Friday, February 28, 2014

Kampong Cham Two

Yes, we've moved on, but I wanted to share a little more of the flavour of Kampong Cham other than our ornate bed.  We had travelled long hours for two days and thought it wise to take a break so stayed in KC for a second night. We didn't get far, but found the town, and the people we saw, very charming - I think we could have lingered and explored more, but of course, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat beckoned. 

I was up very early our first morning and was greeted with this beautiful sunrise over the Mekong. 

Across the river is a pink building called the French Tower. We didn't explore but it was an intriguing addition to the skyline. Remember that the French were a very big player in "Indochine" up until they were finally removed forcibly by Cambodia and Vietnam. 

One other remarkable sight is thoroughly Cambodian though.  This bamboo bridge which goes to a large island, complete with guest houses, is rebuilt every year after the Mekong subsides following the monsoon season.

It is a remarkable feat of construction up close.

And it's used by walkers, bicyclists, motor bikers and even less mechanical means of transport.

Of course there are monks who walk under their umbrellas.  Notice the young woman on the right with the red sweater. She is greeting other monks under the golden umbrellas.

In the evening, the river walk in KC comes alive. Here we see the height of fashion for Cambodian women and children. Yes, pajamas. They are every day wear in the streets of the towns and villages throughout the country - its not just because it's evening.

Here's one of the regular evening activities of the local citizens. 

Line dancing! Only two men were participating. The "real" men were over here treating an Italian game with great seriousness -bocce. There were four bocce courts all in use with very serious competition. 

We have been needing haircuts for awhile but it seems hair cutters are few and far between. We went out looking for a bank in the afternoon and walked the city for an hour. On our return, from a different direction, we found this hair salon, two doors away from our hotel. Before and after pictures tell the story. Note that Geordie is having fun. 

No wonder the young woman at one of the temples yesterday called me "handsome man". I'm sure she wasn't just trying to butter me up to buy her post cards. 

The stylists didn't speak English.  Luckily the young woman who appeared to be in charge translated our requests. And it was interesting that my stylist used electric clippers and scissors. The older man who cut Geordie's hair used hand held clippers like those my uncle used way back in 1960. 

And here, as a gentle reminder, is a suggestion we've taken to heart, as we have booked six nights at the Golden Banana in Siem Reap to explore. I'll tell you more in a later post. So much to absorb. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Kampong Cham

Yesterday was a long hard slog and frustrating at the end when we couldn't get any money.  I did manage to get a photo of the tourists in Laos all eager to head to new adventures in Cambodia. There's no one you know in this picture unless by some amazing fluke you've actually crossed paths with some of these youngsters. 

But today, after a little frustration we finally got money. We went to yesterday's out-of-service ATM and tried the machine with both our cards to no effect. Then we went inside and the charming young man there came out with us to help. He got the machine to recognize us, but after it churned away trying to give us money it just gave up. That meant some paper work and telephone calls since it appeared that we were meant to get money and now would need to have it refunded, but they could do nothing else for us.

We then headed to the other bank where, tempting madness,  (you know, repeating over and over the same thing and expecting different results), we popped in our cards again and not at all surprisingly, got the same result - no money. But we went inside again and chatted up another young man who understood our dilemma and found a solution - we went to the teller and she pulled out one of those handy dandy handheld machines they use in restaurants, we inserted our cards and magically it gave us permission to take out money. We were so excited that, after Geordie got money, I decided that I should use my card too. So now we don't have to leave the country for lack of funds. and tonight on our way back from dinner we saw a different bank and decided it was worth a shot, and wonder of wonders, it gave us money. Perhaps you can make sense of their slogan: "BIDC. Be the hand. By the side". 

Oddly though the machines dispense, not Cambodian riels, but American dollars. We've also noticed that restaurants, hotels and bus companies are all quoting prices in dollars and if you ask to pay in riels they work it out using the exchange values. I did change $50.00 into riel so we could buy small sundries like toothpaste or Oreo cookies for the bus trips though. 

That out of the way we decided we should get the hell out of town so immediately booked a bus to our next destination, Kampong Cham. Today's trip was not nearly as long and tortured, either.  We left Kratie at 11:00 am and the only confusion was that our bus headed in the opposite direction to where we were going. The route we had expected goes south-west at a diagonal from Kratie and our bus headed due east! We pulled out the guide book and realized that the bus was taking a long route that loops out to the east, and in almost a perfect semicircle heads back west. We've decided that the route was chosen because the road is in good condition and the other route not. 

For the first while the landscape was like yesterday - a wasteland - but halfway through,  the vegetation finally began to get lush, we passed acres and acres of rubber plantations stretching at one point as far as the eye could see, but we also passed bright green rice paddies and fruit tree plantations too, and this afternoon we learned that part of the area we travelled is given over to the production of fine quality black pepper. I have a feeling that the greenery which we thought was hops for beer was, in fact, pepper bushes. No pictures sadly - buses just don't lend themselves to good photos. 

But we arrived in Kampong Cham by 3:30 pm, only 4.5 hours of travel instead of yesterday's 9. And it turns out that this is the first time we've crossed the Mekong to the western bank, over this  long bridge. 

Now, in the last few days we've been paying 6 to 7 dollars for our rooms. And it showed. In our last place on Don Det the owner had not thought to supply wash basins. Hot shower yes, toilet yes, although when the power was out we couldn't flush because the electric pump didn't work. And at one point our bathroom was invaded by a large colony of ants looking for a new home - thousands of the little buggers  we made short work of them with some borrowed bug spray. 

Well, we've made up for it here. Our hotel is quite flash, with not only a sink (with hot water!) but even a tub. And the bed? Well, see for yourself. 

He feels like the Empress of China, I'm sure. And no, there is no window behind the headboard. 
But isn't it romantic. 

Surely you need to see it again to take in the magnificence of this room. $30:00 a night. 

Somehow, the view of the Mekong is almost a let down after this room, but I'm sure the cruise boat that steamed upriver while we watched from our balcony has a little opulence too. It does have a pool - that I know because I saw a near naked man step out of it as the boat went by.

A less opulent boat was moored on the bank of the river just where the cruise boat sailed by.  How the other half lives. 

And here's the bridge at night - taken from the restaurant where we ate crispy deep fried chicken tonight - way better than the Colonel's.

We've decided it's worth a two night stay by the way - partly because two long travel days in a row is plenty, thank you - and partly of course, well, the bed! .There are some good restaurants near here including one that provides opportunities for orphans and other disadvantaged young people to learn the restaurant trade. We had coffee there this afternoon and will head there for breakfast tomorrow too. I also need to buy socks; somehow I've managed to wear out four pairs - two of which i bought in Mae Sot. Then it's off to Siem Reap where we have already reserved a room for five nights to give us plenty of time to contemplate the wonders of Angkor Wat. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Don Khong, Don Det, Don Khon

Time hasn't stopped here in southern Laos, but it has certainly slowed down. We spent a couple of days on the larger island of Don Khong in the Mekong. We lazed around because unlike the north it is hot here - very hot and humid in the afternoons. But we left to go even further away from civilization to the smaller islands of Don Det and Don Khon. These are only three of the 4000 Islands, as they are called, although some of the islands are merely mangrove-like trees in the river. 

On the way we boated under this bridge, another of China's contributions to Laos. 

Near our destination we ran a very small rapid. 

We met this ferry heading across the Mekong.  It's just like the one that we used to get to Don Khong from the mainland. 

Of course there is always something interesting to see on the river.  Like these young monks preparing to bathe. 

And the water buffalo. 

We landed at Don Khon and had to walk across the former railway bridge to get to our guest house. No, Geordie is not carrying a pole in his back pack. 

Along the way we saw a sign that offered some services.

That's our guest house across the river. Our hut is the larger one with the red roof - there were two rooms here. Ours had a hot shower but no basin so I haven't shaved for three days. We are sitting in the restaurant area you see on the riverside as I write. 

Transportation here is on foot, on bicycle or on motorbike, and on the river by boat. This is the path that goes past our guest house. 

As it was in the old days still it is today. This fish trap is still used. 

But there are gorgeous orchids. 

And the night time riverscape is lovely.

As is sunrise. 

Yesterday we walked to the prime destination on Don Khon.  It goes along the abandoned railway - the only railway ever built in Laos, it was five km long. This railroad bridge is now the road connection between the two islands. 

A few bits of track can be find along the side of the path in a couple of places and this locomotive was found covered in overgrowth near the track. 

The railway was built by the French who were looking for a way to get goods to China past the rapids which cascade down the Mekong at the end of the island. They did finally get the railroad built and it was used for a short while, although it has been out of use since WWII. 

And this is why. These rapids and waterfalls are more than half a km wide and there is no way a boat could traverse the route. 

And here is where the falls end. 

We enjoyed a cool drink at "The Beach" at the end of the falls, and a swing in a very unusual hammock.  The main body is made from a single length of bamboo, split and then spread so that the bed could be woven. 

On the way back we found this woman selling something to eat.  It may have been black rice which is actually purple. 

This old colonial building is next the local primary school in Don Det. Anyone want a fixer upper?

And another lovely sunrise. When one goes to bed early one can be up before the sun. 

This is our last day in Laos. Tomorrow we set forth for a new country. A boat ride will take us to the town of Nagasang across the Mekong and from there we will catch a bus that will take us to the border and into Cambodia. We expect to spend about three weeks there. You'll be hearing from us. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Paksé and Champasak.

After three days in Vientiane we headed south, first flying to Paksé. We had originally planned to stay there two  nights but decided on one. And we're so glad. Our hotel was a great come down from Vietntiane, although we do have to forgive them some of the dirt because the street out front had been torn up to lay new sewer lines. It was incredibly dusty too which would explain the red moon. No pictures. I woke early the next morning and went looking for coffee. Found this scene.

Then we were off to Champasak. We took a boat down the very wide Mekong. It was a great way to travel and only two hours so a pleasurable morning jaunt. Our boat.

And our elegant mode of ingress. 

Here we look a little more stately.

If we didn't know we were in Laos, we would think we were in France. This large complex is in Paksé but nowhere near where we stayed. 

There were fishermen on and along the river. 

Hauling nets 

Animal life

And small gardens.

And simple houses on stilts. 

When we arrived in Champasak we had to ascend these 59 steps. 

Champasak is very, very sleepy. Hardly a soul on the street and the town is really all on one street with a few side lanes. We are staying at the newest hotel which is a pink confection. Our room is large, reasonably furnished with air con and a fan for the princely sum of $11.00 a night. 

The reason people come to Champasak (I know you wondered) is to visit Wat Phou which is not, as you might think, another Buddhist temple but instead a Khmer archaeological site. The Khmer built Angkor Wat, the very famous temple complex in Cambodia but Wat Phou is actually earlier. The temple is sited on a mountainside below a natural lingam (a phallic symbol) atop the mountain itself.  The water here is in a Baray and represents the ocean. The site was begun in the 10th century and the two large water tanks were built here too. That mountain is the phallic one. 

The site was originally a Hindu temple. The carved decorations on the temple buildings represent Shiva, one of the gods of the Hindu pantheon. This may not be him. 

This stone walkway lined with these stylized lotus buds leads from the tanks up to the second level. 

There is a jumble of stone not yet reconstructed. 

But there are buildings standing, although their roofs have fallen. 

The carved lintels are wonderful. 

The area did become a Buddhist site much later. That means there are visiting monks. The trees are frangipani. This long sloping stone way leads up to the steps which take you to the third level which represents heaven. 

After this section there are a series of steps, seven in all, each with eleven stairs. Climbing up was hard. So was getting back down. It did seem appropriate to post these pictures today since our friend Marje is exploring similar stepped temples at the same time on the other side of the world in Tikal, Guatemala. 

You can see that these are not Buddhist, who are much more modest in dress. We did note that the stones here don't exactly match belly to skirt. I don't know whether the archaeologists have got this one right.

They did a better job on this one. 

And this character has such an interesting face. 

This four headed deity is at an area that looked like a fountain. 

Along with this figure too. Somewhat yoga like. 

There is a natural spring seeping from the rocks at the very top of the site. It was channeled into these waterways and water poured constantly over another lingam in the temple complex. The lingam is long gone. 
The water drips from the rocks in more than one place. Devout Buddhists collect the water for their own rituals. 

Geordie was reminded of an area of the Camino de Santiago by these stacked stones.

Some distance away is this rock with its carved elephant. 

For scale. The red trough contains incense sticks. There are many more just to the right of the young woman's feet.

And a crocodile. The snout is at the lower end. 

Last week there was a large full moon religious celebration here. Many people came to watch the ceremonies and to sleep overnight. They left an incredible amount of garbage strewn everywhere. It was terrible to see. But there was a large contingent of people doing their best to clean up, including this young man with his basket for trash. 

We were very hot and sweaty after climbing and exploring the site. But it was worth it. We know that Ankhor Wat is very much larger than this and we expect to spend several days exploring it. We are spending another week here in Laos. Tomorrow we head for the 4000 Islands, an area of the Mekong at the bottom tip of the country. We will travel by tuk-tuk, boat, mini-van, boat and tuk-tuk, in that order to get to Don Khong, the first island we'll visit. There are two more, further down, called Don Khet and Don Khon which we may visit too, unless we find ourselves unable to stir because of the heat.