Might Crack a Smile…

I busted up laughing when one of my SE Asia travel buddies sent me this picture. Can you spot me? Yup, I’m the one that looks like a dead body slung over the back of the motorcycle. I think that was day four of our five-day guided moto trip through the mountains, villages, forests and jungles of Vietnam. As you can see, day four was rainy. I think it’s safe to say I was feeling a bit exhausted at that point… haha.

And this is a pic of my wonderful Austrian friend Claudia and I just before heading off to the MultiKulti Ball in Graz:

Gusts and Gales Sweep Through a Hidden Vietnam

It was as if we had suddenly stepped into an entirely different world. A wild world that threatened great unknown, but also promised treasures not yet dreamed of… if you would only venture on to explore it.

We were on a bus traveling down a roughly paved road from Ho Chi Minh City to Mui Ne. The typical roadside shacks and garages, interspersed with palms and rice paddies, trailed along with us. As is customary when traveling by bus in SE Asia, we stopped at a restaurant designated especially for tourists. The restaurant boasted plastic picnic tables, the luxury of somewhat clean bathrooms with no plumbing, and mediocre food at best. Even though the food looked unimpressive, I was hungry so I ordered vegetable coconut curry with plain white rice. In Thailand and Cambodia, even the least of curries can offer an appeasing satisfaction and flavor. But the least of Vietnamese curries simply don’t.

Just after I ordered, Massimo (the Italian I was traveling with) came over and urged, “Laura come see this. You’ll love it. Bring your camera.” The Vietnamese man who took my order nodded a wordless reassurance that he would bring my order out when I came back, so I grabbed my camera and followed Massimo down a gravel trail that led away from the back of the restaurant. At first, I could only see the odd mixture of palms, ferns and pines, further down the trail, lining my horizon. But, as I drew closer, I glimpsed a vast lake with sunlight dancing along the surface and a stunning fortress of mountains encircling it. I gasped, looked at Massimo flashing him a “You were so right!” grin and ran off ahead to take in the hidden treasure. Emerging through the foliage, I saw a handful of boats beached on the shore in front of me. A few local villagers were on the water: a browned elderly couple wrinkled with time, a young woman drawing in yards of fishing line in a waterlogged boat…

I stopped to take it all in… this unexpected and spectacular landscape. And JUST as I inhaled my pleasure with a long, heavy breath, a sudden onslaught of forceful, gusting winds swept down from the heavens. In an instant, the sun went into hiding behind a veil of darkening clouds, white mists filled the valleys and jagged mountain ridges. Gales fell like drapes along the water. It was as if, suddenly, there was some unseen presence swirling among us. Mighty and untamed, but soothing and enlivening all at once. Our hair whipped around our faces with frenzied fury, but none of us, foreigner nor local, felt alarmed. Instead, we felt filled with gladness, as evident through the smiles we couldn’t help but flash at one another.

And that’s when I made these two pictures…

Courage in the Face of Disaster

We’ve all been hearing reports about the cyclone that barreled through Myanmar. The Death toll has reached 100,000 and is still climbing. Yet, the government still won’t open its borders. And to think I was right there, literally next door, just a little over a month ago. Read the account of one CNN reporter. It’s pretty unbelievable.

In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Here CNN’s Dan Rivers details his remarkable personal story to CNN Wire news editor Ashley Broughton after returning home Friday from five days in Myanmar, reporting on the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

Rivers and his crew met this injured man while reporting on the tragedy.
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(CNN) — Hiding under a blanket in the back of a car at a police checkpoint. Hopping on boats instead of staying on a road. Constantly looking over your shoulder, knowing that at any moment you — and those with you — face the possibility of imprisonment, torture, even death.

It sounds like a spy movie. But CNN’s Dan Rivers, who sneaked into storm-ravaged Myanmar without the knowledge of the nation’s secretive ruling junta, says the reality is even more frightening than it appears on the silver screen.

Now out of Myanmar, Rivers said Friday that his experience raises a question: If the government is chasing down a journalist reporting on a natural disaster, what kinds of problems are aid workers facing?

“The whole country is kind of a basket case,” Rivers said. “Combine that with a disaster on this scale and a government that won’t let anyone in — they’re turning a bad situation into … what really is criminal negligence on a massive scale.” Photo Look at satellite pictures of the damage by the flooding »

He is concerned, he said, that many more may die as a result of the government’s self-imposed isolation.

Earlier in the week, he said, his crew videotaped government workers dumping bodies of the dead into a river. A government not engaged in such activities, which amount to a kind of cover-up, should have nothing to hide, Rivers noted. “Why should they be trying to hide a natural disaster? It’s not their fault. It just illustrates the mentality of the regime. It’s so suspicious of the outside world.” Video Watch how some aid is getting through »
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Rivers arrived in Myanmar on Monday morning, a few days after Cyclone Nargis ripped through the Irrawaddy Delta region, putting more than 2,000 square miles of land under water and killing tens of thousands of people.

The Myanmar government has said 22,000 people were killed. The top U.S. envoy in the country has said the death toll may be as high as 100,000.

Rivers is no stranger to natural disasters and their aftermath. In 2004, he was in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, covering the devastation wrought by a tsunami. In October 2005, he was in Pakistan after a magnitude-7.5 earthquake killed 75,000 people in Pakistan and India.

“I’ve seen a lot of horrible things like that, unfortunately,” he said of the situation in Myanmar. But “it was bad, and … it’s the kind of story you really feel emotionally. In that way, it’s easy to write the story, because it just flows out. You feel passionate about it.”

In Myanmar, however, “the logistics were horrendous,” he said. Getting to the hardest-hit area involved an eight-hour drive on dirt roads.

In some ways, Banda Aceh before the tsunami resembled Myanmar, he said. The region, the closest land to the magnitude-9.0 underwater earthquake that spawned the tsunami, was also home to a nearly three-decade conflict between Indonesian troops and separatist rebels, and people tended to be suspicious of outsiders. Video Watch Dan Rivers’ report from Myanmar »

However, after the disaster, “they just opened the whole place up, and it was just carte blanche,” he said. “Anyone could go in. I guess I naively assumed it would be the same in this instance,” thinking that police, with so many victims and so much damage to worry about, would not be concerned with, say, the kind of visa carried by a visitor.

Within days of his arrival, he realized he was wrong.

Rivers and his crew had been in Myanmar for only a day when a local contact warned them that the government was seeking him — just after his name was broadcast. The contact said authorities were alerting all hotels to report which foreigners had stayed there.

Still, though, “I was pretty confident we were being careful enough,” he said. He and his crew were continually changing locations, moving from hotel to hotel. But he knew that the potential for a problem was there.

That became more apparent during a visit in the country’s southern portion Thursday, when members of his crew asked a local official whether a road was open. The official said yes and was going to give them a pass, but he said an immigration official wanted to talk to them, Rivers said. That official took the crew members’ passports and were comparing them to a picture of Rivers — apparently taken from a picture of a CNN screen. Learn more about Myanmar’s recent history »

“They disappeared for, like, two hours,” Rivers said. “I didn’t know what had happened to them.” He said he was worried his crew members might be interrogated or tortured, and considered turning himself in.

“I was wandering the street, not knowing what to do,” he said. It was “baking hot” — about 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), he said. He knew no one and was not fluent in the language. People were asking him who he was, where he came from. One person asked whether he was with the CIA.

The situation was “pretty uncomfortable,” he said. “I must have looked pretty suspicious.”

Luckily, he did not turn himself in — and later found out that the officials did not know the crew members were from CNN or that they were accompanying him.

When the crew told him the officials had his photo, however, Rivers realized other authorities probably had his picture as well. The group decided to push farther south, he said. At one point, he hid under a blanket in the back of the car at a police checkpoint. It was at that checkpoint they were told that the people in the village they had just left wanted to see them again.

The crew turned around but decided to get off the road and followed a dirt road into the middle of the jungle, Rivers said. They parked the car, hopped on a boat and traveled down the river in two small boats. They reached a small village and were able to do some videotaping, he said. They also were checking on a rumor that there was a speedboat nearby.

While walking, however, they were stopped by a local official carrying a walkie-talkie, he said. The group was told to return to their van and that police would be waiting for them there.

The encounter, he said, was “gut-wrenching … you think, ‘Oh, my God, this is just going horribly wrong.’ “

On the hour-long trek back through the jungle, Rivers said, he was genuinely fearful.

“For the first time, I was thinking, you know, this is it,” he said. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. No one knows where we are, exactly. They could just shoot us and throw us into the river and say we had an accident. … You start to think about family and what you’d put them through if you disappear.”

He said he expected a large phalanx of police officers at the van but was heartened to see only two officers there. The group was asked for their passports. In holding his out — the last one to offer it — Rivers said he held it in such a way that his thumb covered his surname. Not noticing, police took his middle name and radioed it in.

“They thought we weren’t who they were looking for and basically let us go,” he said, calling it a “fluke.”

The group was escorted back into town and met with a more senior government official, who appeared convinced they were there as part of an aid group. Finally released, “we kind of hightailed it,” driving all night into Yangon, he said.

“It was a genuinely very scary 12 hours,” he said. “It really did seem like a week.”

Still, he wasn’t yet home free. One last search

Sitting in a seat on a flight out of Yangon, having made it through security with no problems, Rivers thought he was finished with the Myanmar government.

But a flight attendant approached him and told him immigration authorities wanted to see him again, he said. He was escorted off the plane to officials who were waiting for him at the gate.

The authorities “basically searched everything I had,” he said. They went through his bag and made him turn out his pockets, remove his shoes and socks.

He believes they were looking for pictures or videotapes, but he had none. They did find a computer flash drive, Rivers said, but it had nothing on it and it was returned to him. His passport was taken — and his real name seen this time.

Eventually, the flight attendant returned. Although he did not understand the discourse, Rivers said he believed she was telling them the flight could not be held any longer and asking whether they were going to let him leave.

And so they did. “They hadn’t found anything on me. They probably just wanted to get me out of the country anyway,” he said. “The whole time, I just didn’t really say anything.”

Speaking from his home Friday and battling exhaustion after about 36 hours without sleep, Rivers said his experience as a wanted man was “really surreal.”

“I guess the colorful bit, all this sneaking around in the swamps and getting on boats and stuff — there were some quite comical moments, when I was literally under a blanket in the back of a car, sweating profusely at a checkpoint, trying to look like a piece of luggage in the boot, and you’re thinking, ‘How do I get into these situations?’ “

But he said the stubbornness of the Myanmar regime was “breathtaking” — that, in the face of such a large-scale disaster, they would utilize time and resources looking for a reporter.

“The more resources are spent chasing me, the less they’re going to be concentrating on actually helping people,” he said. “There comes a point where I’ve done my job. I’ve told people what was going on … staying in much longer would have meant I was getting in the way of the story.”

Comments on Pol Pot and Other ‘Truths’

I really liked what a friend of mine from the Netherlands had to say about dictators. Here’s what Lourens wrote:

Stories about ‘the killing fields’ are always fascinating to me. It shows what can happen when people or regimes (governments) claim that only they posses the ‘real truth’. Therefore we should ALWAYS question those who make that kind of claims. The difficulty is, however, that those claims are often in disguise, or seem so very logical at that moment. And then suddenly a mass movement has started. Those who question such a hype are ignored, discarded, put aside etc.

Hitler is the absolute example (now, afterwards). Pol Pot probably had believers at that time. People often trust their leaders and even willing to fight for them. The First World War was an incredible example. Soldiers driven into death by the thousands.

Dith Pran said it correctly (note: in case you forgot, Dith Pran is the Cambodia journalist who survived the genocide of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. He just passed away):

“If you didn’t think about the danger, it looked like a performance,” he said. “It was beautiful, like fireworks. War is beautiful if you don’t get killed. But because you know it’s going to kill, it’s no longer beautiful.”

It makes me wander in thoughts to Iraq, the modern killing fields. We were clearly misguided by our great leaders, who claimed their truth. I understand that Americans still might think different.

Pol Pot Still Haunts Villagers

Most of you probably don’t know who Pol Pot is, but he is THE man responsible for the mass genocide in Cambodia in the late 70s. Remember this picture of the pile of the cracked skulls? It was that remains of the victims of the Khmer Rouge at the killing fields… well, that some more bones, some bits of clothing and dozens of mass graves. That was all Pol Pot’s doing. Remember the jail I walked through where I could still see the dark blood of victims staining the floors and walls? Again, Pol Pot. The monster died in 1998. But, it seems some people are still worshiping him. Either out of reverence or fear… of his spirit. The Cambodian genocide trial is just getting underway right now too.

ANLONG VENG, Cambodia (AP) — Ten years after the death of brutal Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, his grave has become a symbol of spiritual comfort to some in the village where he is buried.

Pol Pot’s grave has become a symbol of spiritual comfort for some in the village where he is buried.

Villagers pray at the site, asking for blessings of luck, happiness and even protection from malaria — despite the mayhem he wrought upon their country. He died on April 15, 1998, apparently of heart failure.

“I know it is odd, but I just do as many people here do, asking for happiness from his spirit,” said Orn Pheap, a 37-year-old woman who lost a grandfather and two uncles during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror from 1975 to 1979.

“I don’t know how long I can stay angry with him, since he is already dead,” she said. Her house sits 100 yards from the grave.

Officials in Anlong Veng, 250 kilometers north of the capital, Phnom Penh, say only few of the area’s 35,000 residents pray at Pol Pot’s grave.

For most, Pol Pot is remembered as a murderous tyrant with fanatical communist beliefs. Under his leadership, the Khmer Rouge turned the country into a vast slave labor camp, causing the deaths of some 1.7 million people from starvation, forced labor and execution.

But Cambodians believe in the influence of spirits and superstitious forces on their daily lives and fortunes, which may be why some worship at Pol Pot’s grave.

Last week, the grave — a pile of dirt covered by a knee-high corrugated zinc roof — was cluttered with clay jars filled with half-burned incense sticks, a sign of prayer and worship.

Many may still view their former tormentor as a powerful figure, said Philip Short, author of “Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare,” a biography of the former despot.

“Evil or good is not the issue,” Short said. “He has imposed himself on Cambodians’ imaginations, and in that sense he lives on” in the spirit world.

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Once a jungle war zone, Anlong Veng is now a sprawling border market town bustling with the kind of capitalist activities Pol Pot and his comrades sought to stamp out. Ramshackle shops are filled with clothing, housewares, pirated DVDs and other goods from nearby Thailand.

Cambodian pop songs blare from a coffee shop near Pol Pot’s grave, which has been designated a tourist attraction. It is among the few remnants of Khmer Rouge history, which the government is trying to preserve.

Some Cambodians have traveled to Anlong Veng to spit on the grave and curse him in anger, said 37-year-old Sat Narin, who owns a nearby clothing shop.

“Given his bad reputation, he should not be venerated,” he said. “But somehow he is popular with some people.”

Among the worshippers who seek blessings from Pol Pot’s ghost are ethnic Vietnamese who live in the community — a sharp irony given Pol Pot’s massacres of ethnic Vietnamese during his rule.

A 33-year-old Vietnamese resident, who goes by her adopted Cambodian name of Van Sothy, recalled a nightmare in which she saw a black-clad man sitting on a tree near her hut.

When she described the vision to her Cambodian neighbors, they advised her to bring offerings of fruit and boiled chicken to Pol Pot’s grave to ask his spirit for protection.

“I have prayed at his grave ever since. I just want to show some respect to the spiritual master of the land,” she said.

If Pol Pot were alive, he would likely be facing war crimes charges along with five of his former comrades currently detained by Cambodia’s U.N.-backed genocide tribunal. The long-delayed trials are expected to start later this year.

Nhem En, who was forced to work as the photographer at the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng torture center in Phnom Penh, says he is setting up his own museum in Anlong Veng about the communist group — not to glorify them but for educational purposes.

He too used to light incense and pray at Pol Pot’s grave, he said, but “only for him not to butcher people again in his next life.”