mercredi 28 mai 2008

Getting local!

I had to buy this hat!!! It makes me feel oh-so-very local!

Out fishing

This is a region of rivers. I had to go fishing then, like the locals do. Because there is no better economy than a self-sustaining economy!

Thanx to Jay for being our guide. And many many thanx to Simon and Marilou for sharing with me these moments. Fishing with you was great! Not to mention the pleasure of swimming with you in that magic cave!

Dinner is ready!

Bombs in the courtyard...

Fruits of the Second Indochina War in Northern Laos villages...

Cruising the Nam Ou

Cruising north

Fishing at sunset

Kids flying a kite

Muang Ngoi Neua, at last!

Melting pot

I am in Northern Laos. Thailand, Vietnam and China are not far... so most of the Lao people can speak Thai, are dressed like the Vietnamese and have almond-shaped eyes like the Chinese... A funny mix indeed!

My first exciting encounter with a Lao-Yunnanese!

vendredi 23 mai 2008

Cultural shock

This morning I woke up early to go and earn my "merit" by giving alms to the monks. This is a common way for locals and tourists alike to contribute to the nourishment of monks and novices. It all happens exactly at 5:30 in the morning. The drum resonates throughout the town and monks start parading around. Everybody willing to contribute can buy some rice from the local fresh product market and give it to them. It is a wonderful experience, and the only moment of the day monks and lay people get in touch. So I did not want to miss it.

I went then to the local market to have breakfast. And I got the strongest cultural shock since I came here. Many different species of animals where on sale, some of them simply disgusting, like bats, rats, some of them part of endangered species, like enormous lizards and the head of a huge selvatic cat...

Shocked, I had to seat in the shade from the morning light just outside of the market. A local woman, sitting not far, started to talk to me in fluent French (do I look like a French? I am Italian!!!) and explained that those animals are illegal even il Laos. Despite that, she added, many people from the countryside are so used to eating strange wild beasts that poachers shamelessly keep hunting them. And that tigers are very renowned as well for tribal medical treatment. The police does not perform any kind of control on this, because, she made me notice, like if I hadn't, we are in Laos and here even the enforcement of law is very relaxed. "We have our Lao-style Communism here." she said, before smiling at me and walking away...

Just two days before I had discovered that one of the last tiger in Indochina had been found dead. Just a few kilometers out of Luang Prabang...

I wanted to forget. There are aspects of Laos, and of Indochina, that I really don't like. Eating endagered species is one of them. So I went for a refreshing swim in the Nam Khan river, between fishermen and joyful children.

Then I spent a few hours strolling around the many temples of Luang Prabang and meeting monks.

Tomorrow a seven-hours boat will take me to Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi Neua, in the far north. New adventures to come!

jeudi 22 mai 2008

City of gold

I just got to Luang Prabang. Apart from being the main tourist attraction of Laos, this is also the ancient capital city of the country. A very historical place, at last, where the number of ancient and beautiful Wats and the number of Bhikkhus dressed in Terra di Siena robes is larger than in any other place I have visited. Buddhism is everywhere. And this really makes for a colorful and profoundly spiritual destination that I am pleased to visit.

Students attending a class to learn the artistic skills needed to preserve Luang Prabang's Wats

Golden Gauthama Buddha in Phu Si's sacred hill

mardi 20 mai 2008

Sorry, chicken ran away...

I am going north. I have left Cambodia some days ago, and things have changed quite quickly since I crossed the border. Cambodia and Laos are both part of Indochina. And both, after a long history of fighting off foreign powers, are looking forward to a new sort of intruders: camera-toting tourists. But, apart for the general idea, many aspects of this approach to tourism are completely different to me.

Ok, both countries have joined the ASEAN, and while the Ho Chi Minh dream of a unified Indochina is getting real, both countries are pushed by capitalist, not socialists, economics. Which is sometimes good and sometimes bad...

Cambodia is a much younger country. Inexperienced, I may say. For a tourist not much to see. Of course the Angkor area lives up the hype and goes well beyond expectations. But for the rest, a few monument are on the list of any eager traveller, like I am. And the rest of the country (except jungly Ratanakiri) looked very dry to me. Almost desertic.

Notwithstanding that, the Khmer people are fantastic. They have understood that tourists often come to Cambodia to learn about the recent history of the country. And to walk in a territory that some years ago was still struck by a late Khmer Rouge guerrilla. So they sell their innocent smile. And their warmth and ingenous spontaneity were contagious for me. I would definitively tell you: do not go to Cambodia for Angkor. Do not go for finding tropical beaches and lush jungle. Go there for the people, and you will never forget what a human experience a simple trip can become!

On the other side ther is Laos. You cross the Mekong, and doing so you cross a cultural border. Just as an example, while in Cambodia your passport is stamped out by a smiling and almost underage policeman, it gets stamped in in Laos by elderly not-so-warm tourist agent.

At first I found it disturbing. Then I understood, after a few days, that Lao people are calm. It is simply that. Much more calm than in Cambodia or than in other country I have ever visited. Here the approach to tourism is always reserved and dignified. They share a lot of their culture with Thailand. But they are still not used to see stupid-white-men coming in their villages or sleepy towns. So they look at you crossing their dusty roads like you would watch to a golden fish in bowl: absently.

In any case they will never refuse you a kind Sa-bai-dee, if you look gentle and respectful. Which is my case.

Apart from being terribly calm, I think that Laos has not clear what to expect from tourism.

In the south, the tourism machine is still sleeping. And I think it can continue to do so, because, once you come from Cambodia, you have already seen the Mekong and all the rice fields stuff. You are looking for something different. So you will, as I did, take a night bus with the locals, and head straight for the capital city: Vientiane. And you will find, as I did, that this is the sleepiest capital city in the world. Nobody on the roads. Nobody at the markets. Nobody in the restaurants. Nobody on the tuk-tuks going to Patuxai. The sun rises. The tuk-tuk driver is sleeping. The sun is high in the sky. The tuk-tuk driver is still sleeping. The sun sets over the horizon. And the tuk-tuk driver will go back home to eat the ever-green fried rice or any kind of local foe.

Walking like Mary Poppins on Vientiane's large and empty roads

When in Vientiane you will also, as I did, understand that the northern mountains are not that far away. And you will, as I did, quickly hire a wonderful dirty-road motorbike and head north. And north. And north. After coming across still more rice fields, you will suddenly see karst mountains rise above everything.

Me on my motorbike on the Northern Laos dirty roads!

Crossing villages and meeting cultures.,

This is Northern Laos.

The Nam Song River flowing between the mountains

You will eventually get to Vang Vieng, the Laos version of Bangkok's Khao San Road. But ducked in between karst peaks, rivers and THE jungle.

Vang Vieng is probably one of the most strange places on earth. You are nowhere here. But americans, european and japanese happily cross the world just to come and go for one single activity: TUBING. Probably the most stupid passtime you would ever imagine of... You take a truck-tube, you put it on the river, you get in it, just like when you were four and you started to learn to swim, and you float down the Nam Song river. Going downstream you stop at any of the many bars that have popped as fast as mushrooms in this village. And you get yourself in a better mood by drinking lots of BeerLao and playing Tarzan hanging to the swinging ropes and splashing in the river... Finally, when the night comes and you are too drunk to float alone, a speedboat will come to rescue you before you get to the final jump from the waterfalls intoxicated...

Vang Vieng is a bad place, I may say. People do not come here to see pristine jungle, but just to get drunk. But I liked it. After having gone tubing myself to celebrate my birthday, I took my motorbike and went through the mountains, in remote villages, to see the real Laos. And it was a wonderful experience. I went into the jungle, and after a long walk into it, I went into a huge cave, and, after walking for many kilometers inside that incredible hole in the world I swam in beautiful blue lagoons... (where I lost my mobile phone... sigh...)

Buddha's wonderful cave

Me looking for an undergound way to Alaska...

So, do not come to Laos for the people. Do come for nature at its best. And, if you can, go north. The more north, the better. Find a village. And go trekking, go caving, go playing Tarzan on the rivers. And get calm. Laos is the place where to learn the "Sorry, chicken ran away" philosophy. Get in a restaurant, ask for yellow noodles with chicken and see the waiter coming to you half an hour later and telling you that the chicken you had asked will not be available for being eaten at the moment because it ran for freedom. And enjoy it.

Overgrown boy going for some Tarzan action!

samedi 17 mai 2008

Tropical Paradise

Take a bus going up Route 13 after entering Laos, for example from Stung Treng to Ban Nakasang, and take a river ferry at Ban Nakasang that cross over to Don Don Det. You'll be in the Si Phan Don district, better know as Four Thousand Islands. A 50kms-long-fantastic-scenic stretch of islands and islets along the Mekong where, during the rainy season, the river reaches a breadth of 14 km! Sort of a real tropical paradise where fishermen, water buffalos, pigs, tourists, mokeys, dolphins, cats and dogs happily share beaches, rice fields punctuated of coconut trees, huge waterfalls, rapids and portions of pristine jungle.

A very laid-back place to be, where a hammock can easily become your best friend!

Fish hunter!

Fish hunter's mum!

Noah's ark in the rice fields. Just in case the Mekong gets angry...

A fruit (maybe the only one) of the French colonialism: petanque!

Breathtaking sunsets on the Mekong (while savouring a local coconut shake!!!)

Laos, at last!

Crossing the border from Cambodia to Laos... and finding a quite unusual tiger to say "Hello!"...

mardi 13 mai 2008

Playing John Rambo

Last night I was dreaming of even more adventure. Ban Lung was not enough for me, so I hired a guide and went much farther in the forest. First north, then east... at least I think ;) I must have been somewhere by the border between Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Probably I'll never know...

What I will remember is that I met people still using elephants to get around.
That I swam in misty lakes.
That I crossed powerful rivers.
That I felt the rain fall and slide on my skin.

I will remember that, at least from one day in my life, I had been back to the roots.

And felt happier.

Lots of dreamy rivers and unexplored waterfalls...

Playing John Rambo in the rain forest!!!

Make my day, waterfall!

Crossing rivers

Tarzan cooling down in the rapids...

Carlo meets the elephant people (one of the most exciting moments)!

Exploring Ratanakiri

I am still in Cambodia. I felt like I had to see what the most authentic region of this country was like before leaving. So, from Stung Treng, I went east, on long red clay roads, for many hours. The destination was Ratanakiri. A region that even the Khmer Rouge didn't care to go and conquer: this is the jungle. So I headed straight for adventure

Houses in the jungle

Me at Yeak Laom crater lake, after a long swim in its warm waters

Local children

dimanche 11 mai 2008

Crossing Cambodia

What am I doing here? I have been asking myself this questions many times today. First in the gloomy room of a guesthouse in Phsar Thmei in Phnom Penh. The people I like have already left this town. Dave and Owens have left. Julie has left. My two French companions have gone too. No more reasons for me to stay. The mission over, I can leave too. The buses are coming and going in the busy central station, just two blocks away. I can hear them in the darkness of my room. Yes, it is time to go away. A last party has been consumed with the CIST people yesterday night. A pizza, a last funny tektonic dance with Fred and Yacine at Stephanes's, then the moment for the final goodbye had come.
Stuff the permethrine-soaked pijama in the bag. Run for the station. And buy a ticket for the more remore destination in Cambodia: Stung Treng. The trip is long. Eleven hours. The bus is crowded. The weather is inclement. A strong sun to start, then the heavens open. The monsoon season is approaching fast. But the driver doen't seem to to care. And he goes faster and faster on these deserted roads going nowhere. The sun, the heavy rain don't scare him. And do not scare my bus companions neither: it's a young family leaving Phnom Penh for the countryside. They are enjoying the usual Karaoke show on air at any time in Cambodia. And they are craving bugs, all sort of them, like young Americans eat chocolate, cookies and french fries. When I see them smiling at me with debris of tarantulas wedged between the teeth, I once more ask to myself: what the f... I am doing here?

Lonelyness can be bad to your ego.
You start feeling like no one loves you anymore. And lonelyness is what I felt when I finally got off in Stung Treng. You may have understood it. This is really the last outpost in Cambodia before the jungle becomes too thick for the light to penetrate it. A (dirty) market, two roads, one computer (happily enough) and a few fishermen. This is the real Cambodia. And this is why I am here. Because this is my nature. I am a traveller. Not a tourist. I want to see it all. And, hopefully, survive.
The last questions is: what will tomorrow bring to the good man? A ride on a elephant in the Ratanakiri? A face to face with a tiger in the jungle? Maybe I will just go to swim in the Mekong.
The great Mekong.
It's for you I am here, river.
Now I remember.

vendredi 9 mai 2008

Mission completed

Ok. My mission at the CIST school for Information System Training in Phnom Penh is over. Now Phoumen is skilled enough to be able to perform Bandwidth Management in the world of a socialistic Internet. Give him a Linux Kernel to recompile, a few iproute2 functionalities, and he will make your interactive and real-time traffic go fast as hell. Of course, it was not that simple. First, we had to study the protocols used at the CIST, analyse the existing Internet Connection and go through a full study of the network infrastructure. Then we had to plan a low-cost or no-cost queuing solution: just to give you an idea, here in Cambodia a 512/256kbit ADSL passport to the realm of Internet will cost you a huge 500USD, so no room for expensive full-branded devices... Last step, we had to implement the chosen solution. Not everything worked well. But what is important to me is having been able to share with Phoumen and with the Staff of the school my knowledge and my experience. It is, as I was told, one of the first Bandwidth Management project in Cambodia ever. Do I need more to be proud of myself?

Phoumen, I wish you a bright future!

Thanks to the CIST school for the chance I have been given to take part to this important project.

And, last but not least, good luck to all the Khmer students I have met!!!

Now my trip continues to Laos. A new country to discover. A new culture to meet. So, tomorrow morning, 6:30am, I will head for the Pshar Thmei bus station and get away on the lonely road that follows the great Mekong river. North is the direction.

Phoumen and Carlo going faster and faster on the Internet!!!

mardi 6 mai 2008

At the crack of dawn...

The last days were very hot in Phnom Penh. The temperature is rising and the evening storms are becoming more and more frequent (and powerful). So, today, for a change, my will for new experiences pushed me to an early walk in the morning fresh breeze of the gardens between the majestic Royal Palace and the Mekong. As the crimson sun peeked over the horizon, I witnessed people beginning their daily workout at the rhythm of music droning from an army of old crackling speakers. Some were dancing, others swaying gracefully in synchronised Tai-Chi. I quickly understood that the traditional Cambodian society had successfully survived the transition from village to city... everything was calm and noiseless... the people, the river and Phnom Penh itself. This weird form of peace, unknown to Europeans, quietly wafting through to the city, made me feel good.

Quietness of Tai Chi

Sunrise on the Mekong river

lundi 5 mai 2008

Life at the students residence

The second week of my sojourn has just started. The task I am supposed to complete is very complex. In fact, the Internet connection speed at the CIST is so very slow, regular blackouts occur at school level or at the ISP... and I have not much time to perform the packet prioritization and QoS definition I would have hoped for.

When not at the school, we, Volunteers, share everyday life with firts-year CIST students in a stark, simple, severe and somewhat gloomy residence of a outlying Phnom Penh district.

The life conditions are rough there, with hot rooms, a few shared toilets and a heap of UFI (unidentified flying insects). Nevertheless the Khmer students enjoy very much living there and our presence between them is much welcomed. So we are happy too, even if the nights can be dirty long when you are sweating like hell in your mosquito net, the fan has just stopped because of a power brownout, you have no more water left to drink and a cloud of insects is waiting for you just to step out of bed...

Same same but different!

Dinner is ready!

Cage numer 1: Fred the monkey

Cage number 2: Yacine the sloth

Cage number 3: Carlo the gorilla

samedi 3 mai 2008

A visit from Singapore

These days I have been visiting Phnom Penh with lovely Julie, the best friend one can dream of. Lots of restaurants looking for tastes of Khmer Cuisine, a visit to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda under a heavy storm, a second visit to the Khmer Rouge museums and a few walks in the local markets have been in the menu. Needless to say, we had a good time together (notwithstanding a lot of arguing, which is the main peculiarity and the funniest part of our friendship...)

Julie and her first cocktail in Phnom Penh

Inside the Royal Palace

A lot of eating ... :)

Lakeside in a fine day, part 1

Lakeside in a fine day, part 2

Lakeside in a fine day, part 3 - The hungry firsherman

Good girl doing business in Wat Phnom

Friendly shopping at the Central Market

Khmer Cuisine