Friday, December 3, 2010

I'll take "potpourri" for $800, Alex

A few things that are rattling around, still to be said:
  • There's something kind of disturbing about the constant refrain of tuk-tuk drivers in Phnom Penh coming up and saying "Killing Fields?!" They say it over and over again - Killing Fields? Killing Fields? It feels like walking the streets in Germany somewhere and having Jews come up and say Holocaust?! Holocaust?! It's unsettling, and I know it's a tourist destination, the main Killing Fields memorial site, and I know it's immediate and often personal history, and I know it's just a shorthand, and I know it's no different than saying "National Museum?" or any other destination, but it unsettles me every single time. I'm not sure how to feel when I say no. What I want to do is stop, and look at the person and tell him I'm so sorry that this horrible thing happened to them. Then I realized that if I'm talking to someone in his mid- to late-40s, it's a bit more likely that I might be talking to someone who perpetrated the crimes than someone who survived them, since so few did survive. Complicated.
  • For the most part (except on our return to Phnom Penh, curiously), vendors and tuk-tuk drivers have been remarkably low-key. They don't chase us down, they don't keep asking after we say no, etc. This was true in all of Cambodia and Laos.....except at Angkor Wat. We went to the vendor area to buy a bottle of water, and you couldn't go near it without being swarmed by kids selling postcards (look lady, see, Angkor Wat sunrise, Angkor Wat clouds, temples, see lady? you buy? One dollar, look lady...), kids trying to take you to their family's "stall" to buy food or drink, women trying to pull you this way and that, to buy food or drink. So Marc headed toward one woman to buy water -- purposely not going to the left because that woman was being too pushy -- and as he paid for the bottle of water, the pushy woman started screaming at him: "You don't keep your word! You bad person!" I guess this is the intersection of a constant flood of tourists and great need.
  • Cambodia is always described as one of the poorest countries in SE Asia, and I think Laos is considered poorer. In southern Cambodia, everywhere we looked we saw people with at least a couple of cows, a few pigs, a bunch of chickens, and fields of rice. Curiously, we didn't see cows in Laos, though on our trip out to the waterfalls we did see a couple of chickens here and there.
  • In Laos, the word for hello is sabaidee (sah-bye-deeeeeeee), and it's always said with a smile and with palms pressed together and held at your chest, like the namaste pose. It's an all-purpose word, I think - it means hello, good morning, welcome, all those concepts. When we'd go to breakfast at our restaurant in Luang Prabang, the young women who worked there (one nametag:  Mrs. Chit, waitress) would stop whatever they were doing, turn to face us fully, and place their hands together and give us a full sabaidee. I started doing the same thing and it felt really amazing - not just a mindless hi in passing, not really paying attention, but a real stop and look and acknowledge. I enjoyed every sabaidee given and received in Laos.
  • Our dinner last night at K'Nyay was absolutely amazing, and I hope Marc can replicate it when we get home. We had sweet corn fritters for an appetizer - the kernels were giant, and the batter holding them together was very light and crispy, and I could've eaten them til the cows come home. We each got char kreung - mine with chicken and Marc's with shrimp - and the sauce was so spicy it left our lips and tongue stinging for a long, long time. They were served with a wild rice mixture that was perfectly chewy and nutty and stood up to the rest of the meal. We actually got dessert, which we don't usually do; I got banana fritters (served with a small scoop of ginger ice cream) and Marc got pumpkin coconut parcels, which were delicate and subtle and really delicious. I really wished my camera had been working, the food was beautiful and wonderful. We may go back there tonight, for our last dinner in Cambodia.
For our last two days in Phnom Penh, we're staying in a tiny little hotel - the Blue Lime - down an alley behind the Royal Palace. If it weren't for the loud construction project going on all day long next door, this would be a nearly perfect place to stay. I love the decor - it fits my aesthetic and makes me happy - and it's certainly reasonable. Our first of two nights we had a regular room, but tonight, our last night, we got a room with a private pool....for $75/night. Want to see?

looking out our bedroom window, at our pool

standing outside at our pool's edge, looking back into our room. COOL!
this is the main pool for the hotel - not bad either, but the noise is a bit too much

For a bit of sightseeing this morning, we walked to Wat Phnom, which is the namesake wat for this town. According to legend, a woman named Penh found 4 Buddha relics in this area, and took them to this phnom (which means's the highest point in town) and this wat was built. Anyway - big, wat-ey, and interesting.

this elephant is available for people to ride around the wat
there was a small bunch of monkeys hanging around

and here it is, Wat Phnom.
    So we leave Phnom Penh tomorrow, Saturday at 11 something in the morning, for the 2.5 hour flight to Hong Kong. We leave Hong Kong around 5-something pm (still Saturday) and we land in JFK at 8pm (still Saturday). After flying for 16 hours (just the Hong Kong-JFK part). That always blows my mind and confuses me a little too much.

    Thursday, December 2, 2010

    at some point, you're ready

    And for me, the moment is NOW. I am ready to go home. I'm ready to sleep on something other than rock-hard platforms, with giant hard pillows. I'm ready to have my good coffee as I'm waking up slowly, rather than having to get dressed and fixed up and wait for Marc also to be ready, and then to get usually-mediocre coffee. I'm ready to go home. If it weren't for this bed situation, I think I wouldn't be quite so ready, but this has done the old girl in.

    I've been thinking a lot about strangeness, and Otherness. When we went to Vietnam in November of 2005, it was my first time to really be somewhere else. I'd been to Mexico (what Texan hasn't), and to Paris and surrounds, London, and Glasgow. But you know, those aren't really different in any important way. It helps that I can read French, but anyway, it's all western, all modern in the same way as my home was. But Vietnam, that made my head and self split open. I couldn't read any of the writing, the script was unrecognizable to me. The money? 148,000 dong to a dollar, couldn't do that translation in my head so it was a constant source of confusion. The people spoke almost no English, even at the front desk of our fancy hotel in Hanoi. The rules, unlike any I'd encountered (cf crossing busy streets, and remember, this was before I really lived in Manhattan). The food, not all that familiar to me. At one point, and it was early on in Hanoi, I hit a kind of wall and didn't think I was going to be able to take it any more. But of course when that happens, you just be with it until it passes, and I did, and it became great again. Still, I've remembered that shock of Other, and thought I'd feel it here.

    But I haven't. Is that because it's easy now, since I've already been to this part of the world? Is it simply less Other here, than it was in Vietnam (which was more complicated given our military history there)? If I were to go back to Hanoi, I probably wouldn't feel that again, not even a little bit, because it would be my 2nd time there. And I've changed a lot in the intervening 5 years, seen a lot more of the world. Can I still experience the Otherness that was so shocking? That's one thing I liked about traveling, getting to feel that jolt, that reminder that what can come to seem like "just the way people are" is NOT "just the way people are," but rather "just the way I and my culture are."

    Anyway. Ready to go.

    When we pulled into Phnom Penh yesterday, I felt so happy to be back in this wonderful city. Something big was going on, cops at every intersection, some kind of cavalcade of big cars with little flags flying on antennas, and I loved that. It's a vibrant city. Last night we ate an amazing dinner at K'Nyay - more on that soon - but before we went to the restaurant we walked along the river, where the Water Festival crowds had been. It was relatively empty this time. Young people walking around, parents with very small toddlers running around, beggars hitting us up with open hands and wordless pleas from their eyes. There was a most amazing temple we saw, on the waterfront plaza. It was crowded, and on the altar were three statues of fat dudes with really giant eyebrows....not too Buddha-like, I have no idea who they were. But behind them was a green and red and white neon thing with flashing lights, could've easily been in Las Vegas and no one would've even blinked. But there were a dozen people sitting on the ground in front of the altar, and a bunch more just outside the door lighting incense. It was such an unusual scene.

    Out to search for a Cambodian scarf, then we'll probably relax around the pool the rest of the day. Tomorrow will be LONG, but I'll write one more post tonight.

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010

    outsider art outside Vientiane: Buddha Park

    Buddha Park is this phantasmagorical, bizarre wonderland of statues depicting both Buddhist and Hindu iconography (and maybe other stuff you know which religious system(s) revere mermaids?). It's about 25km from Vientiane, and the mini-bus we took was only slightly faster than walking. I wasn't always certain we were going to make it, and on the way back, it seemed like there was an awful lot of heat coming from the engine under the driver's seat. Much of the trip was on a seriously potholed dirt road, and we definitely could've walked faster and been more comfortable. But that's ok, it was another experience of transportation in SE Asia. So, the park. This dude built it in 1958, but it looks a lot older than that. The statues are very large -- some are giant -- and they're made of cement and cement-covered bricks. I kept thinking that if only I knew the iconography, there might be giant cosmic jokes being told. As it was, I could only wonder, and gape in wonder.

    such a busy crowd, like being at a statue party of weirdness

    lots of dominion over things - here, triumph over a pile of skulls. :) Ganesha.

    me being eaten by a crocodile
    Marc and the ladies

    again, Marc and a lady, plus a really giant snake.

    mermaid? really?

    monks crawling around the top of .....

    this giant thing, which is supposed to represent hell, earth, and heaven or something like that.

    Here's the mouth - you crouch and go inside, and I guess there are stairs inside or something.
    I was just thinking of miniature golf with this one. Can you just imagine that? Putt-putting a golf ball into the mouth? It would fit the park, no kidding.
    and this GIANT reclining Buddha - see him in context in the top photo. Giant.
    So that was a very interesting trip. Trippy. Funny. Weird. Not like anywhere else, that's for sure! Every place we've been has been quite different from every other town, but now we return to the familiarity of Phnom Penh, tomorrow. Still, we'll be staying in a very different hotel, and we have plans to go to a wonderful restaurant tomorrow night. It'll be so interesting to see what it's like in Phnom Penh without all the Water Festival crowds....and what it'll be like after the tragedy of the Water Festival, too.

    This is our last night in Laos, and it's hard to say what Laos is like. Is it like Luang Prabang? Or Vientiane? Or something else entirely - you can't tell what a country is like based on two places. We've both had such a hard time remembering where we are, while we've been in Laos. When we were in Luang Prabang, I kept thinking I was in Tibet. (WHY?!! That makes no sense. Nothing about it was like Tibet. Nothing. Buddhists sure, but very different Buddhists.) Now and then I was thinking we were in Borneo. Again, why. That's so weird. Being in Vientiane has been just a generic experience - Anywhere Asia. I don't know why it's been so hard to hold Lao in my mind; maybe it's because I didn't have an idea of Laos before I came, no template in my mind for it. With Cambodia, for better or worse there's Pol Pot and Killing Fields, at least it's something for an unworldly person like me to hold on to. With Laos, I knew of the Hmong and their arts - part of my understanding since the late 1970s - but somehow I just didn't/don't have a "LAOS" idea in my head. I think I'll hang on to Luang Prabang as my idea of Laos.

    So now, we're going back to the banks of the Mekong for one last night of amazing and cheap food. I'll probably have one last Beerlao for the road. Ciao Lao.

    breakfasts in Vientiane

    Yesterday Marc and I had breakfast in the hotel - we usually do that, it comes free with the room and why not. Usually the breakfasts are at least ok, and often they're wonderful, especially in tropical places. But yesterday morning, we were sitting in the unremarkable restaurant of our unremarkable hotel, sipping our brilliantly orange 'juice' and it hit us both at the same time. We've tasted this before...........tang! Yes, in this semi-tropical place, with fresh fruit on every corner, we were drinking tang. And we suspect the eggs were of the powdered variety, given their texture and color. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, and free or not, I didn't want to waste any more vacation breakfasts on such bad food. (Oh, and Laos is known for its coffee -- the coffee in our hotel was bad instant. Not even good instant. Bad. Instant.)

    So this morning we decided to go to a nearby bakery, which was highly rated in Lonely Planet and on TripAdvisor. Really, very highly rated, like, almost #1 in both places. And they said things like "you could eat every meal here and still want more." So off to Joma Bakery we went, this morning, in keen anticipation. (Well, I went in keen anticipation, seeing as how I love breakfast. Marc, not so much with the breakfast.) Granted, we've gotten used to having piles of amazing food that ends up costing us a couple of bucks. OK, we're in that context right now. But what we got this morning was (a) unremarkable, and (b) at New York prices. Too bad. And last night we stopped at the other highly-rated and always listed bakery, Scandinavian Bakery, for donuts. (Donuts seem to be a favorite Lao sweet, and what do you know: they're a favorite Lori sweet too.) Again, the context, really cheap amazing food. And again, unremarkable food at NY prices. The donuts were about $1 each. I KNOW!

    We just returned from a dusty, bouncy ride out to Buddha Park - a bizarre, freakish, Disneyland of eastern religion iconography. As soon as I fix the photos, I'll post.

    Monday, November 29, 2010

    now why did we come here again? Hello, Vientiane.

    We were trying to remember why we decided to come to Vientiane, and being here hasn't helped us remember. All Marc could reconstruct is that we came to Vientiane to get to Laos before we knew we had to go to Phnom Penh to go to Luang Prabang, or anywhere else in Laos, and somehow Vientiane never got dropped from the itinerary. It's not like we knew anything about Vientiane, other than that it's the capital of Laos. So when we got here this afternoon, we started looking in the travel guides, our Lonely Planet book, everywhere online, and we just kept reading this kind of thing: "since there's not much to do in Vientiane, the kids love to bowl."

    Since one of our primary activities when we travel involves eating, we decided to go to the Mekong, just a few blocks from our (lackluster but ok) hotel since there's supposed to be a big thriving food scene there. The way we understood it, there would be lots of food vendors all along the riverfront. Here's what we saw:

    yeah. I guess not.
    So we wandered a bit, and finally found the food vendors lined up along a street set in a ways from the river. We picked one that looked good and sat down; the tables and chairs were lined up in the dust, littered with cigarette butts and construction debris, and an electrical wire running down the middle. I think we were getting bitten with sand fleas, on top of it. But I'll tell you what: the food was amazing. We had sticky rice, fried spring rolls, a grilled fish, chicken in spicy red chili sauce, and yellow noodles with pork. Plus a giant Beerlao for me, and a big bottle of water for us to share. LOTS of food, and all delicious. And the bill came to $15, which included a tip of unknown size.

    We have no idea what we're going to do here. Aside from the wats, there's not that much to see. A replica of the Arc de Triomphe, Buddha park outside town, and a couple of markets......and we're here for 3 nights. Our hotel is wholly unremarkable, a far cry from the really lovely place we stayed in Luang Prabang. Vientiane suffers in the comparison, and we're glad it's not our last stop on our vacation. We have two nights in Phnom Penh to look forward to, and I hope we find something of interest here. We'll see. At the least, we decided to just go ahead and be up front with our shared disappointment in Vientiane, kind of like we did with our experience in India, and that helps. What's that saying? A problem shared is a problem halved, or something?

    Oh yeah. I have a cold.

    Perhaps the rest of this evening we'll watch Lao tv - in a language we absolutely cannot understand - in an attempt to entertain ourselves. :)

    Sunday, November 28, 2010

    sacred and profane

    It's ridiculous to be a tourist complaining about tourists, but I'm so thoroughly disgusted right now I just want to hit someone. Hard. And I want that someone to be wearing shorts and a fanny pack, and to be a westerner.

    I have to acknowledge first that I was there to watch, too. I was there to witness a ritual about which I know only a little, a ritual that has no personal meaning for me, but one that is moving. The monks' morning alms round in Luang Prabang is a big thing - just google it and you'll see what I mean. Every morning the monks get up at 4am for prayers and their morning business, then they hit the streets. Every morning, Lao women get up and prepare rice and other food, and gather fruit, and bring their mats to the curb to wait for the monks to walk past, so they can earn merit by feeding the monks. It's one of the only ways women can earn merit. On their knees, they put a pinch of rice in each monk's bowl. It's not an unusual ritual, but in Luang Prabang, with 33 temples and all these monks, it's notable. In the early morning gray, the silent monks in orange robes parading past, collecting rice....well, I wanted to see it.

    There are women along the path who want to sell you rice or other bits of food to give the monks. There's an urgency to it when they ask, and they say "the monks are coming!" with what sounds like excitement. I loved that, considering this is a 365-day/year activity.

    Setting aside the lengthy set of rules that we found in our hotel room, there are just a few rules to follow regarding the monks, and they're easy to learn because they're posted anywhere you might find out about the monks' alms rounds: women do not touch the monks robes, and you stay lower than the monks. Really, that's it.

    OK. Now for my disgust and rant. Marc and I got up very early, crossed the bridge in the dark, and made our way to a part of the main street opposite a number of Lao women on their mats, with their offerings arrayed in front of them. We sat on the curb. We saw a few tourists sitting among the Lao, with some kind of cloth draped diagonally across their bodies, and with their purchased offerings in front of them. I wouldn't do that myself, because I'd feel like I was co-opting a ritual just for the tourist sake of it. But at least they were participating in a way that honored the ritual. But the big crowds of old white-haired tourists -- camera-wielding, fanny-packed and tennis-shoed -- were so disgusting I got so mad I just wanted to leave. They walked up to the seated women and got in their faces, flashing flashing taking pictures, as if the women were in the zoo or something. Then, when the monks came, they stood in front of them, barring their way, so they could flash flash flash take pictures of them up close, 'doing their monk thing.' I do think they were Americans, too. (To which the cynic in me wants to add "of course.") There were individual tourists who were doing that too, men with enormous cameras stacked up with so many lenses, as if they were pretending to be war journalists or something, flash flash flash shooting the monks just inches away from them.

    I also had my small video camera. I sat on the other side of the street, and did not use flash, and tried to unobtrusively take a short movie of the event -- which turned out to be a different event than I'd hoped.

    swine tourists.

    eating out in Luang Prabang

    Thank heavens Marc remembered that our little video camera can also take still photos. They're not as good as our great camera takes, but they're certainly better than nothing! Last night we ate in the food market and didn't take pictures, so we ran through tonight to get a few shots so we could remember our wonderful time with street food in Luang Prabang:

    it's a very crowded scene - tables and food on both sides of the narrow alley. and LOTS of people!

    buffet style: you buy a regular plate (about $1) or a large plate (about $1.25), then you help yourself to this huge spread of food. and it's ALL DELICIOUS.
    the ever-present Beer Lao, and a groaning board of dishes

    all kinds of grilled food - fresh fish from the Mekong, and chicken, and pork

    So you get your food, and find an empty spot at a picnic table. On the tables are containers filled with chopsticks, and empty glasses for your Beer Lao, and a roll of toilet paper to use as a napkin. It was really a great experience, and I'm so glad we did it. Eating in Luang Prabang was fabulous.
    on the main street are fruit shake vendors. you select your cup with whatever fruit you want (the three times we got shakes, Marc got banana-mango, banana-pineapple, and papaya, and I always got coffee-oreo) and they blend it while you wait. the vendors are all lined up, and we always went back to the same grouchy lady -- not this smiling one in the picture. the shakes are about 60 cents.
    I'm really going to miss this town. Tomorrow around 2pm we fly off to Vientiane, but in the morning we plan to get up really early to walk into town to witness the silent alms rounds of the monks.

    so surreal

    I had one of those moments this morning, the kind where you suddenly can't process anything, you can't believe where you are, what you're doing, what you're seeing. We hired a driver to take us out to the Tad Sae waterfalls, which are these flat limestone tiers with turquoise/aqua-colored water falling over them. Really gorgeous, from what we'd seen and heard. And while yesterday was kind of overcast and slightly cooler - perfect for walking around town, which is what we did - today is cloudless and hot. So the idea of taking an open-air drive up into the mountains to see waterfalls sounded just right.

    This is as good a place as any to comment on the sheer beauty of Laos. At least in this part of the country, the landscape is dominated by forested mountains that must be karst, given their shape. I love karst mountains, so this landscape really makes me happy. And there are often clouds clinging to the tops, which make me remember being in the countryside around Machu Picchu, another place that made me so happy. So anyway: gorgeous, gorgeous countryside. The trip was lovely.

    When we got there, turns out we had another journey to get to the boat. We weren't expecting that, but it was the surreal and amazing part. There we were, in a flat-bottom boat driving up some river in the mountains of Laos, under a sunny sky. There were people tending their gardens on the riverbanks, naked little kids playing at the river's edge (this river wasn't muddy at all), and the breeze was blowing my hair off my face. I was just boating up a river in the mountains of Laos. Me. And Marc. Unbelievable.

    The waterfalls were truly lovely, but my camera died so I post someone else's photo and know that it looked exactly like this:

    Saturday, November 27, 2010

    the muddy banks of the muddy Mekong

    It really is muddy, the Mekong River - reddish-brown everywhere we've seen it. It's such a vital part of people's lives here; during the rainy season, obviously it swells and stays at a high point. But when it recedes for the rest of the year, guess what the clever Lao do? They plant the river banks. The soil there is incredibly fertile, and all along the banks you see these lush little garden plots. Yesterday we were lying in the sun and heard kids laughing and a lot of splashing. There was an unplanted section that was a big slide-y mud slick, being used by four little boys to slide into the river. Two were naked as little brown jaybirds, and two wore underpants; they had some kind of something, plastic I guess, that they sat on to slide into the river.

    The Water Festival that was just celebrated in Phnom Penh has at least partly to do with this most unusual thing that happens with the Mekong.

    See that big lake? It's the Tonle Sap, and it connects to the Mekong with a tributary. Well, when the rainy season comes the tributary flows into the Tonle Sap. After the rainy season ends, it reverses direction. So the Water Festival celebrates that reversal of direction. I think that's very cool.

    In a spectacular incidence of packing fail, I didn't bring the charger for my camera battery. I've taken it on every other trip we've ever taken and never needed it once, so I decided not to bring it this time. And now, of course, in that way things work, my camera battery has only about 1/4 charge left. We're going to a nearby waterfall today, really gorgeous, and I'm going to take it but I want to save my battery for Vientiane, which is our next stop....tomorrow. For now, though, we're off to hire a tuk-tuk!

    Lao food and our hotel

    More lemongrass, I guess that's what makes it different. But I'd have a hard time saying that Lao food is x y or z. The only thing I can say is that so far, Lao food is amazing. Last night we ate at Tamarind, this fantastic little out of the way restaurant across the street from a giant temple. As we started eating, the monks were chanting and it was surreal and wonderful. We got the set menu, which was a LOT of food, all described as typical Lao food. (And by the way, once you get to Laos and Cambodia, being here is incredibly cheap. We'll have a huge dinner and it'll be $15...for both our dinners, and that often includes a beer for me! Our hotels are quite reasonable too.) Anyway -- our dinner:

    OK, I know this looks gross -- bamboo soup -- but it was AMAZING.

    Marc had lemongrass-ginger tea and I had Lao coffee. AMAZING.

    OK: at the bottom, lemongrass stuffed with chicken; going up on the left, peanut sauce, then fish cooked in banana leaf, then pumpkin - AMAZING, all.

    that stuff on the lower right? A-MA-ZING. It's some kind of seaweed covered in sesame seeds, dried in the sun, then fried. In the spoon, chili paste, on the left side of the plate, dried buffalo (that had marinated in honey, I think); two small pork sausages at the top; in the middle, a couple more dipping sauces, the green one made of eggplant and the red one tomato. I could've eaten my weight in seaweed. It was aMAzing.

    we sat on the porch, so that's the inside of the restaurant over Marc's shoulder

    I had Lao Beer (the beer of wholehearted people, they say) and Marc had this incredible watermelon chili granita. It really was amazingly delicious, not like anything either of us had ever tasted. Perfectly balanced, sweet and hot.
    So we were very happy with that dinner. Afterwards, we had to walk back to our hotel which involves walking on the side of a very tall bridge over the Mekong. It was harrowing in the dark, for someone like me who's afraid of heights and who trips over the design in the carpet, so clumsy. Here it is in daylight:

    That's the bridge -- hope it's obvious how high it is. Scooters and bikes go on the bridge (no motorized vehicles), but if you walk, you're relegated to the outside edge:

    YIKES. Uneven boards, unevenly spaced, nailheads sticking up, sure there's a rail on the side but sometimes there are just three boards, not four, and some of the boards don't look all that sturdy, and man that's a long way down to the river and don't look down just look straight ahead but I have to look down because I keep tripping if I don't....
    Yeah? Here's a video -- walk over the bridge with us:

    But it's SO worth it. Here's our beautiful hotel, Le Bel Air Resort, right on the banks of the Mekong River:

    the edge of the grounds, at the Mekong

    the cabins

    and that one's ours! Cozy, right?!

    hi honey!
    We're loving Luang Prabang. The people could care less about us (we love it that way) - they do their thing, we do ours. Usually, the tuktuk drivers just say in a low voice "tuktuk?" and that's that. When we're in the market, the people running the stalls don't speak unless we ask a question -- no pushing, no putting things on our bodies to try to force us to buy (ahem, *cough*India) -- they're just there if we have a question. After breakfast this morning, we walked over the bridge and wandered around, back to the markets (next post on that!). I bought a small handmade bag from a Hmong* woman, as a birthday gift for a friend, and we stopped and got shakes (smoothies, really; Marc's was fruit, and mine was coffee). We stopped at a little place overlooking the river and had some lunch - fried noodles, and rice and chicken (our lunch was $6, see what I mean?!).

    *You know, being an American out in the world can be really hard going because our government has been such an asshole for so long. We were just so horrible to Laos, and to the Hmong, and people are still being killed by all the unexploded bombs left in this beautiful country - bombs we take no responsibility for, because we weren't "really here at war." Quite often, we pass little groups of musicians playing local music, really beautiful, and we see that they're victims of land mines, missing limbs, and collecting money. And I get nauseous walking past them, from shame of my country. And I wanted to apologize to the Hmong woman this morning. But what does that do? Assuage my guilt for a second, not really, nothing.

    Friday, November 26, 2010

    OH. WOW. LAO.

    Laos is AMAZINGLY BEAUTIFUL. Huge green rolling mountains with jagged tops - valleys - rivers. Our hotel is just wonderful, and I have a lot to say but for now just three quick photos before we head to town. More later, after dinner.

    The Luang Prabang airport

    Marc enjoying a cold lemongrass tea as we checked in.

    among the police department's rules:
    5. do not any drugs, crambling or bring both women and men which is not your own husband or wife into the room for making love.
    6. do not allow domestic and international tourist bring prostate and others into your accommodation to make sex movies in our room, it is restriction.

    I do wonder about that "prostate;" perhaps they mean to say "prostitute." Otherwise it would be an all ladies country.

    Wow. Laos, really something. I can't wait to see more.

    Thursday, November 25, 2010

    a last coupla things from Siem Reap

    Before I forget:

    • Cambodia and Thailand have been engaged in battles for a long, long, long time. One great benefit of France's involvement in Cambodia was that it retook land that had been taken by Thailand. Siem Reap means "Siam is defeated" which totally, totally cracks me up. It's like naming a town in the far northern US "Suck it Canada" or something. It makes me laugh every single time I say Siem Reap. (Which, FYI, is pronounced SEE-em re-EP.)
    • The beds in Cambodia have -- without exception -- been hard as the floor. There's usually a lot of variability in hotels, but not here. Here, every single bed is as hard as the floor. They are actually beds, actual mattresses, but just really really hard. And the pillows are very thick and overstuffed, leading to crazy stiff necks in the mornings. I have a hard enough time staying asleep, but these rock-hard beds and high hard pillows keep me waking up all night long in a lot of physical pain. I'll be sad when our vacation is over, but I'll be thrilled to be back in my own cozy bed with my own soft pillows.
    Since the beginning of our vacation plans, I've been most looking forward to seeing Luang Prabang, in Laos - and now it's time! Before I shut down, I'll show you a couple of photos of Ta Prohm, which is one of the temples in the larger Angkor Thom complex. I haven't begun to work on my Angkor Wat photos, but I do want to get something up here.

    OK, this one is obviously Angkor Wat. The sun was nearly up.

    Ta Prohm is all overgrown; it's a constant battle to keep the jungle from taking it back.

    It had such a different feeling from Angkor Wat - a bit eerie but wonderful.

    This spot is iconic - you always see photos of it. The time we were there, it was in such shadow but nearby was so light, I couldn't adjust the image very well. Anyway, it was flooded with a big tour of Chinese tourists who didn't seem eager to let anyone else near the spot any time soon so I finally gave up.

    there are these Khmer faces on all four sides of this tower, and similar towers on all four corners of the temple. i can imagine they looked kind of fierce if you saw them for the first time.
    OK! Time to close up shop for the morning, to pack and prepare to leave Cambodia. I'm glad we'll be back for a couple more nights in Phnom Penh, but I'm very much looking forward to seeing Laos.