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.

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