Laos – In the jungle….the mighty jungle…Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw

Sometimes, somehow, as it happens when a traveler meets another, a conversation begins that beckons a detour from an intended itinerary. We hear of a few remote villages further north on the Nam Ou that sound intriguing. We let go of traveling to Vang Vieng; its tales of stunning beauty and its dark side of crowds, partying and noise. We point north to Nong Khiaw and further upriver to Muang Ngoi for the next 4 days. Au revoir to Luang Prabang. We leave our luggage at Moonlight Champa and I cram shorts, bathing suit, head lamp, toothbrush, long underwear, sneakers, fleece jacket, camera, water bottle and my beloved cashmere scarf into my day pack. While it reaches 95 degrees between 10:30 and 4 , it goes down to 45 at night which feels downright chilly.

I feel kind of liberated. I pretend I am a full-on backpacker with my little overstuffed nylon zippered bag. I kid myself that people will assume I’ve left the big pack at a local guesthouse. While I fantasize this youthful distortion, in reality we get sealed into a packed minivan for a 4 hour intestine twisting bus ride north. When we peel ourselves out of the van we are greeted by the immense beauty of the jungle covered karst mountains of Nong Khiaw. We have definitely made a great choice.

Looking north from Pha Deng peak /viewpoint
Looking south from Viewpoint trail -Nong Khiaw

We are staying on the river, a brown slit made narrow by slopes so steep that daylight is filtered out by the morning mist until 11 and the sun’s setting at 5:30. Nong Khiaw is a moderately small village, dirt roads, some Tuk Tuks, some motorbikes and a couple of cars.

Our place is owned by a Mr. Mang and his wife, Chen. She manages the guests while Mr. Mang runs a tour company down the road. It is a simple lodging that suits us fine. The view is dramatic from the veranda. We catch up on laundry and emails and enjoy the sense of timelessness. People motor their “long boats” to deliver goods, or to fish or to transport family or tourists and it is a pleasure to simply watch. We wander past homes, simple bamboo and cement structures, cooking fires outside their doors, men weaving baskets, women tending children and talking to each other.

The villagers go about their lives, sometimes we or they say, “sabaidee” (the catch all for hello, good day, good to see you ) and it is friendly. In this place, so far it seems tourism has blended into their culture and not the other way around.

We go to see Mr Mang to consider some tours. He is quite a jovial and persuasive salesman and we find ourselves signed up for a 2 day guided trek before we even think about it. He describes a long boat upriver for an hour to a small village, Houy Hoi; trek 4 hours to the next village, Phayong; trek another 2 hours to a boat and go upriver another hour to visit the weaving village of Sopjam, his home village, and stay overnight there or hike another 30 minutes to a homestay in a hut on a farm. Our eyes widen. He immediately tries to rescind the hut idea, citing we may be too old to be alone in the hut, but we are hooked. Then some more trekking the next day but with the promise of a swim at the base of Mok waterfall. The deal is clinched. Then he adds we can kayak back to Nong Khiaw. I take an Advil.

Houy Hoi, a Khmu village of 46 families

Hibiscus drying in sun for tea

We trek the initial 6 miles. It is blistering hot. Steve has wrapped his krama around his head, “do rag” style, to keep sweat out of his eyes. I think he looks like Sinbad the sailor. Our guide Pheang and his girlfriend, Phe are wearing jackets, hats and gloves to keep from burning. I can’t believe I, too, am putting on my fleece jacket over a t-shirt. Just a few hours ago I was wearing it to ward off the cold on the river and now the jacket is the only protection I have from the sun. Pheang gives directions and distance, “jungle, sun, left, farm, jungle”. We long for jungle.

One more hour…

We will be staying with a farmer and his wife, plus Pheang and Phe. The farmer couple’s son is guiding us, carrying a huge bag on his head filled with mattresses, blankets and mosquito netting for us all. It’s a sleepover. Pheang is throwing sticks at starfruit and grapefruit trees and carrying the retrieved bounty. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other and counting minutes. We pass several unused huts as we go up hills, through mud and jungle. As the mist comes in we finally…

Reach the hut

We take off our sandals, greet the farmer, drop our packs and stare in wonderment at what we’ve walked into. It is a half wood, half bamboo hut perched on several acres of now dried rice paddies. There’s a smoky cooking fire in the corner. Outside everything is free range. We are happy with the barnyard concert of peeping, clucking, crowing, oinking, meowing and barking. The chirping is the best and noisiest. No English is spoken. I smile a lot, use gestures and point. We don’t quite know how to be of help; Pheang and Phe are helping set up dinner. The farmer who is 95, stooped but spry, heads out to the far reaches of his fields to gather greens.

The wife heads to the river for water. We hang out with chicks and pigs. I’m delighted by the hand made baskets of all shapes and sizes for fishing, seating, collecting and carrying stuff: wood, spices, sticky rice. 40 kilo bags of dry rice from Thailand are stacked against one wall. We are treated to starfruit dipped in chili sauce and herbs. The temps keep dropping. We hang by the fire.Inside, the old man brings us low benches for sitting while they use well worn cushions. He stacks another bench on top of the first, adds a cushion and invites Steve to sit. We laugh; Steve is a veritable giant next to them. The old man pulls out a whiskey bottle half filled with herbs and offers first swig to Steve. Ultimately we are all laughing and warming up, drinking this libation until dinner. The 7 of us sit around a low board about 18 inches by 24. Our knees touch as do our hearts.

They teach us how to ball up the sticky rice and sop up the meal. We have a soup with greens and freshly killed chicken ( I watched Pheang and Phe pluck the feathers). They encourage us to eat everything. My bone marrow sucking is admirable. I do however refuse the head. Nothing is rushed; many rounds of offering more and more food, whiskey, rice and good humor. We are full and warmed and outside is now very dark and cold. The peeping has stopped, it is totally quiet. We use the head lamps; put on long Johns, roll out the stuffed mattresses; the cushions we sat on now converted to pillows; mosquito netting demarcates our bedrooms. I’m hoping the lorazepam I’ve been hoarding works.We wake with the light and the cold, warm ourselves by the cooking fire and make ready to go. We say goodbye.

The mists engulf the mountains, everything is wet and alive.

Pheang and Phe head towards the jungle

Luang Prabang and one more day…

Luang Prabang is a northern province in Laos and seat of the old capitol. The town is very charming, colorful, lush with gardens and tropical plants. The streets follow the river and many are one way so it is easy to misplace oneself. It boasts a stunning royal palace and ornate Wats (temples). Many buildings are preserved and gently renovated with balconies and wooden shutters repurposed as guest houses, restaurants, shops and residences. It is a UNESCO site and opened to tourism in 1989. Laos has a very complicated history of French colonialism, constitutional monarchy, take over by communist Pathet Lao, civil war, economic struggles and the site of massive bombing by the US during the Vietnam War. 45 years later Luang Prabang sits peacefully high above both the Nam Kahn and Mekong rivers and their confluence.

The Mekong

Our hotel sits over the Nam Kahn and we breakfast every morning facing the water and opposite shore. We have a crowing rooster who comes from a property on one side and meets with his hen sweetie who comes from a property on the other side. We are amused.

And very relaxed. We ride bicycles, get lost, shop, eat, visit museums and enjoy river life. We walk over a bamboo bridge that washes away during wet season and is rebuilt in the dry. We climb the steep 355 steps up Mt. Phousi to the temple perched on top to view the sunset. I let my caged birds go; a bit of a weird concept of buying small caged birds to offer for prayers of long life and freedom when you reach the temple top and release them. It seemed an easy plan but I struggled opening the bamboo slats and really was praying for their freedom and forgiveness for my culpability in delaying their captivity. It all worked out.

Very early on we decided to stay an extra day and felt genuinely pulled to stay another. Our wifi password really was: “1moreday”. Our dear friend Fred, used to comment about Fire Island, an idyllic 25 mile barrier beach off southern Long Island that, “There’s nothing to do and not enough time to do it”. That sums it up.

Of the lovely time spent in LP, the highlight was a day spent with our hotel manager, Keo, his girlfriend, Phop and fellow traveler Andrea from Switzerland. Keo had been suggesting various tourist spots and I was lukewarm but when he mentioned he could arrange lunch at his sister’s home in a village near the Kuang Si waterfall and then visit another sister’s rice paddy nearby, I was enthusiastic. I suggested he come with Steve and me. He graciously decided to host and we had a magical and heart warming experience spending a day with this generous young man. He brought us inside his life: sweet childhood memories of working in the paddies with his dad and the water buffalo, being the youngest of 9 siblings and preparing and eating all meals together , the hard time of losing his mom and having to leave his village to be cared for. So when we went to market and bought the day’s vegetables and he taught me how to chop papaya with a small machete, I was overjoyed. When his sister, brother in law, the driver and the 5 of us sat down to eat and his nieces and nephews were running around, being cute and distracting it was a piece of family life that was good for everyone. Walking through his village and giving away clothes was an act of goodwill and connection. The children followed us, his sister meeting with neighbors, gentle women, mothers, weavers, grandmothers. We were made part of Keo’s life by his love of place and family.

Steve, Andrea and I went to Kuang Si falls. A natural phenomenon made into a tourist attraction in the 90’s. The land on top of the waterfall was actually the original site of Keo’s home village. The government decided to make the falls a commercial enterprise and moved the village into the valley. Keo hopes someday to live and farm up there where they have ancestral land rights.

Keo and Phop finally have some time to themselves. It is, after all, their day off they are sharing with us. We meet them in a hidden area with small waterfalls and pools and a restaurant-bar and am glad they have had alone time together.

We go to his other sister’s rice paddy. The bright green is startling against the dark green of the surrounding hills.. We walk on the narrow dirt paths that rise above the flooded paddies. From a distance they create a beautiful design in the fields. Acres of family owned farms, each with a hut like shelter on stilts. Here the workers stay for the month of planting. They fish in paddies and nearby ponds. They collect the snails that breed and eat them. The work is hard, precise and time consuming. We meet Keo’s eldest brother who also owns a section. Keo loves the land and I am thankful for this gift of a day.

Chiang Mai,Thailand – The Parade goes on…and on

We were going to skip Thailand altogether until I discovered the flower festival in Chiang Mai. Then we organized the elephant adventure and a phenomenal cooking class and Chiang Mai became a greatly looked forward to destination. Then, of course we had to get there from Cambodia. It got extremely complicated which brought us to Bangkok for 2 days which we had never intended. But I digress…

The flower festival was a widely touted event on the internet yet locally no one knew where or when it was. Our hotel manager thought south west gate but otherwise was clueless about the event. No one could tell us where the parade was. Google describes the parade route, “Nawarat bridge to Thapae road, Kotchasarn Road, Changlor Road and then to Arak Road“. Steve and I have been struggling with the map and points of direction for 3 days already and considering most roads are signless we gave up and thought we’d follow the crowd. But there was no throng or flow of flower enthusiasts. My intention strong yet accepting, we went for the Nong Buak Haad public park at Pratu Suang Prong. At the canal we were greeted by a huge orchid exhibit lining the length of the street. Steve is captured. We see the park entrance. We have found the gem of the Old City.Tropical tulips

We stroll in pleasant admiration. How to get tulips to bloom now? Mums everywhere, orchids, coleus, petunias; all flowers that bloom at specific seasons, but happily commingling now. We are enjoying the orchestrated blooming. And wonder about the upcoming (?) parade. As we amble out the gate, I’m pulled by a whiff of chicken bubbling in a vat filled to the brim with oil. I almost scald myself with anticipation. My face is greasy, my mouth ecstatic as I’m devouring succulent fried chicken for breakfast. I feel almost as guilty as if I’m drinking a Bloody Mary at 9 a.m.

So where is the parade? We think we have prime curb seats. We hear some booming in the distance, the road has been emptied of vehicles. People are drifting about, selfie sticks in hand. Pleasant memories of our countless years being at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC proliferate my thoughts. But here we don’t know when or where and it seems no one does. No pushy crowds to indicate best viewing. We hear megaphone bursts of Thai every so often and figure locals know exactly what’s happening.


The float stops, people rush in for selfies and the princesses check email

It is so unlike any parade behavior with which I am familiar. No police barricades or crowd control, people drift in front of floats taking pictures close up and actually join the performers (while walking) for pictures. We saw an 8′ selfie stick and was stunned how ludicrous this epidemic has become. I remind myself that I am in Thailand and love how informal the procession is and that live flowers decorate the floats. We didn’t realize that this event takes hours; there are marching bands from schools, ethnic displays representing all regional peoples, some commercial floats, a zillion princess floats, rickshaws transporting divas of another era and politicos. We had to laugh at some musical choices: 2 high school bands played “I will follow Him” with Thai lyrics. Leslie Gore would either be laughing, feeling proud her song is globally popular or retching. Some of the floats had music, i.e., small trucks carrying a huge bank of amplifiers strapped together blasting regional or bad disco (couldn’t tell the sound was so distorted). It was a classy, tacky, professional, home grown and colorful affair. Glad we found it.

Thailand: The secret of Happiness – Elephants

I believe it would be spending a day with elephants. Walking with them, feeding them, bathing them, swimming with them and generally messing about with them in the highlands north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

When Steve and I saw the movie, “Love and Bananas” at VTIFF a few months ago, we were smitten by the founder Lek and her mission of rescuing elephants. Her nature park shelters 81 elephants. Three years ago she started the Highland project with three female elephants: Mae Pon, 36 yo, Khun Penh 46 yo, and little Nong Pop 27 yo. Last year Lek bought Kyatingdeng 50 who hasn’t quite settled in and stays separate from the other three. I had only seen live elephants in the zoo and circus. As a child I was in love with the elephant stories of King Babar, Queen Celeste and Arthur, the old lady and the monkey, Zephir, Babar’s best friend. Such a fondness for elephants was hatched long ago. I started collecting little elephant figures following the death of my friend Sara as she had a collection and they keep her close to my heart. So coming up close to these mammoth beings was staggering, thrilling and nervy all at once. Major WOW factor that stays with you.

Their size is overwhelming at first. The strength in their muscle, the power of the trunk, the silent stepping of their massive feet next to mine is intimidating and heart opening. We all watched a safety movie on the car ride. Told not to pet, tease, stand behind. Endearing they may be, yet dangerous and unpredictable they can be. All tamed elephants have been traumatized. They need to be bought from reluctant owners in order to be rescued. One million baht ($30,000) is present price.

We feed them watermelon initially and it was shocking how their “one fingered” trunk wrapped itself around the quartered melon, strongly pulling it out of our hands and bringing it into their maw and eagerly re -extending their trunk until we were out of food. The trunk skin is coarse, bristly and powerful. One intentioned whack could kill you. So on the one hand we are in awe and respectful and on the other, as playful with a lovable pet and anthropomorphizing like crazy.

We are walking along side the girls with our feed bag full of bananas. They eat 500 pounds daily and they come very close, nosing toward the bag. I am located between the hillside and the elephant and it’s just me and her in this increasingly diminishing space. That’s when the awe remains and the brain says, “Don’t get squeezed “. It’s not personal, she just wants her banana.

So we walk a mile or two through the beautiful highlands, past orange groves planted on steep hills, coffee and lychee and palms.

Once my feed bag is empty I’m no longer part of the meal plan and she moves on. Though one goes after my camera which is probably smothered in banana paste. I get in a few trunk pats, I can’t resist. We go to another feeding station and this time we feed grasses bundled in sheaves that the elephant takes apart. From there it is bath time. We hike up a trail and throw buckets of water into a mud hole which they then spray themselves and all that are nearby.

We are just hanging out, some of us covered in the sticky red mud, not really appreciating the cooling effect it has on the elephants. The elephants are just roaming, their mahouts lounging under a shelter. It is midday and hot. I and some others go for respite under a small pavilion. An elephant saunters over in front of me. I’m amused but then Steve says, “Turn around quick”, and there is another, very very close and moving forward! She wants to come in but her head keeps bumping the structure. We vacate the shelter as she begins to rock the the poles.

Time to rinse off the mud

Our last food station and we get to make sticky rice balls and feed them directly into their mouths. And they have, as you would imagine, really large mouths, soft and pink as ours and huge.

Truly a magical day. For us, knowing that these animals are finally experiencing the free life. And grateful that we could share in the happiness.

Bangkok and Being 70 on a travel day

Sitting on a Bangkok Air flight awaiting take off to Chiang Mai, Thailand. An in between sensation, not really anywhere, been somewhere but not anywhere yet. Like 70, perhaps, been a lot of places and now the form forward is somewhat unshaped. So in the present, I have orchids in my hair and am writing , which I’m enjoying.

Landed at Chiang Mai airport, Thailand

I never really noticed how strange air travel is. It bridges solid land realities but in itself is a dissociative entity. At Bangkok, a jumbo international airport, one travels through extended duty free zones , with video displays of skin whiteners modeled by both Thai men and women (with looks both translucent and suggestive), name brands boldly advertised, worldly destinations on gates as I move past, until I arrive at domestic and there is a mini food alley replete with Subway, Burger King, Macdonald’s, Krispy Kreme ( I couldn’t resist ), a fast food ramen place and a bar. All overlooking a huge garden sculpted into a lotus shape. This temporary world that exists between places. I am suspended.

We are now descending . Coming into yet another space. More adjustment; so many just below the surface: new smells , somewhere between sweet incense, putrescence and the best BBQ. Or how to walk; in the street, on a sidewalk, in an alley, edges and ledges, dips, street vendors, motorbikes; unexpected dimensions that are processed subliminally but “catch” your awareness. We know nothing about our accommodation…A “good news, bad news” review: cheap but a dump, A.C. but windowless, clean but cramped, bed so hard we could shoot marbles, in a good neighborhood but by this time who cares?

We walk around Chiang Mai, Thailand. An old walled city with a moat framing a delightful 1.5 kilometer square. A bit of a hippie enclave, definitely all tourist driven, but kind of nice with schools and wooden pagodas and lots of great looking street food but we are also fretting over our lodgings and what to do. Following little signs and passageways and seems everything is booked or way too expensive. Much more expensive than Cambodia. No dollar use here. Different country, different money and the Thai baht requires some mental translation after a month of Cambodian riels. Some freaking out vibes are creeping in. And I remember it is my birthday and am about to give way to an entitlement tantrum when I notice a charming sign painted in the same colors of the interior of my home. I stroll into the breezy dark space and inquire; No vacancy. I’m not swayed, I inquire further. Maybe, yes on 3rd floor. May I see? We hike up the big cement stairs. ” Oh, it’s great” I gush (though Steve says it smells). Only good for 2 nights, then move. Ok where? Next floor up-Steve wants lower. Lower available but faces the street. I negotiate and with a 10% discount I take the upper with a balcony and mountain view for the last 2 nights. Fingers crossed. The dealing with the current place was messy but there you have it. What it is like not working with an agency or tour company . Without local knowledge or language (I can say hello and thank you in Thai) it is challenging.

The balcony of our new digs

Cambodia – Prek Toal: Floating Village and Bird Sanctuary adventure

One of the good things about being ill is that I can look at pictures and edit. Though of course the bad thing is that I can’t sleep, get comfortable, feel weak and have FOMO. But before this misery beset me and after the temples, our guide pulled together a trip to Prek Toal for a home stay in one of the floating villages that borders the famous bird sanctuary. We lucked out completely. We had a long boat to ourselves with our boatman Ravy, who had some English and was wonderful on the two hour ride out of a boat launch on a canal of the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in SEA (62 miles at its widest) and one of the richest inland fishing grounds in the world, though very endangered. The ride was amazing especially when we got out into the broad lake. We finally figured out the engine/propeller rig is necessary as waterways are shallow especially in dry season. . In fact we got stuck in a small canal in the sanctuary and was pushed along African Queen style until we hit deeper water again. About that later. The main enterprise is fishing.

Finally arrive in Prek Toal which while visually interesting seems very impoverished. Hard to define poverty by US standards. The people seem healthy, sheltered, kids in school, eating well. The water is polluted, and fast, loud long boats karoom by. Cheap petrol is sold in jack daniel’s or plastic liter bottles. Fish, vegetables, ice, beer, charcoal come in by boat. It’s like the markets of the lower east side 100 years ago…only floating on bamboo rafts. Walls are corrugated metal, wood, palm leaves. Floors are wood. This is where we stayed

Our family was pretty well to do. He had a bar, snooker table, a restaurant (questionable) and a side room that we stayed in. Fairly comfy with mattresses on the floor like camping and a mosquito netting. This is when being constipated is a Blessing

He also has a floating crocodile farm as many of his neighbors do.

The neighborhood:

The village from above. 1000 families live in Prek Toal. We were allowed to climb up a tower:

We get up very very early the next morning. It is considerably less noisy. The yahoos of the night before are still sleeping or getting ready for school. The fishermen are puttering quietly towards the big lake. The mourning pyre still burns, the gong still rings and the extremely loud chanting continues. This ritual of remembrance lasts 24 hours and we are only 12 hours in. Fortunately our new boat arrives. We board the narrow craft and motor through the last of the village and into the reeds. Our boatman is a local and swiftly navigates through the channels. Way cool.

When we leave the reedy pathways and come into the open water of the sanctuary we are open jawed at the beauty and plethora of bird life. Overhead, next to the boat, in marsh and trees, splashing, diving, swimming, squawking, soaring and doing what birds do best: flying free. And there are no other boats. For the time being we are sanctuary gluttons.

We motor on through this avian paradise and stop at a ranger station to collect a scope. We make a left down an extremely narrow channel where the dry season has left barely 6 inches of water and we go aground. We are so thankful Ravy came with us as he and the boatman pull the boat through mud and brambles. We want to get out to help float the boat but they insist we stay on board. The water finally allows us to move deeper and deeper into the forest.

The boat stops when the jungle is so densely knitted the channel disappears. The boatmen point upwards to a bamboo ladder and motion,”yes” with their heads. Up and up we tread and come out onto a small plaited bamboo platform above the canopy with an eye popping view of the sanctuary.

Painted Stork
Black Ibis

Hours have gone by, it is getting hot and we are both happily sated and reluctant to leave. We descend the 60 rungs or so back to our boat. We emerge back into open water and again are charmed. There are now a few larger boats with tourists on the water and we are appreciative that for a few magical hours we were the only humans among the birds.

Climbing back down

Angkor Wat – The Khmer Civilization in its Glory

We had a frightful, “praying to God and I’ll be good from now on” ferry ride to Sihanoukville from Koh Rong . Then flew to Siem Reap. It is smaller than Phnom Penh, full of neon, bars, food stalls, Tuk Tuks, bikes, cheap thrills and a lovely riverside park. Less chaotic than Phnom Penh. I actually can cross the street which I attribute to an increase in my ballsiness, and less traffic. Our hotel is out of the hub bub, a couple of blocks from the Night Market, a scene that glitters and beguiles, like a gaudy carnival, with hawkers, beggars and thieves. The beggars are tough to walk away from; they are the walking wounded-literally body parts blown off by land mines. They receive your donation graciously with smiles and hands in prayer position saying”orcun”. (Thank you).

I turn around and am immediately entranced by the shiny market. I keep getting attracted to the same elephant design pants every foreigner wears. Already bought one pair without trying on and was so small I couldn’t bend and then bought another pair and it was so large the elephant could join me inside. We sent some stuff home because our suitcases were too heavy so my cheap pants have accumulated overseas shipping charges. Somehow that signaled my brain into “I have more room , now I can buy more”. easy to succumb

Trinkets, galore at the Night Market

The reason to be in Siem Reap is it’s glorious temples built 800-900 years ago, rediscovered in the 1920’s, excavated and now a Wonder of the World . They are splenderous.the largest and most renowned is Angkor Wat.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat-the five towers

We had a great guide, Thay, For the day who helped us imagine the life of that era, the reign of kings, their gods and demons, the king’s divinity, the importance of education and balance of life . The scale of this temple is about 12 km square. There are moats and galleries separating the underworld from heaven with each gallery requiring more purity as one progresses upward. In that time only the king and high priests ascended the highest tower. Steve and I in our pure state climbed the steps to a view giving perspective of the grand temple’s realm..

In the far distance, Ruins of other ruler’s temples, royal palace, once architectural marvels , now archeologists’ paradise. A true civilization with towers and stairways that numerically coincide with a calendar year, bas-relief carvings depicting historical battles both on land and sea, with Sanscrit inscriptions describing who and when fought, and the royal life of holding court, apsara dancers, king’s advisors, concubines. 3000 elephants, thousands of slaves from the empire built this temple in 35 years. The Khmer empire included Siam(Thailand), Vietnam, Laos and in fact Siem Reap literally means Defeat of Siam.

Visited Te Prohm what locals call the “tomb raider” temple where massive Soft Cotton trees grew over the temple with sinuous roots and strangler figs grip and squeeze temple walls. Other worldly. Angkor Thom with bas-relief depicting every day life. These are Khmer historical records written in stone. So detailed you can see household life; cooking game over braziers, giving birth, receiving medical care, merchants selling their wares and gambling, drinking, general carousing and the usual conquest.

Then Bayon with its four massive faces on 37 remaining towers

Bayon the happy gods

Lastly, Bantay Shrei the “ladies citadels”with its pink and gold sandstone carvings that embellish the well preserved small temples.Those were my favorite. And not one depiction wearing elephant design pantaloons.

Cambodian Beach time – Koh Rong, Gulf of Thailand

I love being able to write the words; Koh Rong, Gulf of Thailand. Romantic and foreign. Koh Rong is a large island about an hour’s ferry ride from Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Sihanoukville is a coastal city that hubs an airport, roads, and departure point for ferries going to the islands. It has fallen victim to Chinese investors reshaping the waterfront with hotels and an unbelievable amount of casinos on the shoreline. Billboards, shop names, signage now are all in Chinese. Changes are recent, within the last 1-2 years and very disturbing to local Cambodians, i.e., loss of jobs, property and autonomy.

The beach at Sihanoukville, cranes in background

I and we as a group have been questioning the effect of the good we’ve done this past week. It is a very corrupt government, politicos siphon foreign aid into their pet interests. Rarely does it cycle into the people’s education, health care, sanitation or housing. Our mission and others bring some benefit or relief and simultaneously enhances the commune leader’s or member of parliament’s, a.k.a. His Excellency’s reputation and electability. It is both an important and appalling awareness that there is no escape from misuse of power no matter the border. So easy to go to this frustrating mind-set having had lots of practice at home in the US.

Forgive me for shifting into a here and now vacation like focus. It’s called relaxing and slowing down. At the most gorgeous beach.

Long Beach, Koh Rong is 7 km of pristine white sand, coconut palms, some newly planted and others long lived, the clearest water with just enough turquoise coloring to remind you that it is ocean water. We are at Ryta Beach Resort, about 1+ years old and owned by Cambodians. What gives it Resort status? There is the beach, a few thatched canopies, hammocks, spotty WiFi and occasional electricity. No cabana services, or Mai Tai’s delivered to your hammock, no plastic kayaks, volleyball or Sports TV channel. There are only four of us on the beach right now and no one else in view anywhere. Gentle breezes and pleasant solitude on a gorgeous tropical day; it’s my kind of Resort .

Late afternoon we walked the 3 km or so to Soc San village. Several huts, shops, restaurants. A felafel place, an authentic Italian place called “Eat, Pray, Love” ( no kidding). We decided on Moon, eating on the beach, Spanish music playing, low lighting, our feet twirling in the sand. I had squid and shrimp Pad Thai and Steve had chicken with cashews. We saw a squid and octopus catch from a fisherman on his motorbike yesterday morning and we watched a couple of women peeling cashews and chopping them up in the village.

A Cambodian farm to table. Washing my meal down with coconut water from a coconut chopped minutes before. Foodie Bliss.

Delightful walking about the village of Soc San. Lots of dogs and chickens, children and families out and about on a gentle hot night.

We took a water taxi back. By now it was pitch . And we could hear an engine spluttering in the dark and hoped it wasn’t our ride. We walked out on a pier that seemed sturdy. I used my phone light to see and there were big gaps, holes, uneven and missing boards. Steve was glad he couldn’t see. Stepped off the pier onto the very boat we hoped to avoid. These long boats are hand made and tough. They have two large engines up top in the stern controlled by the boatman with one hand on a rope for the throttle and the other on the rudder. They are loud when opened up; ours sounded like an old man with catarrh . Long thin metal shafts about 12′ long connect the engines to a tiny propellor maybe 12″ in diameter. The large engine with its spinning belts, skinny shaft and teeny propellor seem cartoonish, jerryrigged by kids playing with a Lego Star Wars kit. Yet the day before when our group boated around the entire island we drag raced another boat through sizable waves.

It was neck and neck

During the dark ride home we slung our arms over the side into the warm churning wake and saw sparkles flying up and down our hands and arms. Bioluminescent phytoplankton. A hoped for treat. Now we loved our old boat. The boatman slowed down so we could really enjoy the phenomenon. What a lucky night.

Now as I write, our early morning alarms are set, we leave this place to catch a ferry to Sihanoukville for our flight to Siem Reap and the beautiful temples of Angkor Wat.

Cambodian Victory Days

Today, January 7th, is the anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge almost 40 years ago. It is a felt sense of happiness as we hear the noise of local fireworks in the province of Takeo , where we have relocated for the clinic week that starts tomorrow.

Fitting also, as we have been to the Killing fields of Choeung Ek where 17000 were tortured, murdered and buried after their interrogation at S-21, the prison at Toul Sleng (the high school turned prison camp-bottom photo) in Phnom Penh in the 70’s. I had no idea of the extent of the genocide of Pol Pot and his regime of 3 1/2 years, that murdered 2 million Cambodians in his quest to have a pure race. Horribly familiar

After torture at Toul Sleng, S-21, prisoners were sent here to be murdered, including infants

First floor of 17 floors honoring remains in the Memorial
Forced confession questions
Converted classroom into interrogation rooms
Barbed wire still drapes the high school classroom doors in remembrance

On such a brilliantly beautiful day riding in a Tuktuk through the rural countryside, stopping at a modest pagoda, eating clams baked in the sun from a woman’s cart (wondering if this will be the food that undoes my GI system) and realizing that the decimation of the city’s population being sent into these fields to be tortured was happening under my feet 40 years ago . Rhumduhl,one of the women traveling in our mission, fled Cambodia with her mother when she was 8. What little she has told us only highlights the trauma of refugee life. And while she is a delightful, generous, strikingly beautiful woman with a hearty laugh, she remembers. Now, she returns to her country to aid the mission, reunite with remaining family and share another life journey with her lovely daughter, Suphada. Their endearing presence and the mission we are about to embark on now seems softly perched upon a surface belying a deep, searing pain still felt by this impoverished nation.

Cambodia – Takeo Province – Six Days In clinic

Sitting in the reception/eating/WiFi area at 9 pm. A prime mosquito venue. My body is hosting several layers of bug spray, sweat, body lotion and more sweat. My body was so sticky today that my pants stuck to my skin and ripped a mighty hole just below my undies when I bent over. The air was and is so dense with moisture that any possible venting benefit was surfeit.

Today was our 5th day of clinic in Takeo province. Maybe you will find it on a map, about 2 hours or so, southwest of Phnom Penh. I wanted to write earlier but the combination of exhaustion, lack of WiFi and A/C circumvented any motivation to stay up and write. We did our first clinic day at Uncle Monk’s. I thought it was “Unkamonks” until I learned that it IS actually the Uncle of Sam, our Cambodian American guide and that his Uncle is the head monk of a local Phnom Penh Buddhist sect. It was our “shakedown” clinic with a small patient group receiving reading glasses, canes, BP checks, some pharmaceuticals and the kids getting fluoride treatments.

Since then we have done two days in a village called Khvav, one day in Boeung Tranh and today in Lumchang. We will be doing our last day in that village again tomorrow and then off for a few days on a beach in Koh Rong in the Gulf of Thailand. Weird to say, I’m not sure if beach is the perfect thing right now. The thought of sand and sun in this heat seems counter intuitive.

Our dental team is myself, Nikki, the other assistant, and Steve and Jim the dentists. Consider that there is only extraction instruments, a chlorox bleach solution for sterilization, plastic lawn chairs for patients , lidocaine for anesthesia and packets of ibuprofen for pain control.A brief smattering…

And I need to sign off now as tomorrow is last day of yoga at 6 am.. Sadly our teacher, Rhumduhl is headed out . I am looking forward to our last clinic day. I am spent. Our work here seemed so long and so short simultaneously. When we were told it would be intense, I couldn’t really fathom the joy, compassion and gratitude I would feel nor appreciate the depth of the physical and mental fatigue that accompanies it.