Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Carnage in the Cardamoms

Bullet points

-After 3 days resting in Phnom Penh we caught a bus north west to Pursat and from there rode west into the Cardamom Mountains.
-Riding via Pra Maoy and Ou Soam we traversed south through the hills to Koh Kong in the far south west of Cambodia.


In the dull grey of the morning we ride slowly and quietly through this demolition site, speechless, both aware the other is deep in thought and shocked by the scene we behold. All manner of rubbish lines the roadsides, thousands of small stumps protrude from the burnt bare ground, charred logs lie scattered and wasted, some grand old trunks still stand but have been reduced to blackened lifeless remains. People squat under their little bamboo shacks, cooking breakfast over a small open fire, huge overhead lines run high above us, taking power from the many hydro electric schemes, and yet the local villages  are drip-fed only 3-4 hours electricity each day. What on earth has happened here? The place is a mystery, a horror, an apocalyptic-like scene. I find myself wanting to hear what the few chirping birds would have to say. If only they could speak my language and give me an honest account of historical events here. 

Deforestation near Pra Moy.

 Some of my questions were soon answered as I sat and read another chapter of ‘Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land’ by Joel Brinkley. As it turns out, the worst of what happened here happened quite some years back. Many of us have heard of the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities they brought upon Cambodian people through the late 1970’s. What I’ve since discovered about Cambodia’s more recent history is almost equally appalling.

More deforestation. Pursat Province.

Deforestation and hydro-electric lake near Ou Soam

After being thrown from power after their short yet crippling four years the Khmer Rogue retreated to the region of Pailin, just north of our route through the Cardamom mountains. Left to their own devices and powerless to rule the country any longer they took little time in setting about gaining all they could for themselves, stripping the region of its rich forests and illegally exporting the timber across the border, mainly to Thailand. In a very short period of time Pol Pot and a small number of his buddies that he hadn’t already turned on became extremely rich men at the expense of large tracts of Cambodia’s forests, the lifeblood for people living in these rural areas.  This is all shocking but shouldn’t come as a great surprise that a man responsible for the death of around 2 million people would then go on and carry out further evil acts. What came as news to me though was the acts of the current Cambodian Government.

After the UN occupation of Cambodia in 1992 current Prime Minister Hun Sen shared power of the country with Prince Ranariddh. In a letter to the Thai Government they outlined that they were the only individuals allowed to approve timber exports and that all exports would occur through the Ministry of Defence! In reality what happened is that these two ‘leaders’ sold logging concessions to their fellow government officials, friends, and family, they pocketed the proceeds from the concessions and their mates ravaged Cambodia’s forests and pocketed the proceeds from the export sales. The local people who had forever survived by living off the forest were now left with no forest. So it was for much of our 260km journey from Pursat through the Cardamom Mountains to Koh Kong, there was in fact very little forest remaining. This area must have been an incredible place, the small sections of wonderful jungle we passed through with the sounds of tropical birds and gibbons a fleeting glimpse of what once must have been widespread across much of Cambodia.
Deforestation and overhead lines carrying electricity the locals can look at but can't have.

More dams under construction.

Typical village. Cardamom Mountains.
 The ride was a tough little adventure, packing in plenty of kilometres, plenty of gravel road and plenty of hills, with temperatures way too hot to be combining such things! Cycling in the heat on smooth flat roads has always turned out to be a surprisingly okay experience for us, the cooling of the breeze we generate always offers relief. Hill climbing on the other hand gets the body working so much harder and is so much slower that we don’t generate any air flow. Grinding our way up yet another steep climb with temperatures sitting around 40 degrees I swear I have never felt so unbearably hot in my life. My chest burned and my head felt about to implode! A new experience I hope not to repeat too often, yet at the same time strangely fun to widen one’s physical experiences in life! We arrived in Koh Kong pretty thrashed, happy we’d sidetracked and gotten off the beaten track, yet saddened and challenged to have witnessed such a beaten land. This was a side of Cambodia we hadn’t previously entered into.

Good gritty adventures.

Digging deep: Dust, heat and hills.

Thankfully some stunning forest filled with wonderful life does still remain.

Big country of the Cardamoms.

Final descent to Koh Kong.

Who would take these scruffs into their hotel??
 Further reading has revealed more of the awful situation Cambodians still face today. Corruption is rampant, engrained. People are being regularly thrown off their land as it’s sold to developers, it is not at all uncommon for activists and journalists to be jailed or even killed. Factory workers rallies are currently banned in Phnom Penh’s ‘Freedom Square’. Police have been paid cash bonus’s by interior Minister Sar Kheng for their work in controlling previous rallies, where beatings and killings have occurred. Many children must pay teachers a small sum on a daily basis before being allowed to enter class, the sick pay Doctors if they want to be attended to, drivers routinely pay Police a small sum if they want to avoid a larger fine. At every election time opposition party members are bribed and many are killed. These murders have repeatedly gone uninvestigated. Millions of dollars from international donors go missing every year. A tourist I spoke to was pulled over by Police and fined for not showing his drivers licence, the fine was $50 if he wanted a receipt, but could be reduced to $10 if he was happy not to have a receipt!
Hun Sen and his cronies from the Cambodia People's Party (CPP). Propaganda has lined the roadside from the first very kilometre we entered Cambodia. I think you do a little better in Cambodia if you have a CPP billboard in your front yard.

Does not apply if you are high up in CPP.
 For us Cambodia has been a pretty challenging experience, the insights gained from travelling and reading a relevant book simultaneously are quite profound. We have experienced beauty and kindness, and we have caught just a little glimpse of the devastation and oppression that so many Cambodians live under daily.  


Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Cambodia: A Week Meandering Down the Mekong

Bullet/route points:
-       We spent seven days cycling from the southern Laos border at Khong to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
-       We stuck as close as possible to the Mekong River, following the Mekong Discovery Trail route from Stung Treng to Kratie, the west bank to Kampong Cham and then the east side to Phnom Penh.


 We can only describe it as a magic time. A week spent by the slow-moving but life-giving giant of a river, the Mekong.

 After the long tarseal straights of southern Laos, we felt keen for some higher interest and slower pace riding, so we put aside six days to do a journey that most would do in three, from Stung Treng in the far northwest of Cambodia, down to Phnom Penh. We left the main road and wove a route on dirt trails, gravel roads, small sections of seal and even occasionally single track. 

Linking it all together we took ferries of varying sizes and styles, eight in total, as we crossed from east bank to west, and to some of the sizeable islands in between.

Waiting for the boat

Some were very small

On some we joined regular commuters

 The northern section of our route followed the “Mekong Discovery Trail”, maybe something like New Zealand's new Alps to Ocean Trail but with less signage, more sand holes and plenty of Cambodian flair! It is an eco-tourism/rural development initiative to encourage tourism in this poorer and less-visited part of the country. With some good online maps and descriptions copied into our notebook, we set out to enjoy! 

Riding out of Stung Treng

Approaching Koh Pdau

 We were able to stay the first three nights at homestays. These were associated with the Discovery Trail, and seemed a good way to support the local community, as well as have a very special experience ourselves.

We were given dinner, breakfast and if we wanted a packed lunch. We ate great feasts of rice, eggs and vegetables and even fish, all very tasty, and importantly for us, very sizeable!!
As we arrived at the village of Koh Preah to look for our first homestay, we found a welcoming and wonderfully organised system, with neat painted signs at the edge of the village informing us how the homestays worked and teaching us useful Khmer language phrases. We learnt that seven families take it in turns to be the homestay, and soon we were shepherded to the Community Chief, who then led us to our homestay for the night and helped us get settled in.

Our homestay in Koh Pdau village, easily located by the "My Turn" sign out the front!
With Saylom, the Community Chief of Koh Preah village, the two boys from our homestay and their cousin.
Probably the crux of the Trail was a 40km section that ran the length of Koh Rogniev Island, where the largest "roads" were ox-cart tracks, and numerous smaller trails headed off into the bush from unmarked intersections. We'd read some horror tales of lost cyclists before us, but had been told that the best strategy was to simply always choose the most substantial trail, and if that failed, to pull out the compass and head south! 

On Koh Rogniev

We had a wonderful time, weaving through the dry forests, sometimes drifting and foundering in deep sand drifts, and sometimes cruising sublimley on hard dirt single track! We felt quite remote for a while, seeing no-one, until the ice-cream man on his motorbike turned up! Sadness at losing remote vibes was well offset by a dreamy ice cream though!


Ollie and the ice cream man! Ooo yeah!

Through this section the heat has really kicked in. 41 degrees the daily high, cooling finally to about 24 degrees about 4am. It has seemed particularly intense on the bright dirt roads, and definitely leaves me more tired! It became a routine to cool off in the afternoon by getting in the river. Trying to keep our heads out of the water for safety reasons, we felt more like wallowing buffalo than legitimate swimmers, but either way it was divine! 

Hot riding
A lovely shady spot under our homestay. Wonderfully well-designed houses for the climate.

The river at dusk
The Mekong Trail ended at Kratie, so from there to Phnom Penh we picked our own trail of small roads by the riverside. More wonderful riding, rural villages, friendly people - all pretty idyllic! Occassionally getting a little lost, it all eventually came together very well!

On the west bank of the Mekong

Slighty lost on a lovely concrete lane, south of Kampong Cham

Some of the super friendly children! Strangly though, they do seem at libery to run out of the classroom and school grounds at any time to see us, so maybe not really ideal!
Some of you have commented on our impressive browness - but let you in on a secret, it's not all tan!!
Very dusty, sweaty but happy we turned up at the ferry crossing to Phnom Penh. Incredibly, by staying on the east side of the Mekong for the final day, we could ride dirt back roads right until the ferry that took us across the river and into downtown Phnom Penh! A real treat compared with the usual tens of kilometres of industry and busyness to battle through on entering a major city. 

Chilled village riding 4km from downtown Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh ferry

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Dark Blog

One would be a fool to journey for a year and celebrate the world’s wonders without being struck by its horrors. Ironically this year of adventure has probably lead us to spend more time searching the internet than ever before, researching our path ahead. Browsing blogs and sites for information and inspiration has made me realize just how easily we can tell just one side of a story, or how simple it is to take a pretty photo and block out the destruction beyond the frame. Perhaps we should have shared more of this 'dark side' as we've journeyed instead of lumping it all in here, I don't know. Anyway here’s an attempt at a sobering and honest blog, the dark side, showing some grim realities and sadnesses that should never be ignored. It's by no means an exhaustive list of our challenging experiences and as is the case with so much of what we observe, we are left with many questions and uncertainties. What we observe is just a glimpse, but a real glimpse nonetheless.

Dams, dams, dams.  Plenty of them around, some countries seem to have developed a particular obsession for them. As we made our way down this beautiful Georgian Valley the stunning mountain scene was suddenly scarred by this enormous hydro-electric lake. Choked with logs, the water quality plummeted to a smelly brown slop, the water fluctuation level leaving a great scar on the hillside.

Turkey is developing it’s hydro-electric network at a phenomenal rate. All over Eastern Turkey we witnessed dams and more dams under construction. Formerly free flowing rivers have been drowned. The valley upstream from this large project was home to dozens of beautiful villages and orchards which will soon be inundated.

The Nam Na river in Vietnam has been reduced to a series of hydro-electric lakes. The resettlement of people was obvious as we passed by villages of mass uniform housing at the new high water level. At their best the lakes came near to being scenic from a distance, at their worst they were completely stagnant, and full of this oily green slime. I was almost reduced to tears as we passed by a small village whom no doubt used to have a healthy stream running through their centre and now have to eek out a desperate looking life right on the banks of this filth. We passed by here as my bottom bracket broke down, my troubles seemed so measly in comparison.

Sadly there is more to come, roadside billboards mark these proud aspirations. The Gaizi river along which runs the famous Karakoram highway in China looks to soon fall victim.

It is said that Laos aims to be the ‘battery of South East Asia’. With huge river resources at it’s disposal it seems that Laos is very much rolling up it’s sleeves and getting stuck into the work of daming it’s rivers. I thought this billboard gave an interesting and disturbing insight into the mindset and the pride which is taken in these developments. Currently Laos, against all recommendations is planning the Don Sahong dam just a few kilometres downstream from where we stayed on Dong Khong Island. Predictions are that this dam would severely restrict the migration of fish on the Mekong. When one considers the food chain it’s sad to think of the likely outcome for the few Irrawaddy Dolphin and the less famous Giant Catfish, not to mention the 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong basin who feed from this river.
Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have signed up to the ‘Mekong River Commission’, and yet between them are planning 11 dams for the Lower Mekong! China lies upstream and is unwilling to partake in the commission, currently constructing multiple Mekong dams themselves. In a country as heavily touristed and ‘open’ as Laos it’s easy to presume there is a freedom of speech around such issues. Shockingly river protection activist Sombath Somphone was captured at a Police checkpoint in Vientianne in  December 2012 and as been missing since.

Right in down town Rome, just a few minutes walk from the Colosseum, the Fontana de Trevi, and the Vatican, while wandering beside the Tiber river these squatters were in full view. The place stunk like piss and the river won’t have to rise much before they’re forced on to other places. To see this poverty  in Central Rome caught me by surprise and the contrast with the wealth all around was striking.

Attitudes to rubbish disposal amaze me. It’s hard to figure out to what degree mess like this is a result of inadequate resources for better disposal systems and what is simply attitudinal. Perhaps the careless attitude evolves as a result of not having many better options. It’s hasn’t been uncommon though for us to sit in an eatery that’s floor is completely littered with old tissues, bottles and food scraps. When many people take such pride in tidiness, perhaps sweeping their mud floors with their cane broom, how strange that others can be totally ok living in such squalid mess.

During the Vietnam-American War the Americans were also fighting their secret war in Laos, the full truth of which only began to be revealed far later. Laos became the most bombed country in history and many of it’s forests were stripped by napalm attacks. Doubled with a traditional ‘slash and burn’ approach to agriculture and the hills have been left as a patchwork with enough forest left to show the previous splendor but much of it stripped back to scrubby regrowth.

The far north of Cambodia was a desolate place, the most haunting ride of our journey for me. Cycling through bare land, scorched black from burn off, with huge areas of forest cut down was like cycling through a graveyard, a graveyard of large trees that have been toppled.  A few folk live in huts amongst the carnage and for them life looks extremely tough. I have little idea to what degree this depravity was brought about by large scale industry and what was simply local loggers, either way the result is awful, the land laid to waste, now just dead stumps and smouldering ground. The village of Koh Knear sits amongst several palm trees, a tiny island of shade left in this parched land. I looked on in silent disbelief as a man hacked down another tree with powerful swings of his axe, I simply could not understand.

As we rumbled across China by train this scene was repeated literally hundreds of time. The speed of development is outrageously bizarre. Considering they have a ‘one child’ policy the mind boggles as to who these high rise apartments are being built for. 

I couldn’t help but think development at this rate will surely leave a great un-used mess in times ahead. Throughout many of the ex-Soviet countries that we visited we saw unused or unfinished buildings, often hospitals, schools and apartment blocks, that may have had their heyday but more recently had been deserted as they no longer had a use or the resources to upkeep them. Will China be filled with vacant or incomplete apartments in the future?

The morning we crossed the border from Iran to Turkey we passed an astonishing number of trucks, all parked up and waiting their turn to cross the border or transfer goods. For 5km on each side of the border they lined the roadside. Much smaller than many international shipping ports it was still a reminder of the huge amount of resource that gets poured into carting our goods around the planet so we can have whatever we want, whenever we want it.

What kind of prick keeps a Monkey on a one foot chain stuck under the table on the floor of a grotty eatery? Looking into the eyes of this little dude was just like looking into the eyes of a little human. His life must be hell.
These nomadic Berber people live high up in the Atlas mountains of Sahara. It's one thing to live in poverty in a place with mild climate and a chance at growing some food but seems like quite a different scene to be poor in a place like this. The winters are harsh, with sub-zero temperatures and snow on the ground, while summers are baking hot with extremely little rainfall. As the climate changes the winter snowpack is getting less putting greater pressure on their already precious water supply.

All this got me to musing - is it not a very scary thought that each new generation sees the current state of the planet as the norm?! How massively important it is that we take some time to dwell on what has already been ruined, to mourn what has already been lost. Not to become incapacitated and depressed but rather to motivate us into some positive response to protect all the wonders that still exist, to remember that carnage need not be the norm! I love this book  "Sensational Survivors" by Kiwi author Sandra Morris, it delves into the tragedy of what we have lost forever and the huge sadness of that, while also marveling and celebrating all that still exists. Without remembering the losses we forget the fragility of what we have and the responsibility that comes with being human.