Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Death on the Highway

[Warning: This post contains graphic descriptions of an accident.]

This morning my tour group boarded a bus in Kampot, on the South Coast of Cambodia, and set out on National Highway 3 for the beach resort of Sihanoukville, about 100 kilometers to the west. About 20 minutes into the trip I pulled out a novel and settled in for a good read. The bus jerked to the right. There was a loud thwack and crunch, that kind of sounds that scream collision. My seatmate, Kathe, turned to me with wide eyes and said we'd hit something. A sort of collective gasp and unease filled the cabin. But the bus continued to roll down the highway, the driver apparently unconcerned with the accident.

Two rows behind me and Kathe sat Sally and Renee, nurses from Adelaide, Australia. I heard Renee yell at the driver to stop, and only then did he pull over on the shoulder. Sally and Renee jumped off the bus and ran down the road while the rest of us tried to figure out what had happened.

Cambodians drive on the right, like in America. But that doesn't mean people follow rules, like staying on their side of the road. On the other side of the highway, a motorbike passed a car on the left. A third motorbike, with a driver and passenger, tried to speed ahead of the car and other motorbike by passing further on the left, which put them in the path of oncoming traffic. But for a space of about a foot, they would have been successful. They tried to swerve out of the way but ran into the left front bumper of the bus, causing minimal damage to coach and catastrophic damage to the motorbike and the men.

Bus Bumper

I left the bus and walked back along the highway towards a small but growing crowd. I could see Sally and Renee standing near a body on the pavement and a mangled motorbike. As I got closer I saw something on the pavement. My brain told me with was a bit of steak, then I realized it was a golf ball-sized chuck of flesh. I then noticed the second victim, the passenger, lying in a heap on a small slope next to the road. His arms were twisted behind his back and his shirt had been lifted over a motionless torso. I assumed he was dead, then saw that the right side of his head had been crushed, a pool of blood gathering in the grass. No one could survive those injuries.

I turned back to driver and was relieved to see that he was moving and conscious. But still no one was tending to him, no one even offering an ounce of comfort. Sally and Renee are trained professionals, yet the locals told them to not touch either man. If they intervened, and the men died, there was a chance that the victims' families would blame Sally and Renee for the deaths. In fact, no one would touch the men. It's not logical, yet it's the way things work here.

Nevertheless, Sally and Renee urged out tour guide, Kevin, a Khmer from Siem Reap, to step in, and he did, at risk to himself, to comfort the survivor. The man's left wrist was shattered, his hand hanging bloody and limp, yet he was responsive and answered Kevin's questions. He was in shock, but alive.

Tourists at the Scene

I wondered what would happen to the bus driver and heard that he had run into the rice fields. Even though he was not to blame, and tried to swerve out of the way of the motorbike, he would be blamed. Kevin said this blame would result in local villagers seeking vengeance and killing him on the spot. Could this be true? I then noticed a young woman lurking in the expanding crowd carrying a hatchet. Had she been working in the woodshed and come to see what happened or was she there with a more sinister purpose?

After fifteen minutes a trio of men lifted the ragged survivor into the bed of a truck and took off for the hospital in Kampot. I will never know what happened to the man, whether he survived or not. Sally and Renee said he will likely lose his left arm due to the extensive injuries and the lack of medical facilities in the region.

Meanwhile, the passenger, (his friend, brother, father, cousin?) lay motionless and uncovered by the side of the road. The crowd continued to grow, and included children and dogs. Gawkers roamed through the wreckage, kicking bits here and there. Young kids, four and five years old, stared at the corpse on the berm and the bits of gristle on the pavement. A pair of police officers showed up but did nothing more than spray-paint a circle around the wrecked motorbike.

My group returned to the bus. We knew there was nothing we could do but let Cambodia be Cambodia. This is not our home, things are not done the same way. Kevin told us that we should forget it, put it behind us, get back to our holiday. I felt queasy, and could see the concern in the faces of the other tourists. The Cambodians who had now gathered around the bus seemed to be unsure of whether they should check out the dead body or continue watching at the tourists. The whole scene was unreal, surreal, enlightening, frightening and disgusting.

Crowd at the Body

One man lost his life and another's life was ruined because of the space of a few inches. Perhaps a helmet would have saved the passenger's life. There are no answers; it was an accident, plain and simple. Yet, it showed me a side of Cambodian culture that no tour anywhere, anytime, would include in an itinerary. It was a reminder of the fragility of life. It was a reminder of the risks you take when traveling in developing countries. It was as eye-opening an experience as I've had these past six months. In fact, the journalist in me was thrilled to have the story. I'd go to Hell if I believed it existed.

A replacement bus arrived about thirty minutes after the collision. The somber group of foreigners filed back to their seats and the bus pulled away.

The dead man remained exposed and untouched by the side of the road.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Hell on Earth

Any visitor to Cambodia should reflect on this country’s recent history. Cambodia gained independence from France in November 1953. King Sihanouk abdicated the throne two years later, placing his father in power. But Sihanouk formed a political party, the People’s Socialist Communist Party, that gained power by taking every seat in parliament in the 1955 elections. For the next 15 years, Sihanouk was at the top of Cambodia politics.

Sihanouk was suspicious of the United States and in the 1960’s turned to the North Vietnamese and the Chinese for support. Socialist economic policies alienated the right; leftists were upset over internal policies that stifled any form of dissent. Sihanouk felt most threatened by the leftist rebels and instituted repressive policies. One of the rebel groups forced to flee into the jungle for safety was the Khmer Rouge.

Cut to the mid 1970’s. Sihanouk has been deposed by General Lon Nol. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces have invaded the country in an effort to root out the communists. The U.S. institutes a secret policy of bombing communist camps, killing hundreds of thousands. Rural Cambodia falls under the control of the rebels. Pol Pot, a Paris-educated leader of the Khmer Rouge, has formed an army and on April 17, 1975, captures Phnom Penh, taking over the city and setting the clocks back to “Year Zero.” His goal is to turn Cambodia into an agrarian cooperative society under a fusion of idealistic Marxist and Maoist theories.

The reality that ensues is one of the most repressive, bloody and terrifying chapters in modern history.

Pol Pot cleared Phnom Penh of people, relocating residents to the countryside. He then instituted a program to cleanse the country of its/his enemies. The problem was in identifying those enemies. They included leaders of the former regime, warring factions within the Khmer Rouge itself, intellectuals, monks, professionals, etc. No one knows how many people were killed during the three years, eight months and 21 days of Khmer Rouge rule. By the time the Vietnamese invaded, on Christmas Day 1978, hundreds of thousands had been tortured and killed and hundreds of thousands more had died of starvation and disease. Current estimates say more than two million people died as a result of the Khmer Rouge.

Leaders of the Khmer Rouge

This summary is simplistic and incomplete and doesn't do the subject justice. It is merely a preamble to my visit to one of the prisons where the Khmer Rouge held and tortured prisoners and a killing field where those prisoners were executed and then dumped into mass graves.

In the winter of 1975, Toul Svey Prey was a high school 15 kilometers south of the center of Phnom Penh. By the summer of 1975 it had been converted into Security Prison 21 (S-21), the most notorious detention center in the country. More than 17,000 people were held at the site before they were transferred to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, a former orchard and Chinese cemetery. An afternoon at both sites is a sobering experience. I realize this is a cliché, but what am I supposed to say when confronting insanity and genocide?

S-21 is now the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. The grounds remain as they were on the day Vietnamese forces rolled into the city in 1978. The Vietnamese found seven survivors in the camp (that’s seven survivors out of more than 17,000 prisoners who passed through the facility). They also found the corpses of 14 VIPs who had been shackled and tortured. The rooms where these VIPs died each contain an iron bed frame, the shackles and a large black and white photograph showing the condition the corpse was in when discovered. In one photograph, vultures are feeding on the corpse.

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum

Photograph of Tortured Prisoner

The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazi party, was meticulous about keeping records and they photographed and logged every prisoner that entered S-21. There are rooms filled with the photographs of these prisoners, from young children to the elderly. There are also photographs of a few of the foreigners who were caught in the madness (including a handful of journalists).

Today the grounds are peaceful. The grass is green and lush, there are flowers in the trees and people relax on benches in the shade. If you didn’t know the history, and ignored the lengths of barbed wire enclosing the prison, you might mistake it for just another decrepit Phnom Penh building complex. But paintings depicting torture, a room where large cases contain skulls and graves containing those 14 VIPs tell you it’s something else entirely.

May 14, 1978

The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum is educational, sobering, tragic, depressing and downright creepy, a reminder of the horrific extremes humans are capable of. At the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, the final dagger is plunged to the hilt.

The site lies 15 kilometers to the south. The 17,000 prisoners who had been detained and tortured at S-21 were transferred to the fields, where they were bludgeoned to death (why waste bullets?). Their remains were dumped into 129 mass graves. The remains of 9,000 victims have been unearthed from 86 of the graves. The remaining corpses are still in the ground. With year after year of rainfall, tourist traffic and natural erosion, bone fragments and bits of old cloth surface through the hard ground.

A memorial Buddhist stupa was erected in 1988 to commemorate the victims here. The tall, square building contains thousands of skulls and a pile of old clothes. Empty socket and fractured skulls are a painful yet simple reminder of the events that occurred on the site.

Skulls in the Stupa at Choeung Ek


The Khmer Rouge is part of Cambodia’s past, even if its leaders have never been brought to trial). For me, visiting the detention center and the killing fields, I felt removed from the horrors of those years. I was able to visit the site and intellectually process what happened. But any attempt to comprehend the reality of the situation is beyond me. Genocide is not something I want to live through, but no one can truly comprehend that level of insanity without experiencing it firsthand. In the end, I visited, listened, learned and remained respectful. Is there anything else a tourist can do?

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Crunch Time

It was late afternoon on my first day in Phnom Penh. I was wandering around outside the Royal Palace when I noticed a few carts piled with baskets of something edible. Never one to pass up a chance to inspect the local cuisine, I moved closer. It didn't take long to realize the baskets contained piles of fried insects. There were beetles, crickets and grasshoppers. There was a pile of green things that looked like large ants and another pile of something that I assumed was still in its larval stage. There were also small frogs and deep-fried baby birds. But who cares about frogs and birds when you are staring at a basket of fried bugs?

Bug Cart

The girl selling the snacks told me I could take as many pictures as I wanted for $1 (Cambodia uses U.S. currency). My instinct was to take the photos and move on. Wrong. I'm traveling to experience local culture, bugs and all. So I sampled the product.

I started with the smallest cricket, ignoring as much as I could the beady eyes and broken legs. I was expecting something mushy, perhaps with a bitter aftertaste of internal goo. What I tasted, however, resembled an oily tidbit of deep-friend charcoal. Ok, maybe the crickets don't retain their natural flavors, their essence lost when they are plunged into a vat of bubbling oil. I moved to the larger grasshoppers (locusts? large crickets? who knows). Crunchier, but still like eating the shavings from a piece of burnt toast. Perhaps the green ants and spring onions was what I was looking for? Better, with a hint of sweetness, but still unremarkable. Where does a guy have to go to get a plate of tasty bugs around here? Jeez!



I passed on beetles, pupae and frogs. But in a drunken state last night I promised two of the women on my tour that the next time we encounter bugs I will eat a beetle. I think I even promised to eat a hairy spider. When in Rome...

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Holiday in Cambodia

Look what happens. You listen to punk rock as a kid and then you are living the title of a Dead Kennedys song. Yes, I've arrived in Cambodia, land of ancient temples and the killing fields.

I'm in Phnom Penh today and will be taking a walking tour this afternoon. Tomorrow I join an organized trip with Intrepid Travel. The two-week tour hits the country's highlights, but I'm most looking forward to a few days at Angkor Wat. I've been resting my camera the past few days knowing that it will get a workout at the ancient temples. The tour should be memorable. I'm looking forward to meeting the group and having familiar faces around me for a few weeks. I haven't been part of a group like this since my Australian Outback experience.

I'm going to try to update Packmonkey while on tour. The itinerary shows some blocks of free time, so I should be able to post along the way. If not, there will be plenty to write about in early August. I am also going to be writing an article about Intrepid for Tripmastermonkey.com.

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Those Crazy Kids

I’ve lost of all sense of distances and geography. I reached this epiphany upon arrival at Vang Vieng, a bend in the Nam Song river about 230 kilometers south of Luang Prabang.

I was in the back of a tuk-tuk with Mitzi, a chef from Maui, and Miksa, her 8-year-old daughter, when Mitzi said that Vang Vieng is the middle of nowhere. Vang Vieng may be in the middle of Laos, a landlocked country in the middle of Southeast Asia, but I didn’t feel any further from home than I did in Singapore, Borneo or Bangkok. These days, everywhere is the middle of nowhere, yet everywhere is home.

I’m operating under the traveler’s mindset in which home is wherever you are at the moment. One reason I wanted to take this trip was to stop thinking about my “future” and start thinking about the present. To be in Vang Vieng is to be far from home, sure. But for this traveler, for a few days this week, Vang Vieng was home. And when you are home, you are happy.

Vang Vieng Panorama

Here’s something strange. I groused about the travelers’ ghettos in Southern Thailand, those beaches where twentysomethings spend their days baking under the sun and their nights drinking themselves to oblivion. Vang Vieng is that kind of town, only it lies on a river, is surrounded by mountains and takes some serious effort to get to.

The town’s main drag, which was paved only within the last year, is lined with the usual assortment of restaurants, tour operators and Internet cafes. Menus from one establishment to the next are identical, offering the same mix of Lao and Western food. And every restaurant has wall-mounted televisions playing movies or American television shows from morning until late in the evening. It’s the perfect scenario for diversity, but someone decided at some point in time that travelers love “Friends” and there are four or five restaurants that show nothing but the defunct NBC sitcom. Also popular are “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.”

How to explain this? Take another look at those identical menus. Some of them contain an extra page labeled “Special Menu.” Dishes include Happy Tea, Happy Pancakes, Magic Omelets and Magic Pizza. And if you just want the happy without the calories, you can order a “Bag of Weed,” “Bag of Opium” or “Bag of Mushrooms.” Perhaps stoned out of your gourd, with civilization a day away by bus, back-to-back-to-back-to-back episodes of “Friends” sounds appealing. (I avoided “Friends,” but did watch “The Simpsons” for three hours with Miksa one rainy afternoon.)

Vang Vieng operates in a bubble. It’s where backpackers are allowed to act like the adolescents they are. The government keeps an eye on the tourists, and all businesses must shut down before midnight. But it’s still a party town, and backpackers spend their nights drinking and smoking and their days floating down the river on inner tubes. It’s the kind of place that I should have hated, but I had a blast. I blame the "people matter" mantra.

I had a good time because I hung out with a pair of travelers I never expected to meet: a single mother and her young daughter. I’ve met families on the road, but these encounters were limited to a single conversation on a bus or a beach. Mitzi and Miksa, however, are the kind of people I’d be friends with at home and we spent three good days just hanging out.

Mitzi and Miksa on the Path to the Caves

Ghost Miksa

When I first met Mitzia and Miksa, I thought I might learn something profound about Laos by spending time with a child and trying to see things through her eyes. But she is a wise kid, unencumbered by the expectations adults place on themselves in a foreign country. While Mitzi and I were checking out crude thatched houses in a village outside of town, approaching them like anthropologists or visitors from another planet, Miksa was enthralled by the baby pigs squealing in a puddle of mud. It didn’t matter that we were in Laos. As long as there were puppies and kittens, Miksa was happy. The only time she wasn’t happy was when we were caving and Mitzi and I turned off the flashlights to experience total darkness. Oh, and when I slaughtered her in a game of checkers.

I never thought I’d spend time on this trip hanging out with kid. I want one of my own.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Backpacker's Delight

Luang Prabang, Laos, is a backpacker’s dream town. With a population of about 25,000, Luang Prabang is big enough to offer religion, architecture, culture, cuisine and natural beauty, yet small enough to allow for unscripted exploration around gilded Buddhist temples, through narrow, leafy lanes, and on the banks of the muddy Mekong River. It is one of the premiere tourist destinations in Laos, but somehow the outside world hasn’t had time to spoil the local culture. Unlike the popular islands I visited in Southern Thailand, Luang Prabang feels real. It’s the kind of place that takes hold of your imagination, where you can walk down the street and believe you are somewhere special.

Luang Prabang is situated at the confluence of the Nam Khan and the Mekong River in Northern Laos, about 400 kilometers north of Vientiane. The town is 700 meters above sea level and surrounded by lush mountains. Twentieth-century war and revolution decimated the ancient town, but since the collapse of communism tourism and regional trade have combined to inject new life into the region.

Luang Prabang and the Mekong

Wat Saen

In the 18 years since Laos opened itself to tourism, much has changed, but to my eyes it feels like there is still more Lao culture than anything else. There are no Western franchises in Luang Prabang, no Starbucks, McDonald’s or KFC. There are no shopping centers or mini-malls. The selection of commodities is limited to food and the bare necessities. It is a quiet place; perhaps one of the last of it’s kind in Asia.

I spent three full days in Luang Prabang with my feet on the ground and my eyes wide open. I saw groups of European tourists buying crafts from women in traditional tribal clothing while orange-clad monks strolled by on their way to one of the town’s historic temples. These scenes occurred amid a stunning array of Buddhist temples, faded French colonial facades and ramshackle wooden houses. In the historic district at the north end of town, I strolled though narrow leafy lanes, the foliage shielding ornate guesthouses and modern bistros. At night, some streets were transformed into bustling marketplaces offering clothing, handicrafts, and jewelry. Other streets were devoted to food, with tables set up with heaping piles of spring rolls, bowls of spicy papaya salad, and skewered and grilled meats.



Night Market

Luang Prabang is home to many temples, and therefore many monks. I had seen monks in Thailand and had tried to smile or make eye contact, but was never able to elicit a response. However, there are novice monks in Luang Prabang who spend their free time relaxing at some of the popular tourist spots. These novices are students who spend a year or two as a monk and then move on. From what I understand it’s a way to get an education and open up future possibilities. Part of that education is learning English, and what better way to learn a language than talk to tourists?

I met the first group of novice monks near the top of Phu Si, a large hill in the center of Luang Prabang. Three boys, Ken, Si and Fan, ages 15 and 16, had the afternoon off and had come to a small temple of the north slope of the hill to hang out. Conversation was limited by their skills to simple topics – where we are from, what do we do, etc. I learned they were from small villages and were in Luang Prabang to learn. They didn’t know what they wanted to do in the future, but seemed to be leaning toward teaching. I don’t think there is a lot of opportunity for these kids and hope they will find something engaging to do with their lives.

Novice Monks at Phu Si

The next day I was walking by Wat Sirimungkhun. The hour was nearing 11 a.m. and the sun was strong. I’d already sweat through my shirt and was hoping to find a shady spot to get some rest. I heard a monk call out “Hello” in very clear English and decided to engage him in conversation. Somlith was a 17-year-old novice monk from a nearby village. He was passionate about learning English and was excited when I sat down to chat. We covered the usual subjects and then I ask him for a tour of the temple. It was Sunday so the schoolroom was closed, but he did show me the novice monks’ living quarters.

The novices live in small, spartan rooms – a bed, a window, a small desk and a rod to hang their robes. There was stack of books on Somlith’s desk, a small language dictionary at the top of the pile. His walls were covered in pencil drawings of Buddhas, a white board, lists of English words with the Lao translations and, most surprisingly, two large calendar posters featuring beauty queens. Somlith said a European visitor had given him the posters. He seemed embarrassed by their presence, but not because he was a monk, but because he was shy 17-year-old boy.

I took pictures of the boys at Phu Si and of Somlith in his room. I was surprised, again, when I was asked to send them the photos in email. Laos may be a poor country, with most of the population surviving on subsistence farming, but it’s also a company that is looking ahead. That these monks would even have email was beyond my expectations. That they want to maintain a correspondence with me is incredible. I’m sometimes asked about the friends I make on the road. I never expected those friends to include a couple of teenage monks in Northern Laos.

Novice Somlith

Somlith's Room

Luang Prabang wasn’t all about the monks, however. I’d made some good friends on the ride down the Mekong and spent a lot of time hanging out with them. The best friendship turned out to be with Guillaume and Emmanuelle, the young French couple from Amiens. In Pak Beng, Guillaume and I spoke briefly about pastis, a French aperitif that I adore. We agreed to get together in Luang Prabang at a pub owned by a French ex-pat and throw back a few glasses of the cloudy, anise-flavored elixir.

We met at the Maylek Pub at the appointed time and spent the evening at a small table on the sidewalk. The pub is outside of the main tourist area and it felt to me like one of those true travelers’ meetings, where people from different countries just enjoy the short time they have together. Perhaps I was romanticizing the situation, adding significance to the fact that I was in a former French colony enjoying French liquor with a French couple.

Guillaume and Emmanuelle had been to Tat Kkuang Si, a series of waterfalls and swimming holes 32 kilometers south of the city, that afternoon and wanted to return the next day. We met outside the post office (La Poste) and hired a tuk-tuk to take us to the falls. Once again, Luang Prabang surprised me. I imagined the falls would be overrun with tourists, but it was Saturday and we spent our time hanging out by a turquoise swimming hole (complete with rope swing) where Lao families were gathering for weekend picnics. It was another moment of Laos just being itself.

Girl on Rope Swing

Guillaume Takes Off

Flickr Photoset: Luang Prabang to Vientiane

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Lazy River Road

"People matter," said Dr. Meredith Grey on a recent episode of "Grey's Anatomy." This being Meredith Gray, the neurotic title character of the hit television series, the concept became the butt of a joke from her wisecracking best friend. But Meredith's simple statement resonated with me. This week I thought about her statement when I found myself traveling with a group of new friends.

It started after my dunking in the Mae Taeng River. My Thai visa was running out and I needed to get out of the country. I arranged to be dropped off at a roadside bus stop, where I would catch various modes of transport over two days to get to the border with Laos. Public bus to Fang, songthaew to Tha Ton, long-tail boat to Chiang Rai, then another public bus to the border; just another day on the road for an independent traveler.

I was sitting on the bus in the station at Chiang Mai, the only white face among locals. I was thinking about how I had been traveling along for the past few weeks, wondering whether I'd lost the ability to make new friends, when a pair of young women boarded the bus. One of the women sat next to me and we proceeded to chat throughout the two hour journey. Melissa, a Canadian from Vancouver, was abroad the first time. I expressed my admiration that she chose to face the rigors of Southeast Asia her first time out. But she was holding up extremely well and was a great companion for journey.

Also on board was a couple that looked familiar to me. About 90 minutes into the journey the locals had mostly cleared out and I turned around and said as much, but they said they didn't recognize me. Fair enough.

The bus pulled in to the border town of Chiang Khong after sunset, and we all piled into a truck to a guesthouse overlooking the Mekong River. I was too tired to choose for myself and opted to follow the pack. I'd been traveling solo for so long that I was happy to let someone else make the decisions.

The guesthouse, BaanRimtaling, turned out to be lovely, a multi-leveled structure with large rooms and beautiful views over the river. The owner, Andre, an ex-pat Frenchman, happily poured wine and beer while his wife prepared meals for the guests.

I spent the evening trading stories and laughing with Melissa and her friend, Jessie. We shared stories and laughed, becoming fast friends win the way travelers often do. The French couple sat with Andre at the next table. I understand very little French but I am always happy to listen. Their soothing syllables rolled out into the night, mingling with the clucking geckos clinging to the walls. It was the ideal way to spend my last evening in Thailand.

We were all headed into Laos the next day. The plan was to spend two days floating down the Mekong River on a slow boat to Luang Prabang. We crossed the river, passed through immigration and arrived at the boat to find that we were the last passengers, which mean we had to scramble for seats at the rear of the boat, close to the engine. The French couple, who still seemed familiar to me, had since introduced themselves as Guillaume and Emmanuelle. I sat on my red plastic chair, seven hours of river travel ahead of me, and felt happy to be part of a group.

The Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

Slow Boat Interior

Jessie and Melissa

Guillaume and Emmanuelle in Luang Prabang

The slow boat down the Mekong is aptly named. It is a very slow boat. The journey is broken into two segments over two days, with an overnight stay at Pak Beng, a river town that seems to live off the tourist trade. There's not much to report about that first day on the river. How much can happen on a boat? We talked a lot about travel, about home, about life.

I took pictures of the captain at the front and sat with two Lao women in a makeshift galley at the stern. The engine pounded in our ears throughout the trip. Ironically, because we were last to board, we were not sitting on thin wooden benches like the rest of the passengers. Instead, I spent the seven hours on a red plastic chair, a 50 Baht cushion providing extra comfort to my bum. Guillaume and Emmanuelle spent the journey on top of an industrial-sized cooler, but never complained.

The night at Pak Beng was spent in third-world accommodation. For US$2.50 we got hard mattresses, limited electricity and cold showers. We gathered at the guesthouse's restaurant and worked our way through rice, curry and spring rolls, Lao beer and whiskey and assorted cocktails. At 11 p.m. the generators were turned off, plunging the town into darkness. At 4 a.m. the roosters started crowing. The ducks soon followed and by 6 I swore there was a whole barnyard outside my window.

This was a blessing in disguise, however. For the second leg of the journey we would be riding in a different boat, one with a limited number of cushioned seats. I are a quick breakfast and staked out five spots. We were still near the engine, but at least the seats were soft.

The boat left Pak Beng and as I looked ahead to eight hours of vinyl seats, cramped conditions, humidity and heat, I was happy. I was in Laos, one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, cruising down the Mekong with four new friends.

People matter, indeed.


Two nights later and Guillaume, Emmanuelle and I are in a pizza joint on the main street in Luang Prabang. I've loaded Emmanuelle's photographs on my laptop and we are watching a slideshow of their journey. Photos are from Bangkok, then Ko Tao. Then pictures from Chiang Mai start scrolling across the screen. I recognize a bar, and a bartender, and let out a shout. "That's it! That's where I know you. I was in the bar that night, sitting right behind you. You wanted a Mai Tai but the bartender didn't have any rum."

We check the timestamp and, sure enough, we were at neighboring tables in a small, neighborhood bar in Chiang Mai on July the Fourth. I knew they looked familiar.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

2,000 Photos!

Today I uploaded my 2,000th picture to Flickr! The shots are mostly from this trip, but do include pictures from Ireland and New York City. Still, 2,000 is a milestone to celebrate. Just be happy I haven't posted all 6,000 photos I've taken since landing in Sydney in early February.

Number 2,000 is of a beautiful elephant I encountered in a town on the Mae Kok River in Northern Thailand. The elephants are there to transport tourists into the hills. They are working animals and probably not entirely happy. I bought a bag of bananas and sugar cane and fed them to this beast. I think he appreciated every bite.

Thai Elephant

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Monkey Mania

It's been weeks since I was in Borneo, but it's never to late to write about monkeys. My latest dispatch for Tripmaster Monkey ("Home of Yellow Journalism") is about my stint as a Monkey Tourist. It's chock full of simian antics and heartwarming anthropomorphism. I hope you'll give it a read, and click on a few ads when you are done to support the fine folks running the show at TMM.

Previous: Singapore, Indonesia

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Thursday, July 12, 2007


The streets of central Chiang Mai are lined with guesthouses offering a repeating menu of adventure options. There are visits to hill tribes. There are classes in cooking, language, massage, dressmaking and more that I’m not aware of. The most popular activities, however, are those that guarantee the release of high levels of adrenaline into the bloodstream.

I’d spent a week in Bangkok and then a few days wandering around Chiang Mai, visiting temples, lounging in the coffee shops, browsing in the excellent used bookstores, and eating an astonishing variety of food, from the local specialty, khao soy, to organic beet and spinach salads to surprisingly tasty and authentic Mexican food. One definition of surreal is sitting at a sidewalk table in Northern Thailand, watching the tuk-tuks roll by while washing down a spicy carnitas burrito with a cold Singha beer (I would have preferred a Corona, but what can you do?).

Pork Burrito at Miguel's California Cafe, Chiang Mai

I'm sorry. I've been sidetracked by a burrito. Back to Thailand.

I was enjoying myself in Chiang Mai, but faced with so many sporting options I decided to spend my last few days in Thailand in pursuit of adventure. I’d been hanging out at a place called the Kona Café, owned and operated by Jason, an ex-pat American whose main business venture, Siam River Adventures, is taking tourists climbing, mountain biking, trekking and whitewater rafting. We sat down and hammered out a custom trip in which I would spend one day trekking (including a visit to a hill tribe), sleep overnight at the company’s camp on the Mae Taeng River, then raft down the river the next day. Jason would then drop me off at a bus station where I would catch a ride north that would take me closer to the border with Laos.

The trek was exactly what you’d expect in the forests of Thailand in the first week of July: hot, humid, sweaty and steep. Three hikers – a Canadian couple, Mike and Maureen, in the Thailand for two weeks of business and pleasure, and myself – were guided by a young Thai man, Singh, along a track used by elephants and then up a steep ridge to a Lahu village. Singh stopped at one point when he spied a patch of wild mushrooms off the trail. He later found another patch in a field of mountain rice and ended up with about two pounds of fresh mushrooms. “These mushrooms are very expensive in Chiang Mai,” he explained.

Trekking in Northern Thailand

Singh Picking Mushrooms

The Lahu village was a collection of rickety huts and a lot of dirty children. I realize I sound insensitive with this description, but that’s what I saw. These are poor people living in a mountain village. They receive hundreds of foreign visitors a month and out appearance barely registered on their consciousness. The kids were still very cute.

The villagers had slaughtered a pig that morning in celebration something that was never clearly explained to us (an Animist ritual of some kind, or a New Year’s celebration, take your pick), and served us fresh pork soup (heavy on the grease) and a local dish that was described as “raw pork” but I suspect is a dish made from the pig’s blood. If there’s one thing I will pass up anywhere in the world, from a village in Northern Thailand to the finest restaurants in New York City, it’s raw pork.

Communal Meal at Lahu Village

Mmmm... Raw Pork

The next day I met a group of tourists at the Siam River Tours camp and prepared for a few hours of whitewater rafting. I had rafted once in my life, on a family vacation when in Northern California. I recall placid stretches of water and occasional whitewater thrills. No one got too wet and no one fell out of the boat. The worst thing that happened was the boat carrying my mother (Hi Mom!) became stuck on the side of a large rock; the look of terror on her face remains in my memory to this day.

Back on the Mae Taeng, the ten rafters donned lifejackets and helmets and were given a safety briefing by the staff. I asked whether I should bring sunglasses or a hat and was told not to bring anything that I wasn’t willing to lose. I think I’d been assuming the river experience would be similar to the ride of my childhood. I decided to forgo sunglasses and hat and climbed into the boat.

On the second set of rapids the boat tipped and I tumbled into the drink. It’s every rafters fear, and when it happens it is so fast there’s little time to think. I was on the boat one moment and the next tumbling in a froth of whitewater. My hand went to my face, and I discovered that I’d lost my glasses. I then broke the surface and gasped for breath. It was that feeling you get when the wind’s been knocked out of you, when it’s difficult to get air and you don’t know if your lungs will ever fill with air again.

So here I am, half blind, gasping for oxygen, and being carried like a log down the muddy Mae Taeng River. But I didn’t panic. I was getting some air and realized it would only get easier. My lifejacket was keeping me afloat and nothing hurt. I remembered the safety briefing and pointing my feet downstream. I then realized I was somehow still holding my paddle as well as a shoe belonging to a fellow rafter who’d also fallen in.

In fairness to Jason and Siam River Adventures, the rafts were accompanied by three staff members in kayaks, all of them trained in water rescue and first aid. In addition to the kayakers, other staff members would stand on the bank of the river with throw ropes in hand in case someone need assistance. I never felt like the company hadn't taken every precaution available.

Over the next two hours we covered some Class 4 rapids, dropping into swirling pools and bouncing off the many boulders in the river. This was nothing like the trip my family had taken. This was serious rafting, treacherous, exhilarating and everything adventure travel should be. I was upset about the loss of my glasses, but to tell the truth, they were quite scratched up and had been bothering my for the past few weeks anyway. I am now wearing my backup pair and am happy to have clear lenses again.

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Thailand Triptych

My 30-day Thai visa expires on July 11. I will be spending the next few days trekking, whitewater rafting, and taking public transportation to the border with Laos. There's been a lot to write about over the past four weeks, but a few items have slipped through the cracks. The following nuggets have been on my mind over the last few days.

Rough Seas

Anyone who travels around the islands of Southern Thailand will end up taking a ferry from one island to another. Transportation ranges from long-tail boats that carry passengers up and down rivers or along coastlines to giant ferries that venture into the open sea to pass between major destinations.

There was a storm overhead and strong swells in the sea on the day I traveled between Railay beach and Ko Phi Phi. The ferry was old, its cramped interior offering narrow rows of seats and an exposed wooden bulkhead. As the boat movied into the Andaman Sea, the waters turned choppier and the boat started to skip from wave to wave. Swells of three or four meters crested above the bow and great plumes of spray soaked the top deck. Tourists exchanged worried glances. I soon heard whispers questioning the safety and seaworthiness of the vessel. The more anxious passengers were now wearing lifejackets.

The crew had been through this before and approached the situation with smiles and good humor. They assured everyone that we would be safe, then proceeded to hand out clear plastic bags. In a moment of blockheadedness, I thought "How nice, they don't want our belongings to get wet." I then realized that with 90 minutes before we would reach Ko Phi Phi, people were going to get sick. Sure enough, not ten minutes later a girl about 8 years old started to toss her cookies. The young woman two seats to my left then turned green and started retching into her own bag.

I spent the rest of the journey holding onto the seat in front of me and staring intently at one spot about five feet in front of my face. The boat bucked from wave to wave, crashing into the troughs with a bang, eliciting groans and cries from the passengers. The horizon was an unsteady blur out the window. I fought nausea and thanked the stars that I'd skipped breakfast. It seemed that whenever I looked up there was someone tottering down the aisle holding a clear bag of puke. It wasn't the Titanic, but it was a pretty awful boat ride.

When we arrived at Ko Phi Phi, the passengers shuffled onto the dock, happy to be safe and secure on dry land. I overheard a backpacker tell a friend that he'd just spoken to the captain, who told him that he'd ridden out the tsunami on that very boat. I take back everything bad I said about the boat ride. It could have been so much worse.

Andaman Ferry on a Calmer Day

Friends in Faraway Places

There are a lot of foreigners in Thailand. Many of them are tourists who skip from destination to destination. But there are resident foreigners who live and work quite comfortably in the country. While in Bangkok I was fortunate enough to meet two fellow Americans living abroad.

I met Linnea Philips though Peggy Olsen, the first friend I made on this journey, way back in February during a layover at the airport in Fiji. Linnea has spent the last few years in Thailand working for the Amicus Foundation, a relief organization run by her stepfather and family. We met one night for vegetarian Thai food, where she impressed me with her fluent Thai and good humor. We met again the next day to explore a few art galleries and eat banana and cheese ice cream.

The art was lackluster, especially a creepy exhibit of large-scale photographs of Tuscany (the photos were fine, it was the layout of the exhibit that freaked us out - black walls, harsh spot lighting and atonal music). The ice cream was surprisingly good. It was overwhelmingly banana-flavored, with small, fatty globules of a mild cheese adding texture. I couldn't figure out what kind of cheese they used, but it tasted like a cross between cottage cheese and cream cheese.

In the space of 24 hours Linnea and I shared streetcorner Thai, shopping mall banana and cheese ice cream, a dessert crepe with a mound of chocolate ice cream at a French restaurant, and an array of vegetarian dishes at Tamarind Cafe, a combination restaurant and art gallery where we were joined by her friend Pia.

Linnea moves to Florence, Italy, in September to attend cooking school. I wish her the best of luck and hope we can share a plate again in the future.

Linnea, left, and Pia at the Tamarind Cafe, Bangkok

Yes, food is the great unifier. The other ex-pat I met was Newley Purnell, a freelance writer with an occasional byline in Tripmastermonkey.com. We met through a mutual friend, Matt Gross (aka The Frugal Traveler). I met Newley for lunch and he shepherded us into a back alley market where crowds of office workers from the neighborhood were just sitting down to their midday meal. It was a taste of the real Bangkok, both in atmosphere and in the heaps of springs rolls and noodles we ate.

We were joined halfway through lunch by Newley's roommate, Dan, another freelance journalist. We talked the trade for a while and for the first time in a few months I thought about the job I left behind in New York. No, I don't miss it. Still, it was great to talk to a few writers and gab about the business again. Unfortunately, we were unable to meet up again while I was in Bangkok. Newley has no plans to leave BKK, so look him up the next time you are in town.

Newley, left, and Dan Somewhere in Bangkok

Many thanks go out to Linnea and Newley.

Motorbike Madness

The next time you are standing at a intersection waiting for the little green man to start blinking permission to cross, stop for a second and think about how lucky you are. For the past few months I've been living in a world where pedestrians have no rights. The road belongs to scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses. People are an afterthought. Play Frogger for a few hours and you'll get the picture.

I spend a lot of time waiting for gaps in traffic. I'm a multitasker, so while I'm working out trajectories and probablities I'm also taking note of how crazy motorized transport is in this part of the world. The craziest of the bunch? It's got to be the scooters.

Scooters are the preferred form of transportation for a large chunk of the population. But there are no rules. It's common to see three people per bike. I've seen families of four and five. I've seen people chatting on cellphones while speeding around corners. Dogs get into the act too, peching comfortably behind the driver or squinting against the wind in a front-mounted basket. Yesterday I saw a pair of teenage girls on a busy street, the passenger feeding the driver a stick of chicken satay. I realize I'm imposing my own cultural values here, but it's nuts. Nuts!

Three on a Bike, With Refreshments

Taking Care of Business

Dad and Son

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Charms of Chiang Mai

I have a new favorite Thai dish. I'd thought I'd tried them all, but when you travel to the source something new is bound to present itself. The dish is Khao Soy (or Khao Sawy), a straightforward blend of red curry, noodles and chicken. But like everything delicious, the simplicity hides something satisfyingly complex.

I discovered Khao Soy through my new Bangkok-based friend Linnea (of the banana and cheese ice cream expedition), who suggested that while in Chaiang Mai I try the local specialty, Khao Soy. She also said she is especially fond of the "crunchy noodles on top." Crunchy noodles? In Thai food? I was intrigued.

Chiang Mai is a small but significant city in Northern Thailand. It is a highlight on the tourist trail, so like the rest of the country (in my experience, at least) it is overrun with foreigners. But the locals are friendly, the temples are magnificent, and the food is delicious. The old city, which is enclosed by a moat and still has portions of the ancient city walls, is small enough that a tourist like myself can walk for hours and discover hidden nooks removed from the hustle and bustle of the tourist districts.

Ancient Wall at Tapae Gate

Buddha at Wat Pho

Chiang Mai also boasts the best collection of used bookstores that I've seen in Southeast Asia. There are cafes offering organic food and free Wi-Fi, a bustling night market and rugged trekking in the surrounding mountains. It's the kind of place that Thailand is famous for, and deservedly so.

I spent my first morning wandering around town, gazing at gilded wats and contemplating the universe in front of golden Buddhas. I particularly enjoyed browsing in a shop called Noah's Ark, which sells an eclectic range of "T-Shirts, Music and Whatnot." The owner, a smiling young Thai with a taste for the exotic, put on a CD of jazz-tinged pop from South Africa and both of us bounced to the beat. I bought a T-shirt, partly because I wanted one but mostly because I wanted to support this affable entrepreneur.

Wall at Noah's Ark

When lunchtime rolled around, I stopped by a restaurant that looked promising and asked the owner is she served Khao Soy. To tell the truth, I was more concerned about my impending state of dehydration, but that was quickly remedied with a tall glass of watermelon juice and a bottle of extra-fizzy soda water. (The Thais make an excellent soda water.)

I didn't know what I was expecting from Khao Soy, perhaps just another curry-based dish. But it's so much more. Instead of a thin base of curry covering the main ingredients, Khao Soy is a more like a soup, a self-contained dish served in one big bowl. Another surprise, perhaps the biggest for me, was that in a land of rice noodles, Khao Soy used flat yellow egg noodles. There's a hint of fettuccine in the blend of egg noodles and creamy curry. There was also a moment of Proust-like sense memory when I tasted the egg noodles - kugel came to mind, and everything associated with the dish. The Kaho Soy was indeed topped with "crunchy noodles," very similar to what you'd be served in a Chinese restaurant.

Khao Soy

Spicy curry, slippery egg noodles and crispy noodle topping - I have a new favorite Thai dish. I liked it so much that that same night I decided to go out in search of another bowl. I didn't know where to go, so approached a tuk-tuk driver and asked him to take me to someplace local, where Thais would go for Khao Soy. He promised me that he understood and we took off.

He took me somewhere local only in that it is within the Chiang Mai city limits. He didn't take me to a stall where a grandmother sweats over a wok, or every a storefront emitting the scent of steaming vats of curry. No, he took me to a place called "Just Khao Soy," a theme-restaurant where everything is in English and the prices are triple what you'd pay anywhere else. According to Lonely Planet, however, Just Khao Soy "lives up to it's name by serving nothing but the local specialty. This is the grand, gourmet version."

I stood outside Just Khao Soy debating whether to go in. I was angry at myself for not being more specific with the tuk-tuk driver. I should know by now that one of the rules of travel is that locals assume you want to go places where you will be comfortable, where you will be among your own kind and language differences will not be an obstacle to enjoying yourself.

This was not the kind of experience I was looking for. Still, in my quest to experience culture both high and low, I decided to check it out. Which was mistake number two. Another rule of travel is that the locals always assume you cannot handle the spiciness of the cuisine. Thai food is often rated according to the number of chilies in a dish. If the Thais eat Pad Kra Prow with eight chilies, they will serve it to you with one or two. Just Khao Soy offered its signature dish in three levels of spiciness, mild, medium of spicy. I asked if spicy meant spicy and was told it did. So I ordered it medium. Mistake number three.

What came to the table was a bland imitation of the Khoa Soy from lunch. Luckily, this gourmet version was served with an array of condiments -- coconut cream to thicken the broth, fish sauce to add saltiness, bananas to sooth the taste buds, pickles and shallots for crunch, and chili paste for burn. I add a healthy dollop of chili paste and was satisfied with the heat level.

Nothing beats authenticity. Vegas New York will never be New York, New York. The Matterhorn at Disneyland cannot compete with the mountain itself. And Just Khao Soy will never live up to the standards set by a nondescript restaurant somewhere in the heart of Chiang Mai.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Of Scams and Stupas

I've been both a recluse and a tourist these past few days in Bangkok. No one would confuse me with Howard Hughes or Syd Barrett; I'm just a traveler taking a break from new the open road. It was merely a combination of travel fatigue and, finally, after five months of pokey service, finding a fast Internet connection.

My hotel on Suhkumvit Soi 10 has free ADSL Internet in every room. With a fast connection I was able to finally able to download video from the iTunes store, notably the end of the third season of "Lost" (more questions, few answers, imagine that), catch up on some internet videos and BitTorrent a handful of recent shows by Ryan Adams & the Cardinals (all recordings sanctioned by the band, for personal use only). Plugged in for a few days felt like being home, like I was on familiar ground for the first time in months.

I also caught up on a few movies. "Transformers" is another piece of wham-bam-thank-you-maam excrement from Michael Bay, but I saw it in the largest multiplex theater in Asia, the 1,200-seat Siam Pavalai. The highlight of the show was when an afternoon electrical storm knocked out power to the entire shopping mall. I also caught an afternoon screening of "Ocean's Thirteen" after watching a bootleg of "Ocean's Twelve" (I don't want to support piracy, but a movie-nut has few options on the road). Both are tart, pulpy and good for a few hours of breezy entertainment. I also watched a fuzzy camcorder-captured copy of "Ratatouille." Pixar and Brad Bird are the best combination working in mainstream movies today. I loved it and can't wait to see it for real.

I took a day out from these personal pursuits to play tourist. The day started with a tuk-tuk ride from Suhkumvit to Khao San Road, the backpacker epicenter of Bangkok. I stayed on Khao San Road for one night in 1994 and recall it as grungy, crowded and cheap. Budget hovels, I mean hotels, and restaurants lined the street, but it wasn't so crowded that you couldn't sit at an outdoor table and watch the action pass by. Khao San Road has expanded over the years and is now a full-blown backpacker ghetto filled with bars, travel agents, tattoo parlors and clothing stores selling the latest in hippie fashion. Signage is everywhere, extending beyond the storefronts and over the sidewalks.

Bangkok by Tuk-Tuk

Khao San Road

Disturbing T-Shirts

But there's hope for the future of Khao San Road. There's a sort of gentrification happening, with a few upscale establishments opening their doors and young Thais, artists and students mostly, moving in. Gentrification is generally regarded as a bad thing. A little cleaning up of Khao San Road could only be good.

Still, the present road has little or me, so I quickly covered its length and left it behind for good. and was very happy to leave Khao San Road behind for good. There are sidewalk vendors everywhere, and touts pitch enticements every few feet. One popular offer is from tuk-tuk drivers: hour-long tours for 20 Baht or less. In reality, they get you in the vehicle and take you to businesses offering ultra-hard sells and outright scams. The tuk-tuk driver gets a commission for roping in the unsuspecting tourist. The general rule of thumb is that if something sounds too good to be true, it's a scam. The Bangkok Gem Scam is a classic example.

I stopped on the way from Khao San Road to the Grand Palace to get my bearings on a map. A Thai man in his thirties asked me where I wanted to go and started offering unsolicited advice. He told me the Grand Palace was closed for the afternoon (a holiday, regular Friday routine, etc.) and said that I should take a tuk-tuk to see the "Lucky Buddha" across town. My guard is up most of the time these days, and my radar was on high alert with Khao San Road just around the corner. So I thanked him and started to walk away, which prompted him to start yelling at me, telling me again that the palace was closed and calling me an "idiot tourist."

Not only was the Grand Palace open, there were signs at the entrance warning tourists to "Beware of strangers offering services." The sign also mentioned tuk-tuks and the lucky buddha. Still, Bangkok has not been overwhelming in the way that Indonesia was. And I've been able to maintain a clear conscience while ignoring the creeps trying to rip me off.

The main attraction at the Grand Palace is not the palace itself, but Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The temple is part of a complex of gleaming golden stupas and ornate statues and buildings. The interior walls of the compound are covered with an extensive mural depicting scenes from Thailand's national epic, the "Ramakian" (derived from the Indian epic "Ramayana"). I don't know the Ramakian from ramen, but was entranced by the paintings. I even found a visual representation of my battle with the flying termites in Ko Lanta. (Full disclosure: I know a lot about ramen!)

Wat Phra Kaew

Family Photo

Battling Bugs


After the opulence of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace itself was something of a let down. Which is odd, since the Grand Palace is jaw-dropping as well. I think I'd had my fill for sightseeing for the day. Nevertheless, I enjoyed being a tourist again and look forward to Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand. I've had my fill of big, dirty BKK. Time to hit the open road again.

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