Wednesday, February 29, 2012

hamster roulette

Governments are evil. As soon as people start enjoying something the government passes a law that makes it illegal. They take all the fun stuff away from their people. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, you name it. Alcohol for example is illegal in countries like Sweden or Saudi Arabia. That's right: Sweden. Ever tried to buy a bottle of wine in Sweden on a Sunday? You can't, since the government controlled system bolaget stores are not allowed to open on a Sunday to sell you a bottle of Bordeaux. In Saudi Arabia it will be impossible on the other six days of the week as well. Minor details. Some countries even go so far that they won't allow you to drive your car as fast as it possibly can on its motorways.
Now, the Vietnamese love gambling. Guess what? It's illegal in Vietnam! Now lucky enough there are usually loopholes to find your way around the law to get what you want. In Sweden you can go to a pub or a restaurant on a Sunday and order a bottle of red (let me know if you find out how to order a pint in Saudi Arabia...). And if you want to test the speed limits of your car all you have to do is to drive it across the border to Germany and off you go. The same goes for gambling in Vietnam. Cross the border into Cambodia and the first thing you encounter on the other side is a casino. But there are also other ways of bending the law and bet your money within the country. On a bus ride from the Cambodian border to Saigon, our bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. There was a passenger terminal of the bus company with a food court and outside the terminal was a small fairground with a stage and some booths selling food and drinks.
And then there was hamster roulette. A big round table that had a lower section with a smaller diameter and doors around it with numbers on them. In the middle of the table there was a bucket upside down that had a rope attached to it. The rope went straight up, around a roll and down to a bloke standing besides the table. People started to place their bets on the numbers around the table. We are talking dong, millions of them. Once the bets were placed the bloke next to the table would pull the string and the bucket would lift up. Under the bucket was a hamster. The hamster started running to the edge of the circle. It picked a door and took the exit. The lucky person who bet his money on that particular door won. The next morning in Saigon I bought ten buckets. I'm going to open a casino.

What gambling is to Vietnam, are late nights of drinking in bars to landlocked Laos. There's a curfew. All pubs and bars have to close at 11.30 pm so that the customers can be at their registered home or hotel by midnight. There's one exception though: bowling alleys. The party goes on in bowling alleys until the early morning. Also, there is a law in Laos that forbids foreigners to have sexual intercourse with locals, unless they are married. I am not sure if there is an exception if you do it in a bowling alley, though...
I left the Kingdom of Cambodia a day later than originally planned. It was Tet, as Chinese New Year is called in Vietnam, and according to my "travel agent" who had his "office" set up on a street corner in Kep there was no transport on New Years Day. So I had to spend another day eating crab with Kampot pepper before crossing the border to Vietnam...
the "office" of my travel agent, Mr. Pharis in Kep

Hatien Vegas, first stop in Cambodia for the Vietnamese

good bye, Cambodia, last casino before the border

good morning, Vietnam

gambling room in the independence palace in Saigon, 70s style,
the president was a gambler, too.

I left Kep in the morning and four buses, several Mekong delta crossings and a hamster roulette break later got into Ho Chi Minh City a.k.a. Saigon when it was almost midnight. I had my first pho straight away from a street food stall. I thought I had seen mad traffic in many places I've been to before, but Saigon is just mental. You can't see the street for the mopeds. The Tet celebrations were to continue for days to come. Since 2012 is the year of the Dragon, the city had dragons installed in many locations and every moped in HCMC was on its way to one or another dragon. Chúc mừng năm mới - Happy new year!

Moped madness, Saigon
Happy Year of the Dragon!

Vietnam telecom. surprisingly it works.
Before leaving Saigon I went to see the Cao Dai temple at Thay Ninh. Cao Dai is a religion that mixes concepts of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, blends it with a dash of Hinduism (Brahma, Shiva and Krishna are sitting on the temple's roof) and honours a wild bunch of saints and holy spirits including Victor Hugo, Jesus, Shakespeare, Buddha, Jeanne d'Arc, Mohammed, Napoleon, Descartes, Churchill, Lenin and Tolstoi. If religion is a buffet, this is it. That's me in the corner, choosing my religion...

prayer time, Cao Dai temple
Prayer time is four times a day: 6 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and midnight and this is what it sounds like.

Cao Dai temple, Tay Ninh
On the way back to Ho Chi Minh City we stopped at the tunnels of Cu Chi. During the Vietnam war the Viet Cong guerrillas built a network of more than a hundred kilometres of tunnels that served as routes for supplies, homes and even hospitals underground. It was probably due to these tunnels and the booby traps built around the area that Vietnam became a war the U.S. troops could not win. Some of the tunnels have been restored and can be visited. We were told that they have been somewhat enhanced in size (so that over-sized tourists fit) but they are still very claustrophobic and get narrower and narrower as you crawl through the tunnels for the final exit (there are several exits before that just in case you panic...).   

wrong door. booby trap, bamboo spike version.

Cu Chi tunnels: I am disappeared

Claustrophobic Cu Chi tunnels

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Killing fields, supporting lifes

On April 17 1975 the Khmer rouge took Phnom Penh and proclaimed it year zero. Led by Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot a.k.a. Brother number one, the Khmer rouge renamed Cambodia to “Democratic Kampuchea” and transformed the country into a land of farmers. Within a few days the inhabitants of Phnom Penh and other cities were deported to the countryside and forced to work on the fields for more than 12 hours per day. Intellectuals were the enemy of the state. Wearing glasses, being able to speak a foreign language or having soft hands was reason enough to be arrested and detained, no need to mention being a doctor, an engineer, a buddhist monk or a teacher...
Detention centres were set up throughout the country. One of the biggest, the former Tuol Svay Prey high school, was transformed into S-21 (Security Office 21), which today hosts the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The former classrooms of the four buildings A, B, C and D were transformed into torture chambers and holding cells , building A being reserved for those cadres of the Khmer rouge who were suspected to plan an uprising against Pol Pot.


S-21 Prison cells

holding cell in S-21

The sign says that you're not supposed to laugh in S-21. There's nothing to laugh about here, really...

S-21 buildings

Victims of S-21

In early 1979 the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh and found only seven prisoners still alive at S-21. Two of them are still living today. They returned to S-21 to tell their stories.

One of the two survivors of S-21 who is still alive today
Those who confessed under torture to crimes they did not commit in S-21 were taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, outside of Phnom Penh, which were just that: Killing fields. Taken off the trucks that brought the victims there they were clubbed to death to the soundtrack of a diesel generator and a P.A. playing propaganda songs of the Khmer rouge. Bullets were too expensive and not available.

the killing tree

Killing fields

The killing fields of Choeung Ek

The shocking thing is that even after the Vietnamese conquered Cambodia, the UN still accepted the Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia for a few years to come. And even though there is now a UN trial things are moving slowly, very slowly. The UN trial has been going on for years now and only one sentence has been passed. The current Cambodian government is still blocking further trials against former Khmer rouge members. Some may still be part of the current regime...

Want to make a change and help someone to live a better life? Love good food? Like shopping? It's as easy as that:

Friends International is running two restaurants in Phnom Penh where street kids are taught how to become a chef, a waiter or work in the service industry.

Daughters of Cambodia is an organization that helps girls that have been trafficked to exit the sex industry and supports them in finding alternative ways to live a self-sustained life by teaching them sewing, clothes design, photography, jewellery crafting etc. They are also running a cafe called “sugar and spice” where the girls are learning cooking, baking and working in the restaurant industry. Additionally daughters of Cambodia provides them with medical and counseling services to give them the pride and confidence back that they lost and helps them to lead a healthy and safe life. They run a shop in Phnom Penh where their clothes, arts and crafts are sold, really cool designs and very different from all the fake copies found anywhere else in the capital. Worth having a look and making a change in somebody’s life.

Watch this video to learn more about the amazing job that they are doing.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Khmer cuisine and the state that I am in...

They great couple running the Siem Reap Rooms Guesthouse asked whether we were in an adventurous mood for dinner. So they recommended a place with no English menu and asked their staff to write down the names of the dishes in Khmer. The place was just off the main touristy area of Siem Reap, the waiters spoke no English and we handed them over our menu. This was one of the dishes we ordered:

beef with ants
It was quite dark at the place, so you could not really see what you were eating. Anyway: Beef with ants is delicious, the ants taste slightly sour, almost lemonish. It may just be difficult to recreate the dish at home...

Took another cooking class organized by the Frizz restaurant in Phnom Penh. Here's the menu:

banana flower salad with chicken

fish amok

another version of sticky rice and mango

Finally after a lot of travelling I reached the beach in Sihanoukville and indulged in seafood. It is also the winner of the fastest visa ever issued competition: got my visa for Vietnam in 10 minutes at the Vietnamese consulate there, and that included filling out the forms.

Seafood in Sihanoukville
When the French came to Cambodia they settled in Kep and called it Kep sur mer. The village is situated in the area of Kampot where they grow Kampot pepper. And there's a lot of crab in the sea. Hence the village's signature dish is crab with Kampot pepper. Go to the crab market and order one for $5, they take it right out of the water and serve it to you with green Kampot pepper. It doesn't get any fresher than this!
They also love big concrete statues in Cambodia, almost every roundabout has one. Kep has a crab made of concrete. A blue one.

Crab statue in Kep

Kampot pepper

and Kep's signature dish:

crab with fresh green Kampot pepper

Now regarding the state that I am in:

I don't know what day of the week it is. Sometimes I have to think twice to be sure what town I'm in. Or what the name of the country is. When I get to a new place and walk the streets I look out for familiar faces. Most of the times I find someone I met before. I am not certain if it's kip, riel or dong I'm paying with. I say “No, thank you” without looking what somebody is trying to sell me. It is normal when I pay that the shopkeeper walks out and goes to find a neighbour who can break that 100000 note. I see where the food comes from and eat it anyway. And most of the time it's delicious. Everything less than 10 hours is a short ride on a bus or train. I ask people I've met five minutes ago whether they can watch my bag while I go to the ATM for ten minutes. I travel with people I met two hours ago for the next three days. Whatever is on the table belongs to everyone. We like it. Life is good.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

know your numbers...

o.k. kids, today we'll learn how to count to five in Khmer!

1 - one - muuy

2 - two - pii

3 - three - bai

4 - four - buhn

5 - five - phrum

my high score was six (three adults and three kids) by the way, but unfortunately I did not have my camera ready...

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Phantom pain

This is Aki Ra:

Aki Ra

He has been told that he was born in 1973 in the Siem Reap province in north western Cambodia. His parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge when he was 5 years old. The Khmer Rouge took him under their wings and became his new family. He was forced to work for their army, build bombs and lay landmines. At the age of ten Aki Ra had his first AK-47, the Kalashnikov was about the size of himself. When he was fourteen the Vietnamese conquered his village and made Aki Ra part of their own army. From that day he fought with the Vietnamese against his former army, the Khmer Rouge. In 1989 the Vietnamese left Cambodia and Aki Ra joined a third army, the Cambodian army to fight the remaining Khmer Rouge. Finally the UN sent a peacekeeping force to Siem Reap and asked for Cambodians who wanted to help them to clear the country of the millions of landmines. Being an expert in landmines for many years Aki Ra joined the team and from that day on made it the mission of his life to make Cambodia landmine free. He has since defused tousands of them and it is a miracle that he still is in possession of all his arms and legs. Aki Ra is passed his knowledge on and trained the locals in the art of defusing landmines. He is also running the Cambodia Landmine Museum close to the town of Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat.

cleared landmines

clean up soap, in the shape of landmines, sold at the Cambodia Landmine Museum, profits go to the Cambodia Self Help Demining organisation

It was at the Cambodia Landmine Museum where I met Stephen. Stephen lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident. After the accident he was suffering from what is called phantom pain, a pain that many amputees are suffering from. It is a pain that is felt in an organ that the person suffering no longer has. The brain sends out signals that make you believe that the missing organs hurts. In search of a way to ease the pain, Stephen discovered mirror therapy. By placing a mirror on one side of the healthy organ you create a reflection of it, so by looking at the mirror image you can trick you brain to believe that the amputated part of the body is no longer missing and thus stop the brain from sending signals that it hurts. It takes practice to achieve the result but when you master the technique it is a effective and cheap way to make the pain go away. Nothing the pharmaceutical industry is interested in since there is no need for painkillers any longer. Stephen is now cycling through countries with landmine victims and brings locally produced mirrors to teach the technique to the victims.

Stephen on his bike touring Cambodia with mirrors

You can find out more about Stephen's mission on his blog Me and my mirror.

Based on Stephen's story a movie has been produced starring German actor Til Schweiger: Phantomschmerz. I don't think I'm gonna watch the movie though. Movies with Til Schweiger give me pain. Physical pain.

Oh, the temples of Angkor Wat, yeah, they are alright. No, quite stunning actually. But see for yourself:

Angkor Wat, early morning

Angkor wat reflections

Pre Rup


Emma, Aidan & Axel do Laracroftistan, photo © Emma

Buddha in Bayan temple
Cambodia kids, all smiles

there's a new gang in town...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Indochina by love bus

Getting from A to B is rather simple:
Most of the guesthouses sell tickets to just about anywhere in the region: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, even a 40+ hour trip by bus to Kunming in China for those hardcore travelers. Tell them you want to go to B and they write you a ticket to B on a random piece of paper. You sometimes wonder how it works since no one checks first whether there are seats available, but it always works. Usually they also arrange pickup from the guesthouse to take you to the bus terminal. Easy. At the bus terminal people shout destinations, you pick yours and miraculously end up on the right bus. And if you arrive there two hours late that is considered on time.

Vientiane is a capital that does not feel like one at all. If it wasn't for all the UN organizations and expats you would not notice this is a capital. I stayed for a night and decided to move on to the south of Laos.
A pick up driver drove me and some other passengers to the southern bus terminal outside of the town. There was no bus. You learn to be patient here. Please don't rush.
When the bus finally pulled up and the luggage was stored away I received the real bus ticket stating that seat 19 was mine. I was expecting a seat, or rather since they sold me a sleeper bus, a fully reclining one was what I hoped for. When I reached the end at the top of the bus I could not believe what I saw. It was more like the honeymoon suite on wheels. But I was not alone. Our foursome consisted of a guy from Laos, Colm from Ireland and his girlfriend Lena from Israel, me being sandwiched between Paddy and Mr. LaoLao. It was a wet and bumpy night. Bumpy since it was the rear end of the bus and the road had many pot holes. Wet since the air condition was leaking. But Colm fashioned a condom from a plastic bag and some tape to keep us safe. At every stop the bag was emptied. We reached Pakse the next morning at 6. On time.

honeymoon suite on the love bus, hello kitty style

Other favorite means of transport include:

The mini bus. Filled to the max.

no need to look out of the passenger window

Bicycles and umbrellas go very well together

school's out somewhere in Laos

Going by boat through a forest on the Mekong.

Mekong forest

Roadtrippin' in Cambodia with Mr. Lucky

Mr. Lucky is driving a lucky passenger
 some more impressions from Laos

Monk in tree, Pakse

Don Det

fishing, Don Det

trees in the river, 4000 Islands