Siem Reap, Cambodia

April 27, 2006.

It passed over to a new day while we were going through immigration!

We're assigned to a taxi and must walk a long, long way to the taxi. One of our bags has a broken pull handle. The taxi driver takes my easy-to-roll bag, maybe just because I'm the girl, and Parth has to haul the heavier bag with a broken handle. The driver has a remote starter so the vehicle is cool by the time we get in. Ah, luxurious. But the good feelings peter out quickly ... I immediately sense the driver doesn't know where Hanumanalaya, our guesthouse, is. And, he keeps looking over his shoulder to see us while we're talking! He's driving! At least traffic is very light and he's driving slow. Parth and I whisper in back seat to strategize ... not cool to be just landed in Cambodia and we lost confidence that our driver can get us where we need to go. What to do? I tell the driver our hotel is near Sofitel so at least we can get near the vicinity. He immediately starts selling us on whether we want another guesthouse. You already pay? Yes, we already pay. He seems like a very nice guy and he wants us to hire him to take us around temples. He knows which are the good temples that were on the top of my list. But I worry because he doesn't know where our guesthouse is, he's already selling us on things, and we've been down this road before with touts disguised as drivers. I haven't done a lot of research on Cambodia and don't know what we're in for here. At least I know our guesthouse doesn't pay commission to drivers and others, and we are private tourists while our driver says most people are in tour groups here. So it's totally possible the driver may have never been asked to go to Hanumanalaya before. We pass many enormous hotels ... driver says as we pass ... $700 a night ... $1000 a night ... how much you pay a night? Uh ... well, not that. In the end we arrive at our hotel just fine and we agree to hire the driver for two days. We hope that's a good decision.

The hotel is gorgeous, better than we expected. Pristine plants, jam-packed with picturesque Asian antiques. Beautiful. It's very late, but we ask if the restaurant is still open. We enjoy dinner poolside. There is antique Burmese lacquerware in the cabinet next to us. One of the things on my shopping list. This place has character and warmth. Our room has red silk on the beds and the chairs are upholstered with red, gold and black patterned Cambodian silk.

Good morning Cambodia ...

En Route to Cambodia

April 26, 2006.

Direct flights from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap are cancelled until winter, so we have many hours of layover at BKK. While waiting, we rate Luang Prabang on a 1-10 scale. I waffle, not sure, finally settle on 7.5. Parth gives it "about a 6." We debate whether our reaction is to whether it met expectations, or whether it is what we want on a trip. We weigh the differences between our experiences in big cities like Bangkok versus Luang Prabang. Maybe a pace more like Bangkok is what we want. Even Chiang Mai is a happy middle ground between Bangkok and Luang Prabang paces. We're not sorry we went. But we're definitely ready for a more challenging environment, and the wait won't be long ...

We have a small flight of 30-40 people from Bangkok to Siem Reap. The airport is nearly deserted and with this number of pepole, it should be smooth sailin' through immigration. Well ... not so fast ... Hordes and hordes of tour bus groups come in after us, and some push in front of us in our line!!! We were here LONG before them! Their passports say Philippines. This is upsetting. They totally decimate our nice neat lines. To not lose our place, we'll have to push our way in front of others too. This is kind of stressful to me after a lifetime of neat, tidy Kroger grocery check-out lines. I chew the inside of my mouth, debating what to do ... what to do ... I shoot lasers with my eyes at these cheating line ladies. At least, that's my perception of this. Where they're from, maybe this is how it is all the time, everywhere.

But, soon the ladies who pushed in front have to go to lines across the room. There are reserved lanes for the big tour groups. Otherwise, this inflow is like a big swallowed meal in a snake. Immigration is typing everything in computers and stamping a million times for each person. We get our passports back, and of course must see the goods ... yay, pretty stamps!!

Too Much Writing! Not For Long.

It's one thing to tell you about our stealth stalking of monks in Luang Prabang for the ideal photo opportunity and it's another thing to try to put the monumental stairs at Angkor Wat into words, but neither are good without showing you.

Hold on ... loading Picasa now. And wow is it cool to automatically surf my whole computer for photos! I have no original way to sing the praises of Google beyond what's already been said by others. 'Nuff said!! Photos coming soon ... of travels, of remodeling and other household adventures, and of course, of my very stealthy stalking cat ... which was still in utero when we were in Laos so I didn't learn how to stalk monks from her!

One major exception to praise of Google though ... shoulda figured ... I set up a gmail account while downloading Picasa and now only the gmail account shows up in Blogger instead of my account. Grrrrrrrrrrrr! Thus far in life I've littered servers everywhere with a trail of unused email accounts. Don't need no more! Thanks Google, ya been reading the Yahoo playbook of how to annoy folks ... don't force me to use an email account only for your services. Like I said, though, shoulda figured ...

Bathroom Remodel Journey - Backwards

To spare you from all the details we thought important at the time they happened during the gorey journey, let's start at the end. The first time showering in our new master bathroom. After a lifetime of showering behind opaque curtains, now I know how animals in the zoo feel.


And the process of squeegeeing 36"x28"x36" by 7.5' tall panels of glass, for a perfectionist, breeds OCD. People on the Gardenweb Bath Forum said it only takes a few minutes after each shower to squeegee and keep the glass clean. No worries about keeping the glass clean. Yeah, no worries. Yeah, right. While squeegeeing, I am chasing every single trailing water drop, and on this expanse of glass, that's a lot of water drops that escaped the first squeegee pass, the second squeegee pass, the third squeegee pass using the edge of the squeegee specifically aimed at eradicating every single last water drop and water trail. It's like chasing a bunch of little watery rabbits. But it's important to GET THEM ALL. Because I know the ghosts of each will be outlined in frosty white from our wonderful mineral-y well water and water conditioning salt. Frosty white from snow on the windows in winter is romantically pretty. Frosty white from salt on pricey glass shower doors is something else. Something that will probably over time, over many days of "just a few minutes" of sqeegeeing, will slowly drive me mad. And ... I PAID for this experience???

Luang Prabang, Laos

April 22, 2006.

Flying into Laos, we see no major roads. Only a handful of thin brown lines threaded with tiny towns. From the air, it feels sleepy, backwards, quiet, but not quite idyllic ... all those trees and hills, they are all hiding something ...

The terminal might be the size of some bigger houses at home. Immigration is quaint with lots and lots of stamping and paper shuffling. I couldn't wait to see what they were stamping. Yay, pretty stamps! For coming all this way, I want my passport beautified.

Have you gone somewhere and when you arrived get the feeling that you needed confirmation that this place really DOES exist. In a corner of your mind you doubted it until you set foot there to see for yourself. It's not just in pictures. It's not just a place other travelers wrote about on the Internet. It's really here. And I'm here!! I'm in Laos!!

We take in the sights during the ride to Villa Santi Resort and know this is exactly what we ordered. Less tourists, less traffic, less noise, less everything. Villa Santi Resort is on a dirt road about 5 km from town. A little naked boy plays in the ditch and a girl collects flowers. We see lots of people and dogs sitting in dirt. Huh? What did you say? This is exactly what you ordered? In a way, yeah. Because we've truly gone back in time. Most importantly, our cell phones don't work here.

Lunch at Villa Santi is Lao curry, Pad Thai and fresh spring rolls with a tongue-ticklingly awesome sauce. There's magic in that sauce. And of course, Beerlao. Cost of lunch: $29 which is an exhorbitant price here. In Chicago it might be expected but how do they justify that here. Still, stomaches sated, it's time to hit the town.

We start with a foot massage in town. Must take advantage of cheap massage prices every day while we're here! I almost fall asleep. Very good. By the time we're done, it's dark and the Night Market is ready for action. Groggy, we head toward it but I know enough to know I don't want to be groggy near touts. But vendors here are less aggressive than other places we've been. It seems there's not much product differentiation in this Night Market; I keep seeing the same eight products for sale along the strip which gives more meaning to the "same same" T-shirts. But in the midst of a long aisle of visual chaos, a Lao textile catches our eye. It's hanging and there's just "something about it." Cannot explain. It catches both of us. It doesn't shout. In fact, it's a more subtle design and color but other than that, I'm not sure why both of us are attracted to it. We don't know the bargaining rules here other than you don't counter as low as you do in Thailand for the first offer. (Is that true?) The price is $18 and we lamely get the young seller down to $16. (Experienced Laos bargainers, stop laughing now!) But then we ask to pay in Baht and realize later she figured the price on 40B not the current 37B exchange rate, so we paid $17. It's still cheaper than Chiang Mai. Is that a justification? Did we do good? Well, I don't think so. Is bargaining as cheap as we can get it the real goal here? I don't think so. It was the seller's first sale of the night and she did her good luck ritual with the Baht, broad smile on her face, and we're all happy.

I didn't write this in my journal, but the part of the Laos trip that most stuck with Parth happened at the beginning of this Night Market stroll. The first vendor we saw had beautiful red and gold drawings that would be very nice framed in our red, gold and black family room. The seller was a young girl about 10-11 years old. She was on a blanket at the edge of the night market against the National Museum property wall. The young girl was also watching a baby. We didn't see anyone nearby older than this young girl. She bargained with us with a persistence and tenacity that could put Donald Trump to shame. But we walked away. I thought like with all other products here, you'll find the same thing further down the row, maybe for less. But we never did find more red and gold drawings. And we forgot to go back to this little girl and buy them. We regret walking away. If anyone traveling to Luang Prabang happens to read this, contact me, if you find these drawings we'll pay you for them and the postage!

We go to Three Elephants restaurant for dinner and eat vegetarian soup. I'm not sure what spices are in it, but they're simple and good. It's watery, the veggies are cut simply (some may call it rustic), but it's tasty. But that's not the whole story. We are tired and we wanted to squeeze this dinner into 30 minutes so we could take the Villa Santi shuttle back to the resort. As Three Elephants is across from the shuttle stop, we watch the shuttle engine idle, we watch our watches, we watch the time, we wait and wait and wait and wait ... how long does it take to make soup?!?!? We watch 30 minutes pass by and we watch the shuttle pull away into the dark. And still no soup!!! As we complain quietly between each other at the table, we realize even the long flight here, while takes patience to endure, didn't help us shed our fast-paced mindset and slip into a slower vacation mode.

While we wait another hour for the Villa Santi shuttle back to the resort, we decide this is a pain in the butt and we'll stay in town for the last two nights. The only thing that kept me from sleeping in the hotel lobby was the very cool and very loud gecko sound I kept hearing outside and I wondered what that gecko looks like. I fall asleep on the bus even on horrendously bumpy roads.

April 23, 2006.

We awake at 7:00 a.m. bright and chipper. Can't remember the last time I woke up bright and chipper! Vacation is working already! The shower is strong and hot. Clean and fresh, we walk just a few paces outdoors to the breakfast buffet. It's a big spread with many choices between Lao, Thai, Chinese and Western food. There's French baguettes of course. Forgetting where I am until after I ate them, I order runny sunny side up eggs. Hopefully I won't get sick. The air is cool and not yet humid as we eat outdoors overlooking the lotus pond. But within only one hour, we're consciously aware of humidity rising.

At 9:00 a.m. we head to town and wander down a leafy lane to the road lining the Mekong River. A bunch of touts are hawking boat tours across the street so we don't cross to go near the river. We just don't want to deal. Wears me down, man, even when you use humor and have fun with the touts. Sometimes I don't want to "be on my toes" on vacation. I just want to stroll along a quiet street and be left alone.

We visit the National Museum in the former Royal Palace. It houses the royal family's possessions and gifts from various governments including India and the USA. There are Laos flags that flew to the moon with a letter from President Nixon. This makes us realize if something from Laos was on the moon, maybe something from every country must have gone to the moon and can you imagine the vast federal government staff and agencies that coordinated that effort plus all the official ceremonies to present the moon-blessed items to all these countries. There are also gifts from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Weren't these two presidents bombing the crap out of Laos. Gifts in one hand, bombs in the other. This display reminds me to go to the bookstore to read about the secret CIA war. The Lao PDR of course is polite enough to not mention this in the display. They also don't mention what the government did to the final king and his family.

There's a small gift shop at the National Museum and we choose postcards and a crudely-carved silver turtle for good luck. They also have other auspicious symbols like three-headed elephant pendants. Can't find this stuff at home!

By now it's scorching hot out. We hop barefoot and say OW!! and prance on our tippy-toes on the steaming stone floor like drunken ballerinas to the safety of our shoe soles. Along the lane leading to and from the Museum we jump from one blot of palm tree shade to the next blot of palm tree shade. The royal house has no A/C but it was very cool and comfortable inside due to the architecture. It's not far to the Lasi Cafe but by the time we get there we need some cold stuff: fruit shake, cappuccino shake and chocolate ice cream!

Over the cold stuff, we choose four guesthouses to visit. We plan our route and trek in shade as much as possible through town. We sidetrack into textile and antique shops with gorgeous tabletop wares. Silver mixed with stone and jade. I find a beautiful water container but it's $299. Waaaahhhhhh? So much for deals here. All the shops are pricey. Even if I can afford it, why should I pay that? It just seems suspect to me but I know I haven't taken time to research the economics of shopping here.

We book 130-minute and 180-minute massages at Lao de Lotus and go to an Indian restaurant to share a quick dosa. We're seated, but not given a menu and the Indian guys are horsing around and show no signs of giving us a menu. Like, ever! We needed a half hour bite before our appointment and it ain't happenin' here. So we get up and go right across the street. The Indian guys truly don't care. I think we went to the Scandinavian Bakery. We order lentil soup but there's debate when it arrives. It doesn't seem to have lentils in it. Not even smushed-up lentils. We're not sure what kind of soup we got. Maybe asparagus? It was vegetarian, though. And it was edible. Those are the basics that matter, I suppose. Some vacation meals are not events but just sustenance to keep you running and that's what this meal was.

We head up the steep stairs at Lao de Lotus spa. At the beginning of this adventure, I think it's indulgent to do massages for not just one hour but several hours! It will be very relaxing. The aromatherapy smells really good. But there was a blue-covered chair thing I could see out of the corner of my eye, a jarring colored object that loomed a bit ominous. Turns out it is the herbal steam bath. This product could never be sold in the U.S. You sit and the blue is zipped around you so only your head sticks out. You sit on a pad on heated bars. The pad slips around. My pad slipped and my bare ass was burning on the bars! I shifted to get my butt protected again. I kind of had to bounce to shift, but the blue thing was zipped so tight around my neck, when I bounced it tightened on my neck. Do I want to burn or strangle? Do I have to choose? The bath produced rivers of sweat. Some people like. I didn't like. I learned I really don't like to sweat and have my neck squeezed at the same time. I have always absolutely hated having my face wet. I have to keep a towel in the shower to wipe my face off if it gets wet. And here my face is sopping wet, my hands are confined under this zippered blue thing, my face is wet, and there's nothing I can do about it! I hate this. This is torture. This should be outlawed. This isn't relaxing and I certainly wouldn't want to pay to go through this even with third world rates. I count the minutes. This was supposed to go on for 20 minutes. The masseuse peeks in to check on me (eg see if there's smell of burning flesh or slumped over dead strangled person) and I felt great relief -- YAY this is over! -- but she said five more minutes. Her face disappears before I can open my mouth to get me out of here. So I try hard to survive five more minutes of this. I really try my best. I focus on the sweat rivers trickling down and try to be "only in this moment." Follllllllllowwwwww that beeeaaaaaaaad of waterrrrrrrr alllllll the waaaaaaayyyyyyyy dowwwwwwwwnnnnnnnn. But I can't stop from worrying that all my deodorant has washed off and there's still an evening to go, and it's hot and humid out there. Hopefully it will be cooler when they let me loose. If I live through this. Hopefully. Hope beyond the hope of hope. I am so hopeful. Really I am. I consciously try to relax my forehead and jaw. Forehead is scrunched and jaw is clenched. And no matter how much I focus, they just won't stop scrunching and clenching. It's oxymoron to focus on relaxing by concentrating so hard. Why do I have to be this way, I think. Does anyone else have to concentrate so much on relaxing? Is this because I'm an Aries? A first-born? An ENTJ/INTJ? What's the problem here?!? I'm on the total opposite side of the planet in a little village in the middle of nowhere with only dirt roads leading to it, on the second floor of a rickety old building in this blue zippered torture chamber, so small in such a remote place on this big planet, and this is supposed to be vacation!!! Relax damn it!!!!

My journal now skips to me crouched on a little terra cotta stool at the street entrance to the spa waiting for Parth's massage to end because his was 30 minutes longer. Parth walks out of the spa with the most serene face. I'm positive my face didn't look like that.

Being 12 hours off my time zone has caught up and now my schedule is screwed up. I crash at 7:00 p.m. and awake at 2:00 a.m. Absolutely cannot sleep. So more thoughts about the day are written in my journal:

Royal Museum -- Lonely Planet tells the story of how the royal family was imprisoned by Pathet Lao in 1975 and sent to caves where they died. It's said the museum is haunted by their spirits. The museum remains, in the private quarters, pretty much the way it was they day they were taken. The museum has the most vast collection of bronze rain drums. They line long rooms on both sides. Why I remember that detail, can't explain, other than there's a bronze rain drum of our own in our living room. It was a prized score at Chatuchak Market in Bangkok in 2001. I've always wanted another one, but really, most of us need only one bronze rain drum.

Also in the museum we followed a story described in a series of paintings in the long hallways. As 2:00 a.m. is usually the time for REM dreaming, this kind of story makes perfect sense at this time of night:

A king gave away his white elephant which angered the village residents so much that the king, queen, and two young children were driven out to the jungle to be hermits. On the way, an evil Brahmin found out where the children were. From the prince. Prince? I thought it was a king. Oh well. So much for consistency. Why the prince was so agreeable to giving away his children and wife to this evil person is not explained. I also wonder why the evil person had to be a Brahmin, must be some history between Laos and India there, but of course that is also unexplained. They never say the prince had to fight the Brahmin to save his family. It went down as easy as this ... The evil one said "Where are your children?" Prince: "Over there ..." Evil one: "Can I have them?" Prince: "Sure." Described more elaborately in the art, of course, but that's the essence of it. However the power of the queen's dreams save the children. She dreams of her nipples being cut off (yeah it really says that and it hurts to write that). A series of mystical creatures protect the chilren and in a turn of events during the last few pictures, similar to nearly every American movie, and usually improbable events, the children, prince and queen are all reunited by the end of the space in the hallway. And not only that, they were welcomed back to the village and reinstated with their royal status! Wow what a neat wrap-up.

I suppose after the terrible foreboding visitors get in the first hallway, you must leave your paying customers, the museum visitors, with a happer feeling at the end of the last hallway, knowing all is well with the world and the queen didn't lose her nipples after all.

The striking red reception room for the king had murals crafted of Japanese glass. It was beautiful, but cameras were not allowed and I found no postcard pictures of the room. The murals were commissioned in the 1950s. Most scenes seem to be of Lao daily life and all seem to blend into one big nondescript beautiful glittering image. Then I look closely at one wall and see people with their heads chopped off. And smiling men on horses looking at dead people. Some are missing arms. Some are chopped in half at the torso. Disturbing!! I step back far enough to appreciate the glittering red beauty and don't look at any more walls in detail. Clearly Laos has seen its share of troubles.

One such trouble we must learn more about is the CIA war. So far I've seen two pieces of ordnance. Army green rocket type things flanking a store entrance, like the auspicious green Chinese lions flank the Chicago Art Institute entrance. And we see children playing games with metal balls. I thought they were metal croquet balls. I still want to believe that's what they are. Parth says they're scattershot from cluster bombs. People let children play with these things? When the kids drop them on concrete you can hear a deep THUD. We watched this from across the street. Tomorrow I will investigate more and take pictures. From a distance.

We had great dinner at a French cafe. Parth had vegetarian tartine, an open-faced sandwich with pizza-like melting of cheese. It wasn't pizza. I suppose calling it a tartine attracts a more upscale tourist and you can charge more for it? There was tomato in there somewhere so it must be upscale pizza. He also had to golden palm beer made in Laos, which I did not taste but it smelled very robust. I had a hibiscus drink. And an excellent spinach quiche. We finished with lemon tarte and espresso.

While we enjoy dinner, a motorbike arrives with two men and bags of baguettes. They give two bags to a cafe employee. Very charming. Very fresh. But also I wonder if the side of the baguettes near the bag's opening might be flavored with a layer of road dust. If I ever get a baguette I hope my slice comes from the other side. We also see bags of ice delivered by motorbike.

Tipping is not customary here but the habit is hard to break. The guilt runs deep if we don't tip.

April 24, 2006.

Our last breakfast at Villa Santi Resort of omelettes, watercress, pineapple, the most luscious papaya and coffee. The early morning breeze flowed in and we soaked it up while it was cool.

After a morning of photographing lotuses, mountains and trumpet flowers, we turn on CNN to see if the rest of the world still exists. There's a Bin Laden video, uranium threats in Iran, a category 5 storm somewhere and political unrest and demonstrations in Nepal. Yep, the media's world still exists. On Thai TV, they show Afghanistan, sides we haven't seen on USA TV. We see modern gleaming shopping malls and young men with black leather jackets and Hondas. Mostly what I've seen on US media is brown dirt colored roads, buildings, everything brown dirt colored in Afghanistan.

It's a welcome break to be protected from CNN-style stuff in Laos. But problems for tourists strike here too. We see "Missing" signs showing a strong rugged young man. He has been missing since March 13 while trekking without his backpack.

During checkout at Villa Santi Resort, amazingly (or maybe not so) two girls and one guy cannot figure out how to use our credit card. After 15 minutes, the phone doesn't work, something else is wrong, they ask for cash. We already knew this was mostly cash-based town but c'mon, Villa Santi Resort is a bigger operation. We're going to run out of cash before our next access to an ATM if everyone wants dollars from us. And then we got a package of peanuts, but they do not have 50 cents change. It's only 50 cents! So we pay $1 for peanuts. But you know they have Kip on hand and this game is getting very annoying.

We check in at the guesthouse and assess expenses for the next three days, on assumption we cannot access an ATM until Siem Reap. There should be ATMs in BKK but who knows if we'll see one during our connection. Later in the day, we find a money exchange place in town where it is very easy to get U.S. dollars via credit card advance.

We walk to Samchan Restaurant at the edge of town and choose seats overlooking the Mekong River. This place, according to Lonely Planet, is slightly off the tourist's beaten path. Indeed we don't see any near here. It has been billed as having an extensive Lao vegetarian menu. We live on the edge and order the hot fire morning glory. For insurance we order a tamer dish, stir fry veggie with tofu. Turns out, both dishes are very simple, very rustic flavors and very tasty. Healthy tasting. Although I do wonder how many people have drunk out of my very gritty glass Pepsi bottle and how well it has been washed.

We get local stamps wherever we travel, and we're near the post office, so it's stamp time. As we walk in, two men sleep on benches in the post office. It's scorching hot outside and inside. One man is awake behind the counter. He greets us "sabadies" and we go to the locked glass stamp case. We wish to buy some stamps but he doesn't have the key to the case. He disappears for a very long time. It's really hot, unbearably stuffy, in there. We wait. And wait. And wait some more. Then we leave. Tourism may have arrived in Laos but consumerism sure hasn't yet. I guess this is what we wanted, less tourism, and as we see there's two sides to that coin. And those post office jobs must be pretty decent jobs. So do these guys rotate sleeping or is the awake guy the ambitious one? We decide to get stamps during Night Market. We saw stamps in a storefront case the first night here, and you can be sure that seller has a key.

We try to take a taxi to L'Entranger Books but three men cannot figure out the map. Huh? I was surprised that showing a map didn't solve the communication problem, but Parth says in India he never saw a map of city, neighborhood or village. No need for a map when you know your way around your own town. I suppose so. But if you were shown a map of your own streets, don't you think you could figure out the picture? Oh well. We tell the men we will walk.

It's a heckuva hot walk.

We choose some books, order cool drinks, and sit on the bookstore balcony in the shade for an hour and a half browsing through books until cool evening temps arrive. I buy a book with drawn pictures of Luang Prabang scenes.

We also become millionnaires today! We get 1 million kip at the money exchange to pay for the guesthouse and the next few days of expenses. 1 million kip = US$100.

After our aborted attempt for Indian food the other night, we try again, this time scoring some actual service and food. We ate South Indian food from the deep south of Tamil Nadu at Nazim. It was too spicy for me, and yes, I can handle spice. Parth got in a discussion about paneer versus tofu mislabeling with the server. The waiter says paneer is not available in Laos, but Parth says you can make it. And if paneer isn't available in Laos why describe paneer on the menu when it is tofu. It's not the same thing. This is the debate Parth has with the waiter. Why not just let it go? But Parth says the restaurant and the waiter could learn something about customer expectations. The masala dosai was very different filling from other masala dosai I've had. It was tasty but very spicy and my stomache hurt all night. Parth also felt sick right after eating. We wandered slowly through the Night Market afterwards, looking for the stamp vendor we saw on the first night. He was on the total opposite side of the market. We purchased several sets of stamps but he didn't have the really interesting betel nut stamps that were in the post office. We joke that we should go back to the post office with rock, hammer and glass cutter and propose breaking the glass!

On the way back through the Night Market we see endless procession of Lao woven textiles, cotton drawstring pants with a circular logo of which I have no idea of the significance, T-shirts with Laobeer logo and Jewel of Mekong logo, etc. What catches my eye is the "same same" logo. Is this a self-deprecating joke?! If not, do they realize the absurdness of it. And, why aren't more vendors breaking away from the same-same and differentiating themselves? Do these people all make money selling the same things? Would someone stand out and make more money if they sold something different? One vendor does catch my eye. Like the intuitive lightening-fast decision-making in Blink, I cannot explain why. First I saw the chess boxes. They seemed unique and high quality. Then we saw the jade and silver tea servers. Very nice. We negotiate price but need more kip. We look up how to say "tomorrow" in Lonely Planet. The vendor looks like she doesn't believe us, but I think the vendor knows more English than she lets on. We WILL come back tomorrow, we really do mean it. We walk away hoping she knows that. She will save the tea set for us until tomorrow.

April 25, 2006.

We awake at 5:15 a.m. Bells ring in the wat across the street to wake the monks for alms. Or maybe the monks have been awake and the bells are all show and entertainment. We want to photograph this. But we want to be respectful too. Like only Catholics should do communion at mass? We buy alms from some girls outside the guesthouse, but I give it back to them. They insisted "it's for monks" but I say no. Now I'm not sure because I don't know what other tourists are doing, but I trust instincts. The girls are thoroughly confused!!

We hurry after monks, camera and tripod in hand, but for the best pictures we should get ahead of them. That means guessing where they're going. This had to be a quick decision without a lot of information to go on, and we didn't want to be wrong. I know there are many wats where the rivers meet and the monks we're following are headed in that direction. I remember that they go past Villa Santi. At least that's what a sign outside L'Elephant restaurant said -- buy alms for monks there and be there at 6 a.m. Wow, the monks don't look like they're walking fast, but they're getting further away from us despite our running and now we're huffing and puffing and trying not to make an obvious scene. So instead of running down a parallel lane to get ahead of the monks, we change strategy and go to the Villa Santi area. Good move. There we strike "photographic gold." There's a wat lined by a very long white fence. The saffron robes will contrast pefect against the fence. We scope out potential sites across the street with good views minus ugliness. You can always Photoshop ugliness out but why spend the time. We feel pressure because off in the distance the monks and advancing and they march faster than it looks. We take a stand and wait. We sit on a marble bench. Below the bench is a cat. The cat is facing where the monks are coming from. Most other animals do not stay, but this cat stays under the bench. I reach down and scratch it behind the ears a bit. The monks approach as the cat watches. I wonder if it will be here tomorrow? Was it here yesterday? Is it here everyday? Is this entertainment, something to do? Or something more?

The photo opportunities are good except for the Thai lady in front of us who keeps getting in the way. Parth moves up to get her out of view and she steps into view. He moves again. She moves again. Geez lady, there's not many tourists here and there's plenty of space for all of us.

We try to stay across the street and be respectful. One running, puffing, overweight tourist makes loud foot slapping noises on pavement as he rushes to keep up with the monks. That's when I realize how quiet the whole scene is. The foot slapping seems to literally break the air. The whole air around here is quiet and peaceful. But that peace is shattered as some photographers get in the monks' faces, literally, as they stand behind the alms givers. I know we all want photos but I don't think that's right.

All too soon, it's all over. We look at the time. 6:15 a.m. It started at 6:00 a.m. It was like time was suspended. That was only 15 minutes?!? I'm bewildered. Now the scene changes dramatically. The local dogs approach the alms givers for leftovers. The cat under the bench has already slunk away. Motorbikes start revving. The people go in search of bakeries open at this early hour. We go back to Scandinavian Bakery and get very strong but good Lao coffee and cinnamon roll and chocolate croissant. The logo on the Scandinavian Bakery coffee mug is a pretzel. We are puzzled.

By 7:00 a.m. we finish breakfast. We notice at this time of day the dogs and cats are out and running around. We decide to take their lead and figure this is the time of day for running around. Or, running uphill. We climb 130+190 steps up the hill in the center of town to take overhead pictures of the town and visit the wat up there. We climb down the opposite side of the hill and happen upon a gorgeous gold reclining Buddha. It is completely hidden until you round a corner, you catch it for a glimpse during the climb up or down, then round again and it's swallowed by the hill's greenery. It's kind of magical for the scene to unfold like that.

From above we can see the morning traffic patterns across town. Traffic is mostly motorbikes. From a far distance we can see the schoolchildren in their white shirts and navy pants and skirts uniforms. We reach the street and walk along the river to an area of town we haven't explored yet. It's a long walk to where the two rivers meet and back up to the Sayo Guesthouse, and even after all that climbing and walking, it's only 8:30 a.m. We cool off in our room and decide to visit a spa we passed.

Massages are just too cheap to pass! The spa is beautiful and restful. We choose 2-hour packages. The showers have nice tile walls and smooth riverstone floors. They give me loose white cotton clothes to change into. Parth will have oil aromatherapy so he wears less. We are in a couples massage room. The massage is superb. Much better than Lotus de Lao, have to say. Why is this place not in Lonely Planet, I wonder. Later we find it's been open for one year and 14 days. And it's a juggle because not many tourists know it is there because it's just a few paces to the right of the beaten path. I choose massage focused on the back, shoulders and neck. This tiny Lao girl is strong and powerful. Then I get a facial. The strong hands turn tender and delicate. We leave feeling refreshed and relaxed. In fact so relaxed that at first it is hard to walk. Someone must inform Lonely Planet to include this place in the next edition -- Garden Spa!!

Almost across the street is Tamarind where we have a light lunch. The very unique menu caught our eye. The guy at Garden Spa had recommended L'Elephant or 3 Nagas rather than Tamarind when we asked him about Tamarind. But we couldn't believe from the looks of the menu that it wouldn't be good. When we get to Tamarind we find out why the Lao spa owner may have wanted to steer us elsewhere; it's owned by a Westerner and locals won't recommend it so much. It's wonderfully creative and flavorful. We ate a variety of innovative sauces by hand with sticky rice. We're glad we stopped here.

By 2:00 we are back at Sayo after already having a jam-packed 8-hour day! We are adjusting to the Lao schedule -- asleep by 9:00 p.m., awake at 5-6:00 a.m. We very lazily hang out in the A/C of our room during the hottest hours of the day instead of fighting the heat and trying to see everything. At this time of day, the tourist services are going to the waterfalls and the Buddha cave, but it's just too hot. This is when I catch up on my journal writing until about 4:30 p.m. This evening we'll go to the bank for more kip. Yesterday we had a million and already we're down to 200,000. Our estimated expenses before leaving Laos are 1.4 million kip. For several days we stuck with the safety of the known: Baht and U.S. Dollars. But that's what you're supposed to do in a new environment -- give in to the local way. Indeed we are:
-- We walk slower.
-- We stop trying to fit dinner into a half hour.
-- We sleep in the afternoon.
-- We start using kip.
-- We start noticing patterns and rhythms of the town.

Nevertheless we know we scratch only the minimal surface. We must leave soon. There is so much more about Luang Prabang, Laos and its people that we will never know.

We laze around, pondering things:
-- Why aren't there many songbirds? I see almost no birds here.
-- What will Luang Prabang look like in 30 years? Hopefully not like Chiang Mai but that's what I say as a tourist, what do the people who live here want?
-- How long before there's a Mexican restaurant in town?

Hopefully the town will remain much like this but have more conveniences and wealth for its people. But is it possible to have wealth without changing a lot? Wouldn't word of the wealth possible here spread and bring more people to town, making it have more traffic and pollution and all the other growth that money can buy? And why should I wish for places like this to stay as they are? Who am I to want that? So I can leave my wealthy environment and seek what I want here? Who am I to do that? Do the people here really want to live in a World Heritage site? Don't they want A/C and cars if they could afford them? Do they want to build brick sidewalks everywhere to make brick walkways for the tourists? How would a few key modern conveniences change this place?

We have the luxury to ponder this in our A/C room. However the A/C really only cools the 24" of space directly in front of the unit. Parth is retaining heat, so he lays on the floor under the A/C unit. I collect the photographic evidence of this.

It's 4:45 p.m. It's cooler. It's time to get ready for evening and dinner. We will eat at Apsara. We debate which nicer clothes to wear. Which reminds me, I have noticed some very well-dressed people about town. I'm not sure why be so dressy here. Isn't it in some ways to your advantage to not be so dressy? I mean I'm not an oversized logo and cargo pant and sneakers brand of American tourist, but you don't have to get all Milan and Paris here. Do you? Should I? Maybe that's the real question? With lingering questions like this, there's still work to do on the escape plan here ... not truly in vacation mode yet even in this sleepy environment.

We go to the Night Market at 5:30 p.m. to purchase the antique (or "antique"?) teapot and bowl. Good to see it in daylight. It's actually prettier in daylight. Yesterday I thought it was silver only. Today I see it's gold-tone and copper with ivory stone or jade ("jade"?). The woman wraps it very carefully. We debate about the bowl but decide to include it, which would give the teapot more visual impact. Yesterday we had settled on a price of $77. Today we ask to pay in Baht. The exchange rate is B37:$1 but everyone here figures it B40:$1. How smart. "Easy." Yeah right. We ask her about B37. No, 40 Baht. So Parth counts out Baht, gives her 3,000. OK? She looks at price. No, 3,080. It's 3,080. We pause. Then she says 3,050? OK. Satisfied, we're finally done.

Last night on the way out of the Night Market we found a similar teapot and asked for the price. The lady said $99 for teapot only, to start. So that was our benchmarking. The bowl would have made negotiation with her start at $150, probably, and we would never get her down to $77. There's not much way of knowing authenticity and price we should pay for this, other than do a lot of research. Which we really don't feel like doing, nor know how to begin. I have a nagging feeling that there's quite a few similar teapots for it to really be over 100 years old, or even 80 years old. Did they do this small-scale mass production then?

We go to The Apsara for dinner. We were the only ones there the whole time. Rainy season starts in May so tourism traffic seems down in town. In fact Tamarind is closing after today. I wasn't seeking this much exclusion. The night's still young, we'd like to see some acshun, some people-watchin'! We walk through less-traveled lanes after dinner. Immediately off the roads are skinny lanes where residents live in tiny homes where the doors are open, you can hear radios and see, hear and smell the cooking. Many people sit on the floor, and furnishings are very meager. A low table here. One small chair over there. Children on the floor. However we stroll along red brick walkways in immaculate condition just outside the open doors to these one- or two-room abodes. Maybe brick walkways are cheap to make here. Back home I associate brick walks and roads with luxury and upscale communities. Maybe it's different here. But if not, if it is costly to install brick roads here, is this right? I suppose it does give people a job.

This walk feeds the visual sense. Many upscale hotels and restaurants in town are clustered together, and very pretty at night with the walkways lined by electric lights covered with terra cotta cut-outs that make the lights twinkle.

Tonight we crash before 8:00 p.m. Truly adjusting to the town's schedule.

April 26, 2006.

We awake at 6:05 a.m., too late to see alms again and get back-up photos in case yesterday's weren't spectacular enough. Oh well. Mostly, I had wanted to see if that cat was under the bench again, watching the monks.

We head to JoMa Bakery for breakfast. Next door is the post office so we decide to stop in for one last chance for betel nut stamps. This morning, people are streaming in and out. Wow what a difference. Truly, this town snoozes at mid-day, which is smart in the heat. But in the morning, all employees are awake and working. There's even a dediated employee stationed behind the stamp counter! And he uses his key, conveniently right there in his hand, to open the counter ... as we approach! In anticipation of us as customers! Just gotta know the right time to do things around here. We choose US$17 worth of stamp packages that depict various aspects of Lao life and culture.

The post office is on the corner of one of Luang Prabang's busiest intersections. As I work in traffic safety, I must study how this works. There are no lights, no stop signs and rare use of turn signals among the motorbikes and tuktuks. People do, though, stay in their lanes. Simple, but key!!! People safety pass through the intersection by slowing enough to accommodate the needs of opposite traffic. What a concept. No one actually stops, except for left-turners when opposing traffic is heavy.

At JoMa we have great apple and chocolate croissants for breakfast and savory Lao coffee. At first we have concern because we're standing there pointing at everything in the cases and discussing them while we decide what to get. Then we see men putting items in bags. Lots of items in bags. Kinda seemed like they were bagging everything we pointed at! Uh oh. But no. They were prepping big carry-out for the ladies before us. Whew.

We camp out by a window overlooking a little lane and observe local traffic passing by. We see another traveler pause to take a photo of the building next door. The building is slightly decrepit exterior with peeling paint and texture. What a good idea to photograph it. So we copy the other traveler's photos. He looks in the window of JoMa and sees us copying him. Ha ha.

You know when you don't capture an image you want and it must forever live in your memory? Well, one of those happened next. You know the photos you see, usually in pubs like National Geographic, of women hauling water and stuff in baskets suspending from a long rod that's carried across their shoulders? Well, a women walked by with one of those on her shoulders, except instead of baskets she had a red plastic milk crate and a red plastic bucket suspended. Striking visual, but it lives in words.

We have enjoyed Lao music while getting massages. We stop in a CD store and see only Britney Spears, Daido, all Wastern music only. Parth asks if they have any Lao music CDs. Woman says no. Huh?!?

By 10:00 a.m. we achieve all objectives for the day, including confirming our Bangkok Airways flight to Cambodia. For the first time since leaving Chicago, we burn an hour at an Internet cafe and Parth checks work email. With one hour left before leaving for the airport, we decide to squeeze in one last meal. We return to 3 Elephants and order the Eggplant Burger and Fried Spring Rolls. The french fries with the Eggplant Burger are fantastic! And so is the eggplant! I shy away from eggplant like a bird would shy away from a cat. But that eggplant dish might convert me to the potential pleasures of eggplant. We pass an hour on the balcony watching schoolchildren and monks walk by. We take many photos. But, the hour passes and the spring rolls haven't arrived yet! Parth asks for the check -- we gotta go! -- but the waiter says our spring rolls are on the way up the stairs. They're very very hot, but we have to wolf them down, no time to cool down. We ouch ouch ouch our way through. Between the painful gulps we reminisce about how we let go of trying to squeeze everything into a schedule here, but here at the end of our visit we've gone full circle, and once again time is a concern. We run downstairs and flag a tuktuk driver across the street. We don't even have the time to walk to Sayo Guesthouse, we need to fly!!

We settle our bill at Sayo and the guys were very happy. Hmm. Why so happy. Why so happy to see people go. The tuk tuk got us nearly across town when we realized we forgot about the US$40 deposit at Sayo! We were running short on time but swung around and back to Sayo. When Parth walked back in the door, the guy immediately knew why.

At the airport, I'm stopped for awhile by security. I think the guys at security keep saying "see more, see more." OK, then see more! I open pockets, I unzipper everything, everything on display. Totally transparent. See, see, see more! But they're never satisfied. There's nothing left to show, though. We all stop the activity and stand there, silent for a moment. Then they take the bag behind a door and tell me to come with them. There, on the screen, he points to scissors and I see what they're saying! So I pull the scissors out. One security guy takes a big pair of scissors next to him and makes a cutting motion, laughing. They say yes, I can take the scissors with me in check-in bag.

As we watch the runway through the big picture plate windows, I mentally transition ... from Laos ... to Cambodia ...

En Route to Luang Prabang, Laos

April 2006.

Flight Plan: O'Hare to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Bangkok, 17 hours on a United 727. The extra 5" in United Plus really make a difference even if you're only 5' tall! Go for it! And the price for this trip can't be beat. We turned in some Mileage Plus miles and paid only $60 each in taxes. Cool deal.

Vegetarian Food Plan on Flight: Don't see complaints in my journal. It says it was flavorful and the manicotti was good. Well, if I said so ...

The Chinese man sitting next to me was really chatty. I would have preferred my husband sit next to me, but Parth wound up assigned to the row behind me and neither of the (admittedly very smart) men in the aisle seats next to us wanted to change to a middle seat so we could sit together. The Chinese president had visited the White House over the past few days and Chinese guy was really proud of this. He talked all about it. He ordered whiskey with his snack. Flight attendant gave him one whiskey, he held up two fingers. He pays for extra whiskey, breath soon stinks. Mileage Plus doesn't give enough extra horizontal space to spare you from intoxicated neighbors who talk too much and spit while they're doing it. He won't stop talking, and now he's had 4 little Jack Daniels. While he eats for a moment, I put on headphones to curtail conversation and bury my face in a Laos travel book. It works. Chinese guy is soon knocked out and snoring.

Here's how you pass 17 hours on an airplane: Parth and I meet up for awhile in an exit aisle to stretch our legs. We chatted for an hour to pass the time. A girl seated in the exit row was sleeping and with her eyes closed, she looked exactly like one of the Olsen twins. She was tiny, impossibly skinny and an enormous beefy bodyguard-type man sat next to her. Could it be? No. But I kept looking and wondering. Then she woke up and I couldn't look anymore. I also watched three movies. We each had our own screen so I could choose the movies I wanted. I read Lonely Planet Laos and made a list of stuff to do. I read a few chapters of Blink, the popular book about unconscious intuitive decision-making. Apropos book, because I know a lot of travel decisions are made this way. The flight passed fast with all this activity.

Our transfer in the Beijing airport made me realize I have a completely unsuitable personality for The Amazing Race. Or maybe from the producer's perspective I have the perfect personality because they'd sure capture a lot of hissy fits on film. I tried to remember that in Asia, you don't want to protest too loudly and you most certainly don't want to flap your arms around a lot. Both of which I did in the Beijing airport. Here's what happened:

-- We need to go from one gate to another international destination gate. I think we arrived in Gate 12. We want to go to Gate 14.

-- Stopped by "International Transfer" desk to ask where to go. Man points straight ahead.

-- We go straight. We see "International Transfer" sign. Go through glass door and guy tells us to go back to desk we just came from. We're not yet frustrated enough to protest. On way back we see departure sign pointing to gate Gate 14.

-- So we follow everyone else, thinking we're going to Gate 14, but at Immigration we see only Domestic Transfer signs.

-- We go back where we came from, and are told to get Boarding Pass at the desk where people only respond by pointing somewhere else. Harumph.

-- We walk around and see Gate 14 on the ground floor. At least we've located Gate 14. But we're on the second floor and all entries to go to the ground floor are blocked off.

-- We go back to International Transfer desk and they again point, but we say the place where they're pointing tells us to come back to this desk. We say "Boarding Pass -- how?" Woman brings map and draws arrows. We follow arrows.

-- Turns out we DO go through Domestic Transfer immigration area, but through the "Channel 1" desk. Alas, there are no Channel 1 signs but we figure it out.

-- Curiously, the people at Channel 1 seem confused about our entry. It takes four people to figure it out. Finally they give us another form to fill out. This is our fourth form -- in the midst of all the walking around described above, we also filled out forms. It was really an incredibly productive hour if you think about it and ignore fact that we really didn't get anywhere during that time. Anyway, where do all these forms go? I imagine a cavernous room with tall skinny stacks of tiny forms piled high to the ceiling, all leaning precariously in different directions like a drawing in a Dr Seuss book. During my imaginings, it's decided we're allowed to go through.

We progress through another rat maze to make our way back to Gate 14. We're now on the opposite side of the terminal. We're reluctant to go outside where the arrows point. Going outside means leaving the terminal and having to go through security and everything!! But that's where the arrows point. And if we'd listened to the people who pointed before instead of thinking we knew better, we would have gotten here a lot sooner. So we go outside. Turned out, we made the right choice. We go through check-in and security and it's a smooth process.

We were amazed by how many teens and children were flying. Children everywhere!! Where did all these kids come from? We stopped at Starbucks and I did a hokey thing and bought a huge Beijing Starbucks mug. The mug is the size of most people's faces. How American is that. Maybe that's why Starbucks is selling that. It seems big tableware would be a novelty here.

We arrived at our hotel in Bangkok at 10:30 p.m. We were really hungry because the Beijing to Bangkok connection didn't get our vegetarian preference so we didn't eat the pork or duck dinners on the plane. The restaurant was closing at 10:30 but the staff were setting up for breakfast so they seated us. Every single item on the menu had meat, though! The waiter worked with us to get vegetarian stir fry. We had bean curd, tiny pea-size eggplants and larger chopped Thai eggplant, and peppers in green curry sauce.
WHOOOOOOOOOOOO-EEEEEEEEE! Gimmee some more water! Spic-yyyyyy! Welcome to Thai food again!! We also had a very good, lightly fried rice.

And the best ending to such a long flight ... really forceful hot water in the shower. Ahhhhhhh.

The next day we hopped on a two-hour Bangkok Airways flight. Yahoo! Not many tourists on our turboprop flight into Laos. Most others here are Thai. Not many Westerners. Exactly what we wanted. Seats are only two deep so all have easy window access. On a two-hour flight we get a full meal!