Thursday, April 13, 2006

Laos: Luang Prabang is a stunning old town along the Mekong River

I'm here now in Luang Prabang taking it slow after another long bus trip. After finishing up my entry yesterday, we relaxed a bit then went to the bus station only to find it full of people waiting for buses to the provinces, Luang Prabang included. Sigh! It was the holiday rush as well in Laos and getting a bus to Luang Prabang was going to be difficult. Luckily, someone tipped Kao that a extra VIP bus trip was leaving at 7:30 p.m. and we were able to get a ticket just in the nick of time before other people found out and started rushing to the ticket desk. Had we gotten it a few minutes later, I might have been in the center aisle. Hehe!

Anyway, the bus trip took about ten hours, mostly along a zigzag road through towering mountains. I'm sure the views we're stunning since I could see silhouettes because of the near full moon. I arrived in Luang Prabang at about 5 a.m.

Since the bus station was about 3 km from the town proper, I had to take a tuktuk. By the time I got to town, I was tired, sleepy and sweaty. Sigh! So I tried to look for a guest house. Lonely Planet advice, "The two most important annual events in Luang Prabang are Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) in April, when Luang Prabang gets packed with locals and tourists (book accomodation well in advance)..." Yup, I now know how Joseph and Mary felt since I walked from one guest house to another only to hear that they were full. While walking around, I got to witness the morning alms tradition where monks walk around town receiving rice from the locals.

Until finally, there was a lodge with a room. But they were charging me THB600. Hmmm, I was going back to Vientiane tonight so it was a difficult choice. When I was about to say yes since I really needed a shower, the caretaker told me that I had to wait since the room that would be empty at 7:30 a.m. was still occupied. Then I asked if it was OK if I just paid for a shower. He agreed. Great! So I just paid him THB100 for it. Good enough!

Luang Prabang was the former royal capital of Laos until the 1975 Communist takeover. The Town of Luang Prabang was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995. I started the rounds of the temples early. At the tip of the peninsula is the Wat Xieng Thong, the most magnificent temple in the town. Built by King Setthathirat in 1560, it remained under royal patronage until the 1975 revolution.

Along the street, it was one temple after another! There were just so many. How I wish Intramuros was still standing today in all its glory. It was one magnificent church after another. But alas! It was carpet-bombed by the American Army and they only left the San Agustin Church standing! According to stories, Manila's old ladies were crying as they watched shells hit one church after another. I passed by some including Wat Khili, Wat Saen and Wat Nong Sikunmeuang.

The main street of Luang Prabang was lined as well with charming colonial shophouses and homes which have been converted into guesthouses (countries which promote and push for adaptive reuse reap the benefits with increased tourism arrivals). If not for the Laos text on the shops as well as the monks walking, you would think you were in a small town in France. Really nice! I had breakfast at a French bakery. Then took a walk to the Royal Palace Museum which was the former residence of King Sisavangvong.

Then it was off for more walking around and maybe find out if I could check out one of the waterfalls. When I got to the boat dock area, they were charging me US$15 since I was alone. No thanks! So I just had a drink at a cafe by the Mekong River. It was quite relaxing watching the water flow down the river.

Since I wanted to stay indoors for lunch, I just had a foot massage. At least I was abe to take a quick nap. That costed me 30,000 kip (the street exchange rate is THB100 = 25,000 kip = US$2.5), not bad for an hour. As I got out, the water wars had already started and you could see many of the foreign tourists with water guns, joining in the new year revelry. Hehe! Then trucks with pails of water were also passing by. Oh great! So I walked along the side streets since the trucks could not pass there.

So I'm here in an internet shop trying to stay dry and cool when I read a sign outside that the shop also does tours to the waterfalls for US$3 each! And it leaves in 10 minutes! Imagine the timing! Hehe! So I'm off to the Kuangsi Waterfalls. Hehe!

It was about an hour away. When we got there, I could immediately see that there were so many people. Can you think of a waterfall in the Philippines which could attract thousands of visitors everyday, half of them tourists? They even charge 15,000 kip for entrance. The DOT will really have to rethink the way they look at tourism. Backpackers should be the target more than any other group and we are the only Southeast Asian country without an established backpack route. That's why let's backpack in the Philippines to help establish that tourism trail.

The water was really clear. Greeting you were smaller falls cascading from limestone cliffs with pools in each of them just perfect for swimming. There was also a bear sanctuary where baby bears captured from poachers are nursed to better health. The main falls was a few minutes walk bu the view was magnificent. If I didn't have my backpack with me, I would have gone to the top of the falls since there was a clearly-marked trail to it.

Anyway, the tour I took set the assembly time at 5 p.m. and that would have been too late for me if I were to catch the bus back to Vientiane. So I hitched a ride with some backpackers on the way back to town and they asked me for US$1. That's the point of backpacking, every dollar counts. You try to meet other backpackers going the same way and pool in resources, organize a groups in order to lower individual costs.

The LGUs in the Philippines will have to realize that many of these foreigners are not looking for classy hotels. They'd be happy with a room, a bed and a fan with a very clean common bathroom that charges between US$3 to 5 per night. The hotel must be close to cheap, clean and delicious street food as well! You see the sights, you taste the local flavors the way the locals do, that's backpacking. They don't come to see malls. They travels to see both cultural and natural heritage. These are thus the things we have to preserve in order to attract these tourists. And until our LGU officials and priests realize that, we will continue to get the crumbs of the multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

Anyway, I was able to get a bus back to Vientiane for 85,000 kip. As always, the ride was about ten hours so we left at 7:00 p.m. and were in the capital by 5 a.m. Since it was too early to call Loulou up, I took a nap at the station. Hehe!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Laos: The Friendship Bridge to Laos PDR and around Vientiane

As I mentioned in my previous post, land travel in Southeast Asia can be difficult. Just right after I posted the last entry, Ton had to rush me to the hospital at 2:30 a.m.! Hehe! Let's not get into the details but it was sort of a result of that long trip. And the rest of the plans almost got cancelled if I did not improve. Luckily I did and I'm at it again. Hehe!

So I rested the whole morning and met up with more of my SSEAYP batchmates for lunch. I took a subway from Ton's apartment then a skytrain to Siam Square where Nun would meet me. We had lunch with Bee at See Fah restaurant. Cee joined us as well. In the photo are myself, Bee, Cee and Nun.

After lunch, Nun accompanied me around Siam Paragon, a really nice mall which is said to be the largest in Asia. That's why Mayor Atienza shouldn't have demolished heritage structures like the YMCA Building and the San Lazaro Racetrack, replacing it with two SM malls because unless SM stops building those prefab malls (no unique design whatsoever), it's no attraction at all. Sigh! I liked the greenery inside the mall. Nicely done! We had some ice cream. A lot of unique flavors like red bean and green tea, horlicks, ovaltine, roasted sesame, etc. Yummy!

It was then off to catch a skytrain to Mo Chit Station where Matong would meet me to accompany me to the bus station. I had wanted to take a train to Nong Khai so that I could sleep comfortably but it was fully-booked a long time ago since it's New Year in Thailand as well as in Cambodia and Laos. So I had to make do with a bus. Little did I know that the ride was going to be another horrible fourteen hour trip! Imagine the Holy Week rush to the provinces. In Thailand, it was the same rush for the long holiday. Sigh!

For some reason, we got a ticket easily. I got on board the bus at 4:30 p.m. It was scheduled to leave at 5 p.m. We left a little late though. When we were on our way, I slept only to wake up an hour later since we were in another bus station stuffing in more passengers. When we left the first station, we were already full. But the bus was not satisfied, they placed stools in the center!

When I thought we've loaded enough, the bus just kept on stopping trying to lure in more passengers. My God! Greedy is the only term I could think of. Thailand and the Philippines as well should enact a law against overloading. If there are no more seats, they shouldn't overload. It may be ok for those in the center that they are in the center aisle but did they care to ask those seated comfortably earlier if it was ok with them? Hmmm... And the air-conditioning wasn't that strong.

By the time we got to another station, (yes, we stopped at a third, fourth and fifth station if I remember things right) passengers were already complaining since we were always stopping! To make the long story short, I wasn't able to sleep well since we were so cramped up.

We arrived in Nong Khai at about 6:30 a.m. just in time for me to get a ticket for the 7:30 a.m. bus to Vientiane. At least it was more comfortable but just a short ride to the border and the Friendship Bridge to Laos. The Friendship Brigde is the most popular border crossing between Thailand and Laos. And at least I did not have to walk far since the bus took us to the other side.

By 8:30 a.m., we were in Laos. It's a good thing Filipinos don't need visas in all ASEAN countries except Myanmar. I didn't go to Vientiane with the bus since Loulou, another SSEAYP batchmate was at the border with Tuy to meet me. We picked up another Tuy at her house then went to Kao's shop. Since Loulou had to go to work, Kao, Tuy and Tuy would take me around.

We first went to Patuxai, an imposing concrete monument which is sort of Laos' version of the Arc de Triomphe. It was built to commemorate those who died in battle with concrete donated by the U.S. supposedly for a new airport runway. Hehe! There was a cafe underneath and you could climb up to the top but I was just too exhausted. The interior was nice but it seemed like an unfinished structure when seen up close from the outside.

After that, we proceeded to another imposing structure, the That Luang, the national symbol of Laos and its most important religious building. The present gold leaf stupa is a recreation of the 16th century temple thought to have been built by the King.

Outside the stuppa, we bought roasted honeycombs from a hawker and let me taste. Hmmm... not my type especially since there were bees roasted in it too. I thought it would taste like honey. Hehe! It had this wierd aftertaste as well. They were also selling live snakes! I had some roasted banana as well.

We then had lunch at Loulou's place since they were having a new year celebration there. Joy, another ex-PY joined us. For good luck on new year, we ate lamb aside from other dishes. There was so much food including a whole roasted-calf! It was a good introduction to Lao cuisine. In the photo are Joy, myself, Tuy, Loulou, Tuy and Kao.

Then, it was off the the Ho Phrakeo (below). This temple, built in A.D.1565 by King Xaisetathirat, is the oldest temple in Vientiane. You would notice outside a sign that the temple used to house an emerald Buddha image which has been out of the country for several centuries now. Well, that emerald Buddha is the one in Thailand after it was captured during an invasion.

Anyway, I'm resting now since I'll be off for another long bus ride to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. I should prepare to get wet within the next few days since the new year celebrations in this part of Southeast Asia tend to become water wars. Sigh!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Cambodia & Thailand: The difficulties of land travel and crossing borders

Crossing borders in Southeast Asia can sometimes be a harrowing experience and is not for the faint-hearted. I had another 12 hour trip today from Siem Reap crossing the Cambodia-Thailand border to Bangkok. It was a good thing I rested the whole day yesterday since I did not expect the ride was going to be that bad.

Yesterday, I only went out for dinner. I had more Khmer food, this time beef amok which is a coconut milk based entree with vegetables. On the way home, I bought some jackfruit chips. Yummy! Hehe!

The service picked me up at the guest house at about 6:45 a.m. a while ago. We went to other guest houses to get the other passengers. I was expecting the vehicle we were going to use was a coaster. But I did not expect they were going to stuff it beyond capacity. Everyone on board was a foreigner and was complaining about being so cramped up. I was expecting I would be able to sleep. But I was wrong. The roads had potholes bigger than the moon's craters. For most of the way, it wasn't paved at all. The ordeal lasted six hours, with two stopovers in between.

We arrived at Poipet, the border town of Cambodia at about 1:45 p.m. I still had to endure lining up at immigration which was open-air, walking about a kilometer to the Thai border. It would have been ok, but by now, my bags were quite heavy. And the afternoon summer sun was just too much. Then we went through Thai immigration. And then we walked a few meters to where another bus would pick us up.

At least this was a much bigger bus and the roads were in much better condition. There was a store outside and the first thing I bought was cold water. Prices were much much cheaper here! Anyway, we were on our way at about 3:30 p.m. after close to two hours in transit. This time I was able to sleep better.

About two hours away from Bangkok, we made another stopover. And this is where I was able to get some Thai street food. There was so much to choose from. Anyway, I got some sausages and machang. I was very much impressed by the road network in Thailand. Maybe the DPWH could learn a thing or two.

We arrived in Bangkok at about 8 p.m. There was a slight confusion as to where we were dropped off. Anyway, I called my SSEAYP roommate Sorawit Sangsuwan (Ton) who had been waiting for me at Kao San Road which was a tourist district.

He treated me out for dinner at a Thai restaurant. And then, we went for a traditional Thai massage to get me back to my senses after that 12-hour ordeal. Thai massage is quite distinct in technique since it entails applying pressure for a few seconds in key points as well as stretching. At least that relaxed me a bit.

I'm now in Ton's apartment where I'll be staying for the night. The campaign for the Thai Senate is ongoing. And there are a lot of campaign posters all over. But the thing I like about the campaign here is they don'ty use gawgaw. They don't put posters on walls or buildings or wherever. Candidates neatly mount their posters on sticks and place them in the soil. After the elections, it would be easy to clean up.

I'll meet more of my SSEAYP batchmates tomorrow. I've been to Bangkok several times before so I'm out to explore other places. If all goes well, I should be on my way to Vientiane in the evening.

My blog was featured in the Philippine Daily Inquirer today. Visit

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Cambodia: The temples of Angkor... a few hours in heaven

Weather forecast today: Mixed clouds and sun with scattered thunderstorms. High 88F. Winds ESE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 60%. I woke up this morning at 5:30 a.m. and was ready to leave at 6 a.m. since the motorcycle was picking me up at that time, only to find out that it was drizzling. And it seemed this was the type that won't stop.

I checked the weather forecast since I was thinking of postponing it to the next day. It was going to rain as well. And it's supposed to be the dry season. I think it's some sort of blessing from heaven since the Khmer New Year is in a few days. If it didn't stop raining at 8 a.m. I told myself, I'd take the risk and check out the sites nevertheless. Anyway, I had breakfast at a popular tourist restaurant. I ordered a beef sandwich. Unlike the Philippines where our sandwich bread is usually tasty bread, in Cambodia, as well as in Vietnam, they use baguettes, since they were former French colonies. Expect a one-foot sandwich to arrive. I paid US$2 for it but I'm sure you could get it cheaper at less popular places. It was great!

The gamble I made paid off! Even though it was drizzling, it wasn't that much a bother. But because it was drizzling, Angkor Wat was quite empty. No droves of tourists! But seriously, I am amazed with the number of people the temples of Angkor are able to attract. I mean there were busloads of them speaking in different tongues. Listen up DOT, this UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts more people than the entire island of Boracay. And each pays US$20 for a one-day pass, US$40 for a three-day pass or US$60 for a one-week pass! So I suggest we start focusing on inbound cultural experiences as well as heritage tours and not just Boracay. Foreigners know Boracay already and thus, there in no need to promote it. You should find new destinations and work on them instead. Maybe even help have some more UNESCO sites declared in the Philippines.

Anyway, Angkor Wat was breathtaking. It's definitely a must visit for any trip to the temples of Angkor. Constructed by Suryavarman II in the mid-12th century, the apex of Khmer military and political dominance in the region, it was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. But today, images of Buddha can be found.

The walk across the moat was simply awe-inspiring. It was as if you were about to enter Heaven. And the chants from Buddhist monks really set the mood. The massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five beehive-like towers rising 65 meters makes you wonder how on earth that generation of citizens of the world were able to construct these monuments when today, new monumental structures are a rarity.

We then entered the Angkor Thom South Gate. Welcoming you was a row of soldiers and a large monument of Jayavarman VII. Angkor Thom is a 3 square kilometer walled and moated city and the last capital of the Angkorian empire. Inside Angkor Thom, I visited Bayon (below), the other must visit temple of Angkor. It is most known for the 37 towers with carved faces oriented towards the cardinal points. A topic of debate, many say the faces are a composite of Jayavarman VII and Buddha.

Also inside the Angkor Thom are the Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King among many other structures.

We exited the Victory Gate (left) and stopped over at Thommanom, a small but attractive temple built at the same time as Angkor Wat. A few meters away was the Ta Keo. Down the road was Ta Prohm (below), another Jayavarman VII built temple which saw the limelight as Lara Croft's Tomb Raider temple. The thing I liked about my visits to the different sites was there was traditional Khmer music meeting us all the time. Just like our blind rondallas in the Philippines, the musicians were victims of landmines playing on traditional Khmer instruments.

I had an early lunch in front of Ta Prohm. I had another sandwich, this time pork. But since we were in a heavy-traffic tourist area, expect costs to go up. It was US$2.50 and US$1 for a 500ml bottle of water. Imagine the profit they make charging at US prices with their costs much lower. See what tourism can do. And to think the big serving of rice toppings I ate yesterday night and tonight at this new restaurant in front of CCB Bank Siem Reap, Sivutha Street, is just US$1 each!

Further down the road was Pre Rup (below right), another Hindu temple which is architecturally and artistically superior. Next was East Mebon, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. Ta Som was a few kilometers away. It is the most distant temple on the grand circuit, they have two set routes around Angkor, the small tour and the grand tour which tourists can pick from depending on time.

Ta Som (below left) is currently being restored with the help of the World Monuments Fund. Imagine hundreds and thousands of dollars pouring in Cambodia to help restore these temples.

I also noticed each site had a counterpart donor like Japan, China, France and India, who helped fund the restoration of the sites. I wonder why the Philippines does not ask for Japanese funding to rebuild Inramuros since the treasures were flattened as a result of the Second World War anyway.

The US should fund also since it was their carpet bombing that flattened most of Manila. Spain should help also since they benefited from this former colony, once the Pearl of the Orient, for over three centuries! But I guess government is too busy with their own useless squabbles to even think of preserving heritage.

The last two major sites on the grand ciruit were the Neak Pean, a small island temple, and the Preah Khan (below), a really huge monastic complex which was highly-explorable thanks to the many carvings and passage ways. We went back in Angkor Thom via the North Gate. Then it was off to Siem Reap town.

It's great seeing so much heritage. But a sad note was the headless statues all over the place. Looters really made a lot of money from Angkor. Oh these collectors!

Anyway, it looks like I will have a lot of time to relax. My bus to Bangkok leaves at 7 a.m. on Monday so I'll be free the whole day tomorrow.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Cambodia: Tuol Sleng is a reminder of Cambodia's brutal past

I was up this morning at about 8 a.m. After packing my stuff, we went straight to the Psah Toul Tom Poung or Russian Market where you can find the best souvenirs and Cambodian products, gems and silver, as well as export overruns! I was not expecting to buy a lot of stuff, but it turned out to be a shopping spree and now I'm low on funds. Haha! After buying some replicas of Cambodian temple bas reliefs and bronze Buddha heads, I checked out the export overruns since Mongkol said there were a lot of designer clothes in the U.S. made in Cambodia. I found the store which sold Gap shirts. They could be counterfeit but the colors were just so nice and so Gap! And the shirts... US$2.50 each!!! So I bought all the available colors. Haha!

After shopping, we had a quick breakfast in front of the market. I had pork and rice and lemon juice for a drink. Nice! It was then off to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

A former high school that became a prison and interrogation center known as S-21 during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, it serves as a grim reminder of the reign of terror, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. They said that once you entered the prison, you will never leave alive.

According to the brochure, "Out of the roughly 14,200 prisoners at the prison, there were only seven known survivors. Only three of them are thought to be still alive: Vann Nath, Chum Mey and Bou Meng. All three of these men were kept alive because they had skills judged to be useful. Vann Nath had trained as an artist and was put to work painting pictures of Pol Pot. Many of his paintings depicting events he witnessed in Tuol Sleng are on display in the museum to this day. Bou Meng, whose wife was killed in the prison, is also an artist." I was lucky to meet two of them (Vann Nath and Chum Mey) since they were shooting a documentary film at the time we were there. In the photo with me is Chum Mey.

Here is some text from the museum brochure about the horrors of S-21 which is also found in Wikipedia: "Quality of life of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng was terribly harsh. Upon arrival at the prison, the prisoners were photographed and required to give complete biographical information. After that, they were forced to strip naked, and all their possessions were removed. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The prisoners had to sleep on the cold floors, while still shackled.

The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to disobey. Almost every action had to be approved by one of the prison's guards. Likewise, health conditions were awful. The unhygienic living conditions caused skin diseases, lice, and other ailments, and few of the inmates ever received any kind of treatment."

Seeing the individual torture rooms and photos of the victims when the Vietnames found them in 1979 was just horrible. The cells of the prisoners were so small. They were shackled to the floor so they couldn't move. It's hard to imagine how life was for them. At the end of the last building was a shelf with the remains of some of the victims of S-21. Sigh!

Anyway, time was running out. We went back to Mongkol's place for a while so that I could repack my stuff and put in the stuff I bought. With that done, it was off to the bus station. But not before I was able to get a photo at the Independence Monument. Hehe!

We arrived just in time. And after a photo and a short goodbye, I was off to Siem Reap, deep in the heart of Cambodia. The bus ride was going to take about six hours but it was most definitely worth it since one would be rewarded with the best views of the Cambodian coutryside.

The good thing about the bus was it had a bathroom at the back and a bus stewardess who gave us wet towels, a box of pastries, and mineral water. She also made announcements where we were stopping over and gave short descriptions of important places as we passed by. Maybe Victory Liner and other bus companies could learn a thing or two from here. Although I heard that Victory started a new bus service to Baguio which had bigger chairs and a stewardess.

Anyway, I arrived here at about 6 p.m. Since Sok had an uncle who just opened a new guest house in Siem Reap, he made arrangements for me. His cousin picked me up at the bus terminal. The place, Heng Khim Guest House is very new and charges US$10 a night for a comfortable air-conditioned room. Although it's a bit far from the town center, their staff were kind enough to take me here where I had dinner. If you want to contact them, Chea Hak's mobile number is (012) 97 19 79 or (016) 67 77 87.

Dinner was fried rice noodles with pork which I had at a place near the internet cafe. I'm off to bed now. I want to make the most out of the US$20 day pass at the Angkor National Park. Hehe!
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