Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Nha Trang

Umm, why are we stopping the bus. Aaah, because we are about to drive through a lake, which no doubt was once a road. So after bumbling up and down the narrow bus to drag my trusty backpack to my seat at the back of the bus (all the cool kids sit up the back!). At least I had the foresight to put on the raincover. Unfortunately for me, the rain cover managed to do little more than collect the water on the inside to ensure a soaking wet bag. Hmmm, I'll find out later how much stuff is ruined.

Anyway wet bags inside the bus (now why didn't we do that before driving through the other big puddles??) and onwards through the lake. A quick view out the window confirmed my suspicion that I am driving through the sea. A more worrying sight upahead is a torrent of water rushing along beside the road. There lies a half overturned truck, and the remnants of a shack(or house?). We drive on creating waves leaving motorbikes struggling in our wake. On past a small boat, picking people up. Apparently the rains end in November in Viet Nam, unfortunately nobody told the rain gods this year.

Finally we make it! Hurrah, found once of the best value hotels in my travels, only 5$ for a really good room, with cable TV, fridge, bath and no big insects. But the rain continued. I was on the last bus in for the next few days. Not exactly ideal sight seeing weather. The beach was pretty trashed, I'd seen pictures and it looked quite nice. But now it was just covered in crap, mostly driftwood, which was slowly been scavenged off by locals packing it on the back of their ubiquitous motorbikes.

One day (okay part of the day) it did stop raining and after being cooped up I set off for a long walk in this direction (points finger randomly). It's always interesting getting out the centre of the tourist hotspots, as people reactions are quite different. After walking for an hour I stopped off at a small cafe, trying to decided whether the people were suprised, happy or horrified at the sight of a strange foreign guy. I got some pumpkin soup, leafy greens, pork rice, beansprouts, noodles & tea. All for less than a dollar (Although thats still FIFTEEN THOUSAND dong!)

I continued my wandering along, ended up getting stuck in a cul-de-sac. One kid, glanced up at me and looked terrified, like he was about to burst into tears. Memo to self, have a shave. After getting completely and utterly lost I just jumped on a motorbike and get driven home. Nice and easy! Although most motorbike taxi drivers are annoying still thankful when you have no idea where you are.

So after sitting out the rain in Nha Trang it was back on with the road show. Well until the night bus to Hoi An turned round after an hour and came back. Yipee! Try again next night. Obviously a lot of people were unhappy at this turn of events. However I later heard that the night bus the previous day has been stuck for 42 hours, hehe. Not so bad then. Basically the road had subsided down 5m for about 20m in length. The bus had to wait until the road fixers came and sorted it out.

The next day I made it smoothly to Hoi An. The tailor capital of Viet Nam, suit you Sir!


It was planned with military precision, as you will no doubt have assumed. As with all my travel plans, I had throughly researched how to get the 460 odd miles from sunny Saigon to Dalat and pre-purchased the ticket which would guarantee my hassle free journey.

Naturally, the Vietnamese had other plans. Having turned up a good 15 minutes early for my bus as instructed, I am told that it was the main office I was supposed to be at, not the place I bought my ticket. Not a major problem, as the main office was but a mere 2 mins brisk walk down the road, and I arrived there with ample time to spare. Upon handing over my ticket for the 7:30 bus (I knew it was 7:30 for 2 cunning reasons. 1: I was told the bus left at 7:30 when I bought the ticket, and 2: 7:30 was the time printed on the ticket.) So, anyhow, I had over the ticket and after a brief flurry of Vietnamese (not from me I hasten to add) I'm told that the bus doesn't leave till 8:00.

Ahh well, time to chill out on the plastic chairs for 30 minutes. An hour later, just around the time I was debating if beanbags would be a comfy and funky-alternative to uncomfortable plastic chairs, I was led away to be executed. No wait ... led away to another tourist agency and was herded right up the back of the bus with my uber-large, yet essential, backpack. As soon as I sat down I was told this was the wrong bus and dumped back on the pavement for another 30 minutes, before being put squeezed into a shuttle bus, un-squeezed back out of it and re-herded back onto the original bus.

Finally, we were on out way. I peered out of the steamed up windows watching the scenery fly past as we ambled along at walking pace. 5 minutes later I conclude that everywhere in Saigon looks pretty much the same before realising we've gone round in a circle and are back outside the tourist agency again.

"So are you here for the flower festival?" said the Vietnamese guy on the bus.
"Huh?". Apparently there was a big flower festival on in Dalat, as I found out when I arrived with poster and flags everywhere. A few hotels were full. And being notoriously bad at reading maps, I couldn't figure out how to get to a hotel in my guidebook. Of course, by that time it was dark, as the bus journey was chaotic.

More waiting about, then we finally got on our way. For about 10km. Then we sat on the edge of Saigon, while they shuttled more people from the town onto the bus. 3 hours later, we finally left Saigon!

So by the time I got to Dalat it was dark. I got a motorbike to take me to a hotel, he claimed it was very far, I thought it was near, but couldn't work out where I was on the map. He drove down a straight road, down a 180 on the roundabout and back. I assume this was to make it seem far away! Not very convicing. That hotel was full but I found another closeby.

Lots and lots of rain. Everthing is damp and soggy. And quite cold up here. I bought a fleece to keep me warm, then I walked outside just as I realised a fleece is a really stupid thing to wear in the rain, it turns into a sponge! Strangely enough it's got a small NFL logo, not exactly what you expect to pick up in Vietnam.

I went for a walk down to the festival site. Lots of small shops. I had what I thought was a cheese & ham toastie, but it turned out to be odd. It wasn't melted cheese on the gridle, but cake mixture. Odd. More like ham cake.

Another night I went back down to the festival and saw some traditional dancing around. Looked like a hilltribe judging by their clothes. They sang, danced to some music. Shaking their spears at the fire. Unfortunately this was done on a raised platform and you had to stand below on the steps, while the security made sure nobody was getting a good view! I saw a security guy pointed and talking at somebody, at first I thought he was tapping his baton on his boots, because I heard a clicking noise, but he the baton was a stun-gun which he was menancingly zapping. Not to be messed with! Later on I saw a van of more security/army guys pull up, what intrigued me was the letters on the side of the van looked Russian. Acutally when I arrived in Vietnam, I was slightly suprised to discover they use the Latin alphabet, albeit with some diacratics, as Thailand, Laos & Cambodia all use their own squigly scripts.

After that I head to the pub in Dalat. There only seems to be one pub in Dalat, so not much choice. The bar owner is a whizz at connect four! But I managed to beat him a couple of times using the little known Diemer-Duhm gambit. However once he had countered this, I couldn't even beat him by cheating, not so subtlely throwing in two bits at once! Vietnam is a bit like Laos, everybody is either going North or South, stopping along the same points. I chatted to a few people in there, and unsuprisingly bumped into them again the next night. Helped sharpen my pool skills.

I had considered heading through the highlands, but eventually decided to head back down to the coast at Nha Trang hoping to escape the rain. It certainly didn't work out that way though.

Monday, December 12, 2005


I arrived in Saigon and found a cheap place to stay, above an art shop, renting out small rooms for 3$. Complete with a big flying bug zooming about my room. I had managed to swat it outside but now he's back. Staying in the main travellers area, full of the usual travel agents, internet cafes and restaurants. I went for a walk about, getting lost as usual. Saigon is a large, spread out busy city. 95% of the traffic seems to consist of manic motorbike drivers, using their horn incessantly. Some areas of Saigon are quite posh, with fancy restaurants and designer clothe shops. Also prevalent are some large shopping malls, where they have embraced Christmas fever. Christmas tunes, such as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, tinkled through the sound system, except the singing is in Vietnamese, kinda of like Name that Tune. Outside Santas and Christmas trees adorn the pavements (I almost said sidewalks? Turning American!)
Vietnam acutally had the largest number of Catholics in Asia (excluding the Philippines) with around 10% of the 78 million population.

While wandering around I came across the Ho Chi Minh City Musuem. Saigon had actually been renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the leader who led the Viet Minh forces to defeat the French after WWII and make Vietnam independent. However the locals still call it Saigon. I went in for a look about, it talks about the history of the country, and exhibits from the American war (or the Vietnam war, depending on your point of view). Also outside a few old aircraft and a helicopter. After a nosy around there, it was time for a spot of lunch. I picked up a roll from a nearby bakery. Seems to be a tendency to throw whatever you can into a sandwich. This one had some not very good pork, a sausage and some salad
with relish, and something approximating pate.

Some of the streets are lined with Vietnam flags, usually alternated with the hammer & sickle flag for a sea of red. In the streets, people wear these point Oriental hats to keep the sun off. Also a lot of people with face masks against the traffic fumes!

The next day I went along to the Emporer of Jade Pagoda. A fancy Chinese temple with large statues of guys with giants moustaches! Outside a few turtles were being released/dropped into the pond. Maybe it was an auspicous day.

Next stop was the zoo/botanical gardens. Not the best zoo, but a welcome escape from the motorbike and their beeping and tooting. After that I took a stroll down the Notre Dam Cathedral, inside a service was going on, so I only had a brief glimpse at the interior, before getting gently shooed away. Come in or get out, no hanging around.

Back closer to the guesthouse, I put my bartering skills to the test for a couple of books. It went like this:
"How much for these two?"
"No, $5"
"Okay, $9"
"No, $5"
"No, no you say $6, when I say $9"
"No, $5"
"Okay, $8"
"No, $5" I walk away.
"Wait, okay 100,000 dong."
Tries to mentally divide by 15,000
"No, $5"
"okay, okay 90,000 dong is $5"
"No it's not, it should be....erm....75,000?"
So I got my two books for around $5, although when I looked at them they have the orignal cover, but are clearly just photocopies!

I went off for some dinner, decide to get away from the tourist cafes. I found a little cafe full of boisterous old men, plastic tables littered with empty beer bottles, stray dogs nervously snatching scraps off the floor before skittering away. I went in and suprisingly they brought out an English menu. First thing was steak and chips, not exactly traditional Vietanamese food! Also everything on the English menu was more expensive. I pointed at something on the Vietnamese menu, costing about a pound. I'll have that I confidently declared. Got some funny looks, and the staff slightly relucantly agreed. I'm sure they would of preferred if I'd spent more money on the steak and chips!

Now some old women came round and tried to sell various little bits of food, peanuts, something wrapped in seaweed. As I didn't know what I was getting I just smiled and said No. But smiling seems to be taken as I really do want to buy something. Just out of interest I continued to smile and say No (maybe the don't understand no) while they go through every item they have to sell, pointing at it. Eventually they exhausted all items and got the idea and left. Then my meal turned up. The trouble with ordering by pointing at random things if your likely to end up with a big plates snails. Which is what I got. You are supposed to suck them out of their shells, but I didn't have much look. Then somebody brought over a paperclip to eek them out, but still not much luck. Then they gave me a bottle opener to smash them open! A few locals tried to show me how to slurp them out. I seemed to spend most of my time sitting there making snail-sucking noises. Not much meat in them anyway. Still the herb butter sauce was actually quite nice, and the beer very cheap (30p, at least half of what the tourist cafes charge). I checked the receipt to see that the item did match what I had picked, it wasn't just the staff having a laugh. I left still rather hungry, but the next day I had a full English breakfast costing more than my room! It's good to try some new food, but also some familar food once in a while is nice.

Up early to catch the bus to Dalat, shouldn't of bothered it took another 3 hours to eventually leave Saigon...

Friday, December 09, 2005

Phnom Penh

At Phnom Penh, I stood on the rooftop of the hotel watching a large jeep trying to reverse over a big mound of rubbish. After a few goes it succeeded and escape it's parking spot on the pavement, where it had been blocked in by another car. At least these people need jeeps for their cities and roads, or should that be dirt tracks. Lots of riverside restaurants and pubs abound along the Tonle Sap river, although the Khmer food served here seems for the most part to be the same as usual Thai food. Of course, you can still get all sort of other food such as burgers, pasta, salads. I even found a cheap Malaysian restuarant for a bit of Tom Yam.

Phnom Penh had a bit of a "wild west" reputation. Seems to attract a few oddballs anyway! I was talking to a guy who had been held up by two gunmen with rifles. They took his phone, while his driver ran away. Not quite sure if the driver was involved. Then he had to go through the hassle with the police who demanded $20 to give him the documents he needed for his insurance claim.

A book I was reading about Cambodia, mentions a few interesting facts like how nobody seems to bother that a policeman on a $16 wage is driving around in a $50,000 car! Another incident that sticks in my mind from the book, was when a vice-deputy high up goverment guy, was annoyed after his plane was delayed. He motioned his driver to go to the boot where he took his AK47 and started shooting the passenger plane. Only minor damage was recorded. Later he said it was dark and couldn't see where he was shooting, but if these people worked for him the would all by dead. A policeman confirmed that it was illegal to bring weapons into an airfield and shoot planes, but no action was to be taken against him!

Flicking through the Phnom Penh post newspaper, I came across the police reports, where arrest are made. Lots of people getting "chopped" on the head with an axe (alway three times!) or being shot with AK47. Although the most unusual one was the report of a Cambodian man who had been taken to hospital with an arrow in his chest. He had been hunting rats with a crossbow at 04:20am when he accidentaly discharged the arrow into himself! Sounds like a Darwin award nominee.

One day I went along to Toul Sleng Musuem. A horrific reminder of the attrocities commited by the Khmer Rouge. In 197 Pol Pot's men took over this school and turned into Security Prison 21 (S-21). For the next three years, this would be used as interogation centre. Afterwards the people were taken to Cheoung Ek (the Killing Fields) and executed, often battered to death to save bullets. The school rooms on the ground floor were divided into individual cells barely big enough to lie down. Other rooms are bare except for a steel bed, with restraints and rusty tools. On the walls old grimy black and white photos depict the people strapped to the beds, black pools of blood lying below their emanicapated bodies.

In other rooms vast galleries consisting of mugshots of all the prisoner. Again the Khmer Rouge had a systematic methodology for execution. All prisoner are photographed with their relevant numbers. Unsuprisingly, you can see the fear in the peoples face. When one person was taken, their entire family was also taken. One wall of pictures shows just kids. Then they must abide by the regulations written on the sign:

1. You must answer accordingly to my question - Don't turn them away.
2. Don't try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don't be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don't tell me about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or eletrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is not order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don't make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don't follow the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

In another room, paintings depicting more horrors line the wall. People getting their finger snipped off, and soldiers throwing babies throw the air onto their bayonets.
Over three years an estimated 14,000-20,000 people went into S-21. There was 7 survivors.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Seim Reap

Siem Reap

The temples at Angkor were built between the 9th & 13th century. At this time the Angkor empire covered a vast area, north to China and all the way west to the Bay of Bengal. At it's height over a million people are estimated to live in Angkor. However only the Gods were deemed fit to live in stone, so only the temples remain, the wooden houses & buildings long succumbed to the jungle. The temple were "discovered" by Henri Mouhot around 1860. From 1908, a French organisation has made the effort to reclaim the temples from the jungle and preserve them. The trees and plants slowly rip apart the stones, this is most in evidence at Ta Prom.

Ta Prom, a 12th century buddhist temple, has been left in the same state as it was when discovered. So trees sprout from the top of walls and inbetween the stones. Some areas are sectioned off, as they may collapse, bricks lay strewn about. Carvings are everywhere, in particular I liked a face nearly hidden by tree roots, smiling out at you.

Inside the fortified city of Angkor Thom, at the centre lies the Bayon. A temple with more than 200 strangely smiling faces staring down at you. Very odd!

The most famous temple though is Angkor Wat, the nearest temple to town. Surrounded by a huge moat, it sits on an island and is accessible across a long causeway. Then another wall surrounds the edge of the island. Outside the main temple is an 800m long series of baf reliefs. The central temple rises three storeys and 55m, so you get a good view!

Although one thing is, that to get up you have to climb some steep stairs. When you go down they suddenly look very steep! So, you have lots of people slowly crawling down from the top. I cycled around the temple a couple of days. By the third day I was pretty much 'templed out' but took a tuk-tuk out to see Angkor Wat for sunset one final time.

The next day it was off to the captial, Phnom Penh.