Tuesday, 29 September 2009

150 Not Out

Hi All!!

We made 150 days, seems like only yesterday when we left, but trust me SOOOOO much has changed in us, its a new lifetime....

loved it all, wouldnt change anything.

Monday, 28 September 2009

SE Asian food - thank you France!!

We have been travelling in SE Asia for around 3 months now and to be honest the food has been no problem. This I put down to Urvi’s originality in finding places – like the veggie Thai restaurant in Bangkok which was truly awesome or the Tofu hotpot in Hoi An – so cheap but soooo good! However it’s also down to the origins of a lot of the food here being French influenced. The countries of SE Asia were ruled over by the French and they have left a legacy of their food. This is noticeable in Laos even more than in other places. The food here is awesome! You get amazing noodle soups and rice and veggies, but the coffee, bread, pastry shops, shakes and other treats just adds to the wonderment.

If I compare to India, the British left us an amazing railway system, the rule of law, education and a whole bunch more, but they didn’t leave any food behind!! When you travel through India I would say there is no evidence of colonisation, however in SE there sure is. The hot favourite places for food have to be the French cafes of Hoi An, the pancakes in Thailand and the coffee in Vietnam and Laos. Also top of my list would be the sticky rice of Laos not really a French invention, but the sticky rice here is a wonder and makes eating your lunch so much fun!!!

Saturday, 19 September 2009

4000 Islands - wonderful time in Paradise

20090917_059101_DIG_LAO_RTW_9999_A350_Don Dett Island

From Angkor and Cambodia we moved on into Laos, the last of the 4 countries we planned to visit in SE Asia. This journey took 3 days and saw us take a bus from Siem Reap back to Phnom Penh. From there we took another bus to Stung Treng in east Cambodia. We stayed overnight there and then moved on by minibus to Laos and the aptly named 4000 islands. Apt because during the dry season, when the water level drops there are thousands (4000 I guess!) small and large islands that emerge from the Mekong. Most of them are small sand banks that are barley large enough to set up a tent. But the main islands are permanent settlements to the most chilled out and welcoming people I have ever met.

We stayed on the small island of Don Det. Not much more than a 1km in length Don Det houses a community of farmer/fishermen. Each has also built up a small number of really really basic bungalows that perch over the Mekong River and give you the best place to kick back and swing in your hammock all day. There is hardly anything to do and it is just bliss to lose yourself in a book or in a discussion about the meaning of life or such like!

I must say that for us we could not stay for more than 5 days, and we were getting a bit stir crazy after that. But this says more about us than it does about Don Det. Why is it that after 1 or 2 days of doing nothing people need to be distracted in some way? I think this is a major failing of mine – strangely in our normal lives we crave the peace and tranquillity and then when we are presented with it in the heavenly setting of Laos we want distraction and ‘fun’.

The overriding memories of Don Det for me are the sounds. The strange lack of noise and the abundance of sounds. There were no cars so no horns, no planes and no modernity to clutter the atmosphere. All there were were sounds. The deafening croaking of frogs and crickets in the night. The continuous swish of the river past our bungalow, the mooing of the buffalo and the alarm call of the roosters in the morning (although our rooster at the farm seemed to have a sore throat and was a bit lame!) as you walked around all you heard from every corner were people calling out ‘Sabadee!’ this is hello in Laos. It wasn’t quiet at all but somehow the whole thing just fitted together perfectly and nothing was out of place.

A wonderful few days in paradise.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Angkor Wat - Speechless and out of breath

20090912_059020_DIG_REP_RTW_9999_A350_Angkor - Bayon

Some of the wonders of the world might leave you with mixed emotions about just how amazing they actually are, but not the temples of Angkor. This complex of over 30 temples, hidden away deep in the Cambodian jungles is so huge and so beautiful that there is something for everyone. Some will be blown away by the physical presence the temples have – Angkor Wat itself is the largest religious building in the world and the whole site of all the temples is larger than Manhattan! Some will be struck by the age of the temples – most are over 1000 years old some over 1200. Other people will be taken by the architectural wonders and magnificence of the construction – arches and curves where you can’t imagine and trees intertwining with the temples forming a most beautiful dance between man and nature - just wondering at how these temples were built blows my mind! But easily the most amazing thing about them for me is the quality and intricacy of the carving. It is spectacular.

I would easily add the Angkor temples as one of my speechless moments on this trip

The temples are Hindu in style and story and were the result of Indian traders spreading knowledge and learning when they arrived in the Khmer worlds nearly 1300 years ago. The king at the time and many after him started building large temple cities to show just how strong his reign was. It worked. These places were mystical and magical, and were in fact lost to the world until early in the 20th century when they were rediscovered. One can now walk amongst the ruins and the well preserved and get a sense of the grandeur of the king’s plans.

We bought a 3 day pass and went in to the site for the 3 full days of walking, cycling and tuk tuking around the temples. It was enough for us to see a wide range of temples, and snap over a 1000 pics - There is a picture around every corner!!! You can also get a 1 day and 7 day pass. I think the 7 day is for the serious photographer or history buff and the 1 day pass is not nearly enough and unless you are on such a tight timescale but then you shouldn’t waste even that 1 day then! The 3 day pass cost us $40 each, and is totally worth it. It is better to break up the temple spotting with days in Siem Reap also. This helps you to not gloss over them. Also definitely buy one of the guide books from the kids at the temples. This will really help in terms of the context history and significance of what you are seeing. We were lucky and we got one in the book swap at the guesthouse we stayed at.

Angkor Wat is on the top of my list of world sites; let’s see what can knock it off! It amazes me how such buildings of this scale were even conceived and then built. Even to carry one stone, or carve 1m worth of wall, was a feat. I can’t imagine just how large a challenge a whole temple would have been. I don’t think anything in the modern world compares to these places.

As I have said there are loads of temples, some hardly recognisable as temples, rather a collection of boulders now. There are others however that just oozed class and intrigue. The pick of the bunch for us were: Bantae Sreah (best carvings), Ta Prohm (most atmospheric and the one with the amazing trees), Bayon (the famous heads of Angkor), Angkor Wat (the leader of the pack, best at sunrise). We probably liked them in that order too.

I feel proud to say that I have seen and touched the temples at Angkor. It is a privilege to have a connection to the past like this. It shows us that humans can do amazing things, as well as the awful.

Cambodia has been tough for us, with the knowledge of the recent suffering of the people. Being in Angkor has freshened my mind and shown me that this great civilisation was so dominant in the past and despite the barbarism of Pol Pot, the beauty and culture of the Khmer shines on.

PS do check out the the 2 compilations of pocs from Angkor on the pictures pages. we are pretty proud of them and hope you like them too. This was the first time Urvi wnet mad on taking photos!!!

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Phnom Penh Cambodia - The best and the worst of Humankind

Cambodia is complete assault on the senses and has shown us the best and the worst of what humans can do. It is a pretty poor country and because of that the infrastructure and other signs of ‘development’ are sparse, however you soon become engrossed by the warmth and smiles of the people. I have to say that if Thailand was a great chill out, and Vietnam felt like proper ‘travelling’ Cambodia has woken me up about people, humanity and generally what is important in life.

20090905_058211_DIG_PNH_RTW_9999_A350_Royal Palace Phnom Penh

Our route into Cambodia took us from Chau Doc, a small town right on the Vietnam/Cambodia border. We could have taken a bus or even flown into Cambodia, but instead we took the slow boat up the Mekong and through to Phnom Penh. The journey took a total of 8 hours and involved a visa stop and border crossing. Although the river didn’t change, the atmosphere was tangibly different the moment we crossed the border. It is a wonderful trip that if you get the chance you must do. sitting on my little deck chair on the boat as it put put putted up the river was so nice, on the banks you pass endless floating houses and villages, people living their lives and so cut off from the towns that the river is the only thing that matters to them.

The border crossing itself was a breeze, especially when I recall Mongolia, China and even the trip into Hong Kong from the mainland. The boat driver took our passports and $22 each, oh and a couple of the passport photos that we had helpfully gotten done before we left on the trip! Another couple were struggling as they had no pics, or dollars – made me feel bit smug!! So after a combined passport control and lunch break, we were in Cambodia, and from that moment I really warmed to the place. All the kids would run to wave to us from the banks and there was clear sense of friendliness.

Phnom Penh was a funny experience. There are pockets of the city that you feel like you are in the nicest parts of a big Indian city. The riverfront is full of nice coffee shops and there are Mercs and shiny range rover sports whizzing about. However I soon got the sense that this is a city in transition, being the capital there is some money here, hence the glossy facade in places, but Phnom Penh still felt like a small – big town. Anyway, the outstanding thing about this a place is its rebirth. Just 30 years ago the whole of the city was torn apart by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge fanatics (more below), the city was seen as the home of evil westernised corrupt people, and as such everyone was driven out and the place left to ruin. Pol pot believed in the ruralisation of the country. With that in mind I think it is amazing to walk the streets, where such terror reigned so recently. I felt pretty humbled and to some extent, it increased my respect for the place. Sure it’s rough around the edges, but then if you are beaten up to an inch of your life bruises show for a while. Again like most of south East Asia, there were so many young people everywhere. Maybe this will be the strength of the region in the next years, the population long hungry to push forward in their way, I didn’t feel that the Indochina region were as totally driven by a western/US vision of the world – there are NO McDonalds or Starbucks here and it feels like years since we have had a Frappucino or McFlurry!!!! Good thing, that.

So some of the best of people was the friendliness of people here, the smiles of the kids and the continual and very good English that they would be keen to practice with you. I think by far the most horrific things I have seen in my life were also here, in the killing fields and the s21 prison. To understand these place a little history is needed:

1970s Cambodia is fighting with Vietnam and generally the area is pretty unstable, the US is in the middle of another disastrous bit of meddling in the Vietnam War, and they are also bombing parts of Cambodia. General things are not good

1975 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge basically take over Cambodia, in something of a coup, in which they enforce a comprehensive and ultimately barbaric regime based on a doctrine of ruralisation and with the intention of demolishing all class structures, all ‘western’ hues, and anything that differentiates one person from another. This meant one type of clothing, one hairstyle, one message, no culture, no religion, single tracked education, and definitely no class distinction. Pol Pots aim was to return Cambodia to the greatness of the Khmer past and the Angkor culture.

Unfortunately he and his henchmen were totally ruthless and barbaric. Everyone was sent to the countryside, with the sole aim of rice production, and to live the village life. Conditions were harsh, and in order to achieve the goal of increasing the annual rice crop 4 fold, everyone was set to work like slaves, 18hours a day, little food and no healthcare or adequate housing everyone became a slave in their own country. Anyone who didn’t confirm was killed, and over 4 years from 1975 – 1979 2 million totally innocent people were killed. If you were too pale, you were accused of being Chinese – you died. If you were a doctor, you were too educated – you died, if you lived in a city, you moved to the country and if you could not work – you died.

20090904_058162_DIG_PNH_RTW_9999_A350_Killing Fields

If this was not bad enough, Pol Pots insane paranoia led him to decree that anyone who could harbour any thought of revenge against ‘Angkor’ and the regime must die also, so the WHOLE family were killed. This was genocide at its most horrific.

People were shot, battered with stones, poles stick, axes anything that could be found. The killing fields that covered the whole of the country flowed red with blood for 4 years. 2 million people – 1 in 5 of the population, man, woman, child, grandparent. It did not matter. How can anyone cultivate such thoughts in there might and how can they order the extermination of such numbers – everyone totally innocent of any crime. Unbelievable.

Just reading about it was numbing enough, but to visit the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh and the S21 prison in the city, just left us totally struck by it all. S21 used to be a school in Phnom Penh before it was taken over by the KR and turned into the largest prison in the country. Rooms for learning were turned into torture and death cells. Thousands of political and other prisoners were brought there, tortured and interrogated and ultimately killed. The prison is now a museum, but has been left very much untouched. This adds to the horror, as you walk over the beautiful floor tiles, thinking of the horrors that took place. The cells that were made in the classrooms are as they were, again walking through sent a chill through us. Everyone who visited came in smiling and talking, and left totally silent and unable to comprehend what they had seen.

We also visited the killing fields or Chueng Ek. About 15 kms out of Phnom Penh, this was the killing camp that people were sent to die from Phnom Penh. 84 of over 140 graves were opened when Cambodia was liberated. Thousands of bodies were found, in shallow graves, and a memorial has been erected, that contains the skulls of some of the dead. This stands in remembrance to the fallen. At its peak over 200 people were killed each DAY at this place.

You walk around and you can’t really say anything, for one moment the place looks like a tranquil field, but just one moments thought of what had gone on turns the place into hell. You still see torn clothing trodden into the ground, teeth poking out of the soil. It’s too much...

Even more profound for me, is the fact that this is RECENT history. 30 years ago, there were pictures of the ‘prisoners’ dated Oct 1978. That hit me pretty hard. You can forget things if they happened 800 years ago, but when you are being born in one country and a few thousand miles down the road a country is being wiped out, at the same time, something hits you. As we walked around Cambodia I felt that there were so many people, probably everyone in the country today would have been affected by this. Many would have been there, and they live such fruitful lives now. I am blown away by that, it makes me feel totally inadequate and fairly meaningless. To have you heart torn out and then to live again is something.

I think in visiting Cambodia we have seen where hell on earth was. The only thing that makes Cambodia survivable is the people, who save you from everything. They show me what humanity should be about, and despite the relative poverty, people feel rich in their history, community and faith.

In the same week we saw hell, we also saw heaven, in the form of the Angkor Temples. Of a different time, the temples of Angkor show just how strong the Khmer culture was and powerful they were in the region 1000 years ago.

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