I feel like we’re a gang of livestock getting ready to be sent off to slaughter there we huddle together on the little traffic island – nested between two three-lane roads – just at the end of Soi Ram Buttri, the parallel street to Khao San Road, in Bangkok. There have to be at least a hundred of us – and a lot have already left – long time backpackers and short time travelers, standing there with our luggage in all shapes and sizes, with different colored circles plastered to our tops. We’re waiting for the buses that will take us to Chumpon, before we’re ferried off to Koh Tao, Samui or Phangan.
This was not my plan, at all. I hate travelling this way, being hurried off with a big group and hasted from place to place – but in this case it was definitely the cheapest and by far the most convenient way to do it. They have placed the public bus central for buses heading south to an incredibly inconvenient location, only reachable by car and taxis. I was a bit skeptical at first as well, as I’ve heard all the horror stories (and met quite a few people experiencing it during my months in South-East Asia) of people getting robbed on buses originating at Khao San, especially the buses going south; of people hiding in the luggage compartment and going through the backpacks during the night; buses left at the side of the road, deserted by the staff and people noticing that somehow they’d even lost valuables from their on-board luggage. But this seems legit, Lomprayah – the bus/ferry company – has their own office (off of Khao San), the buses are all marked with the company name and I haven’t read anything about robbing incidents on them.
It’s my second time in Bangkok, and somehow I get washed up on chaotic Khao San road again. All, all alone for the first time in weeks, months if you forget about my little clown adventure up to Phonsavan in Laos, and I feel uttermost alone. Then the sky opens up and release it’s huge amounts of water and I head out with my camera, for a pure photography session, for the first time in way too long!
I’m in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on a rented rickety bike without any gears – but with an awesome front basket – on my way to see the incredible temples of the Angkor area, doing the big loop. Of course I took a wrong turn somewhere – having to try to find a one-way road leading in the other direction – but soon I’m on the right track, heading towards the temples, together with tons of buses and tuk-tuks. The day before, Renate and I went around some of the biggest temples, Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm – the last one became famous because it was one of the filming locations for the Tomb Raider movie – with a rented tuk-tuk for the day, but I wanted the experience of biking around as well, get at different feel of the area, stop wherever I’d like, and well obviously, it’s cheaper as well.
Biking goes surprisingly well, I was a bit worried when I saw that the bikes for rent at the hostel didn’t have any gears, but as everything is pretty flat that’s not so much of a worry after all. I’m also amazed of how refreshing it is, when you pick up some speed it doesn’t feel that hot, a lot less so than walking at least, the wind cooling you down if you pedal fast enough. The problem is the moment you stop, you feel incredibly hot and the sweating just wont stop, better just to keep on pedaling.
Once there used to be laughter and gossiping in these corridors, then there were screams of agony and pain – now there’s silence, only broken by soft footsteps and whispers of the people coming to learn about the cruel ways of the Khmer Rouge regime. Haunting pictures of the people – men, women,even kids – who suffered here are plastered on the walls, together with testimonials of both survivors and executioners.
I’m at the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A former High School converted into the notorious State Prison 21 – commonly known just as S-21 – in 1975. Tens of thousands of people were put here, tortured and then sent to Cheoung Ek to be butchered, only seven survivors are known.
Walking around the complex is a really powerful and emotinal experience, seeing the once classrooms turned into small cells – in one of the rooms there’s still a blackboard hanging on the wall – looking at the pictures of people who once lived, but now are long gone, perished in terrible circumstances.
Wind in hair, a straight – and surprisingly well-maintained – road as long as the eye can see, landscapes, houses, kids flying by, I push the bike slightly faster and wonder how I could ever wish to sit on the back rather than ride the bike myself. We’re on our way to Tad Lo from Pakse – we being Renate and her “gang” that I met up with again in Savannakhet, our being apart didn’t last too long – on rented semiautomatic scooters. It’s the first time in my life driving a motorbike all by myself, and I absolutely love it. And then, something is terribly wrong, I don’t feel in control of the bike anymore, I skid slightly, but before anything bad can happen I brake hard and stop at the side of the road.
“I think there’s something wrong with my bike” I shout to Dugie – one of the two English guys in our group – when he slows to a halt behind me.
“Sure there’s something wrong with your bike, honey, you had a puncture”.
We take a look at my back wheel, and there, sticking out from the side, is a long nail of some kind, we found the source all right. Soon Renate, Ingrid and Kaleb shows up as well, and we send Ingrid ahead to tell those in front, while Dugie heads back to the small city we – luckily –passed by not too long ago, to try to find someone to fix it.
The hammock is rocking slowly back and forth, causing a slight soothing wind, caressing my skin. There’s an opened book on my lap, laying upside down, rising and falling to the slow rhythm of my breathing, longing for some attention it won’t get, not yet. Somewhere in the background there’s a speaker on, playing chilled out tunes that mixes with the singing of birds, crowing of roosters and the infrequent purr of a motorbike passing on the narrow mud street behind the bungalows. The Mekong River, dotted with thousands of small lush green islands, is floating lazily by; the water now and then interrupted by narrow river boats making their way on the mighty river delta and a few backpackers in black tubes, moving down the river, slowly, slowly. Water, mixed with salty sweat, keeps dripping from my soaked clothes and hair down unto the wooden patio. It won’t be too long until I’ll stand under the shower head again, fully dressed, hoping for the non-heated water to actually be cold, or maybe just slip into the river for a short swim – but no, not yet. My eyes close and I doze off – it’s siesta time.
“Have you seen the buffalo?” a local guy asks us a short time after we’ve arrived at the buffalo slaughter party in a village near Tad Lo in Laos. We got stuck waiting forever for our food at mama’s place back in Tad Lo and just missed out on the traditional dancing ceremony with beating drums and costumes – or apparently without costumes, because an old woman keeps on apology for the fact that the show was too short, the lack of costumes, hurried, not what it once used to be – so at least getting to see the buffaloes sounds like a good idea.
The guy takes us to the back of the big open square where some kids are catching crickets – later it will turn into a dance floor – and there, in the light of his flash light, we can barely see it, a buffalo roped to a thick stick. I feel sorry for the poor animal, especially when the guy tells us about the slaughtering process. The buffalo is one of twelve animals – four water buffaloes and eight cows – that will get their back legs cut off and then bleed to death before sunrise the next morning. Something they do once a year, for good luck, prosperity and fertility. Since we first heard about the slaughter earlier that day I had planned to watch the slaughter, but at that moment I change my mind, I do not want to see animals suffer and die in agony (it took them about ten minutes to die, some other backpackers that did go, told us the next morning), and I’m glad the slaughter is in the morning, and not in the evening as we first thought.