Friday, November 20, 2009

Luang Prabang's small old town has a large number of Buddhist temples, all of which are active with many orange-robed monks about. Most are small, but Wat Xieng Thong is an impressive large complex with not only the usual large hall that houses the Buddha shrine, but also a smaller hall with a huge golden hearse for kings, and numerous smaller shrines and living quarters for the monks. Their orange laundry hangs out to dry between the shrines. The walls, inside and out, are covered with gold, gold painting, and glittering glass mosaics.

Took a tour bus to Kuang Si, a park with a large waterfall that drops from a tall hill, and then through a series of wide cascades between turquoise pools. Very beautiful. There are lots of trails in the forest, and viewpoints to watch the falls. There was an annoying loud American on the bus that kept dropping names of all the unexciting places he's been to in Asia and his boring adventures there. He has seen people on the roof of his overcrowded bus, yawn.

Luang Prabang is very pretty and avoids all the mistakes that have turned so many other Asian cities into swirling maelstroms of honking traffic and faceless office towers, but it sold its ssoul to tourism. One hears a lot more German than Lao in the streets, and it's packed with guesthouses, tour operators, and fancy restaurants. It's difficult to find Lao food, it's just an afterthought tacked on to the end of the pizza, burger, and spaghetti sections of the menus (under "Lao cousins" in one place I was eating at). Tomorrow I'll escape to a place without Internet, phones, cell towers, and (most of the day) electricity.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I have visited almost all countries in southeast Asia, but not Lao, until now. Luang Prabang is Lao's cultural center. As much as I liked Australia, it's good to be back in Asia, away from the perfectly organized affluence and "slippery when wet" signs. Luang Prabang is rather touristy, I saw almost as many Western tourists as locals on the streets and there are guesthouses everywhere. But it's also peaceful and quiet, with old low houses, narrow streets, very little traffic, no modern buildings, and only a handful of souvenir shops. Small temples are scattered throughout the old town, and Buddhist monks in their orange robes are out on the streets.

Luang Prabang is built along the shores of the mighty Mekong river, which slowly flows down the length of Laos until it emerges in a huge delta in southern Vietnam, where I had gone out in a boat for a few days last year. Long narrow wooden boats are loaded by boatmen carrying huge bags on their shoulders, walking up narrow planks to their boats while tourists watch from restaurant terraces that overlook the Mekong.
Last day in Sydney, mopping up a few sights before my flight leaves in the evening. I picked a ferryboat at random and went out to the western suburbs, passing under the Harbour Bridge. The area becomes scenic very quickly, small houses perched on the hills around the western bay with numerous little coves and marinas. Sydney Tower is a great vantage point to see just how green and suburban sydney is - the ocean, bays, beaches, parks, and forests are everywhere. Only the CBD doesn't look good from the Tower: you only see the air conditioners on the roofs of nondescript highrises, and the entire Harbour Area - the jewel of Sydney - is mostly hidden behind other towers.

They run tours of the Sydney Opera every 30 minutes, but few tours include both concert halls and the drama theaters because of ongoing shows. My 12:30 tour did, though. The opera building is rather more impressive from the outside than the inside because little of the dramatic roof is visible, but it's very modern and airy, with views of the water everywhere, in a Sixties kind of way. Sydney Opera is a World Heritage and deservedly one of the most recognized building on earth.

Also checked out museums (not as many as I would have liked), and walked about town. Itwas another warm day, over 30 degrees C; summer is near. At the same time they have Christmas trees everywhere, and they are building a huge Christmas tree with a steel trunk and branches and plastic needles in Martin Square in the middle of the CBD. Fairly good imitation though. Christmas is less than five weeks from now.

I am writing this at Bangkok airport. Finally, back in Asia! I'll catch a flight to Lao soon.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Took a ferry to Manly, a suburb that is part of Sydney's Northern Beaches. Corso, the main street, is short and connects the bay ferry terminal on one side of town with the ocean on the other side.

They have a former army reserve with a quarantine station at the North Head, which is opposite the South Head I had visited two days earlier. Both form the gateway of Sydney Bay to the ocean. The army is gone, and the area is now a nature reserve with a bushwalk trail. Saw only two other visitors.

The Northern Beaches are much quieter and more difficult to reach than the Eastern Beaches. Saw only a few surfers. The final stop was Palm Beach, a crescent of sand overlooked by very expensive weekend mansions.

Tomorrow evening, after a final few hours in Australia, I'll be on my way to Luang Prabang in Lao.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Checked out The Rock. It used to be a dangerous part of town a hundred years ago but its old brick warehouses got remodeled into expensive restaurants, cafes, and galleries. Some of its alleys are more modern redevelopments that pay less attention to the old style, but it's still a very nice neighborhood in a very prominent location at the Harbor Bridge. Sydney loves its waterfront and puts promenades, piers, and parks there; unlike, say, Paris or Seattle where they like to close off the waterfront for freeways.

Newtown is another neighborhood, west of the CBD. Its main street is King St, lined with unassuming old buildings with lots of little cafes, restaurants, and second-hand bookstores. But like in many modern cities, the very nice left side of the street is separated from the very nice right side of the street by four lines of heavy traffic.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Yesterday was mountains, today is beaches. Sydney has countless beaches. Started at Bronte Beach, one of Sydney's Eastern Beaches facing the ocean, and walked to Bondi Beach, Sydney's most famous beach. There is path that connects them all, and in November there is an event called Sculpture By The Sea where perhaps a hundred sculptures are placed along the ocean shore walk. There is a giant straw out in the sea, plastic eyeballs embedded in a rock wall, a wicker and a brass horse, and many other figures and abstract shapes. The path is quite busy. Bondi Beach itself has become a victim of its beauty. There is lots of traffic and expensive hotels and restaurants. Whales were breaking through bthe waves out on the ocean, chased by small tourist boats.

Also saw several bay beaches. They don't have the dramatic rock cliffs. At South Head, where Sydney Bay opens to the ocean, is a viewpoint called The Gap with a panorama of both an ocean beach and a bay beach. Went swimming at a less crowded beach near Botany Bay in the south.
Blue Mountain National Park begins 60km west of Sydney. It's very accessible: a six-lane highway, double train tracks, and lots of buses connect Sydney to the park. It can get quite busy. All the viewpoints and trails in the park are tamed - perfect roads lead there, there is parking, fences, guardrails, and stone steps. I almost expected coin turnstyles.

The first stop was Wentworth Falls viewpoint. The Blue Mountains are a deeply cut plateau, with steep rock faces down to hilly and densely forested valleys. The falls drop into a circular canyon with a pool at the bottom, like an Aztec cenote except no princes are sacrificed here.

Passed through the main town of the Blue Mountains, Katoomba, a sleepy little town with restaurants and galleries, on the way to Echo Point. It has a similar fantastic panorama of canyons and valleys, and a view of the Three Sisters. They are three rock pinnacles off to one side. Another lookout, Evans Viewpoint nnear the town of Blackheath, has similar views and the Bridal Veil Falls, a thins but very tall waterfall; the water reaches the bottom only as a fine mist. The final stop was Sublime Point, with a view of the opposite side of the Three Sisters. It was late afternoon by this time, and mists started to roll in. They are very blue, giving the mountains their name.