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Monthly Archives: February 2012
Here is an interesting aside, I have no idea what the Cambodian currency is even called. I have the equivalent of about fifty cents US in my pocket in local money (all notes) and the rest are greenbacks. I went to the ATM yesterday and withdrawing local notes was not even an option, out came brand new dollar bills. Tuk tuk drivers quote in dollars, weird giving them just a buck, restaurant and bar bills are all presented in dollars. It’s almost impossible to find out how much to pay with the local bills and that option seems to be rather frowned upon. I don’t have an answer, inflation maybe, but I don’t see people with wheelbarrows full of local notes a la Weimar Republic. Guess I will just get over it and will let you know if I discover why.
Another bothersome problem is to do with the bottles of drinking water. They all come with a thin plastic cover over the bottle top that has to be removed before one can break the bottle top seal. So you end up with a two inch by a half inch strip of plastic each time you open a water bottle. What are you supposed to do with it ? There is of course no recycling can nearby, nor even a garbage can to dispose of this irritating packaging so I have been shoving it in my pocket. But it’s sharp, it sticks into me. I don’t know and maybe finish this paragraph like the last one.
Oh dear, I hear you saying, Tim’s lost it.
So, just to prove that maybe you are on the right track I made another MISTAKE today. Ha ha. As seen above I used the ATM yesterday and today I found that I can buy Malarone here. That, as those with elephantine memory abilities will remember from a far distant post, is the anti malaria medication that does not result in nightmares or hallucinations, and yes it is a quarter of the US price. Even so, at five bucks a pop it adds up when you need thirty. So back to yesterday’s ATM. It has a door, quite why I have no idea, it’s like standing in a glass oven. Closed door, stuck card in slot, fatal error message on screen about being unable to complete transaction due to …….whatever and please take card and try transaction later. Except, yep, you guessed, no card to take. AAAGH. Bleeping thing ate it. Oh no. Booked on a 7.00am boat to Phnom Penh tomorrow, booked into hotel in same, panic, flail, run amok. Calming I found the help phone number and called, I love my local SIM card. Press two for English, ok, did that, then it took five minutes to get my name correct, another two to get name of issuing bank, I had to give my phone to a passing stranger so he could tell the bank the location of the ATM, street number, huh, it went on and on, as it does anywhere, getting nowhere until I gently enquired when I might see my card again, oh, Monday she said. This was the mistake, I lost it. No no, that won’t work, I leave tomorrow, need card, no money, etc etc. I will meet with my colleagues and return your call. Oh no, when will that be. After I meet with colleagues, and round we went again. Suddenly I heard a familiar sound, that of a rebooting computer, bzzt, there was my card, in my hand. Bye. Watched ATM reboot, this ATM is out of order, ya right.
I think I may go out now.
More from Phnom Penh.
I did it. I answered the 4.45am alarm call and was present, correct and sober in the lobby at 5.15. Jumped into car, driven by hotel employee, and sped off into the darkness. Not many people around at that time of the morning, in fact it was obvious that the only ones around were making the same pilgrimage, couples in tuk tuks, couples on bicycles, others in cars. It’s not far to the main gate where I bought a three day pass, $20.00, then on again, into the darkness. Parked in massive lot, will I ever find this white Camry again, and clutching water, camera, flashlight and ticket joined the silent throng moving to who knows where. Across what looked like a bridge, upstairs, downstairs and then it seemed we were in a massive theater like field. The flashes from cameras, the flashlight beams, the low chatter was vaguely reminiscent of waiting for the main act at an outdoor music festival. The best viewing area appeared to be in front of some sort of pond but not wishing to fall in I took a spot on the edge of the crowd and began the wait.
Dawn broke, a light pink, tried a couple of shots with the flash but all I got were photos of the grass in front of me! Waited a little bit longer and suddenly, there it was, that iconic view, the three towers, all clearly visible. I waited for the roar of the crowd, didn’t happen, this was not a rock festival even if it felt like one. Took lots of pictures of other people who asked me to, as one does, someone took my photo with my camera but I haven’t put it up for you to see. (family pressure may change that) Hey, we are talking 5.30am here, not looking my best, also I looked at my three day pass photo, not flattering.
I made my way to the Temple not entirely sure what to expect. It is so tremendously vast that even if all the dawn watchers had descended en mass there might be one person per acre. Actually they didn’t, I wonder where they all went. It had an eerie deserted feel, not at all spooky, but just this huge feeling of space, massive space. Sitting in a corner observing the central area, with the towers, I could take it all in without being disturbed by people, I moved to each of the four corners and the feeling was the same, tranquility springs to mind. Quite inspirational.
Angkor Wat is old, very old, even to a jaded Euro like me, we are talking eleventh/twelfth century here, these rocks have seen a lot. I was amazed, fascinated, impressed, overwhelmed, enchanted, charmed.
I did find the white Camry again and fell into the seat somewhat stunned, speechless, and just a little bit dazed. A reviving cup of tea and we were off, there are many many temples around Siem Reap, all related to Angkor, built at a similar time. More of those later.
Hope you like the photos.
To Cambodia we go, me and all the other holiday-makers from all round the World. So many different languages in the departure lounge at Luang Prabang it was a veritable Tower of Babel. Now we are on a prop plane 20,000 feet over the border with about thirty minutes to go.
I took the opportunity to revisit the alms giving/receiving ceremony at dawn this morning and discovered the cunning plan behind the chaos I beheld that first morning. Now that I know my way around town better I got off the bus at an earlier point than previously and cut down the back alleys to a street that parallels the great seething mass. Ha ha, local residents lined the sidewalk complete with rice baskets, ready for the procession and not a camera in sight. This then is the secret, avoid the chaos on Sisavangvong Road, this is presumably where the City Fathers want the cameras to go, and go one street over, towards the Mekong. You will have the street to yourself, well apart from the residents and the monks. I hope some photos come out (do we still say that?) as the sight of that Saffron ribbon heading down the street, unhindered, was mesmerizing.
Onward to Siem Reap, the gateway to the largest religious building in the World, Angkor Wat. I was greeted on arrival at the airport by the hotel’s tuk tuk driver and we headed off on the 7 km drive into town. First impressions, it’s hot, it’s wet, it’s dusty, it’s noisy, it bustles, there is food, everywhere, it is amazingly inexpensive, it looks like it just fell down and is being rebuilt. I absolutely love it. Oh,and holiday makers sitting with their feet in fish tanks!
A fish pedicure. A tuk tuk ride from the hotel to the restaurant area is a dollar, after which you would be hard pressed to spend more than ten dollars for a meal. There is great shopping, I saw some very attractive silk pashminas. I want a hat and a bag to carry stuff around, like a shopping bag. So back to the market after completing this.
Up again before dawn tomorrow and spend the day with a tuk tuk driver and a guide book. See the sun come up, walk about, take photos, hope to understand why the complex was built and how it has survived all these centuries. It is the chronological twin of Chartres, Winchester, and other European cathedrals.
Sorry if I sounded a bit blue last evening but it was Valentine’s day and I had hardly spoke to a soul all day.
Itchy feet, high metabolism, well rested ? Whatever it is I am on my way tomorrow. Luang Prabang (LP) is a delight, the people are friendly, smiley, gracious, polite and as far as I can tell scrupulously honest. According to my Rough Guide they have an innate sense of “muan” (fun) and if something is “baw muan” (not fun) then it is quickly abandoned. Sounds reasonable. I see much hard work going on, running stalls and shops, fishing and farming, maintenance, repair and building but alas it all seems to provide little in the way of return. The most used bank note is the 50,000 Kip note, about $6.00 US, and frankly everything seems to cost less than this. Example, the restaurant I am currently sitting in features a menu with nothing more expensive than, yes, 50,000 kip. Johnny Walker is $3.00 a shot, cocktails are $3.25, Daiquires, Piña Coladas, even a Long Island Ice Tea. Not much of a markup available there. I suppose there is some solace in the fact that I am helping to contribute towards the fifty percent of the Country’s revenue which comes from tourism. But not even my meager contribution is not going to help Laos drag itself up from its position in one of the ten most underdeveloped countries on Earth.
I think it is here, for the first time, that I have found it unfortunate that I do not have a travel companion. All those activities in Hong Kong, HCMC and Hanoi were just fine to do solo but here, after the initial exploring, I could have done with some company. There are all sorts of one and two day excursions to waterfalls, elephant preserves, ethnic villages etc that really lend themselves to group travel. Bit boring on ones own. So, tomorrow I go to Siem Reap, site of the famous Angkor Wat temple complex.
Will let you know how it goes.
A very slow day in Luang Prabang as predicted. I did leave the hotel at 5.30am to catch the bus into town as one of the big attractions here is the early morning Binthabhat ceremony when the monks from the 30 odd monasteries in town process down the main street receiving alms from the citizenry. As well as receiving, the monks also donate some of the food stuffs they are given to the less fortunate, children mainly, as far as I could see.
Well this all sounds fine and admirable, however the reality is something completely different. I arrived, solo, sat on a low wall to watch and initially, in the dark, made out a long row of citizens sitting quietly with a pot of rice before them ready for the procession. All very heartwarming. However, as dawn broke, the light strengthened all hell broke loose. Convoys of laden SUVs, tuk tuks, and taxis arrived depositing hundreds of camera toting “people”, who proceeded to behave in the most appalling fashion. I watched, amazed, as a camera with a two foot lens was thrust inches from a two year old’s face. When the monks finally came along it really was a nightmare. People falling over themselves, and the monks, to get the best shot. There was even one group led by a guide with a megaphone telling his group where to stand and giving them advice on what was going to happen next. Ok, I was there too, but kind of hanging back, on the other side of the street, behind the parked SUVs etc and quite honestly I took more photos of the deranged mob than of the monks. Oh it was dreadful, quite ghastly, wretched even.
So, bus back to hotel feeling sorry for the state of mankind and other profound thoughts. Had a shower and breakfast and fortified walked back into town. Found the ferry terminal for transport up, down and across the Mekong River, sat there for over an hour absorbing the timeless activity and felt better about everything.
Time to potter about the town which I did for about three hours, had lunch, came back to the hotel as it got rather hot and took a two hour nap.
Back into town tonight for the joys of street food, though last night’s hotel dinner with wine was no more than $15.00 and it was good, well ok, well passable. Street food may be better.
This is the first day since leaving SF that I haven’t had a schedule and I feel quite refreshed, already looking for local adventures. There is a two day boat ride up the river, then two days back that sounds appealing.
btw, I think I unlocked the you tube video from HCMC about crossing the road. That seems a long time ago and somewhat irrelevant but those interested will find it at the bottom of the Ci Chu Tunnels page.
More as I go.
Amazing how a dull day can work out better than expected. 7.00am cab from the hotel out to the airport, alas no Skype this time as my SIM card had run out of minutes. Checking in, easy, security, easy, but then good old gate 6 stopped, and stopped. We took off 30 minutes late which is not usually a problem unless you have a connecting flight an hour after landing and need to get a visa, go through Customs and Immigration, get a boarding pass and find the gate.
Well, it was a non starter really. Landed, joined Visa queue, filled in form and waited, waited, waited. Gained position eight in the line with ten minutes to go when there appeared a charming Lao Airlines lady with my name on a card. Come sir, they are waiting. Oh ok fine, let’s just deal with all this. She grabs my forms, passport, photo and money emerging 90 seconds later with Visa, issued. Flew though Immigration in our own line, ignored Customs, dashed outside to the Domestic terminal, ran to check in. Shucks, says she, in Lao, they didn’t wait. Shucks, says I, in English, we gave it the good old college try. Not to worry sir, she bounced, you can just go into town, have lunch, wander about a bit, shop and come back for the 4.00pm flight. Ok great says I, see you later. This was around 11.30 I guess. Wait wait, I said, we must call my hotel, they are picking me up, well not picking me up, coz I won’t be there. Not a problem Mr Tim, by this time we had dropped the sir, I will call hotel and change pickup time. She did. I changed money, millions of Dong to thousands of Kip, then challenge, where am I going ? Not as if I am an old hand at finding my way around Vientiane, the Capital of Laos, is it? Out with the Guide Book, go here, go there, do this, do that, but whatever you do, eat French food. Hmm, that appeals. Guide book also said, go outside the airport where transportation is less expensive, I did. Grabbing bravado with both hands I took a tuk tuk, this is the front end of a two stroke motor cycle with a platform hanging off the back containing two very narrow seats, and a roof with a kind of two wheeled axle beneath. Quite exciting, no iced towels and frozen water in Vientiane.
Four dollars later I was dropped off on a street in downtown with a vague gesticulation towards the chosen restaurant, and he was off.
Glanced round nervously preparing to leap out of the way of marauding motor scooters, but wait, there are none. In fact people are walking about casually, in the middle of the street even, with nary a care in the world. There’s a smell, wood smoke, charcoal, fresh baked bread, food. The street is lined with restaurants, all busy, people to ing and fro ing, laughter, merriment, and no motor scooters, well, not many, and certainly not on the sidewalk. Awright. I walked about, people smiled, people did the hand clasping greeting thing. I relaxed. The Rough Guide was correct, fabulous French food. I had Coq au Vin avec le garlic bread aussie un seven up. Brilliant. Sat in the sun and revelled, I could really enjoy this. It’s like Vientiane rolled over and went to sleep when the French left 40/50 years ago and hasn’t woken up since. After the crazy craziness of HCMC, the bedlam that is Hanoi, the drive of HK I went a bit limp.
Open bracket. Joined by two Parisians who wanted to talk, we talked, my flow is interrupted. Sorry. Close bracket.
It’s warm, again, off with the jacket sleeves, roll up the shirt sleeves, hike duffel onto back and walked about. What a great city, it’s like no other capital I have ever visited, it’s so relaxed. I felt a bit exhausted after an hour of the wandering and straight away came across a temple with chanting monks, sat and absorbed for a little, then it was a tuk tuk back to the airport, feeling, well, rejuvenated , I guess.
So here I am, finally in Luang Prabang, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. I have not ventured out of the hotel yet as its kinda late but all indications are that it is exactly how I imagined it.