Cooling down in Laos

Day 71
Luang Prabang, Laos

After ten hours of sleep, we awoke this morning feeling particularly energized and ready to find our way around this city. Sitting on the porch at around 8 a.m., we began sweating — while the temperature here is only in the low 90s, the humidity so deep in the jungle is much higher. Our egg breakfast at the hotel was decent and we met our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Phet, who would be taking us around for the day.

We made a quick stop at the town’s only ATM, which almost made me a millionaire — the exchange rate here is 8,500 kips to $1USD. Afterwards, we were off to the Pak Ou Caves, about 25 kilometers away. En route, Phet stopped at Son Hai, a small village known for its home-brewed hooch. Although it was about 10 a.m., we couldn’t turn down a taste of Lao rice wine/whiskey — especially since it was 11 p.m. back home! It didn’t top Johnny Walker but it had a bite (50% alcohol) and we bought a small bottle for later consumption.

“We’re in the middle of nowhere right now,” Derek said as our tuk-tuk turned onto another dirt back-road. And he was right. I’ve traveled the world and have never felt this isolated while driving to the Pak Ou, two caves in the lower part of a limestone cliff. We snapped a photo before hiring a boat to take us across the Mekong. Our driver chugged a BeerLao, burped and we were off.

These caves are a religious shrine, where some 4,000 Buddha statues have come to die. They are big and small, some are wood, others metal, in various states of decay. It’s a solemn and peaceful spot overlooking the Mekong.

We hiked to the top cave and were assaulted by small children trying to sell us bananas, small birds in cages and crickets (no idea). One hit Derek with a stick before we cautiously walked into the pitch-black ether to see some of the oldest Buddhas.

On our way back onto the boat, a misstep almost landed me in the muddy Mekong. Luckily, the water only reached my knees and infection was kept at bay. Phet drove us back to the hotel for some lunch, where we changed for our afternoon activity, Tat Kuang Si.

Located about 30 kilometers south of town, this is a many-tiered waterfall that flows over limestone cliffs into cool turquoise pools. Jumping in was actually quite cold, we haven’t felt this chilly outside of our air conditioning in weeks, if not months. Here is the obligatory Vineyard Vines promotional catalog shot.

Afterwards, a Lao lady threw down a serious challenge for me to jump off a tree. Here’s to representing the U.S.A. Woot!

Our tuk-tuk returned us to the Apsara, where we rested up before dinner and hitting up the night market. Anticipating an early morning, we were tucked into bed shortly thereafter.

We have a winner

Day 70
Luang Prabang, Laos

It was a welcome sight to arrive at Siem Reap’s tiny airport this morning and see that our Vietnam Airlines flight to Laos would be aboard a jet, albeit a small one. Flying from deep in the jungle to deeper into the jungle, we feared a tiny propeller but instead got a Fokker 70 (whatever that is). The trip took about 90 minutes; for most of it, there was little to see besides mile after mile of thick foliage. We touched down on Luang Prabang’s short runway at around 2:30 p.m. and realized, holy cow, we were in Laos!

After buying a visa and collecting backpacks, our transfer was waiting to take us to the Apsara, what has been called Luang Prabang’s most chic hotel. It fits the bill, with an Asian décor, large and comfortable rooms and huge bathrooms. Walking to the town’s main drag, we passed monks in saffron robes and immediately felt the quiet and slow-paced way of life in Laos’ former capital. Luang Prabang is Unesco World Heritage listed, so trucks and buses are banned from the entire city; the multiethnic people here also lend to its relaxed pace.

We popped into a French-owned café for sandwiches and ordered this nation’s acclaimed beverage, BeerLao (killer website). Most everyone I’ve told about coming to Laos has raved about this tonic, it is said to be the best beer in Southeast Asia. And you know what? We have a winner.

With hopes that the Brickskeller would give me my BeerLao fix back home, we slowly climbed the slopes of Phu Si to visit the temples at its peak. From there, we were afforded some great views of Luang Prabang, bordered on one side by the mighty Mekong River and on the other by a tributary, the Nam Khan.

As could be expected, there were also some giant Buddhas, reclining Buddhas and Buddha footprints in the hill’s many shrines.

Melting from the hike, we made our way back to the hotel to shower up and have some dinner. Luang Prabang isn’t known for its nightlife — in fact, there’s an 11:30 p.m. curfew — so we used the opportunity to catch up on some much needed sleep.

Putting it all in perspective

Day 69
Siem Reap, Cambodia

The FCC is a beautiful hotel and the dinner we had at Hotel de la Paix was one of the best I’ve had this entire trip. But $135USD rooms and $70USD prix-fix meals are not the norm in Siem Reap. This morning, we set out to see the real Cambodia, and it was an eye-opener unlike any other.

After a breakfast of toasted granola with a baked Nashi pear, house-made yogurt and a cup of Illy coffee, we met our driver for the short ride to Chong Khneas, a floating village about 20 minutes from Siem Reap that sits at the mouth of Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Every year during the wet season, the Mekong River backs up and reverses it flow; as a result, Tonle Sap — or simply, Great Lake — floods, swelling from 2 meters deep and 2,500 sq kilometers to 10 meters deep and 13,000 sq kilometers.

The people who live on the banks of this flood plain have adapted their lives accordingly: homes sit on stilts, although most everything — from schools to basketball courts to stores — have been placed on boats.

Cruising down the river and guided by a 17-year-old boy with broken English, we witnessed the daily life of the 300 families who call this area home.

There was a woman gutting a fish while a hungry cat looked on and a young girl carrying her infant sister. An older man swung in a hammock while his wife cleaned the dishes.

Watching boats of gawking tourists pass, it all felt a little voyeuristic. At the same time, it was fascinating to see how these Cambodians live, how little they have — and yet how much dignity and self-respect they maintain. These people are poor, but they do not beg. You can see in their eyes that they are proud of who they are.

A rain started falling and our guide told us that we had to return to the launch point as there was a possibility that our car might get stuck in the mud. Back inside the air conditioning, we passed smiling kids sitting in ramshackle huts who waved goodbye.

We were back at the hotel by 11 a.m. and realized that we likely could have spent just one full day here in Siem Reap — a morning at Angkor Wat and afternoon at Tonlé Sap. While we were tempted to switch our flight to Luang Prabang from tomorrow, the hassle didn’t seem worth it. So, after Andy left for Hoi Ann, we reentered the tourist bubble and got complimentary foot massages at the spa, had cheeseburgers for lunch and relaxed at the pool.

Still, it was hard to escape the images of poverty and squalor that we saw this morning. You never fully appreciate how much you have until you see the way in which much of the world lives.

The magnificent temples of Angkor

Day 68
Siem Reap, Cambodia

With some of the world’s most significant sights — the Great Wall of China, the Aya Sofya and the Pyramids of Giza — already under my belt, my expectations for the Temples of Angkor, not only the symbol of Cambodia but also what many consider the eighth wonder of the world, were high. But our sunrise tour of this astounding architectural feat did not disappoint.

We met our guide a little after 5 a.m. and made the short drive to Angkor Wat, commissioned by the powerful King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as the holy capital city. The overcast skies didn’t take away from the dramatic picture of this temple reflecting off its moat.

Our next stop was Angkor Thom, a walled compound built by King Jayavarman VII (1181 – 1219) as his royal palace. Not having to battle the crowds, we found the Bayon, the King’s state temple, even more impressive than Angkor Wat. There are 54 towers here with 216 carved faces.

We walked past the Terrace of Elephants, an intricately carved wall, en route to Ta Keow, a half-completed 10th century temple that was abandoned after it was struck by lighting. We climbed the well-worn stairs up a very steep incline and then slowly made our way back down.

Ta Prohm was coined the Tomb Raider temple after Angelina filmed a portion of her movie of the same name here. Built in the 12th century, it has been taken hostage by tremendous spung trees whose gigantic roots grasp its pillars and walls.

For us, it was the most dramatic and amazing spot, and therefore warranted an obligatory prom photo.

By 11 a.m., the sun had burned off the morning fog and our shirts were drenched. We had the car bring us back to the hotel where we ordered a couple of club sandwiches for lunch, napped and hung out at the pool.

Later, we made our way back into town to visit the Psar Chaa, an old market, as well as Psar Kandal, the central market. Both had goods for sale that ran the gamut — from mini Angkor Wats to live eels. We passed on both before having some dinner at our favorite spot on Pub Street, the Red Piano. Our motivation for a post-dinner beer was sapped after a rain started, so we grabbed a tuk-tuk and headed back for bed.

In the home stretch: country #12

Day 67
Siem Reap, Cambodia

Appropriately enough, there was a light rain falling as my 14th flight (Silk Air 633) on this trip around the world passed over flooded fields on its approach to Siem Reap. It has been about two weeks since my last flight, and besides the captain’s warning that visibility on the ground was limited, the two-hour ride from Singapore’s gleaming Changi airport was uneventful.

We touched down at 3:55 p.m. local time, having gained an hour en route. As most passengers queued up to purchase their visa, I’d bought an e-Visa online (recommended) and breezed through immigration, where my transfer was waiting.

We’re staying at the FCC Angkor, a luxurious art deco boutique hotel overlooking the Siem Reap River, with fantastic and courteous service. After three weeks of complete garbage, can you imagine my happiness after arriving and seeing a rain shower and infinity-edge pool? Finally.

Derek and Andy got here from Bangkok about a half hour later and we caught up in our room (#9, “Aloe Vera”) before heading into town. Siem Reap feels like one big dollar store — everything, from rides in a tuk-tuk to a bottle of water or a massage, is a buck. With a 4,000 riel to $1USD exchange rate, the U.S. dollar is basically the official currency here; even the ATM’s spit them out!

While walking around, we spotted the Hotel de la Paix, a brand-new hotel that Andy had read about. It was a super trendy spot and we returned later for dinner at Meric, whose 7-course set traditional Khmer menu and wine pairing was matched only by the setting (served on a swinging bed overlooking a beautiful courtyard).

Beat from a long day of travel and dreading our 4:45 a.m. wake up call, we grabbed a tuk-tuk back to the hotel and hit the sack.

To be independent again

Day 66

My final of three organized tours ended last night, so now seems like a good time to reflect on it. I’m a pretty independent traveler who tends to shun groups — with that said, when visiting countries like Egypt (where transportation logistics are complicated) or China (where no one speaks English), there isn’t much choice in the matter. There weren’t similar challenges on this leg of the trip, and if doing it over, I’d probably have done it alone.

While my tour guides in Egypt and China provided valuable and historical insight, my tour leader for the “Roam Malaysia” trip simply arranged accommodation and transfers, something I’d have felt more than capable of handling on my own. And doing so would have given me more freedom — so, no 1-star hotels or 24-hours of continuous travel. With that said, the fellow travelers I’ve met have been really solid and made the experience pretty enjoyable.

A few of us had breakfast at the hotel before heading our separate ways. This was my second, and final, day in Singapore, so there were a couple of other sights to check off my list. On the way down to the MRT, a sign caught my attention and got me thinking about this country.

While there does to be a minor sense of paranoia instilled here, in my experience, this is not the “sterile utopia” some have spoken of. I’ve actually found Singapore to be a nice break from the rest of Asia — English seems like the first-language, the streets are immaculate and, with so little crime, you can let your guard down a little bit (while, of course, staying vigilant).

The Asian Civilizations Museum is located in a beautiful building along the Singapore River. It had some very impressive galleries on the development of trade, religion and technology in Southeast Asia. A special exhibit on Vietnam got me pumped for my upcoming visit there while interactive displays kept me interested for a couple of hours.

After succumbing to a couple of purchases in the museum store, it was off to Sentosa Island, Singapore’s “resort playground.” With imported sand and fake boulders, it’s a little Disney-esque, but is said to have the country’s finest beaches. The Sentosa Express brought me right to Siloso Beach, from which the thumping music of Café del Mar could be heard. This is a place trying desperately to be in South Beach, and while it fails miserably, it did serve up a mean frozen margarita as well as a salt water pool — a far better option for cooling off than the murky, and container ship-filled, Straits of Singapore.

Two other travelers from my G.A.P trip were still around, so we got dinner at Lau Pa Sat, a food hawker market that dates back 150 years. Some soup lady called me over and concocted a dumpling, noodle, bok choy and anchovy bowl of deliciousness.

Afterwards, we took MRT and then a taxi (whose driver was falling asleep) to the Night Safari, purportedly the world’s first and only park of its kind. There are over 1,000 nocturnal animals there illuminated in a shadowy half-light — making humans largely oblivious to them. Highlights from a tram ride included an elephant with a huge tusk, lions sleeping on their backs, baby otters playing and a pair of very impressive leopards. Unfortunately, no pictures were possible, except of this bar named after me.

We headed back to the hotel, packed and then took a dose of Malarone, all in anticipation of tomorrow’s flight to Cambodia.

Arrival in the Lion City

Day 65

With a 5-hour bus here this morning, we completed our 12-day, 1,943 kilometer trek from Bangkok, through Malaysia, to Singapore. All told, we spent nearly 48 hours on a half dozen buses and an overnight train. It wasn’t the easiest leg of my 80-day trip, especially with two difficult overland border crossings, including the one this afternoon that took about 90 minutes.

We were pretty excited then after crossing the Straits of Johor and arriving in this city, island and country of 4.3 million people. We were even more floored when we set foot in the Fragrance Imperial Hotel — a trendy spot with the first flat-screen televisions I’ve seen in weeks — and then learned that due to a booking error, we would all be given single rooms. No complaints here (for once).

With its very strict social and political agenda — death penalty for drug traffickers, harsh penalties for gum chewing, littering, jaywalking and just about everything else — Singapore has been called a “sterile utopia.” After dropping our bags off, we obeyed the walk signals and set out to see exactly what this (perhaps, misunderstood) country is all about. Our mode of transportation was Singapore’s MRT, a clean, modern, efficient and cheap subway. The escalator down to the platform from the street moved at least twice as fast as those in the States — hang on!

We made it easily to the Raffles Place stop and walked to the Boat Quay, one of the few historic downtown districts that have been spared the wrecking ball in favor of economic development. There, small restaurants and bars line the Singapore River, and we ducked into a pub for a quick sandwich.

Walking along the esplanade, we spotted the gleaming Theater on the Bay, a spiky structure that stands across from the Merlion, this country’s strange half-fish, half-lion mascot.

From there, it was easy to see the Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest observation wheel — standing at 165 meters, it’s even taller than the London Eye. I’ve learned that one of the best ways of really seeing a city is to get to its highest point, so we swallowed the ticket price $S30 ($21USD) and hopped into a cabin. The 30-minute ride did not disappoint, as we could even see as far as neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia.

Drenched from the humidity, we made an obligatory stop at the landmark Raffles — my second visit, after Dubai, to this hotel chain. We had a signature Singapore Sling, a drink that was invented here and is today dispensed from a tap, in the peanut shell-covered Long Bar.

Afterwards, it was off to CHIJMES, a nearby complex of restaurants and bars for a farewell dinner.

Waiting for Singapore

Day 64
Melaka, Malaysia

It’s a shame that our trip through this country ended in such an unimpressive place. I’ve found Malaysia a fascinating country — it’s unlike anywhere in the world that I’ve ever visited — and the diversity of its people has been matched only by that of our many destinations, from the cool Highlands to the cosmopolitan KL. And while Melaka certainly is an historic place, we’ve generally been disappointed here: the sights, lackluster museums and oppressive heat have not made this anyone’s favorite spot. Needless to say, for the first time, we’re all actually looking forward to a bus ride tomorrow morning.

We had a late start to the day, and after a coffee at Starbucks (perhaps Melaka’s saving grace), we learned that two of our travel companions left early this morning for Singapore — guess being here was just too much for them! While we debated joining the club, it didn’t seem worth the hassle, and everyone went their separate ways. Shopping and the spa were top destinations for the ladies, as was a visit to Afamosa, a water park almost an hour outside of town.

None of this sounded terribly appealing to me. But the Equatorial had a beautiful and empty outdoor pool on its 4th floor. Nobody gave me a second look after settling into a comfortable lounge chair, breaking out my book and relaxing away the afternoon.

Tonight, we might visit the night market in Chinatown before grabbing some dinner and packing. But most of our minds are already set on Singapore, where we’ll be heading tomorrow morning.

Taste of luxury in Melaka

Day 63
Melaka, Malaysia

“What day of the week is it?”

It’s the first thing that popped into my head this morning. After some consultation with my roommate and double-checking the trip itinerary, we decided on Wednesday. Still, it got me thinking of how much life has changed in the last two months; when you’re traveling like this, Monday is really no different than Thursday nor Saturday. It’s just another day on the road.

Still, we did know that today, like every other day on this trip, we’d be on board another bus, this time to Melaka. We arrived at the station and hopped on the most awesomely decorated bus — with groovy curtains, fake flowers, a couple of Ferrari stickers, even a Power Rangers mask! We were about to give the driver props on his style, but he then started blasting a thumping techno soundtrack of late 90s dance music. It continued for the 2-hour journey, which again made me thankful to have Bose noise canceling headphones.

We arrived in Melaka, a port city, just before 2 p.m. and piled into taxis to our hotel, the Fenix Inn. It’s a clean, if somewhat nondescript and bland place, with an absolutely hilarious “Souvenir Price List” for every item in the room! Anyone interested in a hanger for 5 ringgit ($1.75USD) — or a television remote control for 70?

Our leader (and Lonely Planet) told us that outside of some mediocre museums and historic sights, there was very little to do in this city. Exactly why then we decided to stop here is beyond me. Yet, we didn’t want to discount Melaka without giving it a fair chance, so we grabbed some lunch and walked to the Old Town Square, where Dutch mansions sit beside Portuguese churches — all in close proximity to Chinese temples. This port’s strategic location has clearly made it an attractive spot for many.

Generally unimpressed, we thought that maybe a boat tour might offer a better introduction — yet, it was only filthy water, run down buildings and a horribly annoying guide that we considered paying just to keep quiet.

Overwhelmed by the heat, in denial over leaving the cosmopolitan capital and generally questioning why we’d ending up in this city, we returned to the hotel, showered and did the only thing that we thought could improve our spirits: make a beeline to the nearest 5-star establishment. Here in Melaka, that proved relatively easy, and before long we were on our way to the Majestic.

At the Mansion, we were treated to an absolutely delicious meal, including baked local Melaka crabs, impeccable service (how nice to have a crisp, pressed napkin unfolded into one’s lap) and a beautiful setting. It’s amazing how a 190 ringgit ($60USD) three-course dinner with wine improved our spirits by about a million.

Afterwards, we made our way over to the city’s other 5-star hotel, the Equatorial, for some live music, pool and after-dinner drinks. Listening to a cover band belt out Bon Jovi almost made me wonder why in the heck I’d traveled around the world — all in search of the life I’d left behind. But then, my Black Label arrived, and the question escaped my mind.

A day back home?

Day 62
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

KL, with 1.4 million people, is a rapidly growing metropolis set in a jungle landscape. It’s a compact city, and for Asia, very cosmopolitan and Western. With what seems like a Starbucks on every block, English well and widely spoken and luxury shopping complexes (a la Time Warner Center), this is Dubai-light, and it reminds me a lot of home.

We were up early this morning to queue up for a visit to the Petronas Twin Towers, this country’s most recognizable landmark. These were the tallest buildings in the world (at 451.9 meters) until 2004, when Taiwan’s Taipei 101 took over the honor, albeit only temporarily, as Dubai’s Burj Dubai now nears completion. After waiting around a half hour, we got our free tickets and were told to return at 12:45 p.m.

In the meantime, we had a Starbucks and then a nice Western breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and fruit before heading to Aquaria KLCC, a nearby aquarium. It is purported to have the longest “underwater tunnel” in the world — a 90 meter moving sidewalk that offers a unique underside perspective to sea life, including this monster, swimming above.

We walked back to the Petronas, global headquarters of the national petroleum company. After a brief propaganda video extolling the virtues of natural resource consumption, we boarded a high speed elevator for a 45-second ride to the 41st floor Sky Bridge connecting the towers. This is an engineering marvel and offers a great view of the surrounding city as well as a detailed look at the structure itself.

We took a cab to Bintang Walk, a stretch of malls in the entertainment and shopping district. Our first stop was the Pavillion — a largely upscale yet desolate place that would give the Westchester or Tyson’s a run for the money — and got blue-cheese burgers at the American institution, Tony Roma’s. It should be noted that after two meals, we still had not ate local food.

Not interested in leaving the air conditoning, we passed a multiplex and decided that devoid of Hollywood entertainment for two months, it was time to take the plunge. The new Indiana Jones was playing in English. Tickets were 8 ringgit ($2.50USD). The movie was okay, Harrison Ford is old and I’m not sure what the deal was with the space ship.

Back at the hotel, we showered and then returned to the Petronas for dinner. One of the restaurants there had sushi on the menu (from where, I’m not sure), but we needed a Japanese fix and ordered anyway. It was delicious. Hopefully, I’ll feel the same way tomorrow morning, when our bus to Melaka, our final destination in Malaysia, departs.