First, somewhat random, notes from Cambodia

We’ve been in Cambodia for a bit over a week now. The first few days were spent in Kratie, a small city about halfway between the four thousand islands in Laos and Phnom Penh.

Now we’ve made it to Cambodia’s capital, just as initial hearings against four top leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime are kicking off. We’ve been reading about it in the international press; as tourists in the city there’s no indication that anything special is going on. Later we’ll be visiting TuolSleng, the genocide museum where many of the crimes these people are accused of were committed.

I’ll write more specifically about Kratie and Phnom Penh later. For now though, here are some first impressions and random bits and pieces.

Back story

Having finished “Cambodia’s Curse” before leaving Laos, it’s been a bit tough not to arrive in the country with a few pre-conceived notions in my head. I’m not sure if I was noticing more differences because of the book. It repeatedly describes the desperate living conditions for many of Cambodia’s poor, the shoddy state of the country’s infrastructure (i.e. roads) and the self-interested power plays of the leading political parties (who seem to have offices everywhere, especially the CPP, even in the scruffiest scrap of a village.

Taking my own impressions with a grain of salt then, it was still interesting for me to observe things that corresponded with the book as our bus drove through the rugged-feeling province of Stung Trent towards Kratie.

Right off the bat there was evidence of poor government planning: the border crossing was one massive, muddy construction site. No provision had been made for through traffic during the rainy season. Our bus was spinning its wheels in thick mud in no time, and everyone had to climb out until a combined effort of digging and pushing got us going again. A fun welcome into our newest country! 🙂

Bus with a view

The villages and homes we saw in Laos were simple, but had a feeling of rural charm and simplicity. Compared to the scattered dwellings we passed in the Stung Treng province, they came across as neater and more cohesive. Gazing out the window as the bus bumped along, the houses seemed scrappier (mis-matched or poorly trimmed walls; more use of plastic as a building material, corrugated iron older and rustier), the towns dirtier, the land less cultivated by comparison. Naked or half clothed young children were not uncommon, something we hadn’t seen in Laos (in “Cambodia’s Curse”, the author notes this is because parents can’t afford diapers). There were definitely less satellite dishes than we’d seen in Laos; I wonder how many of the homes we passed are without electricity.

The bus ride between Kratie and Phnom Penh offered different sights. It seems much more of the land in the Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces is cultivated. The land is relatively flat, and we drove through areas filled with line after perfectly parallel line of rubber trees and acres of flat rice paddies accentuated with thin palms stretching out towards the distant horizon.

Passing through these apparently more productive, populated areas, the villages still struck me as somewhat rough around the edges, and also somehow lop-sided – larger, modern homes that we didn’t see often see in Laos were often flanked by patch-work houses of bamboo, wood, palm leaves and plastic.

This impression continued as we entered into Phnom Penh. The bus drove through rough neighborhoods with even shoddier looking housing, only to turn a corner onto a broad boulevard with proper sidewalks, orderly patches of green grass modern high rises and attractive hotels and restaurants.  The neighborhood we are staying is lovely – tons of good food, pretty buildings, and lots of thick walls topped with heavy coils barbed wire. So far, Cambodia gives the impression of being a country of especially strong contrasts.

Photos taken from the bus with my iPhone – quality is not the greatest

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Rice fields with palms

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Houses made of wood, thatch, iron

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Even nearing Phnom Penh, the state of the roads isn’t great

Easing in to opening

I’m still getting my head round the energy of the people here. Laos and the lovely people we met there melted my heart completely. My experiences with Cambodians so far are not as straight forward.

The scrum of hotel touts that met us as we climbed off the bus in Kratie or the ceaseless and ceaselessly “charming’ propositions from drivers in Phnom Penh that start the second we walk out of our hotel (Clapping to get our attention, “Hey!”, “Lady! Lady, tuk tuk!?!” “Tuk tuk, ok???”) has got me started with my defences slightly raised.

When I’ve let them down though, I’ve had some amazing, open interactions people. I’ll write more about them later, but in the mean time, it’s food for though.

Random: Currency

One of the first things I like to do when we get to a new country is check out the currency. It’s just something I like. 🙂 Laos’ money (the kip) had some great illustrations; women farming and my favorite water buffalo feature on some of the smaller notes. China (bills picked up during my stop over in Shanghai) highlights some of its beautiful scenery on the nation’s currency; in Thailand the baht, not surprisingly, seems to be all about its royalty, with various kings highlighted on different notes.

Arriving in Cambodia, I checked out the first riel I got my hands on. The country’s famous temples feature heavily, but each note has something different going on. Kids going to school on the 100 note seemed pretty standard fare, but something on the 500 riel note really caught my eye. Is it just me, or is it a Porsche driving over that bridge? A week in, we’ve seen plenty of school houses and temples; however we have yet to encounter a Porsche in Cambodia. 😉

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Women farming, cows and buffalo on the kip

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Chinese landscape on the yuan

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King Bhumibol Adulyadej, apparently also a photographer, on the 1000 baht note

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Cambodian school and school children

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Nice bridge; even nicer car!

On the road again: Vientiane to Savannakhet

After the lovely reunion with Roman and introduction to Laos in Vientiane, it was time for us to start exploring the country’s southern half. Roman had already spent time checking out many of Laos’ northern highlights while I was visiting my family in the States – keep an eye on his blog (in German, he’s still on Thailand but Lao updates will follow) to learn more about that part of the country.

Our first stop was the city of Savannakhet, whose Lonely Planet description includes adjectives such as “crumbling”, “languid”, “forlorn”. Roman’s good friend and travel aficionado, Pirmin, who has seen a great deal of Asia, mentioned something along the lines of “there’s so little going on that even the flies don’t move in Savannakeht.” 😉

We got there by way of a dusty, nine hour bus ride. Roman had already seen a lot of the Laotian country side, so I enjoyed taking in the view from the window seat, watching countless acres of farmlands and wilderness roll past. It was amazing how much space there was between villages, and how dark it got out there once the sun set!

We met a nice guy from Liverpool called Antony on the bus; he’d been depending on the bus driver to let him out at a stop about halfway between Vientiane and Savannakeht – this totally didn’t happen, but happily for us he ended up becoming a lovely impromptu travel/dining partner for a couple of days.

There we further unexpected surprises with the bus ride besides them failing to alert Antony of his stop. When we arrived at what seemed to be the Savannakeht stop, we and the rest of the passengers ended up getting loaded into a small truck – evidently some sort of transfer to the city proper. They kept squeezing in people and goods until the thing was full to bursting – Roman and a couple other folks had to stand on the back edge, hanging on to the truck’s frame. When it was packed to the driver’s satisfaction, we took off on a longer than expected drive through pitch black roads till we reached the city proper (we knew we were there thanks to the appearance of street lamps, complete with frangipani and dinosaur-shaped christmas light decorations. 🙂 ). At the bus station, we haggled most unsuccessfully with the only tuk tuk driver there (he really had an unfair advantage! ;-)), and got dropped off at the first hotel we could find in Lonely Planet.

Maybe arriving after dark was a factor, but Sayamungkhun, described as having “spacious, spotlessly clean rooms” with “an inviting atmosphere”, was quite possibly one of the most grim and depressing looking hotels I’ve seen in quite some time. We left to check out some other options, helped out by a very sweet, very enthusiastic man we met who cycled around ahead of us to see if the places he was recommending were open and had room for us.

We ended up settling in at Phonevilay Hotel (more on that later) and the next day started to get to know the city. Crumbling it certainly was, it was definitely sleepy compared to Vientiane and the mid-day sun was so brutally hot I can understand why the flies wouldn’t want to move. But the place was not without its charms and points of poignant beauty, and we managed to really enjoy our time there. More details to come in the next post, but here are some initial photo impressions of the place.

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Street-side shrine

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Fading paint

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Dumpling vendor on a smoke break

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Statue in front of a sacred tree

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Honda repair shop

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Cigarettes for sale

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“Sorry for inconvenience”

Sabaidee Laos, Bonjour Vientiane

Time line2

Jumping through time again, but I want to capture some impressions of Vientiane while it’s still fresh in my head. 🙂

Sabaidee Laos

So what I’ve learned so far is that you can get by pretty much fine on English in all the countries we’ve visited so far, but there are two words in the native language which, while not essential, will definitely enhance your experience: “Hello” is just friendly and generally useful and great for greeting kids you encounter. You will receive help and kindness from people you meet, and, especially when they don’t speak English, it’s wonderful to be able tell them “Thank you” in their own language.

To my ears, the Lao for these two words, while bearing a connection to the Thai “sa wa de ka” and “kap coon ka” (female form), sound sweeter, warmer and more familiar. The same for both gender, the Lao greeting is “sabaidee” (pronounced like it’s spelled) and thank you is “khawp jai” (pronounced kind of like “cup chai” – easy for me to remember 🙂 ).

Bonjour Vientiane

My instant like to the language has been reflected in my reaction to the country so far. I’ve really been enjoying Vientiane and feel very comfortable in Lao’s little capitol city. It’s a total world apart from it’s neighbor Thailand’s bustling, urban capitol. For starters, Bangkok has a population about 12 times that of Vientiane. Other differences were also immediately recognizable.

Roman arrived in Vientiane earlier than I did, and had found a hotel, sussed out our neighborhood, and come to meet me at the airport that evening. We emerged from the simple airport into the deep, steamy dark of the Lao night, and the first thing I noticed was the smell of smoke – the same peat-like smell of the coal used so often in India, something I hadn’t smelled at all in Thailand.

The tuk tuk that was waiting for us at the outskirts of the parking lot (cleverly arranged by Roman – only taxis can come right up to the arrivals hall and they have to pay a heavy fee, which is passed on to their passengers) was yet another variation on the three-wheeled transportation theme that runs through Asia. A fancier, more colorful and comfortable take on the Burmese motorbike with two benches in back, but they all look worn out and rustic compared to the shiny, colorfully lit tuk tuks that zoom around Bangkok.

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Lao tuk tuks

The roads we drove through to get to our hotel were mostly two-laned and flanked by low buildings. Most of the buildings in Vientiane are only one or two storeys; it’s rare to see anything above five. Once you get away from the city center and important cultural or government sites, the roads start to get bumpier and cracked and sometimes fade into dirt and gravel paths. Side walks are not consistent and it’s important to watch out for cracks above the drainage system. The city’s architecture and monuments are a bit of a mix up between traditional, colonial, communist, modern and simply functional.

This all might make it sound a bit decrepid. while it does feel a bit worn, I would say it is more simple than shabby, and the city has a down-to-earth, relaxed feeling to it. And there are lots of areas that are really beautiful.

French connection

Laos used to be a French colony, and there is still plenty of evidence of the occupation to be seen in Vientiane (even in the spelling of its name). Street signs are written in Lao and Roman script, with the Roman versions of the names often beginning with the French „Rue“. Many building signs are also in French. Some of the larger roads in the city are broad and tree-lined, reminiscent of Parisian boulevards; one even is punctuated by Laos’ answer to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, the Patuxai Victory Gate.

Walking around we’ve heard as much French being spoken by Westerners as English – something we’ve not encountered elsewhere in Asia. We’ve also enjoyed some pretty good baguettes! Apparently they can be found throughout the country. Although not as lightweight and chewy as the Parisian version, I’ve been really happy to have them since decent bread can be pretty hard to come by in Asia.

In fact, I’d like to write more about Vientiane, but I’ve got a big date with a breakfast baguette and some Lao coffee coming up shortly, so I’ll end here for now. 🙂

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mmmm…. breakfast….

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Baguettes for sale at a market

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Tree-lined avenue, the Victory Gate at the end

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Patuxai Victory Gate up close (notice the sickle and hammer on the billboard to the right)

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Street sign

Wherever you go, there you are, even in India

Ok so all that stuff I was saying in the previous post about grace and openness and all that seams to be unravelling at the seems these past days. It’s not about India or anything that’s happening externally. Rather, I’m feeling totally uncomfortable in my own mind and anxious about just about everything we are doing, or not doing. I’m most likely too deep in it to have clear perspective but I have some theories. (Boys, please avert your eyes if you can’t handle women discussing their particular bodily functions.)

I’ve figured out some things about my body over the years, and I can imagine that all the sitting I’ve been doing for the past month plus all the yoga and jogging I haven’t been doing has helped contribute to one of the most unpleasant periods I’ve had in years. I can’t remember the last time I have felt so massivly PMS-y or had such bad cramps – I even had to stop walking today while we were out when they were just too much which never happens to me. I’m breaking out, sore and sensitive and just feeling generally blah.

On top of that I think I am missing the momentum and support of the group travel and I know I am having a hard time sitting still and accepting the generosity of our incredible hosts (As some of you may know, I sometimes am challenged by receiving… On another note, more on our incredible hosts once I get my self-gripe out of my system.). And I’m feeling the need to sink my teeth into the this travel thing and really start exploring (while simultaneously fearing that I might end up being a bashful and lame traveler, oy).

All this while Roman has arrived exhausted from so much work and wants nothing more than to just be for a while – to sleep, take it easy, ease into being in India and finish up on the last of the tech prep which he ran out of time for back home. So basically our instincts right now are to want totally opposite things while I am also overly sensitive, verging on crabby – please send the guy your sympathies! He’s managing to stay patient and sweet, and I to my credit can at least understand with my mind why it’s important for him to have down time and can grasp the fact that for once in my life there isn’t any time pressure. So even if the rest of me is feeling totally impatient, there is a small voice of logic fighting the good fight.

So, enough griping and here is where we are at now: we’ve been in Delhi for nearly a week. We are staying in the apartment upstairs from my friend’s parents in the south of the city. It’s a detatched apartment and we can come and go as we please, but are welcome in the big house at any time. Her parents are just lovely. Generous, interesting and articulate with their insights on their home country. Generous in all other ways as well – we’ve been taking full advantage of their WiFi and have been having all our meals there.

The food is just incredible. The family has three women working in the household. I’m still getting used to this – coming from a typical Western upbringing it feels kind of weird to have someone do everything for you rather than being able to help myself to something out of the fridge or clear my own dishes. At first it made me squirm with “privileged white girl” guilt but this is being tempered with trying to find out how to be a gracious guest by Indian standards (i.e., not wanting to offend our hosts and their staff by doing anything that might imply their hosting/serving abilities are poor) and trying to understand the situation in general by the values and culture of the people in it. I still don’t know how I feel about it, but I’m glad to have the chance to take a closer look.

These women are incredible cooks and every meal is a feast with numerous vegetable dishes, a different dal every day, home made yogurt, cut raw vegetables, piping hot freshly made chapatis, and often a meat dish at dinner. And then a different Indian sweet from a local pastry specialist every day. It’s really just incredible and I have been eating past being full at every sitting just being everything is so tasty. Some of the vegetables I’ve never even heard of before, let alone tasted. Of these my favorite is something I think was called bitter gourd – you can guess how it tastes. 🙂 There have been a bunch of paneer (a type of mild Indian cheese) based dishes that are also high on my list of favorites.  And all the dals (basically legume stews) have been outstanding. I haven’t been in the mood for much meat so I’ve mostly been sticking with the veggie dishes, but I did try a bite of and was pleasantly surprised by goat. Today for lunch we had a more simple dish which may become one of my comfort foods in India. It’s called parantha and it’s basically a stuffed, grilled chapati. Ours had fillings of lightly spiced cauliflower or potato, but they can be filled with other things too. As far as I could tell, once filled, the parantha is grilled in butter, which to me made it reminiscent of and just as comforting and satisfying as a grilled cheese sandwich .

So, with all this eating to be done and the various IT stuff Roman has been setting up for us, we haven’t been out that much in Delhi yet. We have explored the surrounding neighborhood some – it’s quiet and lush and lovely – plus the nearby shopping area and we went on a field trip to another shopping district to get ourselves set up with local phone numbers on our cell phones. We’ve become big fans of the auto rickshaw (also knowns as a Tuk Tuk in some parts of the world). Much more fun than a cab plus better ventilation (which can be a good or a bad thing, depending!). 🙂 Today we finally did something touristy, and went to the Red Fort, which was lovely – although I have to say I was more struck by the Red Fort in Agra.

Tomorrow we have another full day here to finish any last bits and pieces and maybe fit in another sight or two, and then the next day we are hopping on a plane to Dharamsala and we’ll head up to McLeod Ganj and see if we can’t find a hotel (booking ahead at the budget places doesn’t seem to be an option – booking online was impossible and the one place I was able to reach by phone told me they didn’t know if they had anything free but that I should stop by and see. The impression given was not that they were booked out, but that booking ahead was a foreign concept. 🙂 Wonder what we will find when we get there.). That was my favorite place of all the locations visited on the group trip – I’m looking forward to being back in the cool, green mountains (and hopefully out of my messy head and out of my own way).