Monday, June 22, 2009

Cambodia: the good, the bad, and the ugly

The past 3 weeks in Cambodia have released many different emotions from me. It is a country of ups and downs, good and evil, yin and yang. From the Angkor Temples dating back to the 9th century, to its horrific civil war taking place only a few short years ago; the people of Cambodia are trying to rebuild their traditional lives and regain trust back into their country and government. It is also a country that has posed certain obstacles that I have not yet had to deal with while traveling. There have been a few moments that I could have easily thrown down the ropes and got on the first plane back to Austin. However, after a feeling sorry for myself and reanalyzing the situations, I reiterated to myself that traveling is not always peaches and cream and sometimes shit doesn´t always work out. It is these moments that I need to push through and get back on track to this amazing experience I am on.
After a few days in Phnom Penh, Laura and I decided to head up to the wild northeastern part of Cambodia. Only recently was a tarmac road built to the middle of the area, but after that there were only dirt roads. It was the beginning of the rainy season so there was no guarantee of our travel plans or how far up we were going to get. Our first stop in this region was to a town called Kratie. It is right on the Mekong River and famous for taking boat rides to see the freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphins. When we jumped out of the bus there were about 10 local guys holding up their hotel brochures and throwing out prices. There was one young kid in front of me who spoke very good English and caught my attention. Little did I know that this kid was probably the wealthiest person in Kratie because he would end up selling and schmoozing us into every purchase we made in that town. He knew exactly what we wanted to do and when we wanted to do it and he would give us this information before we even asked for it. After we got settled into the hotel he knocked on our door and asked if we wanted to go see the dolphins. He explained that he and his friend could take us out on their motorbikes to take a sunset boat ride. Next thing I knew, we were on the back of these guys motorbikes cruising 15k to the Mekong River. We rode through small villages and all the kids ran to the road to wave at us. Once we were on the boat, we drove around for a few hours searching for dolphins. I must admit, the dolphins were not all that interesting….ever few minutes you would see them come to the surface and then go back down. They are close to extinction though so it was neat to see them and help contribute money to their survival. The coolest part of the trip was this amazing cloud formation that took place while we were on the boat ride. This cloud turned into this crazy rainbow color that went all the way across the sky. Laura thought that it might be the sun reflecting back on the lower clouds and causing the spectrum of light, but whatever was happening…it was strange and I had never seen anything like it before. You can view some pics on my Kratie album in Picasa.
Our little salesman buddy convinced us that we needed to buy a ticket to take the “mini bus” to the next town, Banlung. Halfway to Banlung the tarmac road ended and it was another 2 hours on dirt road. If there was a storm then the big bus would have a lot of problems getting through. However, the minibus (which is basically like a shuttle van) would get there quicker and have no problems with the rain. Since we had no idea what to expect we booked the minibus…later we found out that our dude made a nice commission off the minibus and not the regular bus and that is the whole reason behind his pitch. Because to say it nicely….the minibus sucked!!! There were 3 rows in the van. Laura and I were the first to be picked up and he put us in the very last row. I figured that they would seat 3 people per row since we had our bags with us. So with 3 people per row and 2 up front that would make 11 people. It would be a tight fit, but do-able. At the next stop, 2 Germans got in and he directed them to sit in the back with us. There were all these empty seats so we were confused why we all needed to sit in the same row. So next thing I knew, it was me and 3 Germans with our bodies in pretzel like positions. It was going to be a long ride. Every time I thought that we couldn´t get any more people in the van, they would stop again and load them in. By the end of it, we had 18 people in the van and a ton of other bags of supplies and who knows what else. During the 5 hour ride, the whole left side of my body went numb and when we got out for the toilet break I almost fell over because I could not feel my leg. I understand that this is how the Cambodians travel and I shouldn´t complain about it, but let´s face it people….my body is probably twice the size of an average Cambodian. The other 3 Germans weren´t small people either. We had 4 people in our row with no room to move and they had 6 in the row in front of us and looked nice and comfortable. What bothered me the most was passing the large buses and seeing the people in their own individual seats with their own personal space. That kid from Kratie was a liar…he was a very good liar and convinced us that the minibus was better. Ah well – you haven´t done Cambodia until you have ridden in a minibus with 18 people for 5 hours.
Banlung felt like a town in the wild west. The red dirt roads made everything dusty and dirty and it felt very underdeveloped. When we got out of the minibus we were attacked again by the locals trying to get us to stay at their hotels. We had an idea of where we wanted to stay, but this guy started lying to us saying that our hotel had closed down so we needed to go to his. We knew he was jacking with us and told him to get lost. Then he jumped in the minivan and told the driver to take us to his place. It all happened so fast and next thing I knew we were in the parking lot of his hotel and all the workers came to greet us and take our bags. I was frustrated because I was getting so sick of being dragged around and screwed with over every situation. I wanted to go to a certain hotel and I told our drive that and they would not listen to me. Laura and I refused to get out of the van and demanded to go to our hotel of choice. When we told them where we wanted to go the employees said how horrible our hotel was and that the place was swarming with prostitutes. Another person even said that this used to be that hotel, but that they recently changed the name so we were actually already there. We finally just started ignoring them and told the minibus driver to take us where we originally asked. 2 of the hagglers jumped in with us to ride there because they said we would hate it so much and want to come back to this hotel. They took us to another different hotel and had to go through a similar situation again. Finally we arrived to the correct one and the 2 hagglers had the nerve to come up to reception and ask for a commission because they brought us there. I was so frustrated and annoyed and they surely were not getting any tip from me.
Banlung was the first city where I actually felt uncomfortable with the local men. Since I have started traveling I have either had a male companion, a group of people, or if I was alone I was in a comfortable country. I am now traveling with only one other girl in a place where we don´t know the language and do not understand every situation we are in. The men stared and pointed and talked directly to you in Khmer and then they would all start laughing. It was an akward few days and I am not sure why we were getting the weird vibe from the locals…the local men mainly. One day we rented bikes to cruise around the outside villages and check out this volcanic crater lake. I am not sure why we thought renting a one gear bike during the rainy season on dirt roads was going to be a good idea, but despite the hard work, it was fun. It was nice to get out of the main city center and we passed villages where oxen were walking alongside us on the roads and kids were running around naked and playing in the rain. We visited some waterfalls and received smiles from the villagers. On the way back to the town, however, I was a bit ahead of Laura on my bike. There was nothing around and I was just cruising along. This man jumped out of the jungle and stopped me. He was mumbling in Khmer and his eyes looked very strange as he sized me up. He approached me and continued talking in his language and staring at me. The he put his hands down his pants. I am not sure if he was going for a weapon or what his intentions were, but it freaked me out. I immediately turned around and started running. He grabbed for my back but I managed to run faster and leave him behind. A few moments later a car came by and he ran back into the jungle. I ran all the way back to Laura and was freaking out. No harm was done and I am safe, but it all happened so quickly. It was in the middle of daylight and I was innocently riding my bike. I felt more and more vulnerable in this town and I was getting very upset with it. On top of all of this frustration, I was also exhausted. All of these emotions were going through me and my anger was building up. Maybe I had had enough of travel….maybe things were starting to wear on me and I was not enjoying it like I used to. It was a tough day for me….
After a few days in Banlung, we both agreed that the vibe was weird and it was time to move on. We got a ticket for the BIG bus and headed back down 11 hours to Phnom Penh. I wanted to visit the Tuol Sleng Museum and we didn´t have time the first week we were there. Tuol Sleng was a high school that turned into a prison camp during the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. It was such an eerie site to see. Clearly it had been a high school, but the rooms had been turned into cells for the prisoners. There were still blood stains on the walls and endless photos of the innocent victims. I spent about 3 hours walking and reading about the war. In 1979, a group of socialists from Sweden were invited to Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge to come see how the communist society was a success and the people were happy. They were the first foreigners allowed to visit the country after the height of the war had settled. One of the Swedish guys took tons of photos and questioned some of the situations but was overall pleased with how the government was working. He was hopeful to find a society in which communism was truly successful. The Khmer Rouge used the information from the Swedish group as propaganda to the outside world on how great everything was. As it turns out, they staged most of the sites where they took the Swedish group and forced villagers to smile and be excited when the foreigners were around. The schools were being taught by fake teachers and they quickly scribbled formulas on the blackboards, when in fact none of the children were in school but working as slaves at young ages instead. The group returned to Sweden and shortly after the truth came out about the corrupt regime, the photographer felt awful. His pictures and stories helped the propaganda and supported this appalling genocide. He dedicated a photographic presentation in the museum to support the fact that genocide had taken place. Almost 30 years later, the photographer is no longer socialist and has a hard time believing that any political system can be successful because there will always be corruption. It was so interesting to me because the Khmer Rouge fooled so many people. They even convinced neighbors and families to fight against each other… one knew what was right and what was wrong before it was too late. I have spoken to a few Cambodians about the situation. Many of their parents fought in support of the Khmer Rouge, but they did not know the entirety of it all. It has been hard to bring the country back together because of the collective society that the Khmer Rouge sought out for and turned people against one another to help keep authority. There is not one Cambodia in the country today that was not affected firsthand by the Khmer Rouge.
After a brief stop in Phnom Penh, we headed up to Siem Reap to do a 3 day excursion of the Angkor Temples. The temples are the iconic image of Cambodia. We rented a tuk-tuk for 3 days. Our driver, Dong, was really funny and we joked back and forth with him the entire time. We visited the famous Angkor Wat temple for sunrise, which is the largest religious temple in the world, according to Lonely Planet. We snuck into the temple while everyone else was still watching the sunrise and had the place nearly to ourselves for about 15 minutes. We visited a dozen temples, some dating back before the 9th century all the way to the 12th. The history and sheer size of them were humbling. I could not even imagine what they must have looked like painted in gold and bright colors with 1000s of monks walking around centuries ago. I took a lot of pictures that you can view in Picasa.
After 3 days in the sun and profusely sweating, Laura and I were not feeling too well. Our appetite had already been low since we had arrived in Cambodia and pounds were melting off of us. It was hard to drink as much water as we were sweating out. On the last day of the temple excursion I became very lightheaded and fatigued. Nausea overwhelmed me but I never could vomit. I was having a hard time eating food. We decided to rest the next day and lay in bed drinking fluids. I still did not feel well, but I figured that I would be fine. If we had heat exhaustion then surely it would pass since we were not outside. We decided to head south to a town called Battambang to see the countryside and make our way to the floating villages. On the bus ride down there I felt fine…Still exhausted and fatigued with a bit of nausea, but nothing else seemed to be happening. The following day we woke up and had eggs and bread. Then we hired two guys to take us on a half day excursion through the countryside to see how the villagers made rice paper, rice noodles, and bamboo snacks. After our first stop I started to feel dizzy and nauseas again, but it wasn´t anything different then how I had already been feeling. I drank some water and convinced myself that I was ok. It started to rain so we pulled under a thatched roof. There was a girl selling these grilled bananas and our guide bought some for us to try. The banana was covered in some weird seasoning and onions and did not settle well in my stomach. We continued on to the rice noodle house. It was really neat to see how the villagers made these things to take to market, which we would eventually eat in the restaurants. The rice noodles, however, had this weird scent….almost like cat shit. Between the aroma and the funky grilled banana, there wasn´t much mental blocking I could do for my unsettled stomach. While the villager was showing us how they formed the noodle shape, I took off running towards the road and tucked behind the fence. About 2 seconds later I vomited up all of my breakfast and the banana. It was actually a weird relief to vomit because I had been nauseas for 3 days already. My guide came over to see if I was ok and started hitting my back. It took all the energy inside me to politely ask him to stop touching me. I threw up a few more times and gathered my composure. I figured I was going to be ok and proceeded on with the tour. Our next stop was the fish market. If I thought that the rice noodles smelled bad then I had another thing coming. I wasn´t even to the fish market yet, when the smell overwhelmed me and the nausea came back. I ran to the side of the road and vomited a few more times while all of the villagers stared at me. My guide bought some tiger balm and ran over to me and started to hit my back again while I was in vomiting convulsion mode. This time I grabbed his leg and pushed him away from me. When I was finished I got up to explain to him that I did not like being touched when I was doing that when all of a sudden his finger filled with tiger balm came at my face and he rubbed a bunch of it under my nose. He then sat me down and started rubbing my temples with the tiger balm. I felt like I was in the twilight zone. All of these villagers staring at me and this dude was rubbing tiger balm all over my face. I didn´t have any energy to do or say anything and just stared melancholy into space. Laura came back from the fish market. I didn´t want to ruin her tour so I decided to continue on. Our next stop was the bamboo place which I did not see anything at either because as soon as I got off the bike I ran behind the house to vomit again. When I heard the tour guide walk up I mumbled for him to not touch me…that I just needed to be alone for a few minutes. After my episode there, Laura came up to me and told me that we were going home. I needed to get into bed. I managed to make it back to the hotel where I laid in the bathroom. We have no Air Con so I was sweating insanely and hugging the toilet and dry heaving into the pot about every 15 minutes for the next 2 hours. If there were a button that I could push to sky rocket me back to Austin at that moment, I would have pushed it. Since I have been traveling, this is the worst that I have been sick. In fact, I can´t remember feeling that miserable in years. Shortly after I arrived back to the hotel, the diarrhea set in and I had to do the classic “sit on the pot holding the trashcan” maneuver. After 2 hours my body switched to purely diarrhea mode and the vomiting subdued. It is the first time that I was excited to have diarrhea…diarrhea is way more comfortable then vomiting in my opinion. I am not sure if it was food poisoning or some type of parasite. As I am writing this blog it is only the next day and I am still locked in my room recovering. I made it to the clinic today to see if I should get tested for Malaria, but when I walked in it seemed like a cluster of madness and when a doctor finally came up to me I didn´t even know what to say to them. I just said that I was kind of not feeling well and that if it got worse I may come back. I bought some cipro and rehydration salt packets and have just been drinking that. Every time I drink some salt water, about 5 minutes later I go to piss it out my ass again. Sorry for the description, but nothing is staying in my body. I seem to have an appetite and have hunger pains, but the last thing I want to eat is Asian food. I can´t think about stomaching a fried noodle or piece of rice right now. I need some comfort food and I need my mom or dad to tuck me into bed and bring me tea and soup. Ahhhh I know I am being a whiner, but being sick abroad is no fun!
So yeah, I am not sure why, but Cambodia has put me through some obstacles… has been very character building and if it keeps up at this rate, then my character is going to be VERY big by the end of this trip.
With all of that said, I feel that I may have given Cambodia a negative light in this blog. I have had many great experiences here and learned about historical events that I was unaware of. I think that some of the challenges that happened to me were isolated events that could have happened anywhere. I admit that I am tired and homesick, but I am working hard on getting over this hump. I have some amazing months and countries ahead of me. As long as I get this diarrhea under control, then I shall travel on my friends.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A whirlwind of a birthday!

Laura and I parted ways with Paolo and headed to a town called Ubud. It is a pretty cool artsy-fartsy town. Although, I think that is was a heck of a lot cooler about 10-15 years ago, but now it seems a bit over run with tourists and philosophical ex-pats. There was a really nice yoga studio in town with daily classes, so we decided to chill-out here for a few days.
Besides doing yoga, we would walk through the small villages on the outskirts of town and try local cuisine at side vendors. One night we attended a Balinese fire dance. There were over 50 people participating in the dance. There are no musical instruments...all sounds are made by mouth and strategic hand clapping. I am going to try to upload a video of it was pretty incredible. We also spent time planning the next few months of travel. We decided our route would be to head up to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos to visit those countries before the height of the rainy season. We purchased plane tickets to Cambodia, which had a stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The date that we planned to fly out was my birthday (June 3rd) we decided to stay one night in Kuala Lumpur to party it up before our next flight to Cambodia. It was going to be a 24 hour layover...and a whirlwind of a birthday.
Malaysia is a Muslim country and when we landed in Kuala Lumpur, it was my first experience of seeing the Muslim culture full on. Most of the woman wore these elegant scarfs around their heads and were very modestly dressed. We passed elaborate mosques and you could see people in their knees praying inside. The city is a huge metropolis and one of the most international cities in SE Asia, so there is a major mix of other religions and cultures there as well. It was crazy coming from the small island of Bali and arriving to one of the most modern cities in the world. The Petronas Towers are probably the most iconic image and famous building in the city. Up until 2004 it was the tallest building in the world and is still the tallest towers in the world. We arrived in the evening and after we checked into the hotel, walked to the towers to see it at night. Since it was just me and Laura, I didnt think the night would be that huge....I figured we would grab a few drinks and then get some sleep. We were going to try to visit the observation deck of the towers in the morning before our flight out. Well, I couldn´t have been more incorrect about the was a lot crazier then I had expected.
After the towers, we walked the strip to try and find a decent bar. I recognized a group of people from the airport that we had met in Bali. I ran up to them to say hello...I didnt even know these people, but it seemed weird that we ran into them again, so I took it as a sign that we must have a drink together. It was a group of 4 Finish people: Jaakko, Titta, Kenneth, and Tommy. They were a fun group and I told them to join us for the bday festivities. At the bar, Titta was telling us about this amazing massage that she got in Thailand. She explained how the lady massaged her whole body in oil and then at the end, massaged her breasts and slapped them back and forth. She thought it was odd, but surprisingly enough, enjoyed the experience. I just about coughed up my cocktail as she told the story...I mean, the girls name is TITTA for crying out loud. Titta...who got her titties slapped in Thailand. Laura and I thought it was the funniest story....and laughed throughout the night saying to each other "Titta got her titties slapped" over and over. It was about 1am and Tommy wasnt feeling very well. Him and Titta went home and Kenneth and Jaakko continued on with us through the night. We were on a mission to find a pub to hangout in since none of us really liked the night club scene. We asked taxi after taxi where we could find one and the always dropped us off at a different nightclub. We finally settled at a place where there werent any other tourists around. It was the street that the locals came to party at. As we were hanging outside, a fight started outside of the club. It was a street fight between a group of Malaysians. It was so different then the street fights in the US. There was no punching or beer bottle was straight Martial art style fighting. This guy lifted his hands up and then his knee and after a split second drop kicked the other guy. The fight broke up and the mod of people scattered. I was kind of freaking out because I had only scene stuff like that in Kung Fu movies. After a few minutes, one of the fighters got on his motorbike and then out of nowhere a car came down the street and hit him....he went flying off the bike and landed in the middle of the street. Another huge street fight broke out. We were safely to the side and minding out own business....but it was a pretty crazy scene. The bar closed at 3am so we got in a taxi to go home. The driver told us there was one more bar opened until 5am if we wanted to go there....our senses were partially impaired and it seemed like a great idea at the time, so off we went to another bar. The scene at this place was very young. When I went to the bathroom I was surrounded by 18-21 year old Asian girls (I am an old and wise 27 year old now) was like I took a bathroom from 6th street and dumped it in the middle of Kuala Lumpur. The girls were drunk....some crying over boys, some re-applying make-up, a few throwing up while their friends held their hair, and then the other girls impatiently waiting in line for a stall. I had to laugh at the situation because here I was... this big tall white girl hovering over this chaotic bathroom scene. All I could think about was how it was the asian replica of the bathroom in Paradox on 6th street.
Finally. this bar closed and we headed out to hail a cab when all of a sudden I had this brilliant idea that we should just stay up until 8am and go straight to the Petronas Towers. I knew if we passed out now that we would not wake up in time for the towers. We found a restaurant to get some malaysian food and sober up. When we were eating, this man named Moses came and sat at our table. He was a very peculiar man....for about 30 minutes he explained to us how he was a Pakistani living in the US with his familz. After 9-11 he was removed from America and has been floating around to different countries trying to start a new life. When we were finished eating he asked if he could eat our leftovers still on our plates. I couldnt tell if his life story was true or not or if he was simply trying to get some food to eat....regardless, he was an interesting character.
It was finally 7:30am and Laura and I walked to the Petronas Towers....we had been told that the doors opened at 8am to get the tickets. When we arrived, it turned out that you couldnt get tickets until 8:30 and go to the viewing deck at 9am. I couldnt believe it.....we had made it this far and we still had another hour to wait. I took a few more pictures of the towers and then the exhaustion of travel, alcohol, and lack of sleep snuck up on me. I told Laura that I couldnt make it to the was so close, yet so far away. It was 8:15am and I was going home to go to sleep. We slept until 11am and then got up and headed back to the to Cambodia!
We landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia that afternoon. It was such a vast change from Kuala more high tech skyscrapers or innovative mass transport. This was a much poorer, underdeveloped city. We took a Tuk Tuk (motorized bike with a carriage attached) into town and found a place to sleep.
Cambodia has a very brutal past and the country is still recovering from much of it. It was only in the mid 1970s where the genocide and the killing fields took place by the Khmer Rouge. Thousands were brutaly murdered. We went to the killing fields to see the memorial and mass grave sites. There are thousands of human skulls inside the was a very eery and disturbing site.
Throughout the city, I saw tons of non profit efforts to help the community. There were stores selling crafts and the proceeds would go to woman and children in an effort to teach them english and skills to find work. There were several restaurants in town giving 100% profits back to the community as well. I am not sure who is running these organizations, but (if they are actually giving money back to the community) then I am pleased to see them and have boughten a few items from the stores. It doesnt appear that the money from the government is trickling down to the is what they call a Kleptocracy...very corrupt.
Cambodia is a Buddhist country and as you walk through the streets you see tons of monks wearing orange robes. I am excited to learn more about the religion and culture as we travel through out to the countryside for the next month.
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind. In just 2 days we traveled through 3 countries....3 religions ((Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhism), and what seemed like 3 different worlds! From the jungles of Bali, to the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur, to the underdeveloped city of Phnom Penh.....
Phew! I think I am going to take a nap now....