Monday, December 29, 2008

back on the sharp end

After a few uneventful days in Vientiane, the tiny capitol of Laos, we caught the decrepit locals’ bus, along with five bags of pig feed, several stacks of carved railing, and 2 chickens, bus to Vang Vieng. On the bus a youngish looking man handed Jascha his HIV test results, which were written in English, and looked at him quizzically. Jascha tried to tell him the results were good, which he didn’t understand. I grabbed my Lao phrasebook and told him several times in my feeble Lao sans intonation, “Jow bor mee HIV (You no have HIV).” Although he nodded, I’m not sure if he understood, and I lacked the vocabulary to state the correct interpretation, namely: “The results indicate that you do not have detectable antibodies to HIV. This could either mean you do not have HIV or that your exposure was recent enough for you not to have sufficient antibodies to HIV at the moment. If you think you have been potentially exposed to HIV (e.g. through unprotected sex or needle sharing) then you should get tested again at three months from the date of exposure to confirm your status. For the future results to be accurate, in the interim you will need to eliminate any potential exposures (e.g. through the use of condoms or using clean needles).” Oh well.

Vang Vieng is touted as the “adventure destination” in Laos. If by adventure you mean rope swings and tubing down the river from bar to bar then this is your place. The streets are choked with load, drunken Euros, Aussies, and Americans and the bars in town televisions blare episode after episode of obnoxious sit-coms, like Friends. We came here to check out the climbing areas. The local shop informed us that the area we had chosen from our guidebook, Tham Nam Them, was supposedly closed due to corroded bolts, and advised us to go to the popular Sleeping Wall instead. We rented gear from them for $35 (shoes, harnesses, belay device, chalk bag, rope, climbing pack, and rope bag). Amazingly they had size 15 shoes for Jascha.

The following day we headed over to the climbing area unsure of what we would find. We shared a tuk-tuk with a bunch of women who were taking the climbing class. It took a while to get everyone rounded up and into the vehicle, then at our stop we had to wait to get a boat to shuttle us a across the river. The main climbing area sits behind one of the many riverside bars set up for the tubing crowd and it didn’t take long for some frat boy types to arrive.

Once across the river we decided to hit the moderate Secret Canyon, as we hadn’t climbed in over 2 months and we weren’t certain of how the ratings would compare. We headed off down one of the narrow trails into the jungle and before long came to the area. The 5.10s felt easy with the exception of a long route with the overhang just before the anchor where I felt my lack of climbing endurance kick in. The ratings turned out to be as soft as the routes were dirty. Silt covered the less used routes and at times we had to push vines out of our face. The anchors were bolts looped with a ratty piece of climbing rope and a beefy rap ring. At least they were all equalized. I later asked the guy at the climbing shop why they didn’t use chain anchors and he said the rope was better (likely meaning cheaper and easier to replace).

Around 1p we headed over to the main area. One of the guides was leading a route in his flip flops, simultaneously trying to explain to his inexperienced belayer how to use an ATC. We chatted with some Germans who had purchased an entire climbing rack in Krabi. They told us they heard the rock was better in Chiang Mai (where we would be headed in less than a week). As we had read, they confirmed the Krabi pro was suspect with the UV
and salt water damage, but they said they enjoyed being able to lie around on the beach between climbing. I smiled politely; I hate the beach.

I decided to push my luck and try an 11a, which was a somewhat contrived route linking up some slung handlebar holds and an easier route with a bolted slightly overhung traverse. I should have known better. The holds on the traverse were sharp and not positive. I tried it twice and Jascha tried it once with no luck. In Dave Hansen style I ended up removing my gear except for the first traverse bolt (which freaked out the Germans), traversed below the bolt line and up the easier route to the anchors, clipping only the anchors. It was a bit of a chore, but with Jascha pulling on one of the ropes I was able to swing over on rap to grab the remaining draw. We did a few more routes in Secret Canyon and headed back to the climbing shop with the group. So it wasn’t spectacular climbing on pristine rock, but it was entertaining nevertheless.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

conquering the loop alpine style

Our second visit to Bangkok brought us to the Siriraj teaching hospital's parasitology, pathology, and forensics museums (special thanks to Paul A. for the recommendation). The exhibit included lovely blown glass models of Giardia lamblia and Plasmodium falciparum (unfortunately photography is not allowed). The forensics museum was delightfully morbid and contained a variety of anatomical specimens, crime scene evidence, and mummified bodies of convicts. A special exhibit was devoted to tsunami victim treatment and forensics, including detailed models of septic wounds and the debridement process.That night, after our Lumpini Park runs, we braved the dirty old man/bar girl area one street over from our hotel to find the nam kao tod lady (sadly absent). The scene was surreal - lady boys and bar girls feigning interest in drunk, unattractive (mostly white) men while Muslim families paid money to feed the captive elephants in front of the massage parlors.

The following morning we caught an early flight to Ubon Ratchathani, then caught a bus to the sleepy Thai/Laos border town of Mukdahan. Our spacious hotel room at the newish Submukdahan Grand Hotel was a steal at 500 baht. We lucked out in that our visit coincided with Mukdahan's Red Cross festival. We walked out of our hotel to scores of teenagers performing Thai traditional dances accompanied by a light show, fog machine, and bubbles. The night market was brimming with vendors and behind it was a carnival with rides, a shooting (as in 0.22 caliber) range, lounge singers, and a flashy, Sparkle Motionesque talent contest.

The next morning we left for Savannakhet , Laos, just across the Mekong. From Savannakhet we were blessed with the experience of being one of 19 passengers + 1 driver crammed into a 10 seater van. After a grueling (yet comical) 2 hours we arrived at our destination in Tha Khaek. Our room at the Tha Khaek Travel Lodge was huge, with a palatial bathroom as big as some of our prior hotel rooms. We had come to Tha Khaek like most people to ride "The Loop", a popular 3-4 day motorcycle street/dirt tour popularized in Lonely Planet. Initially I thought we should allocate 2 days for the trip, but after reading the trip reports I thought it would be an entertaining challenge to try and do the 360 km ride in a day. In the hotel log book I read one guy's account of finishing the ride in just under 24 hours, which included an overnight stay en route, but could find no other sub-24 hour entries. We were unsuccessful in finding anything around town better than the usual crappy 100cc Chinese scooters. At least they appeared to start within the first minute most of the time, unlike our Enfields. We attempted to get to sleep early, not an easy task with Laotian lounge music blaring from the bar down the road.

We set out just before 6 am with food, water, a pump, and a tool kit. We had left our riding gear with the exception of our helmets at our hotel in Bangkok, so I donned multiple layers to stay warm. The sun was just rising over the karst towers as we left town. We made good time on the first ~40 km of paved roadway and graded dirt road. On the bumps our bikes rattled like the cheap plastic pieces of scrap they were. We made a brief detour through Ban Oudomsok after missing a turn. The next ~40 km held more dusty graded road. At one point we ended up behind a guy in civilian clothing sporting an AK-47. I decided not to try and pass. Thankfully he turned off after a few kilometers.

After the Ban Tha Long bridge we encountered a long line of trucks. Having recently attending Indian driving school we cruised to the front, hoping to squeeze through on the shoulder. A tree had fallen across the road and a road crew of ~5 people was busy clearing a path through the thick branches. Amazingly, there were at least 40 people on both sides standing around watching. I was timing our Loop attempt, so I decided to help out to get us moving again. Finally a few other bystanders pitched in and a path was cleared. This set us back by an hour. I tried to make up time on the next, more technical section of road and dumped my not so off-road machine twice, breaking off a mirror on the second spill.

Eventually we made it back onto the pavement around Lak Sao and I got replacement mirrors for 15,000 kip (~$1.75), including installation. It was ~1 pm and we knew we had 200 km to go, so unless we encountered some major construction of mechanical failure we would be back in Tha Khaek well before dark. The next section of road was spectacular as we wove through limestone towers dripping with lush vegetation. We wondered whether the huge limestone walls held any climbing route potential. The journey back went swiftly, or rather as swiftly as possible on our underpowered bikes which were lucky to hit 90 km/h on the downhills. Jascha had some difficulties in keeping up with me on a scooter made for 100 lb Asians, not 200+ lb Americans, but we rolled into the guesthouse together 9 hours and 48 minutes after we started. We headed to Fountain Square and treated ourselves to some well-earned nam kao (spicy sausage filled with ground pork, rice and glass noodles served with shredded cabbage, fresh herbs, and piquant dressing) and a crepe-like dessert made from a pan fried thin dough wrapped around a scrambled egg, topped with sweetened condensed milk and banana slices.

Monday, December 15, 2008

cambodia's bloody past

Today is our last full day in Cambodia and I must say that I am very much looking forward to being back in metropolitan Bangkok. We started off the day by visiting another huge market, Psha Thmey, otherwise known as the Central Market. The market contained everything from food and housewares to jewelry and clothing to motorcycle parts. From the great variety of food stalls we selected pan fried glutinous rice cakes with chives (similar to those we had in Bangkok). We also picked up a colorful tray of jellies, sticky rice with jack fruit, and some sort of sweet dough.

Afterward we paid a visit to the Choeung Ek Genocide Center (a.k.a. The Killing Fields), a former longan orchard where 17,000+ men, women, and
children were executed by the Khmer Rouge after being accused of treachery. The small area is littered with excavated mass graves, from which ~8,000 skulls have been collected and placed into a memorial stupa. Targets included Buddhist monks, Muslims, educated people, the handicapped, and ethnic Chinese, Laotians, and Vietnamese. Ironically, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, attended technical school in France (although he was forced to return to Cambodia after failing his exams for 3 consecutive years) and was of both Chinese and Khmer ancestry. To avoid "wasting bullets" prisoners were beaten to death with hoes and iron bars or buried alive. From 1975 to 1979 Pol Pot's regime attempted to transform the society into a fully agrarian state and implemented strict food rationing. As a consequence ~26% of the Cambodian population died, mostly due to poor nutrition, overwork, and inadequate health care. The Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge government in 1979.

On the way back we passed the building containing the hideous xmas light display (including an animated volcano shooting snowflakes) we saw the night before and whose name was was not visible in the dark. That's right, your tax dollars are hard at work to run the light show at the US Embassy.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

the hunt is over

After days of fruitless searching and having to resort to Indian food, yogurt with muesli, and European style baked goods, we finally hit the Khmer food jackpot today at the food stalls next to Psha Toul Tom Poung (a.k.a. Russian Market) in Phnom Penh. We were pleased to find babar (congee) and num banh xeo (rice pancakes) with bean sprouts and ground pork, along with excellent Vietnamese style iced coffee and the usual shaved ice treats. For once the savory items were not loaded with sugar. After sampling a number of dishes I convinced Jascha to walk the 8 km back to our guest house to burn off some extra calories.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

angkor death march

We came to Cambodia for pretty much the same reason everyone visits Cambodia, to see the ancient Khmer ruins north of Siem Reap. The day before the guesthouse guy told us there was no way we could walk there (even after I told him we did 20 mile walks for fun at home), and if we did there would be no available tuk-tuks should we decide to bail. His feeble efforts at pitching tuk-tuk services failed. We were willing to take our chances with not getting transportation back, as I had checked the distances earlier and knew that at most we were looking at a 40 km day max with minimal elevation gain.

After an espresso/bakery stop we set out at 8:00 am. We took a road that paralleled the highway and came across one of the locals' markets, a pleasant change from the souvenir-laden tourist markets that dominate most of the town. After ~3 km we reached the entrance station where we paid our requisite $20 for a day's admission (the same price as a 7 day pass for Yosemite). I wouldn't have minded the hefty fee had a large percentage of it been allocated for the temple upkeep. I knew instead that ~90% would end up in the government coffers (or worse, officials' pockets). We continued down the dusty road for another 2 km past cleared mine fields until we reached the huge moat surrounding Angkor Wat.

The temple entrance is on the west side of the complex, and as we neared it we got a glimpse of the hoards of tourists we would encounter along the way, most of which rode around in air conditioned buses or tuk-tuks and were dropped off at each of the temple entrances. The temple was well preserved considering it was constructed from sandstone (supported by some type of porous volcanic rock) in the mid 12th century, although the upper levels were under construction and off-limits. The temple was transformed from Hindu to Buddhist in conjunction with the conversion of King Jayavarman VII (responsible for much of the secular and non-secular infrastructure at the time), and not surprisingly, much of the Hindu symbols were destroyed. Afterward we picked up excellent locally made mango and coconut sorbet and headed down the road to the ancient city of Angkor Thom.

At Angkor Thom we encountered the first of the massive gates, topped with giant heads.
Large scowling stone figures hold up the many headed serpent that makes up the railing of the bridge that crosses the moat. Within the walls of Angkor Thom we passed through the Prasat Bayon temple, which contained some of the best preserved carvings we found on our tour. The Terrace of the Elephants was easy to recognize with its elephant buttresses. We had higher hopes for the small Terrace of the Leper King. Legend holds that at least two Cambodian kings suffered from leprosy; however, according to historians it is more likely that the statue that tops the terrace represents Yama, the god of death. Personally, I think the leper king story is much more intriguing.

From Angkor Thom we continued northward to Preah Khan, originally a monastery dedicated to the father of Jayavarman VII. The Buddhist imagery was vandalized during the reintroduction of Hinduism in Cambodia. The vendors at the less visited temples were eager for tourist dollars and every tourist exiting the temple was greeted with a chorus of “Sir/Lady, I have cold water for you. Only $1”. Even tiny children were out in full force pushing post cards and trinkets. After the 20th sales pitch, I had to remind myself that the region is very economically depressed and the vast bulk of the locals' income comes from the tourist trade. From Preah Khan we had two options: a) continue on the 26 km grand loop back to the turn-off to Siem Reap or b) head back to Angkor Thom and do the 17 km mini loop. We decided that the mini loop sounded more realistic given the remaining daylight hours.

From Angkor Thom we left the city through the eastern Victory gate and before long came across Ta Keo. Built in the late 10th/early 11th century in dedication to the Hindu god Shiva, it is the first temple in the region to be constructed entirely of sandstone. Unlike the other temples we visited Ta Keo is unfinished. A steep staircase (bordering on Class 3 with its uneven, narrow sandy ledges) led to the top of the highest tower. As we walked along the forested roads we were serenaded by the loud and strangely electronic-sounding drone of cicadas (I think), much like an alarm system. I couldn't imagine what it was like for the road maintenance workers to have to listen to that maddening noise all day long.

We (stupidly) skipped Ta Prohm, not realizing it is the famous overgrown temple complex (although we got a taste
of it at Preah Khan), and headed back toward Siem Reap, passing cow fields and tiny villages on the way. One of the local riding a motorcycle asked us why we were walking (we never saw anyone else walking the loop) and couldn't understand Jascha's answer of “for exercise”. At the turn-off for Siem Reap with darkness falling we decided that it was time to cave after 30+ km. We took a tuk-tuk back for the last 5 km.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

learning to like cambodia

Our flight from Suvarnabhumi to Phnom Penh went off without a hitch. There were no signs of the prior weeks' shutdown by thousands of anti-government protesters. Suvarnabhumi is a stunning test piece of modern architecture and we killed time by admiring the acres of elegantly curving glass and metal.

We arrived in Phnom Penh and took a tuk-tuk to our guesthouse, run by a Paul, an Aussie expat of Cambodian heritage. Our
original plan was to rent dirt bikes and ride to Siem Reap, but we decided we needed a break from riding after our India adventures. We opted for the more conventional route of an express bus and purchased tickets for the following day. Paul set us up at his friends' guesthouse for one night, as the one we had booked wasn't available until the date we'd scheduled. Compared to the other Asia cities we've visited, Phnom Penh is tiny, the city limits being easily walkable. We set out in search of dinner, not thrilled with Paul's recommendation about a place called, “The Titanic”. He scoffed at us when we said that we would rather eat at the stalls and couldn't imagine it being any more than "dirty" than those we found in the tiny dusty Indian villages.

We didn't see any stalls and ended up at a restaurant supposedly serving Khmer food. We ordered loc lac (a beef dish) and green chicken curry. Both were disappointing – largely devoid of spices – and my loc lac was hideously sweet. I left most of it. On the way back to the hotel we found the night market and street stalls. Unlike Thailand they variety of food was small – mostly BBQ meats (heavy on the organ meats), fried noodles, and fried fish. I found a sandwich cart serving something like a Cambodian version of banh mi and had to investigate. I could have done without the sugary spread and fermented fish paste, but otherwise it was pretty good. The baguette was fresh and I didn't mind the processed meat of unknown origin. Past the BBQ stalls we found something even better – the shaved ice lady. I had green jelly with sticky rice topped with sweetened condensed milk.

The next day we boarded the bus to Siem Reap. The entertainment alternated between dubbed Jackie Chan movies and Cambodian karaoke. ~2 hours into the trip the bus stopped at a large restaurant and we got our usual sandwiches (minus fish paste). The countryside was fairly flat with
large areas devoted to rice and lotus cultivation. An occasional cow or water buffalo appeared on the roadside. Many of the houses were built on stilts, for flooding I suspect. I was surprised by the number of political parties advertised, no less than five. Every town showed allegiance to at least one. The Cambodian People's Party appeared to be the most popular, or at least the one with the most signs.

We arrived in Siem Reap where our guest house had arranged a pick up. I had read that prior to 2000 Siem Reap was a sleepy agricultural town and largely a dirt bag backpacker's destination. With the international airport, air conditioned shopping malls and upscale hotels, it's difficult to believe. In contrast to our Phnom Penh location we easily found convenience and grocery stores stocking (for a hefty markup) the amenities we found in Bangkok. I had researched the food scene on the bu
s trip so we made our way to the Psar Chaa market area. There were the usual BBQ stalls and a series of identically menued and priced fried noodle places. I was able to get mine without sugar, but even with a ton of pepper sauce and the soy sauce I stashed in my bag from Thailand (in anticipation of finding only sweet sauces in Cambodia), my rice noodles were bland. Fortunately, we found a shaved ice stall to make up for it. There are enough historical sites between Phnom Penh and here to kill a solid two days (on our pace), but I'm starting to feel like I scheduled too much time in Cambodia. Hopefully, Angkor Wat will make up for it.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

bangkok 8

For the past 8 days we've been exploring the bustling streets of Bangkok. It's been nice to be parked in one location for a while, especially in a place with excellent public transportation and street food. I am happy to report that I have been reunited with melon Fanta, which I have not seen since my visit to Japan circa 1983, and I have been taking full advantage of the som tam and grilled meat stalls.

The original intent of the one week stay was to allow time to get a visa at the Myanmar embassy for our upcoming visit in January, but the rules have recently changed and visas are now valid for entry dates up 1 month in advance instead of 3. We will have to modify our itinerary to squeeze in a
few extra days in Bangkok, but otherwise it's only a minor inconvenience.

The markets here are incredible, sprawling on a scale I have never before experienced. In general goods are of a higher quality and greater variety than India, although there is still a lot of repetition between shops. Of note is the found object sculpture shop in the Jatujak weekend market where various gears, spark plugs, rods, nuts, and chains are MIG welded into mostly detailed Alien-themed designs.

Additionally, we checked out the Corrections Museum (unfortunately, photography is prohibited), which contained
a variety of exhibits on torture and execution from medieval times to today. The most unique method was a rattan ball, large enough only to accommodate a crouching man, that would be kicked around by an elephant. Today execution is carried out by lethal injection.

We also took the time to get suits and shirts tailored. The guy that runs the shop, Khavul, is
a second generation Bangkok Sikh, who was schooled in the Himalayan foothills of Uttar Pradesh. We went in 4 times for fittings to fine tune everything. He agreed to stash our stuff for another 2 months until our last stop in Bangkok.

This morning we left our red light district hotel for the 1950's style Atlanta Hotel, as recommended by Tricia. It has much more character than our former lodgings, although I miss the variety of street food vendors. After several weeks of chaos and uncertainty, it looks like things are on track for our flight tomorrow to Phnom Penh out of Suvarnabhumi.

india uncovered

I selected Luce's In Spite of the Gods: the Strange Rise of Modern India as a pithy companion for our travels through India. We witnessed first-hand much of the bureaucracy, poverty, hypocrisy, and chaos described by Luce (former Delhi-based reporter for the Financial Times) in this well researched and well written book. The choice could not have been better.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

hello, sexy show?

We spent our final time on the bikes searching for the Chakravorty (owner of India Bikes) home in a Kolkata suburb. Despite being a Sunday the Indian drivers were in as much of a rush as usual and we were looking forward to being rid of our two-wheeled burdens. On the way back we found a sweet shop serving the local treat, misti doi (sweetened milk curd) as well as payesh, which to me tasted like kheer (my favorite Indian dessert).

The next day things were still looking iffy for opening of the Thailand's Suvarnabhumi International Airport by our scheduled flight date of 02 December, so the day before we paid a visit to the Jet Airways office. They told us that they had a special flight (the first since 25 Nov) arranged that afternoon to the naval airport in Utapao (~180 km from Bangkok), but after that they were uncertain of when they would next fly into Thailand. We decided to take the opportunity and after a kheer stop at a New Market tea house we went back to our hotel to pack.
We arrived at the airport 3 hours in advance as requested and stood in line with the mostly Thais, plus a handful of Indians and Westerners. We didn't have a confirmed seat (only a note scribbled on our e-ticket by the customer service agent), and we weren't completely confident that we would get one, but all worked out. After much anticipation the flight landed in Utapao at 10:15 pm to applause from the Thais. We weren't sure how we would get out of the airport, as the military base wasn't exactly set up for international arrivals and there were no official money changers or ATMs. I had no information on local hotels, so I figured our best bet was to get to Bangkok. The prepaid taxi stall was charging 3500+ bhat ($100+) to Bangkok and unlike Thai Airlines, our Indian-based airline wasn't providing free shuttles to the city. I found an outside taxi for 3000, who would let us stop at an ATM. We got an extra night at our already booked Bangkok hotel and arrived just before 2 am. People were still out and about in the street; we later found out that our guest house is close to the red light district (probably what are taxi driver meant by "bad part of town").

For our first day in Bangkok we headed over to Wat Po for a long overdue Thai massage at the massage school. We were amazed at the number and variety of food stalls on the short jaunt from our hotel to the Sky Train station. We started off with Thai iced coffee and chive dumplings made from glutinous rice flour. The Sky Train ends a few stops from our hotel
at the Central river boat station, from which you can catch a boat to numerous places along the river. At Wat Po we made a beeline for the massage school, figuring that we could catch the main attraction, the massive reclining Buddha, on the way out. Our one hour massages weren't quite up to par with Cathy and Lynn at Pho Siam in L.A., but they were still worthwhile. We checked out the giant shiny gold Buddha and watched as local artisans painstakingly restored the
temple murals.

Instead of taking the boat back to the Central station we decided to walk through the maze of stalls that make up the Chinatown markets. The size of the clothing and fabric market alone dwarfed anything we had seen in India. With no aggressive touts or vendors the experience was far more pleasant. We found our way to a district selling a dizzying array of metal and machined parts, then on to the silver jewelry zone before finally reaching the
station. The food stalls near the stop for our hotel had been replaced by stalls selling clothing, CD/DVDs and souvenirs. We returned to our hotel serenaded by a stereo blaring Bon Jovi's Living on a Prayer.