A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: SpiceChronicles

Chasing Corpses - Sulawesi, Indonesia Part 2

storm 30 °C


It's one month later, August 17th, Indonesia's independence day, as we board a daytime bus to make the familiar 9 hour trip from Makassar to Rantepao.
August 17th, Indonesian Independence Day celebration

August 17th, Indonesian Independence Day celebration


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The road winds along the western coast of Sulawesi for hours, making stops at all the same restaurants and facilities along the way. By nightfall, we've reunited with Daoud, Riana and their kids at Riana Guesthouse (12 euros with breakfast) and settled in to our room as if we never left.
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We've come back to Sulawesi in search of Ma' Nene the rather unusual practice that takes place at the end of August in Pangala, Baruppu and surrounding villages in the northwest region of Toraja. The seat of the scooter is damp and the road is slick from overnight rain on this chilly morning.
Boat-shaped roofs of the Tongkonan - traditional Torajan homes

Boat-shaped roofs of the Tongkonan - traditional Torajan homes


As we ride into the hills, the road morphs into a muddy, potholed obstacle course, made more harrowing by occasional road works. We do take some satisfaction in seeing locals struggle through on their motorbikes, though for the most part we're in awe of their fearlessness and agility. Within a few days however, one of us is pretty adept in navigating all road and weather conditions!
Early morning scenery on the road to Pangala

Early morning scenery on the road to Pangala


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Typical Torajan roof structure on rice barns

Typical Torajan roof structure on rice barns


Jungle inhabitants, Toraja

Jungle inhabitants, Toraja

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A few inquiries and a lot of finger pointing leads us to the minuscule village of Tembo where a family is gathering. While we feel awkward trespassing this private moment, we are immediately welcomed, given a seat of honor under a rice barn and served coffee and cake. Oni, the patriarch of the family, speaks English and explains that today they will be honoring his deceased parents. A priest will conduct a mass and after they will open the grave house which sits on a nearby hill commanding a spectacular view. "We always choose the nicest location to build a grave house. It's important for our relatives to be most comfortable." Sure enough, the interior of this tomb has a cozy bedroom feel to it.
Inside the tomb of Oni's parents

Inside the tomb of Oni's parents

View from the tomb with the deceased airing in the sun

View from the tomb with the deceased airing in the sun


At his cousin's property nearby, people are gathering around an open tomb. A glimpse inside reveals a much simpler affair with a number of coffins and a few bodies wrapped in several layers of red cloth. Despite the language barrier, the banter of calls and texts indicates that they are waiting for important family members to arrive and discussing the order of events.
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So what exactly happens at a Ma' Nene ceremony? Bodies are exhumed, cleaned, placed in the sun to dry, given a change of clothes, wrapped in fresh cloth and returned to their resting place. Far from macabre, for the families that continue this practice it is a time of renewing bonds, honoring their loved ones and simply never letting go.
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Sometimes we wait for hours by a grave house and then suddenly, in a flurry of activity, we are surrounded by open caskets!
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Mummified bodies in various states of decomposition are unwrapped and carefully liberated.

While there are a few solemn moments for some,
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the atmosphere is decidedly cheerful as corpses are stood up, undressed, dusted off, groomed (amazingly, fingernails and hair continue to grow for some time) and placed in the sun to dry while relatives clean the tomb, spray for critters, catch up, recount stories of the deceased, eat and drink, etc.
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There is no end to the photo opps.
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In some cases, where there are many generations sharing space, it's necessary to label the bundles.
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Other burial sites include caves or a slot cut into in a massive rock which can require making an impromptu ladder to reach the entrance. We wait patiently over 2 hours while a few men fell a tall bamboo and cut footholds into it. Then, one agile man climbs to the opening of the tomb and tends to his relatives. He also cuts the weeds that have grown around the entryway leaving the tomb and its inhabitants refreshed.
Access to this rock grave required felling a tree

Access to this rock grave required felling a tree

Some days, the main event is moving bodies to new resting places.
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And everyone wants to participate.
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Sharing a cup of tea after moving several bodies to their new resting place

Sharing a cup of tea after moving several bodies to their new resting place

There is no schedule. Ceremonies are organized by families who must gather relatives from afar. One man notes how much easier this is today with mobile phones and internet. Given the extraordinary expense of Torajan funerary traditions, many have left for better-paid jobs elsewhere in Indonesia and further, so organizing Ma' Nene is hardly a precise affair. The only certainty is that as a death ceremony, Ma' Nene can only take place at the end of August after the summer rice harvest. In some villages, these rituals take place every year, in others, every 3 years or more. A communal Ma' Nene ceremony at the massive Locomata burial rock will be held over 6 days after the next rice harvest.
Lokomata burial rock, Toraja

Lokomata burial rock, Toraja

Ma' Nene activities usually take place in the cooler morning hours and before the soaking afternoon rains. The most information we can get is the name of the village, the night before. So for 10 days, we are on the road by 6AM for the 1-2 hour ride from Rantepao to Pangala where we've gotten into the habit of stopping at Vegas' Guesthouse for information, not to mention his wife's mouthwatering pancakes. Sometimes, we literally have to drop our forks to follow someone on a motorbike. The roads go from decent to horrendous if it has rained overnight and the tombs are located down frighteningly steep paths, off dirt tracks; everywhere but easy. Keeping up with the locals, walking along the muddy, narrow ridges of rice paddies or climbing rocks is always an exploit. Luckily, there's often an outstretched hand to help me negotiate the rugged terrain.
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Once you process the idea of coffins being opened, and think about the motivation behind these practices, you realize that in fact perhaps it is our society that has the strange rituals. In our culture, we fear death and send-off the deceased once and for all as soon as possible. In Toraja, death is merely the next step in life, quite possibly the most important. For the deceased, it's the beginning of a long journey to Puya, the afterlife. For the family, it is an opportunity to show respect and give back. Most people are quite superstitious believing that they will be rewarded by the spirits for their good deeds towards them.

After 2 weeks of chasing corpses, we once again head to northern Sulawesi, but with a little more time to spare, we make our way to the remote Togian Islands for some snorkeling and diving. Getting there (on our budget) is a 3 day journey by bus, car and ferry. The reward is an underdeveloped island paradise which in terms of infrastructure is not (yet) for those seeking luxury, but pristine in its raw beauty.
Map of the Togian islands

Map of the Togian islands


The bus from Rantepao begins with a 6 hour mechanical delay, so we decide to skip Tentana where most people spend the first night and continue directly to the town of Poso arriving at 6AM. Nothing stirring. As we scan the rather bleak surroundings, a lady and friend offer each of us a ride on their scooters to a closed office/bus stand that should open in a couple of hours.. Within a seemingly premeditated beat, a man in a well-worn Toyota offers to drive us the 4 hours to Ampana for 33 euros. Who can resist.

Infrastructure in Ampana is basic. Hotel Lawaka (20 euros with something resembling breakfast, A/C and cold shower) offers enough comfort to recuperate from the long trip.
Lawaka Hotel, Ampana

Lawaka Hotel, Ampana

The following morning, it's a tight squeeze but fun ride in a tuk tuk with the motor bike behind, to the Togian islands ferry. Luckily, the boat is more seaworthy than it looks.
Ferry from Ampana to Wakai, Togian islands

Ferry from Ampana to Wakai, Togian islands

Inside there are small slots with thin mats (or not) packed with locals and their belongings under a cloud of cigarette smoke. We escape to the front deck. Thankfully, we have an umbrella and the boat moves slowly enough that it's possible to hold on to it for the 5 hour trip. That or burn to a crisp.
Inside the ferry from Ampana to Wakai, Togian islands

Inside the ferry from Ampana to Wakai, Togian islands


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The manager of Harmony Bay Resort picks us up in Wakai in a long wooden boat with just enough room for our bags and a seat on the floor. Forty minutes later, the boat turns right into Harmony Bay on Kadidiri island and glides up to 3 large beachfront bungalows where we step off in the water right in front of ours, No. 1 (53 euros with full board for 2). Meals are served at a communal table. There is no menu, but food is plentiful, good enough and the beer is cold.
Fisherman, Togian islands

Fisherman, Togian islands


Arriving at Harmony Bay Resort, Togian islands

Arriving at Harmony Bay Resort, Togian islands

Seriously rustic chic. There's a queen bed covered by a deluxe mosquito net, and that's about it for furniture. Wood beams converge high above under a thatched roof, and the large glass doors that open onto the terrace are set in a skeletal structure of wooden beams with open space above the frame. Call it A/C! The private, outdoor bathroom attached to the back has modern facilities and a, truly luxurious, fresh water shower. It's just a matter of getting used to the idea that the bungalow is open to whatever's out there. Thankfully, we have no unwanted visitors for the duration of our stay, unlike our neighbors who make the mistake of bringing food in.
Bungalow 1, Harmony Bay Resort, Togian islands

Bungalow 1, Harmony Bay Resort, Togian islands


View from our bungalow, Harmony Bay Resort, Togian islands

View from our bungalow, Harmony Bay Resort, Togian islands


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Black Marlin Resort, 2 coves away, picks us up outside our bungalow for snorkeling/diving trips.
Black Marlin Resort and dive boat, Togian islands

Black Marlin Resort and dive boat, Togian islands


Diving, Togian islands

Diving, Togian islands


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On a day trip to Malenge island, we snorkel around the rich California reef then visit a Bajo village. The Bajo fishermen live in small wood houses over the water.
Navigating thru shallow water, Togian islands

Navigating thru shallow water, Togian islands


Our boat with the Bajo village in the background, Malenge island

Our boat with the Bajo village in the background, Malenge island


Bajo village, Malenge island, Togian

Bajo village, Malenge island, Togian


In 2006 a long bridge was built so that their kids could go to school on the neighboring island. It's a 1.8 km walk on narrow wooden planks.
Bridge to school, Bajo village Malenge island, Togian

Bridge to school, Bajo village Malenge island, Togian


The sun sets as we head back to Harmony Bay and one of the hands sits on the front of the boat guiding the captain through shallow water with a lighter!
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Sunset from the terrace, Harmony Bay Resort, Togian islands

Sunset from the terrace, Harmony Bay Resort, Togian islands

I can't say the trip to Jellyfish lake was on my bucket list, but it's one of those experiences I figure I won't be doing twice. The boat ride over is pretty rough. Our driver cannot reach the dock safely, so we have to jump in and battle the current to shore. As we come up over a ridge, the stillness of the lake is startling in comparison. Normally, the water is clear, but the weather has been agitated the last few days and it is unusually dense giving the scene (and my imagination) an eerie feel. As we swim around, jellyfish of all sizes come in and out of focus, but instead of the hundreds we're expecting, they appear one or two at a time, here and there in the opaqueness. Though they truly do not sting, Instinct forces you to move of their way.
Jellyfish lake, Togian islands

Jellyfish lake, Togian islands

The ferries of Indonesia are legendary and even though we've splurged for a cabin (33 euros + 9 for 2 boat ticket) the scene is unreal made more intense by the pouring rain.
The ferry from Togian islands to Gorontalo

The ferry from Togian islands to Gorontalo


We enter on the lower deck, where cars, trucks, bikes and animals are loading. Entire families grab floor space in between setting up camp. We climb 2 levels to our deck. On one side there's a room with rows of reserved airplane-type seats and a blasting A/C. In between the seats, on the floor, people are settling in as well. Our cabin has two bunk beds and is obviously crew quarters, but it's ours for the night and the first order of business is putting that big can of bug spray to use. The cockroaches on this boat are big enough for reserved seats!
Private cabin, ferry from Togian islands to Gorontalo

Private cabin, ferry from Togian islands to Gorontalo


The scene in front of our cabin is horrifying. Dozens of people have claimed space on an open platform sitting, lying, eating, smoking and chatting at very high decibels. We head to the top deck for air. There's a mix of locals and tourists and a snack bar. Many people will spend the cold night up here. I refuse to discuss the bathrooms...
People sleeping outside our cabin on the ferry

People sleeping outside our cabin on the ferry

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One of us is extremely excited about arriving in Gorontalo where a short distance from town it's possible to swim with whale sharks. Another one of these experiences I'm not sure about, but apparently, like the jellyfish, they're not too concerned with humans. However, this experience will have to wait as it seems the sharks moved on a couple of weeks ago. We continue to Manado but finding ourselves choked in the city's traffic, we decide to head straight for the port and hire a boat to take us back to Bunaken island to spend our last 2 nights in Sulawesi snorkeling and diving. While Bunaken may not have the beaches of Togian, it's very easy to get to and though the diving is different, it's just as good.
Diving, Bunaken island

Diving, Bunaken island


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We've pretty much covered Sulawesi, but there are many more Indonesian islands to visit and we'll be back soon to explore Papua, Raja Ampat, Komodo...
Map of Sulawesi

Map of Sulawesi

Posted by SpiceChronicles 13:28 Archived in Indonesia Comments (3)

A quick hop to Singapore and Malaysia

sunny 28 °C

As our Indonesian visa (1 month on arrival) is about to expire, we grab a cheap flight to Singapore. We've got several weeks to kill before going back to Sulawesi to follow the most unusual funerary custom that will take place at the end of August. That story, coming up next.

Singapore is shockingly modern, clean and orderly, even more so after a month in remote Sulawesi. Reception at the Bed & Dreams hostel is at the top of a long flight of stairs. Shoes must be stored in containers from Ikea that hang on the wall. I've had to resign myself to sleeping in a 10-bed-mixed-dorm because I made a mistake on the dates and the private rooms are sold out! We're just settling into our bunk beds when the incredibly kind manager offers a 4 person room for just the 2 of us. 4 walls, no window, 2 bunk beds, a/c, shared bathroom ($68). I dare not complain.
Quad room, Bed and Dreams Hostel, Singapore

Quad room, Bed and Dreams Hostel, Singapore

It's really not the kind of room you want to spend much time in so we drop our bags and hit the streets of Singapore. Space is a commodity in this tiny island nation, yet the avenues are wide with broad, level, spotless sidewalks. What a treat! Immediately noticeable on many of the skyscrapers are the greenery and hanging gardens that add an organic note to all this steel and glass.
Vertical landscaping, Singapore

Vertical landscaping, Singapore


Colorful windows, Old Hill Street Police Station, Singapore

Colorful windows, Old Hill Street Police Station, Singapore

Rising out of the bay is the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel.
Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Our hostel is across the street from Clarke Quay a waterfront shopping mall with lots of open-air restaurants and bars. Happy Hour is popular and starts early. After a month of uninspired Indonesian victuals, we sample local brews and feast on (expensive) western fare.
View from Clarke Quay

View from Clarke Quay

Neighborhoods like Chinatown, Little India and Haji Street fill the spaces at ground level.
Chijmes, trendy restos and bars in a former convent

Chijmes, trendy restos and bars in a former convent

Chijmes front entrance

Chijmes front entrance

The street in front of Chijmes

The street in front of Chijmes

Hoping to extend our stay in the city, we search in vain for better budget accommodations downtown, but after a few days and hemorrhaging money, we decide to try our luck on the beaches in Malaysia. This too presents a challenge as it's August (high season) and none of the online booking sites offer anything remotely reasonable. Luckily, an email blast (confirmation that it's always a good idea to research beyond the popular travel sites) returns a couple of options. We book the Reef Chalets on Palau Perhentian Besar, the bigger of the (2) Perhentian islands.
Perhentian Kecil (left) and Perhentian Besar, Malaysia

Perhentian Kecil (left) and Perhentian Besar, Malaysia

Always pack a scarf or light jacket in your carry on as the A/C on public transportation can be ferocious. The freezing, but comfortable overnight bus to Kuala Besut stops at Johor Bahru, the Malaysian border crossing just under 2 hours from Singapore. There are only a couple of immigration windows open and hordes of people jostling for position; orderly queuing being a foreign concept. A tremor of movement suddenly snowballs into a mad scramble when, without warning, several more windows open. Apparently, It's much more affordable to live in Malaysia and work in Singapore and this is the equivalent of rush hour traffic. We get thru pretty quickly, find our bus and continue to Kuala Besut to catch a ferry. There's not much happening when we step down near the boat terminal at 5AM. With a few other dazed travelers, we sit at crumbling tables next to an equally crumbling mosque and wait 'til 8 for the first boat, willing the island to be more charming.
Street art Kuala Besut

Street art Kuala Besut

It's a smooth 45 minute crossing.
Approaching Perhentian Besar

Approaching Perhentian Besar

The boat drops us at the end of a very long wooden pier. As we walk towards the beach, it's clear that it's no mirage, the dock really is under a few inches of water! We step onto the sand in front of a row of cafes with picnic tables and plastic chairs shaded by a corrugated aluminum roof. Welcome to paradise! Our hearts sink.
Dock, Perhentian Besar

Dock, Perhentian Besar


Locals, Perhentian Besar

Locals, Perhentian Besar

Our hotel, is right next door and at first glance, the wooden bungalows set back in a semi-circle look quite charming. Behind them is a plain 2-story block where our room is located. The room is pretty basic and reminds me of the girls dorm in camp ($50 room only, no A/C). It would be fine were it not for the deafening noise of the generator from the (Coral View) hotel next door. In retrospect, I probably should have complained more, but I never imagined it would be operating 24/7 for the duration of our stay!
The Reef Chalets, Perhentian Besar

The Reef Chalets, Perhentian Besar

Again, not here for the room we set off to explore. The shore wraps around to the west, past the chic Coral Bay (where incidentally, I happen to overhear an incensed French tourist complaining about the noise from said generator, for which he's doling out $200/sleepless night) along a rocky coastline, past a dive center to a set of steep, decaying, concrete stairs. The only redeeming factor is the view from the top and the ingenuity of the local man who has set-up his al fresco massage parlor on the peeling overpass. He works alone. If you want a massage, you simply fill your name in on the schedule at the entrance and come back for your appointment. He's booked solid. At the opposite end, the stairs lead down to a pretty beach with turquoise water in front of the decent looking Perhentian Island Resort. The water is perfect temperature as I swim out past the buoys, to see what all the boats and Chinese tourists bobbing in flourescent life vests are congregated around: Large sea turtles!
Beach in front of Perhentian Island Resort (Besar)

Beach in front of Perhentian Island Resort (Besar)


Who's that snorkeling! Perhentian Besar

Who's that snorkeling! Perhentian Besar


Swimming with turtles

Swimming with turtles

A walk along the coast in the opposite direction is rather disheartening. Too much concrete, plastic, abandoned structures, trash...
Walking along the beach, Perhentian Besar

Walking along the beach, Perhentian Besar


Sudden downpour, Perhentian Besar

Sudden downpour, Perhentian Besar

Mosque on Perhentian Kecil during a brief downpour

Mosque on Perhentian Kecil during a brief downpour

Behind the Reef Chalets, there's a path thru the jungle. It's novel enough and about 40 minutes later spills out on Teluk Daman beach. Wow!
Jungle walk, Perhentian Besar

Jungle walk, Perhentian Besar


Creepy crawler in the jungle, Perhentian

Creepy crawler in the jungle, Perhentian


Teluk Daman Beach before a storm, Perhentian Besar

Teluk Daman Beach before a storm, Perhentian Besar

Much less crowded with about 5-6 small hotels and a couple of beach shacks serving food and drink. At one end of the beach lies the slightly upscale Arwana Resort. It's got the only (nice, big) swimming pool on the island, a dive center, huge buffet breakfast and the quiet rooms are cheaper than our hotel ($40 with A/C and breakfast). We move almost immediately.
Perhentian Islands

Perhentian Islands


Arwana Resort, Perhentian Besar

Arwana Resort, Perhentian Besar


Pool at Arwana Resort, Perhentian Besar

Pool at Arwana Resort, Perhentian Besar


Little boy floating, Perhentian Islands

Little boy floating, Perhentian Islands

After the first night, we wake to find about 100 rowdy Malaysians stepping off boats for an overnight of festivities including, dinner, karaoke and fireworks. But, they leave almost as quickly as they came and by 10 am the following day, we have the place to ourselves again. The next 5 days are all about diving ($20 per!), snorkeling and kayaking, followed by cold beer and grilled fish, feet in the sand.
Dinner on the beach, Perhentian Besar

Dinner on the beach, Perhentian Besar


While the diving/snorkeling is good, it doesn't compare to Bunaken Island (Sulawesi, Indonesia), but then again Bunaken doesn't have sandy beaches...
Diving, Perhentian Islands

Diving, Perhentian Islands

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Overall, a great time, but most of the infrastructure is too basic to recommend Perhentian as a destination. With the slightest bit of effort the restaurants, cafes and hotels could be so much nicer! Lose the ugly plastic tables and chairs, throw on a fresh coat of paint, hire a few good cooks, raise the bar. Seems so obvious, yet..
Sunset Perhentian Besar

Sunset Perhentian Besar

We ferry back to the mainland and catch a super deluxe bus to Kuala Lumpur.
Bus From Kuala Besut to Kuala Lumpur

Bus From Kuala Besut to Kuala Lumpur

I have finally figured out that in big cities, hotels are overpriced and often much nicer accommodations can be found through Airbnb. Our room with a private bathroom in a lovely young couple's 2 bedroom apartment in the center has a phenomenal view of the majestic Petronas Towers ($32)
Room with a view, Kuala Lumpur

Room with a view, Kuala Lumpur

Daytime view from the room

Daytime view from the room

Kuala Lumpur is an easy city to figure out. There are 4 free bus lines. You just pick a color and hop on/off. It's pretty much all shopping malls with a few sites, like the nicely curated Islamic Art Museum. The building and grounds are bright and airy. In front of the Petronas Towers, a vendor is selling out on small wide angle lenses that attach to your cell phone enabling you to snap selfies, with the towers behind. He must be laughing all the way to the bank!
Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur


Old train station, Kuala Lumpur

Old train station, Kuala Lumpur


There are dozens of outdoor restaurants throughout the city serving up all kinds of food including particularly tasty Thai food.

It seems like the long distance buses keep getting more extravagant. Our ride back to Singapore has massage seats! What no one to do my pedicure? This time however, there's a hiccup at the border crossing. The lines at immigration are much longer and it takes about 1.5 hours to get through. As we search the sea of buses, along with a few other foreigners, It becomes clear why they make you take all your belongings. Buses are only required to wait for an hour at the border and ours has gone! It's really not a big deal once you realize that any other bus with available seats will take you, but no one prepares you for the shock.

One more night at our favorite Singapore hostel and local brewery before flying back to Sulawesi to continue the Toraja story.
Craft beer, Singapore

Craft beer, Singapore

It's always fun going back to places we've been even though Makassar isn't a place you want to spend much time in. The tailor we gave some things for mending has disappeared and the driver from our hotel will not be able to take us to the bus station because he's being held by the police for punching his wife, but the Japanese restaurant is still serving great sushi.

Once again, we weather 9 hours of bumpy, winding road to Toraja Land to reunite with our lovely host family at Rianna Guesthouse.

And this is where the seriously weird rituals begin...

Posted by SpiceChronicles 04:45 Archived in Malaysia Comments (3)

Tana Toraja, land of rituals, Sulawesi, Indonesia

WARNING: Sensitive photos.

sunny 28 °C


Getting to Toraja, Sulawesi's remote Christian enclave famous for its peculiar funerary rituals, requires several stops. The connection to (gateway city) Makassar on the southern tip of Sulawesi is not listed, but we check-in and follow signs to a waiting area. Eventually, we're motioned to board but neither the gate nor the flight number match our boarding passes. It's the definition of blind faith!

Hotel Miko, outside the center of Makassar is modern, clean and much better value than the crummy budget places in the center.
Hotel Miko, Makassar (21 euros, double room)

Hotel Miko, Makassar (21 euros, double room)


We are the only foreign tourists in the neighborhood and EVERYONE greets us. I feel bad turning down the bicycle rickshaws vying for our business but we can barely squeeze in!
Riding in a Pete Pete (public minivan) with local girls

Riding in a Pete Pete (public minivan) with local girls


Makassar street evening

Makassar street evening


It's Ramadan and one of the few restaurants in town open during the day is Japanese. The food is delicious and with the vouchers they keep giving us, we end up eating most of our meals there.
Food vendor on the promenade, Makassar

Food vendor on the promenade, Makassar

With no (private) bus seats left to Rantepao, the capital of Tana (land of) Toraja, we hang around the bus station hoping to share a ride. After a couple of hours, one driver agrees to negotiate for just the 2 of us. The doors of the car can only be opened from the outside, there are no headrests, fittings dangle from the door and suspension is merely a theory.

9 hours later we reach Riana Guesthouse, well located in town inside a maze of small lanes. One colorful sheet on the bed (I'm always having to ask for a top sheet), no sink in the bathroom (imagine), fan only and paper thin walls. The good news is the shower's hot, and the owner, former chief of a village, is passionate about his Torajan heritage.
Rianna Guesthouse, Rantepao, 12 euros with breakfast for 2

Rianna Guesthouse, Rantepao, 12 euros with breakfast for 2

There are many ceremonies related to life; birth, marriage, new home, church building, etc., but it is the unique customs associated with death that define Torajan culture. While the Dutch controlled Sulawesi from the 17th century, they pretty much left the (highland) Toraja region alone. Torajans resisted all monotheistic religions but when the spread of Islam began to threaten their customs they chose to convert to Christianity which was willing to tolerate their animist traditions. As one guide put it, "Torajans were not going to give up pork or palm wine, an integral part of all ceremonies!"
Traditional architecture built into a church

Traditional architecture built into a church

The rituals are complex, expensive and require planning. When a person dies, it can take months, even years, for the family to organize the funeral. During this time, the deceased is kept at home and referred to as a toma kula or sick person. In order to prevent decay and foul odor, the body is injected with a formaldehyde based mixture that over time mummifies the body. The family continues to interact with the "sick" person placing gifts next to them, drinking coffee or having meals by their side. While, it remains a sad time, the transition from life to death is a slow and peaceful process strengthening family bonds and honoring the deceased.
A young girl sits next to her grandfather who died a month ago, Embang near Rantepao

A young girl sits next to her grandfather who died a month ago, Embang near Rantepao

There's a saying in Indonesia - always ask your way 3 times. Each time we ask, we are pointed in the opposite direction shuttling back and forth on the main road, offering a good laugh to the locals, before finding the turn-off. The back roads are an adventure. Our scooter bounces along the cratered pavement shaded by gigantic bamboo trees, immense boulders and tropical foliage.
On the road, Toraja, Sulawesi

On the road, Toraja, Sulawesi


We eventually find our hosts who lead us up a steep dirt track to a Tongkonan, the traditional Torajan house notable for its sweeping curved roof. We are greeted by a large family busy with tasks. Several men are carving designs on a wooden coffin, while the women are inside the main house dry roasting the (recent) coffee harvest. Always happy to provide entertainment, I step up and try my hand at roasting the beans over the thick flame.
Carving the traditional coffin

Carving the traditional coffin

Roasting coffee in the kitchen of the Tongkonan, traditional home

Roasting coffee in the kitchen of the Tongkonan, traditional home

We are then invited to meet the deceased who is lying on a woven bed in a room behind a thin red cloth The colorful blanket covering her is removed to reveal her face. Ne Redaq was over 100 when she passed away 2 months ago. Her younger sister, Mama Andi, delicately strokes her hair.
A toma kula or sick person at home near Rantepao

A toma kula or sick person at home near Rantepao

The tenderness and calm is surprisingly heartwarming. As the deceased is a woman, we have brought a gift of paan, the concoction of betel leaves, areca nut and tobacco that stains the mouth red when chewed. Mama Andi helps herself to a handful, stuffing it into her lower lip, before placing the gift next to her sister.
Mama Andi with a mouthful of paan

Mama Andi with a mouthful of paan

Following a vague hand-drawn map, we ride an hour and a half north of Rantepao through terraced hills and bamboo forests towards Batutumonga, the highest elevation in Sulawesi.
Boat shaped roof of the Tongkonan characterizes the Torajan landscape

Boat shaped roof of the Tongkonan characterizes the Torajan landscape

I no longer have any qualms about asking if there are bodies to be seen or turning down offers of those already in a closed coffin, but finding people who speak English in these remote areas is a challenge. Eventually, someone points me to the home of a British guy. Don't get him started on Torajan funeral practices. He is outraged at what he calls, "the pathological pursuance of traditions that is driving these people into outrageous debt!"
Rice terraces around Batutumonga

Rice terraces around Batutumonga

Funeral season in Toraja begins after the harvest in June and tourists are welcomed. Locating the ceremonies on your own is virtually impossible, so for the first one, we hire a guide. On the way, we stop to visit Kete Kesu, a UNESCO subsidized village. Despite an entry fee and souvenir stalls, this open-air museum is a fine example of traditional Torajan architecture and village planning.

Torajans believe their ancestors came from the heavenly north. The roof shape of the Tongkonan represents the boat which carried their forefathers and also resembles the horns of the sacred water buffalo.

Elevated rice storage barns with the same roof design face the Tongkonan. Their number is a sign of wealth. The lower shaded platform is the primary gathering place for business and social interaction.
Unique architecture. View of the rice barns that face the traditional houses at Kete Kesu village

Unique architecture. View of the rice barns that face the traditional houses at Kete Kesu village

Torajans firmly believe that the soul of the buffalo accompanies the soul to heaven. Sacrificing a buffalo is a sign of great love; sacrificing many, particularly specimens of a certain coloration, is a matter of great pride and displaying the horns on the central beam of the house is the ultimate status symbol.
Display of wealth on the Tongkonan, traditional house

Display of wealth on the Tongkonan, traditional house

A path leads to several burial sites in and around caves. The remains of coffins, are perched "hanging" precariously on ledges outside of the cave. On balconies, carved into the rock-face, stand Tau Tau (wooden effigies) of those buried here. Inside one cave, coffins and personal effects are on display. Men with kerosene lamps are on hand to guide visitors through the darkness.
Hanging grave, Kete Kesu village

Hanging grave, Kete Kesu village


Tau Tau, wooden effigies of the deceased, Kete Kesu village

Tau Tau, wooden effigies of the deceased, Kete Kesu village


Tau Tau (wooden effigy) maker, Rantepao

Tau Tau (wooden effigy) maker, Rantepao


Tau Tau (wooden effigy) maker sitting in front of buffalo heads used for decoration on houses

Tau Tau (wooden effigy) maker sitting in front of buffalo heads used for decoration on houses

At the market, a prize buffalo can run over $40,000 dollars!
General view, Bolu buffalo market, Rantepao

General view, Bolu buffalo market, Rantepao


An exceptionally valuable specimen, Bolu buffalo market, Rantepao

An exceptionally valuable specimen, Bolu buffalo market, Rantepao


Live pigs for sale, Bolu buffalo market, Rantepao

Live pigs for sale, Bolu buffalo market, Rantepao

Sold! Bolu buffalo market

Sold! Bolu buffalo market


Smaller specimens are thrown together in burlap sacks and hauled off.

It's 11:20AM as we pull off the rocky trail onto a large property. We leave the car and follow groups of black-clad guests (stepping off trucks that have carried them and their offerings; trussed, squealing pigs, buffalo, etc.) up a steep climb passing a new grave house that our guide refers to as "the house without a kitchen". Five days from now the coffin will be laid to rest here. Under a makeshift shelter, several men meticulously register guests and their "gifts" which will be faithfully reciprocated by the family at future funerals. Torajans work their whole lives saving for funerals and paying off their family debts.
A truckload of guests on the way to a funeral

A truckload of guests on the way to a funeral

Around the funeral field (the courtyard in front of the Tongkonan) temporary numbered structures have been erected to accommodate hundreds of guests.
General view of the funeral field, early morning reception ritual

General view of the funeral field, early morning reception ritual

The reception ritual is more or less ornate according to the family's social status. Guests line up by family at the entrance behind men in traditional hats with feathers who advance slowly in a war dance followed by a woman singing a melancholy song and a man playing a bamboo flute. As the group walks around the courtyard, their names are announced by an MC. Their offerings are also paraded around and then marked.
Guests in the procession of the reception ceremony

Guests in the procession of the reception ceremony


Gifts are tagged and registered

Gifts are tagged and registered

The family's youngest children dressed in traditional costume and heavy make-up stand at the entrance of the reception platform where guests enter to pay condolences to the immediate family. Once they are seated, female volunteers from the village serve tea, coffee and sweets while a group of men form a circle in the center of the courtyard and perform Ma' badong the ceremonial welcome dance. Next a group of women in beaded dress sing and dance for the group. After, the guests are invited to move to their numbered seating area where they are welcome to eat, drink and sleep for the next few days. Group, by group, this reception ritual repeats over several days.
Kids take a break in between reception ceremonies

Kids take a break in between reception ceremonies


Ladies seated on one side of the reception platform

Ladies seated on one side of the reception platform

The courtyard slowly fills with animals. Screeching pigs are taken off to the side (or not) and slaughtered. The meat is cut and separated into piles. Some of it goes to the kitchen for cooking, the rest is distributed to guests and a portion will be given to local villagers. A man hurls a bloody pork leg into the center of the platform I'm sitting on. It's quickly wrapped in newspaper and offered to my neighbor.

As the sun moves to the western sky, the coffin and its effigy are led in a procession around the property. The emcee (master of ceremonies) conducts the crowd in chanting and screaming to push away any bad spirits, while a group of women beat a fierce rhythm with thick (bamboo) sticks on a rice troth. The coffin is then heaved up a wide bamboo ladder to its temporary resting place on a high balcony facing west.
Ladies beat a rythym on the rice troth

Ladies beat a rythym on the rice troth


The red cloth symbolizes the bridge to the afterlife

The red cloth symbolizes the bridge to the afterlife


Heaving the coffin up a bamboo ladder to its temporary resting place

Heaving the coffin up a bamboo ladder to its temporary resting place

We rent a scooter and return on our own on the following days bearing gifts of cigarettes and candy each day. We are always greeted warmly and invited to sit with the family. Coffee, sweets, buffalo or pork cooked in bamboo with rice, palm wine, more sweets; you cannot refuse. Very few people speak English, but we manage to interact and learn the customs.

A variety of ceremonies and games take place each day. At one point the crowd rushes into the rice fields to watch water buffalo fight each other with men wagering huge sums of money. Cockfights are also auspicious with very high stakes.
Water buffalo fights are part of the entertainment at a funeral

Water buffalo fights are part of the entertainment at a funeral

Cockfight. The spilling of blood on the earth is considered sacred and an important part of the funeral ceremony.

Cockfight. The spilling of blood on the earth is considered sacred and an important part of the funeral ceremony.

The owner of our guesthouse invites us to attend a relative's funeral. It is the second day and the main activity is receiving guests. When it is his family's turn, he invites me to walk with them. Besides the color of my skin, I'm over a foot taller than most. I feel silly but don't want to refuse the honor. The women wear beautiful woven hats. Even the detail of the weave has meaning and social significance.
Guests line up for the reception ceremony

Guests line up for the reception ceremony

Weave quality of the conical hat indicates status

Weave quality of the conical hat indicates status


The Ma' badong, ceremonial dance is repeated for every group of guests

The Ma' badong, ceremonial dance is repeated for every group of guests

We skip the following day which is dedicated to slaughtering pigs (>100). On the 4th day, we attend the buffalo sacrifice. As the deceased was an important government official, about 60 buffalos will be sacrificed. Imagine the budget and here we are sitting on bamboo mats eating off newspaper. Fortunately, not all the animals will actually be slain. Some are auctioned off with the proceeds donated to the church and community. Still, it's a rather gruesome couple of hours as about a dozen buffalo succumb before us. It is matter of great pride to drag the knife across the animal's throat. Blood gushes out and the animal drops on its hooves. But death will neither be quick nor painless. The animal will die slowly, laboring to get up time and again, every effort cheered by the crowd. The animals are skinned and butchered where they fall. Some of the meat will be cooked and served. The rest will be distributed to local families. I'm given an honorary seat with the family under the central rice barn to watch the blood bath. A rather difficult moment for western sensibilities.
Buffalo sacrifice

Buffalo sacrifice

Men sit under the rice barns to watch the buffalo sacrifice

Men sit under the rice barns to watch the buffalo sacrifice

An elder family member watches the buffalo sacrifice from the Tongkonan (traditional house)

An elder family member watches the buffalo sacrifice from the Tongkonan (traditional house)

On the last day, before laying the body to rest in the grave house, a large procession accompanies the coffin to the church. As the family pays their final respects, it is one of the few times where people are really distraught.
Funeral procession

Funeral procession


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The priest receives the coffin at the church

The priest receives the coffin at the church

Church service

Church service


The widow

The widow


The grave house

The grave house

In between funerals, we visit a number of unique burial sites around Rantepao.
Inside Londa burial cave

Inside Londa burial cave

Posing next to a coffin, Londa burial cave

Posing next to a coffin, Londa burial cave

Downright bizarre are the baby graves; trees with small wooden doors on them. Only babies who died before their teeth came in were buried here. It was thought that their spirit became one with the tree. They are no longer in use.
Kuburan Bayi baby grave

Kuburan Bayi baby grave


Tampangallo burial cave in between Suaya and Kambira, south of Rantepao

Tampangallo burial cave in between Suaya and Kambira, south of Rantepao

Close-up of Tau Tau (wooden effigies), Tampangallo burial cave

Close-up of Tau Tau (wooden effigies), Tampangallo burial cave


Lemo, graves carved into the rock with Tau Tau (effigies) standing guard

Lemo, graves carved into the rock with Tau Tau (effigies) standing guard


Lokomata burial rock

Lokomata burial rock


Megaliths at Bori Kalimbuang aka Bori Parinding

Megaliths at Bori Kalimbuang aka Bori Parinding

Rock graves at Bori Kalimbuang aka Bori Parinding

Rock graves at Bori Kalimbuang aka Bori Parinding

Traffic in town and the poor condition of many roads make some journeys arduous. It's amazing to see what people carry on their bikes. One guy who passes us on a motorcycle has got a live chicken in one hand and a cell phone wedged between his ear and shoulder. This pig is screeching as it whizzes by.
Transporting a live pig, near Rantepao

Transporting a live pig, near Rantepao

Our first real encounter with the monsoon comes one late afternoon. A few drops of rain turn into a deluge within seconds. Totally unprepared, we duck under a leaky wooden bus shelter with a few locals. It seems like the more I will the rain to stop, the harder it falls. It's 2 hours and dark before we dare to venture out. The next day, we invest $2 in (lifesaving) plastic ponchos!
Waiting out the rain under a bus shelter, Rantepao

Waiting out the rain under a bus shelter, Rantepao

No end to the rain in sight, Rantepao

No end to the rain in sight, Rantepao

It takes persistence to find the ancient burial site of Erong Lombok. The road is so steep, the scooter stutters and I have to walk. I'm sweating bullets, (imagine how this lady feels) when the road finally plummets towards a house.
Woman with a heavy load on the road leading to Erong Lombok burial cave, Parinding

Woman with a heavy load on the road leading to Erong Lombok burial cave, Parinding


It feels like we're trespassing until a woman waves us thru the yard along slick, moss-covered steps through thick jungle before I quite literally trip into a giant cave filled with hundred-year-old rotted wood caskets, piles of bones and cobwebs. Straight out of an Indiana Jones film, it's so damp, even the skulls and bones have moss on them!
General view, Erong Lombok ancient burial cave, Parinding

General view, Erong Lombok ancient burial cave, Parinding

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With a week left on our visa, we make our way north to Manado, from where we'll fly to Singapore. It's a 20 hour bus ride to Palu, not even halfway. At the bus stand, I'm sitting next to a sealed cardboard box with a few small holes in it. There is a rooster inside! Everytime it cockles, the top of the box expands. It will be riding slingshot with a motorcycle and another rooster traveling in a plastic rice sack (all 3) attached to the back of the bus!
Motorcycle and bagged roosters ride on the back of the bus

Motorcycle and bagged roosters ride on the back of the bus

It's actually a pretty comfortable ride with frequent stops for food, toilets and various package pick-ups and delivery. The road, twists and turns the entire trip, peppered with insanely bumpy stretches. If you suffer from car sickness, this road is not for you.
One of the buses on the 48 hour trek from Rantepao to Manado

One of the buses on the 48 hour trek from Rantepao to Manado

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On the road in central Sulawesi

On the road in central Sulawesi

Rest stop on the 48 hour journey across Sulawesi

Rest stop on the 48 hour journey across Sulawesi

Bus ride through central Sulawesi

Bus ride through central Sulawesi

Onward public bus options from Palu are few, far between, and smoking is permitted, so we wait. Eventually, a minivan in search of passengers pulls up and we're off comfortably seated for the next 18 hours. Our driver, obviously in a hurry, pays no attention to the terrain and barrels thru as though it were smooth and straight. The best thing to do is close your eyes. It's 3AM when he spits us out in Gorontalo.
Gorontalo bus stand middle of the night

Gorontalo bus stand middle of the night

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We were hoping to stop here in Gorontalo to swim with whale sharks, but it turns out we're 2 weeks late. The next bus is in a couple of hours. I pace up and down the bus station hoping to deflate my ankles which are suffering from the long, seated journeys. One look at all the smokers on the 5AM bus and we pass. But again, hang around long enough and solutions present themselves. By 8:30 we are relatively well seated in a Kijang (shared taxi) for the remaining 10 hour journey to Manado. It's a bit of a fight, but we prevail and no one smokes in the car.

I hear the question... yes, yes, you can fly to Manado, but where's the adventure in that? While the villages are just shanty towns, the road cut though the jungle is a breathtaking palette of mixed greens, swollen from the intermittent rain.
View from the bus, central Sulawesi

View from the bus, central Sulawesi

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Manado is a sprawling city with several shopping malls and theme parks along the ocean front. Traffic is legendary. Blue, hop on/off public taxis called Bemos crawl up and down the avenues. In order to stand out, they're fitted with lights and mega bass sound systems blaring techno which is particularly entertaining at night.
Pimp my bemo, minibus shared taxi, Manado

Pimp my bemo, minibus shared taxi, Manado

Hotel Istanaku is clean and basic with incredibly nice staff.
Istanaku Guesthouse Manado (20 eu)

Istanaku Guesthouse Manado (20 eu)

With 3 days left on our visa, we head to Bunaken island (1 hour by ferry from Manado) which claims to be one of the best dive spots in Indonesia. We stop at a supermarket near the ferry and check out some of the local specialties...
Rats and bats for sale at the supermarket, Manado

Rats and bats for sale at the supermarket, Manado

Resting near the port, Manado

Resting near the port, Manado


Ferry to Bunaken island

Ferry to Bunaken island

Ferry to Bunaken island

Ferry to Bunaken island


View of Bunaken island from the ferry

View of Bunaken island from the ferry


View of Seabreeze Resort, Bunaken

View of Seabreeze Resort, Bunaken

We splurge for the sea front bungalow, $80/night all meals included, at Bunaken Divers. Fan, cold desalized water, but it's so hot and humid, it'll do. The place, like the island, is rustic with a nice laid back vibe. We only have one day for snorkeling. The boat takes us to 3 nice spots with, many, many fish, and walls of colorful coral. In the afternoon we swim with big turtles. Unfortunately, some spots have too much plastic floating along side the fish... You might not plan a trip here, but if you're in Manado, it's a quaint escape from the congested city.
Snorkeling in Bunaken

Snorkeling in Bunaken

Swimming with turtles, Bunaken

Swimming with turtles, Bunaken

Moray eel, Bunaken

Moray eel, Bunaken

Since we have to make a visa run, we decide to explore Singapore and Malaysia. We'll be back in Sulawesi in a month for THE most unusual death ritual in Toraja, perhaps anywhere!

Posted by SpiceChronicles 05:19 Archived in Indonesia Comments (3)

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)

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