Monday, June 27, 2011

I'm Back!

Okay, I was actually back over two weeks ago.  But there are a lot of things that I've been really busy procrastinating since then, so putting off writing this blog post just had to wait.

I can't write in detail about me and Nou's amazing trip to Laos and Cambodia, because just thinking about the amount of detail involved makes me want to go bury my head in a bag of cookies.  So here are a bunch of anectodal highlights:

-  When we got off the plane in Laos, instead of milling around fighting off taxis in front of the airport, we actually got met by someone who knew us!  Well, who knew Nou anyway.  It turns out, her family originally comes from Laos, and she has a lot of aunts and uncles living in Vientiane.

We got to stay with Nou's relatives, who very kindly toured us around the city, showed us sweet photo albums with Nou as a child, and served us some of the best grilled fish I have ever tasted.  Also, her grandma is tiny and hilarious.

-  The Plain of Jars in northern Laos is pretty sweet.  If it was giants who built Stonehenge back when they ruled the earth, I'm thinking that Laos was the location of their favorite coffee shop.

-  The huge bomb craters were not so sweet.  I was amazed to see how much damage got dealt to the countryside for so little reason, and how many people still live in areas that haven't been cleared of unexploded ordinance.  Really, international community?  What are these people, chopped liver??

-  The villages that you see from the bus windows in northern Laos are peaceful, clean, cozy-looking, and... alright, I'll say it: picturesque.  They look like pure, unassuming, undisturbed culture, like the people haven't found any reason to change their way of life for a hundred years.  Watching them go by made me wish that I had been raised in a country village in the mountains like that.

-  The last day we were in Laos was fantastic - we took a jungle hike/tour with Green Discovery, and it was just me, Nou, the guide, and the waterfalls.  There were rafts, and rainbows, and mist, and little sparkling blue bugs in the path.  There were rocky highlands, and jungle, and coffee and tea plantations, and a lot of walking, and a tuk-tuk ride on either end of the trip.  We stopped on the way back for our guide to get a durian from a roadside stall.

-  I came away from Laos with two unintentional taste aversions: I ate a big bag of rambutins from the market one day, along with a big bag of peanuts I was carrying.  I then proceeded to catch a miserable cold that night and be nauseous on the bus ride all the next day.  It's unfortunate, because rambutins are really tasty - they're like the marshmallows of fruit.  And now I can't eat them!

Cambodia was, if anything, even better than Laos.  The people there are startlingly friendly, considering what they've been through in recent history.  Highlights:

-  We did indeed see Angkor Wat, and the associated nearby ruins.  What I remember about it is this:  It was hot.  And dusty, and you always had to watch your step in case you were getting in the way of someone's picture.  It was full of big stones and steep stairs and buildings that started to blur together after a while.  It was also weirdly beautiful, in a way that I had never experienced before.

-  We attended a cello concert at a children's hospital in Siem Reap, by the Swiss doctor who founded it.  His stage name is "Beatocello," and there was less music than I'd hoped for.  However, the message was inspiring enough that I returned the next day and donated blood at the same hospital.  It was my first time ever!

-  In Siem Reap, we stayed at an amazing little guest house that I can't recommend enough, despite the odd name: the Happy Guest House.  We ate over half our meals at the little cafe downstairs, hanging out with the other interesting guests and friendly guest house workers.  We also borrowed bikes and explored the town, and I got my first sugarcane/lime juice in months.

-  At one point, we got stranded at the Central Market in Siem Reap in the middle of a flash flood.  I have never seen rain come down so hard in my life.  We put our stuff in plastic bags and waded home through the streets with our pants cuffs floating around our calves.  When we got back to the guest house, we helped a crowd of workers and other guests bail out the front courtyard - the water had almost reached inside the building!  (The picture is of a rain cloud in Phnom Penh, but you get the idea.)

-  Another night, we saw a traditional dance show at an orphanage.  It was adorable, and the skills that some of these kids had were impressive.  So was the obvious care and dedication of those who were running the orphanage, using every tiny scrap of funding they could get.

What bothered me the most was when I saw a little four-year-old girl singing a song at the end of the show with all the other kids.  The song was lovely, and most of the kids seemed reasonably into it, but she was getting a bit bored and distracted.

I realized that this was probably a mandatory part of the nightly show for all the kids, and it really hit home - she shouldn't have to do that.  She should be allowed to be as self-involved and idiosyncratic as any other kid her age, instead of being required to stand there and basically beg for her livelihood every night.  It really sucks that these kids have literally no other way to keep their home alive, even if it's more a dignified way than hawking postcards at a temple.

-  Phnom Penh was another experience entirely - much more of the big city feel.  There were big buildings, huge palaces and temples and markets, and an overabundance of waterfront cafes and restaurants.  There were sprawling street markets with live fish being slaughtered, and God knows what else by the smell.  There were enough tuk-tuks to make New York's taxi population look piddling in comparison.  Nou and I agreed that a T-Shirt saying "No, I Do Not Want A Tuk-Tuk" would have been an invaluable energy-saver.  (Above is our tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap.  He was actually pretty awesome.)

(Left: a cart selling fried grasshoppers, fried roaches, and fried tarantulas!)

- We went swing dancing in Phnom Penh!  There's a lively little scene there, mostly ex-pats and volunteers, and a few Cambodians.  I didn't have my dance shoes with me, since I had really thrown myself into the whole "light packing" concept, so I danced in socks until the pain overwhelmed me.  I was still ecstatic to get on the floor again and meet so many fun people!

- We also saw the Killing Field and the Prison Museum.  I can't really describe it.  All I can say is that the Khmer Rouge were terrifying, and it makes me wonder what kind of switches there are deep down in the ordinary human mind.

It was especially haunting to realize that anybody you saw on the street who was older than 40 actually lived through that regime.  It was even more disturbing when you realized how few people over 40 there were to see.

Well, that's it - those were the really interesting parts of my time in Laos and Cambodia; most everything else was long bus rides and walking around trying to find a hostel or a booking desk.

If you ever want to backpack around a country, keep in mind that you have to have a certain affection for sitting and staring out windows and walking around lost in strange streets.  If you don't, you may not have enough energy to tackle the good parts when they come along.

Huh, this was actually way more detailed than I intended it to be.  Next time I post, it'll be all about the crazy times I've had since coming back!

You may not believe it, but I miss you all awfullly; please comment and make me very happy.

A few extra pictures:

An old woman selling honey from a bucket at a market in Laos.  She was also selling little pieces of honeycomb that held the bee larvae, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled!  They tasted a bit like squishy corn.

On the road outside a temple near Angkor Wat, we saw a huge spider get in a fight with a huge wasp.  They circled each other, then were suddenly tangled up and rolling around in the dust.  It was over very quickly - the wasp won.

Help, temple dog got me!!