Sunday, November 16, 2003

Return to Bangkok

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Apparently in Bangkok the world has only two classifications

Our time in Cambodia had been brief. We had seen the highlights, but we did not have adequate time to delve deeper. We had to get back to Thailand as we hoped to visit the massive Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok for a souvenir shopping blitz. It was going to take us two days of travel to return to Bangkok no matter which route we attempted. We opted for the ‘new’ route via Koh Kong. The road had only been built in the past year and was mostly unsealed. There were several rivers along the way and bridges had not yet been added to the route. So the trip required the slow arduous process of boarding and disembarking car ferries several times.

At one particular crossing the driver indicated that we should get some food from a nearby food stall. Eager to leave our minivan for any period of time we settled in for a bowl of soup. When we emerged from the stall, the van was on the other side of the river. It seemed ridiculous to panic since the driver would surely notice that Kirsten and I, the only two Caucasian passengers, were obviously missing. But we still anxiously awaited the ferry to return for us. Soon we were safely aboard the van once again and on our way.

We spent the night in Koh Kong near the Thai border. There really was not much in the town. We explored the market where Kirsten bought a traditional Cambodian scarf but mostly we hung out at the guesthouse reading for the evening

The next morning marked our final border crossing in Asia. Over seven weeks we had completed six land border crossings. Only one of these had been difficult but we still approached the bureaucracy with trepidation. Luckily, there were no problems and we were even bumped up to the start of the queue once the gates at the border opened. Several hours later we were once again on Khao San road.

The next morning we ventured out to the market. After all my visits to Bangkok I still had not ridden the SkyTrain and I was eager to give it a try. Although the train could take us directly to the market the closest station to our guesthosue was several kilometers away. We attempted to hire a tuk-tuk to take us to the station but the drivers couldn’t understand why we didn’t just want a ride all the way to the market. Also they insisted that we should make a couple of 'quick stops' at some suit and jewellery shops in order to get a better price on the tuk-tuk fare. Eventually we found a no nonsense driver who agreed to take us to the train station, with no stops, for a fair price. Once again I was impressed with Kirsten's attitude towards the hassling drivers. She has definitely learned to be assertive and avoid being scammed during her time in Asia.

The Chatuchak market truly was massive and we only saw a mere fraction of it. We managed to find gifts for our family at home and some pretty things for ourselves. Kirsten finally got to experience the joys of a drink in a bag. The vendors prefer to keep the bottles so that they can redeem the deposit. They simply pour the juice into a small bag and send you on your way.

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The next day we visited the Vimanmek mansion, the world’s largest teak building that was a royal residence for a few years in the early twentieth century. The decadence is overwhelming with dozens of rooms ornately furnished. I had to wonder how many of the poor homeless children I had seen throughout my time in Asia could have been fed if some of the pieces were auctioned on eBay. Regardless, the mansion was beautiful. The Thai dance performance was quite enjoyable and is definitely worth checking out.

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The rest of our time is Asia was spent pampering ourselves. Khao San Road area is filled with salons offering massages, pedicures, manicures and facials. It was indulgent but ridiculously cheap prices we couldn’t refuse. There was no way we could afford such extravagances once we returned to Australia.

<< Phnom Penh | The Route | Brisbane >>

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Encountering Cambodia's Horrific History

We left Siem Reap for another intimate experience with the pothole filled roads of Cambodia. We arrived in Phnom Penh eight exhausting hours later. When we wondered into our guesthouse we ran into a number of people from our slow boat trip in Laos. The backpacker circuit of South East Asia is a very small place evidently.

This is a very difficult entry for me to write. It is nearly impossible to describe how it felt to visit places where such a horrific part of Cambodia's history took place.

During the 1970’s Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge are thought to have tortured up to 3 million people or about one third of the population at the time. They particularly targeted people with education or artistic individuals of any type. Basically the Khmer Rouge feared anyone considered to be 'free thinkers' that might corrupt the minds of the Cambodian people. Families were split apart and sent to work camps throughout the countryside. The cities were deserted because the Khmer Rouge saw high population densities as a forum where people could freely exchange knowledge and ideas. Technological advancement of any sort was viewed as the “Americanization” of their society and was resultantly prohibited.

We started out that day by visiting Toul Sleng Musuem. The grounds were once a school that had been converted into a prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Rooms used as torture cells were left as they had been at the time complete chains and blood stains on the floors. Several rooms contained picture after picture of the prisoners staring solemnly into the lens. One display showed current photographs of people that had worked at the prison. Their recent colour photos hung next to black and white pictures taken 30 years ago. Comments about their current situation stated that most of the individuals are trying everyday to deal with the heinous acts they had committed. It was heart wrenching that these were simply normal people forced into a situation of fear in which they had to either kill or be killed themselves.

The most infuriating part of the museum was the room explaining what had become of Pol Pot and the other senior members of the Khmer Rouge. These monsters were never held accountable for their crimes and instead were allowed to live out the remainder of the lives unpunished.

Next we drove outside the city to Choeung Ek, a place known as the killing fields. This was where countless individuals were taken to be executed and buried in mass graves. A memorial stands in the middle of the field housing clothing and bones excavated in the graves.

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As was the case everywhere we went in Cambodia we were surrounded by children trying to sell us trinkets. I had to wonder if they understood the horrors that had transpired in this field where they were playing and laughing

Overall the day was emotionally draining. That afternoon, mostly in a daze, we wandered around the city. In a pleasant change of pace that evening at our guesthouse some children came to perform traditional Cambodian dances. Money collected during the performance is used to support children whose parents have been killed by landmines.

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Even in the beauty and innocence of children dancing I realized that the horrible legacy of the Khmer Rouge will linger on for many generations.

After my visit to Phnom Penh I read a book entitled First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. I would highly recommend it if you are interested in this period of Cambodia’s history.

<< Angkor | The Route | Bangkok >>

Monday, November 10, 2003

Exploring Ancient Angkor

The temperature was scorching and shade was scarce during our first day visiting the Angkor ruins. We zipped past Angkor Wat, the most recognizable of the temples, on the back of our motos but our drivers assured us it would be best to return there in the late afternoon. Lighting is a key consideration when visiting the sites. The guidebooks recommend visiting many of the main sites both in the early morning and evening lights in order to truly enjoy their splendour. Personally I think its just easier to enjoy anything during those cooler parts of the day rather than when the forty degree sun is pounding down on your head.

So we started our explorations at Angkor Thom with its great entrance way overseen by giant stone guards. The drivers dropped us at the back entrance but since this wasn't entirely clear we spent much time trying to figure out where we were on the map. I had found a Angkor guidebook secondhand that went into more detail about the reliefs and sculptures than anyone should ever need to know. But what we did manage to read gave us enough of an understanding to appreciate the sites.

The Bayon is the highlight of Angkor Thom with the giant friendly faces beckoning to have the pictures taken again and again.

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We meandered around the Bayon and then headed over to the Terrace of the Elephants which was the giant platform with (surprise!) elephants carved all around the base. Then it was time for a rest so we headed to the "restaurant" Or rather covered area with plastic tables. Within moments of sitting down we were mobbed by children selling books, scarves, bracelets, postcards and other trinkets. Some of them were cute for about five seconds, but it became quickly obvious that these kids have learned to selectively ignore the words "No thank you" Asking them to come back after we ate we interpreted as a promise to buy something. I did get leave with a couple of bracelets and we picked up a "TinTin au Cambodge" t-shirt for our sister Erin.

In the afternoon it was off to Ta Prohm, the temple that was made famous by the first Lara Croft movie. All of the temples at Angkor were taken over by the jungle but some of them like Ta Prohm were left with the trees emerging from the crumbled stones and in many places supporting the structures. The roots splay themselves over the ruins like Salvador Dali paintings. The best part about Ta Prohm were all the passages to explore and the fact that the jungle kept the hot sunrays at bay

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Next it was onto the Angkor Wat (Round 1) The ruins were exceptionally crowded. We had managed to hit a the Japan-Cambodia friendship weekend. Apparently this meant there were even more Japanese tour groups than usual at Angkor. Even still the reliefs in the late afternoon sun were stunning

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After a quick look around the drivers whisked us off to a hilltop temple (Can't remember the name) to watch the sunset. It was generally a disappointment because the temple wasn't anything special, the were hordes of people and the sunset over a huge field and not any ruins. An alarm rang as the sun sank beneath the horizon telling us to get our butts off the hill. Which we did as quickly as possible and hurried back to catch the end of the England-Wales semi final match of the World Cup rugby.

The next morning started early as we hurried to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. We started out in front of the temple but we unimpressed so we decided to climb to the top and get away from the crowd.

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It was beautiful up there at that quiet hour. The mists were rising from the field behind the temple. The serenity was magical.

The remainder of the day were a blur of more temples. We tried to pay attention to what the guidebook was describing to us but the heat got the better of us. We headed back to the guesthouse in the early afternoon happy that we had our fill of Angkor

<< Angkor | The Route | Phnom Penh >>

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Cambodian Lessons Learned

We had been in Asia over six weeks when we arrived in Siem Reap. We were tired and irritable which was only magnified by our treacherous road journey and the incredible heat. So when our guesthouse owner told us he would arrange moto drivers for us we didn't question and we just accepted his offer. The next morning after some breakfast we headed out to the Angkor ruins.

Money at this point was becoming a mild stress factor in our journey. We were reaching the end of our time in Asia and consequently the bottom of our bank accounts. We had known there would be no atms in Cambodia so we had stocked up on Thai baht before leaving Bangkok. However, when the Lonely Planet told us that American dollars were accepted in Cambodia it likely should have read "only American dollars". Any place we went prices for foreigners were listed in USD and when we attempted to pay in baht we were losing heaps on terrible exchange rates.

First lesson learned when travelling in Cambodia bring your money in American dollars.

Needless to say shelling out $20 USD per day for a pass to the ruins was a painful experience made even more excruciating by the poor exchange rate the ticket attendant quoted. But the worst was yet to come when we returned to find our moto drivers. Everything we had read and been told led us to expect a price of between $6 - $10 USD per day to hire a driver. The price varied depending on the proximity of the ruins and we had the impression the rates around the ruins were standardized. So we were shocked when the drivers told us we would have to pay double the expected price. When we attempted to barter them down they flat out refused to negotiate.

Admittedly I did not handle myself in as dignified a manner as I would have liked. I was irritated that the drivers had deliberately waited until we were inside the gates and left with no other option. But mostly I was upset at myself for not having negotiated the price back at the guesthouse.

The next lesson learned in Cambodia, as with the rest of life, never assume anything.

I was impressed with how well Kirsten maintained her composure. She managed to calm me down and barter with the drivers for a slightly better rate. It wasn't the price that we had been expecting but it was within the realm of affordability.

Of course in retrospect the extra dollars that we spent seem trivial since we have returned to a country where spending a few dollars on a coffee and doughnut are daily occurrences. It is certainly easy for one’s perception to become skewed when traveling in a country where a meal with beer costs a hefty $2 USD.

Even with all the hassles touring the ruins was an absolutely amazing experience. More to follow....

<< Bangkok to Siem Reap | The Route | Angkor >>

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Enduring the road from hell

Our bus arrived in Bangkok four hours late since we seemed to be continually stopping to remedy some sort of mechanical malfunction. We had decided to head back to Bangkok and then onto Cambodia. The border between Laos and Cambodia is often closed to tourists. So although being stuck at a border crossing would have been a cool adventure our time was rather limited and we chose the more predictable route. We spent the day once again on Khao San Road hanging out and phoning the parents on a proper internet phone.

Checking in with the parentals

Our bus to Cambodia left early in the morning and we were eagerly anticipating our visit to the Angkor ruins. But first we had to endure the a nightmare journey from the Thai border to Siem Reap.

Waiting at the border crossing

This particular stretch of road has been the subject of many an amusing story from fellow backpackers. A number of us on the bus were betting how long the 150 kilometre journey would take. My estimate of 5.5 hours was well below the actual 7 hours we endured. There was no right or left side driving on this road, the driver just swerved around trying to avoid as many potholes as possible. At one point we were forced to stop before crossing a single lane bridge because a minivan had come stuck in a hole. With some group effort, we managed to push the minivan out and proceeded on our way.

The Cambodians joke about the state of the roads in the country but its current condition is quite appalling. The Khmer Rouge destroyed many roads because they didn't want people to travel and share ideas. Five years ago Japan gave Cambodia $80 million for repairs to their roads but so far little improvement has been seen.

<< Vientiane | The Route | Angkor >>

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Vientiane - Our final days in Laos

After the abundance of activities in Vang Vieng, Vientiane required some readjustment. We wondered "where were all the cafes serving banana shakes and screening Friends reruns on DVD." It was time to return to more cultural pursuits. We also had to start watching for cars something we hadn't really had to do since arriving in Laos

Vientiane is filled with cheap places to eat. The stuffed baguettes with Laughing Cow cheese were a definite favourite. A big thank you to the French for introducing bread and pastries to Laos. I forgot to mention Healthy Fresh in Luang Phabeng, a cafe opened by Canadians where we enjoyed our first bagels since leaving home six months ago. I greatly enjoyed Lao coffee, its dark and strong. I prefer it served with milk and ice.

I also discovered the green mango salad while having drinks along the river. Exceptionally spicy but also very tasty. I've always enjoyed eating at street vendors as a way to sample the local cuisine. I exercise good judgment but I've never let paranoid fears of bacteria deter me. In Laos eating at street vendors means being surrounding by children begging for food. I watched the locals and it is customary to leave some food behind for the children. While only a small thing it is of some help since often they are not the beneficiary of any money they may receive.

We visited the morning market in hopes of finding some of the beautiful blankets and pillow covers we had seen at the Luang Phabeng night markets. Sadly the selection was a mere fraction of the lovely handicrafts we had seen previously. For those planning a visit to Laos, Luang Phabeng is definitely the place to buy gifts for home as we have not seen anything nearly as nice elsewhere in Laos. Then it was onto the Laos Revolutionary Museum. I found the collection quite amusing with its pictures illustrating the Laos people rising up against the 'evil' French and American imperialists. Not exactly an unbiased account of history but nevertheless informative.

That night we walked for ages to the That Luang festival. Everything I read about the festival used the words 'religious' and 'solemn' so I was shocked at the scene that greeted us. It was a giant carnival. Think the CNE or the Ekka with a million times the volume. Every booth was cranking their sound system to drown out their neighbours as they promoted their cleaning products, clothes, toiletries and other random wares. There was even a Proctor and Gamble tent. I wished Nadine could have been with us to see it. In the middle of the fairground was the That Luang stupa where people made offerings to Buddha. It was a contrasting site in the midst of all the commercialism.

Side Note: My camera stopped functioning for a brief period in Vientiane due to a unfortunate episode with a bottle of water in my backpack. Hence the minimal pictures in this entry

The next day we took the local bus to Xieng Kuane, the Buddha Park, about 25 km outside of Vientiane. The ladies at our guesthouse were dismayed that we wanted to tackle the local bus and tried to persuade us to hire a taxi. But it was our last day in Laos and we were low on kip. Fortunately, the local bus was surprisingly easy to figure out and relatively comfortable considering the return trip cost the equivalent of about 30 cents. The park itself is filled with dozens of concrete Buddhism images. After wandering for awhile we found a peaceful shady spot and caught up on some journalling.

After returning to the city we killed some time before our night bus to Bangkok. Our last minute sightseeing included Ha Pha Kaew, the king's personal temple that was sacked by the Siamese in the 19th century. Most of the stolen goods have been returned except for the sacred Emerald Buddha. That shockingly small yet greatly revered statue still resides in Bangkok.

After the sightseeing we dashed around spending the last of our kip on bus snacks. I wished we could have spent more time in Laos since we had only seen a small sample of this wonderful country. But our time in Asia was quickly coming to an end.

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Our route through Laos

<< Vang Vieng | The Route | Bangkok to Siem Reap >>

Monday, November 03, 2003

The backpacker retreat known as Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng seems to be custom built for the entertainment of backpackers. As I understand this was the opium den capitol of Laos back in the day. Now the opium dens have been shut, but for anyone interested it is quite easy to find other recreational drugs. These are most often found in the form of Happy Pizzas and Banana Shakes. I heard one person describe it as a town for potheads built by potheads. But for those, like myself, not interested in such pursuits there is a multitude of other amusing and cheap activities around Vang Vieng

When we arrived in Vang Vieng we immediately ran into Ben, Paul and Dave lounging in a restaurant across from our guesthouse. The town was teeming with others from our slow boat voyage. Since Kirsten and I had not traveled directly to Vang Vieng from Luang Phabeng we were officially dubbed the "Phonsaven Girls".

The day after arriving in Vang Vieng we ganged up with some of the others from the slow boat and drifted down the river on tubes. I didn't take my camera out that day but I found this picture of other travelers doing the exact same thing. Along the banks of the river are make shift bars. Sometimes it is only a man and a cooler of Beer Lao but some of the places included cliff jumping and snacks. The whole experience could be best described as a river pub crawl on a tube.

On Sunday it was kayaking. We drove further up the river this time. After a short paddle we stopped to visit some caves. At the first, we entered through a deep stream at the mouth of the cave. We swam the first 10 metres through the cave before the water became shallow enough to stand. Our only light came from the small white candles that we were each given. Of course being that we were swimming and trying to hold a candle they went out frequently. We proceeded through the cave exploring the many passages sometimes wading, sometimes swimming and sometimes nearly crawling to get through the smaller spaces. Overall I was excessively proud of myself since I am generally quite adverse to caves of any sort.

After caving we enjoyed a delicious lunch of fried rice and BBQed skewers. We then we paddled leisurely down the river. Kirsten and I often found ourselves at the front of the pack so there were many opportunities for resting. Until some of the Israeli guys in our group would catch up and proceed to perfect their paddle splashing technique on us. Even with all the resting by the end of the day I was beat and shocked at how dramatically my fitness level has dropped since arriving in Asia.

Our third day in Vang Vieng was spent enjoying the comforts that the town provides to backpackers. Cheap laundry, banana shakes, email and DVDs. We met some great people through our kayaking trip and hung out with them at one of the many sunset bars on the banks of the river. It was nice to enjoy some easy going conversation that didn't hinge upon the wonders of the Laos drug scene.

<< Phonsavan | The Route | Vientiane >>