India II : Varanasi – City of Grace

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Every chapter of our travels changed us. We can say this with a certain emphasis now that we have been home in Ireland for two months. During some parts of our journey that change was felt more acutely, like a climactic moment in a novel when the protagonist reaches the summit of a mountain he has been climbing since the beginning of the tale.

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Varanasi was a peak on our travelling journey. There was a sense of finally “arriving” even though we knew nothing and nobody there. It was another one of those kairos moments: it was a time, a place and a people we felt had been prepared for us ahead of time by the Author of our journey and our lives. Varanasi was a time of deep learning and preparation for returning to Ireland. It was during this period that Jeremy was interviewed via skype and received an offer for a job, beginning September, back in Dublin. It was also during this time that we seriously considered returning to work in India. The River Ashram community became our home and work space for seven precious, unforgettable weeks. The community there became our family. The other travellers and hippies in Varanasi became our friends and teachers.

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Since our arrival home, people have asked us, ‘So what were you doing at the ashram in Varanasi?’

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We read some darn good books, we rested until our travel-weary bodies revived, we learned to make chai, we cooked and ate food in the company of many different friends and strangers, we cleaned toilets, we did laundry, we painted pictures, we got angry and frustrated, we cried, we practised the difficult art of balancing talk with careful listening, we learned to be silent. We loved and were inspired, we danced, we sang, we ate, drank gallons of chai, we meditated, we dug into the Scriptures in the company of friends, put out mats for meditation circle and put mats away in their box, we wrote, we gardened, we prayed, we sweated our way into rising summer heat, we swatted a million mozzies, we went grocery shopping in the chaotic market stalls, we ate in the finest and grimiest local restaurants, we faught off angry monkeys, we woke and worked to the sound of clanging temple bells and Muezzin calls, adding our own chorus of Hindi Jesus bahjans, we watched bodies burning by the Ganga and we watched children playing in the gulleys.

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Devout Hindus believe that Varanasi is outside of time and space. If you die there your failure to fulfil your karmic duty will be forgiven and your atman (or soul) will escape the curse of endless life-cycles, returning immediately to Brahman or divine existence. Varanasi is even referred to as The City of Redeemed Souls.

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24 hours, 7 says a week, corpses are burned on the ghats of the Ganga River on simple funeral pyres.

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As followers of Jesus Christ, it was fascinating to journey through Hindu culture and learn exactly what is meant by the terms and practices we in the West are becoming increasingly familiar with. We were amazed to see what Hindu culture really looks like up close and understand how these ancient beliefs have cultivated the society we were seeing around us. We also came to realise the aspects of Hinduism we see in yoga studios and self-help books in the West are really quite diluted and mashed up when divorced from their religious origins.

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For example, in India, Yoga was never part of a fitness regime uniting mind, body and spirit, as we have seen it marketed in the West. Instead, yoga grew out of a dualistic philosophical framework which sought to separate soul and nature. The goal of yoga is the isolation of soul from body. In fact, the very problem of humanity is that soul and nature have somehow fused. For a devout Hindu, therefore, yoga was and is a means of salvation. In contrast, from a western viewpoint, our understanding of salvation, and even health and life in general, values the human body. This attitude is a product of a Judaeo-Christian worldview and is thus fundamentally different to the Hindu view of salvation. Salvation from a Hindu philosophical viewpoint is understood primarily as escape from the body. The Christian concept of bodily resurrection and the associated understanding of the human body as a temple of holiness for God’s Spirit to dwell in, are fundamentally incompatible with this point of view.

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Another example of misinterpretation through cross-cultural spiritual translation are the terms ‘karma’ and ‘reincarnation’. “Good” and “bad” Karma in the West is understood in terms of a system of morality, once again drawn from a Judaeo-Christian worldview whereby all humans are created equal as image-bearers of their Divine Creator. In India, the term Karma relates not so much to morality as it does to duty. Every member of society is expected to uphold the duties that their caste (into which they have been born) places upon them. For instance, a man from the Brahmin (highest) caste helping to release a woman of the lowest caste from servitude through compassionate giving would not necessarily be achieving what we in the West would refer to as “good” Karma. Karma is about duty and not so much morality or compassionate action. It is through right observance of such duties (dharma) that one can hope to avoid being reincarnated and beginning the cycle of existence once again.

Indian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi explains; “Karma became another philosophical factor preventing a culture of care. A person’s suffering was believed to be a result of her or his karma (deeds) in a previous life. In other words, suffering, was cosmic justice. To interfere with cosmic justice is like breaking into jail and setting a prisoner free. If you cut short someone’s suffering, you would actually add to his suffering because he would need to come back to complete his due quota of suffering.” (The Book that made your World, p. 312.)

Reincarnation is not something to attain to but escape from. Once again, this differs from the western viewpoint which tends to see reincarnation as a “second chance” at life, a welcome opportunity rather than the failure to achieve Moksha, release from the cycle of death and rebirth.

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We were privileged to be part of an ashram whose guru is Jesus, where meditation centred on him. It was a privilege to work alongside other Jesus devotees who are loving and serving spiritual seekers in India. It was interesting to see the growing influence of Eastern ‘evangelism’ on the West, especially as spiritual tourism in India is a booming industry. In the ashram we encountered a colourful community of travellers, hippies and spiritual seekers, many of them drawn by the magnetic pull of Hindu spirituality in all of its varied and often confusing manifestations.

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The Kali Temple in the same grounds as the ashram. The temple boys rang bells every morning to awake this Hindu goddess, and us!

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A rainbow-lit view of the Ganga from our ashram rooftop.

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A cluster of temple turrets viewed from our roof.

Varanasi, as one of our friends noted, is Hindu headquarters. Pilgrims from all over India and the world beyond wash themselves in the Ganga or sit in the the company of a bearded Sadhu. The air is electric, buzzing with the throngs of thousands of devotees and numberless temples, each devoted to a different deity in the endless pantheon of Hindu gods. Varanasi is a riot of colours, sounds and smells. We loved walking the ghats and the narrow streets, stumbling across pujas (rituals) full of incense, flowers, flames and riotous drum rolls. The streets, choked with rickshaws, cows and motorbikes, are full of clamour and noise. White-bearded, saffron-robed Shiva Babas meander past the crumbling temples, tridents in hand. Not all gurus are sincere. Many so-called Sadhus or ‘holy men’ are willing drug dealers or disguised criminals evading capture by the law. Much of the spirituality on offer comes at a price and posters advertising yoga, meditation and philosophy classes are ubiquitous.

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 Many ashram visitors have come to Varanasi to be apprentices at the feet of acclaimed musical masters. Guests would turn up to community lunch with all sorts of exotic Indian musical instruments in tow, much to our enjoyment!

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Our time in the ashram was punctuated by a shocking experience for the community there. A business man from Delhi, along with the landlords, began scheming to turn the ashram and the surrounding property into a tourist resort. This was a shocking and painful time for all connected to the ashram. Even though we had only been there a couple of weeks, we ourselves felt deeply disturbed by the plans threatening to shut down this treasure of a place. The future shape of the River Ashram remains uncertain and it seems one chapter in its life has certainly come to a close. However, at the time of writing, we have witnessed flickers of hope in the midst of what has felt for months like an overwhelming, encroaching darkness threatening to snuff out the vibrant life of The River Ashram. It was and is a privilege to walk through this time of grief, change and hope with the people who welcomed us into their lives there.

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Living in community taught us to have grace for others and grace for ourselves, the latter in terms of knowing and communicating our boundaries to avoid burning out. We learned the vital value of receiving God’s gift of ‘shabbat’ or Sabbath rest – a ‘stop day’ where we can enjoy rest. In the ashram, where anyone could drop in at anytime, this became essential. After a whole month of putting off a complete day of rest, we finally plucked up the wisdom and courage to stick a sign on the ashram door saying; “The occupants of the River Ashram are today practising the discipline of solitude and silence. Please leave them alone today and they will be nicer to you tomorrow”.  This is something we are determined to carry back home into our life in Ireland. We may even use the sign idea… Despite the challenges of intense heat, acute cultural differences and the stress constant community living can put on a marital relationship, we felt the ashram was a unique fit for us as a couple.

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We found it hard to leave, hence staying seven weeks as opposed to our initial plan of three! Even when we did make the heart-wrenching journey away from the ashram and from Varanasi, we felt an undeniable connection to the place, the people, and to the way of life we had encountered there. We know it will continue to shape us and our lifestyle even as we moved far away from the space itself.

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India I : “All the World’s a Stage”

“…and then we go to India.”

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These simple words that finished our answer to anyone’s enquiry into our travelling plans had power to elicit two distinct responses. We learned to expect one of two reactions:

India reaction 1.

Listener’s face immediately radiates brightness, they become starry-eyed, awe-filled nostalgia covers their face and blissful exclaims of delight and appreciation exude forth in enthusiastic gushes. There may also be silent reverie and middle-distance gazing.

Popular phrases associated with this reaction: “Oh you will LOVE India!”, “You’ll never want to leave!”, “India changed my life”.

India reaction 2.

Listener appears insulted and affronted by our words. They then become grave and solemn with mild to moderate panic in the eyes which leads to stern interrogation of our plan to travel in this country. There ensues either strong encouragement to change/abandon our travel plans or detailed prescription of all the terrible things that will happen to us.

Popular phrases associated with this reaction: “Why are you going to India?!”, “At least you are going there last, you can go straight home to hospital”, “Can’t you change your flights?”

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These responses created quite a unique build up to our travel in India. As our arrival drew nearer the tension built and we could only hope we would somehow fit into the first category of responses to India. We wanted to be the people who LOVED India, even if we ended up in hospital.

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Few people, regardless of their impressions of the country, are aware that Shakespeare spent time in India. Obviously, that is where the inspiration came for his famous “all the world’s a stage” phrase.

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We had been informed that Delhi airport and the metro linking it to the city centre were not exactly true introductions to Delhi itself. And so yes we did loiter a little bit in the airport, sorting out our mobile phone and then bracing ourselves on the squeaky clean and deserted train into town. We took a deep breath and started up the steps leading us out of the station and onto the stage that is the streets of India. Delhi didn’t disappoint in greeting us with a sensory onslaught as we entered the busy night time world of this Indian metropolis. Countless honking auto rickshaws, open urinals, an endless array of stalls cooking, brewing, frying, selling… a colourful seething chaos of pure theatre! A policeman beats a man to the ground with a long stick, smoke and smog billow through the streets creating a theatrical backdrop to the action, aromas of the most delicious spices mix with the stench of urine, people washing and eating, fighting with and tending to each other. Cows, goats and dogs scavenge and poop through the same streets as face-painted holy men waving incense and bright sari-strung women doing their grocery shopping.We pushed our way through the eager rickshaw drivers and the traffic anarchy determined to walk to our guest house in Pahar Ganj on Main Bazaar Road.

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The sensory onslaught was emotionally moving as we realised this was the India we had for so long heard of in all the different reactions, stories, advice and caution of friends, family and strangers. This was India, pure and alive in all its glory and gory. We had stepped onto the stage of a colourful musical, a stirring drama, a bollywood movie; all mingled together in a genre called INDIA. So far, it all seemed a lot easier than people had made it out to be. The big surprise for us was how travelling here actually felt simpler than in parts of South East Asia because English is so widely spoken, we found people generally approachable, friendly, willing to help and very eager to chat about where we are from and what we think of India.

The sweater vest truly has a central part on the stage of Delhi... every colour and texture known to your granny's knitting kit is paraded on the torsos of India's men. Wish we got more sweater vest photos :-(

The sweater vest truly has a central part on the stage of Delhi… every colour and texture known to your granny’s knitting kit is paraded on the torsos of India’s men.

This chai-walla is sporting this season's favourite - tangerine.

This chai-walla is sporting this season’s favourite – tangerine.

Wish we got more sweater vest photos :-(

You just can’t get enough sweater vest photos. Never seemed to have the camera handy when the bright purple and yellow ones with sparkly lurex thread were passing by. :-(

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The white car had just run over a child’s foot. That certainly made for some interesting street theatre between the child’s mother and the driver…

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The following days saw us meandering around the local area, walking the overcrowded alleys, peering through doorways and gawking at the endless array of colour and character that surrounded us. We took a tour with a local guide recommended by Claire’s sister and brother-in-law, but disappointingly it seems Akbar the tour guide was losing his touch and it turned out to be a frustrating experience! He was distracted organising other clients on a tour during our day, he took us to a dodgy Jain temple where they just wanted money from us (“because we are holy men”) and he kept tricking us into ending up in shopping situations even when we told him firmly we didn’t want to shop! The last straw came when he abandoned us mid-tour by suddenly informing us his auto-rickshaw licence had expired so he couldn’t finish the tour for us.

Akbar our disappointing tour guide...

Akbar our disappointing tour guide…

...he did take us to some hidden corners in Old Delhi

…he did take us to some hidden corners in Old Delhi

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and let us ride a rickshaw...

…and let us ride a rickshaw!

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The red fort was a bit disappointing, it was really run-down and not that beautiful at all apart from some of the inlay similar to that on the Taj… If you are going to the Taj we would recommend giving the Red Fort in Delhi a miss. Buy a lot of chai with your 250 rupees instead.

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We were refreshed and encouraged by our encounter with Delhi Bible Fellowship, a church community in central Delhi in which friends of ours used to be involved. Through our time there we connected with a German couple who were travelling on their honeymoon and had just finished a month of working in an ashram for homeless people in Delhi. We were impressed that this is how they had chosen to begin their married life! We made plans to meet up with this pair again in Varanasi.

We were eager to arrive in Varanasi and begin our adventure at the ‘Jesus Ashram’ there but wanted to pop in on the Taj Mahal in Agra en route. We kept our expectations low for this one since we have found these tourist sites can disappoint when built up by lots of hype. Turns out the Taj really is quite unique and beautiful… as the litany of photos below show! Agra itself had some beautiful colours and winding alleyways full of life and creativity but the town was full of one too Taj Tack shops, touts and rickshaw drivers!

Taj queue at dawn...

Taj queue at dawn…

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We were relieved to find the right local bus to take us out of Agra on to the town of Tundle from where we had booked our overnight train to Varanasi. A long wait in the train station there gave us an opportunity to experience firsthand the epic staring ability of the Indian people (we must count for extra-interesting characters in their play of life), and Jeremy got the zip on his backpack fixed by a ‘zip walla’. While waiting for the train Jeremy also received an audience of young Indian men some of whom wished to interrogate him about his thoughts of India…

“Tell me Sir, what do you think of my country?”

“It’s very colourful.”

“No, Sir it is not colourful, I will ask you again, what do you think of my country?”

“Em… It’s very colourful.”

“Very good Sir.”

As the first rains we had experienced in over two months thundered from the sky, we boarded our train and settled down for a nights sleep as we journeyed to the Holy City of Varanasi.

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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.

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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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