Thursday, January 25, 2007


arrived, safe, love it, no time for more...will be able to get back online in 3 weeks probably.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


I'm finally out of Laos, back in Bangkok.

Phonsavanh was interesting, Indochina war relics everywhere. Old missiles, guns, machinery...the hillsides are full of pockets where bombs dropped, and the landscape itself is interesting; no trees can grow where a lot of chemicals were used so you have bare patches, then patches of trees, etc. So eerie.

The Plain of Jars, where these huge boulders (up to 6 tonnes) have been carved out was really beautiful, glad I did it.

Another loooong bus ride and I was in Luang Prabang. On the bus there, I suddenly had this very strong feeling that I wanted to be in Myanmar, as soon as possible. More than Laos. So I got to Luang Prabang and started trying to see what options I had. It was a lovely town though, beautifully laid-out with palm trees, old colonial buildings, lovely cafes, and wats (temples) EVERYWHERE.

I spent 2 nights there and decided to take an overnight bus to Vientiane, wait a few hours, then another bus to Bangkok. So here I am.

Laos was good, but it was so different from what I expected. Long known to be the least touristed place in Southeast Asia, but that probably became the appeal, and now it's full. It's possibly more full of tourists than Borneo! There were some amazing landscapes, great friendly people, and good food - so overall a good time. Glad I went, and excited to see more of the region.

Myanmar, I really can't wait for - I hope it is what I am expecting (I've read more han 5 books about it recently - see below) and will report, once I am secure that I won't get arrested for saying stuff :)

Great books to read:

From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Burmese Days by George Orwell

Letters from Burma, and Freedom From Fear both by Aung San Suu Kyi

Animal Farm and 1984 by Orwell are thought to have been heavily influenced by his time in Burma - in fact, both books are now banned in Myanmar.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Border Crossings and Genocide and Cute Monks

Phnom Penh was quite the opposite of Siem Reap. After a very long, very hot and sunny bus ride, I arrived in a very congested, very polluted, very loud part of town. Great.

I called Bun-hok from CS who came and met me - we had briefly been in touch in November but he hadn't replied to my messages since I had arrived in Cambodia. I tried calling just one hour before my bus ride to PP and he answered, and after a minute of very confused dialogue, we established that we could meet that evening. He came to Capitol Tour, where the bus had dropped me off, and...yay! He is awesome.

Just a great energy, very talkative and friendly. He works for UNESCO and we instantly started chatting about all sorts of things in Cambodia. We had a beautiful dinner at the Cafe de Centre, part of the French Cultural Center, where street kids have been taken off the street and trained to be cooks and waiters, and had a very early night, because the next morning...

we attended a traditional Khmer wedding at 6.30am! It was beautiful...the night before we had been talking about how Khmer girls covered up in daily life but a whole different side of them came out during weddings, and this was really true. Beautifully done hair, fancy revealing dresses, LOTS of makeup...what a sight!

We had breakfast there, then he had to head to work, and I headed to Stung Mean Chay. I decided to visit Stung Mean Chay because Tina, who I stayed with in Siem Reap, had told me her stories of working for an NGO in Phnom Penh where they take the children working at the garbage dumps in Stung Mean Chay and teach them skills so that they can work in hotels. Stung Mean Chay is the slums of PP - about 7km from the city center, when you cross a bridge heading out towards the Killing Fields of Cheong Ek, you notice that all the houses turn into shacks...approaching the garbage dump was so surreal. Smoke rising everywhere, children playing amongst heaps of garbage, plastic bags floating in the alternate universe. The stench was not as bad as I had expected. What amazed me most about this place is that the people were well, simply people. They did not beg. They did not ask. They did not hide. They smiled, some of them, said hello, and many children asked me if I could take their photo so that they could see it on my LCD monitor. They were just so real. They showed no emotions of how unfair life is, that by me being born to my parents in the country I came from, just like that it was determined that I would have an easy life for the rest of my life, whereas for them being born in postwar Cambodia, they would most likely have to suffer this fate for the rest of their lives. If anything it was me who was showing these emotions.

So, step one on the depressing day in PP accomplished, I headed to the Killing Field of Cheong Ek, where more than 8000 skulls are still kept in a big monument, Khmer-style architecture, as a memorial to the terrible events that took place here during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. It was so eerie, this peaceful field that had long been a longan orchard...the ground was littered with holes about a meter deep by 2 or 3 meters wide, and these were the mass graves. The people here were killed by being bludgeoned to death, because bullets were too expensive. It was a painful but necessary experience for me, I think.

Then to the Tol Sleung Museum. This was a high school that became S-21 Security Prison during the Khmer Rouge reign as well - Tol Sleung and Cheong Ek were related, as prisoners from Tol Sleung were often brought to Cheong Ek to be executed. This high school became a prison were suspected rebels were brought to be interrogated, tortured, and killed. The photos of all the victims were so powerful, their eyes staring directly at you. I could write so much more about this place but I won't.

After this I really needed a break, so after lunch headed to the Royal Palace, very impressive, reminded me a lot of the Royal Palace in Bangkok.

After a nap, off to the wedding reception! Strangely (for me), it was at a Chinese restaurant, 500 guests!!, lots of food and drink, and dancing. It was lovely, and a great insight into Cambodian life.

The next morning I was up at 6 for my bus to Kratie. Another long, hot, sweaty ride but was well worth it - in the afternoon went to see the famous Irrawaddy Dolphins, freshwater dolphins that are now endangered in the Mekong - there are thought to be about 75 dolphins left in northeast Cambodia. We saw a lot of them, and when we got back on shore a group of monks, about 40 of them, were coming to watch the dolphins as well. Soon, though, we became more interesting to them than the dolphins and they asked if we could be in their photos - great shots for us too!

I left early the next morning for the long day of crossing the border to Laos. A minibus ride to Stung Treng, near the border, then easily the weirdest border crossing experience of my life. We were in a Camry and went on a ridiculously hilly, windy dirt road where I wouldn't have dreamed of going without 4WD and after about an hour suddenly emerged at the border post. After having to pay corrupt immigration officials, finally got to the Lao find that the guy that we had paid to pick us up hadn't come.

We contemplated this for about half an hour (I was with 2 Alaskans I had met in Kratie) and we were really starting to get worried, as it was almost 4pm already and we did NOT want to get stuck there at night, when a very shrewd truck driver arrived and said he would take us to Nakasong, where the ferry to Don Det, where we were trying to go, left from. We finally made it.

Si Phan Don, 4 thousand islands, is the southern part of Laos where there are, literally, hundreds, or thousands, of islands depending on the season. It was beautiful, with lush green vegetation, small fishing boats around the Mekong...being here you really get a sense of just how huge and powerful the Mekong is. However, I didn't really like Don Det (many travellers fall in love with this place) because I felt that it was really touristy and not much to do other than chill out in a hammock, so I decided to head north the next day. I'm glad I got to go there for a night though.

The next morning biked around the island a bit, then headed back to the mainland. Hitched a spot in a sawngthaew (pick-up minibus type thing) and headed to Champasak - famous for Wat Phu Champassak, Angkor era Khmer temple. From the junction on the main road, Rte 13 going all the way through Laos, went down to the river, crossed it, and got a jambo (tuk-tuk type thing) to the temple.

It was a lovely temple, you climb up through fragrant trees and have wonderful views over rice fields and the corrugated surrounding mountains. The smell of incense everywhere.

Back to Champasak, back across the river, got a moto ride to the junction, and started hitch-hiking. The plan for the day was a bit aggressive - to leave Don Det early morning, go to the temple in the afternoong, hitch a ride up to Pakse, then take a night bus from Pakse to Vientiane. But I wanted to try and not lose time in the south...

A few minutes went by with no vehicles heading north and I started growing panicky. A truck full of agricultural workers passed and they thought I was thoroughly insane for asking to be thrown into the back with all the ladies...they laughed and said no. Just as they drove off and I was really getting worried, a huge white van, fancy looking Toyota, arrived and let me in. I have no idea who they were but I'm pretty sure they were military intelligence or something of that nature. Lots of camouflage clothing. In any case, they had cold water which they offered me, a flat screen TV, air-con, and reclining leather seats...none of which I had expected on a free ride up to my destination. They were super friendly (no English spoken) and helped me find the bus I needed for the evening. Whoever they were, khop jai lai lai (thank you very much in Lao)

This bus ride was ridiculous. We left at 6.30pm and in the first hour, we must have made 20 stops. At about 10pm, we passed a truck that had broken down, full of Chinese made goods - mechanical parts and the like. So, for 30 minutes they guys passed back boxes down the aisle of the bus, stacking them up so no one could move, and then at about 1am, we were finally able to stop, take off the boxes, and use the toilet (the side of the road, but don't go too far because maybe there's land mines! Great...)

We arrived in Vientiane at 6am, I got into town, where every guesthouse was full, so I was told to wait until people checked out. I went and had breakfast, wandered around some nearby wats (temples) and hung out with some monks at In Peng Temple. One monk, Kham, spoke pretty good Japanese, good English, and some French, and asked me if I could come back in the afternoon to teach him for a bit. I agreed.

Finally got a room, had a much-needed shower, and a much-needed nap. In the afternoon went to Pha That Luang, the symbol of Laos apparently, a beautiful golden temple a bit out of town - it was beautiful, really shining in the afternoon light. I went back to In Peng and played checkers with Kham, who from what I gather, was the head monk there; he teaches a lot of the younger novices. Well, I beat him in checkers and he was NOT happy (I probably should have let him win) - all the young boys were making fun of him...whoops. He was a good sport though and we spent about an hour going through Japanese and French lessons, chatting away in English. Really friendly monks here.

Afterwards I went back to the hotel and started chatting with a Swedish girl, Eva. The first person on this trip that I've actually just started talking to randomly that I've really clicked with! Very cool...we had dinner together and decided to go together tomorrow to Phonsavan.

Laos has been interesting, I must say I don't have a strong impression of the country thus far but it is geographically beautiful, with the Mekong flowing through, lots of mountains and green nature. I am looking forward to seeing more of it.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Have a good day. Every day. Always... what a girl at Banteay Kdei, one of the numerous Angkor temples, said to me two days ago.

I arrived to Bangkok very late on the 5th, or very early on the 6th, depending how you look at it. Straight to Jaume's place, and it was perfect upon arrival. One of those moments where it was instantly a good connection, laughing and chatting away...and I was so so glad to see that my Spanish hadn't deteriorated completely during the past year.

On the 6th, Jaume and I spent hours in grocery stores (see why we get along? I LOVE supermarkets...), bought lots of Japanese products to complement the sushi rolling bamboo mat and the nori I brought him, and just hung out. It was great.

Bangkok is loud, crowded, and full of tourists. Just how I remembered it.

I headed out at 4.30am on the 7th, and very luckily made a 5am bus to Araya Pratha, on the Thai/Cambodian border, with just a few minutes to spare. Funny enough, there were only 3 foreigners (as far as I could tell) on the bus, and I was put next to a Japanese guy. Very humorous guy in his 50s living in Thailand for the past 8 years as a Muay Thai coach.

At the border, it was hot. After doing all the annoying paperwork, I was surprised (don't know why I was surprised, should have expected it) to see that the 20 dollar visa was somehow mysteriously 25 dollars...ohhh corruption. But, managed to shake it off, navigate my way through the border, and get on a pick up with about 10 other foreigners, and numerous Khmer stuffed in...bumpy, dusty ride to Siem Reap.

I got to Siem Reap and luckily found Tina quite easily. Had some sour soup - my intro to Khmer food - a concoction with pineapple, fish, veggies, in a sour broth...surprisingly palatable. That evening I met a moto driver and we arranged to meet at 4.30am the next day, the 8th, to go to the temples so it was an early night...I was exhausted, seeing as how in the past 72 hours I had flown from Tokyo to Seoul to Bangkok, then the overland journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap.

On the 8th, my driver, Khumtin, didn't show. I was very confused, waited half an hour, and was eventually grateful for this, and took a day to be very lazy and wander around town. Much needed. He tracked me down and we decided to try again the next day. I ventured into the Mexican restaurant in town and was so happy I could cry. After a year of overpriced Japanese-Mexican food, Viva! in Siem Reap was the closest thing to L.A. Mexican food I've had in a year and a half...sigh...

So. The 9th. 4.30am. Straight to Angkor Wat in the dark. Walked on the causeway to the basins where there is the very well-known sunrise viewpoint, set up chairs, and waited. It was magnificent. By the time the sun actually came above the horizon at the temple, it was nearly 6.45am, and there were tourists crawling everywhere already. Such is high season at the largest religious structure in the world - which also means that despite the huge number of people there, you could find yourself a quiet corner anyway.

I spent a few hours wandering around Angkor Wat, and it is truly amazing. Doorways everywhere, the bas-reliefs are stunning, the lichens, the mold, the crumbling structures, the smell of incense...for atmosphere, this place is tops.

Next stop was Prasat Kravan, a very small set of ruins but the brilliant red rocks were impressive. Then to Sra Srang, a huge pool of water...on the other side of it is Banteay Kdei. Banteay Kdei receives less visitors than some of its neighbors, but it is gorgeous. It is serene and feels very tranquil. A group of kids rushed at me as I entered the gates, and in their scheme of warming me up, gave me a free bracelet - so I decided to make the girl a paper crane - I had brought some origami with me. As I took out the sheet of paper, they all asked me for a sheet as well - they all knew how to make various things too! I was very impressed. So we had an origami session for nearly half an hour and at the end of it, one girl gave me a beautiful yuri, lily-of-the-valley, that she had made, and said Have a good day, everyday, always. I melted.

Ta Prohm was next; famous for Tomb Raider being filmed there - this temple has trees growing in it, around it, on top of it, and is quite a sight to behold. Unfortunately, it was really swarming in tourists so I don't think I enjoyed it as much as I could have otherwise, but it was still impressive.

After a quick lunch, to Preah Khan, Ta Keo, Bayon, and Phnom Bakheng for sunset. All lovely, but I was completely exhausted.

On the 10th, I booked a birdwatching tour with Osmose to go to Prek Toal on Tonle Sap lake, which is just north of Siem Reap. Osmose is a company that does eco-tours, providing jobs, education, support for the village of Prek Toal. It was a fantastic tour, where not only did we see a ridiculous amount of birdlife, both in quantity of birds as well as species diversity, but we also learned about the village, the fish, the reptiles, the industry, the problems, and the possible solutions.

Huge colonies of storks, egrets, cormorants, lots of pelicans, all made for some great photo ops. A very pleasant group of 8 tourists, and a wonderful guide, Noung. During the day, we came across an illegal net in the lake, and she proceeded to remove it, spending nearly an hour on this, releasing all the animals that were still alive (mostly snakes and a few fish); we also saw, though, that there were huge amounts of dead snakes and fish in the net, and many were badly decomposed already - a sign that whoever had placed the net there was neglecting it and not even spending the time to recover what they were catching; a true waste.

On the 11th, I went with Khumtin again, and first we went to Bayon - which is a temple that has enormous stone faces. Really impressive, as each tower has 4 faces on it, said to possibly represent how the gods were watching all the people in the country...there are also some beautiful bas-reliefs at Bayon.

We went next to Kbal Spean - about 40km from Siem Reap, and most of it on extremely bumpy, dusty road. It was a beautiful ride though, passing through rice fields, small villages, and Cambodian jungle. Kbal Spean, known as the river of a thousand lingas, was really magical and I instantly fell in love with it. An uphill hike through the jungle leads to a river where there are statues carved into the rocks where the water flows - lots of Vishnu - and the atmosphere is really special. The vegetation, the light, the sound of the wind...incredible.

Backtracking to Banteay Srei, for many people the prettiest temple because it is entirely covered in Bas-relief carvings. The red sandstone is also breathtaking in the sunlight. The detail and complexity of this temple will stay in my memory forever.

A quick stop at Pre Rup, which gives great views of the surrounding area, and then a visit to the Land Mine Museum. Aki Ra is a Cambodian who works with locals to de-mine Cambodia.

He has been training locals to de-mine in a safe manner for the past 10 years, and speaks English, Japanese, and French and has gotten the support of many international organizations and individuals for this cause. The victims of the land mines guided us around the small museum and it was truly inspirational. Definitely one of the things in the past week that has made me feel I want to come back and do something here.

On the 12th, another 5am start to Bakong for sunrise. The Roluos group, located about 13km east of Siem Reap, comprises of Bakong, Preah Ko, and Lolei. Bakong and Lolei have current monasteries with monks (yay!). Bakong was beautiful, a five-tiered temple with a large moat, full of palm trees. As I arrived in the dark, I could hear the energetic voices of many novice monks.

I stopped briefly at Preah Ko, nice red towers, and moved on to Lolei, where there are 33 monks in residence. A couple of them came over to me - both 14 years old. A young boy was climbing up a ridiculously tall fruit tree to knock down fruit, and they offered me the first piece. It was yummy but I think I was allergic to it. Anyway, we went through my Khmer phrase sheets, looked at their English books, and ate lots of fruit. My kind of morning.

After this, Khumtin took me to his home where I met his wife and children. They were lovely...and then, a quick stop at Western Baray and then I'm about to get on my bus to Phnom Penh.

Overall, my impressions of Cambodia: this is an incredible country. The people have suffered so much, beyond what I could put in words, or imagine; yet there is a simpleness, an appreciation for life, and a complete lack of bitterness. Over our morning meal together, Khumtin told me that he was held in prison from 1979 to 1983. Now that I spend quite some time in Hiroshima for work, I always marvel at the fact that anyone in the city that was born before 1945 is an atomic bomb survivor. In Cambodia, the wars, the torture, the hardship, is much more recent, and much more widespread. It just amazes me.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Panic before the trip

I don't really know what a blog is. All I know is that for quite some time now people have been telling me I should have a blog, and have photos to go with it. I've recently gotten addicted to the photo bit of it, and the past few months have been full of uploading practically every image taken with my digital camera (Canon 20D - I LOVE it!)

I always feel like I should write stuff down, but get so overwhelmed with the concept of it that it just never happens. But now I'm actually gonna try to do it.

I leave in about 12 hours for my flight to Bangkok. I'm travelling for approximately 8 weeks through Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sulawesi (Indonesia) for diving. I can't wait.

In fact, I can't wait so much that rather than preparing for the trip, I'm reading books about the places I'm going, and doing all sorts of other things that arguably I shouldn't be, when my backpack is nowhere near ready to go. Like sitting here writing this.

Alas, I will get off the computer and go pack. It's gonna be a long 24 hours!