Friday, November 28, 2008
Cambodia is the Ecuador of Southeast Asia. In its capital, Phnom Penh, there is trash strewn on every street corner, roaming dogs with bellies full of swollen nipples, and beggars with another sympathetic story to hawk. I know you’re poor, Cambodia, but you’re not letting me enjoy you!
Phnom Penh was gross, frankly. With little to offer besides garish overpriced palaces funded by the French colonists and a former high school turned prison camp in the Khmer Rouge era. We did find a delightful little restaurant, Mama’s, around the corner from our hotel where we thoroughly enjoyed our three squares a day with the precious tiny daughter of Mama taking our order and meringue blaring on the stereo. Sick of modern Cambodia, we travelled back in time to visit ancient Khmer culture.
The Angkor temple complex is one of the most spectacular places I have been in my (fairly short) life.
It has huge repetitive tower-faces jutting up into the jungle trees, monkeys relaxing in the grass and giant trees spouting on top of temple walls, maneuvering their roots in through the ancient brickwork. To get between temples and back to town, we hired a tuk tuk (a motorcycle with a four seat Remarque attached to the back). In the middle of the second day, with the sun peaking through the thick canopy, soft, warm wind cooling my rosy cheeks, and beautiful rounded temple towers peeking through the forest, I felt real elation. Cambodia, you have redeemed yourself.
Southern Vietnam boasts most of the same draws as the North: colonial architecture, women in markets with conical hats, and fresh baguettes. But the South feels more tropical, lowland, and lush.
In Hue we stayed in a perfectly adequate seven dollar room and saw the citadel complex of the former monarchy and, subsequently, the Communist Party as a base to fight against the Americans. We only had a few hours to see the entire complex, but feeling rushed we resolved to take our time and finish what we couldn’t tomorrow. We strolled around the romantic fallen structures set amongst green fields and statues spotted with moss. Even with all this loveliness, we finished seeing the palace in ninety minutes.
Surprised at the quickness of our pace, I sat in the promenade in front of the former royal residence and re-evaluated. Are we lingering in these places too long? Should we be moving faster? Yes, I decided at that moment that we should speed through only the most spectacular places in Southeast Asia (you don’t visit the US and go to Piedmont, ND, do you?) and make some time for INDIA!
I threw my haphazardly conjured idea at Alex and, always a good sport, said he’d look into making it happen. Two days later, in Hoi An, we bought the Lonely Planet INDIA guide for eleven dollars, now there was no going back.
Hoi An was wet, drowned by a tropical storm that flooded the streets. Almost ruined by the rain, we still managed to see the wonderful Chinese, ancient Vietnamese and freshly-painted French colonial architecture on offer. Scouring our India Lonely Planet in a café on our last night, we decided we needed to move quickly if we were going to get to India. Skipping Dalat and Quy Nhon, we bought a $37 flight to Saigon that night.
Which was stiflingly, pore-openingly hot. We saw the little there was to see, including an enlightening War Crimes Museum and spent most of the rest of our time hiding from the heat in our air-conditioned room.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Next, Lijiang. A bigger and better Dali, with even larger snow-capped peaks on the horizon. We sat in European cafes and watched the rain patter on the blurry panes. On our last night we went to see the Naxi orchestra - a group of ancient musicians playing on even older instruments pieces from the Middle Ages. There was even a solo from one of the oldest members called "heartless love" about how his money left him and his woman followed suit. ouch.
Oh, then to Shangri-la, where we expected so little so the return was even greater. We met with the first foreigner allowed into town in 1987, and she told us of how she got around town on horseback. We drank yak butter tea and were invited into the dormitory of an orange-robed Tibetan buddhist monk. I watched the sunset from beside the largest prayer wheel in the world, looking over Old Town Shangri-la with prayer flags rustling in the wind overhead and bells tinkling in the temple and I realize that looking for Shangri-la is a fruitless endeavor, it can only be realized in passing moments like this.
Finally, Shaxi shocked me. The most intact and least touristed village yet, we saw an ancient Buddhist temple, trudged along the old Tea Horse Caravan Road through the fields of harvesting Bai people, and ate locally-grown organic potatoes, roasted red bell peppers, snow peas, chives and goat cheese washed down with thick red tea for two dollars and twenty five cents. We laid to rest under the roof of a structure built during the Tang Dynasty. Look it up - it's more amazing than you think.