Friday, April 27, 2007

Phnom Penh

Well, the last few days have been a whirlwind. Just three days ago we walked into the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore to apply for visas, Austin's mom Lori having arrived the day before. Unfortunately, when applying for his visa, Austin put down that he is a video editor. Apparently they didn't like this and we were told that Austin would have to apply for a special media permit, which would take weeks. As it was raining we sat outside the visa office for about twenty minutes in shock. We had flights booked on the 28th for Yangon and were completely sure we'd be there. We went through our options. We thought about booking it up to Kuala Lumpur and getting our visas done there. However, this didn't seem plausible considering the time our flights left. Ultimately, Lori suggested we give up on the flights to Yangon and head to Cambodia and Vietnam.

Yesterday we arrived in Phnom Penh and since it was already 8:00 PM we headed to our hotel. The next morning we got up and went straight to the Vietnamese embassy. Within half an hour we got our 15-day visa processed. We then hired a tuk-tuk for the day and went to the Choeung Ek killing fields. As expected, it was a heavy experience. A huge pagoda was built there in 1988 in rememberance and is filled with level upon level of skulls. Along the paths we were walking over bones and people's clothes. Thousands of people were butchered here in the cruellest ways possible. In order to save bullets the Khmer Rouge simply bludgeoned people to death with hammers, axes, or garden hoes. After that we went to a prison called S-21 where Pol Pot's gang tortured and killed anyone who had any sort of intelligence. If you were an intellectual or could speak a foreign language or were a professional, you would be killed.

Tomorrow we are taking the bus to Siem Reap to visit the temples of Angkor.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sultry Sumatra...

Today we arrived in Batam after a blissful one-hour flight from Pekanbaru. (Only about $15 more than taking the eight hour bus/ferry option. Suka, above, had forgotten us and when we approached her she got very defensive. This saddened me because we were on such friendly terms before we left for Sumatra. After about an hour she slowly made her way, with head lowered, over to me as I sat on the computer and gave me a kiss on the knee. Since then we've been the best of pals. Unfortunately, our gracious hosts Angeline, Ted and Roel are presently in Singapore. When we get to Singapore, probably in a day or two, we will hopefully be able to meet them for coffee. Today is Angeline's 84th birthday! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! For the fun of it I will retell our Sumatra trip starting from Bukittinggi and working backwards in time to Danau Toba....

We arrived in Bukittinggi on the 13th, after a sixteen-hour overnight bus through windy Sumatran highways. Thanks to the wonders of Gravol we survived without having to hang our heads out the windows. Bukittinggi means "tall hill" (Bukit = hill, Tinggi = tall) and is about 1000 meters in altitude. It is a fairly touristy town boasting an old Dutch fort called Fort de Kock, a zoo and a Menengkabau culture museum. I should have believed Lonely Planet's description of the three and steered clear but we had time to kill so we went anyway. The only things left of the fort are some rusted canons. The zoo is utterly depressing with elephants tied up like dogs, pacing back and forth continually. The Menengkabau museum started out interesting with the usual displays about village life, clothing, and culture, but slowly progressed to the absurd and strange, like a whole display on deformed animals, some with two heads and legs protruding from their back. The view from our hotel was striking, with Gunung Marapi, Sumatra's most active volcano, in the background. We only stayed in Bukittinggi for a day and then booked a two-day jungle tour. The mosques in Bukittingi are stunningly beautiful against the dusk sky. Sumatran skies don't look real sometimes; often they look more like a painting. At certain times of the day the mosques broadcast prayers sung over the loudspeakers. It was a beautiful moment, some days ago, when Austin and I were sitting on the balcony overlooking a thunderstorm in Bukittinggi when slowly, one by one, the mosques began their prayers. The sound of the rain pounding the corrogated tin roofs blended together with the echoing prayers coming from near and far was really quieting.

Here are some shots of our jungle tour from Bukittinggi to Lake Maninjau. We began our tour on the 14th. Our guide was Wendra and with him was a young university student named Putra, who was along to practice his English. Wendra has been doing tours since 1989 and knows his stuff. Along with the standard information about plants and the culture, he would add in other strange and interesting tidbits. For instance, while walking on the path he stopped briefly to show us the effect of his cigarette on a certain pink flower. He put the burning end of the cigarette underneath one of the petals, whereupon it turned a brilliant blue. More than anything, for me, the trek was a lesson in botany. I saw first hand what cocao plants look like, where betel juice comes from, and how coffee and cinnamon is grown.

We couldn't have asked for greater company with the four other tourists that joined us. Terry and Rachel, from Lester, UK, had been traveling through India before flying to Indonesia. From what I could gather, over the last few years they had been getting tired of the 9-5 lifestyle and slowly but surely severed their attachments to it and have been traveling on and off ever since. Silka hails from Germany and since October has been traveling through India and Indonesia. She became our trusted doctor through the adventure, always at the ready with her first-aid kit. After Wendra removed three nasty "bloedzuikers" from my leg, she swooped in with the antiseptic salve and this German miracle spray which closes up wounds. Always with a bounce in her step and a smile on her face, she was a great companion. Last but not least there was Steve, a wisened traveler of around 40 years. He had been around in the hay-day of Thailand back in the early 80's, living for a long time on what was then a remote backpacker's haven: Ko Samui. From his stories it seems he really lived on the edge; at least three times he mentioned near-death experiences. After moving back to the states he worked in a traditional white-collar environment, unable to relate to most people, having had such colourful experiences abroad. Finding life in the States bland and tasteless, he took early retirement several years ago and hasn't looked back since. Now he lives in China and teaches English when he needs the money.

We stayed at the rustic but charming Anas Homestay where we were served up some delicious curried vegetables for supper and banana pancakes for breakfast. From the kitchen/restaurant we could see Lake Maninjau.

Before Bukittinggi, we spent almost two weeks around Lake Toba. According to Lonely Planet and reports from the aforementioned Steve, Toba used to be one of the biggest stops on the backpacker trail during the 80's and 90's. From what we hear, the fear of terrorism and tight visa regulations (what was once a free three-month visa is now a US $25 one-month visa) has spelled the demise of what was once a bustling tourist attraction. The great thing for backpackers is that all the infrastructure is there yet the crowds are not. At first this seemed great and we spent days marvelling at how we were almost the only people in our hotel. It became norm for us to be the only people in whatever restaurant we happened upon. However, it became depressing when we witnessed the desperation of some souvenir shop owners. One particular place just north of the main tourist town Tuk-Tuk, became known to us as the "Lane of Death." Even biking through, people would be hollering at us to come and look at their goods. When we eventually walked there to pick up some carvings we were grabbed by the hand and pulled into stores, the owners telling us how they would sell it cheap because there are no tourists. "I need money to buy rice" was commonly heard. At a certain point we just had to become assertive, which to us felt like being outright jerks, so we decided never to return. I don't think we took any photos, because it was just painful to be there. A little restaurant by the name of Poppy Fishfarm became our regular hang-out spot for dinner in Tuk-Tuk. His fish curry was so delicious we ordered it every night for almost a week. It definitely slides into my top-five best food experiences, along with El Pollo Loco in Mexico. Considering that I don't even like fish, that's saying something. It was only about $2 CAN to boot. It was there that we first tried Andaliman, a spice which is like no other. It really isn't spicy but rather numbs your mouth with an intense flavour that has no comparison. Apparently it only grows in and around Lake Toba. It is worth mentioning to people who plan to visit (and I recommend it) that some hotel rep will probably find you upon arrival and push you towards staying at their hotel in Tuk-Tuk. I would say that for a few nights Tuk-Tuk is great. It's full of shops, restaurants, hotels and places to rent motorbikes, but to get away from it all, check out Ambarita. There are a few places listed in the Lonely Planet for Ambarita and we picked one at random. The hotel was called Thyesza Hotel and it was a dream. We were right on the beach in a Batak-style house for only $2 a person a night. The family who owned it hadn't had a guest for weeks and as for foreigners, probably not for months. She took great care of us and made delicious food. The thing about Toba is that everything is on Tuk-Tuk and most people never leave it, so all the other great hotels along the island see no business.

The above shots are of us after our very first real motorbike experience. I had been on a motorbike once many years ago and Austin had never been, so more or less it was a virgin experience for us. As you can tell from our expressions, it was sensational. I can now begin to relate to all the multitudes of motorbike gangs and enthusiasts out there. It really is an exceptional way to travel. It's different from being in a car because you aren't separated from your environment by windows. Austin and I both agreed that this could be a passion of ours in the years to come. I can already see my mom cringing from miles away. All the effort she put into protecting me from such a dangerous hobby has been for naught. I think her heart is in the right place but maybe if she hopped on a bike she would think differently.

Austin happens to look stunningly dashing on a motorbike so I took many a photograph of him.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Please forgive me!

Hello everyone,

Sorry for my long absence. I promise to post a bunch of photos when we get back to Batam. We are now in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra and should be back on Batam in two days. From there I will do an extensive blog with lots and lots of photos of our time in Lake Toba and Bukittinggi. I will also respond to all comments.

Thanks for being patient,

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Finally some photos...

The third photo is of our lovely guide in Suopuo, the town outside of Danba with ancient towers. We were walking up to the town and she was going the other way. She stopped and started talking with us in English. She is studying in a university in Kangding.
We decided, one day while hiking up a mountainside, that we should put a letter in a bottle. Since in Sichuan there are no oceans around, it seemed like a good idea to shove it into a crevice in the rocks and see what happens.
Here are some of the beautiful Tibetan prayer flags strung everywhere.

The third photo is of the Tibetan village of Jiaju where we stayed a night. I really like the way they have their homes set up. There are often four stories, three of which have balconies where you can view the town.
The man in this photo makes the best Jiazi (dumplings) in Danba, along with his wife. We went there for four nights straight!
On the way to Jiaju we found a traveler who didn't make it.

Our Tibetan host looks on as we leave. She spoke neither English nor Mandarin and our Tibetan phrasebook was useless, so we relied mostly on hand gestures. There would be moments where we just couldn't communicate and we would all just break out laughing.
The second photo was taken on the Maglev train into Shanghai from the airport. That's right, I was going 431 km/h on land.
The French Connection: This is Pauline, our French artist friend who we met in Chengdu and ended up spending three days together, two of which were on horseback.

Here are some kids in Songpan. The boy with the red shirt was running to meet who I presume was his brother, who had just gotten off our bus.

This is John, our intrepid horse trekking guide. The second shot is of Austin overlooking the Jiaju village. The third picture is of a monk near Maerkang with the kindest face. I think he was laughing at me though...

In Hong Kong, I visited a bunch of old WW2 pillboxes. During the intense fighting on December 19th, a Canadian soldier by the name of John Robert Osborn threw himself on a grenade, saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. For this he was awarded the Victoria Cross. As I was walking through Queens Road Central, there was an immigration protest going on. They weren't very organized though. Often members of the group would be singing out of sync and didn't sound convincing.

In Singapore I visited the National Museum of Singapore, which I highly recommend. It was interactive and informative. You are given a little computer companion that you wear around your neck. It comes with headphones and when you walk into a certain room you simply punch in the number on the floor and you are given an introduction to the exhibit. Near my hostel in Little India there was this man, sleeping the day away with his Walkman.

Ahhh, finally we're in the tropics. We were awoken yesterday by a spectacular Batam sunrise. Here are all of us eating dinner. On the far right is Roel, then Angeline, myself, Ted and Austin. Angeline is always smiling and laughing.
- Will