Thursday, 26 April 2012


I went to Savannakhet to go to the Thai embassy and get a visa. Apart from this I don't see much reason for tourists to bother making the stop. There is an old section to the town which is quite scenic and architecturally interesting but doesn't take more than an hour or two to cycle around.
There is a dinosaur museum, believe it or not, the remains of quite a few dinosaurs have been found in the Savannakhet province and are displayed at the museum which has very friendly staff who are keen to help; possibly because they don't have many visitors. I did pity them a little and stretched my visit out as long as it was possible to look at a fairy-light outline of a dinosaur on a wall and some bones. Do pop in if you're stuck in the town. The provincial museum has a few displays housing a variety of artifacts from pottery to dead bombs and the notation is even in English here. The town's setting on the river is actually very scenic and the food stalls along the banks are the perfect spot to sit and gaze across the river to Thailand while planning your trip and enjoying a barbequed fish.

Monday, 23 April 2012

4000 Islands; Don Det

So I'm back in Laos for a little holiday of sorts in the aptly named 4000 islands; The island of Don Det specifically. At the widest stretch of the mighty Mekong river, a large group of Islands cluster together, poking their sandy humps out of the water. They vary in size depending on the season and the height of the flowing waters but always form an impassable barrage across the width of the Mekong through their mass and the waterfall's which have formed in the passageways between them.
I have come to this beautiful spot for a bit of relaxation and it's the perfect place with bungalows dotted along the river banks, plenty of eateries overlooking the water and not too much to do! I do spend a couple of days sightseeing on a bicycle and its lovely cycling around the islands dusty paths, through peaceful forest. I visit a couple of the waterfalls on the bridge-connected islands of Don Khon and Don Khon Peisey which thunder with a tremendous force and explore the abandoned railway. Due to the impassibility of this section of the Mekong, a railway was constructed from the South of Don Khon to the East of Don Det (north of the waterfalls) and was used to transport 3 paddle steamers past the blockade and subsequently cargo for export and import to Laos. The remaining boat landings which connected to the railway can be reached by bicycle on both islands.
A group of the Mekong's Irrawady dolphins inhabit a section of the river just off the southern tip of Don Khon and I take a boat trip to see them. The boatman takes us to a small island and proceeds to tell us that we shouldn't actually be there as we are now illegally in Cambodia! As a boat of Cambodian officials makes it's way for us he hastily ushers us back into the boat and deposits us on a large rock which is apparently officially Laos. The dolphins however seem to favor the Cambodian side and the few we see are far away but the boat trip through the rocky islands is lovely none the less.
Other than water-bound activities such as swimming, kayaking or tubing in the river there isn't much else to do here and the rest of a visit can be spent relaxing in a hammock and enjoying the amazing sunsets over the islands.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Sen Monorom; Elephant Valley Project

The reason most tourists seem to be in Sen Monorom, including us, is to visit the Elephant Vally Project. A project set up by an Englishman; Jack to rescue abused and injured working elephants and provide them with a safe natural environment where they can live out the rest of their days. Jack rents the jungle land from local farmers and brings the Elephants here either by buying them from the owners or by renting them on a long term basis to keep them out of work. The elephants are then free to roam, bathe and feed as they please in the valley. Each elephant still has a mahout to keep an eye on it for the safety of visitors and to stop them straying into surrounding cropland which would cause conflict with the local farmers.
>We begin our visit walking down into the valley to watch Bob and his girlfriend Onion having their morning bath and mud-covering session in the river. After them four other elephants come down, skip the bathing and go straight for the mud! It's amazing to watch them in a natural environment, just doing what they do, spraying mud and water everywhere and rubbing everything into the muddy bank. They're so close but seem so wild it's a magical experience. They spend most of the morning wallowing, even when the mahouts tell them to go and eat, they ignore them; happy in their mud bath. Eventually they wander out and make their way to some good scratching tree trunks. We walk alongside them and laugh as they bend trees right over scratching their heads, bums and trunks against them. We follow them into the forest for a while under the spell of their charm until it's time to return to camp for lunch.
After a delicious lunch we make our way, with Jack, into the second valley which is home to four more elephants and we find them also enjoying a good soak in their own muddy river. We spend the afternoon watching them while Jack tells us their stories. They are entrancing to watch and none of us wants to leave them at the end of the visit. At least they now have a nice home after their hard lives and if people keep visiting hopefully Jack can rescue the rest of the mistreated elephants in Mondulkiri.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Mekong Irrawady Dolphins; Kratie

Kratie is a provincial capital in the north-eastern part of Cambodia. Most tourists come here either on their way to Laos or to see the rare Irrawady dolphins of the Mekong River, and that's the reason I've come. We hire a tuk tuk in the late afternoon to travel up the river to Kampi where the dolphins live. We stop first at a popular swimming spot in some 'rapids'. We pay a $1 entrance fee and our driver then leads us 10 minutes away from the attraction to a quiet spot presumably so we can swim in our bikinis although he strips off and jumps in too. The havoc we walked past consisted of bamboo pagoda type shelters extending across the width of the river and rapids. They were full of celebrating locals (due to the Khmer New Year), eating, drinking and jumping in the water. Unfortunately, this being Asia, most of their rubbish is carelessly discarded into the water and I am devastated by the sight of plastic bags, polystyrene containers and tin cans lining the banks and floating downstream into the rare Irrawady dolphins fragile home waters. It's tragic and can't be helping their plight for survival.
It's $7 each for the boat trip to see the dolphins, which seems expensive, considering they just take you 2 minutes into the river then wait for the dolphins to appear. But we've timed it for the sunset and as the dolphins appear we know it's worth it. The river reflects the pink of the setting sun as the beautiful dolphins breach the water around us, some just passing by and some coming closer to investigate. We hear the whoosh of their airholes and search the waters to catch a glimpse of their sleek bodies. I'm glad they're not perturbed by all their visitors. The Mekong here is beautiful, all the more because it's home to the rare dolphins, it's just a shame about the polluting rubbish making its way to them.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Siem Reap: The Temples of Angkor

I don't know where to begin this post, there's so much to say and so little that can be said with words. The Angkorian temples at Siem Reap, the most famous of which being Angkor Wat, are something which one really must experience for oneself to have any understanding of their impression. I spent 3 days exploring them and they really are stunning. I'd heard before going that if you think you'll get 'templed out' you won't. Well I think that depends how much you like old crumbly temples but it certainly won't happen as soon as you'd expect. There are so many differences in the size, shape, style, decoration and ambience of all the temples that the variety provides for almost endless interest.
Face of the Bayon

I started at the Bayon, one of the most impressive sites with it's huge carved faces looking out protectively over the lands. A massive jigsaw puzzle, the Bayons huge stone bricks lay in rows on the surrounding grass. The structure itself towers above me, exuding power and as we climb it's terraces the many all-seeing faces carved into the towers seem even more imposing. With many intricate carvings and bass-reliefs the Bayon occupies my curiosity for quite some time.
The Baphuon

The Baphuon is another favourable site and although almost as large and imposing as the Bayon, it's not as intricately decorated. It does provide a surprise in the form of a giant reclining Buddha hidden in the curves of the back wall.
I sneak past some slumbering caretakers around the Kleang and Prah Pithu, this must be the napping area!

Banteay Srei is possibly the most beautifully embellished temple of Angkor. The carvings are so intricate and delicately crafted I wonder at how long such craftsmanship took to complete. It is known as the temple of women because they say its carvings are too beautiful to have been designed by men. It's certainly very different from the other temples and worth the long ride out of town.
Ta Prom Trees
Possibly my favourite site; Ta Prom is an atmospheric gem. It is here they filmed for Angelina Jolie's tomb raider movie and I can see why. It's crumbling walls are supported by, encased in and destroyed by huge trees whose roots have chosen its stones as the place to begin their journey. Over time they have grown into monstrous plants forming a beautiful juxtaposition between nature and humanity. The overgrown jungle creates a lost world feeling amongst the crumbling ruins.
Angkor Wat is obviously the famous star of Cambodia and the reason so many tourists started to visit the country. I begin my visit before sunrise and watch as the sky turns red and the sun rises behind the profile of Angkor Wat's stunning towers, casting its shadow into the lily pond in front. I get to wander round the rest of the temple with it relatively deserted which is great for photos and the atmosphere. The experience is all the better for the serenity of the early morning. Angkor Wat is grand and majestic. It towers over the land a statement of superiority. It's mighty form is offset by intricate detailed carvings in it's interior which invoke sentiments of appreciation for its delicate beauty.
This is not an exhaustive description of the sights I visited; that would bore you, merely a selection of the highlights but nothing to compare with seeing the temples themselves. If you ever have the opportunity, take it.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Travel by Boat; Battambang to Siem Reap

Regardless of many bad internet comments and in spite of the hotel clerk doing his best to dissuade us, we've decided to take the boat trip from Battambang to get to Siem Reap as it's supposed to be very scenic, although in the dry season it can take up to 12 hours and the bus only takes 3 (and costs less). At 7am we're informed it's a particularly crappy plastic boat that's operating today and indeed it is but it'll do the job. The onboard toilet however is well below our pompous standards, consisting of 4 walls 3 ½ feet tall surrounding a hole in the floor, yes, no roof, so the men sitting behind will see you doing your business! Err won't be using that then! It is a very beautiful trip up the river, passing rural villages where life revolves around the river and the land. Some people have floating houses on the water or live in boats and others live on it's banks. We pass by an entire floating village on the lake near Siem Reap which is quite a sight. Arriving in Siem Reap at 3pm were pleasantly surprised we're already there! Not a bad 8 hour journey at all, quite pleasant.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Battambang Bamboo Train

If you're stopping by in Battambang take a trip to the Bamboo Train. Also known as the 'Nori' Battambang's bamboo train is situated 15kilometres outside the city, it's a pretty drive through the countryside and on arrival we pay $5 each for a ride on one of the little 'carriages'. It's a normal looking train track but the trains are simply two axels with wheels, a bamboo platform and a motor sitting on top!
We sit on the wooden mat and whizz down the line, the fresh countryside wind in our hair, surrounded by views of rice fields and grazing cattle. There's only one line and trains run in both directions so when you come face to face with another carriage one of you has to offload and dismantle the simple train to allow the other to pass. It's actually great fun. We stop some way down the line at a small village where lots of smiley children are keen to show us around the brick making factory there. After following the kids around for a bit and practicing their English we grab a drink at one of the villager's stalls. She's a lovely friendly lady who makes us rings out of leaves and high-fives us with a big smile before seeing us back off down the line. The sun is rapidly falling in the sky and it's a beautiful scene as we chug and rattle along the lines which are pretty bent and warped all the way along. Well worth the $5. See for yourself.

I spend my other day in Battambang visiting some temples and caves and temple caves; beginning with a climb up 358 steps to the ruins of Angkorian temple Banan. Marvelously carved stones are crumbling from the 5 stupas which feel authentically ancient and are very beautiful. The surrounding cactus plants make for quite a scene, coupled with the hilltop view it makes it worth the climb up the steps. After Banan temple I visit Phnom Sampeou which is set a-top a rather tall hill that has to be walked up, well if you're lazy you can hire a moto. On the way up I explore a cave which now contains a shrine and reclining Bhudda but in the times of Pol Pot this place was used like the killing fields. Innocents murdered above and their bodies thrown into the pit of the cave. The bones have been displayed here inside a glass shrine. After a very sweaty climb I make it to the top of the temple and am rewarded with a stunning view across the landscape. The land is so flat you can almost see past the horizon! That concludes my sightseeing of Battambang.