Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sabaidee - Part I

Our entry into Laos was the complete opposite of the one in Cambodia. Our first stop in Don Det (part of Four Thousand Islands in South Laos) set up the mood. It is very laid back and it was such a nice, warm welcome to Laos. It was so relaxing to stay there for 3 days, enjoying our hammocks on the deck of a bungalow.
Don Det was definitely one of the highlights of our trip in Laos. People in Laos are in no hurry. There is almost no hassle. Drivers on the street will ask you if you need a tuc-tuc or a boat but will let you go when you say no and will return to their nap or conversation immediately.

The funny thing was that I felt like we were still in Cambodia. The change from place to place is not drastic. The houses are very similar if not less charming than in Cambodia. The main difference I noticed is more in people's facial expressions. In Laos people don't smile as much as in Cambodia. They seem to be more difficult to read. But it goes very well with the somewhat lethargic pace of the country.
I like the way people say hello in Laos - Sabaidee. And in Don Det they kind of stretch the ending even more, making it into a melody - Sabaideeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Don Det

It was a whole day trip from Kratie in Cambodia to Don Det. We changed three minivans and had to take a boat. The entire journey was slow, not big distances but a lot of waiting in between. It cost only $5. I was anticipating the border crossing (too many bad memories) but it went ok. We just had to pay $1 on the Cambodian side so they would let us go and $1 on the Lao side to let us in. Baksheesh for the border officers.

Don Det is popular among travelers as a party island and lot of young backpackers go there. It was the day before New Years when we arrived and we did not mind being in a more "happening" place. Still, we wanted a more quiet place to stay in and started looking around. The first people that talked to us was a nice couple of old hippies who told us immediately about a nice bungalows down the road called "Paradise". We liked their description and headed there.

The place is not listed in Lonely Planet and sometimes that is a very good thing. The bungalow we took was very simple, one room with one very hard bed, a mosquito net, and the best part - the deck with 2 hammocks overlooking the Mekong river. That's the key to good time in Don Det. I installed myself immediately in one of the hammocks. The river running below, few long-tail boats here and there, trees everywhere, it was so peaceful.

The "Paradise" is run by a really friendly Lao family and the way it is set up made us feel as if we were part of it. At least a little. From the open restaurant area where we took most of our meals, we could see all the drama and daily activities happening. One of the kids, Bong, has a Down syndrome. He is 16 years old and looks like 12. But his behaviour and interest toward the female guests definitely reflects his age. He had a unique way of "scratching" himself between his legs sometimes :) He still was a really nice kid. Very affectionate with his little nephew.

The food at "Paradise" was delicious home made and very cheap. We had some yummy pumpkin soup, and lentil pumpkin curry, and even pumpkin burger. And in the restaurant area we met the other guests staying there. Angy, a girl from Chicago, was our next door neighbor. She has been traveling for six months in India, followed by a one year in Africa. She is very brave in my eyes. It was interesting to talk to her and hear about her adventures. Very good energy.

The chatty, older hippie couple was there also - Lance and Donna. They left the US a while ago and live in Germany now. They are musicians and have gigs in bars during the summer and the winters they spend in Laos, mostly in Don Det with the "Paradise" family.

One thing about Don Det, which you quickly forget about, is that there is no electricity. They have generators which run only from 6-10pm. It gets dark s also, including me :)
early in the winter, soon after 6pm, and all the locals are in bed by 9pm and some of the tourist
There is not much to do in Don Det except to relax. On our first day we rented bicycles and explored both small islands Don Det & Don Kon going through villages, passing by farms, through the dry rice fields. We went to see a waterfall, had lunch on the beach, and watched the water buffaloes cooling off in the river.

That was our nice New Years Eve day. The pace was set. At midnight we entered the 2009 smooching in our hammock...

Our New Years day was pure Lao day. Nothing except chatting with our fellow travelers and some ex-pats living on the island. Drinking Lao coffee (very creamy and dense), eating donuts (from a real bakery!), and getting some more hammock exercise. That day we also met a very nice French guy Gregory who was at the end of his 10 months trip around the world. He also has a blog (in French) with nice photographs:

At the "Paradise" we also met a group of mostly Frenchies who work for NGO's in Laos and Cambodia. Very interesting and nice people. A lot of insight I got into Cambodia was through a conversation with a couple from the group.

In order to really master the art of hammocking (?!), we decided to stay one more day in Don Det. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

To leave Don Det we took a boat to the shore and then a public bus (a large tuc-tuc) to Pakse. It was full, mostly with foreigners and a few locals including a lady who loaded the vehicle with the crates and bags full of big frogs, chickens and who knows what else. Throughout the ride, she kept moving her load around, arranging the bags under our seats by shuffling our legs. She was using the local bus to deliver her goods.

After 4 hours of the bus ride we arrived in Pakse. A rather ugly town. But with 2 good Indian restaurants. The only reason we went there was to rent a motorcycle for a 3 day ride in the Bolaven Plateau, something Miko has been talking about since Cambodia.

Bolaven Plateau

The next day we left Pakse and headed toward Tad Lo, our first stop, 85km away. On the way to Tad Lo we stopped to check out another waterfall Tad Paxuam. The waterfall itself was nothing spectacular but the area around was beautiful. Something like a park, tastefully built, run by a Thai company. There were huts in the trees (jungle tree houses) and an ethnic village. When building the huts they did not cut any trees but used the fallen trees. There is a tribe that lives in the area (I forgot the name) and two women dressed in ethnic clothes and funny haircuts were walking around. Miko was geeking out taking photos of them. After they asked for money.

We arrived in Tad Lo, a place known for its waterfall, in the early afternoon. We checked in The Tim's guesthouse, recommended to us by Donna & Lance in Don D et. The bungalow was cute, all crooked. There we bumped into Angie, our neighbor from Don Det, and together we went on a walk to see two waterfalls and to swim in the river. Cold.

At this point Miko was not very excited with what we were seeing. While the ride to Tad Lo and the place itself was nice, it was not new and surprising on each corner so Miko was a little disappointed. I was fine and happy to be just traveling around on a motorbike, but Miko due to his nature needed more.

Yes, I was anticipating this few day bike ride a lot. And I think that was my mistake. Too much expectation. Even if the first half of the ride wasn't amazing, it was still a nice one, and Tad Lo is a cute village where by waking up early (thanks to my daily bowel movement at 6am), I could witness the morning routine of people the re. Many villagers were squatting around a small fire and cooking breakfast. And because of all the smoke combined with the morning mist and the sun shining through, the place was really atmospheric. People in the river were bathing, washing clothes and fishing. Others were watering their little parcels of garden. And me, the lonely fallang (foreigner in Lao), was geeking out taking way too many pictures again.
The next day, after a walk through the surrounding area, visiting some villages with a local guide, we hopped on the motorbike and continued our journey. Hana was a bit anxious about the ride because we had about 30km of bumpy, uphill dirt road ahead. It went fine. Good job Miko! It actually took only 45 min to do and once we were at the top Miko asked: "Is that it?" Then we were riding on top of the Bolaven Plateau but it did not look much different from the rest. We went by many villages and rice fields and pretty farms with palm trees. We reached Sekong an hour before sunset and were looking for a guesthouse further down the road. We never found it. But we are glad we went to look for it beca use as we were driving we noticed a large group of people in some kind of procession. They were carrying something. By the time we stopped and turned around they disappeared in the forest. We tried asking one guy on a motorcycle if we could go and see but instead of replying he asked us for money. No surprise there.

After parking the bike we caught up with some people who were trailing behind the procession. We said hello, smiled. They smiled back, probably wondering what these " fallang" were doing here. We were guessing that there was a funeral happening but could not find the word for funeral in our useless Lao phrase book. They realised our curiosity and gestured to us that it was ok to go and see. We were excited and uncomfortable, but it didn't matter. You don't see a funeral in a forest every day. In the middle was a pile of wood on top of some structure where the body probably was. We could not see the body. Monks were chanting and some people were dressed all in white. We assumed they were the family members because white is the color of mourning in Asian cultures. But the rest of the people were all dressed casual and nobody was crying. There were smiling and in good spirit. Maybe it is because they are Buddhist and believe in reincarnation. We tried not to intrude too much but it was impossible. Soon everybody was turning around and looking at us and smiling. Then eve rybody crouched down, so we did the same. They lit up the wood on fire. People were approaching the fire and lighting incense. A circle of people formed around us. Seeing his camera, some people approached Miko and wanted their photo taken. Many were laughing. We could not really talk to anyone so we just smiled. Then everybody started leaving and motioning us to leave as well. They washed their hands in the bucket of water with orange slices before leaving. We did the same. Then everybody left.

I was happy we had this experience, but Miko was REALLY happy. Finally, the poor guy was getting something new and different and the feeling of adventure came back. I agree with him that sometimes these kind of experiences don't happen by themselves but you have to put yourself out th ere.On our way back to Sekong, the sun was going down, and there were more locals round and about. We noticed a group of young men playing some kind of volleyball with their feet. The ball is made of woven bamboo strings and hollow inside. One guy was specially good, doing flips in the air as he was hitting the ball and sending it back over the net. He was happy to be filmed and photographed which Miko happily did.

We spent the night in Sekong where we met a nice French couple in their forties, also on their trip around the world. Here is their blog:

It is crazy how many people we meet who are doing th e exact same thing as us - traveling for a long period of time.

On our third and final day of touring the Bolaven Plateau, had to do 70 km on a

dirt road partly through forest. It turned out to be the best part of the trip. The road was red dirt and rocks and it was slowly climbing uphill. The vegetation around was beautiful. A dense, green, jungle with massive plants and trees. Nobody on the road but us and the sound of birds chirping around. We were looking for two waterfalls which according to our guide book were hidden in the jungle. It was fun looking for them because we went at a much slower pace and enjoyed the scenery. We have found both of them and were able to get to the very top of the first one and look down. Scary as it was probably over 50m deep. The second one was further away in the jungle (Tad Katamtok), but we got the full frontal view of it. Supposedly it's the highest in Laos, about 90 m high, strong and impressive. We left some of Pepe's ashes there. It's something we've have been doing since the beginning of the trip, spreading Miko grandpa's as

hes where ever we go.

After the waterfall we still had 50 km of the dirt road. It was bumpy and full of big rocks which Miko got really good at dodging. But at some point we almost lost control and fell. Likely, Miko saved us by using his feet to skid on the ground until we regained balance. Good job again! Midway the vegetation and the landscape started changing, became more dry. Passing through villages, we were not alone anymore and the road became more hard packed and uneven, almost rigged. We were shaking through our bones and the vibration would just never stop. While the first half of the dirt road was really fun, the second part became draining. Even when the dirt road stopped, we still had to dodge many, many potholes on the

paved road. Eventually we made it back to Pakse tired but happy. Mission successfully accomplished.


Our next stop was the capital of Laos - Vientiane. We took a night bus from Pakse to Vientiane, 9 hours. The night bus is pretty cool. Instead of seats there are beds and each pa ssenger gets a pillow and a blanket, water and food. It felt a little like being on a plane. The only problem was that the bed was too short for Miko. He could never stretch completely. Either his feet were hanging off to the side, or his head was crooked. The average height is a lot shorter here. We arrived in Vientiane at 6am and it was so cold there. Initially we were planning on a two day stop but as we were driving into the city on a tuc-tuc, we decided that one day would probably be enough as we were not excited by the scenery. So, here is the brief of our crazy-busy day in Vientiane. It ended up being a lot of fun and a good memory.

6am - arrival at the bus station

7am - expensive but very appreciated american style breakfast of bagels w/cream cheese & brewed coffee at Yoma bakery. Very popular spot with ex-pats. There we saw a French guy #1 we met in Don Det as part of the NGO group.

8am - looking for a room

9am - checked into a room and rented a motorcycle ... again

10am - visit to the Buddha Park 20km south of the city, main reason why we came to Vientiane. It is a little like a Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India. Full of sculptures of Buddha. Very popular place for kids. Perfect for us.

1pm - lunch by the river. Hana ordered uneatable green papaya salad - too spicy. Ahhhh

2pm - visit to four out of hundred temples, followed by a visit to Phra That Laung, the symbol of the country. Beautiful when the sun shines on the gold paint but ugly when overcast.

4pm - Vientiane "Arc de Triomphe" called Patuxai. An ugly structure which even Lao people find unattractive. This is what it said on the sign on the building: " ...from a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete."

5pm - BEST TIME EVER - visit to the "Wat Sok Pa Luang" (means forest temple) for some Lao style herbal sauna and massage. Mmmmmmmmmmmm. Soooooooooooooo Gooooooooooooood.

8pm - looking for a restaurant, ended up in an ex-pats bar with French guy #2 and then #1 again from Don Det. It felt as we were in France and not Laos. the conversation, the beer and the cigarettes.

10pm - Good Night.

8am the next day - local bus full of boxes and people to Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng

After 4 hours of uncomfortable bus ride we arrived in Vang Vieng. We wanted to stay at the Maylyn Guest House which several people recommended to us. It was supposed to be a secret spot but the Lonely Planet had it picked as its favorite. So much for the secret. We managed to snatch the last bungalow by a little bit of luck and a little bit of Hana's sneaky, competitive nature. We overheard two guys on our tuc-tuc mentioning that they are headed to the Maylyn guest house. The driver dropped us off at the bridge which we needed to cross. While waiting for our bags, which were unfortunately on the bottom of the pile, Hana got the money ready to pay the bridge toll. It's all about being ahead of the game. We handed the exact change first and got to the guest house before the other people. We won the last bungalow. Kind of a borring story when you recount but actually it was the only strugle we had in Laos :)

Maylyn Guest House was worth the effort. It is on the other, more quiet side of Vang Vieng, and has the best food ever. The banana chocolate pancakes are the best we had on this entire trip. They also had great sandwiches, specially the BLT's. It might not mean much to you but after months and months of eating Asian food, good sandwiches are very appreciated. Since we enjoyed the food so much there I was encouraging Miko to eat a lot hoping he would gain back some weight. He is all skinny now :(

We ended up staying 3 days in Vang Vieng. We enjoyed our stay there but we were not sad to leave. It is sad to see beautiful places like this getting destroyed by fast booming tourism. People mostly come here to go tubing, which means renting a tracktor's inner tube to float down the river and get completely trashed at one of the many bars along the way. The crowd is mostly composed of young Australian and British kids in their early 20's. The town itself does not look like anything it used to be. According to the Lonely Planet, a new guest house is being built every 46 days. Besides tubing & drinking, the second main activity is to watch reruns of "Friends" in many cafes all day long. I have no idea who and how started this trend. All this crap is on one side of the river. The side we visited only to check internet and rent a motorbike. We were staying on the opposite, more quiet side. There are a few guest houses with bungalows, but it has more of a village feel, surrounded by rice fields and mountains in the background. And if you explore further on this side you discover and can appreciate a magnificant landscape without a drunk dude yelling behind you. There we slowed down the pace a little.

Our first day was the best for Miko (if we cross out a little disapointing encounter at the end) and second day for Hana. On the first day we went to a view point that a local guy told us about. We had to walk 3km on a dirt road, turn right, pay 10,000 kip ($1.25), and hike up a steep 250m hill. A local kid followed us and as expected asked for money on the way. No way kiddo. At the top there was like a small hut with a bamboo roof. From there you could enjoy the beautiful landscape around. A valley full of rice fields with a few villages scattered around, surrounded by high green hills and sharp cliffs. It was past 3pm when we arrived. The sun was going down. Two teenagers were playing a guitar and singing. The music was very calming. We were completely absorbed. We stayed there for a long time, soaking it all in. As we were walking down, the same kid plus his buddy followed us and asked for money again. No way kiddos. Hana was getting very annoyed with it.

Then on our way back to the guest house, a group of locals sitting on a deck in front of a house asked us to join them for some Lao-lao (local drink like whiskey). We were in a very good spirit and were happy to share some time with the locals. The conversation was limited, so we smiled a lot. The lao-lao is pretty strong drink and they seemed to be drunk already. It was nice and fun until the drunkest one and also the owner of the place asked us for money for the drinks. The drinks he so warmly invited us to share with him and his friends. He was also the only one who spoke a little english and I'm not sure if the others understood what he had asked us. Hana immediately got up and as we were leaving one of them handed me another glass which I for sure took. Hana was very angry. They invite us & then ask for money?! She couldn't help disliking the people there and seeing them all as ignorant, greedy for money. Just like they see us all as big, walking bags of cash.

Joe, the cynical Irish owner of the Maylyn, told us that villagers in Vang Vieng, mostly uneducated people became really greedy with the ever growing tourism in the area. But when we told him about what happened to us, he seemed a little surprised. Inviting people over for lao-lao is common, asking them for money after is not. But it still happened to me again, two days later...

So, on our second day we went to visit the "Tham Sang Triangle". It is an area 13km north of Vang Vieng with 3 caves. The best one was the Tham Hoi cave. In the guide book it says that the cave continues 3km into the limestone and there is an underground lake at the end. As we started walking into the cave, a local guy sneaked in pretending to be another visitor taking pictures. Soon enough he was offering his service as a guide. No way kiddo. After he left, we realized that our head lamps were not very strong and if they died inthe middle of the cave we would be stuck, freacking out, crying like babies, not knowing how to get back. So, in order to avoid that, I went back to get us two more flash lights, free with the entrance ticket. As we were walking in, we saw two groups coming back. They had gone all the way to the end and it was about 30 min. After the last encounter we were completely alone in the dark and it became a little scary. I was remembering the movie "Descent" which freaked the hell out of me. In the movie a group of girlfriends goes underground to explore a cave and end up being slaughtered by half human/ half bat monsters. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!! Anyway, we kept walking depper & deeper, going through mud, climbing, crowling over the rocks, hoping we would find our way back. Then Hana started leaving a trail of pieces of paper behind us. After almost giving up and returning, we heard water in the distance and finally reached the underground lake. It was a strange feeling to be there, in the pitch black, wading in the water (Hana went skinny-dipping & was very happy), knowing that if our lights died we would not be able to find our way back. It was exciting and scary at the same time.

After coming out of the cave (so happy and proud we had made it without a guide) we went to the next cave - Tham Nam (Water cave). They give you an inner tube and a flashlight and you pull yourself by the rope floating on your tube. It sounds like great fun, but water was VERY cold. In a few minutes our butts were freezing. The cave is not very big so it took about 10 minutes to explore. Actually, the cave did go deeper in but there was no rope to pull on. It was enough anyway, we were cold and shivering when we got out. Overall fun day. Hana kept talking about it afterward.

On our last day in Vang Vieng, I rented a motorcycle and went on a 40km loop in the countryside, while Hana chilled out at the Maylyn guest house. The loop was fun. It is all dirt road more or less bad - shaky ride. It pretty much consisted in exploring the beautiful area we were contemplating from the view point. Somehow very early on I missed a turn and ended up doing the loop in the reversed direction. Lucky for me. Going through a village I heard female singing and pounding. Curious I backtracked to have a look and immediately got invited inside the house where the noise was coming from. Entering the main room was like entering another world. Everybody seemed to be drunk or drugged out. On the left, women were singing and pounding on the floor with big bamboo sticks. On the right, this welcoming and very drunk man handed me a glass of lao-lao which I HAD TO TAKE. Then he had one himself. On the right side of the room there were two circles of men sitting. They all looked completely drunk. I was called to drink from a large clay jar with a bamboo straw some other kind of alcohol. The man next to me had passed out. This is all happening a little before noon. Then I was called to another circle and given another lao-lao. It was strange and exciting. After another lao-lao a young man speaking english invited me to another room. Few men were sitting there and they played karaoke videos on the tv as background music. They kept drinking more lao-lao and me with them. The way it works in Laos, everybody is drinking from the same glass. One person pours, you drink it all, then pass the glass to the next person. It is inpolite to refuse a drink. The english speaker and I were trying to have some kind of conversation. Everyone was very nice. Then out of nowhere the english speaker asked me for money for the drinks. Surprised, I replied laughing: "No way, I am not paying for any drinks" and the guy continued the conversation as if nothing had happened. He kept being very nice and friendly but I was ready to go and did not trust anyone anymore. I said goodbye to my drunken hosts and got back on the bike hoping I could still ride straight.

We had noticed before that Lao people like to party a lot and it is always in the middle of the day. If you pass by and take a look you are very likely to be invited. Everything seems to be an excuse to celebrate: completion of a house or school, marriage, birthday, etc. And from what I noticed men get really hammered. They are a little scary sometimes when they are drunk. Usually everone is so mellow and quiet during the day but when they are drunk they are hyper, speak very loud, and laugh hysterically. But they are having fun, so what the hell...

So after I had left the party house, the rest of the ride was very nice. Going through villages, enjoying the landscape and saying "Sabaidee" with a big smile to everone I crossed.

We had a very good stay but we found it sad to see what has happened to Vang Vieng. This once quiet, pretty Lao town was beautiful and untouched until about 10 years ago. In my opinion tourism destroyed it. Staying on the other side of the river, away from the party crowd, we were able to enjoy it and I think we got the best possible out of Vang Vieng.

The next day we went to beautiful Luang Prabang where we were going to meet up with Mr. Kevin Bell, a good friend from SF. To be continued...

Reflecting back on Cambodia - Hana's thoughts

Well I feel that we have missed out on things in Cambodia. We did not really experience the culture the way we did in India. It was more like a scratch on the surface but we did not get a chance to submerge ourselves deeper. The main reason is that we did not meet a lot of locals that we could have a conversation with because of the language barrier. Also we have spent a lot of time in the cities, in the touristy parts, surrounded only by tourists. Yet, we did not meet many travelers either. Somehow the tourists we saw in Cambodia were different from the one in India. Either they were very young and/or looked like they had more money, no budget traveling.
Something was always off for me in Cambodia. It is difficult to put a finger on it, but I think it was a combination of things. The border crossing was not a good start, then we got sick and it took a long time to get better. Finally, there was this feeling that we could not trust any Cambodian (I'm talking about the ones who deal with the tourists - in guest houses, transportation agencies, etc.). I felt that most of them were going to trick us and cheat us and a lot of them did.
Also getting information was difficult.

I had a lot of questions about the history and the war, trying to understand what happened under the Khmer Rouge Regime and why. Most of my questions were unanswered while we were there. I had one maybe two opportunities to talk to local people but I felt that they just did not want to talk about it. I know that in Bosnia after the war people were just happy that it was over and did not want to bring up the memories again. But still, there were always some who wanted to talk and wanted to let you and the world know what had happened to them. Hopefully so it would not happen again. But in Cambodia, I felt from my limited perspective, that there was not enough mention about the war. Not enough reminders, not enough monuments, not enough acknowledgment. Except the landmines. Everybody is aware and reminded of that. I have felt that people have just put it behind them and it's like it never happened. That's just what it felt like to me from my limited point of view.
Then when we were in Don Det in the South of Laos, I met some people who work in Cambodia for NGOs and we talked a lot.
Most of what they had to say about Cambodians was negative but I don't want to repeat their words. They did provide some insight into the issue. They think that the Cambodian people have repressed the memories of the war, just shoved it in the back of their minds. The children in schools don't learn about the crimes that the Khmer Rouge committed against its people.
One thing is for sure, the Cambodians don't trust each other anymore. The spirit of community, of friendship is gone. There are gaps in generations. In the countryside, we have mostly seen men in their 20's and 30's and the older ones, 70's and up. The men in their 50's are missing. No wonder since the Khmer Rouge killed or starved to death 25% of the population. Insane when you think about it. Insane what they did and how they destroyed their own people and families. How they got the people to do these monstrosities against their own is beyond me (and again it should not be since I am from a place where a genocide happened). Probably me having these thoughts while I was in Cambodia did not help the mood.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ups and Downs in Cambodia

This has become a pattern for us, we finish one country, leave and then a week or two later we make a post about it. Can't help it, it's the nature of travel.

Let's start where we left of in the last blog:
From Bangkok the plan was to take the train to Aranyaprathet (Thailand), then take a tuk-tuk to the border, get a visa there and cross into Cambodia. Pretty simple, no?.........

After getting off the train in Aranyaprathet, the tuk-tuk drivers were already waiting for the foreigners to come out. Just like in India. We went with one of them because he would not leave us alone and his price was fair. And as always, the fair price from a harassing tuk-tuk means that he is going to stop where you did not ask him to. First he stopped at some travel agency, then at the Cambodian Embassy(?!) pushing us to get the visa there. Finally he would not even take us to the border but dropped us off at a market near by. Then we walked to the Thai border and that was very straightforward and simple. But after crossing to the Cambodian side, we found ourselves in no man's land. There were hotels and casinos around. It was not clear where we were supposed to go next. We ended up being stopped by what looked like a police border officer. By that point we were suspicious of everything. We felt that everything around was fake and arranged to trick us and cheat us, which in the end is probably true. As expected, the police border overcharged us and we payed $30 for our visa instead of $20. They would not give us a receipt no matter how persistent we were about it. Miko was so paranoid that in the middle of the visa process, he got up and walked further to see if the real police border wasn't down the road. Then he saw a second stand with policemen in different uniforms, and finally there was a check point with more policemen, again different uniform, all working as border police and charging $30 per visa. He decided to ask the last one for an explanation. He answered with the 2 famous southeast Asian words: "Same, same".
So we got our visas with the first corrupt police officer and passed the border still expecting the policemen stamping our passports to ask for more money. Likely that did not happen. But all this madness was not over yet.
Stepping into Cambodia we were suspicious of everything and very tense. We felt like everybody around us was trying to get a piece of us. Had no idea where to go. We wanted to get to the bus station but did not trust anybody who approached us trying to "help". We ended up joining a group of 8 other travelers who were as lost and confused as we were. They had arranged a deal with some guy to take taxis to Siem Reap, but we wanted to go to Battambang. The bus we were all on was supposed to bring us to the official bus station. Instead they took us further away, in the middle of nowhere. There was no bus station but an empty building under construction and a boss with several taxis and his drivers. We were cornered. In the matter of minutes the other 8 travelers got into taxis and went for Siem Reap and we were left alone. The boss asked for $40 to take us to Battambang when we knew it should be $20. Finally we agreed on $30 and got into a cab. The people who cornered us looked so suspicious, that even in the taxi we were wondering what next is going to happen to us. Miko even asked me if I had the Swiss knife handy.
Likely our trip from the "shit border" (BTW: it's Poipet border crossing) to Battambang went smooth. Inside the taxi we found an ad, promoting rides to Siem Reap (which is further away) for $20. Once we arrived, Miko decided to scare the driver and his boss a little, just like they did to us. With the proof in his hand, he told the driver he would pay only $20 and he freaked out and immediately called his boss. The guy was yelling and screaming on the phone and cursing the "fucking tourists". In the end, the boss was freaking out so Miko was happy, we paid the full price and walked away.

Finally we were in Battambang! The only reason we went there was to take the slow boat the next morning to Siem Reap! It was worth it.

The trip on the slow boat took 7 hours along the river and across the Tonle Sap Lake. This stays one of the best moments we had in Cambodia. We could stand, sit, or lay down on the roof of the boat and enjoy the full 360 degree view of the beautiful scenery. It was amazing to see all the floating villages along the river. Sometimes there was no solid ground anywhere and people live there, never touching the ground except the wooden floor of their house and the bottom of their canoe. A food stand where we stopped for lunch was a canoe in the middle of the river. Such a different world. It was beautiful...... until we arrived at our destination. There, at the Siem Reap harbor, it was back to reality where the Westerners are seen as big bags full of cash.
As our boat approached the harbor, we noticed guys looking at us, then jumping in their tuk-tuks then following us from the land, racing each other. Then when they figured out where we were going to dock, they jumped out of their vehicles and raced each other again to the dock jumping and running over the boats parked around the spot where we were headed. They looked like a group of agitated monkeys pushing each other, looking at us with hunger. As soon as our boat stopped they all jumped on it, like a bunch of pirates attacking another ship, and grabbed the first traveler in sight to take them to their tuk-tuk. It is funny to recount the story now. But at the time we felt like a piece of meat. It was panic and I tried to keep calm while Miko was slowly boiling over. It was every traveler for himself and finally we just picked a random guy and left.
Anyway, the memory of it all is pretty funny now. We just need to assume that this will happen again and laugh at it when it does. Because in a way we really are bags full of cash compared to most of the people living here.

Siem Reap
is a place that all the tourists go to to visit Angkor Wat. Until few years ago it was a small fishing town and now it's growing and growing. Constructions everywhere. They are building fancy resorts and hotels. The center is full of restaurants and bars (there is even a bar lane) and it's a big party place now. And of course more expensive because of it all.

Angkor is actually a complex of many, many temples and Angkor Wat is just one of them or the most popular. We decided to spend couple of days exploring them.
On our first day there we relaxed in the morning and rented bicycles to go see the sunset at the Angkor Wat in the afternoon. Angkor Wat is really impressive. It is massive and the wall carvings are beautiful. Still, Miko says he was more impressed with the Taj Mahal in India.
The next day we got up super early and left at 5:30am with a tuk-tuk to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat again. There is a huge debate if Angkor Wat is better to visit at sunrise or sunset, so we decided to see both :)
When we arrived there were so many people already, all ready with their cameras. It was very clouded that morning and it took a while before the sun raised above the mass of clouds. By that time most of the people have already left :) It was very nice and peaceful. We visited the temple again and it looked different from yesterday because of the different light. We noticed coloration on the walls that we could not see the day before. After spending a lot of time looking at the reliefs on the outside of the temple (incredible details), we went back to our tuk-tuk and headed toward our next destination - Banteay Srei temple, 36km away. This temple is very small but famous for its carvings. They are so detailed and deep. The color of the rock has all these variations of red, green, ochre, yellow and black. A feast for the eyes.
The only problem there are the hordes of tourists, especially the big Japanese groups (sorry Toshi, Yoshie and Mie). They take pictures of themselves in front of every door, window, column, sculpture.... You get the idea. You have to wait for each one of them to be done with their pictures in order to appreciate the place. And then there is another group showing up right after...
We finished the day by visiting the Land Mine Museum, created by a guy named Akira who was a child soldier in the Khmer Rouge army after they killed his parents and recruited him when he was 5 years old. Later he joined the Vietnamese army and fought against the Khmer Rouge. As a child soldier, his job was to plant mines and he did it for 10 years. No he is clearing the land of mines and training Cambodian army on how to do it. In addition to creating the museum displaying the mines and showing other instructive information, he opened a school for children in need with family problems, land mine victims, or just very poor. This was not cheerful but very informative visit. A stop everybody should make when they visit Cambodia.

On our third day visiting Angkor, we rented bicycles to visit two more temples. This was a great choice. It is so much better to visit at your own pace, stopping wherever you want.
The first temple was Bayon - famous for the large faces looking in different directions. I think that was my favorite temple (Hana). Unfortunately it was very busy again, so hard to appreciate. The sky was overcast when we started the visit but likely it opened up later in the day.
The next temple was Ta Prohm - or how they sadly call it now: the Lara Croft temple, because the first movie was shot there. The temple is mostly in ruins and it's being swallowed by the jungle, the giant trees wrapping around the structure. It's an amazing blend. A perfect fantasy movie set (Miko). The atmosphere is special here and definitely worth the visit. And surprisingly it wasn't that crowded in the middle of the day :)

Our stay in Siem Reap was nice even thought the place itself is very touristy. We were not sad to leave. We also did our Christmas shopping there for Miko's family and the package actually arrived in France. Success!
On our last evening, we met a Swiss-German couple in their late 50's. Looking at them we assumed that they were just like most of the tourists in their age group, here on a 2 week comfortable vacation, until they told us that they were sailing for 8 years and they just stopped 3 years ago. When their only son was old enough to take care of himself, they got a sailing licence, bought a boat and went to sail around the world for 8 years! With no prior sailing experience. It is so inspiring to meet people like them. It shows that age should not stop us from dreaming and taking on crazy projects. Life needs to be fully enjoyed all the way!
(So for now the next project is to buy a bad-ass motorcycle and travel through India and who knows where else, and then make some more money and buy a sailing boat and sail around the world - but wait, Miko doesn't like boats......)

Phnom Penh

We stayed in Phnom Penh for 4 days, longer than planned not because it was great, but because Miko got a bad cold. We stayed at the Lakeside, a sort of backpacker village in the city by the lake. Full of guesthouses with big floating terraces. We stayed at Number 9 Sister guest house which for the first 2 nights was a quiet place compared to the other guest houses competing with each other on the level of their sound system. Unfortunately it did not remain like that for the rest of our stay there. The manager happened to be a big fan of Michael Jackson and would play the same freaking music over and over again. Unbelievable.
Compared to the other guest houses around, this place was the cleanest, still we had to deal with a few enormous cockroaches (the relatives of the ones at Wells Fargo). Yum! Yum!

The main reason we had to come to Phnom Penh was to get a visa for Laos. You can't get it at the border when entering from Cambodia.
The main reason for Miko was to visit the Toul Sleng Museum. An old high school, taken over by the Pol Pot security forces to create a prison called S-21 where everybody who entered was tortured and subsequently killed. Miko spent an entire afternoon visiting. There is so much information about the place itself but also about the Khmer Rouge regime and its leaders. During the 4 years of Pol Pot regime (1975-1979), 20% of the Cambodian population was killed by Khmer Rouge or died of starvation and diseases. It was a very interesting and moving visit. Again, not very uplifting but so informative.
The fun part of that day was getting there and coming back on a taxi motorbike. It was cool to be in the middle of the busy traffic of Phnom Penh, full of tuk-tuks and other motorcycles.
The next day we walked around the city a little. It has a few fun markets but otherwise we found the city not very pretty. The visit to the Royal Palace (where the government is) was nice. Beautiful buildings with colorful rooftops, pagoda like shapes covered with gold ornaments.

We were interested in learning more about the genocide while we were in Cambodia, since it's part of its recent history. We both read the book "First They Killed My Father" recounting a true story of a 5 year old girl from the year Khmer Rouge came into power until she moved to the US, 5 years later. It is a very good book and it really conveys the reality of the war here. But Miko said he is not going to read another war book because it affected his mood here. For me as well, it was weird visiting all these touristy sights and at the same time thinking about the genocide that happened here and trying to understand, but more about that later...

There was also a little hospital episode while we were in Phnom Penh. From the previous blog, you know that Miko cut his arm on some sharp rocks in Thailand while snorkeling. Well he had some butterfly stitches on it for a week or so and then it started itching. So, we took the bandages off and saw that it was infected, the sweet yellow juice was coming out of the wound. We found a hospital nearby and went straight there. They reopened his wound (which we thought was healing well) and cleaned it. They said it looked bad, probably meant infected. He paid $5, got a prescription for antibiotics and pain killers (?!) and was told to come back in 2 days for another cleaning. He went, they cleaned it again, paid $5 and was told to come back again. I guess at that point we should have figured out that there was no need for him to come the third time and that they just wanted another $5, but we didn't. At least the money went to the hospital, maybe it paid for someones bill or salary. And Miko's arm is fine now :)

Finally after one day too many in Phnom Penh we were leaving for Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri Province of East Cambodia. We bought a bus ticket at a travel agency. That morning a tuk-tuk driver was supposed to take us to the bus station. Instead, they took us to a place with minivans and pick-ups, which were overloaded with luggage, motorbikes, vegetables, chickens, etc.... And as we arrived a horde of drivers again jumped on us trying to take our bags and get us in their vehicle. We were shocked. What the hell is going on now? We were told that we are taking a bus by Sorya company and now this? We started arguing with the guy from the agency and Miko exploded. All the frustration from the day we arrived in Cambodia came out. And by doing that he made the guy who was bringing us to the place loose face, the worst thing in Southeast Asian countries. Pretty much, every time you get upset or angry, you loose face and so does the person you get angry at.
Suddenly, the guy flipped and started yelling also, ready to punch Miko, which made Miko even angrier. Then I said something to the guy and he turned ready to punch me, that's when Miko jumped over our bags out of the tuk-tuk ready to fight the guy..... Likely the driver came in between and stopped everything before it went too far. It's worth mentioning that the guy Miko was going to fight was up to his chest. Small but feisty.
After everybody came down a bit, we all went back to the travel agency where they sold us the tickets. They said there was a mistake, bla, bla, bla...... By that point we already had missed the bus and had no choice but to get into one of those minivans to get to Sen Monorom.
We did not mind taking the minibus with the locals, we just hated being lied to.
In the end we learned not to get upset about things like that. Not worth it. The eight hour ride that followed was just another local experience. The driver didn't speak any English, so we were only hopeful that everything will go well and that he will get us to the right destination. As expected, the price you are paying per person in Cambodia is just for the half seat. Just as we thought that the minivan was full, the driver stopped to pick up two more people and strap a few more roosters to the roof. (These roosters were transported to Sen Monorom for cock fights, as we learned later on) Finally we did arrive in one piece and the only mishap happened to our bags - the driver put a gallon of some kind of palm alcohol which spilled partly over our backpacks... Oh well, more stinky laundry.

Sen Monorom

is a red, dusty town in the hills of Mondulkiri. The main reason we wanted to go there is to do some elephant trekking in the jungle.
We stayed there at the "Nature Lodge", 2km outside of Sen Monorom. It is kind of a farm/guesthouse run by a young couple. She is Israeli and he Cambodian. It's been open for 3 years. Everything is made out of wood, the open restaurant, the bar area, all the tables and chairs. The huts are very primitive, on stilts, with slanted roof, little terrace and a big bed in the middle. The bathrooms are separate, an open roof squat toilet surrounded by plants and rocks with a shower under a tree. All very rustic! Cute place.
The next day we went to visit a small waterfall 7km away. It was totally unimpressive (wrong choice) and we almost regretted going there. But as we were leaving, a family who was setting up a picnic nearby, invited us to have a lunch with them. We accepted gladly. The family was from Phnom Penh on their short vacation. They spoke french because they lived in France for a while. It was obvious they were well off because of their big SUV cars, rounded bellies, their education and the fact they were on vacation. They have 5 children but only their youngest daughter was with them, chubby and spoiled. I really wanted to ask the father questions about the Khmer Rouge regime, but wasn't comfortable doing it in French. And it seemed he wasn't interested in this kind of subject. We were happy about the generosity we experienced. Our first real encounter with the Cambodians.

On our way back Miko got a haircut and a beard trim at the local shack for $1. No head massage like in Rishikesh but a fun moment none the less.

The next day was Christmas but it didn't feel like Christmas at all. We went on an elephant ride!
They took us on motos to a village where we were supposed to get on the elephants. When we arrived, a camera crew was there doing some kind of promotional video. They rounded all the tourists, about 10 of us, and we all had to shout in front of the camera: "Cambodia, the Kingdom of Wonders!" Nobody was excited about it except the young American couple. After three tries, they finally let us go. We climbed on the elephants and started our trek in the jungle. For the first 15 minutes, the camera man kept jumping out of the bushes to film us passing by. It was funny.
So on our first encounter with the elephant we had to step on it's head in order to climb into the basket/seat. I felt uncomfortable about this and tried to appologize to the elephant later. We were sitting 2 people in each basket and in front of us the mahout - elephant driver. I guess it is the custom here that the little boys, usually no more than 10 years old, are the drivers. There were couple of adults on foot for supervision. We learned that several families in the village own the elephants and the ownership has been inherited from their grand parents and great grandparents. The elephants used to be used for heavy lifting of timber, but now they mostly use them for tourism. They work no more than 20 days per month and 4 hours per day. I hope that's true.
It was fun sitting up so high and going through the forest. But riding elephants wasn't as exciting as we expected. There is no direct contact between us and the animal. But watching them bathe in the river was the best part. We loved it. And that was our Christmas present to ourselves! And this whole trip of course.
That was the good part of the Sen Monorom visit. Then the weather got really bad, rainy and windy and cold. And Hana got the same cold Miko had in Phnom Penh.
Miko went on a 2 day trek in the jungle while I nursed my cold at the Nature Lodge. My mood was affected by it and the bad weather, so by the time Miko got back from his trek I was ready to leave Sen Monorom.
He came back with mixed feelings about the trekking experience.

*TREK*( I have to tell the story there : coming soon)

was our last stop in Cambodia before we headed to Laos. We did not expect much from it and that's probably why it ended up being a lot of fun.
The fun started for Miko almost as soon as we left Sen Monorom. He decided to give his half of the front seat in the pick-up to me, so I could fully enjoy my ritual transportation naps. (It's true, I've been sleeping on any transportation we have taken on this trip, train, bus, boat, tuc-tuc, doesn't matter. I can't help it) Instead Miko rode on the top of the pick-up cabin together with all the luggage and the locals in the back. He loved the 3 hour ride at about 60km per hour and would not stop raving about it even though he was all covered in dust afterward.

After we arrived in Kratie, we went to see the river dolphins, an endangered specie. There is only about 80-100 of them left and this was the place to see them. First we had to take moto taxi for 30 minute drive to the boat. The ride there on the motos was great. The sun was setting down and we were passing through villages. People were everywhere, cooking, cleaning up for dinner. Beautiful old, traditional houses on stilts, palm trees around, animals everywhere. It was great. Then we were on the boat, cruising up and down the river looking for dolphins and that was fun too. We shared a boat with a nice Swiss family with their two daughters. The kids were excited about spotting the dolphins and so were we. Plus we got to enjoy a beautiful sunset on the river Mekong. A great day!

Back at our guest house we met an interesting English man called Roger. He is 62 years old and riding his bycicle through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Very impressive. He was very nice and happy to talk to us. He even payed for our food and drinks. Very sweet of him. Thank you Roger.

The following day, Miko rented a motorcycle so we could ride around Kratie and see more of the beautiful countryside. (By the way, Miko has been regreting not getting the motorcycle liscence before our trip. So one afternoon in Sen Monorom, he rented one (a semi-automatic is what they all ride here) and asked the guy to teach him. Soon enough we are riding all over the place. He keeps saying it's easy, but still I'm impressed.)
While riding around Kratie, he was stopping a lot and taking photos of people. I remembered seeing a sign at the guesthouse saying that they print photos, so I suggested we go back and print the photos then deliver them to the people. Even back in India we noticed that when seeing their photo on the camera screen, people wanted to have it. We printed about 5 photos for 3 houses and then went back to give it to them. They were so surprised and happy. My favorite was a grandma with red teeth and a scarf wrapped around her head. She had a really nice face.
We are happy we were finally able to do this and hopefully we'll be able to do it again.

The next day we left happy for Laos.

Epilogue (by Miko)
Our visit to Cambodia has been a transitional period. Sadly, I think. India was so intense that everything after seemed a little dull. Both Hana and I got sick with a cold that was affecting a lot of people. Locals and tourists alike. On top of it the weather has been unstable. Overcast a lot with some rain. And the bad experience entering the country left a bad taste in our mouth for a long time after.
But we ended our trip on a really good note. Our last stop in Kratie was great and looking back at what we have done there, I recount a lot more good than bad things. Like this girl from England told us in Sen Monorom, we were coming down from some kind of drugs (which was India). Getting sick didn't help. And finally we were trying to find our rhythm again. I hope I will come back here again to visit what I didn't. I liked the people. Expecially in the country side. I love their smiles, which by the way mean a lot more than joy. It is happyness and joy, but also discomfort and shyness. For example, when they disagree over the price of a ride on a tuk-tuk, they first laugh and say no with a big smile on their face. Or if they have no idea what you are asking them, they look at you laughing instead with a blank face. They also constantly tease each other and joke around.
And for some reason, I really, really loved the kids here. No matter how poor they are, they look happy. I also found them really nice and affectionate with each other.
I was a little sad to leave Cambodia. We met some local people only in our last week and missed the opportunity to do a homestay in the countryside. Next time.
Hana has her own take on the country. She will post a separate entry about it.