LAST DAY IN PHNOM PENH
Well the Northens, the missionary couple we met the night before, showed us the boat (and I use that word lightly as it is more like an incredibly awesome ship!) our last day in Phnom Penh. This fully furnished medical boat is amazing. I wasn't expecting much, but my mind was blown away to see the living quarters and the well designed doctor's examination rooms. It even has an X-ray room and a room specifically designed for lab work. The Northens and all involved will be doing some good work before too much longer (as soon as all the paperwork goes through which can take a long time when you try to do things honestly). The remainder of our day in Phnom Penh was spent walking around and seeing the Imperial Palace and visiting the Central Market, which is by far the largest maze of a market I've ever seen.
KRATIE AND THE FRESHWATER DOLPHINS
The next morning we left for Kratie, a city in northern Cambodia. It took about six hours after stopping for the worst lunch I've ever had in Asia. I ordered beef noodle soup - a staple around here - but whatever I got contained two types of mystery meat. It was pretty bad. I should have been tipped off, though, when, as soon as we stepped off the bus, a basket of large, fried spiders was thrust in my face. Before we left, Derek and I, in a desire to be open-minded, purchased one of the spiders. We only at the legs because we couldn't bring ourselves to eat the body. It wasn't half bad, actually, though my mind wouldn't let forget the image of spiders crawling down my throat!
In Kratie we got a room, unloaded our stuff, and then got motorcycles to the Mekong River where you can see dolphins swimming in the fresh water. The motorcycle ride was really nice as we road through little villages with the cool air swishing across us. At the entrance to the seeing area, we were told we would have to pay twice as much as what our hotel told us we would have to pay to see the dolphins. We had already decided not to take the boat to see them but to stay on the shore and view them from a distance. At the entrance, they told us we HAD to take the boat and pay for it. After much arguing, we were finally permitted to not take (or pay) for the boat and try to spot the dolphins from the distance. We got good pictures, though, of little black dots making little splashes in the water... So we didn't really have a very good view, especially since neither Janice nor I were wearing our glasses, but we showed them by not paying two extra dollars... Okay, so maybe we didn't, but it wasn't really worth it for me to pay extra money just to see dolphins up close anyway. I don't know how the others felt, but the motorcycle ride was definitely the highlight of that little expedition.
Kratie is a really small town so there was nothing to do other than play cards and watch TV. In the evening, a crew of French tourists put in The Killing Fields, and as it seemed an appropriate movie given where we were, we all joined in watching it. I didn't finish because I was tired, but this particular version of the movie was totally edited. I was surprised at how poor of a job of editing they did too. There were complete scenes missing.
THE ROAD TO LAOS
The next morning we left on a mini-bus to Laos. We could also have taken a boat trip, but it was a little more expensive. The mini-bus wasn't so bad though. The roads are notoriously bad going to (and through) Laos, but this road was pretty good until right before we came to the exit point for Cambodia. Then the road got really bumpy and dusty. It seemed like we were on some backwoods trail rather than a road that connects two countries. After a small fee, the Cambodian officials let us exit their country, after which, we, along with several others who had taken the boat trip, loaded up into a small van (there were 15 of us in all plus all our baggage piled into this little vehicle) for a short trip to the Lao border. Again, after a small fee (which was a little higher than normal because it was Saturday and we were charged a weekend "overtime" fee), our visas were stamped and we were on our way to Don Det, one of the 4000 islands in southern Laos.
We were taken by boat to Don Det, one of the smaller islands, where, for the first time since we've been traveling, we were not hounded by hotel workers or taxi/tuk-tuk/motorbike drivers to "have a look" at their guesthouses. Instead, we just started walking down this little dirt trail which had some guesthouses on either side (all of which were full) and several huts where Lao families were going about their daily business. We walked for quite awhile, carrying all our things, until we lucked out at what turned out to be a perfect place to stay for a couple nights. We stayed in little huts, complete with mosquito netting over the bed, a hammock on the front porch and no electricity. Our guesthouse had a nice little deck over the Mekong River with the most spectacular view which was so nice, it's really unexplainable. We only had about two hours of sunlight left so we ordered our food (which took a good hour to prepare) and played cards until it was too dark to see. We were given little lanterns to light our way so we could see to take showers, and then we just hung out on the porch in the dark, enjoying the countless stars (which I haven't seen in a long time) and talking.
The next day was just as relaxing. The roosters began their noise around four in the morning, but I didn't get up until 6:30. I spent the next hour watching the sun come up over the trees and river and color the surrounding area. The others slept a little later, but everyone was up by eight which is really early for a day when we had no plans but to relax. Derek rented a bike and went across a little bridge to a larger island, but the rest of us decided to stay in our little area. Tommy and I went swimming in the river. Actually, the current was too strong to swim so we just sat in the water to be cooled off from the strong sun. Janice, who is neither a fan of heat nor of cold, was pretty miserable for about four or five hours, but when that sun began to go down, the temperature cooled off to a perfect degree, and I was quite comfortable.
PAKSE AND BEYOND
This morning after a fantastic, and not so healthy, breakfast of chocolate banana pancakes, we left on a boat to catch our early morning bus to Pakse. There's really nothing in Pakse for us except a ticket to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The boat ride was really relaxing. The Mekong has quickly found its place in my heart, and I look forward to visiting it again in about two days. The bus ride we had was a little different. It was less like a bus and more like a truck that had benches along both sides of the bed and one bench in the middle. It was covered, fortunately, but it was quite crowded with both foreigners and locals making it difficult to find a comfortable position. We did make it to Pakse, though, and now are waiting for our bus to leave for Vientiane, which doesn't happen until this evening at 8:30. It's an overnight bus, obviously, and I think it takes about 10 or so hours from here to the capital. Once in Vientiane, we're going to immediately try to get a bus to Van Vieng, a town about four hours away, where we can tube all day down the river. After the terribly long and uncomfortable bus rides we are about to endure, I am really looking forward to the tubing!
I kept hearing from everyone who had been to Laos that it's "totally chill", and they were absolutely right. Already, and we've only been here for two days, it's one of my favorite places we've visited. It possesses so much natural beauty, so if you enjoy the "great outdoors", it's the country to see.