Saturday, January 27, 2007

Readings and musings...

Another week is over, almost, and I am another week closer to my February 21st contract end. All I can say is come on 2/21!

Happy birthday to my little brother Christian, who turned 16 yesterday... way to make your big brother feel old. It's hard to believe that the curly haired kid that used to run around the house in his diaper will be clamoring for a driver's license soon... yikes!

Shout out to ol' Scotto as well who has made his way back to Japan and is now completing his training in Nagoya before his first emergency teaching gig in Toyama prefecture. Got a call from the young lad this week and it was quite nice to hear that Aussie accent!

In the past 2 weeks, I've read three books, two of which were bought in and directly relate to Cambodia and Vietnam.

The first of these books was "First They Killed My Father" which was written by Loung Ung.

Loung was only 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh. The book recounts her amazing struggle for survival in the new Cambodia being built by the Khmer Rouge, where starvation and forced labour become a way of life. Loung ended up losing both parents as well as two of her siblings to the "rough times" that Cambodia went through until Vietnam invaded and forced Pol Pot and his cronies back into the jungle. After reading this book, I was left with a huge amount of respect, not only for this little girl but also for the countless other Cambodians who no doubt share similar stories. They survived this horrible time and have come out on the other side more resilient. Not a day has gone by since leaving Cambodia that I haven't thought about it, I certainly left a piece of myself back there and I will return some day.

The middle book was "Cell" by Stephen King, which was a bit of a diversion. Turned out to be a zombie book with some pretty good twists, though I was a bit disappointed with the ending...

The book I am just about done with now is "The Girl In The Picture" which chronicles the story of Kim Phuc whom fate chose to become the face of the Vietnam War. The title is self-explanatory, if you look at the cover below.

Kim Phuc was part of a group of civilians who was mistakenly attacked by a South-Vietnamese war plane as they tried to escape a a firefight between Viet Cong and South-Vietnamese forces in her village not far from Saigon. The pilot mistook the group of running people as VC and dropped a couple of canisters of napalm over the area, killing some and injuring many. The photograph which was snapped by a nearby photographer won him the Pulitzer Prize. The book is a fascinating account of village life during the war years where the nights belonged to the Viet Cong whose guerrilla tactics eventually forced the US out of Vietnam and won them the war. It goes on to describe the attack and its consequences as well as Kim's reluctant role as a propaganda tool for Hanoi and her eventual defection to the West. Very interesting story, and even more so having been on the ground where some of the events mentioned in the book actually happened. Always interesting to recognize street names and to be able to picture the exact location of something you're reading in a book.

I can't believe it has been a month since our trip. On this day one month ago, we were on our way to Vietnam from Cambodia, having just spent an amazing afternoon with the orphans as the Apsara Arts Association. How far away that now seems to me. I am just a short couple of weeks from the end of my contract and with every passing lesson I see the time that I will have to say goodbye to my students getting closer, and I see it will not be easy. A couple of them have already had tears well up in their eyes as they talk about saying goodbye... good people, every last one of them. It's been a hell of a ride these past 2 years, one hell of a ride.

I unfortunately have to give one more of my precious Sundays to the cause, and am thus working tomorrow afternoon. I am finding it difficult to participate in such things, knowing that my time is almost up. The only thing that made me accept is that one of the other teachers would have had to do it if I didn't. In an attempt to make something productive out of this waste of time, I'll start working on helping the new guy make a smooth transition. The worst part about these damned extra days of work are that they cut into the already limited time I get to spend with Yoshiko. Thankfully, it won't be much of an issue soon as we will be finally moving in together with the end of my contract coming also meaning I will be vacating my company apartment. February 8th and 9th are the moving days, looking forward to it!

On the skiing front, 2 outings have taken shape... the next one will be to Daikura on February 4th, and then either Alts Bandai or Takatsue on the 18th. If I can keep the pace with a ski trip every 2 weeks, I'll be satisfied I think... and I should start planning the Hokkaido trip too.

One more interesting note is my total lack of interest in photography so far this year. Could be that after doing photography in Vietnam and Cambodia, Japan now seems a bit lacking? I dunno. I may have to set some time aside and do a picture outing some day soon.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Second time's a charm...

Well after last week's disappointing setback, I am pleased to report that we did make it out to Daikura today and had a fabulous day. We couldn't have asked for better weather, I was skiing without gloves for most of the day. The conditions were also pretty good, with a base of 170cm so far this year. Yoshiko was lucky enough to fit into her brother's ski gear (after some tightening of belts and buckles and straps) which saved us a good 6000 yen for the day... not bad!

It was a bit of an early start, but we made it out to the bus pickup at Daiko ok and loaded up our gear. Daikura struck me as similar to the ski hills we have around Ottawa, similar in size with 4-5 lifts and just a couple hundred meters elevation. The big difference of course is the total elevation of the mountains out here, which make the snow much more suitable for skiing than the ice pellets we get most of the year in Ottawa.

My main objective today was to get Yoshiko familiarized with skiing. She'd only been once, back in High School and didn't take lessons or anything, so we were pretty much starting from scratch. I had her use the short skis that Alex left behind, and it turns out they are great to learn with. After a few runs down the bunny hill to get the basics of stopping and turning in, we headed up the lift and hit the runs. She did great! I didn't see her fall once, since I was out scouting trails when she made her one tumble of the day. Here is my lovely wife, all outfitted for the day's skiing.

And the instructor, opting to go with a tuque and sunglasses today.

And here is the proof of how good a teacher I am, look at that turn!

At the end of the day, after Yoshiko had had enough, I ran up and did a few runs alone. On the first one down, she was waiting at the bottom and made a video. Pretty good hockey stop for the lack of a slope here if I do say so myself...

So all in all, a great start to the 2007 ski season! Tomorrow, we'll do some relaxing, and I will do some cooking for my Yo-chan's brithday, which is Tuesday.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Another one bites the dust...

Well, another week of work is drawing to a close, leaving me with just a couple more to go before I am free from the shackles of this whole "employment" thing. I think word has pretty much made its way around the school that I will be leaving soon, though I am surprised to still find the odd pocket of students who haven't heard. Parties are being planned, farewell messages and speeches are being written and somewhere in Texas, a young man named Anthony is about to embark on an amazing journey. Exciting times for sure.

Tomorrow, we try this whole skiing thing again, after last weekend's "issues". The bus people sent us the paperwork and Yoshiko paid them through the bank to reserve our seat, so we should be good to go. Tomorrow morning, at 7:30, we'll be on our way to Daikura. I am soooooo looking forward to hitting the slopes again, and this will be a full month later than my season started last year! I will probably not get too much skiing done as I will be teaching my dear wife, which is fine. I would much rather be teaching someone all day than skiing alone all day, I guess I am just a social animal. Yoshiko is actually in Imaichi at the moment picking up her brother's ski equipment, which we hope will fit her so we can save the 60$ in rental fees. We shall see.

I've also pretty much made up my mind to head to Hokkaido for 3-4 days of skiing. One of our students went last week and she said she got an all inclusive package for around 300$, which is pretty good considering it includes flights and everything. I'll have to start planning that in the next few weeks, starting with a visit to our friendly neighbourhood H.I.S. travel agency. She also mentioned that Niseko's skiers are about 50% Australians, which is cool. They come up here to ski since it's summer for them down there. Some of the real hardcore skiers stay here for a couple of months taking advantage of Niseko's average 10+ meters of snowfall per year. It truly must be powder heaven up there, certainly not the icy stuff which passes for skiing around Ottawa, I'll have to learn to ski all over again!

Speaking of Aussies, Scotto is on his way back to Japan as I type this... I think. He is flying in to Nagoya today and will be training for his new position as a traveling emergency teacher out west. His first posting will be in the mountains of Toyama, which I'm sure he will enjoy. Welcome back Scott! That makes the 3rd teacher from AEON Utsunomiya that I know who has come back to Japan to teach. Matt, the one I replaced, is now teaching for AEON in Nagano, and of course Stacy is back with us here in Utsunomiya. I guess Japan is a bit of a draw, you can't get away from it so easily.

And on that note, I should head on out to work to teach number 1 of my 5 remaining Saturdays, 2 of which will not be with a full course load due to counsellings weeks. The next 4 months will be a good winding down period I think. Cheers!

Monday, January 15, 2007

I guess it was too good to be true...

Sunday, we did some running around in preparation for Monday's ski trip, Yoshiko's second in her life, and her first in a long time. We checked out a couple of sports shops looking for cheap gear, picked up a couple of things at Xebio and Fukudaya. After having lunch in a cafe where the smoking section was twice as big as the non-smoking section, reflecting a very obvious lack of health knowledge in this place, we returned home. It was at about this time that the planned ski trip which I was so looking forward to came crashing down. You see, the plan was to take advantage of the deal on this flier which was given to me by a student of mine.

The flier basically says that they offer a bus service to 2 resorts departing every day from 2 stops in Utsunomiya, at 7AM and 7:30AM respectively from the East-side of JR Utsunomiya station and Daiko where free parking is available. The 4800Yen cost includes the bus there and back, lift ticket and 1000Yen off rental of equipment, all in all, a pretty good deal. So we call yesterday afternoon to book our place on what we assumed to be a relatively empty bus since it was leaving on a Monday, and this is when we learned that the bus does not exist. Not this Monday it doesn't... nor any other day on which less than 10 people have signed up. D'oh!

Unlike the flier says, the bus does not run every day. You have to book a week or more in advance, and then if they have 10 or more people by their cutoff date, they send you a form which you fill out, take to a bank and send money to them in order to reserve your seat. Had this information been on the flyer, we would have gladly done so, but not knowing, our trip disappeared into thin air, to my great disappointment.

Not only that, but none of the other resorts have any way to get out to them unless you have a car outfitted with winter tires and\or chains, except for those on Bandai mountain, which is about a 100$ train trip out. Hunter mountain, the nearest resort to us, has a bus running from the nearest station, but only on weekends. Unless you've got a car, you're pretty much left high and dry. Too bad really, as I'm sure they could get some people out to the hills with the minimal expense of 1 or 2 return buses. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper for a while yesterday afternoon, but I did manage to get out of my funk thanks to my wonderful wife. We have now booked our seats on the bus for next Sunday, when we should at least be guaranteed a run out due to weekend skiers. Anywho, instead of skiing today, we headed down to the theater and took in "Lucky Number Slevin" a pretty good movie, thanks to a rather twisting plot.

As of today, I have 24 days of work remaining. The end is near and I'm sure things will go by very quickly. Things have gotten a bit rocky at the office... lack of communication, planning and decision making have left a few holes in the normally tight ship we run. One such failure resulted in me finding out on Sunday (via email from one of our students to Yoshiko, if you can believe it) that I had to work.... wait for it... on Sunday. Needless to say, I didn't put off my plans for the day with my wife to rush to my apartment, throw on a suit and go in to the office. 24 days, that's all I have to keep reminding myself of... 24 days. It's been a good run, but it is certainly time to go after almost 2 years.

In other news, the package I sent home should have made it by now and there are probably a couple of people wondering just what the hell this thing is:

The answer: A Vietnamese-style coffee press, with which you can make individual cups using the amazing coffee I also sent along. The instructions are simple. Allow me to label the parts pictured above A, B, C and D from left to right. The process is simple. Take part A and place it on top of a cup holding about 1/3 of an inch of condensed milk. Put part B onto part A and scoop in 2 or so tablespoons of ground coffee. The amount of coffee will vary depending on your taste and the type of coffee used. You then put part C into part B on top of the coffee and press down gently so that it sits level. You then pour boiling water into part B and put part D on top to keep things warm while it drips. After about 5 minutes, you should have yourself a lovely cup of coffee, Vietnamese style, meaning strong and sweet. Enjoy! It has been very nice to finally get a way to make coffee at home. Until coming back from Vietnam, I had to drink the sludge they serve up at work, or fork out the cash for Starbucks or Tullys... now I can make my own high-octane blend right at home!

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Friday, January 12, 2007


My skis are waxed, my boots are polished and my bags are packed!

Finally, after almost a year of waiting, I will be hitting the slopes again this weekend. My dear wife kindly agreed to accompany me on an outing to Daikura in the Aizu area in Fukushima on Monday, making me a VERY happy man. I'll be trying out short skis\ski blades on this trip, which are easier to maneuver with from what I understand. I figure they are a good option for me to use when teaching Yoshiko since it allows me a little more flexibility to run around and help her out. In fact, if the hill rents them, I'd like to get her a pair to get her started... no need for poles, no problems with getting the skis crossed, much more comfortable platform to learn on.

The weather for Monday promises to be quite nice, high of zero degrees, which is much better than my first trip last year to Hunter Mountain where the temperature was hovering around -15 degrees. Seeing as 0 is about the temperature of this blasted apartment when I wake up in the morning, it should be no problem! This will make this year's start to my ski season about one month later than last year's, partly due to the lack of snow out here. Until a week or two ago, hills were reporting a measly 30cm base, but have now tacked on over a meter of new snow, which should make for great conditions. Daikura is also calling for snow on Sunday, and the weekday lack of crowds should leave us with very nice conditions for Monday.

I am about to teach one of my final 5 Saturdays at the school, which is great. It's nice to see the end of my contract coming up, though I will miss many of my students. I'm looking forward to spending some time with Yoshiko, doing some skiing, relaxing and of course travelling to West Japan in March when my family comes down.

Anywho, I'd better get in gear. I won't be bringing my camera since it's a bit too bulky to ski with, but I'm sure Yoshiko will be bringing hers to capture the day's events.


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Monday, January 08, 2007

Downfall - Last days of the Third Reich

I just finished watching Downfall, an amazing movie which was sent to me by John and Sarah, all the way from Sarnia, Ontario.

Downfall is an accurate portrait of the final 10 days of the Third Reich, leading up to and slightly beyond the death of Hitler. It closely follows the accounts of several people who were actually in the bunker in those final days, focusing mainly on Hitler's personal secretary, Traudl Junge.

The cast of the film really did a great job portraying the people within Hitler's inner circle. These were the staunch believers who firmly thought that they would prevail. Their deep sense of loyalty allowed them to continue believing that the orders Hitler was giving in the final days, ordering armies which had already been defeated into action, would save the day and lead to their ultimate victory. It was very interesting to see the interviews with the cast members who had to portray these historically important and oftentimes horrific characters, and to hear them talk about the moral and psychological aspects of their roles. An especially poignant moment was when Bruno Ganz, who plays Hitler, talked about talking with a little actress knowing that her mother would be killing her in the following scene in a recreation of real events which unfolded in the bunker.

An interesting, and some might say the most important, fact about this movie is that it was done by Germans about a dark and horrific part of German history. Call it the continuing atonement of this nation. Many of the actors speak of a historic sense of duty, as Germans, to tell this story and to tell it well. These people are part of a generation which still has a very real connection with the Nazi past, with their parents having been deeply affected by the war. One actor speaks of his mother's side of the family being decimated because they were Jews while his father served as a doctor with the Nazis. One can only imagine his personal sense of duty in the telling of this story. Another interesting fact is that they chose to film this movie in St-Petersburg, Russia. St-Petersburg, which was then known as Leningrad, was besieged by the German Army for over 2 years, causing upwards of one million people to die of starvation and disease. The fact that the German film crew picked this city to shoot in is very significant, as is the comments by the crew that they felt no animosity towards them from the city's population, despite the difficult history that they shared.

These two final ideas bring me to think about Japan, Germany, the Second World War and the totally different ways both nations emerged from the conflict and have progressed until this day. It is totally clear to everyone that Germany has accepted its responsibility for the war, apologized and has moved on while keeping this important part of their history in their collective consciousness. The situation here in Japan is quite different. Judging from the stories I hear of my students being afraid to travel to China due to the bad feeling which still exist between the two countries, I doubt very much that you will see a Japanese film crew filming a critical movie about the Nanking Massacre in China any time soon. In fact, Japan's history books whitewash so much of what happened that many of today's youth are totally clueless about the roots of the anti-Japanese sentiment across the continent today.

Anywho, seeing as I do have to be at work in a little over 9 hours, I think I will turn in and try to get my 8 hours of beauty sleep... lord knows I need it.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Saigon, Vietnam - Once the Thriving Capital of French Indochina

After a fantastic trip to Cambodia, we landed in Ho Chi Minh City in the late evening of the 27th of December. In a show of traveler's solidarity, I offered to share our pre-arrange taxi to the hotel with a chap we'd met while waiting for our plane in Phnom Penh, which saved us a couple of bucks, always a good thing.

After staring wide-eyed out the cab's windows as the chaotic traffic of the city rushed all around us and our driver somehow managed to avoid hitting anything or anyone, we arrived in the Pham Ngu Lao area where out hotel was located. My lack of planning for this part of the trip was such that I didn't even know where our hotel was in relation to the rest of the city, and at this point I didn't really care. In the end, this was a great area to stay in. The Pham Ngu Lao area is located on the west side of District 1, near some markets and about a 20 minute walk from the downtown area. Its close but not too close proximity to the sights make it a very popular area for budget travelers and the streets are crammed with guest houses, hotels, restaurants and cafes providing services to tourists. Ends up it was a fantastic place to stay. Our hotel was the An An Hotel, one of the larger ones in the area, and we had one of their luxury rooms on the top floor for a reasonable price. The staff at the hotel were very nice, helpful and the place was clean, which is more than one can say for many of the other places in the area.

Bui Vienh street at sunset.

We made a quick run out of our hotel for some Pho (noodles) which turned out to be delicious, before heading back to our hotel and getting some sleep. The following 4 days were a jumble of walking, eating, sightseeing, walking, shopping and walking.

The Streets
The streets of Saigon are seemingly forever embroiled in utter chaos. In contrast with our trip to Cambodia, where we were isolated from the streets by our car and driver, we faced the streets of this city on foot. I was constantly amazed at how we survived something as simple as crossing the street. Here is a typical street scene, which we saw repeated time and again at countless intersections. You'll notice the traffic heading toward the top of the picture hasn't quite yet finished passing, as evidenced by the shadow of a car on the right hand side, and yet some traffic has managed to make it through the intersection in the other direction already and the horde of motorbikes are on their way, horns a blazing.

It really was fascinating to see the ebb and flow of vehicles on the street, and the fact that we did not witness even one accident is a testament to the skill, patience and courtesy of the drivers in this city. Everyone just seems to take their turn, honk their horn to let others know they are coming through and find a hole in the traffic. Amazing. Crossing the streets as a pedestrian takes a bit of getting used to, though. Our first little while in the city, I was a bit hesitant, even taking into account my experience in Beijing which is similarly unfriendly to walkers. The key is to be confident, time your crossing so that most of the traffic moving against you has stopped, and march confidently out into the intersection keeping an ear out for the horns of approaching vehicles. By the end of our time here, I was a seasoned pro, and I think Yoshiko was no longer terrified of crossing streets, though she still would not undertake a major crossing on her own. On our first adventure out into the mean streets of Saigon, I spotted this little guy sitting on a motorcycle waiting for his master to come out of a store.

When thinking of all our traveling on the streets of Saigon, what strikes me the most is that this is a very dirty city. You are constantly having to step over garbage or various fluids which have run down from some shop\construction site\toilet\food stall and there are some pretty ripe smells floating out and about most of the area we walked through. I guess this is because the Vietnamese, at least in our area, seem to live out on the streets. Plastic tables are set outside all over the sidewalks, kids and animals are running around and street vendors are pushing their carts of food around selling to the people lounging around on the sidewalks. Quite a different lifestyle than clean, orderly Japan, that's for sure. Something else which is ubiquitous with the streets of Saigon are these cyclo drivers.

They are all over the place in tourist areas and are one of the cheapest ways to get around the city, at about a dollar an hour. These guys have it pretty rough out there, pedalling around in the hot sun. I understand that most of the cyclo drivers are former South-Vietnamese bureaucrats or US Army collaborators who were stripped of their identity papers when South-Vietnam fell to the communist North. With basically no rights of ownership, no residence and no future, these guys have taken up riding cyclos instead of begging for money on the street corners, which to me commands a lot of respect. Many of them are Western educated, speak great English and can serve as wonderful tour guides.

The city really comes to life at night. Here is a 1/6th of a second exposure of the goings on around the traffic circle.

And a full 1 second exposure at the same place, crossing the street here was a bit of a challenge. You really had to pick your moment. On occasion, the local tourist police would spot s group of stranded people and help them through the intersection.

The Markets
Our main source of entertainment for the duration of our stay was Ben Thanh Market and it's surrounding area of shops and vendors.

This market was built by the French a little over 100 years ago and is now the most centrally located source of good, cheap stuff in Saigon. Inside, you can find everything from silk goods and clothing to fresh coffee and dried squid. Just walking around was interesting, and actually making a purchase was doubly so. Like any of the markets you visit in this part of the world, haggling is key and we certainly did our fair share. Yoshiko enjoyed the experience, and in the case of the lady pictured below managed to knock 50% off the asking price for a nice handbag.

Sozo Cafe
A little place down the street from our hotel turned into our regular hangout while in the city. We stopped in there at least once a day, partly for the great coffee and food as well as the atmosphere and free Internet, but also because it serves a good cause. *steps onto soapbox* When traveling to developing countries, I think it is important to not only support the local economy by spreading your cash around, but also trying to seek out that one special place which helps disadvantaged people. The Lonely Planet guidebooks are great at pointing out some of the shops and restaurants which turn 100% of their profit back to the community or helps to train people who would otherwise have very little going for them in their life. *steps off soapbox* Sozo Cafe, is one such place. From it's humble beginnings employing street youth to stock and man a cart selling homemade cookies to tourists on the streets, Sozo has grown to 2 full fledged, full menu cafes while still sending out t-shirt clad youths into the streets with baskets of goodies. The French baguette sandwich here was really good.

The City
Since Ho Chi Min City was the capital city during France's colonial days, it has an interesting feel to it. Some of the architecture is quite nice, making you feel like you are in a major world city, but at other times you are reminded of the poverty and the lingering effects of war that are all around you, such as when a beggar with no legs ambles by and asks you for some money. The airport is a good example of the state of affairs in communist Vietnam. The airport has not had any obvious upgrades since the 1950s and 60s, back when it was a major hub for the region. Out between the landing strips, you can still see the overgrown remains of bomb shelters which served to protect aircraft during the war between North and South. You definitely get the feeling that the country is in the grips of a massive change now with stores selling designer goods popping up all over the place and Hummers cruising the streets. One of the dominant features of the city is the Saigon River which runs through its core.

Here is a perfect example of the duality of this city. As passengers disembark from the fancy hydrofoil which links Saigon to other locations along the Mekong Delta, while a man gathers fish in the dirty water below the platform.

Near our hotel stood this large church, a remnant of France's presence in town. Traffic circles are also quite common, and a pain in the ass to navigate for pedestrians.

The downtown core of the city is centered around the Dong Khoi area where one can find some of the city's best hotels, restaurants and which is within spitting distance of the city's main sights and activities. This is the Municipal Theater, which sits at the end of Le Loi street in the center of town.

As I mentioned before, the city really comes alive at night, thanks to well designed illumination of some of the key buildings. I hadn't even noticed City Hall until we walked by it's brightly lit facade one night.

One of my disappointments from this segment of the trip was the way that Lonely Planet played up this pagoda as an ornate masterpiece of Buddhist artwork. While the story behind the statues housed inside were interesting, our visit to this pagoda totally turned us off visiting any of the city's other Pagodas. I guess I've been spoiled by the stately Japanese temples and shrines carefully laid out and constructed. To me, the Jade Emperor Pagoda was just a red painted concrete building, and had it not been the start of our walking tour of the city, I would have gladly skipped the visit.

Street vendors are ubiquitous in this city, probably since it's easy to shop from a motorbike along the roadside. Here, an old lady waits for her next customer.

The Notre-Dame Cathedral, which sits near Reunification Palace was a nice building to see. The stained glass was destroyed in the Second World War, which is unfortunate, but it remains a lovely building.

This is apparently a popular place for wedding photos. This couple was posing in front of the church, though from my angle you see the city's Main Post Office as a backdrop.

Another of the disappointments was our failed visit to Reunification Palace. I would have liked to go inside and have a look, but as the clock struck 11AM while we were waiting in line to buy tickets, the ticket lady closed up shop right in front of us. Quite peeved at that. We did manage to get a look from the outside of the building. This was where the President of South Vietnam turned over power to the Communist forces who literally crashed through the palace gates with tanks in 1975 during the fall of Saigon.

Some of the tanks, whose capture of the palace was caught on camera by foreign journalists, remain on the grounds of the palace.

After being turned back at the gates of the palace, we made our way up the street to the War Remnants Museum, which houses exhibits related to what is now called the American War. From what I understand, this museum was once called the "Museum of American and French War Crimes" but the name was changed to avoid insulting the throngs of Western tourists who now flock to the museum. While the propaganda inside continues to be pretty strong, with the impact of the war on women and children taking center stage, it is hard to argue with graphic photographs of some of the atrocities perpetrated by American forces in Vietnam. Here sits a US tank, captured by the North-Vietnamese during the war.

The exhibits outside the museum are very interesting, with authentic military vehicles preserved for the public to view. Here you can see the minigun of a Bell UH-1 "Huey" helicopter, which was used to support ground operations deep in the jungles of Vietnam. Everyone remembers the scene from Apocalypse Now when the Air Cav attacks a village on the shores of a river with music from Wagner blaring from the speakers... it was interesting to climb up on one of those choppers. This minigun fired at a rate of up to 4000 rounds per minute from its six barrels, a very effective and devastating weapon.

Inside one of the smaller buildings, a series of photographs follow the progress of the war from the early days of guerrilla fighting to the full scale modern warfare that ended up winning the war for the North. Many of the photos show the horrors of war, with US soldiers lying bloodied and battered along with the Viet Cong. This photo shows a US Marine holding up the remains of a VC soldier killed with a grenade launcher. I'd seen it before somewhere, as I'm sure many of you have.

Some of the more disturbing exhibits showed the effects of the wide spread use of Agent Orange to cut back the forest and eliminate it as a place of safety for the VC soldiers. Another exhibit outlines one of the worst massacres of civilians by US forces in Vietnam, that at Son My (also known as Mai Lai). Anywhere from 300 to 500 civilians were slaughtered here by frustrated US soldiers. The publication of photographs of the massacre taken by an accompanying photographer dealt a serious blow to support for the war in the US. Events such as these not only underscore the horrors of war but how it affects the psychology of those involved. To these soldiers, whom witnesses describe as using babies for target practice with their pistols, the Vietnamese villagers were not human beings. It is difficult to understand how such a thing could happen, and I'm sure we all hope we would act differently were we placed in the same situation, but who really knows?

New Year's Eve
Our last night in Vietnam was December 31st, New Year's Eve. Out on the street near our hotel, preparations started early for the evening's festivities, with De Tham street blocked off for a street party. As the sun went down, the action started on the stage set up in the middle of the party.

The streets were jam packed with people, and we didn't stay long, opting to go further down the street for dinner and relax in our room until midnight approached.

We did make it back out on the streets, and after turning down the offer from the hotel staff to attend their other hotel's party, we made our way into the throngs of people to count down the last seconds to 2006. The crowd was pretty wild, and a few people popped their Champagne a little early, but the live band did a good job of counting things down for us and the crowd erupted in jubilant celebration as the clock struck 12. I think this was the first time I'd been in a crowd of strangers for New Year's Eve.

The next morning, we got up early and hopped a cab to the airport. Our flight to Narita actually landed a little early, though due to the distance our plane had to taxi to the gate we still managed to miss the final bus to Utsunomiya by 5 minutes. We instead hopped on the trains and got home around 11:30PM, tired but satisfied with our trip.

So that was how Yoshiko and I spent our first Christmas and New Year's Holiday as a married couple. I am now sick and tired of blogging, don't expect a new post for the next little while, at least a couple of days... lol

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - The Capital

The Arrival
After our long and cold boat ride down Tonle Sap Lake and then through the Tonle Sap River, we finally arrived at the second of three stops on this whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia, Phnom Penh. The arrival was notable only in its confusion. A group of about 30 Americans travelling together quickly commandeered the baggage compartment and started to take out their luggage. They did not allow the Cambodian boat crew to do their job of unloading the bags and passing them on to their respective owners for a small tip which I assume is a substantial part of their earnings. I assume they just wanted to keep an eye on their stuff, but the other hundred people on the boat had no way to get their luggage. We made our way topside and found our guide, pointed out our bags and he sent in some porters to get them before heading out to our car. Right from the start, I could tell that this guide would be great. He's only been doing the job for a few months, having recently graduated from University, and still has that spark that was missing in our previous guide. After a quick stop at our hotel to check in, he took us to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) which serves up some pretty good food for lunch. This was our view over the river from our table, very tropical. After lunch, our guide told us there was a little change in our schedule, and that we would be visiting the Killing Fields and S-21 that afternoon instead of the following day, a decision which turned out to a very good thing for us.

The Reign of the Khmer Rouge
Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, Choeung Ek, Tuol Sleng, S-21, these words will reverberate through my head forever. The Khmer Rouge were\are an extreme leftist group led by Pol Pot who fought against the established government of Cambodia in the late 60s and 70s. After years of insurgency supported mainly by China and Vietnam and with the Cambodian government destabilized by the US-led war in neighbouring Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in March of 1975. The horrific events which followed Pol Pot's seizure of power can only be described as madness.

Within days of seizing power, the Khmer Rouge put into effect their master plan which called for social engineering on a scale never before seen. It essentially called for the transformation of Cambodia into an agrarian, communist nation, with an industry limited to government needs (food and guns) and little else. Under the guise of protecting the civilian population from impending attack, they ordered that all cities be evacuated. Residents were told to bring along only 3 days of supplies as they would soon return home. Their true goal was a massive relocation of the population from the urban centers into the countryside. Without adequate food or water, the entire urban population of Cambodia was forced to march incredible distances in the following months, leading to countless deaths. This was only the beginning of Pol Pot's reign of destruction. In order to consolidate power and eliminate any resistance, he instituted a purge of all who would oppose him. Former government officials, teachers, social activists and other intellectuals were systematically rounded up, tortured for information and exterminated in centers such as the ones we visited in Phnom Penh.

***A quick disclaimer here, the following commentary and photos are graphic.***
Our first visit was to Choeung Ek, one of many extermination centers used by the Khmer Rouge. These are the infamous "Killing Fields" where people were brought from prisons such as S-21 which we visited later that afternoon. Two types of prisoners were brought here. The first group were those who had already admitted, after being subjected to torture, their crimes against the revolutionary movement of the Khmer Rouge. These people were led directly to the nearest mass grave and murdered using some of the different means available to the guards here. In some cases, a took of some kind was used, in many cases, a simple heavy stick. The second group, having not yet admitted their crimes under torture, were taken to the interrogation center nearby where they were given one last shot at confessing before being killed.

As one enters the grounds of the Genocidal Centre, as it is now called, you are faced with this large memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. It is in the shape of a stupa, commonly used in Buddhism to house important items such as the remains of the deceased.

In this case, the stupa holds the skulls of some 8000 victims of the Khmer Rouge, disinterred from the nearby mass graves. On the skull in the forefront, we can clearly see that death was caused by blunt force trauma to the head, most likely through the use of a long heavy stick wielded by the executioner. Beating people to death was cheaper than shooting them you see, and frighteningly this is one of the lesser horrors of which we learned on this day. You can also see the upper age limit of this shelf of skulls on the sign, 20 years old.

Here you can see a marker for the mass graves which were excavated, giving up 8985 victims. There are still 43 untouched graves here, left as they were found. In some of the photos we saw, the blindfolds were still in place over the skulls of the victims when they were dug up. In others, the rope which held prisoners together as they were led to the graves and killed was still intact in the open graves found here after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

These are some of the mass graves, now slowly being filled in by the rains. This whole area used to be a cemetery for Chinese settlers in the region. When the Khmer Rouge moved in, they destroyed the gravestones and turned this place of remembrance into an evil, violent place.

On the ground of the Killing Fields, pieces of clothing left over from the victims still litter the ground... do their bones.

I think the most disturbing image I am left with is of what happened at this one spot. When the Khmer Rouge arrested someone, they more often than not took along their entire family. Wives, husbands, parents and yes, children were taken away to prisons throughout Cambodia. Located next to a grave where dozens of children's bodies were found is a large tree which has an odd pattern in its bark at about shoulder level, caused by something being repeatedly struck in the same place. It was explained to us how the guards, in an effort to be economical, would hold children by their feet and swing them into this tree in order to smash their skulls and cause their death before discarding their remains in the open pit nearby. One can only imagine the feelings this gruesome act must have brought up in the child's parents if they were still alive and nearby. As in any horrific killing such as this, the question comes up. How could anyone be so evil? In the case of the Khmer Rouge, they did a very good job at selecting and training their killers. Taking children from their homes at a young age, often as young as 10, they were desensitized to death over a period of time, for example by being forced to torture and kill animals. Once they began their jobs, each guard was placed in a team with the orders to immediately kill their partner should they hesitate to fulfil their task. It is hard to imagine killers between the ages of 10-15, but these are the people who were used by the Khmer Rouge to carry out their death sentences. Nothing more than children, brainwashed into becoming instruments of evil.

To say this first stop on our visit to Phnom Penh was sobering would be an understatement. Our second stop would be even more horrifying.

Before the Khmer Rouge took power and emptied the cities, Tuol Sleng was a place like many others, a school where children went and played and spent their days learning about the world around them. Once Pol Pot and his minions took power, they code-named this place Security Prison 21, or S-21 for short, and turned it into a place of unspeakable horrors. Classrooms which once served to educate young minds, were used to house and torture people.

For almost 4 years, prisoners were brought to this interrogation center, the total number is not known but thought to be anywhere from 15 to 20,000. The irony here is that many of the prisoners brought here were former Khmer Rouge leaders, soldiers or supporters who fell victim to the intense paranoia which eventually caused the group to cannibalize itself. When the Vietnamese forces entered Phnom Penh in 1979, they found an empty city, vacated long ago by its population and more recently by the top cadre of the Khmer Rouge. They eventually stumbled on this secret prison and found only seven survivors. The final 14 people to die in S-21 were brutally killed by the remaining prison workers as the Vietnamese troops closed in on the city, they were interred here, under the trees in the courtyard of the former school.

This is the cell of one of the last 14 to die here. The photograph on the wall shows the prisoner's tortured body lying on the bed as it was found by the Vietnamese who liberated S-21. This prisoner was housed in the VIP unit of the prison, which is why he had a bed, a window and an ammunition can in which to relieve himself. Even though he was shackled to the bed, which had no mattress and he could not see outside, he lived in relative luxury when you compare this to the cramped conditions in other sections of the prison. Some high level members of the Khmer Rouge government spent their last few days in these cells, including some of Pol Pot's ministers who had dared to question his methods.

The prisoners housed and interrogated in S-21 had it pretty hard. Nobody knew it would be your turn in the interrogation room where everything from electricity and water torture would be used against you to have you give up your presumed accomplices. Since most of the prisoners here were innocent, they had no names to give up, but names they give up regardless under the incessant threat of more and more pain. Family, friends, neighbours, co-workers, mere acquaintances... these were the building blocks for vast "networks" of rebels that the Khmer Rouge uncovered through these interrogations. Other prisoners took matters into their own hands and committed suicide by jumping from some of the upper tiers of the prison.

Life here was governed by a set of rules with dire consequences if you took one wrong step or did something as simple as not ask a guard before changing positions in your cell. And as rule number 6 states, you must not cry when receiving lashes or electrical shocks.

This frame, once used during Phys Ed classes at the school, was turned into an instrument of torture on which prisoners were hung, stretched and abused in other ways. One particular cruel torture method was to hang the prisoner upside down and slowly lower him into these large vats into which were emptied the human waste collected from the prisoners' cells. If you were lucky, it was only filled with water on the day they chose to bring you out into the courtyard for your dose of fresh air.

In some of the rooms of the former prison turned museum, dozens of pictures stand testament to the evil of this place. The bureaucracy of the Khmer Rouge was such that prison officials had to carefully document each prisoner's incarceration. As you can see here, some were quite young.

To prove to their superiors that they were doing a good job, they often took pictures of prisoners after their torture or their death to compare with their "before" pictures. In the photo of the prisoner slightly to the left of center, you can clearly see foam coming from his nose, indicating he was poisoned. Near the top left on the second row from the top, you see the photo of a prisoner who managed to escape his fate by jumping to his death.

All of this in what was once a peaceful setting. Unbelievable.

This particular building was covered in a barbed wire mesh, a measure brought in to stop prisoners from jumping from the top floors. So convinced were the interrogators of their prisoners' guilt that they saw a suicide as a failure to gain valuable information for the revolution. Through the mesh, you can see the crude marking on the walls used to hang the numbered keys which unlocked the shackles of the prisoners inside.

The final tally of the Khmer Rouge's impact on the nation is between 1 and 3 million dead, which equals a quarter to a third of Cambodia's population at the time. Cambodia's infrastructure and industry was decimated in their drive to create an agrarian utopia and the resulting guerrilla war against the eventual Vietnamese invaders turned large sections of the country into minefields which are still claiming lives and limbs to this day. And all of this in the shadow of the Vietnamese war, with little to no action from the international community. Horrendous. Tuol Sleng once housed a map of Cambodia made from the bones of a few of the Khmer Rouge victims. The map was taken down in 2002 in respect for the victims and a photograph now hangs in it's place with the remains stored in a cabinet nearby. This is a grim reminder of what happens when extremism takes over, and people stand by and do not act.

This visit was overwhelming. Shortly beyond the halfway point of the visit to S-21, I had heard enough and was reacting physically to what I was hearing from our guide, and just wanted to leave. The visit to these horrible places was a solemn, quiet and also an important one. This is a part of history, our history. These atrocities were committed less than 30 years ago, and atrocities such as these are still happening today, though we like to close our eyes to these things. I found it very interesting to talk about these things in depth with our guide as we drove to and from these places. The resilience of the Cambodian people is phenomenal and I am certain they will rebound from these difficult times as so many peoples have done before them. Discussing this very subject with my dear friend Sean over MSN Messenger this morning, he brought up the "Indian Rubber Ball Principle". He eloquently compared the human race to a rubber ball, saying that the harder you throw it, the higher it bounces back, a wonderful characteristic of our species. In the case of Cambodia, I believe this is quite fitting, and that they are in the process of rebounding quite nicely.

Following our long day of travelling and genocide education, we retired to our hotel and dined on room service before enjoying our first full night of rest in 4 days.

The Bright Side of Phnom Penh
The decision on the part of our guide to begin our tour with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge instead of ending it that way was quite ingenious. On our 5th and final day, we got to see thebeautiful side to Phnom Penh and learn about Cambodia's rich cultural heritage. A much better note on which to leave this country after falling in love with it and its people, no?

Our first stop was a visit to the Royal Palace, which sits in the centre of Phnom Penh along the Tonle Sap river. This is still the active residence of the king, though his living area is separate from the touristy stuff. The throne room and other areas are sometimes off limits to tourists when certain ceremonies are held or when a visiting dignitary drops in on the king for some coffee. The current king of Cambodia, his Highness Norodom Sihamoni was on a trip to France during our visit, so we didn't run into him on a jog through his palace or anything. This is the main building inside the palace walls, the Throne Hall which is used when heads of state visit. The styling of the entire palace is copied from that of the Thai Royal Palace, though the Cambodian version is slightly smaller.

What palace is complete without grandiose gardens, and of course an army of groundskeepers.

This building, on the edge of the palace grounds is called the Moonlight Pavilion, since there are no walls and the moon light can thus enter. It has been used to hold banquets and other events, but also is used for the king to address his people. Since large crowds usually gather, they can gather outside the palace walls, and the king can address them from the height of this pavilion. Possibly a good idea to keep the teeming masses outside of your house if you need to announce some bad news.

This building was\is used as a library and also includes a convenient little balcony off to the right from where the king would mount his elephant when going off to hunt or to war.

As you may not know, Cambodia became a protectorate of France way back in the day. The signing of the treaty was forced upon the king at the time, with France threatening Cambodia with their powerful navy. It ended up being something of a blessing for Cambodia as it halted the land grabs of Thailand and Vietnam and France even forced them to give back some of the land they'd taken. As with any colonization, there are good things which come along with the bad. Cambodia regained it's independence in 1953, when King Sihanouk declared independence. As a symbol of the close ties between the two nations, Napoleon the 3rd of France gifted this iron building to the King. It was built in France, then disassembled and rebuilt here inside the palace walls, kind of a Cambodian version of the Statue of Liberty.

Here we are just outside the king's private office (on the left), which is inaccessible to the public except for special occasions, such as when he donates food to the poor. You can just make out the 4 faces of on the Throne Hall's main tower, which look out over the kingdom in the 4 cardinal points.

One of the major attractions of the Royal Palace complex is the Silver Pagoda, or the Emerald Buddha Pagoda. There is a reason for its two names. No, the building itself is not made of silver, but the entire floor is. When the currency was changed from silver coins to paper currency, the king collected all of the silver turned in by the population and melted it down to make over 5000 tiles, each wighing 1 Kg, with which to cover the pagoda's floor. While the floor is now covered in carpets, you can still feel the tiles underneath our feet and some sections are uncovered for you to see. The second name is used by the locals in honor of the treasure housed inside this building. At the top of a large golden pedestal sits a statue of Buddha carved from emerald and decorated with thousands of diamonds, the largest of which weighs 25 carats. A sight to behold. Oddly enough, we spent the most time inside looking over a small display case of golden statues which depict the major stages of the life of Buddha, from his birth to his death. Our guide went on in intricate detail about the stories behind and the provenance of these statues. From what I understand, much of what was housed here was destroyed by Pol Pot in his attempt to create a fresh start for the nation, but thankfully a lot still remains.

Outside the Silver Pagoda sits a number of stupas honouring former kings or their parents/children who died during their reign. Quite a lovely setting.

Many people still come to pray to the former monarchs.

As we made our way out of the palace grounds and toured a traditional Cambodian home, we spotted this little guy hiding from the harsh sun in a little patch of shade. Kawaii!

After visiting the Royal Palace, we walked down the main street to the National Museum of Khmer Arts, which houses a fantastic collection of statues. It was interesting not only to see the progression of the artform from period to period in Khmer history, but also to see some of the original statues which once stood on the temples of Angkor which we had previously visited. On the way down, I spotted the Canadian Flag, flying high and as has been my custom when seeing my flag in a foreign land, I snapped a picture.

After touring the museum with an expert guide whom I could barely understand, we took a break for lunch before hitting both the Russian and the Central markets for some souvenirs. It was here that Yoshiko really learned to bargain and I was quite impressed with my little lady. She even walked away from some of the vendors who were trying to fleece her. I picked up a couple of carvings for myself, but nothing much. Since we still had plenty of time before our flight to Vietnam, our guide decided to take us to a place which was not included in the tour, and which turned out to be the highlight of our entire trip.

The Apsara Arts Association is a combination orphanage, cultural education center and community outreach program. It is a NGO funded by the Japanese Kasumisou Foundation, as well as others and it's main purpose is to bring kids in off the street while keeping the rich Cambodian dance culture alive. When we arrived, we were warmly welcomed into the main room, and got to have a peek at a practice dance session. Different groups of children and teenagers came out and had their run, supported by a small band playing traditional Khmer music. When some of the kids were having difficulty, an older member would stand with them and work out the steps and movements of these very graceful dances with them. These were some of the older people, entertaining us with a dance about a couple in a fishing village who is in the middle of courtship (the two holding baskets to the right of center) and they were quite good, very professional.

After a few numbers, we were taken by surprise when the kids all ran down from the stage and invited us to join them. I was reluctant at first, but was absolutely unable to say no to this cute little Cambodian girl who came and took my hand. Our guide grabbed my camera and managed to get a couple fo shots of us, for which I am eternally grateful. Here we are with her trying to teach me the moves to the dance, you can see Yoshiko out in the rear left with the hat on dancing along with her instructor.

After trying for quite some time to teach me, a more senior boy came in and using English (1, 2, 3, 4) tried in vain to get me going before the little girl came back and continued to be a partner to this horrible Canadian dancer.

After trying it for a bit longer, I gave up and moved to the sidelines, to the despair of my little partner. Being the sweet little girl that she is, she picked up a flower which had fallen during one of the previous shows and presented it to me before proceeding to give me a kiss and climb all over me. Yoshiko continued doing her thing on the stage, with the one or two remaining tourist\students.

While we were on the sidelines, I took some photos of the girls and watched their faces light up as I showed them the results on my camera's screen. In fact, I was so overwhelmed at the time that I'd totally forgotten to show them the pictures until my little partner turned my camera around and tried to tilt the LCD screen out herself. Here we are with our dance instructors.

This really is a fantastic place, and on our way out, we made a donation and signed the guest book. I find it fitting that the couple who run this place are survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. Their profile lists them as "farmer during Khmer rough period" from 1975 to 1979, before they managed to rebuild their lives. This visit alone made me want to return to Cambodia, and I miss it dearly. It was a touching experience to say the least, and a fantastic way to end our visit to Cambodia. Our guide gets 4 thumbs up for his choice of venues and timing.

We then made our way to the airport, where our guide and driver proved they were worth the generous tip we gave them by remaining at the window outside until we disappeared behind security. The airport tax to leave Phnom Penh was a bit much at 35$ a piece, but I guess it's going to pay for the brand new facilities we were using, so no big deal. I was a bit disappointed in Vietnam Airlines when our departure time came and went with no notification to the waiting passengers. We all got a little antsy before a plane landed and was prepped for us after quite a bit of time had passed. While sitting around, Yoshiko and I befriended Raj, a Brit traveling through Southeast Asia with whom we ended up sharing our pre-arranged taxi in Vietnam. We eventually made our way on board and said our goodbyes to the fascinating place that is Cambodia.

I am left with a number of thoughts on this leg of the trip. First and foremost in my mind is the undeniable fact that it was the better half of our trip. I can't help but repeat how amazing the Cambodian people are, both in the service industry and just those on the street. Not once did I feel uncomfortable or fear for our safety. Not once did someone try to take advantage of us due to our status as tourists. To this day, Japan and China (the two most powerful nations in Asia) remain the only countries where I have been taken advantage of due to my status as a foreigner, despite having now visited two of the poorest nations in Asia. I think this says something, no?

Another of the thoughts which sticks out in my mind is the impact of Japan on the region. Japan is to Asia what the US is to the World; a leader, a model, something to aspire to. Japan is doing some great work in Cambodia, and I just found out it is Cambodia's largest donor. I have seen the results of Japan's money with my own eyes, when we drove on the Japanese-built road to Angkor Wat or passed under the Japanese-built bridge over the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh. Thanks to money from Japan, small towns are more accessible, priceless temples are being restored and a new area is thriving on the far bank of the river thanks to the new bridge. By helping to build infrastructure, rebuild ruined temples, clear land mines, educate the people and by funding important organizations such as those mentioned above, Japan is fulfilling it's role as the leading economy in Asia, which is very nice to see after seeing how it has failed to do so many of those things properly here in Japan.

Well folks, that's enough for tonight. Very difficult blog post to write, but I'm glad I got through it. Writing about my experiences is one way for me to relive them and to remember them and this was certainly a trip I want to remember for the rest of my life. Tomorrow, Vietnam!

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