Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pot Pats

We have an announcement to make: We're staying put in Kampot, Cambodia.

It's fairly temporary, we'll be here for about 4-6 weeks. On the first day we arrived here, we had planned to stay for only a few days, but we looked at each other and said, "maybe we could stay a while." So we've decided to volunteer at a local school/learning center called Chumkriel. We'll be helping teach kids general education in the afternoon and adults English in the evening. Thanks to their grisly past, education is something that Cambodia could really use a little help with.* We're happy to do so, and hoping that Kyle will build up his teaching resume for Japan a little in the meantime.

Sunset over the river in Kampot. The river flows directly from the Gulf of Thailand and switches direction around 4 times a day.

We managed to arrange a very basic apartment in town for $40/month. By basic I mean we have a bed, a shower, a squat toilet, and a place to put a gas burner for cooking. I'm really excited to start cooking again. I've been turning control over my diet over to strangers for much too long. We move in tomorrow.

Kramas are tradiational Khmer scarves. An American in town is selling, "Obama Kramas."

Anyway, we really like the relaxed feel of this provincial capital. There's lots of fun things to do around town, we've already made some friends, the black pepper is incredibly tasty, and plus the river glows. There's a phosphorescent plankton that gives off bioluminescence when you stir it up at night. Pretty cool.

One of the newest Pot Pats, or an ex-pat in Kampot, in town.

*Footnote: When the Khmer Rouge took power, they envisioned a country where no one was educated and everyone worked for the good of the state. As a result, anyone with any education, or even anyone who looked like they had some (i.e. wearing glasses), was systematically killed as part of the genocide. The result is that after the war anyone of the older generation who survived had little or no education, meaning that family heads, business owners, farmers, and even the people in government had no formal education. The good news is things have gotten better, and children and younger people are going to school again. And they're glad about it.

Cows, Goats, Chickens, Dogs, and Crabs, but no Rabbits

Before taking a short sabbatical from travelling to teach (see Christin's blog), we decided to spend 3 nights on Koh Tonsai (that's Rabbit Island for all the English speakers reading this blog).
(I just realized that I use parentheses a lot in my writing. If I wrote a book and the editor removed all the parentheses, there wouldn't be much book left over. But anyway...)

The locals say the island looks like a rabbit. I say they don't know what a rabbit is.

Koh Tonsai is a tiny undeveloped island off the coast of Kep (see my other blog) in the Gulf of Thailand. The main beach is lined with thatch-roof bungalows. When we arrived, the first bungalow we looked at stood in a yard littered with cow pies and the shared shower was a dirty bucket. It was five dollars a night.

The next bungalow we looked at had it's own bathroom with a real shower, a window next to the bed with a view of the sea, and owners who saw the importance of cleaning the shit out of their yard. It was seven dollars a night. We shelled out the extra two bucks. Sometimes you just have to treat yourself.

This is what $2 will buy you in Cambodia

Koh Tonsai was beautiful and relaxing. It wasn't very crowded, and the crab we ate for dinner was delivered fresh from the fishermen every day. But it wasn't your typical tropical paradise. Cows and goats grazed just outside our bungalow. We awoke every morning at sunrise (and a few times throughout the night) to the roosters' crow. And stray dogs vied for the attention (and leftovers) of all the farangs.

I'm becoming less scared of cows
But that's ok. The flashpackers can have Phi Phi island. I'd rather run the barnyard gauntlet everyday on my way to the beach if it's going to keep the tourists away.

Watching the sunset never gets boring. (I feel so lucky to know that.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Khmoonies

Problog: Alright. My last two blogs have been about landmines and mass execution. I don't want people to get the wrong idea about Cambodia, because I am starting to love this place.

Right now we are in Kampot (which, by the way, produces the world's finest black pepper). It is a lovely lazy little river town about ten kilometers upstream (or down depending on which way the river is flowing right now) from the Gulf of Thailand. It, like the rest of Cambodia, has the feel of a place on it's way back up. I bet in five years this place will look totally different.

The old bridge: too many cooks in the kitchen

Blog: Anyway, back to the Khmoonies. Yesterday we rode our moto out to Phnom Chhnork to see the caves. (Phnom means mountain in Khmer, but this was really more of a hill.) On the way up the dirt road, a kid on a bicycle asked us if we needed a guide. We said yes, he ditched his bike and hopped on our moto, and we were off.

Kids on bikes lead us to Phnom Chhnork

When we got to the cave, there were ten more kids waiting for us. Our guide, Cloise (Khmer names are always misspelled in English), hadn't warned them. It's just always that way in Cambodia. Everywhere you go there is always an army of kids ready to guide you or an army of tuk-tuk drivers ready to take you where you need to go. And always, they want to charge you too much (which actually isn't really that much).

Sweet. Another rock shaped like an elephant

So we went into the caves of Phnom Chhnork with our eight tiny guides. They pointed out the bats, the 7th century pre-Angkor temple, and about 15 rocks that supposedly look like animals. Whenever there was a difficult spot to pass in the cave, they would say, "Ok now sir, you go first and you help lady."

At the end of the cave was a little underground pond lit by sunlight that was breaking through the rocks above and we were surrounded by a bunch of yammering kids. It was just like Goonies in broken English.

Khmer Goonies: The Khmoonies!

Epiblog: If you go to Phnom Chhnork, bring change. For guiding you, the kids expect a tip. We had to tip eight kids and I only had a five dollar bill (and I know these kids won't really share it). Luckily, another foreigner happened to be stocked in Cambodian currency. Each kid got 1000 riel (about 25 cents). Our real guide, Cloise, got a ride home and two dollars. He was totally pumped about it.

Cloise. Can you believe this kid is 13?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Killing Fields

What do you say about the killing fields?

In less than four years, over 17,000 people were killed and buried on this tiny patch of land. The cheapest and most barbaric methods were used for execution. The dead were piled into shallow mass graves. Later on many of the executioners shared their victim's fate.
Thousands of skulls removed from mass graves are organized by age and sex

These belonged to teenage girls

The more I try to understand the Khmer Rouge the more baffling it all becomes. I think this was their general strategy: If we kill everyone, then we will kill all our enemies.

Piles of the victims clothes still lay at the foot of the Killing Tree

That's all I have to say about that. If you want to know more you can go here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dr. Fish

We're currently in Siem Reap, Cambodia, then town near the major Angkor temples. At night it's advisable to head to the night markets, where you can find anything ranging from Khmer silk to fried giant cockroaches to films about the Khmer Rouge. A few nights back we went to try out something else we'd heard about: fish massage.

Basically it works like this: you stick your feet in a pool full of fish, and they nibble all the dead skin off of your feet. As promised by the sign, we were very "surprice." It really tickled, and it worked pretty well. Our feet felt nice and soft afterwards.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Angkor Wat

Yesterday we visited the the ruins at Angkor. Built by the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 15th centuries, the temples at Angkor are impossibly grand in scale. There are over 1,000 of them spread out over 3,000 sq. kilometers, making Angkor the largest preindustrial city in the world. They range from modest piles of large stones to huge sprawling temples, and the most famous of them, Angkor Wat, is the world's largest single religious monument.

Inside Angkor Wat

It's possible to spend days or even weeks exploring the ruins, but we opted to explore the 3 most interesting nearby temples in 1 day by bicycle. First we visited Ta Phrom, which is in a state of being taken back by the jungle and magnificently overgrown with tree roots.

Tree roots overtaking the ruins at Ta Phrom

Next we entered Angkor Tohm, the largest city/site at Angkor. Inside it's gates is my favorite of the temples we visited, Bayon. Bayon's most distinctive feature is the many looming serene stone faces, designed by the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII in the image of a bodhisattva (which one, however, is for historical debate.)

Entering the gate at Angkor Tohm.

View of Bayon. All those towers have a smiling face on all 4 sides.

After that, we came across some monkeys, something Kyle had been hoping to see for a long time. They were pretty brave, so we got close enough to see 4 mothers and their babies, along with more than a couple of fat beggars.

A New Yorker and a beggar.

Finally, we headed to the most famous temple, Angkor Wat, to see it at sunset. It was as grand as anyone can imagine and impossibly atmospheric. Walking amongst fallen piles of rocks amidst such grandeur reminded me of only one thing: nothing is permanent. All empires eventually fall to rubble.

Ruins at Angkor Wat

The Capitol Building

The Cambodian Landmine Museum

Any trip to Cambodia must include a look at the country's grisly recent past. Sort of like visiting Auschwitz when you are in Germany. That is why we visited the Cambodian Landmine Museum.

Unexploded missiles line the entrance

A super quick recap for those not familiar with Cambodian History: In 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge seized power. During their four year reign, they killed two million Cambodians, a quarter of the population of the entire country. In 1979 Vietnam invaded and started a civil war that lasted for almost two decades. During this civil war, it is estimated that over ten million land mines and other UXOs (unexploded ordnance) were placed around the country. No maps or records of the minefields were ever made, making cleanup extremely difficult.

Landmines cleared and de-activated by Aki Ra

The Cambodian Landmine Museum was created by a man named Aki Ra. He is a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge who now cleans up the mines that he once laid. The museum grounds also include an orphanage that houses and educates up to 30 Cambodian children, most of whom are landmine victims.

Unfortunately, many of the deactivated landmines that fill the museum are American made. And even more unfortunate is our government's refusal to ratify the Ottawa Treaty, which bans all anti-personnel landmines. The official stance is that we don't want to have to remove our mines from the DMZ in Korea. The United States is also on a very exclusive list of countries (including China, Russia, and Iran) that continue to manufacture landmines today. We are going to write letters to President Obama and our representatives in Congress about this and we strongly encourage you to do the same. If you want you can copy the letter that I wrote here.

Made in the U.S.A.

The other way you can help is to make a small donation to the Cambodian Landmine Museum. The proceeds go to the education of the children in the orphanage, landmine awareness programs, and to Aki Ra's de-mining efforts. There are still an estimated 3 million active landmines in Cambodia today that kill and injure hundreds of people every year. Most are children who don't know how to avoid them. One of the kids in the orphanage picked up a land mine, not knowing what it was, and it went off in his hand (a common occurrence). The great thing about Cambodia is that a little bit of money goes a long way. (The yearly salary of the entire de-mining staff is $2000!)

The weirdest thing about all of this: As we were very somberly touring the museum, our moto driver came up to us. He very jovially pointed out some of the exhibits on Khmer Rouge atrocities and then picked up a belt of machine gun bullets and asked us if we like to shoot guns. For us civil war and genocide are very sober subjects, but Cambodians seem to take it in stride. It's crazy what you can get used to.

I couldn't get used to this

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Eat That, Stonehenge

When we first decided to go out to the middle of Thai nowhere to see a rare solar alignment in an Angkor temple, I pictured it as a very serene and spiritual event. You know, monk's robes glowing in matching saffron sunlight, the measured steps of enlightened men, and above all awed silence. What I got instead was utter pandemonium. Flashes going off, videos rolling, and crowds of people pushing and clamoring to get a glimpse at a doorway.

Waiting for Sunset

Let me step back. Deep in the Isan region of Thailand near the Cambodian border stands a 12th century temple called Phanom Rung that belonged to the Khmer Empire. It sits atop a hill, very long in design. Twice a year at sunset and twice a year at sunrise, the big round sun passes through 18 perfectly aligned doorways blazing in all it's glory. Beautiful indeed.

Sun Shining Through the Doorways

It wasn't too far out of the way, so we decided to go. How often in life would we have the opportunity to witness such a rare and mystical event, proof perfect that humans of the past were more capable than we often give them credit for. We went, the sun aligned. It was beautiful. But it wasn't serene.

The Door

Monday, March 9, 2009

I'm serious. It was a pumpkin.

Finally, we found a couch surfer who could adequately satisfy my nerdly impulses. Last week, after coming back into Thailand, we surfed with Dan in Korat. He's an English teacher at Suranaree University of Technology, which happens have the only particle accelerator in SE Asia. Sweeeeeeet.

There's like a billion electrons in there going around in circles at the speed of light

Dan arranged for Garnet, the head engineer at the Synchrotron, to show us around. I'll try to explain as best I can, but my understanding is not complete and I don't want to bore our less nerdly readers.

Garnet showing us one of the electromagnets (the blue thing)

Basically, a synchrotron is a particle accelerator that accelerates electrons to the speed of light and then uses giant magnets to bend the path of the electrons which causes them to shoot out a photon (beam of light). The light it produces is basically a very powerful and accurate laser that can be used to analyze the atomic structure of different substances.

Not many people get to see synchrotron light.

And if that wasn't cool enough for you, we also checked out the petrified wood museum. It was about as interesting as it sounds, but the landscaping was really cool and the adjacent ancient elephant museum made the trip worth it.

Huh huh. Petrified wood.

We also looked around the organic farm and tasted our first Thai wine that was made out of grapes. It was a Shiraz and it was about as good as you'd expect.

And if all that wasn't cool enough for you, that night we slept in a pumpkin.

Yep. A pumpkin.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Buddhas Bizarre

Xieng Khuan, or Buddha Park as it's termed by the tuk tuk drivers, is cool. It's about 20 kilometers outside of Vientiane, and as the name suggests, it's full of Buddhas. These aren't just your regular run-of-the-mill Buddhas though. They're all strange-looking or surrounded by other creepy statues that make bizarre implications about the artist's state of mind. The park was designed and built in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a yogi-priest-shaman, and the statues merge Buddhist and Hindu iconography.

View of Xieng Khuan from the top of the ball

When you first enter, you're greeted by a giant spherical building which you enter through a large mouth. There are small passageways that wrap around a dark multi-leveled center, and each center chamber houses bizarre little themed statues. On the first level, there are skeletons, skulls, and people being savagely whipped, while the second level displays serene snake people. You can climb the tiny little steps all the way to the top of the ball and from there you have view of the entire park.

Christin on top of the weirdisphere

In addition to the weird ball, there are dozens of Buddhas, Hindu gods, and various protectors of holy things scattered through the grounds. Particularly imposing is a giant reclining Buddha statue that runs for most of the length of the park. We've seen a lot of Buddhas in our travels, but this place was definitely unique. We're working on a more complete catalogue of the statues on Picasa, if you're interested.

Giant Reclining Buddha (look you can see me there, looking small)

Just another 4-faced head with skulls for a hat