Sunday, August 26, 2012

Man without a country (for 30 minutes)

The process of leaving Vientiane was a little strange. When I walked through immigration and passport control at the Vientiane airport, the officer who looked at my passport laughed with his colleague in another booth then looked at me. I wasn't laughing, but I could tell that their laugh might have been at my expense. The officer gave me my passport and I was on my way. We headed to the lounge and waited for the flight. At the seat in the lounge I saw a little gecko on a little ledge that was so cute. Geckos are all over the place in this part of the world especially at night time when they eat all the bugs.

The flight from Vientiane to Bangkok was on a Thai Airways 737-400 and it was packed. Since it was a Saturday I was expecting the flight to be empty. Another odd thing was that our flight boarded really early and we left the gate about 20 minutes early. I don't think I have ever been on a flight that did that. 
The flight was just under 1 hour long and they served a full meal in a box. When we arrived in Bangkok our plane parked at a domestic gate even though we were an international flight. This occurs a lot in Bangkok when the plane you were just on is about to do a domestic flight next; and when it happens they bus you from that gate to an international arrivals area. Even if you are connecting to another international destination and do not need to enter Thailand officially you have to do this. Then you go down a different walkway to international connections. It's kind of a weird process, but it sort of makes sense. It just involves a lot of walking. The nice thing is that they have little carts that are free that you can use in the terminal. Many hub airports in Asia have this.

After spending well over an hour in the Thai Airways Royal Silk Lounge, we headed to our gate. We were flying Thai Smile to Macau. Thai Smile is a faction within Thai Airways that is geared towards budget travelers but they stil serve food and drinks. They also sell other meals, candy, and drinks too. Our plane was a brand new A320 and this flight was packed too. The flight was about 2.5 hours long and we arrived in Macau around 7:30pm. We did not arrive at a gate and they made us take a bus to the terminal that was all of 100 meters away. It was ridiculous. We could have just walked to the terminal if they would have put out cones or something. 

So here's where the story turns. As we were in line for the China/Macau immigration, I was expecting the process to go very quickly, but when it was my turn in the line there was a problem. It was taking a really long time and the officer was not stamping my passport and moving me along. I was getting concerned and after a few minutes he pointed to my Cambodian visa. I was trying to get across to him that I came from Vientiane and pointed out my Lao visa. He asked for boarding passes and that did not help. I even showed him the one from a few days earlier from my flight from Phnom Penh to Vientiane. I was thinking that they he didn't understand how I got to Vientiane. So they ended up pulling me out of the line, which is never a good thing. Another officer came up to me and took my passport and started going through it. I still wasn't understanding what the problem was and I showed him all of my boarding passes. He finally points to the entrance and exit stamps from Cambodia that are on the opposite page from the Cambodian visa. Then he points to the Lao visa and then points to a blank page with no stamps. Ah, I finally get it. For them, it looked like I didn't officially enter or exit Lao PDR once I officially left Cambodia. I had no idea that those stamps actually mattered. So now the problem is that I have no idea why the Lao officers didn't stamp my passport. I admit that it looks very shady from their perspective, but I have no control over whether or not immigration officials do their job correctly when entering and leaving a country. I began to worry because I didn't know what was going to happen. They could easily not let me in the country and send me back to Laos or Cambodia or back home. Who knows? This had never happened to me. So after another long while without my passport and in limboland, the officer comes back with my passport and shows me that the stamps are indeed there, but are on a page much earlier than the visa. They are on a page full of other stamps. They send me back in the line and finally get me on my way. By this time there is no one left in the immigration hall and I finally feel legit once again. The problem actually was with the officer who stamped my passport when I entered Lao PDR. So those guys that were laughing were actually laughing at me and probably knew that I was going to have an issue with my next destination.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Vientiane, the Berkeley of SE Asia

Vientiane completely turned my expectations upside down. What a surprise Vientiane a good way. When we arrived at the small airport I was shocked to see that they actually had jetways. I was expecting a small airport in which we deplaned by stairs.

Arriving in the immigration hall and visa on arrival queue, it seemed to be very much a communist operation with stark barebones rooms and baggage claim area. I had the Ansara hotel meet us at the airport and provide transportation for us. I always do this when I am unsure of the taxi and transportation situation in a new city. Our driver was there and he escorted us to the curb where he left us to get the minivan that would take us to the hotel. As we were driving into town, I was pleasantly surprised to see such nice cafes and restaurants along the road. They even looked upscale from French to Japanese and every other cuisine. There wasn't much traffic and certainly not a lot of motorbikes like in Cambodia and Vietnam. The streets were very clean and orderly completely opposite from their Indochinese neighbors. Why is Laos so different from Cambodia and Vietnam, at least appearance-wise? The Ansara hotel is right in the thick of the city and down a small side street. It is a small boutique hotel with only about 15 rooms. It is expensive by local standards, but still quite affordable at only $125/night including minibar, breakfast, and internet. There was even a laptop computer in the room. To me the Lao people are probably the most quiet and/or subdued of all the countries I have visited.
The first day we arrived around 8:00pm so we decided to have dinner somewhere in town. We walked around the corner to a local place called Sticky Fingers Cafe and Bar which had an eclectic group of people there. I would never have known we were in Laos because the place had an earthy crunchy feel to it like we were in Berkeley or Portland. It was crazy. They also brought out glasses of drinking water. Apparently most places have a water cooler of drinking water and you don't have to buy bottles of water. It's actually much more environmental that way. After the meal it was back to the hotel. The weather in Vientiane was a little more humid than Cambodia, but Phnom Penh was unusually mild. 

In the morning we headed to the main building where the restaurant was for breakfast. The property surrounds a garden and most of the rooms are in a building in the back of the property. There weren't very many people in the restaurant and they had pastries and fruit spread out on a buffet, but we could order eggs and meat. The service was very slow especially with the coffee which they didn't like to refill. The coffee was so good (very French) and very strong. The Lao people are so laid back compared to everywhere else in Asia, it feels like everyone is on island time. 

After we filled our stomach's we set out to see the town. We walked along the major street from the hotel and were shocked to see that the city was very clean and relatively modern. The one thing lacking though was Western chains for anything from food to hotels. All hotels are little boutique places or guesthouses which adds to the charm of Vientiane. We walked down by the president's palace and Si Sasket Temple. 

After that we walked further into the city and found some open air markets. I think one of them was called the morning market. It was very odd to be in a local market and not have people harassing you to buy their junk. And actually the deeper into the market we went, the more authentic the goods were. They had some really lovely textiles of local designs that would make excellent ladies clothes, window dressings, or bed covers. The patterns were incredible and had a local/ethnic flavor to them. From there we walked around more of the town and saw many French influenced buildings.We called it the Champs Elysee of Laos because in the middle of the street near the city center is their Arc de Triomphe called Patuxay Monument. We went up inside and there is actually a market where they sell souvenirs on one of the inside levels of it. The views from up there were really cool. 

After walking back to the hotel to get out of the heat and cool down, we had worked up an appetite and had a snack at a little cafe around the corner from the hotel. With all the little cafes, the narrow streets, bookstores, and shops, it feels just like France. After the snack we walked back to the hotel and took a nap to get out of the humidity. The weather really zaps your energy. For dinner later that night we found a restaurant called Makphet, which is run by Friends International. It is one of the "eat with a purpose" places that helps train homeless youth to have productive jobs. They have restaurants in Laos and Cambodia. Check out their website. They also run shops/boutiques with local crafts. I had Lao spicy pork sausage which was amazing. The restaurant was al fresco dining right on the a little side street and it was right around the corner from the hotel. After dinner we changed into shorts so we could walk around the night market which is right along the river. There were a lot of vendors but it wasn't a huge market, not like the kind in other countries where every single booth is selling the same exact crap. At most they had 2 booths that were selling similar things. We bought a bunch of souvenirs and some gifts. I think I bought two t-shirts for $6 USD. It was awesome. I didn't even try to barter with prices like that. After all that shopping it was time to go to bed. Our flight the next day was leaving in the early afternoon so we needed to pack that night too. 

The next day was the same breakfast but the weather was rainy. At some points it rained really hard. We decided to take a tuk tuk to one of the most important temples in Vientiane called the Golden Temple or That Luang. The tuk tuks in Vientiane were a little different than those in Cambodia--instead of facing forward like in a rickshaw, the seats face each other but are sideways. So you can easily just roll right out the back where you enter. Regardless, all tuk tuks are death traps no matter what country you are in, but the Lao are the most tame. It was still rainy when we were at the Golden Temple and we walked around and it actually felt quite nice. It was humid but not terribly hot. We had the tuk tuk driver wait for us and he drove us back to the hotel. I love that about the tuk tuk drivers. Once we got back to the hotel we packed up, checked out, and went to the airport by the same hotel van that picked us up. We were very early for our flight and the Vientiane airport was dead. Vientiane is such a charming little city that has a laid back atmosphere, great food, and very nice but quiet people. No one ever seems to be out to get you or take advantage of you which is a departure from places like Thailand. I would go back to Laos in a heartbeat.    

Monday, August 6, 2012

Phnom Penh

Visiting Phnom Penh was the second city that I have been to in Cambodia. Last year's trip was to Siem Reap which was incredible. I was really looking forward to visiting Phnom Penh because it is the capital city and I was going to be staying at the Raffles, which turned out to be an amazing hotel with true 5 star service. Every employee refers to you by name and they always remember things that you don't think they would. I have never experienced the kind of service I received at the Raffles any where else ever. I feel like I could go on forever about the hotel but I won't. A few things of note about the hotel though; first of all it is quite famous because of some of the dignitaries that have visited from Jackie Kennedy to Charles de Gaulle and most recently last month by Sec. Hillary Clinton. The spa is wonderful, the food is great from the poolside meals to breakfast and the famous Elephant Bar.

Phnom Penh has a lot of little cafes all over town and they all have amazing coffee. Thank French colonialism for that. On our first day in PP we walked to Wat Phnom which is right down the street from the hotel. It is nothing special but I think it has historic value. Another short walk from there is the riverside. We walked down and found a place called Cafe Metro. This was after looking around in lots of little shops and boutiques. The humidity took over and we needed to get into some a/c. Cafe Metro had free wifi but I didn't have my iPhone or iPad with me, oh well. After a nice fruity drink it was time to head out again. We went to the National Museum which is next to the royal palace that is closed for several hours in the middle of the day. So it was the museum and it was open air which I was not expecting. Pictures are forbidden which is too bad because the relics they have there are really awesome and come from the time period that Angkor Wat was built. The museum is in a square with a nicely manicured garden in the middle.

After the museum we headed to the Central Market, which is a really strange-looking yellow structure. It is all cinder block and cement with a large dome. It was jam packed with stalls of all kinds of stuff from jewelry to automotive parts, toiletries, souvenirs, clothes, and all kinds of other crap. After that we walked down to the park where the Vietnam Friendship monument is, which is a really nice city park with lots of open space. The monument is very cool looking if you like those Soviet-inspired statues. From there we walked down toward the independence monument which looks like the arc de triumphed in Paris. By this point we we sweaty and tired from walking so we took a tuk tuk back to the hotel. Taking these is always an experience somewhere between a treat and near-death. To give you an idea of what it is like, imagine how you would drive a 3 wheel motorbike if there were no rules and you were the only person on the road. You could anywhere, go any direction on any street and it wouldn't matter. Now imagine that everyone else on the road is under the same assumption. That is driving in Phnom Penh. It's crazy and makes absolutely no sense at all. After we got back to the Raffles we went to the Amrita spa for some relaxation time. After that we spent some time at the pool and ate some snacks. Later on, dinner was at a little local restaurant called La Marmite. It was one of the best French meals ever and it was cheap. I had blue pork scallops with blue cheese sauce and ratatouille. It was awesome with a nice glass of merlot.

The next day in PP consisted if the amazing breakfast at Cafe Monivong, a tuk tuk ride to the Royal Palace, the Russian market and back to the hotel. The great thing about the tuk tuk drivers is that they will wait for you wherever you go and then you pay them at the end. I think it cost $10 to have our guy with us for a few hours. By lunch time we headed back to the pool for snacks and drinks. We went to a day spa in town called Bodia spa and I think an hour massage was $24. It was great. Then we walked down the block to the FCC, Foreign Correspondents Club, which is famous for its happy hour. The food wasn't great and the atmosphere was quite strange with old white men and their hookers. It is al fresco dining along the road that borders the river so there is some atmosphere there.

The day we left PP our flight didn't leave until 5:50p, so we had the whole day to do more stuff. We ended up taking a taxi to the Killing Fields called Choeung Ek. It's a sobering experience because there is a monument there with bones collected from all of the genocide victims. It's incredible to see how far Cambodia has come since then, but 3 million of their 8 million people were killed from 1975 to 1979 under the rule of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. It's a disgusting reminder of what humans are capable of. This is just one of over 300 killing fields, but this one is just outside of Phnom Penh and there is an audio tour that is self-guided. I wasn't sure I wanted to go to the Killing Fields at first, but I am now glad that I went because it puts things into perspective. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Around Phnom Penh

This is the Vietnam Friendship Monument in Phnom Penh. It is located in a huge park and there was not another soul in the park except for us the entire time. It's really a nice monument and I love the Soviet/communist look to the statues. It reminds me of Tianenmen Square in Beijing but on a much smaller scale.

This is part of the expansive park where the Vietnam Friendship Monument is located.
This is the Independence Monument reminiscent of the Arch De Triomphe. Too bad it is being renovated because the scaffolding obscures most of it.
The Royal Palace is beautiful but not as lavish as the one in Bangkok. 
This is where the Silver Pagoda is located. Unfortunately pictures aren't allowed there.

Here is a model replica of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap.