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PHOTO ESSAY: Ek Phnom Temple or Can I get a wat?

Ek Phnom Temple

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The ancient ruins of Ek Phnom Temple are quiet most days of the week.  Monks peek curiously out of their bare wooden stilt houses at travelers. Dogs sleep in the sun, leaves rustle and families from surrounding villages picnic upon giant blocks of weathered and chiseled sandstone.  It is an impressive, but also defiantly local, attraction.

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Thought to have been built by the Angkor Empire in the early 11th century during  pre-Buddhist times, the original Wat still stands, but barely.  It has been semi-demolished by hundreds of years of looters – especially the Khmer Rouge, as legend has it – and also by time’s steady hand.

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Eighteen trees surround the Wat,  rumored to have sprouted from saplings from the original Bodhi Tree in India (under which the Buddha  attained enlightenment).

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The temple is now a visually chaotic jumble of gravity-defying, crazily leaning archways, stone blocks and crumbling walls.

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Its disrepair seems even starker next to the massive, gleaming new white and gold temple built just 10 years ago, and constructed (for some reason) directly in front of it.

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When we motorbiked out to the Wat, it was busier than usual due to a local festival.  We were there to film a large traditional wedding re-enactment put on during the festival by the people of the local villages along the Sangker River.

BUT…. the re-enactment didn’t happen. And nobody could explain to us exactly why.  We made the most of the day anyway, with Stax in her finest people-watching mode:

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Here Be Dragons: There be Great People

BY BEEJ

The time came for us of course to leave the town of Battambang.

It was a reluctant good-bye:  a place we had gone on a total whim to investigate a possible segment for our Web series became one of our fondest memories of Southeast Asia and a must-return destination. The town and surrounding areas were the real draw, of course, and we’ve written loads about them already. But we would be remiss if we didn’t mention how much fun we had at Here Be Dragons.

The greatness of this backpacker hangout lies in the constant events they put on; the enthusiasm, conviviality, and creativity of the owners; and last but not least, the bar’s effortless Cheers-like atmosphere where indeed, everybody knew your name – though, par for the course for me, I can only remember a few of those names that everyone else knew. (I won’t even use the names I do know in this article, though, both to protect the guilty and because I haven’t asked anyone’s permission).

IMG_3073In our week and a half at Here Be Dragons, we watched rooftop movies (forgotten Outkast vanity film Idlewild, anyone?), participated in absurd trivia nights, danced to live bands, sucked at poker games, and gorged ourselves at the weekly barbecues that seemingly drew the whole town.

In fact, we liked it so much that we came back unannounced a couple of weeks later, this time as part of the Kampot Playboys’ entourage – more on this later.

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Now, it sounds like a cliche (ok it IS a cliche), but the people really were the best part about Here Be Dragons. They can be roughly divided into:

1. The English expats:
a. The guy who taught science at a local school by day, was the bar’s counterpart to Cheers‘ “Norm” the rest of the time. This guy was all intellectual-like, a fountain of knowledge about the region’s politics and history. He and I got into some hair-raising discussions about U.S. interventions in Cambodia (uh, yeah we Yanks didn’t think that through too well).)

b. Owner 1: An anarchist-leaning bartender and motorcycle enthusiast. He watched Fox News online just so he could yell at the screen. He also slung cocktails and made good-natured fun of America. Glad, he said, to have left the “boring” “hellhole” of England, his mind brimmed with conspiracy theories (most of which I believe he espoused solely to have a laugh at getting a rise out of people).

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c. Owner 2: A mellow blond artist who laughed easily and was chock full of generous vibes and curiosity about her guests. A lot of the elaborate paintings covering the walls could be attributed to her artistry and I believe most of the theme holiday parties (robot-costumed New Years Eve, etc) are of her concoction. And when Stax limped in covered in scrapes and bruises from the motorbike crash, she was genuinely concerned and helped us find provisions.
Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 9.36.49 PMd. The bartender, who wasn’t really English at all, but an Aussie from Perth (yes, I know I just offended all of Australia, who are rising up as a nation right now and wondering where they can find this….let me consult my Oz slang book….”dopey Seppo bastard” and “bail him up”.). She was friendly and hilarious and possibly had a “few roos loose in the top paddock”, but she “barbied” (barbecued) up the best ribs we had in all of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.

2. The crack kitchen staff
They prepared delicious Thai Red Curry and Amok (whitefish steamed in banana leaf) after we stumbled in exhausted from riding all day. Judging from her giggles and head-shaking, the counter assistant found our traditional wedding project dubious if not downright wrongheaded. But she dispensed invaluable advice on all the places we should explore.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 9.36.03 PM 13.  The on-call tattoo artist, massage therapist, and tuk-tuk driver
Even though we never used any of their services, we heard good things from other guests about these people. And it’s cool that they were there for us if the urge ever struck to be inked, soothed, or driven about town. The tattoo artist hung out in the restaurant a lot and was so cool he intimidated me a bit – I’m used to being the hippest cat in any room.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 9.27.50 PMHere Be Dragons became our home in Battambang. It was a place to recuperate and have a laugh, to recover from heat and mosquito bites. Or, to simply chill with other travelers and the friendly staff. Out of nearly a year of travel through 18 countries, it’s saying something that they stand out as one of the highlights. We’ll be going back.

VIDEO: Khmer New Year at Ek Phnom (by Beej)

VIDEO: Khmer New Year at Wat Ek Phnom!

While Stax recuperates from several days of excitement back in the guesthouse, Beej ventures out by motorbike through rural riverside villages to capture some of the experience of Khmer New Year.

Ek Phnom is a destination for New Year revelers around Cambodia, and the Misadventurists have heard that they may even be holding mock marriage ceremonies there – a perfect addition to the episode. But almost 15 kilometers of (water) war-torn landscape lies between Battambang and this temple: a daunting prospect on the New Year.

Lines of marauding water-bag chuckers immediately ambush Beej from either side of the dirt road.on his motorbike; almost all grinning pixie-ish toddlers who, seeing pale skin and bushy beard a mile away, scream a chorus of cute “HE-LLO”s as they fling plastic bags of nasty river water at him.

While many of these disease sacks sploosh harmlessly between his spokes or sail above his head, many find their marks perfectly on his bum, torso and helmet. And they are not as painless as water balloons. The plastic smacks stingingly before they explode.

What one must go through for Art.

For over an hour Beej weaves through knock-down, drag-out, epic water wars between what seems like whole villages – pickups with 10 teenagers in the back, standing and screaming, sound systems regurgitating deafening, hyped-up Cambodian pop as they man water cannons against their foes on the ground and in other trucks. Nearer the Wat, nefarious colleagues join the water-truck hooligans: skinny-jeaned, floppy-sandaled teens who run out in the road and form human chains to physically stop cars and motorbikes. Their dark purpose? To smear what appears to be Johnson’s Baby Powder all over the faces and necks of innocent motorists.

Very likely, the New Years shenanigans have a fascinating cultural or folkloric root in the mists of Cambodian history. But you can be sure that Beej is not contemplating this academically as he brakes, weaves, and struggles to avoid hitting people hell-bent on being hit by somebody.

(For a great overview of the Khmer New Year experience by another expat in Battambang, please check out this article by Jocelyn Post from worldnextdoor.org – it’s really well-written and is accompanied by fantastic images of the kind that Beej was too busy struggling to not fall over to take).

Finally, soaked through and dripping, beard dusted white, Beej arrives and parks his bike safe and sound at the Wat.

Beej is so happy to find good dark beer in Cambodia, he's close to tears. Photo (c) 2015 Stacy Libokmeto for Misadventurist Media

Battambang, Cambodia: “The Bong”. Part II

by Beej

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In the last post we talked about some heavy history. But Battambang has a ton more to offer these days.

For example, there are places you can scarf down mezze platters while ogling fine art, browsing literary works of spiritual gurus, or watching indie films in a small theater. Namely, the Lotus Bar and Gallery.

The Lotus Bar and Gallery. Image courtesy of movetocambodia.com

On the night we wander in, the British owner, Darren, lures us upstairs brandishing half-price cocktails for a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s 1990s black and white Johnny Depp vehicle, “Dead Man”.

(I’m a fan of many of Jarmusch’s films, but “Dead Man” is not one of them – it’s indulgent, simple minded, and much too fixated on Depp’s disturbingly angular, expressionless face. But it’s a chance to get a taste of home – it was filmed in Southern Oregon – so I give it another shot. Nope. Still sucks. Stax disagrees: expect a spirited defense of “Dead Man” from her soon).

The bland blankness of Johnny Depp in

After the screening we peruse the comic and curio shop next door, aptly named The Lost Stick. The British owner is an underground comic artist of some renown who opens up whenever the mood strikes him. I’m pretty sure he is this guy  – if so, he’s a great artist.

But not a conversationalist per se. As we poke around the store’s addictive mish-mash of old books, nihilistic comics, and 1960s Asian pop culture artifacts he’s focused, head down, on his galleys (he often works all night on his own art). He’s done wonders with the store though, with enough weirdness piled on shelves to fuel any collector’s imagination. I never would have guessed that this unassuming city harbors so much artistic talent. (The Guardian apparently knew, however.)

Just down street 2.5 sits the Madison Corner, a diner-style joint where jovial, self-described “French gypsy” owner Patrice blasts rockabilly or visiting live bands while he and his managers jaw and throw down shots. The overhead flatscreen stays tuned to Cartoon Network – an “Adventure Time” marathon – while servers crank out giant, delicious bacon burgers with slushy Cokes.

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You can choose from plenty of young “gourmet” upstarts to choose from if that’s your bag, including Choco L’Art (awesome chocolate hazelnut cake) and Jaan Bai (great cappucinos and Thai food) – both these places are run by very worthy NGOs that help out local women and young artisans. There’s also some fancy-pants establishments like Pomme d’Amour (reportedly fantastic but too rich for our blood). But my hands-down favorite cafe in Battambang has to be Kinyei.

If there is a hangout spot in Battambang for foreign NGO workers and discerning local coffee connessoirs, Kinyei is it. The cafe doubles as a bike rental and repair center as well, the jumping-off point for bike tours of the town and countryside, although sadly we’ve arrived there just as it’s closing for the long New Year weekend.

In the lounge upstairs I pluck a dusty guitar from the wall while Stax talks to a web developer who’s working for an NGO in town. She’s an Aussie who volunteers and travels all over the world. After her hair-raising story of having to escape through the broken back window of an overturned bus in South America, our merely inconvienient Cambodian bus rides seem quaint and mundane.

Kinyei cafe's upstairs lounge is the perfect place to relax, pluck a guitar off the wall, and guzzle Battambang's best coffee drinks. Photo (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Coffee, art, drink and desserts we’ve covered. But what of comfort food?

Most every Battambang expat will point to one restaurant that a first-time visitor should try. A magical place where the trifecta of cheap prices, awe-inspiringly voluminous menu, and good, plentiful food meet in one giant French-colonial style, balconied building. That place is the White Rose. Just look at my face in Stax’ photo and you can guess that we might agree with the expats.

Beej is so happy to find good dark beer in Cambodia that he's close to tears. Photo (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

Later on as we hunker in our comfortable room at the Here Be Dragons guesthouse, it seems that everyone in town is either leaving for New Years’ festivities in other provinces, going on holiday, or celebrating with families in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Thousands, though, will reportedly head to the temple complex of Ek Phnom about 15km away, where a giant celebration is planned – including, intriguingly for us, large staged weddings involving dozens of locals who act out the ceremony step-by-step.

The temple sounds like the perfect place to get some footage for our doc. Simple decision, really. But in Cambodia at Khmer New Year, we find out that even simple plans can yield craziness.

Stax enjoys the view of Wat Piphetthearam in the middle of Battambang City. The Wat was an execution site and prison during the Khmer Rouge era and has now been restored to a serene park and Buddhist center of refuge.

Battambang, Cambodia – “The Bong”

I’ve done the charming city of Battambang an injustice with the focus on horrible roads and personal injuries. Experiences here need not be confined to falling off motorbikes (not recommended) or sampling health care options (limited). There are some great places to see in Cambodia’s second city.

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Battambang’s recent history is not a glorious one. After spending hundreds of years (on and off) as a colony of the Siamese Kingdom, French colonial treaties with Thailand restored the Battambang and Pailin regions back to Cambodia just in time for two World wars, Japanese occupation, the disastrous American incursion, and finally the Khmer Rouge regime and subsequent Vietnamese occupation (Battambang to France- thanks a yahoo)

Battambang’s fertile countryside became a particular stronghold of the Khmer Rouge regime, who cleared out the city and forced most people to work in rice fields. Its agricultural riches (it’s still Cambodia’s wealthiest province) and military strength made it one of the last major regions the Vietnamese secured in 1979. In the people’s rush to move on from four years of sheer terror, the house never really got clean.

We hear tell from expats that former regime honchos still retire under the radar, occupying the most spacious estates and lucrative rice-growing farmland in the surrounding villages, riches looted from the bourgeoisie intact.

Stax enjoys the view of Wat Piphetthearam in the middle of Battambang City. The Wat was an execution site and prison during the Khmer Rouge era and has now been restored to a serene park and Buddhist center of refuge.

Discerning the truth behind these tales would require treading dangerous waters – journalists, even foreign ones, are heavily persecuted here – so we aren’t exactly knocking on doors in villages to get comment. But it is a widespread belief.

More of the Battambang story unfolds through rumor and hearsay. We meet an ex-U.S. army mine-hunter from Denver who trains groups of local military (and jungle rats) to sniff out unexploded ordinance (UXO) for a Japanese non-profit. He regales us with incredible tales of run-ins with rebel groups that roam jungles and mountains west of the city.

Unique statuary restored at the park grounds, Wat Pithetthearam, Battambang City. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Reduced from the glory days of fomenting statewide revolution to (these days) shitting in the jungle, running drugs and (the UXO-hunter insists) kidnapping tourists for ransom, the groups can still create havoc..

He vividly describes being trapped on a military truck departing Battambang during the 2013 elections as a five-hour firefight raged between a military convoy and groups who had materialized out of the countryside  to – as he puts it – “kidnap foreigners”. (I cannot find reports to verify the event he described, other than to confirm that the main opposition party contested elections nationwide).

But if this kind of unrest really occurs, we see no sign of it. In spite of the holiday this weekend, the town feels subdued. Positively enlightened, in fact.

Buddha and the Stages of Life at Wat Phnom Sampeau. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer for Misadventurist Media.

Phnom Sampeau, Cambodia – An Essay in Pictures and Video

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What do they say about motorbikes? You’ve gotta get back on them? Or is that horses?

Even after all our failed attempts to reach Wat Banan, Stax and I aren’t willing to let ourselves be deterred by a minor life-threatening crash or two. No way, not us. We hop directly back on the motorbike the very next day, injuries and all, to explore the mountain realm of Phnom Sampeau.

A long and steep climb by motorbike – the same one we crashed the day before – up precarious cement pathways choked with weeds and potholes brings us finally to the top of this large block of limestone that dominates the view of the countryside just west of Battambang.

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Wat Phnom Sampeau, meanwhile, is among the most spectacular- and peculiar – sites we will encounter in Cambodia. From the rocky peak, the golden spires of the Wat gleam over sheer limestone cliffs and caves, while to the north, Tiger Mountain rears up out of the flat ricelands and afternoon field smoke like some ghostly green monster rising out of a lake.

I should mention, we never would have found the narrow route to this viewpoint without the impromptu guidance of a monkey-like 9 year old kid with a dirty baseball cap named Than who starts walking alongside us as we approach the Wat. At first we don’t understand where he is trying to guide us. The narrow path he walks toward appears to simply dead-end at a sheer cliff.

He flashes us a look of annoyance, pointing again – these dumb Farang and their petty fears! – and we decide what the hey? Good thing. Along the cliff’s edge is a stony path leading to a steep wooden ladder someone has nailed into a gap in the limestone. Following the scrawny kid, who’s scrambled up and down the ladder three times already to see what’s taking us so long, we squeeze our way through the gap and scramble over the sharp rocks to a stunning overlook.

Tiger Mountain from atop Phnom Sampeau. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

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The kid gets bored waiting for us to marvel at the view and clambers down back to the Wat with his buddies, but not before signaling them of his whereabouts.

Inside Wat Phnom Sampeau, the scenes from the Buddha’s life and ministry are presented in absurdly vivid, almost Marvel comic-book style.

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The Buddha compassionately observes the stages of a man's life - with a peculiarly morbid emphasis on the after-death stages! Photo (c) Benjamin J Spencer 2014

Outside the Wat lies a steaming primary deciduous forest – one of the only primary stands we will see in logging-ravaged Cambodia – filled with mischievous monkeys, barefoot children who run about the temples as if they live there, and colorful flora. flowerphnomsampeau copy We finally head down for the day with the sun sinking below the haze. But before we can turn onto the highway back to Battambang, one more surprise awaits us. Two million bats are poised to fly out of the pitch-black caverns deep below Phnom Sampeau and out into the sky to feed in a nightly ritual. (Sorry, cell phone video so it’s not great quality).

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Battambang, Cambodia – The “Tourist Clinic”

by Beej.

The Battambang tourist clinic is casual to say the least. The woman at the outdoor check-in counter is about to leave for the day as we pull up to the window on our scraped-up motorbike, which held up fine on our 25km journey back from the crash site. The woman kindly sticks around to show us in.

Inside the clinic sits one examination bed and a couple of trays of supplies in a single undecorated room the size of a large apartment, with a small dim bathroom attached.

The doctor, middle-aged, bored-looking and jowly in faded green scrubs, saunters over after a few long minutes (even though there is no one else around to examine) and glances at Stax’ wounds. He immediately assesses the cause of the injuries, having of course seen them a thousand times.

He then decides to act out the motion of falling over on a motorbike. This causes ripples of laughter in the two male assistants beside him. We are in no laughing mood after our long dusty ride, but I try to crack a smile. You don’t want to piss off your doctor.

He instructs Stax to go into the restroom and clean out her gravel and dirt-strewn wounds, then sits back with his feet up. The two assistants, so similar they could be brothers, tap on their Samsung phones.

Since extensive areas of Stax’ knee and arms remain raw and painful with embedded gravel and dirt, I assume the good doctor knows that a thorough self-cleaning will take a while. The good doctor doesn’t see it that way and makes sure I know it. Every few minutes he exaggeratedly checks the clock on the wall -yup, still 4:30 – gives me a look – why don’t you go and get your woman moving so we can wrap this up? – and gestures toward the bathroom.

Maybe his social schedule is jam-packed. Maybe after he’s done being a doctor for the day he transforms into a genteel man about Battambang town, highly sought after playboy and jetsetting man of fashion, a man to see and be seen with. Who knows? But his impatience is highly annoying.

After Stax comes out he plops her down and checks her knee. Nope, no breaks. Then we must sign a statement promising not to blame the tourist clinic if there are any adverse reactions so that the the assistants can spray a bit of antiseptic and antibacterial and wrap her knee and elbow with gauze. That’s the whole checkup.

Amazingly, the office woman who had been about to leave earlier is still there. She has waited at least a half hour past her shift to make sure we can finish up and pay. The visit, all the supplies and medical examination has cost all of $5.00 US – about what a doctor in the United States would charge you just to wait in line.

Then as we are pulling out of the driveway to head back to our guesthouse, the woman even turns her motorbike around and asks if we need directions, offering to let us follow her. Though we know the way back easily, her seemingly genuine concern and care lifts up what has been a pretty dismal day so far.

We’re exhausted and hungry and Stax’ knee is throbbing when we finally pull into the large driveway at Here Be Dragons, our Battambang home. The two smart-aleck expat bartenders – are there any other kind? – are unsurprised at our wreck story.

The guy tells me that during the Khmer New Year week there are usually at least one or two fatal crashes a day in the countryside as Cambodians are rushing from the cities en masse, on unbelievably terrible roads, to be in their home villages for the holiday. Even as Stax is examining her grevious-looking wounds in the mirror we have to count ourselves pretty lucky. It could have been much worse.

NEXT UP: A TRIP UP PHNOM SAMPEAU IN PICTURES AND MOTION!

On the road in Cambodia. Image (c) 2015 Stacy Libokmeto for Misadventurist Media.

Battambang, Cambodia: The Wreck, Part II!

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Battambang, Cambodia: The Wreck, Part II

by Stax

Stax describes the moment and aftermath of a teensy accident the Misadventurists had while attempting to reach Wat Banan (AGAIN)!. Reblogged from Stax

Originally posted on Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.:

I have a pretty good memory. I don’t forget many things nor do I lose [many] items. But there is one second in my life that is gone, a fluttering moment in time that my mind could not, until recently, recall. Let me try to capture it.

Beej and I are driving down a rural Cambodian road on a rented motorbike, wind whipping through my hair, sun shining bright above us, trees swaying in the wind, birds singing. Then – A lost, weightless moment like a skipped frame in an old 16mm film –  we are sideways on the ground, skidding at 30km per hour across rough gravel and dirt on the edge of the road.

Later I manage to piece together the fragments. A monstrous white Toyota F150 (250? 350? – the one with four wheels in back) passes us extremely close on the left, so close that my…

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Battambang, Cambodia: The Wreck, Part One

by Beej and Stax

The wreck happens during our third attempt in three days to reach Wat Banan, a five-towered hillside Buddhist temple thirty kilometers west of Battambang.

We have heard from other travelers to expect a steep and exhausting climb in the 100 degree heat and humidity to the top of the temple once we arrive. The reward, though, will be a spectacular view from the top – a tableau of steaming far-below fields stretching all the way to the Cardamom Mountains in the south and the Thai border to the northwest.

On our first attempt to reach Banan, we went the wrong way and found ourselves lost among a maze of shacks and muddy dirt roads. Par for the course in Cambodia, on the map it just looked like we simply needed to follow the river.

“This way. This way,” cried an older male.

He got up from his chair on the side of the dirt road we were struggling down. It was a terrible road, but it was a road we had hoped (since it followed the river) would eventually cut across to the paved Wat Banan route. Now we were sure it was a dead end.

One of the guy’s arm waved while the other held a beer can. He pointed down toward a smaller narrow path that cut off to the right.

We looked at each other. Here we were, two obvious foreigners driving without a guide through a tiny village away from populated areas, and a strange man appears, pointing us toward a lone footpath leading into a field with lots of tree cover. It looks like it just wanders off into the jungle. Should we be trusting this guy? We’ve heard a lot about scams and to be wary of strangers, especially in this province where the Khmer Rouge had so recently been top dog.

Suddenly, a few more guys from the village appear. They all start pointing in the same direction.

So we find ourselves off-roading the motorbike through the trees and across the large field, despite dire warnings from locals to avoid makeshift trails in small villages outside of Battambang. The reason? These fields quite often are littered with buried, unexploded American shells and mines, from back in the day when America believed the greatest threat to the free world was from a few thousand subsistence-level farmers with no running water in the rural backwaters of Southeast Asia, and so set about dropping more mines and bombs on Cambodia in just several months than they did throughout the whole theater of World War II.

These unexploded ordinance explode on the daily – it’s so common, we were told nobody even looks up when a distant mine explosion is heard – and kill or maim whoever happens to be in the vicinity. Luckily it wasn’t our day to die. And of course the villagers meant well and were correct. After holding our breaths across the field, we finally reached the main road.

But we had started out late as it was. We still had over 30 km to ride, our bike peaked at 40 km/hr and the sun was sinking below the horizon. Visibility even without our busted right headlight (that’s what kind of motorbike $4 a day gets you) would be nil on our long ride back, and people were driving more idiotically than usual due to the busy Khmer New Year holiday. So we decided to scrap the plan for the day.

The next day we started out fresh, ready to reach Wat Banan by the early afternoon. In town, the sky was blue, birds tweeted, what have you. But immediately outside the city, a fell wind blew. Huge black and green clouds massed, taking up the entire southern skyline, and mean-looking streaks of lightning snaked out along the horizon to the south, just about where our destination lay. It was like gazing into the gloom of Mordor from the top of Minas Tirith.

“It’ll blow over”, I thought, and we started out. But it didn’t blow over. Halfway to the temple and lightning struck all around us, wind gusts threatened to dislodge us from the bike altogether, and thunder clapped so loud and constant we hardly heard the engine. Most ominously, other motorbikes were few and far between. Finally we had to turn back.

I’ll admit I was a bit discouraged by this point. But I can be stubborn to the point of idiocy. We would reach this Wat, no matter wat! And the next morning, the sun shines and the birds sing and… oh man, this is our day! Or so I think.

To Be Continued

Battambang, Cambodia: An Unexpected Journey

by Beej

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Stax and I are headed to Battambang to check out a traditional wedding exhibition involving dozens of couples that is supposed to take place at a temple outside of town as part of the Khmer New Year celebration.

It is supposed to take 5 hours from Phnom Penh to Battambang. It ends up taking 8. To clarify, this is an eight hour bus trip for a 291 km distance (for you ‘Mericans this amounts to a paltry 180 miles, or what some folks commute during one day.)

Road conditions make default slow pace of Cambodian buses yet slower – deep ruts and giant pits force the bus driver to detour off into open fields several times, resulting in a crashingly bumpy ride akin to a safari.

In a noble but misguided attempt to distract us from the discomfort, the driver and his obligatory sidekick play scratched-up DVDs on a small screen up front (all Cambodian bus drivers have a sort of buddy who rides up in front with them, yaks with them constantly, nudges them awake to take over driving duties when they eventually nod off during their epic hauls).

The first movie is an early John Woo crime melodrama – made in the early 1980s, evidently before Woo found his groove. It consists of:

1. An excruciating Olivia Newton John-inspired pop soundtrack pumped up to full volume and blasted out of fuzzy speakers just above our heads

2. Ultra-“serious” histrionics – meaning half of the running time is given over to tight shots of women’s faces crumpling slow-motion in anguish;

3. Incomprehensible shootouts in pitch blackness with fakey blood; and

4. Dubbing into Khmer that sounds as if a Cambodian man and woman yelled all the lines into a cheap mic placed at the bottom of a plastic bucket in a Phnom Penh warehouse.

Also I don’t think the voice actors actually saw any of the movie they were dubbing over, because all lines are delivered at the exact same volume and tone- the man a monotone clipped yammer, the woman a shrill wail just short of a scream. After the dubbing session the poor woman must have been coughing blood for a week.

With some earplugs though, this all becomes manageable after a while.

I’m drifting off to beddy-bye when the bus shudders to a sudden stop. Not so unusual given the driving patterns here, where people pull out in front of you quickly. Then 30 minutes elapses with no movement. I part my window curtain to see what could be happening out there.

My bleary eyes adjust to the blazing shadowless midday sun. We are mired in a massive traffic jam just outside of a small farming station. Dozens and dozens of Khmer agricultural workers, most of them women in groups, walk quickly across wide brown plowed fields toward the work station about a kilometer up the road.

So many workers hurry this way toward the station, faces tight, unspeaking, I deduce something unusual has happened. Their body language suggests people who are trying not to panic while evacuating a disaster zone. But this far back, and stuck in this jam, it’s impossible to discern any problem. My first thought is that the road has gone out – either that or a bad accident.

Then I see the bus. Or what used to be a bus. Now it’s a hulking 12-meter long shell, windowless and smoldering and hissing smack in the middle of the road. The billowing smoke stings the nostrils with the sweet, acrid chemical smell of shorted-out wire plastic coating.

The bus still stands upright on its wheels as we pass, so it must have caught on fire while driving. The workers probably heard the explosions from where they’ve been in the fields and feared the worst.

Workers rush toward an accident at a field station near Battambang. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Luckily we see no blackened forms welded to the seats, no piles of cinders on the asphalt barely recognizable as people. The passengers escaped without harm.

I think briefly of the grinding gears, the probable sparking of the bottoming-out exhaust carriage, the oven-like heat of the day, and the persistent smell of oil and clutch fluid on, well, all buses. I think of how unknowingly fortunate the majority of passengers are to survive long hot journeys on these old Korean clunkers.

Not so fortunate are the two poor men laid out unconscious on the road as we pass the field station. Their motorbikes, from which they have recently been violently separated, lay dented and twisted out in the ditch, so much scrap metal. Their flip flops are scattered on different parts of the road several meters back. The men appear to be on death’s door.

One man’s face resembles a giant purple-black bruise. His eyes are close. The flesh of his elbows and knees look like chewed up Fancy Feast cat food and a raw, serrated gash runs from his hip  down to his calves. The other man is in even worse shape – totally motionless, features completely obscured by blood and dust, arm bent behind his head, one spindly-fingered hand flopped out almost like he’s waving at us awkwardly, but backwards.

A crowd stands silently surrounding the men, bending over them curiously, faces blank, while a thin figure crouches down apparently trying to wake them up with sharp claps. It doesn’t seem to be working.

A huge irrigation truck plows toward us from a dirt outlet road and parks himself directly in front of the line of traffic that has been slowing down on the opposite lane, swinging around the melee widely to look at the accident. These rubberneckers have been the ones obstructing the Battambang-bound traffic.

And just like that, we are roaring past the men, the smoking bus, the crowds and the workers, the blazing fields. The sudden momentum splashes me out of my waking dream. The clipped yammer of the man on the silly dubbed John Woo movie assaults my ears. The movie has been rattling on this entire time and is now just at it’s end point. I look up dumbly at the screen.

From a lens that appears to have been smeared with petroleum jelly, the legendary director has captured a funeral party gathered around an open grave in a green cemetery.

The huge gleaming 1980s perms and scarecrow-like shoulder pads of the silently weeping Chinese women on the screen fill me with distaste. Just underneath the distaste lies a weird emotion I can only describe as dread.

I quickly yank back the sliding window to let the hot wind flow past my sweating face. This doesn’t help matters. I’m ready for this ride to be over.

The Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeu: or How Cambodia’s History Continues to Break My Heart

Stax describes the overwhelming experience of visiting the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeu.

Originally posted on Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.:

We walk up a short hill through thick green vegetation. The flowers surrounding us smell so delicious, I want to drink them in a tea or press them onto my skin.

From up on top of this 1000 foot limestone mountaintop, the highest peak for miles around, you can see why Battambang has been nicknamed “the Rice Bowl of Cambodia”– rice fields run as far as the eye can see below.

My tiny young Cambodian guide leads us to a set of stone stairs that will take us down into a dank cave. He pauses, then points to his left. I crane my neck to see where he is gesturing. Then I see a second, smaller opening in the same cave system.

“You can go there,” he says.

I walk over and look down into the dark hole. I would need to get on my belly to squeeze through this…

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia: The Cats of Wat Phnom

Beej thought that the spoiled temple cats of Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, were even more interesting than the temple itself (let’s face it, sometimes what he finds interesting boggles the mind), so here’s a little vid he shot and edited of them lazing around and spying on the visitors.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Getting to the Wedding Part III

Now, there’s nothing to do but try to retrace my route from last night. The neighborhood appear to be stirring even at this early hour, but still I feel bad about the motorbike noise.

I buzz through a narrow gap between two concrete slabs – probably not more than a meter and a half. Large white eyes stare out at me from the near-total darkness inside one of the slabs.

A couple of scrawny little kids with wild hair sit on their mother’s lap near the ground. She glances out curiously too, stick legs folded under her knees on the hard swept dirt floor. The rest of the house looks patched together from wood and sticks and sheets of warped and rusty aluminum and whatever other materials might have been cast around left over in the weedy lots between the larger houses.

Income levels are all over the place in this city. Some houses stand strong and alone, made of brick and concrete with modern electrical work and even plumbing and insulation, and the roads in front of them are smoothly paved. But these others like the one I’m passing fit uncertainly in among the newer flats, squeezed against the wall of a big brother building, and appear to be little more than squatters’ residences. Natural light, maybe a gas hot plate for cooking, plastic green buckets for bathing water, and cotton rags hung in front of the doorway for privacy.

I wonder how these low frames and dirt floors handle even the slightest shower, let alone the monsoons that completely flood these roads during the long months of the rainy season. The people must just have to pick up and move every year, or they would constantly be half-submerged in mud and rainwater.

As I muse on these subjects realize too late that I’ve passed my turn. I was looking for the big Coke bottle billboard decorating the intersection, which without a street name is the only way I know the place.

But even as I pull up and turn around I can see that though we’re running very late – an hour at least – we haven’t actually missed anything. The wedding party is in a bit of chaos. And Stax is already in there somewhere with her camera, accompanied by Seiha with the sound recorder, getting it all down.

TO BE CONTINUED in the first segment of our series! We’ll premiere a sneak preview of the Khmer wedding segment very soon on matrimundi.wordpress.com.
But of course, in the meantime, there is much more to come of our exploits in Cambodia and beyond right here on the old blog.

Where Am I?

Stax steps into the Happy Place in Phnom Penh, only to find herself in the world’s first Aussie-run, Cambodian-Californian fusion, fair-trade organic shade-grown New Guinea coffee-brewing, and American honkytonk music- playing burger joint.

Originally posted on Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.:

p20140407-095500 The Ha:ppiness is Here in Phnom Penh

When I close my eyes, I could almost swear (if I were the swearing type) that I’m in a honky-tonk bar. Country and western twang, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley tunes drift languidly on the a/c currents circulating about the room.

When I open my eyes, I see the restaurant’s dedication to East and West Coast styles of the U.S.: The noodle/juice/coffee bar is so California, while the modernist look with its clean lines, simple white and green color palette accentuating concrete floors and wood paneled walls remind me of places I’ve been to in NYC.

Stepping outside of the air-conditioned building, I’m knocked over the head with heat. I breathe in thick, humid air, tasting bits of dust and oil as motorbikes buzz and whir by. I’m definitely in Phnom Phen.

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Getting to the Wedding, Part II

by Beej

We race through the steadily brightening pre-dawn of Phnom Penh on our rented scooter, en route to a meeting with our translator and all-around guardian angel, Seiha Kong.

Most of the mainly one and two story buildings of the city still huddle in darkness, though a few auto shop lights are winking on and a few pedestrians, mainly elderly, shuffle around the narrow streets.

We enter the highway leading out to the University district where we’ll meet Seiha and instantly, an overwhelmingly sweet scent surrounds us – the rows of jasmine bushes lining the kilometer-long park next to the highway have sprung fully into bloom due to the rains of the past day.

It’s barely 5 a.m. but many citizens of Phnom Penh are already exercising in the murky darkness of the park, their forms barely visible to the eye, taking advantage of the rare cool of the summer morning.

Somehow we’ve managed to fit all our gear and ourselves onto our tiny scooter. Wedged in front of me between the seat and the steering column is our gear bag, bulging with video heads, rigs, sound equipment and cords of all kinds. Stax’ backpack bears the weight of the camera equipment.

Groundwater sprays up from under the fender. I can only hope that the gear bag isn’t getting soaked through.

We pull into a gas station where a bleary-eyed Seiha is waiting. It’s too early for words and we’re in a hurry. We park briefly in a yellow pool of light. Stax quickly hops off the back of the bike and climbs aboard Seiha’s scooter.

For this last part of the journey to the family’s home, we can’t both be aboard this bike. The tiny Honda Dream  – the only one the place had left – is underpowered to say the least and rides dangerously low to the ground.

Overnight the heavy rains have swelled the puddles on the dirt road to lakes and the few paths not underwater are basically rock-strewn mud traps. Mangy-looking dogs scamper out from dark doorways and into the road. We swerve around them.

I follow Seiha’s taillight closely. This densely packed neighborhood is still a virtual maze to my sleep-addled mind. But suddenly I’m forced to stop. Seiha, pulling further and further ahead, doesn’t notice.

I’ve reached a puddle that is so deep and wide that it consumes the entire roadway and looks to have partially flooded the ground floor of the houses on either side. I hesitate. Seiha’s taillights are now far ahead. I can barely make them out anymore. He’s cleared the puddle easily. But he’s also lighter overall, and the suspension on his bike is also at least 8 inches higher than mine.

I slowly edge the bike forward into the water, sputtering through, keeping to the outside as much as possible. My sandals drag across the surface of the mini-pond.

I hope there won’t be a deep hole somewhere that will swallow my tire, I hope there’s no glass that will slice into the rubber, I hope a stone won’t jam into my undercasing, I hope the water won’t flood the exhaust system and choke the engine and foul the plugs and short out the electric or worse – and above all,  I hope that when I look down the precious gear bag itself won’t be half-submerged in the water.

I’m almost through when an unseen obstacle stops my front tire cold. The poor bike jerks and just about tips over into the drink. Why didn’t I rent a proper motorcyle? I curse myself.

I’m forced to give the throttle some more juice. Whatever the obstacle is, let’s hope it isn’t sharp. The motor whines. The back tire spins and fishes out pathetically. Then suddenly the front suspension pops up over the lip of a giant divot. The tire slams down on the road. Just like that, I’m out.

I gaze ahead, giving the engine a good rev to clear the system of mud and water.

I’ve lost Seiha. I can only hope my brain – as many of you know, not the greatest with directions – can remember the convoluted route from our brief shoot last night.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Dalat, Vietnam: Shizz be ca-RAZY at Crazy House

 

By way of explanation, some of subpar “attractions” exist throughout Vietnam, their reputations inflated by overzealous tour organizers who want to add another paid stop on the merry-go-round (personally I would add most of the Mekong “floating village” tours to this list. Others may disagree.)

These attractions, some little more exotic than your average Denny’s parking lot (and not even the David Lynch “Mulholland Drive” parking lot) must be weeded through if one is to avoid blowing all their cash.

But mainly because Crazy House is located only a few blocks from our guesthouse, we decide to give it a chance. And believe us…Crazy House is worth visiting, if only to feel like you’ve floated outside of your body into a bizarro alternate universe.

Or maybe you want to recapture the feeling of being a baby, when your neural paths were not yet set and your silly-putty brain couldn’t just take for granted what a “house” should look like. You know, door here, roof here; a giant eagle is not a normal occupant of someone’s bedroom.

Crazy House is a combination of the weirdest hotel you’ve ever stayed in – in fact, it is a functioning hotel – a Dali-esque architectural fever dream, and Injun Joe’s Cave on Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island.

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In fact, the whole complex is like one of Walt Disney’s peyote trips (of which several are well documented. Don’t bother Googling that, the Internet is secretly owned by Disney).

An interesting fact about Da Lat Crazy House: the architect is the daughter of Vietnamese aristocracy and she created several huge Soviet-block style Party buildings before hatching the idea (perhaps at a local bar after one too many) to build her own personal wonderland in Da Lat.

A big fan of Gaudi, (which will surprise no one who has seen Gaudi’s work in Barcelona) she says she built the house to honor the harmony of nature and architecture. In practice it looks like a gigantic mud creature with monstrous vine-arms is consuming a whole village.

Tourists climbing through, up, and around Crazy House. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

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By the time we’ve hiked through all the caves and climbed to all the roofs, we’ve probably covered over a mile of distance. A few buildings are under construction, although guests are still allowed to explore these sites freely.

Beej crawls to the roof of one five story brick behemoth with narrow stairways and beams stretched over long drops which would undoubtedly end in death with one wrong step. Let’s just say that building safety codes are not the strictest here in central Vietnam.

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Back down on the ground, we enter a maze of spider-web shaped lights in a mini-fairytale forest.  The forest is centered around a mosquito-infested pond containing giant living bullfrogs who croak deeply and incessantly. We can’t see them, as it’s almost totally dark in the spider-web forest, but we can hear their heavy slimy bodies splashing into the pond as we approach.

We peek into a few of the rooms, which are just as weird and cool inside as the house is outside.

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It’s dark, and Crazy House is kind of creepy after dark, especially with the recorded Vietnamese orchestra music blaring from the somewhere in forest, so we decide to split. Before we leave though we stop by the wall of tribute to the architect, who apparently REALLY likes  1970s-style matte portraits where she is in fields of  flowers.

To read more about Crazy House visit the official website here, and if you’re up for a trip to south Vietnam, book yourself a room. It’s cheap and you’ll remember it much better than your run of the mill luxury Hyatt.

But stay away if you’re prone to psychotic breaks.

Dalat, Vietnam: K’Lang and Ho-Biang: Shining Bright Like Diamonds

Fellow Misadventurists: This entry was originally posted on Stax’ blog, gypsytrampthief.wordpress.com.

There were once two hill tribes that lived uncomfortably close at the foot of a mountain. They were called the Lach and the Chil and they hated each other. A lot. It seems that in general, they were pretty good at maintaining a safe distance from one another. That is, until Fate intervened.

I realize I'm mixing my mythologies, but you get the gist. www.theoi.com

One day, K’Lang, a boy from the Lach tribe, happened upon Ho-Biang, a girl of the Chil tribe. Their eyes met, their hearts raced, and in an instant they were experiencing chemically induced euphoria, excitement, bonding… In short, they were falling fast into forbidden love.

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They wanted to marry, but it had been decreed many, many years ago (so many years that no one knew when or by whom) that people from different tribes could not marry. This did not deter them. Defying their parents, elders, tribe members, and years of tradition and enmity, the two married anyway (in a private ceremony, I presume), then climbed to the top of the mountain, away from their respective tribes to live in peace. Things went pretty well until Ho-Biang became very ill and nothing in K’Lang’s experience could cure it.

Thinking that the Chil people might know what to do, K’Lang and Ho-Biang decided to make the long journey back down the mountain to Ho-Biang’s former village. Unbeknownst to them, the Chil tribe were anticipating the couple’s arrival and had specially prepared a poisoned arrow to pierce K’Lang’s heart.

poisonedarrow

Upon entering Ho-Biang’s village, K’Lang plead with them to prepare a cure for his wife. But the villagers were too angry to listen. Blinded by vengeance toward this Lach tribesman for stealing their daughter from them, they aimed, shot and let the arrow fly. It looked like K’Lang was done for.

But despite her grave illness, Ho-Biang jumped in front of the arrow to save her beloved and died instantly. K’Lang died just afterward, devastated by his beloved’s death.

Realizing too late the error of hating one’s neighbors, Ho-Biang’s father decided it was time to unite the hill tribes of Lach, Chil, and a few others to become K’ho. Now that they were one shiny happy people, members also had the right to marry outside without having to move to the top of a mountain or worry about poisoned arrows.

Shiny happy people holding hands.

In the meantime, the tombs of K’Lang and Ho-Biang grew to be two mountains, which the hill tribe members named LangBiang. Hundreds of years later, the Misadventurists (Beej and myself) visit this natural monument to lost love.

———

We pass through the large yellow archway entrance and are greeted by a very old woman trying to sell us authentic purses, scarves and other trinkets. Atop a small hill, above the parking lot full of green Russian-style jeeps that take tourists up the mountain to the trailhead, a giant “LangBiang” rises, laid out in big white letters like the Hollywood sign.

Next to the sign there’s a statue of K’Lang and Ho-Biang. The doomed lovers stand on separate rocks facing each other, reaching out their hands in futility, angst etched into their faces.

Climbing the mountain by foot is free, but for a small fee ($2/pax), someone will drive us to the top in one of the green Russian jeeps. Cheap. But there’s a catch: they’ll only take us when the jeep is full.We’re the only tourists in the parking lot. We can wait for four other people to show up (which could be awhile here in the hot low season) or we can pay for all six seats ($12) and a guide will drive us up, no problem.

I don’t want to wait, though. Things in the parking lot have become…annoying. The sun is trying to kill me, beating my head with wrenches of of heat. The authentic old Lach tribal woman won’t accept that she’s struck out.  Her approach becomes more direct: she starts rubbing her belly with an exaggerated look of pain, holding out her hand and pointing to her mouth.

She won’t stop following us around the parking lot – from the motorbike parking, to the jeep ticket window, to the designated eating area, to the shade of one of the jeeps in the parking lot, and back to our motorbike, she seems to now be asking us to just feed her coins.

Then a boy of about 10 shows up out of nowhere. “Money” is his only greeting, and he holds out his hand in expectation.

So we begin our ascent. Soon we’re huffing and puffing up an almost vertical climb in the midday heat. This road is much steeper than we thought. Still, it is a tad cooler under the shade of the trees, the breeze constantly carries the odor of sweet pine to our nostrils, and the road is smoothly paved. Branches shimmy above me whenever the wind blows, and it’s quiet enough out here that I can hear them clearly.

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Occasionally, a farmer roars past us on a motorbike, carrying huge loads balanced precariously to the back.  Farmers are the only motorbike riders allowed on this mountain, and summer seems to be the season of gathering branches.

We watch as a couple gathers summer-dried pine needles from the hillside and stuffs them into huge bags, which they then lift and tie carefully to the back of their waiting motorbike. Balancing the load and maneuvering through traffic would take a more experienced rider than I. It’s a good thing they start training early. In Vietnam, babies stand on the seats of motorbikes in front of their parents as soon as they can climb to their feet.

Thirty minutes into our climb, the first tourist jeep of many roars by, but it’s not the deafening engine noise that warns me of its approach. Instead, it’s Rhianna belting out, “Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond.”

Shine bright like a diamond! Do it!

The top-40 hit echoes unnaturally across the previously peaceful countryside. It sounds like a dance party should be rocking the jeep, except no one on board looks amused nor is anyone dancing. By the time the sixth jeep passes us overloaded with grim-faced tourists, sure I’m feeling a bit sore from the climb, but I’m not disappointed at all that we’ve chosen to walk.

Two plus hours later, after talking briefly on the way to a German hiker from an island we’ve never heard of (Borkum??) we reach an area set aside for hiking.

In case you were wondering, there's Borkum!

There’s a shack there where we are instructed to pay a small entrance fee, but the place is deserted and doesn’t look like it’s been in use for a long while.

So we ditch the shack and continue along the switchback trail through the pine trees until we finally reach an overlook of DaLat city and the countryside surrounding it. It’s absolutely beautiful. The climb, the woman stalking us below, and even Rhianna occasionally screaming in our ears were worth it.

a view

However, we can’t stay too long. We still need to head down before it gets dark. We’re not too keen on our last sight being a green jeep mowing us down with Rihanna telling us that we’re “beautiful, like diamonds in the sky”.

Actually, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad way to go.

“Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond…”

Actually, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad way to go.

“Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond…”

DALAT, VIETNAM: Weirdness at Datanla Falls

If you find yourself in DaLat and awash in cash, you can book a motorcycle trip with one of the “Easy Rider” tours that leave from the center of town and visit such places as a mountain lake populated by tribes of elephants, silkworm farms, and other far-flung locales around the highlands..

But if you are on a miniscule budget (like us) you’ll probably end up bicycling or motorbiking to less ambitious destinations.  Enter Datanla Falls, a mere 15 km south of Da Lat, but still a must-see in it’s own peculiar way.

We arrive at the falls just ahead of a giant, multi-bus Pegas tour – uniformed Vietnamese guides shouting orders into megaphones to overheated Russian tourists.  We hang around the entrance eating ice cream sandwiches until the hordes have passed. Then we buy our ticket.

The info about the falls mention some sort of hike. This is false advertising to say the least. If there is a trail, we certainly don’t see one (likely it exists, but became overgrown through disuse). The real “hike” consists of, hilariously, a” toboggan” ride down to the upper falls, then a short amble to a cable car that whizzes you through the gorge, and finally a very strenuous, air-conditioned elevator drop to the lower falls. This is Vietnam, after all, where people REALLY hate to walk.

(Though this is partially true, it’s not entirely fair. Vietnamese family outings almost always include the very aged – they would never leave revered parents or grandparents behind – and these oldies cannot practically hike around Vietnam’s incredibly rugged terrain.)

But if the country’s aversion to walking incites them to construct such glorious apparatus as toboggans, it can’t be all bad. The ride is thrilling. You basically fly down the open mountainside in your own personal roller coaster car around hairpin bends, the only catch being that there are no hydraulics or electronic controls, so you must brake for yourself around the corners to avoid hurtling off the rails and somersaulting the rest of the way down like Andy Samberg in that forest dancing scene in “Hot Rod”.

We want to do the toboggan again as soon as the guy has stopped our cars at the bottom. But we restrain ourselves. At any rate there are other diversions. Like the archery range just above the falls.

Yes, an archery range, complete with real, extremely sharp arrows (suck it, Disneyland!) and bows – and no safety net of any kind in case an arrow flies wild, say toward the Russian tourists milling around the falls a few meters away.

Never being one to resist a test of skills, Beej opts to pay the lady 2 bucks for a chance to hit a target shaped like a critically endangered Asian tiger (you can’t make this stuff up) and win a big bottle of Da Lat wine. Hey, at least they don’t give you the wine before you handle the extremely sharp arrows.

Stax helpfully captures my archery fail on her phone. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

It doesn’t go great – either Beej’s archery skills have declined since the last time he drew a bow at age 14, or he’s still jittery from the toboggan ride. The lady encourages him by laughing in unrestrained delight at every missed shot.

At one point she takes up her own bow and arrow to demonstrate to Beej how easy it is for her to hit the targets, which she proceeds to do effortlessly, several times in a row. This gesture doesn’t quite have the bolstering effect on his performance that she intends. Well, at least someone got joy out of it.

After the archery debacle we walk over to the upper falls.

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A thing to do here is to have your wife or girlfriend dress up in traditional garb, smear on tons of make-up, and pose for highly unnatural portraits in front of natural wonders like waterfalls. There are at least two groups of people staging these bizarre shots in front of Datanla Falls – standing on rocks with arms raised like nature goddesses, etcetera. And it’s fascinating to watch.

A hulking figure in a full fur suit, previously camoflauged, suddenly arises from where he’s been lounging in a plastic chair near the cliff beside the falls. He springs toward us monkey-like.

In his frozen white mask, he bades us, with gestures alone, to take photos with him. We decline.

Whatever tourist outfit he works for hasn’t done enough research into Western horror movie tropes to know that having large mute furries in horrifying masks brandishing spears lurch out of the shadows in front of you might not be the best way to earn tourist dollars from Americans.

Fortunately for the monkey creature’s bottom line, others are not so shy:

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A guide has informed us there are three even better falls down the gorge. Ready for a proper walk, we excitedly set out along the trail, the first we’ve seen so far here. Some have boarded the cable car which soars overhead.
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But we are the only souls hiking on this peaceful trail.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Dalat, Vietnam: A lotta Dalat

We are driving our motorbike at sunset along a winding road atop a high mountain pass. Far below lies a landscape of intensely green rice paddies, dark turned earth, sprawling coffee plantations, forest glades, and copses of fruit trees.

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A panorama of the Central Vietnam highlands spreads magnificently out over the lip of the road. Peak after craggy peak marches over the spine of the country toward the coast, veiled in the smoke that is ever-present in rural Vietnam: the oily blue smoke of the rubbish fire, the dusty brown of farmers’ crop burns.

And still further out, white mists creep over the high distant peaks and fold into the deep green valleys, a blazing midsummer day exhaling into the cool of night.

We are just arriving back to Da Lat after a day riding around the countryside and hiking along the spectacular gorge below the hundred foot tall Datanla Falls ( more about this in the next post.)

For several days previously we’ve been hanging out in town at our favorite coffee shop, Urban Cafe, eating at our favorite restaurant, Chocolate Café, and exploring hilltop pagodas

Dalat, Vietnam. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

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Linh Quang Pagoda. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

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or driving our moto around the huge lake that takes up the east side of the city.

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One day we climb up a (very!) steep path through a fragrant pine forest to the top of Langbian Mountain, the highest peak in the Central Highlands and the second-highest in Vietnam. The next day we’re navigating the vine-shaped walkways of Da Lat Crazy House (more on these i the following posts).

Night comes on rapidly here in the highlands; tiny lights wink on all over the hills as we re-enter Da Lat and cruise down the narrow alley that leads to our guesthouse.

The time nears when we must leave this beautiful mountain city

Dalat, Vietnam from near our guesthouse. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

and head back to Saigon to begin the next phase of our journey. Watch for the next posts where we’ll go more into the weird and wonderful moments we’ve experienced here!

To be Continued…

Saigon to Da Lat, Vietnam!

Fellow Misadventurists! Greetings from Da Lat, Vietnam.

Why are we in Da Lat, an eight hour bus ride up into the mountains, so soon after arriving in Saigon?

To quote Senor Inigo Montoya, let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

After our long flight from Hong Kong to Manila; the afore-mentioned sleepless overnight layover in the stinking basement of the Manila airport watching bad 1970s Filipino exploitation movies; the subsequent, even longer flight over the Pacific from Manila to Saigon; the wait at the baggage carousel in Saigon only to discover that the airline had misplaced the bag with all of my clothing back in Manila, meaning I would be stuck in the reeking clothes I had worn since Hong Kong (sorry Stax!) while they tracked it down and sent it to the airport in Da Lat three days later; the local bus ride from the Saigon airport to the Pham Ngu Lao district and the near loss of my camera on that same bus; the ensuing fifteen minute chase after said bus on the back of a hired motorbike in the oven of midday Saigon, careening over traffic-swarmed bridges and bombing through pedestrian-swarmed riverside shanties, barely clinging to the rear handle, only to find the surprised bus driver lounging at his lunch stop miles away (he had stowed the camera safely behind his seat when he found it) – needless to say, this 24 hours of abject boredom and restless excitement has left us pretty much exhausted, and we need a break in a cooler climate.

So, back in Pham Ngu Lao, we pay the moto driver a few bucks for his trouble and then jump aboard a giant red Phuong Trang sleeper bus to Da Lat.

open_bus

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For those unfamiliar with the various species of Southeast Asian bus, a sleeper bus is the variety with three long rows of seats, top and bottom, which fold out fully horizontal into makeshift bunkbeds, allowing the rider (theoretically) to snooze away the long hours of the trip.

Relaxing, right? Wrong. DEAD WRONG. Image courtesy noplacetobe.com

Notice I said “theoretically”. This theory – let’s call it the General Theory of Sleep on a Sleeper Bus – holds true only under one condition: if every human element present upon the sleeper bus is somehow controlled for.

For kicks, let’s enter one or more of the following variables into the experiment: the driver barrelling around blind corners directly into the path of giant cement trucks, barely swerving back into the correct lane in time to avoid collision and the fiery demise of all “sleepers” aboard; the driver’s cohorts blasting at top volume (I mean eardrum-splitting, cranked-up-to-11 volume) a musical concoction of pure excrement posing as Vietnamese EDM out of speakers that are conveniently located a foot over the “sleeper’s” prone bodies; the driver steering (I’m only assuming he was steering) with one hand while keeping the other hand constantly pressed to the ear-splitting air horn to helpfully warn motorbike drivers that he is about to run them over; and the fact that most foreign travelers on sleeper buses must settle for the higher top bunk (they tend to give lower seats to locals), meaning that every swerve, sudden brake, and crunching, bottom-out pothole is amplified to crisis levels.

Stax, true to form (as anyone who knows her will tell you), falls asleep almost immediately and barely stirs henceforth. I, with my control freak tendencies and hyper-awareness in moments of extreme danger, have to force myself to find brief moments of rest amidst the barrage. If I am to get any sleep for the rest of our extensive travels, I’ll have to learn to relax in these situations.

The sweltering lowland humidity gives way to the alpine air of the highlands. We glimpse dark forms of mountain ranges. The traffic has let up and and we now pounce upon only the occasional motorbike and bicycle (most leaping suddenly out of the blackness into our view because they have no lights on their bikes in front or in back). I’ll say this about rural Vietnamese commuters: they have some balls).

We manage to arrive in Da Lat at around midnight in one piece.

Well, I say “in Da Lat” loosely, because in one final raised middle finger to the passengers before he drives the cursed bus back down to the Netherworld from whence he came, the driver has dropped us at the farthest bus station, approximately 3 km from where most of us are staying.

For several moments the hapless foreigners stand with their huge bags beside them in the empty station, eyeing the unmarked taxis that wait like silent predators (and which we have been warned to avoid as they have the habit of scamming foreigners outrageously), wondering how we’ll get somewhere we can finally sleep.

Belatedly, help screeches in in the form of a free shuttle (which suspiciously does not bear the name of the bus company, and which nobody from the bus company thought to tell us about), a shuttle that will supposedly take us to our various guesthouses. We load our bags into this van and follow the driver’s finger to the seats. But all the time, my built in scam radar is bleeping wildly due to the warning signs I mentioned before.

I needle the driver:

“Free?” I ask. No answer.

“Free?” I say again, louder, losing precious face by the second. Again, no answer.

“Free or I get off the bus!” I say even louder, thinking that impossibly, he might not have heard me, or that he’s just hoping I’ll give up so he can get a good fare out of us.

Finally someone else – not the driver, who is scrunching down in apparent shame – turns to me and nods.)

In Vietnam for less than 24 hours, I have already managed to shatter the unwritten code of Southeast Asia – the one where everybody stays calm and doesn’t raise a fuss or a holler no matter what, even if heading at that moment over a cliff. I have lost face irretrievably for myself and my entire family past, present, and future. But at least I saved a couple bucks, and I am assured now that this is the right shuttle and not just an opportunist taxi posing as the shuttle.

All is dark at the guesthouse when we arrive. I help the grim-faced driver (who practically spins all the way around to avoid eye contact) unload our bags and he’s off, presumably to a bar to tell his drinking buddies about the horrible American he was just unfortunate enough to pick up.

Luckily the guesthouse owner has waited for us, even though our bus is over 2 hours late. We thank him profusely and head up to the cool and spacious guest room. Sleep overwhelms us seconds later.
TO BE CONTINUED. Next Post: Da Lat!

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Welcome to HCMC Part 2

And I never saw Beej again.

Just kidding.

I’m sitting at Highlands Coffee (a major chain in Vietnam), taking big gulps of my Vietnamese style iced coffee (syrupy and strong coffee, sweetened, and then sweetened some more with sweetened condensed milk).

Highlands Coffee Shop in Hcmc

The big gulps serve two purposes. One, I’m thirsty and it’s freaking hot out here. Two, I keep forgetting that ice, while nice on a hot day, can contribute to gastrointestinal dysfunction. I actually say that lightly. As we are traveling through so many countries with so many different levels of disease factors, I’m assuming that I will catch something, I just don’t know when or where. But if I recall correctly, Vietnam is fairly good when it comes to cleanliness and disease control as compared to some of its neighbors.

But I digress. The point is, Ben is on an adventure. And I’m sitting here with nothing to do but lollygag. As you may recall from my previous post, Ben has hopped on the back of a motorbike to chase after a bus and retrieve the camera he loves before it falls into the wrong hands. Such high drama!

I’m hoping they find the bus and the driver. Losing that camera will be a big blow to our budgets if we have to buy another one for our doc shoot.

For now, I will sit in the a/c, drink my iced coffee, think about the cost of a new camera, think about mosquitoes, bide my time, and wait for Ben’s return.

Update: Ben has just returned, big grin on his face, his camera grasped triumphantly in his hands.

He raises his camera case high so I can’t miss it, much like Gollum raises the One Ring after a long and trying separation.

“I got it!” he exclaims.

What a relief.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Welcome to Ho Chi Minh Part 1

misadventuristmedia:

What happened in the first hour we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City from Hong Kong!

Standing under a bright blue sky and an unrelenting noonday Saigon sun, Beej and I are drip drip dripping sweat like broken faucets. We’re in the middle of a bustling bus depot at the busiest roundabout in all of Ho Chi Minh City. The hot wind, whipped up by the hundreds of motorbikes zipping around us, does nothing to cool us down.

I look up at Beej to say something about heading over to a coffee shop I’ve spied nearby. Having arrived by plane in Ho Chi Minh City not too long ago, it seems an hour an a half of languishing in 90 degree heat is not enough time to acclimatize to the weather when you’ve only just recently gotten used to the lovely 60s and 70s of Hong Kong. I want water. Stat.

But looking at Beej, I see a metaphorical cloud has descended over his face. He’s looking way too serious for having just arrived in Vietnam. These first moments in a new world are normally what he thrives on.

Then I see that his eyes are following the local bus we had just gotten off of as it heads to a nearby intersection.

“There goes my camera,” he says in a monotone. “I left it on the bus.” Two beats later, he brightens. “I think I can catch him.”

“Well,” I say. “You better run because he’s about to turn that corner.”

With that, Beej takes off across the intersection, dodging streams of motorbikes, toward the bus, which quickly leaves him in the dust.

So he turns toward a group of men with motorbikes, the same guys that promised us cheap rides when we stepped off the bus.

I want to tell him that I can take his big black backpack off his back, and maybe make his search a bit easier, but it’s too late. He’s already hopped onto the back of a motorbike and they’re off, weaving in and out of motorbikes, cars, mini-trucks, and other buses that make up Saigon traffic. With one hand pointing, I imagine Beej shouting, “follow that bus” above the roaring engines.

There’s nothing more I can do, so I head to that nearby coffee shop.

Originally posted on Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.:

Standing under a bright blue sky and an unrelenting noonday Saigon sun, Beej and I are drip drip dripping sweat like broken faucets. We’re in the middle of a bustling bus depot at the busiest roundabout in all of Ho Chi Minh City. The hot wind, whipped up by the hundreds of motorbikes zipping around us, does nothing to cool us down.

I look up at Beej to say something about heading over to a coffee shop I’ve spied nearby. Having arrived by plane in Ho Chi Minh City not too long ago, it seems an hour an a half of languishing in 90 degree heat is not enough time to acclimatize to the weather when you’ve only just recently gotten used to the lovely 60s and 70s of Hong Kong. I want water. Stat.

But looking at Beej, I see a metaphorical cloud has descended over his face. He’s…

View original 217 more words

Hong Kong :From the Central Midlevels to the Peak

21/3/2014

Hello Misadventurists. Part II of the Hong Kong highlights. 

HONG KONG – FROM THE CENTRAL MIDLEVELS TO THE PEAK

It’s basically one giant, mile long outdoor escalator.

That’s what we discover when we set foot on the Central Mid-Levels,  which carries vertical commuters straight up (and down) one of the steepest hills in Central Hong Kong. The altitude gain is nearly 500 feet, starting on Queens Road Central and ending on Conduit Drive just below the Peak Road, and it takes around 20 minutes to ride.

450px-HK_Mid-Level_Escalators

All along the route are some of the best coffee shops and restaurants Hong Kong has on offer, as it passes directly through the touristy hillside SoHo District, cut through with narrow alleys and punctuated by green, peaceful public atriums.

In SoHo, one can find a Mexican cantina serving up fresh tacos right next to a Lithuanian or Turkish joint and a five story, unbelievably blinged-out Abercrombie and Fitch store with massive crystal chandeliers next to a street market full of eel. Hong Kong beats even Manhattan for gaudy excess – and that’s saying something.

Of course with our limited funds we can’t possibly avail ourselves of all the dining options, so we settle for the cheapest – which happens to be a Subway (!). The joys of budget travel.

After our fine dining experience, we exit the Subway and climb back on the escalator, which carries us the rest of the way up to Conduit Drive, one of the coolest streets either of us have ever seen.

Hornsey Drive, from the top of the Central Mid-Levels. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Tree growing out of the sidewall, Conduit Drive
Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

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From here, we climb. And climb, and climb some more. The Central Midlevels have only brought us about halfway up to the summit of Victoria peak. We’ll have to hike about 2.5 kilometers more up the Old Peak Road, an unbelievably steep, windy lane that is unrelenting on our legs.

It is so steep, in fact, that we resort to alternating between hiking backward and forward up the hill just to save our muscles and tendons But the views of Central Hong Kong and the waterfront along the way can’t be beat.

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Almost to the Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Finally we are atop Victoria Peak. The views are tremendous – and so are the crowds, and the giant shopping mall (complete with huge McCafe!)

Happy Color Pants at the Peak Mall. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

There’s also a  bus station, and a three story silver and steel tram depot that welcomes the lazy-bones who have decided to ride the Peak tram up rather than walk.

But this is Hong Kong and you cannot avoid these spectacles. We decide to focus on the incredible view of the city on the south side

Mid and Central Hong Kong from The Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

and the unspoiled jungle-covered peaks down to the ocean on the north side.

Other peaks of Hong Kong Island. From Victoria Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Then – should we admit this? – we eat ice cream sundaes at (where else?) McCafe. Not out of some fidelity to the corporate behemoth, of course, but because it’s by far the most affordable option for ice cream (and it’s not half bad, either). Plus, the outdoor seating area overlooking the peaks and valleys of the island makes this perhaps the most scenic McDonald’s in existence (I don’t count Times Square!).

Finally it’s about dark and time to head back down. Rather than walk, we board a minibus that rockets down the zigzagging road pell-mell, barely missing oncoming traffic and pedestrians.

After exiting the minibus and checking all our vital organs for damage, we end our day by taking the stairway up to the vast Hong Kong Botanical Park – which is kind of like Hong Kong’s version of Central Park – and sit on a bench in front of a fountain ogling a stunning 180 degree view of the high rise residential towers of the Midlevels above us.

It’s too bad we don’t have more time – and more importantly, money – to spend in Hong Kong. It is a beguiling city packed with great food, transportation and tons of energy. Surprisingly,  given it’s repuation as a paradise of no-holds-barred capitalist materialism, it also seems like a great place for families, with some of the nicest parks and picnic areas we’ve seen in a city.

Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

HK residents are very into selfies. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

...And photography in general. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

Pretty sure we’ll be back.

Hong Kong – Saved By Ronald McDonald

March 20-21, 2014

Fellow Misadventurists,

As we busy ourselves editing the hours and hours of footage we captured during our first project in Phnom Penh, we will be posting a series of updates from the first several weeks of our trip throughout Southeast Asia.

The two weeks after our arrival in Lantau involved one flight, three long bus rides, tons of hiking, and a whirlwind of Asian hotspots – Hong Kong, of course, then Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), then Da Lat, Vietnam, then back to Saigon again…

But finally it was time to tear ourselves away from Vietnam, take the sleeper bus overland across the Cambodian border to Phnom Penh, and begin the first leg of our project.

First, though, here is the next highlights of the first two weeks:

1. HONG KONG: SAVED BY RONALD MCDONALD 

SAVED BY RONALD MCDONALD

McDonalds: The Misadventurists are

The slow ferry from Lantau to Hong Kong Island isn’t so slow; in little over a half hour our boat has picked its way through a dense bank of fog and chugged into Victoria Harbour.

Banks of slender skyscrapers materialize suddenly 500 feet high on either side of us, clinging to a crescent of massive green jungle-clad hills whose peaks are lost in the early afternoon mist.

Pulling into Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong. Photo (c) Stacy Libokmeto

Before we know it we’re stepping off the boat on a pier three stories high. We lug our bags through some glass skybridges and exit an elevator at street level, plunging into the manic energy of the waterfront.

Just a fraction of Central Hong Kong. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Hong Kong starts at the water level and never looks down from there. The nerve center of the city is Central which surrounds the waterfront and then abruptly ascends the hills, followed by the mainly residential skyscrapers of Midlevels hafway up, with Victoria Peak (“The Peak”, to locals) looming over it all at the top.

The hills are numerous and are among the steepest I’ve ever seen a city situated upon, scattered with clusters of steel and glass skyscrapers and crisscrossed with switchbacking freeways that twist bizarrely upward like masses of vines up a tree.

Stax wandering through Central. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

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As modern as Central Hong Kong feels in places, there is a strong architectural nod to the city’s prior heydays as well, especially the 1960s and 1970s, when the city was blowing up globally as a center of finance, industry and entertainment. We run across this mostly Filipino Catholic Church that looks like something straight out of a classic James Bond flick.

A Filipino Catholic church strongly reminiscent of the 1960s, Pan-Am era of Hong Kong. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

Unfortunately there’s no time to explore right now. We have to get on the metro train and meet our AirBnB hosts by 3 pm in the Kowloon district across the harbour, and it doesn’t look like we’ll make it in time.

Worse, we can’t find any wi-fi network that will allow us to log on without a paid subscription – there’s a monopoly by one company, it seems, and this also extends to wifi calls and texting, which won’t work on our T-Mobile phones without a Chinese SIM card – all which leaves us with no way to warn them we’ll be late to the rendezvous point.

The superfast metro trains get us there in no time, but still we exit the Prince Edward station in Kowloon over half an hour late and circle the block several times, trying to spot a person or couple who looks like they’re waiting for someone.

After 45 minutes of fruitless wandering, we resort to simply approaching the address our hosts listed, lurking as as unobtrusively at the entrance as it is possible for two foreigners with giant bags festooning their bodies, and occasionally accosting random old ladies who are going into the building to ask if they know the couple. No luck. Nobody seems to know who they are.

Another half an hour inches by this way, and I am about to just give up and find a guesthouse, thereby giving up the deposit and three days paid in advance on the apartment.

Then Stax has a revelation. She remembers we had passed a McCafe, Hong Kong’s substitute for full McDonalds restaurants, on the street across from the station.

The bags, which have begun to feel like just another part of my body, fly behind us as we run to the McCafe and run down the stairs of the underground restaurant.

A surprisingly delicious McCappuccino (hint hint Mickey-D's throw a little grant money our way? JK) Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

And then there it is. Faint, feeble, so slow it’s practically non-existent, but undeniably there – a wi-fi signal! I stand by the bathroom door, the only way to avoid getting in the way of the afternoon crowds who fill every available table, and quickly fire out a text to Eve, who is the host we had been scheduled to meet.

She must have been in the area, because less then three minutes later, as I’m heading to the stairs to wait outside, I run into a tiny girl who looks at me curiously. “Are you Ben??” she inquires.

“Eve?” I respond, and just like that our AirBnB reservation is saved. And to abandon it would have been a shame. The apartment is a block from the station in a quiet building, it’s close to great food and markets, it’s a sixth floor walkup with tremendous views of the street and buildings of Kowloon, and it’s dirt cheap.

God Bless You, McCafe.

Watch for the next exciting Misadventure soon: “The Central Midlevels”!

Hong Kong: Lantau Island

A Note about this post: This isn’t a proper post about the project, but just something to let you know what we’ve been up to for the past few weeks. Greetings from Southeast Asia!

It’s been awhile since you last heard from yours truly – but there’s a good reason for that.

During that time, we sold off, stored with obliging relatives, or mailed all of the possessions save those that fit into two giant backpacks; gave two weeks notice at our cushy jobs in Manhattan; handed the keys to our Bushwick sublease reluctantly back to the owner (herself just back from Ghana); arranged to film a couple of traditional Khmer wedding ceremonies for our documentary project; and spent two weeks driving a Ford hybrid rental into the ground all around Oregon, mostly visiting friends and relatives (the highlight of which was watching our friends Brian and Heidi kill the room at Suki’s in downtown PDX with their dead on karaoke cover of the B52s’ “Love Shack”).

Then at the dawn of St. Patrick’s Day, we boarded the Bolt Bus from downtown Portland to Seattle, cruised to Sea-Tac on the airport tram, and flew 16 hours from Seattle – via Tokyo – to Hong Kong.
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March 17-20, 2014

The cabin explodes in applause upon our final approach at Tokyo-Narita, because amid 20 mph crosswinds our Airbus 330 drops, twists, and fishes wildly as if in a seizure until right about when we touch the tarmac.  Nice bit of flying.

Partly because of the winds tossing about everything with wings all over the Pacific Rim, we land very late (after 1 am) in Hong Kong International. The only option is to cab it to our hotel and hope  they left the light on.

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The cab driver barrels around 20km curves at a dead 60 km and strains up steep mountainsides in an old 1980s Chinese junker sedan. He almost leaves the engine block dropped through the chassis behind us on a few of his climbs.

A highlight of the ride: a giant black water buffalo with massive horns looms out of the darkness with his rear end to our cab, tail twitching,  lounging and chewing his cud on a sidewalk in front of a darkened shop.
Tourists-meet-Mui-Wos-water-buffalos.-Photo-by-Steven-Knipp-INLINE

Then SCREEEEEEEEEECH we’re there. Luckily the hotel has anticipated our lateness and left the light on. We gingerly navigate a narrow alley strewn with boxes behind a restaurant, catching whiffs of fish and old vegetables and the unmistakeable tang of the salt sea.
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So you may have noticed by now that we like to do things in opposite order. Call us contrary, but because of how the timing worked out with the first Khmer wedding ceremony (and the joys of nonrefundable plane tickets), we’re starting our trip with a vacation first – and not starting proper work until about two weeks in. I know, rough life, right?

Our first two days in Hong Kong are not actually in the towering, buzzing city everyone pictures, but in Mui Wo on southeastern Lantau Island. A town that not even many Hong Kong residents go (most of them head to Disneyland Hong Kong just north at Discovery Bay), Mui Wo doesn’t rate on most tourists’ to-do lists. But we end up digging the quirky village and its super-friendly locals, and of course its uncrowded and laid-back beach, Silvermine Bay.

Silvermine Bay Beach

More Silvermine Bay. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

It’s a perfect place to shake off the jet lag.

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For two days we laze by the tidal canals:

Regatta de Lantau. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

, eat on the cheap in seafood restaurants overlooking the bay, enjoy sunny mountain views from atop Nam Shan

The view from the Old Village Path down Nam Shan to Mui Wo. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

, and climb steep, ancient forest trails to a funky hillside village – where the architecture resembles shades of Dr. Seuss:

Mui Wo Village has some interesting condo association rules. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

beat-up bicycles are the main form of transport, and amateur bird enthusiasts place cloth-covered cages up under trees so their budgies’ cries can attract flocks from all over the island.

But of the island’s famous resident water buffaloes, which reportedly cause traffic jams, are employed in various festivals and races, and otherwise wander anywhere they wish unimpeded by locals, we see nary a sign. The expat British owner of Caffe Paradiso – the best cafe in town, where gut-busting English style breakfasts and strong cappuccinos are the order of the day – disgustedly indicates a familiar culprit.

Eager real estate developers, Hong Kong dollar signs cha-chinging in their collective eyes, consider the buffaloes an obstacle and have won Lantau’s blessing to herd them out of the way to the marshy lowlands over Nam Shan, the southern mountain. And now even the marshlands are in their crosshairs.

The cafe owner sponsors a Lantau Buffalos youth rugby team:

Image courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/SLBrugB

He also sells T-shirts (Keep South Lantau Horny!) with proceeds directly toward preserving the buffalos’ habitat (for more info on this great organization check out http://lantaubuffalo.wordpress.com/). But sadly the prospects don’t seem good for the beasts.

____________________________________________

Our final morning in Mui Wo we hang out on the ferry quay and wait for the boat to Hong Kong Island. We depart the lazy shores of Lantau knowing that we’ll see them again someday, whether in official capacity as filmmakers or as grateful return visitors.

But now it’s time to board the so-called “Ordinary Ferry” (read: slow boat) toward the craziness of Hong Kong Central. But that’s for the next post, which I swear will be more timely than the last….

The slow boat to China. Heh heh. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

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