Monday, November 17, 2008

Christchurch, NZ

After one last day in Bangkok eating cheap pad thai and trading in our dingy t-shirts for shiny new ones, we boarded the plane for New Zealand via Melbourne. It was strange to be ending another part of our trip and getting closer to the finish line, but even stranger to be back in a western country. The biggest shock by far were the prices. The US dollar was in the tank and where just a two days ago we were paying $20 a night for a hotel room with all the amenities we could possibly need, now $20 wouldn't even get us a bunk in a hostel dorm room. This reality forced us to get a bit more resourceful, so we finally decided to take advantage of - one of the best things to ever happen to independent travelers! Generous people from all walks of life offer to host travelers in return for nothing but a sincere thank you. What a novel idea!

Our host, Tony, was a super nice guy and not only had a couch to offer us, but the luxury of a spare room. He gave us some tips for touring downtown Christchurch, helped us sort out our car rental situation and even took us to a local couchsurfing party. A perfect poster boy for all Kiwis, who tend to be a very friendly and welcoming lot.

Christchurch seems to be a very nice place. It reminds me a bit of a New England college town in that it has a few cultural highlights, a handful of bars and a decent selection of international restaurants. But, for being the South Island's biggest city, it's not a very big city at all. After a couple of days, you might find yourself fondly endeared or totally bored to tears. We probably fell somewhere between those extremes.

Between the head and tail of our loop around the island, we spent about 3 days in Christchurch, which allowed us to take in the architecturally-stunning modern art gallery, visit the Canterbury Museum, which showcases regional history, and hit the weekend market at the Arts Center. We also had plenty of time to check out a couple of matches on the giant chess board in Cathedral Square and wander around the pretty botanical gardens.

On our last day in town, we headed out to the Banks Peninsula to check out the former French settlement of Akaroa. We never actually made it though, because we left on an empty take of gas and apparently there are no gas stations between the two cities - at least on the scenic route we took! The empty tank light had been on for about 40 kilometers when we reached a windy dirt road headed across the volcanically formed mountains from the northern coast. It seemed like a pretty risky move (one local we consulted said something along the lines of "gas? out here? good luck - you'll need it"), so we finally decided to turn around and head back toward civilization. We coasted down every hill in neutral and crossed our fingers as we drove on little more than fumes around the curvy coastline and finally through what seemed like an exceedingly long tunnel from Lyttelton back into Christchurch. Amazingly, we made it to a gas station, but it was certainly not the relaxing day we had planned!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Luang Prabang

The ride to Luang Prabang from Vang Vieng consisted of hour upon hour of twisty turns up the mountainside and back down, which caused many of the locals to vomit the entire way. The scenery was georgeous, but the frequent sight of smoke from fires being used to clear cut the land for agriculture was disappointing. It's tough to fault people trying to eak out a living, so hopefully with all the new initiatives aimed at fighting climate change we can figure out a way to provide some financial incentive for people to protect their native forests.

There are a few cities we've been to on this trip that seem to just ooze charm and Luang Prabang is near the top of the list. It's the cultural capital of Laos and you are surrounded by beauty every step that you take through its quaint streets. The architecture is georgeous - classic teak homes are interespersed every block or so by gilded temples. Luang Prabang is a World Heritage Site, and its setting, at the intersection of two meandering rivers, is quite fitting for such a lovely place.

Luang Prabang defintely has a more upscale and sophisticated feel compared to the bucolic south, but we happened to be there during Bpee Mai (Laos New Year), which meant the atmosphere was a bit wilder than usual. Bpee Mai lasts for 3 days in most parts of Laos, but in Luang Prabang it extends over 5 days. There are many rituals and ceremonies that take place, ranging from the banal (like house cleaning) to the kitsch (like the crowning of Miss Bpee Mai).

The festivities begion with a visit to a special holiday market where everything one needs for the celebration is available for sale, from noise makers to caged birds (which are released for good karma). Families tidy their homes so that old spirits can freely depart and then cross the Mekong to build sandcastle stupas. On the second day we saw a colorful parade down the city's main street, with women and girls made up in traditional costume, monks in bright orange robes and led by Pu No and Na No, two bizarre red-faced characters. In the days that follow there is a pilgramage to the wat that sits on top Phu Si (the hill that sits in the center of the city) and friends and families symbolically connect with one another by tying strings around each other's wrists. There is a special procession with a revered Buddha image named Pha Banga and all of the Buddha images are washed and blessed using a special naga-shaped spout.

Keeping with the spirit of "cleansing", the entire city breaks out into a huge water fight. We joined the workers at our hotel splashing passersby with water as a New Year's blessing. Young people cruise around in the back of pick-up trucks scooping buckets out of giant vats, while others return fire with water guns from the back of moterbikes. The main street is where the most intense battles take place, and you need to keep an eye out for the few people who are dishing out more malicious "blessings" like a smear of black ink on your cheek or a blast of white powder in your hair. No one escapes from the action - we saw a group of monks dousing folks from the upper ledge of one of the wats and saw more than one elderly grandmothers tossing out cups! Luckily, it takes place during the hottest time of the year, so you don't really mind that you're soaking wet. Everyone is in good spirits, and things wrap up by sundown so you can go out and enjoy a nice dinner in dry pants. It was definitely one of the funnest things we did on the whole trip.

Speaking of enjoying dinner, another highlight of Luang Prabang is its culinary riches. From the all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet on the street to some top notch traditional Lao and French restaurants, you really can't go wrong. There is also a wonderful night market with some of the best handicrafts we've seen on our long trip, including beutifully woven scraves and hand-quilted blankets. If you're anywhere in South East Asia, its worth making the journey here, especially now that you can fly directly to and from Bankgok - which is exactly what we did in order to catch our flight to New Zealand...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng is a guilty pleasure. It's the type of place that, as an enlightened traveler, you want to hate. It's overrun with tourists wearing inappropriate clothing, overindulging in booze and poor imitations of western foods, watching crappy western television and generally not giving a damn about the culture or the people surrounding them. But, it's also ridiculously fun. If you can choke it down, chances are you'll ask for a second helping.

So, what's the big draw? I'm sure that once upon a time people came here for the beauty of the river and the surrounding limestone moutains jutting skyward above an intricate system of caves. Today, the allure of the river is not its beauty, but the many make-shift bars that have been built along its banks, each with its own signature rope swing, zip line and volleyball court. You rent a tube and float along, as the proprieters pass you a reed and pull you into the shore to greetings of free shots and DJ music. If we could somehow replicate this in the States, we would be millionaires.

In town, the situation is a little less worthy of emulation. There are lines of bars playing endless loops of "Friends" reruns, with the occasional "Family Guy" or "Simpsons" thrown in for good measure. I am not sure why these places are so popular, but I am guessing it has something to do with the fact that most people are too drunk or hung over to do anything else but veg out in front of the TV.
After a couple of days on the river, we decided it was time to get out and see more of the surrounding area. We rented a minibike and went in search of the many caves throughout the region. Along the way we passed some local boys hurrying home to show off the birds they had caught. Gil climbed through one cave that extended a kilometer into the hillside and we followed a river into another deep cave by tube. We also visited a couple of more expansive caves trimmed with stalactites and stalagmites. One was the home to a Buddah figure surrounded with offerings.

Back in town, we visited our favorite restaurant one last time - an organic restaurant using ingredients from a farm they own nearby - and then went for an ice cream at the local night market. Even though it was only two blocks from the packed Friends bars, we were the only foreigners there. For shame!


The overnight bus ride to Vientiane (pronounced something closer to "wiangchan" by the locals) was long, but noticeably free of the earsplitting karaoke of which we had been warned, so we can't complain. The search for a hotel was another matter (Lao New Years was fast approaching), but after a series of unsuccessful attempts, we finally found a great room a few blocks away from the river.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and although it's relatively sleepy compared to other Asian capitals, there was enough happening to keep us busy for several days. We started by visiting the city's temples by foot and then by bike. As a whole, they are less impressive than the temples in Thailand (no thanks to the Siamese, who destroyed nearly all of them in a series of invasions), but many boast special features or histories that make them unique.

Pha That Luang, a golden stuppa of enormous proportions, is the most important national symbol and a point of pilgrimage for many Laotians. Its architectural design is meant to convey different aspects of Buddhist doctrine, with the lotus bud on top symbolizing human advancement toward enlightenment. The stuppa also represents national independence to many Lao people, since it has been rebuilt multiple times following the occupation of foreign rulers.

Another interesting temple is Wat Si Saket, the only temple to survive the Siamese invasions. Today it houses more than two thousand Buddhist images of various shapes and sizes and a couple of interesting dragon-shaped vessels that are used each year on Lao New Year to bless the Buddha images with water. Nearby sits Haw Pha Kaew, a royal temple built to house the legendary Emerald Buddha, which currently resides in Bangkok. There are many monks studying at these temples, all eager to practice their English!

Other attractions in and around Vientiane include Patuxi, an Arc de Triomphe look-alike and the Xieng Kuan Buddha Park, a collection of larger-than-life sculptures built by a priest-shaman who integrated Buddhist and Hindu teachings. The sculptures were supposedly built by amateur artists, but what they lack in meticulousness they certainly make up for in sheer size and bizarreness. It was a fun place to visit, especially since we got to wait for the bus with a couple of beers overlooking a local soccer match. Another highlight is the huge Talat Sao market, where we picked up some amazing hand-woven scarves.

One of the best things about Vientiane, however, is the proliferation of excellent, cheap restaurants - many in the tradition of the French, who ruled here for over 50 years. From quick eats by the river to a 4 course meal with wine, we did our best to take advantage of the city's fantastic culinary offerings.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Tat Lo and Pakse

We picked up in Tat Lo where we left off in Si Phan Don - relaxing on the front porch of our hut overlooking the river. Except now we had traded the sweltering heat of the valley for the cool breezes of the Bolaven Plateau, and the wide, slowly meandering Mekong for a more agile network of rivers that tumble over the highlands in a series of waterfalls.

Although we were joined by a handful of travelers on the long and sweaty bus ride to Tat Lo, the place seems to have retained much of its traditional character. There are no Internet cafes or western-style restaurants - just a few local shops, a collection of huts for travelers and a small temple, which was blasting music at all hours of the day and night for a local festival while we were there.

The area is famous for two things: waterfalls and coffee. In our short time there, we got a small taste of each. There were two waterfalls within walking distance of our hut, where we could take a refreshing dip or watch the local boys slip down naturally carved water slides into swirling water below. A short hike beyond the waterfalls brought us to small tracts of farmland clear-cut from the thick forest. In addition to growing coffee, the local tribal people plant a wide range of other crops to support their small villages.

The Plateau was an incredibly pleasant detour and we wish we had more time to explore the area, but we now had a flight to New Zealand booked and not much leeway in our schedule. So, we headed back to Pakse to try to arrange transport up north. It worked out that we had an extra day in the city, so we rented a fantastic hotel room (a big splurge at $17 a night!) and took advantage of "big city" amenities, like an ATM.

There isn't too much to do in Pakse, but it's a pleasant enough place if you can find somewhere to hide from the mid-day sun. We picked a local "healing center", where we got traditional Laos-style massages laying on mattresses on the floor. It was a far cry from a spa-like setting and the masseuses kept laughing at us, but at least there was air conditioning! This riverside city also boasts a few pretty temples, a small market and, of course, a couple of excellent coffee shops. By 10 pm we were exhausted and ready to sleep the night away on our overnight bus to Vientiane.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


The town of Champasak is on the west bank of the river, the opposite side of the paved "highway" that runs north to south along the Lao/Thai border. This means you need to board a rickety old ferry to get across the river, and then walk (or flag down a ride) another couple of kilometers south to the town. Its a bit out of the way, but your efforts are rewarded with a quiet and peaceful village and some gorgeous views over the river.

The area was once the capital of the Lao Kingdom and Wat Phu Champasak is set in kingly fashion on the side of a mountain about 5 kilometers south of town. The ruins are relatively humble in comparison to those at Angkor, but beautiful their own right.

We walked along a narrow causeway skirted by two rectangular reservoirs until we reached two crumbling pavilions and finally the stairway that leads up to the main temple. The climb to the top was brutal (April is the hottest time of the year in Laos!), but we were emboldened by the laughter of the Buddhist pilgrims who accompanied us and comforted by the shade and delicate fragrance offered by the pretty yellow and white frangipani trees lining the steps.

The temple at the top exhibited an interesting mix of Hindu and Buddhist influence and there were a couple of fascinating rock-carved sculptures in the surrounding thicket, including a table shaped like a crocodile that archaeologists suspect may have been used for human sacrifices. We dipped our hands in the spring water that emerged from a cave in the mountain, hoping to benefit from its reputed magical properties. After drinking in a few last glimpses of the golden countryside that unfolded below us, we headed back to our motorbike and enjoyed a tranquil ride home in the soft light of dusk.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Si Phan Don

If you come to Si Phan Don, you had better be ready to relax. Because there isn't much else to do here among the "1,000 islands" that fringe the border between Cambodia and Laos. But, this remoteness, this detachment from the hustle and bustle of modern life, is exactly why travelers come here and why many find themselves delaying their departure day after day, until they finally run out of kip and are forced to make their way to a town with an ATM.

Like emeralds glistening in the warm sun, land masses of varying shapes and sizes emerge from the milky Mekong River (along with the occasional bathing water buffalo). During the rainy season, many of the islands disappear, but in the dry season, they appear once again, like old familiar friends. The three largest islands are inhabited, including the two we visited, Don Dhet and Don Khon. Don Dhet and Don Khon have no electricity and no cars, and when you step off the narrow long boat you've hired from the mainland, it feels like you've stepped back in time.

Our day would start when we awoke to the sounds of children playing in the Mekong River that slowly flowed beneath our hut. We'd enjoy a lazy breakfast of rice soup and fresh fruit and then watch the local men expectantly throw out their fishing nets while their wives, mothers and daughters waded out into the river to wash their families' clothes. If we felt ambitious, we'd rent bikes and ride beneath the shade of palm trees to the islands' biggest waterfall, Tat Samphamit, passing over an elegant arched railway bridge built and long abandoned by the French. We would greet each evening by taking position in our hammocks and drinking a Beer Lao as we watched the red sun dipped slowly behind horizon.

I think this is what is meant by the word "idyllic". Thanks to Chris and Lani for so highly recommending this stop over!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


On our way to Laos we made a short pit stop in Kratie, a small town situated on the Mekong. It was a sleepy place to enjoy a sunset beer on the river, with a small market and a few simple restaurants and food stalls.

Kratie is famous for the flat-nosed Irrawady dolphins that spend their time just north of here, so we rented a motorbike to drive up to Kampi where you can hire a boat to see them up close. Our ride under the shade of green trees and past simple stilt huts was fantastic. We smiles and waved to the villagers as we went by, watching children transport water from the communal well while their elders gathered on their porches to chat with neighbors. We found it very interesting that they choose to orient their homes and lives toward the road, rather than the luscious views of the river behind them. It speaks strongly about the community-orientation of rural life in Cambodia in comparison to the privacy and solitude favored in our modern urban society. We passed by several wedding celebrations, and marveled at the beauty of the women in traditional make-up wearing lace blouses and colorful silk sarongs arriving on motorbikes, and were honored when we got a few shouts to stop and join in with the festivities.

We felt very lucky to see the Irrawady dolphins, as they are extremely rare and pretty much on the brink of extinction. It is estimated that there are fewer than 100 left, and although there are education and conservation campaigns underway, we were shocked and disheartened to see local fisherman casting nets (which can be responsible for drowning these air-breathing mammals) literally within a few hundred meters of the area where they are known to congregate. Unfortunately, the fate of the dolphins may be a case of too little, too late.

Siem Reap

Siem Riep is a very touristy town, but it has every reason to be since it’s just about as close as you can get to the temples of Angkor without a time machine. It certainly came in handy that it had one of those ubiquitous Irish pubs, since it was St. Patrick’s day and we were in serious need of some green beer. We also appreciated the profusion of air conditioning given the 100 degree heat, so we really can’t complain about these conveniences of home.

In reality, you would need weeks, maybe years, to properly explore the temples of Angkor and all of their winding caverns and passageways. We had only three days, so we hired a tuk tuk driver to make the most of our time. We started out visiting the temples around Angkor Wat and then travelled further afield.

Not surprisingly, Angkor Wat was a highlight. It is the largest religious structure in the world and represents the pinnacle of Khmer architectural design. The carved bas-relief murals that line the halls are intricate and evocative and the five central towers reaching skyward are truly magnificent, especially at dawn or dusk when they light up like shimmering gold. But, Angkor is so much more than Angkor Wat. The story that unravels as you visit different sites gives you a much greater appreciation for the complexity and resilience of the Khmers than any single structure could.
The first thing that struck us was the sheer magnitude of the ruins. Each consecutive king wanted to honor the gods anew and commissioned a state temple to be built, thus moving the center of the kingdom over and over again. Our awe for the scope and power of the civilization was compounded when we contemplated the fact that while only religious structures remain, thousands of people lived in impermanent wooden settlements radiating out from the main temples at one point in time.

The temples exhibit an amazing diversity of styles. You can see the progression through the ages of different building techniques, materials and decorative themes, with each generation bringing something innovative to the traditional design. Another transformation you notice is a shift in religious beliefs. The Khmer’s were heavily influenced by their contact with Indian traders who came through the area and originally adopted a mix of Hindu and local deities, but later were converted by Buddhist teachings. In the end, sentiments swung back to Hinduism, evidenced by the thousands of Buddah images that were defaced or altered into less controversial figures.

Some of the temples were impressive due to their size or stature, such as the pyramid-shaped “mountain temples” of Pre Rup and Ta Keo, which were intended to emulate the sacred Mount Meru. Others were notable because of the uniqueness of the decoration. Two of our favorite structures, the Bayon and Banteay Srei, were actually quite modest in size.

The Bayon was built out of a cluster of towers carved with faces on all four sides. The faces evoke a strange sense of mystery and wonder, especially when navigating the maze-like inner chambers. The Bayon also has some fine bas-relief carvings portraying great battles and other historical events, as well as more obscure images from Hindu mythology.

Twenty-some kilometers from Angkor Wat is Banteay Srei, which has the most exquisite reliefs of all the temples we visited. It was not built by a king, but rather a counselor, and appears almost miniature in scale compared to other temples. Its beauty lies in the fact that nearly all of its surfaces are carved with rich and enigmatic images – the lion god Narasimha clawing at an enemy, a multi-headed demon shaking Mount Kailasa, Krishna and his brother firing arrows to stop the rain. It is truly a creative and artistic masterpiece.

Complimenting the splendor of the temples themselves are the dramatic landscapes in which they were built. Many temples were built on hills to provide sweeping views of the surrounding area, and most contained some element of water for dramatic effect, such as a moat or lake. The environment continues to shape them into the present day, with trees having invaded many of the structures, winding and wrapping their way around the stonework. While some of the temples have been restored, others have been left in this state of decay, providing a fantastical backdrop for movies like Tomb Raider.

We absolutely loved our time in Angkor and would definitely put it in our list of “must-see” places in the world.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is ripe with paradox. Today it is the capital of one of the world’s poorer countries, but its museum holds the treasures of one of the most prolific civilizations in history. Tiny alleyways strewn with garbage and home to orphaned children cross avenues lined with gourmet chocolate shops and bakeries frequented by tourists and international aid workers. The recent past has been plagued by horrible violence and suffering, yet its people seem to face the days ahead with humor and a strange sense of optimism.

Just about the only thing that is consistent about this place is the confusion it generates in its visitors. Your only choice is to confront the bad and embrace the good. We started with the bad and found ourselves face to face with the legacy of a woefully misguided revolution.

The Khmer Rouge, an ultra-Maoist regime that sprung up partly in reaction to the US bombardment of the Cambodian countryside during with the Vietnam War, took over Phnom Penh in 1975. Under the direction of a tyrant named Pol Pot, anyone deemed to be educated was seen as an enemy to the regime and slated for execution in the hopes of returning the country to its agrarian roots.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek now serves as a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Set in a quiet and seemingly peaceful setting is a tall glass stupa filled with the skulls of thousands of people whose lives where ended there. More subtle reminders of the genocide are shallow indentations in the ground, mass graves where bodies were found, and random piles of decaying clothing.

Perhaps even more powerful was our visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum, a former high school that was used to imprison and torture victims prior to them being sent to execution sites like the one at Choeung Ek. The pictures of mangled, half-dead bodies that were taken when the city was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979 would turn anyone’s stomach, and intake photos of incarcerated men, women and children posted among tiny cells converted from classrooms were absolutely heart-wrenching to look at given the knowledge that only a handful of them survived.
Many children were orphaned as a result of the murderous campaign and a variety of programs have been developed to address the ongoing challenges. A good example is a restaurant we dined at named Friends that educates and trains street children to work in the service industry. We also met a young woman involved in a variety of different projects, including teaching free classes on the traditional Apsara dance form, which was nearly lost as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s efforts to eradicate all things artistic.

Phnom Penh is clearly a very intense place, but it has positive points as well. The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda are glorious remnants of the Khmer kingdom before it fell into decline, while the National Museum holds thousands of archaeological treasures from Angkor. The city also has some great Art Deco architecture, like the Central Market, which thankfully survived Pol Pot’s destruction. Phnom Penh is gradually coming into its own as a modern center of commerce and culture as well, and has a busting riverfront with cafes and restaurants and some fun nightspots where you can get your groove on with a truly international crowd.

We leave with a heavy heart, but wish the city and its people well on the road to recovery.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Mekong Delta to Cambodia

We said goodbye to Sue and left Phu Quoc Island a few days later for the Mekong Delta. Since we had been flying from city to city, this was our first experience with local transport and we suddenly realized why several people we met in Thailand had warned us that “everyone in Vietnam tries to rip you off”. We were overcharged for a motorbike ride to the so-called bus station, a derelict gas station where we found two rickety old buses and several people colluding to charge us four times the local fare while our motorbike drivers waited to receive a commission. We discussed the price for about an hour when some other tourists showed up. With greater leverage we were able to get the price down to a more reasonable (albeit still inflated price) and at last were on the road to Chao Doc, the last city before reaching the Cambodian border.

The Mekong Delta is a beautiful area, with millions of people living along an intricate network of waterways. Chao Doc is a good example of the colorful local communities that have cropped up here. It has a lively market, lots of street restaurants and of course, a few requisite cafes. It also has a great vegetarian restaurant, where we got to try the veg-friendly version of several local dishes. Yum!

As you walk down the narrow alley ways toward the river, you come across small wooden shacks on stilts and then finally huts that are actually floating on the water. From the outside these places look very modest (in fact, many look like they might collapse any minute…), but you looks can be deceiving – one held an internet cafĂ©, another a set of pool tables and more than one featured big screen TVs. Clearly the locals have gotten creative in order to expand this prime waterfront real estate.

We took the Mekong River up to the Cambodian border and crossed the border posts by boat. The Cambodian side of the border provided similar scenes of life in the Delta – shacks on stilts, rice paddies, and fishermen – but things looked a bit more neglected and noticeably less colorful, giving the you the sense that we were entering a country that hasn’t benefited as much as its neighbors from the recent economic growth in the region. We continued on to Phnom Penh, catching glimpses of the city’s former Khmer glory from the river as we arrived.