Fiona MacCarthy

South East Asia (Part 2 a briefer trip to what was missed in 93-94)



This was a return trip to the region involving 2 months backpacking in Laos during November and December 1999 followed by a month in Cambodia during January 2000.



Background to the state of my mind (and still in Africa)


My 1st trip to this region in 93-94 had opened my eyes, heart and taste buds. It had made me question some aspects of my personal life and more importantly what I was doing with my life.


In autumn 1998 I had moved to a coffee plantation in Northern Zambia just outside the town of Kasama. The plantation was not only expanding itself but was also part of an expanding group called African Plantations Corporation ldc registered in the Cayman Islands and it took some time for bright me to realise that LDC meant limited duration company.  From my day of arrival when the phones were cut off due to non-payment we made some progress in continuing to pay wages and local suppliers, including utilities and not having our phones suspended again. We were some two and half hours flying time to the capital Lusaka excluding a stopover or alternatively some 750km on generally poor roads. I mean “poor” by African standards and not some English standards. The absence of money, the general physical and personal isolation from humankind and society, minimal support from Head Office and oh yes there was my personal interests and desires suspended in development made life tough.


It was a very tough and challenging experience and has left me more self reliant and independent than many. The safety valve (and lethal) was alcohol and having not converted my taste buds to the local beer I developed a very unhealthy relationship with JJ or Jameson’s to those who know him less well. I was knocking back half to two thirds a bottle per day, well mainly in the evening sitting at home watching a South African based telly service. I would have become an alcoholic if I had continued. By Autumn 1999 and in a verbal altercation at Head Office I pointed out the seriousness of our financial situation only to be urged to focus on the layout of our management accounts. I let fly verbally and was in response told there was no place in the organisation for me. A case of creative di-employment. No regrets.


I returned to South Africa to organise myself and to depart to those two countries in S.E.A. that I had not visited in my 93-4 visit. The reason was that Cambodia back then was ripping itself apart and several backpackers had been taken hostage and killed. Laos was under limited duration stay, which had moved from 1 to 2 weeks but the logistics of transport made this inadequate to other than the basic tourist venues.



Trip commences (a stopover)


I got to Thailand and stayed in Koh Samui for a short while, whilst my drinking habits began to relax. I was disappointed with the rapid pace of development of the tourist island. It seemed to have changed so much in the 5 years since my last visit. Too much change was making it more plastic and less real.  I was quickly becoming keen for something real.



Northern Laos


I headed north by local Thai bus (no tourists) to Chiang Khong in North East Thailand before crossing the Mekong river (divides Laos from Thailand) to Huay Xai (pronounced “chai”). My visa was for a month, knowing I could extend it in the capital, Vientiane which was in my direction of travel and half way down the country.


Walking around this delightful non-town provided an introduction to a country that was developing to the extent that it had contact with its growingly prosperous neighbour and with whom its language is quite similar. But there was also the Laos that was time locked in the past with its poor roads, a sharp contrast between the town wealth assisted by trading and the rural poor who were very poor. The country views were unspoilt by electricity pylons, motorways and tarred roads or even mobile phone masts. Reed huts, corrugated roofs or reed roofs and dug out canoes were in the countryside whilst the town buildings reflected the wealth of individuals rather than of the community.



Muang Sing


The Lonely Planet guidebook had recommended Muang Sing to be reached by what was to be a 14-hour road journey at an average spped of 20km per hour in the back of a pick up truck. We were half backpackers and half Laos with their boxed goods and personal possessions sharing the roof with our packs.


The departure from Huay Xai that morning took ages, as we did not have enough passengers. I love transport logistics in Asia. We eventually set off along a dirt road up and down small hills, then big hills and small mountains all covered by trees and undergrowth. Villages were scattered along the way in simple reed or mud walled huts. No advertising, no pylons, next to no transport for large stretches. Those other few vehicles were either pick ups like us or tightly packed and very ladened Bedford style trucks.


A lunch stop provided a bowl of noodle soup and I think now it was Coke rather than Pepsi. Faded memory can’t remember that important cola war divide. Then it got very hilly, with steep gradients and loads and loads of mud. We frequently disembarked to lighten the vehicle and to push ourselves out. By the end of the journey that night at about 11, the mud covered the leg of my jeans to the knee completely and about half of the leg above the knee. As we drove into Luang Nam Tha it was entertaining to try and lessen the weight of the jeans by pulling off strips of mud from the jeans. Great fun.


The following morning headed off to Muang Sing which was a small, indeed very small town or a big village. Situated in the extreme north of the country it was on a tarred road little used, to China. It was a market town and the market when in full swing covered an area a bit smaller than a football field, mainly a big shed. It had electricity for 2 hours every evening in some establishments.


There were a few guesthouses catering for backpackers but really I think it was some Lonely Planet writer had written about this place that brought travellers but there was little else. Walks in the countryside would attract friendly greetings from adults and shouts of bon-bons (French for sweets) from the children.


A walk up to the Chinese border one day showed nothing happening. A border post with no people or goods moving. This is where they send those customs officials who are not on the fast track or indeed any track.


Food was fresh, flavoursome and everything was served with lots of rice, which grew everywhere. The main choice was between beef and chicken prepared in kitchens that were a wok and some cutting services. All very simple but not at all like western kitchens all gleaming and spick and span. One evening my choice of beef was not available and the following morning an unenthusiastic cow was being slaughtered on the road. Yes on the road. I moved on after a few glances. That’s a part of the food processing chain I do not like.


Evening time was spent sitting back looking at the street and at the world not passing by. Sometimes a few cows would wander down the main street, seldom a vehicle. Gosh it was very restful. Then a few women would come around trying to tempt the tourists with their touristy beads. A polite no would lead them to try and sell some of their black coarse cheap cottony type garments, which they wore, and which one might wear as pyjamas was it not for the poor quality of the material. A polite smiling no would lead them to try and sell Opium, which was all very casual seeing that the wife of the local policeman managed the property. I was curious but too concerned about my safety to try it. A minor regret.


A pagoda of particular interest was being rebuilt with finance from American airforce men. The internal painting included paintings from the war. Laos was heavily bombed by the Yanks in their search for the Ho Chi Minh trail and so they bombed everywhere; I love military logic. There was no indication of what linked these particular servicemen to here other than they may have been flying from a base in Northern Thailand over this area and dropped a few explosives.


The highpoint of my stay, which in fact led to stay a bit longer than planned, was the lunar festival held in a field atop a hill one day with the mist rolling in and around. It was damp, slightly chilly as merchants and families gathered together watched by about 20 tourists or so. The weather literally dampened the day, which concluded with a concert in the town. Nothing special, just Laos’s folk letting their hair down relaxing and drinking. Not a cultural sing song  type event.



Nong Khiaw (not a busy place but pretty)


Eastwards to Nong Khiaw, the start of a more mountainous region with its high sheer peaks more in place in the Alps but neither cold nor with snow.


The idea was to head further east and then south to Phonsovan. The road and word of mouth said it could be done but there was also stories of bad experiences. About 6 of us backpackers made the pick up journey financially worthwhile for the driver and then we got dumped in the middle of nowhere. One of the other backpackers then started an argument with the driver who was having none of it and our abandonment continued. We waited for another vehicle and then I decided I had had enough. I started walking back and hoping to pick up a vehicle. I walked all afternoon into nightfall and was thinking of asking a village for a roof over my head when a truck went by with what looking like a travelling troupe of entertainers and 2 of my fellow backpackers from before. I was disappointed with not being able to travel to plan but there was an unpleasant undercurrent in the air. Its like we were being steered to set routes etc rather than allowed to travel freely. But then these areas were newly opened.


Then Southwards to Luang Prabang a too well developed tourist site and its densely packed temples with the river to three sides. The area had been popular with tourists even with the 7-day visa and it showed in the entertainment, the eateries, the fresh vegetables, which gave a break to the rice, as the filler to the stomach. The streets were casually laid with a French influence to the buildings. It was as well packaged as similar in Thailand.



Plane of Jars and Phonsovan


The plane of jars with its large (many bigger than an adult) jars scattered as if by a giant.


I flew in to the dusty dry airport with its simple building control tower and everything else, so compact. The air overhead was regularly filled by screaming mig jets. Every morning teams of de-miners under expat supervision would head out to various areas. The yanks dropped lots of munitions and mines in particular in its war with the Vietcong. Empty shell casings some 10-12 foot long were often used instead of concrete supports to 2-storey farm building. A creative use of a most destructive weapons.





Vientiane was a welcome break. The market was large and busy with a wide range of merchandise. Side by side were the developing tourist trade and the opportunity to watch the sunset over the lazy and big, slow moving Mekong. The English language newspapers gave the official party line on everything. An expat bar provided an insight into the limited business opportunities even in the capital.


The Great Sacred Stupa was large geometric perfect touristy and sanitised. It lacked character and personality but it was perfectly shaped in its rigid way if you like your stupas that way.




Southern Laos


Heading south, my objective was the place of 4,000 islands called Si Pang Dong. (My spelling of its pronunciation). The road was long dusty as anything and under construction with money and help from China with Japanese vehicles the only model types.


My curiosity led me to stopping off at Tha Khaek, Savannakhet and Pakse on different nights. The markets were rudimentary but showed the extensive influence of China. The food was basic and fresh but without much use of spices. Fish was expensive as the best went west to Thailand. The countryside was flat and with comparatively (compared with the North) little agriculture. Some of the tourist hotels were extensive and expensive but empty.  The people would observe and seldom communicate unless selling. There was a feeling in the air of submission and interaction between themselves seemed functional rather than social. There was little to entertain a tourist and less to be part of.


At Pakse I took to the river to continue further south. The boats were all quite similar being long flat bottomed with a simple roof covering, motor power vessels capable of taking 50 folk and their merchandise. We would stop at various riverside villages for passengers and for refreshments sold by children and women wading into the water or waiting in the shallows. Eggs and cooked chicken were easily identifiable and Laos folk would supplement with their own rice.  The river grew much wider and was at that time of the year (December) shaded in a heavy heat haze.



Place of 4,000 islands


The centre of this little haven was no more than a few interconnected islands abandoned amidst a wide and powerful river and presumably 3997 other islands (I did not check). It was approaching the millennium and I did not want to go to Cambodia yet as it was supposedly packed.


Nearby was Don Det where the French had left a narrow gauge railway and a concrete jetty from as they attempted to conquer the rapids on the river. They failed in their attempt. But the engines, rails and concrete remain as silent witnesses.


The Mekong fresh water dolphins were the main tourist delight; the neighbouring Cambodians (we were on a closed border) had killed off many and probably because they had run out of people to kill. The dolphins needless to say were very shy and their star performance was a head raised from the river as they swam and presumably checked us out. It provided much employment for local boat owners.


The fish from the river whilst fresh was cooked without salt and with few if any spices.


My accommodation was a delight in simplicity. I found a guesthouse on the fringe of the village about 15 minutes out situated on the riverbank. It was made from bamboo and consisted of 6 bedrooms side by side with a balcony overlooking the river. Breakfast was bananas, sweetened coffee and omelette. Christmas dinner was a couple of chickens barbecued. No electricity and only the sound of the river. Washing my clothes in the river one morning I saw a river snake observing me or more likely wandering who was putting washing powder in its river. It was the most relaxing part of Laos.





Logic said use the border but it was closed to foreigners and so I had to backtrack a bit, cross into Thailand and enter Cambodia.


The journey from the border post to Angkor Wat was on a pick up truck. As backpackers who had arrived independently at the border we were marshalled together into what was a premium price road journey.


I spent 10 days at Angkor doing what I enjoy doing. Getting out and about early morning pre sunrise and here due to the extent of the complex on the back of a moped. Being dropped off at some part of this massive complex and walking around observing and learning till about 11 when I would head back to town for lunch and a rest. At about 4 repeat for a sunset view. No chance of getting bored. It does not suit all tastes.


My sunrise trip to Angkor Wat itself got me there an hour before dawn to walk through and climb the steep narrow steps to the top by torchlight. There were only about 4 tourists at the top that morning as I laid territorial claim to one of the turret like corner pieces. From there I observed the sun rise amongst the vast rice fields laid out below and far and wide. It was a very magic moment of peace knowing that little had changed the view. Then a descent along those steep steps to the arena filled by snapping tourists on package deals. A secret smile to self that they were missing the gem of a view because of those steps.


If Angkor Wat is what people first think of, it was the Ta Phrom temple where the mighty trees and other vegetation had reclaimed the temple from man. The Bakong was the prettiest of the temples with its multitude of shapes all subtly silently symmetrical. It was so different to what else had been restored.


The temples all had their own powerful personalities and changed from sunrise to sunset in their mood. Avoiding busloads of tourists became an art form as I jealously tried to lay personal claim to my own part of these beautiful creations of the human mind, human ingenuity and plain backbreaking work of the highest craftsmanship.


An excursion with a difference was stopping off at one particular garden like area. A challenge to the tourist was to recognise and find how many types of grenades, mines and unexploded ordinance there were. That was scary because although the area was “safe” it brought home how flipping unobvious all this munition stuff was and despite the war being over it was still capable of killing and still does. Of course most of it is not designed to kill but to maim. Its more disruptive to the opposing forces to deal with the injured rather than the dead. The art of war!



Prei Kuk


Headed east to Kompong Thom a busy trading town and out and about the neighbourhood in search of a temple complex Prei Kuk older than Angkor but not restored or on the tourist map. There in the middle of a field was a children’s roundabout standing idle but not unused. It was oddly surreal in its setting. A fair was coming.


Northwards to Kompong Cham and Kratie showed the scale of development particularly with the impressive bridges all under construction.



Phnom Penh


Cambodia is sadly also famous for its attempt to kill off quite randomly some 20% of its own population.


Choeung Ek is one particular memorial outside Phnom Penh where thousands were slaughtered often with clubs or by hanging to save on bullets. The piled up skulls and bones in a glass memorial are chilling.


S21 in the centre of town is the site of a former school and it looks like a school that was used as a detention and interrogation centre. Several of the classrooms had been divided up into narrow bricked up cells. It all had the potential to be normal but it was used for torture not education. The shackles are there and I would not like to spend a night as it was eerie in daytime.


I enjoyed the historical aspects of Cambodia but under the surface was this sense of unspeakable horror. Its easy to identify the leaders but it took many guards to keep the people down whilst they were murdered by their kinsmen. To be different and not just wearing glasses was a death sentence. I hope the country heals but they are still in 2009 bringing to justice the senior perpetrators. Its like no one wants the story to be concluded.