Thursday, May 28, 2009

Genocide, Ancient Temples, and Peace Corps

On Monday morning I went to the Thai consulate to apply for my visa, then had lunch and waited for the Khmer Rouge prison S-21 to open at 2:30. Originally a school, S-21 was turned into the main prison used by the KR in the late 70’s to “interrogate” and torture Cambodian’s suspected of unfounded crimes.

S-21 is located in the middle of Phnom Penh, and I arrived via motorbike taxi at 2:30. I bought my ticket, and while doing so met a pair of girls from Santa Barbara, Brittany and Shanna, with whom I explored the prison. It was strange to walk around the prison knowing what had happened there in the past while seeing life go on as usual outside the prison's walls. The first building we went into had the torture devices still in the rooms, and the second had endless rows of photographs of the victims of the prison.

The third building was more of a museum with each room devoted to a group of people with similar stories; one room for prison guards who explained their actions, another for family members of victims recounting the days leading up to their loved ones arrest, etc. There also were a couple rooms that had exhibits of paintings and photographs portraying what had occurred at the prison. It was a hard but necessary experience.

Brittany, Shanna, and I then went to the Russian Market via Tuk Tuk and sampled food from some of the stalls and walked around for a bit. We agreed to meet for dinner at 7, and they went home to shower. 

I walked around the city for a while, checked out what a Cambodian supermarket is like, then went home to shower as well. We met at 7 and went to dinner, then to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) for a drink before going home. 

The next morning I woke up and went for a walk to a local market to get breakfast. Before finding cooked food I came upon a guy killing and de-feathering chickens- it was crazy, never seen that before. 

After watching for a bit I searched and found some quality Cambodian noodles with eggs to have for breakfast.

At 11 I met Brit and Shanna out front of my hotel and we took a Tuk Tuk the 15 km to the Killing fields, the place where the KR took thousands of people to kill in mass graves. Many of the mass graves were exhumed in the past few years, and all the skulls were put into a tall monument where they can be viewed by visitors.

I have never seen, nor imagined, so many skulls being in one place, it was eery, and the smell was really musky.

We walked around the grounds for a while, then went back to the city. 

The weather was poor, so instead of doing more sight-seeing we went to a Seeing Hands massage parlor. All of the masseuses are blind, in Cambodia there aren't really any other ways for blind people to support themselves. It was definitely an experience, although it kinda hurt... After I went back to the Thai consulate to pick up my visa, then relaxed for the rest of the day until midnight when I got on a night bus to Siem Reap to see the Angkor Wat temples. 

I arrived in Siem Reap at 6 am and checked into my hotel. I met a couple of British girls on the bus, named Eve and Fay, and to minimize the cost of my day decided to share a Tuk Tuk with them to tour the temples. We left the hotel at 10 am, and after stopping at a bakery for breakfast drove the 10 km to the temples.

Angkor Wat is one large temple complex, but the name has been generalized to a large number of temples, large and small, within a close proximity to each it, that all have their own names. The area had been the capital of the region at the time when the temples were built, but none of the other buildings survived till now because they were made of wood. We went to the actual Angkor Wat first, and it was incredible. It had a huge moat around the outside, and the sheer size of it was inspiring.

We stopped at 5 other smaller temples as well, including the temple that was used to shoot a scene in the movie Tomb Raider. 

The weather wasn't great, so we didn't spend as much time at the other temples as we had at Angkor Wat. At one of the temples I overheard a guide explaining about it to a group of Singaporeans. They let me tag along, and in those 30 minutes I learned more about the temples than I did all the rest of they day. As a result, I decided that I wanted to go back to the temples again the next day with a guide, but I couldn't afford to spend 25 dollars on a guide alone, so that evening when we got back I went in search of a group of people that hadn't been to the temples yet and wanted to share a guide with me.

Instead of finding what I was looking for I ran into a few different people I had made friends with in Hanoi and in 4000 Lakes, so I ended up going out with them for the night, then sleeping in and being lazy all the next day. I wish that I had found people to share the guide with, but no regrets, it was good to see those people again. In the afternoon I booked a bus for the following morning to Battambang, the closest city to the village where my friend Eddie is living in while she's in Peace Corps. 

She met me at the bus station midday and we took a Tuk Tuk to her village, arriving around 3 or so. Her village is composed of 300 or so families, and farming is the main industry. She lives with the village chief and his wife, son, and two children that are staying with them while they go to school, and they had an extra bedroom for me to stay in.

After showering Eddie and I sat on the porch and talked. I told her about my travels since seeing her in Mui Ne, and she filled me in on what has been going on with Peace Corps in Cambodia.  At 6 we were called for dinner, which consisted of a meat and vegetable soup, fried beef with vegetables, steamed rice, and fruit for dessert. I asked for chili, so Eddie's homestay-mom, as she calls her, picked some green chilies off a bush next to the table. I later learned that everything we ate, except for the meat, was grown by the family- including the rice. We ate jackfruit and mango for dessert, then sat around and talked for a while. Eddie's Khmer is getting pretty good, and the host family barely speaks a word of english, so Eddie acted as translator. I found out that all of the chiefs brothers were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and that he was forced to marry his wife by the KR as well, although they seemed happy so I guess it turned out alright. Both Eddie and I were exhausted, and when the clock hit 9 pm we got up and went to bed. 

Pics: 1. The set dinner table, which was a stump of a tree 2. Eddie sitting on a bamboo swing

I slept really well and woke up at 8 am. Eddie awoke around the same time, and after she showered (I was too lazy) we went to breakfast with her host-brother, named Kamera. He is in his late 20's and has a job with a micro-finance company in a nearby town but still comes home for weekends. We went to a noodle soup shop where a large number of Cambodian men were eating and watching a Chinese TV station. After breakfast we dropped the bikes back off at the chiefs house and decided to take a walk into the rice fields behind the town. 

Pic: Kamera holding a starfruit that they grew organically in their backyard

We walked through a monastery to get to the fields and it was incredible how the view suddenly opened up from houses to greenery. Kamera's families rice plot was one of the first one's we came upon, but he informed us that they had other plots further away as well. In addition to rice they grow various fruits and berries.

We walked for a while and eventually spotted a lotus blossom plot in full bloom. The field was the size of a football field and full of flowering lotuses. I hadn't seen anything like it in the 3 months of traveling I had done, only the occasional blossom here and there. It was really stunning.

We walked around the fields to the house of a friends of Kamera's so he could pay his respects (they were quite an old couple), and they gave us freshly BBQ'd corn. It had a very different consistency that the corn I'm used to, but was still good. Kamera talked to them for a bit, then we walked back to his house at 11. 

Pic: Corn

I was meeting Dave and Jeff in Bangkok the following evening, so I decided that instead of staying another night and risk being late into Thailand I hitched a ride in to Battambang with Kamera and boarded a bus to Bangkok at 1 pm. I arrived in Bangkok at 9 pm and found a guest house to stay at off the tourist road, Khao San.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I Could Barely Feel My Pulse In 4000 Islands

The night bus to Pakse was an experience. Unlike the night buses in Vietnam, which had individual seats that reclined to nearly horizontal, the Laotian bus had actual beds that you share with another person. Fortunately I was with Julia so we shared a bed, however had I been on my own I would have been sharing with a random person- a lot to leave up to fate. Even though we were friends sharing good sleep was still hard to come by and we arrived in Pakse at 7 am still tired. On the bus we met a trio of guys traveling together; Bobby Vegas from Virginia, Chris from London, and Eli from Israel, and together we found accomodation.

After a failed attempt at napping, Julia and I took a stroll around town looking for travel agencies to book a trek with. We didn't find any, however we did manage to get lost, and it was 4 before we found our way back to the hotel. We rested for a bit, then met up with the trio, who had since become a foursome because a German friend of theirs named Lance came in on a later bus, and all went out to dinner. We went home early because we all agreed that we should go straight down to 4000 Islands instead of booking an expensive trek outside of Pakse.

We got on the bus at 8, and were dropped off at a small port town on the mainland at 10 to catch a ferry to Don Det, one of the more populated and tourist-friendly of the islands. 4000 Islands is at the southernmost tip of Laos and is where the Mekong river spreads out into a much wider body of water with MANY islands, some a few feet long and the largest, Don Khong, a few miles long. A number of the islands are inhabited, however only the largest three, Don Det, Don Khong, and Don Kon, have guesthouses for tourists. 

Pic: The port where we got our ferry to Don Det

The 6 of us found a row of bamboo bungalows on the sunset side of Don Det- the two roads are called sunset rd and sunrise rd, for obvious reasons... For the rest of the day we relaxed in hammocks, went swimming in the Mekong, and went to the beach for sunset. 

Pic: From Left: Bobby V, Julia, and Lance on the porch of our bungalow

While we were on the beach a water buffalo wandered down and sat down next to us. At first we were apprehensive, but after a while we slowly moved closer, and eventually were petting it- one guy even sat on its back!

Pics: 1. the water buffalo in the sunset 2. The water buffalo and I 3. Julia and the water buffalo

We went to dinner at an Indian restaurant and played cards there for a while, then went to a bar until the electricity on the whole island was cut off at 11. We heard that people were making a bonfire on the beach and went to join, then went home fairly early and crashed.

Julia and I woke up early the next morning to the call of the roosters and went to the main street to make travel plans for our next destinations, mine being Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Other than a few raging waterfalls and some rare freshwater dolphins there isn't a whole to do on the islands, so we rented bicycles and met up with the other guys. We rode for about an hour and crossed a bridge to Don Kon and found a beach to relax on. 

Pic: Julia and I on the beach

After a few hours we got bored and rode to one of the many waterfalls. Because of the way the rocks are formed, a lot of water is funneled into a very small opening to get to the lower stream, so unlike the picturesque waterfalls in Laos or Vietnam this waterfall was more of a raging rapid than anything.

We rode back to town after a while to watch the sunset from our balcony.  And, I'll say it again, what a sunset it was.

There was a big tropical storm in the evening so we went to a restaurant that had a covered porch for dinner and drinks so we could watch the lightening, then went home early again because I was leaving for Cambodia at 8 the next morning.

I woke up with the sunrise and the rooster again, and after packing my stuff up and saying bye to Julia was on my way in a boat back to the mainland. It took an hour to get to the border crossing to Cambodia, and the visa checkpoint was tiny. Literally just a shack.

Pic: The Cambodian border crossing

After crossing the border everyone got onto a different bus that took us the rest of the 8 hours to Phnom Penh. Rachel, one of the girls I met in Vietnam that is doing Peace Corps in Cambodia, told me that her and her friends were staying at the Top Banana Guesthouse near to the Independence monument so I went there and checked into a room. 

The past week happened to be Gay Pride week in Cambodia and Rachel is gay so she helped organize it. That night her and her friends took me to a bar on a docked boat called Pontoon for a big party, complete with an array of drag queens that performed songs and danced. It was a pretty wild night. 

Sunday morning Rachel and I woke up early and went to meet a professor of hers, named Roman, from Temple University for breakfast. He is a professor of Geographical History and is writing a book about cities building over ecological features of the landscape and how the melting pot international style of new construction all over the world is diminishing the local and unique feeling of each city. In Phnom Penh there is a huge central lake that is being filled in with dirt taken from outside the city so that developers can build condo developments and high-rise buildings. He took us to the lake after breakfast to explain what was going on there.

Pic: The lake being filled in with sand

We got into the Tuk Tuk that the professor hires every time he visits Phnom Penh (the driver literally wait outside the hotel all night until he comes out and chauffeurs him around all day) and went to Wat Phnom (on the only hill in the city, the temple from which the city got its name) at the base of which lives a family that he kind of adopted and has been supporting for years. He left that evening for Tokyo to work more on his book, so he went to say goodbye and we tagged along.

Pic: Rachel talking with the family.

In the afternoon I relaxed and did some work on my itinerary for the rest of Cambodia, went to dinner, then home and watched a movie.

I will be in Phnom Penh until Wednesday, when I head to Siam Reap and Angkor Wat.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Moving On To Laos...

Although Laos has been amazing, getting here was not. The bus left Hanoi at 7 (it was supposed to leave at 5:30). They oversold the bus, as usual, so the aisle was crammed with people. I was sitting in the back with a group of Danish guys and we were all uncomfortable. The ride was supposed to take about 20 hours, however after 2 hours one of the rear tires blew out and we stopped for an hour to put on the spare, and in the middle of the night the engine overheated so the driver pulled over to a guesthouse and went inside for a nap- meanwhile we were still on the bus. No engine = no air conditioning. It was like a sauna. 4 hours later, at 5 am, the driver came back out and we kept going to the Laos border.

The drive in the morning was beautiful. It took 2 more hours to get to the border, which was at the crest of the highest mountain. It took an hour for everyone to get exit-processed on the Vietnamese side and admitted to Laos, then we continued down the mountains and into the flatlands where Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is located. We arrived at 6 pm, and the Danes and I went in search of a cheap hotel. After checking in we went to and Indian dinner, then went back and crashed because we barely slept the night before.

Pic: the Laotian border post

I woke up at 7 am and went to the bus stop to find a bus to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site and the old capital of Laos, located in the middle of the northern of Laos. I lucked out, one was about to leave just as I arrived, so I hopped on and settled in for the 10 hour ride. Again, however, the bus broke down twice, and the 10 hour ride turned into 13 hours. I arrived just after sunset and checked into a guesthouse, then walked through the night market. 

Pic: a monk looking at something in the night market

Luang Prabang is located on a peninsula where the Kahn river flows into the Mekong and although it is the capital of its province it is still a very small town. It is packed with Wats and Monasteries, making it feel rich in culture, hence the UNESCO selection. The night market is located at the main intersection, which is blocked for traffic starting at sunset. The main street was packed with stalls of local women selling woven products, paintings, drawings, jewelry, and other cultural wares whereas the side streets had food vendors. Luang Prabang is known for have BBQ'd skewers of fish and meats, grilled sticks of sticky rice, and all-you-can-fit-on-a-plate-for-5000 kip (75 cents) buffets. I tried the sticky rice and the buffet; both were excellent. 

Pics: 1. The grilled sticky rice 2. The main street of Luang Prabang during the day

I planned on going home to sleep off the 40 hours on a bus exhaustion but ran into some friends I met in Hanoi and got convinced to go out with them. We went to a beer garden first, but Luang Prabang has a curfew of 11:30 so it shut down. We heard that a bowling alley (random, I know) stayed open past curfew, so we ventured there until 2 am, when I went home.

I woke up at noon, then wandered around town trying to sniff out some choice food. Before I found anything, however, a Tuk Tuk driver offered for me to join a group of British people headed to a famous waterfall called Kouang Si. I ignored my stomach and jumped in. Although an exploited tourist attraction, the waterfall was beautiful. It had 5 levels of pools below the large waterfall, all of which an opaque turquoise blue color. The Brits staid at the pools to swim but I climbed up the 30 minutes to the waterfall. 

It was amazing at the top, partially because there weren't many people due to the steep climb. The pool underneath the main waterfall ended at the edge of the cliff with an infinity line (meaning you didn't see any rock edge, just a line of water), and you could jump off higher ledges into the pool. I also walk underneath the waterfall and let it hammer down on my back- it was like a massage. 

Pic: I awkwardly took a picture of other people in the falls...

There were also crevices in the cliff that were big enough to sit behind and watch the water drip in front of.

I returned to town at 4 and looked around for a good tour company to take me trekking in the mountains for a couple days. I booked a 2 day trip where you sleep in a Hmong (hill people) village with White Elephant tours for the next day. Then I walked to the Mekong to see the sunset.

In the evening I ran into the British people again and convinced them to come with me to a restaurant I heard about from a guy I met while traveling in Vietnam. He said it had the best sausages he ever had and was in a great location- on the other side of a bamboo bridge spanning the Kahn river. 

The place was really chill, we sat on the balcony where there were low tables and cushions on the ground to sit on. We ate the sausage as well as the Lao variation on a hot pot- a grill for meat with a trough around the outside to cook vegetables, noodles, and eggs in broth. So good.

Pics: 1. Lounging about 2. The Laotian hotpot

My tour left at 8:30 am on Friday, but I woke up at 5 to see the monks procession down the main street collecting alms from Buddhists. There were many, many monks in bright orange, and the atmosphere was really light and pleasant (although the monks were solemn, of course). There was one kid who kept accidentally dropping sticky rice intended for the monks basket and laughing at himself; he was really cute.

I went back to the hotel to pack my stuff and made my way to the White Elephant office. There was one person on the trek, Paula of England, and our leader was Kai, currently a university student but raised in a remote Hmong village. 

Pic: Kai waving hello
A truck took us an hour east of Luang Probang and dropped us off just off the highway. We hiked up into the mountains for 5 hours, all the while asking Kai questions about the various Lao cultures. In Lao there are 3 main ethnicities: native Laotian, Khmer (migrated from Cambodia), and Hmong (migrated from China). The Lao people generally live in the flatlands and close to rivers, the Khmer in the foothills, and the Hmong on the highlands.  

On the way up to the Khmer village where we stayed we passed by many small huts built on a parcels of farmland; all slash and burn style agriculture. Nobody lives in the huts normally, but the farmers use them as a shelter from rain or particularly hot days. We stopped briefly in a Hmong village to rest, then continued up the mountain to the Khmer village. 

The Khmer village is located just next to a Hmong village, which was unusual for it to be A. so high up and B. so close to another village. There are 60 families living there, which is pretty average according to Kai. We walked through the village, which was full of dust and farm animals, to the chief of the village's hut, where we spent the night. As we walked around the children were shy and stared at us from behind various objects.

Pics: 1. Me standing by the totally out of place sign at the entrance to the village. It was the only thing with writing on it in the whole town 2. Village children staring at us from behind a wagon

After putting down our stuff we went to the spring to wash ourselves, then walked over the hill to the other village. Kai explained to us the differences in construction techniques, trades, and living styles between the Khmer and Hmong people. In the Hmong village the children were much less aloof and immediately came up to us with big smiles. 

When we got back to the Khmer village the sun was setting and the wife and daughter of the chief were making dinner and Kai set to helping them, me being nosy and in the way all the while. 

Pic: The wife and daughter of the chief in their kitchen

It was dark after dinner, and because there was no electricity in almost all the village we lit candles and hung out around the table outside. One of the families had bought a generator and a TV and charged admission to the rest of the village to watch at night, so the children and parents who couldn't afford it came to the table where we were sitting. We played games with the children for a while, then Kai bought a bottle of Lau Lau (Lao whisky made from rice), which we drank with all present. In their culture only one person drinks at a time, and the guest of honor gives out the drinks but must drink himself first. Even the children were given Lau Lau, although very small sips. We went to bed at around 8 or so because we were tired from the long hike, and woke up the next morning just before dawn to the roosters. 

Pic: Huddled around the candle with the children.

We packed up, ate breakfast, and left at around 7 am to walk back around the the pick up point. The driver took us to the Kahn river about 40 km up from Luang Prabang and we unloaded the kayaks and got in to the water. We kayaked for 2 hours before stopping for lunch. The scenery was beautiful, although kayaking for that long in basically still water took a toll on my back. An hour after stopping for lunch we passed by a village where all the people were by the water. I asked Kai what they were doing, and he told me they were panning for gold. I asked if we could stop, so we pulled over to a beach. He offered to show me how it's done, so I learned how to pan for gold. I got a tiny little fleck on my first try...

Pics: 1. The scenery from my kayak 2. Panning for gold

We got back to town at 4, and the owner of White Elephant invited us to the have dinner at his restaurant, called Utopia. After showering, etc, I made my way there at 8 pm. It was a really cool space, it even had a fully lit beach volleyball court and a large bamboo terrace. The next morning I woke up and booked a bus for later in the morning back to Vientiane, where I met Julia, a New Yorker who I went bowling with and spent time with in Hanoi, in the evening and we shared a hotel room. Today I worked on my blog and walked around Vientiane, and tonight Julia and I are getting on and overnight bus to Pakse, which is in the far south of Laos. 

Luang Prabang, especially the trek in the mountians,  was definitely a highlight of my trip thus far.