A first glance at Laos

It was a crisp, clear evening, not a cloud in the night sky. And while the boats, covered in candles, sparkled down the Mekong river, hundreds of paper lanterns were released into the sky.

Foreigners and locals alike participated in the tradition of Bun Awk Phansa…

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A few days earlier, we had flown into Luang Prabang just after 6 pm to find the entire airport shut down. Luckily, the guesthouse we were staying at – Manichan Guesthouse – had a pickup service. We saw the sign with “Ashley Tangerine” and heaved a sigh of relief.

After dropping our stuff in our room for the next four nights, we decided to venture out and get our bearings. We wanted to check out the local handicraft night market and find something to eat! It worked out well that we had no money on us, otherwise I’m sure we would have purchased everything in sight. Instead, we made our way to our much beloved Joma Bakery – figuring we’d be more adventurous foodies on another night.

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The following day we decided to further our wanderings through the Buddhist temples and monasteries that make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Luang Prabang. Our first stop was at the National Palace Museum (just a note, make sure to arrive early, they close 30 minutes before they say they do both in the morning and afternoon! It took multiple trips before we finally had time to see everything).

The temple outside the museum is pretty cool, and there’s a collection of vintage cars as well, but there’s not a lot worth seeing inside the museum itself. That is, until you get to the final room…it’s filled with gifts that have been given to Laos over the years and contains four moon rocks, given by President Nixon (it was shocking to see his name in a positive light, after seeing so much anti-American propaganda in Vietnam!).

Royal Palace MuseumLater on that day, we weaved in and out of temples – Wat May Souvannapoumaram, Wat Sensoukaram, and Wat Pahouak were some of our favourites – before coming to the most famous of them all: Wat Xieng Thong. Each village in the region has a temple in Luang Prabang, explaining why there are so many of them!

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A sunset inside Angkor Wat

The day before had started at sunrise, and this one was going to end at sunset. We passed through Angkor Thom’s southern gate shortly after 7 am and headed straight for Bayon.

Bayon is comprised of 54 Gothic-style towers that are decorated with 216 smiling faces – all of which are an odd amalgamation of Avalokiteshvara (a Buddhist deity) and Jayavarman VII (a king who wanted to be seen as a demi-god). The only temple more visited than this is Angkor Wat itself, and even just driving up to it, you could see why.

The sun was rising, and while many recommend this time to view Bayon, I found the sun to almost hinder getting a grand look at the temple. Instead of enhancing the faces, the sun (and the shadows it created), made it more difficult to discern fine details. It wasn’t until we were underneath the faces, on the first level, that we were able to get a good first look.

Bayon 1But I can’t bemoan the timing too much, once again we had arrived before the large tour buses (they showed up right as we were walking out, over an hour later!). Bayon isn’t a particularly large temple, but there’s so much to look at, from the bas-reliefs on the first floor to the faces on the third.

Everywhere you turn…there’s a face staring back at you. Built in the late 12th century or early 13th century, it’s sort of amazing that so many of these faces are in such good condition.

Bayon 2It’s hard to get across, with either words or photos, just how large these faces are. So I’m including the following photo to help give perspective. Keep in mind – at 5′ 6″ (1.68 m) I’m not a particularly large person.

Bayon 3After Bayon we made our way to Baphuon. This temple is awesome because it’s comprised of 300,000 stones that were at one time all disassembled. Records were made, of course, but they were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and the temple had to be reassembled without them.

I’d say they did a pretty good job – though when you’re up close, it’s obvious what was an exact match and what was just an approximation!

BaphuonNext we weaved our way around and on top of the Terrace of Elephants. I have to be honest, you get a better view of them by simply driving past. We also went to the Terrace of Lepers, which I found to be much more interesting – especially the carved walkway.

And then…it was time for a BREAK! After three temple days, we decided to take a break between the big ones. We went back to the hotel (read: took a nap) and then grabbed a quick lunch.

At 3:45 pm, we started making our way to Angkor Wat. Only, on the way, our tuk-tuk kept breaking down – which meant I was freaking out. I wanted to watch the sunset from inside Angkor (which happens at 5:46), but we still needed to look around the temple first. Luckily, our driver eventually figured out the issue and we were only 15 minutes later than planned.

We arrived at the gate and my heart sank – “Angkor Wat: Open 5:30 am to 5:30 pm.” Didn’t they know that that was before sunset? I couldn’t believe it. And at 4:15, there were already dozens of people lined up to watch the sunset from outside the main gate. So we decided to go inside and make the most of our time there.

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Starting at sunrise

I’ve never been a fan of early mornings, but I wanted at least one sunrise during our time in Siem Reap. Most people flock to Angkor Wat itself, but since we (read “I,” Chandler would have been content sleeping in) didn’t want to be surrounded by hundreds of other tourists, we made our way to Sra Srang instead. Sra Srang, also known as the Pool of Ablutions, was used by the king and his consorts.

Our alarms went off at 4:15 am – we used two in case the one couldn’t cut it – and were on our way by 4:45, breakfast in hand. Our tuk-tuk driver (yes, we down-graded, no more car!) drove us through the checkpoint, with no other vehicle in sight. We arrived at the pool to find that only one group (of three) had arrived before us. Throughout the course of the sunrise, we were joined by maybe a dozen others, but we felt perfectly content to snack away on our egg sandwiches and take in the sunrise.

I may never know what a sunrise over Angkor Wat looks like in person, but I have no regrets over our choice to head to Sra Srang instead…

Sra SrangAfter the sun had risen too much to be looked at directly, we made our way across the street to Banteay Kdei, a Buddhist monastery built in the 12th century. The entrance is decorated with the four faces of Avalokiteshvara.

After passing through the doorway, we found ourselves in a completely deserted temple – the cleaning staff hadn’t even arrived yet to remove the previous night’s cobwebs! This was one of the most surprising temples for us. We hadn’t expected much past the gate, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that the temple just kept going.

Banteay KdeiThings got a little interesting when we went back to our tuk-tuk driver. Technically, we were paying him to take us on the Grand Circuit, but we wanted to save Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom for the final day, so we had a slightly different route planned. Turned out it wasn’t as simple as that. Luckily, our driver was an affable man, and agreed to the change in route, for another $5 that is.

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Beng Mealea: My favourite temple

We officially have three holes punched on our seven-day Angkor pass. Which sounds silly when you think about it, why didn’t we just get the three-day pass? But actually, it worked quite well in our favour.

Tuesday morning we rented a car (a car? How fancy…but it seemed the best option when traveling over 150 km in a day and still wanting plenty of time to explore), and made our way to Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, Beng Mealea, and the Roluos Group.

We decided to start with the outermost temples first and spend our final day at Angkor Wat and Bayon – the most famous of the temples. We had a fairly early start to the day, because we heard tour groups take a little longer to get up and running and we wanted as much time to ourselves at the temples as possible.

Our first stop was the ticket office. The lines for the three-day passes were already twenty-or-so people deep (at 7:30 am), but we were the only ones interested in a weeklong pass (the three-day passes are valid for a week, the week-long passes are valid for a month). Bonus number one for spending an extra $20 on days we didn’t end up needing: We were in and out of the ticket area in less than two minutes.

Then it was on to Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, also known as the Citadel of Women. It is cut from stone that has a pinkish hue and includes some of the finest carvings in all of Angkor (and possibly the world). Construction began in 967, and it was the first major temple restoration undertaken by the EFEO using the anastylosis method – a method of recording, dismantling, and reconstructing ruins.

Banteay Srei 1Banteay Srei 2Banteay Srei 3Then it was off to Kbal Spean. I should mention that when our driver asked us where we wanted to go (and gave us a list of options), he was surprised to hear us come up with Kbal Spean all on our own. You see, once again, we fell prey to Lonely Planet’s optimistic reviews – “Kbal Spean is a spectacularly carved riverbed, set deep in the jungle to the northeast of Angkor.”

In actuality, Kbal Spean is a handful of carvings, most of which are underwater during rainy season. The ones we could see were fairly interesting, but now I’ll tell you why I wouldn’t quite recommend this site…you see, LP had gone on to mention that “it is a 2km uphill walk to the carvings, along a pretty path that winds its way up into the jungle.”

Lies. Well, I suppose it was pretty. But it was no “walk” and it was a hell of a lot more than just “uphill.” Not to mention that the word “path” was used pretty liberally. As we neared the top (over 45 minutes later), the rains began and we were forced to take shelter under my umbrella. Chandler had once again forgotten his.

That said, we were incredibly grateful for the rain – Cambodia, like Vietnam, is unreasonably hot, and the rains are pretty much always welcome in my opinion. When we finally made it to the river, we were a bit disappointed at the absence of “a spectacularly carved riverbed.”

Luckily, we continued along the path (I had to forage this alone first and then return back for Chandler), and found the waterfall LP had ever so casually mentioned. Which I have to say was a lot lovelier than the carvings themselves. All-in-all, I enjoyed the stop (which took over two hours), but Chandler was definitely wishing I hadn’t felt so adventurous.

Bonus number two for getting the seven-day passes: Had we waited in line for the three-day passes we would have been mid-climb when the rains started. Trust me, you do not want to be mid-climb when it starts pouring.

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Getting fancy in Phnom Penh

We planned this trip with the “backpacker lifestyle” in mind, but once it started, we quickly became flashpackers. If this term is new to you, a flashpacker is someone who brings their technology with them and often chooses boutique hotels over dorm rooms…but probably still carries a pack on their back.

This definition fits us to a T. We really had no choice on the electronics, anything we wanted to take from Ethiopia had to be brought with us…laptops, external hard drives, ebooks, phones. Though to be honest, most of these are so old I’m fairly certain a thief would look at them and decide nothing was worth their time. But we do buy a sim card with unlimited 3G in every country, because having Google Maps tell us where to go has become indispensable.

We’ve also never stayed in a dorm room, but with two people, that’s just a practicality thing. Why pay $5 per person for a dorm bed when a few dollars more can get you a private room (usually with your own hot shower, air-con, and fridge)? Though I have to admit, our upper limit on room cost has continued to rise (with the exception of Sen Monorom!).

In Phnom Penh we’ve upped the limit once again, paying the most we’ve ever paid – $27 a night (split between two). We looked through our options and found numerous, cheaper choices, but we kept coming back to photographs of The Artist Guesthouse. It just looked so inviting, so we figured, why not? We had originally planned four nights, but we decided to add two more after Sen Monorom because we loved it so much!

We chose a loft style room and were pleasantly surprised to find a bath with a separate shower, as well as Jay’s Diner down below. The room was incredibly spacious – for the first time we could Skype in separate rooms! Most of the city was shut down due to a holiday that no one knew enough to tell us about, but the owner was a wealth of knowledge on what to do in the city. And the diner served great food (you’ll soon see why that was convenient!).

The Artist GuesthouseJay's Diner

Our first full day in Phnom Penh involved a lot of wandering around – trying to find minibus offices that were all closed thanks to the holiday. We serendipitously walked into a travel agency that happened to sell the very same tickets we were looking for at the exact same price. But that afternoon, we did make it to the National Museum of Cambodia.

We were pleasantly surprised by the museum. There were a lot of really great pieces from Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. You weren’t allowed to take any photos inside the actual museum, but you could take some of the central courtyard.

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Elephants in Mondulkiri

Conceptually, I like staying awake during bus rides – that way I can see the countryside. But in reality, staying awake usually just means getting carsick. We recently went on a trip to Sen Monorom (the largest town in Mondulkiri, with a population of around 7,000). Lonely Planet describes the road between Phnom Penh and Sen Monorom as “in fantastic shape, including some impressive bridges across the deep river valleys.” That’s wrong – incredibly wrong.

In reality, the road has been mostly worn away – nearly everywhere. Sure, there were a couple of patches of smooth sailing, but I can guarantee that nearly every road I drove on in Ethiopia was in better condition than this one (and that is not a recommendation of Ethiopian roads!).

Additionally, I thought Ethiopians were some of the craziest drivers I had ever encountered, but I am now convinced that Cambodians have them beat. The journey takes large buses anywhere from 8 to 10 hours, Jack (I’ll introduce him later) said it takes him about 6 hours in his truck…it took our minibus 4 hours and 45 minutes.

We arrived into town with rumbly stomachs, but surprisingly, I was feeling well. I say surprisingly, because I never feel well stepping off a bus. But this time, I decided to keep my eyes closed as much as possible. Yes, it meant missing the countryside, but it also meant that I was refreshed and off to a good start for our first afternoon in Sen Monorom (a good thing, since we had a day and a half there).

Sen Monorom is the first town we’ve gone to on our SE Asia trip where we didn’t pre-book a hotel room. Normally, we’ll find something online and book directly through their website or via booking.com. This time, however, our first-choice hotel didn’t have a website, or a booking account, or a phone number they answered. So we showed up in town and began wandering.

We were looking for Phanyro Guesthouse (at $8 a night with air-con and hot water, how could we go wrong?), but were having a few difficulties finding it. We’ve pretty much survived this trip by getting sim cards in each country with 3G and constantly using Google Maps. But we arrived in Phnom Penh during a national holiday and found about 90% of all shops to be closed for the week – including cell companies. Eventually, our powers of deduction kicked in and we followed a couple of poorly placed signs to the guesthouse.

We checked out the room, which had been freshly cleaned, and decided it didn’t matter that the advertised air-con didn’t exist, because Sen Monorom is easily the chilliest place we’ve been during the course of this trip. After returning from dinner, we found fresh droppings scattered throughout the room and spent a rather fitful night trying to get some sleep. A mosquito net would have aided us greatly, alas, the room didn’t have one.

Finally, the next morning arrived. Which brings me to the point of all of this, the reason we were in Sen Monorom in the first place: elephants. Mondulkiri is known for elephants (the region has the largest population of both wild and domesticated in Cambodia) and there are tons of riding/trekking options in the area. We, however, were there for one very specific program: The Elephant Valley Project.

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Our final day in Vietnam: Take two

We arrived in Saigon Wednesday morning with plans to see the city for a few days before heading to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) on Saturday. We did a walking tour of the city, ate some great food, and, let’s be honest, did a lot of resting. We have, after all, been on the road seven weeks now.

We even went so far as to purchase our bus tickets through Mekong Express. We were leaving at 7 am on Saturday morning. It was going to take us six to seven hours to get into the capital of Cambodia.

And then, Friday afternoon, Louis, our hotel concierge, invited us for coffee. We ordered, sat down, and had a fairly interesting chat – mostly concerning weddings? Louis has a five-year plan, which culminates with a beautiful wife and a wildly expensive wedding – complete with an American honeymoon.

We discussed the best tricks for learning English, the differences between northern Vietnam and southern Vietnam’s coffee culture, and the fact that Louis is an avid karaoke-er. An hour later, we were back in our rooms. That’s when the trouble began…

At first, it was just mild stomach discomfort, but it quickly escalated into the certain knowledge that we were dying. And the culprit was easily named – unfiltered ice in the coffee. We thought, maybe it’ll pass if we take a cipro fast enough – wrong. The cipro only made it bearable (though thank you Peace Corps for teaching me when I can simply self medicate haha). Our plans of waking up at 6 am the following morning quickly flew out the window.

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