So I did indeed take the bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng the next day. In the morning, I woke up early, got my flip flops fixed at the shoe repair guy had breakfast and then took a bus packed with tourists to my destination. There were a bunch of drunk English and American 20 year old guys yelling in the back of the bus and bragging how they would be drunk for the next week and I just put my headphones on and tried to tune them out while simultaneously listening for which hostel they would go to upon arrival so I could avoid it.
The scenery was beautiful on the ride over. Vang Vieng is in the mountains and is surrounded by huge limestone mountains in all directions. It also has a river flowing through which provides for some awesome sunset scenery. So when I arrived, I got a nice hostel and headed for the river. They had tons of hammocks on the side of the river and I just laid around, watched the sunset and read Da Vinci Code. Have you read this book? It’s incredible. I have a rule that I don’t read fiction unless it’s in Spanish, so I had my mom bring it to me when she visited and even though it takes a little more effort to read, I’m still glued to it. It’s so damn interesting! I found one in English today in a bookstore so I checked to see how the guy had translated a few of the things that didn’t make sense and then they made sense. Sometimes they get silly with the translations and try to make a tricky play on words in the translated text if there was one in English and it doesn’t quite work. Especially Da Vinci Code where there are all these riddles and codes and stuff. But oh, well.
So I hung out in Vang Vien for two days, went on a kayaking trip down the river and visited some caves, and drank a lot of 20 cent banana shakes.
Then I headed to Phosavan. Phosavan is the home of the mysterious “Plain of Jars”. Yeah, I know, I hadn’t heard of them either until my dad told me about them. From what I gather, some people made hundreds of huge jars out of stone and stuck them in groups all around eastern Laos. So I visited them. It wasn’t much, although it was cool. Just a bunch of big stone jars of all different shapes and sizes and no one really seems to know how they got there or what they were used for. There are various theories, but nothing concrete. More interesting, however, is the fact that there are still cluster bomb bomblettes all over the place in eastern Laos.
During the Vietnam War, the VC were transporting weapons to southern Vietnam via Laos and although the US had signed the Genieva Accords saying that they would not bomb Laos, they still did. Laos had more bombs dropped on it than even Vietnam. If a pilot had been directed to bomb Vietnam and had to turn away due to weather or whatever reason, it was too much trouble to land with a bomb active in the plane, so they would be directed to secondary targets of Laos. It was all top secret and there was quite a fuss when it was found out. But we didn’t have much intelligence as to where things were so pilots just kind of bombed wherever they felt like. Villages, mountains, caves, rice fields. Lots of people died and the real kicker is that only 70% of the bombs dropped actually exploded. So that left 30% of millions of tons of live UXOs all over the country for little kids and farmers to get blown up from even to this day. They actually removed a 6 foot bomb from the middle of one of the Plain of Jar sites a week before I got there. There are these little bomblettes everywhere that some British NGO is trying to clean up but it’s hard. It takes weeks to clear a small hundred foot squared space and this means that people can’t even farm thousands of kilometers of land due to the fact that it’s littered with thousands of bombs. Anything can set them off and even after clearing the land, more are found due to the fact that erosion reveals more. One site had been visited and cleared 18 times and they still had to return. One guy tried to pound a bed post in his house for his daughter’s bed and when he hammered in he hit a bomblette and lost a leg and an arm. He couldn’t get to the hospital for 6 hours because he had no car. Nor did anyone else. It really is a shame, but the most incredible part is that we still use cluster bombs to this very day. Isn’t that how governments work? They are businesses and businesses don’t have compassion, only people do. They will only not do bad stuff if they think the people will get pissed off about it and vote them out. People are calling for a moratorium on their use so that they can study the problems with them and if you want to get involved, check out http://www.mcc.org/clusterbomb/moratorium/. That is just a site I found on google and it makes sense because the Menonites do a lot of work there. I mean, I think America is a great country. I’m not a pacifist by any stretch of the imagination – nor am I anti-war. I’m not against American hegemony, either. In my opinion, I would rather us be in power than some middle eastern country with a few nukes. But when you claim to be one of the greatest nations in the world, you should really start to live up to that image. Little kids may have to die when the war is in progress, but nearly 50 years after? Jesus Christ…What’s more is that due to the fact that people can’t farm the land and people don’t want to invest in a country riddled with bombs, Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world. So if your parents weren’t killed by a bomb, you might die of starvation. Way to go, America.
It’s been very interesting to travel through these countries. You learn a lot about a lot of stuff that you never learn in the history books. Stuff that we can learn a lot from.
But what’s really interesting is what the people have done with all the metal from the bombs in this country. They have melted down bombs and made silverware and tools. They have cut bombs in half and made tables, chairs, bikes, mailboxes, feeding troughs, gutters, roofs for houses, and anything else you could imagine. It’s genius! Every spoon I’ve eaten with here has been made of aluminum from a bomb. There are also huge shells and mortars everywhere you look. Some spent and some not. One guy even had a rocket launcher in his front yard. Crazy, eh?
So the bus ride over the Phosavan was murder. The road is in horrible condition and it winds in 180 degree angles up and down a road for hours on end. At every stop, people were running out and puking on the of the road. That is, if they had any left after they puked out of the open windows. To my joy, I found when I entered the bus in the morning that it was packed with locals and I would be forced to sit on a little red stool in the isle. You spend the whole time trying not to fall over and sleeping is out of the question. Two year old kids seem to love looking at me and they spend hours doing it on every bus I go on. They laugh every time I catch them looking. So do I. The public buses are always stopping for one reason or another. Overheating. Fire. Bags falling off. People getting on and off or taking a leak. When one guy left, I snagged a seat in the back and was happy. No more stool. To my dismay, however, a guy tried to swipe it when I went out to buy some water at one of the stops. When I got back in, he laughed and said to sit on a stool. I shook my head no and squeezed in right beside him and spent the next 2 hours trying to slyly crush him into pulp. With every bend, I would lean into him whereas I would stop myself from crushing the guy on my right (he was innocent). It was pretty funny because the guy didn’t know if I was trying to crush him or not. He kept looking at me and I just pretended like nothing was up. I was pissed. Try to steal my seat. Sheeeeeet. He finally left and we were all comfortable again.
I wasn’t looking forward to this experience again, as you can imagine – and the ride from Phosavan to Luang Prabang was supposed to take nearly 10-13 hours (all with the same horribly, although scenic, winding road). When I got back from the jars though, there was some guy who said he would take me to Luang Prabang in his comfy and spacious (and air conditioned) Honda SUV for 7 bucks. He didn’t have to offer twice. I ran back to my hostel, packed my stuff and ran back and caught him as he was backing out to leave. We picked up his buddy and were off. They were heading to Luang Prabang to pick up some German tourists for a 200 dollar tour so I was just extra money for them. It was a 6 hour horrible ride, so imagine how it would have been in a bus. I spent the entire time in a zen like trance in a constant near-vomiting state. We stopped and got dinner about 5 hours into the trip. When we arrived, the girl working there pointed out that I was a foreigner.
“Falang (foreigner),” she said.
I just looked and smiled. She didn’t.
She served us food and when I sent my rice back, she said:
“Falang no eat,” (in Lao) which my driver translated for me.
This girl was really skilled at pointing out blatantly obvious and pointless observations. It was great.
So I arrived in Luang Prabang and have been here for two days now. It’s a really nice place and is actually a World Heritage UNESCO city due to the fact that it’s got a ton of French era buildings and really old Lao temples everywhere. They are restoring it quite a bit and it’s beautiful. It’s nice just to walk around by the river and explore. I’ll be here for a few more days I think. Yesterday, I randomly ran into a German couple I met in Vietnam and we went to see an incredible multi-level waterfall in the outskirts of the city. There was a tiger in a huge enclosure there too (it was rescued from a poacher when it was 5 months old). I snapped some good pictures there.
My hostel is 3 bucks a night, but there is no toilet paper in the bathroom (communal) which is really annoying. But I would rather pay 3 bucks than the 10 dollars I had to pay when I first arrived here and spent an hour wandering through the city at 11pm going from hotel to hotel only to find they were all full. I finally found one and just took it even though it was expensive, but woke up early in the morning and found a cheaper one the next day (of course).
So that’s my story. I’m gonna go have another 20 cent fruit shake and get a 3 dollar massage (no sex, mind you – those ones are a few bucks more from what I hear). It takes a bit of effort to find the no-sex places. You have to ask around and read the guide books. I asked a girl once in Vietnam where I could find a massage place, no sex.
She looked at me confused.
“What do you mean? They are the same.”
All the days and cities are starting to blur together. I just spent 5 minutes trying to remember what the name of the city I was in for the past two days was called. But I remembered. Thakaek. So I took the bus from Pakse early in the morning. I talked with a few backpackers that had just arrived for a few minutes then chatted with a guy originally from Laos but who fled when the communists took over and lives in Texas now. He was just visiting. So then it was onto the bus toward a town called Thakaek. It was a pretty uneventful, although beautiful, bus ride except for when the bus almost caught on fire. We smelled smoke and they stopped the bus and ran to the cargo container and pulled out a smoking blanket with a big burning hole in it. From what I gather, they left the cargo light on and the heat burned a hole in the blanket.
“Okay, okay! No problem, we have diesel petrol. No explosion. Back in the bus!”
So I arrived in Thakaek on time and there was a whole lot of nothing to do there but walk around. Their claim to fame is a huge limestone mountain range and caves in the jungle so my plan was to rent a motorbike the next day and check it out. I spent the evening observing the people in the town, got invited to an old man’s son’s wedding (which I didn’t have the clothes for and so I didn’t go) and spent the rest of the evening having dinner and beer with an English couple and talked about our experiences in SE Asia. The next morning, I got up, rented a motorbike (a tiny little moped, actually) and set off into the jungle. I had a handwritten photocopied map of the area and it was quite a challenge to navigate as the map had a tendency to change scale from 1 inch = 100 meters to 1 inch = 10 kilometers without warning. There were also no road signs. So I just took every path that looked like it was well ridden and did a bit of trekking and then ended up where I wanted to go. According to my map, there was a cave at the end of this long road past a few villages, but a guy I spoke with told me it was too far. But I had nothing better to do, so I went. I had to cross a river (on my little motorbike), navigate through the jungle (on my little motorbike), ride over a 15k sand road (pushing my little motorbike) and I eventually saw people after about an hour. Some guys, in the middle of nowhere, were doing some sort of construction. So I got out and showed them the map. One of them spoke a few words of English and told me they were building a school. The first village was a few kilometers down the road. I kept going and eventually arrived. There wasn’t much to this village except a bunch of huts and kids playing around (oh yeah, and a village well) and so I cruised right through, waving to all the little kids. “SABAIDEE!” (hello!) they yelled. “SABAIDEE!” I yelled right back. The kids here are awesome. So I drove through that village and after another 30 mins, arrived at the next. Same thing. When I got to the last village, I asked some people sitting around about the cave and they pointed at the mountain. Apparently I had to stay on the road and it would curve around. When I got into the village, I came across about 40 people sitting around watching some guys build something with wood in the road. Seeing as they were blocking the road, I had to stop too.
Everyone stared at me.
“SABAIDEE! Pachon cave?” I asked.
An old man just stared at me. Then pointed. So off I went. That was awkward…
I eventually found the cave after parking my motorbike in the middle of a dried out rice field (noting carefully where so I would lose it). What a beautiful area this was. Take a look at the pics, I’m sure you’ll agree. Limestone mountains tower above you in huge layered lumps and the mountain sides are dotted with caves. Dried out rice paddies (which I assume they only use in the wet season) stretch out as far as you can see and little grass roof houses filled with hay dot the landscape. The cool breezes from hidden caves provide natural air conditioning as the mountain cooled and musty cave-air sweeps over the your body on its way out. It was an incredible hike.
So I finished with that, and then it was time to navigate back to the main road, a good 30 miles back. The road is murderously unmaintained a too much of it leads to an incredibly sore ass. The bike wasn’t powerful in the slightest and as such, I had to help it the majority of the way. I’m surprised I didn’t get even a single flat tire. Shoot, I’m surprised the motorbike didn’t explode!
On the way back, all the little kids in the all the villages knew I had to come back on that road and so they all waited for me in the city. As I drove by, in huge groups, they all waved and smiled, ran after me and yelled “SABAIDEE!!” Even the old ladies waved. It was really cool. The next 30 miles back were filled with impressive views of the limestone valleys, rivers and streams with women bathing and naked little kids playing in them, rice fields, water buffalo and cows with babies and, of course, dust. Lots of it. It was interesting to see that these little villages had electricity. There was a lone wire leading out to them along side the dirt road (yes, just one wire, like a long extension cord). No Internet either. Jesus.
Back on the main road, I visited a few more caves, snapped a few pics of the area as the sun set (it gets really red and beautiful) and then headed back to the town. I went and visited Ahe, a guy my age who runs a restaurant and we chatted for a while about Laos and his pet rooster (which he takes to work with him). He liked to fight it and cock fighting is an incredibly popular thing here. You see what people are reduced to when they have no Internet?? There was actually no Internet in the whole town and I asked Ahe about that. He said they used to have it, but no one used it and there aren’t many tourists in the town so they closed it. Fair enough.
I spent the evening reading my book from my hammock which I tied to two trees at the hotel (I carry around my own hammock) and then went to bed early. This morning I caught the bus to Vientienne and now here I am. There’s not much to do here, even though it’s a capital city so I think I’ll move on tomorrow to Vang Vien.
Laos is a really interesting place. It is communist, and you see commie flags everywhere but like all “communist” countries here, it’s not really. It’s democracy-less capitalism with a dictatorship. It’s funny how all these counties tried to whole “communist” revolution thing and realized that it just didn’t work and quietly adopted capitalism again.
Another thing about Laos is that everyone has a fire going somewhere. Whether it be the side of the street, the forest, the backyard, or the restaurant, someone’s always burning something. I’ve seen this quite a bit in SE Asia, but it’s particularly common here. There also aren’t as any stray dogs as I thought there would be. South America was filled with them. They were everywhere – and even the capital cities were plagued with them! Here I see hardly any and I wonder what the difference is. The few that you do see look like they are about ready to die of starvation. It’s quite sad.
So anyways, not much more to report.
So where was I? Ah yes, Cambodia. It was the day before I was to take the boat to a city close to the Laos border. I spent the evening riding around and snapping photos of Kratie as the sun set. The way the sun hit the city as it set was incredible. I got some really cool photos. I went out to dinner with Marcus and Layra, with whom I had gone on the boat trip to see the dolphins, and we filled the evening with lively debate about politics, religion, philosophy and psychology. It was great and I got some interesting perspectives from them. The next morning, I got up, had breakfast, said my goodbyes and hopped on a boat. The boat trip was up the Mekong River which is rather shallow, so sometimes the boat had to slow down and weave around invisible sandbars below. Like I said, they have no concept of a lawsuit here in Cambodia, so I was able to spend the duration of the 5 hour trip lying on the roof of the boat with several other passengers, hanging on to the railing and nearly falling off. It wasn’t made for passengers, mind you. I watched Cambodia lazily float by as we made our way to the border. People and water buffalos bathed in the water, people fished, people swam and had dinner by the shores. Kids smiled and waved. It was a beautiful trip.
When we finally arrived at the last city, I hopped into a speedboat (a dodgy boat just barely big enough for me, my bag and the driver and with a huge motor attached to the back) and negotiated a fare for an hours ride to the border: $5 bucks. And with that we were off, barreling through the river with rocket-like speed, dodging sand islands and reeds along the way. The front of the boat was high in the water and a large wave could have easily flipped the boat. The scenery as the sun set was spectacular and as it got darker, I switched from sunglasses to my eyeglasses (as bugs kept smacking me in the face) and saw everything in perfect detail (I keep forgetting how much clearer everything is with glasses on). You could see where the water level gets to in the wet season and the trees were bent nearly vertically from the current (it is now dry season). We eventually arrived at the border, I got stamped out of Cambodia (and was unofficially charged two dollars for “overtime” which I bargained down to $1) and then arrived on the Laos side and was stamped in and charged unofficially $2 dollars for overtime (which I negotiated down to $1.50).
Now, this wasn’t a common foreigner border crossing. Indeed, it was just me and a Cambodian guy and I wasn’t even sure I would be able to cross. There were no tourist accommodations, just a few shanties with locals dancing about yelling “hello!” And it was dark. It was here that I had my first encounter with Laos hospitality.
“Where you go?? Pakse?!” a guy my age asked.
“I don’t know. Sure,” I replied. “How much?”
With a big smile he replied, “No money!”
And with that, I hopped in the back of a pickup truck with 6 other locals and was off. My new friend didn’t speak English well, but we were able to make small talk. He introduced me to his friends and told me they were making a delivery to Pakse (about 2 hours away). We had to stop at the roadside while their stuff was inspected and I was told that the guards were trying to get a bribe. But they didn’t pay and we were soon off, zooming down the road in a new country, with complete strangers to a city I wasn’t exactly sure was anywhere I wanted to go. I stared up at the stars and picked out the very same stars I gazed at back home. It’s interesting how you can be so far from home and still feel so close when you look up at the sky.
“Where the hell are you?” I asked myself with a smile.
About halfway there, the other guys were getting pretty cold and I whipped out my sleeping bag and converted it to a blanket and gave it to them as I had a jacket with me. They were pretty happy with that and we eventually arrived to Pakse around 9:00PM, and they dropped me off at a nice hostel and we said goodbye.
So yesterday, I rented a motorcycle and drove about 150 miles around the surrounding area, called the Bolevan Plateau. The French planted coffee here a long time ago and that is how the majority of the people here seem to make a living. Everyone has their own personal coffee plantation in their backyards and they spend their days picking the coffee beans, drying them out in huge sheets on the side of the road, then roasting them in a wok over an open fire and selling them. They also sell sugar cane. The people here don’t rely on tourism in the slightest and make their money by selling gas (the same way they do in Cambodia, with a little pump), coffee, fruit and the like to people passing by. This is what I couldn’t explain to my mom, aunt and stepdad when I was explaining what was so different about Vietnam. There is such a sweet innocence about a place where people are just living their own lives. Everyone seems content going about their business and when they see you they give a huge wave and yell hello (the kids do, at least. The old people just stare). I was riding quite a distance and going by a pretty poor map I had and thought I was lost for a while as I was going down a dirt road with no signs or anything of the like. But I eventually found my way and made it back to the hostel without a problem. The basket fell off of my motorcycle though. And the bottom piece broke off, but I (at least) made it back in one piece. One thing you notice about Laos pretty quickly is that everyone has a fire going. Everyone is burning something and smoke is everywhere. The smells of this place are incredible – lush, moist green grass, mixed with the smell of burning eucalyptus, roasting coffee, and bananas. The heat from the fires ablaze as you cruise by heats your body and the drafts from the cool and hot air every few hundred feet are an incredible sensation. Riding a motorcycle is so much better than a car. Of course, you have to be careful of the water buffalo, cows, chickens, goats, ducks, geese, and people in the road everywhere (and I mean everywhere). That goes without saying. I had stopped on the side of the road to put on my glasses and about 20 kids, half of which were naked, starting running up to me from around the neighboring houses to yell hello and wave.
Today I woke up early and visited a temple a ways away from the town. It was built by the Cambodians in the Angkor period and was pretty cool. I had to ride about 30 miles and take a little ferry (which was basically a guy with a floating board onto which I rode my motorcycle) and was taken across the river to the other side with the temple where I had to ride another 10 miles.
I got back this afternoon and have spent the rest of the day reading “Understanding Vietnam” which I bought in (you guessed it) Vietnam. It’s quite interesting to read about a country that you’ve visited and I think I’ll read more about Cambodia and Khmer Rouge next.
So I’ve got to run. Enjoy the pics from Angkor Wat (Siem Reap), Kratie, and Pakse!
So I spent the day today visiting the freshwater dolphins of Kratie. It was pretty cool. I rented a motorcycle with an English guy and a Swiss girl and we headed towards the place where the dolphins were. Once we got there, we negotiated for a boat and then went out on the water for an hour and a half. Our driver motored out to the dolphins and then we just watched as they came up for air. It was really cool. Even more cool was watching all the people farming and selling stuff and the little kids playing on the side of the dirt road. The dolphin area was outside of the town and everyone just lives on the side of the road. When you drive by, all the little kids look up, smile and wave while yelling “HELLO!” over and over. It’s hard not to have a huge smile on your face the whole time. The area here is pretty tropical. There are palms and banana trees everywhere and the houses are like something out of a movie (sticks and straw). The little kids ride around on bikes about 2 times their own size (they can’t sit on the seat, just the support bar below) and old men drive by on horse drawn buggies. You really have to see it to believe it. The differences between here and Vietnam are big. Cambodian tourism isn’t nearly as developed and there are just pocketed tourist areas in any given town. People generally don’t overcharge you and everyone smiles and waves as you go by. Buddhist monks are everywhere, most visible by their fluorescent orange robes and there aren’t nearly as many kids begging in the streets. As I mentioned, the architecture is incredible and although you can see the French influence, it is something all in its own. The writing is not western at all and it all looks like a bunch of squiggles. One interesting thing here is that Cambodia has quite a bit more Indian influence than do most other countries. It was historically the country that everyone had to go through for trade (overland) from India and that is why they are predominantly Buddhist. I imagine the writing and architecture was influenced as well. On all menus, you will usually find a few curry dishes also. Many old people still speak French here, but that is something of the past. A surprising number of people can speak English (less than in Vietnam though) for it being such a poor country. But it is indeed a poor country and will probably remain so. I imagine that in a few years, many of the places I have visited here will be just like in Vietnam – with tons of people and very aggressive locals vying for your money. Oh well, that’s how it goes…
So I leave for Laos tomorrow. I will take a boat up the Mekong River and then transfer to another boat to the border and then try to figure something out from there. It’s not entirely certain that I’ll be able to cross at this certain border crossing due to the fact that it’s not on the main tourist route, so I hope I am able to.
Man, have I been busy.
So I crossed over into Cambodia, spent a few days exploring around Phnom Penh, and then hopped on a bus to Siem Reap, home of the infamous Angkor Wat temples (where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed). The bus ride was long and I thought I would be clever and get the front seat of the double decker bus so as to get a good view, but it ended up being the seat with the smallest leg room and I spent the whole 6 hours next to a stinky old man who insisted on putting his hands behind his head during the whole trip, thereby nearly causing me to pass out from the smell. It was rough. The bus also stopped every hour and everyone got out and sat around for about 30 minutes. I got offered a plate of deep friend spiders about the size of tarantulas. I passed.
So when I got to Siem Reap, I hopped on a motorbike and found a hotel. It’s always funny when you get off the bus here because you get mobbed by motorbike guys trying to take you to the hotel they get the most commission from. So I made it to the hotel and arranged for my driver to come back at 5:30 to take me to see the sunset over the Angkor Wat temples. After the sunset, we arranged a price for the three days ($38 to haul my ass around nearly 60 kilometers a day for three days from 5:30AM to about 7:00PM each day and I got some rest for the next morning (sunrise over the temples). I slept well in my $3 a night private hotel room with mosquito net and all (but no hot water) and woke up early the next morning for the sunrise. It was absolutely incredible (see the photos if you don’t believe me). I spent the whole day wandering through the temples and they blew me away. Most of them date back to the 11th century and the detail and carvings in the sandstone are mind boggling. Buddist monks wander through the corridors and you spend your time marveling at the incredible “Bass Reliefs” all throughout. Most of the temples have been thoroughly restored and you see them almost exactly how they were in their prime. Many, however, just barely have the jungle scraped away and over half lie in ruins. You spend your day wandering through the hallways and passageways, stumbling across hidden rooms and secret spots your entire day. Once you get off of the main tourist trail, you can actually spend 20 minutes at a time without even seeing another tourist. Trees have spent the past thousand years swallowing the temples and you see some pretty incredible growths by the vegetation over the entry ways and guard walls. I was absolutely floored by the series of temples I saw and I spent the next day on the back of a motorbike visiting the temple Beng Mealea. It lies about 70 kilometers away on a dirt road in pretty rough condition smack dab in the middle of the jungle. You have to cross through the true Cambodian country side to get to it and when you arrive, you are presented with a massive temple that has had absolutely no restoration work done to it apart from putting a little wooden boardwalk through a small section of it. The cool part about the ride over there is that you get to see life just how it is for the majority of the people. The houses are always elevated off the ground on stilts (for the wet season) and people sit around doing all sorts of stuff. They have no running water or electricity and it’s pretty hard to imagine what their lives must be like. Children are at play nearly everywhere and when they see you ride by, they give a huge grin and wave.
So I arrived at the temple and was set loose. There was a tour group of about 4 Australians ahead of me (the only other non-natives there) and I ditched the trail and dove into the ruins. In most developing countries, they have no such thing as a lawsuit, and as such don’t feel compelled to rope off unsafe sections or put up warning signs. Actually, I take that back. They do have them at the other temples, but this one was free game. The jungle was swallowing the temple alive and over half of it was collapsed, but I spent the day walking on roofs and stone house skeletons, diving through open windows into secret passageways and rooms within, clambering over piles of rocks into deserted coves within the depths of the temple, wandering around the desolated temple walls (it’s nearly 1.4 kilometers around) and following paths into the jungle, being careful not to step on any undetonated landmines. After two hours of wandering, I was ready for the next temple, which was a bit closer to town. We went down another dirt road (by this time I was caked in dirt) and made it to the other temple with just enough gas. Then it was off to the landmine museum, then back to the hotel. This morning I woke up early again to see the sunrise and headed straight to the bus station for a 6 hour ride to Skuon (where they eat all the spiders). From there, I negotiated my way onto a local mini bus to Kompong Cham, then smashed into a 1989 Honda Accord “taxi”with 6 other grown men and a pregnant woman for $5 bucks to my final destination, “Kratie”: the home of some of the world’s only fresh water dolphins. So anyway, the AC broke and we spent the next 3 hours in this horribly crammed Honda on one of the worst dirt roads I have ever seen, absolutely caked in dirt and dust. My hair was brown, it was that bad. But we eventually made it and here I am – safe and sound. My hotel room is $5 a night and I have cable and powerful shower (although it is cold) and I am ready to go see the dolphins tomorrow. It should be pretty cool. In a few days, I’ll head up the Mekong River to Laos and spend a few weeks exploring the south.
I’ll keep you posted!
Ok, so it was time to cross the border. I had changed from the slow boat to the fast boat and we were rocketing towards Cambodia. We arrived at the border and I bought some snacks from the kids on the shore for the ride to Phnom Penh. The boat driver took care of the visa (putting his commission on top which I didn’t have the energy to argue about) and after sitting around for an hour and messing with some ants on a tree (they just stood around waiting and if you put your hand over, they tried to attack from a foot away. It was crazy!) we were off again. We finally arrived in Phnom Penh and I agreed to go with this lady to her hostel because she offered a free motorbike ride. The hostel is right on the side of a lake (actually its built over the lake and my shower empties into it) and I have no hot water, but it’s only 3 bucks a night so I’m not complaining. So I arrived to town early and had time to go see the city. I negotiated a price for a motorbike driver ($6 bucks to take me everywhere I wanted to go for a few hours which was actually a bit too much I later found out) and he took me to the Toul Sleng prison museum and the Killing Fields. Have you ever heard about Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot? I didn’t know anything about this and it’s crazy. This guy took over Cambodia in the 70’s and tried to make a socialist country. Only he couldn’t stop killing people. He would jail everyone on these farms after torturing them (ripping out finger nails, drowning, electrocuting, etc…) separate them from their families and kill a few hundred a day (including his own soldiers). He didn’t want to waste bullets so they killed people by smashing them over the heads with hoes. His regime lasted 4 years and they say that nearly 2 million people were killed during this time. So I was at the jail where the people were tortured and walked through the cells. They had thousands of pictures of the prisoners dead and alive and it was a strange feeling to see them all looking back at you. I watched a video about it and there was one of the soldiers on it talking about how he used to take the prisoners to the fields blindfolded and they would smash them over the heads and then slit their throats. He was smiling while he was talking about it. I then went to the Killing Fields to see the mass graves. Thousands of people, many of whom were decapitated, were thrown into big holes. I walked around in dismay. It just doesn’t seem real. It seems like a movie.
There were little kids playing around on the fields and they talked to me and begged for money or “yum yums” while I walked. They threw rocks in the trees and ate the fruit that fell and were having a great time. In the center of the field there is a huge tower stacked to the top with skulls. It was a day of contrasts.
On the way back, I examined the town. Cambodia is very different from Vietnam. For one it’s much less developed. There are plenty of dirt roads everywhere in the town and tourism isn’t very developed either. There are tourists in some areas but not in most of the town. It’s just the people going about their lives doing whatever it is they need to do to make a living. On the side streets, random animals run around (I saw a sheep running down the street at full speed yesterday) and they don’t even have petrol stations (or ATM’s) here. You just go to some lady with a bucket of gas. Or you get a cash advance for money. Not so many people speak English either. And although the kids still wave at you and yell hello, the old people don’t smile at you as much if you say hello to them. It’s very different. But one thing you really do notice when you get here is that Cambodia has a lot of history. The architecture is something from out of this world. It’s insane. Take a look at the pictures and you’ll agree. I went to the museum and they have all this art and these statutes from so long ago, it’s incredible. They also have a king here and the royal palace is incredible. It’s hard to talk to the people about Cambodia though because they don’t speak much English but you get the feeling that they are genuinely friendly people despite nearly 2 million of them dying not 20 years ago. You actually wouldn’t even know that anything had happened here if you didn’t visit the museum. It is a very poor country though, and that is very apparent. I need to travel a bit more to get more of an idea about this place.
Things are a bit overpriced where I’m staying, but it’s not so bad. I am in a backpacker district and there are a lot of tourists there. I mostly keep to myself though. People just sit around talking about the same stuff over and over day in and day out. They travel for two weeks and want to tell me all about traveling. I don’t tell people how long I’ve been gone so much anymore unless they ask directly. I dodge the question by just saying how long I will be in Southeast Asia or how long I’ve been here. If I tell them how long I’ve been gone, they want to know where I’ve been and how I can afford it. I get sick of saying the same stuff over and over again. I just want to experience the country and be out, whereas most of the people here are content just sitting in the hostel all day, smoking weed and talking the same cheesy traveler chat trying to impress and top each other. I’m getting my Laos visa today and will then head north to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat and before heading toward Laos. It seems that internet connections are going to be the biggest challenge here and in Laos. They are really slow and I can’t upload my full size pictures to my site. Instead I have to resize them and burn them to CD which is risky because my bag could get stolen and I could lose all my pics. I’ll have to figure something out.
Anyways, it’s time to get something to eat. My next post should be from Siem Reap and Angkor Wat! By the way, don’t forget to check out the pictures from Vietnam and Cambodia. I just put some new ones up.
I’ve fallen in love with Vietnam. The Mekong Delta was incredible. I finally found the innocence that I knew was there and I can put into to words what I felt in Saigon and Hanoi. I can remember trying to explain to my mom, stepdad and aunt how odd Saigon and Hanoi felt which I attributed to the tourism industry (and still do). How people overcharge and put on a face to get your dollar. They said they didn’t mind and thought it was normal. After all, it is helping the Vietnamese economy and they are just making do with what they have. And I wholeheartedly agree. But I think this comes at the cost of one’s soul as a country, to a certain extent. I can’t explain the feeling you get when you experience a country from the perspective of an observer – where people let (and welcome you) to simply observe. They give a smile and a wave and continue upon their lives. But it just all feels so fake when you know they are only smiling and waving because they want you to buy something. That’s capitalism, I understand. And as was argued, they are just trying to survive. But my point is merely that it feels really different. And it really shocked me. Vietnam was the first place I ever experienced that and if you are only on vacation, that’s all well and good. It certainly makes travel a lot easier. But I look at tourism (knowing full well that I am partaking in it) as a kind of prostitution of the country. Although it provides capital, it also detracts from the quality of the experience – which is why less touristy places are so much more appealing.
So anyways, I found this in the Mekong Delta. It was incredible. People say that the southern Vietnamese are friendlier than the northern due to the fact that food was never very scarce in the wetlands of the Mekong and people were able to share much more with strangers. They say that in the north, due to the scarcity of the food in the past, that the people are only friendly to those in their family unit. I don’t know if this still applies, but the people in the Mekong were incredible.
So I booked a three day tour of the Mekong from Saigon. It cost $22 bucks (hotel, transport, guide, boat trips included) and took off the following morning. Your only option here is to book a tour, unless you have lots of cash. A boat rental is nearly $45 bucks by itself and if you wanted to do all this solo, not only would you have to talk to a lot of people (who spoke English) to find out what to visit and where to go. You would have to pay a lot for boats and buses and guides and stuff like that. And it wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Although there were lots of tourists (well, not lots, but plenty), tourism is very immature here – and you can tell. For one, all the places you visit get paid by the tour operator for each tourist so you don’t worry about them pushing trinkets onto you with each visit. The people just go about their business and you go about yours. It was great.
So day one was spent on the Mekong River. We saw little villages on the river banks, visited a coconut candy factory, and then took a row boat through the little inlets barely narrow enough for our boat past houses made of sticks and straw and people washing their clothes or fishing in the river. We then visited a garden in MyTho where they had all these monkeys and a little pond. One of the baby monkeys was able to escape from his cage and entertain us by standing on some peoples heads while he ate a banana.
The next day was spent visiting a floating market which basically consists of a bunch of boats selling everything you can imagine in the river. They stick whatever food they sell on a big stick and put it high up in the air so everyone can see what they see and people take their row boats over to buy food. We then visited a rice noodle factory (which is really quite interesting) and a crocodile farm and we eventually ended up at the base of a mountain which had many Buddist temples built into it on the Cambodian border. We hiked to the top of the mountain and watched an incredible sunset (which I was able to enjoy alone at a secret spot halfway up the mountain that I found). It was interesting because the whole town had loudspeakers broadcasting Vietnamese everywhere. You could hear it echoing everywhere as you climbed the mountain. Then at sunset some music played everywhere. It was really strange. Propaganda?
So anyways, we climbed back down the mountain (which had steps so it’s more like we stepped down the mountain) and went to the hotel to take showers before dinner. The guide conned us into taking a bunch of cyclos to the restaurant saying that the driver had to fix the AC (but everyone knew he was full of it) which we of course had to pay for and I got a kick out of toying with the tour guide.
“So he’s fixing the AC, huh?”
“So it should be nice and strong tomorrow, eh?”
“Well…he says he’ll try to fix it. I can’t make any promises. This is a good price for a cyclo, though!”
Sometimes you know you are getting conned but you just sit back and take it. After all, these guys needed the 60 cents a lot more than I did and if all it took was a bit of a lie to get us all to fork out the money, that’s all right. This was a bit altruistic of the company, I think. It was just to spread a bit of money around the town and I honestly don’t think they were getting a cut. That’s not too bad. Had we not been lied to, we would have insisted on taking the bus because it should be free and no one would get the money.
After dinner, the guide took me to the office to pay for my boat ticket to Cambodia (where I am now) and then we took the cyclo back together. I chatted with him about his life. His wife died of cancer a few years back. He told me that he learned about a new cure for cancer that he wished he would have known before he agreed to let them treat his wife. You just need to cut off the tail of a cobra, put it in a yellow coconut (not a white one, mind you) and drink it. It kills the cancer, simple as that, unlike western medicine which makes all your hair fall out and makes you sick. If only he would have known. So anyways, his son got in a motorcycle accident a few months before and he had to take care of him. His head got cracked open and apparently he has some brain damage. He was also a fighter for the VC in the war. He fought in Cu Chi (which is where those tunnels are) and had a huge section of his shoulder and a few toes missing from machine gun fire.
He told me all this matter of factly after I asked about each thing. He didn’t ask for money and he didn’t seem sad. He didn’t make it a sob story like lots of people do. When we got back to the hotel, he said goodnight and headed in to take a shower.
I spent the rest of the evening chatting with the owner of the hotel (who was my age and whose dad actually owned the hotel). We chatted about music, English, and Vietnam. We talked about how much it costs to run the hotel and how much he pays for beer and the like. It was really informative.
The next day was spent visiting a fish farm village which is a house with a huge tank below it where they breed fish and then a Muslim minority village with some really cute kids and then headed towards the Cambodian border. We putzed along in our little boat and kids on the shore waved at us from their houses or their parents’ boats. We saw people fishing and washing clothes. People fixing and cleaning boats. People laying in hammocks relaxing. It was great. About an hour into the trip, a motorboat sped by and picked me up and then we rocketed to the border.
And from that point on is a post in itself so I’ll continue it later.
I’ve recovered from my exhaustion. I’m ready to keep traveling and seeing new stuff. I am of course still sick of the cheesy traveler chat everywhere but that comes with the game. There’s not much else for complete strangers to talk about.
Cambodia (where I am now) is cool. Interesting fact: They eat spiders!