Splashes of color and smiles dominate the holiday of Holi to celebrate the monsoon season to come. In Katmandu, it is a day off work for all even though only the Hindu wear the bright florescent colors which are the trademark of this holiday.
It seemed to me that all boys from about eight to fourteen were heavy into the holiday spirit even if their families were Buddhist……Imagine: A free day from school and the entire point of this day was to throw color at people. A day where it was also okay to throw water balloons and squirt water at anyone in sight. I think this holiday was made for boys of this age. I enjoyed watching the the battle happening downstairs safely from the rooftop view of my patio. Such big smiles on their faces as the color and water war had begun.
At some point the boys downstairs decided that I was “free game” and thought I would like to join in the fun. Every time I left the house I had to “watch” out for my young neighbors to minimize the “attack”. Walking about, I saw non-Holi observers smiling at the the chalk covered adults and young children. In Katmandu, this may be a holiday celebrated by few, but in my opinion, enjoyed by all.
In the lowlands of Nepal, there is a jungle which one may have a rare chance to see a tiger or even a leopard. I did not see either while I was in Chitwan National Park even though both had been spotted during my stay. I was okay with this since I was in another national park that did not allow the rangers or guides to carry guns. Somehow the long stick my guide carried by his side was not too reassuring.
The entire time I was walking in the jungle I found myself trying to do two things. The first was to not step on any leaves that would alert an animal to my presence. The second was continually searching for trees I thought could climb if we did encounter an unfriendly animal.
To intensify matters even more, the leopard was not really seen, as much attacked, a man in the village across the field from my hotel. So, I was really okay, almost relieved to have walked through the jungle and back unscathed. I had seen the tiger in India and the leopard in Africa so these two animals were not a “must see” on my agenda.
I did get to watch the black rhino everyday I was in Chitwan. I was surprised how visually different the black rhino was from white rhino I saw in Zambia last fall. The rhino skin looked as it was a hard shell, whereas in Zambia the rhino simply looked like it had really thick grey skin. “The arrow can not pierce the skin of a rhino.” My guide informed me. “If we see one, we have one thing we need to do.” “What’s that?” I questioned. “Run.”
After trying to smile it off he said he was actually serious but we needed to run in a “zig zag”, changing directions every twenty to thirty meters. “They have poor eyesight and if we are quiet as we run then they will have trouble following us when we change directions. Another advantage of changing directions is that the rhino has a difficult time turning their large frames to follow. As we run, you should throw clothing down to cause additional confusion to the direction we are heading.” I remember that this is the same advice I was given for the white rhino in Zambia so both must have some universal traits.
Most people buy a “package deal” of activities in Chitwan so the hotels keep you busy the entire time you are here. Jungle walk, canoe trip, elephant ride, watching the elephant bath, cultural show, elephant breeding center visit. It does not matter the star level of the hotel. Everybody is doing the same activities and I found that I ran into the same people over and over. My favorite activities was the canoe trip and two activities not on the “usual” menu.
The canoe is actually a dugout canoe from a single tree and they pack the groups into each boat. “Are you sure there is room for us?” I asked my guide. “Sure, they fit twelve people.” “Twelve people of what size?” My guide, Prabin, did not respond as I careful boarded the tippy canoe with the water inching up towards the sides.
We saw lots of birds from the river, my favorite was the blue, brown and white Kingfisher. The bright blue was so beautiful when they spread their wings to fly. There were also several crocodiles hiding between the lilies and in the mud on the banks of the river.
Since my guide knew that I had spent time learning to be a mahout in Laos, he arranged for me take their elephant to the river for it’s daily bath. I felt pretty lucky to do this since I was the only tourist around which had been able to have this experience. Prabin translated for me as this elephant/mahout pair spoke Hindi. I was glad that this mahout was a gentle teacher as in my first experience in Laos. Other mahouts watched and smiled as I worked with our elephant.
One night the resort arranged for me to stay in one of the few “tower” accommodations in the jungle. I loved this because our second floor cabin was in the middle of a grassy field which at dusk many animals found their way to feed. It was also a safe place to watch the wildlife so I found myself enjoying this better than the jungle walks.
We watched a mother and baby rhino for a long time make their way through the field. We saw wild boar, peacocks but my favorite were the spotted deer. There were over forty grazing away in the afternoon light. After dark I was able to have an unexpected treat….Fireflies!
“Is that a firefly?” I question looking at the small bright light floating in the tree next to me. “Yes. It is a firefly.” “Wow! I have never seen one before.” Prabin went below to catch one so I could look at it close up. It looked like a regular insect on top. The florescent light came from underneath. It quickly flew away when we opened our hands wide.
I found the national park in the lowlands of Nepal a wonder place full of surprises and caring people wishing to show you her treasures.
Our first glimpse of the elephants saw them all hard at work. Several were already carrying tourists on bench saddles belted to their back like a horse. Others were munching on green leaves set in front of them. They too were ready to be ridden with a saddle already attached. One at a time the mahout (elephant trainer) commanded their elephant to walk to the platform where eager foreigners waited for a ride. “Okay.” I heard someone say to the next tourist in line as he tilted his head toward the elephant as if to said ‘it was his turn’ to get on.
Each tourist carefully grabbed the side of the bench and placed each foot near the front shoulder of the elephant before sitting down. I could see a look of gratefulness across each face as they realized they had “made it” without falling between the fifteen foot platform and the elephant beside it.
A large tour bus parks nearby and at least twenty people are lead to the stairway going up to the small platform.
“Okay, we need to split you into groups.” My attention is redirected back to our guide. “Everyone who signed up for the ride and the river kayak stand over there.” This is the point we realized that most of the new faces we met on the shared minivan ride would not be with us the rest of the day. Only four of us had signed up to learn how to be a mahout for a day. A teacher and baker from Ireland, an engineer from Germany and myself.
We were lead away from the elephants to change into our official mahout uniforms and to learn about asian elephants. This included learning the commands we would need when working with the elephants later in the day.
Every elephant has one mahout which always works with the same elephant. It is clear to see that the pair have a very close bond. Elephants have terrific memories and I would come to learn that each has a very different personality.
I was very lucky with my first elephant/mahout pairing. “Don’t worry. She is very gentle.” The main tour guide said to me as I reached to get on the bench on top of my elephant. I would find that her mahout was likewise very a gentle soul.
I was glad that this seat had a bar that fitted across the front of the bench. When I had ridden an elephant in Thailand, years earlier, I remember holding on to the back of a similar bench with both arms when going down a steep hill. I felt steady with the wooden bar in front of me. “This is much better. I am not going to slide off this bench with this bar to push back on.” I thought to myself.
Within a few minutes of leaving the platform my mahout, Sing, pointed at the bar. “You want bar?” He seemed to nod, “Okay, here you go.” I handed the bar to Sing as he motioned for me to scoot over. I moved to the left on the bench and he hopped up beside me. “Who is going to drive this thing?” I said looking over to him. Sing pointed for me to get on the elephant. I was realizing that the commands I had learned earlier that day were all the common words between us but we seemed to communicate just fine.
One foot after another I crawled on Tahoot. She was steady as walking on granite. I was immediately comfortable. Sing motioned for me to move my hands forward on the top of her head. It seemed more comfortable so I figured it was the proper position. I looked back to see Sing’s face and determine how I was doing. Sing had replaced the wooden bar across the bench and was curled up behind it, resting but keeping an eye on me. I figured I must have been doing okay for him to be so relaxed.
The elephants in front of us were not being as compliant. The other mahouts were having to assist and prod their elephants to move. Hubert’s elephant was being particularly difficult. Turning the wrong way, stopping to eat at whatever looked greenest and deciding to halt and not budge an inch at times.
I was able to use several commands to stop, move to right or left around the others and go at will. The others used “ya, ya” several times which means “no, no.” I was glad I never had to do that with Tahoot.
Next thing I knew, Sing was off the bench and assisting the other mahouts. He walked beside Hubert’s elephant.
Tahoot and I were the last to reach the top of a steep downward incline. “Emma, do I need to do anything differently?” Emma, the teacher from Ireland had just went down the hill. “Your elephant will do everything. Just squeeze you legs together and lock you elbows.”
Emma watched from her elephant. Upon making it down the hill she said. “Good job.” She looked over to my mahout busy with Hubert’s elephant and added, “I guess they don’t think you need any help.”
From that point on Tahoot and I were bonded and I completely trusted her. I could see that Sing looked back every one in a while and it was clear I had his nod of approval.
In the late afternoon they assigned us to a different elephant team. I was not excited to leave Tahoot but I guess they wanted us to have different experiences. I am glad I was assigned to Tahoot and Sing first as I was able to build my confidence with such a calm elephant and encouraging trainer.
My second pairing was not as delightful. Both the elephant and mahout had a cantankerous streak. For example, I wanted the elephant to stop, to leave a “‘little personal space” (2-3 feet) between us and the next elephant and my mahout would command him to go budging right up to the other elephant. I would tell the elephant to go left down the stream and the elephant choose to go right up the embank on a narrow pathway. “Okay, not the way I wanted but that works too.” I told the elephant who was not paying much attention to me.
When we reached the river for his afternoon bath I found that the elephant and the mahout were paying attention. I am now positive that they conspired together to have some fun at my expense.
I gave the command to spray and my elephant completely dunked giving me a bath. I looked behind me and my mahout was standing up and balancing on the only part of the elephant not in the water. I thought, “He had to know that the elephant was going to do that to know stand on the back of the elephant before he went under the water.” Next, my mahout had the elephant walk right behind another elephant going to the bathroom and commanded her to dunk again. The elephant, which had a habit of doing what he pleased, was quick to comply. All I could do was cover my mouth and hold on. Now I knew that they were on the same wavelength….And possessed same personalities.
I seemed to pass some initiation because after that my second mahout and elephant seemed to try harder to get along. (Though I must admit I made sure my mahout did not continue to stay dry after I was dunked the second time. Maybe he just decided to back off and get along.) At any rate, the new elephant and I finally bonded and I realized that elephants, like humans, have strong nonverbal skills, unique personalities and can have a stubborn streak….But in the end, given enough time, it is hard not to become attached even to the most difficult.
When you buy a bus ticket anywhere in Southeast Asia you never really know what to expect. I find that I always serve myself better by lowering my transportation expectations by several notches in third world countries, even when the local travel agent makes assurances of air conditioning, your own seat, and bathroom stops…..Then maybe you will be pleasantly surprised.
Monique and I waited for our transfer vehicle only to find seven passengers in the back of the tuk tuk. My first thought was, “Here we go again.” After only a couple of issues at the bus station, such as the tour company forgetting to pick up the third companion in our group, we left Luang Prabang only a couple hours late.
After an interesting journey we arrived in record time to Nong Khaiw and hiked the rest of the way into town. We had reserved a lovely bungalow by the river. It is best to reserve accommodations up here, especially in high season, as there is a limited selection.
I was not sure what to expect in Nong Khaiw as my guide book only had two paragraph’s on this place. However, based on recommendations of fellow travelers we decided to explore on without guide book recommendations.
The mountains seem to keep folding one after another outside of this little valley. A river winds through. No one seems to notice or care there is a new tourist in town. When we arrived at our hotel the security guard was asleep. That would be our first real sign of the pace we would find here.
We mellowed out on our balcony and later rented inflated tubes to float down the river. We couldn’t find anyone to pay to drive us to where tourists put the floats in the river so we had to walk. It was the first time a tuk tuk ever refused to take a fair in all my world travels. “His day off.” someone said, as I tried to get the tuk tuk drivers attention. Then the man pointed the dirt road we should walk up.
I did not know why all the locals were smiling until I realized that we would have to carefully step down a steep muddy embankment full of overlapping greenery to get to the river. By the time we reached the water we were all laughing.
Later on we found a tour company to take us mountain biking up the valley the next day. We learned quickly that the gears on the bikes were in a bit of disrepair and only one of my brakes worked. But we figured we could survive one day on the bikes as we were excited to get in the mountains and to get some exercise.
We were able to visit four villages which, as always, were an eye opener and makes one thankful that we can afford to ride bikes in disrepair when other could not.
We saw children caring for children as their parents work in the fields. Other unaccompanied kids were picking up nuts on the side of the road to sell and eat. One of them had an untreated lazy eye. Some boys played soccer from a homemade ball. We found old women carrying heavy loads while many old men found ways to keep their hands busy. Other elderly starred off into the distance and seemed to observed the day away.
All the children seemed to be interested in the cameras we are holding as they, and some adults, want me to take a picture of them and then want me to show them photo. They want to know how they look.
We had asked our guide to fix a vegetarian meal for lunch. Somehow we thought it would be safer. We knew that he had purchase the traditional food wrapped in banana leaves from the market early in the morning. I figured the food was sitting in a warm backpack for at least six hours before lunch.
Our guide cuts down a couple banana leaves for a table and we sit beside the river. “Wow. What do we have?” We asked. “This is eggplant. Here we have noddles. This is sticky rice. Here is river weed. This is fish.” Our guide pointed to each unwrapped item in front of us.” I pick up my noodles and start eating until I notice something brownish. “What this?” “It’s water buffalo blood.” “I thought that this was a vegetarian meal?” I questioned. “It is….No meat.” “I generously offered up my portion of noodles to any takers.”
I think my mother would have been proud that I tried a small amount everything else. However, I must admit that I mainly stayed with the sticky rice for that meal.
That afternoon we would kayak back to Nong Khaiw. It was a pleasant paddle down the river with the green hills around us and the limestone cliffs above. Our guide decides that we should break for a swim. Shortly after pulling our boats on the sandy island we we realized that our guide was completely conked out in one of the kayaks. “What is it with this place? Everyone sleeps on the job.” Monique notices. We all laugh.
When our guide awoke we completed our paddle early enough to meet the sunset back at our hotel. The next day we choose to take the slow boat back down to Luang Prabang.
Several times I thought, “I could spend some time in retirement in this town.” It was one of the first places that I thought someone could get around with a cane or a walker. And well, it seems that it is perfectly fine to take a cat nap on the job. Now, that’s relaxed right there.
“You are going to love it here! Listen to that.” Monquie, a new friend from my Cambodia travels and who arrived a day earlier in Luang Prabang, Laos, stated enthusiastically. “What?” I questioned. “Nothing. No tuk tuk horns, no people asking you to buy anything. Isn’t it great! I feel so relaxed here and I have only been here a day.”
We walked through the night market together and I noticed that she was right. This was the most peaceful it had been outside of my hotel in over two weeks. Walking in front of the vender stalls, the busiest part of town, merchants would only ask if you wanted help if you had stood there awhile.
During my time in Luang Prabang, I spent idle time watching the river and fishermen casting there nets, made trips to see local Buddhist temples, visited local villages, watched the sunset from a wat on the hill (a fun 338 steps to the top) and of course attend another dance/theater performance.
I also visited the small cultural museum and royal palace. The throne room of the royal palace should not be missed, even if “you are not a museum person”. I believe that it rivals any other royal interior I have seen in Southeast Asia. The majority of the throne room is painted red and intricate colored mirrors cover the walls. The mirror images tell the story of the Lao people and their traditions. A grand crystal chandelier hangs from the center of the room. The throne and other furniture about the room are painted in brilliant gold. Unfortunately visitors are not allowed to film the palace but I am sure there are pictures of the palace online if you are interested.
An unexpected surprise in the palace was a gift from President Nixon of the United States to the people of Lao. It was a miniature flag of their country that had went up in Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the moon. Also in a glass casing on the plaque were moon rocks from that first mission.
We woke up early to give alms to the monks as is common in Luang Prabang. Every morning at six, monks walk silently down the street with their alms basin. Locals and tourist alike give food alms as they pass on their way.
My favorite three days were spent just outside of Luang Prabang. The first was a wonderful day spent hiking and visiting beside water that fell down into countless aqua pools. The water was perfect for a little swim in the afternoon heat. Monquie and I had also signed up for a Lao cooking class. We started at the market learning how to pick the freshest ingredients then we went to a lovely cooking school outside of town where we each had our own cooking station. I now know how to really roast vegetables and stuff a piece of lemongrass. My favorite day was spent in the jungle learning how to be a mahout or elephant trainer.
It seemed that most travelers had a hard time leaving this town. So many activies if you choose to do any at all. Luang Prabang is not to slow, not to fast paced, it was just right.
Beyond the Temples of Siem Reap are its people.
Hopeful merchants outside every temple parking lot encroaching on weary foreigners. Young children happily visiting until they notice someone entering or leaving a temple. Their eyes turn sad as they count the postcards for sale, “One, two, three…”
Other children in uniforms ride their bicycles to school. We also find locals driving the roads using a variety of mechanical contraptions. Tourist mix in, pedaling or riding tuk-tuk’s to the ancient treasures while others speed by in large tourist buses.
Outside of the main temple circuit, one can see more and more folks farming and going about their daily life away from the main attractions. In the country, families sell goodies they have created by the side of the road such as candy and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. Nearby their children play carefree.
This is Siem Reap, beyond the city, between the temples.
Siem Reap is best known for the twelfth century wonder known as Angkor Wat. However, there are more than one hundred temples dating from the ninth to the twelfth century built around this Angkorian capitol which was all but destroyed by the Thai Army in the fourteenth century. Angkor Wat was one of the last temples built during the during this period but is best known as it is both one of the largest and most detailed of them all.
As kings and religions changed over the centuries, so too did the purpose of the temples. However, the line between each religion becomes blended with old traditions and the importance honoring ancestors. Therefore, temples or monuments originally dedicated to Hinduism, Animism or Buddhism may be rededicated with the change in belief system over the years.
Locals break up the temples into three parts; The “Small Circuit” include Angkor Wat, Bayon which is nicknamed “Temple with the Faces” and Ta Prohm nicknamed “The Tomb Raider Temple” as is was made famous by Anglia Jolie’s famous movie, ‘Laura Croft: Tomb Raider’. The “Big Circuit” includes one of my favorites, Preah Khan, which is a very detailed temple with pink highlights and losing a battle against numerous banyan trees towering above the collapsing stones. Further away from the center is the “Roluos Group” which comprises of some of the oldest temples dating from the ninth century.
For the adventurous there are amazing temples further out from these three groups. The greatest of these is Beng Mealea. Here not only the trees but also the moss and jungle seemed to be claiming it for their own.
Most tourists come in groups and just seem to view the highlights. Coming for extra days with your own transportation, waiting for the groups to pass by make the journey more peaceful. It is common to rent a bicycle and pedal from place to place.
I snapped over a thousand photographs in my three day visit to the temples. In reviewing the photos I realize that nothing seems to capture the greatness of it all.
I, like many visitors, arrived early to witness the changing morning colors over Angkor Wat. I was quickly introduced to the steep narrow steps most temples possess. The steps lead up to holy sites that are built higher to be closer to god or heaven.
I must admit that I was nervous climbing up and down some of the steps. Some steps barely achieved three inches in width. A few times, I could feel my toes tighten to hold myself as my fingers gripped tightly to these narrow steps as I mind questioned why I decided to climb to the top.
By the second day of my journey, I notice little restoration work about me as I become more and more aware of the impact thousands of tourist a day are having on these sites.
At one temple, I see three workers vainly attempt some reconstruction without any heavy equipment. At the same site I notice bus loads of tourist crawling all over one of the oldest temples, Beng Mealea, in order to capture “that perfect photo”. The stones are not stable, but one by one they wait their turn and crawl over to the place for their chance at the same photograph and creating additional damage along the way. I begin to wonder why the government is not doing more restoration and blocking off areas to preserve the temples for future generations.
On the last day I hired a personal guide to help answer questions I have had about the temples and the people surrounding Siem Reap. At the end of the day I asked, “What do you want me to know about this place before I leave?” I was shocked to learn his answer. “Where is your ticket?” I reached in my bag and pulled out my three day Angkor World Heritage Pass. “Look at the symbol at the bottom.” He pointed to a pink symbol and under it had the words ‘SOKHA HOTEL Co., LTD’.
“What does that mean?” I asked. My guide explained that the government had a contract that allows most of the revenues from these Cambodian treasures to be claimed by this company which little, if any, goes to support reconstruction or to help the people of Cambodia. In my guides opinion, due to government corruption it is unlikely that these contracts will be changed to support the people of Cambodia or the temples located here.
I titled this blog, “Don’t Walk, Run To See The Wonders of Siem Reap”, because with little interest or financial resources to restore this structures, as the country is still rebuilding from the wrecking ball of the Khmer Rouge, I fear that the destruction of the temples will continue over time as the number of tourist mount. So, do come quickly if you are eager to see the temples as unrestricted as I have been able to enjoy. However, please be aware of your presence here and please do your part minimize your lasting footprint on the area.