iloilo city

Posted in iloilo, philippines by moonwire on September 30, 2009

Because of the bad weather, and the forecast for more rain, even in the Visayas, I decided to skip the beaches in the Philippines in favour of another city. After reading a bit, I decided on Iloilo City as it was easy to get to from Manila, and easy to get onto Cebu City. I left Manila on Monday afternoon. Luckily, the weather (it was still raining) didn’t delay my flight too much and after about an hour on the plane, we landed in Iloilo. I checked into a hotel on General Luna street, which seemed to be one of the bigger streets. The hotel looked really swanky from the outside, however, my room was a shithole. Old A/C, a barely working shower and an overall shoddy room. Okay, I could live with that for a few days. However, at night I decided to go for a walk and there was barely anything around there. I did have a San Mig at a bar across the street, and some really excellent pizza at Luna but I felt weird being there. I got to talk to a German guy who was working in Iloilo and staying at the same hotel. We had a nice talk and he told me Iloilo was ‘interesting’. I had no idea how ‘interesting’ it would be…

In the morning I decided to walk around a little more and see if I could find a hotel more in the city centre. I checked out a few and the situation was pretty dire. I did find a semi decent one in the old part of town but I already knew I didn’t want to stay in this town. It’s filthy here , with really bad air quality, and this whole town smells like urine. And this is not even a big city. The worst of all is the continuous begging. Sure, I’ve seen it all around me in the past couple of months. However, the beggars here are really persistent. They don’t just beg, they actually grab you and latch onto you. You can laugh at me, but I’ve been pretty afraid of getting my camera out. Afraid of someone just grabbing it. I don’t even walk around with a bag anymore.. I think I also grab the people’s attention because other than the German guy, I have not seen a single foreigner here. And I’m not surprised at all.

People repairing shoes at the Central Market.

I have not felt unsafe anywhere during my travels, but I’m not feeling really safe here. Mainly because of the continuous begging. Another thing is the food. The majority of restaurants are fast food chains and it’s really hard to find a meal that doesn’t contain meat. Then there’s the street food, which I simply won’t touch here. I’ve resorted to buying food at the grocery store. Mainly fruit and nuts. Luckily, the fruit here is excellent and really cheap. Mangos, papayas, pomelos, watermelon. Really tasty.

After spending so much time in Buddhist countries, it’s weird to be in a place where Jesus rules. And he’s everywhere.

So Iloilo has been one of my least favourite places during my travels. I barely took any photographs at all. I’m not in the right mind frame to do so. I’m sure there’s some cool alleys but as I said, I just don’t feel comfortable here. Also, after my fantastic experience in Cambodia, I just feel like I can’t live up to that. That’s okay, though. I’m sure I’ll feel like shooting again when I’m in a place where I’m happier. I’m glad I was able to book a flight out tomorrow morning. I will be off to Cebu City and if the weather cooperates, I’m hoping to spend a few days on a beach there, too. Kitakits!


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Posted in manila, philippines by moonwire on September 29, 2009

I left Siem Reap early Wednesday morning. I spent the night at the Tune Hotel at Kuala Lumpur’s airport as I had an early flight to Manila on Thursday. All went well. I flew into Clark Field airport, which is about an hour and a half bus ride from Manila. When I arrived at the Manila’s Megamall, Tony was already waiting there for me. We walked around a bit, caught up on ‘gossip’ and at night we walked around Tony’s neighbourhood, Pasig City.

Later at night we went to Tonio’s Grill because there was a big Flickristasindios meeting. There were a lot of people and we had a great night eating, talking, joking and drinking San Mig beer. One of them had brought ‘balut’, which is a half developed embryo boiled in the shell. I was warned that I should only taste it when drunk and in the dark. I was not drunk and it wasn’t dark and it looked revolting. I did have a bite, but as Tony stated ‘I didn’t inhale’. Maybe another time! (And maybe not.) Tony however, he couldn’t get enough of the stuff. He inhaled two of them, pinoy style.

On Friday we met up with Jojo and we went to Quiapo, an old Manila neighbourhood. It was very busy and somewhat overwhelming. Tony and Lhen needed to do some shopping and Jojo showed me around. There was a mass going on and outside the church, on Plaza Miranda, there were many people selling religious paraphernalia, reading tarot cards and people selling food and drinks. It was interesting to see, but really hard to shoot there with so many people. I also admit that I was glad Jojo was with me as I found it a bit intimidating to be there.

That night it started raining, but I didn’t think too much of it. After all, I’ve been traveling through the rainy season for a few months now. We took a Jeepney (which is a superlong Jeep with benches on both sides, often richly decorated on both the inside and the outside) to Quezon City where we went to the Conspiracy Club to enjoy some live music. There were 5 of us and we had a great time. Some really good live music (some of it in Tagalog), San Mig and friends made for an excellent night.

Overnight it kept on raining and this continued all day. The streets started to get flooded and the power went out. No cellphone signals, either. Tony and I headed to the Megamall to use the internet (the whole mall is wired and it’s free). At 6 PM we were told the mall was closing because of the weather, so we headed to Pineda, a working class neighbourhood where Tony’s wife Lhen’s family lives. We looked at the river and it was coming dangerously close to street level. Lhen’s older sister’s house was already flooded. We had food and drinks at Lhen’s younger sister’s house. Her house was not flooded and she still had power, but water was coming in through the walls. We spent the evening there talking mostly about the history of the Philippines. We decided to head back to the house around midnight. Though we had to wade through knee deep (very dirty) water, Tony’s house was luckily still dry.

Bon Bon, Eric, Nimfa and Neng in Pineda.

Tony’s wife Lhen carefully inspecting a bottle of vodka. I think we drank it all.

On Sunday it had stopped raining for a bit but there was still no power at the house. I went back to the Megamall with Julius. Julius moved to the US when he was 10 years old and after living there for 18 years, he decided to move back to Manila for good. He’s an artist and he lives in his ancestral house, not far from Tony’s. The house is filled with art work and there’s something really cool about it. During the Japanese occupation Julian’s family (doctors) converted the house into a hospital.

We spent a few hours there interwebbing (me), reading and drawing (Julius) and drinking tea and later beer. When we got back to Tony’s there still wasn’t power so we decided to have a candlelight party. Lots of food, beer, jamming guitars and (out of tune) singing.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of Manila. Of course, there was the typhoon which made it hard to get around and also, the cold I thought I had left behind in Siem Reap, came back with a vengeance. Probably triggered by the pollution and the moisture in the air. However, I did get a small taste of Manila and it was really cool just hanging out with the locals.

Flooded street across from Lhen and Tony’s. Didn’t get any good shots of the flood as I wasn’t able to recharge my battery.

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siem reap (part 2) and the temples of angkor

Posted in angkor wat, cambodia, siem reap, temples of angkor by moonwire on September 22, 2009

A few days ago, I was wandering around the old market not sure what to do, when a tuk tuk driver hey-lady-tuk-tuk?’d me. With nothing to do and nothing to shoot as the light is way too bright here between 9 am and 4 pm, I decided to entertain him, so I asked ‘where would you take me?’ He answered ‘floating villages, perhaps?’

And just as I thought why not, a head popped up from behind the motorbike and it was Tola, the teacher. He was hanging out with his friend, the tuk tuk driver. He had nothing to do and nowhere to go, so we set off for the floating villages, about 10 kilometres outside of Siem Reap. There’s just one one long road with Tonle Sap lake on both sides, lined with mostly shacks built on stilts in the water, or raft like shacks that are floating.  However, when we got there, I knew for sure I wasn’t going into one of those little disaster boats, so I decided to just walk around the area, instead of drowning in the lake.

This was some of the worst poverty I’ve seen to date. And though this was bad, I’m sure there’s much worse places. At least here there was evidence of foreign money invested in the wells, a school and a library. Yet, this place resembled some sort of Disneyland of Desperation. Kids, often not even wearing pants and a t-shirt, playing soccer with a broken slipper for a ball, tiny one room shacks falling apart, probably housing a family of 10, some seriously sad stuff.

When we were walking along the road, a tiny little baby caught my eye. He was inside getting a bath. I had never seen such a tiny baby. He looked like he had just been born. I walked towards the room with Tola and he asked on my behalf how old the baby was. He was just one month old and weighed two kilos. To put it into perspective, the average weight of a Dutch baby at BIRTH is 3.3 kgs. I took some photos and Tola talked with them for a bit. Then as we were about to leave the older lady of the two turned to Tola and asked him if I wanted to take the baby. I was in total shock. I know it’s possible to buy a baby here for next to nothing, but this was the first time I was offered one.

This girl I found sitting by herself in the room. Not an adult in sight. Her house was connected to the road by small planks acting as a bridge. I know the safety of children isn’t a priority here, but just one mis-step and the child would fall a few meters down into the water.

Here’s a few more from that afternoon:

I know I write a lot about the kids here and most photos include a kid or two. And though I’m not known for my child-loving qualities, they really do something to me (and my wallet). Just this morning I was having breakfast at a really neat little French place called Tigre de Papier on Pub Street. I usually have my brekkie at a local place but I needed to use the internet so I decided to go to Tigre to use their free wifi. I had just finished eating my baguette and eggs, when I noticed a small boy standing next to a table with two foreigners having breakfast. His eyes were so fixated on the food and I observed him for a minute or so. The two foreigners completely ignored him though he was standing at their table, right in their face.

That’s what kills me the most here. I don’t always give these kids something, you just can’t as there’s so many, but ignoring them is degrading them. When I made eye contact with the boy he just looked at me with literally hungry eyes. I smiled at him and he gave me a faint smile in return. I asked him to come over, which he hesitantly did. He barely spoke English, but he understood ‘hungry?’. So I sat him down, ordered some noodles and a Coca Cola. The only thing I got out of him was that he was 10 years old. He told me his name, but I couldn’t decipher it. While waiting for his food he ravaged my pancake and fruit salad and when his food arrived I wondered how much he’d be able to eat.

Well, about half way through his meal, some of his bottle collector friends (he’s a bottle collector himself) walked by. Before I knew it, there were five kids around the table, taking turns having a go at the noodles and the Coca Cola. When it was all done, they left.

Just as I paid the bill, they were walking by again so we all set off to the place where I usually have my brekkie. All the kids ordered noodle soup with chicken. I asked the boy I had just fed if he wanted more. Oh yes. It really is like Tola told me ‘We eat whenever we can’. That boy finished the entire bowl of noodle soup and another Coca Cola. And he was just a scrawny little thing. Most of the kids finished their bowl. The few little scraps that were left, were carefully placed in a bag for ‘on the road’. And off they went, with their rice bags, back to collecting bottles.

On a lighter note, I also visited the Temples of Angkor. Moori, the tuk tuk driver who took me to my guesthouse, also took me to the temples. He is an English student at some Australian college here in town. He proudly showed me his marks from his last term. His English was good and so was his knowledge of the temples. He proposed a certain route to hit the most important temples (the whole site is huge and they even sell week passes for the temple fanatics) and I was all fine with that.

We started off with the temple that was featured in ‘Tombraider’; Ta Prohm. It was really cool. First a lovely walk through the jungle, surrounded by butterflies. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of tourists. It was very quiet there. I walked through the ruins, marveled at the weird trees with their spooky roots. After that we hit a few more temples such as Ta Keo, the Elephant Terrace and the Palace, Bayon and finally, the masterpiece of it all, Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat was a tourist trap. There were hundreds of people armed with cameras taking shots as if this was their last day on earth. There’s nothing to shoot there, unless you’re into shooting groups of weird Japanese tourists (what’s up with them? They tend to travel in packs, all armed with cameras, covered from head to toe, holding umbrellas. Or even better, the women wearing heels, attempting to climb ruins).

I am glad I did go see the temples. It’s absolutely surreal being there (especially Ta Phrom), but it doesn’t translate into photos at all. Here’s some more shots from my day:

The footbridge that leads to Angkor Wat

The kids here are so much smaller than in the Western world. I guessed these three boys were about 8 years old. In fact they were 13. It’s only their teeth that gives it away.

So after 10 days in Phnom Penh and 9 days in Siem Reap, I will be leaving Cambodia tomorrow morning. Though this country has been the hardest on me mentally, it has also been my favourite place, so far. It is very easy to talk to the people here and overall they are very friendly, always welcoming a chat. There haven’t been any of the blatant rip-offs I’ve encountered in Indonesia and Thailand, though the people here seem to be in more desperate need of money. There’s more obvious and worse poverty here, child labour is rampant. I read somewhere that almost half of the kids under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition, which is simply unacceptable, especially since there’s no famine here. There’s plenty of good food. My photographer friend Alan Dejecacion (check out his truly excellent work here) put it so well:

“They, like us, live in a world of plenty, where more food is produced than is consumed. People are dying, not because there is not enough food, but because they are too poor to buy it and have no land where they could grow their own.

It’s all about inequalitites. Always, everywhere, they are the reasons for deep-seated, persistent hunger – simply another name for injustice. This is why charity, however necessary it may be to alleviate distress, is not the relevant virtue for fighting hunger. That virtue is justice, because charity can never be more than a stop-gap – it does not and cannot change unjust structures.”

And before I leave Cambodia for another adventure (flying to KL tomorrow, spend the night in KL, then off to Manila), just one more from the Samrong Village School of Opportunity:

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siem reap

Posted in cambodia, siem reap by moonwire on September 19, 2009

On Monday morning, I took the bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. It wasn’t a bad ride at all. It took about six hours and everyone had a seat. It was interesting to see rural Cambodia. Because of the rainy season, everything is very green and it was just beautiful watching the rice paddies. About half way through we stopped for a break. I got out and got immediately ambushed by kids selling all kinds of food. And tarantulas. They had them crawling all over themselves. Some of the kids were carrying plates with deep fried tarantulas and things like cockroaches and grasshoppers. Needless to say, I wasn’t very hungry and got back on the bus very quickly. No, I don’t have any photos unfortunately. I seriously felt so sick looking at the spiders and the food…

Siem Reap really is a very small place. In some ways it reminds me of Luang Prabang, with the one street full of nice bars and restaurants. A few alleys around it, too. Everything is within walking distance. Luang Prabang as a town is much prettier though. But when it comes to pretty, Luang Prabang wins over any place I’ve ever been. But it’s just lovely here. One thing that’s hard to block out is the child labour and the many people with missing or deformed limbs selling books and postcards. They were in Phnom Penh as well, but you’ve got about the same amount here and this is a much smaller place.

Typical sight: a child working as a ‘bottle collector’.

One night I was on my way to the outdoor restaurant (almost all food is 1 dollar there, and excellent) at the end of Pub Street when two kids were trying to sell me bracelets. I do not buy this kind of stuff from kids in the street, but I asked them if they wanted to join me for dinner. Of course, you never  have to ask them twice, and all of a sudden there were three more kids. Okay, three more didn’t matter that much and we continued walking through Pub Street. Then we bump into a man in a makeshift wheelchair, holding a small yappy dog. He tried to sell me books, but I didn’t need them, but I asked him as well to come to the restaurant. Must have been quite the scene, me with 5 kids, a guy in a wheelchair and a dog in tow.

We had a good dinner, eating rice and noodles. Some of the kids spoke pretty good English, but the man in the wheelchair, his name is Joeun, did not, but he did understand a little. When I asked him if his dog was a boy or a girl he gave me a big toothless smile and answered ‘lady dog’, which somehow completely cracked me up. Joeun was born with severely deformed lower legs and supports his wife and three young children by selling books, mostly about life under the Khmer Rouge, to tourists. What a life. The sweetest thing though, was when he got his food, he immediately gave some pieces of meat and some rice to his ‘ladydog’ who finished her dinner very unladylike in a matter of seconds.

Another interesting meeting was with Tola. I was walking along the river when I saw this young man sitting on a bench, studying an English book. As always, it was very easy to strike up a conversation and we chatted for a while. He told me he was  24 years old, a student and he also volunteered teaching English to kids at a rural school about 30 kilometres from Siem Reap. He showed me some photos from the school and some teaching materials he uses. I asked him if it was possible for me to visit the school. He was happy to take me there.

Tola at the principal’s house.

So the next day we went to a village in Bakong on the motorbike. The first part of the trip was on a paved road, but the last 11 kilometres was not. Just a dirt road through the country. The scenery was beautiful. Lots of trees, rice paddies and butterflies. I know it’s not a wealthy area by any stretch of the imagination, but I was happy to see that people were living in proper houses (most made from wood, on stilts) and that most people had a skinny cow or two grazing, some chickens running around and a pig here and there.

First we made a stop at the school’s principal’s house. We had something to eat and drink there. Then another teacher, and I really should be taking note of these things, whose name I now can’t remember, took me to another teacher’s house where I was offered even more food and drinks. The whole family was preparing food and snacks for the upcoming holiday. As is very usual, several generations were living under one roof. We stayed there briefly before walking to the school.

When we got to the school I could barely believe that this was a school. Just a wooden shack divided in two. Two classrooms. During the day it is a public school and after hours there are English classes run by four volunteers. It was great seeing the kids arrive at school. Big smiles and excitement everywhere. They were a bit rowdy before the lesson started but as soon as it did, they paid a lot of attention. They were great kids. I had brought them pens and notebooks and they were very happy with something so small. They loved their picture taken. Though I think I took my best shots with the Nikon film camera, it was great shooting digital so I could show them the picture immediately. Here’s a few:

Around 5 pm we headed back to Siem Reap. It was a great afternoon.

Up next: the temples of Angkor.

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phnom penh (part 3)

Posted in cambodia, phnom penh by moonwire on September 13, 2009

I’ve spent 10 days in Phnom Penh and it’s hard for me to write about what I did. I really didn’t do all that much. Of course, I went to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (I went back another time, without the monks), but other than that, I didn’t do any of the touristy things. I would usually go out in the morning, have brekkie at the Vicious Cycle at 130 and 5th street. It’s a bicycle shop that offers cycling tours throughout the country, has a cafe and a laundromat. The food is really good and the staff is fantastic. Today, one of the employees sat down with me and we talked about life for young people here. He told me he went to university for 1.5 years, but then the money ran out so he had to go back to work. He said working at the Vicious Cycle was a really good job. He gets paid 60 USD a month for working 7 days a week from 6 AM to 9 PM with 2 days a month off. He, as well as some of the other employees sleep inside the building for free and they get 2 meals a day. It’s hard to imagine that that’s considered a ‘good job’ while I’m chowing down my food, which costs more than he makes in a day.

Rainy afternoon in Phnom Penh, taken from a tuk tuk.

I basically spent my time just walking around, observing life, take some photos, chat with the people. Then in the afternoon there’d usually be heavy showers, sometimes entire streets would get completely flooded, so I’d go to my room to read or just chill out. Then later in the afternoon I’d go out and do the same thing, ending up with having some drinks at the Foreign Correspondents Club or at the bar of the Velkommen Inn, the guesthouse I’m staying at.

Kid playing with a live frog on a string.

My guesthouse is located right in the heart of the “Girlie Bar” district (but it’s definitely not a Girlie Bar) and it’s fun to see the ladies (and ladyboys) arrive for work. Strutting their stuff wearing their high heels. There’s always something to see. I could just sit there for hours.

There’s also monkeys here that come look for food, as I’ve noticed. One afternoon I was having a sandwich and fries on the outside patio, when all of a sudden, a little one jumped down onto my table, grabbed my sandwich and ran back upstairs. Apparently, I was not the first one this happened to.

My days went by very quickly here. I totally enjoyed this city. Yes, it’s dirty and grimy and smoggy, disgusting and poverty is all around, but it’s so full of life and the people are so positive and welcoming. Phnom Penh is hard to resist.

Unfortunately, I’m unable to upload photos, so I don’t have too many new ones to show. I’ve also shot 6 rolls of film here, which I’ll have to develop when I get back. However, here’s some more photos from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This place has made the biggest impression on me.

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the monks and the killing fields

Posted in cambodia, phnom penh by moonwire on September 10, 2009

A couple of nights ago, I wandered around Phnom Penh with my camera ready for action when I heard a ‘hello’ coming from an open door. I looked back and a monk came out. We chatted a bit and he invited me into his quarters. He offered me tea and sweets and we talked a little bit. Shortly after, another monk joined us and he asked me if I wanted to help him with his pronunciation of English. I thought why not and promised to be back the next day. So, the next day I went over again and I let them read from their textbooks while I corrected them, or explained the meaning of certain words. Cats were running around, other monks came and went. It was really neat. And we repeated this the next day.

After the second lesson, they asked me if I could come back again and I told them that I would, but that I was planning on going to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum the next day. Then one of them said he’d never been there and if he could come, too. I was actually pretty shocked he asked that question. It never crossed my mind a monk could ask a solo female traveler to go out to somewhere. But yes, absolutely, I thought it would be great to have them come with me and I said I’d pick them up the next day at noon.

So, the next day, I show up at noon. Monk Mony was already waiting outside, holding a book about the Killing Fields. The other monk, and I sadly forgot his name (if I see him again, I’ll ask) wasn’t able to make it so I had a bit of a dilemma because I couldn’t take just the one. So Monk Mony asked another monk if he wanted to come and he said yes. He had not been to the Killing Fields either. So we get in the tuk tuk and made our way to Choeung Ek (the Khmer name for the Killing Fields). They were slightly giggly on the way there, especially when the rain came down in biblical proportions, but as soon as we got there, it all changed.

The monks were cheap dates.  When I asked for three tickets, the lady said: “the men don’t pay, only YOU pay”.

There really isn’t all that much to see but it’s very haunting to be there. There’s a big stupa filled with about 5,000 skulls. Some of them have obvious trauma, such as cracks and parts smashed in. Then there’s the mass graves. Because it had been raining so much, they were full of water. And mud. So we walked around the fields for a bit.

The monks looking at one of the many mass grave sites.

The  Magic Tree; the sign reads: “the tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.” To make sure that the killing of  people was kept a secret, the killers played revolutionary music through two loudspeakers hung from the tree, so the cries and screams would not be heard by the unknowing soldiers who were growing rice next to the site.

When we got back to the tuk tuk, I told them that I was going to Tuol Sleng, the notorious security prison 21 (formerly a high school), where between 1975 and 1979 some 17,000 to 20,000 people were taken to under the Khmer Rouge regime. Though all kinds of different people entered these chambers of hell — men, women, children, teachers, intellectuals, monks, and everybody else branded as ‘class enemies’ — their sentences were uniform and determined as soon as they got arrested: death.

Only 7 people detained here over those 4 years made it out alive after the Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh in january 1979.

The museum is pretty much left as how it was found by the Vietnamese.  You can still see where blood stained the tiles.  On the ground floor each room has a bed with a few pieces on it, such as shackles. On the wall there’s a  photo of that same bed with a tortured to death prisoner on it.There’s nothing else in those rooms.

In another building you see displays of thousands of photos of prisoners. Some of them have blank stares, others have agonizing fear in their eyes.  Then there’s the photos of prisoners after they’re killed. Seemingly endless rows.

The top floors show the cells. They are tiny, maybe 80 cms wide and 150 cms long. Prisoners were bolted to the floor there. Some of them have barred windows, others are completely dark.

Somewhere on a wall somebody wrote:

“When this was a prison, nobody learned.
When this was a school, nobody died.”

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phnom penh

Posted in cambodia, phnom penh by moonwire on September 6, 2009

I took a tuk tuk on Friday Morning to Wattay International airport. A tuk tuk is a motorbike with a carriage attached to it. I love these things, despite perpetually getting overcharged for them (they are as much as a regular taxi). You don’t go too fast and because it’s open, except for a roof, you get to see all kinds of things. The sun was still low enough to give that nice warm light and with a few choppers flying low, and the morning ‘rush hour’ in full swing, I felt as if I was in a Vietnam war movie.

I flew with Vietnam Airlines to Phnom Penh. It was a pretty big jet plane originating in Hanoi, making stops in Vientiane, Phnom Penh and continuing onwards to Saigon. There were only few people on it. Makes me wonder if I’d been taken for a ride by being told all the flights to Phnom Penh were full until Friday. Doesn’t matter. Had I left Vientiane earlier, I would not have experienced the beauty of that city like I ended up experiencing. Just for this reason, and my own sanity, I have decided that spending a week in every place, unless I really hate it, is a good thing.

I arrived in Phnom Penh just before noon. My flight actually took off early, how un-Asian. I checked into the Tonle Sap Guesthouse on street 104. The tuk tuk driver told me not to go there as it’s the ‘red light district’. I had checked before, and yes, most bars and guesthouses here are of the ‘girlie’ variety, but my guesthouse wasn’t one of them. So I checked in. The room was ho hum. Clean, but dark without character. I had good free wifi there, which was a bonus. And a kick ass bathroom with a tub.

In the afternoon I ventured out a little in the neighbourhood. So busy. So full of life and so full of ‘crumble’ and poverty as well. But the people… I couldn’t take two steps without getting a hello or a smile. One man stopped me and pointed in the sky, I looked, there were monkeys crossing the road on the wires. I saw a man on a motorbike with a kid on the back. He was holding the kid’s IV. People holding infants and entire dining room sets while riding a scooter. Mayhem.

At night I wanted to go for a beer. The bar at my guesthouse was a bit too dingy and ‘girlie’ for me, so I went across the street to a neat little Norwegian owned place called ‘Velkommen Inn’. I sat down outside with an Angkor beer. A woman who worked there came out to sit with me and we chatted. Her name was ‘Noj’ (not sure how to spell it). We talked. She said they were also running a non-girlie 5 room guesthouse upstairs. She showed me a room that would become available the next day. I told her I’d like to move in there for the week.

The following day, I walked around some more in the neighbourhood and in the afternoon I bought my ‘krama’ (typical Cambodian checkered scarf) and took a tuk tuk around town. I took some shots, nothing really good, but it was interesting to see the city like that. After that, I went to the Foreign Correspondents Club (the FCC or ‘the F’ as they call it here) for some happy hour pastis. This place was pretty busy. All foreigners, of course. I had already been wondering where they were hiding because as I was walking through the streets I encountered very very few. I think because there’s not a lot of touristy things here, most people just pass through to see the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum (S21), then onto Angkor Wat.

Dilapidated apartment blocks; they’re everywhere.

I watched the sunset from their balcony. Absolutely amazing. But I also saw some disturbing stuff. I saw a man with one leg crawling through heavy traffic trying to cross the street. I was holding my breath watching this go down. The contrasts here are amazing. In the afternoon we went through a busy shopping street with modern malls and shops selling high end DSLR gear (and some film cameras, I noticed, I will go back to check that out) and well dressed Khmer getting out of a Lexus SUV, then a few streets over there’s children dressed in rags, amputees sitting in the dirt in front of make-shift shacks.

Another weird thing I didn’t realize is that this is a USD economy. The ATMs dispense USD and for most of the stuff you pay in USD but you might get change in Riel. And you can pay with a combination of USD and Riel here. At first this threw me off, but now I look at it as USD being the bills and the Riel are the coins and it’s actually very convenient.

So far, I love this place. It’s not as cheap as I imagined, though. Yes, buying a bowl of noodles at a stall is dirt cheap, but anything more like a ‘real’ cafe or restaurant is much more expensive than Thailand, or even Laos. Or maybe I’ve become jaded after Indonesia and Thailand where it’s very easy to find a $2 lunch at a restaurant. But the people here are so friendly and chatty. Yes, getting asked if I want a motorbike or tuk tuk every two seconds is kind of annoying, but just looking at their smiles makes me smile too.

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vientiane (part 2)

Posted in laos, vientiane by moonwire on September 3, 2009

Just a few days before leaving, Vientiane has definitely unleashed its charm on me. I remember how I arrived here at first and thought ‘this is it?’ After having spent a week here, I’ve discovered there’s so much more to it than initially meets the eye. The people here, just like in Luang Prabang, are amazing. They are nice and helpful and interested in your whereabouts (and like to practice English). Everything is so mellow here, even the traffic. It’s strange that a town like this is the capital of a country.

My last few days here were really good. The weather was also cooperating more. There were still heavy rains overnight and in the early morning, but none of the 6 hour downpours that I experienced at first. And though I’ve gone off rice and noodles, I did have a really good Lao noodle dish here. Spicy (and very salty).

This morning I got up early to visit the morning market. Because it had rained a lot overnight, it was very messy and muddy but that didn’t seem to deter anybody, including myself. Absolute mayhem. Just like any other South East Asian country I’ve visited , there are a lot of motorbikes. There were major traffic jams right in the market.

And of course, seeing all the flies on the meat and fish made me hurl my cookies (again) but I did end up having brekkie with a girl I met, Leah. She’s 10 years old. Speaks a tiny bit of English and doesn’t go to school because there’s no money (this breaks my heart). She helps out her family by selling packets of chewing gum. Heart breaking. We had breakfast (though I skipped the mystery meat) and I gave her my umbrella. Later in the afternoon, I saw her walking down the streets again, with my umbrella. She didn’t see me but it made me smile.

Some more images from the morning market:

This afternoon I went back to Wat Mixay, the temple just around the corner from my hotel, where I had met a few giggly monks earlier. Well, I was right on time. The monks were shaving eachother’s head and eyebrows in preparation of a big festival on Sunday. I chatted with them for a while and they let me take photos of the shaving event. One of them, monk Syriya, the one who’s getting the close shave in the photographs, asked if I could email him the shots. Somehow, this cracked me up.

I’m off to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, tomorrow. I can only hope it will be even remotely as good as Laos. This is my first trip to South East Asia, and I’m trying to do a ‘best of’ but I’d like to return to Laos one day, and see more of this beautiful country and its people.

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Posted in laos, vientiane by moonwire on September 1, 2009

On Friday morning I packed my stuff  and I headed to the airport. Luang Prabang airport is tiny. They only have two terminals. One domestic, one international (Thailand only, though now that I think about it, there might be flights to Sieam Reap (Angkor Wat) as well). I saw an ATR72 plane land and I thought that would be our plane. Nice on time. I had flown into Luang Prabang on a turboprop like that and though initially I was a bit nervous; it was fine. Then, when it was time to board, I noticed that people from the International terminal bound for Chiang Mai were getting onto that plane. So I looked around, and what did I see? An even tinier turboprop, a Chinese made MA60. Oh lord. I wasn’t expecting that. However, the plane was only half full and I had two seats to myself and the ride was fine. Got a good view of the Laos landscape –  mountainous jungle and the Mekong river.

It didn’t even take 40 minutes to get to Vientiane. I was so glad I had taken the plane instead of an 11 hour bus ride. And the beauty of domestic flights is that you’re out of the airport in no time. Within 15 minutes of landing I was already in downtown Vientiane. I hadn’t booked a hotel yet, but I had a few names I wanted to check out. The first one was the Vayakorn Guesthouse and though they didn’t have any single rooms available, I could get a double for only a few dollars more. And it’s worth it. It’s a big room with windows on two sides so it’s bright and airy. Wooden floors, good bed, nice bathroom. After roughing it in Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, I was really hoping for something half decent and this is more than that. The only thing missing is a balcony, though the hotel has a patio where you can have a drink and watch life go by. And there’s good wifi there 🙂

However, my initial reaction to Vientiane was a huge disappointment. I expected more of a city. Luang Prabang is tiny, but there’s a lot more going on in terms of vibrancy and beauty. More restaurants, too. I checked out the ‘downtown core’ and was done with that in about an hour. So, on Saturday I wanted to book a flight to Phnom Penh for the Tuesday or Wednesday. Well, it didn’t work out like that. All the flights are full so I’m stuck here til Friday. Though I was a bit down about it at first, I’m okay with it now. Vientiane and I might never have the love affair I was hoping for, but at least we’ve become friends.

I’m trying to make the most of my time but there isn’t much to see or do. I visited a few temples, did the touristy things like the Vientiane ‘Arc de Triomphe’ but something is missing here. It’s the hustle and bustle. It’s so quiet here. It reminds me of Krabi Town in a way, which is nice to check out  for two days, but a week would be overkill. However, I am still enjoying the quiet days, the breakfasts at one of the many bakeries and a good Beer Lao at night.

The other day I walked around for about an hour and I already found myself  in the outskirts, not too far from the airport. It was interesting to see but seeing poverty is heart wrenching. I don’t even feel like taking pictures of these people. It’s just too much. Depressing. If I could describe Vientiane in one word, it would be “crumbling”.

The food… well, Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang were heaven. Here, the only decent thing I’ve had are the baguettes. And well, they’re good. They also do know how to make a good cup of coffee, which always makes me happy. I think I’m just so sick of Asian food that I can barely enjoy it anymore. I remember the days in Bali where I’d happily eat nasi goreng (fried rice) three times a day. I can’t even stomach the thought of rice and noodles at the moment, but I sometimes still eat from the cholera cart. Just for fuel.

This morning I went to the COPE Laos Centre. This organization deals with victims of UXO (unexploded ordnance). How little did I know. I had no idea that Laos is one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world. During the ‘secret war’ the US pretty much carpet bombed the entire country as part of their mission in the Vietnam war. Many of those bombs (about 78 million) did not explode at the time but have been wrecking havoc in Laos on a daily basis ever since.

Teams are working hard to uncover these potential explosives but it will take more than a hundred years for laos to be UXO free.

I watched a Canadian documentary called ‘Bombies’ but the most heartbreaking one was a short interview in which a woman tells the story of her 8 year old son. How he got severely injured by one of the bombies. He was taken to the hospital but they didn’t have any ogyxen and blood, so they took him home to die.

I cried my eyes out.

Off to Phnom Penh on Friday. I’ve been reading so much about the history of the places I’m visiting, I can’t get enough. Though mostly severely depressing, it interests me a lot. Visiting the Killing Fields will be something else.  I’ve got my Kleenex ready…

A few more for your viewing pleasure:

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