Monday, April 26, 2010

A week at the beach

I spent the last 6 days on the southern coast of Cambodia not doing a whole lot of anything. It was nice to just stay in one place for a while. This is the first time in a month that I´ve stayed put for more than two or three days.
From Siem Reap I went directly to Sihanoukville by bus and was here 4 nights. Its a good-sized place so I´d imagine it gets real busy during toursist season. While I was there things were relatively quiet, all the hotels and restaurants were barginaning hard to get some business. Found a quiet beach on the north side of town and didn´t really stray too far from the water. And the water here is hot! It felt close to 90 degrees, ok maybe I´m a little jaded from the Oregon coast, but this is probably the warmest ocean I´ve ever swam in!
Later in the week I took a short bus ride to a place called Kep. This little town is within 20 km of the Vietnam border and hasn`t really been developed for tourism yet. Throughout the early 20th century it was a popular vacation spot for the French and Khmer people. During the 1970`s the Khmer Rouge came through and burned down all these mansions and vacation homes (see picture). These blackened out concrete shells are still there to see and it looked like many currently have squatters living inside. I also hiked up a hill to see the vacant palace that King Sihanouk had as a vacation home. There was no one else around so I walked inside to look around. It was probably a really nice place at one time, but it just felt sorta creepy walking around in there.
Took a boat ride from Kep to a quiet island just off the coast. It was real small and there was only a handful of bungalows to stay in but everything was dirt-cheap...I walked around the island and found a couple fishing villages but for the most part it was uninhabitated. It´s a really nice place with great beaches, but I heard the island has been sold for development much like a lot of the islands off of Cambodia.
Today I took a bus up to Phnom Penh. I really haven´t seen much of the city and I probably won´t as my flight for Bangkok leaves tomorrow. Just another busy place as far as I can tell...Well I think that is all, I may try putting up more photos once I´m in Bangkok

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Wild West of Asia

Even after my first few days in Cambodia I can tell that this is a much different place than either Thailand or Laos. It seems that almost anything goes here: gambling is prevelent, gun control is fairly lax, and it seems every taxi driver doubles as a drug dealer. It is also a place of great disparity, in the same sqaure mile you'll see five star resorts along with some of the poorest communities in the world. And I think cambodians see westerners as walking money machines. In the city its impossible to walk down the block without being overrun by hawkers selling anything from souvineers to taxi rides. This all adds up to make Cambodia a pretty wild place...keeps you on your toes!

I flew into Siem Reap from Laos five days ago; one of the more nerve-racking flights I've been on. I had heard that Lao Airlines doesn't have the greatest safety record but there weren't many options for flying out of the country. The little plane seemed to be made up of miscellaneous parts from other aircrafts. But to my surprise and relief we landed (quite roughly) in Siem Reap just fine.

I met an English guy and a Dutch couple on the flight over, we shared a taxi into Siem Reap and ended up spending the next couple days together. That first day we hired a boat to see the floating village just south of Siem Reap. Just after leaving the dock we ran into a traffic jam with 50 or so other boats trying to fit through a channel wide enough for only one or two at a time. Boats going both directions just piled up trying to squeeze their way through.

After an hour of this we finally made it out into this massive lake where the floating village is. The picture doesn't show it very well but there were thousands of shacks, built from wooden planks or bamboo, just floating out there on oil drums. I've never seen anything like it before, hard to believe people actually live like this. The boat driver was saying that many of the people who live out here are actually Vietnamese, I'd imagine that they were southern Vietnamese who fled the country after the war.
As we were getting ready to head back, a lady in a small boat with her four kids came up to the side of our boat. She kept saying the same thing over and over in Cambodian or Vietnamese while just blankly staring at us. And her son had a snake hanging around his neck (you can see in the picture); the whole thing was pretty disturbing.

The next moring we were up early to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. It was a remarkable thing to see and I don't think my pictures really do it much justice. After sunrise we began looking around at the other Angkor temples which cover a huge area. One of the walking tours was something like 25 kilometers long and people will spend days here trying to see it all. The stone carvings had incredible attention to detail and it seems unbelievable that they were capable of building something to this scale. I can understand now why it took 600 years to complete! All in all I'm glad to have seen it, but it probably would've been more interesting had I brushed up on the history beforehand. By noon, Ian (the english guy) and I were pretty templed-out and ready to head back for a nap.

After a couple days in Siem Reap I caught a night bus down to the southern coast which is where I'm at right now. The town I'm staying in is sorta trashy but the beach is really nice. More on that and some pictures next time

Friday, April 16, 2010

Still New Years...

It's five days into their new years celebrations and everything is still going full on. All day there are people in the streets, shop vendors have huge speakers setup, and there's water...lots of water. Its the hot-dry season right now but you'd never guess from the puddles in the street and all the water being thrown around.

I've had three full days here in Vang Vieng and wish I could stay another twenty. This is one of the most scenic places I've been so far and the people are great! And there aren't as many tourist here, a real sigh of relief coming from Thailand where backpackers out-number the locals 10 to 1 (maybe it just feels that way). Fortunately the journey to get here wasn't any indication of where I was going....The "5 or 6 hour" bus ride from Luang Prabang turned out to be a whole day ordeal, which would've been alright under other circumstances. The whole trip was only around 100 miles but almost the entire way the roads were narrow and windy, weaving up and down the Lao countryside. This huge old bus would be crawling up these mountainsides, driving around the other buses that were steaming on the side of the road while blaring the horn at oncoming traffic. And then on downhills we had Mario Andretti at the wheel whipping around the was terrible, almost everyone looked like they were going to be sick.

Despite all that, I made it here just fine and was very happy to get off the bus. I found decent accommodation close to the river here; it's in a really nice spot and the room is better than most places I've stayed. Electricity and water stop working pretty frequently but I think that's just how it is here. Next door, there's this little outdoor restaurant/bar I've been going to for breakfast and dinner. There's never anybody else eating there so its just me and the Irish guys who runs it, he's kinda long-winded but the foods okay.

On Wednesday I went out to find some of the caves that Vang Vieng is famous for. Most are a ways out from the town so I got a map and a motorbike and headed out. Some of the more popular caves were packed with Thai and Lao tourist on vacation for the New Year, it was sorta hard to enjoy these incredible caves with tons of people walking around. So I went out a ways and found this dirt road that eventually led to a cave entrance; and there was absolutely nobody else there! I followed a path and walked through some brush to find the cave then climbed down to the entrance. As I finally made my way in I heard some rustling to my right, looked down by my feet to see a good-sized snake slithering underneath a rock! Looking deeper into the cave and back to where the snake had disappeared I decided that I'd seen enough.

The last cave was actually my favorite. It was out even further so I was expecting it to be empty as well, so I was surprised to see a huge crowd of people when I showed up. There was a carnival or something going on (for new year's) with probably a thousand just outside the entrance. I think everybody there came from the local villages; the whole time I saw only one other white person. I got a lot of stares but people were very welcoming and quick to pull out a few words of broken English. I'll put in a picture of some little cave-kids I met.

The next day I got a tube and floated down the river that goes along Vang Vieng. Because it's the dry season and the current is pretty slow I had to paddle for quite a ways. There weren't very many people tubing down the river but I did come across another huge group of people celebrating the new year. They spread out across the shallow part of the river and were just kinda roaming around eating, drinking, and kicking water at each other. It got so crowded at one point I had to stand up and carry my tube to an open section of river. It was good fun though...

Vang Vieng is an incredible place and I wish I could stay longer. I'll be moving on to Cambodia soon and should be there for about 10 days. Alright, I think thats about enough for tonight...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Laos New Year

Its been a little while since I've been able to get on a computer, and once I finally found a place with internet the power went I'll just have to recap the last week.

After crossing the border into Laos I jumped on a boat going down the Mekong river. It was a two day trip with a stopover in a little hillside village for one night. The boat we took down the river is called a "slow boat", these things are hilarious looking! It seems like a miracle that they even float without tipping over. They crammed like a hundred people on this boat that is probably 8 ft at the widest and over 75 ft long...I'll throw in a picture you'll see what I'm talking about!

But the trip downriver was great; if not a bit uncomfortable from the tiny wooden benches. The villages we were passing seemed much more primitive than anything I've seen in Thailand. Pretty frequently we'd see groups of people sitting on the riverbank casting nets or collecting shellfish. The best part was these little naked kids swimming around in the river, when they saw our boat coming they would hurry out of the water, climb up onto the rocks and do a cannonball into the river as we passed. Then they would come up with a big smile and wave...everyone got a good laugh out of it

After two long days on that boat I was definitely ready to be on solid ground for a while. We arrived in Luang Prabang three days ago just in time for the Lunar New Year celebrations. The celebrations occur all over Laos and Thailand, it goes for about a week. There is something symbolic about water during the New Year (not sure why) and people go all over town dumping water on each other. It's pretty much impossible to go anywhere without getting drenched! I've been told that Luang Prabang is the place to be for the New Year celebrations and its supposed to get even busier here as the week goes on.

Luang Prabang is a really nice place, its been easy to just stick around and check out the town. Everything looks pretty European around here; I think Laos became a French colony during the 19th(?) century. The hotels and store fronts don't really look like something you'd expect to see in SE Asia. Anyway, I'll be taking off tomorrow and wish I had more time to stay around here for a while longer.

I should be in Laos for another five days or so, then move on to Cambodia. Starting to feel like I may not make to Vietnam this time around. With the time I have left it might be to much to finish Laos and then do two other countries...

I'm not sure if US News is covering the crazy stuff going on in Bangkok right now. They've been having these riots for a while and I overheard some people saying that the airport may get shut down. I'm sure it will all blow over in the next several weeks and be fine, worst case I have to stay over here for a little longer which actually sounds pretty good right now.

Alright that's enough for now, hopefully I can send an update from Vang Vieng in a couple days...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Chiang Mai

Right now I'm in Chiang Mai, which is Norhtern Thailand really close to where we did that project (in Chiang Rai). So at this point I've kinda made a full circle around Thailand. I wasn't really planning on coming back up this way but so many people recommended Chiang Mai that I decided to stopover before crossing the border into Laos. Before arriving here in Chiang Mai I was moving around quite a bit and have been looking forward to staying in one place for more than a day.

There's a ton to see and do in Chiang Mai so I've been all over the place the last couple days trying to take it all in. And its been absolutely scorching here! Today got up to 105 F and it stays warm until pretty late so its been tough to sleep (my $4 room doesn't have AC...weird). Hot asphalt and lots of walking means its time for new flippy floppies soon!

There are big elaborate budhist temples within a quarter-mile of anywhere you walk in Chiang Mai. They're all pretty impressive but I've given up on trying to see everyone of them. And honestly, the temples all look pretty similar so I can't really tell them apart anyway. I'll throw in a picture below

Before coming back up to Northern Thailand I stopped off at a couple places that had recommended to me. Leaving Krabi on the south-western coast, I took a 2 hour ferry to Koh Phi Phi which is a group of islands in the Andaman Sea. The scenery here was incredible...but so were the crowds. The huge limestone cliffs and white sand beaches sorta loose their allure when your there with thousands of other toursits. No complaints though, it was a beautiful place (see photo) but I was eager to move on.

Oh! I'll try to add this video of these beach-monkeys (I don't think thats what they're actually called) ....hopefully it works! This was probably my favorite part of Koh Phi Phi

From Phi Phi I took another ferry to Phuket (no...the "h" is silent), an upscale beach-town that felt more like Florida than Thailand. Since I didn't have a ton of time here there's really not much to say about Phuket. Instead of finding a hostel I rented a bamboo bangalow that was right on this huge beach; it seamed like a great idea until it started pouring that night... Anyway, I only stayed here for a night and then caught my flight up to Chaing Mai in the morning.

Well there might be more to elobarate on but I'm gonna call it a night. I figured out how to add photos, it was pretty easy... still took me a couple hours so I'm itching to get off the computer!

I'll be moving on to Laos soon, so I should have more to write about in a few days...

Photos of our project in Chiang Rai

Friday, April 2, 2010

Almost out of Thailand

Its been about two weeks since I arrived in Thailand and everything has been super crazy up until now. We've been moving around quite a bit so its been hard to find a computer with a good connection....

Anyway things have been going great overall and we completed our water supply project in Chiang Rai (Northern Thailand) about a week ago. The project came together better than expected, we couldn't have asked for a better outcome. During the first couple of days in Chiang Rai we built a cement/rock dam on a hill above the village. We spent the rest of the week putting down 2 miles of pipe from the dam to water tanks in the village. By our last day in Chiang Rai we had everything tested for leaks and had the pre-existing cement holding tanks cleaned out and ready to be filled up.

In addition to the fourteen of us, we had some help from the villagers throughout the week. What really impressed me was these tiny old Thai ladies that would come up on the hill and work with us. They would collect sand and rocks in a rice sack and carry these big heavy bags to where we were building the dam. They did this all day without stopping! These ladies were ten times tougher than any of us younger guys, it was kinda embarrassing. Ironically, it was the younger men of the village who felt entitled to stand around and watch everyone else sweat it out. But we were happy with all the help we could get and know for fact that this project couldn't have been completed without help from the villagers.

During that week we split up into groups of three and stayed in the village with a Thai family. The families fed us breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday; and they weren't stingy on the portions! Up in the northern hills they have a different diet than most of Thailand so it wasn't typical Thai food. In fact, we were later told that dog meat is a common staple and that we had probably eaten some during the week (I just assumed it was beef or chicken...oh well). Everyday our host families would make a rice and meat dish for lunch and wrap it up in a banana leaf so we could take it with us to the work site. At lunch time we'd unwrap our leafs and compare each of our lunches...kinda like you did in the 4th grade at lunch time (except without fruit sacks or PB&J's). All in all the village food was pretty good and we were far from going hungry.

At the end of the week they had a big party and a feast for us. Some of the village women did a dance all dressed up in their traditional garments. Afterwards some of the guys from our group decided to show the villagers some "traditional" American dancing; it was pretty funny and a little distasteful but I think everyone enjoyed it. The next day, Saturday, we flew back to Bangkok for a night and then the majority of us headed down to the southern gulf islands. We were on Ko Samui for a couple days and then moved on to Ko Pha-Ngan, of the two Pha-Ngan was the most enjoyable. The beaches were super nice and the water was perfect, good snorkeling too! There isn't much traffic on the island so we rented some motorbikes for about five dollars and checked out the other beaches and some waterfalls. It was a nice break after working hard all week...

Yesterday, the last of the remaining guys from my group headed back to Oregon, so I'm kinda moving at my own pace right now. I'm on the west side of Thailand's southern peninsula (called the Andaman Coast) in a smallish town called Krabi. Krabi isn't much of a destination but its been good to take a day and get everything straightened out again. Tomorrow morning I'm taking off for the Phi Phi islands which are supposed to be really scenic and full of nice beaches. After couple days there I should start making my way up north towards Laos.
The visa process for Laos and Cambodia is pretty straight-forward, but for Vietnam I understand it's a little more tricky. Although I still have a month before flying home I need to pick up the pace if I wanna see everything on my list!

Thailand has been awesome so far and I could easily spend a couple months here without seeing it all. The food has been great (I've had Phat Thai for probably seven meals good!) and everything is pretty cheap. For the most part people are very friendly and helpful. I do get quite a few funny stares, especially from little kids, but I'm sure it's harmless (might have something to do with the blond hair though).

I think that's it for now, I need to get some sleep before I take off in the morning.... some Thai guy is singing pretty terrible John Denver covers at the bar next door (I'll have to grab some earplugs before going to bed). Sorry for the long-windedness, hopefully I can update this a little more frequently and make the posts shorter; it all depends on where I can get internet. Hope everything is well back home!