Saturday, October 30, 2010

13 things learned in Cambodia

1. Cambodian immigration officials do not like it when you show up at the border with a full passport.

2. They especially don't like it when you show up at the border with a full passport the second time.

3. Vegetable amok. Bomb.

4. The DPRK embassy is across the street from PwC's Phnom Penh office. Chew on that.

5. The Khmer like their naga.

6. Cambodian dancing is a whole different thing.

7. Lots of dolphins in the Mekong, but not as many as there should be. Another sad legacy of Pol Pot.

8. People can do terrible things to each other.

9. Private roads in Cambodia are built by the Chinese and Koreans. They are smooth, good, and expensive to travel.

10. A Korean private company manages Angkor Wat. So you pay a ton to get into Cambodia's national treasure, and only a tiny percentage goes to Cambodia.

11. The Khmer love their morning exercise.

12. Phnom Penh. A lovely city.

13. Severe bodyaches, headaches, boneaches, and fever might frighten you into leaving the country early in order to get to a Bangkok hospital. Said pains may disappear the minute you cross the border, but then invade your wife.

16 things learned in Laos

1. Coconut shakes. Nuff said.

2. Sticky rice can be shaped into cubes, footballs, people, anything you like.

3. Clearly, temple builders had location, location, location in mind.

4. The art of relaxation is best perfected in Four Thousand Islands.

5. Amy can mend things, such as pajamas and buttons.

6. Gabe is a mean checkers player.

7. Riding bikes in the monsoon rain is actually pretty fun.

8. Water buffalo move faster than you think.

9. Mosquito nets are often repaired with Band-Aids.

10. You can spend half an hour waiting to see if a gecko will eat a beetle.

11. We thought being away from home for a year was extreme. It's not. We met a guy on his way home for his mom's 80th birthday. Last time he was home: her 70th.

12. Bus drivers like to stop for snacks. And smoke breaks. And pee breaks. And for no apparent reason whatsoever.

13. Beetles and crickets roasted on sticks are terrifying when waved inches from your face by a tiny Laotian woman.

14. You can buy bags of live bugs to go.

15. Lao funeral celebrations are pretty friendly. We recommend Day 3.

16. Throne toilets don't necessarily have to be flush toilets.

So Paul showed up

Paul dropped into Saigon for some running around Vietnam and Cambodia while Choi was back in New York for Hwanger's wedding. It was kind of a brutal travel schedule. We fit in 2 days of templing at and around Angkor Wat, the S-21 prison and Killing Fields, a tour of the Mekong Delta, the Cao Dai's Holy See, the infamous Cu Chi tunnels and maybe the best ice cream creation known to man.

To begin, after traveling for something like 24hrs straight from St.Louis, I let him rest for 5hrs before taking a 12hr bus ride from Saigon (Vietnam) to Siem Reap (Cambodia). I was shocked Paul managed to form coherent responses to my rants about all the crazy shit that happened in India. After some solid Khmer curry we turned in because the next day would be a long one. Ha.

The temples of Angkor were indeed cool. The first day we explored the smaller temples. I have to say I preferred the smaller ones to the big mama Angkor Wat. The smaller ones were less crowded and seem to have more interesting architecture. Angkor Wat was huge and I particularly liked the depiction of the Ramayana, but all the cool stuff had been looted or was sitting in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The second day we caught Angkor Wat with a lame sunrise and hordes of Asian tour buses. Paul had to wait a bit to get a clear shot of the famous faces of Bayon. One of them I conveniently jumped in front of just to see how much patience he had.

(Paul was not amused.)

After templing we jumped on a bus to Phnom Penh to visit the Killing Fields and the prison where “subverts” were interrogated and tortured during Pol Pot's reign. Yay! Superfun and cheery!

After seeing some of the worst of humanity, we jetted back to Vietnam via boat. We ended up meeting a fun group of people on a soggy bus transfer back to Saigon. Not wanting to deal with monsoon rains and feeling a good vibe, Paul and I decided to crash for a night in the Mekong Delta. We ended up taking an all day boat tour wandering through the sleepy tributaries that during the Vietnam War were not so sleepy. I knew at that point I’d seen Platoon and Full Metal Jacket too many times, because it was pretty hard to relax at first. I kept imagining getting sniped from the heavy jungle foliage while the engine slowly puttered down the river way. Then I reassured myself that I’m an idiot and these people are way too busy rebuilding their country to pay attention to some farang floating by their front yard.

After a night, we return to Saigon only to get on an all day bus tour to the Cao Dai Holy See and Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels are a monument to Vietnamese resolve. You may have seen tunnels like these depicted in Vietnam-era movies. VC would take refuge in these things during the regular runs made by US Air Force bombers. They were incredibly small (I had trouble fitting my shoulders through the width of one) so as to minimize the shock caused by explosions. These aren’t the tunnels the VC lived in, those are up north toward the old DMZ. Apparently those tunnels were a bit bigger and something like 4 people were actually born underground.

Post-tunnels we stop by the Cao Dai Holy See. Why stop by and see these guys? Because they are colorful, open and among those they revere are Buddha, Jesus and Victor Hugo.

(Paul really liked Victor’s hat.)

I really like the Cao Dai because they embrace a lot of different teachings that really aren’t so different when you get the core of the matter. They basically believe that if you’re good in this life and follow some prescribed devotions, you can reach heaven without all the bothersome reincarnation. I wouldn’t mind skipping a thousand rebirths and go straight to the good stuff.

They also share my enthusiasm for dragon pillars. I feel a room could always use a few dragon pillars.

So that’s that. A whirlwind tour of some of the big stuff of Southeast Asia. Now Paul gets to go back to poopy diapers.

Need real pictures? Try Paul's flickr set.

My closing thoughts on India

* Editor's note: Gabe wrote this in September.

So it’s been a little over a month since we left Delhi. I’ve been trying to make sense to myself what those two months in India meant and I think I’m now more confused than ever. I think India has given me a renewed appreciation for the celebration of divinity in all things. Twelve years of Catholic school installed a gag reflex at the slightest whiff of organized religion, but seeing how it works in India has changed that. There are literally a million ways to God. God is love, life is everything and love is life. It’s beautiful even amid the filth that pervades everything. This is a tremendous gift from Mother India because it’s something I’ve been struggling with for a long time. For this, I am thankful.

Now, in keeping with the essence of India here is the contradiction: the treatment of women.

Never having traveled extensively with a woman, I really didn’t know what to expect. Even traveling through Arab countries where the majority of the time there are no women are on the street, I never feared for Amy’s safety. (The one exception was that Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, but that was more because we were Americans stupid enough to walk through a fucking Palestinian refugee camp.)

Getting to India and seeing how woman are maimed or killed because of dowry disagreements, how they face constant groping with the threat of rape if they dare to leave the house alone, how they are killed by their own family if they love someone of a lower caste, was too much. Passing groups of men on the street (because there are groups of men lounging EVERYWHERE) and seeing them leer at Amy was so disgusting. Seeing women beg on the street with half their face melted off, hearing countless stories from the women we talked to about being constantly molested on public transportation, finding out one of our roommates in Delhi almost got raped by a driver - these are real things. It seems to me the treatment of women is one of the main issues killing India. How can you so horribly oppress half of the population (although that number is shrinking due to the abortion of female fetuses) and expect to move forward? How can you ignore Gandhi, who stated that women are the future of India?

Again, this isn’t some article in the NYTimes. This is what we saw, felt and experienced. The one time I didn’t accompany Amy when we left our hostel, she was groped. I’ve never felt so much anger towards a people. Even before that happened to her, I was ready to stomp any man whose filthy little paw found its way into the wrong place. I’m not that big of a guy, but I’m definitely twice the size of almost everyone we saw on the street. This feeling always in the back of my mind, and seeing what Amy had to experience, really affected our time in India.

But then we do things like take a rickety ski lift up to this stupa in the poorest, filthiest, most oppressed state in India. We get up there and it’s serene beauty. There is a calm energy radiating from the place. We see the sun beginning to set, casting this warm light on the stupa, which is commemorating the stages of Buddha’s life. Off in the distance there is a beautiful temple, with a devotee slowly hitting a drum to focus your mind as you enter the sanctuary.

There are places like this all over India. It’s like the country has this vast ocean of spiritual energy below the surface. People have built temples and shrines where it gushes to the surface, and distributes this energy to the people.

But then you have to leave and go back down to earth. We walk past a bunch of tonga drivers that give that menacing leering look to Amy. This is what I’m talking about! India!!

I have no fucking idea what to think.

38 things learned in India

1. They are like that only.

2. Overnight train ride in 1AC not so bad (if you have your own cabin).

3. Overnight train ride in 2AC is still creepy if you’re a woman.

4. Dal can become a necessity with almost every meal.

5. As an outsider, once you have lived in India for 4 years you can try street food and not die. But sometimes you can be a native born Indian and still be laid up for 4 days from the stuff.

6. Privacy is a myth.

7. There is hot and there is India hot.

8. Redheads are considered sluts. Being a redhead can earn you a slap in the face.

9. As a man, you can drop your trousers in the middle of crowded train station and no one cares.

10. Queue jumping? Nothing a sharp elbow can’t fix.

11. Intermissions happen in movies that don’t need intermissions (see: Inception).

12. Your concept of “clean” gets somewhat relaxed after 2 months. Not be changed forever but just as long as you’re there.

13. See above regarding clean clothes.

14. A cup of chai will set your day straight.

15. You don’t even notice the power cuts after a while…unless you paid up for the A/C room.

16. When a shop has the word “INTERNET” on it don’t assume that you can actually access the internet there.

17. Masala movies, masala relationships.

18. Love is life.

19. “Yes” can mean “No” but sometimes “Yes” unless the answer is definitely “No” then the answer is definitely “Yes.”

20. You have to be ready for Varanasi because it’s ready for you.

21. Hindus are born, not made.

22. There are a million ways to God, choose one or all of them if you like.

23. We seem to like Ganesha and Kali.

24. Cow pee can purify the soul (that’s what we heard, we really don’t know).

25. Cow poo is an excellent mosquito repellent (same, same as the cow pee).

26. Shatabdi Express is the king of trains.

27. We will never call a bus/auto rickshaw/cab/jeep/cycle rickshaw/hotel room/street corner/train/train platform/train station crowded outside of India ever again.

28. Saying “haa” for “Yes” is strangely addicting.

29. McDonald’s and Pizza Hut have security guards and A/C. Pizza Hut has margaritas!!

30. If you think it can’t get any worse, wait until it’s dark outside.

31. Indian food is glorious but not three times a day.

32. The Taj Mahal is indeed all it’s cracked up to be.

33. The Karma Sutra Temples are truly one of mankind’s treasures.

34. After a thousand generations and six families pooling their resources, one Dalit can break the cycle of poverty.

35. There is creation, there is preservation and there is destruction.

36. If you’re there long enough your head will start to wobble too.

37. One of most amazing things about the Lotus Temple is the ability of the Bahai to keep a group of Indians quiet.

38. They have a version of American Idol called Indian Idol and it’s good.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dolphin watching

Our first stop in Cambodia was Kratie, home to the Irawaddy river dolphins. They're a kind of flat-nosed dolphin native to the Mekong. We took a small boat out to the middle of the river to spy on some dolphins at sunset. We did catch a few at play, the charming little buggers.

But even better: The quiet, magic light on the Mekong. Love Cambodia.

Easy Riding on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Finally, we upload video. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, from a motorbike.