Archive | November, 2011

The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

29 Nov

"Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake." Pol Pot

A few days ago, we visited the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The site was one of many throughout the country where millions of people were brutally executed by the Khmer Rouge during the years 1976-1979 when Pol Pot was in power.

The Khmer Rouge had a vision of everyone living in the countryside, working on the land, farming and doing other physically demanding jobs. Those opposed to this were killed, including teachers, doctors, children, and even members of Pol Pots own family.

When we arrived at the Killing Fields, I was surprised by how calm and peaceful the place was; birds were singing; there was a gentle breeze in the air and leaves rustled in the trees dotted about on the dappled sunlit lawns. Until I turned my audio guide on, it would have been difficult at first glance to imagine the horror that took place just over 3 decades ago.

As I walked slowly around the grounds, listening intently to information, case studies and music, my attention was directed to physical reminders of the Khmer Rouge’s sickening regime, including bones, teeth and clothes worn by those who were killed. Even today, remnants from the past still find their way unsettlingly to the surface of the pits where thousands of bodies were once thrown into.

30 minutes into the tour, I stood next to a tree which was used as a base to smash babies and children’s heads, and the razor sharp edges of thick palm leaves were used to cut throats. Quite often whole families would be wiped out as the Khmer Rouge grew increasingly paranoid. Towards the end of the tour I listened to the music that was used to hide the screams of those being killed. It brought tears to my eyes as I tried to imagine the fear people must have felt.

Afterwards, whilst looking around the on-site Museum I discovered that Pol Pot was once a geography teacher and many other members of the Khmer Rouge were also once teachers or lecturers. I wondered when the opinions of these individuals started to change and I left wanting to know exactly what influenced the Khmer Rouge to form their extreme vision for Cambodia, why they believed it to be the way forward and how such a minority managed to inflict such suffering on their own people.

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The Vietnamese Coast and The Sand Dunes of Mui Ne

20 Nov

Mue Ni and the Sand Dunes

17 Nov

Arriving in monsoon rain at Mue Ni beach, we walked the 3km in the rain and with the absence of a real umbrella or any kind of water-proof we fell into our room thoroughly soaked.

The next day was a different story, though it was not completely clear, it was warm and more importantly, not raining by the barrel full. We booked a Jeep tour of the nearby sand dunes for $8. This would be our first tour experience since we started backpacking. Our tour began at 2pm so we had a few hours to spend bobbing up and down in the waves (which was quite fun and we also bumped into the other people that would be joining the tour)

Hopping in an old white Chinese 4×4 we raced off towards the dunes with the 4 other people +driver, stopping along the way at a local fishing port (which stunk, but strangely not as much as the roads leading out of the village, mainly due to the two lanes of drying fish on either side of the road).

After longer than we thought and further in land than I would have guessed, we arrived at the white sand dunes. Sadly the 4×4 seemed purely for show and couldn’t be taken on the dunes (which made the ‘guide’ with his added lack of English, more of a driver than anything else).
We hired two sheets of plastic for 30,000 Dong each (£1, sneaky) and made our way up one of the steeper looking dunes. The incredible thing about the place was its surroundings. In one direction you looked and saw miles of desert dunes, look to your left and you would see a large lake with green plants growing on top, to the right fir type trees on sandy and grassy hills.

We decided to use our bit of plastics to sand sledge down the hill, after a few failed attempts we got quite some speed up. The only problem was steering and breaking. Steering was impossible, and breaking involved falling off sideways and rolling a bit. Clare decided to try it from one of the highest points and got up some amazing speed (video to come). I decided to try it with an air of cockiness (“That looks like fun, I’m SURE I could do that” I thought). I went about 40 meters, hit top speed, one foot went to the ground the other in-between the rope attached to the plastic sledge and then I was in the dune. Hair lolling around in the sand, grit in my teeth and in my shorts.

After spending around 1 hour 1/2 of our allocated 40 minutes we returned late to the 4×4 (people waiting unhappily for us, sorry!). The rest of the tour consisted of a dune of red sand that was covered in locals/tourists/litter and the incredible “fairy spring” (hums a tune from Zelda).

The fairy spring is a small river running to the sea, but its only about 2 inches deep but around 7ft wide, which makes you feel as if you are walking on water up stream. Its also surrounded by cliffs of red sand and calcium deposits, giving it a very ‘other world’ feel. We were also follow by a couple of children (one in his late teens) which tried to act as our guide (much to our annoyance “NO we WANT to go in the deeper water, I’m wearing swimming shorts!”) and then tried to ask us for money once we had started our way back (the younger of the two’s face turned from smiles to ‘poor me’)

Phong Nha Farmstay, Vietnam

13 Nov

Lunch with a Vietnamese Family

11 Nov

During the few days we spent in Hue, Vietnam, we met a local Vietnamese man called Binh and his young son on the Trang Tien Bridge. After going for drinks with him at one of the riverside cafes, we were invited to his home just outside of Hue, for lunch the following day with his wife and 2 sons.

Naturally, we hesitated to accept the offer as Vietnam has made a bit of a name for itself in the scamming department over the years. However, my gut instinct said we should go; he appeared honest, kind and had smiling eyes. We were foreigners in his home town and it seemed that he simply wanted to welcome us.

The next day we told the receptionist in our hotel our plans and coincidentally, she recognized Binh when he arrived with his wife, Huong to pick us up on their mopeds which put me at ease.

After about 15 minutes of driving, we arrived at the small village where Binh and Huong’s home was. The house next door was in the process of being built and Binh explained that it’s common in Vietnam for people to build their own houses.

Once inside, we gave the couple some fresh flowers we’d bought for them and asked Houng if she needed any help preparing the food. She happily delegated tasks to us all and we sat in a circle in the middle of the kitchen floor spooning homemade shrimp paste onto thin sheets of rice paper, which were then rolled up and cooked.

The food looked and smelt incredible once it was finished. Houng had prepared a delicious feast of fresh fish, fried prawns, white noodles and shrimp rolls with chill, all arranged in different bowls on the large table in the living room. We could then spoon various ingredients onto rice paper making small food parcels which could be eaten with our hands.

After dinner we drank beer and Binh told us that Houng was a make-up artist. He said, “She shapes eyebrows and does colour for lips.” He was referring to the permanent make-up tattoos people sometimes have done to make it look like they’re always wearing make-up.

Several minutes later, Houng reappeared with her eyebrow tool kit and began plucking, trimming and even shaving away at my eyebrows- apparently they were uneven. Luckily, in the end she did a pretty good job and didn’t even want money for it.

The afternoon continued to pleasantly unfold; we had more beer, chatted in English to the older son and played cards. Then, just as we were about to leave, we heard a man shouting in Vietnamese outside the house.

I had no idea what he was saying, but as the voice became louder, the younger son burst into tears, and the cries of the boy soon became as loud as the drunken, outraged rambling of the man. Binh and Huong seemed unfazed by the situation as if it had happened many times before.

When we wandered outside, we saw the man pacing around the unfinished building site of a house next door, bare foot, wearing only shorts. He was still yelling aggressively at us in Vietnamese.

On the journey back to Hue, Binh explained that the man had thought we were American and had been yelling, “You friends with the American people. They make many people die.” When Binh had told him we weren’t American, he’d got even angrier, yelling that he hated all foreigners. Binh then shook his head, smiled and said, “The war was 30 years ago, but every country has its crazy people, not just Vietnam. ”

Once back in Hue, Binh told us to forget about the man, which will be hard now as I’ve written about him in this post, but I hope that one day he’ll find peace, finish building his house if that was his house, and give his neighbours a rest from all the yelling.

As we said goodbye to Binh and Huong, we thanked them for a lovely afternoon and I left feeling happy to have met them and pleased that the cynics in us hadn’t said no from the start. And keeping my promise to Huong, I will no longer neglect my eyebrows anymore whilst travelling.

 

What kind of Traveller/ Backpacker are you?

2 Nov

Over the years, species of the travelling world have evolved into an eclectic mix, from the Bigger Budget Flashpackers to the Older Nomadic Travellers and Multi-Faceted Explorers.

Here’s my attempt at identifying some of them. Please feel free to agree, disagree, or inform me of any other species you may have spotted.

Bigger Budget Backpackers (Also known as Flashpackers)

Except this species don’t travel with backpacks, they have suitcases and handbags. Some people say Flashpackers are well groomed and armed with luxury items, and some say they simply have a lot of gadgets. But I like to think of the Flashpacker as a 21st Century Backpacker but with more money.

They basically travel the same routes but stay in hotels instead of hostels and stick mainly to towns, cities and places well connected to the internet. Venturing off the beaten track just wouldn’t be practical- their suitcase wheels would probably get stuck, but they’re probably willing to try.

Baby Boomer Trippers

Those belonging to this species went travelling in the 60’s/70’s, took too much acid and never returned home. They’re often spotted washed up on the beaches of tourist destinations which were “far more beautiful  40 years ago.”

The eyes of the Baby Boomer Tripper are a little mad and the years of heavy smoking and drinking have etched out unforgiving lines on their weathered faces.

Older Nomadic Travellers

People belonging to this species are always a joy to be around; they’re funny, charming, interesting and have been travelling for some time, perhaps staying in destinations for a year or 2 or more, before moving on.

Older Nomadic Travellers are story books full of inspiring and amusing tales, and they’re skilled in the art of conversation, without being self absorbed. They’re compassionate, optimistic, and have nothing to prove. Years of experience have given Older Nomadic Travellers an intelligent wisdom Travel Snobs wished they had.

Travel Snobs

Travel Snobs are the most likely out of all the species to think they cannot be categorized. They also think they’re better than you; it may not always be obvious on the outside, but those talking to them certainly sense it.

People of this species are usually in their early 20’s and feel that they’ve had more experience than the average 21st Century Backpacker. They tend to avoid other travellers and popular tourist destinations, preferring instead to befriend the locals and really get to the heart of the culture. If only they weren’t such a snob about it.

 Soul Searchers

These individuals in transition are on spiritual journeys to find themselves and in the process have developed a love for the natural world, accumulated a large collection of handmade jewellery, baggy clothes, and some may even have committed to a few dreadlocks with beads.

Soul Searchers are on the escape from capitalism and on the lookout for greater meaning through meditation, yoga and/ or crystals. They tend to avoid big cities, preferring instead to explore ashrams, temples and places with good energy.

Not to be confused with the Real Hippies.  

Real Hippies won’t be spotted on traditional backpacker circuits- not because they’re Travel Snobs, but because they’re far too busy doing stuff. They’re found all over the world, campaigning for ethical logging in Indonesia, protesting short distance flights in Europe, or on board boats, attempting to save the oceans. Real Hippies are a passionate and determined species with a purpose to travel greater than themselves.

Gap Year Students

Those of the Gap Year species are either 18 and seeking real worldly experience or 21 and trying to put off living in the real world. They will commonly partake in overly priced voluntourism projects advertised on websites such as gapyear.com. (www.vap.org.uk is a not-for-profit organisation which may be more useful)

Gap Year Students are essentially out to have fun and drinking and partying is a part of that. However, unlike the Boozers, they are also interested in exploring the culture of a country and learning about the history.

Boozers

Boozers travel and hunt in packs, and if you do spot one alone, they’re probably nursing a severe hangover from drinking too many semi lethal concoctions the night before. This species simply want to have a laugh and a big part of that involves drinking, partying and having sex a lot.

Despite lacking an interest in the culture of a country and anything that doesn’t involve drinking, the Boozers will visit local must see attractions, such as watching monkeys roller-skating around in a ring. They’ll admit that it’s cruel, but they’ll video it anyway and say, “it’s fucking funny.”

21st Century Backpackers

Probably the most common of all the traveller species, they’re friendly, open minded, in their 20’s and can be found all over the world. They tend to travel the same routes as other 21st Century Backpackers, so it’s common for them to keep bumping into the same people.

21st Century Backpackers will religiously use their guide books (written by Older Nomadic Travellers) and use the internet fairly frequently to update their blogs, mainly read by their parents. Despite having an amazing time, they will every so often wonder where or how to get onto the unbeaten track found and used consistently by Hardcore Travellers.

Hardcore Travellers

Hardcore Travellers do no travel the beaten path- not because they’ve gone out of their way to like Travel Snobs, but because they just happen to attract interesting people and end up in unusual circumstances.

They’re likely to be travelling solo around the world on bicycles, hand built rafts/ canoes, or hitching lifts from strangers. This species is up for trying and doing almost anything and they are of course fearless, but not blindly so. Hardcore Travellers are just skilled in the art of knowing when to say yes or no.

The Tourists

The Tourists prefer to tour, not explore and will probably only spend a few days in each destination or however long their package tour leaders have decided necessary.

They can be spotted all over the world taking photos of one another in front of famous landmarks, must see sights and other attractions their guide or guide book has told them to do or see.

Older Middle Class Couple Travellers

This species is of the same generation as the Baby Boomer Trippers, only the Older Middle Class Couple Travellers have been playing happy families over the last few decades instead. The kids have grown up and/ or left home and they’re ready for a bit of adventure or some big lifestyle change.

They’re not really rich but they have enough money to afford to go swimming with dolphins/sharks/sea life and do interesting stuff and they’ll probably go away for about a month. However, they may love it so much, they’ll consider retiring out to one of their travelled to destinations, where they’ll become involved with developmental work in the community and/or teaching English.

Multi-Faceted Explorers

Multi-Faceted Explorers have a good sense of humour, they’re slightly weird, intelligent and they don’t normally begin conversations with new people in the standard way.

Rather than politely asking you how long you’ve been travelling, where you’ve been to already or what you do, they’re more likely to strike up conversations about insects, God (whether religious or not) or declare that they have a phobia for something unheard of like the small sticker labels found on fruit. They may not always be understood, but they are one of the more friendly species dominating the travel world.