Archive | July, 2011

Slow boat to chau doc and local van to can tho

31 Jul

There is a tinglish expression in southeast asia, made out of the little words most people know and very common in selling things: “same same, but different”. The bus company across the street may tell you that the tickets they offer are “same same, but different”. Same same because you will also be in a four-wheeled vehicle. Different because… who knows. It might turn out to be a better and faster bus, or that the bus is well overbooked. Or it may be a fake ticket. In this case, the but different just means “screw you”. It’s easy to find its funny edge. Lady boys or fake rolex can be very “same same, but different”. Before leaving phnom penh I buy myself a touristy t-shirt with the expression.

In order to keep track (river in my case) of my itinerary, let’s recapitulate. After leaving luang nam tha, in the north of laos, I have been in the (mekong) riverside cities of huay xai, luang prabang, vientiane, and the island don det. About two hundred km after crossing the southern laos border by bus I left the mekong again to visit the temples and siem reap in the west of cambodia. After so many temples and rivers I felt like going to the beach in the south, where I basically played pool and had three dollar barbacues by the sea. Then I headed to phnom penh, back in the mekong. At this point the mekong turns south east to vietnam, where it broadens and separates into nine main rivers (the nine dragons) and forms a big delta, the so called rice bowl of asia (and of the world).

I leave phnom penh in a slow boat (though they call it fast boat) to the vietnamese town of chou doc, by the mekong and by the cambodian border. There aren’t almost any tourists in the town, nor their symbiotic friends the tuk tuks. The same night I take a motorbike (together with its driver, since I have never riden a motorbike myself) and visit some temples and ride up Sam moutain, from where you can see a vast plane 360 degrees around, including the cambodian border and the mekong. If I recall well, this is the fourth sunset I try to see and can’t because of the heavy clouds. The next morning the manager of the hostel takes me in a boat to see the floating villages around. Some consist in a bunch of rusted metal boats gathered together. Clothes hang by the side and people cook and eat in the front of the boat. Most of the fishing villages, though, are groups of huts made of metal and wood plates, supported on four wood legs. Some have fish farms in the bottom of their houses, consisting in one squared meter holes in the floor and nets. An eight year old boy comes to us by boat saying “hello, money. Hello, pen”. I am the kind of person who always has a pen in the pocket. Sadly, today is the exception and the extended hand of the kid goes back empty. The poverty and authenticity of these villages have made this boat trip very interesting to me. Coming back I think I have never seen before any village actually settled in the water. I then recall the romantic gondolas and high end cafes of venice. Here it’s same same, but different.

I ride a local van to the big city of can tho, in the middle of the delta. As I point in the map my guesthouse to the woman of my left, I recieve a mysterious notebook from the girls in my right. I read “where do you want to go in phan dinh phung street?”. After a conversation three pages long I break the ice and really speak, only to come back seconds later to the more efficient pen and notebook. Phuong (~Fu) gives me a ride in her motorbike (me wearing the sexy pink helmet of her friend) to my guesthouse. The next day I take a tourist boat to a local market, to a noodle factory and to the biggest floating market in the rice bowl, cai rang. Long boats filled with their particular mercancy, mainly fruits and vegetables, float around; people wearing vietnamese hats trade and pass fruits to one another. At night Phuong takes me to dinner with the locals. One of my best meals, but I can’t really describe it (and you probably have better things to do).

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Two days in Sihanoukville and two in Phnom Penh

26 Jul

In my travels I never leave the road for a more confortable and fast plane. Greyhound buses have brought me from new york to los angeles and from vancouver to halifax. Together with some vans I have also made my way through the gulf of Mexico, from miami to cancun. My butt has tasted sits with forms and hardnesses in all their spectra. My body has been squeezed between big americans and broken front sits, shaken by the curves when snaking down mexican moutains in worn-out vans. My face has turned pale and my look focused on predicting the curves ahead in order to not throw up. For me all this hardship is worth the people, towns and sceneries you meet on the way. It gives you a good sense of how big a continent is and what is mostly in it, something you don’t get when flying. And by now, you can imagine, I have developed some kind of sleeping-in-bus-kamasutra and can adapt myself into almost any small space and sleep. Also, my body has learned to not get sick in buses, so now I can read, write and sleep in almost any road. This is, of course, in North America.

In south east asia, road adversities play in another league. From luang prabang to vientiane I discovered that bumps in the road can throw you out of the sit. No matter what time is it, buses may play loud karaoke pop songs in their tv’s. And, from siem reap to sihanoukville, in the south of cambodia, the bus is freezing. Somehow I also know how to sleep in very cold temperatures, and somehow nobody in the bus has the idea to wake me up when the bus arrives. Waking up alone in a bus, more than an hour later than its arrival time, and with the doors closed, is a weird sensation. Riding motorbikes and tuk tuks in these mad cities it’s another topic and for another day.

The two days I stay in Sihanoukville rains non stop, so I cancel my snorkeling plans and head to Phnom Penh, the capital, where I absorb myself not in the angkor period (9th through 12th centuries) as in Siem Reap but in the civil war and the khmer rouge that happened in the seventies.

In two words, the conflict began in 1970 and was mainly communists versus republicans, together with their vietnamese and american allies exacerbating the war. After five savage years it ended in 1975 with a communist victory. The worst was to come. During the following four years, until vietnam invaded cambodia, the communist leader pol pot ruled to radically establish its communism through, among many things, political executions and massively deporting people from cities to the countryside, bringing forced labor and starvation. This stupid endlessly dream turned into more than two million cambodian deaths, about one fourth of the cambodian population. Wiki-google it yourselves. I recommend the movie “the killing fields” and the book “first they killed my father” about the topic.

In phnom penh the prison s-21 and the killing field of choeung ek are two symbols of the genocide. S-21 was a school reformed into a prison of torture and execution. Ironically, I think, the man in charge was an history teacher. The bastard is still alive and will die in prison. I walk through the different cells and the hundreds of pictures of the prisoners, dozens of which are of kids. Choeung ek keeps the skulls and bones found in a memorial budhist stupa in where people show respect. I also walk around the pits from where hundreds of people were exhumated.

In the afternoons I walk around the markets. They are, for those who know the chinese stores in europe, like humdreds of them put together. Everything you can imagine, and many things you cannot, are there. I discover I really like bargaining. Even for things I don’t really want, I have fun trying to discover the minimum price. I refuse two hundred times (out of two hundred) tuk tuk proposals and get lost in the city. In a street store the woman lets me try her merchandise. I love the fryed (crunchy) grasshoppers with species and some sweet and spicy fruits that look like cherry tomatoes. She fills for me a bag of each. She speaks no english and has no calculator to show me the price. I give her a dollar and she gives me back fifty cents. I feel, for first time in Cambodia, that I’m doing the real thing and paying the real price.

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Angkor temples

23 Jul

In siem reap I’m welcomed with what I’d discover later was the national anthem: “hello, tuk tuk?” I bargain one for myself for two days and thirty dollars.

The next day I meet my driver, Seth, at nine, and we drive for almost two hours to Banteay Srey and other not so touristy temples in the north east. Sitting in the middle of the padded bench in the back I feel like a sir. I don’t bother the road is bumpy and the mufflings non existent.

The temples are different from anything I have seen. The kind of detailed carvings telling stories about budhism and brahmanism are just a new art for me. There are no pointy towers as in cathedrals, but plenty of phallic symbols. Many of the stones are covered in moss, trees grow on top of the buildings and some small snakes appear in slots. It also amazes me that pieces of carved columns and statues lay on the jungle floor, as if anyone could pick them up and bring home. This abandonment to nature together with the exotic culture the temples represent transports me. Traveling to some countries also means traveling in time, and the angkor temples are the paradigm.

The next day I visit the three most famous temples. I wake up at 4.30 to see no sunrise behind angkor wat, it’s too cloudy. The temple is magnificent, the largest religious building in the world, symbol of a big empire and of cambodia. Angkor thom, or city temple, is the most enjoyable. I was lucky to see my favorite species (after humans): monkeys! A few families of macaques gathered around some ruins for a while. I took like a hundred pictures. Ta Prohm is the only temple not reformed, just as they were most of the others when discovered. If it wasn’t for the tourists walking around I’d feel like Indiana Jones. We come back after sunset and Seth thanks me for “giving him a job for two days”.

The third day I’m well satisfied of temples and head for the angkor museum. At night I can’t say no to khmer barbacue degustation. Sincerly, it’s a bit disappointing. Crocodrile is good but its texture and taste is just like chicken. Python is not very tasty and it takes two minutes to chew up a small piece. Frog legs are pretty tender and save my meal.

“hello, tuk tuk?”

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Leaving Laos

21 Jul

I wake up at six and do my backpack. I walk five minutes to my favorite restaurant, paradise, where the great laosian cooker has already honored its name in my last three meals; the best one a pumpkin, curry and lentil soup. On my way I see three budhist kids walking in line, stopping by the cabins where women kneel and theatrically rise bills, one at a time, and put them in the pots the boys hold. Then they pray all together. I have my banana and chocolate pancake together with its sibling banana and chocolate shake. When leaving the woman comes to me and wishes me good luck together with other laosian words I don’t understand. She also puts me two bracelets, something I haven’t weared since I was ten. I greet her and leave for the boat and the bus.

After crossing the border I try to make a picture from my experiences in Laos. The images that come to mind are the ethnic hill tribes with very cute kids playing around, jungles full of bugs, shimmering rice fields at sunset and their lazy water buffalos, wats and budhism, spicy soups and fruit shakes, the mighty muddy mekong and best of all the kind and cheerful people.

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Vientiane and 4000 islands

18 Jul

I get a night bus from luang prabang to the capital, Vientiane. It’s a hell of a ride and I can’t really sleep, not because the sits but because of the constant bumps and curves. Later I hear that rock slides in both sides of the road are constant, and that is scary enough taking the bus during the day.

The capital is not so pretty as luang prabang. It’s more quiet and not as touristy. I visit the four must do’s in two hours. Neither the national monument nor the oldest wat amazes me much. I find the french-laosian arc du triumph with pagodas on the top somewhat perturbing. Rudolf and me have one of these very tasty soups that you don’t really want to know what has in it. Soup is almost the national dish in Laos. In the local places in vientiane they just have a big cooking pot (as the one in which obelix fell) and mix everything there. For one euro you can have your soup, where you can put mint, thai basil, chillies, peanut sauce and other herbs in it. A glass of ice tea included. I love it.

In the afternoon I head for an hour of feet and shoulders massage. The place is great: dim lights, confortable sofas, cups of tea before and after. The massage the best one so far. I spend the rest of the day in french coffee shops using wifi and having fruit shakes. I could stay here for some days.

I expect the worst for the next night bus to the very south of the country. I am very surprised the bus has real beds and that the road is smooth. I watch a movie in my ipad and fall asleep.

In the south of laos the mekong broadens up to about ten km, giving place to 4000 islands. I stay in one of the many bungalows in don det, an island about four km long. Only narrow paths connect the different parts of the island. Water buffalos and chickens are all around the rice fields. The first day I ride a bike around and cross to don khon island, also about four km long. I bike to the tat somphamit waterfalls. They are not tall but massive. I go to the southern tip of the island and see the cambodian border in the other side. I come back to the bungalow before sunset. I am exhausted.

There is only one bar with wifi where all the (not so many) backpackers meet at night. I find Alex sitting in one the tables, the guy I met in the very north of Laos. We share our travels in Laos and meet for the next day to try to see the Irrawaddy dolphins. They are sea dolphins that live in some fresh water places. Nowadays they are very rare in the mekong.

I take it easy in the morning. I wake up late, have some big breakfast, lay in my hammock by the mekong reading and writing… In the afternoon we ride our bikes again and have no luck with the dolphins. At night I try the chicken laap, a national dish. It’s basically a salad with minced meet or fish, lime, chilly, and other herbs and species. Not bad. At night more wifi and gintonic is a good combination.

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Three days in Luang Prabang

15 Jul

This riverside liveliliy city, bestowed world heritage status by unesco, is a good place to have a break and relax: sleep and eat well, clean some clothes and have some massage. It also has plenty of outdoors activities.

I have enjoyed three days in Luang Prabang. The highlight has been a very cheerful (madness) elephant ride in the tad sae waterfalls, in the nam khan. The waterfalls are not very dramatic but beautiful, and they bring clean light blue water, an oddity in the laosian rivers so far. The elephant was 15 years old (very young and playful) and just a little taller than me. The ride was basically a friendly rodeo. The elephant sank its head, bottom, shaked, and when I fell into the water he came back to touch me with its trunk. It was fun! From the waterfalls we kayaked three hours down the nam khan, including some exciting rapids.

I have also rided the bike to the impressive kuang si waterfalls (30 km south the mekong). At 20 km I had to stop in a village due to a big storm. I came back by tuk tuk, with the bike on its top hitting all the branches on the way.

During the nights I have enjoyed the night market and some of the many cafes and wats in the city. I also have tried the laosian massage, similar to the thai one, basically pressing and stretching, focusing more on body parts than independent muscles.

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Huay Xai – Luang Prabang in slow boat

13 Jul

The first ride in the slow boat begins in huay xai and ends in pak beng. The trip takes about six hours. The boat is cozy, all wood, about forty meters long and five wide. It has a flat roof and has sits for seventy people. The mekong river is very quiet and flat, muddy brown, about 400 m wide. Outside the river everything is green until the jungles meet the sky, which is usually cloudy. We pass some villages, once in a while we stop to drop and pick up merchandise. Sometimes there are small beaches and some water buffalos pasturing.

Pakbeng is a village in the middle of nowhere, which lives from the dayly boat full of tourists willing to spend money in eating and sleeping. We have dinner and breakfast in a balcony looking at the river. As in every place so far, people take out the shoes when entering it. At midnight I feel unconfortable about my shoes being at the main door and I go to pick them up. The next morning all the shoes are stolen. I feel kind of knowledge.

The second ride is as brown and green as the first one, and about two hours longer. I read some travel stories from my book “by the sit of my pants”. I find this paragraph from Pico Iyer’s story worth reading it twice:

“We travel, I thought – looking fondly at my heroic old friend – for adventure and fun, to get away from the drudgery of our lives at home. We travel to court hardship and face the dangers and excitements that are themselves a kind of vacation and challenge for us. We meet people for whom our presence is nothing but opportunity, to take them out of the sadness and difficulty of their lives. The smiles exchanged on both sides have something of a nervous edge.”

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