Sunday 12 September 2010

play ethnicky jazz to parade your snazz.....

The original plan was to head back to Africa and explore Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.  Unfortunately, by the time we were back from Canada at the end of July, all of the decent trips were long-since booked up, and so we were forced to think again.  A quick look at the big map on the wall of Trailfinders and we quickly agreed on the last major destination we would visit before my return to work: South East Asia.  I've been to South Korea, but otherwise this is a part of the world that I've only really flown over on the way to other places.  It's hardly off the beaten track, and Alex Garland was writing about the westernisation of Bangkok's Khao San Road way back in 1996, but it remains a part of the world that we were both keen to visit.  So we booked the trip, and barely a fortnight later (after the Trent Bridge Test match, obviously) were making our way back down to Heathrow for our flight out to Thailand.

Day 1 Bangkok

Although we were happy enough to make our own way around places like Australia, New Zealand and Canada, we decided that for the sake of simplicity we would book an organised trip that would take all the hassles of sorting out transport and accommodation out of our hands and leave us to focus on seeing as much of the sights as we possibly could.  As we had a 5% discount on our hands from our Africa trip, and because we'd enjoyed that trip so much, it seemed obvious that we should go with Gap Adventures again.  Whereas the Africa trip had been on an overland truck with almost all meals included, this trip was different in that all that it included was transportation and accommodation: almost all meals were extra and we would otherwise have the freedom to choose our own agenda.  As it turned out, we ended up doing most things as a group anyway, but in theory we were free to do more or less what we wanted at each destination.

We landed in Bangkok at about 7am and were not due to meet up with our tour leader and the rest of our group for another 12 hours, so we had plenty of time to hire a driver and get around some of the sights of the Thai capital... that is to say, temples.

I saw a lot of buddhas.  Huge golden buddhas, tiny jade buddhas and even skeletally thin buddhas.

This is buddha in the Greek style, apparently, after he has been fasting.  Like most people, I'm used to seeing the fat, cheerful buddha, so this kind of iconography was completely new to me.

As the day wore on, it became murderously hot and humid, approaching 40 degrees.... something I was going to have to get used to over the next 20 days.  We met up with the group back at the hotel that evening.  Our guide was a very friendly, Cambodian-based Australian -- Steve, and we then had the usual slightly awkward introductions to our travelling companions.  There were 15 of us in all, including a disproportionate number of teachers and with a younger average age than our Africa trip (although I was again relieved to see that I wasn't the oldest guy, even though C. was again the oldest girl on the trip).  Still, the group wasn't ALL 18 year olds.... A bottle of Chang beer and a Pad Thai at a local night market, and it was a relatively early night before the trip began in earnest fairly early the next morning.

Day 2-3 Siem Reap/Angkor Wat

In Africa, we were on the same truck for the whole journey.  Here, we use whatever transportation is at hand: coach, public bus, motorbike, boat, tuk-tuk or whatever.  For our 4 hour ride to the Cambodian border, we are on a private bus.  The border crossing is painless enough, but I am reminded of how well-beaten a gap year path this is when one of our party is astonished to see one of her university friends travelling across the border in the opposite direction.  So many of the people we see travelling in this part of the world seem convinced that they are forging a path; that they are NOT tourists and that they are genuinely trailblazing a path with their matted, dirty dreadlocks and their ethnic trousers.  They seem genuinely surprised when they meet people they know, although they do seem to spend a lot of time hanging out with other westerners taking advantage of the relative strength of their currencies to get blasted on cheap local liquor.  I'm sure we get viewed with contempt as tourists, but it's hard not to smile at all this inadvertent conformity.  Or maybe I'm just getting old.

I'm definitely getting old.

Compared with the small part of Thailand that I have seen, Cambodia seems less well-developed and considerably dirtier and more rural.  Once across the border, we pass mile after mile of paddy fields filled with toiling farmers and cattle as we make our way onwards towards Siem Reap.  We're here, of course, to visit Angkor Wat, the former capital of the Khmer kingdom, and one of the wonders of the archeological world.  It's one of the biggest tourist draws in South East Asia, and Siem Reap is full of huge resort hotels filled with western tourists.  In a bid to take us outside the tourist bubble, we spend our evening in the hands of a charity, Hope for Cambodia.  We visit the slums and learn about how the charity is working to encourage the families here to send their kids to the school that the charity runs.  Our guides here are two brothers.  They are only tuk-tuk drivers, but their drive to improve their own lot and the lives of the people around them is stark.  The elder brother worked hard and earned a bit of money ferrying tourists to and from the temples, but instead of spending this on himself, he started a school so that other kids could learn English and hope to have a better future.  The charity stepped in to help, and they now have quite an impressive set up with a small school, a children's clinic and a small restaurant.  We have dinner at the restaurant, the aim of which is to teach people how to prepare food to western standards so that they can look to get jobs in some of the hotels springing up around Siem Reap.  We eat traditional Khmer dishes, including deep-fried crickets and locusts, and it's a lovely night.  Inspiring, even.

The next morning, we're back on the tourist trail and are up before dawn to head out to the temples of Angkor Wat.  We only have a day here, and it's patently not enough to explore this Raiders of the Lost Ark style city of ruined temples slowly being claimed by the jungle that surrounds them.  It's huge and it's fascinating.

We're not blessed with a beautiful sunrise, and we certainly don't have the place to ourselves as we've only got time to visit the most famous temples, but it's a fascinating day.

My favourite of the temples is Te Prohm - now popularly called "the Tomb Raider temple" after being used as one of the sets for the film (not-at-all coincidentally, one of Angelina Jolie's adopted kids is also Cambodian).  Here trees a dripping over the temple walls as the jungle slowly reclaims the ruins.  It's tremendously atmospheric, even when I'm surrounded by Japanese tourists wearing hats proclaiming which tour group they are in.  Not that I can talk, being in a group of 15 with a Cambodian guide who speaks in cockney-rhyming slang ("The king had 500 concubines.  He must have been creamy crackered, no?")

One day is definitely not enough. As with so many of our other destinations this year, I could happily come back here and spend more time wandering around these lost temples.  A beautiful, atmospheric place.  Back in Siem Reap, we go out drinking on Pub Street, which does exactly what it says on the tin.

We're not leaving until noon the next day, so we make use of the spare morning by heading to one of the local childrens' hospitals and offering to donate blood.  Well, C. is keen to give blood, but as I'm not allowed to give blood in the UK, I'm only really keeping her company.  They're desperately short of blood products here, so they are enormously grateful for every donor that walks through the door.  To everyone's surprise, C. is unable to give blood as her iron levels turn out to be way too low, but I am able to give blood.  For some reason, they don't bother checking the iron levels of male donors, and after checking with the doctor, they're not too worried by my MS either.  In exchange for a pint of my blood, I get a t-shirt, a pack of biscuits and a can of coke.  Oh, and a sense of supreme worthiness.  A fair exchange, I think.

Day 4-5 Phnom Penh

Today we take a public bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.  We take in sights like the National Museum and the Silver Pagoda and Royal Palace, and we drink cocktails at the Foreign Correspondant's Club, but for me this trip is going to be indelibly associated with something far more sombre.

Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia in 1975 and remained there until 1979.  During that time, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from foreign influence, closing schools, hospitals and factories, abolishing banking, finance and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labor was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn Cambodians into "Old People" through agricultural labor. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation.  The numbers are disputed, but it is estimated that upwards of 2 million people died out of a total population of something less than 7 million.  In terms of percentage of population, that's the largest genocide of the twentieth century.

We visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide centre in the city, the site of the notorious S-21 prison where thousands of people were tortured before being sent out to the Killing Fields for execution.   A bare handful of people ever survived incarceration here, and as you might expect, it's a very sombre place indeed, standing as a monument to the people who were tortured and died here.  There are rooms and rooms full of photographs of the prisoners here, and they stare out at you as you pass through the rooms where the floors are sometimes still stained with blood.

Perhaps worse are the photographs of the guards used by the Khmer Rouge: they're children.

Apparently children proved more pliable and were more willing to carry out the appalling tasks they were assigned.  The smile of that kid in the middle row there haunts me.

From S-21, we head some 50km outside the city to Choeung Ek - the best known of the Killing Fields.  Here it is estimated that some 17,000 people were executed and buried in mass graves.  The executioners didn't use bullets, because bullets were expensive.  Instead they used blunt instruments to club people into the pits.  There is a tree here that the guards used to bash babies against before throwing them into the pits with their mothers.  It's horrific.  Not all of the graves have been excavated here, and in the rainy season -- when we were there -- cloth washes up underfoot, the clothes of those in unexcavated graves.  Worse yet, bones and teeth are washed up too, and are frequently seen underfoot.

Some of the skulls have been placed into a monument to commemorate the deaths, and it's a very sobering sight indeed.

It's difficult to look at this kind of stuff, but it is a stark reminder of Cambodia's turbulent past.  If it's a country that doesn't feel as settled as Thailand or Vietnam, then it's worth remembering that Pol Pot only died in 1998 and civil war was waging right up until then.  This is very recent history.

Whilst in Phnom Penh, I also play with a buddhist band.

...and I eat a stir-fried tarantula.

It's served at the end of another lovely meal we share with a friend of Steve's who runs a voluntary after-school school for some of the local children.  It's been fried with a load of spices, but it's still very recognisably a spider, with hairy legs and everything.  Some people in the group nibble nervously at the legs, but I decide that the only approach is to pop the whole thing in and give it a chew.  It's not too bad, actually... a little alarmingly creamy towards the end, I suppose, but it goes down okay with the help of a quick gulp of beer.

Day 6-7 Sihanoukville

A three hour drive by public bus takes us to Cambodia's southern coast and the beaches of Sihanoukville.   The weather has not been great, and it's rained pretty solidly here for the last few weeks, but we're blessed by the sun and we spend a lovely day out on a boat trip to one of the islands where we eat seafood, snorkel and get ridiculously sunburned.  This is one of those towns that is absolutely swarming with westerners and many of the bars along the beach appear to be run by westerners.  It's a nice enough beach (if you ignore the rubbish and the dog shit) and beer is as cheap as $0.25.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this makes Sihanoukville something of a party town, with plenty of people parking themselves on the beach and getting wasted on the cheap booze.  The beach is also patrolled by hordes of children hoping to sell you a bracelet or something.  We are told in no uncertain terms not to buy anything from them, as to do so only encourages more children onto the beaches instead of going to school, but no matter how steadfast you are, it doesn't stop them from hanging onto you and pleading.  The other distasteful sight on the beach are the leathery old white guys with extremely young looking local girls.  There are signs around Cambodia exhorting visitors to let their children be children, and it is here where Gary Glitter was arrested, but it looks as though sex tourism is alive and well.  It's not a pretty sight.

It's a nice enough place, but I'm not really a beach person (as my poor, sunburned chest will attest for the next 10 days).

Day 8 Mekong Delta

From Sihanoukville, we drive 4-5 hours to the Cambodia/Vietnam border. After completing the necessary formalities (which include standing in front of an infrared camera to see if we have a fever, at which point several of us shuffle our feet nervously and try to stand under the air-conditioners for as long as we can....), we continue on to Chau Doc.   The contrast with Cambodia is immediately apparent, as even the rice fields somehow look tidier, and the locals really do wear those conical hats.  We arrive at our hotel in the middle of the afternoon and decide to take a trip up to Sam Mountain on motorbikes to watch the sunset over the Mekong Delta.  This is my first ride on the back of a scooter, and it's not actually anywhere near as hair-raising as I was expecting, and we get a great view of the back streets of Chau Doc and out into the countryside as we climb the hill to watch a sunset that clouds prevent us from really seeing.

Even so, we get a chance to enjoy a local beer and to relax.... some more than others.

Day 9-10 Ho Chi Minh City

After breakfast we head on to Ho Chi Minh City (which most people still call Saigon).   The streets here are reminiscent of the long European occupation, with wide, French-style boulevards and stately hotels and a magnificent Post Office.  Within that though, it is also uniquely asian, swarming with scooters and the vibrant chaos of Vietnamese life.  I don't fancy being an electrician, for one thing.

This is the furthest South that we travel on this trip, and we're still in the rainy season here.  Sure enough, it absolutely buckets it down for a couple of hours in the evening, and we get drenched until we seek shelter in a posh hotel for a cocktail break.  Mind you, the break in the humidity is most welcome.

Whilst here, we take a trip out to the Củ Chi tunnels.  These are a mere 50km outside the city and were a part of the infamous tunnel networks used by the Viet Cong during the American War.  Here I get the chance to discover that I would have made a terrible Viet Cong soldier as I simply do not fit into the ambush tunnels - even the ones widened specially for western tourists.  I'm hardly likely to surprise anyone hiding in here.

We also get to see the various types of traps employed by the Viet Cong against the Americans - all swinging trapdoors and bamboo spikes.  One of the americans on the trip tells us how their father served 14 months in the War, and in all that time never once saw a single shot fired in anger (the only time his platoon was involved in a fire-fight, he was at the dentists).  Standing in the sweltering heat in the jungle and looking at these traps, it's suddenly a lot easier to imagine how he must have felt, walking around in the jungle absolutely terrified of a determined enemy that he was never to see.

When we return to the city, we go to the War Remnants museum.  There's a distinct air of propaganda in here, but it is still difficult to look at exhibits -- bottles containing deformed foetuses -- showing the lasting damage caused by the dropping of dioxins like Agent Orange and not feel tremendously moved at how this little nation stood up to 40 years of war against the might of the French and the Americans.  Whilst browsing the sombre exhibits, I am distracted and a little irritated by some plinky-plonky keyboard music playing awful versions of songs like "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da".... and then I turn the corner and find that it's being played by a kid born with no eyes.

It's one thing reading about the lasting damage caused by the millions of tonnes of dioxins dropped by the Americans during the war, but it's quite another to see those effects so starkly.  From here on, I can't help but notice the number of young Vietnamese people with deformities -- missing limbs, being unusually small or twisted.  More than all the discarded US hardware that you see lying around the place and the GI helmets that lots of people use as crash-helmets on their scooters, this is the lasting human legacy of the American War (I was also horrified to read a few days after returning to the UK, that there has been a sharp rise in birth defects in Iraq since the start of the Gulf War.  Will we ever learn?)  In spite of this, and in spite of the propaganda that we read about the US Imperialists and the glorious freedom fighters, the Vietnamese seem to be a very resilient and welcoming people; they love Americans and the museum itself is filled with many US veterans with their families.  It is clear that the people here understand the difference between American foreign policy and the American people, and posters of the worldwide protests against the Vietnam War are prominently on display.  The Vietnamese were under the colonial yoke of the French for many years, and although they date their independence from 1945, they didn't actually achieve that until they kicked the Americans out in 1975.  In spite of the air of propaganda, the resilience the Vietnamese have shown in their very recent past cannot be entirely obscured.

That said, many tourists just stand in the courtyard taking pictures of the tanks and choppers and gawking at the AK-47s and M-16s.  Hey ho.

All that remains is to go to a karaoke bar, to hire a room and to sing songs like "Hello" by Lionel Ritchie (the most popular karaoke song in Vietnam, apparently), "Beyond the Sea", "Sweet Caroline", "Mustang Sally", "Wannabe" and -- the top-scoring song of the night -- "The Theme from Shaft".  97%?

You're damn right.

Day 11-12 Nha Trang

From HCMC, we take a night train up to the coastal town of Nha Trang.  We arrive early in the morning and head straight out on a diving trip.  

There are no really big fish out here, but it's a lovely spot and we see plenty of trumpet fish, box fish, octopus, eels and the like in the beautiful clear, warm water.  Besides, it's never really a hardship to spend a few hours on a boat admiring the scenery and soaking up the sun.

We have a big night out, and a slow start to the next day, but we take another motorbike trip out into the countryside to have a look at some of the temples and things around the town.  One of the more memorable things we see is a beautiful tiger snake.  Unfortunately for the snake, it's not in the wild but is instead the star of the show.

It is taken from its bag, is bled into vodka and then - still alive - has its heart cut out and placed onto a dish where it is eaten - still beating - by a member of our group.

I try a bit of snake spring roll, but to be honest the sight of the snake gaping as it's insides are pulled out has rather put me off the whole idea.

It's a beautiful spot though (even if riding across that long wooden bridge on the bikes is a little hair-raising).

We finish with a mud bath and to get ready for our next train ride to Danang.  As our train pulls into the station, we see our compartment doors open, and the fully-dressed guards hop off our beds to let us in.  Not surprisingly, our beds have footprints on them.  Hmm.  After the excitement caused by the cockroach that I saw on the last train, I decide to keep the mouse I see on this one to myself....

Day 13-14 Hoi An

From Danang, it is only a short drive to the picturesque port town of Hoi An, once known as Faifo, was an important trading town with strong south Chinese influence and connections. The town is a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site, but it's probably best known for it's tailor shops.  The town is full of them, and here it's possible to get almost anything you want tailor-made within a few hours.  I wasn't planning on getting anything made, but somehow I end up with a cashmere suit, a linen suit and a linen jacket.  All tailor made and for buttons.

The town is very close to the sea (although nowhere in Vietnam is very far from the sea), and as we're in the Tcham Islands Marine Reserve, I elect to go diving again as C. takes a cooking course and learns how to make spring rolls.  Once we're past the cloudy water where the river washes out into the sea, it's beautiful.

Again, there are no big fish here, but there's still plenty to look at, including a ship-wreck that's being dived by locals from a small boat in the hope of finding something valuable.

As my usual buddy is otherwise engaged, I dive with Marissa, a teacher from New York, and manage 2 personal bests - the first dive lasts 52 minutes and the second 53 minutes.  I also don't lose my buddy once under the water, in itself something of a record.

We return to town to meet up with the others and to continue to negotiate with the local tailors.

This is where they made my cashmere suit - as you can see, it's not exactly a sweatshop and it's not exactly child labour.  The suit cost me US$90, about ten times less than the suit I had made for my wedding, and not to a much noticeably lower quality.  It's a good price for me, and I'm sure that, compared to what they make from people like Marks & Spencer, it's a pretty good deal for the tailors too.

These guys will literally make you anything you want, and to help you, each shop is filled with catalogues like the Next Directory to help you show the tailor what it is that you want.  After spending 24 hours in the company of some very excited girls, it's probably just as well that we're not staying here any longer (by comparison to this lot, my wife is a model of restraint and only gets a coat, some trousers and a dress made).

It's a lovely town.

Day 15-16 Hue

Just a 3 hour drive to the north of Hoi An is the city of Hue. Our drive takes us over Hai Van Pass and past Lang Co beach.  This is the divide between North and South Vietnam, the 17th Parallel, and as such is the site of a number of bunkers over the pass and was subject to an enormous amount of defoliant during the American War.  The vegetation has largely grown back, but the bunkers remain, commanding a view down onto the beautiful coastline below.

Hue was once the imperial capital, and the town contains both a Citadel and the Forbidden Purple City, modeled on the Forbidden City in Beijing. Badly destroyed during the Tet Offensive (which centred on Hue) in 1968, the Citadel is currently undergoing significant restoration work and isn't much to look at, but we so see some fascinating exhibitions on the war with photographs of the brave freedom fighters, many of them women.  It's a perspective of the American War that we don't often see, as even in films like "Apocalypse Now", the Vietnamese perspective is never really explored as we focus instead on the traumas faced by the American soldiers.

A real highlight of Hue is the surrounding countryside, and we take another bike trip out to have a closer look.

We see locals in their conical hats working to bring in the harvest before the onset of the rainy season, we see an ancient covered bridge.....

We drive through streams of rice straw as it spews out across the road, and we drive past miles of rice drying on the roads.

We watch how the conical hats are made (notice that the lady making them is missing the bottom part of her right arm - another second generation victim of the Agent Orange that was dropped around here during the Tet Offensive).

We tootle through the countryside.

We watch incense being made.

We look out at the Perfume River and we visit the tomb of an Emperor.

It's a lovely afternoon.

...then we buy a bottle of Smirnoff, a bottle of Jim Beam and head off for the 14 hour night train to Hanoi.  Predictable carnage ensues.  It's a fun night, even though they turn off the air-conditioning as we sleep and we all wake up parched and sweaty.

Day 17 Halong Bay/ Bai Chay Harbour

We're only passing through Hanoi briefly as we head on to Halong Bay.

Thousands of islands rise dramatically from the waters of Halong Bay and, to further their beauty, intricate caves have been hollowed out through these limestone karst formations. We board a junk and head out for a cruise....although not before I've been mobbed by a gang of schoolgirls. Again.

Halong Bay is stunning.  There is something magical about the way that these islands rise out of the South China Sea, and even though we're far from the only people here, it's still a magnificent spot.

I'm pretty sure it's also the most beautiful place that I've ever been swimming.... the Great Barrier Reef notwithstanding.

It's another perfect day.  Not spoiled even by the knowledge that Jeremy Clarkson has been here.

Days 18-19 Hanoi

The next day, we head back down to Hanoi.  Initially, this is overwhelming: compared to Saigon, the streets here are tiny and thronging with smells and people and hustle-bustle.  The streets are also swarming with scooters.  At first glance, this looks like chaos, but after a while, your eye tunes into the fact that it's chaotic, but it seems to be an ordered chaos.  Crossing the road here is something of a leap of faith, and it looks to be impossible.... but if you walk slowly and predictably into the traffic without running or stopping, amazingly everything seems to part around you.

After a couple of hours, I really find myself warming to the place.  It's thriving.

Unlike many communist leaders, Ho Chi Minh seems to be universally loved in Vietnam and his picture is everywhere.... well, he dedicated his whole life to the cause of Vietnamese independence, and although he died in 1969 before the defeat of the Americans in 1975, against all the odds he drove his nation to an unlikely success.  He is revered here, and trip to his mausoleum is a must whilst here.

 Uncle Ho left strict instructions that he was to be cremated and his ashes symbolically distributed to North, Central and Southern Vietnam to symbolise the unity of the nation.... but after his death he was stuffed and put on display in a massive mausoleum.  He is displayed with great honour and reverence, and he actually looks pretty good, all things considered, but it's impossible to get away from the fact that it's not what he wanted.  As for the Ho Chi Minh museum.  Well, there's some interesting exhibits in here, but it appears to have been designed by someone with distinctly avant-garde pretensions.  The cave in which Ho Chi Minh hid displayed in the form of a human brain?  What?

Uncle Ho apart, it's a cool city, with its temples, its tube buildings, its wreck of a B-52 proudly displayed in the middle of a lake, and above all its hustle-bustle.  This is a city that is teeming with life and with industry.  I love it.... even though it gives me a nasty case of pink eye.  I buy some weasel coffee (made from coffee berries eaten by civet cats with the beans then being pooped out and roasted - and hopefully washed at some point too) and a few propaganda posters, but mostly we just wander about Hanoi and try to take in as much as we can of the atmosphere of the place before we head home.

It's been another excellent trip, and quite different to anything we've done up till now.  The group dynamics were very different to those we had in Africa, but it's still been an enormous amount of fun.

 Our guide made a short video of our trip too:

Nice, huh?  Another great trip.  I especially loved Vietnam.... although it's changing fast and lots of the coastal towns with beaches are building huge resort hotels and trying to open international airports to bring in an entirely different kind of tourist.  In five years time, I wouldn't be surprised if the country feels quite different.

Enough of all this long-haul travel:  it's time to head back to Europe to see our friends in Vienna and Switzerland before I head back to work.

1 comment:

  1. ST,

    Thanks ever so much for posting these beautiful stories and pictures from around the world, it's been a pleasure "traveling" with you.

    Stay safe