Archive for November 2009
My stay in Bangkok was pleasant and not particularly memorable. I stayed in the clean and comfortable Gold Silver Garden Guest House a short distance from the airport for a very reasonable $27/night. They picked me up at the airport and delivered me again early the next morning.
It was unusual to be flying into Hong Kong in the middle of the day rather than the evening. There was so much to see: rugged green peaks, massive highrise developments in the New Territories, and busy waterways. I made my way quickly through the always-efficient airport and rode the A31 bus into Tsuen Wan (again interesting in the daytime). I popped into Kin-yi’s apartment to drop off my stuff and shower, then headed into Sham Shui Po – the computer mecca – in Kowloon to look at getting my laptop repaired. I found an entire mall of tiny repair shops one block over from the Golden Computer Centre and spotted a guy with a couple of Acer laptops, so I figured he could help out. He quickly confirmed that my hard drive was kaput, so I walked over to the Centre and bought a new 320GB hard drive for $500 HK (about $80) and brought it back to him. I left it with him for the night.
Dad arrived on the A31 with Ah Man and Jeremy Lai around 8:30. I met him at the bus loop and we walked back to Kin-yi’s for him to drop his things off and clean up, then we went for a late dinner in the Discovery Park mall. Returning home I did a bit of email on his computer, then hit the sack and slept very soundly until 6:30am.
At around 9:30 we went into the centre of Tsuen Wan and hopped a minibus up the mountain to Chun Lung, Kau Fu, Kau Mo and Ah Kei’s family village nestled in a forest preserve. We ate a delicious dim sum lunch in their family restaurant, joined by them, Ah Man and Jeremy.
We spent much of the afternoon in Kowloon, first picking up my computer (a mere $200 [$30] for service), then visiting Rehman in his tailor shop in East Tsim Sha Tsui. By the late afternoon we’d returned to Kin-yi’s where dad had a short nap, then we took the bus and train over to Tai Po for the traditional home-cooked feast with the entire Kwok clan. Dishes included steamed shrimp, fresh chicken, watercress, mushrooms and duck feet, and wonderful stuffed fish. Ah Kong kindly drove me all the way to the airport in his new Toyota Picnic, a kind of practical mini-minivan. We dropped dad off at the apartment when we stopped to get my luggage. And now here I am, waiting to board my flight back home. It’s hard to imagine that I will soon by in our own bed after all the different beds in all the different places I’ve been too in the last four weeks.
I’ve had a very enjoyable time in Phnom Penh with Sue, Vinh and Rick. I’ve eaten three excellent meals a day, visited the armed forces market to buy a couple of pairs of new Thai army pants, drunk a river of Anchor Beer at the Rock Bar, rode on the back of Vinh’s Samyang motorbike, napped, and more. It has been a great way to wind down my trip. The weather has been clear and breezy. There have been a few downsides. The first night I barely slept despite being exhausted from the bus ride. Second, the wonderful Kennedy Barbershop has disappeared (but at least I photographed it last year). Finally, my laptop died. The thing simply won’t start up and I fear the hard drive has suffered an epic crash. This isn’t totally dire as all of my photos are backed up externally on two hard drives, plus I sent a third home with Derek. I did lose the November 3rd blog post and had to rewrite it on a hotel computer. The fortunate thing is that my laptop waited until the end of my trip to die rather than somewhere in India or Laos. It’s really nothing to cry about. Worse things happen.
Tonight I’ll be flying to Bangkok, then to Hong Kong tomorrow morning.
We were the hit attraction for the children, who spent much of the day peering at us in the raised open-walled community building. Our only competition was two people from another village selling a collection of clothes – mostly t-shirts – spread out on a large tarp nearby. A cyclone in the region was causing some impressive gusts of wind and creating some great light and the occasional spatter of rain.
It was a successful day for both me and team. I was happy with the shots that I got, both of the team’s work and the village context, and the team tested 230 villagers, none of whom were positive for malaria. It was a positive way for me to finish up my work with the team.
We returned to the guesthouse at 3:30, I showered and packed, then the truck returned to drive me into Pakse. San, Seng, Tak and Dao all wanted to come along to see me off, which was touching. The drive took about 2 1/2 hours; San drove most of the way while the others sat in the back playing cards on a cardboard box. Sang had the luck and was rewarded by a substantial pile of Kip. At the high point of our drive, near Paxsong, we hit thick fog and had to slow to a crawl for about 20 stressful minutes where we could barely see the road. Once through, San joined the others in the back to play cards while Tak took over at the wheel. Soon the pile of money found its way in front of San, which didn’t entirely surprise me.
In the early evening we pulled into Pakse, which after Attapeu seemed expansive and bustling. I picked up a ticket to the bus and the guys found me a quiet, comfortable guest house a short distance away. I learned then that they were heading back to Attapeu that evening; I had assumed that they were staying the night. That made me feel even more appreciative of their gesture of joining me on the journey.
We went for a bowl of noodles near the guest house, then a beer by the (closed) airport at a friend’s place. The guys have friends in every town that they work, and quite possibly girlfriends from what I can tell. We returned to the guest house and said our goodbyes, and I watched them drive away.
I woke just after six, showered and walked the short distance to the bus station. I put my bag on the bus, which was disappointingly not as luxurious as the images on the posters at the ticket office suggested. They have some quite plush large buses in the region that put Greyhounds to shame, but this one was very ordinary. I would soon come to appreciate its quality, however.
I had a simple breakfast of grilled pork and sticky rice at the bus station, then boarded the bus with about a dozen other folks. About 10kms out of town, things went sideways when we hit a motorcyclist (or more accurately, when a motorcyclist hit us). I had long expected disaster on the roads of Laos due to the quite blatant disregard for safety and the mix of different modes and speeds of transportation. As we were passing a motorcyclist, he took a hard left turn without looking over his shoulder or consulting his non-existent mirrors. He bounced off the side of our fast-moving bus and tumbled down the road. Fortunately he was relatively OK – conscious and sitting up; if he had turned one second earlier, he would have ended up under the bus’ wheels, which doesn’t bear thinking about.
We all had to get off the bus with our bags as the bus and crew had to stay and deal with the aftermath. A smaller bus from another company was flagged down and we were put on it. It drove us to the border with a few stops along the way – at Wat Phou and the Thousand Islands. We abandoned the bus at the border cross, an assortment of a few small buildings with a stretch of open road between two traffic gates. The crossing was seen as an economic development opportunity for various personnel. I was asked for an extra $1 by Lao emigration, quarantine and Cambodian control. It’s simply par for the course here.
Another small bus was waiting for us on the far side and drove in a pokey way to Stung Treng, about 75kms from the border. After standing in that muggy town for about 15 minutes, our original bus pulled up and we piled on again. We continued our journey across much of the country, which seemed continuously flat, with fairly lush vegetation and the typical red dirt. The dirt soon turned mucky was we came into rain. It seems that we’d just missed quite a deluge.
The ride was tedious. I listened to music while the crew played a series of movies on the entertainment system: a dubbed Hollywood comedy about three inept men trying to kidnap a baby, one about Khmer bumpkins, some Mr. Bean, and possibly the worst Indian film I’ve seen: a Punjabi production about student councils, misunderstandings, fighting and strife. It was endless, but thoroughly enjoyed by three young Sikh men who had given it to the crew to put on. A funny moment was when one of the young bus crew tied his krama – traditional Cambodian scarf – around his head in a perfect turban and sat watching the film.
The last 100kms from Kampong Cham to Phnom Penh were also endless. The bus was hot and stuffy, the windows were fogged up, the entertainment system blared, and I was sticky, hungry and tired. I learned later that I was lucky, however. We were arriving during the Water Festival in Phnom Penh, a time when an extra two million people pour into town to watch dragon boat racing on the Tonle Sap river. On all other days they had been forcing people off of buses and onto taxis or motos 50kms from town. This had happened to Vinh. For some reason we made it through, and was delighted to get off the bus, hop a moto, and arrive at the Paragon Hotel on the waterfront, which was solidly jammed with people enjoying the last night of festivities.
I had just got into my room when I heard my name being called from the hallway. I opened my door to find Vinh and Sue, and I gave them stinky hugs. After a quick shower, I went with them for a German meal over on St. 130. Shortly we were joined by a friend of their who is a prosecutor in the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal. Amazing! At another watering hole, Rick Valenzuela stopped by with Irwin Loy, a journalist I know from Vancouver who interviewed me when he was writing for 24 Hours. He’s here now, working with Rick at the Phnom Penh Post.
I revived with food and beer and stayed up fairly late, but then retired to my cool, dark, quiet room.
Yesterday followed the same pattern as Friday. The village we travelled to was about 5kms down the same road. The difference was that the locals there spoke a different dialect – closer to Khmer – that no-one on the team could understand, so the Lao-speaking village head and another local translator helped out. The villagers seemed visibly poorer – they were dirtier and their clothes were more basic. While not unhealthy, they appeared unhealthier than those in Pouy. It’s a hardscrabble existence on this rice-farming plain prone to flooding and a hot dry season. My understanding is that there is only a single annual harvest of rice here.
The day’s event was quite successful – at least 200 villagers showed up to be tested, with only 2 showing positive for malaria. PSI staff were constantly busy with intake, testing, and field interviews in individual houses. I was able to get quite good images of all aspects, I think. Seeing into each house was sobering as conditions are very basic: sleeping on bare floors and cooking over charcoal fires.
The village head decided to kill a pig for the team’s lunch, but the collection of quivering entrails and organs in stainless bowls didn’t appeal. Sen, as he always does when presented with any meat, dug in with gusto. Fortunately, the team brought along other food and I munched on sticky rice, hard-boiled egg, dried beef, and a noodle-fish mixture prepared in a leaf wrap.
Lunchtime was quiet, so the team relaxed. I managed a short nap in the back of one of the Land Cruisers, with two drivers – Sen and Seng – snoring up front.
We stayed until mid-afternoon then all piled in one truck (the other was in Pakse for the day) for the hour’s drive back into town. Back in town I washed, rested and downloaded my images, then had a delicious meal prepared at the guesthouse by the some of the team. It was one of the top meals of this trip: tamahoon (green papaya salad), morning glory with chillies, fish stew with lime cilantro and chillies, scrambled eggs, steamed watercress and other herbs, and of course sticky rice. I stuffed myself.
At around 8pm I went to Champa 100 Years with Tak, one of the communications guys, who is younger and speaks English well. We chatted for about an hour about school and work and his recent heartbreak, when his girlfriend of five years left him for a Thai fellow (note: later in the evening his ex sent him several text messages saying that she’d had a fight with the new guy and wanted to patch things up. Tak made a point of not responding although it was clear he was torn). Dao, one of the drivers arrived and we moved to another table with the restaurant owner and two young women, one of whom made me laugh a great deal despite not understanding her Lao. She kept making me recite all the Lao I knew and laughing and laughing at my immense vocabulary of 5-10 phrases.
At around 9:30 we rolled across town to Happy Day on the other bend of the Xe Kong River. Sen and Seng were there, and we listened to the music for a while, drinking more Beer Lao and munching cucumbers, fresh tamarind (sour!) and watermelon seeds. Not a great deal happened and we were back home by 11:00 and I had a solid sleep.
I decided, however, to have a rest day. My stomach was a bit off (much better now) and I figured that I could not get a ton of photographic value returning to the same village again. So, I spent the day at the guesthouse, reading half of my book – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – and relaxing.
At lunchtime a truck from the French Croix-Rouge pulled up three fellows – French, English and Lao – checked in. I chatted with them, and then joined them as they went for lunch in a local Vietnamese place. They are here to look into food security issues following the recent cyclone. Apparently the rice harvest was damaged in the flooding and they are here to assess interventions for four days. They will be journeying into some very remote parts of the district by boat or possibly even foot by the sound of it. David, the Englishman, spent four years treeplanting in northern BC , has a family in Tamil Nadu, and works as a disaster-management consultant. Benoit is from France and lives in Vientiane, working for the Croix Rouge, and I’m guessing that the Lao fellow is from the a government ministry. It was very interesting to learn about this very direct kind of work being carried out on the ground.
For dinner I met up with the usual suspects – San, Seng, Tak and Dao – for a dinner at their friend Miss Mai’s shop at the bus station. San cooked up a vat of boiled clams in chilli broth, and Mai grilled an entire catfish over a charcoal brazier. We sat around a concrete table in front of the store watching the local buses come and go.