Laos,Cambodia 2012 Part 2

Victims
Victims
Tower of skulls
Tower of skulls
Pnohm Phen Palace
Pnohm Phen Palace
Phnom Phen palace
Phnom Phen palace
Vientienne
Vientienne
Vientienne
Vientienne
Bus to Luang Prabang
Bus to Luang Prabang
Monks receiving alms
Monks receiving alms
Mekong
Mekong
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang

Now I was on my own. I wanted to get to Luang Prebang in Northern Laos and as a first step took the bus to Phnom Penh. The bus was quite luxurious with air conditioning and a hostess but painfully slow along badly pot holed roads. I stayed at Paddy Rice above an Irish pub and on the boulevard along the Mekong River where in the evening, when it went a little cooler, it seemed like to whole city took a promenade , played football and did aerobic exercises and just generally hung out.
I took a tuk tuk to the Killing Fields memorial. This was an experience in itself, hectic traffic, choking fumes and lots of potholes. At one stage I had to get out and lift the rear out of a hole otherwise we were stuck slap bang in the middle of the road.
In 1975 Pol Pot led the Khymer Rouge into Phnom Penh (see the film The Killing Fields) and forced all the inhabitants out into the country to fend for themselves. During this time an estimated 2 million people died out of a population then of 7 million . Many were killed in purges; government officials, doctors, lawyers, anyone with any education and this was one of the many killing fields. The memorial is well done; we were given a moving audio commentary spoken by survivors. The centre piece is a large tower filled from top to bottom with skulls and clothing recovered from the site. Our guide at Ankor Wat had lost both his parents and lived as a refugee in Thailand until 1992 before returning to Cambodia.
So when one looks at Phnom Penh now one must remember the recent history, the Vietnam War and the carpet bombing by the Americans and the devastation wreaked by the Khymer Rouge followed by the Vietnamese invasion. Now Phnom Penh is a seedy, crumbling but busy city. I visited the enormous Grand Market which is consumerism gone mad with fake brand watches, clothes, jewellery contrasting with the general poverty of the people. Talking with the people I found that they work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for maybe US $ 50 a month.
In contrast I visited the highly ornate Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda built by the French in the late 19th century inside is a beautiful jewelled Buddha.
In Phnom Penh there were quite a few Western old pensioners about. Generally they could be split into two categories, intellectuals visiting the museums and temples and the disreputable who seemed to rise late, drink beer and eat all day, go for massages and then frequent the girlie bars at night. You’ll have to decide which category I fitted into.
I enjoyed eating on the street in the evening, sit down and the locals will always come and chat. The food is good and remarkably cheap even for us South Africans, I just had to put up with the traffic fumes and the odd rat scuttling across the road.
But there were times in this last week when I wondered what I was doing there and that I should have just caught a plane home but in hindsight it was worth it as you never know if or when you will return to that area and what’s a week in a life anyway.
I established there was a bus to Luang Prabang but it took 2 days to get there so I opted for a flight to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Sitting next to me was a Vietnamese girl, travelling with her grandmother, with an accountancy degree from Australia and even she couldn’t get a job in Vietnam. We talked about rhino poaching and the use of the horn in Vietnam and she said that if the population believes that the horn helps them little or nothing can be done to change their minds.
Vientiane is a contrast to other cities in the East, wide boulevards, less traffic and much cooler weather. I took a tuk tuk tour around the city and saw That Luang , the city’s holiest site ,Wat Phra Kaeo ,the Victory Monument , modelled on Paris’s Arc de Triomph and took a walk around the city’s main museum. Laos has a conservative approach to tourism, nightlife closes at 11.00pm, women wear traditional dress and life is lower key than Bangkok or Phnom Penh. Booking a flight took one and a half hours, after a long process involving phone calls, third parties in the deal and my credit cards were declined. I had to go to an ATM and draw out 1.5 million kip ( about 180 US $ ).
The 10 hour bus journey to Luang Prabang was a real adventure, The bus wound up and up narrow mountainous roads with sheer drops to the river below, crawled over landslides, went past limestone towers cloaked in dense forests and terraced rice paddies on the lower slopes.. The bus made regular stops to drop off and collect goods and ladies came on board selling bread and what looked like 100 year old eggs. The wonderful baguettes and stick loaves are a legacy of the French colonial days.
At first light the novice monks wind their way barefoot through the town in long crocodiles, dressed in bright orange robes and receive alms in the form of food from the ladies kneeling at the side of the road.in containers that they carry
To my mind Luang Prabang is paradise lost, it’s now become a town devoted to serving the tourist hordes. The French colonial houses are converted into boutique hotels, fancy restaurants, gift shops, galleries and the authentic Laos inhabitants can no longer afford to live there. Having said that it’s a quiet oasis away from the bustle of the cities with little or no traffic and is at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is a very pleasant town to wander around with numerous beautiful old temples, river views and the King’s palace, built by the French in 1904 and more resembling a private house than a palace, including the cars that he had used. The King and family came to a sticky end at the hands of the communists but it’s easy to envisage in its’ heyday the quiet graceful lives they must have had. In the middle of the town is Mount Phousi and after a sweaty climb to the top there is an airy stupa and stunning views around the area.
The town has a night market and as always good cheap food available at stalls.
Early next morning I drove past the lines of monks in the rain and caught a plane to Bangkok.
This is the ultimate contrast, roads clogged with traffic and fumes, crowded pavements and a hot muggy atmosphere. But Bangkok is now easy to get about on the wonderfully air conditioned skytrain and metro and there’s lots to do and see. It’s an amazing place to go shopping; the choice of goods is phenomenal. At the top of the range are the upmarket department stores with all the major brands but at prices one would see back home. Then there are the medium, lower level stores and then the street markets along the pavements. I went to the huge Chatuchak weekend market and probably only got around about half of it before succumbing to the crowds and heat. Everything was for sale there, food, clothes, ceramics, jewellery, furniture, pets, you name it and you could find it somewhere.
It was quite a mission to find Jim Thompson’s house, a quiet haven almost hidden among the tower blocks, concrete pillars and building sites but well worth visiting. He is credited with reviving the Thai silk industry and his house evokes the Somerset Maugham era and atmosphere with lovely verandas, wooden floors and furniture.
So finally it was time to pack up for the last time and get to the airport for the flight back to Johannesburg.
I can certainly recommend a cycling holiday to anyone, it doesn’t have to be in the Far East; it can be a leisurely ride through France for example, sampling the wine and food. The rewards are open countryside, friendly people, getting away from the crowds, good exercise and most of all lots of fun.