A Travellerspoint blog

Made it to Phnom Pehn and Siem Reap!

Sketchy hotel internet service, interesting ex pats and a wild west like night life

A long flight took me to Malayasia and then finally to Phnom Pehn. Vacation had officially begun! Most of my photos are from randomly wandering around. I was lucky each time, to just miss being caught in the torrential downpours of the monsoon rains that come every evening. Met two British ex-pats who had been living there for about 3 years. They remained mum on what brought them to the city. I found that to be true of a few people I met who had moved there.

But I did get some video of the rain and it comes down so hard, it roars. It's a good sound.

The hotel was great at first glance, but the fact that the internet never worked and two other travelers had money taken from the room safe leads me to warn against it (Monsoon Inn and Spa). Still it came with a private balcony and great bathroom.

Anyway, I wanted to take a boat to Siem Reap and despite multiple warnings from people living in Phnom Pehn not to take it (it would run out of gas, they throw the luggage overboard when the boats get stuck in the mud, it'll capsize, etc, etc) I purchased my $30 ticket and took it anyway.

Luxury boat it was not. Long and narrow and aging it was. No ventilation inside, but once it got going, there was air in the cabin. The seats were hard and the only way to see the scenery was to cling to the small railing that was about knee high outside. Some just opted to climb onto the roof and take it in from there. No safety vests, no safety talk. Just the motors revving up and off we went!

The riverside life was great to see, though and in the end, the boat was completely worth it. I'm now in Siem Reap at a gorgeous hotel for a few days before going to Thailand. I have my three day pass for Angkor Wat and I'm ready to soak in the street life here. Already hired a tu tuk driver for the next few days...Mr. Lee. I'm in good hands.

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Posted by oedipamaas 23:58 Archived in Cambodia Tagged reap siem phnom pehn Comments (0)

Odd landscapes and a failed boat tour...

My team and I explore the city together and end up in some odd places...

I've mentioned a few times, I'm here for work. So as of last week, two more team members joined me from the United States. I was transferred to a much better hotel and now we are staying there together. Also we are closer to the office, so no more one and a half hour commutes to work (mostly stuck in traffic).

No we are in the 5 star lap of luxury now. And we continue our trend of working long days. But the thing is, bringing me out here, having me meet my team mates who I only saw over sketchy Google Hangout feeds previous to this, it's great. It connects me more deeply to our projects.

Anyway, the last week has gone something like this. I went to the largest mall in Dhaka to buy some affordably priced Bangladeshi scarves and ended up with about 8 of them. All beautiful colors. Pictures of the mall will be included in this post below. The mall was kindof fascinating in its own right. I've also been seeing how the wealthier part of the city live by getting to know a relative of one of the people who runs our company. An incredibly nice person with a beautiful palatial estate who served us a meal all completely sourced from his own organic farm outside of Dhaka. The food, the company and the change from dining alone at the hotel to eating with one another in such a nice house was really enjoyable.

Yesterday, me and a few of my teammates (the US members) went with my boss, who is from Dhaka originally, to sightsee. Since the ruling political party decided to literally SHUT DOWN ALL OF THE ROADS in the city for the ENTIRE weekend so they could have their weird political "convention", we had to cancel our plans to venture out to a rural village where we could fish in a pond and kill the chickens we would later eat (this was an actual plan for our team building excercise). So, instead we had to go "free form". I was weirdly looking forward to the village expedition. It would have put us up close and personal with the rural roots some of our Bangldeshi co-workers grew up with. And understanding someone's context like this is an important thing when building bridges between countries. Oh well.

Well, first, we went shopping at a few great shops (more scarves, a beautiful wall hanging, countless Christmas presents and a book of Bangladeshi recipes). Then we went to a suit shop to get someone fitted for a custom suit. He got to pick out his own fabric, they took endless measurements and we all helped him design the suit of his dreams. It was rather fun and it was only a few hundred dollars. A steal!

We ate traditional food at a local Gulshan restaurant and then we cast about for ideas of what to do. I wanted to see river life and asked for a boat ride. But no, again the streets were closed. My boss did know of a lake where perhaps we could find boats though, and so off we went.

We arrived and walked to the shore only to find instead of boats, there were people standing on burlap bags that were presumably filled with something that made them float, and these people huddled together on this innovative and very makeshift raft as they slowly and painstakingly ferried themselves over the water to a ramshackle collection of huts on the other side. More people awaited the return of this raft to also take them when it presumably made the return trip.

So no boats for us. It was an astonishing moment to behold though.

My boss's wife then suggested this field full of beautiful grass and flowers (we were complaining a lot about not being able to walk around because of their nervous security concerns). So back into the van and the driver began taking us toward the edge of town. We drove for quite sometime until we came to a huge open area where there were no buildings. Just piles and piles of brick and brick fragments and people laboring under the hot sun, barefoot some of them, to build indiscernible buildings or homes or something. It was obvious this was to be an entire neighborhood or office or something....but all we saw were the beginnings of foundations and bricks and dust and smoke and these people toiling. An old man casually strolled past the van with about 15 bricks stacked on his very head.

When I mentioned it, my boss said, "You should see how they load him up with those, they just toss the bricks one by one onto the stack on his head until it looks like that". It weirdly made sense since no one could be tall enough to reach that high to add them.

We drove further and further into this desolate landscape and I actually felt uneasy. This looked like a great place to dispose of a body or get mugged. But when we decided to stop by the tall, feathery grass and get out, it felt good to walk around. Some of the laborers stopped their work and watched us with curiosity. In the distance, a cricket game was being played in the hot dust near some statue of some importance. It all had a post-apocalyptic feel to it. Smoke rose in the horizon from something vague and unidentifiable.

We had fun clambering on top of piles of bright red brick fragments and posing for photos. Out product managers darted into the grass and emerged as if on a strange safari in an imaginary world. The brutal labor the workers were doing compared with our joyous running around and leaping onto these mounds of dirt were such an odd juxtaposition for me. It felt like we were in some dystopian world somehow.

Later, we visited one of Dhaka's few bars, the Blue Moon in Gulshan. I took a few pics of that place too. Even though I wasn't supposed to...

What else? We visited a co-working space (the first and only one of its kind in Bangladesh..run by two women!) and then went to hang with my boss's old friends...two members of a famous Bangladeshi rock and roll group and the two educators who lived with them. What a charming and wonderful gang of friends they were! It was great to meet artists and intellectuals and relax with them and talk music, poetry, travel and the history of Bangladesh as well. That and a few gin and tonics. Fantastic day all around.

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Posted by oedipamaas 12:58 Archived in Bangladesh Tagged people food dhaka banglasdesh Comments (0)

Videos and pics from the last few days...

Stolen auto parts market, cloth markets, Old Dhaka in general...general Dhaka chaos and beauty!

Some videos of the last few days....

Starting with a pic of the "fixer" whom I depend on. The driver's photo is also in here (close up a man's face...that's him).

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Posted by oedipamaas 13:36 Archived in Bangladesh Tagged market river old cloth dhaka banglasdesh Comments (0)

Exhausted...so will just post some pics

Old Dhaka cloth market and auto parts markets

I'm working 11 hour days here. When you roll the time stuck in traffic getting to and from the office, well, it's a minor miracle I'm typing this out now.

On Saturday, after Friday's Epic Traffic Jam (which even awed Bangladeshis city wide I found out later, thanks to the Chinese Prime Minister who was visiting), I woke early and arranged to meet with our company "fixer". Let's just call him Rafi (not his real name). We had planned for me to take off from my hotel by 10am, but the Chinese Prime Minister again waylaid traffic for 20 million people in the city with his departure. So my driver could not reach me until 1pm. By then, the streets were miraculously clear.

We made it to Rafi and off we went to Old Dhaka. First stop, the Lalbagh Fort...an old Mogul fort built in the 16th century by a guy with the best of intentions (seemingly) until his daughter died towards the end of the project. He was so grief stricken, he did not finish the fort and instead had her entombed inside. It was nice to see it, mainly because it offered a strange oasis away from the never ending cacophony of Dhaka, a city with few parks to escape the urban jungle.

It has rose gardens, abandoned bathing areas and a nice grassy hill from which to view all the encroaching towers that loom over the enclaves and gardens. It's almost like Dhaka is fighting its way into the fort and soon the fort will surrender. As usual, I was the only foreigner there, save one other person laden with cameras who was Asian (probably Chinese).

We then went to the oldest Hindu temple in Dhaka. That was somewhat peaceful. Now that Durja Puja is over, the temple was sparsely attended and we enjoyed walking around the mostly empty grounds. Then Rafi took me through his old stomping grounds from university days, showed me the vibrant markets near his old school and then, a special treat, took me to Hotel al-Razzaat...a famous biryani joint. To me it looked like any other place from the front, but when we walked in, I immediately took note of the old Colonial feel of it. Ceiling fans, waiters dressed in their uniforms and "Ladies Cabins" off on the side wall...special rooms to dine in if you happen to be female or with females. Rafi reassured me we would not have to be segregated and we strolled up to a long wooden table and sat down.

The biryanis here were delicious! Soft pillowy rice spiced just right with tamarind seeds tucked inside and an accompanying plate of mutton slathered with a dark spicy gravy. A week ago, I gave into the local custom and have started to eat with my hands, as they do here. There is a hand washing ritual before dining and rest assured, everyone takes part in cleaning yourself before using your right hand to pile the rice and spicy gravy into small hills, expertly putting this on your fingers, and flicking it into one's mouth. After a few meals, you get used to it. When will I have the chance again to experience this kind of cuture so intimately? Of course I'm eating with my hands!

To accompany the meal, I had an unusual drink of sour curds, cardmom and cumin and maybe ground pistachio? Not sure. The flavor was intense and complex and I couldn't figure out all the notes. But it helps with digestion and with cooling the spice on the tongue. It was called Burhnai.

After the meal, we toured the auto parts market. I feel that nothing I write would justly describe this place. Again, more mysterious shops, shoulder to shoulder, dark with oil and grease and engines. In some doorways, it was completely dark save the smelting fires emmanating from way back inside. Children using sledgehammers to disassemble engines. Rafi told me an entertaining story about how his friend had something stripped from his car one time and he went to this market to find a cheap replacement for it. Only to find the very thing that had been stripped. Undeniably his. I have a video of this market and of Rafi telling the story...hopefully I get my Youtube issues worked out.

After that, the river markets, an old palace (the pink mosque like structure in some of the photos) and the cloth markets. What can be said about the cloth markets? They were narrow and other wordly. Colorful and dense. Unlke anything I'd experienced before. The streets are incredibly narrow there and the favored method of travel is rickshaw...yet I was still not allowed (safety! Arrgh!). So we muscled the car in ridiculous fashion down streets never designed for a car and as people looked up in disbelief at me, the white westerned, I took pictures. That felt weird, but I'm not allowed out and they are not used to visitors. So there it was. The lens moving slowly down the ancient street.

More to tell, too tired to tell it all. Here, enjoy some photos. Mostly of the river market and cloth market. I will post the stolen auto parts market, the palace and fort photos next time.

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Posted by oedipamaas 11:44 Archived in Bangladesh Tagged people food dhaka banglasdesh Comments (0)

Friday commute...

A strange traffic jam where I don't know if we were in danger or if it was normal....

I am here for work. So I stayed up late toiling away in my hotel room last night preparing for a demo of something I was building. My room is small and the AC needs adjustment every hour in order to keep it comfortable. Outside, I'm told by my boss, there is no place for me to go alone. No where to "take the air" and wander as I'm used to doing in the States. There is only the roof. I go there in the morning to excercise and when I'm done, flocks of large green parrots wheel overhead shrieking and clacking. Their sound becoming one of a thousand sounds happening at that moment in the air.

It's hot and muggy, but not as bad as it is during the intolerable summer. My co-workers all show up to the office around 11 to noon, all cheeirly exclaiming "Shuvo shkokal!" and "Assalamualaikum!" to me. They did it in English at first, until I made a point of telling them I wanted to learn as much Bengali as possible. I'm learning some phrases too. I've memorized a few that I can rattle off on the phone to my driver that has won the admiration of my co-workers ("Ami niche ashbo ektu pore 5 minutes") and I have fun doing it. Being somewhere new, learning a new language, I'll admit...it's an escape from one's self.

And everyone stays until 7 or 8. I think this is by design because first, traffic is so horrific in this city, it puts to shame anything I've seen in Mexico City or even Seattle, WA for that matter. And two, the sun has set. The heat is still there, but there's something alive and celebratory about the nighttime in Dhaka. Little fires shoot up on the wheeled carts of some of the boys making small pastries. They all seem to have a small propane flame that calls attention to their brightly painted carts. Then there are the endless open air markets that ramble on for block after block...miles and miles of this all spreading out through a city of 20 million people. It's staggering to try and understand how dense this place is. How insignificant we are in the face of the organism that is Dhaka.

Nothing remarkable to report other than my ride home tonight. It was a mellow day at work that was preceeded by a quick commute in. 20 minutes! I asked about this and my co-workers informed me that Friday is their Saturday. Our office is one of the few places that works on Friday. It's a religious day, apparently. How deceptive that ride was...

I left work at 5:45 after arranging with a co-worker to tour Old Dhaka tomorrow (which I am greatly looking forward to) and summoned the driver. I usually have him take me to the Westin for dinner and a wine after work, but this is getting expensive, so I just had him take me back to my temporary home. All went well until we neared the Prime Minister's compound. Traffic began to thicken and clog and then, in a desparate move to avoid the inevitable, he turned down another street. And suddenly, everything ground to a halt.

The vibe was weird. He could sense it too. I spun up Google and typed in English questions and received the Bengli translations which I asked him. He smiled nervously and said "all stopped". Boys hanging off the backs of buses and on top of them, for that matter, started to clamber down. People were getting out of cars and rickshaws. And then, after about a half hour, this steady stream of people suddenly, and very quickly started moving away from our intended route of travel, some running. Cars were frantically trying to turn around. I couldn't tell what this was about or if it was panic of some sort...but it didn't seem good. So the driver and I looked at each other and I turned around and just started guiding him out...we kept backing up and I would tell him if this pocket or that pocket was clear. We worked like this for 15 minutes to extricate ourselves, then he just leaned on the horn and barrled forward, scattering pedestrians from in front of us, until we had turned off onto another road where traffic was flowing again. This time with police sirens wailing.

We shadowed the police until we were in a part of the city I had never seen before. Rutted dirt roads. Wild dogs loping along on the side. More people scurrying along in the darkness, and dust kicked up everywhere. Giant clouds of it. He sped up and these headlights would come at us headlong through the clouds and we all swerved at the last minute and missed, and then kept going. Strange heaps of rubble, more pockets of tea shacks and stalls with flickering flame lights and then into another district. Stalled again, but the vibe was less weird. Finally an hour later, we rolled through this new part, more flashing alleys and then the call to prayer. The muezzin singing his haunting song at top volume on the speaker. This went on for some time.

When he finally turned into the security checkpoint at Gulshan, his shoulders visibly relaxed. He turned to me and finally smiled. He had been nervous. I still don't know what it was all about. Time enroute home...2.5 hours.

Tomorrow, Old Dhaka.

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Posted by oedipamaas 09:50 Archived in Bangladesh Tagged people food dhaka banglasdesh Comments (0)

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