Saturday, 31 May 2008

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai's old town is full of monks and temples and surrounded by a moat. All the hostels are stuffed inside the moat with the sausage selling markets, cafes and tuk tuk drivers. Nice mountains overlooking the town in the west are supposed to be linked to the Himalayan chain. Reminds me of being in Peru. Have had two yoga sessions today where I got tangled up in knots. They kept telling me to put my arms in the air with my eyes closed, only they didn't realise that I was the only one below a high speed rotating fan. Looked like I was snake dancing with one eye open while trying to avoid getting any hands severed....

Good things
Northern sausage
Found cocktail bar where you get to sit in the gutter and listen to African fusion jazz

Bad things
Bed bugs, nibbling insects

Mekong River Cruise

Stephen and I managed to find a deal on a two day cruise up the Mekong River to the Thai border. During peak season it is double the price and the boat is usually completely full, carrying 40 + passengers. On our cruise there were only 16 people. It was great! We could sprawl out all over the boat and take turns sitting up on the bow.
Each day we battled against the current for about 7 hours, but the scenery was spectacular. The river snaked its way through the mountains and past teak plantations. Hmong, Yao and Khmer villages populated the hills along the river. In some places the river was calm, reflecting images of the hills towering above it. In other places, we fought our way through small whirlpools and larger rapids. The first night we stayed at the Luangsay Lodge, a picturesque wooden village nestled in the hills. It was built just past the town of Pak Beng. Nearly the entire town turned out on the banks of the river to wave as we went by...

We had a delicious meal and chatted with our travelling companions. We met a fun Canadian couple who have been sailing around the world for 10 years. They had several stories to tell about their adventures on remote islands. We had a great time with them! The lodge was comfortable and we slept well, but they had us up bright and early for breakfast at 6am - definitely not Stephen's favorite part of the journey!

The next day, we continued chugging up the Mekong. We stopped and visited a Khmer village. The wooden houses were built on stilts and all of the farm animals lived below them. There were baby piglets, chicks, turkeys, puppies and kittens roaming around. I loved all of the animals! There was no electricity, but they had managed to construct one aerial giving them access to a single TV. The government had also provided them with running water. It was an interesting visit, but I felt a little awkward disrupting the harmony of their lives. It was almost like we came to look at them in the same way we would look at animals in the I was glad we didn't make any other stops. It was interesting to watch the local fisherman dropping and gathering their nets from long, wooden canoes. Villagers also pan for gold when the river is low.

We arrived at the Thai border about 5pm. We quickly found a place to stay for the night. The owner of the Bamboo Riverside Guest House was a real character. He had a lovely restaurant overlooking the river and he took great pride in serving up authentic Mexican food. It was actually really good, especially his salsa. He orders his pinto beans from Bangkok so that he can make real Mexican refried beans. I hadn't had Mexican food since our California visit so it was a refreshing change. He also entertained us with stories of former disgruntled customers and he gave us his philosophy on everything from guitar music to cooking fresh food and running a guest house. He was a real character. He was Thai, but he looked an awful lot like Carlos Santana!

Monday, 26 May 2008

Waterfalls and kayaking, Laos

Luang Prabang Laos continued..
Good things
Found the waterfall area with loads of tropical pools to swim in amongst the forest. Clear blue pools, cascading falls and an enclosure for moon bears to play together. Not a lot of publicity for this place but it was one of the most outstanding places that we've visited.Canoed through rapids in an inflatable canoe, pausing for the odd swim in the water.
Bad things
Somehow my positioning at the end of the boat encouraged copious quantities of river water to slush into my shorts so the boat didn't serve it's purpose very well. Fits in the boot of a car easily though and only took a couple of minutes to pump up

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Sunset, Luang Prabang

I suppose Luang Pragang is the travellers Nirvana - pretty 100 year old houses set on a cliff overlooking the Mekong river, quiet main street with orange robed monks wandering along and occasionally hogging the internet looking at or something. Hot during the day so locals snooze and tourist drink iced coffee and swat flies and occasionally the other way round when you stop concentrating. Nice dinners - lots of fish and rice and banana pancakes. Have upgraded from a cheap room without sound insulation (3 pounds per night) to a nice airconditioned room overlooking the Mekong (4 times the price). This one actually gets cleaned which is preferable when you have to live with vomit woman . The airconditioning makes a refreshing change when don't have a power cut. One a day at the moment.

Lots of tours available as always. Walks to here, paddling to there and four day rides on elephants somewhere else. Four days! Riding an elephant is like taking a bus in Clapham. It's a bit hot and smelly, slightly uncomfortable but you can get somewhere else in 20 minutes. Like Streatham. Who wants to go for 4 hours let alone 4 days and still be in Streatham. It would dive you and the elephant mad. It's nicer here than Streatham granted but you don't need to have an elephant to enjoy it. Having said that we might take a ride to see a waterfall and have a splash in the river this afternoon

Good things

Night markets with low single light bulbs illuminating the wares. Creates a nice cosy glow while you look at ornate chess sets and cushion covers on the way to the pubThe moped is again the transport of choice. The whole family can get on to scoot around. Looks fun. I've even seen a labrador stuffed along the bottom. Could solve the LA commuting problem without adding more lanes Watching the sunset over the mountains from the temple in the middle of the old town

Bad things

Very thin walls meant that our neighbours kept waking us up not that they were particularly noisy. Just rubbish insulation. Walls were made from bamboo leaves. Should feed walls to pandas.Becky getting stung in the eye by a disoriented ex flying insect and then getting stomach ache from anti malaria tablets and then being sick all night. Neighbours decided to go elsewhere. No noise from next door but hourly retching did not make for comfortable evening with or without earplugs...Everybody has to work here (apart from us),even the smallest children who sell beads and jewelry

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Luang Prabang, Laos

I am sitting in an internet cafe in Luang Prabang, Laos, surrounded by several young Buddhist monks with shaved heads wearing traditional orange robes and typing away on keyboards. It is kind of a surreal experience. It would make an amusing photo, but I don't want to be disrespectful. You will just have to use your imaginations!

I have just recovered from a Laotian version of Montezuma's Revenge.... actually it was more like food poisoning...
I guess we have been lucky to have staved it off for so long. I am feeling much better today, but we have upgraded our accommodation from a $6 a night dark room with fan to a light, airy air-conditioned room with cable TV as a result of my illness. Stephen has been wonderful running around town buying up water and medicine and worrying about me....he is relieved that I am feeling better.

Luang Prabang is a charming town, especially at night. There is one long main street lined with two-story French colonial buildings with ornate shutters and wooden balconies. There are no glaring street lamps. Instead the street is lit up at night with soft, twinkling fairy lights. Each night the Hmong people from remote hillside villages, come into town to set up a night market underneath brightly colored red canopies. They sell beautiful paintings, wood carvings, paper lanterns and silk table liners and pillow case covers. There are several cute cafes and restaurants along the main street, but since my funny tummy I have been far more selective about what I am eating.
We are on a peninsula surrounded by two rivers, the mighty Mekong is on one side and I can't recall the name of the river on the other. I will have to look it up! ....There are also plenty of beautiful temples richly decorated in gold. We have seen some lovely interiors featuring mosaics made from Japanese glass.
Side note - Do you like Stephen's new look? I think he looks a bit like a serial killer myself...

More photos of the temples of Angkor

Monday, 19 May 2008

The Amazing Temples of Angkor - Angkor Wat and Bayon

Siem Reap Cambodia
Very impressed with this little town. Lots of cheap tuk tuks to whizz you around, lots of fish amok dinners for a few dollars. Everyone accepted dollars rather than handfulls of ria and it's close to the temples of Angkor. This is like a huge national park with 50? temples dotted all over the place. Each one is like an ancient ruined city of pyramid and the surrounding forest sets it off perfectly. The soil is very sandy so it looks like the New Forest..with the odd palm tree and elephant. I particularly like the ruins that have been crushed by massive 800 year old trees that have grown into the stone walls and roofs.They look like scary images from a Grimms Fairy tale book. Not that I still have any...
Good things
Exploring temples surrounded by ancient forests Indian Jones style.
Blind masseurs although they kept banging into things. I kept making faux pas by speaking loudly or moving around silently so they couldn't find me. I even mentioned that I would take the red basket rather than the blue one as if that helped them with anything.
Mopeds whizzing around with a whole dead pig on the back with its feet in the air
Nice weather for exploring with predictable torrential rain at 2pm
Watching the FA cup final in a tin shack and trying to explain who Portmouth were to the Cambodians.
Being delivered to the international airport in the back of a tuk tuk
Bad things
Taxi driver driving at 10mph trying to sell us tours. He said it was his first day as a taxi driver. Not sure that he had ever driven before. Even the chickens overtook us on the way to town.Lost hat. Bought another hat. Found old hat.Walking at night through huge puddles in the sand. Completely dark - no street lights. Only the sound of me sliding a flip flop into the cold ooze.Being charged 20US for a visa and then 25US to leaveInternet slow so no pictures on the blog for a while

Royal Palace Tour and tea at the Oriental Hotel


We managed to find the quiet part of the city where you could wander around the jazz playing coffee shops and market stalls without any traffic and suit sellers. Also the temples were't far away so we could do one and then nip back for a culture recovery or snooze. Took the skytrain to go into the city but had a huge deluge of rain for a couple of hours and got stuck in a shopping mall for luxury items. Found lots of couples with miserable blokes hanging around to keep out of the rain

Good things:
Museum tour, including the royal puppets that no-one knows how to use since the puppeteer died. Lack of planning there. Also they don't have queens on the chess board but have a deputy king instead.
Palace visit - lots of gold pointy bits on the roof and temples with Buddha statues that you can't point your socks at.
Whizzing along the river on the taxi boat trying to remember where your stop is.
Free upgrade to executive lounge for flight to Cambodia. Scoffed loads of cakes but made a bit of a prat of myself by eating the bamboo leaf packaging of one of the savoury numbers. Who would be a panda....?

Bad things
Monsoon season - splashing through puddles in sandals and smelly poncho to get to dinner. Expensive posh tea and cakes at the Oriental Hotel. Had to sneak in to avoid the flip flop police.
Chasing after cycling food vendors to get some chicken on a stick--

Sunday, 18 May 2008

National Museum - Bangkok

Both Stephen and I were pleasantly surprised by Bangkok. It helps that we were staying in the Banglamphu district, a haven for wearied backpackers. It is a short stroll to tasty, inexpensive restaurants, outdoor markets for shopping and cozy cafes. We were also within walking distance of the National Museum, the Grand Palace and other well-known temples in the historic Ratanakosin area.

On Wednesday we woke up early in order to join the free English tour of the National Museum. They only have one tour each week. Our guide was an entertaining and knowledgeable, American expat. He is an enthusiastic retired businessman who has a passion for history. He has accompanied archaeologists to Angkor Wat and he attends all the events and lectures of the Southeast Asia Foreign Correspondents' Club (as he dabbles in foreign correspondence on the side).
We had an especially thorough tour because there were several women in our group training to be English museum guide volunteers. They had all come to Bangkok with their husbands, but they are not allowed to take jobs from local Thai people so they cannot work. They have joined the museum volunteers group to give them something to do. The group plans several outings and events. It was interesting to talk to them about their experiences living in Thailand. Best of all, we had an excellent tour although I think Stephen was fed up after it exceeded three hours! Luckily, there was a really good restaurant on sight. Some Thai food perked him up again.

I learned so much about Thai Buddhism and the history of the Ramas (the kings....) on the tour. I won't bore you with all of it, but Rama IV is the one portrayed in 'The King and I'. He was a gifted scientist that predicted a solar eclipse. He took his entire family out into the countryside to watch it. His prediction was correct, but the area he chose to witness it was infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. His entire family got sick. He died of malaria. Fortunately, his son recovered and became one of the most respected kings of Siam, Rama V.
Later that day we took the passenger ferry. I love traveling by boat. It is much more peaceful. We passed several beautiful temples I want to go back to see. Finally, we disembarked at the connection with the sky train. We took the sky train to Siam Square, but unfortunately we had to stay confined to a posh shopping mall (much to Stephen's discomfort) because it rained heavily the rest of the night! At least I didn't find anything to buy!