Thailand, Laos and Cambodia Part 2 E-mail

Gateway god at Angkor ThomIt took the better half of a year, but finally part 2 of the Thailand, Laos and Cambodia photologue is here.  I find myself grateful that this is not how I make a living.   So read on for the long trip up to the top of Laos, and all the way down to the depths of Cambodia and into the greatnest of the thousand year old temples of Angkor.



We left Louang Prabang on bike, as one should.  Take a quick look at road 13 in google maps and you'll notice that it's rather squiggly indeed.  That should give you a good indication that this is not a flat stretch of land, and it isn't.  In fact we spent our whole day climbing up, and when the day was over we were still climbing.  From a photographic perspective that's all good, because you are continually treated to new grand vistas over the Mekong and the surrounding valley.  While the standards of the pitstops along the roads in Laos are somewhat different from Europe, a mat on a bamboo platform is a welcoming sight after you've been puffing upwards for a few hours.A platform with a view

Once you finally do reach a sort of top, the second thing you'll realize that Laos is not Thailand.  There aren't any hotels and it actually gets pretty cold up in the mountains.  So snuggled in our fleece we rolled onwards in the ever deepening dark, hoping that at the end there might be somewhere to rest.  A hostel, a temple, a tent, anything would do.  We even considered just lying down on one for the bamboo stalls where during the day farmers lay their produce for sale.  It's always difficult to be precise on why we didn't just do that.  Maybe it was the cold, or maybe the many men carrying prehistoric but still lethal rifles that we met along the way helped persuade us to move on.

Green mountains of LaosAll hope was not lost though, for we finally did arrive at a "hotel" of sorts.  Reminiscent of the prisons you see in old westerns from desert areas in Mexico, the hotel was but a set of cells hiding behind a kiosk of sorts.  The spot obviously a market by day, a resting spot for the few lorries and busses that pass along this way.   I dare say we were the only guests, and when the teenager working there spied on me through the cracked wall in shower-room my memory was joltet back to Norman Bates in Psycho.  Bates or no Bates, when we woke up the next morning we were rested and vigorous as the sun hit the mountain-top in the morning.

Crossroads at Phou Khoun

Morning mists over mountains by Phou KhounThe road from Louang Prabang goes to Phou Khoun eventually, the place where  road 13 and 7 intertwine on their way to Vientiane and therefore one of the most important commercial crossroads in Laos.  The mountain roads are extremely pitoresque and offer views of lush green mountains, deep valleys, small villages clinging to the roadside and lots of children running around sharing their newly aquired knowledge of the English language by counting to ten.  While obviously living a rugged and harsh life of poverty, they do seem genuinely happy when they see you pass by, and the outstretched arms are not for pennies, but for high-fives and just a chance to touch that strange paleness that passes them.

Roundabout and market at Phou KhounPhou Khoun is quite literally a crossroads.  A roundabout with little more than shacks as hotels and restaurants.  This time our room offered slightly higher comforts, and even a fabulous view over the valley, covered with mist in the early morning.  There is also a market here, firmly rising from the mud, with foodstalls a plenty.  As we learnt, we weren't the only cyclists there that morning.  A young frenchman couldn't resist talking to fellow cyclists, it seemed he had been taken in at a hotel with a view a bit further down road 13 and was here shopping with his host.



The lowlands of Laos


Enjoy the view down from the mountains of Laos

As the story goes, after the steep uphill ride you will eventually reach the steep downhill, and nothing can be more pleasurable than following road 13 from Phou Khoun all the way to the flatness that starts at around Pha Chao.  But do stop on the way down to enjoy the fantastic vistas. for once you have reached the flat planes that bring you on to Vang Vieng and onwards to Vientiane you will not only miss teh majestic mountains, but you will long for the shades of green and the cool breeze that all seem to be replaced by red dust, deadly heat and eternal flatnes down beyond.

Kasi, the first town in the dustbowl, has lots of young schoolboys and girls either on their way to or from school.  To protect them from the pummeling sun they carry umbrellas, whether they are cycling or walking to protect them from the battering heat but mainly to keep their skin as fair as possible, the most import symbol of status in Asia it seems.  The Belgian of around 50 whom we met cycling towards us just after Kasi could probably have learnt a trick or two from the youngsters.  Red and sweaty, it looked like he would give in to sunstroke any minute.  We encouraged him to finish the last couple of kilometers and enjoy a stop at Kasi and enjoy an ice-cream and a cold beer, for how else do you spend the days in the sun?

Red dust makes cycling hardBefore reaching Vang Vieng we stopped for a rest.  I perched myself in a tree to enjoy the sweet sticky-rice rolls I had bought at the market back in Phou Khoun and a cold coke from Kasi in the shaded canopy.  Kenneth walked to and fro below like a stressed out tiger.  After a short while of this a man came from the forest carrying a towel and a machine gun.  He smiled, said "sabadee" and moved on.  A short while later another man carrying a towel and a machine gun walked the other way, into the forest.  He too said "sabadee", smiled and moved on.  Apparently we had been acclimatized, for it didn't worry me in the slightest that the old-fashioned rifles we had seen in the mountains had been replaced by AK-47 machine guns and were carried with easy abandon by just about anyone.

Limestone hills by Vang ViengAs the afternoon set, Ken was so inspired by the stories of the "civilized" spot that is Vang Vieng that we passed the many small hotels nestled in the pitoresque limestone mountains along hte river to find ourselves deep in the hell that is Vang Vieng.

If you want beer and drunk young men and women from Europe and the US, Vang Vieng is the place to be.  Having passed the desperate 20's of our lives, we quickly found a luxury bungalow far away from the spirit of youth.  While the tourist scene in Vang Vieng certainly isn't my coup of tea, I couldn't help but enjoy the embrace of luxurious clean sheets, a proper shower, internet connection and a great french bakery, with tables and chairs and menus, things we hadn't seen in a almost a week.


The dusty road to Vientiane

Travelling from Vang Vieng to Vientiane by bicycle is not for beginners.  While the roads are mainly flat they are ever more dusty and ever more traficated, largely by noisy lorries that brush up the red sand which forms layers of orange on your skin.  We did get through it all and reach Vientiane, the grand...I mean the not so of Laos.  Vientiane is a city, but only just.   It has all the amenities of a city, but is quiet, reclusive and relaxed.  There are no beaches here, the muddy banks along the Mekong not quite inspiring a rush of sun-thirsty tourists.  As it happens we spent not one night there as planned, but four.  We needed to get Visas for Vietnam, which had to be done after the weekend, so there we were, with all the time in the world and nothing to do but eat, sleep, socialize and laze about town.

Where Louang Prabang offered a sardin-box sauna experience, Vientiane offers the Lao Herbal Sauna and Traditional Massage at Wat Sok Pa Luang, where you can enjoy the steaming hot sauna followed by an outdoor massage on one of the 6 beds on a terrace hidden among trees.  Hovering over it all is Noy, the ebullient proprietress who sits with her laptop firmly connected to facebook and skype so that she can keep in touch with the world.  On this particular occassion she encouraged her friend in Paris to take off her shirt so that she and all her guests could certify whether her Parisian friend had grown fat or not.  We all  agreed that she was still firm to the poor girls embarassment as her curves were shown around to the many guests.  In Laos there is no such thing as a private sphere.


We flew from Vientiane to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City if you prefer).  I got sick and we were stuck in the noisy hell that is Saigon for a couple of days before we shot for the Cambodian border via a properly air-conditioned luxury SUV that isolated us completely from whatever wonders were passing by outside the shaded windows.  Once at the border we bravely rolled our bikes through customs and immigration at Moc Bai and Baret, as though we had cycled the whole way from Saigon.   As you can understand, I won't claim to have seen Vietnam anytime soon.

Cambodian life along the MekongOnce we had crossed we found a room and spent the night.  My health was improving, but not enough that I wanted to cycle that day.  Instead we took an evening out at the Titan Casino, one of the many casinoes in Baret.  The casinoes in Baret seem like a mirage,  so out of place with their surroundings.  Outside the poverty and dirt is palpable, inside you are transported to the civilized offerings of the modern world, and the chance to lose some dollars at Chinese Poker, which I still to this day don't understand.  With a customer-to-employee ratio of roughly 1:1 the pitiful truth is that these casinoes are mainly money-laundering facilities for narcotics and other illegal transactions between Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Inner-Cambodia is, by all accounts, flat.  It is almost like the Netherlands, a pancake-flat landscape that just stretches on and on.  The roads are straight and seem to go on forever.  Civilization clings to the banks of the Mekong.  Attempts at building a tourist-friendly town can be seen in places like Prey Vaeng, where hotels like "The Navy Hotel" overlook the muddy mekong, inviting visitors, but with only vacancies to show for it.  While food is available, you will notice that the general quality and variety are much lower than in all the surrounding countries.  Cambodia it seems, squeezed between its fairly rich neighbours with vast tourist-friendly stretches of beaches, has gotten the short end of the stick.

Cambodian risefieldsAt Prey Vaeng we had filled our bags with such delicacies as bananas, clementines and lychee's so on Christmas Eve we sat down by the the watery fields where locals were finishing off their days chores in the sunset and ate fruit like true kings of the earth.  As we sat there one of the field-workers came over and sat down with us.  We shared our fruit with him and made our best attempts at striking up a conversation, no easy feet without any language in common.  As we became friends he decided to answer our questions about the fields by offering us a sampling of the produce, some edible seeds.  As our halting conversation moved on we came to understand that he lived in the shack from which we could see the lights now flooding out over the nearby fields.  His wife and children were there, waiting for his return from the fields.  It being Christmas we couldn't let him return empty handed, so we gave him a rich helping of our fruit.


While Cambodia is the poor little brother of Thailand and Vietnam, there is one thing that it has, that they must envy.   The magnificent temples at Angkor from the 9th to 15th century.   Angkor alone accounts for over half of all tourism to Cambodia (with the few beaches in the south accounting for the rest), and makes the closest town, Siem Reap, a lush haven of restaurants, hotels and other modern amenities.  While Siem Reap is easily forgotten, Angkor is as amazing as they will have you believe, but only if you allow it to amaze you. A rushed tour will give you no pleasure at all.  Slow down, open your mind and drift among the stone palaces of ancient times.

Angkor Wat from across the moatWall engravings at Chrung Palace

Gallery at Angkor Wat














From a photographic perspective you could go on forever, finding motives which spark the imagination around every corner.  Angkor Wat is by far the most famous of the temple-cities, with its well-preserved galleries and spires surrounded by a green-watered moat.  While a trip over the moat and along the many galleries is obligatory, the amount of people visiting at any time make it a fairly impersonal experience and capturing the glory of old times most difficult.  My own love affair with Angkor didn't come at Angkor Wat, but started first when I reached Angkor Thom and the thousand stone faces at Bayon.  Walking under the surveilance of the stone eyes that have followed the passage of time for over 800 years I was transported to ancient times, wondering what those ancient Khmer Kings had on their minds.  Could they ever possibly have imagined that a thousand years after their time, we would sit in the shade of the trees that have grown into the stonework of the Chrung Palace and dream of how their lives must have been like and what life would be like a thousand years from now?


Face at Angkor Thom, Bayon temple





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