Jan 20 -25 - Koh Samui, Thailand
Wow, if you ever have the chance to fly Bangkok Airways, you really should. We hopped over to Bangkok, and then down to Koh Samui Island. Neither of our flights lasted much more than an hour, but the stewardesses managed to serve us good meals and a couple of beverages both times. By early afternoon we were holed up in a bungalow just off the beach, sipping pineapple shakes and happy to have made it through Laos and Cambodia in one piece.
For days after that (I'm writing this from Bangkok two weeks later), my memory has gotten sketchy and I'm not going to try to pull out too many details. Maybe the pictures will explain everything! Needless to say we enjoyed ourselves and had a little down time from the intensity of traveling through foreign cultures. The beach was just a few feet down the path, the water was warm, and a whole strip of restaurants and shops lined the main road on our other side.
Koh Samui is a pretty big island, maybe 50 kilometers all the way around by road, so on a moped, we made a day trip of it and went searching for other cool beaches. We were staying on Hat Lamai beach on the SE side, which was quieter than the main drag near the airport, but on our moped we explored a little of everything, except the hills in the center. Our map showed that there were roads up to some great overlooks, but when we tried to find them, we got hopelesly confused, and finally concluded that the roads were nothing more than dusty unpaved tracks. The thought of fruit shakes and fried fish for supper made it easy to give up and head back to our beach.
The shopping road close to our hotel was lined with tailor shops manned by very convincing salesman. After a very persistent sales pitch, I finally gave in to one of them and had a suit and jacket made for me, which might come in handy for that interview and job again someday, I hope. I went back several times for fittings, and after a couple of days and some hard bargaining, the final product was ready.
Being back in Thailand again was an interesting change after our time in Laos and Cambodia. There was a 7-Eleven on every corner and a McDonald's down the street. But it still wasn't quite like life as you guys know it, and although we found a huge store on Samui resembling a small Sam's Club, there was nothing even close to a normal supermarket. Most of our snacks that weren't street food came from the corner 'Marts, and it was interesting to see the trends across the whole region on available goods. It was always easy to find Oreos, Lay's Potato Chips, and about ten flavors of Mentos (yup, ten!), plus the five kinds of soda; Coke, Sprite, and Fanta Orange, Fanta Green, and Fanta Red. But chocolate, diet soda, and most other snack items were hard to find, disproportionately expensive, and usually not worth buying (unless in the throes of a chocolate fetish).
Jan 26-31 - Koh Tao island
When we could bring ourselves to get motivated again, we hopped the slow boat for Koh Tao, an even smaller island a couple of hours north of Samui. It rained on us during the boat ride, for the first time in about a month, sending us scurrying inside from our seats out on the deck. We switched boats in the rain on Ko Pha Ngan (home of the famous full moon party), amid a vast confusion of moving bags, people, and various other items between vessels. On the ride over several people were passing around flyers for Scuba Diving Resorts, and one of them looked interesting, so after docking we hopped in the back of their company pickup truck and headed to the resort.
Koh Tao is known as one of the premier locations to learn how to scuba dive, mostly because of the beautiful clear waters but also because it is absolutely the cheapest place in the world to get PADI Open Water Dive certified. Which is what I did, starting just hours after arriving at Big Blue Dive Resort. My instructor and two fellow students were from Sweden, and the other student was from Holland, but lucky me, the class was conducted mostly in English. The course lasted about 3 days, with some classroom instruction in the mornings, and then lots of practice in the afternoons. Our first time out, we learned how to put together all of the equipment we would need, including the air tank, regulator, and vest, and then walked out into the shallow bay to practice. Our equipment must have weighed almost 50 pounds, including 15 pounds of weights to make us sink, but once in the water we couldn't feel it at all. Mostly the learning was very fun, but taking my mask off underwater, and then putting it back on again (still underwater), involved some water getting up my nose and a slight moment of panic. But, all four of us figured it out, and practiced all sorts of other safeguards like buddy breathing, ascending, descending, etc. I tried to pay attention but the fish swimming around me were fun to watch as well.
Our second time in the water, we packed up our gear and went out on a big boat to a couple of real dive sites, where we repeated our safety practices, and then swam around and checked out some amazing coral and tropical fish. I was curiously confounded by how hard it was to keep my bearings or even know which direction I was going in three dimensions. The snorkeling around the island was very good as well, and Rob was content to stay on top of the water for his fish viewing, avoiding the homework and time demands of the PADI course. He came out on the boat with us the second day and snorkeled where we were diving, and the water was clear enough he could still see us down at the bottom.
For our final morning, we visited a dive site called the Chumporn Pinnacles, and descended to 18 meters, where we played some more and saw a lot of incredible fish, including a Moray Eel. I took my fins off for a minute, and felt incredible weighless, able to do spins in mid-water without any sense of gravity. A diving camerawoman followed us around the last day, and took videos of our small group, and that final evening we gathered back together to watch the video. It was also Rob's chance to see from under the water, instead of on top. Both the video and the life we had seen underwater were incredible.
After all the diving, when I graduated the course I was ready for a break, so we rented a scooter and explored the island. Koh Tao is much smaller than the two others, shaped like a lumpy half moon and very hilly, only a couple of kilometers long. The only paved road in town runs along parallel to the main bay, although there are small resorts spread around other isolated bays around the island. Getting to them is somewhat of a challenge, and many people just use long-tail boats for transport. There were few cars around, but mostly just scooters, dirt bikes, and ATVs. I took a couple of hours and rode around by myself, finding plenty of steep, rutted, dusty roads leading to beautiful quiet beaches. My scooter was equiped with knobby tires, so it handled the terrain pretty well, and I made it back down to the water and did some snorkeling in a small bay filled with clear shallow water.
Later on, I picked up Rob, and really challenged the machine with the weight of two people. We did find that on some of the steepest hills, Rob would actually have to get off and walk up (sorry, Rob), as the 125 cc scooter just didn't have the power to take both of us. Coming back down was easier, although I was stomping on both brakes to keep us from hurtling all the way to the bottom. We did find one hill too steep and rutted for me to want to go up or down it, even by myself, and we left Mango bay for the boats, but Ao Hin Wong bay was easier to get down, and it was great snorkeling. There was no beach at all, which made the deep water crystal clear, and swimming around the granite submerged rocks was like jumping into an aquarium. It was so fun we actually came back again the next morning to see it in better light.
Since the beach by our hotel faced to the West, it set itself up perfectly for sunset strolling, and every evening we managed to be out on the water to see the sun almost dip all the way to the horizon before disappearing into a smear of red sky. The tides on the Gulf of Thailand varied by at least a couple of feet, and while we were there it was always low tide during the supper hour, which the restaurants took full advantage of. As the water receded; tables, chairs, plants, bean bag chairs, cushions, lights, and grills made their way onto the sand, and opened for business. Each one seemed to be better decorated than the last, with bonfires, lanterns, fire dancers, and Christmas lights strung in the palm trees. We sampled quite a few of them as the evenings darkened into night, and found that the food was just as good as the atmosphere.
On our last morning, I rented a single kayak and paddled my way out to Nang Yuan Island, which is really three islands connected by very narrow strips of sand, and surrounded by great dive and snorkel sites. Rob was recovering from an ear infection and had said that sleeping sounded better than anything else. Once there, I tied the kayak to my ankle and did some amazing snorkeling. I paddled back just in time for my last dive on Koh Tao that afternoon.
Each month, the dive resort organizes an ocean clean-up dive in a place that they notice has the most trash. The dive is free to all certified divers, and it was worth staying a day longer than planned to help give back to the island and pick up trash, underwater style. We headed out on the boat on of the southern beaches where a bunch of fisherman had holed up in a recent storm (said fisherman being known to toss what they don't want over the side of their boats), and got ready to dive. I was paired with a divemaster and another rookie, and we set out with mesh bags hoping to find trash. It went slowly at first, as we worked to free an old fishing net; but soon our bags filled up with glass bottles, wire, dinner plates, shoes, tin cans, and an old snorkeling set. The car tires we left where they lay, and also the fishing nets since they were hopelessly caught up in the coral, but we did free a fish that had been caught in a discarded net. When our bags were stuffed, we could barely haul them to the surface, and a long-tail boat came around to empty them into baskets. Picking stuff up off the bottom and then swimming around with it was very good practice for my buoyancy control, and fun besides!
Feb 1- 3 - Bangkok
Since I convinced Rob to stay longer on the islands, it compressed our time in Bangkok to just a couple of days, and we spent most of the first one just traveling there. It took a couple of hours on the fast boat to get back to the mainland city of Chumporn, and from there we took a VIP bus (it was actually nice this time!) the 7 hours up to Bangkok. And finally we were here to see the city, unlike the previous 3 times we had passed through and not stayed to visit.
But by the time we arrived here, after a month and a half in SE Asia, all of the Wats were starting to look alike, and the big city was just that, a really big city. Rob enjoys the cities more than I do, and spent the day wandering around until his feet were tired, but returned with the thought that the place was just too big to explore properly. I walked out into the streets filled with food vendors hawking everything from fried cockroaches to fruit shakes, and thought if I smelled another greasy banana pancake that I might have to throw up. I think we were just ready to move on to India.
For our last meal in Thailand, we decided that we couldn't live without eating sticky rice one more time. We went and found a street vendor, and began pointing things out with abandon; a piece of chicken, a grilled fish, a piece of fried fish, some sticky rice, and a couple of sodas. We even accidentally ended up with some sort of salad, which Rob was willing to eat, and the whole bill came out to less than $4.
Our flight wasn't until 11:30 at night, so we wandered around the city for the last time before heading to the airport. On to India!
***Ok, after this you should jump over to the India page***
January 11, 2009
On Rob's birthday, we were happy to wake up early for a flight (not a bus!) to the Cambodian city of Siem Riep. The tuk-tuk driver at the airport insisted on bringing us to a hotel of his choosing, and was crestfallen when we choose to not book a room with the place, losing his commission. But just down the street was a much nicer place for almost the same price, and a fourth floor room gave us a view and a bit of exercise.
Siem Reap probably won't give us an accurate view of what Cambodia is like, beings that it is a tourist hub for the ruins of Angkor Wat, a bit like Cancun although on a much smaller scale. I know a lot of you out there are going to be saying that you've never heard of Siem Reap, but in this part of the world it's a very popular destination, and the amount of tourists have brought about changes to the city as well. There are about 4000 Cambodian Riel in a US $1, but for some reason all of the prices here in the city are listed in US Dollars. Even the ATMs here give out US currency, which is kind of nice for us since we were carrying some with us anyway, but I'm sure quite strange for the folks from Australia or Europe. The locals say they are using Dollars because their currency fluctuates too much, and because it takes up too much space in their wallets. I can attest to that...there are no coins in this country, so when something cost $1.50, to make 50 cents out of Riels I used three 500 Riel bills and five 100 Riel bills and flattened my wallet considerably.
The locals here know an amazing amount of English, and they are also quite friendly and helpful. It is quite a change from the laid back Lao's who wait for you to approach them...the people here will aggressively try to interest you in taking their taxi, eating at their restaurant, or buying their souvenirs, but never seem to get angry if you say no, so it's high pressure without too much pressure. Now the constant attention could get annoying, I suppose, but coming from where we have been; to find friendly, outgoing, smiling locals is really nice, and makes it easy to find our way around.
Siem Reap itself doesn't seem too different from any town in SE Asia. There are bicycles and scooters everywhere, with probably more cars than usual just due to the tourist traffic. The downtown area has several markets, plenty of restaurants, and lots of dust. Every street in town seems to be under some sort of construction project, so there are odd piles of gravel, holes, and misc road closed signs everywhere, which the locals seem to take as just suggestions. Foreigners aren't allowed to rent scooters here, which might save quite a few of their lives, I'm guessing, but bicycles are allowed, and are just as scary. The tuk-tuks here aren't a rebuilt frame on a motorcycle body, they are more like a carriage pulled by an scooter instead of a horse, and quite fun to ride in.
And speaking of scooters, I think we have now seen almost anything carried on, in, or behind them that is scientifically possible. I've included a few pics, but the best ones were just hard to take pictures of, as they would drive by before we could pull out the camera.
What you can see carried on a scooter and/or scooter trailer:
3-5 people per scooter
Another 4-15 people on a scooter trailer
2 dead pigs laying on their backs
A huge load of pillows (slowly becoming dust colored instead of white)
A 20 x 1 foot pipe balanced by 3 men sitting on it
15 gunny sacks full of rice or vegetables
Lots of coconuts
A huge stack of firewood
Jan 12 & 14- Angkor Wat
The main attraction to the area is without a doubt the great ruins of Angkor Wat, and one day just isn't enough to really see them. Some people take up to a week, but we settled for just a couple of days, as we see more in a day than the average tourist, I'm guessing. We rented one-speed bicycles for $1 per day, and made our way 6 km out of town to the ruins. That's not to say that once there we parked our bicycles...the ruins are spread out over a huge area, and there is a 26 km road looping around the major sites. We decided to take the big loop the first day, and set off down the dusty road.
The ruins of Angkor were built over a couple hundred years ending around the 11th century, by a series of kings ruling the Khmer empire. There are tons of carvings on almost every inch of the stone walls, and many of the carvings contain images and scenes from the Hindu religion. Angkor has since been converted to Buddhism with the addition of smiling statues, although the delicate original stone carvings and the newer simplistic Buddhas images do tend to clash quite obviously. But the most fascinating differences that we noticed were between the ruin sites themselves, which had been built over several centuries by different kings, and instead of being copies of each other, were brilliant works of art by probably millions of stonemasons.
The first site we visited was called Ta Prohm, and if it looks vaguely familiar in the photos, it's probably because it was made famous by Lara Croft in the movie "Tomb Raider". Several huge trees had been left growing up and over the crumbling ruins, and huge tumbled stones blocked whole passageways, with roots growing down over the top of it all. The place was a maze of narrow walkways and dead ends, with paths climbing up and over fallen carvings. Although there were a lot of tourists around us, it was easy to turn a corner and see no one at all, and at times it was hard even to keep track of Rob as he searched out unique angles and subject matter for his photos.
Outside of each temple site was an unofficial welcoming committee...kids eager to sell us refreshingly cold bottles of water, a few bracelets or a whistle, or a packet of postcards. Since they were also amazingly good at English, and since everything seemed to cost $1, Rob ended up with quite a few souvenirs in his backpack before we left the ruins for the day. We continued around the circle on our bicycles and on the far side found a structure that looked more like the square castle at Chichen Itza than the maze we had just left. The color of the rock had changed as well, from a dull grey-green stone to a reddish hue. We climbed up the steep stairs to the top, and from there we could see another ruin farther along the road, and one tiny round hill in the distance...otherwise the world was as flat as the view from anywhere in the Yucatan
Inside a big area called Anchor Thom were many smaller groups of ruins, including towering gates over the road at each compass direction. Several famous ruins are inside of this area, one such being a huge square temple called Baphoun. As we walked down the raised stone walkway we saw it had thousands of stone lying in rows all the way around it, and it was in the process of being renovated as well. Evidently, back in the 70's it had been taken apart almost stone by stone (and well marked so it could be put back together again), but the government during the reign of the Khmer Rouge (more on this later) destroyed the records, leaving historians with the worlds largest jigsaw puzzle. Another amazing ruin inside of Anchor Thom was a three-layered temple called Bayon. It had gigantic stone heads that pointed in all directions. From a distance, it really just looked like a jumbled pile of old rocks, but from inside, the towering faces came alive, and at least 3 were visible at all times.
At sunset, we finally made it back to the most well-known site, Angkor Wat itself, which is the biggest and most well-preserved of all the ruins. Actually, it isn't technically even a ruin, since it was never abandoned even as the ones around it crumbled. Indeed, it was a very imposing place, with large empty bathing pools, long corridors, and well-preserved carvings around the whole outside wall. The most famous carving is known as the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which looks like angels and demons fighting a tug-of-war using a snake as the rope. This scene was repeated throughout the sites, in the form of hundreds of huge stone figures lining the sides of the road, pulling a stone snake on both sides of the towering gates.
Jan 13 - The Silk Farm
In between the days spent exploring the ruins, we took a day to rest and to see more of the city. A local artisan school ran a free shuttle bus out to a silk farm, and even the tour of the farm was free...Rob was in heaven. We caught the afternoon shuttle, and prepared to enlighten ourselves. Since I had the (incorrect) impression that silk worms spun webs or something that somehow turned into silk, I was really in for an education. Most of the farm was given over to rows and rows of mulberry trees, only about 4 feet tall, with leaves that were harvested 4 times a year for the silk worms to eat. The silk worms themselves were housed in a small building protected from both ants and mosquitoes (using screens on the doors and a ring of water around each pillar). Our guide told us about the 47 day life cycle of a silk worm, in which they are born, eat, sleep, eat, sleep, eat, sleep, spin a cocoon, turn into a moth, lay eggs, and then die. None of it really would be noteworthy, except that somehow the cocoon that they spin is made out of, you guessed, silk. The farm carefully feeds the worms until they get full, and then puts them in baskets where they spin their cocoons. 20% are kept for the reproduction cycle, and the rest are boiled and then left to dry in the sun. Then the work really starts. The cocoons have two layers, and the outer layer is rough silk, which is removed by pulling sticky threads from the cocoons floating in a vat of boiling water, and combining them on a spindle to make threads. Then the fine silk is removed as well by the same method, but it takes 40 cocoon threads combined to make one visible thread of silk.
Once the silk is threaded, the yellow color is bleached out and then dyed using natural local dyes. Then it is spooled onto huge spools by women learning the trade, and bundled into specific uses. In the next room, more workers carfully tied tiny strips of plastic around groups of thread in careful patterns, and then tye-die them different colors. The colored loops of silk are then finally ready for the loom, but the loom itself must be first carefully prepared with hundreds of threads of a base color, counted out by hand and separated with many different spindles in order to create complex designs in the weave. The colored loops of thread are individually transferred to pencil-like shuttles, which are shoved back and forth through the loom, and finally the scarf starts to take shape. Each pass with the shuttle must be carefully tensioned so that each tye-die color lines up with the previous pass.
If you haven't understood a word I've said, I barely do either, and I've seen the process...but what becomes abundantly clear is the massive amount of work that goes into weaving silk using traditional methods. Just one scarf takes a worker four days to complete on a loom, and that isn't accounting for first removing, spooling, dying, and cutting the silk threads. If it was up to Americans to complete all the steps of getting the silk from the worms to the wearer...well, we may not be wearing much silk clothing at all.
Jan 15 - Day in the Life of a Cambodian Villager (Alternatively titled A Wedding And A Funeral)
Since we were now in Cambodia, and wanted to see how village life here compares with other places we've seen, we found a tour called A Day In The Life...and stepped in their shoes (more or less). After a bumpy ride down a narrow dusty road, Rob and I, plus two girls from Australia, stopped at the house of the village leader. Our driver and our guide got out with us, and we all set off in two small carts pulled by water buffaloes, with large rickety wooden wheels that fell into every bump in the road. The path narrowed to the width of a cart, and ended at a couple of houses surrounded by rice fields.
Part of the purpose of the tour was to give back to the villages, and the money would be used to purchase water purifiers and build wells for the families. It seemed each tour would visit a different poor family around the village, and help them maintain their houses, or their roof in particular. We arrived at the house to find a pile of dried and folded palm leaves waiting for us, and our guide showed us how to sew the leaves strips into panels, which are then are overlapped on the roof to keep out water. These are the same palm leaves that are used in the Yucatan, however there they don't cut the palms, just bunch them into thick bundles over the roof supports. Sewing them together with strips of strong bamboo leaves is a lot more work, and doesn't last nearly as long, only 2-3 years, but that's what they do here, so we set to work. Our guide, who spoke excellent English, said that the local women could finish 35 panels in a day, but we were slow learners, and I think we only did 3 or 4 apiece before lunch saved us from our labors. Rob claimed that he could never learn to sew (secretly he just didn't feel like being stuck with a job to do), and instead charmed the family of 10 kids next door, with our driver as his translator. I had a nice chat with the Australian girls as we persevered on the roof panels.
Rob reappeared in time for lunch, and we helped create a dubious local specialty called Prahoc, also known as fermented fish paste. The main ingredient was of course fermented fish, which reeked after 10 days in a sack, and added to the chopping block were ginger shavings, garlic, leeks, chilis, brown sugar, and ants. That rights, ants. Our guide took a bucket of water, walked over to a nearby tree, twisted off a big ant nest growing on a leaf, and dunked it in the water. He claimed that the ants which crawled over his hands didn't bite, but I kept well clear anyway. Soon there was a considerable pile of dead ants in the bucket, which clumped together and were added to the mix that Rob was chopping up while trying not to breath the smell. The gooy mess was dumped on a banana leaf and toasted on a stick over a small fire. The resulting food that emerged, smelled even worse than before, and I could clearly still see orange ant bodies in with the fish. The ants are supposed to provide a tangy, sour taste to the mixture, and I tried a little with some rice, but it tasted bad right away and worse after a few seconds. Our guide claimed to like it...but even Rob couldn't handle more than a taste. Luckily that wasn't really lunch...in a cooler were sandwiches, fruit, banana bread and water.
After lunch, our guide, Lim, asked us if we wanted to crash a wedding of a friend of his, and of course we said yes. We walked over the rice fields towards loud music, and soon found a colorful tent set up in someones backyard and filled with guests. We didn't stay there long, but met the bride and groom, who were decked out in Cambodia's version of wedding garb (the bride was wearing a hot pink kimono). The official photographer got us to all pose together with the happy couple.
Our next stop once back to the van, was a deserted local pagoda and small cemetery, where our guide explained some of the Buddhist customs. We had remarked on the lack of cemeteries throughout our SE Asia travels, and finally understood why, as almost all the people here are cremated and their ashes stored inside the wats. Sure enough, we walked by a crematorium, and stood in the shade sharing stories about funeral rites in our different countries. Our guide had a Chinese background, and their tradition is to bury a person for three years, then dig them up, cremate the bones, and then either store the ashes, or scatter them. But right after the bones are dug up, they are cleaned with holy water by a monk; the surviving family members of the deceased then pour coconut juice over the bones, collect it up in a pan, and drink the juice. Ok, that's gross.
While we were talking about all this, people started showing up and working around the crematorium, and our guide found out that an actual funeral would be happening soon. Sure enough, a large crowd of people rounded the corner and entered the wat, pulling a hand-drawn casket on a wagon with a long white rope. An orange robed monk in a small cart led the way, meditating for the dead man's soul. The wagon stopped near the crematorium, and the wooden lid was removed from the casket, which was then shouldered by men and carried around the crematorium three times. Rob was right there in the midst of everyone walking, snapping pictures. When the circles were finished, the blanket was removed from the corpse, and he was left in a flimsy wooden box with no lid. Three more circles around by monks carrying candles, and the box was shoved into the crematorium and doused with gasoline and lots of wood, and lit. Soon black smoke was billowing out from the top, and the people began to disperse. It was quite a wild thing to witness.
Across the road from the wat was an elementary school, and we stopped in there for a few moments to watch the kids playing. There were about 500 students, with 10 open-air classrooms and a large open yard, that about it. Outside the gates were a couple of vendors selling snacks, including a huge pile of tiny clams coated with chili sauce, pulled out of the local river. There were plenty of shells on the ground, but our guide said that even he got sick from eating them once, so we were happy to not have to try them.
Normally this time of the tour, we would visit a rice field and help with the harvest, but they were actually between harvests at the moment. The 5 month rice crop from the wet season had already ended, and the 3 month variety for the dry season was being planted. The short season rice wasn't good for eating, just for making rice noodles or related foods, and since most of the fields were lying fallow, I got the feeling that not as much of it was even planted. Instead, we drove back to the silk farm, and had another tour, which was a duplicate for us, but interesting for the two Australian girls.
Our last stop of the day was at an ancient reservoir built at the same time period as Angkor Wat. It was a huge body of water, and still used today to provide water for the fields during the dry season when the rivers run low. Along the quay was a local produce market, and a basket of deep-fried beetles caught our attention. The girls were willing to try them, and after removing the legs and the wings and chewing vigorously, pronouced them quite salty and not too bad.
Jan 16 - Boat journey across the Tonle Sap to Battambang, and "inedible bits" soup
Wow, what a boat journey. This may be the most spectacular journey that we have taken yet. At six in the morning, a bus picked us up, along with a bunch of other tourists and two bicycles. Just when we thought that no one else could possible fit inside the bus, we picked up 5 more people and their large bags, until the entire front of the bus was layered in luggage. We drove out of Siem Reap along a river out to the floating village of Chong Kneas, and there a decrepit old rust-bucket of a boat was waiting for us. Our bus was kind of late, so the boat was already packed, and we walked all the way through the boat to find that every seat was filled. In a flash of inspiration, I said to Rob that we should see if we could ride on the roof, and sure enough, we left 60 people packed inside the boat, and climbed upstairs to find only a pile of backpacks, the two bicycles and a couple other daring people.
The boat was about 40 feet long, and maybe 10 feet wide, and half of the roof had short railings and even a couple of cushions to sit on, and we made a space for ourselves as the boat pushed off from the dock. Right away we were floating through a short stretch of stilted houses, and I stood on the roof and laughed at the absurdity of traveling like this. About 15 people ended up making their way to the roof, but everyone stayed on the lower section with railings, so I convinced Rob to climb up on the unguarded section, and we had it all to ourselves for at least a couple of hours, I'm not sure why. The boat chugged along steadily and never made any sudden turns or swings, so even our bags lay on the roof without the danger of falling over the side.
Soon enough we left the village and headed out into the huge lake of the Tonle Sap. In the wet season, water from the Mekong river flows into the lake, and the water level can rise from 2 meters to about 10. In the dry season, the water reverses its flow and goes back out to the Mekong delta in Vietnam. Our boat hugged the the northern shoreline of the lake, and we couldn't even see across the water to the other side. To live with the fluctuating water levels, the locals have have to accommodate their lifestyles by constructing floating houses. Now, most of the country lives in houses built on stilts, as the wet season and their flooded rice paddies create quite a mess at times. Even alongside and in the rivers, stilts keep the people high and dry. But here since the shoreline changes dramatically, whole villages are constructed of floating houses, which can be moved around during the year to follow the water (and their livelihood, the fish). Plenty of people seemed to be cleaning fish nets, and there were trap lines along the lake marked by floating bottles, but we also saw quite a few small bamboo structures with long floating poles leading out from one side, ending in a tall angled pole holding up a square net, cantilevered like a small crane.
At the north end of the lake we may our way past a couple of villages and into a wide river channel. What we saw was so intriguing, that Rob took so many pictures of the villages that he filled up the memory chip and had to delete some to fit even more. The houses themselves were of fairly simple construction, just 4 walls and a roof made of bamboo or lightweight wood, and a simple floor of wood planks. The fact that they floated was pretty remarkable, due to a layer of bamboo for a base, and perhaps floating barrels underneath for more buoyancy. Around the edge of the 20 x 20 foot houses was sometimes a porch, to make boat landings a little simpler. Sometimes the house wasn't a house at all, but a small boat with a roofed sleeping area in the middle. A few houses were actually connected together, but usually to get between buildings the people used small boats that looked like shallow wooden canoes. And since it the villages were self-contained, there were also floating structures containing small stores, gas stations, schools, etc. We waved to a bunch of school children playing ball inside of a screened-in play area, and saw their classrooms floating just behind them.
At noon, we made our only stop of the day, at a store at the mouth of the river that we would then follow all the way to Battambang. It served some basic snacks and drinks, with a bathroom out back. I just had to look, and found the bathroom was no more than 3 walls and a door on the edge of the walkway, with a hole in the wood planking looking down directly over the water. Our ferry seemed to be the biggest boat on the whole river, and we passed the twin of it about mid-way through the journey, coming the other way from Battambang. It was at about that point that the river channel got markedly narrower and started twisting like a snake, and our boat driver got on his horn quite often to warn that we were steaming around the corners. I started to notice that our boat was tipping rather precariously around said corners, and they must have realized that we were a little top heavy, because they made about 10 people come down off the roof and go below. Rob sort of volunteered and had some time in the shade in the crowded bottom deck, and I stayed aloft just for the breeze in my face. Our boat was creating quite a large wake in the narrow river, and I could see the water level dip a couple of feet along the shore, and then surge back up in our wake...it was like a standing wave that never ended; and we would actually slow down near the villages, to minimize the damage from our wake.
It got pretty hot in the sunshine even with my shady hat on, and afterward I realized that I had gotten a tan even through my long-sleeved shirt. As the afternoon drew onward, the villages changed from floating houses back to the stilted houses on the side of the river, and finally there was a road again alongside us, the tree leaves coated with red dust from the motorbikes. The river got dirtier as well with the encroaching civilization, and soon plastic bags and other debris was a common sight on the riverbanks. But that didn't change the fact that the river was the lifeblood of the people living alongside it, and small gardens were planted along the edge, and pumps pushed water up to rice paddies. It was also the bathing hour, and we saw many people perched on small docks, lathering up their hair and rinsing off in the river. Finally after 9 hours we docked in Battambang.
Once our stuff was dumped at a hotel, we walked out looking for a place to eat. Since we had just left tourist-friendly Siem Reap, we weren't prepared for a long walk through the heart of the city, but sometimes fate decides otherwise. In fact, we walked almost every road in the main center, and couldn't find a restaurant, it was almost unbelievable. Except for a minimum of street food around the night market, no one was selling food at all, and we were starving from not eating all day. We finally found a tiny restaurant and gratefully sat down, not caring that we were the only ones in the place, that there were no prices on the menu, or that the waitress didn't speak a word in common with us. We ordered a sour chicken soup and a ginger stir-fry with rice, and hoped for the best. Our guide book warned us that there were places around the market that specialized in soup that could only be described as containing inedible bits, but that was blocks from this restaurant. Well, tonight our luck wasn't in. The ginger chicken came, and it consisted of large slices of ginger (which really aren't supposed to be edible), and pieces of chicken that can only be described as bones and gristle...not much of it was edible either. Then the soup came, and right away Rob detected a whiff of the fermented fish paste that we had made out in the village. Inside the soup were more bits of bone and gristle, and the slight taste of fermented fish...we couldn't eat either one. A pot of hot weak tea was placed on our table, along with cups of crushed ice, so we drank lukewarm weak tea, ate some plain rice, and decided then and there to leave in the morning and continue on to Phnom Penh. The bill came to $4.
Jan 17 - Bus to Phnom Penh
Our last bus journey for a while was supposed to be only 5 hours, and we were so grateful to get away from a town without restaurants, that we didn't care when it stretched into six. At least this one was on relatively nice roads which were flat and straight. The ride itself wasn't remarkable, but the bus stops were worth at least a short description. We stopped twice along the way for food, bathrooms, gas, and to wash the bus. The places where we stopped were about as wild as you could get. The men's bathroom was a long pit divided by walls and a roof, but no doors, and the water in the pit ran right out back into the field. The regular squat toilets had doors, but could only be flushed by carrying in a water bucket filled outside from a large clay container. Although I was afraid of even washing my hands from the water in the cistern, many people were rinsing their faces, bathing their children, and even drinking from the container. Each place had a few vendors selling food and drinks, but not knowing how long before the next bathroom stop would come, we never liked to drink or eat too much. I went to get a Coke to carry with us, and found out that the only drinks for sale were cans of beer, bottles of water, and bags of crushed sugar cane juice.
Once in Phnom Penh, which was the largest city we had yet been in (not counting the hour we spent in Bangkok), we made our way to the Mekong river and took a hotel close to the water. While it wasn't as friendly as Siem Reap, it wasn't nearly as difficult as Battambang, and we found plenty of places to eat, and shop, although we had to turn down many offers of tuk-tuks wanting to drive us somewhere instead of using our own feet. On separate occasions, Rob and I both walked out of the hotel to find a huge elephant plodding down the street through the traffic, its' Mahout (caretaker) steering it from behind with a small baton.
Jan 18 - The Running Club
In my guidebook was a short blurb about a running club that met every Sunday for a run and then a beer-drinking party afterward. I'm not much of a drinker, but a chance to run seemed like a good idea, and it was a Sunday, so I made my way to the train station, paid my entry fee, and joined the Phnom Penh Hash House Harriers running club. Actually their motto stated "We're a drinking club with a running problem", and quite a few people were wearing club shirts, but don't get confused, there weren't many locals in the group. Most of them were foreigners living in Cambodia for a while, and I heard accents from the UK, Germany, NZ, AUS, and South Africa, among others. There were about 60 runners total, and we all crammed into the back of a slat-sided truck (yup, all 60 of us and a couple of coolers), and made our way east to the Mekong river. A small section of the river was bridged over to an island, but when we got to the real river channel, it was at least 1/2 mile wide, with no bridge in sight. We unloaded everyone, and soon enough a ferry came chugging across the water and unloaded a bunch of motorbikes and a few vehicles and passengers. Our group and the truck, plus more motorbikes and locals, reloaded and crossed the river. Once on the other side, we crammed back on the truck for a couple of kilometers to a small pagoda. There the leader of the run introduced the "hares" who explained how the event would work, but their explanation didn't make much sense, and I picked it up as we went along.
Right away we ran off the dusty road and onto small trails through dry rice paddies, along the river, and beside fields of produce. At each intersection a small circle had been drawn with white spray paint, and from there the runners spread out to figure out which way the trail went. The "hares" had marked the trail the day before, and runners went on every possible trail, looking for even smaller painted circles which would tell them that they were following the right path. The correct trail would be marked with three small circles about 50 feet apart from each other, and the wrong trail was marked with two circles and an X, also about 50 feet apart. It took careful eyes to follow the trail, and honestly I never saw many of the circles, they were too small, I was grateful to follow along with the rest of the pack, eventually even resting (lazy, I know) at the intersections while faster runners looked for the painted white circles. Once in a while we would all stop and wait for the tail end of the group, and in the meantime, everyone could follow the correct trail by listening for shouts of "ON-ON" or "ON-BACK" from the leaders, or the bugling of a horn carried by a front runner, sounded when the correct trail was found. The "hares" stayed with us to make sure that we didn't accidentally miss a trail fork.
At the halfway point we met the truck again, and everyone gratefully dug into the coolers for cold water and soft drinks. We ended up running about 6 miles. It was pretty warm out, and the sun glared down even in the late afternoon. By the end it we were back on the main road, and it became almost a parade, as all the villagers were out in front of their houses, the kids waving and saying hello, and the adults probably thinking we were crazy, silly foreigners to be running in circles through their fields. The coolers back at the truck now were filled with more water, soft drinks and beer, and when everyone was finished running, the club gathered in a circle for a short ceremony. Turns out this is the 985th time that the club has gathered for a hash run, which is a lot. Plenty of beer was flowing, and introductions were made of visitors and hashing "virgins" of which I was one, and I downed a small tote of beer after giving my name to the crowd. After more of the same, we piled back into the truck and crossed the ferry again, arriving back in town after dark had fallen. Most of the group were continuing their party at a designated bar, but all I wanted was a shower and supper.
If anyone wants to try such a running club, the website http://www.pattayah3.com/hashing-history.html gives a bit more background than I have.
Rob used the day to not run, but instead walk around the city. His adventures I will include in tomorrow's journal, because they relate well to our visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum.
Jan 19 - Atrocities of the Khmer Rouge
For our last day in Cambodia, we delved back into some of the recent history to catch a glimpse into the lives of the Cambodian People. From 1975 - 1979, Cambodia was taken over by a group called the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot. Within days of the takeover, the entire populations of all the cities in Cambodia were forced to gather a few belongings and march into the countryside, under the false belief that the US was going to bomb the cities. The people were then made to return to small villages and become farmers again. Currency, barter, trade, schools, hospitals, and most freedoms were abolished, and everyone worked hard labor in the fields to grow rice and vegetables. Everyone with an education was considered dangerous, and many teachers, doctors and government workers were tortured and killed. Authorities estimate that 1-3 million people died during the 4 year reign of Pol Pot, about 1/4 of the entire population. During that time, the cities were ghost towns, and the people were starving. The rice that they grew was mostly sold to China to buy gasoline for the Khmer Rouge leadership, and not enough was left for the people to eat.
All of this was documented at the Tuol Sleng Museum. On what was originally the innocent grounds of an elementary school, the Khmer Rouge took over and turned it into Security Prison 21, or S-21. The classrooms were turned into jail cells, and thousands of prisoners were tortured and killed, eventually even the jailors themselves were killed at the end. About 20 miles from the city in a place now called the Killing Fields, many mass graves have been unearthed as the proof of that S-21 prisoners were carried out to the countryside and killed.
All that was just about 30 years ago, so everyone age 40 and up has vivid memories of their struggle to survive. Rob's walk around town yesterday had brought him to a postcard shop across from the prison, where he struck up a conversation with two sisters; and talk eventually turned to their story of the Khmer Rouge, and they brought out a picture of their father. They had just been teenagers at the time, and had been forced to move to the countryside with everyone else from Phnom Penh. Work in the fields was hard and they were starving from not enough food. The older sister showed her front teeth that were all cracked, she had gotten so hungry that she had tried to eat hard rice that she picked straight from the fields. Their father had come out with them, a learned man, and soon the authorities came to get him, saying that they needed his help and that he would be back in a few days. They took him away, and in a week he actually did come back, and the family was very happy to be reunited. Soon, the authorities came back for their father, and took him away again. This time, he didn't come back, and they never saw him again. No records of him have been found, and they can only assume that he was killed by the regime.
In 1979 the country was liberated by the Vietnamese, but in a confusing twist of events, the Khmer Rouge regime sort of kept a toe-hold along the Thai border with Cambodia, backed by US interests since the Vietnamese Communist liberation meant that Cambodia was no Communist. What that meant was another two decades of civil war and bombing for the Cambodian people, and fighting actually didn't stop until 1998; first free elections weren't held until the new millenium. So from what we've seen and what we now know of the history, Cambodia has made a great comeback from many years of civil wars and atrocities...the people are still smiling.
***That's all for Cambodia, from here we head back to Thailand (Part 2)***