Two days on a Mekong river boat: Laos to Thailand

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At a Mekong village stop

It was time to leave Luang Prabang and time for the biggest question mark of this long trip. Months ago, I’d booked us on a 2-day Mekong river cruise to Thailand in a big, open-air traditional wooden river boat. At $130 each, this was big money in Laos, but substantially cheaper and way more interesting than some sleep-aboard river boats I’d seen. These same type boats do a much, much cheaper “slow boat” between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai, Laos, but with frequent crowds, unreserved seats (so if the boat is full, you may have to wait a day) and a bus-like atmosphere, they sounded way less comfortable than I was willing to do. The company I chose, Mekong Smile Cruises, got good reviews and sounded like just the level of adventure I was up for. Lunch onboard was included, we stopped at a cave filled with Buddha statues and a local village en route. The overnight happened in Pakbeng, Laos, a village or small town that Google Images led me to believe was no great shakes…but online posts indicated that guest rooms were easy to come by and ridiculously cheap. I scanned Tripadvisor, seeing a few guesthouses listed and one “upscale” hotel at around $100. After his initial impulse that I should “throw money at it” and get the hotel, David came around to my way of thinking that we should try one of the guest houses. I made note of a few recommended names and posts saying that prices doubled if you book in advance, so why bother. Alright, we’d wing it. God, I hope I’m not getting us into a mess! I say this in present tense because I’m onboard the boat as I write this.

“Mr. Joy” from Mekong Smile Cruises met us at My Dream last night to fill us in on details and tell us he’d be back this morning at 6:30am to pick us up. He put my mind at ease about leaving our luggage onboard overnight since the captain and his wife sleep aboard. So, we only need to take a small over night bag. One worry checked off. He also told us we’d be the only guests for the cruise. On a 40-seat boat. Wow.

True to his word, Mr. Joy was waiting when we got to the lobby. It turns out that his name is more like “Choy” (pronounced with a sound somewhere between a “j” and a “ch”), a nickname meaning “skinny.” Since “Mr. Joy” sounds kind of creepy, it’ll be “Choy” from here on out.

Our lovely hosts at My Dream had packed us breakfast to go and the friendly young man who’d helped us with alms-giving and the tuk tuk to the waterfall walked us to the minivan. As the morning parade of monks filed by, he stood and waved until we pulled away. Did I mention I really, really like My Dream?

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A friendly send-off and the morning monk procession

A ten minute ride deposited us at a fair-sized navigation office building where we descended a long flight of stairs down the riverbank to where a small fleet of river boats were parked. Our captain came out to meet us and help with the luggage before ushering us aboard.

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The captain helps with the luggage

The boat is pretty, low-slung with a gently scooped roof, ornate carvings above and below its many open-air “windows,” curtains and 2 carved daybeds and 2 pillowed benches in the front section of the guest area. David and I immediately stretched out on the daybeds, and I felt like Cleopatra cruising down the Nile as we pulled away in the early light to glide past mountains thick with greenery, villages, beaches with wading water buffalo, low rapids and more. When the writing mood hit me, I left my daybed to set up a little office space and one of the many tables fronting pairs of chairs that looks as if they might have been lifted from a retired bus.

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This does not suck!
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Not a bad place to blog either!
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Water buffalo

We reached the cave shrine an hour out of Luang Prabang. Our boat docked at a woven bamboo pier below the steps to the cave. The cave is filled with Buddha statues of all sizes dating back to the 1600’s. I made a 20,000 kip donation to get a flower cone offering with candles and incense. Choy instructed me in the details of presenting my offering as my Korean Buddhist teaching didn’t apply to Laotian customs. We’ve had lots of time to chat as our boat makes its 10-hour journey today. Choy tells me that while Laos is 68% Buddhist, it’s 28% animist and that most people worship and observe important events like weddings and births in a fashion that’s a blend of the two.

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Approaching the Buddha cave
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Arriving at the Buddha cave dock
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Lighting the candles and incense for my offering
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Inside the Buddha cave
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The main cave shrine overlooking the river

Lunch, cooked by the captain’s wife, was served buffet-style and we dined at 4-seater tables way to the back of our floating domain. We had thick-crusted fried chicken legs, stir-fried chicken and onions, stir-fried vegetables, vegetable soup in a thin broth, steamed rice and fresh pineapple. She went light on the spices, but served the meal with a sauce of chopped red chilies that could set your mouth afire.

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Lunch aboard
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Buffet and bar space on the boat; 2 toilets are in the hall in the rear left, behind which is the engine room, then the captain’s living quarters in the very back. (There’s no electricity for the fan or anything else when not docked.)

So now, I’m actually caught up with this blog and the daybed is beckoning for an after-lunch nap. There are other past things I’ve been meaning to blog about, but the world can live without I’m sure and David shouldn’t have to nap alone. 🙂

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* * *

We’re back on our Mekong river boat after our night in Pakbeng so I can report on our overnight stay:

Choy walked with us to help negotiate a guest room for the night and to show us the local market. I really appreciated his helpfulness as this night had been a nagging worry. We got off to a poor start when the first few guesthouses we talked to were fully booked by Thai group tours that had yet to arrive. I started to wonder about all that online advice about lots of rooms being available. Also, music was blaring from one guesthouse and an outdoor party tent set up in the middle of the road. I’d heard noise could be a problem and had brought earplugs, but this wasn’t looking good…and it was hot despite the setting sun.

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Pakbeng “port”
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Pakbeng, Laos: not much
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Pakbeng, Laos: Main Street

As we wandered uphill on the main street, a lady asked us to look at her small guesthouse, Vassana, just across from Phonesony (one of the guesthouses I’d read about, but that was booked). At first asking 150,000 kip, she dropped her price to 120,000 when I said I’d read the cost was usually 100,000 kip in the area. Clearly, things were busy, so we were happy with the price. (I actually felt a little sheepish when I focused later on how little money we were haggling over: Our room came out to $14.81, give or take a fraction of a cent.) The rooms turned out to be simple, but very clean. There was no ornamentation or artwork save pretty new gold brocade patterned curtains, clean and crisply pleated. One heavy wooden chair served as a bedside table, while a wall mirror with small wooden shelf and a row of knobs served as the hanging space. The proprietress showed us two similar ground-floor rooms and we opted for the one farthest from the road. The room was hot and stuffy, but had an a/c. We started the a/c and I wasn’t sure that it was cooling much, but we crossed our fingers and left it running and headed out to dinner at an Indian restaurant, Hasan, that got great reviews.

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Guest room at Vassana: simple, but clean and comfortable (and less than $15)

The food at Hasan was good save for the naan and roti which, as David put it, were the “saltine crackers of the naan world.” We had a corner table of their outdoor balcony with a pretty view overlooking the Mekong. Chicken tikka masala, aloo gobi and palak “paneer” (made with tofu rather than the usual paneer cheese) were all well-seasoned and spicy. A Beer Lao rounded out the meal.

Tired, with an early morning in our future and with David feeling a little under the weather, we called it an early night and headed back to our room, hoping the a/c had done its job, but feeling doubtful. I can’t describe the thrill of opening that door to a delightfully cool room.

We showered quickly in the tiny bathroom, with a handheld shower mounted on the wall and open to the room. Drains in the floor drained not only the shower water, but also water from the sink which ran directly onto the floor from an open pipe. Basic, but again, very clean and plenty of hot water (although I was happy with cool water). The bed was big and comfortable with good pillows (an uncertain thing in Asia). The room was dark, the music had stopped outside and the “turbo” feature of the wall-mounted a/c drowned out any remaining noise. Despite my earlier misgivings, I slept like a stone for nearly 9 hours. Awesome!

Up at 6am, we packed our meager belongs and bought a huge chocolate chip “croissant” to share and coffee at Monsovanh Bakery on the road to the boat. We chatted with several other travelers who’d arrived on other “slow boats” from both directions. I’d looked at these boats before I chose our boat with Mekong Smile Cruises. Veritable river buses, they run on a first come, first served basis and are often crowded. People’s description of the heat and crowds convinced me I’d been right to go with the booked cruise, although the price was just over 3x that of the regular slow boat. For our extra money, we got lots of space and the ability to move around as our whims and incoming sunshine dictated, personalized service, lunch and no hassles. Well worth the extra $80 apiece, in our opinion, to turn 2 days of misery into 2 extraordinary days on the Mekong. [There could have been more people on our boat (up to a max of 30, which would have been too many), but everyone I’ve read about or talked to who’s done it this way reports much smaller groups.]

As we pulled away from the dock this morning, we watched handlers bringing two elephants down to the riverbank opposite Pakbeng. Beautiful in the morning mist.

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Five hours flew by as we lounged on our daybeds, watching the passing scenery (and drifting off to sleep from time to time). Clouds blocked the direct sun and a breeze kept us cool and comfortable. Our boat pulled in to a sandy beach around 12:30pm where a boy and girl were digging with long poles. Choy led us up the bank pointing out holes in the sandy earth where the children had been digging for crickets, a local delicacy.

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Children digging for crickets
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Holes in a dirt bank made by much cricket hunting

Choy led us a bit further up the hill to their village which consisted mostly of woven bamboo homes interspersed with 1 or 2 wooden and cement block buildings. Piglets, ducks and chickens roamed freely while women washed clothes in a village well.

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Making a gun
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A “taxi” dropping off in the village

Electricity had recently been supplied to the village, which itself was only established there in 2009 when the government moved these ethnic Khmu people (one of the largest minority groups in Laos and related to the Khmer of Cambodia) down from the mountains to try to curb slash-and-burn practices. Unfortunately, along with electricity came techno music blaring from one house. About 300 people live in the village and we felt pretty sure there must be some complaints to the village chief about the noise. We might have thought the Khmu village abysmally poor and dirty if we hadn’t been to the floating village in Kompong Khleang which, while larger, won hands down in the lack-of-sanitation department. (And, according to Choy, this was a “5-star” village, displaying signs attesting to its superiority in development, access to health care, youth programs, gender equality and such.)

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Children were friendly, waving and smiling. Three small boys clustered around David, laughing when he started a high-five routine with them. There was no village temple as these people are animist (like nearly 30% of Laotians), looking to a village shaman for spiritual matters and healing. While Mekong Smile Cruise boats stop here as part of the journey, there wasn’t anything to buy and no one asking for handouts.

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The little guy in the back wasn’t sure what he thought about David’s high-five…
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…but then he gave it a try…
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…and was mighty tickled by the whole business, as were his friends. 😀

Lunch was ready when we got back on the boat: fried fish; chicken curry soup; shredded bamboo, noodle and chicken salad; steamed rice; red chili salsa and fresh fruit.

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Having just finished that moveable feast, I’m off to the daybed for my afternoon viewing and relaxation. Have I mentioned that I’m really enjoying this boat ride?

* * *

After lunch, it was time for more reclining and river-watching as we listened to audiobooks or dozed in the fresh breeze. We came to a provincial border line and our boat had to stop to get a stamp. Another boat was also stopped and we got a glimpse, close-up of one of the crowded bus-like slow boats. This boat was heading downstream towards Luang Prabang, and we heard later that the boats going that faster route were often the most crowded. As we tried to pull away, the swift current caught the stern of our boat and pushed it into a small shoal. When our captain had trouble getting us off, two boatmen from yet another boat ran over to help, joining the captain on the roof to push off with long bamboo poles stored on every river boat while Choy and the captain’s wife tended to the bow. There seemed to be a real camraderie among the boatmen of the Mekong River, and we saw them calling greetings as they passed and springing to help each other and each other’s passengers when needed.

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Crowded slow boat stopped at the province line
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Three poles in the water to push us off a small shoal

The landscape changed as we neared Thailand, with the mountains and hills flattening. On the Thai side of the river, stones had been hauled in to fight erosion.

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Approaching Thailand
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Passing under the Friendship Bridge between Laos (on the right) and Thailand (on the left) near our debarkation point in Huay Xai, Laos

Docking at our destination, Huay Xai (“hway sigh”) was a final adventure: We arrived to a mass of sister boats crammed together like…well, like sardines. There was nowhere in sight for our boat. After a few calls from our captain to his fellows, one of the boats fired up its engine and we assumed it was pulling out and we’d take its place, although it seemed thinner than our boat. Our captain did not back up, though, and we wondered why he wasn’t giving the other boat room. Then, a small wedge began to appear between the sterns of that boat and the one to its right. We were going to try to fit between the two!

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We docked BETWEEN the two green boats to the left of the blue one. The engine is running on the green boat 2 from the blue boat as it begins to move to its left to make room for us. Unbelievable!

There was literally no room whatsoever. Nevertheless, out came the long bamboo poles and the other boatmen began trying to make space as we kept creeping forward. Choy and the captain’s wife pushed with both hands and soon the captain abandoned his wheel and David joined in. We scraped against our neighbors, knocking two thick wooden poles loose. Boats creaked and groaned as we were squeezed on both sides. Boatmen called or yelled to each other as they scampered about, pushing and trying to restore the wooden poles to their original place. Eventually, by some miracle, we wedged ourselves in. Surprisingly, no one seemed upset about the potential damage to their vessels and there was laughter all around.

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Near the end of our docking maneuver

Now, we were faced with a nearly vertical wall of grass. How were we supposed to get up that with our luggage? No problem: walk across the bow of our neighbor, hop out onto some grass and let our captain and his friends shoulder our suitcases and climb up to a waiting minivan.

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The captain’s wife on our bow just after docking…now for the steep grass embankment…

The 3-year old Friendship Bridge immigration point is lovely and modern, but a 15 to 20 minute van ride (included with our cruise) back from the dock. Choy rode with us, directing us through emigration (There’s an extra $1 charge for exiting Laos on weekends and after hours.) and buying our bus ticket to the other, Thai, side of the bridge. We bid him a very grateful farewell as he head off to an overnight bus back to Luang Prabang. There was a man who earned his tip!

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At the Friendship Bridge border crossing
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On the Lao side of the Friendship Bridge at Huay Xai
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Bus for the last bit of our trip–across the bridge into Thailand

We entered an almost empty Thai immigration building on the other side of the bridge at dusk. A super friendly immigration officer (a rarity on the trip) asked where we were staying, then left his post to take us to the tuk tuk taxi stand and make sure we were off to our hotel in Chiang Khong with no hassles. It was a nice end to our river cruise and an auspicious start to the Thai portion of our trip.

We paid $130 each for our Mekong Smile Cruise. Upstream cruises like our take about 10 hours each day. Find out more at http://www.mekongsmilecruise.com/

Laos: Monks, Hmong, Bears & Kuang Si Waterfall

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At the top of Kuang Si falls: looking over the edge

We were up bright and early for the monks, aided by the local rooster as well as my phone alarm. Sure enough our friend at the front desk had procured a large straw basket of sticky rice, a bowl of packaged crackers and rice cakes and a straw mat for us to kneel on. We crossed the street in front of the hotel, laid out the mat and set out our offerings. Several yards down the road, the ladies running a nearby store laid out their own mat and offerings.

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Soon, we glimpsed the first monks, clad in bright orange robes, appear to our left at the far end of the road. They chanted as they walked single file, but stopped as they neared us, filing by in silence. Each carried a metal pot on their right hip, held by a rope holder slung over a shoulder and a bag on the opposite hip. As they passed us, each paused and removed the lid from his pot for us to add our offering. David pulled off small balls of sticky rice and deposited them in the bowl while I dropped a packet of crackers or rice cake in the same bowl.

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Morning alms-giving to the local monks
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There were approximately 70 monks in the group that filed by us.

The monks continued on to the ladies down the road who added their own sticky rice to the bowl. These offerings would be used to make the monks’ two daily meals…along with some vegetables one can only hope. It was a little disturbing to think of all the fingers that touched the mix of rice and other offerings in each bowl. The practice seemed less than sanitary, but they’ve been doing it a long time.

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The ladies next door giving alms

After the alms-giving, we had a little down time before our appointment with a tuk tuk driver arranged by My Dream to take us the hour drive to Zuang Si Waterfall for $32 for the day. We were surprised and pleased to find our private tuk tuk was a large “bus” style with a real small truck cab (rather than the 3-wheelers we’d used in Siem Reap) and a rear sporting 2 facing benches that could easily hold 10 people. After a quick discussion, we decided to do a stop in a Hmong village along the way and I sent David back for more money. Sadly–or maybe luckily–he didn’t realize what I had in mind and we were relatively poor for the day.

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David in our big tuk tuk

Barring the occasional massive pothole–which our driver adeptly slowed and crawled through or around, the ride was relatively smooth and the scenery fascinated us: farms and jungly forest, villages and schools, rice fields and water buffalo. The tuk tuk sped along making a comfortable breeze. With no seatbelts and an open back, we laughed that the tuk tuk brought happy memories of rare rides in the back of a pick-up truck. Thank God we didn’t have a wreck or we’d have been thrown out the back in a heartbeat.

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In a Hmong village, our driver pulled to a stop in front of an open stall where a woman spun cotton thread at a spinning wheel while a man beside her slid small tufts of cotton between the rollers of a wringer to remove the seeds. The welcomed us warmly, demonstrating how the machines work and gesturing me to sit at each and try my hand. Spinning is tricky, but I finally started to get the hang of it. Behind the stall, a loom was set up, a colorful cloth only just beginning to take life. The man brought a basket of flowers out, crushing them between his fingers to show me how that obtained the natural dye. Beautiful wall hangings, scarves and table runners hung around us. I’d have happily bought one or three, but we were short on cash. Oh well, most everything we own is in storage these days anyway and the last thing we need is house wares. Still…

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Hmong couple demonstrating removing the seeds from cotton (on left) and spinning
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Fluffing the cotton
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Flowers used to make dye
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Hmong girls

Right at an hour from when we left My Dream, our driver pulled to a stop in a dirt parking square surrounded by stalls selling dry goods and food. He gestured us to the entrance to the waterfall and agreed with our plan to stay 3 hours, including a lunch break.

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Market square outside Kuang Si Waterfall

We paid our 20,000 kip entry fee ($2.47 each) and headed towards the falls. Only 30 yards or so into the wooded path, we came to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre that works with http://www.freethebears.org/. White-chested Lao bears rambled, slept and played in tree-shaded open air pens filled with hammocks, climbing platforms, tire swings and toys. We spent time watching the bears and reading signs telling how local bears had been hunted to near extinction and captured to milk for bile used in Asian medicines. Other signs described each bear, his or her markings, characteristics and personalities. Visiting the centre is free, but they raise money by selling t-shirts a few other items.

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Beyond the bear sanctuary, we came to the first of many beautiful pools that lie at the lower steps of the falls. We changed into bathing suits in a path-side building then headed further up (pulling on shirts and shorts–for me–over our bathing suits out of respect for the modest culture). The main fall is a spectacular cascade, spilling down the mountain in steep stages. A footbridge crosses at the base where a fine spray cooled our skin and made photo-taking tricky as lenses quickly spotted. Wild poinsettias bloomed in the rich environment along with huge ficus trees, massive vines and other plants I couldn’t name. Although you can climb to the top of the falls on either side, we opted for the side closest to our original path after a quick examination of the lower climb revealed both ways up to be steep and possibly muddy, but the closest maybe less so.

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A lower pool at Tat Kuang Si
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Part of the lower falls
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Misty Kuang Si Waterfall
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Wild poinsettias thrive in the mists of the waterfall

The path took us away from the water at first through thick jungle and we quickly warmed as we moved away from the cooling effects of the falls and lower pools. Early defined steps gave way to dirt steppes that were only moderately-helpful bumps of dirt. At least it wasn’t muddy and our trusty Teva sandals handled the terrain fine as we scrambled up slopes, pulling on vines and using tree roots as footholds when available. Although we were alone much of the way, we passed a couple of young women who confirmed we were going the right way and hiked around a slower group of three going our way. Part way up and finally back closer to the main falls, we came to a steep flight of wooden stairs over which water cascaded down one side. We waded through enjoying the cool spring water spilling over our sandalled feet.

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The path to the top; not exactly steps here

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Reaching a level open clearing near the top, we came upon a sign indicating the top to our right and more swimming holes 3km to our left. Easy choice. We turned right and soon joined other hikers enjoying the pools at the top of the falls. It was a reasonably light crowd, though, and we peeled off our over clothes and waded in to a sun-dappled pool. We caught our breath as we first slipped into the cold spring water, then sighed in pleasure as we adjusted to the change. Little fish darted ahead of us as we waded to the waterfall’s edge, protected only by a bamboo rail and our own good sense. The view over the falls to the lush mountains beyond was breathtaking.

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One of the pools at the top of Kuang Si Waterfall
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View from the top of Kuang Si Waterfall

After enjoying the water for awhile, we hiked back down, intent on swimming in some of the beautiful pools at the base. I didn’t pull back on my shorts for the hike and was embarrassed when I came upon a monk at the base wearing only my bathing suit and a t-shirt. I lagged behind him while I fished a towel out of our bag and improvised a quick sarong.

We chose a beautiful pool with low waterfalls for another swim, using vines and roots on a bank to try and pull ourselves against the current toward a higher falls. The coolness was delightful and a Canadian woman with whom I struck up a conversation smiled at how great it was after being so hot all the time. We knew it was only a matter a time before we were sweating again, but for the moment it was heaven. Actually, we were so thoroughly cooled that David and I stayed comfortable through lunch at a stall by our tuk tuk and the breezy ride home.

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David in one of the lower pools

The heat only began to catch up with us as we neared Luang Prabang, a combination of lower elevation, city heat and the setting sun shining through the open rear of our tuk tuk evading our sheltering roof. Oh well, another shower took care of that and we were off for our second meal at My Dream. We just couldn’t rustle up the energy to do more…and why should we when it was so good?

The night’s dinner started with more Mekong river weeds (I really did love them!) and dried water buffalo meat for appetizers. The meat, as expected, was basically jerky, very lightly seasoned and served with crisp-fried lemon grass shreds, garlic and kafir lime leaves. Frying made the lemon grass and lime leaves crumbly and edible, letting their full flavors come through.

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Mekong river weeds and dried water buffalo meat

Main courses were red curry duck and laap kai, a local dish of minced chicken in a salad with herbs, garlic, chili served with sticky rice. We opted for a couple large Lao Beers, nestled in an ice bucket and poured out in small, cold doses. Perfect…and only $33.25, all in.

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Red curry duck and laap kai

 

Luang Prabang, Laos

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Temple at the Royal Palace

It’s always kind of fun to wake up in a place you’ve only seen in the dark. A Christmas morning kind of surprise-gift (I-hope-its-not-a-dud) feeling. Waking up in My Dream Boutique Resort in Luang Prabang Laos was definitely exciting. Our welcome the night before boded well: very friendly and efficient, check-in accompanied by chilled ginger water and honeyed mango. The room itself was charmingly styled with woven Lao mats, mosquito net-draped bed, stained-stone shower, generous balcony (albeit sans view–We didn’t figure we’d spend much time in the room.) and mahogany furnishings.

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My Dream “lobby” and restaurant

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I’d chosen My Dream based on its price, glowing Tripadvisor reviews, and location across the river from–but easily accessible to–the more touristy and loud downtown area. I also liked that it had a swimming pool (something banned in the Unesco-certified downtown) and riverfront grounds. Exploring the flower-filled gardens of My Dream in the daylight, stretching out on a grass-roofed palapa overlooking the Khan River, we soon decided we were super-happy with the choice. See more at: http://www.mydreamresort.com

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My Dream is like some fantasy of a jungle resort. It’s casual and laid back, but beautiful, too, with huge bougainvillea draped across bamboo supports framing balconies and the open-air lobby and restaurant. The pool was small, but picturesque, immaculate and delightfully cool. An included breakfast buffet offered western and Asian options, fresh coffee and cooked-to-order eggs. Bikes are provided at no charge, so we had to take them up on that for our first day explore of the town.

Bikes were definitely the way to go, but My Dream could really use an update on their bikes. Oh well, despite a left pedal that missed about 50% of it’s push and flopped weirdly, biking beat walking any day of the week. A nearby scooter/bike/pedestrian-only bridge had us across the Khan River and in Luang Prabang town in no time. (My Dream also offers free shuttles to town, but shuttles have to take the farther “new bridge” and run at fairly long intervals. We didn’t want to be left walking in the heat downtown.) Often bumper-to-bumper with scooters and bikes, the old bridge is an experience. Made of crossbeams of wood, it has two lane of planks set long-ways for bikes and scooters, a great idea save for the occasional tire-grabbing gap near a rotted end. Paying attention was in order.

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The old bridge in very light traffic

Luang Prabang is tucked into the acute angle formed where the Khan River flows into the Mekong. The old town forms a finger pointing northeast into this angle. We biked along the Khan, stopping at a park and a small Wat, then looped back to our left across the “fingertip” to ride along the Mekong toward the main part of town.

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Rebuilding a bamboo footbridge

We quickly came to Xieng Thong, a gorgeous temple complex with graceful-roofed buildings and gilded Buddhas. The decor was noticeably different from Buddhist temples we’d seen in other countries: beautiful mosaics decorated the outside walls and stenciling covered the inner walls. In the main temple, three young Buddhist monks dressed in varying shades of orange robes, walked in and began to pray. [There’s a video of this on Wanderwiles’ FB page.] I’ve really come to love the atmosphere in Buddhist temples: the low light, incense, candles, and peace.

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Xieng Thong
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Beautiful mosaics adorning Xieng Thong

20161026_120524Leaving Xieng Thong and following the map provided by My Dream, we biked on the in the sweltering heat, thinking to visit the Royal Palace Museum. It turned out to be closed for lunch and we took the hint, choosing a outdoor riverside café. Despite lots of cute shops and restaurants, air-conditioning didn’t seem to be an option anywhere nearby and we were a sweaty mess anyway. The proprietress welcomed us warmly and brought an electric fan. Lunch was delicious, cheap and relatively cool and we left refreshed.

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Lunch on the Mekong: A muggy day gets better with a cold Beer Lao!
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Sweaty cycling along the Mekong
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Luang Prabang street

I did a little research on the Royal Palace Museum on my phone over lunch and found that most reviewers praised the grounds, but weren’t so impressed with the paid-admission portion that allowed entry to the palace itself. I got a good laugh at a Spanish-language review stating that the decor in her house was better and that photos weren’t allowed inside so people wouldn’t know how horrible it was. Hmm. We opted to take the advice given and biked through the grounds, peeked at the threadbare collection of cars once belonging to the royal family (a Jeep, some Lincoln Continentals, an Edsel and a Citroën that looked as if it had been hauled from a junk yard), admired the temple from the outside (the only option, paid or unpaid), and were on our way. A spin past the market and we were headed back to My Dream, dreaming of the swimming pool and a break in the heat that Weatherbug now pegged at 90F (feeling like 96F).

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The Royal Palace Museum

Dipping into the just-right cool pool, we almost decided we were done for the day, but couldn’t resist a sunset hike to the top of Mt. Phousi, a highly-touted attraction. Back on bikes (but with a replacement for me), we headed back across the old bridge and along the Khan River to one of the two stairways to the hilltop. It’s possible to hike up one stairs and down the other side, but with bikes, we had to pick one. I chose the longer route given that it was closer to our hotel, less steep and reported to have more to see along the way. Minivans lined the road by the stairs and flocks of people were heading up when we got there. We climbed past a purported footprint of Buddha where a monk prayed out loud in a small, open-air pavillion overlooking the Khan and the buildings and mountains beyond; a stupa; a monastery with working young monks; scattered Buddha statues; and two large golden statues of Buddha, one seated, one reclining.

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20161026_172752A small temple at the summit housed a few worshippers and a cat, the biggest crowd being outside taking in the nearly 360° view and the setting sun. It was worth the hike, but we headed down just ahead of the crowd, not wanting to be trapped on steep stairs in the dark with a group of sometimes-unsteady-on-their-feet tourists.

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After yet another shower, we opted to eat at the hotel’s pretty open-air restaurant and couldn’t have been happier. Convenient, friendly, lovely atmosphere, delicious Lao dishes; we couldn’t go wrong. We started with two mai tais, then moved onto appetizers: Mekong “river weeds” a ubiquitous offering I’d been dying to try, and fresh rolls. The river weeds turned out to be covered in sesame seeds and thin slices of eggplant, then fried super-crispy into squares about 2×2″. I was hooked! The fresh rolls were good, but getting to be an everyday thing for us, and not as full of herbs as we prefer. Our main courses were a coconut milk fish mousseline cooked in a banana leaf bowl (delicate and tasty) and a classic Lao dish called Oor Lam. Oor Lam is a Northern Lao dish particularly associated with Luang Prabang. It’s made with either pork or chicken, flavored with cilantro, dill, lemongrass and basil and thickened with puréed eggplant. I thought it delicious. When I asked our waitress whether pork or chicken was more commonly eaten by Laotians, it took her a minute to understand my question. When she answered, “Chicken,” and I said then that was what I would have. She giggled and thanked me profusely, clearly pleased that I wanted something authentic. She waited on us two nights and was always inordinately pleased when we ordered and liked the local food. Since the food was uniformly good, it was easy and fun to make her happy.

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Mekong river weeds with sesame seed and tomato: crispy and delicious!
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Oor Lam
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Delicate coconut milk fish mousseline

After dinner, we asked the young man behind the small front desk to help us participate in the next morning’s alms-giving to the local monks. This is an every day tradition in Luang Prabang and something we really wanted to do. He told us that monks came by just outside My Dream and that he would get the offerings ready for us (sticky rice, crackers and rice cakes), charge them ($6) to our room, and have them ready at 6am the next morning when he’d also explain how things work. This sounded perfect as reviews and signs around town indicated that tourists in the main town would too often mob the monks and block their path while trying to get photos. One sign even found it necessary to advise large tour buses not to follow the monks! We definitely wanted no part of all that.

Siem Reap to Luang Prabang, Laos [practical stuff]

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Roberto booked us another $6 taxi ride back to the Siem Reap airport for our evening flight to Luang Prabang, Laos. All went smoothly on exit, even though the passport control people were once again the crabbiest of any Cambodians we met. They did their job, just with an unfriendly attitude and lots of barked directions. Oh well.

Although the Siem Reap airport is relatively small, it’s modern and very nice. We wandered past lots of upscale duty free shops to find the Plaza Premium Club, a lounge covered by our Priority Pass “Select” memberships. Priority Pass “Select” is a perk of some of our premium cards that we’ve found to be almost useless in the U.S. (The “Select” version of this paid lounge membership is often excluded by American airline and airport lounges.), only moderately useful in Europe, but really great in Asia. Siem Reap was no exception.

We were quickly processed into the Plaza Premium Club, given two free drink vouchers and a free membership to the Plaza Premium Club effective outside the Priority Pass network. The lounge is elegant with attentive service and a nice buffet of Asian, Western and dessert items. There are newspapers in English as well as Asian languages, English-language television, lots of electrical outlets, private work carels, and free wi-fi.

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A sudden heavy downpour had us wondering if our flight would be delayed…and glad for the lounge access. When boarding was called on-time, our worries changed to whether we’d be drenched getting on the plane as it’s a walk-on tarmac. Happily, a bus was supplied, and the rain broke before we actually boarded, taking off only slightly late on our Vietnam Airlines flight.

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We arrived after dark at a much smaller airport in Luang Prabang, Laos. An escort walked us from the plane across the tarmac to where we rode an elevator to the 2nd floor immigration. Visa applications were on a table just to the left as we exited the elevator. Filling them out quickly, we beat 90% of our plane-mates to join the line for visas. Some snafu had things backed up for awhile, but once things were sorted out, the line moved very quickly. The visa is $35 for Americans, with the prices varying by country from $20 to $42. They prefer U.S. dollars. An extra $1 apiece bought a scan of our passport photos. Since we knew about this workaround, we didn’t bother bringing actual photos.

Luggage was waiting on the carrousel by the time we got through immigration. Just before we exited into the small main area of the airport, we bought a Lao SIM at a table set up by the door. We hadn’t planned to buy one for such a short stay, but at $9 for 4 days, we figured what the heck and picked one up, using , my phone to hotspot David when out of wi-fi range. Departing the arrival area (Customs forms were not collected.), we found the Taxi Service booth just a few steps away where we purchased a $7 coupon for a taxi to our hotel. All in all, a smooth and efficient entry.

 

Siem Reap Brewpub

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I’ve not had time to review restaurants, lodging, etc. much, wanting to experience the trip rather than spend too much time writing. But, since I’ve got a day on the river, I thought I’d take some time to write up 1 or 2 of my favorites. Besides, it’s fun to sit at my little “desk” with David on a daybed in front of me, watching the banks of the Mekong slip by.

Since we had an evening flight out of Siem Reap, David was eager to use that time to try the new brewpub Eddie (the founder of Kompangkhleang.org and the Bridge to Life School) had told us about. With its combination of good beers with local flair, lovely atmosphere, friendly service and fantastic food, the Siem Reap Brewpub may be my favorite brewpub yet!

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Entrance to Siem Reap Brewpub

The Siem Reap Brewpub offers 6 beers, all its own brews: a blonde ale, golden ale, honey weiss wheat beer, saison, IPA and a dark ale. We tried them all. This is made easy by a $3 4-beer flight. Each beer is $3 a full-size glass. Bargain combinations with “snacks” are offered, too, and a flight counts as “1 beer” for these packages. “Snacks” go way beyond peanuts (which come with your beer anyway). The grilled curried shrimp were so good we had two orders. We also tried fresh spring rolls with minced pork, beer batter calamari and crispy fish rolls with mango salsa. Heftier meal items are also available.

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Crispy fish balls with mango salsa
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Beer battered calamari
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Fresh rolls and grilled curry shrimp

The beer flights arrive in a nifty tray kept cool with ice water in the bottom compartment. (Although, the base of the glasses lifted them a tad too high for the ice to do as much good as it might.) Local ingredients make the beers really unique and we found them all interesting. Even the lighter ones were not of the so-boring lager variety. The honey weiss wheat beer, brewed with “100% local organic Wild Honey from Mondulkiri” was surprisingly honey-forward, reminding me of a mead or honey wine. The saison, made with rye and local lemongrass and green peppercorn was delicious, unique, and David’s choice for a full glass. The IPA was well-brewed and hoppy-good with a flavor reminiscent of American IPA’s. The dark ale, made with Cambodian palm sugar, was bitter and rich and was a shoe-in for my second flight.

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The brewpub is located downtown and occupies a pretty outdoor courtyard centered around a fountain. Big umbrellas shield you from sun or rain while fans keep a nice breeze going. Delightful!

Address: Corner of Street 05 & Shinta Mani, Phum Mondul II, Sangkat Svay Dong Kom, Siem Reap City , Cambodia, 05 Street 05, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Phone: +855 80 888 555

Unforgettable day: the floating village of Kompong Khleang, Cambodia

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We’d heard about the “floating” fishing villages outside of Siem Reap from an Australian couple we met on Mariner. When we asked our first driver in Siem Reap about them, he’d said there were 3, but that the first 2 were touristy and crowded and the furthest one, Kompong Khleang, was the one to see. Roberto suggested Chantrea, who offered to drive us for $50, then we’d pay $20 separately for a tour boat. Hmm. $90 for a day with Chantrea again (I hadn’t quite gotten over that hour in the heat.) and it didn’t sound like he really knew much about the village. David took on a little research and soon found a couple of tour companies, but one tour really stood out. It was $35 apiece and promised that the money would remain local and much of it would go to support a local school which we’d get to visit. As an additional bonus, the tour didn’t begin until 2pm and lasted through sunset on the lake. Other tours started early in the morning, something we’d just as soon not do on vacation. There was a minimum of 2 guests for the tour to “make” and since we were 2, it sounded perfect. David emailed and we got a quick reply. We were on for Monday.

Right on time a spiffy new SUV was waiting outside our building. Our driver, Paren, introduced himself as a tall young Californian walked up saying he was Eddie, the guy David had emailed with. In the car, Eddie explained that this was his second stint in Cambodia as he found he just couldn’t stay away. He’d come the first time to teach English, but after only 2 weeks, he’d gotten interested in promoting education in Cambodia. This time he was working with Paren, a native of Kompong Khleang. He’d founded a non-profit to support the Bridge to Life Floating School for young children of the village. The price for these tours were treated as donations and Paren’s brother, also the teacher, would captain our boat for the day. Since we were the day’s only guests we could all fit in a smaller, faster fishing boat rather than a larger tour boat. Awesome!

En route to the village, we passed many roadside stalls selling short sticks of bamboo cooking over open fires. Paren pulled over at a roadside “filling station” and snack stall to show us these “kralan” and buy us a sample. He gave us a demonstration, first removing a plug made of a banana leaf stuffed with strings of coconut husks, then peeling back the outer covering of the cooked bamboo to reveal slightly sweetened steamed sticky rice with soy beans. David and I happily pulled off balls of the tasty treat.

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Cambodian filling station (Yep, that’s gasoline in those bottles.)
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Paren explains kralan
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Kralan: David and I liked the sticky treat

We pulled over again at a small town market where Paren walked us through the stalls explaining the things we couldn’t identify and buying all kinds of fruit and grilled snacks for us to try and take along. He was eager to show us a local delicacy, eggs containing fetal ducks. When I said I didn’t want to try it, but I’d love to watch him eat one, he agreed, buying one from a vendor lady. She cracked the egg to reveal the mostly-developed duckling, gray and unappetizing looking with its sparse wisps of not-yet-feathers and cooked remains of yolk. She spooned red chili sauce and lots of sliced garlic over the curled little thing, then broke it apart with a spoon. Paren dug in then offered a bit to David who went for it. Eventually, I caved, too, trying a small bite. It wasn’t bad, but it was just too hard not to think about what it had just been. Paren kept feeding David spoonfuls between his own, so David got way more than I did. The vendor was much amused and pleased by our willingness to try her dish.

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Fetal duck snack

Driving past rice fields and water buffalo, we left towns behind until we finally arrived at the first houses on stilts of Kompong Khleang. Paren said the water was not as high as it sometimes gets, so we were able to drive on a rust-colored dirt road through these first ramshackle houses, the waters of the lake coming up under the houses to the edge of the road.

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Paren parked at the end of that row near a inlet of water and we all got out. The smell of fish hit my nose immediately upon opening the door. Paren’s brother was waiting with a low fishing skiff and in minutes we were off. The motor of the boat was connected by a 5-6′ long pole to the propeller so that it could be lifted in the shallow water. The boat snaked through low bushes until we came to an open area where we picked up speed. Skiffs like ours along with other boats passed, occupants waving a greeting. Eddie said they were surprised to see foreigners in a fishing boat. We had to stop once to remove a fishing net remnant from our propeller. We soon came to the main area of the floating village. Houses on stilts spread out around us, made of every imaginable kind of material in all kinds of random configurations. About 5000 people live in these homes, living as they have for generations: fishing always, and especially in the rainy season, farming and raising some animals in the drier season when the waters recede. They’re poor and live at the whim of weather and medical access, people having died in recent droughts and of curable illnesses. Education is hard to come by and often hard for parents to justify, given the difficulties of getting children to school when a boat is needed to fish for a livelihood.

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Boarding the skiff
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Passing other boats

Our skiff pulled into the side of Bridge to Life Floating School. A group of women and children were clustered around a tarp in the mud nearby, mincing small fish to sell. Paren said we’d visit them later, but first led us up a wooden ramp to the school on stilts. Paren’s sister-in-law was inside, swinging her big-eyed baby in a hammock while her older son hid behind her skirt. Paren’s brother and his family live at the school, or rather the school is in their home. Paren’s brother is also the teacher. The long building is divided (by usage only) into living quarters on the left as you face the open back onto the lake, and the classroom to the right. The classroom consists of long low tables–brand new acquisitions of which Paren and Eddie were proud–where the children work while sitting on the ground. A large whiteboard covered in Khmer writing dominated the front of the space.

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Pulling up to the school
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Inside the school

We paused for a break in a little sitting area at the open end of the school building, using the time to eat the last of the fruit Paren had bought for us at the market. Then we climbed down the ramp to watch the fish-chopping and see a little more of the village. In the house next door, people welcomed us in to show us three new litters of puppies in baskets. Children came out, laughing and smiling at us, as curious about us as we were about them. A young boy giggled at the nakedness of the youngest of his friends, tying a t-shirt around the little one’s middle for modesty’s sake. One little girl followed us, twirling and smiling to show off a dingy tutu pulled on over her pants a top. At another spot, men were pounding and drying fish. An older man smiled and tried to explain, then turned his attention to hug the tiny t-shirt swaddled tot who turned out to be his grandson.

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Mincing fish too small to fillet
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The little girl with a cleaver looks to be about 4 years old. I can’t imagine giving a child that age a knife, much less putting her to work with it!
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Local children hamming it up for the camera
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Village homes beside the school

Leaving this bustling center of activity, we got back in the skiff to head into the open lake for sunset. Tonle Sap is an enormous lake that feeds much of Cambodia. We were just on its edge in these waters, in the perfect spot to watch the sun set over the water before heading back into Kompong Khleang.

The houses on this far edge of the village really do float on pontoons, a Vietnamese custom indicating Vietnamese or mixed Vietnamese-Cambodian families lived in this area.

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Paren admiring the sunset over Tonle Sap

Gliding back past the stilted houses as the light faded we decided we had just enough time to visit the village “pagoda.” Pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, this building is more like a temple than what we think of as a pagoda as they exist in Japan and Korea. Paren eagerly led us to the pagoda while his brother and Eddie went to buy a light for the ride home. Next to the pagoda is a large community dining hall used for celebrations and by the monks who also lived next to the pagoda. Paren said he’d lived at the pagoda for 7 years, only recently moving to live with an aunt. We’ve found it common in many parts of southeast Asia for young men and boys to live at least some of their lives as monks. Clearly, this pagoda was someplace special to Paren and he described to us at length on the way home the story from Buddha’s life depicted in the pagoda painting over the main door.

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The village pagoda
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Back with a light to pick us up from the pagoda

Our visit to Kompong Khleang was a highlight of our Asia trip. Not another tourist, vendor or souvenir in sight, it was a real glimpse into another way of life and we felt like our money was being used for a good cause and definitely getting into the right hands. To learn more, visit: http://kompongkhleang.org.

The “root temples” of Angkor

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Ta Prohm

With a better understanding of Angkor and our own preferences for touring (and tolerance for heat), we decided to do without Chantrea on our second day. Instead, we negotiated with Sawat, one of the cluster of tuk tuk drivers and their families who seemed permanently ensconced in a sort of open-air living room just across from our apartment building. [We used these tuk tuks almost exclusively during our stay, paying $2-3 to be driven to restaurants, stores, etc. Usually, we’d text them using the phone Roberto loaned us when we wanted to be picked up or arrange a time in advance. If that didn’t work, we used tuk tuks obtained by the restaurants to avoid the occasional price-change scam.]

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Across from the entrance to our building: Sawat (on the right) with one of the local children. The “outdoor living room” is behind the tuk tuk in the center right.

For $15, Sawat agreed to drive us and wait while we toured. We got a leisurely start with plans to see two of the famous “root temples” of Angkor, have lunch and return home. We assured Sawat that we had no desire to stay longer than 45 minutes in any one temple, an estimate that turned out to be perfect.

I’d been afraid we’d start off hot by choosing the tuk tuk over the air-conditioned car, but the ride out to the Angkor complex was surprisingly comfortable. The breeze created by the moving tuk tuk kept us comfortable and the smooth road and open view made the trip a bonus part of the day, rather than something to be endured.

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In Sawat’s tuk tuk (pronounced “tuke tuke” with the double-O sounding as in “tool”)

First up was Ta Prohm, the exotic and gorgeous temple used as a location for the “Tomb Raider” movie. Sawat dropped us off in front of a stone gate around which vendors and stalls clustered. A long dirt path stretched beyond the gate, under overhanging tree branches, to the temple. Unlike Angkor Wat, nature has gone a long way towards taking back Ta Prohm. Huge trees known as “spung”in the local Khmer language grow from the ruins, wrapping their roots around walls, doorways and carvings. The effect is unreal, like something straight out of a fantasy novel or an Indiana Jones film.

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We loved Ta Prohm, but we weren’t so crazy about the crowds–particularly large Chinese tour groups–that flocked to the well-known temple making it hard to see much less enjoy certain parts of Ta Prohm.

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Crowds in Ta Prohm

The temple is marked with a route that takes you to the right as you enter, so you’re stuck dodging the groups until you reach the back courtyard of the temple ruins. There, we were able to double back toward the front, making a U that took us down the opposite side of Ta Prohm from the marked route. Finally, we had some of the magnificent ruins to ourselves or mostly so.

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David, alone at last, with Ta Prohm (and me!)
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Ta Prohm

Walking back to meet Sawat, we arrived exactly 45 minutes after we’d left him. Perfect! I did some quick negotiating with the vendors who swarmed our tuk tuk, buying a light cotton pair of billowy pants with elasticized ankles and a t-shirt. The pants were to add to my collection of modest clothing, necessary for visiting many of the holy sights in southeast Asia. Knees, especially women’s knees, are a big concern. Skirts and pants that are easy to pull on over shorts come in very handy. (The t-shirt was more a function of an proffered two-fer during the bargaining process.) David ended up with a $1 refrigerator magnet he had no interest in, but the purchase sure made a little boy happy. It’s hard when you simply can’t buy from all of them, and you hate to just give them money when they’re working, not begging.

From Ta Prohm, Sawat took us to our next requested stop, little Ta Som. Ta Som is another root temple, much smaller than Ta Prohm, further out, and not as well known. Consequently, it’s not crowded either. We really enjoyed this pretty little temple although it’s in no way as spectacular as Ta Prohm…except for perhaps its rear gate which is almost eerily beautiful.

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Front gate of Ta Som
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Ta Som
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Rear gate of Ta Som

After Ta Som, we were ready for a late lunch. We asked Sawat for an air-conditioned restaurant inside the Angkor complex, more from lingering PTSD from the previous day’s heat than from any excessive heat we’d experienced on this outing. The day had been hot and humid, but more cloudy than the day before and more often in the shade. Sawat came through with Khmer Angkor Kitchen just across from one of the prettiest and widest stretches of the moat. The food was good and the air-conditioning so cold we were chilled by the time we left. The outdoor dining balcony which has ceiling fans and a pretty view over the moat probably would have been great, but we got our a/c.

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Tasty lunch: Fish amok in the coconut bowl (considered by many to be the Cambodian national dish) and green mango chicken salad

With our touring done for the day, Sawat drove us home past more temples that dot the Angkor complex. We were back at the Dragon Royal apartments in time to enjoy the rooftop pool before heading into town for dinner and an explore of the night market.

The bustle and noise of downtown Siem Reap convinced us instantly that we’d chosen well in our apartment’s location. Old pop songs from the 70’s blared from a bar across the street from our retaurant, Khmer Touch Cuisine. The restaurant had been written up in the NY Times, and the service was super-attentive, but we thought it only good, not great. The prices were a little high for Siem Reap, but still low by home standards. Afterwards, we wandered the night market. I broke down and bought a gorgeous heavy silk scarf in royal blue and green for $9 in the covered market before heading out to the street market where I finally tried a fish pedicure for a whopping $2. The hungry little things tickled my feet like crazy, but once I got past the urge to jerk my feet out, it was fun and funny.

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Fish “pedicure”

Angkor Wat and Bayon Temple, Cambodia

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Visiting Angkor Wat had been a dream of mine for decades. The mystical ruins hold allure for many travelers, but Cambodia can seem remote and intimidating to navigate. Nevertheless, when I’d first hit on the idea of extending our trip from northern Asia to SE Asia via cruise ship, Angkor Wat was in my sights. And now, after all these years, I’d see it for myself.

We arrived at the modern Siem Reap airport via an AirAsia flight from Kuala Lumpur. Cambodia has a visa-on-arrival policy for Americans and many other travelers, payment due in cash only. The amount varies by country, but there’s a handy-dandy ATM machine that dispenses dollars (the preferred currency) just as you enter the terminal from the tarmac. (There’s no skywalk into the terminal; a guide leads debarking passenger on a walk across the tarmac from the plane to the terminal.) AirAsia is a classic low-budget airline where you choose and pay for each amenity, more cheaply if you do so in advance. Prices are cheap, so it’s worth the extra dollars to get a front seat (and a basic meal) just so you can be ahead of the crowd at the visa application line. The visa is $35pp, for Americans, plus an extra $2 apiece if you don’t have a passport photo for the application. (The fee varies by country ranging from $20-42pp.) After paying and handing in the application, you walk around the corner of the L-shaped counter and wait until yet another official holds up your passport, now sporting an official visa and exit card.

I’d opted to let our AirBnB host arrange the taxi. For $6, it was a good deal and spared us any hassles of explaining the location of our not-a-hotel accommodations to a cabbie who might not speak any English. Our taxi dropped us off on a partly-paved, pothole-filled road in front of a lovely Cambodian/colonial-style building.

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Front of our apartment building

A blonde, older woman who turned out to be our host’s Slovenian mother-in-law, Albina, was waiting for us. After a quick tour of the 2-bedroom/2.5-bath apartment and rooftop pool with a glimpse of Angkor Wat over the jungle of trees (!), we were on our own.

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Rooftop pool of our apartment building

Our first night was taken up with settling in, finding a grocery store, negotiating with the tuk tuk drivers and families who seemed to perpetually occupy a sort of outdoor living room just across the dirt road from our apartment building, and eventually getting to a restaurant for dinner. [We enjoyed our Cambodian dinner at Café Mie, and time permitting, I’ll review it later.] A couple of messages with our AirBnB host and we were set with an air-conditioned “taxi” (actually the same unmarked tan Toyota Camry that had driven us from the airport, but this time driven by a younger, supposedly-English-speaking brother, Chantrea) for the next morning at 10am to spend the day shuttling us to and around the Angkor temple complex.

Despite our AirBnB host, Roberto’s assurances that Chantrea was an English teacher, we quickly discovered that his English was limited and often hard to understand. Still, he was a cheerful guide with more than a passing knowledge of the temples. We started, of course, at the main temple, Angkor Wat. “Wat” merely means “temple,” and the 402 square acre Angkor temple complex contains many temples, dating from the 11th century. The main temple is surrounded by an enormous moat the banks of which serve as a popular picnicking spot for locals. The whole temple complex area, while requiring tickets for foreigners, is open to the locals and there are homes, small businesses, rice fields, grazing water buffalo, restaurants and innumerable vendor stalls selling sarongs, t-shirts, scarves and other souvenirs set up throughout. The roads are in great shape and make for a pleasant drive between the many temples.

Parking across from the main bridge spanning the wide moat, we walked across and through one of the three entry gates to the Angkor Wat grounds. This is the main attraction and crowds of tourists mingled in the heat. Chantrea did his best to navigate us to the less-crowded areas, explaining the function of buildings and the stories behind wall carvings as we went.

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Main bridge across the moat to Angkor Wat

He moved too slow for me in the oppressive heat and humidity, and I found myself wandering ahead to plant myself wherever I found shade and a cross-breeze. Before we could mount the high central tower of Angkor Wat (which represents heaven), I had to change into more “decent” long pants, my shorts being inappropriate for the most holy spot in Cambodia. I knew this going in and had brought a skirt to pull on over my shorts, but Chantrea thought the skirt, at mid-shin, was still too short. While David and Chantrea waited, I hiked to a restroom to change. Later, I found that my originally-planned skirt would have been just fine (although we did see a couple of women turned away for uncovered shoulders and a too-short skirt). Oh well, not the end of the world, but I’d hoped for more insight from Chantrea. The upper tower contains several shrines and we wandered among other tourists from many countries to admire the famous site.

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An Angkor Wat gallery
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Steps leading to “heaven”
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Frieze details, Angkor Wat

Descending back to ground level, we exited across the main bridge again and, nixing Chantrea’s restaurant choice, we opted for an air-conditioned spot. Only moderately cooled, it was still a welcome relief from the heat. We asked Chantrea to join us and had to smile at his enthusiasm and statement that we were dining as “rich men.” He took me up on an offer of a 2nd lunch and we sipped water while we waited for him to finish, enjoying the pleasure he took in the meal.

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Lunch with Chantrea
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My banana flower chicken salad lunch

After lunch, Chantrea drove us across a bridge lined with statues through a Buddha-topped gate to our next stop: Bayon Wat (Bayon Temple), famed for the many large stone faces that adorn its walls. I found it enchanting. Chantrea dropped us off in somewhat of a hurry, saying we had two hours to wander the temple alone. We protested that 2 hours was way too much, but he only responded that “maybe” we’d see another temple, too. I stated that 1 hour was fine and asked where to meet him. He said to just wander through and he’d wait at “the only other parking lot.” I knew all this was vague, but let him go, thereby setting us up for later problems.

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Buddha gate leading to Bayon Wat
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Statues lining the bridge to the Bayon Buddha gate

Bayon was as beautiful as it appeared from the outside, offering one spectacular view and great photo op after another. It was also just as hot or hotter than Angkor Wat and I self-air-conditioned by tucking the iced water bottle Chantrea had given me into the front of my bra, totally unashamed of the strange look and the condensate dripping down my belly along with the sweat. It inspired a sentence from David I never thought I’d hear: “I wish I had a bra, too!” Context for that one is really important. 🙂

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Making our way through Bayon in 30 minutes, we then spent time watching girls, fully-dressed and chest-deep in the pond beside Bayon, laugh and giggle as they plucked snails from beneath the water.

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Girls collecting snails

We strolled across the street to an open-air shrine housing a large Buddha and several women beckoning us to come by overpriced incense sticks. No, thanks. We hurried past to find Baphuon Temple, across a low stone bridge. Figuring this must be the other temple we “maybe” might visit, we walked across, in the merciless sun and climbed atop a rather plain temple to admire the view before descending to search for shade and that “only other parking lot” Chantrea had spoken about.

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Baphuon Temple from the top

We arrived at a smoke-filled parking lot behind Bayon where a few vendors hawked their wares and several cars, minivans and tuk tuks were parked. We perched our sweaty selves on a rock to wait for Chantrea. Attempts to call him resulted only in a recording. Alas, no Chantrea. We called Roberto, our AirBnB host, who tried also, but no luck. We moved to sit near yet another Buddha shrine, frowning as worshippers planted more and more incense around us, added to the thick cloud of smoke. We bought an Angkor beer from a passing scooter vendor and waited some more.

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Welcome treat in the heat

Over an hour later, Chantrea pulled up, saying he’d been at another parking lot. Tired and hot, I bit my tongue. Not the best ending to a memorable day, but not the end of the world either. Just southeast Asia.

We brought the day back to awesome level with a really excellent meal at a pretty little open-air restaurant called Touich, a short tuk tuk ride from our apartment. Touich is a family-owned business with wonderful service as well as food. A “Khmer mojito,” made with rice wine, lots of key limes and fresh ginger started things off perfectly. We chose beef and shrimp fresh rolls and a green mango chicken salad for appetizers. Huge grilled tiger prawns and sea bass baked in a banana leaf underground, then expertly filleted tableside, made delicious main courses.

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Khmer mojito… with a side of peanuts and mosquito repellent
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Sea bass cooked in banana leaf

 

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Fresh spring rolls and green mango chicken salad

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

 

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Kuala Lumpur: Best AirBnB pool yet!

I’d really just planned a peek at Kuala Lumpur en route to Cambodia, but we ended up loving this city and packing in more than I’d dreamed. I can’t start this travelogue without a nod to our spectacular AirBnB apartment. Located in central Kuala Lumpur, near 2 light rail stations and a monorail station, this brand new building is ultramodern, staffed with lots of helpful people, sporting a great view from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the 2-bedroom/2-bath apartment, a spectacular rooftop pool and more. All this for $65, all-in. We loved it!

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Our building’s lobby
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The Petronas Towers from our building’s rooftop pool

We found the city to be super-cheap and public transportation easy to navigate. We opted for a street food dinner the first night, and were blown away by our 16 ringgit ($3.84) dinner-for-two. David “splurged” on an additional 24 cent pound cake dessert. Choosing our spot by the size of the crowd and the friendliness of the owner, we pointed to the dishes we wanted, then sat outside at communal tables. It was hot and humid (and we did spot a rat at an adjacent patch of dirt and weeds), but the food was good, very plentiful and we felt like we’d dined like locals.

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16 ringgit dinner-for-two

The next morning, we hopped the subway for Central Market, browsing the stalls and pausing for a quick Malaysian lunch in the market, before wandering the market streets of Chinatown and a Chinese Buddhist temple

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Chinatown market
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Buddhist temple in Chinatown

We realized early on that there’s some sort of glitch in Google Maps when it comes to KL local trains. Google claims that every ride, no matter how short or how few stops will take “55 minutes.” We learned to ignore the travel estimates. For example, the ride from the Central Market stop to KL Sentral station for our 1:15pm appointment to go up the Petronas towers took less than 10 minutes.

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City of contrasts: the monorail at twilight

The change from grubby, bustling China Town to the ultra-modern downtown area and the swank Petronas Towers was startling. The difference in pricing was also jarring. It cost 80myr ($19.17) to visit the skybridge and top observation floor, not horrible by home standards, but a fortune in light of the cost of our local meal, transport, the markets, etc. KL is a city of huge contrasts. It was fun to visit the beautiful towers and something not to miss in KL. [If you don’t buy tickets online, you can be stuck in a long line. Although the online website claims you can’t buy tickets online less than 24 hours before, we found that not to be the case. Just create an account and proceed, and you can buy a ticket if there’s an open time slot.]

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Skybridge between the Petronas Towers
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View of the 2nd tower from the observation floor

Discounting Google Map’s grossly exaggerated travel time estimate, we set out for the sleeper hit of Kuala Lumpur: Batu Caves, a 25 minute, 2.60 ringgit ($.64), air-conditioned commuter train ride out of the city. [Note: the trains for Batu Caves only leave every 45 minutes during the middle of the day (every 15 minutes later on, and maybe earlier). Check the schedule before you pass the styles or you’re in for a hot wait by the tracks.] The caves are the site of numerous Hindu shrines and are a unique and exotic locale, offering free admittance. The main two caves lie at the top of a steep flight of stairs over which a huge golden statue of the Hindu god Murugan stands. Unfortunately, restoration is going on, so some of the beauty (and silence) was marred by construction work. It was still fascinating, with ongoing services, open to the public.

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This guy made anyone complaining about the stairs look like a weenie!

Loud drums and clanging cymbals in the upper cave signaled the beginning of a ceremony. A curtain was pulled back to reveal monks, tossing flowers and waving oil-fed candelabra. David joined a blessing ceremony, receiving a white mark on his forehead with the blessing (after making a small donation).

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Macaques roam the caves and surrounding areas, on the lookout for treats. Tiny babies clung to their mothers as they darted across the floor, snatching food offerings from the shrines and following visitors. They’ll steal, if you don’t keep belongings close. We found them pushy, but not particularly aggressive.

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The main cave at the top of the outer flight of stairs
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Looking up toward the smaller of the two main caves from the larger cave
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Macaque at Batu Caves with KL in the distance

Batu Caves was a highlight of our stay in Kuala Lumpur. It’s an easy trip and fun to see the contrast with the city. The commuter train lets you off very near the entrance to the sight. Go!

More Singapore: Little India, Supertrees, Beer & a Singapore Sling

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Now totally enchanted by Singapore, we were determined to fit in as much as possible in our second, full day. First up, Little India. Our hotel, the beautiful Intercontinental Singapore, sits conveniently by the Bugis subway stop on the Downtown Line, which runs directly to Bayfront (the Marina Bay area) and Little India (in opposite directions). Two stops, and we hopped off in another world. A huge covered market teemed with vendors hawking every imaginable dry and wet good, women in saris, tourists, locals…all in a sweltering Mubai-like heat. The main street was decorated with peacock lights, ready for the upcoming Deepavali Festival which celebrates the victory of light/good over dark/evil.

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We slipped off our shoes (and I wrapped up in a provided cloth to cover my knee-exposing shorts) to enter the Veeramakaliamman Temple, a beautiful Hindu Kali temple that bustled with worshippers and holy men offering ceremonies and blessings for the holiday.

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Veeramakaliamman Temple
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Inside Veeramakaliamman Temple
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Prayers at a Veeramakaliamman Temple shrine

In need of a break from the heat and approaching noon, we ducked into a local restaurant (Indian, of course) and found ourselves enjoying a delicious meal…while we waited for the a/c–which they’d just turned on–to fight off the heat. I won a pleased smile from the proprietress as I used my last bit of naan to wipe the final traces of delicious sauces from my Northern Indian set meal. At $6.90sgd ($4.95usd), it was a deal.

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Lunch crowd building at Amaravati restaurant in Little India
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Northern Indian lunch

Riding the Downtown line back past Burgis, we hopped off at Bayfront, once again near the Marina Sands Hotel, but this time heading to the Gardens By the Bay comprised of two enormous greenhouses: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest dome. (We paid $3 sgd/pp for all day shuttle service between the subway station and the domes.) The Flower Dome mimics a cool desert environment so was a delightful break from the heat and humidity outside. It’s also a gorgeous, extensive display of flora and organic statuary.

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The Flower Dome

The adjacent Cloud Forest dome is equally cool, but humid as the world’s largest indoor waterfall cascades dramatically from its soaring ceiling. Reached by elevator, floating walkways spiral high above the ground, letting you wander in and out of lush foliage, huge crystal displays and behind the waterfall as you make your way back to ground level. Tickets for entry to both domes are usually $28 sgd/adult ($20.10 US), but we were able to buy them online for $22 sgd ($15.79 US) using the smartphone and included app provided to us by the Intercontinental Singapore hotel.

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The world’s largest indoor waterfall, inside the Cloud Forest dome
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View from the top of the waterfall
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Floating walkways inside the Cloud Forest dome

After the domes, it was time to check out the Supertree Grove, another Sinngapore landmark I was dying to see. The Supertrees are manmade, tree-like towers, covered in flowers, some of the largest of which are connected by a space-age floating walkway. We paid our $10 spd/pp to ride an elevator up to the walkway. Solar panels provide power to the Supertrees, which light up at night–we were definitely coming back after dark! The Supertrees are otherworldly, truly making you feel like you’ve landed on some beautiful, alien planet. The concept alone is fascinating. To see them made real is magical.

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Supertree Grove

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During a break back at our hotel, we tried a durian chocolate bar, we’d been unable to resist in a nearby market. I’d heard about durian for years–a fruit so foul-smelling it’s banned in hotels and other public places, but had never tried it. The fruit is large, and although durian is available in an Asian market back home, I hadn’t wanted to contend with such a big fruit, nor be stuck with figuring out how to get rid of it if it was as bad as billed (like “rotting meat” is a common description). Despite the smell, there are those who like the taste. I figured it might be akin to smelly cheeses, hard to get past the smell at first for some, but worth it. Durian mixed with a chocolate bar sounded like a pretty innocuous first try. My first bite was wretched, invoking something like chocolate mixed with dirty diaper. The second bite was no better and I gave it up. We wrapped the bar up and threw the bar away in an outside bin. Despite this precaution, our previously sweet-smelling room reeked when we returned and it took several blasts of our handy-dandy travel Febreze to restore things.

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Don’t do it!
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In the subway: We could only speculate on the grave penalty for bringing a durian onboard.

A couple of hours of our day were spent at a brewpub, courtesy of David’s never-ending fascination with craft beer. We made the delightful acquaintance of a local doctor who also happened to be a real beer aficcianado. We had much fun sampling the beers and exchanging contact info. [I’m hoping to get David to write some beer reviews, so will skip details for now.] This detour left us with enough time for a quick dinner before heading back to admire the Supertrees after dark. We were surprised and pleased to find them less gaudy than we feared. They emit a gentle, softly changing glow, enhancing the feel of some alien plant life. Wonderful.

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At the very last minute, we decided to do the ultimate tourist thing and get a Singapore Sling at the famed peanut-shells-on-the-floor Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel. The old hotel has open common areas, so the walk through the halls is a hot, sticky affair, although the white colonial architecture is lovely. The bar itself is super loud and full of tourists. We split a Singapore Sling, just to try it and were glad we did at $27 sgd, not including tax and mandatory tip. The drink is small, mostly ice and really sweet. Give it a pass and you’ll miss nothing, but I’m not sorry we tried it.

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Singapore Sling and peanuts in the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel