Monday, December 21, 2015

Cambodia-Laos: Nov-Dec 2015

Four of us. two Brits and two Americans, took off for a Fall trip to southeast Asia; the tour was  planned by one of the Brits with the help of Trailfinders and Exotissmo, British and SE Asian travel specialist. It was at least the sixth time three of us had traveled together.   (Incidentally, Exotissmo got a bad rap on TripAdvisor:  we found them to be outstanding with drivers and guides knowledgeable and more than on time!)

The tour started in Siem Reap and ended at Chiang Mai: nine days in Cambodia,  eleven days in Laos and one night in Thailand.  I met up with the group on the fourth day in Phnom Penh,  having chosen not to repeat an earlier visit to Siem Reap.  We stopped in three major cities:  Phnom Penh, Vientianne and Luang Pr
abang.  The rest of time we traveled in out of the way villages/towns or in the countryside.  Both Cambodia and Laos are communist countries but ones that seem to have made their peace with a capitalist society.  Though Cambodia  had ever present photos of the ruling party members and  Laos flew as many hammer-and-sickle flags as national ones.  But I had little feeling of repression in either country.

Like other French influenced cities from the old IndoChina days,  PP has wide boulevards which   mixed with narrow back streets.  And traffic:  Trucks, buses, autos, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, scooters - if it had wheels, it was there.  Probably  there, even without  wheels.  Buildings new and old,  French influenced and "Moderne".  Sheds and shacks. A noisy,  developing city.   A combination of old looking new and new looking old.  PP was more modern than I expected. But still   with  Buddhist  influences.

My roommate and I spent time in Phnom Penh looking for her checked luggage, which had gone walk-about (or more accurately, fly-about) when   Air France responded to  a terrorist threat which meant itinerary changes  which then found her in Siem Reap a day late and a  duffel short. The missing was found, the day before we left PP. 

Missed a dance performance but did tour about PP, courtesy of a local tuk-tuk driver.  (The other two did their sightseeing walk: in fact, we putted by them as they stood on the street corner,  Lonely Planet to the fore!) We all spent sometime a the local market, busy and bustling, as these markets tend to be.

Vientiane seemed a bit less brash. Happily, they were celebrating the  county's forty-th anniversary.  Fireworks!  It was a charming, active city with a small night market near the river.  Lots of  shops, including a bookstore.  Not as large or overwhelming as PP.  We went to a hotel-restaurant mentioned by Lonely Planet for indigenous dancing - mistake!  Not-a-mistake:  the two hour and a half hour  massage.

Luang Prabang was the most touristy of all.  Considered the spiritual center  of Laos, it is a colorful Buddhist place with several Wats, museums,and a  large night market
. I was surprised at the number of Westerners around - not only here but throughout the journey.  Young and old.  Straight and "hippy".

There was a  film festival:  I attended six offerings:  two graphic and  four standard. 
From Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia.  All with subtitles.  All well done.  In various locales, from a 5* hotel to the Lao Friends Hospital for Children  -  transportation  provided between venues.

Also, wandered into a small 
Unexploded Ordinance Museum where I saw a film of the US bombing of the area and a film warning local youngsters  regarding UXOs.  I hadn't realized the US had done so much damage to this area - Cambodia and Laos as well as Vietnam.  In fact, the locals call it the American war rather than the Vietnam war.

In between, got a foot massage!! 

We traveled between these three major  cities via auto and airplane, staying at small river towns, where we took tuk-tuk, elephant and boat to explore the areas along the Mekong.  The boats?  L
ong tailed banana shaped,  wooden ones with diesel engine and lengthy rudder (I had first run into them in Thailand ).  At Kratie, we took the local ferry, a long tailed one,  across the river to Koh Trong Island, to haul ourselves onto a  motor bike  for the trip up the island to the hotel, one of our more interesting ways to an accommodation.    A beautiful area.  We navigated  back to the mainland the next day for another boat trip and dolphin watching.

Moving onto Stung Treng, located on the Laos border, a small town with  silk factory and small villages nearby, we did a sunset cruise  among the boat people and bridges. Housing was of various materials:  thatch, corrugated metal,  wood - often on stilts.  Often, uncollected trash.

The next day we crossed the border into Laos and were driven into Champasak.  A World heritage Wat, temple ruins, French colonial architecture, wet lands and unspoiled,  forest areas. And a picturesque  elephant  ride   into a Protected Area.  And triangle (motorcycle with  side car for two)  and boat rides  -   water falls, bridges and railroads.We observed the local people settled in boat communities, in or along the edges of the Mekong. 

From here, we flew to Vientiane and after time there, onto the magnificent  unexplicable Plain of Jars:  where thirty sites house hundreds of ancient sandstone jars of all shapes and sizes.  We were able to access three sites, with paths marked to protect visitors from UXOs as this area had been heavily bombed during the Vietnam/American war.  Unique and mysterious, it was   well worth the hikes onto the sites.   Missed out on a hot air balloon ride:  rain!

We ended the trip with a two day cruise on the Mekong toward Thailand and the flights home.  Along with our foursome, there was only one other traveler aboard so it was close to a private expedition.  There were several stops to visit local villages - weavers mostly all.  And an exploration of  local Buddhist caves.  Overnight was at lodge near a small riverside settlement - unique but comfortable. 

Conclusion was a ride to Chiang Rai for the night; the next morning, it was Chiang Mai and the flights home. 

Accommodations:  Outstanding.  All  with both comfort and character and wi-fi.  One lacked breakfast facilities which left us with a bit sub par  local cafe. Almost all recommended with Trip Advisor.

Food:  A mix from really excellent hotel restaurants to French influenced cafes to  make shift local eateries.  The Mekong cruise  lodge had the best food of the lot, both supper and breakfast. 

Cost:  Airfare round trip from SFO:  $1057 - had three seats to myself on the ride home:  can't beat that!  Tour : $2900.  The remaining expenses are estimated:  Meals:  $200.  Tips: $150 .  Gifts:  $400. ( I took one thousand cash with me and came home with $250.)

Cat Care:  $840 plus the kindness of Sam's friends, whose friendship is beyond payment.  

Impression:  This was a great trip: well planned and executed. Weather  a bit toasty at the start but cooler  on the river.   I was surprised that as an American, I was  so welcomed in countries where the US had done so much damage.  But then, same was true in Vietnam.  Amazing! 

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