Hi Mum, I’m in Phnom Penh

Southeast Asia is obviously not the wealthiest part of the world. After spending time in the affluence of Singapore and KL, and the relative affluence of Thailand, both Laos and what we’d seen so far in Cambodia were marked by poverty – small, scrappy villages with a single communal water source, not much sign of kids being in school and plenty of touting and begging (especially by particularly persistent kids). Arriving in Phnom Penh was then a pleasant surprise.

I had no real image in mind for Phnom Penh, so it was a happy discovery to find a pleasant city, bordered by the river and full of parks, gardens, elegant boulevards and other open spaces. On our first evening in Phnom Penh we wandered down Sisowath Quay by the river and found … people enjoying themselves. There were some food vendors but they didn’t seem desperate to close a deal, and all the children we saw were just playing – chasing each other, falling over us when we got in their way, squabbling over their nifty pedal cars and snacking on fruit and popcorn. It was refreshing to see. We also saw a new development – public dance groups. A big speaker and some kind of sound system were set up, and a group of people would spontaneously form in front of it. A ‘leader’ would then demonstrate some choreography and the crowd would soon follow. Rival groups of 30-40 people would spring up, trying to drown out each others’ music. All very festive. (Choreography was a bit lame, though.)

This feeling of joy and abandon made more sense after our visit the following day to Tuol Sleng, or S (Security) 21. This used to be a high school in suburban Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge used it for the detention and torture of high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials fallen from favour and other members of the population who came to the attention of the regime as potential dissidents.

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Only a handful of people ever survived S21 (most inmates were taken to the Killing Fields about 20km from the city and murdered, if they managed to survive the torture and starvation).

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The school is kept much as it was, with some horrific exhibits (photos of inmates, even deceased, and some skulls) and very informative ones. Part of the reason why photos of victims are displayed so openly is to show visitors the incontrovertible evidence of the genocide that occurred, because while some Khmer Rouge officials are in custody (including the head of S21), trials have not yet commenced.

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Given our short time in Cambodia it would be inappropriate to think we understood the effect of the genocide on Cambodians, but we did wonder whether the carefree vibe we noticed in PP had something to do with the survival of these amazing people. Tuol Sleng is well worth a visit – it’s one of the most horrific places I’ve ever been, and it was a difficult place to be, but I’m very glad we went.

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After a gut-wrenching day, we decided we needed some levity – colour and movement. Where better than the nearest market?

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We ended up going to three of the main markets in PP – the Central Market (amazing architecture, but undergoing renovation, and not that interesting as markets go), the Russian market (so named because they used to be the only people in town with any money; this one was pretty cramped and crowded, but good fun) and finally O’Russey market, our favourite.

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We enjoyed watching the inventive ways they could pack vehicles.

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And of course sat down for a snack. This place was great – little fried bundles of vegetables and tofu. The vendor also gave us some nuts, similar to chestnuts, to try. Delicious.

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While we were there, we also spent a couple of hours at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, or FCC. It’s in a beautiful old building on the Quay, great views over the town, and with a very decent Happy Hour.

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(This photo is just for show. We mostly stuck to martinis at AUD3 each).

And so that was Phnom Penh – an unexpectedly great place.

From here we had planned to head south and stay on a remote little island off the tourist beach hub of Sihanoukville. However, after poking around on the internet we found reports that the area had become pretty inundated by rubbish on the beach, and was no longer the idyllic beach paradise we’d hoped for. So, enjoying our flexibility, we ditched that idea and headed straight for Saigon…

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Hi Mum, I’m in Siem Reap

We arrived in Siem Reap hot, smelly, grumpy and sick of travelling. Things quickly improved, however, once we arrived at our guesthouse. We were greeted with smiles, cold drinks and directed straight toward the pool by the staff (maybe they were being nice, or maybe we really smelled). My opinion of Siem Reap had just improved significantly. A quick jaunt to Pub Street for some fine Cambodian fare and a few 50 cent pots and we were fully returned to good spirits, but oh so ready for a decent night’s sleep.

The only apparent reason for going to Siem Reap for is the temples that lie in its surrounds, but we weren’t quite feeling up to that after our very long days of travelling. Instead we paid a visit to the excellent Angkor National Museum, which was the perfect primer on the religious, historical and architectural significance of the Angkor temples. We spent several hours taking in the immense collection of artefacts and slightly twee multimedia displays and by the time we reached the gift shop that marks the end of any self-respecting museum, were feeling very satisfied with ourselves for having done some learning. To reward ourselves, we decided to celebrate with a swim and some beers…

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Unwisely having overindulged the night before, we headed out before dawn to the Angkor Wat complex to watch the sun rise over the temple itself. Despite the hangovers and the hundreds of tourists swarming over the best vantage points, it was still a breathtaking experience and if you ever get the opportunity to visit Angkor, you shouldn’t miss out on seeing it at sunrise.

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We followed this up with an exploration of the main temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Angkor Thom and, as newly minted experts on Angkorean art and architecture, were able to better appreciate these monuments and the impressively intact carvings they contained. By the halfway point of our tour, I was a bit confused as to why the museum hadn’t mentioned Tomb Raider at all, as our guide had already been able to point out at least 75 locations where it had been filmed and Angelina Jolie was starting to take on as much significance as Shiva or Buddha…

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Having started our sightseeing at 5.30, and the mercury having topped about 195 degrees, we called it a day by mid afternoon and took refuge in (yes, you guessed it) beer and our guesthouse’s pool.

During our second day of temple tourism we ventured a bit further afield to Banteay Srei, which is a less heavily touristed temple about 45 minutes outside of Siem Reap. It turned out to be well worth the visit as the carvings are just as impressive as those at Angkor and, with its smaller scale, was much more accessible. That said, we couldn’t resist going back to Angkor Wat to see it at sunset.

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Forgoing our traditional celebration of beer and swimming that evening, we put on our dress thongs in order to dine at Meric, located at the very swanky Hotel de la Paix. We were there to sample Meric’s modern Khmer tasting menu which would hold up well against anything in Melbourne and put to rest much of what I’d heard and read in relation to Khmer food being rubbish.

All in all, we really enjoyed Siem Reap itself. It’s a bit out of the way to visit if you’re not going to do some temple-hopping, but turned out to be a surprisingly relaxing place to spend a few days.

Hi Mum, I’m in Vientiane

Vientiane is touted in guidebooks as a delightfully sleepy Southeast Asian capital, replete with idyllic riverside bars, quaint French colonial architecture, and the smell of baking bread permeating the streets. All rather enticing.

Sadly, our first impression of the place was that it was dusty, noisy, uninteresting, and that there wasn’t the merest whiff of baking bread about it. We actually felt quite disconcerted to be so unenchanted by the place that so many others enjoyed.

As we went for a walk we found that the entire riverside was being dug up, and instead of a lush, tropical destination it instead resembled a desert. The river was miles away from the actual ‘riverside’ (perhaps due to the low river levels that plagued us further upstream), and the excavators and tractors were stirring up tonnes of sand, all of which were being whipped into a frenzy by the strong southerly wind. Amazingly, as we walked along the riverside food vendors and bars were still present, in the midst of a veritable sandstorm, enticing us to come in, buy from us, have a beer, you like Beer Lao? We hastened away, wondering how these poor people could be making a living at the moment.

The next day we improved matters a little by getting out and about a bit more. The local market was immense and catering largely to the mobile phone and electrical goods consumers. It took ages to find anything like roadside snacks, but eventually we found some sweet rice balls and spicy rice paper rolls. We ate them, Lao-style, crouched in the gutter, to the amusement of the locals. They were delicious (the snacks, that is, not the locals).

We then made our way to the Patuxai Monument, otherwise known as the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe. Sadly, our photos of this monster are still stuck on our other contaminated memory card, but it’s a sight to behold. It was built as a victory memorial, but the building wasn’t finished until the 1960s, when a load of cement donated by the US for the construction of an airport runway was diverted to this project. It’s quite astonishingly hideous, while simultaneously being quite charming and weird.

Our other main visit in Vientiane was to the COPE foundation. During the Vietnam war, the US dropped countless bombs over Laos in an attempt to block the flow of arms/troops to North Vietname. Laos now has the unwelcome distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation in the world. Horrifically, many bombs were cluster bombs which didn’t detonate on impact, leaving the country riddled with unexploded ordinances (UXOs). One source estimated the number of unexploded submunitions in Laos at 78 million. Needless to say, every year Lao people are injured or killed as a result of inadvertently detonating submunitions dropped on the land more than 30 years ago during a war that didn’t involve them.

COPE is a rehabilitation foundation with a hospital in Vientiane. It provides prosthetic and orthotics to the victims of UXOs and also designs wheelchairs and other vehicles to increase mobility. The work they do is absolutely amazing. Their hospital has a great visitor centre with information, films, survivor stories and more about the UXO problem and the progress they’ve made. It’s a wonderfully uplifting (though undeniably tragic) place. I highly recommend a tour around their website, and a donation if you feel so inclined. Their donation page is great and also gives a sense of the attitude of optimism that seems to characterise COPE.

Enough of that – suffice it to say that our time at COPE made a visit to Vientiane well worth it. However, if we had any advice about travelling in Laos, it would be to start your trip in Vientiane and end it in Luang Prabang, as any superficial comparison between the two places will see Vientiane pull up short.

Following Laos, our next stop was Siem Reap, Cambodia. One way to travel from Vientiane to Siem Reap is to head south through Laos and cross the border into northern Cambodia. However, given the parlous state of the Lao roads and the unpredictable nature of the border crossing between Laos and Cambodia, we opted to take an overnight train back to Bangkok, then a bus to the Cambodian border, followed by a second bus into Siem Reap.

It sounds like a long journey and it was. We left Vientiane at around 3pm, and finally arrived in Siem Reap at 7pm the following day, having endured getting lost in Bangkok (we stupidly thought that Morchit bus station would be easy to find from Morchit train station), avoiding scammers at the Cambodian border, and a slow bus to Siem Reap. Luckily, we were entertained during this final bus ride, especially by the British girl sitting behind us. She must have just changed some money into Cambodian riel at the border, and on the bus said, “So if one pound is worth 5,600 riel, how much is ten pounds worth?” After discussion with her friends, she hazarded a guess. “So, is it, like, 25,000?” By the time we hit the traffic jam surrounding Siem Reap (and heard her ask the driver, “So, is Siem Reap a city or a town or something?”), it didn’t seem like she’d mastered her ten times tables yet.

Hi Mum, I’m in Vang Vieng

There are reams that have been written about Luang Prabang – extolling its French colonial charm, its languidness or any other of its many appealing attributes. When it comes to travel literature, Vang Vieng doesn’t fare quite as well – some of its more choice reviews include “shithole”, “dive” and “blight”.

The thoroughly underwhelming reputation of the place didn’t deter us from visiting, as there were only a couple of reasons for us being there. Firstly, to break up the trip between Luang Prabang and Vientiane (we were still scarred by our previous experience of Lao infrastructure). And more importantly, we were there to sample Vang Vieng’s biggest tourist drawcard – tubing.

Amanda and I arrived in town after a seven hour bus trip during which I think we travelled a grand total of about 14km and the most exciting event was having to rescue someone who’d gotten themselves trapped in the hobbit-sized toilet.

Our first impressions weren’t all that favourable. The place is dusty, under constant construction, full of wasted English backpackers and most of the bars play episodes of Friends on constant rotation. There are some limestone cliffs surrounding town, but we couldn’t see them due to the smoke and dust haze.

The next day we headed into town to start our day’s tubing. In Vang Vieng, tubing involves being dropped a few kilometres out of town, sitting in an inner tube on the slow moving river (marvelling at the limestone cliffs that were invisible the day before) and stopping every 100m or so to sit at bars and drink cocktails out of buckets while watching people launching themselves into the river off swings and slides of questionable construction.

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A tough day out, eh?

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After our fair share of beers and buckets, we decided to paddle our way back into town. This was in spite of (or maybe to spite) the legion of tuk tuk drivers offering to drive us back to town. Exercising our best alcohol-powered better judgement we were convinced were trying to scam us.

Maybe the river was flowing a bit too slowly or maybe we were feeling a little too relaxed, but we only just made it back to town in time to return our tubes (having taken six hours to navigate four kilometres of river). Maybe those tuk tuk drivers weren’t trying to scam us after all…

That night we managed to find a bar that showed Family Guy instead of Friends and settled in for a few rounds of Beer Lao. On reflection, maybe Vang Vieng isn’t quite the hole that many have made it out to be. It’s a town that’s built on hedonism and, no matter what your opinion of Vang Vieng, it would be a shame to see it denigrated by puritanical ideas of what tourist destinations should be.

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Bugger

Well, some prick has written a virus that’s infected the memory card on our camera… For the moment this means that we can’t upload a whole lot of pictures that we’d like to share.

Hopefully this issue gets resolved soon and, in the meantime, the author of the virus contracts a nasty case of genital herpes.

Hi Mum, I’m in Luang Prabang

If you just spent 2 slightly hellish days getting to a destination, you couldn’t do much better than have that destination be Luang Prabang. Set on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers, it’s an elegant, laid-back sort of place, with plenty of reminders of its French colonial history.

Things you can do in LP:
1. Get up to the sound of drums at dawn and stumble onto your guesthouse balcony to watch the monks from the various wats make their procession through town, collecting alms in the form of sticky rice.

2. Watch the local women try to sell sticky rice to foreigners so they can offer it to the monks, without revealing that the monks will not eat tainted offerings.

3. Visit Tamarind, a restaurant and cooking school run by Joy, a local man, and Caroline, his Aussie wife. Learn heaps about local food (surprisingly different from Thai and Vietnamese food). Be amazed by the utterly repellant Lao fish sauce (recipe: take whole fish. Place in water. Add salt, galangal and maybe garlic. Leave to ferment (ie. rot). Eat.) Prepare some great food in an idyllic setting. Fall in love with Lao beer snacks – dried, fried mushroom shreds flavoured with kaffir lime, chili and garlic.

4. Bump into some old uni friends that you just missed in Singapore (hey, Warren and Celia). Spend a great evening with them, drinking cheap cocktails in a secluded bar on the other side of the river, accessible only via rickety bamboo bridge, and eating more great food.

5. Visit the Kuang Si waterfall, a series of cascades about an hour out of town that look like they were deliberately designed by someone working for Disneyland or similar (this is actually a compliment). Swim in the gorgeous aqua water and wonder again why it is you don’t live in Luang Prabang.

6. Eat a gourmet French meal at LÉlephant, which but for the heat, the tiny geckos running around on the awning and the miniscule price, could be anywhere in France.

The Highs and Lows of Overland Travel

The following indicates just some of the perils of foolishly rejecting the worldwide ubiquity of plane travel, and instead going the long way round…

We left the idyll of Chiang Dao with some sadness, having had such a relaxing time there. But we were still excited as in front of us lay quite a journey. We were off to the Pearl of the Orient, Luang Prabang, Laos, and not just any old way – the old-fashioned way, by slow boat down the Mekong. The plan that day was to take a bus back to Chiang Mai, change bus stations, and then catch  a local bus to Chiang Khong, the border town with Laos. This would enable us to rendezvous with our boat operator just across the river from Chiang Khong, in Houay Xai, the following morning.  Easy, huh?

The first hiccup came as we stood in the queue for tickets in Chiang Mai, 30 minutes before our bus was due to leave, and were still there 30 minutes later. No matter, really, as we were informed the bus was full (and this on a route which apparently didn’t ever require bookings). No way to get to Chiang Khong before midday the next day.

We hightail it back into the centre of town, where a number of tour operators ply minibuses along popular routes. Standing, fretting, in a tour office, a woman tries helpfully to book us seats on minibus heading to Chiang Khong that evening (and arriving in the middle of the night) – with no luck. We stand there, bereft.

“Or,” she chirps, “there’s a bus leaving in a few minutes. Would that help?”

Yes! Stopping only to run to the ubiquitous 7-11 for something to eat (the most dire sandwich known to Creation, a chicken-floss and bologna on sweet white bread with mayonnaise fiasco), we clamber aboard the bus and finally end up in Chiang Khong, a mere 10 hours after leaving Chiang Dao.

As we’re sorting out the room at the guesthouse, Alex turns to me. “The guy next to me on the bus reckons that there are no boats to Luang Prabang. Not enough water in the river.”

We’re initially skeptical. Sure, it’s the middle of ‘winter’ (ie the dry season) but boats should be OK on the river, and besides, our boat operator assured us it was OK, and indeed had been pressing us for the AUD150 deposit.

Hang on a minute…

We ask around the two-horse town and the response is consistent – due to low water levels, boats are unable to navigate the Mekong as far as Luang Prabang. Bugger it. Still, avoiding being scammed out of our deposit was a relief.

We head back to the guesthouse where we learn that it’s making a killing running minibuses all the way to Luang Prabang (taking advantage of stranded travellers such as us). It’s either 12 hours in a minibus the following day, or we can select the public bus, which takes 17 hours. No choice – any 5 hours aboard a bus that I can avoid is well worth it.

The next morning, going through immigration and getting a visa in Laos is pretty straightforward. Well, for almost everyone. We cross paths with Universe Mermaid Lion (I shit you not, that is her name. Alex spotted it in her – shamefully Australian – passport), a late-adopting particularly ditzy patchouli-smelling hippie who seemed to be oblivious to the world around her. With her single blond dreadlock (reaching suspiciously to her waist – seriously, if there’s anything more pathetic than dreadlocks, it’s fake dreadlocks) and her pet baby rabbit (poor thing being toted around in a plastic case with a bag of lettuce), she waved her immigration paperwork at the desk clearly marked ‘Visa Processing Fee’ and then tried to pay 50 Thai baht for a visa that costs around 40 times that price. We crossed our fingers that she would be on another minibus. She was. We rejoiced.

So, onto another minibus. We’d been wondering why it took 12 hours to cover the 200km between Houay Xai and Luang Prabang. The answer became clear:

1. It’s 200km top Luang Prabang if you go by boat;

2. By road, it’s a circuitous mountain route that takes you north before veering southeast to Luang Prabang, and it’s 500km;

3. “There may be some roadwork,” said our driver.

He wasn’t wrong. Apparently, a dodgy Thai construction company built a series of roads through this inaccessible country, and they promptly washed away in the last wet season. Legions of (presumably Lao) workers were scattered throughout the route, rebuilding  road which had been there just the year before. They had no tools or machinery aside from wheelbarrows, shovels, picks and sledgehammers with which to shatter huge boulders, transport the rubble along the road, and lay it again. Makeshift shelters had sprung up, little more than tarpaulins strung across ropes, the whole thing clinging precariously to the edge of the cliff. I couldn’t help but wonder if these people were desperately pissed off at having to do the whole thing again, or thrilled at the extra income. Probably the latter.

Of course, these were narrow roads to begin with, and the roadwork meant that at best there was now 1.5 lanes. There was a fair bit of crawling along behind trucks, backing up to let oil tankers come through, and nail-biting overtaking on blind corners. And to give you an idea of our average speed, it is 115km from Luang Namtha to Oudomxay, and it took 5 hours.

We arrived in Luang Prabang in the evening, found a guesthouse, some food and a beer, and collapsed. This wasn’t exactly how we’d planned it.