As I embrace uncertainty and live my life without trying to control the uncontrollable future, I’ve been trying to inspire friends and family to do the same, to leave their comfort zones, and allow themselves to see beauty in the unexpected.
I understand that we all have very different approaches to life, uncertainty, and change; that my level of comfort in not knowing what’s next is not the same as my friends, and I’m no better or worse for that.
Over the past couple of years I’ve learned that my comfort zone consists on being constantly on the move; that I don’t need more than a 50 liters backpack and less than 20 dollars a day to enjoy myself and be happy, to wake up every day feeling excited about life. I’ve also learned more about my sense of unease when it comes to knowing too much about where I’m supposed to be next or what I’m supposed or expected to be doing.
As I encouraged my friends to be more easygoing towards life, they also inspired and encouraged me to approach it in a more structured way, and to have the courage to chose a place and stay there for a while longer than two weeks – that would be way easier if that place was in Laos 🙂
Recently, reading a friend’s blog post, I realized I am brave enough to keep traveling on a budget from one country to another, but not to go back to my native country and stay there for a certain period of time. When sharing her courage to go home, she made me realize how much it takes for someone like me to say “ok, I’m going home, and I’m staying there for a while.” It takes tons of courage to be certain.
So far it’s been an interesting experience. Now I embrace the uncertainty of rediscovering a place where I spent ten years of my life; I embrace the novelty of familiar landscapes through the lenses of fresh traveled eyes. And whenever I feel uneasy about knowing where I’m supposed to be for the next six months, I think of Southeast Asia and the certainty I have that one day I’ll go back.
Wow… how hard it is to write about the country that stole my heart…
It was easier to write a Love Letter to Laos than to write about the places I visited during almost 3 months there. The moment I started listing places I’ve been to, people I’ve met, things I’ve done, food I’ve eaten, saudade hit me, and hit me hard. And for more than a month I procrastinated and postponed this post – the first part of my travel notes on Laos.
Hard to explain how and why, but I’ll never forget Delilah’s key lime pie and sunset in Nong Khiaw; the winding roads leading to Xamtai and the amazing weaving work I saw there; the caves in Viangxay; my first sunset on the ❤ Mekong ❤ in Thakhek; Bang Fei Cave in the company of the French who meditate; a bungalow, a hammock, and the best hashbrown ever in Don Det, at Mama Mon’s Guesthouse; the ❤ Mekong ❤ and my “secret” beach in Don Khone; waterfalls in the Bolaven Plateau; Captain Hook and all-you-can-know about coffee; visa runs to Thailand (and not from Thailand, as it usually goes); hangover after meeting the South Africans in Vientiane; duck love 60km North of Vang Vieng; Secret Pizza in Luang Prabang; and the slow goodbye going up the Mekong towards Thailand.
There are so many things to write about Laos. So many things other than simple travel notes. Feelings, flavors, colors, faces, roads, valleys, mountains, rivers. But for now: travel notes.
My itinerary was as shown below.
Vietnam >> Muang Khua > Muang Ngoi > Nong Khiaw > Xamneua (via Viengthong) > Viengxay > Xamtai > Viengxay/Xamneua > Phonsavanh > Thakhek > Thakhek loop > [visa run 1] > Pakse > Don Det/Don Khone > Pakse/Champasak/Don Ko > Thakhek > [visa run 2] > Vientiane > Vang Vieng > Ban Chieng (Tao Guesthouse) > Luang Prabang > Huay Xay >> Thailand [In bold the places I’m going to cover for now].
Laos – Part I
I entered Laos from Vietnam. Took a bus in Lao Cai to Dien Bien Phu and from there a minibus to Muang Khua. The border crossing was ok. The visa for Brazilians cost US$30 plus small fees at the border that add to about US$6. Everyone needs a photography. Visa is valid for 28 days. To get a new visa all you need to do is to cross the border (in my case to Thailand) or ask for an extension at the police department (not everywhere, but for sure in Pakse, Luang Prabang, Vientiane); extension costs US$2/day plus admin fees. If the plan is to stay another month in Laos, the best option is a visa run. Or two. Or three 😉
I) Muang Khua – Muang Ngoi – Nong Khiaw
>>> Muang Khua is a small village and most people stop there on the way from/to Northern Vietnam. I didn’t do anything special there but heard there are nice walks and hikes to hill tribes. In Muang Khua my love for sticky rice started…
>>> Muang Ngoi is a small village at the riverbank of the Nam Ou (Ou River). From Muang Khua we took a boat (120k kip each) and the journey took approximately 3 hours. The boat leaves when it’s full or you have to pay for chartering it, which can be quite expensive if traveling on a budget. Tip: if you’re the first one on the pier, you’re probably getting a higher price for the ticket. Get there and wait for other people before inquiring about the price.
Muang Ngoi is lovely. Great place to stay for a few days and just relax. There are hikes to local villages where there are homestays as cheap as 10k kip/person. Guesthouses around the village vary from 50-80k kip/person or room. Negotiate and you’ll get a good deal.
The Chinese are building a dam upstream and the project includes a road that will connect Muang Ngoi to other towns in the area. I believe it will impact the peaceful and car-less atmosphere.
>>> The boat from Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw leaves around 8:30am and takes 1.5 hour.
In Nong Khiaw Laos started to steal my heart… I didn’t know it yet.
My favorite place to stay is also where I had the best key lime pie in SE Asia: Delilah’s Cafe. Karen and I offered to help with designing a new menu and were honored by having a pictured of us hanging on the wall 🙂 Let me know if you find it!
What a hard task to put together a new menu with pictures of the delicious dishes prepared by Miss Lie! We had to order the ones we didn’t have a picture yet… and eat! Oh, oh… there goes my healthy diet based on Vietnamese Pho… The highlight of the menu? KEY-LIME PIE! The.Best.Pie in SE Asia! I mean it. Really mean it.
Harps, who manages Delilah’s, also runs Tiger Trails and is a live information desk – he hates it, but it’s true. He knows everything about bus schedules, things to do and see, etc. Tiger Trails organizes tours to the main attractions in the area, including the 100 waterfall. Stop by and spare a few minutes chatting with this unique New Zealander. At first he might seem a bit crazy… but hey! who isn’t?! You can trust his recommendations 100%.
I didn’t do any of the tours despite staying in Nong Khiaw for 6 days – original plan: 2-3 – but I did check out the viewpoint across the bridge to watch the sunset. The view is beautiful! The hike is steep and took me a bit more than 1 hour. If going for the sunset don’t forget to bring a headlamp with you. The trail is pretty closed by vegetation and can be dark even if the sun is not 100% gone. I saw people taking sleeping bags and planning to stay at the viewpoint overnight so they could watch the sunrise. It’s an option – not sure if an officially allowed one – for those who want to get sunset and sunrise but don’t want to hike up twice.
Other places to eat and stay in Nong Khiaw: crossing the bridge there are two Indian restaurants that serve cheap and very good food (Deen and Chennai). No need to feel bad for choosing one over the other; it turns out it’s all in the same family. I preferred the food at Chennai and loved the mint-lime shake at Deen. If in doubt, try both. For accommodation, there are plenty of bungalows with hammock and river view.
I had no idea where to go after Nong Khiaw. First I thought of going northwest to Luang Namtha, near the border with Myanmar, cause the original plan was to cross to Thailand in Thakhek – so it made sense to explore the North before heading South. Karen wanted to go to Luang Prabang, but I didn’t feel like going to a “big” city just yet. What to do? Where to go next? Maybe stay longer in Nong Khiaw? I could definitely do that until I met Remigio, a Mexican visiting Laos to learn more about the country’s silk and weaving. Oh… did I say weaving? Yes… and Remigio pointed me to the Northeastern part of Laos, to Xamtai to be more exact, saying the village was known for having the best silk and weaving in the whole country.
That was it! So we headed East!
[NOTE] >>>> You can also go to Phonsaly, going north on Nam Ou (Ou River). I didn’t go but heard it has some interesting hikes and hill tribes to visit,
II) Viengthong – Xamneua – Viengxay – Xamtai >> from Nong Khiaw you can take a bus on a loooong journey to Viengthong where there’s a national park where you can see – if really, really lucky – tigers. I only spent the night in Viengthong (at a guesthouse at the bus station) to break the journey to Xamneua in 2. The ride was very bumpy, winding and I dont know how people can do it in just 1 day! If you get carsick, make sure you have plenty of Dramin pills with you. Also, be aware that the locals get really – really – carsick, so be prepared to having people throwing up in plastic bags next to you. (sorry… was this comment gross? well, if you plan to travel by bus/mini-bus/van in Vietnam and Laos, you’d better get used to it – also to peeing wherever the driver stops as bathroom breaks don’t usually include bathrooms)
Most people go to Viengthong and continue to Phonsavanh instead of Xamneua.
>>> Xamneua is just a stop for people traveling to/from Vietnam (there’s another border crossing near, could be another option for you). It’s still interesting, but I wouldn’t spend too much time there. NOTE*** if you plan to head to Viengxay, you should take a tuktuk as soon as you get to Xamneua bus station to the other station (it’s far to walk!). Last bus to Viengxay leaves around noon if I remember correctly. You can also take a taxi, but it will be more expensive (150k kip).
Because I was hungry when we arrived in Xamneua, I couldn’t think clearly and was very irritated by the tuk tuk drivers who approached us. I wanted food. That’s all I could think of. Only after finding some sticky rice, we realized the bus to Viengxay left from another station. And we walked, and walked, and walked.
And when we got there, there were no more buses. Luckily we were able to get a ride with a Chinese who’s working in Laos. It was probable the most comfortable road trip we had during all our time in the country. The car was clean, silent, the ac worked, the driver was not “crazy”.
>>> Viengxay is known by the caves where the Lao government hid and operated from 1964-1973, when the country was heavily bombed by the US. Yes… Laos suffered intense bombing during the Vietnam war, even though it was never on war against the US. Still today there are thousands of UXOs (unexploded ordnances) in Lao lands, which prevent the land to be worked and still cause many fatalities.
When in Viengxay, you should visit the caves and learn more about the history behind the bombings. In order to do that, you’ll need a guide (they keep the keys to the caves, so you can’t visit them by yourself). Book your tour at the tourist center. It’s worth visiting, and the visit takes around 2-3 hours.
For food, there’s also a good Indian restaurant in town, called Sabaidee Odisha. Try the Uttapam!
>>> Xamtai is the weaving village Remigio told me about. It was quite an adventure to get there. It’s far. It’s cold. Nobody speaks English. Nobody really understands why two farang want to get there. But the weaving… ah… it’s just AMAZING! I felt the language barrier while visiting Xamtai. I wanted to ask so many questions about the silk farming, the weaving techniques, the history and tradition behind the patterns… But I couldn’t find an English speaker (only weeks after I left, I learned there’s one person at the Culture/Tourism center who speaks English and is keen in showing around).
I left Xamtai with plans to go back. Maybe to stay longer, maybe learn from the weavers. That’s for sure a place I’ll go back to.
III) After Xamtai, we finally started to make our way South, through Phonsavanh, the place where the Plain of Jars are located – archeological sites with huge jars that nobody really knows how/why they got there. If you’re into archeology, you should check it out. Another must see while in town in the MAG UXO visitor center, with videos and photos about the period when Laos was bombarded by the US, and the challenges the country still faces due to existing UXOs.
In Phonsavanh we stayed at Janeeda Guesthouse, and were stuck there one day more than planned because buses to Thakhek only run every other day. And once on our way to Thakhek I opened another chapter of my love for Laos. Soon I would meet, for the first time, the ❤ Mekong ❤
[more about Southern Laos and then my way North again pretty soon!]
Was the question my kayaking partner asked me while rowing somewhere near Cat Ba island, in Northern Vietnam. I stayed quiet and he asked again “Rita, why do you travel? What’s your reason for it?”
I was in the back seat and he couldn’t see my face – my eyes going from side to side, trying to look inside my brain in search for something to say. From me he only got a long silence before “That’s a good question! I don’t really know…”
I was honest. I never really thought about the reason behind it. Traveling for me has always been something natural. I blame it on my Spanish-gypsy blood. For my family the idea of a perfect vacation involves driving as many kilometers as possible in whatever number of days you have off – 3 days, 3 months, 3 years.
As we continued rowing I asked myself “To visit different places and cultures? To see different landscapes? To try different food? Have new experiences? Meet new people?” “I don’t know”, I said again. And I really didn’t.
For many weeks, the question was stuck in my mind. I started asking people around me, they had different reasons, and I still couldn’t find mine. Until one day, I was driving amongst limestone walls and appreciating the changing colors of a pre-sunset sky, and voilà: I travel because it makes me experience today. Because traveling keeps me in the present.
Traveling allows me to live, experience, and focus on the present as I’ve never done before.
How much time I have spent thinking about the past! Things I’ve done or said, things I haven’t, things I should or could have done differently.
How much time I have spent thinking about the future! What am I going to do? Where am I going to be? Past relationships based on “let me see how you’re going to be next so I can decide if you’re good for me or not” made me waste so much present time, always waiting for something better, for a future that never came.
We tend to spend so much time thinking about the past and the future, that we live the present as a transition point, not as the present. We don’t really pay attention to what we are doing now because we are not embracing now.
Traveling I found a way of living the present, one day at a time.
People ask me what my days are like. I wake up, have a shower, decide what I’m having for breakfast and how I want to spend my day. Sightseeing, working, writing, just walking around or laying in a hammock. I make a decision and enjoy it. If I decide to do some work I know I’m choosing to spend a couple of hours in front of the computer instead of seeing waterfalls or caves, or moving to another place. I make the decision and embrace it. I don’t judge myself for doing “nothing” in a city with so many things to do and see. Sometimes all I need is “nothing”, sometimes I feel like taking a local bus and spending hours on bumpy winding roads just to get somewhere new, where I can wake up and decide how I want to spend my day, all over again.
Off course I think about the future. Where am I going from here? What am I going to do with all the new things I’m learning from this incredible journey. But I do not focus only on the future. Traveling forces me to make present decisions.
One might think “Oh, it’s easy for you, you’re living the life, meeting new people, seeing new places. You’re not stuck in an office five days a week.” Yes, I’m not, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have a routine and daily rituals. Doesn’t mean I don’t question my decisions or have doubts about them. But the way my decision making process works is based on the present.
When I meet new people I let myself appreciate and enjoy the short or long conversations I have with them, people I’ll probably never see again. I allow myself to be present, to appreciate the moment.
Same applies to watching the changes in landscape. No pictures can capture the beauty of noticing the changes of scenery from one place to another, from mountains to valleys, from rivers to the sea, from cold breeze to a steam hot air. If I don’t allow myself to feel it, how will I ever be able to talk about it?
Why do I travel? To live the present so in the future I can tell stories about my past.
Why do you travel?
“There are only two days in the year when nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly live.”
Before meeting you, I was told you were nice but not worth the time to get to know you better. Two or three weeks should be enough before getting tired of you and moving on.
I had plans to go back to something else as soon as I was done with you. But here I am, still looking at you, appreciating your beauty. Completely in love.
It’s been two months and you still amaze – and amuse – me with your colors, shapes, smells, and flavors. You keep me curious and eager to learn more about your history, your people, your fears, and challenges. Tell me: how can I help you? How can we work together? What do I need to do to stay close to you?
People who know me are saying I look great. That my eyes are shining and my smile is wider. They say I irradiate happiness and although it’s not only your fault – I’m happy because I feel I’m in the right place for my body, mind and soul – you do have a lot to do with it.
You helped me reconnect with an old passion: weaving; showing me beautiful and inspiring work made in remote places by very talented people.
You also taught me to be more relaxed, go with the flow, and even break some rules once in a while. You made me try new things and experiment more.
You gave me lovers, and love.
You made me feel years younger, despite becoming a year older while with you.
Up in the mountains, in the North, you showed me breathtaking views, while playing hide and seek during the sunset.
Heading South, I realized how diverse you could be. The mountains gave space to plains, the cool breeze to heat waves, and when I thought I could no longer breath, you pointed me fresh waters to bath in. And then something else to love: the Mekong ❤
How not to love you?! – For your hammocks, khao niao, your caves, and canoes, and waterfalls. You surprised me with Indian food, Japanese Cafe, petanque & pastis.
You surprised me even more with your winding roads that – despite my lifelong history of car sickness – kept me sane and safe.
You also made me cry and gave me a few new scars. Learning about your bombs and fears was very touching; I couldn’t hold my tears.
But most importantly, you presented me with new friends, new inspirations, and new stories to tell.
In 4 weeks in Vietnam I experienced different ways of traveling.
First I had the company of a very good friend who decided to spend her holidays with me – well, actually she decided to spend her holidays in SE Asia and I happen to be here, but it’s nice to think the other way around. Because she only had 25 days and wanted to visit Cambodia (travel notes here) and Vietnam. The first two weeks were a bit rushed – 2 days here, 3 days there, and a lot of long distance traveling. Still, it was completely worth it and enough to surprise me in a very positive way. The first part of these notes covers the first half of my Vietnam trip, from Ho Chi Ming to Hanoi. The second part (coming soon) covers Christmas in Hanoi, climbing in Cat Ba island, and falling in love with the landscape in the northern part of the country.
First, I need to confess I wasn’t very excited about traveling to Vietnam. Not that I’ve never thought about it – it’s actually on =e item of my bucket list to do a bicycle trip in Vietnam. Now I want to do it even more. I’m glad she insisted this was the one country she really wanted to see and we ended up taking the bus with Mekong Express from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Ming City (Saigon).
Wow! Saigon is… Saigon. I mean, tons of motorcycles everywhere. And by everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE! On the streets, on the sidewalks, on pedestrian crossings, inside stores. There’s no such thing as looking left or right when crossing a street in Saigon. You have to look all sides, many times, and look again. Oh, wait! AGAIN! I stopped at a crossroad and took a 2 minutes video with non-stopping traffic, 99.9% two-wheels vehicles.
On my first morning in Vietnam I had Pho Bo for breakfast.My first Pho ever was at a Vietnamese restaurant in the US and really enjoyed it, so I was excited to finally try it in Vietnam. I was not disappointed. During the next four weeks I had Pho for breakfast, lunch, dinner. And I’m proud to say that my first breakfast in Vietnam was a delicious Pho accompanied by Vietnamese iced coffee. Yummy!
In Saigon we walked, walked, walked. To the train station, to the Cathedral, to the Post Office, to the War Remnants Museum. The latter, by the way, is a very interesting place to visit. The museum tells the story of the Vietnam War from the lenses of the East. It’s a very impactful and sometimes disturbing place, with war pictures I could not look at. It was super interesting to learn about history from a perspective that is not widely publicized in the West. I highly recommend a visit to the Museum.
On our second night in Saigon we had to change hostels and by chance ended up finding the brand new “Cozy House 160”, very good price with delicious breakfast (plenty of fruits included).
From noisy and busy but delightful Saigon we got on a train to Da Nang and from there a bus to Hoi An. The train ticket cost 623k VND on Soft Seat coach – there are sleeper options for a higher price. The soft seats were pretty comfortable for an overnight in our opinion. From Da Nang to Hoi An there is a local bus (#1) and it costs 20k VND. The ticket collector will try to charge you more and because we knew that I had the exact amount with me plus 5k VND just in case. When he passed collecting the money I handed him 40k and he asked for 40k more “20 for each bag” he said. We said “no way” and despite the pressure we did not surrender and he ended up accepting 45k. Tip for those planning to take that bus: pay attention to what locals pay, have exact change, and a little extra if you feel like paying a bit more. I guess in the end it all depends on your travel budget and willingness to corroborate with this kind of practice.
Bus ride from Da Nang to Hoi An takes approximately 1 hour.
Hoi An is cute little historic town recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Hoi An was an important trading port in the Southeast Asian region from the 15th to the 19th century, and its architecture shows strong influences of the Japanese and the Chinese.
Roofs, Hoi An
During the 3 days we spent there we bikes to the beach – to reaffirm my certainty that there are no beaches like in Brazil, we walked and walked around the old quarters full of yellow houses, shops, restaurants and cafes, and saw (and bought) beautiful handmade scarfs.
I want to say Hoi An is a place not to be missed. It’s charming, it’s architecture is beautiful, but it is pretty touristic, and by that I mean, shops, restaurants, cafes, shops, restaurants, cafes. We didn’t have enough time to get off the beaten path, and I’m sure there are plenty of tiny alleys to explore.
Ah, I was almost forgetting! Hoi An is known by having amazing tailors. People from all over the world go to Hoi An to have their clothes tailor made. Not only clothes but leather shoes too. We didn’t get anything tailor made there but met a few people who did and were pretty happy with the quality and price.
A few tips if going to Hoi An:
Bus Da Nang > Hoi An (read above)
Bicycles on the beach: we were charged 10k VND to park our bicycles near the beach. We were told bicycles were not allowed… we even had someone blowing a whistle at me. The trick is to go around and access the beach from another point. We saw plenty of people walking their bikes on the beach.
There’s a fee to enter Hoi An Old Town. Well, apparently there is a fee but how compulsory it is is debatable. We paid the 120k VND at one of the check points, however there were a lot of people coming and going without showing tickets and depending on the checkpoint there was nobody really checking. Again, it’s up to you to pay it or not. If you believe it’s benefiting the town, go for it.
Don’t forget to try the Banh Minh sandwich at the Chef’s restaurant. It’s a bit more expensive than the ones you find on the streets, but it’s delicious!!!! And the view from the rooftop is great. Totally worth going out of my gluten-free diet.
If you appreciate handmade scarfs – like I do – check out Viethands’ (12 Bach Dang) scarfs. Beautiful work with silk, cotton and linen.
From Hoi An we took a bus to Hue (USD 6), another historic Vietnamese town with ruins from the palace where the Nguyen dynasty emperors lived and was also the national capital from 1802-1945. It was the first time in Vietnam that we had heavy rain. A lot of rain. So much that we had to wait for a few hours before taking a walk around the city. By the time we left the hotel we were starving! So we headed to the market hoping to find some delicious local food. Well… not this time. I won’t go into details on what I saw there – my travel partner knows – but for the first time since I started traveling and eating in local places I was the one asking to leave because I wouldn’t eat anything there. We went to the big supermarket next door.
Things to do in Hue include the Citadel (150k VND) where the Imperial City used to be, as well as the Forbidden Purple City, the emperor’s home. There are also a couple of other places to see and visit, including tour on the Perfume River, but we only saw the Citadel this time.
The hotel where we stayed was one of the best in Vietnam. The location is also great with a couple of good restaurants a few steps away.
At our hotel we bought a bus ticket to Ninh Binh (200k VND). The bus ride started with the wrong foot. I did not know about the apparently common rudeness of bus service towards foreigners in Vietnam. After a smooth train ride from Saigon to Da Nang, including onboard service during the whole trip, I was not expecting the treatment we received on the way to Ninh Binh. I explain: despite being half empty, the driver sent us to the back of the bus. I asked if we could stay in the front because we didn’t want to stay close to the toilet and we were getting off before most people. If I can recall correctly, I was pretty polite when I asked him, who replied shouting at me something like “go to the back or get off”; I asked why and he just shouted “get off” and ordered someone outside to take my bag out of the trunk. Seriously, I was paralyzed. What have I done to piss him off to that level? No idea. But later, talking to other foreigners I found out it was not an isolated incident, and it’s more common than we think.
Also after that, Livia and I were quite concerned with being yielded at by angry Vietnamese men. From that moment on I can say we started to read all the signs two, three, four times – even though we had no idea what they were saying.
The ride to Ninh Binh was very unpleasant: the initial stress + infinite horns + a driver who smoked one cigarette after the other [thanks for sending us to the back – at the end], that we did not bother getting off in the middle of nowhere at 3 in the morning. We started walking and at the end of the street we arrived at the Ninh Binh hostel [check name!] where a kind security guard allowed us in and showed us couches + blankets where we were finally able to rest.
In Ninh Binh we rented a bike and drove around the region. The landscape is very scenic, as it is in the whole country with huge limestone formations, a lot of green, and charming roads.We could had explored more, but honestly we were tired and didn’t enjoy Ninh Binh as we could have. One thing that tired me about Vietnam in general is having to pay to see everything. I had an expectation that in Ninh Binh we could explore the area without having people running after us asking for money or charging to park, to look, to whatever. Or maybe we were just tired and wanted to stay in one place longer.
For whatever reason, we decided to go to Hanoi earlier and spend Christmas there. After making sure the hostel would give us the night we had already paid back, and confirming a place to stay in Hanoi, we rushed to the train station and were able to buy a ticket for the 1pm train. And so we left Ninh Binh towards Hanoi.
 When buying the ticket we were told the bus would arrive in the morning… “around 6am”… ahn ahn…
I made my way to Cambodia from Bangkok, where I met a friend who came to SE Asia to spend her vacation with me. We took a flight in BKK and landed in Siem Reap 50 minutes later (Nok Air, USD55). It’s possible to do it by bus or train, you just need to be aware of the visa and border-crossing scams at the border. More about Poipet famous’ scams here. Because we spent more time in Bangkok than previously planned[i], the flight seemed a better option for us.
Siem Reap is a lively city with its economy based on the tourism around Angkor Wat. It’s quite busy, but nothing compared to Bangkok. Despite being pretty touristy, it’s the #1 “must visit” place in Cambodia, and I’d add, in SE Asia. Lonely Planet features Angkor Wat as #1 travel destination, and most people go to Cambodia only because of the temples. That (temples, not LP) was also the main reason we wanted to visit Cambodia.
We spent 4 days there. First day was a rest day – to recover from all the walking around Bangkok and to plan our visit to the temples. The ticket is not cheap and there’s talk around town that it will increase significantly in 2017. In December 2016 it cost USD20/1day and USD40/3days. I don’t think 1 day is enough to see everything.
We visited most of the temples in Angkor complex + three others located 30-40km away from the city. We were speechless most of the time. Personally, I’m not sure if I found Bagan more impactful. The style is very different and I keep thinking whether it would change my impression if I had visited Angkor Wat first. I really don’t know. Still, there were moments where my jaw would literally drop.
Ta Phrom, for example, is magical. All those trees hugging the ruins in such a delicate way, as if they were put there at the same time. The silence… well, silence until the arrival of hordes of Chinese – IMPORTANT: get there as early as possible! And don’t stress too much about the Chinese. They do outnumber everyone else and stressing about their loudness, selfie-sticks, and lack of “simancol” won’t change the way they behave and will just ruin your day.
We chose to do the long circuit first (on our 2nd day) and leave the short circuit, which include Angkor Wat, for the following day. On the 3rd day we visit the Lady Temple, a tiny but extremely impressive building with incredible details everywhere you look. So delicate and so powerful at the same time.
Siem Reap is definitely more expensive than other places in the country. If you get there from outside the country, you might have an impression that things are pretty cheap. Hold your consuming impulses though and buy your scarfs in Battambang or Phnom Penh instead.
You can visit the temples by bycicle, motorbike, tuk tuk, car/van/bus, but we didn’t even consider the latter. It’s a great feeling to feel the wind in your face while moving from one temple to another – and it’s also a nice way to recharge and get ready for more walking around ruins.
We found a nice tuk tuk driver and decided to stick with him during our stay. It was great. He had a really good vibe. He was so nice that – our mistake – we didn’t realize he was adding things to what was agreed and would charge for it later. So, as a piece of advice, you don’t need to change drivers if you like the first one, but don’t forget to agree on the price before you leave for the day and ask him over and over again if what he’s suggesting is included in the previous agreement. I know, I know, very basic thing, won’t happen again (so I hope).
Food: we rediscovered the meaning of “fresh fruit juice” with creamy and incredibly tasty smoothies for USD1. *** avocado + passionfruit is an awesome combination! I also loved Nom Krok, a rice-coconut pancake (gluten-free!) that you find everywhere.
Before heading to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, we decided to visit Battambang. Capitol Tours sells tickets for USD4.5 if you buy at their office (~1km from the old market). Hotels sell it for USD6-8. Important: call to confirm pick up from your hotel if you buy the ticket directly with the company. They “forgot” us and we heard it was not the first time it happened. Luckily our host called them and thanks to the delayed departure we were still able to catch it.
Battambang is the 2nd largest city in Cambodia but it feels like a small town in the countryside. It was founded in the 11th century by the Khmer empire.
It was a nice surprise after busy Siem Reap and before even busier Phnom Penh. In Battambang we rented a bike and rode along the river. Every kid in town would wave to us and say hello. When passing in front of a school where kids were going home we almost caused an accident because they’d look at us instead of at the traffic!
“Hello, bye-bye” was our motto in Battambamg.
Food: Domlong An or Noum Domlong Barang. Delicious sweet potato cakes for only 500 riel (USD 0.12)
From Battambang we took a bus (USD5) to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, situated on the Mekong River bank.
It was the first time we were shocked with the traffic and amount of motorcycles (it was certainly an anticipation to Ho Chi Minh/Saigon in Vietnam, but that’s another post…). It was also the first time we hated the place where we stayed and maybe it influenced the way we visited the city. Yes, there were better options but they were also more expensive; we just stayed out for as long as we could so we’d fall sleep as soon as possible.
The Royal Palace (USD6.50 > price will increase to USD10 in January 2017) deserves a visit according to Livia. I didn’t go inside but she loved – and I trust her, so you should go 🙂
On our last day in Phnom Penh we rented a bike and drove to Choeung Ek (USD6), a killing field during the Khmer Rouge regime, in the 1970s. It’s a very disturbing place. I felt a peaceful atmosphere in the area but then, listening to the stories of atrocities that happened there… it’s so sad to realize what the human being is capable of. It was the first place in Cambodia where I witnessed total silence among visitors (including the Chinese!).
From Phnom Penh we bought a bus ticket with Mekong Express to Ho Chi Minh, in Vietnam, for USD12. The trip took us about 7 hours.
It was a short visit to Cambodia and I’m sure there are many other interesting things to do there. What we could notice is that people are extremely friendly, food is similar to Thai food in many ways, and the Khmer culture is present everywhere we visited. For next time we’d love to visit the mountains and the coast. One more thing for next time… I guess I’m never leaving SE Asia 😉
PS-You can pay pretty much everything in American Dollars throughout Cambodia.
[i] Because I had to get my visa to Vietnam and thought that it would be easier at the Vietnamese Embassy in BKK – oh, make laugh! First I tried in Yangon, Myanmar, and they wanted to charge USD70 for the visa. I knew it should be cheaper so I tried BKK… but no. They wanted to charge me USD61. I ended up getting my visa in Siem Reap, Cambodia, through an agency recommended by the guesthouse where we stayed. I paid USD41 and got the visa on the same day. I had no problems getting into Vietnam with it.
Two months ago I was boarding a plane in Boston to SE Asia not knowing what my itinerary was going to be.
Twenty days ago I arrived in Myanmar anxious to travel around this unknown and fascinating country.
Two days later it was election day in the USA.
The day after, my excitement gave way to disbelief. I remained speechless as I followed the results minute-by-minute from one of the few places where you can find good internet connection in Yangon.
I’m sorry for bringing this up but I need to make a parenthesis before continuing on my adventures.
I’m sure you are upset and tired of reading about Trump. I understand. It doesn’t look good and it isn’t getting any better as days go by. But I can’t help myself. It was too much of a shock to see one more of The Simpsons’ prophecies coming to life.
I’m no political analyst and have no intention whatsoever in becoming one. What I really enjoy are anthropological studies – a fancy way I call “people watching” – and I apologize in advance to my American friends for my honesty – maybe bluntness – here. But I must say I find it an intriguing phenomena that the next US president is a showman.
For me it is quite a natural process for a country where you have TVs everywhere. TVs and hundreds of TV channels – who really watches all those channels? For me it’s an expected election result for a country that judges electoral debates based on the way candidates interact with the cameras, how they articulate words more than ideas and policies, on the color of their ties or blazers. A country where reality shows cover pretty much every topic you can imagine, and where the Kardashians are the example of success to be followed.
I’m sorry my dear American friends… But I can only say I saw it coming that a reality show host becomes your president.
And I really feel for you; I feel for your country I learned to love; I feel for Jack and Sophie, for Yara’s nephews and nieces, for all the kids that have to live not only through a Trump presidency, but who will have to fix what he’s going to leave behind after four – hopefully only four – years in the Oval Office.
I truly hope that after this shocking result people realize that reality shows actually have scripts, that there’s some kind of control behind the scenes – even if it’s only to decide what scenes are going to be aired.
Trump on the presidency, on the other hand, is a free rider. The future of the USA and the world is completely uncertain right now. The direction it’s pointing doesn’t look good from where I’m standing.
Enough about the uncertainties of a superpower and the world it influences. Let’s talk about Myanmar and the beauties and challenges of a country in transition, where the future is as uncertain as the USA.
Myanmar is a country at a crossroad. I looked for a better description, but couldn’t find one. It is a country with full potential to develop economically, socially, and politically in a positive way, but struggling to deal with what was left from decades of military dictatorship and young and fragile democracy.[i]
In twenty days I visited the lively cities of Yangon and Mandalay; Kachin’ state capital Myitkyina; hills and villages between Kalaw and Inle Lake; breathtaking Bagan; and George Orwell’s Mawlamyine.
I didn’t follow a logical itinerary; instead I planned according to friends’ schedules. After all, how cool is it to visit a region with your local friend? Or attend a traditional Burmese wedding of another friend’s colleague? This time I preferred to go where friends were, even if it meant a lot of long-distance and time consuming traveling from one place to another, as well as shorter periods of time in each place.
It also means I have quite an extensive list of places to go for my next time in Myanmar: Putao on the very north of Kachin, looking at the Eastern Himalayas; Sittwe and other parts of Rakhine state, region struggling with ethnic and religious conflict; Naypidaw, the ghost-town capital and surroundings; Dawei, the southern coastline and border with Thailand. So many places to be seen that I’ll have to come back soon 😉
Myanmar is definitely a place to visit. It’s changing and it’s changing fast. I wish it changes for the better, although some people I’ve talked to are not as optimistic as they were right after the election last year.
People here look beautiful in their longyis. I love, LOVE men in longyis! How charming they look! The women are super elegant, always matching the colors of their long tube skirts with their tops. I can’t recall seeing obese people even though food is pretty oily. I was told oil is a sign of wealth in Burmese culture. My tummy complained, still no obesity.
The landscape reminds me a lot of Brazil. All the way from Mandalay to Bagan, and from Bagan to Yangon, I was transported to the Cerrado and its veredas. Cities like Yangon, Mandalay, and in a smaller scale Myiktyina reminded me of Northern Brazil and places like Manaus, Belém and Fortaleza. Street dogs, just like in Thailand, the lack of sidewalks, and drivers that speed instead of stopping when they see you trying to cross a busy road also brought me memories of my home country.
Nevertheless, people here are as welcoming as Brazilians, if not more. When not too shy they’d greet me with beautiful smiles, return my “mingalabar” – hello in Burmese – and even start a conversation, sometimes followed by a request to take a picture with me. Often they offered to help when I looked lost – and I had to face my own prejudice and fear of being swindled. Brief notes on the places I visited here.
What I’ve seen and heard so far corroborate my idea that this is, indeed, a fascinating country. There are many areas where a foreigner cannot go due to conflicts between the Burmese Army and local armed or minorities groups – the most pressing currently being the one in Rakhine state involving the Muslim minority (for more on Rakhine’s recent conflict development check this and this).
Together with my “wow” lenses, of curiosity and excitement for the simple fact that I’m finally here, I always carry my geographer view and intuition. And I can’t help but think that this is a country embedded in a lot of tension.
The most obvious refers to an uncertain future: how will the government deal with the ongoing conflicts? Why Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a Peace Nobel laureate, does not address them?
Not so obvious, are the right policies being implemented to contribute to an effective development and inclusive society?
Even less obvious is the way the government and the Army[ii] take over the territory and express their power over it.
In Kachin state, for example, there is a campground where families from the south of the country are living. They were brought by the government to work on the installation and maintenance of power lines. My first question was “why bring people from the South? Why not hire locals?” Well, “very good question” replied my local translator. For him there’s an unofficial strategy to colonize regions like Kachin – where 98% of the population is Christian – with Buddhist Burmans.
On another occasion, my guide made a comment about “the need for Christian buildings on top of hills, because the Buddhists are taking over and building Pagodas everywhere.” For a geographer like me this is more than fascinating. This is the pure expression of how power expresses itself on a territory. I’m fully aware I have a very partial picture of the complexity involving religion and ethnic minorities here, thus I must confess that after his comment I viewed the Buddhist presence in the country in a different way, with more skepticism than I’d even like to.
This uneasiness and discomfort only make me want to learn more and more about Myanmar. And to follow closer how the current uncertainties will unfold and impact the social, economic, and political development of the country.
[i] Last presidential election happened in November 2015 and new government took over on April 2016.