Angkor!!! I had been looking forward to going here for years and it was one of the few prior plans I made for my trip. So with all the anticipation and expectations, it was wonderful to still be completely mesmerized, completely in awe. Incredible!!! Just the way that you would dream it to be. In the jungle. Ancient temples. tall, immaculate trees. exploration at its best. unfortunately joined by many, many others. fortunately there were about 60 temples, so it was still possible to find yourself alone at a temple, connecting with history, fantasizing about another world.
So, if you’ve never heard of Angkor, which I have bee really surprised with the amount of people that have not (it’s like an 8th world wonder or somewhere in that realm), I suggest you google it, but I will of course give a bit of a description and some photos. Also, if you have seen Tomb Raider (Angelina Jolie!), you have been exposed to one of the temples, (Ta Prohm).
Angkor was a Khmer empire that flourished Indochina from 9th to the 13th century, which is an incredibly long time, if you think about it. Which made it even more overwhelming to see because you encountering temples that are from different centuries, differing in structure and history.
Khmer derives from the masculine sanskrit word Kambuja, the land of the “offspring of Kambu,” and Cambodians quite often refer to themselves as Khmer. This empire was truly incredible, being able to guarantee substinance for a million persons through their network of basins, canals, and rice paddies.
The temples were built as representations of the mythical cosmic mountain, Meru. A Khmer temple is called a Prasat, which is a tower that is meant to reproduce the cosmic mountain. This pyramid/”mountain” type structure is an axial symbol, linking the sky and earth. Upside down it links the underworld in the shape of a funnel underneath the mountain. Its peaks, being one, three, or five, according to various mythical versions, are the home of the deities, particularly the god Shiva, who prefers the recesses of the Himalayas, particularly Mt. Meru.
Each temple varied in size, style, location, grandeur, century, kings, etc. Going to so many temples made it hard to understand each one as much as I wanted to. I could have spent many many days exploring.
It was such a wonderful experience, getting up before 4 am, riding bicycle about 15 km on a road lined with tall jungle trees, to make it to the temples for the sunrise. Then riding all day from temple to temple and ending with a beautiful sunset (okay it wasn’t quite as glorious, I ended the 14 hour exploration day with a disgusting heat rash on my legs and complete exhaustion, it was at least 100 degrees). Taking a tuk tuk around was also a dreamy experience, lovely cushioned seats and carpeted floors, a peaceful ride through jungle temples (of course after not sleeping at all due to watching the European soccer with friends in love with futbol). I explored three days total, and it wasn’t enough!
Laos. I had a bit of a hard time leaving Thailand, so much so that I walked maybe 6 km or so with all my belongings to the border instead of paying a tuk tuk a few bucks. I entered the Capitol city of Laos, and felt confused. It wasn’t what I was expecting, baguettes everywhere and French style buildings. And everything was more expensive than Thailand and I had to get used to carrying around 100s of thousands of Kip, instead of just a few thousand baht. And food is not everywhere like in Thailand or as good in my opinion. Most Thai people eat out, that is why there is food everywhere, Laos eat at home, so gone is the luxury of food everywhere whenever you want it. Something I may always miss. I have a deep nostalgia for it already and it’s only been a few weeks. On the other hand, I’ve never said no to a loaf of bread in my life and Thailand lacked bread, so it’s nice to eat bread again. All to say, I am very glad to be in Laos and to see a new country, similar to Thailand but so very different. The people are much more laid back and they take their time, they are in absolutely no rush. Almost painfully so. There are seemingly waterfalls everywhere. The land is beautiful, but you can tell a lot if it is regrowth. And it’s the most bombed place by landmass in the world, thanks to the U.S.A. during the Vietnam war. I am surprised they let Americans set foot in their country. And often I wonder how I can be greeted with such a kind smile and a sabadee. I love saying sabadee to people, especially children, it is much more friendly than hello for some reason, the way it sounds and the way people say it with a smile. It makes me want to say hello to everyone wherever I am and smile, it reminds me of my grandma because she thinks smiling is so important and she makes a point to smile at everyone who walks by. Smiling at people does really contribute to more positive attitudes, I really think so.
After arriving in Vientiane I headed north to Vang Vieng. A place that was beautiful but made me feel ashamed. It’s turned into a bit of a Disneyland for foreigners to come to. What once was a peaceful town, now is filled with teenagers on “spring break” all wearing bathing suits on the street in a land that upholds modesty. But around the area there are many caves and a brown river and a blue lagoon. My favorite thing was riding a bicycle outside of the main town and saying sabadee to locals. I also met friends there that I met in Thailand, always nice to see familiar faces. So the beginning of my Laos trip, did not feel like I was in Laos. So I was so relieved when I arrived in Pakse. A friend and I rented a motorbike from there and did the Bolaven Plateau loop. Amazing! It was so nice to be able to stop whenever we liked along the road, be in the country, see small villages, lots of waterfalls, few tourists, thunderstorms, driving a semi atomatic motorbike on terrible roads, watching people live, children riding water buffalo in the river, kids playing soccer, coffee plantations, homestay in the middle of no where, hiking, oh my, Laos!
Now I’m in Cambodia, I’ll post photos from Laos when I get to a computer.
Mae Sot. Border town. Diverse. Burmese, Thai, mixes of religion. Not many tourists, only foreigners doing border studies, or volunteering. There is a huge refugee village near by. A very interesting place and met some wonderful people and learned a lot. I came there to get to Umphang to get to the largest waterfall in Thailand. I was sick for a few days so I stayed longer than I intended and was very glad I did. Border towns are so interesting because they don’t carry one identity, but such a mix of food and language and culture. The market there was fascinating, it was hard to walk through the areas with lots of food because the odors were so strong, they literally made you cough. Near the market is where I hopped onto the back of a songthaew (a pick up truck with two benches and a roof) for a four or so hour trip through maybe 2,000 curves with a fast driver. At one point I counted 28 people in or on the truck. People where on the roof, hanging from the back, and sitting on the floor. We would stop, expecting people to get off, only to be astonished that more people could possibly fit. Not far from Umphang, our Songtaew broke down and that is where I met a Thai college student on his way to work at the Umphang wildlife Sanctuary where the waterfall resides. I had dinner with him and his friends and then met them at the waterfall the next day. So nice to hang out at the waterfall with new Thai friends! I learned so much more about thailand because they were all from different parts of the country. But it was also very difficult to communicate, I love languages, but hate the barriers. The waterfall was amazing and it’s the dry season, so I didn’t even see it in all it’s glory. The place I stayed at was lovely and it was nice to see a small Thai town. I loved being alone again too (I had been traveling with lots of people in northern Thailand, great people, but I love being alone, even more so now, I may write a post about that too, of course everything in balance, I love people too).
Pai. North of Chiang Mai. Almost 2,000 curves away (thankful for my Dramamine). Could have stayed for a much longer time (left to go back to Chiang Mai for songkran). My own bungalow on the river with a hot shower in the bathroom! Hammocks and swings along the river and a nice porch on each bungalow. Hanging out on people’s porches, listening or playing music, so wonderful. A laid back, peaceful place. A do nothing sort of vibe (the vibe locals claimed). Water falls and hot springs surrounding. Motorbiking around the area. Sliding on rocks down waterfalls. Wonderful people.
Songkran, April 13-15 (but more like April 12-16), 2012. Wow, wow, wow. The Thai new year. Songkran means to pass or to move into - the passing and moving of the sun, the moon, and the other planets into one of the zodiacal orbits. Younger Thais show respect to elders by sprinkling them with scented water and people wash Buddhas as well. Purpose of bathing or splashing is to give and request blessings through water. After experiencing this event, you might describe it as a massive water fight, almost unimaginable! Every child’s dream! An entire country (as well as Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, etc) participating in a water fight! You literally could not step outside without getting drenched. Buckets of water constantly being thrown at you, super soakers, it didn’t matter if you wanted to participate, you were automatically included. An incredible week!
Trekking. Pooh Eco Trekking (www.pooh-ecotrekking.com/). They have a restaurant too, with wonderful food. My friend went there for dinner and then brought others and we went to the elephant conservatory and then trekking with them. Pooh is the owners last name, but the conservatory also uses elephant pooh to make paper, which one of our guides joked would soon be tourist pooh. We became good friends with the guys at pooh, staying with them after our trekking and again for the Thai new year. Chiang Mai is known for trekking, there are lots of places in the city that offer trekking, but I had heard about a lot of treks where people hopped on an elephant that seemed mistreated, then rafted down a river, snapped photos of a village and walked for a bit. Fortunately my experience was quite different. There was no elephant riding or rafting. We spent one night with a family in a small Karen village and the next night in the woods next to a river. We had amazing food and a funny guide. We swam in the river, hiked through a cave, made utensils out of bamboo, and walked though the woods. I learned a few French words too.