Kratie: Travel notes and magic moments

After having my heart melt in Laos, it took a bit of adjustment for me to get into Cambodia. The town was a bit rougher around the edges than where we were coming from in Laos. I liked it well enough, but it took a bit of time and persistence to get to the “gooey center”. The effort was worth it though – getting past the initial surface impressions led to some really golden moments.

Tourist stuff – accommodation and attractions

I mentioned in an earlier post about having to deal with touts selling their hotels the second we got off the bus in Kratie. We ended up talking to two of them; we stayed at the hotel Hap showed us, Morhautdom Hotel. We turned down the hotel Lucky showed us, but he was also a tuk tuk driver and we ended up arranging with him to see some of Kratie’s tourist attractions later on.

Morhautdom was ok, convenient central location and Hap was friendly, but overpriced at USD 15 a night for what we got (but we’ve certainly stayed at worse!). A tip – don’t agree to pay extra for air conditioning until you test it out; our A/C worked enough to blow out air but that was it.

Great about the hotel was that it was just at the other end of the block from Balcony Hotel and its totally delicious food!

Red Sun Falling had decent but not amazing food with a quirky atmosphere and (mostly) great tunes at night, and crazy Cambodian television during the day (we got to watch bits of a Khmer-dubbed Chinese movie with the staff one day during one of the frequent downpours. It involved drama and intrigue, snakes – lots of snakes, in the shower, attacking people, fighting bears, morphing into humans – and tremendously bad editing and special effects. Highly amusing!).

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Owner Joe watches crazy movies at Red Sun Falling

The first place Lucky took us was to Kampi, where tourists from Cambodia and further afield alike board small wooden ships that scoot around the broad, opaque Mekong in the hope of spotting the increasingly rare Irrawaddy dolphin. We enjoyed the morning on the peaceful waters and it was interesting and exciting to catch glimpses of the dolphins cresting.

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View from the prow of the boat – my flip flops have since then been demolished by the rainy season…

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Dolphin sighting!

For me though, even more enjoyable was the drive to Kampi, along a picturesque road running parallel to the river, and the monastery we visited on the way back to Kratie.

Before I get to those, if you’re considering visiting Kratie or other locations in eastern Cambodia, this website offers some good information and trail ideas.

Finding the magic

After we got back onto dry land, Lucky took us to Phnom Sombok, a wat (monastery) located on the only hill on the area. Lucky dropped us at the base of the hill, and steep concrete steps through lush green brought us to a peaceful complex of moss-covered buildings and a colorful temple and stupas.

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We arrived just at lunch time. The monks and nuns were in the main temple performing a ceremony. We peaked in from the perimeter and immediately the nuns, elderly, dressed in white and with kind faces, beckoned us in. I joined them on the floor for the end of the ceremony (Roman wasn’t feeling 100% so he stayed outside).

When it was finished, one of the younger monks started speaking with me, telling me about their daily life (including how much time they spend in meditation each day – hours and hours!!), swapping stories about Myanmar (he had travelled there to study and had great reverence for the Buddhism practiced and taught there), asking about my meditation practice (weak!!).

He and the nuns invited me to join them for lunch. I tried to protest but it was futile. 🙂 The monks left to eat elsewhere (apparently monks eat only that which they collect as alms; the nuns’ lunch is cooked on the premises), and the sweet nuns proceeded to chat with me in our limited French (mine much more limited than theirs) and fill me up with all sorts of Cambodian desserts. Such an unexpected and generous encounter – I just loved it!

After I ate everything they offered me and received a handful of dried mango for the road, I rejoined Roman and we explored the rest of the compound, enjoying the lovely atmosphere and gorgeous views of the farmlands below.

“How poor people live”

We rejoined Lucky at the tuk tuk and turned back to Kratie – but first he asked if we minded making a quick stop at his home. With only a slight tinge of bitterness in his voice, he said we could “see how poor people live.” I was moved to be invited into his simple one room house, where his wife and two young children were at home to receive him. His toddler son was fast asleep in a hammock slung across the room; his older daughter shyly watched me with big eyes, but warmed up when an older, braver neighbor girl stopped by to investigate.

Lucky was dropping in for his lunch break – a quick meal of rice and chicken and vegetable soup that had been prepared with the simple cooking implements in one corner of the room that constituted the kitchen. He told me that the house was relatively new – earlier they had been living with his mother-in-law. The roof was corrugated iron (cheaper than natural fiber or tile roofs – but hotter when the sun was out), the floor bamboo, the walls incomplete, patched together from woven palm fronds and pieces of plastic. In the village, his was one of the simpler houses. I wonder what it would be like to live in any of the homes there. I’m grateful for the glimpse we were able to have into Lucky’s life.

Even for the relative poverty and simplicity of the villages along the river, there was a lot of beauty too. Many of the houses were sturdier wood in a traditional Khmer style and really lovely to look at. The whole road once you got further out of Kratie was lined by gorgeous massive trees; the village homes and stores enjoyed their lush, green and gold-tinted shade. I fell in love with the peaceful atmosphere and sweet scenes of every day life that we passed in the tuk tuk and resolved to come back.

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Lucky’s napping son

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Grabbing a quick bite to eat

River road

I tried to find Lucky the next day but was unsuccessful, so I headed back along the road out of Kratie on my own steam (Roman was still not feeling great so I went on my own). I was aware of weather’s tendancy to get stormy towards the end of the day, so, leaving after lunch, I had to keep an eye on the time if I wanted to avoid a soaking. The journey by foot was a lot slower than by tuk tuk; I didn’t even get close to making it all the way to Lucky’s village, but I still saw loads of beauty on my three hour walk (and I made it back to Kratie five minutes into the afternoon rain – but before the real downpour opened up. Perfect timing!)

As I had from the tuk tuk the day previous, I just drank in the beautiful houses on stilts, rice paddies, massive trees and river views. But being on foot was even better – the countless number of smiles and greetings I exchanged with bemused Cambodians made the little trek just magical – especially the amazing, out-going, totally fun kids (see my earlier post for evidence 😉 ).

Other bits and pieces

I’ll post pictures in my next post, but before I finish, here are some of the snapshot-type things I want to remember from Kratie. 🙂

  • The kids sitting outside a store in town eating steamed snails, pulling the meat out of the shell with toothpicks
  • The television in our hotel room that turned on automatically when the power in the room got switched on. It was on a Cambodian music channel – horribly dubbed singers and musicians (honestly who ever was editing the sound to match the video wasn’t even trying) performing traditional and modern Cambodian music to a room full of dancers dressed up like they were going to the prom, dancing sedately around a table piled high with fruit. Awesome, atmospheric background music for our stay in Kratie! 😉
  • The cheeky little scrap of a dog from the hotel next door that nipped at my heels and made me scream (embarrassing! 😉 ) – not because he bit me but because he came out of no where
  • Waiting for our bus in town. The bus station was right by a medical clinic. The clinic was open to the dusty, busy street. Patients would shuffle out with a drip attached to their arm to by food from street vendors. When we arrived, two men in black were sitting on funny wooden benches by the station, busily sharpening carving knives. Slightly disturbing when they finished their work and went to deliver the knives not to the nearby restaurant as I would have expected, but to the clinic.
  • There was one young man I saw both during the tuk tuk ride and a couple of times during my walk outside of Kratie. Although he was walking around fine on his own, it was clear that he had cerebral palsy. I can’t begin to imagine the first thing about him or his life, but we caught each other’s eyes the last time we passed each other and I do know that his smile was so bright that it lit up my heart completely.
  • The sweet guy at the cell phone shop who was really friendly and helpful. He had received a brand new iPhone from his folks who live in the States; Roman fixed his sim card and tried to help him unlock it (I love this about Roman!) – unfortunately the guy’s phone was too new to be unlocked.
  • The hilarious woman at the first phone shop we went to who kept burping the whole time she was waiting on us. Now that’s customer service! 😉
  • Trying krolan, a regional specialty. It’s sticky rice with coconut milk, beans and a bit of sugar and salt, cooked by steaming it in bamboo. Total comfort food!

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At the krolan stand. The tops of the bamboo tubes are stopped with coconut fibers

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The sweet vendor demonstrates how to open the bamboo

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Deliciousness inside!

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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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! 🙂

Three miles of bad road: Day trip to Wat Phu

(I’m leaving off the back filling for a bit – this is a post about what we did yesterday.)

At the risk of sounding nerdy, I really enjoy history. Roman and I are lucky that we are getting to visit some amazing historical sites during this trip, and I love learning about and being able to imagine what daily life was like when these locations were at their height or why some building or person is historically significant. The red forts, the Taj, Mehrangarh and Hampi in India, Bagan in Myanmar have all been just fascinating to learn about.

But sometimes I want to set the dates, facts and names aside. Some places it’s enough just to be there – to see, to be with, to simply experience. To tap into and commune with the energy and mystery of the land and the layers of history that run through it.

Wat Phu, the temple ruins set on a hill in southern Laos, is such a place for me. It’s been a sacred place for multiple religions across the centuries and remains a place of worship today even as it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a decent amount of information about it on the web if you are interested to learn more, but mostly I’ll just write from my perspective.

What I can tell you is that it is good-sized temple ruins spread up a beautiful, wooded hill with a lovely view of the valley stretching below. The ruins are centuries and centuries old. In its earlier history it was a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva; in the 10th century it was a sacred space for the Buddhist Khmer empire.

The journey

We decided to rent a motorbike in the city where we are staying, Pakse, and do a day trip to the Wat. It had not been on our radar, but the monk we met in Vientiane and his friends all raved about the place and said we had to go see it (even though they’ve not been – but they’re from the area and it seems to be a source of regional pride).

We took the new road (it’s less than a year old and not yet quite finished) from Pakse to Champasak, the town that is host to the UNESCO site. The journey took about an hour and a half in one direction; mostly easy-going and a beautiful drive. Even the bits where we got off course or the road quality deteriorated were good fun.

There’s not much along the way between the two towns but it was a gorgeous drive. Roman soon found he prefered driving to being a passenger, so I hopped on back and was at liberty to enjoy the scenery and flirt to my heart’s content; waving at any friendly villager who smiled our called out “Sabaidee” as we passed (which was most of them).

We stopped to photograph water buffalo cooling themselves in mud puddles. In no time we needed to cool off too; hopping on the bike and zooming across the gentle bends of the road was welcome relief from the pounding sun.

The landscape and weather began to change as we traveled on; towering mountains of earth and clouds reflected in the still waters of the rice paddies that flanked our path. We could see the rain moving in, a sheet of soft grey straddling the mountain. At one point we drove through a refreshing shower, cool drops hitting my cheeks and lips like unexpected but welcome kisses, but I’m glad that we made it to Champasak by the time the real rain started.

We managed to park under the awning of someone’s front porch just as the skies opened up. I felt bad parking and sitting just in front of their house, but Roman assured me this worry about invasion of space was Western thinking, and of course he was right – the residents weren’t bothered in the slightest. The rain came down hard and heavy for about a half hour. Villagers took shelter or continued on their bikes, utterly soaked and squinting through the down pour. Young kids threw off their shirts and took advantage of the chance to cool down, running and playing through the streets.

The destination

Finally the rain abated, and we headed through the village to the ruins. They are stretched across a large area, starting with an ancient stone-lined road pointing the way up the hill to the main Wat. It’s a steep climb up weathered stone stairs with much beauty along the way, and we took our time and savored each step.

Although the precipitation stopped, the dark clouds remained, and deep, sonorous peals of thunder punctuated and accompanied our journey up the sacred hill. The air was thick with the song of hundreds of bugs, a constant and ceaseless mantra.

The hills are covered with rich vegetation – great flowering trees, vines, thick, vibrant green grasses. With only few other visitors to the site, it felt like we were entering the deepest jungle. The great stone steps and temple walls are being claimed by the plant life; flagstones are crooked where roots flow under and through them, tumbling walls begin to disappear under a cover of ferns and moss. The buddha statues and other sites show evidence of modern day worship; bundles of incense are secured under a vine and statues that have witnessed the passage of centuries are garlanded in bright, plastic flowers.

The place feels bigger than us but willing to hold us too; a place of worship for all, from the smallest ant to the gods older than mankind. The sacred cycles of nature – from ceaseless destruction of the man-made buildings over the years to the ephemeral adornment of flowers and leaves, perfect for a moment, before they fade – encompass the stumbling gestures of man like a mother taking a beloved child into her lap.

Suffice to say, the whole day was magical, and we absolutely loved Wat Phu. I’m still taking it in, so that’s all I’ll write for now – but here are some photos before I end the post. 🙂

The pictures

A panoramic shot of the view from the steep, stone steps, shaded by magnificent leelawadee trees at Wat Phu. Click for a closer look.

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Some very happy, very muddy buffalo

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Sun and shadow, mountains and rice fields

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The rain approaches

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Heavy drops fall into muddy puddles, Champasak

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Approaching Wat Phu

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No entry – a girl plays where restoration work is being done to some of the structures in the site

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Butterfly landing on a fallen frangipani bloom

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Headless statues, incense sticks

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Incense and flowers in a tree

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Overgrown walls, mountain views

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Steps and roots

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Jungle Buddha

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Temple detail

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Making miniature stupas out of banana leafs and flowers – an offering

Other bits and pieces from our stay in Vientiane

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Monastery visit

One of the nice things about sharing the tuk tuk ride to and from the Buddha Park was getting to know the other passengers. A monk named Sone was taking some other monks, newly arrived to his monastery, and his sister and his friend sight-seeing. They had limited English except for Sone, but were very smiley and sweet.

Their peaceful, small monastery was on the way back to the city, set on a ledge with a lovely view over the Mekong. When we arrived there, Sone invited us to take a look around, and we ended up having a really enjoyable chat with him.

He’s a really determined guy who worked hard to teach himself English fort he opportunities it would open for him. With his education, he’s been able to travel throughout Asia, which has been eye-opening for him.

He told us that the message the government pushes is that Laos is the best and the education and infrastructure and opportunities afforded through the benefit of communism are superior to what’s available in other countries. He said the average Laotian isn’t given enough education or perspective to question this. He feels very strongly that education is key, and he teaches English to a growing number of students.

Unfortunately we’d already made plans to leave Vientiane in the morning, so we couldn’t take him up on his invite to come meet some of his students the next day. I’m still so glad we met him and I hope I can help him out on the proof-reading front when he works on his applications for scholarships at some schools abroad next year (he makes me feel like a slacker! 😉 ).

Fruit of the loom

One other thing I did while we were still in Vientiane was a day trip to the Houey Hong Centre, a vocational school just outside the city center where underprivileged women (and actually a few men too) are trained in traditional Lao textile arts and given a chance to earn a living. I loved the day there. They offer tourists a chance to see the facility and do some simple dyeing and weaving.

The center comprises a clutch of simple, open, concrete buildings set on wooded land. Each building is used for a different part of training. There were no new students when I was there, so the weaving room was full of now-trained employees who were creating beautiful silk scarves and sarongs to sell in the center’s small shop. What I loved to see was the number of young children playing between the wooden looms; mothers are welcome to bring their kids who are too young to attend school. The atmosphere was totally relaxed and friendly, with the women chatting and helping out with each other’s kids.

The dyeing process was (for me – someone else had done a lot of the prep like weaving the scarf and preparing the all natural dye) easy, but stinky! I don’t know if all the colors smell the same, but the red I chose, made from bug resin (didn’t know that before I chose the color!) produced the most disgusting smell!! I tried my best to keep up wind of the steam as I stirred to help the color set. Luckily, the end result smells just fine. 🙂

The weaving took a lot more time and technique, but I loved it. I was the only tourist visiting that day, and once I got a feel for it, the woman who was teaching me left me to it. It was so peaceful. The rhythm of the wooden shuttle clicking back and forth with the gentle sounds of birds and insects in the woods and the children and women speaking in the back ground. It was almost a bit meditative and I really enjoyed it.

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The simple died scarf and woven material I made

Other little things I enjoyed about Vientiane

  • On certain roads, the beautiful trees had been labeled with their scientific names. Too bad I don’t know any Latin, but as a tree-lover I appreciated the city’s attention to the beautiful specimens lining its streets.
  • One tree that was everywhere in Vientiane was Leelawadee, or Frangipani. I’m slowly falling in love with this tropical beauty. I’ve seen it lots of places, but this city was really chock full of the trees and flowers. The flowers have a gorgeous scent that you can smell once you get close. In Vientiane though there were so many that the fragrance was in the air on certain streets.

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  • It was funny to see hammer and sickle flags everywhere. Also books and posters of Marx and Lenin for sale in some shops. And the stickers of Che Guevara on lots of the vehicles. Not the classic headshot of him looking all dreamy that we know in the West, but a more angular, harsh looking man with flowing locks and a red hat… (didn’t manage to get a photo while in Vientiane, where the stickers were everywhere, maybe I’ll have a chance elsewhere in Laos.) Need to find out more about communism in Laos
  • At the food stands at outdoor markets in Thailand, I’d seen people using plastic bags on sticks to shoo away flies that would land on the food. Saw something new in Vientiane though – a long stick with plastic bags on either end that was attached to a small motor and hung over the dried fish or barbecued meat, spinning like a slow propeller. Seemed to be pretty (or just as) effective. Genius. 🙂
  • One evening, I counted 32 geckos on the wall of the building down the street from our hotel. 32 on one wall! 😀

Random notes on Bangkok

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I know not everyone is a fan of Bangkok. It has a bit of a reputation for being filthy, overcrowded and a bit sleazy, with neighborhoods dedicated to strip clubs and worse. There’s no question it is massive, and there’s plenty that I didn’t see (which may contribute to my high opinion), but I really enjoyed the city.

All together we ended up spending a large chunk of time there. We used it more for down time and transit, so I actually have very few photos from the weeks there (Bangkok was our first stop after Myanmar and my camera was so worn out after the three plus weeks there that I think it needed a break more than I did! 😉 ).

I’ll write more about our first visit to the city another time, but here are some more mental snapshots from the long weekend I had there on my own before coming to Laos, plus some of the few photos I did take.

Little things I want to remember:

The street musician with the tattooed face, pilot-style hat (close to the scalp, with ear flaps) and sunglasses who played beautiful music on a bamboo flute and looked more like a fantastical anime character than something of this world.

The wonderful taxi cabs – spotless little Toyotas in different colors with all the subtlety of a child’s first set of markers. Besides the most common sun-flower yellow topped, light forest green bottomed cars, there were plenty of smurf blue, cherry red, grape purple, frog green, juicy orange, cotton candy pink or, my favorite, super shiny iridescent hot pink cabs roaming the streets.

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Catching a cab in my favorite hot pink from the airport

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Labels on the cab window – including no drinking, no smoking and, in between those, no DURIAN

A street vendor in a massive bamboo hat pushing a cart with a bell tinkling from the corner, from which he sold mini balls of ice cream loaded with toppings and served on what distinctly resembled (but I hope was not!) hot dog buns. He was pretty popular so those must have been some really tasty buns…

Three well-fed rats who seemed to have won the rubbish jack pot because they were out in the light of day (usually we’ve only seen them after dark) happily weaving in and out of a card board box that must have been filled with a rubbish version of ambrosia.

One brave, or foolishly un-self-conscious, woman in a skin-tight, leopard print jumpsuit. Thai women have a knack at pulling off quirky fashion but even they have their limits…

The physical enjoyment of warming up in the extreme heat of the sunny afternoon reflecting up from the pavement after too much time in an overly air-conditioned store or restaurant – and the deliciousness of being engulfed in frosty cool inside air after a bit too much time out doors.

The amazing monitor lizards living in Lumphini park

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iPhone photo, not the best quality, but this monitor lizard is still impressive at somewhere between 4 and 5 feet long!

Yoga notes

I found a yoga studio in the city that I really like. It’s called Yoga Elements and it’s a well run studio with teachers who really know their stuff.

The studio is fancier/more western than most of the ones I’ve been to so far on the trip. It’s on the 23rd floor of a corporate high rise, just down the street from the Chidlom Sky Train station, and has two large studios with floor to ceiling windows and some pretty great views of the city. The reception area is tastefully decorated and has new-age music playing. The studio provides mats and towels and complimentary tea, all of which are constantly refreshed by a sweet little Thai grandma who weaves between the students in the reception area in black-stockinged feet. All very professional.

Which is why I had to giggle when we were in the middle of a very-zen breathing exercise and a little gecko started chirping from some hidden corner on the ceiling. How he managed to find his way up tot he 23rd floor is beyond me, but he was a great reminder that despite how western the studio and even Bangkok sometimes felt to me, I am definitely in southeast Asia!

Snapshots: Backwards from Bangkok

I’ve decided to do my Thailand notes in reverse order, which means I get to start with today. Tonight I fly to a new country, Laos, to meet Roman, but I’ve already had a few lovely hours up and about in Bangkok, taking a morning constitutional before breakfast. Jet lag got me up early and as soon as it was light enough, I walked from my hotel to Lumphini Park for some easy jogging. I found the place packed with people and activity, even before 7am. Here are some snapshots.
Walking to the park in the early morning, the streets between Chidlom and Lumphini were still peaceful, although not quite abandoned. I shared smiles with vendors opening up their street stalls for the day, construction workers heading to a job and even one barefooted, mustard-colored robed monk with his begging bowl. I enjoyed the smell of a big bamboo basket of jasmine rice being steamed on a concrete brazier filled with glowing coals and set on the sidewalk. I admired the pluck of a ballsy street tom-cat begging at a food cart, and getting rewarded with some scraps of meat. Even shortly after the sun had risen, the air was lush and moist. Some blocks were filled with the smell of flowers drifting from small courtyards – if I’d closed my eyes I could have imagined I’d been transported to the inside of a tropical green house instead of walking along a big city street lined with sky scrapers.
By the time I reached the park it was already filled with thousands of people. Many of them were there for a spot of exercise before the day got too hot.
Older women with perfect, shiny red talons, faces full of make up and bouffant hair sprayed to within an inch of its life gracefully moved through Tai Chi sequences.
Wiry Thai men without an ounce of body fat sweat as they jogged along the broad pathways.
Grown children took their elderly parents out for some fresh air, slowly pushing a wheel chair or patiently keeping pace with the shuffle of swollen, aged feet.
Various big groups of people followed the aerobics moves of a perky instructor talking into a microphone.
There was an elegant martial arts practice or two, complete with long wooden staffs.
Bunches of women practiced traditional dances, their red and white paper fans glowing as they caught the occasional ray of sun that filtered through the trees and filling the air with a sound like one hundred clapping hands as they open and shut.
Yoga mats were spread on blankets spread on the grass, being pushed into the earth by folks grounding through their downward facing dog poses.
Some did work outs using the park’s simple machines while others used the benches, fences, piers or grass as their equipment for stretching and strength training.
Other people were there for less ambitious reasons. Old biddies sat at tables in the shade for an outdoor breakfast, pouring each other steaming cups of tea from metal thermoses and doling out plates of food as they gossiped together. Some people napped on park benches or watched all the passing activity. Elderly men perused newspapers. As I left the park, I could see some folks were also there for their morning shopping.
Outside the park, a temporary market had been set up. A few beggars with missing or withered limbs supplicated to shoppers in the space between the park gates and the tightly packed stalls. Clothes, food, accessories and a whole host of other things were on offer. Mystery meat, fruit and other foods abounded, some definitely looking more appetizing than others even when I had not a clue what they were. I caught whiffs of durian, spring onions, fried eggs. The huge chunks of massive grouper, stacks of rubber-banded blue and grey crabs and buckets of light peach shrimp were so fresh that there was no smell at all by those stands. A bit early in the day for me for all that food, but it was still wonderfully interesting to see.
The park itself was much more verdant and lush than the last time I was there, overflowing with orchids and other flowers, palms bearing berries, massive trees crowned in thick, deep green canopies. I was happy to see the amazing, huge monitor lizards again, sunning their long bodies (some of them are over 5 feet!) or swimming lazily through the park’s ponds. Sparrows and mynah birds flitted about and bathed in large puddles left behind by the heavy night rains that had trespassed into my dreaming.
Other bits and pieces I want to remember:
Fresh garlands of flowers on top of dried out blooms and weather-faded ribbons looped around sacred trees and small shrines.
The stubs of hundreds used incense sticks jammed into the knot of a tree.
The bloody chops of chicken I passed at a street stall on my way into the park that had been fried into golden brown bits of breakfast by the time I started to head back to the hotel.
The beautiful brown-shelled snails making their home on the wall of a construction site.
The sweet little black cats that live outside my hotel that were snoozing under the potted plants on the stairs as I left for the park.
How willingly and happily most of the people smiled back at me when I smiled first.

A weekend in Mumbai – part two

We spent most of our time in Mumbai on foot strolling around the neighborhoods of Churchgate, Fort and Colaba.

The Gateway of India was photogenic but not as eye-catching as the gaudy metallic horse-drawn carriages that were picking up tourists on the street leading to it. The carriages were especially impressive (i.e. tacky!) when lit up – imagine flashing fairy lights in five different colors. Quite a sight, but sad as well – the horses all looked so underfed and overworked.

We passed a lovely hour hanging out in the simple but good-sized park in front of the High Court called Oval Maidan, where there were probably about 25 cricket games of varying seriousness and skill being played simultaneously. Great fun to watch, although the game still confuses the heck out of me! Also neat were the bells from the court’s clock tower announcing the quarter hours – a sound we haven’t heard since we’ve left Switzerland.

We’d seen street cricket in Delhi and Varanasi, and I’d witnessed a couple of determined joggers amongst all the picnickers and people strolling in Delhi’s Lodi Park. So it made a change to see so much sport going on in Mumbai. We had a view of Marine Drive from our ‘penthouse’ terrace and I could see folks jogging along the water in the early morning. When we took our own constitutional further up the drive, after visiting Chowpatty Beach, I was happy to see that some of the joggers were even women in form-fitting workout clothes none-the-less! Mumbai definitely is different.

Chowpatty Beach was fun to visit. It was sun-drenched, full of people and colorful. After having read in Lonely Planet that the water of Back Bay is toxic, I was impressed to see some Indian people enjoying the surf – albeit just at the water’s edge; no one was swimming or in deeper than waist level.

It was also funny to see the place for myself after having read the novel Shantaram (which takes place mostly in Mumbai), comparing what the mind has conjured up versus reality. Of course the picture in my head was completely different. We also popped our heads into Leopold’s bar, which was the Shantaram cast’s main hangout. Also completely different from how I had imagined. 🙂 We didn’t stay for a drink though as it was absolutely packed and I was desperate for dinner at that point. 😉

Other Mumbai bits and pieces

-Bat watching from our hotel roof at night. There were a few absolutely massive bats (we think fruit bats) that staked out the long avenue below our hotel every night. The biggest one was around the size of a small cat with a correspondingly impressive wingspan. Incredible to see them gliding above the cars.

-I got a real kick out of the street vendors handling in massive, neon-colored balloons. Unfortunately I didn’t have a camera on me when we saw them. The balloons were similar in shape to a butternut squash and probably about four feet tall. As the hawkers said, “Big balloon!”

-I also didn’t have my camera to be able to take shots of the banyan trees at night. I an’t do it justice with words but they were beautifully eerie in the dark with their vines backlit by street lamps.

Mumbai pics


Neighborhood in the Fort area of Mumbai; black and yellow cabs


View from inside a black and yellow cab


Cab detail


On Marine Drive


Chowpatty Beach and Mumbai skyline


Chowpatty colors


The shore and sky line along Marine Drive


If you need balloons, you can call this guy


Spiral staircase behind our hotel


Mickey welcomes you to the office on our hotel’s first floor

Snap shots from Varanasi

  • The narrow lanes in the old town were filled with all sorts of smells. Some better, some worse. A couple stand out in my memory as unique to Varanasi.
    Apparently the city is famous for its pann, and just about every block had a vendor who inevitably had a beautiful display of the vibrant green leaves on a small counter and would be busy preparing the stuffed delicacy. The smell of the leaves is refreshingly astringent and pervasive but light – a nice contrast to some of the other street smells!
    Also lovely to walk through was an area that had numerous spice shops. Surprising was that the strongest smell in the area was of nutmeg (or maybe something similar?) – I didn’t realize that this was even used in Indian cooking. But it smelled great and made me think of Thanksgiving mashed potatoes. 🙂
  • I just loved the presence of the kites in Varanasi, seeing them soar above the rooftops while their owners remained hidden in the folds of the city, the sound of the paper rippling in the wind. Being able to fly the kite just outside of the burning ghat was such a special thing – simple, pure pleasure. Felt like a kid again – there was really something exhilarating about the tug of the thin string and knowing the tenuous connection I held to this flying bit of paper way up over the water.
  • One night we were on our favorite rooftop restaurant the Dolphin (very average food but the view makes up for it) in the evening. Looking down at the expanse of the Ganges below, we noticed that someone in a small boat had taken it upon themselves to light a whole bunch of the little floating lamps. They must have kept at it for about an hour, and at the end, there was a narrow but bright stream of flickering flames probably a mile long being pulled along by the river’s current.
  • As much as a pervading awareness of the burning ghats was part of my experience in Varanasi, I loved the hundreds of things we saw during our stay that were all about life. During our last full day in the city we saw a number of wedding processions (must have been an auspicious day to get hitched?), which was really fun.
    Each followed more or less the same formation. A cart with a loud, massive generator is at the front of the parade. Thick wires feed backward from the cart to what looks like gaudy, electric chandeliers balanced upside-down people’s heads (see a not-so-great picture at the end of this post)! A marching band in full regalia plays boisterous music. A crowd of guest follows; a handful of these are dancing their hearts out to the music while the rest are just walking. The women are stunning in glittering saris and oversized jewelery including gold nose rings the size of a half-dollar coin. At the end of the procession is the regal-looking groom on a white horse with a child sitting in front of him on the saddle. All in all quite a spectacular sight!
  • I don’t think I need a blog post to help me remember this, but I will include it anyway. The Varanasi sight that still appears in my mind’s eye: A perfectly healthy, young-looking leg sticking from the knee down out of a blazing funeral pyre.

Snapshots from Jodhpur

I’m eager to do a proper post with pictures about the blue city, but it’s dinner time so here are some quick snapshots in the mean time.

–       In an auto rickshaw, on the way back to the hotel this evening, coming across a small parade sounding much more robust than I would have thought a group of four musicians outdoors could, playing boisterous, great music. Followed a ways back by a group of about twenty women all in bright clothes, clapping and singing a completely different song. No idea what it was about but it was great!

–       Walking through a small, quiet square, an old man across the way with about five teeth in his whole head eagerly beckoned Roman to cross over and talk to him. He made small talk a bit and then started to explain, “All Hindus need God”. Roman seemed to pass muster, making the guy smile real big when he shot back “All people need God.”

–       Four boys under the age of ten balanced on a single bike balancing against a wall. A very precarious kick off and a very wobbly but enthusiastic start down the street made me smile.

–       Repeatedly coming across groups of older men sitting and standing around in various out-of-the-way corners around town, peacefully playing cards together.

–       Today from the rickshaw on the way up to the fort, a girl in a brilliant yellow salwar kameez, pumping water by the side of the road. She waved to me without stopping her chore but was too shy to smile when I waved and smiled back.

–       The way the man with the deeply wrinkled face and hennaed hair and beard laughed today when Roman called him on his attempt at a 5 Rupee auto rickshaw parking scam at the fort.

Snapshots from Delhi

It’s our last night in Delhi. Tomorrow we are off on the next leg of our adventure, heading first west to the deserts and colorful cities in Rajasthan and then east to the icons of India in Uttar Pradesh, the Taj Mahal and Varanasi.

It’s been such a gift to be able to stay with Ritu and her family all this time. Beyond being utterly spoiled by the entire household, it’s been a wonderful opportunity for us to have such a different experience of India, staying in one place for so long till we really started to get to know the neighborhood, being around for day-to-day life, eating home-cooked meals, tagging along on errands. Ritu and her family have been such gracious hosts and so generous with their time and insight-providing commentary on everything from national politics and Hindu mythology to shopping advice and our favorite recipes.

It’s been balm for my heart too to have time with Ritu. All the hours we spent chatting have been great for me, giving me perspective and insight. Ironically I’ve been giving her a lot of advice on situations she’s going through at the moment but all of it has been things applicable to my own experiences and that I would benefit from doing myself. Interesting. Let’s see if I can start taking my own advice! 😉 Either way, I’ll be leaving Delhi with a very full belly and heart.

In the mean time … Here are some little things I want to remember from this visit to Delhi.

  • The pleasantly astringent smell of marigolds at the Sai Baba temple
  • The incredibly intricate and delicate henna designs the men at the local market were creating on women’s hands for the holidays, and the distinct, slightly citrus smell of the oil rubbed on the skin before applying the henna
  • Fresh pomegranate juice at the Sai Juice Stand is sublime
  • As is sweet potato roasted at a street stand, cut up and served with lemon juice and plenty of masala and eaten with toothpicks
  • The incredible smile of the youngest son of the family who run an outdoor ironing business right outside Ritu’s house. He is such a little cutie and has the hugest, sweetest smile. The best was when we played a bit of soccer with him 🙂
  • The man lighting a lamp in a small shrine set on a wall behind his outdoor flower stand while we were buying roses for Shashi
  • The funny, puffy man sitting like some sort of barefoot, Pillsbury dough boy buddha on a table at the Bengali Sweets shop. Balding, bespectacled, round and all in white he never moved from his spot the whole time we were there but just sat there organizing a huge, and I mean huge, wad of money
  • The distinct, nasal voices (kind of like auctioneers in slow motion) in which men call out their wares and prices outside as they push their carts down the street that runs along our window or at the chaotic marketplaces
  • The delicate flavor and texture of the simple but totally delicious chapatis made in Ritu’s home, and how good they are when they are still piping hot from the griddle
  • Being able to laugh with the women working in house, despite not speaking the same language
  • Some huge, heartfelt hugs with Ritu, and the moments I realized that we were both learning the same lessons, even if they are taking different shapes in both our lives
  • Daily ‘coffee dates’ at the local Café Coffee Day with Roman
  • The half friendly, half rude manager at the Gupta Brothers’ electronics store where we spent a lot of time in the process of fixing Ritu’s laptop; especially how he hung out in his little shop in his socks, and times we’d arrive just after puja and the place would be stuffy with too much incense
  • The elegant and expressive way Shashi speaks with her hands, especially when arguing with someone over prices
  • The gentle touch of Shashi’s fingers as she gave me a blessing during Diwali