Monthly Archives: October 2008

Preah Vihear: My Trip To A War Zone, Part 2

Posted by on October 26, 2008

Please read part 1 first.

The view from the back of a tuk tuk. The driver is Bhin

The view from the back of a tuk tuk. The driver is Bhin

Getting to Preah Vihear from Siem Reap isn’t easy. In the future, I fully expect there to be day trips by bus. Currently, however, it requires a great deal of will and much more cash than you’ll spend going to temples around Siem Reap. If I had to guess, there are probably only a handful of non-Cambodian visitors to Siem Reap each week. Since the conflict with Thailand started, there are probably a lot less. The day I was there I was told they had 10 visitors that day. I was the only non-Cambodian I could see. The border with Thailand was closed.

My tuk tuk driver for my tour of the Angkor temples was Bhin. He was 21 years old, could speak reasonably fluent English and had a wife four months pregnant. I told Bhin that I wanted to go to Preah Vihear and he quickly offered to drive me. He told me that you can’t take a tuk tuk to Preah Vihear. We’d have to take a bike and I’d have to sit on the back. “No problem”, I said. I clearly didn’t think through the implications of sitting on the back of a bike.

My my estimates looking at the map, I figured Preah Vihear was about 200km from Siem Reap. Given the speed at which the motorbikes went, I figured about 4-5 hours each way. We’d leave early in the morning, get there about 9-10am and have plenty of time to get back before sunset.

Village at the base of Preah Vihear Temple

Village at the base of Preah Vihear Temple

Bhin claimed to have been there before (a claim which I now doubt in hindsight) and said it would cost $200 for the trip. $200 seemed really expensive for a day on a bike, especially when a day in a tuk tuk was $15. We negotiated back and forth for two days and I eventually settled on $120 and I’d pay for gas. Looking back, he earned it.

Early on October 6th we met at my guesthouse at 5am for the trip. I didn’t take my tripod (thank God). I just had my camera bag and a backpack an umbrella and some food. Bhin then tells me he didn’t get any sleep the night before because he was up convincing his father, who is a senior police officer in Siem Reap, to let him go. His father eventually agreed, but gave him a gun which Bhin put under the seat of the bike. He described it in very Nancy Reagan-esque terms, “it’s just a little one”.

Hitting The Road

So, camera and gun in tow, we head out. First stop is to get gas. Bhin’s mother runs a small roadside gas stand where gas is sold out of old bottles of Johnny Walker (you can see them all over in Cambodia). We filled up, I give his mom $5, he kneels before his mother for a blessing, and we hit the road.

Bhin likes to talk. Before the sun even rose, we had been on the road an hour and he had been talking up a storm. We had two helmets, but didn’t bother wearing them yet. That would get in the way of talking. There is little traffic on the roads at night and nothing moves very fast. The real reason for the helmets, as Bhin pointed out, is to block the dust and stones which fly at your head when a truck passes you.

Soldiers on a motorbike

Soldiers on a motorbike

The beginning of the trip was fine. The roads out of Siem Reap are paved and when we finally hit an unpaved road, it was still in good shape having been recently graded. I saw a lot of pseudo road construction. Most of it did not involve the use of big machines. Road crews would create small bridges by hand pouring cement into molds, then moving the large pieces of cement into place. It looked as if they were given rebar and bags of cement by the government and told “There you go. Make a bridge.”

We had no real map for getting to Preah Vihear. Bhin’s father drew one for him, and that was it. There are also no road signs to be found anywhere in the country side. That being said, it is difficult to get lost as there really aren’t many roads. The totally number of intersections I saw were one road met another was probably less than 10. I had no idea, and neither did Bhin, just how close we were to Preah Vihear.

The only “city” we drove through was Anlong Veng, approximately half way between Siem Reap and Preah Vihear. Anlong Veng was the last city controlled by the Khmer Rouge and is where Pol Pot was cremated. Had I known where his ashes were buried, I’d have gladly pissed on them.

The Rocky Road

Once out of Anlong Veng, the road got worse and our progress slowed considerably. The bike we were on wasn’t a dirt bike designed for off road use. Several times we had to stop and I would get off and walk because the mud was so deep. The only real thing we had to deal with before Anlong Veng was a stretch of thick fog. The fog made us wet, but the road was still dry and dusty, so the dust would kick up and stick to our wet bodies. Fun.

xxx

The Cambodian People's Party is the ruling party in Cambodia. I saw these signs everywhere on the ride. This is the sign in the village at Preah Vihear.

With only a few brief rest stops, we pull into the village below Preah Vihear at about 11:30am, six and a half hours after we left Siem Reap. As we neared the village, we had an escort of several guys on motorcycles who rode with us. These guys have off road bikes and take people up and down the mountain, as the road it too steep, rough and wet for normal cars or motorbikes. The village is mostly catering to soldiers, which we saw on the road once we entered Preah Vihear province an hour earlier. We’d see small outposts of soldiers in tents or hammocks sleeping or hanging out on the side of the road.

The Cambodian military contingent in Preah Vihear didn’t really seem very menacing. There weren’t many of them, they seemed very unorganized, and had nothing beyond AK-47s, RPGs and pickup trucks It is amazing how many of the conflicts in the world today are fought with nothing more than those things. The Cambodians seemed to be there just to establish a presence in the area and to serve as a check to any small movements by Thailand (which is all that the conflict has been to this point).

With a half a day of hard driving, I’d seen more of Cambodia than I’d seen in the previous week, and we still hadn’t actually been to the temple.

Read part 3.

Preah Vihear: My Trip To A War Zone, Part 1

Posted by on October 24, 2008

Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia

Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia

My day traveling to Preah Vihear is one of the most interesting and grueling of my trip, and so my description of the events is going to be a lot longer than most posts. I’ll be splitting this up into two parts. Today will be a general overview of the temple, its history, location and a summary of the events in the area as of today (yes, things are unfolding there as I write this). Tomorrow I’ll describe what I experienced and what my day was like. It is important to get a background to understand what is happening and exactly what I was getting myself into.

History of Preah Vihear

If you are like me, you probably never heard of Preah Vihear until recently, either from the news or from my blog. It isn’t one of the big sexy ancient sites like Angkor. It is difficult to get to and few tourists, especially from the Cambodia side, make the trip. Preah Vihear came to my attention when it was listed at a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. When I was in Siem Reap, I knew I had to try and make the trip there.

Preah Vihear temple was contemporary to many of the temples of Angkor. Built in the 11th and 12th centuries during the reigns of Suryavarman I & II in the Khmer Empire, it was dedicated to the god Shiva. (Buddhism is a recent importation to SE Asia, having been adopted around the 15th century. Prior to that Hinduism was the dominant religion.)

Soldiers at Preah Vihear Temple

Soldiers at Preah Vihear Temple

Preah Vihear is on a hill overlooking the plains of Cambodia to one side, and Thailand on the other. It is a location with a stunning view. From the temple you can see Cambodia unfold below you. You can easily see why it was chosen as a location for a temple. It was an important temple in the Khmer Empire, but never quite on a par with the temple of Angkor. Architectural styles are similar to what you will find in Angkor. The temple is aligned north-south rather than the normal east-west due to the alignment of the mountain.

Modern Conflict over Preah Vihear

The modern conflict over Preah Vihear began in 1962 when the International Court of Justice awarded possession to Cambodia. Unfortunately, it never resolved the status of several square kilometers of land in the area around the temple. Thailand considers the issue of the area around Preah Vihear unresolved and claims it. From what I’ve seen, there is nothing special about the land in question. It is forested with no particular resources. The conflict seems to be one of national pride and territorial grabs. (I should note that the US and Canada still have five outstanding territorial issues. I’d put the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia to be like the US and Canada fighting over the Machias Seal Island)

Thai flag across the border

Thai flag across the border

The Thai didn’t take the ruling too well. Rather than lower the Thai flag which flew over Preah Vihear, they dug up the entire flagpole and moved it to the Thai side of the border, where it currently still sits.

Since 1962, Preah Vihear was the scene for several important events in Cambodian history:

  • When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, the last holdouts from the Lon Nol government took refuge at Preah Vihear. On May 22, the Khmer Rouge stormed the temple, making it the last piece of Cambodia to come under their control.
  • After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978, the Khmer Rouge were pushed back to the border and took shelter at Preah Vihear.
  • The invasion by Vietnam caused a flood of refugees into Thailand. When they were forcibly pushed back into Cambodia, most were sent over the border near Preah Vihear.
  • In 1998, the last vestiges of the Khmer Rouge surrendered and negotiated at Preah Vihear.

Land mine waring sign

Land mine waring sign


As a result of all this, the area around Preah Vihear is one of the most heavily land mined areas in a heavily mined country.

2008 Conflict with Thailand

The dispute with Thailand was put on the back burner for years and never resolved. In July, 2008 things came to a head with Preah Vihear’s listing as a World Heritage Site. Cambodians celebrated, Thais got upset, and troops were sent. The full time line of events can be seen here. It is too long to go over in detail here. Here are some of the relevant events surrounding my visit:

  • October 3rd A small three minute fight between troops. Two Thai and one Cambodian were injured.
  • October 6th Two Thai soldiers are injured by land mines after they wander over 1km into Cambodia.
  • October 14 A large firefight breaks out. Seven Thai are wounded with three Cambodians wounded and two killed. Cambodia claims to have captured 13 men, which Thailand denies

I went to Preah Vihear on October 6…..

Read part 2

Ghost Monks in Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Posted by on October 23, 2008

Ghost monks at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Ghost monks at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I just processed this photo today and wanted to get it up on the site ASAP. I was set up with my tripod deep in Angkor Wat when two monks walked passed me. I clicked the shutter five times as they walked past. I took three of the exposures and blended them together to get this ghost like effect. It was the first time I ever did something like this. I didn’t even think of making a photo like this when they walked by, I just clicked away figuring I could do something later with it.

Filming a soap opera in Bangkok, Thailand

Posted by on October 22, 2008

Filming a soap opera in Bangkok, Thailand

Filming a soap opera in Bangkok, Thailand

A Thai TV crew shooting a soap opera. After all my traveling, there is one thing I can safely say: Americans are good at making TV shows. I’ve seen a lot of Asian soap operas. Many of them are historical ones which use traditional sets and costumes. I’ve seen ones from Japan and China like that. The Korean ones are REALLY dramatic. Every scene seems like someone is crying their head off. As you can tell by the photo, the production values aren’t that high, but they still seem very popular with local audiences.

Tonlé Sap

Posted by on October 22, 2008

Map of Cambodia

The majority of the population of Cambodia lives in the area around Tonlé Sap and its drainage areas

If you had to condense the essence of Cambodia down to one thing, it wouldn’t be the temples of Angkor. They are famous and draw the tourists, but they are nothing more than crumbling stones. The reason why those temples were built where they were, and the reason why much of the population lives where they do, is Tonlé Sap.
Technically a river (hereby referred to as a lake), Tonlé Sap is the body of water which is the heart of the country. It is a remarkable lake for many reasons.

  • It is easily the largest body of freshwater in South East Asia.
  • The size of the lake varies dramatically over the course of the year. During the monsoon it is over 16,000 sq/km and during the dry season is shrinks to 2,700 sq/km. The depth of the water can vary by over 10m as well.
  • The direction of flow changes throughout the course of the year as well. During the dry season it drains into the Mekong. During the wet season, it floods the surrounding plains.
  • When the water is high, the flooding into the forests and plains makes for an excellent breeding environment for fish. I was at Tonle Sap during the high water season, and fishing was restricted during this period. Once the dry season starts and breeding has stopped, fishing can start again.

Kids playing in the front yard

Kids playing in the front yard

All the nature trivia aside, the most interesting thing about Tonlé Sap are the people who live there. Thousands of people live in floating villages, living most of their lives on the water. Many of the hospitals, schools, temples and newspapers are floating and move with the water. Where you live in October might be many kilometers away from where you might live in March.

The people who live on Tonlé Sap are poor. Among the poorest in Cambodia. They livelihood is almost entirely dependent on fishing, which was not in season while I was there. Oddly enough, I watched a National Geographic show on Tonlé Sap last night which confirmed something one of my guides told me when I was there: when they can’t fish, they hunt and eat snakes. The ethnic make up of Tonlé Sap is also different than most of Cambodia. There are many ethnic Thai, Vietnamese and Cham (Cambodian Muslims) people who live there.

The family that fishes together, stays together

The family that fishes together, stays together

I was able to visit Tonlé Sap on two separate occasions during my time in Cambodia: once as part of a normal tuk tuk tour of the Siem Reap area, and the second time was a boat trip down the length of Tonlé Sap from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. It is a remarkable life the people lead. Other than taking their fish to market, they can’t ever really be on dry land that often. I saw school kids coming home from school by boat, kids playing in boats, and entire families in some parts of the lake fishing together (I don’t think schools are available everywhere on the lake).

During my tour I visited a Vietnamese floating school. I was so moved by everything I saw during my day up until that point, I went to the local floating village store and purchased notebooks and pencils for the whole school. (At first I wasn’t thinking and just got notebooks. My guide then pointed out “they need to write with something”.)

Siamese Crocodiles are farmed in Tonle Sap

Siamese Crocodiles are farmed in Tonle Sap

Some of the villages I saw down river seems a bit more elaborate than the floating villages to the north. They were on stilts for starters, not floating, and you could see a forest of TV antennas sprouting from the rooftops of the houses.

Other than fishing, the big source of income for people on the lake is raising Siamese Crocodiles. Many houses will have a pen where the crocodiles are raised for their hide, which is the softest crocodile hide on Earth. The Siamese Crocodile has mostly disappeared from the wild in Tonle Sap, but are abundant in captivity. The feeding of snakes to the crocodiles are threatening native snakes who live in the lake. The snakes are fed due to the restrictions on fishing during the wet season.

I knew next to nothing about Tonle Sap before I visited Cambodia and it ended up being one of the high point of my time there. It is a place and a way of life which can’t be found anywhere else on Earth.

Otorii Gate at low tide in Miyajima, Japan

Posted by on October 20, 2008

Otorii Gate at low tide, Itsukushima, Miyajima, Japan

Otorii Gate at low tide, Itsukushima, Miyajima, Japan

The torri (gate) at Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima, Japan. This gate is one of the most photographed places in Japan was considered one of the three great ancient “views of Japan”. Most of the photos however show the gate in water. This photo is the gate at low tide when people are able to walk out to the base. I always seem to hit places at low tide when I have my camera with me.

My Future Travels

Posted by on October 20, 2008

I have been pretty much playing things by ear for most of my trip. I’d sort of know the general direction I was moving and where I was going next, but getting the next ticket or next room was about as far as I’d plan.

I’ve decided to return to the US for a few months in March or April. By then I will have been on the road for two years and there are certain things I just can’t take care of while I’m traveling. I also will not have seen my family or my friends in two years by that point.

From where I am now, the plan is to go up Vietnam to Hanoi, cut over into Laos, and down into Thailand. From there, I’ll somehow go to India/Nepal. After India I’m going to pick up the pace a bit. If you look at my map, I haven’t taken a lot of giant leaps on my trip (islands in the Pacific excluded). I think I’m going to jump all the way to Dubai, then fly to Cairo. From Cairo I’ll go to Rome and work my way over land to either London or Amsterdam. Depending on ticket prices I may fly to Iceland on the way back to the US.

When all is said and done, the 2007-8 trip should cover about 60 countries and about 80 World Heritage sites.

My current thinking is to stay in the US for 3-4 months then start out a new leg of the trip, this time focusing on the Americas. I’ll start in the Caribbean sometime in the North American summer and island hop to South America and try to work my way down to Argentinean Patagonia for their summer, then go up the west coast into Central America with a stop in the Galapagos Island along the way. If I can weasel a way to get to Antarctica, I’ll do that. I should hit every country in South American and most in the Caribbean.

During my time in the US I don’t plan on being idle. I’m going to be working on a book. I have a rough outline already and I’ll start writing in January. I’ll be getting a new laptop, as my current one is near death. I’m also going to get a real pro video camera. I know what the problems are with podcasting on the road now, so I think I can solve all those issues next time and put more energy into making a quality video podcast.

Oh, I also don’t plan on doing the next trip alone.

While I’m in the US I hope to do some speaking engagements and meet with readers and other bloggers. I will also be shooting some podcast episodes in the US and will be looking for readers/bloggers who’d be interested in showing me their town. More on that later. When it gets to that time and I’m in your neck of the woods, feel free to contact me for a beer. I will show you slides from my vacation :)

I will also be running a contest in November. My last contest was the post card contest from Bali which, thanks to the Indonesian Postal Service, was a total disaster. This time I’m going to be buying items from SE Asia and sending them to five lucky readers. FYI, you’ll have to be an RSS subscriber to enter, so you might as well just do it now if you haven’t already.