What's done is done, what remains is to be seen

Guest Post and Photos by: Cory Potts and Margo Vansynghel

Originally appeared on Cory's blog: http://123velo.tumblr.com/


Now it has been one week since we finished traveling around SE Asia with the intrepid Sarah and Eric. Since I’ve been back, people want to know, where did you go? What did you do?


I answer, I was in SE Asia, I did Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. In French, “J’étais en Indochine, j’ai fait Thailande, Laos et Camboge”. With every answer, I’m talking and wincing. I hate saying I “did” these countries. “I did them” is diminutive and patriarchal. Tourists “do” countries the same way Empires did colonialism, with an eye out for opportunity and nostalgia for the snug comforts of being a relative king in a poor land.

To compensate, I’ve tried to complement talking about what I did by saying some about what was done to these countries. I say how in the 70s, Thailand seemed less affected by the swirl of secret and civil wars that drew in, then tore apart, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Laos saw its Eastern and Southern borders bombed to smithereens by American planes. Cambodia lost a civil war to itself and with the Americans, the Chinese and the Russians looking on, suffered three years of incoherent semi-communist rule.

Really, keeping your eyes open in this part of the world is to see signs of past conflict everywhere manifest. There are craters in sites preserved for their archaeological value, bullet holes in rebuilt temples laid low by invaders (both Chinese bandits in the 14th century and American bombers in the 20th), fire pits, tables, cooking stoves, house supports and decorations made from the remnants of fallen bombs, genocide museums, killing fields, warnings about land mines and warnings about unexploded ordinances, denuded hills, stories about parents who were lost. The happiness and seeming integrity of Thailand’s people and infrastructure even testifies to these conflicts. Smiles and miles of well maintained roads and train tracks are sharply different than the jutted roads and brusque manner of Laoatians and Cambodians.

Then there are the youngsters, young people, who make up the majority of the population found on sidewalks, in cities or across a country. Young people, especially babies, are everywhere on the streets, out front of village markets, running dirty across mountain roads, selling trinkets and books in front of temples. These countries are young. Their ancestors were transformed, either taken by war or made prematurely old because of it. The young everywhere remind us that only one generation separates these lands from a devastating conflict that ravaged them, displaced millions, and transformed its people.

boys on bicycles.jpg

It is hard to come to grips with what such an explosive, deadly, blind and detached violence must feel like or look like. There were moments: being followed by a stray dog, riding in a tuk-tuk and feeling the woosh up a highway semi-truck as it passes you, eating a piece of unknown meat or landing a plane during a monsoon. But it’s nothing, nothing, like what a bomb can do, or a child soldier with a rifle, or a plane with bombs. We never came close to meeting our own fates on this trip, no matter what we were doing.

But I did ask myself constantly, “What if?” What if the the dog lunges? What if the semi-truck swerves? What if the meat has sat too long out in the sun? What if I had been born in this country, what if I had lived through a war?

I asked What if? But the question everyone we met wanted an answer to was how long? How long had we been in a particular city? How long were we staying in a country? For the women, how long were their skirts or pants? How long were their sleeves?

These questions were just below the surface of everything we saw. Not so long ago, ‘how long’ was the crucial question. How long would the conflict last? For better or worse, how long would the Americans stay or how long would they keep bombing? How long will this last ration of rice last? We asked them too, because so much of a trip depends on them. How long would we stay in this or that hotel? How long of a ride is it between two towns? We celebrated Sarah and Eric’s anniversary: how long had they been married? And the question everyone around them wants to know: how long will they travel for?

But judging time on a vacation has a funny effect. Time is circular. Like in the way we “go” on vacation putting our regular life on pause, coming back to find that nothing has changed. Time is particularly hard to judge in SE Asia. Questions have a way of looping back on themselves.

Q: What’s that temple over there?

A: What? It’s not a temple, it’s a wat.

Q: Who’s wat?

A: First it was Hindu, then Buddhist, then Hindu, then Buddhist again. Now it’s a ruin.

Q: Who ruined it?

A: Time, and the war.

Q: The war did this?

A: No, the war reduced it to rubble. Architects reconstructed the ruin, they made it look like a ruin.

Q: So now it is?

A: A tourist attraction, but still the center of town, where vendors set up their stalls, the heart pumping life back into demolished regions.

Time kept playing tricks on us like this. Like riding up behind a girl on a motor scooter, and us saying, “Let’s ask her for directions,” and pulling up beside the girl and discovering, from the lines on her face, that she must be sixty, that she must have seen the war. Even the young can look old, seeming new but built nonetheless assembled out of rubble, their ancientness and their youth hard to tell apart.

A metaphor for what we were seeing was the river. The rivers in SE Asia have shaped the people and the land more than the war. They carve out valleys in the mountains, they feed the rice patties, they flood and flow backwards, causing lakes to grow five times their normal size. We never saw the coast on our trip, we stayed near rivers. Talking to river people, you need to be careful when they ask you how long. In comparison, we measured time in terms of the month we were traveling, in terms of the hundreds of kilometers we covered. For river people, length is judged by knowledge of a river’s seeming endless snaking, its endless movement, its inexhaustible fund for renewal.

I remember seeing the Mekong for the first time, when I walked down two long sets of concrete steps early on a hot morning in Chang Khong, coming to the river’s edge seeing Laos across the light brown muddy water, thinking in the heat that the river looked like baked earth, knowing from its current that I would be swept away if I tried to reach its opposite bank.

For the next two days, we floated down the river on an over-sized canoe, long and narrow but fitted out with benches and a V-8 motor. On the river, I kept thinking about the fish I couldn’t see, watching fishermen in smaller canoes ply the waters to cast nets. I thought, How do fish survive in the constant flush? How do they sleep? And, to which country do the fish belong? If they are caught by a Thai or by a Laotian? 

This river carried the dead away from countries touched by the conflicts. A body dumped into it in N Laos could float through Cambodia and Vietnam, ending up in the S China Sea. The victims were carried away, just like their aggressors, carried away by a constant flow of armaments and power, each thinking that it was something new that was happening in a part of the world where the new and old flow into each other. Hindu to Buddhist, peace to war, rainy to dry, Belgium to Indochine.

It’s been hard to pin down what the trip did to me. I imagine Sarah and Eric will have an even harder time untangling what has changed them, whether it was a particular place or encounter or whether it has been their journey as a whole. But I know that this has changed: I am seeing people differently since I have come back. I see people and I wonder more what they are hiding and what they are letting me see. And I’m more willing to accept that I am not destined to shape the world. I have a new patience for trying to puzzle out what shapes me.

Pepper is a Fruit?!

We learned so much about pepper yesterday!  Wow, I've never given much thought to the spice that flavors so much of our food but luckily with some time to kill in the small town of Kep, Cambodia we got to go on a tour of the Sothy's Pepper Farm with our new friends Richie and Claire. 

Here are some of the fun facts:

-All pepper strains come from India

-There are four colors of pepper: black, green, red, and white

-Green is the newest, youngest pepper

Green and red peppers

Green and red peppers

-Black is green pepper after drying it in the sun

Black pepper

Black pepper

-Red is color the pepper turns after a long time on the vine

Red pepper

Red pepper

-White pepper results from boiling green pepper and then removing the shell

White pepper

White pepper

-Pepper grows as a vine and needs some protection from the shade

-You cannot harvest pepper until the vine is 4 years old

-White pepper is for fishes, red pepper for meats, green pepper for seafood, and black pepper is for everything!

-They really do not recommend mixing peppers as it takes a lot of fingers to sort it all out to begin with and each pepper has a unique flavor that is specific for certain foods.

Here are some other photos from around the pepper farm.  The owner is entirely off the grid, using solar and wind power for all of his electricity.  It was a fun activity and half the adventure was riding our motorbike all over the countryside and seeing things at our own pace. 

Phnom Penh / Learning about the Khmer Rouge

Traveling in Cambodia so far has confronted me with such different layers of pasts that it's been a lot to try to digest.  Our first few days spent in the country were at Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century, around the same time as Westminster and Chartres.  Then there was the French Colonialism that I'm more used to experiencing, most countries we have been in were under European Colonialism at some point.  It's the more recent past in Cambodia that has been harder to confront.  

On April 17th, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered Phenom Penh and started "one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society every attempted" (Lonely Planet 2012).  Eric and I have been trying to learn as much as we can by reading books, The Killing Fields and When Broken Glass Floats, and we also saw the movie The Killing Fields when we were in Battambang.  After the 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days of Khmer Rouge rule it is estimated that 3 million people died, many of them the educated, men, and monks.  More people died from starvation in the years that followed when the people tired to find what was left of their family and move back to their hometowns.  During this time, the rice fields they had been forced to work on 12-15 hours a day were abandoned.  

Seeing how far the country has rebuilt sometimes makes me forget how recently the people went through hell.  But other times, such as when we are eating on the street, people come from every direction begging for food or money.  Walking down the street in Phnom Penh with a takeaway bag I had people following me asking for my food.  This literally breaks my heart.  Everyone here has been effected by the Khmer Rouge.

Seeing Phnom Penh was really shocking as this city was evacuated during their rule, leaving S21, a prison camp, and outside the city, the killing fields.  There are ghosts all over this city.  

We toured S-21 one day, a heavy silence around each one of us as we looked at all the photos of those that were killed there - some 100 people a day, totaling more than 20,000.  The Japanese have leased the Killing Fields and we read bad reviews of the experiences there so we decided to skip that part of learning about the history. 

Here are some photos from S-21.

The Khmer Rouge still exist and are even still apart of the government.  The current Prime Minister was in the Khmer Rouge.  Trials are ongoing in bringing those to justice that were responsible for the deaths but politics are a mess and justice seems hard to come by. 

By educating ourselves and following the ongoing court cases we can help try to honor those that were killed during this gruesome time. 

Temple exploration and MILLIONS of bats!

Our temple exploration continue with Tong the next afternoon.  We started off visiting the temples in the area, starting with Phnom Banan.  Hundreds of steps led to a beautiful temple along with stunning views of the countryside.  Children tried to earn some money by fanning us on the way up!

The next stop was a bit more heavy.  Though a beautiful mountain top, Phnom Sampeu has a really horrible past, the caves that are at the top of the mountain are where the Khmer Rouge killed men, women and children, before throwing them into the caves.  It was chilling to be in such a beautiful place knowing the terrible history. We were all confused by the sign at the entrance saying that a woman from White Center, WA helped fund the memorial site.

From there the trail looped to the top of the mountain with a Buddhist temple.  The countryside contains so many shades of green that are hard to capture with a camera.  It's some of the most fertile soil in the world. 

The last stop of the day was to see millions of bats fly out a cave at night.  The bats fly in a solid stream for over an hour!  Really impressive to see them making a magic carpet in the sky as they eat their way across the darkening sky. 

They way home we saw more families congregating in the streets, more naked babies, and really beautiful light covering the countryside.  Such a beautiful city.  Margo, Cory's girlfriend took the following, stunning, photos:

Happy Anniversary to Us!

WOW what a year!  A year ago was my last day at work and we have now officially been funemployed for a year.  Pretty amazing that we could plan and save enough to be out of work for so long and we are still going strong!

We were so lucky to celebrate our anniversary with Cory and Margo in Battambang.  This city is one of my favorites, a charming old French colonial city set along the river.  We have also been staying in a fantastic hotel for $18 a night which doesn't hurt! 

Anniversary breakfast!

Anniversary breakfast!

Cory and Margo surprised us with quite the breakfast on the morning of our anniversary.  They went all over the city collecting bagels, fresh fruit, yogurts, fresh orange juice, coffees, cinnamon roles and other treats.  It was a feast!  We ate on the patio of our hotel over looking the river.  My brother is one of the most thoughtful people we know and this breakfast is an example of this and his generosity. 

Next we set off to explore the city some.  Eric and I splurged on $6/hour massages done by blind people at the Seeing Hands Massage.  They worked us quite thoroughly and we were sore for a few days!  It's such a good training program for blind people and sadly there are so many blind people that there are branches of this brand across the country. 

Continuing the adventure of the day we met up with our tuk tuk driver, Tong, for a trip to the country's only winery.  We explored the small grounds and then tasted some of their finest. 

To be honest we thought the wine was corked it tasted so different from what we are used to but we enjoyed our time at the winery nonetheless.  Wine is much harder to come by in SE Asia so I've only had it 5 times in the last 3 months (which if you know me well know how this is far to infrequent!). 

Next we were off to see the bat trees.  These trees are set in a small village and the bats fill the trees, eating the fruit.  Our driver threw some rocks at the tree to make them fly around and to be honest it was quite creepy!  Cory and Eric got the biggest kick out of this part of the day!

Taking our tuk tuk back into the city was one of my favorite parts of the day.  The roads were filled with people on bicycles, lots of naked babies, and people out talking with one another in the street.  We were greeted with really sweet hellos as we drove by kids.  The lighting was gorgeous - making the hues even more brilliant across the farming land. 

Cory and Margo's next surprise was Eric's favorite.  GIN AND TONICS!  We haven't had gin since we left home and this was a total treat for us!  We enjoyed our drinks on the patio overlooking the sunset on the river. 

After the sun set and we finished all the tonic we headed off for dinner with Cory's friend of a friend, Luke who lives in Battambang with his wife and two daughters.  They took us to a local restaurant where we were treated like kings.  His wife ordered all the food for us and soon enough we had huge pots of boiling broth on our table and then she customized the mixes in each one, filling the bowls with noodles, tons of vegetables, and seafood.  We were served fried corn to go along with the buckets of beer that they had around our table, and for the end of the meal beef was brought out with special dipping sauce.  It was a wonderful meal and so fun to be included in this fun experience with their family! 

We ended the night with a drink at one of Battambang's favorite bars, the Riverside Balcony Bar.  What a fun end to such a special day!   (Sadly we left the camera at home for dinner so there are no photos but only our memories which is sometimes better than a photo!)

Beer with Breakfast: Angkor Day II

Our sunrise at Angkor

Our sunrise at Angkor

Hearing sunrise was worth the reduced hours of sleep we met our tuk-tuk driver at 5am to head to see the sun rising over Angkor Wat with thousands of others.  Winding our way through smaller paths to avoid some of the crowds we were able to see the sun rise but with so many clouds the views weren't quite as good as expected. 

Next we headed to another temple, surprised we were the only people there!  This made for such a special visit!  We climbed around taking pictures as we went of the countryside that stretches in all directions filled with rice paddies and jungle. 

Finally it was time for breakfast.  Though not even 8a all the touring had made us hungry!  Our driver took us to a local spot where we enjoyed soup and tea.  Somehow we got on the subject of beer and he mentioned he had some beers for later.  We said great, but somehow he took this to mean we wanted beer with breakfast!  So off to the tuk-tuk he ran to grab some cold ones for us to enjoy with our noodle soup.  Quite the breakfast!

The rest of the day was filled with temple visits.  It was a long haul around the big circuit but one I enjoyed more than the previous day.  There were a lot fewer people in each temple and the spread out designs allowed us to take our time exploring. 

It's amazing to see how nature can take over - especially in Cambodia where there's amazing climate and soil to grow.  Trees were overtaking some of the ruins and preservationists have to  build extra supports for all the weight.

Angkor Temples Day I

Leaving the beaches of Thailand to arrive in Siem Reap was quite the change of scenery!  Cory and Margo met us at our hotel with beer and wine in hand - the perfect welcoming after a long day of travel! 

We set off early the next morning with our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Haan, who took us on the small circuit throughout the day.  He was a great driver, dropping us off at each spot and then collecting us when we were finished admiring all that Angkor has to offer amid thousands of other tourists doing the same. 

The beauty was compelling enough to take hundreds of photos.  I've divided into comprehensive photos and then close up photos of the detail work.  Click on any to enlarge.

The detail work that is still visible some 1,000 years later was also photo-worthy.