Monday, June 6, 2011

1 month in

After 2 nights and three days of the Gibbon experience, we were very excited to get to Luang Prabang. Nestled along the banks of the Mekong river, this city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in the 90's for its wealth of culture, history, and beauty. The King of Laos vacations here, and the king of Cambodia took refuge here during their civil war in the late 70's. A perfect place for Hope and I to relax after a 3 day trek in the rainforest.
Once we got into town, we walked from guest house to guest house till we found one that fit. We arrived early enough from our night bus that we were able to catch the procession of hundreds of monks in their orange robes taking Alms at 6am, as they do every morning. I can neither spell nor pronounce the name of the guesthouse we found, but what i can tell you is that it was right on the Mekong, we had our own balcony, and it was air-conditioned, all for only $12 a night. A steel considering the price of everything around it was $30 and up. After a long nap, we went to see the town on foot. Cobblestone roads, French Architecture (the city was a french colony in the 18th century), and Buddhist Wat's dominate the city scape. All that said, the food was what i was looking forward to. An amazing mix of traditional Laos and french influence. Weather it was a noodle dish served with a baguette of homemade bread, or a rack of lamb with wine and Laos spices, it was all delicious. After almost a month of moving around, this was where we wanted to take it easy for a few days. One day was spent visiting the Royal Museum and a few Wats. One day we rented a motorcycle (that's what the locals call them, but they are actually scooters) and with our friends Wessel and Maud, we drove an hour to the most beautiful waterfall i have ever seen. I think there were about 11 tiers, crystal clear water, and a BIG rope swing. The waterfalls got bigger the more you ventured up, to the last one that had to be 50 meters or higher. The rest of the time was spent eating and drinking. The nightly market has everything one might need from food for $1 an entree to clothes, artwork, and jewelry. We found a favorite bar for our night life where we would meet up with our gibbon experience friends called Utopia. you have to walk down some very narrow roads by a few houses for about 5 minutes. Then you get there and you see where it got its name. An enormous open air bar with vaulted ceilings, a long deck overlooking the Mekong, and a volleyball court. Laos being a communist country, they have a curfew of 11pm. All bars and business must be closed, and all people must be home, though not strongly enforced. Once the bars closed at 11 there is one place to go, the bowling alley. Locals say that they owners of the bowling alley pay off the cops somehow, but either way, it is where all the foreigners go to party all night. We went home fairly early, but definitely had a good time.

After about 4 days of that, we decided it was time to get moving again. We walked into a travel agency our last night there and purchased a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, for early the next day.
Cambodia is a hell of a country. Its hard to put my finger on it. We will start with Siem Reap. A tough town of a few main roads glitzy with all the money the foreigners traveling to Ankgor Wat pour into it, and dirt roads where the struggle of civil war and genocide from the 70's and early 80's is still very apparent. All the locals are as friendly as i have seen yet. Even the hordes of beggars. Beggars because of landmines laid down during the war that take away and arm, or both legs, or both eyes, landmines that have caused mass murder long after the war ended. Children beggars, homeless or orphaned, who sit beside your table at dinner begging for some rice. So hard to tolerate i lost my appetite, gave the kids the food, paid, and walked away. Anyway, Ankgor Wat was beautiful. We spent 2 days there on a guided tour. The first day was 9 hours long, and ended with us climbing to a hill top temple to watch the sun set over Ankgor Wat. The second day we got up at 430am so we could get to Angkor Wat by 5am and watch the sun rise. We returned home about 8 hours later. Long hot days, but it was worth it.
At the end of our second day, we booked a night bus to Sihanoukville. A town on the Cambodian coast line to get back to the beach. Its been about 3 weeks since I've seen the beach, and I miss it.

Tarzan and Jane

The Gibbon Experience was incredible!  It started with a two hour ride from Houay Xai to the Bokeo Reserve.  The road quickly disintegrating from a good paved road to a muddy trail surrounded by nothing, but lush greenness.  Rory and I decided to ride on the outside back of the truck instead of the inside cabin hoping to get more fresh air, but we soon realized that was a bad idea when we started getting hit with dust from the road, black smoke from passing trucks and branches from the thickening jungle.  After a short stop followed by a river crossing (in the truck) and then a bouncy climb into the jungle we finally got to the village where the treks start and finish.  We take a seat and watch as chickens, dogs and naked children go about their merry little way while our guides get our supplies together.  A few minutes later we were off on a two and a half hour hike with 6 strangers and two guides named Bounpeng and Eye.  We stop for lunch under a shady canopy and introduce ourselves, one couple is from Belgium, another from Amsterdam, one Canadian girl and one Englishman.  We continue our trek and don't talk much, we just take in the our surroundings of everything jungle.  A couple of hours later we are a waterfall for a well deserved swimming break.  The waterfall was small and had a nice, cool pool with a zip line crossing it from above which was fun.  After we cool off we start heading for our home for the night, Tree House #6.  It took 3 cables, one being 350 meters long and something like 300 meters above the ground to get there, but we zipped right into our new home.  Sweaty, muddy, leech bitten and pretty exhausted we explore Tree house #6.  It's got one floor, 8 mats to sleep on in each corner, a sink with clean dishes in the middle and one bathroom with a shower and a sink.  To our surprise the water that came out of the faucet was even safe to drink!  We each pick a corner to put our bags down and after a light snack of fresh lychee, apples and pears we go out for one last zipline lap before the sun goes down.
That night we sit around our round table and get to know each other.  Wessel is a photographer in Amsterdam, Jayme has been traveling for a few months and just came from China, James has been teaching English in China and met Jayme on the train from Taiwan.  They were both traveling alone and since they were headed in the same direction decided to join together until their paths seperated.  Martine and Jochin have been traveling for about 6 months and don't wanna go back to Belgium.
Dinner gets zipped in by Bunpeng (him and Eye sleep in a hut not too far away with the cooks) and explains to us that they next day we have a 2 hour hike and 7 cables to zip on to the next tree house, and in the morning before breakfast we have the option to go on an early jungle walk to try to find some animals.  He then says goodnight and zips away effortlessly and disappears in the trees.  We eat our delicious, freshly cooked veggies and beef with rice and watch the sunset from our tree.  We spend the night talking to each other about our travels and eventually go to bed.  The night was pretty restless for me, partly from excitement and partly from all the animals that seem to enjoy singing in the night, but the biggest reason was that I could not believe where I was.  I was in the middle of a Jungle in Laos sleeping in a tree house 200 meters up in the air with no other safe way out (option #2 would be to jump/fall out) other than attaching myself to a cable where I couldn't see the other end, stepping of the platform and falling into air only to get caught by my harness hoping that it'll hold my weight as I glide through the trees and above a valley that dips down to about 300 meters with my ears hearing nothing except ZEEEEEEEE from the cable and the pounding from my heart.... pretty awesome.
The next day we get a wake up call at 6am by Bunpengs zipping into the house which shakes the whole tree a good amount and after a few minutes of getting ourselves together we were off to find some animals.  Sadly our 1 and a half hour trek didn't include any animal sightings which is pretty hard to do when all you can see around you is nothing but green jungle.  We get back to our tree, gather all our things and head out to have breakfast by the waterfall.  As we were walking down to the picnic table my luck runs out and I take a wrong step and twist my ankle.  Eye, Bunpeng and Jochin who was in the military in Belgium helped patch me up and with some tender steps I make it to the table.  Breakfast was delicious with veggies and meat and rice again.  We take our time to digest and after Bunpeng makes me a walking stick we head to our next home.  My ankle begins to feel better with every step so we lose little time and make it to Tree House #5 in just a couple of hours.  We drop our bags and explore, #5 has two levels, the second level having enough space to sleep 2 and the first having 3 sleeping areas, one area to eat and hang out, in the middle there was a sink with dishes and a bathroom similar to the last house... except that the toilet, looking normal at first glance, but when you looked down into it you looked down 200 meters and saw the tops of the trees of the jungle below.  We had the rest of the day to explore our new set of cables so we put our things down and head out.  That's when we notice that in order to leave the house you had to open a gate, step out onto a platform which you had to sit on in order to clip in and then shimmy yourself onto the two steps below that led to nothing and required you to take a leap of faith, faith that the bouncing caused by your leap would disappear before you reached the landing platform.        
Bunpeng brings us dinner and explains that there are Gibbons that live near this tree house and that we have a chance of hearing them and possibly seeing them the next morning (if it doesn't rain because Gibbons only sings when it's not raining).  We spend the night talking again, the conversations being more personal since our time together has made us get to know each other better...and maybe because we drank the bottle of Lao wine that was in the cooler.  Either way we all enjoy it and don't go to bed until much later.
The next morning we hear the loud sirens of a Gibbon.  Even from far away it sounded impressively loud and clear and could possibly compete with a firetruck or an ambulance.  Bunpeng explains that they were too far away to see and I was pretty relieved because I can't imagine what it would have sounded like had it been 100 yards from our tree house.  After breakfast we gather our things one last time to make our way back, on the way we stop at a couple of tree houses to explore their zip lines and after 9 last cables we give up our harnesses and make our way out of the jungle, back to the village we started from. 
Sweaty, sticky and leech bitten we relax for a while and watch as a truck load of new zippers are dropped off looking fresh and ready to explore.  We pile ourselves into the trucks and start heading back to town, Rory and I fall asleep while riding inside this time.
We get back into town with just enough time to book a night bus to Luang Prabang, take a quick shower and have a quick meal.  All of us, except for James who opted for the slow boat, decided to take the faster night bus down to Luang Prabang so we say our good byes to James and head for the bus station.  It was a nice change to be traveling with some people so we enjoyed the company and it made the 14 hours go by pretty fast...well that and the 8 hours of sleep that we all finally got.