Thursday, August 16, 2012
No doubt if you are a tourist to Cambodia and to Phnom Penh in particular, you will most likely include something about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in your visit. Every second tuktuk driver in the centre of town will offer to take you to the Killing Fields or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S 21).
These memorials to the Cambodian Genocide have bome tourist attractions. Not that you get a lot of pleasure actually visiting. Quite the reverse in fact, once you have navigated the various beggers at the gate.
Tuol Sleng (Tuol Svay) was a high school in the capital which the Khmer Rouge converted into a torture centre. In just three years over 17,000 people passed through the prision and passed on to the Killing Fields on the outskirts of the city. Visit the school today and the lawns and pleasant spreading shade trees do not prepare you for inside the building which, incidently, really needs a coat of paint.
Here the classrooms have been turned into torture chambers, with the various devices and methods used still on display. They looked like nimpliments out of the Middle Ages. Up stairs several classroom have been filled with rows of tiny brick cells. Each long enough to lie down in but not wide enough to streach your arms out.
In each classroom the blackboard is usually still atached to the front wall.
S21 was every bit as brutal as any Nazi death camp. Killing was just as systematic with every new arrival photographed for prision records. Many of these photos are now displayed along the walls. Since I arrived in Cambodia on this current visit it was announced that a further 1700 photos had been discovered having been saved from destruction by someone.
I have visited several concentration camps in Europe and found S21 to be every bit as harrowing. Extremely moving.
I think I found S21 to be move emotional than the Killing Fields, despite the bits of human bone and clothing sticking out of the soil and the the thousands of bones and skulls on display in the tall memorial stupa. The remains of around 9000 people have been found here.
So that all relates back to memories from previous visits to Cambodia. But this time I took the opportunity to attend the United Nations sponsored Khmer Rouge War Trials. These long runing trials are being held in a new purpose built court some 16 km from the centre of Phnom Penh.
The Khmer Rouge killings were not just crimes against Cambodia, but as the current Prime Minister points out, 'crimes against humanity'. Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia for three years, eigth months and twenty days during 1975-1979. They called the country Democratic Kampuchea. During that time over three million people were killed. They were the parents, uncles, aunties, brothers and sisters of pople still living today. As I got off the tuktuk on my return to my daughter and son in law's home, my driver told me that his father had been killed by the Khmer Rouge just six months before his birth. He never knew his father. His sister is my daughters home help. In Cambodia, hardly anyone is untouched by Pol Pot and his forces.
Now some of the leaders are finally being bought to trial for the crimes they and their regime committed. War Crimes. The accused are all old men and an old woman. The woman is suffering from dementia and she unless she can be cured enough to stand trial, will escape judgement.
Only one leader has so far been convicted by the courts. That is Kaing Guek Eav aka Duch. He has ultimated received a life sentence with no chance of release. I believe Duch pleaded guilty as he had become a Christian and realised the crimes he had committed. Duch was Chairman of S21 and seen to be the organiser of the systematic and efficient torture and killing in that prison.
His was Case 001
Today I sat in on two sessons of Case 002.
My tuktuk picked me up at 7am as with 16 km to travel on the Airport road it would be possible for hold ups to occur. As it was we were briefly held up by a crashed motor scooter and crowds around it spilling over two highway lanes. Other than that the run out was straight forward and I got to the court at 7:45am. The instructions suggested arriving 45 minutes early for registration and security checks, I was the first to arrive so there was no hold up with security. They had a airport scanner for bags and a scanner archway for me to walk through. As food, drinks, cameras, phones and large bags were not allowed into the court my gear had to be stored by security.
You then go into a large covered outside 'holding pen' area full of tables and plastic chairs. From here you pass through more security into the main building, up stairs and through another scanner before coming into a large theatre like auditorium. This is the public gallery. Perhaps 750 cinema style seats in wide sweeping rows across the space and rising up step by step towards the back. Above the seating in a gallery are a number of glass fronted booths which I took to be the media centre and the translators' booth.
Coming in I collected my head phone and receiver for the English translation. As required the language of the court can be Englsih or French and Khmer.
While I had been waiting in the holding area a large number of local Cambodias had arrived. I was to discover that part of the court's budget is to emable ordinary Cambodians from throughout the country to be able to attend proceedings. The were all neatly dressed as one of the requirments is suitable tidy clothing. On arrival the bus passengers were all given a bread roll – I got one as well, perhaps the attendants were too shy to say they were not for me. It was a bagette with a sweet but salty fish paste filling. Well that's what it seemed like to me. While we were waiting both outside and then inside, up to date back ground videos were screened on flat screen tv sets. I thought this was a good idea as it not only filled the time in but also brought you up to date with the court's progress.
In the public gallery we sat in a semi circular curve facing a wide floor to ceiling window. At a couple minutes before the 9 am start time, the curtains rolled back to reveal all the various court room officials and personalities in position. It was like having the theatre curtains open on the first act of a play with all the actors in various positions and conversations.
A loud bell rang and we all stood as seven judges walked in and took up their positions on a raised platform facing the court and us. It was interesting to find that New Zealander, Dame Silvia Cartwright was one of the judges. She sat beside the President of the Trial, Nonn Nil of Cambodia. He made all the public comments and controlled the court proceedure. Dame Silvia made a couple of brief comments to him during the morning, but none of the other 5 judges seemed make any contribution or comment amongst themselves.
With his back to the window was a wittness.
To the left were the prosucution teams.- perhaps 30 individuals all in layers' gowns.Several represent ed Civil Parties. The prosucution, like the judges, had the Court logo on their gowns. On the right side were the defence teams of an equal number. Two of the accused Khmer Rouge sat in the second row with guards behind them. One was Samphan Khieu, aka Hem and the other was Chea Neon. Both were old men in their 80's. One, Chea, was in a wheel chair. A third defendant, Sary Ieng, aka Van, was watching from his cell by video link due to health issues.
Well I think I have got that correct.
Each of the three had their own defence team and these were the officials making up the first row.
Once the proceedings began, a live video picture appeared on the television screens so that we could clearly see the face of whoever was talking. This was helpful as the witness had his back to us. He was Mr. Suong Si-Koeun who had worked in the Khmer Rouge Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The first defence lawyer, Jasper Pauw, representing Chea Nuon, took a line of questioning which seemed to annoy the court president. So he tended to deny questions as repeditive and outside the scope of the case and so on. If I had been the lawyer I would have been quite angry but the lawyer was very polite and usually thanked the President for his comment. But it did seem to spoil the line he wanted to follow. The President of the Court also disallowed a number of documents because they had not been previously viewed by the witness.
Well the witness would deny seeing them even when they had been part of the documents collected by the defence or prosecuter as part of their case.
The lawyer was trying to establish if the witness had been influenced by a previous witness retracting his statement. But the President kept shutting down that line of questioning.
I felt that he ended his questioning without achieving the gains he had wanted. He also suggested that the President was adopting new rules as the case went along. The other concern for the defence was the way the Prosecution lawyers could and did, stand to challenge a document or lack of translation or page numbers and so on.
After a short break mid morning, the court resumed with a new defence lawyer representing another defandant. This was Michael G Karnavas (USA) who had worked on other War Crimes trials such as in the former Yugoslavia. He has also taught trial law at universities. Clearly he was a capable and experienced person who seemed to take the witness along the direction he wanted with great precision. I do not believe that the President interupted him at all. His questions were all little steps in which he repeated a previous answer and then got the witness to build further on it. Very skillfull I thought.
I thought also that he got answers which the preceeding lawyer had been attempting to obtain without success. The President even had to remind the witness that he didn't need to give such long answers, especially if he wanted to finish his appearance promptly.
At mid day the witness was given the opportunity to continue into the after noon or to rest and return tomorrow morning. He chose to come back tomorrow. Most likely a good idea as he was also an elderly person. He did claim to be the only Pol Pot intellectual who was willing to give evidence but then would not indicate the names of other intellectuals.
He did hwever clearly emphasise that there was no point in requiring the present Minister of Finance and the current Minister of Foreign Affairs to testify as they had been lower than him in the Pol Pot government. He also told the President of the Court not to interupt him while he was speaking. My feeling was that he was being selective in his answers and protective of some individuals.
At one point he mentioned how he had met with another Pol Pot leader to discuss what that person had said in his testomony. The witness claimed that he just wanted to see what he had to prepare to answer during his questioning. It did sound a bit like collusion though. I is also illegal to discuss a case with a witness once they have begun to testify.
However Mr Suong did get a bit confuesed at this stage and kept changing the facts around.
I left after the end of the morning session at noon. It was an experience which I was glad to have had. I was glad that I had made the effort to get out to the Court as it is undoubtly a historical event.
It has taken a long time to get this War Crimes Tribunial under way and there seemsd to be a variety of opinions as to why this should have been so. There also seems to be an opinion that the current cases will be the last to be heard. If the investigations continued then they may well end up reaching into the higher levels of the current government. There is the question as to what some of the current political leaders were doing during the Khmer Rouge period. Would this prove to be an embarishment?
One of the interesting sides to the Court proceedings is the printed resources handed out to public attending. There is an informative 32 page booklet which seeks to answer common questions and list helpful organisations. Then there is a collection of up to date printed sheets which describe the current cases, gives personal background and information regarding the charges made against the defendants. There is a Whose Who in the court with brief biographs of each key person. I found this helpful and interesting to know a bit about each person participating during the day. A copy is given to each member of the public attending.
I would estimate that today there were around 400 public attending. Over 50,000 have attended so far during the Case 002 trial. The Court has a budget amount to cover the costs of busing in Cambodians from around the country to experience the court activities.
I read during the last seven days a local newspaper report that the NZ Government had committed a further $100,000 to the Court's running costs. Perhaps that is to cover Dame Silvia's salary?
From the ECCC Facebook pages:
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is mandated to put on trial senior leaders and those most responsible for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal is offically known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). The ECCC is a domestic court supported with international staff, established in accordance with Cambodian law.
Under the terms of Agreement between the United Nations and the Royal Government of Cambodia, the Extraordinary Chambers will bring to trial senior leaders of the Democratic Kampuchea and those who were most responsible for the crimes and serious violations of Cambodian penal law, international humanitarian law and custom, and international conventions recognized by Cambodia, that were committed during the period from 17 April 1975 to 6 January 1979.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
I am sitting in a rather up market cafe. The Coffee House is attractively set out with modern comfortable furniture, a mixture of low sofas and cushioned stools around low glass topped wooden cofee tables. Of course there is free wi-fi, as is the case with every coffee cafe I visit which aims at expats. Some of the more local estabishments als ohave the service as well.
At one table a loud voiced expat woman is holding a conversation with someone about running charity type training schools and the problem of actually finding a niche area to train in which wasn't already being over taught by other groups. Seems that there are so many hair dressing and sewing training establishments that getting a job in these areas when training is finished is hard. To me that would indicate a chance of women going backing into the life styles that the training was supposed to take them from. Perhaps micro financing them into their own businesses might help – I think that this could be a really esential extension to the whole training scheme.
It is only 9am and already the presence of an air con is proving helpful. I was awake before 6am thanks to the local dogs and their regular early morning chorus. They have a late night sing a long as well. By 7:30 am the family were out the door and heading back to school for the first day of the new year. The long summer (mid year) break was over and there was a sense of excitiment at going back to catch up with friends and others. The roads were congested with over loaded tuk tuks and motor scooters. There were several traffic police and a military individual controlling the mixing flow from two roads which converge to cross the short narrow bridge leading up onto an even businer main road.
We are dropped off on the opposite side of the four or more lane road which runs beside the high school campus of Hope International School. I say four or more lanes because with the flow of tuk tuks cars trucks hand carts and scooters everyone makes their own line of progress. Some scooters even ride against the flow. Crossing the road looks threatening, but in reality is fairly straight forward. See a space in the coming traffic with less scooters and start walking out slowly but steadily. Everyone just aims to go around you as you walk. Crossing the centre line and a Nope School security guard or traffic warden will rush out into the road to flag down approaching vehicles. And so you cross safely, if not a little amazed.
The students gather in the shade of the raised buildings. It is a Christian school so the principal opens with a short appropriate Bible verse and will end assemble with an equally short relevant prayer. This assemble is devoted to introducing the new staff members and short term volunteers. More staff will arrive over the coming days, having been delayed by various travel or training concerns. In 15 minutes or so, the assemble is over and the new classes are heading off with their teachers. It is only 8:20 am. With an 8am start, the school day will end at 2:30pm. With the way the heat builds up during the day, this early start seems a good idea.
I leave the school and head off down busy side streets for the coffee bar 20 minutes walk away. The residential streets are a mixture of small businesses congested housing and construction in progress. Down an ajoining side street last week I looked in at several local mechanical factories and workshops. There I watched lathes at work, welding, heavy metal work as equipment such as concret mixers were either manufactured or repaired. I saw a factory making large industrial generators down another street. Generally the workshops were not much bigger that two or three New Zealand double garages (car ports). Industrial safety measures didn't seem obvious. Welding without eye or foot protection was a common practice.
I always enjoy walking along the streets here as there is always so much to see. And today I only had to decline three tuktuk offers and one moto ride. Perhaps I don't look so touristy? Ah well, dream on.
While the temperatures are in the thirties, it was still early morning and easier to walk than later in the day would be.
Just a block away from the Coffee House is the Russian Market. This is the one I have visited the most during my times in Phnom Penh. It is not the largest market but still full of many narrow alleyways and passages through the various stalls. Mostly the width is around a metre but it varies a bit depending on how much of the stall's goods spills out from their official space. Imagine a typical stall being around 3-4 metres wide and about the same or perhaps a little less, deep.
Stals seemed to be grouped into areas selling the same type of product. There is a small group of stationery and book sellers. Some of these have so much stock crammed in that the seller sits out in front and clambers onto her displays to reach items at the back. One woman did this to get my a copy of the Malaysa Lonely Planet. It was just $5 and a fake. The cover looked correct but the small print had the correct edition but then said published June 2011. Now I knew that the current edition was 2010 with the next due out in 2013. I checked careflly inside and finally found evidence that the copied pages came from a 2005 edition. It pays to check.
In one corner there are a number of DVD and CD stalls. One inside corner stall is double size. Most every film you can think of is likely to be there. But not The Story of Film – An Odessy which was shown on UK tv. Every stall has the complete films of Bergman – and they have each year I have visited. The packing changes so they must sell. I bought Brave to show to my grandchildren only to get home and find it had most likely been filmed off a cinema screen. And they had copied the 3D version so that it was fuzzy really not worth watching. It would pay to check. I suspect that this is the way the very latest films are obtained. Only $US1.50 a disc.
In the middle of the market are food stalls, both vegetables and meats, but also prepared meals. I called in with my family members for lunch at the noodle and spring roll stall. Here for under $US1 each we enjoyed fresh cooked noodles in a very tasty light sauce with chopped up sections of deep fried and crisp spring rolls. Crushed roasted peanuts were sprinkled on top. Across the alley was a cold drink stall. A good combination.
What amused me, as the family sat at the long ledge at the stall eating their noodles, were the European tourists pausing to take a photo of us all eating.
An early morning visit around the food stalls and you will find fresh fish swimming in bowls with others chopped up int round slices. No nicely filleted slices here. I wached various 'butcher' chopping up chicken and beef and letting it lie on the counter or hang. Some had flies around it other pieced did n't. I am told that if buying meat sellect the slices which attract flies. It seems meet without flies has most likely had some insecticide sprayed over it. But no one know exactly which chemical is used. Perhaps frozen supermarket meat is the safest choice.
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
On the way up below the cloud layer was a great new roadside statue of Ya Mao a respected Buddist figure. Lots of locals were stopping off to pose in front of the statue, some to burn inscence and others to photograph some hanging boulders.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
The tuktuk driver took us to an area of the riverbank road where there was a choice of accommodation. It was just a few steps from the Balcony GH which I had noted down as a place to stay. I got the last room with its own facilities. In this case it was a large room with two double beds, but as I would change to a smaller room the next day I only had to pay the smaller room charge.
The expat owner, well legally his local family down as officialy the owners, was a friendly ex-Kiwi. But one who had lived in Austrtalia for many years. However, Andrew did seem pleased to have New Zealand roots and passport. It turned out that he has a doctorate in archeology. I find it interesting to meet such a varied range of people as I travel.
Later on that evening I was able to have a meal at one of the roadside stalls with the two Swiss women. One was a primary school teacher and the other had just completed her medical studies. Her mother had rung to tell her the results and so she was on her way home for graduation. As we talked I added to my knowledge of Switzerland. They came from the German speaking part of the country but could also speak French and English. Interestingly, English is now the first foreign language the primary school children start learning I the German speaking section. Perhaps that was true for the whole country as well?
The next day the Swiss woment moved on although I did catch up with John again briefly at a cafe.
At the Balcony I got chatting to Joseph, an older Austrian man. It turned out that he lived in Beijing and worked for or actually managed, the Austrian Tourism Office for China. He had spent his working life moving around various overseas destinations for Austrian Tourism. He had now been in China for around nine years. He was a great conversationalist and had a variety of languages he could speak. At the guest house he was taking the chance to have Khmer lessons each day. He had visited Cambodia a number of times and was making good lingustic progress. Certainly, he took every chance to practise.
Coming into the conversation group was a young twenties something Australian woman, Es – a Welsh name, who joined us for some meals and for out trip to see the dolphins. She was a graduate in Sales and Marketing and was keenly reading a book on the psychology of evolution. She was finding it very interesting as her major degree subject had been psychology.
There is not a lot to do in Kratie to be honest about it. So sitting on the balcony at the Balcony GH reading was a relaxing way to enjoy the destination. It was also cool with a gentle breeze during the heat of the day. On the front lawn beside the lily pond was a open sided gazebo with a couple of hamocks providing another cool and relaxing spot. Even I managed to successfully get in and out of a hamock although I did feel that I could easily tip out if I wasn't carefull.
Kratie is located on the banks of the Mekong River and naturally a road runs along the river bank. On the riverside of the road is a wide path or esplanade. Walking along it though isn't always easy as market traders and food stalls with their seating seem to spread out over it, forcing walking on the road itself.
There is or had been a central market building which had burnt down. Now a double story replacement is being constructed. As is the case in Cambodia, the scafulting is simply thin brances and tree trunks fastened into position. Looking at the wall of the new building is like looking at a wooden pallisade from ancient times. I spent a bit of time watching the workers putting more trunks into place. They would have one foot places on a secure looking crosspiece and another on something less secure while they attached the next 'stick' in place. They didn't look very safe, but then neither did the construction process.
In the meantime, stalls are spread along most of the streets and sometimes block the street for traffic. So walking through the narrow passageway between stalls can often bring you up against a motor cyclist trying to pass along as well. Everybody just takes that in their stride. The people are very accepting.
Of course the market consists of all the regular stalls. There are plenty of women's clothing outlets and hardware sellers along with plenty of fresh vegetable and fruit stands. Down one dusty street I found the meat and fish sellers. Surprisingly fly free at most stalls. I find it interesting to pass along seeing the mostly women sellers, trimming their meat and scaling fish. They all seem so skilled in it. At one stall, a girl was beheading small fish and removing the innards then passing the fish to a boy who split it open and scaled it – all very quickly done.
Several of the meat stands had full pigs' heads on display. Some of the fish stands had bowls of live fish, including a mass of riggling eels at one place. Others had piles of animal intestines for sale.
On the corner of a couple roads full of stalls, I spied a man using a saw to cut a large block of ice. He was working on the back of a hand cart. From behind I took some photos and video of the action. His friends and customers could see what I was doing and when he stopped told him. I gave a wave of thank you and moved on down the row of stalls. On the way back one of the friends indicated that he would like to see the picture. So I set my camera to show one of the videos. It shows as a still until I press a buttlon. So once the ice man had seen the picture of himself and grinned I pressed the button and it started moving. That really got an excited reaction. The size of the viewing group increased and the ice man especially laughed out loudly and with lots of excitiment. They watched it several times before the iceman and I shook hands and I moved om.
Backing the market stalls in the streets are the usual shops and businesses and customers have to wind their way through the stalls to get to them. Quite a number of shops selling amplifiers and music mixers for some reason. Also large speakers. I found a car battery shop with boxes of the product piled up outside, as every shop does. One brand was Obama Power. Several were variations on on the Panasonic name. Lots of phone sellers, often along with other quite different products. Nokia seems to be the most common brand for sale in Kratie. There didn't seem to be many (any?) smart phones though.
All of the shops were single units as if they had been or still were, house shops. Certianly it was common to pass shops were a whole group were sitting on the floor together having a meal. In fact often when you looked into a shop it looked rather like looking into a home. A sort of strange combination of contents and use really.
One cafe had all the seats at tables facing just one way. Facing a large tv screen showing a DVD feature film. To either side were a couple smaller screens showing different tv channels. There were a fair number of the seats in use, so the idea must work even if the clients stay longer than they need to.
Did I mention how dusty the roads were? Looking down a road showed a haze of dust which did look very photogenic in the strong sunshine. I took some photos of course but would have like to have had a larger zoom range to really pull in and compress the street view. I think that would have produced quite a good effect.
An interesting town which looked a little run down. It would amazing the transformation if only everywhere had a fresh coat of paint.
On my final day I spent the morning wandering around the streets again. It was a national holiday to celebrate the king's father's 89th birthday. Most of the businesses were open as usual but there were less street stalls especial in the meat and fish. The streets were decorated with flags and pictures of the king.
In the afternoon, Joseph, Es and I rented a tuktuk and headed off to hunt for the local dolphins. It turned out that the guest house manager was also the tuktuk driver, but he only had a two seater machine. So a cushion was produced for Es to sit on the front 'shelf'. Both of us offered her a seat but the driver said no as he needed to balance weight.
It was about a 15km drive along the riverbank road till we reached the boat landing. Most of the route passed through continous roadside housing – which varied considerablly in quality and size. Most were village homes made out of wooden planks but some out of cement and others just huts from palm fronds and matting for sides. Many were on high posts to get above flood levels. We did pass some evidence of flooding still covering some low farm land.
Because there were three of us we broke into the second price structure for the boat, $7 for 90 minutes. I noticed that the next day, 1st November would be the beginning of the tourist season and the boat time dropped to just 60 minutes.
We headed out into the middle of the river where a couple of boats already were. Sure enough when we got to that area we began to have dolphin sightings. We were not very close but could see them emerge from the water for breathing. Ocasionally I spotted a tail as the dived back underwater. Within 100 metres of dolphins the boats are supposed to stop engines and us a paddle.
We followed them up river for a while and then motored ahead to where branches of submerged trees were sticking out above the surface. The boatman tied the boat to a branch and we floated there waiting for more dolphin sightings. They did surface at a distance. At our best count we decided that there were perhaps just four, but of courde we could not be sure. A couple seemed to be black but the others were a pale blue-grey. With my short zoom lens I did not get very close images and need to enlarge them on the computer to see them more clearly. I did waste a lot of time with the video filming the river surface in the hope of getting them breaking out. No I didn't in case you ask.
I did feel that we got more sightings that I had expected, especially considering how rare they now are. It seems very likely that numbers are too small to ensure their continued existence in the Mekong. The part of the river where we saw them is an area of deep pools which retain a good depth even during the dry period.
Well we got within five minutes of our 90 and thought that was pretty good.
Back at the guest house we sat down for pre-dinner drinks which slowly became dinner drinks. We ordered a pizza to share then another then broscetta then pate and bread. In the end the evening saw three bottles of Kangaroo Tail red wine get drinked away. It was a very pleasant evening with Joseph telling about his job as a Austrian Travel Office manager, life in China and lots of chatter about films. Every now and again he would rush off to check the International Movie Data Base to check a directors name and so forth. We both have similar interests in film.
The previous evening we had something similar with Joseph ordering the bar's last Jacobs Creek red to go with garlic bread, pate and more pate. Both nights Andrew would come in and out of conversations as his bar and serving work allowed.
But on the holiday evening we could hear concert music being amplified in the night. About 10pm when the dinning was finished, Andrew suggested we go and find the concert as in previous years it had been pretty good. So four of us managed to get onto the tuktuk and off we went along the river bank road to the Ministry of Culture grounds to see the 'action'. Although I filmed a couple of items by the same singers, the crowd was very small and the performances were adequate. So instead of having the planned 45 minutes there, we were off again in 15.
Well it was an experience even if it didn't meet Andrew's expectations.
Next morning it was a quick bagette before the mini bus pick up arrived at 7am. So I was off and my visit to Kratie was over. It was interesting and different to many other destinations. There was the dolphins of course but it was also the relaxing and talking with interesting people which will be the highlight.
There were other guests, mostly young couples who came and went each day but they tended to keep to themselves and I guess avoid old guys. But then they were not all English speakers and that would perhaps be a reason why the stayed more to themselves. Not unfriendly, just private.
travelled through Laos. When they heard that I planned to stay a few
nights in Vang Vieng, there was a look of horror on their faces. They
asked if I knew anything about the place. I commented on hords of
drunken back packers and drugs and dangerous tubing and so on. But then
I added that I understood that there was fabulous mountain scenery and
caves. They agreed with that, in fact they agreed with each of my comments.
So here I am in Vang Vien and I haven't seen tubing but I have seen a
pile of tubes. I haven't seen any drunken youth, but then I have not
been out late at night. I have seen some amazing karst limestone
mountains. Today I have seen around lunchtime several young women going
along the street in brief bikini tops, in one case a brief bikini, with
bare topped males. One woman was even in the cafe I was eating in. Now
obviously they have not read the comments in Lonely Planet about modesty
and not showing off too much by either gender.
Coming back from a walk in a farming valley a male just in swim shorts
and his girlfriend in shorts and bikini top rode their bicycles past me.
Both were pale skinned, sweating and although the evidence of sun cream
could be seen, they were already showing a bright pink tone. I suspect
that they will be somewhat tended and painful this evening.
Being around 1pm it was certainly hot even hotter, so I understood their
lack of attire. I was feeling hot too and stopped off at a little local
resturant for a cool bottle of soda water. I find this bottle soda
water, from Thailand I was told, is a great drink to cool down with.
Shop price here is 5000 kip and that is what I paid today. However I
have had times where there has been an attempt to charge me 15000 kip. I
did not pay that.
Vang Vieng is an interesting small town. It is obviously undergoing
rapid development to cope with an increasing tourist interest. It
specialises in adventure activities such as river tubing, caving,
kyaking and cycling. As such it is a young persons town and this is
obvious from the majority of tourists I have seen here. There are some
older adults but few or none at presnt who would seem to be my age.
Consequently, the tours and activities which would suit me better are
not running for lack of customers. Having said that, I could pay an
inflated price and have the tur all to myself.
There are a mixture of sealed and unsealed streets, but generally the
more commercial streets are sealed and have good quality footpaths.
Smaller lanes and less commercial streets are generally unsealed and
lack formed footpaths.
I am staying at Pan's Place, a somewhat quirky relaxed guesthouse which
was set up by a New Zealander and is now run by another kiwi and his Lao
partner. He original owner Niel, a New Zealander, is still around, while
the present expat partner, Chris is a friendly guy who enjoys a good
conversation. Chris's Lao wife is the actual owner and is also on duty
during the day.
Price is low end and compeditive. My room has ensuite a good fan and
also an expell air unit. Pan's Place has a lounge and resturant area
which opens up onto the espresso bar on the road frontage. There is an
honesty system for the drinks refrigerator for guests. Upstairs is a
small TV lounge with a large supply of movies on hard drive. The only
problem with this was that I could not get the TV set to actually work.
It did not seem to switch on. And I did try!
Vang Vieng is full of guest houses of all kinds and price levels. Some
look very up market and have a hotel look about them. Others, well, you
could find yourself disappointed on arrival. More guest houses are being
constructed. This seems to be a norm for Laos at the moment. Obviously
they are expecting tourism to grow even bigger. But this is the off
seasonfor tourists and the streets are largely empty most of the day. I
walk past empty cafes and restuarants by the dozen. Yesterday around 4pm
I went to a large bar/resturant for a cool drink. I would have expected
it to be crowded at that time. But no, there was just one other guest
the whole time I spent there. So I was able to have one of the Oriental
style reclining bed/seats with a great river and valley view. And there
was a lovely cool breeze blowing in the open sides.
At night there is a small area of food stalls. The main feature here are
a couple of BBQ stands with their rotating spits. Along another nearby
street is the place for pancakes. Why would you find a dozen pancake
waggons all togther and all offering the same menu? Wouldn't it be
better to scatter around the streets? Perhaps but there are some other
pancake stands doing that. But these ones are up market as they sell crepes.
Shops are mainly clothing based but some with other items such as tables
of hardware items. Most also have some sandles and jandels on sale. Then
there are the travel agents each trying to outdo the other with the
largest signs. Most are offering the identical packages plus bus
bookings. There some kyaking and tubing outlets. All interspersed with
It is interesting to wander around the streets and look into the various
business. I have seen shop owners asleep on hamocks and camp type beds.
Mothers with their young child in their arms or quietly asleep near
them. Around meal times whole families or groups gather in the shop for
their meal. It seems a very social way of mixing work and family. I
guess this is to compensate for the long hours the shops remain open.
It must be dissappointing for a shop owner to stay open long hours and
do little – perhaps no – business. In the clothing shops so much of the
stock appears identical, how does the shopper decide which shop to
enter. The Lao shop leepser is genrally friendly and quietly hopeful.
But they are not pushy or inistant you buy, buy, buy.
While there are many caves around the area, some are easier to access
and some are more interesting than others.
On my first afternoon here I walked for perhaps 30 minutes to inspect
the closest.This was Tham Jang. I had to walk to Vang Vieng Resort and
pay 2000 kip to cros their land and bridge. Once on the other side it
was just a few minutes walk along a part, past food and dring sellers to
the cave enterance. At the foot of the cliff a stream came out of a cave
and formed a small swimming pool which some locals and tourists were
using. Some just jumed in fully clothed as there was no obvious changing
facilities. It is possible to swim a short distance into the cave; about
80 metres I believe. Although I had swimming togs with me the lack of
changing facilities made me reluctant to try to change and with long
pants on I didn't want to go in fully dressed.
Admission to the actual cave, for non-Lao individuals is 15,000 kip.
Having paid this you then climb a steep stairway of a couple hundred or
more ( I stopped counting half way) concrete steps. At the top is a
small shrine and young children selling flowers and incense to place on
Inside the cave is a wooden and or paved pathway going in different
directions. There are bare light bulbs along the walls to dimmly
illuminate the way. The interior is generally a high cavern which winds
around various rock formations. The stellatites and stelamites are often
quite tall and thick. Some are impressive but with the low lighting
often not the easiest to define.
I was able to take photographs and movies but sometimes the results were
rather dim. I did try using my torch to help lighten rock shapes but
this tended to be too artifical and provide a curcular patch of light.
I must have spent close to an hour exploring as it was quite a large
cavern. Then back down the many steps to ground level.
This morning I set out and walked across the toll bridge (4000 kip
return) and along the rocky and muddy valley road. I headed for the
closest cave, ham Pha Daeng. Not the best or most exciting cave to visit
but the closest along the road. It was dissappointing and did not match
the roadside descriptive notice. Nowhere could I find the promised
crystal swimming pool. Although the young boy selling the 10,000 kip
tickets could say the price he was not able to answer questions about
swimming. However, I did enjoy the long walk along the bung path between
fields of paddi rice. I spied small fish in the water races and chased
butterflies trying to photograph the most attractive ones. Very
difficult to do I must add and I did not manage to catch any of the
large swallow tail ones which seemed so colourful. Well later I did get
some shots of one with its wings closed and I think it must have been
asleep. Do butterflies sleep?
When I finally located the cave after a few false tracks in the bush,
found it quite small and with a sort of cave foyer. A narrow passage
went donwrds from this but with the light of my small torch, the wooden
ladder, two thin tree truncks with a few attached cross prieces, did not
seem safe to use. So after a few minutes it was outside again and
butterfly stalking. The best shot was of the butterly which rested on my
It was even hotter walking back to town so I stopped off at a small
local resturant on the island between the two bridges. Cool soda water
was the drink of the day. The establishment was all made of local
materials with a palm leaf roof. All sides of the eating area were open
to the coolling breezes. An nice place to pause at. I would assume from
watching the people dynamics, that it was family owned and run. There
were a number of children assisting and I wondered why they were not at
school. I had passed the town's primary school on the way out and seen
all the pupils in a playground break.
It is now four pm as I write this account. Looking up from my table in
Pan's Place I can see that the streets are a little busier. Half a dozen
young visitors are walking along the road with large back packs. Perhaps
they are looking for a guest house to book into. The sunlight is
developing that special late day light. Shaddows are lengthening and I
sense a cooling of temperature. Mind you it is still warm. It will get
quickly dark around six pm. Across the road the shop keeper is closing
and removing his large sun umbrellas.
A girls has just cycled past hold up an umbrella. That's one of the
things you notice – people riding along the road holding open umrellas.
They can be on bicycles or scooters. Sometimes it is the scotter
passenger who holds the umbrella over them both. I have seen several
Buddist monks cycling along holding umbrellas too. Quite common to see
monks walking along with umbrellas up.
At Pan's Place, Chris explained to me that the Lao prefer lighter skin
and that they want to avoid getting tanned in the sun. A Lao person with
darker skin is seen as inferior. It implies that they work in the fields
and are likely to be poor. The ideal male to marriy apparently is
someone with a long nose and a pale face – and hopefully a full wallet.
Soon I will need to think about tea. I have had an Israeli pork snitzel
with Israeli salad. Do Israellis really cook pork?There are at least
three resturants here with an Israeli theme. The meal was nothing
special. Last evening I went to a local pizza house but had Lao Laap.
This is a dish of finely minced meat (in my case pork) mixed with local
herbs. Not too spicy and quite enjoyable. I also had a papaya salad
which was much more spicy and I am not too sure just where the papaya was.
Tonight I visited the Aussie Bar and had fish and chips with the fish
being especially good and not oily or fatty. I got chatting to an older
guy called Steve who was the owner. Steve wandered around in just a pair
of baggies and nothing else. It seemed strange to me that the bar
manager would do that. However we had an enjoyable hour and more
chatting away and I was able to learn a little more about living and
running a business in the town. He pointed out his partner, her daughter
and his child as well as other members of the family working around the
bar. Steve had come from Perth so running the Aussie Bar seemed a
suitable business. As with other expats in town, the way to stay in Lao
was to have a local business partner who actually owns the business and
then they apply for an annual visa renewal for the expat. All the
business men I talked to actually had a Lao female partner. It is easy
to understand why someone would want to live in the town as the setting
is so pleasant.
Incidently, I would try to aviod the many establishments which seem to
be screening a continous supply of 'Friends". There is a limit to how
many episodes I can watch in a row.
While wandering around the town I came across Wat That. The main
buildings are very decrative and colourful. Restoration work seems to be
in progress and a painter high on a scafulting, much like Leonardo de
Vinci, was painting frescos onto the top of the ordamental gateway.
In the centre of a hall or temple, a groups of ladies with food baskets
was sitting waiting. Soon a group of monks arrived and sat down at the
front facing the ladies. Finally the senior monks arrived and small
tables of food were carried from the ladies to the monks who moved into
groups of four to siz around the tables. However before they ate, the
group of monks chanted what I suppose would be the equivilent to a
Pan's Place also provides meals but they are Western so I tend to just
have breakfast here. Yesterday a nice omlette and today Scottish
porridge where both well prepared. For my final breakfast it was again
omlette, but this time with bacon and vegetables in it. The New Zealand
owner/partner has trained his staff to make western dishes with an
attention to detail which should have them appealling to western
visitors. Looking and the many menus displayed in front of eating
establishments I can not help but wonder how well they prepare the range
of meal styles on offer. European, American, Itallian, Israelli, Thai.
Lao, Chinese, Korean, Japanese.
One thing I have noticed is the regular rubbish collections. In fact a
large green truck is slowly coming down the street collecting the binned
rubbish out on the curb side. Some is in baskets some in plastic bins,
bags, boxes, in fact any sort of container seems to be ok. No authorized
council bag or wheelie bin system as in New Zealand.
In addition there are individuals who go around on bikes or with hand
carts collecting re-cyclable plastics. They pay a small amount based on
weight to the provider of the plastic. Chris tells me that the staff at
Pan's Place sort out the plastic drink bottles and similar from the
rubbish bins around the guest house and on sell them to the collector.
This is a small 'perk' which they share the proceeds from.
So while I didn't get to all the caves and villages that I would have
perhaps wished for, even just sitting at a shady table in front of Pan's
Place, or anywhere actually, gives me the opportunities to observe the
local life and interplay of activities. I find this equally fascinating.
Would I come back to Vang Vieng? Yes I would do that. It is different
enough to provide an enjoyable stay of a few days. Perhaps sometime I
will return with Robyn?