Battambang, Cambodia: The Wreck, Part II!

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

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

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Getting to the Wedding Part III!

Continued from the last post

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.

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: 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
Dalat, Vietnam. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
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Recycling collector, Dalat, Vietnam. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
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Downtown Dalat, Vietnam. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

 

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Super Pagoda Man. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Linh Quang Pagoda. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
Linh Quang Pagoda. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
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Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

 

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
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…

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
Typical Highlands Coffee. Image courtesy vietnamonline.com

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

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.

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…

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