Irish Adventures: Les lacs du connemara

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In France there is this very famous, very cheesy (but French cheesy) singer that basically everyone has listened to and loved at one point. He has a song about the lakes of Connemara that my brother and I know by heart. It's a bit bizarre that a French ballad singer has a hit song about Connemara in Ireland, but trust me it's catchy in that old fashioned early 90s kind of way. Click here for  a link to a youtube video for your enjoyment.

The point here is that because of this song I've always wanted to see the Connemara. When my travel partner suggested Co Galway, location of the Connemara I got a little overexcited. Our aim was to be out in the country, staying at B&Bs (which are the best places to stay in Ireland) as much as possible. Ironically for Connemara I picked a hotel, though not our favorite, the Hotel Ardagh outside of Clifden still managed to feel very homey. Homey and home-made is something the Irish do well.

Connemara was magical. Travel exhaustion finally kicked in for both of us, and with ambitions to cycle around, we ended up passed out on a beautiful, empty, white-sanded beach. Laying out in the sun in Ireland is a rare and wonderful thing to do. The beaches, especially on the west coast are very wild. The blue of the water and the white of the sand make you think you could be in the Caribbean. Then you go into the water and freeze. That and the mooing of the cows munching on grass nearby remind you that you are not in the Gulf of Mexico.

The evening was spent enjoying a drink perched above the harbor in the lovely town of Roundstone, followed by a drive on the Sky Road to see the sun setting at 10:30 pm. We were sad to leave the next day, but the Dingle Peninsula awaited.

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Irish adventures: The Giant's Causeway and a long drive well worth it

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I just spent a week discovering the coastline of Ireland with a good friend. It was an unexpected detour in my trips, and one I'm glad I made. Ireland has always been a place I've wanted to visit but never a place that made it very high on my list of actual stopovers. Italian sunshine, English produce, French wines always seem to beat it out. Besides you run the risk of spending a week of vacation under a heavy, rainy Irish sky. Not the best way to relax. Well, I made it, and here is the first post on our adventures.

Giant's Causeway and scones

I should start by saying that we hit the global warming weather phenomenon of an amazingly spectacular week of sunshine. We saw the famous Irish fog once, and almost optionally since we could have turned right back into brilliant sunshine. Everyone we met, and we met a lot of people because the Irish are very friendly and flirty, was as stunned by the streak of cloudless, sunny, and hot days we were blessed with during our time.

I had been to Ireland once before as a very young college student. I'd seen Dublin, and had caught a tiny glimpse of the gorgeous countryside when I ventured south to stay in a B&B for a night. (This was also my very first solo traveling trip ever, twelve years ago. I did that math and ouch.) I knew from that trip that on a sunny day the Irish country side had the potential to be sublime, so we focused our planning on seeing as much of it as we could in a week and crossing our fingers. We booked and packed for rain, crossing our fingers for a bit of warmth, and have ended up wearing the same one light summery thing because its all we brought for 28C heat.

Despite a rough arrival - I pulled into our B&B at 2 am and Harpreet at 6 am due to the accident at SFO - we headed off as early as we could go to Northern Ireland (around 11 am after eating our weight in soda bread and scones at the Sandy Hills B&B) and see the Giant's Causeway. This is one of the top sights to see on the island, and though I hadn't thought about it much, it should have been packed with tourists. Turns out we decided to go up about a week before the rather controversial annual march by the Orange Order. It is one of these events that reminds everyone of Ireland's painful past and present conflicts, and as seen this year, in sporadic violent episodes. However, as a tourist, its brilliant. The March meant that tourists and locals alike were staying well away from Northern Ireland for at least a week, and we basically had the Giant's Causeway to ourselves.

We stopped for a bit to eat at the lovely, if a bit pricey, Bushmill's Inn in the town of Bushmills and I had a seafood platter delicious enough to make a Frenchman cry. Seriously. I think my father (said Frenchman) might have been in shock at how good it was. Espresso in Cornwall and 'fruits de mer' in Ireland - maybe the world is a better place? I digress and distract from the main point. After lunch we headed up to the Causeway with a goal in mind: to hike the whole thing.

As we would later figure out, we had a mini blessing in disguise, in that we had to abort that plan and could only walk half of it. I think the whole thing, or at least the main part, which runs from Carrick-a-Rede (or the Rope Bridge) to the actual Giant's Causeway is about 16 miles. We parked our car in a tiny little fishing harbor and walked 6 miles or so back towards the Giant's Causeway.

We essentially had the coast all to ourselves, with a perfect sunny day bleeding into a long late Northern European afternoon (sunset at 10:30 pm). The coast line on the Causeway is majestic, ancient, and truly one of the most beautiful sights I've seen on this trip. The setting sun (we didn't finish till 8 pm), the fluffy sheep dotting the landscape, the deep blue and green Atlantic, all of it only served to make the strange rock formations and talk cliffs of the Causeway Coast seem even more otherworldly.

The star of the Causeway Coast is the Giant's Causeway, a strange formation of basalt stone shaped into heptagonal pillars. The pillars line the cliffs for miles, but only at one spot do they extend into a low lying small spit into the crashing Atlantic. At this spot, they are human sized and you can walk all over them. I must have seen a million pictures of these neat rock formations in a thousand national geographic magazine spreads, but it really is special, and much more so in person. Go! (I think I should have a 'Must Go' section on this blog - the list is getting long).

We wrapped up our walk by flirting our way into the closing visitor center for a quick bite and a souvenir mug. We had about an hour walk back to the car along the road skirting the coast, before our three hour drive home to our adorable B&B in the town of Rush, north of Dublin (Sandy Hills B&B). Luckily for us, an adorable young woman from the visitor center picked us up about 10 minutes in and saved us from the hike back. We made it back to the car, in awe of the coastline and the friendliness of the people.

A long drive took us home. And we went to bed at 2 am, with plans to drive to Galway the next day. Below some pics from our Northern Irish interlude.

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Prego, Prego

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My good friend Nina and I try to plan a cycling trip every year. It's a good time for us to catch up as she lives in London and I don't. A good reason in and of itself of course. A better reason is that we both love our food, but to eat as we wish to we also need to burn some serious calories. Last year we did Provence because we both have a love of anything edible and Provençal, and we figured it was interesting landscape to cycle through. The only catch was that we managed to eat so much that we still put on weight, even with riding a bicycle for the better part of the day.

Clearly we had to ratchet up the physical activity a notch. This time Nina booked us into a proper road cycling week in Sardinia - an island not know for its light food or its flatness. Now, I have to admit that I left the planning up to Nina. She knows more about bikes then I do and she had very successfully found us our holiday in France last time. The bikes were clunky old things - nicknamed Marcel and Hypolite - and our average distance was 45 kms a day. Very, very manageable and once or twice a bit tiring. I thought that's what I was headed towards when I joined Nina in London for our 7 am EasyJet flight to Cagliari.

Our arrival in Cagliari was the moment in the story when I started to get a bit worried. In the back of the small van that came to pick us up were two very sexy road bikes, not two old clunkers. Now I've never ridden a road bike, they look painful, flimsy, and completely unsuited to crossing an entire island on Italian roads. Nina regularly rides road bikes and had been training for this trip for months. The most I've done is gone on a short hike with my mother about 2 months earlier, so yeah, I was not prepared.

Our five day trip took us from the mountains of the east coast, over the mountains in the middle to the mountains of the west coast. Somehow we made it up and over two mountain passes over a 1000 m in 5 days. I'm pretty proud of all these mountains, but then again I'm also still recuperating.

The southern part of the island is surprisingly unspoiled, though you do see the ravages of the economic crisis. We stayed in lovely little agri-tourismos each night which are essentially the Italian B&Bs. After cycling between 90 or 60 km, up and down mountains, I would devour the four courses of food we where served each evening. This kind of tourism isn't for picky eaters; you don't get a menu you are simply served what the (usually) lady of the house has prepared. Usually prosciutto, saucisson, cheese then pasta and only then the meat course. One hostess nearly panicked when we devoured the vegetables she served as starters and ignored the cured ham. We just hadn't seen vegetables since arriving. She came out of the kitchen with a worried look on her face but we put her fears to rest and ate most of the enormous lamb dish she served as mains (after the starters and pasta). My favorite town was probably the town of Laconi, located near the center of the island and home to a Saint (St. Ignacio di Laconi). 

We got very excited every time we caught a glimpse of the 'Sardinian Nona' - dressed all in black, head covered, usually heading into or out of a church and probably in her 90s. Sardinians take their Catholicism and their aging seriously. We stayed in the village of Villanovastrasailli, famous (or so its Welcome sign said) for being the village with longest male life expectancy in the world. Not a lot of dating prospects, though they may not have thought so as we were treated to a drink by the local men in the only bar open in town.

We finished our personal Giro Di Sardegna in a beach side town called Cala Gonone. It was quaint and though touristy not as spoiled as many other Mediterranean spots I've been too. After saying goodbye to Silvio and Gandolfini (we like to name our rides), our last meal, sitting by the side of the ocean, was divine (spaghetti with bottarga and clams, tomatoes with fresh fiure cheese, and a couple Aperol Spritz).

Here is the company we used (www.skedaddle.co.uk), I recommend them highly.

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Surf's Up

 Camel Estuary, Padstow, Cornwall

Camel Estuary, Padstow, Cornwall

One of my favorite places to surf turns out to be the cold, rainy, wind swept northern coast of Cornwall. I know I just sold the destination to you with that description, but bear with me. Cornwall is the English Florida. When you go off season it's mostly you and a lot of pensioners (English word for retirees), but that means its quiet and easy, which I prefer. July and August get a bit crowded, but any other time of the year and Cornwall is a wonderful, kinda magical, with a coastline dotted with extraordinarily pretty beaches, and, as it turns out, great places to surf. 

I have a very soft spot for Cornwall as its where I spent many formative summers freezing my little half-French bum on the beach until I was about 13 and decided I'd rather spend my summers in a country where it actually gets hot, like France. I did have one major advantage over all the other children, I tanned when the sun came out. Nothing marks you out like a healthy brown glow in a sea of angry pink. So the place is full of beautiful beaches, if slightly dodgy weather, and more importantly to the gastronomically inclined, this is the spot to get the best Cream Teas on planet earth. A Cream Tea (I'm capitalizing this on purpose, it deserves respect) for the uninitiated is comprised of a big pot of your favorite tea - I go for Darjeeling now - a mound of warm buttery scones, a shimmering sweet pile of fresh strawberry jam, and a large dollop of creamy cllotted cream. Clotted cream is basically impossible to find outside of the West Country in the UK, it doesn't export well and there is something very 'terroir' about the local cows and the quality of the cream. I should also mention that Padstow, the local attraction, is the headquarters of the Rick Stein empire, the man who taught the Brits how to cook fish again. It's a pretty little village, nestled in an estuary with a picturesque port and two Michelin starred restaurants.

To be able to eat as many cream teas as my digestive system would let me, I had to find a corresponding physical activity. As you can imagine, these babies aren't exactly low fat. (I've learned that if anything is both shimmery and creamy at once, then its probably damaging your arteries. Oh well). A few jogs on the coastal path were not going to cut it so, dragging my brother off the links course nearby, I signed us up for a couple of hours of surfing.

You have to wrap yourself up in a thick wetsuit, and it rained for at least one of our days in the water, but it was amazingly fun. No sharks or coral to worry about, a softly angled sandy beach, so no scary neck-snapping breaks, and, for the non-believers out there, some serious waves. For beginners like us we stayed close to shore and cut out when it got to big, or we got too cold. The beach we surfed on was Constantine Bay and neighboring Booby's Bay (yep, not a typo that's the name). At the top of Constantine, some local entrepreneur has set up a little espresso stand and never has a latte tasted so good. As my father has finally admitted, gastronomy has arrived in England. Quelle bonne surprise!

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Saigon by Vespa

Before jetting off for old Blighty*, I had one more stop to make on this Asian leg of my trip, Saigon. Two days after arriving, I've realized I did not put aside enough time for Vietnam, with the result that this country is now at the top of my list of reasons to go back.

Actually, if I think about that list of "reasons" just a little (I'll get back to Saigon in a moment), I fall down the rabbit hole of never-ending travel. I see why you meet people who have set off on trips for just a few months and end up still on the road a year later. Travel is the ultimate of life's Pandora's boxes, once opened it unleashes all the good and the bad that makes life interesting. I've been tired on this trip, irritable, frustrated with local customs (lines people! Orderly lines! And why can't we disembark in a calm and, again, orderly way. Try it, it's a lovely way to live), unsure, lost and sometimes a bit lonely in all these new places. But at each stop, by the time it came to leave, I wanted to see more, eat more, talk more, stay longer, engage more with the culture, and in most places I daydreamed of finding a flat and staying (Bangkok especially). My trip had to come to an end though, nothing like an expensive and uncancelable plane ticket to motivate you to get at least half way back to the beginning.

Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, or both as the locals say, was a treat to end my trip on. I found the place young, fast, beautiful, colonial, new, definitely original, and rather unbelievable considering that 40 odd years ago it was bombed to hell and back. It's a rare country where I don't get a pass with at least one of my nationalities. Example, in Brazil, I need a visa on my US passport, but not my French one (again, score). In Myanmar, being American is a big plus ('merica!), English, mmm up for debate. In Vietnam I was stuck, and after a visit to the War Remnants Museum, felt pretty damn terrible. This museum is a powerful place, and worth a visit. Every where you turn you see well documented proof of the atrocities committed by the French and the Americans (and in my mind at least, the complicity of the Brits for not having done anything to stop their allies). The museum isn't, shall I say, very critical of the north Vietnamese regime for rather obvious reasons. But that's the thing about war, the winner gets to be the one who writes the history books (and in this case, curate the museum). Yet, the Vietnamese, in what I suspect is a very unique example, have moved rather rapidly and definitely beyond the past and accepted America and the ex-colonial powers as new global BFFs. At no point did I feel any animosity, rather the opposite, and this was confirmed by others who have spent much more time in Vietnam than I have.

What did I enjoy the most? Well the food obviously. It's a close race between Thailand and Vietnam. The two have a surprisingly large divergence in flavours, ingredients, and palates considering their close proximity. I haven't decided a winner, and it may just have to involve a trip back for a full proper match up, but what the Vietnamese do with spring rolls is pretty close to divine. Fried or fresh, with noddles or dipped in sauce, they should be a unique food group on that USDA food pyramid. Unlikely, but a girl can wish.

I had the luck of staying with friends which always helps to make a city make sense faster. On their recommendation, on my last night, I signed up for a Saigon after Dark by Vespa tour. I highly recommend it. This is not a city you get by walking around it, or even being driven around, it's a city defined by its immense scooter-riding humanity and insane traffic. At night, on the back of a Vespa its exhilarating.

Enjoy & see you next in Europe.

* London


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Malaysia, truly Asia (the best ad campaign for an Asian country ever)

After our stop in Mae Sot, my travel sidekick and I headed to Malaysia. Our first stop was the food capital of Malaysia - George Town, Penang. Our second stop was two lazy days on a beach in Langkawi. I'll spare you the boring description of our amazing beach resort (amazing - The Datai) and just talk about food, food and more food! (Hmm this is maybe a reoccurring theme).

Our goal was to eat as much as we could, with a heavy emphasis on Roti, as we could in the 24 or so hours we allocated to our visit to the island of Penang. In many ways, Penang is quintessentially Malaysia and, yet, very much not. One of the three Straits city states along with Singapore and Melaka, it was a major crossroads for the Dutch and English spice trade and colonial presence for hundreds of years. George Town, the main city (though not the capital of Penang state, that's Butterworth across the channel and on the mainland), is a combination of colonial mansions, Chinese shophouses, Indian curry houses, and Muslim mosques. A true blend of the cultures that have plied their trade in the South Asian seas for centuries. Penang is heavily Chinese - usually south Chinese who speak Hokein, Cantonese and Hakka - which tones down the muslim influence in what is actually a majority Muslim country.

This lovely balanced and respected multiculturalism is one side of Malaysia that makes it rather unique in the world. Truth is Malaysia is also a pretty fiercely Islamic country and unfortunately becoming more strict in its interpretation - recent laws have passed that effectively help to reduce the rights of women. The Malays, who make up just over 50% of the population, and the Chinese, about 30%, haven't always gotten along and with this last election it's pretty clear that there are important unresolved issues around economic and political participation between the two communities.

That little bit of reality check behind, it is a fascinating place with one of the most diverse food cultures around. Take Chinese food, Indian food, South East Asian food, and local Malay food, and blend it together. The result is tasty and varied, and makes Penang one of the best places to visit just to eat.

I had visited the island about 10 years ago and since then the city has received UNESCO recognition and subsequent protection. Just in time too because your first impression is one of skyscrapers and ugly 1980s era buildings. As you get into the city and start to wander around you realize that there is a whole warren of beautiful streets lined with old buildings. It is a great little city to get lost in, you can go from expensively renovated Chinese homes to little winding streets with still-working shophouses to raucous little India for a lunch of Roti Canai.

We stayed at Muntri Mews, which I highly recommend, and had dinner at their big sister hotel 7 Terraces. Our day started with Kaya Toast (coconut jam and white bread) with Nasi Lemak (steamed rice with chilli paste, an egg, and tiny fried anchovies) for breakfast, chicken and rice Chinese style for lunch, about half a dozen Rotis for 1st dinner, with actual dinner consisting of pan-asian food at 7 Terraces. Not bad.

Ahh Rotis. The crepe of Malaysia yet so much more varied. Roti is a chewy, stretchy, flaky flat bread made to order. Singularly Malaysian it is a local take on a South Indian bread, and can be eaten with curry, ghee, honey, bananas, basically anything. When you come to Malaysia, do yourself a favor (if not to your waistline) and eat as many of these as you can.

Next stop, KL.

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Mae Sot or food, food and more food

My next stop was a bit of a detour. Sue kindly invited me to join her on a visit to her friends' home in the small thai border town of Mae Sot. It is a pretty, run of the mill, sort of town, except for two interesting facts. It is the big cross border trading town between Burma and Thailand and the closest town to many large refugee camps housing people fleeing either political or sectarian violence in Burma.

The presence of Myanmar so close to town means the town has a distinctive Burmese feel and It was nice not to feel like we had left Burma completely behind us. That said we spent most of our time gorging ourselves on Thai food.

One nice little discovery about the town was the presence of multiple very affordable and fantastically stocked antique stores. The shops are full of early 20th century furniture, all in slightly rough nick, but now I know why that mid century modern cupboard costs $7,000: it was bought in Burma, sold in Thailand and shipped to San Francisco. A surprising thing to find on the main highway into Myanmar.

There isn't a real tourist reason to go to Mae Sot, but I would say its nice to get off the track and see normal life. We mostly ate - both myself and my luggage are now officially over the intra-Asian weight limit - and it's a toss up for favorite between Son Tam (papaya salad) and Fried Chicken or Khao Soi (north thai spicy coconut and noodle soup). Okay I'll stop now and show you some pictures. Next stop Penang.

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Pyin Oo Lwin or Burmese Superstar

After Bagan we have headed up north to the old British hill station of Maymyo, now called Pyin oo Lwin. The town is a little over an hour outside and above Mandalay, up in the hills and blessed with a much cooler clime.

If you haven't figured this out yet I've got a thing for old colonial towns, and Pyin oo Lwin falls squarely into that category. The town is surrounded by large red brick clearly Victorian houses. The Brits used an amalgamated style of Victorian and Burmese and all of them are a particularly vivid shade of red brick, with pointed roofs decorated with lace-like edges in teak wood. They weren't here for long but they did have time to set aside and developed a rather lovely park and botanical garden on the outskirts of town. Their influence is also felt by the mix of people in the town. When they settled Maymyo (as they would have called it) they brought with them the Indians and Nepalis they preferred to work with from their colonies in India. (There are all sorts of issues with that but I'll just look at the impact today). The town is wonderfully diverse with Burmese, Shan (the local people of the area), Indians, Buddhist, Hindus, and Muslims. Architecturally, this means the downtown is a mix of old colonial buildings, new concrete additions, local teak houses, a mosque, churches, Hindu temples, Buddhist Payas, and a very Victorian clock tower.

We spent our first afternoon lounging in the National Kadawgyi Gardens, the Myanmar incarnation of the park set up by the Brits. Lucky for us we went on a Sunday of a holiday weekend so it was full of families, groups of teenagers, and monks enjoying live music and all that the park had to offer. It's a great place with beautiful flowers, an aviary, an orchid garden, a small museum, some very loud barking monkeys, and a lake. We sat down in the main lawn and, to our amusement, became what I can only describe as a kind of curiosity for the local people. Dozens and dozens of people came up and asked us to be in pictures with them. At one point we were completely overwhelmed by 20 screaming teenagers who rushed us as a group demanding pictures. As Sue said, now we know what it feels like to be famous.

The other highlights of the town were a visit to the great local market. One our last day, Sue and I rented bicycles and on our way around town stopped at a local tea shop to listen to some live music (turned out it was a for a fundraiser for orphans), drink Burmese coffee, and eat what we referred to as "Burmese French toast". A nice little taste of local life.

Camilla said her goodbyes after exactly a month of traveling - I will miss her. She is off to Mandalay a day early and then Bangkok, to head back to Europe. Sue and I are heading to Mandalay tomorrow, with our final Burmese night in Yangon.

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The bikes of Bagan

Apparently the best way to see Bagan is by hot air ballon operated by Ballons over Bagan (great, catchy name). We however arrived in the wrong season so were confined to much less expensive but possibly more troublesome bicycles as our mode of discovery. Bagan is one of the two must-sees in Myanmar. The other being Inlay Lake which I'll just go ahead and tell you we will not be making it too. Oh tragedy I can hear some of you saying, but after a lot of thinking we decided that doing one very touristy site was enough for all of us. Besides, it's the dry season, not the right moment to go visit a giant lake that shrinks down to a muddy puddle until its refilled by, you guessed it, the rains. 

We had an early morning flight on Air Bagan (official tagline: The Treasure of Myanmar better than the another local airline whose tagline was "We will fly you safely"). It was rainy and wet but we didn't mind much until we boarded the plane and then were asked to get off of it because of a "technical problem". The last thing you want to hear from a local airline in a recently de-sanctioned country is "we have a technical problem", though clearly we made it safe and sound. 

Bagan couldn't be more different from Yangon and Mawlyamine. We landed in a dry, dusty, hot plain having left the tropical dampness of the south. To me, with the bougainvillea in bloom and the dust it felt like the central plateau of Spain more than SE Asia. Driving out of the airport you start to see the thousands of ruined pagodas (stupas), temples, monastery, libraries doting the landscape, all built between the 10th and 13th centuries during the reign of the Bagan Kingdom (and according to UNESCO, very poorly renovated post the 1975 earthquake).

After a quick early morning check in at our Hotel (Hotel@Tharabar Gate - yep the at-symbol is part of the name), we asked for three bikes to go discover the temples. Two of the bikes worked find, but mine decided its preferred state was to have two flat tires. The hotel didn't have another bike, so we tried to compromise by putting two of us on one bike (there was a seat over the back wheel of one of the bikes, so why not use it, we reckoned). We made it as far as a third temple when in a rather dramatic fashion the wheel gave out. Sue, who was side-straddling the back wheel, and me, who was pedaling, tumbled into the soft, hot sand. No one was hurt, except for the bike of course, and we laughed pretty heartily. Now, however, we were stranded in 40C heat with one functioning bike and three people.

Back at the hotel, when we had set off with our wobbly and ultimately broken bikes, we had collected two local kids who through pure determination stuck to our side the whole time. Obviously they should not working tourists, but we didn't have much choice as they simply followed us wherever we went. They helped return the first flat tire-ed bike, insisted in showing us how to get up to the second level of a pagoda for a view of the plain, and stayed with us as we walked back through shortcuts in the heat of mid-day to the hotel. Without them I think we may still be wondering between the temples, dying of thirst. 

By this time we all felt pretty indebted to them, and though I strongly don't recommend this, we bought them some water and gave them a little bit of money. I think because we had bike troubles from the beginning and they jumped in to help we were stuck. This is one of the challenges you face when you travel, especially with two kids who could really use a couple of dollars you make the emotional choice rather than the right one. 

The afternoon was spent by the pool. It was too hot to do much else. Dinner was at the delicious and friendly Starbeam Restaurant, very highly recommended.

The next day we hired a guide in an effort to learn something about the temples and the kingdom that built it. The guide arrived and stated that we needed to set up our own transportation. Our only option - the local tuk tuk aka horse carts. Now, I'm loath to use transportation based on animals but both Camilla - who knows her horses better than I do - and I were impressed with the conditions of the animals. I honestly don't think I've seen ever such healthy working horses in a developing country. 

A long hot morning of touring temples later, we sent our guide and the horse carts home and headed off Nyauk U, the local town. Sue had a recommendation for Indian food and we sought out Aroma 2 (if there is an Aroma 1 no one knows where it is, and this trend of second restaurants is rampant). The afternoon was another pool and nap combination. Dinner was at the extraordinarily disappointing Sarabha 1 restaurant next door to the hotel. Sarabha 1, not 2 which is right next door. Don't go there. 

On our last full day we learned our lesson and this time rented hard core mountain bikes. They still had dodgy breaks but we figured we were on relatively flat land. Off we went into the dust to the Central Plain and off the beaten track a little. We visited what I've decided is my favorite temple, Salamani Paya. More biking took us through one of the local, seemingly untouched villages before turning into New Bagan. The town was created in 1990 when the government moved the village that had sprung up in the ruins of Old Bagan.

A full day of riding behind us, we are now sitting by the pool, enjoying the evening heat, and sipping the most civilized drink known to man - gin and tonics.

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Mr Win and the caves

To get from Mawlyamine to Hpa'an you have two choices. You can either take a bus for about two hours or get on a boat to go up the river Salween to Hpa'an. The official ferry only runs twice a week on Monday and Friday, but since we wanted to leave on a Tuesday, so we rented a smaller boat from the Breeze Guesthouse (the same place we got our bikes from the day before).. They have a very prominent though very informal sign printed in simple font on white paper - no official stamps - stating that they can legally provide boat transport from Mawlyamine to Hpa'an. Admittedly dodgy.

The ride was about 3 hours of peaceful motoring on the wide muddy river. In the distance we could just see the  limestone mountains that surround Hpa'an, standing straight up from the flat river plain. We passed pagodas carved into the river's edge, painted white and gold. The boat, we all decided, was a great decision. 

Hpa'an is a little town, buzzy with the normal activity of life, and not very geared to tourists. We started off looking for a place to stay at the Soe Brothers Guesthouse, heartily recommended by Lonely Planet. As Sue eloquently put it, if we were blind and in our twenties it might have been fine, but we are neither and frankly even in my twenties it would have been limit. Luckily Camilla and Sue found us the Parami Motel. Obviously it's not a motel, but their "penthouse" suit was clean, air conditioned, and at the top of 4 very tall flights of stairs. 

The draw of Hpa'an are a series of incredible caves-temples, a monastery perched on a rock inside a man-made lake, Mt Zwegabin and its 1000 buddhas, and our guide Mr Win who came to pick us up in his tuk-tuk, with a motorcycle that I think must have been 40 years old. A loud grinding of gears and off we where, bumping on the very hard benches down the potholed streets of Hpa'an. Mr Win was lovely and I would recommend his services to anyone who makes it to this town. Several temples are located in the caves and tunnels that run throughout the limestone hills which surround the town. We didn't make it up Mt Zwegabin, the local holy mountain, because it would have taken us 4 hours we didn't have, but Mr Win did bring us to the field of a 1000 Buddhas at the base. 

The next day we woke up very early for the 7 am departure of our 7 hour bus ride back to Yangon. Before we got on the  bus, Mr Win reappeared to buy is Bama Coffee and a local breakfast to see us off on out long drive (Bama coffee is, to the best of my understanding, Nescafé with a condensed milk in a small cup. It's delicious). 

Photos!

(Mr Win's Details: U Thein Win, tel: 09-49771213, ask for him at the Parami Motel)

 River side temple

River side temple

 Kawgoon Caves

Kawgoon Caves

 Discovering a cave

Discovering a cave

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Kissed by a monk, saved by a girl

Our first, and only, full day in Mawlyamine opened rainy and damp. It is the rainy season here in the south of the country which has the distinct result that it rains every day, and the helpful advantage that in a country without many tourists to start with there are even less here and now. (Fact: Q1 2013 tourist numbers were about a quarter million people, 60% from Asia and way up from last year - according to the Myanmar Times, a local English language newspaper). We decided on advice from friends who had made it down here a few months before to rented bikes (thank you Gioia and Ernesto). Apparently our best option was to rent them from the Breeze Guesthouse, a long established guesthouse on the Strand facing the bay. Our bikes in hand, and after a little detour to circle the town, we headed for the third peer to our ferry for Ogre Island.

As I told you before you need your passport number for everything here. So when we got to the boat, and Camilla found the right person to buy a ticket from, we realized that, oops, no one had their passport numbers. Luckily making them up on the spot doesn't seem to be a problem (For the record, I had mine memorized. I'm proud of this fact, though I realize it makes me imminently more traceable than either Camilla or Sue). The ferry wins second prize for most interesting transport so far this trip. It was, for lack of a better description, the kind of ferry you see in still pictures, half sunk, while watching the BBC. I could not venture to guess its age, but it was older than us for sure. The first level was packed to the edges with 'cargo' and mini restaurants of women selling tasty food at a low table surrounded by little brightly colored stools for their clients. There must have been at least three or four of these set ups. We squeezed past all the stuff and the people and the restaurants to place our large old fashioned bikes against the railing (if said sinking where to happen, I figured we could get out faster this way). Upstairs was surprisingly just like any other ferry. Rows of wooden benches and comparatively calm compared to the lively cafeteria downstairs. I think western ferries have something to learn from the food set up available to us. Lots of competition and a wide variety of dishes, all of them better then the bland and greasy food you usually find on ferries (I've been in a lot of ferries apparently).

Arrival at the island was definitely hectic. Even before the boat had maneuvered into its final position against the 'jetty', people were climbing on and throwing bags out the boat to waiting hands. We had unfortunately placed ourselves in everyone's way, which was definitely a source of mild panic as we really didn't want to be those ferengi blocking the locals' way. Luckily we managed to get out without too much fuss and one of our band was helped by a local who rescued the bike from the boat.

There isn't much to do on Ogre island other than bike around, find a pagoda to visit, and wave a lot to everyone. It was incredibly magical. Our first stop was to climb a hill to visit a stuppa which was a very sweaty way to discover the island. On our way down a group of local kids had noticed us or our bikes, and come to discover. They shyly waited for us at the bottom and welcomed us back with hellos and more hellos and more hellos. I think the only English they new, but each hello came with a big smile and a wave. They were just interested in us in the most innocent way. That friendliness thing I've talked about, and the guide books talk about, it's really true.

With a little help from our kids we went right and into a village. Camilla was given a banana completely unbidden, and we were waved at by almost everyone and not just little kids, People of every age and gender just smile and wave. We did get a couple of those "oh wow, look" reactions that I don't think happen I very many other places. Says a lot about how little tourism has impacted this country. Off we went down the road until we realized we needed to head back go make this ferry.

A few minutes after we turned back we heard a very large popping sound. The inner linings on one of the tires on Sue's bike had popped and here we were a good 40 minutes away from the ferry. We figured we could probably limp back since we didn't have much choice. As we got to the nearest village we stopped to take a look at the wheel in more detail. As we bent down to inspect Sue's tire a couple local kids rushed out to say hi. Seeing our problem they immediately, and I mean in a matter of seconds, whipped out a tire pump and tried filling it up with air. Because these kids all ride bicycles, they knew right away that the problem was more than a little bit of air. About a thirty seconds after we arrived, a girl of about 10 jumped on the bike and peddled away in very determined manner. Her father or well, an older guy, who spoke a little big of English told us it was all okay, sit down have a drink. Well okay, we thought, we didn't have much choice and she clearly knew what to do better than all three of us combined.

We sat and had a few drinks, giggled with the other kid of the family, managed to communicate to the grandmother that, yes, we were American (very generally well received here). About 15 minutes later, our young savior reappeared with our bike and a perfectly functioning tire all for 200 kyat and a nice cool break in the shade. Find me a 10 year old anywhere else who will step up to save a bunch of hapless tourists all of her own volition. I certainly wasn't that charming at that age.

We made it back to the ferry which this time turned out to be a much smaller flat bottomed river boat for 10 people. Our bikes made if on and fortunately we had brought umbrellas for the rain. Turns out they were more useful for the afternoon sun. On the boat we met a local guide, who has been profiled in the Lonely Planet. Charming older man who works as a manager at the Breeze guesthouse and from whom we learned we could rent a boat to go to Hpa'an the next day (Hpa'an is pronounced Pa'an).

But our day is not over. After lunch over looking the Salween river and bite to eat at the Grandmother Grandfather restaurant (located in a late Mad Men era building full of cats overhanging the water) we returned our bikes and decided to go for a walk. Mawlyamine is overlooked by a small hill upon which has been built a succession of pagodas and a viewpoint. The sign for the viewpoint seems to indicate it was constructed sometime in the 60s (as most of the newer constructions in the town seem to as well, though you can see some new money and more recent buildings). We made our way through the old colonial heart of the town, past a lot of Christian churches - some in working condition, some not, got into a bit of trouble with the military to take a picture of an old clock tower, and marveled at how relatively prosperous the town must have been during the colonial era (big buildings). As we made our way up the hill, we were told to go a different way by two locals, not wanting to be rude we let them guide us to a long staircase which led to... the viewpoint. With no phones or google maps its easy to get lost (really, how did we manage before?) but here people will step in and help as soon as they see you going the wrong way.

We climbed up (sweaty again) to a beautiful view of the river meeting the bay, tops of colonial buildings, flamboyant trees, sandbanks and islands and the sun setting through rain clouds. As we were walking away towards the main Paya (Pagoda/Wat) an older monk saw us approaching and crossed the street towards us. You have to understand that all the literature says to treat the monks with a lot of respect - don't touch their robes, don't really engage with them (cause you'll just screw it up and be disrespectful), just smile and bow and as a general rule better not to engage too much. With this older monk fast approaching us, I think we all froze to one degree or another panicked about doing the wrong thing. With a big smile he indicated he wanted a picture taken with all us, grabbed our hands and lined two of us next to him. Big smile and repeat with the third person. He then pointed to Camilla's head and made the universal sign for putting on glasses. Taking her sunglasses he put them on and demanded another picture. At this point we are all giggling and enjoying the rather irresponsible encounter with the monk. Pictures done, he leans over, asks me where I'm from, cheekily gives me a very light kiss in the cheek, and off he goes continuing
up the street.

Big smiles on our faces, we couldn't believe our day. A broken bike, quickly fixed, and a surprising encounter with a monk, have made our second day in Myanmar a rather unforgettable experience.

The next day we made our way to Hpa'an by boat.

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The Road to Mawlyamine... part 2

Scroll down for the first part of this post. Here we start with the train from Yangon to Mawlyamine.

The title is a reference to Kipling's story of the same name. I'm not that clever, it was quoted in the guide book, but I do love the ring of it. Mawlyamine is difficult to write and a bit tricky to pronounce at first but after many repetitions (its basically phonetic) it becomes fun to say. The town is south of Yangon, further down the peninsula Myanmar shares with Thailand and Malaysia, and sits on a bay facing towards the Andaman sea. (Heads up, I'm about to geek out) It was the capital of British Burma from 1826 to 1857 after they won the first of the British-Burmese wars. Ugly colonial business obviously but the residual architectural effects are quite lovely. Mawlyamine was a port from where the British exported a lot of Burmese teak which was brought down river by floating the huge logs. Teak, rubber, oil (discovered bubbling up to the surface) and I think tea were and remain important exports from this part of the world, and Burma was, relative to size, an extremely wealthy dominion for the British Empire. Mawlyamine is interesting for another fact in that it is where George Orwell's mother was born and raised in a Franco-Anglo family. Orwell started his career as a policeman in Burma and spent some time in what was then called Moulmein with his maternal grandmother. "To shoot an Elephant" was written about his time in Burma. I won't go into how the social, racial and economic realities of working for the East India Company in Burma informed much of his later work.

We took the train from Yangoon to Mawlyamine and what a fantastic choice that was. Somehow, in the decidedly not bilingual conversation had with the ticket agent the day before I ended up buying us "ordinary class" tickets rather then the recommended "upper class" tickets. I should mention here that you should remember to either memorize or jot down your passport number because you are going to need it to do everything. The government is trying to keep tabs on foreign tourists and therefore at any hotel (which I find normal) and on any mode of transport other than a taxi, you need to register with your passport number. Anyhow, back to the train adventure. We showed up the next morning for our 7:15 am train to discover we had been assigned three seats in the ordinary class. Even the conductor was a little confused, at first taking us to upper class only to look at our tickets and direct us down a carriage to three wooden slated hard seats. Frankly, it was the best mistake of my entire trip. The only difference between the two classes is that upper has 'carpeting' and bus-like seats.

The locals, I suspect, were a bit surprised to find us in their carriage so we had a lot of starring and shy smiles to contend with. Not a problem obviously as everyone was lovely, sweet and very friendly. We were offered food three times, we gave food back twice. We had a lot of giggling and smiling and some halting conversations that unfortunately couldn't get past the "where are you from? Where are you going stage?" due to our non-existent Burmese. We were all amazed by how much food the hawkers could carry on their heads, especially one young woman who walked up and down the moving and rocking train with a huge spinning tray of giant fried crickets. So so so much food was hawked - fried fish, fried vegetables, entire lunches, fruits of all sorts, jaggery of all sorts, coffee, betel leaf, beer and more. The train rolled through beautiful countryside especially when it started going down the coast towards Mawlyamine (we had to head north first). Lush, green, flooded rice paddies and tall palm trees with hills rising like a spine down the coast covered in golden pagodas.

The people, the landscape, the food, all of it was striking, but the thing I think we will all remember most is the feeling of riding on a probably 100+ year old single gauge track in a 50+year old carriage, rocking rather violently and being swung side to side as the train made its way down. There were a few moments where I thought we were going to just rock off the side of the rails and into a muddy rice paddy. But we didn't, and even better, I don't think I need to go see that chiropractor about my chronic back pain. I'm not joking. Our average speed, calculated by our diligent Dane, was 15 MPH. Which explains why it took us about 11 hours to make it to Mawlyamine.

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The Road to Mawlyamine... part 1

Well we have left Thailand and Bangkok, full of neon lights, fancy hotels and the Japanese families enjoying the pool at the Conrad hotel we booked for our last night in a non-Junta run country. Camilla and I were joined by our friend Sue who flew in the night before. After a long sleep-in and time for a delicious thai street food lunch we made our way to Don Mueng airport for the Air Asia flight to Yangoon. (Btw: Air Asia is the Ryan Air of Asia, be prepared to pay for everything.)

To enter Myanmar you need a visa which you usually have to get before coming. We had all been told (across three different countries - Denmark, France and the US) that it would take forever to get. Short on time, Camilla and I relied on a local fixer who had been recommended to us by a friend. We landed with only a printed email stating we had been issued a VOA (Visa on Arrival). Turns out it works beautifully. We handed over our papers to the very friendly visa staff who handed us back our passports with a cool looking and more importantly very legitimate visa stuck in it. This compared rather favorably to Sue's visa, which she had sought through the more official channels before leaving the states, and is simply a piece of paper stapled to her passport with a fuzzy stamp. We met a rep of our fixer on the other side and paid him the $75 dollars we had promised. Money well spent.

Speaking of money. We had a very interesting time getting the cold hard USD bills suitable for exchanging money and paying for anything in Myanmar. They are not kidding or equivocating when they tell you to bring only very crisp bills from post-2006 ($100 bills) and post-2009 (everything else). Getting those kind of bills in the US is very hard. Thankfully Sue's mother managed to procure some for us thereby turning Sue into our money mule. There are a few ATMs but this is a country without a developed or internationally connected banking system (international banks won't be allowed in till 2015.) One of the first things we did in Yangoon, after paying for our hotel with some of our $, was to exchange them. A couple of bills were rejected by the exchanger (best rate in Yangoon according to our friend who is living here) because of tiny creases.

We are very lucky in that we have a friend who is half-Burmese and has been living in Yangoon for the last 6 months. We met up on our first night and had a great tour of expat bars in Yangon. Don't think this is Phnom Penh, which has been a darling of the international development seen for the last 10 years. There are maybe 4 bars, including the very historically cool Strand Hotel bar which is and has been without interruption the "Raffles" of Yangon, kept in business even after the Brits left in the 40s. We also hit up the Traders Hotel, where apparently the UN is based, and 50th Street bar. The last expat bar, which we didn't make it too is Union Street. Next time I guess.

The next day we spent the morning at a travel agency getting ourselves organized (and working off a slight Myanmar Beer hangover - tasty stuff, there's an export product for the country). Unfortunately a lot needs to be handled through these agencies since they seem to be the only ones who can book flights and sometimes have special connections to hotels. We want to head up to Bagan and to do that we could either take the train, bus or fly. We opted for a flight because its faster but also because we were going to start our trip with a train to Mawlyamine, and flights need to be settled by an agency.

The afternoon was spent discovering Burmese food and the Shwedagon Paya. Burmese food is delicious and definitely a step away from the noodles and soups of SE Asia and closer to Indian subcontinent food. It is delicious but not vegetarian friendly, so don't come here thinking its all stir fry veggies or vegetarian curries, and a bit heavy on the oil. We had the traditional morning dish of Mohinga, a sort of cat fish and noodle soup (I realize that just counters my previous statement about noodles and soups, but it is definitely not like Pho). That may not sound appetizing but it is unbelievable tasty, with crunchy fish bits in a thick broth and slippery noodles. Delicious.

We walked up to the main temple in Yangon, Shwedagon Paya, to see the sunset and absorb some of the local Buddhist culture. It's really an impressive site, in part made more so because it still dominates the whole city. I imagine that soon, with all the planned skyscrapers set for construction it will be absorbed into a very different skyline. For the moment it acts like a beacon in the middle of the city and to my eyes a place for families to come, amble around the main stuppa, sit and chat and of course, pray. The Shwedagon is like a big complex with at its core a very large golden stuppa placed in the middle of a tiled plaza around which people walk slowly in mostly a clockwise fashion. We must have spent two hours walking, occasionally sitting, watching the sunset and the lights coming on and the candles being lit. There were a few other tourists, but I could count them on one hand. Watching the Burmese was the most enjoyable and fascinating element, made only better because almost all of them would smile and wave, saying hello or Minglabar, to us.

The friendliness of people in Burma is not exaggerated. People either wave and smile at us unbidden or if you smile first they break into a big smile and hello in return. Children are amazed at seeing us and we have had many instances of the Burmese equivalent of "hey look, white people, amazing", big smile, and wave! (Or so I imagine, clearly my Burmese is not up to any snuff.)

After a long sweaty day, we headed to the Governor's Residence hotel for a sundowner. This is the Orient Express hotel and does it fit the bill. The hotel is an old teak building which used to house the governor of one of the states that make up Burma. My gin and tonic was absolute perfection.

On our second full day we caught the train early for a trip south to Mawlyamine and Hpa'an. See the next post for that story.

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Goodbye Laos, hello Myanmar

Our last day in Luang Prabang was spent visiting the Wat that overlooks the town and sweating profusely. They are not joking about the heat in these countries, and Laos was by far the hottest. I wish I could say I get dewy when I sweat but I don't. I sweat like a hairy fat Frenchman sitting on a beach in the riviera. It's not elegant, feminine or in any way sexy. It's just a mix of unfortunate sweating patterns (top lip, chin, mid stomach range - which ruins any outfit) and lotsa sweat. Gross. So anyhow, that was me on this morning. Climbing a hill in 100% humidity sweating from my chin and mid stomach, ending up soaking through my very light weight shirt by 9 am. Luckily, even though I was not the picture of beauty the view was and that is where everyone was looking.

We are off to Burma/Myanmar (you can make up your own decision about what to call it. I don't care and will use them interchangeably). Internet is probably going to be patchy so I might be going radio silent for a few days. But don't abandon me, I'll be back with many stories.

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Lotsa Buddhas in Laos

Headed out to enjoy more of the Mekong today with a kayak trip to the Pak Ou caves. Famous for having something like a 1000 Buddhas in them, they are nestled into a limestone cliff about 15 km north of Luang Prabang or a good two hours on kayak from our drop off point somewhere up the river.

The afternoon was spent learning more about the many ethnicities of Laos and wander into an art gallery with a great patio and thereby view of the city. Exhausted but happy we closed out the day with Beerlao and Lao BBQ which, even if not legitimately 'local food' (I have no idea), was delicious.

Pics.

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Luang Prabang or wishing I was Catherine Deneuve in Indochine.

This place is decidedly magical. We left PP and flew to Luang Prabang which is the old royal capital of Laos as well as the old French capital. The French weren't in Laos long, only from the 1890s to when they exited Indochine in 1953. Laos was also the least important part of their SE Asian empire, I read somewhere that by the end of their rule, there were maybe 600 French people living in Laos - not a lot considering the size of the country.

Luang Prabang is so magical that I'm not even going to go all geeky on geopolitics, only to tell you that it's a communist state a la Vietnam, China, Cuba and NKPDR. Done. Now on to the lovely left over colonial charm of this place. UNESCO and the Laotian government did something amazing in the mid 90s when they made the town a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They have therefore managed to preserve the charm of this place from the ravages of quick and ugly development you see almost everywhere else. It's still Asia, but I like to think its a bit more Asia-lite and I don't care if it makes me a travel wimp because after 10 days in Cambodia, it sure feels nice.

The town sits right at the confluence of the Mekong and a trip tributary called the Khan, on a bluff overlooking both rivers. For those who have been to Harper's Ferry, its kind of like. Obviously the comparison is only geological, this place is not revolutionary America.

Today we woke up to see the monks doing their morning ritual of alms collection at 6 am, then we had a lovely breakfast and found ourselves a van to the waterfall outside of town. It was as spectacular as the guide book said. Cold clear mountain water streaming into limestone pools where we could go swimming. Magical.

We ended the day with an evening cruise on the Mekong. It is as beautiful as it sounds.

Okay enough writing. Pictures.

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Phnom Penh and history

After seeing a lot of country on a 12 hour bus ride from Ratank Kiri to Phnom Penh we settled into an urban interlude in Cambodia's capital. The city is changing rapidly with lots of new construction quickly changing the old colonial feel of the place. It's an interesting time to visit because I bet 2 years from now it will be completely different.

We had a chance to meet a fellow fletcherite who caught us up on a lot of inside information on politics, governance, environment and economy. Dorky dorky stuff that I love to find out about place. The upside - change is always good, as is economic growth. The downside - man is there a lot of corruption, history hasn't finished taking its pound of flesh and the political leadership is a nasty piece of work.

We also made sure to visit the Killing Fields museum. There were something like 90 "killing fields" throughout Cambodia but the Choeung Ek one is closest to the capital and is a must see for any responsible tourist. I should say that they have done a splendid job and it feels very personal and immediate, but its shocking to look down at your feet and see that you are walking on bones still embedded in the mud. They just can't get all the bones out, so they are waiting for the rain and natural processes to bring them to the surface. When they come up enough they then pick them up and add them to the pile of bones they have already found. Sadly, or rather, more sadly, they are only just now starting to teach school kids about what happened under the Khmer Rouge. Though most if not all come from families that were impacted. That's what a corrupt ex-khmer rouge government will do for you.

The big highlight of our trip was a fantastic architectural tour of the city. The tour is given by a student of architecture from the local university, and something about him not being a professional guide, or even in the tourism business, just made it fantastic. We saw a lot but when he took us down an alley with tiny houses all built onto and into each other where it suddenly got dark, we looked up to realized we had walked into the remains of an old church. People had just colonized it, building under its roof to protect from the rain. It was that strange mix of amazing ingenuity and sadness at the poverty that pushes people to do it.

I should say that we had a splendid time in Cambodia, but its not as easy a place as a lot of the rest of SE Asia. History carries its weigh here.

Anyways, photos. (Only from my iPhone. I had to forget my camera one day)

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Ratank Kiri or leeches

Our destination was Ban Lung in the province of Ratank Kiri. Our plan was to go jungle trekking for two nights, but I will admit here to being a bit of a coward and knowing that I couldn't go three full days without a cold shower. We downgraded to two days and one night and frankly, it was perfect. Our guides were two local boys (really, so young) and a member of the local hill tribe. Hill tribes is the generic term for the non-cambodian ethnic groups, other than the Chinese, Lao and other national minorities. They speak their own languages, are usually animists, traditionally live in isolated rural areas and are not part of the main stream economy or culture of Cambodia. There are a dozen or so different groups, and we think this one was the Kroeung (though not sure, as no one could clarify this point of data). Our hill tribe guide, Neng, was a fascinating individual. Tough as nails, served in the army for a dozen years, fought for and then fought against the Khmer Rouge, randomly climbed trees to get mangoes, cut vines for water survival-style, and could definitely out jungle trek all of us. Our two boy guides were sweet and fun, dressed in jeans and cool kicks (amazing considering the heat and the landscape) completely different from Neng.

We spent time in a couple of the villages where there is no electricity and no running water and lots of kids running around without much in the way of education or supervision. I'm sure some crunchy hippies would think this is wonderful, but mostly it's very sad. The poverty is pretty grinding out here and though everyone seemed healthy enough, with chickens, cows, water buffaloes and fruit trees, its a hard hard life. We hiked past the villages and into the jungle where the domesticated animals were replaced with a surplus of bugs. Bugs, bugs, bugs, leeches, weird bees, mosquitoes, and more bugs of some sort or another. We camped out by a waterfall that is more of a suggestion this time of year. Come back in 4 months and water would be pouring down the rock face and flooding the area where we slept, but now we only had a muddy little pool to try and clean our sweat off in.

I will forever have a memory of Camilla freaking out as our guide pulled a couple of aggressive leeches off her socks, and of a lovely boat ride up the river to the village.

After a night in faux-US army mosquitoes nets-cum-hammocks (maybe for an afternoon nap, but not comfy for a whole night) we hiked back to the river. The day finished up with a visit to Yeak Lom. It's a crater lake where the locals go for an afternoon dip. Surprising clean and trash free compared to the rest of the country (Cambodia suffers from then same disease all developing countries do - a mixture of poor or non existent trash collection system and a general lack of education about the issue). Splashed around with some kids and generally had a good time. Now we are home, showered and beer in hand.

Photos!

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Koh Ker and Durian

After Angkor Wat, we decided to spend the second day on some more prosaic activities. We booked our car for the next day and organized an afternoon outing by tuk tuk to the local reservoir. The reservoir is pretty but we both could have done without the trash on the beach. The highlight was tasting some reconstituted frog and something they called cheese. I am not often grossed out by food, but that substance was foul. If munched up, dried, fermented and then recooked fish is cheese in Cambodia, than the French didn't leave as much of an cultural mark as they probably think they did (mission civilisatrice and all that). The beer was pretty great though, went well with my admittedly bony but tasty frog meatballs on a stick. Afterwards we visited a legit local food market. Lots of smells, unidentifiable meat and dried fish. Pretty fascinating.

Onwards from Siem Reap. We left for a full day's ride across the north of the country. Cambodia is really flat, making it kind of ironic that their capital is called Penh's Hill (Phnom Penh), but maybe when you are this flat you notice the hills more. The landscape from Siem Reap to Ban Lung in Ratank Kiri province shows a Cambodia that is still very poor. Small villages are surrounded by localized small scale farming. Increasingly you see very large swaths of clear cutting for either logging or planting of cash crops like rubber, cashews, and other unidentified things. We stopped at Koh Ker, a somewhat forgotten Angkor Wat-like temple complex two hours from Siem Reap. It was, in my opinion, much more magical and enjoyable than Angkor because they have left in a state of near collapse, overgrown with trees and plants. It helped that we were alone.

The road we took is not a main road, that one runs south to Phnom Penh and back up the other side of the river, and was either pounded or under construction. All the major roads and large scale crops where clearly being built and run by the Chinese. That was interesting to see - China's economic imperialism in full swing. Once we crossed, we hit the main road from Phnom Penh and things changed. Not drastically, but enough to notice.

We, as you may have surmised reading above, had to cross the Mekong. What made it interesting is that we are about a year or so too early for the conclusion of the impressive bridge being built (probably by the Chinese) to span the river. Therefore we had to opt for the locals rickety "ferry" across to Strung Treng. We hadn't been told any of this when we booked the car, so to our surprised we were dropped off on the ferry and told to find our next driver on the other side. It was a great way to see the river, and after a starring contest with the dozen or so locals who don't usually get to see tourists in bright yellow dresses (poor sartorial choice, but then again I thought I was going to be in a car all day) we settled down to a nice chat with one of the guys. An hour or so later (waiting for the other ferry, just random waiting, and then the crossing) we made it to our next ride. Unfortunately the car stank of Durian. Camilla wouldn't believe me when I told her its a fruit and delicacy, but after an hour or so you kind of get used to the stench.

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Cambodge

We left Chiang Mai yesterday, saying a sad (but maybe secretly relieved) goodbye to our two scooters. We had spent our last day venturing east and south of the city. The highlights were the little side streets we 'discovered' because, in all honesty, we mostly got lost a lot. We did end up on one of Chiang Mai's highways on the way home which one sign referred to as "Supper Hiway", but at least it was in Anglo letters and in English, cause signs in Thai are indecipherable (see earlier comment about getting lost). I won't however be scootering on a 6 lane highway in the tropical rain during rush hour anytime soon.

We flew into Siem Reap from Thailand, a bit nervous that our e-Visas would not work, but tada! they did. For Camilla and me that felt like some sort of important travel victory. We were inordinately happy after clearing customs. In Siem Reap we are staying at the FCC Angkor which has turned out to be a great choice. This is a city with a lot of good choices for hotels. It clearly lives from tourism dollars, for better or for worst. Interestingly, I've never seen such a well developed "feel-good" network of NGOs competing for our tourist dollars (dollars: very important, to be discussed). We spent this evening at a circus that was set up by what has to be some French people to help street kids. Really great idea and a must see. Afterwards we walked to a street market that was full of stalls from NGOs selling anything and everything. I admire their missions but getting this much guilt with every possible transaction is exhausting,

We woke up before dawn this morning to do the obligatory and truly lovely visit to Angkor Wat. Seeing the sunrise was a motivation, but a far greater consideration was the heat that we knew would bear down on us as soon as the sun was up. What we didn't expect was that by 9 am it was already barely bearable. After we had finished, at around 11, Camilla and I walked back very slowly to our tuk tuk dripping in sweat and with our t-shirts plastered to our bodies. We are both in awe of all the Asian tourists, mostly from China and Japan, who walk around in the heat of the day with what we have started calling the Asian Burka. Long sleeves, long pants, usually with another layer on top, a hat, a neck guard, occasionally gloves, and sometimes a bandana like face guard. They are not the most impressive though, the ones that amazing me are the women, also mostly Chinese, Japanese, and from what I can gather some Thai, who are dressed to the nines in long dresses, cute jackets or, get this, cardigans, with their long hair down, and there is not a bead of sweat on their perfectly made up faces. I, in the meantime, have sweated through my clothes so much that they probably have to be washed twice, I gave up on any makeup about two weeks ago, and I feel like fainting if my hair even touches the back of my neck.

Oh and yes, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are phenomenal. We are apparently in the low season. If this is low season numbers, then I can not imagine what it must be like in the high season. Anyhow, I'm done! Enjoy the pics:


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