From Otres Beach, we travel to the nearby island of Koh Rong Samloem.
This is Oreo, a cat we befriended in our guest house.
For Christmas dinner, we have grilled barracuda. We’re joined by Kim, a pleasant Scotswoman we met on the way here from Phnom Penh. She and her husband have been running marathons in the Himalayas, or something equally extreme. She also loves cycling in mountainous Northern Laos – the same area we traveled by bus, where I thought ‘Thank GOD we’re not cycling up these mountains!’. Very sporty, in other words.
By the time Christmas has come and gone, we think of staying elsewhere. The nonstop music at Otres Beach is getting on our nerves.
Our friends Ulf and Susane went to the island of Koh Rong Samloem. This involves taking a speedboat – a powerful catamaran – from Sihanoukville.
The island is a LOT calmer than Otres. Ulf and Susane stay at the Jungle Bay bungalows.
We make an overnight trip to visit for Ulf’s birthday.
We decide to move, so we return to Otres for one night, pack our belongings and return to stay in these Robinson Crusoe-esque huts.
This is the view from our balcony.
So we’re seeing in the new year on Koh Rong Samloem.
Among the wildlife here are cobras, tarantulas, and pythons. Which makes for interesting walks in the dark when returning on the trail to our bungalows at night from the village. Did I mention that these huts are wide open to the elements?
Sight or Insight of the Day – Koh Rong Samloem
We enjoy the vibe here at Jungle Bay bungalows. In this photo are Caroline and Martin at each end, a Dutch couple that are volunteering here while on their way to New Zealand, Ulf & Susane, our German friends, Maria Lola Bueno in the middle, the Italian owner/manager, and of course Maria in the front with one of the property’s doggies.
On the way, we stop at a bus station serving up deep-fried crickets. With chillies. Mmmm.
Phnom Penh, like other places we’ve been (Luang Prabang, Vientiane), is on the Mekong river. We have several errands to accomplish before spending Christmas at the beach.
(First warning – ’tis the Season to be Jolly and all that, but the rest of this entry is pretty bleak. You might want to stop reading now.)
After our chores are done, we go to a few of the obligatory dark places in Phnom Penh. One is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly known as S-21 prison, in what used to be a school.
This place is chilling beyond description. Very graphic and disturbing. We’re surprised that some people bring their children here. For little ones, we’re not sure if a lesson in Man’s Inhumanity to Man has to be this stark.
Later that day, went to this place, Choeung Ek, about 15 KMs south of Phnom Penh. After interrogation at S-21, 17,000 people were brought here, executed, and dumped into mass graves.
Sight or Insight of the Day – Phnom Penh
(Warning: quasi-philosophical musings, part 2, follow!)
‘A man is seldom more innocently occupied than when he is engaged in making money.’
…or something to that effect. Being an arch-capitalist, I tend to agree. The Cocal Cola corporation doesn’t want to take over the world. It just wants to sell Coke in every country in the world. Their ability to short-change consumers or underpay workers is constrained.
On the other hand, the inhumanity and cruelty of those advancing a world-conquering religion or ideology – like the Khmer Rouge and their Marxist nightmare – is staggering. Bottomless. Without limit.
Teenagers and university students may pound the dinner table in a petulant frenzy and splutter ‘But what about the Victims of Capitalism?’
In the twentieth century alone, the victims of ideologues number in the tens of millions. Any time people begin to speak of the Shining City on the Hill, the new Golden Age, the 1,000 Year Reich, be very afraid.
You end up with Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia. (Or ISIS, beheading their way into Allah’s grace, one journalist or aid worker at a time.)
You will end up abducted in the middle of the night with your family. Loaded into the back of a truck. Stuffed into freight cars. Tortured, murdered, and filling a mass grave somewhere or as a puff of smoke trailing out of a crematorium. You end up with this.
Of course, hard-core ideologues will squeal ‘Oh, but that was imperfectly-realized <insert ideology here>. Next time, we’ll get it right.’
Or historical relativists will bleat ‘We’re just as bad as this. What about <insert trifling human-rights infraction here>?’
They should try saying so standing in front of this tower of human skulls.
A strange thing happens as we leave our guest house in Siem Reap.
A woman (kiwi, I think) rushes up and says ‘Excuse me, are you Al Franken?’
We’re only vaguely aware of who Al Franken is. The name is familiar in connection with the rogue’s gallery of outed Men Behaving Badly.
I noticed this woman staring intently the evening before. Turns out she thought I might have been Al Franken, escaping to the other side of the world to get away from bad publicity.
(I doubt a senator – even an ex-senator – would stay in a US$12.00 guest house. More like the Four Seasons. On the taxpayer’s dime, of course.)
Al Franken looks like this.
I don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted.
When I was younger, people would ask if I was Bruce Cockburn. Bruce Cockburn looked like this at the time.
From introspective poet to sleazebag politician. That’s progress.
But I digress. We spend the next two days ambling around Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat.
It features lots of these Apocalypse Now– style stone faces.
Among other things, Bayon is known for its extensive bas-reliefs. They even include rabbits, thus proving how enlightened they were.
Another view of Bayon.
This is Bapuon, another building in the Angkor Thom complex.
An arched corridor at the top.
In the neighbourhood is Angkor Wat itself.
As everywhere in Angkor, the stone carving is superb.
Last stop of the day is Ta Prohm. Angelina Jolie filmed a Tomb Raider movie here. I’m sure the original builder (King Jayavarman VII, in 1186 A.D.) is well pleased.
Me and a really big tree.
Site or Insight of the Day – Siem Reap
While cycling back from Angkor, we pass the office of APOPO and slam on the brakes for a visit.
This is an organization that trains rats to detect mines. I recently saw an article somewhere about using rats to detect mines (probably in The Economist), so coming across this office is pure serendipity.
The rats are very good at it. And they’re too light to set the mine off. We get a demonstration.
Adrian is put through his paces.
Two handlers slowly guide Adrian on a line between them as he goes back and forth. He hits pay dirt with a small TNT-scented object and is rewarded with a piece of banana.
These are giant pouched rats (from Africa) – a different animal from the mangy urban vermin variety – so they have more of a cuteness factor.
Cambodia uses the US dollar as its currency. Quelle surprise! Even though there is such a thing as a Cambodian Riel, it takes 4,000 of them to make a US buck. Even the ATMs only dispense crisp new greenbacks.
Angkor Wat. I’ve wanted to come here ever since reading about it in Volume 1 of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization as a youth.
We rented E-scooters again. Angkor Wat is about 8 KMs from Siem Reap. Our first stop was a site called Banteay Kdei. It was in small letters on the map, signifying a minor site, of lesser importance.
It didn’t seem very minor to us. It’s like a poem in stone. Unbelievable skill went into building this – and every other site here. There is fine, fine stone carving on every surface. Even the roofs are made of stone. On one of its axes is this magnificent artificial lake.
After an hour or so of ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’, we move on to Pre Rup.
This is a temple made largely of brick. A multinational film crew is making some kind of documentary while we’re here, including drone shots.
After a healthy climb, we get this view.
Almost all the sites here have multiple stone lions as guardians.
On the road to the next stop. These E-scooters are a blast to ride.
We pass a baby water buffalo that doesn’t want to get out of the (mud) bath.
Dates from the 12th century. What was going on in Europe in the 12th century? Quite a lot, in fact.
After lunch and a charge-up of the bikes, we arrive at Preah Khan.
We love these trees that take over the ruins.
Maria consults our guide book.
The 2 axes of the building meet in the middle. Looking down the corridors gives a hall-of-mirrors effect in every direction.
The roofs are impossible-looking arches of stone
We try to imagine what this looked like in its heyday.
Another ruin-devouring tree.
Sight or Insight of the Day – Angkor Wat
(Warning: quasi-philosophical musings follow!)
We are immersed in an ocean of history.
Like a school of small fish halfway to the ocean floor in the middle of the Pacific, we don’t need to be aware of more than the few cubic metres of water in our particular habitat.
People don’t need a knowledge of history to live, or even to thrive. Many people know absolutely none. Others know only what someone else has told them. Some learn just enough to buttress their own particular set of biases and beliefs, then stop.
But overarching all of these is a sort of uber-history: what has undeniably been, manifested in concrete form, unchangeable by the fairy tales and agenda-driven propaganda of history-as-an-identity-crutch.
Angkor Wat is like that – it’s overwhelming in its HERE-ness, the product of a million minds and hands from people long dead. Many things have changed in the intervening centuries, but Angkor Wat remains to boggle the mind. (Well, my mind anyway.)
We read so much about Vientiane being one of the least attractive capitals in SE Asia. Not so. We find Vientiane a lively place to visit.
This is the rest area of our hotel.
We visit the Laos Military Museum, but it’s closed because of a national holiday.
A MIG jet fighter – From Russia , with Love.
We visit the Gate of Victory. There is a possibly apocryphal story about this concrete monstrosity. It goes something like:
‘The monument was built using American funds and cement actually intended to build a new airport. The Royal Laotian Government instead built the monument, which earned it the nickname of the “vertical runway”‘
Still, you get a great view from the top.
The next day, we make our way to Kong Lo cave. We get a tuk-tuk to the bus station, catch a bus at 10:00 AM that – in theory – arrives in Kong Lo village in five hours. Of course, after seven hours, we are dropped off at a bridge too narrow for the bus to go through and left to take another tuk-tuk an additional 40 kilometers to Kong Lo village, where we arrive in the dark. Such is travel in Laos.
We stay at the delightful Chantha House hotel.
Kong Lo village in the daylight is breathtaking. The aforementioned bridge means that life beyond it goes back to a pre-industrial idyll. No noisy trucks or construction debris everywhere. It’s quiet. So quiet, the friggin’ roosters wake me up well before dawn. Surrounded by mountains.
We’re here to visit the Kong Lo cave (various spellings – to repeat, transliteration of Asian place names is very free-and-easy).
Actually, I think this is a primitive kind of tobacco kiln. We asked our hotel guy what were the small green shoots that people were planting in the surrounding fields and were told ‘tobacco’.
On the way to the cave. The Kong Lo cave features a river running over seven kilometres under the mountains. You travel through in a narrow motorized longboat and pray that the boatman remembers his twists and turns correctly.
This is the mouth of the cave on the Kong Lo side.
Inside the entrance, you board one of these narrow longboats.
Inside the cave – at one point, we are let off the boat to walk a few hundred metres along a path. When you turn your headlamp off, it’s really dark. We’re talkin’ Stygian darkness here.
…and seven KMs later, out the other side.
This side of the cave is even more untouched.
The nearest village is Ban Natane, two kilometres away. We start down the road to stretch our legs…
…for about a kilometre…
…and back again.
Back down the river to the Ban Natane entrance.
Approaching the Ban Natane mouth of the cave.
At last, back safe on the Kong Lo side.
Of course Maria, being a water baby, must take a dip in the Hin Bun river.
We thought getting to Kong Lo village was a challenge. To leave and go south – our plan – means sitting in the back of a crammed tuk-tuk for a gruelling five hours to Tha Khaek, then catching a (thankfully full-sized) bus for the seven-hour trip to Pakse.
As I’m fond of saying to Maria, ‘Gee, I wouldn’t want to be doing this if we were old’.
Sight or Insight of the Day – Vientiane and Kong Lor
Vang Vieng is famous for two things: caves and tubing.
In truth, Vang Vieng is infamous for the number of dumb visitors dying from broken necks and drug overdoses, but has cleaned itself up in recent years.
We manage to do a bit of both (caving and tubing, not neck-breaking and overdosing.) Our first day after arriving from Phonsavan, we rent bicycles and cross the toll bridge to the other side of the river.
The town itself is no great shakes, but the surrounding landscape is awesome.
We ride the picturesque road between ranges of karst mountains.
Our first cave. We walk for what feels like kilometres down a dry riverbed and through a jungle path to reach it.
We cycle to the ‘Blue Lagoon’, but it’s a bit too overrun for our tastes. On the way back we head for the Pha Kham watercave, crossing rice paddies and rickety bamboo bridges..
This is more like it. A subterranean pool with nobody around.
We emerge from the cave.
Walking back to the bicycles, the late afternoon sun lights up the mountains beautifully.
Next day, we go tubing. This means floating down the Nam Song on an old truck tire tube. There are riverside bars where you can stop and buy overpriced drinks while being subjected to bad techno music played at atom-blast levels, if that’s your thing.
Skipping the bars, it’s nice drifting down a river for a few hours. There’s a Huckleberry Finn sense of leisure about being afloat and free to think about Life, the Universe, and Everything.
At the last stop, Maria had to negotiate a ride back to town for us, as the standard operating procedure is to keep people here to consume unhealthy amounts of booze for 3 hours.
Sight or Insight of the Day – Vang Vieng
Interestingly, right down the spine of the town is a long open space that now acts as a bus terminal and marketplace.
This was the former Lima Site 6 (number uncertain – it was secret, after all), one of the many sites throughout Laos used for covert operations. I admit to a fascination with this hush-hush slice of history. Few of these former sites are so accessible, and none of them have many remaining artifacts. I guess that’s because they were ‘clandestine’