Traveling has its difficulties. Living out of a suitcase can get pretty old. Arriving at a hotel to discover that it smells like sewage can be pretty depressing. Travel days are exhausting. But the worst part of traveling is traveler’s diarrhea, or as I like to call it ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’
This is a special kind of ‘food poisoning’, where your gut bacteria decides that it doesn’t like a new cuisine and proceeds to evacuate everything from both your stomach and intestines at such a violent pace that you end up with sore ribs.
I spent the first 24 hours of our 3 days in Luange Prabang wishing for death…or that at least the smell of sewage in our hotel would subside. Luckily, this never seems to get me sick for more than 24 hours, and by day 2, I was able to go out and explore the city. I quickly fell in love.
The Mekong River
I definitely wouldn’t have lasted 2 minutes on these stairs!!
The bamboo bridge across one of the town’s two rivers
Luang Prabang’s History
Luang Prabang is located in North-Central Laos. The main city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage sight due to its many Buddhist relics and well preserved historical buildings.
It’s a small city, but has a tonne of history. Because it was the capital during Laos’ French Colonial period, there is a tonne of really cool architecture in the town. The mixture of colonial and traditional Laos buildings make it a great place for taking photos!
A great picture Dave got of an old French government building (which is now an ice cream shop)
The alley behind our 2nd hotel (we left the first one because of the terrible smell of sewage!!)
The owner of our 2nd hotel, and his son. These people were awesome!!!
Buddhism in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang translates to ‘The Royal Buddha Image’. I imagine this is because this is the town to see if you want to see Laotian Buddhist Architecture. We saw countless temples while we were there. I actually lost count of which ones were which, so I apologize that I can’t properly label them.
Some temples were extra interesting. Dave found one that had this really interesting rock jutting out in front of it. Another is said to have Buddha’s footprint in it. Buddha was apparently HUGE!!!
A temple at the top of a hill in town
These steps went up to the temple with the weird rocks
Luang Prabang is also known for a daily ceremony of local monks. Each day, at around 6am, monks walk the streets, asking for alms (donations). We never actually saw the procession, because as far as I’m concerned, 6am doesn’t exist when I’m on vacation, but it would be pretty neat to see. We did stop at one monastery, though, where I followed a cat around and got some really neat shots of it, with the Monk’s robes drying in the background.
This cat was also at this temple, but it was terrified of me and ran away ASAP
Handicrafts in Luang Prabang
As interesting as temples can be, they aren’t the only things Luang Prabang has to offer. There are several craft villages around the city. We attempted to visit 2 of them, but only one of the trips was successful.
The Pottery Village seemed to be closed down by the time we got there
The ferry trip across the Mekong, and cruising around on the roads in the area was a nice experience though!
We had better luck in the Paper and Weaving village, where we bought more than one souvenir!
I wish I could have bought of these magnificent blankets. Unfortunately, our cats would probably destroy them, and if we bought every piece of beautiful work we saw…we’d never be able to afford to travel!
On Our Way to the Waterfall
The best part of our trip to Luang Prabang though, was without a doubt, the trip to Kuang Si Falls.
There is more than one way to get to the falls. Most people take a tour with a group or with a Tuk Tuk driver. We opted to rent a motorbike instead, and found our own way, which was half the fun!
Animal friends we met along the way
This dog darn near came home with us! I loved his little fox face!!!
The first thing you see when you enter the park, is actually a bear sanctuary. Asiatic Black Bears (also called Moon Bears) are incredibly cute, but are also becoming incredibly endangered. They are captured all over Asia for use in Chinese Medicine.
Look at his cute bear face!!!
The sun is just too much for this one…
Bear Bile has been used in Chinese medicine for over 1000 years. The bile is mostly used to help with gal bladder and liver conditions. Fortunately, there are herbal options that are equally effective as the bear bile; unfortunately, people in China still think the bear bile is better. As a result, Asiatic bears are captured and literally tortured for years for the sake extracting bile from their gal bladders.
I was happy to see this sign, teaching people about alternatives
This is the size of the cages that are used to keep the bears at bile farms
The bear sanctuary has saved their bears from these farms. They also rescue bears who have been injured in traps. We saw one bear lumbering around clumsily because it was missing one of its front paws He made me think of my sweet Hugo, and how adaptable animals can be.
If you ever want to get me a Christmas or Birthday present, but aren’t sure what I’d like (and don’t want to pay outrageous shipping fees), please donate to ‘Save the Bears’ or any of the other organizations I’ve mentioned in past posts.
The Kuang Si Falls
The falls themselves are well worth the trip, no matter how you decide to get there. They go on for ages, and the final view of the big falls is absolutely stunning. I’ll let the pictures do the talking for me…
The first set of ‘mini falls’ we saw
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the plants for acting as a gorgeous border for my photo :p
As you continue up the hill, there are places you can actually swim at the falls. Dave and I both regret not bringing our bathing suits, as this would have been a gorgeous spot to go for a dip!
As we continued on, the falls got bigger and more beautiful.
The scenery around the falls was very nice as well. Even the garbage cans were cute, and there was an old water wheel as well.
Waterfalls in Laos
Finally, we arrived at the big falls, which are even more beautiful than the little ones! I hadn’t actually looked at the pictures online, so I wasn’t expecting anything this gorgeous, so it was a rather awesome surprise when we arrived at this point.
So that’s it for Luang Prabang. I’ve got plenty more to write, as we are now in Ho Chi Minh City! Stay Tuned!!!
We had limited time in Cambodia (7 days is hardly enough to experience an entire country, after all!), and had to pick and choose where we would spend our time during our May Holiday. Although there were several places that we wanted to visit, Angkor National Park was our main reason for visiting Cambodia, so we decided to book a 2 day tour with Happy Angkor Tours, instead of the 1 day tour that we allocated at all our other stops.
Dave and I aren’t usually big fans of tours (mainly because we hate other tourists) but this one wasn’t too bad. Our guide had passable English and knew a lot about the Buddhist history in all the temples. He tried very hard to keep us happy, even in the heat, and ended both days a little earlier than had been planned because we were both dealing with pretty awful sun stroke. This meant that we missed the sunset part of the tour we’d booked on the first day. It’s too bad, as it would have been beautiful to see the sun go down behind Phnom Bakheng, but by the time we had finished at Bayan Temple, all either of us wanted to do was make our way back to our hotel to take it easy. Looking back now, I’m kicking myself, but of course, in addition to the heat, we had spent the previous night on a bus and neither of us had gotten much rest, so the idea of an air conditioned room with a comfortable bed was more appealing than seeing the sun go down.
And it was a good thing that we got that additional rest, because Day 2 of our holiday started an hour before the sun came up…
Angkor Wat – Round 2
We woke up at around 4:30am, showered (we couldn’t do enough of that in Cambodia!!!) and met our tour guide outside our hotel. It was still very dark out and there was nobody in the streets. A half hour later, we were walking up to Angkor Wat again, though we couldn’t see it against the black sky. Our guide found us a fantastic spot on the bank of the man-made pond, we bought some iced coffee from a vendor who was selling them to tourists who were there for sunrise, and we waited.
As it got brighter and brighter we realized not only why it was worth waking up at 4:30am for this, but also that we were not the only ones who’d made this trip. The gratitude I felt for our tour guide, who had gotten us here before the crowds, also multiplied as I looked around me.
Eventually, the sun rose completely, giving us this spectacular view to start our day:
Chong Kneas – A Floating Fishing Village
Cambodia has 2 seasons: wet and dry. The wet season runs from May to October and the dry season from November to April. The Mekong River varies greatly between these two seasons, as Cambodia receives 75% of it’s rainfall in the wet months. So believe it or not, this is the same river:
But human beings have survived for all these years because we are so adaptable. As a species, we survive all over the globe in a variety of environments and conditions, and just like Canadians bundle up into layers of clothes to survive the winter, Cambodia has found ways to survive the rise and fall of the Mekong River.
Entire villages are built on stilts to account of the rise and fall of the Mekong, and we were lucky enough to visit one of these villages. Here, people don’t walk down the street. Instead, they hop into a boat and row to their destination. Even livestock is kept above ground.
Banteay Srei – The Lady’s Temple
Next, we set off to see another temple…and though I’d never heard of it, it is quite famous within Cambodia. Unlike many of Angkor National Park’s temples, this sight was not built by a King of the era…it was built by a Hindu Brahman who happened to be the spiritual teacher of the king at the time. He had the temple built in honor of the Hindu deity, Shiva, but today it is known as the ‘Lady’s Temple’ because of it’s most unique feature: the temple is constructed entirely of hard pink sandstone. It is truly a beautiful location to visit and I got some amazing pictures while we were there.
Banteay Samre – Our Final Stop
Our last stop of the tour was at Banteay Samre, a temple built in around the same time as Angkor Wat. It was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and once had an impressive mote surrounding it, that would have made it something to see in its day. The colour of these ruins was gorgeous. Just like at Bayun Wat, I feel like we were too tired to truly appreciate how elaborate this sight is. I guess we’ll just have to go back some day 🙂
So that wraps up our stay in Siem Reap! Next, I’ll be writing about Kratie…home of the Irawadi Dolphins!! Stay tuned!!!
We opted for a change of scenery today, and have settled in at Cafe Void for the evening, a small coffee shop in Zhong Tian Hua Yuan. The rainy season has begun in Guiyang, and although the temperature is much better now, we are getting several thunder storms a week. A fairly severe one hit while we were having supper tonight at our favorite hot pot place (it’s never too hot for hot pot!!) when it started thundering. Starbucks is about 20 minutes away by scooter, so we chose to stay close to home instead. Void’s got a great atmosphere anyway, and it’s nice to switch it up now and then anyway 🙂
Now, I know I never got around to finishing all of my posts about Thailand, but I think they’re just going to have to wait. I wrote about most of the major stuff already, and the 2 posts I have left to write (1 on the elephants at ENP and one about nightlife in Thailand) can wait until I’m done with our latest trip: Cambodia!!
Cambodia is amazing for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it’s incredible exotic…even for people living in China. Unlike Thailand, which is basically Canada’s ‘Caribbean’, Cambodia hasn’t been open for tourism for very long. They have a rather ugly modern history, and until the late 1990s, people simply didn’t go there to visit. But I’ll get to that in a bit…First, I’ll tell you a little bit about our first stop: Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is a fairly modern city. It isn’t a rich place, but compared to the rest of the country, it has a booming economy. There are plenty of sights to see in Cambodia’s capital, including several markets, monuments and temples and Cambodia’s National Museum. There’s no shortage of places to visit and we had to limit ourselves to a few top choices as we only had 2 days to see the city.
Still, there is extreme poverty here. Many children don’t go to school and instead beg on the street or sell bracelets to tourists. The city is also very dirty, which is common in poor countries.
And when it comes to helping the poor in Cambodia, there is a catch 22 for tourists. On one hand, if you don’t buy the things they are selling you feel like a terrible person. $2 isn’t much to a Canadian, but it’s a small fortune for a family as poor as some that we saw. But on the other hand, by giving in and purchasing items from these kids, you are telling their parents ‘yes, sending your children out to sell things is a good idea. I could say no to you, but I can’t say no to them’. I felt awful every time I gave in, but I couldn’t say no, and Dave and I ended up with a lot of bracelets, postcards, books and magnets.
We met these children in Kratie. They were so cute and so shy. I kept making faces at them to make them laugh, trying to get them to come over and say hello (they were hiding behind some boxes trying to get a glimpse of us). I eventually got them to come over and I asked them their names and taught them a little English. When I left, they came running out and said ‘Goodbye, Teacher!!!’. I met another group of girls who were selling flutes. We bought one flute from each of them ($1 a piece…) and I asked them what their names were and how old they all were. They all lit right up when I gave them that little bit of attention. I doubt they have many tourists ask them about their lives. More often than not, they are just shooed to the side.
But it wasn’t long ago that children in Cambodia suffered a much worse fate than a lack of education. As I mentioned earlier in this post, Cambodia has an ugly past. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, and the people suffered one of the worst genocides in world history. Millions of people died through starvation, torture and execution and this ugly man was the brain behind it all.
As North Americans, we grow up hearing about Hitler and his atrocities. The Khmer Rouge, however, was completely foreign to me, which is strange given how recently the Cambodian genocide happened. After all, I consider myself to be a worldly minded person…I read the news and keep track of the big things that are happening in the world. But this one I hadn’t heard of. And that’s probably because so little was done by western powers to stop this man. We can’t be proud of bringing down this assailant, like we brought down Hitler, so Cambodia’s story just doesn’t make the cut in our history books.
When the the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975, Pot had big plans for its citizens. He believed in a perfect communism that was based on agriculture. Pot thought that anyone educated or anyone who lived in the cities was the enemy and he treated them as such. Many of those people were sent to S-21, one of the many schools that the Khmer Rouge turned into torture compounds. We toured the old school and saw some of the things accomplished there in those 4 terrible years.
There are several buildings in S-21, each with their own brand of horror. Our first stop was a building where high-status inmates were held. This is where they kept people who were suspected of working with the CIA or other foreign intelligence agencies. It’s said that the Khmer Rouge would arrest anyone who wore glasses, because glasses, after all, are a sign of intelligence. And intelligence was not to be trusted.
After seeing many rooms like the one above, we moved to another area of the prison where groups of prisoners were kept. The quarters here were far worse…
The last building we saw told stories of individuals who survived S-21. In total, it is estimated that 17,000 people were kept here, tortured and beaten. Of those 17,000, only 12 prisoners survived. We met two of them while at S-21 and bought their books. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read them. The things we saw here bothered me a lot. I couldn’t sleep for several nights without dreaming about the things I read. The fact that humans could do this other humans is beyond me.
Like any camp of this sort, the inmates had to abide by a list of rules set by the guards. Some of them are impossible for me to understand…
“You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.”
“While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.”
No matter how much S-21 bothered me though, The Killing Fields were much, much worse.
The fields themselves are quite a thing to see. Upon arrival at the Fields, which are just outside Phnom Penh, you are provided with an audio tour (the recordings were very well done and available in many different languages). Everyone has their headphones on and are listening to the stories and history behind the fields. It is completely quiet as you walk through this massacre sight and it feels eerie. If you look up at the other visitors, everyone has the same look on their face. Nobody can quite understand how these things happened. How humans could do this to other humans.
Since the fields were discovered, the individual pits have been carefully excavated, in an attempt to understand what went on in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Many of the larger bones (skulls and femurs) were removed from the earth, cleaned and examined. Some DNA testing was done to help give families closure, though many families have never found their lost relatives. Once DNA analysis was complete, the skulls were moved into the Memorial Stupa that was built at The Killing Fields to honor the dead.
The smaller bones were left in the ground and when it rains heavily, they move up through the soil. As a result, you are often reminded by signage to watch where you are stepping. You can often see bones on the ground as well as the clothing of victims.
Some of the bigger pits, or pits that were reserved for ‘special’ groups of victims have been sectioned off. On the bamboo posts used to section the pits off, people have left bracelets to commemorate the dead. Many of these bracelets are recognizable from street kids who sell them in down town Phnom Penh.
It was difficult walking around these fields. I feel sad and depressed about it even now, as I write this post. Nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population was killed during the 4 years that Pol Pot was in power. And because this all happened in the last 40 years, everyone you meet in present-day Cambodia has a story they can tell you. They all have either an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, a parent or a friend who was killed. The trials against the Khmer Rouge’s top officers are ongoing even today, and Pol Pot was never even brought to justice. He died of old age…he spent his final years with his children and grand children: a right he took away from so many innocent people.
It’s taken me a long time to write this post because of how much it bothers me that these things happened. Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields would be similar to visiting Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. What happened in Europe in the 1940s is as horrific as what happened in Cambodia in the 70s, but on some levels, Cambodia bothers me more. Not because of the atrocities themselves…but because of my government’s reaction (or lack of reaction) to the Khmer Rouge. Refugees who got out of the country during that awful time were called liars or were accused of exaggerating. Nobody did anything to help the Cambodians…the world didn’t care because Cambodia is so small and far away.
And that’s why, no matter how much I don’t want to think about this stuff…I have to write about it. Through ‘knowing’, we can prevent these types of things from happening in the future. Sure, reading the news can be a bummer, but if you know that your government isn’t taking steps to help people in cases such as this, you can write to your government representative and encourage action. There are petitions to sign and protests to attend. There ARE things you can do to help. Margaret Mead’s words are something to live by:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
My next post will be on a lighter topic: Angkor National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, and boy were there some sights to see!!
Well, my second semester at Interlingua is now in full swing and I have to admit it is off to a much better start than the first semester! It’s always difficult taking over another teacher’s classes, but when that teacher is loved by students, management and colleagues alike, it’s a little hard to match up. Somehow I persevered and have proven my abilities.
Since our return from Thailand, I’ve had several parents come to the school specifically asking for me to teach their children. Mostly these parents are referrals from parents whose children I already teach. I’ve also had great feedback from management at the school, who appreciate my organizational skills and diligent lesson planning. I’ve been asked to extend my contract here and even the other teachers have begun to ask for my help when they are having difficulty with particularly shy students. I feel like super-teacher again!! I can’t even explain how great that feels!!!
But none of that can top how valued my students make me feel. My kindergarten students in particular are sweet, affectionate and love coming to my classes. This week I’ve been teaching them family member vocabulary (Mommy, Daddy, Sister, Brother, Grandma, Grandpa…) and then also teaching them phrases that they can use this vocabulary with (Mommy is happy, I have 2 sisters). On Sunday I taught them a new phrase: “I love my ______”. I play a game with them where they have to throw my fuzzy dice at the black board and whichever drawing they hit, they have to make a sentence with it. So if they throw the die and it hits my drawing of ‘mommy’ they have to say ‘I love my mommy’. Of course, I always draw myself on the blackboard as well, so they have a reference as to how these bubble drawings are related to me, and before I knew it, they made it a game of throwing the die at MY picture, so that they could say ‘I love my Marie!!!!’. It was so sweet I could have scooped them all up and hugged ’em forever!!!
But I suppose I’ve gushed enough now. (If you hadn’t caught on yet…I love my job)
BACK TO THAILAND!!!
Ayutthaya was founded in 1350AD by a King trying to escape a small pox epidemic. It became the capital of Thailand or Siam, as it was known at the time. Fast forward to 1767, when the Burmese army invaded and burnt the city to the ground. What’s left today are the stone structures that survived the sack of Ayutthaya…
We took the train down to the old city, which was apparently the cheapest way to get there but provided the best views. It cost us a total of 40 Bhat to get there and only 30 Bhat to return ($1.54 and $1.16 respectively), so we definitely didn’t break the bank on the trip. Also, it’s a fairly popular destination, so it was no problem to get help at the train station, even though many of the staff didn’t speak much English.
I had done a bit of reading ahead of time, so when we arrived in the ancient city, we knew our best option for getting around was by scooter. I would have never been brave enough to drive myself (in Thailand, they drive on the opposite side of the road), but Dave is brave that way, and before long we were cruising around the city, in search of some lunch.
We found a tiny little restaurant (we weren’t even sure if it was a restaurant at first!) before too long, and the woman who greeted us quickly set off to cook us something we hadn’t yet ordered. This was probably for the best, as we know basically none of the Thai language and wouldn’t have known what to ask for anyway. What she brought us was delicious 🙂
Next we set off to find us some ruins…
We found 3 different sites, and each was unique in its own way. Three happens to be the perfect number of items to have on a list such as this, so I shall continue this post in list form. Also, I can’t remember the actual name for each site, so I’ve dubbed them by their defining features instead.
Sight #1: Wat Maheyong
I saw the very first elephant I’ve seen in my life as we drove up to this site. It was being ridden, which wasn’t ideal, but it was still there…He was an enormous male, with long tusks. He had 2 people in the chair and a mahout riding his neck. Before long we saw many more elephants, all being ridden around a beautiful scene of burnt stone and open fields.
We didn’t know it at the time, but these were actually the most plain ruins that we saw the whole day…we were still impressed!!
Before long, we decided to see what else Ayutthaya had to offer, so we began to head back to the scooter. That’s when the rain started…
You know what they say though…February shows, allow Marie to make new friends??? We ran inside where there was shelter. Nobody likes scooting in the rain!!! That’s where I met this lovely lady.
I didn’t want to ride the elephants, but I had no problem feeding her so that’s where we spent our Bhat instead. Elephants are SUCH cool eaters!!! Their trunks are absolutely amazing!!!
When we ran out of bananas, we bid the sweet girl farewell and wandered over through the market for a while. There wasn’t much to see, but we did run into some tigers that were quite obviously drugged for picture taking purposes. I won’t go into too much detail here (I’m planning a whole post on how to be an Eco-conscious tourist in the near future), but neither of us were disappointed when we couldn’t get pictures of the sleepy animal. Instead, we went and visited some more elephants, who weren’t drugged. They were mostly just curious of us (and hoping we had bananas for them!!)
After a run in with some sales people claiming to sell ivory jewellery (see my post: Thailand an Overview Part 1 for more details on that little adventure…), the rain cleared and we left in search of some more ruins. What we found…was more elephants!! (and some INCREDIBLE ruins!!)
Sight #2 – Wat Phra Kam
It wasn’t long after we left Wat Maheyong that we started spotting more elephants. We figured there were probably ruins nearby, so we turned in and found a place to park the scooter.
There was an entrance fee to this set of ruins, but it was well worth the 50bhat ($1.91) we paid to get in. I’ll let the photos do the explaining…
When the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya, they didn’t just burn the city to the ground. The plan was to annihilate the population; nothing was safe. Their buildings were burnt and their culture was destroyed. Not even their sacred places were spared. When I was in Inner Mongolia, years ago, I witnessed the same sort of defilement. When the Japanese army had invaded China during WW2, they destroyed many temples. One particular temple stood out to me…the temple itself is still in Baotou, but every single Buddha that had been carved into the stone (there were hundreds!) had had its nose chipped off. Desecration of religious space is common in times of war.
Sight #3: Wat Barom Buddha Ram
There are so many sights to see in Ayutthaya. Although I’d read online that it was a cool place to visit, I hadn’t realized just HOW cool, so we’d only scheduled a half day to see it all. As a result, we missed out on many of the neat things there were to see. With our tight schedule, we had to pick and choose where we would stop, so after visiting Wat Phra Ram, we quickly zipped over to the most famous sight in Ayutthaya: Wat Barom Buddha Ram. You’ll see why it’s famous in the pictures below.
So that was Ayutthaya! If you’re ever out near Bangkok, I HIGHLY recommend taking the day trip! Especially if you’re a history nut, like me! It’s a neat city and we didn’t even see half of what there was to see! I guess that just means we’ll have to go back…
I’ll be away until next week (I won’t be popular this weekend…it’s test time!!!), but when I return, I’ll be blogging about The Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand!