Friday, December 29, 2006

Majestic Angkor Day 2 (Siem Reap - Angkor Wat)

When we woke up around 4:00 or so, way too early for a vacation, we quickly got ready so we could join the others at the guesthouse restaurant. By about 4:45, most of us were assembled, and at just before 5:00, we all hopped on the minibus to take us out to the Angkor Wat temple complex. We had to stop at the entrance where Sarah got out and bought all our tickets. We got the one day version, about $20 or so, that would gain us entrance to all the temples we could want to see. To get an idea of how large the whole complex is, go here.

The bus pulled up to the main temple, and we disembarked and made our way across the causeway into the temple grounds. There were hundreds of others who all were gathering to watch the sunrise as well. After a few minutes, we secured ourselves a decent seat to watch the show.

As we waited, we munched on our box breakfasts (a hunk of baguette and cheese ... how I love traveling in former French colonies. They always have excellent bread.) and got our cameras ready. Gradually, the sky began to lighten over the temple, and the silhouette became more and more distinct. The familiar looking outline of the three tower was what we'd come to see.

As the sun rose, I took an opportunity to wander around a little bit, and ran into a little girl with a pretty slick money making scheme. She had a puppy, and for a mere buck, she let me take a few pictures of her and the cute little fella. We also saw her later on in the day leading around a horse, so she had a real animal racket going on there. But, in a country so impoverished, not a bad way to make a living. I just hope that she wasn't a "prop" for someone less scrupulous. I like to think that she got to keep the money she made off me for a few pictures.

After getting a few decent shots of the temple from a different angle, I headed back to join the group. Sarah gave us a time hack and instructions to be back at the entrance of the temple by 7 AM or get left behind. Melody and I then took the opportunity to check out a bit more of the grounds. It felt almost overwhelming wandering around such an awesome site. Even the throngs of people doing the same thing couldn't detract much from the impression that it made on us. The 30 minutes or so that we had free to roam went way too fast. However, we knew we'd be coming back later that afternoon, and figured that any picture that we missed now, we could get later.

We did get a few good photos, though...the light made for some gorgeous opportunities, especially with subject matter like Melody.

On the way out, we followed a Buddhist nun who was on her way to some prayers or something. We followed her out for a way, before she turned off to join another group inside the temple walls. A short while later, we were back at the front, and loitered for a few minutes before the whole group got back together. We headed over to the bus, and made our way to the next stop, Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple.

The entrance to Angkor Thom, a huge complex with multiple temples, is surrounded by a wall an incredible gate. While the ultimate picture would have been one of an elephant coming through the gate, we just had to settle for one of elephants.

We spent a few minutes getting the history of the Angkor Thom from our guide before going in. The bridge across the moat to the gate is guarded by a Naga on either side (big stone cobras held by monkeys and/or demons, I think). We walked across the bridge, marveling at the construction, and once on the other side, reboarded our van to head on to Bayon Temple.

Bayon Temple is famous for its many
faces of Buddha on numerous towers and walls around the temple. We spent a good hour and a half covering only a fraction of the millions of carvings on the walls.

One of the over 200 faces of Buddha at the Bayon Temple. Facing the cardinal directions, they supposedly radiate "Buddhaness" to the world.

One of the resident Buddhist nuns in Bayon Temple. She was gracious enough to let us take her picture. After finishing the formal part of the tour, we wandered around the site for a while taking pictures. The nun was offering prayers in an alcove with a statue of Buddha and incense. We asked her if it was ok to take her picture, and she actually nodded and posed for the camera. There were several other nuns there in the area, too, and most used the opportunity of tourists asking for pictures to make a couple of bucks in donations to the Buddha. There were several dollars in and around the offerings and incense.

After we finished up at Bayon, we wandered around the rest of the area, passing such things as the full families on scooters (the most we saw was 6 people on one), and the Elephant Terrace (named for the elephants lining the walls and seemingly forming the base for the platform above). We ventured up one of the smaller temples which afforded nice views of the surrounding area.

Lori went up to the very top of the temple for a peek, as the rest of us wandered around a level lower. We spent maybe 15 minutes up there, while the rest of the group sat in chairs down below. Lots of little kids crowded around trying to sell them postcards and other stuff. The kids would come up and, upon meeting with resistance in making a sale, would try to tell you the capital of your country. Sometimes, when they'd ask where I was from, I'd say "Mars." They didn't know the capital of Mars, thought. In addition to the kids hanging around, there were scroungy dogs too.

Ta Prohm, made famous by Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. This was by far the most interesting temple that we visited. Much of the area was still overgrown by the jungle which just gave it a really interesting feel to it. Due to the tropical climate, the jungle grows really fast. Huge vines and roots sprawled all over the stone facades like huge gray snakes. I imagine that it would be really creepy to be stuck there at night.

On the way out, we ran into yet more kids trying to make sales. These little girls charged me a buck to take their picture, and a group of them followed us all the way back to the bus. They would have gotten on, I think, if they could, so persistent were they. Seeing that really makes you appreciate growing up in the USA. We are truly blessed.

After hitting three sets of temples all morning, we were ready for a break. So, we drove back to the main area of Angkor Wat temple where there were a few small restaurants. We got some lunch, and hung out for a while before heading back into the temple for a wander around. Before doing so, though, we took a group photo to prove that we were actually there.

As we wandered around for a few hours, we saw a few familiar sights from earlier that morning. The little puppy girl was there, as was her puppy and the horse she'd been leading around when we were there the first time.

We ventured inside the temple and if seeing it from afar was amazing, getting up close was even more so. The sheer number of carvings was incredible. One one wall was a battle scene that stretched for at least 200 feet. There were quite a few people inside, but being early afternoon and the hot period of the day, it wasn't too bad. Later on in the afternoon, as we left, we had to fight our way through crowds of tourists coming for the sunset.

Once inside, a few of us climbed the steep staircase up to the main level. You practically had to use your hands, as the angle was approaching 70 degrees at least. Once at the top, it was interesting to watch the difference between the locals and the tourists as they clambered their way up. The locals, mostly clad in flip flops, would scamper up and down like mountain goats. Most of us tourists were more careful to keep three points of contact (or maybe that's just us who've been so indoctrinated that every possibly dangerous event must be thoroughly checked to minimize risk...) and make deliberate steps. It made for a funny contrasts.

While we wandered around, we ran into several monks who were there on their one day off a week. They were just hanging out, so we asked if we could photograph them, and then stayed and chatted for a few minutes. It was pretty interesting, as their English wasn't too bad, and a couple of them had cell phones. I guess it wasn't quite what we expected.

Finally, after a half hour or so up top, we decided to head down. Carrying a backpack and my good camera made me think that we might be better off using the steps with a railing. It took almost a half hour to make our way with the rest of the crowd to the edge, held up a bit by a Korean woman who was having some understandable vertigo. Eventually, she made it down to the cheers of her friends. In the US, they'd put that off limits because there would have been a lawsuit by now, and it wouldn't meet the ADA standards...not much in Cambodia did, come to think about it.

Once back on the ground level, we linked up with Sarah, and headed out to find the rest of the group, and move on to our next stop, the Landmine Museum.

We drove a short distance through the countryside to the Landmine Museum, a museum set up by a demining expert to showcase the horrors of the mines and other dangerous unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War and Khmer Rouge eras. Most of the guides are amputees who were wounded during chance encounters with mines. Our guide (picture) was no exception. It was an educational experience, as one of the displays showed how difficult it is to see mines and booby traps when they are set up in the jungle. Tripwires, mines, old mortar and artillery shells, spikes...the Khmer Rouge especially were devious in their emplacement. Many times, if the victim wasn't simply blown up, he'd run into other deadly obstacles trying to escape.

After the mine exhibit, the group did a little shopping at the souvenir store (shirts to bring attention to demining activities), and I spent some time looking at a mural of life in 1976 ) and watching a small parcel of puppies. One poor little fellow barfed up his lunch as he sat in a Playskool type plastic wagon. As I watched, a little boy came along and began to torment the mother dog and babies as they were trying to eat. It sort of looked like the boy wanted some too...

Finally, we headed back to the guesthouse. We cleaned up and rested a bit before heading out for supper to the Temple Bar. I decided to try the Australian steak, thinking that a slab of grilled meat would be delicious. And, the slab of meat I got would have been delicious, had it been grilled. Instead, it looked to have been boiled...not quite what I expected. Still, it had been a long day, and we were all pretty hungry, so I didn't complain. Certainly, the price was right (about 4 dollars for the whole meal). After supper, we went to the trendy "Blue Pumpkin" coffee shop and relaxed a bit upstairs in their all white "looks like it should be in an Ipod commercial" room. It had beds along the sides that you could sit on, and according to Erik Trinidad of TGT2004, free wireless internet access. Not too bad. It was a nice end to a great day.

Majestic Angkor Day 1 (Dave): Mr. T's Wild Ride

4 Nov 06: Singapore to Siem Reap, Cambodia

After the previous day’s trip to Malaysia, I went to grab a bite of supper at a hawker stall, and then checked and send a couple of emails (and updated the blog). I wandered around for a while, before heading back to Bugis Backpacker’s to hit the hay.

Up at about 6, I left to make the most of a few hours before having to fly. I went out for a quick wander through Little India for an hour or so. After passing a place that sold curried fish head and graffiti indicating that a particular wall was not a restroom, I spent a fair amount of time looking at the detail on the different Hindu Temples in the area...fascinating, to say the least. In addition to the Hindu Temples, there was an interesting mosque as well, right next door to a place called the Hasbiyallah Cafe, which, due to the suspiciously close spelling to a certain Lebanese group that caused a lot of trouble over the summer, I did not stop for a cup of coffee. Instead, I went for a cup of coffee and bite of breakfast at Coffee Bean, a Starbucks-ish coffee place. I read for a while, and then headed back to the hostel to finish packing up before check out. With about 30 minutes to spare, I decided to take a quick run over to the Raffles The Plaza hotel to confirm our reservation for about a week later, and to get a feel for using the MRT (metro) system. I wandered around for a few minutes and took a few pictures, before finding my way to the hotel. As it turns out, it was a good thing that I checked, as the reservation I had made on line apparently wasn't registering. After reconfirming, I headed back to the hostel.

The airport transfer guy picked me up promptly at 11, and before 1130 I was at the airport and checked in. I browsed the airport bookstore, blissfully chock full of English titles, and made a couple of purchases before heading through immigration into the shopping mall like atmosphere of Changi Airport.

In all my travels, I don’t think that I’ve ever been to a nicer airport. Clean, well designed with nice spaces, artwork, convenient food and shopping areas, free internet access, it’s a great airport if you have to be stuck somewhere for a while. Most of the good stuff is past immigration. Even the way that they handled security screening was efficient. Instead of having one or two security checkpoints, each gate had its own screening station that would be manned one hour before the flight. I thought that it worked pretty well. Of course, other security measures were in place as well, such as the teams of Gurkhas patrolling the airport with their MP5s and wickedly curved kukris. I felt pretty safe.

After clearing security at the gate, it was just a short while before boarding the flight to Siem Reap. I spent the time filling out my immigration paperwork, handed to me on the way into the gate. The flight was heading on to Vietnam afterward, so I kept a copy of the paperwork for when we’d head there a few days later. The flight was only a couple of hours, and before long, we were descending over the greenery of Cambodia.

Siem Reap International Airport was pretty small. The planes park, and everyone gets off via the rolling staircase and meanders to the terminal. All around me, folks were stopping to take pictures of themselves with the plane in the background before moving into the customs and immigration area. Since I had a visa already and had nothing to declare, I got through pretty quickly. I changed about 15000 yen into 900,000 riels or so and went to find a ride into town.

I didn't really know how much to expect for a taxi, and didn't want to get ripped off any more than necessary. But, I needn't have worried.

Just as I came out of the airport, expecting to be confronted by a seething mass of taxi drivers, legitimate and otherwise, there was a small taxi stand. I walked up to the counter, and asked the guy what it would cost to get into town.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"Bun Nath Guest you know where that is?" I replied.

" many bags do you have?"

"Just one, and this small backpack."

"OK. I think that a motorbike will do fine for you. That will be one dollar."

Stunned, as I'd been expecting much more, I forked over the cash, he gave me a ticket, and called over a young man in a pair of blue pants and a light blue shirt.

" is your driver, he'll take you into town." He said. "Have a nice stay."

"Thanks." I replied, and walked off with the motorbike driver.

Thy (pronounced "Tee"), was his name ("As in 'Mr. T,' the movie star?" I asked, getting a sort of blank look in return. "OK...guess you've never seen the show The A-Team, eh?").

Thy grabbed my bag and put it in front of him, and I climbed on the back. Not having been on the back of a motorcycle since my Scouting days at the Vise Family Farm, I wasn't quite sure where to hold on. Eventually, I got to the point where I felt relatively comfortable, and not like I was going to drop off in the middle of the road at any moment. I just said a prayer, and told myself, "Well, Dave, that's why you got that travel insurance."

In a moment, we were off, driving out the airport parking lot, and into the afternoon traffic of Siem Reap. Thy was a pretty skilled driver, weaving his way in and out of the sporadic traffic. The whole way in to town, he kept up a lively patter about what we were seeing on the sides of the road, and a little bit of his personal history. I found out that he aspired to becoming one of the official Angkor Wat tour guides, but was having a hard time breaking in due to a lack of connections. I guess that there's an old boy network still at work that makes for job security for those who already have the jobs...

Bun Nath Guest house wasn't too far away, and we were there within about 20 minutes. As we drove in, Thy mentioned that he was for hire if I wanted to have him take me around, and could scare up a few friends with bikes too if we wanted to go for a look at other temples on our free day. I told him that I'd think about it, and check with Melody. I also asked him if he would show me around, if after checking into the hotel, Melody wasn't there yet. He was done for the day at the airport, so he agreed.

As I checked in, I discovered that, sure enough, the Imaginative Traveller group that Melody and Lori had joined in Thailand hadn't yet shown up (they were stuck in a traffic jam traversing a mud hole at the time...hopefully a story to come.). So, I dropped off my stuff, grabbed my camera, and headed out with Thy to see sunset over Tonle Sap lake to the south.

We took a right onto the airport road, drove about 50 meters, and turned right again onto the main drag through town. Before long, we were out of the downtown area, and speeding to try to beat the sun before it hit the horizon. We had to make one quick stop to get some gas from the strangest gas station I'd ever seen. It was a cart with about 3-4 shelves of glass beer bottles filled with gasoline. Thy gave the proprietor some cash, and the guy dumped a liter bottle of gas into his tank. A few seconds later, we were off again.

The road wound through some woods before emerging on a broad plain that led to the lake. Ahead of us was a lone hill that overlooked the lake. Just before the hill, Thy stopped so that I could pay about $20 to get a boat ride on the lake. The transaction complete, I hopped back on the bike, and we headed to the boat launch where I handed my ticket to a young boat driver, and got on. Thy waited as I went out with the driver and his assistant, an even younger kid of about 8 years old.

It was perfect timing, as the sun was a handspan or two above the horizon as we left the dock. We meandered past a series of houseboats. In fact, the place was a floating village that actually moves with the lake level. The Tonle Sap Lake feeds into the Tonle Sap River, which, for part of the year actually flows backward into the lake as snowmelt from the Himalayas dumps into the Mekong. That, combined with the rainy season, makes for a veritable "Waterworld" as the village moves to the north end of the lake. Then, as the dry season occurs, and the water level drops, the village moves south. In any case, it was pretty cool.

I rode around on the lake with the two kids for about an hour, including a brief stop to get a can of coke (one for each of us) from a floating Vietnamese convenience store. While drinking it, the part of my brain that is normally germophobic started asking, "Where's that can been?" Visions of shistosomes and filaria and other creepy crawlies that certainly creeped and crawled in the lake just a few inches below me started creeping and crawling into my consciousness, which I promptly sprayed with a can of mental Raid (tm) before they convinced me not to drink my Coke. For those of you who know my aversion to Pepsi products, you can be assured that it was, indeed, a Coke. And, though it had been sitting in a box filled with tepid lake water, and was barely colder than the ambient temperature, it was good. For me, there's something about Coca Cola bought outside of the US. It may just be my imagination, but they seem to taste better, almost like the "old Coke" of my youth, especially if it comes in a bottle. This tepid Coke tasted great.

Eventually, we had to start heading back, because I expected Melody and the group to get back sometime around 7 PM or so. I had left a note at the front desk and in the room, but didn't want to miss her. So, we headed back.

Thy was there on the bank as we arrived. I tipped the drivers a couple of bucks, and hopped back on to the back of the bike. We headed off into the gathering dark, dodging other bikes, cars, and people wandering on the road. I kept my sunglasses on, since the bugs were out in full force. I managed to swallow a few of them, but not enough to ruin my appetite. The streets of downtown Siem Reap were even busier with tuktuks and motorbikes more than once bringing traffic to a stop on the way back to the guesthouse. Once back, I gave Thy $5 for his services, and we arranged for him to meet us to take us around on our free day 2 days later.

Back at Bun Nath Guesthouse, I discovered that the group hadn't yet made it in. While I waited, I sat with an Angkor Beer, and drank the customary toast to my buddy Greg, a fellow traveling man. It was another 2 hours before everyone arrived, coated in fine red dust from the drive. After Melody took a quick shower that left the bathroom red (she was washing red dirt out of her hair and ears for a couple of got everywhere), we headed out to join the group to go out for supper. I finally met the leader and a few of the other group members as we hopped into tuktuks to ride into town to the Soup Dragon restaurant. Dinner (Khmer food) was delicious, tasting all the better because we were all pretty famished. The restaurant overlooked the main tourist district of Siem Reap, and had a nice view of the restaurants and bars along the street.

Once we finished and paid the bill, we headed back to the guesthouse where we hit the rack. The next day would be starting before the sun came up, as we were headed for the awesome temples of Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. It was good that we got our rest, as the next day was a long one.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

New Site for you to check out

Last week, on my way to work, I ran into a gentleman at the 7-11 carrying a Canon 5D camera and professional looking tripod. As an amateur photographer (and, admittedly, suffering from a bit of camera lust), I stopped briefly to introduce myself and chatted with him for a moment. Mr. Sakai, is a local professional photographer; I had actually seen some of his work at a kitschy furtniture store down the street from us. Having been thoroughly impressed with the quality, I was excited to meet him in person.

His work is almost exclusively local to our neighborhood, and he has a website where he posts daily pictures. From the looks of it, hes out there every day, and practically all day, rain or shine. Ill permalink him to our blog when I have a chance, but in the meantime, if youd like to see his pictures, and get a feel for some of the beauty in the area where we live, go here.

( )

Friday, December 08, 2006


We're up in Tokyo for the weekend for a Christmas party, and had a chance to meet up with some of our friends from the Majestic Angkor trip, Aussies Lauren and Brent. Brent's been on the road for about 4 years now, and Lauren for 2 or so. They came to Japan for a short visit, mainly in Kyoto, and are on their way out today. So, we met them in Shibuya at the Hachiko statue, where millions of other people had the same idea.

Still, we managed to find them, and had a nice evening of yakiniku at a place a couple of blocks away. After a couple of hours, we unfortuately had to say goodbye, as they had to catch a train back to thier hostel. We lingered at the Starbucks overlooking the famous crossing and the zilions of people that cross it.

As far as our trip and the blogging goes, we are (I promise) working on getting more posted. I've been posting pictures to the flickr site, so follow that link to get a look. We've got several posts in draft form, and hope to get them done quickly.

More soon!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

"Mr. T" For Hire: Motorcycle Taxi Driver Extraordinairre, Siem Reap, Cambodia

This post will be something of an advertisement, a plug for a young, up and coming tour guide in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

If you're ever in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and need someone to show you around, please consider calling my friend, Thy. He's a local fellow, has his own motorbike, and works at the airport bringing tourists into town after they arrive. Because he's one of many official drivers, though, he only works every 3rd or 4th day. So, chances are pretty good that he'll be available to show you around.

He's a licenced motorcycle taxi operator, has all the proper permits, and was a very competent and most importanly, safe driver. He obeyed traffic rules (such as there are in Cambodia), and got me, Melody and Lori around to wherever we wanted to go.

He also knows the town and its sights well. While riding around, he was able to talk about the history of the area, both ancient and the more recent, Khmer Rouge time. He also recommended checking out the fishing village on the Tonle Sap Lake, which turned out to be one of the higlights of the entire trip.

If you'd like to contact him, he gave me permission to put his information on our site here.

Mobile # (in Cambodia): 012 78 54 88

His rates are reasonable, and we basically worked out the price before hand. For a full day riding around with him, I paid $10 (plus another buck for a tip). If you have several people who want to get around, he has friends that he can bring along, and you can negotiate a group rate.

He's a personable fellow, speaks English well, and is also working hard to learn Spanish to fill a niche that is currently underrepresented. His ultimate goal is to be one of the main tour guides operating in Angkor Wat. There's a bit of an "old boy" network, though, that makes it hard for independent guys like him to break in. But, he's working hard, has a clear vision of where he wants to be in a few years, and is doing what he can to achieve it.

He would welcome your assistance, and you'll enjoy your experience even more for having had him as your driver and tour guide.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Majestic Angkor II - The Video

Just a short video I threw together with some of the pictures I took. It's not a complete overview of the trip, as it doesn't have any of Melody's time in Thailand. I'll try to put another one together highlighting some of her pictures too...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Majestic Angkor

Melody and I returned from our trip on Sunday afternoon. It was hard to get back and realize that we had to go back to the normal lives that we lead here. The trip was awesome, though...we saw some incredible things, and met some great people along the way.

Melody started in Thailand with our friend Lori, while I bypassed Bangkok and went to Singapore (previous post) with a side trip to Malaysia. We linked up in Siem Reap, Cambodia on the 4th. After a couple of days wandering the temples of Angkor Wat and visiting fishing villages, the group hopped on a bus to Phnom Penh. That portion of the trip was a little more depressing on a couple of levels...first, most of the sites that we visited were related to the tragic Khmer Rouge period of Cambodia's history. Second, the Democrats took the House and Senate. But, since this is a travel, and not a political blog, that's all I'll say about that for now.

After a couple of days there in Phnom Penh, we got on the Mekong Express to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) where the Imaginative Traveller portion of the trip ended. We stayed overnight though, and flew to Singapore for the last couple of days before returning home.

We'll both be posting more soon with our best attempt at a day by day, but I did want to put up a few pictures in the meantime. I took over 2200, and am in the process of sorting out the wheat from the chaff. There's a lot of chaff, unfortunately. But, when you take a few thousand pictures, a few are bound to turn out well. But, it's also a lot of work in the sorting and processing (somewhere along the way, I've picked up a speck of dust somewhere in the camera...I've cleaned the sensors, switched still shows up, so I have to go in and "erase" it from each picture that it affects...usually the nice sunset/sunrise pictures that would be nice to frame).

Friday, November 03, 2006

Singapore and Malaysia

I'm now here in Singapore. I got in last night around midnight after a long day of traveling. Melody and I woke up at about 5 AM to finish up packing and getting the house ready for us to leave for a week and a half, and made it out the door around 8 to catch a 10 o'clock bus to Narita.
Melody and Lori's flight left a few hours before mine did, so I kicked around the airport for a couple of hours and did the usual things to kill time there...observation deck, browse the electronics, relax and read with a Guinness.

Boarding was interesting. I flew United, an American carrier. If I'm not mistaken, back in the US, you can now bring a bottle of water on board as long as you bought it on the secure side of the TSA screening. I figured that it would be no different here, and bought 2 drinks to keep me hydrated through the 7 hour flight. As I walked down the jetway, however, I noticed a table set up with about 20 bottles of various drinks...all from people who thought like I did. So, it was a long thirsty flight. They came around a couple of times with the beverage cart, but not enough for my liking.

Singapore seems to be a pretty cool place. It reminds me of Hong Kong, but without the vertical nature of that city, with high rises carpeting the hillsides. But, the ubiquitous use of English, the cleanliness, great public's a nice place.

In an effort to avoid a caning, I haven't chewed any gum, and in fact, haven't even been able to find any to chew if I wanted to. Doesn't seem like they sell it at all at the couple of places I've been. I did jaywalk, though. Once.

I'm staying in the Bugis Backpacker's Hostel, which is conveniently located near Little India and the north part of the central downtown district. I haven't really spent much time there, arriving at about 1 AM last night, and heading out at just after 6 this morning to wander, get my bearings, take some pictures, and join my tour to Malaysia. I figured that, since I'm so close, and there hasn't been a coup or anything that put it off limits, I'd join one of those organized tours to visit the southern state of Johor.

Malaysia was really felt somewhat like Oman to me, or a little like Macau. It's a Muslim country, so there were mosques all over the place. I did see one Catholic church, and several Hindu and Buddhist temples, but mosques far outnumbered them.

We only had 5 people on our trip, which was nice. A couple from Utah, and two British ladies and I made up the whole group. They shoehorned us into a 44 passenger bus (with seats much better than I'd been in the night before), and we were on our way. We stopped first at a place where they made pewter trinkets. It was interesting to see the process by which the tin, antimony and copper was mixed and melted, and then poured into molds. I resisted buying anything, not wanting to schlep it around for the next week and a half.

Next stop was an orchid farm...though flowers aren't really my thing, it was pretty interesting to see the hundred or so different types that they had there, and I did learn a few things as well like:

  1. 1. Orchids don't need to grow in dirt. Air is fine.
2. You can cut off just one inch of an orchid and it will take root and grow.

3. Something else...but I forget what it is.

There were acres and acres of flowers and shrubs and all sorts of plants. Pretty neat.

After that was done, we drove to Kukup, a traditional fishing village. We ate a delicious lunch, and then took a short boat ride to look around at the fish farms there. We saw red snapper, anchovies, groupers, and a bunch of other "eating" fish, as well as some little fish that would squirt water at bugs or whatever they were trying to eat. We also saw an electric eel (our boat driver touched it and demonstrated that it really was electric), a puffer fish, and a horseshoe crab. We also saw a fish eagle flying around which was neat. Big, and with a white head, it looked somewhat like a bald eagle.

The fishing village was really interesting, and will be better illustrated with pictures in the next coming days.

Tomorrow, I leave for Siem Reap to join Melody and Lori there. They leave tomorrow morning for a long bus and truck ride into Cambodia, of which I'm jealous. But, getting to take a day trip to Malaysia makes up for it, I suppose.

More coming soon...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The countdown continues...

The time has finally come...Tomorrow, we hop on the bus to take us to Narita to start our next trip, this time parts of Southeast Asia. I'll fly to Singapore, while Melody and Lori will fly to Bangkok. Sure enough, just as I expected, things settled down enough to allow travel to Thailand once again. But, to change the plans yet again would have cost a bunch of money. So, in the old airborne parlance, "hold what you got."

We'll all arrive at our respective destinations pretty late. I'm staying at a hostel downtown, and on Friday morning, will be heading out for a day trip to nearby Malaysia. Melody and Lori will enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, and most certainly, the tastes of Bangkok. On Friday, they'll head for the border via bus, and then after crossing (at least according to the brochure) continue on to Siem Reap / Angkor Wat via pickup truck. I'll meet them there after flying in from Singapore that afternoon.

If you want to get a feel for some of what we'll be experiencing on our trip, check out Erik Trinidad's The Global Trip 2004 entries on Cambodia, Vietnam, and Singapore. He's got some great writing, and a bunch of pictures scattered throughout the blog. While you're there, surf around to some of his other experiences using the drop down menu on the upper left side of the page. My personal favorite is his near-death experience in Nepal. Not that I was glad he almost died, mind you...It's a riveting story.

We're glad the trip is finally here. We're mostly packed...Melody still has a couple of things left to stuff in her backpack; but, we're pretty much ready to go.

We'd appreciate prayers for safe and fun travel. And, we'll try to update the blog when we have the chance. Internet cafe's are everywhere, so we should be able to get a post or 2 up while out there on the road.

So, stay tuned!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Journey to Nowhere Redux

Almost 2 years ago (or 2 real Hijra years), I and some of my buddies from work went on a trip from Riyadh south into the Empty Quarter. We were out for about 5 days, and covered close to 2000 km of the sandiest, most remote part of the Arabian Peninsula. We had a blast, and I figured that, in the anniversary sort of spirit, I'd repost the adventure here. Seems like most of the embedded links to pictures at the original site have gone away, so I'll endeavor to repost at least a few of the pictures. Otherwise, it'll be the same, unedited posts, reposted here.

So, come with me as we embark on a...Journey to Nowhere.

Journey to Nowhere Day 1, 13 November 2005 - Petrol and Petroglyphs


After five days of driving thorough some of the most punishing desert in the world, we've made it safely back to Riyadh, but not without a few battle scars. The trip into the Empty Quarter was an incredible experience. I've travelled deserts before...the Sahara, the Sinai, the Mojave...and have been in some desolate and/or out of the way places before...Somalia, Bolivia...but I'm pretty sure that nothing I've experienced so far can compare to this place.

This trip had just the right amounts of fun, excitement, danger, drama, and uncertainty to be the perfect adventure... We were never at risk of making it back safely, but we did have some unexpected moments that caused us to have to change our plans significantly.

In all, we drove almost 3000 km, and went from Riyadh all the way down to within sight of the Yemen border in the far southwest part of the country. We saw huge sand dunes, rocky plains extending to the horizon, canyons, and mountains. We found Neolithic arrowheads, spearheads, scrapers, and other tools, fossils, and drove through petrified wood forests. We looked at petroglyphs that were thousands of years old. We got bogged down to our wheel hubs in the sand, had a bumper and hood bashed in by a flying shackle (mine), and ripped off a bumper (not mine) jerking a truck out of a sand dune. We got detained by the authorities, got stopped by the police at checkpoints, spent the night in the villa of a National Guard general, and overall, had an truly great time.

Read on...

"Are you carrying guns? Because I don't want you going out there if you don't all have guns!" said my sweet little silver haired mother. "And shoot to kill! Don't fool around and just wing them!"

"Don't worry, Mom. We'll be fine, and we know how to take care of ourselves. We are all in the Army, you know..." I said.

"OK, then. Just be careful! I don't want to see you in an orange jumpsuit." Which is strange, because according to her, I'm a "Fall." Orange should be one of my best colors.

Day 1, 13 November 2004 Petrol and Petroglyphs

I got up at about 3:30 AM and finished loading my truck. I'd put most of the equipment in the night before...two 5 gallon cans of water, 3 boxes of bottled water, another 2 cases of 1.5 L bottles (can't have too much water, you know...), sand ladders, a shovel, tow straps and shackles, portable air compressor, first aid kit, tool box, and bunji cords all in a big plastic box. I grabbed the steaks out of the freezer, vegetables and cheese out of the fridge, and threw them into the cooler with the bottled water. Once all my gear, food, and personal stuff (sleeping bag, poncho liner, clothes, camera and lots of extra batteries) was stowed, I locked up the house and headed to pick up my buddy Ron.

We headed first for the ice machine, and loaded up the cooler, then ran quickly by the office to pound out a couple of last minute emails to our families, just in case we disappeared into the desert or were captured by Al Qaeda terrorists. Then, we linked up with the rest of our party.

There were 8 guys, 7 spare tires, 5 trucks, and 2 dogs heading out on this epic journey. We discussed briefly the general route we were to travel, and had a quick once over on the agenda for the trip. We were going to the aptly named "Triangle" area of the western edge of the Empty Quarter (near Najran on the map). We'd spend our first night on the west side, looking at petroglyphs, then move into the central part for the second night to look for stone tools from the Neolithic age and drive the dunes, then off to the eastern side of the triangle to look for fossils and more arrowheads. The fourth night, we'd drive north of the dunes and look for petrified wood and desert diamonds. Finally, on the fifth day, after a half day or so driving around the desert, we'd head back north for Riyadh.

We drove out of the front gate of the compound, and turned south. We had nearly 800 km in front of us, 10 CDs in the changer, windows down, and we were wearing sunglasses. It was going to be a great day.

The first stop was about 2.5 hours into the trip. We gassed up, and rapidly became the focus of attention because of the two Dalmatians with us. Most Arabs and Muslims don�t have much to do with dogs (kalb) because of the requirement to be clean prior to prayer. And, as we found out, a lot of them were afraid of the spotted beasts. Not that there was much to fear from these...they were mostly bark. After they warmed up to you, they were really sweet dogs.

We made 2 more stops for gas moving south. smPB130013.JPGAfter the third stop,
we moved into the desert a few hundred meters, and deflated the tires. Traveling through sand for the next few days, it would be essential. The added surface area made driving on the sand much easier. smcrpPB130010.JPG
All of us got stuck at one time or another, though. On two occasions, we had 3 of the 5 trucks stuck at one time. We got pretty good by the end of it in extrication techniques. Fortunately, several of the guys had lots of past experience. It came in handy more often than we'd have liked.

We started heading northwest into the rocky desert. We drove first to a rock outcropping that was covered in petroglyphs. Unfortunately, it was also defiled with Arabic graffiti as well...

After scurrying around on the rocks for a while, we mounted up again to go find our campsite. After a few wrong turns, we finally ended up in the small canyon that was to be our home for the night. We checked the area out to make sure that it was going to suit our needs, then continued exploring the area. We first checked out some more petroglyphs in a small box canyon. Prior to getting there, we ran into a small camel herd...I being a sucker for camels of any sort, had to stop for pictures. This one had more of the same...camels, cows, and antelopes, mainly, but also pictures of ostriches, hyenas eating cattle, and a guy fighting a lion. It was also here that we met the mysterious screaming woman...The 8 of us guys figured she was yelling at the guy standing near her (her husband? "How many times do I have to tell you to take the dead camel parts out to the curb!?!"). We would have rendezvous with her for the next day or so...

Afterward, we drove about 25 km across the desert to go see ET, a sort of space alien looking petroglyph. This one unfortunately was in pretty bad shape from being shot at by Bedouins over the years. One particularly accurate shot was lodged in his head. We also saw the mysterious woman again, this time yelling at an ostrich.

"Stupid Ostrich! Look what you did on my nice dirt floor!" The ostrich seems to be trying to get away...

With sunset rapidly approaching, the shadows and sun made for some beautiful contrasts...We sped into the sun, bouncing all over the desert at about 90 kph. Arriving at our campsite just as it was getting dark, we set up our cots, broke out our disposable grill and fired it up. Figuring that the ice would melt long before we were done with the trip, we only packed one meal that needed cooking. The rest could be eaten cold, or in the case of our Army rations (Meals Ready to Eat � MREs), heated using the included, water activated heater.. Ron and I grilled the steaks and wrapped up some sliced onions and bell peppers in foil and threw the packages on the fire too. As supper cooked, we sat around, played with the dogs, and talked among ourselves.

Following our mostly cooked steaks, and crunchy but warm vegetables (we couldn�t wait...we were famished), we all sat around the fire, smoked cigars, and haggled about who would pull what guard shift. Since we were out there, alone and unafraid, and considering how close we were to Yemen, and the current state of the Kingdom, we deemed it prudent to keep someone up at all times to make sure we didn�t get surprised in the middle of the night. What worse way is there to wake up than with a sore throat caused by a knife sticking into it? Fortunately, other than the huge flickering shadows cast by the fire on the walls of our canyon occasionally freaking me out, and the awe of the incredibly starry night, our guard shifts passed uneventfully. The dogs proved their worth as guards as well when they�d bark incessantly any time you made the slightest noise. There was little chance we could have been surprised.

Stay tuned for Day 2!

Posted by djf on November 13, 2004 12:43 PM
Category: The Magical Kingdom

Journey to Nowhere Day 2, 14 November 2005 - Into the Dunes

The sun rose this morning to guys meandering off into the desert with shovels to take care of personal business...Everyone ate breakfast and packed up their trucks at a leisurely pace, and we finally got on the way at about 8:00 AM. We spent the morning looking for the screaming woman (and finding her in several places...frankly, we started to believe that she's something of a floozy...She really got around!!). Along the way, we found hundreds more pictures. Wherever there was a reasonably flat spot on the rock walls around us, you could be assured of finding rock art. One of the most impressive examples was of a battle between what looked like space aliens and guys on camels.

We also found what we took to be grave sites small cave-like clefts in or near the cliff faces that were blocked up by rocks. We didn�t poke around too much, each of us playing various scenes from the "Revenge of the Mummy" type movies in our heads. At one point, we did find the incongruous sight of a lonely teapot. And, on the same outcropping, petroglyphs that inspired us to call it "Party Rock."

While running around looking for our mysterious woman, we spied a far off Bedouin camp complete with camels returning home for a mid morning snack. Just beyond their small rock outcropping, another small herd was grazing on the sparse grass, and nursing their babies.

Finally, we started making our way to the next gas stop before driving off into the dunes in the center part of the triangle. From where we were, it took almost 45 minutes to get there, driving over alternating sandy and rocky terrain. We were sidetracked by a couple of blind canyons before we found the right way out of the rocky canyonlands and were able to track using our global positioning devices (GPS) over to our next petrol station. The Bangladeshi attendants were sort of surprised to see 8 white guys drive out of the desert. In fact, that seemed to be the usual reaction...But, they were friendly guys, and after we fueled up, bought a few Cokes and bottles of water and an �oblong cake� or two, we drove out of the station, and headed East.


The sand dunes came up rapidly, and before you knew it, we were deep in the heart of a huge dune field rolling for as far as the eye could see. We spent the next few hours driving up one side of the dunes and down the other. We stopped at several flint fields along the way to look for arrowheads and other stone tools. I was fortunate enough to find several during the stops, including one that was simply perfectly crafted. Black flint, about an inch and a half long, it looks like the quintessential arrowhead. I also found several larger, but broken points, and various scrapers and other tools, and a whole lot of chips that were just discarded. It was really an interesting experience to hold these beautifully crafted and very ancient tools, and try to imagine what it must have been like thousands of years before when they were originally made. Saudi Arabia was a fertile area, filled with trees, animals, people, and even inland seas. Quite different than now...


Every time we�d cross a field of rocks, we�d stop and look for arrowheads and stuff. Basically, the best way proved to orient yourself into the sun and walk slowly, scanning the ground ahead of you. Flint reflects light pretty well, and would shine. When you found something, you�d often find more in the immediate area. Most of the time it was just shards from the process, but occasionally you'd get lucky and actually find something worth picking up. We also found petrified ostrich shells out there, and fossilized coral and reeds. It got to the point where every time we stopped driving, we�d get out, and start picking up rocks. I found myself doing it again after I got home, even though all that is around my house is just gravel...not nearly as exciting.

As we drove around, up and down the dunes, a few of us got stuck in the sand, but we were all able to get recovered with minor effort by using one vehicle to tow us out. At times, watching the vehicle in front of us tip over the edge of a dune, and seeing more of its undercarriage than anything else until it disappears down the reverse slope was like seeing the desert swallow them whole. Later on that afternoon, the desert did its best to do it for real.

There�s a feeling you get when you�re standing there looking the huge dent in your formerly pristine, shiny bumper, and the now bashed-in hood that probably saved your windshield and face from being smushed in by the flying metal shackle... it�s sort of a feeling of, �Whoa...that was close...I need a drink.� Of course, this being Saudi Arabia, and being way out in the desert, you just have to settle for a tepid bottle of water instead of something stronger.

We�d been driving steadily for several hours when Don, our leader, got high centered on a sand ridge. This was fortunate, since the angle at which he was moving possibly would have caused him to roll his truck had he managed to actually get over the edge. We moved a vehicle close to his truck, and began the now familiar routine of hooking up two nylon tow straps together to attempt to pull him out of the softer sand to better purchase.

Don began to slowly spin his wheels in reverse as Gary, the driver of the towing truck, gathered up the slack of the tow strap and jerked Don�s truck. There was a bit of movement, and then the second truck also bogged down. Since the strap was at full stretch, the two straps couldn�t be removed. So, now we had to move another truck into position to try to jerk the first two out. George carefully maneuvered his truck in front of the two; we hooked up two more straps, arranged them so they would pay out without getting caught up in the axle, and George made his attempt. He too jerked hard, and abruptly stopped. Fortunately, he was able to back up a bit, to unhook, and was able to extricate himself from the sand before he got too badly bogged.

Next, it was my turn to pull. I drove up and stopped just in front of the second truck. We hooked the loop of the closest strap to one of the tow hooks on the frame of my truck. I then got back in, shifted into 4 Low, and radioed that I was ready. Upon �Ready� from the other guys, I started to move. I stomped on the accelerator, and took off across the sand. There was a hard jerk, and then I abruptly sped up. Looking over my shoulder, I saw that I was no longer connected to the other vehicles, but they were still stuck. As I tried to pull around again to the same place, I got bogged down wheel hub deep as well. I tried to rock it back and forth, but just dug myself in deeper. Unable to go any farther, I got out and checked things...I wasn�t going anywhere anytime soon. Plus, the strap had bent the tow hook to the point where it was unusable. In addition to the damage to the hook, the strap and shackle had flew back and smashed in the grill of the truck I was trying to pull out, just missing ruining the radiator.

With three trucks now immobile, and one that narrowly escaped getting mired, we moved the fifth and final truck into position...This time, the straps held, the hooks didn�t break, and the trucks lurched free from their sand traps.

Once on more solid (relatively speaking) ground, the trucks were unhooked; then, Don moved in front of my truck to begin the extrication process. Hooking up to one of the two front tow hooks, he radioed to make sure I was ready. I began to spin the tires, and braced for the jerk. With a huge jolt, the straps tightened, and then were towed wildly behind Don�s truck. He sped off, maintaining momentum to try not to get stuck again. He turned around, and got back into position while we figured out what happened. The cast metal hook on the front of the truck was snapped cleanly off. The next fifteen minutes or so were spent assessing the best way to get the truck out. Finally, a short tow strap was looped through part of the frame, and connected to the main series of straps (several were being used end to end to allow for stand-off distance from the soft sand). Then, we settled in to try again.

The engine revved, and I once again braced myself for the sudden jerk that hopefully this time would pull me out of my sandy grave. There was a mighty yank and forward movement out of hole I�d dug for myself, but also the loud �BANG - CRUNCH� sound of metal hitting metal...the tow strap had broken, and the steel shackle flew back and smashed the front of my truck.

It�s amazing how fast your body reacts to threats. I vaguely remember flinching, but it was a totally visceral response. There�s no way I could have consciously reacted that fast.

Once on some solid sand, I stopped the truck, and got out. Walking to the front, I noticed a big dent in the steel bumper, and another in the hood, where it was crumpled and gashed by the flying shackle. If it had been just two inches higher in its flight, it would have smashed through the windshield, and likely into my face. That would probably have put a damper on the trip...Nothing like a head wound when you�re hundreds of miles from a good hospital to spoil a good time. We did have a medical kit with us, and it actually got used for some minor burns later on, but there�s not much you can do for brain injuries...

Once we�d sort of collected and stowed all of the gear, and I�d put on a new pair of pants (not really), we mounted up, and headed on our way. We were rapidly running out of daylight to make our campsite, still several kilometers away beyond the dune fields.

We found the gap between two mesa-like hills, and drove into it. Don, expecting our campsite at its last known location was surprised to find it had been totally removed. Thousands of cubic meters of dirt was simply gone, removed for who knows what reason. And this way the heck out in the middle of nowhere.

We drove on for a few more minutes and finally found a campsite at the far end of a small, sandy defile. Surrounded on three sides by steep sand hills ascending to flat tops, we settled in for the night. The fire was lit, we all broke out our food, and cooked, ate and socialized. Guard shifts came and went quietly (other than the dogs barking at us when we changed guards) with no molestation by any Bedouins, MOI police, or gentlemen bearing orange jumpsuits as gifts.

Posted by djf on November 14, 2004 10:25 AM
Category: The Magical Kingdom

Journey to Nowhere, Day 3, 15 November 2004 - Out of the Dunes and Into Detention


First thing this morning, I learned a valuable lesson: When taking care of business on the side of a hill, be very careful where you place your roll of toilet paper. It was a helpless feeling that I had as I squatted uncomfortably with my pants around my ankles, and vainly tried to reach the rapidly moving roll with the shovel. It finally came to rest lodged in some rocks about 30 meters down the hill. Fortunately, I didn�t have to resort to the Bedouin method of a handful of sand...and may God bless whoever invented wet-wipes. What could have been really bad just turned into a funny (at least to me) anecdote.

At the top of the hill was the last resting place of a camel. I noticed it as I was wandering around up there, taking pictures...The rock surface was strange...sort of rippled and eroded. smPB150225.JPG

The morning progressed normally, and breaking fast and breaking camp was accomplished by about 7:30 AM. As people got packed, a few folks wandered looking for more tools and points. Just walking along and looking down, I found two excellent ones. We hopped in the trucks, fired them up and drove for about 15 minutes to another flint field, this one several square kilometers in size. We poked around there for a good hour or so, and other than a few lucky individuals (not me), mostly came up with just a few handfuls of worthless rocks. I found one that was ergonomically shaped to be a skull crusher, but to my knowledge, it was never used as just seemed like it would have worked well as one.

Ron and I drove over to a small hilltop, and climbed up to get a look around. There was a dead, dessicated bird on a piece of wood, so I stopped to make a few artistic, depressing, �dead bird� shots...I think they capture a sense of loss and angst (that I don�t really have in my life, but it felt very artsy...) or something like that. It made me want to go to a beat poetry reading...but I digress. At the top of the hill, there was what appeared to be another burial mound, but we didn�t mess with that one either...

Finally, we started reassembling at the far end of the valley. We drove to the top of a small hill that marked the end of the valley. It had pretty dramatic views of the dunes and the road leading off into nowhere. After a couple of group pictures, we headed down the road for a while, and then turned east across the desert. We went from dunes to sandy tracks, to razor sharp flinty ground. At one point, we passed a Bedouin camp complete with camels and the Saudi Arabian National Dog, the Saluki.

We finally stopped at an elevated position that allowed us to see for miles. After resting a few minutes, we headed off for �the Grove,� a small collection of scrubby acacia trees. It took a little longer to get there than we anticipated, because of a minor recovery mission we needed to do. Don, who was always leading the way from place to place, was also usually the first one to get stuck in a bad patch. After yanking him out of a dune, and negotiating a rather steep but short one, we moved on to the Grove. We hung out there for a little while, and let the dogs run around. Then, we moved on to our next gas stop.

It took about an hour or so to finally reach the station on the East side of the triangle. We made good time across relatively solid ground. A few of the guys made better time than us, and we lost sight of their trucks, but were able to stay on course by following their dust clouds. Finally, we spied in the distance a radio tower that marked the vicinity of our next gas stop. We�d fuel up there, and then head off to the east part of the triangle to look for more stone tools and try to get stuck in more dunes. Little did we know we were about to have a change in plans...

�Salaam aleikum! Shlonakh?� the Sudanese station attendant asked me...

�Wa�aleikum Salaam! Al Hamdullilah! Eid Mubarak, sedik!� I replied.

He was a pretty friendly guy. True to form, the guy working the pumps was not a Saudi. He finished filling my tank, and I paid him. It was 46 riyals, and I gave him a 50 and told him I needed no change. That made his day...Those guys make on average about 2-300 riyals per month, which works out to about $50-75 US. Not a whole lot. Four rips (slang for riyals) is a decent contribution to his bottom line.

When done, we moved our trucks over and parked while we shopped for snacks and drinks. This particular place was like a mini had a little bit of everything. Except shoes. There were hundreds of what looked like vinyl shoes. I�m pretty sure that those would be very uncomfortable when the mercury rises to 50+ degrees Celsius (over 120 Farenheit). Still, it�s nice to know that, for all your vinyl shoe needs, it�s just a short 900 km ride away. For me, that is...

One interesting thing at the gas station was the feeling of being Out There...I mean, there were guys there with guns and knives looking like they just stepped out of Lawrence of Arabia or something...They almost looked like they were there for the express purpose of tourists photographs. Except that no tourists come here. And the guns were loaded. And the knives were sharp. But, in spite of their ferocious appearance, they were really pretty nice guys. Friendly, inquisitive, wondering what the hell a bunch of gringos were doing way out here.

EQ bedouin.JPG

As it turns out, they were members of the fowj or mujehedin, the irregular, reserve-like force that the military and police here have to augment in areas where they don�t have enough regular troops. They are a remnant of the Ikhwan, or Brotherhood, that rode with King Abdul Aziz when he unified the country. Membership is passed from father to son, and we were about to make the acquaintance of the Emir of the region...

�Where are you from�, the MOI Fowj member asked. �And what are you doing here?�
�We�re down from Riyadh, and are camping aound the Triangle for a few days,� said George.
�No you�re not...Come with me,� Fowj guy replied. DUHN DUHN DUUHHHHHNNN!! (musical soundtrack with sinister, suspenseful music...) Since the fellow was carrying an AK-47, George thought it best to comply. He hopped in the man�s Toyota Land Cruiser, pausing briefly to move the rifle out of the way...not something you want to sit on, you know...and they drove the half kilometer to the local Fowj headquarters.

Steve noticed he was missing, and tracked him down to the small, cinderblock building where George was using his decent Arabic skills to try to figure out what was going on. Don also joined them, and eventually, we all were gathered outside the fence of the small compound, waiting to find out what was going to happen.

After about an hour, George emerged with a somewhat concerned look on his face. It seemed that the letter that was supposed to be forwarded down to the region giving us permission to camp never made it. The Fowj commander was concerned that it was too dangerous for us to go out in the desert and wasn�t going to let us go. In the meantime, until he made a decision, we weren�t allowed to leave either. We decided to bring in the big guns, and call a General that we worked with, who lived in Najran, the provincial capital for the region. He said he�d do what he could, but if, in the end, we weren�t going to be allowed to go, to just come to his house and stay there. At least we had some options.

We sat for a while, waiting for the Emir to make his decision. The building we were hanging out in seemed to be a cement block version of a Bedouin tent. It had carpets on the floor, a central fire pit with some pots of ghawa and chai, and some cushions around the walls to recline on. It also was designed to be as comfortable as possible. Considering the extreme summer heat, the building had several windows allowing for cross-breezes, gaps between the tops of the walls and the sloped roof, which was lined with insulation. As we sat, we exchanged small talk with the Emir and his men, and tried to convince the youngest fellow in there to go out and pet Don�s dogs. He wasn�t having anything to do with them (until later, when he went out and kicked sand at them).

Finally, after about three hours of friendly detention, the Emir got the call from his boss. The verdict? We could go anywhere we wanted, as long as we never left the pavement. Well, that pretty much ruled out going into the desert and resuming our trip as originally planned, so we opted to call the General, and take him up on his offer of a night at his farm. Steve called him up, explained again our situation, and reiterated the fact that there were eight of us, and two dogs. The General said, mafi mushkhela, and to come on over.

Since we were now going to be traveling on pavement again, we spent about an hour airing up our tires using the gas station air hoses and our own car-battery powered air compressors. While airing up the tires, the Emir and his driver sat in their Land Cruiser and watched us. Finally, the photographer in me took over, and I asked him if I could take a picture with him. me and the emir.JPG

We snapped a couple, and then he asked for a set of binoculars. George had a cheap set, and gave them to him as a gift. We had already given he and his men several Army rations, MREs, and a few Cokes as a thank you gesture for his hospitality. He truly seemed to be concerned about his ability to ensure our safety out there. Keep in mind, at this point in the trip, we were around 50 km from Yemen. The area has problems with drug and arms smugglers, terrorists, and bandits, so his fears were probably justified.

After airing up the tires, we started out, heading south. The Emir followed us in his truck, and as we picked up speed, we left him behind. Traveling at almost 160 kph, we were trying to make up some distance and get to Najran before it got too dark. It was more than 300km away from where we had been in negotiations with the Emir, and, with random camel sightings, and the typical way that locals drive, it�s just not safe to be out after dark on the desert roads. Getting back to civilization as quickly as possible was imperative.

Looking in my rear view mirror at one point, I saw the Emir�s truck apparently gaining on us. Finally, he was right on Steve�s bumper, passing him and gaining on me. As he passed us, I looked down at my speedometer...160 kph...and looked over at him. His truck was going at least 180 kph, and he was leaning out the window, AK-47 in one hand, waving wildly with the other, and a big smile on his face. He sped to the front of the line, and kept going.


As we drove, we were constantly going up and down steep hills. We did slow to pass a camel truck. Ron and I lingered for a few minutes behind it, though, and took several pictures. There were four mama camels and three babies. Steve called us on the radio and asked if anything was wrong...Ron said, �Wrong? What could be more right with the world than seeing baby camels?!?� Especially when one of them appeared to be sleeping as he rode along. I�ll say it again...I�m not sure there�s anything cuter than baby camels...


About 15 minutes later, we reached a �T� intersection, where we paused for a few minutes. We were going to be handed off to the next set of security people, and the Emir had to do some coordination. While waiting there, we noticed another fowj truck with a covered .50 caliber machine gun (the famous �Ma Deuce�) on the back. This was to be part of our escort for the next 100 km or so. While sitting there, the camels drove by, and the Emir made his rounds shaking our hands. Finally, we were on our way again...this time (initially) at an excruciatingly slow 90 kph. As it was now past 4 PM, the sun was rapidly waning in the sky. Sunset was to be at 5:19, according to the GPS, and we still had a pretty long way to go.

For the next couple of hours, we were subsequently handed off to different MOI and Fowj units. Despite our initial rate of travel, we were able to speed up and make pretty good time. A few times, we lost the Fowj trucks following us, but we were always picked up somewhere down the road. We were stopped a couple of times by checkpoints, mainly to allow our minders to catch up or to hand us off to another set. As we drove, we had a great view of the sun setting over the mountains of Yemen. It was one of the most dramatic sunsets I�ve seen, albeit through a windshield at a high rate of speed.


Just before Najran, at the checkpoint regulating traffic into the city, Don was stopped and hassled for a while about his registration. While he attempted without much headway to sort things out, we hung out on the side of the road waiting for him to get done. Finally, when he mentioned that he had to call the General, they said mafi mushkhela, and let us proceed.

Finally, we drove into Najran. It was dark now, and as we drove into the city, we couldn�t help but notice the sheer numbers of police. They were everywhere...literally, there was a police car or motorcycle on every street corner, and one policeman every 100 feet or so. Having had police escort the whole way in, we were honored that our arrival was considered so important that they had a police cordon all the way in. Ron and I smiled and waved, and were rewarded with confused looks. As it turns out, the police weren�t for us. Some prince was arriving later, and the hubbub was for him.

Finally, we linked up with the General�s son and he led us to the family compound. Upon bringing all the vehicles inside the wall, the General welcomed us, introduced us to his sons, brother, and cousin, and ushered us into the reception villa. Probably 3000 square feet, the villa had several reception rooms, and washing up facilities. He gave a quick tour...the Arab style rooms with cushions on the floor, the women�s reception room, the ghawa and chai room with central fire pit, and a huge room with overstuffed, borderline gaudy chairs. We all entered this room, and sat for a while, making introductions and some small talk. Finally, he brought us over to his main house, and we sat for a while, drank ghawa and chai, ate some hot, sweet vermicelli, dates, and strangely, Japanese rice crackers. While we sat the General�s grandson made the rounds with a photo of a painting of the General�s grandfather, who was the one who negotiated with King Abdul Aziz to bring Najran into the Kingdom. He definitely looked every bit the weathered, tough desert warrior that he was.

The General also gave us a history lesson of the Najran city and region. For a brief overview of the city, see the following URL: Also, see for an interesting narrative and pictorial by the Saudi Embassy. At one point, there were many Jews who lived in the city, but they either emigrated from the area or were converted to Islam.

The General took us on a bottom to top tour of his beautiful, well appointed home, and once complete, we took our leave until the next day, and his son led us to his family farm. We left the compound, and drove through Najran. At one point, we turned onto a dark, dirt road. Here, we noticed that a small, white sedan with two men in it fell in behind us. The road turned out to be the wrong road, and led past a royal residence. Not realizing it, we continued on until it became apparent that the road was not the right one. We turned around, and continued back up the road. The white car followed.

As we got back up toward the big shot�s house, we were stopped by MOI, and soon, there were four trucks there in response to our presence. The General�s son convinced them that we were simply lost, and they let us go through. We also told the MOI guys about the men following us, and they stopped them briefly to question them. Not for long, though, as the car soon fell right back in behind.

Upon finding the right turn, we stopped, and Don, Steve and the General�s son went back to confront the guys following us. I pointed my truck at the car and turned on the high beams to give them some light to talk by. Turns out they were not terrorists, but security guys that the General had detailed to shadow us. We called the General, and he was more embarrassed that we�d discovered them than anything...frankly, they were much too obvious in their attention. Living here has made us all a bit more aware of who�s paying attention to us. But even without our heightened awareness, these guys would have been detected. Still, it was nice to know that someone was looking out for us.

Finally, we got to the farm villa. The General was concerned that we might not like it, since it didn�t really have any furniture to speak of. Just one room had some couches. The rest of the rooms just had was a very Arab house. But, it was comfortable, had a pool, and was surrounded by lemon trees. The General had arranged for our supper, and within minutes of arriving, his son set out huge platters of rice and lamb, called �capsa� were laid out on carpets. We all squatted or reclined around the plates and dug in. When eating capsa, there are no just reach into the area in front of you, rip off a hunk of meat, grab a handful of rice, squeeze it into a ball, and shovel it into your mouth with your thumb. For us westerners, it�s usually a messy affair. Guys who have been doing it all their lives can do it without spilling a grain of rice. Usually, in other, family settings, the men eat first. Then the leftovers get passed to the women and children. Whatever is left over goes to the servants. Despite our best efforts, the two guys that live on the farm and take care of it should have eaten very well. For us, it absolutely hit the spot.

We sat for a while by the pool on carpets, and just before we started to retire, the General came by to make sure all was well. We had the hardest time convincing him that the accommodations were more than kweiss (good). We�d been sleeping in the desert the past two nights, and now were at a luxury villa with carpets, and cushions, and hot water, and flush toilets, and absolutely no chance that your toilet paper will roll down the side of a rocky hill well out of reach. He was also concerned that we felt secure enough...again, we were fine with that as well. We had no guard shifts to pull, as there were two guys outside the gate with guns solely to protect us.

As we all settled into different rooms, we laid out cushions to sleep on, and broke out the sleeping bags. I drifted off to sleep chuckling to myself at the way things had turned out. What an amazing and incredibly strange day.

Posted by djf on November 15, 2004 01:07 PM
Category: The Magical Kingdom