Mekong islands

Well, things change. The small group of simple huts on Don Det has been replaced with a dense cluster of hostels, hotels, and restaurants, some with pools, all with electricity and hot showers. I had a pineapple shake in the exact spot where my old hut once stood. Now it’s a bar and they are adding another row of bungalows next to it. The shoreline is completely packed.

But I am staying on Don Khon, the next island to the south. It’s exactly as quiet as Don Det was in 2009, except considerably more upmarket. Don Khon is also where all the sights of the island are, especially the Mekong Falls. Enormous amounts of water rushes down in numerous cascades on both sides of the island. The bigger one of the two is the one on the west. The old trails are gone, and they have built observation platforms – and are charging admission! Well, the thatched huts further down with pads and hammocks are worth the price, a nice place to relax and watch the foaming water.



Laos

Following the Mekong upstream first passes Stung Treng, a small town on the Cambodian side, with the usual covered and open market. Last chance to spend Cambodian riel on fresh mangoes. From there it’s not far to the Laotian border, and the 4000 Islands, my destination.

Way down this blog you’ll find my report on Don Det, one of the larger of the supposedly 4000 islands in the middle of the Mekong river. Don Det had a small backpacker village, without an electricity grid but a great mellow Lao vibe. This time I wanted to visit Don Khon, the next island to the south of Don Det.

Regrettably the incredibly crowded bus was late and there were no more boats to Don Khon; I barely managed to catch the last one to Don Det. So there I was, after dark, on the wrong island, as always without a reservation. But over the years I have come to appreciate that any problem can be solved easily by throwing money at it. So I found someone with a motorcycle who took me to the old French bridge between the two islands that I remembered, and got myself a kind of stationary houseboat on the river. It not only has electricity, but Wifi, air conditioning, a minibar, big glass doors with a sunset view, my own terrace, and a shared pool. Not bad. I’ll see tomorrow what happened to the backpacker vibe.


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Kratie

Kratie isn’t far from Kampong Cham but traveling there is slow because of road construction. Lost two hours because one truck died and another slid into a ditch right next to each other. This being southeast Asia, everyone patiently waited with a smile.

Kratie is on the Mekong, near some rapids. They turned them into a fun park, with many extremely long platforms built over the river, each with hundreds of hammocks and a few mobile kitchens. You lie in a hammock and watch the river rush past you.

It’s also one of the best places to see Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins, which are critically endangered. It’s been estimated that there are only 75 left in northern Cambodia. I was lucky to see a group of four, although they didn’t jump out of the water the way they do on the travel ads.


Kampong Cham

Longest bamboo bridge I have ever seen, it spans an arm of the Mekong to reach a kind of party island in the river. People love blinking color LEDs. But there are also serene Buddhist and Khmer temples, a short tuk-tuk ride away.




Inland

Time to find my flip flops and leave the beaches. Feels odd having to wear shoes again. I am heading north now, to rejoin the Mekong river. First to Phnom Penh, the capital, then to Kampot Chan, which offers temples and a quiet countryside. Phnom Penh is anything but quiet, many more cars on the streets since I was here last time.

Not sure about Internet from now on. In fact once I reach the Mekong islands in Laos I am not sure about electricity!


Life on the beach

Diving on Koh Rong Samloem is better than in Phu Quoc – much better visibility, more colorful corals, and a lot more and bigger fish.

Went swimming in the bay late at night. They have a kind of plankton here that fluoresces when stirred. The night was completely dark, there is no light pollution here and no moon in the sky, so every swimming stroke creates a bright trail of glowing bubbles. Very cool. I suppose the plankton thinks it’s cool too or they wouldn’t do it; the light attracts squid that feed on plankton.



Koh Rong Samloem

Cambodia’s beach capital is Sihanoukville, a thoroughly boring city with a filthy beach. I could probably have found a place without garbage floating on the water further south but decided to leave asap to the islands.

There are two of those clise to Sihanoukville: Koh Rong, the party island, and Koh Rong Samloem, the peaceful one. Got myself a beach hut on the latter, and continued to do not very much at all. Good to be in bathing trunks and barefoot all day.


Cambodia

Phu Quoc is actually off the Cambodian coast but the ferry only takes the long way to Ha Tien in Vietnam. The Cambodian border is a short minivan ride from there. I stopped for the day in Kampot, a pleasant little town with slightly crumbling but very charming French colonial architecture.

I chose the upscale Rikitikitavi hotel, named after a mythical animal, and enjoyed the professional staff, hot shower, and an absolutely delicious Khmer Saraman curry.


Diving

As a diver I know the two most common methods to get off the boat into the water: the Big Step Forward, and the James Bond Roll. Learned a new one: the Dead Mexican, falling backwards, stiff as a board. It takes a 90-minute boat ride out to a small island. The corals are shallow, less than 10 meters, and are healthy but not very colorful. Also, the waters are rather overfished. Dinner is barbecued fish right on the beach.


Phu Quoc Island

I don’t know who chose the name Superdong for a fleet of fast ferries that go from the Mekong Delta to Phu Quoc, but it doesn’t look like they’ll reconsider. Anyway, Phu Quoc is a mostly forested Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia. They have a small town, Duong Dong, remarkable only for being about 50% night market. From there Long Beach runs down the western coast.

The beach itself is a little narrow, and almost completely covered with resort, restaurants, and bars from end to end. Like on Thai islands, the only way to reach a public beach is through a bar. It’s all quite low-key and pleasant, but the first concrete hotel towers are springing up at the edges. Usually, in southeast Asia this is a sign that runaway development is about to start and the only guests likely to put up with that are the Russians. But now I hear French more than any other language here.

The fresh jumbo shrimps in lemongrass garlic sauce are truly delicious!


Deep delta

Venturing deeper into the delta. Villages are small and dedicated to a business. One buys coconut bark and spins it into ropes, another buys rice and boils it to make rice paper. Often these are very narrow niches that are intricately linked by fleets of scooters and fragile-looking boats. Today some guys set a folding table on the roadside, put a dead pig on it, cut it into pieces and sold them. There is no doubt in my mind that the face was sold too.

Roads are often no wider than a meter, and waterways are everywhere. Coconuts are a big trade here and no part of them is wasted. I am told these people do quite well, and always have big smiles and friendly words, but of course there is no safety net in this country at all. I am feeling alien.



Rat jerky

There is a guy here by the roadside with a huge mesh cage with giant rats that he caught in the rice fields. You can buy them live, or sliced open and dried. Rat jerky. I am hoping for barbecued rat because rat jerky is essentially roadkill, except that the moment of truth for the rat comes on the edge of a table, not on the road. I am also not certain how familiar a guy who catches rats in the field is with meat inspections. Looks no worse than beef jerky though.

Mekong Delta

The Mekong is the world’s 12th largest River. Its source is in Tibet; it flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia just before spreading into a huge delta south of Saigon. That’s where I am headed. The delta is extremely fertile, and everybody here is always busy working in intricate chains growing, transporting, processing and selling rice, fruit, and vegetables. Taking time off from work is an idea for us Western wimps that has the locals completely puzzled. If your job is splitting coconuts, that’s what you’ll do for every single day for the next 30 years.

This being a delta, travel involves lots of bridges and ferries. There are villages and markets everywhere, and cottage industries that process fruit. They are all connected by ridiculously overloaded scooters zooming between them. There is no reason why a scooter can’t be wider than a road lane, and sometimes it’s hard to identify the driver in the middle of all that cargo.


Saigon

The last time I had time to see much in Saigon was 2008, just after the US subprime crisis, and it had hit the city hard. Many half-finished high-rise then. All that is now forgotten, they build like crazy and big sections of downtown are closed for construction. We’ll see if this improves the city, but it certainly shows that the city is expanding again.

Fortunately scooters far outnumber cars, or the traffic would be impossible. That’s because of the 100% import tariff – if you want a car that’s like buying two and giving one to the government. The exchange rate is also not in favor of the Vietnamese going shopping abroad.

But it’s great to be back in Asia! Tomorrow I’ll leave Saigon for the Mekong delta.


Saigon

The last time I had time to see much in Saigon was 2008, just after the US subprime crisis, and it had hit the city hard. Many half-finished high-rise then. All that is now forgotten, they build like crazy and big sections of downtown are closed for construction. We’ll see if this improves the city, but it certainly shows that the city is expanding again.

Fortunately scooters far outnumber cars, or the traffic would be impossible. That’s because of the 100% import tariff – if you want a car that’s like buying two and giving one to the government. The exchange rate is also not in favor of the Vietnamese going shopping abroad.

But it’s great to be back in Asia! Tomorrow I’ll leave Saigon for the Mekong delta.


Calcutta

The name Calcutta evokes images of squalor and emaciated servants, living in a giant slum. That might have been the case when the British made Calcutta their capital, but today’s Kolkata is just a huge modern city. A lot of the colonial architecture has survived, and so did the huge park in the center. Much of it is a cricket field, and there is the Victoria Monument in a manicured garden at the south end. This being India, the park is cut into sections by large streets packed with thundering honking traffic, protected from pedestrians by fences. Sikkim was so peaceful…

Near the park is the New Market, an enormous covered market crowded with tiny stalls selling mostly clothes but also food, jewelry, toys, and various household goods. There is also a dark smelly cavernous meat section that probably hasn’t changed much since the time of the British. The market spills over to much of the surrounding city blocks. Unfortunately it’s infested with touts more than usual.

Jeepsy

Yuksam is the site of the first Kingdom of Sikkim. There isn’t much left though, there is a Buddhist shrine at the site of the throne. It’s very scenic there though – Tibetan temples, lakes, waterfalls, beautiful views of the valleys and mountains and the beehive villages built up steep slopes, narrow winding mountain roads in catastrophic condition that are navigable only by jeepsies (Indian copies of old US jeeps), and a singing stone.

Which is a large rock that, when struck with a stone, makes a sound as if it were metal. Quite astonishing. Consequently, the region is called Ting-Ting.

Himalaya views

When I woke up at dawn in Pelling and opened my eyes, there was the mountain panorama of the Himalayas, dominated by the Kangchenjunga massif. Kangchenjunga is at 8586m India’s highest mountain and the third-highest in the world, only some 250 meters lower than Everest.

The mountain views are even moire spectacular at Rabdentse, Sikkim’s second royal city, now in ruins. It’s location with the backdrop of snow-capped Himalaya peaks is fabulously scenic. I was the only visitor so early in the morning. Nearby is the Pemayangtse Gompa, one of the most important Buddhist monasteries.

The mountains around Rabdentse are criss-crossed by unmarked paths. There are many ways to discover these paths: logs worn smooth by passing feet, broken branches, exposed roots, lack of rocks… But I used none of those and simply followed the discarded candy wrappers. Sikkim is very clean, in fact smoking is forbidden in the state, but the tourists can’t seem to break the habit.

Little Tibet

Across the valley from Gangtok is Rumtek, a small village that is essentially a Tibetan monastery, founded by Tibetan monks exiled by the Chinese cultural revolution. Atypcally, it’s guarded by the army, and entering requires a passport and inner line permit.

They have a large beautifully appointed prayer hall, and the monks were sitting in four rows, chanting. The chants were punctuated by Tibetan horns, bells, and drums. The ceremony was no different from others I have seen in Tibet. I watched and listened for a long time.

Sikkim

The ancient kingdom of Sikkim is now part of India, but requires a special “Inner Line Permit” to enter. Sikkim is a large rectangle, neatly boxed in by West Bengal, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. It’s up in the Himalayas and is essentially all mountains. The culture is entirely Tibetan, except less rustic than Tibet. People have cars here, not yaks. And the momos (Tibetan dumplings) are not made with fermented yak butter.

The main city is Gangtok, like Darjeeling climbing up a mountainside, all the way up to the ridge and spilling over to the other side. It’s more orderly and less charming than Darjeeling, but there is still a lot to see here. It’s more modern when you walk the streets, but almost rural in the spaces in between, which are reachable only by interminable narrow stairs.

My cup of tea

Back in the Himalayas, this time near Tibet! Darjeeling in West Bengal is another hill station, at 2100 meters, built on the side of a mountain. I can see the 8500m Kanchenjunga mountain from my hotel. The suites in the Dekeling Resort are incredibly comfortable, in 130-year old wooden buildings. During a heavy thunderstorm I had fires going in both fireplaces, listening to the rain drumming on the roof.

Darjeeling is in India, but almost all the faces here are Tibetan or Nepali. The dominant religion is Tibetan Buddhism. The two main roads wide enough to carry traffic are unbelievably choked with SUVs, but since the place is so steep there are narrow alleys and loooong stairways all over then place.

The main attraction – beside tea – is a British-era 60cm narrow-gauge train called the Toy Train. Its steam locomotive is wheezing down the hill to Ghum, just a few km away but the train is slow and the scenery pretty. At one point, it does a 360-degree loop to get over an especially steep section.

To burn in Varanasi

Varanasi is the most holy Hindu city. It is here where Hindus bathe in the Ganges, and where bodies are cremated in open fires on the Burning Ghats, stairs that lead down into nthe river. Much of Varanasi’s waterfront is a series of ghats, often backed by palaces. Boats go out on the river with a great view of the fires – I saw ten of them going – and the daily celebrations with chanting and dances. Bathing, praying, and dying in Varanasi is a ticket to Nirvana in Hindu belief.

The old town begins on top of the ghats. It’s narrow in the south and widens to a large neighborhood in the north. It’s a dense maze of narrow twisting alleys, often so narrow that I can touch the walls on both sides. It’s very easy to get lost even with GPS. The buildings are very old, poorly maintained – I saw some that have collapsed – and very uneven. The alleys are crowded with people at shop fronts, cows, and of course motorcycles. Lots of trash, because there was no collection during the Holi festival they say, but I am not sure I believe that.

Festival of colors

Holi is the Hindu spring festival of colors and love. Years ago I have been in India during Holi so I knew what to expect and bought a big white shirt to wear that day. Everybody carries a small plastic bag with brightly colored powder, which they dab on other people’s for heads and cheeks in liberal quantities, wishing a Happy Holi. Soon everybody is a riot of colors.

Children find this inefficient. They mix the color powder with water and fill bottles, balloons, and water pistols to do maximum damage. Everyone’s clothes, the streets, and even the cows are soon covered in red, purple, or yellow colors. For some reason my big white shirt seems to have attracted a lot of extra attention, and my face was changing colors every few minutes.

How to make bread

Here is how to make Indian Puri bread. First you need a restaurant with a kitchen. Form a small ball of dough with wheat, water, salt, and oil. Flatten it and throw it on the inside of your buried tandoor oven, where it will stick to the wall. Pull it out with a long poker after two minutes, rub some butter on it, and add a pinch of salt. Very fresh, very tasty. Pro tip: don’t let the customer see the chai sieve that looks like a rat had died in it years ago (not shown).

Sex sells

My hotel in Khajuraho is so much more pleasant than the one in Gwalior! I have a door that leads into their beautiful garden. It’s also only a few minutes from the Western Temple Complex.

Khajuraho has 22 temples, all a thousand years old and in almost mint condition. The ornamentation, the multiple bands of statues all around the temples, the friezes with elephants and warriors, and the interior is almost perfectly preserved, in sharp detail with almost no weathering. No surface here is flat, other than the floor. It’s absolutely incredible, and a UNESCO world heritage.

The statues are not quite what you would expect in, say, a church. There are various gods, and thousands of curvaceous women in exotic dancing poses – this has got to be bad for the back, especially for women as top-heavy as these! And it doesn’t stop there, many panels are clearly taken for the Kama Sutra, with a preference for the more complicated poses, and some are just orgies in sandstone.

We are lucky that the Mughals never took control here; Islam is even more prudish than Facebook and would have wiped out this architectural wonder.

Datia Fort

Between Gwalior and Khajuraho is a small rural village with a huge hulking Fort, at Datia. The entrance leads to a series of big dark caverns and wide stairways and arches, more felt than seen in the darkness. Two floors up it opens to a large square with connecting walkways, in various stages of charming disrepair. The central tower rises up to seven floors. Balconies with stone grilles look out far over the countryside. Some rooms still have the original paintwork. One large hall, the painting gallery, is behind heavy wooden doors locked with a massive chain and padlock. I know the door is heavy because the guard picked it up and heaved it to the side so I could enter, without paying any attention to the lock. This place was very beautiful before it was abandoned.

Sun State

The Sun State Hotel in Gwalior is the second-worst hotel in the world. Its business is tip extraction. First the guy who didn’t carry my bag for carrying my bag, then the guy who replaced the unused towel with another unused towel for replacing my towel just after getting to the room. The room has hot water but the hot water isn’t working so I got a bucket. Much later someone unlocked the door I had locked and stood in the room demanding a tip for that too. There are soggy bricks in the bathtub that fell from a hole in the ceiling.

(The prize for the worst hotel goes to that windowless cell with half-collapsed ceiling in Yuncheng, China, a few years ago, where the receptionists moonlight as prostitutes and I had one standing in my room at midnight who didn’t like being thrown out.)