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Posts from the ‘Sabatical’ Category

Nong Khaiw — Now That’s Relaxed Right There

When you buy a bus ticket anywhere in Southeast Asia you never really know what to expect. I find that I always serve myself better by lowering my transportation expectations by several notches in third world countries, even when the local travel agent makes assurances of air conditioning, your own seat, and bathroom stops…..Then maybe you will be pleasantly surprised.

Monique and I waited for our transfer vehicle only to find seven passengers in the back of the tuk tuk. My first thought was, “Here we go again.” After only a couple of issues at the bus station, such as the tour company forgetting to pick up the third companion in our group, we left Luang Prabang only a couple hours late.

After an interesting journey we arrived in record time to Nong Khaiw and hiked the rest of the way into town. We had reserved a lovely bungalow by the river. It is best to reserve accommodations up here, especially in high season, as there is a limited selection.

I was not sure what to expect in Nong Khaiw as my guide book only had two paragraph’s on this place. However, based on recommendations of fellow travelers we decided to explore on without guide book recommendations.

The mountains seem to keep folding one after another outside of this little valley. A river winds through. No one seems to notice or care there is a new tourist in town. When we arrived at our hotel the security guard was asleep. That would be our first real sign of the pace we would find here.

We mellowed out on our balcony and later rented inflated tubes to float down the river. We couldn’t find anyone to pay to drive us to where tourists put the floats in the river so we had to walk. It was the first time a tuk tuk ever refused to take a fair in all my world travels. “His day off.” someone said, as I tried to get the tuk tuk drivers attention. Then the man pointed the dirt road we should walk up.

I did not know why all the locals were smiling until I realized that we would have to carefully step down a steep muddy embankment full of overlapping greenery to get to the river. By the time we reached the water we were all laughing.

Later on we found a tour company to take us mountain biking up the valley the next day. We learned quickly that the gears on the bikes were in a bit of disrepair and only one of my brakes worked. But we figured we could survive one day on the bikes as we were excited to get in the mountains and to get some exercise.

We were able to visit four villages which, as always, were an eye opener and makes one thankful that we can afford to ride bikes in disrepair when other could not.

We saw children caring for children as their parents work in the fields. Other unaccompanied kids were picking up nuts on the side of the road to sell and eat. One of them had an untreated lazy eye. Some boys played soccer from a homemade ball. We found old women carrying heavy loads while many old men found ways to keep their hands busy. Other elderly starred off into the distance and seemed to observed the day away.

All the children seemed to be interested in the cameras we are holding as they, and some adults, want me to take a picture of them and then want me to show them photo. They want to know how they look.

We had asked our guide to fix a vegetarian meal for lunch. Somehow we thought it would be safer. We knew that he had purchase the traditional food wrapped in banana leaves from the market early in the morning. I figured the food was sitting in a warm backpack for at least six hours before lunch.

Our guide cuts down a couple banana leaves for a table and we sit beside the river. “Wow. What do we have?” We asked. “This is eggplant. Here we have noddles. This is sticky rice. Here is river weed. This is fish.” Our guide pointed to each unwrapped item in front of us.” I pick up my noodles and start eating until I notice something brownish. “What this?” “It’s water buffalo blood.” “I thought that this was a vegetarian meal?” I questioned. “It is….No meat.” “I generously offered up my portion of noodles to any takers.”

I think my mother would have been proud that I tried a small amount everything else. However, I must admit that I mainly stayed with the sticky rice for that meal.

That afternoon we would kayak back to Nong Khaiw. It was a pleasant paddle down the river with the green hills around us and the limestone cliffs above. Our guide decides that we should break for a swim. Shortly after pulling our boats on the sandy island we we realized that our guide was completely conked out in one of the kayaks. “What is it with this place? Everyone sleeps on the job.” Monique notices. We all laugh.

When our guide awoke we completed our paddle early enough to meet the sunset back at our hotel. The next day we choose to take the slow boat back down to Luang Prabang.

Several times I thought, “I could spend some time in retirement in this town.” It was one of the first places that I thought someone could get around with a cane or a walker. And well, it seems that it is perfectly fine to take a cat nap on the job. Now, that’s relaxed right there.

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You Are Going to Love Luang Prabang

“You are going to love it here! Listen to that.” Monquie, a new friend from my Cambodia travels and who arrived a day earlier in Luang Prabang, Laos, stated enthusiastically. “What?” I questioned. “Nothing. No tuk tuk horns, no people asking you to buy anything. Isn’t it great! I feel so relaxed here and I have only been here a day.”

We walked through the night market together and I noticed that she was right. This was the most peaceful it had been outside of my hotel in over two weeks. Walking in front of the vender stalls, the busiest part of town, merchants would only ask if you wanted help if you had stood there awhile.

During my time in Luang Prabang, I spent idle time watching the river and fishermen casting there nets, made trips to see local Buddhist temples, visited local villages, watched the sunset from a wat on the hill (a fun 338 steps to the top) and of course attend another dance/theater performance.

I also visited the small cultural museum and royal palace. The throne room of the royal palace should not be missed, even if “you are not a museum person”. I believe that it rivals any other royal interior I have seen in Southeast Asia. The majority of the throne room is painted red and intricate colored mirrors cover the walls. The mirror images tell the story of the Lao people and their traditions. A grand crystal chandelier hangs from the center of the room. The throne and other furniture about the room are painted in brilliant gold. Unfortunately visitors are not allowed to film the palace but I am sure there are pictures of the palace online if you are interested.

An unexpected surprise in the palace was a gift from President Nixon of the United States to the people of Lao. It was a miniature flag of their country that had went up in Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the moon. Also in a glass casing on the plaque were moon rocks from that first mission.

We woke up early to give alms to the monks as is common in Luang Prabang. Every morning at six, monks walk silently down the street with their alms basin. Locals and tourist alike give food alms as they pass on their way.

My favorite three days were spent just outside of Luang Prabang. The first was a wonderful day spent hiking and visiting beside water that fell down into countless aqua pools. The water was perfect for a little swim in the afternoon heat. Monquie and I had also signed up for a Lao cooking class. We started at the market learning how to pick the freshest ingredients then we went to a lovely cooking school outside of town where we each had our own cooking station. I now know how to really roast vegetables and stuff a piece of lemongrass. My favorite day was spent in the jungle learning how to be a mahout or elephant trainer.

It seemed that most travelers had a hard time leaving this town. So many activies if you choose to do any at all. Luang Prabang is not to slow, not to fast paced, it was just right.

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Beyond the Temples

Beyond the Temples of Siem Reap are its people.

Hopeful merchants outside every temple parking lot encroaching on weary foreigners. Young children happily visiting until they notice someone entering or leaving a temple. Their eyes turn sad as they count the postcards for sale, “One, two, three…”

Other children in uniforms ride their bicycles to school. We also find locals driving the roads using a variety of mechanical contraptions. Tourist mix in, pedaling or riding tuk-tuk’s to the ancient treasures while others speed by in large tourist buses.

Outside of the main temple circuit, one can see more and more folks farming and going about their daily life away from the main attractions. In the country, families sell goodies they have created by the side of the road such as candy and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. Nearby their children play carefree.

This is Siem Reap, beyond the city, between the temples.

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Don’t Walk, Run to See the Wonders of Siem Reap

Siem Reap is best known for the twelfth century wonder known as Angkor Wat. However, there are more than one hundred temples dating from the ninth to the twelfth century built around this Angkorian capitol which was all but destroyed by the Thai Army in the fourteenth century. Angkor Wat was one of the last temples built during the during this period but is best known as it is both one of the largest and most detailed of them all.

As kings and religions changed over the centuries, so too did the purpose of the temples. However, the line between each religion becomes blended with old traditions and the importance honoring ancestors. Therefore, temples or monuments originally dedicated to Hinduism, Animism or Buddhism may be rededicated with the change in belief system over the years.

Locals break up the temples into three parts; The “Small Circuit” include Angkor Wat, Bayon which is nicknamed “Temple with the Faces” and Ta Prohm nicknamed “The Tomb Raider Temple” as is was made famous by Anglia Jolie’s famous movie, ‘Laura Croft: Tomb Raider’. The “Big Circuit” includes one of my favorites, Preah Khan, which is a very detailed temple with pink highlights and losing a battle against numerous banyan trees towering above the collapsing stones. Further away from the center is the “Roluos Group” which comprises of some of the oldest temples dating from the ninth century.

For the adventurous there are amazing temples further out from these three groups. The greatest of these is Beng Mealea. Here not only the trees but also the moss and jungle seemed to be claiming it for their own.

Most tourists come in groups and just seem to view the highlights. Coming for extra days with your own transportation, waiting for the groups to pass by make the journey more peaceful. It is common to rent a bicycle and pedal from place to place.

I snapped over a thousand photographs in my three day visit to the temples. In reviewing the photos I realize that nothing seems to capture the greatness of it all.

I, like many visitors, arrived early to witness the changing morning colors over Angkor Wat. I was quickly introduced to the steep narrow steps most temples possess. The steps lead up to holy sites that are built higher to be closer to god or heaven.

I must admit that I was nervous climbing up and down some of the steps. Some steps barely achieved three inches in width. A few times, I could feel my toes tighten to hold myself as my fingers gripped tightly to these narrow steps as I mind questioned why I decided to climb to the top.

By the second day of my journey, I notice little restoration work about me as I become more and more aware of the impact thousands of tourist a day are having on these sites.

At one temple, I see three workers vainly attempt some reconstruction without any heavy equipment. At the same site I notice bus loads of tourist crawling all over one of the oldest temples, Beng Mealea, in order to capture “that perfect photo”. The stones are not stable, but one by one they wait their turn and crawl over to the place for their chance at the same photograph and creating additional damage along the way. I begin to wonder why the government is not doing more restoration and blocking off areas to preserve the temples for future generations.

On the last day I hired a personal guide to help answer questions I have had about the temples and the people surrounding Siem Reap. At the end of the day I asked, “What do you want me to know about this place before I leave?” I was shocked to learn his answer. “Where is your ticket?” I reached in my bag and pulled out my three day Angkor World Heritage Pass. “Look at the symbol at the bottom.” He pointed to a pink symbol and under it had the words ‘SOKHA HOTEL Co., LTD’.

“What does that mean?” I asked. My guide explained that the government had a contract that allows most of the revenues from these Cambodian treasures to be claimed by this company which little, if any, goes to support reconstruction or to help the people of Cambodia. In my guides opinion, due to government corruption it is unlikely that these contracts will be changed to support the people of Cambodia or the temples located here.

I titled this blog, “Don’t Walk, Run To See The Wonders of Siem Reap”, because with little interest or financial resources to restore this structures, as the country is still rebuilding from the wrecking ball of the Khmer Rouge, I fear that the destruction of the temples will continue over time as the number of tourist mount. So, do come quickly if you are eager to see the temples as unrestricted as I have been able to enjoy. However, please be aware of your presence here and please do your part minimize your lasting footprint on the area.

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Phnom Pen – Rising From The Ashes

The capitol of Cambodia is a raw and bustling entanglement of street venders, vehicles, businessmen, bicycles and sidewalk restaurants. Motorbike and tuk tuk drivers ask each passerby if they need a ride. Police sit in corner restaurants or stand by street intersections and observe the daily chaos.

As I walk around the city there is an unmistakeable friendliness that fills the air. Despite the poverty and long working hours of the people there are smiles everywhere. People want to get to know you. As I walked to the river one tuk tuk driver asked if I wanted a ride, “Tuk tuk?” “No, I am walking.” As point my index and middle finder down and move them back and forth as legs walking. “Oh….. Walking!” The driver pauses smiles and adds, “Walking is good too.”

Highlights in Phnom Pen include visiting the Royal Palace, National History Museum and walking by the river. It was a meaningful experience to visit the museums and memorial for the the victims of Pol Pots reign. Above all however, I enjoyed attending two Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) performances at the National Museum.

The CLA was formed in 1998 by Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide. About ninety percent of Cambodia’s artists were killed during the reign of Khmer Rouge and the traditional arts were at risk of extinction. The CLA was formed to keep the traditional Cambodian arts alive with a focus of providing opportunities for under privileged children to learn the arts and further pursue their educational endeavors.

My time in the capitol city proved that people are resilient and where there is a spark, a flame can be rekindled in the human spirit.

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The Red Khmer

When I was in grammar school, in a land I did not know, a horror overcame an entire country called Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was the political party that won a revolution and their leader Pol Pot began a harsh rule to cleanse an entire nation. In four years he would be responsible for the deaths of two to three million of his own people. More than a quarter of his countries population.

Anyone who was educated or appeared educated were especially vulnerable. Schools and places of worship were closed and many in these institutions were executed. Teachers, monks, artists, doctors, business men and those with “soft hands” or who wore glasses, giving the appearance of being educated, were especially vulnerable. Children were executed with the parents because Pol Pot did not want the children to grow up with revenge against the government in their heart.

Complete cities were evacuated to camps to work in the field since city dwellers were also a root of evil. Families were separated.

Peasants from the country were Pol Pot’s heroes. However, even the peasants were treated harshly. People did not have enough food. The only religion the people needed was the new government.

As I walked up the steps at S21, a high school that was turned into an interrogation center and prison, my mind flashed to when I was a principal walking up the steps of our high school. As I walked the stairs, I thought about the principal and the teachers who worked here. ‘Did they live long enough to see what the new government would do to their students…their colleagues? Could they do anything at all before dying? How can anyone do this to children?’ As I walked from classroom to classroom little was left to the imagination as photographs of the executed were hung about. Pot instructed, “Better to kill an innocent then let an enemy survive.”

People were interrogated and tortured for hours everyday. They pulled out their finger nails from their hands, used electric shock, beat, hung them upside down and dunked them into water and cut them open with tools that should be used only for farm work.

Officials hauled truckloads of their countrymen to be executed in killing field locations all over this country. At times the victims would have to dig their own grave pits before they were knelt down beside the pit and executed.

In addition to S21, I visited one of the killing fields. After going to Rwanda just a few months ago I was going to bypass this place. I was not sure if my heart could bear witness to another genocide of a people. However, I believe that it is important that we visit, talk and write about these things so that the unthinkable never happens again.

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Final Thoughts to Consider–

After Khmer Rouge was driven out by the Vietnamese in 1979, rescuing the people from this hell, the ousted government was still recognize by the UN and many western governments for years. Many governments, including the United States, continued to financially support the Khmer Rouge which had fled into hiding. As I am here in Cambodia, I wonder how our western governments pick winners and losers in these third world countries. I also encourage you to consider:

1) Why our governments are more interested in helping people who are experiencing genocide and crimes against humanity when those people live on a land with great natural resource?

2) When our government choses a side, how do we know they have chosen correctly?