Cambodia – A Country in Recovery

by anah0lub on March 19, 2016

After my time in Laos, I flew to Siem Reap to meet some dear friends and visit the incredible temples of Angkor Wat. This UNESCO world heritage site is the largest complex of temples in the world. Built in the 12th century as a Hindu “divine city” devoted to Vishnu, it gradually changed to honor Buddhism. Now in ruins, Ankgor Wat remains one of the most beguiling places on Earth.

My friends and I had a wonderful time there, especially when we went to the main temple at dawn. Days were very hot and the Cambodians often hit us up with desperate pleas to buy their trinkets, which was emotionally hard for all of us (it is much harder to be a Cambodian person, of course). The place was also swarming with selfie snapping tourists…but I enjoyed the experience overall.

2016-02-23 17.02.25 FullSizeRender-41 2016-02-23 17.04.15 FullSizeRender-42 FullSizeRender-53 FullSizeRender-45

Me with my friends from high school – awesome Jersey girls

Our next adventure was a boat ride through a small part of the largest lake in SE Asia. During the rainy season, Tonle Sap swells to 12,000 square kilometers, 5 times its dry season size. While there, we visited the Prek Toal bird sanctuary, which offers a rich home to a tremendous number of pelicans, eagles, king fishers, and much more. This watery area is HUGE, and houses thousands of people in 170 different floating villages. It was a great day, and something new for me to see the happy water people living so close to nature. They may be poor in some ways, but they are rich in others!

FullSizeRender-1

FullSizeRender-2

FullSizeRender-3

This is Choum, our guide. He is one of most incredible people I met on my entire trip. His family lived through the Khmer Rouge years and almost died of starvation. He had to drop out of school as a child to work in the rice fields. Determined to learn to read and write, he became a monk at 20 and spent 10 years in a Buddhist monastery. He learned a bit of English while there, and had only been out of that cloistered environment for about a year when we met. He loves his job as a water bird guide, has very high vibe energy and a brilliant smile!

FullSizeRender-5 (1)

FullSizeRender-22

Tonle Sap floating village women make money by harvesting a local reed, drying it, dying it in bright colors and then weaving it into baskets and mats. They work together as a collective in a stilt building right over the water. This woman was using her right big toe as an anchor for threads in her weaving and sewing process.

After saying a poignant goodbye to my friends, I was back on the road by myself again. I headed south on an overnight bus to the Gulf of Thailand for the only beach excursion on my trip. Since I didn’t have time to go back to Thailand to sample the famous beaches there, I elected instead to stay in Cambodia and explore a bit. I ended up on the island of Koh Rong Sanloem for some sea and sun. It’s a tiny place with a bit of partying going on but mostly it’s tranquil and beautiful. There’s also quite a bit of trash there (depressing – what are we doing to our planet??), so I spent a few hours cleaning up garbage one day. I also went snorkeling (I was underwhelmed) and saw the amazing bioluminescent plankton one night! That was really exciting for me…

FullSizeRender-25

Pnom Penh bus station, where I had an unexpected layover at 5 am before continuing on to Sihanoukville and the island beyond.
FullSizeRender-35 FullSizeRender-10 FullSizeRender-19 FullSizeRender-17

This crab parked itself on the steps of my bungalow one night. I almost stepped on it…

FullSizeRender-32

At the Eco-Sea dive center and resort, Koh Rong Sanloen, Cambodia

After a few glorious days on the beach, I had to get to a major city to fly back to Singapore. A few of my friends were in Phnom Penh, and it was much closer than Bangkok, so I got into a mini van and headed to the city. Once there, I went to the Killing Fields of the blood thirsty Khmer Rouge. I also visited the notorious torture chamber and prison known as S 21.

After the US bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over the country. From 1975-1979, 2-3 million people either starved or were executed. That number represents almost one third of the entire popluation. On my visit I shed some tears, but mostly I prayed. I prayed that we all choose love instead of hatred and fear, and that forgiveness would help heal the country. There have been many programs for reconciliation and healing here, including circles, art, rituals, and plays. I had the honor of meeting  Mr. Chum Mey, one of the few survivors of the prison (there were only 12 documented cases of survival, out of 12,000 to 20,000 inmates kept there). He was there selling his book about his experience. He is so grateful to be alive! A sobering day of introspection to be sure.

FullSizeRender-44

This is the Buddhist stupa (pagoda) which memorializes all of the people who were killed at the killing fields. There are over 300 places like this all around Cambodia. This one is the best known, and the place with the largest memorial and museum. The pagoda is filled with bones and skulls found here. They rise up out of the ground when it rains.

FullSizeRender-33

Skulls and instruments of killing in rows and levels inside the pagoda.

FullSizeRender-18

On the left is a Spirit House, or shrine where people leave bracelets, ribbons and prayers. On the right is a box filled with femurs, tibias and other large bones that once belonged to Cambodians (often intellectuals and city dwellers). One could be killed for having glasses or soft hands by Pol Pot and his army of young peasant boys and men. The Khmer Rouge era was truly a macabre, surreal Communist dream gone horrifically awry.

FullSizeRender-32

FullSizeRender-45

Me with Mr. Chum Mey. I felt so much love and respect for this man.

Another day, as I was entering the city by bus, thousands of people were pouring out of huge factories. One was called United Apparel.

When shopping in the US, I have often talked in my head and heart to the people of the 3rd world who made my cheap clothes for me. I thanked them and wished them well. This week, I got to see them. It was about dusk and there were throngs of people biking, walking or standing while crammed into the back of trucks…on their way to homes without clean water or basic sanitation. These folks are beautiful, vibrant people who laugh, joke and flirt with each other…but they are also very tired. They work hard for almost nothing. Let’s help them and honor them, while lowering our carbon footprint. Please watch this video!  http://grist.org/living/watch-us-explain-why-your-8-shirt-is-a-huge-problem/

{ 11 comments }

Luang Prabang, Lao PDR

by anah0lub on March 6, 2016

After the Mekong river boat trip, I landed in a small city called Luang Prabang (LPB). I was enchanted. Not only did LPB sport some lovely colonial architecture courtesy of French imperialism, but also good coffee and omg … pastry! And chocolate! After a month of rice, noodles and vegetables, these small additions to my diet really put a smile on my face (and a few pounds on my body, too, but what the hell…)

Luang Prabang turned out to be one of my most favorite cities ever. It’s small enough to bike around easily and large enough to keep delightful surprises coming all day and night. Its great food is cheap and its temples profoundly beautiful and sacred. There are 2000 monks living here, and the people come out to feed them alms every day at dawn, lining up with offerings of rice, fruit, vegetables and flowers. Several times I sat silently behind young monks as they chanted Buddhist mantras in a spectacular wat (temple) at sunset. They also do this daily at about 4 or 5 am, giving the whole city sweet, peaceful vibration.

The night market here is the best I’ve seen. Row upon row of gorgeous handmade textiles, wooden sculptures, paper lanterns and golden paintings impressed me with their quality.  The sheer amount of stuff became overwhelming to me. I felt compassion for the women selling night after night in their stalls, nursing their babies and softly yet shrewdly making the best deals they could with tourists from all over the world. They have to set up their stalls every day and then take them down each night. It must be exhausting and I hope that families have a system to share the work.

Most Lao people are not financially wealthy, but they are rich in culture. The photos posted here will give you only a small fraction of the beauty and wisdom that emanates from Luang Prabang, their cultural center.

I have included here a few photos of the small village of Non Khiaw, where I hiked, biked and got a little sick, too. (I think I drank some unclean water. The runs passed after a couple of days.) I needed a break from LPB when masses of Chinese visitors arrived to celebrate their new year. In Non Khiaw I found my very best deal in lodging: a bamboo bungalow for $6 US per night. Food was fabulous in Lao, where you can eat a great meal for $2.50. The impressive mountains, curving green rivers, and smiles of the local folk really lifted my spirits.

This is the stupa atop sacred Mount Phusi, which over looks Luang Prabang.

One of the cultural centers where art, ritual and handcrafts are taught to preserve Lao culture.

One of the cultural centers where art, ritual and handcrafts are taught to young people to preserve Lao culture. The attention to detail, devotion to Buddhist principles, color and artistry are phenomenal in the many wats (temples) in the city.

Detail of the mosaic at Wat Xiengtong, a temple dating back to 1560.

Detail of the mosaic at Wat Xiengtong, a temple dating back to 1559. This portion is a rare example of Lanna artwork specific to this region.

Tree of Life, Wat Xiengtong

Tree of Life, Wat Xiengtong

LPB Night Market buffet, $2. The scene was noisy, crowded, international and exciting. I loved it. Great food!

LPB Night Market buffet, $2. The scene was noisy, crowded, international and exciting. I loved it. Great food!

The party hardy attitude on a T shirt. Kinds says it all...

The party hardy attitude on a T shirt. Kinds says it all…

One of my favorite trees at sunset, Mekong river bank in Luang Prabang

One of my favorite trees at sunset, on the Mekong river bank in Luang Prabang. Look closely to see the crescent moon.

Young monks were chanting at sunset at a beautiful temple. I sat in the back, on the women's side, and listened rapturously for a long time. The sound of young men chanting about compassion and the glories of the Buddha is something this world needs a lot more of. It moved me deeply.

Young monks were chanting at sunset at a beautiful temple. I sat in the back, on the women’s side, and listened rapturously for a long time. The sound of young men chanting about compassion and the glories of the Buddha is something this world needs a lot more of. It moved me deeply.

Traditional Lao dancer. Her hands were so fluid and graceful. She had a very peaceful, shy yet committed air about her, as many Lao women do.

Traditional Lao dancer. Her hands were so fluid and graceful. She had a very peaceful, shy yet committed air about her, as many Lao women do.

2016-02-06 16.29.00Kaung Si waterfalls – gorgeous!

Moon Bear sanctuary

This is a moon bear, who is now thankfully at home at a bear sanctuary. She was rescued from cruel poachers who were milking her bile for the Asian market.

The following photos are from Non Khiaw, a small town about 3 hours by bus from Luang Prabang through the mountains:

Beautiful Non Khiaw

Beautiful Non Khiaw

Cute little kids playing at my guesthouse. Their posse was everywhere, cruising around the whole neighborhood.

Cute little kids playing at my guesthouse. Their posse was everywhere, cruising around the whole neighborhood.

Nam Ou river valley from the lookout.

Nam Ou river valley from the lookout.

Mountains in the mist, Non Khiaw, Lao

Mountains in the mist, Non Khiaw, Lao

This bamboo home may be humble, but it's got a satellite dish!

This bamboo home may be humble, but it’s got a satellite dish!

 

 

 

{ 5 comments }

Lao PDR and the Vietnam War

February 19, 2016

When staying in Luang Prabang, the cultural center of Lao PDR (the correct name of this country is the People’s Democratic Republic of Lao, or Lao PDR…not Laos), I visited the UXO Center. UXO stands for unexploded ordnance. The center focuses on education for the public and for Lao adults and children, and clearing land of […]

Read the full article →

From Thailand to Laos along the Mekong River

February 11, 2016

After the monastery, it was time to travel. I took the local bus from Pai to Chiang Mai, retracing my route on a very slow bus full of a mix of Western tourists, Asian tourists and local families. The middle door never closed, but hung wide open near my seat. As the bus slowly wound […]

Read the full article →

Wat Tam Wua monastery

February 7, 2016

Outside Mae Hong Son, I found a wonderful place to do a meditation retreat. It’s a Buddhist vipassana center and a working monastery. They graciously allow anyone to show up, stay as long as they like, and make a donation when they leave. In fact, it is not possible to make a reservation before you […]

Read the full article →

Close to the Burmese border – Mae Hong Son

February 2, 2016

After 2 nights in Pai, a small town full of mostly European 20 something hipsters, I was ready to move on. I was still looking for that elusive place where I could settle for a while, to meditate and write. In Mae Hong Son, about 3 hours through winding mountain roads from Pai, I found […]

Read the full article →

NW Thailand: Into The Mountains – Jan. 24, 2016

January 24, 2016

One of the highlights of my entire trip happened in the Mae Hong Son area, which is in northwest Thailand near the Burmese border. Here I decided to go on a 3 day, 2 night trek into the jungle. My guide was named Pordee, and he offered me a cheap deal if I wanted to […]

Read the full article →

Doi Suthep – Jan. 19, 2016

January 19, 2016

Here are some photos from Doi Suthep, outside Chiang Mai, an important temple where some Buddha relics live. An incredible place! Doi Suthep is a massive temple situated on a mountain (doi) overlooking CM. Like the other famous temples, it crawled with camera toting tourists. The vast majority were not there for spiritual reasons (at […]

Read the full article →

Chiang Mai – Jan. 17, 2016

January 17, 2016

I am now in Chiang Mai, Thailand, exploring a new Buddhist temple to meditate in each day. The sacred art here is amazing. outstanding. so devoted. CM is a lot bigger than I thought. Traffic is crazy, just like Bangkok. I am a bit overwhelmed and really craving some nature time. My hotel, Vanilla Place, […]

Read the full article →

More Bangkok – Jan 12, 2016

January 12, 2016

More photos from Bangkok today…

Read the full article →