Chasing Graham Greene: Finding history on every corner

Number 214. The Continental Hotel, Saigon. This is the room Graham Greene stayed in while he wrote his epic novel, The Quiet American, about American involvement during the demise of French colonialism in Vietnam in the 1950s.

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And this is the Continental Hotel – I can imagine Greene parked at a corner table, drinking and writing. The hotel’s history is brought to life through photos and datelines, in an exhibit down one hallway off the lobby. The Continental does not appear to have been updated much. It is Saigon’s first hotel, and the luxury hotels since then are far grander and more well-appointed. But this hotel has such interesting ghosts!

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From The Quiet American to The American War of Aggression, Vietnam’s history of oppressors has left an indelible mark in Saigon.  You can’t visit here (or you shouldn’t) without seeing the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace.

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We began with the Reunification Palace. The Vietnam War was such a strong marker of our youth; imprinted even more throughly by the books and movies that followed. A stroll through the Palace was deja vu all over again. The tanks crashed through the gates on April 30, 1975, the day Saigon surrendered, and everything in the Palace looks exactly as it did on that date. We strolled through two floors of rooms, frozen in 60s limbo – drawing rooms, the President’s office, dining rooms.  I recognized the teak furniture and the scratchy yellow and brown upholstery from my childhood.

Then we went to the bunker, where the President and his family lived towards the end, and where the command post was secreted away, complete with maps and phones.

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That visit was a trip down memory lane, but it was a whole other story with the War Remnants Museum (once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes).

It is no secret that the American War was a disaster that cost billions of dollars, millions of lives and millions more ruined, but the most gruesome part of this museum was the section devoted to Agent Orange and its ongoing effects. Originally used by the Americans as a defoliating agent to make detection of the enemy easier, the secondary effects were devastating beyond anyone’s imaginings.

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We walked through one exhibit hall of hundreds of photos of malformed fetuses, conjoined twins, children born without limbs, horribly disfiguring facial features, mental retardation, blindness and skin diseases. We could not bear to walk through the whole thing, but the most horrifying aspect of Agent Orange is that it did not disappear with the first generation. The chemicals appear to have become part of each victim’s DNA, so that children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still being born with significant deformities. Forty + years later and the effects of Agent Orange aren’t over yet.

Another hall showcased the great photojournalists of the day – Larry Burrows, Robert Capa, etc. – who died while documenting the war. Many of the photos are iconic; all of them are extremely poignant.

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These great photojournalists captured such emotion -the viewer feels the fear of those children.
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The section  of war crimes on unarmed women, children and the elderly  was stomach-turning. The My Lai Massacre is well-known and so is the attack led by Lieutenant Bob Kerrey, who confessed to those crimes decades later (as a U.S. Senator).

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The Fine Arts Museum is a refreshing antidote to the heaviness of the War Remnants Museum. It is a stunning colonial building, whose architectural details alone are worth checking out ( old wooden lift, wrought iron everywhere, stained glass, soaring ceilings), but much of the art is contemporary and has war influences.

Young soldier home on leave.

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Son and wounded father

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And now for some random Saigon moments. I will begin with some Stephen silliness to change the mood. Lisa took us to the Russian Market and if you are a fan of Nike, Adidas, North Face or Under Armour, this place would put you in a cold sweat.  Under Armour T-shirt = $8 CAD, three-season North Face down jacket = $35 CAD. These are not knockoffs – they are made in Vietnam, and that is the “firm price.” Lisa and I made Stephen buy a shirt, and with his requisite purchase in hand, it was time to entertain the ladies.

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After our shopping excursion, we walked through the neighbourhood of modest apartments, alleys and pho stands. We were reminded of how sometimes we only see the outer layer of life as we walk by. Stephen spied a picturesque clothesline and backdrop outside a window,  and as he was aiming his camera to take a second shot, a woman’s face appeared and she threw a glass of water down on him. It was only when he looked at the photos later that he saw why she might have felt invaded.

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Alleys add to the mystery of Saigon – so little revealed from the street, but they are the arterial flow of the city. People live there, work there, have businesses – you just have to walk down one to discover a whole other side of the city.

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Stephen photobombing the selfie girls.

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On our last day in Saigon, we visited the Botanical Garden. The garden is a lush hideaway from the city, with a butterfly garden, orchid garden and many bonsai. The downside to the garden is it is ringed with a sad zoo – giant squirrels imprisoned in giant birdcages, demented gibbons hopping about in domed cages the size of an average suburban bedroom and a couple of hyenas sleeping on concrete  – I couldn’t look any further.   We did see lovely birds though – we think this is a giant ibis. Whatever it is, it is the size of a nine-year-old kid – this is a very big bird.

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And this bonsai – dozens of them on display – beautiful.

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There is so much more to tell you about Saigon – not nearly enough time or space. I’ll sneak in this one photo of the subway they are working on – hoping to relieve current traffic congestion and anticipating future growth.

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But will a new subway or monorail lure the Saigon residents away from their motorbikes? As long as one is able to cut through traffic by hopping up on the sidewalk (warning pedestrians with a gentle beep) it may be a tough sell.

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Good-bye Saigon – over all too soon.  Next stop – the mountain town of Dalat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

Before I talk about Saigon I want to share a cautionary tale about the importance of checking your visa dates before you attempt to cross into Vietnam. I’m about to make a long story short (first time for everything).

We went to the Vietnam embassy in Vancouver in November to arrange for our 3-month visas. They arrived in the mail, we tucked them in with our passports and never gave them another thought.  Four days ago, we discovered our visas had been incorrectly dated – to end May 2018 (not 2017). This did not sit well with the border guards, who took over  an hour and a half to determine what to do with us. In that time, we a) held up our bus and our fellow travellers while they waited for us, b) entered a Kafkaesque state of despair and fear as the guard holding our passports and visas had disappeared and no-one knew where he was, and c) discovered what breaking the rules in a socialist republic country feels like (hint: no need to try this yourselves). Finally, an English-speaking official was called in on her day off, it was determined we posed no threat, a work-around was figured out and we were on our way.

This inauspicious start to our six weeks in Vietnam was soon forgotten as we neared Saigon’s downtown. Among the mad swarm of motorcycles that buzzed around our bus was this rider and his eager little passenger.

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You know how you visit a new place and complete strangers offer you a place to stay for a week? No? Well, this happened to us – and while the Chute family are not complete strangers – they are friends of friends – we had never met each other.  I have a deep-seated worry about putting anyone out, so the idea of doing anything more than meeting them for dinner made me uncomfortable.

Lisa, Tim and their son Simon moved to Saigon seven months ago to begin their new life there with an international school. They live in a beautiful, leafy area of the city with a park across the street and a landscaped canal running beside a main shopping street.

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Before we knew it, we were ensconced in their home (on our very own floor) and I was having my hair cut at Lisa’s hairdresser.  Tim took my misbehaving computer to his workplace (it is now fixed), and Lisa took us out on an insider tour of Saigon.

Their incredible hospitality has been a highlight of the trip for us, and best part – they are now our new friends.

The Chute family and friend Sierra about to enjoy fabulous pho at one of their favourite restaurants.

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We’ve told you about the legendary traffic in SEAsia, but Vietnam probably earns top spot for sheer volume. We’ve navigated the roads all the way along, but I was having difficulty understanding why I wouldn’t be  run over. Surely there would be at least one biker with a grudge against Westerners? Someone texting or eating or carrying parcels and children while driving with their knees?  But no, as with the other countries, there is a flow and Lisa explained it perfectly.”Think of it as the river and the rocks. The motorcycles are the river – you move through slowly and they flow around you like water. Anything bigger is a rock – they are immovable – you wait and walk around them.”  For all of you who have been here already – you know this. For anyone else contemplating a visit here – pay heed. This tip is the exact image you need to be safe and confident on the roads.

In this clip below, our strategy would be to wait until the crush of bikes went by, look for a break in the traffic, and wade through.

So…on to Saigon and our impressions. I’m calling it Saigon instead of Ho Chi Minh City because that is what most Vietnamese call it.  Also, I like the name Saigon – it conjures up romance and history and danger.

Our immediate impressions of Saigon have  been overwhelmingly positive. Of course – it is a massive city – I’ve heard anywhere from ten to fourteen million people, but the areas most tourists want to visit cover a small, almost entirely walkable part of the city called District 1. The impressive skyline is dominated by the distinctive lotus-shaped Bitexco Financial Tower with a skydeck jammed into one side.

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This is the view from 68 floors up; a city with moderate high-rises, bisected by the Mekong, and intersected with numerous canals.

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The joy of Saigon is how they have combined their modern growth with respect for heritage architecture, which leads to some intriguing sightlines of old and new. Every street brings another perspective and strolling down the alleyways could keep a visitor occupied for days.

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Lisa took us past the big French influences – the Notre Dame Basilica…

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…around the corner to the Central Post Office.

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The interior of the grand concourse have painted maps of South Vietnam and Saigon, as well as a prominent portrait of “Uncle Ho.”

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Ho Chi Minh is a revered figure among the Vietnamese people – his vision of a united Vietnam was shared by all and his portraits and statues are everywhere. Here, he stands guard in front of the City Hall.  Between the City Hall and the Mekong River is a magnificent pedestrian-only promenade.

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This area is fronted by elegant shops and old hotels, such as the Rex Hotel, which had a cherry red Maserati in front of it the day we walked by.

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Most of our friends would love this next stop. There is a delightful small street that is dedicated to bookstores. Just bookstores and coffeeshops – all set on a quiet, shady street – can you imagine anything nicer in the middle of a busy city?

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Saigon is full of trees and parks and places to find a bit of solitude.

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There is so much to take in here – I think Saigon is a city that needs a fair bit of time to begin to understand and discover. We can hit the main tourist spots, but without our insider knowledge, would we have discovered the bookshop street? We are only here for another day and there is so much more to talk about, but I wanted our first blog posting to be about the city and the people.

Some fellow travellers have told us they found Vietnamese to be rude and not that friendly. We have encountered exactly the opposite, and I’ll give you a few examples.

A couple of days ago as we were waiting for our bus to take us downtown, I struck up a conversation with an elegant Vietnamese woman who spoke English and French and who had an interesting story to tell. She lived in New Caledonia, a French Island in the South Pacific, until 1964, at the age of six, she moved back to Vietnam with her parents. That simple fact hung there in the air, as it carried so much potential information about her life. It isn’t appropriate to start grilling people about their experiences during the “American War of Aggression, but like Cambodia, you can’t help but look at anyone of a certain age and wonder what burden they carry.

This lady, Huan, carries her life with grace. She invited us to have coffee at her son’s restaurant, and we were honoured to be asked. We were joined by her friend, who is a Saigon native and retired architect, but for all her urban polish has retained the charming habit of cooking up food (in this case, a sweet potato) and bringing it in a little baggie to share.

Huan (by the wall) with her friend.

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Huan’s son owns three restaurants called Modern Meets Culture – http://m2ccafe.com
They are very modern indeed – he is also an architect and designer. Lisa told us about the phenomenon of the Việt Kiều – the “overseas Vietnamese” who left the country after 1975 for Los Angeles, and whose U.S.-educated children are now returning back to their country as adults. They are bringing new life, entrepreneurial ideas and cash infusions into Saigon – many of them are barely in their 30’s. That, combined with the fact that foreign investment is strictly curtailed, is helping Vietnam prosper and grow independently.

Many of the Vietnamese are quite curious about us and are quite funny. We were at the Museum of Fine Art yesterday when we came upon this scene:

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We stopped to take photos as well, thinking this might be a Vietnamese celebrity, but it was just a fashion shoot. We were turning away when the photographer in the white shirt caught sight of Stephen. He could not believe his eyes, “What a beard you have – can I take a photo to show my brother?” He explained that Asian men can’t grow beards and they are fascinated by them. He took a few shots from different angles – how I wish I had my wits about me to take a photo of Stephen’s expression!

While we were in the museum (more about that in the next posting), we met one of the artists whose works were on display as part of the “Hanoi artists” exhibition. We were especially drawn to his work as it was contemporary and strongly influenced by water. His name is Nguyen Van Trung and our conversation with him was though his interpreter. I told him I was interested in seeing art created after the war, and what those influences would look like. He talked about the “aloneness” of humanity and how that can be both painful and peaceful. It was such a pleasure to be able to converse a bit, since language is obviously a complete obstacle to getting to know anyone here, unless they speak English.
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And the food! Our first dinner out was with Lisa at The Secret Garden – discovered by walking down an alley, up five grotty flights of stairs to a garden-like setting, with simply delicious food. We would never have found it on our own. That is our goal – spend the next five weeks searching out the local gems.

Lisa snapped this shot of us at the Secret Garden on our way out.

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I have so much more to share about this beautiful city – the War Remnants Museum and  Reunification Palace deal with the American War, and that is an inevitable part of travel through Vietnam. But there is a whole lot more – Saigon looks to the future, not to the past.

The Lexus platoon, fake monks and Nagaworld: Phnom Penh’s rising

One of the first things we noticed when we arrived in Phnom Penh was the skyline – green-clad buildings with cranes on every second corner. In fact, on our corner, we have three building projects on the go – a fact we missed in the TripAdvisor reviews until after we booked. It hasn’t really been a problem – there is banging and hammering going on around our  little hotel each day from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., but then the workers promptly knock off for the day and all is quiet.  Progress is being made, as we opened our curtains yesterday morning to this sight.  The concrete truck had arrived.

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Chinese and South Korean investments have set a blistering pace of new construction which is transforming the city.

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The healthy financial infusion is responsible for the creation
of featureless buildings like this, an incongruous backdrop for the gilt temple.

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And this no-frills complex:

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And Nagaworld, the new casino on the riverfront that
resembles a medium-security prison.

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There is a maximum-return-for-investment quality to many of the new buildings. A modern apartment building moves next door to well-preserved history.

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Some fear the distinctive character of Phnom Penh’s French colonial architecture will be lost as old buildings come down to be replaced with new. Some of the new builds are replicating the old, such as this gracious mansion.

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And with the new money comes the spoils. We noticed a disproportionate number of Lexus SUVs and Range Rovers – the vehicles of choice for the newly wealthy (and their drivers). We began a count, much like the blossom count in Victoria each spring, to see how many Lexuses (Lexi?) passed by an intersection in five minutes but lost track. At this point, they appear to be out-gunning the Range Rovers, with BMWs and Mercedes trailing far behind.

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Not to begrudge any hardworking businessperson their just rewards, but “just” does not appear to factor into the picture here. It is under strenuous debate as to whether this vigorous growth will help many Cambodians, or whether the cash flow will simply circulate within a small and monstrously well-compensated circle.

We noticed the men who are working on the building next door to us are living right on the dirty site; some of them with families. The people who live in this appalling building have it little better. The building stretches for a couple of city blocks – probably condemned (one hopes that there is not rent being collected here). We discovered this on a walk, just a couple of streets away from a comfortable expat area.

We’ve seen deep rural poverty, but at the very least there would be a community and possibly a way to grow or catch food. This kind of urban poverty has a built-in trap – no way up and no way out.

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We spoke to two young women who are in Phnom Penh working for NGOs. They are quite torn about their efforts. They feel that some action is better than none and are aware that without the significant presence of NGOs and social enterprise businesses, it would be so much worse.  On the other hand, they are discouraged that after so many decades, the city and country still rely so heavily on their help. They don’t see the lives of many Cambodians improving and they don’t see  significant change with government initiatives and policies.

And then we spoke to our Canadian friend Chelsea, who has been working at an international school for the past three years. We met her for a great catch-up visit at one of her favourite cafes. It was really fun to see her in her native habitat, and hear some ex-pat perspective about Cambodia.

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After breakfast, Chelsea led us down to the riverfront for a bit of a tour, and on the way showed us how the locals navigate a massive roundabout (I can’t say how many lanes because there weren’t any – people came from all directions and just fused together in a moving mass). Wheeling her bicycle as a shield (ha!), we walked beside her (“just keep moving slowly, they will move around you”), and we made it. Then, we did it again. I’m still no further ahead in comprehending how this all works, but I did give a tuk-tuk driver a great laugh today as he watched me jitterbug through traffic.

One stretch of the riverfront walkway is fairly new – a great addition to the city. Phnom Penh is situated on a confluence of three rivers – the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac.  Tourist cruise boats and ferries set off from two docks along the  shore.

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We’ve done a few tourist-y things over the past few days. We checked out the Russian Market (good place to buy discounted Western clothes), where I am ashamed to say, we ate lunch at KFC. We could not find any restaurants and we were so hot that we would have sold our soul for air-conditioning.

We walked down to the National Museum, which houses a collection of Angkor and post-Angkor sandstone sculptures. Maybe it’s us, but we both found it underwhelming, although the building and gardens are gorgeous.

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What we really enjoyed about Phnom Penh was just walking around and taking it all in. Although there are few sidewalks and full-on traffic, walking became a pleasant challenge. The reward lies in what is just around the next corner.

Markets and vendors are part of the landscape. Many people work two or three jobs, so sleeping on the job is allowed.

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We did not see any small, detached houses – mainly apartment buildings, hotels or mansions. Like the hold-out whose neighbours have long since left and the high-rises have moved in, I wondered about this house’s history.

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An example of an older apartment, adorned with many plants and lanterns.

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Not far away, a cleaner, sleeker version.

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We wandered along the canal street until the smells drove us away.

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And back again to wide open boulevards and green space.

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Independence Monument, situated further down this boulevard commemorates Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, and is a memorial to Cambodia’s war dead.

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We loved our time in Phnom Penh – it was a good mix of being tourists and of just hanging out with no agenda.  It’s such an interesting city and in a state of massive change – what might it look like five years from now?

We also loved the Cambodian people – almost universally they have been kind and approachable and warm. The staff at our hotel call us “mama” and “papa.”

I’ll leave you with an interesting story about our encounter with a fake monk. We were having lunch at an outdoor cafe, and a monk approached us with a broad smile and somewhat ludicrously, a thumbs-up sign.

We smiled back until he held out his coconut/alms bowl, already filled with American dollars. We waved him away and watched as he made the rounds; he received at least two or three donations.

We were suspicious right away, as this was extremely un-monk-like behaviour. Sure enough, we Googled “fake monks”  (try it – there are loads of articles) and apparently they are a real problem, not just here but all over the world. London, New York and San Francisco have been plagued by them.
They have hit on quite the scam – who would refuse a monk?

Real monks live on charity, but they do not go begging. Their alms walk is for food – they never touch money. They never approach women.  I met the eye of a young monk a few days ago and without thinking, smiled and said hello. It made him extremely uncomfortable.

We leave tomorrow morning for the last leg of our trip – almost six weeks left to explore Vietnam.

The Killing Fields: Simply Heartbreaking

Phnom Penh is changing at a breakneck speed. The city feels modern, bustling and full of life. Old buildings are being renovated and new buildings are springing up on every corner. Nonetheless, the bloody and traumatic history of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime still figures prominently.

The “attractions”  that most tourists come to see are the notorious Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum right in Phnom Penh, and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, about 14 km. southwest of the city. We wanted to visit both sites before we explored the rest of Phnom Penh, to allow us to put the rest of our visit here into context.

Please be warned: Contents of this posting will be disturbing to all.

Yesterday we visited Tuol Sleng, a former high school that was taken over in 1975 and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21, or S21. This was the first stop for prisoners; an agonizing hell of interrogation and torture before being shipped off to The Killing Fields to be executed.

The Museum is excellent – dignified and sombre, with signs asking for “Silence”. Tourists are equipped with headsets and an audio account of the grounds, with each stop numbered and the capability to pause and return. We all walked in our own quiet bubbles, listening to  gut-wrenching stories and first-person accounts  from both survivors and former guards.

This is Building A, where some of the interrogations took place. Each room held a cot, shackles, and in some cases, floor tiles darkened from bloodstains are still visible. A photo of a victim was on each wall. Photos were not allowed.

In front of the building, there are 14 graves. When the Khmer Rouge were defeated, the prison was seized and they discovered 14 bodies that had not yet been moved to The Killing Fields. They are the only victims to have a final resting place with their remains intact.

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The Security of Regulations. If any of these rules were broken, prisoners would be beaten even more severely.

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Prisoners were typically intellectuals, government officials, artists, doctors, teachers, monks – anyone who lived in cities and might have the capacity and intelligence to counter the new regime. The Khmer Rouge wanted to re-structure the society by eliminating education and religion and returning all citizens to an agrarian society.
S-21 became the largest detention centre in Cambodia, and over 100 people a day were tortured, then killed. In total, an estimated 2.5 – 3 million Cambodians were killed, or died of disease or malnutrition during this period – about one-quarter of the population.

Methods of torture were described in great detail. The barbaric imagination of the Khmer Rouge cadres is shocking, impossible to fathom.

This method of interrogation involved tying the victim’s hands behind his back, and hanging him upside down, suspended by his hands from the beam until he passed out.
To revive him, the guards would lower him face-first into the jars on the ground, filled with water and human feces.

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Water tortures were common – dunking victims in ice water and subjecting them to a type of water torture we have all heard about called waterboarding.

Women were subjected to sexual torture, including having centipedes inserted into their vaginas. Their children were often murdered in front of them.

A showcase of the instruments of torture and paintings depicting various torture scenes hang throughout the museum.

Photos were taken of every prisoner, both before and after their torture. I will include a photo of the before shots and spare you the ones taken later.

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In another building, the Khmer Rouge had punched through old classroom walls and built tiny cells where prisoners were shackled to the floor, with a small metal box for their waste. Photos and biographies of Pol Pot and his head henchmen were displayed, as well as details about past and ongoing trials. None of them have ever admitted to the genocide.

Although the photos and images and words are sickening, the museum is a sacred place. I wondered if it would feel voyeuristic, but it was quite the opposite.  The victims and their terrible fates are treated with great respect and the museum and Killing Fields are bearing witness.

The monument in the centre of the grounds is surrounded by granite blocks that contain the names of all the victims that passed through here.

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Today we hired a tuk-tuk to drive out to Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, also known as The Killing Fields. What I didn’t know is that Choeung Ek is the best-known killing field in Cambodia, but not the only one. There are over 300 sites where bodies were disposed of in mass graves or in shallow ponds. The dots on the map indicate where most of the sites are located.

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The museum was very difficult to go through because it is compact and the atrocities are in front of you immediately, and don’t let go the entire time.

Visiting The Killing Fields felt a little more diluted, if such a word is possible in this context. Spread out over several acres, it is easier to slow the pace and absorb what you are hearing in your audio set (same excellent set-up as at the museum).

Again, signs are posted asking people to be quiet, and almost everyone complies, lost in what they are hearing and seeing.

The tour began at the area where the trucks would arrive from S-21, full of beaten and terrified victims. Almost immediately, they would be executed, but because the Khmer Rouge did not want to pay for bullets, most of the victims were bludgeoned to death.

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Their bodies were tossed into huge mass graves.  The fields are filled with indentations like this; an indication of where each grave was, and how they have filled in again since their excavation. More than 8000 skulls were retrieved, as well as teeth, bones, and clothes. There is a display holding remnants of cloth that were salvaged. With each season, cloth and bone continues to emerge from the ground.

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Mass graves that were more particular  (women and children only, headless, etc.) are marked  and covered, like the one below. Visitors have left thousands of bracelets as tokens of remembrance. Stephen removed one of his bracelets as well and left it behind.

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One of the sites that was the most difficult to bear was the “killing tree.” Babies and toddlers were murdered by being swung by their feet and having their tiny skulls bashed against the tree. Their bodies were then tossed into the pit behind.

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The following tree holds its own special horror. Victims were held in one area, while each execution took place and then moved when it was “their turn.”  In order to mask the sounds of the victims screams, the cadres attached a loudspeaker to this tree and played music full blast.

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We ended the tour with a visit to the memorial stupa. This contains the skulls and remains of the more than 8000 victims.

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Murder weapons are displayed, followed by skulls and then  bones. It is possible to tell how the victim died by looking at their skulls – pierced by a bayonet, clubbed with a wooden stick, or slashed with a knife or ax. Coloured dots on the skulls identity gender and  method of murder, and the skulls are arranged according to estimated age.

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This sign to the side of the memorial stupa is a reflection of the intention of the museum and Killing Fields – a way to respect and honour the dead.

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Atrocities are impossible to understand. Stephen and I spent a great deal of time trying to wrap our heads around such brutality.  Evil paranoid people, given the right circumstances, can galvanize the masses.  Xenophobia, looting, destroying works of art, denying religion – those are easy to figure out. But how do great numbers of people, no matter how oppressed and disenfranchised, inflict such suffering on innocent people, on children? What is their breaking point?

No answers. Both visits were difficult, but we are so glad we went and learned more about a piece of history we knew little about.

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Battambang: Cambodia’s kinder, gentler city

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Regarded as a smaller, sleepier version of Siem Reap, Battambang is same-but-different: beautifully preserved French architecture, a river running through it, a young and growing arts scene, NGOs and social enterprises galore. It is also all about the kids.

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This is a collection from a local photographer that captures the spirit of Cambodia’s children. They are precious, open and curious about foreigners. “Hello”, they call out, waving and giggling. These little faces are everywhere; many of the kids  are with their parents or on their way home from school. These are the lucky ones.

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We’ve also seen kids whose childhoods may have already flickered out, and they break our hearts.  We were on the bamboo train ride which deposits tourists in a small village for 20 minutes before the return trip back.  Upon arrival, one young girl grabbed Stephen, the other one got me, and so it began: “hello, what’s your name, please buy a bracelet.” I immediately forgot the rules (don’t buy from children, as it discourages them from going to school ), and bought two bracelets.

These girls were cagey about school when we asked, but they spoke some English and seemed bright, so we hoped they were still attending. We bought their bracelets, took our souvenir photo and felt a little uneasy, about them and ourselves. Their lives revolve around tourists and money – when the bamboo train stops running next year, they have no Plan B. Actually, they have no plan at all.

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Which brings us to our tuk-tuk driver, Peter. He met us at the bus station and brought us to our hotel. He is bright, charming and sold us one of his  tours for the next day that showcase “the real Cambodia.”

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He was quite open with us and over a few hours, his story came out. He is 25, comes from a large family in rural northern Cambodia and left home at 19 to go to Phnom Penh to look for work, where he missed his family and “cried a lot.” He moved to Battambang to live with his brother; they are both tuk-tuk drivers, but want more for themselves. It is hard to find work in Cambodia that pays a reasonable wage – at the low end, many people earn a dollar or two a day. His English is okay, but he knows it needs work if he is to become a licensed tour guide or improve his lot in life.

He took us on a tour of the countryside and as promised, we saw the rural Cambodia.  The trip began with a ride on the bamboo train, called a norry. After the Khmer Rouge left the transport system in complete disrepair, Cambodians developed this rudimentary system for transporting people and goods. At first, they operated by using poles and muscle but now they have small motors, and the trains are largely used for the tourists.

Bride & Groom departing on the Bamboo Train
With a proper railway due to come back in the next year, this quirky little ride’s days seem numbered. It’s 20 minutes to the village, 20 minutes there and 20 minutes back.

Decidedly bumpy (some mismatched rails), it felt speedier than it probably was – this is a train ride we are unlikely to experience ever again.

Luckily the track is arrow-straight, because when trains coming from opposite directions meet up, both drivers stop and choose one train’s passengers to disembark. The drivers lift the train to one side (seating area, motor and wheels), allow the other train to go by, and then reassemble the other train. It all takes about a minute, and is typically done 5-6 times during one journey.

Peter then took us out into the countryside to meet a few families and watch their food production. At our first stop everyone in the family works, from teenagers to grandmothers, making sweet cakes to sell to the markets. They are up early in the morning and work very hard all day. Their cakes are baked, convection-style, stacked in underneath a roaring fire.

Next, we stopped by a home that makes rice papers  for spring rolls. These girls had a system down – two papers at a time on the grill, which were flipped onto the wooden rods and flipped over onto the drying rack. They typically  make 2000 a day!

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The next enterprise was a little more borderline. The owner ran a cockfighting operation until the police shut that down. He still runs fish-fighting – we saw big jars of fish, but Peter’s English was not good enough to explain how fish actually fight. A rice wine distillery is his other revenue stream, and I was tempted to try a taste from the big sample jar, but saner heads (Stephen’s) prevailed. There were a number of scorpions steeping in the wine, reputedly for “strong blood” (virility), but the odds of being poisoned was not worth the risk.

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I loved this lady. She makes sticky rice and black bean confections which are stuffed into bamboo tubes and cooked over a fire. Once cooled, they are stacked on a table for sale. We bought one, and Peter showed us how to peel it back to reveal the rice. This lady swung in a hammock the entire time, chatting on her phone – seen one foreigner too many, probably.

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We crossed over this extremely dodgy bamboo bridge. As you can see, the river is very low, but in the rainy season, this bridge is swept away, as the water floods the banks. If ever I felt like an old lady, it was then, holding on for dear life to the main pole while trying to balance myself. There are days when blind faith  is all we’re going on.

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Then, then gut-wrenching part of this tour – Wat Sarong Knong and the Well of Sorrows. When Peter first told us the Killing Fields would be part of the tour, I was puzzled. I thought the Killing Fields were near Phnom Penh. Peter’s turn to be puzzled, ” The killing fields are in many places.”

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The wat was seized during the Pol Pot regime and turned into a prison. The stupa holds some of the skulls and bones of the estimated 10,000 victims who were interrogated, tortured and murdered here.  All four sides are engraved with torture scenes, including spearing babies in front of their parents and gang-raping women – each scene more brutal than the last.

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How do you read about this and look at these depictions of torture and see the piles of skulls and even begin to understand the scale of it all? I just finished reading First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, a Cambodian survivor who was five years old when the Khmer Rouge forced her and her family out of Phnom Penh. Angelina Jolie produced the movie and was recently in Cambodia for its premiere.  It is a harrowing read; all the more so for being in the country and seeing the after-effects all these years later.

Peter frequently mentioned the Khmer Rouge and the effects that are being felt to this day. He was a little more circumspect when talking about the current government – he looked around and lowered his voice,”you don’t know who is listening.” Pol Pot terrorized and slaughtered its citizens. The current government does not appear to have the best interest of all its citizens at heart. Poor Cambodians – they have such a lot to deal with and while we don’t know their internal struggles, they are outwardly calm, sweet-natured and patient.

Switching from a time of starvation to present-day Cambodian markets.

Outdoor cooking over charcoal fires

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No secret that the storage and handling of meat, chicken and fish leaves a lot to be desired, but there were a few food items for sale that had me rethinking my meat habit.

This is the “chicken with flies” special.

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Frog’s legs are a delicacy, but not after we saw these guys alive and hopping in the street.

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I defy Anthony Bourdain to endorse these – chicken embryos cooked and ready to eat.

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Moving from the deeply sad and the seriously gross, we will take you to the magic of the circus.
Phare Ponleau Selpak, meaning The Brightness of the Arts are so much more than a circus. Sprung out of Thai refugee camps in 1986,  a foundation was formed to help young people express their recent traumas through the arts.

The organization provides training in dance, visual art, circus, theatre, music, graphic design and animation to vulnerable young people; over 1000 students currently attend the school for free. Many of them go on to perform around the world.

Phare circus

The circus performances, both in Battambang and Siem Reap, tell stories through live music, dance, juggling, aerial arts, fire twirling and overall goofiness. We watched the show under the Big Top – it was an enthralling show.

 

We could have stayed another day or two in this area – Battambang is a city that sneaks up on you. On to Phnom Penh…

Siem Reap – cafes, art galleries and NGOs

While Siem Reap provides food, water and shelter for the temple hordes, it is very much a stand-alone city that deserves its own attention. It has a naturally pretty setting with a mopey tree-lined river that runs through the city and leafy streets filled with stately old buildings.

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It is undergoing a renaissance right now – you can feel the buzz of that perfect blend of historical charm and fresh energy. However, old and new and rich and poor exist side by side; Siem Reap is a long way from being gentrified.

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As we were driving down a desolate, garbage-strewn lane toward our hotel, my heart sank. Is this where we would be staying for the next six nights?

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But no, we stepped out of the heat and dirt and into a frangipani-scented oasis. We were greeted with cold facecloths and glasses of pineapple juice by Ratanak, Ban Rang and Sopheak. They were the first Cambodians we met and they’re quite typical of everyone we’ve encountered since – gracious, helpful and genuine.

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Straight ahead lay the pool.

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Our room – spacious, cool, white linens, dark wood, a balcony. Our bathroom – a separate shower, quality toiletries and a first on the trip so far – a huge, stone tub. Hot water, excellent wifi, breakfast included – just 8 units – very quiet – all for less than $40 a night. Bingo! Sometimes we win the hotel lottery and in Siem Reap it is easy – high-quality boutique guesthouses are in abundance and very affordable.

If you want to splash out a bit, there are a growing number of very high-end properties, including Sofitel, Le Meridien, the famous Raffles, and my favourite, Victoria Angkor.

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We walked through a couple of these dream hotels (Stephen a little reluctantly), and the staff were exceptionally kind. I rather needlessly pointed out that we were not hotel guests and they maintained their poised and professional demeanor and were positively welcoming.  We even got cold scented facecloths! This property is fashioned after the French Indochina period, and there is not one detail they haven’t looked after. Room rates run about $200 a night, which would be worth every penny. This is their pool area.

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Siem Reap is very walkable, but considering the extreme heat, we took each day slowly, and found reasons to go into air-conditioned stores just to cool off. Grabbing a tuk-tuk is another option, as they are just $2 a ride to most places. While there are nice residential pockets in Siem Reap, we didn’t see any gated communities or enclaves – opposite ends of the economic spectrum can be found on one street. I stepped inside the front yard to take a photo of this stately building, and then realized it was a private home.

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Just down the same street, we found this colourful scene. Almost no-one uses dryers here. When you drop off your laundry, you want to be sure your undies are in good shape – they will be hanging out on a clothesline for all the world to see.

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Going to the market is an endurance test as I found out while trying to buy my Angkor Wat top. First of all, we walked about 15 or 20 minutes to cross the river and get to the market. By then, we were “glowing.” We stepped inside the tented market and were besieged by vendors. “Hello Madam, I have nice dress for you. What colour you like? I have all sizes. Special morning discount for you, madam. I have t-shirts, I have scarves.” When I tried to protest that I really just needed to have a look first, they were absolutely undaunted. “Over here, madam, I have jewellery, special price. You need shoes?” If I so much as looked at anything, the onslaught ramped up. They were calling out from half a dozen stalls. By then, I was sweating profusely.

Cambodia uses U.S. dollars as their preferred currency – any transaction larger than a popsicle will be quoted in US dollars.Their riel are 4000 to $1US, and you will receive riel back as small change.

We managed to work our way through one stall long enough to buy Stephen a pair of nylon Colombia convertible pants for $30 and were working on an Underarmour shirt for $8US, but the sales pressure was so great, that we stuck with the pants only. The vendor reverted back to Khmer (I’m quite sure she was swearing at us).  This is not our game – it’s exhausting. We keep imagining our son Dan here – he’d be in heaven.

The rest of the market area (known as Pub Street) is where the majority of tourists find themselves for shopping, cafes, restaurants and bars. There is a mix of same-same vendors with a few nicer stores – well worth a visit.

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The traffic is hectic – although nowhere near on a par with bigger cities – we’re waiting to see how we fare in Phnom Penh. We still have not been able to figure out the right-of-way.  As you watch this video, let us know if you see a pattern emerging.

We walked past this construction site this morning – another old building undergoing a complete re-do. “Safety First” signs are prominent all over town, including here, where we figured perhaps the foreman had yet to make his rounds.

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The restaurant and cafe scene is robust and feel-good – many places in town are tied to a particular cause (almost all child-related), and percentages of sales go toward their charity. In many cases, the restaurants serve as training centres for young people who are disadvantaged, and would otherwise be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. We stopped by for coffee and/or food at a number of them, but the one that made the biggest impression on us was New Hope Cambodia. It is set in one of the poorest slums in Siem Reap, and serves a number of purposes – a training centre for youth, a school for children to learn English, music and computer skills, in addition to their regular education. They also offer family counselling, emergency shelter, medical treatment and food and support for over 300 families. It was at their on-site restaurant where we met two of the staff, Rani and Genda.

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They spent a lot of time explaining the programs and the neighbourhood situation to us. Genda is in charge of volunteers – she has people coming from all over the world to spend time helping out in many capacities. We met an Australian couple who take three weeks of their vacation time each year to work in the school.

Cambodia is filled with stories like that and with young people who are determined to bring their city and country around. The ravages of the Khmer Rouge slaughter have taken decades to recover from and the number of amputees (from the land mines) and street kids and desperately poor people need such a staggering amount of ongoing care, money and expertise.

Twenty percent of Cambodians earn $1-$2 per day and the NGOs make the difference between life and death for many of them.

Sex tourism is another blight. While it is not as overt here as in Thailand, it is a social ill that Cambodians want fixed.

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Fighting the sexual exploitation of children is another big challenge. Many hotel rooms in SEAsia have signs posted advising guests that having children (not their own) in their room is illegal.  Brochures outline ways to avoid harming children (no 1-hour orphanage visits, don’t buy from begging children, etc.) They are trying to break the cycle, but when poverty is so dire, families often feel they have little choice.

On the other end of the social scale, we had two beautiful people and a small gaggle of photographers land in on our hotel property the other day. We had just come back and were keen for a swim, so headed down to see what was going on. Not a big fashion shoot as we thought – it was a pre-wedding photo session. The couple will marry in May.

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They picked their day wisely – the next day the sky clouded over by mid-afternoon and got very dark and threatening. Again, we had just gotten back home and the skies opened, the winds howled and there was thunder. We got a humdinger of a tropical storm – watched safely and with great enjoyment from our balcony. Within half an hour it was over and the sun came out.

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We had a sneak peak at the famous Phare Circus. Artists put on a 15-minute street performance to entice the crowds to buy tickets for their nightly show. Since it originated in Battambang (where we are going tomorrow), we decided to catch the show there, but this was a terrific warm-up.

Tonight, we finished our stay in Siem Reap with a thoughtful cello concert, talk and film. Dr. Beat Richner, a Swiss national who has lived in Cambodia before and after the Khmer Rouge invasion, performs once a week. He is a much-loved pediatrician whom the locals refer to as “Beatocello”. Through his fund-raising efforts and tireless promotion of Cambodia’s great need for help he has created a foundation that has opened and operated five hospitals.

Our first impression of Cambodia has been to witness hope and forward-thinking action on the part of  both locals and foreigners to bring them out of darkness.

 

Overwhelmed in Angkor Wat

We were on a don’t-miss-it pilgrimage to one of the world’s greatest (and most-visited) sites, armed with some preconceived notions that had been reinforced by fellow travellers.   Many tourists skip the rest of Cambodia entirely, and hop over from Thailand or Vietnam to fit in their requisite one-to-three-day visit to Angkor Wat.

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In 1993 there were 7,650 visitors to Angkor Wat. Numbers for 2016 came in at just under 2.2 million visitors. The 400-sq.km. Angkor Wat Archaeological Park has become so saturated with tourists that many articles have been written advising on “best times to beat the crowds.” (Hint: at lunchtime, when everyone else is eating, but the noonday heat is enough to drive you mad).

There are many factors having a negative impact on this “bucket list” site. The structures are being weakened by the millions of footsteps that climb their sandstone steps and run their hands over their bas-relief carvings. The government is in discussion as to how to protect this priceless national treasure and control tourist visits in a sustainable way. It’s complicated.

We began our day at 8:00 a.m. and carried through to 3:30 p.m. We were picked up at our hotel by our tuk-tuk driver, Totiha (s?) He was with us for the entire day, taking us from temple to temple. All the tuk-tuks look like this – like little chariots – pulled on two wheels behind a motorcycle. They feel tippy but are remarkably maneuverable, and the biggest bonus for us was the fabulous cooling breeze we experienced after each scorching temple visit.

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Angkor Wat is just outside Siem Reap. After our hectic ride through the city, we landed on a long stretch of road leading to the temple complex. It was our first glimpse of the immense scope of the park.


The surrounding acreage is peaceful and atmospheric – jungle coming right up to the sites and wide lakes to cool things down a bit.

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On the advice of our hotel manager, we went for a 1-day pass, which made for a very long, very tiring day, but worked for us. In a move that was considered controversial for its potential impact on ticket sales, prices jumped dramatically on February 1.  A 1-day pass rose from $20US to $37 US, and a 3-day pass rose from $40 US to $67 US. Our first stop was the ticket booth, situated beside the tour bus parking lot.

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There were easily 100 tour buses – maybe 150, each with a capacity of 50 passengers. There were dozens of mini-vans. Tuk-tuks – too many to count. Motorcycles and scooters – well, you know already how many;  a few die-hard souls even rode bicycles.

I’m not a big fan of crowds and as we made our way through the throngs at the ticket booth, I felt quite crestfallen. We had skipped the sunrise start – were we already too late?  However, they’ve got the system down pat – we had our photos taken, passes printed and were back on our tuk-tuk within 10 minutes.

Before I go any further, may I tell you about the newly strict dress code at Angkor Wat. Since a percentage of the population does not understand the meaning of “skimpy attire”, and since another percentage of the population thought taking topless selfies of themselves in temples was a good idea (???), administration cracked down. Code of Conducts sheets are posted everywhere, and on many temples, women must cover their shoulders and their legs to be admitted.

For my temple visit I had chosen a light airy dress that hits below my knees, and planned on bringing a shawl to cover my shoulders when necessary. Our hotel manager told me that dresses and skirts were not allowed – I must wear pants, and a top with sleeves. While this information did not match with my research, I complied and went to the market to find a comfortable top. If you promise not to laugh, I will show you the result of my cobbled together outfit. We call the look “Travels with my fashion-victim aunt.”

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I bought the top in a hurry. This is what happens when one walks through a hot, sweaty market and harassed by market vendors to the point of distraction.

But the crushing blow is this – Angkor Wat was awash in tank tops, shorts, dresses, bra straps – I could have worn my respectable little dress and felt a lot more presentable.

Anyway…on to the main event. We began with the most important, most iconic temple, Angkor Wat.The entrance is as dramatic as every  photo you’ve ever seen, but the size and scope has to be seen in person. It is staggering and deeply moving.The outer walls stretch for 1.5 kilometres and are encircled by a moat. You cross a long bridge and walkway to approach the temple; as is fitting for a temple of its importance. It stands back and gives you plenty of lead time to admire.

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The distinctive lotus-shaped spires set Angkor Wat apart from the others.

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As we walked through the main entrance and came out the other side, a balloon was just rising over the structure.

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I won’t go into great detail about the history of Angkor Wat – that is all easily and comprehensively available elsewhere. But of all the temples, Angkor Wat was never entirely abandoned and forgotten – it has always functioned as a place of Buddhist worship.

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We expected the greatest crowds at Angkor Wat and there were times when things got a bit congested, but the site is so enormous that we frequently found ourselves all alone.
Visiting important ruins always elicits the same response with us – we are flummoxed by the effort required to build such spectacular structures, in ancient times, before modern tools were available. In this case, sandstone was quarried 50 kilometres away and floated downriver on rafts. It took 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants to complete. It was a pleasure to sit and take it all in.

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It is a reality check to be a tiny human speck, surrounded by massive stone structures. So many people walked this way before us, and so many will follow when we’re gone. What was this room? We’re imagining a giant swimming pool.
One disappointment about Angkor Wat was the dearth of signage. It would have been so helpful to have information to digest as we went along. I would highly recommend hiring a guide for the day – we “poached” a few times – pretending to take photos as we stopped to listen.

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Our next stop was Ta Prohm, the temples that are being slowly and photogenically swallowed up by the vast octopus arms of massive trees –  silk cotton trees and the aptly named strangler figs. Much of the complex has been propped with steel supports, but the jungle appears to be winning. This was my favourite of all the complexes.

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Stephen propped up at the roots of one of the trees.

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We fell into a sly vendor trap when we landed at a nearby temple where Tomb Raider was filmed. As we walked through, a friendly young man offered to show us the “exact  spot where the Tomb Raider poster was photographed.” We followed through and got our money shot.

 

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He kept following us, pointing out various things and it became awkward and apparent that he was after money. After 10 or 15 minutes, we thanked him and he asked for money in Thai baht! We gave him $5US, and he asked for $10, and at that point we politely parted company, feeling both naive and bit annoyed.

We visited a number of other temples, but as you are probably already feeling it – we were experiencing temple fatigue. Our last big temple – Bayon, in the middle of huge Angkor Thom – was the most surreal in every way.

The main feature of Bayon is 216 massive smiling faces that stare at you from every angle – they are strangely lifelike and powerful.

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We would have spent a lot more time wandering through, and examining the bas-reliefs that cover the outer walls, but for this obstacle course.

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Busloads of tourists had arrived, and there was nothing to do but follow the queue, and hope for a breather somewhere. Alas, it was not to be found.

I have to come to terms with selfies, they are here to stay. But there is a uniquely Asian twist to selfies that I’ve never seen anywhere else – they are choreographed and posed endlessly.

We watched this woman strike this pose in front of a statue, and hold it for numerous takes. Then… just as we were about to try and grab our own shot, another woman took her place, and struck the exact pose. It became apparent that we were unable to get our shot, so we left.
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Our final thoughts of our day at Angkor Wat and surrounding temples? Yes, it is crowded a lot of the time, but it is also possible to find your own quiet place to take it all in.

Trying to do it all in one day might have been a mistake, but we didn’t have the stamina to spread it out over two or three days.

The vendors are relentless – selling everything from guide books to scarves to elephant pants to artifacts, they are in your face in a really unpleasant and aggressive way.

It is hot – really, really hot, and there is very little shade. You need a broad hat, sunscreen and buckets of water to get through a day here.

There are lots of uneven stairs to climb, which require a  level of  attention and determination. I took a pass on two of them – I was so overheated at the time, but Stephen took them all on.

We wholeheartedly enjoyed our day, in spite of the discomforts and annoyances. We are at least a decade too late to see Angkor Wat the way it could be properly visited, but that is the way of many of the world’s top sites. That is not a reason not to go.

We left the park with this final serene memory.

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Serenity in Don Khon

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I’ll begin with a heartfelt thank-you for everyone’s comments and e-mails regarding the accident. Normally, I respond personally, but this time I would be saying almost exactly the same thing. So…to save all of you (and me) from hearing my voice over and over again: Thank you all so very much for your concern and advice and caring sentiments. It means a great deal to us.

The experience and the images still linger, but we’re left with a fresh appreciation for how lucky we are.

We could not have arrived in a better place to calm down and rest. Don Khon is one of the 4000 islands of the Mekong archipelago that sits just north of the Cambodian border. Four thousand is an approximate number, and that includes tiny sandbars and islets big enough for nesting ground birds. Tributaries wind their way through, as do fishing boats and longboats, making this part of Laos deliciously serene and sleepy. Of the few islands that are inhabited, just three cater to tourists, and of the twin islands, Don Det and Don Khon – we took a pass on the former for its hippy, happy-snack crowd and chose the latter for its peacefulness and rice paddy landscape.

 

We have discovered we need regular breaks from travelling. We need the recharge of staying put for a few days with no agenda. Don Khon has given us exactly that – relaxation bordering on downright laziness.

The boat landed at Don Det, where the vast majority of visitors stay.

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We could not find a boat to carry us on to neighbouring Don Khon. As luck would have it, a young man called out to us that he could take us by “tuk-tuk” down the island and across the bridge. His tuk-tuk turned out to be a utility truck with two milk cartons for seats, and he demanded the money up front (he had to refill with gas first). Away we went – bumping down the back roads (we suspect he didn’t want the legit tuk-tuk drivers to see him on the main road), and eventually arrived at our destination.

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We were excited to see that our hotel resembled its online photos – clean and bright, with wooden bannisters and shiny tile floors and best of all – our huge room and balcony overlooking the Mekong. We’re the third room in from the left on the second floor.

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Hot showers (rarer than you might think), followed by lunch and beer on the patio – we were starting to feel human again.

There is a boat dock right by our hotel, and we’ve amused ourselves by watching the various and inventive craft transporting tourists.

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This premium boat offers seats and life jackets.

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We are most definitely in the south again – the comfy days and cool evenings of Vientiane have been replaced with sweltering, sweaty temps – only mad dogs and white-skinned Englishmen are out in the midday sun.

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Don Khon has three main roads – one that skirts the west coast, one that follows the east coast, and one straight down the middle. Water features are the big attraction – waterfalls, a broad port and a pool that is home to the endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins.

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According to one of our lunch table mates, the pod has shrunk to four dolphins, and chasing after them by boat seems designed to put another peg in their “near-extinction,” so we decided to stick to cycling as our main form of entertainment.

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While the rental bikes are rough and ready, they come with a basket and a bell and the price is right – about $1.50 a day. For each of the past three days, we’ve set out in the morning to explore, and what a glorious time it has been. We’ve seen heritage homes turned into fancy hotels.

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We’ve seen modest, welcoming homes out on dusty roads.

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There are few island vehicles –  utility tuk-tuks, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles. This makes cycling a dream, and getting lost a pleasure. We rode across rice paddies, through temple grounds, past homes and small settlements, beside the river and through bamboo stands. We watched kids play soccer, and dodged cows, dogs and chickens in the road. Life on Don Khon feels quite untouched by civilization.

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There is no ATM, police, or medical services here, wifi is spotty and refreshingly, cellphone sightings are less common than elsewhere.  It is poor here, but without pathos. As is similar to life on many small islands everywhere, the sense of community is strong. People are relaxed and friendly and you can spot the characters after being here for a while. There is no gas station on the island, so bottles of gasoline are dispensed at stand like this one.

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Waterfalls are a common feature everywhere we have been so far, but since it is well into the dry season, many of them are but a trickle. Not so the waterfalls of Don Khon – they are impressive and majestic. If they are mighty now, what they must be like in November?

As we approached Khone Pa Soi waterfalls, we were warned by a couple of women, in that understated way that Brits are famous for, that the wooden bridges were a bit “perilous.”

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The suspension bridge was a little sketchy, but looked as though it might hold up. Up a path we went to get to the top of the falls.

We headed over to the smaller waterfall, and came face-to-face with the “perilous” bridges – we took our chances on the thin layers of bamboo and lath and made it safely across.

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The second falls we visited – the Li Phi Falls – were massive. They are one of Asia’s largest waterfalls by volume – so named as they are meant to catch bad spirits as they wash down the river. We paid heed to the dozens of “Dangerous” signs, not wanting to join the bad spirits.

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Our photos cannot capture the scope and volume of water in this waterfall – what must this look like in the rainy season?

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At the end of our hike, Stephen stopped to cool off his feet in the pool – still the Mekong, but clean, clear, fast water.

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On our way home, we rode through one of the temples to discover a small herd of cows all cozied up together.

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Further along, three young novices were busy making bricks. They greeted us with a smile and allowed us to take photos.

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A perfect break in the travels, and a memorable way to end our time in Laos. Tomorrow we are in for an early start and a trip by boat, minibus, and bus to get us across the border into Cambodia and to our first destination, Siem Reap.

Life and Death in Laos

There have been many a time while travelling over the  past few years when a situation felt a little dodgy or unsafe or uncomfortable, and I coped by repeating a silent mantra to myself,”Nothing bad will happen today.” Since bad things happen every day, my mantra was more a delusional self-soothe than a fact-based reality, but it worked for me.

Yesterday, my mantra was shattered, but I will get to that later.  I want to tell you about the life we have been experiencing in Laos, and how varied it has been as we’ve travelled the country from north to south.

We spent two days in Vientiane, the country’s capitol, referred to by some as a dustier, less charming version of Luang Prabang. We were advised to give it a miss, but since it was a hub for our travels, and also Laos’ capital city, we wanted to see for ourselves.

It has its own Arc de Triomphe, unkindly referred to as a “concrete landing pad.”

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Vientiane lacks the polish and lustre of Luang Prabang – the word “crumbling” comes to mind. The French colonial style of architecture is still evident, but not as well-maintained and not in as great numbers – you have to wander the streets a bit to find the charm.

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The French influence on food is strongly felt – patisseries are authentic, and the butter croissants make a great change from white bread toast in the morning.

The promenade along the Mekong is a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. People start to gather around 4:30 or 5:00, to walk along the river, check out the night market or take in some exercise. We watched a zumba class, but the music was boring, and so were the moves. The aerobics class was quite spirited – I was (almost) tempted to join in.

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We ran into this curiosity – the travelling manicure ladies. At least three or four women called out to me,” Manicure, madam?”  I might have taken them up on the offer if it hadn’t felt so strange to perch on a tiny plastic stool out in public, and have my nails done under questionable hygienic circumstances.

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We actually enjoyed our time in Vientiane very much – it felt more Laotian and less touristy.  We were tripping over temples, and wandered through a few of them. This sign caught our attention, and I was curious as to how many people had smoked on the grounds of a sacred place.

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There are definite signs of affluence here – we saw a mint-condition vintage white Jaguar parked outside a hotel, and a Rolls-Royce tucked on the grounds of an exclusive art gallery. There are bangin’ big Toyota trucks, and Lexus SUVs, and many, many Range Rovers. Cranes dominate parts of the city – foreign investment has hit.

The riches are not available to everyone. This is the first place in Laos where we encountered begging. These women and children passed us and asked for money, and then one of the women squatted down on the city street, hoisted her skirt and peed; a thick stream of urine running down the sidewalk. It was shocking to see the utter absence of basic decorum; her rules (and life) so different from mine.

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A highlight was a visit to the COPE Visitor Centre – part of the rehabilitation centre for people who have lost limbs with UXOs (unexploded ordinances). Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the world: between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 270 million bombs and 80 million of them failed to explode. Forty-four years later, at least one person every day is killed or injured by unexploded ordinances – many of them children. There is a market for scrap metal, and dealers will send out kids to retrieve metal for a small profit to them – and the risk is all theirs. The COPE centre is excellent – very well laid-out, with many displays and short videos. All donations go to prosthetics and ongoing treatment.

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This sculpture was made of 500 kg. of UXO, including cluster bombs, “in memory of those who have been injured, killed or lost loves ones from UXO.” – Anousone Vong Aphay – local artist – 2008.

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Among the many excellent displays is the list of countries who have signed the CCM (Convention on Cluster Munitions) International Treaty. Among countries notably absent from the list is the United States.

Moving on to the slightly absurd – we visited the Buddha Park, a monument to concrete craziness, about an hour out of town. It is far from being a sacred site – more of an Asian theme park – with themes of lust, sex, domination and excess – all enjoyed with flute music wafting over the bamboo fence.

The Big Giant Pumpkin greeted us first –  we had to squat down and squeeze through the gaping mouth to climb inside, walk around three levels and finally reach the top. Safety was at no time a consideration in the building of this monstrosity, but…it made a grand spot for endless selfies.

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Lots of fun wandering around the park for about an hour.

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And then…our reality took a bit of a shift. We wanted to head south from Vientiane to Pakse,  enroute to the 4000 islands. The only affordable travel option was a sleeper bus leaving Vientiane at 8:00 pm, arriving in Pakse at 7:00 am. The bus consists of two levels of bunks, and if you are not intimately associated with your sleeping partner before the ride, you will be after, as the bunks are cozy. We got a lower bunk, two pillows and two blankets. I tried not to think about bed bugs, head lice and long-living bacteria. Armed with our sandwiches and water, we settled in, and surprisingly, we slept quite well.

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The next morning, we transferred to a regular bus for our three-hour ride to the 4000 islands, and that is when tragedy struck.  Our bus driver had been driving carefully and we were about 10 km. away from our final destination. Suddenly the driver hit the horn, hit the brakes and swerved, but could not avoid the motorcycle that pulled out in front of him.

Our bus slid sideways down the hillside, but came to a stop at quite an angle without tipping over. One of the passengers broke the back window and climbed out, followed by two or three others. The front door was jammed so it was a bit intense, but they managed to pry it open. Slowly we made our way out.  Our first reaction was relief  at being off the bus safely, but then we began to realize how serious the accident was.

A man carried the body of a small child, and three men carried the lifeless and bleeding body of a woman and put both of them in the back of a truck. Apparently the motorcycle came up from a side road and just drove across the highway without looking.The driver was pinned under the front of the bus – one of his feet was severed. A couple of passengers were trying to administer CPR, but it was pointless. Someone brought a blanket and put it over his head.

There was a house with several people standing outside, and we felt they must have been related. One of the women was shrieking with the most raw grief and anguish – I will never forget that sound.

We were all in shock  as we began to understand the severity of the accident. It will take a  long time to process.  I will remember the cracked windshield, the pools of blood, the little hat on the road. There is no sense to be made of this – no lesson learned.

 

The Laos work-around

We left Luang Prabang with very good memories, but for one small detail: on our last day  Stephen exchanged $200US to Laos Kip (currently trading at about 5700 k to $1 CAD). The lady counted out 1 million, 600,000 kip, Stephen made a joke about being a millionaire, she laughed, and that was the end of it. About 8:30 that night, Stephen re-counted the  money and realized he had been short-changed about $20 US. He kicked himself for not counting it at the counter, but it seemed right at the time and…lesson learned. Except he couldn’t let it go. So he headed back up to the main street and another lady was just closing up. Stephen explained there had been a mistake, and after a bit of conversation, she believed him and handed over the missing cash! Amazingly, this very thing happened to another person who was staying at our hotel, and he also got his money back. It’s a nice little scam – when confronted, they simply hand back the money – it must be a profitable side business. Aside from being astounded that we got our money back, we have no hard feelings. It falls to us to be aware.

The next day, we headed out on our six-hour mountain bus trip from Luang Prabang south
to Vang Vieng. Almost immediately, the scenery grabbed us.

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The switchbacks were a little hairy, but our driver was (mainly) safe, and the road was (mainly) in good condition, so we just enjoyed the view.

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Laos is struggling to pull itself out of a state of truly dire poverty, and we saw some desperately poor houses in some of the mountain villages.  I was struck by the message on this house, on so many levels.

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In other villages, we would see a little more prosperity and comfort.

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A ball game of some sort was in full swing as we drove by.

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And then this happened. We came around a corner to find a tanker stuck in the middle of the road; its axle broken and the brakes gone. The driver had positioned rocks behind the wheels and could not be persuaded to let the truck roll back enough to allow other vehicles to get by (which may have been a spectacularly bad idea anyway). Much consultation ensued – our bus driver and the tanker driver walked back and forth and measured out the distance. Several other men joined in the discussion, and the decision was made: Our guy would try and squeeze through. He inched along, inched along and then stopped.

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The guardrail would have to be removed, which we’re quite sure is not legal. At first one piece came off, then two, then one of the posts, and again, each time our driver attempted to come forward, he was encouraged by a half dozen swampers, waving this way and that, yelling out encouragement.

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This entire endeavour took about two hours, but we all got to know each other a bit better, shared our banana chips, and generally took it in good humour. When all else fails, there are sun salutations.

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Stephen captured it on film – this will give you a better idea of how little wiggle room our driver had to get through. The big trucks in line behind us may still be stuck up there.

We were a pretty giddy lot by the time we got going, and when we arrived in Vang Vieng, it was almost dark. A short story about the hotel we booked – the Green View Resort. We saw it online, it was a tiny bit more than we wanted to pay, but situated on a lake, with swimming and kayaking and we were sold. After we had booked our non-refundable room, we realized too late that it was not even in Vang Vieng – it was 20 km. south. We would have to pay a $30 tuk-tuk fare to get there, and once there, we would be trapped. We were annoyed with ourselves, but decided to make the best of it.  A couple of days of R&R would be perfect.
Then…the fun began.  At the bus station, we told the tuk-tuk driver our hotel’s name and that it was far out of town, but that seemed okay to him, so we hopped in. After an hour of dropping off all the other passengers, our driver suddenly realized he did  not have the foggiest idea where we were going. He returned to the bus depot to settle the day and consult with his fellow drivers. He then went looking for a car (instead of driving all that distance in a tuk-tuk). The car was nowhere to be found, and after watching him on his cellphone, we pleaded to just get out there in the tuk-tuk.   He phoned our hotel owner for directions and set off, stopping at one point at a creek to pour water over his overheating radiator. He then almost ran out of gas. Stephen insisted that we stop to buy beer before we got to the hotel. Once there, he called our hotel again, and within a few minutes we had left the highway and bumped along a narrow rocky road in the pitch black for another ten minutes. We could see steep embankments on either side.

Finally, we arrived -we saw our hotel owner coming down the hill with a flashlight – I could have wept. He took us to our beautiful bungalow, we had showers and came back up to join a few loquacious French tourists for a delicious dinner. All was right again.

The view from our dining room. In the rainy season, all those islands are underwater.
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The view from just around the corner from our hotel.

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We spent yesterday in total relaxation mode. First we walked back up the road to the small village – about 30 minutes – to pick up some beer and snacks. We were a big hit with these little girls, who called out “hello”, then burst out giggling, then “what is your name?”, then more giggles. The driver of this contraption, Natalie, could not have been more than 10 or 11.

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We waved at a woman fishing from the banks on the way back. In the rainy season, the water rises almost to the top of the banks.

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We took out a two-man heavy plastic kayak for a spin around the islands. We were trying to find Monkey Island, although we were advised by the owner not to get out of the kayak, as the monkeys are very aggressive, and we didn’t want to get bitten. Duly noted – but we didn’t see any sign of monkeys on any of the islands we paddled past. We met up with lots of fishing boats and several fishing nets.

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We turned the corner and saw our very first water buffalo – a small herd of them were grazing on one of the islands. As we approached, they started to come down the hill toward the water’s edge, so we moved in as close as possible. This big male was giving us the hard stare, and started to paw the ground a little, so we conceded his territory and moved on.

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Back on dry land!

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Time to head back to our cabin and enjoy the view from our balcony, with a nice cold Beerlao – Laos’ fabulous homebrew, apparently courtesy of a German brewmaster.

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