Cambodia and Laos Updates

Every time we switch countries, we have to go through a major process to find stuff for Jessica to eat and drink. Drinks became a major issue in Cambodia because Jess refuses to drink water no matter HOW hot and thirsty she gets, and the “Twister” drink that became her favorite in Vietnam was no longer available. She was refusing to drink ANYTHING and it was making us crazy. When it’’s over 40 degrees out and you’re walking around outdoors for hours you start to get a bit worried when your kid won’’t drink anything! Everywhere we went, we’’d buy some new can of something from some vendor or another for her to try -– she’’d have a few sips and then say she didn’t like it. ARRGGHH. Finally we hit on iced lemon tea and diet coke. Not exactly the best fluids for a three year old, but we’’d exhausted most other options! With a few popsicles thrown in for good measure, we managed to keep her hydrated.

Our third day in Cambodia we were templed out. We took a tuk tuk to Lao Airways (Saturday morning) to pay for our flight out of Cambodia –- tickets have to be issued at least one day in advance. They are closed. The sign says they are open, but nope gate is locked and they aren’t open Sundays and we’’re leaving Monday afternoon!!!! The tuk tuk driver had a cell that he let me use to call them and the guy said come in Monday at 8am. Of course, I’ve heard all the nightmare stories about booking with this airline -– cancelled flights, etc. (let’’s not even talk about their unpublished safety record…… that I hadn’t mentioned to Grant yet) So, I’’m freaking out wondering if we’’ll make it out of Cambodia on schedule.

We head to the Blue Pumpkin Café for lunch and, while we’re waiting for the food, I took off to try to call the airline. I called the office in Thailand and it was like something out of a Monty Python film. Bad, echoing, delayed, connection and two people speaking two different languages trying to sort out a ten digit alpha-numeric confirmation number that has repeating digits. We do that for about five minutes and she’’s still getting it wrong. I hang up. Instead, I emailed the France office. (Never get a response.) Finally, I decided to just chill about it and we’’ll stay in Cambodia for an extra week and skip Laos entirely if necessary!

We did some shopping and some swimming and ate at the Blue Pumpkin twice in one day. It’’s lovely and cool and air-conditioned and they have good food AND ice cream! They also had free wireless, so I figured I’’d bring my laptop the following day.  We spent the afternoon looking all over town for the ‘perfect’ sandstone carving – finally went back to the first one we found for $120 at the really expensive shop and Grant argued them down to $60! (Worth about $30 in the markets maximum, but hey we like it and it’’s hard to feel bad about leaving extra money in Cambodia!)

Cambodia is a bit of a heartbreaking place to travel. Everywhere you look there are land mine victims and other cripples and beggars. (My wallet was a lot lighter on the way out of there!) Our hotel was located right beside the Children’’s Hospital and we had to pass the long queue of sick kids every time we went into town. There was a big sign outside the hospital asking for blood donations to help combat a recent outbreak of Hemorrhagic Dengue Fever …listing MY blood type as one that was desperately needed. This made me feel totally guilty that I didn’t have the guts to donate blood in a country where I wasn’t 100 percent sure of the medical facilities. Not to mention the fact that I was concerned about Jessica coming down with Dengue and winding up in the hospital! (We’’re well past the incubation period now Grandma she’’s OK) I found out later that I wouldn’t have been able to donate blood because of the malaria meds we’’re taking, but it didn’t stop me from torturing myself every time we saw that line of sick babies.

Sunday morning I headed back to the Blue Pumpkin for brekkie and wireless chat with mom and Grant and Jess met up with me a bit later on. That day was MORE shopping and swimming and our hottest day yet at 42 degrees in the shade –- the pool hit 34 degrees which was like swimming in soup. Our hotel was lacquering the floor in the room next door and the smell was making everyone sick. It took some doing to get them to open the window due to security issues, even though we were on the second floor facing into the courtyard. We had a very nice Indian dinner in town (Note to self –- when your tummy is feeling bad, do NOT go for Indian food no matter how yummy) and stayed out late down on bar street which is closed off to traffic and really nice atmosphere at night. (And… – ahem – …some MORE shopping…) We were feeling pretty melancholy about the prospect of leaving Cambodia in the morning, and I was half-hoping we wouldn’t sort out the plane tickets in time!

Grant was still feeling the pain of his recent encounter with the dishonest taxi driver in Bangkok. He’’s getting terribly cheap with tuk tuks and is VERY gun-shy about getting ripped off by drivers now!!! Jessica, however, is bargaining like a champ!

Up early Monday and I’’m still feeling really sick from the Indian food and lacquer smell. Grant did most of the packing the previous night because I wasn’t feeling well. They had offered to move us, but the open window before dinner had helped and we had thought they were finished all the coats -– not so much. They did another coat right before we went to bed which really did my head in.

I dashed out early to get the plane tickets and mail some stuff with DHL. I managed to get the tickets sorted out which took ages as the guy had to write them all out by hand, and there were three flight segments to deal with. What cracks me up is they’’ll be all ready for e-ticketing in the next few months, meaning they’’ll go straight from hand written to e-tickets! Bizarre. Hope the ticket writing guy still has his job. Afterwards, my tuk tuk driver couldn’t find DHL, and after driving round aimlessly for half an hour, I decided not to ship the stuff and just carry it on board our flight.

I got back to the hotel still feeling quite ill, and it was time to take our Malaria meds. Joy. Jessica flatly refused to take hers and no amount of coercion or cajoling would work. Threatening didn’t work either and eventually I had to hold her down and force it down her throat. She spit some of it back up and gagged like crazy and both of us were in tears by the end of it.  Grant and I were devastated because she had previously taken them so well and we had weeks and weeks left on these meds… – not looking forward to that at all. I was so upset after the rodeo with Jessica that I gagged and threw up in the sink taking mine. God, I hate this medication! I ended up taking another half a pill myself that evening to make sure I had the right dose, but I don’’t think Jess got the right dose at all –- another thing for Mommy to worry about.  There was no way I was going to risk an overdose by giving her any more, though. Luckily there weren’t too many mosquitoes around because of the heat.

(Since then Jessica has been really good taking hers and we have wised up and started taking them after dinner to minimize “grumpy time” and things are definitely looking up for Mondays! Funny, though, we’ve taught our daughter to hate Monday long before work or school came into play: “”Oh man, is it MONDAY today Mommy?””)

We said a fond goodbye to our driver Johnny at the airport –- what a nice guy! He even had a little speech prepared that he’’d obviously been working on to get his English just right to say how much he’’d enjoyed our company and wished us well in our travels, etc. Very heartfelt and sincere, and it increased our sadness at leaving Cambodia before we’’d really had much more than a taste of it. We were early for our flights so waited in the lobby for ages before checking in. I was pretty nervous about flying with Lao Airways but keeping it to myself because at that point I still hadn’t confessed anything about their safety record to Grant. I mean, just because it’’s not PUBLISHED doesn’t necessarily mean it’s BAD right??

The plane was tiny and we had to walk out to the plane and climb the steps, which was pretty cool. But we were also lugging tons of stuff because I hadn’t been able to ship any of our shopping home. Jessica hadn’t eaten much (no big surprise there) and was a bit grouchy. The plane was so small I gave her travel meds and she fell asleep through two take-offs and landings. Grant thought we were crashing when the plane landed the first time -– he didn’t realize (or, more accurately, didn’t pay attention to me when I told him) we were scheduled to land in Paske. Scared the crap out of him! We got to Luang Prabang and discovered the security tags cut off Grant’s bag where we couldn’t lock it –- annoyed, but nothing seemed missing. The driver wasn’t there to pick us up, so fearing the worst we headed off to our guest house.

During the dry season, farmers in Laos burn down large sections of the forest to make room for more farming. This results in permanent haze of smoke hanging over the city that burns the eyes and irritates the lungs –- not to mention ruins any hope of taking good photos of the spectacular landscape. Obviously, the first thing we noticed about Luang Prabang was the air quality and the surreal smog hanging over everything creating sort of an eerie twilight effect.

The guest house was on a lovely quiet street and they did have our reservation. Turns out that the driver was just heading out to pick us up but our plane had been early. Oops. Oh well, the taxi was only a few dollars. The lady at the front desk spoke wonderful English (amidst several other languages) and she instantly hauled out her new puppy for Jessica to play with. The puppy’’s name was “short knee” because he’’s got such little legs, and Jessica fell in love with him instantly. The room was big with four beds and a tiny TV and wooden floors that echoed. There were signs everywhere saying “be careful with your feet.” Jessica made an unholy amount of noise running round on the wooden floor –- it’s the only time I’ve ever ASKED her to tiptoe! Of course, this is the ONLY time in her life where she doesn’t!!

Before I go on, a word about the toilet in our room: the bane of Grant’s existence for six days. (For those of you familiar with Grant’’s toilet “issues” bear this in mind…) first of all, it leaked out the back every time we flushed it. But that was OK because we’’re pretty sure it was clean water leaking out and the toilet was right in the shower anyways! Generally the seat was always wet from somebody’s recent shower and you certainly didn’t want to use up all the toilet paper just to dry the seat. There wasn’t enough water pressure (when the water was even working) to flush down even the most minute portion of toilet paper so we’’d have to use the high pressure hose next to the toilet to break up the paper and help the toilet flush. (Note: DO NOT use this hose as substitute for toilet paper) Eventually we developed a little ritual for anything remotely “serious:”

1)      Poo

2)      Flush

3)      Wipe

4)      Spray

5)      Flush

6)      Pray

7)      Wait for toilet to fill up again

8)      Spray

9)      Flush and spray

10)  Repeat steps 4-9 as necessary

Of course, every time you flush the toilet everyone in the hotel loses ALL shower pressure!!

We fell completely in love with Laos. The people are wonderful and the atmosphere is laid back and life just moves at a wonderfully slow pace. Laos is so laid back and mellow that we didn’t really care about all the things that went wrong. In Canada we would have been livid at some of the problems with the hotel: the toilet issue, the shower was temperamental at the best of times, the pillows were rocky and the bed uncomfortable and had the odd flea. Breakfast was barely adequate. They made the beds and hosed down the bathroom (we figure with the toilet hose thingy) and that passed for “clean.”

On the plus side there were no rats and no cockroaches and the people were unbelievably nice. The man running the guest house spent ages showing Jessica how to fish with a bamboo pole and there was a big lawn for her to run around on and, of course, the puppy to play with! The place felt homey and secure even though the door barely locked. My laptop wasn’t locked up and, amazingly enough, I wasn’t worried at all when we went out. They destroyed some of Jess’s knickers and pjs in the laundry which was hilarious because Grant INSISTED we pay the extra money to have the guest house do our laundry because he didn’t trust the folks next door! The lady at the guest house wouldn’t feed us chicken because of the bird flu scare, but there were omelets on the breakfast menu and chickens running through the yard –- so go figure! I spent half my time trying to make sure Jessica didn’t pick up any feathers off the ground. Thankfully, she hasn’t felt the need to pet the chickens anywhere yet.

Food in Luang Prabang wasn’t very good overall, but we eventually found one or two restaurants that we kept going back to. Jessica made friends with the little boy at one of them and there was a fish pond where they let her feed the fish so we ended up going there quite a bit. Grant even took a cooking course, which, unfortunately, put him off eating full stop after he saw the state of things in the kitchen! Jessica still wasn’t eating much at all but she started drinking milk again which was a relief for Mommy. We managed to find some more of the sweetened long life milk that she had been drinking in Vietnam.

It was cool compared to Cambodia -– I never thought I’d ever hear myself say: “Hey, it’s only 34 degrees out let’s walk into town!” Not really much to see because of the forest fires so we decided not to do an elephant ride or trip to the waterfalls or caves. Turns out it was a good decision because everyone we spoke with said the waterfalls were pretty dry in that season and the views were mostly obscured by smoke on the elephant ride. So, with nothing but time on our hands, we spent most of it shopping and getting fabulously cheap massages! Jessica is becoming quite the foot massage addict and the ladies at “our” spa adored her. She wanted a body massage but we wouldn’t let her get one. Internet was also really cheap so I spent a lot of time online catching up with friends.

It rained a bit one of the mornings which cleared away some of the smoke so we headed up the hill to the golden pagoda to take some pictures. It was something like 400 stairs and Grant carried Jessica up all of them again, but it was worth it as the view was spectacular. We watched some farmers unload some massive pigs into the river and made them swim to shore which was hilarious, and caught a photo exhibition. We also discovered that their New Year’s was just round the corner because, similar to Fiji, the kids sprayed everyone with water guns and some even tossed buckets full. I caught a bucket full of water on my walk back to the guest house one evening; poetic justice because I’’d been laughing at some other tourists who’’d gotten pretty soaked.

We loved the night market and shopped our hearts out buying silk products and paper lanterns. The entire main street in town shut down every night at about 5pm until 10pm and whole families would bring in their wares for sale. Each family would spread out a blanket and hook up a light above it and sometimes a frame to hang lanterns or silk from. Babies tumbled everywhere and fell asleep in piles of cotton or silk. Yummy smells wafted through the air from the food vendors selling hot pancakes, or submarine sandwiches, fresh baked muffins, etc. The textiles were amazing; in the course of six days, I developed a serious woven silk addiction. It was such a great market, nobody hassled us to buy and everyone was amiable during bargaining.

Once the market was over, however, the town completely shut DOWN. Grant went out one evening at about 10pm to get some cold drinks for us and he literally could not see his hand in front of his face because there was no light whatsoever on the street. Our guest house was on a quiet street, true, but you’’d think there’’d be some light from either street lights or from the windows of neighboring houses. Nope. Also, the smoke obscured any moonlight that might have helped light the way. Our guest house was set back from the street and so the only available light on the street was the weak bulb illuminating the tiny storefront a few doors away so he had to kind of stumble his way there and try to remember to bring a flashlight next time!

We felt totally comfortable letting Jessica run around (within our sight, of course) and play. There was a surprising amount of kids traveling in Laos; it’s a really good place to take kids –- safe, cheap, and fun and absolutely no real hassles. It would have been nice if we could have taken the elephant rides, but we passed on them because we had one planned for the following week anyways. The only –- and primary –- concern was the lack of adequate medical care which is why we only stayed for a few days. I could have stayed there a lot longer, it’s just so relaxing. (ooohhhh…… and did I mention the SILK?)

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