Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ankor What? - Koh Ker, Cambodia

I decided to stray away from the usual temple trail and head a little farther out to Koh Ker and Beng Mealea. The only problem with that is that the temples are 130 and 100kms away respectively. Thankfully the road is paved, well, mostly paved. By motorbike it took me three hours to get to Koh Ker. By the time I arrived, my ass was very sore and much flatter, if that's possible. I was, however, rewarded for my long journey by being the only tourist there.

The Khmer capital was briefly moved to Koh Ker during the 10th century. Prasat Thom, the main temple, rises 30m from the jungle and is constructed in the Mayan pyramid fashion (unusual for this area). The wall of the temple is covered with hundreds of lingas (Hindu phallic symbols) and many smaller temples housing giant lingas inside surround the main temple. I think someone was compensating. I'm looking at you Jayavarman IV. Very little has been done in respect to restoring the temple. With many of the towers collapsed you can see the kind of havoc time and the jungle can do. Riding around this immense site with no one else was was great. I didn't have to wait for people to get the hell out of my way to take pictures but when I arrived at Prasat Thom all the touts and stall owners came to me in a big swarm to try and sell me everything and anything. A little overwhelming. It's a good thing that Cambodians have little legs and I easily out ran them.

Because it took so long to get out to Koh Ker I was "only" able to visit 10 of the 44 monuments but I think I got a good feel for it.

Back on the bike and an hour later I was in Beng Mealea ("lotus pond"), one of Cambodia's larger temples. Again, I was the only one there. Unlike Ta (Tomb Raider Temple), this temple has had no restoration done and all the vegetation is still there twisting its way through stone and rock. The temple has become part of the jungle as it slowly swallows it whole. I felt a little like Indiana Jones discovering a new temple. As you walk over collapsed walls and giant tree roots you stumble across collapsed lintels and columns with exquisite carvings of Shiva, Apsaras, Buddhas and monkeys. After exploring the site for about an hour, clouds began to cover the sky, thunder began to crack and lightning struck just outside the temple (scared the shit out of me). I thought now would be a good time to leave. Just as I turned a corner to exit the temple, Belloq was there to steal the idol I had just.... Wait, no, that was Raiders of The Lost Ark. Either way the atmosphere was very convincing and it made me feel that I was the first one there in centuries to lay eyes on Beng Mealea. Very memorable. Angkor Wat was great but it was nice to lose the crowds for a day, even if it meant riding for six hours to get to the temples and back.

Later that night I went to Tee's house for dinner. Tee was my tuk-tuk drive while I toured Angkor. Once there, he introduced me to his lovely family and then we ate dinner on the floor of his very small bachelor apartment (one bed for four people). While we dined on Lok Lak (barbecue meat with delicious seasoning), rice, prawns and vegetables on ice, Tee became increasingly drunk. I ended the evening sooner that I wanted fearing that he would become far too drunk to drive me back. Nothing like a little road swerving to end the night.

Temple, Temple, Temple... Goose - Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cambodia reminds me a little of Saskatchewan. No really! They are both extremely flat. Except, instead of brown soil Cambodia has red, instead of wheat there is rice and instead of grain elevators there are huge magnificent temples. Ya know... same same but different.

Having traveled many months, seen many temples and taken many, many, many pictures, I thought I might be a little temple tired and photoed out. Thankfully, Angkor Wat and the sprawling area gave me new life and excitement. It's absolutely incredible how many temples there are here. I think I've achieved enlightenment just from the number of temples I went to.

Angkor is the best restored and most visited temple in the region and for good reason. It is the largest religious site in the world and absolutely marvelous. Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, then later changed to a Buddhist temple. Like many temples of this time it represents the 5 peaks of Mt. Meru, the home of Hindu gods.

As you walk through the outer gate you are taken over by the intricate and beautiful bas reliefs that surround the temple walls as they tell the story of ancient Hindu lore. The bas reliefs are very well preserved and cover all four outer temple walls, all the way around, top to bottom. Very impressive. Once instide you are treated to Buddha statues, hundreds of Apsara's (female spirits of the clouds) and the five towers of Mount Meru. This is one site I went to twice to make sure I absorbed as much as I could.

Ankor Thom (Great City) was the last capital city of the mighty Khmer. Covering nine square kilometers it is a vast collection of monuments. By far my favorite was Bayon and its 216 enigmatic faces smiling at you ever so gently. Built primarily as a Buddhist temple, it was dedicated to the Boddhisattva of compassion called Avalokitesvara. It's faces however bare a remarkable resemblance to the builder, King Jayavarman VII. It was common for the King to think of himself as a god. No matter where you are in the temple you have at least half a dozen faces looking over you.

My favorite temple at Angkor Park was Banteay Srei (Citadel of Women). This site has some of the most interesting and intricate carvings in the area. Stunning red rock, multitude of gorgeous carvings and its many small temples can keep you transfixed for hours. Even though it is much smaller than most temples in the area, I spent an equal amount of time here. It is said that only a woman could have made something so radiant and meticulous as this monument.

Ta Prohm is a temple that they have left almost the way they found it. All of the small vegetation is cleared away but the big trees are left as is and give the temple a very atmospheric and picturesque feel. As you walk through you see how the trees have wormed there way through stones and walls taking over the temple. You would feel like you just discovered it... if it wasn't for the 100 other people beside you. If you're a fan of the Tomb Raider movie (although I can't imagine who would be) then you will recognize it.

There were at least a dozen more temples I went to but these are the ones that stood out for me. The others are beautiful as well but would take to much time and space to mention them all.

The Angkor Park is a never ending site of monuments that can keep you busy for a solid week. I did three days and needed to catch my breath. One day off then it is off to Koh Ker and Beng Mealea.

Unfortunately I shot all my pictures in the RAW format and I need a special program to edit them. So, no pics of Angkor Wat just yet but soon.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Too Many Cities In too Short A Time - Cambodia

Arriving in Cambodia from Laos I decided to head east to Ban Lung. I thought this small town with a plethora of waterfalls and a crater lake would be a good place to start. Felling energetic I decided to walk the 5km to the perfectly round crater lake. Clear waters, friendly locals, and my new Basque friend Aitor made for a great first day. The next day we rented bicycles and rode 35kms to visit three waterfalls in the area. Two of the falls were no more than a trickle. It was as if someone was emptying a water bottle over the rocks but the last was brilliant. We spent an hour swimming with children, taking pictures and enjoying the scenery.

Next stop was Kratie and the endangered Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins of the Mekong River (I feel like I've been following this river forever). An hour and a half is spent on a long boat following the dolphins as they gently breach the water for breath and disappear as quickly as they appeared. At first I tried to get a decent pic of the dolphins but I spent more time looking at blurred photos that resembled the Loch Ness Monster. "I think it's a dolphin!?! Isn't it?"
After only a day in Kratie I was off to Phenom Phen. Surprisingly, Phenom Phen is a very modern, new and clean city, at least where the tourists go. First day there I met a local named Bonnar (*sigh*) who took us to a bar on the beautiful riverside for drinks then to a local Khmer restaurant for cheap tasty barbecue. After dinner we decided to go dancing to a club called the Heart of Darkness. Before you enter the club there is a sign stating there are no knives, guns or grenades permitted. Grenades? Really? Do people bring those to clubs? Next you are searched, for weapons I presume. At this point I wasn't sure what to expect but once inside it looks just like any other modern club. The first thing you see is the abundance of old white dudes with young Cambodian girls (*cough*, prostitutes, *cough*) and men with young boys. As you venture further into this small club you realize that everyone is here. Foreigners, locals, expats, prostitutes, gangsters (no, really) and clubbers alike dance all night together to the beat of bad trance and cheap beer. I danced till 3am, something I never did even when I drank.

No visit to Phenom Phen is complete without a visit to S-21 or The Killing Fields. These were the places that the Khmer Rouge doled out torture and then death to thousands of Cambodians. In the mid seventies Cambodia was ravaged by the Khmer Rouge, a totalitarian communist group that abolished money, eradicated religion, forced every Cambodian to the rice fields, and killed the educated. Ultimately their horrific reign cost the lives of two million people. A reminder of what one man with a perverse agenda can do. One of the Khmer Rouge motto's was "To keep you is no benefit, to lose you is no loss."

Feeling that I was running out of time I accelerated my travels through Cambodian. Just outside of Kompong Chhnang I visited the small village of Ondong Rossey that makes a large percentage of the pottery sold in Cambodia. I sat with three women, a mother and her two daughters, as they gently tapped the soft clay into shape with their wooden mallets. It was entrancing and musical listening to them at work. Each handmade pot is perfectly symmetrical and identical to the previous pot. The village economy is built around pottery with every second house being dedicated to the craft. Entire families will make the pots while the father will load an ox cart far beyond capacity and travel far and wide selling his wares. I wish I wish could have spent a couple days instead of a couple hours in this quiet little village.

In Battambang I rode the bamboo train. The train is a spartan piece of transport consisting of no more than a bamboo slat base on two sets of wheels with a small belt driven motor. I thought it barely big enough for four people only to discover that up to 30 locals will pile onto this bantam carrier.

The train clicks, clacks, bounces and jerks you from side to side as it rolls over the neglected crooked track with disconcerting gaps. If you happen to come across another bamboo train (which is a given) then the train with the fewest people, cargo or motos is to disassemble their train to allow the other to pass. Twenty minutes later you arrive in a small town for a brief rest. After a short exploration of the town, I was invited to play volleyball with some locals. Some young, some older but all unexpectedly good. I was thought quite the player as well only for the fact that I was the only one that could reach over the net. Since my "rest"was twenty minutes longer than it should have been I headed back to the train sweaty and smiling.

Now it's off to Siem Reap to do some major temple trolling!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Right Foot, Left Foot, Repeat - Laos

After leaving my friends I decided to do a little trekking and maybe hit some hill tribe villages. After a 230km bus ride that included: a flat tire in which they had to change two tires (a long hot story for another time), two break downs, the closest I've been to an accident followed by a twenty minute discussion on who would move first, a jungle rat the size of a cat roaming the bus and a traffic jam because of an accident. Twelve hours later I was in Phongsali. Did I mention that Phongsali was only 230km.

Being this far north in Laos made it difficult to find other trekkers to go with to bring the price down on a trek (I saw only four other tourists). Instead, I managed to pilfer a terrible map of the region and decided to venture out on my own. With a short 15km hike I was in Ban Komaen, a small tea village perched on a hillside. Ban Komaen has the oldest tea trees in the world at 400 years. After wondering through the village for a while I met an old man and with a sabai di (hello) was invited to have some tea with him and smoke tobacco (yes, it was only tobacco) from his bamboo pipe. He spoke only Laos, I only English, yet we managed to "talk" somehow. After tea I picked tea leaves and then helped him disperse them on a bamboo mat to dry in the sun. With that task finished I thanked him for the tea, khup jai, and moved on. I only managed a few meters before an old lady asked me to join her. She might have actually told me to piss off but either way I sat down and sorted dry black tea leaves from the wet green ones. After wards she tried to pay me with a bag of tea but couldn't possibly accept her generous offer.

At first the children in the village were a little shy around me. This was understandable as they don't come across many falang (foreigners) in these parts. They watched me from a safe distance picking, spreading and sorting tea leaves and soon became more and more comfortable with me and very quickly tomfoolery ensued. I wanted to spend the rest of the day with the children and villagers but a three hour plus hike ahead of me swayed me to leave. I said good bye to my new friends and made my way back before dark.

Four days Later I was on a boat on my way to Muang Ngoi to do a little more trekking. This gem of a village on the Nam Ou River is just what I was looking for. With a couple days of reading, relaxing and a few games of petang (the French version of bocce) with the locals, who kicked my ass, I was ready for another trek. Even though Aoot and Khum (stop snickering) were great guides, it didn't help me with the 30km hike in the hot sticky 35 degree weather with half of the trail going up into the hills. At one point I even let out a scream halfway up a hill. After a long nine hour day we finally reached Ban Muang, a poor, simple village with thirty three families and what seemed like hundreds of children.

Being completely filthy I went to bathe in the villages only water tap. Situated in the open, I was to clean myself after two young girls washed vegetables and before a group of women took their turn. Now clean and clothed, I went back to my home stay where I was surprised with a Su Khwan Ceremony (calling of the souls). This is performed for those on a journey or the sick. The ceremony is to return any of the 32 spirits that may have wandered away from the body to restore the spiritual equilibrium. Aoot, Khum (I said stop it), myself and the fifteen family and friends of my home stay sat on the floor gathered around a table. On the table there was a bowl of sticky rice, white strings, a boiled chicken (killed in my honor), flowers and two shots of lao lao (rice whiskey). At this point everyone around the table grabbed a white string and tied it around my wrist while reciting prayers of good health and safe journeys. Very surreal having fifteen people hoovering around you chanting. Next, each person took a ball of sticky rice and a piece of chicken and placed them in my awaiting hands. After eating their offerings I was told to drink a shot of lao lao, then another. I was practically off my ass.

Everything was then taken away to be replaced by dinner which included spicy chicken, morning glory soup with pumpkin, cooked mushrooms, sticky rice and the pièce de résistance .... very spicy chicken blood soup. As an act of bonding many of my new friends would put some food on their spoon then gave it to me to eat. The whole night went on with us feeding each other, drinking lao lao and sharing stories. None of this felt forced or for "show" like it did in Chaing Mai. I really felt welcomed into the family. When the festivities were over friends left and the family and I slept in the same room on small mats and little pillows.

The following day was spent trekking back to Muang Ngoi, thankfully mostly downhill. Back at the guest house I showered and thought fondly of the last couple days.

"The village street was like most other village streets: wide for its height, silent for its size, and drowsy in the dullest degree."
Charles Dickens

Mekong, Youkong, We-All-Kong - Laos

With my new English friend Sebastian in tow, I crossed the Thai-Laos boarder to Huay Xai in Laos on the Mekong River. Since it is touted as a "once-in-a-life time journey," I put aside my hesitations of the well worn travelers path and took the two day slow boat ride down the Mekong River. With 50 tourists (up to a hundred in high season) playing cards, listening to music and drinking I was beginning to wonder when the "once-in-a-life-time" was going to begin. Soon the commotion from the innards of the boat gave way to the beauty and peacefulness of the country.

Landscapes of lush green hills, old fisherman in conical hats throwing their nets, naked children swimming in the river and small villages dotting the hillsides took over my senses. Life on the Mekong River seemed unchanged from the way it must have been one, two or even three hundred years ago. The only thing to break my transportation to the past was the occasional roar of a speed boat racing down river as it ferried people too busy to enjoy the beauty. Two days later I was in Luang Prabang and the boat was the perfect way initiate me to the Laos laid back way of life.

Luang Prabang is sandwiched between the Mekong and Khan Rivers. The city is an amalgamation of French colonial buildings and traditional Laos architecture. With immaculate streets, brick sidewalks, bistros, cafes, Laos restaurants, numerous quaint side streets to explore and a great no-pressure night market it is easy to stay here much longer than planned. It's charm is inescapable and people gracious.

If you are fortunate enough to wake up very early in the morning you will witness a tradition even the communist government could not stop, the daily walk of monks collecting alms for the day or Bindapata as it's known. Hundreds of monks from the multitude of monasteries in the city take to the streets in what seems like an orange clad army armed with silver bowls to collect food from the faithful while blessing them at the same time. Once the circuit is complete the monks disappear back into the monasteries leaving only a few gains of rice as evidence of their trek.

Luang Prabang is also know for the Kouang Si Waterfalls. At first I wasn't going to go to the falls since the last two waterfalls I'd been to were a huge disappointment. Luckily Seb convinced me otherwise and our group of eight piled in to a sawngtaew (truck). Once there we swam in the refreshing pools, swung off the rope, dove off the 5m falls and gorged on the sheer beauty of the place. The waterfalls climb back and up in a series of small falls that lead up to a 80m ultimate waterfall. Here you you are surrounded by lush greenery, tourists and locals all enjoying the day. One of the best days and most beautiful waterfalls.

I had a blast with Seb and my new Kiwi friends, you know who you are, but unfortunately as they head south to go tubing, I'm off to the north to do some trekking.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fights, Beaches and Water Cannons - Thailand

With tiny Thai fighters dancing in Dany's head, I made sure the first thing we did in Bangkok was to see a Muay Thai fight. The Small stadium was half full, literally. The smoking section (left side) was full and the non-smoking section (right side) had two people in it with Dany and myself at ringside directly in between the two sections. It gave the stadium a slanty shanty kinda feeling.

Before every fight the fighters enter the ring and do a traditional dance while a simple three piece band (two drums and a chime) play. To my pleasant surprise the band continues to play as the fighters punch, kick and knee each other black and blue. The music moves with the fighters as the action increases and decreases like a theatrical score. In spite of the violence in the ring there is an incredible sense of respect and admiration between the fighters. With eight fights on the card there was plenty of action including a wild knock out. One fighter came out at the bell, kicked the other square in the temple and knocked him out cold for at least a four minutes. Three seconds, fastest fight I've ever seen. The place was quiet with everyone's mouth hanging open waiting for something to happen as the first fighter shrugged with disbelief.

Next stop, Chiang Mai for the Songkran festival. This is the Thai New Year and is celebrated form the 13th-15th of April. In Northern Thailand this festival is stretched to a week or more. Historically, the first day of the festival is spent cleaning ones house. This includes cleaning any Buddha statues in the house by pouring water over them. The now "holy" water is then gently poured over the shoulders of loved ones for good luck in the New Year. It has, however, evolved into one of the most colossal, outrageous water fights I have ever seen. Chiang Mai's Old City is surrounded by a moat where thousands of people line the street brandishing plastic pails with ropes tied to them. Pails are thrown into the moat and pulled back up full of water ready to splash pedestrians, motorcyclists and trucks filled with people armed with their own arsenal of water projectiles. On the other side of the road, businesses have sizable vats with water running into them continuously. Others, like myself, are equipped with water guns and 10 liter backpack reservoirs (these don't last nearly as long as you would think) as they roam the streets looking for trouble.
One minute you are engaged in an intense water fight with a group of Thais and the next you are refilling your water supply from them and idly chatting only to have one more quick fight before moving on to the next. The best "fights" are with the Thai children. Eager to initiate a water fight but once retaliation is commenced shouts of "Meow! Meow! Meow!" (No, No, No) are heard with laughter to quickly follow. Laughter is unavoidable and the only draw back is the threat of getting a mouthful of funny smelling brown water. I was sure that both Dany and I would be fighting for the bathroom the next day.
After an afternoon of being continually pummeled with water, a stop at the amazing food stalls were welcomed while we slowly drip dried in the shade and listened to bands playing across the promenade. Near the end of the day a large precession of Buddhas (one from each Wat in the city) traveled through out the city as thousands of worshipers line the streets to throw scented water on the Buddhas. This was so much fun that we repeated the events the next day and the next...... I'm still pruney.

The only negative point to this amazing festival was the fact that I forgot to leave my money belt that contained all my documents and travelers checks in the guest house. Everything was completely soaked and even after becoming dry again my passport looked like an accordion.
Now it was time to hit the beaches. After a bus, bus, tuk-tuk, train, bus, ferry, truck, long boat and a hot 46 hours we were at Hat Kuat (Bottle Beach). The closest thing I've seen to paradise. Beautiful beach, lush jungle, very few people, great food, and an amazing staff at Smile Bungalows that quickly transitioned from strangers to friends as we ate, drank, sang and teased each other for five amazing days. Days were spent eating, reading, eating, swimming, eating, hiking, eating, kayaking, eating and bobbing in the water every evening as the waves gently pushed us from side to side and we discussed the rigors of life.

With one more train ride to Bangkok, Dany was gone back home and I was on my way to Laos.

Thailand pictures Part I

Thailand pictures Part II

"Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave and impossible to forget."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What Could Go Wrong? - Bangkok, Thailand

Let me first preface this blog with the fact that Dany and myself were very careful and had escape routes and meeting places sorted out in the event that something unfortunate might have happened. No tourists were hurt in the making of this blog.

A very short Thailand history lesson as I understand it. In 2006 the Royal Thai Army staged a coup d'état against the then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The military closed the airports, abolished the constitution, dissolved parliament, canceled the elections to be held in a month, censored the media and banned all protests. In the two years that followed the new government failed to find evidence of corruption, which they claim was the reason for the coup, within the Thaksin administration. Since then, a group called the Red Shirts have been protesting the "illegitimate" power of the Thaksin administration and lobbying for an election. Now, a million Reds Shirts from all over Thailand had been protesting near the parliament building in Bangkok since April 3, 2010.

It was our last day in Bangkok and we were looking for something to do. Having exhausted our desire for markets and wats (temples), I suggested that we go investigate the protests by the Red Shirts. It seemed like a great way to understand the plight of a people. We received far more that expected. Dany and I walked towards the two kilometer protest area not knowing what to expect or how to act. We entered the site and quickly became the only westerners in sight and the streets became increasingly saturated with red with every step we took. That alone should have given us enough warning to the magnitude of the protest. After some initial hesitation we let our guard down and began taking pictures. It seemed that the more pictures we took and the further into the epicenter we went the more the Red Shirts wanted to talk to us. Before we new it, Thais were shaking our hands, sharing their story and pointing to things for us to photograph (like the helicopter firing waring shots in the air). I know what you're thinking. Their anger, passion and commitment to their cause was palatable as they spoke to us with tears in their eyes. These were all things that I would have never received from a newspaper.Soon we faced barricades with riot police, barbed wire and military soldiers in ever increasing numbers. Even thought the scene had all the elements of doom, there was an eerie calm over the whole situation. I even bought an iced coffee thirty meters from one of the barricades. Many Red Shirts smiled at us and welcomed us in-between political slogans and giving the passing helicopters the finger. Numerous protesters offered us water in spite of the fact that most of them had been there on the streets for a week in 40 degree weather. A testament to the Thai culture. After three hours of taking pictures, talking to people and drinking iced coffees, we both had the feeling that it was time for us to go. Part of me wanted to stay, but I always seem to regret not listening to my instincts. With a million Thais from all over the country protesting since April 3 in the torturing sun, tensions were bound to come to a boil. As we rounded a corner to leave the now volatile area, we came across a battalion of 300 Thai soldiers and a long line of armored cars. Apparently we picked the right time to leave. Feeling trapped between the Red Shirts and the military we decided to walk beside the military in the opposite direction to the shelter of a near by restaurant. Three hours later we boarded a bus to Chiang Mai wondering what was happening in Bangkok. I was not looking forward to reading the paper the next day.
Waking up from a terrible sleep on the bus, I soon learned that my night was significantly better than many others. The protests turned ugly shortly after we left and led "to some of the worst bloodshed in the country's history." Twenty one dead and nearly nine hundred wounded in the skirmish. The Red Shirts are maintaining their position and will not evacuate. A million Thais risked their life for a right I take for granted and rarely use. I understand how important and powerful the people are. Change starts with one person, one idea, one act.

"Nobody can claim victory if the victory is the wrecking of the nation."
King of Thailand

If you want to read more click here.

For more Red Shirts pictures click here.