A Travellerspoint blog

6 days is a long time

sunny 30 °C

We left Kratie a few days ago and quite a lot has happened since. The morning of our departure we left our guesthouse with six tickets booked for the minivan to Sen Monorom. This was our first experience of a Cambodian minivan and little did we know that it bore little relation to the Laos version. In Laos a minivan is full when the fourteen or so seats are sold, in Cambodia the minivan is full when you cannot physically fit any more people into it. And so we left for Sen Monorom, full to the brim with one lady practically sitting on the drivers lap and an hour and a half later than advertised. The journey was not the worst we've done but it was none too pleasant either. The five hour journey bore dramatic witness to the slash and burn approach to agriculture in Cambodia. Thankfully the scenery changed as we headed deeper into the Mondulkiri province and approached our destination. We got our lodgings in fairly speedy fashion, it was certainly the biggest room we've stayed in thus far and the beds were massive (and more thàn likely made from the forests we'd seen cut down). There isn't a whole lot to Sen Monorom itself, it's a quiet enough spot, two streets and a medieval style market.

The following day we ventured out to the Elephant Valley Project, a sanctuary for rescued elephants which is run by an English guy named Jake. It's situated in a protected forest about 20km outside of the town and it truly is a wonderful settîng. We had debated about going on an elephant trek or taking this ethical option, in the end our conscience won out. We we're picked up early in the morning along with a couple of Danish girls and an Italian couple, Christopher and Giulia, whom we'd met on our minivan journey from Kratie. The morning we were there, there was an assortment of volunteers on the project - some day trippers like ourselves, others on week-long stints and whoever else was hanging around for a few days.
We made our way with a group of about fifteen to a place called the Edge of Heaven. A few minutes later a male bull elephant called Bob and his female companion, Onion, were being washed by their mahouts in the river. Once they'd finished four other females arrived at the river. We'd spend the next couple of hours in their company - washing, scrubbing, feeding and generally observing them. It was really nice to see them behave in a somewhat natural environment even if it's not their natural wild one. As former working elephants mostly over 40 years old it would be impossible to return them to the wild. This sanctuary is probably the best humans can offer them instead.

The following day we hired a driver to bring us around some of the sights of Mondulkiri. Our first stop was the Bousra Waterfalls, a set of two falls of 18m and 36m respectively. Pretty impressive stuff that generated a mist reminiscent of the one that rolls over Allihies in West Cork from time to time. Next we called to a traditional Phnong village to visit a farmhouse and sample some of their grub. We tried a root vegetable that tasted pretty much like boiled potato but its name escapes me now. Next up we went to a coffee plantation for some lunch which consisted of Khmer crepes, some of the nicest, freshest food I've had in a long time. The guide brought us to a number of other places that were nice but to be honest it was more interesting just getting his slant on the current socio-economic situaion in the country. A little like Laos, it looks like Cambodias natural resources are being sold to the Chinese and Vietnamese for little more than a song.

Yesterday we arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital city, after driving through the flattest countryside I've ever seen. Flat as far as the eye can see. The capital could not be more different from the Mondulkiri region. It's a bustling, cosmopolitan Asian capital - exactly as you'd imagine one really. Its choc-full of foreigners - both ex-pat and tourist alike and the traffic is just incredible to observe. It's like being in a little Bangkok. We'll head for the sights this morning and hopefully see the Killing Fields outside the city although we're still not sure how we'll manage it with the kids.

Posted by goldenmaverick 17:57 Archived in Cambodia Tagged phnom_penh elephants mondulkiri Comments (3)

Kratie for loving you

sunny 31 °C

Still here in Kratie (which is pronounced Kra-Cheh as it turns out). I'm looking over the Mekong as the sun sets over the north end of Koh Trong Island. We caught the ferry over there yesterday with our bikes and although only a kilometre away it was a world apart fom the hustle and bustle of Kratie town. A sudden downpour meant that the going was a bit tougher than expected as the cycle path turned to mud in the space of a couple of minutes. The island gave us our first valuable insight into rural Cambodia. Lots of traditional Khmer houses built on stilts and plenty of paddy fields behind them. One of the houses offers homestays to visitors but you need to book it in advance. Nevertheless we dropped in thinking they might be able to rustle us up something along the lines of lunch. As they hadn't figured on our arrival the best they could do was offer us some freshly picked pumelo (sometimes known as Chinese grapefruit) and some water. It wasn't quite ripe yet but it was still delicious. Caroline also had a quick look around the house whilst I attempted to converse with the man of the house about construction methods and materials. Bloke stuff. The stilts which were sixty-five years old were rosewood but were completely grey with age. We tried to find the Vietnamese floating village at the southern end of the island but with no success.

After dinner last night we dropped into the Red Sun Falling cafe for a drink. It opened ten years ago under the ownership of a guy called Joe (a Chicago native I believe). Whilst there we heard 'A Forest' by The Cure and 'Sunday, bloody Sunday' by U2, the only western music I've heard (besides Westlife for some strange reason) in over a month.

Today we spent some time planning ahead. We'll head east to Sen Monorom in the Mondulkiri province before heading west to Komphong Cham and then the capital, Phnom Penh. I also used today as an opportunity to conduct some male grooming. I visited a local barber for an oldschool cut-throat shave. He also cut the hairy bits on the back of my neck and gave me a neck massage and all for only one Euro.

Posted by goldenmaverick 03:43 Archived in Cambodia Tagged shave stilts Comments (7)

Leaving Laos for a Holiday in Cambodia

sunny 28 °C

Yesterday we headed for the beach on Don Khon. We'd been there the day before with the kids and they were yearning to go back again. In true Irish style we brought our ingredients for a picnic, some bread rolls, a couple of tins of tuna and some crisps. As it was our last day on the 4000 Islands we decided that we'd try and make it out to catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins, an endangered species of freshwater dolphin. We enquired at a beachfront restaurant and the hostess had much trouble waking one of our potential boatmen. After some haggling we set off on two boats - Caroline, Paddy & Rosie on one boat, myself, Harry & Joe on the other - with one life jacket between the lot of us. Our boat was steered by the sleepy boatman whilst the guy at the rudder in the other boat looked infinitely more awake. After a few minutes in the water I looked behind to see Harry as the newly installed navigator on our boat. Our guy thought it was a great idea to let an 11 yea old steer the boat and as it turned out he was pretty competent once he'd gotten his left sorted from his right. After about ten minutes we pulled up at a pier in Cambodia. Apparently the dolphin shy away from the noise of engines so this is the best spot to view them (once you've given the nice Cambodian people $4 for the privilege of course). As it turned out we saw quite a bit of them, it wasn't Florida Seaworld by any means, these dolphins simply surface from deep water pools to get some air and then go back under. Nevertheless it was a worthwhile experience.

On our last night in Laos the lights went out. The electricity stopped at some point during the night which made for a slightly sweaty few hours sleep with no fan working in the rooms. This morning we caught the boat back to the mainland and once again we were on our way to Cambodia (officially this time). The VIP bus was a sleeper bus that was making a twelve hour journey to Siem Reap but thankfully we were only on it for a few hours until we came to a place called Kratie. Once again we are on the banks of the Mekong river but in a very different country. The landscape is very different to that which we experienced over the last thirty days in Laos. This area is flat, not unlike the Irish midlands but without the Mullingar or Athlone accents and with rubber plantations and evidence of slash and burn farming everywhere. We'd been told that Cambodia was different and guess what, the advice was correct! We've had to adapt to the new currency and language in the space of a few hours. Whilst like the Laos they are a Khmer people, simple things like hello and thank you are very different.

My first impression of Cambodia is really good. We took a stroll around Kratie and the local folk are most welcoming and friendly. The womenfolk dress in much brighter attire than their Laos neighbours and everyones command of English is much better also. When we got off the bus we were badgered by representatives of several hotels to stay at their place - something that never happened during our time in Laos. The standard of accommodation here is beyond all my expectations but tonight again we experienced an electrical blackout. You forget what its like to be in complete darkness on the main street of a town, even though I have similar memories of it happening in 1980's Ireland. I guess at home you know where the candles and torch are.

Kratie is another town in South East Asia whose heyday ended back in the 1940's. There's evidence of French colonial architecture but it has faded in its glory. The switch to Cambodia also means a switch in my drink of choice. In Laos there is pretty much only one option, the ubiquitous Beer Lao. I developed quite an affinity to it over the last thirty days, especially the darker, stronger version of the brew. Here in Cambodia I'm spoilt for choice - Angkor Beer, Cambodia Beer, Anchor Beer - the list goes on. As I write I'm supping from a small bottle of Angkor Extra Stout - a nice dark beer that's not unlike other stouts I've tried over the years but a little stronger at 8% in volume. An acquired taste by any standards I reckon.

We were a bit sad to leave Laos as it was a wonderful experience but we're quite looking forward to our new adventure in Cambodia. In a restaurant tonight we spoke to a Cambodian lady who was back here on holiday after 32 years in San Francisco. Her story was quite amazing and intriguing in equal parts, we're going to have to brush up on our Cambodian history to put her story in context. We truly know very little about the countries we are visiting and with what little I do know I'm not sure I'll ever fully understand the context of it all. Atrocities have been committed here well within living memory but you wouldn't think it to look and talk to the people. Our adventure continues.

Posted by goldenmaverick 07:57 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia dolphins kratie Comments (3)

I want to take you to the Islands

and trace your footsteps in the sand

sunny 32 °C

We've been blessed with the weather here for the last few days. Beautiful sunshine most days and beautiful sunsets in the evenings. We headed to see the Khone waterfalls yesterday and in the rainy season they are mighty impressive. The sheer volume of water going over them is amazing and although not the highest by any means they truly are spectacular to view. On our cycle we also went to the south end of the island and looked across the Mekong to our next stop, Cambodia. It is literally only a couple of hundred metres away.

Today we took the bikes across the old railway bridge to Don Det, apparently a favourite haunt of backpackers. The north end of the island is a bit of a kip, lots of shabby bungalows and loads of bars selling 'happy shakes', a poor mans Vang Vieng as far as I could make out. That said the southern part of the island is pretty nice to cycle around with some far more salubrious accommodation. We also took a trip to the 'beach' here on Don Khon. Its really a big sand bank at the side of the Mekong a few hundred meters downstream from the Khone Falls. You could only go in for a couple of metres otherwise you'd be washed down the Mekong River. With any luck and weather permitting we'll try and see the Irrawaddy Dolphins tomorrow. I was chatting to a guy today and he was out looking at them yesterday. As the only freshwater dolphins and on account of them being in danger of extinction they must be worth a look I reckon.

The relaxed pace of the 4000 Islands is suiting us just fine. We're all a bit sunburnt and tired but thats not a bad way to be. We head to Cambodia on the 12th July as our visa runs out that day. Maybe they'll have an Apprentice Boys parade to greet us.

Posted by goldenmaverick 06:35 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

4000 Islands (half of them underwater)

sunny 30 °C

Today we left Champasak. Back home there's a phrase - Up with the lark, over here it's - Up with the Laos. These folk like to get up early although after four weeks here it still hasn't become apparent why? They're all up at the crack of dawn but its unclear what the majority of them are doing. When you go into any restaurant to get food the first thing they do after taking your order is to go to the shop to buy the ingredients. You might innocently assume that they've already had most of the morning to sort that stuff out but that's never been the case. This morning we had to take a local songthaew (a covered truck with wooden seats) back into Pakse at 7am. We'd been warned that there was no ATM in the 4000 Islands so we had to get some cash for our last few days in Laos. Last night we'd organised the journey at our guesthouse and Ralf the German was going to accompany us. We were told to be ready to depart at 6.55 and we were up and at it a few minutes beforehand. I was greeted by Ralf at around 6.30am who was complaining about being woken by the dogs. He'd already been up an hour or so. Therefore I was pretty surprised when we wnere still waiting for him in the songthaew at 7.10 - so were the twenty or so local folk. Eventually he hopped in and off we went. I always thought that Germany was noteworthy for its timekeeping but it seems that's not the case with this lad.

On arrival in Pakse we hit the bank machine with gusto and headed to the bus station. Once again Ralf accompanied us - uninvited this time. At the bus station we were informed that there were no buses to the 4000 Islands but a songthaew would make the 4 hour journey. We threw our bags on the roof and headed off to get some breakfast. Big mistake. When we got back we were crammed into the back with twenty five or so others - but Ralf was riding shotgun in the front with the driver. Maybe I'm just jealous of other travellers but the cocoon in which some of them live never ceases to amaze me. They appear to think that everything should work the way they wish it to rather than having some sensitivity towards the country in which they travel in. Ralf is just one of those travellers I guess. Thankfully tonight he's sleeping on another island - I couldn't hack much more of him. The journey in the back of the squashed songthaew was infintely preferable to listening him drone on. As always the kids are a great icebreaker with the locals, they like to practice their English on them and me.

Compared to Champasak the 4000 Islands are buzzing but its all relative. As I write this its only 9pm and the whole place has gone to bed. They've switched the wi-fi off so I'll have to post this tomorrow. We'll get some bikes and travel around a little and maybe go on a daytrip to some other islands over the next couple of days. It's all a bit up in the air to be honest so we'll play it by ear. Low season here means its very quiet - whilst you have the pick of the accommodation it also means you're eating in empty restaurants most evenings. More trips to the shop every time you order.
Cambodia beckons and whilst looking forward to it I also get the feeling that it'll be pretty quiet there too. Caroline and myself treated ourselves to a massage in a French owned establishment in Champasak yesterday, a beautifully tranquil place in a gorgeous setting on the banks of Mekong. I think a little more of that might be required over the coming weeks if we're to get through our travels in one piece. A couple of weeks on a beach might also be required. Five weeks in and everything is going pretty well all considered. Joe and Paddy are still very picky eaters, Harry's pretty good, whilst Rosie has been a revelation. As a family we're getting to know each others idiosyncrancies a whole lot better than before which can only be a good thing - although it doesn't always feel that way. You just have to remind yourself how lucky you are to be able to do this and that will always keep you going. Onwards and downwards to Cambodia. Best foot forwards.

To finish I should point out how great this place is - four water buffalo have just stopped beside me to have a look at me and then moved on down the road. Only in Laos!

Posted by goldenmaverick 03:36 Archived in Laos Comments (5)

Week 5/6 who knows anymore.

In Champasak on the banks of the Mekong for the last couple of days. Lovely quiet place, lovely people. I spoke to a French woman who lives and works here, she reiterated what we have heard many times, Lao people don't do stress or worry. Life is lived in the moment, day to day. I imagine they would be bemused by the fact we take courses to learn this stuff. Mind you, when your dinner doesn't materialise I wish they did a slightly higher level of stress.
Also looking at the rubbish/deforestation issues would make one wonder if a more sustainable, longer term
outlook would be preferable?
People's ready smile has often been remarked upon. It's one thing when it comes from your guesthouse owner, quite another when it comes freely from someone who has spent most of their day bent double in a paddy field.
We continue to be the source of hilarity and confusion. At every encounter the children have to be counted a few times to establish that there are four. This is repeated over and back with hand gestures and in English and Lao. Then the issue of whether they are boys or girls follows and is often hotly debated. The boys long hair really throws people, and increasingly, I think my short hair. I think people are repeatedly asking," are they yours"? Seriously, blood is all that's keeping them here by times. An old woman took the gender issue literally into her own hands yesterday and copped a feel of Harry, poor fella couldn't believe the indignity of it, she thought it was hilarious.
One thing I've learned is that the best way to see this country is by your own steam. From Luang Prabang down there are some ugly towns/cities but go 5km out and the countryside is amazing. A motorbike would afford great freedom. These off main road loop trips could also be done by public transport would require more time than we have given over. It is a little frustrating to know these things in hindsight.
Anyways onwards. Going to 4000 islands tomorrow for our last few days in Laos. Caroline
Sent from my iPhone

Posted by caroline 05:21 Comments (1)

Sleepy Champasak

sunny 30 °C

Sleepy Champasak
Champasak is a terribly quiet place in low season. There's maybe a dozen 'farang' in this series of small villages that stretch along the Mekong River and we make up half that number. We're staying in a place called the Anouxa Guesthouse, a family run establishment that is in off-season mode. We rented bicycles from them yesterday and after trying out 8 or 9 rusty variations we finally settled on four that might take us the 10km to Wat Phou. Wat Phou houses the largest Khmer ruins outside of Cambodia and was the centre of the Khmer kingdom before they upped sticks and moved it to the much more famous Angkor Wat. They began construction of a now disappeared city in the 5th century A.D. but the religious complex that still exists was only built in the 11th century A.D. The whole thing is a Hindu complex that sits at the base of the Phu Kao mountain and its very impressive. There are amazing views out over the plains below and you can see why they picked this place for it.

Our outward journey was pretty uneventful, it was a pretty cloudy day and perfect for the bicycles. We stopped at a roadside noodle restaurant and had one of the cheapest meals on our travels thus far. After a whirlwind tour of the complex we set out for home. Disaster struck. My back tube blew and despite some helpful info from locals there was nowhere around that could repair it or sell me a new tube. I resigned myself to pushing the bike home and sent the others onwards, the sun sets pretty early in these parts and it was already past four in the afternoon. I attempted to flag down any passing trucks or tuk-tuks to no avail. After pushing it for around 800 metres I spied Caroline and the children ahead. The chain on Harry's bike had come off and a local chap was attempting to set it to right. Once done and after he'd refused payment they all set off on their bikes again and I continued on foot. Then the rain started. After another kilometre or so I spied the rest of the family ahead again. They were waiting by a truck whose driver had stopped for a roadside toilet stop. Caroline was straight over and badgered him into giving me a lift wih the bike. Once I got there we threw all the bikes in and hitched a ride home on the back of the truck. Fortunately, it appears that you can always depend on the kindness of strangers.

Last night we got a bit of a buzz going with some other travellers here in the guesthouse, an Aussie and his Guatamalean girlfriend, Ralf the German and half a dozen or so Thai dudes over from Bangkok for a few days. They were top buzzers who after the 10pm curfew insisted we finish our drinks on their balcony. Although I say its sleepy here in Champasak, there's still enough of a buzz about the place to make it enjoyable.

Posted by goldenmaverick 00:22 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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