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Angkor Wat Week! Final day…

After three straight days of being roused from sleep when only bats and meth addicts remain awake, it felt indulgent to wake up Thursday to my cell phone’s jingle at 7:30 a.m. I showered merrily, prepared a daypack, and found Cico waiting in his tuk-tuk outside my guesthouse at 8 a.m. as planned.

We were headed to Kompong Phhluk, a floating village about 90 minutes from the town of Siem Reap, at the northern end of Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. To get there, we’d take a tuk-tuk as far as the boggy dirt road would allow, then hop on a longboat to make the rest of the way by canal.

Our boat captain couldn’t have been much older than sixteen, but he wore the look of ease and experience, as if he’d been born in the boat and never crawled out. He nonchalantly steered us down the canal, turning the wheel with his left forearm, maneuvering the stickshift right-handed without glancing down, and controlling the throttle with his bare left foot on the pedal below. Every now and then he would switch feet, letting the unoccupied one rest on the steering panel so the wind could tickle his toes.

For most of the year, the waters of Tonlé Sap Lake funnel down and join the Mekong River in eastern Cambodia before spilling into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam. During the dry season the lake covers an area of about 2,700 square kilometers and is just one meter deep. But during the rainy season, from June to September, the water level of the Mekong rises so dramatically that the flow of water actually reverses back into Tonlé Sap. Its area nearly sextuples, to 16,000 square kilometers, and it reaches depths of eight or nine meters. Outlying villages whose abodes spend the dry season towering above the ground on seven-meter stilts are brought within a toe-dip of the water at the lake’s midsummer peak.

These unique seasonal flows drag sediments up from the Mekong and enrich the floodplain with nutrients, so that during the rainy season the fish stock goes bonkers, making Tonlé Sap one of the most fertile lakes in the world. More than 3 million Cambodians live in countless tiny fishing villages like Kompong Phhluk and are sustained by their catch. And the nation as a whole gets 60% of its protein intake from Tonlé Sap. If the lake weren’t there, Cambodians would all be two-and-a-half feet tall and Angkor Wat would be in miniature. Tonlé Sap’s important, is what I’m saying.

Twenty minutes after our longboat hove into the narrow canal, the dense mangroves lining either side of the waterway finally receded, opening up into the heart of Kompong Phhluk. We were suddenly loomed over by stilt houses, where whole families sat on their front porches, weaving baskets, their infant children clinging to the railing and staring out at us as we passed. One or two boats were tethered to the ladder of each house and filled with reels of fishing line and stacks of handmade, bamboo fish traps.

To our left a woman crouched to slide a tray of rotten vegetables into a floating pen, stirring the lolling pigs inside it to attention. To our right a fence of vertical, tightly bound bamboo rose two meters out of the water, inside which the villagers raised their own fish.

A woman and her child rowed out in a flat boat with a cooler full of cold water and soft drinks for sale. Kompong Phhluk, because of its relative inaccessibility and distance from Siem Reap, is less frequented by tourists than Chong Kneas, but tourism is still an important source of income for the villagers. Although I was the lone tourist in our boat, I got plenty of attention from paddling peddlers. Several boats zoomed alongside ours, the women and children laying down their oars to latch onto our rails, offering me refreshments, colorful children’s books, and even pencils and pens.

The village itself is fairly small, perhaps thirty stilt houses altogether, and in a couple minutes we passed beyond it and into the flooded forest. The forest was too dense for the longboat to pass through, so Cico and I climbed onto a smaller flatboat piloted by a local mother and her son. She sat at the bow, pulling us deftly between gaps in the trees only an arm’s length across with strokes of her thin oar, while her little boy manned the rudder in the back of the boat, dragging his oar on either side during particularly tricky maneuvers.

The only sounds in the forest were the burble of the long, thin oars agitating the water, the chirping of birds and crickets, and the plopping of frogs into the lake. Fist-sized tree frogs leapt constantly from positions of concealment on limbs, alarmed by our passing. The little boy pointed out several camouflaged ones that crouched in wait only a short distance from our boat, but I was hopeless at spotting them unless they jumped. Luckily I was equally hopeless at spying snakes. The mother said that there were plenty of them in the area, and that it wasn’t uncommon to pass beneath one coiled on a branch or to have one swim right up to the boat. It’s better not to think about what might have happened had we been approached by a snake, though it probably would have involved my “accidentally” falling into the water later on to hide the wet spot.

We piled back into the longboat and reversed back down the route we’d come, through Kompong Phhluk and down the tight canal to the waiting tuk-tuk.

Cico dropped me off at the guesthouse in mid-afternoon, and I spent that evening walking around Siem Reap. After a fantastic dinner of amok fish at Khmer Kitchen, I got an iced coffee from Joe-to-Go — 100% of whose profits go to the Global Child, an organization that sets up schools and safe houses for Cambodian street children — and buzzedly perused the night market and a few nearby handicraft shops before retiring to my room to pack. I was sad to be leaving Siem Reap after an unforgettable week, but the next day Whitney and I would reunite in Malaysia to begin a new adventure together.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day four…

I had a long Wednesday ahead of me, and I wanted to get the earliest possible start, so I left the guesthouse at 5 a.m. to find a tuk-tuk driver. Still smarting from nine hours spent on a bike seat the day before, I was really looking forward to the sweet, forgiving padding of a tuk-tuk carriage. I hadn’t walked thirty feet when a driver zoomed up to me. I told him all the places I’d plotted to go, most of which were quite a distance from Siem Reap. There was no way a tuk-tuk could navigate some of the roads we’d have to travel to fit them all in, he told me, so I’d have to go by motorbike or scratch some of the stops. Against the protest of my hind end, I opted for the motorbike. We agreed on a price ($32), borrowed a second helmet from another driver, and tore off into the darkness, leaving the tuk-tuk trailer and its oh-so-sweet, oh-so-soft seat to languish at the side of the road.

[One point of interest: Lonely Planet sorely understates the price of a hiring a driver. You can expect to pay $10-15 for a day’s worth of shuttling around in the vicinity of Angkor Wat by motorbike, $20-25 by tuk-tuk, depending on the distance. As is the way, when gas prices increase, so will these.]

Our first destination was Beng Mealea, an Angkor Wat-era palace more than 70 kilometers from Siem Reap. The first 40 km of the ride saw us speeding down the well-paved and relatively boring National Road 6, until we broke off to the north shortly after sunrise, heading down a cratered, mixed-surface road that connects several tiny villages, where the residents were just beginning to stir. Cico, my driver, had spent his entire life in Siem Reap but had never seen Beng Mealea, and he seemed as eager as I did to tromp around the ruins. Amazingly, on arriving we found we had the place completely to ourselves.

Abandoned for centuries to the closing maw of the forest, Beng Mealea is one of the most ruined of the ruins. Most of the former construction has been reduced to an enormous pile of rubble within the decaying palace walls. What remains standing is grown over with groping tree roots and a brilliant layer of moss. The early morning sunlight slicing through the foliage gave the scene a romantic quality; were there not a long, wooden walkway coursing around the grounds (or a man selling $5 admission tickets at the entrance), it would be easy to trick yourself into believing you had discovered this marvel for yourself. Due to its distance from the main circuit around Angkor Wat, it’s probably the least visited of the ancient sites, but one that’s definitely worth a stop if you have time.

Next we rumbled down rough and muddy roads between Beng Mealea and our second stop, the enchanting river carvings at Kbal Spean. A night of heavy rains had left the last half of the way in awful shape, but Cico managed somehow to keep the tires churning on the four-inch tendons of dry dirt and rock between prodigious pools of sludge. After 90 minutes of repetitive trauma to my hind end, the mile-long hike required to reach the carvings was therapeutic.

The river rocks are engraved with wonderful images of Hindu deities and animals, and Sanskrit inscriptions. Somehow they remain well defined and vivid despite being run over by wind, rain, and river water, not to mention the sediment it carries with it, for hundreds of years. The area isn’t very well marked, and I would have missed most of the carvings had not a guard volunteered to show a few of us around, offering what information he could in broken English. Thanks to him, Kbal Spean was one of the highlights of my trip.

Nearing midday now, the air was as humid as a cloud and the sun oppressively hot, even beneath the forest canopy, so before heading back I stopped for a few minutes at the riverside for some swigs from my water bottle and to shake the crumby remnants of an addled bag of sugar crackers into my mouth. Lunched and refreshed, I rejoined Cico at the trailhead and we motored onward.

Banteay Srei is simply incredible, but I don’t recommend going there in the late morning or early afternoon. It features the most ornate and beautiful relief work of any of the temples I visited, but provides little in the way of shade, and its character gets washed out by the potent midday sun. It’s certainly the calmest time to visit, as most of the tourist groups disappear to Siem Reap during the lunch hours, but there is a reason they do so.

Finally, after failing to make it through the gate the prior day, I rounded this day out with a stop at Ta Prohm. Just in case I ran out of time before I got a chance to go back and see it, I had belittled Ta Prohm in my head as “nothing special, just more crumbling stone blocks and some gnarly trees.” And I was right, except for the “nothing special” part. The place is instantly memorable. The trees are not merely gnarly, but the gnarliest – their gargantuan roots cascade like dam-bursts over the sides of meter-thick sandstone walls, which buckle and crack beneath their weight. If these trees could spring to life and do battle like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Ents, we’d all be doomed.

As Wednesday afternoon expired into darkness, likewise did my visitor’s pass pass, so to speak. I was OK with it, though. After three days and more than a dozen temples, I was finally ruined for ruins. Thursday morning would see me to the floating village and flooded forest of Kompong Phhluk. This was feeling more like Lord of the Rings all the time.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day three…

Sorry for the infrequent posting. Angkor Wat Week is turning into Angkor Wat Fortnight due a lack of internet access. Without further ado…

Finding myself to be pretty worthless after a thorough sun-soaking and a stomach full of lunch on my first full day in Siem Reap, I planned an ambitious itinerary for day two, fittingly called Tuesday. I was going to bike what’s known as the Big Circuit, a 26-km loop that starts at the south end of Angkor Wat and connects a dozen or so other major places of interest before returning to the same spot. The last stop on the circuit, and the one I was most excited to see, would be Ta Prohm, a setting so remarkable it was featured prominently in the movie Tomb Raider. Alas, neither the brilliant set location nor Angelina Jolie could redeem the film, which offered less mental nourishment than your average coma.

I won’t bore you by describing all the temples I visited. Seeing temples, even those as astonishing and varied as those around Siem Reap, illustrates a classic Econ-101 concept: diminishing marginal utility. The first temple you see (particularly if, like most people, you begin at Angkor Wat) is revelatory. You are wowed by its vastness, its detail, and the fact that it predates John McCain. You want to spend hours examining every nook and cranny, appreciating its miles of carvings, photographing it from every angle and in every possible light. (These temples give amateur photographers, myself included, a false sense of confidence in their abilities.) But after absorbing the first one, each additional temple you visit, though impressive for all the aforementioned reasons, drops your jaw a little less. Your utility gradually slopes downward, until you’ve reached temple number eight or fifteen or twenty-three and you’re content to give a perfunctory “Wow, that’s really old… and quite ruined,” and simply snap an off-kilter and blurry photo from the seat of your tuk-tuk as you rumble by.

Reading about them one after another, I would imagine, descends a much steeper slope.

[But if you’re going to be in the area, check out Preah Khan (pictured above: look for carved images changed from Buddhist to Hindu when a Hindu devotee became king, and the inscription carved by North Vietnamese soldiers, who hid out here in the early 1970’s), Neak Khan (left: formerly pools where purification rites were performed, check out the ornamental spouts in the shape of an elephant, lion, human, and rhino(?)), Tam So (below left: the tree enveloping the eastern entrance is amazing), and Pre Rup (below right: fabulous complex of stupas that looks stunning in the late afternoon).]

I’d nearly managed to complete the circuit by 2 pm, leaving only the famous Ta Prohm left to see. That’s when I made the regrettable decision to save Ta Prohm for sunset and instead head over to Bakong, a ninth-century temple that’s one of the earliest Khmer constructions, which lay a full twenty kilometers away. It was a decision at which only a drunk or a sunstroke victim would have arrived. I won’t say which I was, but off I went.

Halfway to Bakong a noncommittal shower blew over the area, and I took the meager sprinkle as a sign to stop to fuel up. I hadn’t eaten all day and was dead tired. I bought a pack of imitation-Oreos and a Fanta Orange from a pharmacy – easily the best part of traveling by bicycle is the guiltless justification to eat like a loosed three-year old during the ride and for a few meals afterward – and downed them both in a flash, expecting a reaction in my stomach that would send out a fizzy cataract whence they came in. Disappointingly, one never came.

The rain ceased and I started again toward Bakong, which the pharmacy cashier had told me was a mere five kilometers to the east. In fact it was probably twice that distance. The energy spike from the carbonated-drink-and-cookie porridge didn’t last very long, as it turned out. The kilometers piled up grudgingly on my churning legs, and I began to entertain those thoughts that sprout in your brain when you’re exhausted and not at all sure where you are. Had I missed a sign somewhere? Surely I’ve gone more than five kilometers by now, right? These people don’t even look Cambodian anymore. I must look ready to collapse; these ribby stray dogs keep licking their lips as I pass. Why do these dogs have lips?

At last I saw a sign for Bakong and turned down a narrow, paved road that soon gave way to a smooth, dirt path. I rounded a bend and the tiered figure of Bakong mercifully came into view. In a few moments I was staggering up its steps like Rocky Balboa gone to seed. Unfortunately there was little time for a victory dance upon reaching the top; ominous, charcoal-hued clouds were collecting to the east, and they looked ready to spill their contents as they drifted westward.

After a bit of exploring I abridged my visit to Bakong and got back on the bike, but I was beginning to dread the 20-km ride back to Ta Prohm, especially with a succession of lightning bolts slashing the sky in the distance, when I had the good fortune to meet a couple backpackers willing to let me hop in their tuk-tuk to hitch a ride back to Siem Reap. We made it back to town at about 4:45 p.m.

It appeared that the rain would hold off after all, so, ignoring the discomfort in my haunches, I mounted my metal steed to pedal to Ta Prohm for sunset. Again the rain came; though not sufficiently strong to make me turn back, it was dampening enough to make me doubt my judgment. I should have doubted harder.

I pulled up to Ta Prohm’s gate shortly after 5:30 p.m., which left me about 45 minutes to wander the ruins until sunset. Or so I thought.

Lonely Planet neglects to mention the rather important fact that visitors are not admitted entry into Ta Prohm (et al) after 5:30 p.m., which I found, after unsuccessfully lobbying the security guard to please bend the rule for someone who’d cycled 14 km only to arrive a few minutes late, to be non-negotiable. I had no choice but to climb back on the bike and ride, dispirited and suddenly doubly exhausted, back to town.

On a positive note, being rebuffed at Ta Prohm meant that I was passing by the southern end of Angkor Wat’s lovely moat as the sun sank into the horizon. I stopped for a few moments to take let the scene replenish my spirits – it was nearly as remarkable as the previous day’s sunrise had been – before returning to the road.

Arriving at the guesthouse at dark, I went upstairs and sprawled across the bed, taking stock of the day. My body was completely drained and aching from 80 km of pedaling in Cambodian heat, the last 28 of which were maddeningly for naught. I decided that wherever I was headed the next day, I’d be traveling on a well-padded seat.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day two…

I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on Sunday afternoon, and after consulting the maps and advice of my Lonely Planet guidebook, I opted to rent a mountain bike for the next couple days to motor myself around the sights. In retrospect I won’t say it’s the optimal way to make the rounds in Cambodian August, but I really enjoyed the freedom to explore areas inaccessible to tuk-tuks and cars, not to mention the exercise. And there is something undeniably magical in approaching one of the vast, crumbling relics with little but your thoughts, the breeze, and the whirring of bike wheels scoring the scene.

Everyone who’s seen it says the sunrise at Angkor Wat is something to behold, a must during a visit to Siem Reap. That’s why, subduing the pull of my sluggish brain to fall back asleep, I tugged myself upright on Monday morning at 4:30, showered and tossed a couple bottles of water and some cookies into my backpack, and cycled across the river bridge and down the linear temple road, its chewed pavement lit only occasionally by the headlights of a passing car or tuk-tuk. Six-plus kilometers (and a $40 three-day pass) later, I pulled up to the entrance as first sunlight began to dissolve the predawn darkness. Across the moat, the looming towers and eight-meter high stone wall were silhouetted black against the sky, offering no glimpse of the immense temple behind them.

It wasn’t until I got beyond the wall that I saw it. At a distance of a few hundred meters, I could make out three jagged bullets rising up from the horizon. The sun was still submerged, but it shone a warm, orange light on the swirling clouds above the towers. I felt my way down the long, uneven, cobbled path, only looking down every few steps when I’d stumble over a proud stone. I paused for a few moments at the lotus pond on the north side of the walkway, where a couple dozen other gawkers were already camped out, some of them staring out from plastic chairs that lined the bank at the water’s edge. The view was mesmerizing: the striking figure of Angkor Wat, still in shadow and bathing in fluorescent sky, married to its perfect, inverted reflection on the serene surface of the pond. It’s one of those rare visions that, even as you experience it, you’re aware of its being indelibly etched into your memory.

As I traced my way around the halls at the perimeter, the accumulating sunlight began to wash over the epic works in bas-relief on the walls. Starting at the eastern entrance and walking clockwise around the palace, the elegant carvings relate the story of the gods creating heaven and earth by churning a sea of milk and follow with depictions of Khmer history, featuring frenetic scenes of war with the rival Chams and of a later civil war among themselves. Most of the carvings, now well into their ninth century in the open air, are remarkably well preserved.

At the interior of the palace, the five conical towers make a quincunx pattern – four towers form a square with the fifth tower, the tallest, at the center of the square. The size and complexity of their design and the intricacy of their detail are even more impressive viewed from up close. Each of the corner towers is accessible by a couple of narrow, worn staircases, but all the entry points were roped off on this particular day. Also, renovations were being undertaken on the middle tower, evidenced by scaffolding left in place on its south side.

After more than three hours at Angkor Wat, and with the sun now beginning to assert itself, I decided to push on toward Bayon, the spectacular and decaying ruins at the southern end of Angkor Thom, just a few kilometers up the road. Bayon is one of the more photogenic sites you’ll ever visit. Everywhere you stand inside its walls, sanguine-looking stone faces peer out at you from contoured towers. Each of the 59 towers features four Buddha images (said to resemble Jayavarman VII, the Khmer king who ordered Bayon’s construction) facing north, south, east, and west. The stonework of has been for centuries completely exposed to the elements, and the erosion of the towers and reliefs has given them a kind of grotesque charm. Gaudí would have loved Bayon, pictured below.

A couple hundred meters north lies Baphuon, an enormous temple that will be extremely impressive when it’s put back together, but which is currently scurried over by men in hard hats and overseen by a crane. Whether it will be rebuilt to its former glory is another issue altogether. A restoration project undertaken decades ago saw Baphuon deconstructed and its building blocks carefully catalogued for later re-assemblage, but then the Khmer Rouge came to power and laid waste to the plans. Of course, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian people had bigger fish to fry than reworking some ruins. Among the items on the their to-do lists were avoiding starvation, escaping the arbitrary terror of the ruling party, and burying the millions of their countrymen who hadn’t been able to accomplish the first two.

You could spend an entire day visiting the various temples, terraces, and walkways within the walls of Angkor Thom – it’s nine square kilometers of fascinating history –- but it was nearing lunchtime, and I wanted to make just one last stop before

heading back to Siem Reap for some vittles. I was looking for Preah Palilay, a stupa at the northwest corner of Angkor Thom whose base has been shot through by the growth of several immense trees. On the way I met a wheelchair-bound painter who beckoned me to browse his work.

His name was Kim Leung, he said, and he sells his hand-painted canvases and postcards to support himself and his family. Besides having a personal story that makes you want to fork over your cash, his paintings were quite good, and I left with a sleeve full of postcards.

[Slightly off subject, there are an appalling number of people in Siem Reap – and the rest of Cambodia, I’m sure – whose missing limbs and appendages attest to the existence of leftover landmines in the Cambodian countryside. To learn more about it, visit the Cambodian Landmine Museum or its website.]

Over at Preah Palilay, I tromped up and down the ruins for a few minutes – one of the wonderful things about the Angkor Wat experience is the ability to interact with history, to climb over and run your fingers along it, rather than just stand before it and squint at a placard from ten paces – until my empty stomach gave a loud growl, signaling the end of the morning’s activities. Riding back by Kim Leung again, my front wheel caught on a stubborn tree root and I was flung awkwardly over the handlebars. I got up, mystified and mildly embarrassed, and began to brush myself off. His reaction was polite, even concerned, unlike that of a nearby worker, who’d fallen to his knees, weak with heaving laughter. I pulled the bike upright, climbed on, and hurried off, giggling to myself. It seemed like a good time for a lunch break.

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The best laid plans on Fansipan — part two

I surveyed the available cooking utensils. One battered pot with a lid, one veteran pan, an ancient and tar-black kettle, and a metal spatula. From the basket he’d hauled up the mountain Hanh produced a head of cabbage, a sack of rice, a cut of beef, some tomatoes, a green pepper, carrots, onions, garlic, half a dozen eggs, two water bottles filled with cooking oil, and a handful of seasoning packets. How they planned to prepare all this food with a few shoddy implements and a tiny cooking fire, I had no idea.

Hanh arranged a bent iron rod over the fire to serve as a range, then filled the kettle full of water and the pot full of rice and water and set them on the rod to cook. Next he went outside to shave down a thick slab of wood with the machete; in a couple of minutes he’d fashioned a clean cutting board. Back inside he went to work on the potatoes I’d peeled, carving them into thin slivers while Khoa and the other hikers chopped vegetables and cut the beef into strips. My contribution was to shower their workspace with camera flashes in the dying light. I was invaluable.

Hanh had brought along some cocoa powder and made hot chocolate for me to fight the cold. Instead of a mug he sliced a water bottle across the middle and handed me the upturned, capped end. I thanked him in Vietnamese and he said something in reply that I didn’t understand, but it probably meant something like, “This is how Macgyver drinks hot chocolate.”

Khoa turned out to be an ace cook. He fried up the potatoes with chopped garlic and salt. We passed around the bowl of fries — some of the best I’ve ever tasted — as he used the leftover oil to sauté the diced cabbage, and again to stir fry the carrots, onions, and green pepper with the beef. The rice was now cooked and pulled from the fire; Khoa scooped out a fistfull from the top and set a mysterious can into the crater to let it heat up. For his last trick he stewed the tomatoes with boiling water and the juices from the stir fry, eventually cracking and stirring in a couple eggs to thicken it and shaking in some seasoning salt to taste.

When finally we all sat down on a tarp in one of the bunks to eat, the spread was impressive. The rice was cooked to perfection (something I’ve never managed even with the most advanced rice-cooking technology), the beef and vegetables were fantastic, and the from-scratch tomato soup was unbeatable. Even the mystery meat from the can was delicious — Khoa said it was pork of some kind, and I thought better of getting him to clarify any further — with a taste and consistency similar to goose pâte. We washed it all down with swigs of locally-made rice wine, the kind that tickles your throat, widens your eyes, and warms you up immediately.

After dinner we wiggled into our sleeping bags near the fire. Hanh set baby bamboo to boil above the fire as it died away. Exhausted, I was lulled to sleep in a few minutes as the rain began to drum against the metal roof.

I awoke to a thunderclap in the middle of the night, a deluge sounding throughout the room. If this kept up all night, the waterfall between us and the summit would swell and become impassible by morning. Couldn’t be helped, I figured, and fell back asleep. Sure enough, when I awoke in the morning the rain was still torrential. Khoa told me that Hanh had already scouted out the waterfall and thought we’d be foolish to attempt to cross it. We had two options: to wait out the rain, which offered no sign of stopping, or to head back down the mountain. The rain might have kept us in limbo for days, so I chose to head back.

Having climbed to within a few hundred meters of the peak, I was extremely disappointed to be turned away unsuccessful. The more I thought about it during our descent, though, the more I realized that success or failure in summiting Fansipan wasn’t going to redeem or ruin this trip. It would have meant a few more hours climbing in a chilly downpour, and visibility at the summit in weather like this would have been only a few feet anyway. And in the end, the real payoff from traveling is always in the experience, not the accomplishment.

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The best laid plans on Fansipan — part one

Just over a month ago I left Hanoi for Sapa and the mountains of northwest Vietnam. Really I was after a single mountain, Fansipan, the tallest in Vietnam and one whose ascent doesn’t require any equipment beyond standard-issue legs and lungs. However, my trusty guidebook warned that during the summer rainy season (June-September), the volume of water coursing through Fansipan’s streams and down its waterfalls can make the climb too treacherous to complete.

So I kept an eye toward the weather forecast, until finally it called for a 40% chance of precipitation in Sapa the next day. That’s practically beach weather during the rainy season, so I hopped on an overnight train to Lao Cai, caught an early-a.m. bus to Sapa, hired a guide and a porter from a hotel in town, and was on the mountain by mid-morning, 12 hours after leaving Hanoi. The plan was to hike that morning and afternoon to within 300 meters of the 3,143-meter summit, set up camp for the night, then make the peak the following morning and descend thereafter.

We had taken a rattletrap SUV from Sapa to the trail head some 12 km outside of town, and now we shut the doors behind us and took the first of thousands of strenuous steps to come in a thick, stagnant mist. My guide, Khoa, said it had rained on Fansipan for more than two weeks straight, and the soaking ground might as well have been an ice rink in places. While he and the porter, Hanh, effortlessly tread the path in lightweight trekking shoes (and carrying two days’ supply of food and drink), I was a staggering hazard in their wake, catching roots with my heels, dislodging rocks, and leaving gashes in the mud where my boots slid frictionlessly in all directions.

At the halfway point of the first day’s climb, we stopped at a campsite for lunch. Two other hikers and their guide awaited us there. The guide had fallen on the trail and injured his leg too badly to continue the climb, but he asked if his hikers could join us. Of course, we said, and after scarfing down sandwiches of sliced tomato, cucumber, and soft cheese on swollen baguettes, the five of us put our gear back on and set out again. Khoa said it would be two more hours of rugged uphill slog before we reached our destination camp. We spent the first half hour traversing gently sloping hills thick with green growth that fell away into sagging clouds. If this was a slog, I could slog all day long.

My confidence was premature; here came the slog. The rain had held off all morning and into early afternoon, but as we reached the most difficult part of the day’s hike, where handrails had been mercifully erected on either side of the path, the clouds burst. My raincoat, completely waterproof in both directions, proved its worth and then some. My body produced a steam that condensed on the inside lining of the coat, soaking my cotton tee-shirt through. I didn’t mind the cool moisture as long as we kept moving, but as we climbed the temperature fell, and at the end of each brief respite I had to fight off the shivers.

For the next 90 minutes, we pulled ourselves up wet boulders and mudslick hills, using rails and roots and rocks and whatever else we could to keep our bodies plowing forward. On a cloudless day the scenery would have been as staggering as the climb, but in the steady rain on a dissolving path, watching our feet fall was a more prudent option. We took care navigating the home stretch, a bamboo thicket dangerous in the wet because the path had been cleared haphazardly, leaving aborted chutes sticking several inches out of the ground, their tops lopped off at sharp angles. Here and there we found groups of fuzzy baby bamboo chutes, which we plucked and collected to boil for dinner later on.

We made camp with about an hour of daylight left. The camp building was basically a corrugated metal barn with six bunks divided three to a side by a muddy aisle, with a door on each end left open to channel the brisk wind. Inside we found some dried bamboo chutes for kindling and two dozen red potatoes left behind by previous inhabitants. After exchanging my cold, soaking wet clothes for chilly, damp ones, I sat around useless while Khoa and the Hanh built a fire, splitting the chutes in half lengthwise with an imposing machete and constructing a pyramid in the middle of the aisle (pictured at left). The two hikers who had joined us collected water for cooking from the stream outside. The fire crackling away now, Khoa handed me the machete to begin peeling potatoes for dinner. Determined to make it back down the mountain the next day with all my digits intact, I peeled so slowly it was almost dark when I finished. (to be continued…)

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Forget the MacBook Air, I want a bamboo laptop!

When I saw this new laptop from Asus, I was thinking, “How great is it really for the environment?” Though bamboo is one of the most sustainable materials out there (reason #1 I chose it for my kitchen floor), this is probably more about the hype. But gosh it’s pretty.

But treehugger had this to say: “Its case is covered in bamboo, which I suppose is a statement, but the real show is inside. All of the plastic in it is labeled and recyclable; it is lined with cardboard; there are no paints, sprays or even electroplating used on its components. It looks like it is designed to be easily taken apart for self-service and easy upgrading of components, usually the downfall of notebooks.”

So it is eco-friendly! Now I just have to wait till it launches…

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Mr. Darcy opens an eco-boutique!

If I had a list of literary and/or movie characters I’d date, it would go something like this:

1) Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice

2) Mr. Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary

3) Mr. Darcy in the sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary

As many of you (female) readers probably already know, all said versions of Mr. Darcy are played by the British actor Colin Firth, who apparently has opened an eco-boutique(!) called, umm, Eco. Well, it’s the restrained, passionate, smoldering look we’re all so fond of, not the man’s creativity.

Anyway, I digress. Not only can you shop for eco-friendly home wares, but there are also in-store consultants that can help you make your home more efficient. The shop aims to be “Britain’s first ecological destination store.” I don’t know if they mean tourist destination, but this is definitely on my list for the next time I’m in London!

Unfortunately you can’t shop online (of course, you can’t stalk Mr. Darcy while pretending to be interested in bamboo-fiber curtains online, so what’s the point anyway), but you can check out an article about the store from the Times Online.

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Eco-friendly travel accessories

So, it’s official. Anything can now be made to come in “organic.” Witness the birth of organic, lavender-scented hand sanitizer.

The thing is, I have this nightmare that I’m in a remote location without any knowledge of the city, language skills, etc., and there are two things I don’t have that really freak me out – a Lonely Planet and hand sanitizer. It’s the traveler’s version of the not-being-prepared-for-a-test nightmare. Imagine my relief knowing that I have my hand sanitizer and it harms the planet less.

All jabs at self aside, I have to admit that I love eco-friendly travel products because they usually make the ordinary just a little special. For instance, silk travel accessories can be eco-friendly, which is a nice upgrade from your run-of-the-mill sleep sack and travel pillow. As a defense against being judged a complete prima donna, I have spent months on the road or away from home living in some really dingy, tiny places. As I’ve said before, a scented candle and a cozy throw blanket can really help with the “let’s pretend” coping strategy. Which brings me to… Eco-friendly scented travel candles! Soy candles burn longer and cleaner. Jasmine is one of my favorite scents.

Moving away from the frou-frou stuff and onto things that really could do some good for the environment, I’ve had my eye on a solar paneled backpack (which charges your laptop, phone, ipod, etc.) for a while. I don’t know what it is, but I feel like a Voltaic Messenger Solar Backpack is tech-chic and the backpack style is just geek. It’s 3 lbs., though, so I’m still deciding if I’m prepared to sacrifice a little extra back strain for mother earth.

Plastic bottles for all that drinking water are a major downside to tourism. As someone who’s had every parasite on the block, I wouldn’t always recommend the tap. One great alternative is the Atlantis Water Purifying Cup. From Carolyn Ali at straight.com: “The device weighs just three-and-a-half ounces and can purify up to 3,700 litres of water. It fits neatly into a one-litre water bottle while it’s working, and folds into its own plastic cup for storage.”

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Looking out for the quetzal

resplendent quetzalI just ran across a blurb in an old mental floss magazine about the resplendent, or Guatemalan, quetzal. Quetzals are among the most beautiful birds on earth, boasting scarlet breasts and iridescent blue-green wings, and the tail feathers of males can grow up to three feet long! To the Mayans, who considered the quetzal sacred, its feathers were more valuable than gold.

Centuries on from the heyday of the Maya, the quetzal is still held in the highest regard among the people of the region; it is the national bird of Guatemala and lends its name to the country’s currency. (Incidentally, that kind of quetzal is not more valuable than gold; one quetzal equates to about US$0.13). Partly from over-hunting and partly due to decades of habitat destruction, the quetzal is now a threatened species.

By the way, the quetzal serves as a nice metaphor for the spirit of a flashpacker. The bird requires the freedom to fly about; a caged quetzal will surely die. OK, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but you get the point. (Also, like this flashpacker, the quetzal’s favorite food is the avocado. The quetzal will fly up to the hanging fruit, pick it from the tree and fly back to its nest, devour it whole, and regurgitate the pit 20 to 30 minutes later. The similarities are uncanny.)

A few years removed from trips to Costa Rica and Guatemala, I had largely forgotten about the quetzal. We spent several days hiking through the rain forests of both countries and never spotted one. Apparently our experience was not unique; with their numbers in decline, it is becoming more and more difficult to find the quetzal in the wild. There are a handful of organized, guided tours throughout Central America that promise a glimpse of the cherished bird, but they tend to be very expensive and very regimented.

Mayan forest homeThe coolest one I found is called Proyecto Ecológico Quetzal in Guatemala. They arrange for you to stay with a Maya Q’eqchi’ family in the cloud forest of Chicacnab, where the remnant Mayan culture is preserved. By day you walk the trails of Chicacnab, which has the highest population density of quetzals in the country, and you return at night to share in the lives of a typical Mayan family. The family profits from tourism, and in return they promise to preserve the forest in which they dwell. The only information I couldn’t find on the website was the price…

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