Sunday, December 20, 2009

Balancing Act in Cambodia

I was only in Cambodia for 4 day. It wasn't long enough to do much more than see the temples of Angkor Wat. What follows are some funny encounters with tuk-tuk drivers. The temples themselves were incredible. I enjoyed cycling around and imagining the grandeur of the ancient Khmer civilization. At the same time, I wanted to be cognizant of and learn more about the genocide in Cambodia. It is worth checking out the following link: to read what happened in the times of Pol Pot and Year Zero. 30% of Cambodia's population died - an estimated 2 million Cambodians died by starvation, torture or execution...a silent horror most of the world doesn't know about.

(moment of silence).

Jumping to funny conversations with tuk-tuk drivers and touts trying to sell things...I've been trying to find a way not to be frustated by always being asked to buy things. I've realized that diffusing unwanted bantering with both a "no" and a smile/laugh makes it better.

Do you need a postcard?
No, I don't need ANY postcard.
Oh. Ha.

Hello lady (while I'm on a bike) you need tuk-tuk?
No, why would I need a tuk-tuk? I have a bicycle.
Oh, it's OK lady. You put bicycle here (on the side of the street) and you take tuk-tuk.
No, no, no. But I don't NEED a tuk-tuk. I like the bicycle.
OH! Okay lady.

(at 5:30am at the Angkor Wat temple, waiting for the sunrise)
Encounter #1
Buy coffee here free chair.
(After I move chairs for a better view) Why you be like that? You sat in my chair first! You sat in my chair first!
Encounter #2
Ms? Ms? No coffee? No chair.
Let me think.
No, no think. You pay now.
I'm thinking.
No Ms. No coffee, no chair. Get out now.
Okay, okay. I'll sit on the ground.
You sit on ground. (pulling the red plastic chair out from under me...ha!)

8 Days on a Bicycle in Laos

[Setting: At a small guest house in Phonsavan, Laos. Evening. A guy on a bike just rode up, and jumps off of it likes he's spent some time on one before. Sweating, after a long day for riding around, he takes a drink of water, and wipes the perspiration from his brow. His name is Fabien. He is from France.]

ME: [thinking I may have found a "victim" to cycle to Cambodia with...] Hey! Where you going tomorrow?
FABIEN: South.
ME: Me too.
FABIEN: Where you going?
ME: Well, I'm going to Vientiane tonight on the night bus. But, I'm hoping to buy a bike and cycle to Cambodia from there. [throwing the idea out there...]
FABIEN: Really?? How long do you think it'll take?
ME: I'm not sure. Maybe a week?
FABIEN: Huh...

[one hour later, when I walk past him eating dinner and drinking
a beer in a small cafe)

FABIEN: You know about the bike?
ME: Yah? [thinking - yes! -maybe he wants to go...he seems like the type...adventures are more fun with a friend...]
FABIEN: I think I'd like to go. Yah yah yah.
ME: Sweet! Really? Ha! Well, here's my email address. Email me and we'll find bikes in Vientiane tomorrow...

That's how cycling over 700km through rural Laos started.

I'd had the idea for a few days before I met Fabien that I'd like to cycle through Southern Laos. After spending the previous 2 1/2 months trekking through mountains, I was getting tired of only riding buses in Thailand. It was time to move again...physically move...and cycling seemed like fun. So, why not? Meeting Fabien was an uncanny crossing of people in time and place; he turned out to be a great bike buddy.

In Vientiane, we found, bought, and outfitted cycles in one day. Running around the capital, trying to find a bike shop, then fixing brakes, bike seats, and finding some bike was beautiful chaos. The next morning, we set out.

We met lots of fun(ny) people and saw interesting places along the way. Memorable moments...

-sleeping in a monastery, and parking the bikes in front of Buddha. Oops. A monk came over and told us to move them. Lesson #1: No bikes in front of Buddha.
-Fabien accidentally ordering things he didn't really the time he thought he was getting a hard boiled egg...and the "egg" came but with a partially developed baby bird inside, hair included.
-taking shoes off to enter a guesthouse, but after kicking off the shoes, rolling the bicycles into the room
-riding into Pakse and the bank sign showing 40 degrees centigrade...over 100 degrees F
-on being saddle sore, to quote Fabien: "you know, everything is great. really just great. except, i don't know what to do about this pain in my ass."
-trying to take a short cut after seeing the temples of Champasak, and instead ending up on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere. bone-jarring riding, constant dust in the face from passing vehicles, scorching sun. worrying if we could find a way back across the Mekong...we were in luck. managed to score a boat taxi to the others side, and then after 3km of riding single-track over roots and potholes (remember we are on fully-loaded road bikes), popping out onto Route 13 going, Where in the world are we? The good news: We were 8km farther south than we thought we'd be, but 8km in the correct direction.
-the feeling of relief and accomplishment on reaching the 4,000 Islands of the Mekong at sunset, just kilometers from the Cambodian border, after a hard week of riding.

Once we got to the 4,000 Islands we managed to sell the bikes to couple that owned a guesthouse on Don Khon. However, it was only once we reach the islands that Fabien realized: a) he was out of money and b) the closest ATM was 3 hrs. in the opposite direction. We decided that the only thing to do - other than putting Fabien on a bus immediately to Pakse - was to sell the bikes right then. Our clients ended up being an older French speaking Laos couple. First they only wanted my bike, but then decided they wanted Fabien's, too. That they spoke French, and that Fabien was from France...well, it was very convenient for the business transaction. :) We bought the bikes for $80, sold them for $50. They got a good price, and I definitely felt I had my $30 of fun out of the deal.

And that is how cycling 700km through rural Laos ended. Lots of fun, fried rice, fried eggs, sticky rice, and Laos coffee. I'm glad it worked started with an idea...and ended on an island in the middle of the Mekong River, bikeless, tired, but all the better from the ride and all the laughter. The next day, Fabien headed to Bangkok to meet some friends, and I took a bus south to Cambodia and Angkor Wat.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Northern Laos - Floating Down the Mekong and Unexploded Ordenances (UXO's)

My time in Northern Laos was split between a 2-day boat ride on the Mekong from Northern Thailand/Laos to Luang Prabang, Laos along with a visit to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars. My photo album for this section is a photo journal with explanations of time spent on the Mekong, in Luang Prabang, and the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan. However, because I think awareness of global issues is very important, below is some information on UXO's in Laos. Read on. You will be astonished and horrified.

UXO Lao’s Fight against Unexploded Ordnance by Bounpheng Sisavath, UXO Lao March 2006

The Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO Lao) has established a regional office and field offices in nine heavily impacted provinces in Laos. In 2003, the government announced a national strategic plan to deal with the UXO problem, introducing major reforms in the sector and defining clear objectives for clearance operations. UXO Lao productivity has greatly increased since then and is on track to more than double its annual output by the end of 2008.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic has the distinction of being, per capita, the most heavily bombed nation in the world.1 As a result of the broader conflict in Indochina during the 1960s and 1970s, Laos was the scene of extensive ground battles and intense aerial bombardment.

From 1964 until 1973, over half a million bombing missions were carried out over the country, and as a result, over two million tonnes (2.2 million tons) of bombs were dropped.1 Based on its experience over the last 10 years, UXO Lao estimates that up to 30 percent of all ordnance dropped failed to detonate on impact, leaving a lethal legacy that continues to kill, maim and impoverish over 30 years later. This explosive ordnance included vast quantities of cluster bombs which released sub-munitions, or bomblets (also referred to as "bombies" by the Laotian people). Such unexploded bomblets become, in effect, anti-personnel munitions. Bombing records provided by the U.S. government indicate that over 80 million of these bomblets were dropped all over the country.2 There are also vast quantities of unexploded large bombs, rockets, grenades, artillery munitions, mortar shells, anti-personnel landmines and improvised explosive devices lying around.

Such large-scale contamination has resulted in over 13,000 casualties since 1975, and vast portions of agricultural land have been rendered unusable...

More more information on Laos and UXO's:

Northern Thailand by Foot, Bike, Bus, and Motorbike

Compilation of thoughts from emails sent in Northern Thailand to different people on November 30th after a 4-day motorbike (110cc of pure power) adventure, chasing the Burmese border, and preparing to head to Laos:

things are going really well...sadly i had to turn in my little blue motorbike yesterday, ah, but he was good company. there was even a bob marley sticker on the side of him. ha! not my doing... i had a good time in mae sai, and some great conversations with a burmese (of the shan people) man yesterday morning. learned a lot more about the political situation there; was moved by the plight of the different people groups in myanmar/burma and their hope for just rule. he also let me borrow a book "twilight over burma: my life as a shan princess" which was actually very well-written and a great intro to burmese history. after that, i rode to chiang sean, and was planning to spend the night there. but i passed through the golden triangle on my way from mae sai, and after sitting there for a while and watching the river, decided that i'd ride the long way back to chiang rai instead. i enjoyed riding the empty backroads of thailand immensely - great time for thinking and contemplating, too. thoughts about oppressed people everywhere (tibetans, burmese/shans, latinos, systemic discrimination, etc, etc), thoughts about my time in thailand, what to do in laos, wondering what my family is up to, hoping my former students are doing okay, all while passing through the golden fields of rural thailand.

stayed the night in chiang rai. wandered into a night bazaar with live music. wanted to paint a picture of what it was like. i was sitting at a yellow folding table on a yellow folding chair in the middle of a U-shape of vendors, listening to music, watching a performance. thai families eating, groups of teenagers mingling over with fruit shakes and fried noodles, pad thai, green curry, fried intestines on the menus. lady boys. foreign couples. old men with young thai women. nearly full moon, stars obscured by city light. florescent pink lights on the stage. an occasional cockroach scurrying by. laughter, conversations, people talking, walking, watching.