Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Caves in Laos

On Sunday, we hired a motorbike and road out from Thakek, Laos, into the surrounding area. It was sunny and the road was reasonably good. To get to the first cave we turned off the main road, following a red dirt road through a local village ... and then another village ... and then getting directions and turning back, getting off the bike and following a walking track. The track led across flat land, past rice fields and skinny cows munching on grass in an unused area, to a sudden outcrop of limestone hills. At the base of one of the hills were steps leading up to a shrine, and more steps from there weaving up into a cave opening. The cave was decorated with little colourful flags and woven god's eyes, and further inwards were several shrines: images of buddha with incense and offerings.

The second cave was a lot further off the beaten track. This was only discovered recently - 2004 - by a local who was out hunting for bats. Climbing a cliff face, he entered a cave to discover over 200 images of buddha inside. Apparently he didn't tell anyone for days; the story goes he was too frightened he had imagined it all. To get inside I had to don a traditional skirt, and we took off shoes and hats. Bending down to go through a narrow openeing, it was a surprise to enter and find ... a staircase with a handrail to guide us down into the cavernous space inside, reasonably lit by fluros and ventilated with a fan! Nice. All the buddha statues were guarded by a few local people. We looked around, and sat down, and an elderly man came to each of us, recited chants over our right hands and before tying plaited orange string around the wrist. Although we couldn't understand what was said, it was a peaceful gesture that meant something to the people doing it, and that was enough.

We visited a few other caves, and the final one I went into by myself (there was a large entrance fee and by now we'd seen a few). This was the biggest one by far I'd entered. Steps led up and around curving walls, so I lost sight of the entrance way. Everywhere I could hear the sound of dripping, and the ground was wet. Initially there were fluro lights angled about the place, but after half way they stopped working and I dug out a head lamp. Water flooded the pathway, and I clambered up the side of a wall to keep going further inwards. At the end of the path, I was at the top of an inner chamber, and looking down could see a deep, still, clear pool.

I turned off the headlamp and listened to the cave, and my breathing. A Frenchman has described memory as being like a series of rooms. But these chambers make me think more of the heart: a series of resonant chambers, opening up off one another, forming slowly over time, like love.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

tales from cambodia

We arrived in Siem Reap on Friday, and that night went to see Angkor Wat at sunset. It is an amazing place, and that first time was the most exciting. There were thousands of other people around, and seeing the outline of the Wat across the water (there's a moat around it) was very moving: it felt like an honour to be there, such a pilgrimage for so many. We were happy just to be there and so wandered around without a plan. It is huge, and there are many different areas, from the reliefs carved into outer walls to inner courtyards, higher levels, remnants of bhudda statues etc. All on a massive scale, making you wonder about their feats of engineering (how did they manoeuver the huge stone blocks?). The weather was cloudy so there was no big sunset, more a gradual change in light. But it was a special place to be.

We arrived in Cambodia by boat from Vietnam, travelling up the Mekong river to Phnom Phen and staying there for a few days. Cambodia itself has been interesting to visit, often sad. We have learnt a lot about the recent past – the civil war and then the terrible years under the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot until the invasion by the Vietnamese.

We visited S21, a former school that the KR used as their interrogation centre for 4 years. It was very frightening and eerie; little had changed from the brutal set up they had used. We also went out to one of the killing fields, where they had uncovered about 10,000 skeletons; the KR had taken people out here and executed them before shoving them in shallow pits. Today most of the bones have been removed and placed in a memorial shrine, and grass has grown over the empty pits. There is nothing much to say there, as you approach a great sadness. There are other fields in different parts of the country.

Most of all we are learning from people's stories; everyone you speak to lost family during those years, some were tortured themselves, almost starved and had to work in the fields; many many were orphaned. The KR killed everyone who was highly educated, whether lawyers, engineers, administrators or Bhuddhist monks. This has meant great problems down the line – how to rebuild a country when you have lost so much expertise.

Leaving PP we caught a bus up to Battambang, a medium sized town further north-west. We spent an afternoon volunteering in English conversation classes in a free rural village English school, which was great – fun to talk to younger people about their lives. Girls I spoke to were focused on their education – before boyfriends, thankyou! They wanted to learn English to become guides. Several monks came – they were just like other 20yr old guys, no different. I think I'd been expecting zen masters.

The school's director told us how both of his grandfathers had been executed by the Khmer Rouge in th 1970s (one had been a doctor, the other a police chief). The Khmer Rouge still controlled this area during the 1980s, and it was only in the 1990s that his parents felt safe enough to dig up the remains of one of the grandfathers and place his bones at a temple. They identified his bones by the clothes around them; for all this time they had remembered what he wore and where his body had been taken.

The next day we hired motos (i.e. motorbike + driver) and went out in the area around Battabang. The villages are a mix of permanent housing and grass/thatched houses. Most people are rice farmers. There were some Muslim villages, but the majority are Bhuddhist. Right now it is dry season, so the fields were hard, river was low and the roads were dusty. Some enterprising locals had planted vegetable gardens on the banks of the river – temporary one, until the rains came and the water rose again. We visited Wat Banan, an ancient temple rising steeply from the flat plains, and Phnom Sampeau, which is another temple, though not as old. Around Sampeau are limestone caves; the Khmer Rouge executed people above them and let bodies fall into them. There are skeletons there still. I couldn't stay in the caves long; it was a disturbing place. Not for everyone – there were some local people in one of the caves sitting around having their fortunes read from cards. Bizarre.

My driver had been orphaned during the Khmer Rouge years – some family members executed, others dying from sickness and starvation. Afterwards, when the Vietnamese came, he participated in two revenge killings against former KR officers.

People are rebuilding lives now, with a new generation who have been born after the war. But the past is still alive, still such a powerful presence here. There is a lot of talk of corruption in the government, and there is a visible gulf between the rich (in their lexus 4WDs) and the many many poor people. Most roads are poor, health services are limited and available on a payment basis (how much money do you have? Then this is what I can do for you), goods and services are expensive. Elections are coming up in a few months. I wonder if they will go smoothly.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

dreams from saigon

Back to Asia, and back to blogging. This time from Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Only landed on Thursday night so I still feel alert to so many differences here, and ignorant of the city's own routine.

We've been spending time walking around, getting used to crazy traffic: there are hundreds of motorbikes and taxis and cyclos and buses and trucks on the roads, and initially it looks like they are driving every and any which way - whenever they want. Unpredictable, and close and sometimes alarming (combined with getting used to left hand drive cars on the right side of the road). But after a while out in amongst it you start to see a pattern in it all: walking out into traffic is a bit of a confidence trick, you have to walk with purpose as if there is a clear path ahead of you, and if you look like you believe it, the traffic will swerve around you.

We've also visited a few museums, local markets and tried some local dishes. It's so exciting and invigorating to be in Asia again; I'm loving it.

Today we left Saigon to explore old Viet Cong underground tunnels (at Cu Chi). Combined with visits to several other war-related museums, with very graphic information and photos from the Vietnam war (anti-american), I'm looking forward to having a break from the horrors of the recent past; they're giving me bad dreams. Tomorrow we're packing up our bags and heading to the mighty Mekong River.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

living in melbourne

Sydney Road street festival, Sunday 4 March. The umbrellas were popular, though a bit pretentious when twirled by white ladies. The road - a major thoroughfare - was closed to traffic: no trams, no cars, only feet and the occasional pram. The area was packed with people, bands, food, stalls (even a radical leftie stall selling books including "socialism and lesbians"). But the main thrill was walking down the middle of the road, along the tram tracks, in that space you're usually not allowed to visit.

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

but there are good bits too...

I'd only been back in Australia for 1 week, but on Monday I got a letter from someone at work in Goroka. It was so lovely - remembering my mum and her visit - that i'm putting it up here, to sit alongside with the daily craziness of the story from Kainantu.

"Hello and Good Morning in the Name of our lord Jesus Christ. I have just a few words to say. Firstly, how's your trip from Goroka & Port Moresby & to Australia, I hope you had a good trip.

I will not see you again, Saturday was the last time I left you at the airport. Thankyou for being with us in the Institute. I hope you have learnt some tok pidgin from me and Elice.

Robyn, I'm very sorry that I didn't shake hands with your Mum before she left Goroka. Mum I hope you enjoy your staying in PNG, mostly in Goroka. I'm your friend whom you asked for bird watch. I think that's all I have to say nothing much.

Wish you all the best in your homeland Australia and hope to hear from you soon.

Bye bye for now.
God may bless you all"

Monday, 16 October 2006

the more things change, the more they remain the same

Chaos and looting: as reported by James Kila in today's National (http://www.thenational.com.pg/101606/nation2.htm)

KAINANTU, town in Eastern Highlands province was in chaos last Friday when a mob raided an Asian shop and looted all its merchandise in broad daylight. Stones and other missiles were hurled at police and vehicles owned by Asians. The looting and unruly scene happened after midday.

Youths smashed the walls of the Highlands Wantok shop, situated near the Kainantu market, open and took away bags of rice, boxes of corned beef, clothing and electronic goods. According to eye witnesses, the looting followed the death of a local youth after a scuffle with one of the security guards employed by Highlands Wantok, an Asian merchandise company based in Kainantu.

Members of the public mobilised and moved into the shop, overpowering the guards and shop attendants and grabbed anything they could lay their hands on and ran off.

The incident happened at the section of Kainantu town leading to Aiyura near the main markets. Stores and shops owned by locals were not affected.

[...] Community leaders who tried to call for calm were shouted down and stones, bottles and sticks hurled at them...The road to Aiyura and Bundaira and the bush tracks near the town were crowded with men, women and children walking home with their loot. Two traffic police vehicles parked outside the shop could do little as the huge crowd shouted them down and marched into the shop.

Tuesday, 10 October 2006


Left png on Sunday. Back to Australia. What adventures I've had! What unexpected experiences. What wonderful friends.