My skin is red, not from sun, but from dirt. I’m riding through clouds of dust as motorbikes and the occasional truck passes me by, while kids wave to me from the side of the road. I’m on a mountain bike rented from my guesthouse and I’ve been told there are waterfalls around here. With my skin caked in red dirt and the sun beating down I’m having a hard time imagining that there is any water at all in eastern Cambodia.
This is my first experience with the “sleeper bus.” These are double-decker buses with beds intended for sleeping on long rides, like the one I’m taking from Vientiane to Pakse, Laos. The dimensions seem to be designed for your average-sized Asian person, while most of the actual passengers are Westerners. I’m traveling alone and am hoping not to have to share this tiny space with a stranger. The ticket agent must be having a good day, because I am in fact alone in this tiny space curled into a ball so my legs will fit, bumping around and thanking every higher power there is that I’m not spooning with a stranger.
I can think of no better place to show up starving, famished even, than Luang Prabang, Laos. I have been traveling all day, winding up and down green mountains past beautiful scenery, and I’m really hungry. Nighttime in Luang Prabang is a smorgasbord. There are sandwiches on baguettes (the French-colonial vibe), soups, and down an alley of barbeque and buffets one can find anything they desire (of Laotian/Asian cuisine) for less than US$2.
“YOU SEE BIRD” is printed (in English) on a sign next to Inle Lake where there is a bird sanctuary. I laugh to myself but I don’t think anyone else on the boat notices. The five of us have rented a long tail boat for the day, after negotiating with a man who approached us on the streets of Nuangshwe, Myanmar. Hailing from France (2), Australia, Austria, and the USA, we represent three continents as we are driven past fisherman in the middle of the lake, accompanied by tourist snapping photos. Of course, I take a photo, too.
The pre-colonial capital is overflowing with motorbikes, dust, and construction. The old palace, with its huge moat, sits monumental in the middle of a bustling and mostly monochrome cityscape. Temples and Pagodas stand out from the drab landscape. I find something about Mandalay charming. It’s dirty (though not like Yangon), noisy, and most of the buildings are hideous, but I like it.
I’m on top of an old temple, waiting around for the sunset with a bunch of German and French. About 20 minutes before, I am on top of a different temple, with a bunch of German and French. They are digging in early for the sunset views of Bagan. When the sun finally starts to descend below the hills, I hear the continuous clacking of camera shutters. I take out my camera and take a few shots, realizing that neither the camera nor its operator is capable of capturing a world-class shot of Bagan at sunset. I sit and enjoy instead, the sun’s rays reaching over and between the reddish ruins dotted across the plain.