Showing posts with label contiki. Show all posts
Showing posts with label contiki. Show all posts

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Contiki Big Indochina Adventure #8 | Phnom Penh

After catching an early flight we landed in the Capital of Cambodia Phnom Penh and it was straight onto the Killing Fields. We were warned that it was going to be a hard day and it's a day that is certainly going to take me a long time to forget. The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where nearly 2 million people were executed under the The Communist Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979. It's an horrific place to visit, but a necessary one. It's truly one the most horrifying place I've ever been too.

Cheung Ek Killing Fields
It's a must see if you visit Cambodia. Cambodia has a deep and dark history that needs to be learnt. It's extremely interesting, but extremely distressing. You have to tread carefully on the ground as there is still bone fragments buried in the ground. You're walking past what use to be mass grave, after mass grave. At one point I had to walk away, as it got too much. It's scary that things like this happened in my parents age. We all know the horrors our Grandparents and Great-Grandparents faced, but this isn't talked about enough. Every single family in Cambodia was affected my this horrendous regime and it's just devastating.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a communist group led by a man named Pol Pot took over Phnom Penh. The civil war was officially over. However within 3 hours Pol Pot began his reign of terror All Cambodians living in cities were forced into the countryside. The Khmer Rouge wanted to create an equal society of just one class - agricultural class. Every citizen that was deemed to be an intellectual instantly became the enemy. If they knew another language, held a job other than in the agricultural field or even wore glasses he/she would be tortured in prison, those who refused to cooperate with the Khmer Rouge were executed straight off. Those who did cooperate were to to these fields to work for up to 15 hours a day. If you entered the killing fields, you weren't getting out. If you weren't killed you died of exhaustion and starvation.
We our own guide for the duration of the day. We were given an extremely informative, yet sensitive talk by our local tour guide who's close family had been affected. It made it all that little bit more real. It was invaluable getting that experience and I learnt an incredible amount. What struck me the most was how forgiving he was. He lost close family members and he wasn't as angry as he should of been. If that was me I know I would be bitter for a very, very long time. Of course anger never solves anything, but his strength and dignity is extremely admirable. We walking around and were told to tread carefully as their were bones as well as teeth protruding from the ground. When it rains bone fragments and teeth wash up from the killing fields.
We had a little a while here and we were encouraged to look around and to ask as many questions as we wished. Our Tour Manager was on hand to check we were all okay and came prepared with tissues and had said from the outset if anyone wanted to leave to just tell him. It's hard to explain the emotions you feel when you're trying to avoid walking on mass graves and to show respect for the thousands of lives lost. It's one I hope I don't experience again. I'm soft at heart, I take things to heart and I pretty much wear my heart on my sleeve but even though I wanted to run, run away and hide back in my fairytale of bows and all things superficial, I needed to know that the world is shit and unfair and fucked up at times.
 I have a very blessed life and I count my lucky stars daily that I come from a world and a family where my "problems" aren't problems at all. We were all still a bit deflated from the horrors we learnt about Laos the day before so for me personally this was the worst day. Men, women and children were brutally and savagely killed in these fields (and other's throughout Cambodia)and to stand on the ground close to the mass graves that it happened in was nothing short of harrowing. We past a tree that was covered in colourful bracelets(a visitor tribute) and were told that this tree was used to kill babies, by bashing against them against the tree, and a lot of the time in front of their mothers. Some children were victims in more ways than one. some were horrendously brainwashed against their parents and turned into child soldiers. Many of their first kills were that of their families.  
At the end of the guided tour we had a chance to enter the memorial. Myself and Rena were the last ones to go in, as we weren't sure how much of it we wanted to see, but we decided we had to see it, no matter how horrendous it was going to be. In this memorial, skulls of the victims were placed on shelves. They had children's skulls as well as adults, male and female. It's something I won't forget for as long as I live. After a while we hopped back on the bus to discover more of Cambodia's dark and distressing history. 

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum 
The Tuol Sleng is a Genocide museum in Phnom Penh. This is definitely no ordinary museum and it definitely shows the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. It's a High School converted into a prison (torture camp pretty much) during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. This prison was for people accused of committing political crimes although I want to add that most prisoners hadn't committed any crime and it was just Pol Pott being paranoid rationalising that it was better to kill an innocent man then let a guilty man go free.
 As I've mentioned this site was a former High School but it was turned into a torture, interrogation and execution centre(Security Prison 21) under the Khmer Rouge. It's quite harrowing walking through what use to be classrooms turned into torture chambers. Tuol Sleng was one of 150 execution sites in Cambodia. Over the 14,000 known prisoners that entered only 7 survived.  Prisoners were photographed upon entering the prison and you can see their portraits in some of the buildings. To show respect to all the lives lost there is not shouting or yelling and everyone respects that, so there's a sombre eeriness in the air.

One picture out of the hundreds on show really stood out to me. It was of a young woman probably about the same age as me and the look of determination said it all. A big "F YOU" to the camera. They may of taken her freedom but they sure as hell weren't going to take her dignity or her spirit. The pictures range drastically to determination to down right fear. You're sounded by these pictures and you imagine back not so long ago that these people were subjected to unimaginable torture here. There's an interesting online Gallery where you can see some of these photographs. Although I will warn you, some are distressing and extremely haunting. 
It's a really grim place again. It's really, really interesting and as a History nerd it's a place I'd love to revisit and spend longer there, but I can understand why Contiki don't spend longer there. The real number of prisoners isn't really known but as there are estimates that it was up to 20,000. Upon entering prisoners had their photo's taken, were made strip down to their underwear and had all their possessions confiscated. Most prisoners were held up to 3 months and though some important high ranking officers were held longer. They were shackled to the floor sometimes together in tiny cells. They were also searched every morning for anything that they could potentially kill themselves with, as a few prisoners had committed suicide. 
The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to disobey. Almost every action had to be approved by one of the guards. When prisoners were taken from one building to another for interrogation their heads were covered and guards and prisoners were not allowed to converse. The torture system was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever "crimes" they had committed. Prisoners were routinely beaten, cut, suffocated. had their fingernails pulled off, had their heads held underwater and some female prisoners were raped. Although many prisoners died during torture killing them was discouraged. Prisoners were asked to describe their personal background and asked if they were a party member. They were asked on when they joined and to relay their apparent treasonous acts.  
Out of the minimum 14,000 recorded prisoners only 7 survived with just 2 still alive today. We were lucky enough to meet one of the survivors. We met Chum Mey, who survived 2 years of torture in Tuol Sleng and is the most incredibly inspirational man. I purchased a signed copy of his book for my Dad, but I read it myself along my travels in Australia and it gave me an incredible insight into the Khmer Rouge regime. the fact that I met him made the book all the more inspirational. The prison was finally closed in 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. This was Asia's answer to the holocaust and a lot of the deaths go unrecognised. Cambodia is still reeling from this tragedy and many families are still missing loved ones, presuming they're dead.
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Thursday, 28 May 2015

Contiki Big Indochina Adventure #7 | Vientiane

After a long drive we arrived in the capital. You could tell instantly it was the capital city as it was a lot more westernised then anywhere else we visited. Vientiane was the administrative capital during French rule and due to economic growth in recent times it is now the economic centre of Laos. The architecture is very much French influenced, which is most apparent with the Patuxai or "Victory Gate" which bares great resemblance of the Arch De Triomphe in Paris. It is typically Laotian in it's design featuring mythical creatures such as Kinnari or "Half female, half bird".  We climbed to the top and were met with the most incredible views of the city. I'm a city girl at heart so I loved being back in hustle and bustle! We took a tour around the local landmarks, my favourites being the Patuxai and Pha That Luang.

Phat That Luang

After sightseeing, we were brought to the Cope Centre. The Cope Centre . It was incredibly moving, and incredibly upsetting at the same time. Laos is the most bombed country per capita in history. During 1964 and 1974 the United States dropped more than 2 MILLION tons of ordinance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions. It's not broadcasted as much or as loudly as it should be. Laos is nearly forgotten. Today was the first day of the trip that I got upset, upset that I didn't know to the extent of what happened. 30% of the bombs dropped during the Vietnam War didn't go off, meaning some are still active today. What's shocking that even though people know bombs were dropped in certain area's they've little choice to still farm the land, as they need to make a living. The main income in Laos comes from agriculture, so it's a catch 22. The devastation of a bomb going off affects the whole family.  If the Father is killed or looses limbs, the family is more or less screwed. Another concern is for children playing on the land, as if they find one they'd assume it was a toy. It's so devastating, and it still doesn't sit right with me that the U.S did what they did and aren't contributing enough to Laos - but if we're honest what is enough?


  I did Vietnam History in school and touched on it in University but Laos was only ever mentioned in passing, only briefly discussing what happened to Laos. I was aware of it, and I knew it was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War, but I didn't know to what extent, and I didn't know how much it was affecting the Laotian people today. The Cope Centre are a wonderful organisation that was created in response to the need to provide UXO (unexploded Ordinance)  survivors with the care and support they required, namely by way of orthotic and prostethic devices. The rehabilitation centre provide access to prosthetic devices as well as rehabilitation centres, including physiotherapy, occupational therapy and paediatric services to people with disabilities. It was a pleasure to visit such a wonderful organisation. After a short movie we were shown around. As well as a visitor centre the complex also hosts a Rehabilitation Hospital. The whole experience was enlightening to say the least. A lot of the group made donations as well. It moved a lot of us. I donated a leg online as I didn't have any cash on me at the time, and I was so touched that I couldn't not do something to help.  It was so easy to do it through the website. It's something that touched my heart and something that I'd like to continue to donate to for many years to come.

The Cope Centre 
It was then back onto the bus to make our way to our hotel. The hotel was a cool boutique, with funky corridors. It was here the first accident of my trip happened. We were flying to Phnom Pehn the next day and after packing I wanted to weight my case. What I didn't realise was that my suitcase weighing scale was on the dodgy side. Upon trying to lift it up it snapped and went flying into my lip! I'm so lucky my mouth was closed or that it didn't hit my eye. My lip started bleeding and man it swelled up! My lovely friend Stephie came to my aid and was the perfect nurse to the biggest baby on the trip. I walked around Vientiane with a cold can of Diet Coke to my lip for the rest of the evening. We all split up for dinner all a bit tired and deflated from the day before. We had a quick look at the night market before hitting the hay, as it was an early enough start the next day.

Next Stop Cambodia!
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Sunday, 17 May 2015

Contiki Big Indochina Adventure #6 | Vang Vieng

The drive from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng was 8 hours long. To be honest it was grand, a lot better than I was expecting as someone who can get a bit travel sick. We all popped some anti-sickness pills and slept a lot of the way, only stopping for Oreo and Pringle top ups - the essentials of course. We did however stop at a beautiful mountain restaurant for an included lunch that boasted beautiful views of the Laos countryside. It's here where I decided Laos was my favourite country- premature maybe, but I wasn't wrong. It also boasted the best Squat toilet's I've ever used - didn't think I'd ever write that sentence! You walked in and you were greeted with a mountain view where a wall should of been. There was just mountains in the distance so you could pee in private! Crazy, yes, but that's just Asia. 
After being  adequately fed, we got back on the bus for one last nap before reaching our destination- Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is a quaint spot. It's a quiet enough town, and the footpaths are so dodgy, so we all just walked on the road. It made famous or should I say infamous, by Tubing. Which is basically when  you get into a tube and float down the Mekong,where the Bar tenders would throw you a rope and bring you in to their fine establishment. A few years ago in 2011 it was actually voted the most dangerous place for backpackers in the entire world, after there being nearly 30 deaths in one year. Since then most of the bars along the river have closed down, however three are still up and running! After witnessing it, I can honestly say tubing down the Mekong river is dangerous, and to put it bluntly fucking stupid. If you value your life at all, don't jump into a rubber ring and join the crowd of fools sailing down the Mekong. Each bar is as grim as the next as well,  Not to say it's not good craic when you're with good company! As well all had a blast, but man you'd want to watch yourself - and your friends! 
Anyway we arrived to Vang Vieng late in the afternoon and had some "free time" Now what I will say with Contiki especially the Big Indochina Adventure you're not left with much "free time" Now of course there are optional activities but mostly the entire group do, as they're pretty good excursions. On Contiki you can  definitely choose to skip things as there's no pressure to do anything,but doing all the Optional Extra's I found I'd very little time to chill - but hey I can sleep when I'm dead! In the evening we all went out for a bite to eat at Kangaroo Sunset Bar. Another chilled backpacker bar. The food honestly is just grand, I've had worse, and I've had better but it filled a gap and it was then onto the more important part- the drink! If you want to get drunk off one drink in Vang Vieng head to Kangaroo Sunset bar. We had a cute friendship ceremony where we were all blessed by a village elder there too, so it's a pretty cool place! They had promotions on the whole night and in honor of Australia Day, which happened to be the next day. If you bought the "Kangaroo Sunset" cocktail which tasted like moonshine, you got a free Singlet. Running out of clean clothes was enough to pull this sucker in. The cocktail was horrendously strong, but hey It helped me dance like Beyonce, so it was obviously worth it.
Up early enough the next day, but not too early thank God! (Yay for non 4am starts) Most of us opted for the Tubing excursion as well as Kayaking. The Tubing was in a dark cave, and you just followed the rope around it. Nothing ground breaking exciting but it was still fun nonetheless, would I do it again? probably not but we had time to relax in the sun for awhile and that's always a positive! After Tubing we took a Kayak down the Mekong back to our hotel, which took us a little over an hour. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, and we were surrounded by the beautiful Laos scenery so it was perfect. Being the group we were, we all got a bit competitive with people being splashed and boats threatened to being capsized! Word of warning though, don't under any circumstance drink the Mekong water, and keep your mouth sealed shut when you're splashing about. One of the guys on tour had a beer on-board the Kayak, and the water accidentally got into it, and he was really ill the next day, the poor thing! It's not fun when you're ill and you have a long enough bus journey the next day! 
After the Kayaking we were all tired and had some downtime before all donning  our free Australia Day merchandise and painting our faces yellow and green to celebrate Australia Day, as most of the tour was from Australia- or 'Straya! Back to Kangaroo Sunset for some more food, the time it gave me a dodgy stomach! Now I had recently gotten my gallbladder removed so I'm not too sure if it was that or the change of diet, but I definitely felt a little bit funny! Anyway it was nothing too severe. After a bite to eat we hopped into some vans and made out to the infamous river bars where we got a small boat across to the bar for obvious reasons. We arrived there and we all just stuck together after getting some drinks, Everyone was inebriated.  It reminded of the time I went to Crete with all my girlfriends after finishing Secondary School  to drink cheap drinks for 7 days. Back then it was the crazy and very exciting.The drink was forever cheap and flowing freely and you didn't have any concept of limits when it came to drinking.  Fast forward 7 years however and it was a bit grim, that's just my opinion however.  I swear I think my heart dropped on several occasions watching kid, after kid ping head first into the shallow river. That's not to say it wasn't just 18 year old jumping in, grown men were practically belly flopping into the water - funny to watch, but not funny when you realise how shallow the water is
Now of course I understand a lot of these guys were on their "Gap Yah" so they're 18/19 and like me in Crete it's the first taste of freedom away from a family holiday, so you need to keep them some slack, but man knowing what I know now, no kid of mine is ever going to Vang Vieng - I kid, I kid. I'll go with them! I'll turn into my stalker Mother - Hey Mom! Anyway we made it to two bars and then we all had enough and went back to Kangaroo sunset where we all got some more drinks and danced! I ordered a cocktail that sounded quite fruity, but it ended up being 99.99% vodka and a dash of 7up! Needless to say the rest of the night is quite foggy! I do remember going home, having a shower and going back out. It was probably to save time in the morning, as I'm the worst morning person in the world! I don't know, but like all drunk idea's it seemed like a good idea at the time! We were up early the next day, I avoided breakfast as my stomach was a little tender from the night before, and just made myself comfortable on the coach, beside my Kansas buddy Wade, who kindly kept the bus filled with snacks- I choose my friends wisely! 
Now I know I'm not painting it in the most positive light, but all the Contiki group had so much fun together, we really did have a good team! Out of the 3 tours I've done this group was definitely my favourite as a whole! We said our goodbyes to Vang Vieng, it was bittersweet. We were ready to leave and recuperate but we did fall in love with the beauty of it all. We had another long drive today, but again we took some motion sickness pills and we were all knocked out! I'swear it's a Tour Manager trick to get some peace and quiet from us all for a few hours! I kid, they were a lifesaver as the Laotian roads aren't up to European standards!

Until next time...
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