Visting Battambang, Cambodia
We arrived in Battambang thoroughly knackered but managed to drag ourselves across the road for some dinner before bed. We arranged a tour for the morning starting at 7am
We were picked up by Tong, a 22 year old tuk-tuk driver who spoke good English and turned out to be much more knowledgeable than expected!
First we were headed for the Bamboo train and as we were the only people there had to pay $10 for the whole thing to ourselves – but we didn’t mind! We were surprised at how fast the thing goes. We stopped after around 20 minutes where we chatted to an old lady and her husband and some village children. As theres only one railway track, if theres another train coming in the opposite direction the rules are that the train with the least people has to be taken off the track. So when we saw another train full of people coming the other way we had to stop and hop off while the two drivers dismantled our train, took it off the track, drove the other train through and then put ours back together again! We were particularly pleased that we got to ride the bamboo train as in 2 months time they will be repairing the railway for the proper and the Bamboo train will be decommissioned!
Next stop was Banan temple (apparently built before Angkor Wat) where Tong informed us there were only 350 steps so we should be alright. After the crumbling temple we drove to a mountain to see the killing cave. This is where Khmer Rouge soldiers would bludgeon prisoners to death and then throw their bodies into the cave, sometimes they would throw people down alive. Inside is a reclining Buddha and a small memorial containing some of the skulls and bones found in the cave. On top of the hill is Phnom Sampov temple, a new shiny temple with colourful paintings covering the inside walls and ceiling telling the story of Buddha.
After a brief stop at the hotel for lunch we drove over to Khmer New Generation Organisation, a charity that teaches English and other vital skills to poor children in the area. We spent 3 hours volunteering, helping the children with their English.
We had planned to go to Bangkok the next day but our few hours at KNGO made an impression on us and we decided to stay for one more day of volunteering. We spent the morning walking around town and visiting the market before taking a tuk-tuk in the afternoon to KNGO which is based in a small village just outside Battambang. Before dinner Angelo fulfilled his promise to try a frog choosing a BBQ’d one from a street stall – Debbie even tried a little! We are ashamed to say that although it didn’t really taste bad we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat the whole thing.
The morning bus picked us up at 7.30am and we began the long journey back to Thailand’s capital. The border crossing was rather busy and unlike others we had experienced with on site resort and casino…. Just in case you fancy a wee gamble on your way in/out of Cambodia. All in all we were at the border for around 2 hours, waiting to get stamped out of Cambodia, then into Thailand, then waiting for the bus for what seemed like forever! When we finally got into the minivan, however, the Thai driver kept his foot down and we made it to Bangkok in no time.
Everyone jumped out of their seats screaming while rushing to the right side of the bus to catch a glimpse out the window. There, in full view of the bus, was a giant elephant wearing sandals standing on a street corner, right outside a café. We had only just gotten off the boat and onto the bus five minutes before. We were in Phnom Penh.
Photo courtesy of Katie Denton.
Even though we were in the same part of the globe as Vietnam and only 5 hours down river from where we had been staying a week earlier (the equivalent of Washington DC to Morgantown), we were in a different land. There was a new language to be learned, new greetings, and a new culture.
A week earlier in the workshops we were discussing dating rituals during one of Jim Keim’s discussions. The Vietnamese and Cambodian students were talking about going to meet the family of either the boy or the girl. One side met the boy’s family, the other the girl. There was raucous laughter from both sides, while we American students sat confused. Obviously, through the realms of translation and cultural differences, we lost the meaning. But the point was they were two separate cultures, however similar they seemed to us.
Cambodia was a dream come true for the journalist in me. There wereEnglish-language newspapers everywhere we went. At the time, big protests were happening throughout Phnom Penh over a visit from the Thai Prime Minister. It is even the location of the FCC, or the Foreign Correspondent Club. And everything was newsworthy. But that is not necessarily a good thing. Newsworthy means corruption, poverty, social issues.
The atmosphere in Cambodia was different from Vietnam. While both countries are considered developing, Vietnam focused more on commerce and business, while Cambodia’s economy was geared towards tourists. That is because there were tons of tourists in Cambodia, especially in Siem Reap. People came from all over Asia: China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. And then there were the westerners. Way more than you would see in Vietnam. They were from as many places as the Asian tourists were from – North America, Australia, and Europe. Remnants of past French occupation were present in both countries. However, while Vietnam seemed to grow more independent from its western-dominated past, Cambodia seemed to still be struggling with it. In Cambodia the American dollar is preferred to the Riel. English is just as common as Khmer. And the new dominating force is NGOs, rather than colonists.
One night at a café in Phnom Penh, we ran into a master student from the University of Maryland, named Ben. Ben worked for an NGO that provided economic development. What his NGO did was go into small, poverty-ridden villages throughout Cambodia to promote sustainable economic practices. Without any help from natives, they were supposed to go into these villages and convince villagers to change their livelihoods in order to convert gatherers and farmers into beekeepers who produce honey. The one major flaw was even though honey is a renewable resource; there is not much of a market for it in Asia. However, because the NGO had already procured funds for honey production, they were stuck with it –whether or not there was a possibility of failing. When we inquired how Ben felt about this, he said he didn’t have many feelings about it. Rather, he was hoping to see some elephants and tigers.
While Ben’s story may or may not be true, it illustrates the conflict of NGOs in Cambodia. While there are many successful NGOs, including the ones we visited, such as Friends and COSECAM, there are plenty more unsuccessful NGOs. And the ones that fail ultimately hurt the people trying to help. Stories of corrupt NGOs littered papers. Everywhere you went in Cambodia, you were faced with an NGO.
But why so many NGOs? Because of the tourism. And with the tourism came the “other” tourism. Sex tourism, brothels and nightclubs, drug abuse all stemmed from the tourists. It was not uncommon to walk down the street and see young prostitutes or old, white men accompanying two sixteen year old girls. But the question is, should tourism stop because of these issues?
Cambodia recently suffered a massive genocide during the 1970s. The country was pretty much closed off to the rest of the world until the 1990s. Under Pol Pot’s regime, over a third of the population was massacred. When visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (otherwise known as S21 Prison), instruments of torture remain as evidence to the horrors that took place. This instability continues to affect Cambodia today, with rampant poverty, unstable government, and excessive landmines littering the countryside.
Despite all these drawbacks, Cambodia possesses something else. When touring the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda of Phnom Penh or exploring the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat, you know Khmer culture is unique. The language is beautiful, closely resembling Thai and Hindi. The countryside is gorgeous, with breathtaking architecture and tropical landscapes. And the people are resilient and strong, yet generous and kind.
First thought in Vietnam: Life in a big city
When the plane landed in Ho Chi Minh City, I felt my heart stop beating. The panoramic view outside the tiny plane window reminded me so much of Indonesia, my home country. After stepping out of the plane, the smell of home flooded my nostrils. Perhaps it wasn’t as fresh as the West Virginia air I had grown accustomed to, and the Appalachian Mountains no longer dominated the surroundings, but the sights, smells, and sounds of the biggest city in Vietnam only reminded me of one place: home.
Landing in Vietnam was a remarkable experience for everyone. Only a handful of us had even been to Asia, namely the international WVU students accompanying us on the trip returning to their home country and the Newfields. Many of us had not yet left North America, including myself. Arnita Sitisari, a doctoral student in political science at WVU, had a different experience when our plane touched down on Vietnamese soil. Even though it was her first time visiting Vietnam, her experience was not a new one. Having visited a plethora of Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, her native country, Arnita’s first few moments in Vietnam were novel, but familiar.
Miki DeMary, a graduate student in the WVU School of Social Work, is also well travelled. Having Korean roots and living in Spain for some time has made her adept for travelling. Even though this was her first time travelling to the Asian continent, despite her roots, her prior experiences helped her realize her true identity when it was questioned in her first few moments in the country.
“Cum se yoh?” Blank stare. “Konichiwah.” Really Blank. “What, you doesn’t speak your own language?”
I am a nomad. I have no identity. In reality, I am a typical college student, making my way through a master’s program. On the surface I am an Asian girl.
My entire life has been spent grappling with the meaning of this surface identity. In the US, the great “melting pot” of culture really accepted me as being just different looking, but also like everyone else. The first 20 minutes in Vietnam, my identity became unknown. Who is this Asian girl who can’t speak her own language as she walked through customs? Why can’t she respond to five different Asian dialects when spoken to on the street? Why can’t this girl pronounce the Asian inflections with more ease than her white, American classmates?
This is my first time to an Asian country. I have been an accepted US citizen my entire life; to a Roman Catholic Italian family. While I speak Spanish and English fluently, my Korean is about five sentences deep. I am taking this in stride. As my journey in the cultures of Vietnam and Cambodia continues, I will smile at the stares and answer the questions with dignity. I will respond to Korean – if possible, and I’ll speak my new Vietnamese phrases with pride, even if it is with a West Virginian accent. I will continue to be me: a short South Korean with a love for kim chi in her pasta.
Now, not everyone’s experiences when we arrived in Vietnam were as unique as Miki and Arnita’s first moments. However, everyone did wonder what was in store for them in this exotic country. When we left the airport, we were suddenly submerged in the biggest metropolis in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City. To Americans, it was once known as Saigon, where the South Vietnamese surrendered to the North and American forces made a daring escape over 30 years ago. As our bus ventured out on the busy streets, we probably could’ve found remnants of that time, but instead our focus was diverted to the busy city life that unfolded outside our windows.
At first one motorbike, then five, then twenty appeared around us. They surrounded us, like some sort of motorcade. The roads were filled with a sea of Vietnamese motorists on their bikes, mopeds, and cycles – and occasionally a car or truck – colored with a rainbow of helmets and face masks.
Soon tall, vertical buildings packed together lined the streets, the very bottoms containing open store fronts inviting the motorists and pedestrians in to look at their merchandise. Hardly the communism you would expect from learning about it in classrooms growing up in West Virginia. The language was tantalizingly familiar. No Chinese characters, but rather the Latin alphabet scrambled up in words we could attempt to pronounce (usually in vain). And then more familiar sites as international countries advertised their products; names we were familiar with, like Toshiba, Gucci, and Budweiser – even KFC. We flashed by familiar sites, like Independence Palace and pagodas with traditional Asian architecture, but there was so much more than that.
According to the Lonely Planet’s webpage. on Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, then Saigon, fell to the French from the Nguyen Dynasty in 1859. It was the capital of the French colony, Cochinchina until it became the capital of the republic of Vietnam in 1955. After the city, and the Republic of Vietnam, fell to Hanoi in 1975, the country reunited and became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, while Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. In 1986, doi moi, the name of economic reform passed by the government, caused explosive growth in the city. Now with a population of over 6 million, Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam (and one of the largest in Indochina) and considered the economic capital of the country.
This history has had a major influence on the city. On a simple tour around the city, you see a mixture of extreme wealth and development, but also poorer sections, French and Chinese influence in food and architecture, and plenty of places to eat and shop – from sprawling markets like the Ben Thanh and its outdoor food vendors, to gourmet sit-down restaurants.
This video from the Lonely Planet website illustrates different food popular in the city, while showing backdrops of Saigon. Lonely Planet Video
This city’s food and charm has also made a notable impression on famed chef and writer, Anthony Bourdain. Having travelled to Vietnam several times, he is currently debating on moving to the country for a short amount of time. In his blog on the Travel Channel website for his show Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, he describes his love affair with the country.
In the actual No Reservations episode on Vietnam, Bourdain visits all of his past favorites, sampling the food and discussing his love for the country.Anthony Bourdain; No Reservations
Ho Chi Minh City charmed us as well. Like most urban metropolises, the life in this city sucked us in like any other. With Saigon becoming more connected with the Western world through trade and commerce, the people of the city reflected their openness in their actions towards us. We never felt unwelcome in the city, and more often than not, we were met with waves and smiles from strangers on the street.
But even through the bustle of the big city, and the new sights, smells, and sounds that barraged us in this foreign land, we recognized familiarities. People waiting in traffic texting to pass the time by (even if it was on a motorbike), teenage friends walking side-by-side with shopping bags in hand, giggling to themselves, mothers holding their children’s hands. These sites were so familiar, because they are cross-cultural, and ultimately in every city, whether it be New York, on the other side of the globe in Vietnam, or even in Morgantown, sites like those will always exist.
Farewell Cambodia…..’Good Morning Vietnam’!
Greetings to All from the vibrant city of Hanoi in Northern Vietnam!
Since my last blog we’ve had a fantastic few days in Siem Reap and both of us agree that it has been by far our favourite place for many reasons. The people have been the friendliest I’ve met.
They are so welcoming and pleasant and the level of service they provided in restaurants, cafes etc. was brilliant. Also Siem Reap itself is a lovely city. It is very developed and you can tell that a lot of time, money and effort has been put into the infrastructure over the last number of years.
Our short trip to Cambodia, started off from leaving Pakse in Laos with an hour long flight to Siem Reap. We touched down early that morning at about half 8. It was then only a 20 minute tuk tuk ride to our lovely hotel located in the centre of Siem Reap which was the New Angkorland Hotel. The first day we just took it handy by the pool and got our ‘bearings’. All the main attractions were located in a very short radius which was great.
Day 2 we decided to firstly take a trip to the War Museum. This is one of the most memorable experiences for me for many reasons but in particular it was quite horrific.
We were taken on a private tour by a man who was actually a mine victim. While walking around rusting tanks, heavy artillery weapons etc. he told us his story and the horrifying history of his country.
He told us he had lost his entire family, parents and two younger sisters from a mine that his Father had brought home, trying to salvage the TNT and scrap metal from it. Unfortunately, while he was trying to diffuse the mine it exploded killing everyone except our guide. He had to undergo many surgeries to have his left arm amputated.
He also explained how Cambodia is still coming to terms from the traumatic events of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge-‘ Pol Pot’ regime. Pol Pot actually stood for ‘Political Potential’ which I didn’t know.
While walking through the grounds of the museum he explained that the site used to be a minefield and that there were many human remains found. As a result there are several mass graves there. While we were examining the rusting tanks and trucks. He showed us a truck used in the Cambodian civil war. He told us that the army used to lock the soldiers into their vehicles as the vehicles were worth far too much than to fall into enemy hands. As he told us this he pointed to bullet holes that were in the side of the door which had killed the driver of the vehicle. He also showed us human remains that had been found in an amphibious vehicle whose occupants had died in a mine explosion.
It was hard to get to grips with all this information and the fact that it all occurred within the last 60 years.
After the War Museum we went to the National Museum. This was a very impressive display. It had several different galleries that took us through the history, religious aspects and heritage of the Khmer people. The history is very complex and their religion is equally so with influences mainly from Buddhism and Hinduism.
Day 3 was another fantastic experience but for very different reasons. That morning we got up at 4:30 am and journeyed to the famous Angkor Wat temple which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List as it is the largest religious structure in the world. We gathered in front of Angkor Wat with 100s of other enthusiasts watching the sunrise over the temple.
I have to say it was an amazing experience and definitely worth the early start! For the next couple of hours we walked around Angkor Wat and it’s surroundings looking at the ancient statutes and carvings that date back to the 10th / 11th Century AD. We also visited other surrounding temples the most memorable are- Bayon which had a very unique feature called the elephant terrace (stone carvings of elephant heads). Another temple Ta Prohm had enormous trees and roots, that over 100s of years, had become a part of the ruins of the temple. It was very impressive looking.
Aside from the museums and temples we also explored the night markets and little boutiques that offered a range of clothing, all for very cheap!
I really enjoyed my time in Cambodia and it is a pity that we didn’t have longer here.
Anyway roll on Vietnam! We arrived in Hanoi this evening at about 7pm and checked into yet another lovely hotel located in the old quarter of Hanoi. The place seems to buzzing and there are of course motorbikes, bicycles and tuk tuks everywhere! I am really looking forward to exploring this city as it is steeped in history!
We intend to visit Hao Lo Prison Museum where the US POWs where held during the war. For all you history heads, the POWS gave it the nickname of ‘Hanoi Hilton’. Also located about 150km from Hanoi is Halong Bay which is something I am dying to see!
We are spending four nights in Hanoi so far but there seems to be so much to see that the visit might be extended!
Anyway I hope everyone is keeping well.
Take care and I will blog again soon.
In search of paradise: Don Det to Ban Lung
The journey to Four Thousand Islands involved a VIP overnight bus from the capital of Laos,Vientiane to Paske, then from Paske to an unknown village, and onwards to Four Thousand Islands. To be honest, I have no complaints with the first part of the journey; in fact, I would go as far as to say that this was the most luxury that I had experienced for many months. There was a toilet on board; I was in awe of this joyous feature, for months I had adapted to relieving myself on the side of the road, the less said, the better.
I arrived 6.30am to a village named Paske, at our arrival, the confusion commenced.
There were a handful of foreigners making this journey. But typical of the backpacker, no one really knew how we were to get to Don Det; Lonely Planet cannot predict all eventualities. Of course, each local guy had something different to say to us. Most of the foreigners were occupying a Tuk Tuk, just next to the bus. I didn’t mean to be abrupt, but I did pose the question to all the guys, where are each of you going? Every answer was different, at this; it seemed pretty obvious that the local Tuk Tuk driver hadn’t really thought this one through. Everyone took both themselves and their bags off the overloaded Tuk Tuk.
Finally, someone had some sensible advice, not the most welcome, but it at least sounded as though it was correct. A local lady who spoke good English explained that we needed to take what I refer to as a “Chicken bus”, a local bus to…..ok, to this day, I have never been sure of the name; I was never a 100% confident of where I was going. But the advice was, take the 5 hour journey to this place, and then a small boat ride across to Don Det. It seemed the longest 5 hours, but eventually I reached the place. The bus driver shouted at all the backpackers to exit the bus, we did so promptly. We had entered a bustling fishing village, name – unknown.
As though our arrival was expected, we were directed to a couple of different “boats”, to take us to our destination of Don Det. Here I expected to find peace and harmony, the journey was over, or so I thought.
From a distance the place did look beautiful, the water, well, not exactly clear, more a deep brown. The sand, not exactly white, these were mud islands. Still, the place was not all bad, it was relaxing, and at times peaceful, there were bungalows overlooking the brown waters, and there were hammocks where you could lie back and allow yourself to be quickly eaten by the sparse population of insects, for them, these islands were paradise!
Determined to try all that was on offer, I and a new companion decided to try out the“Tubing”. This was a sport I had discovered in Vang Vieng, Laos, and so much fun. However, the Don Det version was something quite different. In order for the concept of “Tubing” to work, there is something essential, a current. The waters around Four Thousand Islands lacked such a commodity. So when Mr Mo, our helpful friend, took us about a mile up river, then dropped us in the aromatic brown, cold river, lacking any sort of current, I attempted to remain enthusiastic. After five minutes, the sun was replaced by dark grey clouds, and rain, but, we were wet anyway, so this was no problem.
Half an hour later when we were still in the same spot where Mr Mo had dropped us, and I was shivering from the cold, my enthusiasm started to fade. I think a kind of panic set in, and I started to paddle like a madwoman, in fear of spending the night on this cold, smelly river.
Over and hour later, with a sprained wrist, we almost made it back to dry land, but as if by some miracle, the current appeared out of nowhere. Then it dragged us past Mr Mo’s and all the way down the river until it was possible to grab hold of some river weed. I held on for dear life, and managed to drag myself out of that river. I was pleased the afternoon adventure was over, as was my friend.
Ok, paradise clearly wasn’t working out. It was time to consider moving on. The next destination, Ban Lung – Cambodia.
So, such a crossing did not turn out to be a simple affair. In order to reach my destination, I was required to take 5 forms of transport: boat, sangthort, minibus, boat, “shared taxi”.
Mr Mo, was of great assistance on the Laos side of the border, but on reaching Cambodia, he passed me and a couple of others into the hands of Munny, a very suspicious and devious character, who seemed to revel in our discomfort. But, we were left with little choice but to depend on Munny.
At the Immigration point, we expected, simply to show our documents, and to carry on with the journey. We spent about 3 hours at this post, talking, waiting, and arguing. Seemed everyone was after our dollar. It was impossible to know who we could trust, and how to handle the situation. But what was strikingly obvious was that we were at a fairly quiet border crossing, with few people around. The guards had guns, and dodgy Munny was our only means to communicate with them. After what seemed like hours of negotiating, and an agreed price to let us through, we were finally in Cambodian territory.
We had another 3 hour journey in a “shared taxi”, 7 of us in a car, apparently, this was the minimum number of passengers, we paid more, in order to get on our way, the driver would have been happy to get a few more people in that car. My eyes remained tightly fixed on the world outside the car, observing all the places we passed, if I looked towards the passengers I was sharing this car with, I could only laugh, as all seemed in such discomfort.
Finally, we reached the destination, Ban Lung. It is in this place that I finally found my paradise. There was no white sand, no clear water, just long, orange, dirt roads, but the people, the place, the smell, the tastes, everything about my first stop in Cambodia, was where my journey with a country that will forever remain in my heart began. This was the real paradise.
“Head straight into the waves and paddle hard”, my husband shouted at me. We were kayaking down the Nam Khan River near Luang Prabang in Laos. The day before in the office of the eco-tour company that organized our kayaking adventure I deliberately requested we take the trip labeled ‘easy’. I wasn’t interested in any white water rapid shooting. I just wanted to see the Laotian countryside from a river perspective.
The first part of our trip was deceptively calm and placid. The scenery was as interesting as I had hoped. Rounded rocks covered with lush green foliage and neatly terraced farm fields lined the river. Little boys were jumping into the water for their morning bath. Women in large straw hats were wading up to their waists holding bamboo cages they were using as fish traps. Along the shore huge horned water buffalo were cooling off in shallow pools.
Our first stop was the Tad Se waterfalls. It was the rainy season so the falls were running high and hard. A white watery torrent raged around leafy trees, across large rocky boulders and washed over bamboo bridges. Our guides took us to a beautiful pool at the base of the falls where the water was clear and cool. Sweaty from kayaking in the blazing heat we jumped in. If you stood just under a place where the water was gushing over the rocks it was like having a shower, the powerful spray pummeled your body like a strong masseuse.
Our guides had brought along lunch. There was oily sticky rice rich with vegetables and spices that we ate with our fingers. We were ravenous after our paddling and swimming and washed down the meal quickly with water and large bottles of Beer Lao, the local brew that some say is the most delicious in Asia. For dessert there were small Laotian grown bananas.
We left the waterfall in pouring rain that lasted for almost an hour. I was drenched in seconds but it was a lovely reprieve from the humidity. The only time I was slightly nervous was when a couple bolts of lightning forked down not far from us accompanied by ear splitting thunder.
Just as the sun broke through the clouds we reached a set of rapids. The guides had warned us they were coming but I was sure they were joking. The seething eddies and high white- capped waves in front of us were certainly no joke. I was in the front of the kayak and as we hit the first wave, muddy water washed over me and right into my mouth stifling my screams. My husband shouted at me to “paddle hard and head straight into the waves”. Galvanized by fear I obeyed orders. It only took a few minutes for us to clear the rapids. We looked back to see that two British ladies who were also on our tour hadn’t been as fortunate. Their kayak had tipped and they were floundering in the water. Our guides had jumped in to rescue them and their belongings.
We were more prepared for the next sets of rapids and after two more hours of paddling we arrived at our destination. We still had a long slippery trek up the high muddy riverbank in the blistering heat but I was just happy to be back on land.
Although our trip had not been as ‘easy’ as promised, it was certainly a memorable chapter, albeit a bit of a scary one, in our Asian adventure story.