Last day

Up early this morning for the early morning alms procession where the monks collect their first meal for the day.

Unlike the similar event we attended in Mandalay which had been reduced to a tourist spectacle this event still feels real even though a lot of tourists come to watch.

We find one of the back streets where the local people giving alms outnumber the tourists. It’s quite a peaceful and gently moving ceremony. The monks walk in single file holding their alms bowl in front of them. Each giver puts a small amount of sticky rice in the bowl. There are several hundred monks from the many ‘wats’ or monasteries and the givers,mainly women, seem very practiced at making their bowl of rice last so that they can give something to every monk.
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We return to the hotel for breakfast and then back into town to walk around the sights including the old royal palace which is now quite a good museum and the famous Bat Xieng Wat, a 16th century temple and monastery complex.
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We have a nice late lunch at a lovely outdoor cafe overlooking the Nam Khang river.
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In the late afternoon we go on our own private 1 hour cruise up the Mekong then off to dinner at the beautiful Apsara restaurant. It’s a Lao/Western fusion restaurant run by a very friendly Aussie chef from Melbourne and his charming French Canadian wife. A wonderful meal to end our trip.
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Early start tomorrow for our flight to Bangkok where we have a long wait until our overnight flight to to Sydney. I don’t think I will be at my best at work on Tuesday.

Shangri-Lao

Woke this morning to see the dawn light struggling to break through the mist hanging over the mountains.

At 7.30 we each have a lesson riding the elephants and then having complete mastery over the animal we head them (in other words they know where they’re going) down the steep track to the river.

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Much hilarity ensues as the elephants bathe. Janet’s elephant has a trick of splashing the water with its trunk, ensuring that we all get wet, and mine decides to play submarine and dive under the water with me on it so I get even wetter. I should mention at this point that it’s bloody cold.

We return to Luang Prabang for a bit of free time which we use to cycle around the town.

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Tonight we headed back into town for our Lao cooking lesson. We had a very entertaining young chef show us how it’s done and the rest of the participants were a nice bunch of people from around the world. The end result tasted pretty good even if I do say so myself.  Perhaps the Lao beer helped.

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Our last full day tomorrow. :-(

Paul and Janet ride an elephant

Relaxed start to the day. Picked up at 8.30 for the half hour drive to the Shangri-Lao resort.

Our tent, if you can call it that, is stunning with picturesque views over the Nam Cham river to fields and mountains on the other side.

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At 10 we meet our own personal elephant, Mae Kham Muang, and her mahout the very formal Mr Duang. For the trip across the river we both sat in the howdah(a wooden seat/saddle). It’s a bit unnerving being up that high and going down a steep slope into the river.

Along the way we meet a new 5 month old baby elephant.very cut and very hungry. we learn that elephants eat about 200kg of vegetable matter each day.

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Shortly after I am offered the chance to be a mahout which in my case means sitting on the elephant’s neck and the elephant doing exactly what it wants. Luckily Mr Duang is close at hand to prevent sidetrips into the jungle. About halfway through the hour and a half trek and after I’ve mahouted all the rough terrain, Janet get’s her turn on the flat going. Cries of ‘pie pie’, which is elephant for go, echo through the forest.

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Our destination is a series of cascades where we leave our elephants to have a well earned rest while we have a lovely Lao lunch in our own bamboo hut with a point blank view of the waterfall.

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We then embark on an hours trek on a rough path beside the cascades back dow to where it joins the river. It’s then a pleasant raft ride (a suitably upmarket raft of course) back to the camp for a swim, a g&t and dinner!

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Tomorrow mahout training continues!

Luang Prabang

Arrived in Luang Prabang last night after dark so too late to go for a wander and explore the town.

We’re staying at a charming, idiosyncratic little hotel called Satri House. It’s done in an old colonial style and the layout has little nooks and crannies everywhere. the windows are shuttered rather than having blinds and every room is decorated with art, antiques and objet d’art collected by the owner. Pictures don’t really do it justice.

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This morning we went on a walk around the town centre but we really only covered at most 30% of what we’d like to see. Luang Prabang is mainly about the ‘vibe’ created by the combination of the colonial architecture, the laid back attitude and of course, all the monks. we found a lovely small ethnology museum that provided some information on the ethnic diversityof Laos. Of course they had tribal handicrafts for sale. Could we resist. Of course not.

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Had a lovely lunch in an outdoor cafe by the Mekong.

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In the afternoon we took a trip to the Kuong Si falls which were very pretty and provided an opportunity for a swim. We also got to visit a local village made up of a number of different ethnic groups and most importantly we saw our first close up game of caneball which can best be described at 3 a side volleyball played with the feet and the head!

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Temple at Meong Bleay

Today we took a tour to an unrestored temple about 65ks from Siem Reap.

It has been open to tourists for only 7 years as the Khmer Rouge calling cards (landmines) had to be cleared first.

The trip there was quite illuminating as we saw a slice through the reality of Cambodian life from the relative wealth of Siem Reap to the harsh realities of subsistence farming. In this area they only get 1 rice crop per year so life is tough.

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Not much is known about the temple as archaelogists have not been able to get to any of the carved stones that might tell the story of the temple and its real name. For the moment its simply referred to by the name of the village nearby.

We do know that it was built around the same time as Angkor Wat as the architecture is similar.

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We had a nice lunch at the Terrace of the Elephants restaurant and are now waiting for our transfer to the airport for our journey to Laos.

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The adventure continues.

Tonle Sap Lake

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Short easy day today. No early starts, a relaxed breakfast and then an 8.30 start for our 30 min drive to Tonle Sap where we catch a boat to view the famous floating fishing villages.

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Tonle Sap is a large, shallow freshwater lake that is about 3000 sq kms in the dry season but swells up to about 12,000 in the wet. Interestingly, for the engineer in me anyway, the swelling of the lake is not fed from upstream but downstream. When the Mekong is in flood from the snow melt of the Himalayas the flow is so strong that it pushes water back upstream into its tributary the Tonle Sap river and in turn into the lake.

When we visit the floodwaters are in the process of receding.

We take a small boat from a tourist departure point and motor down to the floating villages. There’s no escaping noisy diesel motor boats in Asia so its not a peaceful trip but fascinating nonethess.

Unlike the floating fishing villages we have seen in Halong Bay these villages move with the changing of the water levels. But something in common with Halong Bay is that ethnically many of these people are Vietnamese who came over in 1979 when the Vietnamese Govt took control of Cambodia post Pol Pot.

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We spend some time at a floating restaurant where our guide tells us a little more about the lives of the fishing families (who work hard to make maybe a $1 a day) but the conversation turns to learning about Bunthing and his family, the state of Buddhism in Cambodia (where it is clearly not taken as seriously as it is in Burma), the failings and gross corruption of the current government (which to our shame is supported by the Australian Government) and the most amazing life he has led.

Bunthing lost his mother and father to the genocide of Pol Pot and fled, aged 12, to camps on the Thai border where he then trained as a guerilla fighter in the civil war post the Khmer Rouge regime. He didn’t provide much detail but basically he was a soldier at age 13. He left the ‘army’ to seek an education at one of the Catholic missions in the refugee camps which in turn allowed him to escape the poverty cycle.

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We know he has been a tour guide (and a very good one) for 14 years and prior to that worked in the hotel industry. He is an active campaigner for workers rights and has led a number of strikes to try and improve conditions.

No doubt we will learn more tomorrow as we have decided to take an additional tour to one of the newly discovered temple complexes that are still enveloped by the jungle and are totally unrestored.

Spent a relaxing afternoon walking around town, having a nice lunch and then spending too much money in the markets. Apparently silk scarves for $6 are a bargain.

This evening we went to the Phare circus. Phare is an NGO (one of the few non corrupt ones here) that provide training for young people from disadvantaged families in a number of artistic disciplines including painting, music and circus skills. Tonight we saw the music and circus skills combined in a very energetic, enthralling and funny show. Highly recommended if you ever come to Siem Reap.

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Tomorrow the mysterious jungle temple!

Angkor Wat

A big big day yesterday and when it finally ended I was too tired to update the blog.

Up at 4 for the 20 min drive out to Angkor Wat so that we can get there in the dark. (On the way we stop to pay our Park fee which we later learn just goes into the pocket of a corrupt government crony rather than into preserving the temples – but that’s another story).

Our guide Benting takes us to the far side of the temple (not that we can see anything yet) away from the other hordes of tourists who are on the eastern side. We have the place to our selves and sitting on the steps of one of the five libraries we watch this magnificent Hindu temple slowly emerge from the gloom. We sit there in the peace and quiet for quite a while just taking it all in. A very special moment.

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As it gets light the tourists who have come in from the other side start to appear and so we give up our peaceful spot and start our own tour of the complex.  The combination of vast scale, complex engineering, grand architecture and beautiful bas relief artwork is quite over powering. From the artwork we learn not only about the Hindu religion but also about the life of the people at the time.

Throughout the rest of the day we visit four other temples that are in various states of disrepair and or restoration; the Bayon temple and Terrace of the Elephants in the Angkor Thom complex; the Preah Khan Temple, the Ta Prohm temple (the scene of the Tomb Raider movie and therefore full of Japanese tourists doing Angelina Jolie poses) and finally the Banteay Kdei temple.

After Angkor Wat the temples become a mixture of both Hindu and Buddhist influences and its interesting to learn of their commonalities but also their differences.

Hopefully the photos will show what words cannot describe.

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Siem Reap

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Flew yesterday (24th) from Yangon to Siem Reap with a 2 hour stopover in Bangkok airport (which is spectacular by the way and leaves Sydney Airport for dead).

Arrived at our hotel in Siem Reap about 12. It’s a charming French colonial style hotel that is very comfortable and I’m enjoying writing this blog on one of their business centre PCs.

Didn’t really know what to expect of Siem Reap as we hadn’t really done any research on it in particular. It turns out to be quite a charming little tourist town and small town centre area has some very picturesque bars and restaurants set in narrow laneways. In the afternoon we enjoyed some $1.50 margaritas watching the world go by from one of the bars and in the evening we enjoyed the local Amok cuisine at a charming little restaurant.

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Sometimes its the serendipitous elements of travel that become both memorable and worthwhile. While we were having our afternoon drinks some young children approached us handing out leaflets. It turned out that they were for a traditional Cambodian dance show put on by the children at a local refuge/orphanage school. On a whim we decided to go and ended up thoroughly enjoying ourselves. The kids were very engaging, the dances were quite beautiful and we also got to enjoy some of the young men from the school playing traditional Cambodian instruments. The young man who ran the centre was very transparent about their need for direct donations as they don’t receive government funding so we and the other 10 guests happily made a contribution. It’s a shame more people weren’t there so I’m going to try and promote it through Tripadvisor. I’ll add their website and facebook page asap.

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Tomorrow Angkor Wat!

a free day in Yangon

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Nothing planned today so after a leisurely breakfast we took a taxi to the General Aung San museum.

Although we in the west put Aung San Suu Kyi up on a pedestal beside Nelson Mandela it is her father who is the more revered figure in Burma.

From  fairly humble rural beginnings he rose to become a student leader at Yangon University. During the war he rose to the rank of Colonel and made many high level contacts with the British. After the war he lead the negotiations for independence from Britain. Unfortunately, he was assassinated in 1947 before he could see the independence he dreamed for come to fruition in 1948. He was only 32 and left behind a wife and 3 young children including the youngest, Aung San Suu Kyi who was only 3 or 4 at the time.

The museum is in the house they lived in at the time of the assassination. We found it quite moving to be there and to think of it’s history.  Interestingly, and disappointingly, up until quite recently the govt only allowed the museum to be open one day a year.  Although it is now open 5 days a week it is very run down and poorly promoted. Apart from a lone Japanese man we were the only visitors that morning.

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We then took a cab into the downtown area to enjoy walking through the bustling lively streets. Firstly a stop at Scott Markets to do some serious souvenir shopping and then we walked through the Hindu, Jewish and Muslim quarters. Different religions but a common theme of life lived noisily out on the streets.

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Back to the hotel for a bit of serious R&R by the hotel pool before returning to town at sundownfor a wall through the Chinatown street markets.

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In the evening we walked from the hotel to a local Mynamar restaurant. We had no idea what was going on. The menu was in Myanmar, the place was loud and noisy and full of locals and food was just appearing on our table. Eventually we found a waiter with a little English who told us that we had to go up and point at the counter at the food we wanted. Not much help when you don’t know what the food is that you’re looking at! Anyway all great fun and we did eventually get a meal and a beer for the princely sum of $10. Unfortunately, we forgot to take the camera! bugger.

A tour of Yangon

We  met our guide Ms Mo at 8.30 after possibly the worlds best hotel breakfast.

We started with a walking tour of the old colonial streets of Yangon.

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We then drove through some of the prettier parts of the city to Kandawgi Lake and then Inla Lake. On the drive around Inla Lake we caught a fleeting glimpse of Aung San Suu Kyis house.

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We then spent a few hours at the National Museum. A dreadful building and the exhibits are poorly displayed but some absolutely stunning artefacts from Burmas pre colonial past including the spectacular Lion Throne of the last King.

We then visted the Botaunga Pagoda which contains a hair of the Buddha and is therefore much revered.

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And then a 70m long reclining Buddha.

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Finally, Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset. Unfortunately my writing skills aren’t up to giving anywhere near an adequate description.

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