Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Phonsevan, Laos and the Plain of Jars

It's cold here! Being up in the mountains at the coldest time of year is not quite what I expected from SE Asia.  I'm only about 100 miles straight line from the southern border of China so what did I expect?  I'm not sure really.

We came to see the Plain of Jars - 2,000 year old limestone jars scattered all over this province and nobody knows why they are here, what they were used for, or who made them.  They are anywhere from 2ft to 8ft tall and some weight over 2 tons.  They've survived being in the most heavily bombed region in the world which took place during the "secret" war from 1964-73 when the US dropped millions of tons of bombs here to try to route out the Communists and keep the Vietcong from using the hills as hideouts.  Laos and a few NGOs are trying to get them recognized as UNESCO world heritage sites, but first they all have to be de-mined and cleared of UXO - unexploded ordinance.

There are a lot of people missing their limbs and more who are dead from the 30% of the munitions which failed to explode but remained active and explosive.  People can't cultivate even half of the arable land here which leaves them starving and impoverished, because they risk finding and triggering UXO which would leave them mortally wounded or dead.  People consistently find the remnants of cluster munitions laying about (about the size of a baseball) and kids who don't know any better often play with them, eventually causing them to explode.  It's just such a wonderful legacy that we should all know about but like to neglect, the war was not just in Vietnam but arguably more so in Cambodia in Laos (by volume of ordinance dropped).

This NGO - Mines Advisory Group is a great example of what's being done to help, but unfortunately at the current rate of clearance it could take up to 100 years!

That's all, I'm done freezing my ass off and going to go find a motorbike to ride to get even colder!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Holidays in Asia

Well since my friends arrived on the 12th they have pretty much absorbed the little time that I had previously had to spend online and updating my blog, so again I'll try to summarize the past couple weeks in a short highlight reel-esque post. 

Bryce and I spent his one day in Bangkok just wandering around and going on the various (fun) forms of public transport.  The canal boats and river boats often rock excessively from the wakes of passing boats and it can be pretty fun.

The morning after Katie arrived we took a public bus to the Cambodian border crossing at Poipet, where we had thankfully read enough beforehand that we skirted the attempts to scam us for our visas, paid our $20 at the real border, and had our visas in a few minutes.  We got to Siem Reap and got a guesthouse for $3 per person, per night.  We spent 4 days there and went to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples for 2 of them.  

On our first day in Angkor Wat, Bryce and I were having lunch and being hounded by souvenir hawkers as usual.  Fortunately I was nice to one of the ladies and started asking questions about her life and about Cambodia, and by the end of the conversation we were invited to have dinner with her and her family the next day at their rice farm.  They had never had any foreigners visit their house before, and it was a pretty big deal for all of us.  Needless to say it was a great experience and great food.  The rice had just been harvested the day before, the eggs came from their chickens, the chicken was bought fresh from the market, and they picked the fruit fresh from trees in their back yard.  They also live near a lake where the king of Cambodia from ancient times used to swim - we of course had to swim in it to.

On the 18th Bryce had to fly to Kuala Lumpur for his debate tournament, so Katie and I just rode bikes around town and explored the markets.  The next day we headed back to Bangkok and unfortunately missed the night train to the Laos border north of Nong Khai.  We stayed in Bangkok overnight, toured around a bit the next day, and caught a 6.30 train north.

We spent a day in Vientiane, checked out some old French buildings and the National Museum, and the next day caught a bus to Vang Vieng - infamous as a party spot for backpackers.  We've been here 4 days now and were going to go to Phonsavan today to see the Plain of Jars but after Christmas night we didn't get up early enough to catch the bus, so we'll have to go tomorrow.  We're here with a group of other travelers - mostly Canadians - and a Thai lady who's food stall I eat at whenever I'm in Bangkok.  

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Getting back to Thailand

Well the time since my last post has carried a number of fun adventures...I'll try to summarize them in brief.

On the 26th and 27th of Nov. my host and I decided (at about 8.30pm) to take a series of buses overnight to Pangandaran, on the southern coast of Java.  It was a beautiful place and I'm glad she spoke both Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese because in some places the locals barely even spoke Bahasa - the national language.

We spent just one night there but got up early Sunday morning to go to the Green Canyon...not very big, but gorgeous and a ton of fun just the same!  We could have taken a boat up the river to the canyon (isolated in the jungle) for about $8 and then paid more to get out and swim around, but instead asked a local who told us how to hike there. All along the canyon there was water dripping and sometimes pouring out of the rocky walls, which were probably close to 100ft high.  In some places it was just a slow dripping and in others a steady stream more like a waterfall, but it all looked and sounded amazing.  I jumped in the river (which was surprisingly chilly, only about 60 degrees!) and swam up the river a ways to an outcropping of rocks, one of which was a stalagmite about 15ft high, and safe to jump off of. Of course I had no choice but to give it a try. Standing on top of the rock, under a cascade of water pouring out of the canyon walls above like a hard shower I stood for what seemed like an hour just reveling in the fact that I was taking a natural shower over a beautiful river in the jungle in Indonesia.  In reality it was probably only about 5 minutes before people below - who paid for the boats - were suspect that I may not do it and began urging me to jump.  I performed a near perfect cannonball, trying to soak as many of them as possible, and swam back to where I had come from.

Afterwards we ended up hitchhiking part way back to her city and taking a bus the rest of the way, I spent 2 more days there before going to Bandung, Indonesia.

Bandung really doesn't deserve a lot of space here, it's called the "Paris of Java" and maybe rightly so.  It's main draw is cheap outlet malls and opulent houses.  The economic disparity was nowhere more evident than my couchsurfing host's neighborhood and personality.  I learned more about corruption and disrespect, but little else.

The only highlight was going to Tangkuban Prau which is a big hill with some craters and hot springs.  It was nice to go hiking again, especially on my own, and I joyfully ran about 1km of the way up.  This may not sound like much, but it was nearly 7,000ft in elevation and a constant line of 2ft stairs carved into the hillside.  One of these days I'll get the corresponding pictures uploaded to my other webspace: http://louisnk.info

On Saturday, Dec 4th I flew back to Bangkok (overnight, with a 6 hour stop in Singapore) and spent a day bumming around the city before leaving Monday afternoon on a train bound for Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, where I sit writing this now.

My couchsurfing host here is great, an old British expat who has a large house overlooking a small pond and some fields, with a couple nice balconies overlooking the aforementioned pond.  The city so far is beautiful and today I am going into town to rent a motorcycle for 100 baht - for those of you who don't remember, $1 = 30 baht.

Last night I was lucky enough to go with my host to a festival that he is helping run a stall at, and his friend's stall is an activist group working with and for the Burmese people, while there I was also lucky enough to meet a Shan (ethnic group in NE Burma) guy who had to flee Burma after the 2007 Saffron Revolution (when all the monks were killed) because he was caught carrying a flag during a protest march and subjected to violent abuse and torture for 3 weeks, 2 weeks hard labor, and a contract promising he would never participate in any political activity again.

I uploaded a ton of pictures to my other webspace while I was in Singapore, but am still not up to date. If you look there you can get the stories behind a lot of the pictures by reading my posts on here about those places. http://louisnk.info

I'll be in Chiang Mai until Friday night when I'll be taking another overnight train back to Bangkok and Sunday night meeting with Bryce and Katie who are coming to visit for part of Christmas break.  It will be nice to see a familiar face again and not keep telling the same stories over and over, hopefully just once!