Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fear and loathing on the road to Bang

A bead of sweat emerged on my right temple and trickled down my cheek, with several more to follow. Next to me on the bus sat an elderly man with a bird's nest of white hair, large, square, plastic glasses and a crisp, white sports shirt. He smelled of a not unpleasing mixture of coffee grounds and Old Spice.

"Long ride ahead of you, going to Bangkok, right?" he said, grinning.

"Indeed, I am. You, too?" I asked. He nodded.

In fact I was unsure as to how long the ride would really be, having heard or read everything from 12 to 17 hours.

I learned from my seat mate that he spent most of his time between Costa Rica and Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, but this time had decided to detour and check out the Cambodian coastal town of Sihanoukville, where I'd spent the last week.

Moments before the monsoon rains hit. Sihanoukville, Cambodia

"So, what did you think of the place?" I asked.

"Well, I don't know if this will make sense ... it had a very low energy, ya know, compared to Chiang Mai. Up there the people are so different, high energy," he said, adding: "I guess after having a million of your teachers, doctors, your educated, killed off, that does something to you. I think it's affected the gene pool. It will take some more time to recover, I suppose."

The bus grew hotter, idling in the sun with the AC blowing weakly from the vents above. We weren't sure what we were waiting for and no one had bothered to ask. Finally, after another half hour had passed and the conversation had shifted from Buddhist meditation to goats on bush taxis, a young French couple rushed onto the bus and plopped down in the front seats. They were both sweating and looked frazzled. Minutes later the driver appeared and we finally hit the road.

Five hours later, after a lunch stop in the border town of Koh Kong, we arrived at the the border post in the same town and were promptly dumped off. The Cambodian immigration line, though slow, moved steadily. From there it was a short walk to the Thai immigration office, which processed everyone much quicker than its Khmer counterpart.

On the Thai side there were a series of minivans with their drivers recruiting people to their respective vehicles. Other men had brought our luggage over on large pushcarts. We soon realized that we would not be able to leave until our van was full -- 10 people. Luckily, our driver was zealous in his recruitment tactics. We ended up with the late French couple, a Dutch couple, a Frenchman with a blond toddler in tow, my seatmate from the first bus and two Khmer girls.

The driver's helper came to check everyone's tickets, at which point the Dutch and French couples claimed to have given their full tickets to the boy on the first bus. The ticket checker stated that they could not take anyone without a ticket. So both couples began sifting frantically through the contents of their pockets and packs. After a few minutes the Dutch exclaimed in triumph, producing their tickets from a backpack, whereas the French looked on dejectedly, not able to find theirs. The French couple told ticket man that they had their receipt and stickers for Bangkok, but no tickets; however, the man was adamant about having the tickets and declared that he would need 200baht from them so he could cross back through the border checkpoint and call the ticket office. The French lamented having no baht on them, but the Dutchman quickly came to the rescue and produced 200 baht, to the profuse thanks of the couple. All the other minivans were long gone by this time, and the French couple seemed to sink a little lower in their seats, embarrassed at being the ones to make us late for a second time that day.

The AC was again inadequate, with the Dutch couple and I suffering in the very back. At regular intervals the Dutchman would doff his baseball cap and stick his balding head directly beneath the vents. The Frenchman, meanwhile, seemed to miss the fact that his child was suffering in a thick, long-sleeved jersey.

After zenning it thru this ride for another few hours, we made it to Trat, where at a gas station a lone, white super-minivan was awaiting us. This wonder had high ceilings, twice the space and a freezing AC.

For this final leg of four and a half hours, we all stretched out in cool comfort, thinking that the rest of the trip would be smooth sailing into Bangkok. After being on the road for about an hour we reached a police checkpoint. Most vehicles were waved through quickly, but when we made it to the front of the line a cop gestured for us to pull over. He first asked for the driver's documents, then told him to get out of the van and come with him. No one in the van said a word, but the big UH OH in everyone's minds was almost tangible. We looked on helplessly as they took him to a table and began questioning him.

A little later another officer opened the van's sliding door and peered in, rather menacingly, at all of us. He then ordered the two Khmer girls out and slammed the door shut after they had climbed down. We watched as he questioned them while studying their passports closely. At this point all manner of scenarios were running through my mind and everyone was gazing at each other quizzically.

After another half hour had passed our driver returned to the van. It was hard to tell if he was crying or just sweating profusely, perhaps both. He certainly looked dejected, but he got in without saying anything. The van was eerily silent, not even the toddler was babbling as if he understood the mood. We pulled out of the checkpoint and continued on our way as if nothing had happened.

Around 60 songs later the lights and skyscrapers of Bangkok came into view, with the Frenchman stretching giraffe-like toward the windows to take it all in. After a mere 12.5 hours we had made it to the Bang.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The little temple

Rewind to July 7-13, when I was in Siem Reap to visit the Angkor temples. There is, of course, the most well-known temple complex, Angkor Wat, which is the most extensive. But there are actually over 1,000 different temple ruins of various sizes at the site.

One of my favorites was a smaller temple called Banteay Srey, which lies about 37km from Angkor Wat. The morning light brings out the range of pink, red and yellow tones in the stone and when the temple first came into view it reminded me of something straight out of a fairytale.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Phnom Penh: Top 5 with the Vibe

This is my last day in Phnom Penh before heading south to the beaches. In some cities a number of elements come together to create the Vibe. They are places where soon after arrival you feel perfectly comfortable. Places where you want to sit back or stroll around and stay for awhile. I wasn't sure what to expect from Phnom Penh, but I bused in a week ago from Siem Reap and began to feel the Vibe.

1. Monkeys around Wat Phnom
These guys hang out in the trees and grass surrounding Wat Phnom, a Buddhist temple on a hill.

2. Pajamas on the street
A common scene when you're out and about in Phnom is the bright pajamas worn by women and children. Comfy cotton in fiery colors, often with cartoon characters dotting them, a strong contrast to the all-black models that were required when the Khmer Rouge was in power in the late '70s. Nothing says laidback comfort like a pair of cotton PJs.

3. Courtyard gardens at the National Museum of Cambodia

4. Architecture, Psah Thmei (Central Market)
The overarching theme in Phnom architecture is French colonial. But examples of other styles such as this 1930's art-deco market can also be found in the city.

5. A true center, Wat Phnom and park
The circular park below Wat Phnom is the soul of the city. People gather here to talk, recreate, relax and escape the sun.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"No regrets" about deaths

Yesterday I visited the site of one of the Killing Fields in Choeung Ek, where a memorial lies to commemorate the many thousands of Cambodians who were executed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979 in these fields. The mass graves at the site have all been excavated so there are now large pits covered with grass and flowers. Some of the larger pits have thatch canopies over them and signs describing what demographic was buried there, such as just children, or just women and children.

The memorial at Choeung Ek is in the form of a Buddhist stupa. Behind tall windows on all four sides are thousands of skulls from those who were executed here.

After walking the perimeter of the site, which also has a large pond at one end, and a path through the graves, I sat down across from the memorial. Nature has reclaimed the area. It was difficult to imagine the atrocities that were carried out there. And yet this is a part of very recent history. Something that was happening when I was a toddler.

I closed my eyes and tried to project myself into that scene -- children bound to trees and beaten, all being starved, some being forced to dig their own graves, being executed by a hammer or ax to the head. How does one go about adopting an ideology that could justify such acts? An ideology that leads to a complete loss of one's humanity?

After the Killing Fields I continued on to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, the site of the infamous S-21 prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Torture was routine at S-21, including the practice of waterboarding which we all became refamiliarized with in the former US administration.

Earlier that morning I had read an article on a top Khmer Rouge interrogator. In his testimony, Mam Nay "expressed no remorse for the killings of thousands of Cambodians who he said had all committed crimes."

"Asked about the deaths of innocent people, Nay, 76, said: 'None of them was innocent -- those people committed offences, either minor or serious.'"

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Kapaleeswarar temple

Mylapore, Chennai

Theosophical Gardens

While in Chennai, India, in late June I spent a morning strolling the paths of the Theosophical Gardens. On the same grounds lies the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. There are examples of the places of worship of all world religions scattered throughout, but the gardens themselves were what I came for. Unfortunately, the hours that the gardens are open are limited, only a few hours in the morning and another few in the afternoon and the men at the gate are pretty strict about this, though I doubt anyone would come hunt you down if you didn't leave at the set times.

A highlight of the gardens is one of the world's largest banyan trees (pictured below), which is over 100 years old. The tree takes up a sprawling area and there is a weathered archway before which you can sit and ponder the tree, 100 years, life or nothing at all.

Small section of the giant banyan tree.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Annapurna Circuit: Lassis by the lake

And then, it was over. I was sitting across from the lake in Pokhara sweating and drinking all the lassis I could keep down, later having cold cocktails with Purna as they filmed a Nepalese movie at the lake park.

This was all after our final three-hour hike from Ghandruk to Naipaul, from where we took a taxi to Pokhara. Or rather we tried to take a taxi, but the vehicle broke down after only about 15 minutes. After our driver tried in vain to fix it, he walked down the road and came back with a friend, who ended up taking us the rest of the way. This driver appeared to be around 16 and I wished a couple times his taxi would break down too before we hurled off the mountainside or into the next tractor around the bend.

Annapurna Circuit: Part 7

June 15: Ghorepani to Tadapani

Tadapani to Ghandruk

The rains are coming down this afternoon, leaving the rice and corn and other crops happily soaked, but all the humans wandering around restlessly.

The Annapurna Guest House where we are staying tonight has an outlook tower from which Purna and I watched the rain. Up in the tower I had the sensation of being in a lighthouse, though instead of looking out over endless ocean, there was a sea of clouds and forest, constantly shifting in wind and rain, at one point with the fog encompassing the tower like a misty embrace.

Now it is thundering and the clouds have obscured the view, leaving only an outline of the tree-lined mountaintops. Water is pouring from the roof gutters in a steady stream and sweeping down the stone walkways, creating a river of its own.

Annpurna Circuit: Part 6

June 12: Marpha to Ghasa

Today's hike was close to six hours, with a break for lunch in Kalopani. The terrain was far different from yesterday's dry brownness. We entered a region of fir forest, swiftly moving fog and crashing rivers fed by clear streams.

Locals told us it had been raining every day for the past week, but today was precipitation-free. Kalopani was one of the most attractive villages I've seen, with well-designed stone brick lodges, a school that looked like a mountain retreat and lovely gardens. Purna said not many trekkers stay there anymore. Seemed like it would make a great place to live/run a lodge/trekking business.

Ghasa to Tatopani: Today was a descent into what looks and feels most like a tropical rain forest, with banana trees, towering canopies, ferns, waterfalls, and, of course, steamy rain.

June 14: Tatopani to Ghorepani

This was the final all-uphill struggle of the trek, close to six full hours, most of which was on stone steps in steamy jungle heat. The water buffalo looked much more content with themselves, wallowing in their muddy holes and thus keeping cool as sweat poured down my face and sun blisters appeared on my forearms (as I am allergic to sunscreen).

We broke for lunch and were soon joined by an Aussie and a girl from Denmark, along with their guides/porters. Apparently the Dane and another guy who had been traveling with them originally were hit by altitude sickness on their attempt at Thorong-la and had to descend to High Camp. The guy decided to turn back, while the two women made a successful attempt the next day. The Aussie said she is heading to Turkey (yaaaaaaay) and the Middles East on a six-month trip after this.

Even Purna, who seems to have boundless energy, was waning as we neared the top. The noodle soup he'd had for lunch just wasn't enough to power him through. Should've stuck with dhal bhat.

Annpurna Circuit: Part 5

Muktinath to Kagbeni

The wind is blustering outside as if it would like to cleanse us all from this earth; but instead the prayer flags are being shredded, the muddy river is rippling and the hay is blowing into faces and up noses.

The hike from Muktinath this morning took only a few hours. It was a rather desolate trek down a winding, dusty road on which we would sometimes have to hop to the side and wait for impatient, packed, white jeeps to speed by, honking even though we clearly weren't in their way.

The terrain reminds me most of Nevada, except perhaps with even less vegetation growing here. I saw only one hint of life on the way, a tiny lizard skirting its way across the road to again hide itself amongst the rocks and sand.

There are several lodges and little shops, one with an authentic-looking 7Eleven sign, in this village. The architecture reminds me of a that in a Mexican town, with colorful outer window dressings, wood piping and white exteriors.

After trying the dense Kagbeni bread with some mushroom soup we ventured out into the wind and walked to an overlook of the muddy, sluggish river. But after reaching the other side of the village, with debris blowing up into our faces, Purna had had enough and we returned to Shangri-la (the name of our lodge).

Kagbeni to Marpha

Thus far, today was my least favorite hike. The wind was gusting directly against us the entire time and we had to constantly jet to the side of the road to avoid oncoming jeeps and motorcycles, which left a cloud of dust in our faces. My nose is so dried out it feels as if the slightest twitch will set it to bleeding. My face is unevenly tanned as the winds kept blowing the flaps of my hat up, so I appear rather like a charred alien at the moment.

The terrain -- in a word, austere. Dusty riverbeds, dry, rocky roads, sun beating down, gusts never ending. We hit the town of Jomsom around 11am, a fairly large town but not much to it. There was much construction going on and many lodges, as several treks in the region start from here. It also has a stone slab road running all the way through it, but nothing to distinguish it from any other dusty, gray frontier town. From Jomsom it was another hour to Marpha.

Tried some of the regionally popular Marpha Apple Brandy. Let's just say I wouldn't recommend it, unless you're feeling desperate and there's nothing else around.

Annapurna Circuit: Part 4, Thorong-la Pass

June 9: Thorong High Camp to Thorong-la Pass to Muktinath

I conquered Thorong-la Pass today at 5,416m (17,769ft.). The climb was not as difficult as I had expected. I was lucky to have no signs of altitude sickness, though breathing was a chore. Though breathing deeply, it still feels as if one is not getting enough air, perhaps something like suffocation.

We were the first to leave the High Camp this morning at around 5:40am, though the Chilean and his guide and an Italian/Spaniard pair I had met last night soon followed. I thought they might catch up at some point but surprisingly neither pair ever did. So when we reached Thorong-la, welcomed by the well-known sign with prayer flags emerging from a stone pillar, we had it all to ourselves. We dropped our bags and headed up the slope for a better view, from where we could see glacial lakes and a 360-degree view of the surrounding peaks.

The descent was actually more difficult than the climb since after a few hours, even with trekking poles, hip sockets and knees have just had it on the steep, rocky terrain. But we forged ahead without breaks and made it to Muktinath before noon, with a donkey train tromping in right behind us -- they always seemed to find us.

After some rest and a hot shower that felt like salvation we walked up the hill to a Hindu temple complex. Surrounding the temple, where many Indians go on pilgrammage, are 108 taps in the shape of boar's heads along the wall. In the front courtyard are two holy pools. A path leads along the full perimeter amongst shade trees. It was interesting to see the mix of Hindu and Buddhist elements, such as the prayer wheels, there. And above the perimeter wall stood a number of stupas.

The lodge where we stayed, called the North Pole, had the best enchiladas I have ever had served on a sizzling iron skillet. I was beyond surprised to find this Mexican dish done so well in the Nepali frontier.

Annapurna Circuit: Part 4

June 7: Manang to Yak Khakar

Today was a mostly easy three-and-a-half-hour hike from Manang, though there was some climbing at the beginning. We passed the Chilean (what me and my guide, Purna, had taken to calling another Circuit hiker that had started around the same time as us, whose actual name was Jean-Paul) for the second time that day; he looked rather winded though we had seen him only around 10 minutes ago having a tea break.

Yak Khakar is a strange little village with a lot of Nepali people just camping out here, hiking up the nearby mountain every day to collect semi-precious stones, and returning each evening to their camp. Once we got here, Purna and I walked down to the river and found comfortable boulders for lizard lounging in the sun; if it weren't so windy, I would've quickly fallen asleep, sombrero over face to prevent a bad burn.

No lights at the tea house here and water quite scarce. Toilets have been locked for the low season. Purna said this was to keep the Nepali campers from using them.

Yak Khakar to Thorong High Camp

I am writing this with gloves on, wearing a down jacket and sitting in my down sleeping bag, with a hat on. Outside there are snow showers falling on and off, though earlier it was clear and sunny but with a definite chill in the air. I hiked up here with just a Capilene zip-T -- and what a climb it was, a precursor to tomorrow I suppose. Just ahead of us was a mountain biker and his guide, who both had to lug their bikes up this section cause it was way too steep to ride.

The High Camp lodge is pretty basic, all of stone and mud and plaster, but the windows are pretty well sealed compared to yesterday's digs. The camp is a series of low-slung quarters that appear almost like army bunkers.

Tomorrow morning have to be ready by 5am so we can breakfast and hit the pass (Thorong-la Pass, the highest point on the Circuit) before it gets too windy. The elevation here at High Camp is 4,800m (15,748ft.). Feels kind of like a frontier ghost town as most people are holed up in their rooms resting up for tomorrow, and there are also those who made the attempt today but got altitude sickness and had to return.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Annapurna Circuit: Part 3

Pisang to Manang

Today's hike was only around four hours, with a two-hour layover at lunch because of the long prep time for dhal bhat (the Nepalese national dish of rice and lentil soup, usually with a side of veg) in Braka Manju. Nothing to strenuous, though we did gain some elevation. Manang is at 3,519m (11,548 ft.). Since we got in early we took off again to see Gangapurna Lake, which lies on the outskirts of Manang and was formed by a glacier.

Manang is an attractive town of stone brick homes and tea houses and an older section that looks like a sprawling stone fortress. After hiking up to the ridge above the lake and sitting in the sun for awhile, with great views of Gangapurna Glacier above, we headed back down and then climbed up the hill behind the tea house to a stupa.

Manang to Ice Lake

The purpose of today's hike -- which actually took us backwards on the trail we came up yesterday, then cut up into mountains on a very steep grade -- was acclimatization, with Ice Lake located over 1,000 meters higher than Manang at 4,600m (15,091ft.). We started out at 8am after a breakfast of mueslix and hot milk. After walking back to Braka, which is where we had lunched yesterday, we joined the trail head and it was all pretty much up, up, up at more than a 45 degree grade for the next three and a half hours, with only the last 15 minutes or so providing some respite.

When we climbed over the final ridge, the punchline appeared -- an itty-bitty nondescript excuse for a lake, surrounded by no vegetation whatsoever. Next to it stood the remains of a temple, now only a square of stacked stone on a foundation. It was also quite cold and my fingers quickly went the way of numb. So after eating our packed lunch of chapatis and eggs, we sat for a bit, but the temps. cooled even further and we soon were making our way back down.

Annapurna Circuit: Part 2

Temang to Chame

Chame to Pisang
Clockwise from left: Buddhist prayer stone, Annapurna II, temple in Upper Pisang, Pisang

The light in the tea house is dim, waxing, waning. The roar of the river is farther off than I've become accustomed to, with the sound usually putting me right to sleep every night. Today's hike was around five hours. When we got into Pisang village, we soon after took off again and walked the dozens of stone steps to Upper Pisang. At the top is a temple, where an old man sat grinning in a corner out front, looking as if he'd just been sitting there enjoying the view of Annupurna II all day.