My new (miraculously NON-food-related!) obsession

Not only Roman’s cold, but now pouring rain is keeping us from the Angkor temples – another perfect day for catching up on the blog and researching our next stop: Vietnam. 🙂

Here’s a post on something that’s become a bit of an obsession for me: Sarongs!

Most people associate sarongs with flowy, light-weight beach wear – a quick google search shows the same tendency. http://hubpages.com/hub/How-to-Wrap-a-Sarong

This is not the sort of sarong I am talking about. My obsession is with the traditional cotton wrap skirt that we’ve encountered all through Asia.

My obsession started in Myanmar, where this type of clothing is called a longyi, and both women AND men where it, albeit in different styles. With a little encouragement from my friend Ohmar, I started to learn how it was worn, and even bought an inexpensive acrylic version from the market in Bahmo. I couldn’t stop worrying about my technique though and was constantly nervous that the skirt, secured only by my inexperienced wrapping and tucking, would fall down at any second. After a couple of self-conscious wearings, I gave up and shipped it home.

My mother loves to quilt and I love to shop for exotic materials for her while I’m here in Asia. A couple of months after Myanmar, I was with my friends Juelle and Donovan at the weekly market in Ban Krud when some gorgeous cotton material caught my eye. I picked up one purple and one orange bit for my mom, only to discover when I got back to the hotel that they’d already been sewn up: the ends of the rectangular material are sewn together to create a tube of cloth forming a longyi or, as it’s known in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, a sarong! Always eager to play dress up with local fashion, I couldn’t help myself – I tried one on and this time it stuck. My wrapping technique still wasn’t great but the material was too pretty to be ignored. I kept one for myself and felt like a tropical goddess wearing it around, despite my fears of coming unwrapped! 🙂

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My second sarong/longyi purchase and the one that really started it all

This was the beginning of the obsession! The gorgeous colors and patterns draw me in; despite the fact that I am probably ending up with far more sarongs than I will every possibly need, still I have to pick up at least one in every country we visit. I’ve been practicing loads and am no longer scared of the skirt falling off while I’m walking around. 🙂 (It does happen sometimes that it starts to get loose – then I just do like the locals and re-adjust and fasten where ever I happen to be.)

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The sarong I picked up in Laos

Here in Cambodia, I bought an unfinished bit of material, and the friendly seamstress who sewed it up for me gave me some more pointers on how the locals work their wrap – check the photographic step by step guide below. 🙂

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My latest purchase from Battambang, Cambodia

As much as I love the sarongs for comfort and fashion reasons, the best thing about them is quite possibly the reaction they get from locals. They’re beautiful and make great souvenirs in my opinion yet I never see other Westerners wearing them, and from folks’ reactions, neither do they. Walking around in one inevitably draws stares, smiles, laughter and friendly comments.

In Ko Lanta I got thumbs up from local women, in Kratie I got a kick out of the old man who, after I was pointed out to him by a friend, emphatically exclaimed “Oh my God!”. Here in Siem Reap, a friendly young woman in a store I was shopping with told me how she loves to wear sarongs at home even though her mother makes fun of her for it (while people almost exclusively wear them in Myanmar and lots of women in Laos wear them, it’s much less common to see sarongs here in Cambodia, especially in younger people and less rural areas), and said it made her very happy to see me in one. 🙂

How to wear a sarong – the southeast Asia way

I’m sure there is a more accurate/articulate way to explain this but hopefully it makes some sense. As with most things, I’m finding practice makes perfect! 🙂

The ends of the sarong material are sewn together to create a tube:

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The sarongs I’ve bought are really long (and while I’m short, most Cambodian women we’ve met are even shorter!). I asked the seamstress if she could hem it for me but she said that’s not done. Instead, you can adjust the sarong by folding the top of the material until it’s at your desired length.

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Pull the sarong strongly to one side. Hold the material to your hip to create a crease, pulling the extra material strongly away from your body.

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Keeping the material secure at your hip with your hand, fold and wrap the extra material tightly around the front of your legs.

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Pull the top corner of the extra cloth out and up, against the inner layer of cloth.

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Tuck the upper corner of the outer cloth into the skirt. This is usually where locals stop; I like to tuck down the edges of the skirt for extra security! 🙂

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The finished product! Typically the women I’ve seen wear the sarong with their shirt tucked into it, as in the photo.

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Looking back on Laos

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A design in concrete made of Beerlao bottlecaps

Compare and contrast

We’ve been in Cambodia for nearly two weeks now. There’s still lots to see and absorb in this country and we’re still getting a feel for the culture, food, people etc. Coming from Laos, comparisons and analysis of this “new” country gives us lots of food for thought. Roman and I spend time chatting about it pretty much every day.

The backdrop of Cambodia throws into relief not only many of the experiences we had in Laos but the overall energy and atmosphere of that gentle country.

It may not have the obvious wow factor of its neighbors – no coastline to speak of, unlike Thailand with it’s idyllic beaches, no ruins as world-renowned as Cambodia’s, few pagodas as ancient and spectacular as Myanmar’s.

Wholehearted

For Roman and I, the great treasure of Laos is its people. The genuine welcome we received there as well as the laid back, easy-going vibe made our time there so special.

This is going to sound cheesy but I’ll write it anyhow. The slogan of the country’s infamous Beerlao (quite possibly the country’s second national treasure!! 😉 None of the Cambodian beer I’ve tried so far can compete.) is “Beer of the wholehearted people”. I don’t know if all Laotians consider the nation’s beer to be their drink of choice, but certainly most of the people we met in Laos were whole, warm and open-hearted.

Having the opportunity to compare and contrast our experiences there and in Cambodia so far only further strengthens those impressions. Laos is not much better off than Cambodia in many ways. The villages and even many of the cities we saw there made it clear that most of the people are living pretty simple lives, as is the case in Cambodia.

Hearing people in Laos talk about some of the issues in the country – limited opportunities (and limited perspective too, as described by Sone the monk) and corruption (the first week we were staying in Pakse, Mama Tan had to pay bribes on three different occasions!) just for starters and seeing clear evidence of poverty, one could expect the atmosphere to be much more negative.

Instead, what stands out in my memory are things like:

  • How the villages we passed felt simple instead of poor. Houses were basic but well cared for and clean.
  • How much adults seemed to cherish the young children
  • How people went out of their way to help us or welcome us and make us feel at home
  • The laughter-filled conversations groups of friends would have as they rode in a pack of mopeds down the street
  • How straight forward things felt – like using someone’s porch as a place to wait out the rain or getting help starting our bike – without feeling invasive or obliged
  • The tons of “Saibadees”, smiles and waves we exchanged with people in passing (interestingly, since in Cambodia, we’ve rarely been greeted with the Khmer greeting “Sua s’die” – pretty much everyone just says “Hello”)

Here is the overview of where I was during our visit to Laos. For me, it was only eight different locations through only one half of the country (Roman did the North without me while I was home having a love fest with my new nephew. 🙂 ), but we managed to pack a lot in and have some really magical experiences, and all I can say is “khawp jai” Laos!!

May 22 Vientiane Vayakorn Inn
May 28 Savannakhet Phonevilay Hotel
May 31 Ban Phon Sim Home stay
June 1 Savannakhet Phonevilay Hotel
June 2 Pakse Sang Aroun Hotel
June 11 Tat Lo Siphaseth Guesthouse
June 12 Attapeu Dokchampa Hotel
June 14 Paksong Paksong Phuthavada
June 15 Pakse Sang Aroun Hotel
June 17 Muang Khong Phoukhong Guesthouse

Food notes from Cambodia

While the beer and coffee I’ve had so far can’t compete with the deliciousness that is Beerlao and Lao coffee, we have had some pretty great food since arriving in Cambodia.

Recently I’ve been really enjoying the international fare that’s available in Phnom Penh, but for this post I want to keep it local. 🙂

Divine dining in Kratie

Halfway through our stay in Kratie, we discovered the restaurant at Balcony Guesthouse. If we’d found it earlier I am pretty sure we would have had every meal there!

They had western and other Asian food on offer, but I only tried their Khmer dishes. I can confidently say that every single thing I ate there was absolutely awesome. Quality ingredients and amazing flavors. I was in heaven!!

The first meal I had there had me in raptures. It was something called chaa kh’nay. With a base of succulent local river fish, the dish involved tons of tender fried ginger plus lots of garlic and spring onions – some of my most favorite flavors.

We had time enough in Kratie that I could try a couple of other dishes there, but the chaa kh’nay was my definite favorite and I was lucky enough that Pheak, one of the really friendly guys working there, invited me into the kitchen and translated for me as his sister, the cook, explained the ingredients and steps. The recipe follows below. I haven’t had a chance to test it out yet but I plan to do so as soon as I can get my hands on a kitchen! 🙂

Pheak mentioned they are planning on offering cooking classes. If you happen to be traveling in Kratie, I would definitely check it out! We ended up at another hotel, but were able to peak into some of the rooms as we went upstairs for dinner/breakfast and it seems like a cute, clean place. The open, 2nd storey restaurant has nice river views and is a lovely place to enjoy a fantastic meal.

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Bor bor, a simple but satisfying rice porridge that is a traditional breakfast in Cambodia (with regional versions to be found across much of Asia)

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Chay Seang Y – Cambodian herbal wine that is allegedly a cure all. Enhances kidneys, increases appetite (like I need that…), good against hyperthermia, urinary tract infections, lumbago and “does not cause any headache after consuming.” Tasted pretty much as healthy as it sounds.

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Chaa g’dao, chicken stir fried with fresh basil, lemon grass and chili. Was just the right amount of heat for me, with lovely, subtle flavors. Really tasty.

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The incredibly delicious Chaa kh’nay. Am drooling just looking at the photo. Seriously.

Chaa kh’nay

Ingredients

Lots of fresh ginger (as young as possible), probably about 5 inches worth, maybe even more.
1 or 2 cloves of garlic
Mild freshwater fish, cubed
Vegetable oil (my guess is 1 or 2 tablespoons?)
Fish sauce and oyster sauce (again a guess, 1 tablespoon each?)
A pinch of sugar
A pinch of salt
One green onion for garnish

Directions

Finely chop fresh ginger into thin strips. Pre-heat a pan on medium heat, then add oil and ginger. Cook until the ginger starts to brown, then remove the ginger from the heat.

In the same pan, add the fish and fry until brown. Then add the chopped garlic and ginger until (in the words of the cook) “It smells good.” The garlic in my dish was also nicely golden, if that’s a helpful indication.

At that point, add the fish and oyster sauce and a bit of sugar and salt to taste.

Remove from heat, garnish with green onion and serve with steamed rice.

Fruit!

There are loads of street vendors in Phnom Penh, selling everything from steamed snails to waffles to freshly fried noodles to massive green coconuts. There’s plenty of seasonal fruit for sale and I love the colorful carts loaded with all sorts of delicious things. Even after 10 months on the road I am still discovering new fruits and vegetables.

Today I picked up a bag full of snacks from a lady with a cart on our street. A kilo of fruit for around one US dollar. I ate a bunch while we were walking around; these were left overs long enough to be photographed. The lighting was no good so it’s not a great picture but there was no way they were going to last until sun up. 😉

From left to right, mangosteen (which just keeps getting even more delicious every time I try it. Must be peak season right now.), custard apple, which I got hooked on at Ritu’s in Delhi but which I haven’t seen for sale until Cambodia and rambuten, kind of like lychee’s punk rock cousin.

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First, somewhat random, notes from Cambodia

We’ve been in Cambodia for a bit over a week now. The first few days were spent in Kratie, a small city about halfway between the four thousand islands in Laos and Phnom Penh.

Now we’ve made it to Cambodia’s capital, just as initial hearings against four top leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime are kicking off. We’ve been reading about it in the international press; as tourists in the city there’s no indication that anything special is going on. Later we’ll be visiting TuolSleng, the genocide museum where many of the crimes these people are accused of were committed.

I’ll write more specifically about Kratie and Phnom Penh later. For now though, here are some first impressions and random bits and pieces.

Back story

Having finished “Cambodia’s Curse” before leaving Laos, it’s been a bit tough not to arrive in the country with a few pre-conceived notions in my head. I’m not sure if I was noticing more differences because of the book. It repeatedly describes the desperate living conditions for many of Cambodia’s poor, the shoddy state of the country’s infrastructure (i.e. roads) and the self-interested power plays of the leading political parties (who seem to have offices everywhere, especially the CPP, even in the scruffiest scrap of a village.

Taking my own impressions with a grain of salt then, it was still interesting for me to observe things that corresponded with the book as our bus drove through the rugged-feeling province of Stung Trent towards Kratie.

Right off the bat there was evidence of poor government planning: the border crossing was one massive, muddy construction site. No provision had been made for through traffic during the rainy season. Our bus was spinning its wheels in thick mud in no time, and everyone had to climb out until a combined effort of digging and pushing got us going again. A fun welcome into our newest country! 🙂

Bus with a view

The villages and homes we saw in Laos were simple, but had a feeling of rural charm and simplicity. Compared to the scattered dwellings we passed in the Stung Treng province, they came across as neater and more cohesive. Gazing out the window as the bus bumped along, the houses seemed scrappier (mis-matched or poorly trimmed walls; more use of plastic as a building material, corrugated iron older and rustier), the towns dirtier, the land less cultivated by comparison. Naked or half clothed young children were not uncommon, something we hadn’t seen in Laos (in “Cambodia’s Curse”, the author notes this is because parents can’t afford diapers). There were definitely less satellite dishes than we’d seen in Laos; I wonder how many of the homes we passed are without electricity.

The bus ride between Kratie and Phnom Penh offered different sights. It seems much more of the land in the Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces is cultivated. The land is relatively flat, and we drove through areas filled with line after perfectly parallel line of rubber trees and acres of flat rice paddies accentuated with thin palms stretching out towards the distant horizon.

Passing through these apparently more productive, populated areas, the villages still struck me as somewhat rough around the edges, and also somehow lop-sided – larger, modern homes that we didn’t see often see in Laos were often flanked by patch-work houses of bamboo, wood, palm leaves and plastic.

This impression continued as we entered into Phnom Penh. The bus drove through rough neighborhoods with even shoddier looking housing, only to turn a corner onto a broad boulevard with proper sidewalks, orderly patches of green grass modern high rises and attractive hotels and restaurants.  The neighborhood we are staying is lovely – tons of good food, pretty buildings, and lots of thick walls topped with heavy coils barbed wire. So far, Cambodia gives the impression of being a country of especially strong contrasts.

Photos taken from the bus with my iPhone – quality is not the greatest

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Rice fields with palms

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Houses made of wood, thatch, iron

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Even nearing Phnom Penh, the state of the roads isn’t great

Easing in to opening

I’m still getting my head round the energy of the people here. Laos and the lovely people we met there melted my heart completely. My experiences with Cambodians so far are not as straight forward.

The scrum of hotel touts that met us as we climbed off the bus in Kratie or the ceaseless and ceaselessly “charming’ propositions from drivers in Phnom Penh that start the second we walk out of our hotel (Clapping to get our attention, “Hey!”, “Lady! Lady, tuk tuk!?!” “Tuk tuk, ok???”) has got me started with my defences slightly raised.

When I’ve let them down though, I’ve had some amazing, open interactions people. I’ll write more about them later, but in the mean time, it’s food for though.

Random: Currency

One of the first things I like to do when we get to a new country is check out the currency. It’s just something I like. 🙂 Laos’ money (the kip) had some great illustrations; women farming and my favorite water buffalo feature on some of the smaller notes. China (bills picked up during my stop over in Shanghai) highlights some of its beautiful scenery on the nation’s currency; in Thailand the baht, not surprisingly, seems to be all about its royalty, with various kings highlighted on different notes.

Arriving in Cambodia, I checked out the first riel I got my hands on. The country’s famous temples feature heavily, but each note has something different going on. Kids going to school on the 100 note seemed pretty standard fare, but something on the 500 riel note really caught my eye. Is it just me, or is it a Porsche driving over that bridge? A week in, we’ve seen plenty of school houses and temples; however we have yet to encounter a Porsche in Cambodia. 😉

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Women farming, cows and buffalo on the kip

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Chinese landscape on the yuan

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King Bhumibol Adulyadej, apparently also a photographer, on the 1000 baht note

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Cambodian school and school children

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Nice bridge; even nicer car!

Mekong meanderings

The last of our days in Laos were spent on and among the Si Phan Don, or “Four Thousand Islands”, an archipelago on the broad Mekong River comprised of islands that vary in size and number depending on the season (rainy versus dry). We only had a couple of days there, but the idyllic setting was a lovely place to bring our time in Laos to a close.

Transport and accommodation notes

We got there with an easy van ride from Pakse. Buying a ticket through one of the many travel shops in town meant pick up straight from our hotel and getting crammed into a stuffed vehicle with a bunch of other tourists. The drive was relatively quick and very easy, and after getting dropped off along the shoreline, a short boat ride brought us to Don Khong.

The main island among the “4,000”, Don Khong boasts a population of about 13,000 and is less touristy than the backpacker haven of the better known island Don Det, further down the river. We took a hotel on the main strip along the water front (mostly a cluster of guest houses and tourist-geared restaurants. The rest of the island though is mostly villages and farmlands) of Muang Khong, the larger town.

The hotel is listed as Phoukhong Guesthouse in Lonely Planet. It seems to have changed names but unfortunately I forgot to write down the new name! It’s easy enough to find from the description in the book though if you happen to be looking for it. The room could have used a thorough sweeping and dusting, but overall it was relatively clean and the huge windows and all the light they let in were lovely.

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Lovely big windows and a balcony to boot!

Sights and photos

The first day we rented bikes (a matching blue and pink set!:-)) and did a tour, following one of the few roads along the island’s perimiter. Despite finishing up with really sore rear ends by the end of the day, we loved the ride.

The island is so quiet; we hardly ran into any traffic. Mostly we were biking through beautiful farm lands and I got to savor more of my favorite south-east asian scenes – rice fields in varying stages (fallow, ploughed, dried out, just sprouting) stretching out towards the horizon, people in conical hats working in those brilliantly green paddies that are ready for harvesting, endlessly adorable water buffalo luxuriating in mud puddles, massive butterflies dancing through the air in front of temples.

Our drinking in the sights was punctuated with choruses of “Sabaidees” every time we’d pass through a village – pretty much every child we passed was eager to greet us. Very sweet! 🙂 Fun too was being forced to find shelter from time to time when (thankfully) short downpours would begin. The fun of the rainy season!

The next day, we hired a boat for a tour along the river (encouragingly, we ran out of gas after the first ten minutes and our driver spent a lot of time bailing water out of the bottom. We made it back safe and dry though 😉 ), cruising between some of the smaller islands and making a stop at Don Det. The river scenery was lovely. The Mekong is just huge; at the center between either shore the mud-colored water expands out underneath you in all directions, capturing the broad sky above in its reflection. We really enjoyed the atmosphere, skimming along the serenely churning waters.

Our short walk through Don Det was nice enough; we were happy not to be staying in one of the many back-packer style bungalows (“Know thyself” – I’m too old for that sort of thing at this point! 😉 ) but we enjoyed wandering among the houses further back in the island, smiling at betel chewing grannies, walking by massive clumps of towering bamboo that creaked magically in the wind and searching for an abandoned colonial railway.

Best of all though was being able to catch glimpses of every day life along the river: families paddling out in small boats to gather edible greens from the water, men and boys casting nets from shallow waters along the shore, women bathing young children and washing clothes at the river’s edge, groups of kids pausing their games to wave and shout enthusiastically at us from the shore.

We’d just passed a grandmother and grandchild harvesting river plants when we encountered the most shocking portion of the boat ride. Two boys were in the water by a wooden boat. I thought they were fishing and waved back as one started to greet us when suddenly the second one sprung up from the water like a rocket. He was stark naked and started dancing like crazy with enthusiastic gyrations and hip thrusting that would have been incredibly lewd except he was young enough to get away with it. Instead it was just hilarious (Roman assures me I was blushing none the less!), and I cracked up for the rest of the day every time I thought of it.  🙂

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Old tree among rice paddies

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Our matching bikes, parked while we waited out the rain under a cozy tree

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Village kids come by to investigate and say hi during another rain break

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Storm clouds ahead, golden sun behind

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A farmer and buffalo ploughing rice fields

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Beer-bottle caps ready for a game of checkers

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Strong currents – the view from the middle of the Mekong

The Southern Swing Part 2: Highlights and photos

Like I mentioned, much of the pleasure of the bike tour was the journey itself – the fun and freedom of our own transportation and just taking in Laos’ beautiful countryside. There were a lot of other highlights though too. Here’s some of my favorites.

  • The village shortly outside Pakse where every house and shop had a stand in front selling durian and pineapple (often with the owner napping under its shade); the air smelled delicious!

At Tad Lo:

  • Our fun walk through thick bamboo forests and my ineffective anti-spider stick

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Roof of the bamboo tunnel

  • The awesomely decrepid boards on the bridge and the cute kids playing at the waterfall

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FIrst waterfall at Tad Lo

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The view through the bridge. Very reassuring. 😉

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Bridge detail

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Lovely girl at the falls

  • The gorgeous sunset walk at the village outside of the tourist area, and how so many people gathered at the river to bathe, do laundry and just hang out at dusk

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Village house detail

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At the river at dusk

  • The shop girl’s sweet and open smile
  • The empty bomb casing serving as a flower pot outside the place where we ate breakfast

On the way to/at Attapeu:

  • The way the tendrils of thick fog encircled the Bolaven Plateau in the late afternoon
  • The flash of blue from the wings of three beautiful birds flitting across the road in front of us (we’ve been trying to find out what sort of birds they could have been with no success so far…)
  • Chatting with locals and taking in some interesting sights at a market in Sekong

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Vendor hard at work at the market

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Bucket full of frogs – just one of the interesting things on offer at the market

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Her bananas were delicious. 🙂

  • The big group of boisterous kids that ran out of their home to chat with us in Sekong when we stopped to get oriented
  • Racing the impending dark to arrive at Attapeu as the moon was rising; driving around the pitch black side streets in search of a hotel
  • Amazing food at Johnny’s. We had seen this place during our hotel search and it looked cute and welcoming. We grabbed a seat and the owner/waiter came to greet us. We tried to ask about a menu and different dishes, but he just kept saying “fish” and shaking his head “no” when we asked about rice, vegetables, etc. We shrugged and decided to with it. The result: one of the most amazing meals we had in Laos.
    Mysterious things were placed on our table – bowls of water, some sort of sauce, a mountain of different greens topped by a pile of what looked like thin, circular pieces of white plastic, a plate full of condiments like fresh ginger, peanuts, cucumber, onion. And finally, a massive, grilled river fish skewered on bamboo. Fortunately the owner was wonderful and gave us a demo of what to do.
    Wetting the “plastic” (actually rice paper) turned it into a soft wrapping for DIY Lao style burritos! Fill with chunks of delicious white fish meat (I wish I knew what sort of fish it was. Mild and sweet, with a slightly nutty flavor (veering towards hazelnut actually), very tender and moist), any greens and condiments you desire, fold up, dip and enjoy! Absolutely delicious and so much fun!

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Ingredients

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Delish fish!

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The finished product

On the way to/on the Plateau

  • The family we saw at the cross roads before heading on the road that would take us to the plateau. A man with a big rifle slung across his chest sandwiched between his wife and young child on a motorbike.
  • The amazing glimpses of acres and acres of jungle we would catch when we rounded certain turns on the road up
  • How I nearly flew off the back of the bike the first time Roman tried to gun the engine up one of the slippery hills. Shortly thereafter we instituted the “I walk/Roman rides uphill” technique.
  • The group of kids smoking cheroots (!!) in the fields of a small farm
  • How relatively nice the homes and villages got as we moved into coffee plantation territory and how nearly every home had a garden – most of them with coffee bushes in them and/or rows of little baby coffee plants in front waiting to be planted. Also funny to see beautiful blue Hydrangea in many of the gardens!
  • The stands of pine trees lining one section of the road – we could almost pretend we were in Switzerland for a bit! 🙂

The Southern Swing Part 1: Rain chasing

One thing we’ve discovered on the trip so far is motors put Roman to sleep. Whether it was the gently rocking berths in India’s peaceful A/C 3 train cars or a packed bus blaring dramatically screechy movies and bouncing along pot-holed roads, pretty much as soon as the wheels start turning, Roman is lulled into dreamland.

On the other hand, give me a window seat and no responsibilities and my gaze is glued to the scenery rolling by. All I want to do is drink in the shape and colors of the land and the momentary glimpses of every day life while my mind wanders at leisure. Heaven. 🙂

So it worked out that Roman was behind the wheel of our little Honda for most of the southern swing, and that suited me just fine.

There’s an immediacy to seeing a place from the back of a bike, rather than through a bus window, that I just love. The warmth of the sun or the fresh feel of the wind, driving through smells (good and bad), the ability to stop when ever you feel like it for a photo op or just to take something in more fully, the direct feeling of road pulling away underneath and behind you as the bike wends its way along… I just love it.

Stormy weather

Although there are some less romantic parts to it – namely soreness from longer drives and being so dependant on the weather – although that can add to the adventure. I can see that our run-ins with rainstorms are already becoming some of the best memories from the trip. 🙂

The first day was fine – easy roads, a short route and sun the whole way. The next day was wetter, but we got lucky, managing to pull into a simple roadside shop in some no-name village just before the rain got serious. It felt as though the store was just waiting for us to show up. A simple table and plastic chairs and room enough to park our bike was all under a sturdy iron roof. The adjacent room held a small selection of goods and the shopkeeper was blasting Lao pop that was a great soundtrack as we drank a soda, enjoyed the company of some hens and their broods of fluff chicks and watched the deluge going on outside.

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Watching the rain from the safety of the road-side shop

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One of the hens that was keeping us company in keeping out of the rain. It’s not the best picture, but can you see the little chick peeking out from underneath her wing on the right?

Into the clouds

On day three, though, our luck changed. The most challenging leg of the journey coincided with the toughest weather. We left Attapeau in the morning and drove towards the dark hills of the Bolaven Plateau, crowned in tall, grey clouds. A lovely sight but also exactly where we were heading. That day it seemed that if there was any patch of blue in the overcast sky, it was always to be seen in our rearview mirror, while the darkest bunch of clouds gathered above the road ahead of us.

That day the drive included dirt roads through some absolutely stunning jungles. The road was pot-holed, winding, and primarily up hill. Roman was doing a great job of navigating it though, and we were feeling pretty confident. We stopped along the way to see an absolutely magnificent and massive waterfall in the midst of the thick trees. We were enjoying the incredible view when a friendly Lao guy pulled up for break from his journey. He didn’t speak any English, but with sign language managed to communicate that he was heading the same direction as us and that it looked like rain was moving in. We didn’t have to wait long before his forecast proved to be correct.

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The waterfall. This photo does nothing to convey just how incredibly huge and amazingly beautiful it was. Was mesmerizing watching such huge volumes of water falling down over the rocks, seemingly in slow motion from that distance. Just gorgeous.
The photo does capture some of the darker rain clouds that were heading in our direction.

We’d been back on the path just a few minutes when the rain started. It wasn’t a heavy downpour like we’d experienced the day before; rather it turned out we were in for a steady, good long rain. Soon, the road began to devolve into orange colored mud and little gullies of neon, fast moving water streaming down hill. With me hopping off and walking the steeper and more challenging bits of road while Roman and the bike slipped and muscled their way up hill, we slowly but surely made progress, getting more soaked and muddy the whole time. After a lot of work and no break in the weather, we finally made it to the top of the plateau, probably looking like a couple of tired but happy drowned rats.

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The rear wheel and exhaust pipe of our bike completely spattered with ruddy mud (as were we)

On top of the plateau (elevation of 1,000 to 1,350 meters or 3,300 to 4,430 feet; thanks Wikipedia), the roads were happily nice and flat and the rain began to let up a bit, although that blue sky and sun remained elusive and it was pretty cold going. Driving through acre after acre of coffee fields and the small villages was beautiful and relaxing – until we hit a massive construction site with mud even slicker and stickier than during the upward journey. We were happy to see locals slipping and sliding through the muck just as much as we did; happily we were all laughing about it. 🙂

We spent the night on the plateau, in the town of Paksong. I was still cold the next morning and wrapped myself in all the dry clothes I was carrying for the trip back to Pakse, even picking up a scarf to wrap around my torso for an extra layer. It was amazing how quickly the temperature changed once we got out of the cloud cover and into lower elevations; I was peeling off layers as best I could on the back of the bike. 🙂

Southern Swing: Specs and Travel Notes

This is the basics of the bike trip we did – the where and how. Photos and highlights to follow in the next post. 🙂

Overview

Lonely Planet’s book on Laos (LP) divides the country into four sections. The chapter on the southern most part of the country (covering Saravan, Sekong, Champasak and Attapeu) suggests a motorbike route as a nice way to see a bit of all four provinces: the “Southern Swing”.

LP provides one page with a suggested itinerary and points of interest along the way. They suggest it’s possible to do in a minimum of three days or much longer, depending on how often you stop for photo ops and if you spend multiple days at each destination.

We ended up doing a slightly modified version of the route in four days. It was not without challenges – primarily weather and driving condition related. But despite, or maybe even because, those, it was totally great – so much fun and definitely worth doing.

The stops LP suggests vary from absolutely lovely to more just a place to rest your head, but the two things that made the trip amazing were simply taking in the gradually changing, always stunning landscape from the bike (not limited to but including lots of rice paddy filled vistas, a gorgeous sight I seem unable to get enough of! :-)), and the unexpected experiences. More on those later. 😉

Prep

We rented one of the numerous little 100cc Hondas on offer in Pakse. It strained a bit during some of the most challenging bits of road which was fair – imagine trying to get any vehicle up slippery inches-thick mud. Mostly though it was perfectly good for our purposes; although we did tend to have pretty sore posteriors by the end of each day!

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Our noble steed

We left most of our stuff at the hotel in Pakse, managing to fit all our gear into my Fin back pack, with some spill over into the seat compartment and basket of the bike. Basic clothes and toiletries, our rain jackets (VERY essential!), flip flops (good to have in general but especially after our sneakers got soaked through on the wettest day), sun glasses, money, phones, cameras (which I didn’t end up using a soften as I expected, given the rainy weather, but I was still glad to have along), and some food and water for the road.

I felt slightly unprepared for how cold it got up on the Bolaven Plateau, and given the amount of rain we encountered, a full body diving dry suit probably would have been more appropriate than just a rain jacket 😉 , but mostly the stuff we had with us was exactly what we needed.

The route and accommodation notes

Here’s the overview of where we went and where we stayed while there.

Day 1 – Pakse to Tat Lo

Very easy driving, stayed at Siphaseth Guesthouse. Basic rooms that could have been cleaner, but the price was right and the water view from the balcony was lovely.

Day 2 – Tat Lo to Attapeu

Lonely Planet suggested a side trip and possible stay to Salavan before heading to Attapeu, but we skipped it. It was a long day of driving but mostly decent roads until we got to Attapea, which seemed to be largely under construction. Our first two LP hotel picks were closed (Saise Guesthouse and Attapeu Palace, in case you’re planning your own trip); we ended up at Dokchampa Hotel which LP calls “slightly pricey” for what you get – accurate as we should have been able to split the cost with the large colony of ants living in our room! 😉

Day 3 – Attapeu to Paksong

Driving up through amazing forests to get to the top of the Bolaven Plateua – a.k.a. coffee land! Very challenging driving during the wet season, but also lots of fun if you have the right attitude. We stayed at Paksong Phuthavada. “Hot” water was luke warm at best which is not ideal when you arrive soaked and freezing but aside from that it was a lovely place.

Day 4

Back to Pakse and the comforts of the Sang Aroun Hotel and Mama Tan’s food! 😉

Pakse travel notes

Our next stop after the lovely trek and home-stay experience outside of Savannakhet was Pakse. We used it as a base for a day trip to stunning Wat Phu, which I wrote about earlier, and for our awesome motorbike tour – proper post about this to come in the hopefully near future. 🙂

So Pakse itself was more about relaxing and research rather than sightseeing, which is why this post is mostly accommodation and food notes. 🙂

Overview and accommodation

I found Pakse to be more charming than Savannakhet (glad that we saw both though), and it was slightly more cool than Savannakhet too (proximity to the Bolaven Plateau I guess?). It’s certainly more geared towards tourists. It’s got more hotels, western food options, bike rental places – while still being a normal, down-to-earth Lao city – it doesn’t feel overrun which is nice.

All this made it a perfect base for us. We spent a bit more money (USD 18 a night) staying at the Sang Aroun Hotel. Good location, not the fastest, but decent wifi, very simple in the best way – think white floors, walls, linens – and delightfully clean. 🙂 We were really happy and comfortable there.

We love Bolaven Cafe!

Possibly the best part was it’s proximity to Bolaven Cafe. The area around Pakse is Lao coffee country, and the city is absolutely full of cafes (another reason we loved it), so we might not have found this place if our hotel hadn’t been so close. As it was, it was the absolute highlight of our time in Pakse.

The cafe in Pakse is brand-spanking-new. It’s part of a larger company of organic, fair trade coffee plantations in Laos. They employ farmers for a number of years, teaching them organic farming techniques before assisting them to buy their own land – a technique that benefits more people in the long term. The company has a few other cafes and distributors throughout the world. Their aim on the retail side is to get a strong franchise going.

That’s all great, but what made it the heart and home of our stay in Pakse was this particular cafe’s owner, Momma Tan. She’s Thai but lived in the States with her American husband for many years – and from the moment we wandered into the cafe she gave us an American-sized welcome. She really took us under her wing, treating us like her own kids, sharing inspiring stories about her life, giving us advice  on places to shop or things to do in town, using us as very willing guinea pigs to taste test her latest batch of baked goodies (all her own recipes), even driving us places.

As if that wasn’t enough, all the young Laotians working there were really sweet and welcoming and the food was delicious. The cafe has a top-notch espresso machine; Roman was enthusiastic about the best espresso he’d found in a while! With all that plus refreshing A/C and free wifi, it was the perfect spot to research our trip on and around the Bolaven Plateau. Really a home away from home for us! Thank you Momma Tan and everyone!

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The lovely staff at Cafe Bolaven. Momma Tan is in the middle (wearing glasses)

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Freshly baked coffee cake and pecan brownie with a mad good latte. Mmm….

A few of my favorite things

Other nice things about Pakse:

Hanging out on the bridge by the Champasak Palace Hotel, watching the approaching storm clouds and awesome daredevil swallows dancing over the Mekong River. They were a type I’ve never seen before, all black with a distinct white patch on the base of their tails. Wonderful to watch.

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View from the bridge; clouds gather over the Mekong – so beautiful!

Wandering the dark, peaceful streets of the village across the French Bridge, to the chorus of hundreds of chirpy frogs.

There were so many fantastic rain storms. We got treated to impressive thunder and lightning shows nearly every day. The last day we even saw a faint but lovely rainbow.

The musical sound of young students enthusiastically reciting in unison floating out of a simple school we passed on the way to the post office.

The cute twin ginger cats who were hanging around our table at Khem Khong, the floating restaurant on the Mekong we ate at one night. (Decent food, lovely river views!)

The service at Delta Coffee was so dismal that it actually was hilarious. The girls working there seemed so miserable at the prospect of having their gossip or TV-watching interrupted; they did everything they could to avoid making eye-contact. Even though there were scores of them just standing around, they couldn’t even take our order – we had to write it down ourselves. Roman and I have experienced amusingly indifferent service in Asia before, but this just took the cake. At least we had a good laugh about it. 🙂

Some of the best pizza we’ve found in Asia at Pizza Boy (also conveniently close to our hotel)! It’s not Italy good, but we were still pleasantly surprised! Just be prepared to put some effort into ordering if you want custom toppings. 🙂

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the real deal!

One Beerlao for the road

There’s still more Laos back-filling to do on this blog, not to speak of Thailand and even Myanmar, but for now I want to look forward to our next stop.

Tonight’s our last night in Laos. We’re currently at pretty much the southern most point in the country, a cluster of islands on the Mekong river called Si Phan Don (the four thousand islands).

We’ve had a lovely day and a half here, enjoying Laos up to the last moment our visa remains valid. Bike and boat tours have brought us even closer to, a figurative arm’s reach away from, our next destination: Cambodia.

Tomorrow morning we’ll board a bus that will take us across the border and on to Kratie, our first stop in the new country.

Travel homework

I’ve always tried to do a bit of reading ahead about where we’re going to next, at the very least picking my way through the introductory chapters of the Lonely Planet. But I knew just enough about Cambodia’s recent history to realize I needed to know more before we got there. I wanted to be an informed visitor, but, having heard about people’s impressions of places like the genocide museum and killing fields, I also wanted to know how much I might need to brace myself.

I’ve been reading Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley.

(Side “gear” note – most books I read are on my iPhone – although it will never be the same as reading a physical book, you just can’t beat that for portability! The other downside – the limited selection and not always being able to preview books in Apple’s online store. There may be better books on Cambodia out there, but this seemed to be one of the most recent, and most relevant to what I wanted to learn about.)

I’m well more than three-fourths of the way through at this point. So far it’s provided an overview of the country’s history – ancient, the events leading up to and during Khmer Rouge times and, foremost, what’s been happening since then. One of the book’s main thrusts seems to be that the massively corrupt government has been and continues to be enabled and condoned by the international community for multiple reasons. Throughout the chapters runs a litany of horrific crimes committed against the Cambodian people – post the Khmer Rouge regime. I’m more or less up to 2008 in the chronology and I’m beginning to give up my hopes for some sort of “happy” ending to the book.

Homework round 2

I know though it’s always best to take everything with a grain of salt (just take a look at all the comments about Cambodia’s Curse in the link), and reading all this has only made me more curious to see the country and its people for myself. Brinkley makes comparisons between Cambodia and Myanmar (a country with an even worse rap than Cambodia that we are SO glad we visited) and Thailand and Vietnam feature regularly in the book, but Laos is hardly ever mentioned.

Laos has had its own share of hardships – it’s been eye-opening to learn about the bombings that took place here during the Vietnam war (apparently it is the most bombed country in the entire world. See some quick facts here.) – yet most of the Laotians we met have been among the most welcoming, easy-going folks we’ve encountered on our trip so far and while there is no doubt it’s a poor country, it has felt, to us at least, safe and not without its dignity, despite the poverty.

So, I wanted to get some additional context beyond the utterly bleak picture painted in the book. Statistics may be flat compared to the stories Brinkley recounted – and I don’t in any way discount the suffering he describes – but it was still interesting to learn that in terms of figures, Laos and Cambodia seem to be running a tight race.

Just the facts

Both countries have a very young population (a median age of 22.9 in Cambodia, compared to 21 in Laos) with a similar life expectancy of around 62.5 years – the lowest among all their neighbors, including Myanmar. Both countries also have higher infant mortality rates than their neighbors (Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam).

In fact both countries are by and large markedly worse off than those neighbors, except in certain areas where Myanmar is in similar or worse shape (i.e. unemployment – 5.7% in Myanmar versus 3.5% in Cambodia and 2.5% in Laos. Myanmar also tops the list of the largest chunk of the population under the poverty line – 32.7%. No wonder since their GDP per capita is also the lowest, at USD 1,400 per year. In Cambodia it’s USD 2,100, in Thailand USD 8,700).

Literacy in both places is the lowest of the five countries at around 73% (the neighbors are at around 90% or higher). Cambodia provides safe drinking water to more of its population than Laos; Laos has got Cambodia firmly beat for sanitation facility access however. Around 87% of Laos’ roads are unpaved; in Cambodia it’s around 92%.

(PS – thanks to the CIA World Factbook for all those figures.)

So what

I am no statistician and can’t and don’t want to read too much into those figures. But I’m glad I’m aware of them if only for the reason that they are reminding me to keep my eyes and heart open. If the figures for Laos are so poor and yet this country and the people we’ve met here have been so beautiful and uplifting, what can expect of Cambodia? We’ll see how it goes once we’re there, but I suppose the (informed) answer for now is: nothing and everything.

In the mean time, farewell for now Laos, and thanks for all the beer! 😉

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Our last Beerlao in Laos!