Friday, May 10, 2013

The Tonle Sap scam...

It is widely known that Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Scams are all over the place, from kids begging for food and bringing it back to the shop you bought it from in the first place, to buses dropping you at ridiculous places out of town, just so you have to use tuk-tuks...

I guess it's a part of Cambodia you just have to learn how to deal with.

You will probably just spend an extra dollar here and there, if you're not good at dodging this crap.

But then there's today's story;

Yesterday we talked to the guesthouse owner about Angkor Wat (did I mention I'm in Siem Reap? I guess not. SR it is...). We weren't quite sure if one day would be enough to see the complex, so we figured we'd ask him. Friendly as always, he gave us a lot of information. Nothing new about the temples, but well... He said that one day is usually enough for the people that want to see Angkor. Good! That would save us 40 bucks...

He then told us that it would be nice to go to Tonle Sap lake on another day. Tonle Sap is a huge lake where people still fish in traditional ways. Apart from that, there's quite a lot of birds and other animals you should be able to see there...

He told us a boat trip would be 20$ per person. In southeast Asia, that's quite a lot of money. We never spent that amount on a simple day tour before, since we usually dodge tours.

On this trip, we would see the traditional Khmer fisherman's life. The floating village and the lake, well part of it at least.

Sounds nice. The money would be well-spent as it would be used to build the community. Even better. Right?

So we got there, a short boat trip through a man-made canal brought us to the actual lake. The driver told us something about the villages and poverty, nothing new. He strictly told us not to give money to the women and kids that float around in small boats (and cling on to every boat that moves). They used the money to buy booze, so he said.

If we wanted to contribute to building the community, we could visit a market to buy some food and donate this to the orphanage school in the village. Well okay, we thought. Spending a few dollars to feed a few mouths today doesn't seem bad... 5$ we can miss, I mean... Until that point, no-one told us anything about prices, amounts or anything.

Without further question we suddenly arrived at the market, which was conveniently located on our side of the village... We were led to a pile of rice bags. There was no doubt in any of the people here. We were going to buy stuff, like it or not!

"One bag can feed the school for a week", one of the guys said (which sounds good, righy?). "Maybe you can buy a bag of rice and drinking water?" We were still convinced we would help people here. So we asked for a price. "65 dollars." Ehh, wow! We weren't planning on spending that much. We gotta feed ourselves too, you know. I'm not exactly rich...

We asked if we could maybe buy something cheaper. Something in our budget (which I had stretched to 20$ by then). "Less food will not feed all the children", he said. 65 dollar's worth would be okay.

I refused, I'm still living on a student budget. When we asked for smaller bags, he said they were 35$ for 30kgs. Still too much, so I asked an older couple who were clearly 'forced to do good' here as well. They would love to share the price of a bag and maybe some water (5$ for 6 liters).

The guy didn't seem to like this idea and told us it was better to buy noodles instead. One box for 20$. Together with water, that would be fine. It really felt like we didn't have a choice at this point. We stretched our budget to 25$.

From the market we went to the orphanage school. Not much teaching seemed to be done here. An abundance of kids, though, though not as much as they told us. Our donations were taken and brought behind the scenes. I'm not even sure anyone said thanks, but heck, that's not the reason I bought it.

Minutes later we were at another floating thing. On this raft there was a crocodile enclosure of which I'm not sure what the purpose was. Ok, 5 minutes here were enough, maybe 10?

You should realize that up to this point we had spent 15 minutes in the village. Market, school, croc thing. The boat returned to the port...!

On the way back I thought about what we had done. I started to calculate a little.

How much would a big bag of rice cost? In the Netherlands you would pay 50 euro cent per kg. Over here in Cambodia, probably less than a dollar for 5kgs, especially when bought in bulk, nextdoor to the place they grow the crop. Right?

How did a bag of rice of maybe 50kgs end up costing 65 $?

Why are 12 small water bottles 5$ when you can get 10 big ones for that price?

Irrational thoughts crossed my mind here, too. The food would probably be brought back to the market to be resold.

In the time I was on the school boat, enough food arrived to feed the school for 2 weeks (or over 150$ worth). In 5 minutes! There was no stack of food here. Where did they leave the stuff?

I am 100% ripped off by this scam. The trip was worth less than 5$ pp, and boring too. Without us knowing about it we were led to this make belief donation scam. There was never a tour! 65$ out of our pocket into theirs. You wouldn't believe how many Koreans and Japanese we saw on their way to the market. Dozens! One big cashcow!

I don't feel bad for spending 65$, but for spending it here. 65$ could have made a real cause really happy.

If you ever find yourself in Siem Reap, don't go to Tonle Sap for a tour. It sucks and is a scam!

I'm not sure if the school was an orphanage. The kids did look happy and well-fed. No educational resources whatsoever... They definitely don't get money out of this scam.

Arghh!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Crabs!

Yesterday, we finally were able to travel to our next destination. After being stuck in Phnom Penh with my dengue-infected girlfriend for 8 days, I really felt like moving on. I didn't like pp much. A lot of begging kids, kids selling stuff, usually for their parents. Seeing 6 year olds trying to sell bracelets just breaks my heart. Kids should be in school! 30 percent of those kids doesn't go to school. In a country with a high economic growth, where does the money go?

Our next destination would be Kep, a small town at the coast, just next to the Vietnam border. We arrived in the dark, so we couldn't really judge the place on its looks.

A friendly tuktuk driver told us to eat 1,5 km further, at the crab market. He brought us to his brother's restaurant. Hmmz. I never ate crab before, but as it turned out, this brother knew how to cook them. Jesus, that stuff is so delicious, I just have to go there again tonight!

Today we rented a scooter and drove it around a little bit. After visiting a pepper plantation and salt fields (did you know that white, black, green and red pepper come from the same plant? I didn't!) we returned to Kep, to look for an ATM. There are none :/. We had to drive all the way to Kampot to find one. A 50 km roundtrip. At least we used the motorbike to full advantage.

In a minute we will have to feast on those delicious crabs again. I can't wait!

Tomorrow, a boat will bring us to Koh Tonsay, rabbit island, hopefully we can spend a few days there. More on that later!

I hope they serve crab there! Oh delicious crustacean. Jummy!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Speechless...

Wow, today I'll probably receive my 20.000th page view. Some blogs might reach that number in a week, but mine never did. I'm totally fine with that, I think 20.000 is a lot.

I just want to write a few words about what I did today.

Since my girlfriend has been sick for 5 days now (she has dengue fever, I got the disease 2 months ago, too), I haven't seen much of Phnom Penh. Yesterday I decided to walk around a bit. Nothing special, I saw Wat Phnom, central market and the independence monument. Nothing noteworthy there.

Today, I decided I had to see at least one of the things I came here to see; Tuol Sleng.

This school, turned torture prison by Khmer Rouge, is now a museum. Not much was changed since the Khmer Rouge fled in 1979.

It's a horrible place! From the outside, you'd think it was an average Asian school building. Add lots of barbwire, though.

On the inside, it's left as it was, when used during the Pol Pot regime. Steel beds with chains en cuffs. Some classrooms were filled with brick and mortar cabins, just big enough for an average Cambodian man to sleep in.

Then there's the pictures... Classrooms filled with hundreds and hundreds of them. Victims were photographed when they arrived, before they were tortured and eventually killed. It's hard to describe the feeling you get when you look at them. They are staring at you. Fear, anger, disbelief, pain, sadness and hatred. You can see it in their eyes. It's hard to be here. But I think it's important to see with your own eyes what happened here. That it may never happen again!

The sick fucks that ran this place took pictures of the torturing and the dead prisoners too. Like I said, it's a horrible place.

And then, you enter a room. Pictures of one man, who I later found was the head of prison. The bastard is still alive today... In prison, although I assume, judging from the pictures, he gets a better treatment than his own prisoners...

It is estimated that about 20.000 people were kept and tortured here. Why, you ask? Good question!

It seemed like Khmer Rouge itself didn't know why. Pol Pot was building an agricultural state, he didn't need any intelligent people. Lawyers, teachers, doctors, all were killed. Even his own followers were killed here. At the slightest suspicion of foreign contact, people were tortured and killed. The accusations were usually made up...

I read somewhere that Pol Pot once said that to fulfill his plans, he needed 2 million farmers. Everyone else was too much.

His regime killed between 2 and 3 million Cambodians in just over 3 years... A quarter of the population.

Tuol Sleng is just one of 196 prisons that were in use back then. There were 7 people alive in their cells when the Khmer Rouge left the place.

I met one of them today.

At the prison.

He was selling his book.

He was smiling.

I was speechless...

Maybe I still am?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Random observations...

There's a smiling friendly restaurant owner, who successfully lured us into his place. Good guy!

There were fried rice noodles, there was soy sauce. Bits of fresh broccoli. Delicious!

There are tuk tuks. And their drivers. Annoying ones, too.

There are westerners, men, holding hands with Asian women... Love? I'm not sure...

There's the sun, although it's not as hot as in other places I've seen on this trip.

There's a rat, hiding in the shade of a cigarette shop. It comes out to get bits of rice from the trash. Is it rice? The rat doesn't like the sun... He eats in his shaded hideout.

There are women pushing trash carts. Shouting words I fail to understand.

There are young kids selling roses, begging, stealing, probably... Who's to blame? 5 year olds shouldn't be doing this crap.

There's the history. An awful one. I'm not quite sure I want to see it...

And there's me. I'm sitting in a guesthouse lounge in Phnom Penh. The lone observer.

There's a bunch of locals playing pool.

I never liked pool...


Don Det and Don Khone

When I arrived at Don Det, the first thought that popped into my mind was 'Oh nooo!'. The place is filled with bars, minimarkets, guesthouses and restaurants. Tour agencies were everywhere... Because we carried backpacks, everyone seemed ridiculously friendly. The fake kind. After we had dropped our bags in the cheapest bungalow ever, we strolled around the village. No smiles, no hello's, not this time. Fake friendliness, it's spreading all over Asia.

Our first day, we felt quite bad about the place. We want to see nature, culture and experience the countries we visit. There's no culture here, so it seems. Bikini babes and happy shakes. People drinking beer in the Mekong... Weird!

The second day I woke up early. We decided to rent bikes and go to Don Khone, the other island, connected by an old railway bridge, built by the French. We came to these islands to see the irrawaddy dolphins. These river dolphins are almost extinct, with only 7 left in this part of the Mekong... So around 9.30am we took a boat to see them, before it's too late. I think we saw 2 or 3 of them. The sight was great. You really start to realize what the heck we're doing to our planet and its amazing creatures. Sad, but true. We are a natural disaster...

In the heat of the day, we went for the Mekong waterfalls at the west coast of Don Khone. It's dry season, but even now an incredible amount of water is flushing down there. Very, very impressive!

Close to the falls, there's a tiny beach where we took a dip. We met some friendly French and Austrian people, who invited us for a beer. It was fun! But then we had to cycle the whole way back. There was no human being to be found outside, probably because it was pretty humid... Just after we left a tropical thunderstorm had started pooring. As fast as we could we went back to our bungalow. Still, we were completely soaked!

The two of us had a romantic candlelight dinner at Jasmin, the best restaurant on the island. Oh, yeah, there was no electricity on the island during the storm. Don't mistake me for some hopeless romantic ;).

I had high hopes for a cool day today... This morning it was chilly, but now the sun is back blasting at us with full force. The humidity makes temperatures seem even higher.

I did see a snake today. Finally! I didn't see one since I was in Railay 2 months ago... Just not quite sure about the species. I'll find out later (and treated it as if it were highly venomous)...

But first I'll doze off in my hammock! Don Det is not that bad after all! You can avoid the happy shakes easily :). I guess it will be far worse in high season...

Friday, April 19, 2013

Boring afternoons... Yes it happens...

Today is one of those days, i just don't know what to do. I'm kind of bored...

Don Khong happens to be a little disappointing...

This morning I rented a scooter and explored the island. A round-the-island trip is around 48km, the roads are quite a struggle and the scooter wasn't the best. We drove for 2 hours and decided that we'd return the scooter.

The island consists mainly of rice paddies and (beautiful) traditional houses. I think in wet season it will make a beautiful landscape, but today it is dry season, and everything's dry. Did I mention that the place is dry? It's a freakin' desert!

I had hoped for a few secluded spots where we could take a dip in the mighty Mekong river, but as far as I can tell, there were none... Tough luck. Don Det will probably be better...

In the afternoons there's not much you can do here. It is so hot and dry... It is almost unbearable without a place to swim (or a Lao new year soaking) close by.

So here I am, sitting at an empty restaurant, enjoying the beautiful river view. Struggling hard to empty a big bottle of water, to replenish the lost drops of sweat, hoping my headache will settle down.

A few metres from here, they still seem to be partying for Lao new year. I'm wondering if they'll ever stop... They seem to love a blend of cow-bell filled keyboard tunes and karaoke. Their singing sounds so wrong, but seeing these people having an awesome time, well it makes up for it.

Tomorrow we're off for Don Det. That is, if the boatman is willing to bring us... Apparently 2 persons is not enough... Fingers crossed...

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Arrival at Don Khong, Laos

This morning was too early for me! Even though I booked a trip to 4000 islands by local bus, I got picked up this morning by a guy in a minivan. After driving through Pakse for over one hour, the driver had filled the bus (and tires too, by the way). Off to Don Khong, the largest of the islands.

The ride was bad, due to cramping buttocks and the lack of Imodium, but hey, I survived.

We arrived at the tiniest harbour ever. The boat that was about to bring us to the island was the single most awesome catamaran I have ever seen. The crappiest one, too.

The trip took 5 minutes across the Mekong. On the island we quickly found a cheap and neat place to stay.

I hope my gi tract will stop feeling like a warzone soon. Tomorrow we will explore the island. Today I won't do shit. Time to rest and digest. Maybe check the roads for snakes after dark. Hope I'll find stuff.

Ciao