Sunday, February 10, 2008

Scenes from Cambodia

  Laos to Ban Lung

After about a week my travel companions, Lynette from Canada, Sanna from Sweden and I reluctantly pry ourselves away from the hammocks and dollar liters of whiskey on the idyllic island of Don Det and take a small wooden boat to the southern border where we will cross to Cambodia.

After the boat, a bus brings us south on a wide dirt track cut through the trees. The crossing is new and I'm uncertain of what to expect. We arrive at a small wooden shed with a large open window and official sign in white spray paint. This is the Thai customs office where I pay $1 for an exit Visa.

Not for the first time, I feel that strange emotion that I've come to associate with the state of limbo between borders. I've agreed to leave Thailand before securing a spot in Cambodia and until I receive a visa and four or five official stamps I am without country. To amplify the feeling, the Cambodian border is nowhere in sight and it is with a shaky faith and no other options that we begin on foot to traverse the red dirt track south and climb down a large embankment of loose dirt from some abandoned construction project toward the horizon in search of Cambodia. Eventually we reach the border station and enter to secure our visas.

I don't have much cash and I'm lucky that the border officials are not feeling particularly greedy today. I'm told that the so-called "stamp fees", which do nothing but pad the pockets of their official border guard trousers, can run as high as ten or twenty dollars. Today I pay only two dollars and then give the last of my Lao Kip to a girl who hadn't been clued in on the extra charge and came up short.

From the border we bus south to Stung Treng, little more than a truck stop, to change money and catch a ride to Ban Lung in the north east, lured by the promise of waterfalls hidden in the jungle and a pristine volcanic crater lake. Though we have only traveled about 50k from Laos the environment is totally alien. East of Stung Treng the dense palms and full green of the Mekong have given away to a sparse and rocky Martian terrain.

Ban Lung itself is a dust bowl. A sprawling town atop a volcanic plateau with wide and straight roads of red clay reminiscent of Hollywood visions of the old American west. It is not the jungle paradise I had expected, but I'm here and I'm hungry, so I take the advice of the guest house manager and we set off into town for our first taste of authentic Cambodian cuisine. The recommended restaurant is not unlike a barn. In fact, it is a barn, complete with a vaulted cathedral ceiling, dirt floor, rough shod plank walls and large open barn doors at the front. I am certain that tonight's dinner was feeding here only hours ago.

Like many Southeast Asian restaurants the kitchen is not hidden in back but displayed proudly at the front of the restaurant and our table must be cleared of some chopped green herbs and a large bowl of what appears to be chicken intestines before we could sit down. I managed to communicate an order and we sat drinking Cambodian beer and hoping that chickens innards would not find their way back to our table in a stir fry. They did not. However its neck and hairy little feet did among various other unidentifiable bits. I ate around the feet, but wasn't half bad.

The following day we rent motorbikes and brave the rocky country roads to hunt for waterfalls. Just minutes outside the tumbleweed town of Ban Lung we are engulfed in the shade of the rubber trees planted in orderly rows for miles on either side of the road. We periodically pass small roadside shops selling bottled water and gasoline out of old glass bottles of Johnny Walker Red and Coca-Cola. After an exhaustive tour of the waterfall circuit we drive to the crater lake to rinse off the layer red dust from the dusty roads.

Sunset on crater lake in Ban Lung


The city of Kratie appears a bit worse for wear but the white sandy banks of the blue Mekong are powerfully redeeming. A dirty central market sells gray market electronics and vegetables and a few western style cafes around the edges sell real espresso- a welcome taste of home after months of the sweet syrupy coffee of Laos and Cambodia.

We rent motos to drive south to the One Hundred Columns Temple and the real heart of Kratie reveals itself along the way. A rustic village road straddled by bamboo huts with palm thatched rooves follows the Mekong periodically bridging green valleys bearing tributaries to the wide river to the east. An endless supply of smiling children run toward the road to greet us and shout "Hellowhatisyourname?" and the chickens and water bufalow clear the road (sometimes) as we pass. The old women wear traditional garb beneath a shaved head and a stern countenance and they examine us with scorn. The men wear thin white and red checked towels and wash in well spouts by the roadside.

The One Hundred Columns Temple itself is a moderately impressive edifice on it's second rebuild (third times a charm) with, as you may expect, ninety-six columns(?) and elaborately muraled walls and ceilings telling the story of the crocodile princess. The story was relayed to us at length by a friendly resident monk in a garbled and utterly incomprehensible accent while we nodded and smiled in feigned comprehension. Something about a monk who turned into a crocodile to avenge the death of a king and subsequently won the heart of a beautiful maiden- a story that the monk, with level gaze, assured me to be true.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a medium sized city of commerce with a vivid night life, it's streets decorated with food stalls and street kids who never seem to sleep. The bustling modern metropolis is nestled amidst the ancient ruins of the Angkor civilization, a splayed city of monuments and temples displaying a pinnacle of human achievement, which surrounds the contemporary city for miles. Buildings of every size and shape, some towering, some squat and maze-like, all with elaborately carved sculpture and relief and a breathtaking complexity.

We tour the sites by tuk-tuk and at every stop we wrestle with the hordes of vendors who swarm quickly in to peddle books, t-shirts, beer, post cards and other cheap trinkets. The children are particularly persistent, some promising us peace and quiet only if we agree to make a purchase.

Nearly 1,000 years old these temples vary in their state of ruin, some restored nearly completely, and some in shambles as they succumb to integration with the surrounding jungle. A three day tour of the archaic constructions drains us of any remaining awe.

To break from the temple circuit we ride west to the lake to tour the floating village off the east bank, a watery ghetto of beauty and tragedy, an entire city precariously afloat replete with restaurants, shops, a school and shanty shack homes. Our boat pulls out from a crowded and dirty fishing port and we cringe as we pass some showy children yelling to us as they launch themselves from the railing of the school building into the slate gray stew of sewage and fuel and god knows what else, through which we are motoring. A Christian church is afloat on the outskirts of the town, far from the other dwellings and I find myself wondering if it was placed there by choice.

We tour the village via wooden longboat with a make-shift engine, mildly embarassed at the spectacle we are creating of the Vietnamese and Cambodian villagers who make their lives here. As if to emphasize my guilt, a boy with one arm paddles toward us in a small round aluminum wash basin and demands money. He is most likely a victim of one of the residual landmines or unexploded ordinance left over from the Vietnam war. I can't help but think with a twinge of irony of the stark contrast between this place and the leisure, luxury and status denoted by boating and waterfront property in most of the western world.

Phnom Penh

The road to Phnom Penh reveals the characteristic Cambodian lanscape of geometrical rice paddy plains of verdant green scattered sporadically with tall palms stretching to the rocky horizon. The city itself is an an enigma of a modern metropolitan life that reveals the traces of the agrarian roots of it's inhabitants as protesting pigs and chickens cruise the avenues strapped to the back of motor bikes amidst high rises, department stores and gourmet international restaurants.

The cruel mark of the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist regime of Pol Pot is most readily seen in the capital through it's historical sites, S-21 prison and the killing fields. A drastic and ruthless transition to communism claimed the lives of as many as two million innocent Cambodians in a four year period from 1975-1979, many were tortured and murdered while others succumbed to starvation, lack of sanitation and health care, disease and over work.

The killing fields, a former extermination camp and partially excavated series of mass graves, lies just outside the city and bears a multi-story monument filled with the skulls of victims. S-21, a former school in the heart of the city was converted into a center for torture and imprisonment of Cambodians and foreigners alike.

Classroom turned torture cell at S-21 in Phnom Penh

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The 4,000 Islands, Laos

The view from my bungalow just after sunset. Not bad for two dollars a night.

There is a pleasant tranquility on Don Det, an island on the Mekong in the south of Laos, that challenges even my delightfully cheeky brand of satire. No hassles and plenty of hammocks, you'd be hard pressed to get stressed out here.

Electricity and running water are scarce luxuries on this tiny island so we eat dinner by candle light and bathe in the blue Mekong and we wouldn't have it any other way.

I spend my days wrapped in a hammock and strumming a guitar, wondering how I might turn hammocking into a viable form of transportation. Traffic jams would be blissfully relaxing.