Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Bunking off to Cambodia and Laos this summer was the best idea that I’ve ever come up with. We stayed in Siem Reap for 4 days, and I couldn’t have asked for a better vacation. The main draw of Siem Reap is, of course, Angkor Wat. It’s the biggest, grandest, best preserved temple of them all and it certainly commands some respect. It used to be a state temple built for King Suryavarman II in the 12th century. Now it’s a collection of ruins slowly being swallowed bit by bit into the jungle. The funny thing is that it probably looks a lot better ruined than it did when it was new. It is an intricately carved stone relic entangled with massive trees whose roots bind and strengthen the entire structure, and the effect is rather beguiling.

The ancientness of the temples is hard to wrap your head around. It feels like you’re on some sort of elaborate movie set and nothing is real. It was hard to take it all in. Oddly enough, the best thing I can compare it to is the Vatican museum, where everything is so intricate and detailed and expansive that your eyes are over-saturated with awesomeness and you don’t know quite where to look, so you just stand there with your mouth open while street-kids root around unnoticed for valuables in your fanny-pack.

Each temple had its own draw, but I’ll spare you my take on each of them and instead offer you a couple pictures of each.

The above shot was taken while walking around on a ledge along the outer wall of the Angkor building. One of the best things about these temples is that they are 100% permissive to wandering. You can climb all over everything and poke around in tiny passageways and no one really cares. A stark contrast to other, decidedly less easy-going relic sites; try Googling “I got yelled at at the Parthenon” and see what comes up. (Consequently, “why are Greeks so angry” is a popular Google search as well.)

The downside was that for every temple you visited, there was a garrison of souvenir merchants and their children all waiting to harangue you into buying something. It was like Adam and I were walking piƱatas full of money and if they shouted at us long enough we would explode and they could gather up all our precious money-guts. “Hey Lady, you want buy something? Look, you buy? Best price for you!” Sometimes the handicraft women would shove something into your hands and then refuse to take it back, hoping you’d feel obliged to pay for it. Lucky for me, having relented possession of all our collective monies to The Boyfriend, I escaped scot free by callously pointing at his pockets and deflecting their attentions onto him, while triumphantly scuttling away. I believe it was afterward that I paused to consider my lowly moral state.

Anyway, as for non-temple related activity, we chartered a boat to the floating village of Kompong Luong, which is a whole community of people who have built their homes and businesses on a massive lake. They have everything they could want: floating restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores, hospitals, karaoke bars, you name it. At one point we saw a man in a motorboat casually towing his entire house behind him.

We went to the floating school and donated some floating food to the floating children:

We also went for some exotic Cambodian BBQ where we tried some snake, crocodile, and ostrich. They tasted like pork, chicken, and beef respectively. Afterwards we retired to our hotel and watched HBO, as we are deprived of American television as of late and were suffering from a raging case of meat sweats.

And then it was off to Laos…

I’ve set up a Flickr account so click here if you’re interested in more photo-ey goodness of the trip.


People were generally quite interested when I mentioned that we were going to Cambodia. “Angkor Wat,” they would say, and nod at each other and murmur generally agreeable things about vacationing there. Laos was met with only feigned interest. “Laos, huh? So… what’s in Laos? Frankly, I didn’t even really know the answer myself, but Laos turned out to be quite a boon.
It has a very different vibe than Cambodia, a lot more laid back. We stayed in Luang Prabang, a leftover French colonial town, and a World Heritage site. It’s absolutely picturesque and mixes French architecture and influence with East Asian culture seamlessly. It’s also lot cleaner than Siem Reap in general. And it has a particularly nice sky.

One of the best things about Luang Prabang is that there’s no shortage of Buddhist monks in saffron robes walking around the town, tending to their busy monk agendas and shaving each others’ heads or whatever it is Buddhist monks are into nowadays. Apparently most young Lao men voluntarily choose to join a monastery where they spend a few years as a monk, after which time they can choose to leave or continue living the ascetic life. They walk around the town stoically, but behind closed doors you see them drinking milkshakes and chasing each other around trees and dancing the Charleston, and other such frivolity.

One thing we did really want to see was Tat Kuang Si falls, which were supposed to be these gorgeous turquoise layered waterfalls about an hour north of Luang Prabang. They are so gentle that you can swim around in each pool, all the way down the falls. Adam and I wanted to have them to ourselves, so we opted to wake up before dawn to catch our tuk-tuk for the hour long, bumpy ride out. Because August had so much rain, Tat Kuang Si falls had churned itself into a muddy brown froth, so there was no chance at frolicking in turquoise crystal pools. Disappointed, (doubly-so because I had to put on the patently unfashionable Tony-the Tiger swimsuit I found in a Japanese department store*) I dragged by stripy Kellogg’s butt back to town. The falls were still nice to look at, even if they were brown:

Anyway, Tat Kuang Si aside, we had an excellent time. We enjoyed the scenery, poked around the town, got some massages, and ate some delicious food. Lao cuisine is an incredible amalgamation of Thai, French, Indian and Chinese... Like eating a hollowed out a baguette filled with beef vinadloo and dipped in coconut curry and oyster sauce. Definitely going back someday.

*the other option being something like this