Tag Archives: mekong

Red dust road….Kratie & Banlung, Cambodia

We arrived in Kratie in northeast Cambodia after an uneventful 6 hour bus journey from Phnom Penh.  It is a tiny town, but is the capital of the province.  There is really not much happening here, but its a good stop over for our next destination, and they have freshwater dolphins nearby!

We checked into a cool hotel, housed in two old raised wooden structures with mosquito nets and unfortunately, an incredibly confused rooster.  If it weren’t for the rooster crowing as often as every 10 seconds (I timed him) from before 4 am until 6 pm, this place would be charming.  Ear plugs did little to drown him out and I even downloaded a noise making app just so I could sleep.

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Our first day we took the ferry across to a small island in the Mekong River.  Ferry means creaky old wooden boat with a small awning and a very loud motor.  It drops you and the 10 or so other people it can fit at the edge of a long sand bank.  In the wet season, I imagine this is completely gone and the boat can go much closer to shore.

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The island of Koh Trong, which is little more than a sandbar, doesn’t have electricity, except for what is provided by generators.  There is a 9 km loop around the island that you can bike or walk, dotted with wood stilt houses.  The interior of the island is mostly farmland.  It is an incredible contrast to just over the water in the town.  We opted to walk and spent the next few hours meandering along waving at the small children who were more than excited to yell ‘Hello’ at us.  While waiting for the ferry back to Kratie, we ran into a French couple from our bus.  We taught them a new card game and agreed to meet up later for dinner.  We only know a few card games and unfortunately, I tend to lose.

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The next day, we rented a motorbike and drove about 20 km to the north.  We stopped at a place where people have built wooden structures over the water for lounging and swimming in the rapids.  For about 25 cents, you can enter, walk across, hang out in a hammock and picnic.  We were intrigued and paid just to go in and see what was going on.  It was Saturday, so there were lots of locals and naked kids jumping in and out of the rushing water.  We walked to the end and onto a sandbar, where some local boys were delighted to let Riki photograph them doing somersaults and flips into the sand and water.  The structures must be temporary, as the water rises a lot in the wet season and they were only a few feet above the water.  A lot of work to do just to have it destroyed come rainy season.

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After, we went south 1 km to the location of the Irrawaddy dolphins.  We paid the $9 per person (very steep) to get a boat for one hour on the water.  With potentially as few as 20 dolphins left in this area, we were skeptical that we would see any.  But our 3 pm arrival seemed perfect.  A tour group was leaving and before we even got in the boat we heard and saw a dolphin surface to breathe.  The dolphins stay in this area of the river because it is protected from the current and pretty calm.  We spent the next hour craning our necks back and forth as we heard them exhale before we turned to see them.  Just as we were leaving, it seemed to be feeding time and we were able to watch a few dolphins skim the surface chasing small fish.  To say it was magical sounds corny, but it was pretty awesome.

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Our last stop in the way back to town was Phnom Sambok, a small hill with a monastery on top and a decent view of the Mekong River.  As we pulled in, we were greeted by a curious monkey who was in the middle of licking and inspecting some push bikes at the base of the stairs.  He wasn’t too keen to be interrupted.

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On the way back to Kratie, we pulled over and bought grilled bamboo shoots stuffed with sticky rice and a few sweet beans, which this small village is known for.  It is eaten at all times of day as a snack.  We took ours back to devour in town along the river.

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Modern Laundry sign
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Saving it for later?

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There are not as many travelers further from the main cities, and this was very apparent on our next leg, as we had to take a much smaller bus to get further northeast.  It took us two hours to actually leave Kratie, as we drove around picking people up, stopping to get gas, returning to the bus station and then ultimately tying two motorbikes on the back of our little minibus.  In true Cambodian fashion, we packed 20+ people in and were off.  Eight hours later, we arrived at another small capital town, Banlung.

We met up with the same French couple from Kratie, played more cards and planned our next few days.  Many people go for 2-3 day treks here, but as Riki wasn’t feeling well, we opted to stay in town and do day trips at our own pace.  Our first spot involved a long walk through the outskirts of the city to a lake, presumably a crater as it is almost perfectly round.  We could have walked along the main road, which was busy and boring, but one of our maps had a dashed path connecting the town and the entrance to the lake.  It took us through a small village next to the town and then out into fields of dried crops.  Somewhere in the midst of these fields, someone had decided to start a small fire, a pretty standard practice here.  People burn everything, everyday.  Paper, food scraps, plastic, everything.  It makes for a odorous evening, when small fires burn all along the roads.  They also burn the undergrowth and you can frequently see black ash-laden ground under fruit trees and along fences.  Well this fire had gotten way out of control.  There were two fire trucks on the scene when we walked up and numerous bystanders.  They were nice enough to let us up on the truck to get a better look, as there was nothing they could really do.  Fields and fields of dried plants were crackling away.  One family was hosing down around their house in hopes that it wouldn’t burn that close. There is not a lot of water to spare either.  People have cisterns of water if they are lucky, which are refilled only when possible.  It is the dry season after all.

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We continued along the very dusty road/trail to the lake, where we took a quick dip as the sun had hidden behind some clouds and it was a bit cool.  We walked back the same way a few hours later.  The fire was pretty much smoldering, except for a few parts and it had come quite close to the family’s home.  Seems very obvious to me how to prevent this from happening.

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Stick farm?

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Our last day, we rented a pink motorbike and visited three of the nearby waterfalls.  The way to the falls is scenic and passes through some outlying villages of Banlung.  Everything within 10 meters of the road is covered in a thin layer of rich red-brown dirt – plants, roofs, goods for sale, everything.  By the time we reached the first waterfall, my exposed ankles were a similar color, not that much different from the smooth brown skin of the locals.  There was a wobbly cable bridge to reach the swimming area and we watched as some monks de-robed and played in the water.  The water was pretty cold so we just stick our hands in and tried to scrub the dirt from our skin.  But to no avail, as 3 days later, I still have a lingering “sock tan.”

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We booked a 6 hour journey with our guesthouse to Siem Reap, involving a transfer where another minibus “will be waiting at the side of the road for you.”  An ominous sentence, so we prepare with extra snacks and the Allegiant book-on-tape.

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Tubing & Birthday Visas….Vang Vieng to Vientiane, Laos

We were incredibly lucky this week. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but looking back, we were. I was reluctant to leave Luang Prabang. We met so many interesting people and we really liked the atmosphere of the town. But it was time to go and we boarded a VIP bus for Vang Vieng (this just means they may stop and give you a snack along the way). The trip was rather nauseating but the scenery as we approached Vang Vieng was incredible. Huge limestone karsts jut out of the flat landscape and tower over their surroundings. We have seen karsts in Vietnam and a few in Thailand, but these were far more impressive.

Arriving in Vang Vieng, we checked into a hostel that had been recommended to us and then found a new Mexican place around the corner. The infamous happy hour scenes were in full force, but we elected to forgo that night as Riki was a bit under the weather. The next morning, I woke up and reached down to pick up my new Scottish thriller from the floor, but the pages were soaked and the 500 page book was incredibly heavy. Thinking the neighboring water bottle must have leaked, I got up and immeditately stepped in half an inch of water, which had formed a large pool on our tile floor. I woke Riki and we started picking up bags and books and papers and shoes. But to no avail, because everything had been soaking in water for 5 hours and was already thoroughly drenched. This is where we got lucky. Most of the electronics were on a table, except for the Ipad which has a case that we have found is very absorbant, keeping the tablet dry but saturating the fabric and padding. With the help of the hostel staff, we moved to another room and sent everything worth saving to the laundry or the porch to dry in the sun. Unfortunately, this meant I lost another sock along the way, but at least it was one of the knock-off ones I got in Nepal. We also had to dispose of some papers, books and maps we had accumulated. Turns out at 2 am the room next door had a problem with the ‘bidet’ (essentially a hose with a sprayer next to the toilet) and it sprayed water everywhere. They didn’t bother to wake us up to check and see if the water went through the walls, so the water accumulated and saturated everything.

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Our bags on the line
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Riki’s Journal 😦

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With the morning pretty much shot trying to salvage things with a hair dryer, we had a lazy day and meandered around the small town and ate lunch at one of the many restaurants that show ‘Friends’ reruns all day long. Vang Vieng is famous for crazy parties and even crazier tubing. However, after too many backpackers have died while drinking on the river doing crazy stunts off rope swings and ziplines, the government has cracked down and closed many of the attractions along the water. There are still some great ‘happy hours’ in town and we partook in a few of the free whiskey drink options that evening. This part of our trip is a very popular trail for backpackers and we keep running into people we have met in the past few weeks at other destinations.

The next day we headed out to met up with some of these people and go tubing. In many hostels here, you remove your shoes before entering. Standard procedure. And there may be a rack to store your flip flops until you leave again. Well this morning, I had left my flip flops downstairs for about an hour and returned when we were ready for tubing. My shoes, however, were gone. My flip flops are bright green with zebra stripes. They are not easy to mistake as your own. So we told the hotel staff to be on the lookout and I borrowed Riki’s extra pair. Not half a block from our hostel I see my shoes. Some man (just imagine the worst kind of tourist you can think of) had commandeered my shoes and was having lunch in them down the street. So I went up to him and yelled things he couldn’t understand and took my shoes. He pointed at the ones I was wearing, probably asking for those in return, but I said, no, those were also mine and left him shoeless. I huffed back to the hostel to drop off Riki’s extra pair and off we went. Hopefully, he has learned a lesson and won’t steal peoples’ shoes anymore. But probably not. I no longer leave my shoes unattended.

Tubing is different here than what we are used to. There is not actually much tubing. You hop in a tuk tuk and get taken 3 km up the river. After you get in the water, you tube about 50 meters to the first bar, where a guy working there throws a rope with a water bottle to you and pulls you in. This bar has games and free whiskey shots. They also have brightly colored bracelets they hand out. We played bocci and watched some people try to chicken fight on a log over a very shallow pool of muddy water. There was also mud volleyball and basketball with the backboard shooting a steady stream of water down at the players. After awhile the whole crowd slowly meanders back into the water and heads to the second bar across the river, 200 meters away. You do about the same thing as the first bar. I think this one had a musical-tube game though. The third and fourth bars were pretty much the same, so we set out with a group to tube the remaining hour back to town. Most people seemed to stay at the bars and just take a tuk tuk back to town in time (or not) to get your tube deposit back. It took us more like an hour and a half to get back to town and by the end we were paddling vigorously with our hands to get there before dark (and because it was getting chilly).

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On Saturday we rented mountain bikes for about $2 and headed 7km out to the Blue Lagoon. I am not going to recommend this. While the scenery was gorgeous along the way, full of huge karsts, little villages and rice fields, the road was awful. We were told it was a dirt road, but really it was more rocks than dirt. Not fun on a mediocre mountain bike with rock hard seat. But we arrived at the Blue Lagoon, where we stuck our feet in the water and watched the Chinese tourists in lifejackets jump off a tall tree. The water was a very fresh, bright shade of blue, but we didn’t go in. For one thing, I was a bit self concious about being the only one in a bikini. All the Laotian women wear shirts and long shorts in the water. Also, it was a bit cold. Right behind the Blue Lagoon is a cave some 200 meters UP. We climbed to the entrance and discovered a rather small opening. But when you step into the cave, you are confronted with a vast room, which is pretty well lit from other small openings. It was really incredible to climb down and explore the illuminated areas. We didn’t bring a light, so we stuck to the first cavern, which was huge.

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We left the Blue Lagoon and got back on our horrendous bikes, stopping about halfway back to do an easy 20 minute walk 500 meters from the village or so the sign said. Sounded like a great break from the bikes.

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Right.
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This is me not having fun.

This was actually my favorite part of the day. But it wasn’t until we had reached the top that I decided that. The hike up the mountain was maybe 500 meters vertical and definitely took more than 20 minutes. At one point, we were walking up a wood ladder rather precariously attached to the side of the rock. But there was a section of chain link fence between us and many meters below, so it worked out. At the top, we were rewarded with an amazing view. We sat in a wood hut for probably an hour with some fellow Americans and admired the landscape.

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Much happier.

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The next day we hopped on a bus for the capital of Laos, Vientiane. A quick four hour trip, not too windy and relatively scenic. We had heard there was not much to do here and people only come to catch flights, renew visas and to cross the border to Thailand. However, we were pleasantly surprised and within hours of arriving, Riki had already said he could live here. We wandered that evening through the night market, which was crowded with clothes, electronics, souvenirs and scarves. Normal stuff. We even found a hot pot place right on the Mekong for dinner.

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Monday being my 29th birthday, we planned an extra special trip to the Vietnamese Embassy. On the way, we climbed the Laos version of the Arc de Triumph in France. The story goes that the Americans gave Laos a bunch of concrete to build a new airport. However, Laos thought of a better use and built this arch, which is a few feet taller than its sister in Paris. Hence, it is often called the vertical runway. It is really strange and the sign at the entrance calls it a concrete monster. But the view from the top was nice.

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After we handed over our passports to the Vietnamese and an incredible amount of US dollars, we walked back toward the river. We stopped at the morning market and found me some real birthday cake. Most of the desserts here are a cross between jello and custard. Not really my thing. The morning market is a bizarre place. The second floor is entirely gold jewelry vendors, and practically no customers. The other sections sell anything from pens to refrigerators. And everything in between.

Laos has a troubled past, mostly because of the Americans. Laos had more bombs dropped on it during the Vietnam War than all the bombs combined dropped during WWII. Our next stop was the COPE visitor’s center, which is an organization that helps people still affected by these bombs. Every year 100 people in Laos die because they come across a “bombie” as they call them. Many more are injured. These are fist sized bombs that were dropped by the millions along the Ho Chi Minh trail and all over Laos. Many of them didn’t explode on impact and lay in wait for their next victim. The center helps people who have lost limbs, mostly by giving them custom prothestics. Many of their patients are children. The scrap metal from the shrapnel is a huge draw for people in the rural areas. They come across bombs and just see the money they could make from them. They don’t necessarily know they can be dangerous. Many children collect the metal to sell to help feed their families. But when they come across a live bomb, it can be devastating. The visitor’s center is a really informative place. We watched a couple of their documentaries that show what they are doing to help and how people are trying to educate others about the dangers. They still find bombs all over. They find them in the streets when rain shifts dirt around. They find them in the rivers during the dry season. I could rant some more, but will spare you. Basically, what was done here was horrible and not really well known, especially at the time.

We ended my birthday on a higher note, with naan at a Pakistani restaurant and then some bowling with new friends. I bowled a 154 (my second highest ever), but that was after starting out with an 89 on a different lane. The lanes were crooked, the balls were chipped, but the beer was cheap and we had a good time.

Our last day in Vientiene was spent wandering the city, picking up our Vietnamese visas and planning our trip to Thakhek and the four day motorbike loop there.

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