Posts Tagged ‘southeast asia’

Photos from a Frontier Town

A small town 17 kilometers from the Thai border and 80 kilometers from Battambang, Pailin is often called the Wild West of Cambodia. During my three-night stay, I didn’t see another Westerner. I was even forced to try out my very limited Khmer when it came to ordering food and drinks and finding out how much things cost. Pailin would be the perfect antidote to anyone burned out from Cambodia’s “tourist trail”.

It’s true that there’s not a lot here for travellers, but for me that’s part of its appeal. There are no Western-style bars, no nightlife to speak of. It’s a true Cambodian town which has not felt the touch of tourism. In fact, every transport option that I was given while there offered me a lift out of town, either to Battambang or to the Thai border. For a Westerner to stay in Pailin is evidently still something of a novelty.

The town has a chequered past, from being a wealthy area famous for its abundance of gems and timber in the 1800s to being one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge as recently as 1998.

The area is populated with descendents of Burmese immigrants who came to the area in the late 1800s in search of fortune. One of the remaining influences from Burma is the golden stupa at Wat Phnom Yat on the edge of town.


Plain Of Jars

February 21, 2011 1 comment

Near Phonsavan, Xieng Khoung province, Laos PDR

A Timeless Beauty

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

SAVANNAKHET, LAOS – Sometimes it’s good to go back. There are occasions when revisiting a place after an absence of years brings back good feelings of nostalgia.

It’s this nostalgia that I’ve been basking in for a few days now.

In the early 20th century, Savannakhet was an important French trading post in southern Laos. As a result, there are plenty of examples of French colonial architecture scattered throughout the old quarter of the town.

This is the part of Savannakhet that I’ve spent most of my time in. I’ve found myself very inspired by being in this place, and have discovered a few little cafés that provide not only excellent coffee, but a quiet area in which I can write.

I’ve written more in the last few days than I have in the last few months, which is a good thing.

There isn’t much of a nightlife here, only one or two drinking spots that are more like restaurants than bars. It’s more the atmosphere of Savannakhet that is the main appeal of the town. Sadly, the Lao government does not seem all that interested in preserving the old colonial buildings, and many of them are in terminal decay.

Another change that has come to Savannakhet is the opening of the Friendship Bridge which spans the Mekong River, giving much more convenient access to Thailand. The highway which runs across Laos between Thailand and Vietnam has seen an increase in traffic and trade, but the old quarter is relatively untouched, having changed little since my last visit in December 2004.

Progress is good, but not when it comes at the cost of destroying history. For me, the old French buildings in Savannakhet are part of the town’s charm (just as it is in Battambang). It would be very sad to see these things slowly crumble into dust.

I love Savannakhet, and when I leave here, it will be with strong reluctance. I just hope that it’s not another six years before I can come back to this beautiful town.

The Land That Forgets Time

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

PAKSE, LAOS – The official name of this country is the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR. Everything in Laos happens at an extremely relaxed pace, and it’s been suggested by more than one person that PDR actually stands for Please Don’t Rush. Any time you’re given will usually translate as “eventually”. Forget trying to plan a definite ETA because the departure time will be anything from ten minutes before the stated time to three hours after it. If you’re lucky.

I’ve been in Southeast Asia long enough to know that the best laid plans don’t always (or usually) go the way you’d want. However, even I was getting very frustrated while waiting for a little over an hour just to leave Don Det yesterday, and then having to contend with what looked like a very disorganised assignment of buses once back on the mainland. It seems that despite all my time in this region so far, there’s still a lot I need to learn about expectations and patience.

The annoyance was compounded by my own foolish overindulgence the previous evening after realising that a Khmer family owned one of the restaurants on the northern tip of Don Det. This led to us all conversing and then drinking into hours way too wee. It was a fun evening, but one that I paid for in spades by getting crammed into an already stacked to the ceiling minibus for the trip north. It was a short trip, to be sure, but a far from comfortable one.

I’m still waiting for a decent Internet connection that will be speedy enough to let me upload photos. So far, even going to websites has been an exercise in patience. Fortunately, I can update Facebook and Twitter and this blog by email, which is how I’m posting this now.

Where I’m staying now is just to the west of the Bolaven Plateau, the major coffee-growing region in Laos. Given that I’m a bit of a fan of the bean, I think I’ll have to take a look up there before continuing on.

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City Of Ghosts

August 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Built in the early 20th century for the rich French elite, the village atop Phnom Bokor once contained a casino hotel, nightclubs, and villas. It fell into disuse just after Cambodia’s independence from France in 1954, and King Sihanouk attempted to revitalise the town soon afterwards. The town was abandoned again in the early 1970s when the Khmer Rouge were fighting to overrun the Lon Nol government.

From 1976 until 1978, the Khmer Rouge used the old casino as a prison, and the commander of the district lived in the old Catholic church. The site has been occupied only by park rangers since 1978.

The entire hill was recently purchased by a large conglomerate, and they have plans to build a 12-storey 5-star monstrosity just down the road from where the remnants of the French colonial buildings stand.

Fortunately (and surprisingly), the old buildings will be preserved.

More photos of the amazing and eerie Bokor Hill Station can be seen on my Flickr page.

Coming Home In A Strange Town

I’d gotten off the bus near Psar Thmei and waded through the touts while most of my fellow bus passengers stood in huddled groups, consulting their Lonely Planets, bombarded by calls of, “Motorbike? Tuktuk? Good clean cheap room?”

It wasn’t until I’d actually grabbed my backpack and hefted it onto my shoulders that it had dawned on me that not one single tout had said a word to me. How is it possible that I could arrive in Phnom Penh by bus, be dropped off at the most common arrival point for Westerners (besides Potchentong Airport), and not be hassled?

I almost laughed and cast a glance back at the other barang[1] who seemed a little flustered, confused, overwhelmed by the onslaught of touts[2], seeking solace and direction within their travel guides. The guys all wore t-shirts and long shorts, most of the women wore singlet tops and shorts or loose skirts.

Then it hit me; my obvious Western-ness (or barangitude) could not be hidden, but I’d made a conscious effort to at least dress like the locals. Cotton short-sleeved collared shirt and long pants. And instead of standing 5 meters from the bus with a Lonely Planet in hand and gazing around as if I’d just landed on (or from) Mars, I’d barely broken stride from the time I got off the bus. Hopped off, grabbed my bag and headed towards Monivong Boulevarde. Maybe the touts thought I was an ex-pat returning from a short trip to Vietnam.

As I headed south along Monivong towards “home”, my mind flashed back to a comment I’d made almost 4½ years previously. I don’t honestly recall if it was something I’d said while caught up in an emotional moment, but in the ensuing years it evolved from a comment to a commitment.


On February 6 2005, while at a dusty stop somewhere between Siem Reap and Poipet, stretching my legs and trying to realign my skeleton after the first leg of a punishing and slow and dusty bus ride, my then girlfriend and I sat on a bench, surrounded by local children who had been mesmerised by our impromptu drumming session.

We’d stopped at this outpost for a break, and were instantly surrounded by children carrying trays loaded down with drinks, snacks, postcards, etc. Jen and I broke away from the group, sat on a nearby bench and began absently tapping away on our drums. We weren’t really playing anything at all, just letting the rhythm drift randomly…

The children had momentarily forgotten their imperative to sell candy and drinks and instead were enjoying the makeshift show we’d put on. They stood in a semi-circle around us, smiling. I looked around the group while remembering all that I’d seen in the three months prior to that moment. I’d spent that time in four different Southeast Asian countries. And yet it was Cambodia that had really gotten into me. From the wonder of the temples at Angkor to the horror of Tuol Sleng. The spirit of the people was something I found inspiring, the will to rebuild their nation out of the ashes of the Khmer Rouge years. Here was a country that had quite literally lost everything; their past, their families, their homes, their history and culture, and in too many cases even their lives.

Amid the group of drumming aficionados, and with these memories swimming through me, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “I have to come back one day and do something. Something real, something… useful.”

“Back to Cambodia?” she asked.

I nodded.

She looked up at the children and then over them, past them, to the dusty desolate countryside beyond. This was apparently farmland, but I could not see how anything could possibly grow out there.

I don’t know what was going through her mind at that point, or what she was seeing with her thousand-yard stare. But I remember her giving a slight shake of her head as she said, “Good luck with that.”[3]


Just before Christmas, 2008, after 4 years of letting my Cambodia experience[4] filter through my heart and soul, I finally set about putting a plan into action. I did a Google search for housebuilding cambodia and learned of the existence of Tabitha Australia. This is an organisation that raises funds for numerous projects designed to assist and sustain desperately poor families. As well as raising funds for houses, wells and livestock, the Tabitha Foundation also assists families with implementing savings schemes. Of particular interest to me, however, was the way in which Tabitha put together teams of volunteers to go over and put houses together.

I found a contact email address and fired off a preliminary inquiry off to Jude, who got back to me fairly quickly with a basic outline of what was involved. The builders were asked to contribute at least AU$500 towards the cost of materials for a house (which is essentially a 6m x 4m one-room cottage on stilts, with either wooden slats or sheets of tin for walls). One house costs AU$1500. The really hard work such as building the frame and the floors and so on was done by a team of Khmer builders. The overseas volunteers then came over to attach the walls and secure the floorboards.

Jude told me there was a two-day build kicking off on August the fifth.

I said, “Count me in.”

I then got a good friend of mine, Karen, on the case. Karen is a travel consultant, a damn good one. I remember walking into her place of work on January of 2009 and saying, “Can I book a flight to Phnom Penh?”

I’d done this before, with the destination changing. When I was involved with someone from Canada (in fact, the same someone I’d been through Cambodia with in 2005), I’d often present myself at Karen’s workplace with a pisstakey request for a one-way ticket to Edmonton.

“Ha-ha, nice one,” said Karen. She knew of my love of travel and my special fondness for Cambodia (and was also being mindful of the jocular requests for overseas tickets from the past).

“I’m serious,” I told her. “I’m going to Cambodia in August.”

I’d thought about how I wanted to approach the trip. I’d want some time to myself as well as getting involved with the building project. Plus, I liked the idea of arriving in Cambodia with a sense of occasion. Jetting in, while convenient, didn’t quite feel auspicious enough. Besides, there were no direct flights to Phnom Penh. Karen gave me a few options and I decided on a flight to Saigon with a overland trip to Cambodia’s capital.

I then told Karen, “I’m keeping this under wraps for a while, so if you could keep it quiet that’d be cool.”

“Okay,” Karen said, possibly without really understanding why.

The reason I’d had at that time was based on a superstition. I’d had big plans before, and told many people. Those plans often did not end up taking place. It was irrational, but I still felt the desire to keep it quiet.


Traffic shuffled past me as I sweated a lugged my backpack south along Monivong. The footpaths on most streets in Phnom Penh are very wide. So wide, in fact, that you could park on them. Cambodians, being practical-minded, tend to do exactly this. It’s therefore necessary to spend more time walking along the edge of the road than on what would normally be a footpath. I was not the only pedestrian on the road, however. People pushing carts fitted out with gas burners and woks and fresh ingredients shared the edge of the road with motos and tuktuks and the occasional cyclo, as well as one Westerner lugging a 12.6kg backpack in 36°C degree heat.

“Tuktuk, sir?” was asked more than once, and they’d seem puzzled by my knockbacks (always delivered with a smile and a shake of the head). The tuktuk and moto drivers would beam the most pleasant smile back at me, but I could imagine them thinking, Crazy bloody Westerner! Why would you walk? In this heat? With that backpack?

I’d done all my map consulting on the bus. All I had to do was head south, turn due west on Street 310 and then take the next street south. There, comfort and quiet would await. An oasis in the somehow laid-back pandemonium of Phnom Penh.

It was an old French colonial villa on a corner block. A group of very chilled-looking tuktuk drivers lazed in their vehicles. They saw me and before they could ask I pointed to the villa and smiled. They smiled back, nodded and went back to their siesta.

As I checked in, I was presented with a cold glass of water with a slice of lime in it. This was a heavenly gift after the half-hour trek from the bus stop. The staff greeted me as though I’d lived there for months. I then realised that I’d not stopped smiling since I started to recognise parts of the city on the bus on the way in.

Not for the first time, I felt truly at home in a foreign city.

[1] – Khmer word for ‘foreigner’.

[2] – Though you’d think that Vietnam is a baptism of fire re. tout hasslement.

[3] – Much later, she’d told me that Cambodia “did (her) head in” and that she could not go back.

[4] – It was a very touristy experience, to be truthful. We saw Tuol Sleng and Cheoung Ek, and then got on a bus to Siem Reap to see the temples there. All the same, there was something about the country and the strength of the people that had really gotten into me.

Home again?

January 9, 2005 Leave a comment

Here I am, safe & sound and significantly less hung over than when last we met…

Getting on the Thai Air flight from Siagon was a little strange. I was greeted by the flight attendant with “Sawadee ka” and felt instantly comfortable. I could’ve only felt in more familiar surroundings if I’d stepped onto a Qantas plane and met with a “G’day”.

Landing in Bangkok 65 minutes later was also a very cool feeling. It really did feel as familiar as landing in Mascot.

Getting through to the outside world, however, was a total balls-up on my past. Knowing you could get a visa on arrival, I then proceeded to follow the completely wrong process and delayed my exit from the airport by an hour. Grr… I then got a taxi but failed to factor in the Friday arvo traffic. Another hour to the guesthosue Jen was staying in.

Seeing the tuk-tuks, Golden Mount, Democracy Momument, Grand Palace, and yes even Khao San Road filled me even more with a sense of coming home rather than landing in a foreign country. And while there’s a lot more traffic than in Vietnam, it’s also a lot quieter. No vigorous tootling of any kind. :)

FINALLY met up with Jen, we talked, we laughed, we ate some great food, we spoke vaguely about our next move to Cambodia, and we slept soundly. It was the first bit of quiet I’d had in 18 days. Magical.

This evening after dinner we found a department store and bought a kettle so we can enjoy the Vietnamese coffee I bought in Hué. Then bought a few more things from a nearby supermarket. The whole time it kept hitting me that this felt truly like where I lived. It was weird, but very cool.

[yawn!] I suspect I’m still somewhat knackered from my Vietnam adventure. :) So I’ll head off and wish you all a good night.