Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Khmer Way

I was going to write this as two different enteries, but have decided to create just the one. Why? As what I have witnessed over the past few days is not so different, as it is all about the Khmer way of life.

Firstly, the day before yesterday we went to S-21 and the Killing Fields. This had a big impact on us all I feel. Despite the fact that we got split up on the moto ride, Sam and I going to S-21 first and Brendon and Huw going to the Killing Fields first. We actually passed them as we went in opposite directions. But no matter, the feelings were still the same.

S-21 the school used as a prison and a place of horrific torture is bizzare to say the least. It looks like an average high school, but is so much more. Hundreds if not thousands of faces greet you when you walk in to the rooms. These are the faces of desperate people, each destined to be tortured to death. 14,000 people went through this place, and only 6 came out alive. The faces of the dead are forever impressed into my mind. The tiny cells, the barbed wire fences to prevent suicides from the upper floors, the shackles concreted into the floor, the idea that children as young as 10 were the torturers and murders in this place.

The Killing Fields is basically a field. A field with lots of holes in it. They dug up the bodies, nearly 9000 of them. The skulls are held in a large stupa standing a 100 feet of so high. As you walk around the holes you realise that you are also walking on the dead. Literally on the bones of the dead. Bones still stick up out of the dirt along with pieces of clothing. Bits of bone and teeth still litter the place. To describe the feeling you get from this place is beyond words, it must be seen to be understood. Man's inhumanity to man!

Yesterday we arrived in Siem Reap, to do the Angkor thing. Today we set off and paid for the 3 day pass at $40 a shot. Worth it though. To see one of the greatest wonders of the world up close and personal, is special. Images everyone has seen on TV there to be touched, there to be climbed over, there to be taken in and awed by.

I was going to write more about Angkor, bt time is getting on. Tonight in New Years Eve, so I have to get back to the guest house and put my glad-rags on. Tonight we party, tomorrow we suffer. But hey we'll be suffering while taking in the pleasures of Angkor. How many other people could claim that?!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What A World We Live In.

Now in Phonm Phen, we arrived this afternoon from Kampot. Yesertday we did a tour up to a place called Bokor Hill, it is part of a nature reserve in southern Cambodia. The drive up the peak (1080 metres high) wasn't so bad on the way up, because we were inside the pick-up cab. We drove up a steep road that was little more than a dry river bed, for 40Km or so. It was hard going, but worth it.

We arrived at what had been an area that the former King had lived in, and saw his house and house for his concubines. This dated from circa 1900-ish. We then trekked for 2 hours to a ghost town on top of the hill. The French had it built around the same time. Everything was till there, the post office, church, hotel, police station and the huge casino that overlooked everything eles. The casino also overlooked the hug visa that stretched for miles in front. We were level with the coulds and could see the coastline go off in the distance for miles and miles.

The casino has a special distinction. It was used by the Khmer Rouge for torture and murder during their nightmare reign. People were kept in the basement and either killed or worked to death.

After seeing this strange and at times errie place we headed back down the hill, to have a tranquil sail on a fishing boat back to Kampot. The ride down was anything but tranquil, as we had to sit in the back of the pick-up this time. Being bounced all over, lifting six or more inces off the floor sat on a small bench in the back of a pick-up, is not my idea of fun. I did however start to laugh at the madness of it all, and also got to see aspects of the jungle close-up, rather than through the window of a pick-up cab.

Overall we all had a good time. One thing that killed our time in Kampot was the child sex trade that goes on under your nose. Sickos! I want to say more, but will not subject the readers of this blog to a torrent of four letter words. Just to say, that to see these perverts and to know what they are doing or at least arranging, in full view of everyone is beyond belief.

Anyway to cheer ourselves up we are doing the death tour tomorrow. The torture chamber in Phonm Phen and the famous Killing Fields.

I'll let you know what I think of that another time.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Jingle Bells, Cambodia Smells!

Not had a chance to update the blog over Christmas. Lack of facilities and a power-cut put paid to that. We left Phonm Phem on the 22nd, and headed to Sohheskneville, or whatever it's called and spelt. (Cambodian still confuses me, specially when they all speak good English so as not to give us a chance to learn the lingo.)

Huw had emailed us with teh guest house they were staying in, so we grabbed a Moto down there. It was only 30 seconds walk from the beach. We saw Huw, and after hugs all round we discovered the guest house was full! Our Moto drivers took us round the corner for the night, with the promise of a room in Markara Guest House for the next day.

Bags dumped we went back to find Huw, and all of us hit the beach to find Brendon. He was laid-out in a deck-chair watching the sun go down. We spent that night on the beach chatting and catching up with news from home and abroad. It was a strange one for us all to be sat of a beach in Cambodia, and so easy to do!

The next day we spent on the beach. Everyone else apart from myself had some hair removed by a lady using dental floss and a cracking technique. I ended up with 2 little girls making braclets for me, so a grabbed a quick lesson in Khmer off them. Unfortuntaey I've had no chance to practice the few words they taugh me, so they are lost again. So a day chilling and swimming, not bad if you can get it.

Christmas Eve, we hired bicycles and biked down to the Ortes Beach. This is a undeveloped and quite beach around a headland from where we were staying. We spent the day there not hassled by beach vendors, and as the sun came down we made our way back to the hire place. Cycling along the beach just on the edge of the surf is good fun, if a bit of a cliche. As Huw pointed out though, a full cliche would have been a riding a horse at sunset along the beach.

Sam, Huw and I stayed up quite late on Christmas Eve night, and probably didn't get to bed until 4-ish in the morning. So Christmas Day was a lazy day. I did try and do some emails, but as soon a I sat in front of the computer, we had a power-cut. This lasted all day, and as we left the guest house today, that area of town was still out. So Christmas on the beach was a quite nigh of bonfires and candles, all quite nice really. Who needs electricity when you have candles, a bonfire, a beer in your hand and the beach underneath your feet?!

Cambodia is very different to the other South East Asian countries I've visted so far. I can't quite put my finger on it, apart from it is a lot dirtier than I've seen before. A national pride that I've come across before, does not seem to exist here, or not in the same way. There is a lot of bad history in Cambodia, that is still resinating throughtout the people and the country. One of the places I want to visit, apart fom Ankgor, is the Killing Fields. I've seen the shocking imagary of piles of skulls, I think most people have, but to see the place for yourself is important for vistors here. You cannot come to this country as a tourist and not acknowledge what happened here only a few years ago, so as to understand what these people have been through. Horrors that we can only begin to imagine through visiting such a place.

Anyway we are in Kampot now, 2 hours south of Sihhoueeorcnkville, or whatever the hell it was called. From here we will do a bit of trekking in the National Park, and spend a day on the beach not far from here. Then it's a mad trip back to Phonm Phem, via the Killing Fields and onto Siem Reap for the full Angkor experience. That will leave us 2 weeks to get through Thailand, via Bangkok, down Mayanmar and to Singapore for the 16th of January.

There is more to tell about our past few days, but this has been a bit of a massive blog to write that I'm pouring with sweat and need a drink. It's odd traveling with other people when you know them of old, but not in this new place where things are a bit alien.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Paradise Lost and the Highway To Hell

Don Det did have some elecrtricity, and so did have email access but we didn't bother using it. The elecricity only came on for a few hours on a night. We wandered around both islands Don Det and Don Khon in an afternoon. Don Khon had a good waterfall, but the old railway that the French had left was not so impressive.

On Don Det we stayed at Mama Rastas guest house, run by a crazy lady who kept touching and squidging Sam. Don Det is the travelers paradise, quiet and not set-up for tourists. Don Khon is a little more established, but only just! We spent a second night in a hut on Don Khon before heading for Cambodia.

Up early and off on one of the longest and hardworking journeys I have ever been on. We traveled from Don Khon by boat back to the Laos mainland. From there we got a minibus to the Laos/Cambodian border. A short wait after everyone was checked through and we were in Cambodia. First impressions... Dirty! Another ferry ride and a gang of us were squeezed onto the most clapped-out minibus on the planet. Most of us were going all the way through to Phenom Phen. More than a 12 hour journey ahead of us, and we'd already been traveling for 6 hours.

The journey was mostly over dirt track, this is the MAIN roads in Cambodia. We thought that Laos was bad, no way! Laos is sophisticated by these standards. The ramshackled minibus had a totally buggered suspension, so we often found the minibus leaving the road, all four wheels in the air! The pot-holes on Cambodian roads are HUGE, dropping a good 2 - 3 feet. This was bad enough during the day, particularly with all the windows open and clouds of dust pouring in.

Night on Cambodian roads is something to be seen. Driving at breakneck speeds down pitch black roads, pot-holes and buggered van, well I'll let you create the image. Whatever you think times by 10 and you maybe near the nightmare of it all. Add in being stopped by strange blokes with torches in the middle of nowhere, random wandering animals, and our driver not speaking more than 2 words of English. Then you are getting close to how crazy this journey was. That we made it the whole way without major incident is amazing. The worst thing that happened was that they kept loosing the stack of egg boxes strapped to the roof.

Oh, just to mention the petrol fumes. We travled with a big can of petrol sloshing around in the back. When we complained about a Cambodian guy smoking next to the petrol, he, his cig and the petrol moved onto the roof. Such a sensible move! Anyway we are safe now, and heading for the beach to meet Huw and Brendon and to get some much needed RnR.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Island Hopping And Elephant Riding

Here we are in Si Pan Don (literal translation 4000 islands), in the biggest island Don Khong. I say biggest, which it is by a long way, but Don Khong is only 18Km long by 8Km wide. We now, as we cycled round the island today.

Yesterday we left Champasak. The night before we'd got talking to a German couple and a Dutch couple stying the same guest house as us. We'd discussed whether we could go elephant riding in a village not too far from Champasak, and on the way to Si Pan Don. On our won it wasn't really feasible, but the Dutch couple wanted to go too. Sharing the costs the whole thing became a reality.

So early yesterday morning we got 2 motorbike taxis arranged by our guest house owner. A ferry ride over the Mekong on a ferry that was basically 3 boat hulls lashed together with planks on-top, then 30 or so Km along route 13 until we came to a dirt road. The dirt road took us to a village in the middle of nowhere, here Sam got to fulfil a life-long dream of riding on an elephant.

They took us up to a hillside where there is a supposedly old temple built from volcanic stone. The whole landscape looked bizarre, so deserted, and not unlike the surface of the moon. We happened to get the elephant with wind issues, he constantly farted throughout the journey. Now knowing what an elephant fart smells like will stay with me for a long time. It was good to ride an elephant this way, rather than on some big tourist trail. You could see that in maybe a few year time the place would be geared up for tourists, we had experienced this just at the right time.

We got dropped off sfter the elephant riding, on the junction to route 13 heading south. There we waited to grab any vehicle heading that way. A pick-up stopped and asked if we wanted a lift. We agreed a $2 cost each and climbed in the back. The pck-up happened to be that of a local butcher, so we rode along with a basket of beef in the back, for about 50Km until we reached the village where we could get the ferry to Si Pan Don.

We arrived in Don Khong in the mid-afternoon, and soon found a fantastic guest house facing the Mekong. A big room with a balcony looking over the Mekong was a bargin ay $7. Plus we got a hot shower, which is a bit of a bonus here.

Like I say, today we cycled around the island. Apart from that its been a lazy island life day. Tomorrow we head for Don Det, which is one of the smaller islands in the south of the island cluster. Here we will nor be able to email or anything, they do not have electricity for a start. Here in Don Khong it costs 1000 kip a minute to use the internet, which usually gets you 10 minutes on the mainland.

After a day and a night in Don Det, then we will head for the Cambodian border. An days travel to Karse (or something like that), and then on to Phenom Phen. The next blog opportunity will probably be in Karse. I feel a little nervous going into Cambodia. Its a language thing. Here we now get told by Lao people that we have good Lao, spoken with a northern Lao accent it appears. Not knowing a language and having to start from scratch will be strange.

Last night we got talking to a Lao guy who has lived in England for the last 36 years. It was his first time in Laos since he was 4 years old. He is originally from Lunag Prabang, and was the one who told us spoke Lao with a northern Laos accent. It was wierd explaining to a Lao native the state of his country, and what we had leanred since we had been here. He was really truly pleased to talk to us and learn from us. We exchanged emails, and he would like to organise the Lao people in England, to help through aid and such, Laos. We said to stay in touch and we would help him in what way we could. We said goodbye with a hug, which is a big thing for Asian people who are not usually so.

Anyway, I'm clock watching... It's time for me to get off the net. Sam is back at the guest house reading, I think I will join her. I'm working rapidly through Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson's drug fueled rampage through the American Dream.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Back On Our Travels

We are now in Champasak, which is a small sleepy little district town in the south of Laos. We came here from Pakse where we spent yesterday. We arrived in Pakse from Vientiane on the night bus, arriving in Pakse at about 6.00am in the morning. We'd got talking to a couple from Canada, so we all went seeking a guest house together.

Sam and I went to the market in Pakse, which is supposed to be the largest in Laos. To be fair it is pretty big, but no where near the best we have seen. Sam got ran over by a vendor with a handcart, no major damage done just some skin off her leg. We did the circuit of the town and was heading back to the guest house when we bumped into the Canadian couple who were heading for one of the waterfalls nearby.

We ended up sharing a tuk-tuk to this 40 metre high waterfall, or so we were told. It may have been 40 metres at some point in history but wasn't anywhere near when we got there. Despite that we had a great time climbing over the huge boulders that the previous once BIG waterfall may have created. A beer or two with the tuk-tuk driver afterwards, we then headed back to the guest house.

The evening was spent eating and drinking, and watching the back half of the third part of Lord of The Rings.Then to bed, as we had an early start to get down to Champasak.

Up early and made our way to the landing for the ferry to take us to Champasak. We were the only ones there and the guys hanging around tried to get us to charter a boat down the Mekong. After a little while 3 other travelers turned up, and we did end up chartering a boat, almost by mistake rather than planning.

Anyway we made it to Champsak and were directed to a guest house, which happened to be the older brother of the ferry boat captain. Luck would have it that it turned out to be an okay place to stay, hot shower which is a big thing for us after 2 months of freezing cold showers.

We dumped our stuff, hired some bicycles from the guest house and headed south to Wat Phou. This is a Khmer style temple complex, a mini version of Ankgor by all accounts. Biking the 8Km through the southern Laos countryside was really cool, and we were not dissapointed by the Wat Phou. It's not huge, it's small and compact yet impressive at the same time. Somewhat like Laos itself. So we spent all morning and into the afternoon chilling out and wandering around the ruins. The view from the upper terraces across the countryside was impressive.

After that we biked back to Champasak, did a quick ride around the town, which wasn't hard. Champasak consists of one main road that runs for about 2Km, if that, and contains about 6 temples. We know, we passed them all and even visited 2 of them.

Next we think we will be making our way down to Si Pan Don (4000 islands), and spend a few days milling around there. Walking over lots of bamboo bridges between the many little islands and looking for fresh water dolpins. If we do not spot any there then they hang out in Cambodia too, so we may ge to see some there.

Anyway, that's about it. Will write another blog when we get to Si Pan Don. Looking forward to going there as it is so differnet to anywhere else we have been so far. We'll let you know what it is like, and maybe even up-load some piccys!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Last Day

Today is our last day in Vientiane and with the CDEA. They threw a party for us on Monday night in the office. We are now covered in bits of bloody string! We were presented with presents and thanked over and over again for our time with the CDEA.

It was a very drunken night. After the office party, where all the staff were there, a bunch of us went to a Lao karaoke bar. There we drank more and danced a lot. Khampasong was wasted, hanging all over me talking drunken rubbish. He's hard enough to understand at the best of times, but his drunken slurred English was verging on impossible to understand. How he managed to get home on his bike I will never know.

The next day there was a lot of sore heads in the office. Khampasong rang up to say he had got up late. When he eventually came in he looked like death warmed up.

We spent yesterday packing and sorting out all the stuff we have accumulated over the last 2 months. Sam is having to get another bag, as her bag is too small to fit all the scarfs, and bits of material she seems to have aquired. We need to head into town this afternoon to pick up a bag for her, also to get rid of a pile of books we have and get some more. Back to reading, that's a part of traveling again I am looking forward to.

At the moment we are waiting for Khampasong to come back with our bus tickets, for the over-night bus to Pakse. As a gesture of good will Khampha said that the CDEA will pay for our VIP bus tickets, which is great. However, as usual they have left it to the last minute. I hope that there hasn't been something lost in translation, and we end up on a bus going north by mistake or something.

I'm sure it will sort itself out in the end and everything will be fine. Fingers crossed!

We have decided that we will spend a day in Pakse and then get the slow-boat to Champasak. Near to Champasak there is an ancient Khmer temple complex. The Lao equivilent to Ankgor. They say that if you visit Laos, then you must go to this place. So we are! Then we will head down to spend a few days in and around the 4000 islands, before crossing into Cambodia.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Traveling Again.

Wednesday is D-day, when we finally say goodbye to Vientiane and all the great friends we have made here. We are not looking forward to the goodbyes with the staff, as they will be really gutted we are leaving. Especially Khamsone. We do plan to come back if we can, but that will not be until after Austrailia, some time in mid-April.

Many of the people we have spoke to think we have a bloody good chance of being sponsered to come back and work as funded advisors to the CDEA. That would be great if it did happen. We have literally made history here, and I'm not being over-the-top when I make that statement. Civil society is new to Laos, this is still a Communist country afterall. They are still very wary of outsiders coming in and telling them what to do. Most of the NGOs walk on eggshells when it comes to this situation.

We however have broken new ground. We are the first ever volunteers to work for the first ever civil organisation in Laos. It has hit us recently how big that is, and what a position of privledge we stumbled into. Plus it gives us a unique position to be able to come back. Khampha for example is just Khampha to us, a lovely man who we get on with really well. To the NGOs and within Laos he is a respected and influential man. He said that he would do whatever he could to help us to come back officially.

We have had a really roller-coaster ride in the last 2 months, some major ups and downs. But at the end of it all we have an experience that no-one else in the world could have. We have done something that no-one else could ever do again. We will always be the first.

It's strange how when you come to leave a place you realise the impact your presence has had. Not only on the people around you, but on the people beyond. On Saturday we met a lady who turned round and said she was finally glad to put faces to the names. She had heard of us, in fact she had the information sheet we had done for the CDEA pinned up on the notice-board at work. Others too know who we are, and that feels somewhat odd. We're just a couple of mad Yorkshire folk who were brash enough to think we could make a difference. We never really expected that we actually would.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Catch Up Time.

Not put down a blog for a while, too much has been going on. We have just finished a 3 day seminar on microfinance and womens empowerment. It was pretty good. Although we did fall asleep during some of the speeches. There were people from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and India, as well as 2 Brits and a bunch of Lao people.

Yesterday was the best day though. We went with about 200 other delegates to a village about an hour out of Vientiane. We were welcomed into the village by a line of waving school children. There was more speeches, and lots of singing, which seems to happen after every speech. Then they did the Lao thing of tying the spirits to you. They all sit round and bless pieces of white string, which is then tied around peoples wrists. This is a blessing and wishes for good luck in the future.

We had them lined up to waiting to tie the string around Sam and my wrists. Most of the other delegates had maybe on average half a dozen to a dozen at most around their wrists. We had twenty-six each tied around ours by the time they had finished. We then got to have lunch as hounored guests in the main community building, while everyone else ate outside.

As if all that were not enough, after lunch they started dancing. Lao dancing! Which is this thing when the women dance around the outside and the men on the inside of a circle, which goes round slowly. You have to do this subtle hand movement thing at the same time. Firstly the 'noodle' lady got me up to dance. (She is the lady who on our first day with the CDEA dragged us to her house for noodles.) We were the first on the dance-floor! Then after that dance the village leader woman who had been running the day came up and requested a dance from me. Once again first on the dance-floor, with 200 international delegates watching us. Luckily Sam was made to get up this time too.

At the end of the day they did presentations to the international delegates who were there. We didn't expect that they would call us up. So we'd disappeared to the toilet, and was stood at the back when we heard 'Ankgit'. English, they want the English to come up. Khampasong looked round to see we were not in our seats anymore, and then to us coming through the crowd, along with 200 other pairs of eyes. We had to stand at the front, just Sam and I while they presented us with village handicrafts.

What a great day. Today was the finish at the Lao Culture Hall. The Prime Minister did the speech thing and then a walk around the stalls infront of the hall. It was all over by 11.30am, so we took the opportunity while in the town centre, to sort out our Cambodia visa. So here we are $80 paid and waiting to collect our passports tomorrow. We plan to leave Vientiane on Wednesday night, getting the over night bus to Pakse. We'll spend a about a week down there, and cross into Cambodia on the 20th of December.

Anyway, what else has been happening recently?! Well work stuff on the Asia Pro Eco Project is going well. We've hardly seen anything of Khanthone, which is no bad thing. We had Lao National Day last Friday which was good. We went to see Ka, as we have not seen her in a month. We were only supposed to stay and say hello, but ended up staying about 6 hours. She fed us constantly, and there was the usual constant flow of beer. We had wanted to go and see Joy, as we said we would. By the time we got there he'd gone bowling with his wife, so we headed on down to see the guys in Sticky's.

Sticky's was closing early, it being National Day and all. So we thought we'd go to Samlo for a last drink before home. Syd was there, the guy we'd met the week before. He asked us to join all his mates. What a bunch they are! A load of insecure middle-aged men with young Lao girls hanging off them. One particular tosser took offence to my 'Commie' T-shirt, I'd worn especially for National Day. He told us he was a Nazi, and that he thought I was taking the piss out of Lao people by wearing the shirt. I tried to explain the notion of irony to this one-brain-celled twat, and that it wasn't a dig at the Lao people as they are not Communist, they government are Communist. Also that I worked with and for Lao people, I was the last falang takin'-the-piss-mate.

This didn't seem to work, he still wanted me to take my glasses off so he could hit me. I took them off, he didn't hit me! He just put his face close to mine, as if that was supposed to scare me. No Nazi is going to scare me, I'm not backing down to a retarded piece of scum that should have been shot at birth. The only good Nazi is a dead Nazi, as the anarchist saying goes. And that's from a group of people that are perdominately pacifists. Anyway, I carried on trying to explain life in simple terms to this guy. I wanted to take it that one step further and ask if he is a Nazi, what was he doing in a Communist country in the first place, with a Lao girl hanging off him? What would his Aryan skin-head buddies think of that?!

I avoided that line of question. I know how far you can go with these people. That one would have fried his single brain-cell, and he'd have gone for me for sure. In the end Syd split it up and sent him on his way, telling him how out-of-order he had been. Also I think Sam was ready to tear his head off. I was quite happy arguing in circles with the stupid prat.

So that's about the most excitement that we have had. There has been other stuff, but I can't remember it all. I know Sam has said a number of times, 'that's one for the blog.' It just goes out of your head if you don't get it down right away. If I remember I'll stick it up on the blog. Besides, once we get back to traveling again I'll be able to keep the entries up-to-date. Back to daily blog entries, as there is not much else to do when you are stuck in the middle of nowhere.