Friday, March 27, 2009

Chaing Mai and a Cooking Course

So we spent two days in Bangkok relaxing as well as doing some errands before taking off to Chiang Mai. We rode the night bus to Chiang Mai which was alright except for the fact that I didn’t sleep at all and it was freezing the whole time. It was a 12 hour journey and we finally arrived at about 6am. A British couple and Bryan and I walked for a good 20 minutes before finding the perfect guesthouse known as Julie’s. The rooms aren’t especially great but there is a wonderful common area where many backpackers hang out.

Once we settled into our rooms we went and had lunch at an organic restaurant where I had the best Pad Thai ever. So far, Chiang Mai has had the best food in all of Thailand (in my opinion). We are really liking Chiang Mai so far. The people seem to be much nicer in Northern Thailand than in Southern Thailand. They are always smiling and laughing which is nice.
Later that evening we went to dinner with a guy from Italy, a girl from Australia, and a girl from Switzerland. Bryan, Daniel, and Rebecca all ordered what is known as Khao Soi (not quite sure how to spell it) and it was delicious. It tastes sort of like a red curry but with noodles. After talking for a couple hours, Bryan and I went back to the guesthouse as we were quite tired from the bus ride the night before. As soon as my head hit the pillow I was gone.
Today was a good day as it was the day that Bryan and I learned how to cook Thai food. It was a one day cooking course where each of us had the opportunity to choose which Thai dish we wanted to cook. I chose Tom Yam soup, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Pad Thai, and Penaeng Curry. Bryan made Coconut milk soup, Red Curry, Pad Thai, and Cashew Chicken. We were cooking with 8 other people, but we all had our own cooking area. Our instructor was actually the owner and he had quite the personality. He was constantly making jokes that he thought was hilarious. We all laughed because we didn’t know what else to do.  He was really nice and taught us a lot. FYI – we now know how to peel garlic and it only takes about a second. We also had the opportunity to “cook with adventure.” Basically cooking with really big flames. I now have about 15 burn marks on my left arm. They were from the guys flames next to me. It was kind of funny but not.  All and all, the cooking course was a lot of fun. Maybe Bryan and I will cook for you (yes you) if you are lucky. 
Tonight we are heading to a night market with some friends we met at our guesthouse. We are still deciding whether or not we will be trekking here or in Pai. We will probably go to Pai and do a 2 night 3 day trekking tour. We’ll see what happens.
~Leslie Dawn

Monday, March 16, 2009

Hoi An and Hanoi: Three Girls and a Boy

Thanks for being patient between blogs, everyone.  We’re alive (and thanks for checking Chalain.  We’ve been in net inaccessible places for awhile.  

So we came to the conclusion that flying was going to be much easier than the bus this time.  It was $80 as opposed to $40, but didn’t take 16 hours.
The airport was quite a bit smaller than we’re used to, but they did still manage to confiscate the scissors from our first aid kit.  Should have checked it . . . .
The flight was pretty nice as it was only an hour and a half and we got snacks and warm towels on the way.  We met a nice woman who splits time between US and Canada who gave us some advice on where to stay in Hoi An.
The flight actually took us to Denang, which is almost exactly in the middle of the long country.  It’s also where the first US troops landed in the Vietnam War.  We met a guy named An who was Vietnamese, but lived in San Jose and split the taxi. 
I’ve noticed that we’re immediately tuned to say “NO!” to anyone who wants to sell us stuff when we first arrive at a new location.  This time, that wasn’t so smart as we turned down 3 $10 a night hotels only to end up in a $12 a night place.  It’s a nice room though, complete with A/C and TV which was thouroughly appreciated before calling it an early night.
Hoi An is a pretty small town, known for being unaligned in the North/South rivalry, a good selection of local cuisines, ancient trading and is the tailoring capital of Vietnam.  It’s said that if you want clothes made in Asia then you should do it here.
Other benefits of the town include that it’s smaller, (less than 100K people) and definitely cooler than Ho Chi Minh or Bangkok.  I’ve actually put on a jacket for two days running :)  One of the most charming aspects of the coastal port is that much of the populace gets around by bicycle, as do we.
We immediately rented bikes our first day for about 60 cents each.  These bikes are quite different than what you expect at home.  First, they’re all road bikes (the skinny tires) and are all one-speed, so no shifting is possible.  The town is flat so it doesn’t make too much of an issue as it’s not too tough to get around.  Getting all the way across town takes approximately 10 minutes.   This process is expedited by the fact that there are no stop signs or stop lights at most intersections.  Four lanes of traffic just head into the intersection and hope.  We’ve made it through these about 50 times without an accident, but I’m still not sure how we’ve pulled that off. 
We immediately took a wrong turn and rode past the entire town.  Realizing what happened, we turned around and headed back.  A woman tried to talk Leslie into coming into her tailor shop, but ended up recommending a decent little restaurant. 
“Coffee” is served either white or black here.  Black is REALLY strong and closer to what we know as espresso.  Only 1/2 a cup will get you wired!  It’s single serving with a metal device on top of a glass that holds beans and the water is poured through.  It’s served before it’s done straining. 
“White” coffee means with milk.  Not regular milk, but sweetened condensed milk.  It’s pretty good.  I also ordered cao lao (thick noodles, pork and a cilantro/soy broth). 
About halfway through the meal, Leslie said, “is that Lena?”  I ended up standing on the sidewalk and waved my arms.
Amazingly, we’d run into Lena and Marilyn, who were our neighbors in Ubud, Bali.  They were on their last day in Hoi An, but we’re going to try to catch up with them in Ha Long Bay in a few days time. 
They’d apparently spent most of their time here shopping and desperately wanted to take us to their tailor.  Off we went and we were introduced to Ly.
About 1/2 the shops in Hoi An are tailor shops.  Most are run by a single family, as was Ly’s.  The storefronts are about 20 feet wide and have two rows of mannequins showing examples of their work.  Inside Ly’s shop was a table in the middle of the room, surrounded by chairs with partially complete projects and scrap hanging over them.  A full-length mirror sat next to the “changing room”, which was a curtain in a corner of the store. 
The walls were covered floor to ceiling with different types of fabrics.  The tailors here can make anything you can sketch or describe.  An Englishman we met pulled up a $1600 coat on the internet, showed it to a tailor and had an “exact” replica made for $25.  Now, I’m sure there’s some different with the quality of fabric, or buttons or what not, but the workmanship is excellent and they can turn anything around in a day. 
Anyway, we had talked about purchasing suits in Bangkok, as Leslie needs one for upcoming interviews and mine fit better ten years ago.  As a result, we picked out some fabric and Ly went to work making measurements as I requested a little more room as my “Asia waist” is a bit more like me in high school than I usually am. 
Leslie also picked out a traditional vietnamese design which is modeled by the woman in red here http://www.oilpainting-reproductions.co.uk/images/IMG_1834.JPG 
After that we checked out the rest of old town on the bikes and rode around looking to see if we could find a better hostel.  We never really did but soaked up a lot of the small town atmosphere available at 20kph on a one speed. 
At lunch I saw a veteran from the Vietnam war who had lost his legs and ended up buying a few postcards from him.  He gave me a pig-whistle free of charge.  He seemed like a guy down on his luck and it crossed my mind that he was incredibly similar to a lot of US veterans of the Vietnam War I’d seen at home. 
I should tell y’all that it’s now about a week after Hoi An and I’m back in Bangkok.  I’ll do my best to remember all the salient details, but I am going to go fairly quickly across the next week or so.
The next day we got a ticket to old-town Hoi An in the morning.  It brought us a trip of an old style Vietnamese house, with a family who’s lived and produced artwork in the place for eight generations, a trip to the native cultural center, which showed plenty of “old time” baskets and the like that were still being used in the modern market and a trip into an old assembly hall with the largest pieces of incense I’d ever seen.
That night took us back to Ly’s for a fitting and Leslie got measured for a winter coat.  It was $25 for a coat that would run about $150 in the US. We also found a charming little eatery outside the market where food stalls were all lined up with ladies trying to convince people why one stall was better than the next.
Our last day in Hoi An sw us wake up and get on a tour bus to My Son.  My Son was the ancient capital of the Cham (pronoucned Sham) Empire who were a perennial enemy of the Khmer of Angkor Wat.  The Khmer were the dominant power and the Cham ruins, while cool, were definitely not in the same ballpark as Angkor. 
A boat trip back to Hoi An saw us stop by a small craft village that was set up as a woodworking commune.  Four families dominate the commune and have since it was set up. 
Everything was for sale though with no thoughts of a fair share for the outsiders.  It showed that while Vietnamese political structures are  still controlled by the Communist Party the economic machine is increasingly capitalistic.  To top it off, the prices were listed in US dollars. 
Returning to Hoi An saw us pick up our goods from the tailors and buy a flight to Hanoi.  We almost got the nightbus but were warned away by our hostel and some people who had taken it.
The bus trip to Hanoi was actually quite nice as we met a bunch of people our ages and turned into a group of ruffians for the day.  We made our way across town and Leslie got a pretty good picture as three of us had three Lonely Planets out looking at the maps with confused faces.  For those that don’t know, about 99% of English speaking travellers use the Lonely Planet guidebooks.  We have the “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” version. 
Hanoi deserves more time then I’m going to give it, but it was a charming city that did not have anywhere near the edge I expected.  There is a lake about a quarter mile long in the middle with a nice walk around it.  Touching for couples is forbidden in Vietnamese society, except around the lake so you can see plenty of young couples actually holding hands and putting arms around each other at the lake. 
The popular restaurants for locals have little plastic tables and chairs.  They appear to have one put out and when that’s filled they put another. . . . and another . . . .and another.   We stopped at one that had ten tables at it.  When we walked by later that night there were about 40!
Ho Chi Minh still straddles Hanoi like a Goliath with the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum being one of the main attractions (we didn’t really want to go though).  You can still see “Uncle Ho” embalmed and under glass, despite the fact that his will requested cremation. 
It was St. Patricks day the day we arrived so we ate at a French/Irish place that offered Guinness for 150,000 dong.  That’s about $8 a can.  I saw NOBODY order it.  I think they just wanted to say that they could serve one. 
The gang headed to the traditional water puppet show that evening, which was quite entertaining.  Definitley worth it if you have $3 and a night in Hanoi. 
The next morning saw the gang split up as we all went our seperate ways.  Leslie and I spent about half the day searching different cruise companies for a decent trip through Ha Long Bay in the northern part of the Tonkin Gulf, yes, that Gulf of Tonkin.  Wikipedia is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_of_Tonkin if you need a history refresher. 
We heard some horror stories of people not getting enough food on the trips and the Lonely Planted warned that those taking the cheap-o cruises rarely had positive experiences and pointed at a few tour companies. To top it off, there is little to no enforcement of copyright law in Vietnam.  While we in the West usually think of this in terms of pirated software and DVDs there is a huge cost for legitimate Vietnamese businesses as well. 
“Fansipan” was a well respected tour company that was so successful they spawned copycats.  The copiers did not try to emulate the cruise, but give poor cruises.  The copying has to do with the fact that they’ve stamped “Fansipan” outside their store.  As a result, “Fansipan” changed their name to Vega.  There are still 4-5 “Fansipan” Tour operators in Hanoi. 
Eventually, we widdled it down to two cruises (Vega and Ocean Tours) and headed back to rest off some food from a restaurant that was VERY cheap and get ahold of Lena and Marilyn.
Marilyn and Lena arrived the next morning and we took them to the two tour places.  We all came to the conclusion that Ocean was the way we wanted to go.  The remined of the day was taken up with shopping for essentials, such as a better bag to carry all the stuff we had. 
I’ve not gone from the guy at the beginning of the trip who couldn’t believe people who had a daypack over their front as well as a rucksack to the guy who has a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.  The duffel bag is a great “North Face” bag with “Reebok” zippers.  AKA, it’s not made by North Face or Reebok.
The next morning we were off.  A “short” three and a half hour bus ride later we boarded the junk in Ha Long Bay.   At the start we weren’t sure if we’d made a good decision or not as to which tour to take. 
We knew we’d paid for an “upper mid class” tour, but weren’t sure if that’s what we’d get.  We immediately started lunch on a boat of about 20 and our worry increased.  We first got some shrimp, which was nowhere near enough for everyone.  Then came some clams, that while good, left us hungry.  That was followed by a miniscule amount of french fries. Couple this with the fact that we had to pay for drinks and we were sketchy.  We assumed that “drinks not included” meant we had to pay extra for alcohol, not that small waters were $1 (they’re about twenty cents usually). 
We were downright nervous!  Then came the calimari, and rice, and salad, and fish and fruit and we were satisfied. Turns out our nervousness was for naught and we felt bad for letting the crew know we didn’t have faith in them.  They came through with flying colors. 
After our nervousness fled we actually got to look around Ha Long Bay, which is a UNESCO heritage site.  There are four techtonic plates crashing into each other in the Gulf of Tonkin forcing huge amounts of limestone straight up out of the ocean.  There are a rediculous amount of islands, many of which inaccessible without rock-climbing equipment.  Here’s a snapshot.  http://www.smiletravelvietnam.com/images/news/Ha-Long-Bay-1488.jpg 
The entire cruise was through these sorts of structures.  Unfortunatley, there was no sun the entire time, but if there was then I’d have complained about being hot. 
Our first stop was at the floating village.  A woman on a small row boat came paddling over to us frantically.  At first we couldn’t figure out why but then realized that she was the Ha Long Bay version of 7-11.  She had (still overpriced) water, beer, snacks, etc. and would sell directly to the tourists on the boats as she was much cheaper than the on-board stuff. 
The floating village is http://www.mccullagh.org/db9/vietnam/ha-long-bay-floating-village.jpg.  You can also see the boats we were on in the background. 
We then changed our stuff to a different boat (no dining room) and hopped into kayaks to explore the bay.  We later learned that one of the things that the budget tours didn’t get was a kayaking guide.  He took us into and out of caves and would around the limestone cliffs.  
Marilyn and Lena were PHENOMENAL kayakers as they knew what they were doing.  Leslie and I did okay, but our ability to go straight was circumspect.  As a result, we worked WAY too hard for too little progress :(
The highlight came at the end of the trip as we went through a small cave which had a decent current pulling us in.  We made it to a small bay that was inaccessable by other means and had the limestone cliffs completely encircling us.  We all made it an had a laugh until the guide informed us we had to go back . .. . up current. 
Lena and Marilyn had no problem as usual, but Leslie and I got whipped back and forth across the cave a few times.  We made it out through sheer muscle more than any skill. 
A few Singaporean girls behind us had definitely trouble though.  The guide had stopped halfway out and was shouting directions.  “This way!  This way!  Towards me!’  Then, the current took a kayak and hurled it right into the guide.  THWACK!   Eventually, he got out and hauled them out of the cave by the tow-rope.  
The twenty of us were hauled wet and tired to the private island rented by Ocean Tours.  We were then explained the next day’s itinerary where the 20 of us were to be split up.  We were the only four that had chosen sleeping on the boat for the second night option.   Many were only going for one night and lots were going cycling the next day, which necessitated staying on the beach.  
The bungalows on the beach barely deserve the term “bungalow”.  There was hot (sometimes) water, electricity, no sand in the place, clean linens, towels, paintings, mosquito-proof walls (and a mosquito net), balconies, an electric blanket, blinds and seashells hanging from the walls.  They were the poshest bungalows I’d ever seen. 
Dinner that night consisted of another smorgasboard of seafood with the calimari salad stealing the show. There were also “Mantis Prawns” which were like prawns except bigger and with the forelegs of a preying mantis.  They were okay, but were new so that was fun.  A funny moment came when Leslie said, “Waitaminit, am I eating a bug?”
The next morning saw everyone take off early except Marilyn, Lena and the two of us.  We had a liesurely breakfast on the beach, followed by a liesurely lunch and got back on the boat at 2. 
Our first boat was actually about the size of a ping pong table which was a bit of an experience.  It wasn’t sealed so much as just tied together bamboo.  It worked though and got us to the junk.  We then headed out among the bay and had a great time chit-chatting above deck.  A few hours later we came to the spot where the kayaks got off and picked up a pair that also wanted to sleep on the boat. 
We then headed into a large bay packed with about 35-40 different junk boats.  It was explained that typhoons can come out of nowhere and “sleeping bay” was where the mountains and deepness of the bay provided the best protection. There were also three or four “mobile 7-11s” rowing their way around the different junks.  We got some Oreos :)
Dinner was again a massive amount of seafood highlighted by a jumbo-shrimp cocktail for six with vegetable flowers and stuffed crab. 
The boat rocked us to sleep with full bellies. 
The only sad part of the trip was the next morning where breakfast was a bit meager.  Fortunately, there was plenty of coffee and we could fill up on Oreos. 
We were then off to the Amazing Cave. 
The Amazing Cave did not diappoint.  It was inside one of the limestone structures and consisted of four or five main caverns.  The largest was probably the size of three soccer fields end to end and two across.  The whole thing had been outfitted with a path and lights and hosts 2000 people on a normal day.  The path starts at the lower left http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_OL8-kZ-jRqg/R7fTj753PyI/AAAAAAAABVY/6vHDcBABEGM/S730/SurpriseCave1.jpg.
A few hours in the cave and we were back in the boat and heading “home” to Hanoi.  Our guide got a call and was told he was needed to get another group immediately.  He was a little sad as he wanted to go back to Hanoi.  Lena said that she’d trade him, but to no avail. 
A three and a half hour trip bus ride back saw us back at Ocean Tours and we headed to our included stay at a place with air-con and TV.  Leslie and I scrambled to find two tickets back to Bangkok before heading to dinner by the lake with Lena and Marilyn.  This was especially nice because we got some ice cream :) 
That brings us to this morning, when we bid adieu to Marilyn and Lena as they headed to Nim Binh and we flew back to Bangkok. 
Banglamphu has become the closest thing we have to “home” in SE Asia, as we now know where to go to get bug spray, water, our laundry done, find that book we need, see a movie and basically do errands before jetting off to the next stop.
This time we also can store some stuff we want to keep but don’t need in one of the guesthouses.  This includes the suits, duffelbags, a mask from Bali, Leslie’s designer jeans from Koh Tao and 100 football shirts I’ve just taken delivery of for Bellingham City FC (my soccer team at home).  Tomorrow we’re getting books, probably catching a movie and taking the night bus to Changmai in Northern Thailand.
On a non-travel related note we want to give a shoutout to Leslie’s Mom Deena Lewis as she’s heading into surgery in a few hours.  Our thoughts are with you, Deena and we hope to hear from you as soon as you’re up to it.  Lots of love.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and April 8th

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh city about a couple days ago and have since been busy seeing what this city has to offer. We arrived at about 7pm by bus and were quickly followed by several Vietnamese trying to rent us a room. We had one lady follow us for at least a half hour. There was one guy who gave us his card at the beginning, but he did not follow us. We later ran into him again and decided to see what his room was like. After looking at a couple others after we saw his room, we decided to rent from him as it was the cheapest we could find and his family seemed nice.

This nice Vietnamese man has a wife, a baby girl, and his mother all living underneath where our room is. In fact, I am currently using free internet in what looks like their family room.  We just love the grandma. She is always smiling, laughing, and every  night she gets down on her knees and chants something from a book while looking at Buddha. It takes her about an hour to get through the prayer. Most of the Vietnamese will tell you they are Buddhist, but many actually practice a the “Triple Religion” or Tao Giao, which is a combination of Confuscianism, Taois, Budhism, Chinese beliefs and ancient Vietnamese animism. 
The following morning we made our way over to the War Remnants Museum where we learned a little more about the Vietnam war. I’m sure most of you know about the toxic chemical known as Agent Orange that was spread all over Vietnam by the U.S. Well, the museum portrayed many pictures of Vietnamese  people who have been affected by Agent Orange, physically and mentally. The chemical is still prevalent today and is the main reason there are so many birth defects. I don’t think I need to talk too much about the history of the Vietnam War as most of you already know, but it was still eye opening to read and see about all the innocent people (over 2 million women and children) who died during this senseless war.
The museum actually closes from noon to 1:30, so we decided to take their version of a tuk-tuk (instead of motorbike it’s a bicycle) to a small cafe about 5 minutes away. The guy said he would take us there for $1, but  we then realized it only seated one person. Bryan went on another for a dollar as well. They ended up taking us to the wrong place and when we got there the drivers said, “no, no not a dollar, 100 dong (about 5 dollars). They decided to change the price on us once we arrived, but we did not give in. We gave them $2 since it only took them about 2 minutes to take us there.
We decided to eat at the cafe where the tuk-tuk bicyclers took us. There were only Vietnamese people eating at this cafe and most of them did not speak English which made ordering rather interesting. I didn’t realize our waitor didn’t speak any English until I asked him if I could get the dish without meat. I am not a vegetarian, but I am rather picky with meat.  After realizing he did not understand, Bryan showed him what we were saying in his Vietnamese phrase book – it said “I am a vegetarian” in Vietnamese. He quickly went to the back where we assumed he was asking if the vegetarian option was okay. I didn’t realize it was going to be such an ordeal, so I told him that  it was okay and pointed to the dish with meat. He did not understand the words “it’s okay” and was not about to let me eat meat if I was a vegetarian. It took about 5 minutes to order my meal with the help of another waitor. It was quite funny. He was really nice and I could tell he really wanted to understand us as we did him. Finding ways to communicate with people who speak a different language has been interesting and actually quite fun.
After spending another hour at the museum after it had reopened, we went back to our room to rest. For dinner we had garlic soup at a cafe (yummy) and then made our way over to an Indian restaurant really close to where we’re staying.
The following morning we went on a one day tour of the Mekong Delta.  Google “Mekong Delta War” if you need a refresher course about the Mekong’s role in the Vietnam War.  It took about 2 1/2 hours to get there by bus. We took a larger boat to the other side of the Delta where we then transfered to a smaller boat that took us through a small tributary. I took many pictures because there is so much history here. We ended up stopping on the side of the channel and made our way over to a coconut factory. It was really small with one machine that makes the powder. The women were also making coconut candy which was fantastic. It was neat to see the one woman wrapping the coconut candy because she was wrapping about 15 or so within one minute. This is where I also bought coconut soap which is supposed to make my skin and hair smooth and shiny – just like the Vietnamese ladies. : ) I don’t think it worked but it smells pretty.
We then went back on the boat to a different location where we ate our included lunch. The tour was well organized and our meal included more food than I thought. It was nice.
We then went through an even smaller tributary but this time by canoe. There was one Vietnamse lady in the back and one in the front – both wearing traditional triangular shaped Vietnamese hats. Each canoe obviously only seated four, so Bryan and I went on one with a nice couple from Australia – who we had spent most of the time talking with. The tributary was quite narrow and it would have been dangerous to stick your hands outside the canoe. The Vietnamese ladies were quite the pros at paddling.
We arrived at a location where we drank tea and ate fresh fruit while listening to traditional Vietnamese music. I would never listen to Vietnamese music on my own because the sounds are rather harsh and dissonant, but I suppose it was still nice hearing. :)
We then made our way to a small honey bee farm where we held a really big python and drank honey tea before heading back to Ho Chi Minh City. We had a lot of fun on the tour and felt the $10 was well worth it.
Today we went on another tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels where the Vietnamese hid, worked, lived, and fought during the Vietnam war and previously while fighting the French. Our tour group consisted of about thirty people, so Bryan and I always made an effort to walk right behind our tour guide in order to see. These tunnels were absolutely amazing. Most of the entrances to the tunnels were camouflaged. The tunnels were built for Vietnamese people, and as a result they were very narrow since Vietnamese are small people. Towards the end of the tour, Bryan and I had the opportunity to go through 100 meters of tunnel. It was more difficult than I thought because it was very dark, hot, and narrow, but we were the only ones who made it all the way. We also had the advantage of being right behind the guide with the flashlight. Basically, if you are at anyway claustrophobic, you probably would have only made it 20 meters. Today was definitely a highlight of our journey.
So far Vietnam and the Vietnamese people have been wonderful. The people are so kind and have wonderful smiles. Ho Chi Minh City is quite busy with 8 million people and 3.5 million motorbikes. It is amazing to see the traffic in the morning and afternoon. I have never seen so many motorbikes in my life. 
BY THE WAY – We have extended our trip until April 8th. Asiana Airlines gave us a two week extension for FREE. We were quite happy as we thought it would cost us a couple hundred.
Tomorrow we are flying north to Hoi An ($40 per person). It is supposed to be a neat little place.
Hope all is well,
Leslie

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Killing Fields

Fun was not the right word for these few days but a rather interesting day as we visited both the S-21 detention center that has been turned into a museum and Pol Pot’s infamous Killing Fields. 

The sheer brutality and cluelessness of the Khmer Rouge absolutely shocked me. 
To sum up the past, the communist Khmer Rouge came to power after a civil war in Cambodia in 1975.  They told the populace that the Americans were going to bomb and that everyone had to leave the cities.  They marched everyone to the rice fields and forced hard labor for the next four years.
They believed that all loyalty should be to Angka (the party) and destroyed all reminants of the past.  Families were considered wasteful and people were grouped with similar ages, most families being ripped apart. 
A large percentage of the population died due to starvation, lack of medical treatment and outright genocide.  Crimes that would get you sent to “re-education” included being in the former government’s army, thinking too much about pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, missing your family, humming a non-revolutionary song, having an education or having a family member do one of these.  Everyone who had done something besides farming was suspect.
“To keep you is no gain, to lose you is no loss” was a common slogan.  Another was that they’d rather kill 10 innocents than let one guilty person go. 
As a result of all this, a good percentage of the population died.  Because they could brainwash children easier, a good percentage of the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge army were children with little memory of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia.  This is how they attempted to erase everything
The Khmer Rouge fell in 1979 as the Vietnamese took the country.  Unfortunately, the US still had a vendetta against Vietnam so Reagan and Bush refused to recognize the new government, actually providing military and financial support to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge through both administrations.   Pol Pot was never brought to justice and died of old age.  He ordered killings as recently as 1997.
We began our day of morbid tourism at 10 by getting in a tuk-tuk with Dana (pronounced like Donna) before heading to S-21.  S-21 was a former high-school where people were sent for reeducation. 
A sad movie told the story of two lovers that had been seperated.  The husband went to work for Angka, but even he was not allowed to take his wife with him as families were abolished.  Eventually, both were accused and sent to S-21.  They never saw each other again, even tough they were imprisoned about fifteen feet from each other.  They never knew. 
Numbers on the side of the walls were numbered 1-9 on one side and 10-18 on the other.  People were lined up on their backs with iron rods shoved through shackles amongst their ankles.  Four rows of 9 people were lined up for 36 people locked on their back for months on end.  They could not talk, eat or move. 
Another room had pictures of survivors, who were the guards.  Their stories were highlighted as they can still tell the stories.  Only 7 people entered S21 as a prisoner and lived. 
People were taken from the mass rooms to either individual cells or torture rooms where confessions were forced out of them.  Eventually, they’d be told that they were to go to another work camp to work and were rounded into a truck.  At that point they’d be taken to the killing fields.
People were taken to the killing fields blindfolded and put on their knees.  Where they were killed and thrown into mass graves.  This was often done with blunt objects as the Khmer Rouge did not want to use up bullets.
Land mines were planted by a combination of the government, Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces, but how many and where is still unknown.  As a result, the country is littered with land-mines and people living with amputations.  
The legacy of the Khmer Rouge can be seen today.  I was one of the oldest people in the country as almost everyone was younger than me.  There are still massive amounts of young people who do not have parents.   Almost nobody over the age of 30 has an education.  As a result, the economy is having difficulty recovering. 
Children are organized into a small labor force to attempt to sell books and other trinkets to the tourists.  Tourists think they’re doing something helpful by buying a book from the kids, but they’re not. The kids don’t get to keep the money and you’re encouraging child labor.  I did end up buying a book and a bracelet from some men who had been victims of land mines. 
It’s absolutely heartbreaking what has happened to many of the people of this area.  When asked what the children want to do when they grow up they give answers like “live with other people”. 
ChildSafe International is an organization that is doing what they can to get children off the streets and into schools as well as battle child prostitution, which is still an issue in lots of the world.  Check their work out at http://www.childsafe-international.org/index.asp
We did not spend all that much time in Phnom Penh as the end of the trip is getting ever closer and we wanted to head on, so as a result, I’m writing this from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) on the bottom floor of a small homestay.  The Mai family has a grandma, a couple about our age and a newborn.  They have 3-4 rooms and free internet :) 
Today we’re going to do the “loop”, which is a walk around some museums, markets and the like.  We’ll talk more about Vietnam later . . . . but not until after Leslie wakes up. 
Ciao,
Bryan

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Khmer People

I just wanted to write a quick blog about our experience with the Khmer people so far.

We left Siem Reap this morning and are currently in Phnom Penh. It’s kind of hard to explain what we have experienced here so far, but there is definitely a feeling I can’t quite describe. Cambodia’ s recent history of torture, starvation, and forced labor is very much prevalent today. It’s interesting to look around at all the Khmer people because you rarely ever see someone older than 50.
Cambodia is an extremely poor country, and as a result there are thousands of children and people living with amputations selling books, bracelets, and postcards on the streets. Many of the men with no arms or legs have signs in English explaining their family situation and their tragic encounter with landmines. Children are working hard by not begging but by selling. It is so hard not to buy their items and give them money, but it is not the best thing to do because often times the children rarely get to keep the money and it only perpetuates the problem. Do you want families sending their kids to school or sending them to sell books?
It is better to give them food and more effective to give to larger systems and organizations who can better deal with these cycles. Bryan and I gave a small donation to an orphanage and would have loved to give to the free hospital in Siem Reap, but unfortunately we don’t have much to give. We did meet several volunteers working on building houses as well as at the orphanage which was nice to see. I would love to go back and help when there is more time. Oh and by the way, the free hospital in Siem Reap was lined with poor families located right next to a million dollar hotel. The disparity between rich and poor was very much prevalent in Siem Reap.
In short, I guess what I’m trying to say is despite the fact that these people have recently seen war, genocide, and famine – they are still some of the kindest and most honest people we have met yet.
More to come later as we are visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum where the once school was turned into a security prison and was the largest torture center in the country.  We will also be going to the Killing Fields – we are anticipating a rather depressing day tomorrow.
Missing you all,
Leslie
This entry was posted in Uncategorized on  by Leslie.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Scam Bus and Angkor Wat

Hello everyone, So the last day in Ubud was spent relaxing and enjoying the last of our surroundings. The following morning we took a bus to the airport and flew to Bangkok as Asia Air did not fly to Cambodia and we did not yet have our visas for Vietnam. Plus it was a bit cheaper to fly to Bangkok as that airport is the main hub in South East Asia. We arrived in Bangkok around 4 pm. We ate dinner for 25 baht each at the same stand we had eaten at previously, but it wasn’t as good as we remembered. Maybe we are just really sick of Thai food. :)

Bryan later watched Tottenham lose to Manchester United on kicks. He was a bit disappointed but was glad he saw the game. The next day was spent hanging out in an air conditioned mall where we watched two movies.
The first movie we saw was Milk. I had seen a documentary in my diversity class over a year ago about Harvey Milk, so I was excited to see Sean Penn play him. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician elected to major office in the United States. It was an amazing movie about the discrimination and hate the gay community saw and still see on a daily basis. Harvey Milk was an inspiration to many of the gays and it hurt them greatly when Milk was assassinated. They actually followed the documentary quite closely.
The next movie we saw was The Wrestler. It was also really good but really very depressing. Both movies were nominated for an academy award in one way or another. Before going back to Banglamphu district we ate at Japanese restaurant where they bring you a plate full of meats and vegetables and you cook the food yourself. It was SO good and it was a lot of fun. After our lazy day of eating and watching movies we went back to Banglamphu district, picked up our laundry, purchased our tickets for Siem Reap, and went to bed.
Our driver picked us up around 7am the following morning. I would first like to say that this was a LONG day of traveling to Siem Reap. Not because it was supposedly 14 hours to get there but because of the Scams we received on the way. We were about 4 hours into our trip when Bryan showed me a paragraph in the Lonely Planet about all the scams you may receive on the way to Siem Reap.
 Basically, the Lonely Planet said “while direct Bangkok – Siem Reap bus tickets are cheap and sound convenient, they’re anything but.” Ha ha – I wish we would have read this before we left Bangkok. Right before we made it to the border (we were literally 2 minutes away) our Thai driver dropped us off at a place where you can eat expensive food and have them “help” you with your Cambodia visas. “Help” as in scare you about it taking too long to get visas at the border and proceeding to tell you that you may miss your bus if you don’t get your visas here.
The Thai workers also said the Cambodian patrol men may overcharge you, etc. At the time, Bryan and I did not have enough cash to purchase the visas, so we sat back and watched most of the tourists filling out visa information except a gay couple from Brazil, a man from Switzerland, and a couple from Australia. There were about 3 or so tourist vans that had stopped there as well. Basically, they were scaring you into paying 2500 baht for two visas. Bryan and I were nervous about not making our bus so Bryan went to an ATM with a Thai man and his Motorbike. Right after he left, the gay couple and the man from Switzerland left for the border and basically said don’t purchase your visas here because the lady we bought our tickets from said this place was a scam.
The Australian couple came up to me asking if I was getting a visa here. They were concerned because most of the tourists were filling out visa paperwork. I told them it’s a scam while anxiously waiting for Bryan to return from the ATM. As soon as Bryan came back I accidentally said too loud “it’s a scam!” All of the people who were getting visas were getting stickers to put on their shirt. We didn’t think anything of it until later. We were at this place for an hour (if not more) because we had to wait for the Thai workers to take the visa paperwork to the border and come back. It was really annoying. The Australian couple (Becs and Ryan) and Bryan and I decided to get our visas at the border. Turned out we payed 500 baht less for our visas and it took maybe five minutes to fill out paperwork as there was no line AT ALL.
In the end, the Thai business probably made 5000 baht from the tourists during that hour by scaring them all. Also, there was no way we would have missed our bus because the cambodian buses arrive at the border every hour or so throughout the day.
That was not the end of it. Once we made it past the border, we were supposed to catch one of the Cambodian buses as we had already paid for it back in Bangkok. However, because we did not get visas at the Thai place, we did not get stickers. Turned out that sticker was also our ticket for the Cambodian bus. The nice Cambodian man asked us “how am I supposed to know you have already paid for bus without a sticker or ticket (the Thai driver also took our ticket with no return)?”
We told him what had happened and he looked up our information and found we had indeed paid in Bangkok. One thing I should mention about the Cambodian buses is they are paid commission by guesthouses in Siem Reap if they take the tourists there. As a result, the drivers will take you the longest route possible.
The Lonely Planet says “their goal is to make the journey as long and uncomfortable as humanly possible in order for you to arrive battered, exhausted and in the dark because in this case you’re more likely to succumb to pressure and just collapse at their chosen guesthouse.” Bryan and I knew about this scam but because we are on a strict daily budget (along with the Australians as they are traveling for a year) we decided to take our chances and try our luck because we could not pay 500 baht each for taxi (that was our first offer) However, the nice Cambodian man offered to give us a Taxi to Siem Reap for $20 for all four of us (150 baht each). We decided to take it because we knew how the buses operated and did not want to arrive at 9pm.
Later we saw the gay couple who paid $60 for a taxi to Siem Reap, so we were quite happy with our decision. After a very long day of scams and the heat, we made it Siem Reap. We followed the Australian couple to their guesthouse that they had previously booked but it was full. I sat at their guesthouse while Bryan went and found another. We are paying $5 a night. It is very big with cable TV and hotwater (although I shower in cold because it is currently their hot season).
It was quite the day and we were exhausted, so we went to bed shortly after we arrived The following day we ate breakfast before meeting the Australian couple at their guesthouse. We hung out with them for most of the day. They have been another favorite couple of mine and we all get along very well. We all decided to hire a tuk-tuk driver to take us to Angkor Wat and several other temples the following day. We all went to bed early because we were going on the sunrise to sunset tour starting at 5am.
Angkor Wat is considered to be a “man-made travel wonder”, and you would understand why once you saw it. The ride to Angkor Wat was dark but very cool and relaxing. We arrived around 6am in order to see the sunrise. It was beautiful. I can’t wait to show you all our pictures.
Bryan’s turn
To understand why Angkor and the surrounding temples were built you have to kow a little about the history of the Khmer empire. The Khmer Empire was at one point the dominant force in the area, encompassing much of what is now Thailand, Lao and Vietnam. Siem Reap was over a million people when London was at 50,000. Angkor was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II and was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.
Around the 14th-15th century the King coverted to Buddhism and there are still plenty of refences to both religions. Siem Reap was the capital of the empire for ages with Angkor and the surrounding temples the pride. Kings would build the some temples to mark great events while others were walled off places for both living and military defense. However as the empire fell and Thailand gained more and more lands inside of what is now Cambodia the capital was moved away from the western border to the Southeast (Phnom Penh) including a mass migration and the semi-abandoment of Angkor Wat.
With the smaller population, Angkor Wat fell into disarray and the vegetation took over. Thailand occupied Angkor and appropriated many cultural practices. The history of Angkor Wat is still touchy between the two countries.
In 2003 there was actually a riot in Phnom Penh as a rumor spread that a Thai soap opera actor had claimed that Angkor belonged to Thailand. The rumor was false.
When the Cambodians reclaimed the western part of the country from the Thais they renamed the city Siem Reap, which literally means “Siamese Defeated”. The 20th century saw a massive renovation project, much led by the west and specifically the French. This was halted during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
Unfortunately at the end of the Khmer Rouge reign many of the heads of the statues were chopped off and sold, so many of the ancient statues remain headless. Some have been restored, but few. I’m in favor of rebuilding the heads. Some said it wouldn’t be authentic, but the whole place has been sacked, destroyed and rebuilt four or five times in the past 800 years, so why not add another?
Our first stop was Angkor Wat itself, which is only one of the temples.
www.redtag.ca/travel-articles/content_images/testpicture/bot_Angkor-Wat-sunset_lg.jpg
We were absolutely amazed when we finally realized what we were looking at. It was 6, so it was still dark. What we originally thought was a river ended up being the moat. Entering Angkor is enthralling as the three main towers stand over a courtyard about a quarter of a mile square. Some say that walking from the outside to the inside is a representation of walking back to the beginning of the universe according to Hinduism. Others say it’s representative of the world and our solar system. There’s no good way to explain it.
As the first Westerner, “Antonio da Magdalena, a Portuguese monk who visited in 1586 and said, “(it) is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of”. Walls all had monstrous carvings representing wars and battles between gods and demons. The towers were beautiful and the ongoing project to rebuild, reinforce and preserve the place is incredibly impressive. The main tower had a scaffolding up the side during our visit.
The second we visited was the temple of Bayon
There were faces facing all four directions. Again, nobody is 100% sure why or what it is. Some believe the faces are Buddha and the reigning King of the time. Others say that they are the faces of four Hindu dieties. Some say that dirrerent artisans just carved the pieces differently. It was thought the place couldn’t be captured by the ancients, but then it was and sacked by the Chams, the ancient enemies of the Khmer. (I think it was them). So as a result, they built faces of Buddha and all the Hinduu gods to cover all bases.
Third, we visited Baphoun, known as the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle. (I think Dad would like a job here). In order to reclaim the temple from the jungle, painstakingly detailed plans were built as they took apart the temple and the football field sized reclining Buddha. Each stone was to have the plants removed and be treated before being put back in place. Then the reign of the Khmer Rouge began and the plan was destroyed. So now they’re reconstructing the monstrous temple without the plans. It looked about 70% complete and looked like it was going pretty well. We could see about 1/2 of the buddha’s face. Leslie and I enjoyed taking pictures of the smaller statues with our heads replacing the missing heads of before :)
Next to that was the Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King, which is where ceremonies were held. We then headed to the bathroom when our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Tha, came zooming up to take us there. We were for the first (but not last) time mobbed by kids. We later learned from “Prince William” (the guy who runs our hostel) that they go to school for 1/2 day and sell books and postcards and whatever they can for 1/2 the day. The “Ozzies” had a great idea as they gave colored pencils to the kids. Unfortunately on the the way out of the restroom there were twice as many kids and no more pencils :(
Preah Khan was next and was definitely smaller and more ruined than most. It was an ancient university from back in the day with about 1/2 the place caved in. I felt more nervous in rooms that had roofs as those were ones that were going to cave in the future. The trip to and away from the temple was about a 200m walk. Along the walk were people selling snacks and pretty talented bands consisting of victims of landmines playing instruments. (more about that from Phnom Penh in a few days).
We then stopped by a few temples that began to blend together. We decided to do Angkor Wat in one long day instead of three and by lunch we learned why some people like more day trips as you don’t get worn out and less things blend together.
One that really stuck out to us towards the end of the day was To Prohm. Most of you have probably seen this temple as it was where one of the Indiana Jones films was shot along with Tomb Raider. Unlike the other temples, this one has not been reclaimed from the jungle. I do not know if that is “hasn’t been reclaimed yet” or “won’t be reclaimed”. It was very interesting to see trees that are hundreds of years old growing up and over temples that are even older. Here’s an example
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That one wasn’t officially on our tour, so Mr. Tha earned himself a nice tip for adding it. Leaving the temple got lots of children and sellers around us. “Book for $1!” “20 bracelet for $1″ “All for $1!” Everyone else ran through the onslaught to Mr. Tha, but I tried to engage a bookseller for a cheap history book of Angkor. Unfortunately, as soon as I held one they started bartering and I couldn’t look through the stack. I grabbed the first that said “Angkor” and began to look at the back. The guy said, “$1 good book, you like?” He then quickly unwrapped the packaging and thrust it at me.
 Realizing it was a guide book and not a history book I asked to see another. He handed me another and said, “you buy now, $1″. He had a stack of about ten books, but I couldn’t flip through them and if I tried I’d get other people throwing books off my hands.
By this point, I had about 15 people trying to sell me things. About 10 were kids who were just jumping around yelling “All for $1″ and “where you from mister?” Other books started being pushed into my hands and forearms as I decided I didn’t want to deal with this for a book. “Te or kuhn!” I announced loudly (No, thank you) and started weaving towards Mr. Tha. I faked one way and ducked through a t-shirt. I almost squished a bracelet seller as I dodged and made my way back to Mr. Tha.
As a side note, these children are world-class pickpockets, so don’t leave anything in your pocket you don’t want to disappear. As an experiment I put a 10 baht coin in one pocket. It disappeared in Siem Reap and was replaced by a napkin.
We then headed back to Angkor to watch the sunset. The four of us hung out on a smaller temple in the shade inside the court yard in front of the main building. We needed some more water so I started walking towards the vendors. Suddenly, four vendors started yelling at me. “What you need?” “You want water?” “You want beer?”
I turned around and headed back to the temple to Leslie and our friends. I then felt bucked up and headed back. Again, the pestering came “What you want?” I spoke loudly to them all, “I want two large waters for $1″.
One went, “yes, you buy me!”, “no, you buy me!” Came the second. “Three for $1!” I asked. “Yes, me!” “No, buy me!” Then, they started to get the hang of the auction I’d been trying for. “Four for $1 for me!” one shouted “I do five for $1!” I heard from another.
I went with someone who said four for a buck as I didn’t want to carry five large waters around. It is interesting that the cash machines distribute US dollars, but the Rial (local currency) has been so unpredictable that most Cambodians prefer USD or Thai Baht.
Our day at Angkor ended with us watching the sunset reflect off the main temple. We waded our way back through the massive amount of saleskids to Mr. Tha. I began to have fun with them. “You buy bracelet?” said one kid. “You buy book?” said another. “How about, you buy a bracelet and you buy a book?” I asked them. “But he’s my brother!” she laughed. “How about you buy book, then I buy bracelet?
Entering the tuk-tuk disappointed the six or seven kids that had gathered to sell. Mr. Tha whisked us to safety. Returning to Siem Reap saw us VERY tired and Mr. Tha dropped us off asking if we wanted to go again tomorrow. “We are going to relax,” I told him giving him a $20. The agreed upon price was $15 and I waved off the change as we’d negotiated hard to get to $15 and were happy that he was nice and had taken us off a single route. Plus, I’m not sure how it works, but we agreed upon 15 with the hotel, so I’m sure they get a hefty cut. The extra $5 went straight to Mr. Tha. He was very happy and didn’t push anymore. He looked like he was going to take the next day off.
Bidding adieu to the Aussies we headed back to turn in for an early nights rest of watching TV and some chit-chat with Prince William. (When he introduced himself as such I introduced myself as Barack Obama. He laughed). The good Prince stayed with us through dinner and we chit-chatted about what life was like in Siem Reap and his time in Phnom Penh. He said the museums were worth it, but don’t spend more than a few days there. I think we’ll take his advice tomorrow. Yesterday at the Wats wore us out though. Today, I think we’re going to go find some shade under a tree to read some books.
Lia hoa-y,
Bryan and Leslie