Friday, March 5, 2010

Southern Laos and Siem Reap

Over 4 months ago we left the states to journey around the world. Our travels brought us to the south island of New Zealand and then the work, more like incredible experience, began in Thailand. Last Friday marked the end of our time as teachers at Anuban Dan Chang. It was a sad goodbye, but it also was the start of our journey, albeit long, home. Today, we are in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Home to the largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat. Before we arrived here we spent 3 days in Laos, specifically the Si Phon Don islands.

Laos was spectacularly beautiful. The people are infectiously nice and loved the idea of westerners visiting their country. We had the opportunity to drive from the Thai border to southern Laos in the back of a pickup truck with a few other travellers and 6 Laotian people. The journey to Si Phon Don was about 4 hours and along the way the Laotian people gave us a sample of local foods, all unknown to us but very good nonetheless. Arriving on the island of Don Dhet which rests in the middle of the mammoth Mekong river at sunset was breathtaking. We enjoyed some wonderful food, mainly fish and fresh fruit each day. The Mekong river is the lifeline for the people of these islands. It is their highway, their grocery store, shower and source of entertainment. We partook in a bit of everything. A local guide brought us on tour of the river and we were able to spot a few of the very rare Irrawidy Dolphins, less than two dozen of these fresh water dolphins exist in this part of the world. Biking and walking around two neighboring islands was a very rewarding second day and it was topped off by a stop at some impressive waterfalls. Beyond the natural beauty Laos, there is a sense among the people that life is too short to worry about the little things. Family is most important and enjoying the company of whoever happens to be around is a priority everywhere we went. The French colonized Laos and some of their influence can still be felt, mainly in the architecture and copious amounts of baguettes! We most definitely did not budget for enough time in Laos and hope to return one day.

Heading to Cambodia on Tuesday was a test of patience and endurance. We knew it would be a long trip as the roads in Laos and Cambodia are in pretty bad shape. The expected time of travel from Laos to Siem Reap was about 14 hours. 16 long, long hours later we arrived here. The bus stopped a number of times for no apparent reason and without explanation. Thankfully, we brought good books and a fully charged iPod to get us through the journey. Siem Reap is simply amazing. Consider this. Less than 15 years ago the country was on complete lock down by the vicious Khmer Rouge. Over 2 million people were murdered during their reign of terror and the country's growth ground to a halt in 20+ years of Khmer Rouge rule. Much to their credit, the Cambodian's are working very hard to catch up to their regional neighbors today. Judging by the accommodation we are in and the superb facilities at Angkor Wat and surrounding temples, the country is quickly getting back on it's feet. We have spent two full days touring the city and the temples. It is nearly impossible to describe the enormity of Angkor Wat proper. You can see it from space is the best description we have come across yet. A third day of visiting the complex will maybe allow us to say we saw half of all the grounds. Built over the course of 5 centuries the temples are remarkable in their design and workmanship. We thought it would get a bit redundant to see temple after temple, we were wrong. Watching the sunset last night from the top of a auxiliary temple was stunning.

Today, we visited Tonle Sap lake and were able to get a first hand glimpse at the community that literally lives on the water. Floating homes, schools and stores make up this small city. Unfortunately, they are very poor and much to our disappointment the money we paid for the tour of the lake does not go to the people. It is one of the many communities that are yet to fully benefit from the tourism boom hitting other parts of the country. We gave a few dollars to the children working at a small store in the hope they could buy food for the day. It is days like this that allow us to fully appreciate the many, many blessing we have in life. Our day also included a visit to the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Built by a former soldier who has now dedicated his life to the safe removal of the estimated 2 million mines still littering the Cambodian countryside. It was very interesting and sobering at the same time. We hope the few souvenirs purchased helps the 30 plus orphans that reside on the backside of the museum. Our days are filled with wonders and we look forward to many more to come. Tomorrow we will begin the day before dawn to see sunrise over Angkor Wat. Sunday we hit the road again to head to Phnom Penh. It is hard to imagine we have so much more to see!

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