A Final Fling with Thailand

India has gripped our attention and affections for the last six weeks, keeping us rapt enough to leave our blog in silence. The time has finally come to fill in some gaps…
We left you readers last on the banks of the Mekong river between Laos and Thailand. The short chapter that followed was our final fling with Thailand and a time of much rounding off, reflecting and some serious eating with the foodie, colourful character of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Rai

Back in the land of Tuk Tuks, lights and lots of gold…

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We dipped into Chiang Rai for a night to imbibe some of its night market food and touristy culture, but made a beeline for Chiang Mai the following day on the snazziest bus we had encountered in quite a while. Yes, Thailand felt distinctly more ‘western’ second time round. Boots and Seven-Eleven stores dazzled our dusty eyes. It was a treat to buy water off a shelf and not need to negotiate its price. Indeed, once settled in Chiang Mai, we delighted in Thailand’s great provision of water-refill machines. In one week, that’s a LOT of plastic waste avoided.

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We took advantage of the cheap but reliable postal system and lightened the load of our backpacks a bit. We tried also to take advantage of being in a non-communist country but spent a hot, frustrated hour and half searching for a church and giving out about their bad directions and obvious lack of updated website. We ate humble pie later on returning to our room and realising we had misread the map, spending all our time searching in the wrong place.

"It should be right here?!"

“It should be right here?!”

Our love affair with Thailand deepened on this return trip to its Northern reaches. With the confidence of three other South East Asian countries behind our backpacks, we appreciated the treasures of Thailand even more.

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One of the highlights for us is the high quality, low cost street food in Thailand, and Chiang Mai had some of the best on offer. We treated ourselves to a one day cooking class at an organic farm – something we had planned to do years ago when devising our trip back in Ireland – it was worth the wait!

Our teacher was a fiery fun Thai woman ;-)

Our teacher was a fiery fun Thai woman ;-)

A Market trip to explain some of the ingredients was included in the day…

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And then others we picked from the garden…

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Fresh tumeric!

Fresh turmeric!

Making our thai curry paste...

Making our thai curry paste…

If only someone prepared my meals everyday like this... the cheats guide to cookery!

If only someone prepared my meals everyday like this… the cheats guide to cookery!

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Claire ‘woking’ out… hehehe

Enjoying the fruits of our labour...

Enjoying the fruits of our labour…

Mmmm not bad if I say so myself :-)

Mmmm not bad if I say so myself :-)

Homemade spring rolls.

Homemade spring rolls.

Mango skicky rice - a dessert fave!

Mango skicky rice – a dessert fave!

In between meals, we spent many hours in internet cafes catching up on this very blog as well as tending to other admin needs ahead of India and our impending return to Ireland. We enjoyed wandering the streets of the old walled town and rented bikes one day to make getting around in the heat a little more pleasant.

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We celebrated Valentine’s day in a blaze of paper lanterns and candles amidst Buddhist temples in the full throes of some festival we figured had something to do with birthdays! We marveled once again at the Thai’s ability to throw a party full of colour, creativity, ritual, and all-age involvement while the doors to their beer fridges are locked. We were less impressed however with the expression of Buddhist religion wrapped in superstition and money-spinning.

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A particularly creepy plastic monk that recites a prayer when you put money in his box. Popular with the youngsters ;-)

A particularly creepy plastic monk that recites a prayer when you put money in his box. Popular with the youngsters ;-)

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Choose which Buddha holy man you want to hear a message from...pop your coins in the slot and get the blessing!

Choose which Buddha holy man you want to hear a message from…pop your coins in the slot and get the blessing!

The Chiang Mai night market was the perfect place for Claire to test her resolve to practice the discipline of simplicity. Having to either pay for postage or carry items on your back does help in shopping restraint.

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We maximized our time in Chiang Mai, taking a night bus straight from there to Bangkok and then onwards by public transport to the airport in the early hours of the morning of February 20th to catch our flight to Delhi.

Hello and Goodbye again Bangkok... A dawn journey to Bangkok airport.

Hello and Goodbye again Bangkok… A dawn journey to Bangkok airport.

India awaited these two happy, if a little apprehensive, tramps.

 

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Laos: Scars, Jars, Secrets and Singing Buses.

Yep, the title is a mouthful. Yet even so we fail to capture our time in Laos with one blog title. So you may need to read on…

We crossed from Cambodia to Laos on foot with a few other stubborn backpackers who declined the paid services of our very insistent bus driver and managed to carry our own passports for the necessary stamping and bribing border procedures. All in a day’s work.

A minivan and boat took us on to Don Khon in Si Phan Dhon (4000 islands) – a spattering of picturesque islands (cue sleepy villages over-run with backpackers) just up the Mekong from Cambodia. Now, I don’t know what colour contacts the Lonely Planet writer was wearing when they described these islands as the area ‘where the Mekong turns turquoise’, but mocha brown did the trick just fine for us.

We carefully chose Don Khon because it was supposedly (thanks again LP) the quieter, less touristy island. Turns out a local village wedding rivals any raucous backpacker ghetto for thumping beats and megaphone commentary day and night. Thank God for the communists and their midnight curfew.

That's where we stayed...

That’s where we stayed…

And here is the pretty sunset from the balcony :-)

And here is the pretty sunset from the balcony :-)

The Old french railway bridge links Don Khon and Don Det... bikes are the perfect way to explore...

The Old french railway bridge links Don Khon and Don Det… bikes are the perfect way to explore…

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Waterfalls after NZ and Australia have had a hard time impressing us. In dry season they have an even tougher time!

Waterfalls after NZ and Australia have had a hard time impressing us. In dry season they have an even tougher time!

But this guy thought it was photo-worthy!

But this guy thought it was photo-worthy!

We preferred to watch the dare-devil stunts of the local fishermen and women!

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And eat and drink coconuts. We heart coconuts. And they are VERY good for you.

And eat and drink coconuts. We heart coconuts. And they are VERY good for you.

Our next stop was Pakse. That was it really, we stopped there for the night. Oh and we found a bag of individual Ovaltine sachets in the local minimart!!

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Oh yes, Pakse rocked!!

Early in the morning we began what was to be an onerously long-winded bus ride to Thakhek.

Of course there was a moped on top of our bus, as you do.

Of course there was a moped on top of our bus. Probably didn’t help with the whole aerodynamics thing…

Local women and girls come aboard the bus every few hours selling food and drinks.

Locals come aboard the bus every few hours selling food and drinks. Jeremy enjoyed his skewer of chicken liver. I think it was chicken liver…

After about six of the ten hours of Laos Karaoke music videos, we actually discovered the fascinating cultural insight provided by this bus “entertainment”. It goes like this…

Hard working farm/factory girl meets hard working factory/farm boy. They fall in love over handling boxes/farm produce or when girl falls off her bicycle. There is an obstacle to their affections such as misgiving parents, an urban-rural divide, another girl, or just long work days in field and factory which make it hard to find time for more than ‘glance-stealing’. There is a lot of glance-stealing. Boy bestows gift upon girl and they either begin to ‘date’ or set up home together. If the latter, girl dutifully serves boy to enable him to work longer hours at the factory/in the field. At this point the stories either wrap up with a baby and a reunion with the estranged parents they have not seen since eloping…or, more often, things end on a bitter note when girl discovers boy’s cheating ways. Cue flashback montage of all the ironing, cooking and footrubs girl has given boy as well as gifts he has given her. There are a lot of girl-tears and ripping up of photos. The end. Next Video… Same, same, but different.

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Arrival in Thakhek brought with it nowhere to stay and night falling – the guesthouse we had planned to stay in was hopelessly full. There ensued a lot of backbreaking walking and searching with our bags which only led to arguably the worst place we have stayed in so far. It wasn’t that bad, if you take away the mozzie colony, the loudspeakers outside waking us up at 5am with propaganda music and chat, a pack of angry dogs accompanying the owner and some of the dirt perhaps too.

The bathroom wasn't a strong point of the place.

The bathroom wasn’t a strong point of the place.

Jeremy thought it had 'character'. Ever the optimist.

Jeremy thought it had ‘character’. Ever the optimist.

It was all really the fault of two Canadian girls we met when our nightbus broke down in Vietnam. They told us about this great mortorcycle loop you can do in central Laos over three or four days…all you need to do is go to Thakhek. And so ‘The Loop’ entered our vocabulary along with some of the best days of our travel!

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The landscape was varied and jawdropping. Karst limestone cliffs, rice paddies, rural villages, a flooded forest, lakes, mountains, caves… We took it in turns to drive so we could both enjoy the scenery!

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Day One ended in Sabadee Guesthouse - a beautiful haven! We met our Loop friend to be Barry from Malahide here and bonded over a bonfire that night.

Day One ended in Sabadee Guesthouse – a beautiful haven! We met our Loop friend to be Barry from Malahide here and bonded over a bonfire that night.

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The next day Jeremy mightily tackled some serious off-road with our little scooter... bumpy but fun!

The next day Jeremy mightily tackled some serious off-road with our little scooter… bumpy but fun!

Sharing the road with other 'loopers' along the way is all part of the fun!

Sharing the road with other ‘loopers’ along the way is all part of the fun!

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This cool spring was worth the effort to find at the end of our second day.

This cool spring was worth the effort to find at the end of our second day.

The group of youngsters who helped us find the cool spring!

The group of youngsters who helped us find the cool spring!

Konglor Cave was a highlight on the loop, it's about 7km long and over 100m high in places. In dry season the boat ride is very 'interactive' - every now and then we got stuck in sand or on rocks and the boat man would say: "Mister, Mister Out, Madame No" This meant Claire stays in the boat while Jeremy and Barry get out into the dark waters and push! :-) It was like one of those disneyland boat rides!

Konglor Cave was a highlight on the loop, it’s about 7km long and over 100m high in places. In dry season the boat ride is very ‘interactive’ – every now and then we got stuck in sand or on rocks and the boat man would say: “Mister, Mister Out, Madame No” This meant Claire stays in the boat while Jeremy and Barry get out into the dark waters and push! :-) It was like one of those disneyland boat rides!

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After the interactive ‘disney’ boat trip through the cave we had some more thrills jumping off a big rock into the lake below!

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Yep this view will do for night number three!

“Yep this view will do for night number three!”

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We loved our stay in Konglor village, who knew Tobacco could look so beautiful? We wished we had more time but the road ahead beckoned…

Buffalo crossing!

Buffalo crossing!

The local petrol station with our guesthouse behind.

The local petrol station with our guesthouse behind. Yes that is a child taking the payment, start them young in the family business!

This one is for Claire's Dad! The shed behind is for drying tobacco.

This one is for Claire’s Dad! The shed behind is for drying tobacco.

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Laos has some stunning natural beauty and The Loop is amazing. I think you get the picture!

We were, however, about to discover some complications behind the “Simply Beautiful” tagline of Laos. There were shocking secrets and sorry scars to encounter in Phonsavan. First we had to endure a couple of overnight bus experiences and drift about Vientiane for a few days.

This is the best picture we have from Vientiane. Ok, we admit, we really didn't take many photos or do very much at all in Vientiane. We must have been suffering from Loop Withdrawl Symptoms (LWS).

This is the best picture we have from Vientiane. Ok, we admit, we really didn’t take many photos or do very much at all in Vientiane. We must have been suffering from Loop Withdrawl Symptoms (LWS). Next time, we would skip this capital ‘city’ and spend more time on the loop!

One thing we did in Vientiane was book an overpriced bus ticket to Phonsavan in North-eastern Laos. We broke the code of backpacking in Laos and skipped the holy grail of Vang Vieng to be history nerds instead in Phonsavan. Perhaps our punishment from the backpacker gods was three stubborn singing bus drivers and their CD collection. We arrived to a beautiful sunrise in Phonsavan, its red glare reflecting our blazing frustration after a full night of almost no sleep, a lot of loud Laos pop music and several failed attempts to plead with the bus drivers to at least turn it down.

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Phonsavan wears its bomb scars on its sleeve.

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Flowerpots made out of bomb casings are popular throughout the town.

Flowerpots made out of bomb casings are popular throughout the town.

Formerly full of these 'bombies', thousands of which lie waiting to maim and kill villagers simply attempting to get on with their lives.

Such casings are sinister reminders that they were formerly full of these ‘bombies’, thousands of which lie waiting in the surrounding countryside to maim and kill villagers simply attempting to get on with their lives.

Our first stop (after catching up on sleep) was the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) centre where information panels and documentary films informed, shocked and deeply moved us. Laos has been the victim of one of the world’s worst crimes against humanity.

“From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years.”

Touched to see Ireland up there on the supporters list!

Touched to see Ireland up there on the supporters list!

Laos had the misfortune of having part of the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail snake through its north-eastern side. Some of the bombing was obviously in an effort to cut off this North Vietnamese army supplies route in use during the Vietnam War. Strangely though, the bombing didn’t only focus on the Ho Chi Minh trail but spread out across Laos razing entire villages to the ground. On one occasion 435 men, women and children were incinerated to death when a plane dropped a missile into the cave where they were sheltering. Laos was America’s convenient rubbish dump in its war with Vietnam. Often fighter pilots failed to hit all their targets in Vietnam and, not wanting to land with bombs on board for safety reasons, they emptied their left-over bombs on Laos as they flew back to their airbase in Thailand. More bombs were dropped on Laos than were used in the whole of the Second World War! So-called “neutral” Laos has justly earned the title of the most intensely bombed country per capita in history.

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Distressingly, Laos is serving a life sentence of unexploded ordinance (UXO) while the United States of America is enjoying increased prosperity and continued fervent spending on military. “Between 1995 and 2013, the U.S. contributed on average $3.2M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.” Tragically, the U.S remains one of the few countries who refuse to sign the UN agreement to cease the use of cluster bombs.

Meanwhile back in Laos, NGOs like MAG struggle to fund their operations. They train teams of local men and women (providing invaluable local employment in the process) to engage in the painstaking task of searching for and safely exploding or deactivating UXO. As the rate of clearing is going, it will be at least another century before Laos could be deemed free from UXO.

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The poorest areas of Laos are those that are most heavily conatminated with UXO. Most of these areas are rural where farming is the primary source of food and income. The bombs provide an additional tempting earner in their provision of scrap metal increasing risk of injury and death. Families face the horrible choice between risking death and injury from UXO or starvation from avoiding farming land contaminated with UXO. Which would you choose for your family? Send your children to bed hungry or set to work in a field full of cluster bombs?

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Laos has some of the most stunning natural scenery we have seen and the Plain of Jars historical sites number over ninety. The former cannot be fully developed for tourism and the latter cannot receive UNESCO status yet as only three of the sites have been made safe for excavation and tourist exploration.  UXO prevents development of farming, tourism, infrastructure and  health systems. Aid agencies are even prevented from working in the areas most in need because of the presence of UXO.

An entire nation has been metaphorically maimed alongside the literal maiming and killing of 100 individuals every year. As one young boy said in a documentary: “I am scared. I don’t want these bombs. They dropped them and now I wish they would come and take them back.” 

The UXO Quality of LIfe centre in Phonsavan was a really inspiring place giving details of the lives of survivors of accidents involving UXO.

The Quality of Life Association UXO Survivor Information centre in Phonsavan was a really inspiring place giving details of the lives of survivors of accidents involving UXO.

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Claire loved the details of how art is used in the education and therapy of individuals and communities effected by UXO.

Claire loved the details of how art is used in the education and therapy of individuals and communities effected by UXO.

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The shock of the scars endured by Laos during the so called ‘Secret War’ go even deeper than the bombs buried under its skin. While in Phonsavan, we watched ‘The Most Secret Place on Earth’, a documentary film, currently banned in Laos, detailing some of the horrors of the secret war. The footage is a shocking insight into the treatment of the Hmong tribes people by the CIA, including their recruitment of child soldiers. This was, disturbingly, carried out under the guise of providing aid to Laos. As the world watched U.S propaganda footage of doctors setting up hospitals for children in Laos the CIA were training those children to shoot guns. American pilots who were recruited to transport food supplies soon realised they were carrying soldiers alongside rice. When one Hmong tribe refused to give over any more of their young men and boys to the American army their rice supplies stopped coming. A CIA airbase was built in a remote valley but was not on any maps despite up to 400 flights a day coming on and off its runway. Such was the secrecy of this secret war in Laos.

It is impossible to delve into the complexities of this history in this blog, but if you are interested in further information http://legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/ is a good place to start and is where our quotations come from.

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Reeling from these horrors, we took a day to see the beauty of the bomb-scarred ‘Plain of Jars’. These ancient stone jars are littered across the Xieng khouang province but only three sites have been cleared of UXO, and even there signs warn you to stick the paths! Because of the lack of accessibilty and the damage from the bombing of Laos little has been done to preserve and excavate there sites. It was majestic to see the volume of these jars, thought to have been used in burial rituals, but sad to witness the ruin from the bombing and neglect.

Deep bomb craters pock-mark the landscape.

Deep bomb craters pock-mark the landscape and have shattered many jars.

Small jars...

Small jars…

...and tall jars

…and tall jars

BIG jars...

BIG jars…

and jars with trees growing through them!

and jars with trees growing through them!

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MAG markers remind you where is cleared of UXO.

MAG markers remind you to stick within the cleared areas.

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The twisty, scenic mountain road from Phonsavan to Luang Prabang was the next stage of our journey. On arrival, we enjoyed a few days of great cheap food, old town street and temple wandering and some final Mekong river sunsets.

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The night market buffet in Luang Prabang was a highlight - fill your plate for a euro!

The night market buffet in Luang Prabang was a highlight – fill your plate for a euro!

The meat costs extra :-)

The meat costs extra :-)

This one is for our good friend and former travel partner Neil Douglas - this is Claire having an Oreo Chocolate milkshake in honour of Neil and our Montauk Surfside days!

This one is for our good friend and former travel partner Neil Douglas – this is Claire having an Oreo Chocolate milkshake in honour of Neil and our Montauk Surfside days!

Mekong swim... probably about as clean as taking a dip in the Liffey!

Mekong swim… probably about as clean as taking a dip in the Liffey!

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Luang Prabang is famous for its old Buddhist temples and so monks are prolific in and around the old town. The alms giving ritual is something we had seen in local contexts throughout South east Asia. We had been fascinated seeing the monks walk around in the early morning to collect food and cash from homes and businesses in exchange for recitation of a prayer by the receipient monk/s. On our last morning in Luang Prabang we rose at 5am and made our way through the dark streets to where we had been told we could observe the famous alms giving ritual of Luang Prabang. We were keen to be respectful in our observation and had enquired about how to do so after seeing these signs around the town…

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As we waited quietly in the dark street it soon became apparent that this was no genuine alms giving ceremony but a fabricated tourist attraction. Locals were out in droves trying to sell us sticky rice and set us up on the street to give our “offering” to the monks. Minivans full of tourists started to swarm into the pre-dawn street as the sickening reality of the whole thing dawned on us. Ushered from their vans they bought their offerings before being escorted to waiting mats where they were costumed in traditional scarves and sat waiting for the monks. We turned away in disgust at this farce of a “ritual” refusing to partake in this Disneyland version of an alms giving ceremony.

As we walked away disgruntled we began to see in other parts of the town there were genuine locals giving their alms.

As we walked away disgruntled we began to see in other parts of the town there were genuine locals giving their alms, like this young girl on the footpath.

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It was shocking/hilarious to see people running down the street following the monks with cameras, with locals selling "offerings" in hot pursuit of tourists!

It was shocking/hilarious to see people running down the street following the monks with their cameras, with locals selling “offerings” in hot pursuit of tourists!

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We took in a couple of temples in Luang Prabang but realised we were feeling a bit templed out at this stage in our South East Asia journey!

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Claire feeling a bit “templed out”.

The open river beckoned us to begin our final leg of Laos – the two day Mekong slow-boat that would take us to the Thai border…

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Slow boat does mean it is slow. Nine hours both days non-stop on a boat did get tiring but the scenery was beautiful and we were lucky to have extra seats both days on the boat for spreading out and napping!

OK which one is our boat?

OK which one is our boat?

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Cambodia IV: A Wild Bicycle Ride and The Route Rarely Taken

IMG_7160Whenever we told other travelers we were making our way into Laos over land from Cambodia, they offered us a bemused, quizzical look in response. ‘Why would you want to do that?’ they asked. We heard tell of horrific roads and apparently, that is why most visitors to Cambodia simply don’t bother and fly instead. Undaunted, we decided to brave it and discovered that it was very doable indeed. We broke the journey first in the small town of Kampong Cham on the banks of the Mekong River. There, we found the time to rent bicycles and ventured over the bamboo bridge to the neighbouring island of Koh Paen. Every year, during dry season, locals build this remarkable bridge over the Mekong to connect the island with the mainland. When the Mekong swells in wet season, the bridge is washed away so it is rebuilt year after year. On Koh Paen we cycled down dusty tracks past wooden huts, crumbling Buddhist Wats and hedges dotted at intervals with blood-red Frangipani flowers. We even made friends with a local school girl who stopped to practise her English with us!

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Setting out across the bamboo bridge to Koh Paen.

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This is the local girl who wanted to practise her English with us. She even wanted to take our phone numbers and call us to continue the conversation later on!

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Loading up the bus as we depart Kampong Cham. Here, the bus crew cram in a moped for the ride. We have heard tell of whole families of pigs being wedged into the luggage hold of these buses. On such occasions, the luggage of the passengers simply fills the aisles and floor space inside!

After Kampong Cham, we boarded yet another bus and broke the journey a second time in Kratie. Another sleepy town that hugs the Mekong, Kratie is renowned mainly for the local sight of Irrawaddy dolphins. These freshwater dolphins are an endangered species and people come far and wide to catch a glimpse and capture them on camera. Claire lay in bed with a high fever (and guarded the guesthouse toilet for the day) while Jeremy set out alone on a rented bicycle to find the dolphins. He spent an hour in the company of a silent, wizened old fisherman on his boat and managed to capture a fin or two breaking the river surface.

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Sadly, Jeremy has few words of Khmer and the only English word the fisherman could speak was ‘Look!’ which, as it transpires, is all the conversation required to scout dolphins.

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The dolphins were far too quick to capture on camera. All Jeremy could manage was a dozen fin shots of this sort!

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Another beautiful sunset over the Mekong, spied from the banks of Kratie town. Just before it slipped out of sight, the sun became a spectacular fiery pink.

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After a few days in Kratie, it was time to begin our last journey (for now) through Cambodia. On departure day we were sandwiched into a tiny, drastically over packed mini van only to find ourselves wedged in beside Al from Glasnevin, Dublin. As we chatted we discovered he went to school with our good friend Aine Chawke’s big brother! Eventually, the driver pulled the mini van doors shut and gunned the engine. We were off. Next stop: Laos.

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Cambodia III: Touching the Heavens

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At the Temples of Angkor, located just outside the city of Siem Riep, we encountered the other face of Cambodia; the face of splendour and magnificence unmatched on a world scale. This intense concentration of architectural marvels, all packed together, makes for a dizzying and unforgettable sight. The Temples of Angkor are the remains of what was once a vast political, religious and social centre of the ancient Khmer Empire. Angkor was a city that boasted a population of 1,000,000 when London was a small village by comparison, with a population of only 50,000.

The centre piece of the Angkor Temples complex is the largest religious building on the face of the planet, Angkor Wat. It is staggering. Built at a time in history roughly contemporary with the construction of Notre Dame in Paris (1100s), it dwarfs the Parisian Cathedral in size and, arguably, in grandeur. Whilst Notre Dame took centuries to build, Angkor was erected in mere decades. Built on the orders of King Suryavarmam II, it was designed to be heaven on earth, a symbolic representation of the heavenly host and a dwelling place for the gods and goddesses of ancient Cambodia. Angkor Wat is the national symbol of Cambodia, representing the high point of its history, even as the Pol Pot era signifies its most wretched.

And yet, Angkor Wat is only one Temple amidst a sea of treasures. As grand as Angkor Wat is, we were moved more deeply by the less polished and preserved Temples, especially Ta Prohm and Preah Khan all overgrown with giant tree roots, gnarled and crawling. We were mesmerized by the enigmatic, staring faces of Bayon Temple. The hyper real and detailed quality of the carvings at Banteay Srei took our breath away. The list goes on. In truth, words are more of a distraction at this point as no superlative can do these remarkable structures justice. Hopefully, some of the pictures below will offer a glimpse of the unique beauty of Angkor. Walking through the ruins of these remarkable Temple structures, we felt at times as if we had stumbled into another world. It was as if we had suddenly woken up to find ourselves lost in a fantastical never-never land of endlessly intricate stone.

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The majestic Temple of Angkor Wat.

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Details of the stunningly intricate relief carvings that emblazon the outer walls of Angkor Wat. Some patches of colour remain to hint at a brighter orginal artwork than the current grey stone.

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The detail is incredible. The birds in the trees, facial expressions and actions of people and animals; all part of different religious, political and historical narratives.

The detail is incredible. The birds in the trees, facial expressions and actions of people and animals; all part of different religious, political and historical narratives.

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The looming shape of Bayon Temple at dusk.

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The giant, gnarled trees growing all over many of the Angkor Temples were a sight to behold. The tree encrusted doorways of Ta Prohm were particularly impressive. The one below is quite famous because it provided the set for the opening scenes of the first Tomb Raider film!

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A visit to the Angkor temples unfortunately includes encountering a lot of children begging and/or selling souveniers. Heartbreaking as it is to repeatedly say ‘No thank you’ to children as young as three, we were advised not to support this industry which keeps children out of school and locked in poverty and vulnerability. This little girl is taking a break from begging to play in the roots of this giant tree!

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The exquisite carvings of Banteay Srei.

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VERY steep steps at Angkor Wat! But great view from the top :-)

VERY steep steps at Angkor Wat! But great view from the top :-)

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Break time at Angkor. One of the things we really enjoy in SE Asia is the availability of whole, fresh coconuts.On a hot day, there is nothing better than a gulp of fresh coconut water.

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We spent a total of 3 days touring the Temples of Angkor. We rented a Tuk Tuk and driver the first day in order to access the Temples further away from Siem Riep. After that, we rented bicycles to get from A to B. Behind Jeremy, you can see the vast moat that surrounds Angkor Wat.

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Cambodia II: Old Friends and New

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The last thing we want to do is give the impression that our visit to The Killing Fields and S-21 summed up our experience of Cambodia. That would be a far from accurate description of a place filled with life, colour, noise and charm. Indeed, it is one country we felt most deeply compelled by the possibility of returning. As we ventured through Vietnam, we met other travelers who spoke of Cambodia. Most of the time, when they spoke of Cambodia, they mentioned being offered to empty a revolver for 25 US dollars. Others mentioned the now mythic ‘oldest cow in Cambodia.’ Apparently, there is a field somewhere in Cambodia where there grazes a lone, old cow. Tourists are offered a bazooka loaded with a single missile for 300 US dollars and with it, they are invited to blow up the poor cow! Invariably, nobody can hit the cow.

Stories like this gave us the impression that Cambodia is full of trigger happy hucksters! Nothing could be further from the reality, at least as we experienced it. By and large, we encountered a people who were warm, gentle and genuine. The only crazed Cambodian we encountered was a shouting, shaven-headed old man who accosted Jeremy as he cycled through a rural village. He raised his fists a couple of times, as if to throw a punch, but then merely cackled and eventually withdrew, shaking his head and mumbling something Jeremy couldn’t quite catch. But such encounters were few and far between.

We met very few pushy Cambodians, eager to force us onto a package tour or scam us for all we were worth (refreshing after Vietnam!)  Fresh off the bus in Phnom Penh, having just crossed the Vietnamese border, we faced the inevitable onslaught of Tuk Tuk drivers. So primed were we by our experience of haggling in Vietnam that we became locked into a fierce effort to whittle down the cost of our Tuk Tuk journey into town. The poor Tuk Tuk driver was taken aback by our show of suspicion and determined bargaining. So much so, in fact, that he turned to Claire as he dropped us off at our destination and said, with wide eyes, ‘Why are you so afraid of me? I am not a tiger!’ After that, we realised we were in for a more easy-going experience with the locals.

Thankfully, we managed to meet all kinds of locals. We met individuals like our (other) Tuk Tuk driver in Phnom Penh who wanted to offer us the real ‘low down’ on the current political situation in Cambodia, which remains volatile. He spoke in hushed tones and took us to try dried beef and beer at a roadside cafe. He gave us an insight into the Cambodia of today, where people continue to struggle for democracy and fair wages. Sinat, our Tuk Tuk driver at Angkor Wat, took photos of the area on his i-phone so he could log them on to Facebook. He said he wanted people ‘to see just how beautiful Cambodia really is.’ We agree with Sinat. Cambodia is very beautiful, in a uniquely gritty and edgy sort of a way. We enjoyed the sights of the sugar palm trees in the dry-as-tinder paddy fields, as we bumped along the unthinkably dusty roads, gazing at a sunset sky. It is undeniable that the roads in Cambodia are pretty poor. For large chunks of any journey we undertook, tarmac was in fairly scant supply. We learned to add on two or three hours to any stated journey time and to take all local estimates of journey length with a thorough pinch of salt. Even so, we savoured most bus journeys as they offered us a bird’s eye view of local Cambodian life and the changing landscape as it whirred by. Although we were often the only two foreigners on the bus, we rarely felt eye-balled or sniffed at.

Sharing dried beef and beers with one of our Tuk Tuk drivers in Phnom Penh.

Sharing dried beef and beers with one of our Tuk Tuk drivers in Phnom Penh.

Even the clamour of Phnom Penh charmed us. Not half the size of any other SE Asia metropolis, it is easy to manage. One night, as we sat on the roof top balcony of our hostel, we could see local monks scurrying about in their half-built Wat across the road, reading by torchlight and hanging their saffron coloured robes up to dry. Compared to her neighbours, Cambodia remains one of the most traditional societies in SE Asia. Most of the populace still live in outlying rural areas, making use of farming and building technology unchanged in centuries. Wood huts on stilts and buffalo-drawn wooden trailers with wooden wheels are not uncommon. Many of the towns outside Phnom Penh and Siem Riep contain vestiges of French colonial rule. Stylish, typically french town houses with shuttered windows are found crumbling and sandwiched between hastily built concrete terraced structures typical of SE Asia. It gives these places a unique hotch-potch charm, a mixture of the ‘continental’ and the Asian.

The town of Kampot is no exception. Our journey to Kampot, a town near the south coast of Cambodia, began in Bangkok. Sitting in a roadside cafe for breakfast on one of our last days in Bangkok, we got talking to a friendly, drunk Polish guy. Eventually, a serious-looking, smartly dressed German came and introduced himself. His name was Johan. The four of us chatted on for some hours, during which Johan shared the story of how he had left his native home because of his deeply felt anger at the injustices of German society. He ventured to Indonesia and throughout Asia for sometime before moving to Kampot, Cambodia, where he now rents an empty three-floored villa with no running water during the day. Before we said goodbye to Johan, he invited us to visit him there. And so, a number of weeks later, we found ourselves in Johan’s villa on the outskirts of Kampot, watching the Killing Fields on his borrowed laptop.

Arriving at Johan's villa in Kampot.

Arriving at Johan’s villa in Kampot.

Walking in the paddy fields at dusk.

Walking in the paddy fields outside Kampot town at dusk.

It was unnerving to watch the tense and atmospheric Killing Fields in Cambodia. The scenery of sugar palm trees, paddy fields and green hills outside our bedroom window matched the scenery on film with eerie exactitude. Reflecting afterwards, we realised with a shock that any Cambodian over the age of 40 is either a surviving victim or a perpetrator of the terrible events portrayed in the film. From the balcony of Johan’s villa, we could spy the Bokar hills, a major Khmer Rouge outpost during the Pol Pot era.

We had the privilege of venturing into the Bokar hills. One day, alongside Johan, we rented mopeds and set out to visit Bokar Hill Station, a french ghost town situated up in the hills. All that remains of the french settlement is a haunting, lichen encrusted Catholic Church and the empty shell of a maze-like hotel called the Bokar Palace Hotel. The whole area has been set aside for aggressive redevelopment and so there has been major foreign investment. This means, on the positive side, that the only good road in Cambodia wends its way to the top. On the negative side, all the new architecture is brash, low-quality building. Already there is a huge casino built and endless luxury homes for wealthy buyers are in the pipeline. The whole project had the air of a doomed dream, a folly on a massive scale. It was hard not to think of the building boom in Ireland that went belly up so recently. Maybe, in a half century, the ghost estates of the luxury housing developments will add to the atmospheric ruins of the Bokar Palace Hotel?

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The ghostly Bokar Palace Hotel.

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The old French Catholic Church. On the bare altar, somebody had left a Khmer Bible. Votive statues of Mary and pictures of Jesus suggest it is still in use.

The view from Bokar Hill Station. A quiet and serene location belies a troubled past. Here, Khmer Rouge soldiers forced victims to leap into the valley below, blindfolded.

The view from Bokar Hill Station. A quiet and serene location belies a troubled past. Here, Khmer Rouge soldiers forced victims to leap into the valley below, blindfolded.

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We joined Johan in a search for a tea plantation that he thought could be found on Bokar Hill. Unfortunately, it is now long gone.

We enjoyed walking the streets of Kampot and sharing Johan’s company. Johan has all sorts of interesting ideas and a sincere desire to find an alternative way of life that is honourable and true. This is one reason he has withdrawn from society at large. He lives a secluded life in his villa in Kampot, writing a website on SE Asia and sharing his ideas through it. We shared many stimulating conversations with Johan. Everyday, like clockwork, he sets out at 4pm to enjoy a beer in his local haunt. Most evenings, we would join him there. On our last evening we ended up in a spirited conversation that ended on a sour note. We just didn’t see eye-to-eye on this particular occasion. He disagreed with our point of view so strongly that he suggested he might have to turf us out of his home! Thankfully, he relented.

One way of thanking Johan for putting us up was to cook dinner for him. Here, Claire tries the traditional outdoor kitchen on Johan's doorstep. Just like the locals!

One way of thanking Johan for putting us up was to cook dinner for him. Cooking was all done in the traditional outdoor kitchen, having bought our food fresh from the market earlier in the day. True Cambodian style!

A view of Kampot.

A view of Kampot.

Leaving Johan and Kampot behind, we ventured north once again to Phnom Penh. Here, we enjoyed a rendez vous with an old friend named Pat, a woman we first met in New Zealand! Barely a week into our venture in Vinny through the North Island of New Zealand, we ended up parked on a driveway in Tauranga. It was a Sunday evening and we had stumbled in on a prayer meeting at a local church. When the pastor invited us to introduce ourselves, we mentioned that we had nowhere to park our van and suddenly, a hand shot up and somebody shouted, ‘We’ll take ‘em!’ And so, we ended up parked on Colleen and Pat’s driveway for a few days. While staying with Pat, she mentioned that she worked as a missionary in Cambodia. Swapping details, we promised to visit once we made it there. That was in late 2012. And so, many months later, we found ourselves once again in Pat’s company, January 2014!

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We were delighted to meet Fiona and Sheila, two missionaries working with Pat in Phnom Penh.

We enjoyed meeting Pat in a location so different to Tauranga and hearing about the vital work she is involved in, as she and others reach out to some of the women working in the local sex trade. There is an ongoing problem with sex trafficking in Cambodia and children are particularly vulnerable. All over the cities, there are Child Safe posters with an emergency phone number advertised in an effort to identify potential sex traffickers. Like much of SE Asia, sex tourism is a booming economy in Cambodia. Many women are forced into it out of economic necessity. Sadly, even children are sold into the industry by desperate parents. We also heard reports of children being sold to fake orphanages in order to swell numbers. Well meaning but naive tourists often visit such orphanages and invest in them, unaware that the operation is being run for pure profit by the owners. On occasions in Cambodia we would be approached by children begging for money or selling merchandise. Children as young as 3 or 4 are put to work. Sometimes they work late hours to catch passing tourist trade in the cities. These children are particularly vulnerable.

Experiences like this and our discussions with Pat showed us the other face of Cambodia. There is the face of traditional Cambodia, with its endless miles of paddy fields and stilt houses. There are many smiling people. But alongside the face of genuine, easy going friendliness, there is the face of outright exploitation and corruption. Whilst in Phnom Penh, we heard news reports of protesting clothing factory workers being shot dead by policemen for simply protesting poor wages. Cambodia remains deeply troubled. Leaving Pat behind in Phnom Penh, we set out for Siem Riep, to discover yet another face of this complex country.

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Cambodia I : Walking on Bones

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On April 19th 1975 Cambodia slipped into a living nightmare. On that day, Pol Pot and his clique of henchmen seized power. The Khmer Rouge marched on Phnom Penh and the state power of Democratic Kampuchea was born. Over the course of the following three years, 1.7 million of the country’s 8 million people were variously starved, shot and tortured to death. Cambodia was awash with bloodshed and violence on a scale unseen in modern history. Pol Pot, an enigmatic and coldblooded despot leader, spearheaded an effort to rewrite Cambodian national history, beginning from what he termed “Year Zero”. This involved the expulsion of all urban dwellers to the countryside where they were forced to work for hours on end, surviving on little more than a daily cup of rice or less. All educated people or those who had held important roles in the previous government were executed. People of every ethnic minority, be they Lao, Vietnamese, Chinese or Cham, were systematically and brutally wiped out.

Money, property and free thought were banished. Every trace of culture, art or history was erased. The people were programmed with party doctrine, deadened into dazed compliance by hunger, fear and unthinkable brutality. Pol Pot wanted a race of worker machines, a people with no more intelligence than an ox, who followed party orders without any kind of critical reflection.The Khmer Rouge cadres, many little more than illiterate teenagers, were forced to kill and torture or be killed in turn. Rural Cambodia, once beautiful, became grizzly killing fields as dissenters, the weak and the sick were slaughtered, their bodies strewn in jungles and fields to rot.

The regime of Democratic Kampuchea was motivated by power lust and paranoia. Cambodians of every stripe, including key political leaders, were tortured and executed on trumped up charges in a bid to protect Pol Pot’s regime. Everyone was suspect. This spelled the eventual end of Democratic Kampuchea as it spiraled into collapse. Famine and execution weakened it to such a degree that Vietnamese soldiers could overrun Phnom Penh, virtually unopposed, on January 7th 1979. The nightmare years of the Pol Pot regime were finally over. And yet, as one nightmare ended, another began as the people of Cambodia faced widespread famine, a ruined economy with no official currency and an entire population of displaced, traumatised people.

As Cambodia emerged from the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime, the full extent of the savagery, so long hidden from the eyes of the world, became apparent. The sickening death stink of rotting corpses hung in the air. Mass graves, like festering wounds, opened to reveal countless discarded bodies, endless heaps of skulls and bones. A closer examination of the remains revealed that the Khmer Rouge rarely shot their victims. Instead, to save bullets, the cadres literally bludgeoned their victims to death. Traditional farming implements like hoes, picks, carriage axles and heavy piping were used to smash brains and break necks.

Choeung Ek, just outside Phnom Penh is the largest of the 300 Killing Fields that dot the Cambodian countryside. We had the opportunity to visit. As we followed the pathway that led us through it, we were literally walking on the remains of the dead; jaw bones, teeth and rags half buried in the earth. Every year, as the rains fall, more and more hastily buried remains emerge from the earth at Choeung Ek. Custodians lovingly preserve them as a witness to the atrocities that occurred during the Pol Pot regime. At the heart of Choeung Ek is a memorial stupa where the skulls of the dead, many of them perforated and broken, are displayed as a poignant testimony to thousands of lives lost.

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Jeremy and two fellow travelers, Ben and Annette, listen to the audio tour that guided us through Choeung Ek.

Jeremy and two fellow travelers, Ben and Annette, listen to the audio tour that guided us through Choeung Ek.

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The Killing Tree. The sight of this tree trunk caused Kang Keck Iev, known as “Duch”, the Khmer Rouge Minister of Defence, to break down and admit his role in the atrocities of Choeung Ek. Duch was in charge of the S-21 centre of torture and authorised every death at Choeung Ek. Against this tree trunk, Khmer Rouge cadres hurled the bodies of countless infants, often in the presence of their grief stricken and pleading mothers. A mass grave can be seen behind the tree, where over a hundred women, babies and young children were buried.

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The sugar palm tree grows all over Cambodia. Pol Pot adopted it as an important symbol of Democratic Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge put it to use as a weapon. This one, growing in a quiet corner of Choeung Ek, was no exception.

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It became one more death instrument in the hands of Khmer Rouge cadres who used the hard, corrugated leaves as blades with which to cut the throats of their victims. As our audio guide remarked, ‘When your throat is cut no one can hear you scream.’ The Khmer Rouge were diligent to silence the screams of their victims to hide the killing fields from detection. Loud, abrasive propaganda, pumped from amps hung from surrounding trees, also silenced the cries of the dying at Choeung Ek.

At the end of our walk through Choeung Ek, we visited the attached museum. Here, you can see one of the many exhibits, a little girl's knitted top. Things like this really brought the tragedy home to us. This reminded us of something Emily, our three year old niece, might wear.

At the end of our walk through Choeung Ek, we visited the attached museum. Here, you can see one of the many exhibits, a little girl’s knitted top. Things like this really brought the tragedy home to us. This reminded us of something Emily, our three year old niece, might wear.

The nerve centre of the hell that was Democratic Kampuchea was Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as S-21. It was designed for detention, interrogation, inhuman torture and killing after a “confession” was extracted from detainees. Previously, the buildings known as S-21 housed a primary school and a secondary school. When Pol Pot took power, fences of iron and barbed wire were erected around the walls and the classrooms, once centres of learning, became dark spaces of unthinkable savagery. As we walked through the quiet rooms of S-21, iron bedsteads, foot clamps and tool boxes witnessed to the torture that had occurred there decades earlier. Here and there, sprays of dried blood could be seen dotted on classroom ceilings. In the corridors, blotches of dried blood clung to the tiled floors.

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Hastily built prison cells now fill many of the classrooms of Tuel Sleng school. In the background, a blackboard can be seen.

Most harrowing of all are the portrait photos that remain as silent witnesses to the horror of S-21. Each detainee was required to sit for a mug shot before being incarcerated. Every photo, be it of a young mother and baby, an old woman, young boy or man, is a heartbreaking glimpse into the world of anguish that was S-21. Individual expressions of fear, desperate hope, resignation and plain bewilderment stare back at you as you walk the abandoned corridors. Each person photographed would have spent between 2 to 7 months incarcerated in a dark cell or airless classroom, tortured at intervals in a bid to force a false confession designed to incriminate them. Once incriminated, victims were sent to Choeung Ek to be executed. A conservative estimate sets the death toll in s-21 at 20,000 people, not including the many children and infants who also perished there. S-21 stands as a damning indictment of the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot regime that oversaw it.

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Silent faces, peering out like ghosts, seem to plead for justice and deliverance. To this day, only a single member of Pol Pot’s clique has been sentenced for his part in the atrocities of S-21. Duch, the man in charge of S-21, received a mere 35 year prison sentence for authorising the death of thousands. Other key figures are yet to stand trial. Aging rapidly, many Cambodians fear they will die before they are brought to justice. Pol Pot, for his part, died in 1998 at the age of 73 in a remote military outpost in Thailand.

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Surviving ‘Nam

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Vietnam. Where do we begin? Some countries just get under your skin, for better or for worse. Claire wanted to call this blog ”Vietnam or Vietscam?” Jeremy intervened, insisting that there was more to our experience of this nation than having to bargain to use a public toilet. On one occasion, the starting price quoted was about the same as we pay for dinner, an expensive pee that would have been!

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It is commonplace in countries throughout South East Asia for foreigners to be charged more than locals, but nowhere have we felt the brunt of this ‘tourist tax’ more so than in Vietnam. Sure, the inflated price is often cheaper relative to Irish prices but that’s not the point. We resented the fact that we were often lied to in the process of a money transaction. It is hard to relax and enjoy your meal when surrounded by furtive glances and secretive handing over of money, as locals conspire to keep the real price a secret! No matter how much ‘more money’ we are expected to have as western travelers no human deserves to feel left out and taken advantage of in deceptive ways.

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A delicious Vietnamese noodle dish and two glasses of Bia Hoi, the local brew of choice. For the equivalent of about 15 cent crisp and refreshing Bia Hoi could be bought at one of the ubiquitous street stalls and cafes.

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Local street vendors take a break in Hoi An.

It was this coupled with an intensely aggressive sales pitch in every sphere that made for a bitter Vietnamese cocktail. In this environment it becomes very hard to trust people we encounter, let alone connect or communicate on a level beyond a monetary transaction. We felt debased by a persistent attitude of monetary greed, trickery and the assumption that, as foreigners, our sole purpose upon entry to this nation is to be squeezed of as much money as is physically possible. This expressed itself in a literal squeezing for one saleswoman who grabbed Claire’s arm, tightening her grip to the point of pain, in insistence she needed to buy a second pair of trousers in her shop.

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The sad part is that at times this meant we tightened our purse strings when they should have been loosened. Leaving a cafe, after being treated rudely and blatantly overcharged, we walked past the Agent Orange victim selling trinkets, still smarting over our mistreatment. Honestly, it was tough to turn the other cheek, to forgive, to face each new encounter with fresh patience, love and possibility. It posed a real ethical dilemma for us to chew on as we traversed this country. Is it right that we pay more than locals just because we have more? Who decides how much a foreigner should pay above a local?

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What better place to turn 28 than on a train in Vietnam?

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One of the ”redeeming” experiences for Claire in Vietnam was meeting the amazingly helpful and thoughtful family whose travel agency we used to book train tickets. They then asked us to come to their restaurant and produced this cake when they heard it was Claire’s birthday! Their 3 year old daughter sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and sat up eating cake with us! The woman then walked us to the local bus station and they even told us what the locals pay on the bus and not to listen to driver who would try charge us double!

The habit of overcharging meant we often felt distanced by locals to arms length, treated according to the colour of our skin and language of birth rather than as a fellow human being on this earth of severe economic inequalities. This realisation was of course more distressing than paying double for our bowl of noodle soup. We were not going to be let forget that we were on the outside and by simply being on their territory we owed them.

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Sleeping on the job in Ho Chi Minh City.

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Motos buzz through the streets of Hanoi, 24/7.

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On arrival in Vietnam we paced the streets of Hanoi, weaving our way through cascades of motorbikes and endless honking, in search of our illusive hostel. By the time we arrived bedraggled at the right place, we had a collection of business cards just about equal to the number of people we asked for directions. Transaction replaces relationship in this country of contradictions. A couple of weeks into our time here, reaching the end of her tether, Claire wrote in her journal; “I have never felt more like a commodity than here in your community”. Truly Brother Communism has bent over and kissed the feet of Prince Capitalism. The quintessential red flag with its golden star shines brightly above the Cartier and Jimmy Choo shops of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

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The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader who was prime minister (1945-55) and president (1945-65) of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). Inside the mausoleum, visitors can spy Ho’s corpse, embalmed in a glass case and heavily guarded by soldiers. Apparently, for three months of each year, Ho’s corpse is dispatched to a Russian specialist who looks after its preservation!

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The Women’s Museum in Hanoi tells the stirring tale of the role of women in Vietnamese society, both in the cities and in the ethnic tribal communities. Women continue to play a huge role in modern Vietnam, starting businesses, raising children…

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… as well as farming the land. Above you can see an image of women at work during the Vietnam War. As they plough the land, they carry their rifles on their shoulders, ready for combat. Women were drafted as soldiers from the outset of the conflict. They were very able, and very feared, soldiers. In the Women’s Museum the stories of many women soldiers are relayed. As is common in Vietnam, their stories are told in a triumphalist tone that celebrates the death and capture of US soldiers. This triumphalism is married to a strong propagandist message that bolsters the present North Vietnamese Communist government regime. It is the same in every museum. This is a trait we disliked and eventually, learned to distrust.

But the relative prosperity now evident in Vietnam comes after the long and anguished conflicts of the past century. From the first, the destiny of Vietnam has been shaped by encounters with powerful outsiders. As early as 39 AD Trung Tac and her sister Trung Nhi led a fabled rebellion against the far superior forces of the colonising Chinese Empire, establishing an independent Viet Kingdom. Fast forward to the twentieth century and the same pattern played out as determined Vietnamese forces came to blows with the colonising power of France and later, the vastly superior military power of the USA.

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Tanks on display in the former US Army base at Khe Sanh. Military weaponry, helicopters, tanks, guns of all sizes can be seen on display all over Vietnam, usually on the sites of important skirmishes during the Vietnam War.

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“Get to the chopper!”

US President Lyndon Johnson, famously referring to Vietnam as a ‘damn little pissant country’, could not imagine how a nation as weak and underdeveloped as Vietnam could hold out so long in a conflict that gradually spiralled into one of the bloodiest and most controversial wars in history. The backdrop of the Vietnam War was the complex power struggle played out on an international scale as successive US Presidents sought to consolidate US power in Vietnam, a region of Asia susceptible to Communist rule. The Soviet Union and China, in response, sought to further their power interests and extend the scope of Communist influence. This colossal power struggle played itself out in the rice paddies and villages of Vietnam. Alongside, Vietnam itself was locked in a bitter civil war as the area of South Vietnam, backed by French and later US government, fought bitterly with Communist-controlled North Vietnam.

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The Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was established as a dividing line between North and South Vietnam during the First Indochina War, when Vietnam went to war with the French occupying power. During the Vietnam War, it remained in force and was the area of the most intense fighting. Today, this former No Man’s Land has been converted into rice paddies that stretch as far as the eye can see.

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The unmarked graves of Vietnamese people who perished during the Vietnam War. There are many such graveyards all over Vietnam. In lieu of a name, each grave is marked with the title, ”Unknown Martyr.” The bodies of those who could not be identified are interred inside.

By the end of the Vietnam War, over seven million tons of bombs had been dropped by US fighter planes. The landscape was utterly ravaged by the conflict. On going problems emerge as Agent Orange, a deadly chemical formula dropped from the air with Napalm, continues to effect the lives of thousands. People struggle with various cancers and children are, still to this day, born with genetic defects. Unexploded bombs remain hidden in remote rural areas, claiming the lives of many people.

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The Vietnam War took a huge toll on all military personnel involved, Vietnamese and US included. Here, in a famous photo displayed in The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi MInh City, a US marine weeps at the loss of his comrades.

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‘It is just the biggest damn mess that I ever saw’, lamented Johnson as he continued to wage a chaotic and arguably futile war on Vietnam. Eventually, the Vietnam War came to an end with the capture of Saigon by North Vietnamese forces in April 1975. It marked a victory of a kind for Vietnam but the cost of war has taken a huge toll, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost, bodies broken, minds maimed and years of political turmoil in the aftermath. The people of Vietnam have had to claw their way up from bomb craters of economic demise, food shortages and unspeakable violence.

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The Vietnam War officially ended in April 30th 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of Reunification Palace, shown above, the seat of the US-backed South Vietnamese government.

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One of the many Communist propaganda posters on display in Vietnam. Uncle Ho is always smiling.

Bearing these things in mind, it is perhaps easier to understand the steely spirit that causes a woman to grip Claire’s arm in demand that she makes a purchase. The war is over but wartime resilience lives on. The instinct for survival that carried a nation through a century of war has filtered its way down into the workaday world of modern Vietnam. As travelers through this war scarred land we encountered this instinct in the resilient and (sometimes) unscrupulous people keen to turn a fast buck at any cost. We oscillated between being impressed with their ingenuity and frustrated with their dishonesty.

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Claire found reading Kim Phuc’s biography, The Girl in the Picture, an insightful, distressing and inspiring accompaniment to her travel in Vietnam. After this photo became iconic, the Communist regime manipulated Kim Phuc as a propaganda tool until she managed to escape to Canada in the 1990s. The reading provided another angle to the story of history presented in Vietnam.

The people of Vietnam have had to learn to fight for survival throughout a century of bloodshed and oppression. It is undeniable that this process has shaped the psyche of this remarkable nation. Alongside navigating the challenges mentioned above, we were awed by the resourcefulness of a people who, with very little means to hand, managed to build bomb-proof hospitals within caves and whole villages underground during wartime. Vietnam is full of charm, colour and beauty. The cities ooze with creativity and industry, as commerce thrives for the first time in decades. The countryside is almost Irish green, with rice fields stretching into oblivion and around the iconic Halong Bay, karst islands like giant limestone pillars emerge out of the waters. The Vietnamese smile dazzles and the people laugh easily. Undoubtedly, it must be said, there is so much more to this remarkable country than scams and aggressive sales pitches. It is a place like no other.

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We were so chuffed to discover this exhibition in Hanoi of environment-caring initiatives around Vietnam sponsored by the Irish Embassy and with links to a community in Ballymun!!

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We’d like to try this plastic bottle greenhouse back home!

After some thought and discussion we decided to fly from Bangkok to Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, on December 12th. Our journey through Vietnam took us mainly along the East coast as we ventured through some of the major cities, traversing both North and South Vietnam. Leaving bustling Hanoi, we journeyed by bus and boat across the beautiful Halong Bay to Cat Ba Island. Here, we rented a moped to speed around the quiet roads, enjoying the idyllic scenery.

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The beautiful scenery on Cat Ba Island.

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This is the entrance to the subterranean hospital that the local people of Cat Ba used to tend those wounded by US bombing. It was also a hide out with a quick escape route for military commanders. Inside, there was a reception, network of wards, an exercise area and even a cinema space – all hidden within an underground cave! Wartime feats like this left us utterly awestruck.

From Cat Ba, we journeyed south towards the ancient citadel city of Hue. What should have been a 16 hour jaunt by bus turned into an epic 28 hour venture as our bus broke down on the way. Undaunted, we used the time to grab some Pho (Vietnamese soup) and get to know our fellow backpackers.

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Our bus from Haiphong to Hue broke down at around 3.30am somewhere near Vinh (about halfway to Hue). We set off again sometime between 12 and 1pm. Then, 10 minutes down the road, we pulled in for lunch. The drivers tanked up on Vodka and beer and spent the afternoon playing chicken with oncoming traffic! Thankfully, we made it to Hue in one piece.

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Nothing to be done but hunker down and make ourselves comfortable during the long wait. Despite the negative reviews we had heard of sleeper buses, we enjoyed our experience. Each passenger gets a ‘bed’roughly 5 feet in length. Jeremy had to curl up to fit but managed to catch a few winks nonetheless.

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Ruins of the ancient citadel in Hue.

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While in Hue, we joined a tour that took us through the DMZ (demilitarized zone) around the seventeenth parallel, the area of the most heavy fighting during the Vietnam War. Here, we entered tunnels at 15 metres below ground level in Vinh Moc. This tunnel complex is essentially an underground village, with the deepest tunnels at 27 metres, complete with a mini maternity ward, meeting room and family bedroom units. The village people went underground in a bid to escape relentless bombing from the air during the Vietnam War.

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The tunnels of Vinh Moc. Another jaw-dropping wartime feat undertaken by local Vietnamese people in a bid to escape US bombs. Here, you can see Jeremy crouching in a tunnel. Inside, there are family rooms dotted along the corridors, a meeting room for school classes and socials…

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…and even a maternity ward! Seventeen babies were born here during the years of war, a number of them still living locally in the village above ground!

Leaving Hue, we continued south to Hoi An and spent Christmas there, enjoying the ancient buildings and winding streets. After that, we boarded a night train that took us to our last destination, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) where we said hello to 2014 before bidding farewell to Vietnam!

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The ancient Japanese Bridge in Hoi An.

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Relaxing with a Bia Hoi in our favourite Hoi An haunt.

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A glimpse of the colourful chaos on show at the daily market in Hoi An.

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We spent Christmas in Hoi An. On Christmas Eve we stumbled upon a local church and that evening we were warmly welcomed to their Christmas service. It was a very moving experience. Despite not being able to understand a word, we could follow the gist as Christmas hymns we knew were sung beautifully in Vietnamese.

Local people, especially children, crowded at the doors to hear the singing choir and the Christmas story.

Local people, especially children, crowded at the doors to hear the singing choir and the Christmas story.

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One of the many ancient Japanese shop houses on display in Hoi An.

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Taking in the view of Halong Bay on Cat Ba Island.

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Around Halong Bay, many local people live in floating fishing villages like these.

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