Archive | April, 2010

Pi Mai Lao

25 Apr

[Excerpt from Vientiane Mai Daily, 21 April 2010]

‘Mixed Report Card from Lao New Year’

Though most people had a wonderful Lao New Year holiday, some incidences of inappropriate behaviour were reported, damaging the Country’s traditional fine image.

Many people used the three day festival for traditional events such as a baci ceremony or visiting temples to bathe Buddha images. This kind of behaviour sets a good image for Lao culture.

But there were still some young people who broke from tradition and celebrated in inappropriate ways. They used hoses and plastic bags containing coloured water to soak road users, despite numerous government warnings to the contrary, and many drank alcohol in excessive quantities.

These issues have been occurring for many years. To resolve the problem, everyone needs to pay more attention to celebrating the new year within the bounds of tradition.

[End article].

On our journey from Hue to Savannakhet, Alex and I adopted two new travel-buddies from Brisvegas – Julia and Caitlan. We four Australians spent the next week or so together in the South of Laos.

When we arrived in Laos its people were partying hard to welcome in the new year. Footprint contained a few words about Bi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) to the effect that festivities involved local people going to wats and wetting statues of Buddha. The Guidebook also suggested these activities were especially spectacular to witness in the historical northern centre of Luang Prabang. But Footprint said nothing about this extended celebration incorporating local people drinking themselves silly and drenching each other with water, which is what we found in the south of Laos.

As we entered the Country from Vietnam we were ignorant as to what Bi Mai Lao involved. We were attacked by multiple gangs of small children with supersoakers when we walked from the Border to the bus station and were very confused as to what was happening. Do people here really dislike Farangs? Or is this some kind of ritual? The kids were cute, and it was bloody hot, so we didn’t really mind walking around wet.

Soon we boarded a songathiew bound for Savannakhet, where we planned to spend the night, and quickly realised that we tourists were not the target of the water attacks (an arrogant assumption?).

We saw that large groups of local people established road blocks at numerous points along the dirt highway to Savannakhet, from where they attacked passing vehicles with water pistols and water bombs. As most vehicles are open – motorbikes or songathiews – this meant a lot of people copping direct hits. As the Vientiane Daily accurately reported, some of these water bombs contained red and blue coloured water (don’t worry Mum, it washed out easily).

We also passed numerous utes that had been converted to mobile water-fight stations. With at least ten people, a huge sound-system and one big barrel of water crammed snuggly into the tray, these cruised around the countryside searching for road blockades and rival ute parties to drench.

It struck me that this was all in good spirit. While the Vientiane Daily portrayed these water fights as dangerous stunts led by insolent youths, we found that everyone – young and old – participated in the action. The two older women who sat opposite me on the trip to Savannakhet attempted to duck from the water attacks and squealed when they got wet, but heartily laughed it off every time. I didn’t see anyone visibly angry or upset about the newer Bi Mai Lao traditions that have a grip on the Country.

We were all buggered when we finally arrived in Savannakhet 15 hours after leaving Hue in Vietnam (the journey should have taken 9 hours, but this is another story). We checked into the first Guesthouse we found and then went hunting for food. Our Guesthouse manager and the few people we passed in the street on our expedition for dinner advised us that the only place to get food in Savannakhet at ten pm was the bus station. We headed there and found big plates of BBQ chicken and sticky rice for $2, and big bottles of beer Laos to wash it down. Then we retired to bed.

At seven am the following morning we returned to the bus station to find a ride to Pakse, the regional transport hub from where we wanted to travel to Tad Lo. We didn’t have to wait long to catch another songathiew to Pakse. It quickly became clear that Bi Mai Lao celebrations were continuing on our second day in the Country. Again our little bus was attacked with water by roadside drenching blockades and mobile party utes.

We were first invited to join in the festivities after arriving in Pakse. The tuk tuk that we chartered from the bus station to the city centre (only a five minute ride) pulled in to a petrol station on route. Here a small party was in full swing. Tipsy Lao people wearing powdered faces and lipstick drawings on their heads and arms, including one man with a dick and balls sketched on his left cheek, ran up to our tuktuk and with glasses of ice which they promptly filled with beer for each one of us to drink. They proceeded to hose us down as the tuktuk drove away and invited us to return. We were assured the party would kick on until late and we were welcome to come back at any time.

After checking in to our hotel, showering and eating lunch, we decided to explore Pakse. We had only strolled 200 metres before we found another street party. We were quickly given glasses of beer and soaked. We bought a few long necks to contribute to the merry-making and proceeded to drink and dance the night away to bad Lao and Thai pop music, and of course attempted to soak every passer-by when the opportunity arose.

One local woman at this party was a high school teacher and could speak some English, and an English woman who participated could speak Lao, so we were able to exchange information about where we were from, how old we were, our marital status, and how many children we all had.

The following morning I was surprised to find that I made it home with my camera, purse, all my money (which dried quickly enough), and had only lost one sock…

A national water fight to mark the start of a new year! What a great idea hey? The Australians discussed why we didn’t mimic the Lao. After all, the first of January tends to be oppressively hot at home, people would love to be soaked to cool down! We concluded that with the drought and all it wouldn’t really be a responsible way to have fun down under and we’d have to continue to be content with the beach.

The next morning we left Pakse for Tad Lo, a village of 500 permanent residents is known for its waterfalls and elephants. When we arrived in town we found that the Bi Mai Lao party were still underway. You’re getting sick of this story now aren’t you. Enough happy new year. Right? Well that’s exactly how we felt; how long can this party possibly last?

A man from Holland (his name has Heins – we called him Beans) who had made Tad Lo his home for a fortnight told us that 4000 people from the surrounding villages and beyond had flooded the city for a big Bi Mai Lao party, which was wrapping up. Other locals backed up the estimated crowd size. The small main street of the village was full of stalls and strewn with rubbish and led to a huge stage and a wall of subwoofers that would not be out of place at the Big Day Out. A walk around the village gave us the impression that the party was one that had gone on too long. People were wasted, with bags under their eyes. But still very willing to throw an arm warmly around your shoulder, crack open a cold Beer Laos, and pour you a glass, and we reciprocated.

The following night, our second in Tad Lo if you a loosing track, the party moved to the Wat. That’s right – the monks threw a party for the people of Tad Lo. We went along for a few hours to check it out – more beer, water, and dancing. A table of young people adopted we four Australians – amongst them were a few transvestites. One of them lent in close to my ear to tell me who in the group were ladies and who were lady boys. I feigned surprise – really!? I wouldn’t have known!

A farmer approached Alex and told him ‘I am a farmer and I am poor’. He then introduced us to his wife and children, who we danced with for a while. We bought him a beer too. Share the love.

I've never been so popular...

We retired from the Wat party early enough, long before midnight, and went to sleep. I couldn’t believe when I woke up at three am needing to go to the loo that the party was still going! The Wat party had become a rave!

In regards to the external WC: some people hate having to make the dunny run in the middle of the night. Granted it’s not something that I would want to become a permanent feature of my life but I actually enjoyed the novelty of it and felt like I was camping. I also liked to spend time with all the animals that live in Tad Lo – dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, and huge pigs suckling piglets. Alex and I even saw a dog suckling its puppies and piglets at the same time! Not something you see everyday, at least not in Sydney or Canberra.

And the music didn’t stop at any point that day. As the sun came up the music only got louder and louder. The following night we played cards outside our bungalow and joked that it must be open mike night at the Wat as the quality of singing deteriorated.

The next day, the third day of the Wat rave, was the last. Our guesthouse manager and friend Pap invited us to participate in the end of Bi Mai Lao ceremony. This involved a small parade of people visiting each house and business in the village to collect donations to the Wat, and then delivering the proceeds to the monks. There was a drum, singing and more Beer Lao. It was fun to join in. The little girls all wanted to hold my hand, and the little boys wanted to climb on Alex’s back. Their parents were happy that we wanted to play with their children and introduced themselves to us, pointing out which kids and spouses were theirs.

Finally that night silence fell over the village.

Tad Lo

I almost drowned myself trying to swim under it...

Tad Lo is a beautiful spot. A river runs through the village and a small waterfall, a big waterfall, and a huge waterfall are all in walking distance. All but the later are ideal spots for swimming, fully clothed like the locals. The upstream water is clean and cool enough to be refreshing but not cold. We were warned that at irregular intervals the dam north of Tad Lo dumps a huge volume of water into the river which can make swimming dangerous. If you stay to the little waterfall you should be fine, at least in the dry season.

We took a four hour guided walk to four small villages. It wasn’t possible to do longer treks because the guides were partying, or recovering from partying. Likewise we got to see the elephants Tad Lo known for, but elephant treks were also not running during the celebrations.

We stayed in Mama Pap’s bungalows in Tad Lo. These were simple affairs constructed from bamboo. Each of Pap’s five bungalows cost 20,000 kip a night and sleep two. They have windows, mosquito nets, a light and a fan. The shared toilet was clean but the shower had zero water pressure. But who needs to shower when you can bathe in the river? Pap’s incredible kindness to local kids who she feeds, as well as to travelers was the highlight of this place. She is also a good cook and whips up huge portions of fried rice, noodles, soup, and larb at very low prices.

Alex with Pap outside our bungalow

Siem Reap Best Eats

13 Apr

A quiet City on the Siem Reap River full of markets, cafes, restaurants and bars, Siem Reap City is full is a nice place to hang out. We stayed longer then we had originally intended. Of course Angkor Wat is the City’s most important tourist attraction, which I have written about in another post. Here I wanted to share some tips on where to sleep and eat.

The No.10 Lodge across the Old Market Bridge cost $10 USD per night for a fan room, with cold water and cable TV. Free internet was available in the lobby. I would recommend staying here for the price and location. Like most other hotels in South East Asia, it is cheaper to book bus tickets, tours and any other service through a local travel agent as hotel prices are inflated.

Best meal we had in Siem Reap was at the Khmer BBQ restaurant directly opposite our hotel, the No. 10 lodge. I don’t think the street had a name but if you go to the Lodge you can’t miss the restaurant. We were tempted by the fire, smoke and wonderful smell of roasting meat and the evident popularity of the place full of locals and a handful of tourists. On our first visit we ordered BBQ steak and squid. We were given a plate (actually more like a tray) of vegetables and a number of small bowls of spices and sauces to complement the main course. Two waiters showed us how to eat each dish; my favourite was the barbecued beef dipped in a little bowl of Kampot pepper and salt mixed with fresh lime juice and chilli. Sounds simple – tasted amazing.

We went back to the BBQ restaurant a second time to try what we were told was the local speciality, a BBQ / hotpot cooked at the table for two. The special hotpot bowl looks like a large metal dish with a raised centre. At the table beef is sautéed on the the raised metal the middle of the hotpot while vegetables cook in the tasty but unhealthy mixture of butter and sesame seed oil in the moat surrounding the BBQ plate. When all is cooked to your liking, you dip the meat and vegetables into a creamy lemon-based sauce, which you again mix with lime and chilli to taste, before eating. It was great. I think because we tipped our two waiters at the end of our first visit to thank them for patiently teaching us step-by-step how to eat these Khmer dishes, they were even more attentive on the second night and cooked a lot of our cook-it-yourself hotpot /BBQ for us. I think on both nights we paid for two people between $6 and $8 for plenty of food and beer. Highly recommended.

The Pancake Man deserves to become a Siem Reap legend. At his little cart stationed opposite the night market, the pancake man cooks up fresh banana and chocolate pancakes. The best way to eat these hot little beauties is wrapped in paper as you wander around the numerous street stalls selling clothes, jewellery and souvenirs. Two pancakes will set you back a dollar.

The Temple Bar on Pub Street stages an impressive (and free) Aspara dance show every night at 7pm. The food here, especially the Amok, is good and drinks are sold at happy hour prices.

Run by a Kiwi Miss Wong’s is Siem Reap’s best cocktail bar. Drinks here are pricier then at other places on Pub Street but of a much better quality. Unlike the large two-story Red Piano, Miss Wong’s is small with an intimate atmosphere and the Chinese theme is cute not kitch.

Those on a tight budget will be happy to know that the Night Markets and two restaurants backing on to the Old Market parallel to pub street sell good cheap food ($1 rice and noodles).

Phnom Penh

10 Apr

With its poor population and rubbish-strewn streets, Phnom Penh is a hard city to love, but crucial to visit if you want to understand Cambodia.

The poverty of Cambodia relative to neighbouring Vietnam is apparent almost as soon as you cross the Bavet / Moc Bai Border that separates these countries. The caramel-coloured cows and grey water buffalo visible from the bus window are noticeably thinner on the Cambodian side of the Border. Piles of household and other waste gathers on the sides of unsealed roads, waiting to be burned. In rural areas Cambodian houses are small, often simple thatch structures on stilts, which I doubt are connected to running water or electricity. It is sad but not surprising that Cambodia has the highest infant and under-five mortality rates in the region.

Two of Phnom Penh’s most famous tourist attractions give some insight into the origins of this Nation’s poverty. Security Prison 21 operated as a high school until 17 April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh victorious in Civil War and emptied the City of people. S-21 then became a gaol where thousands of Cambodians, mainly from the middle and upper classes of society, were starved and tortured. The buildings at the site and the evidence of genocide they contain have been preserved as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Most haunting are the photographs of former prisoners that line the walls of former classrooms, telling us that many victims of the Khmer Rouge were only babies or young children.

The infamous ‘Killing Fields’ at Choeung Ek are roughly 15km from the centre of Phnom Penh. Over 20,000 people were killed here by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-79, mostly prisoners from S-21. When we visited our guide explained that before the War this site was a private Chinese cemetery located on the City outskirts behind a rice field; a perfect place to kill and then bury the dead away from prying eyes. The guide also told us that the killing was done at night as music blared to muffle the victim’s screams.

As you wander across the Killing Field you cannot ignore the tattered remains of the victims’ clothing that is gradually being rejected from the earth, as if the land does not want to hold on to the Khmer Rouge’s dirty secrets. Treading on these shreds of cloth forces you to recognise the grisly reality of what happened here not so long ago.

In the 1980s a Stupa was erected to house the skulls and bones of some of the people murdered here. From some distance, seeing so many skulls lying together can make them seem less human, like a sanitised exhibit at a museum, or a photograph in a textbook. But visitors may come so close to these remains that they can see how each individual they belonged to was killed; themajority had their skulls smashed with heavy bamboo poles or rocks in order to conserve expensive bullets. The Stupa is a place to respectfully remember that each skull on display belonged to a person who had a family and friends that loved them. At such an intimate distance you can feel the victims’ collective horror, woe, and deep sense on injustice at at having lived and died as they did.

Tragically Choeung Ek is only one of over four hundred execution and mass grave sites that has been discovered across Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge were removed from power. It is believed that between 1.5 million and 2 million Cambodians died under this Regime. Wealthy and educated citizens were targeted as the Khmer Rouge sought to abolish the elite so that all Cambodians would be equal. Understanding that Cambodia lost an entire generation of professionals; doctors, teachers, government workers, and business leaders, helps the foreigner to comprehend Cambodia’s current poverty.

You do wonder how such a regime comes to and manages to sustain power, and how individuals can be capable of acting without humanity. Surely the heavy bombing that the USA subjected Cambodia to at the end of the Vietnam War, and the great inequality that persisted between rich and poor last Century which is still apparent today, had a lot to do with this twisted outcome.

The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda offer visitors insight into a very different Cambodia. This official residence of the Cambodian Monarch was built late in the nineteenth century. These beautiful buildings demonstrate the lasting cultural influence of Indian Hinduism on Khmer architecture and traditions of faith. Here the large mythical bird-like creature Garuda supports the roofs, and representations of Naga the Serpent God of Agriculture are prominent. Elaborate murals decorate the inner walls of the silver pagoda complex depicting Hindu legends. The gardens are also beautiful and peaceful.

I wondered if it is right for the Cambodian Government to spend monies maintaining such impressive but unproductive structures when outside the Palace’s grand gates its poor citizens are struggling to survive? I figure at a cost of $USD 8 a pop, entry tickets sold to foreigners could fund the ongoing restoration and maintenance works carried out here. Perhaps such beautiful national buildings may also give the local people something to be collectively proud of and give hope that if Cambodia can build such amazing structures that attract tourists from all over the world, the Country has a bright future.

Dining in Phnom Penh

The FCC was our favourite bar in Phnom Penh. The building has a rich history and views over the River front from its second and third floor balconies are impressive. With draft beer sold for 50 cents and cocktails half price during daily happy hours (5pm – 7pm), the FCC is hard to beat as a venue for a pre-dinner drink.

The cosy Paris Bistro, also on the River front, was our favourite restaurant in Phnom Penh. While the large photographs of the Eiffel tour on the Restaurant’s walls were a little on the tacky side, the wooden furniture was comfortable and attractive. Soft lighting and French music gently played in the background give the Paris Bistro a romantic ambience. The service was outstanding and the salads here are very good, especially the Banana Leaf salad with just enough chilli to give it punch.

We also enjoyed eating at Friends restaurant which trains local street children in hospitality. The food and drinks served here were of a high quality. Although the prices are a little steep for the tightarse traveler, it is good to support the positive work carried out here. The NGO that manages the training restaurant also supports a beauty parlor next door.

We found that food served in cafes and restaurants was generally cheap and of a decent quality. Unlike in Vietnam it didn’t prove any cheaper to eat at local street set-ups in Phnom Penh where prices are inflated for foreigners (really on one occasion a waitress told us that she reviewed the prices on the menu everyday and made them up as we ordered!).

Accommodation

Where to stay in Phnom Penh is largely a question of riverside or lakeside.

Wanting to conserve travel funds we chose to stay lakeside at the Grandview Guesthouse on our first visit to Phnom Penh as the alleys bordering the Boeung Kak Lake are home to the City’s cheapest budget rooms. Our tiny $5 room on the hotel’s third floor was very basic featuring two large single beds, a ceiling fan, an ensuite with a cold water shower and views of the Lake. The restaurant and chillout space on the Grandview’s rooftop was this hotel’s redeeming feature. Being the tallest building in the area, views from the roof extend across the Lake to one side and over the crowded side streets and rooftops to the other. The Khmer food served in the restaurant was also cheap and tasty; we enjoyed curries and rice for $2USD, and great fresh lemon ice teas for 75 cents. The other small bars and restaurants located in the lake area were similarly cheap, making Lakeside a good option for the budget traveller. I think some travelers’ critical assessments of the Lakeside are unfair and inaccurate.

Sadly the Boeung Kak Lake is gradually being filled in to make way for new development. It may not be so pleasant to stay Lakeside when lake views are no longer involved and you wake each morning to the sound of jack hammers. Also we quickly realised that Phnom Penh is not a small city, and in the extreme heat and humidity of Phnom Penh late in the dry season, Lakeside is more than a walk away from the action closer to the action. Tuk tuks are cheap at roughly $1.00 from anywhere in the City to anywhere else, though a few trips back and forth from your Lakeside room to the main tourist attractions and popular bars and restaurants, all located Riverside, soon add up.

After visiting Siem Reap we spent one last night in Phnom Penh before traveling to Ho Chi Minh City. This time we stayed Riverside at the Mekong Palace Hotel, the second hotel we looked at after arriving in the City. We paid $15 for a medium-sized air-conditioned room, with an en suite, hot water shower, and cable TV. It seems that air-conditioning adds between $3 and $5 to the price of a room as energy is relatively expensive in Cambodia.

Was aircon worth the extra $5? It was nice to relax with a movie (Juno was playing) in a cool room, but I still believe it is always healthier to sleep under a fan. I woke with a sniffle after sleeping under the aircon all night.

Was it better staying Riverside? You are certainly closer to the main tourist attractions (National Museum, Silver Pagoda and S-21) here. We enjoyed walking along the slightly stinky River front, eating ice cream and watching the world pass by. Yet we discovered the Riverside with its beautiful people and five star restaurants has an ugly underbelly. Numerous bars and nightclubs clearly doubled as brothels. As we lunched at a pub in the afternoon we had the pleasure of watching two young local hookers make themselves up for the evening, and a policeman drop in to make a collection Soprano style. The Phnom Penh indi news bulletin that I was reading at the time reported the Government was cracking down on prostitution, closing down a number of red light karaoke joints like the one we were apparently sitting in in recent weeks. The journalist correctly predicted that those that could afford the bribes would stay in business. Riverside is no less a slum then Lakeside.

We’ve posted some photos from Phnom Penh here.

Getting here and away

Bus to PP from HCMC will cost you about $10 for a ‘VIP’ bus; ie one with aircon, a toilet on board, and free water and a snack included. Tickets should be cheaper on a local bus. Your inner-child will be happy to know that the journey includes riding on a ferry across the Mekong.

Facebook censored in Vietnam!

5 Apr

First I tried to log in using the free wifi connection in my Ho Chi Minh City budget hotel room. Facebook wouldn’t load. I figured my connection might have been too poor see the site.

A few days later I tried to log in from an internet cafe with a good fast connection. Still no luck.

I asked Alex (my permanent tech support guy) why can’t I access Facebook in Vietnam? Alex went to trusty Wikipedia for answers. Turns out that the Government of Vietnam has censored access to Facebook, along with many other local and international sites.

Wikipedia reports that the Government of Vietnam justifies net censorship by claiming this policy aims to protect the population from obscene or sexually-explicit content. However as the blocking of Facebook demonstrates, many of the blocked sites are far from X-rated but contain politically or religiously sensitive materials that might undermine the current Government’s hold on power.

For example, late last year the Government blocked Vietnamese Catholic news online after sites including the Catholic News Agency, Catholic Online, Asia News, Catholic World News and Independent Catholic News covered Catholic anti-Government protests that took place across the Country.

Many Australians are unaware that the Rudd Government has shamefully progressed its policy of internet censorship. Like the Vietnamese Government, the Australian Government claims that the clean filter (where Internet Service Providers such as Telstra and iinet are required to block its clients access to the sites deemed illegal by Government) will only be used to block Australians’ access to child porn sites. But who knows what other sites the Government will decide are too dangerous or inconvenient for Australians to access? If the likes of Tony Abbot become PM, will we see access to information about abortion blocked too?

GetUp! are one group organising against this repressive policy. Visit their blog if you want more information or are keen to get involved in the campaign to preserve online freedom!