31 August 2002

Book Review: "First they killed my father", by Loung Ung, *****

Synopsis
An unforgettable narrative of war crimes and desperate actions from a childhood survivor of Cambodia's brutal Pol Pot regime.

30 August 2002

23. - 30 AUG: Bangkok, end of the trip.

I have a couple of days in Bangkok before heading out of Indochina. The name means the “city of angels” and it is twinned, guess what, with Los Angeles in California!

29 August 2002

22. - 29 AUG: Exit Indochina

Monks alms procession

On my last day in Luang Prabang one of my goals was to be at sunrise on top of the Phousi mountain to take a few good dawn shots of the city and its surroundings. I had set the alarm clock for a quarter to five in the morning, but as it often happens to me when something important is at stake I woke up just a few minutes before it went off. How our internal clock can be so precise it is difficult for me to fathom. Be that as it may, I was immediately awake and fully alert. I was not tired, despite the early hour and the long transfers of the previous days. The sky was heavily clouded, not the best photo weather at all, to put it mildly. I realized there would be no chance for the Phousi I had been planning for, it will have to be on the next trip to Luang Prabang. I was disappointed, and the temptation to go back to sleep and wait for a civilized eight o’clock breakfast was a powerful one. However, I was up now and when I heard the irresistible call of the gong from the Wat Xieng Muang next door my mind was quickly made up and I decided to go look for the monks doing their begging rounds, a daily routine but always an intense moment to witness. In a minute I was out in the street and began looking around and listening...

28 August 2002

21. - 28 AUG: Luang namtha – Luang Prabang

Today not much to note, just a long transfer to Luang Prabang, where we go and sleep at the same guesthouse as before.

Along the way a reminder of Europe: at a village that seems in pretty good shape we see a big sign with the blue flag and a circle of 12 stars of the European Union, which has funded development projects in the area.

27 August 2002

20. - 27 AUG: Muang Sing - Luang Namtha

Another town which was much destroyed by US bombing and has now found a new lease on life from tourism and trade with China – lots of advertising boards in Chinese here, and several hotels and restaurants are owned by Chinese interests; Chinese products, including food, is widely available. We are unmistakably very very close to China...

26 August 2002

19. - 26 AUG: Muang Sing market, trek in the jungle

Muang Sing market

Six o’clock in the morning and the market is already in full swing. Ladies from around the province are deployed to their negotiating positions behind tightly packed stands: fruits, vegetables, spices, sweets, the usual suspects as far as country markets go. But some not so usual foodstuffs did make me wonder what kind of recipes would be prepared that evening in some of Muang Sing’s homes: roasted and live beetles, whole raw pig heads, buckets of chicken paws…

25 August 2002

18. - 25 AUG: Udom Xai to Muang Sing

At dawn I get up and head to town. A pale almost-full moon is still high in the sky. The predictable trickle of monks drips down the one hundred or so irregular steps which lead to their dormitory at the top of the “that”, their rice baskets secured around their shoulders. Oudomxai is coming to life quickly and noisily. The market was already in full swing by the time I got there around half past six. Like its town, the market is a melting pot of cultures: Lao food is on offer side by side with Vietnamese and especially Chinese supplies. Not a few signs in fact are in Chinese. This is an important junction between the three countries, and after the end of the war it gradually came back to economic life.

24 August 2002

17. - 24 AUG: Muang Khua to Udom Xai

Departure after the usual banana pancakes for breakfasts, I am getting a bit tired of them but heck... It is not without some apprehension that we started our drive from Muang Khua toward the Oudomxai province. We had been warned of landslides, uncertain how long it would take or even whether we would make it at all. We had also been assured that work was in progress to clear the roads, but somehow that did not quite sound as reassuring as we would have wished. So we are off, no choice now...

23 August 2002

16. - 23 AUG: From Nong Kiaw to Muang Khua by slow boat

At the crack of dawn a madly crowing rooster woke everyone up. He must have been worried that if we had overslept we would have missed the beautiful early morning colors. Thanks to the cock’s zeal we could finally enjoy, over breakfast, the verandah’s river view we had only been able to imagine the previous evening.

22 August 2002

15. - 22 AUG: Luang Prabang - Nong Kiaw (Muang Ngoy): against the current on a slow boat on the Nam Ou river

On a slow motor pirogue up the Mekong

Again up at dawn, at 7:00am we were at the Luang Prabang ferry harbor on the Mekong, just a five minute walk from our guesthouse. We load up and we are off. As we leave the last houses of Luang Prabang behind us, our slow boat begins to claw its way against the slow current of the Mekong. Soon, there is only virgin jungle all around us, and the impenetrable vegetation tumbles down decisively into the water from steep cliffs.

21 August 2002

14. - 21 AUG: Luang Prabang by bike, traditional dances, local music

Full day around town by bike. It is a pleasant and easy town to savor at leisure. Some traditional Lao houses on stilts still stand in the historical center. Just before sunset I walk up the steps of the hill of Phou Si monastery, from which one can enjoy a spectacular view over the whole valley and the Mekong.

20 August 2002

13. - 20 AUG: Luang Prabang

All day around town, each on his own. I start wondering around and love to get lost... Breakfast at the same Scandinavian bakery I had seen in Vientiane!

I start my classic tourist rounds at the Royal Palace museum. This was the seat of the monarchy when Luang Prabang was the capital of Laos at different times in its history. One curious exhibit here is a piece of moon rock, tanek by one of the Apollo missions and donated by the USA. At the time of my visit the many gifts received from abroad were categorized as coming frm “socialist” or “capitalist” countries!

Later on I get into a silvesmith shop and can photographs some artisans at work. There is actually some interesting local manufacturing here, silk, wood carvings, jewellery.

The rest of the day we spend with Roberto working to plan our upciming trip to the hill tribes in the North. Because of the difficulty in road transportation during the rainy season dìwe decide to give up Pongsaly and head North along the Mekong and the Nam Ou, and then west by bus toward Muang Sing.

19 August 2002

12. - 19 AUG: Vientiane to Luang Prabang

Wake up early for a walk around the capital town, nothing much really to write home about. Amazing to see rich Thailand across the river from Vientiane. Breakfast at Scandinavian Bakery near the waterfront. Sweden has been a long time friend and donor to Laos, maybe this is why? Or perhaps there are enough Swedish NGOs here that some entrepreneurial local decided to make money catering for them? After cappuccino and croissant we are off to the airport...

18 August 2002

11. - 18 AUG: Pakse to Vientiane

Early rise and uneventful flight to Vientiane, the rather plain looking capital. We check in our hotel and take a walk around the city. A wine shop just a couple of doors from my hotel is perhaps one of the single most surprising sites in Laos. It is a gently air-conditioned, softly lit shop, with a very pretty multilingual Lao lady working at the counter and eager to step up and explain the most detailed nuances about French wines. In a way this shop is a cultural shock, given the context in which it is located. However, come to think of it, it is a shock only inasmuch as I assume that in poor Laos there would be no chance of finding a good shop with excellent wines. Worse, if I subconsciously assumed that no one could possible want this expensive wine in a 300-dollar-a-year salary population. In fact, it should be quite normal for a capital city, albeit of a small country, to have at least one good wine shop, should it not? Not everyone in a poor if the country is poor, of course, and in a capital city there are the embassies, foreign visitors, etc. all of whom can afford expensive wines and as far as the the Lao state is concerned this activity of course generates a revenue in the form of income and excise taxes from the sales, plus a few jobs in commerce, distribution, etc.

17 August 2002

10. - 17 AUG: Muang Khong to Pakse

Pakse is really nothing to write home about, but an unavoidable hub to get to Northern Laos. One afternoon Renata and I were walking around looking for an internet café withouth much success, when we walked by the main temple. We went in and see that all is quiet but something is in the making, the young monks and novices are scurrying to and from in the courtyard, and after a few minutes a gong goes off. I ran to the guesthouse, only a few hundred meters away, and I was soon back with my personal photographic arsenal.

By this time all monks were assembled for the evening prayers and as soon as everyone was seated they began their cavernous deep singing of Buddhist mantras. It’s a moving atmosphere...

16 August 2002

MAP of Laos

9. - 16 AUG: Border crossing into Laos, dolphins, Dong Khong

The last leg of the Mekong ride in Cambodia is the most difficult and adventurous. There is no scheduled public service from Stung Treng to the border with Laos, just after Kaoh Nang island. In fact, until very recently this border post was not officially open at all except to Lao and Cambodian nationals, though stories abound that anyone willing to fork out the necessary tips would be let through.

15 August 2002

8. - 15 AUG: Sambok monastery, and from Kratie to Stung Treng

Early in the morning we try and visit the Sombok monastery, the main cultural interest in Kratie, but it is about 10 kilometers out of town and in this rainy season it may be risky to get there – the Mekong is near its high-level mark, and the white-board which is updated daily near the gas station does not indicate any improvement for the next day or two. No choice, it's now or never, off we go...

14 August 2002

7. - 14 AUG: From Phnom Penh to Sambok, near Kratie

Sailing upstream

Again we are up at the crack of dawn. At the capital’s boat jetty, a few peddlers offer drinks and snacks. One, improbably, has a single copy of the International Herald Tribune for sale, the first international newspaper from any country I see in Cambodia. It comes from their Bangkok printing press and is two days old, but I am hungry for international news and do not hesitate to grab it at once. The presence of the Western printed press in Cambodia vaguely reminds me of the good old Soviet times, when everything was censored but I could, occasionally, buy newspapers from imperialist countries at the newsstands of international hotels in Moscow. The Soviet regime could tolerate that: few of its citizens would ever have a chance to access and read the subversive stuff – they could not even easily walk into the lobby of these hotels – and at least some of the Westerners in the Hotels would believe and go home telling that censorship in the USSR was not that strict after all. Anyway, there was the language barrier that would work as a further filter.

13 August 2002

6. - 13 AUG: Phnom Penh prison, killing fields, shooting range, massage at the restaurant and dancing!

I did not expect this to be a day of such intense and contrasting emotions, but here it was. In a few hours I had visited Khmer Rouge torture centers, mass killing fields, had practiced at an army shooting range, had been riding a motorbike recklessly around town, had been sensuously massaged at a restaurant table and had visited a local disco. It is not a normal thing for a capital city to hold a center of torture and an extermination camp cum mass grave at the top of its "must see" list for visitors. Phnom Penh is anything but your "normal" capital city, however. It was, only a quarter century ago, both the scene and the command headquarters of one of the most hard to believe genocidal displays of ruthless, mindless, aimless violence in human history.

12 August 2002

5. - 12 AUG: Vietnamese village and departure to Phnom Penh

Waking up at the crack of dawn was not so hard as I expected, even after several long days of uninterrupted walking in the jungle and amidst ruins in sweltering heat, aggressive humidity and repeated thunderstorms. Maybe my body clocks was still on West European time, so for me it was not early morning but only late evening on the day before... Our van took us out of town, toward the shores of the Tonle Sap Lake, a wide appendix of the Mekong which extends from Siem Reap, at the mouth of the city’s eponymous river, almost all the way to the capital. Here is the base of the ferry boat service to Phnom Penh. The night is just fading away, but the air is already warm. All around us, and everything on us, is already damp. By now I was getting used to being wet (be it because of rain or sweat) as the normal state of being; for the first time in my life I learnt not to even bother to wipe my face, arms or hands, I was just wet and clothes just stuck to my skin, all the time, full stop.

11 August 2002

4. - 11 AUG: Beyond Angkor: silk, coconut, miniatures and land mines

More Angkor

A second day at the ruins of Angkor and I begin to feel more comfortable in the company of the Khmer gods. The initial awe give room to avid curiosity about the individual pieces of art, the urban setting, the organization of that amazing ancient culture. Heat and humidity are merciless, but I am getting used to them...

10 August 2002

3. - 10 AUG: Angkor, Majestic Ruins and Tragic History

The mid-afternoon squall hit with but a few minutes’ warning. I was in the middle of a large courtyard at Ta Prom, negotiating my way amidst ancient crumbling stone walls and overgrown roots. The monsoon rain was thick, determined, unforgiving and very noisy, almost to the point of being overwhelming. The water level on the ground immediately began to rise (the ancient Khmer draining system either was wanting or was clogged up, and modern Khmer had not done anything about it yet) and after a half hour or so the awsome courtyard was transformed into a murky pond. Local guides waded across, ankle-deep in the murky water, looking for their clients who had sought shelter in those structures which still stand in defiance of centuries of assaults by both nature and man. As the rain pours from above my roofless temple tower I stood with a few others under the entrance vault; the walls were so thick that even without a roof I could keep dry if I was careful to keep my balance on the threshold. Inside the tower, a weird echo transformed our multilingual chatter in a true Babel...

09 August 2002

2. - 9 AUG: Enter Indochina, a little corruption and massage

After an uneventful flight, a tropical Summer night welcomed us at the airport of Siem Reap (pronounced Seem Reep), the modern city which rises next to the ruins of ancient Angkor – which means "the Capital" in Khmer, and was indeed the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th century to 1431, when the Emperors moved to Phnom Penh’s region. The air was hot, very hot, completely still, and invasively sticky under my shirt. Pearls of sweat began to form on my forearms as I descended the plane's ladder, before I even had a chance to touch the Cambodian soil. The few uncertain floodlights which punctuated our solitary airplane's parking area cast an eerie spell over the tarmac. After a short walk, we were directed into the arrivals building. At passport control, two lines formed under a battery of lazy fans which churned the air from the ceiling above: first we lined up to have our passports checked, then again to get a visa. Funny, usually you get a visa first and then have your passport checked and stamped, but never mind.

08 August 2002

1. - 8 AUG: In the air over Asia, beginning of trip to Cambodia and laos, along the Mekong river

Bangkok is far and away the biggest hub for all South East Asia travel. I flew into the Thai capital on a Swiss Airlines plane from Zurich. I have flown with them many times, but never had they been so corteous as on this flight; it must be their fear that, after Swissair's bankruptcy, the face-lifted SWISS airline (same planes, same crews) is their last chance to survive. Yet, the plane was old and noisy and I was not sure about the future of this airline…

07 August 2002

Itinerary of trip to Cambodia and Laos, along the Mekong, 8-30 August 2002


-->
A journey to Cambodia and Laos, along the Mekong, 8-30 August 2002

Click on an Itinerary or a date to go to the post for that day
Day
Date
Itinerary
Night
Km
hrs
1
In the air
0
0
2
Siem Reap
0
0
3
Siem Reap
20
1
4
Siem Reap
50
2
5
Phnom Penh
270
6
6
Phnom Penh
50
3
7
Sambok
150
6
8
Stung Treng
130
5
9
Muang Khong
35
2
10
Pakse
130
2
11
Vientiane
0
0
12
Luang Prabang
0
0
13
Luang Prabang
0
0
14
Luang Prabang
0
0
15
Nong Kiaw (Muang Ngoy)
130
8
16
Muang Khua
70
6
17
Udom Xai
135
5
18
Muang Sing
210
7
19
Muang Sing
trek
8
20
Luang Namtha
70
3
21
Luang Prabang
250
7
22
Bangkok
0
0
23
Bangkok
0
0


TOTAL

1,700
71

MAP of Cambodia