A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: jacquiedro

The Golden Dawn - Jacquie's Perspective

Turbulent Times in Papua New Guinea

storm 24 °C

Forgive me bloggers, for I have sinned. It has been three weeks since my last blog entry . . .

Three weeks! I wish I could say that I've been on vacation (I know, how laughable is it to need a vacation from a vacation....), but that was - unfortunately - far from the truth. As Lloyd indicated, I was stuck in my own private hell that was the Golden Dawn. To be fair, the Golden Dawn wasn't the problem. But the cyclonic seas around her threw that tiny boat around something wild, and I'm just not built for that kind of 360 degree turbulence.

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How I enjoyed my ten days...

With a bad cold from the start, it was clear that I would be missing several days of diving anyway. But the rough seas and poor visibility, coupled with persistant sea sickness, meant that I wasn't tempted into the water until the last day. I can't even begin to measure the disappointment. This was a real highlight of the trip - the dive trip of a lifetime - and I managed a single dive.

I wish I could tell you the dive was worth waiting for. It wasn't. The visibility could be measured in inches rather than feet, and an unpredictable current whipped us around in all directions. All you could do was hang on for dear life to the reef (or in my case to Lloyd) and hope you could find your way back to the boat.

Unlucky, for sure. As Lloyd has mentioned, the conditions were unprecedented. And while this was one of the most expensive parts of our trip, we are reminded that many Papua New Guineans were left homeless or worse by Cyclone Guba. We will live to dive another day, and another reef. Others were not so lucky.

On the brighter side, I was ecstatic when - after ten loooooooooooong days - we returned to dock on Thursday, which just so happened to be Thanksgiving. As luck would have it, a local expat American swung an invite to the US Ambassador's Thanksgiving dinner, so we found ourselves enjoying turkey and all the trimmings with the local Embassy Staff. An unexpected treat, but much appreciated by these weary travellers for whom a roast turkey and cranberry sauce was but a distant memory!

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No roasties or yorkies, but it was still like Christmas come early....! I couldn't resist going back for seconds, much to Lloyd's embarrasment!

With our flight leaving mid-afternoon, and precious little time onland in PNG, we took the opportunity to visit a local market. By far, the most friendly place we have visited, with locals bursting into smiles and waves. In many countries, when we take out our cameras and ask to take a photograph, we are asked for money in return. Not once did this happen in PNG.

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We were horrified to see this tiny spotted eagle ray for sale at the market. We also saw a sea turtle, still alive, at another stall. But you gotta make a living, right, so who are we to judge?

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This lady was breast feeding right up until I took the photo. Note the red, betelnut-stained smile.

Unemployment is very, very high here - up to 80% in some urban areas. As a result, many adults have little to do but sit around on the streets all day, hoping to sell a second hand pair of shoes, some betelnut, or anything else they can get their hands on. This is the kind of place where you hang out all day outside the workplace of your one, employed buddy in the hope that they'll give you a few kina on their way out. When we went to draw cash from the ATM, Lloyd found himself surrounded by four uniformed guards, including one armed with a shotgun.

Last stop, a quick perusal at a local handicrafts store. We'd have loved some of these giant masks to adorn our (future) home!

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Of course, as we left PNG the weather was picture-perfect, with the ocean flat and blue and every inch the tropical paradise we were hoping for. Lloyd will be back to dive here for sure. It remains to be seen whether you'll ever get me back on a dive boat...

Posted by jacquiedro 20:22 Archived in Papua New Guinea Tagged round_the_world Comments (3)

Elephantastic Days in the Golden Triangle

sunny 20 °C

Do you think I could keep an elephant as a pet in California? We came across a number of alternative pet ideas at Bangkok’s Chattachuk market over the weekend (chipmunk, anyone?) which may have planted the seed. And then we simply fell in love with our elephant hosts at the Four Seasons Tented Camp, outside Chiang Rai, where we spent most of last week.

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Eye of the elephant
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Most comfy animal we've ridden yet!
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The main feature of the camp – and without which it wouldn’t be a tenth the experience – is the opportunity to spend time with a few lucky elephants rescued from a life on the streets. In previous years, elephants were widely used for logging in the region, but modern equipment is more cost effective, resigning the elephants – and their mahouts – to a life of ‘begging’ (usually in the form of cash-for-a-photo) on Thailand’s streets and beaches. Frequently, the mahout cannot afford to meet the elephant’s constant demand for food (more than 200 kilograms of bamboo, sugar cane per day!), leaving these massive animals hungry, grumpy and often dangerous.

Life for the six working elephants at the Tented Camp – and for the other elephants at the associated charitable organization – is significantly different. The elephants enjoy an endless supply of sugar cane, bamboo and bananas, in addition to a safe environment in which to live. The mahouts – too – are taken off the streets and hired to tend to the elephants.

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For the lucky guests of the Tented Camp, the elephant experience is more intimate than we could ever have hoped. This is not a zoo-type experience. Instead, we learned to ride and command the elephants using traditional mahout commands. After graduating from the training area’s slalom course, we were allowed to take the elephants on a trek through the jungle (albeit on a trail very well known to the elephants, so we couldn’t really have gone far wrong!).

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The first surprise was just how comfortable riding an elephant was! No saddles or baskets here – you simply sit on the elephant’s neck, with feet protected (or in my case, pinned back!) by the elephant’s ears. It was – by far – the most comfortable I’ve been on any animal during the trip, despite the lack of any blankets or other barriers. We were encouraged to frequently offer verbal and physical reassurances to our elephants and – for all these reasons - I quickly felt a real attachment to my elephant.

My second surprise was just how hairy elephants are! Sparsely distributed over their entire bodies, they have thick, black hairs several inches long protruding proudly. I got to know the hair on the back of my elephant's head and neck quite well over our four day relationship!

Not content with our day-as-a-mahout, Lloyd and I took advantage of additional opportunities to spend more time with our elephants. On two mornings, we volunteered to head up to the top of the hill just behind the Tented Camp to retrieve the elephants with the mahouts, and then bring them down to the training area for their morning baths! My elephant seemed highly skilled in collecting the most mud on her back overnight, and required serious scrubbing! And she seemed to adore having her ears scrubbed. After their – and, therefore our, bath, we used hoses to rinse off the elephants before riding them to the ‘stables’ where we were allowed to feed them sugar cane.

There’s no doubt that our time with the elephants was once-in-a-lifetime, and these gentle giants made an appropriately huge impression on us. They love their mahouts completely – and only at their command tolerate us ‘temporary’ drivers. In the mornings when I was driving my elephant down to camp, she was obedient but wouldn’t allow herself to be more than twenty feet from her mahout. When he wasn’t firmly by her side, she would stop and look back for him. At the same time, the elephants are almost perfectly obedient. When we watched the elephants being rinsed off, the mahout needed only shout the command and the elephant would perform unthinkable poses: sitting on two back legs, lifting front left or front right, lowering head, raising trunk etc.

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These elephants were more obedient than most dogs we’ve come across! Which brings me back to my elephant-as-a-pet idea. Of course, my cat Tammy will try to object, but I think the elephant might have the size advantage...

Posted by jacquiedro 14:03 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Bloodshed and Butterflies at the Killing Fields

Face-to-Face with Cambodia's Gruesome History

overcast 25 °C

With the sun just starting to burn through the morning haze, it promised to be a beautiful day. All around us, birds sang sweetly while monarch-patterned butterflies flittered from wild flower to wild flower. Children teased each other, delighting in the coolness of the day, and betrayed only by the sounds of their young voices being carried in the wind from the school a few feet away.

Have the 20,000 souls found their peace, here at the most well known of Cambodia's Killing Fields?

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Cambodians don't like to talk about the genocide that saw up to 25% of its population (about 2 million people) murdered between 1975 and 1979. For many, it's just too personal: it would be hard to find a family here that did not lose a loved one. For others, silence is the only appropriate response to events that defy logic, that can never be understood. The genocide is not discussed openly. But it is far from forgotten.

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The Memorial Stupa at Choeng Ek. The covered structure on the left is a former burial pit.

At Choeng Ek, about ten miles south-west of Phnom Pehn, visitors walk around the sunken pits from which thousands of bodies have already been exhumed. But it's not all butterflies and wild flowers. At several times during our tour, and even though we were sticking strictly to the trail, we were horrified to realize that we were walking on some recently exposed human bones. The Cambodian guides - perhaps in the pursuit of an extra dollar of two - do seem to focus on the most gruesome details, and we have no doubt that some of the "clothing" emerging from the dirt was far more recent than 1979, but the bones were - regrettably - real and we think a raised walkway is the least these victims deserve.

The Memorial is simple and effective. Shown in the picture above, it is glass-sided, with shelves lining the entire interior, from floor to ceiling. Human skulls and bones are alternately neatly lined up or heaped on the shelves. There are more than 5,000 skulls here. Skulls that have been punctured, crushed, sliced. Gruesome - yes, but it couldn't be called gratutious. Literally eye-to-eye with death, this monument delivers its promise to never let Cambodians forget. Fear. Horror. Terror. Is it possible it was only thirty years ago?

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Eye-to-eye with death. Enough said.

The fact that Choeng Ek is one of more than three hundred "Killing Fields" throughout Cambodia gives us an idea of the scale of the atrocities here. Pol Pot’s regime was nothing less than a terrifying social experiment to transform the population – almost overnight – into a pliant, agrarian workhorse. His soldiers included impressionable young children who could be transformed – with staggering ease as it turned out – into violent killing machines, sometimes tasked with the “official destruction” of even their own families.

In many cases, prolonged torture and interrogation preceded inevitable death. Security-Office 21, or S-21, was created to manage anti-Angkor elements and, while it was a highly secretive organization during the late seventies, it now evokes images of the most terrible war crimes for all Cambodians. At Choeng Ek, a Cambodian message humbly assesses that the Cambodian genocide was more terrible even than the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis in Europe during World War II.

An important S-21 facility was located right in the heart of Phnom Pehn, in a site formerly used as a school.

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Tuol Sleng was a school before it was a detention centre.

Having been quickly abandoned as the Vietnamese approached Phnom Pehn in 1979, the complex was discovered by a photo-journalist who - literally - followed his nose. He photographed the hastily-killed victims still lying on metal bed-frames, and it is these harrowing images that are now used to remind visitors of the horrors executed here. The exhibition's simplicity is its strength; some rooms house only a single bed frame, and a single photograph of a violently mutilated victim.

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Much is known about Tol Sleng's residents because documentation was meticulously maintained regarding the prisoners' backgrounds and their subsequent 'confessions' of crimes against the regime. In total, the centre is believed to have housed about 20,000 inmates over its four-or-so years in operation, the vast majority ultimately finding their deaths at Choeung Ek, the most famous of Cambodia's Killing Fields, located about 10 miles southwest of the city. Pol Pot's regime targeted the educated (doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers), the disabled, those who wore glasses, even those who spoke foreign languages. In short, only faithful farmers and labourers capable of 16 hour days were spared. With so many hours in the fields, these labourers should have been well rewarded for their work, but rice was being sent to China in exchange for military equipment, and many Cambodians starved to death during this period.

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A monk contemplates Cambodia's violent past at Tuol Sleng.

Cambodia’s war criminals have still to be brought to justice. A Khmer Rouge tribunal has been underway for several years and – like most tribunals – will doubtless continue to be mired in complexity. It has just been announced, however, that the S-21 cases will be separated from the others to accelerate the trials of former S-21 Director Eav, known commonly as ‘Duch’ and other leading “Brothers”. The tribunal noted that this was possible only because of the “relative simplicity” of the case, which must point to the very detailed documentation of inmates at Tuol Seng.

Of note, and according to the Cambodia Daily, “only one person has so far come forward as a civil party to the tribunal proceedings”. This is in large part due to the fact that so few Tuol Seng residents – less than two handfuls – survived to tell the tale. Maybe it’s also partly due to Cambodians’ desire to put the past behind them. Or maybe it’s that they’re still afraid to talk.

Posted by jacquiedro 16:20 Archived in Cambodia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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