Lost and Lovin' It in Laos

Trip Start May 25, 2003
Trip End Aug 21, 2003

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Sunday, July 27, 2003

With a strong and persistent storm that apparently originated somewhere in China keeping the skies over Phnom Penh grey and wet, we decied not to dawdle (a deceptively difficult decision in this environment carefully crafted to encourage slothfull bliss). We hopped on the back of a couple motorbikes early in the morning and visited the Khmer Rouge's S-21 torture camp and nearby killing fields. The grizzly murders of some 2 million people in just over 3 years of Pol Pot's maniacal regime left us grasping for answers and feeling even more painfully and poignantly the desparation of our species' propensity for self-destruction, and lamenting our own country's infuriating inability to learn from past mistakes. We rounded off the day with a viewing of a documentary film called "War Photographer," chronicalling the heroic exploits of a photojournalist who has dedicated his life to capturing on film the ravages of war and poverty. If war is an effort to deceive and destroy, he argues, then photography is the anthithesis of war. We staggered back to our room, depressed and inspired.

We rose with the sun (which, though invisible, we assumed to be responsible for illuminating the thick clouds that seemed to be a permanent fixture in Cambodia) for our boat trip up the Mekong and across Tonle Sap lake to Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat. After 5 hours of speeding up the river in a hydroplane vessel that looked more like a space ship than a boat, we boarded a small fishing vessel for the trip to shore. We wound our way through lilly pad-filled waters, past a small floating village whose inhabitants subsist generation after generation on the brown tepid waters. We found a couple of motorbike drivers to maneuver us through the 15 km of mud dividing the port from Siem Reap. We only crashed once (Mike's driver apparently unable to manage the weight of his heavily muscled passenger. No blood, no foul) before the rain started, innocently enough at first. Before long the sky turned black and unleashed a relentless torrent which soaked us to the bones. Our progress was slowed not only by the thick mud and Mike's driver's apologies and newfound timdity, but more interestingly by the throngs of young revelers splashing passionately to the tinny cacophany of loudspeakers mounted on trucks. The crowds danced in anticipatory celebration of the upcoming election, and we couldn't help but wonder, as we inched our way through the downpour, how so many people with so much fervor for opposing candidates could possibly accept peacefully the inevitable defeat of all but one candidate.

We arrived at last at a hotel we had chosen randomly from our now rain-soaked guidebook, paid our drivers (the hazzard pay more than compensated for the deductions incurred as a result of the crash) and sloshed our way to the reception desk/bar. Conspicuously dry onlookers were reading books and sipping drinks in the hotel that we soon learned had only one "very small" room available. In lieu of braving the storm in search of more comfortable quarters, we opted to accept our sentence of one night in the windowless cell. We hung up our clothes, which filled every inch of the tiny room and forced us to vacate the premises for the evening. Upon our return to the miniscule cell, we were asaulted by a rush of hot, wet mildew as it became immediately apparent that rather than the air drying our clothes, the rainwater had transformed the air in the room into a putrid vapor. Our clothes were stewing in their own juices.

We had no choice but to bed down in our stinky sauna. The miniature twin bed rapidly lost any romantic appeal, and in a sense-switching nightmare, the sweltering stench was soon over-powered by the buzzing din of the mosquitoes that had apparently bred in the standing water that formed in puddles beneath each of our dripping garmets. Fortunately for us, our plans for a pre-dawn visit to Angkor Wat precluded any pretense of sleep, and we dragged ourselves from the humidity of our room into the refreshing 4:00 am air.

We won't insult Angkor and the surrounding ruins by trying to describe them. The ancient temples that sprawl through 200 square kilometers of jungle defy description just as they refuse to be captured with any relevance by the camera lens. We wandered in their midst for hours, as mesmerised by the serpentine banyon trees widning their way through the rock as we were by the intricately carved structures themselves. People often spend 2-3 days exploring the temples, but we found ourselves satisfied/overwhelmed in just over 6 hours, likely a new world record. Unsure of what this says about our intellectual capacity, attention span and appreciation for spectacular architectural and spiritual achievement, we stunned our guides by declaring the day over before noon.

On the way back to town, we hatched a plan to head for Laos - that afternnon. The plan had been to endure a reputedly hellish 12-15 hour bus journey through the mud bogs and across the border to Thailand, and hope against hope to make it to Bangkok in time to catch a night train to Laos. Rumors of hazardous or possibly non-existent travel on election Sunday, coupled with our record-setting pace through Angkor, and the painful prospect of another night in the cell, spurred us to investigate the possibilty of an afternoon flight instead. Presto - in less than 15 minutes we had purchased tickets for the 3:45 flight to Vientiane (which only occurs on Saturdays and Wednesdays), gathered our moist belongings and checked out of the sauna. We spent the next couple hours sipping cold beers and congratulating ourselves on the day's achievements.

Having survived the prop-plane's bumpy ride through the monsoon cloud-cover (with only minor bruises on Mike's arms from Heather's ongoing use of his limbs as oh shit bars), we arrived last night under pastel sunset skies in the quiet capital of Laos. We'll chill here for a day or two while our clothes dry out, and head north for Vangvieng and Luang Prabang, our last destinations before heading to Thailand on August 6 to meet Angelina and send Mike home to start paying the bills.

Much love to all...

Mike and H
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