Adventures in Asia 2008

my travels through India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

Archive for April, 2008

Traffic Chaos

Posted by maudholma on 27 April 2008

“We will pick up a few more people and then go”, S and I were told when we got into a taxi from Sihanoukville to Kampot. At this point there were four of us in the car. After few more minutes and a few more people, four of us sat in the back with the remaining four (including the driver) in the front. How someone manages to switch gears when he is wedged between a man sitting on the gearstick and a woman whose feet are competing for room with his remains a mystery to me. Maybe it’s best that way.

“We will wait for four more people and then go”, we were told when we got into a taxi for the Vietnamese border a few days later. That would have been one less than the previous time. We lucked out, and instead of waiting until the car was full managed to find another taxi with one passenger that was getting ready to leave. This time there were only two people in the front (including the driver) and four of us in the back (including two backpacks), until we stopped to pick up two more people, who squeezed into the front and seemed to think nothing of it. S and I couldn’t wait to get to Vietnam, where driving was sure to be safer and taxis not as full.

“We have no taxi here – only moto”, S and I were told after we had crossed the border and started to kindly decline motorcycle drivers’ requests to drive us the 10 km to Ha Tien, the nearest town. After all, who would put a 15 kg backpack in front of a moto driver, strap on a helmet, and hop on the back? The answer: two people with no other means of transportation. We watched a garbage truck, an egg van, and a minibus full of businessmen pass us before realizing that we were not likely to experience safe driving or empty taxis in Vietnam. After a few days of taking motos I can confirm that this still holds true. I never thought I would miss a Toyota Camry that seats eight.

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Wedding Bells

Posted by maudholma on 21 April 2008

In between our stops on the tourist trail of Cambodia, S and I did a homestay in a village near the town of Kampong Cham, a few hours from Phnom Penh. The family we stayed with consists of an American man, his Cambodian wife (whose whole family lives and farms in the same village), their 2 adorable children, a dog, and some chickens. During our two day visit, we got to see a glimpse of “real” Cambodian life and, like our elephant riding experience in Laos, is probably going to be the most memorable experience of this country.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia after years of civil war and unrest and immediately began forced evacuations of Cambodia’s cities and towns. People were told that there was a threat of US bombings and that they would be allowed to return in 2 or 3 days. Instead, these “New People” were forced to move to the countryside and join the “Ancient People” in an attempt to create the perfect Communist state, built on agriculture. During the 4 years that the Khmer Rouge were in power, an estimated 1-2 million people (according to some reports, one third of the country’s population) died or were killed. Many starved to death due to food shortages and terrible living conditions coupled with inadequate healthcare, with the rest being tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. Ironically, since most of its leaders were well educated, the group targeted those with an education as well as monks, teachers, and members of the previous governments. It’s shocking to think that this happened only a little over 30 years ago and that it was allowed to go on for so long before anyone intervened. Kheang, the wife of the family we lived with, remembered stealing fruit as a child whenever she could to supplement the meagre rations of watery rice soup with fish paste that they were given. Since she was only 5 years old when it happened, her memories were a little more innocent than those of her mother, who said she still feels like she’s opening up old wounds when she talks about that time and felt disappointed in that some of the perpetrators have never been brought to justice.

As a slightly more uplifting part of our homestay experience, S and I attended the wedding of Kheang’s cousin. At the ripe old age of 28, her parents had told her that she could no longer turn down proposals, and essentially forced her to marry someone she had only met for 15 minutes before the wedding. During an entire day of ceremonies, the bride and groom rarely looked at each other and didn’t exchange a single word. They did, however, change clothes about 10 times, each outfit more ridiculous than the previous. S and I didn’t do much better – we wore stained and sweat-drenched t shirts, capri pants, and flip flops. As one does to a wedding… Nevertheless, the bride insisted on having her picture taken with us and everyone tried their hardest to drag us onto the dancefloor! If for nothing else, I learned that I don’t want a wedding photographer who habitually lifts up his shirt to are his beer belly due to the heat, a husband-to-be who teams a red jacket with pink pants, white socks, and black shoes, or techno music when I get married.

After a quick stop in Phnom Penh for some sightseeing and more sweating, we made our way to Sihanoukville, on the south coast of Cambodia, where white sand, turquoise water, fresh seafood, and breathtaking sunsets are the order of the day. I probably won’t get much sympathy if I complain about the heat?

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Sues’day from Cambodia!

Posted by maudholma on 14 April 2008

After four days of relaxing on the island of Don Det, S and I said kop chai lai lai and bye bye to Laos and crossed the border into Cambodia. Two minibus rides and a night in Phnom Penh later, we argued our way onto a bus to Siem Reap. It’s currently Khmer New Year in Cambodia so we weren’t the only ones trying to get out of the capital! We smiled, we pleaded, we begged, and were eventually successful. This time we were the only pigs sitting and lying on the floor; there was a family of 4 who didn’t initially fit onto the bus either, but they were given small, plastic stools to sit on. When we pulled into the bus station in Siem Reap, men with signs for different hostels started appearing in the windows. By the time we stepped off the bus we were each surrounded by 5 of them talking non stop. “I’ll take you to the guesthouse for free, you don’t need to pay anything”. “We have double rooms with fan or AC”. “You saw me first when you got off the bus – come with me”. “I’m a tuk tuk driver, I don’t work for a hotel, so I’ll take you anywhere you want”. (One of the big surprises of Cambodia so far has been how well people speak English). S and I were standing about half a meter apart but couldn’t talk to each other without screaming at the top of our lungs and even then we could barely hear each other!

Siem Reap is best known because of its close proximity to Angkor, a collection of ruins from the Khmer empire. Yesterday we woke up at 4:30 in order to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat (said to be the world’s largest single religious monument) followed by 9 hours of sightseeing at two other temples and the ruins of the city of Angkor Thom. It was definitely an experience and some of the sights were incredible, but the hundreds of tourist buses plying the routes between the main sights, not to mention the thousands of tourists running around with their cameras, ruined the atmosphere somewhat. We barely had enough energy for dinner last night and made a half-hearted attempt at celebrating Khmer New Year before giving up and going to bed. Instead we’re planning on celebrating both the second day of New Year (the holiday lasts for 3 days) and the second day of the halfway point of our trip tonight!

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Motion Sickness

Posted by maudholma on 6 April 2008

(Almost) Every bus trip in Laos begins with the driver handing out plastic bags. S and I noticed this on our third bus ride in the country, from a small town on the Mekong river called Pakbeng to Louang Phabang. We had taken a slowboat from Louang Phabang to Pakbeng the previous day and despite the stunning views, decided to avoid the 10 hour journey back by spending 7 hours on 2 separate buses instead. It’s strange how the definition of the word easy  changes so much after only a few months on the road… We drove through adorable village after adorable village where kids, cows, and chickens in the street scattered to avoid the bus. One chicken was not so lucky – there was a honk and a crunch, and then only annoying Lao pop music blaring from the tape deck. Otherwise, the beautiful scenery was interrupted only by the girl in front of me repeatedly throwing up into the small, clear plastic bags she had been given and launching them out of the window every 10 minutes. I didn’t check, and I don’t think she did either, to see whether any kids, cows, or chickens were hit.

When we took a night bus to Vientiane one day later, the plastic bags were a little bigger and thankfully not clear. Nevertheless, very little was left to the imagination as the woman in front of me, behind me, and across from me all began to retch as we made our way along small mountain roads. Not only were the seats supremely uncomfortable, but when my iPod battery died, I spent the remainder of the night listening to the choir of nearly half the bus throwing up mixed with annoying Lao pop music (also apparently a vital ingredient on all bus trips here). When we took another night bus down south to Pakxe (having spent 2 days bearing temperatures close to 40 °C in Vientiane) and had made ourselves comfortable in our beds, S and I weren’t sure whether the plastic bags that our bus stewardess handed out were as a precaution against puking or to be used as trash bags for the pre-bedtime snacks that we were served. Despite the presence of yet more annoying Lao pop music – I can now sing along to 2 songs – I slept like a baby for most of the night so can’t say for sure whether anyone in fact threw up,

We actually came to Pakxe on the recommendation of a French couple, who had visited a small village nearby called Ban Pa Phou to go elephant riding and said it was one of the highlights of their trip. On the songthaew ride there, were were squeezed in among 15 sacks of cement and about 10 ladies with bags containing mangoes, raw meat, spring rolls, cigarettes, chips, toys, and a whole lot more. After two punctures during the first 50 km we turned onto a small dirt track for the remaining 27 km and arrived 4 hours after we had set off, looking like we had tried to put on self tanner in the dark – a brownish-orange streaky color. It would be an understatement to say that Pa Phou is in the middle of nowhere: When we had showered, a large portion of the village’s 200 inhabitants had gathered at our guesthouse to watch Mr. Boun Hom, the owner cum doctor-of-the-village, tend to a little boy who had been hit by a motorcycle, but most of them found the sight of 2 falangs to be more interesting than a 10 year-old with a hole in his head!

This morning we woke up at 5:30 to ride elephants in the sunrise. It was without a doubt one of the most incredible experiences of this trip so far, if not of my life! We – me on the elephant’s neck, S on its back, and our guide Ing sometimes sitting, someimes crouching, and sometimes standing behind her – rode through rice fields, with nothing but mountains on a deep red and orange horizon in front of us and a herd of water buffalo wandering in search of something to drink, up to a mountain where the elephant breakfasted on bamboo and a small tree that it pulled up, roots and all. On our way back, we picked up its friend so both S and I got a chance to sit on the elephants’ necks and try “steering”. Ing did most of the work and could control both elephants just by yelling a few words or pulling their ears, although apart from a few stroppy moments when they wanted to stop to watch a tractor drive by or eat a few banana leaves, both were very well behaved. After the perfect morning, we were both dreading the songhtaew ride back, but other than the 7 pigs lying on the floor, crapping like crazy when they weren’t screeching or trying to stand up, it went rather smoothly. Tomorrow morning we’re going to Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands, at the southernmost part of Laos and just by the Cmabodian border. Apart from the odd swing in a hammock, I’m looking forward to staying still for a few days without electricity, running water or any other comforts.

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Sabaidee from Laos!

Posted by maudholma on 2 April 2008

Crossing the border from Thailand to Laos was a world away from what we experienced when going from India to Nepal and back. Instead of a man filling our details into a logbook by hand, everything was computerized and hyper efficient. Maybe the entrance fee (more reminiscent of something you pay to enter a theme park than a country…) that everyone crossing the border into Laos must pay goes toward this?

Our first stop was Vang Vieng, a small backpacker town north of the capital, Vientiane. Lying on the banks of the Nam Song river, the place is surrounded by absolutely awe-inspiring limestone mountains which were even more dream-like since it was overcast and a bit hazy for most of our time there. After making an unsuccessful attempt at finding a nearby cave with a lagoon in it – we crawled through claustrophobic tunnels that led nowhere – we spent the following 2 days getting indoctrinated into two Vang Vieng institutions: watching Friends episodes at one of the dozens of cafes along the main road and tubing. Since the first 100 m stretch of river where the tubing is done is home to about 10 bars, we quickly found out that drinking and socializing are the most important parts of the experience and that tubing is just a way to move from one bar to the next! Many of the places also have platforms over the river with swings on them, from which people jump into the water, but which I was too scared (my mom would probably use the word “sensible”) to try after seeing peoples’ scrapes and cuts. S slipped and is currently sporting two gigantic greenish-yellow bruises on her thighs as well as a cut lip… What we thought would be a 2 hour whoosh down the river turned out to be a 7 hour beer and Lao Lao (rice whiskey) fest with a banana for lunch.

We’re now in Louang Phabang, a little further north. It’s an adorable little town by the Mekong river which used to be the royal capital when Laos was still a kingdom. Dripping with character, there are about as many Buddhist temples here as French colonial villas. For S’ birthday, which lasted 2 days since she was sick for part of the actual day, we took a break from being smelly backpackers: Breakfast (a banana muffin and cappuccino while reading the newspaper) at a coffee shop, herbal steam bath and massage at the Lao Red Cross (never did I ever imagine I’d be standing in a 4 m2 room with six Lao women and zero visibility followed by a cup of tea on the veranda and a shower), drinks at the former residence of the Royal Family, and dinner at a cute little restaurant topped off with an enormous glass of red wine. I could stay here forever!

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