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Homeless loiterers in Phnom Penh

Posted: 2007-06-04 12:22:23, Categories: Travel, Cambodia, Cycling, 818 words (permalink)

Armed robbery attempt in Phnom Penh. In Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, I met Päivi and Santeri, two Finns who describe themselves as homeless loiterers. Three years ago they decided to give up their careers in Finland and start a new life together, traveling around the world and stopping where they feel like staying. Now they had parked in Phnom Penh for an undetermined amount of time. Santeri was an old friend of mine, but I met Päivi for the first time.

Päivi and Santeri were renting a room in a guesthouse, so when I arrived I took a room in the same place. Then we went to their favourite Chinese restaurant for a dinner. I was actually surprised that Päivi and Santeri seemed to go almost always to the same two restaurants, one for breakfast and the other for lunch or dinner. Occasionally they bought something to eat from a supermarket, but that was limited to cold meals only as there wasn't any kitchen in the guesthouse. If I had stayed several months in the same place I would have certainly tried to learn the local language and seek for local friends, but Päivi and Santeri didn't do that either. They seemed to be happy by simply having each other.

I spent nine days in the city, and as you might already guess the visit was not packed with sightseeing. Mostly we were just discussing various things, walking around, listening to music, eating and sleeping. I did check out the Royal Palace and the Toul Sleng museum, which documents the atrocities of the infamous Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970's and functioned as a torture prison at that time. I had also plenty of time to take care of a few errands, such as getting photos printed and sending them back to people who had kindly hosted me or otherwise helped me earlier during my trip. I found the right stall at the Orussey market to deliver the photos taken at Kompong Khleang.

The travel advisory of the Foreign Ministry of Finland warned about armed robberies in Phnom Penh. I didn't feel unsafe or threatened at any time, although I didn't push it by hanging too many nights out in bars. The most ferocious armed robbery attempt was the one in the picture above. The kid was trying to sell us flowers, but we were bad customers and didn't buy anything. Then he peeled all the petals off his two remaining flowers, left them beside us and went to the river to play. We gave one of the stripped flowers to a water bottle salesman, and when the kid came back he attacked Santeri with his plastic knife. Both were laughing.

A funny detail one cannot miss in Cambodia, especially in the capital, is services featuring "happy" or "lucky" in their names. Cambodians themselves smile and laugh quite a lot so maybe it's their trick to get grumpy westerners a bit happier too. You could stay in Happy Guesthouse, or maybe you'd prefer Big Luck Hotel or renting an apartment at Nokor Lucky? Surprisingly, McDonalds is not in town (!), so you cannot treat your kids to their happy meal, but you can try Lucky Burger instead. Alternatively, there are plenty of pizzerias, such as Happy Phnom Penh Pizza, Happy Herb Pizza, Special Happy Pizza, Pink Elephant Pub and even Ecstatic Pizza. Their happy meals are quite different from those you could get from the previously mentioned well-known fast food chain. ;-) For self-catering, there's always the convenient Lucky Market and Happy Chef products.

Need a visa extension? You might consider applying in Lucky! Lucky! Visa Services, which also rents motorcycles, by the way. Lucky! Lucky! Two or Happy Travel and Web might also help. For the Internet, there's an even happier option: Happy Happy Net. Don't forget to smile if you have your photo taken at Happy Photo Studio — if you feel sad have a drink first at Happy Beer Garden. However, I'm not sure if you can get Happy Beer there.

After some happy days with Päivi and Santeri, I started cycling back towards Thailand. Unlike my friends, I still consider Finland my home and have booked a ticket for a Bangkok-Helsinki flight on June 10th. While pedaling through the Cambodian countryside, already on the way from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, I picked up a new habit. Instead of buying soft drinks or water bottles I stopped at watermelon stalls. The melons sold for 0.05-0.20 euros depending on size and seller, were tastier and cheaper than any canned juices and about the same price than equivalent amount of bottled water, plus there was one less plastic bottle left behind. Another nice natural alternative was sugar cane juice, straight from the press, served with ice.

(Photos of the Big Luck Hotel, Lucky Market and Lucky! Lucky! Visa Services were taken by Päivi and Santeri.)

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A fishing village by Tonle Sap

Posted: 2007-05-28 09:04:39, Categories: Travel, Cambodia, Cycling, 899 words (permalink)

A high rising house in Kompong Khleang. Only 30 km after Siem Reap I took a right turn from the main road and rode towards Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South-East Asia. By the lake lies a village called Kompong Khleang, where the inhabitants get their living mainly from fishing. I arrived in the afternoon and there were no guesthouses so it was again a splendid opportunity to meet locals.

The water level of Tonle Sap varies greatly. During the dry period the water flows to Mekong river and the lake becomes smaller and smaller. The monsoons make Mekong to flood which reverses the flow and the water level rises by almost ten meters, also greatly enlarging the area of the lake. This variation was reflected in the design of the Kompong Chleang village. There was a tiny center on top of a small hill with a pagoda, a market and a couple of bars, but most of the houses were spread on both sides of one single road stretching several kilometers. There was a wide canal next to the road providing a waterway to the lake. The houses were built on top of long wooden poles, keeping them above the water even during the floods, when the lake fully covers the road and all the surroundings.

During mid May the water level was still low, so the road was easily accessible by bicycle. It was rather quiet, as many inhabitants spend most of the time fishing and living in floating houseboats on the lake, returning to their main houses only occasionally. Those who remained were looking at me rather curiously.

Already on my way towards the center I was invited to stay in one of the houses. The family didn't speak any English but we managed to communicate enough that they realized I didn't have a place to stay and I understood their sign of pointing up at the house and sleeping. It was still early so I gestured that I'd go to the center first and come back later. In the center about two kilometers away I met a guy who spoke English. He was living in Siem Reap but visiting his home town. We discussed for a while and he said that I could stay at his place too. It would have been easier of course because of the common language, but I didn't want to be impolite and ignore the first invitation so I returned to the family I had met earlier.

The family was a relatively young couple with a less than one year old son, living in the house with their grandmother. During the evening also some sisters or other relatives came for a visit from neighbouring houses. They welcomed me warmly and offered me dinner, which consisted of several different kinds of fish, rice, and some vegetables. With the lack of common words, photographs were once again the easiest way to communicate. I showed my set of family photos and Finnish sceneries and got to see their wedding album. It was quite different from Finnish wedding albums: a huge number of photos where the married couple was posing in different clothes in front of artificial sceneries. The buddhist school teacher in Rohal had also shown his wedding album and it was very similar. In both cases the couple also wanted to give me one of the wedding photos and I gave a photo of myself in return.

Like most of the houses in Kompong Khleang, they had well enough living space for all family members, but luxuries were limited. Water could be pumped up from the lake using a hand pump, but during the rainy season they rather collected rain water and used that for both washing and drinking. They had electricity from a 12 volt battery, powering up a couple of small lamps, a television set and a mobile phone charger. Landlines are nonexistant in Cambodian villages, but mobile phones are filling the gap and becoming more and more common. Even phone booths are virtually all operated by mobile phones.

Early next morning the father of the family reached his younger brother, who was studying in Siem Reap and who could speak English. He borrowed a motorcycle from a neighbour and came to help in communication and to spend the Sunday in Kompong Khleang. I also decided to stay for the day and one more night when I was invited to do so. We went for a boat ride to the lake and saw also the floating part of the village. They asked if I could pay for the gas and I was of course happy to do that.

With the English speaking brother it was easy to clarify some things which had remained a mystery the previous night. For example, I had asked my hosts to write down their address so that I could send them photos later. They could read and write but sending and receiving letters seemed to be an unknown concept to them. Now I heard that there was no postman coming to the village. First they suggested that I could send the photos to the brother in Siem Reap by bus, but then they remembered a friend who had a shop at a market in the capital city Phnom Penh, where I was heading. I got the number of the shop and the name of the friend I could give the photos to.

Meeting the Khmers

Posted: 2007-05-19 05:56:38, Categories: Travel, Cambodia, Cycling, 645 words (permalink)

Monks at Rohal pagoda watching me changing a snapped spoke. Border crossing from Thailand to Cambodia was easy, at 7:40 in the morning I didn't have to queue at all. The 160 km ride from the border to Siem Reap took three days and traveling by bicycle once again guaranteed many many smiles from locals. All kids happily greeted me by shouting "Hello" which reminded of India, but they usually didn't run to surround me here. The road was bumpy almost all the way and partly muddy but not so muddy that vehicles would get stuck in it — in other words okay by Cambodian standards. Scenery was mostly fields but very beautiful ones, covered by a layer of water as far as the eye could see.

When I arrived to Sisophon 50 kilometers later there was a wedding party going on. They invited me to join so I had a jump start into Khmer culture and a great chance to taste many kinds of local food. Drinking habits had common ground with Finland: when somebody wanted to have a toast with you the desired way to go was bottoms up. It was done with beer instead of vodka though. Partying was intensive, including almost rave party style dancing, but short. The whole thing ended already by late afternoon and everybody went home.

Following morning I pushed through the mud about 30 kilometers and arrived in a village called Rohal. There was a pagoda or a wat as they are called in Cambodia (essentially a buddhist monastery) and I went to take a look. Some people on the yard waved that I should go inside a building, where a group of young monks were studying buddhist scriptures. My arrival obviously disrupted the class, but it seemed to be a pleasant kind of disruption. The teacher spoke some English and started teaching me Khmer in return.

I was asked if I'd like to stay at the pagoda and I answered I'd be happy to. They gave me a private room which had a basic bed with a mosquito net and a small table. I washed out the sweat of the day and entertained everybody by changing a snapped spoke from the rear rim of my bicycle. There was only one older monk and a group of about 30 children and teenagers, I'd guess most of them were between 12 and 16 years old. In Cambodia it's quite common that boys become monks for a couple of months during that age, returning to normal life after the period of monkhood. In this particular pagoda some of the boys were apparently orphans and lived there for a longer time.

The teacher interestingly was not a monk but a married man who stayed outside the pagoda in the village with his wife, father-in-law and his family. He invited me there for a dinner. The food was rice, some fish and a green-coloured soup containing many different kinds of herbs. The soup had a quite distinct flavor from anything I had eaten in other countries, but it was really good. In Cambodia that kind of soup seems to be fairly common as I've come across a similar dish in a couple of roadside cafes, but the one at the teacher's house was the best I've tasted.

Life in the pagoda started early. I got up at around 5:40 and was certainly the last one. Beginning at around seven there was some kind of ceremony in the open space with a couple of hundred villagers gathering at the site. It was about paying respects to the Buddha but if I understood correctly (the teacher's English skills were quite limited) the reason for so many people that day was connected to someone having committed some kind of fraud. People brought various kinds of food which were then eaten together after the worship. After that I continued my trip towards Siem Reap, a city located close to the world famous Angkor temples.

Meditating under coconut palms

Posted: 2007-04-04 20:06:15, Categories: Travel, India, Cycling, 1309 words (permalink)

Gate of the Sahaja Yoga center in Ganpatipule. I stopped for four days to relax and meditate in a Sahaja Yoga center at Ganpatipule by the west coast of India. There I was able to wake up several times before half past six without an alarm clock, which probably already sounds amazing to those knowing my usual daily rhythm. But before more details I'll tell briefly what happened after I left Pune.

The first day when I continued my trip was said to be the New Year of the state of Maharastra. I didn't see any special celebrations while riding about 60 km south, but in the town of Khandala I was received kindly by the officer in charge of the government guesthouse. He said that I could stay at the guesthouse, I wouldn't even pay the modest room rate because I was his guest, and on top of that invited me for a dinner at his home. The meal consisted of several dishes made specially for the New Year, including different rice cakes and puranpoli, a kind of soft bread eaten by dipping it into a sweetish milk or cream based sauce.

After Khandala I took a mountain road up to an altitude of about 1300 meters and stayed for a couple of days in hill station Panchgani. There my base was Ecocamp, a group of large tents set up in a stunning location overlooking the Krishna river down in the valley. The friendly owners of the place, a Canadian-Indian couple, lived in a house next to the tents. I rode my bike to the scenic spots surrounding the village, walked around a strange flat highland plateau called Tableland, and took a birds-eye view from a paraglider. The paragliding ride was fun but didn't match the experience of trying skydiving some nine years back. I guess I'd need to stay longer in the air and be in control of my own wing (as was the case during the skydiving course) instead of flying in tandem.

From Panchgani it was still a short ride uphill to Mahabaleshwar, another hill station. The serenity of ancient temples in old Mahabaleshwar created a pleasant athmosphere and views were again impressive, but overall I found Mahabaleshwar less attractive than Panchgani. Without a vehicle the difference would have been even larger: Panchgani was small enough to walk around while a half-day sightseeing in Mahabaleshwar stretched to 30 km by bike in addition to the walks.

A joyride down the western side of the hills brought me to the Konkan region. I turned right from the southbound highway at Khed and arrived to the sea coast a few dozen kilometers further west. Coconut palms were lining gorgeous beaches next to small, quiet towns and villages. Although mostly not marked in my map, a network of small roads winded up and down the hills near the coast. Traffic was minimal and the beaches far from crowded, many even completely empty. I had arrived to the most pleasant region in India up to now during my trip.

The living standard of average villagers seemed to be somewhat better than in Rajasthan. They had nicer houses, more living space, and beautiful green surroundings provided by the nature. People were perhaps slightly more shy than their northern Indian brothers, but still very outgoing, helpful and hospitable. They were careful enough that I trusted newfound friends to go for a round on my bike, sometimes disappearing for a while with all the gear except the small bag of valuables which I always detach when stopping. Attempts to cheat or take advantage of a western traveller were completely missing. Nobody was begging or trying to charge "tourist prices" — many would even refuse to take a tip if I rounded up the bill in a small restaurant.

After a few days of pedaling south along the coast I was approaching Ganpatipule and decided to try camping again. I set up the tent on a patch of grass with a sea view, went for a moonlight swim and cooked my dinner in solitude on the beach. Later I heard that swimming after sunset is not advised and that cobras also live in the bushes near my campsite, but I only met a large colony of ants and some flying insects. The main problem was heat: despite fully opening all the ventilation holes my high-tech two-layer tent was succesfully blocking the wind and keeping the hot air inside.

In the morning I went swimming to wash off the sweat and bumped into three guys from the nearby Sahaja Yoga center. I had recently become more interested in yoga, partly through reading Autobiography of a Yogi which I had just incidentally finished previous night. The book was about a different school of yoga so I didn't have any previous knowledge of Sahaja Yoga in particular, but the people seemed sincere and I was in a receptive mood so it felt exactly the right time to give it a try.

The center had actually been more active ten years ago. There was a big stage were ceremonies for several thousand people had been held, a couple of weeks ago such gathering with more than ten thousand participants, about one fifth of whom from abroad, had been in Pune. A few dozen people had continued after the big gathering to this more secluded place by the sea, and by the time I arrived it was less than twenty. Most were from Russia and Ukraine, the only Indians being the caretaker of the center and a couple of part-time helpers. There wasn't any fixed daily program, but people generally got up around six, did morning meditation either at the site or by the sea, had meals together, spent a lazy afternoon, went swimming a couple of times per day and gathered for a group meditation session around 8 pm. Sahaja Yoga is a completely non-physical form of yoga, there weren't any lessons and the group was small, so the program didn't need to be very organized. Sleeping was outdoors by the big stage; there were also bunks in a couple of buildings but it was nicer to sleep in the open air.

During the first sessions I didn't feel anything special, but already during the second evening meditation there was a kind of vague sensation of energy. It was different from that suggested on the Sahaja Yoga web site (see also the Wikipedia page for a more objective take), but everyone I asked at the camp explained their experiences differently anyway. I got similar feelings a couple of times later as well, generally in the evening after a period of silence, not during worship which was also practised there. Whether there's anything divine to it is another question, and in particular worshiping the person who had founded the movement didn't feel like my thing. I don't have any plans for joining the organization, but as a technique for mind relaxation I'm planning to explore it further on my own for at least some time.

Again trying to follow my intuition, I left the yoga camp after four nights. Only twenty kilometers later in Kotawade I met a group of happy people at a small village temple and joined a local festival dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman. The celebrations were a combination of old and new: there were long readings of prayers and traditional songs but also an outdoor disco and a film screening to entertain people later in the evening. Around a dozen people slept at the temple and I joined them. I also had the option of staying in a room at one of the homes nearby and my luggage had been taken there, but this time it didn't feel impolite to turn down the offer and stay at the temple instead. In the morning I woke up early, had some chai (milk tea) and continued my trip.

Surrounded by people

Posted: 2007-01-23 08:37:13, Categories: Travel, India, Cycling, 894 words (permalink)

Crowd of Indians surrounding me in Sohna. Whenever I arrive in a village and stop my bicycle, it takes merely seconds to be surrounded by dozens of curious faces. If India is an exotic destination for me, the reverse is also true: locals have never seen something as strange as a white man touring their country by bicycle. They'll push each other to get closer, they'll squeak the horn attached to the handlebar of my bike and push the gear buttons, some even want to touch me to make sure I'm real. A lone cyclist in India is never alone.

On my first day of hitting the countryside, I met a motorcyclist just after leaving a small town called Sohna. His opinion of the next 50 kilometers wasn't too encouraging: "Totally backwards country, only poor people, you'll not find any place to stay...". I could have turned back and checked in to a hotel in Sohna, but that would have been deliberately avoiding any possibility of adventure. I decided to ride until Nuh, the next town on the map about 20 kilometers away, and see what would happen there.

I didn't even reach Nuh before I was talking to two college students living there, on their way back to town by motorcycle. After hearing that I didn't have yet a place to stay for the night they readily invited me to their home. We went to get a blessing from a local temple at the foot of nearby hills, chatted with friends around a small fire while the village was suffering one of the very frequent power cuts, tried a special mix of sweets and spices wrapped to a plant leave called "paan" and had dinner together before going to bed. I heard that they had met two German cyclists on the road a couple of years ago, but I was the first foreigner who actually stayed as their guest in the town. I would have had an invitation to stay for another day had it not been that unfortunately my new friends had to go to Delhi early next morning. Now it became an open invitation: they said I'll still have to come back before leaving India. They even called me several times during the next two days and sent sms messages to make sure I'd return.

Nuh also showed how modern technology is making it's way to Indian villages and small towns. A car is still a rare luxury item, but for example mobile phones are becoming increasingly common. Most traffic on the roads consists of either buses and trucks, or light-weight vehicles such as motorcycles, mopeds and bicycles. Cows and hairy pigs roam on the narrow alleys in towns and villages while camels are used along with trucks for long distance hauling of goods.

Last two days I've spent in Alwar, a pleasant medium-sized city of a few hundred thousand inhabitants. Also here a foreigner is a target of constant attention: everybody wants to ask at least what's my name and where do I come from. However, unlike in Delhi they are not touts which try to lure me to a shop or restaurant, here people just want to spend time with a foreigner and perhaps get a contact address abroad. Answering the same questions over and over can get tiring after a while, especially as the discussions don't usually get much further without the ability to speak hindi. I don't have any hard feelings to ignore touts, some of which are even outright dishonest, but doing the same for people who are simply curious and friendly would be rude, so I try to keep on smiling and answering those questions. And should I start ignoring people I would also miss some of the best experiences, like meeting Dhara.

Dhara was one of those people who came to talk to me in a park and wanted to know who I am, where do I come from and whether I like India. Then he wanted to take me around in the city and show all the historical places, as he put it. I decided to follow him for a while at the same time wondering when he would start asking for guide fees. I couldn't have been more wrong on the last point: as I was his guest he wouldn't let me pay for anything except a small gas refill for his old scooter which we were using to get around. In addition to the sights and tasting kalakan, a specialty in Alwar, I got a small insight into the life of an Indian truck driver. The evening ended with a dinner at Dhara's modest home, where a dozen family members shared three small rooms and a few animals lived in the yard. The food was cooked on a stove burning platters of dried cow dung; wood is scarce and only more wealthy families can afford a gas range.

One of the pleasures of leaving Delhi has been a sharp decrease in the pollution level. Roads are a bit dusty, but otherwise I've been able to breathe reasonably clean air again. My long-lasting cough which started in Istanbul and continued in Delhi is finally gone. Beggars are also much less numerous than in the capital. People in the countryside might be poor, but most still have at least a clay hut where to live in and enough basic food to eat.

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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