OUR SEASIA Odyssey

Old Apr 6th, 2012, 11:02 AM
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And so the memories continue. We, too, can NOT believe the number of people who return to Siem Reap again and again. (Different strokes for different folks).

Suwan.........Viroth's.......it doesn't get better than that.

Our stay on the east side of the river at the Atanue was terrific. yes, we would stay there again.

Thanks so much for the detail. Amazingly, I don't recall all the temples YOU went to and we were there 5 days.
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 01:18 PM
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Nice report so far. You really packed in the sights in Siem Reap! We liked it a lot, but we had 7 days there and took a relaxed approach to seeing the temples and other things you can do in the area. Next time you'll have to visit other parts of Cambodia--Battambang, Kep, Kampot, and Phnom Penh were all worthwhile, and we hope to return someday soon to see other places. Love that country.

Interested in your Laos report--that's also on our to-do list.
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 02:00 PM
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I first visited SR in 2002, and went back in 2004 because two and a half days hadn't been long enough for the temples. BUT, I didn't think SR itself "charming" even in 2002, I certainly can't imagine that it's charming now! I was lucky enough to see the temples with bearable crowds - in fact when I first visited the Bayon, for instance, it was practically deserted - I loved them, but I doubt I'll be back.

I do think trying to see the temples in two days is a recipe for overload, and SR is an ideal place for a siesta.
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 05:43 PM
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I really appreciate your TR it will help us on our soon to be trip in June. I hope the crowds are down in Siem Reap that time of year, it is considered low season.
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Old Apr 7th, 2012, 08:18 AM
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The only really big crowds we encountered at the temples last year (in March) were at Angkor Wat and at Phnom Bakheng. Of course, you can't skip the former, but the latter I definitely would recommend skipping - everyone treks up a very long hill to sit on temple ruins to see the sunset. First, I've seen better sunsets driving home from work, but more importantly, I think every tourist in SR was there that day!

But, at Angkor Thom that afternoon, at Bantaey Srei the next noontime, at Kbaal Spean the next morning, and at Beng Melea in the late afternoon, we hardly encountered any other tourists. Admittedly, except for the aforesaid sunset, we didn't go at particular times of day for sunrise, sunset, or light for photos - we just went when the going was good!

As for Siem Reap itself, we really enjoyed it for what it was - the newer parts were a dusty big unattractive hodgepodge of day-to-day living, and the old town a lively little town full of bars, restaurants and people (not to mention souvenirs). I definitely agree that it isn't quaint or charming, although walking along the river is very lovely and peaceful and we did that from our hotel to old town a couple of times a day. We had a good time there, though, met some very interesting people, had some good food, too (although we both prefer Vietnamese food to Cambodian).
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Old Apr 7th, 2012, 09:49 AM
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We had a hard time figuring out how much time to spend in SR. We didn't want to spend time in between visiting the ruins with time at the pool and the town and area didn't sound real appealing to us. Also knew that days and days of visiting ruins was not for me. We started out planning 5-6 days there, but the more I read, the more I knew that wouldn't work. I agree we tried to see way too much in too short a time, but for us not sure staying longer would have enhanced our visit.

We had the least crowds at AW -- we hit it there around the lunch/early afternoon time when we understand many people head back to their hotels to avoid the hot mid day. I think Angkor Thom which we visited before lunch may have been the most crowded of everywhere. In SR agree that walking along the river was nice -- probably the nicest part of the town I thought.

In Laos we only went to Luang Prabang, but wish we had seen more. Its amazing with 9 weeks there was so much we wanted to c and couldn't fit in.
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Old Apr 7th, 2012, 10:35 AM
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I can't recall imagine anyone saying the town of SR is charming. The temples are impressive, the countryside (during rice season) is beautiful, there are some amazing places to eat, and lots of fun things to do besides seeing the temples. I love Siem Reap, but I'd say it is the Cambodian people that are charming.
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Old Apr 7th, 2012, 10:57 AM
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I'm enjoying your report. Thanks.
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Old Apr 10th, 2012, 04:40 PM
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<b>Down by the River: Luang Prabang</b>

Shortly after take-off in Siem Reap, our Lao flight attendants distributed a tiny box lunch – a pork roll and some discolored apple slices. What seemed like five minutes later, they began collecting the boxes as we began our descent into Pakse, over the Laos border. We landed, deboarded and were pointed towards a grim transit lounge. Our luggage stayed on the plane. We found ourselves in a sterile room filled with metal chairs and a corner devoted to an unstaffed silk weaving shop that contained marvelous weavings with price tags that seemed to have too many trailing zeroes for comprehension. After about 15 minutes, without any announcement, we – as well as a handful of additional passengers from other flights - were walked back to the plane. I had to yell into the women’s room to ensure that YT made the flight. After re-boarding our flight was one third – as opposed to one quarter - full. We promptly took off. Once airborne, our flight attendants distributed another box lunch, this one with two buns and a muffin. I had a window seat and watched as the landscape slowly became hilly. In a little over an hour we landed in Luang Prabang - half an hour ahead of our scheduled arrival. Back in the U.S., we had completed and printed the on-line form for Visa on Arrival. This put us at the head of the line as our fellow passengers completed their forms in the arrival lounge. We were charged $35 per person + $1 per person administration fee, payable in U$D. The immigration officials gave us an unsmiling welcome and made multiple stamps and written notations in our passports. Once we’d been cleared, I used my ATM card to withdraw 300,000 kip from an airport ATM – it seemed like a lot but it was an absurdly low amount given the 8,000 kip to 1U$D exchange rate. (BTW, contrary to what I read on a travel board, there is no 6,000 kip note – there is a 2,000 kip note and 2,000 looks like 6,000 in Lao script.)

Outside, the van from our hotel, the Apsara, was waiting. From here on out, Laos was to be all smiles; we never saw another grim official. (Someone had joked that the “PDR” in “Lao PDR” stood not for “People’s Democratic Republic” but “people don’t rush.”) We were quickly taken to our hotel in the old part of Luang Prabang and checked in. The Apsara was a gem: A lobby-restaurant filled with good modern art, Asian lighting, and a 1940s jazz and swing soundtrack – a wonderful east-meets-west lounge ambiance. Our room was on the second floor, large with an enormous bathtub, a great shower, a comfortable bed with fabulous sheets and a great view of the Nam Khan River down the embankment on the other side of the street. However – a minor complaint – we had to go out in the hallway to get a wifi signal. Overall, it was a vast improvement over the well intentioned but uncomfortable Kool Hotel.

After we had dropped our luggage in our room, we took a stroll through our new neighborhood in old Luang Prabang. We were immediately charmed and enchanted. The surrounding area iseemed to reflect an older Asia that had vanished due to over-population, war and development: Asian and French colonial houses, glorious wats, mysterious stepped alleyways, lanterns strung in riverfront restaurants, relatively few people other than the odd group of Western tourists or Buddhist monks. It was fine with us. We could use the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere after frenetic Bangkok and our rushed temple-hopping in Cambodia. We ate dinner in our hotel restaurant – stir-fried chicken with cashews and pineapple with a jar of chili jam on the side, and “ohm saht” chicken in broth with unidentified “green leaves” and dill. Both dishes were pretty tasty.

The next morning, we awoke early, eager to further explore Luang Prabang. The Apsara breakfast was good: Fruit, bread and a delicious “masala” omelette made with tomatoes, onions, mild chilies and vaguely Indian spices. Then we set off, a large bundle of dirty laundry tucked under my arm until we found a laundry place – which we promptly did. They charged all of 10,000 kip per kilo – about $.60 per pound – to wash and sun-dry clothing. Our morning meanderings then took us down Sakkaline Road to the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. There we followed a little trail to a rickety narrow bamboo footbridge that spanned the Nam Khan. We paid the 5000 kip toll - $1.25 for the two of us – and took the bridge to the far shore and followed a sign directing us to a Hmong weaving village 600 meters down the trail. We soon found ourselves going from show room to atelier to show room – all of them either making or displaying incredibly beautiful and intricate silk scarves, runners, hangings, pillow slips and other items in an array of colors and patterns. All of it was head and shoulders in quality above the silks we’d seen in Cambodia and Bangkok. We were particularly taken by a workshop/showroom called “Patta Textile Gallery,” which produced particularly exquisite (and modernist-influenced) designs.

We bought some scarves and some artisan paper bound in a journal with Lao script embossed on the covers. At this point we had exhausted both our limited supply of kip as well as those few dollars we had brought with us, a situation not helped by our habit of popping into every silk, clothing and craft shop we passed. Funds exhausted, we reluctantly bade farewell to the village and headed back to the river, the frail bridge and Luang Prabang. We were looking for an ATM.

This proved to be quite the quest. We walked down Sakkaline Road until it turned into Sisavanvong Road. No ATM. We continued down Sisavanvong Road past the National Palace. An ATM at last – but out of service! We continued through the night market area and finally found a functional ATM on the far side. We both became instant Lao millionaires as we pulled out 2,000,000 kip – about U$D 250 – using two separate ATM cards.

We were hungry by now – it was early afternoon. Based on a recommendation we’d read, we set out to find a café called Morning Glory. We retraced our steps back up Sisavanvong Road (which we’d renamed “Sis-boom-ba”) to Sakkaline Road. We’d almost returned to our starting point when we ran across Morning Glory. Lunch was good – Chicken-pineapple-cashew fried rice and a tasty fruit smoothie. Then, based on a friend’s recommendation, we sought out Café Saffron on Ounkham Road on the Mekong River side of town for iced coffees and pastries. The coffees were very good, as was one of the pastries. The other pastry tasted healthy. We returned to our room to rest up.

Later, we left our room to attempt to climb Phou Si Hill for the sunset. Phou Si Hill is about 400 steps up from the road facing the Nam Khan River and a mere 328 steps if one ascends from the Sisavanvong Road side. Of course we started from the Nam Khan side (it was closer to the Hotel Apsara). We made it about two-thirds of the way up before calling it quits. The overcast gray skies promised little in the way of a sunset and we found the steep climb tiring.

Dinner that second night was at the 3 Nagas restaurant. We read about this restaurant and its “ambitious” take on Lao cuisine in Food and Wine magazine. There’s actually two 3 Nagas restaurants – presumably making six nagas altogether – on either side of Sisavanvong Road. One specialized in Lao-influenced Western food, the other in contemporary Lao food. We opted for the more purist take on Lao cuisine.

We started with “khaiphaen seune,” riverine seaweed toasted until crisp, sprinkled with sesame seeds and accompanied with a chunky, spicy pepper jam. This dish has been billed as the Lao equivalent of chips and salsa, but the comparison is more metaphor than actuality. The seaweed “chip” is crisp and light, the sesame seeds add a nice nuttiness and the pepper jam is both sweet and hot. The overall dish is delicious, if a bit hard to describe. Our entrees were “laaps pedd” and “khanab paa.” Laaps pedd resembles Thai larb without the chilies – minced meat with a lime, cilantro and mint. Tasty, particularly with the addition of chilies created by dicing the attendant ornamental pepper and stirring it into the mix. Khanab paa is grilled river fish stuffed with minced pork and encased in pastry dough that was then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. Presentation wise, it was the culinary equivalent of a souvenir Russian doll. Taste wise, it was less spectacular - the fish was so mild as to be tasteless and the dish as a whole was very dry. We also ordered Lao sticky rice and “jaew het,” sautéed wild mushrooms with herbs. The sticky rice was of the purple variety, but was gummy and tasteless. The mushrooms were great; we used them to add some moisture to the fish. We accompanied the meal with bottled water and a beer called Lao Dark – a delicious discovery and the best beer I was to have in nine weeks in Southeast Asia.

We decided to skip dessert at 3 Nagas and opted instead for French pastries at Le Café Ban Vat Sene down the block on Sakkaline Road. We had a fabulous lemon tart and a so-so pumpkin tart. We discovered, to our chagrin, that we’d ordered our pastries a mere ten minutes before 9:00 p.m., when all remaining pastries are discounted 50%. Live and learn. Whenever we returned to Café Ban Vat Sene afterwards, it was after the 9:00 p.m. pastry witching hour. After dinner, we wandered around a bit, going down to the Night Market on the other side of the National Museum. We discovered that the ethnicities had changed. By day, most of the vendors were Hmong, selling cotton quilts and mola-style appliqué and embroidery. By night, it was other Lao peoples selling t-shirts, as well as silk weavings, silver work and wooden crafts. Night and day in Luang Prabang, I guess.

The next morning we had a repeat breakfast at Apsara – two masala omelettes, please. We spent much of the morning and early afternoon wandering the temples and the silk shops of Luang Prabang. YT had an 11:00 a.m. massage – reportedly fabulous – at Spa Garden. We had lunch at a nameless Lao restautrant near the Spa Garden – stir-fried vegetables and minced fish with Lao herbs (watercress, cilantro and mint, I think). Both were good. The fish was like a Lao version of ceviche. We toured the National Museum, which is not so much a museum as the little-altered palace of the last Lao king (deposed in the 1975 Pathet Lao take over of Laos). There was nothing in the way of communist propaganda as I’d anticipated; it was a straightforward presentation of the king’s living circumstances. The place was somewhat opulent, but not particularly large and certainly not excessive by Western mega-mansion standards. After our tour, we repeated our ATM quest.

Then we started wandering back towards our hotel – a process accelerated by the onset of afternoon rain. We’d planned to go back to the National Museum around 5:30 to see a presentation of Lao traditional dancing in a hall on the grounds. The increasingly heavy rains precluded our planned cultural foray.

We’d scheduled an 8:00 p.m. dinner next door at the Tamarind Restaurant. We had:
1) the dipping platter (riverine weed chips and four different dips - eggplant, chili jam, tomato jam and mixture of tomatoes and herbs);
2) the five bites platter (buffalo jerky, Luang Prabang sausage, and greens); and
3) lemongrass stems stuffed with chicken.
Items 1) and 3) were fantastic; item 2) was just OK. We also so had lao lao granitas, one lime and lemongrass, the other honey and ginger. Both were wonderful. I would highly recommend this restaurant, if only for the granitas.

The next day was Sunday. We again had masala omelets for breakfast. Then we wandered through the produce market photographing fruits and vegetables – some were identifiable to us and some were not. Afterwards we wandered to the sandwich area near the night market. We bought a “Lao baguette” for 15,000 kip. This marvelous sandwich contained a mixture of mayonnaise, red pepper spread, chicken, tomatoes, caramelized shallots, cucumber, long thin mushrooms and was topped with a generous amount of peppery sweet sauce. It was like a Lao version of Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, except larger. (Whatever one’s feelings about colonialism, I want to take this opportunity to thank the French for introducing baguettes to Indochina.)

The Lao baguette was to be our picnic lunch. We had bought tickets to the 11:30 excursion by mini-van to the Kwang Si falls, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Luang Prabang. We walked to the tour office and hopped into a waiting mini-van. It proceeded to several hotels to assemble our multi-national company: three Swiss, one Irishman, two pot-bellied Frenchmen, 3 Japanese and a truly delightful Thai woman. We learned that the Thai and Lao languages are mutually (somewhat) comprehensible; she spent much of the ride talking to the Lao driver and then translating to us. We drove through some gorgeous green countryside and arrived at the falls around 12:30. Our jaws dropped as we pulled into a car park that had at least forty vans and several full-size buses. The perimeter was a half circle of grilled food stalls and souvenir stands selling everything from t-shirts to crafts to home-made bamboo bongs (used for tobacco in SE Asia). We bought our admission tickets – about 5,000 kip apiece – and started up the trail to the falls. Since it was a Sunday, the park was crowded not only with tourists, but also large multi-generational Lao families. They gathered en masse at picnic tables and the women began an assembly line production of picnic food. The men drank beer, smoked, observed the proceedings and chatted. The huge mounds of lettuce, herbs and other comestibles were soon converted to a picnic lunch. Lao children ran underfoot as the adults ate and drank. Bottom line: If you want the falls relatively unpopulated go on a weekday. If you want to see the falls accompanied with a glimpse into Lao family life, go on a Sunday.

The falls started with a series of low falls and pools at the bottom. After ascending, there were some photogenic waterfalls at the top – maybe twenty or thirty meters in height. We stopped at a picnic table to consume our Lao baguette…a little soggy but sublime. Then we climbed the path to the very top of the falls. As we neared the top, this involved scampering up some vaguely defined steps carved into the hill, ducking under fallen trees and holding on to the occasional bamboo railing. Not for the faint of heart or out of shape, particularly since the dirt path was slippery from the recent rain.

After we explored the falls we slowly made our way down. Below, in the pools, tourists stripped down to enormous baggy trunks and skimpy bikinis, much to the evident bemusement of the Lao families, who remained fully dressed. (Signs were prominently posted with words and depictions indicating no bare shoulders or bikinis.) After some time observing the scene, we headed down to the car park. The time allotted for the falls had been over-generous. We weren’t due to start back for another ninety minutes. We wandered slowly through the craft and food stands and eventually seated ourselves at a food stand. I had a beer. We waited. Then we wandered through the stands again. We found a member of our party – the Irishman – and chatted a bit, then wandered some more. After some time we found our van (although not the driver). It was identical to a dozen others and was identifiable only by the license tag, which we’d memorized. (We should have just photographed it.) Our group slowly assembled. The two Frenchmen showed up half in the bag and carrying a large bottle of Lao beer apiece. The driver arrived and soon we were on our way.

We thought that we were headed back to Luang Prabang. However, the mini-van operating company was “under contract” to visit a Hmong “weaving village.” And visit we did: A roadside stop and a looping concrete walk through groups of small children begging us to buy wrist bands and cloth dolls. This Potemkin children’s village was the one of the few sad things we saw in our stay in Laos. And I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders as one of the Frenchmen loudly proclaimed “un cadeau” as he deposited an empty Lao beer bottle on someone’s doorstep.

We arrived back in Luang Prabang around 5:00 p.m. The mini-van dropped us on the far side of the night market and we had to make our way across town to our hotels.

Despite feeling a bit templed out from Bangkok, we managed to check out many of the wats in Luang Prabang including Wat Sene, constructed in Thai style with a yellow and red roof and Wat Nong with its three-tier roof, tiled orange, much like the temples in Bangkok. The roof ornamentation is in the form of parasols ascending to the top. The roof eaves are in the form of descending nagas, something we’d see often in Thailand. One afternoon as YT’s massage at Spa Garden was ending, she heard loud, rhythmic sounds from the gongs at the nearby temple – while we frequently heard sounds of the gongs throughout town, never had it been so rhythmic or continued for so long. She asked the man at the spa what was going on and he consulted a calendar and said it was a Buddhist holiday. YT took off following the sound of the gongs and ended up watching 6-7 young monks jamming on multiple gongs. One excited young monk got so into it that his saffron robe began to fall off his shoulder.

Dinner that night was at L’elephant, a Lao-French Restaurant a block or two from the Apsara. We were so hungry – we hadn’t eaten since our baguette picnic lunch – that we arrived half an hour before our 7:30 reservation. YT selected from the French side of the menu, I from the Lao. Her choice was duck in mock plum sauce with dauphine potatoes. Good, not great. I had larp gai bamboo shoots stuffed w/ minced pork. Both were very good – the bamboo shoots in particular were excellent. YT had her first glass of wine this vacation – a delicious sangiovese. I had a Lao beer, dark, of course. Dessert was memorable only because YT returned it, not caring for the microwaved tart tatin. I tried a small glass of lao lao, a distilled rice liqueur somewhat reminiscent of low alcohol acquavite. Then back to our room for reading and updating travel notes. We paused in the lobby long enough to pay our bill in cash…bundles and bundles of Lao banknotes with oodles of zeroes.

The next day was to be our last in Luang Prabang. We had our final masala omelets and wandered the streets and temples one last time. We took the little ferry from the Apsara across the Nam Khan to the other side of Luang Prabang and wondered the neighborhood. This part of Luang Prabang seemed less touristy. After meandering the streets and watching the incredible traffic, we crossed back by the bamboo bridge that connected the two sides of the river. We enjoyed another Lao sandwich (this time vegetarian) at the food stalls near the night market. We wandered to Saffron for iced lattes. We went again to Tamarind for some of their fabulous granitas (lime/lemongrass and honey/ginger, again). Dinner was at Tamnak Lao with fellow Fodorites mr_go and ms_go and their daughter. Delightful company and a fabulous meal…larp moo and pork stuffed banana leaves and big bottle of Lao beer. (Contrary to expectations, “moo” in both Thailand and Laos is pork, not beef.) Then to bed. We had an early departure for our journey up the Mekong ahead of us
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Old Apr 13th, 2012, 02:11 PM
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No comments after three days, hmmm. Should we continue?
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Old Apr 13th, 2012, 03:12 PM
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Yes, please continue. I am following your well written TR with great interest.
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Old Apr 13th, 2012, 03:24 PM
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Yes please. I have no questions or reasons to correct you, so am quietly enjoying this!
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Old Apr 13th, 2012, 03:56 PM
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Yes, please. Have nothing to contribute at this point, but am reading!
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Old Apr 13th, 2012, 05:33 PM
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Absolutely continue. We've all been there - writing and wondering if anyone is reading. I think there's mote people lurking out there than you realize.
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Old Apr 13th, 2012, 08:04 PM
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I am following you as well so please continue!
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Old Apr 14th, 2012, 02:19 AM
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I am still reading avidly. Keep going with your great and detailed descriptions, particularly the food which is making me want to return to Lao!

Shame about kuangsi falls. Why tourists cannot respect the local customs and sensibilitiesI just dont know.

Last time we were in LP we stayed at both the 3 Nagas and The Apsara and enjoyed both but looking at the rates now the 3 Nagas' rates have rocketed - has the place hasd a major refit or something?
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Old Apr 14th, 2012, 05:33 AM
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Thanks for the reassurance -- it can get lonely out there in cyberspace...

@crellston - yes, i agree. I am always amazed when people are disrespectful of another's culture. Sometimes we may not be aware of a nuance related to a culture, but in Laos signs were posted regularly so it would be hard to plead ignorance of the need to dress modestly.
LP was rather pricey relative to other places we visited. 3 Nagas has gotten a fair amount of press perhaps that has allowed them to raise rates. Have no basis for comparison and didn't see the rooms there, but the public space was very nice...nothing luxurious, but nice.
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Old Apr 15th, 2012, 09:44 PM
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yes, keep it up - I am curious to see what you think of my adopted country.
Some comments:
Tamnak Lao serves good, authentic Lao food; Tamarind does not as the food is dumbed down for western palates. This does not matter if you like this sort of thing, of course, but authentic it is not.
Le Elephant used to be one of the best western restaurants in this part of the region. My last visit there saw a decline in quality; their wine list is still very good, however. If you are heading to Vientiane, I suggest you try Amphone.
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Old Apr 16th, 2012, 02:38 PM
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<b>Rolling on the River: Mekong Cruise</b>

Our boat was leaving early. We arose at 5:30 and rolled our suitcases out of the Apsara around 6:00. As fortune would have it, we only needed to go three short blocks on Sisaleumsack Road, which took us from the Nam Khan side of Luang Prabang directly to our pier on the Mekong side. We hung out briefly at Sakkarine Road to watch alms-givers gather and then the beginning of the dawn procession of mendicant monks. (Contrary to what I’ve read, the majority of the alms givers – at least at the intersection of Sakkarine and Sisaleuksak roads – seemed to be Lao people, not tourists.) The monks passed the row of kneeling alms-givers, who dropped small portions of food in their bowls. We took advantage of a break in the flow of monks to continue on our way to the dock where our Luang Say Cruise boat awaited. We rolled down the foggy street and soon arrived at the long narrow boat. This had to be the easiest connection of our trip!

We’d booked the Luang Say Mekong River cruise back in the U.S. This was a two day trip up the river to Houei Say, Laos. From there, we would cross the river to Chiang Khong, Thailand and begin a twelve day odyssey through northern Thailand. We’d divided our belongings so that we had what amounted to an overnight carry-on with items we’d need on the trip; our two suitcases, containing everything else, were stowed away by the crew. We helped ourselves to some coffee and mini-pastries. The boat pushed off promptly at 7:00 a.m. It was a very chilly 6 degrees C (in the low 40s F) in the foggy morning and the crew distributed Vientiane “ponchos” – black embroidered shawl-like garments – to the passengers. At the suggestion of Kee Lee, the tour director, YT and I eventually relocated to the back of the boat, where the crew quarters/kitchen/bathroom structure sheltered us from the worst of the cold. Nonetheless, YT dressed herself with everything she had brought - two layers of slacks, silk long underwear, two t-shirts, a fleece jacket, gloves and two scarves – in addition to which she layered on three of the Vientiane ponchos.

<i>YT note- instructions from the boat had requested that people not take their full suitcase to the hotel for the overnight. I packed a few items in a small canvas bag. This was probably one of the few times in my life I followed instructions to a “T.” Many of my heavier clothes were safely tucked away in my 20” roll aboard and inaccessible once the boat took off. Big mistake as I am a cold weather wimp.</i>

It was the very end of the dry season and the river was running very low. Even so, water levels were higher than they had been in the past few weeks. The Chinese had released water from the dams to aid the water flow. Despite the low water level, it was still tough going against the current in these murky brown waters that had originated on the Tibetan plateau. The shore alternated between rocks and sandbanks; some of the latter were planted with peanuts. A line of jungle started about 15 or 20 feet above the current water level and well back from the current shoreline – an indication of the height and breadth of the river in its rainy season flood stage. By about 10:00 or 10:30 in the morning, the fog burned off and we spent the next five hours removing first one and then another article of clothing. By mid-afternoon I was down to a t-shirt and shorts.

The river was nothing like the Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory fever dream in “Apocalypse Now.” The first bucolic day of our upstream journey took us between low green hills and past the occasional Lao village. There was a fair amount of boat traffic: Other long boats like ours, the occasional speedboat, large wider boats with two-story poop decks, lines of drying laundry and fronts devoted to open-air cargo space. Mid-morning, we stopped at the Pak Ou caves. We disembarked and took a flight of stairs up to a cave filled with hundreds of Buddha statues in various sizes, stances and states of repair. I found it underwhelming; other passengers found it delightful. YT was too cold to even get off the boat!

Lunch was cooked on board and comprised three of four nice Lao dishes and rice. After lunch, we stopped at the village of Ban Bo, an ethnic weaving village with an interesting temple with depictions of what appeared to be a truly hellish afterlife that would not have been out of place had they been in a medieval Catholic church. After brief negotiation, we bought a beautiful silk scarf from a weaver for 80,000 kip - about 10 U$D. Between this and the scarves we’d purchased in Cambodia and Luang Prabang, I think we now owned more silk scarves than Keith Richards. Admittedly, most of ours were destined to be gifts.

We spent that night under mosquito netting at the Luang Say Lodge, a beautiful complex on the banks of the Mekong. We’d arrived at dusk – and a gorgeous sunset on the Mekong – and had been given the key to our stand-alone bungalow. We were warned to keep the lights off and a mosquito repellent device plugged in once we left the room for dinner. Dinner was proceeded by a “traditional dance” and music ceremony that featured the three major Laotian ethnic groups – lowland Lao, mid-mountain Lao and mountain Lao (Hmong). The whole affair had the contrived and artificial feeling of a Soviet-era “friendship among peoples” fest. I sat in the back and had two “Mekong Explorers” from the bar. They were something like a margarita made with lao lao, a local rice liqueur. By the time I’d finished the second, I was indeed feeling friendly toward all peoples. Dinner was a buffet of Lao dishes and was, by buffet standards, excellent. Our fellow explorers were all Europeans, a mixture of French, German and Swiss. Returning to our room, we discovered that the staff had turned down our bed. Here, turning down the bed consisted of lowering the mosquito netting!

We had a 6:00 a.m. wake-up call, a hasty breakfast and were back on the river by 7:00 a.m. While the river the first day had slipped between sparsely-populated hills, here it became more populous and less mountainous. We had lunch at 11:30 – another shipboard-prepared Lao feast. After lunch, around 12:30, we stopped at the Hmong (aka “Mountain Lao”) village of Houei Lam Pan. It was poorest and saddest place I have been in my life. It was almost devoid of men, most of whom were out working. Women and children tried to sell embroidered bracelets. Pigs, dogs and chickens ran under-foot. It was depressing - nothing we did or said (or bought) could make any improvement in these people’s lives. Our boat guides took some of us inside the people’s houses; I felt somewhat uncomfortable doing this (a feeling that was to recur throughout the trip) and made a prompt return to the boat..

At some point later in the afternoon, we entered the section of the river that defined the border between Laos and Thailand. It immediately became apparent that the Thailand side (the bank on the left side going upriver) was far more developed than the Lao side: Here there were large houses, roads, well-tended fields. I’m surprised that the folks on the Lao side had not decamped en masse across the river.
We finally arrived at Houei Sai late afternoon, retrieved our suitcases from the hold, cleared Lao immigration promptly and piled into a six-seat pirogue to be ferried across the river to the bright lights and big city of Chiang Khong. Thai immigration was a lengthy business. We were halfway back in a crowd that slowly congealed into a line that then seemed to only inch forward. We finally made it after waiting the better part of an hour. We had anticipated an availability of ground transportation – tuk-tuks, cars, mini-vans – that could ferry us to our hotel, the Chiang Khong Teak Garden. We had anticipated wrong. There were a some mini-vans to distant Chiang Mai as well as a few sign-wielding representatives from various hotels for people on guided tours, but no other transportation. Eventually, we found ourselves standing on a half-empty street by the river. A kindly Thai woman called our hotel and they indicated that they were going to send a shuttle over. The shuttle turned out to be an electric golf cart. There was barely enough room for the two of us in the back and our suitcases next to the driver. It felt more than slightly surreal to be silently rolling through the noisy chaos of Thai streets!

<i>GT note - All in all, I enjoyed the trip upriver. However, I’d recommend that anybody taking it bring extra layers of clothing and something to read. The mornings are chilly and some stretches of the river can be monotonous; in the slower moments, I read back issues of “Foreign Affairs” magazine that the Swiss group had brought. I’d also recommend that anybody taking this trip do it downriver from Houei Sai to Luang Prabang; You’ll see the same sights in all their glory and tedium - but you’ll see them at a much brisker pace. <i/>
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Old Apr 21st, 2012, 07:47 AM
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You did it again, Gottravel. You and YT are setting a wonderful example of exciting travel, after careful planning, and great note taking to give us all the details (and cautions) for planning our own journeys to follow. Many thanks for the effort and creativity and excellent travel writing.

I am curious as to why there has not been much more response to date ?
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