Category Archives: Southeast Asia

Cambodia: Same, Same but Different for Peace Corps Cambodia

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“This is Cambodia. It’s like the freakin’ Wild West sometimes.”

This from the mouth of Carley, a PCV about 6 months into her service in Cambodia.

She goes on about one of the many factors that back up her Wild West statment: the government dismantling entire political parties, sub-par transportation that often contains animals, the fact that she sometimes washes her hair in a reservoir near her home. We talked about a lot of things that night. I can’t remember which, specifically, sparked the Wild West comment.

To me, they all apply, and I most likely looked like some sort of frenetic bobblehead doll there in front of her, my head going in a non-stop nod of agreement and ‘yeah, I get that,’ as she described her service.

After our 36 hours with Carley I drew one big conclusion: her service is pretty much the ‘same, same but different’ to my own. In fact, when I said this phrase aloud she excitedly noted, “Yeah! We see shirts all over Cambodia with that phrase on them.” I, too, saw shirts all over my Peace Corps country with that phrase on them. I thought it came from South Africa. She wasn’t sure where she thought it came from. See where I’m going with this?

So, how else was our glimpse into Peace Corps Cambodia the same, same but different to our service in Peace Corps Mozambique?

Same, same: Carley frequently talked about being hot and sweaty. We, too, often talked about being hot and sweaty.

Different: I think it even gets hotter in Carley’s site- God help her- but she does have a beautiful reservoir nearby for all of her swimming, and hair-washing, needs.

Same, same: Learning a second language (read: spending at least 6 months speaking at the level of a primary school child and embarrassing yourself with later-hilarious errors) is hard.

Different: Carley is learning Khmer. What looks like beautiful and indecipherable doodles on all the signs is now Carley’s alphabet, although I noticed she uses the Latin alphabet in her own writing of Khmer. What sounds like beautiful and indecipherable words is now Carley’s language. I may have never been more quick to call Portuguese easy than after hearing Carley put her Khmer to use and arrange a Tuk Tuk trip for us.

Same, same: Living in a country torn up by recent civil war, not that far past independence and with many of the effects of colonialism still starkly present. We talked about goverment and corruption, about people living in fear, about why children look at the ground so much and why adults rarely express dissent.

Different: Of course, no two wars are ever the same, and every war is incredibly complex. Let me direct you to better sources if you’d like to learn more about these 2 wars. To learn more about Mozambique’s civil war, go here. To learn more about Cambodia’s war, go here.

Same, same: Many of the sights and sounds of daily life: women calling out in greeting, kids walking to school without adults, red dirt roads, a small and minimal health center, small and minimal schools, soccer fields, dirty criancas, coconuts and their trees, fresh fruit, having a bread lady and knowing she’s probably run out of bread by 2pm., bags of charcoal for cooking, ridiculously large speakers outside of people’s modest homes, the absence of visible knees, and also of privacy.

Different: Many of the sights and sounds of daily life: houses made of wood and cement and raised on stilts, motos buzzing about, many many children riding bicycles, volleyball courts, raw meat hanging in the market, living two years with a host family and all that brings to daily life, using a high-quality Peace Corps-issued mountain bike to get from here to there much to the chagrin of us PC Moz RPCV’s who received nothing more than an ill-fitting helmet and enough money to buy a bike that used up more of our time in repairs than rides.

Five weeks after leaving Mapinhane, our Peace Corps site for two years, a visit to another Peace Corps site, albeit half a world away, brought a strange sort of comfort: a taste of Peace Corps life again, saudades for our daily life in Moz, and a new type of reminder of what a strangely unique but universal experience Peace Corps service is. Perhaps the same, same, but different wherever a PCV roams.

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Cambodia: Feeling Ghosts

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We are on the grounds of a high school, one that looks like many other high schools that we’ve seen in developing countries: a few buildings facing a central courtyard area, basic brick and cement, barren classrooms on two levels, a wall surrounding the complex Outside of the wall motos buzz, horns honk, people on the street yell to one another. It could be any city street anywhere, but the barbed wire on the wall, spilling over like frozen, threatening tumbleweeds, are the first indication that it is not.

This is no longer a high school. It is the remains of the S-21 prison grounds, one of many such complexes used by Cambodia’s Khmer-Rouge in the 1970’s. The Khmer-Rouge was a wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Cambodia) and were responsible for the killing of 2 million people in the four years that they ruled. The Khmer-Rouge drove people from cities- like Pnomh Penh, where S-21 is- to work on communal farms. Many of these people died of heat stroke, starvation, exhaustion, and a number of other conditions.

The people we learn the most about during our informative, self-guided audio tour through S-21 are the people that were imprisoned there for being intellectuals. To be honest, the complexities of what happened in Cambodia in these few short years is new knowledge for me.

The tour through S-21conjures ghosts. The old classrooms in Building A were used as rooms for administering various forms of torture. If they choose to enter, visitors see the blood stains on the floors and walls, by now more than 40 years old. The original bed frames and chamber pots remain, and each room holds a picture of one its former occupants as they were during their time at S-21. Outside of building A are the few graves of victim’s whose bodies were recovered.

In Building B, the classrooms were converted to crude, brick cells about 5 feet by 5 feet. When I entered, I could feel the prisoners here. I ran my fingers over the bricks, and quickly pulled away in a sort of shock at realizing that this all remains as it was when innocent people were held here; prisoners of the Khmer-Rouge touched the same walls that my fingers now grazed.

Past the cells and into Building C are countless display cases full of mugshots of the inhabitants of the prison, men, women and children alike. Mixed in are pictures of the the Khmer-Rouge higher-ups. Pol Pot, the leader, is pictured in glasses; he ordered many to be killed because of their glasses and the subsequent assumption that those who wear glasses are intellectuals.

Beyond that, Building D holds displays and paintings-done by a survivor- of torture tools and methods. And finally, a shelf of skulls. The magnitude, the human side, the reality of this war finally sets in.

I find myself rushing through the last rooms in utter disbelief.

I am in disbelief that so much remains as it was, the record-keeping of communist leader proving his efforts for the advancement of his party.

I am in disbelief that humans can do these things to other humans.

I am in disbelief that we always say the world will never let it happen again, but it does: Nazi Germany, the Khmer -Rouge, Rwanda.

I am in disbelief that I never learned about this war in school. In fact, it hits me, I don’t recall one ocassion in school when we learned about a war that wasn’t centered around developed nations and- for lack of more eloquent phrasing-white people.

I knew almost nothing of Robert Mugabe and the land takeovers before I moved to Mozambique and had conversations with the Zimbabweans living there that were driven from their country.

I had only once heard of Mozambique’s decades of war, and that from a Mozambican who was studying at my university.

I knew so little about colonialism and how deep the effects really run and how long they last for those colonized. This I felt in Mozambique too, and now I feel it here in Southeast Asia.

I was blown away by the complexities of South Africa when we were searching for our lodging there and asked directions. ‘Is the owner white or black?’ we were asked. ‘If white the house will be on that side of the street, if black it will be on the other side.’

I learned of the 1980’s Contras in Nicaragua when we ate dinner in a military airplane turned sundowner restaurant in Costa Rica

And sitting on a bench in the S-21 prison courtyard, imagining students there and then innocent victims of civil war and genocide, I bowed my head in sadness for the Khmer people that endured their war in the 1970’s and for the American involvement in this region- known as The Secret War during the years that the U.S. Was in Vietnam- of which I knew nothing about.

The realization of how little I know always creeps up in new places. I can read books, watch documentaries, and devour news. I can talk to people. I can listen to people. I can learn so much invaluable information in these ways. But I become only more and more convinced that there is no better way to learn about the world than to go to somewhere unfamiliar to me, be among its people, and to feel its ghosts.

Vietnam: Floating through Cai Rang Market

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Can Tho, Vietnam

“We’re leaving now,” Alex popped his head into our hostel room. “Everyone’s on the boat.”

It was 5:30a.m. on the dot, which is the exact time we had been told we’d be leaving the hostel.

Vietnam , we continued to learn, does not run on this thing we’d become accustomed to: Mozambique Time. Buses in Vietnam run on a schedule- and they actually run on that schedule. Taxi drivers arrive to pick you up at the time previously agreed upon. Watches aren’t just status symbols, but useful tools for your daily life.

I was in mid- hair-brush when Alex popped in.

Now, now?” I asked.

“Yep now, now.”

So it was that coming from the ‘always at least 30 minutes late’ culture we’d just been living in, we were the last two to step onto the wooden boat, mumbling an embarrassed ‘Good Morning,’ to the 6 punctual guests, the boat driver, and the spunky guide.

Before arriving in Can Tho we had booked our room at the Nguyen Shack Farmstay – not so much of a farmstay as a rural hostel stay- about 10 kilometers out of town. Not being city people,we were really missing the mato– bush- and the constant buzz of motos, sight of cement, and horrific blaring karaoke that permeate Vietnam’s cities and ‘small towns’ were grinding on us.

The Nguyen Shack and it’s nearby farmstay were just what we needed. The two neighborhood hostels are made up of a few sets of rooms, right on the edge of a Mekong Tributary, where you can laze in a hammock all day and wait for the heat to pass. They offer use of their bikes for free, as well as cheap tours, like the one we were on.

Now, we puttered down the tributary in our wooden boat, the water completely still as dawn approached. We passed small houses built one next to the other on stilts right on the river bank. Our chatty guide- a recent university grad- informed us that a lot of people build on the river because it is cheaper to buy land there. Despite my constant resistance to being up at this hour, I realize its special charm. The houses are so close to the water that unless we looked squarely ahead, we had no choice but to witness this little corner of the world coming awake slowly:  a man sitting in his doorway eating noodles with chopsticks, a child watching cartoons in his pajamas.

Within a few minutes, we turned left into the Mekong, passing under a neon sign fixed to a bridge above: Cai Rang Floating Market. The floating market is full of boats full of goods that are sold to vendors that sell them to customers at the land market. Before so many roads and bridges existed, the floating markets of this region were vital to bringing in goods from further afield. Now, people say, they are disappearing as the infrastructure of Vietnam grows.

If I wasn’t awake during our slow glide towards the market, I certainly had no choice but to wake up once we arrived. Here too the world was waking up; it seemed that many of the vendors live on their boats and as we passed they were getting ready for their day: brushing teeth and washing faces on the edge of the boat, hanging clothes to dry, lounging in hammocks. Some were already hard at work as smaller boats approached to buy; pineapple after pineapple was being passed between hands, vegetables being organized on upper decks, each boat with a tall pole stuck up to proudly display the goods sold there.

In between the bigger boats selling goods for the market, mobile noodle and coffee shops bobbed on the gentle wake of all the passers-through. Some putted between the boats, and hugged in close to make sales.

 

As we left the floating market for a visit to the land market, I had a feeling I’ve had before in developing countries: knowing that the development that will eventually erase this unique thing is a good thing, but knowing that the erasing of the unique thing is a sad washing away of part of a place.

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Vietnam: The Christmas Spirit and Country Roads in Hoi An

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Hoi An, Vietnam

Our ears ringing with motorbike buzz after too many days in Vietnamese cities (for us that’s about 5 days…), we headed an hour south of Danang to the charming little town of Hoi An.

Hoi An has been one of our favorite spots on this trip so far. While it has it’s own unique form of hustle and bustle around the many souvenir shops, the river promenade, and the night market under the charming lanterns, Hoi An still felt like a welcome reprieve from the overwhelming cities we had found ourselves in thus far.

We stayed about a ten minute bike ride outside of the main town, at a place called Viet Nhat homestay. We’ve quickly learned that the word ‘homestay’ in Vietnam means something a little different than it has in other corners of the world. Here, it  encompasses nearly any lodging where the owners or managers live in the same building where the guests stay. And this seems to be common. Our ‘homestay’/hotel was on one of the river islands, and helped us find the peace and quiet we’d been looking for.

Both nights in Hoi An we biked into town to visit the night market and stroll through the narrow, motorbike-free streets under the colorful lanterns. Immediately upon seeing the streets at night, I was put in the Christmas spirit. There was something so warm and charming about the lights that reminded me of the big, multi-colored bulbs that my dad would hang outside my childhood home every year.

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During our full day in Hoi An, we decided to rent a motorbike-which cost about $4.50 for a full day- and go in search of the ocean.

We spent hours snaking around the skinny river-island roads, taking in scenes of daily life: women hanging clothes out to dry, children in uniforms riding their bikes to and and from school, men pushing carts of goods, people chatting on front porches. I don’t know if it’s always been this way, or if this is a post-Moz feeling, but seeing people going about their business in a messy, rural little town, somewhere far far away from my own home, brought me a strange sort of comfort. There’s almost nothing I have enjoyed more in Vietnam so far than putzing through these little towns, just seeing what there is to see.

Finally, we did find the ocean, and continued from there through alleyways of a little town, ending up at an open air ‘mom and pop’ shop, where mom and pop jumped up to make us a couple of cups of-what else-Vietnamese coffee. We sat there for a while, looking at the boats in the estuary bay, trying to pronounce some words in Vietnamese with the help of Google Translator.

From there we buzzed back into Hoi An town center to try their own personal style of noodle bowl for lunch before heading back to our quiet ‘homestay,’ and a few hours at the twinkling night market.

Vietnam: Hai Van Pass and the Lady Buddha

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Danang, Vietnam

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On a misty morning, the Hai Van Pass road skirting the edge of the mountains.

Our motorbike jaunt up Hai Van Pass started early, at about 6:30a.m. We’ve found that an early start is one of the best ways to avoid tourist crowds, in most cases- unless you’re hiking up Lion’s Head Mountain in Cape Town or visiting the floating markets in Can Tho Vietnam. While the streets of Danang were already buzzing with motos and people going about their daily business, the early start did seem to help us avoid traffic and crowds going up this famed pass.

Hai Van means ‘Ocean Mist,’ Alex had read, and soon enough we knew why. The morning was already gloomy, but as we climbed slowly up the pass we found ourselves in a light mist, with ocean views off to our right.

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The top of Hai Van Pass serves as the true dividing line between northern and southern Vietnam.We had read about this 19 kilometer road being not only breathtakingly beautiful as it winds over the jungle-covered mountains, but also steep, and even ‘treacherous.’ Going on our own rented motorbike, we had decided that not making it to the top wasn’t out of the questions, since we/ Alex the driver have very little moto experience.

What we found was quite different than what we expected, however. Coming from the good old state of Colorado, we immediately realized that ‘mountain pass’ drew up a much more formidable image in our minds than what we found driving Hai Van Pass.

We’ve certainly never driven a Colorado pass-or any pass for that matter- on a moto, but the combination of Hai Van being less steep and scary than we had imagined, going very slowly, and driving up at a time of day where there were very few other vehicles out made the drive pretty relaxing overall. The biggest challenges for us were 2 tighter hairpin turns and the slightly wet roads from the drizzle. Even so, the drive was quiet, calm, and overall stress-free..but not completely:

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Alex having the time of his life driving a moto, and Cece feeling a little nervous.

From the beachfront in Danang city to the top of Hai Van Pass only took us about an hour. At the top we explored an old fort that was built by the French, and sat down for a cup of perfectly strong and steaming Vietnamese coffee at one of the shops, munching on some light breakfast that we had brought along with us.

As we had to catch a train early in the afternoon, we didn’t drive all of Hai Van, but descended on the same side that we had come up, dropping back down into Danang City. But before turning in our moto, we drove out to the the large Lady Buddha statue and temple just a little bit outside of the city. This immaculately clean complex includes a large Buddhist temple, the towering Lady Buddha, and a plaza full of quirky bonsai trees and various Buddhist statues.

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Like any good little adventure, our morning moto trip up Hai Van pass and around the outskirts of Danang made us step outside our comfort zone just a smidge, but it was a worthwhile jaunt for the views, the challenge, and the feeling of exploration.

For more info, visit the Hai Van Pass page on Travel Fish.

 

Vietnam: West of Water Mountain

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Marble Mountains, Danang, Vietnam

“Hello, hello. Where you going to now?”

This has been a fairly common question in our few days in Vietnam, usually followed by an offer like, “Taxi?” or “Hotel?”

Today, it was followed by, “Buddha buddha,” and a big hand gesture to follow.

“We are just walking, thank you,” we replied.

“Buddha! Buddha! Come.”

We looked across the road, toward a small, green mountain, guarded by a golden yellow building and the same neat rows of parked motorbikes that make every establishment in Vietnam seem like a moto dealership.

We followed.

As we entered the complex, walking quickly, I talked over my shoulder to Alex.

“How much do you suppose we’ll pay for this?”

I tried multiple times to tell the man ‘Thank you so much, we will go alone from here.’ But he was not about it.

“How can we ditch this guy??” I asked Alex.

We passed a table of 6 Vietnamese men, playing what looked to be some form of checkers, and drinking beer. While they spoke to our impromptu guide and laughed as we passed, I did my best to greet them in Vietnamese: “Xin Chao.”

“Chao, Chao,” they greeted me back, chuckling.

We saw in front of us something that seemed liked an outdoor cafeteria, with tables in long lines, everyone moving among each other to get food and find a seat.

“Alright….I guess let’s just go with it,” I told Alex over my shoulder, still moving through the streams of people, no tell-tale signs of tourists to be found.

A second later our guide ducked into a hole in the side of the mountain, slightly larger than himself. We followed.

“Buddha,” he said, pointing ahead and switching on a dim flashlight.

We followed him through the drippy tunnel, into an open cave, where a marble Buddha statue sat in a glass case, fronted by offerings of incense and fruit. The guide gestured for us to bow. We did as we were told. He gave us each a stick of lit incense, and gestured for us to place it with the others, in front of the Buddha. We did.

We stood there quietly for a moment, just us three in this cave temple, silently staring at the Buddha. I noticed my ears were ringing, perhaps an after-effect from the crush and chatter of tourist crowds at Water Mountain- the main ‘attraction’ of pagodas, temples, and tea houses in the Marble Mountains- which we had left just about 15 minutes earlier. We had taken our time there as well, visiting each cave and marveling at the huge marble statues. But the shorts-and-tank-top clad tourists, all hustling for a picture, and talking loudly about finding a snack made this holy site feel more like an amusement park.

After leaving Water Mountain, knowing that there were other Marble Mountains, we went exploring. We walked west until the road ended, turned left until we reached the next big road, turned right. At the end of this road is where we met our guide.

Now, he shone his light on a face carved into the rock, another carved into a slimy stalagmite. He led us back toward the entrance, holding back a large stick of incense stuck in a side path so we could enter a new tunnel. There too we found small shrines surrounded by offerings. We left that cave. We climbed a ladder to a small rock platform to find another small shrine, more offerings.

Within five minutes we were back in the open air, and he gestured for us to climb a set of stone steps, then walked the other direction.

“Huh..maybe he wasn’t expecting money,” I said, naively and not quite believing myself.

Set into the rock face next to the steps were more small shrines, all abundant with offerings: now fresh cut flowers, cakes, cookies, bottles of water, and incense and fruit. We reached the top of the stairs and stayed there, on the outskirts of the activity, unsure of what was appropriate. A small group ate on a mat on the floor of the stone platform. A group of women- some in gray robes, others in street clothes- knelt in front of a large Lady Buddha that was surrounded by more offerings than all of the others we had seen so far. More and more people arrived at the top of the stairway. One of the women in gray robes played a singing bowl, which seemed to indicate the start of prayer, as the women began chanting and bowing. More women streamed up the steps, one giving loud high-pitched shouts at intervals, some carrying spiral-bound books that seemed to contain prayers, all carrying offerings.

“They’re praying,” I said. “Let’s not be in their space.”

But as I turned to go, I hesitated. I debated quickly in my head whether or not our presence was disruptive or disrespectful. I looked around, trying to gauge people’s faces or see if anyone was staring at us, urging us to leave. Nobody was. People were praying, people were putting down offerings, people were eating together.

We stayed only for a few more minutes, helping elderly women down the steps as they passed us to descend. Soon enough, we too turned for our descent. About halfway down, one of those elderly women grabbed my hand tightly, and we went together, me as her mobile railing. I nearly slipped once and her hand flew to her heart, in that universal gesture of quick-passing worry. When we reached the bottom, she squeezed and patted my hand, nodding, bowing, smiling before she disappeared into the stream of people.

Alex and I turned to go.

And there was our guide.

“Money,” he said, rubbing his fingers together, as if he couldn’t let us forget for too long the universal element that makes a tourist a tourist, no matter how far afield one may wander.

 

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