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Some places in the world have called to me since I was young and first read Jack London or Samuel Clemens. Laos is not one of those places but more of a location that you slowly become aware of as one of the strange names in a geography class with no context or identifying markings. To be honest, if it was not between us and our destination we would not travel here but it is….so we are here.
Laos is a small land locked country with dozens of tribes making up a diverse group of humble, modest and friendly people. The cultural focus on education and language jumps out at us immediately and we find we are asked questions about our culture as much as we ask about theirs. After so long in Cambodia, the bright eyed and inquisitive nature of the Laos people is a nice change.
The remote mid-sized town (it does have a new international airport) we arrived at is called Luang Prabang and sits on the Mekong and a few other rivers that wind themselves down from the foothills of the Himalayas. Not far from here is the fictional location that found Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. The frontier feel is palpable and comparable to being on the Amazon. This town is the entry point for some of the most remote locations and tribes in SE Asia. Most people come here to head off on weeklong treks into the hills to stay with some of these tribes. There is a valley near the border that is thought to have been for 50 years now, the vector for the world’s only treatment resistant malaria.
Trekking sounds fun but we just don’t have it in us, so we spent our 5 days or so in Laos, wandering the river and town. Tamara discovered a craft village that taught foreigners how to weave silk, make dyed yarn from natural plants and create bamboo baskets. She had a great time and I rested up from the stress of travel with some great beer and a book. If you are interested the beer is called BeerLao, is very light and made from Jasmine Rice. It is one of my new favorite beers and one of the few exports for the entire country.
We did a touch of hiking on the trip and found ourselves at a travertine waterfall that wound its way down a hill through limestone deposits that caused the water to look crystal clear blue. The limestone causes buildups that create step pools. It was only when we started to swim did we discover the tiny fish the size of baby fingers would nip at our toes. It didn’t hurt but did cause some urgent yelps, until we saw how small they were.
The only issue we had was the pollution caused by the farmers burning the Teak forests to make room for more rice patties. The smoke would burn our eyes and drop ash on anything that sat for longer than an hour. Only when the rain came down from the mountains, did the newly scrubbed air feel fit to breathe.
Not sure if it is the length of our trip, the illness we got in Cambodia or the stress of culture after culture, place after place but we are exhausted and seem unable to relax fully. Not that relaxing is something I have ever known how to do. I would love to hire a boat and travel up into the remote parts of the upper Mekong, or spend a week visiting some Hmong tribe living on a isolated mountain…..I just don’t have it in me. Tamara is so happy to explore the internal through crafting and making things that it seems best to rest up, heal up and drink another beer.
Siem Reap is the name of the large modern town that sits next to the ancient ruins known as Angkor. Angkor Wat is just one of the many hundreds of temple complexes, schools, royal homes and administrative buildings that formed the capital of the (900-1400 AD) fairly violent Khmer empire. The ancient city (the definition of “Angkor” is “city”) was three times larger than any other city in the world during its occupation and supported over one million people to supply the “God King” with his power.
Originally Hindu in origin, most structures were converted or built with Buddhist art, style and design. Some of the temples have been in continuous use for 1000 years by monks in search of the mysteries of the external space via the internal space. Because some of the buildings have been used/maintained for so long, it is not accurate to call all of them ruins, many are just massive stone buildings….that happen to be 900+ years old.
Unlike Inca stone structures, Khmer building has a focus on relief work depicting wars, conquests, religious and military events. The most elaborate carvings, some stretching thousands of feet, show the adventures of Hindu gods. If you have read/seen much of Hindu gods….they are less gods than super heroes/villains from a very old comic book. Vishnu (the blue guy) is shown on an adventure with his friend that soon betrays him then they rejoin forces to fight this or that guy. Ganesh (the elephant guy) and Hanuman (the monkey guy) head out on a journey to do this or that using the super powers that each seem to have. The art is amazing and the amount of work staggers the mind.
The area that the “ruins” occupy is tens of miles square and would be imposible to navigate between highlights by foot. The solution is to hire a tuk-tuk (small three seat, three wheeled motocycle cart thing) to take us around to the different areas for the three days. Having such mobility, we often found ourselves at the lesser known smaller ruins, wandering around, scrambling up steps (so steep that they required you to crawl up), ducking into bat filled tunnels and walking past monstrous trees that seemed to be intent on consuming buildings.
At the main larger structures, tourists of every nationality (although mostly Asian) stumbled like drunks as they gawked and snapped photos of any one of a million amazing vistas. We tried to get to the popular places (Angkor Wat being one of them) very early (7AM) and would find them mostly empty or with a few chanting monks or drugged out tie-dye wearing hippies sitting crossed legged and looking intently for something behind their eyelids….new iphone sitting next to them of course.
The structures themselves are usually made from massive stones, polished and fitted together similar to Inca or Egyptian stone fitting. Large moats surround most of the larger structures with some moats miles long and 400 feet wide.
As the morning evaporated the heat and humidity would eventually chase us back to the pool at our villa hotel. The budget of our rooming seems to have increased as we have moved further away from civilization. After a nap, we would go back and explore some more and avoid the creepy looking monkeys that watched for anyone foolish enough to feed them. As we were leaving one afternoon, I overheard a tour group of older British women dogmatically discuss how the aliens must have helped built the temple in question. It interests me that those with the least education on a subject seem to have the strongest opinions.
One of our last mornings we got up very early and took a hot air balloon over a few villages and one of the ruins. A car dropped us in a field that was filled with 30-40 locals chewing on their morning fruits, staring wide eyed at the slowly inflating yellow balloon. The dark aviator glasses identified our extremely confident Chinese pilot and he motioned us to get in the basket. A timid Japanese couple joined the basket and soon we lifted off to the cheers of the now 40+ children jumping up and down below us. Staying close to the ground we surfed over/around palm trees, passing small homes, modern temples and mothers bathing children or washing clothes.
With a blast of the fire blower (?), we made our presence known to the small village below and out exploded dozens of children from their homes. Some struggling to put on shirts, some pants and one naked little boy fought off his mother valantly escaping to join the mob….she yelled something at him and he seemed to yell back “no time for clothes mom…..NO TIME!”, all the while his leg pumping to catch up.
The pilot explained that he needed to go south a bit and so moved us up 250 meters to catch a cross wind that moved us over one of the smaller ancient ruins. The sounds of the morning melted into nothingness as we watched the sun start to warm the air around us…causing the balloon to struggle to find lift. (likely not the best time to mention the serious crash this balloon had last year)
Eventually, we found ourselves passing through backyards and over small homes, not more than 50 feet high. Our pilot would pick mangos and attempted to get a coconut from the trees we would pass through as a growing crowd of children followed us waiting for something. It was when the pilot pulled out a bag of candy did the fun really start. We tossed handfuls of candy down to the kids causing them to follow the balloon through fields, farms, homes and even a temple filled with orange wrapped monks. The balloon was so quiet that the first indication that the monks knew something was happening was when 50 half clothed kids swarmed the temple, causing some of the monks to freeze in place at the possible nightmare that charged them. It was only when the pilot used the burner that the monks noticed us, relaxed and waved at the strange celebrities in the sky.
I noticed that the pilot was getting quiet and he mentioned something in some language to us that no one understood. It turns out he was aiming for the top of a large palm tree to get rid of the 5-7 MPH velocity the balloon had. I told Tamara to get down and hold on while I dropped to the bottom of the basket in a mentally well rehearsed crash position. Tamara, thinking the crash would be a great thing to get on film, neglected to brace and landed on me when we hit the palm tree. The tree seemed to struggle with the basket for 5-6 seconds, shaking us back and forth like a damp salt shaker, before releasing us with a sudden nothingness. Pulling ourselves up we notice that somehow we now have no lateral velocity. With a tug, our very proud pilot pulls a rope and we dropped into a field with a mob of blood thirsty children cresting the distant irrigation canal.
Soon our balloon is surrounded by an entire village and a van pulls up with jump suited balloon tenders to pack up the balloon. We passengers are bundled into the van and we try to come to terms with the amazing experience we just had. I wish we could do it again even though it did cost ($125 each).
While Cambodia was an amazing place, we were happy to leave it behind and end our 1600 mile land journey (Hanoi to Angkor Wat). From this point on, we will fly. It would have been fun to take the 26 hour bus to Laos but I am not sure we would survive it.
Phnom Penh sits uncomfortably on the wide Mekong river. Three wheeled tuk-tuks filled with sugar cane, tiny mattresses or unwashed hippie tourists (usually male) meander from one area to another, dodging uniformed school children on their way to classes. Next to a government owned Mercedes G-class, an extended family wakes up on cardboard mats. With the millions of remaining landmines, it is common to see human jigsaw puzzles trying to survive off of determination and hard work. Elegant estates and vast professional sweat-shops the size of airport terminals (20% of our cloths are made here) are counter points to a country that lacks a postal system. Quickly you get the feel that you are in a damaged country, inhabited by a damaged culture made up of damaged people.
The people are soft spoken, kind and interested in those that come to visit. Family is critical to the makeup of the culture and it is not uncommon to see a Mother taking time to play with her children during whatever job she is working at. One local told me that there are only four types of people in Cambodia, those few that have, those that do not have, those that come to help and those that come to exploit. That explains why on the side of most tuk-tuks (and our hotel) is a sticker that ask the reader to report child prostitution.
After a few days, we headed south to the coast for a half marathon that Tamara had planned. The race went well and it was during this side trip that we made a very poor choice. Sitting on the beach, enjoying the warm sand and a cold beer, one of us decided to order a chocolate shake. Did we both know that the restaurant (shack) it would come from had no toilet paper or soap in the employee bathroom? Yes we did. Did we know that the water was not safe to drink? Yes we did. Why did we do this…..we don’t know.
72 hours later we recovered enough to be fairly confident that we would not die in that horrible place and made plans to hire a driver and car to take us back to the capital to a nice hotel where we could heal up. It took a week or so to start to feel better but likely we have relearned a good lesson about sanitation. (only eat what locals eat unless it is milk, ice or lettuce)
Visiting the Bethel was a highlight of our time in Phnom Penh. The 16 volunteer bethelites focus on translation, organization and education. It was only in 1990 that the work was able to start fully and by 2008 the language received the complete Greek scriptures. Now the 20 hardworking congregations enjoy a freedom that is not to be taken for granted in this area of the world.
I have had some friends ask why Tamara and I visit refugee camps, concentration camps and genocide memorials when we travel and the reason is simple but hard to explain. It boils down to we hate bullies and refuse to pretend bad things don’t happen. This was a driving force behind both of us wanting to visit the genocide museum at one of the “killing fields” around the area.
It always seemed to me that genocide/mass murder was a disaster caused by chaos and fear but Pol Pot (the leader of the bad guys) was well educated in France, expertly planned out his actions and meticulously documented every single name and photographed all 2+ million (25% of the population) killed (by hand) during his attempt to create a playground for himself. Emptying the cities (where the people had fled to escape the 4 year American carpet bombing) he killed all teachers, artists, anyone that could speak a second language and even those that wore glasses or had a skill other than farming. He forbad commerce, religion, education and family.
The open air museum had a audio guide that related survivors’ stories of the camps and the reign of terror. Each section seemed to be more horrible than the next ending in a tree used to kill babies. The museum tries to gather up the bones after each rain yet even still we had to step over pieces of fabric or bone as we walk around.
It was only when Vietnam could not deal with Pol Pot anymore did they enter the country, kick him out, setup a simple communist government in 1979 and went home. Shockingly, until 1982 the UN, US, Britain and China would only recognize Pol Pot as the legitimate ruler of Cambodia….even providing him with money and a seat at the UN. These things seem to happen in slow motion and anyone looking to the UN for peace and security has no knowledge of history.
There is many wonderful things about Cambodia and it is a shame that mostly the bad stuff seemed to surface in my writing. Writing for me is less like a camera taking photos of neat things but more stained clothing that you earn by navigating a path.
Our next stop is the crown jewel of Cambodia, Angkor Wat and the many square miles of ruins in the central part of the country.
So for accuracy’s sake… I have to confess that the journey from Saigon to Phnom Penh is a simple 7 hour bus ride west ($6) over roads that are described on the internet as “reliable yet spleen destroying”. Now that you know the easy way, let me tell you the way we chose to get to Cambodia, via the Mekong Delta. For context….the Delta is huge…as in the size of some countries big.
With visions of a whole new area of the world to explore, we caught a tourist bus that took us 4 hours south to one of the 5 mouths of the Mekong. This area is known for the tough stout residents cultural adaptations to life on the river. One of these adaptations is the uses of coconuts. They seem to only grow coconuts and use every part of them for anything possible. Fabrics, food, walls and mats, hats, drinks. Life revolves around the river and coconuts.
We got a ride on a small boat that traveled an hour or so up one of the natural canals, stopping off for lunch at a small restaurant (grass hut home). While the young ones did the cooking and tried to sell coconut related products, the older family members organized a music “thing”, that sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.
Then (from what I remember) we took the back of a tractor-motorcycle contraption across the island to the other side, then another boat to another island, then a bus to the nearest town (not sure the name) where we recovered from the oppressive humidity and heat in a decent hotel. As the sun set, large spectral birds cast threatening shadows as they hovered outside our window. It was only when we saw the smiling children holding strings, did it dawn on us that they were kites being flown in the dusk breezes.
Next morning, we took a power boat up the river to one of the largest floating markets in the world where families were selling cabbages, potatoes, meats of various sources and even live animals. As we wondered (via boat) around the market, the locals hurried with their work, stocking the boats that would pull up, negotiating prices and teaching their children lessons of some sort between sales. Some families rarely leave the boats or the massive delta. I wonder where they think we come from?
Later in the afternoon, we took yet another bus to a frontier town near the border of Cambodia. Frontier towns are always nasty and usually sketchy locations at best. This town (Cho Du, I think) was one of the worse places we have ever visited. The narrow three story city is dirty, worn and smelled as bad as they come. Some areas we would walk, we found our eyes burning with smells of indescribable filth. The air of distrust and fear was directed at some source that I could never quite figure out or saw. (likely gangs or smugglers I guess)
Braving the heat, humidity and what felt like “warning looks” from mothers holding tight to their toddlers, we made our way down to the river. There sitting in her boat, as if she was waiting for us was a toothless ancient old woman, smoking a pipe and pointing and laughing at us like we had clown wigs on. We smiled back and she waved to us to get on the boat and made a motion that she would take us around on her boat. She held up a unreasonable number of fingers (the price) and we paid it as she continued to laugh at us like the fools we were. She would look at our shoes or our camera and just bust up laughing at how preposterous we were and personally, I didn’t disagree with her. I found her worn face so captivating that I ended up taking more photos of her than the river life around us. Eventually, she got very quiet, all the while wrestling the large gas motor with her large baked forearms.
Dusk caught us by surprise and we quickly made it back to our horrible hotel to hide in the florescent light from what, I don’t know but do not doubt was there. The morning came with us dressed, packed and ready to catch the first boat north. The six hour speed boat trip was broken up by two border crossings (one to exit Vietnam and one to enter Cambodia), but ended with us finally reaching Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
I can’t say that I recommended the path we took and I would not do it again but it did help us to see and understand more about a huge group of people and their lives on the river.
We can already tell that this country of Cambodia is far different than anywhere we have been. More soon.
In many ways, Saigon ceased to exist in the early 70’s when the Communists renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. Yet, someone forgot to tell the South Vietnamese. The people of Saigon are quick to laugh, quick to drink and stay out far too late. It feels that the excesses are more of a way to express cultural resistance, than a desire to party…..but I over-think everything and am wrong more often than not.
Desiring to see a bit of culture, we attended a acrobatic interpretation of the lives of those that live in the South. Young men and women pretended to dodge motorbikes, deal with power outages, fish and farm and live…all the while telling the story as good (I think better) than any cirque du solei. The Opera house was an amazing piece of French colonial design from the mid 1800. Travel is a good excuse to do things that you would never make time to do otherwise.
The city is modern, fast paced and full of wonderful buildings. In researching why there is so many amazing structures, I learned that Indochina (what is now three countries) was dominated by the French with the capital being Saigon. Like an Asian Budapest, Saigon received much of the European love of the colonial lifestyle. When the French left….they left the buildings, the food and a focus on staying up late.
The streets are dominated by motorbikes. 80% of the 10 million inhabitants of Saigon owns a motorbike and uses it for everything from moving barber chairs, stacks of live ducks and I even saw a moto struggling to move a truck motor.
The food here is amazing with every kind of fare imaginable and done with great art. For fun we tried to find northern Indian cuisine and found one literally across the street…next to the “Organic Weasel Coffee” shop. One day we ran across a Carl Jr. and ate greasy American food until we were sick!
With Tamara’s marathon coming so quickly, she wanted to get her final training run in. Lacking a park, she used a neighboring Sheraton hotel gym while I tried to make sense of our upcoming turn north into Cambodia.
Saigon is one of the only places that has an English meeting and we were able to meet the Brothers and talk to them about their lives and ministry. The type of Buddhists here actually believe in a creator and often make small temples to the “creator” god. Like the Athenians of Paul’s day, they are unknowingly worshiping what our friends seek to declare with accuracy. (Acts 17:23) They are able to meet freely in the South but some of the foreign friends are in danger of deportation if they become known by certain words that rhyme with Gilead.
At the meeting, the public talk was on materialism and the example given was a family wanting TWO cars….can you imagine? It is always refreshing to see another side to life but it bothers me how quickly that appreciation fades when we return home….
One day we traveled out to the town of CuChi known for its tunnels that were built by the inhabitants to resist the French occupation but ended up being used to fight the Americans. We were able to crawl through some of the 200 km of the tunnels and see the kitchens, schools and homes. They even had an area where they would take those that were spayed by chemical weapons, which seems to happen here often, from what the government employed guide told us.
At the end of the tour, there was a fairly anti-American propaganda film and a firing range that we could shoot the weapons used during the American War. We both shot a AK-47 with its thin stamped out features and a WW2 M1 Garand that felt and sounded more like an medieval hand canon. I still cant believe how violent the Garand was!
That night as we headed back to our hotel we discussed our convoluted path that would take us up the Mekong to the Kingdom of Cambodia. Dodging manic motorbikes we passed street stalls selling all manner of batteries known to man, 10 minute iphone screen replacement services and boiled dog on fresh Baggett.
Next stop…the Mekong!