Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Plain of Jars in Phonsavan

After a nightmare bus ride I won't even talk about here from Vientiane up north to the one main street town of Phonsavan, I checked into the biggest hotel in town, in which I think I had the entire third floor to myself, took a quick shower, downed a cup of coffee and hired a guide to see the darn jars before I passed out of exhaustion. Dating back to the Iron Age, there is not much that's definitively known about these jars, though scholars believe that the stone jars are associated with prehistoric burial practices. The jars scatter the countryside in clusters ranging from one or two to hundreds, and no one knows exactly how they were used as there is conflicting data in the little research that has been done. Local legends talk of giants who used the jars to store booze. Who's to say who is right?

Some of the roads were gravel, some were paved and one was this bumpy monster

Hand in hand with the jars are the much more recent remains of the intense bombings of the area by the US during the Secret War in the late 60's/early 70's, against Northern Vietnamese and Pathet Lao Communists. They say that 262 million bombs were dropped in the area, about 80 million of which did not explode and still litter the countryside. You can see giant craters in the ground where the bombs went off and you must visit the jars with a guide and follow cleared paths. There are organizations in place to comb through the area, locate any UXOs (unexploded ordinances), and disarm them, and enterprising craft shops in the villages melt down the aluminum from the disabled bombs and turn them into spoons and jewelry. Part of the money made from those sales go back to help families who lost someone or who suffered injuries caused by the UXOs, at least that's the hope.

Soon to be spoons

Lichen has formed along the lip of the jars like flowers on a tomb

Trees have grown from beneath the jars and offer support for the weary

This is not a lid, but a marker for a buried grave. See the little man on top?

Fuzzy caterpillar. Has nothing to do with anything except that they were ALL OVER!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Baguettes and Buddhas in Vientiane

I was actually rather proud of myself in Vientiane. Everywhere you went tuktuk drivers offered to take you to the Buddha park for 120,000kip, which okay fine, is like $15, but I was getting tired of a hand being out for more and more money around every corner, so I walked into oncoming traffic and flagged down a local bus, just like the locals do (bus stops, if you can locate them, are never actually used here), and rode to the park for 6,000kip, and repeated the exercise on the way back. The park itself isn't really a religious site, except for the fact that it's full of religious imagery...so things get fuzzy in terms of what it is and what it isn't. Basically though a guy started collecting pieces and assembling them all in this park as a tribute or a way to preserve his own memory. In any case, having this many icons, Buddhas, gods and monsters makes for a quirky little spot to visit.  

This one was so insanely lifelike that it felt like it used to be a real person who 
was turned to stone and is slowly being chipped away by time. 
It even looks like he's following you with his eyes. Creepy!!!

There's a statue of a giant pumpkin with a screaming mouth that you can climb
into and then on top of to get an aerial view of the park. The pumpkin contains
three levels inside, each full of more statues to explore.  

The city itself was much more walkable then I expected. There were crafty shops filled with handiwork of local artisans and cafes with decent coffee, croissants and baguettes, showing off the French influences. I do have to say that while the baguettes were outstanding, the croissants are not as good as those in France, but then again I can't imagine this heat and humidity is a good climate for that delicate process. There was a busy night market on the edge of town full of souvenirs and smoothie stands, and there's a long main road that leads to a structure reminiscent of the Arc de Triumphe, but as the plaque inside states, this one was never completed and isn't as graceful or beautiful as the original. Still, droves of tourists flock to it and the fountain in front of it for selfies and group shots offered by helpful photographers making extra money in the park.

I was really tempted to ring the gong...but restraint and decorum 
were my mantras for the day and I was good. 

This structure was kind of hidden away and doesn't look like much, but has two 
things going for it. For one, it's called That Dam, which to me is hilarious. 
Also, it has a great story, as the locals believe that this stupa was once home to 
a seven-headed dragon (now conveniently dormant) who protected the city from
the Siamese, but sadly it seems that it also used to be covered in gold...and the
dragon wasn't enough to preserve that during the looting by the Siamese
army back in 1828. 

This shop is filled with crafts made by women from abused backgrounds and
all profits go to getting them back on their feet. Plus, that's a cute dragon stuffie.

Because Soap Nuts!!! I can't explain my excitement. 

There are many beautiful Wats all around the city, so I just wandered around the 
streets as the similar decor and styles blurred in my mind. 

Oh, I also had dinner at a hidden, out of the way Indian restaurant, which was pretty tasty, but the owner was so excited to have a visitor that after asking me for a photo, ended up shooting an entire video of me eating, which he then posted on Youtube. And no, I'm not sharing that link with you. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Kratie to Don Det - Following the Mekong River

There's a small city in Cambodia, right along the Mekong river, close to Lao called Kratie. The town is quaint and there's not much to do there but wander the shops and the small market. But if you rent a motorbike (or a scooter) and venture down a very straight road along the water edge, you get to a pier where you can rent a long boat and meander around the murky waters trying to catch a glimpse of the unique Irrawaddy dolphins. They live in fresh water and they have rounded heads without the snouts of their much better known cousins. I spent a quiet morning on the water trying to catch glimpses of them, and while I saw many of them surfacing, they were too far away for good pictures. 

There they are! See them?

After a while people started showing up and it started to get warmer, so I headed back towards town to explore. There were piles and piles of the most amazing pomelos I've ever had, and of course piles and piles of water bottles. 

I booked my bus to the islands in Laos and found the little description down at the bottom to be curious...how naive I was thinking they may have been joking.

The market was chock full of smells, some good...some not so much. One man was using a handy dandy machine to shred a coconut into fragrant strands, while women lined up waiting to get baggies filled of the freshest shredded coconut I've ever seen.

Cross stitching here seems to be a very popular way to keep busy. I especially liked the inclusion of Dutch windmills among the themes on offer.

I stopped at a small cafe for some fried noodles, drawn mostly by the wall art. If you look closely you'll see that the lizard, a representative of a massive local population, is made up of houses and somewhat haphazard streets.

After all that it's time to head back to the hotel. This might not look that awesome to you, but at the end of a super hot day that pool was like heaven. the building cast a shadow over the water keeping it cool and I spent the rest of the day doing not much of anything at all.

The bus ride to the islands went approximately how I assumed it would based on the promised cramped quarters, but arriving on the island was a bit like arriving in camp when you're small. If all the camp counselors forgot to show up and you had the place to yourself. Oh, and if you were old enough to drink beer. The sludgy waters were too warm and polluted for swimming, but that didn't stop a bunch of the visitors from venturing out on canoes and tubes.

The small island seemed mostly self sustained with water buffalo, chickens, ducks, cows and other animals roaming the area, and pretty much the only thing to do here aside from enjoy the river is to hike or bike over a bridge to the neighboring island to visit the largest waterfall is Southeast Asia.

After doing all the things I still had most of the day left to go, so again, I found myself in a room with a fan and my Kindle. There were too many bugs outside to really enjoy lounging around reading out there, and I have no idea how some people could live this kind of island life for weeks. I had enough, and after venturing out for dinner I booked my bus ticket out of here to the next destination. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Hard Truths in Phnom Penh

The Killing Fields are considered one of the main places to visit and learn about the terrible history of Phnom Penh and Cambodia. This spot doesn't look like much at first glance, but as the audio tour slowly unfolds, it reveals the horrors that occurred on this small piece of land, not that long ago. Responsible for mass genocide and murder of 25% of the people of Cambodia between the years of 1975 and 1979, at which point they were expelled from the country by the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge somehow kept it's seat in the UN until 1993! An offshoot of the Vietnam People's Army from North Vietnam and led by Pol Pot, it was a communist party that believed in agricultural reform and extreme self-sufficiency, which led to widespread famine and uncountable preventable deaths. Everyone who was not a farmer or laborer was considered unsuited for the ideal way of life and, along with anyone who spoke out against the regime, was cruelly tortured and murdered, along with their entire family and friends.  The stupa that stands in the middle of the complex now houses the many sculls and bones found on the premises to give the victims spirits some peace and to ensure that future generations never forget the atrocities that happened there. 

The museum that stands in town and continues this story was originally a school, but was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and the classrooms were turned into prison cells instead. Gallows were constructed in the field where children once played and horror stories are told of the tortures conducted here.

There is also a bomb museum in town that talks about the carpet bombing by the US as well as the millions of mines buried throughout the country, many of which still have not been unearthed, but I was emotionally drained and headed to see the Palace instead. The field in front of the grounds was strangely deserted in the middle of the day and only pigeons and a few guards were visible.

I headed back for my hotel to wash away the day in the pool and then ventured out again in the evening for some authentic-ish burritos and a cold margarita. I don't think I'll ever forget the stories I heard on this day, but I needed to switch my brain back to lighter and happier things in order to continue my journey. 

Fishing Villages on the Mekong and Other Siem Reap Sights

I joined a small guided tour to see everything in Siem Reap that did NOT involve temples, and I'm so glad I did! A small van picked up a very small group of people and took us out to a nearby village and a set of bikes. The guide told us about the everyday lives of the people here and as we passed one home little kids ran out and jumped on the backs of our bikes for a bit, like little monkey hitchhikers. Turns out that they know our guide and they know that if they hang around long enough he'll come by and give them bananas as treats. After we said goodbye to the kids we rode past a school where morning classes were in session and then to a local market to check out the produce.

The gas in liquor bottle concept is alive and well throughout all of SE Asia.
Gives a new meaning to the Johnny Walker bottles...forget walking:
today, Johnny rides a scooter!

The baggies up top are filled with palm oil, to the left of those the gray mush is 
fermented fish paste (I was too scared to try it), the bucket in the middle is 
filled with tamarind pods, and the bundles on the right are dried fish snacks.

Sanitation isn't a huge worry around here, but no one questions the woman
who wields that cleaver with such dexterity and expertise. 

People drive straight into the busy markets with their motorbikes to do their shopping,
loading the baskets on the back with produce for the next few days.

The way to ensure that you're getting a fresh eel is to keep it alive until purchase

This woman perched right on the table along with her wares, and was happy to 
clean, gut and chop the fish however you liked then and there.

After dropping off our bikes we headed to another town right on the river for lunch at the home of a local and to see how people lived in the stilted houses. Right now it's the dry season here so in some parts the river is just a small trickle of sludge, but during rainy season it swells up and rises all the way up making all those supports very necessary. Most of the houses are built high enough to be safe, but now and then the river gets enthusiastic and people's homes get flooded for weeks at a time.

Venturing further into the river we find the more dedicated fishermen abodes. The people who live here chose to build their houses on top of boats and stay suspended above the river that is their livelihood through all seasons. Some of the homes here belong to Vietnamese families and some to Cambodians, and turns out that even in communities as small as this, the two cultures don't really get along, choosing to stick to their own sides for the most part.

At the end of the trip we stopped by the side of the road for a snack. I don't recall what this treat was called, but it's basically a mixture of rice, coconut milk, sugar and red beans that's baked inside of green bamboo wrapped in a banana leaf over a coal fire. The mass cooks inside and caramelizes a bit and turns into a chewy and not too sweet treat that you have to break open the bamboo to get to. Yum!

After the trip I wandered around the city on my own for a bit. There were a few local temples with women selling intricately woven flower arrangements to offer up inside, as well as vendors on bikes selling fruit to passersby.

The infamous and popular Pub Street comes alive at night with hundreds of neon signs, loud music, street food vendors, a night market for random souvenirs as well as lots and lots of restaurants. A few of the restaurants are multi-purpose, in that one might give jobs and offer training to people with disabilities, and another might offer hospitality and restaurant training to kids from very poor families. You might need to have a bit of patience when eating at one of these, but the staff is always incredibly friendly and quite eager to make you happy. Besides, what's there to rush for anyways?

Another wonderful project here in town is the Cambodian Circus. They too take kids from poor families and offer them training in acrobatics and other arts, but more importantly they teach them the value of self worth and their unlimited possibilities in life. They show you a short video before the show starts where the kids talk about what a change the circus has made in the quality of their lives and in their hopes for their futures and it's quite inspiring. The show itself was quite impressive as well, with a funny story line to move the acrobatic feats along.

In the middle of my second foray into the temples mentioned in my last post, I stopped at a small sign on the side of the road that advertised a butterfly farm and I popped in to check it out. Here they will show you the entire lifespan of a butterfly, from eggs (who knew?), to larvae, to caterpillars, to chrysalis, to scrunched up butterflies trying to pump blood into their smushed wings and resting from their recent rebirth, to the fluttering beauties who float about the nearby garden. 

All different kinds of caterpillars are kept in containers and vases that are checked on
several times a day, and migrated to the next station as needed.

I'll admit, this bouquet is a bit creepy...

This butterfly just hatched and is hanging out furiously pumping blood 
to it's wings to spread them and fly

The same butterfly from above almost ready to go, just needed another breather

I watched this little guy hatch and try to fly too soon. He tumbled into my hand
and I carried him around the garden with me until he was ready to fly again.

Stick bugs! I don't know what else to say to convey my excitement over this!

The next day I left the temples and headed further on to Phnom Penh to learn about the history of this country, as hard as that will be, but that's for another time and another post.