Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lao-Lao and Silk

Lao-Lao with Cobras
Lao-Lao is a rice whisky produced in Laos. Along with Beer Lao, Lao-Lao is a staple for the people of Laos. Contrary to what the romanized vocalizations would make you believe, the name Lao-Lao is not the same word repeated twice, but actually, two different words pronounced with different tones - The first Lao means alcohol and is pronounced with a low-falling tone, while the second Lao means Laotian and is pronounced with a high-rising tone. Lao-Lao.
Lao-Lao is traditionally drunk neat. Various flavored Lao-Lao whiskys are made by such additives as snakes or scorpions. It’s women who usually distill Lao-Lao and sell it as a source of income, often being their major income. Lao-Lao rice whisky is a very raw drink but it’s widely sold throughout Laos, some with Cobras or Scorpians which is interesting.
Local men drinking Lao-Hai
A less powerful version of Lao-Lao is called Lao-Hai and it’s  especially popular with  ethnic groups in Laos. It’s commonly drunk from large communal earthenware pots (hai) through long bamboo straws.
Weaver in Ban Pac Ou who made Tami's Silk Scarf
Silk weaving, for daily use and for rituals, has been an integral part of life and culture in Laos for centuries. Most Lao village women learned the art of weaving and the traditional designs from their mothers when they are little girls
Silk worms eat Mulberry leaves. Natural silk is produced by silkworms that spin fine filaments into cocoons. Silk was first introduced to Laos when the Tai-Lao people migrated from their ancestral lands in Southern China into present day Laos. They brought with them the knowledge of silk cultivation, dyeing, and weaving on upright wooden looms.

Highly recommended! 

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Pac Ou Caves

Stairs to upper and Lower caves
Pak Ou Caves are a natural cave system along the banks of the Mekong River. It is not far from Luang Prabang, for centuries the seat of the Kingdom of Laos.
Boat across the Mekong
What makes Pak Ou Caves an extraordinary sacred pilgrimage site is their treasure trove of Buddha statues inside -- over 3,000 of them. These Buddhas were carved of wood and left as offerings over the centuries by pilgrims who were traders, farmers, and even kings.
Overlooking the Mekong River in Lower Cave
Today, Pak Ou Caves are visited by contemporary Buddhist pilgrims and by motivated travelers. Why do they need motivation? This mystical site is accessible by boat only. Travelers can take a leisurely riverboat from Luang Prabang, or rent kayaks and paddle down the Mekong, an unforgettable adventure.
Main Section of Lower Cave
Approximately two hours upstream from Luang Prabang, the Pak Ou Caves are positioned in limestone cliffs above the Mekong River. The two caves are literally filled with scores of wooden Buddha statues accumulated during the 1000 years of worship at the sacred site. The Upper cave is called Tham Phoum and the Lower one is called Tham Ting.
Stairs to the Upper Cave with Mekong in the Background
To reach the upper cave, follow stairs to the left and climb for five sweaty minutes. This one is 50m-deep behind an old carved-wooden portal. If you didn't bring a torch (flashlight), you can borrow one for a suitable donation from a desk at the front.

Buddhas in Upper cave
The Nam Ou river joins the Mekong beneath the dramatic karst formation that, from some distance south, looks like a vast green eagle taking off. Facing it is the village of Ban Pak Ou, where a handful of river-front restaurants gaze out across the Mekong. On the other side (there's no bridge) are the two famous caves cut into the limestone cliff. Both are crammed with Buddha images of various styles and sizes. 

The Upper Cave Buddhas are well taken care of
It was a great experience for us and we really enjoyed seeing all the Buddhas and the Mekong below the upper cave. The lower cave was crowded but I waited and got a few pictures with out the crowds. It is quite a walk to the upper cave, over 318 steps and it costs 3000 Kip to use the restroom on the way back. All in all it was a fun afternoon trip.

Highly recommended! 

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Luang Prabang Laos

Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers meet
We flew from Siem Reap (REP) to Luang Prabang (LPQ). Typical issues with Lao Air (canceled the flight and didn’t tell us until we got to the airport in Siem Reap) so we couldn’t get to Vientiane, the capital of Lao. Luckily, they worked it out and they put us on a Vietnam Airlines jet and we got a direct flight to LPQ. We got an extra couple of days in LP.

Main Street Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is a wonderful historic little town. It’s is built on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and the Nam Khan River and is exceptional for both its rich architectural and artistic heritage that reflects the blending of Lao traditional architecture with that of the French colonial era. It is a remarkably well-preserved townscape. 

Room at Mekong Riverview Hotel
We stayed at the Mekong Riverview Hotel, a typical Lao wood hotel built right at the end of the peninsula. A perfect location. Great staff and the owner, Urban, who’s from Sweden, couldn’t do enough for us. The Mekong and Nam Khan join right below the hotel. 

Building the New Bamboo Bridge
While we were at the hotel some Lao entrepreneurs built a new bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan.There was a huge flood that washed away the old bridge 3 weeks earlier. It took them about 3 days to build the new one.The R/T bridge toll is 5000 Kip (8000 Kip=1USD). 

Mekong Riverview Hotel
Luang Prabang has both natural and historical sites. Among the best natural tourism sites are the Pak Ou Caves. There’s also Mt Phou Si, located in the center of town and has broad views of the town and river systems. It’s a popular (too popular) place to watch the sun setting over the Mekong River. At the end of the main street of LP is a night market where stalls sell shirts, bracelets and other souvenirs. The Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum (no pictures inside) and the Wat Xieng temple are among the most well known historic sites.

Giant Lao Moth. Wing Spread - 12.5 cm (5")

Highly recommended! 

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Angkor Wat Archaeological Park

Angkor Wat, quiet at the end of the day 
On our last day in Siem Reap we decided to get a Tuk-Tuk driver to drive out to the Angkor Archaeological Park for a couple of hours just to take some pictures. We’ve been there a few times before so we were pretty particular where we wanted to go. The Angkor Wat temple itself and Bayon in Angkor Thom, which has beautiful facial sculptures of a king. 
Angkor Wat was first built as a Hindu temple. It then became a Buddhist temple complex and the is the largest religious monument in the world. The temple was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. Breaking from the tradition of earlier kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu instead of Shiva. As the best-preserved temple at the site, the temple was built in the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia and appears on it’s national flag. It is the country's biggest attraction for visitors.
Earlier in the day with the crowds
Angkor Wat Archaeological Park lies 5.5 km  (3.4 mi) north of the modern town of Siem Reap. It is in an area of Cambodia where there are important groups of ancient structures. It is the southernmost of Angkor's main sites. The modern name, Angkor Wat, means Temple City or City of Temples in Khmer.
The Bayon is a well known and richly decorated Khmer temple in the Angkor Archaeological Park. It was built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the official state temple of the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII. The Bayon's most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak.
Jayavarman VII, Devaraja (god-king)
Bayon was the last state temple to be built at Angkor, and the only Angkorian state temple to be built primarily as a Buddhist shrine dedicated to the Buddha. Many scholars think that the faces are representations of King Jayavarman VII himself. During the reign of King Jayavarman VIII in the mid-13th century, the Khmer Empire reverted to the Hindu religion and the temple was altered accordingly. In later centuries, Buddhism became the dominant religion again, leading to still further changes, before the temple was eventually abandoned to the jungle. Cambodia follows Theravada Buddhisim today. 
This area is an absolute must if you are visiting Cambodia and Siem Reap. The Angkor Archaeological Park is absolutely unforgettable.

Highly recommended! 

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Friday, January 24, 2014

Happy Ranch Siem Reap

Ready to Go
While we were in Siem Reap we decided to go to the Happy Ranch Horse Farm  for a scenic horseback ride away from town and into the rice fields. Happy ranch is a great place to visit. We made the reservations on the internet first and it’s very easy. Remember, Happy Ranch only takes cash, not credit cards.

We had an excellent 3 hour ride in the morning. A Tuk Tuk picked us up at the hotel and we got to the stables quickly. Before we knew it we were on the trail.

On the trail
The Happy Ranch Horse Farm was built and established in 2002. The ranch is located 2 km (1.2 Mi) from the center of Siem Reap and is the only western style horse ranch in Cambodia. Most of the horses and ponies are crossbred with Arabian horses; many are born and bred at the stables.

Angkor Era Temple Ruins
Temple Interior with Offerings from Locals
The ride on well trained horses took us through rice fields, villages and out to a ruined temple that’s still in use by the local people. The views along the way are magnificent. You can see houses on stilts, schools and the very friendly local kids and adults smiling and waving to you everywhere. 

Tami leads her horse Abba with no bridle
Our guide was excellent. He had a professional attitude as well as being easy to talk to and have a laugh with. We enjoyed seeing the sights on the ride. It gives you a real insight into what rural Cambodia is like. 

Highly recommended! 

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Norea Cham Village

Norea Street
One of the people we had lunch with in Battambang was Masy, Tami’s good friend. Tami is her honorary big sister and they are very close. At the end of the lunch, Masy invited us to her house in the Norea Village in the Sangkae district. It’s on the outskirts of Battambang. Norea village is a Khum (a commune).

Tami, Masy's Mom and Masy at their new home
Norea Village is a riverside community populated by the Cham People and is focused on fishing and dried fish for restaurants. Masy and her family are Cham which are generally Muslim in Cambodia. They are remnants of the Kingdom of Champa (7th to 18th centuries CE).

Getting the fish ready for drying
Ancestors of the Cham probably migrated from the island of Borneo. Records of the Champa kingdom go as far back as 2nd century CE. At its height in the 9th century, the kingdom controlled the lands between what is now modern Huế, Vietnam to the Mekong Delta in south Vietnam. Its prosperity came from maritime trade in Sandalwood and slaves. Cham culture probably included piracy. There’s a famous Bas Relief at Angkor Wat (Bayon) showing a sea battle between the Khmer Empire and the Champa.

Commune truck hand made from parts of many trucks
The Cham community suffered a major blow during the Khmer Rouge in the 70's. During the mass killings by the government, a disproportionate number of Cham were killed compared with ethnic Khmer.

Drying Fish
Modern Cham of Cambodia eat much as their fellow countrymen. Rice is eaten at almost every meal. Fish is almost as important and is eaten fresh, dried, and salted. Norea is focused on Fish, fishing and drying fish.
Village Street
A traditional meal is a bowl of steamed rice eaten with a sauce containing bits of fish, fowl, or meat, eggs, vegetables, and spices such as onions, chilies, garlic, mint, ginger, or lemon grass. Pork and alcohol, consumed by many Cambodians, are forbidden to Muslim Cham. The big meal of the day is lunch around midday, followed by supper at twilight.
Cham men Fishing
Cham men usually eat together, women and children later. Each has a bowl of rice, and all take bites of food from several dishes sitting in the middle of the group. Cham may eat sitting in a squatting position, with their feet flat on the ground and their knees bent sharply. In Cambodia, most use spoons.

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Battambang, Cambodia

Shiva over Battambang
One reason we went to Siem Reap was to take a day trip to Battambang to visit Cambodian friends we made while we worked there recently. We left around 10:00am from La Residence for the 2 hour drive to meet for lunch.

Restaurant Entrance
Naturally, the road was in pretty bad shape from recent floods but after driving over a bumpy road that was dirt in a few places we made it in time for lunch. Luckily, our driver was able use our cell phone and get directions from to the restaurant.

Lunch Time
Battambang was founded in the 11th century by the Khmer Empire and is well known for being the leading rice-producing province of the country. It’s the second largest city in Cambodia.

The city is situated by the Sangkae River, a small body of water that winds its way through town providing a nice, picturesque setting. As with much of Cambodia, the French Colonial architecture is an attractive bonus of the city. It is home to some of the best preserved French colonial architecture in the country.

Naga for Peace
Near the restaurant was the interesting Naga for Peace and Development. It was created with weapons from the residents of Battambang Province and honors the hopes of the people in breaking away from the violent past. Battambang Province was brutalized harshly by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge during the 1970’s.

Close-up of Naga
Battambang is historic, quiet little city and we had a great time meeting our friends . We spent the afternoon with them and were back in Siem Reap that night for a Khmer dinner and Apsara dancers. Good time had by all.
Apsara Dancers in Siem Reap

Battambang is Highly recommended! 

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Trip to Siem Reap

The road  to Siem Reap
Phnom Penh is over for now and rather than deal with the airport we decided to drive to Siem Reap, about 320 Km (198 Mi) on paved hwy 5, which should have taken 4 hours and 30 minutes.

Lunch near Kampong Thom
Needless to say it didn’t. The road was completely demolished in places by recent floods and the traffic was slowed down to quite a few stops here and there. The road was new last year!

Nice Ride
Luckily we were in the Bimmer and that made things quite a bit nicer. Somehow a BMW 5 can do things like that. Comfortable, smooth and during the times when the driver could push it, it really got up and went.

Ancient Khmer Bridge still in use
Suite at La Residence, very nice- huge space

We left Raffles at about 9:00am and drove pretty much straight through with a short stop for lunch. We got to our suite at La Résidence d’Angkor in great shape. Got to Siem Reap around 4:00pm, so it could have been worse.

Pub Street in Siem Reap
We’ve made this trip a few times by bus, car and by air too, but I’ll vote car every time. It would be nice if the road was fixed a little quicker after the floods though.

Oh well, still had fun and we were in perfect shape to join in with the happenings on Pub Street! It's always a party on Pub Street.

Highly recommended road trip! 

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Cambodian National Museum

Entrance to Museum
After seeing the brutality of the Khmer Rouge prison and the Killing Fields we decided to go to the Cambodian National Museum in Phnom Penh and see some art objects from the different khmer Hindu and Buddhist eras. 

Sculpture at Entrance
The Museum buildings, inspired by Khmer temple architecture, were constructed between 1917 and 1924. The museum was officially inaugurated in 1920.

Central Museum Square
During Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79, all aspects of Cambodian life including cultural life were devastated. The Museum, along with the rest of Phnom Penh, was evacuated and abandoned. The Museum, closed between 1975 and 1979, was found in disrepair, its roof rotted and home to a vast colony of bats. The garden was overgrown, and the collection in disarray, many objects damaged or stolen. The Museum was quickly repaired and reopened to the public on April 13, 1979. Unfortunately, many of the Museum's employees had lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge regime.

The museum now houses one of the world's largest collections of Khmer art, including sculpture, ceramics, bronzes, and other objects. The collection includes over 14,000 items, dating from prehistoric times to periods before, during, and after the Khmer Empire.

Hallway statuary
The National Museum of Cambodia works to enhance knowledge of and preserve Cambodian cultural traditions and provide a source of pride and identity to the Cambodian people. The Museum also serves a religious function; its collection of important Buddhist and Hindu sculpture addresses community religious needs as a place of worship.

Outdoor Statuary
A visit to the National museum is a fascinating way to see the history of the  different periods of Khmer life. The Museum of Cambodia is located on Street 13 in central Phnom Penh, next to the Royal Palace.

Opening hours are from 8.00am until 5.00pm daily. Admission costs are $5 for foreign visitors, 500 riels for Cambodians. Children and school groups are free

Highly Recommended! 

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