While visiting Battambang, we hired motorbike drivers for a day to take us through the surrounding countryside. Our day with them yielded an authentic look at Cambodian country life. Our drivers also shared glimpses of their own personal stories with us. Their stories were typical of many Cambodians and serve as a collective memory of a country that lost half its population during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. While the scores of smiling children we encountered throughout the day still bring smiles to our faces, the day underscored how thankful we are for the fortunate lives we've had until now.
Like 99% of the tourists who come to Siem Reap, we came to see the temples of Angkor and became cogs in the Angkor tourist processing machine – arranging transport, buying a 3-day pass, and temple hopping.
We had heard beforehand of the spiritual nature of the temples and the beauty of their engravings. We had no idea of the scale of the complex and did not fully fathom the number of tourists we'd share it with.
Much of what the visitor to Siem Reap sees are streets filled with restaurants, hotels, spas and other services geared towards foreign tourists. There is another side to life here, however, one that is neither shiny nor prosperous.
Like other destinations in Vietnam, Cai Rang dials up the activity, color, and sound a notch to the point of overstimulation. Duelling long-tail boats float by and sell everything from turnips to steaming hot soup. At the Mekong Delta's bazaar on water, transactions take place at every turn and boats jostle for the next deal.
We were fortunate to be in Southern Vietnam just prior to Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year (February 18, 2007). The Year of the Pig was being ushered in with an unassailable enthusiasm, as markets burst with flowers, sewing machines in tailor shops buzzed with the new year's wardrobe and shops overflowed with green rolls of Bahn Tet (sticky rice, pork fat and soybean paste rolled in a banana leaf).
We hired a car to take us at 5:30 AM from Hoi An to the Hindu temple complex of My Son, about an hour’s drive away. We arrived in such good time that the ticket office had yet to open and used our available time to share a coffee with our driver as we waited for the ticket office to open.
Despite what my husband says, I am not a clothes junkie. I avoid shopping if I can get by another season with the same clothes as last. Why is it that I turned into a custom-made clothes fiend searching for tailors while in Hoi An, Vietnam?
The Hoi An Clothing Craze Begins
As soon as we entered the first tailor shop (there are over 200 in Hoi An), a recommendation from the Swedish travelers we had met in Sapa, I wanted all the silk tops and dresses I saw hanging on the wall. The saleswomen quickly tuned into my excitement and went to work taking advantage of it.
“This place is a shxxhole.” These were Dan’s first words when we arrived in Vientiane. We had just spent several hours on a dustbowl trail, which eventually transformed into Grapes of Wrath meets full blown industrialized pollution. Oh, and the scowling faces. Someone forgot to tell these people that the rest of their countrymen actually smile. Vientiane's roads seem to cake pained looks onto the faces of its motorbike drivers who struggled to breathe as they drove without face masks.
Big Brother Mouse (BBM), a book publishing and literacy program in Luang Prabang, produces children's books in the Lao language to help promote the love of reading and learning in children. The organization was started by a retired American publisher who saw the need for children's books and decided to try to fill the gap himself. The project is taking off and growing.