Coffee, clothes, sex and genocide: cycling through south east Asian poverty

An extended photo gallery is located at the bottom of this post

Sabaideeeeee! Sabaideeeee!, the cute Laotian kids would yell in unison, whenever we whizzed through a village. Their distinctively high pitched voices, when chorused together sounded more like a pack of (goat) kids rather than (human) kids. We were rarely able to spot where the voices came from because the bright sunny exterior contrasted against the darkness beneath the stilted homes- under which the families lounge around- means it’s hard for your eyes to adjust to spot your welcomers. So we often just waived back blindly.

And what a relief to have such a welcome after such a relentless Vietnamese experience!


Laos

Nothing much happened really until a few hundred kilometres into the country. Scenically it was beautiful- the stilted houses alone can be masterpieces of art; in the same way that you might cycle around Queensland and enjoy their distinctive bungalows. I found it hard to break the photographer’s wall though because every time I stopped to take a photo, my eyes would eventually notice the families underneath staring back at me.

The food we were getting was pants. It struck us then that whenever we go through such poor countries as this, you often only find meat, meat and meat. Surely meat is more expensive to farm than vegetables? It’s like the central Asian conundrum where every bazaar had spices and veg on offer yet every household and every restaurant would only serve up the same three dishes: meat, meat and meat with no sign of any of these spices (bar two or three) ever being used. We saw vegetables in Laos but we couldn’t see much evidence of them being used.

So it was with euphoria and ecstasy that a week after entering the country, we arrived into our first touristy town called Pakse. In case you missed the link: touristy = food choices.

Lunch

chickpea curry, aubergine curry, daal, naan bread, lassi

Dinner

chickpea curry, fish curry, daal, naan bread, chapati, beer.

Breakfast

fruit, muesli with yogurt and local fresh coffee.

We stayed another day and repeated the culinary cycle with little variation.

The south of Laos is probably best enjoyed in the hilly jungles so rather than bicycle in such tremendous heat, we took off on a 120cc Harley Davidson and spent four days looking intimidating and riding around the spectacular Bolaven plateau. Spectacular because it was jungle roads, waterfalls every dozen kilometres and the first time I’d ever seen coffee plantations.

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Laotian Lattes

I was surprised when I first learnt (in China) that bananas grow on trees, but I mean who knew that coffee does too ?? And did you know that coffee beans are translucent in colour and each bean has its own green pod? Our supermarkets back home have done a great job covering all these facts up! Next they’ll be telling me that chicken breasts have legs!

We came across a lot of sustainable projects in Laos. To the point where we wondered, in our ever sceptical mindsets, if the word was just banded around to attract the well-to-do organic-environmental-hippy-pot-smoking-middle-class-western tourists. It took a long time for us to get served in one such cafe-cum-school-cum-sustainable community project establishment we visited. Had the three French owners not all been so busy dealing with one single problem in between drags on their spliffs, I might have afforded the “sustainable” tag, ubiquitous throughout the country’s beauty spots, with less scepticism.

We learnt that Laos is the world’s second biggest producer of coffee but the reason you are most likely unaware of this, or indeed of any Laos-coffee relationship, is because it produces mostly the robusta type.

Coffee 101

Robusta beans have a sharp bitter quality and thus considered inferior so is used by freeze-dried coffee manufacturers such as Nescafé.

Whereas the coffee used in a London hipster’s frappaflapperfuckerccino- like most coffee in the west- is known as arabica.

Funnily enough, you can stop in any village shop in Laos including on the Bolaven plateau and choose between a sachet of re-imported Nescafé or the equivalent local instant brand.

But seeing where the coffee came from first-hand did plant a seed of well-to-do organic-environmental-middle-classness in our heads. The existence of local think tank cafes claiming to pay their farmers a fair living wage made us realise first-hand that this is indeed an exploited industry. The very fact that these places existed suggested that it wasn’t normal to pay coffee farmers a living wage.

I mean we knew that already of course, but we all know a lot of facts from passive newspaper absorption; the difference here of course was that we were travelling through it all, meaning that we were really getting to know this fact.  Anyway, here we were being charged about £1 for a cup of (arabica) coffee that comes with a sustainable tag. In the UK, I began wondering how much of your £3+ per cup is split between overheads, retail, transit and producer or indeed the £3.50 per 250g Columbian arabica in Tesco (from memory).

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oh look! Some kittens!!

Continuing our bicycling down and along the Mekong we took a few days off to visit the area known as the four thousand island delta near the Cambodian border. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit all four thousand islands but we did narrow it down to three, spending a few days on Don Det which was home to yet more curry houses as well as nice relaxed riverside shack bars selling cheap draft beer and offering “magic” variations of anything you order- from pizzas to smoothies to brownies (I had to explain this one to Carmen).

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Cambodia

Then we crossed into Cambodia and experienced our first bit of corruption. But we had been forewarned by the travel community so we were already prepared.

First up, “overtime fee” for outgoing Laos guards.

“Why would I pay for your overtime? Surely you should talk to your boss about this?” was my response. I pointed my finger at him, said “corruption?” and he stamped us out and let us through.

And then incoming Cambodian customs.
“Health check $4 please”
“erm when and where do we do the health check?”
“Sir I did the health check just now, your temperature reading.”
“$4 to read our temperature? Ok, what’s my temperature then, you made a note of it right?”
Starts to point laser at me again but I stop him and say “Corruption?”
“Sir no corruption! It’s compulsory.”
“It’s not compolsary and we are not paying”
“Ok you can’t come into Cambodia then”
(Grinning) “Fine, we will camp here in no-mans land just behind you on that grass. We have a tent.”
(Grinning) “Yes sir you can camp there, I keep your passport”
(Grinning) “No problem, we have lots of time, there’s no bus waiting for us you see! Do you have food in your office there?”
(Grinning) “no food no”
(Grinning) “no problem, we have cooker and food, we will cook”
(Pissed off) “Yes yes no problem” stamps and hands us back passports.

Seems that if you nail the problem on the head, corruption is fun.

Holiday

Whose ever idea it was to cycle from London to Malaysia by bike was a stupid one. After spending every single 24 hours and 7 days a week around each other since leaving Bishkek in March, we needed a break. Not just from cycling but also from each other. It was probably around this time that we started to feel deflated about cycling- possibly due to the heat- a feeling which would stay with us a further few weeks. We were tiring ourselves out and therefore winding each other up so the natural thing to do was to suspend all cycling operations and spend a week apart, doing our own thing and in our own space and time. And without the same financial frontiers we were used to.

Carmen, amazingly, decided to start with a two day bike ride. /whatever/

I hopped on a coach and headed for the capital, Phnom Penh. Sod biking! I spent the first day with a bakery hit list cycling around the capital in search of a chocolate tart. My hit list comprised screen shots of alleged tarts and google map locations. I spent about four hours doing this; I didn’t notice the temples, the riverside or any of the city’s quirks. All I saw were potential places that might house chocolate tarts. I was unsuccessful but that didn’t matter. It was about fulfilling my own drive. I like chocolate tarts you see. In the same way that Carmen felt like she just had to…..cycle.

I got an email from Carmen to say that cycling along the quiet Mekong and through its temple-laden villages was stunning. She had stopped in a temple and got well fed by the monks. No photos to show though because she was cameraless (it’s MY camera).

More interestingly though, on her first day and within the first hour, she’d seen three different locals bashing their own Buddhas in the street, in broad daylight.

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Not the chocolate tart I was after but any of these’ll do

Killing Fields

It’s odd reality that the main tourist attraction in Phnom Penh is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, a title I think makes it sound like you are going there for services rather than for the museum that it is. Yes it does sound somber but god, what an experience. It’s the audio guide [click] that is the most arresting aspect and really defines the museum.

The museum was once the country’s biggest killing field where the Khmer Rouge wiped out 8985 people. They don’t really know the exact number of total deaths around the country’s 20,000 mass graves but it’s somewhere between 1.7-2.5 million people- about a quarter of the population. The field itself is now a quiet meadow and its humped terrain testament to the mass graves that once were.

You are given the audio guide as you enter and are immediately immersed into overwhelming emotion as the gentle warm voice introduces himself in English as a victim of this field (but who managed to evade execution). Most voices are first-hand, a fact that reminds you how very recent it all is.

You are free to wander around the meadow; the only rule being to remain quiet and avoid stepping on any bones or clothes you might come across- of which there were plenty. Whenever it rains, bones, teeth and cloth are collected and added to the piles; we were there during the rainy season.

It takes about 90 mins to listen to all of the accounts. Like me, other tourists are strolling around in slow motion, head down, concentrating on what’s being said. Some people are just sat down by the small lake thinking. If I take the earphones off, all I hear are birds tweeting. You can’t really tell who is crying because the sunlight is blinding, so everyone’s wearing sunglasses. You have a distinctive feeling that everyone else probably also has the same lump in the throat.

Towards the end whilst I am standing in front of the Killing Tree – against which babies were thrown to their deaths- I hear the recorded testimony of number 2, Comrade Duch. Here is the script, taken from the audio production company:

NARRATOR:
In February, 2008 the man known as Duch was also brought here as a prisoner. The official tribunal – the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia — later sentenced him to 35 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity.[…]

For a long time, Duch had denied knowing what happened at Choeung Ek. But here, at the Killing Tree, he fell to his knees and wept. In this excerpt from the tribunal, we hear him, in a calm moment, admitting his guilt for the deaths at Toul Sleng:

DUCH:
As an emissary, I do not evade responsibility. I am mentally responsible for the souls of those who died. Particularly, I am legally responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 people and bow low to the ECCC as an individual who does not implicate any of my subordinates. This is my total admission. And I constantly pray for the souls of those who have died. I never forget that….

Critics have quite rightly questioned his sincerity whenever it came to such remorse.  What I didn’t realise until I later read about him was that he himself had been imprisoned and tortured during communist crackdowns prior to his regime’s rule.

In the torture cells back in town (which were once school classrooms), some of the walls are lined with hundreds of large black and white portraits of the victims. The authorities photographed every one of their victims, some of whom are smiling because they were told that they were brought here for safety. In the courtyard- once the playground- I saw a couple of old fellows signing their books in which they tell their account of the torture they endured.

You leave and finish the day not quite knowing what to do with yourself.

Whenever I interacted and met with locals thereafter, I wondered what part they may have played. You could be talking to an executioner or to a victim, or both. Or you might be talking to someone who managed to keep a low profile and stay out of either side of the torture.

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Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. The skulls had fractures indicating violent deaths; guns were not used in order to save money

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Tuol Sleng aka S-21 torture prison showing drowning pots

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S-21 victim and survivor

Angkor Wat

After a week apart, we decided to have another holiday before getting back on the bikes. So we hopped on a luxury bus (massage chairs and personal TV sets showing David Attenborough docs) to Siem Reap. We checked into a peaceful and fancy boutique hotel set on a pond which included things like massages, smoothies, wine and fruit baskets. Siem Reap is home to the Angkor Archeological Park, once the capital of the Khmer Empire, built between the 9-15th centuries. We got chauffeured around the dozens of temples in our private tuk tuk over two days. Many of the constructions occupy the same space as large trees- they literally grow in and around the bricks like alien tentacles leeching on houses. The photos I’ll let speak for themselves; apart from selfies of me, this is the most amount of photos I have taken of anything- 235 shots. More photos at the end of this post.

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The theme on this week-long holiday was no expense spared. Cambodia offers excellent value for money; if you want to splash out, as we did, it’s heaven. We indulged in great food, wine, hotels with swimming pools and in one afternoon I even sampled two different massage places. At $8 an hour, you can’t complain. Actually you can complain, as we almost did when we decided to go visit one particular place. Although I had had some good hour-long foot massages before, this one really was a case of get-what-you-pay-for. While Carmen signed up to an hour foot massage, I opted for a full body massage upstairs in the private rooms. Yes, that did turn out to be as dodgy as it sounds. I was offered two girls to tend to my body and after about 20mins the young teenage ‘masseuse’ offered me an upgrade to the FULL full body massage. I refused the offer and the remainder of the massage was spent filling time rather than actually massaging me. After I emerged I noticed that all the masseuses downstairs were all young and wearing skimpy clothes. Carmen’s feet had endured an hour of being randomly touched, at times painfully. But I felt happy because finally, after months of Carmen getting all the attention, my dream came true and it was my turn to get the share of sexual harassment.

Joe 1 – 37 Carmen.

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awwwww looooook! Some more kittens!

Cambodian clothes

Unlike many cities we’ve been through, Phnom Penh has a dozen of independent cinemas showing English language movies. This is always exciting for us because on this trip we watch on average about 0.3 films a year. I saw The Marsian in 4DX format, which requires a specially equipped cinema providing an immersive experience in the form of water spray, wind and hydraulic chairs. (There’s only one of these cinemas in the UK and it’s in Milton Keynes.) Luckily the movie had none of those people Carmen saw bashing their Buddhas in it!

As well as the 1989 movie Killing Fields, we also watched True Cost, an in-depth documentary about the fashion and textile industry’s effect on humans and the environment. The story is set across many countries and features exploited Cambodian factory workers who, working for big labels such as Nike and H&M, when silently protested about their disgusting conditions (mass fainting, deaths etc.), were fired upon by riot police.

By coincidence, the route we had chosen to leave Cambodia took us past dozens of such garment factories in small villages. We later read that a few of these factories had made it to international news last year when things turned violent. The battle is on-going.

It’s one thing reading about these things and watching the documentaries but another when the woman serving your food has her entire family at ransom by H&M et al. and ultimately the western consumer, who believes he is aware how much a T-shirt or a pair of jeans costs and won’t expect to pay more. Ditto for coffee.

Now I think I understand why abolishing slavery took so long- opposition must have been panicking at the idea of economic redesign and how to keep things cheap.

We left the warmth of Cambodia via the coastal border with Thailand. Our penultimate night was spent in a wooden hut resort with some locals who had invited us to their prawn barbecue with endless bottles of cold beer in their coolbox. After a few hours into the night they decided it was time to dance and within two minutes all ten of us were dancing for the next hour or two.

It’s a wonder how every Cambodian you interact with is usually so calm, polite, smiley and humorous. It’s definitely a pattern we’ve been seeing in poor countries.

Cheers for reading.


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2 thoughts on “Coffee, clothes, sex and genocide: cycling through south east Asian poverty

  1. Great photo’s and a great perspective…beautiful,sad and desperately unfair !Lets hope an Isil or Khmer Rouge doesn’t decide to come along and make things better for all these lovely people…..Just a thought if Carmen got sunburnt in Cambodia would you call her Carmen Rouge?

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