After leaving Bardia, the adventures continued when we set out for Lumbini (via Butwal), the birth place of the Buddha, on a local Nepali bus. We piled our bags onto the roof and packed ourselves in like sardines for one long, hot, sweaty, dusty ride, in seats not big enough for our legs, passing slower vehicles, dodging oncoming traffic, swerving, breaking, and of course honking, to avoid cows, goats, chickens, bikes, buses, cars, children, and water buffaloes all to the loud beat of a Hindi soundtrack playing in a repetitive loop. At one pitstop I was honked at by the driver who was very annoyed with me for taking too long during our bathroom break (in the woods). As bad as it sounds, this ride was an improvement over riding on the roof of the bus, which Coalter and I both did in Nepal when we were younger (sorry Mom, I never wanted to tell you that!).
Throughout this trip we have been trying to strike a balance between using the cheap and culturally interesting local transportation and preserving our lives. Private transportation, which is much more costly, allows you to ask the driver to slow down, point out to him that he’s going to kill a child if he doesn’t cool it, and to stop when GI distress and motion sickness strike suddenly, which they do with some frequency. With our children in tow, we have chosen the private option for most of our overland travel in Nepal.
Bardia National Park is a 1000 square kilometer protected area in the low-lying Terai region of Nepal, on the border with India, where we spent several days in search of the big five: Bengal tiger, Asian elephant, one-horned rhinoceros, leopard, and sloth bear.
The main goal in the Bardia wildlife safari competition is to spot and to photograph the most large mammals, with the grandaddy being the elusive Bengal tiger, and of course to talk about it later in the lodge and boast with your photographs. There are winners — like the French couple who saw a tiger five times the day before we got there, or the lady from Chicago and her son who only had one day in the park and managed to see a large herd of elephants, several rhinos, and a tiger — and there are losers . . .
We knew the challenge would be tough from the beginning after being introduced to our competition and taking in their safari wear, their cool European accents, and their cameras weighing almost as much as our children.
Day one consisted of a full day expedition by jeep. We were so excited driving through grassy fields, crossing shallow rivers, enjoying the early morning jungle sounds. We were rewarded immediately. Within 15 minutes at our first stop there was an explosion of excitement as our guide spotted a tiger at a distance lying in the tall grass. After 15 to 20 minutes of greedily snatching the binoculars from each other and whispering “amazing”, “spectacular” and “unbelievable”, our “tiger” stood up on two feet and walked towards the forest carrying his large camera. A photographer lying in the grass! A truly memorable moment with a hearty cross-cultural laugh.
Following is an overview of the rest of our day:
Hour 1. We arrive at a bank overlooking a wide, grassy and sandy expanse where two rivers converge providing a popular spot for wildlife to come during the heat of the day to drink water. We are glued to the binoculars in excited anticipation of the tiger who was about to come. A furry swamp deer rests in the foreground.
Hour 2. The deer is still there. We entertain ourselves commenting with the hushed whispers of narrators of a TV nature program. We enjoy the sheer beauty of this peaceful spot. We wonder if something is wrong with the deer.
Hour 3. Forgetting about the tiger for a while, he’s probably going to wake up soon, our attention turns to the surrounding jungle and the banks, which suddenly come alive. We watch a brilliant kingfisher bird for a while, “beautiful enough to name a beer after” says Coalter referring to the same-named Indian lager. The “log” that it was hovering near for so long suddenly grew legs and stood up to amble back into the water, a mugger crocodile. A male peacock appears fanning his feathers and doing his incredible, over-the-top dance which resembles a solo salsa, and a female peacock appears as well, apparently buying the whole number. Is something wrong with that deer? It’s becoming a little harder to focus.
Hour 4. That deer is so stupid, it’s right in the open, doesn’t it know there is a tiger lurking in the grass, go away you stupid deer, you’re going to die.
Hour 6. After hours of quiet contemplation, deep thoughts and revelations set in like… maybe we could all learn from that calm and composed deer because isn’t there always a tiger lurking nearby in the grass, and… I had no idea my kids could sit still for so long without a screen.
Hour 7. “Show yourself you black and orange striped devil” hisses Coalter. An inconsiderate tourist group with obnoxious cameras and video equipment noisily tramp in wearing bright colors (a safari no-no), preparing to set up their equipment, including bright lights, for the night. We hate them and it’s all their fault we didn’t see anything.
Well, you get the picture and you probably guessed that even after two whole days in the jungle we never did see that tiger. But there were so many other delights and excitements. We crossed a rickety bridge that looked like it belonged in a state fair fun-house, bouncy and tilted a little bit to one side with no handrails and a few missing planks here and there, over a river where we had seen a crocodile a ways back (that sounds really bad as I write it, I don’t think they eat people). We saw langur and rhesus macaque monkeys, incredible birds like the wooly-necked stork and the crested hawk eagle, swamp deer, barking deer, hog deer, spotted deer, mugger and gharial crocodiles, mongoose, a herd of wild boar, and lets not forget the tiger man. We saw tiger paw prints everywhere and had exciting moments when the jungle animals let out their loud warning cries that a tiger was in the vicinity. We decided we would become birders. We had wonderful drives through the grasses and airy jungle watching two amazing sunsets. Mother Nature finally gave us our large game consolation prize and offered up a spectacular rhino show for us. We watched three one-horned rhinos, including a mother and baby, bathe in the river with the baby nuzzling alongside its mother and climbing on her back (to the delight of the mother spectators), and the two big rhinos getting in a little fight (to the delight of almost everyone else). And, as the parting gift, we came upon a lone, white-tusked bull elephant ambling through the tall grass at the edge of the jungle under a bright orange sunset, just as an elephant should be, with 10 minutes left to spare in our safari. Although we were not the top contenders in the Bardia wildlife game, and our competitors saw tigers the following day while we were back at the lodge doing our laundry, it was pretty darned incredible.
And just when you think you could not possibly relax any more… We spent five days at appropriately named Lazy Beach on this largely undeveloped island two hours by boat from the southern coast of Cambodia. Our pulses became almost undetectable. More hammocks, a bungalow right on the beach, an open air bar/restaurant, snorkels, books, badminton and not much else (including electricity). There were only a handful of bungalows on this whole side of the island. Apparently the developers are drooling over this tropical paradise and it will likely not look this way in five years. We were so lucky to find it now and enjoy it now. Highlights included, well all of the above. Plus for Coalter and me, a full-moon walk through the jungle to the other side of the island for a famed Southeast Asia “full moon party” where boat loads of youngsters are shipped over to the island during the full moon to party (or rave, is that what’s it’s called?) all night on the beach. Of course, given our age and stage in life, this was done strictly in the name of research, to observe the behaviors and mating rituals of the young, bohemian travelers of the new millennium. It was… something. We had an educational (fun) time and came away very happy to be right where we are in life!
It was very hard to leave Koh Rong Saloem after such a nice stay. The boat ride home through rough seas was terrible. For those of you who have ever wondered whether dogs can get seasick, the answer is yes, and they are also capable of setting off a chain reaction among the human passengers. Not a trip we will forget any time soon! But worst of all was that after our boat ride we had to say goodbye to Coco, who hopped in a taxi back to Phnom Penh on her way back home. She is an intrepid traveler who has been on many trips with us through many countries. We had a great time and shared many wonderful memories and laughs (don’t worry Coco, I won’t write about the ones I threatened to)…. she will be missed.
Next stop, return to Ganesha, then back to Phnom Penh to retrieve our backpacks then onward to Bangkok.
Next stop, Kampot on the southern coast of Cambodia, a quiet, riverside town best known for its eponymous Kampot pepper. We had a very peaceful and relaxing few days at the Ganesha eco-resort, a much needed change of pace after so much urban sightseeing. We rode bikes, canoed through the mangroves, napped, played cards, enjoyed the warmth and quirkiness of our lovely French hosts, and stressed over which of the many hammocks, hanging beds and relaxing spots to choose from… so many, so little time. We had our hands-down best lodging of the whole trip… a three story circular stone tower with hammocks and panoramic views of the surrounding rice paddies and distant Bokor mountains on the third floor (this became boy headquarters and yoga central). As long as you don’t mind sharing your bathroom with frogs and your bedroom with large geckos, waking to 5 a.m. Call to Prayer at the neighboring mosques, and spirited Cambodian weddings with loud PA systems that pulse with music all night on weekends, you will love Ganesha. And we did!!!!
We have spent a great deal of time getting around cities in tuk-tuks. It is a great way to see a city and to experience the chaos of the urban landscape. Here are a few photos. I have found it is best to sit on the bench that faces away from the driver and the oncoming traffic. This helps when, for example, you are the only vehicle going in completely the wrong direction around a very busy city rotary.
Interestingly, Phnom Penh was one of the cities the kids were most looking forward to visiting based on the reading they have done. Henry read several age-appropriate historical fiction and non-fiction novels about Cambodia set in the era of the Khmer Rouge. (“First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung and “Never Fall Down” by Patricia McCormick are good for teens and advanced pre-teen readers, and “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner is appropriate for younger readers, Braxton enjoyed this one.) We also watched the movie “The Killing Fields” prior to our trip. Given this preparation and their interest and maturity, we decided to include a tour of the Killing Fields on our itinerary.
The Killing Fields refer to the sites throughout Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot tortured and executed 1.7 million people – 21% of the population – between 1975-79. The best known one is Choeung Ek where 17,000 men, women, children and babies were brutally executed after being tortured first at nearby Tuol Sleung, a former high school turned prison and torture camp. These were very powerful and moving exhibits. Nothing can prepare you for seeing the glass memorial stupa containing 8000 human skulls, the mass graves, the huge vats of clothing, the 8 x 10 photos of every prisoner who passed through, including young children, the seemingly normal school where classrooms were turned into prison cells and torture chambers. While we had our reservations about exposing the kids, in the end I’m very happy they experienced this. I think they are too. How can you understand Cambodia without understanding this genocide, and how can you begin to understand genocide without understanding the horror? As the narrator of our audio-tour pointed out this was not the first or the last genocide, and to prevent future atrocities, anywhere, one needs to understand these past events. “For your sake, remember us and remember our past as you look to your future.”
Add to all this the perspective we enjoyed of our charismatic tuk-tuk driver “Tree” whose mother was a nurse under the Khmer Rouge and whose family is very poor. He explained the intricacies of dealing with the corruption of the system and the “rich ones” every day as he tries to provide for his family and rise out of poverty. You begin to understand yet another layer of the complexity that is Cambodia. While not necessarily condoning the violence, there are a great many poor in Cambodia who continue to support the ideals of the Khmer Rouge and who themselves were KR soldiers or who are descendants of this largely peasant group. It is much more complicated than we would have imagined, and still seems quite tenuous.
While emotionally challenging and certainly draining, this day was actually a highlight of our time in Phnom Penh, allowing for great conversations with the kids and amazing learning opportunities for all.
We took a detour from Phnom Penh and spent several days in the city of Siem Reap, the jumping off point for touring the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat, the previous center of the Khmer Kingdom. Angkor Wat is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Below are Braxton’s impressions:
Angkor Wat is a series of beautiful temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia. They were built by the Khmer people as early as the 9th century. The buildings are crumbling and in some places the jungle is breaking up the rock. It was amazing how much art they had in there. A lot of the art was a style known as bas relief. Bas relief is a carving in stone that often tells a story. They had it on almost all of the walls and sometimes it went all the way around the perimeter of the temple. Lots of the temples were bringing Hindu beliefs and Buddhist beliefs together. They often had stories of Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer) in the bas reliefs. All three are Hindu gods. Vishnu is often found holding a mace, a sphere, a conch shell, and a disc (he has four arms). Vishnu is also usually found riding on a Garuda. A Garuda is a mythical part bird, part snake, and part human creature.
Angkor Wat is one of the most beautiful places ever. It is also considered to be the eighth wonder of the world. It is most beautiful when you see it at sunrise like we did. I hope you will be fortunate enough to go there some day.
We had a great time in Phnom Penh. It is a vibrant, bustling city demonstrating the extremes of both poverty and excess. You see it all…from a picturesque promenade along the riverfront, the magnificent Royal Palace, exciting street food (including fried bugs, frogs, birds, snakes and tarantulas – and we did watch a British woman eat a tarantula)…. to small child vendors wandering the streets alone at night, seedy tourists plying the sex trade, and widespread begging. We learned a great deal in this city. We were introduced to the glories of the ancient Khmer civilization at the National Museum and Royal Palace, as well as to the horrors perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
From Braxton’s journal entry on the National Museum and Palace:
Vishnu is the Preserver of the Earth. Shiva is the Destroyer. Brahma is the Creator. They are all Hindu deities. Vishnu has four arms that are usually holding a conch shell, a ball, a mace, and a wheel. Shiva is usually holding a trident. Brahma has four faces looking in the cardinal directions. We quizzed our dad on what Vishnu is usually holding. He got three wrong, two right, and we had to tell him the last two.
At the Palace we went into a room that had what the royal people wore. They had a different outfit each day. The other room that we went to had an emerald Buddha. In the emerald Buddha room the floor was made of real silver tiles but they were covered with rugs. There was a life sized gold Buddha encrusted with diamonds (almost 10,000) but I couldn’t see the diamonds.
We love crossing borders, especially the international boundary experts among us. Here we are about to cross the Mekong River from Laos to Thailand. Mostly we have flown across borders (as in the airport photo below) with the exception of the crossing from Nanning, China to Hanoi, Vietnam by night train when we were awakened twice in two hours to exit the train with all of our luggage and deal with customs and immigration on both sides of the border. Needless to say, the daytime crossing of the Mekong by boat was much easier.
OK, OK, since so many people want to know… we did not actually eat the rats. They were not offered to us and were instead eaten by the guides and village women who were cooking. Unfortunately, they are probably used to westerners squealing and then photographing their dinner, one of their only sources of protein. Honestly, it just did not seem that gross in the middle of the jungle. Several claim that they were fully prepared to eat them…