Sunday, November 27, 2005
Bonking and Running
Bonking is the name of the movement required to be done continuously when one is dragon boat racing. It involves leaning forward as the paddle is inserted vertically into the water then sitting back up straight as the paddle is brought through the water thereby using your back muscles rather than arms.
After a few Sunday morning bonking training sessions, we were as ready as we’d ever be to compete in the Phnom Penh water festival, a huge 3 day holiday where about 400 boats from all over the country race each other down the fast flowing Sap River watched by a couple of million people on the bank and another many million on television.
The actual race was the least interesting part of the whole experience. We, having trained only a handful of times and being generally not as adept as the Khmer teams, never stood a chance. They should have put us against girl teams or other mixed teams or at the very least boats from land locked, non- riverside towns! As it turns out, we always came second (there are only two boats each race) - except for once when we came third because the winner of the next race pipped us at the finish line. But we did really well and managed to paddle in time and didn’t disgrace ourselves and most importantly didn’t sink in front of the King like they did last year. I saw one boat sink which was actually really funny. It was just racing along next to its opponent one second then the next second, it had stopped and all you could see were white caps at water level making out the shape of a boat. I am especially happy we did not sink considering the amount of rubbish that made its way into the river generated by the million spectators. In training the week before, we had to disembark into thigh deep mud next to a sewerage outlet and it was suggested we all take worming tablets... but the worming tablets I had were for children and were chocolate so it was not such a bad thing!
There was a really great atmosphere on the river when we were waiting to race alongside the nearly 400 other boats from all over the country all struggling not to get swept downstream to Vietnam. We said hello and good luck to everyone and danced to the drums some teams used to keep time. There were teams sponsored by various NGOs, restaurants, beer, cigarette, condom and concrete companies and many more but most t-shirts were only in Khmer script so I have no idea where they were from. There was also an all HIV-positive crew to raise awareness about AIDS in Cambodia. We all wore the red ribbons which one of the boat crews were handing out. Each boat had their shrine offering bananas, cakes etc the Buddha and some had what looked like human hair hanging off the back of the boat. I’m not sure what that was about. Some boats had dancing girls in traditional costume at the front. We had a huge blow up Kangaroo (about half our crew was Australian...). Being the only barang boat I think we must have been on par with the Cambodian national team for popularity. Or more likely the crowd just enjoyed laughing at us! An especially large crowd always formed to watch us to our warm up and stretching.
On the last night of the festival, we watched the fireworks from the boat then got out into the middle of the biggest crowd I’ve ever been in. I couldn’t bear fighting my way to the bar for the team celebration. I had such an overwhelming need to get the hell out of there. The moto home took ages as the streets even far from the riverside were nearly at a standstill with cars, motos and pedestrians. I’m very glad to have experienced the Water Festival here but would happily forgo the experience next time…
On the Tuesday of the Water Festival, only five days before the event, having not run once in 5 months, I decided to run the 10k race of the Angkor Wat Half Marathon. This involved a 6 hour bus trip to Siem Reap on Saturday then a 6 hour bus trip back on Sunday. Madness. I managed 2 training sessions beforehand and did the run in under 1 hour so was very happy. It was pretty special running past Angkor Wat, through the gates of Angkor Thom, past the Bayon etc. The run is for charity, “to bring Artificial Limbs to Mine Victims and Save the Youth from HIV/AIDS” so there were many wheelchair athletes and amputees running on prosthetic limbs. It was very inspiring. The official guide book for the race was clearly not proof read by a native English speaker and provided us with much pre-race amusement. The official web site is also pretty funny and under “How to apply” has the instructions to “7-Join to our official overnight party” (an overnight party – before a marathon?!) and “8-Please enjoy your running on the day of the race” … you can check it out at http://www.angkorwatmarathon.org/
So it was a pretty energetic and action packed week for me. It was lots of fun and kept me well distracted from the fact that Jono is away for a month. He gets back in a week!
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
No left turn?
My bargaining skills must be better than Jono’s though. He had to pay a cop $2 once but I’ll let him tell the story! And I just heard another AYAD's story where she had to pay $5 for driving the wrong way down a one way street (which everyone does anyway). The police in her case said pay a fine now or go to traffic school (whatever that would be here???) for 3 or 5 days then pay a fine. She tried to say 'I'll go to traffic school' but the cop, obviously preferring the on the spot fine straight into his pocket was very keen to negotiate the fine. Anthea also has a police encounter story on her blog...
There are very few actual office buildings in Phnom Penh. Most offices, apart from government departments and the like are in houses. Most expats here would live within a stones’ throw from an NGO – or five. My office is in a tall narrow Thai or Chinese style house – I can’t remember which. That knowledge was gained during our house-hunting, which despite the happy ending, was a frustrating and traumatic experience so it’s all been wiped from memory. Because NICFEC is a poor local NGO with hardly any money, to save on electricity, the stairwell is kept dark, there is no air conditioning and lights and fans are turned off as soon as we leave a room. Quite sensible really – except maybe the dark stairs. To make matters worse, the power goes out at least once a day for at least an hour. All the Khmer staff, even those with little English now know the word ‘blackout’. I think when we finally get a generator and the blackouts stop I will miss my coffee breaks reading the paper at the cafe down the road.
Each morning at 8am there is an office meeting which I sometimes attend. It is pretty much a waste of time for me because it’s in Khmer and from what I gather involves people taking turns to stand up and paraphrase news items from the morning paper. Sometimes when the director is there the meeting is about work. Everyone claps which signals the end of the meeting when the lights and fans can be turned off and the work day begins.
Other ‘quirky’ things about my office are: When it rains very hard, the floor floods because there is a half finished room at the back which is full of rubble and open to the elements. The accountant’s office is in a half floor - Being John Malcovich - style, with a miniature door. Lucky our accountant is not tall. We all sit at our computers on blue plastic outdoor furniture chairs. No OH&S ergonomic consultants here... Because offices are also houses, almost all office toilets will have a bath or shower often with toothbrushes too – haven’t figured out whose those are yet.
I have just recently been assigned some projects to work on. One being the Parliamentary Watch Project and another a women’s rights/domestic violence program so I think I will now be relatively busy at work. Which is great – but a shock for me after a year of mostly bumming around!
Our AYAD profiles are on the web finally. Just go to http://www.ayad.com.au/ and click on Meet the AYADs then Intake 14 etc.
I’ll always remember the moment I sat down to compose this blog post. I have set up my new laptop on our gorgeous wooden balcony and am enjoying the tropical view into the canopy of boganvillea, palm, mango and banana trees. We also have a custard apple tree but I’m not sure which one it is yet. It would be pure paradise if I were lying in the hammock but then it would be too hard to type. I never thought I ‘needed’ a laptop before but now I love it. I am addicted to ‘geeking it up’, as Belinda, one of my housemates calls it! The other thing I have become addicted to since being in Phnom Penh is riding my bicycle. I ride everywhere. I thought I would be too chicken to brave the PP traffic but it turns out I’m not. A huge revelation! The experience has also improved since I stopped trying to wear skirts to work. There’s too much to concentrate on without having to worry about the whole of PP seeing my undies. Besides being better for the wallet, environment, legs etc, it’s also surprisingly quick – and I ride slowly – I have beaten people on moto taxis to places before!
Our house is great and the best thing about it is that it came with dogs! The previous tenants had 2 dogs they couldn’t take with them and fortunately all 4 of us agreed to keep the dogs. They are really sweet. Except when we open the gate to get out and they escape and get into fights with other dogs and run through mud and eat rubbish and ignore us when we call them to come back in. I also don’t find them endearing when they get overexcited after parties and break through the doggie barrier at the top of the stairs and run around on the verandah being noisy all night.... or when they push open the fly screen door downstairs and head straight for the rubbish bin or jump up onto the dining room table. Naughty!
The dogs are sisters and one of them may be pregnant! We had an eventful trip in a tuk tuk to the vet to get all the animals* rabies vaccinations and Meika has a big uterus which means we might have puppies soon which is sooo exciting but then we would need to find them all good homes. Meika's the one with black around her eyes. The other, more blond one is Lara. It's been fun seeing their personalities emerge. I think Lara is more intelligent and she's my favourite but she's can also be a real bully to Meika and to the cat. The dogs actually have two names. They also get called 'bread and butter' in Italian (panini and bourini??) by our Italian neighbour.
*We have a cat too. Her name's Nobel (Bel). She’s nice as far as cats go and there’s a remote chance that during the course of the year Bel may help me slide along the scale away from being a pure dog person... but for the moment I like her being around because it’s fun spraying her with water when she does naughty things like jump up on the kitchen bench or come into my room. I can’t deny that in our case the cat is more “useful” than the dogs. Bel caught four mice one night – or maybe it was 2 then the same 2 dead ones retrieved from the rubbish – we’re not sure. So we let her inside regularly to catch mice but mostly she just lies around and cleans herself so maybe they were just a one-off housewarming present. I hope not because Belinda had a mouse in her bed and mouse poo (Microsoft Word doesn’t recognise poo as a word. It also doesn’t recognise recognise – I’ll have to change it out of American spelling) has been spotted in the kitchen...
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Brief on Angkor
I'm back. Apologies to those of you bored at work who kept opening my blog looking for a distraction and had to resort to the smh or equivalent! I have been pretty busy since my last post a month ago. A week of orientation in Phnom Penh (mostly very frustrating house hunting - but with a very happy ending), then a week in Siem Reap over P'chum Ben - a buddhist festival and finally starting work. By the time I started work two weeks ago, I'd almost forgotten that's what I was here for. More about our gorgeous house (and doggies) later.
The week in Siem Reap was fantastic! Jono had organised it all... partly for our 4 year anniversary... We arrived around 6pm in the pouring rain at the bus station where you hop off the bus into a sea of moto and tuk tuk drivers all yelling at you to go with them. Fortunately, we could happily wave away the hordes because were greeted by a smiling driver holding a large sign with "The Golden Banana Welcomes...Jonathan" - with the name written inside a massive yellow banana. Our tuk tuk had heart shaped plastic windows protecting us from the driving rain.
The rain had stopped by the morning so we hired bikes, bought our one week pass and headed off for Angkor Wat! We only ended up using 4 days of the pass but could have a day off also which helped prevent the common Siem Reap disease of Temple Fatigue or being 'Templed out'. Cycling was an excellent way to get around - as long as we avoided riding back when ALL the tour buses made the trip - before sunrise and after sunset in particular. The first day we climbed all around Angkor and tried to decipher the bas reliefs with the help of our guide books. We also rode to Ta Phrom (the 'tomb raider' one with all the overgrown trees). Both temples were amazing and different. If you know the old lonely planet with an old man at Ta Phrom on the cover, you can still find him there - selling copies of 'his' LP. We didn't have the heart to tell him that he's been superseded by monks walking through lotus.
After our first day - sore bums and all from riding - we decided to take a day off. We went to lunch at a butterfly garden and happened to arrive just as a new intake of butterflies were about to be released. The English guy who owns the place pays local kids to catch the insects. Big butterflies are worth 100 riel (2.5 cents), dead butterflies are worth nothing but torn wings are fine. He told us that the kids are from a really poor village and this bug catching is paying for school. It took way over an hour for all 38 kids to have their catch counted and released and to be paid. It was a very colourful and amusing if not a bit laborious.
I never knew butterflies could be held like that!
Back to the temples. Day two we left the Golden Banana at 5am by tuk tuk to see Angkor silhouetted by sunrise. We took dozens of photos but felt envious of Cindy (another ayad and professional photographer) who came with us with her 1000 Mega pixel (or whatever) camera and tripod. Straight after sunrise we went to catch the 'good light' on the faces at the Bayon. This temple was again so amazing and different to the others. I think what struck me the most was the scale and the variety in the designs and details at all the temples. However there are so many that you do get a bit confused with some of the more similar ones at the end of four days. We went back to Bayon the last day but got distracted watching monkeys outside the temple and never made it back in. The young monkeys were climbing up a tree and jumping from a high branch into a small lake for fun then swimming back to the shore and doing it all over again. They were just like human children - but better and faster at climbing trees. I had never seen monkeys even swim before - they were so cute.
Another great thing was Jono being able to have conversations in Khmer. It meant we could chat with the little kids selling bracelets and stuff and randoms monks and other people around the temples. I think we were shown some great things that we would have missed otherwise. I start Khmer classes on Monday!
After SR we caught the boat to Battambang which was also fantastic, particularly seeing all the floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake. These people literally live on water - with their dogs, cats, chickens, sometimes even cows and crocodiles. The boat trip did feel a bit long and crowded after a while though. There was a small amusing interlude when my empty water bottle was commandeered by furious hand signals as an emergency toilet for a little boy.
I only stayed in Battambang one night as I had to come back to PP to move into my new house! More on that later!
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Back in Phnom Penh
So eventually I arrived back in Phnom Penh yesterday at the same time as the AYADs from Melbourne and Brisbane who didn't need to stay overnight anywhere. Jono was at the airport which was a great surprise. He originally planned to come to meet me but ended up with some jobs to do helping Hour (our in country manager) greet all the AYADs and make sure we all got on the bus. Some of the others told me later they were surprised when I got a kiss on the lips and they only got a welcome handshake. It's good to be back. Jono was also recruited to give us the city tour this morning which was very funny. We're off to check out houses to rent this arvo but that means me stepping out of the internet cafe into the rain without an umbrella - oops.
Thursday, September 15, 2005
Rain, Rivers and Reading
First a few words about my travels in Laos. The title I chose, rain, rivers and reading is really representative of much of my 3 weeks in Laos. I would have included buddhas but it doesn't start with 'r'. (the photo is of the Buddha cave in Luang Prabang)
Starting at the beginning with the border crossing at Lao Bao. It was fortunate that Wina (my Quebecois travel buddy) and I got our Lao visas beforehand from Vietnam, although a bit more expensive, we got 1 month visas and you can only get 15 day visas at the border. Wina is going to find out what Canada did to piss off Laos because her visa was the most expensive of any country. Crossing the border involved a long walk in the rain where the path of least mud was in the middle of the road between the bumper to bumper stationary trucks waiting to cross into Vietnam. It felt like I was 'an illegal' trying to sneak across the border without being seen. Continuing the feeling of being smuggled across the border, we were bundled into a mini van, 4 people to a row (very squashy) for the trip to Savannaket. My poor backpack was strapped to the roof, keeping dry - sort of - by wearing my raincoat like a limbless, headless body.
After the craziness of touristy Vietnam, the south of Laos was blissfully quiet and devoid of travellers. It was so peaceful to walk around without being hassled to buy something or go somewhere or asked 'where you going?' - that was the most annoying.
After a quiet night in Savannaket watching an amazing sunset over the Mekong, nursing an obligatory Beer Lao, we headed further into the sleepy south. The pre-angkor temples of Wat Phu Champasak were as interesting and mystical as the guide books say but the most fun was the adventure to get there. After a complex array of sangthews (local buses), tuk tuks, boats and more tuk tuks we arrived in the tiny riverside town of Champasak. The next day we hired bicycles to ride the last 14kms to the temple ruins. The ride was along a very quiet dirt road surrounded by peaceful bright green rice fields. The only concern on the road was avoiding chickens, ducks, turkeys, cows, buffalos, dogs, cats and potholes. We also got caught in a massively huge downpour at the temple - which will happen when choose to travel in the wet season.
That afternoon we did the tuk tuk- boat - tuk tuk relay back to the 'main' road and hailed the first sangthew heading south. In we piled alongside the babies, chickens and bags and bags of corn. I don't really like the smell of so much cooked corn I've decided. Somehow we conveyed where we wanted to go ('si phan don' or 4 thousand islands) and arrived after dark - in the rain, of course. We were surprised to see so many foreigners there but then worked out it's where you would end up if you came across the border from Cambodia. We stayed a couple of nights there and did a day trip to see the Mekong dolphins and what was somewhat dodgily claimed to be the 'largest waterfall in SE Asia'. The dolphin viewing place was actually in Cambodia. I got to say thank you in Khmer to the 'policeman' who was selling drinks. We saw quite a few dolphins, but as in Kratie, no good photos... The waterfall was really a cascade. Sure there was a lot of water moving over some rocks but we saw it at the end of a long day - and it was pouring rain - so a brief glance and one quick snapshot sufficed.
Having ventured further south than the south of Lao, we travelled north to Pakse then hopped on the overnight bus from Pakse to Vientiane. The only seats left on the VIP bus were in the VIP room downstairs which had a tiny doorway you had to crouch down to fit through and a ceiling so low not even I could stand up. Inside was a giant U shaped lounge. It was a very odd way to travel and felt like a cross between a hobbit loungeroom and the Spice Girl's limo (apparently). However, it lacked any popstar ambiance as the Laotians quietly went to sleep sitting up and the travellers fought for room to lie down while Mr Bean played on the TV (marginly better than the usual bus entertainment of karaoke clips).
We spent a few really nice quiet days in Vientiane. It was great after 6 weeks of travelling to stay in a house and have cereal for breakfast (thank you Paul!). From Vientiane we kept journeying north to Vang Vieng, which is set in a spectacular landscape of rivers and mountains but spoilt by Friends. Friends the TV sitcom, which blares from every restaurant on the main street. We arrived on a very rainy afternoon and sat in one such restaurant for lunch. After about 3 episodes in a row I wanted to throw something at the television and at all the backpackers watching. Tubing down the river in old tractor tyres (which is the thing everyone does in VV - apart from watch Friends) the next morning was very relaxing. We swam into a cave which was fun but turned back when it got too dark and scary.
I decided I couldn't deal with another day of Friends so we booked the local bus to Luang Prabang that afternoon. We were told it was the bus from Vientiane and should stop in Vang Vieng. It didn't. After about 3 hours of waiting - in the rain - a mini van appeared to take the 3 of us going to LP. It was great - instead of the usual 4 to a row we had one each so could stretch out and sleep.
I've already written a bit about LP. I spent about a week there - a lot of the time in a great bookshop cafe called l'etranger, sheltering from the rain. When Wina and I parted in LP, I went in a boat 8 hours further north to Muang Ngoi. I ended up being the only passenger in my 20-seat boat and other boats of foreigners were joking as they went past that I must be special and giving my the royal wave. It was a bit lonely but I finished my first book of 4 in 4 days (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Eleven Minutes and The Fifth Mountain by Paulo Coelho and Bear v Shark - if you're interested...). Muang Ngoi was lovely and quiet and since I chose not to walk to the waterfall and get covered in mud and leeches, there was nothing else to do but lie in a hammock and read.
There seems to be a pattern of bus stories... my local bus from Nong Khiaw back to LP broke down. We spent 2 hours watching the driver bang wildly with a hammer at some part of the underside of the bus then another couple of hours waiting for another bus as apparently the banging didn't fix the problem. I was tired and starving by the time we reached LP. All I'd had to eat all day were 2 strange biscuits. One was salty with a chocolate centre and the other was sweet with seaweed on top.
As an appropriate end to my time in Laos, I spent 2 days on a boat on the Mekong from LP to the Thai border. I read another book in between watching the amazing scenery roll past. The jungle was so thick in parts it looked like a richly textured green blanket thrown over the trees.
I'll finish by sharing just a few of the amusing attempts at English we came across:
Above the toilet:
"Ladies, please don't throw your private papers in here" (I refrained from tossing my bank details into the toilet).
"Don't throw paper and napkins at the toilet"
In some menus:
fried rice with cattle fish
meats with carry
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
The first day of the trek was Wina's birthday so I secretly asked Tou if a celebration or ceremony could be arranged for our stay in the village that night. He said he would talk to the village chief to organise a Basi. Now, I'd heard about Basis from Paul in Vientiane. I understood them to involve drinking alcohol from a communal cup and having bits of white string tied around wrists. Maybe the Basis Paul has attended have been abridged because he's a vegan?? So... I had no idea that disclosing Wina's birthday would make me responsible for a death.
About 6pm in the Hmong village, Tou told me we would have a Basi for Wina but we were just waiting to catch a chicken. Anticipating the answer, I asked what we were going to do with the chicken. It would be killed, of course. I tried in vain to convince Tou that a Basi without a chicken sacrifice would be absolutely fine with me. He went to check with the chief and the shaman but came back with a chicken. Sorry chicken, I tried. In fact, I had to pay 30,000 Kip (US$3) for the chicken. Happy birthday Wina - chicken slaughter is at least an original birthday present. I should be saying 'rooster' because tradition says that at Basis, roosters are killed for women and hens for men. I tried to tell myself that it was a 'cultural experience' to see a rooster get its throat cut, blood drained, dipped in boiling water, plucked, gutted, chopped and boiled... but I still felt responsible and guilty. At least some of the villagers shared in the feast with us. No, the guilt did not stop me having a taste...
The village was incredibly basic. There was no bathroom, at least that we were told about, and the chief's house where we stayed was 4 walls, a roof and dirt floor. The rooster's blood was drained straight onto the floor of the house but quickly licked up by the dogs. I didn't sleep well on the hard bamboo mat. Especially after I woke up to tiny ants crawling on my face, hair and pillow. The other thing I forgot to mention was the mud. Miraculously, it didn't rain at all for the 2 days but earlier rain had left ankle deep mud in some places.
It was an interesting experience for a night but I admit I couldn't live like the Hmong and Kamu people. The shower, massage and body scrub back at the Lotus spa in Luang Prabang were very very much appreciated.
Saturday, August 06, 2005
On the bus I also met Milka from Lapland and ended up sharing a room with her in Dalat. I felt very old when I found out she was only 19! I got over that quickly and we did some fun things together like have 20 glasses of Dalat red wine each. Well... we bought a bottle and the local restaurant we went to gave us micro mini glasses to drink the wine from. We also did a great 17km hike with a lovely guide through minority villages, coffee plantations and across scary long suspension bridges.
Dalat is very different to any other South-East Asian city I've been to so far. Everyone in the streets wore beenies and the markets sold only parkas! (It wasn't even that cold...). It's also unique because instead of the usual cry of 'you want motorbike' or something similar the drivers in Dalat cruise up stealthily beside you and almost whisper 'I'm an easy rider'. There are apparently many impostors but the real easy riders have caps with their names embroidered on and have a good reputation for motorbike tours around Dalat.
So one day, I hopped on the back of Nguyen's bike and off we went. One of the most interesting stops was at Dragon Pagoda, so nick-named because of the 40-odd metre long mosaic dragon made mostly out of BGI Beer bottles which I found strange in a Buddhist temple. Incidentally, Nguyen told me BGI is now owned by Fosters.
I also was fortunate enough to be in Dalat for the festival to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the embroidery workshop. Exciting, no? The festival involved 'important' people such as a visiting artist from Hawaii, the head monk from somewhere's brother and a few others being called to the stage and presented with their own image embroidered onto fabric and framed. The 'ceremony' was quite dull but it was great to see the whole of Dalat out enjoying themselves in the street. I can't imagine an embroidery festival being so popular anywhere else.
From Dalat I headed back down the mountain to the hedonism of Nha Trang. For 5 days, I lay on the beach reading and getting massages, swam and did some diving and exploring. The dives were not that spectacular. Apparently all the big stuff has been eaten over the years by the locals.
One day I did the 4 islands 'party boat' tour which started with some snorkelling - but only by me because I brought my own mask and the ones handed out on the boat leaked. I had carried my mask and snorkel for weeks from Phnom Penh through the non-snorkelling regions of the Mekong Delta, Saigon and Dalat so I wasn't going to have carried it for nothing! The snorkelling was followed by a kind of international karaoke where our Vietnamese host, Dat and his boy band of guitars and pots and pans encouraged everyone to sing along with him a song from their country. I was the only Australian and sang along to Dat's special rendition of 'Watching Matilda'! Surprisingly all this singing happened before the 'floating bar' where free sweet red wine was poured into our cups while we bobbed about on various flotation devices.
Prior to that boat cruise I had dined on my own a couple of night and was starting to feel a bit lonely but met lots of people on the boat, one of whom, Wina from Quebec, I have been travelling with since! After a fun messy mud bath to complete my time in Nha Trang, Wina and I went north to Hoi An (gorgeous buildings, too many tailor shops) and Hue (interesting old royal palaces and tombs) then across the muddy border into lovely relaxed Lao!