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Elephants, Gibbons and Cambodian Countryside

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Soon to be trip report come January. I'm soliciting input from my Asian travel experts on their experiences at elephant sanctuaries, the Gibbon Experience, various adventure activities near Luang Prabang, and your thoughts about the best of Cambodia after the obvious. While there is an itinerary in place, your suggestions will be so very much welcomed. Thanks. Leaving for the month of January through 7 February.

I am a 62 year old adventure traveler, going solo. Prefer to do things like hike, bike, kayak, climb, horseback ride. Home stays and hostels are preferred over hotels. Journalist and author. Been doing this a good long while now, very fond of Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam. First time in Laos and Cambodia.

Your thoughts about weather this time of year? specific suggestions? Favorite experiences? Things to look for to bring home? Kathie's suggestions for take homes from my Myanmar post led to unbelievable treasures which are now on my wall in two rooms. I really do pay attention, and am most grateful.

Looking forward to your thoughts and ideas. Many thanks in advance for sharing your wisdom.

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    Weather-wise this is a good time for both countries. You won't have the experience you had in Myanmar where it was ghastly hot!

    Obviously, you'll want to visit Siem Reap and see some of the temples of Angkor. Get a copy of Dawn Rooney's book, Angkor: A Guide to Cambodia's Wondrous Temples to prepare. There are dozens of temples in that area, an many more temples farther away, some of which have only recently been opened for visitors. In Siem Reap, you may want to stay at the guesthouse owned by Ponheary Ly's family - sorry, the name escapes me at the moment. Take a look at www.theplf.org For info on this excellent charity, started by a Fodorite. Lori, the Fodorite who started the charity posted here about an excursion you can take to some distant, recently accessible temples (via motorbike). If I can find the info, I'll post it here.

    We loved the Luang Prabang area of Laos - lots to do and see in the area. There is wonderful silk-weaving in this area. There are local weaver's cooperatives well worth seeking out. LP is a place to slow down and soak up the atmosphere.

    I'm always hesitant to recommend wildlife experiences in SE Asia for the reasons you are well aware. One of the regulars here, crellston, has spent a fair amount of time in Laos and Cambodia, and I hope he will chime in with recommendations.

    One thing to consider is a boat trip down the river from northern Thailand to Luang Prabang. There is an expensive boat, the Luang Say, but there are less expensive boats as well. There is a speedboat - which is not recommended.

    Have a wonderful time! We are soon off on our third trip to Myanmar - heading to the north up the Chidwin River.

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    Kathie
    as always thanks for your considerate response. I did sign up for what my research indicated is a highly respected elephant sanctuary (my files are back in Colorado so I don't have the name with me). You stay for a week and basically work on everything from cutting grass to cleaning buildings, while also learning about elephant conservation. It seems- especially when compared to some others I saw in Thailand billed as "sanctuaries" - the real deal.

    I fell in love with Myanmar, some places more than others, some people more so. I probably wouldn't return to Inle Lake. But the eastern hilltribe area, absolutely. What an experience. Those intense long hikes. However, next time I will definitely plan a winter time trip. May was exhausting although it was interesting how the body adapted. And then a month in Iceland where it rarely got past the sixties. What a summer.

    I'll so some poking around with your recommendations. Many thanks again. Travel happy!

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    Hi Jhubb,

    The place in SR Kathie was trying to recall is the seven candles guesthouse. http://m.sevencandlesguesthouse.com Well worth considering. It is well away from the mayhem that is pub street. Having just visited Angkor for the third time in a couple of decades, I have to say I was glad to get out of the place. It is now overrun with large tour groups and that was in the low season!

    Other places in Cambodia we loved were Battambang and the surrounding countryside and down in the far south, Kampot a very pleasant riverside town with lots to do in and around the town, possibly including a trip down to Kep famed for its crab market.

    As you are also going to Laos, you could consider the overland route via Kratie and up the Mekong to the Si Phan Don (4000 islands) area. Don Khong is a wonderfully laid back island to rest awhile. From there you could reach LP by bus and plane or maybe take in Wat Phu or the Bolavens Plateau. Year since I have been that way but I imagine the travelling is a lot easier now.

    Further north from LP I loved the areas around Muang Sing and Phongsali. Great hiking, amazing scenery and wonderful, friendly minority villages.

    A good read is Dervla Murphys "One Foot in Laos"

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    Crellston,

    You are the best. I'm investing more and more in precountry reading these days, as having read several books prior to traveling Rwanda this past February really set me up for success in understanding the genocide, history and their recent past. Sometimes my travel schedule makes this hard, but at least I can put them on my Kindle and read in transit.

    Kep is on the agenda but I didn't know about the crab market. Thanks for the head's up.

    I am much saddened, but not at all surprised, by your comments about Angkor. As I am increasingly interested in temples and religious sites as I travel, this one in particular seemed important while at the same time my very real aversion to crowds and being shoved around by too many tourists is precisely what is making me question whether to bother. That's so very unfortunate. You might comment, if you wish- I've read in various places that there are nearby temples, while not quite the majesty of Angkor, still similar, and not overwhelmed. It's the sense- the feeling- I seek. While in Myanmar there was ample time to explore and often be alone in many temples. Probably got spoiled for it.

    I'm ordering "One Foot in Laos" this morning and it will be on my doorstep when I get back from Massachusetts.

    A note about the hilltribes. Perhaps the happiest time I spent in Myanmar were the hours having hiked up the isolated hills and spent in the homes of the hilltribes in the far eastern regions. My guides were kind enough to recognize I didn't want to "gape and go," but to sit and be with the kids and elders and shamans and animals. Sometimes we had something like 17 people at time sitting on a rickety verandah, just being there together. The old women smoking long pipes, kids staring. Women sewing fishing nets. All had come to sell me beads, which I didn't want or need. The guide and I had brought cooking utensils and nail clippers and spoons. Then we settled in and hung out. I treasured those hours of smelling the herbal pipe smoke, enjoying the banter, the laughter, and the easy comfort of communal curiosity. That kind of thing is transformational. Wallowing in oceans of tourists is not, even though I suspect that the architecture really is stupendous.

    One last question: have your travels included Mongolia? I am headed there next August for about six weeks and would love to, when appropriate, inquire about your experiences. I will of course be adventuring, but all input will be welcomed.

    Thanks as always for your thoughts.

    Warmly,

    Julia

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    Mondulkiri in eastern Cambodia is a good place to visit elephants in a jungle setting. There are far fewer elephants remaining in Cambodia than its neighbouring countries. Many elephants are now being bought by a tour company in Siem Reap to be ridden around the Bayon Temple. This is not good news for the elephants.

    There are at least two elephant sanctuaries close to the main tourist town in Mondulkiri - Sen Monorom (5 hours east of Phnom Penh).

    The Mondulkiri Project (http://www.mondulkiriproject.org) elephant sanctuary is locally owned and managed. They have three elephants full time in the forest they have protected from logging. They offer day trips to visit the sanctuary and a two day trip that includes an overnight stay in a jungle lodge and a jungle trek to visit several waterfalls.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmwT4Al5bMc

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    Julia,

    No, our travels have not taken us to Mongolia - yet! The next, tentative, plan is Central America and a return to South America. Although impending grandparenthood may well delay that for a while!

    I haven't been to Myanmar but imagine that the people in Northern Lao are of the same ethnic origins I.e. From China and the Tibetan plateau. The sheer diversity of the groups is mind boggling. The accommodation and food were basic to say the least, but the experience and the welcome of the people I shall never forget.

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    Hi jhubbel,

    May I recommend that you take a look at this page -http://www.wildlifealliance.org/page/view/504/visit-us - of the Wildlife Alliance website.

    Wildlife Alliance is a NYC-headquartered NGO that does all its conservation work on the ground in Cambodia. It operates the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center that is a sanctuary for orphaned and rescued wildlife from illegal trade. You can take a behind-the-scene tour with Wildlife Alliance staff and meet the elephants it has rescued, including an orphan with a prosthetic foot. There are other eco-tourism opportunities at Angkor forests where there is an ongoing wildlife rehab and release program and adventure tours in Chi Pat. All the information is in the website.

    Full disclosure - As a long-time supporter of Wildlife Alliance and a member of its International Advisory Board (of course it's volunteer and unpaid), I take every opportunity to spread the word and generate awareness of what it's doing. I genuinely believe it's a good cause and I think the experiences are truly unforgettable.

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    Greetings....
    If you are going to be in Siem Reap you don't have to travel far to go to a REAL
    Elephant Sanctuary.There is one located a hr out of Siem Reap.
    It's called Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary.Fairly new.
    This wonderful sanctuary is owned and operated by Lek Of the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chang Mai Thailand.If you never heard of it it's a must in both country's.A true Sanctuary ... Been on National Geo and Lek has received awards from the White House!
    If u love Elephants and all animals.No riding, no chains, no circus tricks.
    In Cambodia there are two Elephants that u can walk in the forest with.
    I go once a yr now.The property is on I think 60,000 acres.She had to hire a small army to protect what's left of the forest and animals.
    You can google it and book thru Elephant Nature Park.They will pick u up
    From Siem Reap volunteers are welcome day trippers to I believe.
    Please folks never ride Elephants.... They are tourtured and starved into submission.

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    Thanks again all, have all this and am doing research. Happy too visit.

    If anyone has suggestions on the best way to get to Mondulkiri I'm open. No flights- is bussing it the easiest?
    Thanks again for all the suggestions!

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    ngodeia,

    Looked up the link and researching. Am hoping to put this visit on the agenda in early February. Looking forward to it, great recommendation.

    Again in looking at getting to Northeast Cambodia, if anyone has suggestions- best bus companies? Thanks again in advance.

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    Hi jhubbel,

    I'm confused. You said you wanted to get to Northeast Cambodia, but where is your origination point? I had a driver from my hotel take me from Siem Reap to Battambang for about $30. He came back two days later and took me in the opposite direction for the same price. If your distances are short, perhaps you can use a driver as well. Tuk Tuk drivers are good too, but only for days trips.

    I also second Crellston's thoughts on Battambang, it is in a beautiful area with so much history, including the tragedy of the Killing Fields. I recommend spending a couple of nights there on your way to wherever you are going in Northeast Cambodia.

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    Oh Lord. I did a very long submission ages ago and it never posted. OH wifi over here. Sigh.

    Hahahaha. Well. I'm in Siem Riep right now, under one sheet in a tiny room, the heat of the day pounding down. It's about 8:30 am and I'm putting off my visit to the temples until midday to avoid the worst of the crowds. I have about four to five days in the area. Got here last night, staying in a small hostel two streets off the main avenue, went out and got thoroughly and happily lost last night trying to find the mini mart. Was really appalled at the thoroughly Western prices in the overly cooled store. Everything cost the same as in my stores in Colorado. Ticked me off. I got my supplies in the local markets instead. Even there, the price for a kilo of tangerines was twice or more what I'd paid in Phnom Penh. Tourism. Right.

    I'll do my best to catch up. Journalists, bloggers, those who write like I do it's a fun adventure finding adequate wifi. From the time I arrived, I ran into much the same thing as I did last February in Rwanda and Uganda. Wife is advertised but "manager not pay bill." So not without a pretty good laugh I'd simply write on this tablet and forfeit any Internet reportage.

    Folks back home hungry for photos also will have to wait until February, as any and all attempts to upload photos have been met with failure as bandwidth simply doesn't accommodate with one exception. The big, sterile lobby of the Lao Hotel in Vientiene, the site of the fifteen dollar breakfast buffet (well worth getting some proper protein and all the goodies) was the ONE place I could upload weeks' worth of photos to friends, albeit nothing from the Gibbon Experience, as my Nikon took a suicidal leap from my pants pocket whilst flying along at 50 mph on a zipline at 200 m over the forest floor. Alas. Poor camera. 8000 photos, 343 videos. The Gibbons might be heartily entertained but I mourn the garbage.

    I will do my best to catch up in tidbits here.

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    Upon landing in Vientiene on January 2nd I transferred almost immediately to get to the Elephant Conservation Camp about three hours' bus ride from Luang Prabang. I found it rather disconcerting that Josef, the manager who was so involved as long as I was still thinking about it disapppared completely (including not being there upon arrival, nor was anyone else in management) after I'd committed. This as I came to find out was true for many other travelers. As an adventure traveler, my interest in this camp was based on the description in Lonely Planet (LP) which said one would learn mahout skills, bathe and interact with the ellies. Well. About half an hour after I landed my young handler informed me that this was no longer the case.

    Hmm. Not good. I'd signed up, for about $500 smackers, for six days of high touch, and was facing six days of sit on your ass high watch. Not good at all. To their credit, they immediately rebooked me at All Lao Camp, and gave me a discount on the night's stay, and sent me home. I had to pay the bus ride to and fro, no problem.

    As it turned out, it gave me a chance to review the place- and commune with a number of others who'd had similar frustrating experiences. My guess is that a short while back there'd been a management/vision change, and some very poor communication in terms ot letting tours know what is and isnt' happening. Since the mahouts ride the ellies constantly, their message that "nobody rides the ellies" smacks of a double standard, for of course the mahouts do.

    All Lao was only too happy to book me for their six day mahout training course, and boy was I glad they did. My guide Honda picked me up the next morning and I got placed in a lovely shaded personal bungalow right on a main tributary into the Mekong overlooking the morning parade of ellies as they headed to their first bath.

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    In short order, Honda assigned me my elephant (Sophie, or Tum) Keat, her mahout and the only person she really listens to) and a genuinely ugly blue mahout training outfit. It was damned cold in the mornings, in the sixties, the room was freezing, and I used every single blanket I had. The mornings were very misty and overcast, clearing to sun and in the seventies by early afternoon. As we bathed our ellies in they morning and afternoons I ducked out of morning bathings and took her in the water when the sun was out which did nothing for the water temp (BRRRR) but a lot for getting dry fast.

    A few things to know about All Lao. They have about 14 ellies, mostly females, some quite old. What I liked: since I have visited some pretty awful camps in Thailand I was on the lookout for good treatment, and I saw it. The animals were fed a wonderful variety of good food each day. That included being put in the jungle each night (tethered, by necessity, as a loose Ellie is a dead Ellie for a thousand reasons too many to go into here, but I researched them while in Laos, and became very supportive of tethering as a result). That way they were able to forage for the variety of fodder that provided the vast amount of fiber they need. Compare this to domesticated ellies who get nothing more than cheap pineapple tops for food which creates sores in their mouths and gives them terrible digestive problems. Second, they are moved by verbal commands. No hooks, no tools. While I can personally attest to how frustrating it is to attempt to command a two ton animal who would prefer to eat than attend to your commands, with love and affection and patience they WILL eventually respond to you, which means they will TOLERATE you, and with Keat's being there or at least close, do what you ask. But no metal anything. This is key.

    The people who came to ride gave them bananas, oranges, all kinds of treats which they love. They had lots of human interaction. That made it easy for me to groom them, for which I had brought two horse brushes: a tough tail bristle for washing and scrubbing the body, and a goat hair soft bristle for the face. Not all ellies appreciate it but boy the ones that do nearly fall asleep while you administer this kind of love.

    I had arrived a day late to my training so we jumped right in, and Honda handed me a list of Lao commands to memorize. I learned how to sit, knees on her head, which balanced my butt on her shoulders. This is far easier on her to hold my weight, and it's just like putting your child on your own shoulders. You can feel the bones and muscles moving, and you're not sitting on the vulnerable neck bones.

    Honda told me that most folks have to spend a day getting over their fear of the animal, my problem is that they had to peel me off her. Each day we walked to the far forest where she foraged. I rode her back, and spent about three to four hours riding, commanding, practicing. My list of Lao commands got longer.

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    I might add if I may....A true Elephant Sanctuary does NOT ride
    Elephants.Thats whom they are rescued from in the first place....from camps
    that ride them causing broken backs, legs,hips.....
    Ugh.....

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    Zoso, I note that you have some passion about this topic, and I respect that. However, I did not at any point indicate that All Lao was a Sanctuary, and my intention has always been to train to be a mahout, bathe with, massage, ride, work with, learn about and in all ways be immersed in all things elephant. The Sanctuaries, based on what I've learned in my travels especially in Myanmar, tend primarily to animals hurt in the illegal and dangerous logging industry. I can't speak to your comments about the camps. I am aware of poor feeding practices. However, I don't speak to what I don't know. I only write and talk about where I've been , what I've seen, what I've actually researched and interviewed people about-being a journalist I am careful not to make blanket statements. There are too many shades of grey, too many players, too many conditions, and too many things we don't understand. I come here to learn, not to judge, although I've been to camps in Thailand which were bad operators. You are of course most welcome to your opinion. I don't have a need to be right on this. However, being that this is my trip and this is what I wish to do, and I massage huge animals like ellies to give them pleasure, I would ask that you also respect my choice as well. We all travel differently.

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    Kathie, I can finally report on Angkor Wat, now that I've been in Siem Reap for a few days. Wifi is a circus show, and there's much to catch up on, and I will, but I landed here a short while back. Today we were hit with a cold front of all things and it's given us a right cool morning and a 70s afternoon with nice breezes and very low humidity. Lovely.

    My little place advised going to the temples at noon, which I did. Good call. The hordes were pouring out the gates in the opposite direction like rush hour, and I slipped into the shadows. Since there is just no way to show scale, I shot the details. I was entranced with the art on posts, over doors, most especially on walls. There was a Buddha that I found, and as soon as I bent my knee in front of it two extraordinarily dressed people (dressed up like Royals, who knows) with a rather large retinue of photographers did a series of photographs making merit. I got to see and photograph the whole thing. No idea if it was staged for an ad or very real. Either way great timing.

    I'm too tired right now to recall the name of the second temple with the big Buddha heads. I was in the middle of the stairway going up, stuck in the flow of about fifty Japanese tourists, when I stopped and purposely stepped out of the stream and got off the stairs. Good thing- because the entire wall was such a treat. The carvings made the temple for me. The quality of the art, the delicacy, detail, mind boggling. You can stand for hours looking at it. So true for all the sites. As an artist what I loved was the storytelling, such as the Japanese warriors, the elephants and the Warriors with horses, and a lone isolated Buddha honored with berms of stones and a few candles.


    There was something grand about seeing how the jungle was reclaiming the last temple of the day for itself, a work of earth, wind, water and sun taking over such a massive building, and such huge trees and root systems cracking open these buildings over time. My battery had run out by then but I may go back tomorrow afternoon just for those photos.

    If I was bothered by any thing here I was bothered by the Western Minimart. It's just a few minutes from my hostel. Overly airconditioned, everything in dollars. Overpriced to the nth degree- everything in there is priced the way I would find items in my local corner 7-11, which is half again what I'd pay at a grocery store, with the exception of the coconut yogurt, the only thing I go buy there. A nasty thin egg sandwich is three bucks, that king's ransom buys you a big platter of lovely spring rolls four times the size of that sandwich and much better for you.

    This morning I took a four hour horseback ride at Happy Ranch, which is a very nicely run place not far from the city. You take off at six am and ride for four hours (or far less if you don't care to get sore). My guide Twee and walked and galloped through villages and open country and down clay roads and under speaking trees. We visited a temple which is under reconstruction, paintings of the Buddha's life in colors so bright they almost hurt the eye. Inside and hour, top to bottom, ceiling included. It is some sight. No one was there but a pillow was provided for worship. I saw nothing about this place in any tourist material but it was a gem. I'm going back in the morning for another ride. This is one place which to its credit listens to you when you say you're an advanced rider, and they don't simply look at your age and place you on a nag. They gave me a lively rather green broke little mare, who was still learning her neck reining, and that made for a fun day. She had a nice swift gallop, she liked to photo bomb, and she loved her first massage.

    There is a Flight of the Gibbon nearby, about which I have mixed feelings. For $99 you fly ten ziplines, however you are not allowed to handle your own carabiners or your own gear. While I've not yet discussed the Gibbon Experience where I spent three days in the treehouses in Houiesay after Luang Prabang, suffice it to say that this was a bit of a disappointment. It's overpriced for what you get, for their own rating system asks that you speak to how much you learned about the forest. Well, not much. We got a lot of silly jokes like, "whats in the middle of Paris?? R." I do want to learn about the forest, and I do like to develop my ziplining skills. Each outfit is different, you play by the rules, but this one is overpriced by fifty bucks.

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    I also need to note here that I had to clarify my understanding of the difference between a camp and a sanctuary, and where different outfits used those terms interchangeably. So before anyone jumps my case, when I first started researching this the terms were not clear- and when I made my first calls around, some of the outfits I called weren't very clear about themselves either. Now I am, and with thanks to earlier posters on here. Some so called "sanctuaries" allowed riding, some didn't. Hence the confusion.

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    After All Lao, I had one day and one day only to get to Houiesay. That meant a speedboat. In dry season, high rocks, low water, high speed. Long, thin boat, lots of luggage up front. Now just to give you an idea, I'm five foot eight and 120 or less. Not very big. But a hell of a lot taller than most Asians. I met up with Dieter, an Austrian who was 6'4" and considerably heavier, who had just come into a three day ticket for the Gibbon Experience. We were escorted, along with a few others to the boat. It was hardly two and a half feet wide. Our space was hardly a foot to sit in. No cushion. We wedged our butts in this tiny space, our knees up around our ears, our toes wedged under the wood slat in front of us.

    Seven hours like this, at high speed. Not making this up.

    Okay now a part of me is thinking how many Americans can you get on this boat?

    (Kindly don't answer, it's a trick question)
    Dieter and I were the only Westerners. The driver took off. The engines were horrendously loud. Thank god for an iPod, and Mozart symphonies.

    The mightly Mekong whistled by at warp speed, icy cold that time of day and that far north. We cowered in our tiny cubby holes and froze in place. The only relief was to lean one's knees slightly to the left or right. About two hours later we pulled up to a town and unloaded ( well that's euphemistic, uncurling one's limbs after that kind of torture, and I frankly don't care WHAT kind of shape you're in, is agony) Dieter and I unwound, slowly stood up and started up for relief. The 100 step staircase (no bannister) led to a tiny village, which may or may not have a loo. I chanced it. At the top I managed to convince a small boy to direct me to a hole where a Pepsi banner protected the squat toilet. Fine. I'll take it.

    Going down the same staircase I took a photo to send home to remind my fellow Americans who love to sue one another over a broken fingernail that there's a reason that government charges taxes, and those taxes are used to provide various safe facialities so that folks don't have to handle heavy luggage down 100 tinky stairs all the way down a very steep hill to the water front.

    The good news is that because we had a chance to change boats at various points during the day, Dieter and I were able to grab front seats, and that allowed us to stretch our legs out over the pile of luggage. You got more wind and more cold, but you didn't sit in agony hour over hour, unable to stand to get refreshments or find relief.

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    We finally, blessedly arrived in Houiesay all in one rather ragged piece, the worse for wear, for my part I had a grand time of it. Lao Skyways had so badly messed up my flights ( and dogged refused to change/refund/respond to twenty or more emails, phone calls and even in person counter requests for same, after being told absolutely yes ma'am all done email coming). I was just happy to get there. I landed at the Friendship Guesthouse that doesn't speak a word of English, nor do they have a clue what or who the Giibbon Experience is, and even sent me going down the street in the opposite direction of same for my morning rendezvous. After stopping at three hotels (no English) I turned around and walked back just as a fellow guest was heading there and bravo.

    Gibbon Experience is well run, and a genuine attempt to preserve a lot of land, engage the villagers who were once hunters (new word: poachers) as guides, and rebuild the tiny Gibbon population which now is twenty. That's all. Those of us who pay good money to hike around and play in the ziplines at 600 feet pay into the funds that support those conservation dollars, which I like very much, and our funds pay the salaries and our tips support further the young men who take us aloft and around. It's a good thing, much the same way that Uganda and Rwanda have utilized the skills of its hunters as guides, porters and trackers for gorilla and chimp tourists.

    Gibbon Experience, and again this depends on which of the packages you choose, can be pretty epic. I chose the three day waterfall, which turned out to have a considerable amount of hiking. Even in dry season, some of the hiking is on slippery clay, and it is steep. So I had hiking poles, which were very useful, especially on the downhills which were equally steep. Having just fractured my pelvis in Iceland the previous August this was an experiment in how well I could hike at this point, which was largely fine, but after about four to five hours of this kind of fairly speedy hiking, things began to ache. It's not that hard- you have to hike up to vantage points to take the ziplines as many of them depend on gravity for momentum.

    On your first day, the guides spend a good bit of time teaching you your carabiners and your gear. If you're a first timer this can be a bit intimidating as some of the lines are good and long. You are suspended quite high. You can spin. All of this is easily controllable with hand positions, and you have braking capability. What can and often does happen is that you can come to a full stop at any time. If you get scared and pull down, you can stop right in the middle of the line. Well, crap. There you are. You have several choices. You can spin around, and with your gloves on (always) monkey style, pull yourself hand over hand to the platform. That happened to me more times than I could count, not from the middle but sometimes quite a few feet out, simply due to the fact that I liked to play and doing so used up momentum. So, hand over hand.

    Or, if you didn't possess the upper body strength, the guide would come out to you, clip the carabiner into your harness, and haul both of you back in, which is hard damned work. That happened in our group, too. If you're not accustomed to being high in the air it can be terrifying, mesmerizing, people go stupid, they freeze, and all of that is quite natural. So Jay, one of our guides, would clip up, zip out, and haul someone in.

    The first night we spent the night in I think it was Tree House #3, which was a bit small. But who cared?These circular tree houses are every child's wet dream, certainly was one of mine as a farm kid. Big circular building way up high, woven roof, shower (cold) and toilet with a world view of the forest. Mattresses and pillows and yummy thick comforters with cloth tents for the night. Hot dinners were zipped in by Jay or Lai, our guides, and we had a wonderful meal selection to choose from.

    When we awoke it was chilly, the blue mists rising over the forests in the far distance, the few birds singing nearby, all our ears hoping for Gibbons. None so far. Too few, not this time of year.

    After a hot breakfast, housekeeping ziplined in to clean up, and we helped, and packed up all our gear. Then we ziplined out and began ziplining and hiking to Treehose #5, which took a good number of hours. Along the way, Thomas, our resident Frenchman, was taking photos and videos, and so was I.

    By this time we were all managing our own zipline gear. Totally accustomed to the rules, we put ourselves on and off the lines, full of confidence. What I liked about this - and this is my third country doing ziplines- is this freedom. You learn very quickly how to do it, and you are responsible for your safety and the safety of others.

    I mentioned earlier that the Flight of the Gibbon is over safety conscious and does everything for you. The result of this is that when the client isn't made to be responsible, they do nothing for themselves. To wit: when told upon coming into the landing at each and every one of the trees at Flight of the Gibbon in Siem Reap, we were told to lift our feet for our own safety. I can testify, upon watching all of my fellow group members for four straight hours, not a single person did this. They crashed their feet into the landing, they hurt their ankles, they bent their bits and pieces. They had no motivation to do things right, as the guide was doing it all for them, and boy did he take one hell of a beating. He got slammed into the tree on numerous occasions and you could tell it hurt. So no, I'm not a fan of that kind of operation- I'm a fan of making the client learn to do it right and handing it over to them to do it. I saw families at the Gibbon Experience with kids and oldsters- and they were loving it. It becomes your adventure. We all watch out for each other, and more than once someone caught a walking pole or something else that I might have missed. You become a team, and that's part of the delight of the thing.

    At night, I tend to get sleepy at about 8. This group, which was a great mix of countries, picked up a card game of unknown origin. Whatever it was called the gist of it, as I gathered, was that at the end, there was a President, Vice President and an A--hole. The A--hole was the one who ended up with all the money. I surmise this is not a capitalist game. They laughed themselves silly, and that's the music that put me to sleep. I woke at 4 am or so, and Thomas the Frenchman was taking photos from the second story by 6 am.

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    Treehouse #5 was astounding. Larger in circumference and roomier inside, this was a bit of a castle by comparison but not like some of the shots I've seen of some really big treehouses built nearby. Still. It is eco friendly and simply wonderful. We arrived by midafternoon. By this time I'd not had a bath, nor had some of my clothing for several days and I nabbed the chance to shower before nightfall when it did get too cold to do so. Rules allowed the crew to go zipline anywhere they wanted for as long as they wanted until dinners, which was just before sundown.

    Standing next to the cold water shower, you could bask in your environmentally friendly soap and cleanliness up here at 150m and enjoy being nekkid with the birds and the clean air. Something just magical about that. The ziplining is fun, but slowing down long enough to simply BE where you are is very important too. I had a couple of hours of just that before the troops zipped home and soon the game had picked up again, and I again went to bed to the sound of uncontrollable giggles.

    On Day Three we had our final breakfast and then packed up for our final zips and headed out. We had some quite long ones in store, including a 500m one. I took the time to tighten my harness, and this was a mistake. At some point during our journey out, during one of the longer ziplines, that harness squeezed my very good Nikon camera, along with 8 000 photos and 343 or so videos, into a suicide skydive out of my hiking pants cargo pocket.

    Alas. To Jay and Lai's credit, as soon as this was discovered, they placed the group in a nice spot to play a local sport and eat while they scoured the trail. Nothing, which is why I know it went airborne.

    Not long afterward, Lao Skyway did me a further favor and cancelled my flight to Vientiene, and bused a bunch of us three hours to another province, and from there we got a very late flight into the city I had just a few hours to find a POS camera, which doesn't fit the iPad video reading system, but at least it takes photos of a sort. Insurance will replace the better one.

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    In no time I was on a bus to Vang Vieng, which I'd heard and read was green and gorgeous and had wonderful adventure trips run by Green Discoveries. I also knew about the balloon trips morning and night. Our bus took two hours longer to arrive which put us in after dark but all of us got sorted out. I landed in a small hostel on a side street with an entertaining bathroom sink which drained onto the floor, and no wifi. The kind manager moved me first thing in the morning to a room with wifi but a toilet which, when flushed, drained out onto the floor. I did my best to avoid fiber for a few days.

    My birthday was imminent and I had booked an adventure day with Green Discoveries. This was to involving trekking (which means something very specific to me as an adventure traveler), kayaking and caving. I've done caving before in several places and had a fair idea of what this might entail, and I'm a trained white water kayaker. This is low water season so no big rapids here.

    For a special treat I booked two balloon trips: one the night of my birthday and then one the morning after. That night I met the Chinese pilot. When he found out I also fly and skydive we had a great time talking flying stories. Really, really nice man. On a word from him my pilot popped me in his cockpit and I got some fabulous shots of the surrounding area, although the sunset wasn't as gorgeous as I'd hoped.

    However the next morning was spectacular. This time I went up with the Chinese pilot and he took us to about 2000', where we filmed a great many perfect sunrise shots as the big red ball rose through layer after layer of cloud cover, giving us postcard shots in the near silence of early morning. Both trips lasted 40 minutes to an hour, and the were well worth it. More so than anything else there.

    As for Green Discoveries. Don't waste your time or money. Put it this way. If 2km on flat ground through back yards is your idea of "trekking," fine. The caving was mildly engaging but very brief. The kayaking. Right. Imagine yourself on the river. You're in a boat with your honey say. Neither of you is trained. The water is rushing over sharp rocks. Your boat is scraping on them in many places. Suddenly from behind comes a huge group of screaming Koreans, about fifty of them, hurtling towards you and everyone else on the river, caring not a whit about you or your safety swinging their paddles everywhere, splashing water everywhere. They overturned three boats in the middle of the river ahead of us, we came on them later. Remember you guys? You probably don't know the proper position for floating downstream in Rapids, which will save your life and your body from being torn to shreds your head from getting cracked wide open. Green Discoveries doesn't give you this briefing by the way. The guides in the Koreans' boats? Egging them on. Dangerous as hell.

    Oh. and the river? Well, let's forget about the extremely loud bars where half naked guys are waving BeerLao bottles at you, shall we?

    For this I paid about $70. A king's ransom in Cambodia, a complete and utter waste of a day.

    The balloon rides were lovely. The rest of the time in that town I spent petting the stray dogs to pass the time, which I happen to enjoy very much. But Green Discoveries was a joke. Overpriced, overhyped, and I wouldn't ever bother to go back to Vang Vieng again. It was once a huge party town and there's far too much of that still there. When someone says "trek" in the jungle, I'm thinking I"m going work hard, go up and down, get filthy dirty, slip and slide, earn my dinner. I was bored stiff. Not recommended.

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    Great stuff jhubbel. You brought the agony of my fast boat trips on the rivers of northern Laos right back to me. I hate heights so, tempting though it sounds, I think I I'll give the Gibbon Experience a miss..

    Shame to hear that Vang Vieng appears to have reverted to its old ways of loud bars and drunken backpackers. I had thought that was a thing of the past after the big clean up a few years ago but it sounds like lunatic Koreans have now been added to the mix! Nice!

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    Crellston, it was a sad thing to see, hear and put up with. I usually count on Lonely Planet for good advice but on this one- especially with the high high accolades for Green Discoveries- I was sorely disappointed. The people are as always very kind, and I get much pleasure from their joyful laughing at my fumbling with the consonants but acceptance of my attempts to properly pronounce words of respect. I read a few years ago about the regular deaths that happened here from those raucous parties, and the government did indeed step in. American college kids made the trip during Spring Break because you could buy buckets full of the local hootch for practically nothing, but you could also swing into the pool in the back- which also harbored some big rocks, and that ended up killing some folks. The complete lack of regard for conservative dress and local customs didn't (and doesn't) help either.

    The other day here in Siem Reap I was walking around Angkor Wat with my camera. Just out of curiosity- as I was clothed to my ankles in hiking pants and to my wrists in a fast dry shirt, and it was hot but I was properly covered- I took some photos of what I saw other women wearing. And I listened. From Japanese to Spanish to French to German, the tank top and shorts wearing women abound. What bothered me was that as you well know, there isn't a single hotel room in town that doesn't have a very explicit set of directions in multiple languages, with very clear photos in case you can't read, showing FIRST what you must not wear in the temples because it is expressly prohibited and considered an affront to these people.

    What hurts me is that it's universal. The Cambodians need the money. They accept our offensive dress and our affronts to the their conservative sensibilities but there is no question that they are probably very unhappy with us behind our backs. I find it intriguing that in my country, Americans have a great deal to say about what immigrants should or shouldn't do as "guests"- how would they feel if the same poeple dressed inappropriately in our holiest of places? This is what galls me. It's fine if we do this to them, but if someone from a Third World dares to do this to us, then it's ignorant or stupidity or something worse. If every effort hadn't been made to inform tourists of how to dress, it'd be understandable. But people willfully ignore it, and that's what embarrasses me for Westerners who stomp all over these ancient sacred sites without understanding the message they're sending.

    On a happier note, I just came in a while ago from my second of two four hour riding sessions with The Happy Ranch just outside Siem Reap. A very nicely run outfit, good horses, and for me, the real pleasure of getting out at 6 as the sun rises. Farmers are just taking their buffalo out into the emerald green fields, the air is still chilly, the villages just waking up. Kids run to the side of the road to watch you ride by, a horse is such a rare sight. Far from Angkor, a few of the temples here are fairly new, but they are painted in amazing colors with hundreds of scenes from the Buddha's life. Ceiling, walls, inside, outside. Amazing.

    Riding in the villages is one way to get off the main roads and get inside the villages themselves. It's an intimate look at village life, which you can't get unless you bicycle or walk yourself. The movements of people and how they live day to day are well defined, and so are roles. Housing -such as it is in some villages- is incredibly flimsy or concrete. And nothing gives a child so much joy as to be noticed way at the back of the yard, from where she waves, far from the street, and it sends her into wild circles of joy, and all the puppies chase her in glee.

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    I had only just a day or so in Phnom Penh, situated as I was in a very old hotel about a block from the river and just a few blocks from the Palace and most of the walkable area of town. I wasn't without the guys offering lady company downstairs at night, however, although it wasn't overbearing it's there.

    A busy Minimart across the street from my hotel provided enough yogurt to keep me happy and my reception area provided excellent directions. I headed to the main market to explore. That's terrific if you like gems, which are offered in great glittering variety under the main dome, and it's worth just looking at all that sparkle. However I was more intrigued with the little piles of stuff that gathered on top of the counters. Small silver boxes, woven bracelets (I bought two one of which promptly disintegrated over here yesterday), leg bones carved to look like teeth, all manner of odd things. This is what gets my attention.

    As I walked around this huge facility to the tune of Madamadamadamadamadam you like? There were just a few things that caught my eye. There is a great deal of repetition. To a degree the sale goes to whomever grabs you first. But enough variety exists, so I wandered. I have a potter friend named Jill who is a highly successful artist in the Pacific Northwest, based in Spokane. She is known in part for her wall vases and other lovely art, partly because she's been very good at finding "ha gables" to grace the pots with. This up until recently included Chinese coins. For whatever reasons, they've either disappeared off eBay or they've gotten very expensive.

    I found those coins, and began piling them into a box for Jill until the woman said they were a dollar apiece. I promptly put them all back. She didn't like that much, watching her entire sale end. So we haggled, pleasantly, and at four to the dollar I made a pile of 80, And 14 really interesting coins at two bucks apiece,. Then I looked in the case and saw tons of same, too heavy and too expensive for me to lug home for Jill. She was delighted to know these were coming and in fact announced on Facebook that she is throwing new vases to be decorated with her incoming have coins.

    This is one of the best reasons I can think of for travel, when we can pick up exquisite and rare things for our friends. Last May in Thailand I sought out a fish shaped chopstick holder that was made by a company in Chiang Mai for her pots. This outfit was so hard to find physically and it took an epic taxi drive, having to wake up the staff (we got there early) and then they refused to sell to me wholesale anyway because I hadn't brought Jill's resale license. Alas. On to the Celadon store and I bought 50 of them retail, don't tell Jill, they were a bloody fortune. But Jill had wanted them for years, since we'd traveled there together in 2011, and it made a magical Christmas present. I actually told her I couldn't find them, so she spent the year think that all was lost. Then at Christmas she opens up this very heavy box, and out pour all these pewter fish pieces. She was beside herself. I make no apologies for my white lie. The delight I take in surprising Jill with such treasures more than makes up for fibbing a little.

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    This big market wasn't far from a boutique I'd read about in Lonely Planet called Ambre, which was on 178 Street. This street was - or at least had been at one time- lined with boutiques and shops. When I got there, what struck me were all the carving studios where you can watch an artist put the enigmatic smile on your garden Buddha. This is done with great, great care, btw, and it's really fun to watch. The shops on this street tend to be a bit pricey as this is tourist central, but there are some very nice shops.

    The boutique I was seeking, as I was told it sold silk clothing by a Cambodian designer, was in the opposite direction and close to a large Wat. As I walked towards it, I saw increasingly more people sleeping openly on the street with naked kids. Tuk tuk drivers who clearly lived in a small area- and even had an area of theirs for sale- on that boulevard. Intensely poor people who lived on a mat right across the street from burgeoning businesses. Such a juxtaposition that it reminded me a great deal of Durban and Johannesburg, where the great cities of the poor which go for miles and miles abut five million dollar houses.

    I found the boutique deep in this poor area. The boutique carried into several houses that might have once been very expensive French colonial buildings in their time. What I found was interesting but not of interest- the designs were not of silk but of polyester, not well made, but priced to American standards. Garish colors, and in many cases, cuts and slices and openings in places better left to the imagination.

    In Siem Reap, I've also found in my walks around the back streets, many small shops selling gowns-they are everywhere- long faded by the harsh sun. Women love these gowns, and I can see their attraction. The glamor they promise is quite the contrast to daily life. I'm just not sure who buys them other than beauty contestants.

    An interesting fact I picked up from one of my guides. Here in Siem Reap there are more than 3000 tuk tuk drivers. Many of them are farmers who can no longer afford to grow crops. They sell their land, buy a tuk tuck and join the swelling ranks of drivers who already crowd the streets. Those, and all the motorcycle drivers who also sell rides to tourists. In the constant flow of farm to city, this is just a tiny example of where in cities as small as Siem Reap end up with an overpopulation of certain providers who can't make enough to feed their families when a changing world around them can't sustain them either.

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    Siem Reap is Wat Central, and to most people all it means is Angkor Wat. I spent about five hours one afternoon visiting four temples. I may go back this afternoon or tomorrow one last time before I leave but I get temple weary, mostly because I just despise large crowds. And as I intimated earlier I really don't like crowds of people who don't respect the sites they are visiting, and while it's my problem that they are offensive, I can also choose to go at times there are fewer of them. One answer to that has been to go riding the last few days, and that has put me well into the countryside and into temples of considerable beauty where nobody happens to be at all. Not Angkor Wat mind you but the peace and quiet are heavenly, and looking at brilliant, floor to ceiling paintings being restored is really something. The Wats I've seen are more recent of course but the work going into them is impressive. My guide, Twen, has shown me two different ones the last two mornings, and I feel fortunate to have had the pleasure.

    At 5:30 am a tuk tuk driver has been waiting for me, and has taken me in the chill of early morning (a two jacket, crouch in the tuk tuck chill) to Happy Ranch. This outfit has been around for a while, and is not far from the center of Siem Reap. What I love about the place is that they have a nice range of horses for beginner to expert, and the stalls are immaculate. The horses are sleek and well fed. Each is rubbed and bathed after the ride and put into a very well ventilated and clean stall with clean bedding.

    I had asked for, and got, two very different young mares to ride. Both were rather green broke which I rather prefer. Part of this is because my trainer back in Colorado, Terrie, puts me on her green broke horses to train me. This means they buck, they back up, they spook and shy and go stupid, and I get to learn how to handle a difficult horse. For me it's fun. What this does is prepare me for just about anything, because anything can and does happen. For the last two days, it did. When you are out very early, people pop out of their houses, their dogs bark unexpectedly, fires flare, horns blare, and when you gallop, you are susceptible to anything that comes out of anywhere to make your horse buck and go nuts. And mine did.

    Again, for me that's the fun of riding, because it's feedback on my training. It tells me if I learned a damned thing, how good a rider I am, can I be patient with my horse, do I get mad, do I spend my time soothing the animal or getting frustrated? Maryland liked to grab the bit and run, and when you worked to get it back she was nearly at a full gallop, she bucked in anger, but when you spoke soothingly to her she pricked her ears again, and controlled herself. She was a pistol. Not for beginner riders, and they only let expert riders or their trainers take her out. I had a blast with her and am taking her out again tomorrow at 6 am.

    What I've learned about riding is that any well trained horse makes you look like an expert. You only find out if you are a rider when you get on an untrained horse and have to apply your skills, wits, love and patience with the animal. They WILL test you. If you get angry and hurt them, you fail. If you are patient and work with them, they reward you, and you might get a big kiss in the end. Or two or three. Maryland not only got a nice massage (her first one, like Paris did yesterday) but both of them got their first belly rubs, butt rubs and both of them gave me bit fat kisses. They were loves.

    My guide Twen is a jockey, although he is tall, he is lean like a whippet. Funny and full of information. He's taken me all over tarnation for two mornings. This morning I witnessed the bright red sun rise through the palm trees onto the intense green of the ripening rice crops. Farmers were walking their buffalo out onto the fields in the mists. There was hardly a sound but for a flock of heron above us. The rice paddies stretched in all directions, a few houses here and there. It was breathtakingly beautiful. We rode to a local mountain (which stands alone in this area) where you can see where the rainy season rises to the base of a village, which is largely on stilts.

    Most of the houses are of bamboo and rattan and palm leaves, some so tiny as to barely contain a mat for sleeping. Most have cloth coverings for shelter. The villages are extremely poor, the kids run out to see the horses and wave shyly.

    Most everyone has something for sale out front ranging from the ubiquitous chips to bottles of gas. And the trash is everywhere. I've come to the conclusion that the villagers simply don't see it. It's just part of what is.

    As we wound our way to the higher levels of the mountain and a different part of the village we got to another Wat, where the temple compound housed monks. The monks often refuse to look at a woman, although I pay respects anyway. We dismounted and I wandered. A small troupe of grimy kids pushing a kid in a wheelchair spotted me and consipired to relieve me of a dollar. This was a great scam. If you waited long enough, the kid in the wheelchair got bored, and got up and played ball just as hard as the other kids. If you turned around he made a beeline for the wheelchair again and cries for a dollar rang back out. I've got it all on my camera. Very funny.

    The sad part of this is that right next door was a very lively school, where these kids were not attending. Who knows why. But they were of age, and they weren't getting schooling, but rather begging in the Wat compound. I don't have answers.

    Twen had me back at the stables by ten, and I had time to rub more happy ears before coming back to my air conditioning here at the hostel to catch up. In all frankness the horseback riding has so far been my best experience in Cambodia for it has allowed me to see and experience the villages, life, countryside, temples, the quiet, and the people the way I most love to. That's why I'm doing it again before I head south to the coast. I learned a lot from my guide whose company I very much enjoyed too. Those have been priceless.

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    Yesterday (the 27th) I had signed up for one more ride. This time Twen took me to a fishing village rather far afield. As I'd mentioned I like the insight that riding gives me, the slow pace (when we're not galloping on the open path that is) and the way that so many are drawn to the horses. Yesterday's ride was different. We rode through some villages so poor, so abjectly, grindingly poor that it tore out my heart. Here too you see what happens when the idea of maintaining the land- any kind of care for the environment whatsoever- is so remote and so lost that the villages are armpit deep in plastic bags full of rotting garbage, plastic bottles, foam this that and the other. Open fields are several layers deep in the stuff. It simply boggles the mind how bad it is. The only place the trash is not (and this doesn't include the river where people fish) are the rice paddies where harvesting must happen. The smells are overwhelming. So too is the music imposed on the population from a broadcasting source nearby. It would be quite impossible to take a nap, for anyone to sleep, unless you become immured to this extraordinary volume. It hurt my ears, yet Twen explained that it's on until midnight. Why, is a mystery.

    The areas where we rode were clearly not for tourist consumption. Laos was like this, too, in many places, and I've seen this in places in Africa, but Cambodia, by far, takes the prize for the worst garbage dumping in any country I have ever seen. You may not see it in when you go directly to the temples. But the farther afield one goes, the worse it gets. Twen explained that the average Cambodian doesn't see himself as significant, so he doesn't think it matters to litter. I have no idea how true this is, but it surely has a cumulative effect.

    Twen offered, and I accepted, to take me to see the Floating Village in the afternoon after I'd had time to get lunch. The one we visited was a full hour plus out of Siem Reap. We drove through another uber poor village to get there. The area wasn't floating, this being dry season. The houses are up high on stilts, and the land that's currently revealed is covered with corn crops and other vegetables during dry season. About three thousand families live on what becomes a massive lake. As Twen explained to me, what I was looking at was a massive sewage system- the low water level was their only source of water, being used for everything. Their effluent flowed into it, they bathed in it, they used it for cooking, for cleaning. They fished out of it. I pass on the chance to take a river trip because of the smell, as I'd had quite enough of that already. While I'm sure the massive influx of rains helps when the lake rises once again to the upper stairs of their houses, the lack of any kind of sewage, drainage, or anything resembling a way to protect from one's "output" speaks to a lack of government support of its people. These villages just continue to grow and the waters are badly polluted. I don't know what I don't know but what you smell and see is pretty obvious.

    The other thing that is painful and cannot be ignored is the massive population of dogs. As an animal lover, is it hard to see so many of them covered with aggressive mange. No one here has the funds or the means to either neuter or spay their animals nor secure any kind of humane treatment, and the animals are in misery. It's an education, and I value it. By the same token it is hard to countenance for the misery you encounter at some levels. On the other hand, there's no question, and I have found this time and time again, that at the village level I continue to find the kids happy, and people so pleasant and happy to embrace a visitor. When Twen and I stopped at his house to collect his phone recharger we were instantly surrounded by family members who were intensely curious about the white person in the tuk tuk, and very relieved to see that person smile and use (bumblingly) some Cambodian words and proper gestures.

    When returning on the highway Twen and I spotted a vast cloud of dust in the near distance. Happily I had a bandana, and as we approached we saw all kinds of traffic stopping. What was happening was that a very large tractor was "cleaning the road" according to Twen. What this guy was actually doing was little more that stirring up an enormous amount of dirt and dust which simply covered us, the cars, motorcyclists, bicyclists, food in the open stalls, houses, and everyone and everything in all directions. Then it all settled back right down again. In the meantime it caused a massive traffic jam as people swerved everywhere to avoid line another in the dust, as no one could see anything until the last moment. It made no sense whatsoever. I was horrified at what I pulled off my skin with a few wipes after I got back to the hotel. People seemed to accept it as part of life, just one more thing to endure.

    Today I am off to one more temple, and Angkor Air, which regularly changes my flight schedule by several hours at the last moment, is sending me to the southern beaches. Because of what I've seen so far I'm past expecting clean. If lucky perhaps I can see some pretty islands, snorkel a bit. I've signed up to visit the Wildlife Alliance back in the Phnomh Penh area and look forward to returning to do more exploring there.

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    What was pleasant, and this is a very consistent experience throughout all our village trips, was coming onto the pagodas that dotted the countryside. Most where we rode have been built within the last 50 years. While many were closed to visitor, the outsides were enough to give much pleasure. Often in bas relief, the paintings of Buddha's life are in bright colors, and cover the buildings from ground to ceilings and often are on the ceilings themselves. I ran right out of battery at one point taking photos of one pagoda's exterior. The paintings are usually stacked either two or three panels up and down, and about four or five side by side. Really visually stunning. These provided a much valued break in our four hour rides, and were like gems in the day. The grounds were usually better kept than the villages although sometimes subject to littering themselves. Every so often some beggars would wander amongst the stupas.

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    Thank you. You just saved us from Vang Vieng (and Green Discoveries). We'd been planning to visit Vang Vieng (mainly for the scenic drive up to Luang Prabang) for maybe two nights between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Now, I think we'll skip it altogether and fly instead, especially since we were discovering that nearly all of the semi-decent lodging is booked full for Chinese New Year.

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    You're welcome julies. While I loved the ballooning, it just wasn't enough to justify making the trip and being there for two days or more. I wish I'd known ahead of time, too. The version of LP that I have is going on four years old, and it shows.

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    Please, by now, after a simply horrible experienc that goes on and on and on, and further research turns out from ex-pats that this what they do to everyone-DO NOT FLY OR BOOK WITH ANGKOR AIR. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES FLY WITH THESE PEOPLE.
    I spent two entire days in the Siem Reap airport because they said ahahahahahaha that the airplane would leave at 2:25. The first day- they simply kept rescheduling. They LIED repeatedly, saying the airplane is being cleaned. Then you go back half an hour and they tell you it's being cleaned again. This is untenable bull phooey and as someone with more than a million miles in the air I know when I am being lied to. When I pushed for answers (and we had a huge crowd of angry passengers sweating in this tiny room for more than six hours)- we found out_ there was not plane, no crew, and nobody at the airport to take calls. Seriously folks? We finally got out at about 6:30. For some insane reason they had booked me to Pnom Penh for one night and flew me back early the next morning to the SAME AIRPORT by noon. Wouldn't you know it the plan was delayed....from 2:00 until nearly 7 pm.

    Okay you don't do this to a journalist. I started asking some very hard questions. Turns out this happens every single day. Every single day. They just keep cancelling flights and pushing people back one, two three days until they have enough people. Folks, that's you, and me, and everyone else, I paid more than $500 for their flights, wasted two full days, and between you and me and the lamppost, I am going to not only launch a social media campaign on their FB page but I am also going after them through my Barclay MasterCard to cancel ALL the charges.

    I hope I have warned you enough. This is a first class abuse of trust, abuse of our money, and after having talked to some of the ex-pats here who've been around, been burned and done their research they knowing all about it. They count on our ignorance. PASS THIS ON IN ALL OTHER FORUMS. PLEASE. They charge a fortune for their flights, heap a huge tax on top of it, and then you. DON"T. FLY until it's convenient for the airline.

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    Sihanoukville might once have been a nice jump off place to some cool islands. A few of those islands still exist, if you do your research well enough ahead of time, don't mind the lack of electricity or much fresh water, or mind knowing that your sewage goes directly into the ocean raw. That's what I found out from talking to folks locally, and from taking a one day trip out. We also, well, just followed the garbage. What else?

    I ended up at Backpacker Heaven, which in many ways was great. I landed in a four woman dorm, which can be hard to score. Seven bucks for a dimly lit but pleasantly air conditioned room, which was a nice change after two sweaty angry days dealing with the useless airline. I had time to sort out what next, found out about a local horse operation called Liberty Ranch, organized a day trip and climbed into my top bunk.

    Now there are top bunks and there are top bunks. There are those that provide you with hand holds, and those that don't. These didn't. Usually I don't mind a bit, but my bunk mate had a habit of sleeping close to where I put my foot on the bottom rung. Since I am an early riser (like at four am) and sometimes the urge will hit earlier I have to climb down as noiselessly as possible so as to not disturb her or my other three roommates. The first night when I attempted this in the dark, I missed the last two rungs entirely.

    Now I don't know about your feet, but I happen to have extremely high arches. Dancer's arches, my doctor calls them. Hard to buy certain boots because they are so high. This doesn't bode well for landing on hard tile without a warmup. Suffice it to say that the way I landed on my left foot, I tore a few things, which revealed themselves as a rather large, spreading blue map on my arch the next day. Ah well. The good news is that my hiking boots (also my riding boots this trip) are kitted out with custom orthotics which, although this isn't comfy, provide direct support on the bruise, and at least prevent it from stretching when I hike or walk. After that I stuck my toes in her nose, and the hell with it.

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    The day I went out to the island I ended up being picked up with Nunu, a Portuguese man with a charming personality. I had the good luck to share his company all day, and we talked at length about his travels.

    Our first stop was to snorkel. The water was warm, but the visibility very poor, and the coral brown. I saw a few scattered black and blue striped fish but nothing beyond that, which spoke also to the quality of the diving. That decided that question. We next stopped at a very sweet quiet beach with just a few bungalows, a few dogs and almost no people. But trash, brought in by the surf, embedded in the sand, and floating. Some in the sand, too.

    Nunu shared a story with me that I wish to pass along. Those of you who travel a great deal might appreciate this from your first hand observations. Those of you looking for some insight, kindly take this to heart. Nunu was visiting friends of his in Thailand around Chiang Mai. A young girl, a friend of this friend, saw Nunu and gave him no mind. Then he came back around with her friend and she saw him, with the emphasis on saw, as in recognized him as human. As he put it to Nunu, "all of you look alike to me. You walk and look, walk and look. You like past me and through me like I"m a zoo animal (she works in a market selling things). So you are all the same to me."

    This comment bears noticing. I cannot speak for anyone else but when I go to another country, I do my level best to find out how to greet people properly in their own language and with the most polite gesture. Sometimes I don't get it quite right but it's the effort, and where it's accepted, meeting people's eyes. I can't say enough how much of a difference this makes in how I"m received. Whether this is at an airline counter or a souvenir store or a bank, the extra few moments it takes to bow and make prayer hands is a huge statement of respect. In particular where I ride through villages and I am invading people's living space, to me it is essential to acknowledge that I am a visitor, and not "viewing" and taking photos of a museum display. People's reactions when I do this, especially to the elders, is remarkable. I know I"ve mentioned this before but because of Nunu's story I wished to share it again because of how the treatment affects those whom we visit, buy from and photograph.

    I simply wish to pass this along, because it got me in the heart, and reminded me once again that I have to make that commitment to respectful behavior at all times.

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    I will note here that I made very sure that I was polite with the airline folks up to the point where they were clearly not telling the truth. At that point, I was unhappy, and so was everyone else. Both days.

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    The third beach we went to was I believe Koh Rong, and it was very much a backpacker's drink and be loud beach. We were there about two hours, which was a waste of time. Nunu and I scored some ice cream and walked aimlessly up and down the boardwalk past loud music and expensive stores and more of same. Then we got to the village, a garbage filled fresh water source, theirs, and turned back to the boardwalk to go home. There is no environmental plan for these islands, and from what I was able to research, the interest in developing the islands with any kind of resort has been hampered by that very reason. The government doesn't have any plan or interest in a plan to protect the water, reef, fish or anything else. They want tourist dollars, but not to protect what would bring them here. It reminds me very much of the Galapagos, where the government allows far more tourists, boats, yachts and other vessels than they publicly state, and the pollution is killing the reefs, and the unwanted species are killing what makes the islands unique. It's not going to be long before the Galapagos are just a few rocks like any other. But you cannot argue with avarice.

    Liberty Stables is a small outfit which has some good horses. Unfortunately, while I had a good time riding with the manager's boyfriend Kevin, I didn't enjoy riding through slash and burn forests that have only recently been cleared for more villages (read:garbage). These forests are where the rides were most pleasant and cool, and their loss adds to the heat of the day. You can go for gallops on the beach. However, as you approach the beach, you are greeted by the great piles of garbage that the beach owners have their workers toss over the wall separating their beach property from the municipal property. The managers only move the junk from the sand as far as the wall. So beach goers have the pleasure of seeing and smelling the reeking piles of garbage en route to the newly raked beaches.

    The great fun of the day was getting back to the barns and waiting for my ride back. I had time to massage the animals, and in doing so a few of the youngsters decided I was play material. There are few things more fun that being the resident play toy for several mischievous horses just a few months old, and I was hugely entertained as were they, and that made my day.

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    I will mention one incident as a warning and a reminder to those of you coming to Sihanoukville and indeed to any SE Asia beaches. Please keep in mind as you read this, again, I am 63 years old, I never, ever leave any hotel without covering my arms and shoulders. While I am an athlete and I typically pass for about 40, the point is that I do NOT dress or behavior provocatively, never ever wear a bathing suit in public, and in Buddhist countries in particular respect the dress code.

    That being said. When my driver took me back to the hotel, he jumped out of the tuktuk and blocked my side, leaning way in, too close. He puts his hand high on my right thigh, asking what my plans were for the next day. I instantly tensed up, my face turned to stone and I said I was leaving and made to leave. He then puts the same hand on my right shoulder - mind you all this is quite unbidden and unwelcome-and I shove past him into the hostel. I am livid beyond livid.

    I get downstairs. Stop. Turn around and go back up. He's still there. I face him and in front of the receptionist crew I inform him slowly and with a fair amount of volume, YOU DO NOT TOUCH MY BODY. YOU MAY NOT TOUCH MY BODY. I AM NOT YOUR WIFE. I AM NOT YOUR GIRLFRIEND. YOU DO NOT TOUCH MY BODY. EVER.

    After that I went back upstairs about two hours later and explained to the receptionist crew what he had done. And I explained clearly that it had nothing to with white/Asian or class or status. It was man/woman boundaries. NO man touches ANY woman without her permission. PERIOD.

    The reason I'm sharing this is that on the way back to the hotel I saw a Western woman in a very skimpy black bikini in a tuk tuk talking to her driver, cigarette in hand. She was nearly spilling the goods out into his lap. You behave like that in a conservative Buddhist country, just what do you expect? We don't respect their culture, we don't respect their dress codes...So folks, if you're heading over there, this is NOT Miami Beach. This is NOT the Riviera. It is offensive to walk around in skimpy clothing. And it is an invitation for people to behave badly. And other people who do respect the culture pay the price.

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    What day was it that you were flying Angkor Air?

    On Jan. 28 we had an Angkor Air flight from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville. When we got to the airport (3 hours before our flight) we found a board that said "retime" for our flight. We had no clue what this meant. When we looked at the board there were many cancelled Angkor Air flights, so many that we wondered if they had gone out of business.

    So, we started to search around for an employee. None to be found anywhere. They supposedly have a large onsite office, but it was closed (for lunch we were told by other airport employees) the entire time we tried to locate an employee, any employee at all. Temps were way over 90 degrees, and we kept walking back and forth outside, dragging our suitcases, hoping to find an employee. I tried calling their phone number and got a message that said they couldn't take calls now. So, we were really starting to wonder if the company had gone bottom up. We had also signed up for their TripCase notification service. That never indicated anything but an on-time flight.

    Finally, the message on the board changed to say that our flight would be leaving two hours late, and some employees appeared. They decided to check all of us in, so after we went through security there was an entire room of hot, sweaty people with not nearly enough chairs for all. To their credit, Angkor Air did distribute meal vouchers to all passengers.

    When we arrived in Kampot (we had a taxi take us there from the Sihanoukville airport) and checked into our hotel, we were told this is a common occurrence. Nearly every flight from Siem Reap to Sihaoukvile is two hours late with no explanation given whatsoever.

    Today we had another fight with Angkor Air, but this one was international. We discovered that their website does not provide any updates at all as to whether departures are on time or late. In fact, there is no such place on their website for any kind of updates. Everything went well, and on a 1.25 hour flight we were even served a nice lunch salad with shrimp and beef.

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    Julies I honestly can't recall at this point- I think it was perhaps the 21st? Not sure, I'd have to find the paperwork.

    While we had to wait nearly six hours in the first case, we got no vouchers at all. The second day we got a voucher for a Coke. Or a juice. And waited four or five hours. Depending. I'd arrived close to one, left at close to 7.

    So no- I have no mercy at all for these clowns. None. And you're absolutley right- too many hot sweaty people, no plugs for our devices. It was damned hot outside.
    Two hours might have been a mercy compared to what I experienced. I have no issue with two- that's not a big deal when traveling internationally and far worse happens. But when we compare notes here- this is just bad business practices period. You cannot cancel move or otherwise protect yourself from them. You cannot reach anyone. In other words once they have your money you are screwed. And that, m'dear, doesn't go well with me.

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    The minivan to Pnom Penh was supposedly a four hour ride. Well, sort of. We did make a stop on the way, which afforded me a really nice opportunity to do something I've long wanted to do which is to do an offering to the monks. One doesn't know how or the proper way. This presented itself just perfectly at our rest stop when a group of four monks came up and stood waiting. A young girl agreed to help so I purchased four bowls of rice and sauce, and together we walked out front. I did precisely what she did, and got a blessing along with her. When I stood, the oldest monk gave me the most beatific smile one could imagine, and that really did wipe the slate clean of the annoyance of the handsy tuk tuk driver and a great deal more. So often it's easy to forget what power a smile- and nothing else- can have on someone else, in any culture between any two humans. That made my day and is one of the biggest highlights of my trip.

    When we entered Pnom Penh, we slowed to a one mile an hour crawl. Having Madre fine time to that point, it took the better part of two hours more to drop off our various passengers. I finally found Rory's Pub which is on St. 178 right across from the National Museum and centrally located. With a fridge, AC and a very nice staff, it was perfect.

    This final week was already pre planned and needed just a few more details: I was to visit the Wildlife Alliance, as recommended by an earlier poster, and I had found a riding stable very close by, Areyksat with Guillaume who guides all the rides. Their number, btw is 077 35 7774, As with the Wildlife Alliance which I will address shortly, both are wonderful nearby adventures and highly recommended.

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    Wildlife alliance was well worth the investment of time and energy, I'm very pleased to report. The outfit charges you $150 for the day, picks you up in Pnom Penh and supplies you with water and food during the day. The best part is the back door access to the animals.

    You are allowed to interact directly with certain of the animals, in this case several ellies who appreciated the attention (especially those soft brushes on the face and head), and of course one particular gibbon who loves a back massage. I was paired with two young men from London who were happier to watch rather than touch and interact until we got to the monkey cage.

    The monkeys have virtually all been saved from the illegal pet trade (WA swoops in on these operations and confiscates their animals) and they are often quite young. They are rehabilitated and returned to the wild, as are most of their animals but for the cross bred tigers which cannot be allowed to run free. This is an interesting item, as those who are breeding for money simply want a tiger, any tiger. What was at WA were several which were crosses between Siberian and Asian. We were told that this particular kind of cross results in an animal whose physiology has been compromised, in such a way that it can't run properly, hence hunt. If these animals breed in the wild, it would compromise the already very delicate future of the few that are left in SE Asia.

    We were able to feed many of the animals, and as is my wont I was able to play with one female ellie whose tendency to be a little enthusiastic meant that our interactions had to be through the fence.

    The money goes towards supporting WA's efforts to continue to fight the illegal pet trade. Keep in mind too that in the culture of SE Asia, many believe that to eat a part of an animal is to ingest its spirit,which is why the Asian black bear and tiger as well as the macacque are under siege. All were at WA, it was the first time I'd seen the bears. This is well worth the visit and the investment. From all accounts that I could see and from what I learned during the day, it's an uphill battle, and one that I'm afraid isn't going to be won. One tiger draws $200k, and that's one heck of a motivation for a villager to bag one of the last remaining. If you are in the area, this visit should be on the agenda. A really good day.

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    The final two outings I took by horseback were with Guillaume, mentioned earlier. He showed up by tuk tuk at Rory's Pub in the very early dawn (long after some very sleepy drivers tried hard to get my business) and we were off to his very lively house to get our horses.

    Guillaume is married to a Cambodian, has kids, an extended family and two simply enormous Great Danes. The male has a bit of mastiff in him but the female is still a puppy and enough to saddle up and ride. Both were lovely animals and great fun to pet, albeit I paid the price with the puppy when she repeatedly knocked me down and I ended up sporting some significant bruises.

    Guillaume's riding territory, for once, didn't take us past high stinking piles of garbage. We rode through mango orchards and lemon grass plantations, and as the bright blue-red dawn rose in the east it was a joy to be astride a lively young mare and looking with pleasure at the country side. He charged about $60 for three hours and he puts a lot of time into ensuring that inexperienced riders get lots of attention. It was a genuine delight riding with him and exploring the land across the river from the city which was a far cry from the city itself.

    For those who love to ride, and who want a variety of horses to choose from, Guillaume had a good range for children to advanced. What I liked best other than the riding itself, which was varied and energetic, was his constant patter. His background as a professional rider and trainer is really engaging, and made the ride great fun.

    I booked another day with him right away, and stayed on for another hour playing with his huge dogs. It was a wonderful way to round out the trip.

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    I wanted to share with you a story that happened regarding Green Discoveries after I came back home. I had written them directly with my comments about their trip, and had posted a very clear and not very good review on Trip Advisor as well as my comments here. I received a rather long emal from a German man who heads up one of their departments and I wish to share what he asked.

    While he acknowledged that I had a right to my experiences (glad to hear it) he challenged me about whether it was far by saying that virtually everyone else liked the tour or that they got favorable reviews. He also said that I'd "chosen" a soft tour (actually I'd spoken to a local girl and she put me on it, I didn't choose it). In effect, he argued that I should change my review and my comments to be more positive.

    He also claimed that Green Discoveries had "no control" over tourist behavior, such as the insane Koreans who blasted our group.

    The intriguing part of this is that the product that they are selling has changed. The fact that the guides don't do a safety briefing on what to do if your kayak flips wasn't addressed at all. The writeup says that you will have an idyllic trip down the river- well, that's not the case any more, as I found out. The bottom line for me is that if GD can't promise a quiet and idyllic trip down the river in some safety, then they can't advertise it.

    I also pointed out that it most certainly is within the company's control to do something about the dangers on the river. By working with other operators, establishing AND ENFORCING safety standards and getting rid of guides who don't abide by them, they can clean up the river. It will take work, but one death will be the end of it. To say that they can't do anything is a copout,and it leaves the choice up to the traveler to trust them. I don't, and I don't think anyone else should either.

    There is no way I am going to change a review that duns a company for problems that put travelers in danger on one hand, and on the other, what they promise they can no longer offer. Vang Vieng is still a party town. They have to clean that up first.

    It is also a little breathtaking to ask me to change my review because others didn't feel like I did. On the contrary. Very few really angry customers take the time either to write a review (perpetual complainers will) or to directly complain to a company. A complaint is a genuine gift in that is a big red flag. You can either learn from it or in his case, try to get someone to change their story to make your ratings look better. The latter is out of the question. I believe strongly that GD needs to do something about providing safety training, and about the other companies in the area who stand to lose a great deal when people get hurt on the river. You CAN do something. Otherwise tourists do get hurt.

    While those reading this may go on to use Green Discoveries in Vang Vieng despite my warnings, I hope sincerely that they are mature enough to take it to heart and take action. In the meantime I would steer clear and go elsewhere to see Laos' countryside.

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    On Road 178 which is very close to the National Museum, I found quite a few truly lovely shops. With patience and time, I was able to secure slightly more reasonable prices for a few treasures to load down my backpack, which Kathie will acknowledge. One small out of the way shop has the typical selection of king's heads and the like, but on a bottom shelf hid a bronze Chinese horse. It was hollow enough to not need a set of wheels of its own and it had the patina of age. It took three visits and three offers but we came to a single mind on the price. It now sits on my mantel next to the rest of my horses.

    Near the river on the same street were a number of shops that specialized in a variety of bags, shawls, the typical tourist stuff. However in a couple there were programs which stated that the proceeds went to villagers and women in need. These shops had prices which were fairly high (by SE Asian standards, and then some). The goods were nice and assuming that the money actually went where it is intended they were worthwhile. They are well established shops, and I like that the women made their own goods.

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    Finally, the trip home- a flight to Taiwan, then to Bangkok, then to Narita (hey that's what you get with miles) was a 38 hour no sleep fest. I rested in United Club, watched the Super Bowl score and did my best to sleep.

    Today I am disputing Cambodia Angkor Air's charges for the flights they didn't cancel, and am taking them to task for abusing their passengers. I hope everyone got the message: rent a car or take the bus. These guys are bad operators. They overcharge and make you wait, there is no way to change or cancel your reservations on line, and once you've paid, you're stuck. No one responds if you aren't happy or need to change something.

    Ultimately as I look back on these two countries, part of me is glad I saw Cambodia, but I see no reason to return. Ever. I was so disheartened by the omnipresent trash, the state of the villages, that I wouldn't dream of going again and spending the rising prices to go walk on garbage strewn beaches. Laos, yes. Anywhere else in SE Asia, yes, but not Cambodia. It's a shame.

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    jhubbel - I recommended you to visit the Wildlife Alliance Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center and I am so happy to hear that you enjoyed your time there! The WA team is truly passionate about what they do!

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    ngodeia, I was most grateful for that recommendation, and was delighted by that visit. It was a day very well spent and I wrote several reviews about it in the hopes of getting more folks to do the same.

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