Friday, December 31, 2010

Cambodia - Angkor Wat

Wow, Angkor Wat was simply fantastic! I posted some of my photos in a Facebook album that can be accessed by clicking on this link: Angkor Wat Album, so I won't repeat them in this article. I first heard about Angkor Wat when I was helping Toby Tyler put together his travel reminiscences from an around-the-world trip he made in the 1950s. The resultant memoir is in the Top Drawer Collection at the Homer Public Library. When he visited it the site was far off the beaten track. Today it's a World Heritage Site that draws thousands of tourists from all over the world. See this Wikipedia article for more. Toby's books, Around the world with pencil and pen, (it's in two parts) is an excellent memoir and aside from the travel descriptions contains many pencil sketches and photographs that illustrate what surely was by any measure, but especially in 1950, a very ambitious trip. (I worked at the HPL from 1991 to 2003.)

Due to the proximity of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is a very touristy town. We liked it okay but could have shortened our stay once the temple tour was under our belt. Had it been cheaper we might have visited again but at $20/day per person we decided once was enough. Add to that the fact that falangs cannot rent a moto in Siem Reap so you're forced to hire a tuk-tuk driver as guide -- you're looking at an excursion that will set you back 60-70 bucks. We hung out in our hotel room for a couple of afternoons watching cable TV which in Cambodia has tons of English language content. We watched National Geo Wild, Animal Planet, and a lot of the stuff on the Discovery Channel. Nut, being a Thai chauvinist, didn't really like the street food in Cambodia so we ate three of our dinners in an excellent Chinese restaurant, the Monorom Kong Yiv Key, on Sivatha Rd downtown. They offer a fabulous dish called Eggplant Hot Pot that we liked so well we ordered it twice. I also had a sweet-sour fried catfish and a black mushroom cabbage soup that were also excellent. Everything we ate there was scrumptious. Great service too. It was a bit more expensive than buying food in the market or at street-side but at $12-14 for two not out of range.

My darling Nut at Angkor Wat
We hopped a bus back to Phnom Penh on December 22nd and were back in Bangkok on the 23rd. Fast Forward -- I'm writing this on New Year's eve from Nut's new apartment, a place we'll be sharing whenever I'm in Bangkok. More about that later. We just got up from a great supper of tom yum prawn soup and long-eggplant and pork stir fry cooked by a very talented cook, my sweet girlfriend Nut. It was the first meal she's cooked at home since she left Yala Province over 2 years ago. Later we'll head out to the park near Fort Phra Sumen on the river. The Rama VIII bridge is close by and the fireworks at midnight promise to be pretty cool. Already at 8 o'clock the neighborhood here on Samsen Soi 4 is lit up with exploding star shells and many folks are out on the street drinking whiskey and beer. The Thai people certainly love a celebration -- any excuse for a party!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cambodia - Sihanoukville

Nut and I visited Sihanoukville for a few days last week. Our main goal in returning to Cambodia was to see Angkor Wat but the beach that I enjoyed here last spring was calling and we decided to answer that call. Albert and Johnnie, good friends from Homer, told me of a new hotel that has recently opened, the Okata Guesthouse. It's near Victory Hill on the west side of town where many other hotels are located and is in an area I am already familiar with. It turned out to be a great deal in terms of value -- for $10/night we got a brand new room with balcony, flatscreen TV, wi-fi, fridge, and a nice view from our 4th floor room. Oh,  yes, it has an elevator too. Aircon was a few bucks more per night but we didn't need it at this time of year. I enjoyed a couple of hours on the balcony in the evenings -- nice spot. (N10.63105 E103.50529)

The view from our balcony - Okata Guesthouse - Sihanoukville
Sihanoukville, and Cambodia generally, is not considered an ideal tourist destination for many travelers. Cambodia is a very poor country, the roads and markets are littered with refuse and you're constantly accosted by beggars, tuk-tuk drivers, and people selling everything from lotus roots to marijuana. But it has its charms too and Sihanoukville is an an up and coming hot spot. There are many new hotels and condos going up and if the beaches were developed and protected, they'll draw tourists. The seaside nearby isn't as spectacular as what can be found in Thailand but the people are friendly and the prices are right.

I rented a moto and Nut and I went to Otres Beach both days to swim in the warm water and eat some good Kmer-style stir fry at Mein-Mein (N10.57789, E103.54796 - see this earlier entry from last spring). The photos below are scenes from our ride out and back.

 Nut watches a rain squall near Otres Beach, Sihanoukville

Stormy sky near Otres Beach, Sihanoukville
The road to Kbal Chhay
We also took a ride to Kbal Chhay waterfall about 10 km out of town to the north. We found a pleasant uncrowded park with good swimming. Last spring when I was here it was the dry season and the falls were totally dry. This is how they appear in the "winter".

The falls at Kbal Chhay (N10.67632 E103.60884)

We took a short walk upstream to the top of the falls where I took a dip. Refreshingly cool, almost too cool for my heat acclimatized body. I caught this little Kmer girl taking a swim a bit later.

Next year I think we'll spend a lot more time at Sihanoukville. Next stop, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

Friday, December 10, 2010

We visit an old friend at Ban Pik Noi

December 1 - 4, 2010, Ban Pik Noi
Morning mist and the Nam Khan river from Scott's deck
(N19.89203 E102.22663)
We spent three days visiting Scott, an old Homer friend, at his rustic bungalow near this tiny Lao village (pop. 400) about 15 km east of Luang Prabang. Scott is an engineer and the type of guy that can do it all, from raising the new radio tower for KBBI Public Radio back in 1986 and relocating the station to its present quarters, to building his own home at 17 mile East Road, to speaking fluent Lao today. Lately he has built a simple but lovely dwelling on the east bank of the Nan Khan on the opposite side of the town proper. The Nam Khan is a medium sized tributary to the Mekong that joins it at Luang Prabang (see photo in the previous post) and along with the Mekong sort of defines the old city. With the help of some local workers he pulled a power cable across the river and hung it from posts he'd erected earlier. The power wires are suspended by cables whose tension was specified by calculations Scott made in advance. They applied the tension with a wire-rope come-along like the ones you can buy in Home Depot. However, there is no Home Depot, no Homer Electric Association in Laos nor are there any electrical contractors handy. If you want electricity, you make it happen on your own. From a stainless steel water tank mounted on a steel-pipe platform he built on the spot and erected with pulleys and ropes he derives running water that's been first pumped up to the tank from a well near the river -- he has a flush toilet and a hot shower -- more than I have in my present living situation in Homer.

Scott's home - Khoun is cooking breakfast at left - Scott is grinding coffee at right
Scott grinding coffee

As is typical for SE Asia, the house is made almost completely of concrete. It consists of a ceramic tiled concrete slab as the base with concrete block walls. There's a lot of hardwood trim inside though and the doors and shutter-style windows are also of hardwood.The roof is typical for SE Asia too -- fluted concrete tiles.  Concrete is used for several reasons: it's relatively inexpensive, it's impervious to termites which attack any wood that is in or even close to the ground, and there are plenty of local craftsmen who can work with it. In fact, all the blocks were made on site from cement mixed with readily available river sand and gravel. This is especially handy as everything else must be floated across the river from town. Pretty damn impressive!

Scott has migrated to an amazing community. I met many of the local people, his neighbors, who by our standards are desperately poor, and found them to be hard working, fun loving and seemingly content with their situation. They were great folks to party with -- we had a dinner gathering that eventually developed into a beach BBQ party, and a picnic at Taat Sae, some particularly beautiful waterfalls about 10 km upriver from town.  Everyone that attended was cool - we didn't have much to say to one another, obviously, because I speak no Lao or Thai, but Nut carried on conversations in Thai with them as did Scott and his partner Khoun.

During this time of the year everyone living  along the river is collecting riverweed to make a local delicacy, kai-pan.The green weed is collected, pounded perhaps to tenderize it, chopped into smaller pieces and shaped into square sheets which are then sprinkled with sesame seeds and sometimes thin tomato slices and/or garlic. These sheets are then placed onto split bamboo drying racks and put out in the sun to dry.

After collecting the weed, the 2nd step in making kai-pan is pounding it with a stick. Everyone helps.

Every home in Ban Pik Noi  has these racks to sun dry the kai-pan sheets
The sheets are then rolled up and stored for the rest of the year. One way to to eat the kai-pan is to plunge it into hot oil for a few seconds. It's a bit salty and tastes good -- everyone eats massive quantities of it. Scott recommended eating it with plenty of beer to quench your thirst. I bought into that completely.

The visit to Taat Sae waterfall was pretty cool too. Scott got one of his friends who owns a longboat with a motor and hired him to take up upstream to the falls for a picnic. We loaded the boat with our picnic stuff: beer and ice in a cooler, food for Khoun's special Lao salad, assorted snacks, a charcoal brazier (described below) and a fresh fish Nut had bought at the market the day before (it was alive when she got it). As we motored up the river, Khoun grilled the fish. Yep, while we were moving along he lit a fire and cooked the fish. Scott continually passed me glasses of Beer Lao with ice. I was nervous when turning around to grab the beer fearing I'd flip the very tippy-feeling longboat, which BTW was leaking water by the gallon. No worries, said Scott, all these boats leak like crazy. After a pleasant and uneventful trip up the river we reached the falls. We unloaded everything and hiked a short distance to the picnic area. It turns out that the falls are accessible from the road system so there were many other visitors, including some falangs, there enjoying the cool shade and the somewhat chilly water. I had half expected the falls to be similar to many of the other ones I'd seen in Thailand but these were quite a bit different. For one thing, there were elephants taking people for rides in the water. For another, minerals in the water have created some bizarre looking deposits. And the water is azure blue, presumably due to those same minerals.

Taat Sae Waterfalls

We ate the fish and the Lao salad in the "picnic area" while some folks played in the water. There was one falang couple who had a baby with them, probably about 18-24 months old, who was an instant hit with all of the Lao girls, and with Nut. All Asians are fascinated by people with white skin, and this blonde toddler was not only very white but very cute and not at all shy about all the attention being showered on her. The girls photographed her, and one another holding her, constantly.

Lao girls and falang toddler
Nut holding the falang toddler
This fascination with whiteness is, to me, simply absurd. I know what it's about (poorer people work in the sun and are therefore darker) but the extent to which it dictates how Nut, for example, feels about her skin color is extreme. And she's not alone in that feeling. Far from it. Every skin product sold here includes whiteners and all the models, even Asian ones, have light skin. It's crazy.

Scott and Khoun met in Luang Prabang where Scott had a computer/Internet shop for a while when he first moved to Laos. Khoun is a native of Ban Pik Noi, speaks pretty good English, and is an amazing cook. Much of the day in any Asian home is spent eating and preparing food -- lucky is the visitor who gets  a chance to spend time in a home where Khoun is cooking. We'd get up in the morning, have a couple of cups of strong Lao coffee while Khoun prepared a three-course breakfast. An example: rice, stir fried pork with mushrooms and ginger, stir fried veggies, sometimes an omelet made with local tomatoes and dill (Lao name is pakse). Delicious. Almost as soon as breakfast was over Khoun would start preparing lunch. And so on.

The coffee hereabouts is tasty and always brewed strong-- it's also very, very black. Scott thinks that's because they roast the beans in big pans or woks with a bit of sugar added. At any rate, you can add tons of evaporated milk to your cup and it simply refuses to lighten up. It reminds me a lot of the coffee roasted with chicory I loved so much in New Orleans.

Another great breakfast with Khoun and Scott
Our last meal together was a masterpiece. The main course was Stuffed Deep-Fried Bamboo Shoots. Khoun served steamed squash and fried sticky-rice cakes with it and of course there was plenty of Beer Lao to wash it all down with. We drank Beer Lao with every meal except breakfast.

Khoun frying the bamboo shoots
Bon appetit!
If you'd like to make Stuffed Deep-Fried Bamboo Shoots for yourself here's how to proceed. The first part will be the hardest because you must find a thicket of bamboo somewhere. Got bamboo? Okay, now cut about 10 inches off the growing tips of as many young shoots as you think you'll need. For three people you'll want about 12-18 of them. Boil for an hour or so. (They can be stored in plastic bags for several months in this parboiled state by the way.) Now peel off the tough outer layers of each shoot and boil again for about another hour until the shoots are very tender. Drain well and allow to cool.

With a toothpick or other pointed object make many lengthwise cuts or slits along each shoot. You'll place the stuffing inside these slits. You've already prepared the stuffing, right? If not, here's the recipe: with a mortar and pestle grind together until smooth handfuls of lemon grass, garlic, and a small onion. Finely chop about a pound of lean pork loin (moo sap). Blend the chopped pork with the lemon grass mixture. Add a bunch of fresh pakse (dill) from the garden along with some nam pla (fish sauce) or soy sauce, some salt, and enough pork or chicken broth to make a moldable mixture. Stuff this mixture generously into the slits in each shoot.

Get a steamer going because the pork must be cooked before deep frying. Everyone in SE Asia uses a wood or charcoal fired stove for a multitude of cooking chores. This is one of those chores. These stoves are made of concrete (see photo) and have a simple three point system that conveniently supports various pots, pans and woks. They're also semi-portable if a bit on the heavy side. Many of them are cast right inside of a galvanized bucket so they have a bail-type handle built in. You started your stove earlier, right? Okay, good. Place a few shoots at a time into a woven bamboo steamer basket over boiling water (I guess a stainless steel basket would work.) and steam them until the pork is fully cooked. Drain and pat dry.

Prepare a tempura type dipping mixture. Eggs, cornstarch, water, a bit of soy sauce and chicken concentrate for taste and some salt should do it. Dip each shoot into this mixture until completely covered, then drop into hot oil and with constant turning, fry until golden brown. Serve with deep fried black and white sticky rice crackers and Beer Lao over nam kang (ice cubes). Awesome! (You remembered to make the sticky rice didn't you? Oh hell, let's see.... )

December 9, 2010 Bangkok

It's been almost a week since we left Laos and I'm just finishing up this entry. I'm staying with Nut at her place and she has no Internet so I'm in a coffee shop working against the clock. Well, sort of.

Our trip to Lao was about rivers I reckon. The trip down the Mekong was mighty fine. And visiting Scott in his adopted home on the Nam Khan was awesome. Everything we saw and did revolved around river life. The weather in Lao was different too. Night time temperatures were in the low 60s -- one night it was 59 deg F -- and they sent Nut into a paroxysm of shivers every morning. She slept in all her clothes and under two blankets. While she enjoyed the good air and the sunny afternoons she soon got tired of being cold. I might've stayed for another week in Luang Prabang but we wanted to visit Cambodia before Christmas and I also have the Africa trip ahead. So we somewhat reluctantly made our way back to Bangkok. Two very long days on buses brought us first (the first leg was in Laos over very rough roads on a very old bus) to Nong Khai and then from there to Bangkok on quite a bit nicer Thai bus.

Tomorrow, we'll fly to Phnom Penh where we'll meet up with Albert. Last time I was there I chased bar girls and spent a lot of money on booze. This time I want to see Angkor Wat and also spend a few days in Sihanoukville. This visit promises to be quite a bit different. Stay tuned....

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Journey down the Mekong to Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, Laos - Nov 30, 2010, 10 pm

I'm sitting on the front porch of my guesthouse in this fair city on a beautiful evening in (almost) December. It's a very pleasant evening  -- the temperature about 70 F and calm, and on my little lane, it's quiet. I'm working on a bottle of affordable French wine while the Mekong River, wide and abnormally placid hereabouts, is flowing silently toward Vietnam to my left while my comfy room is just off the deck to my right. Below me, the family that runs the guesthouse opposite is eating dinner, charcoal brazier sparking brightly right next to the table, family members and friends coming and going, their conversation rising and falling in the night air. There are some other conversations going on -- the neighbor lady is talking with her daughter, two guys next door are chatting away and I can faintly hear some music in the air -- a radio program perhaps, early American rock? -- the little neighborhood of  Wat Nong is feeling very friendly. This is a great place to be and I've had a super day.

In Luang Prabang - the local museum and a temple are in the background

I just reread what I wrote above and I asked myself, how can I use so many superlatives? I reckon it's because I've run out of other words that can describe the things I've seen and experienced. Of course, that's only me -- there are others who have journeyed much farther than me, and who have embraced challenges I wouldn't ever consider. But for me, a slightly adventurous retiree who is all too rapidly approaching the age of 70, being here with no schedule and no responsibilities is feeling mighty fine, mighty fine indeed.

But I need to step back a couple of days to describe the river trip down the Mekong. There are several ways to get to Luang Prabang but a good way, perhaps the best way, is to take the two-day ride down the mighty Mekong by "slow boat" from Huay Xai, Laos, which is just across the river from Chiang Khong. For 1,600 baht (about $50) I bought a package that included a minivan ride from Chiang Mai, accommodations at a guesthouse in Chiang Khong that included dinner and breakfast, and the boat ticket to Luang Prabang. It was a pretty good deal even though the guesthouse in Chiang Khong was nothing special and the meals there only so-so. But the boat ride was very cool.

A view of Huay Xai, Laos, from Chiang Khong
After breakfast and a quick trip through Laos Immigration we were on our way. We had bought some cheap seat cushions to use on the boat because we were told the seats were hard and not very comfortable. But our boat that day was equipped with automobile seats. We were a bit crowded but the seats were nice. Many of us were convinced that we had been scammed into buying the cushions (about $1 apiece) but it turned out we had occasion to use them the next day. I'll get to that in a moment. On the first day we traveled about 140 km in approximately 7 hours to the small town of Pak Beng, about midway to our destination. The photo of the riverboat below was taken at Luang Prabang but it's typical of the boats that ply the Mekong and very similar to the one we rode.

Typical Mekong riverboat
The river journey was surprisingly scenic. I had expected to travel on a river that looked like the Mekong at Chiang Khong, broad and muddy but slow moving, meandering through broad valleys and farmland. No, not exactly. It is quite a formidable river, the 12th longest in the world, considered unnavigable where we were traveling, full of rocks and small rapids and passing through wild, mostly undeveloped country. There are people living along the entire Mekong valley but they are definitely living, as we say in Alaska, remotely -- no question about that.

Here's a Google Earth screenshot of a portion of the journey. Clearly visible are some of the rocky stretches we frequently negotiated as we made our way to Luang Prabang.

Our overnight stop in Pak Beng wasn't remarkable. The town survives because of these tourist boat trips and has apparently been much built up over the years as  a result. We paid quite a bit relatively for our dinner and breakfast but all in all, it was no big deal. The Lao money is bizarre in that $1 = 8,000 kip. A meal will set you back 70,000- 150,000 kip. Getting used to those numbers takes a while. My wallet is packed with 50,000 kip notes -- each is worth a little over 6 USD. (I went to the ATM in Luang Prabang yesterday and withdrew 1,500,000 kip. Presto, I'm a millionaire!)

Mekong River looking east and downriver from Pak Beng just after sunrise

We went down to the river next morning and found a boat waiting for us that was quite a bit less cushy than the one that had deposited us here the night before. It was a smaller boat equipped with dilapidated wooden seats, small and tightly spaced. The first boat had a snack bar with sandwiches, snacks and cold beer, and let's not forget those car seats-- this one had a cooler loaded with Beer Lao -- but no sandwiches and precious little room to get back to the beer. Some of the passengers began a small revolt and demanded a better boat, like the one tied up alongside ours. My thinking was to just make the best of it so I didn't join them in making those demands. It was just as well because the other boat they were eying was going back upstream -- there was no way we were going to get a different ride. After much bitching and whining on the part of the would be revolutionaries, off we went down the river. And so too, we found a good use for those boat cushions we had brought along from Chiang Khong. During the trip I had the thought that the people operating this boat might have been driven out of business in the states. They (all of these boats appear to be family run -- the man skippering, the wife serving beverages and handling lines, etc., their kids running here and there, helping out where they can) had an obviously inferior boat compared to the one that had taken us to Pak Beng. Yet, under the circumstances, I believe they deserved to be working and earning money to support themselves. Should they take out a loan for a newer boat, if that is even possible in rural Laos, in order to keep up with the Joneses? Probably not. I think it's best to try to ignore our western standards, which really don't apply here where nobody is making big money, and simply go with the flow. We're only guests in their country after all. And it's a beautiful country.

Rocky outcrop on the Mekong near Luang Prabang
Fellow traveler Mick, a friendly Aussie I had a few beers with
We arrived in Luang Prabang after a really nice day on the water. I was impressed with this town from the moment we landed. Yes, it's more touristy and a bit more expensive than many places I've visited in Thailand, but it's a place where I could easily spend a month. It's very friendly, with a perfect winter climate.

A view of the Mekong from a riverside restaurant - Luang Prabang
A few more photos follow:

Junction of the Nam Khan and the Mekong at Luang Prabang

The Nam Khan river has special significance. We visited an old Homer friend, Scott, who has relocated to Laos and lives upstream on the banks of the Nam Khan in the tiny town of Ban Pik Noi. I'll have more to say about Scott and his home in my next entry,

A flower - of course. Luang Prabang

We spent a few days with Scott at his riverside home in Ban Pik Noi. I worked with Scott at the Homer public radio station, KBBI, in  around 1985-87. He permanently relocated to Laos about 6 years ago and has built a new life here. The visit with Scott was at his home will without a doubt go down as a highlight of my trip. Stay tuned....