Kindness of Strangers

i crossed into Thailand Sunday.  I did not realize when I decided to do this that this is a corner of Thailand which rarely sees a tourist.  There is really nothing of any major significance to see here, neither man made features nor any natural phenomenon.  There is little information; I have some very brief description in the Lonely Planet and that is all.  There is more English signs than Laos or Cambodia but not a lot of people speak English; and my Thai certainly does not exist. However, an English speaker is always found to sort out my want/need when needed and sort out my dilemma.

My first challenge was to change money.  There are often free market money changers at a lot of these border crossings.  However, on that Sunday, there was no one.  I got picked up by a tuck-tuck driver at Nakhon Phanom bus station who spoke some English.  The first thing he did was to ask everyone, bus drivers and passengers.  He then proceeded to drive me all around town to find a bank/money changers that is open with no luck.  He asked everyone he knew until he found a bank that is open in a mall.  He waited while the transaction was done and then delivered to my hotel.  Yes, he did charge me a whole $8 but I am not complaining.

Next day, I was in transit.  I accidentally left my Lonely Planet in a tuck-tuck.  By the time I realize that, he has left.  Now, it is not as traumatic with all the information available on the web but … still … Anyways, behold, he found me before my bus departed to return my book.  That was so nice of him.

I enjoyed my 3 days away from the tourists and my interactions with real Thai’s.  All good things must come to an end.  I am heading for Bangkok tomorrow for my flight back home Thursday.  May peace be with you.

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Konglor Cave

Yes, this is the reason for the journey to this remote corner of Laos.

Yes, this is the reason for the journey to this remote corner of Laos.

And it is another 3 hour drive to get here and another 3 for the return trip.  As it turns out, getting there was not a problem.  I found an organized trip already departing and I decided last minute to join a Dutch couple for the day.  Part of the trip included a hike to a waterfall which was no big deal except nice to see some tropical forest.

The Konglor Cave is a natural 7.5 km long natural cave through a mountain and there is a river flowing through it.  The setting, as you can see, is incredibly beautiful. One would hire a long tail boat with a driver to make it to the other side and return.  The trip took about an hour each way and navigation light is only with headlamps.

The boats were carved out of a single tree.  The propeller is tilted so it is just below the surface.

The boats were carved out of a single tree. The propeller is tilted so it is just below the surface.

There was a stop part way to admire some lit cave formations.

There was a stop part way to admire some lit cave formations.

This river, like any river has curves, sand bars, rocks in the middle, and rapids.  In addition, for this particular section, the boatman has to also remember the overhanging rocks.  I was really impressed when our boatman paddled down a little R2 to R3 rapid with only headlamps for light.  Also remember that these boats are heavy and built for stability and not for ease of manouver.

The Local (aka Chicken) Bus

It all started by trying to get to my destination, Tha Khaek, during day light hours.  For some unexplained reason, all the tour agents in Vientiane will only sell 3 departures and only one can do it.  Unfortunately, that one was not the air conditioned, assigned-seat VIP bus.  After much debate, I decided to go for the chicken bus, although no chicken was sighted.

As bus trip goes, it was okay.  The road was good and the bus driver drove at a reasonable speed and only passed when safe.  We even arrived on time.  Everyone has a seat but that means kids sat on parents’ lap and late comers get a plastic stool in the aisle.  There was no lunch stop to slurp down a bowl of noodle.  Food peddlers came onboard to sell stuff and hop off a few km down the road.  One of the pee break was watering the field.  Oh, open windows and fans provided air con.  No one smoked in the bus.

It is impressive how much they can load onto the bus

It is impressive how much they can load onto the bus

I did not arrive early enough to watch all that went on top.  Notice the motorcycle strapped to the back.  There is another one tied down just inside the front door.  The tall box on top is a washing machine.  I don’t know how that got up there but 2 young men got it down.  My bag?  It was perched on top on the front door pile and it was still there at the end of the trip.

By now, you are all questioning my sanity.  Why bother with all the troubles to go to a corner of Laos that no one has ever heard of?  You see, there is this cave with a river flowing through it and one need to hire a motorized boat to do it.  Getting there will be the next challenge.  Stay tuned.

Vientiane, Laos

Vientiane is the capital and the big city in Laos, with a population of about 1/4 million people.  It is a quirky city.  It does not have a lot of sights.  That means time to explore.  I found sunset aerobic classes along the Mekong River.  They also close part of a busy road beside the river.  It is good to see people of all ages walking, running, and socializing.

Vientiane is what I would call Paris-want-to-be.  It does have buildings left from French Colonial days but it also has an Arch de Triumph with a wide avenue separating it and the presidential palace.  It also has an elaborate fountaine all lit up at night; reminded me of the fountain in Versailles, except instead of Apollo with a team of horses, it is a whole bunch of Nagas (mythical snake figure in Hindu mythology).  Except to these Chinese eyes, they look like Chinese dragons.  All rather pretentious.

Laotian Arch de Triumph.  It even has a traffic circle around it.

Laotian Arch de Triumph. It even has a traffic circle around it.

Presidential Palace at the other end the grand avenue.

Presidential Palace at the other end the grand avenue.

The fountain of squirting Nagas, with impressively wide open public spaces.  Good to see kids taking full advantages by playing badminton.

The fountain of squirting Nagas, with impressively wide open public spaces. Good to see kids taking full advantages by playing badminton.

 

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang is peace and tranquility compared to the frentic pace of Cambodia. Yes, there are still tourists around but the number is much more manageable.  The pressure to buy and buy more just is not there.  It is a good place to take a deep breath and watch the monks go by.

The entire city of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site due to the large number of Buddhist temples within a very small areas.  Laotians are devoute Buddhist and every male must spend some time in a monastery as part of his education.  There is a tradition of alms giving that happens every day at day break; 5:30 AM to be precise.  It has become quit the tourist activity.  However, I must say that this morning was the only time on this trip that an entire Chinese group stayed very quiet for the whole event; and there was none of the “me and the monk” photo.

I was impressed with all the tourists; the were all gussied up at 5:30. I barely crawled out of bed. I would have missed the event if my guest house was not straight across the street.

I was impressed with all the tourists; the were all gussied up at 5:30. I barely crawled out of bed. I would have missed the event if my guest house was not straight across the street.

This is guest house number 2. The first one was pricey at $35. This one has all the requirement, air con and wifi, plus a balcony, for $20 per night.

This is guest house number 2. The first one was pricey at $35. This one has all the requirement, air con and wifi, plus a balcony, for $20 per night.

On of the many temples in Luang Prabang. Please don't arks me high one.

On of the many temples in Luang Prabang. Please don’t arks me high one.

Every day life along the Mekong River.

Every day life along the Mekong River.

Temples of Angkor 2 – after Americans elected Trump

I am writing this 3 hours after listening to Donald Trump’s acceptance speech.  Maybe I should consider staying in Cambodia as things are just much cheaper here.  I will need to economize after the stock market crash in another 3 hours. As an example, I just pick my laundry.  It costed me $1 for 1 kg and my t-shirts were lovingly ironed for that price.

 

I did spend more time in Angkor.  I actually visited Angkor Wat today.  I was fortunate to be there relatively early and the crowd was not too bad, by Angkor Wat standard.  You can all Google Angkor Wat and see much better photo than I took.  What I like are ruins that are ruined.  I like walls at impossible angles which end in piles of rubles.  I like to see Mother Nature overtaking men’s best efforts.  I like surprises; “oh, I did not know that exists” .  I had a lot of that today.

This is from Temple of Ta Som.  The faces are not new but probably of a different King.  But I love the vegetation take roots.

This is from Temple of Ta Som. The faces are not new but probably of a different King. But I love the vegetation take roots.

This is also from Ta Som.  Mother Nature doing her best work.

This is also from Ta Som. Mother Nature doing her best work.

This is, surprise, Elephant Terrace.  I love the quirkiness.

This is, surprise, Elephant Terrace. I love the quirkiness.

I saw this a couple of days ago.  It is part of a lintel. All I can say is "wow".

I saw this a couple of days ago. It is part of a lintel. All I can say is “wow”.

oh, I just wants to say a little about Angkor history.  It is a huge temple complex built between 9th and 14th century.  It started as Hindu temples but was converted to Buddhism toward the end of that time.  That is the reason of so much Hindu motifs.  Modern day Cambodian Buddhist temples tend to have lots colorful Hindu characters and symbols.  Back in angkorian time, only the gods live in stone structures.  Rest of the mortals, including the king, would live in wood houses which have long decomposed.  It was estimated that at the height of its power, the Angkor area had a population of a million.

That is all from Cambodia.  I am flying to Luang Prabang tomorrow.  I am now going to spend the last of my Cambodian currency.

Temples of Angkor

the name Angkor refers to an enormous archeologist park and it is the name of a specific temple complex.  I have not got to the actual Angkor Wat yet but the place is certainly impressive.  It is the biggest religious complex in the world with Hinduism and Buddhism as the two representative religions.  It has been compared to Machu Pichu but it reminds me of of Tikal, Guatemala; ancient buildings emerge from the forest.  Some of the structures have been restored but there is so much more in the jungle.  However, the precision and beauty of the carving compares with Egypt or India.

Ta Prohm is the first complex I visited.  The power of nature is evident here.  The giants of the rainforest are putting down roots here.  I would say that the roots are winning.  I am sure that it is a challenge for the archeologists; many buildings will fall apart if the roots are removed.

The power of nature in Ta Prohm. Indiana Jones would feel at home here except for the swam of tourists.

The power of nature in Ta Prohm. Indiana Jones would feel at home here except for the swam of tourists.

Bayon is famous of these enormous cold smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara.  My Lonely Planet says that there are 216 of these faces but I did not count.

The smiling visage of Bayon.

The smiling visage of Bayon.

I am amazed by the bars-relives carving of Bayon.  The exterior walls of the building is covered by these long panels of everyday life from 12th century Cambodia.  I am amazed that Mother Nature did not do more damage.

The outer walls of Bayon are covered in fine sandstone images.  The style is similar of those in India and Nepal.

The outer walls of Bayon are covered in fine sandstone images. The style is similar of those in India and Nepal.

More from Angkor Wat shortly.

Food, Glorious Food 2

Food in Cambodia has been great.  I am sure that there is a Cambodian cuisine but I am finding far more Chinese and Vietnamese.  In Phnom Penh, the capital, there are many relatively fancy restaurants (air con and fancy decors) where my hotel was.  In Battambang, it is mostly very simple, hole in the wall restaurants or street food.  Let’s just say that I have not worked up my courage or my stomach to try the street food, yet.  Maybe another couple of days.  That and be a passenger on a motorcycle.

The tropical fruits are, just wonderful.  There are the ones I recognize and a few I don’t.  I have to enlist the help of my sister-in-law, who was born in Malaysia to find out what they are and how to eat them.  I already had dragon fruit, Logan, mango, and coconut juice.  I got a ripe papya ready to be consumed.

Yes, they are all real but sideways.  The wifi was slow enough that I cannot flip it.

Yes, they are all real but sideways. The wifi was slow enough that I cannot flip it.

Phnom Penh, the Pretty Part

I went and visited the National Museum and the Royal Palace, definitely prettier and more pleasant than S21.  They are located on spacious grounds beside Mekong River.

 

First, I will admit that I knew little about Cambodia history and culture until today.  It does date back about 2000 years.  It was strongly influenced by India. Both Hinduism and Buddhism came from India.  I don’t think that Hinduism is practiced much today but Buddhism is certainly the main religion.  A lot of the culture artifacts and religious art are very similar to those of India and Nepal.  The other fact is that the building style is known as Khmer which is very similar to the Thai style.  This is probably due to the fact that at one point in history, Thailand invaded and took back Khmer artisans, dancers, and intellectuals.  The Royal Palace Bangkok is very similar to the one in Phnom Penh.  They both have a jade Buddha; the one in Phnom Penh does not get new cloth with the changing of the season.

The National Museum houses a large collection of Buddhas. I love the serene expression.  I would consider taking one home if this was not the beginning of my trip.

The National Museum houses a large collection of Buddhas. I love the serene expression. I would consider taking one home if this was not the beginning of my trip.

The architecture of the Royal Palace is similar to its counterpart in Bangkok.

The architecture of the Royal Palace is similar to its counterpart in Bangkok.

The grey conical building is similar to many I have seen in both India and Nepal

The grey conical building is similar to many I have seen in both India and Nepal

I will admit that I had enough of big cities after Taipei and Phnom Penh. I am heading for Battambang tomorrow.  Yes, it is another city but hopefully not as hectic.

Phnom Penh

i flew into Phnom Penh this morning and the changes can be described as dramatic.  The weather in Taiwan was raining but otherwise pleasant.  Phnom Penh was just hot and humid.  Taiwan is clean and the drivers obeying traffic signals.  Phnom Penh is a massive construction zone with bad roads and what traffic rules?  More about it later.

 

I do do want to talk about numbers.  I do have problems with wrapping my minds around certain currencies.  It is normally when large numbers are involved.  In this case, there are about 4000 riels in 1 USD.  All the prices are quoted in dollars.  The price is normally quoted in USD and any changes are made in a combination of both currencies.  I am sure that I will get used to it, eventually.

 

My first foray into Cambodia was the genocid museum, a dark chapter in Cambodia history.  Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge in the 70’s for a little over 3 years.  In that short period, they killed an estimated 1.7 people In an attempt to convert the society into an utopia dominated by peasants.  Security Prison 21 was originally a high school that was converted into a massive torture center.  The contrast between a leafy central court yard and converted prisons was ironic; it is the contrast between youth and learning and worst of human depravation and death.  It was really hard to stomach.  I think I will give the actual execution site a miss.  I don’t think I need it to enhance my knowledge any further.

Prisoners are shackled to bed and tortured. They found a tortured body when the site was liberated, as seen with the picture on the wall.

Prisoners are shackled to bed and tortured. They found a tortured body when the site was liberated, as seen with the picture on the wall.

I think I shall go and admire some beautiful buildings (the Royal palace) and Khmer culture tomorrow