New Years day and arrived in Siem Reap Cambodia. Left Kunming freezing weather, and 2 hours later landed to 90 degree sunshine. Upon entering customs, the agents are jumping up and yelling to the Chinese tourists to come to their booth. It’s payday at the customs entry! They ask the passengers to pay them to stamp their entry visas, which the passengers do, or otherwise endure long “delays” getting through customs. But when they see western passengers, they do not ask for “tea money”. Since Mia was with me, they dare not ask her either.
Once bags in hand, it’s off to our hotel, Sonalong Village Resort. We were picked up by tuk tuk from the hotel. Twenty minutes later we checked into our room. Mr. Hak, who is the owner, welcomed us and made you feel like an old friend returning for a visit. The resort location is just perfect in Siem Reap. It is on 27th st. About 5 blocks from the town center’s Pub Street. Therefore the resort is quiet and peaceful while being a quick 10 minute walk to the Siem Reap happenings area. The room is large with a big private balcony.
I think minimum time to see the important temples would be 3 days. If you want to study them in detail, go for the 7 day ticket. Hiring a driver is a must. The temples are far apart from each other.
Everyone and their dog comes to these temples. Expect tremendous crowds everywhere. I hope you can appreciate my photos, sans people, which was a time consuming challenge. Also timing is key. Get up a O’dark 30 and have a game plan worked out to focus on a temple. Surf around the net to get suggestions and strategies for this.
In any case, Angkor Wat is a “must see before you die” thing. I have done a fair bit of traveling, and Angkor Wat is on the top of my list. I will be going back again.
Siem Reap is base camp for the temples. Pub Street is the happening area for eating, drinking and shopping. There are a lot of foreign owned bars and restaurants all about. Good food is plentiful and the drink prices are amazingly cheap. Angkor Beer is a must try, it is a very good brew. Native food can best be described as “Thai” cooking, without the zip. A bit dull for my taste without the spicy element. Food prices are normal. Maybe a little on the high side, but otherwise ok.
Shopping is just an assortment of junk that can be found anywhere. Surprisingly, items are priced on the high side. I suppose it has to do with the fact Angkor Wat is such a tourist draw. I did buy the Buddha head carving, It is hand carved from old temple wood and is a true art piece. It is 18″ high and 13″ across . When I decided I wanted one, I found them in several shops for sale. They all were priced at about $180. I offered $50 and no one would even consider it. Eventually I did settle at $90. It took a long time and really was more than I wanted to pay. But it is a great piece of art. I would suggest you plan on taking numerous photos as a fitting memento. You won’t run out of photo ops around this place!
All in all, hotels and drinks are a bargain. Food, tickets, souvenirs, hawkers are a bit over the top. At any rate, this place shouldn’t be missed.
Just 55km outside Dali, lies a quaint little town called Weishan. Its name, Weishan, comes fromweibao, treasure, and indeed it is precious as a remnant of classical Chinese life even more authentic than either Dali or Lijiang’s. In the 14th century, Weishan was an important center for tea trade on the ancient Tea Horse road. Built during the Ming Dynasty by emperor Hongwu, it was laid out like the chessboard game “weiqi” that he loved so well.
The first thing I noticed was how clean and quiet this town is. There are not many cars since the streets are so small. This is still mostly undiscovered and void of tourists. The walking streets are lined with little shops and restaurants. Unlike the touristy Dali, food and accommodations are less then half the price. We stayed in a new hotel in the center of the old town directly on the walking streets. Built like a traditional home, this was a perfect find. Our nice room was 100 RMB a night. Same thing in Dali would run at least 300 RMB. The hotel name is Mong She. Another thing of note is the complete lack of mosquitoes here. It was amazing to sleep with all the windows open and not use any chemical. Although the bed was normal Chinese brick design, I slept well as it is so quiet in this town.
The next morning we headed up Wei Bao Shan mountain just outside of town. This is a famous religious location that was quite interesting. The mountain comprises over 20 temples that you walk to as you ascend to the peak. It takes about 3 hours to do the trek. Approaching one temple, I was struck by the sound of beautiful music. It was to perfect detail to this beautiful setting we were walking through. Going along the pathway through the pine trees with these temples nestled along the way was really a real China experience.
We arrived at the temple where the source of this music was coming from. Looking around, I realized it was a recording. I found this lady there and asked her about the music. She didn’t know anything. This was music played on a guozen. See pictures.
Suddenly I ran into the lady pictured here. Her name is Chong Hui. She tells me this is her music she has just recorded and will release on DVD. I asked her for a copy and she said she only has the master now. We sat down and had tea with her and I learned of her stoory. She is 34 and has been playing and painting since 17. Her artwork was hanging up in the temple. She is also a Tai Chi master. While we talked I found out she is having a website made now by the Chinese govt to feature her arts. She wanted to give me a copy of her master disc, but she can’t use a computer. So I stepped in and gave her a PC beginner’s lesson on her new PC. We had a good time visiting with her there, but I could not make a copy because she has no blank DVD’s. But she will send someone to Kunming to give me a copy soon. Once I get it, I will post it to play on my website. So check back and listen in. Once her website is up, I will also link it to mine. Her artwork is also very good.
After leaving Weishan, we headed for Dali for an overnight before returning to Kunming. This little town is definitely worth a visit. Plan an overnight here at least.
I met with my friends Chen Tien and Yin Lang to go to a Buddhist monk school in Anning this morning. They were having a special celebration there that would involve monks from Tibet, Thailand, China, and Myanmar. On the way we stopped to pick up Mr. & Mrs. Ai, who are quite famous in Yunnan for their puerh tea. Mr Ai sells his puer tea here in Kunming where he has a very nice tea house. He is famous for his growing and packaging of puerh tea. You can see his company’s tea in the photo here. Mr Ai helped in establishing the Fu Jiao College.
Upon our arrival at the monk’s college, we joined in the celebrations for the Temple. With Mr Ai leading the way, we went to a private tea house there and relaxed inside while Mr. Ai served his famous puerh tea. High in the mountains, this retreat was a most enjoyable environment to savor the tea and just enjoy life. The temple and school are built on the hillside of the mountain. Walking trails lead you around this wooded enclave to the small houses where the monks live and study. I was the only Lauwai there, and I met with several of the monks from China and Tibet. We drank tea and I learned about some of the differences between the Thai, Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist practices. This was a perfect outing from the city and the weather couldn’t have been nicer.
On May 1st I set out to travel from Kunming to a small town in Laos named Luang Prabang. For a little added adventure, I decided to drive my car there. After securing the necessary documents, I headed for Laos. The total distance round trip was 3072 km.
Driving through China is straightforward enough to Puer City, formally known as Se Ma. From there the G213 is still being built, so you detour to the old road all the way to the border. I stopped in Mong Na for the night which was about 60 km from the Laos border. The next morning I drove the last bit to the Chinese border and arrived there by 8am when they opened the border for crossing into Laos.
Entering into Laos is a story in itself. After spending 550Y and 4 hours of processing, I was free to travel on to Luang Prabang, some 600 km through the jungles and mountains. The small 2 lane road was barely fit for driving, averaging only 30 km at top speed. Driving in Laos was a dangerous business. Not long ago they changed the driving from the left side to the right side of the road. I suppose it didn’t really matter since the traffic just used whatever parts of the road that were not broken. Every few km I was going through some small mountain village dodging farm animals, children, carts, and broken down trucks. By 10:30 pm I finally arrived in Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is the ancient capitol of Laos. It is also the Buddhist religious center made up of many temples. They are scattered about this tiny town on almost every block. Situated on the Mekong river where the Kahn river flows into the Mekong, Luang Prabang is a picturesque town. Most of the buildings are of French design, the hotels mostly converted from the old French buildings. Restaurants, craft shops, and street markets make up the majority of the businesses here. It is certainly a tourist town. The food is fabulous and not expensive. The same can’t be said for the local souvenirs. You know somethings up when the prices for things are marked in US dollars instead of Lao kip. This region is famous for their amazing textile, handmade papers, and snake whiskey. But to me the best product of Laos is the “Beer Lao”. It has to be the best beer in Asia. And nothing is better than drinking an ice cold beer sitting by the Mekong river while it’s pushing 40C outside. The big bottle goes for 80 cents a bottle. The 5% alcohol content of Beer Lao packs a punch after a few bottles. Since it’s best not to drink on an empty stomach, I ordered up some local Lao food. Very similar to Thai food, spicy, hot, fresh and delicious. Fish, vegetables, noodles, beef and well..best not to ask, but it’s all good. There are restaurants here for every taste. Certainly the best restaurant in town is the L’ Elephant. Classic French cuisine cooked to perfection. Expensive, but well worth the average $6 for a complete dinner. When you consider that other restaurants are running half the price, L’Elephant is expensive. I hosted a dinner for 6 people, including appetizers, French wine and dessert. My bill was $69. And one person even ordered a second dinner plate. The hotels here are also very cheap. Do not use the internet anywhere for booking here! It is 50% less to walk in directly to the hotel for your room. Strange as it seems, this is a fact here. My room cost $20 a night which was advertised on the internet at $59!
The Lao people are warm, friendly people. I will even say that they are nicer than Thai’s overall. How’s that for nice! On more than one occasion, tuk tuk drivers wanted to take me around, and I would say no. His reaction was “Thank you sir, please enjoy your visit here.” Nobody seemed pushy about selling things, and people were just laid back. The only caveat to this is any “official” like, say, police. From my border experience and also in Prabang, they are all on the take; corrupt and rude ass%#@$. Must be the nature of the government. This is too bad, as it really puts a dampener on your first impressions of Laos. My border experience can be read in the Lonely Planet on-line, as well as the Trip Adviser. As for my local police encounter, let me explain here.
My hotel is located on a one way street and I had to park my car beside the hotel in the only spot for one car as most travelers only arrive by taxi. The next morning, I backed out into the street so I could drive down to a coffee shop. A military dressed dude, seeing me back out, decided that my reverse direction of 2 meters onto the street, constituted a “wrong way” drive. He made me stop in the street and produce my papers. Then he wrote on a piece of paper the number 500,000 and gestured me to pay him now. That’s $50 and about a year’s salary for a Lao! What a scumbag! Not only was this in no way legal, the money would only go into his pocket anyway. Luckily the hotel manager who spoke English came outside and started talking to this idiot. My problem is I know they would like nothing better than to throw me into a gulag, so I really had no choice in the end. But the hotel guy took me aside and told me just give him 50,000 ($5) and drive away. So I gave him the money, which he just put in his pocket, and I got in my car and left. Remember in Laos you are in hardcore commie country. That’s a chance you take visiting Laos. I was told that the “police” in Laos can and do come into your hotel room late at night to search you and see if you are up to no good. I’ve heard this from more than one source. Drugs of all kinds are legal and readily available all over Laos. In fact many times opium is used in the restaurants and bars, added to food and drink. Menu items with the word “Special” usually denote such drugged items. If a foreigner is found with drugs, the rules change. You will be in very big trouble. Also it is forbidden to have any relations with a Lao national. If you take a Lao girl to your hotel, it will result in a long jail sentence, or an extended vacation, however you want to look at it.
All in all Laos is a beautiful country to visit. I will probably return for another visit in the distant future, but flying in is the best way to go. I believe traveling by ground is still too risky and dangerous. I passed several tour buses broken down on the middle of nowhere; god knows what they do to get the tourists back to their destinations.
I arrived in Beijing and the first thing that comes to mind is……B I G! This is one large city. 6500 sq. miles with 12 million people packed inside. It took an hour to go by taxi from the airport. The fare was 120Y ($15). By the way a word of advice if you travel here. Do not EVER use any services unless it is the “official” service. If someone approaches you for taxi service, tour service, tour guide, etc. do not even consider it. Do not believe anything they tell you. It is not true. You will be ripped off for sure. There are a lot of people here who have that special deal just for you. It will cost you at least twice the price than going a legit way before it’s over. That said, it is on to my Beijing experience.
The central city area is made up of “Las Vegas” blocks. They are big. Be prepared to do a lot of walking here. They are building everywhere. Maybe in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Traffic is also quite congested. I suggest you use the subway system to get around. It is easy and cheap like Shanghai. Taxi travel will take a long time to get anywhere. Speaking of subways, the Beijing system in a word; old. It works, but it is definitely quite used. The trains move slower, the stations are run down, but the key thing is that it works. Remember Shanghai’s metro in my previous blog? Well get ready for your first surprise here in Beijing. Much more crowded that Shanghai. It is not uncommon to wait 2 trains before you can get in. So here you are in a sea of people waiting for this train. Then it arrives and stops. First you will notice that as it sits there the cars are still rocking, and you can hear the air suspension system cycling on and off. Kind if weird, but apparently normal. Now the doors begin to open. You brace for the wild onslaught of pushing and shoving. I take a deep breath and get into rushing position. Then it happens……….NOTHING! What the hell is going on here? Everyone is calmly waiting while people unload! Then they start moving forward and entering the cars in an orderly fashion. I can’t believe what I am seeing! These people are so different than Shanghai. It’s like another world here. The cars are packed, but people are organized and polite. Crowded, but orderly. Later we are sitting in McDonalds looking at the map trying to figure out how to get to the hutong area. We know it will take a bus ride to get there, but we have no idea where to go. I ask this lady eating lunch at our table. She is telling us while looking at our map. Then she says it would be better if she showed us. So we finish and go out together and follow her to the correct bus stop. When the bus comes, she actually gets on with us and travels along until we get to the correct stop. How helpful can you get! I found that everywhere we went people here are eager to help you . They are polite and make you fee welcome in their city. This is very different from Shanghai.
Beijing is also a clean city and people always use the trash cans. I didn’t see people spitting and talking loudly here. Many speak some English so it is not hard to get around.
The air quality here is not so good. There is a lot of dust which may be from all the building going on in the city. There are many cars adding to the poor air quality. I would rate it about the same as LA.
In keeping with my Shanghai comparisons, the women in Beijing are average to below average. Not many lookers in this city. Shanghai way outdoes Beijing in this category.
I also found it interesting that there are no places for you to sit here. City streets, subway, bus stop, and even many parks all do not provide seats to stop and rest. It would be a good idea for you to carry a small towel to use to sit on the curb at times. There is a lot of walking involved in this city let me tell you.
You can find everything to eat here. All of it expensive, as is most everything else here. I think it is a little more pricey than Shanghai. I expect by the time the Olympics start, things will really be expensive. Prepare to spend about 500 RMB for 2 people a day. That will get you mid to upper class living conditions.
The buildings and historical sights are all over this city. It would take a long time to see everything. I want to make mention of the National Military Museum here. It is worth a visit. I found all this US hardware on exhibit there. Tanks, big guns, airplanes with the Chinese Army insignias painted on them. Some of it was given to China by the US. But there were pieces from the Korean War, Vietnam, and Taiwan. The P51 *picP51* was flown to mainland China by a Taiwan pilot who wanted to defect. Look under the wing in the pic and you can see the Chinese Star painted on it. Then there is the U2 *pic U2 spy* that operated out of Taiwan. It flew 112 missions over China before it was shot down. They picked up all the pieces and taped them together to display here. The cool thing about this museum is that the things here were taken out of service and put here without any restoration or even cleaning. The tanks and planes have oil stains on the floor beneath them. *pic Mig* The Mig looks as if it was flown to the museum. Of course the Great Wall was quite an experience. Also the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Heavenly Temple, the Hutongs, all amazing sites. When you see my pics, try to look closely at the bar *pic Hutong bar* and read the signs. Enough said……