Monthly Archives: August 2004

Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, and Home

After Vientiane, Jill and I took a bus five hours north to Vang Vieng, Laos, a scenic little resort town in the north of the country. It reminded me of northern Vietnam–limestone peaks and lush vegetaion crowding up against the Mekong River.

Our highlight (or lowlight?) for this portion of the trip was surely an ill-fated kayaking/trekking trip we took with a group of other tourists. The outfit was fly-by-night; they weren’t prepared to guide us along the Nam Song river, which had swolen due to overnight rains.

We put in–Jill and I in one kayak–and things went downhill fast. We ran into an overhanging thorn bush and then lost control of our vessel. We made our way to the riverbank and clung to some nearby trees; our kayak was long gong. Our guide went further downstream to rescue some similarly unlucky kayakers (and our abandoned ship) before returning to us and telling us to forget the rest of the river journey. We all got out and went to a nearby lodge to have lunch.

The day got worse from there. After lunch, Jill went to use the nearby outhouse and was stung on the ass by a centipede. Ever the trooper, she wasn’t too worried about her wound, but upon hearing about the sting, our guide, an old Laotian guy, insisted on applying a topical antibiotic directly to the affected area. (I’m quite certain he had no ulterior motives, and I monitored the application process to be sure.)

We continued with our tour–which involved more kayaking and some encounters, while trekking, with some quicksand-esque mud–and then returned to town content that we were still alive. (And, sadly, I discovered that the tour operators had lost my beloved University of South Carolina baseball cap, which I’ve had for nearly 10 tears and stupidly left in their truck after assurances that they’d look after it.) This folly-filled foray, mind you, didn’t cloud our feelings about Vang Vieng–it’s truly a beautiful place and I recommend a visit if you’re ever in the area.

We left the next day and bussed five more hours north to Luang Prabang, which is one of the most captivating cities I’ve ever visited. The gorgeous city center is situated on a peninsula between the Mekong and it’s tributary, the Kahn river; verdant hills cloister the city in a serene valley. A sense of calm pervades the place–young Buddhist monks in their saffron robes stroll down the streets; narrow longboats float by on the rivers; not much happens (like Vientiane, but more so). Luang Prabang’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and for good reason.

One afternoon, we took a taxi to the nearby Kuang Si falls. We hiked to the top and then swam in the wading pools near the bottom. Really quite beautiful. (Side note: On the way back, our taxi driver stopped at an overlook for us to snap some photos. A truck carrying some tourists had also stopped there, and I overheard an Asian tourist–perhaps from Japan–telling some British travelers that a couple years ago he’d visited Cambodia and had witnessed a German pay money to shoot a Cambodian for fun. He claimed the German had paid US $400 to pull the trigger, while he’d paid 100 to watch.)

After a few more days lazing about Luang Prabang, we took a flight back to Vientiane, where we stayed overnight. From there, we flew back here, to Taiwan, via Bangkok. It was, overall, a fabulous trip. I’m hoping to post photos here soon.

One final thing: the trip lasted three weeks; we were largely without TV and the Web, so we had lots of downtime. Here’s what I read; as I look back on the journey, these items occupy an important part of my memories of the trip:

“The Ultimate Good Luck,” an excellent novel by one of my favorite living writers, Richard Ford;
–The New Yorker Summer Fiction issue (I agree with Dana on Alice Munro’s three stories: “Enough with the steadfast midcentury Canadian matrons already”);
–A recent issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review, which had a special feature on knowledge management systems, which appealed to my techie side;
–The delightful novel “Life of Pi,” by Jann Martel;
–One half of Michael Crichton’s memoir/travelogue compendium, “Travels” (Why only half? Because let’s just say this: Mike should stick to fiction);
–One half of the incomparable Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” which is sort of a hard sciences-version of Jared Diamond’s brilliant “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” (Why only half? Because it’s really really long, and I’m still working on it.)

On to Laos

After Angkor Wat, we took a flight from Phnom Penh to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Vientiane’s a sleepy city spread along the banks of the Mekong river. Not much happens there. And that was a nice reprieve from the din of Phnom Penh and the overwhelming sensory onslaught of Siem Reap.

We spent our afternoons (and evenings) sipping the excellent local brew, Beer Lao, and watching the city go by. And that’s about it. Three days of not much of anything. It was perfect. The only major sight-seeing excursion we took was to the quirky Lao Revolutionary Museum. It contains a look at the history of the country, but sadly, the whole building–including the exhibits, most of which are dusty and crumbling–is in a state of advanced disrepair.

Angkor Wat

After a few days in Phnom Penh, we took the bus 5 hours north to Siem Reap, the town closest to Angkor Wat. We purchased 3-day passes and set about exploring the ruins. They’re absolutely incredible.

Though the area is collectively referred to as Angkor Wat, that name actually describes just one of the temple complexes. Other notable ruins, often miles and miles apart from one another, are Bayon and Ta Prohm. The temples, taken together, represent the remains of the Khmer empire, which lasted from the 9th to the 12th century. Angkor Wat is called the “largest religious complex in the world”; the temples are old and decaying and yet, in their own mysterious way, still seem alive. (“Tomb Raider,” starring Angelina Jolie, was filmed there. Indeed, the place seems like it’d be the ideal location for an “Indiana Jones” film.) Photos, as is so often the case, don’t adequately convey the experience of seeing the place in person.

For me, the two most incredible aspects of the area are:

1) The fact that you can walk in and through and on the temples; you can touch the intricate carvings made hundreds of years ago, and if you wanted, you could even pick up and walk away with some of the many crumbling stones that litter the site.

2) The beauty of these ancient temples stands in stark relief to the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime, which only expired a little over 20 years ago. My journal entries from our time in Cambodia, in abridged format, read something like this: “Phnom Penh/killing fields: blood and guts and teeth and bones and depravity. Angkor Wat: grand achievement and sublimity.” These two stretches of Cambodian history represent the two extremes of human accomplishment.

One More Image from Phnom Penh

Here’s one more indelible image I took away from Phom Penh. I forgot to mention this in my last post.

I saw four women crammed onto the seat of a small scooter careening down the main riverside boulevard–not an unusual sight in itself, since people here in Asia tend to treat scooters as family vehicles.

But this scene was a little different. One of the women was holding aloft an IV bag for her friend, a lady sitting in front of her who had some sort of drip going and looked green about the gills. I suppose they were headed for the hospital. (Or maybe the woman just needed some hydration.)

Next Stop: Phnom Penh

Gary Glitter, the British pop star who had a couple hits in the 70’s, was convicted of kiddie porn offenses in England several years ago. So he fled to Phenm Penh, Cambodia. It’s no wonder: the Southeast Asian kingdom has a reputation for being soft on sex tourists. Jill and I spent four days in the Cambodian capital and I can tell you this: that reputation is well-deserved.

Prostitution permeates the city. It’s a relatively pretty place, with French architecture and a tree-lined waterfront strip. But sex workers are everywhere. I saw numerous white men in their 30’s or 40’s strolling around with Cambodians–both men and women–in their teens and early 20’s. I even saw a guy who looked to be about 30 get on a motorycle and drive away with a Cambodian girl who was, at most, 13 years old. Hookers and johns are everywhere, and the cops don’t care.

Beyond the prevalence of the skin trade, my other lasting impression of Phnom Pehn is the complete insanity of the Khmer Rouge regime. Jill and I visited the Choeng Ek Memorial Killing Fields outside the city, an extermination camp where over 8,000 skulls are on display. We walked around the mass graves and the horror was palpable–we stepped on and around and over bones caked in the dirt, teeth strewn about the path, and the vicitms’ clothes, which still litter the ground.

The Khmer Rouge’s murderous Pol Pot, in an insane attempt to transform Cambodia into an agrarian society, abolished schools and set about exterminating intellectuals, ethinc minorities, and gays. The madness lasted from 1975-1979, and some 1.7 million people–about a fifth of the country’s population–was murdered. But visiting the killing fields, in its state of unreconstructed disorder, gives the impression that the genocide only concluded a few years ago.

We also made our way to the gloomy S-21 prison, where captives were held and tortured before being sent to the killing field. Sadness and depravity on a monumental scale. For more on traveling in Cambodia, see John Collins’s “Welcome to Khmer Rouge Land!”

One Night in Bangkok

I only have time over the coming days to tell you about our just-concluded Southeast Asian sojourn in bits and pieces. So consider this post the first installment.

Jill and I spent the first night of the trip in Bangkok. (Yes, “One Night in Bangkok,” as the song goes.) We had a layover there before catching a flight early the next morning to Cambodia.

So on the recommendation of my brother, who lived in Bangkok for three years, we had dinner–a fabulous Thai feast–at an outdoor food stall near the Victory Monument Skytrain stop. After that, we headed to the adjacent Saxophone Pub and Restaurant for some live music and local oat sodas. It was a great evening.

People love to say bad things about Bangkok, but this was my third visit to the city, and I really think it’s a fascinating place. Dirty and hot and gritty, yes, but also dynamic and pulsing with international flavors.