We're currently sitting in a balmy Phnom Penh internet cafe, all in decidedly melancholy moods after an afternoon spent at the shocking and incomprehensible Killing Fields. The Cambodian revolution and genocide are put in perspective with the barest and frankest representations of the horror that engulfed the country for 3 years. Walking around the serene park, circumnavigating the tall stupa that houses over 8000 stacked skulls of the slaughtered, we heard via our audio-tour the devastatingly violent treatment of prisoners. Bullets were too expensive to waste, so instead prisoners were slain with hammers, hoes, harvesting knives, bamboo poles and even the serrated edge of palm fronds. Most gruesome was the method of execution for babies: they were swung by their legs against a tree that still stands by a concave mass grave. It's hard to believe our day started at a nearby shooting range, where we shot AK47s and a sniper rifle.
Cambodia - my 8th and final country of the trip - is an exciting country with god-awful roads but, as of yet, very pleasant people. This is our second evening in the capital, and unfortunately we'll be around here for a couple more days as we sort our 30-day Thai visas out. The most exciting draw is of course Angkor Wat, which features on the Riel bills, the national flag and just about every restaurant and hotel wall. It's a deserved national treasure that will be one of the most fantastic sights of my travels.
Back in Laos, we took a bus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng - the home of tubing. On this winding 6-hour minibus journey, we passed 3 crashes; cars that had careered head-first down the mountainside, yet the drivers and passengers were fine. It was raining in Vang Vieng, and it didn't stop for 3 days. This was not atall in line with our conceptions of floating between mountains in an inner tube, sipping a cold beerlao. We couldn't even see the karst scenery due to the clouds and sheet rain. Frustrated, and with little else to do but drink, we drank; thus Vang Vieng will have to go down as the low-point of my trip, activity-wise. Still, eventually we were gifted a gap in the clouds and did commence our 6-hour tubing experience. Dumped 4km upstream, we jumped in our huge inner tubes and let the current whip us downstream.
The previous clubbing scene having been scrapped by a stern Aussie government - tired of transporting dead citizens back to Oz - there were only 4 bars to stop off at. Each had a volleyball court, including a hilarious mud-bath of carnage at the second bar. Though the strong current should have swept us back to the town in an hour, we stayed in the bars past the deadline of 6pm, and made it back, bear-foot and intoxicated, by 7 to drop the rings off. We left for Vientiane - Laos' capital - the following morning.
Vientiane is home to some brilliant old Buddhist relics, an iconic square national stupa in shining (is slightly grubby) gold, and the most interesting stop - the COPE centre for unexploded ordnance victims (UXO). The blogs have been a bit doom and gloom since I've set about discovering the various hardships faced by the Mekong region in recent history, but the excellent exhibition gave me yet more insight to the plague-like spread and ruin of the Vietnam war. Amazingly, over the 9-year intervention of the US in Vietnam, a bombing mission was flown over Laos on average every 8 minutes. 1/4 of these experimental bombs don't explode, and are embedded in the land around villages and towns, especially on the old "Ho Chi Minh" trail. Laos is the most bombed country in history.
After mooching around for a couple of days in Vientiane, I was in the mood for a bit of adventure, which would take the form of a boat ride through a 7km subterranean cave in central Laos. Harry and Sam T decided to go down to Bangkok and into Cambodia and by-pass the rest of Laos, and we met them last night to share our stories over the last 5 or 6 days apart. After some gritty bus journeys, we made it to the mouth of the cave, from which a gushing river bellowed over sharp grey rocks. Sam F, Marc and I donned life jackets and cowered into a longboat, eyes wide in fear of the reported fist-sized spiders that populate the cavern. We saw reams of thick, sinister webs hanging from the 50m-high ceiling, but thankfully saw no spiders. The cave was creepy enough without them; a meandering river, complete with sand banks, flowing through an intestine-like tube. cold drips splattered onto us in the dark, and haunting shapes lurched out of the shadows as head torches flicked from side to side in amazement. We stopped at one point to walk through an absurdly thick stalagmite wood, which was lit up with other-worldly yellow light. It was a scene straight from a sci-fi, and it was with a breath of relief that we stepped off the boat at the conclusion of the 2-hour, spine-tingling tour, and walked past 30cm orange millipedes towards nearby Kong Lo village.
A loud swarm of Cambodians on motorbikes just sped by honking their horns, shouting and waving party flags. Apparently they do this every day! Such patriotism.
Back to our "out-in-the-sticks" adventure, that evening, after having some beers with a pleasant Laotian who'd made his own hotel complex next to the cave, we stumbled off into the night in search of a hotel that wasn't quite as luxury and expensive as the one we'd spent the evening in. Under a mesmerizing starry sky, we passed a man with a net full of frogs who'd been night fishing (frogging), and eventually, after a long time walking and knocking on doors, we walked into someone's house, where we proceeded to wake the owner, who gave us a room next door. The next morning we took a pick-up truck to another village and began a hilariously odd journey down to the glistening 4000 islands on the Laos/Cambodia border. The first, which I flagged down luckily on the main village road, was a large cargo bus that stopped annoyingly frequently to unload anything from beds to chairs to sand to little huts by the side of the road. Half-way through the second, the bus stopped and the owners piled hundreds of heavy cardboard boxes in the aisle so that we were effectively trapped in our seats, and couldn't see each other. Half an hour later we were shepherded onto a third, baking-hot bus, where we were forced to wait impatiently from 1am to 5am as the driver unpacked a deck chair from the hold, climbed onto the roof and had an indulgent kip while us passengers sat dejected on the side of the road.
The knackering day of travel was well worth the paradise that we were rewarded with. Thousands of small, grassy and palm-clad islands sit in the spreading Mekong between the opposite banks of Laos and Cambodia. The pace of life on the islands (our island of choice being large and relaxed Don Det) is contagiously slow, and we spent 3 days in two 2-quid river-side rooms. Between sitting in the blissful hammocks chatting to fellow travelers, we went out to see a thundering waterfall and a small private beach, and went fishing neck-high in the Mekong (no catches) and tubing in the late afternoon heat. Food and drink was cheap, the company was good and it's no wonder that the islands have a reputation as a black hole for the discerning traveler. It was difficult to say goodbye to the island as we got our bus over the border into Cambodia.
It's exactly a month before I touch down back in Heathrow, and plans are slowly attaining some rigidity for my final few destinations. 5 months now seems to have shot by, and this last month feels like the home straight, a trifle in the grand scheme of my adventure to date. With so much still to look forward to, I know time will fly by quicker than ever.
PS. Enjoy Wimbledon everyone!
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