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After making it back to Vientiane with Natalie (a feat, if you remember my last entry), I had a couple days to recup and relax before my mae (“mom”) flew in.
She arrived on January 3rd, after traveling from Vermont to New Jersey to Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh to Vientiane, and I think the entire trip took between 30 and 40 hours.
After mom landed at Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, we spent the afternoon and the evening of the 3rd exploring a bit of the city and having dinner at Makphet (it means, “chili”), my favorite restaurant in town. Makphet is managed by Friends International, an organization that trains homeless and otherwise disadvantaged youths in cooking, serving, etc, and employs them in their restaurants. There are a number of restaurants under the same management, each in a different city in Southeast Asia.
No rest for the weary. The next morning, we woke up early and headed to the airport for our Lao Airlines flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. The flight stopped along the way in Pakse, a small city in Southern Laos, and we switched planes before continuing on to Siem Reap. The nice thing about Lao Airlines is they still offer food — snacks and full meals, even on short hopper flights. Alas, it seems that the pretty champa-decorated boxes that the meals are packaged in are promptly thrown out post-food consumption. Lao Airlines takes wasteful consumption to new heights.
We arrived in Siem Reap and took a cab into town — it took a good 35 minutes, which was unfortunate given that the cab driver insisted on aggressively promoting his own driving services to us the entire time. He really wanted us to hire him as our driver to Angkor Wat, and he wouldn’t let it go, even when I told him in every possible way that we couldn’t commit to anything. This initial experience was semi-indicative of the attitudes and behaviors of many salespeople — including food vendors, clothing sellers, tuk-tuk drivers — in Siem Reap. People are aggressive there, in a way that they most definitely are not in Vientiane.
I feel torn about that aggression — Siem Reap is crawling with tourists and it makes sense for local salespeople to capitalize on that. Assuming that these people understand how to best turn a profit, then it makes sense for them to aggressively hawk if that’s what works best. Or perhaps this is a Prisoner’s Dilemma-style situation, in which case it would benefit hawkers to not hawk aggressively if they could organize and all commit to not hawking aggressively, but so long as one hawker does better by being more aggressive, they all will be aggressive. This is getting long-winded. My point is that it was really easy at times to feel stressed and uncomfortable by the way that vendors interacted with us, but at the end of the day these people are just tryna get by and that’s understandable.
Back to our travel marathon adventure.
After checking into to our hotel in Siem Reap, we headed out on foot to explore the city. We walked around the center of town and down “Pub Street,” a main thoroughfare, which at least to me embodies a bit of Church Street in Burlington, Vermont (pedestrians-only, restaurants, and shops), and a bit of Khao San Road in Bangkok (a complete mess — see earlier post).
We had a spread of traditional Khmer food that night: burritos, chips, salsa, and margaritas.
We woke up early the next morning (4am early) to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. It was a surreal, 30-minute tuk-tuk drive there — surreal because it was still pitch black outside, surreal because we slowly making our way towards a 12th century religious complex that happens to the biggest and arguably the most magical/glorious in the world, and surreal because tuk-tuks all over the city of Siem Reap were schlepping tourists alongside us to Angkor. By the time we got to the complex, the grounds outside the Angkor Wat were filling with people arranging and rearranging themselves for the best possible view of Angkor Wat.
The sunrise was beautiful.
My mom was left a bit dissatisfied — she thought that a proper sunrise viewing would have lit up the front of Angkor Wat, not cast a shadow on the structure. In other words, the hundreds of tourists who congregate on this side of the structure (every morning) should actually be viewing the sunrise from the other side.
Oh well — it was still magical.
After watching the sunrise, we explored Angkor Wat.
We found our tuk-tuk driver back in the parking lot, and he took us to our next destination: Angkor Thom. One of the main attractions in Angkor Thom is the Bayon, King Jayavarman VII’s official state temple. In the following pictures, you can see the carved stone faces characterizing the Bayon:
From there, we headed to my favorite temple complex, Ta Promh. Unlike the other temples that we explored in Angkor, Ta Promh has been left relatively undisturbed since it was found — the temple has integrated with its environment, and trees now grow in and around the complex. Incidentally, Ta Promh was also used as the filming location in the Angelina Jolie movie, “Tomb Raider.”
We met our tuk-tuk driver on the other side of Ta Promh around midday, and he drove us back to our hotel in the city center. It was only then that we realized that our tuk-tuk driver, who we had been calling “Mike” all day, was actually named Mai (his name was painted on his tuk-tuk). Oops.
After a swim to cool off in the hotel pool, we walked back into town and popped in and out of different handicraft and textiles stores. One shop in particular, called “Artisans Angkor,” trains and employs over a thousand Cambodian people living in rural areas in traditional Khmer silk-making and stone/wood carving techniques. The organization also schleps tourists out to a more remote silk-making workshop and farm to learn about the silk-making process. We signed up for this trip.
The next day, we took a cooking class at Le Tigre de Papier, a restaurant on Pub Street. We sat with our fellow students in the restaurant first, and were allowed to pick an appetizer and entree that we would learn to make. I chose to make fresh spring rolls — one of my favorite foods in Southeast Asia — and chicken amok, a soupy curry flavored with lemongrass, turmeric, garlic, shallots, and ginger. Then we followed our instructor into a large market in the center of town, where vendors sold fish, meats, vegetables, fruits, clothes and electronics under one tin roof.
She showed us fruits and vegetables popularly used in Khmer cooking, before taking us back to the restaurant and up a flight of stairs to their workshop, which had already been prepared with the ingredients that we would need for our individual dishes. Our instructor demonstrated how to chop and pick apart the vegetables in front of us, and how use a mortar and pestle to pound and grind herbs and garlic into dipping sauces and marinades. For the next hour or so, we chopped, ground, and cooked away, before sitting down to our meals.
After our cooking class, we went back to our hotel for a swim before heading to Angkor Watt Putt, a mini-golf center on the outskirts of town. Kitschy as hell, but an awesome time. I beat my mom because I scored the most points. She insisted that that’s not how it works.
That night, we went to dinner at Marum, a restaurant that — like Makphet — is managed by Friends International. And also like Makphet, the food and atmosphere at Marum were fantastic.
The next day, we took a van from Artisans Angkor to their silk farm outside of town. The tour we received there was hands-on and extremely informative. We were able to see silkworms at every stage of their development, and even move silkworms that had passed one stage to another basket where they would stay until maturation. We learned that the silkworms are killed — by steaming — while in their cocoons, and that their cocoons are then used to make silk. Yikes. Our tourguide also explained the various seeds, pods, and plants used to make natural dyes. He picked one pod from a nearby tree and opened it up to show vibrant red seeds. He squished one to reveal its deep red color, and then painted it on his lips. It was quite a look.
Back in town, we made our way to the Little Red Fox Cafe, a joint that we visited semi-regularly during our stay in Siem Reap. It was owned by a couple gay dudes who know how to make a bagel with lox and cream cheese, and it was a great place to chill out in air conditioning with a solid espresso drink or tea.
Later in the day, we went to the Angkor National Museum. We spent a few hours there learning about the Khmer Kingdom and the construction of Angkor Wat, and it helped to put in context a lot of what we had seen.
The next day, we made a quick stop at the Royal Gardens before heading to the airport. It became clear that many wedding parties set up in the gardens to take photographs, and so mom had a great time photographing the couples alongside their paid photographers. Then we said goodbye to Siem Reap and flew to Luang Prabang, in Northern Lao.
Luang Prabang is so completely different than Vientiane that it feels like its in another country. For one, the city sits in a valley among beautiful mountains, and the air is cool and crisp — especially at this time of year. It also has a more palatable charm than Vientiane. Vientiane has charm, don’t get me wrong — but it’s a bit on the gritty side. Luang Prabang, on the other hand, is beautifully scenic and quaint and feels more brand spanking new, despite its history as the former capital of the Kingdom of Laos.
Our first night in Luang Prabang, we met my housemate, Emily, for dinner at Khaipheng, a(nother) Friends International restaurant. She had just returned from her holiday trip to California, and decided to meet my mom and me in Luang Prabang. The following day, we met Emily in town early in the morning and took a 45-minute songthaew ride to the Kuang Si Waterfall. The falls and surrounding swimming holes were a brilliant turquoise color — I’ve never seen anything like it before. Emily and I decided to follow a path up the side of the waterfalls, and what we thought would be a tough hike turned into some form of rock-climbing.
We took our shoes off at the top and scooted across peak of the waterfall, before coming down on the other side (this side had stairs!).
The Kuang Si park area also included a bear sanctuary, where they keep bears that were saved from poachers and bear bile farms. It felt uncomfortably like a zoo, but I’m pretty sure the bears prefer this to their prior circumstances. The bears were huge and beautiful, and each had a white v-neck, of sorts, on its chest. These white crescents are the reason inspired the name of the bears: “moon bears.”
We then visited butterfly gardens quite close to the park. There, an intern at the garden explained the development of butterflies, and we observed the caterpillars and their cocoons as he talked. Then we spent time exploring the gardens.
After our daytime adventure, Emily, my mom, and I took a cooking class together. We made quite of few Lao dishes together, including sticky rice, jeow (eggplant and tomato spicy sauces), mok pa (steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves), chicken stuffed lemongrass, and coconut sticky rice for dessert. The class was organized faultlessly, with assistants who were ready to save our food when we fucked up. This happened quite a bit.
The next day, Emily and I woke up early to hike Mt. Phousi at sunrise. The cloud cover was too pronounced to see a sunrise — it was more like a soft transition to dark gray to light gray, but it was still fun to hike the steps first thing in the morning.
Around lunch time, we met up with Emily and Mike, another friend in the area, for lunch — the restaurant we chose was located across the Nam Khan River, and so we needed to cross a long bamboo footbridge over the rushing river water. After lunch, mom and I checked out the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Center, a museum exhibiting the traditional arts of diverse ethnic groups Lao. The museum was small but packed with information and artifacts.
On the following day, our last full day in Luang Prabang, we took a weaving class, where mom and I (and 5 or 6 other people) wove silk place mats on a loom. Throwing the shuttle back and forth through the strings was my favorite part, although I never really got the hang of the foot peddles. Both of our place mats came out looking a bit scruffy — as compared to the flawless handwoven cloths available — but they have character.
We took a flight back to Vientiane the next day, and I returned to the daily grind almost immediately. Mom and I were able to do a few of my favorite things in Vientiane, though, before she left: peruse the That Luang night market for take-out Lao food, go bowling at the National Bowling Center, eat at my favorite Indian restaurant, visit my favorite gas station restaurant (I have a thing for gas station/restaurant hybrids), and play ping pong at a ridiculously huge (and usually empty) gym near my house. On mom’s final day in Vientiane, we headed to Kung’s Cafe, a delicious Lao restaurant specializing in sticky rice mango pancakes and smoothies.
I’m not one to use the word “blessing” lightly (what is a blessing, anyway?), but it really gets at the meaning of my mom being here on this side of the world with me, even for a couple weeks. I feel so grateful that we could explore a tiny bit of the world together, especially a part of the world that I’ve found simultaneously so challenging, stimulating, and culturally rich.
Wishing everyone a great week. Sending love and hugs from Laos! xoxo.