Monday, March 18, 2013

Cambodia, the thief of time

It seems to me that time in Cambodia follows its very own rules. Sometimes it disappears before you're able to notice it and sometimes hours stretch magically giving you the fealing each of them is longer than any other you lived through before. The second option is quite common on public transport. Getting to Cambodia and travelling anywhere around it takes time. A lot of time. The roads are bad and the buses are often only slightly better, turning each small trip into a day long journey. Last time we tried, we have spent over 8 hours to cover a distance of 300 km. But the tickets cost nothing and it all gives you an unique opportunity to observe local people on the way. And trust me, there is enough to see to keep yourself occupied even for 8 long hours.

I can still remember the moment we have arrived in Phnom Penh. The first thing that hit us after getting out of our air conditioned bus was the wave of hot air, that didn't leave us even long after the sun went down. But before we were even able to register it, we were forced to face the real Cambodian plague, which was sticking to us ever since, no matter where we went: the tuk-tuk drivers. I didn't even manage to get a breath before I was totally surrounded. “Lady where you go”, “Lady I take you best hotel”, “ Lady come with me”, “Please I take you to center”. It all came at me with such an amazing speed that it took a moment before I realized what was going on. Fortunately we had decided to stay in a hotel near to the station, so that we could simply walk there. But the drivers all along the way never stopped trying. They were hitting the breaks in the middle of the street, sometimes even nearly driving us over, just to try to convince us to take a ride instead of walking. At least we had a chance to get used to it quickly, since we had to face it every single day since we crossed the border. Going to the nearest supermarket which is really just around the corner usually meant getting at least 3 tuk-tuk offers. And they are standing on every corner and seem to have nothing better to do than to wait for their next victim. Don't get me wrong, they are very friendly and fortunately, not really persistent, but still having to answer “no, thank you, I don't need a tuk-tuk” 30 times a day can get pretty annoying. And it's not that we haven't been offered a tuk-tuk in the other countries neither, but trust me when I say it, the Cambodian drivers take this experience to a whole new level. Funny enough, we haven't used a tuk-tuk even once in this country. Maybe it was our private protest or maybe we were just lucky enough never to need one.

Phnom Penh is not really a fascinating city. It's mostly just big, dirty and smelly, but it does have a spot or two, which makes it worth visiting. The first thing we headed for was the palace. We were not quite sure if we really want to spend our precious 7 dollars each on the ticket, but the problem was solved for us before we had time to think it through. They would simply not let me in. It was not my first sightseeing trip and no matter what I'm wearing I am always prepared to cover myself as I'm required to. And so I was this time too, but that didn't seem enough. It turns out, that no scarfs are allowed at the palace and there is only one right way to cover yourself: buying an ugly, overpriced official t-shirt. I honestly do try to respect all the rules in the countries we visit, but I have my limits. Since the t-shirt would not cover any single spot that was not already covered by my own clothes it was simply another way to get some money out of my pocket. If it was about respect or culture, they would simply lend me one free of charge as many other places do. Well anyway we left the place in no time, deciding to rather invest the money in lunch. I am convinced it was a great idea, since Cambodian cuisine is definitely the best thing this country has to offer. They have some magnificent ruins too, but if you try a really well done fish or chicken amok, you will forget each single building you've seen, only praying for the meal to last forever. And it's just the beginning of the menu!

The reason we really wanted to see the capital was it's history. A huge genocide that happened not so long ago, but long after the whole world promised never to let anything like that happen again. Well they definitely failed in this point and many places in Cambodia are a living proof of it. The worst thing is, many of the people responsible for all the tortures and killings are still alive, some even still enjoying their lives in freedom, just because it takes forever to file a case against them. Unfortunately the museum we have visited was only vague about the reasons for this situation, saying there were many obstacles inside and outside the country, so we will have to read into it a bit more to even try to understand why it can take 30 years to punish the criminals, when there are so many proofs of their crimes (they documented it quite detailed themselves). But still we wanted to see one of the places where it all happened, even if it did not really set us in happy moods. This recent history had obviously a huge impact on Cambodia and you can not understand the country or its people without trying to learn about it.

Our second stop was the famous Siem Reap, where we wanted to spend 3 days before heading back to Thailand to use our few remaining days to swim, relax and finally get some sun. You would not believe it, but we hardly had any chances to unpack our swimsuits since Kyrgyzstan! That is why we decided to have some proper holidays before heading back home. But first we wanted to do our last real sightseeing in one of the most famous tourist spots in the world, the temples of Angkor. As usual in such places the first thing we did was renting a bike and once again it turned out the best way to visit. It simply is a perfect biking spot. The road is good and flat and the trees offer enough shadow to keep you from overheating. Of course you may also rent a tuk-tuk for a day, to drive you from one temple to another, deciding for you what the next stop should be, but I don't really see where's the fun about it then.

We are not really huge temple lovers. We like visiting them, but we are far from studying every single detail, so we decided we do not need a three day ticket, as we will definitely not need so much time to see what we wanted. And since a day entry already costs 20 USD, we decided to make the best of it and try to do it all at once. We were not naive, we knew it would take us time and we'd probably be dead on our feet before evening, but we decided to try anyway. We set the alarm clock somewhere after 5 o'clock, got on our bikes without wasting time for breakfast and set off. The air was cool and fresh and riding a bike felt great, just until we bought our tickets. It this very moment the heaven decided to open and let down enough water to organize 3 or 4 huge storms in Germany. Here it all came at once, making us wet from top to the bottom in no time. It could have been the moment for us to regret not taking a tuk-tuk, but one glance at the passing tuk-tuks showed us that it was no good neither. The rain and wind were both so strong, that nothing but a waterproof car could stand a chance. There was no way to escape. But before you start pitying us (if you have some pity left for people, who didn't have to work for the last 9 months) I have to tell you all in all it was not such a bad thing. Normally the biggest problem in this place is the heat, which makes a whole day sightseeing a real extreme experience. But the rain cooled everything down and the temperatures stayed low for the rest of the day, offering us a pleasant 25 degrees instead of the usual 40, so we were not really complaining.

Angkor was just as impressive as we expected it to be, magnificent, beautiful and surprisingly well preserved. Unfortunately also full of tourist. I thought I have seen it all, but it turns out I was wrong. Taking a picture without any strangers in it was close to impossible and huge lines were building before most famous attractions. But seeing all those magnificent temples you can not really blame people for wanting to be there. We were definitely glad we have included Siem Reap in our plans. Thanks to the temperatures we managed to see all we wanted in one day, though I admit we were dog tired when we came back to our hotel in the late evening.

We have chosen a really nice hotel to stay in. We even thought it will be a waste, since we were planning to spend most time sightseeing, but we decided a pretty room and a pool will be a nice place to come back to after a tiring day. We did not yet know what a good choice it was. Since we were done with Angkor, we spend the second day sunbathing and swimming, enjoying the beautiful pool area of Mom's Guesthouse. And we decided to leave for Thailand a day after. Unfortunately, we didn't make it, since I got really sick before the evening came. There was no way to travel anywhere. I was hardly able to sit in bed, not to mention spending 10 hours on a Cambodian bus. That was out of the question. It took me a few days to get better and though we still had time to visit some Thai beach and get some holiday at the seaside we decided against it. We liked Siem Reap. We had a great hotel, the city was nice and we did enjoy Cambodian food a lot. We though we have spent enough time in Thailand and it wouldn't be fair to leave Cambodia so quickly. We were in for a long stay and I guess we are not the only ones who ended up sending much more time in this country than they ever planned to. That is just what this place does to you. But we were really glad we did it, as a day later David got some bad back ache and this time he was the one not leaving the bed. I can say that being sick sucks no matter where you are, but it does feel slightly better if you can handle it in beautiful surroundings and no matter the sickness, we both had really nice time. We might have stayed a bit longer if it wasn't for the fact, that we had to fly back home in a few days. So ready or not, we had to get back to Bangkok. Fortunately the ride turned out to be quite pleasant, since although we have bought a standard bus ticket, we were offered a taxi instead. The ride was not only much nicer, but also quicker, so that when we changed the vehicle at the Thai side of the border we caught up with people who left Siem Reap 3,5 hours before us with a morning bus (they were not really happy to hear that though).

Being back in Bangkok felt good, though it was a stressful stay, since we decided to spend it shopping. And I guess it's good we didn't have more time, as I am not sure we could have handled it any longer. Bangkok has the biggest markets and shopping centres I have seen in my life. One next to another, each at least 6 or 7 floors, they are a real labyrinth. We came back to our hotel in the evening more tired than ever with quite a few bags in our hands, which created some serious packing problem on the next morning. But we have managed to squeeze it all in, hoping our precious shopping trophies would survive the long flight back home without getting lost or damaged.

I was always wondering how it would feel like to be going back home after a journey like this one. I imagined I would be sad, maybe even crying, that something as special and beautiful was coming to an end. That I would not be really willing to go back to my old routines, to my well known reality. I would have never thought I would be actually so happy and excited. I could hardly wait for our pick up to come! Don't get me wrong, doing this journey was one of the best decisions in our life and we never regretted it, not even for a single day. Moreover, we enjoyed it more than we ever could have hoped to. But in some funny way, all those experiences made us appreciate our good old everyday life in a completely new way, making us miss home awfully. That is why when we entered the plane in Bangkok there was not place for tears, but a glass of red wine to celebrate the happy homecoming.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Four thousand pieces of paradise

OK, I take it all back! Lao buses are awesome! Or at least the one we got for our 14 hours ride was. And I'm not being sarcastic here, it honestly was the best bus I have ever seen! Instead of seats it had rows of beds, big enough to stretch legs and high enough to seat in. I have never had such a comfortable ride in my entire bus riding career. There were pillows and blankets, the road was pretty much flat and we ended up sleeping like babies, leaving the bus more relaxed than ever. And that was only the beginning.

We spent quite some time discussing our route. We realized pretty quickly, that 10 weeks may not be enough to really explore 5 countries and that we had to lower our expectations a bit if we wanted to keep it a pleasant and relaxing trip. Especially after we lost a week in Ayutthaya. Laos was the place where we had to make our minds up. We could leave the country after only a few days to still get to see Vietnam and then go back to Bangkok through Cambodia. Or we could stay and take the 14 hours bus (which back then we considered as something close to a torture) and travel all the way south to see the famous 4.000 Islands of the Mekong River and cross the Cambodian border there. Both options sounded tempting, both had their disadvantages, at the end one simple issue determined our choice: we needed a visa for Vietnam. We could not get one on arrival, so it meant going to the embassy and dealing with all the regular paperwork. If there was one thing we really didn't like about traveling, it was the whole visa business, so we decided we'd rather face the 14 hours bus ride. Vietnam will simply have to wait. Maybe in the meantime they will adopt their visa regulations to regional standards (no visa or visa on arrival), making travels in their country a bit simpler.

I didn't really know what to expect before we got there. Obviously, I was sure we would get to see quite a few islands, but apart from that I was not sure what's awaiting us. People who've been there were describing it as one of the most beautiful and relaxing spots in Southeast Asia, making it sound like a place we would like to see ourselves, so we booked a river-view sunrise-facing bungalow with 2 hammocks at Mama Leuah Guesthouse and were looking forward to exploring the region.

We needed to take a boat to get to our island and that first ride already took our breath away. It was magnificent! Unlike in the northern parts of the Mekong river, the water here was nice and blue, decorated with endless islands in all different shapes and sizes. The view was amazing. Some parts of the few biggest islands got a bit touristic in the last couple of years, but fortunately our guesthouse was situated away from the center of attention, in a nice and quiet surrounding, were people were still doing their laundry in the river and children were swimming right next to the water buffaloes, which were taking their bath in the same spot every day. It was simply wonderful! We had big plans, we wanted to rent bikes and see as much as we could, but the moment we got there and felt the peaceful, relaxing atmosphere of the place we couldn't help jumping into our hammocks and focusing on enjoying the view and the delicious food our guesthouse was offering. The memory of Mama Leuah Menu still makes my mouth water whenever I think of it. The pepper stake, the curries, the shakes... It was as close to paradise as you can get!

No worries, we did manage to get out of the hammocks eventually, though it took some strong will and a lot of convincing. But the region had a lot to offer and we didn't want to miss it. Unfortunately all the bikes we have found turned out to be way to short for us, so we decided to take a walk instead. It was really hot and the islands were much bigger than I expected them to be, but it was still a pleasant trip. And the view of a huge waterfall and the possibility to bath at the nearby beach rewarded all our efforts. But the only way to really see and appreciate at least a part of the archipelago is a boat trip, which we signed for without thinking. It was an awesome one. We were fighting our ways between many smaller islands, through waves and rocks up to the biggest waterfall in Southeast Asia. It was magnificent. And so was the marvelous sunset we had a chance to admire on our way back. It all made us wanna stay in this amazing place forever, if it wasn't for the fact, that David's visa was expiring (as Swiss he got a free 15 days stay), forcing us to say good bye to our hammocks and book the tickets to Cambodia.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bumpy ride to the dead(ly) city

It turns out that getting to Laos is not the end of all troubles, since moving around the country can be just as complicated. We have checked the distances before and thought it would all be a piece of cake, until we discovered, that an express bus needs at least 8 hours to drive the 300 km which were separating us from the capital of the country. And we have been warned it would not be a pleasant ride. We decided we needed an additional stop on the way, a place we could stay for a night or two before we hit the road again. Vang Vieng seemed to be a perfect option. Nice little town with friendly people, surrounded by water, mountains, caves and rain forest. But the reputation of this place was not really inviting, at least not as far as we were concerned. The biggest party spot in Southeast Asia, full of drunken or/and stoned foreign tourists, creating a massive chaos, which often ended with death casualties. We were not exactly tempted. At least until we asked a local tourist agency for advice. They told us Vang Vieng is not the city it used to be and we needn't worry about the stories we have heard before, as it's a different place now. A short research in Internet confirmed the news. At the end of last year, after over 30 people died within few months due to various accidents (caused mostly by excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol), the government decided to react. Many riverside bars were closed, water activities were controlled more rigorously, drugs disappeared from the local menus and all parties had to end no later than half past eleven. We decided to give it a try.  

As I've already said (or wrote) before, I am a hug fan of bus rides. I know there are much faster means of transport nowadays, but I still prefer to travel in an old fashioned way, even if it does take long. And I normally have absolutely no problems falling asleep as soon as I get on board, no matter how bad the conditions are. I'm used to it and I guess I actually like it. Or at least I did before I came to Laos. The local buses were on a best way to become my most hated way to travel in a shortest time. We have taken the most expensive tickets just to get a VIP bus, which was supposed to be the most comfortable one. To be honest I haven't really noticed the difference as it was just as ancient as the other ones were. OK, it had a toilet, but it remained closed and sealed with tape for the entire ride. But that was still the smallest of the problems. The worst of it was the road itself. I know it is a mountain region, but I still can not stop wondering how drunk those people were, when they were actually building it. I don't believe it ever goes straight for more than 100 meter. Instead it keeps turning right and left without a break. This alone might have not been such a big deal, if the bus wasn't constantly jumping up and down at the same time. It made my stomach travel all the way through my body the whole time and I don't believe it enjoyed the trip much. I never have any problems with vehicles, but this time it took all my strength not to get seriously sick and I was counting minutes till we reached Vang Vieng at least. And I could only envy David, who was seating next to me, concentrating on nothing but his book, totally unimpressed by the state of the road or the bus itself.

Vang Vieng was an extraordinary place. Every building was a hotel, restaurant or a travel agency. There seemed to be no other businesses in town. The only problem was, they were totally empty. We haven't seen any other guest in our hotel, though it was a nice and pretty cheap one. The whole town actually looked kind of spooky. It was obvious it was designed for tourist. There were hardly any local dishes on the menu, but you had a whole list of burgers and pizzas to choose form and the TV was playing Friends or Southpark all the time. And for sure, there still were many tourist around, but apparently not enough to fill the empty spaces. It was as if the entire place was working on slow motion now. But the nature was just as wonderful as ever. We decided to skip the overpriced trips the local agencies were offering and once again rent a bike instead. The stony road was not an easy one, but the big cave we have visited, surrounded by amazingly turquoise water we could swim in was definitely worth the trouble. It was a perfect day and we were even a bit sorry that we had already booked our tickets to Vientiane. I guess we wouldn't mind staying there for one more day.

Fortunately, the weather got worse the next day and we didn't mind leaving that much anymore. The road got a bit better too and we took a mini bus this time, which was in a slightly better condition than the last VIP bus, making the journey a bit easier. Less than four hours later we were in the capital of the country. Vientiane is not a very impressive place. It is a nice town, with a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere, but to be honest, it does not really have a lot to offer. There are some nice temples and other interesting buildings, but a day is enough to see it all. But there is one good reason to hang around a bit longer, the food, which as far as we were concerned was the best in Laos. We made sure to try as much of it as we could before hitting the road again. This time we were planning to travel down south, up to the very southern edge of the country, facing 14 long hours of a bus ride...

Friday, February 22, 2013

Unforgettable elephants

Getting to Laos seemed to be a bit more complicated than we expected. Or maybe we just got spoiled by the efficient transport we had the chance to experience in Thailand. We were not really that far form Luang Prabang, which we wanted to make our next stop, but it seemed that getting there would take us some long hours no matter which option we chose, so we decided to take the most relaxed and (hopefully) most enjoyable one. We were getting on a minibus to get to the border, from where we would catch a slowboat down the Mekong River. The whole journey would take us three days (with overnight stops). It seemed a long time, but was still much more appealing than a bus ride, which would take us 30 uncomfortable hours.

Visa formalities went pretty quickly, since David as Swiss didn't need any and I simply got a 30 days visa on arrival. Although I have to admit the border was a total chaos. And so was the boat we were taking. We had seat numbers on our tickets, but we soon found out there were no seats like ours on that boat. The highest number we could see was 70 and the seat numbers of our group were somewhere between 85 and 100. And the boat was full anyway, so that we could hardly get on board, not to mention finding an empty seat. Fortunately after a few discussions and a lot of complaining form our side, a second boat was opened and we could choose whatever seats we wanted. Although few moments later both boats were filled up to the top, including additional plastic chairs and people sitting or lying on the floor right next to the engine. I guess their ride was far from enjoyable in the end. We could not really complain about ours though.

The slowboat trip took us around 7 hours on each of the two days, but although the boat was crowded and the seats were not too comfortable it was not as bad as we thought. A good book and lovely views from the river made the hours pass quickly. The nice thing was, we had enough time to meet a lot of other travelers, which we kept meeting later on everywhere we went. It gives you the feeling you're surrounded by friends no matter which city you head to.

Luang Prabang turned out to be a beautiful place with a really nice atmosphere. It is not exactly big, which allowed us to do everything on foot. And there certainly was a lot to see. The temples were again more of the shiny type. Nevertheless, we found them quite interesting since they were a bit different than the ones in Thailand we have seen so far. But walking along the river side was still our favorite activity. We decided we liked Laos a lot. The weather was nice, food was awesome and people were friendly and easygoing. It felt nice to be there.

We especially enjoyed the local night market, which was our favorite place to spent the evenings, making our wallets slimmer an our backpacks much fuller than they ever were. It is a great place, filled with local handmade products and lovely souvenirs and the prices are nearly always negotiable, especially for a trained professional like David, who was using all the experience gathered in Central Asia to get me the things I necessarily needed and desperately wanted (meaning very important items like for example an elephant pillow) for a fraction of the original price. The only thing we didn't manage to buy was a dress I was looking for for some time now. It was a simple one, nothing special, but I liked it a lot. I already saw it in Bangkok, but decided to buy it later on, as I didn't want to add extra weight to my backpack before our Myanmar trip. Unfortunately, they didn't sell it anywhere else in Thailand, so I was happy to spot it in Luang Prabang. However, the price they wanted for it was 5 times higher than in Bangkok, which we were of course not willing to pay. But every time we tried to bargain (and we did tried a few stands) they were all starting with the same story, how it is hand made in this very village using only local material, which makes it extremely valuable. Sad enough it always had a huge “made in Thailand” label on it, but they would not admit the truth even when we pointed it out to them. They were honestly trying to explain to us, that they put the label on purpose, as they were planning to sell those extra valuable dresses to their neighbouring country as well. Yeah, right... They were willing to lower the prices afterwards, but we decided buying anything from someone who lies to us while looking us straight in the eyes is not something we would like to do if we could avoid it.

Already on our first day in town we have noticed a huge poster advertising a whole day elephant experience in a nearby village. Ever since our ride in Chiang Mai we could not get those animals out of our heads and we thought we have to do something about it. The trip was not exactly cheap, but also not more expensive than it would be in Thailand and we decided it's worth the risk. We were going to All Lao Elephant Camp to learn all the commands and try riding elephants on our own. We were both totally excited and could hardly wait till we get there. The camp was set in a beautiful surroundings, right on a river in the middle of a forest, which made it all even more amazing. Our group consisted only of four people (including us two), all wearing very professional elephant trainer outfits, so the atmosphere was great from the very beginning. And the animals were as marvelous as ever. But it was a totally different experience than the one we had before. This time we were really going through the forest, there was no wide flat path like the one we went through in Chiang Mai. Now we were going up and down the hill, between the trees, through streams and mud, which made it somehow feel a lot more real. I couldn't stop smiling through the entire ride, or at least until the moment where our guide suggested for me to change places with David and get on the elephant's neck. Those of you how know me well, will be able to imagine my panic reaction. I was totally horrified! But at the end that was what we paid for and I knew I would have to try it sooner or later, so I might just as well do it immediately. It was a bit hard at the beginning, but as soon as I found the right spot to sit on and relaxed a bit more I actually started enjoying it. In the end I absolutely loved it!

It was the second part though, which we were all waiting for. After lunch each of us got his own elephant to ride, guide and bath. It was just as awesome as I imagined it to be. Getting on and off the elephant was definitely the hardest part of the task, but since I was no longer deadly scared it all went quite smoothly. And my elephant, a fantastic girl named Ping Pong, was simply the sweetest creature I have ever met. She was moving so carefully and gently, that I hardly ever noticed us going up or down. I guess she noticed she has a total coward on top of her and decided not to make things worse for both of us. She was reacting to my commands too, which made me as proud and happy as ever. And the bath was the best part of it all. Going through a river on a back of a huge creature, which splashes you with water when you least expect it is definitely an unforgettable experience. The elephants seemed to enjoy it too, as they were playing like little children, making everyone wet. David's elephant decided not to waist his time on details and simply disappeared in the river with David on his back. Not even his trunk was sticking out, which left my husband looking as if he was sitting on the surface of the water. As we rode back through the jungle, all wet and smiling we felt happier than ever. We didn't want to part from our animals at all. And I can honestly say the trip was worth every cent we've paid for it.