A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: GardenLeave

Joy in the Midst of Tragedy

The Children that Marked our 36 Hours in Siem Reap

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The sweetness and unfettered joy in the "Hello!"s we received from the children we encountered as we biked through the countryside of Siem Reap belied the horror of the genocide that wiped out 25 percent of this country's population less than 50 years ago. Our 18 waking hours in Cambodia were a fever dream as we crammed as many sights/ sites, knowledge, understanding, meals, "quality" family time and miles as we possibly could.

But if I had to choose a theme that resonated the most with me in our short time in Cambodia-- it was the kids.

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Photo Credit: Elise Batsel

The glee in which these kids welcomed our peloton of western bikers was remarkable-- even without knowing that they were born of survivors of one of the most tragic cases of genocide the world has ever seen. Allow me to set the scene: after a morning of seeing awe-inspiring feats of architecture from the 12th century Ta Prohm temple (built for the mother of Emperor Jayavarman VII), we left the city center of Siem Reap and biked through beautiful countryside overlooking acres of rice paddies, fields of grazing water buffalo and VERY skinny cows, and seemingly random clusters of homes where children would pour forth greeting us with enthusiastic HELLOs in hopes of practicing their English. It was dear and uplifting and heartening to see such joy in these young, beautiful faces, especially when knowing the trauma that their grandparents and great grandparents lived through (and their own parents by virtue of proximity and inherited trauma) during the reign of the Khmer Rouge and even the aftermath of Vietnamese control, when extreme communism, continued starvation and abject poverty were the norm.

Siem Reap Countryside
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Photo Credit: Elise Batsel

Angkor Wat and its surrounding complex and temples were amazing and fascinating and deserve their own post... (I mean how did people in the 12th century have the wherewithal to build such perfectly symmetrical, sophisticated, beautiful and highly engineered buildings, motes, walls, etc.? Was it a giant? Was it aliens?) One of the most impactful things I took away from our visit to these (quite intact) ruins was our guide Borin's stories of playing hide and seek within the Angkor Watt complex as a child, a happy memory in the fabric of a tragic history.

Borin's Childhood Playground, Angkor Wat
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And in spite of the splendor of Angkor Wat, I couldn't help being stuck in Cambodia's present- and how its recent past must influence it.

Seeing one of the Killing Fields memorials and hearing Borin talk about his and his family's own experience growing up in the wake of such terror-- these were the things that resonated the very most. Borin told us of his parent's own arranged marriage forced by the Khmer Rouge (who, according to Borin, forced the same on half of the population in order to breed more people for their "team"); the 20,000 mass graves that litter the country where, in some places, upwards of 60,000 bodies are buried-- a physical representation of the mind-boggling loss of life this country suffered-- a quarter of its population-- this bears repeating!

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(Wat Themey Killing Fields Memorial)

We heard about the kids that were enlisted to be the eyes and ears of the Khmer Rouge-- kids the same age of the sweet, innocent children greeting us in English as we merrily biked through their country. Innocent children who were following directions and unknowingly sentencing innocents to death-- if that's not generational trauma, I don't know what is.

I biked alongside my 16-year-old daughter (who, to be perfectly honest was growing weary of our extended family time) discussing these darling children who she seemed equally delighted by. And before she biked off in search of the new friend she made on our trip, she said-- in the spirit of what I can only call gratitude(?)-- "I love you so much, Mommy."

These kids affected all of us.

More photos from the Angkor Wat Complex: Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom

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A water blessing from a monk:

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Posted by GardenLeave 20:05 Archived in Cambodia Tagged siem_reap angkor_wat kids angkor_thom ta_prohm khmer_rouge backroads water_blessing Comments (0)

Fabulous Phang Nga by Longtail Boat

And James Bond Island

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We traveled about 90 minutes from our hotel (The Sarojin) in Khao Lak to visit be magnificent islands of Phang Nga via longtail boat, including James Bond island. We explored some of the caves via kayak Here are some of our pics and a video:

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Posted by GardenLeave 09:24 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand phang_nga james_bond_island longtail_boat Comments (0)

Want to Go to Jail in Laos?

Speak out against the Government. These and 11 other Top Things This First-time visitor to Asia Learned in Laos

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1) The Lao people call the Vietnam War the American Secret War or the CIA War.
The Lao people were and continue to be HEAVILY effected by the Vietnam War, which they refer to as the American Secret War or the CIA War. (Also known as the Second Indochina War). The U.S./ CIA supported the Lao Monarchy, which was abolished in 1975.

2) The Lao royal family went the way of the Romanovs after the Vietnam War.
The king, queen and crown prince of Laos were sent to a re-education camp in 1975 when Laos became Communist, never to be heard from again.

3) U.S. bombs from the Vietnam War are still killing Lao people.
. From “2008 to 2017, one person was killed almost every two weeks" by the 80 million un-exploded cluster bombs that failed to explode during the Vietnam War, giving Laos the distinction of having “more post-conflict cluster munitions casualties than any other country in the world.” Source: The UXO Museum in Luang Prabang (LP). U.S. bombers en-route to Vietnam would have to unload their bomb cargo before landing and Laos was the very unlucky recipient of many bombs that were not necessarily meant for them.

4) Don’t speak out against the government of Laos if you know what’s good for you. Even though it’s called the Laos People’s Democratic Republic, “Democratic” is a misnomer, and citizens that speak out against the government can be punished.

5) When France colonized Laos, they taxed Lao citizens, whose children were taken and killed if a family was unable to pay taxes.

6) Christianity and Muslim religions were outlawed for a time after the Communist government took over in 1975, and today Buddhism and Animism are the top two religions in Laos. (Read more about religion in Laos here.

7) We noticed a large amount of hammer and sickle flags throughout the city of Luang Prabang (LP).

8) Laos is a VERY affordable place to visit. Our fine dining dinner the first night, including 2 drinks each, was only $27 and included several courses, including dessert.

9) Inflation is really bad here. Eggs, beef and pork are double to triple the price they were three years ago, and one teacher we heard about earns the equivalent of $90/ month compared to $220 three years ago. Read more about that here.

10) The air quality in Laos is really bad. The constant smell of campfire lingers, the result of most all households cooking food over open fire and using fire to burn household waste and debris. Some months, the smog is so thick that planes can’t even land. A quick Internet search revealed that Laos had 5.5 times the particulate matter in its air than World Health Organization standards in 2022, likely a key contributor to the very short life expectancy of many Lao people (68.5 years compared to 77.3 in the U.S.). Leading cause of death is upper respiratory illness.

11) Redtail catfish in the Mekong River are huge. They can weigh up to 400 pounds. (This one’s for Scott.)

12) Russia and China are Laos’ two biggest allies, and Laos voted to support the War in Ukraine along with Vietnam and China but sat out the second UN vote a year after the war began.

Posted by GardenLeave 13:08 Archived in Laos Tagged buddhism laos luang_prabang vietnam_war hmong inflation hmong_tribe american_secret_war redtail_catfish laos_people’s_democratic_republ laos_pdr Comments (0)

Tribal Religion in Laos

BUDDHISM, ANIMISM AND THE HMONG TRIBE

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While Buddhism is the dominant religion of Laos, prominently displayed via countless temples that are tourist attractions (see photos at bottom of post), Animism is the second most popular religion practiced by the Lao people— especially those in the Hmong tribe—with Christianity and Islam (which were outlawed for a time after the monarchy was overthrown and the Communist government took over after the Vietnam War— or as the Laos people call it, the American Secret War or the CIA War).

Compared to Buddhism, the average tourist may not readily learn about Animism if not for a guide like ours (Dee), whose family are from the Hmong tribe. Could this be because the Hmong tribe sided with the Monarchy and CIA during the Vietnam War? According to Dee, there are only 600,000 Hmong remaining in Laos, 4-5K in Thailand and about a million in Vietnam, and about 300,000 reside in the U.S.

According to Wikipedia, “Animism is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Animism perceives all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork, and in some cases words—as animated and alive.” It is the belief system of the indigenous people of Laos and other Asian nations and still exists today.

Dee was gracious enough to share some of the traditions of Hmong tribal life through his own experiences and family photos, as well as tour us through a traditional Hmong village. (See https://gardenleave.travellerspoint.com/18/.)

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Dee discusses the different sects of Hmong Tribes:

The main Animese holiday is the New Year, which is timed consistent with the Chinese New Year. This is when the Hmong people dress up in beautiful traditional clothing and gather to celebrate and play traditional games like “play the ball.” This tradition, in fact, is how many marriage matches are made.

Playing the ball:

Lao Temple photo dump from our trip:

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Posted by GardenLeave 13:02 Archived in Laos Tagged buddhism laos islam vietnam_war christianity hmong_tribe animism american_secret_war play_the_ball Comments (0)

A Tale of Two Brothers

Making a Living in Laos, the Poorest Country in Asia

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“He feels very embarrassed,” Dee, our tour guide, said of his brother, who chose the career of teaching after college, a job that now pays the equivalent of $90 per month compared to $220 per month three years ago, a result of the steep inflation that Laos is experiencing along with other countries.

Dee’s brother, supports a wife and four kids on that salary and relies on growing his own food and raising cows and in order to sustain his family in the northern countryside of Laos, where Dee is from-- a Hmong tribal village.

Dee is paid in American dollars, which don’t have the volatility of the Laos currency, the Kip. Dee, who also studied to be a teacher, feels like he dodged a bullet when he began to learn English and found work as a tour guide as Laos continued to open up more and more after the country shifted in the direction of socialism over communism.

“I feel very lucky,” he said.

Living In Laos
Inside of Luang Prabang (LP), we saw everything from seemingly (but very few) opulent mansions with huge bronze elephants adorning the entry gates, to extremely rudimentary flats and houses with thatched roofs. Like his brother, Dee is also raising four kids, but he lives closer to the city- just on the outskirts of LP. (The closer you get to the city center, the more expensive the living is, which comparably to the U.S. and other western countries is extremely inexpensive.)

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(Dee and his family)

Just outside of LP, across the Mekong River, we biked on a UNESCO-built pathway running alongside the river, where we witnessed what in America might be described as people living in hovels, where families and friends congregated on a Saturday afternoon listening to festive music, chatting animatedly and cooking over wood fires. If you closed your eyes, you might believe you are at an SEC tailgate. A ferry ride from LP across the Mekong River, this area is presumably a very desirable address.

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(Ferry across the Mekong)

And yet, the living conditions would be considered sub-standard by Americans. Chickens, goats, dogs and even water buffalo roam the clusters of homesteads that comprise neighborhoods, all easily reachable to any number of temples, where children are sent to sell marigolds (and then recycle them to sell again) as a gift to Buddha before prayer. We, of course, couldn't resist and negotiated a photo as part of the bargain.

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Marigold sales ladies outside a Buddhist temple, opposite side of the Mekong River from Luang Prabang

A few days later we visited a traditional Hmong tribe village, much farther outside the city center. There, it's children who seem to be doing most of the work. After school, they are tasked with winning over the few tourists who venture through, selling the handiwork of their mothers- from bracelets and small satchels to hats and aprons. The work was lovely and the children lovelier. It was very difficult to pass any of them up, especially when we saw the conditions they live in. These videos speak for themselves:

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Posted by GardenLeave 08:55 Archived in Laos Tagged laos unesco luang_prabang buddhist hmong mekong_river inflation kip hmong_tribe hmong_village Comments (0)

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