Aug 13, 2016

Your Genocidal Holiday

1980: Pac-Man debuts in Japan, the Iran hostage crisis imperils Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign, the US boycotts the Olympic Games in Moscow, Iron Maggie reigns supreme in England, and John Lennon is shot in New York.

Far away in Cambodia the Vietnamese army has just pushed the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh and is engaged in a bloody guerrilla war for what remains of the country’s soul. The Dead Kennedys release Holiday in Cambodia, a sardonic criticism of both faux-compassionate hipsters of the era and corporate yuppy ideology. Frontman Jello Biafra howls into his microphone, entreating superficial and materialistically privileged white Americans to benefit from the perspective of a holiday in a Cambodian labour camp under the cruel whips of Khmer Rouge officers.

It's time to taste what you most fear
Right Guard will not help you here
Brace yourself, my dear!

2015: Children born since the fall of communism have now graduated college and Soviet Union has since been sliced up in an orgy of capitalist profligacy. The specter of Da’esh (Islamic State) and terrorism rises in the middle east while in some corners of America a panic has arisen about Starbucks cups with less writing on them than last year. Christmastime.

Multicolored lights twinkle merrily under the tropical sun amid festive Disney characters outside of the hotels of Siem Reap. Peace has returned to the Kampuchean plains and hills. Though the country remains impoverished across many dimensions from the genocide of the past, the economy is booming, new construction is going up everywhere, and tourism comprises a hefty and rapidly growing proportion of Cambodia's GDP. The chief tourist attractions? The ancient Angkor Wat temple complex in the west and the specter of the Killing Fields and genocide museums in the east, to which the privileged classes of global tourists flock in droves.
It is certain that we have an obligation to learn from mistakes of the past. That it is right to peer from behind the curtains of our cosseted lives with the aim of empathizing with people unlike ourselves. What was it like to live in the Kampuchea of 1980 or 1975 as a former office clerk evacuated from the city and forced to tend fields, or a poor farmer, inspired by a charismatic leader and an uprising turned to fear and complicity with something that has gone horrifically awry.

You can imagine if you try.
We should ask ourselves these questions. But what happens when we stop making the effort, when the Killing Fields become another vacation check-box, maybe slotted in between a session of heavy drinking and a trip to the shooting range.
Tourists outside the pagoda at Choeung Ek, which is filled with the skulls of genocide victims
Sometimes an experience demands more from you than you can of it. So maybe just keep that in mind before you book your 50 rounds of AK ammo (Ice Cube doesn't think that's necessary for a Good Day anyway), or snapping that picture of grieving families on the ghats of Varanasi, or clambering over the sacred Dreaming Tracks of Uluru in pursuit of an ‘authentic’ experience.

It's a holiday in Cambodia
Where you'll do what you're told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul

Jan 3, 2016

Megalithic mysteries and modern mayhem in Laos

The smell of stone dust on sweat permeate the air. Hammer and chisel crash into each other deafeningly within the confined space. The stonemason pulls his head out of the chamber to wipe the sweat from his eyes. He is halfway finished boring a circular hole onto a rough-hewn cylinder of sandstone measuring two meters long and one meter across. Once finished, a team of people will haul the massive stone jar down from the mountainside quarry, across 20 kilometers of jungle and open plain, and up to the top of a promontory where it will join hundreds of other jars. There is will remain, relatively undisturbed for more than two millennia until I come along and poke my head inside.

 Elizabeth poking her head

To be fair, I’m probably not the first person in 2,500 years to poke my head inside this particular jar. They have captivated and bewondered visitors and locals alike ever since the purpose of their origin was lost to human knowledge. Madeleine Colani studied the Megaliths of Upper Laos extensively in the 1930s. She theorized that the jars were created by salt traders plying the overland route connecting the Mekong basin with the Gulf of Tonkin. Colani also unearthed human remains in and around the jars pointing to their funerary use, perhaps as a place for the body to be distilled of cremated before burial.

The big one

Locals prefer to tell the legend of their use as vessels for brewing and storing whisky. This is comparable to present-day customs of brewing up rice liquor in drums. Water is then poured over the top and the mixture is sipped through a straw. You have a choice to sing a song or take a drink; whoever does not sing must drink!

I just hope they had clear labels to differentiate the two uses.

I’m in The Lao People's Democratic Republic, known as Laos, or ‘Lay-oss’ as JFK would pronounce it whilst describing the incursion of communist forces into the Plain of Jars in 1961. This area of unprecedented megalithic historical significance became a prime battle ground in the Laotian Civil War pitting the Pathet Lao backed by the Vietnam People's Army against the Royal Lao Government backed by the CIA through clandestine operations of Air America and Operation Barrel Roll.

Ban Phakeo village on top of a mountain near Jar Site 52; many Hmong people living in villages like this fled to Minneapolis after working with the CIA during the war

In addition to the ground conflicts that ravaged the Plain of Jars, the US waged a relentless, harrowing, and at times lazy bombing campaign that blanketed the Plain of Jars and southern Laos with two million tons of bombs. Many bombs were dropped on Laos as a ‘secondary target’ to avoid extra landing procedures following the abortion of primary missions to northern Vietnam. Laos now has the distinction of being the most-bombed nation on our pale blue dot. One third of cluster munitions did not explode as intended, leaving millions lying on the ground, ready to go off at the slightest provocation. At first I was skeptical of stories I heard: so many children are killed by accidentally picking up or playing with the cluster bombs. Then I saw for myself:

 Here is a cluster bomb, showcased in the Mine Advisory Group visitor center in Phonsavanh

Here is a type of fruit that is readily found on the forest floor. It makes a nice playing ball too

Children and adults will also knowingly pick up bombs, hoping to sell them to scrap metal dealers. A cluster munition could sell for 10,000 kip ($1.23)! Bigger bombs mean bigger money.

Cluster bomb casing repurposed as a hayloft support

The aftermath of the conflict 45 years ago is apparent across the landscape. Neither homes, nor archaeological sites, nor open fields were spared bombardment.

Jars toppled and split in two near a bomb crater

Big bomb crater in the countryside

The crater shown above is one of the cluster near the center; additional craters can be seen across the landscape and in the rice paddies on the right

Unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance in Laos has been excruciatingly slow, with a lack of resources and seemingly insurmountable quantity of work to be done. An estimated 80 million UXO were live in the country by the end of the war and average of 300 people were being killed or maimed each year. Much of this work has been spearheaded through NGOs like the british Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and coordinated by the Lao government.

In recent years things have been looking up. The US government has finally stepped up funding for UXO clearance channeled through the State Department and the human casualties have been dropping. However, the economic impact of UXO persists: Laos remains an achingly poor country and UXO are a major impediment to economic development. Farmers are afraid to expand their fields for risk to life and limb. New construction of basic amenities and infrastructure are impeded by the necessity for precautions and UXO clearance before something as simple as new road construction.

Sign showing the UXO clearance markers at Jar Site 1

Today, seven out of 90 identified megalithic jar sites have been successfully cleared, allowing them to be opened to the public and stimulating the regional tourism economy. But there is still much work to be done. Only when the Lao people are able to build new schools, hospitals, and rice paddies without fear of their own land will this explosive legacy finally be laid to rest.

Tourism economy stimulants!

For more information about UXO in Laos I recommend the documentary Bombies, which is available to stream at this link.
MAG shared the Nobel peace prize in 1997 for their work in Laos and around the world and is a 501(c)3 organization in the US and registered charitable company in the UK.

Dec 10, 2015

We made it!

We are happy to announce that we have reached Mandalay! The NEroute team completed the journey travelling 17,015 non-flying kilometers between Queenstown, New Zealand and Mandalay, Burma. Click here for a full list of how we passed each segment. If you made a pledge you should expect an email soon with your specific contribution amount. If not, it's not too late to donate to our charity partners:

Pledge per km Donation Amount
0.01¢ $1.70
0.1¢ $17.02
0.2¢ $34.03
0.5¢ $85.08
10¢ $1,701.50
50¢ $8,507.50

Donate to

Donate to
World Education
(Please put in the project field)

It has been a long and thrilling journey to say the least. Elizabeth and I would both like to thank you for following and supporting us so far. For encouragement, we visited one more World Education project center along the Thai-Burma border:


Sitting just across the mountains from Myanmar is the border town of Mae Sot, Thailand. Over the last few years the town has been booming as more and more traffic has been allowed to cross the border. Nick and I arrived here after spending 28 wonderful days in Myanmar. World Education’s office here works on a number of projects and we were able to visit three schools with which they have a relationship.

These schools are located within Thailand, but are attended by migrants from Myanmar. The first we visited, New Wave, currently has 110 students in attendance. Families who have come across to Thailand for various reasons will send their children to New Wave where they are taught using the official Myanmar school curriculum. World Education has been able to facilitate multiple schools’ access to the curriculum and national testing. Students who pass the 4th grade end-of-year test will receive a certificate allowing them to enter the 5th grade should their family return to Myanmar. This is important to many of the families who desire a future back in Myanmar. Staying with the official curriculum not only allows them to feel more connected to their country, but prepares them to return with as little disruption to their children’s education as possible.

From left to right: Kelly - Education Officer, Amy - Program Associate, myself, Nick, and U Zaw Htet - School Director of New Wave School

The parents of these children are extremely supportive of their children’s education, both emotionally and financially. This school has received little outside funding since opening in 2007, and is primarily funded by parents giving what they can. These parents, often employed with transient and temporary work in a new country, will provide whatever they can afford to keep their children in school. The teachers also provide tremendous support, taking little compensation for their work and committing themselves to the students. These teachers, like the children and their families, are migrants from Myanmar.

The facility is simple but inviting. There is a boarding house for the students whose parents have gone too far away looking for work. The school tries hard to keep students enrolled for an entire academic year at a time, interrupting their education as little as possible in the flow of a single school year. This involves sending vehicles to the outskirts of the city and some students living on-site as their parents move around for to find work.

World Education is able to support this school by providing training to the teachers, paying the testing fees for the students, and working with both the Thai and Myanmar governments to ensure a seamless continuation of these students’ education.

Our visit fell on a holiday, but many students were in attendance anyway, studying for the upcoming Government exams.

Our second visit was the most profound for me: a small school for disabled migrant students. The Starflower Center was started by World Education and VSO, but is currently operated by a local organization, the Burmese Migrant Workers Education Committee (BMWEC), with support from World Education. This school is also for families from Myanmar, but more specialized in their support. Among the school’s 26 students there are those who struggle with blindness, deafness, Cerebral Palsey, Down’s Syndrome, and other learning difficulties.

The students enjoying their daily singalong time.

This school is also underfunded, but has been crowdfunding to provide for the needs of the school. World Education hires and trains the teachers as well as working with the parents, many of whom were completely unable to manage a disabled child. Without being able to put them into general education, working parents were sometimes leaving their disabled child home alone while both parents would leave for work. Now the school not only provides a safe environment for the children, but parents are being coached on physical therapy, emotional support, and how to provide special need for their child.

As soon as we entered the classroom, a small ball of energy bounced toward Nick and embraced him. As he came pelting to do the same for me, I saw it was a small smiling boy. Many of these students were incredibly isolated before this school was available for them, but now they are able to get social interaction from adults and other students regularly, and seem to interact very well with each other.

Another boy was pointed out to us as the first student of the school 6 years ago. When he began at the school he could neither walk nor speak. He can now speak both Burmese and English, and we were able to see him not only walk, but dance. His legs are slightly unsteady, but that does not stop him from enjoying their class dance time as much as everyone else.

Dance time!

The third school was for young adults, aged 19 - 25, and focuses on community development. It is called Wide Horizons, and was started by World Education in 2006. The program is very competitive, taking 24 students a year: 12 men and 12 women. These 24 students will spent a year living on site studying full time and another year in internships. During the internships they are required to write quarterly reports back to the school outlining what they have learned and how they have applied the first year’s knowledge within their organization.

These organizations over the years have been in health, education, environment, and many other categories. These young men and women learn critical thinking, grant writing, computer skills, as well as more emotionally pertinent lessons. Amassed from a variety of ethnic backgrounds within Myanmar, many of these students have been discriminated against in the past and this program reinforces that they and their people deserve to be treated equally and listened to. The program provides many of these students with the confidence required to be a voice for community building and cultural mingling and many go on to be prominent community leaders.

The students participating in their weekly literary discussion time.

Approximately 200 students have passed through the doors of Wide Horizons over the years it has been operating. While they are mixed in their desire to stay in Thailand or return to their home country of Myanmar, all are intent upon improving lives through community. Both Thailand and Myanmar are richer from the skills that have been provided to these 200 dedicated young adults.

All three schools here are providing such wonderful opportunities for children, families, and young adults who have left their home country of Myanmar to live in Thailand. Having been chased out of their country by lack of work, loss of land, cultural persecution, etc, these people deserve to be able to send their children to school. The ability to maintain a piece of their culture in this new country and plan to return one day is so important to them, and World Education is not only facilitating that, but also educating their young adults to become community leaders.

Nov 17, 2015

Touring Myanmar

With the meditation retreat canceled, we had 10 days unexpectedly free to be tourists around the country. With only a 28 day visa, this actually turned out to be a huge blessing. It wasn't until we got to Yangon and started discussing where to go next and what to do that we realized how much we actually wanted to see the country beyond the inside of a meditation center. In just 5 of those 10 days that we'd have been locked up without looking at or speaking with another person, we:
Explored Yangon,
Tried to take a train to Bagan,
Were turned away from the train to Bagan,
Took a train to Inle Lake,
Visited 2 vineyards,
and had decided to come back to Myanmar again.

One might assume that pulling into the Yangon railway station without any plans in the city or knowing where we'd be sleeping that night would be stressful for us, but that person would be more like Elizabeth and Nick 9 months ago than today. In truth, since leaving Australia we can count on one hand the number of days that we entered a city with a reservation for a place to stay.

We found a hostel online and commenced a search for how to fill our 10 new-found days.

The original Pegu Club, famous gentleman's club from the 1800s and inspiration for the cocktail of the same name. It belongs to the dogs now, also mosquitoes that don't care you've literally just spayed on repellent

A speakeasy that's not a mass of abandoned buildings: the Blind Tiger. Nick ordered a Pegu Club in homage

A permanent and very famous fixture in Yangon, cemented to the dock, but traveling through time with its nightly "dinner and a show" performances of traditional dances and shows.

Myanmar is also famous for its street food. Most tourists probably wouldn't opt for the pig brain purchased off the side of a highway, but most tourists are not Nick.

An enjoyable time in Yangon was followed by a desire to see Bagan, land of a thousand temples. Bagan is a famous area in Myanmar, and Nick and I bent ourselves toward it as our next stop. A quick search on told us that the daily train would leave mid afternoon, and we showed up at the station to purchase our sleeper seats.

As quick aside, a shoutout to them as the most amazing website for train travel in foreign countries, countries like Indonesia, Myanmar especially. With Indonesia and Myanmar you're lucky to be able to find whether a train route even exists on any in-country websites, and are most likely to find that timetable information online consists of a badly translated version of "go the the station to find out the current timetable." Seat 61 has timetables, prices, and class information on trains in virtually every country.

Crowding around the station window (people in Myanmar don't love queuing) approximately an hour before our train was to leave, we learned through multiple attendant's broken English that the train to Bagan was going to be at least 9 hours late and quite possibly more. They would not sell us a ticket until the approximated 9 hours from now (11pm), when they would have a better idea of exactly how delayed it was likely to be. Relatively certain that this meant we would arrive back at 11 only to be told that the train was canceled or in something equally certain to strand us at a train station late into the night, we quickly changed plans. Bagan could wait, we would make our way up toward Mandalay from the East instead, hitting the popular Inle Lake.

Re-inserting ourselves into the crowd, we were able to successfully purchase sleeper car tickets leaving in just a couple hours. Our first train with a sleeper car!

We ordered dinner on the train, Nick chose "Fried Sparrow," those are 4 whole birds. Tiny, but whole. We didn't love the sparrow, but it was fun to try

Changed trains at sunrise

And were treated to some lovely views for the rest of the day

Inle Lake was a lovely area, full of more tourists than we had seen in a while, not since leaving Koh Tao, Thailand a few weeks prior. In the more Southern areas of Myanmar we'd seen basically no foreigners and in Yangon we'd met some, but they were mostly doing business here. Inle Lake, apparently, is where they were all hiding.

We took a boat tour around the lake, which I recommend to everyone who visits the area. It's kind of "the thing" in the area.

We saw local fishermen

Labeled for reuse by Paul Arps on Flickr:
The 5 Buddha statues at Paung Daw Oo temple on the lake. These statues were originally images of the Buddha, but have been covered in so much gold leaf by male worshipers. Women are not allowed to touch them

The barge used to annually take 4 of the 5 images around the lake. 1 image always remains within the temple

Additionally on the tour we were taken to see a silver jewelry making shop, a floating market, a knife making shop, a weaving factory, a restaurant, a boat maker, a temple, and a floating garden. All of this was actually on/in the lake. At one point our boat was going through a village where everyone's front porch had steps down into the water. These villagers had small, nearly flat boats with which they would get around. For some reason there was also a motorbike on someone's porch. No idea why or how, as we were no where near land, and the only boats we'd seen around were small canoes.

The floating garden, producer of thousands of tomatoes, supplying a large amount of the surrounding area. When we stepped foot onto it, our feet sank down 6 inches into the lakewater.

A bike ride around the area showed us some beautiful sites and some ruins

And ended at a beautiful vineyard offering tastings and a supply of surprisingly delicious wine

A second vineyard lay 20 km out of town and we decided to stop there on our way out of the lake area and toward our final charity destination...

Stay tuned for our final blog post under the heading of the charity campaign!