Saturday, 22 September 2012

Race Against Time: Cambodia and Laos

In my last post I promised to stop with the proselytizing about how evil American military policy is and get back to the travel stories- particularly those that are funny, miserable, disgusting, or preferably all three. And I intend to keep that promise. 

For the past three weeks, we have raced through 13 destinations, taking in the rest of Cambodia and all of Laos in a hectic, conical-hatted blur. We were racing for a cause: we needed to be in Hanoi by September 18th to meet up with Vincent's sister (and my beloved sister in law) Elodie, who is going to travel with us through Vietnam for two weeks. Even though we had a good reason to rush, thirteen places in 21 days is a lot. Like, bordering on travel fatigue a lot.

As exhausting as it's been to be constantly on the move, we have had some crazy experiences: some crazy good, and some crazy bad. Let's start with the good, but be forewarned: this is one long-ass post.

From our beach paradise, we headed to the sister towns of Kampot, a small river town in southern Cambodia, and Kep, an even smaller beach town an hour away. Both were pleasant enough, but we weren't there for the sights. We were there for the food.

Kampot is home to the famous Kampot peppercorns: fresh, spicy pepper berries served still on the stem that burst with flavor when you bite into them. These delicious little wonders are best showcased when cooked with and served over the equally famous Kep blue crab. We had the dish in each town to compare the awesomeness. The Kampot version was decent, but the one we had in Kep- with a view of the local fishmongers bringing our lunch in from the water- was almost good enough to make us forget how much we missed the beach. Almost.

Even better than eating the crab was visiting the Kep crap market, where the crustaceans are haggled over, sold, cooked and eaten by locals and visitors alike. The market is chaotic- as every good market should be- and we were enthralled as we passed from stand to stand, basket to basket of screamingly fresh seafood.

Next stop: the Mekong. 

A Mekong motorbike ferry
We had our first glimpses of the mythic river in the small, relatively undeveloped Cambodian river settlement of Kratie and the more modern Lao equivalent, Pakse, across the border. Kratie was charming in its dusty simplicity and ended up being the only town in Cambodia that we visited where the people seemed unspoiled- unconcerned even- by tourism.


We started our time in Laos- which we ended up loving- in Pakse, a former French colonial town situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Se Don rivers. Pakse was beautiful and the more laid-back Lao attitude towards tourists was a welcome change from Cambodia.

In Pakse, we rented a motorbike for a day and zoomed around the mountainous countryside outside of the town, passing coffee plantations and bamboo houses along the way. We stopped at a lovely waterfall and spent the afternoon relaxing with our feet in one of the cool, refreshing pools while watching local kids spear fish and splash in the water.

Beers by the waterfall (and yes, I am rocking a shirt-turban)

From Pakse we took an overnight bus up north to Vientiane, Laos' modern capital city, also built on the banks of the Mekong. Throughout the past nine months of traveling, we have taken several overnight buses, all with varying degrees of comfort. But this one took the cake.

We had a bed. 

An actual full-length, surprisingly comfortable twin mattress, complete with pillows and a duvet. It was heavenly enough that the flashing, multicolored neon lights that lined the aisle floor seemed fun and exciting, rather than cheesy and obnoxious. Our only regret was that the trip wasn't longer.

Our party bus
We arrived in Vientiane well-rested, but with low expectations of the city about which we hadn't heard great things. Our experience ended up being better than expected: we had a few excellent meals and thoroughly enjoyed strolling along the city's river-side esplanade at sunset. As the sun goes down, all of Vientiane comes out to walk by the water front and socialize, making it the perfect place to people watch. 

After a couple days in Vientiane, we took yet another overnight bus to Luang Prabang, a gorgeous little city on the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers that boasts the best colonial architecture and cosmopolitan atmosphere in the country. In Luang Prabang we rented another motorbike to visit another comely waterfall where we hiked, picnicked, swam and visited a sun bear sanctuary.

This was exactly what Vincent and I looked like at Lazy Beach
Aside from interesting colonial architecture and a budding culinary scene, Luang Prabang is most famous among tourists for its Buddhist Alms ceremony, when the monks from the town's monasteries walk the streets each morning at sunrise to collect donations of rice and fruit from pious villagers who line the sidewalks. The monks shuffle slowly in a long, silent procession of flowing, bright orange robes in the soft morning light. 

The ceremony is peaceful and moving to watch, if one can ignore the throngs of tourists who yell and push each other aside, shoving their cameras right in the monks' faces to get the best picture. It is disgusting to see and made us feel dirty and ashamed to be in the same category of people as these uncultured sub-humans.

When we had had enough of judging misbehaving tourists, we walked over to Luang Prabang's morning market, which was fascinating. It was early enough in the morning that the market was blessedly devoid of other tourists, who were all presumably too occupied with harassing monks to bother with market-going. We walked by women sitting on the pavement behind spread-out blankets that were covered with fresh greens and colorful produce. There were tables piled high with everything from spices, Lao coffee and flowers to water buffalo tails, live grubs and baskets of rats for grilling. Live toads with their legs tied together wriggled and croaked next to a heap of their less fortunate counterparts, who had been split open to show their freshness, their insides spilling out onto the table. We loved every minute of the market, but our stomachs needed a little down time before we were able to tackle breakfast.

Live grubs and dead frogs at the market
Water buffalo parts anyone?

Luang Prabang also served as the base of another highlight in Laos: the Elephant Conservation Center, or the ECC (

When we were planning our trip around the world, I desperately wanted to visit some place where I could ride an elephant, preferably through a remote, undeveloped Asian jungle. Unfortunately, the reality of elephant tourism in SE Asia is much less romantic. Often the elephants are horribly mistreated, beaten and under-fed. They are made to carry three or four people for up to eight hours at a time- far more than they can healthily do without serious damage to their backs. Adult Asian elephants require around 300 pounds (135 kg) of food and over 100 liters of water a day to thrive, and unfortunately, most of the budget elephant tour operators in SE Asia don't have access to that amount of sustenance.

Having read about the problems associated with elephant tourism, I had all but given up on the idea of having an elephant experience when we came across an advertisement for the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, Laos. The ECC is first and foremost a sanctuary and veterinary hospital for domesticated elephants, which are still used in the logging industry throughout SE Asia. The center is part of a larger conservation program through the organization ElephantAsia, which aims to slow down the rapidly declining numbers of these endangered animals.

To help fund the project,the ECC has recently started welcoming paying visitors to the center to learn more about the elephants and the conservation efforts surrounding them. We spent three peaceful, informative and fun days at the center, interacting with the elephants, watching them walk, feed and bathe in the lake, and yes, even riding them for a few minutes. 

A short ride ended up being plenty of time, as riding an elephant might just be the most uncomfortable form of transportation there is. And believe me, I've experienced some uncomfortable transportation these past nine months.

Which is a perfect segue to the next leg of our Lao journey. This time, we took a bus further north from Luang Prabang to the lovely little river town of Nong Khiaw in the mountains, and then from there to the unremarkable transit village of Mong Khua via a seven hour boat ride up the Nam Ou river. We were quite excited to travel by waterway, especially on a small boat up a river lined with wild jungle and remote bamboo villages only accessible by water. What we didn't anticipate was just how uncomfortable seven hours on a hard wooden bench would be, particularly when our company on the little eight-person vessel included a hyper-active five-year-old who took a special liking to Vincent and refused to leave us in peace throughout the entire trip. If seven hours in a confined space with a five-year-old isn’t an effective advertisement for birth control, I don’t know what is.

The reason our dads aren't getting grand kids any time soon

Aside from causing my ovaries to go on strike for the foreseeable future, the boat ride was more or less bearable. Unlike our minibus ride from Cambodia to Laos.

Duh duh duuuuh!

This, my friends, is the puke story I promised you in my last post. You see, when we booked our trip from Kratie to the Lao border, we were promised a "VIP minibus."

VIP my ass.

What we got instead was 18 people shoved between backpacks and bags of rice in a vehicle built for 11 passengers. I was smashed with four other people in a seat made for three, with the left side of my bum on top of Vincent's right leg and a little old Khmer lady on my lap.

All of this might have been tolerable had we been on a normal, paved highway. But this was no normal road. This was Cambodia, where the highways have so many potholes that navigating around them feels like a real life game of Mario Kart. Where cars that are already dodging foot-deep trenches in the asphalt must also swerve around packs of dogs, groups of chickens, skinny cows, lumbering water buffalo, people on bikes, people on foot, people on motorbikes, tractors, horses and every other form of transportation imaginable. Trucks loaded high with goods speed by, honking like mad, usually with a family of five sitting on top of the pile, clinging for dear life to the ropes holding the whole operation together.

Well, as I've already given away, this endeavor proved too much for some of my fellow passengers. Two kids, a brother and a sister, had been looking progressively greener as the trip wore on. Luckily, they were by an open window so that they could both hang their heads out to get fresh air. Unluckily, the boy, with no warning or additional movement at all, opened his mouth halfway out the window and proceeded to projectile vomit straight into the wind, which promptly blew the entire ordeal directly back into the face of his sister.

And I mean, directly.

His sister, although understandably shocked, was quick enough to avoid the second onslaught. This batch, however, flew all over the side of the van, and back into the window on the poor German girl sitting next to Vincent. So there we were, wedged together, half the car dripping in child vomit (which, let's be honest, is the worst kind of vomit), speeding around obstacle after obstacle for the three-hour ride to Laos.

Now you might be thinking, "Wow, that sounds miserable." And it was. But, unfortunately, that was not our worst bus ride of the past three weeks.

That honor goes to another "VIP" bus ride we took overnight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. The trip started out ok: we had another single bed, albeit this time without the disco lights, and we settled in quite comfortably. However, about an hour into the trip, the bus pulled over on the side of the dark highway.

And stayed there. For an hour.

At first, we thought nothing of it- buses often stop for no apparent reason. But we soon realized by the smell of gasoline and the sounds of clanging metal coming from somewhere around the engine, that there was a mechanical problem with the bus.

"No worries," we told each other. "The delay just gives us more time to sleep."

After an hour and a half, we started moving again, only this time, we noticed that the driver had stopped the air conditioning. 

"Not a problem!" we chuckled. "In this mountain air, it won't be too hot at night anyway."

An hour later, we stopped again. Sometime during this second stop, it started to rain and we soon realized that the bus leaked. 
Right onto our bed.

"No need to panic," we tried to convince ourselves. "The wet sheets will keep us cool, since it's starting to get warm in the bus."

The bus started up again and we continued in much the same way, stopping for an hour every hour to let the engine cool off. The rain had stopped, but the temperature in the bus was continuing to rise, causing everything to smell of damp socks.

So the night continued. 

Normally, the journey would have us arrive at 7:00am after eight hours on the road, but since we had been stopped for as long as we had been moving, we were only half way through the journey by the time the sun came up. 

And that's when things got really bad. 

The temperature in the bus spiked with the rising sun, turning the bus into an air-tight mobile sauna. No air con, no fan, no windows that could be opened. It was easily 90 degrees in that f-cking bus and getting hotter every minute. 

As the bus continued its torturous one-hour-on-one-hour-off pattern, we lay dripping with sweat in our single bed, our wet sheets clinging to our roasting, sticky bodies, trying not to touch anything- including each other- and breathing through our mouths so as not to smell the sickening body odor of 60 perspiring passengers.

It was at around the 12th hour of the trip that the first person threw up. 

I can't blame them, of course: 100 degree heat, no air circulation, winding mountain roads and a bus full of sweaty, stinking people is a recipe for disaster. But this one person, this poor, nauseated individual, started what can only be described as the most disgusting chain reaction in history. Person after person started getting sick- loudly- into plastic bags, filling the stifling, humid air with miserable retches and a horrid smell. 

Just imagine this for a second: an inescapable, unrelenting heat, the unmistakable sound of people throwing up all around you, the smell of hot vomit mixing with the stench of a sweaty, unwashed hoard of people who are now on their 16th hour of what was supposed to be an eight-hour VIP bus.

Dear god, it was horrible.

After more than 17 hours of this hell, we finally, finally, pulled into the bus station in Luang Prabang, where it was a violent stampede to get out of the cesspit that was our bus and into fresh air. 

But, you know, it's the journey- not the destination- that matters, right?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Unfair Lumping: Cambodia and Laos

Cambodia and Laos deserve more than this.

Each country rightly deserves its own glowing review in which I introduce the country, give you a little background and then delve into the good stuff, like how we saw a kid sitting in front of us in a mini-bus puke in his sister’s face. Unfortunately for Cambodia and Laos (and anyone who loves a good puke story), time, convenience and word-count dictate that I lump the introductions of the two countries together in one post and then lump our personal trials and tribulations in both places in a later one.

Call it unfair lumping. 

Which, now that I think about it, perfectly describes my teenage years.

So let me tell you a little bit about these two countries, which are both very similar and worlds apart. Cambodia and Laos look a lot alike: the same rainy season-drenched rolling green hills (which apparently are dusty brown during the dry-season), the same foggy mountains, the same expansive rice paddies, the same rural villages of stilted bamboo houses, often built on the banks of a muddy river. The same smiling, welcoming, kind people, traffic-clogged streets, honking motorbikes, golden pagodas. 

Both are exceedingly beautiful. Both are exceedingly poor.

Both are Buddhist, studded with temples and monasteries, full of shaved-headed monks in bright orange robes, striking against hazy, rainy, green-gray backgrounds.

On a more sinister note, both countries were ravaged by carpet bombs dropped from American planes during the US’s secret campaign against Vietnam. As a result, both countries are full of inhabitants with missing limbs, dead parents and displaced families.  More bombs were dropped on Laos and Cambodia, countries on which America never actually declared war, than on Germany and Japan combined during WWII. Today, while undetonated American bombs continue to maim and kill Khmer and Lao people, neither country could easily be located on a map by most Americans.

On the surface, Cambodia and Laos have a lot in common. Both countries live in the cultural and economic shadow of their more advanced neighbors, with Cambodia being more similar to Thailand, and Laos to Vietnam. But as you get further into the culture of each country, you realize that the real difference between them is in their national psyches.

While both countries have seen their share of tragedy, Cambodia’s story is much darker, and the terror more recent, than Laos’. The Khmer (Cambodian) people endured years of civil war and American bombs during our Vietnam War, only to have the violence worsen beyond imagination when a revolution in 1975 put the militant Communist Khmer Rouge regime into power. The goal of the Khmer Rouge was to turn Cambodia to a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperation, and to this end, the regime began slaughtering anyone considered to be cultured, educated or an “intellectual” and therefore a threat to their ideal. This doomed demographic included politicians, doctors, teachers, artists, academics and many others. Even people who wore glasses were considered as intellectuals and consequentially executed.  Their families- including the elderly and children- were either killed alongside them (often in front of their eyes) or sent to “labor camps,” where the vast majority of inmates starved to death or were murdered. While the exact numbers remain unknown, it’s estimated that in just three years, nearly two million Khmer civilians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge before the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the regime.

Although the Khmer Rouge’s rule officially ended in 1979, they continued to rein terror on Cambodia for two more decades from their hideouts in the hills near the Thai border.  There they waged guerrilla warfare, including attacks on villages, transport systems and civilians, and planting countless landmines that, to this day, continue to claim the lives and limbs of Cambodians- many of whom weren’t even born at the time of the conflict.

What is even more shocking than the fact that these horrific events took place less than 35 years ago is the fact that most people outside of Cambodia know nothing about them. The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge against their own people are one of those horrors against humanity that remain largely ignored by the rest of the world.

Kind of like Korean pop music, only bloodier.

You may be wondering why I insist on sharing this depressing story with you, but I promise there is a good reason. Without the background, one can't even begin to understand present-day Cambodia: the country's difficult past is still soul-crushingly evident, even today. The country is not only impoverished, it is also culturally and emotionally damaged. The vast majority of the Khmer people are smiley and resilient, kind and capable. They have lived through hell, had their culture, history and national pride destroyed, yet they remain stoically hopeful for the future. Their strength is truly inspiring.  But behind that remains a significant portion of the population that seems, I don’t know… desperate, like their nightmarish past has zapped all dignity out of them.

I certainly don’t blame them. I wouldn’t be skipping in the streets either if my entire family was slaughtered in front of me. But in Cambodia, much more than in the poorer countries of Laos and Myanmar, one sees many, many people begging. Filthy toddlers dressed in rags stand in the streets of Phnom Penh with their hands outstretched to passing tourists. Six-year-olds troll restaurant patios begging people to buy bracelets or books. Young women with dirty babies sleeping in shoulder slings wave baby bottles in our faces demanding money. Double amputees scoot themselves around restaurant chairs on pieces of cardboard, most so down-trodden that they dare not even ask directly for spare change.

The vendors too seem more desperate than in other places we’ve been, and more likely to use their desperation as a sales tool. Everywhere in SE Asia we have been hassled to buy things, to take tuk-tuk rides, to sign up for tours (I’ll cover this phenomenon in another post), but only in Cambodia have we felt that even the vendors are begging-- begging us to buy something, anything, not because we need what they are selling but because they need the money. The most common response to our replies of “No, thank you” is either “Pleeease, I need money,” or “Why noooooot?!”

In contrast, the Lao people seem infinitely more independent from tourism. Of course there are the vendors and the tuk-tuk drivers, but by and large they can be deterred with one “no, thank you” instead of six, even in the most touristy areas. In two weeks in Laos, we have only seen one guy begging, and he seemed like the kind of run of the mill crazy drunk one sees everywhere else in the world. I don’t know, maybe it’s the Communism, but the poorer Lao people seem to be better off, if not economically than emotionally, than their richer (but still incredibly poor) Khmer neighbors.

That said, the Lao people still have their own problems to deal with, albeit slightly less damaging ones than internal genocide. I know I’m insisting on this America-bombed-the-hell-out-of-Laos thing, but it is important for me as an American to understand how my country’s war affected the beautiful place that I’m traveling in, full of wonderful, welcoming people.

The answer is that our war is still affecting Laos.

In the hopes of deterring the transport of Vietnamese troops and munitions through Northern Laos during the war, the US Army dropped an estimated 260 million bombs on the country between 1964 and 1973. It’s reported that during those nine years, around 580,350 bombing missions were flown over Laos. To put it into perspective, that works out to be one planeload of bombs dropped on the neutral country every eight minutes for nine years.  

Believe me, I did the math.

As if that isn’t unfortunate enough, it is thought that nearly 80 million (or 30%-- I did the math again) of those bombs didn’t detonate and remain hidden in Lao soil, needing nothing more than a hard strike of a shovel or tractor blade to explode. Since 1964, more than 50,000 people have been victim to these hidden “bombies,” not to mention all of those killed during the attacks themselves.

There are of course numerous organizations* in place trying to find and safely clear away the “unexploded ordnance.” Unfortunately, given the slow and dangerous nature of the work, it is believed that at the current rate of clearance, it will take over 100 years to rid Laos completely of this deadly legacy.

All of this in a neutral country on which the US never officially declared war. I love my country, but damn.

And on that cheery note, I’m going to end this rant. Puke stories are sounding pretty good right about now, huh?

* For more information about some of the organizations operating in Laos to clear the bombs and assist their victims, click here and here.