Archive for April, 2013

Cambodia travels: Le Lotus Blanc and on the road to Siem Reap

April 25, 2013

069 070 071066That afternoon we stop at Le  Lotus Blanc (The White Lotus) for lunch.  This is an NGO  run by the French and has a store as well where they sell products like clothes,bags made by destitute children and some of their parents. We are  requested to first go to the store area and watch a video.  After the genocide, when several charitable organizations entered the country in the early 80s, they found children living on trash heaps.  Some of these children were rescued by a French NGO called Pour  un Sourire d’Enfant  ( For the smile of a child) and this center was started where the children were sent to school and also trained to work in the adjoining restaurant.  I look at the bags and scarves and pick up  a few; one of my cousins buys an outfit for her daughter. After half an hour we walk to the restaurant next door.  The whole place looks beautiful with a lovely garden and blooming flowers outside.

This is another beautiful sunny day and the smiling faces of the young gentlemen serving us lunch warms us up. The morning mood slowly lifts from our faces. First they serve us a thick squash soup and follow it up with some excellent fish with vegetables.  The young servers speak halting English but their smiles and demeanor  win us over. We hang around in the gardens after eating and then it is time to get back to our hotel.

Today will be our last day here and then we  leave early morning for Siem Reap to see the famous Angkor Wat temples. We rest for awhile and then the avid shoppers want to spend time looking around. So we all go to the central market area in the tuk tuks. I am struck by the beautiful flowers in the market area and we walk around. I find another NGO shop selling stuffed animals made out of cloth. I buy a cute looking rat  and my cousin buys an octopus. We decide to have a simple dinner at one of the riverfront cafes. Lunch was heavy so a simple soup is enough and we go back to the hotel.

Early morning, Sol is ready with the van and driver.  We have a quick breakfast, check out of the hotel and get on the road. We stop first to buy, corn and a lovely purple fruit called milk fruit.  The vendors are right on the side of the road, like they sell in India and Sri Lanka. One of my cousins has an endless supply of snacks so with the fruit , corn and snacks we fill ourselves. We stop at a big shopping open market to use the restrooms. I am shocked and fascinated to see the women selling spiced and fried insects!  The are also selling big sized melons that look like overgrown cucumbers.We pick up some pineapple and coconut water and get back on the road.

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Cambodia travels: the killing fields

April 16, 2013

063064After the boat ride it is time to get back to the hotel where one of my cousins, Meena, has just arrived to join us. She is tired and needs to eat something so the two of us come down for lunch.( actually a second lunch for me!) We eat this amazing soup, she has a vegetable soup and I have one with shrimp, unbelievable! I feel I can live here just for the food and keep gaining weight as well.

Meena is a shopper and she leaves with the others while I read a book in my room. Some have gone shopping and two have gone for massages.  Apparently, massages are very popular tourist draws here. I come down to see this straight-backed woman playing a lute-like instrument in the lobby. She seems to be playing it in a minor scale and sounds sad . But her face is expressionless and rigid. I think she has been there for several hours, how boring and tiring for her ( and for some of us!)

We have decided to eat out tonight.  We take the tuk tuks which look very different from the three-wheelers called autos in India. Here you have two wooden planks with cushions facing each other, so four people can sit comfortably.  One of my cousins walks slowly since his accident several years ago and he accompanies us in the tuk-tuk. We go to a place called The cantina and have authentic, home-made Mexican food. The tostadas look like they were hand-made and the cheese, though not Mexican, is light The tostada is loaded with lots of cole slaw and a lovely verde and hot sauce. With drinks the bill comes to less than $25! Now my whole family decides they can live in this country.

The next morning Sol says we are going to see the killing fields and the Tuol Sleng museum.  I brace myself for the horrors that started the1975 genocide in Cambodia.  We first go to the museum, which was once a school and was later  converted into a holding place for Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge days. Each room has an iron bed with hooks to hold the prisoners. There is nothing else in each room and Sol talks about how they were treated. Anybody who was educated, or wore glasses were taken in as enemies of the state, tortured and later killed. There are huge poles outside where men were swung around as part of the torture.  We move along silently. There are rooms with pictures of some of the people. It is bizarre to note that the perpetrators of this genocide kept records of all this! There are several pictures of men and women.   Some managed to survive and one of them has written a book which has been translated to English/French. I buy his book.  Nobody talks as we get back to the van to the killing fields. later Sol tells me that some of his family members were killed too.

We are taken to one of the killing fields . ( I remember seeing a 1984 movie called The killing fields that outlines the whole Khmer Rouge killings that started in 1975 and went on for about four years.) We see trees, glass cases filled with old clothes, hollow pits and a certain kind of palm tree. The tourists in this area are mostly adults who just stand and stare or sit in benches and close their eyes. Sol softly states,” These palm tree leaves were used to beat the people senseless and then they were killed. To drown the shouts of the people crying in pain they had loudspeakers piping in music. ”  Now I know why people are meditating, or sitting in silence thinking about all that here. There is a pagoda-like structure that has glass shelves with human skulls . I go in to see skulls of all ages, yes women, children and men were massacred. What makes us humans do these horrific acts of violence?

A sombre mood prevails us as we get back into the bus.

Cambodia travels: boat ride on Tonle Sap

April 13, 2013

054050057060If you look at a map of Cambodia you see two major rivers : one is the Mekong and the other is Tonle Sap. In fact, the river Tonle Sap near Phnom Penh becomes a mighty lake before you get to Siem Reap where the famous Angkor Wat temples are located. Sol decides to take us on a boat ride on the Tonle Sap River the second day.  We see the breakfast area crowded with tourists from Australia, Europe and parts of Asia. We wait till the crowds thin down to find tables to sit at. After breakfast, we all wait outside where I see something quite private.  A young child and adult bow to a monk who is blessing them.   It is not something I would see openly in the streets of India. Sol comes in the van to take us and I remember the expression for good morning so I say to him and the driver, Arun sus dei. They grin back to acknowledge the greeting.

“We will pick up our lunch from the same restaurant and take the boat right there” says Sol. It is a beautiful sunny day and we walk into the  restaurant that looks so different in daylight. The lunch is packed not in plastic containers, but in straw baskets! The containers look so beautiful, some of us want to carry them back to India. Sol and the driver help bring it all to the boat as we get in. The boat has a lower and upper deck with chairs and we all pile in and sit down.  Some of my cousins take out their i-pads to play Scrabble. Some want to climb to the upper deck. I just want to laze around and see the shore as we take off.

We see areas in the water with plastic bottles and realize that these are nets with floaters to mark boundaries where people are fishing for fish, shrimp and other sea creatures.  People , young and old seem at ease moving around in water.   The houses along the shore look modest dotted with a few temples here and there.I see a mosque and realize there is a small percentage of Muslims here. The breakfast, the sun makes us all sleepy and we nod off for an hour….

Soon Sol wakes us up letting us know we will be getting to a village near the river. Sol says that  they make silver ornaments here. Some cousins are curious to see them and buy a few. On the way I get distracted by little children riding motorbikes and bicycles. I am always interested in children wherever they are so I stop and they start saying a few phrases in English, “How are you madame?  What is your name?” Cheeky little darlings! So I ask them their names ( very difficult for me most of the time) and ask them why they are not in school. They smile and of course change the subject to India , my clothes etc. ( In Malaysia they start singing movie songs and want to know about the actors in Bollywood) Sol hurries us to the silver factories. The women are honest and tell us it is silver plating on brass pieces. We watch them work and then get back to the boat, where lunch awaits us: chicken satay, toasted spiced vegetables, rice, and baked fish along with a fruit to eat, bananas. OK, one more opportunity to snooze before we get back.

Cambodia travels: cyclo trip and more

April 11, 2013

051045048043The colors of the museum building are bright and the entrance looks ornate and beautiful.  Once we go in, it is easy to see the prevalent Hindu/Indian influence in Cambodia: statues of Vishnu and Brahma scattered around along with the Apsara and other fixtures of Cambodian art. I remember our trip to Thanjavur, South India and marveling at the bronze statues of the gods and goddesses, such precision, grace and style!  These are different yet majestic and massive sizes. South-east Asia was definitely influenced by the Hindu kingdoms and had several Hindu kings rule there as well. I remember seeing a stone structure depicting the story of the Ramayana in my Cambodian friend’s home in the US.

Yet with all these Hindu influences, the message of Buddha reached the far east and converted a lot of them to the religion of Buddhism and left few in India. Sol hustles us outside the museum and we see these green-shirted men waiting in cyclos (what we call cycle-rickshaw in India) to take us around the central park area. Gingerly I sit in one and when I feel comfortable, I start taking pictures of my cousins and uncles in other cyclos.  The streets are very clean and I see big hotels and buildings as we go around and women are getting ready to start their evening fast food sales. Malaysia was similar, people love eating tit-bits and snacks on the street. Street vendors abound here.

The cyclo ride takes us around the park . It is a slightly elevated park and is named for a woman  called Lady Penh . “Phnom” means hill so the capital is named after a woman:Lady of the Hill.Apparently , a Cambodian legend talks about an old woman named Penh who found four images of Buddhas and housed them on a hill near the Mekong river. Ok, I learnt something new today.  We get back to our hotel and sit around chatting before dinner. Dinner is special tonight, Sol is taking us to a lovely restaurant near the Tonle Sap river for Khmer food. We sit near a bunch of dancers and have fish amok , vegetarian stews and soups that are incredibly tasty.  The fish amok has lemongrass and a special flavor of galangal with lots of vegetables and some coconut milk. The flavor reminds one of Thai food, but it is not so spicy and yet so tasty.  All the dishes are just so good, I think I can live here forever! Soon the  music starts and the dancers in white move around gracefully and show expression in their hand movements. They wear  along pointed gold-like crown on their heads and the movements are slight and precise. It is a wonderful end to a long day for us.

We then walk over to the Night Market which is colorful. I see lots of Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese fabrics along with the famous kramas of Cambodia.  I have seen a lot of Cambodians, men and women move around the city in their motorbikes and their faces are covered with these checked cotton scarves they call kramas. The vendors cry out a few words in English, “Madame, madam, look, I give you good price!”  I have no idea if ‘my head is being shaved’ (I am getting ripped off) here. I see a silk-cotton mix scarf and buy it.  My cousin is horrified that  I did not bargain much. We take tuk-tuks back to the hotel.

Cambodia travels:Phnom Penh

April 9, 2013

036The flight from Malaysia to Cambodia was a crowded one and I am sitting next to this young beautiful girl from Ethiopia. “Are you visiting Cambodia?” I ask her and Tina tells me that she has been living there for over two years and her mother is a doctor. She lives near the capital and her brother owns a well-known restaurant here. She says,” Cambodia is over run with NGOs ( non-governmental organizations) some doing great work and others, well, others just using money to do their own things.”  I am eager to know more. I tell her about my Cambodian friends in USA who came in the 80’s from Thailand. This was a mother with nine children, the youngest being a new-born baby in her arms. Today the youngest is married with her own little baby and the mother has gone back to Battanbang to take care of her mother. ” Ah , but they are all Americans, here you will see Cambodians are gentle, loving people, but they hardly run businesses here. Even though the country has been free of the Khmer Rouge days of the 80’s they are still not owners of businesses.” I want to tell her more about the Cambodian family that I know, but I also need to get some first-hand idea about Cambodia from Tina.  She has a soft, French accent when she speaks to me about the people, the food, etc. Finally, as we get ready to depart the plane she adds, ” Form your own opinions here. I hope you find it a great trip for you.”

I land in the capital, worrying all the time if my e-visa will work. My group (mostly family members) join me and we sail through customs and immigration.Phew!  Our tour guide is delayed and I see a Cambodian family waiting for their relatives coming from abroad.  The grandma in the crowd is hugged by all the westernized family members who arrive. The grandma looks regal in her silk sarong even though she is petite. This is  a young country, having lost almost 50% of its population during the Khmer Rouge genocide. Her face is lined, yet she looks charming.

We go to our hotel after going through broad streets and narrow alleys, all looking clean. Our guide states, “The King is going to be buried soon, so the streets are filled with Buddhist monks.”  We see  saffron-colored robes everywhere on the way.  We get to our hotel. I go up to my room and lie down exhausted. The phone rings” Hello” I say crossly not wanting to get up with a ringing headache. ” What’s up Chobs? We are waiting for you in the lobby” Already? I come down and my cousin is not happy to see my tired face. I think I am hungry and the guide stops on the way to the palace area to let me eat something. Munching on my pear and sandwich I feel revived and ready for everything. My camera is there and I am eager to soak in the capital.

Sol, our guide, is a friendly  person who is willing to answer questions. He seems to know a lot about his country and  has a smiling face and that is reassuring. He teaches us a few phrases in Khmer, the language of the Cambodians and we promptly forget it except for one of my uncles who has a razor-sharp memory. ” We go now to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, please no pictures inside it, OK?” Sol says.  The Royal palace is the residence of the King and most of it is closed up.  There are a lot of saffron-colored Buddhist monks along the way and it takes a little time to get to the area.

There is a beautiful garden around the palace area and we spend time admiring it. Next to the palace are these grey structures that look so elegant, they look like little shrines. Then we take our shoes off to get in and see the Silver Pagoda.  The floor is of silver and we see beautiful gold and silver Buddhas, and a beautiful Buddha in crystal. ( Sol tells us that many of the treasures here were stolen by the Vietnamese  but the richness of the Khmer period is obvious still.)  We admire the Buddhas and someone talks about the Buddhas in Thailand. Sol says they were probably stolen from Cambodia! 037040041We notice a lot of tourists mostly from Korea.  “Cambodia is now the place to visit” says Sol, “We have a lot of tourists and January is busy season”.  It is a sunny day and we still need to go on cyclos and see the Museum which is close by.

Guatemala diaries: postscript

April 5, 2013

After that experience in Antigua, which made us feel violated, I thought about all the different countries I have visited over the years.  I lost almost everything in Prague many many years ago. I find that it always happens when you are distracted or focusing too much on taking photos. We as tourists do stand out with our unique behavior and need to be cognizant of that. Even the best and cautious travelers can have their belongings stolen. But I still think one should take a few precautions:

1. make copies of all your documents including credit cards, passports etc and put it in a different place.

2. Carry a smart phone so you can communicate with family back home.

3. Use pick-pocket proof attire to secure your documents and money/money bags around your waist and around your neck but tucked inside your clothes.

4. Try not to take your pictures without being aware of your surroundings, and above all, be very careful when there are crowds.

Ok, there might be more ideas but I want to go beyond the tourist talk and make some general observations about travelling.

I find that tourists in general are voyeuristic beings, almost like the way we behave when we go to the zoo: ” Hmmm.. interesting, wow, how strange/exotic they are.”….Very few of us show empathy, respect when we visit. We are eager to buy, consume, devour the knowledge and go home and put the trophies in our living rooms or elsewhere. I get irritated when I see tourists in Chicago staring at things and clicking away mindlessly as they take their boat tours and climb Sears Tower etc.  But I also know that the very nature of tourism only allows you to see what is beautiful, picturesque and exotic. I am guilty of a lot of the things I abhor about tourists.

Yet, I say we are intelligent human beings who can show sensitivity and should learn more about the country before visiting. I do not just mean about the places we will visit but also learn about daily life for the ordinary person in that country. After returning from Guatemala, I heard a radio documentary about the environmental degradation in Northern Guatemala, an area that is hardly seen by tourists. Guatemala is a very poor country and has gone through many years of terrible civil wars.  I am talking about being aware of the intricacies of the politics and economics of a country especially after having had the wonderful opportunity to see it. Because even as a tourist, you can see with different eyes.  I shall be writing about my trip to Cambodia earlier this year and the history of that country is even more horrific.

Guatemala diaries: Tikal the jewel of the country

April 5, 2013

452457474491486454Camino Real was a beautifully spread-out hotel. I had to take a lot of steps to go through the pool area and get to the rooms. My husband found himself all bitten by something on the river and goes to sleep after taking an anti-histamine. I have the evening all to myself. I roam the grounds and go around looking for the Canadians since this is my last chance to see them.I find them up on the terrace looking at stars! The constellations are bright and incredible. They explain that we are far away from city lights and also closer to the southern hemisphere. It is magical to see Orion’s belt, The Pleiades, the big and little Dipper. I see another side of the Canadians: they know a lot about astronomy and are good teachers. Being totally geeky, I love all this. It is almost 8pm, I eat something in the restaurant and go to bed after a long conversation with the two of them. I shall miss these guys who have gone through so much in life and have been friends from grade school. I shall miss their wry humor, their different accents, their intelligence and most of all their kindness to us. We exchange emails and bid our goodbyes.

The next morning after breakfast, we find that Bugs is not there, but a new guide, El Sabio.  He speaks flawless English and is very knowledgable about the Tikal area. He tells us that he lived in the US for many years when he was younger. Cara and Steve are still with us and we drive to the grounds of Tikal. El Sabio talks about environmental degradation in Guatemala but also about efforts being made to counteract it.  He reminds me of the young man I met in Amatique, but is more animated and articulate about his love and passion for his country.

El Sabio shows us first the grand scale thinking of the Mayans when they built Tikal. The plan is immense and the presence of waterways to keep their city functioning is foremost in their minds. Of course heirarchy is important and the more powerful among them, like royalty and noblemen live closer to the sources of water and transportation. We walk around to look at the pyramids and I am overwhelmed by their gigantic pyramids and the arrangement of each one of them. Climbing on top leads you to see the positioning of other pyramids. Mathematical calculations in laying out this city was  an integral part of the planning for the Mayans. We see the mighty Ceiba tree that is so revered by the Mayans here. We also see some ocellated turkeys that are colorful and very tame around us.

I am glad we waited till the end to see this magnificent site. We have lunch at the park with hundreds of people under a shaded area. El Sabio first drops Cara and Steve back at the hotel, more goodbyes… Then we go to Flores airport and take the tiniest plane with no flight attendants  for a one-hour ride back to Guatemala city. The vacation is almost over.

Guatemala Diaries: going north to El Peten

April 5, 2013

442443446441Breakfast at  the Catamaran is quite lovely. There is not a lot of variety which makes me savor the dishes more. I find I am attracted to their dark brown big cookies that they call Polveroso. I can see why, they powder in my mouth. We realize Arty will leave us today and we will have a new guide to get us to Tikal in El Peten.  Arty and the boatman place all our luggage on the bigger boat and we sit on the benches to get off at a point where the bus will pick us up.  We have spent the past two days on water!  Soon we arrive where the bus will be waiting for us.  Arty looks uneasy and once the bus comes and we get in,he tells us that there were wild dogs near the dock area and he did not want us to linger.  Arty and Manuel get off in the middle of an intersection and we bid our goodbyes to them. The new guide is ready for us in the bus. Let’s call him Bugs Bunny. Bugs is eager to please and goes into the history of El Peten, the northern region of Guatemala. I am too sleepy to listen and catch snatches of his talk, when suddenly he points out the Belize border which is high up on a hill with flags.

Bugs drones on and on.  The poor fellow must be so tired talking to a quiet bus.  We finally arrive at a shopping mall and see a Chinese Restaurant. We all want that today. The food is actually very good. ( I remember teaching English as a Second language and asking my students who came from Central  American countries about their favorite food and they would invariably say:”Chinese food.”)  Bugs and the driver eat with us, asking for tortillas to go with their rice and chicken dish. Only in Guatemala can you have your tortillas with Chinese food. But in India they make Chinese food with Indian spices and if my Indian friends come to the US they would be thoroughly disappointed with Chinese food there. And everyone who goes to China says the food there is totally different from all of this.

We finish our lunch and get back to the van in the mall. We see an armed guard and I am completely unnerved by this experience. Why do they need a man with a gun in a mall?

We get to Flores and know we are close to Tikal which we will see tomorrow.  Paco and Juanita leave us at a hotel there and we hug them European-style( hug, kiss one cheek, hug, kiss the other cheek) I shall miss them, they were so full of energy, especially Juanita. We go through a wooded area on a dirt road and see a hotel called Gringo Perdido which looks quite lovely from the road.  We keep going passing several hotels and arrive at Camino Real, Tikal.

Guatemala diaries: Hotel Catamaran

April 4, 2013

416428408After lunch391 we get ready to go to the hotel on the water, Hotel Catamaran ( a name that comes from my language, Tamil, meaning’piece of wood”) and we pass little children on boats who stop us for candy and other children try to sell us necklaces!  We look around for any candy to give the children and we cross a bridge and stop on the way to see a fort built by the spanish.  It is called Castillo de San Felipe (castle of St. Phillip)This is like a fort built by the spanish to prevent any attacks from pirates  in 1652.

We finally reach our hotel. It is very rustic and we all have different cottages with names like ‘eco’ , ‘julia’ ‘hotel’ ( whoever thought of these names must have had limited imagination:hotel??)  I feel like I am on a cruise or RV and decide to catch up on the past day’s writing. But I also want   to see what the others were up to and join everyone at the bar area. We seem to be the big group there making the maximum noise and sharing the raunchiest jokes. The afternoon passes into evening and I  go to the restaurant area for dinner. Our inebriated group accompanies me to the dining area and we order food. I think we had a lot of fun that evening knowing we would all go our separate ways in two days. I really did get to know our group well and we got along, it doesn’t always happen this way.  I go to sleep that night thinking I will be swaying and rocking only to be constantly awakened by the sound of power boats roaring by.

Guatemala diaries: Rio Dulce contd.

April 3, 2013

379356( My second post carries the first  half of this trip) We get off at Livingston.  I see Cacao plants for the first time here.Then Arty tells us about the food in this area which is very good and points at the menu on a van.348350‘Garifuna food is great” he states.So how come we never got to try it? As we walk near the port area we see a washing area that reminds me of how we used to wash in India before we had washing machines there. Here they seem to use oval-shaped concrete basins to wash and then rinse clothes.  We walk along and see them selling spices that go with rum and listen to music in a small cafe where we have some good coffee. The Canadians find some good rum here and take a couple of swigs perhaps to deaden their senses before getting back for the ride on the river??  I am not so scared to get back on the boat to a place called Aguas calientes. Apparently, you  can dip in a hot spring and also go to a sauna.  We get to the place and are not too impressed with the not-too clean pool they call a hot spring. The water is certainly warm but not worth going in so most of us decide to sit down at the little restaurant there and have some pan de coco ( coc0nut bread) and talk to the woman who has a little boy there.  Suddenly we see schoolchildren rowing boats on the river. “They are returning from school!” I am shocked and ashamed of my fear of the water to see small kids rowing boats on their own. The woman shyly states that she plies a boat here all the time. We wait for the Canadians to return from the sauna which they say was more like a cave.  We are now ready to go to lunch further down.  We will be going through El Golfete, the broader part of Rio Dulce and will take 45 minutes to get to lunch.  Arty places the order as the boatman takes us there. We see a big restaurant where the owner has his own fish farm and we have a splendid meal of fish, rice and veggies. I have never seen my husband attack a fish with such gusto!! Then we get frozen choco-bananas for dessert. Some of us wash it all down with the local brew Gallo. Arty tells us that tonight we are going to stay at a hotel right in the middle of the river.