A Travellerspoint blog

Laos: Part 1

Vientiane

After a few days in Phnom Penh we were off to Laos. We flew North to the sleepy capital Vientiane. Make that sleepy with a capital S. It seems that Laos is far behind its sister nations in waking up from wasted years of communism, general political ineptitude or both. Bottom line, there's just not much to Vientiane. A few main streets, some hotels, some restaurants and a lot of quiet mixed with dust along the street.

Scenes:
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We have a hard time remembering what we did in Vientiane. There's some small tourism in the city to see in its tiny revolutionary museum (funny political propaganda and some facts) and perhaps textiles in the making. There are a few cute hotels. And some grizzly looking guest houses. The Mekong River flows through so there's some night time activity by the river. Two days in the city is enough if you're there (as we were) as a stop-over to continue planning the rest of your trip and, really, just to “see” the city. That's about it :-)

Sticky rice at dinner:
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Making textiles:
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Earlier comment about not settling for your hotel (See Cambodia, Phnom Penh) is very true here as well. Our original hotel was described as having pleasant rooms and a pretty garden. Sure. If you consider old, withered plants pretty.

Posted by dacostas 14:06 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Cambodia Part 2: Phnom Penh

The capital: history and today

Getting there: to bus or to fly?
From Siem Reap we hopped a bus south to the capital, Phnom Penh. We bussed as we were told the roads were quite good and the buses are luxuroous, comfortable, etc. The roads complied with expectations (save the occasional hard break for crossing cattle), but the buses... ours was mediocre. I (Renato) have yet to travel in a bus I've liked. This across continents (West Europe, East Europe, USA, and now Asia). Bottom line, buses usually suck and tourists had better carefully consider their options if choosing 5-10 hours in a bus over an 1 hour flight. Generally, I'd recommend the bus if: (1) you desperately want to see more of the countryside near freeways and (2) you really want to save money. If neither, fly it. One positive busing memory (for Renato, certainly not for Patty): at a rest stop, Ren saw probably the absolutely most fear-striking food we have ever contemplated -- live tarantulas. We're talking 4-5in long bodies plus legs. Ren was in disbelief. Fry them crispy in order to eat them.

No tarantulas here; just bugs and bbq'ed baby chicks:
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Political History:(as retold by the da Costas):
Thus we arrive in Phnom Penh (Pronounced P-nom Pen)... First, a little bit of history. 1975 was the fall of Phnom Penh . That's when the Khmer Rouge (China backed) defeated the Lon Non gov't (US backed) and marched into the capital. In theory, Lon Non led a democratic gov't. But Lon Non's gov't, too, wasn't all that warm and fuzzy—roving murderers and thieves are a better description. Photos books document their soldiers proudly carrying the heads of Cambodians they suspected of being revolutionaries. These were trophies.

Enter Sarloth Sar (aka Pol Pot) and his Khmer Rouge. They took the capital as the West was retreating. Suppressed, tired and hungry Cambodians (ethnically Khmer people) were cheering in the streets; the evil Lon Non gov't had been sacked. Unknown to practically everyone, 48 hours later Pol Pot's regime would begin a level of genocide unprecedented in human history. This is in 1975 and backed by China! All citizens were ordered to leave Phnom Penh immediately and go the fields. Following Mao Tse-tung logic, Pol Pot was instilling a return to natural Cambodia without the evil influence of Western industry. Banks, mills, healthcare services, sewage systems, and any visible industry was destroyed. Buildings blown up. Cars burned. Ultimately Phnom Penh citizens were taken to labor camps where they worked on the land with hand tools if not their hands. Families were split (actually outlawed) and individuals could be shipped anywhere. Dissension meant immediate death. Foreigners who didn't leave in time were killed. Any Cambodian who spoke any language other than Khmer was killed. Cambodians who wore shoes (ie., they were wealthier) were separated and eventually killed. Men older than 16 were put to work and underfed in order to starve them and eventually kill them.

Khmer Rouge were in power until in 1979 when Vietnam defeated the Pol Pot regime. How recent is all this? Our tour guide in the infamous S21 prison in Phnom Penh was a child in 1975-1979. Shortly after Khmer Rouge took power, she never heard from any family member again. She lost her whole family. Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins. She's the only survivor. Why? Just random luck.

Inside S21:
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Today in Phnom Penh:
Eager to move beyond its gruesome history, Phnom Penh is rebuilding itself. There seems to be several ex-pats living in the city. The city is none too small. It does feel like a city with proper businesses, restaurants, entertainment, services and perhaps even gov't. Its not a top tourist destination, but it was something to see.

Us in the city:
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The palace:
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If you're traveling there, note that new hotels are probably springing up quickly. Its likely that there are better (more modern) hotels right by the one you're booking. Once you arrive, take a stroll around your area to consider alternatives. We did and we were happy with the results. This is true for Cambodia and Laos in general.

Posted by dacostas 13:31 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Hotels in South East Asia

Steady pricing through Bali, Laos, Cambodia and Northern Thailand

Quick comment about housing during our trip -- we're generally staying in small hotels in the $45-80 price range (let's call them cheap-tique hotels). We're looking for small, cute, friendly, but with the modern amenities we folks from Silicon Valley would expect. As needed, we're planning to dip above our target range.

We tried a guest house at $30 and well... we're staying at $45 and above. Through March, we're averaging about $60 per day which is LESS than what we pay for our house in Mountain View (including only mortgage interest and county taxes). Thus far, this rate has provided us with clean, pleasant and at times, stylish surroundings with AC and quality bathrooms. And, it's generally bug-free. A step up to beyond $80 would buy us more service, and perhaps more stylish surroundings with fancier bathrooms (more marble) but that hasn't been necessary. Perhaps unexpectedly, this hotel price range is consistent country to country and city to city, so far. That's a bit surprising considering the GDP per capita of countries like Cambodia and Laos is below $300.

Things may change when we enter Bangkok and the beach resorts in Thailand. Let's see what the future holds for us (financially).

Posted by dacostas 04:24 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Cambodia: Part 1

March 7 through March 11: Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Cambodia. It's not just another poor country. There's certainly something special about it. And, it's not just the special “nice” things. Yes, Angkor Wat and the amazing Buddhist and Hindu cultures at the beginning of the millenium are special to behold and ponder. However, there are many bad, unfortunate things that also make Cambodia special. Perhaps even unique. Cambodia's turbulent political history and unprecedented genocide are complete insanity. Politics are the things of lunacy in Cambodia. There seems to never have been a moment in modern history when Cambodians weren't suffering because of politics. More about that later.

For now, let's focus on something nice—Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Siem Reap is a cute town/city. For tourists, its just about perfect. The touristy area is well maintained. There's a mix of cheap, authentic food, cheap touristy food and a handful of mid-scale restaurants and bars.
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As we all know, Angelina put Cambodia in the paparrazi map with Tomb Raider, Maddox and her subsequent visits while saving the world. There are a few spots for 5-star luxury people though their spots are a bit out of the way – e.g., the Raffles hotel. Supposedly there's a restaurant, the Red Piano, in town that Angelina frequented while she was filming. Patty and I thought the food was crap there. :-) However, we liked the Internet bars. Go Cowboys! (yep, that's my awesome 7in laptop. Sorry its not an Apple.)
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Folks in Cambodia were quite warm and receptive to tourists. While you might encounter a few more smiles and hellos along the streets in Bali (specially away from the tourist hubs), Cambodia comes close. You can have a very pleasant and hassle free time while touring in Cambodia, specially while in Siem Reap. Smiles-a-plenty despite the poverty and crazy history.
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Here's a neat way to get some pork on the dinner table. Scooter it. And that bad boy's alive. And he wasn't enjoying the prep for the ride, based on his squealing. The speckly stuff in the picture is dust. The town's got dust floating around everywhere. Either from burning fields or from the ever-present red dirt (kicked-up by cars and scooters).
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Of course, everyone's visiting Siem Reap in order to see Angkor Wat. I'll not write here much about the history and details—wikipedia does a better job than I could ever do. However, I'll add that Angkor Wat is a complex of temples build between the turn of the century and perhaps 1350. There is the proper Angkor Wat itself which is the most famous and offers, perhaps, the most awe-striking visuals. Patty and I enjoyed Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prom (of Tomb Raider fame), among many others. We spent a total of three solid days doing temple hoping in the area. Pictures describe what we saw better than words. We toured in air conditioned luxury for two of the days (with a driver and guide) and then opted for the cheap-skate tuk-tuk approac for day 3. Both approaches very their merrits.

Angkor Wat: front
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A few general thoughts: The temples absolutely love cameras. There's a fantastic picture to be had just about in every corner. Macros, wide angles and everything in between. Plus, depending on the time of day, you'll have great lighting to help you play around with shades and brightness.

More images from inside Angkor Wat:
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Food's cheap and pretty good (save for the Red Piano). While the central market's meat section might not leave you eager to eat meat (nor chicken, nor anything highly perishable), Patty and I agree that food was of good quality.

Regarding climate and bugs: it was neither as hot nor bug-infested as we had feared. There's a share of mosquitoes and other insects but its far from being terrible. There's really no need for long pants (at least not during our visit in the end of the dry season).

We also visited the floating village in lake Tonle Sap. This is a fishing village of hugely poor Cambodians and Vietnamese who, in order to avoid purchasing land, live on boats on the lake.
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We didn't quite understand why the Vietnamese are there as well, but the village is really split into two: the Cambodian section and Vietnamese section. Interestingly, the Vietnamese section seems to be a bit better-off and seem to also be better equipped to host tourists and secure some money from eager tourist pockets.
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Considering the temples, city and floating village together, the 5 days in Siem Reap were spectacular.

Posted by dacostas 04:27 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Hanging out with family: March 5-7

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We're here to meet up with Danny and Linda, family via marriage through sister and David :-) Our stay here is very short. 40 hours or so. For our 3-4 month trip in SE Asia, we prioritized countries and locations we're not likely to visit again. KL, since we've family both in KL and Singapore, is likely a place we'll see again several times.

And as expected, KL was as luxurious, social and exciting as can be. Again, with family, the tuk tuks and taxis are pushed aside for German designed automobiling in the form of Danny's Mercedes (Thanks Danny). Danny met us at the airport. And he and Linda hosted us at their super house in KL. And I do mean super – you should see their kitchen. For those not familiar with KL, its quite modern and clean. New construction everywhere. There's much wealth in the city—many foreign cars as well as Malaysian cars. Western stores and Asian stores pretty much selling anything you want. While the ethnic mix is Malaysian, Chinese and Indian, mostly, English is very common here. Its not a national language, but most everyone will be able to speak it. And, of course, there are endless places to eat.

In fact, the eating and socializing began for us right away. That first night we met Carl, Moses and Pat (Carl's wife's parents) for dinner at a Malaysian eattery. Food was great. Talk was great.
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The only downside was that Danny wouldn't let me pay. You'll see this theme throughtout the KL entry. Later that night we went to a bar, Ol' skools. This is the type of place that David (Naidu) would love. Live music, friendly folks. Our attempts to pay for drinks were brushed aside by Danny.

The next morning we were off to sightsee. Batu caves then Petronas towers. Caves were cool. The monkeys were mellow compared to those at Uluwatu, Bali.
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Petronas is super luxurious and modern. We didn't go up but did see the mall in the downstairs. Fantastic. Again, there's a LOT of wealth here.
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Of course some shopping at Petaling Street – the area where street vendors sell everything fake (goods are from China – intellectual property rights? Doesn't exist in Asia). Of course, Ren joins in the fun and purchases a Prada male purse. At least he thinks its a male purse.

The day was, however, dominated by food. Malaysian food, Indian food (banana leaf restaurant where you eat with your hands) and finally Chinese food at Danny's club. Everything was delicious. Mose, Pat, Carl and his wife Melanie joined us for dinner.
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After about 3 hours of sleep, we were on the move to the airport. Unbelievably and under constant protest from both Patty and Ren, Danny drove us the entire day and night including the 40 minute ride back to the airport. We're humbled by his and Linda's generosity and kindness.

Posted by dacostas 04:09 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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