So maybe you’ve been wondering what we’ve been up to. Maybe not.
There were some setbacks for Riki as its not possible to buy many things in Switzerland that he uses for his art. However, after much trial and error, and some importing thanks to family and friends in the States, he has found a combination that he likes enough and is now able to finish some of his pieces. All are on wood that we found or were given, which was also a tough task, as there is no abundance of dumpsters here as there is in New Orleans.
Here are some of the latest pieces, mostly by Riki. Most are incomplete, either lacking the final coat, or completely in progress. Enjoy!
(I have been hounding Riki for months about typing up his journal notes for me to post. Now, as we are sitting in the Swiss Alps, it all comes together and all you guys who have been bugging me about this can all relax. And check out the pictures too – some hand drawn maps included.)
Border Crossing from Phu Quoc (Vietnam)
– 5 Buses, 1 Boat, & 1 Clueless Tuktuk
– Didn’t have luggage with us at one point, separated when driving to Bus Station, was not cool
– There was an immediate change in buildings and stores on the other side of the border (much poorer construction with far fewer supplies). There was also a crazy big casino right on the Cambodian side (many vices found in Cambodia are not allowed in Vietnam).
– Drive through the countryside was really cool – dried rice paddies, flat, pockets of palm trees with little wooden huts. Much more similar to Laos than Vietnam.
– Crazy Tuktuk guys introduced us to the city as 10 of them would run 30 meters alongside the minivans seeking any business they could (each time we let a person off as we wound our way through the city), absolute madness.
– Traffic in this city is like Vietnam, but more cars and absolutely no organization whatsoever. They have quite wide roads, which makes it far more difficult and dangerous to cross (nothing like the organized chaos of Hanoi & HCMC), and there are Toyota Camrys everywhere, likely 90% of all the cars, all different ages (probably some knockoffs too).
– Great to be able to get draught beer again, $0.50 for a glass, but I miss ripping off the labels from the bottles (to save for art projects at a later date).
– Back to seeing SexPats (far more than we saw in Bangkok). Granted the Khmer women are all beautiful, it’s very weird and off-putting to see 7 skinny women, dressed like they are out clubbing, hanging out in front of the bars, at ALL hours of the day trying to lure in tourists, as well as all the 18 year old Khmer girls (some likely younger) hanging out with 60 – 70 year old white men.
– Some of the SexPats are young (but really quite unfortunately ugly) men hanging out with these beautiful women.
– Saw, at a minimart, a short Khmer girl holding the crotch of the much taller white guy… from behind (through the legs)… at the cash register (while the cashier, her friend, Julie and I all look at each other trying to hold back our ?laughter?).
– Genocide/Prison Museum was very intense (especially the movie we saw where one of the few surviving prisoners was interviewing his former guards), you could still see the signs of it being used as a school before the Khmer Rouge took control.
– I noticed that all the faces of the KR leaders were completely scratched off by people (even some I didn’t recognize).
– I also noticed that the pictures they had of the prisoners, were awful and showed an obsessive/crazy rule (where everybody was always suspicious of all others), but there were a number of duplicates (saw this even though all prisoners had the same haircuts, women: short bob & men: even shorter).
– The City seemed a little more sketchy/rustic/poorer than all of the other major cities we visited, but it definitely wasn’t the shit hole that a bunch of people made it out to be before we got there.
– Once again, the men, like in the rest of SEAsia have these amazing mole hairs on their faces that grow out about 3 inches/8 cm, everything else they shave or can’t grow (I heard somewhere that they are good luck).
– One can definitely notice that there aren’t as many older Khmer people as there were older people in the other countries in the region (a still highly visible aspect of the genocide).
– We are convinced (especially Julie) that we need to buy these awesome PJ’s that all the ladies here are wearing (usually top and bottom matching) all day…
– It is really odd using US Dollars here (with Khmer Riel as the small change 4000=1). Got a $2 bill! (a couple we met didn’t realize that they are legal tender in the US, you just don’t see them much) But apparently they often don’t accept them at stores/food stalls in Cambodia (though they are more than willing to include them in your change).
North East Cambodia – Kratie & Banlung
– The red dirt/soil up here is amazing (much like Cuba), but it can be quite awful when it’s all dust
– In Kratie, just a couple of minutes up the road from the Irrawaddy dolphins was this amazing place with boardwalks, thatch roofs & hammocks everywhere over these small rapids (whish I could spend every weekend there forever…). There were some kids doing flips and posing for pictures after we went onto a sandbar past where the people use the toilet, pretty impressive acrobatics.
– All the kids in the northeast are really cute when you ask if you can take their pictures (they never ask for anything, candy or money, unlike all the other touristy places we go), and they are always very excited to see themselves in the picture.
– In the north especially, but really most places in Cambodia, the locals are all wearing soccer/football jerseys (literally half of all people, mostly young to middle age men and women, the older ladies all wear PJ’s).
Siem Reap & Angkor Park
– “Siem Reap is a tourist town that I like.” – Julie remark at the market
– The city is completely transformed at night, with ten times more people out and about (having all just left a long day at the temples).
– Was fun to go to Angkor Wat at sunset (instead of that hill where everybody else goes) and be slowly chased out by the guards at closing (like 20 other people doing this too). Was actually able to get a couple of photos of the temple with a few, if any people, ruining the view.
– Waking up in the morning and leaving the hostel by 5 and arriving at 6 at Bayon, all alone, was super frigging awesome! Walking around, losing your bearings, all dark, mysterious faces on the stones, etc…. We did the same thing at Ta Prohm the next day and it was equally as awesome, but two British girls beat us by half an hour (but they hadn’t entered yet because it was still too dark to see anything).
– It was so amazing climbing over the boulders and stones at the fallen temples (especially Ta Nei, Ta Prohm, Beng Mealea, etc.). Though it was awkward to be “contributing” to the slow destruction of the temples… but everybody else was way worse, and I was always very careful never to step on any of the carved stones.
– The temple being restored by the Chinese (every temple has different countries helping to restore them in their own unique ways: France, India, Japan, Germany, etc.) looks disappointingly fake, with new stones of different colors everywhere.
– Our guidebook ($10 in Phnom Penh with a week to read it vs. $5-8 in the Temple park) is obviously a rip-off used there for the last 15 years, but also awesome. I would read it twice before we visited a temple (so I could walk around a take pictures of the stuff I had learned about), while Julie studied it and used it as a guide at the temples (though sometimes it was quite hilariously out of date).
– Saw a gutter punk looking white guy without shoes on at least three occasions throughout the day… I dunno… I guess its relatively clean, but still, how does one climb over all those sharp rocks and steps?
– Its really interesting to see the legacy of when the region changed between the religions (Hinduism, two types of Buddhism). Lots of whole Buddhas scraped off walls, same with some of the faces of Hindu gods. Looked way different from the general looting that has taken place (& it’s vast).
Koh Ta Kiev
– Various thoughts while sitting on beach/patio: It’s so cool here with all the little beaches where you are alone and feel like you have the whole island to yourself. Perfect setup they have here at Coral Beach, right before the rocks start, and after all the other bungalows and day trippers, with 3/4 nice little beaches.
– What I’ve “accomplished” since I’ve been here (on the island): sewed on all of the flag patches I had, made a piece of “art” – an intense dream catcher thingy with stuff found on the beach, started working on my journal again, and learned a couple of new fun games.
– One of my favorite things to do on a vacation (or in life really): have a nice breakfast, with coffee, sitting on a small dock over the clear blue water with an amazing view of the gently lapping waves of the bay…
– Perfect situation #10 (I don’t remember all, they just happen…): sitting on the tree house level platform with the sun going down, with a group of people playing music and singing on the beach below (some of them had great voices).
– Different times at the Absinthe Distillery: First Night – with staff , had the green one, kittens playing all around me, guy (owner?) asleep in corner. Second Time – with Chilean couple, show up right as they are closing, kittens asleep, guy asleep in corner, tried the strongest one. Third Time – no drink, changed camera battery, guy asleep in corner.
– Funny moment when a group of Italian girls from Florence and Rome were arguing about who’s city had the greatest culture/legacy.
– Pretty sad when we had to leave the island. I had an amazing time doing nothing, but would not have made it much longer there… tummy issues, wanted a hot shower (had only washed with soap maybe two times), no more sand…
– … only to be stuck at a shithole place for two terrible nights with termite noises, Rat poo, and the giant accompanying Rat (who moved rocks and wasn’t afraid of us at all!).
Otres Beach One
– I imagine this to be what Phu Quoc (Vietnam) was like 5/10 years ago. But here there are more shacks (“bungalows”), a flat red dirt road, and a bunch of empty beach chairs.
– Said “Aokun” (Thank you) for the first time in a week (was a little weird how it was like a western peoples utopia on the island). I was also odd looking at some of these beach places (bar/restaurant/hostel things) where it looks like 5-10 western kids (“employees”) were doing nothing , one “working” at the bar while all the others took up all the bar chairs, while the one Khmer guy or girl does all the actual work.
– Ladies and Girls selling trinkets in Cambodia (at least the southern part) be like: “If you don’t buy now, you promise, if you buy later, you buy from me? Pinkie promise?”
Minibus back to Mandalay featured typical locals vomiting and a rude woman who proceeded to take up two whole seats, smashing me against the window for the winding and tumultuous 5 hour trip. The alternative would have been taking the train back, a grueling 12 hour journey we had already experienced on the way up. We spent the next day planning our trip to Bagan, doing laundry (an outrageous $8 fee, though it was done by hand and dried on the roof) and exploring the hotel’s neighborhood. Riki discovered a very hip mall, a drastic difference from the surroundings and a bakery where one of the staff followed him around “stealthily” taking his picture. Maybe they’ll put him on their next advertisement. They did give him a massive calendar featuring the shop owner’s daughter on every month. We left it as a present for the hostel.
Our 5 hour bus to Bagan left the next morning, was uneventful, but dropped us off a 15 minute walk from where it should have. Bagan is one of the four main places to see in Myanmar. It is one of the former capitals, with many temples, some dating back to the 12th century. It is the Angkor Wat of Myanmar, is on the cover of many guide books and is VERY big. It is also very hot, and dry and incredible. Riki tends to do more historical research before we arrive. I prefer to do it when we are there, as I have a hard time grasping things without seeing them first hand. So I had no idea what to expect, having only seen the picture on the front of the guide book and reading the small intro.
To sum it all up: Temples, Pagodas, Stupas and Buddhas, lots and lots of Buddhas. And then there were hot-air balloons. It was so cool (but so hot and dry). Now you can skip down to the pictures, or you can read the more detailed account of our 3 days exploring Bagan.
We rented bicycles at 5 am. $1.50 for my regular bike, $2 for Riki’s mountain bike. Woke up the poor bike shop guy while the stars were still out. Then we rode about 45 minutes to a temple not known to be very touristy, Loukaoushaung, but with a good perch for the sunrise. The stars were still visible, but we claimed spots and waited. Here is my account, as written while watching the sun climb steadily into the sky:
“Not sure we can top this. We’ve watched as the hot air balloons slowly filled with air and jostled for positions in the sky. We arrived in the dark and ascended the steep stairs, barefoot of course, with the key keeper. The mist slowly cleared and the haze emerged as the sun rose over literally thousands of monuments. I’m almost wishing we were in one of those balloons, but remembering the $300+ price tag for such a short trip. I’ll settle for watching them float majestically across the sky. They come so close that we can hear the burners. And then a loud Chinese tourist with the biggest camera attachments starts talking/yelling (and running around) and stands right in front of me. Riki, from his higher vantage point has a better view, but I felt weird climbing up the wall of the temple (and not sure my blistered feet will thank me later). The loud guys leave and take their incessant camera clicking with them, off to ruin the atmosphere for someone else.”
We stayed at the first temple for about two hours, then headed on to explore some more. There are over 2,000 monuments and we wanted to avoid the touristy ones as much as possible. We went to Shwesan Daw Pagoda, Dhammayangyi Temple, North Guni and some un-marked ones in between. I’m sure they all have names of some sort and I am probably butchering the translations. We then rode to Old Bagan, where a whole town used to exist. They kicked all the people out when they decided to make the area an official archaeological park and moved them south to New Bagan. The old walls are still present and surround a handful of monuments. We saw Thatbyinnyu Temple and Gawdawpalin from the temple next door. We made a quick stop at Bypaya to have a look at the Ayeyarwady River and then took a long lunch just outside the walls. It was incredibly hot. We lingered as long as we could at the restaurant, just ordering more and more cold water, waiting for the heat of the day to recede some before biking on.
Our next stop was the Myinkaba village, where they are known for their lacquer ware. There are workshops there where they will show you the whole process, which is really impressive. Layers and layers of lacquer over bamboo or wood and then intricately carved and painted. The end of the tour is inevitably a stop at the their shop, where we ran into two couples who had lived in New Orleans for 30 years, but were presently in Bangkok. Small world. Our tour guide had convinced them to exchange an old $100 bill (“small head money”) for him (something we weren’t comfortable with and not able to do anyway). American dollars were used more frequently in the past, but the kyat (chat) has taken over mostly and this poor guy couldn’t exchange his old bill anymore. It looked real, and he only wanted $70 or $80 for it, in new bills. Exhausted, we rode our bicycles back to our hotel for a quick nap and then a very slow dinner (we’re talking an hour wait for fried rice).
Day 2 started much like the day before, except that we got an e-bike. More electric than bike, as you can’t actually pedal these things easily. We wanted to go a bit further and the heat really drains you on a regular bicycle. They promised it would last all day, but we were skeptical after our experience with them in Angkor. I hopped on behind Riki and we set off to see the sunrise at North Guni, one of the temples we had seen the day before. And it was just as spectacular as the day before. Balloons, mist, pointy spires dotting the landscape as far as you can see. We then rode to the central plains, with me getting off frequently, as the goat paths got too sandy to safely traverse. Well that got old, so I made Riki walk sometimes and I took the bike. Because man it was hot. And there is little to no shade. Plus its hard to take pictures when you’re driving. And Riki takes a lot of pictures (I haven’t checked yet – but I am guessing there are a few thousand pictures from just Bagan).
We stopped at Sulamani Temple and Pyathada Pagoda, where we were accosted by pilgriming locals. I was sitting at the top of a large open area, with a great view, minding my own business, taking in some shade and waiting for Riki to take all his photos. An old man walks by, sees me and then beckons his granddaughter to come over. Motioning and asking to take a picture with the little girl, I oblige and even manage to smile, despite how sweaty and dirty I feel.
And that was fine. But then a whole gaggle of women, in their Sunday best see this and come over to do the same. But they don’t ask and I stand there awkwardly as five or six of them stand next to me to get their picture taken one at a time, or get really close so we can take a selfie (no selfie-sticks here). I felt bad, I must have smelled pretty terrible, but they didn’t seem to mind. I was getting annoyed until Riki came around the corner. In the middle of taking pictures with me, they spot him and run off in his direction. Yes, run. And they are giggling and yelling at each other, obviously delighted that there is another one! And this just makes my day. He didn’t see it coming. Everyone takes a photo and then I have to join and by the end, we had to get a shot with all of them as well. Pretty hilarious.
We then went to some more, you guessed it, temples. I’m pretty much done with them at this point, as most are very similar. But Riki is always up for climbing something and exploring, so we continue on. I skip some, wait in the shade and watch the goat herders go past. We visit Phya Phat Gyi, Shin Phu Shin and many in between. We leave the sandy paths and find a concrete road we discover we are across from another village, Minanthu. As we are taking a short break under a tree and looking at the map, a woman runs (yes runs) across the road and invites us to tour the village. Her English is pretty decent and we follow her across the road. She shows us some old workshops, weaving, peanut oil, cigars, silversmith. We have the obligatory tea, even though it is scorching hot and hot tea is the last thing I want. In the end, we offer her some small bills and continue on for a late lunch and long break in New Bagan. We continued to explore the central plains behind Dhamayazika and found some cool murals and a cool spot to return to for sunset the next day. We ended at the same temple we had started with the first day, but this time, with Riki’s help, I scaled the temple and had a more amazing view.
Day 3 started slowly. We opted to sleep in and skip the sunrise. We took another e-bike in the early afternoon and returned to the northern and central plains, taking goat trails and going nowhere fast. The northern plains temples were some of my favorite. We were the only ones there and some had incredible carvings, murals and oddities.
Our final stop for sunset, just behind Dhamayazika, where we had been the day before has cool paintings inside and was deserted. We hoped it would stay that way, but others saw us at the top and came up to investigate. Two girls we shared a boat with in Phong Nha were among them, and remembered us as the cookie people, as we had shared some Oreos with the group back in December. Small world.
Some general thoughts:
Bagan is really an incredible site, and sight. It’s teeming with tourists though. Big buses go to the major points, probably just spending a day or two in town. You could spend weeks here, if you are really into temples, and still not see everything. We did a really good job avoiding other people, even managed never to be asked to pay the entrance fee (which is $20, goes to the government and not to preserving any of the monuments).
We found that exploring the smaller temples was so rewarding. Seeing the key keepers living right up next to the monuments, with 100+ animals (cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, etc) was really interesting. They have little bamboo huts with a single solar panel (often times half shaded by something) powering a few light bulbs and a little TV.
It is a desert, dry and very hot. We were told over 100 degrees. And it felt that hot, not the humid heat we are used to. We managed to find some Australian sunscreen (not whitening like most sunscreen here) and didn’t get burnt, except for that little line on the top of my head where my part is. Always forget about that.
No socks or shoes in temples. I could probably write a book ranting about this, and Riki is sick of me talking about it, so I will keep it short. I will cover my shoulders, wear pants, and even remove my footwear to go into temples. But its not just the temples where you take off your footwear, its the whole area around the temple, which is outside and gets extremely hot and dirty. That’s not the worst. Many of the temples are full of bats and pigeons, so you are traipsing through shit and guano in your bare feet. And then you climb the narrow stairs and there is a giant snake skin on the step. And little rocks are getting stuck in your toes and in the bottom of your feet. Then you step on the little thorns that have blown in, curse avidly right in front of Buddha (hopefully he doesn’t speak English) and hop along until you can get them out. So you leave this temple with black feet, bruised and bloodied and burnt. And if you are Riki, you are lucky enough to step on the 1 inch thorn just as you’ve put your sandals back on. It still goes through, but could have been worse. Did I mention I already had blisters on the bottom of my toes? And that was the short version.
Next stop: a more remote archaeological site near the west coast, Mrauk-U via a horrendous bus ride.