A Travellerspoint blog

Cambodia 3

The temples of Angkor were apparently rescued from a thousand years of obscurity by Angelina Jolie and her pneumatic derring-do in Tomb Raider, the previous millennium having passed largely without incident. Hooray for Hollywood!

Siem Reap, the nearest town, is almost entirely devoted to servicing the million or so people that now visit Angkor every year. It's much more pleasant than that makes it sound, with an old market area something like the Lanes in Brighton, or any other narrow-streeted historical city centre you can think where chichi boutiques and bijou eateries have replaced turnips and dysentery. Sitting in any of the town's restaurants or bars meant being regularly approached by kids and landmine victims with missing limbs with stuff to sell to tourists. Begging is not a common sight in this part of the world, and only for the truly destitute: most make a living from buying and selling here and people will always try to sell rather than beg - in Vietnam and Laos it was lottery tickets, and in Cambodia it's books. Children from tinies up to older teenage ply the streets with trays of English language paperbacks on Cambodian history and harrowing autobiographies of Pol Pot survivors. None of these titles are available in Khmer, only English - as one astute young bookseller remarked, people should be able to read the history of their own country in their own language. We had to agree with her.

This is characteristically perverse Cambodian logic: street vendors selling books about their own immediate history that they are unable to read themselves, specifically an era in which books and all reading matter were in fact illegal - libraries torched, newspapers and printing presses destroyed and forced illiteracy imposed. The kids we spoke to said they were selling books to help with their school fees (school is compulsory but not cheap). Again, the twisted logic of schoolchildren selling books about a regime that formally abolished education and closed all schools - to pay for their education. (It was chilling to reflect that in the year I started junior school, Pol Pot decreed the immediate abolition of education in Cambodia, closing all schools and universities overnight, and sending teachers, academics, anyone with a degree, anyone that could speak a foreign language and even anyone that happened just to wear glasses to slave labour camps as enemies of the revolution. A revolution led by Paris-educated intellectuals, of course.

Back to Siem Reap anyway. In a town awash with overpriced mediocre guesthouses, we bagged a nice spacious self-contained cabin, in a nice quiet spot, with free access to a nice pool. Quiet, that is, until the arrival of a raucous party of ageing Swedish hippies at the guesthouse next door, and self-contained apart from forming a night-time highway for swarms - literally SWARMS - of rats, running over the roof and under the floor. At least they helped drown out the nightly singalong next door - a ghastly medley of the Age of Aquarius, repeatedly, and all The Beatles' most irritating songs until the early hours every night for a week.

Angkor, the reason we are here, has three types of temples. There are the huge ones, like Angkor Wat itself, built in self-commemoration by various god-kings to complete their journey to nirvana. The size and sophistication are highly impressive, but didn't engage us much otherwise.

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Then there are the wonderful tree-root temples, centuries-old buildings with the gigantic roots of centuries-old trees growing through, over and around them, merging into a surreal symbiosis of wood and stone as the the roots embrace and preserve the very structures they have destroyed. (Oh this land of paradoxes).

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Best of all were the obscure silent ruins in the forests that the crowds ignored, where you could hear and feel the history.

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But in a league of its own was the temple of Bayon, the most cosmic place I have ever experienced. It's this one, with the faces.

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It's not really a building, or even a temple, it's a disorientating multi-levelled labyrinth. It's a riddle. It's a portal. It doesn't have an inside or an outside or a centre, just passages, stairs, pillars, platforms and the huge inescapable stone faces - in whose image no-one knows - eyes all closed (for now), gazing inward, smiling, waiting. It feels like being in a hall of mirrors with no mirrors. It feels like being inside a gigantic brain, pulsating and alive. (My personal theory is that it is a hymn to the pineal gland). It feels like being in an episode of Doctor Who. It feels like anything could happen.

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We made three trips to Angkor. On the first day we saw a scorpion. On the second a snake. On the third a huge black and green spider. A powerful, primal place indeed.

/Lesley

Posted by mountaingoats 01:19 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Cambodia 2

We were met by an apocalyptic landscape of smoke and fire as soon as we crossed into Cambodia. Flames turned trees to charred sticks, blackened fields smouldered and thick smoke engulfed the bus. A group of Spanish girls and a Frenchman with a guitar sang La Bamba, repeatedly. The bus conductor flirted with the Spanish girls. A sunburnt French lesbian drank most of a bottle of Pernod and passed out. We're not in Laos any more.

Cambodia went through pure hell like nothing ever before under the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s, preceded by napalming and pounding by B52s in yet another of the secret bombing campaigns the USA was so big on at this time (see also Laos). The landscape of casual pointless destruction seemed fitting. The country is still in a desperate state, in many ways. The poverty and hardship are extreme and impossible to ignore. There are tiny thin children in filthy clothes and landmine victims with missing limbs everywhere in the towns. But everyone smiles all the time - you pass a street snack vendor, a rubbish collector, people doing backbreaking work in the fields and they all smile at you. Nothing is straightforward here.

We eased ourselves in as gently as Cambodia will allow, starting in the quiet provincial towns of Kratie and Kampong Cham in the east. We cycled round an idyllic island in the Mekong, Koh Trong - shady peaceful lanes, lush green fields, smart wooden stilt houses in tidy villages, everything looked after, lots of hellos and waves. Another ride the next day through nearby villages along the river, and more of the same - beautiful temples, clean roads, friendly people. And a few minutes away from our guesthouse, a shanty town of grim shacks of scrap metal, tarpaulins and cardboard, the dirt road that is the main thoroughfare carpeted with plastic bags and cow shit, the smell nauseating, the centrepiece a big pile of rubbish with three filthy little kids sitting playing happily on top - who all beamed and waved as we rode past. The Cambodian kaleidoscope of paradoxes and extremes would take some getting used to, that much was immediately apparent.

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Side note: Unexpected pleasures 1 - cycling
As an extremely unenthusiastic cyclist, I have to say that cycling in rural southeast Asia has often been absolutely lovely. The terrain is often completely flat so no great physical exertion is required thankfully, people are happy to help with directions when you're lost, children point and laugh at you, you get to see much more, and apart from the inevitable day-after saddle-soreness it's generally very enjoyable. And it's how a large proportion of people here get around (children and the elderly anyway - everyone else has a moped). Cars are uncommon, public transport is virtually non-existent: two wheels rules.

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Side note: Unexpected pleasures 2 - Cambodian food.
It quickly became apparent that the food here is seriously good. Who knew? In the first few days I'd had a wonderful tangy pickled lime soup, a rich nutty Khmer curry with crisp fresh vegetables, kicking chilli and excellent tofu, and a vegetarian amok - spicy sweet potato (instead of fish) wrapped in tasty leaves in another rich complex delicious sauce. Oh, and proper chip-shop-style-chips. If you were around in the late seventies Cambodia may well be inextricably associated in your mind with famine and starvation - it was for me anyway. My gastronomic expectations were therefore low. How wrong I was.

Footnote: The French
In an earlier post I said the French left nothing of value as a legacy to their former Indochinese colonies except the baguette. This is not true - they also bequeathed the shady tree-lined boulevard. Beyond that there is nothing positive to be said of the French colonial era, or indeed of the French tourists who now make up the largest proportion of visitors to these parts, many of whom seem to be unaware that they are no longer the lords and masters around here. Time after time we have seen the most disrespectful, insulting, cultural-supremacist behaviour from the French and a contemptuous attitude towards local people that can only be described as racist. Yes, I know they are contemptuous towards everyone, but in this context it leaves a particularly unpleasant taste. Witnessing the appalling behaviour of the French abroad makes a very nice change from feeling embarrassed to be British, it must be said.
A final word on the French. One of the oddest synchronicities of this trip so far was Caroline getting an email from an old friend not seen for many years saying she was due to be in Cambodia around the same time as us. It turned out that she was not only arriving in the same slightly obscure town the same day as us, but was booked into the same guesthouse, and was in fact in the next-door-but-one room to us. This friend (hello Florence!), a native of France, rightly has nothing but pure withering disdain for the French, so I am confident that these words will not offend this blog's French readership, as the French readership has made it clear that she has an even lower opinion of the the French than we do.

Correction
Another retraction: when I said Lao kids are the cutest we'd ever come across ever, well that was before we came to Cambodia.

/Lesley

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Posted by mountaingoats 01:02 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Cambodia 1


View Asia 2012 on mountaingoats's travel map.

It is almost impossible to complete a meaningful or true sentence that starts with 'Cambodia is ...' Other than 'Cambodia is truly messed up'. A country of paradoxes, irreconcilable opposites and extremes, ruled by the demented logic of The Trial, Catch-22 and Alice through the Looking Glass all rolled into one. Where nothing is what it seems.

Three scenes from our first few hours in Cambodia. An apocalyptic landscape of burning trees and rice fields, with thick smoke engulfing the bus as soon as we crossed the border. Everything around us was on fire or smouldering and flames danced along the roadside. Then a beautiful Mekong river island of verdant abundance, lush orchards, peaceful shady lanes, elegant wooden stilt houses, community gardens of neat rows of all sorts of vegetables, women talking and laughing as they tended their plots. Then the slum end of the town where we were staying, the dirt road lined by tiny dark one-room shacks, toddlers in rags sitting playing on top of a big pile of rubbish, the stench overpowering. Welcome to Cambodia.

Some more images that have stayed in my mind. A buddhist monk kicking a yelping dog in the head. A young man, probably dead, lying in the road, his smashed motorbike metres away, blood running from his mouth, people standing looking and doing nothing. A little pig that had been befriended by a group of wild dogs on the beach, running and playing and digging with the other dogs, who treated him as one of the pack. The lavish four-day funeral of the king, revered as a demi-god and father of the nation, who also happened to bring Pol Pot to power. The most beautiful white beaches I've ever seen, with the warmest clearest calmest turquoise waters. The thousands of head-and-shoulders photos of prisoners entering the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre at Tuol Sleng, accused of betraying the Khmer Rouge revolution - schoolgirls, old women, and little children included, their expressions blank, defiant, bewildered,. The breathtaking thousand year old temples at Angkor, without question one of the wonders of the world and one of the most amazing places I will ever experience. How do you piece all this beauty and horror together?

Some Brits who have been working here for a few years asked what we made of Cambodia, a week into our stay. I said I felt there was a fundamental nihilism at the heart of everything here, that nothing really matters or has any value. Nods all round, and a correction - only money matters. Everything becomes a commodity, and everything is degraded.

The more time we spent here the less I understood. Everything I saw added to my confusion. There are no answers in Cambodia, and no conclusions in these posts. But despite the darkness, ugliness and tragedy, I found much to like about this country and was sad to leave (Caroline less so, admittedly). It's taken a while to get round to writing about our time there, partly lack of opportunity but mostly because it was hard to know what to say.

But never mind politics and history - here's beach-dog-pig. You may now squee.
/Lesley

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Posted by mountaingoats 06:35 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Laos 5

If you've ever floated down a river in the inflated inner tube of a tractor tyre, off your face on mushrooms, while drinking a bucket of whisky and Red Bull, you've probably been to Vang Vieng. Until recently this little town in central Laos was a notorious centre of backpacker hedonism, due to the remarkable availablity of various drugs in bulk, and unbelievably cheap local booze. Our Vang Vieng-bound bus was full of prim middle-aged French people: it was clear the days of drug-fuelled debauch are now well and truly over.

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Late last year the local authorities decided that they'd had enough of these irksome foriegners' squalid idea of fun and without warning one day had all the bars on the party island boarded up or wrecked. When we arrived it was an eerie wasteland. Although I usually like eerie wastelands, Vang Vieng town was the most charmless place we visited in Laos, ruined by tourism, with no remaining character of its own that we could discern, just strips of endless burger bars and souvenir t-shirts. Fortunately escape was just a ten minute bike ride into the lush surrounding countryside, with caves, secret lagoons, forests, butterflies and silence. The local people were surprisingly friendly, despite the years of moronic visitors they have endured. While out for a bike ride, a helpful man advised me that I needed to attach my bag to my bike more securely. 'People in forest!' he warned, making a snatching motion. 'VIETNAMESE people.'

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From Vang Vieng we headed south to Vientiane, the Lao capital, intended as a functional stop to arrange visas for Burma. Thanks to the leisurely pace of Burmese visa processing and the new year holiday, we were there for rather longer than expected. As Vientiane turned out to be absolutely lovely, this was not a problem in the slightest. There's nothing much to do, apart from admire the numerous wats, wander the quiet streets, and hang out on the riverfront promenade with the rest of the population to watch the excellent sunsets. Oh and visit the Burmese embassy several times, for a taste of the grindingly slow and archaic bureaucratic processes we can expect when we get there (eg first question on the visa application form: father's name. Sigh.)

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Vientiane's charms for me lay in its curvy low-level 1950s and 60s architecture, the sleepy pace, and the little container gardens on all the streets that people clearly tend with a great deal of care, which give this peaceful capital an even more village-like feel. We 'd seen and loved these in residential streets in Tokyo a few years ago and are a wonderful thing for many reason: it means neighbours talk to each other and passers-by while they're out tending their plants; it makes the streets feel very safe - because you are trusted not to damage or steal anything; dull rows of bland buildings just look a whole lot nicer, plus birds, butterflies, bees, all that. The mini-garden outside the guesthouse we stayed in was tended by a lovely eccentric old lady from Cameroon of all places, who was a permanent guest/self-appointed manageress there. But that's another story.

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The city exploded into life - well, mild excitement - for New Year's Eve. There had been a greater number than usual of people riding around in pickups randomly shouting 'Aiiiiiiiiiiiii' but otherwise it seemed to be a low-key family occasion. For those of us without families available, and/or who just preferred beer, there was a big noisy Beerlao-sponsored event in the centre.

The festivities were in full swing when we arrived, ie huge amounts of beer were being consumed, terrible Lao pop was blaring over the PA and a good time was being had by all. Shortly before midnight the deputy prime minister took the stage and made a long and evidently profoundly dull speech to which no-one paid any attention at all. Then the countdown to midnight, culminating in mass beer spraying and shrieking to see in the new year. A man shouted 'Enjoy your life!' at us as we left, which we liked very much. New Year's Day saw the sleepy capital of this sleepy country take sleepiness to new levels.

Not exactly an obvious tourist attraction, but we visited the COPE Centre, which provides bomb victims with prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs. (See the previous post for context, if you missed it). Ghoulish as it sounds, in fact the exhibition was unrelentingly positive and upbeat, with nice touches of dark humour (Hello Kitty t-shirts reworked with the bloody removal of a couple of limbs as Hello Cluster Bomb for instance). We've been struck time and time again by how resourceful Lao people are, and their ability to construct just about anything from a combination of bamboo, branches, palm leaves, string, and whatever reusable bits and bobs come to hand. But here we saw the ultimate in recycling. People whose legs had been blown to pieces by lurking unexploded bombs created artificial legs for themselves - out of bomb shells.

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Our final week in Laos was spent on one of the thousands of tiny islands in the Mekong close to the border with Cambodia. The river is miles wide here, with rapids, falls, and bizzarely, a colony of very rare Irrawaddy dolphins, which we naturally didn't get to see. Some islands are just a ridge of sand with a tree and a few bushes, while some also have bars, cafes, little $3-4 a night riverside cabins to sleep in, and thus backpackers - the chief of these islands being Don Det, where we of course headed. There is very little to say about this section of the trip, other than hammocks featured prominently, as did Lao mojitos (huge shots of cheap cheap LaoLao whisky instead of rum, no problem). There were some bike rides and walks, but really not the most culturally meaningful few days - idyllic in some ways, frustrating in others - but a defining moment in finding out what we want from this trip and from travelling generally. And some more amazing Mekong river views and sunsets.

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Next: Cambodia!

Posted by mountaingoats 02:53 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Laos 4

The slow boat from from Nong Khiaw sounded like the best way to reach Luang Prabang, with all the peaceful gentle gliding romance that river travel naturally entails. The reality: eight hours perched on a six inch wide wooden plank pressed up against the engine. The passing scenery made up for the noise, fumes and intensely uncomfortable seating - to begin with, anyway.

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Luang Prabang is a city awash with orange robed shaven headed monks and full of Buddhist temple-monasteries (wats), which we spent a lot of time wandering round. Most wats resembled youth clubs, albeit in oddly ornate surroundings, far more than places of spiritual devotion. The surreal sight (to us anyway) of young men in monkly garb listening to tinny pop on their phones, playing football and noisily larking around was a delight, and seemed to be pretty much all they did in fact. If I was a Buddhist I might be a bit perturbed. But there was no spiritual purpose to our visits either - we were just there for the decor.

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The old city is ridiculously gorgeous. As well as the ubiquitous orange-clad figures and the colourful tuktuks rattling around, the ancient centre of Luang Prabang is dominated by dark teak, contrasting nicely with the abundant greenery and cascading vivid red and pink flowers everywhere, all liberally topped off with xmas fairy lights. The suburbs were just as bad - quiet wide streets of pastel painted houses behind white picket fences, with climbing roses and neat front gardens. All just too lovely. Once again however Laos's horrific recent past provided a counterbalance to all this visual delight, something of a contiuning theme in this part of our trip. After a visit to the UXO Centre (UXO=Unexploded Ordnance) in Luang Prabang which focuses on the legacy of the 'secret war' on Laos and the effect on this country of having hundreds of thousands of bombs lying unexploded all over the countryside, we were no longer walking round exclaiming 'Ooh how lovely, look at that, how gorgeous' quite so much.

One of the most evil creations in human history confronts you as soon as you walk through the door - a cluster bomb. Here's how they work. Imagine a six foot long metal shell, containing about 600 individual mini-bombs, each the size of a tennis ball. Once released from the aircraft, the shell splits in mid-air scattering the mini-bombs indiscriminately over a wide area - this will include villages, rice fields, crops, grazing animals and forest. One mini-bomb has a thirty metre radius impact, so imagine hundreds of powerful thirty metre wide explosions over a mile or so. Then imagine several of those dropped over one area, by one bomber plane. Then imagine several bomber planes over Laos - the same size as Britain - each day. Still with me? Then imagine these bombs falling day in day out, for nine years. Making Laos the most bombed country in history.

Two twists: about a third of the mini-bombs never detonated, and are waiting to go off, in forests, fields, villages and towns. And Luang Prabang province, one of the most beautiful regions in Laos with its most beautiful city and ancient capital at its heart was one of the main areas targeted by the US.

One last figure. The UXO clearance teams in Laos make about 40km sq of land bomb-free each year. There are 800,000 km sq of land known to contain hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs still to go. So at the current rate of progress, Laos can look forward to being bomb-free in two thousand years time*. But the thing I found most sickening of all - that children are the main victims. I've already mentioned that we have been captivated by the sweetness of the giggly comical Lao kids, and their sense of fun and curiosity. And this same curiosity has been the death of thousands of children, and resulted in thousands more being blinded and losing arms and legs and receiving terrible wounds - from picking up those interesting shiny metal objects they've found when out playing in the woods, or looking for scrap metal to sell.

And just one more fact. The International Convention on Cluster Bombs was designed to consign the cluster bomb to history, by creating a worldwide ban on their production and use. The USA declined to sign.

No apologies for this angry-sad post. As I've said, what we've learned since being here about these events has undoubtedly shaped how we've come to feel about Laos. It would be false if I left this out. And this region of Southeast Asia that we're travelling round - Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia - is not the place to come for warm fuzzies about the USA, frankly. Luang Prabang is a wonderful city: we loved the richness of the colours and greenery, the temples and little side streets, and the gentle pace. We could have spent much longer there and were sorry to have to leave. Maybe the dark shadows throw all this beauty into sharper relief.

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Posted by mountaingoats 22:44 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

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