Tag Archives: Cambodia

How to Ride a Motorcycle Across SE Asia

Originally Posted on OffTrackPlanet.com

When it comes to Southeast Asia, everyone has the same guidebook and the same itinerary. Chances are you’ve island hopped through Thailand, trekked through Laos, hit a tranny bar here and there and you still haven’t left the crowd behind.

You’re stuck on the Banana Pancake Trail. It’s time to get off…

You need to do something unique; something everyone else is too scared to do. How about buying a Soviet-made motorbike for $300 and riding it from Saigon to Hanoi? Sound crazy? It is – but you can do it and OTP is well-prepared to guide you through one of the wildest adventures to be had in Southeast Asia.

Step 1:

Learn How to Ride

Vietnam is NOT the place to learn how to ride a motorbike. It’s dangerous and you must know at least the basics of riding. If you are still stateside, go to the DMV and take a basic safety course for about $250. Warm up to riding in Asia by renting smaller motorbikes in Thailand.

Step 2:

Make Some Rough Plans (Pick Your Starting Point)

It makes more sense to start in Hanoi if you are coming from China or northern Laos; Ho Chi Minh City if you are coming from Cambodia. Although Hanoi is an easier place to find a bike, either city will work. Buy the bike in one city, ride it to the other and sell it. Simple.

The north-south journey takes a month. If you are short on time, stick to the north and make the beautiful Hanoi-Dien Bien Phu-Sapa loop. Alternatively, you can seek out the EasyRiders, a local Vietnamese crew, that offers short and long-term tours on the back of their choppers.

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Step 3:

Pick Your Highway

You don’t want to make too many plans in advance. Relax and give yourself the freedom to make up your exact route as you go along. You can choose to follow the coast for the beaches, swing into the misty mountains or carve along jungle valleys, beside waterfalls and through thatched hill-tribe villages. While most of the rides offer a great mix of scenery, there’s a fork in the road between Hoi An and Nha Trang.

Take the rural route through Dalat and up into the Central Highlands instead of coastal Highway 1. While Highway 1 connects all the coastal cities in one endless chain of life-threatening traffic, rural roads are usually secluded, peaceful, and incredibly scenic. The great north-south rural highway is called the Ho Chi Minh Highway – follow it across almost the entire country. Although there are far less services available along the rural route, the Vietnamese are incredibly warm people and will usually help you however they can. Besides, learning how to get out of such jams puts hair on your chest, don’t it?

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaWhen planning your route, remember that rain in the mountains, means sun on the beach and vice versa. Also, even when you need to travel along the coast, you can easily hop off Highway 1 and putz along smaller side roads. A great way to learn about the sights along the way is by asking the Easy Rider crew for tips.

P5300024 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaStep 4:

Find a Bike…and Make it a Minsk

Once you arrive, the first step is to find a bike that won’t break the bank. This will require a few days, a bit of tenacity and some bargaining skills.

OTP likes the Soviet-made Minsk. It’s reliable, simple, durable, can handle all the dirt roads you will inevitably encounter and will carry all your crap through rain and shine. They’re also easy to find in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Since you’re too broke for a new Minsk (at $700), a used one can be nabbed for $200-$400, depending on how well you bargain.

Search for For Sale flyers in hostels, restaurants, internet cafes and on the street. If you are in Hanoi, swing past the Minsk Club to look for leads. Some people have been lucky and found bikes on the Internet before they even arrived.

Once you find a bike or two, its time to…

Step 5:

…Bargain Your Ass Off!

You’ll likely buy your Minsk from another backpacker – one who has a month’s less money and a month’s more experience bargaining like the Vietnamese. You’ll need to sit at the bargaining table with some tricks up your sleeve.

Find out the strengths and weaknesses of both you and the seller. His strength lies in the limited supply of bikes – so the more sellers you can play off each other, the better. His weakness is time and an immediate need for funds to continue traveling. To knock the price down you must find the weaknesses in the bike: point out what’s broken, how old it is – anything you can find.

Dance with a few sellers for a bit, then seal the deal over a few pitchers of bia hoi. Play your cards right and he’ll buy you all the spare parts you’ll need to sweeten the deal. Don’t fork over the cash until everything is to your satisfaction.

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You get what you pay for. You may not need a brand-new bike, but you don’t necessarily want the cheapest bike you can find. Bargain for a good deal, but make sure the bike you buy will actually make it all the way to Hanoi.

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Step 6:

Learn The Minsk

Now that you’ve got your Minsk, lift up her skirt up and see how she works. Tool around the Minsk Club Vietnam website then fine-tune your knowledge by reading our guide below.

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Each Minsk has her own personality, complete with unique quirks. Have the seller explain how to start her when she won’t, fix her when she’s broke, and maintain her along the way. As with everything in nature, the older the bike, the more quirks she’ll likely to have.

Step 7:

Get Some Supplies

You’ll need to prepare yourself for this journey. Every rider should carry the tools and supplies he needs to make roadside repairs. Your bike should come with tools. Some extras you will need: spark plugs, chains, spare lights and brake cables.

As for the belongings you already have in your backpack – shed the junk, keep the basics. You’ll have to carry everything on the back of the bike, so keep it lightweight. Check our Packing 101 Guide for assistance.

Step 8:

Tune Her Up

Wheel her to a mechanic for a full rub-down. Make sure the less obvious components are working as well: namely, the horn, brakes and lights. Spy on how the mechanic systematically checks each part of the Minsk and use what you learn as a guide to fixing her up on your own later.

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Once she is fully tuned, you will have to keep her in good condition. Learn about daily maintenance and you will save yourself a lot of breakdowns.

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Step 9:

Rules of the Road

You’re almost ready to take off. The streets of Hanoi might seem like a massive clusterfuck, but don’t stress – there’s a method to the madness. Here’ s the breakdown:

Might is right. Big-ass trucks and tourist buses dominate the center of the road, normal trucks and cars are in the middle and motorcyclists are on the shoulder. Passing is the norm in Vietnam and even the semi-trailers will swing into the opposite lane to pass someone. Stay alert. Typically you drive your bike until you approach another driver from the rear, then honk twice as a friendly signal and pass them on the left side. Repeat all day.

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Getting out of the cities can be the hardest bit. Warm up by hiring a motorcycle taxi and riding around the city to get a feel for the flow of traffic. Repeat until you feel comfortable enough to take off. There is no shame in paying a motorcycle taxi driver $5 to guide you to the outskirts of the city on your first day.

Step 10:

Take Off and Let Go

You now have freedom from itineraries, fixed bus schedules and group tours; you can go anywhere and stop as long as you like.. Just you, the Minsk and the road.

Step 11:

Harness your Chi and Focus Your Zen

There’s something spiritual about embarking on an adventure like this. Here’s a few tips on how to get your Zen on.

  • Slow down. As you plan out each leg of the journey, reign in your ambitions. Remember that you are no longer traveling by bus – driving a motorbike is physically exhausting. You feel every last mile and you are always at the mercy of the weather. The roads are windy, slow and not always paved.
  • Bring yourself into the moment. The constant fear that death lurks around each corner strips away all your distant concerns and brings you to the here and now. You may never do something like this again, so make sure your mind is fully appreciating it and not off in the clouds.
  • Accept setbacks and delays with a smile. When breakdowns happen on the road – and they will – learn to embrace them as a chance to slow down and pause in a part of Vietnam you normally would have sped past. Take five minutes to admire the view of the jungle before getting down to work. Remember, delays don’t exist. You have nowhere to be but here, in the moment. Smile.
  • Open yourself to the endless possibilities of the road. Take as many detours as you like. Check out the small villages, take the road that isn’t on your map and accept the offers to have tea with local families. Vietnamese visas typically last one month, but you are free to extend yours and stay another month or two. And, rumor has it, if you carry enough US dollars, you might be able to use some baksheesh to illegally sneak your bike into Cambodia or Laos.
  • Stick it to Mass Tourism. By taking this bike ride on your own, you have circumvented the middleman between you and your host country. As you journey farther into the misty mountains and away from the tourist trail, you will transcend mass tourism and encounter a more fundamental human relationship with your host country. Differences in nationality, beliefs, age, and income will disappear. While other backpackers are paying $20 a night for “authentic homestays,” your entire journey will transform into one enormous authentic experience.

As you pull away from Saigon, you’ll taste true freedom. As you chase the sunset along Vietnam’s golden coastline, you’ll arrive in the present moment. As you slip into top gear and rip alongside endless fields of rice paddies, you’ll discover what it feels like to be young and alive. That is, of course, how we should feel all the time. But sometimes it takes a bit of old-fashioned adventure to remind us.

Asia in Retrospect – Final Post (Beijing, China)

And now, it is my last day in Beijing; I am finally ready to leave China, finally ready to go to Mongolia, to Siberia to Moscow on Trans-Siberian Railroad.  I have my tickets in my hand, my visas in my passport, and my plane tickets back to the US are already booked.  My journey across Asia is finished.  I cannot believe the words that flow from my fingers – journey and finished in the same sentence.  How can this be?

I guess it’s been over a half year, hasn’t it?  I left the United States on the very day that Obama was inaugurated, two Americans on two different paths, with two different sets of obstacles but sharing the same Hope and Optimism, the belief that we can salvage something from this crazy world and build something good from the chaos.

I have discovered many things on my journey, too many to write at the moment.  I had many pleasant surprises, but more often I was shocked by reality and forced to re-evaluate the world as I thought I knew.  My worldview has been destroyed and reborn almost every week, and each time it has been recast with a different perspective, each time slightly closer to the wisdom I seek.

The world I lived in before in California was quite a comfortable one.  It was easy to remain ignorant of many of the world’s ills, simply because so much of our world appeared to revolve around the America – Hollywood made all the movies on my television, CNN always talked about the issues that effected me and my people, and my President’s decisions appeared to influence the way the world worked, the way it was.

But I have been in South, South East, and East Asia for the better part of the last 14 months, and I don’t think I can return to that same way of thinking.  I have spoken with people from dozens of countries on countless issues and I have seen how some of the world’s poorest people survive. As a good friend of mine told me, life just isn’t the same once you’ve seen the moon from the other side of the world.

As I look back at the first months of my adventure, I laugh at my vain attempt to label the dates of each post – I lost track of time in the time-warp that is Burma.  Now, as I look back on all the places I have visited I can see phases emerging from within my Odyssey.

I started in Singapore, clean-shaven, energetic and ready to go.  I skipped through Malaysia quickly because I had yet to learn the value of traveling slowly.  In Thailand, Jay and I let loose and lost ourselves on the beaches amongst the seemingly endless number of beautiful people.

In Burma, I needed something different – I needed the anti-Thailand.  I got it.  I also got my first taste of what it is like to live without freedom, and I witnessed political oppression for the first time.

After Burma, I headed to Laos and saw the scars from the Vietnam War for the first time.  But Laos is a beautiful country with wonderful people, and I enjoyed my time sipping coffee and lounging around lazily like the Laotians do.  And of course, I will never forget how the locals included me in their celebration of the Buddhist New Year…then forced me to eat a boiled duck embryo.

Cambodia was a humanitarian nightmare.  In Angkor Wat I saw the potential greatness of the human race, and in the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, I saw mankind at its most cruel.  Cooperation erected the temples at Angkor, hatred dug the mass graves of the Khmer Rouge.  Cambodia tested my faith in humanity, but I emerged from the wreckage of genocide with a determination to do what I can to make the world a better place, a world free from Killing Fields and mass executions.

Vietnam was incredible, definitely my favorite overall country.  Stunning beaches, virgin jungles, excellent food, and hospitable people – but tough bargainers.  And of course, there was The Minsk.  Riding The Minsk across Vietnam has forever endeared me to travel by motorbike and inspired in my mind countless other motorbike journeys.

And then I came to China.  At first I didn’t know what to make of China at first because it was so large, so ancient, and changing so fast.  I initially disliked China simply because of how different it was from the South East Asian backpacking circuit.  And in Tibet I realized just how much you can disagree with someone’s government while still loving their people.  Many people I have met have expressed their contempt for George Bush while telling me that they love Americans.  It would be a pity if each country’s citizens were equated with their worst politicians.  China has grown on me, and as I leave I regret not having more time to explore this mighty civilization.

Have I shaken myself of all of my biases?  No, certainly not.  Many of them remain within this blog, but I am hesitant to correct them because I would rather preserve the way I thought at that moment, for ignorance is a step in the direction of knowledge.  A sanitized blog would be boring.

Instead, I have laid my naked thoughts before you and displayed my imperfect self for all to see.  Though my primary subject has been my host countries, I suppose you have learned more about me than you have about the places I have visited.  Maybe you feel you know me better, or maybe you think I have changed.  Though now I may seem to you a different person, if you trace my thoughts through my writings you shall discover the mind that rests within my current self.

At the onset of my journey I assumed I would cross into Russia as an enlightened traveler, as if my journey would inevitably elicit a series of spiritual revelations and magically endow me with wisdom of the world.  Seven months later, I summarize all I have learned with a quote from Socrates: “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”   With every revelation came more questions, with each taste of wisdom came greater appreciation for the complexity of our existence.  Traveling has humbled me and encouraged me to continue my exploration of the cultures, histories and languages of the world.

Now I conclude what has been, up to now, the best period of my young life.  It was a half year of experimental living during which I ignored the societal pressure to start a career, and instead followed my heart’s desires – to hitchhike, to wander, to ride motorbikes, to search for terra incognita and to test the words and theories of my favorite authors.  I had to know if it was possible to wander aimlessly like Dean Moriarty, if it was possible to chart one’s own path like Thoreau.  My journey was, in this sense, quite a quixotic quest, a product of reading too many beatnik books and listening to too much Bob Dylan.  But, like Don Quixote, I discovered that by imitating the stories I so admired in books, I soon became embroiled in the same dramas as my favorite works of fiction.  The lines between the fictional and the possible blurred and soon I had my own stories to tell.

As I read my first post, Castles in the Sky, I can’t help but smile at my words – the excitement, the energy, the wide-eyed wonder that first drove me to Singapore with nothing more than a few t-shirts and pen and paper.  I chased my dreams across all of Asia only to watch them materialize in new, unexpected forms.  I spent more time in Asia than I expected, and almost none in Europe; I intended to hitchhike across Europe this summer, but instead I am moving to Spain for an entire year.  The same dream, but in a different form.

Now my trans-Asian journey is finished.  I will be in California for two weeks before moving to a small village in rural Spain, where I spent one year studying Spanish and teaching English.  As one adventure ends, another begins.

So off I go, to Mongolia, to Siberia, to Moscow, riding on the train of my dreams, wandering in search of The Truth, stumbling blindly down the path of life, using ideas as my maps, and guided by the one thing that has remained constant as the world has shifted around me – the stars.  This is the beauty of Celestial Navigation.

I hope you have enjoyed my stories, and if you buy me a few beers when I get home I’ll tell you some more!  Now throw away your maps, look to the starts for guidance and start wandering!  I gotta go; I’ve got a train to catch!

– Marko

Beijing, China, 26 July 2009

The End!

Good Morning, Vietnam! (Cambodia/Vietnam Border)

Kampot – Vietnamese Drivers – Distinct Culture – S. Vietnamese History – Fortunate Son
My Lonely Planet guidebook described Kampot as being a pleasant riverside town with “fine French architecture.” I now know that “fine French architecture” is a euphemistic phrase that really means, “There is absolutely nothing to do here.” Therefore, I did nothing for a few days.
Like so many Cambodian towns, Kampot has seen better days. And like much of former Indochina, her crumbling French villas are steadily being converted into posh coffee shops, complete with L.A.-priced WiFi and Parisian-priced café-au-laits. One must give credit to the ambitions of these entrepreneurs, who expect, at these prices, annual revenues exceeding Cambodia’s GDP!
After a few days in Kampot, I was ready to leave Cambodia. Other travelers had told me, ‘two weeks is enough time for Cambodia.’ I agreed now agreed with them, but for different reasons. My visit from Athena had renewed my sense of purpose and Hera’s message pushed me forwards towards my new life in Spain. I was no longer an aimless wanderer – I had a job waiting for me halfway across the world.
I made my way out of Kampot to the border and caught a motorcycle taxi into Vietnam, then hopped on the first local bus heading towards Saigon. The bus sped along the banks of the Mekong, honking the horn incessantly and playing Vietnamese pop music at full volume. Our bus was at the front of a six-bus convoy that drove down the middle of the road, plowing through a sea of motorcycles with hundreds of bikes going each direction.
About twice a minute our convoy would encounter another line of buses also driving down the middle of the road, but going in the other direction. I gripped my seat with white-knuckles and watched my life pass before my eyes each time. Then, moments before collision, the bus drivers would flash their hi-beams and honk their horns in some South Vietnamese Morse Code unknown to me, and at the last possible second they would swerve to the side of the road – literally, within inches of the Mekong river – narrowly dodging water buffalo, children, and bikers, and then cut back to the center of the road, as if nothing happened.
But beyond the crazy bus transportation, there were other distinct aspects of Vietnam. I had entered a new part of Asia, for Vietnamese is culturally closer to China then of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. While the other SE Asian countries were influenced by Hinduism and subsequently Theravada Buddhism, Vietnam was dominated by China for 1,000 years, so the Vietnamese adopted Confucian beliefs and follow the Confucian and Taoist-influenced Mayahana Buddhism.
The Chinese imparted many of their values on the Vietnamese, particularly a respect for hierarchy, an emphasis on an individual’s social obligations, intense family loyalty, and a reverence for education and scholarship.
Despite the strong Chinese influences, Vietnam has retained its identity. Though Laos Thailand and Cambodian cultures blended together in many ways, the same was not true in Vietnam – immediately upon crossing the border I knew I was in Vietnam.
The first part of Vietnam I entered was the Mekong Delta region, one of two major civilizations built around river deltas in Vietnam, the other being the Red River Delta in the north. The Mekong Delta was taken from the Khmer kings of Angkor Wat, something the Cambodians will never forget.
The original Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta arrived as settlers from the overcrowded north in search of land. These settlers were exposed to other cultures and religions and became increasingly independent from their more conservative northern brothers. In the 17th century these differences came to a head and the country was split between the Trinh dynasty in the north and the Nyugen dynasty in the south.
This division became more pronounced during the French colonial period, as the French broke the country into three administrative regions, put most of their energy into developing the economy of the south (Cochin China), while they neglected the north (Tonkin and Annam). Through irrigation, water control, and land reclamation, the French transformed the Mekong Delta from a lightly populated swamp into one of the world’s leading rice exporters. The French claim to have boosted rice production by 420%, but many of the farmers still remained sharecroppers and the economy become increasingly dependent on rice exports.
Meanwhile, the northerners were suffering from over population and heavy indebtedness. By the time the French colonial period came to an end, the divisions between the struggling north and prosperous south had become deeper and the stage was set for the conflict that would eventually divide the country during the American-Vietnamese War.
But enough facts for now, the history lesson is finished for the day. If you want to watch an interesting movie illustrating the end of the French colonial period in southern Vietnam, I recommend IndochineSo let’s just say I was in Vietnam, a place culturally distinct from the rest of her neighbors, deep in the Mekong Delta, a place culturally distinct from the rest of Vietnam. Distinct was the theme for a few days.
After a few hours of riding along the Mekong on that crazy bus, I alighted in a small city called Can Tho and searched for a place to sleep for the night. I had endured enough of Vietnamese public buses for one day. It was time to sleep.
As I walked through the streets of Can Tho, I smiled at the irony of my situation. In 1969, Vietnam was the last place a 23-year old American wanted to go – as the Credence Clearwater Revival song said, only the college-educated Fortunate Sons were able to avoid the draft. But in 2009, this fortunate college-educated kid was on his way into ‘Nam with a huge grin on his face. Oh, the times they are a-changing, are they not?

Pallas Athena Visits me on the Beach (Sihanoukville, Cambodia)

Sihanoukville is the biggest of a handful of beach towns scattered along Cambodia’s small stretch of coastline. The backpacker hangout, Serendipity Beach, is a tawdry version of the French Riviera where the beaches are lined with dilapidated beach chairs and tattered, mismatched parasols. Every inch of the beachfront is occupied by bars and restaurants, some more successful than others, and all populated by lonely middle-aged sex tourists. Legions of children walk through the sand peddling books, bracelets, bananas, bandanas, and Ray Bans. They speak English fluently, albeit almost entirely in slang learned from tourists, and though the girls are quite sassy, the boys can be downright punks. Behind the children come the legless landmine victims who drag themselves through the sand begging tourists for change. Tourists spend the day lounging in beach chairs basking in a cheap illusion of luxury; the men drink pints of Angkor Beer for $0.50, the women get their toenails painted for $1, everyone smokes their way through $3 bags of weed, and the beachfront restaurants serve pizzas for $5 and happy pizzas for $6.

I came to Sinhanoukville in pursuit of yet another hopelessly romantic adventure – catching a ride on the top of a freight train from Sihanoukville to the neighboring town of Kampot. It was a the only railway the French had built in Cambodia, and with a max speed of around 20 km/hr it was one of the slowest trains in the world. Within hours of my arrival I had located the railway station, only to find it abandoned and overgrown with weeds.   Once again, my dream collapsed in the face of reality.
What to do? Pure escapism was in order: relaxing on the beach and reading books would do just fine. I swapped out my horribly depressing novels on the Khmer Rouge’s genocide for lighter reading – Treasure Island and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
On my third day in Sihanoukville I was sitting on a beach chair, working on my tan and sipping on a mango fruit shake, when an owl appeared from nowhere and landed on my armchair. The owl jumped closer to me, cocked its head and said “Hello, Mark.” I lifted my mango shake to eye-level and inspected it closely, certain that I had accidently ordered a happy shake and that this talking owl was nothing more than a hallucinatory byproduct of a strong marijuana-mango-milkshake.
Before I could make sense of it all, the owl metamorphosed into a beautiful tall blonde woman, dressed in a flowing white robe with a helmet of gold, a massive shield and lance, and a snakeskin breastplate. Ahhh, Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom! Though no one else seemed to notice her, I greeted her and inquired as to the purpose of her visit.
“Mark, I come on behalf of your guardian on Mount Olympus, Hera, wife of mighty Zeus who drives the storm cloud. Hera and I have been reading your blog on Glimpse.org regularly, and we are slightly worried about you after the last few posts. You have been traveling for four months now, and, like Odysseus on the island of Scheria, you seem exhausted and weary. Are you in good spirits?”
“I’m doing alright, Athena. I guess I was unprepared for what I saw in Cambodia. I never knew human beings were capable of doing what the Khmer Rouge did. I mean, I’m on vacation, and I thought vacations were supposed to be enjoyable, not depressing!”
“But are you really on vacation? I have often heard you say ‘I’m not on vacation, I’m traveling.’ Your journey is not simply a two-week escape, it’s a direct confrontation with reality, is it not?”
“Yeah, I guess that is true.” I replied.
“Why are you wasting your time on a beach? Why are you reading fantasy books about pirates in the Caribbean? Don’t try to run from where you are, turn and face reality. You must ask yourself why you are traveling.”
“Hmm…I don’t know anymore. I guess I want to learn more about the world around me. I want to broaden myself and experience other cultures while I have the opportunity.”
Athena smiled at me. “Is that not what you have been doing? Was your Cambodian history lesson not part of your quest for knowledge?”
I thought for a moment, and then said, “Yeah, I guess so. But it’s just frustrating to have my opinions and philosophies in a constant state of flux. My mind has switched back and forth so many times that I feel like I am getting further from The Truth, not closer to it!”
“Mark, I am the Goddess of Wisdom. Your frustration is a result of my giving you the knowledge which you seek. Be not frustrated; trust me, Mark, you are getting closer to The Truth. Worry not if it does not make sense at the moment, if you continue on your quest you will emerge from this journey more knowledgeable than you expect.”
“You are right. I am blessed to have the Goddess of Wisdom on my side in this battle. How are things up on Mount Olympus?”
“Zeus who is preoccupied with chasing Earth women across Greece, but Ares is still fuming. He has not forgotten your dalliance with Aphrodite; in fact he is getting more jealous every day. Ares keeps begging Zeus to surround you in monsoon clouds and pummel you with thunderbolts.   Hera is keeping Apollo of the Silver Bow at bay and Zeus has prohibited Ares from attacking you on his own. For now, it’s essentially a stalemate.”
“Ahh, I just want this Greek drama to end, preferably in the form of a comedy, not a tragedy! Is there anything else?” I asked.
“Oh yes, I almost forgot,” Athena said. She reached into the folds of her robe and pulled out an iPhone, which she handed to me. “Here, talk to your guardian, Hera, beautiful and mighty wife of Zeus. But don’t talk too long, because I get hit with roaming charges in Cambodia.”
I accepted the phone and greeted Hera.
“Good news, Mark. Remember that English-teaching job in Spain you applied for?”
“Yeah, of course! I applied for that job ages ago, but I still haven’t heard back from them. I’m traveling blind; I have no idea whether or not I have a job lined up at the end of this adventure!”
“Well, I pulled a few strings for you and got your application approved. You start work in September in Castilla y Leon, Espana. You can improve your Spanish, run from bulls in San Fermin, drink Sangria in Madrid, and travel across Spain and Europe. You will have a great time. Now hang up the phone and get back to traveling! Good luck, Mark!”
“Thanks Hera, talk to you soon!”
So there it was. My council with the gods had renewed my enthusiasm for traveling, given me a fresh perspective on my experiences and presented me with excellent news – I would be living and working in Spain for the next year.
This changed my plans slightly. I now had only about three months to travel through the rest of Cambodia, Vietnam, and China, and another month to ride the Trans-Siberian and hitch-hike across Europe before starting my job. It was going to be a tight schedule if I did not plan it just right. In any case, it was time to get moving towards Vietnam. I downed my mango shake, finished up Treasure Island, and moved on to the small riverside town of Kampot.

The Horror… (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

A Breath of Fresh Air – History of Angkor – How the Mighty Have Fallen – Poverty – School No Good – Corruption – Changed Perceptions – The Horror…

In Phnom Penh I saw Cambodia in her ugliest and most shameful form. I needed a breath of fresh air. I needed to go to Angkor Wat, to stand in awe of one of the Wonders of the World and learn about the Cambodia the Khmer people are proud of. I caught a bus to Siem Reap, a pretty town nearby the ruins and an excellent base for exploring the regions ancient temples.

The city of Angkor spans for miles in every direction and the empire’s temples can be found across north-western Cambodia and into Thailand. Between the 9th and 13th centuries the Khmer empire grew and eventually spanned from the Mekong delta in Vietnam all the way across Thailand into Burma.

The Angkor Empire rose to greatness by constructing an intricate network of irrigation canals that effectively captured and stored the monsoon rains, allowing multiple rice harvests each year. Trading surplus harvests brought prosperity and the Khmers built the magnificent temples at Angkor to honor their divine kings. They traded with other civilizations up and down the Mekong and steadily expanded their empire until incessant attacks from the aggressive Thais finally defeated the empire in 1441.

I walked through the ruins of this great civilization for three days, spending quiet moments in secluded temples and joining the crowds to watch the sun rise over the most famous temple, Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world.

From the top of temples I gazed over the jungles and imagined how different the city would have looked during its golden years. When London was a city of only 50,000 people, over a million Khmers lived in Angkor in wooden houses that eroded long ago.

Today, the jungle still covers many of the temples and plenty are still unexplored. Cambodia has fallen far from the prosperous time of Angkor Wat. Once an agricultural giant, today Cambodian exports cannot compete against neighboring Thailand and Vietnam and the country has a current account deficit of $1.27 billion. Cambodia is forced to import many basic goods, making the cost of living in Cambodia extremely expensive.

I felt the pinch in my pocket. Though I could scrape by in Laos, Burma and Thailand for under $10 per day, my daily costs in Cambodia were nearly double that. Food was expensive and the horrible infrastructure raised the cost of transportation.

I felt selfish worrying about my budget when I knew many Cambodians had to survive on half of what I spend. With such a high cost of living, I wondered how they could feed their families.

Often they can’t. The GDP per capita is about $2,000 a year. There aren’t enough jobs for the 50% of the population under 21 so many children have to work to support their family. As I walked between the temples at Angkor, armies of children surrounded me and tried to sell me everything from The Killing Fields to souvenir handicrafts.

I took one of these kids aside and asked him why he wasn’t in school, why he was selling books instead of getting an education. School no good, he replied. Would he go next year, we asked. No way, man, he snapped, School no good, I can’t make money in school. Too many children have only two options: go to school and starve, or sell books and have something to eat. And an empty stomach always screams louder than an unlearned mind.

In addition to sending their children to work, Cambodians must bribe government officials and people of influence for basic everyday things. You can see the effects of this corruption everywhere. Just getting across the border from Laos required four separate bribes of $1 each! Tuk-tuk drivers sell bags of weed openly on the street, knowing the police have already been paid to turn a blind eye. Money from international donors is siphoned off by government officials instead of helping those in need – just think of the children who live in the dump with not a single government official in sight.

Most noticeable is the unusually high number of luxury cars in Cambodia, specifically Lexus SUVs, Hummers and Toyota Land Cruisers. Considering the import tax on such automobiles is around 200%, such luxuries are out of reach for Cambodians with annual incomes of $2,000.

And yet these SUVs are everywhere, all conspicuous symbols of corruption and inequality. In Phnom Penh you see them parked next to United Nations Development Project trucks, while legless landmine victims beg for change from their owners. Never before have I seen such widespread disparity.

My three days at the ruins of Angkor Wat served both to highlight Cambodia’s glorious past and to underline her current state of desperation. At nighttime I enjoyed myself with my new friends from around the world, but no number of beers could make me feel easy in Cambodia.

Maybe I had seen too suffering to feel comfortable. Maybe I should have visited Angkor Wat before I jumped into a world of genocide, poverty and unimaginable suffering. I had tried to use Angkor Wat as a chaser, but even the beautiful temples could not wash away the bitterness of what I had seen in Phnom Penh. I began to think something within me had permanently changed, as if my eyes had been opened to the horrifying realities of the world and I finally began to see things the way they truly are.

I wonder where my search for Truth and Understanding will lead me. Will I ever be able to return to normal life, knowing that others suffer while I live in comfort?

I took a bus to Sihanoukville on Cambodia’s small stretch of coastline. The oppressive heat was getting to my head, and I needed some R&R to keep sane after so many months in the jungle. I felt oddly like Captain Willard from Apocalypse Now, on a mission up the Mekong into the jungles of Cambodia.

I wonder what will happen if I complete my mission, if I find The Truth somewhere out here in the jungle, unmasked, naked and vile as it may be. I wonder whether discovering of the atrocities of the past will be enlightening or if it will forever taint my view of humanity and the possibility of making the world a better place.

But if we wish to change the world for the better, we must understand the world at its worst. If we wish to prevent atrocities like genocide, then we must understand the mentalities of the most atrocious people.

So a world away from the Great Halls of Power, I continue onwards in my journey, searching for the Truth and trying not to end up like Colonel Kurtz: disillusioned and lost in the insanity of the jungle, muttering to myself about, the horror…the horror…the horror…

Pushing Against the Ocean (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

The Dump – Our Mission – Facts and Figures – Am I Pushing Against the Ocean? 

The truck stopped at the edge of the Phnom Penh city landfill.  The paved street ended five meters in front of us and surrendered to mountains of organic, plastic and liquid waste.  A half-dozen fires burned slowly over the ridges of rubbish, blackening the air and obscuring our view of the shantytown beyond the 50-acre dump.  Birds circled the air and flies swarmed around the truck.

The nine of us in the bed of the truck absorbed the scene in silence.  We could see dozens of children rummaging barefoot through the rubbish, collecting scrap to sell at the market.  These are the outcast children of Cambodia, those forced to scavenge for enough scrap metal to buy a simple meal.  On my first day in Cambodia, I saw the shocking history of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide.  On day three, I saw its aftermath.

Flies appeared out of nowhere and descended upon the $150 dollars of food we had just purchased at the local market.  Battling the flies was impossible; it was time to get to work.

The eight others and I were attempting to feed 400 of the 1,400 children who live on this landfill.  530 families live in ramshackle houses of plastic, wood and corrugated iron and attempt to eke out a living on what others through away.  Our group’s leader, David, says the situation has gotten worse since he began feeding these children five years ago.  Commodity prices have dropped, meaning these people earn even less money for their labor.

As the truck bounced through the rubbish children jumped from their houses and ran over the hills screaming and waving at us.  By the time we stopped in the center of the dump our band of followers had grown to hundreds of children.  The children knew the drill: they formed two orderly lines – one for boys and one for girls – and waited patiently for their helping.

Each child got one mango, two oranges, two bananas, and one baguette.   Pregnant women and old men got two servings.  One US dollar buys three children meals.  I thought about all the $5 beers I used to buy at trendy L.A. bars and realized that each drink could feed 15 of these children.

About 20% had school uniforms – a requisite for attending public school in Cambodia: no money for a uniform, no school for the child.  David purchases uniforms for as many children as he can, but 80% of the children still go without.  He has also tried to buy the children shoes, but they prefer to sell the shoes and walk over the smoldering garbage barefoot.  The American Embassy donated mosquito nets, but the same thing happened.  These children are so impoverished that they risk catching malaria for a mere 25 cents.  David now must dirty each net with red iodine to prevent their resale.

They approached the truck humbly, raised their hands in prayer, bowed their heads, and stretched out their shirt bottoms to accept the food.  We set up a makeshift medical camp and treated their numerous wounds, many of which were on their legs and bare feet – burnt soles from fires, cuts from broken bottles and scrapes from metal.

We didn’t have enough food.  Older men bullied children for their baguettes.  Women with babies in their arms looked at us disappointingly.  The last few people got nothing more than a single orange or a baguette.  We couldn’t help everyone, but at least we had done something.

During my travels I have witnessed some heart-wrenching situations that left me feeling helpless in the face of such widespread suffering: the wretched slums of Mumbai, India that are home to 55% of the city’s 16 million people; the sugar farmers in Karnataka, India whose fates are dictated by unpredictable commodity prices; the gentle people of Burma subjugated by a cruel dictatorship; and now this, the Cambodia’s forgotten children who live in the city dump.

Each of these encounters struck me in the heart.  My optimism slipped out of my mind, embarrassed by assumptions and philosophies crafted during my comfortable life in university.   I felt like everything I had studied in my economic development classes was nothing more than academic wish-wash written a world away from the ground realities.  It is easy to become cynical, to ask yourself, How much can one person really do?

Did we solve the problem?  No.  As David said, the problem is getting worse each year.  The children remain impoverished, the government remains apathetic, and the root problems remain unresolved – a cynic would say we had done nothing, that we were only a couple of fools pushing against a great ocean.

Flies covered the fruit and buzzed all over the children as they licked ripe mango juice from their fingers, as if the dump refused to allow something beautiful and pure remain untarnished.  We left soon thereafter.  We were the lucky ones, those with the means to sail away from that ocean of filth to a better life.  We left the children in the dump to continue their daily battle against the flies.

Maybe the cynics are right, but we knew our effort counted for something.  We brought these children baguettes fresh from an oven, food immeasurably cleaner than the muck in which they sleep.  We brought them yellow mangoes that radiated health and vitality against a background of brown garbage and black sewage.  But most importantly, we brought them a glimmer of hope that one day they too will have the means to sail away from here once and for all.  I just hope that time comes soon.

Holiday in Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

First Impressions – A History of Violence – S-21 Prison and Torture Center – A Stroll Through “The Killing Fields”Holiday in Cambodia!

I took a bus to Cambodia’s capitol city, Phnom Penh, and wasted no time finding a suitable crash-pad in the cheapest corner of town.  Known as the “Lakeside Area”, Phnom Penh’s backpacker haunt was a seedy strip of wooden guesthouses, bars, and restaurants strung along the shores of a small, murky lake.  Vice was everywhere.  Prostitutes on the corners, junkies in the gutters, stoners in the cafes, the police nowhere in sight and me lost in the midst of the madness.  The rural tranquility of Laos was gone.  Cambodia seemed dangerous; she lost her innocence in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over the country.

The tuk-tuk drivers summed up Phnom Penh well.  Hello, friend, you wan’ tuk tuk?  You wan’ go to S-21 genocide museum?  Killing Fields?  You wan’ shoot machine gun?  Rocket launcher?  Good price for you my friend.  No?  How ‘bout marijuana?  Opium?  Cocaine?  No?  You wan’ girl tonight? 

It seemed I had but few options: visit a genocide museum housed in the Khmer Rouge’s most deadly prison, stroll through the grassy fields where the Khmer Rouge dumped 17,000 Cambodians in 129 mass graves, or go shoot off the Khmer Rouge’s surplus AK-47 rounds.  No wonder the tuk tuk drivers also offered drugs and hookers – anything to numb travelers from the grim realities that lie beyond the safety of their guesthouses.

I read up on the Khmer Rouge before coming to Cambodia so I would know what to expect.  Unlike Vietnam, Cambodia had peacefully secured independence from France and enjoyed an era of peace from in the 50s and 60s under the leadership of former King Sihanouk.  Cambodia became a “non-aligned” nation and tried to avoid becoming entangled in the growing conflict in neighboring Vietnam.  Then in the mid 1960s, Sihanouk rejected US economic assistance, nationalized banks and import-export trade, and severed relations with the USA.  This reduced Cambodia’s national income substantially and caused resentment in the military, the business elite, and the middle class.  Furthermore, Sihanouk allowed communist Vietnamese forces to operate along the border with Vietnam and permitted them to resupply through Cambodian ports.  The combination of these policies were too much for too many people, and in 1970 Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup d’état.

The coup polarized Cambodia.  The US backed the new government and the Sihanouk threw in his lot with the communist resistance in the countryside, the same forces that would later become the Khmer Rouge.  The two sides, the US-backed government in Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge forces in the countryside, fought for control from 1970-1975.  The US and South Vietnamese combat troops briefly entered Cambodia in 1970 and US also began secretly bombing the Vietnamese communist bases inside Cambodia from 1969-1973, which increased support for the Khmer Rouge among the many farmers displaced by the destruction.  The country became increasingly unstable and the government in Phnom Penh proved to be incompetent, corrupt, and unable to defend the capitol from the Khmer Rouge.  On April 12th, 1975, the US evacuated their embassy in Phnom Penh and on April 15th the Khmer Rouge rode triumphantly into Phnom Penh on tanks, donning their famous uniform of black pajamas and red and white scarves.

That is when everything changed.  The Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh and all the other cities by force and marched every citizen into the countryside to become farmers under the orders of the Khmer Rouge and their leader, Pol Pot.  It was “Year Zero” – time to build a new communist Cambodia free from the corrupting influences of the West.  They distrusted city-dwellers, shut down all businesses, abolished money, and killed anyone who resisted.  Everyone with an education, money, language skills, or glasses was regarded with suspicion and many were executed.

Cambodia became a living hell.  For five years, men, women and children slaved away in the fields at the point of a gun.  Fathers were shot, children starved and daughters were raped by the soldiers.  Families were torn apart and many children were turned into child soldiers.  Estimates on the number killed during this period vary from 750,000 to 3,000,000 people, roughly 25% of Cambodia’s population.

I went to see the scars from this period for myself.  The notorious “Killing Fields” are on the outskirts of town, encircled by trees and butterflies and are ironically peaceful given their bloody past.  A large glass tower encloses 9,000 human skulls disinterred from the surrounding mass graves.  Bullet holes pierced many skulls, but most were shattered from the fatal blows of wooden axels – the Khmer Rouge’s method of saving expensive bullets.

Prisoners were transported here in big trucks in groups of 20.  They were blindfolded, marched to the edge of a ditch, executed one at a time, and pushed into the mass graves.  There was one tree where the soldiers beat children to death against its trunk, another where they hung a loudspeaker to mask the screams of their victims.  Soldiers threw children in the air and shot them like clay pigeons.  I shivered at the thought of such barbarity.  Despite the chirps of birds and the laughter of children playing nearby, I could imagine the futile pleas for mercy, the thumps of bludgeons, and the silence that followed.

From the Killing Fields I went to the S-21 prison, once the largest detention and torture center in the country.  Before the genocide prison had been a high school, but today it is a chilling perversion of its innocent origins.  The Khmer Rouge brought 100 people here a day, totaling almost 16,000 people between 1977-79.  Hardly more than a dozen survived; those that did not die from torture were brought to the Killing Fields for execution.

A monster of a man haunted the exit of the prison, begging tourists for their spare change.  His face had been totally destroyed, apparently from torture of the most sadistic kind: he was missing one, eye, both ears, a few fingers and almost all the skin from his face.  Scars masked his age, but he appeared to be in his late thirties.  He must have only been a child when the Khmer Rouge took over.

He was a ghastly representation of his entire generation.  He emerged from hell as a permanent cripple, physically and psychologically damaged and unable to lead a normal life.  Many people this man’s age are dead.  In fact, with over 50% of the population under the age of 21 and only 3.6% over 65, it seems like a nation of adolescents. All the educated middle-class Cambodians were executed long ago and today the streets are packed with children selling books to survive.  It is almost impossible for Cambodia to provide jobs for such a skewed demographic.

I walked back from the S-21 prison as the sun set over Phnom Penh.  Security guards smoked cigarettes in the evening light, guarding the mansions of Cambodia’s elite with AK-47s.  I passed an abandoned house and for a second I imagined I was in 1975, back when the Khmer Rouge emptied the city and began their death march into hell.  A legless landmine victim hobbled up to me and asked for change, snapping me back to reality.

My first day in Cambodia left me shocked and disoriented.  I felt numb as my mind mulled over what I had seen that day: the smashed human skulls, the bullet-riddled walls in the prison, the pictures of the nameless victims being led to their deaths, the guards toting AK-47s and the street kids running wild across Phnom Penh.  And of course, that poor disfigured man begging tourists for change, shocking them into charity with the ugly scars of his brutal past.  His face remained in my mind as I walked home through the streets of Phnom Penh, deep in Cambodia and yet a so far from the glorious temples of Angkor Wat.

American Bombs (Luang Nam Tha, Laos)

At the crossroads – Trekking – Development Challenges – Luang Nam Tha – Laos’ Future, Past and Present – American Bombs

I crossed the Mekong at dawn.  Instantly I felt the subtle differences between Thailand and Laos.  The pace of life was slow in Laos: the border guards had not yet stumbled into work when our ferry arrived.  All the official signs and hotel advertisements were in French, linguistic holdovers from the colonial era when Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam formed the French colony of Indochina.

The challenge to get off the tourist trail continued.  We landed in Huang Xai and most of us were immediately herded from the border crossing to the docks and loaded onto the “slow boat” down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, a two-day journey on a 70-person barge crammed with 120 people.  No thanks.

Instead I opted to go north, from the border with Thailand to the northern border with China.  I spent  five days in the eastern corner of the Golden Triangle between Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing, attempting in vain to organize a trek into the nearby national park.  I hesitated a moment too long and missed my opportunity to go trekking, but it’s worth mentioning unique nature of the treks in Luang Nam Tha.

Unlike the exploitative manner in which most guides bring tourists to small hill-tribe villages, the companies in Laos have developed profit-sharing partnerships with the hill-tribes.  Whereas a trek in Thailand visit a virtual human-zoo where the locals “dress-up” in their traditional attire and sell tourists souvenirs and opium, the hill-tribes in Laos are genuinely happy to welcome tourists into their homes.  Because the trekking companies share around 1/3 of their profits with the tribe, the villagers do not rely on selling souvenirs and drugs to make a living.  My friends that went on such a trek were ecstatic afterwards.  They ate a traditional meal with the villagers, drank laos laos (the local moonshine) with the village chief, and then handed a blunt knife and asked to decapitate a chicken.  So the treks might be eco-friendly, but they are not quite PETA-approved.  This innovate approach to tourism is representative of Laos’ choice to develop along a sustainable path.  Hordes of NGOs are helping the receptive government develop their economy while preserving the Laos’s natural beauty.

But there is still much work to be done.  Laos’s people are in desperate need of education, infrastructure, and business opportunities.  Thankfully, the one-party socialist government has opened itself up to the world after disastrously flirting with collective agriculture and nationalized industries.  Laos has buried the past and is looking keenly towards the future, so if you are a recent grad looking for opportunities in development work there are plenty of opportunities here.  Check out www.directoryofngos.org for a starting point.

Though I missed out on the trek I had an enjoyable time in the north of Laos nonetheless.  I wandered through the towns, sampled incredible Laos coffee and French baguettes in cafes, rode through farmland on a motorcycle, and watched barefooted opium addicts stumble through the streets.   There were few tourists, the weather was cool and comfortable, and the scenery was enough to keep me in Luang Nam Tha for a few days.

Luang Nam Tha lies in a low, wide valley surrounded on east and west by green mountains stretching for miles into the distance.  The mountain ridges were shrouded in dense gray clouds that transformed as the day progressed, darkening and thickening into ominous rainclouds that poured sheets of rain through the afternoon heat.  Come midnight, lightening pierced the sky and thunder fulminated through the valley with a fury that made me sit upright in bed.

The valley was beautifully serene during the day.  Rice paddies spanned the width of the valley, each small plot partitioned by thick grassy ridges of earth that formed irregular patterns of squares and rectangles in the soil.  I rode a motorcycle through the farms and villages surrounding Luang Nam Tha, marveling in the beauty of it all and admiring the reflection of the mountains in the yellow waters of the flooded green rice paddies.  Old women knelt beside the river; some fetched water in woven baskets, some washed clothes on its banks, and some bathed their wholly covered bodies in the muddy waters.  Hours passed as I watched this lazy rural life trickle by to a soundtrack of buzzing crickets and chirping birds.

A busy highway bisected the lazy river and the hum of a thousand Chinese lorries overpowered the gentle buzz of the crickets.  China built this highway to connect Chinese exporters with the growing economy of Thailand.  This highway is one of many springing up across Laos, criss-crossing the country and connecting her neighbors with each other.  Dirt roads are still the norm in the countryside, but China is paving a smooth highway from Beijing to Singapore.  Laos’s future lies in her connecting freeways.

Her past is not so cheerful.  Laos is famous for being the world’s most heavily bombed country, a title earned during the American Secret war of the 60s and 70s.  Never heard of it?  Neither had most Americans at the time.

In the 60s and 70s Laos was a mess.  Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam had formed the French colony of Indochina since the 1800s, but the hasty departure of the French in the 50s left chaos in its wake.  Internal power struggles eventually descended into guerilla warfare between a US-supported government of right-wing elitists and the popular communistic Pathet Lao party.  The Pathet Lao party allied themselves with Ho Chi Minh’s army in North Vietnam, the US supplied the government with money and arms, and the CIA began training the Hmong hill tribe villagers to fight guerilla warfare.

Eventually the war in Vietnam spilled over the borders into Laos when the North Vietnamese Army established the Ho Chi Minh Trail along Laos’s eastern border.  The Trail was a vital supply route allowed the communists to circumvent the US military in central Vietnam, one that the Pentagon was determined to eliminate.  In 1965 the US began secretly carpet bombing Laos without approval from Congress and continued until 1973.  The bombing campaign created 750,000 refugees in Laos, and to this day the presence of unexploded ordinances (UXOs)  has retarded economic growth – essentially, it is too dangerous to farm in much of the countryside because unexploded American bombs are still buried in the soil.  Tourists are strongly advised not to wander off the trails, lest they step on bombs.

Luang Nam Tha was not spared from the destruction.  The Chinese highway linked the Chinese-owned hotels in the new town with the American-bombed ghost of the old town.

I visited the local Buddhist temple in the hills above the valley.  Like the town itself, there was both a new and an old section of the temple.  The old temple was a crumpled ruin of brown bricks while the new temple shone proudly like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the past.  As I paid my $0.30 admission fee I asked the groundskeeper what happened to the old temple, but I already knew the answer.  “Bomb,” he said, “American Bomb.

I did not know what to say to him.  I wasn’t alive when this happened and I had no part in this war, yet I was panged with guilt.  This was the first time I had witnessed the aftermath of an American war firsthand.  I had written research papers on Vietnam in university, but in Laos my paper’s carefully crafted arguments and well-researched statistics crashed to the ground when the abstract met reality.  That was all irrelevant, years in the past high up in an ivory tower halfway around the globe.  Where was The Domino Effect now?  No, the truth was staring at me in the form of a crumbled temple, a crushed village, a cold reaction to my stated nationality.  I’m from America.  The brief pause, the forced smile, then Ohhh, America…yes, yes, yes.

Yes, indeed.  What dark memories hide within those three ‘yes’s?  What other truths lurk in these small villages, in the soil of fallow pastures and the memories of the old men who watch me from their porches?  How many more times will I have this experience?  How many more times will I learn the history of a place, only to say, “Yeah, well…shit.” No explanations, no arguments, just guilty speechlessness.

What am I supposed to do?  This question remains unanswered.  The temple’s groundskeeper told me the history of the temple, but what could I say?  Sorry for blowing up your innocent Buddhist temple? I dropped a few pathetic dollars in the donation box and walked away in silence.

After five days it was time to move on.  Luang Nam Tha had been a beautiful place to learn a horrible history, but the Lao Lunar New Year was approaching and I wanted to be in a good spot for the festivities.  I packed my bags and headed south to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO Hertitage Site and purportedly the best place to bring in the New Year.