Wednesday, 30 March 2011


For a while, with the backing of Princes Diana, landmines were a celebrity cause. However, after her death, without the weight of her profile, the issue has largely disappeared from mainstream media. To say this is a shame is an understatement, because while there have been great efforts to clear mines from many countries, they remain an part of life for those unfortunate people who live in areas still afflicted by them. Landmines are the most indiscriminate of all man’s weapons, not able to tell the difference between a soldier and a child and still capable of causing injury and death even after wars are long over.
Cambodia may be the country with the biggest existing land-mine problem. Cambodia suffered through many years of war, with landmines laid by many groups, governments (Cambodian and Vietnamese) and organizations, usually in a haphazard way with a lack of recording or warning. In the rural areas, many people have been maimed by these buried terrors. It is estimated that about 40,000 Cambodians are amputees, (about one in 475) which is one of the highest rates in the world. The devices have killed many others outright. Studies in 2002 found that about 20% of Cambodian villages still had landmines in their vicinity, with landmines a common cause of injury as well as being a major contributor to poverty. To compound matters, villagers often got a false sense of security during the dry season. They make tracks through the hard ground; tracks that can turn deadly in the rainy season when the rain loosens the soil or floodwaters bring landmines from elsewhere. Most victims are children, almost all of them boys, who are more likely to wander away into the countryside to play as well as play with uncovered but still live mines.

When we visited Siem Reap, the northern Cambodian city famous for its proximity to Angkor Wat, we spent a few hours at the landmine museum, operated by a former Khmer Rouge boy soldier turned landmine crusader called Aki Ra. He was conscripted into the Khmer Rouge when he was about 10 and was quickly put to work planting the very things he has now dedicated his life to removing. When captured by the Vietnamese, he did the same thing for them. Later, he was able to work for the UN where he was involved in demining operations; an endeavor he continued even after his time with the UN was over. Working alone, he would go where he knew he had laid mines during his time with either the Vietnamese or the Khmer Rouge. Sometimes, villagers would approach him to ask him to clear their village of mines. Initially, his demining technique was unorthodox, using only handmade tools, knives, and sticks. He would defuse the landmines or unexploded objects (UXOs), bringing home the empty cases, which he would occasionally sell as scrap to help fund his efforts. The rest he stockpiled at his house, these empty cases marking the humble origin of the landmine museum. Over time, he discovered that tourists would pay to see the mines and hear about his operation and he could use the money to further fund his efforts. We visited the landmine museum at its original site but it has since shifted to bigger and better premises, about 40 kilometres from Siem Reap, inside the Angkor National Park.
Defused mine and UXO cases at the land-mine museum.

The goals of the museum are to tell Aki Ra’s story (which is a remarkable one, acknowledged by him being named one of CNN’s people of 2010), to show people the horrors of landmines and also to care for the children who live at the museum. As if Aki Ra wasn’t doing enough already, he and his wife, Hourt (who unfortunately died in 2009 aged only 28), also adopted many abandoned or orphaned children, many of whom were injured by landmines or had been orphaned by them. Over two dozen children have or still live with Aki Ra at the museum. As part of the deal when opening the new museum, Aki Ra had to agree to became a certified mine clearer and forego his self-taught but rather rustic (although highly effective), demining techniques. Now he has a team of certified deminers working with him, able to clear mines from one village after another. Aki Ra’s story is a compelling story of how one man is trying to undo the evil that he was forced to do to his countrymen.  Efforts like Aki Ra’s have reduced the number of landmine injuries in Cambodia, dropping from 850 a year in the period 2000-2005 to 450 in 2006, to 350 in 2007 and 270 in 2008. It is estimated that Cambodia will be cleared of mines in 10-20 years if the current levels of funding are maintained.

Demining is difficult at the best of times but in countries like Cambodia, where they were laid in a largely haphazard method, demining is a very time consuming and expensive process. In these situations, where mines are used by guerrilla forces and/or for terrorism purposes, the mines are often not laid in defined areas that serve a defensive role. They may be placed in areas that civilians frequent, in the hope of disrupting civilian life and instilling fear. Even in countries where landmines were used in a conventional way, they can still cause havoc. For example, South Korea still has a significant land-mine problem (which is a worry for me as I like to bushwhack a little, and get off the track at times). Over one million lie clustered either in the DMZ or in areas immediately by it (North Korea is believed to have laid a similar number). Given that South Korea is both a developed country and that its landmines are mostly laid in well defined areas not used for industry or agriculture, you would think that it would be a relatively easy process to clear mines (relatively because demining is always a time-consuming and specialized task). Some of the land that had landmines was offered at a very cheap price at the conclusion of the Korean War but the hidden cost was the deaths and injuries suffered by the people who work these fields. Areas that have been called safe are often not as heavy rain can dislodge landmines, as recently shown when North Korean landmines washed to the south after torrential rain.
Areas in South Korea that may have land-mines can be dangerous after heavy rain
Mines are still seen as a cornerstone defense against the North, a view supported by the USA, who site the Korean DMZ as their reason to not sign the Ottawa Treaty. This is a treaty, which bans the use of landmines. 156 countries have ratified the treaty but key countries like the United States, both Koreas, China and Russia have refused to ratify it. Many in the US, including members of its military, believe that the ongoing use of landmines on the peninsula is unnecessary, a viewpoint I tend to agree, I’m sure whatever diabolical plans Kim Jong Il is hatching wouldn’t be stopped by a few, (actually) many landmines. I mean I wouldn’t be surprised in an invasion event if the North Korean gulags were emptied of political prisoners who were used as human landmine detonators ala like what Iran’s brass did during the Iran-Iraq War.

Maybe it’s a pipe dream (and it is while big players like Russia, China and the United States don’t agree) but a future without mines floats my boat. Some countries like Rwanda have been cleared completely of mines, so there is potential. And while there are people like Aki Ra, there is hope that we will one day be rid of one less indiscriminate weapon.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


1) Taxis
Taking a taxi is usually a sedate affair. But not in Korea. Maybe because taxis are so cheap here, drivers run the gauntlet to try and maximize their day. To many of them, road rules are mere suggestions; stop signs are to be ignored, red lights approached with a blast of the horn, a slight decrease in speed before the car rushes through leaving you in the back hoping that you will somehow survive this rollercoaster of a ride. If you dare go to put on your seatbelt, the driver will treat it as a personal affront, as if you should 110% trust in their crazy driving. Such is the way of many Korean taxi drivers. My most dangerous taxi experience was one returning from Busan after a day diving with sharks in the aquarium down there. From the car’s exterior, nothing suggested that this driver was part of a racing team, the car wasn’t a Ferrari or painted racing red or complete with fiery streaks. But I made a fatal mistake. Exuberant from our diving, I asked the driver in Korean (Balli, Balli) to hurry. My mistake was that I didn’t know how to say go slow in Korean. And Korean taxi drivers do not need a second invitation to go fast. Because it’s true; Korean taxi drivers are all demented in some way and this one was a certified, escaped from the loony bin, crazy. He must have considered himself the reincarnation of a 1950s Formula One driver. We watched as the speedometer approached 200 kilometers per hour, watching the blood flow to our knuckles. He laughed at Mary, indicating that she had relieved herself in the front seat. He didn’t respond to our groans, our Ooh ahhs. Instead, he just called himself Schumacher and chuckled to himself. Close misses seemed to be missed by him. But they were all too apparent to us. But the speed he was driving meant our short trip was cut dramatically in time. So just as our moods were turning from a feeling of fear to one that knew and accepted that we were shortly going to die and that we were good with that, the trip come to an abrupt end. On a day that started with shark diving, who knew the real adventure sport would be the taxi ride home. And the first chance I got, I learnt how to say go slow in Korean. 

2) Drinking while on the drip
Hospitals are easy to find in Korea. All you need to do is walk around until you can find a building where men, pajama clad, often with an IV drip in their arm, sit outside with a can of beer or soju in one hand and a cigarette in the other. This type of relaxation would not be tolerated by medical professionals in the West, but in Korea, men can enjoy an alcoholic beverage or a cigarette while waiting for their diagnosis to come in.

Want some soju with your IV??

3) Drinking on the streets
Drinking in public is tolerated at hospitals and encouraged elsewhere. Many a night (and many have been good nights) has been idly spent, enjoying a couple of bevies outside a Family Mart or other such convenience store. In the summer time, the shops even put out plastic chairs for your recreational drinking convenience. A group of foreigners sitting outside drinking produces an array of emotions, embarrassed giggling or rushing with your head down to avoid eye contact are two of the common responses. Occasionally, an older man will approach for conversation and shared frivolities. When the stars align to allow that most magic of events to occur, the night is golden, a guaranteed success (unless they get creepy and a little rapey eyed looking at which point it’s best to cut your losses).

OK, this is in Japan but the deal is the same in Korea.

4) Supermarket visits
One of the things that I will miss about Korea is that even the mundane can still be exciting. Take a simple trip to the supermarket. People welcome you as you pull in in your car, then direct you to vacant parks. When you reach the supermarket proper, you are greeted at the door by a gentleman in a suit who bows in welcome. If you time it right, you might get there for the staff aerobics, where the supermarket employees leave their station to take part in a mass games like dance session. While you walk around the supermarket, older women will stare into your trolley (yes, foreigners are real and we do eat), trying to see what we eat (pretty much the same as them without the weird shit). These same staring women will walk around the supermarket, while American hip-hop blasts out of the speakers complete with misogynistic and misanthropic expletives that the largely female shoppers thankfully don’t seem to comprehend. Young girls in short skirts and knee high boots with free giveaways compete for your attention, the butchers shouting with each one trying to drown out the others to get you to try their samples. The fish section has tanks stocked with foreign-looking fish, crabs, octopus and shellfish. There was a large herbal area, selling ginseng and a hundred other unknown herbs and natural goodies. Of course, there was a kimchi section selling 150 types of the ‘chi, pickled and diced just right to smooth your appetite.

Noraebang lends itself to ridiculous air guitar and over-zealous singing.
5) Noraebang/screen golf
Often, nights end (and sometimes start) at the singing rooms called noraebang. With the right set of people, calls for noraebang would start at dinner or at the first bar, gradually rising to an incessant crescendo that influenced all and could be ignored by none. Noraebangs are a personal karaoke room, which a group of people can hire for as little as 10,000 won. Noraebang can be found everywhere, indulged in by youngsters, drunken businessmen and families alike. Beer could be bought there, or more commonly smuggled (yes, I know tight arses). Sometimes the rooms have a bed (that could double as a cheap motel for Korean couples), sometimes costumes. It could have flashy stage lights, disco balls or plush leather chairs. You could choose from a good selection of songs in either Korean or English. People quickly made their names with sound song selections and outstanding performances. I’ve seen people passed out in a corner, pissed (on one occasion literally) but still being able to wake up and crank out a memorable rendition of “Gay Bar”, “She works hard for her money” or “Crying”.

Check posture; alright.
Lately, screen golf has overtaken noraebang as a nocturnal pursuit. It’s based on a similar format to noraebang, a small room where people can gather to drink and hang out. For those who don’t know what screen golf is, it’s a room with a large projector screen which golf balls are hit into. A computer has sensors that reads the direction of the ball, it’s speed, the speed of the club head etc. For a country which loves golf but where golf is expensive and even the cost of using the driving range can be prohibitive, screen golf really is a godsend. It’s pretty realistic, even too the point where drinking affects your game on what seems to be a bell curve (improves and then rapidly declines your game when a certain alcohol value has been reached).

Thursday, 10 March 2011


Every time I find myself in a desert, (which isn't often), I unconsciously channel words that might once have been spoken by David Attenborough, the famous British naturalist. In my best posh accent, it spills out, "Although the desert, at first glance, seems devoid of life, scratch below the surface and you will find that it's teeming with life". The first two deserts I went to, the Gobi in Mongolia and the Great Thar Desert in India, would both fit with this statement, albeit in contrasting manners. The Gobi, at least where I saw it, was rocky with little patches of vegetation. Befitting Mongolia, the Gobi wasn't hot but it was dry. You could see the occasional lizard, some beetles and once, a rodent that looked like a kangaroo rat that hopped around us, curious but cautious. In valleys, there were pikas and marmots but these weren’t seen in the desert proper. The Great Thar desert was even more devoid of life. Here, it was the hot sands themselves that seemed to be alive, moved by the wind that made furrows and lines that looked like they could have been made by a sidewinder or through the action of the hot sun, which seemed to change the colour of the sand almost momentarily.

Camels hanging around the ger.
While many things differed between these two deserts, there was one constant; camels. Although different species, (the two humped Bactrian and the one humped Dromedary), camels are a essential part of desert life, whether or not that desert is in North Africa, in the Middle East, in India or in Central Asia. Camels are  now so much a part of the life of desert dwellers that there are almost no wild camels left. There may be a small population (1000 or so individuals) of wild camels in Mongolia; otherwise all camels are either domestic or feral populations derived from domestic stock. In many places, little of the camel is wasted. When alive, it is a valuable pack animal that also provides milk and wool. When dead, its meat gives nourishment to a family. Its bones can be used in construction of gers or the tents favoured by nomadic people across Asia and Saharan Africa. Camel milk is rich in vitamins, minerals, proteins and immunoglobins and is lower in fat and cholesterol than cows milk is. Many people say that it is has therapeutic qualities, is an aphrodisiac, a kind of natural aspirin-Viagra. Camels are the desert’s walking pharmaceutical.

As far as I can tell, camels have got a bit of bad rap. I've never seen one spit or attempt to bite anyone. They're a little smelly and aloof but some of my best friends are aloof and a little smelly. It’s not grounds for a species assassination. My first ride on a camel was for about half an hour. If camels are the ships of the desert, it must be a slow ship as they maintained a pretty slow pace. We were walked pretty much the whole time, with only a short 30-second trot to break the monotony. They do walk with a strange gait but the weirdest part was finding yourself nestled between the beast's dual humps, holding on for dear life while your guide sings My Humps to you.

Hugging the humps.
This vocal performance I found to be most disconcerting. When you find yourself on a camel, getting led around by a beautiful Mongolian girl, you wouldn't expect that the only communication that you can have with her in English is the chorus of a horrible Black Eyed Peas song. This troubled me on a number of levels. First of all, how did the abomination known as the Fergie fronted Black Eyed Peas (I admit that I still have a soft spot for the pre Fergie BEPs, yeah even the Filipino guy) make it to central Mongolia? It also disturbed me wondering whether this sweet girl would know the meaning of humps in this song, particularly as she had the Mongolian body (petite but curvy, which our Mongolian guide attributed to the high protein diet of Mongolians).

The camel ride was offered as an extra option by the family of my guide whose ger (felt tent) we had stayed in the previous night. Their ger was in the shadows of the Moltsog Els sand dunes, large sand dunes that contrasted with the rocky terrain we had seen so far in the Gobi. The family we stayed with had little material possessions to speak of, two gers (including the one that we stayed in), a motorbike and four or five camels that were kept tethered outside the tents when they weren't in use. Without trying to sound patronizing and it will, they seemed happy enough, with the tourism dollars brought in through selling camel rides and handicrafts made from camel hair and bone supplementing their income nicely.

Ready to go with our turbans.
My next camel experience was in India. We were staying in Jaisalmer, a Wild West outpost deep in the Great Thar desert. Our hotel had arranged an overnight camel safari for us. Before leaving the hotel, we had to put on an orange turban, which was admittedly cheesy but also very Lawrence of Arabia-esque and in my opinion, pretty cool. On the way to our camel rendevouz, we stopped at villages for tea and cricket.  Women stared out at us from their houses, behind brightly coloured veils. Wide eyed children ,eyes smudged and smeared with kohl to decrease the glare of the intense, desert sun, approached us. Some of the braver ones attacked us with the mantra “chocolate, pen, rupees”, which seems to be taught to all Indian children as the question that will melt the hearts of foreigners.

After a drive of about an hour and a half on one of the best motorways we came across in India (I’m guessing the road was so good because of the heavy military presence in the area), we met our camels and guides on the side of the road at a pre-determined, nondescript spot about 70 kilometres outside of Jaisalmer. The camels were saddled up, with brightly coloured blankets covering their single humps. Their coloured reins were intricately woven, the drivers in similar turbans to us (which made me feel more authentic) and in long, flowing dresses. The heat was intense, but our camels and their drivers alike seemed oblivious to it. As we rested, they wove their way up and around sand dunes, a scene that was closer to my cliché desert image in my head than the rocky terrain of the Gobi had been. 

The colour of the sand was amazing and constantly changing.
The one humped dromedaries could maintain a quicker speed than their two humped Mongolian cousins, sand squelching under their large feet and between their toes (come on, I had to make at least one camel toe joke). For about an hour, maybe a bit longer, we reclined on our uncomfortable ride before we came to the place where we would sleep that night. This was in the desert and away from civilization but only just, like a Bear Grylls Saharan survival documentary that looks like he’s isolated from all civilization before the camera pans out and reveals that he is actually within 500 metres of the pyramids. The main road was about 2 clicks away; a village lay about the same distance from our campsite. Our jeep driver came and dropped off our supplies for the night, pillows, blankets, food and beer. There were no tents so we slept under the stars, on a raised concrete platform under natty blankets.

Caring for their beasts of burden.
Before dinner, we visited the nearby village to drop off parts for their solar powered generator. I got the feeling that the kids there hadn’t seen many foreigners. Gradually, they overcame their shyness just in time to play a big game of tag before we had to go back to our campsite. As the sun set, the colour of the sands changed minute by minute. I found myself thinking to myself, was there residual radiation from the nuclear tests performed in the desert here that made the light appear this way? Mary took a memorable shot of the camel and its driver (that is now the header of this blog). Here, the driver appears to see the camel as an equal of sorts, just as mahouts seem to with their elephants. As far as a camel can be affectionate, the camels were affectionate to their drivers, with the affection returned reciprocally.
One of my favourite holiday snaps, camel with driver.
While we were busy enjoying the sunset, the camel drivers had been busy fixing us dinner, which turned out to be a delicious goat curry. I’m not sure whether it was delicious because it was well cooked or because it was my first taste of meat in almost a month of being vegetarian. Either way, it tasted good to be a carnivore again. We enjoyed our beers huddled around the small fire, (deserts get really cold at night), gazing up at the stars. I’ve never been anywhere where the stars seemed to illuminate the sky in this way. Wherever you looked, there were stars. Stars layered upon stars, galaxies overlapping and interconnecting. Lying on your back, looking up at the heavens, you could see shooting stars blasting their way through our outer atmosphere. When we retreated to bed, we could hear the sounds of the camels, the crackling of the fire and the snarl of feral dogs attracted by the promise of goat bones and the warmth of the fire. Both enjoying the stellar lookout and worried that I might wake up with my face eaten off by a pack of dogs, I fell into a comfortable sleep. I woke early for sunrise and walked to the top of the tallest nearby sand-dune, hoping to see a snake or something but didn’t see anything but beetles. Maybe David Attenborough was wrong. The desert seems to be a  desolate place, mostly devoid of life.

After breakfast, the by now familiar egg, bun and chai tea which seemed to be our breakfast every day in India, we hopped back onto our camels, who were no doubt happier that we were riding them in the relatively cool morning rather than during the searing heat of the mid-day sun. We sauntered back over the same ground we had come on less than 24 hours before, regretting that the end of our camel sojourn was nigh but also hopeful that it would be over before our backsides were too bruised.

As close as I got to a camel at Giza.
In the end, it was over too soon. It proved to be one of the more memorable trips from our time in India. In fact, it was so memorable that I haven’t felt the least bit like riding a camel since. This means I spurned the opportunity given to me by those reputable salesmen at Giza to get the ubiquitous shot of myself in front of the Pyramids.  The same thing happened at Petra, no camel shot for me at the Treasury. For a short while, I felt like an explorer of the desert, a camel riding Indiana Jones (forgetting the part that I was probably never less than 5 kilometres from the road and my camel was on a track it had probably walked a thousand times). The desert is a wonderful place to indulge in such fantasies, given that the fragility of life is clearly displayed by the lack of it. Not much, it seems could survive in such a harsh environment, which makes the camels’ way of life even more notable.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011


Use of the human body has been used for millennia to portray emotions, in propaganda and in art. Few things could have been more terrifying as seeing heads on sticks, or 20,000 bodies crucified down the Appian Way. In recent times, few things could say evil better than photos of dead bodies at Nazi concentration camps. The most challenging thing I have seen was at Choeung Ek (better known as the Killing Fields) that lie outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Here, the skulls of more than 5,000 people killed by the Khmer Rouge are displayed in a Buddhist stupa. Looking at the skulls, you can see many have been shattered or smashed in, so as to save money on bullets. Up to 2.5 million people died in this senseless massacre. As a symbol of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, no better memorial could be designed. It’s eerie standing at the memorial, staring into the empty eye sockets, thinking of what these people endured in their last days, the last minutes of their lives.
Looking at these skulls in the Killing Field stupa was the most moving experience of my life.
Human bodies portrayed in such a way are horrific in nature, largely because of the way they met their end. But human bodies don’t have to be horrific. Recently, there have been several touring groups (like Body Works) who have been displaying plastinated bodies to a very interested audience (this may change with the revelation that some companies have sourced bodies from China which were those of political prisoners, in particular followers of Falun Gong). The catacombs in Paris have long been a tourist draw card. I saw the mummified body of a sunglass-wearing monk in Thailand who died in the 1970s. Weird but not horrific.
Mummified body of a monk who died in the 70s. The sunglasses are a touch undignified.
The most extreme example I have seen was in a church in Rome.  Its crypt has been dedicated  to the use of bones in art. The Capuchin Crypt is found under the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccuni (that’s a mouthful). 4,000 skeletal remains have been placed in elaborate and ornate designs in 5 small, dimly lit crypts. Frommer’s travel guide described it as “one of the most horrifying images in all of Christendom”. The Marquis de Sade visited and described it as “an example of funerary art worthy of an English mind, created by a German priest who lived in this house” (whatever that means). Bones have been arranged as crosses, as grotesque garlands, bony chandeliers dropping from the ceiling, as stars, as lampshades, as light fittings, in triangles and in circles. (Ed Gein and Jeffery Dahmer would have appreciated this take on interior design). Some skeletons have been left intact. In one crypt, a skeleton is enclosed in a niche made from bones. In its right hand, it holds a scythe like a bony Grim Reaper. He holds in his other skeletal hand a set of scales that symbolize good and evil. There’s a clock, composed of bones with only a single hour hand to symbolize the idea that time has no beginning or end. This focus on mortality and man’s temporary existence on Earth is reinforced by a plaque that reads "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be."

Collection of postcards from the crypt, highlighting the walls of skulls and bones The bottom left shows the complete Grim Reaper skeleton.
It’s a little ironic that an ossuary display of this nature is found in a Catholic Church, given the Catholic Church’s opposition to exhibits that the likes of Body Works puts on. The Capuchins insist that the display is not macabre, but meant to act as a silent reminder of the swift passage of life on Earth. The first bones were installed in 1631, when the monks brought to the church 300 cartloads of human remains. Instead of being reburied, the decision was made to rearrange the bodies in the five small chapels of the crypt. As the Capuchins were an order dedicated to closely following St. Francis edict to help the poor, many of the poor that they supported both in life and in death were buried here as well, in the holy soil brought all the way from Jerusalem. As monks died, the remains of the longest-buried monk were exhumed to make way for the newly deceased. The turnaround from burial to ornament piece was usually around 30 years. Bones were added to the crypt until the practice stopped in the late 19th Century. Mark Twain dedicated several pages to the chapel in his famous travelogue, The Innocents Abroad. Twain spoke to one monk at the church who seemed content with his fate, “(the probability that) someday (he will) be taken apart like an engine or a clock...and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes, did not distress this monk in the least. I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present.”

Its still not clear what inspired the monks to start this macabre decoration. The Capuchin order is one oddly concerned by the fragility of life, with reminding people of their mortality a notable focus of theirs. J.D. de Chatelain, who visited the crypt with a friend in the 1850s commented “what appears to me yet more disgusting is that these remains of the dead are only exposed in this manner for the sake of levying a tax on the imbecility of the living”. The gruesome crypt earns a bit of cash for the order. Entry is by donation but photography is banned so most people end up buying two or three of the postcards that are on sale. I guess we will never know what inspired those first monks to cart bones from a nearby cemetery to use as ornaments and wall fixtures.  Life may be beautiful but it is also short.