The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Back in Mui Ne

I'm back in Mui Ne after 3 weeks in Saigon, Phnom Penh & Bangkok. When I bought my ticket back to Mui Ne and realized we were coming upon a long "Liberation Day" and May Day weekend--well, I almost bought a ticket back to Bangkok. While I thoroughly enjoy festival days, I strongly dislike Vietnamese holidays. Living in the now resort capitol of the country, it means hordes of pushy, oblivious Vietnamese tourists driving motorbikes and cars, well, that most of them are not qualifies or capable of driving.

Today is the first day of the long holiday, and there is a constant hum of holiday traffic outside the cafe here in Mui Ne. If you don't have your bus ticket already purchased to and from Mui Ne, you can cancel your trip--there's nothing available till the middle of next week. Likewise--rooms that are normally $10-$15 are now $50-$70 for the weekend.

The non-stop rain this week is however dampening the mood. Fortunately I LIKE rainy season.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine Flu: Experiences in SE Asia Suggest There's Something They Might Be Omitting

I visited China just as the SARS outbreak began getting serious international coverage in 2003, and I remained in the country until it all subsided. As such, I witnessed first-hand the real story of SARS in rural China--an epic that Western media has yet to stumble upon. Some of that is documented HERE.

The way the media is handling this new epidemic of the swine flu reminds me a lot of the SARS coverage. In general, it's all being overblown, seriousness exaggerated, and it is perhaps being used for political gains, much like the USA used their response to SARS (biased media coverage and government commentary) as a way to punish China for a variety of infractions--including their reluctance to help us with North Korea.

There is however, one serious item that no one is talking about--the cause of death in Swine Flu victims. This flu variant is said to be a recombination of DNA from a variety of related viruses, including the Swine Flu that has caused localized epidemics in China and N Vietnam in the last few years.

And here lies some cause for concern, if this is true. The Swine Flu in China that causes an outbreak in 2005, and a number of times since, is (or at least one variant is) a hemorrhagic fever. It liquifies tissue, causing internal and external bleeding, and death in less than 24hrs. The Chinese government quarantined entire villages when cases were found. Corpses of dead animals were incinerated. It's likely human corpses were as well, though I don't know for sure. The media was not allowed to cover the incidents. How do I know then? Someone close to me was in China at the time, and their neighbor was a butcher who died from the illness. They experienced events first-hand. Some information on the outbreaks is available online, thought it takes a little extra effort to find it with Google, as it never received mainstream media coverage.

It may be that these symptoms have not appeared in this new strain--and if so, thank God. But I do find it curious that no one is talking about the cause of death and how quickly people actually die, once they have contracted the illness.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

CNN iReport: Khmer New Year

If you missed the broadcast I'm told you can view the airing of my Khmer New Year photos at this link (my connection is too slow to see it myself, boo hoo): CLICK HERE

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Khmer Rouge Trial Update

A grave marker at the Killing Fields

I was fortunate to attend the Khmer Rouge Trials again today, held outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This trial is for Kaing Guek Eav, better known as "Duch," the commanding officer of the infamous S21, a school turned torture facility where approximately 14000 people were murdered under his charge.

I was surprised by the low attendance in the courtroom audience. I had heard that public interest was waning since the beginning of the trial, but I still expected more. When I arrived at 8:30, all 470+ seats were empty, except for court staff. As I waited for the proceedings to begin at 9am, about 60 people slowly trickled in. All but a few were foreigners, and most wore ID badges indicating that they were a member of the media, an NGO volunteer somehow connected with the trial, or staff of the court. I recalled a comment made by my friend Sochiet the night before, that “though my grandfather was murdered by the Khmer Rouge, it seemed lost in the past.” He said that for him it was more important to move on. While the trial is certainly a defining moment for many survivors, I know so many people who feel the same as Sochiet. It makes me wonder how many people are really paying attention to the proceedings?

The witness, Chan Voeun, addressing the court

Today the trial revolved around the testimony of Chan Voeun, a dark skinned, frail man at age 56. He claimed to be a guard at the M-13 prison under Duch, the commanding officer. M-13 was apparently a smaller, earlier version of the more infamous S-21, which Duch later went on to administrate. Events occurring at M-13 are outside the court's jurisdiction, but are being re-told to extrapolate a better picture of S-21 and Duch's personality.

M-13 Prison held a total of 70 people—families—mothers, fathers and children. All but three were murdered—most of them tortured to death. Prisoners were kept in tiny cells or underground pits and subsisted on watery gruel. The prison guards fared only a little better, living on thicker gruel themselves. According to Duch, they even slept in the prison pits as well. Voeun stated in his testimony that many (if not all) of the prisoners were eventually killed and discarded in 3 mass graves that he found while secretly hunting a deer behind the prison.

Voeun described gruesome torture scenes in which Duch allegedly used a gasoline rag, lit on the end of a stick, to burn the breasts of a female victim. Crying, he also recalled an event where Duch allegedly shot and killed Voeun’s uncle in front of him. Voeun described Duch as someone who “was happy when he tortured people.” Yet Duch told the court that he is sorry for what he did at M-13—that it all was an important matter and still “affects me psychologically.”

Voeun himself became a prisoner at M-13 after helping 3 prisoners—one of them his friend—escape. He later fled the prison himself and sought the aid of his village chief to remain free.

Duch, now an evangelical Christian, is the only defendant to admit guilt, seek forgiveness and agree to cooperate with the court. Yet ultimately he disputed much of Voeun’s testimony, claiming that Voeun was never on the staff at M-13. While Duch agreed that some of his statements about the layout and condition of the prison were factual, he said many of the stories Voeun relayed were distorted, second-hand information or outright lies. Indeed there were discrepancies in Voeun’s testimony—at times he claimed he was too far away to see whether Duch himself shot his uncle, or the methods Duch used when torturing certain victims, yet at other times he claimed to be very close to the incidents and described them in great detail. Likewise, he claimed that he saw Duch shoot another KR officer with an AK-47, but later admitted that the officer “disappeared” over time, like most of the prisoners.

Court staff reading the original statement of the witness to clarify discrepancies in the testimony

Unfortunately it’s easy to explain discrepancies from both the witness and the defendant merely in terms of the 30 years that have gone by since these events occurred. It’s possible both men could be telling the truth to the best of their memories. Translation also proved to be an evident problem during the proceedings, which are carried out in a mix of Khmer, French, and English (with strong foreign accents). Many questions had to be repeated several times due to difficulty in translation, and at times brief responses had no correlation with the simple questions asked. The defense complained ardently about this.

The trials are not without controversy. Credible accusations of corruption within the court have jeopardized its financial backing from other countries. Only 5 officers of the Khmer Rouge have been permitted by the government to go to trial at this time. Many members of Cambodia's current government are former members of the Khmer Rouge themselves, and guilty of crimes that will never go to trial. Thousands of ex-Khmer Rouge cadres live freely among the population as well.

View this story on CNN

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Khmer New Year Part 2

Today marks the third and last day of the Khmer New Year celebration, known as Chol Chnam Thmey.

Today is known as Tanai Lieang Saka. Throughout the day Buddhist Cambodians are visiting local temples to bathe Budda statues, make offerings of incense, donate to the poor, and receive baptisms from monks. Children may also bathe parents and grandparents for good luck and longevity.

Presented here are pictures that I took today from wats (pagodas) around Phnom Penh. Most of the day's holiday activities are confined to wats full of bustling crowds wearing their best cloths and making offerings as Monks chant melodically. The rest of Phnom Penh is quiet as people otherwise remain home with their families or play games in their villages today. By tomorrown many of the city's shops and markets will re-open and life will return to hectic normality.

View this story as it appears on CNN.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Khmer New Year in Phnom Penh

I wasn't able to see the broadcast, and my internet connection is too slow to view it online, but I'm told you can view this story, as it aired on CNN, by clicking HERE...

Talcum Powder Victims

Wat Phnom

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week (April 14-16) the people of Cambodia celebrate the Khmer New Year, known as Chol Chnam Thmey, with games, family time, visits to local temples, and jubilant celebrations. As with all Buddhist holidays, the 3-day festival is tied to the lunar calendar. By Buddhist reckoning, this year is 2553 BE (Buddhist Era).

The Royal Palace, New Year's Eve

Monday night marked New Year’s Eve. In Phnom Penh, I watched fireworks at the stroke of midnight (apparently 1:36 am in Cambodian reckoning), just south of the Royal Palace, at the convergence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers.

Family Altar for the New Year

A money boat and sand mounds made at Wat Phnom

The evening and morning of the first day, known as Moha Songkran, is a time when families worship their ancestors at special holiday alters, and then visit the local pagoda to make prayers and offerings to Buddha. In temples people erect sand mounds representing Culamuni Catiya, the stupa at Tavatimsa, where Buddha’s hair and diadem are said to be buried.

Games at Wat Phnom

Dancing game at Wat Phnom

Much of Phnom Penh is quiet during the holiday, as Cambodians prefer to go home to their villages for the celebration. However, when I visited Wat Phnom, the city’s temple-mount namesake, I found the center of afternoon activates, with young people gathering to play special holiday games—which included dousing each other with water and smearing talcum powder on each other’s faces.

Wat Phnom

Wanabat is the second day of the festival, and a time to donate to charity. On Tanai Lieang Saka , the third day, people visit local temples to bathe Budda statues and receive baptisms from monks. Children may also bathe parents and grandparents for good luck and longevity.

Boys playing New Years Games

Tasty Treats: Crickets, Silk Worms and grilled birds

Variations of the Khmer New Year are also celebrated in Laos, where it is known as Bpee Mai, and Thailand, where it is called Songkran, although these countries have adopted fixed dates of April 13, 14 and 15 for their celebrations.

View this story as it appears on

Friday, April 10, 2009

Breakfast at Novela

I had a lovely buffet breakfast at Novela Resort & Spa earlier this week. Novela is a new, upscale resort at 96A Nguyen Dinh Chieu in the center of Mui Ne. Breakfast was a lavish spread in their tropical garden, including omelets, bakes potatoes, fresh baked breads with butter, jam and pate, pancakes, lots of fresh fruits and juices and piles of bacon! The restaurant overlooks the beach, and unlike other dining options in Mui Ne, it's seated high above the road so the outside traffic is not staring you in the face. Visit their website at

Monday, April 6, 2009

Interview & Quote

I was recently interviewed for a story on traffic problems in Vietnam. The editor cut the interview down to a quote, but here's the story:

Vietnam: Drink Driving, Motorbikes Make for Deadly Mix on Roads,, Wednesday, April 01, 2009