Friday, December 4, 2009

A travel day in a long parade of buses. First a minibus to the Old Market bus stop in Siem Reap, then another minibus around the bloock to the VIP bus stop, then a big bus towards Poipet at the Thai border. Its brakes failed, and after rummaging around under the bus with very large wrenches and disassembling big chunks of metal found there, they found us yet another bus and we continued to the border. The dusty and bumpy dirt road we had used in 2006 was gone and replaced with a smooth paved freeway. Poipet is the only place in Cambodia where casinos are legal, and they are building two there, just past Cambodian immigration.

On the Thai side, another minibus brought us to the bus stop, where we were all summarily forgotten. Nobody seemed to know who goes where and in which bus, so I kept nagging everybody in uniform and got put on a minibus quickly. Thai freeways are wide and modern and we arrived in Bangkok quickly. I was dropped at a skytrain stop and found my way to the hotel I had reserved.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I rented a tuk-tuk for the day and went out to Angkor, the old Khmer temples. I focused on temples that I had missed on my previous visit in 2006. The circular temple in the northeast in the middle of a pool, surrounded by four smaller pools, was dry in 2006 but now the pools were filled, turning a dusty ruin into an enchanted place. I visited several more remote temples and wandered their extensive mazes of corridors and halls. Some had collapsed but most were restored. I was amazed that there were almost no other tourists, I even got my ticket without waiting at all.

Of course I also briefly visited the three most famous temples of Angkor: Ta Prohm, the Bayon, and Angkor Wat. Ta Prohm was my favorite in 2006: dark buildings, some collapsed, rising from the forest, mysterious, serene, and majestic. Huge tree roots were gripping the temples like alien tentacles, as if nature was clawing back what was once a jungle. It doesn't just look like a Tombraider set, it was a Tombraider set. But Lara Croft won't return. Ta Prohm was tamed and had its mystery and atmosphere squeezed out. Most exterior rubble and low vegetation was cleared away, leaving the temples standing naked, and wooden walkways were built including roped-off platforms right in front of scenic spots for the tourists to stand on and have their picture taken. They are even building a new concrete Naga passage to the temple. Morons. I guess it looked good on paper.

The Bayon with its many towers adorned with huge sculpted Buddha faces facing in four directions, and its maze of dark passages underneath, is still what it was in 2006. It has to be explored to be appreciated, from a distance it looks like a mound of rubble but it's fantastic inside and justly famous.

The central complex, Angkor Wat, was the only temple filled with tourists and tour groups, but it was being renovated and the central temple pyramid was closed. Not much to see there and no views anymore. It was magic in 2006. If there was no Unesco to recognize places like Angkor, they'd have to set one up just for Angkor to give it its dues.

Siem Reap is where everyone is heading for hotels and restaurants. On my last visit, Siem Reap's Old Market district was just a dirt road lined with old French facades. Now it's paved, reducing its former small-town charm somewhat but they managed to give the place a pleasant hipness that can stand up to any western standard. It doesn't have much to do with Cambodian culture though. Touts offer massages, girls, boys, marijuana, and other pleasures for those inclined. I had an excellent fish amok instead (a Cambodian fish curry served in a coconut shell). There is no ice cream in Laos, but there is in Cambodia, and the Khmer fruit and Khmer spices flavors were excellent.
Yesterday, when swimming, I could see Cambodia on the other side of the Mekong, so I decided to swing by Angkor on my way to Bangkok. A boat brought me to Ban Nakasang, and to a 14-hour bus to Siem Reap in Cambodia. The bus passed within 1km of Vietnam, and within 70km of Phnom Penh, but I resisted these temptations; I have been to both places before. We crossed the Mekong one last time before Kampung Cham and switched to a "private car", which turned out to be a Honda packed with six people, driving in total darkness for three hours on a road with animals, unlit bicycles and overloaded motorcycles, parked trucks, and people sitting in the middle of the street chatting. That last one got a rise out of our otherwise imperturbable driver, "suicidal" he said.

I liked Laos; life is still simple there compared to its neighbors, even though some places sold out to tourism to get some of those euros and dollars no matter what it does to their cities. And I did not see any US chain store in Laos at all; no KFC, no McDonalds, no 7-Eleven, and no Starbucks. What a relief.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Rented one of those impractical bicycles and rode south to Don Khon island, across the French bridge. They built the bridge for the only railway ever operating in Laos; the remains of one engine are still rusting away at the bridge. Rode a narrow footpath through a wat and bamboo, palm, and banyan forests to Tat Somphamit, aka the Li Phi falls. They are not very high, the highest cascades less than ten meters, but a tremendous volume of Mekong water is crashing down at high speed with a loud roar through a rocky canyon. Besides two large falls, there are numerous smaller ones that keep the water light green and covered with white foam for a long way.

Next I went all the way to the southern end of Don Khon, where I found a small beach jutting out between the main flow of the Mekong and a rapidly flowing side channel that has washed out a quiet pool. Went swimming for a while. It's impossible to swim against the current - even long-tail boats slow to a crawl - but approaching sideways from the pool and grabbing a root while the water rushes past is fun. Although I have travelled on the Mekong before, I have never swum in it before. Southern Laos is hot and sunny but not humid, and the water is quite warm. Not bad for the last day of November.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My guesthouse runs a ferry down the Mekong river. It takes 90 minutes to reach Don Det, another inhabited island of Si Phan Don. many fishermen are squatting on the tails of their little boats, casting their nets. Despite its width, the river flows quite quickly.

The village of Don Det is supremely laid back, strung out along a lone dirt path along the river bank. At the ferry landing, where the boats just run up to the beach, there are a number of guesthouses and restaurants; further down the path are small wooden and bamboo houses on stilts where families live and work in the space under their houses. There are a few backpackers, but everything is extremely quiet.

I wanted a peaceful place in Laos' countryside, and that's exactly what I got. My guesthouse is at the northern tip of the island, and my balcony with a hammock is built on stilts over the river bank. As I write this I am watching the sunset over the Mekong. There is no electricity in Don Det, and hence no hot showers, on the island; some places run a generator for a few hours in the evening. The place does look ready to party, but there were none when I was there.

I walked to other end of the island through fields being harvested by old women (picture), until I reached an old bridge from French colonial times that leads to the next island south, Don Khon (not to be confused with Don Khong). There is a small village on the other side, even quieter than Don Det. I got the impression that it attracts a much older crowd of tourists. I did check out the Sala Phaet hotel, which consists of some droopy neglected-looking huts on rafts in the river, for ten times the price of other guesthouses.