Thursday, July 29, 2010

A trek to Mao's home


More pictures here:

Mao was one of the girls we met on our first trek. She proposed to take us on another Trek to her village, so we took her up on the offer. This time, the "we" was Koen, Dieter and me (they're in the group picture of the previous post.) We told her that we wanted a 4 hour trek, so I assumed we're going to do 2 there and 2 hours back. I brought half a liter of water with hopes of buying water as needed on the way, just as I did on the previous trek. All assumptions turned out to be completely wrong. The trek was quite mild at first, just a simple walk through town. Unexpectedly, we turned off into an alley between a couple buildings and began climbing up a steep hill. I was out of water in about 15 minutes and inquired where the next village will be. Mao looked at me with confusion and said that we're going to her village and that it's not very far. She said it was just another kilometer up the steep section, so once again, I presumed her village must be near by since we were closing in on the 2 hour mark. We reached the top of the hill and I asked how much farther till we can get water. She replied smiing "Oh, not far, just 8 more kilometers." My jaw dropped. There was no way I could do another 8km with no water. We started figuring out how we can find water. Koen suggested trying the stream that looked clean, but I reminded him of all the wild animals that might be doing their business up stream which quickly discouraged the idea. We stumbled upon a house where we asked for some boiled water. We filled out our plastic bottles with boiling water and dropped them in a river to cool off. The water didn't taste too good, but it kept us hydrated.

After 2.5 hours, we reached Mao's village. She led us through the yard full of ducks, chickens, dogs, and hogs, past the indigo barrels and a weaving machine, into a concrete structure.

The interior was very dark with illumination coming off the two free hanging lightbulbs and the TV. A couple kids were standing in front of the TV in a zombie-like state watching the gruesome instructional show on killing chickens. I had to look away. Mao lead me to the kitchen to point out our lunch being cooked. Seeing the kitchen, I knew that my stomach won't be the same after that.

Once the water boiled, a chicken was placed in there. It was then cut up on what looked like it my have been a cutting board on the ground and then served to us. The chicken was very bland, exactly what was expected from boiled chicken. Rice was served in small bowls and chicken was to be placed on top. The only spice available was the extra spicy chili sauce which I ended up using with hopes of killing off all the bacteria. During lunch, each member of the family approached us with a shot glass demanding that we have a shot of 30% rice wine with them. The problem was, the family was big, so we were pretty drunk by the end of lunch.

Here's the big, drunk, happy family.

The clothing that everyone is wearing is hand made by the women of the family. They make linen thread out of the plant, then weave the fabric on a machine that resembles 500 year old technology. The fabric is then dyed with indigo. Garments are sewn on antique sewing machines and are hand decorated with cross stitch and embroidery.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sapa Trek


I've decided to try to do something different with my blog. I'll skip forward and write about my most current adventures and then backtrack to catch up. So I introduce: Sapa,Vietnam

More pictures can be found here:

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At Hanoi, all hotels seemed to sell train tickets at a fixed price of $27 for a soft sleeper to Lao Cai, but we managed to purchase what we thought were the same tickets for half the price at the train station. The "we" was me and Josh whom I met a few days earlier at Hoi An. The train ride wasn't very pleasant. The entire night I was worried that I'd fall off the upper bed due to abrupt stops. It was also very shaky and, at some point, my bag fell out of the shelf onto me. Finally, at sunrise, we arrived at Lao Cai. From there we took a 1 hour mini bus to Sapa. I found it quite shady that the much needed air conditioning was turned off as soon as we began moving, when we had no opportunity to switch over to another company's mini bus.

An hour later, we arrived in the small town of Sapa. Everything there reminded me of Cusco, Peru for some reason. All the happy memories of travels with Dima, Dean and Jenny made me like the place immediately. Josh and I reserved a room at the Cat Cat Hotel. Apparently, a few hotels had the same name and the first one we walked into wasn't so nice, but then Josh found the right one. We got a room on the 9th floor with a fantastic view of the mountain. The stepped rice paddy terraces coming into view as the dense morning fog began to dissipate and the golden light of the sun illuminated the mountains made for a truly breathtaking view. Mistakenly, I thought I'd get the picture later in my trip, unfortunately, it was not to be... I woke up several times with the hope of capturing that same brilliant sunlight but it was never to make a second appearance :(

Once settled in, we discussed the tours over a breakfast of eggs and chocolate crepes. Since Josh only had 2 days in Sapa, he didn't want to take a chance and pass on the great weather for trekking. Despite being completely exhausted from the cold, uncomfortable train ride, we decided to go on the 15km trek through 4 villages - organized by the hotel.

We left hotel with a group of about 10 people. The Muong girls followed us, dressed in their traditional linen indigo colored clothes, wearing large baskets on their backs like backpacks. They seemed to have a system going. There were roughly the same number of them as there were of us. Moments after stepping out of the hotel, they all paired themselves up with the tourists. After a short introduction, the girls cycled through the typical questions: where are you from, how old are you, how many siblings do you have, how many kids do you have.

They were all very sweet and sincere. My girl offered to carry my bag, would hold the umbrella over my head trying to protect me from the sun, would give me a hand during the steep parts of the hike and would wait for me when I fell behind taking yet another picture. In the picture above the lady has some grass-looking stuff wrapped around her. She explained to me that she was making linen thread to be used later for weaving fabric. Her finger tips were purple from dying the clothes with indigo. I never knew that this is how linen looks before its fibers are made into thread.

Of course, I knew that she wasn't doing it for nothing. There of course was a catch. When we reached the first village, after a fairly easy hike down hill thus far, the girls following us asked that we buy stuff from them. They were selling bags decorated with cross stitching, bracelets, rings, and earrings. What they asked of the tourists at that point was that, if they were to buy something, they would buy from them rather than the girls at the village. At the last village, at the 12km mark of the hike, a lunch of veggies, bread and cheese, and fruit was served. After that, the sales pitch intensity increased. The girls were very demanding, guilt tripping all of us into buying stuff. They would whine "I know you long time, I follow you long way, why you not buy?" I ended up buying some earrings for a few bucks.

The last 3km of the hike was where I felt the real trek began. There were several steep inclines that we climbed presenting spectacular views all around of seemingly endless rice paddies with scattered houses.

During the hike, the girls disappeared for a moment. They reappeared from the bushes shortly after with marijuana plants. I inquired what it's for and the girl responded "We make clothes out of it, you guys smoke it." It is, however, illegal in Vietnam just as it is in most of the Asian countries except for Cambodia where the police just look the other way.

We encountered many children along the hike, all unsupervised. There was a girl taking care of her buffalo, a girl caring for younger siblings, boys riding buffalos, and others just playing around.

In the end, it was a fantastic hike and deffinitely a highlight of Vietnam. I had a fantastic time with a fantastic group.

Tourists from left: me, Josh, Jenny, Koen, Dieter, and Kevin. (Some of the picture above are from Koen's camera. Thanks Koen!!!)

Travel info:

Cat Cat View Hotel $20-$30. Great views. Breakfast can be included. Can arrange tours and treks
Address: 046 Cat Cat Road, Sa Pa
Phone: 84-30-387-1946

Train tickets on a soft sleeper train SP7 purchased from a hotel in Hanoi are generally $30 and are VIP. A cheaper soft sleeper exists that can be purchased directly from the Hanoi train station for 330,000 vnd. The difference is the bedding, head room and storage space as well as a water bottle and tea in the VIP vs the cheaper soft sleeper. Book both your ticket there and the return one in advance as they tend to sell out fast. Often tour agencies will buy out all the tickets from the train station forcing people to have to go through them. The train itself can sometimes be cold, so bring pants and a long sleeve shirt in case it gets uncomfortable. I always travel with a sleeping bag sheet which works great on the train.

A minibus from Lao Cai to Sa Pa will cost 35,000 vnd

One of the less expensive places to eat in Sapa is the LIttle Sapa Cafe at 18-38 Cau May St.

Ask for a city map from the hotel.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Phnom Penh


Phnom Penh photo album:

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We arrived to Phnom Penh by bus with no hotel reserved. It seemed like a good idea to just walk around and find something, but after 10 minutes of walking around in blistering heat, navigating strange streets and looking at slummy hotels, we decided that maybe it's best to just pick something out of the guide book. After a quick call to the Sunday Guest House, a tuk tuk picked us up. (This was one of those times that I was very glad I bought a sim card).

The main currency used in Cambodia is American dollars. The ATMs dispense only dollars. However, they don't have American coins out here, and this is where Cambodian Riel come into play. It's 4000 Riel to a dollar. If wouldn't be so bad if it was only Riel, but when you get change as a combination of 2 currencies, suddenly it becomes evident who paid attention in math class and who didn't. This also makes it easy for people to give wrong change and they usually try. I, of course, would stand with the money in my hand, taking as much time as needed to do the calculation and demand more money after.

The Sunday Guesthouse provided us with a room containing 3 beds. There was air conditioning, wifi and even hand soap in the bathroom. Yes, hand soap is an impressive freebie in Asia. When washing hands before a meal at restaurant kitchens, I very rarely would find soap there. The only annoying thing about the room was that there were tiny little ants all over the place making it impossible to store any sort of food. The hotel had a cheap restaurant in the lobby that served the typical stir fried noodles and fried rice for lunch and dinner and excellent omelets with mushrooms and onions for breakfast for less than $2. The cool thing about the hotel was that they had a large TV in the lobby that played "The Killing Fields" movie every evening at 7pm. This was where our education started on the horrors imposed on the Cambodian people in the recent past.

During our first breakfast, a monk appeared in front of the hotel entrance. He stood motionless and quiet for a good 5 minutes. Then a lady came out of the hotel and placed some money in his bag. He sang a prayer as she bowed for a couple minutes and left. 5 minutes hadn't passed when another monk appeared on the door step. The process of donation and prayer repeated. This went on all morning long. When I asked the lady how much money she gives out on a daily basis, she responded with "Oh, don't ask."

We spent one day sight seeing around the city. It was incredibly hot, 43C in shade during the day and 39C at night. We insisted on walking around the city visiting the palace and the city temple.

At the bottom of Phnom Wat (Temple on the hill) was a park with lots of trees. This was pretty much the only place in Phnom Penh where we found anything green. The trees were inhabited by a bunch of monkeys. I had a blast photographing the little monsters going about their daily tasks.

Mom, this one seems to have our ears. Is it a relative of ours? ;)

Of course, all these places had very annoying signs outside.

I feel incredibly ignorant for not being aware of the genocide that had happened in Cambodia during my lifetime. I don't recall any of this being taught in history classes. In order to truly understand Cambodia, the Tuol Sleng Museum and the killing fields, I needed to understand what had happened and why.

Here's what I learned:

In March 1969, United States launched "Operation Menu", an illegal and secret bombing campaign on eastern Cambodia. The purpose was to prevent north Vietnamese offensives. However, the mission failed. Shortly after, Lon Nol, the Army Chief of staff overthrew Sihanouk, the prince of Cambodia, while he was away on a trip to China.

Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge, which consisted of Cambodians educated in France who joined the communist party there, was beginning to expand. Sihanouk joined with Khmer Rouge in hopes of being restored as the prince. The beloved prince sent out a radio message to his people, telling them to join the Khmer Rouge forces and rebel against Lon Nol. People followed and joined, but no one knew what this meant. In April 1975, Lon Nol's republic collapsed and Cambodia fell to Khmer Rouge.

At the time, city dwellers were the rich and exploited the poor peasants of the countryside. The Khmer Rouge wanted to get rid of corruption making everyone equal, like the other communist nations did. They attempted a social-engineering project where they would remove all of the rich and educated citizens and anyone suspected of involvement in the free-market activities while creating a self-sufficient society. The suspected capitalists were professionals, everyone who had an education, city dwellers, people with connections to the government, doctors, lawyers, teachers and those who wore glasses. (space)Khmer Rouge believed that parents were tainted by capitalism and would separate children from their parents and brainwash the children to socialist beliefs. Later, these children often as young as 8 would work as prison guards and torturers.

The entire population of Phnom Penh was told of a coming US bomb attack on the city and was moved to the country side to work on the rice fields. The suspected capitalists were weeded out and placed in prisons where they would be accused for various treasonous activities, often being labeled as KGB, CIA or Vietnamese spies. People of all ages, men, women and children were tortured until they confessed and were then killed.

I visited Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, a grade school converted into a prison and interrogation center, also named S-21. The prison was run by Comrade Duch (pronounced as Doik). He was single handedly responsible for the deaths of at least 17,000 people. I'll spare you the details of the photographs posted in the museum as well as all the torture devices displayed. Words can't describe what I felt when viewing picture after picture of the portraits shot when the prisoners were checked in. The eternity of the images presented a false hope that these people might still be alive, however we know that only 7 people made it out alive.

The Vietnamese invasion in 1979 marks the beginning of the decline of the Khmer Rouge reign. By this time, nearly 1/3 of the Cambodian population had been killed. Throughout the next decade, people began to return to Cambodia from all around, including the refugee camps in Thailand. Gina, when you told me you were born in Thailand, I assumed your parents immigrated there, I had no idea you spent the first 2 years of your life in a refugee camp escaping the Khmer Rouge.

The people who returned to Cambodia were both the oppressed and the Khmer Rouge. They now live side by side. It was odd riding on a bus and seeing elderly people, wondering if perhaps the old man sitting next to me might be one of the prison guards or a torturer. No one really knows who was who.

Other than the Toul Sleng prison, tourists are encouraged to visit the killing fields, the mass graves from the Genocide. We chose not to visit the fields because it seems very immoral that the Japanese came and purchased the land, now making profit off the deaths of thousands, putting their graveyards on display.

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