadn’t paid the airport tax! At Phnom Penh International Airport, you have to pay $20 to get your ticket stamped with the exit fee. This is completely unrelated to immigration, just another fun way for the country to screw you out of money. After paying the fee, we then said “see you later” until September / October.
I went back to the hotel, packed my things and slept until 05:30 the next morning, when I checked out and left for my 08:00 flight. I was back in Beijing late that afternoon, after being stopped at Chinese immigration due to some flag in their system on my passport. That’s the third out of three entries where I’ve been pulled aside. What did I do to you China?
All of my photos from the trip can be seen here.