Archive for June, 2006


Friday, June 30th, 2006

exploring phnom penh in the early evening, we stumble across a small wat and wander into the courtyard to take a few photos as the sun sinks behind the stupa. a little old man beckons to us from the shadows of the main temple and towards a small gate at the back. we follow him through the gate and he leads us to a small locked shrine, which he opens. we shed our sandals at the entrance, and duck our heads under the low threshold. suddenly we find ourselves in a tiny stone vault with a simple altar headed by a golden buddha, adorned with flowers. as we kneel respectfully in the cool dark quietude, the old man tells us that the blocks of the vault are stones brought from angkor wat – he lights candles and provides us with two sticks of burning incense, which we offer at the foot of the statue, the sweet smell quickly filling the air, mingling with the perfume of the flowers, casting a glow on the buddha. the old man begins to chant in khmer, as the smoke swirls towards the ceiling and the candles flicker, the gold reflecting the light. and then he is sprinkling us with water as he chants the words by heart, blessing us with humble sincerity, offering prayers for peace or love or charity, reciting the desires of earnest and pure faith which one need not understand in order to feel deeply, be moved by, be grateful for.

and with a small bow of thanks, we exit into the descending dusk, the evening which has grown surprisingly darker, but infinitely richer.


Thursday, June 29th, 2006

there are no words for horror like this – only quiet, searing images.

there’s more here


Thursday, June 29th, 2006

there’s a solemnity to cambodia that you can feel the moment you get off the plane, a sense of gravity that won’t shake. there are subtle reminders of life interrupted – paused, thrown into complete disarray, and slowly getting underway again as people try to find their footing in a shattered peace. a world turned upside-down and trying to right itself.

i grew up in what would be considered a good school system, graduated class of 1990. i was 6 years old when pol pot was deposed and the massacres ended, 18 when the peace accords were signed. and yet i cannot bring to mind a single instance or mention in any textbook, or by any teacher, of the murder of more than 2 million cambodians in my lifetime, by one of the most sadistic regimes ever known. the world recently watched on in stunned silence at the unbelievable events in rwanda, and swore to never let it happen again – yet no one discusses what happened in cambodia only a few years prior.

perhaps that’s because to do so would require acknowledging the blood on our own hands. the u.s. and u.k. armed, fed and sheltered the khmer rouge (hell, we even offered them a seat at the united nations). we are complicit in the slaughter they carried out. while americans were gripped by disco fever, cambodians were being put to death for wearing eyeglasses.

there have been no war crimes tribunals. no “truth and reconciliation” boards. pol pot was never hunted, captured, brought to justice at the hague for crimes against humanity. he died of natural causes in 1998 at a ripe old age in the jungles of cambodia.

nobody talks about that.

and so i feel compelled to bear witness. to try to examine in my own way, the cruel cancerous biology of genocide that invades, multiplies quietly, ravages and destroys a people, and is always identified far too late. to pay my respects to those who died unnoticed by the rest of the world.

i feel compelled to see for myself the worst of humanity on display – the stark indisputable evidence of our mosyt craven and cowardly need to deny the existence of evil and suffering in front of our faces. i feel compelled to look it in the eye, because so many do not.

for how else are we to recognise it? millions died because we failed them. we can’t keep looking away.

so long saigon

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006

since leaving hue, we’ve been in a bit of a lackadaisical mode. we stopped off for a couple of days in nha trang, a seaside resort town on the southeast coast, for a little r & r on the way to ho chi minh city (saigon). it was fine for what it was – a little stretch of beach geared toward brits. lots of sun, western food, nightclubs and jetskis. now we’re in h.c.m.c. (though almost everyone still insists on calling it saigon) and a bit underwhelmed. it seems to be a big conglomeration of ridiculously overpriced western shops, 60s concrete crap, and backpacker cafes. unless you’re a real war-history buff, there’s not much in the way of sights, and we’re not big shoppers. i’m almost glad that it’s pouring out right now, so we have an excuse to hide out indoors, drinking beer, surfing the net, reading, and watching endless football. sometimes you need a vacation from your vacation.

but in a perverse way, i also really miss the challenge of a place like china. admittedly, it was downright hard at times, but it made for some really memorable and gratifying moments. it felt like those experiences were earned, dammit – and it made the funny spots that much funnier, the learned wisdom that much richer. for all the times when it was exhausting and chaotic and dirty, it was also startlingly beautiful and completely unique and immensely rewarding. there was never a time when you forgot you were in china – something that is sadly all too easy to do in places that have jumped on the tourism industry bandwagon. for example, i think it’s particularly telling that in the weeks we’ve been in vietnam, i have not even had to learn how to say “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” in vietnamese. as much as i’ve really loved this country, there has been very little which would force me to operate outside my comfort zone (except perhaps, crossing the street).

and really, that’s where all the best stuff happens.

so with that fixed firmly in mind, we’re off to cambodia tomorrow – a place where the book describes in-country travel as “part of the adventure” and the operating currency is the u.s. dollar, simply because no one has pockets big enough for the stacks and stacks of riel. i’ve wanted to visit cambodia for a few years now, and i’m tremendously excited to finally be going.

we’ll see what adventures await.

off the beaten path

Friday, June 23rd, 2006

one of the best parts of travelling is being able to get off the beaten path – unfortunately that’s often more difficult to do than you might think. first, there’s the reality that the beaten path is popular for a reason – it’s usually where all the best sights and activities are to be found, and then services necessarily spring up around it. getting off the beaten path can be really hard going as a foreigner – outside the main cities there’s usally very little in the way of spoken or written english, the prices are automatically inflated, and transportation is not readily available. that’s not to say these things are insurmountable, but they are definite obstacles – and doing “hard core” travelling all the time is draining. being off the beaten path can be isolating – being the only foreigner for miles around makes you both a target and a walking curiousity. finally, getting off the beaten path can lead to exploitation – there is now a whole market springing up around “treks” to visit remote hillside tribes, and it’s a bit like gawking at animals in the zoo. what you experience is not authentic because the very nature of observation changes the behaviour being observed – tribes now rely on tourist dollars for their survival, while at the same time their customs are watered down and corrupted for western consumption. (j and i have decided *not* to take part in trekking for these reasons.)

still, there are times when you get a glimpse of what people’s lives are really like, and we got to see some of that on the motorbike tour we took of hue, where we were able to cut through the countryside and see how villagers live; to witness the daily rituals of real monks at their midday meal offering prayers and meditating; to see farmers and fishermen at work. as brief as it was, it was truly unique to know that none of this was being put on for our benefit – which made it all the more beautiful.

more photos from our journey here.

world cup madness

Friday, June 23rd, 2006

can i just say that the us v. ghana world cup game had the most flagrant diving, overwrought playacting and biased refereeing of any match i have ever seen, and it made me irate to know that we lost the game *not* because we were outplayed, but because ghana spent more time rolling around on the pitch clutching their legs than they did upright on two feet. I supported ghana when they played against the czech republic and they played skillfully in that match, but this match was an atrocity of dirty tricks and poor sportsmanship.

i’m not a conspiracy theorist, but i am actually half inclined to believe that there was strong political pressure on the refs to ensure that at least one african team made it through. the u.s. didn’t play brilliantly… but they didn’t deserve to lose out on bad/missed calls.

i will be cackling gleefully as ghana get steamrolled by brazil in the next round, and if the score against them reaches the double digits it’ll be because they spent more time lying on their backs looking for foul calls than they do playing the ball. that shit doesn’t stand up to real talent.

war wounds

Thursday, June 22nd, 2006

such recent history is not easily forgotten – although in many ways, it’s diffcult to picture this landscape, these people as wartorn (such an apt word for the systemic destruction of society’s fibre, a nation’s fabric) yet the scars are still visible everywhere if you look. it takes such an immeasurable toll on the psyche, by undermining everything you thought you knew about your background, your history, your heritage. those are the kinds of things which time will never erase. here in hue, the ancient imperial city was all but wiped off the map during the war. the relics of millenia of kingdoms, gone in a blink. so much discussion begins with the phrase, “before the war”. children of agent orange walk the streets as a daily reminder. and while communist propaganda and pride is everywhere, so is the poverty of those whom the free market has left behind. there is nothing more humbling than when a hotel manager who works 7 days a week and earns $60/month asks you about the salaries back in the u.k.

yet in spite of these wounds, or perhaps because of them, there is an undercurrent of resilience, even optimism. people keep on keeping on in the custom of the generations. they still wake every morning to the music and call of the local party headquarters, to sweep their curbsides in unison, and prepare their breakfasts as a community of families. they perform their ablutions and wash their dishes in the company of their neighbours. they open their shops day after day, make their offertories and tend their shrines, as their parents did. they still harvest their rice, set the cattle to graze, catch the fish for the local market.

vietnam is not a victim to its history. they don’t have the luxury of feeling sorry for themselves or dwelling on grievances. they must keep on keeping on because there is life to be lived. there are meals to cook and children to raise. the work hard at getting past their past – in spite of all that has shredded their families, their culture, their country… or perhaps because of it.

it’s a philosophy that has served them well these last 30 years. and that’s what inspires hope about their future 30 years from now.

foolproof way to tell a traveller from someone on holiday (even if they both carry backpacks)

Wednesday, June 21st, 2006

the one wearing white is on holiday.


Tuesday, June 20th, 2006

just a quick heads up to point out that there are pictures of hanoi and our three day boat trip in ha long bay posted. also, read more about where we are now.

off to hue tonight. till then, my lovelies…

bitch session

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006

as a tourist, hawkers are part of daily life – some places are better and some places are worse, but they’re present wherever you go, and as an obvious westerner you’d better get used to being the proverbial “walking dollar sign”. to be fair, i generaly don’t begrudge them their attempts to sell me stuff – i understand this is their livelihood, and i am a prospective customer. and after a while, you learn to tune them out and turn them off with a variety of different methods, ranging from benign to outright rude. when i’m in a good mood, they might get a pleasant “no, thank you”, but in a less kindly one, i’ll turn my back on them and put up the palm of my hand (the international sign language for “talk to the hand”). given how effective that is, i assume it’s pretty offensive, but most of the time I just avoid eye contact and shake my head. there are, however, a few key ways to take me from nice to nasty in under sixty seconds: approach me while i’m in the middle of a meal, or grab me. either of those scenarios, and suddenly i don’t give a flying fig about fulfilling the stereotype of the “rude american” – i will get up in your face and make you sorry you ever bothered me. i also don’t respond to being yelled at from across the street, waved or snapped at like a dog, or repetition. you can call out “hey, hellloooo!” until you’re blue in the face, but you’ll never get my attention that way.

the worst thing about it though, is how it makes you automatically suspicious of everyone. which sucks because it puts your guard up, and leaves you less open to people. it wears you down, man.

if this is turning into a bitch session, well i apologise, but it’s particularly annoying today. j and i had a spat this morning and decided to spend the afternoon each doing our own thing. no biggie, and i’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner, given that it was inevitable we’d get on each other’s nerves. so i did some shopping, had some lunch, and came down to the lake to write and read. since sitting down, two people have approached me to sell me books, one lady to sell me pineapple, one lady to sell me fans, one person came up behind me trying to read what i was writing over my shoulder (?!?), one lady spent 15 minutes harassing me for my soda can (which i refused to give her because a.) it wasn’t empty b.) she picked it up from my side to see if it was empty c.) on principle because she decided to try to wait me out), and one crazy guy came over, put his face inches from mine, then laughed when i told him to fuck off.

i just wanted to relax and enjoy the last afternoon in hanoi (before we get on yet another overnight bus). instead i am weary, irritated and peevish from being harrassed.

why can’t people just leave me be??

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