SE Asia Day 9: Thateng to Tad Lo

January 3rd, 2017

Ride map.

If there was ever a time we needed a short, no-wind, downhill day, today was that time. Dani ended up following me down the food-poisoning path last night, so we weren’t in the best of moods when we woke up.

We started very slowly. We didn’t seem to be actively suffering as much this morning (i.e., we weren’t making frequent trips to the restroom), but our bodies seriously ached. We both felt lethargic and struggled to get moving.  Doing small tasks to prepare to go was exhausting and required many breaks of lying down completely still. We had also completely lost our appetites, something that anyone who knows us knows is as common as Halley’s Comet, but forced ourselves to eat a tiny banana to have some small amount of energy for the ride.

Eventually we got ourselves out of bed and packed our things. We left around 11am, or about 3 hours later than normal.

But we were fortunate. Today was always going to be a short day, just 20 miles, and knowing that was a big reason we were able to convince ourselves to get on our bikes. But what we didn’t know is that pretty much the entire ride was downhill. Good steep downhill too. We covered the first fifteen miles in about 50 minutes, and for long stretches, we didn’t even have to pedal.

Which was a good thing, because when we DID have to pedal, my legs felt like they were about to fall off. Maybe that had something to do with throwing up (or otherwise expelling) everything I had eaten in the previous 24-48 hours.

   In any case, we made great time to Tad Lo, getting here around 12:20p. We had to find a place to sleep, and we were quickly sold on a guesthouse with cute rooms and a PORCH with HAMMOCKS for $8.50.

Then we lay in the hammocks for an hour or so.

  

At this point we felt like we had to go exploring, both because we came here to check out the waterfalls in town and because no matter how we were feeling, we really had to eat something.

So we decided that if we were leaving our happy place, we might as well see some of the waterfalls the town is named for (I might be wrong about this, but I’m pretty sure “Tad” means waterfall Lao). We crawled out of the hammocks, got ourselves together, and walked for about twenty minutes to the southern Tad Lo falls. Longest twenty minutes ever. They were nice, and to our chagrin, they were swimmable. It looked like nice swimming too. But neither of us had our suits (Dani asked if we should wear them, and I confidently said no), and even if we did, I don’t think we would have felt up for swimming anyway.

 So we walked down a little path from the falls that let us out at Tad Lo Lodge, the swankiest place in town. We didn’t really enjoy the milieu, but we liked the deck overlooking the river, and we were wary of food in general, so we thought swanky was a safe bet. Also, pro tip: we saw this in Costa Rica too, but if you go to a touristy-type swanky place in foreign country and then order traditional food of said country, the price is actually pretty reasonable. So our meals were about a third as expensive as the western food on the menu.

But, we were both feeling so queasy that, for the first time in my memory, neither of us finished our food. Dani has instilled in me a strong “clean plate club” ethic. But today we just couldn’t. Ugh.

After lunch, we walked back to our hotel and got back into the hammocks, lazily looking out on a field where a family herded their cattle.

After a few more hours, we felt a little better, so we decide to venture out once again. We walked across the river, checked out the northern falls, and stopped in at a cute little guesthouse for a fruit smoothie and an vegetable omelet sandwich.

 Then we made it back to the hotel for the night, watched a movie on our laptop (sick day! And Dani let me choose, so obviously it was a Disney movie), and hunkered down for bed just before 9p.

Tomorrow is a long day for us. 55 miles, and I don’t think we’ll have the same downhill luck.  But we have a plane to catch the next day, so we don’t really have any option except to make it. So hopefully a few meals and another good night of sleep will carry us through.

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SE Asia Day 8: Tad E Tu to Thateng Nua

January 2nd, 2017

Ride map.

We woke up before sunrise again, which was perfect because we wanted to get an early start. We ate yummy buffet breakfast (but was it yummy?? WAS IT? Cue horror film music), packed, and headed out. We thought we were at the top of the Plateau at this hotel, but we were wrong – 10 more miles to the top, and a strong headwind to combat on the way. We came across the Tad Fane waterfalls a few miles in, and also the Tad Fane resort, which we have a booking for in 2 nights. Only…it’s in the wrong place. You see, booking.com, maps.me, and google maps all think Tad Fane Resort is 27k down the Plateau from where we stood. We are doing a loop, so it is actually not possible for us to come back up here to stay. I don’t want to climb the plateau again, and we have to catch a flight the day after we were supposed to stay here, so it would be hard for us to cycle 40k in the morning compared to the 13k we expected. Here’s where it is compared to where the world thinks it is, and the white road down from Bachieng is where we’ll come from.

So we’re in disputes with booking.com to get free cancellation for this place. At any rate, it was gorgeous – set in the jungle and the restaurant overlooks a waterfall.

We moved along to climb to the top of the plateau. We saw five other cyclists! Two touring and three on day rides. Three were coming the opposite direction, and we were jealous of their luck with the wind.

At the top, we rewarded ourselves with lattes, and Ted complained about an upset stomach after we set off again. He blamed it on drinking coffee on an empty stomach. We made a close to 90 degree turn, and the wind seemed to turn with us (aka, still against us). We were finally going downhill, but pedaling hard against the wind!

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Now for one of the top 10 most awkward (but also wonderful) experiences either of us has ever had. We stopped at what we thought was a restaurant to get noodle soup. It was a giant tent with lots of tables and chairs and people eating. A lot of restaurants here don’t have signs, and in our experience, the restaurants without signs have been the best ones. In retrospect, the tent should have told us it was a temporary situation, but we were hungry and not thinking, I guess.
Anyway, we roll up and people are staring at us, as they have at every restaurant we’ve gone to because we’re a couple westerners riding bikes around the Lao countryside. This is legitimately novel, so we’ve come to expect stares.

We sat down at a table, and a moment later, a gentleman who speaks very good English comes up to introduce himself and explains that we just sat down at a funeral celebration. Embarrassed, we apologize profusely, get up, and attempt to excuse ourselves, but he says, “no, please join us for lunch!” As awkward as it felt to stay, it felt even more awkward to refuse his invitation, so we sat back down.

Soon, a few children brought us out fish soup, Lao Laap, sticky rice, lettuce, clementines, ice, and water. Wow! We ate and talked to this kind man. He is a biology teacher at a teacher’s college in Pakse. He’s Ted’s age, and he taught himself English by reading books written in English and making use of the dictionary. Smart guy, and somehow he’s single!

The laap was mostly composed of offals, which are not fun to look at, but taste basically like the animal they came from. Anyway, after we got past the mental block of eating entrails and organs, the food was delicious! We tried to keep the conversation flowing, but we both just felt so embarrassed for imposing on a funeral celebration that we probably weren’t great conversationalists. When it was time to leave, our new friend brought us out a bag of snacks for the road! Everyone has been so incredibly kind on this trip, but this was just so far beyond.

The food seemed to accelerate Ted’s stomach issues, though, and the next 10k were rough for him. We got to a coffee resort, and Ted had to spend a lot of time in the restroom as I sipped a latte. Poor guy. It was only 3k to our guesthouse, so we got back on the road and have been hunkered down at a guesthouse for about 6 hours. Ted slept (and did some other things) and seems to be on the mend, but I seem to be following his path, just 12 hours delayed. The only culprit we can identify is that breakfast buffet this morning. It couldn’t be the offals, because Ted was feeling ill prior to that. Falls View resort man, nice rooms and a beautiful setting, but they HAVE to do something about their kitchen.

 

SE Asia Days 6-7: Champasak to Tad E Tu

December 31st, 2016 and January 1st, 2017

Ride map.

We got an early start today because we were anticipating a long climb (it ended up being about 3000 feet over 25 miles of continuous climbing) up the Bolaven plateau and we wanted plenty of time at these nice bungalows we booked for New Year’s Eve overlooking a waterfall called Tad E Tu. On our way to take the ferryback over the Mekong, we stopped at a guesthouse/restaurant called Champasak with Love and had a lovely “American Breakfast” with eggs, bread, bacon, and an Americano. We normally wouldn’t get American food here, but Laotian restaurants don’t usually serve coffee (unless it’s Nescafé instant coffee or this Dao instant coffee with milk powder and a ton of sugar mixed in – neither of which are very good), which we really like to have to start our day. Everything was great.

We continued to the ferry port and were directed onto a makeshift catamaran composed of two normal ferry boats (long, thin wooden boats that look similar to canoes) that were held together by a bunch of two-by-fours that formed a deck. At first glance, this did not appear to be seaworthy, but we figured it must work if they boarded us. We took off, then quickly turned back around to pick up another passenger. Another 40 passengers, really: We picked up a man bringing ducks and chickens to the market on the other side of the river. Once they boarded, we took off, and the gentleman with the poultry began to negotiate a barter for his transfer. They landed on two bundles of ducks (about 4 ducks a bundle?) which seemed like a hefty price given that we paid only $2.50 per person.

I was fascinated by this funny boat and impressed by the skill with which our captain drove it. We made it across to Don Muang and started our ride.

  
After about 5k of pothole-filled road, we got back on the very nicely paved highway 13 and continued toward Pakse, the regional capital. The traffic really picked up on this stretch of 13, getting progressively heavier as we neared town. There was also a lot of dust from roadwork and pollution from all of the traffic (no emissions restrictions here, and lots of old cars, motorbikes, and trucks), so we used our Buffs as face masks and chugged along.

We stopped to pee at a gas station before our turn and saw this funny dog awkwardly napping.


We quickly made it to our turnoff after our break. We had hopes that traffic would die down a bit, but it did not. They are extending this road from two to four lanes, but for now, there’s just a dirt road off to each side in various stages of construction, and with a lot of heavy machinery kicking up dust and also a lot of dump truck traffic carrying dirt and rocks. This along with a ton of tourism traffic and industrial traffic (there are large coffee, bottled water, furniture, etc. factories up this road) made for a not so pleasant ride. Plus, we were now climbing the plateau at a whopping 7-8 miles an hour, which extended the unpleasantness. We experimented with riding on the dirt side road, but it was bumpy and had a lot of gaps, so we took our chances on the actual road.

The traffic seemed to come in waves and moved in a predictable fashion: A huge, slow truck would hold up a line of fancy SUVs and buses filled with tourists, who would each be trying to pass each other and the massive truck, but once these lines of traffic passed, it would be relatively calm for a couple minutes, maybe just a few motorbikes. The scariest bits were when this was happening on our side of the road and the other side of the road, which led to some close passes. Most people slowed down for us, though. The newish minibuses and the coach buses did not slow down at all, though.
We came across this coffee shop / restaurant called Bachieng café, and I was eager for a break from the traffic, so we stopped. They have these beautiful rotted wood tables and benches, fancy landscaping, and a man-made waterfall outside – definitely a place to attract tourists. We ordered some delicious noodle soup and excellent coffee and sat by the waterfall. This place was filled with Chinese tourists in fancy Lexus and Toyota SUVs. I imagine people must be really confused about why we are biking around, getting covered in sweat and dirt, when there are so many perfectly good cars around. Meanwhile, I wonder what’s the point of driving from tourist attraction to tourist attraction when all of the good stuff is in between! Well, except for the traffic.

Anyway, we lingered here for a while, then headed out to keep climbing the plateau. It was fun to watch and feel the climate and scenery subtly change. We entered a banana growing region and got some roadside bananas, then entered the coffee growing region and were treated to some gorgeous, sweeping views of the countryside. I don’t have any pictures, though, because the traffic was too thick to safely take them. It started gently raining, which was actually quite nice as it settled the dust and pollution.

The schools here look so much like the schools in Zambia:


After a bit more chugging, we made it to our home for the night, the Falls View Resort. Sounds and looks fancy, but a room with breakfast included is $50/night, which is pricey for the region, but less than our rent in Brooklyn, so we figured we could splurge for New Years. After settling in, we ventured down to the bottom of the falls and decided that we should probably spend an extra night here in order to have enough time to swim. We had free cancellation on our next hotel, and we padded an extra day at a different waterfall that doesn’t appear to allow swimming, so we could make it work. Ted jumped in, but it wasn’t sunny and hot enough for me to overcome my wimpiness about being cold.

    

We headed back up, ate a genuinely terrible dinner (They failed to fully cook the kebabs, and I think they put a bunch of tree leaves in our soup? They weren’t chewable.), watched the hotel owner facilitate an awkward New Years party in Mandarin (95% of the hotel’s guests were Chinese), and went to bed early.

The next day, we had a lazy morning, eating a ton of delicious food at the breakfast buffet and reading. Then we took a walk through a coffee plantation abutting our hotel, headed down to swim at the falls, and headed up to the road to get some decent food (though the breakfast at the hotel was good, the lunch and dinner menu are filled with things like French fries and Thai food that cost 4x as much as good food at a local restaurant). We had delicious bowls of soup, then headed back to the bungalow so Ted could do some work.

SE Asia Day 5: Exploring Vat Phou and Champasak

December 30, 2016

Ride map.

We got a slow start this morning because all we really had to do was head to Vat Phou (an ancient temple) and get massages. Hard life.

We ate breakfast at our hotel and headed to Vat Phou, which was about 12k away. The ride was nice, and a lot of tourists rented bikes to ride to the temple, so we had company.

Vat Phou is a Khmer temple and complex  (built by the same Khmer kings who built the temples at the Angkor Wat complex) on a mountain and a UNESCO world heritage site. The structures that remain on the site date back to the 11th-13th century, but the site has had a temple on it since the 5th century. It’s situated at the base of Lingaparavata mountain (now called Phou Khao), so named because the top is shaped like a linga, which is one of the forms the Hindu god Shiva takes. Thus, the mountain is believed to be sacred. There’s a constant stream of water coming down from the mountain, which is also believed to be sacred.



As you approach the temple, there are two large reflecting pools with cows grazing around them, then you get to two symmetrical buildings, the function of which is unknown.

  
Then starts the gorgeous climb up to the temple:

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The temple has not been restored, but there’s been a modern Buddha added, as well as a tin roof to protect it. Along with the remaining structures, there are cool carvings of elephants and a crocodile in boulders. The crocodile carving is believed to have been the site of an annual human sacrifice (the crocodile is the size and shape of a human lying upside down). The view of the surrounding area, which was the ancient city of Shrestapura, is pretty cool, especially when you think about how it must have looked as a highly populated city.


      
We headed back down to explore one of the lower structures, and angered a little green snake.

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We then headed back towards town and ate at a nice little restaurant at a lovely guesthouse that doesn’t seem to have any guests. It’s a little out of town, but if you come to Champasak, you should stay at the Khaimkhong guesthouse. The food was great, staff was kind, and the grounds were beautiful.



We headed back to town, walked around to look at the cool French colonial architecture and brightly colored houses, then got massages at the Champasak Spa, which were wonderful. Then we headed to dinner and then to a show at the Champasak Shadow Puppet Theater.


    
Shadow puppetry is an ancient art form that a small group of artists and musicians are reviving in Champasak. The puppets themselves had been kept for some significant number of years by local buddhist monks (our host, a Frenchman transplant to Champasak, spoke good English, but he left a few gaps), before they were given to this group around 8 years ago.  There was a group of musicians playing Lao folk music (called Lum Si Phan Don), as well as puppeteers and voice actors.  The music was great, and the show was fun to watch. Our host explained the story (an adaptation of the Ramayana) in English so we could follow along pretty well. The puppeteers popped out at the end to show us how the puppets look and how they operate them.


Such a cool experience! Off to the Bolaven Plateau next, land of coffee plantations and waterfalls.

SE Asia Day 4: Don Khong to Champasak

December 29th, 2016

Ride Map

Danielle woke me up this morning at 5:45 to watch the sun rise over the Mekong.

How beautiful.

We watched at first from the large terrace on the second floor of the guesthouse and then moved to Mali’s patio across the street, right on the river.

It felt like our vacation was just then starting. Siem Reap had its ups and downs, but we came to explore Laos, and now we were just getting started.

After the sunrise, we packed up our things and then rushed downstairs to have one more amazing meal with Mali. This morning it was an omelet with fresh vegetables and mushrooms grown by Athalo and Mali themselves (“I come here to detox, I want to know what is going into the food I eat”), a fresh baguette, and local Laos coffee. Also, Mali brought out her personal stash of Nutella to share with us. So kind!

After breakfast, we filled up all of our water bottles from the water cooler in the kitchen. This wasn’t insignificant, because tap water isn’t always safe to drink, so filling up 5+ liters of water saved us from buying 5+ liters of water on the road.  This was yet another act of kindness from Mali (“Don’t thank me, thank your personality”).

And then, in the biggest, MOST AMAZING act of kindness yet, Mali and Athalo offered to drive us from their guesthouse to the main road on the mainland, saving us from the choice of either spending money and dealing with the hassle and delay of finding a boat to take us across the river or adding an additional 15k to what was already the longest ride of the trip.

We gratefully accepted, and at the end of the ride they gave us big hugs and watched us ride away, waving at us and smiling like they were our adopted parents.

Ok. Enough about Mali. We’re finally riding! This was supposed to be a bike tour after all!

Like I said, this was the biggest ride of the trip. We were hoping to ride 106k, or about 66 miles. That would have been nothing at the end of our last tour, but neither of us have been riding a lot lately.

The beginning of the day was just lovely. We lucked out and had a relatively cool day (in the mid seventies instead of the upper eighties), so we weren’t suffering too much… at least not from heat. We were facing a consistent headwind all day, but it was pretty gentle; it was nothing at all like those headwinds in eastern Montana.

The road (Route 13, the main/only north/south road in southern Laos) is in great condition, and traffic was incredibly light. We probably had to deal with more cows than cars in the road for the first 20k or so.

The countryside reminded us a lot of Zambia. There were fields and rice paddies, and a few fish ponds too. There were very few large trees, and large numbers of roadside shops all selling the same things.

  

We also saw an interesting mix of housing. Often more run down houses were side by side with newer, beautiful french colonial houses. The traditional style of house here is built on stilts, and often families were gathered in the shade underneath their houses, processing their crops and sometimes just hanging out.

    

Every time we passed a group of people they would smile and wave. Children would run after us, waving and yelling “sabaideeeee”, which means both hello and goodbye (noteworthy because the kids who chose to greet us in English often went with”goodbye,” and watching a kid run out to greet you yelling “goodbye, Goodbye, GOODBYE!!!” was pretty entertaining).

I love riding my bike through a new area!

After we rode about 40 miles, we decided to stop for lunch in a small town named Huay Keua. We pulled over at a restaurant looking place (although they also sold clothes and cut hair), and when the proprietor spoke to us in Lao, Dani greeted her and then mimed eating out of a bowl. The lady smiled broadly, and a few short minutes later we had a couple of big, steaming bowls of delicious chicken pho.

  

As we chowed down, the owner came out of the back with her toddler son, who had apparently just been given a bath by his grandmother. He was our entertainment for the rest of the meal. He was very interested in us, running up to touch us on the leg and then running away as if on a dare. He also tried to take a swig from a bottle he filled with rocks and spent a while playing with a stool and pushing it around the patio. Who needs toys when you have all these random objects to play with?

*****

After lunch, we had about 23 miles to get to our ferry across the Mekong, and like they always say, the last 23 miles are the hardest miles.

It was hotter, the road started going uphill, we were more tired, and traffic had picked up (although most drivers were incredibly considerate, at times following us at 10 mph for minutes until it was safe to pass). And our butts hurt.

So we rode slower, complained more, and took more breaks. But eventually we made it to our turn off to go down to Ban Muang, where we could catch our ferry. What sweet relief this side road was. No headwind, no traffic, and downhill to the Mekong.

We rode into town and straight past our turnoff, but some kind townies shouted at us and let us know where to go. We went down to the edge of the Mekong, where the people shocked us by telling us that the ferry crossing was 70,000 kip (~$9) each.

Or so we thought. Turns out the Lao word for twenty sounds a lot like the English word seventy. So the ride cost $2.50 each. Much better.

The ferry ride was an old rickety boat with the operator, us, our bikes, and one other passenger.

It only took us about 7 minutes to get across, and then, after pushing or bikes up the hill, we set off find our guesthouse. Turns out it was in the wrong location on the map we had, but a kind lady selling street food stopped me before I tried to enter what was–in retrospect–obviously a private residence.

A mile or so later, and 67.5 miles in total (kinda, that counts the ferry), we found our actual guesthouse, Khamphouy, where we paid $10 for a basic room that had everything we needed, but not much more.

We showered (hot showers was one of the things we decided we needed), and then headed out to find food before collapsing in bed around 9pm.

Tomorrow we explore Vat Phou, a thousand-year-old temple built at the base of a mountain just off the Mekong.

ps. Dani made a video! Check it out for a taste of our trip so far. It has a few clips from today. . . and from tomorrow – time travel!

SE Asia Day 3: Bus to Laos and the best guesthouse on the planet

December 28th, 2016

We woke up early (I’m getting up naturally at the crack of dawn every day when I normally struggle to roll out of bed by 8am) and ate free hotel breakfast before heading to the bus station. There were six other travelers on our bus: two Aussies, three Germans, and an American.  We were the only ones who didn’t smoke, including the driver!

  

We were a little nervous heading to the Cambodian side of the border because Ted was holding our passports in a waist pouch as we explored Angkor Wat and he sweat right through my Cambodia exit form. But turns out that if you’re willing to pay $2 for expedited service (i.e., bribe the border agents) all your problems go away.

We used Asia Van Transfer to get from Siem Reap to Nakasong, and we mostly recommend it. We had three drivers by the end of the day, and all drove fast and crazy. We had all of these unexpected bus changes, and the last bus we were supposed to use broke down on its way to pick us up from the Laos border, which made us over an hour late getting in, which meant we missed our ride to our guesthouse 20k away, so we had to pay for a ride (it was after dark and we didn’t have Internet so we didn’t know how to get there by bike). Ted bought a sim card as soon as we got into town so we could call the guesthouse, but it turns out that his phone only took micro-sim cards.

We ended up cutting down the sim card with leatherman scissors, using a cell phone flashlight while in the back of the van heading to our guesthouse. We got it down to the correct size and called up the guesthouse, and we were dismayed to learn that our host, a lovely Chinese-Canadian woman named Mali, had waited for us for an hour and a half!

Anyway, the rest of this post is going to be about Mali and her husband Athalo because they’re two truly wonderful people who brightened our trip. Mali is a gregarious bundle of joy who moved to Canada from China 37 years ago with a sixth grade education, phenomenal cooking skills, zero English language skills, and an insane work ethic. At some point in Canada, she met her husband, Athalo, a quiet, kind Laotian man who also immigrated to Canada. Carp, Ontario, to be exact. They got married, had 9 kids (7 boys and 2 girls), put them all through college, and now spend 6 months in Canada and 6 months in Laos every year in their retirement. Athalo inherited some land right on the Mekong from his father in the early aughts, and they decided to tear down the dilapidated wooden home in which Athalo grew up and build a small guesthouse on the land. Just 4-5 rooms to occasionally rent out to have some extra income while in Laos. But they don’t really need the money, so Mali reserves the right to send away any snotty people because, she says, her value and happiness are worth more than what they can pay her. If someone makes a booking online she can’t send them away, but she refuses to cook for people she doesn’t like. Booking.com actually asked Athalo why they don’t say breakfast is included on their page, and he responded that Mali wants to be able to decide whether people are worth cooking for. Ha! We’re happy to report that she cooked us both breakfast and dinner, so we made the cut. Anyway, Athalo designed the guesthouse and one of their sons, an architect, drew up the plans, then they built this lovely guesthouse.


Mali and Athalo are very much in love, even after 35 or so years of marriage. Athalo’s calm energy perfectly balances out Mali’s brash gregariousness. She can ask him for something from across the compound and he will come running to do her bidding, with an adoring smile on his face.

Mali and Athalo now have three homes: two in Canada and this guesthouse. How did they do this, you ask? Hard work! The ultimate bootstraps story! Like I said, they didn’t have a fancy education, but Mali opened a restaurant in Carp and worked 20 hours a day for 13 years! Athalo did most of the child rearing and opened up his own business, too.

Mali is hilarious and full of wisdom. She shared so many great stories, so I’ll just recap our favorites here.

1. Mali buys a private island for $30,000 with less than $1,000 in her bank account. Mali is the type of person who decides she wants something and makes it happen. Sometime in the 80s, she saw an ad for a private island for sale in the middle of a river in Ontario, so she decided to go check it out. The island was small, was only accessible by boat, and had a small cottage with electricity. The moment she stepped foot on the island, she knew it was hers. The man selling the house was eager to get rid of it, so he was willing to sell for $30,000. Problem was, she didn’t have any money, not even $1,000 in the bank. But she wanted to secure the place, so she wrote out a check for $1,000 and asked if he would accept this as a down payment. He agreed, and Mali ran back home to call the bank manager, who happened to be her friend, and asked him to cover the check until she had the money. He agreed! In order to afford the island, she’d have to get a mortgage. She needed a 25% down payment because it was a second home, plus all of the fees associated with buying a place – at the end of the day, she needed $10,000 cash. So she worked crazy hours at her restaurant, then moonlighted at a fancier restaurant, and made $10,000 in one month. In the 80s! And just like that, she had an island. The island is now valued at over $200,000, but no one can convince her to sell (people have tried).

2. Athalo is the boss; Mali’s just an assistant. While we ate some phenomenal plates of Lao Laap Mali made, she sat down to chat. She told us that her husband was the boss, and she was the assistant. From what we saw of Mali and Athalo’s relationship, this did not appear to be the case, but she explained that in a business, the assistant takes care of all of the little problems, and when a problem is too big for the assistant to handle, she brings it to the boss. She said that in 35 years of marriage, there has never been a big problem. Ha! I think you had to be there to appreciate Mali’s delivery. Take it from me, it was hilarious.

3. Mali’s words of wisdom:

  • Mali told her kids that if they wake up and don’t want to go to work every day for two weeks straight, they should quit their jobs and look for something else because it’s not fair to yourself or your employer to do a job you don’t love. She said she has always worked very hard — she’ll out-work anyone — because she has always loved her jobs.
  • “You take the good and the bad, and you make lemonade. And then you sell it, and you make money.”
  • When each of her kids got married, Mali gave them a down payment for a house for admittedly selfish reasons. She said that the best way to get your kids out of your house and to have them leave you alone and be self-sufficient is to help them buy a house because then they have to get a job to make the mortgage payments.

We wish we could have stayed for another day or two, but we have hotels and flights booked and things to do! Mali told us we were doing “buffet style” travel, where we stop over at different places and get a small taste of many things, “but you don’t even know what you’re tasting!” She’s right, and I wish we had unlimited time, but if anyone reading this comes to the 4,000 islands region of Laos, you should skip the touristy party islands and come straight to Mali’s guesthouse, preferably while she’s here between December and May, and plan to stay a while to explore the island of Don Khong. Learn from our mistake!

In any case, it may seem odd that I spent almost this entire post writing about two people that we met, but that’s half the reason we travel. The world is a big and crazy place full of injustice and inequality, but outside of these systemic problems, the people who make up the world are good and kind. And it’s important to keep that in mind.

Besides, this blog is also our personal journal, and we definitely don’t want to forget Mali.

SE Asia Day 2: Angkor Wat by bike

December 27th, 2016

Well, it turns out that jet lag is a real thing.

Danielle had heard that the way to avoid jet lag is to survive the first day and go to sleep at a normal time the first night. We did that (we went to bed at 9:45p), so I thought I was fine. But then I woke up at 2:45a clear eyed and wide awake.

So that was a bummer.

It wasn’t actually all that bad though, because our alarm was set for 4:45a; we were waking up early so we could watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

Many (most?) people pay someone to take them around the various temples, either in a tuk tuk or in a van, but we’re here on a bike tour, so we rode our bikes!

We were on our way by about 5a, and we joined the stream of traffic heading north out of Siem Reap. And I mean it was a stream. Lots and lots of people.

The ticket office for Angkor Wat used to be right off the main road, but apparently it was recently moved to a new location 3K east of said road. In a fit of logic and common sense, we decided to listen to the giant sign on the side of the road and not what we read on the internet. We (mostly I) don’t always make smart decisions, but we got this one right.

After the 6K detour to buy tickets, we rode the rest of the way up to Angkor Wat, arriving right as the sky was starting to lighten. We walked into the temple complex and found a place to stand among the hundreds of other people.

This paragraph might overstate things a bit. I think that sunrise at Angkor Wat used to be a peaceful, spiritual experience. It wasn’t very crowded (it became a national monument relatively recently; it was for quite some time just sitting, ignored, in the Cambodian countryside), and I can see how watching a sunrise here could be magical. I mean, there wasn’t even a spectacular multicolored sunrise on the day we were there, but the sillouette of the temple and palm trees against the rising sun was stunning.

But it is hard to find the magic in the midst of all of this:

It was still beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but I’m getting old and grumpy, and I don’t like being around this many people.

This was a theme for much of the day: too many stinking people. But here are a few pictures of Angkor Wat without people in them.

 

  

 

After exploring the Angkor Wat temple for a bit and choking down some horrid, overpriced egg sandwiches, we set off to the next big temple area: Angkor Thom. Here’s Dani about to enter the city (you can see the gates ahead) alongside an elephant.

Bayon Temple was originally built as a Buddhist temple, but was used by later kings to suit their own religious preferences. It is known for the many large, smiling faces looking out in all directions from the temple towers.


Baphoun might have been my favorite temple, and maybe that was because it was so much less crowded. It is currently being restored, but we were able to climb all the way up to the top and were rewarded with some amazing views.

  

After climbing back down, we walked through the woods to see a few other ruins, and then came upon the elephant terrace. This was where the great Khmer kings received important visitors to the capitol city.

Then we got back on our bikes and rode east. By this time, it was getting very hot, and since I hadn’t slept a lot the night before, I was starting to struggle.


We stopped on the way and has passion fruit smoothies and a fresh pineapple. I love passion fruit. Love it enough to occasionally spend $3 on one tiny little guy at our co-op. So you can imagine my delight at getting a large cup of essentially passion fruit juice blended with ice for fifty cents.


As we sipped this sweet nectar of the gods, we decided to go to one last temple before heading home: Ta Phrom of Tombraider fame (full disclosure: I haven’t actually seen Tombraider. But the temple is referred to as the Tombraider temple, so I guess it was a location in that movie).

This temple was REALLY cool but oh my goodness was it crowded. Walls of people being directed along tight temple corridors like cows headed to the slaughter. When we found a spare moment with a little breathing room, we were able to appreciate the awesomeness of an ancient temple being slowly taken over by nature, with silk-cotton and strangler-fig trees growing over the walls and around the buildings. But then the moment passed, and we were surrounded once again. (Although you’ll notice that Danielle did a fabulous job of finding ways to take pictures that made it look like were alone. Looking at these pictures, I’m starting to second guess my own memory.)

    
After Ta Phrom, we headed back toward our hotel. The ride could have been very pleasant, but the traffic was insane. Motorbikes, tuk tuk, vans, buses…. We were always being passed by something, and ended up spending almost the entire ride home sucking down exhaust fumes.

We made it back to the hotel around 1p and decided that we were done with the traffic, the noise, and the exhaust-and-burning-plastic smell of Siem Reap. So we spent the rest of our last day at the hotel. We swam, ate some delicious red curry by the pool for lunch, enjoyed some out of this world passion fruit smoothies (we each ended up having two and a half smoothies today; the ones at the hotel were so delicious!), took a little nap, prepared for our trip out of Cambodia, and went to bed early. It was a lovely, relaxing way to spend the second half of the day.

Next up: Laos!