Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Back in Phnom Penh

If you read Paul's first blog as an AYAD about dramas staying overnight at Bangkok airport, this will sound somewhat familiar. There were 7 of us flying from Sydney who had to stay overnight in Bankok before catching our flight to PP the next morning. The problems started at Sydney airport when some people checked their luggage to Bangkok and some to PP. I was asked at check in if I wanted my luggage to go to PP and said yes before opening my suitcase in the middle of the airport to fish out a spare pair of undies. We had been given vouchers for the airport hotel but no clear instructions about where the hotel was or what to do when we arrived. The people who had only checked their luggage to Bangkok obviously wanted to go to the baggage claim to avoid their bags going round and round all night before being blown up for being unaccompanied. The baggage claim is after immigration where they stamp your passport and then don't let you back in to the arrivals area where, we later found out, the hotel was. Since I was not concerned about bags, I went with Emma, another AYAD to find the hotel. The people at the reception very casually and clearly explained that once our friends had gone through immigration they could not come back and stay at the hotel. We ran back as fast as we could to immigration to stop the others spending the night on chairs in the waiting lounge. Too late. They had all had their passports stamped. Fortunately a very nice Thai immigration dude felt sorry for us and had their stamps cancelled and let them back through, after fishing through piles of immigration forms to retreive theirs. This debacle cost us an extra hour's sleep. The airport hotel, oddly named Louis Tavern Dayroom, was fine - or rather, would be fine if Bangkok airport had a curfew more like Sydney airport. We clearly heard every flight announcement until about 3am... I should have pulled my earplugs as well as undies from my suitcase.

So eventually I arrived back in Phnom Penh yesterday at the same time as the AYADs from Melbourne and Brisbane who didn't need to stay overnight anywhere. Jono was at the airport which was a great surprise. He originally planned to come to meet me but ended up with some jobs to do helping Hour (our in country manager) greet all the AYADs and make sure we all got on the bus. Some of the others told me later they were surprised when I got a kiss on the lips and they only got a welcome handshake. It's good to be back. Jono was also recruited to give us the city tour this morning which was very funny. We're off to check out houses to rent this arvo but that means me stepping out of the internet cafe into the rain without an umbrella - oops.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Rain, Rivers and Reading

Welcome to my belated blog about Laos... I am actually in Sydney at the moment for a short stay before heading back to Phnom Penh as an AYAD (Australian Youth Ambassador for Development) for another 12 months. So I'll be getting back to blogging about Cambodia again very soon.

First a few words about my travels in Laos. The title I chose, rain, rivers and reading is really representative of much of my 3 weeks in Laos. I would have included buddhas but it doesn't start with 'r'. (the photo is of the Buddha cave in Luang Prabang)

Starting at the beginning with the border crossing at Lao Bao. It was fortunate that Wina (my Quebecois travel buddy) and I got our Lao visas beforehand from Vietnam, although a bit more expensive, we got 1 month visas and you can only get 15 day visas at the border. Wina is going to find out what Canada did to piss off Laos because her visa was the most expensive of any country. Crossing the border involved a long walk in the rain where the path of least mud was in the middle of the road between the bumper to bumper stationary trucks waiting to cross into Vietnam. It felt like I was 'an illegal' trying to sneak across the border without being seen. Continuing the feeling of being smuggled across the border, we were bundled into a mini van, 4 people to a row (very squashy) for the trip to Savannaket. My poor backpack was strapped to the roof, keeping dry - sort of - by wearing my raincoat like a limbless, headless body.

After the craziness of touristy Vietnam, the south of Laos was blissfully quiet and devoid of travellers. It was so peaceful to walk around without being hassled to buy something or go somewhere or asked 'where you going?' - that was the most annoying.

After a quiet night in Savannaket watching an amazing sunset over the Mekong, nursing an obligatory Beer Lao, we headed further into the sleepy south. The pre-angkor temples of Wat Phu Champasak were as interesting and mystical as the guide books say but the most fun was the adventure to get there. After a complex array of sangthews (local buses), tuk tuks, boats and more tuk tuks we arrived in the tiny riverside town of Champasak. The next day we hired bicycles to ride the last 14kms to the temple ruins. The ride was along a very quiet dirt road surrounded by peaceful bright green rice fields. The only concern on the road was avoiding chickens, ducks, turkeys, cows, buffalos, dogs, cats and potholes. We also got caught in a massively huge downpour at the temple - which will happen when choose to travel in the wet season.

That afternoon we did the tuk tuk- boat - tuk tuk relay back to the 'main' road and hailed the first sangthew heading south. In we piled alongside the babies, chickens and bags and bags of corn. I don't really like the smell of so much cooked corn I've decided. Somehow we conveyed where we wanted to go ('si phan don' or 4 thousand islands) and arrived after dark - in the rain, of course. We were surprised to see so many foreigners there but then worked out it's where you would end up if you came across the border from Cambodia. We stayed a couple of nights there and did a day trip to see the Mekong dolphins and what was somewhat dodgily claimed to be the 'largest waterfall in SE Asia'. The dolphin viewing place was actually in Cambodia. I got to say thank you in Khmer to the 'policeman' who was selling drinks. We saw quite a few dolphins, but as in Kratie, no good photos... The waterfall was really a cascade. Sure there was a lot of water moving over some rocks but we saw it at the end of a long day - and it was pouring rain - so a brief glance and one quick snapshot sufficed.

Having ventured further south than the south of Lao, we travelled north to Pakse then hopped on the overnight bus from Pakse to Vientiane. The only seats left on the VIP bus were in the VIP room downstairs which had a tiny doorway you had to crouch down to fit through and a ceiling so low not even I could stand up. Inside was a giant U shaped lounge. It was a very odd way to travel and felt like a cross between a hobbit loungeroom and the Spice Girl's limo (apparently). However, it lacked any popstar ambiance as the Laotians quietly went to sleep sitting up and the travellers fought for room to lie down while Mr Bean played on the TV (marginly better than the usual bus entertainment of karaoke clips).

We spent a few really nice quiet days in Vientiane. It was great after 6 weeks of travelling to stay in a house and have cereal for breakfast (thank you Paul!). From Vientiane we kept journeying north to Vang Vieng, which is set in a spectacular landscape of rivers and mountains but spoilt by Friends. Friends the TV sitcom, which blares from every restaurant on the main street. We arrived on a very rainy afternoon and sat in one such restaurant for lunch. After about 3 episodes in a row I wanted to throw something at the television and at all the backpackers watching. Tubing down the river in old tractor tyres (which is the thing everyone does in VV - apart from watch Friends) the next morning was very relaxing. We swam into a cave which was fun but turned back when it got too dark and scary.

I decided I couldn't deal with another day of Friends so we booked the local bus to Luang Prabang that afternoon. We were told it was the bus from Vientiane and should stop in Vang Vieng. It didn't. After about 3 hours of waiting - in the rain - a mini van appeared to take the 3 of us going to LP. It was great - instead of the usual 4 to a row we had one each so could stretch out and sleep.

I've already written a bit about LP. I spent about a week there - a lot of the time in a great bookshop cafe called l'etranger, sheltering from the rain. When Wina and I parted in LP, I went in a boat 8 hours further north to Muang Ngoi. I ended up being the only passenger in my 20-seat boat and other boats of foreigners were joking as they went past that I must be special and giving my the royal wave. It was a bit lonely but I finished my first book of 4 in 4 days (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Eleven Minutes and The Fifth Mountain by Paulo Coelho and Bear v Shark - if you're interested...). Muang Ngoi was lovely and quiet and since I chose not to walk to the waterfall and get covered in mud and leeches, there was nothing else to do but lie in a hammock and read.

There seems to be a pattern of bus stories... my local bus from Nong Khiaw back to LP broke down. We spent 2 hours watching the driver bang wildly with a hammer at some part of the underside of the bus then another couple of hours waiting for another bus as apparently the banging didn't fix the problem. I was tired and starving by the time we reached LP. All I'd had to eat all day were 2 strange biscuits. One was salty with a chocolate centre and the other was sweet with seaweed on top.

As an appropriate end to my time in Laos, I spent 2 days on a boat on the Mekong from LP to the Thai border. I read another book in between watching the amazing scenery roll past. The jungle was so thick in parts it looked like a richly textured green blanket thrown over the trees.

I'll finish by sharing just a few of the amusing attempts at English we came across:

Above the toilet:
"Ladies, please don't throw your private papers in here" (I refrained from tossing my bank details into the toilet).

"Don't throw paper and napkins at the toilet"

In some menus:
fried sprigrolls
frurt shake
fried rice with cattle fish
boll eegs
meats with carry
samd wich
egg plant

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