Thursday, July 5, 2012

Day 17 - Going Home

Our last day, and we're ready to go home.

Today we walked around Singapore, all of it, or so it seemed. First to Arab Street where the carpet-looking experience was seriously wanting, then to Little India, which was similarly uninteresting, and then all the way down to Marina Bay, along the boat quay, to the bizarre-looking Sands Hotel, a spaceship swimming pool on top of three clothespins (the only way to describe it), and the even more bizarre looking Garden By The Bay, with it's huge robot-like trees. Then Ellery went to the Harry Potter exhibit at the Science Museum, and I had a foot massage - really, it was a lot of walking. We returned by crossing the Helix Bridge to the Esplanade, and back to our little area of the world. Then it was dinner at a deli (really, but not really) in the Raffles Hotel, and finally - finally - to the airport.

Day 16 -- Best Zoo Concept Ever

Back to the future. Singapore is quite the place. Futuristic architecture, more Louis Vuitton stores within 4 blocks than probably all of the US, and thousands of people from probably every country on the planet.

We did three things primarily today. First, we went to the Singapore Art Museum, and took the 11:00 am English tour with a fabulous docent. The work here is terrific, all special installations, and quite reminiscent of MassMOCA - site specific work in an unusual setting (here, a former catholic school). There were a few pieces that really blew me away. And we walked away with an inflatable Walter, a huge white bunny who apparently pops up in unusual places around Singapore.

Next was a long walk to, and up and down Orchard Street. All shopping malls, all with the same high-end stores selling the same merchandise. The point was definitely lost on me. (Still, I came away with a new point-and-shoot camera that I like a lot).

Finally, we went to the best zoo ever. Or at least the most brilliant concept - a zoo open only at night, so you can see nocturnal animals doing something other than sleeping. There are just enough lights to highlight each enclosure, and every animal we saw was up and about, from the big cats to the hyenas to the small otters and bats. There are both walking trails and a tram ride, both of which provided excellent, up close animal viewing. On my worldwide zoo scale, I give it an a+.

Tomorrow is the last day of our trip, and I'm truly sad to see it end. From start to finish, we've seen a lot of fabulous stuff.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Day 15 -- Is There Such A Thing As A Second World Country?

Well, what I thought would be a whirlwind tour of Vientiane was not, mostly because, well, there isn't a lot to see here, particularly if you're already on Buddhist temple overload. Overall, however, the city is relatively nice. Crowded, but not uncomfortably so; enough push carts and stalls to make it interesting but not so many that everything tumbles into the street. And there seem to be a good number of open air, and even grassy areas, to relax in.

We left the hotel at 8:30, and by 11:30, were done. In that time we visited the Grand Stupa, which apparently contains some Buddha relics inside. As our guide explained, pointing to a balcony on the stupa, "That's where the Royal Family used to sit on festival days. Now the [Communist] party leaders sit there. So, not so different before 1975 and after.". (Later I learned that his father had been imprisoned for 15 years after the revolution, and his uncle, who had worked for the CIA, had fled the country and moved to Washington, DC). We also visited a huge concrete arch patterned after the Arc de Triumph built to celebrate the country's independence from France - insert quizzical expression here. Then there was the temple that used to house the emerald buddha until it was stolen by Thailand, and finally a really nice temple that had, among other things, hundreds of broken Buddhas. Laos has been invaded and conquered and sacked so many times (Vientiane was burned to the round in 1828 and abandoned for 60 years, so everything you see is relatively new) that every time they dig a foundation for a new building or expand a road, they discover more old Buddhas. This should be called the land of the broken Buddhas.

Anyway, after the city tour, we retired to Joma, our not-exactly-Starbucks chain (there's a third one in Hanoi) for lunch and wifi until it was time to get to the airport. And, continuing with out monsoon luck, it only started pouring after we got to Joma and not during our temple tour.

Flight to Singapore proceeded without a hitch. As with all flights around here, although it was short, we were fed well; as Ellery noted, the Lao Airlines food is better than a lot of what you can get on the ground.

Singapore was a shock back into first world life. Incredibly interesting skyscrapers and modern architecture awaited us, much of which we can see from our kindly upgraded room. Dinner at an outdoor food court/shopping mall across the street, and now it's time to sleep.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Day 14 -- Wherein I Eat My Words

Dear Backpackers. I apologize. Your waterfall swimming hole is far, far superior to my hotel pool. Really. Please ignore everything I said on Day 12.

But first, catching up on last night, the rain did break for a bit, so Ellery and I hurried to Joma (our Starbucks-like hang out) for a light dinner and one last shopping trip to the night market.

This morning we lazed around the hotel until about 10, when Fhun picked us up for our last day here,taking us to Kuang Si Waterfalls. It was a out 40 minutes out of town, and I fully expected it to be like yesterday's waterfalls, but since we had run out of temples to see, it was really the only alternative. It was the opposite way out of town from yesterday, but the scenery was pretty much the same - people working in the rice patties, water buffalo along the side of the road, and small villages along the way.

Arriving at the waterfalls, we first walked through a small bear rescue center. Ok,bears. Next.

Well, next was really the most delightful series of waterfalls and swimming areas I've seen in ... well, ever, culminating in a large waterfall at the top. We spent several hours here, just hanging out, swimming, and hiking a bit. Little by little, the backpackers joined us, until e pools were like one big international party. I really enjoyed this day, and it was exactly what I needed as I was just beginning to yearn for home.

After the waterfalls it was back into town for a shower and a little rest before heading to the airport for our flight to Vietienne. Arrival was fine, and once checked into the hotel, we strolled outside, finding out way to a nice little food stall for dinner and a walk through the night market along the Mekong. Here, the night market is quite different than in Luang Prabang - mostly tee shirts and consumer goods, but patronized mostly by young Laotians. (Really, you'd never guess this was a Communist country). Lots of kids every where (this country is full of kids), music playing, even a little pushcart bar. I don't know what this. It's looks like in the daytime, but at night, it is far from the crowded decaying urban center I expected.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Day 13 -- Into Every Vacation A Little Rain Must Fall

All last night it poured. The monsoon has finally come in earnest, and soon the Mekong and its tributaries will rise 10 - 20 feet. Throughout our journey, we've seen the high water marks on rocks and vegetation and footpaths, but it was inconceivable to me that the water could regularly reach that high. No more, now I understand.

Still, luck remains with us. Today was our day with the elephants, and I feared that we'd have to cancel, or that it would be so wet as to make the trip miserable and pointless. But the rain slowed enough that we took a chance, and what a good chance it was. The elephant camp is high in the mountains, and as the car climbed the muddy dirt roads, past pineapple and teak plantations, we rose above the clouds so that by the time we arrived, the sun was shining.

Our day at the camp had several parts to it. First, Ellery and I learned how to ride on the elephant's neck, and how to command it with out feet and a few Lao words. Then it was off on a one hour trail ride; unsure of my balance on the lumbering but beautiful animal, I opted, for the most part, for the comfy cushioned seat, while Ellery stayed on the neck. When we reached the river, riding the elephants down the middle of it, I hopped down onto the neck for a bit, and loved every minute of it.

With the trail ride over, we took a short boat ride to some nearby waterfalls, but as the rains had just begun, they were pretty dry and not really worth the trip. We then had our usual lunch - rice and chicken curry, followed by pineapple for desert, before it was time for the best part of the day. Ellery and I each mounted our own elephant and took them back into the river for their bath. Once in the middle of the river, the elephants laid down, and with hard bristle brushes, we scrubbed their heads, ears, and back. Ellery's elephant was so delighted she trumpeted with joy, while mine used her trunk to shower me with water. I really didn't expect to have so much fun with these elephants - I expected something much cheesier, and I'm glad it wasn't.

After the bathing, I showered and swam in a beautiful little swimming pool overlooking the river, while Ellery read - something she's been doing constantly throughout the trip.

Returning to town, where it had clearly been raining most of the day but for the moment was dry, we stopped at one last temple, covered in brightly painted murals and friezes, and then walked back to our hotel. Changing into our bathing suits, it was less than 15 minutes out by the pool before the rain started again, heavier than before. So now we are ensconced in our room, listening to the rain, wondering what we will do for dinner, and whether tomorrow's trip to a larger, evidently more beautiful (and wet) waterfall will actually take place. But so far, the weather gods have been good to us, and I'm hoping our luck hasn't yet run out.