Dalat “Le Petit Paris”

Dalat “Le Petit Paris”

My latest post “A Wonderful Welcome to Viet Nam” mentioned three reasons for returning to this country. It should have been four.

Returning to Dalat is the fourth for me and a good reason for anyone visiting this country for the first time. If you like anything that is reminiscent of Paris or anything French, such as fresh baquettes, colonial architecture, an Eiffel Tower look- alike which happens to be the city’s radio tower, wide, tree-lined boulevards, and just plain old charm, then take a side trip up to Dalat.

Dalat's Eiffel Tower

Dalat’s Eiffel Tower

Discovered and built primarily by the French when they occupied the country in 1912, it was an answer to their search for a retreat to escape the heat of Saigon. Dalat’s location at 4,900 feet above sea level offers a temperate climate where the yearly temperatures hover at 15 to 25 degrees C. It’s no surprise that over the years it has earned another appropriate title…”the city of eternal spring”. If you don’t like this title, then how about “city of a thousand pines”? The city has so many tall pines that you can actually smell them. If it weren’t for the usual traffic woes, I would have a hard time believing I was in Viet Nam.

A nice pine-scented view.

A nice pine-scented view.

My first visit to Dalat was five years ago. The city, I am happy to report, hasn’t lost its charm, and there are little if any signs of climate change. The one and only complaint I have is the constant traffic which is chaotic and noisy as it seems to be no matter where you are in Viet Nam. It’s just the way they drive here, and we either adapt or end up as toast.

There is a motor bike under there.

There is a motor bike under there.

Dalat’s temperate climate in the Lang Biang Mountains has created an ideal place to grow things making it literally the ‘bread basket’ of Viet Nam. All kinds of vegetables, fruits, and flowers can be found growing year round. Their speciality is strawberries, black currants, and artichokes in the produce department, and when it comes to flowers, it has to be hydrangea and roses found just about everywhere throughout the city… lining the boulevards and hanging from lamp posts.

One of the best places to see what grows here is the Dalat City Park located near the Xuan Huong Lake. This lake was created after the construction of one of the area’s many dams resulting in one of the city’s main attractions. If you are one for walking, it’s a 7 km trek all the way around. I got marvellous views of the city from all angles because of the lake’s configuration which resembles a banana.

Looking across the lake to one of Dalat's churches.

Looking across the lake to one of Dalat’s churches.

A view from the other side of the lake.

A view from the other side of the lake.

To some, the Park borders on the kitschy with its ceramic animals placed strategically amongst the flower beds, and the gaudily adorned horse-drawn carriages readily available to transport weary visitors. Nevertheless, the gardens themselves with their variety of flowers and shrubs are absolutely beautiful on a perfectly clear, sunny day such as I had.

Dalat Park entrance.

Dalat Park entrance.

mui-ne-and-dalat-075

Inside the park.

Inside the park.

Coffee is another rapidly growing industry here putting Viet Nam in second place on the list of the world’s coffee producers. Their focus has been the Robusta type used primarily in instant coffee like Nescafe, but since its lofty position as number two coffee producer, the farmers are beginning to move over to the Arabica type and gaining recognition there. Coffee cafes are on every street corner, but most don’t serve Italian or American coffee – just Viet Namese which is very strong and sweetened with condensed milk. I find it ironic that most locals still prefer to drink tea.

Wine production is becoming a serious concern of late. It started with the French in the ’50’s and has now morphed into a viable industry. Dalat wines can be found throughout Viet Nam and Japan and other SE Asian countries are now importing it to good reviews.

Advertising Dalat wine at the Park.

Advertising Dalat wine at the Park.

Dalat, like all cities and towns of a certain size, has a market as one of its central attractions. Nestled between two hills in a tiny valley, it’s a beehive of activity any time of the day or night. Smack in the middle of the city, it’s close to a host of small hotels and hostels and great places to eat. My hotel was probably a ten minute walk away as ‘straight as the crow flies’, but in order to get to it, I had to go down one hill and up the other making my trip much longer. The city is very hilly so walking can be difficult as the streets seem to meander up and down and around. Walking around in circles can be frustrating for those of us who are directionally challenged.

Looking down on the market at night.

Looking down on the market at night.

Every kind of fruit imaginable.

Every kind of fruit imaginable.

In spite of the heavy traffic, Dalat’s air is clean which was a real treat for me. Certainly its lofty location contributes to this, but another reason is because other than growing food, the only industries are in education and scientific research. Many schools were started by the French so Dalat quickly became a learning base for all Indochina. Today there is a large training school for teachers and a thriving university. Tourism is growing, too, as travellers and locals seek a respite from the heat in the south and the cold in the north especially at this time of the year. For the adventurous tourist, there is trekking, canyoning, and mountain biking. There are numerous minority villages to visit for handicrafts, silk farms, six good-sized waterfalls, pagodas, and lastly the number one attraction right now…the Crazy House.

Is it the name or is it the fact that the weird architecture of this house reminds tourists of Gaudi’s creation in Barcelona? Whatever it is, it’s become a ‘must see’ for anyone who visits Dalat. I have to admit I didn’t go to see it this time around because I toured it five years. My husband and I joined in the fun of exploring its maze of tunnels, climbing its ladders, and being constantly surprised by what lay ahead…spiderwebs, mushrooms, strange animals, with everything seemingly sprouting from the trees. A Mrs. Dang Viet Nga, daughter of the successor to Ho Chi Minh as Prime Minister of Viet Nam, received her Ph.D in architecture from Moscow. Her objective was to build a house which would bring people back to nature so she began with a giant banyan tree. It’s absolutely amazing what she has accomplished over the years. She is still alive and her creation has garnered the reputation as one of the world’s most bizarre buildings.

Outside of the Crazy House.

Outside of the Crazy House.

Inside the house.

Inside the house.

Yes, Dalat has much to offer tourists who come here, as well as the people of Viet Nam who are beginning to tour their diverse country now that they have the means to do so. The Viet Namese are romantics at heart so Dalat provides them with the perfect setting for their wedding pictures or a honeymoon. Roses, flower gardens, a beautiful lake setting, and hotels that cater to them, is this not enough? Apparently not, as not only locals, but bus loads of tourists will include a trip to the Valley of Love for even more love theme kitsch. As a mature, solo traveller I might have felt a little out of place so didn’t make the effort.

Dalat does have more serious attractions for visitors, however. The French left behind a noticeable legacy with their catholic churches exemplifying their gothic architecture. They are lovely to look at from the outside but, unfortunately, aren’t open for viewing.

Lovely gothic style church.

A more modern church.

A more modern church.

However, there are numerous elaborate pagodas to visit reflecting the Chinese architecture. They are open for viewing. My choice was to check out the Truc Lam Pagoda. This zen monastery sits on top of a mountain to the south of the city and is easily accessible by cable car. After a hair-raising motor bike ride out to the lift, I was then treated to my own cable car for a 15 minute ride through the lush greenery of the pine forest. I instantly felt at peace and totally safe. What a fantastic view of the city and its environs! The grounds of the monastery were almost as peaceful save for some bus loads of Russian tourists who arrived. This wasn’t a problem for me as the grounds are so spread out and beautifully designed, providing many secluded spaces with tables and benches for sitting and meditating or just getting away from people.

Entrance to the pagoda.

Entrance to the pagoda.

A temple with huge bell.

A temple with huge bell.

Hollyhocks.

Hollyhocks.

These are for real. Not sure what they were.

These are for real. Not sure what they were.

A quiet spot for some meditation.

A quiet spot for some meditation.

Zen affiliates from around the world have donated benches. This is from Canada.

Zen affiliates from around the world have donated benches. This is from Canada.

Descending down a tree-lined path, I came upon Tuyen Lam Lake, another man made lake.

I was surprised to find stalls selling souvenirs and one in particular caught my buyer’s eye. Taking a chance and wandering in, I found some money belts handcrafted by a minority village in the area. They were a decent price so I bought some.  Over to the left, at the end of the lake, I spied some signs advertising food and coffee. Hot and weary, I decided to check them out. I didn’t see anything that whet my appetite until a restaurant advertising classic cars and ‘weasel’ coffee grabbed my interest. In case you don’t know, ‘weasel’ or civet coffee is made from this animal’s poop… and it’s expensive….way too expensive for my budget! However, since I hadn’t had my coffee fix for the day, I decided my caffeine treat would be a mocha latte…made with regular coffee. Yum! I thought this was an appropriate way to end my visit before heading back to the city.

My mocha latte.

Would I return for a third visit? Without a doubt should the occasion arise. Dalat may not have the history and culture of other hot spots, such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi Han, Hue, or Hanoi, but it does have a comfortable climate and enough things to see and do to keep visitors there for at least a few days. Like the French over a century ago, we tourists are searching for a place that not only offers a relief from the sweltering heat, but also some of that irresistible French charm they left behind.

Travelling Solo or Not?

Travelling Solo or Not?

We have finished another delicious dinner in the city of Hue in Viet Nam. We have paid our bill and thanked our waiters with a smile and a tip. I am leading the way out, making my exit on to the busy street cautiously merging into the chaotic pedestrian and motorbike traffic. I look behind to see how he is doing but see no sign of him. Thinking he got caught up in the crowd, I wait for him to catch up to me. Minutes pass but still no sight of him so I retrace my steps back to the restaurant. He couldn’t still be in there talking to someone after our agreement to leave and head back to our guest house, could he? Oh yes he could! There he is talking to a young couple totally oblivious that I am not anywhere around. Normally I would have joined in and participated in the usual conversation that travellers have when they meet for the first time. However, after a tiring day of sight-seeing, I had just wanted to climb into bed and have some time to myself, a desire I thought he had understood. Any patience I had left quickly evaporated once I got out the door for the second time because by now I was on the verge of committing murder or getting a divorce!

Three years have passed since this incident and fortunately Hubby and I are still alive and still married to each other. However, this restaurant episode served as a good learning experience for us when travelling together. Our independent natures often clash when we are together for a long periods of time especially when dealing with the challenges posed by visiting a foreign country. To keep them to a minimum, we have learned to put more time into communicating just what is or isn’t important to each of us which sometimes results in us going our separate ways for a while. Then, he can talk to all the people he wants, dispense with his map and rely on the locals for instructions on how to get from A to B, and go wherever he wants. I can wander freely looking in shops and out-of-the-way places and take lots of pictures.We both agree that temporary separation has been a good solution. When we come together again, we are more willing to compromise on any further contentious issues that might crop up.

The restaurant incident illustrates one of the so-called “bones of contention” we have had when travelling together. He gets great enjoyment out of engaging just about anyone who “looks interesting” (his words) in conversation, whereas I just want to keep focused on getting to our destination or to eat our meal without the usual preamble that takes place when meeting fellow travellers. On the other hand, one of the difficulties I have had when travelling alone was not feeling comfortable with striking up conversations with strangers. Oddly enough, I now find it much easier and often (but not always) rather rewarding to engage in conversations when I am on my own and sometimes even when we are together. We have learned from each other and have found a fairly comfortable balance on this issue.

There are benefits to both ways of travel but the more personally transforming has been my solo travel. Here are the three most important reasons for saying this:

  • Freedom – This has to be the best bonus to travelling alone especially as a married woman. I get to do whatever I want. This may sound selfish to some, but I have learned that until I take care of my needs first, I can’t be of any real use to others. Travelling solo has helped me realize this. For five months out of a year, I can happily relinquish my duties as chief cook and bottle washer, cleaning lady, and yard maintenance woman. I can choose to eat when, where, and what I want. No matter what I do I have only myself to answer to. Fortunately, Hubby feels the same way about this so has no problem letting me go off to do ‘my thing’ while he does ‘his thing’ in Florence, Italy. He feels very at home in Florence having spent a significant part of his early years there enhancing his singing career and immersing himself in the Italian culture which he loves. For the winter months I prefer and feel totally comfortable in the warm climate of Thailand and other SE Asian countries so have headed in that direction. This pattern has evolved over these past eight years and seems to suit our independent personalities for now.
  • Self Growth – Like so many women of my generation, who have struggled with the fear of doing something different which is more in tune with our true nature and not what others or society thinks we should do, I have solo travel to thank for helping me the most. Although a daunting venture at first when I made my first solo trip to India and Nepal three years ago, it was thee I had to overcome my fear. When I look back on this trip it was certainly the most stressful one I have ever taken but probably the one where I learned the most. While there, for some inexplicable reason, I felt a protective presence around me reassuring me that I was not alone. My posts “Incredible India” and “Adventures in Nepal” can fill you in on the details of that trip. Always interested in self-growth, I have participated in many workshops and seminars, as well as teaching courses on the topic, but none of this succeeded in increasing my confidence to the level that travelling solo has done. When on my own, all my focus is on being responsible to myself and not my classmates, students, or my husband. What better way is there to conquer fear and become more confident than by simply taking the plunge and doing it.? It’s much like learning to swim!
  • Doing what I love – My love for travel was sparked in my pre-teen years while reading the Vicki Barr books (Vicki was an airline stewardess) and the smattering of geography I received in school. In my early 20’s, I back packed to Europe for nearly a year with a few girlfriends. At that time, I would never have dreamed of doing it on my own as so many young women are doing today. Now in my senior years, I have rediscovered not only my love of travel and all the personal benefits that come with it, but also the enjoyment I receive from writing about it all. Travelling solo got me started in earnest with the writing and now allows me to do more than if I were with Hubby.

Of course, there are some cons for solo travel and they are

  • Loneliness – The battle of learning how to deal with loneliness which most likely will appear at the end of the day when you go out for dinner or come back to your room wanting to share your day with someone. At first, I experienced many days in succession living like this, but with my increased confidence in ‘breaking the ice’ and starting up conversations with fellow travellers and locals, the problem is waning. For me, it’s been a challenge to ask for help not only because I don’t speak the same language, but also in simply overcoming any feelings of pride and admitting I need the help. While travelling with Hubby in Morocco, I really began to appreciate his ease at speaking French which is widely spoken throughout the country and his asking directions which can be annoying but also helpful – at times!
  • Expense – As you would expect, it can be more expensive to travel solo especially for accommodations and moving around. In most countries a single person will pay the same rate for a decent size room as a couple. Some places will have a small single sized room or you can opt for a dormitory style quest house, but if you are looking for something for a long-term stay as I do when in Thailand, there is no choice except for a double room at double the price. In most cities, I have to pay full fare for taxis, tuk tuks, or whatever mode of transportation is offered. The one exception is the songtao in Chiang Mai which operates like a bus with one fare per person.

I have discovered that the pros for travelling with a spouse are actually the cons for travelling alone. They are

  • Banishes loneliness – Having Hubby with me certainly eliminates any kind of loneliness. I always have a dinner companion and someone to bounce ideas off when making decisions on where to go and arranging transportation to get from one place to another. Two heads are sometimes better than one! It’s also somewhat comforting to be able to pass the reins of responsibility over  to him so I can have a break from having to do it all myself.
  • Easier – There are some countries which are more stressful for female travellers than others. Thailand and SE Asia, for example, are relatively safe and easy. There certainly is little hassle from the male population. India and Morocco, on the other hand, can be somewhat problematic for women if they aren’t prepared for it. I was certainly stressed out once I had finished travelling to Delhi and the Taj Mahal in India, and probably would have found Morocco more challenging if I hadn’t had Hubby to speak French to the pushy cab drivers.
  • Less expensive – More choice and less cost for accommodations is definitely a plus when sharing a room with someone. Also as I mentioned above, you can cut your taxi fares in half, and sometimes reduce your food costs if you can agree on sharing certain dishes which would be far too large for one person. Unfortunately, Hubby and I have never been able to agree on this one. Not liking the idea of sharing, he would rather eat the whole thing whether he needs it or not.
  • Meet more people – Yes, I have to admit when I am with Hubby I do meet more people and especially young Europeans and locals. We met many from both groups while in Morocco this year – all were wise beyond their years and absolutely refreshing to talk to. It amazes me that they even want to spend time with us older folk but they do. Perhaps it’s because we both tend to be younger of heart and so can relate to them sometimes better than the older travellers.

Finally, the cons for travelling with Hubby are almost opposite to the pros for solo travel, and they are

  • Less freedom – Naturally, I don’t have the same kind of freedom I have when on my own. To achieve a little space from each other, we will often take a day to go off on our own to pursue our individual interests. This gives us a much-needed break so that when we get back together again, we are more open to compromising with each other.
  • Learn less – Because I don’t have to do all the planning or organizing or deal with other minor nuisances that come with travel in foreign countries, I tend to leave much up to him when we get together. As I already stated, although I have a nice break from these responsibilities, somehow I don’t feel as connected or learn as much as I do when on my own. I admit I become complacent!
  • Need for patience – Travelling with someone else also calls for oodles of patience and flexibility. As we get older, we are getting better at it. I am conscious of being more patient with him when he stops to talk, or when he takes forever to prepare for a day’s outing, or when simply walking along the street. He calls me the ‘energizer bunny’ but I think he goes too slow. Not surprising there has to be lots of ‘give and take’ around this. In all honesty, can I actually call this a con when it has helped me to be more patient and flexible, the two qualities of which I’ve not been overly endowed?  Yes, there can be growth of a different kind when travelling with someone like Hubby.

I have concluded that for me it’s almost a draw when it comes to determining which mode of travel is better. There are definitely pluses and minuses for both. Of course, it helps when the person you are travelling with is your spouse because really who else do you know so well? A best friend can work if you know each other’s needs and personality quirks. I happen to like both modes of travel, but if for long periods of time or in more challenging countries, I would definitely prefer to have someone with me. That said, I do feel that I have been very lucky to have both ways at my disposal for as long as we can both travel. The question that remains is whether I could handle travelling completely on my own if ever circumstances should put me into such a dilemma?

 

This gallery of pictures is of our trip three years ago to Viet Nam where we mostly travelled together but did take a two-day break from each other. We were in Hanoi where I had visited the previous year on my own so he wanted time to explore and test out the new opera house there. I wanted to go further north to visit the Hilltribe village of Sapa. So we separated and joined up for a final trip together to Halong Bay.

My Typical Day on Koh Lanta

Do you find it difficult to change your  preferred way of doing things? I think many of us can safely say that we do so why would we want to? “If it ain’t broke then why fix it?” as the saying goes. My travels are helping me to break out of this mold and become more creative on how to deal with the days I am blessed with no matter where I happen to be. Being overly endowed with resilience has not been one of my strong points.

I booked myself in for eight nights at Lanta DD House on Koh Lanta. Koh Lanta is one of the chain of islands in the Andaman Sea in the southwestern part of Thailand. When I arrived I immediately realized that it was very hot here as it is all over SE Asia right now which meant curtailing the amount of sight seeing I could do or even the amount of lying on the beach I could safely do without burning myself to a crisp. Now perhaps I could spend more time working on my blog and reading all the books I have downloaded on my E-reader. The first option posed some problems since I no longer have access to my computer. I have only my small tablet which is designed to drive impatient people like me slightly crazy. The second option was fine except that it’s difficult to read in bright sunlight so am compelled to read inside.

After four days here in my comfortable little bungalow, I have had to limit my activities and adjust to a much slower pace than what I am accustomed to. In addition, I have had to work on a suitable schedule that could give more focus to my remaining days so I can feel productive. This could mean you will see a flurry of posts but with no pictures. Sorry, but Word Press won’t allow me to download pictures from my tablet unless I give them $99.

Moving around at a slower pace means less walking and staying more indoors. On my second day here, I was so thrilled to be near the sea again that I spent most of my day lapping it all up on the beautiful beach just a ten minute walk from my bungalow. In spite of the copious amount of suntan oil and being conscious of not staying too long in the sun, I still managed to resemble a lobster the next day! This event forced me to make some necessary changes to my usual way of spending my days at a beach.

My new schedule went into effect a few days ago and so far seems to be the answer to coping with my time on Koh Lanta. I wake up early about 6:30 a.m. and head down to the beach for a walk and a swim. I am by no means alone as it seems like everyone else has the same idea. This is followed by a light breakfast in my room of fruit and yogurt. I have a fridge so keeping some breakfast foods and snacks on hand is helping to keep my food costs down. This may sound surprising because I have always found it less expensive to eat out in Thailand, but not here on the island. The prices of meals are double what they are anywhere else and I am only getting 25 baht to the dollar when I used to get 30. Around 10 o’clock, I go for a good coffee and pastry or baguette at one of the nearby bakeries. This, along with some of my snacks, will last until dinner time which can be any time after sundown. From about 11:30 onwards to about 4 or 5 p.m., I stay inside where I have comfortable A/C to do my blogging, E-mailing, or reading.

Then it’s to the beach again for another walk and to witness the sunset which at this time of year is nothing spectacular because it’s hazy; however, is fun to watch as it quickly sinks below the horizon. I was fortunate to meet two wonderful ladies, one from Sweden and the other from Australia, on the ferry on my way over here. On Sunday, I walked from my beach, Klong Dao, to the next beach about three kilometers south, commonly known as Long Beach and considered to be one of the ten best in Asia I have heard. Who should I run into but Berta, the Swedish lady! Since we are all of the same age and share a passion for travel, we have been enjoying each others’ company over dinner each night which has been lovely for me since one of the downsides of travelling solo is eating dinner alone. It’s sometimes nice to have good conversation in your own language at the end of the day.

I am now into my fifth day with two more to go before I catch the ferry over to Krabi and then fly back to Bangkok via Air Asia. In spite of the heat forcing me to take more refuge in my room than I would have liked, I am quite satisfied with my island holiday. Koh Lanta is everything the brochures say it is. It has a good range of accommodations from 5-star resorts to budget-priced bungalows for the backpackers. Tourists have been coming here for years yet it hasn’t gotten over developed like so many other islands in Thailand. It has three long, sandy beaches for walking, swimming, and snorkeling all on the western side, and a few more further south which are rockier and, therefore, draw fewer tourists. They are perfect for those who want more piece and quiet. The thing about Koh Lanta is, it still isn’t over developed and has not become a party island which makes it suitable for families. It isn’t a Koh Phi Phi or Samui but it has its own charm with activities to suit everyone: diving, snorkelling, elephant trekking since much of the island is covered with forest, mangrove exploring, and a convenient jumping off point for some island hopping. If that isn’t enough to keep one busy then the largest town where all the ferries arrive and depart from, Ban Saladan, looks like a great place to shop as well as to stay and eat. All of this comes at a noticeable cost as I have already pointed out. If coming from the north i.e. Chiang Mai for example, your budget can take a big blow which probably explains why there aren’t so many backpackers. Instead the island draws mostly European families (especially Swedes) and older folks like me.

This has been my first island experience in Thailand in several years. In the past, a bamboo hut, fan, and sometimes a Thai toilet were the order of the day. This rustic experience is almost becoming a thing of the past. Now the bungalows are built of concrete, are air-conditioned, have high definition TV, WiFi, fridge and all the other amenities of a 3 or 4 star hotel. This easily explains why accommodations are more than double in price. Food has to be more expensive since nothing seems to be grown here other than some fruit and spices. Fishing is carried on extensively around the island so although on all the menus, it’s more than $10 a plate in most restaurants. Whether by accident or design, the realty is that so long as the island is considered as one of the more expensive ones, it will have a better chance at not becoming ruined by over development and too many tourists. To me this is a good thing.

Battambang – the ”Heart and Soul” of Cambodia

Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, is a relative newcomer to the tourist scene in Cambodia primarily due to the Phare Ponleu Selpak’s Circus School. I first heard of Battambang and the sensational productions of this group from my journalist friend in Phnom Penh who reports on Cambodia’s fledgling but flourishing arts and culture scene for the Cambodian Daily newspaper.

Before the Khymer Rouge wrecked its havoc on this beautiful country and its people, Battambang was not only considered Cambodia’s ‘rice bowl’ but also the ‘heart and soul’ of its culture. I decided that this year I had to go up to the northwestern part of the country to check it out for myself.

What struck me was the friendly spirit of the people and the peace that prevailed over this city of 240,000 inhabitants. Moreover, it was easy to navigate. The Sangkae River runs through the town splitting it into two parts resulting in numerous bridges, and streets laid out in a grid system, thanks again to the legacy of the French. I was able to walk everywhere and never get lost. The tuk-tuk drivers weren’t too happy about this but they never gave up on me and always accepted my rejection of their offers with good grace and humour.

Peaceful river scene.

Peaceful river scene.

Battambang or “bong” witch is the way it’s pronounced but not spelled, like all Cambodian cities, has its fair share of temples and ancient ruins from its Khymer past. Most of them are in the outlying area and easily accessible by tuk-tuk or moto-bike. Not excited about combing temples and ruins in the heat and having had enough exposure to the Cambodian past which can be so gruesome, I opted to stay within the city limits and get a feel for the place by walking and meeting the people. I stayed for four days and would have visited at least one if not two of the more famous sites such as, Ek Phnom an ancient temple that pre-dates Angkor Wat, or Wat Samrong Knong and the “Well of Shadows” which is the oldest pagoda in the area and was a prison during Pol Pot’s terror. However, I was distracted by  my computer and G-mail which decided to test my patience and mental stability by presenting me with one problem after another. I quickly realized how dependent I’ve become on my technical gadgetry so had no other choice than to seek help and not worry about seeing or doing all those touristy things I could have done.

Inside the grounds of one of Battambang's temples.

Inside the grounds of one of Battambang’s temples.

After spending countless hours of what I can only describe as a feeling of floundering around in the darkness of cyber space, I eventually found  and bravely sought help from eager to please Cambodians who all seemed to have a different solution to my problems. Unfortunately, their language skills didn’t come near their eagerness to help which was a major drawback to a technical illiterate like me. Eventually after I thought some of my problems had been solved, I managed to attend a performance put on by the students of the now famous Phare Selpak’s Circus School.

The Phare school is a huge success story for this area and was the beginning of Battambang’s quest to regain its past glory of being the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural centre of Cambodia. It all started after the fall of the Khymer Rouge in the late ’70’s in the midst of the largest refugee camp of displaced Cambodians located on the Thai-Cambodian border. Nine of Veronica Decrops’ students, who were children at the time she was providing drawing workshops for them, went on to become the founders of Phare which means “the brightness of the arts”. Decrops understood the need for these disadvantaged children to overcome their horrors of the war by developing their artistic talents and instilled in them the belief that the arts are a powerful tool for human development and social change. To this day, this remains the focus of the organization supporting the school where up to 1400 students are presently enrolled. All come from disadvantaged families where through a co-operative effort by teachers, parents, and the students the environment is not only creative but nurturing and supportive.

The ongoing work of Decrops’ vision was very evident in the premier of Chills the performance I attended. The young performers connected instantly with the audience so much that there were times I was sitting on the edge of my seat as yet another more daring twist, flip or balancing act was executed on the small stage in front of us.  These guys and gals were true performers – professional all the way, yet engaging and sincere in spite of the heat which made their bodies so wet that I was certain one of them would slip and have a serious fall. At the end of their performance, they were all there to let us come up on the stage to congratulate them or take a picture. In the spring, they will travel to France and from there take their show on the road to other parts of Europe. Graduates of this school have now set up a professional group in Siem Reap with nightly performances and when not high season there, they tour the world making a name for themselves as the Phare Circus. Circle de Soliel had better keep an eye on this group!  You can find out more about the school and the group at http://www.pharecambodiancircus.org.

 

A hard act to follow.

A hard act to follow.

The troupe after their very energetic performance.

The troupe after their very energetic performance.

To escape from my hotel room and my computer problems, I crossed the river to stroll around the down town of Battambang. On my walks I met some incredibly interesting people. One of the first places I walked into was Bric-a Brac where almost immediately I was greeted by one of the most energetic and engaging Cambodian girls I have yet to meet on my travels here. Lisa was her name and because her English was very good, we were able to talk about many things especially the changing role for women. She left her rural family home to come to Battambang on her own to learn English and to attend university to study International Law. When not studying she is working at Bric-a-Brac making crafts and serving customers. By nature Cambodian girls and women are shy and quiet, but they are gradually becoming empowered. Many have worked with volunteers at various NGO’s to learn confidence building skills and are now practicing them as she is doing.

Then I met Kimleang at Green Lotus Tours and Coconut Jewellery who was also busy making attractive bracelets out of recycled bottle tabs and rubber. She is another enterprising young woman who has left her family home to pursue her own dreams. She has started a small school in a nearby village and struggles to keep it going by crafting and selling her jewellery for the enterprising young Cambodian fellow whom she works for.

Kimleung showing one of her finished products.

Kimleang showing one of her finished products.

Typical Cambodian friendliness.

Typical Cambodian friendliness.

The next day as I was walking along a side street lined with various art galleries, a man on a motor bike stopped me to ask in perfect English what the difference was between “shall”and “will”. I was nonplussed! Reaching back into my memories of learning and teaching English grammar, I was able to come up with a fairly accurate definition for both. He quickly hopped off his bike, took off his helmet, and suggested we sit at a nearby bench so he could talk some more. He got right to his point which was to tell me a bit about his past during the Khymer regime and what he was now doing to help rebuild his country. I was impressed but couldn’t help but be somewhat skeptical since there are always the scammers who want your money for a good story. However, this fellow even had brochures about his school, and was going so far as to carry a huge book with names of all the donors who had given something or volunteered at the school. Now I was doubly impressed! You guessed it: I became another of his donors. If you want to read more about his school go to : www.slarkramenglishschool.com.

The children in Cambodian are so visible which is to be expected in a country where old folk are a rarity. We need to remember that many of them never survived the Khymer Rouge regime when over one fifth of the population was killed. In the cities at least, it appears that the main focus of the parents is get their children educated as best they can. In the evenings you could see groups of kids being coached in what looked like judo or tai kwan do. At all hours of the night parents were playing with their children in the parks along the river. Physical activity seemed to be high on their list of nightly activities. I didn’t see many kids playing with their I phones, and I certainly did not see one obese kid!

Kids keeping active with judo.

Kids keeping active with judo.

Many of the schools in Cambodia were set up and are run by NGO’s which are considered to be far superior to the government schools which are underfunded and totally corrupt. There was an  NGO school located next door to my hotel and every morning at precisely 7 a.m. I was awakened by the children as they sang their national anthem before heading inside for their classes. I learned from a very interesting American teacher that this school like many of the NGO schools is failing to provide the kind of education needed by the Cambodian students which helped me understand why I had met two Cambodians this year and one last year at the Meas Family Homestay who were setting up their own.  His job now was to visit all the schools in the area to determine if the level of English instruction was meeting expectations and in the best interests of the children. Time and time again I heard from the Cambodians that the only way for them to move forward and to get their country back on its feet was to learn proper English.

Students heading to class at the NGO school next to my hotel.

Students heading to class at the NGO school next to my hotel.

On my walkabouts I also witnessed several locations where colourful tents had been erected for wedding ceremonies. It seems that Cambodian weddings can take place over several days so tents are put up with beautifully decorated tables and chairs for friends and neighbours to come and give their blessings to the bride and groom and their families. The same is done for funerals with the only distinction being that everything is laid out in white. Such ceremonies are not carried out by monks in the temples; however, the monk does come to the families with their prayers and blessings.

Preparing the tent for a Cambodian wedding.

Preparing the tent for a Cambodian wedding.

Maybe I didn’t get to see many of the sites that Battambang had to offer and perhaps too much of my visit was taken up with trying to get my computer problems ironed out, but the one thing I do know is that I will not forget all the beautiful Cambodians and a few barangs (Cambodian name for foreigners) that I met while I was there. I felt a tremendous feeling of renewal among those I talked to, and my sense is this can be traced back to the creation of the Phare visionaries and the good works that this organization is still carrying on today.

Escape to Kampot

For those readers who read the post I published yesterday, I want to offer my sincere apologies, but also thank those who had something kind to say about a job only half way completed. I did what every writer must have nightmares about: I mistakenly hit the publish button before my post was finished or edited. This is the finished rendition complete with a picture gallery, I hope.

After more than two months in the busy cities of Chiang Mai and Phnom Penh, I was ready to escape to the sleepy, laid back town of Kampot in southern Cambodia. I fell in love with this charming, French colonial town last year so was compelled to come back again. I stayed in the perfect place for me: a guesthouse called Mea Culpa about a ten minute walk from the centre of the town in a quiet garden setting. You can take a closer look by following this link: meaculpakampott.com.

Most of my week was spent working on my latest post “Phnom Penh Revisited”, reading, and sampling good food and coffee at some of Kampot’s excellent restaurants and cafes. I really think I could spend a month trying out all the eating places in this little town. Here are the ones I tried and can recommend:

  • Om House for a tasty fish amok, one of Cambodia’s signature dishes. Everything is prepared using fresh, organic ingredients.
  • the Espresso Cafe for the most delicious coffee roasted on the premises and the banana pancakes with a caramel and sea salt syrup to die for.
  • the Kampot Pie and Ice Cream Palace for a breakfast of Mary’s Bird Nest (egg embedded in a large piece of toast and topped with cheese) accompanied by an excellent cup of coffee.
  • the Kampot Kooker and the Honeymoon Creperie both located on what is commonly known as “Eat Street” and both good for tasty and inexpensive dinners.
  • the Greenhouse about five kilometers up the Kampot River in a beautiful setting with the restaurant and patio looking right over the river. I had their French breakfast of juice, coffee, and croissants which was delicious. It was well worth the long bike ride up there! If you wish to read more about this little haven and how it originated then go to greenhousekampot.com.
  • and finally, I ate at Mea Culpa which has its own restaurant serving food all day if you haven’t got the energy to walk to town. They are famous for their wood-fired pizzas which I do recommend and their appetizers which are almost big enough for a meal.

By mid-week I was ready to explore some of the outlying areas of the town so signed up for tour of the countryside which took me to visit the salt flats where salt is harvested from the sea, a local pepper plantation where the famous Kampot pepper is grown, a Muslim fishing village, a temple cave, the Secret Lake which isn’t so secret where no one seems to know how it got its name, a trip to the nearby town of Kep for lunch at the Crab Market, and finally, a visit to the beach. We were a group of four and none of us was prepared for the crowd we met at the beach. Since it was the Chinese New Year, families from as far away as Phnom Penh had come for a swim and to picnic.   Towards the end of my stay, I decided to pamper myself with a massage at the Banteay Srey Woman’s Spa. This spa was started by a Canadian woman from British Columbia as a project to give poor Cambodian girls the training necessary to get them off the streets of Phnom Penh into an honorable profession where they can now proudly display their skill at administering healing massages and cleanses and surprisingly creative henna body art. I had one of the best massages ever, consisting of a total body scrub with milk and turmeric followed by a steam bath of fragrant herbs. When finished my skin was a soft as a baby’s and I felt wonderful – at least 20 years younger!

Although some travellers might find Kampot just a little too laid back, the majority of Cambodians as well as the French colonials who helped build it used it as a place to chill out and to escape the heat and chaos of the city. Those who come here to visit or stay prove this is still true today. For instance, many of the restaurants, resorts and guesthouses are owned and run by ex-pats from Europe, Canada, and the US. They all love the lifestyle and are working hard to maintain it. There are still some of the old French buildings needing repair but many have been restored to their original glory. Not only the architecture but also the scenic riverside boulevard which is unmistakingly French is helping to preserve the charm this town has always been noted for. It is still a great place to escape to and I feel hopeful it will remain so.

Phnom Penh Re-visited

Phnom Penh Re-visited

After a hair-raising but eye opening ride from the Phnom Penh airport to my hotel, I have since been questioning just how this city, the capital and pulse of Cambodia, ever earned the reputation for being SE Asia’s “Pearl of the East”. This was my second visit having been here last year with my husband. Admittedly, I experienced some culture shock on my first day last year which I wrote about in a previous post entitled “Soaking up Phnom Penh”. However, I quickly banished any reservations I had about the disparity between the rich and poor, the heaps of garbage piled on every street corner, and the chaotic traffic when I fell under the spell of the smiling and very hospitable people. Was this year any easier? Surprisingly it was not since the three offenses that assaulted my senses last year had an even greater impact on them this year.

The traffic is always the first thing that has to be dealt with if you arrive by plane at the airport as I did. You have the choice of using a taxi or a moto-car or tuk tuk as it’s commonly called. Since I try to travel on a budget, I again chose to hire a tuk tuk driver. Last year I was awed by the dexterity of my driver who managed to weave in and out of the chaotic traffic with such ease. This year was somehow different. Many of the moto- car and motor bike drivers were not so serene and were showing some obvious signs of distress. They were all taking risks that literally took my breath away and caused my driver to actually swear. My mind flashed back to the New Delhi drivers who had to fight for every inch of space to keep moving forward. Now I realized this was happening in Phnom Penh. When I looked around me, I was dismayed to see that we were surrounded by monstrous vehicles taking up so much space that they were literally forcing all the other vehicles up onto the sidewalks. To make matters worse some were coming at us going in the wrong direction. I must have witnessed at least a hundred near misses on that ride to my hotel. After a few more days of walking the streets, I realized just how these vehicles were making the pedestrians’ lives miserable by taking up their sidewalk space as their parking lot. There was hardly a small car to be seen anywhere! A journalist friend explained why there are now so many. Apparently every year government workers are rewarded with big bonuses and the huge monster vehicle has become the unanimous choice for everyone. Naturally, they bring them to the centre of the city for business and pleasure to show off and gloat in the fact they never have to walk anywhere.

Monster vehicle parking lot.

Monster vehicle parking lot.

Traffic jam.

Traffic jam.

I had to laugh after reading a brochure published by the city’s tourism department claiming that it was a wonderful city for ‘leisurely strolls’! Like many tourists I love to walk around a city to get a proper feel for it and to take photos which are often the impetus for my blog posts. I would guess that it is now one of SE Asia’s worst cities for walking. Not only are pedestrians having to contend with the traffic, but also the seemingly endless construction, destruction, and reconstruction projects going on at this time. The sidewalks are littered with piles of earth, bricks, building materials, and whatever else it takes to build yet another huge hotel, luxury condo, or office tower adding another challenge to any kind of safe walking. The People’s Party of Cambodia is committed to reviving this city’s former status as the “Pearl of the East” at any cost by allowing such extreme over development.

One of many sidewalk hazards.

One of many sidewalk hazards.

Another luxury condo under construction.

Another luxury condo under construction.

The Nago casino under construction.

The Naga Casino under construction with moto-bikes (tuk tuks) in foreground.

The third problem facing visitors and residents, is the proliferation of garbage. Last year the problem was blamed on the garbage collectors strike, but this year it’s even worse and there is no strike. I read in the Phnom Penh Post that the company the government has contracted to do the job isn’t fulfilling their end of the deal so they will be looking into it. They are concerned that it will offend the tourists but no mention of how the residents are being affected! I’ll have to come back again next year to see if they have carried out their promise. Unless by some miracle the ‘powers that be’ wake up to the corruption that has taken over this country the garbage heaps will still be there

A typical garbage-ridden street.

A typical garbage-ridden street.

Along the Tonle Sap River.

Along the Tonle Sap River.

I remember last year on my first day here, I was appalled by the stark difference between the rich and the poor. There was little evidence of any kind of middle class. The divide is still very much in evidence. The rich, who are mostly Cambodians who work for the government and some of the NGO’s who work here, are driving all those big cars, living in the opulent mansions, and eating in the upscale restaurants. The poor are having to live on the streets or in inadequate buildings where their rents are increased every time they get a meager increase in wages. They are by no means doing any better and from what I have seen or heard are doing worse. Land in the city which has now become valuable real estate is being bought up at ridiculously low prices by the developers. This results in a huge problem for those former land owners as they cannot afford anything in the city so hence could easily end up on the streets. As I walked along the riverfront boulevard or Sisowath Quay, one of the main tourist attractions lined with chic shops, restaurants and bars, I noticed more obviously poor families trying to eke out a living by selling drinks or flowers with what looked like their few family possessions and children surrounding them. One doesn’t have to look far to see such extreme poverty in Phnom Penh and to have it so close to this touted tourist area and not far from another huge project being build on Diamond Island for those with the money is upsetting to witness.

Sisowath Quay along the riverside.

Sisowath Quay along the riverside.

Huge hall where lavish weddings are held.

Huge hall where lavish weddings are held on Diamond Island.

Wedding party after the ceremony.

Wedding party after the ceremony.

Once you adjust to the social conditions of a good portion of the over 2,000,000 people who live in Phnom Penh, you begin to appreciate what the city has to offer. Since I am one of those who thoroughly enjoys their excellent coffee and food, not to mention all the places I have stayed in which are just as good if not better value as in Thailand or elsewhere in this part of the world, I need to give some credit to those countries i.e. Japan, Thailand, Viet Nam, China and some European countries, who have played a significant part in bringing Phnom Penh into a destination to be seriously considered by a growing number of tourists. For a long time the tourists who ventured to Cambodia came to see Ankor Wat in the north and then headed south for Sihanoukville to cool off after clamouring over the ruins of Ankor. Very few would stop for any length of time in Phnom Penh. It’s truly surprising when you take the time to remember that the city’s infrastructure still lay in ruins and life here was pretty rough as late as the 1990’s after the Viet Nam war and the rise of the Khymer Rouge. For three years at the height of the Rouge tyranny, it lay practically deserted after most of the residents were led astray and herded out of their homes en mass with nothing save the clothes on their backs. Most of them were executed never to return. A memorial to this horrific event has been erected in the Killing Fields where the bodies were buried. This site, as well as a former school which became infamous as the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum where people were held until executed, have become popular tourist sites for visitors who want to learn more about the madness that overran this country in the ’60’s and ’70’s.

My favourite drink from a popular cafe near my hotel- the Golden Gate.

My favourite drink from a popular cafe near my hotel.

Lunch at the Tea Garden - a little hidden gem on tiny congested street.

Lunch at the Tea Garden – a little hidden gem on a tiny congested street.

If visitors to Phnom Penh find the remembrance of the havoc brought by Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge to this city as a bit too heavy to take in, there are other sites of more uplifting historical periods to see. Even though this city is fairly young dating back to 1858 when it was declared the capitol of Cambodia, and thanks to their then King, Norodom, it quite quickly grew from village status to that of a glamorous city influenced by the King’s passion for anything French. The city saw a building boom of structures heavily influenced by French architecture mixed with some Khymer. It was during his reign that the Royal Palace with its Silver Pagoda and the National Museum were built. My husband and I visited both of these attractions last year and learned much about the greatness of the Khymer civilization and the more prosperous times in the past. This year it was time to visit another talked about building with unique features dating back to the the king who succeeded Norodom – King Sihanouk- who unlike his father had a passion for all things Art Deco. As a result, Phonm Penh has probably the most interesting building in Asia devoted to a huge market housing thousands of vendors. Goods from gold jewellery, gems of all kinds, beautiful fabrics, souvenirs, flowers and hardware can be found here. The Central Market as its commonly called or Phsar Themi in Cambodian was built 1935 in the shape of a dome with four wings jutting out from each side. Its gold painted dome is visible from all parts of the city as it sits right in the middle. Although getting there was not easy (I actually broke down and took a tuk tuk) once inside I found one of the cleanest and most well-organized markets I have ever seen. I can say this because not once did I get lost. I also did not find the vendors to be too ‘pushy’ and the prices to be fairly reasonable. I had no intention of buying anything until I ran across some very lovely silk scarves which I simply couldn’t resist. Cambodia is known for its quality silk and these certainly are good examples of that claim.

Entrance to the National Museum.

Entrance to the National Museum.

The Silver Pagoda on the grounds of the Royal Palace.

The Silver Pagoda on the grounds of the Royal Palace.

Approaching the Central Market.

Approaching the Central Market (Phsar Themi).

One of the four entrances.

One of the four entrances.

Inside the dome.

Inside the dome.

Doing a brisk business for Valentine's Day.

Doing a brisk business for Valentine’s Day.

As I reflect upon my four days in Phnom Penh, I realize that it’s not an easy city to visit if you are on your own and on a budget. It does take some adjusting due to its problematic social concerns as a result of its power-hungry political leaders and just a few too many non-government agencies who do good things but take away the responsibility of the government to do more. Aside from poorly executed social services and politics, which have caused many of the present day problems facing this city, the pulse of the city which draws people like me back are the people. In spite of their past and their present, the majority of them that I have met are still smiling and they are still honest. I do not get the impression that they are out to service the influx of us tourists simply for the money. They are genuine and want to help. I hope whatever happens to them in the future doesn’t change them. One thing they have going for them which I think helps to sustain them is that they have had a peaceful country now for over 20 years. After what they went through in the Pol Pot years, it’s easier for me to understand why they can endure so much.

A rare quiet street in the city.

A rare quiet street in the city.

Celebrating Chinese New Year.

Celebrating Chinese New Year.

A Day Trip to Mae Salong

A Day Trip to Mae Salong

Three days to see and do all the things I wanted to during my recent trip up to Chiang Rai were not nearly enough as I wrote in my previous post. However, I am congratulating myself for taking my last day there to venture outside the city to one of several interesting Hill Tribe villages in the surrounding area. All of these towns/villages would have been more easily accessible if I had a motor bike, but that’s an activity I am not fully qualified for at this time. So instead I chose to get to my destination using the available public transportation which happened to be a local bus and then a songtao. *

Children going to school in a songtao.

Children going to school in a songtao.

Doi* Mai Salong is about 65 km. from Chiang Mai. I took a bus from terminal 1 in Chaing Rai to the town of Mae Chan for about 20 baht (under $1). From there I had to find a songtao that would take me the rest of the way to Mae Salong. The cost of one of these can vary depending upon how many passengers the driver can scare up. After a wait of about 20 minutes, I and the other passenger decided we wanted to get going so paid 240 baht each for the long ride up. I wanted to get there before my day was too far gone so was willing to pay the steep price. I think I overpaid but when this is translated into dollars I paid just over $9 for a 37 km ride uphill all the way on a narrow and very curvy road. To me it was worth it!

Another view from the top.

A view of the countryside from my songtao.

Before setting out, I read up on at least four towns/villages within a day’s journey from Chiang Rai and chose Mae Salong as my destination for these reasons:

  • Mae Salong has a fascinating history which intrigued me. Its origins go back to 1949 after the civil war in China when Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated army was driven out of the country forcing him and his followers to take refuge, first in Taiwan, and then to northern Thailand and Burma (Myanmar today). After many years of fighting trying to regain Hunan in southern China from Mao Tse Tung and his communists, Shek and his troops were given asylum by the Thai government in 1961 on the understanding that they would prevent communism from moving into Thailand. This was the beginning of Mae Salong. The fighting continued over the next 20 years resulting not only in the loss of many lives, but also the beginnings of the opium trade for which this area became infamous. Mae Salong today is a series of villages stretched out over Doi Mae Salong, a mountain range reaching up to 1,200m at its highest peak. The main village of Mae Salong is in the centre of about five other villages and is now called Santikhiri aptly named as it means hill of peace. It is now populated by the Chinese soldiers and their families who intermarried into the Aka, Hmong, Lishu, Yeo, and Karen hill tribes who have resided there for centuries making for a colourful and interesting mix of cultures. The King of Thailand has contributed a great deal of time and money to developing alternate sources of income, such as the growing of tea along with other fruits and vegetables to assist farmers to stop relying on opium as their primary cash crop. The Thai government has also tried to help but the people were slow to accept the change. Now with tourism on the rise and further government help, the opium trade is finally starting to take a back seat in the bus that drives the area’s economy.
  • There are at least two large tea plantations which can be visited where you can learn how tea leaves are grown and harvested. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit either, but
    Tea growing on one of the tea plantations.

    Tea growing on one of the tea plantations.

    I did get a good look at them as my songtao wended its way up the steep and twisting road lined with tier upon tier of green tea plants on both sides. What a beautiful site they made! Oolong tea is king here, and you can drink many cups of it as every tea factory in the villages was offering samples.

    Tiers of tea everywhere.

    Tiers of tea everywhere.

  • The cherry blossoms were another draw for me. I wasn’t sure if I would have the good fortune to see any as no one seemed to know whether they were out or not. As luck would have it, I did see the beginnings of them in some places where the sun was the hottest. They were just beginning to appear making a lovely blanket of pink. I was told I was about a week too early this year.
    The first of the cherry blossoms.

    The first of the cherry blossoms.

    A few more blossoms.

    A few more blossoms.

  • The colourful market, located in Sanikhiri, is another ‘must see and do’ because it’s here where you can see some of the women from the various Hill Tribes dressed in their traditional garb. They are there to market their fruit and vegetables as well as their crafts. I do most of my shopping in Chiang Mai where the prices were actually better so didn’t buy any but had fun looking. Most of their crafts end up in the Chiang Mai markets and shops anyway. Chinese foods and products are also readily available in many of the stalls.
    The market in Santikhiri.

    The market in Santikhiri.

    A lady from the Hmong hilltribe.

    A lady from the Hmong hilltribe.

    Wooden gourds? were everywhere.

    Wooden gourds? were everywhere.

  • The Chinese Martyr’s Memorial is another attraction for visitors and another one I didn’t get to see. Better promotion on the part of those working in the tourist industry and a better command of both languages on both sides would have helped me to find this museum. Add to this at least five different Hill Tribe dialects and you have a daunting language barrier to contend with. Having no luck with asking for directions to its location, I gratefully accepted a crude map handed to me by a vendor who spoke a little English. This didn’t help much as most of the wording was in Thai, and when I showed it to any local, they couldn’t read it either. In the end, it was finally another tourist who told me where the Tourist Information office was and suggested I go there for help. But then he added: “It’s closed but maybe it will be open by the time you get there?” If it wasn’t open he then suggested I look for a lady in a green shirt he had met at the market who seemed to be acting as a tour guide. I decided then and there that this was becoming all too complicated. I had enough walking, it was way past lunch time, and I was hungry. Time to look for a place to eat instead of this elusive guide who “perhaps” could tell me how to find the museum.

No doubt I could have benefited from learning a little more about Mae Salong’s colourful past, but in the end I was content to simply spend the time I had wandering around the local school grounds where the classrooms were in separate cabins all nestled in a leafy green environment, walking down the mountain through all the connecting villages snapping pictures, and sipping copious cups of oolong tea before catching the last songtao back into the town of Mae Chan where I could catch my bus back to Chiang Rai.

Entrance to the local school.

Entrance to the local school.

One of the classrooms.

One of the classrooms.

The trip was definitely worthwhile even though I had to forego a visit to a tea plantation and the museum. I know I could have accomplished this if I had taken one of many organized tours offered in Chiang Rai, but I prefer to go at my own speed. Doing it on my own was less expensive but most important, I could absorb more of my surroundings and have the freedom of discovery that I would not have gotten in an organized group. In retrospect, the ideal way to visit Mae Salong would have been to stay overnight and return on the following day which can easily be done. Mae Salong has accommodations ranging from low to higher priced guesthouses along with a few quite luxurious resorts. Restaurants, other than traditional Chinese, are scarce but I did notice a couple of quaint little coffee and bakery cafes. One day to take in all that Mae Salong has to offer on my own relying on local transportation was simply not enough.

Evidence of Chinese culture is prevalent.

Evidence of Chinese culture is prevalent.

Give them credit for trying. One of the few English signs I saw.

Give them credit for trying. One of the few English signs I saw.

 

*Songtao – a covered red truck (for certain areas they may be a different colour) with open windows and seats along both sides for about 10 passengers (comfortably).

*Doi – the Thai word for mountain.