Wednesday, June 25, 2008


On our way to Laos we made a short pit stop in Kratie, a small town situated on the Mekong. It was a sleepy place to enjoy a sunset beer on the river, with a small market and a few simple restaurants and food stalls.

Kratie is famous for the flat-nosed Irrawady dolphins that spend their time just north of here, so we rented a motorbike to drive up to Kampi where you can hire a boat to see them up close. Our ride under the shade of green trees and past simple stilt huts was fantastic. We smiles and waved to the villagers as we went by, watching children transport water from the communal well while their elders gathered on their porches to chat with neighbors. We found it very interesting that they choose to orient their homes and lives toward the road, rather than the luscious views of the river behind them. It speaks strongly about the community-orientation of rural life in Cambodia in comparison to the privacy and solitude favored in our modern urban society. We passed by several wedding celebrations, and marveled at the beauty of the women in traditional make-up wearing lace blouses and colorful silk sarongs arriving on motorbikes, and were honored when we got a few shouts to stop and join in with the festivities.

We felt very lucky to see the Irrawady dolphins, as they are extremely rare and pretty much on the brink of extinction. It is estimated that there are fewer than 100 left, and although there are education and conservation campaigns underway, we were shocked and disheartened to see local fisherman casting nets (which can be responsible for drowning these air-breathing mammals) literally within a few hundred meters of the area where they are known to congregate. Unfortunately, the fate of the dolphins may be a case of too little, too late.

Siem Reap

Siem Riep is a very touristy town, but it has every reason to be since it’s just about as close as you can get to the temples of Angkor without a time machine. It certainly came in handy that it had one of those ubiquitous Irish pubs, since it was St. Patrick’s day and we were in serious need of some green beer. We also appreciated the profusion of air conditioning given the 100 degree heat, so we really can’t complain about these conveniences of home.

In reality, you would need weeks, maybe years, to properly explore the temples of Angkor and all of their winding caverns and passageways. We had only three days, so we hired a tuk tuk driver to make the most of our time. We started out visiting the temples around Angkor Wat and then travelled further afield.

Not surprisingly, Angkor Wat was a highlight. It is the largest religious structure in the world and represents the pinnacle of Khmer architectural design. The carved bas-relief murals that line the halls are intricate and evocative and the five central towers reaching skyward are truly magnificent, especially at dawn or dusk when they light up like shimmering gold. But, Angkor is so much more than Angkor Wat. The story that unravels as you visit different sites gives you a much greater appreciation for the complexity and resilience of the Khmers than any single structure could.
The first thing that struck us was the sheer magnitude of the ruins. Each consecutive king wanted to honor the gods anew and commissioned a state temple to be built, thus moving the center of the kingdom over and over again. Our awe for the scope and power of the civilization was compounded when we contemplated the fact that while only religious structures remain, thousands of people lived in impermanent wooden settlements radiating out from the main temples at one point in time.

The temples exhibit an amazing diversity of styles. You can see the progression through the ages of different building techniques, materials and decorative themes, with each generation bringing something innovative to the traditional design. Another transformation you notice is a shift in religious beliefs. The Khmer’s were heavily influenced by their contact with Indian traders who came through the area and originally adopted a mix of Hindu and local deities, but later were converted by Buddhist teachings. In the end, sentiments swung back to Hinduism, evidenced by the thousands of Buddah images that were defaced or altered into less controversial figures.

Some of the temples were impressive due to their size or stature, such as the pyramid-shaped “mountain temples” of Pre Rup and Ta Keo, which were intended to emulate the sacred Mount Meru. Others were notable because of the uniqueness of the decoration. Two of our favorite structures, the Bayon and Banteay Srei, were actually quite modest in size.

The Bayon was built out of a cluster of towers carved with faces on all four sides. The faces evoke a strange sense of mystery and wonder, especially when navigating the maze-like inner chambers. The Bayon also has some fine bas-relief carvings portraying great battles and other historical events, as well as more obscure images from Hindu mythology.

Twenty-some kilometers from Angkor Wat is Banteay Srei, which has the most exquisite reliefs of all the temples we visited. It was not built by a king, but rather a counselor, and appears almost miniature in scale compared to other temples. Its beauty lies in the fact that nearly all of its surfaces are carved with rich and enigmatic images – the lion god Narasimha clawing at an enemy, a multi-headed demon shaking Mount Kailasa, Krishna and his brother firing arrows to stop the rain. It is truly a creative and artistic masterpiece.

Complimenting the splendor of the temples themselves are the dramatic landscapes in which they were built. Many temples were built on hills to provide sweeping views of the surrounding area, and most contained some element of water for dramatic effect, such as a moat or lake. The environment continues to shape them into the present day, with trees having invaded many of the structures, winding and wrapping their way around the stonework. While some of the temples have been restored, others have been left in this state of decay, providing a fantastical backdrop for movies like Tomb Raider.

We absolutely loved our time in Angkor and would definitely put it in our list of “must-see” places in the world.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is ripe with paradox. Today it is the capital of one of the world’s poorer countries, but its museum holds the treasures of one of the most prolific civilizations in history. Tiny alleyways strewn with garbage and home to orphaned children cross avenues lined with gourmet chocolate shops and bakeries frequented by tourists and international aid workers. The recent past has been plagued by horrible violence and suffering, yet its people seem to face the days ahead with humor and a strange sense of optimism.

Just about the only thing that is consistent about this place is the confusion it generates in its visitors. Your only choice is to confront the bad and embrace the good. We started with the bad and found ourselves face to face with the legacy of a woefully misguided revolution.

The Khmer Rouge, an ultra-Maoist regime that sprung up partly in reaction to the US bombardment of the Cambodian countryside during with the Vietnam War, took over Phnom Penh in 1975. Under the direction of a tyrant named Pol Pot, anyone deemed to be educated was seen as an enemy to the regime and slated for execution in the hopes of returning the country to its agrarian roots.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek now serves as a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Set in a quiet and seemingly peaceful setting is a tall glass stupa filled with the skulls of thousands of people whose lives where ended there. More subtle reminders of the genocide are shallow indentations in the ground, mass graves where bodies were found, and random piles of decaying clothing.

Perhaps even more powerful was our visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum, a former high school that was used to imprison and torture victims prior to them being sent to execution sites like the one at Choeung Ek. The pictures of mangled, half-dead bodies that were taken when the city was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979 would turn anyone’s stomach, and intake photos of incarcerated men, women and children posted among tiny cells converted from classrooms were absolutely heart-wrenching to look at given the knowledge that only a handful of them survived.
Many children were orphaned as a result of the murderous campaign and a variety of programs have been developed to address the ongoing challenges. A good example is a restaurant we dined at named Friends that educates and trains street children to work in the service industry. We also met a young woman involved in a variety of different projects, including teaching free classes on the traditional Apsara dance form, which was nearly lost as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s efforts to eradicate all things artistic.

Phnom Penh is clearly a very intense place, but it has positive points as well. The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda are glorious remnants of the Khmer kingdom before it fell into decline, while the National Museum holds thousands of archaeological treasures from Angkor. The city also has some great Art Deco architecture, like the Central Market, which thankfully survived Pol Pot’s destruction. Phnom Penh is gradually coming into its own as a modern center of commerce and culture as well, and has a busting riverfront with cafes and restaurants and some fun nightspots where you can get your groove on with a truly international crowd.

We leave with a heavy heart, but wish the city and its people well on the road to recovery.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Mekong Delta to Cambodia

We said goodbye to Sue and left Phu Quoc Island a few days later for the Mekong Delta. Since we had been flying from city to city, this was our first experience with local transport and we suddenly realized why several people we met in Thailand had warned us that “everyone in Vietnam tries to rip you off”. We were overcharged for a motorbike ride to the so-called bus station, a derelict gas station where we found two rickety old buses and several people colluding to charge us four times the local fare while our motorbike drivers waited to receive a commission. We discussed the price for about an hour when some other tourists showed up. With greater leverage we were able to get the price down to a more reasonable (albeit still inflated price) and at last were on the road to Chao Doc, the last city before reaching the Cambodian border.

The Mekong Delta is a beautiful area, with millions of people living along an intricate network of waterways. Chao Doc is a good example of the colorful local communities that have cropped up here. It has a lively market, lots of street restaurants and of course, a few requisite cafes. It also has a great vegetarian restaurant, where we got to try the veg-friendly version of several local dishes. Yum!

As you walk down the narrow alley ways toward the river, you come across small wooden shacks on stilts and then finally huts that are actually floating on the water. From the outside these places look very modest (in fact, many look like they might collapse any minute…), but you looks can be deceiving – one held an internet cafĂ©, another a set of pool tables and more than one featured big screen TVs. Clearly the locals have gotten creative in order to expand this prime waterfront real estate.

We took the Mekong River up to the Cambodian border and crossed the border posts by boat. The Cambodian side of the border provided similar scenes of life in the Delta – shacks on stilts, rice paddies, and fishermen – but things looked a bit more neglected and noticeably less colorful, giving the you the sense that we were entering a country that hasn’t benefited as much as its neighbors from the recent economic growth in the region. We continued on to Phnom Penh, catching glimpses of the city’s former Khmer glory from the river as we arrived.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Phu Quoc Island

Oh Phu Quoc, how we love thee. Let me count the ways….

First, we love your beautiful blue waters and gently lapping waves swimming with the likes of techno-colored cuttlefish in love.

Second, we love your long sandy beaches - the ones that we can fall out of our beds onto, as well as those that are on the far reaches of the island and provide an escape from everyone and everything.

Third, we love your selection of cheap restaurants serving up delicious fresh seafood, French bread and giant fish bowls of tropical colored elixir.

Fourth, we love your massage ladies, available any time of day to rub out that last molecule of stress or anxiety (or touch up your pedicure) for a mere $4 an hour.

Fifth, we love your winding, potholed roads and the fact that you can rent a motorbike from pretty much any local you can flag down with for a pittance to explore your green mountainous interior, pass by your fragrant peppercorn fields and, of course, to reach your remote, secluded beaches.

Sixth, we love your iced coffees, delicious every time, whether served up by the ramshackle hut on the beach, the local joint furnished with lawn chairs or sitting on the veranda of the one four-star hotel on the island.

Seventh, we love that you have your own special breed of dog that boldly flaunts a mohawk along its spine. (We especially love the puppies that play in the surf!)

Eight, we love your famous fish sauce factory – or at least the fresh and delicious cuisine that you season all over the world.

Ninth, we love your lively market and the fascinating scenes that play out there every day, like the young girl laughing as she learns to end the life of a squirming fish by bashing its head with end of a large cleaver or Sue trying to navigate her motorbikes through the throngs of shoppers without hitting anyone.

Tenth, we love that you entertained us for ten full days – the longest we’ve manage to stay anywhere on this trip yet! What a perfect place to unwind and recuperate.