Sunday, April 29, 2007

Back Home in Bangkok

After our daily adventures in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, it felt like we were back home when we arrived in Bangkok. We knew exactly where to go to get a cab; how much to pay, and what the accommodation would be like, since we were returning to Ou and Ross McClellan’s apartment. Early the next morning, as we set off for the Indian Embassy to pick up our visas, the phone rang. It was Ross. Twenty years ago, a call from Ross often meant that the other party’s lawyer wouldn’t agree to a change in a legal document. Now he was calling to see if we needed some clothes washing!

When we got to the Embassy, we realized that we had forgotten that we could only drop off our passports between 12 and 1 pm. Indian bureaucracy. So we used the extra time to mail a parcel toVancouver, and look after a few personal needs. Sally had her nails done; and I decided to have a haircut. Unfortunately, the hairdresser didn’t speak English and she interpreted my request to take just a little off with leave just a little on. Sally and Ou think the haircut makes me look younger. Ross thinks it makes my ears look much older! At least I won’t need another haircut until we return in September.
Sitting in Ross’s apartment this morning, we reflected on how different travel is today compared to the 60’s when we were both traveling around Europe. Back then, American Express was indispensable. ‘Poste Restante American Express’ was everyone’s a
ddress in the major cities of Europe, and Travelers’ Cheques were the standard form of currency. Today we stay in touch through email and blogs, and Travelers’ Cheques are a thing of the past (for most of us). Instead we use ATM machines and credit cards.
Although most banking is now done over the internet, from time to time, it’s nice to be able to walk into a bank. In anticipation of our trip, for a number of reasons, Sally and I switched from CIBC to HSBC. As we were setting off, Maureen Jones, our Account Manager invited us to take advantag
e of the bank’s international ‘Concierge Service’.
Consequently, when I accidentally left a sweater and memory stick on a bench in Auckland, the bank sent them to me c/o its Melbourne office. When we needed US dollars in Hanoi, we took a taxi to the HSBC Branch Office and ha
d our money in a few minutes. The bank then called us a taxi and even negotiated a better taxi fare to our next destination! We have discovered that some Asian hotels offer better rates to HSBC customers on the Wotif booking site, and restaurants offer a discount if you use an HSBC Credit Card.
It is very comforting to get off a plane in a city and see the HSBC advertisements in the airport. We have been to so many branches, we are sometimes suspected of being two of the bank’s ‘mystery shoppers’. As we travel around the world, the tagline ‘the world’s local bank’ is quite apt. HSBC is our new American Express.

Once again, it was very comfortable staying with Ou and Ross. We were spoilt by them, and could do little in return. But hopefully one day when they visit Vancouver, we can reciprocate. Until then, thanks Ou and Ross.

Now, we're off to Hong Kong and China.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap

“You must go to Angkor Wat.” This was the message from our daughter Claire a year ago, after she left us in Thailand and set off to discover Laos and Cambodia on her own. So we came. We really didn’t know a great deal about the place before leaving Canada, despite the fact that it is generally regarded as one of the Wonders of the World. If I did learn about the Angkor Temples at university, I either was away from class that day, or have simply forgotten what I was taught.

Fortunately, we were given some advice by Gregg Macdonald, a former colleague at SFU, who had been here not so long ago. We also got briefings from the Buckleys in Singapore, the Lloyds in Pattaya, and Ross McClellan, who as residents of Southeast Asia, had all been here. But we really weren’t prepared for what we found.

Angkor Wat is just one of a number of temples located around Siem Reap in Cambodia. Since tourism was renewed about 17 years ago, this community has grown substantially, and become a major international tourist destination. Thousands of new hotel rooms have been built over the past five years in large three and four story complexes, with very similar designs and very similar names. We stayed at the Prince d’Angkor, which was about a year old, and located near the centre of the town. It featured a lot of wood, a very nice bathroom, and a balcony overlooking the pool. It was essential that we have a pool, since April is the hottest month. We have never perspired so much in our lives!

The town itself is not unattractive, with some large park areas. But all of the construction projects make it a very dusty place, and I think it will look much better in a few years when the major road works are finished, and there isn’t so much construction debris lying around.

As for the temples, words and photographs cannot do them justice. Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world. But it is just one of many. They are like the pyramids, in terms of the level of accomplishment they represent, especially given the times during which they were constructed. Some of the temples were built in the 10th and 11th centuries. Others were constructed in the 15th century. Books have been written about each temple. Unfortunately, many years of war and political strife have taken a toll on the temples and the country, and while some of the structures are in better shape than others, many are best described as ruins.

Surprisingly, while the hotel construction is impressive, the arrangements for visitors were not. I thought we would be able to sign up for a tour, or take shuttle buses between the temples, but this wasn’t possible, unless we were Korean! (There were lots of tours for Koreans!) As a result, we had to make our own arrangements. There were a few choices. The hotel could arrange a car and driver and a guide. Alternatively, we could rent a bicycle, an electric bicycle or scooter, or take a tuk tuk. We weren’t really sure what to do, since we are sometimes uncomfortable spending too much time with private guides. We prefer to be able to wander off and not have to listen to their lengthy explanations. We also like being with small groups since we are spending a lot of time together!

We decided to take a tuk tuk our first day, but became so enamored with our driver that we ended up spending three days with him. Like most Cambodians, his family had been tragically affected by the Khmer Rouge; however unlike most of the other tuk-tuk drivers we have come across, he was well educated, had business cards with his email address, and could be reached by cell phone. He really made our stay here very special.

That’s not to say we liked everything we saw. We were very troubled by the results of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, and the level of poverty, especially outside the city. At our driver’s suggestion, and the advice of others, we took a boat ride along a muddy river and out to a floating Vietnamese village in a nearby lake. We have never seen such squalid living conditions in our lives. We were also deeply troubled by the women and young children begging for money, or trying to sell you anything for a dollar. We bought a lot of bananas, but couldn’t really deal with the situation.

Another troubling site is the monument to the Killing Fields. A glass cage contains the bones and skulls of some of the victims of the Civil War. Young girls were selling some of the many books that have been written about this period in Cambodia’s history. Sally purchased a very powerful book by a young girl who lived through the period “First they killed my father.”

While the country’s past is very troubled, we both thought that the future looks much brighter for the Cambodian people. The temples of Angkor have the potential to become an even more popular international tourist destination that will benefit the entire country. However, there is still a lot to be done. Much of the countryside has unexploded land mines, which can make certain types of site seeing very treacherous, The country is unbelievably poor, and we were told many children must quit school after grade 6 in order to support their families. The population is greatly distorted with only a very small percentage of the people over 40 years of age, and far more women than men.

To try and sum it all up, we were glad to get the opportunity to see the very magnificent structures and complexes, with impressive carvings and layouts. Our favourites were Ta Phohm where the trees have overtaken the buildings, and Banteay Srei, with its beautiful carvings in a pinkish limestone.

But it was a very sad and difficult place to be. I found it hard to deal with the fact that the bottle of Pellegrino that we had with our last lunch at the Raffles Grand Hotel was equal to a week’s wages for some people. $5 would pay for a month’s schooling for our driver’s son. Some of the housing conditions were the worst we have ever seen, although the people were at least well fed, compared to those in Africa.

Siem Reap is a relatively affluent part of the country with very lovely people, who want to speak English. They made visitors feel very welcome and safe walking the streets. Although we can’t speak for Phnom Penh, since we decided not to go there, this is a country we would recommend for a visit. But it will be a long time before we come back. Perhaps we’ll bring Claire’s children.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


If you are not quite sure where Vientiane is, don’t worry, you are not alone. A month ago, we didn’t know where it was either. But now we know, and we are happy to try and save you the bother and expense of visiting the place.

Vientiane is the current capital city of Laos. I say current since Laos' capital does change from time to time. As you may recall from an earlier blog, Luang Prabang was once the capital. To give you some sense of the place, it has a population of 200,000. It became the capital when Laos became a French protectorate, and it has certainly retained some of its French Colonial character. But it is not an attractive place, and there are a lot of very ugly buildings scattered around the city. However, here are also a number of good French Restaurants, cafes, and bars, and you have a lot of choices if you feel like a croque monsieur for lunch. There are also a couple of landmarks, including their own version of the Arc de Triomph, and a famous temple which adorns the cover of Lonely Planet’s Laos edition. Speaking of which, Sally wanted to purchase some Lonely Planet guides for our next destinations. Not knowing where to go, she befriended Hamid in a restaurant, and he took her off to a bookstore in his Jeep. When she arrived, she discovered that Vientiane is the sort of place where you can only buy counterfeit copies of the Lonely Planet Guides.

While we didn’t really like the place, we did have some good times. The Sala Sunset Khounta Bar was very close to the Novatel Hotel where we stayed. The Lonely Planet guide described it well. “At the western end of a dirt road along the Mekong riverfront, this simple wooden platform made of old boat timbers has been serving beer at sunset for years. Beerlao is the main attraction, but the friendly and enterprising proprietors also offer an array of Lao and Vietnamese snacks including barbq fish, and deep fried cricket. The savory yaw jeun spring rolls are recommended.” We tried it all, except for the crickets!

We also went to the circus. The Vietnamese Circus was in town, and the show was quite different than Cirque Soleil or any other circus that might play Vancouver. I mean, how often does a Vancouver performer entertain people by wandering around the ring smashing coconuts open on his head? Or sticking large needles into his arm? My favourites were the Charlie Chaplin impersonators and the pony-tailed Japanese magician with great stage presence, who pranced around to the sounds of the old hit 'Mambo Italiano'. Unfortunately he had virtually no good tricks. Of course the acrobats were quite good, but the lady with the dogs……

But hey, what do you expect for 2500 kip ($2.50)?

A few other highlights. Our guidebook warned us to watch out for holes in the street and sidewalk since they could result in a shitty end to your day. It was true. Often there were giant holes left in the pavement, where one could easily fall through.

The National Museum is housed in a former palace. It has extensive displays on the role that the Imperialistic American Pigs played in the development of the country. Sadly, the museum is in desperate need of funds and the building and displays were generally in very bad shape, a reflection of the poverty in this country.

On our last night, as we were heading to the elevator from the hotel restaurant, we started chatting to Peter and Kathy, the only other white couple in the restaurant. (Actually, other than one table of Koreans, they were the only other people in the restaurant. “Where are you from?” Vancouver”. “Oh really, we’re from Vancouver too!” “What part of Vancouver?” “Southlands”. “Oh really, we’re in Southlands too…Angus Lands.”

Within a few minutes we had discovered that they played golf at Shaughnessy; knew the Swifts, Moodies, Horwoods and even Ross McClellan with whom we were staying in Bangkok. It’s truly a small world.

The next morning, we were up at 4:30 to catch a 6:00 am flight to Siem Reap. Unlike Luang Prabang, we have no plans to return to Vientiane, and can't really recommend it to others. But maybe when more road works are finished, and the temperature drops below 35, and there is a bit more tourist infrastructure in place, it will be a good place to see. Especially if you want a croque monsieur for lunch, or a very good French dinner at their Café de Paris for about $6.

Luang Prabang: The Kingdom of Laos

Someone commented that we must be having a good time, based on the number of places we have seen and want to revisit. Well we have another one: Luang Prabang, the former capital of the Laos kingdom, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Before this trip, we had neither heard of Luang Prabang, nor Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. But we had been told that Laos was a good place to visit since it was somewhat like rural Thailand, with gentle people and interesting sites, but in years gone by.

We knew we would like the place as our small plane from bustling Hanoi came in for the landing. The town seemed quite charming, even from the air, with well kept buildings and gardens scattered along a narrow strip of land, contained by two rivers. There were a few larger homes, and some obvious resorts, but no apartments or industrial buildings.

When we arrived at the airport, we had to purchase a visitor’s visa. We filled out the forms, including our passport numbers, issuance date, expiry date and so on, and lined up to make payment. As we approached the counter, I noticed a faded photocopy setting out the prices. I was quite surprised. The price varied depending on where you were from. If you were from Australia or Germany, you paid $30USD. However, if you were from the Netherlands or England, you paid $35USD. If you were from USA the price was $35USD. If you were from Canada….$42USD, the highest price for anyone in the world! I couldn’t believe it. The Americans had bombed the place, and they were being charged less than us! So we altered our applications, crossing out the Canadian passport information, and substituting our British passport data. We saved $14. But I plan to find out why the price variation. The only thing I can think of is that it is tied to international aid.

Notwithstanding the pricing of visas, we think we have discovered the sort of place most travelers are seeking. It’s authentic, charming, and modest, while at the same time quite elegant. It is of another culture and another era. The river banks and many streets are lined with simple cafes, where food is cooked over burning wood. The people seem genuinely happy and content with their lives. And while there is a lot of poverty and some very run down buildings, one feels that there is a strong sense of community pride.

The town is a mixture of faded French Colonial buildings, temples, shops, night markets, guest houses and restaurants. The majority of people travel around on foot, bicycle, tuk tuk or scooter. There are no Starbucks, McDonalds or KFC outlets. There are numerous internet outlets and tourist offices, but large buses are not allowed on the streets. There are few illuminated signs around town. Instead, the signage is quite coordinated with gold lettering on wooden boards the norm.

The town is starting to attract new residents from around the world. They are setting up craft galleries, restaurants, and other businesses. Amongst the 32 temples is a Jewish Chabad House, which must mean something, although I’m not sure what! As you walk around, you can see the results of international aid programs flowing from the UNESCO designation, including a network of brick alleys and sidewalks, and new curbs and stormwater channels along the streets.

Luang Prabang is unbelievably inexpensive. You can stay in very comfortable accommodation with a private bathroom and air conditioning for $25 USD a night. For $60 USD you get the best room in many of the guesthouses around town. We stayed at the Sayo Xieng Mouane, a converted French Colonial Mansion, which was recommended to our friends Bob Duncan and Janice Brown who coincidentally will be here in a couple of weeks. We hope they find the note we hid for them in their room!

Bob should like the price of drinks. A large bottle of Lao beer costs $1.40 in a restaurant, and less than a dollar on the street. Lao-lao, the local rice whiskey can be purchased almost everywhere for less than 50 cents per 750mL bottle. The first night, we ate at L’Elephant, a French/Lao restaurant recommended by the town’s wine merchant. It was very good. After dinner, we started chatting to an Englishman who had just moved here. He told us his first choice had been to move to Vancouver, where he had spent 6 months last year. But he couldn’t afford it. He could easily afford Luang. He said we were eating in what many considered to be the best and most expensive restaurant in town. The meal for the two of us with a large carafe of wine and a beer cost $39 USD! And this was 5 times what we would have paid for a good dinner at a café by the river!

We booked an outing down the Mekong River. I didn’t expect much, since the five hour cruise, cave and village tours cost only 60,000 kip ($6). On the way, we stopped off at Ban Xang Hai one of many handicraft villages along the river, known for its textiles, whiskey and wine. I have never seen anything quite like it. The simple structures were scattered around the temple. There were no streets as such; just small spaces between the haphazard buildings where women were making textiles on outside looms, and whiskey was being distilled in steel drums. It was delightful, although the whiskey was a bit difficult to take at 10 am. The wine, made from sticky rice, went down more smoothly.

We returned to the boat and set off for our main destination, the Pak Ou Caves. The first cave, only accessible by steps leading from the water, was crammed with hundreds of Buddha images. We reached the other cave by climbing a series of steps. It contained carvings and a variety of statues. But what was far more interesting for me were the young girls lining the steps, trying to earn some pocket change by selling little woven baskets containing….live birds! Apparently it is good luck to let them go. One young girl was desperately trying to sell me a turtle. I didn’t know if it was supposed to be a pet, or something to eat. In Vietnam and Laos, there are many different ways to cook turtle.

In the afternoon, we wandered around town and Sally went off for a one hour massage ($5) and pedicure ($4), while I headed over to a nice spot for Happy Hour (4 Lao-lao sours and tip, $7). Over dinner, Sally said this was probably the most outstanding place we have visited so far. We couldn’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it, except perhaps for our friend Rubenstein!

We had only planned to spend two days here, but managed to change our flights and stay another day. We would have liked to stay much longer, but are almost half way through the trip, and there is a lot to see before meeting the girls in Greece at the end of May. As it is, we now realize we will have to significantly reduce the amount of time spent in China. But it’s worth it, when we discover places like this. We will definitely be back, and urge you to check it out. Even if you don’t like rice whiskey.

Monday, April 23, 2007


Don't be fooled by this picture! If you have nothing to do on a Saturday night, and want some real adventure and excitement, try taking the 45 minute taxi ride from Hanoi airport into the downtown. It is right up there with every absorbing car chase scene you have seen in the movies, with vehicles going down the wrong side of the street, near collisions every second, and continuous honking and flashing lights. It was a good preview of what was in store over the next few days.

We would have liked to have spent a bit of time in Vietnam, but only had a few days. As a result, we decided to visit Hanoi, rather than Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called) since a Vietnamese architect once told me in a bar in Taipei that it had wonderful historic buildings that had to be seen before they were demolished. It may well be, but quite honestly, we spent so much time trying to avoid being hit by buses, cars and scooters that we really didn’t get a chance to truly appreciate Hanoi’s architecture.

It is an amazing place. I used to think Bangkok was a difficult city to drive around, but it’s nothing compared to Hanoi. The city doesn’t have as many cars, but seems to have a lot more scooters. I was told there are 4 million people in Hanoi, and 3 million scooters. It’s not true of course, but it sure feels like it. I used to think that more scooters in Vancouver would be a good idea, but now I’m not so sure I want to encourage this!

What saved our sanity was our hotel. We stayed on the executive floor of the Hanoi Horison Hotel, a five star Swiss-Belhotel. It would have cost at least $400 in most places, but cost $130 USD in Hanoi, when booked through…wot else? Wotif. While it wasn’t in the Old Quarter or the French Quarter where we would have preferred to stay, it was close enough. Just a harrowing 15 minute drive away. There was a private lounge that served complimentary meals and afternoon tea, and a private business centre. Each room had wireless internet, a luxury we enjoy, although at times it could be quite slow, like much of the internet over here. (So much so that I joked to someone that I seem to spent 10% of my trip, staring at a computer screen waiting for the Google box to appear!)

On Sunday afternoon, we did something we hadn’t done before; we took rides around the French Quarter in bicycle rickshaws. It was a bit easier than walking, but still somewhat perilous, especially when buses and trucks seemed to be coming right at us. After half an hour, we had had enough, since we were uncomfortable having these slight young men having to pedal so hard to transport our overweight bodies.

On Monday we decided to take a guided tour out to Halong Bay, about 180 km from the city. It included a boat cruise through the limestone outcroppings, and a tour of some caves. Again, the drive out was most frightening. The driver really didn’t show any preference for one side of the road over the other; but then he didn’t need to since he was a bigger than most of the other vehicles.

The trip around Halong Bay was a very unique experience. It was also enhanced by a chance meeting with Olga and Vsevolod Chernenko, a couple from Moscow. They were delightful, worldly, and great traveling companions. While a seafood buffet was served as part of the boat cruise, before lunch we motored up to a floating village. There, a variety of seafood was being sold, including things I had never before seen in my life. We were told that we should buy something to augment the buffet. The ‘chef’ on board would prepare it for us, for a small fee. Everything was sold by the kilo. Vsev and I decided on live prawns. The vendor had his own scales, and what we thought would be about 400 grams ‘weighed’ 1.2 kilos. Who were we to argue? They cost 300,000 dong! About $20 USD! It reminded me of the prawns at the farm in New Zealand. But they were quite delicious. After the purchase, a Vietnamese engineer from Saigon, who I had previously met on board apologized for the way we were treated. He assured me this would never happen in the south, but the northerners were different. “They won’t hesitate to take advantage of you” he said, “especially if they think you are American”. At least one Vietnamese fisherman can now take care of his family for another month!

As we drove back, I realized that the reason I hadn’t seen many new buildings in Hanoi was that I didn’t recognize them…they are designed and built to look like old buildings (just like in Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy). Most of them are very narrow; often no more than 4m in width, and up to five stories in height. They can be 50 m deep, with courtyards and light-wells to make the rooms more livable. Sometimes the ground floor is used for a store or other commercial uses; other times it is a gated courtyard. I read that the reason that the buildings are so tall and narrow is in large part due to the taxation system. Property taxes are based on frontage, rather than value. When you think about it, this makes quite a bit of sense. After all, a narrow building requires less sidewalk, road, and services to be built and maintained.

After three days, we were ready to leave Hanoi. To be fair, we probably needed more time to adjust. At the airport, we met an Australian couple who had spent three weeks traveling around Vietnam. I asked them how they enjoyed the experience. They loved it; especially the beaches and the small towns. They said they would definitely be back. Perhaps we will return one day to see the rest of the country. But we’ll give Hanoi a miss, unless we can be assured of room 1017 in the Horison Hotel at the special Wotif rate!