Sunday, 29 January 2012

Back in 'Nam

I left Cambodia on a boat headed for Vietnam on what was to be a three day Mekong Tour. I would call this tour distinctly average. Maybe I was spoilt with tours in Cambodia, or I am all rivered out. My main complaint was that all the activities ended at around 2pm, and we were then left to our own devices in rather small dull towns. My second complaint was that there were plenty of hidden costs; "oh your alone, the room will be $3 more then" "Dinner Isn't included" etc. However the tour was fairly interesting at times, floating markets etc, the mosques in Cham and seeing rice noodles be made. The Market in Can Tho does deserve particular mention though; normally when I talk about a market I do exaggerate a little, this market however really did have everything from the usual fakes to marble sculptures, a proper garden centre even including Bonsai trees and so much more.
My FLoating Hotel

Yes... that is previous chickens on the back of a bike

Floating Markets

I made it to Saigon. I almost titled this post 'Lonely in Saigon' but after only four days in to Vietnam that felt unfair. Besides its been my own fault I've been 'lonely' here as I haven't spread myself around, have focused on touring and planning so as to make the most of my time. In fact I haven't been lonely, I've been immensely productive. Another possible title was "Guys guys guys" but out of context this just sounded gay. (More on this later)
Before I talk about Saigon proper, I will mention how one can tell Vietnam is more developed than Cambodia pretty much from arrival. This is easily spotted in three ways, all traffic related:
1. There are proper roads that aren't potholed to buggery and they actually have something that resembles a motorway.
2. There is more than one type of car. In Cambodia the only cars are new black 4x4s. In Vietnam they have a variety from new to old.
3. People obey traffic lights. I only once saw anyone really obey a traffic light in Cambodia and that was only because to not would have meant instant death.
This isn't to imply that driving in Vietnam would be advisable, it is not. It is nightmarish with the million of motorbikes that swarm you.
Rise of the Bikes
So Saigon then. I had a whirlwind city tour which was excellent. I took in the War Remnants museum; biased in places, but also informative and once again harrowing to see all the damage napalm/bombing/mines/agent orange has caused. Also took in the chinese wholesale market and the chinese temple for the goddess of the sea. We also visited a tea shop and the copy of Notre Dame before a rainstorm sent us packing back to the bus. For dinner I had an amazing stir fry at a place recommended on Wiki Travel. On the last day I visited the Cu Chi Caves where the Viet Cong hid from American bombing during the war. This again was informative but slightly biased, it was fun crawling through a tunnel though.
I quite like Saigon, for all its noise and brashness it has a certain charm to it. The replica of Notre Dame is also quite amusing. However I did not have enough time to linger any longer as I have too many places I would rather see.


Presidential building

Notre Dame

Cu Chi Tunnel
I decided to fly to Hanoi as it is almost a 24 hour bus to the middle area of Vietnam where a few of my 'must see' sights were located and thus a even longer bus to Hanoi. So in the interests of speed the flight was a necessary evil. I arrived rather late and was welcomed to my dorm with a beer and a bit of a ruckus, one of the more interesting arrivals. I settled in for what was actual one of the best nights sleep in all of SE Asia, this is mainly due to it not being hot nor humind, the weather is in fact cold (20'c) and wet. I woke up early enough and set off straight to visit Ho Chi Minh. I have now completed the 3 dead embalmed communist leaders, Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh. I spent the rest of the morning visiting the surrounding museums before returning home to walk around the old quarter/centre. In the evening I met Camilla & Luke for some Bia Hoi (cheap fresh beer) and vietnamese food. It is always a relief to meet people I know from home, if just for a familiar face. With all involved parties having early starts we parted ways before I spent some time looking for rum and trying to remember my spanish when talking to some Argentinians. The rum was for the Halong Bay cruise and the spanish well, just being sociable.

I awoke nice and early to depart for Halong Bay. One of the iconic areas of Vietnam, stunning scenery of karst islands set in the South China Sea. However it was far too wet and misty to truly appreciate this scenery, besides I have seen much of this before (Yangshuo, Rai Leh etc) so I was not too bothered. The tour however was fantastic, this was largely due to the people, the food and the mutual dislike of our scouse tour guide (in fairness he brought us all together) with his constant shouts of " Guys guys guys, I Will destroy you" before he drank himself in to sleep. I acquired my 'back in nam' flashback stories and took a grand total of five photos. I then returned to Hanoi to recover and decide what to do for the 3 days I had left and was stuck due to Tet.
Hanoi Lake

Transporting a tree

New Year decorations

Bridge over the Lake
Me and Kevin rocking Halong Bay
In those 3 days back in Hanoi I eventually decided to walk around and avoid the rain. I celebrated Tet New year with some Vietnamese drinking whiskey and dancing around before I re-found the rest of the backpackers and met basically the entire population of Nigeria in Vietnam. 3 days of waiting around done I headed on a night bus to Hue.

Hue is the old imperial city back when Vietnam still had something resembling an Imperial family. The weather was still wet and cold. I arrived fresh from the 'great nights sleep' on the bus and booked a tour for the next day, had breakfast/lunch and set off on a moped to visit some sites that were not on the tour. It was kind of wet, but I had fun visiting 'Elephant Arena' and Tu Duocs tomb before deciding to try and get lost in the countryside. Considering Tu Duoc (and most of the emperors) had no power and were under French rule, his tomb was quite grand, but that is actually wherein lies the cause, they had nothing to do except build huge tombs. I awoke early for the next day for the City tour which included some trips to more Tombs, and to my surprise Tu Duc's tomb again, which I skipped before we headed for lunch and a trip to the citadel/forbidden city. Largely bombed out by the French/Americans during the war it houses vast empty fields and weirdly a tennis court. It also has an Elephant that looked decidedly depressed when chained up. The tour was rounded up with a trip to a Pagoda to touch a statue of a Turtle for good luck. I went back to the Hostel for happy hour and to figure out how to move on to Hoi An the next day..... Hippy van tour wasn't running unless i paid for all five spaces ($17 x 5 =  $85) so I decided to do the Motorbike option! Hue may not have been the most exciting of places, but the hostel is a good base to meet pretty much everyone I met in Hanoi and then some more people, with the tombs and citadel it kept me busy, even if it was far too cold. The hostel staff are very pretty girls who are very friendly, you should all come visit and marry one. (This is that they told me to write, the marriage part)
Tomb at Tu Duoc

Pond in the Tomb complex
Dragon with Green eyes

Tomb Fort

The Citadel
So motorbiking to Hoi An. Top Gear describe a stretch on this trip as one of the "greatest coastal roads in the world" (Hai Van Pass). The Vietnam special is quite worth the watch if you are interested in that trip and travel in Vietnam. Despite being apprehensive about doing the trip alone the hostel staff assured me nobody had ever gotten lost in the two years it has been running. With this in mind I thought it might be fun to be the first, but I am actually pretty good at map reading. I set off after a breakfast bowl of noodles and bumped in to two Dutch girls I knew from Hanoi, heard another Vietnamese scam story and learn't they were so sick of Vietnam they had decided to go to Laos earlier than planned. On to the road with better weather I set off through the morning hustle of Hue and found my road out into the countryside. This took me along to the coast and then to a rather large lagoon surrounded by rice paddies, complete with water buffalo and farmers working the field wearing those iconic coned hats. Eventually I came to the beginning of the pass, after a rather rude attendant made it clear I almost went the wrong way I started my climb up the pass stopping briefly for a photo moment before the winding roads took me higher in to clouds and fog. Visibility was reduced to only a couple of metres at times and bikes/trucks lights would slowly emerge out of this fog. Suddenly as if out of nowhere I emerged out of the fog in to glorious bright sunlight and warmth. I had reached the top of the pass and was rewarded with stunning views south of Vietnam and a stark contrast of fog and sun. After photographing a group of Vietnamese (at their request) I got one of them with Kevin and explored the bunker complex before a chocolate snack and I continued onwards towards..... Da Nannnnnnggggggggggggg, (according to South Park during the war this was where the theme parks were). In reality it is where 'China Beach' is, which almost true to South Park is where American troops were sent for R n R. Da Nang it self is obviously rather wealthy however it is still developing, in a few years the beach front will be full of 5 Star Resorts(there were already at least two golf courses, a rarity in South East Asia). I headed off to visit Marble Mountain, a giant mountain with a weird fusion of futuristic style elevator and ancient pagoda set atop a giant slab of rock that jets out of the ground. I stopped for a squid lunch before making the final stretch to Hoi An, found my drop off point and hotel. The ride had been easier than expected but also totally awesome and rewarding.
Rice Collecting

My Steed, with lucky Buddha symbol too
Boats on the River

Fog and Sunshine

Marble Mountain
Hoi An is the place to go to make suits, however I have no interest (nor money) in lugging around a suit for a month. Hoi An however is a Unesco World Heritage site and this is due to its historical old town vibe. Similar but more authentic than Dali/Lijiang it is at night when it really shows off with many coloured lanterns adorning the quaint streets and riverside. On my walk around town I randomly bumped in too people I knew from Hue (actually a recurring theme in Hoi An) and had dinner before a relaxing evening discussing everything from books, films and politics. After a much needed lie in (I got up at 9am) I did my admin thing, uploading photos from SD Card number five to my laptop, once again randomly bumped in to people I knew for lunch before doing the touristy thing; temples, houses and museums which took all of an hour. I bought my iPho t-shirt (because I love Pho[noodle soup] and hate iPhones, ironic you see) and booked my allegedly (according to my hotel) fully booked trip to Laos. I spent the remainder of the afternoon relaxing by the pool in a fancy hotel that my friend was staying in. In the evening I did my good deed of the week by meeting a girl who had messaged me on Lonely Planet to see if I was about in Hoi An(randomly I was). I had previously answered a forum message about travel companions in Vietnam. Knowing full well how even the most awesome town can be boring and lonely if you don't know anyone and there are no hostels, I did my 'heroic' part. Ironically in this bar practically every single person I had met in Hue/Hanoi happened to rock up, giving the appearance that I have lots of friends.
Chinese Assembly hall garden

Japanese Tourist

Japanese Bridge

Hoi An river at sunset
I left Hoi An to go back to Hue in order to catch the bus to Laos. That rounds up Vietnam. It has been an interesting couple of weeks, Vietnam hasn't been as amazing as Cambodia but it has a little charm too, if also a bit too much touristy related scams. It is however a stunning country too with an energy that most SE Asian countries share. I would consider returning to the 'Nam but it wouldn't be first on the list. 

Friday, 13 January 2012

Ancient Temples, Dark Pasts and River Adventures...

Leaving beaches behind in order to see traditional historical sights in Cambodia the first point of call was Phnom Penh, the capital and urban centre of everything. Its a return to the urban city that I have not really experienced since Bangkok. It is however nowhere near as big as Bangkok. The hawkers are reasonably aggressive as are the TukTuk drivers, you can't walk anywhere without being asked if you want a ride. Crossing the road, like most Asian cities is a daunting task. Although it goes against everything you've ever learnt about crossing the road the best thing to do is step out into the traffic, like with dogs, the cars/bikes can sense your fear and hesitation is likely to end badly. Just like in Chengdu they have 'car parks' for all the mopeds and these are actually staffed by a security guard despite just being a roped off area of the road. The markets are fun and interesting and sell everything you could ever want, but never what you need. The meat is hung out on stalls and bearing in mind its plus 30 degrees I seriously question the logic behind this. Phnom Penh is located on both the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers making it a key port town, on top of this many vietnamese people live on boats on the river. It was previously a French colonial city and some of this still remains. Another quirk often found in Asian cities they have evening aerobics glasses in open spaces where they dance(imagine dancerise but on the street).So enough history and context then (Will be more history later at relevant points as I feel I should share some knowledge that isn't so mainstream) and moving to tourism.
Meat in the market
The first port of call was the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, an impressive complex consisting of many fine buildings, temples and Stupas. Originally built in the 15th century it was expanded in the 18th century. It was nice to spend an hour or so walking around. In the evening I went on a river cruise down the Tonle sap and Mekong and witnessed said Vietnamese living on their boats, with a backdrop of the sun going down. I ended the evening talking politics, local gossip and watching Ice hockey in a Canadian bar with some guys from the boat.
Royal Palace

Boat life

Fishing at sunset
Awaking with a cold from a very torrid sleep due to the heat I headed for what is a dark part of Cambodia's history; the Killing Fields and S21. Between the years of 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge led by 'Pol Pot' (Saloth Sar) led a brutal paranoid dictatorship. You could be imprisoned and executed (without trial) for such heinous crimes as "speaking a foreign language", being a foreigner, being a teacher and so on. In Phnom Penh the prison where prisoners were tortured and false confessions were procured was a school reclassed as a prison and known as S21. To the southwest is a collection of mass graves. It was here they were taken to be brutally murdered; Men, Women, Children and shockingly also babies. Bullets were deemed too expensive and so farm equipment was used for the most part to beat or cut them to death. Both these locations are now memorials/museums to remember the terror that unfolded due to one regimes paranoia. It is sights like these that make you realise the truly dark capabilities of the human race, and why we need to remember stuff like this happens so that we can hopefully allow it never to happen again - 'lest we forget'. Further shocking is that the UN ignored the atrocities for almost 20 years and actually gave the Cambodian UN seat to the exiled Khmer Rhouge regime after they fled after the fall of their genocidal regime. Only in 2006 did a proper internationally recognised trial begin of the senior leaders responsible(almost 30 years later). I've made my point although there is a lot more to be said regarding these atrocities*, it like the A-bomb museum in Hiroshima and any Holocaust memorial is a rather harrowing experience.

After the depressing morning activities I headed to the Central Market to explore and see what weird items would be procured today. I actually found the two things I wanted, a new shaver($10) and a new combination padlock. The market itself is an art-deco circular building housing a lot of jewellery, clothing, electronics and pretty much anything else you could want. A few more temples taking in and it was time to move on to the next place, Battambang.
Killing Fields
Skulls(the writing on the sign says "Female Juveniles - 15 - 20 years old"

S21, Black and White for atmosphere(bleak)
'Art Deco' Central Market
Battambang is Cambodia's second biggest city and you've probably never heard of it, I hadn't till I was advised to visit it for a boat trip to Siem Reap. Despite being the second biggest city, it is very very quiet. Almost everything closes down before 8 and there really isn't that much to do. I only intended to stay a night but the Hotel insisted I waited a day for the boat because it was awful (other sources have since confirmed this) so I stayed longer. Despite there being little to do within the city, some temples around the countryside is where the fun is to be had. For all of 10 bucks I was whisked off on the back of a motorcycle. The first stop was a crocodile farm, where literally 100s are farmed for their skin. It is kind of illegal. Second stop was an abandoned Pepsi factory now derelict, interesting with an old bottling facility still hosting some old bottles. I then took a ride on a bamboo train (literally a train made of bamboo on the oldest bumpiest track imaginable) pictures will do this justice before I finally went to 'Killing Cave' where the Khmer Rouge killed people. It is now home to some temples and about 2 million bats. I watched the bats leave the cave which was quite awesome and seemingly never ending. I moved on to Siem Reap by an 8 hour boat journey!
Crocodile Farm

Abandoned Pepsi factory

Bamboo Train

Final flight of the bats
The 8 hour boat journey was relatively painless except for the crashes in to trees on corners taken far to fast. It was amazing and we saw local cambodians living on the river in stilted houses/boats. This was a real taste of everyday Cambodian life, we saw the kids on their way to school in little kayaks as well as numeruous fishermen/women.
River boat


CHildren waving

Stilted House
Siem Reap is more entertaining than Battambang, still relatively run down but with a bustling nightlife and zest that Battambang completely lacked. I was here to visit the temples and therefore decided to see sunrise at Angkor Wat at 5am. In typical fashion it was kind of cloudy but still a good experience. I spent the rest of the morning visiting another 8 or so temples before returning to the hostel after 7 hours of touring before 12 and to go back to bed. The temples themselves are absolutely amazing, a real wonder and traversing them is an adventure in itself. Some temples have giant trees growing out of them, which only adds to the wonder. It is a true feat of engineering and some are to this day unexplored. The only real comparison I can draw is to Machu Picchu although I am sure some of the Aztec temples are on similar level. The sheer amount of them is also quite spellbinding. The pictures hopefully do them more justice than confuddled worlds. Spent the rest of the time in Siem Reap socialising, realising quite how little time I have left and planning what I have/must see/do beore I leave South East Asia.
Elephant Terrace


Face in the rock


Angkor Wat
I returned to Phnom Penh to arrange my Mekong boat tour to Ho Chi Minh city and in doing so caught up with (new)old friends and bumped into yet more people from Plymouth Uni, this time a girl who knows Hiro.

I have fallen in love with Cambodia, not so much any particular city but everything as a whole, from parties on the beach to the breathtaking temples in the jungle. The people are a revelation, I am not the only one who feels like this, in fact in the Lonely Planet the second top thing listed is 'the people'. It is an amazing country, I am sorry to leave but I am already strapped for time with certain activities looking less likely. I usually aim to spend at least a month in a country to get to know it, but this is just not going to happen, so a whistle stop tour is the name of game. I can no longer afford lazy days off and every time I lose a day it ebbs into some other activity. Two new countries still left and one to revisit, I have just over a month to do so.

*Further reading/viewing 'The Killing Fields'
'Race, Power and Genocide' -

pps. Further comments on SE Asia, Angry Birds is hugely popular, they sell merchandise literally everywhere. In Cambodia as far as I have found I can not find any male shower gel, it would appear the men do not wash. Also just like China in Cambodia they seem to be ridicuously overstaffed, funnily enough the English speaking Cambodians are quite sarcastic or at least like to take the piss(in a good way), as experienced previously in Sihanoukville. In all they are more laid back, have more passion and are generally more friendly than the Thai's. I actually find this quite often in the poorer countries or those with the tendency for natural disasters (Japan). It is always nice and when you meet people who have (comparatively) nothing who are ready to share at a whim it seriously makes you question your own sensibilities. I will talk at greater length about the generousity and hospitality I have experienced in the end of year/travel round up. Don't worry everyone I'm still equally as cynical and grumpy I have just learn some patience, compassion and humility.