Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Langtang, Part 2

...Suddenly, Bino shouted something to me and I looked over and saw Ross being eaten alive by wild animals!

Just kidding. That was to freak my mom out a little. No, I looked over and saw 2 figures coming down the mountain! My heart instantly flooded with joy. But then -- "TWO figures??" I thought. "One of them must be dead! But which one?!" And just as my mind started racing in a hundred new directions, a third figure appeared from behind! YAAAAYYY!!!

Unfortunately we still had to wait half an hour until the three of them made it down the mountain, so it wasn't instant gratification like in the movies. When they finally made it down and we greeted them at the bottom, I ran up to them crying with relief, to the great bewilderment of the two people Ross had hiked with. I didn't care. I proceeded to cry, shout at Ross for worrying me so much, and hug him in happiness at the same time, like some sort of crazy woman.

It turned out that the 2 people he'd gone with were pretty hardcore trekkers. One was an English guy named Stu, and the other was a Swiss girl named Babs. Babs and Stu hijacked Ross and made him trek with them not just to the first peak, but to the next one, which was even higher, at 4,600m! That's why they'd taken twice as long as they should have to return. I suppose the lesson here is, never ever go trekking with Swiss people. They are way more fit than you will ever be and they will fuck you up.

This is what Ross was actually doing while I was imagining him being gored to death by angry yaks:

Click here to see a panorama from the 4,600m peak that Ross hiked up to:

After our tearful hellos, we had some lunch, let Ross rest for a little while, and then started our descent. We all thought that would be the end of that day's craziness, BUT NO. That's not how it works in the mountains. We stopped at a guesthouse in Langtang Valley after walking down for 2 hours. We were chilling out with some Nepali tea when we noticed the hosts of the guesthouse putting sticks of incense into little figurines in the kitchen. Noticing our confused looks, Bino explained that an old woman in the village had died a few days ago, so they were doing a ceremony to ward off devils from the guesthouse. Not only that, but every house in the village had to do the same ceremony within one week of the death.

They invited us into the kitchen to watch the ceremony, and I'm so glad they did because I'd never seen anything like it in my life. A lama (Buddhist priest) started chanting loudly in Tibetan and ringing a bell. (He would continue to do this throughout the entire ceremony described below, for about half an hour.) The little figurines that they'd made were on the floor in the middle of the kitchen. These represented the devils. While the lama chanted, another man cooked a meal of daal bhaat (of course) and spooned little portions of it next to the figurines.

Meanwhile, everyone was handed a little ball of some sort of potato paste and told to circle it around their bodies and heads 3 times to protect them from the devils. (We later realized that the figurines on the floor were made of this same potato paste.) Over in the corner, an old lady had a photo album of their family laid out, and was rubbing the potato paste over the pictures -- this was to ward off the devils from the family members who weren't present. So thoughtful.

Then there was a lot of throwing of food. The lama tossed corn, salt, and rice into the air as he chanted. (I kept thinking, jeez, this is going to be a lot of effort to clean up later!) Then the old woman made a little pathway on the floor using flour -- all the way from the potato figurines to the balcony outside -- and this was to give the devils a way to leave the house. Then the three of them suddenly shouted and whistled very loudly, ostensibly to scare off the devils, but mostly I think it just scared me. Finally, the two men picked up the figurines and carried them out of the house to take them down to the river, while the old lady swept up the flour path behind them as quickly as she could.

We ran over to the window to watch them take the figurines outside. When they placed them onto the ground, 3 donkeys started eating the figurines and the daal bhaat offerings! And that was the end of the ceremony. Everything went back to normal and we were served dinner shortly after. I couldn't believe how incredibly insane the whole thing was - after it was over, I rushed to get my notebook and wrote down as many of the details as I could remember so I could blog about it later. Always thinking of my dear readers, you know. If only we could've taken pictures!

As if to give us a bit of a break, the next 2 days were largely free of mishaps and just involved many hours of walking downhill, back to the first guesthouse. Perhaps the most exciting thing that happened during these days was when we stopped for a break at a guesthouse on our way down. Ross and Bino decided to have some Red Bull (to give them WINGS!), and suddenly a donkey approached and went right for the Red Bull! Apparently donkeys LOVE that shit, because this guy would not leave us alone the entire time we were sitting there. It was the cutest assault by a donkey I've ever had the privilege to be a part of.

(That bandaid is on my nose because, the previous day while I was staring up at the mountain in search of Ross for 4 hours, I didn't have any sunscreen and my nose burnt so badly that I got blisters! The things I do for my boyfriend.)

On our last day of descent, during our last 1.5 hours of walking, we were caught in a huge rainstorm and everything, EVERYTHING, got soaked, even despite having raincoats and raincovers on our bags. So much for all the rain gear we bought. Bino even had us put salt in our shoes, an old Nepali trick to prevent leeches during the rainy season. I made an impenetrable salt barrier in my socks and shoes, but after about 5 minutes of walking through the rain, my impenetrable salt barrier turned into a saltwater bath. Still, none of us got any leeches, so I guess the Nepalis must know their stuff after all.

On day 9, we were meant to take the bus back from the trailhead to Kathmandu, but it wasn't running due to a massive strike. The political situation in Nepal is pretty sticky - the government has had one year in which they promised to write a constitution, but in that year, they spent about 90 minutes working on it, those fucking slackers. The deadline had been that very day and they still hadn't finished, which was what caused huge riots in Kathmandu. Four buses had been burned there just that morning. (This is a typical tactic during the strikes, although they usually let the passengers off first.) This is why our bus wasn't running. Couldn't blame them, really.

Bino insisted that despite all this political insanity, no one had ever harmed any tourists, so we were safe to go back to Kathmandu if we could find someone willing to drive us. He explained that even the rebels understand that tourism is the backbone of the Nepali economy, so they wouldn't do anything to the tourists. I thought, if they REALLY understood that, they wouldn't do any of this shit in the first place, because guess what? Burning buses down generally scares tourists off, even if you (usually) let them off first.

We spent most of that day trying to organize alternate transportation back to Kathmandu. Over the course of the day we found 4 other people who wanted to share a ride with us: Irina, an older Russian lady; Babs, the Swiss girl that Ross had trekked with 2 days before (the mountains are such a small world); and 2 other people that Babs met, Beatrice and Steffen. Eventually we found a Nepali guy with a 7-seater Jeep who was willing to drive us back to Kathmandu for the extortionate rate of $150. (Cost of the bus: $6.) We had 7 people, the Jeep had 7 seats - everything seemed ready to go.

Unfortunately Beatrice and Steffen had 2 other people with them -- a guide, who for the sake of the story we'll call Asshole, and a porter -- who also wanted to get back to Kathmandu. But because we already had 7 people, they said they were happy to wait for another Jeep. Great, we said. Thanks.

But then a few minutes later, you can probably see where this is going, even though the driver had previously said that he wouldn't take more than 7 people, and even though there physically wasn't any more room in the Jeep, and even though JUST MINUTES AGO they had agreed to wait for another Jeep, Asshole threw a huge fit and demanded that we let him and the porter come too. He even approached Ross and me, and told us a story about how he was good friends with the driver, and the driver wanted to let them go with us. (Bino later confirmed that this was a complete lie. The driver did not know Asshole and did not want to let them in with us, but was too chickenshit to say so to them directly.)

Things quickly devolved into a really vicious argument between Bino, the driver, and Asshole, all in Nepali, while the rest of us watched angrily. Bino later told us that Asshole had threatened him, "I'll see you in Kathmandu!!" and had also threatened that he would pay the driver an extra $50 and take the Jeep all to himself. He basically threw the biggest tantrum I've ever seen an adult throw, even though there was no room in the Jeep for them anyway. In the end the 7 of us left without them. Asshole.

But all of this would be academic anyway, as we would soon find out. We set off on our ride back to Kathmandu around 3:30pm. The first thing that happened was that the car's Check Oil light turned on. This was an Indian car, so in addition to a little light turning on, a soothing British voice announced, "Please check the oil pressure for your safety." It kept repeating this phrase over and over, every minute or so, and then with increasing frequency and urgency as time went on, until we finally decided that we should probably stop and check the oil pressure for our safety. This took about half an hour.

After driving for another hour, we came across a huge flood in the road. A waterfall to the side of the path had overflown because of the heavy rain. The current was so strong that we were a bit scared it might slide the car right over the side of the mountain, so we decided that we would walk through the water while the driver drove the Jeep across. (He was quite a brave dude, for someone who couldn't say no to an Asshole.) It was seriously fucking cold, but we all made it over and hopped back into the car, elated that we'd overcome the last of our obstacles. Ha!

From left to right: Steffen, me, Bino, and our driver. Our Jeep is already across the water.

After another hour, we had to stop because there had been a landslide. The road was now impassable (a bit like my impenetrable salt barrier must've been to the leeches, but even better). Everyone got out of the car, completely exasperated. By this point it was also starting to seem that the older Russian lady, Irina, was a bit insane. She was constantly marching around with her camera, recording every detail of the journey. Until we figured out that she's a film-maker by profession, this really amused all of us. She would do things like randomly point the camera at one of us and ask us to narrate, right in the middle of the landslide. (Here is her website. She promised to post the finished video of our journey on there when it's finished!)

This is Bino walking across the landslide before they cleared it:

Here, Irina asked me to film her walking marching across the cleared part of the landslide. In the foreground, Beatrice finds this absolutely hilarious.

Meanwhile, every time we started the car, the soothing British voice would recommend, "Put on your seatbelt for a safe drive." After encountering a landslide, wading through a freezing cold river, and being threatened by a very angry Nepali man, we couldn't help but laugh at the irony.

In the end it turned out that they wouldn't be able to clear the landslide that night, so after all that effort, we had to drive an hour back to the nearest village, spend the night, and try again the next day. For 4 hours of driving, we only managed to get about 14km that day.

The next morning, as we were about to leave again in the Jeep, Asshole strolls in to our guesthouse! I told you the mountains were a small world. He announced that there was now a bus going to Kathmandu, and ONLY Beatrice and Steffen were invited onto it, and the rest of us weren't. What a fucking child. Steffen decided to go with him on the bus to save money, but Beatrice had had enough of Asshole's shenanigans and stuck with us in the Jeep. Which was cool, because I liked Beatrice and would've been sad to see her go with Asshole.

We piled into the Jeep once more and started our drive for the last time. We had to hang around for 2 hours waiting for the landslide to be cleared, but they finally did it. Once we crossed it, the rest of the drive back went smoothly (almost unbelievably so, given the massive clusterfuck of the previous day).

Bino fell asleep on me on the drive back, and Ross couldn't resist snapping a photo:

So that was our trek. The second half of it seemed to be a bit disastrous, but like I said, somehow I had fun nonetheless. We met lots of interesting people, had many new experiences, and got a hell of a lot of exercise. I absolutely want to come back to Nepal again and do more trekking someday, a sentence I never thought I would hear myself say (or feel myself type).

Also, you should all go look at the pictures, because they're fantastic. :)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Langtang, Part 1

If you had told me 6 years ago that one day Ross and I would enjoy waking up at 5:30am in order to trek up and down a 4,000m tall mountain for 3-8 hours every day for 6 days, I probably would've laughed in your face like the surly teenager that I was. And if you had politely ignored me laughing in your face and continued to inform me that one day we'd actually pay hundreds of dollars for this privilege, I would've told you to fuck right off, because that is just ridiculous. And it is ridiculous. But for some reason we did it anyway, and it turned out to be pretty damn fun. Ha! Take that, Past Marina!

We met our guide, Bino, while sight-seeing around Kathmandu. He was funny, knowledgeable and so friendly that we were persuaded to go trekking with him after about half an hour and a couple of Nepali teas. We're easy like that. (Bino also liked Infected Mushroom, one of our favorite bands. That was, but probably should not have been, a factor in our decision to hire him.) The evening before we left for the trek, we paid him about half of the total fee. Even though he'd shown us his guide license, had spent the day helping us prepare and had been a model citizen in every way, we still spent that whole night worrying that he was going to take our money and flee to India.

But he didn't! Thank god. Here's Bino:

Our journey started with a bumpy 9-hour bus ride to the Langtang mountain trailhead. There were about 40 people squished inside the bus, plus another 30 bouncing around on top. Every minute or so, the man in front of me would clear his throat in an overly loud and disgusting manner, and spit its contents out the window. At one point he forgot that he'd closed the window and spat right onto it. This elicited no reaction from him; he simply opened it back up as if this had happened a thousand times before. Lovely.

One poor guy had to sit on sacks of rice during the bus ride. We dubbed him The Rice King:

We started our trek at 7:30 the next morning. Many trekkers hire porters to carry their stuff while they walk, but on our first day we decided not to, maybe because we thought we were in shape or something, I'm not sure. Either way, it was a huge mistake. I don't think I'm overstating when I say that the first day was hellish. We walked up and up and up, further and further into infinity, until I was sure my thighs were going to snap and my lungs would explode. And that was only the first 4 hours. I remember muttering, "I just want to lie down and cry" and thinking that there was no way I was going to make it through the next 6 days.

This is before I knew how horrible this day would be:

After lunch, we somehow walked up another 4 hours. Apart from not dying, the other good part of that first day was walking through field after field of wild marijuana plants. We were very much (one might say 'highly') amused by how much weed grows in the mountains of Nepal. I'd never seen anything like it before -- and yet the villagers were growing potatoes in their farms! If they'd switch crops, they could buy as many potatoes as they could shake a stick at! And there are lots of sticks in the Nepali mountains, trust me.

Bino marveling at the abundance of weed plants:

Finally, after a total of 8 grueling hours, we made it to the next guesthouse and collapsed in our beds feeling a smidgen proud, but mostly just exhausted.

1,500m to 2,420m in one day!

The next day, we made sure to hire a porter to carry my bag and the 2 sleeping bags (Ross carried his own bag). I started out feeling a bit embarrassed that I was paying some poor man (and later that day, woman) to haul my bag up a mountain, but it quickly became clear that this wasn't a big deal to our porter. The people who live in the mountains here are super-human. Porters are routinely hired to carry about 160 pounds of food or supplies up the mountain, so my little backpack and sleeping bags were obviously not a problem to this guy (or to the woman). The porters made it up there at least an hour before we did.

Here's me with our second (super-human) porter:

And this is the sort of thing the porters normally carry:

Once I got over my embarrassment, I was really glad we hired a porter, because the second day was significantly more enjoyable for me. We walked for about 6 hours, and even though it was mostly uphill, I had fun and felt excited rather than suicidal. The scenery was starting to get seriously beautiful and we were making quite a bit of progress up the mountain - by that night we'd climbed up to over 3,020 meters. (Plus, we were starting to see lots of yaks! Always exciting, even if a little life-threatening.)

The view from our guesthouse the third morning:

The guesthouse we stayed in that night was pretty rural - there was no electricity and no hot water. We were the only guests, so the family invited us into their kitchen while they cooked our dinner. This was like being invited to go back in time. The entire family was sitting around the hearth on the floor, chatting and drinking home-made rice wine. The mother was shoving snuff into her nose as she cooked. (There are still companies that make snuff?) There was also a horse wandering around outside, pushing the kitchen door open with its nose every now and then. I wish horses would poke their heads into my kitchen in Vancouver more often.

Once we made ourselves comfortable on the floor of the kitchen, we realized that we had completely embarrassed ourselves without realizing it (this seems to happen so often when you travel). In our extreme hunger, we had forgotten that our food was not being cooked by a restaurant chef assisted by line chefs, but by one woman, without electricity, on a clay oven with 2 burners. We had ordered 3 different things, all of them complicated, and she'd been cooking for us for 2 hours already with no end in sight. And because the custom is that no one eats before the guests, they didn't start cooking their own food (or Bino's) until well past 8:30, which in mountain time is basically their bedtime. They were too polite to say anything about it, but we couldn't apologize profusely enough.

Me, Bino, and the woman who spent over 2 hours cooking our dinner:

We were supposed to continue up the next day, but I was feeling short of breath, so instead we decided to stay there one more day to acclimatize. In the end it was a good thing we stayed, because this gave us the opportunity to redeem ourselves at dinnertime. That night we both ordered daal bhaat, a lentil soup with rice, served with vegetables and spicy pickles on the side. Daal bhaat is absolutely integral to Nepali life - the majority of the population eats it twice a day, every day, for their entire lives. That night we all ate together and there was much less awkwardness all around.

Altitude sickness really hits me hard:

We also witnessed a big argument amongst the villagers that evening. We were reading inside after dinner when we started hearing lots of shouting from outside. Even though we couldn't understand what they were saying, we could hear that they were shouting the same things over and over again. Bino explained that two of the neighbors were arguing because, I'm not even joking, one of the yaks took a shit on the other neighbor's field. They stayed out there screaming at each other for a solid half hour.

The yak in question? Probably not, but let's pretend it is.

By the next day I had acclimatized enough to continue, and by mid-morning we arrived at our final destination, Kyanjin Gompa. The scenery here was stunning: snow-capped mountains, yaks everywhere, fields of little purple flowers, and a tiny village nestled in the middle of it all. It was beautiful and surreal. We spent the day just hanging out with Bino. We visited the village cheese factory and the Buddhist monastery and drank rice wine with the villagers.

Kyanjin Gompa, 3,830m:

Cheese "factory":

Drinking raksi in the village "pub":

The next day took somewhat of a dark turn. Although we'd gotten to our final destination, we decided to go up to the next peak to get an even better view. We walked up a very steep mountain for about an hour before the trail suddenly disappeared and we had to clamber over rocks to continue ascending. This seemed really dangerous, but we followed Bino nonetheless because we are stupid like that. I had not even finished saying, "Bino, are you sure this is the right way? This seems a bit dangerous. One slip and you'd go rolling down the mounta--" when I suddenly slipped and started rolling down the mountain!

I had tumbled backwards maybe 6 feet when I stopped falling. I can't remember if I managed to stop myself by grabbing onto a bush, or if it was Bino that caught me and stopped my fall, or if these two things happened simultaneously, but in any event, I stopped rolling before I'd even had the chance to register that I'd fallen. It was only when I got up that the realization hit me. I cried and hyperventilated for about 6 or 7 minutes before I was able to continue.

At that point I decided I'd had enough - the climb was difficult and steep, we already had a beautiful view down below, and now I was fucking freaked. We decided to just head back down. When we had walked back down about 15 minutes, we ran into a couple who were passing us on their way up. Ross still really wanted to reach that peak, so we agreed that he would go up with the couple while Bino and I headed back down to Kyanjin Gompa.

On our way down we walked down a trail, not rocks, and I concluded that we hadn't been going the right way at all. I wasn't sure whether or not to be angry with Bino. At first I was, because it was pretty unprofessional of him to take us up that way, but in the end I couldn't stay mad at him. He had been an excellent guide the rest of the trip, and I think he had simply made a wrong turn and had been too proud to tell us that we needed to backtrack. I think he learned a very important lesson that day: don't overestimate the gringos, they are clumsy and unfit and will die if you're not careful.

Bino and I made it back down and played gin rummy while waiting for Ross and the couple to return. We expected him to be back about 2 hours later. After about 3 hours, we started to worry. We stopped playing cards, and I sat around staring at the mountain and picturing every possible scenario that could've happened. Did they all get pushed off the mountain by a yak? Fucking yaks! Or did they run out of food and water and die of exhaustion? He'd only had a Snickers for breakfast that morning and had almost no water left when we parted ways. Or did they just fall off the mountain like I had earlier? Most likely.

Four hours later, Ross and the couple had still not returned, and Bino and I were both thoroughly freaked out. We started to put together a search party. I continued to pace around and stare worriedly at the mountain. Suddenly, Bino shouted something to me, and I looked over and saw...

...To be continued tomorrow, because we're about halfway through the story and this post is already way too damn long. :) 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The end of Southeast Asia

In a couple of days we will be in Nepal, eating yak steaks while climbing Mt. Everest with Yetis. Or Sherpas? I always get them mixed up. Interesting side note: while reading up on Nepal, I found out that yaks are notoriously aggressive and unpredictable, so always position yourself on the upper slope of the mountain when letting a yak pass, or it might push you off the edge. Apparently this is a common enough occurrence that it needed mentioning on wikitravel. Fucking yaks. If you can't trust a yak, then who can you trust, really?

So now that we're leaving Southeast Asia soon, it's time for another cultural comparison post! Huzzah!

Things Southeast Asia Has That I Wish North America Had

1. Noodle soup. Because holy fucking hell, Asians have perfected the noodle soup. Gloriously spiced and exquisitely umami (did I really just write that?), it is the ultimate food. I've become completely obsessed -- dependent, even -- and now we're leaving, and I just don't think yak soup will be the same.

2. Food stalls. In SE Asia, when given the choice, you should always go for the dingy alleyway stall surrounded by plastic chairs over a restaurant with walls. Why bother with things like waiters and silverware when a little Thai grandma can cook you a way better meal in 2 minutes right on the street for $1? And, to think, in Vancouver we're only allowed to have hot dog stalls and no other food stalls?! What about all the grandmas whose only wish is to feed everyone really delicious food? Think of how much better Vancouver would be, in pretty much every way, if we let them. That's my dream.

3. Traffic. The North American in me used to scream "That's awfully dangerous!" every time a pickup truck squeezed full of 30 people would dart into oncoming traffic to pass a scooter holding a family of five. Now the only thing that still bothers me is when we see a 10-year-old girl driving her little 5-year-old sister on a motorbike. Holy shit, there's nothing scarier than seeing that. As for everything else -- and I never thought I would hear myself say this -- I think I'm actually going to miss it a little. Especially...

4. Scooters. Renting a scooter for $4 and bazzing around the Indonesian countryside was one of my favorite experiences this year, even if we did fall off once. A++, would fall again!

5. Practical mindset. I really love the Asian mindset of "If it makes sense, I'm going to do it, even if it looks silly." For example, why don't more people wear face masks when they're sick to help stop the spread of germs? Are we really so self-centered that we'd rather get other people sick than to look a bit stupid for a few days? (Answer: yes.) Or, another example: we saw groups of grown men doing extreeeeeme hackey sack in the park in Bangkok. They're probably like, "Goddamnit, we're going to hackey sack like no one ever hackey sacked before!! YEEEEAAH!" And then they DO. But in North America, we're far too self-conscious to consider doing something like that, and as a result it has never entered my mind to go to the park and repeatedly kick a hackey sack 40 feet into the air for several hours. Not even once! Is that really any way to live?

6. Offerings and incense. This one is mostly for Bali. As a non-religious person, I didn't really see the point at the time, but I have to admit that smelling flowers and incense every day while we walked down the street was like a party in my nose. I've never smelled a nicer island. Religion 1, Marina 0.

7. Really, really ridiculously friendly people. Fuckin' over-achievers, making the rest of us look bad.

Things North America Has That I Wish Southeast Asia Had

1. Dairy products. Dairy isn't featured much in Asian cuisine. I miss the days when Ross and I would go to SaveOn Foods, buy 3 different kinds of cheeses, and have a magnificent feast consisting of cheese, crackers, and apple slices. That's probably why we've both lost weight since coming here.

2. Looser standards of dress. Asians dress quite modestly, and I've been trying to respect that by covering up the ol' extremities while we've been here. This hasn't been a huge deal since I don't dress very revealingly anyway (tutoring teenage boys for a living has thoroughly rid me of that notion), but it would've been nice to be able to wear shorts and a tank top when trying to sight-see in 96 degree heat without offending everyone and/or shocking them with my hilariously white legs.

3. Fast internet. I think we can all agree that having to wait an entire hour for How I Met Your Mother to finish downloading is hellish. How will I ever find out how he met their mother in these conditions?!

4. No hawkers. Today, just in the time it took me to cross the street, I had four people ask if I wanted a tuk-tuk ride. In Thailand, it would've been 4 people asking "You want massage?" In Indonesia, "You buy sarong?" I feel that I would've saved years of my life by just printing a shirt that says, "NO, I don't want sunglasses, fruit, socks, a sarong, a massage, a tuk-tuk ride, a manicure, or 10 bracelets for 1 dollar." (And for Ross, please add "or marijuana, or coke, or bitches." How come no one offers me coke or bitches?)

5. A relatively corruption-free political system. Corruption seems to be the norm pretty much everywhere (except NZ, because they're too boring for that sort of thing there). I feel grateful that no matter how corrupt we think our politicians are, we've actually got it pretty good. (Vice presidents who once shot a 76-year-old man in the face obviously excluded.)

6. Western toilets. I really don't understand the preference for squat toilets. Perhaps it's just the fact that I don't possess the leg muscles necessary to use them correctly, but I invariably end up getting pee all over my feet, and judging by the amount of urine all over the floor, so does everyone else. Bet you didn't think you'd be reading about me peeing on myself today.

7. 24 hour convenience stores. Because, as a North American, I demand convenience 24 hours a day, goddamnit.

I'm going to really miss this crazy place, but I'm also excited to be moving on to somewhere where I might possibly go a day or two without being embarrassed over how much sweat is pouring down my face. Soon: Kathmandu!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Angkor Watever

We just arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and our last stop in Southeast Asia. Since Thailand, we have spent one week in Laos -- pronounced to rhyme with "how," not "house" -- and one week in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

I don't want to go into great detail about Laos because, although it was pretty, we found it a bit boring. It was like a much poorer, less insane version of Thailand, and given that we've spent the last 4 months in this region, we found it a bit "same same," as the locals would put it. Perhaps the most interesting part of visiting Laos was finding out about its history. It turns out that Laos was bombed to hell by the U.S. during the Vietnam War -- wait, the U.S., bombing the shit out of a country full of poor brown people? Who would've thought?

For those as ignorant of history as I was before I came here, what happened was this: the Laos people (being the dirty commies that they are) had been allowing North Vietnam to transport supplies to South Vietnam through Laos along what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. So the U.S. was like, "AWWW HELL NAW!" and bombed Laos to smithereens in order to help fight the Vietnamese. And then the Laos were like, "I CAN HAZ NORMAL LIFE PLZ??" and the U.S. was like, "NO. NOT YOURS."

Damn, they should probably get me to write history textbooks or something.

To get back to the story, it turns out Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita. The equivalent of one planeload of bombs was dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. During this time, the Laos people survived by hiding in caves throughout the country, establishing entire secret cities inside these caves - schools, markets, theaters, etc. Not only that, but many of the bombs failed to detonate, leaving vast quantities of unexploded ordnance hidden throughout the country. 34,000 people have been killed by those since the war ended. So... that was kind of interesting to find out about, in a "makes me hate the U.S. even more" sort of way.

Some kids playing with their water buffalo in Nong Khiaw, a rural village in Laos:

But then we got to Cambodia, where the history is even crazier. For my fellow history-challenged friends: A communist party called the Khmer Rouge came to power in the 70s. Led by Pol Pot, the aim was to create an agrarian communist paradise. Somewhere along the line, "agrarian paradise" morphed into "deadliest genocide in history." Roughly a quarter of Cambodians were killed during this time, either through starvation and lack of healthcare, or from being tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge directly.

More fun facts: The Khmer Rouge particularly targeted intellectual and educated people. People would be killed merely for wearing glasses or for speaking a second language. (Hey, I do both of those! Not cool!) They also considered children to be a great way to help their cause - they would take children from their parents, and train them to torture using animals for practice. Lovely. They would often kill people with a single blow to the back of the head in order to save bullets. Or they'd sometimes kill babies by smashing them against trees. Aaaand now I'm depressing myself, so I'm going to stop there. 

As you might expect, Cambodia is still recovering. I think it's probably pretty difficult to try to rebuild society when all the people who had an education -- doctors, engineers -- were killed. It's definitely the poorest country we've visited on this trip - the majority of people live in shoddily built shacks with no doors, and make maybe $1 per day. Like in Laos, unexploded ordnance is still a huge problem here. And yet despite these horrific experiences, or perhaps because of them, Cambodians have been some of the most sweet-natured people we've met. It's a pretty fucking extraordinary place.

But I'll stop depressing everyone now. More jokes, less death! That's what I always say. So this last week we've been exploring Siem Reap, home to Angkor Archeological Park, the largest religious complex in the world. We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us around all the temples for 3 days. His name was Mr. Lucky, which was cute at first, until he somehow managed to get a flat tire AND a fine during our 3 days together.

Three days seemed like quite a long time to ride around looking at ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples, but everyone reassured us that we wouldn't get templed out. They lied. By the third day, I never wanted to see another temple again, which is a shame because the third day was when we were going to visit the most impressive temples. But I can only look at so many Buddhist and Hindu carvings before my mind just shuts off. Even the abundance of carvings featuring boobs didn't help much.

See? This should help, BUT IT DIDN'T.

The biggest temple of all, Angkor Wat, was particularly disappointing. In my opinion, Machu Picchu was much more fun to explore and much prettier. We felt a teeny bit ripped off, because the canonical photo of Angkor Wat looks like this:

But I'm not entirely sure how anyone could've taken that photo, because what we saw looked more like this. WTF?

Still, it was somewhat interesting. And some of the other temples were quite pretty.

As part of our tour, we had Mr. Lucky drive us to a shooting range where you can shoot automatic guns, throw grenades, or even shoot a rocket launcher (provided you have $400 sitting around that you want to spend on firing a rocket launcher one time). I'm not entirely sure if this place is even legal, but they didn't seem too fazed to let a couple of giggling gringos in to use their guns. I was extremely uncomfortable from the very start. When we walked in, we were immediately surrounded by Cambodian dudes dressed in camo, smoking, and asking which gun we wanted to shoot. (Me: "Uh... I don't know... the big one?") This made me realize that if there's one place I don't belong, it's a Cambodian shooting range. I was raised in a suburb in California. I don't do guns, man.

But Ross was pretty excited to shoot an automatic gun, and convinced me to try it too. (Automatic guns are illegal in North America, even in shooting ranges.) Look! Here's us, shooting an M16! We're hardcore now, guys!

(Notice the muzzle flash on my gun!!)

After we were done, they gave us the target, and we were both somewhat shocked to discover that the dude in the target looks exactly like my dad wearing a fez! AHHHH So disturbing! Which one's my dad and which one's the target? No one will ever know.

Ross then threw a grenade, which was even more terrifying for me. I kept imagining him fumbling, dropping it, and killing us all. But this did not happen, because fortunately Ross is not me. I refused to throw it, because I'm pretty clumsy and that would be a really sad way to die. Even though the grenade was plastic and only had about a 4-foot range, I would be the one person to somehow fall, get my feet all tangled cartoon-style, and not be able to run 4-feet away in time. No thank you.

Later, to round out our extremely weapon-centric day, we visited a landmine museum, run by a former Khmer Rouge member - one of the guys who was kidnapped as a child and forced to kill people and plant thousands of landmines for the party. When he grew up and realized what a horrible thing he'd done, he committed his life to finding and disarming landmines around the country. The money from the museum is used to provide education and support for landmine-affected kids who were rescued by the organization. It was incredibly moving.

As you can probably tell, Cambodia has been fascinating and pretty emotional. Tomorrow we will be visiting the killing fields and Tuol Sleng, the prison where 14,000 people were killed and tortured. Should be a hoot.