Monthly Archives: May 2014

Phnom Penh, 27/05/14

I have mixed feelings about Laos.
It is the most beautiful of the S.E. Asian countries I’ve been to so far. It’s green and jungly and craggy. There are waterfalls

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and graceful temples

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On the other hand, it can be difficult to travel around because of misinformation. I was not able to experience all I would have wished because I made a decision not to make motorcycle trips of any length. I have seen too many people with very nasty grazes, strapped up feet and arms, etc. and did not want to risk an accident on my own where no-one spoke English. The cost of taking tours for a single person from inside the country is prohibitive.Perhaps I should have organised a tour while I was in the U.K.

Anyway, I am now in Cambodia.

I spent a couple of days in Don Det, one of the “Four Thousand Islands” in the South of Laos.

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While I was there I went kayaking and was lucky enough to see two of the Irrawaddy Dolphins. They were a long way off, but it was a delight to see them breaking the surface of the water.
From there it took a boat, a minibus, a two hour border wait, another minibus, a ferry and four or five hours in the minibus again to get to Siem Reap in Cambodia.
I had a great time in Siem Reap. I stayed in a very friendly, very clean hostel by the Art Night Market. To see Angkor Wat and the the other temples around, I bought a three-day ticket.

It’s difficult to do justice to this sight, by pictures or by description. Angkor Wat is the largest and probably the most complete. There are large bas-reliefs running around all four sides.

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This shows Vishnu, (who is also the turtle seen at the bottom of the carving), with demons on the left and gods on the right churning the Ocean of Milk by holding a tug of war with a Naga or giant snake. After a thousand years, this led to the creation of the universe.

I particularly liked Bayon, which stands in Angkor Thom, because of the smiles on the gigantic heads which look out at all four points of the compass.

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Then there is Ta Prohm, the “Tomb Raider” site. It has a very different atmosphere in sunlight, as nature takes over and runs rampant.

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The temples exalt in repetition, covering every surface in mythological beings and filling shrines with Buddhas. There are hundreds of stairs to negotiate and stones tumbled all around. I think myself very privileged to have seen all this.

In contrast, I went with a small group of friends to Phare Circus. This is a project to help vulnerable young people and the performances include acrobatics, dance, music, stories and humour. The participants were obviously enjoying themselves, hamming it up and fooling around. Everyone had a good time and I can thoroughly recommend it.

More on my experiences in Cambodia to follow, as once again the WiFi connection is poor. On re-reading some of my blogs I realise they could do with better editing, but it is often a case of just writing them and getting them out as quickly as I can. I must now go and organise my next bus ride.

Pakse, Thursday 15/05/14

I thought it would be good to see some of the country around Luang Prabang, so I went to arrange a trip. Unfortunately the visit to a local waterfall I wanted was unavailable, but I was offered a day hike to two of the hill tribe villages, as there was someone else who wanted to do this, (minimum two people). I met Anthony, a young French tree-surgeon, we agreed to go the next day and handed over the money.
Unfortunately it started to rain about half-an- hour later and continued all through the night.
When we met up with the guide, Joy, the following morning, it was still raining slightly and it was obviously going to be muddy.
However, the small print had said the trek would take place “rain or shine” so we set off in the minivan. About 30-40 minutes later we stopped to cross a river in a longtail boat and then the three of us set off.
It’s quite a long story for an eight hour trek of eighteen kilometres.
Chapters would be;

Feet of Clay
Trying to walk uphill with about a kilo of red sticky mud weighing you down

Fights with Centipedes
We came across two large centipedes, which normally one would avoid as they are toxic. However, our guide wanted to capture them alive. I thought this was to put them into whisky, which they do, along with things like scorpions and snakes, but he said something about his uncle being a doctor, so maybe there was another reason. Their capture involved trying to hold them down using two bamboo sticks, but not so hard as to harm them, then persuade the head end into an empty water bottle. They were both over six inches long, and the second one was very fierce and kept biting the neck of the plastic bottle. You could hear the crunch.

The Path of Leeches
Having got about two-thirds of the way uphill, our guide suddenly became hysterical and started beating at his legs and feet. He shouted out that there were leeches. As we had not gone through water and my companion thought he was talking about lychees, at first we were both a bit bemused. Joy tore off his socks and shoes, told us to look for leeches and to run through this sodden pathway. At first I couldn’t see what he meant, but then I saw masses of these long thin creatures on the path, standing on end and looping over our legs to attach themselves to us. When we were on drier, clearer ground we would have to stop and brush or prise them off. I was wearing trekking sandals, so they would get in between my toes. You had to try to kill them when you got them off or they would just loop their way back onto you.

Storm in the Mountains
After lunch, the thunder and lightening started and we found ourselves in torrential rain under a dark sky.

The Stream of Butterflies
We were coming down the mountain and the water was gushing down the path. There was thick forest on either side, so we just had to walk in the newly-formed stream. For some reason, loads of insects came out in the rain, including butterflies.

The (Almost) Deserted Village
When we reached the Hmong village, the rain finally eased off, though I was completely sodden. We hoped to meet the people, but saw only chickens and a calf. From inside a house we heard a young child who had been left behind while the others were “working in the fields” (?) according to Joy.

The Singing Stones
Three large rocks balanced against one another. When struck with a bamboo stick they each chimed out a different note.

The Slippery Rocks
Carrying on down, the pathway now became very rocky. My feet and sandals were still wet and muddy, so I had to take it very gingerly, leaning on my bamboo stick, so as not to fall and hurt myself. Joy had placed a leaf on a fallen tree-trunk that already had a pile of these offerings, in order to ward of the evil spirits which could cause such an accident.

The Inflatable Lizard
Most of the lizards we met would just run off as fast as they could. One, however, leapt onto a rock, stretched his legs and blew out his chest. Obviously this is a strategy to make himself as fearsome as possible. (He was quite small really).
It took some time and some prodding before he gave up trying to intimidate us and scurried away.

Television Man (and Woman)
We also didn’t get to socialise in the next village we came to, as they were all inside their bamboo huts watching TV.

Not Again
At the bottom of the hills we had to cross several streams. More leeches were waiting for us on the banks. More running and tearing them off us.

The Aftermath
We got back to the river in good time, in spite of our escapades. After the return journey and a quick drink with Anthony, I returned to my guest house for a shower and change of clothes. There I discovered that two leeches had travelled further up my legs than I had supposed and that I had only narrowly escaped a “Stand By Me” scenario, for those of you acquainted with the film. Fortunately leeches fall off when sated, but I had lost a fair bit of blood. Then I discovered another leech on the outside of my trousers. I grabbed some toilet paper and quickly threw it in the pan and flushed it down. I carried on rinsing my clothes and getting ready to shower, when five minutes later it came looping back out under the toilet seat. More toilet paper, several flushes and water-spray later, I was finally at the end of my ordeal

I hope you have enjoyed my tale. My advice to you would be not to go “trekking” in South-East Asia in the rainy season.

I wasn’t able to take many pictures, but here is an impression

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Green means Go

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Went up a hill, came down a mountain.

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Did you see Corrie yesterday?

Cheerio!

Vientiane, Sunday 11/05/14

I took the night train, (non-sleeper), from Bangkok to Vientiane and crossed over the “Friendship Bridge” from Thailand, across the Mekong, to Laos on 1st May.
Vientiane still has some French aspects; broad avenues, croissants and baguettes, wine. I went to the night market, which has cheap things for the locals as well as tourist trinkets.
With a small group from the hostel, I checked out the Buddha Park, which is a sort of religious theme park, started by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat in 1958.
It contains, amongst many other things, the giant pumpkin

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You go in through the open mouth and ascend, via some steep and spooky stairways, from hell to heaven.

There are some very bizarre figures, including, it seems, the angry diva –

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Best of all, I went with two friends to a “Vocational Training Center for Women”. We watched them hand weaving some of the very elaborate borders to their costumes, had a go at simple weaving ourselves and tried out some tie-dye patterns using natural dyes. The patterns can be made by folding, tying and by strapping between bamboo sticks.

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Mine is the one at the bottom

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Mine is the one on the right, in typical indigo for Lao costumes.
I feel quite smug when I’m wearing it and see others bargaining for this stuff in the shops and markets.

Then I took a minibus to Luang Prabang, where I have spent the last week. It would be difficult not to love LP. It has temples

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and the street market,(where the ladies sit on mats or little platforms, with their babies, and eat their dinner).

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It has the Mekong River

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and quant little side streets

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I crossed the bamboo bridge

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and watched the sunset from the stupa on the hill

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I went to the museum, the Traditional
Arts and Ethnicity Centre and bookshops and hung out in caf├ęs and restaurants and generally had an enjoyable time.
Then I went on a “trek” to two of the hill villages – which was a big mistake!
More about that in my next post, as the WiFi keeps cutting out.

Yangon, Monday 28/04/14

I shall be sorry to leave Myanmar.
The people here are beautiful, they love to laugh and sing and they have been most generous and helpful.

As arranged, I took the train from Yangon to Mandalay, ( which cost less than six pounds, not three as I said before). It took all day and was very hot and dusty, because of the season, but reminded me of taking British Rail trains in the 60s and early 70s, with all the rocking and clacking. Along the way I had time to contemplate the bamboo houses on stilts, the ox-drawn hay carts, the white cows and the people in conical hats. This way of life has not changed much in centuries, but I wonder what will happen in the next few decades.

At Mandalay I went to see the largest book in the world – Buddhist scriptures
written on1774 marble slabs, all but three of which stand in their own white stupa.

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Page one

Then there was Shwenandaw monastery, which is the only teak-built structure to have survived the bombings during the Second World War.

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Last of all, I went to visit Mahamuni Pagoda, in which is supposed to be a statue of the Buddha made during his lifetime. Unfortunately, women are not allowed to touch the figure, nor are they in Shwenandaw, nor in numerous temples throughout Myanmar. I am disappointed by this, because in many ways women demonstrate their importance in Myanmar life. They often work outside the home and their relationships with men are affectionate and demonstrative. The queen even shared the Lion Throne with the king.

I took the last boat down the Ayayarwady River to Bagan. I was very lucky, as the water level now is so low it will not run again until the monsoon rains come. At every turn there was something new to see and once again I got caught up in the romance of the scene.

Bagan is the site of thousands of pagodas . Some of them have ended up on traffic islands and many of them were damaged or destroyed in the 1975 earthquake. I took a horse-drawn cart to see round “Old Bagan” and the most impressive temples. I’m afraid I cannot distinguish the particular pagodas, though they are of great architectural importance, but the sheer number and diversity of them is overwhelming.

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Myanmar Buddhas are often very smiley, and there were a couple I was particularly taken with –

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So fresh and so clean

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“I feel good”.

Temperatures in Bagan rose to 42/43 degrees in the afternoons, so everyone just slept on the floor. I stayed in my air-conditioned room and later wandered out to watch the sunset through the haze, while children and monks bathed in the river.

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Finally went to Inle Lake. There are luxury hotels around, but there are people actually living in the “floating village”.

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There is a “floating garden”,(tomatoes and cucumbers grown on mud fields in the lake), “one-legged fishermen, (standing on one leg and rowing with the other), and craft workshops. My favourite was the weavers of silk, cotton and lotus, (not to be confused with water lilies). This last is the most expensive, as it is so fine and you only get a little from each plant.

I didn’t manage to do all the things I’d hoped, because of the long holiday over the water festival, problems with getting around and high cost. However, I did visit the National Museum in Yangon, which is a storehouse of treasures, especially the Lion Throne and the Crayfish pitcher. I also admired the decor in a few stylish restaurants –

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