Tuesday, March 30, 2010

sihanoukville part 2

So now I am in Siem Reap. Yet again my bus trip was a bit disasterous. I have decided that I am completely utterly, totally incapable of sleeping on anything other than a bed -regardless of what medication (or dosage) I take. On this matter I am yet to be proven wrong. Ah well. My bus trip started out on a bad note as the bus came early and left without me from my guesthouse while I was collecting my bags. So, in a rush I employed the services of a local scooter rider who quickly zoomed me out to the bus station with me on the back thinking "bus please be there please be there please be there please be there....."

After some confusion over seats, we all settled in to try and get some sleep. Emphasis on try. As I had predicted, it was a normal bus with seats that could go back about 40%. I tried everything in my power to sleep and managed to get a little bit at least. I ended up lying on the floor and probably got the most sleep while doing that. When we arrived to phnom Penh at about midnight the bus filled up with new passengers (it had previously been about 60% full). The remaining 6hour drive was one of minimal bouts of sleep and lots of not sleeping. I joined forces with the 4 boys that joined the back seat upon arrival at Siem Reap to organise accommodation and some people to share a tuk-tuk with today while exploring some of the temples.

Anyway, back to Sihanoukville. Unfortunately we didn't experience a huge amount of sunshine while I was there, it was quite cloudy and rained a few times. The beach itself is nothing to particularly write home about (but of course I'm australian and biased as we have the best beaches in the world!!), particularly because it was filthy. There are few rubbish bins and all the rubbish, cigarette buts and who knows what else gets chucked into the ocean so the water is not at all clean (resulting in my infected foot).

I cannot even begin to explain how much you get hassled there, I have seen nothing like it in terms of how rude the hagglers are, and how insistent. The girls in particular. It is extremely obvious (not to mention disturbing) that the sex-trade is still up and running. It was a common experience to see older men with quite young khmer women. The girls selling things on the street (bracelets, massages, manicures) were very crude and suggestive with what they would say. They could not only swear in english, but in french, swedish and who knows how many other languages. Very sad. Everyone speaks excellent english.

On my first night there, me and my swiss mates all got on the back of a scooter for the 300m journey we wanted to take - just to prove that we could do it too!! I've had lots of scooter rides while i've been here in asia. Some where I've been driving, others where I've been driven. I think I've forgotten to mention them previously though. Most of the time when your on a scooter you are helmetless wearing minimal clothing so if anything happens, you'll probably come off second best. Ah well, I'm young which means I'm invincible right??!!! :)

My last afternoon in sihanoukville was quite fun and a bit adventurous. Sam an Australian guy who has been working as a volunteer in Phnom Penh, Garrett a Canadian guy doing a bit of soul-searching and i had been hanging out for and decided to get a tuk-tuk into town where we first wandered the markets. It was fun times, one of them was just saying I wonder if you can buy bb guns here when we immediately discovered some and played around with those for a while. Garrett decided to try and catch the 2pm bus to phnom penh (which he missed) so sam and i hired ourselves a motorbike from the guesthouse and set out on exploring the surrounds of sihanoukville. We wandered blindly (at high speeds) and directionlessly around the dirt tracks and stumbled upon otres beach where we cooled down ith a coconut to drink. We saw lots of Cambodians working, found some wild monkeys by the side of the road, and made lots and lots of cambodian people smile by honking the horn unnecessarily everytime we passed by someone (on a vehicle or foot). I was wearing a helmet this time (but it was two fingers too big)

Another thing that is interesting about Sihanoukville is its extremely lenient view on drug usage (its worse than vang vieng). It is the first time in any country anywhere that I (on my own, as a girl) have been offered drugs. Usually its the guys that get offered them. Drug dealers freely roam the beach, show you what you have and offer it. creepy.

Today I got up very early (slept through my alarm unfortunately and was woken by banging on my door) to get the sunrise for Angkor Wat. Unfortunatley it was quite a cloudy morning so the sunrise itself wasn't all that good. I'll have to do it again (I have a 3 day pass) and hopefully get a better day. I'll write about the temples next time!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

sihanoukville (or at least part 1 of it)

Just a quick update while I am waiting for the bus. I am currently in Sihanoukville, and am catching a night bus (I have some sleep enhancement drugs ready in hand) to siem reap, which should be approximatley a 10-12 hour night drive. I have been on sleeper buses before which can be tolerable, but I don't think this is a full sleeper bus, but one where the seats go back about 45 degrees.

the last few days here in sihanoukville have been relaxing, but also tiring. I think I might be getting a bit worn out in a few different ways which isn't good, so it was nice and probably helpful to just rest and not do too much. I had one day where my eyes started to get a bit infected which wasn't good. And very very unfortunately my foot is now puffing up alot and getting red. I thought the salt water here would do it good, but unfortunatley the water is not clean at all and quite grubby so I believe that has caused it to become infected. I visited the pharmacy today and got some antibiotics so hopefuly it will start to go down, otherwise i'm visiting the doctor when i arrive in town tomorrow.

On my first half day here, I managed to catch up with 2 swiss guys I know from my days in Vang Vieng, as well as a few others I worked with while in Vang Vieng. The sun was out and shining and wonderful. Then friday I woke up to the sound of rain - I thought it must have been my imagination but no it was most definitely rain happening outside!

I have had some interesting conversations with the people I have met, both old friends and new friends. Because I don't drink alot, and i have never used drugs or anything like that, it has impressed alot of people. As 'squidge' puts it, "you inspire me to be a better man". I can only hope and pray that my being friends with these people (some of whom are solid drug users) might in some way make a change or positive impact as they know I am a devout christian.

I'll have to write about what things are like here in sihanoukville, and my other adventures (including riding with 3 passengers and 1 driver on a scooter) :) next time....

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A chance meeting

I had an interesting bus trip (again) today. I had booked a ticket through a travel agency in the street where I was staying to catch a 7:15am bus to sihanoukville which meant that I had to get to the agency this morning by 6:45. No problems there. However, when I arrived the shop was shut and no one seemed to know what was going on!! So, I wandered up and down the street a couple of times, being accosted for tuk-tuks and motorbikes frequently (they must have thought I was crazy going back and forth) until I eventually found the guy who owns the shop and he took me to a mini van which would take me to the bus station and told me to wait for "5 minutes"... (this was at 6:45). So I waited, and waited and waited and waited some more. No joke, I waited for 45 minutes!! 7:15 came and went and I was thinking, hmm okay guess I've missed the bus, great. I was sitting there, wondering do I stay? Should I get a tuk tuk myself to the station? What do I do. So I continued to wait until 7:30 when the guy came back. His response to me mentioning that I had missed the bus was that "its okay, same same". We drove a couple of blocks away where he stopped on the edge of one of the main roads where the bus actually came and met us (already full). I was the only western person on the bus which was fine, I just felt a bit bad that they probably all thought I was late when in actual fact I was early to catch the bus!

Oh well.. Anyway so I was sitting next to an older gentleman who was wearing a face mask (not all that uncommon). We didn't really speak during the eary stages of the bus trip, until probably 3/4 way through the journey after a short break. His name was Pensamin (or something along those lines). Interestingly enough, I discovered he was a Christian, currently working for a building company, regularly travels between Phnom Penh and is 56 years old with 4 children and 2 grandchildren. He spoke about the genocide 30 years ago, but didn't mention any specifics about his involvement or what happened to him, only that it was very sad. Before his current job he worked for 3 years for an organisation where he went into the prisons and gave bible lessons to the prisoners there (I was quite pleasantly surprised to meet my first christian local on my travels). He spoke of his love for the Jesus Christ, said he had been a christian for 10 years. His English was quite good, but there were some limitations and occasionally difficult to understand him particularly with the face mask on! I asked if it was difficult being a christian in Cambodia, but he said it wasn't any more. He goes to a church twice on sundays in phnom penh. However, when closing in to sihanoukville we passed by a store which sells "house spirits", or at least the houses for the house spirits. He told me how everyone has them, and upon further questioning he still has one at his house as well. I guess there is still an element of traditional spirit worship still involved as a "back-up" plan for some of these peoople.

Also, something I forgot to mention yesterday was about one of Pol-Pots senior officers that I found quite interesting at the genocide museum. Duch (I can't remember his actual original name) is the one and only officer from that time who while in his trial admitted to having been involved in the whole genocide, taking full responsibility for the situation, as well as admitting regret and asking for forgiveness. I discoved on another poster that he became a christian while in prison, which may have had some influence into why he admitted. All other people involved deny that it happened or that they had any responsibility in it. Interesting.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


As of last night I am in Cambodia - the difference is almost immediately noticeable as pretty much every person in Cambodia speaks English, while in Laos the amount of English spoken is limited.

I was quite sad to leave my 2 British mates behind on Don Det. We had some good times and good adventures together. I ended up sharing a room with them for the last few nights to help save some money. They were absolute gentleman and wouldn't let me pay. My last day on Don Det island was a bit of a lazy day with all our injuries. I had my cut foot (which is still being held together with duct tape to hold out the sand), and Alex had a disasterous (but hilariously funny unfortunately) accident while on the push bikes trying to race me. Ironically Adam and I had been speaking about 1 minute previously to this about how much it would cane if you came off the bike on these roads because they were really rough rocky gravel roads. Then Alex tried to race me (while shirtless with his shirt tied to the handlebars) and his t-shirt unravelled itself and locked up in his wheel. The end result was a magnificent, abrupt stop that sent him flying over his handlebars to connect with the gravel road. We knew we shouldn't laugh, but it was so hard to. Thankfully he wasn't overly hurt (apart from many grazes and scratches), nothing was broken and we all had a good laugh about it over the next 2 days! So because of that experience we all had a quiet one, chilling by the river.

At night time we had dinner at local restaurant and then happened to walk past the crocodile bar which was screaming out some local music. We decided to give it a go see what all the fuss was about (it looked like a crazy birthday party or something). We immediately were given a free can of Angkor beer (cambodian brew) which I think I prefer to beer lao. The manager of the hotel (who was quite drunk) the boys were staying at is Cambodian and is mates with the boys so they were chatting with him. I learnt a few things over these conversations - that women are not considered equal and are inferior, that some cambodian men like to make sexist and crude jokes and innuendo about women and that when drinking in cambodia when one person picks up their glass/bottle everyone has to give cheers and have a drink at the same time.

Yesterday I left Laos and entered Cambodia - but as always the trip was not without any dramas. We all hopped on the little boat that took us off the island back to the mainland where we discovered that the bus we were meant to be on had broken down in pakse so we had to wait. We waited approximately an hour before they got us into a couple of mini buses and drove us to the border (about 20 minutes drive away). The border crossing was relatively easy, no major dramas there which was good. Getting a visa for cambodia as a pain free process as well, and quite quickly we were on the bus (which had arrived while we were walking through no mans land between the two countries) and on our way to phnom Penh. Thankfully there were no other issues on the way and we arrived safely at 8.30pm (I won the bet as i guessed 8.25). On the trip I made some new friends as always to hang around with and find and share accommodation with.

Today a group of 5 of us hired a tuk-tuk for the day to explore the city of phnom Penh and visit the killing fields, the genocide museum and russian markets. In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, in the 1970s Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge conducted mass genocides on over 3 million cambodians - primarily those who were educated. Even wearing glasses would result in an individual being murdered. People living in the city of Phnom Penh were advised to pack up all their thing and move to the country for "3 days" to avoid being bombed by the Americans. They were then killed in barbaric methods over many years. I learnt today that Pol Pot had enough power even until 1997 where he ordered the murder of one of his previous official/generals.

Anyway, at the killing fields in PP (one of many) there were 86 mass grave sites discovered, one with 440 bodies in it. The skulls have been placed inside a big multi-tiered glass stupa (like a memorial) that serves the purpose of remembering the dead, preventing the same from happening again and ensuring the tragedy is never forgotten. As you are walking around, it is quite an eerie, surreal environment and you realise that there are actually fragments of bones on the ground as well where you are walking. Very sad. On the outskirts of the grounds there are kids laughing, a school and rice paddies.

I have noticed that, at least in Phnom Penh the people are alot more relaxed with their clothing and not as fussed about covering shoulders and wear more western styles of clothing.
Of course I have to mention the architecture.. in the villages on the outskirts of town (which i observed on the bus trip), the houses are still wooden and on stilts. However, the roofs are a bit different and have a little bit of a chinese sort of influence with little monuments and things stuck on them.

It is very very hot and humid here in Cambodia! I'm heading to the beach tomorrow at sihanoukville, kampot and Kep which should be good for a day or two, then on to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

4000 islands

So I'm feeling significantly better now which is great. I spent most of yesterday doing not too much, chilling and trying to get over being sick then went swimming for a bit in the afternoon. Met a couple of English guys who I've been hanging out with ever since. We were watching the 'moose' (water buffalo) swimming/sitting on the beach with everyone else (one guy sat on it and tried to ride it - one very chilled out water buffalo that was), swimming in the river and playing around on some tubes we got off some other guys we met. I am proud to say I am the winner of the standing up on an inflated tyre tube contest!

Anyway as a result of that fun and games in the river I ended up with my first major injury of the trip (apart from the many bruises I have obtained but that is just normality for me). The boats dropping people in and out off the mainland come to the same beach where you swim around and one time while I was trying to swim around and get out of its way I accidently kicked the propellar (which thankfully was immobile) and got a bit of a nasty deep cut on my foot. The two guys I were with were kind enough to patch me up and I have a nice big duct-taped bandage over my foot (to make it waterproof!!). I now aso have a really strong tan line on my foot from the same. ah well.

Today we hired bikes and went and explored the island of Don Det and Don Khon (next door), saw some waterfalls and rode the very very long and extemely bumpy ride down to the southern tip off Don Khon. The road is gravel and pure rock and my mountain bike had no rubber on the handlebars so i got a bit of shockage from that! Went swimming near one of the waterfalls and had lunch at a local joint nearby where some kids were running around amok. Very cute but absolutely filthy with dirt. Then with no map and no real directions we continued our ride and thankfully made it down to the other end of the island where we hired a boat (60,000kip for 3 people) and were driven around the extremely rocky waterways of the river to the favourite haunt of the rare irrawaddi dolphins. Im happy to say that we did manage to see many many of these creatures. They are a bit shy though - you dont see much more than their nose and fins, not like salt water dolphins. I got a few on video but not up close and there is no hope of getting them on a photo as they are so quick and you dont know where they are going to come from. Probably will head to cambodia either tomorrow or the day after.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Getting back into the culture of Laos

After almost 2 weeks of limited cultural exposure while in Vang Vieng, I have hit the road again and gone straight full-pelt into the cultural experience (as well as some new challenges associated with it). This blog entry will be a little bit different to my 'usual' (ie significantly condensed) as I am not feeling very well at the moment, have had poor sleep over the past few days and brain isnt functoning propery. So this is going to consist of partial highlights which I might try and fill in gaps later, and random usual banter of mine.

- wandered around tha khaek and decided to join up with the eco-treks conducted by the tourism department. Thankfully another person joined which halved the cost the trek would have been on my own. While there, I helped them out in the tourism department with english/lao translation/pronunciation of words that are useful for tourists such asbrief greetings, words for things like petrol station, flat tyre etc etc.
- kids all saying saibaidee!!

- day 1 of trek, walked about 15km I think, mostly flat but some up and down through the mountains. Visited about 4 caves and 3 water holes/rivers to swim in.
caves with stalactites and stalacmites - our guide was banging on them like drums. They actually make quite pretty music but inwardly I was cringing a bit thinking of what all the environmentalists would be saying - I know in Australia you aren't allowed to touch them as the oils in your hand damages them!! Then later on, they were encouraging us to graffit and write our names on the wall of a cave (in charcoal) to say we had been there (I declined).

I didn't actually swim on the first day even though I wanted to - I just didn't feel particularly comfortable wearing my normal swimmers and I discovered that I am 100% completely incapable of wearing a sarong let alone being able to swim in one.

the village we stayed at was small i think 229 people lived there. as part of our stay there we participated in a ba cai ceremony, which is used to welcome you nad give you blessings for your future. They tie white cords/bracelets around your wrists and have chants/sayings that they repeat, for example bad things go bad things go good things come, long life long life, lots of money in the bank, many boyfriends, good job etc etc etc. I think there is a spiritual link associated with it, but it wasn't particularly mentioned at the time. Everyone then drank lao-lao (rice whisky). There was a group of about 10-15 villagers present at the time, plus our 2 engish speaking guides.

- day 2 of trek
Up early to get a start before it got exceedingly hot - we walked i think 15-20km today. had to walk extra as the tractor that was going to give us a ride had broken down.
It was very hot and humid and in the afternoon I found myself starting to get grumpy and angry and then I felt guilty about it. Was praying for it to go away, trying to internalize it as there was no reason for me to be angry. I was a bit frustrated I think, needed a bit more personal space and I didn't feel like talking at the time or like being touched and helped (too independent for my own good...)

I did swim today twice - once in the blue lagoon (oh so blue think of the most vibrant brilliant sky blue and your probably 1/2 way there) and in another river. I swam fully clothed, partially because I couldnt be bothered to change clothes and I was all sweaty and gross anyways, and partially because of the cultural thing. I didn't feel all that comfortable stripping to my swimmers when there are 2 male local guides aged 23 and 25, who are trying to convince me (very unsuccessfully) that I should be their next girlfriend... I don't think so, sorry guys!

Last night I decided to catch the local bus from Tha Khaek to Pakse. I figured it should get at least 1 experience on local transport rather than just the 'tourist' buses normally caught. Good idea in theory but it resulted in me getting almost no sleep during the night as I left at 10pm and arrived at 4.30am. The bus stops probly every hour at least to turn lighs on and people hop off. It was a good experience though - whe i first arrived at the bus station i wondered what knd of ride it would end up being as they had the engine in pieces nad were doing mechanical work, but it left on time. then when i jumped on the bus, the entire floor including seats and the hall way had big 50kg sacks of sugar meaning that your feet were much higher and i kept bumping my head walking on the bus!

When I arrived at 4.30am at this random bus stop in the midde of no where (in the dark) I was thinking, right, now what. There as a lao lady and 3 little kids (non of whom spoke any english) with me. We all sat by the side of the road in the dark and I got my guitar out and played for about an hour or so until it started to get light and a man walked past who spoke english and informed me that I would need to catch a tuk tuk into town (pakse) nd that my sense of direction was wrong again (i forgot that we were on the opposite side of the road for driving). A tuk tuk came along, droped me off at a guest house in town. I wasnt actually plannng on staying hte night, but getting a bus further south nistead. however, they were advertising a 1 day tour to the Bolavan plateau so i decided to join up with that for the day. Unfortunately, I felt pretty crook all day though from the lack of sleep, heat and probably something I ate that didn't agree with me too well. on the tour we went to a tea plantation, a coffee plantation, a few waterfalls and visited a couple of minority villages as well. I donated some pencils and pens for the new school there. Its a very different lifestyle to home. one of the villages, traditionally they build (used to be wood but is now concrete) coffins for each member of the household long before they need them and store them in the rice sheds.

Now I am at Don Det at 4000 islands. Im going to stay here until I run out of money, or more accurately until i run out of kip as I have about 500,000 kip on me I need to use up (roughly $50) which could last about 3-5 days depending on what I do. I am staying in a bungalo on the sunrise side of the island for 30,000 kip per night ($3). Laos is alot cheaper compared to Vietnam in terms of accommodation (there it was $10-15 a night). There are some waterfalls and you can see the rare irrawaddi water dolphins here, so I might join up with a group to do some kayaking on the river and that sort of thing before heading int cambodia on monday/tuesday.

Sorry this is not more detailed but I cannot write anymre than this at the moment :(

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tha Khaek

I have now left the fun of Vang Vieng and am currently in Tha Khaek after a very long and very interesting mini bus ride last night.

The last 10 or 12 days or so in Vang Vieng have been extremely fun and eye opening. I have proven on multiple occasions that it is definitely possible to have fun and party all night without the assistance of drugs or alcohol and had a few good conversations with people about those topics. I could have stayed at Vang Vieng for longer, but there is so much more to do and more to see and I don't want to stay in the same place for too long. It seems as though once your there at Vang Vieng it is hard to get out (and I almost didn't get out yesterday either in the end!).

My days at Vang Vieng usually involved sleeping in a little bit, getting up for breakfast then heading down to the bar I was working at to organise whatever things we needed for the day before hitting up the river for some dancing and fun on the slides and swings. Basically we were just working as promotors for the bar, at night time directing people where it was. I've made some good friends through the experience and it was very enjoyable. However, I get bored easily and the mornings can be a bit boring as there is not enough time to go out and explore before you need to go work. In the past few days I've been meeting people at Vang Vieng that I met a few weeks ago in Vietnam - always a fun experience when you catch up again! I think that the hardest part about leaving though is the friends that you make, because there are some awesome people you meet. But the problem is you always keep meeting and making new friends so you want to continue hanging around with them and is another excuse to stay. So I decided I needed to continue moving on before I spend my entire visa time up in Vang vieng!

Anyway so a bunch of people from one of the other bars were going south to Cambodia in their own mini bus so I agreed to join them. I was going to be getting out at Vientiene but they ended up deciding they wanted to keep going further and as I was wanting to get to Tha Khaek I figured it made sense to keep travelling with them. Very interesting bus ride. I ended up with the back seat for the entire trip which I am very happy for because it meant I did not have to witness or participate in any of their antics and managed to get away without drinking or having to smoke anything for the entire trip which I was quite happy about (these people are alot of fun, but like their alcohol and drugs I've discovered). Our bus driver was interesting. The roads are now extremely smooth and flat however he did not seem to exceed 40km/h for the majority of the trip.. so.. instead of arriving at 11pm like we should have, we ended up rocking into town at 3.30am this morning! Feeling a bit tired now to say the least. It was a long ride but i did manage to sleep a bit on the back seat.

Anyway so now I am in Tha khaek. I plan to do some trekking here, and would like to do 'the loop' so hope that I will meet up with some other travellers doing the same and link up with them. We'll see what happens!! It depends on time and cost ultimately I guess.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Vang Vieng

So.. I am still in Vang Vieng! I was only planning on staying here for 3 days max, yet, still I am here. Vang Vieng, to the uninformed is a town that particularly caters for tourists, known well as a party town for the tubing and bars, high rope swings, slides, river activities, caving, rock climbing, drugs, sex. You name it, chances are its available in Vang Vieng. As a girl who barely drinks and doesn't do drugs some wonder how i would fit in, or what i would do in a place like Vang Vieng. It is a very interesting place to be a Christian in - not the usual hangout that would be expected of people who believe. It has made for some very interesting discussions and openings with other travellers. I've made quite a few good friends during my time here.

Yesterday morning I had purchased a bus ticket to continue down south to Vientiene, to be leaving this morning. However, last night I got chatting to one of the guys working at a couple of bars on the river and got offered a job (my second job offer this week). I can't really explain why, but for some obscure reason it felt like the right thing for me to do (against better judgement I'm sure some would say). So i said I would see if i could get a refund or exchange on my bus ticket, which i did. So today I will be working on the river for Monkey Bar but for Bucket Bar for the remainder of my time in Vang Vieng (which i doubt will exceed more than aweek as i'll get bored too quickly).

So yes, I'm not sure what this experience will bring. I'm sure it will be another challeng, but i'm praying that it opens plenty of opportunities to talk with people as to why i don't drink or smoke or do drugs (i've found it often impresses people, they don't expect that). I've had a few discussions about being a christian with people, and hopefully it opens up more doors. I don't know for sure what my purpose is for being here, but I feel that I should be here for a little while at least, perhaps minister to other travellers? I'm not sure. but I'm sure i'll find out! :)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Phonsavan to Vang Vieng

I have learnt a few things over the past few days. Laos PDR means 'please don't rush' and is a pretty typical sort of saying for this country - it is so laid back I can feel my blood pressure and heart rate decreasing even more than it is usually (never been particularly high)!!

In Phonsavan I hired a scooter and never without my adventures and disaster-prone streak, took it for a ride early morning out to see the 3 main plain of jars sights. they are incredible, and very intriguing to say the least so I definitely recommend visiting them. But very little else to do in the area and you can easily cover the jars in a few hours.

Anyway. So I had my scooter and I had successfully located jar sites 1 and 2 when i started having engine trouble, the scooter died and refused to restart. uh oh! This one was an electric start (but had a manual override which still failed). I had no idea what was wrong with it, it just would not start. And as far as I was aware it still had (according to the petrol gauge) half a tank of fuel. So, I pushed the bike up hills and then neutral rode it down hills for probably 3km until i reached the next village town. I was passed by a few times on the way by people on scooters, but no one stopped to my rescue :(. So I managed to push it to a scooter repairer who had a bit of a look around ( no english spoken here) and then it ended out that the bike had no fuel! arghh.. So I pushed it the next 50m to the petrol station, filled the bike up where i learnt that in actual fact, half full means empty, full means half full, and way above full is actually full. So moral of the story is don't trust any of the gauges on these machines in asia!

While I was in Phonsavan, I met a lovely young man at the MAG office (which i mentioned last time) who was working on his English skills in preparation for the English test as he wants to go and study in Australia. Apparently there are quite a few Laos students in Brisbane and Perth studying. I also was invited to go to a Laos edding, but this was after I had already purchased my ticket to leave Phonsavan and I would have gone crazy with nothing to do for another day (as it had only taken half a day to explore all the sights on offer).

Grr I'm currently having camera issues. If anyone knows how to change a memory card off 'write protect' via a computer I'd be much obliged (No, it doesn't have a sliding thing on the card itself).

Now I am in Vang Vieng. Caught a mini-bus yesterday from Phonsavan here and as we arrived with plenty of time and lots of sunshine and warmth a couple of us decided to hit the river and the 'tubes' although we by-passed the actual tube part and just swam along the river to make the most of the high swings and fire-foxes that propel you into the water. I made the mistake on the fire-fox to hold on for a bit too long and as i wasn't prepared to do a backflip, ended up back flopping with a massive back slap and red back.

This however was later enhanced by some lovely red spray-paint of a 'kangaroo' (looked nothing like). Its amazing how much mischief I can get up to when I have water, swings, slides, big jumps, spray paint, water guns at my disposal!!. ;)

Today I joined a group and went caving and kayaking. First we took a tuk-tuk to the water cave where we jumped on inner tubes and into the cave we went, a few kilometres in there I think. Awesome experience. At first we were pulling ourselves along a rope, and then further in we all joined ina big convoy of tubes and arm-paddled our way up this massive tunnel inside the middle of the mountain until we arrived at the end. At this point we turned off our lamps (I'll get to them in a sec)to listen in silence to the drips of water falling off stalactyles (or is it stalacmytes??). Beautiful. Anyway, you wont' believe what our head lamps were - highest technology Laos style. They were, no joke, small battery packs (like the ones you put in a car) attached to basically a light globe with a head band to put on your head! Dead serious! To turn them on/off you just twisted the globe. :)

Then we kayaked down the river - about 10km I think, stopping along the way at the swings for about an hour of fun before cruising the rest of the way back into Vang Vieng town.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Buildings and Bombs

Well I am now in Phonsavan. The guide-books weren't joking when they said that there isn't to the town. Good thing there is internet - I've managed to download all the photos from my camera's and then going to burn them to a CD so should be uploading some soon fingers crossed. My main reason for being here though is to visit the Plain of Jars which I'm doing tomorrow, and I guess learn a bit more about the UXO and bombings that occurred here.

Today was a pretty uneventful drive from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan. Stopped halfway through and had lunch at a little place on the side of the road selling only feu (noodle soup). It was pretty good too. I added some jaewbong (a very very very strong chilli paste I learnt to make in my cooking class) for flavour and the bus driver thought I wouldn't be able to handle it - showed him!! Speaking of cooking class, I learnt then that the Lao people believe that food only tastes good if it is shared in company, and that food eaten alone tastes bad.. uh oh!

Driving around in buses during the day is good to view the countryside for sure (not so great for sore legs and cramps though). I'm finding the varied architecture here in Laos quite fascinating. No matter where you are - there is always, ALWAYS a satelite dish attached to the house somewhere. Doesn't matter if your in a little village of 5 buildings on the side of a cliff, or a big town, everyone has satelite tv! Quite amusing from my perspective as someone who never watches it! Back to houses though - there is no consistency between the houses, even within the same village/town. For example, one house might be made of bricks, another of wood and others of woven bamboo mats or sticks. Even the woven bamboo houses are all different. Some have a plain criss-cross pattern, others are ona diamond angle and some are like steps. And the wood houses are pretty cool too - many of them are on stilts with big wide verandahs, similar to a QLD house with elaborate woodwork. I think its interesting anyway.... :)

This whole area has been particularly affected by war over the past 100 years with unexploded ordnance (UXO) in many many areas. I visited the Mines Advisory Group and gave a donation there and to the UXO survivors next door. They are a humanitarian NGO www.maginternational.org Did you know, that US$10 can clear 14m3 of UXO? Looking at the maps that they had on display - there are red dots EVERYWHERE indicating the areas that are yet to be cleared of UXO. The impact on the community is extreme because some of the UXO are too small to be seen. Cluster bombs that didn't detonate can be mistaken to be balls by children who play with them - children are the ones most likely affected. The clearing effort is going to take a lot of time still - that is for sure.

One thing that I am finding a bit confusing however, is that this area uses a combination of Vietnamese and Lao in both speaking and writing. I'm just starting to get my head around the basics in Lao (speaking, it would be impossible for me to learn the symbols to write it) eg sabaidee (hello/goodbye), khawp jai lai lai(thank you very much) etc etc. But here in Phonsavan there are signs all around the place for com (rice), pho (noodle soup), ca phe (coffee). Hmm maybe I'll be able to get my coffee fix after all.

Oh! I almost forgot (and I'd even attached some photos). I got up quite early this morning (5.45) so that I could go and see the Tak Bet - procession of monks receiving alms from their followers who provide them with sticky rice (the staple in Laos) and bananas. The monks themselves rely upon this silent procession for at least their first meal of the day. There were signs all over town explaining how to respectfully watch/participate in the procession, but it was interesting to observe how many tourists got in the way, had no respect at all and just got in the monk's faces to take pictures or videos. I did take pictures, but I stayed at a distance and used a zoom lens, and no flash - trying to maintain respect for their culture and religion.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

If only I had finished that apologetics course...

Like I've mentioned before, many many people here in SEA are on a spiritual journey of sorts. Religion is a topic that comes up pretty much every day. Possibly could be slightly influenced by the millions of temples... I've found that I've been able to speak so much more openly about being a Christian here in Asia than I was at home - however these discussions have all been with other fellow travellers rather than locals.

Last night I caught up with those guys from the band again and ended up having quite a good very late night chat with one of them in particular. They're originally from Arkinsaw (spelling??) in the US, grown up in the church but now "fallen away" as P. put it. They were playing another gig at a bar in town, and when it shut at 11pm due to the curfew here in LP, everyone all headed off to the Bowling alley as for some bizarre reason that is the one place that is open till the early hours of the morning. I'd grabbed my guitar (they play banjo and mandolin) and we'd jammed a little bit. I'd earlier seen P. and had a bit of a chat with him before he'd started his gig, during which he gave me a list of christian books to read (my ever expanding list!).

Anyway, P and I were there sitting outside in the dirt late at night having this full-on chat about faith, beliefs, and proof that the Bible is a reliable document. He was telling me how he was not sure where he stood anymore. He asked me a question about what I thought Jesus meant when He said that we would do greater things than he?!! Asking all these deep questions and I was starting to think "aahhhh I don't have the words to answer this at all". A bit funny really, as I'd been reading Genesis a day or 2 previously and the whole story with Moses and him not being eloquent enough but God using his words regardless. Then we were discussing how we knew the Bible was true and . I felt way out of my depth as he knew way more of the bible than I did. I was there wishing I had finished all the apologetics classes from my early uni christian group days, and perspectives course! I don't think I was particularly all that convincing, but it was good to have such an open discussion in a country that is so closed in.

I've had a few Sara Groves songs stuck in my head over the past few days from her Conversations album - particularly 'Painting pictures of Egypt' and 'Hello Lord'. Good songs.

Anyway, today I'm having a chill-out day. Woke up still full from all that food yesterday and jumped into a slow-boat heading up the Mekong river to the Pak Ou caves. Along the way we passed by many people working along side the river, some of them sifting gravel out the section full of pebbles, others shovelling pebbles, and where the sandy banks are (as it is dry season and river is low at the moment) there are many many people there gold panning! I would never have guessed there was gold in the river here! We had a quick stop at a village to try some lao-lao (rice wine whisky). Always a good thing to have a couple of shots of extremely strong spirit that early in the morning on an empty stomach... Good thing they had some 'take-away' on hand. Banana's roasted on a charcoal fire - instant breakfast. Yum!

The caves were interesting, they have hundreds and thousands of statues of Buddha and other God's as a huge shrine. Sad though. One God is not enough. They have to have thousands of them.

Tomorrow I'm leaving town, heading east to Phonsavan to go and see the Plain of Jars. Its a bit of a mystery as to what these jars are for. They are man-made, weighting between 600kg and a few tonnes each. Theories are that they could have been for cremations, or for preparation of lao-lao. See if i can help unravel the mystery... :)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Random days

I love random days and meeting 'random' people! Being spontaneous and taking life as it comes. I'm learning not to waste my life either! Yesterday was one such day. I woke up at about 6.30 feeling a bit cold so figured there was no point staying in bed awake so got up and began exploring Luang Prabang. It is such a cute little town very chilled out and laid back after Vietnam. But I think I am having significant withdrawal symptoms from vietnamese coffee - missing it very much!

One of the benefits of travelling I find, is that people are often more open minded and willing to discuss issues of greater importance than trivial 'daily life' of back home. I had meant to write about this a few weeks back but forgot or was time-poor (or felt like I had hogged the shared computer for too long already!). For example, discussions of religion, politics and wars feature high on the agenda- things that at home in 'normal' society would go completely unnoticed and unspoken on the whole. The wars and insane killing sprees that have gone on in these countries is so intense, impacting so many lives and only in the last 30-40 years, but barely anyone knows or is aware of it back home. I know that I wasn't aware of it prior to coming here. For example, the mass-murders of all educated people and western influences in Cambodia under the Khmer rule of Pol-Pot. I read a brilliant yet very confronting book called 'First they killed my Father, a daughter of Cambodia Remembers". About a Cambodian lady who at the age of 5 left Pnom Penh I definitely recommend it, I was reading it while at Halong Bay and it was an eye-opener for sure as I previously had little knowledge about the situation.

After I'd had breakfast in LP yesterday, I was out the front of a restaurant checking out their cooking class information when I was approached by a man who had been at the same restaurant I'd eaten breakfast at a bit earlier. He jokingly said I shouldn't be hungry anymore and we started chatting. He turned out to be a retired English Literary Professor and he gave me a the name of a 'life-changing' book that he believes to be one of the best works of literature ever (sorry i can't remember the name of it, its written down on a piece of paper somewhere!). I believe it is religion-based, something from India. I'll have to locate that book at some stage and check it out if I can! There are so many book exchange places here, so its easy to get hold of some really good, solid books which is awesome as I chew through books very very quickly.

As I was exploring through LP, I was walking past one of the many tour agencies when a guy asked me if I'd like to go see the waterfalls, leaving in about 30 minutes. It was nice and hot and he was offering a cheap price, so I thought why not. Bit of sponteneity is always good! So I went and got my swimmers and came back and the 6 of us jumped in the back of the tuk-tuk and were driven out to Kuang-Si waterfalls. The falls were beautiful. I think there must be limestone in the rock in the area, as the water was a beautiful aqua blue colour, and a few swimming holes that were quite deep so I jumped off the waterfall a few times and there was a big tree-swing as well which was a bit of fun! One of the other girls was going how it was so scary - but as I'd jumped off the 3rd story of a boat in Halong Bay, the waterfall was easy peasy in comparison!

On the trip I met a white South African couple that I got along with really well, later on in the day we kept bumping into each other and we ended up having dinner together which was alot of fun. There are night markets here in LP every night, and a big food market where you can buy a plate and then share it, everyone all digs in and has a bit of this and a bit of that. Yum. Lots of bbq foods and other items of dubious origins! Later on we headed down to a restaurant/bar overlooking the Mekong River where a couple of guys I'd met earlier were playing banjo and a mandolin. Good fun, blues and grass roots sort of music. I'm curious as to whether they were christian or not, because there were a few definitively christian songs that they played.

Today I've just come back from an all day cooking lesson at one of the local restaurants here in LP. Cannot recommend it highly enough- Tamnam Lao restaurant. I am so so so full right now, we did not manage to get through even 50% of the food I don't think. The dishes are small but they fill you up so quickly. Totally worth it though, I got morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner all for the bargain price of $30. Plus, as I discovered, this restaurant which is partly owned by an interesting Australian woman who's been living in Laos with her laos family since the 1960s, helps sustain and support an orphanage, particularly in the region of nutrition and health by increasing the protein content of their diet which I think is great! These orphanages are run by the government, who provide between 20 and 40 CENTS PER CHILD to cover all expenses. Its ridiculous, so I'm happy to help out as best I can with people like this.

As part of the day we went to the market. I found this extremely educational, (love love love food markets - except for the meat) as I could find out what all these weird and wacky foods I've been seeing around the place are (and deciding whether I'm game enough to try them or not. For example, there are many many eggs on display, and some of them are tinted, to indicate whether tehy are fresh or 'fertilised' (a delicacy) or off (some people like their eggs to smell apparently).

On a side note, I was introduced to the book 'Don't waste your life' by John Piper while I was in Hanoi. Discovered that you can read it online via a pdf version of the book which is brilliant as i severely doubt my ability to find a copy of it here in Laos! I've only managed to read a bit so far (i'm paying for internet access here in laos) but its definitely worth the read.

One thing that has been challenging me over the last few days in particular, is being culturally appropriate. I've become so aware of how few tourists and travellers actually respect the culture and customs of the local people, particularly when it comes to dress (and women especially). For example, it is inappropriate for women to have their shoulders exposed, and modesty is a big deal in Laos. I am no where near perfect, and not necessarily always the most modest girl in the world at home (probably the opposite, esp at the beach), but I try my best to do so over here, as I want to have the respect of the local people and not put them out. I've been wearing a top that has has my shoulders just covered (everything else is dirty and in the wash thanks to the dust bus) and the last few days I've felt slightly self conscious at times, especially with the hundreds of monks wandering around LP. But so many girls are walking around in itty bitty tops/dresses and shorts without a care in the world, or so it seems. hmmm. not good.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Dust Dust Dust

Greetings from the beautiful and sleepy town of Louang Prabang in Laos! I am no longer in Vietnam after 2 days of solid, and extremely dusty travelling on buses. There are some almost immediate differences between the two countries, most likely contributed by the fact that the population in laos is significantly less to that in vietnam! For example, barely any one uses their horn (if you've ever been to Vietnam you would understand, horns are used ALL THE TIME!). And the roads are so quiet there is hardly any traffic either. It is going to take a while to get used to the symbols though - while Vietnam used letters similar to English, in Laos it is all symbols which often look identical except for an extra mm on a wiggle!

As usual my 'plans' have changed resulting in my arrival to Louang Prabang last night at about 8.30pm. I left sapa on saturday morning at about 7.30am on a 'tourist' bus, where they packed as many people and things onto the bus as possible. Very bumpy and extremely dusty bus ride to Dien Bien Phu it was, with a bit of a crazy driver. I was seated up near the front which was good as it ended up with more space for me and a good view along the way as we passed through the mountains. I think the maximum speed we got up to was about 40km the majority of the way, with the road being dirt and extremely windy - beautiful views of the mountains but it was quite smoky/misty so photo's wouldn't have been the best. There was one vietnamese lady behind who obviously had travel sickness and threw up quite a few times, but thankfully no one else on the bus was affected. At one stage we got stuck with some traffic due to a construction site on the cliff above the road pushing rock boulders on the path. Had to wait about 10-20 minutes for them to stop then clear the road then we all jumped back in the bus. I've learnt that you do not stray far from the bus ever, as they will not wait for you to get back on the bus - on multiple occasions up to 2 or 3 people would be jumping on the bus as its starting off. This bus trip was extremely dusty - we all got out covered n dust from head to toe and our bags... well if they had colour to start with, they all ended up being a red/brown colour!

I met a young Australian couple on the bus who were hoping to cross the border that night and if we'd arrived a bit earlier we probably would have tried by getting a taxi to the border and then walking from there, but no one at DBP seemed to know when the border shut, and as we didn't get to DBP until 4.30pm, we ended up staying the night to catch the 5.30am bus to Muang Khua in the morning.

I realise that the majority of people are not going to believe me when i say this, but it literally took me 8 hours yesterday (Sunday) to travel the 80 something kilometres from Dien Bien Phu (Vietnam) to Muang Khua (Laos). Quite a comical journey really, good thing I'm patient as the first hour was pretty much wasted. We left DBP at 5.30am, drove about 15km and stopped for 20minutes while the driver and a few others got out and had a cigarette break. Fair enough. We travel another 10km and the driver then gets on the phone, stops and starts chatting away. All the smokers hop out again and have another smoke... shaping up to be an interesting journey if this is what the rest of it will be like we are thinking. It is only 36km to the border from DBP and 55km from the Laos Border to Muang Khua. So, everyone jumps back on the bus and we turn around!! WHAT??! we are all thinking. We had about 4 empty seats on the bus at this time mind you. We head straight back to DBP and 1 hour later after starting we are back at exactly the same place with 7 new vietnamese guys jumping on the bus. I was in one of the back side seats for this trip and it was a bit amusing (would have loved a photo of this), as there were 2 guys sitting in the seat beside me, adn 4 squashed on the back seat next to 2 packs and a suitcase. Not a particularly comfortable ride, we were all squished in, i was above the wheel so meant my feet were quite high as well. This road was all tarred though, so it wasn't too bumpy in that regards.

So we continue on our journey and safter an hour or so (windy roads=40km/hr driving) arrive at the Vietnamese border to check out. One of the guards spoke excellent English, so that was very helpful. I was happy as he helped me to change my remaining dong. I had almost 1 million dong left over (due to a miscalculation in the amount I would need and a discovery of 800,000 dong I had hidden for safety purposes...) that i hadn't been able to change in DBP. He changed it into kip at a rate that wasn't too bad, so I was happy about that.

We wasted about an hour at the border, jumped back on the bus and continued the windy mountainous roads to the laos border which is a few km further on. Got a bit more complicated here, but I had already purchased my visa when in Hanoi so I got through relatively quickly (ie in half an hour or so). We all had to be checked for H1N1 by a machine that tests the surface temperature of our heads (somehow i really doubt this would be that effective but okay...). Only got charged 9000kip in fees (overtime, the h1n1 test and whatever other fees they imposed) so that wasn't too bad, particularly as i already had kip by this stage. Some people hadn't gotten visa's already so this delayed us further, but it was good to know what the border was like to inform others thinking of this trip in the future.

Once we crossed the laos border the road from there on is just dirt, which means yet again dust and more dust. Personally I didnt' think the roads (or the bus journeys) were all that bad, yeah a bit bumpy but definitely nothing more than you would get on a 4wd trip. And as I've been on many 4wd trips adn lived in africa, these roads were relatively smooth in comparison! There is alot of construction work going on in the laos side of the road. i'd been warned by a few girls travelling the opposite trip that I could get stuck for a few hours so i was prepared with food and drinks and things. However we were really blessed with no construction stops at all ( I think it was because it was a sunday they had mostly all stopped). The guy at the border had predicted we'd arrive at Muang Khua at about 5pm. Fortunatley, we arrived earlier at 1.30pm, 8 hours after originally leaving DBP and travelling around 80-90km in total!!

I was originally going to head over towards Huay Xai near the northern Thailand border and do something called the Gibbon Experience, but decided that I won't do that anymore as it will end up taking at least 7days to get there and back and there is still so much more country to explore. So I agreed to join the group to get to Luang prabang by last night whatever means (and as cheaply as possible). We had the option of a boat, and bus ride adn it turned out that the cheapest (and fastest) and subsequently most comfortable option was to hire a mini-bus to take us the remaining distance. We left Muang Khua about 2pm and arrived into Luang prabang about 8.30pm so another 6 hours or so, but this time it was in airconditioned comfort!

So, now I am in Luang Prabang, think I'll chill out here for a few days, explore some caves and waterfalls, do a cooking lesson - mmmm foood :) and look at doing a homestay from here perhaps. We'll see. Then I'll head off to Phonsavan as I'd really like to see the plain of jars.