A Travellerspoint blog

Lukewarm to Laos

sunny 33 °C


People often ask, "what is your favorite destination?" There simply isn't just one. However, the country that so far has left the least impression on us is Laos. That doesn't mean we didn't like it at all, but aside from Luang Prabang, it pales on many levels - friendliness of the people, historical monuments, landscapes and food - with neighbors, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The "s" in Laos is silent. The French felt they needed to add it. This will by no means stop you from pronouncing it because it's there and your brain refuses to process the anomaly. Locals rarely smile at you. Compared to the rest of Asia, where perfect strangers flash wide grins and are eager to engage you, Laotians are down a lap. Timid or indifferent?

We shuffle through the administrative process at Trapeang Kriel the southern border with Cambodia with hardly a word and little eye contact. The minivan drops us a bit further with a few hand-signals telling us to wait. Eventually, a bus takes us to a small pier where a battered boat is waiting to ferry us across the Mekong to Si Phan Don, 4,000 Thousand Islands, a scattering of small islands that vary in number with the water level of the river. Our ticket is valid for crossing to Don Det which I've since renamed Don Don't, one of three islands with tourist infrastructure. The boat pulls up on a puny sand beach that leads to a dirt lane lined with shacks. Main street.
Main street, Don Det, 4,000 Islands

Main street, Don Det, 4,000 Islands


The vibe is Bob Marley, dreadlocks and tattooed 20-somethings carrying inner-tubes. We fit right in. I make the rounds of accommodations and settle on Le Bijou. $15 buys 4 walls, a bed, A/C, bathroom and that's it. No table, no chair, not even a hook, but it's new and clean.
Le Bijou Guest House, Don Det, 4,000 Islands

Le Bijou Guest House, Don Det, 4,000 Islands


Room at Le Bijou Guest House

Room at Le Bijou Guest House


Aside from tubing or kicking back in a hammock, the main attraction is the unusual rather horizontal Li Phi waterfalls on neighboring, slightly more upscale, Don Khon. The islands are connected by a bridge.
View from the bridge between Don Det and Don Khon, 4,000 Islands

View from the bridge between Don Det and Don Khon, 4,000 Islands


The falls are an easy, picturesque 45 minute bicycle ride away. It's low season, so aside from a bunch of local kids proudly shooting lizards with sling-shots, there are just a handful of tourists.
Somphamit (Li Phi) Waterfall, Don Khon

Somphamit (Li Phi) Waterfall, Don Khon


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It's best to ride back in the late afternoon because while it's perfectly safe, the bumpy dirt road is pitch black once the sun sets.
Kids cruising Don Det, 4,000 Islands

Kids cruising Don Det, 4,000 Islands


Early evening football game, Don Det, 4,000 Islands

Early evening football game, Don Det, 4,000 Islands


Despite the pretty Mekong scenery, when we can no longer stand the bad food, reggae music and tourists catching up on all the cigarettes they can't smoke in restaurants and bars at home, we head back to the mainland and catch a bus and a boat to sleepy Champasak
Monks receiving alms, Champasak

Monks receiving alms, Champasak

Boys playing football in Champasak

Boys playing football in Champasak


As we arrive by boat from the opposite shore, an overly-eager man practically pushes 6 of us into his minivan promising cheap and clean rooms with great river views. He's so enterprising that I'm hopeful, but just in case, I note a couple of options as we drive along the main road. One look at the rooms and I'm racing back down the street. Kamphouy Guesthouse (15 euros with A/C) a notch above despite no restaurant or river view, will do. Rest assured, there are a couple of fancier places in town.
Kamphouy Guest House, Champasak

Kamphouy Guest House, Champasak


We rent a scooter for the straight 10km ride to Wat Phu the Khmer, Hindu turned Buddhist temple now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins are spread up a mountain via impossibly steep stone steps, but the view trumps the effort.
View from the top of Wat Phu temple near Champasak

View from the top of Wat Phu temple near Champasak

The main path at Wat Phu temple

The main path at Wat Phu temple

Wat Phu temple

Wat Phu temple

Girl praying at Wat Phu temple

Girl praying at Wat Phu temple

Group of locals in front of Wat Phu temple

Group of locals in front of Wat Phu temple


Back in town we stumble upon the most improbable Frice and Lujane, an authentic northern Italian restaurant with a pretty deck overlooking the Mekong, and gorge ourselves on grilled aubergine and homemade pasta.

It's early morning as we flag down and squeeze into the local bus that doubles as school bus and head for Pakse. At the bus station, we stake our claim to a portion of wooden plank in the next sorngtaaou (covered pick-up with benches) bound for Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau and kill the wait with a noodle soup for breakfast. I notice a lady with a bucket making her rounds of the market giving pedicures to women in front of their stalls. Hygienic? Maybe not, but what service!
Vendor at Pakse bus station

Vendor at Pakse bus station


A mother holding her kids on the winding Sorngtaaou ride to Paksong

A mother holding her kids on the winding Sorngtaaou ride to Paksong


The Bolaven Plateau is known for cooler temps, lush waterfalls and abundant coffee plantations. Unfortunately, coffee season has just ended along with visits. We figure we'll rent a scooter and explore the waterfalls. Turns out this may be the only place in the country where you cannot rent one. No problem, we'll take the bus or a taxi. That too proves difficult as we find ourselves standing at a busy intersection in the blazing sun, choking on dust whipped up by eighteen-wheelers, for almost an hour.
Girls selling lottery tickets, Paksong

Girls selling lottery tickets, Paksong


Finally, a sorngtaaou heading in the approximate direction takes us, dropping us a good 5km from destination. While I appreciate the exercise, we are parched and limp as we approach the ticket window. It's amazing though how you can forget your pain with some nice scenery and the rehydrating kick of fresh coconut juice. Tat Gnueang waterfall is beautiful.
Tad Gneuang Waterfall near Paksong

Tad Gneuang Waterfall near Paksong


And that's where it ends. The restaurant across the street from our guest house is not only bad, but we have to endure the sounds of a cat being strangled. Oh, that's a karaoke session. At 7AM the next morning it's breakfast and more karaoke!

We hightail it back to Pakse and check-in to the Phi Dao hotel. The room is modern with all the fixings - A/C, good bed, TV, fridge, hot shower. The shower is aimed at the toilet and soaks the whole bathroom, but this is the norm in SE Asia and we've gotten used to "wet rooms".
Phi Dao Hotel, Pakse

Phi Dao Hotel, Pakse


The cool lobby restaurant offers refuge from the torrid midday heat. The waiters are expressionless with body language that screams, I'd rather be anywhere else! As the late afternoon light rouses troops of mosquitoes, a waiter waltzes around the room waving a tennis racket zapping them with an electric shock. It takes him forever to crack a smile.

It's easy to run into people you've met elsewhere in Laos as everyone is following more or less the same route. To our delight, we spot the lovely couple from Washington DC that we met down south and head to the roof-top bar of their hotel for drinks followed by a delicious Italian meal at a nearby restaurant. The (European) owner confirms that 99% of the businesses in Pakse are Vietnamese owned. Laotians can't be bothered to work that hard. His words.

The overnight double-decker bus to the capital Vientiane is fitted with flat beds almost big enough for 2 westerners, good pillows, light blankets and a toilet on board. It's the first sleeper bus we've taken that stops only once to change drivers.
Sleeper bus Pakse to Ventiane

Sleeper bus Pakse to Ventiane

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The bus leaves us on the outskirts of Vientiane early morning. With heavy traffic, it's an agonizing 1.5 hours to get to the center and our hotel. Always know where you're going because despite assuring you they know, drivers here have no clue and don't speak a word of English. April is probably not the best month to visit. It's oppressively hot and the air is thick with dust, but having inhaled clouds of fine particles in Paksong, we are now equipped with masks. These will prove invaluable in many other Asian countries.

The room at Moonlight Champa Guesthouse, 35 eu with breakfast, is compact but ultra bright and comfy and a 10 minute walk from the noisy center.
Moonlight Champa Guest House, Vientiane

Moonlight Champa Guest House, Vientiane


We visit the sites around town with friends from Europe who are here for a night on a visa run from Thailand.
Patuxay or Victory Gate of Vientiane

Patuxay or Victory Gate of Vientiane

Wat Sisaket, Vientiane

Wat Sisaket, Vientiane

Inside Wat Sisaket, Vientiane

Inside Wat Sisaket, Vientiane

Phrathatluang Museum, Vientiane

Phrathatluang Museum, Vientiane

Phrathatluang Museum, Vientiane

Phrathatluang Museum, Vientiane

That Dam black stupa, Vientiane

That Dam black stupa, Vientiane


It's a comfortable 4-5 hour minivan ride to Vang Vieng. As we head north, the landscape takes on the cone-shaped limestone mounds of Vietnam and Thailand. Vang Vieng is infamous as the tubing and party capital of Laos, but (thankfully) things have calmed down a bit over the last few years after too many serious accidents involving foreigners. The town is awful, but the surrounding countryside is beautiful.
Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng


Our hotel, Laos Haven and (eventual) Spa is on the quiet end of the main street; double room with A/C, hot water, TV, breakfast, 25 euros.
Laos Haven and Spa, Vang Vieng

Laos Haven and Spa, Vang Vieng


About 1/2 an hour outside of town is Tham Phu Kham cave aka Blue Lagoon. By scooter we cross a nerve-wracking wooden bridge and bounce along a rocky road for a bit admiring the pristine scenery,
Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng


but as we approach the site a thumping base sound signals the unfortunate scene that awaits. The parking lot is jammed with mopeds and vans and the lagoon (river) has been besieged by howling Korean tourists wearing fluorescent life jackets and wielding selfie sticks. You'd think they've never experienced water before. Nearby, in front of a soundstage, locals and tourists are dancing to an Ibiza track in a fog of pink bubbles (roll eyes).
Tham Phu Kham cave aka Blue Lagoon near Vang Vieng

Tham Phu Kham cave aka Blue Lagoon near Vang Vieng


Fortunately, only a few visitors are climbing the ultra-steep rock steps to the impressive cave.
Tham Phu Kham cave near Vang Vieng

Tham Phu Kham cave near Vang Vieng


Tham Nam offers tubing through the cave. I didn't think to bring my waterproof bag, so we'll have to pass, but we stop for lunch at one of the leantos with warped wood planks that undulate as people walk by creating a tsunami in my soup. Groups of Asian tourists, outfitted to the gills are coming and going, posing for photos. Every few seconds a zip-liner shoots by overhead screeching with joy/fear.

The most scenic route so far is the minivan ride from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, the jewel of SE Asia according to many.
Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng


The French colonial architecture and beautifully maintained temples make this UNESCO World Heritage Site a welcome place to drop our bags for a week. We check-in to the charming Singharat Guesthouse - 34 eu with breakfast, A/C, hot water, TV.
Singharat Guest House, Luang Prabang

Singharat Guest House, Luang Prabang


The markets and shops in Luang Prabang sell things you actually want to buy and people are very friendly.
Night Market, Luang Prabang

Night Market, Luang Prabang


All this great energy may have something to do with the impending Pi Mai Lao - New Year celebrations. It's hot, insanely hot, and what better way to cool off and spread good cheer than with a giant water fight. For the next few days, from sunrise to sunset, with music blaring from makeshift sound systems in front of businesses and homes, locals set up barrels of water, pots and pans, hoses and all kinds of ingenious methods to douse cars and pedestrians. Pick-up trucks drive up and down the streets loaded with water and people fighting back. Pedestrians arm themselves with water guns and waterproof bags.
Pi Mai Lao New Year celebration, Luang Prabang

Pi Mai Lao New Year celebration, Luang Prabang

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Live band, Pi Mai Lao New Year, Luang Prabang

Live band, Pi Mai Lao New Year, Luang Prabang


Dancing in the street, Pi Mai Lao New Year, Luang Prabang

Dancing in the street, Pi Mai Lao New Year, Luang Prabang


Not even monks and cops are off-limits.
Monks under attack, Pi Mai Lao New Year, Luang Prabang

Monks under attack, Pi Mai Lao New Year, Luang Prabang


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Policeman playing along, Pi Mai Lao New Year, Luang Prabang

Policeman playing along, Pi Mai Lao New Year, Luang Prabang


If you go out, you're going to get drenched. Some add flour and color which is not as much fun especially when there's only a trickle of water left at the hotel to shower off at night. By day 3 we're saturated.

Festivities go on for a week in Luang Prabang and include, a beauty pageant, processions, traditional dances and ceremonies, boat races and more.
Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang

Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang


Ladies in front of Hohng Kep Mien the structure built around the massive gold chariot once used in royal funerary processions

Ladies in front of Hohng Kep Mien the structure built around the massive gold chariot once used in royal funerary processions


Gold chariot once used to transport royal funerary urns

Gold chariot once used to transport royal funerary urns

Standing Buddhas, Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang

Standing Buddhas, Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang

Detail, standing Buddha image, Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang

Detail, standing Buddha image, Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang

Standing Buddha image, Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang

Standing Buddha image, Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang

Reclining Buddha in the red chapel at Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang

Reclining Buddha in the red chapel at Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang


Boys having lunch before the procession at Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang

Boys having lunch before the procession at Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang


Pi Mai Lao New Year procession, Luang Prabang

Pi Mai Lao New Year procession, Luang Prabang

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One of the more demonstrative participants in the procession

One of the more demonstrative participants in the procession


Golden carriage from the Royal Museum

Golden carriage from the Royal Museum


Monks banging the gong, Wat Sop Sickharam, Luang Prabang

Monks banging the gong, Wat Sop Sickharam, Luang Prabang

Monk banging the gong at Wat Sensoukharam, Luang Prabang

Monk banging the gong at Wat Sensoukharam, Luang Prabang


The watering of the Buddha ceremony takes place in most temples. A halved, bamboo log is placed above a Buddha image. Devotees climb a ladder and pour (scented) water into the bamboo trunk which runs down and drips over the Buddha. They then collect the run-off to pour over themselves, family and friends as a blessing for the year ahead.
Buddha image Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang

Buddha image Wat Xieng Thong monastery, Luang Prabang


Bride and groom taking photos at a temple, Luang Prabang

Bride and groom taking photos at a temple, Luang Prabang


Across the river, families build elaborate sand stupas and pray for a good year.
Making sand stupas in Luang Prabang

Making sand stupas in Luang Prabang

A man adding the finishing touches to a sand stupa, Luang Prabang

A man adding the finishing touches to a sand stupa, Luang Prabang

Boy draping flags on a sand stupa, Luang Prabang

Boy draping flags on a sand stupa, Luang Prabang


One evening, we follow a crowd to Wat Mai Temple for a traditional dance performance. We're given VIP seats in front which is a relief for our tired legs after a long day of water fights, but leaves us struggling to sit through the entire 2 hour performance.
Wat Mai temple, Luang Prabang

Wat Mai temple, Luang Prabang

Traditional dance performance at Wat Mai temple

Traditional dance performance at Wat Mai temple


When the festivities come to an end, the town folds back into a peaceful hamlet; somewhat hard to reconcile with the previous days.
Shopkeepers, Luang Prabang

Shopkeepers, Luang Prabang


Life goes back to normal in Luang Prabang

Life goes back to normal in Luang Prabang


Mother with daughters preparing to give alms to the monks, Luang Prabang

Mother with daughters preparing to give alms to the monks, Luang Prabang

Monks receiving alms, Luang Prabang

Monks receiving alms, Luang Prabang

Monks receiving alms, Luang Prabang

Monks receiving alms, Luang Prabang


With a few days left on our visa and glowing reviews from other travelers, we push further north to Nong Khiaw.
Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw


Our room at the Sunrise Guest House (12 euros) is basic but new with A/C and a lovely terrace overlooking the Nam Ou river.
Sunrise Guest House, Nong Khiaw

Sunrise Guest House, Nong Khiaw


We wake up to a downpour. First rain we've seen in months.
Nam Ou river Nong Khiaw

Nam Ou river Nong Khiaw


It's a nice place to chill for a couple of days before the epic haul back to Vientiane and Nong Kai, the border crossing to grinning, playful, Thailand.
Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw


It's great to be back in Thailand! On the way to Bangkok, we stop for a couple of days to visit the Khmer temples of Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tam. Like Pimai, a few hours away, there are very few tourists. The temples are easily visited by scooter.
Phanom Rung temple, Buri Ram, Thailand

Phanom Rung temple, Buri Ram, Thailand

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Prasat Muang Tam temple, Buri Ram Thailand

Prasat Muang Tam temple, Buri Ram Thailand

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Bangkok is becoming our second home. In order to get to know the city better, we stay in a different neighborhood every time. Located near Bobae Market, a large dreary wholesale shopping center where most of the local retailers buy their goods, and you can also buy retail, The Seven Luck offers a small, modern bedroom with TV, AC, hot water and nice view of the canal (23 euros). There's not much around, but the canal boats stop nearby and it's a fun way to explore Bangkok away from the traffic jams.
The Seven Luck, Rent a Room, Bangkok

The Seven Luck, Rent a Room, Bangkok

View of the boat stop on the canal near The Seven Luck, Bangkok

View of the boat stop on the canal near The Seven Luck, Bangkok

Vibrant modern Bangkok is so much fun after a month in rural Laos. Endless shopping malls filled with food courts, restaurants, gourmet markets, luxury cars, movie theaters, gaming arcades, every fashion brand (and their copies) and millions of people moving about day and night. We settle into the plush couches of a telecom store/lounge/cafe to sip a cappuccino, write about it all and plan the next destination.

Posted by SpiceChronicles 09:34 Archived in Laos Comments (6)

Cambodia: Gods and Demons

sunny 28 °C

From the idyllic beaches of Koh Kud, Thailand, we catch the ferry back to Trat. It takes 2 buses, a shared taxi and another taxi to get us across the border into Cambodia. The border crossing from Thailand to Cambodia at Psar Pruhm is quick and easy, notable only for the remarkable cultural differences between the Thais, who escort us with smiles and jokes to the border, and the more stern Cambodians who greet us. That's not to say that they are not friendly, but nothing compares to Thai hospitality! By nightfall, another taxi has gotten us as far as Battambang. The taxi driver is eager to take us all the way to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) for an extra $100, but we opt for the bus in the morning ($7 pp) and check into the first hotel we see (Holiday Hotel) with a respectable room for $15. Actually, the first room is dirty, but we get that straightened out immediately.

We were warned, but you have to experience it to believe it. In Cambodia, the preferred currency for change is the US dollar, but not just any dollars. Bills must be recent and in perfect condition. The slightest wrinkle, tear or mark and the bill is refused.

The scenery is rural between Battambang and Siem Reap so it's awfully strange when suddenly, there's a large hotel, then a big resort and another... At first it's hard to imagine how they fill all these rooms but then again, the entire Angkor Wat complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site and candidate for 8th Wonder of the World. Siem Reap is densely packed with hotels, restaurants, markets and massage parlors. There's something for every budget and it's all pretty inexpensive by Western standards.
Pub Street, Siem Reap

Pub Street, Siem Reap


Market, Siem Reap

Market, Siem Reap


Tuk tuk driver waiting for business, checks his email

Tuk tuk driver waiting for business, checks his email

A bit off-center, the extremely funky, Reflections Art Hotel ($28 for 2 with breakfast) is decorated like a novelty shop and every room is unique. Ours is completely tiled and has stickers of all sorts, floor to ceiling. As I look around, I notice there are a few swastikas, one of which I delicately remove. From his blank stare, I realize that the guy at reception doesn't know what it represents. The language barrier is too thick, so I suggest we google it. Within minutes he's comparing it to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and has got someone in the room removing all other offensive symbols.
Reflections Art Hotel, Siem Reap

Reflections Art Hotel, Siem Reap

Angkor Wat was the center of the great Khmer Empire (9th - 13th centuries) with its peak during the 12th century. There's nothing left of the sprawling cities whose homes and administrative buildings were made of wood. Only the stone and brick dwellings of the Gods, a fraction of what once was, still stand. Hundreds of massive temples built by successive kings each trying to out do his predecessors in size and creativity culminate in the granddaddy of temples, Angkor Wat; still in use today.
View of the main temple at Angkor Wat and surrounding jungle

View of the main temple at Angkor Wat and surrounding jungle


The center of the vast temple complex is about 15 minutes outside the city and most people follow the same drill. You hire a tuk tuk (or other motorized vehicle) and follow the short or long loop. Some brave souls rent bicycles, but it's far, hot, and will deplete you of the energy needed to visit the temples.
Family in a tuk tuk, Angkor Wat

Family in a tuk tuk, Angkor Wat

One of the entrance gates to the ancient capital Angkor Thom

One of the entrance gates to the ancient capital Angkor Thom


Drivers waiting for clients

Drivers waiting for clients


Chronologically, or if you want to save the crowning jewel for last, you do the long circuit on Day 1 saving Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom for Day 2. Most people, like the friends who have joined us for 2 weeks, go for the 3 day temple (burnout) pass. We buy the 7 day ticket valid for one month.

Before we hit the temples, we spend an afternoon at the nicely curated Angkor National Museum. There's way too much information, but it's a great preface to the various periods of the Khmer Empire and to situating the sites we'll visit.

One marvels at the task of assembling such boulders or the manpower required for the carvings and bas reliefs that recount everything from the battles of God kings to daily-life during the Empire.
Causeway leading to the South Gate of Angkor Thom

Causeway leading to the South Gate of Angkor Thom


Baphuon Temple. The temples are separated by vast stretches of jungle

Baphuon Temple. The temples are separated by vast stretches of jungle


Banteay Kdei Temple, Angkor Wat

Banteay Kdei Temple, Angkor Wat

Boy at Banteay Kdei Temple

Boy at Banteay Kdei Temple


Art gallery near Banteay Kdei Temple, Angkor Wat

Art gallery near Banteay Kdei Temple, Angkor Wat


Near Preah Khan Temple, Angkor Wat

Near Preah Khan Temple, Angkor Wat

Preah Khan Temple, Angkor Wat

Preah Khan Temple, Angkor Wat

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Highlights include the over 200 gigantic stone faces at Bayon located in Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire.
Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom

Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom


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Mother Nature's upper hand at Ta Prohm, aka the Tomb Raider temple, where century-old living roots drip over the stones.
Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor Wat

Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor Wat

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Too hot for security, Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor Wat

Too hot for security, Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor Wat

and of course the staggering proportions of Angkor Wat temple itself.
Angkor Wat Temple

Angkor Wat Temple


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EVERYBODY goes to the main temple of Angkor Wat for sunrise. Once you accept that you will not experience this on your own, you can enjoy the nice atmosphere with hundreds of people milling about the large lawns at dawn. The people-watching is more interesting than the sunrise. By 7, the crowds are receding to town for breakfast and we almost have the place to ourselves.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat Temple

Sunrise at Angkor Wat Temple

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Tuk tuk drivers resting comfortably while their clients sweat it thru the temples at Angkor Wat

Tuk tuk drivers resting comfortably while their clients sweat it thru the temples at Angkor Wat

To diffuse temple overdose, we hire a minivan to take our group to Prek Toal Bird Reserve for the day. At the northern tip of Lake Tonlé Sap, a variety of storks and pelicans, some endangered, call this home during the dry season.
Prek Toal Bird Reserve

Prek Toal Bird Reserve

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Church on Lake Tonlé Sap

Church on Lake Tonlé Sap


At what seems to be the end of the waterway, without warning, our skipper guns it up and over the barrier of vegetation and carries on leaving no time for fear or protest. On the way back, we're forced to get out and gingerly file along a floating path to the shore from where we watch him fly the boat back over.
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Obstacle? What obstacle? Prek Toal Bird Reserve

Obstacle? What obstacle? Prek Toal Bird Reserve

About an hour away from Siem Reap, in the middle of not much, the jungle has taken formidable hold on the ruins of Bang Mealea temple. Cool just barely describes the huge stones covered in moss, vines and roots. On the way, we stop to admire the elaborate pink stone carvings at Banteay Srei.
Banteay Srei Temple

Banteay Srei Temple

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Beng Mealea Temple

Beng Mealea Temple

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The boat trip we've planned for our friends is supposed to be a fun way to get from Siem Reap to Battambang.
Boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang

Boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang


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Fishing nets on Tonlé Sap River, on the way to Battambang

Fishing nets on Tonlé Sap River, on the way to Battambang


It will be remembered as a nightmare cum great travel story. About 2 hours into what should be a 5-8 hour river trip depending on the water level, the boat gets stuck in about a foot of mucky water. For awhile, the captain tries to maneuver out of it with no success, then motions (because none of the 30 or so tourists speak Cambodian) to half the load to move to another boat while he spends another chunk of fleeting daylight churning the riverbed to no avail.
Stuck in the river on the way to Battambang

Stuck in the river on the way to Battambang


Locals come to help look for a passage thru

Locals come to help look for a passage thru


A couple of hours later another boat rescues us and we're on our way. There's still quite a distance to cover and it's getting dark when the boat pulls up to a shop/restaurant.
Stop and switch from boat to jeeps to Battambang

Stop and switch from boat to jeeps to Battambang


After everyone has rehydrated, our bags are unloaded and we are pointed towards 3 pick-up style jeeps. The hiccup? You have to walk a plank over a muddy swamp with your bag AND the jeeps are already filled. Spotting a (prime) front seat free in one, we practically push two of our friends in while 3 of us squeeze into the back. One friend has to stand, back against a grate on the cab, which will ultimately shred her clothes, while we sit on the edge of the tailgate holding on to each other. As uncomfortable as I hope it sounds, we are better off than our jeep mates. Bouncing along a narrow dirt track through the jungle in the dark, the people sitting on the sides are whipped and lacerated by prickly bushes. Within minutes, we are all huddled towards the center face down, taking a beating.
Looking for a seat in the jeep

Looking for a seat in the jeep

To absurd to believe, one jeep runs out of gas... Several attempts to tow it result in rope breaking, jeep ricocheting by with screaming passengers...
The jeep ride to Battambang

The jeep ride to Battambang


Jeep tow on the road to Battambang

Jeep tow on the road to Battambang


Eventually, gas is delivered and the odyssey continues. 16+ hours later, exhausted and traumatized, we make it to our respective hotels in Battambang. But relief is short-lived when my cell phone vibrates with the news, "My suitcase isn't mine!" Before I've finished reading the text out loud, we're out the door. Thankfully, Battambang is small and all the tuk tuk drivers know each other, so it all gets sorted quickly.

There's more...

One of the nicest services in Asia is dirt-cheap massages. An hour, full-body massage costs under $10. For a more original experience, at Seeing Hands, massage is performed by blind people and we encourage our friends to give it a try. Unfortunately, the one male masseur turns out to be a little too enthusiastic literally breaking my friend's toe!

What strikes me about Phnom Penh is how young the people are. Two days of gut-wrenching visits to S-21, the school turned detention center, and the Killing Fields, which I can only describe as human land fill, offer some explanation. From 1975 - 1979, while we were cutting classes, shopping at the mall and rockin' out to Led Zeppellin, Pol Pot, with his extreme Maoist vision, was single-handedly wiping out the entire adult population of Phnom Penh. Cambodia, whose Khmer Empire once dominated South Asia, who for centuries, more and less successfully warded off invasions from border-mongers Thailand and Vietnam, who prospered under the French protectorate in the 19th century and won independence by the mid-20th century, was suddenly on its knees in front of one single man. Deja vu. You simply cannot fathom the horror until you are standing in a classroom, divided into dark, claustrophobic stalls, with nothing but the metal loops that anchored chains, and indelible dark stains on the floors, and the voice of one of the 7 known survivors recounting the abomination in your headphones. People shuffle through visibly moved and some just crumble at the sight of 2 survivors there to greet you at the end of the visit.
Tuol Sleng Museum - S-21 Prison, Phnom Penh

Tuol Sleng Museum - S-21 Prison, Phnom Penh


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Torture chamber, Tuol Sleng Museum - S-21 Prison, Phnom Penh

Torture chamber, Tuol Sleng Museum - S-21 Prison, Phnom Penh


One of the survivors of Tuol Sleng

One of the survivors of Tuol Sleng


But Phnom Penh is rising from its tragic past. The markets are choc-full of baubles and wares, well they were until my friends showed up! Trendy boutiques and cafés line fashionable streets. We're told there is an underlying current of corruption and petty theft, but to us the city feels safe, it's easy to get around and people are friendly.
Independence Monument, Phnom Penh

Independence Monument, Phnom Penh


Central Market, Phnom Penh

Central Market, Phnom Penh


Locals praying at Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh

Locals praying at Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh


Monks outside the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Monks outside the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh


Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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Wall painting, Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Wall painting, Royal Palace, Phnom Penh


Local restaurant, Phnom Penh

Local restaurant, Phnom Penh

Lady on scooter, Phnom Penh

Lady on scooter, Phnom Penh

A monk catching a ride, Phnom Penh

A monk catching a ride, Phnom Penh

Waste management still in issue, Phnom Penh

Waste management still in issue, Phnom Penh

Lady with baby at their unique gas station, Phnom Penh

Lady with baby at their unique gas station, Phnom Penh

The list of NGO's is impressive including one called Friends International which owns and operates shops and restaurants (worldwide) that train underprivileged young adults and serve delicious, creative food.
Delicious, organic, zucchini pasta

Delicious, organic, zucchini pasta

The Richly Hotel ($25/night double with breakfast) is brand new and just a few blocks from the riverfront. The street it sits on is ripe for development. Add a few better restaurants and some shops and it's the next place to be.
Richly Hotel, Phnom Penh

Richly Hotel, Phnom Penh


Our friends enjoy the last days of their trip at the more upscale Plantation Urban.

As we contemplate destinations further south like Kep and Kampot famous for its black pepper, I happen to check the expiration date of our pass to Angkor Wat as we still have 4 days of visitation rights. The pass expires in 5 days! We hightail it back north.

It's fun to come back to a hotel we've stayed in before. The staff at Reflections Art are thrilled to see us and offer us a super upgrade on the room. It's late and I'm all excited to enjoy the deluxe shower, but as I turn the knob, a rush of pressure blasts it off and boiling hot water explodes in all directions! Unable to stop it we run for help. While water continues to spray like a sprinkler, they move us to another room.

We rent the freedom of an E-bike (electric scooter) to visit the temples. Every night, we switch it out for a fully-charged bike, but it turns out, you can't always trust the needle. Riding back to town one evening along the deserted forested roads that separate the temple complex from the city, the bike begins to slow down. We recall seeing power stations and stop at one figuring a one-hour charge will do, waiting it out in a hammock as the sun sets. We go maybe 3km when the battery falters again and there's nothing and no one in sight. A disastrous attempt to be pulled by an inebriated tuk tuk driver gets us within puttering distance of a big hotel and within 20 minutes, a new bike is delivered.
Gate at ancient capital Angkor Thom

Gate at ancient capital Angkor Thom

We make our way to the southern border of Laos, stopping for a night to visit one more Angkorian temple: Prasat Preah Vihear. The rickety minivan drops us at a gas station at the main intersection of Tbeng Meanchey, a dusty, one-horse town, promising to pick us up the next day at the same time to continue to the border. We look left, right, see nothing and decide to check the one building with Chinese signage that might be a hotel.
Hotel in Tbeng Meanchey, 1.5 hours from Prasat Preah Vihear $12 double

Hotel in Tbeng Meanchey, 1.5 hours from Prasat Preah Vihear $12 double

The temple is about 1.5 hours away and the bus station, an empty lot, doesn't look promising. Clearly, the taxi drivers are in control here. With little room for negotiation, we just have to wait until they finish fighting over who will take us. Cars are not permitted to drive the last 7 km stretch, but moto-taxis are standing by, dump trucks for groups. We each get on the back of a bike. The road is so steep, I'm wrapped around the driver with my feet dangling below!

Possibly the most contested piece of property and cause of numerous altercations between Cambodia and Thailand for generations, Prasat Preah Vihear holds a commanding view of the Cambodian plains. Most of the structures throughout the complex of this UNESCO World Heritage site, built by 7 kings from the 10th - 12th centuries, are in ruins and renovation and land mines are still a danger off the main paths. Probably not worth the detour, unless you are a specialist in Khmer art.
Prasat Preah Vihear Temple

Prasat Preah Vihear Temple

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The next day, standing on the corner in the blinding noon sun, as promised, a van picks us up and we're on our way to the Laotian border.

Posted by SpiceChronicles 21:58 Archived in Cambodia Comments (4)

Myanmar (Burma), Pure Gold

sunny


I'm hoping it's not a long ride as we sink into the hollow back seat of the so-called taxi, but I'm quickly distracted by the fact that the driver is on the right AND we're also driving on the right. As the bald tires skate across big curves, I catch a glimpse of the Paya Shwedagon, the most sacred temple in the land, covered in gold. But we'll get back to that.

Having read about the lack of service and infrastructure in the country, I've been lowering my hotel expectations in preparation, so what a surprise when the driver finally finds the brand new YNO Hotel. Granted, it's a bit outside the center, but there is a train that goes around the city and the station is nearby. What I did not factor in, was the infrequent passage of the train and the underwhelming speed at which it travels!
Train, Yangon

Train, Yangon

Young people on the train, Yangon

Young people on the train, Yangon

Train in Yangon

Train in Yangon

We are the only foreigners waiting on the tracks. A man picks herbs nearby just shy of piles of garbage.
Man picking herbs, Yangon

Man picking herbs, Yangon

It reminds me of India 20+ years ago. Yet, in the midst of this filth, women are wrapped in skirts of colorful, elegant fabric with fitted tops and men wear the traditional Longyi, also a wrap of thick cotton, and starched shirts. Most people have designs of Thanaka, a cosmetic paste made from tree bark known for its curative properties and protection from the sun, on their cheeks.
Girl with Thanaka designs on her cheeks

Girl with Thanaka designs on her cheeks

Everyone smiles, nods and waves and one businessman, strikes up a conversation in English. Aung San Suu Kyi's social democratic party has won the recent election by a landslide and the government is in the throes of transition. The country is on the cusp of major change and the potential ramifications are tangible. People are hopeful even though the incumbent military will retain significant power in the new government. As with every exchange we'll have over the next 28 days, the conversation ends with "welcome to our country"; poignant words so many people elsewhere would rejoice in hearing these days...

When the train finally arrives, it's moving so slowly, it doesn't even stop for passengers to board.

Downtown Yangon (Rangoon) is hot and crowded. There are no sidewalks, well, there are, but they are occupied by street vendors and parked cars. You have to keep your head down to negotiate the uneven pavement, gaping holes and trash. And then there are the men chewing and spitting the red juice of betel leaves...
Yangon

Yangon

Guys on the street in Yangon

Guys on the street in Yangon

A walk around the historical center illustrates the extent of this melting pot of cultures taking us past the colonial architecture of the British empire that shares real estate with the stupas of the ancient Paya Sule (temple), where locals stop throughout the day to pray and from which all distances in Burma are measured. Indian and Chinese architecture, a Jewish synagogue, open and covered markets, the whole buzzing with movement and purpose.
Market in Yangon

Market in Yangon

Yangon

Yangon

Most fun, is a feast on the Chinese night market where small restaurants tightly pack the streets with tables and waiters compete for your business.Dinner at the nght market, Yangon

Dinner at the nght market, Yangon

Night market, Yangon

Night market, Yangon


Myanmar beer

Myanmar beer

The crown jewel of Burma is the Paya Shwedagon a gleaming golden temple with an elusive history. Its origin is unclear, but since the single digit centuries it has been rebuilt and enlarged countless times after various military skirmishes and many earthquakes. It was a 15th century queen who launched the gold covering which subsequent rulers embellished upon. Most exquisite are the defining Burmese architectural details including the multi-tiered roof and umbrella-shaped finial encrusted with over 5000 diamonds and other precious stones, topped by a whopping 76 carat diamond!
Paya Shwedagon, Yangon

Paya Shwedagon, Yangon

Paya Shwedagon, Yangon

Paya Shwedagon, Yangon

We've been spoiled in Thailand, so the bus to Bago feels a bit grimy by comparison, but it's only 2 hours. The small town is packed with sites that can be covered in an afternoon with a tuk tuk, including 2 very large reclining buddhas, an unusual stupa that only men are allowed to climb, a monastery where people worship a giant Burmese python that roams freely, and a hilltop temple that has grown to be the tallest in the country after centuries of reconstruction.
Reclining Buddha, Bago

Reclining Buddha, Bago

Paya Mahazedi, Bago

Paya Mahazedi, Bago

The day trip from Bago to Mount Kyaikhtiyo, aka the Golden Rock (temple), will occupy a secure place on our list of most memorable experiences for years to come. Few foreigners visit, but locals come literally by truckload to see this gravity-defying golden boulder, supporting a small stupa believed to house a single strand of Buddha's hair, that has withstood nature's best attempts to topple it since the 11th century.
Mount Kyaikhtiyo, the Golden Rock Temple

Mount Kyaikhtiyo, the Golden Rock Temple


Without the religious meaning, and given the effort it takes to get there, for us the rock itself is rather disappointing, but observing the fervor of local visitors, on this day in particular, makes it an adventure. It's a smooth 2 hour drive in a private car until about 5km from the parking lot, when we are halted by traffic. It takes only a minute to recall that today is Myanmar's Independence Day, a national holiday. Getting nowhere, we leave our driver by a big tree, and negotiate 2 motorcycles to get us to the main gate. It's a harrowing ride in between vehicles moving in both directions. A few times, my hands push against the sides of buses as if the gesture might protect my knees. Kudos to the superb drivers who whisk us through this mess with confidence, though my elation is short-lived when I see what's next. We are still 17km from the temple and the only way up is in a dump truck fitted with rows of thin wood planks! Trucks are parked next to platforms where people jostle for position on flimsy staircases in anticipation of the signal to board. It's a steep winding road, but we're packed so tightly it almost feels safe.
Waiting for the trucks at the Golden Rock Temple

Waiting for the trucks at the Golden Rock Temple

Trucks at Mount Kyaikhtiyo, the Golden Rock Temple

Trucks at Mount Kyaikhtiyo, the Golden Rock Temple


From the entrance it's yet a long walk up wide steps lined with shacks peddling, religious offerings, souvenirs, food and drink. Pilgrims have set up lean-tos and families are camped out along the way.
Devotees at the Golden Rock Temple, Mount Kayaikhtiyo

Devotees at the Golden Rock Temple, Mount Kayaikhtiyo

Given the ordeal it was to get here, we don't have time to spare as we have a night bus to catch from Bago. So we visit, have lunch, take photos and then make our way back down to the trucks. Total chaos hardly describes the scene. There are hundreds of people waiting to get on trucks with no one coordinating. As trucks maneuver, they are besieged before reaching the overcrowded platforms. We watch in disbelief realizing that if we don't get on a truck in the next few minutes we'll miss our bus. As a truck slowly backs up in front of me, without another thought, I grab a handle on the side then another and another and haul myself up and over. I claim enough space for two and resolutely ignore anyone yelling at me. We're in!

One problem with a night bus (aside from possibly freezing to death, so always make sure you have an extra layer), is the time of arrival. It's about 4:30AM when the bus drops us in a town 10km from our destination, Nyaungshwe the comfortable tourist center at the northern tip of Lake Inle. A taxi man offers to take us with 3 German guys who are already warming up in a station wagon. The hiccup is there's only room for 4. Without hesitation he loads our luggage and me... into the boot!

We follow the Germans to the Teakwood Hotel where luckily, they have a double for us. It's a bit over budget, but at 5AM who's complaining, until we realize that the windows have been left open and the air is thick with mosquitoes! It's a good 30 minutes of ninja action before we can safely fall into bed.
Teakwood Hotel ($45 room only), Nyaungshwe

Teakwood Hotel ($45 room only), Nyaungshwe


The first order of business in Nyaungshwe is to find another hotel and mosquito-free Rich Land meets our requirements.
Rich Land Hotel, Nyaungshwe ($20/night with breakfast)

Rich Land Hotel, Nyaungshwe ($20/night with breakfast)


Pagoda, Nyaungshwe

Pagoda, Nyaungshwe


Buffalo cart, near Nyaungshwe

Buffalo cart, near Nyaungshwe

Red Mountain Winery, near Nyaungshwe

Red Mountain Winery, near Nyaungshwe

Red Mountain Winery near Nyaungshwe

Red Mountain Winery near Nyaungshwe

Man and boy with bicycle rickshaw, Nyaungshwe

Man and boy with bicycle rickshaw, Nyaungshwe


With little finesse, we climb aboard a narrow long boat and carefully take place in two Director's chairs; a comfort designed only for tourists. Covered with blankets, It's freezing cold as we head out on Lake Inle before sunrise. Layers are essential as by noon it will be boiling hot. The cold air against the warm lake water creates a dense mist that hangs above the water's surface.
5AM on Lake Inle

5AM on Lake Inle


Fishermen on Lake Inle

Fishermen on Lake Inle

Fishermen and early morning mist, Lake Inle

Fishermen and early morning mist, Lake Inle


It turns out there are two kinds of fishermen on the lake: Those who strike poses and perform impressive balancing acts with old fashioned cone-shaped nets, and those who actually fish in groups, strategically spreading large nets in the water. Both are fun to watch.
Fisherman, Lake Inle

Fisherman, Lake Inle


Fishermen, Lake Inle

Fishermen, Lake Inle

Fishermen, Lake Inle

Fishermen, Lake Inle

Gone are the days when everyone glided silently along the lake steering with one leg wrapped around an oar. Today, boats fitted with loud, polluting outboard motors charge around approximately 240 square kms of lake in haste. Note: Until quiet eco-friendly motors are introduced, pack earplugs for lakeside hotel rooms.
Boatman on Lake Inle

Boatman on Lake Inle


Large floating villages are laid out in grid patterns on the lake. Homes, shops, schools, and administrative buildings stand high on teak stilts above the water. Imagine your neighborhood with water instead of pavement. Your boat parked out in front or under the house, a dock and steps leading up to the front door.
Floating Village, Lake Inle

Floating Village, Lake Inle


Vegetables and flowers are cultivated in expansive floating gardens. Rows and rows of fertile beds, secured tightly with bamboo poles are tended to by farmers in boats. Villagers sell their goods on the 5 markets which rotate weekdays around the lake.
Men working on the floating vegetable gardens, Lake Inle

Men working on the floating vegetable gardens, Lake Inle

Man tending a floating flower garden, Lake Inle

Man tending a floating flower garden, Lake Inle


Road to Thantaung vllage, Lake Inle

Road to Thantaung vllage, Lake Inle

Thantaung village market, Lake Inle

Thantaung village market, Lake Inle

Woman smoking a freshly-rolled cigar, Thantaung village market, Lake Inle

Woman smoking a freshly-rolled cigar, Thantaung village market, Lake Inle

Workers on break, Lake Inle

Workers on break, Lake Inle


Our boat steers down a long, narrow offshoot of the lake and drops us on a dock in front of an empty market place.
Lake Inle

Lake Inle

A long path leads to the vestiges of Thaung Tho whose zedis (pagodas) are spread across the hill in backdrop. As it's an off market day, we have the place to ourselves.
View of Thaung Tho, Lake Inle

View of Thaung Tho, Lake Inle

Thaung Tho, Lake Inle

Thaung Tho, Lake Inle


Other highlights on the lake include the beautiful (teak)wood monastery, Nyaung Nga Hpe, once famous for monk-trained jumping cats but infinitely more interesting for its collection of Buddhas, mosaics and wood carvings.
Nyaung Nga Hpe, (teak)wood monastery, Lake Inle

Nyaung Nga Hpe, (teak)wood monastery, Lake Inle


Potter's village, Lake Inle

Potter's village, Lake Inle


Maing Thauk Forest Monastery, Lake Inle

Maing Thauk Forest Monastery, Lake Inle


For devout Buddhists, it is customary to place thin leaves of gold on Buddha images. Handmade uniform squares of gold leaf are sold in temples. Depending on the temple, women may or not participate in the ritual. The Paya Phaung Daw Oo, houses a most unusual collection of 5 Buddha images that are so thickly covered in gold, they have lost their shape. Once a year, during week-long festivities, these Buddhas are paraded in special boats on the lake. We'll be back in October to photograph the events.
Paung Daw Oo Pagoda, Lake Inle

Paung Daw Oo Pagoda, Lake Inle

Ceremonial boat, Paung Daw Oo Pagoda, Lake Inle

Ceremonial boat, Paung Daw Oo Pagoda, Lake Inle


Until the recent, well-respected cease-fire, special permits were required to enter the eastern Kayah State of Burma due to the ongoing conflict between the military junta and ethnic minorities. A guide is required to visit the local tribes in the surrounding region, including the Padaung whose women are notoriously referred to as "long necks" for their stacked gold rings, but we opt out of the tribes on display and focus on the varied sites in the sleepy capital of Loikaw.
Shwe Lava Temple, Loikaw

Shwe Lava Temple, Loikaw

Two monks on a bicycle near a hill Temple, Loikaw

Two monks on a bicycle near a hill Temple, Loikaw

Receiving alms, early morning, Loikaw

Receiving alms, early morning, Loikaw

Monks lining up for alms, Loikaw

Monks lining up for alms, Loikaw

Market, Loikaw

Market, Loikaw


With very few tourists, the hotel infrastructure is poor and our first guesthouse goes down as the most disgusting room we've had in 3 years of travel. Most appalling is the attitude of the owner, who is not the slightest bit disturbed when we point to the pile of giant cockroaches the braver one of us annihilated throughout the night. The bathroom is so dirty, we cannot wash. Luckily, there are better options.
Nawaday Hotel ($37 double room), Loikaw

Nawaday Hotel ($37 double room), Loikaw


Dining is limited to local, outdoor restaurants where no one speaks English, but we manage by pointing and people are very friendly and hospitable.

The center of Mandalay hardly resembles the images evoked in Kipling's poem. On the contrary, rows of low lying, non-descript concrete buildings line the streets with here and there a taller building like our hotel with it's bright lights. It's 5am when we walk in with no reservation. The guys sleeping in the lobby, jump up and one quotes a very high price. We argue about it for a minute, then I ask to use the wifi, log on and book the room thru a website for 30% less. Strange though as often hotels prefer direct bookings in order to save on the service provider's fee. Whatever, everyone is happy and we're quite comfortable.
Mo Thee Hotel, Mandalay ($27 double wth breakfast)

Mo Thee Hotel, Mandalay ($27 double wth breakfast)

Most people just pass through Mandalay on the way to/from Bagan, but the city has enough to keep you busy and well fed for a few days.
On the streets of Mandalay

On the streets of Mandalay

Street vendor, Mandalay

Street vendor, Mandalay

Pagoda, Mandalay

Pagoda, Mandalay


Puppet show, Mandalay

Puppet show, Mandalay

Girl with Thanaka designs on her face, Mandalay

Girl with Thanaka designs on her face, Mandalay

There is only one entrance to the enormous grounds of the ancient royal city and we are completely on the wrong side. Seemingly on cue, 2 motorcycles pull up to offer their services. From the entrance, we have to rent bicycles the ride straight ahead only (there are signs all over forbidding any turns) to reach the Royal Palace which was completely destroyed during WWII, and rebuilt in the 1990s. The rest of the vast property is occupied by the military, some just waiting to reprimand distracted tourists that veer off course. Somewhat surprised to find our guys have waited for us, they become our drivers for the next few days, shuttling us from before dawn until after sunset.

The longest teakwood bridge in the world, U Bein bridge is one of Mandalay's biggest attractions. At sunset, busloads of tourists wielding selfie sticks pose on the high bridge or in boats below. It's the dry season, and hard to imagine that during the monsoon the water almost reaches the wood planks... Sunrise is a bit quieter with monks and locals making the long crossing.
U Bein Bridge near Mandalay

U Bein Bridge near Mandalay

Monk on the U Bein Bridge

Monk on the U Bein Bridge


Taungthaman Lake near U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

Taungthaman Lake near U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

Vendor near the U Bein Bridge, near Mandalay

Vendor near the U Bein Bridge, near Mandalay

Mandalay is the center of gold leaf production. Talk about manual labor. From the muscle-clad guys wielding heavy hammers for hours on end laboriously pummeling leather pouches, filled with layers of gold nuggets, diminishing in size as they pass from one man to another, to the men and women who separate, cut and package each individual leaf.
Men placing gold leaf on a Buddha at the Mahamuni Temple, Mandalay

Men placing gold leaf on a Buddha at the Mahamuni Temple, Mandalay


Ladies singing, Mahamuni Temple, Mandalay

Ladies singing, Mahamuni Temple, Mandalay


Young monk, Mandalay

Young monk, Mandalay

Thick layers of fine white powder cover the trees and just about everything else in the stone-cutters' neighborhood. Clouds of white mist hang in the air as men and yes, children, cut and file blocks of stone with an assortment of power tools. Red, irritated eyes peer at us from behind the thick white accumulation on their faces. Women and girls work in groups, washing and polishing pieces.
Pagoda in the stonecutter's neighborhood, Mandalay

Pagoda in the stonecutter's neighborhood, Mandalay

Stonecutter, Mandalay

Stonecutter, Mandalay

Girl with Thanaka designs on her face, Mandalay

Girl with Thanaka designs on her face, Mandalay

We end one particularly long day in front of Bistro 82, a sleek, modern restaurant and without looking at the menu settle in for dinner. The prices are shocking for Mandalay, but after hundreds of rice and noodle dishes, a fine european meal accompanied by a smooth red wine is simply too tempting.

Hugely popular with tourists and rightfully so, is Mingun a small village famous for three pagodas, namely, the late 18th century Paya Mingun destined to be the largest pagoda in the world but never completed. The climb to the top of the crumbled, pile of bricks is pretty treacherous not aided by the fact that you have to do it barefoot in the blazing sun. The only part left of the mythical figures standing guard in front are the ginormous paws...
Mingun Patho Daw Gyi Pagoda

Mingun Patho Daw Gyi Pagoda

People working in fields, Mingun

People working in fields, Mingun

A small boat ferries us across the river to Inwa, several times the Burmese capital from the 14th - 19th centuries. Today, just the vestiges, several monasteries and stupas scattered throughout the countryside remain. Horse-drawn carriages rattle along unpaved roads through an agricultural landscape stopping at all the sites. It's a fun day excursion far from the city.
Paya Le Htat Gyi, Inwa

Paya Le Htat Gyi, Inwa

Mahar Aung Mye Bon San Monastery, Inwa

Mahar Aung Mye Bon San Monastery, Inwa

No matter the number of photos or written descriptions of Bagan and despite fairly large crowds during the high season, sitting on top of any of the Buddhist temples that dot this majestic landscape is a (literally) breathtaking experience.
Temples of Bagan

Temples of Bagan

Hot air balloons over Bagan

Hot air balloons over Bagan


Shepherds steering a herd of cows near the temples in Bagan

Shepherds steering a herd of cows near the temples in Bagan


The scope of this historic site can only be appreciated in person. While the kingdom dates back to the 2nd century, the 9th - 13th centuries represent the golden age of Bagan. Of the thousands (numbers vary from 4500 to over 13,000) Buddhist temples built by successive kings, only, imagine only, about 2200 stand today with many more under excavation. To visit the vast area, we rent a couple of electric mopeds which are fun once you conquer your fear of sandy trails!
Bagan

Bagan

A shepherd with cows, Bagan

A shepherd with cows, Bagan


Monks lining up for alms, Bagan

Monks lining up for alms, Bagan

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Monks in front of Ananda Temple, Bagan

Monks in front of Ananda Temple, Bagan


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Ananda Okkyaung Reclining Buddha, Bagan

Ananda Okkyaung Reclining Buddha, Bagan


Boy with Thanaka designs

Boy with Thanaka designs


Although 28 days is a lot more than most people have to visit Myanmar (Burma) we'll be heading back shortly to see more...

Posted by SpiceChronicles 08:19 Archived in Myanmar Comments (7)

Thailand: The Monaco of Asia

sunny 22 °C


From the minute we touch down in Bangkok, I can sense I'm going to love this city. We're whisked out of the airport on a modern, clean train whose wagons have been swept while we waited in single-file lines for the policeman's signal to board. We connect to the elevated Sky Train that moves the masses on several levels just meters above the densely packed streets of the city.
Skytrain at night, Bangkok, Thailand

Skytrain at night, Bangkok, Thailand


The River View Guest House is tucked away on a tiny "soi" (lane). The reward for finding it is a lovely room ($30/night) and a sweeping 180° view from the rooftop restaurant/lounge.
Room, River View Guest House, Bangkok, Thailand

Room, River View Guest House, Bangkok, Thailand


River View Guest House with panoramic view, Bangkok, Thailand

River View Guest House with panoramic view, Bangkok, Thailand

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View of Chao Praya River from River View Guest House, Bangkok, Thailand

View of Chao Praya River from River View Guest House, Bangkok, Thailand

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Chao_Praya..Thailand_18.jpg
The city center is hot, humid and crowded, but the cooled Sky Train conveniently opens its doors in front of walkways and escalators leading to numerous shopping centers filled with stores, restaurants, spas and food courts all leading to more, ad infinitum. The range of offers, from malls filled with souvenirs and knock offs, to gleaming spreads of haute couture and luxury goods is astounding. The future is right here, right now.Ultra modern, Bangkok, Thailand

Ultra modern, Bangkok, Thailand


Sleek shopping mall, Bangkok, Thailand

Sleek shopping mall, Bangkok, Thailand


Sky train and shopping center, Bangkok, Thailand

Sky train and shopping center, Bangkok, Thailand


In between the soaring skyscrapers and construction sites lie traditional neighborhoods connected by narrow (soi) lanes, filled with vendors peddling an array of street food unmatched in Asia.
Roasted duck vendor, Bangkok, Thailand

Roasted duck vendor, Bangkok, Thailand


Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand


And here, on one of the busiest intersections downtown, with determined peacefulness, people move about the small open-air Erawan Shrine where 20 innocent people (predominantly ethnic Chinese) lost their lives in an act of terror in August. Chilling to think of such acts possibly being "the new normal".
Erawan Shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Erawan Shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Erawan Shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Erawan Shrine, Bangkok, Thailand


One way to escape Bangkok's notorious traffic jams is to ride the river boats which ferry passengers up and down the Chao Phraya. The boats barely stop to let passengers on and off and it's best not to sit by the edge as the choppy waves created by river traffic cough up sprays of nasty water. The piercing rattle of a metal canister reminds you to pay and don't think for a minute that you can bluff the lady in charge who's shaking it. She knows exactly how far you paid to ride.
Chao Praya River, Bangkok, Thailand

Chao Praya River, Bangkok, Thailand


View of River View Guest House from the boat, Bangkok, Thailand

View of River View Guest House from the boat, Bangkok, Thailand


We step off the boat and wind though a typical market that leads to the Wat Pho, the 16th century temple housing Thailand's largest reclining Buddha covered in gold leaf and intricate mother of pearl designs.
Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok Thailand

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok Thailand


Wat Pho temple Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho temple Bangkok, Thailand


Next door is the Grand Palace, the royal family's former residence. It's only open thru mid-afternoon, so get there early. If the heat doesn't crush you, the hoards of Chinese tourists will. Within the palace complex lies the highlight, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaeo). Photos are not allowed. The actual Buddha is surprisingly small, but the temple itself and the atmosphere of reverence, as in the Wat Pho temple, is palpable.
Grand Palace Bangkok, Thailand

Grand Palace Bangkok, Thailand


Wall paintings at Wat Phra Kaeo, Bangkok, Thailand

Wall paintings at Wat Phra Kaeo, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Phra Kaeo, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Phra Kaeo, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok, Thailand

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It happens to be the festival of Loi Krathong, when locals pay homage to the goddess of water by releasing floating baskets with candles and flowers on the river as evening falls. Men with ingenious contraptions lower the baskets on this particularly windy night, eliciting cries of joy from those whose offerings remain lit on the choppy water.
Loi Krathong festival, Bangkok, Thailand

Loi Krathong festival, Bangkok, Thailand


Scoring seats on the train to Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is like a game of musical chairs with everyone scrambling when the doors open, but once settled, the 3 hour ride is a warm breeze. Good Morning Tamarind Guesthouse is pretty rustic, but for 16 euros, we've got clean sheets, A/C and a hot shower.
Room,  Good Morning Tamarind Guesthouse, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Room, Good Morning Tamarind Guesthouse, Ayutthaya, Thailand


From the 14th to 18th centuries Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand. The ruins of the ancient city are easily visited by bicycle or with uniquely shaped tuk tuks. Although well-preserved, many of the structures appear ready to topple over.
Tuk tuk, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Tuk tuk, Ayutthaya, Thailand


Wat Phra Ram, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Ram, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayutthaya, Thailand


One of the most intriguing sites is the Buddha head entangled in the roots of a tree.
Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayutthaya, Thailand


As we watch the sun go down on the ruins of Wat Chai Wattanaram, little do we realize that getting back to town at night will be a challenge.Wat Chai Wattanaram, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaram, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaram, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaram, Ayutthaya, Thailand


The tuk tuks have gone home and we are left standing on a busy road chewing the dust kicked-up by passing vehicles. Eventually, a Thai man in a rental car offers us a ride. He's here to run the marathon taking place tomorrow at 5:30AM to beat the heat. Up early, we see a few runners. The funny thing is that instead of us cheering them on, they all wave at us!

A hot day of sightseeing, ends on the night market for dinner. While I go for grilled fish and veggies, the photographer plows right into a medley of deep fried creepy crawlers including, ants, worms, larvae and ultimate favorite, crickets.
Dinner on the night market, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Dinner on the night market, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Assorted deep fried critters, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Assorted deep fried critters, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Crispy cricket, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Crispy cricket, Ayutthaya, Thailand


His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadei, is revered in Thailand and considered the "Father of the Thai Nation.” To celebrate his 88th birthday, Father's Day and the country's National Day, his son, the Crown Prince, has organized a countrywide cycling event to take place over several days in December. For weeks leading up to the event, locals have been proudly sporting yellow t-shirts with "Bike for Dad" and other slogans.
Long live the King! Ayutthaya, Thailand

Long live the King! Ayutthaya, Thailand


Over the last 3 years, we have been on many buses, but never have we seen long distance buses this glamorous. Standing two buses tall, Thailand's VIP buses are super modern and comfortable with extra wide, cushy seats and clean toilets.
Luxury bus, Thailand

Luxury bus, Thailand


Sukhothai, the older Thai capital (13th century) also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a beautifully maintained historical park completely set off from the town. A sorngtaaou, kind of oversized pick-up truck with benches in the back, runs to and from the park along the main road throughout the day, doubling as a school bus during peak hours.
Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai, Thailand

Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai, Thailand

Schoolgirls, Sukkothai, Thailand

Schoolgirls, Sukkothai, Thailand

Fresh coconut juice, Sukhothai, Thailand

Fresh coconut juice, Sukhothai, Thailand


EZ House is on the main road and our room for 18 euros is sparkling new. There isn't much around, but we manage with a local restaurant on the street and a 7/11, the most popular convenience store in Thailand.
EZ House, Sukhothai, Thailand

EZ House, Sukhothai, Thailand


With typical Thai kindness, the manager of our hotel purchases our bus tickets to Chang Mai and drives us to the station where again we ride in style. Chiang Mai is a 2-part bustling city. The tourist center with beautiful temples, shops and hotels sits within ancient walls surrounded by a vibrant, ever-expanding modern city.
Offering food and respect to a monk, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Offering food and respect to a monk, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Every Sunday afternoon, a walking market takes over the main street with food, clothing, souvenirs, makeshift massage stalls, and musicians. We inch along when suddenly the Thai national anthem blares from loudspeakers and the thousands of people in the street simply freeze for the duration. We saw this in Bangkok as well, at 6PM everyday, everyone just stops and then, without a beat, life resumes after the last note.Massage at the Sunday Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Massage at the Sunday Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Perched on a hilltop about 20 minutes out of town is the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple. While the temple itself is quite beautiful, it is on the steps leading to it where we have an epiphany: mini coconut pancakes washed down with a cappuccino from a local in the know with a pro coffee machine!
Cooking quail eggs and coconut pancakes, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Cooking quail eggs and coconut pancakes, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Also doing a thrift business on the steps are children from local hill tribes dressed in traditional garb. Notice one little girl's enthusiasm... Regretfully, as long as tourists continue to pay for the pose, these kids won't go to school and their parents will continue to use them as a source of revenue.
Girls from the Lahu hill tribe, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Girls from the Lahu hill tribe, Chiang Mai, Thailand


It's a minivan ride on endlessly winding roads to Pai, the hippie enclave on a river that got stuck in time. The scene at the bus stand is hilarious. Dozens of tattooed 20-somethings with guitars and hiking boots pour out of several vans clamoring to find cheap guesthouses and rent scooters. I'm feeling old as we walk to the Canary Guesthouse on the other side of a rickety bridge, until I spot a few real hippies.
Night market, Pai, Thailand

Night market, Pai, Thailand


Our spartan room has a good bed with a mosquito net, though there haven't been many since we arrived in Thailand and here in Pai, the weather is downright chilly at night. The bathroom is attached, but somewhat open-air. This is one of the nicer rooms, facing the river - 19 euros, and far enough from the party scene.
Room, Canary Guesthouse, Pai, Thailand

Room, Canary Guesthouse, Pai, Thailand

Exterior view room (middle), Canary Guesthouse, Pai, Thailand

Exterior view room (middle), Canary Guesthouse, Pai, Thailand


It's another few curvy minivan hours to Mae Hong Son a jewel of a town with few tourists surrounded by green hills near the border of Burma (Myanmar). Two pretty temples sit on the small Jong Kham lake in the center of town. In the evening, artisans and food vendors set up around the lake which lights up like a postcard.
Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Mae Hong Son, Thailand


Wat Chong Klang, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Wat Chong Klang, Mae Hong Son, Thailand


BBQ by the lake, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

BBQ by the lake, Mae Hong Son, Thailand


Sunrise, Wat Chong Klang, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Sunrise, Wat Chong Klang, Mae Hong Son, Thailand


After one night at an overpriced dump, I don't care how nice they are, called Boondee House, we move to Piya Guest House right on the lake. The lovely room is only 19 euros! Over breakfast at the Sunflower Cafe, we meet an Austrian transplant who unknowingly provides the title of this blog entry when he proclaims, "Thailand is the Monaco of Asia". At the time, I'm not exactly sure what he means, but as I write this, I have since visited Burma and Cambodia and while both countries have many wonderful qualities which I promise to write about soon, neither comes close to the cleanliness, culinary achievements and comfort that Thailand offers.
Piya Guest House, with temples in the background, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Piya Guest House, with temples in the background, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Pool, Piya Guest House, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Pool, Piya Guest House, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Room, Piya Guest House, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Room, Piya Guest House, Mae Hong Son, Thailand


The city of Chiang Rai really doesn't do it for me. Maybe it's the neighborhood. Tourist bars and massage parlors, with an assortment of women and transgenders hawking their services, line the surrounding streets.
1 hour foot massage $6, Chiang Rai, Thailand

1 hour foot massage $6, Chiang Rai, Thailand


There is however one site not to be missed: Wat Rong, the White Temple. Brainchild of the excessively talented, Chalermchai Kositpipat, a prolific local artist, the renovation of a crumbling temple has morphed into a massive personal project that will eclipse his own life. Pieces of mirror embedded in bright white plaster glimmer in the sun from every angle. This is the definition of bling, but beyond the Disneyesque facade lies one man's vision to offer his community a grandiose center of Buddhism.
White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Do not mess with this traffic cone, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Do not mess with this traffic cone, Chiang Rai, Thailand


Our Thai visa is about to expire. It's time to make a visa run. We dedicate one full day to go to Laos (pronounced Lao) and back. Start 8AM. It takes 2 buses and a tuk tuk to reach the border where our Thai visas are stamped for exit. Another tuk tuk takes us to the official shuttle bus across the bridge to Laos. Fill out the form, pay the fee (or not depending on your passport), get the entry stamp, step thru the turnstile, turnaround, get the exit stamp, take the shuttle back across the bridge, tuk tuk back to the Thai border, fill out the form, get the new Thai visa, tuk tuk to the bus stand, 2 buses back to square one. Finish 9PM.

In a prelude to Cambodia we are heading to the small town of Phimai (central Thailand) to visit a couple of Khmer temples built in the 10th century, 100 years before those of Angkor Wat. To break up the long journey, we spend a night in the town of Phitsanulok "Philok". It's a warm breezy evening and we head over to an open-air bar just in front of our hotel. To our surprise and delight, they have a long list of Belgian beer. And, as if on cue, a street vendor pops into the bar with a tray full of savoury snacks to accompany our drinks!
Almost forgot the photo! Phitsanulok, Thailand

Almost forgot the photo! Phitsanulok, Thailand


Khmer temple, Phimai, Thailand

Khmer temple, Phimai, Thailand

School kids visiting Khmer temple, Phimai, Thailand

School kids visiting Khmer temple, Phimai, Thailand

Portable rest stop, Phimai, Thailand

Portable rest stop, Phimai, Thailand


With no reservation in Phimai, we settle on the first guest house we find for a mere 10 euros, but we can barely move in the tiny room. After a cold shower the next morning, we move to the nicest place in town, Paradise Hotel for 12 euros. It's luxurious in comparison and boasts a swimming pool... In the parking lot...
Paradise Hotel, Phimai, Thailand

Paradise Hotel, Phimai, Thailand


It's been over a month in Thailand and we've yet to see a beach so we make our way to the island of Koh Kood (Ko Kut). The ferry from Trat takes about 2 hours. It's a good idea to reserve lodging in advance because on arrival, you are directed to one of the waiting sorngtaaous according to your hotel. Aside from these pick-ups and a few local vehicles, there are no cars on the island which is really nice. Scooters are available for rent and everyone's got one. The island is very hilly and it takes some getting used to the dramatic ups and downs, but once you feel comfortable, it's a fun way to explore the island which never feels crowded. Every beach is beautiful, with crystal clear, warm shallow water and nice white sand.
Siam Beach, Ko Kut, Thailand

Siam Beach, Ko Kut, Thailand

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Our first hotel, Siam Hut (23 euros with breakfast) is on the prettiest stretch of Siam beach. Although our bungalow is technically on the sea, it's second row in between 2 bungalows which would be fine if the ground around it was a bit more manicured. For now, cement planks, tires, building materials and garbage litter the area. The wide spaces between the floorboards make me nervous about creepy crawlers, one of which I eventually have to vanquish on my own. However, the restaurant area is pretty and overall the setting is quite nice.
Siam Hut bungalows, Ko Kut, Thailand

Siam Hut bungalows, Ko Kut, Thailand

Reception and restaurant, Siam Hut, Ko Kut, Thailand

Reception and restaurant, Siam Hut, Ko Kut, Thailand


We explore the other beaches on the island and decide to stay longer moving to the small but charming bungalows of I-Lay House on Ao Phrao beach (44 euros with breakfast).
I-Lay House, Ko Kut, Thailand

I-Lay House, Ko Kut, Thailand

Bungalow, I-Lay House, Ko Kut, Thailand

Bungalow, I-Lay House, Ko Kut, Thailand

Interior bungalow, I-Lay House, Ko Kut, Thailand

Interior bungalow, I-Lay House, Ko Kut, Thailand

A day of snorkeling with BB Divers takes us to several dive spots in Koh Rang National Park. While the coral isn't spectacular, it's a fun day of swimming with colorful fish and making new friends.
Snorkeling, Ko Rang National Park, Thailand

Snorkeling, Ko Rang National Park, Thailand


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Koh Kood (Ko Kut) is one of those places that you want to tell everyone about yet hesitate to do so fearing overdevelopment. For the time being, it seems that the parties, jet skies and rambunctious tourists are content ravaging the bigger island of Koh Rang leaving the rest of us to chill here in tranquility.

What a perfect way to end our visit to Thailand.

Posted by SpiceChronicles 01:35 Archived in Thailand Comments (8)

Touting Tajikistan and Afghanistan

sunny 16 °C

Aside from one local family, we are the only people crossing the border at Denau, Uzbekistan into Tajikistan which seems great until we realize that the border guards are restless. Within a few minutes, I'm feigning a polite smile as a woman meticulously removes, unfolds, opens and inspects every single item I'm carrying. She neatly piles my affairs on a small table and invites me to repack while she works her way through all the files and photos on my IPAD. Meanwhile, on the men's side, the official briefly scans the backpack before concentrating on the laptop searching for pornographic images, launching advanced queries, opening all folders, documents, etc. A good 45 minutes later we're cleared but left wondering where the line is between, personal private property and contraband materials.

With no hotel booked in Dushanbe, the taxi drops us at an Italian cafe with wifi listed in our guidebook.
Segafredo, our goto coffee place in Dushanbe

Segafredo, our goto coffee place in Dushanbe

The price for accommodation varies tremendously from one Central Asian capital to another and finding something better than a dorm room with shared bath in our budget is proving difficult here. Even Airbnb has little to offer until I notice that one guy writes that his place is near the cafe we're sitting in. 15 minutes later, he meets us and soon we are settled into a fully-equipped, way too big for our purposes, apartment for a most reasonable $50/night.
Bedroom, Dushanbe

Bedroom, Dushanbe


Living room, Dushanbe

Living room, Dushanbe

Kitchen, Dushanbe

Kitchen, Dushanbe

Delighted to read good reviews of an Indian restaurant in town, we rush over to offer our palates respite from our fatty kebab diet now going on 2 months. As we savor each morsel of chicken tikka masala our table by the window offers a curious spectacle outside: Police systematically stop cars, pocket some money and wave drivers on. On the main street, there are cops every few blocks engaged in this choreography.
Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Dushanbe, Tajikistan


Police Dushanbe

Police Dushanbe

The mountain village of Khorog is the start/end point for a visit of the Pamir Mountains and the Wakhan Valley. Getting there is a 15 hour shared jeep adventure. It's crucial to pick a good jeep, preferably a Toyota Land Cruiser, and a comfortable seat towards the front, with a headrest. It's not possible to reserve a seat in advance, so we get to the taxi stand at 7AM where drivers are already vying for business. Jeeps only leave when they are full, and full means whatever they can get away with. We are firm, 3 not 4 people in our row. Luckily, our jeep fills within 30 minutes and we're off. As we leave town, we are flagged down by a cop. Our driver pays to pass. It's a beautiful albeit bumpy, dusty ride through a relatively arid landscape with numerous stops along the way for food, cigarettes (our driver is not happy because we won't let him smoke in the car or blast electro pop music) and toilets, some of the worst I've seen anywhere. Yes, that includes India.

It's midnight when we arrive in the small town of Khorog only to find that the room we thought reserved at Lal Inn is not. With no other options and despite the roaring slumber of 2 guys in the beds next to us, we crash in the dorm. ($15/person with breakfast). The next day, we splurge for a double room with private bath. ($50 euros for two with breakfast)
Lal Inn, Khorog

Lal Inn, Khorog

A green park with tall leafy trees marks the center of town. Chor Bagh restaurant sits in a corner of the park overhanging the raging, thick grey water of the river that rushes past with melodic vibration. Unfortunately, the food doesn't rate, but it's a very pretty place to chill with an ice-cold beer.
Chor Bagh restaurant in the park, Khorog

Chor Bagh restaurant in the park, Khorog

Eating ice cream in the park, Khorog

Eating ice cream in the park, Khorog

We meet Ergash and his Toyota Land Cruiser through our guest house, and within an hour, we've plotted a 6-day circuit in the Pamir. Although it does put a dent in our budget, as in Kyrgyzstan, it simply makes sense as public transportation is limited and sporadic particularly in remote regions. Admittedly spoiled by Alexey's pimped jeep in Kyrgyzstan, we are a bit let down by this older, less comfortable model but confident as it's a Land Cruiser. The first bit of news is that the infamous Pamir Highway is partially closed due to an avalanche and we'll have to take a secondary road. Thanks to our recent experience with the Off Road Kings in Kyrgystan, we are not nervous about the jeep bouncing along this pitted, rocky dirt road. However, on just the first day we do wonder what the hell he's thinking when Ergash attempts a deep river crossing and gets stuck! As he shifts between forward and reverse, and the tires spin and slam against rocks, the level of swiftly flowing water creeps up on the doors. No one utters a word, but the trickle of sweat that escapes his forehead tells me, Ergash isn't sure we're getting thru dry either. But persistence pays off and with a huge jerk, we're suddenly propelled to the other side landing with a crushing thud onto actual pavement. Amid a collective exhale, he announces, welcome to the Pamir Highway!
Day 1: Khorog to Boulun Kul

Day 1: Khorog to Boulun Kul

Day 1: Khorog to Boulun Kul

Day 1: Khorog to Boulun Kul

It's unclear why the village of Boulun Kul holds the title of coldest village in all of Tajikistan. At 3737 meters/12260 feet, it's certainly not the highest point in the country, but it sits on an open plateau fully exposed to a steadfast wind. It's late afternoon so Ergash drops us by Lake Yashikul for some exploration before dark.
Day 1: Village of Boulun Kul

Day 1: Village of Boulun Kul


Day 1: Lake Yashikul, Boulun Kul

Day 1: Lake Yashikul, Boulun Kul

We walk the 5kms back to the village which is just a few rows of small houses making it easy to find our jeep parked in front of our homestay ($30 for 2 with dinner and breakfast).
Day 1: Village of Boulun Kul

Day 1: Village of Boulun Kul


Day 1: Boulun Kul

Day 1: Boulun Kul

The room is actually two rooms with a separate entrance, but having a door means nothing as the kids open it to look at us and giggle, while the parents come in and out freely. The lady of the house serves us dinner, a clear soup with one piece of carrot, a quarter potato and traditional round bread at a low table with floor cushions in the larger room. As is customary at all meals, there's a pot of black or green tea, colorful bowls of jam, yak butter (an acquired taste), wafer cookies and individually wrapped candies on the table. In the other room, she prepares our bed, a pile of traditional handmade thick duvet-type blankets covered with clean sheets and more blankets on top. The blankets, visible in every home and yurt across Central Asia, are part of the bride's dowry and illustrate the family's wealth. There's a small sink by the door, but no water. Just as I'm trying to work out the mechanics, the husband arrives with a bucket of hot water and fills the tank on top. He shows me how the pedal below releases the flow. This is the shower. The wood outhouse is a two person affair with no privacy about 100 meters away. Thankfully, I'm alone, every time.
Bedroom, homestay, Boulun Kul

Bedroom, homestay, Boulun Kul

Outside our window, a group of men play volleyball until they can no longer see the ball and by 7PM, with little to no electricity; we won't be charging our battery of electronics tonight, the village pretty much goes dark. We lie in our hard but cozy bed on the floor mesmerized by the star spectacle outside our window.
Day 1: Playing volleyball in Boulun Kul

Day 1: Playing volleyball in Boulun Kul

In the morning, Ergash who had proposed eggs for breakfast comes in and announces, "Eggs cancelled". So bread and jam it is. We watch as he dips his bread into a bowl of tea and yak butter...

A few hours further on the Pamir Highway, don't be fooled by the name, there's hardly a smooth patch on this road, lies Murghab.
Day 2: The Pamir Highway

Day 2: The Pamir Highway

Day 2: The road from Boulun Kul to Mourgab

Day 2: The road from Boulun Kul to Mourgab


Day 2: The village of Mourgab in the distance

Day 2: The village of Mourgab in the distance

At 3576 m/11732 ft, this is the biggest town in the Western Pamir and it is one ugly place. Surrounded by a craggy, barren landscape, town is all of a few half-paved roads, with box-shaped houses and an inordinate network of electrical poles connected by seemingly haphazard knots of cables.
Day 2: Murghab the main town on the Pamir Highway

Day 2: Murghab the main town on the Pamir Highway

Day 2: The streets of Murghab

Day 2: The streets of Murghab

Despite all the wiring, there is no electricity: the power station flooded a few weeks ago. The shop, the restaurant and a few guesthouses have generators. Ours at Tulambek Guesthouse ($20 eu for 2 with breakfast) will be on from 8 to 11PM for charging batteries and devices. Luckily the outdoor shower (an extra $2) is solar powered.
Tulambek Guest house Murghab

Tulambek Guest house Murghab

Day 2: Hiking around Murghab

Day 2: Hiking around Murghab

Evening is spent chatting with other travelers in the common room: a French couple who are literally walking through the Pamir, 2 German guys cycling through on their way to Southeast Asia, a Slovekian guy taking time off from his job in Bishkek... Folks are either heading north to the border of Kyrgyzstan, or south towards Khorog so running into people you've met in a guesthouse along the way is fairly common. We are on the look out for the Dutch couple traveling in their own jeep that we met two months ago in Kyrgyzstan. Someone seems to recall having met them recently.

Karakul (3914 m/12841 ft) is a meager village of 30 or so rudimentary houses on the edge of a large pretty turquoise lake of the same name created by a meteorite millions of years ago.
Day 3: The village of Karakul

Day 3: The village of Karakul


Day 3: The road from Murghab to Karakul

Day 3: The road from Murghab to Karakul

Day 3: The road from Murghab to Karakul

Day 3: The road from Murghab to Karakul

Day 3: The road from Murghab to Karakul

Day 3: The road from Murghab to Karakul

The village sits on a long stretch of fenced, undefined territory between Tajikistan and China and is about 60 kms from the Kyrgyz border. The sign by the first house on the village says "STAY" and most people do; bikers, cyclists, vans... There isn't enough water for everyone so I'm hardly surprised when Ergash informs us, "shower cancelled". We hike around the lake in the afternoon until we're beaten back by ferocious mosquitos who are not the slightest bit deterred by our repellant.
Homestay Karakul

Homestay Karakul

Karakul village on the lake

Karakul village on the lake

Day 3: Karakul Lake

Day 3: Karakul Lake

Our room is private and bare with just a few layers of blankets on the floor. The facilities, across the courtyard and up a hill are well, by now you can imagine. $38 for 2 with dinner and breakfast.
Day 4: Homestay Karakul

Day 4: Homestay Karakul


Day 3: Ladies sharing a meal in Karakul

Day 3: Ladies sharing a meal in Karakul

Having already visited Kyrgyzstan, we turn back south to traverse the Wakhan Valley. The landscapes are vast and rocky and the snow on the peaks in the distance remind you that it's only possible to visit this rugged terrain during the summer months.
Day 4: The road from Karakul to Ali Chor

Day 4: The road from Karakul to Ali Chor

Day 4: Somewhere between Karakul and Ali Chor

Day 4: Somewhere between Karakul and Ali Chor

On the way, we stop again in Murghab, for lunch and gas. As with most towns in all the "stans", the main attraction is the bazaar and here the creativity that some have put into their converted cargo containers is impressive. There's no one at the gas station so we stop at the Chinese truck parking, a large fenced-in area on the outskirts of town and wait while Ergash negotiates a reasonable price for Chinese diesel.
Day 2: Murghab with its bazaar operating out of converted cargo containers

Day 2: Murghab with its bazaar operating out of converted cargo containers

Day 2: Bazaar in Murghab

Day 2: Bazaar in Murghab

Day 2: Murghab

Day 2: Murghab

Choking on dust, we pull into the tiny village of Ali Chor late afternoon.
Day 5: Sharing the road with Chinese trucks

Day 5: Sharing the road with Chinese trucks


Day 4: Village of Ali Chor

Day 4: Village of Ali Chor

Day 4: The village of Ali Chor

Day 4: The village of Ali Chor

Day 4: Coffee and hotel sign in Ali Chor

Day 4: Coffee and hotel sign in Ali Chor

Here too we have our own room with a comfy pile of traditional blankets and clean sheets on the floor. The family sleeps in the rooms on either side. There are no doors. $30 for 2 with dinner and breakfast.
Day 5: Our bedroom at a homestay in Ali Chor

Day 5: Our bedroom at a homestay in Ali Chor

Despite the language barrier, the hospitality could not be warmer. The men offer to take us fishing for dinner. We head out in anticipation, but we arrive by the river to find that there are no fish today. Hoping to please us, they set off to buy fish, while we hike back to the village, but when we arrive Ergash informs us "fish cancelled". Dinner will be our favorite - a clear soup with a piece of potato and carrot served with bread and tea. When I ask where I can wash my hands before dinner, the lady explains to Ergash, that only on Saturdays, women convene in the center of the village to wash their hair. As we giggle over the miscommunication, she takes me outside and pours water over my hands. With no electricity, by 7PM we're tucked in.
Portrait Tajik woman with gold teeth

Portrait Tajik woman with gold teeth


Man wearing a traditional felt Kalpak (hat)

Man wearing a traditional felt Kalpak (hat)

Day 4: Two ladies in Ali Chor

Day 4: Two ladies in Ali Chor

Day 4: In the village of Ali Chor

Day 4: In the village of Ali Chor


Day 5: Courageous cyclists on the dusty road from Ali Chor to Yamtchoun

Day 5: Courageous cyclists on the dusty road from Ali Chor to Yamtchoun

Day 5: Ali Chor to Yamtchoun

Day 5: Ali Chor to Yamtchoun

After days of coarse, lunar beige landscapes, the Wakhan Valley, whose roaring rivers separate Tajikistan from Afghanistan sometimes within spitting distance, offers a palette of flowering lush green landscapes and quaint villages. In the miniscule town of Vrang, 2 annoyingly nimble young boys, lead us through planted fields and up a steep path to the remains of a buddhist stupa.
Day 5: Buddhist stupa, village of Vrang

Day 5: Buddhist stupa, village of Vrang

In Langor, the short but somewhat tricky hike to the fort ruins is well worth the effort for the view.
Day 5: Ruins with a view, Fort in Langor

Day 5: Ruins with a view, Fort in Langor

Day 5: View of the fort in Longor

Day 5: View of the fort in Longor

Day 5: View of the fort in Langor

Day 5: View of the fort in Langor


Day 5: Traditional Tajik House (museum) on the road between Ali Chor and Yamtchoun

Day 5: Traditional Tajik House (museum) on the road between Ali Chor and Yamtchoun

Day 5: Ceiling detail, Traditional Tajik House (museum) on the road between Ali Chor and Yamtchoun

Day 5: Ceiling detail, Traditional Tajik House (museum) on the road between Ali Chor and Yamtchoun

Yamtchoun is famous for the Bibi Fatima hot springs. It's here, on the steep winding road leading up that 2 months later we find our Dutch friends, jumping out of our respective jeeps to embrace.

With the encouragement of a dozen other naked ladies, I struggle to last a full 10 minutes in the boiling hot spring waters of Bibi Fatima.
Day 5: After a dip in the hot springs

Day 5: After a dip in the hot springs

At the Sanitarium of Yamtchoun nearby, we are offered nicely made-up mattresses on the floor in a large traditional wooden pavilion where it would be possible to sleep at least 20, but we have the place to ourselves for $16 for the night, no meals.
Day 5: The dorm at the Yamtchoun Sanitarium to ourselves

Day 5: The dorm at the Yamtchoun Sanitarium to ourselves

Day 5: Breakfast at the Sanitarium

Day 5: Breakfast at the Sanitarium


Day 6: The road from Yamtchoun to Khorog, Wakhan Valley

Day 6: The road from Yamtchoun to Khorog, Wakhan Valley

Day 6: The road from Yamtchoun to Khorog, Wakhan Valley

Day 6: The road from Yamtchoun to Khorog, Wakhan Valley

Day 6: The road from Yamtchoun to Khorog

Day 6: The road from Yamtchoun to Khorog

Day 6: The road from Yamtchoun to Khorog, Wakhan Valley

Day 6: The road from Yamtchoun to Khorog, Wakhan Valley

Day 6: The road from Yamtchoun to Khorog

Day 6: The road from Yamtchoun to Khorog

Being so close to Afghanistan is just too tempting for the photographer who was there on several occasions over 30 years ago. So, within an hour, having signed away all responsibility of the Afghan consulate in Khorog, he has obtained a visa. An Australian guy offers to share his ride to the border at Ishkashim (Eshkashim) and I wave the guys off promising not to worry for the next 3 - 4 days, despite the Saturday Afghan market on the bridge (no man's land) which has been cancelled the last few months and stories of Taliban presence in the area. Incidentally, to situate our location we are 40 kms north of Kunduz where the Taliban attacked a couple of weeks after our passage. However, 4 days later, he reappears at Chor Bagh, the pretty restaurant in Khorog park filled with stories of the warm welcome and unparalleled kindness extended by the men encountered in the village, also called Eshkashim, on the Afghan side. In 3 decades, nothing has changed there. Men wear traditional turbans and women are completely veiled in typical blue burkas. So few tourists visit that he is the main attraction and spends his days, photographing, shaking hands, gesticulating and sharing meals with the men of the village.
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Hotel Marco Polo, Eshkashim, Afghanistan

Hotel Marco Polo, Eshkashim, Afghanistan

Hotel Marco Polo, dining room, Eshkashim, Afghanistan

Hotel Marco Polo, dining room, Eshkashim, Afghanistan

It is possible to fly from Khorog to Dushanbe in 45 minutes and though it's billed as a nail-biter , it sounds better than another 15 hour jeep ride. But purchasing a ticket proves impossible despite my best efforts at the cinder block they call the airport where a man on the other side of a narrow hole in a wall waves me off emphatically: tickets are sold out for the month ahead.

The jeep-taxi back to Dushanbe makes the same stops along the route including a restaurant for lunch which has the funniest bathroom. The attendant waves us in together where the stalls have short shower curtains for doors!
Toilet with shower curtain door on the road between Khorog and Dushanbe

Toilet with shower curtain door on the road between Khorog and Dushanbe

We spend a few nights at our favorite Airbnb in Dushanbe where we've now stayed in 3 different apartments owned by various family members in the same building (by our 3rd visit we're now paying $40/night) before flying to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for a final week. Our room at the Lavitor hotel and restaurant run by a nice family is a find. It's a bit outside the center of Bishkek, but a $1 cab ride gets us pretty much anywhere. $19/night for a double room.
Lavitor Hotel, Bishkek

Lavitor Hotel, Bishkek

Cappuccino art, Bishkek

Cappuccino art, Bishkek


National Museum, Kyrgyz Independence Day, Bishkek

National Museum, Kyrgyz Independence Day, Bishkek

National Museum, Bishkek

National Museum, Bishkek

On August 31st, Kyrgyzstan's Independence day is celebrated throughout the city and includes an exhibition of Ulak Tartysh (aka buzkashi, kokpar) at the hippodrome. The few women in attendance are tourists like me. After some rather entertaining displays of technical riding, like hitting a target with a bow and arrow from the back of galloping horse, the game begins and it's not for sensitive types. This is a brutal game which consists of two teams on horseback fighting for possession of a beheaded goat and heaving the animal into a goal on either end of the arena. The horses, thick and muscular are trained to fight, and the riders, just as big and strong, jockey for position, dipping way down to lift the heavy beast from the ground, wedging it between leg and saddle to secure it and block opponents as they race toward the goal. It's a grueling display of force and technique and the crowd is wild with excitement as the dead animal is pulverized. Some say the animal is cooked and eaten after the event. We don't stick around to verify.
Ulak Tartysh - traditional Kyrgyz goat polo, Bishkek

Ulak Tartysh - traditional Kyrgyz goat polo, Bishkek

Ulak Tartysh - traditional Kyrgyz goat polo, Bishkek

Ulak Tartysh - traditional Kyrgyz goat polo, Bishkek

Sun protection, Ulak Tartysh - traditional Kyrgyz goat polo, Bishkek

Sun protection, Ulak Tartysh - traditional Kyrgyz goat polo, Bishkek

Young girl with her pet falcon, Bishkek

Young girl with her pet falcon, Bishkek

Ulak Tartysh - traditional Kyrgyz goat polo, Bishkek

Ulak Tartysh - traditional Kyrgyz goat polo, Bishkek

Ulak Tartysh - traditional Kyrgyz goat polo, Bishkek

Ulak Tartysh - traditional Kyrgyz goat polo, Bishkek

And with that we wrap up 3 months in Central Asia. While the food is not great and the accommodations are sometimes quite rustic, the people we've met and the places we've seen in all the "stans" have been worth of any bit of inconvenience. Although there is friction as the governments of these newly independent countries struggle over borders and natural resources, as a tourist you are welcomed to enjoy the rich history culture and immense beauty that each has to offer.

Posted by SpiceChronicles 08:50 Archived in Tajikistan Comments (12)

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