After a few more hours of kayaking this morning (had some great wildlife sightings), we headed to Khao Lak for the final leg of our trip. We’re now at a 5-star resort just north of town, on a sparsely populated tract of white-sand beach. The contrast from last night is stark–we no longer need a flashlight to get to the bathroom. And instead of last night’s rudimentary, cold-water shower, we’ve got a teak-and-slate-appointed bathroom with a 2-person tub and 2 shower heads.
Besides kayaking, we’ve been doing some trekking here. Today’s hike was through a deep limestone cave, through which two different streams run. Thousands of bats, dozens of cave crickets, several large spiders, a few cave toads, and water deeper than our heads. At some points, I had to swim with one hand, trying to keep my other hand above the water (in that hand were: my [non-waterproof] flashlight, and our drybag, which held our [non-waterproof] camera.)
Definitely one of our trip highlights.
When we checked in for our flight to Phuket, the boarding passes which were printed had the wrong destination on them. No problem; the check-in attendant just crossed out the wrong destination and wrote in the correct one. I considered crossing that out in turn and writing “Hawaii” instead, but Sara convinced me that it wouldn’t work.
I spent the day at the Preak Toal bird sanctuary. (Or, more accurately, I spent the day traveling to and from the Preak Toal bird Sanctuary today.) Sara was sick, so I went alone, and alone I was: the only other visitors were a group of Cambodian university students on a science class field trip.
A very expensive, long day. I’m glad I went, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to serious birders. (More on this when we get back and flesh out our travelogue.)
It was a fun day, but it’s been an unpleasant evening. Sara has some nasty food poisoning–from some jackfruit she snacked on this afternoon, we think. Doesn’t look like it’ll let up any time soon.
Last-minute change of plans this morning–we took a detour to visit Beng Mealea, the “Jungle Temple,” which was only opened to tourists in 2003 (after it was cleared of land mines). Today, with the native flora encroaching into and intertwining with the half-toppled stone structures, the temple looks like something out of an Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider movie (which, incidentally, was filmed at Angkor).
Sadly, though, Cambodian authorities are misguidedly clearing the jungle from the site. What they don’t seem to understand is that the jungle they’re clearing is the very thing which gives the ruins their unique charm; when they’re done, Beng Mealea will be “just another” excavated temple on the remote outskirts of a city that certainly doesn’t need any more of them.
The ruins of Angkor are… overwhelming. We spent the entire day exploring it by remork (cousin of the tuk-tuk), and we’ve barely scratched the surface. The thing is, we haven’t even seen the main temple yet (which is a bit like visiting Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal first)–we’re saving that for tomorrow, when we’ll have an expert (and highly-recommended) local guide with us.
Just arrived in Cambodia–how different from its neighbors!
I’m not sure which of today’s events is more exciting:
- using our Cambodian e-visas (ugh, people with regular visas got through immigration faster than we did; though, presumably, they spent more time/effort getting their visas than we did–at least they better have!), or
- the delicious french fries we had with dinner. (Indeed, we ordered french fries several times in Laos–they’re always made to order and have been invariably yummy.)
(Yes, today was pretty uneventful.)
Returned to Luang Prabang today by public bus. Tomorrow, we fly to Cambodia.
This afternoon, I finished reading Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land, which almost made me cry–partly because Cambodia’s past 30 years have been so horrific, and partly because all of those horrors were man-made, and avoidable. I’m feeling emotional about visiting a place and a people that has suffered so much, so recently. It’s akin to visiting someone in mourning: What do you say? How do you act?
Tonight, our hosts held a Basi (bah-SEE) ceremony–funded happily by us–in honor of the new year. Several of the village residents came to enjoy the eating, singing, dancing and most importantly, the drinking. We consumed large quantities of lao-lao, a Laotian home-made rice whisky not unlike moonshine.
When they asked us to sing a song of our own, we were somewhat at a loss. We chose to perform Ose Shalom and The Irish Rover…. not exactly representative of American music. We think it confused them.
Our hosts in Nong Khiaw arranged the ride for us; this morning, they sent their friend to walk us from our hotel to the dock. A “gourmet homemade lunch” was to be included with the ride, and our escort handed us 3 plastic bags as we boarded the small boat.
In one bag was a pair of sandwiches (baguette sandwiches are a popular street food in Luang Prabang). In the second bag, two containers of fried rice. In the third, a pastry box from “Joma,” the local fancy coffee shop and bakery (think Starbucks).
We thought, “This lunch sure is eclectic. But gourmet and homemade, it ain’t.” Disappointed but hungry, we dug in. First the sandwiches, then the fried rice. (Actually, the food wasn’t all that bad; we’d just expected (and paid for) more.)
Finally, we peered into the pastry box. Four large muffins. “Wow, how much do they think we eat?” we thought. But Americans do (justly) have a reputation for overeating, so we didn’t think much of it.
I had a taste of muffin, and while I didn’t really care for the muffin body, the chocolate chips on top satisfied the one craving I’ve been having on this trip–cocoa. Sara didn’t want any, so muffin by helpless muffin, I scraped the chips off the top and shoved them into my mouth. When the “Muffin Massacre of the Nam Ou” (as they call it locally) was over, we left the decapitated muffin stumps in the box, closed it up, and put it back into the plastic bag for disposal when we reached Nong Khiaw.
We arrived, were greeted, and had a lovely and very memorable stay with our hosts, Marko and Chan. But more on that in our travelogue, after we get home. The salient point here is that, when we arrived, all of our bags (including the plastic bags) were carried off the boat for us. Our luggage turned up in our bungalow; the plastic bags (quite expectedly) did not.
At dinner this evening, Marko and Chan were talking about their favorite Luang Prabang eateries. Then they mentioned Joma–home of their “favorite chocolate muffins.” They told us how whenever they can, they have their friend send them a box of those muffins from Luang Prabang. (Oops.)
More cinnamon buns for breakfast. (Doubled up this time–bought two. )
Had a very Seinfeldian moment. I was negotiating with a boatman for passage across the Mekong river (we wanted to take a short hike to an underground cave temple), and when all was said and done, we were paying more for the ride than he initially offered. (I’m usually an effective negotiator–ask Sara or Danielle; but dealing in three currencies–Lao kip, Thai bhat, and U.S. dollar, all three of which are readily and interchangeably used here–tripped me up!)
P.S., Today we were able to post a random handful of our trip photos.
Woke up early (6am) to see the “Saffron Circuit:” the striking procession of Louang Prabang’s 500 orange-robed monks as they walk through the Old City to collect their day’s food from local residents.
But my true motivation for getting up early was the freshly baked cinnamon bun I devoured after the monks’ morning ritual. Best cinnamon bun I’ve ever had–ever. (Perhaps the one benefit of Laos’s French occupation.)
We got married (again) on the picturesque Mekong river today. (I would marry Sara every day if I could.)
We bade good-bye to our lovely new friends, Charlie and Chris, drove to Chiang Khong and crossed into Laos. Our first observation about the country: that the tourists here are generally much more fit and attractive than those in Thailand. (Chris and Charlie are a noteworthy exception.)
Had a long conversation with the interesting couple (Regina and Manfred from Austria) staying in the next bungalow; apparently, Austrians are very upset that the death penalty exists in the U.S. And as the four of us were talking out on our porch, a young blond woman with European looks walked past, heard part of our conversation, exclaimed, “Americans are bad!” and went into her bungalow. How shameful, silly and closed-minded.