Back to the “Land of Smiles”

Here I am back in Thailand for the tenth time. Is this becoming repetitive to the point that I might have to call it my second home?Seriously though it’s a perfectly sane thought for me or anyone for that matter who is finding it more and more difficult to live in Canada or the US these days. There are definitely many advantages to living in a foreign country such as Thailand.

Why do I write this, you might wonder? Isn’t Canada one of the countries so many people from around the world aspire to come to  make their home? Aren’t we on the list of the top ten most desirable countries to live in according to one of the latest polls taken? My research revealed that in 2018 the US News and World Report put us in second place after Switzerland.

With this honour I should be grateful for having been born on Canadian soil and be content to live there. However, with an insatiable desire tor travel most of my life, I have been fulfilling that dream ever since I retired from full-time work. My travels have definitely opened up other possibilities causing me to question whether I want to continue living in Canada at this stage of my life. Is it a good match for me? Does it satisfy my needs? What do I like or dislike about it? These are the questions that I must consider and Thailand is one of the countries that has perked my strongest interest. I am not the only traveller who is dealing with such a dilemma. I have met and continue to meet more and more people of all ages who are considering the pros and cons of taking the plunge and moving here for the reasons I have listed below. But first let’s take a look at why we are questioning where we choose to live when we have so much already. It’s not just Thailand that appeals to us. It could also be Malaysia, Mexico, Ecuador, Spain or Portugal. The list of desirable countries to move to and call home keeps changing from year to year depending on such factors as cost of living, climate, safety, political scene or economy. You can always Google International Living, a magazine which has touted the joys of living in foreign countries for over twenty years, to find other possibilities.

So after ten years of visiting Thailand, I have narrowed the reasons for putting it at the top of my list to the following:

  • Cost of Living – My monthly expenses could be kept to a minimum of $1,000 a month in this country. Monthly rents for a small apartment can be had for as low as $250 a month depending on location. It’s more if you live right in the centre of a big city like Chiang Mai or Bangkok. Utilities which include electricity, water, and garbage collection may run up to $60 a month or more if you rely heavily on A/C.  Internet is a bargain at about $20. Food staples grown locally, such as rice, fruit and vegetables are cheap. As a single person I could get by with under a $100 which doesn’t include eating out. A meal at a local Thai restaurant will cost around $2. However, if I eat at a Western restaurant, of which there are many in Chiang Mai, meals can cost anywhere from $10 to $50 or more depending on what it offers. Wine is expensive here so adding that can inflate the amount making it better to stick to local beer! If I were to live in Chiang Mai, I wouldn’t need a car. It’s a very walkable city and public transportation is cheap. A ride on the brand new Blue Buses here costs 20 baht…about $1 Cdn… no matter where you go in the city. And now what about health care in Thailand which is always a huge concern for ex-pats? I assure you it’s not a problem. Most expats prefer to pay as they go rather than sign up for a health plan….that is if they are healthy. If not, then it would be best to have a plan. One thing you can be assured of is that the quality of medical care is superb as are the hospitals which in some cases, such as Bangkok, are more like high-class hotels. As for the dental,  it’s on a par with the medical. Most dentists and doctors have been trained in the US or Europe and offer wonderful care. I’ve been having all my dental work done here for years. A cleaning will take me back about $30 whereas at home it would be over a $100.
  • The climate – Everyone knows that Thailand is a warm country since it is near the equator, and, yes, that means it’s often more than warm. It has two seasons, wet and dry which for most of the year is hot, and it can get very humid during the rainy or wet season. Fortunately, I prefer the humidity over the cold winds and snow I have to face in Nova Scotia. I have gotten used to it as many do. Furthermore, the climate here isn’t as changeable as it is on my home turf. It’s pretty steady at hot and sunny most days. It’s never cold except if you go north towards China where nights in the mountains can dip down to a comfortable 10 to 12 degrees. Chiang Mai is in the mountains of northern Thailand so is slightly cooler than Bangkok in the middle lowlands. Thailand’s tropical climate offers an abundance of fresh fruit and veggies year round which means you can live a healthier life. Moreover, you save money by not having to heat a house with a fossil fuel which in turn can ease your conscience knowing you aren’t adding more carbon to our overloaded atmosphere.
  • The People – What is there not to love about the Thai people? Every time I return, the first thing that hits me is their beautiful smiles and their cheerful greeting of sa wa dee kah their word for hello. Along with the ‘wai’ which is a slight bow forward from the waist with hands together at the heart, there is no other greeting like it. Nothing seems to bother the Thai. They simply accept things as they are and go about their business with a smile. They believe that getting angry is a waste of time and isn’t good karma. Some might say they are too passive. I don’t agree. They don’t stress out over things they can’t control like other people’s little dramas. I love it! I find it’s very difficult to be stressed in their midst.
  • The Culture – About 95% of Thailand’s people follow the teachings of Buddha or the Theraveyda form of Buddhism. There is little formality attached to it since it’s really more a way of life. The many temples or wats are open all the time so the Thai and visitors alike can enter any time of the day to offer their respect to the Buddha. The Thai also love their festivals and will look for reasons to hold one as much as they can. Parades, colourful dress, and lots of delicious Thai food are always abundant. In a city as large as Chiang Mai, which by the way has been designated as a UNESCO site, there is always some event going on. This week is Design Week promoting cultural tourism. Artists, designers and entrepreneurs are given the opportunity to use their creativity and  promote their movement towards sustainability.
  • Environment – Thailand is noted for its beautiful and diverse environment. Northern Thailand is mountainous and famous  for its coffee, tea, and rice production. It is also home to over seven Hill Tribes all with a unique culture. Traditionally the poorer part of the country, the late King Bhumitol, the revered leader for this country for many years, dedicated much of his reign and knowledge to developing this region through his water irrigation projects and sustainable farming methods. This was one of the ways he managed to get the flourishing heroin trade under control by weaning the farmers off their dependence on poppy growing. The southern part of the country is noted for more than 1,000 islands of all sizes and character with their one feature in common…their beautiful beaches! They are the prime draw for the growing tourist industry.
  • Markets and Shopping – There isn’t anything you can’t buy in Thailand. Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, and other larger cities which draw the tourists. They are a shopper’s delight with glitzy shopping centres springing up like weeds. One of their busiest times for shopping is turning out to be Christmas. Surprising isn’t it that a Buddhist country has taken on this commercial aspect of Christmas as well as the fun of Santa Clause, snow and reindeer. It’s not the religious aspect that has captured the Thai imagination, but the decorations, the music, and the novelty of Santa. It’s a time for them to have some fun with the commercial trappings of Christmas and to take advantage of the sales. I should also mention that the other draw for shopping in Thailand, especially for tourists, is the proliferation of markets which can be found in every city, town and village. This is especially so in the North where crafts and food reflecting the different Hill tribe customs are readily available at great prices.
  • Safety – People often ask me if I worry about my safety travelling solo as a female. I have never felt unsafe anywhere in Thailand and have never had a problem. Although theft has never been a problem for me that doesn’t mean I can be lax about carrying too much money or flaunting my diamonds. There is petty crime and in Bangkok you might run into such  scammers as tuk tuk drivers who will make up stories about a popular museum being closed for the King’s birthday or some such reason. Then they offer to take you to a good jewellery or silk shop where they receive a commission for any thing you purchase. It’s a well used ploy which only works on the first time visitor who hasn’t read their Lonely Planet guidebook. Although there are a fair number of murders, most are domestic or drug related with the rate far below what we have in the Western world. The one danger to watch our for is the traffic. It’s getting worse as the country’s economic index goes up and the desire for larger cars dominates.

Thailand has much to offer any adventurous foreigner or farang who is seeking the things that I have written about. Granted there are more, such as numerous job opportunities since the country’s economy is fairly strong right now. Furthermore, on a more contentious subject, Thai girls have been a draw for hoards of Western men who have come seeking the pleasure of their company.

Thailand would definitely be the country at the top of my list if I truly wanted to leave Canada to live in a foreign country. Although it lures me to return year after year, I am still weighing the pros and cons of making such a move. For now I am content to come for a few months and then move on. After all is said and thought about, Canada is my native land where I still have family ties as well as good friends. For now the old adage of “Home is where the heart lives” still rings true for me.

To view this gallery of photos place your cursor over each picture. For a slide show click on the first picture and away you go. Enjoy!

 

 

 

Reflecting on Anthony Bourdain’s Death

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks you: it breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you.” Anthony Bourdain.

When I heard that Anthony Bourdain had taken his life, for one brief moment my heart stopped. Envied by both travellers and would be travellers alike, he had an amazing ability to gain an understanding of the many countries he visited. His love of all kinds of food and his talent for cooking it in five-star restaurants before he gained his fame as a ‘tell it as it is’ travel reporter led to an impressive lifestyle envied by those who wanted the kind of freedom that such a profession can give. The intensity of my shock at the news of his suicide took me by surprise. How could he of all people commit such a sad and selfish act when at the top of a flourishing career?

Although I envied his job and the finesse with which he handled it, I was never one of his avid fans. There was no question that he was a powerful interviewer and showed an honesty and humbleness which is rare in celebrities and that impressed me.  However, call me judgemental or plain old-fashioned, but his many tattoos bothered me. What was he trying to say I wondered? I wonder this about all the young travellers I see with bodies covered in them? I know that tattoos are meant to portray something personal about those wearing them, such as a love affair gone sour, a particular beef against the world, or to draw attention to a personal philosophy or cause, but aren’t they also an indication or sign that the person sporting them doesn’t really respect or like his body or what’s inside it? To me it speaks of some kind of self mutilation.Was this his way of unknowingly portraying an inner disconnect of something vital missing in his seemingly exciting life of freedom?

I also admired Bourdain’s wonderful way with words, hence, the above quotation which appeared in our Chronicle Herald the day after his death. It so vividly sums up the good and bad aspects of travelling alone. The amount of travel I have done is a drop in the bucket compared to what he put in. Nevertheless, I totally agree with what it can be and apparently was for him. It can be a blessing as well as a curse. The freedom which it allows has to be the top draw for any traveller who endeavours to do it, but there is invariably a price tag attached to such freedom.

Bourdain had an eleven year daughter and a wife… for awhile…apparently they had separated. He was totally responsible for pulling together his team of writers, photographers, and all the other bodies needed to carry out his travels to exotic places around the world. This effort was from all reports on a modest budget. It’s not surprising that this would eventually take a toll on his family. Those closest to him noticed that although he appeared to be happy right up until a few days before his death, he did look very tired. At the age of 61 perhaps he saw what was ahead and decided to end it before it got the best of him. We will never know, but the one thing I do know is that if you have a family or a spouse, travelling on your own doesn’t provide a firm foundation for a close relationship…..unless you can take the family with you. This is happening in some rare cases with young, mostly European couples. I think we will see more of this in the future as our world becomes more dependent on technology and young people are forced to find more rewarding work in a foreign country, or to escape from the rat race in their own countries. They could also be forced to move because of climate change and the cost of living in their native countries. There are a myriad of reasons and the opportunities for doing this are certainly there. The nomadic lifestyle is appealing to a growing group of those who want that kind of freedom.

I totally agree that the best education you could ever get is to travel by yourself. There is no doubt in my mind about that. As Bourdain said: “The journey changes you.” That is certainly true for me. Let me name the ways:

  1. It has increased my self-confidence.
  2. It has helped me to find the value in reaching out to others.
  3. It has helped me to be more resilient.
  4. It has helped me understand the world through the culture and the customs of the countries I have visited.
  5. It has helped me open my eyes and heart to see that although we may be different on the outside, we are not so on the inside. We are all very much connected.

Anthony Bourdain found his passion in the work he was doing which garnered him fame and recognition and all the other benefits that came with that. The missing link was his inability to overcome his demons and realise that the only way he could have conquered them would have been to face them. He needed to slow up and take time to do that. Unfortunately, he did not, resulting in leaving behind a young daughter who will have to deal with his decision. He will definitely be missed by all those who knew him, but we all  know who will miss him the most… and this is the greatest tragedy of all.

If you would like to find out more about my thoughts on travelling on my own as a senior woman you can take a look at the following posts:

Overcoming the Fear of Travelling Solo as a Senior

How Our Changing World Is Affecting Our Travel

Travelling Solo or Not?

My tribute to Anthony Bourdain’s perpective on travel with food as the key for unlocking his road to fame, is the gallery of pictures I have taken over the years in my travels to Viet Nam (his favourite country), Thailand, Cambodia, and Myranmar (Burma), Morocco and Italy. Click on the picture for the caption.

 

 

Four Days in Singapore

With a four-day stop over in Singapore,  I am happy to report that just about everything that’s been said about this unique city/city-state is true.

I arrived at Changi Airport just as the sun was setting so was able to see what was in store as the shuttle bus drove at a decent speed into the centre of the city where I am staying. The Bougainvillea lined freeway failed to turn up even one scrap of garbage…anywhere. I was looking both sides and saw nothing. What a contrast to Cambodia or any of the SE Asian countries.

I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps this is why some have said they found Singapore boring. Was it boring because it looks like a city should with clean streets and orderly traffic? Are we to the point that it takes dirt and poverty to stimulate our senses?

To tell the truth, these very qualities espoused by Singapore have put me into seventh heaven. For me it’s a pleasure to be walking around a city that seems to work. Traffic is heavy as it is in all big cities, but it moves at a good pace. There isn’t a lot of honking and excessive noise with big trucks and buses spewing out toxic fumes. Motorists stop for pedestrians before you even put a foot into the street, and they wait until you are all the way across. Pedestrians are equally as courteous. They don’t jay walk, and they wait patiently at the traffic lights until the walk signal comes up. At times this seems like an eternity to me. The Singaporeans don’t mind waiting; they can check their phones instead. Everyone has a phone to play with here. When I thought Bangkok took the prize for this phenomenon I have learned that it must be Singapore. While on the MRT (the subway), all twenty or so people in my car  except me and one other person was concentrated on their phones.

Street scene with old and new.

Since my solo travel began five years ago, I have found that the best way for me to explore a large city at first is by walking and getting to know the area where I am staying. I keep the regular tourist sites or ‘must sees’ for later…if ever. I am happy to get three out of ten of the best recommended sites. Trying to take in everything that everyone else goes to see would stress me out. I’ll take sore feet at the end of a day over that kind of stress.

My first day in a brand new city, especially one that has been recently named the most expensive place to live in the world, can offer mixed emotions for me. Yes, it’s definitely thrilling  for me to explore new territory but underneath there is always a little anxiety. My main stressors are getting oriented so I at least head out in the general direction I want to go and figuring out the general lay of the land. That way I can finally decide where I want to walk.

The advantage I had in carrying out this plan in Singapore is that all Singaporeans speak English. This is their first language but then you have all the various other languages, such as Mandarin, Malay, and Hindi with their different accents and rendition of English which doesn’t always make their English understandable to a person like me whose auditory strength borders on the weak side. With the help from the friendly staff at the Champion Hotel City where I have been staying, I quickly opted to start my exploration close to my area which just happens to be at the border of Chinatown and within walking distance to downtown and the Singapore River.

Entrance to Chinatown.

I found out that the river is the cleanest it’s ever been. At one time before Singapore gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965 it was filthy. I doubt many places can boast of this today, at least not any in Asia.

The Singapore River

Fortunately, I had an ideal location and if I wanted to go further afield all I had to do was figure out the complicated (to me anyway) subway system and go from there. I decided to make it really simple that first day by walking straight up Victoria Rd. to the area known as Bugis noted for its diversity, history and shopping.

Entering the Bugis area.

I expect most of you have heard of the Raffles Hotel with its famous bar serving the equally famous singapore sling. How about the man who started all this…Sir Stamford Raffles? My trek to Bugis helped me sort out some historical facts regarding this man who is considered to be the founder of what is modern-day Singapore. It has a humble beginning as a fishing village inhabited by poor Malays (people from Malaysia) at the time when Raffles’ made his appearance under British rule. This was in the early 1800’s which isn’t so old by our standards considering what Singapore is today. At that time, the area was controlled by the Dutch and those living there, numbering about a 1,000 were chafing at the bit under their rule. Sensing this, Raffles quickly proposed a more lucrative trade for them under Britain. With the right kind of diplomacy and salesmanship, a partnership was born and there has been no looking back ever since. Today his legacy can be seen on buildings and streets everywhere.

A little history of Bugis and Sir Stamford Raffles.

Before reaching Bugis I came upon a stately white portal or gate and wall encircling an attractive older building and grounds which looked at first glance like a five-star hotel sporting a couple of high-class restaurants and a courtyard. Seeing a parade of women dressed in beautiful long dresses spoke of some kind of ceremony to be held…a wedding perhaps? However upon closer scrutiny, I realised I was wandering around a significant historical site which also housed a gorgeous Gothic style church painted in white. Except for its colour it looked much like the Notre Dame in Paris. The site I had stumbled upon is called Chijmes, dating back to the 1880’s when it was built as an orphanage by the nuns for abandoned females. As far as I can fathom, it simply isn’t on the tourist radar. None of the brochures and maps mentioned it. Such a pity because the site is beautiful and a perfect symbol of Singapore’s past. The ladies were singers taking part in a Singing Festival. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out when the actual performance was to be held. What I saw was a dress rehearsal.

The Chijmes Cathedral

A choir in their lovely purple dresses.

My travels that day also took me to a couple of ritzy malls… the brochures weren’t kidding when they said this was one of the best shopping areas in the city along with others like Orchard Road, Little India, Chinatown, and the list goes on. Singapore could brag they are the most over-malled city in the world.

At one point I wandered into a predominately Muslim area (Halal) evidenced by the number of women wearing scarves. Hunger was taking over by this time so I decided to stop for an afternoon meal which would serve as lunch and dinner. A restaurant with the Trip Advisor logo and a claim to have the best biryani in Singapore caught my attention so I decided to give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed and by Singaporean standards I got good value for my money at $14 which by the way is a few cents more in our Canadian money. Not bad considering the menus I had looked at where almost double that.

A chocolate dessert at a mere $18.

One of the tourist recommendations I did take in was the iLight Show at Marina Bay a magical display of light and colour celebrating the city’s support of sustainability. It showed creations from artists around the world including a Canadian artist from Quebec.

An exhibit made from used plastic.

This creation named Light Breeze is made from used neon tubes.

The light show with the Marina Bay in the background.

I couldn’t afford to have a drink at Raffles so instead I went to Level 33 a bar up on the 33rd floor of the Marina Bay Financial Centre where I opted for a cappuccino which I enjoyed much more than a singapore sling. The views were just as good, too.

View from Level 33 of the harbour and the container ships.

View of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino with the Supertrees Garden on top.

Yesterday I met up with some Chiang Mai friends at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Halia Restaurant. We had so much to talk about that we didn’t leave nearly enough time to explore this English garden landscape dating back to the 1800’s. To this day it remains a major centre for plant research and breeding, with orchids leading the list. It’s one of the most visited gardens in the world and has won numerous awards. Time magazine described it as ‘Asia’s best urban jungle’. It comes highly recommended so I’m sorry we didn’t plan this better so we could see more of it. Maybe it was just as well we didn’t because by the time we finished our meal the humidity and the heat were overwhelming.

Friends Irene and Trevor.

Finally, you can’t visit Singapore and not take the time to visit the two most popular enclaves: Chinatown and Little India. I had my first meal in Chinatown the night I arrived…dumplings, my favourite Chinese food. Then yesterday I made a quick run through Little India, brimming with colour and bargains in Indian jewellery and clothing. For Indian food lovers there were restaurants galore. This was probably the place where I saw more garbage than usual, nevertheless,  by Indian standards it just couldn’t compare.

Street scene in Little India.

Colourful Indian saris.

Four days were about the right amount of time for me. There was still much more I could have seen and done had my budget allowed. I have no regrets in stopping over, and one thing for sure it’s prepared me for what lies ahead. Australia is also an expensive country to visit so getting used to such high prices has been a learning curve which I know I’ll have to deal on my next stop which will be Melbourne.

Chinatown

Coastal Cambodia at Risk?

Southwestern Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand has been gifted with white sand beaches, tropical islands, budding resorts, and provincial towns. It’s no surprise that tourists from all over the world are flocking here to sample these offerings, potentially promising a boom for the local economy. Cambodia desperately needs this but will it succeed at getting it? Unfortunately, I see some black clouds on the horizon threatening their dream.

This is Kep Beach.

Sun setting on Outres Beach 2.

One of the beautiful beaches on Rabbit Is. near Kep.

Found this fellow on the beach above.

Before I begin to figure out how Cambodia can possibly deal with those black clouds I see looming over it, I want to relate how my stay this past week at the Village of Outres between the beaches of Outres 1 and 2 reminded me so much of the ’60’s when the ‘hippies’ of that era began their search for their nirvana which would come to be an escape from the troubles they saw in their world around them. Down through the ages there have many idealists wanting to set up their utopias in order to live life the way in which they felt it should be lived not how their governments dictated. They wanted to live on the fringes like the ‘hippies’ and create their own perfect world. The problem is that most of them were out of sync with their times so their experiments usually failed. Those of us who were around in the ’60’s witnessed their demise when drugs took over their lives. Others just got disillusioned from trying to right the wrongs and gave it all up to go back to normal living. However, their movement and the ideas behind it weren’t a total failure because what they did accomplish was an awakening in many of us that our western society didn’t have all the answers on how our world should work.

You are probably wondering where I am going with this but bear with me. Since I arrived here three weeks ago, in what is now referred to as Coastal Cambodia… first in Kep, then a little inland to the old French provincial town of Kampot, and, finally, this week to Outres Beach 2 near Sihanoukville, the largest city in this tourist haven…. I have stumbled upon a community of sorts bearing an odd resemblance to the hippy communes.

Old French colonial home in Kep being restored to its former glory.

Street scene in Outres Village.

For the past week I have been calling a comfy enclave of bungalows called Om Home in Outres Village, my home. I couldn’t help noticing that the ex-pats and many of the backpackers here were dressing and living a life similar to our “hippies” of the ’60’s. They are mostly young people wearing weird clothing, maybe some facial jewellery, sporting long hair, dread locks, and beards, and definitely showing off bodies with lots of tattoos. There are a few older men and women interspersed in the group. This group of ex-pats, digital nomads, or barang as the locals call them may dress and lead a laid back life style reminiscent of the hippy era but the similarity ends there.

Some barang or young ex-pats.

Unlike our idealistic ‘hippies’ who were too far ahead of their time in their search for a better world, today’s young people are more practical and here just when Cambodia and the world needs them. Their goal is not to escape our imperfect world but to immerse themselves in it. They are not sitting around dreaming about what to do: they are endeavouring to do it. They are aware of what they are facing and open to changing with the times in order to carve out a life for themselves.

I joined a clean up crew who meet once a week to pick up garbage on the streets.

Plastic bottles are the only items being recycled.

This is a common site everywhere.

Two girls from England trying to clean up the beach following a full moon tide.

Someone tried to make a neat pile from the trash the tide brought in.

The Village of Outres has basically been created by the barang  over the past eight years. On my first visit back then, all that was here was a handful of thatched huts and small restaurants renting out beach chairs for the few tourists who wanted to escape the crowded beaches in Sihanoukville. Seeing an opportunity to use their entrepreneurship and creativity, adventurous barang began to open up guest houses, restaurants providing foods from around the world, yoga studios, arts and craft shops, and, of course, numerous Internet jobs which has earned them the title of ‘digital nomads’…people who can take their skills anywhere to make a living as long as they have a computer.

This $3 special with good coffee drew me in for breakfast. The owner is Italian.

Music is a huge part of the creative scene everywhere in town.

Cambodia has been the perfect place for them to do this with the government basically turning a blind eye to what they are doing… that is until the tourists starting arriving in larger numbers. The increase in the number of Chinese tourists has quickly caught the interest of the government and  the developers. The rising middle class in China wants to  see the world, and they have the money to do so but not in the style of the backpackers. They prefer five-star resorts, fine cuisine, and easy accessibility to all the hot spots, such as Siem Reap with its ruins from the ancient Khmer Kingdom of Angkor. Before this influx of tourists from China, it was almost a win/win situation for all sides as it brought money into the country’s coffers and provided much-needed jobs and business opportunities for the locals. However, the influx of the Chinese tourist is changing all of this.

This owner wants to sell his business before the invasion of the Chinese really begins.

You must have guessed by now the cause for the ‘black cloud’ hanging over this unfortunate country. In the past few years, rampant construction driven by Chinese millionaires has been changing the natural beauty of this coastal region to what is beginning to look like a garbage dump with a landscape dominated by cranes and high buildings.  This is particularly noticeable in and around Sihanoukville and gradually creeping into Kep and Kampot.

One of many new buildings being constructed in the Village.

Garbage is everywhere waiting for pick up to be taken somewhere?

Depending on who you talk to, there are various moves from China that are causing not only the ex-pats but the locals much concern. Fancy resorts are replacing the bamboo huts and little guest houses which were once affordable to the young backpackers and middle class tourists.

One of the 5 star resorts on Outres Beach 2.

As I mentioned, the new resorts are geared to cater to the emerging middle class of China, Russia, and more mature tourists from Europe who no longer want to backpack it. When the developers start drawing this kind of tourist then there’s always another money-maker to be considered…gambling! Rumour has it that when all the construction in Sihanoukville is completed, the city can then boast of over 40 casinos! Now you might think that all this will benefit the Cambodian people by providing them with those much-needed jobs making it all good, but you will be wrong!

A casino nearing completion atop Bokar Hill near Kampot.

Apparently the construction crews and eventually the operators of the resorts and casinos are being staffed by the Chinese. All of this is creating gate-like communities which could ultimately destroy the efforts of the young ex-pats and the locals here in the Village of Outres where they have been learning to work together to make their community more sustainable and peaceful. Many of them are outfitting their buildings with solar devices to heat their water and run their generators, which they often have to rely upon when their power is cut off by the construction sites. Moreover, many restaurants are offering organically grown foods on their menus. They are proud to claim that their village is a foodie’s haven with everything made from scratch.

This restaurant takes pride in using solar power and serving organically grown foods.

However, this could conceivably become a past dream with the impending Chinese invasion which right now weighs heavily on the mind of the locals and the ex-pats. To add further insult to injury, their invasion is being openly aided and abetted by the present government led by Hun Sen. You can read more about him and his government in my most recent post Cambodia – Past and Present.

Of course, he’s doing everything in his power to keep the status quo in this country which is to line his and his cronies’ pockets with cash. China has no problem with this way of doing business for it’s the custom in this part of the world. They appear to be out to get whatever they need to take care of their aging population by building comfortable apartments for retirement, and for the younger generation, who are eager to escape to beaches, those five-star resorts. Then there awaits them the forests, the water from the Mekong River, and the minerals that Cambodia can still claim to have but are rapidly disappearing. Granted some of this money will filter down to the people. The infrastructure that the government has put millions of dollars into, enabling the people to travel around more easily and quickly is a plus for those who can afford motorbikes and fancy cars but what about those many poor people who can’t?

Cambodia is still a corrupt country. The only winners who can come out on top to improve their lives are those with the money. If you have that, you can buy anything you want including a job, but it you don’t, you can’t go too far.

I know Cambodia isn’t the only developing country facing this problem…. all the SE Asian countries and other parts of the world are to some degree dealing with this sickness depending on how much unspoiled land they have left, other valuable resources, and the degree of governmental transparency. The invasion of the Chinese is a great concern to all.

The opinions of many Cambodians and those barang I have talked to is that of all the SE Asian countries, Cambodia stands to be the biggest loser. It will continue to need our help, but it will have to be the kind of help that can empower them enough so that they can regain some of their pride of culture. They have been constantly beaten down over the years with totally corrupts leaders.They have also had over half of their country slaughtered during the reign of the Rouge wiping out almost all their well-educated and older generation. Now they are faced not only with a totally corrupt government, but a floundering population of young people who have by and large been poorly educated unless they were fortunate to have parents who were wealthy enough to send them to an International school.

Most NGO’s focus on teaching English and various skills such as making crafts and learning computer skills to those disadvantaged kids who have no parents or prospects, but I think that what they probably need more than anything else right now is to be empowered. More emphasis on Life Skills training could do this. They have to be given a better understanding of their past and learn to take  pride in their  culture again. This could help them to stand up to the Chinese in a way that isn’t going to get them killed. They need to change their thinking from despair to hope in spite of the obstacles that are facing them. Everyone agrees that a change of government is needed, but for now they will, unfortunately,  have to accept the fact that their present government is here to stay for a while.

I wish that the Cambodian people had fewer odds facing them and their lives could be easier. I wish that their future could be more promising because if any people deserve more, it would have to be them.

Cambodia – Past and Present

Cambodia – Past and Present

“Why do you keep going back Cambodia?” I am confronted with this question many times from fellow travellers and friends. This is always a good question to ponder because it does get me thinking about the reasons for putting it on my list four times out of the nine that I have visited Southeast Asia.

Cambodia is a small country with a dark history which could still be witnessed right up until the late ’90’s.  Each time I return, I see changes with forward strides benefiting some but by no means all. There are still those struggling with the scars of their past and the present day changes being thrust upon them by this rapidly changing world.  The ‘those’ I speak of are the poor who are more than 20 per cent of the population.

Historically all the SE Asian countries have had their problems with outside invaders, save for Thailand which has never ceded control to anyone but themselves. Thailand has a long history of invasions from its neighbour Burma (now Myanmar) but has continuously managed to keep them at bay as they have of other invaders in the past wanting a piece of their empire. In spite of numerous internal problems such as trying to build a democracy that works and learning to live with some very restrictive military governments, Thailand has successfully avoided being under the thumb of any kind of foreign domination.

This certainly has not been the case for Cambodia, Laos, Viet Nam, Myanmar (formerly Burma) or any of the other SE Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines or Singapore. Many will note that for this reason Thailand has been recognised as one of the leading developing countries, except for Singapore. The very opposite is true for Cambodia which lags behind all of them.

A bit of the country’s history can help us to understand the problems she is facing today. The first recorded history for Cambodia can be traced back to southern China with the Hunan polity followed by the Chennai people.  The Khmer empire, the most notable and powerful period of Cambodia’s history, flourished from the 9th to the 15th century in what today is known as Angkor.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

After Angkor’s decline, the country lapsed into a period of hibernation resulting in being overtaken by the Siamese (Thai) and the Vietnamese who further eroded their culture. With the entrance of the Indochinese Union, it then became a French Protectorate. For a short time during WWII the Japanese occupied Cambodia and with their influence under the leadership of King Sihanouk, they were able to achieve their independence from France in 1953.

From then on, the ineptness or plain stupidity of the king, internal power struggles, outside influences, along with illiteracy and poverty all contributed to the country’s downward spiral.

Sihanouk’s first mistake was to abolish the romantic part of the Khmer language for the script which basically took their culture backwards. During the 50’s and 60’s he and his country tried to remain neutral towards the rise of communism and the cold war, but being surrounded by the heavy influence of Viet Nam and what was happening there, as well as the ultimate interference and fiddling of the US, a split between the rich and the poor began to occur. The middle class became more and more disenchanted. The seeds were being cultivated which would lead the country into its darkest hour…the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

This is just one of the theories for how and why the Rouge happened. Blame has also been levelled at China and their support of the Rouge. Who knows all the reasons for such madness, but to this day many  Cambodians cannot forget the horror of this genocide which nearly devastated this small, once very proud country.

The Rouge wanted to completely reform Cambodia’s society: their banking system, their religion, their beliefs, their lifestyles…everything. No one felt safe under this strict regime which resulted in neighbour fighting neighbour and in some cases family versus family. They were all struggling to survive and in doing so turned against each other. The whole country was collapsing. The murders began in Phnom Phen where most of the upper classes lived. The entire city was evacuated resulting in the loss of over 20,000 lives. Then began the purge of the eastern part of the country where records show that 250,000 lives were lost. When all was said and done, Cambodia faced the grim fact that their country now had an estimated two million people murdered…. almost all of the well educated…with 600,000 refugees displaced to other countries such as Thailand. Towards the end, many members of the Khmer Rouge fearing for their lives fled to Viet Nam. Hun Sen, the first and still reigning prime minister, was one of them. The Khmer escapees with help from the Vietnamese devised a plan to invade Cambodia to set up a new form of government which would eventually become the Cambodian People’s Party. Thus, began Viet Nam’s occupation of Cambodia beginning in ’79 and ending in ’93.

Any kind of lasting peace did not happen until 1991 following the Paris Conference when the United Nations was brought in to oversee the rebuilding of this devastated country. At first the country was ruled by a two-party system with Hun Sen…remember the man who was a member of the Khmer Rouge…. and Prince Ranariddh….a member of the Royal family…. as his second in command. Known for his strong-arm approach to ruling when “it’s needed” as the saying goes, Hun Sen maneuvered the situation so as to basically abolish any power the monarchy had to that which today gives them no authority other than to be figure heads for the country.

Cambodia’s figure head king.

As late as 2008, a tribunal was established to bring to justice those who were involved in positions of authority in the murder of the estimated 2 million citizens. Targeting only those who held senior government office and who had violated international law and carried out acts of genocide, a panel of foreign and local judges was formed to try them. By this time many of culprits had either died or disappeared including Pol Pot, the leader of the Rouge, who was hiding out for years in the north. After many trials and tribulations only three persons were convicted. Of those three, two have made restricted apologies to the Cambodian people with the third, the warden of the Tuol Sleng prison, called Duch, who was handed a life long sentence. To call this tribunal a success story is still up for much debate.

So what have I witnessed on this visit to Cambodia which could be seen as as a move forward to improve the lives of its people? The most obvious one is the vast improvement in its infrastructure. New roads connecting all the major towns and cities and streets in Phnom Penh all paved. This wasn’t the case on my first visit here in 2014.  A new train service has begun, linking Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, and another linking Cambodia and Thailand is just about completed. Here in Kep, from where I write this post, Route 33 A is a first-class highway running by the Bacoma Bungalows my lovely home for this past week. Cambodia has China, of course, to thank for this. Improved roads means more tourists especially from China which in turn is creating the problem of being overrun by them even though it’s providing jobs galore for young Cambodians.

Hwy 33 A

The entrance to Bacoma Bungalows.

My bungalow.

This, along with the flourishing tourist business, has increased the earning power of many Cambodians so they can now own motor bikes or even late-model cars. There is also evidence of a rising middle class taking place. I noticed this at Kep Beach which three years ago was a beach in the making. Tons of sand from somewhere else was brought in to make this sandy beach which has proven to be a huge success for locals and visitors alike. It appears to be a big draw for Cambodians of all classes and on a Sunday is packed with picnickers.

This is not on a Sunday!

However, the downside to this is that many of those forming the middle class are government workers whom I am told gain their positions by literally buying them. They also get substantial bonuses throughout the year which allows them to buy their big vehicles. Here is an example of  “the big C” at work which puts the country right up at the top when it comes to corruption. For more on this problem you can check out my post: http://The Big “C” in Cambodia

Cambodia’s history has not done anything to help it with its problem in getting their literacy rate up so that it can deal more effectively with its issues regarding poverty. Although statistics are saying that there have been improvements and that learning English is now considered a must, it’s up for debate on whether the present government with its lack of concern for human rights and the layers of corruption that still exist, is responsible for this. Most likely it’s been with the help of the NGO’s and the locals themselves, as well as young volunteers visiting from developed countries who want to get involved. In any event, the young people I talk to are eager to learn, but not so eager as those I spoke to in Laos. I would guess that the young are still affected by what happened in their country not that long ago. The scars of the older generation and the continued repressive government from a Prime Minister and some of his ministers who had connections to the Khmer Rouge are still having their negative effects.

Eeven though the economy here is showing an increasing growth rate fuelled by Chinese investment, increased tourism, and the garment industry which provides cheap labour for many countries including our own, it still isn’t keeping up with the kind of growth it needs to be a recognised contender in the Asian economy. It continues to lag far behind as it struggles with overwhelming human rights issues under an extremely repressive political regime. Although there are signs from the government that the lack of any kind of national education system is an absolute must to improve the literacy level of its population to alleviate the extreme poverty that prevails, there has been no real action. How can there be any change so long as the old way of getting anything done is to buy it? This is the core of Cambodia’s inability to become a more effective competitor in the new world which is emerging.

Ignoring such problems is easier to do than this one: the mounting piles of garbage! Garbage can be seen everywhere in this country.  And, to make matters worse, there is apparent lack of interest or will to do anything about it.

On my way to Kampot on the bus from Phnom Penh, I happened to take a pause from an interesting conversation I was having with an English teacher visiting from Ho Che Minh City, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the side of the road littered with garbage piles for what seemed like a kilometer or more. In the midst of it all sat a young boy about 12 years of age… totally naked. I don’t think I can ever erase this image from my mind. I resolved right there and then that I would do my utmost to avoid plastic bottles in my travels. This isn’t an easy task especially here in Cambodia. Fortunately, the owner of Bacoma Bungalows is filling my metal water bottle free of charge so I don’t have to buy plastic bottles. In most of the places I’ve stayed, I’ve had to take the small bottles of water offered to me. They were free so I took them knowing I would have to buy the same thing elsewhere. Large bottles often are not available or if they are they come packed in large quantities. Since the water here is undrinkable even for the locals, can you imagine the amount of plastic that keeps piling up! To make matters worse, the garbage collection from what I can determine in the rural areas is almost non-existent! I spoke to a young Cambodian lady about it, and she agreed there was a problem. “The only way to solve it is by educating the kids. The parents are hopeless,”she said. They aren’t educated enough to understand. Moreover, they prefer to buy their water in bottles from the fridge so they can drink it cold as a kind of status symbol to the fact they can afford it. She also pointed out that pure water is also something that brings good luck to their family. In rural areas the water is so polluted that people are getting sick from it. I am sure this is happening in many countries around the world where more and more of our water resources are being contaminated by toxins so what on earth are we going to do to solve this?

Phnom Penh’s garbage collection shows some improvement but still has problems.

Garbage collectors in Kampot trying to keep this tourist town clean.

Oops, they missed this pile.

I saw a few of these, but would the locals put their garbage in them?

Yes, Cambodia’s problems are the same ones facing all developing countries. The question is what can I or any tourist do to help them? Where can we start with the problem of potable water and the rampant use of plastic bottles? Perhaps we can start by setting a good example. From my small act of carrying a refillable bottle, I find myself not only talking about the problem with those who listen but now writing about it. This creates good energy which will spread. We can no longer just ignore the problems we see when visiting other countries. We must talk about them, or write about them, or do something! The more awareness each one of us can create the better. I would like to hear from you, my dear readers, on what we can do to alleviate rather than to contribute to their problems.

In closing, I will leave you with this quotation by the American ambassador, Joseph Mussomeli, who served here in 2005 which helps to explain why I and many others are lured back to Cambodia time and time again:

Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.”

For my other personal reasons for returning to Cambodia, take a peek at my post from last year by clicking on the link A Brief Hiatus to Phnom Penh

or this post Soaking Up Phnom Penh

or Phnom Penh Re-visited

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I Dealt With the Effects of Climate Change in Laos

Having to deal with climate change has never been on most travellers itineraries in the past, but I am betting it will be in the future if it isn’t already. I know it will be on mine. When Luang Prabang was experiencing erratic weather such as it did last week, most people I talked to were trying to ignore it by calling it a fluke or quickly changing the subject if it was brought up. Their intention was clearly on what to see and where to eat and not the weather.

Last week when I was packing my bags to catch the bus to Vientiane, the capital, I realised that I really didn’t want to leave Louang Prabang. I wanted to stay and experience the city bathed in sunshine and warmth. I wanted to explore some more of the Hill Tribe villages further north. I wanted just to linger a little while longer and savour its charms and slow pace of life. I have to confess I felt short-changed for I had only two measly days out of nine with clear, sunny skies. The others were dull and grey with maybe a few feeble  rays of sun trying to break through here and there. The worst of it was that each day the temperature dropped a little bit more…down to as low as 10 degrees! Not expecting this kind of weather left us tourists basically shivering in our shorts and sandals.

Over the years I have learned to adapt to travelling to this part of the world by taking as few clothes as possible …. just what I think I’ll need. Other than what I wear when I leave Canada is all I will have for any kind of warmth. So for the time I was in Luang Prabang, it was this outfit every day except for those two days of sunshine. At least I didn’t have to waste precious time deciding what to wear. Instead an easy routine set in: just grab those jeans, a long-sleeved top, my one and only fleece cardigan, my runners with my one pair of socks, and a scarf, which I broke down and bought at the Night Market, and get this on as quickly as possible in the morning. I must confess, I had to resort to wearing this outfit to bed on the night the thermometer went to below 10 degrees. It felt more like zero to me… worse than my  old drafty house in the dead of winter in Victoria Beach.

The five-star hotels probably had some kind of heating source, but my guest house certainly did not, and why should it? This kind of weather is not the norm for Laos. Yes, Luang Prabang is in the mountainous north of this small country where cooler temperatures can prevail in the dry season but apparently not as intense as what I experienced. The one blessing I did have for those cold nights was the fluffy white duvet on my large queen – sized bed. I was able to double it up and make a comfy little nest out of it to help keep me warm. Usually the places I stay will supply you with just a sheet and a light blanket which is quite enough for warm nights so I was lucky to have that duvet.

On our coldest day, I just couldn’t bear to be in my room at my computer making plans for my upcoming travels, blog writing, or wading through E-mail. I had to find a warmer place to do my computer stuff and keep moving. With this goal in mind, I set out. Although my guest house had Lipton’s tea and instant coffee available for breakfast, I have to admit that a cup of good coffee is the best way for me to start off my day. With that in mind, I headed for Le Benneton Cafe which became one of my favourite places to relax and savour a really good cup of coffee along with the newspapers to catch up on the latest Lao news. Fortunately, they provided thick plastic covers for the doors to shelter us from the cold making it warm and cozy. Most eating places were all open so weren’t much better than my room.

After tearing myself away from there, I decided to visit Mount Phousi (meaning sacred hill) in the centre of the city to climb up the 328 plus steps leading to the top. This hill which is over 100 meters high is graced with a golden pagoda which cannot be ignored as you approach the city or from wherever you happen to be while there. Once up to the top, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the region including the two rivers…the Mekong and the Nam Kham. It’s not surprising that it has become the perfect place to view the rising and the setting of the sun. I regret not experiencing either but at least it helped to warm me up and give me some much-needed exercise. Furthermore, I had avoided the crowds who go up to catch the perfect sunset or not so popular sunrise picture and had the place to myself.

With the stair climbing under my belt, I decided to go to the nearby Indigo Cafe for a bowl of their pumpkin soup. This was definitely a soup day. I wasn’t too disappointed except for the rather small bowl which was, however, accompanied by a delicious, healthy roll.

The next thing on my agenda was to indulge in a massage and hot sauna. The only place that had a sauna as far as I could find was the well-known Red Cross Massage Centre. It wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice for indulgence and pampering because there were absolutely no frills. Everything was basic, but it supported a good cause, and I wanted that sauna to help draw out the toxins which were contributing to my cold brought on, no doubt, by the erratic temperatures. I was on a mission to outwit the weather. As I had hoped, the sauna did the trick even though there were at least a dozen near naked women packed into a small room. The heat and close body contact set up a curiously funny but intimate atmosphere, not just for me but also the young Lao women who were with me. I felt like we had really bonded even though we didn’t share the same language. I love their sometimes child like sense of humour where they take delight in such little things. The Centre does have separate saunas for males and females but that’s it. Everything else is shared. If you are taking a sauna, you must basically fend for yourselves by bringing your own towel, or a sarong as I did, for a cover. The massages were mostly good I would say based on what others told me on Trip Advisor and word of mouth. My masseuse had very strong hands which made things a bit too uncomfortable for me at times. However, she apologized and did try to lighten up when I let out a groan every now and then. It wasn’t one of my better massages; however, the whole experience gave me what I wanted. I felt better afterwards and definitely warmer.

My day ended with a hot and too spicy Laotian soup for me. Nevertheless, I managed to have one of the best sleeps in a while as I bunked down in my day clothes under my duvet tent. Having to deal with the effects of a changing climate in Laos had not only turned out to be my most memorable day of all, but may mean that I will have to revisit this charming and most beautiful country in southeast Asia.

Click on the pictures for the captions.

 

Luang Prabang – Still a Precious Jewel in SE Asia

Sometimes waking up in the wee hours of the morning can be a positive experience. Studies have shown that it is often the most creative time of day for many people. I don’t know what part creativity played in my waking up at this time a few days ago, but what I do know is that it led to witnessing an attraction that has become one of the prime reasons tourists are flocking to Luang Prabang in Laos.

After nine years since my first visit to Luang Prabang, I am back again to see what changes have taken place. I am anxious to discover if this charming UNESCO city has managed to weather the scourge of too many tourists descending upon it, or if by some miracle it has managed to escape that and still be the peaceful place it was back in 2009.

Perhaps several days isn’t enough time to give it a thumbs up for managing to maintain its equilibrium but so far so good. This little city of about 55,000 souls appears to have kept its charm and is still fairly laid back compared to many other SE Asian cities. How has it managed to achieve this when others are struggling to keep up with the onslaught? I would guess it’s mainly for these reasons:

  •  possessing 33 of the most beautiful wats anywhere in this part of the world, not only creating a learning centre for young Lao men and Buddhist scholars, but also a number one tourist attraction.

  •  featuring its original shop houses still in good condition dating back to the time when Luang Prabang was one of three kingdoms ruling this part of SE Asia, thus, enabling it to qualify as a UNESCO heritage site.

  • providing a tranquil environment created by the green forested mountains which surround it, numerous waterfalls, and two rivers…the Mekong and the Nam Kham… which meet up in the middle of the city to form a perfect confluence.

    The Nam Kham River on its way to the Mekong.

In 2009 I was one of the few tourists who managed to drag myself out of bed to witness the daily monk walk for collecting alms. What was once an overlooked daily religious event carried out every day in the wee hours of the morning from 5:30 to 6:30  by the monks has these days morphed into one of Luang Prabang’s top tourist attractions. This is not surprising considering how our world in just nine years has changed. The growth of our social media and the technology that drives it has been the stimulus for increasing the number of tourists who have put this event high up on their list of ‘must sees’. This has, in turn, given the locals in need of income to entice their visitors to shell out money for food to fill the alms pots carried by the monks. The result has seen some nasty incidents of improper tourist activities like snapping ‘in your face’ pictures of the monks…many are just young boys. It’s no surprise that such shocking behavior creating such a circus-like atmosphere has not gone down well with some tourists and locals.

The picture at the top of this page is a close up of the monk walk taken by me in 2009. Unfortunately, my camera would not co-operate in taking pictures this year in the dark.

I don’t know if the unusually cold morning we had here a few days ago proved this observation made by so many others over the past few years to be erroneous or not, but I am pleased to report I did not see any of this. The mini-vans, which pulled up along the route where I happened to be standing to unload eager tourists, was done with a surprising silence. I actually found it all quite eerie to see everyone walking around in the dark. We all had our cameras ready for when the monks would pass and the offerings made, with everyone respectfully staying a good distance away from them. I also witnessed how those tourists wanting to take part in the ritual of offering alms…sticky rice… to the monks were being instructed to do so in the reverent manner that such an occasion calls for by some locals.  As for the problem of other foods going into their pots such as packaged goods with questionable nutritional value being sold by local vendors to visitors and locals alike, this is a problem still to be solved. I read in the local newspaper that there is a movement afoot to address this problem by encouraging vendors to make their own edible gifts with rice and natural ingredients to sell rather than peddling the junk food which will undoubtedly cause more harm than good. Many of the monks have been throwing it out or giving it back to the vendors for them to sell again. The proposal is a good one but could be difficult considering all the people involved. At least it’s a start in the right direction which hopefully will have an outcome that will continue to honour this age-old custom.

Physically the character of the city hasn’t changed a great deal. The wats I have seen so far haven’t been altered and are as beautiful as ever. 

The old shop houses lining the main street and the riverside streets are still there looking better than ever. Being a UNESCO city has forced this issue which the local authorities and property owners are adhering to. To accommodate the growing tourist trade, many of the buildings have been renovated into lovely boutique inns and more upscale restaurants. The Three Nagas where we enjoyed a gourmet meal in 2009 is still there but the prices have more than doubled. The cost of food has risen substantially every where, but good prices and good food can still be found beyond the centre and at the Night Market. An authentic Lao dish can be found on the street, especially side streets, for 15,000 kip which translates to about $2.50 Cdn. I can easily keep my daily food expenses under $20 which includes a delicious Lao coffee with a baked goodie at one of the many cool cafes. Also, Sysomphone Guest House where I am staying helps my budget by providing a decent breakfast as part of my accommodation costs. 

So far I have not discerned any tremendous changes to the environment in and around Luang Prabang. Having two rivers running through it is definitely a plus for this city. How fortunate that the mighty Mekong River and its smaller tributary, the Nam Kham, should meet right in the centre and that they have maintained their beauty with no over development. The streets running along side of each of them are lined with quaint hotels, oodles of restaurants, and numerous spas and massage parlours. Furthermore, it’s all kept relatively clean making them a joy for tourists to stroll along either night or day.

The mighty Mekong River

This type of boat is a common site on the Mekong used by tourists and locals.

With rivers there have to be some bridges. The one which has garnered the most tourist attention is the old Bamboo Bridge spanning the Nam Kham. Every year it has to be replaced after the high water levels produced by the wet season have washed it out. On the other hand, it does provide a safe walkway for the locals living on the other side and for the tourists who want to go over to observe how they live. Most of them are small farmers just eeking out a living who have no qualms to having visitors come over to see how simple their life is. For us it gives us a closer view of how the majority of people in this poor country still live. Only in Laos is it so common to see how the two can exist so closely together.

Bamboo Bridge for walking crossing the Nam Kham River.

I am not only impressed with how the city has maintained its true natural character but equally amazed at how the people have accepted all its visitors. They are generally friendly and try to be helpful. Furthermore, their English skills are pretty darn good for which we can thank the monks. Many young boys who would never have had the chance to learn English in the public schools have received their schooling with English as the main subject from the monks. Seizing the opportunity to better their circumstances, they are choosing to enter the thriving tourist sector. For now, this is a win-win situation for tourists and locals alike. I wonder and so does the guide I had for a tour to a Hmong village yesterday about what the future holds for them.

Waiting for a passenger – the Lao version of a ‘tuk tuk’.

One of the city’s lovely tree-shaded streets.