and temples in Cambodia
10.04.2008 - 28.04.2008 45 °C
I haven't a chance to add anything to the blog for a few weeks, so is turns out I've crossed borders three times and obviously seen quite a bit since then! Massively dissapointed in myself for booking flights so close to each other and as a result, I havent seen as much of Cambodia or Vietnam as I wanted. The biggest loss is not even making Laos, i have heard so many good things about the place. To be honest, Vietnam also should have received at least a month of my travel time. Big bugger - up on my part. Oh well...
So I thought the Nepalese were the friendliest people until I got to Cambodia. It was pretty easy to travel and enjoy Cambodia thanks to the great locals I met. First stop from Bangkok was the host town for the Angor ruins - Siem Reap. I managed to fall into a border crossing scam by buying Cambodian currency at a ridiculous rate. Lost about $50. Last time I try swopping any cash near a border (in my defence, I was scammed by the Thai bus tour guide, as he informed us all that Siem Reap was a wasteland of a town where the ATMS's rarely worked, and then he took us to a local exchange place - probably his uncle behind the counter.... b@stard! All the ATM's worked fine as it turned out!)
First morning at Angkor Wat and I met my scooter driver at 5.30am at my hotel - 20 minutes later and I was standing in front of the most unbelievable architectural wonder and photographing Angkor Wat with the sun rising behind it. "Angkor Wat" is a bit of a misnomer - in fact, Angkor Wat is simply one of many massive ruins in the Angkor area. These ruins take up a huge area - each was built to be a seperate city, each with its own massive moat (some with crocodiles) and a few large walls just for good measure. Since I have always enjoyed architecture and history, I had three awesome field days wandering around, although some could not be more bored by these old ruins, I would imagine. So the ruins were great for me - my favourite temple was Bayan - but the temperature was insane. Having been to a few hot places in Africa in my time, I was blown away by what must have been way more than 40 degree heat. The humidity was just unbearable at midday. I drank about 8-10 litres a day! I was physically exhausted from the heat before midday the entire time I was there. So I guess not the best time to be in Cambodia, but what the hell, its all part of the experience! Air conditioning was my best friend there.
I managed to drag myself from the ruins, and went on to Battambang, via the enormous Tonle Sap lake (largest in Asia). It was pretty cool seeing the river town along the way - at some stages of the boat-trip you can't see the shore at all - and then we proceeded (in terrific, humid, cramped heat again) to Battambang. This town isn't much of a tourist mecca, I must say, but for $9 I got a half-day scooter trip to some pretty remote hilltop temples, travelling along old dusty roads. It also happened to be the April New Year's water festival - locals LOVE giving those stupid foreigners/barang a good ol' mouthful of waterbombs - I got a few in the back from some demonic little kids running unforgivingly after my scooter. Luckily, I was traveling with an Irish dude on another bike, and just pointed at him to distract the kids and so that they could prepare properly for a full volley in his direction. I think he got it way worse. Another interesting chap to meet that day was a young Buddhist monk.... complete with business cards. I still have one, just to prove that I did in fact meet a monk with business cards.
So these temples were even older than the Angkor ruins, but not nearly as impressive. Its here that various locals started walking up to me and taking photos with me and randomly chatting in the local Khmer dialect.... foreigners are not that common, especially 6"4 redheads!
Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, just has to be done. This is where you see the unpleasant side of Cambodia. The city is busy and bustling, but I was more interested in seeing the Killing fields and S21 prison. I can't say I was looking forward to either, but... when in Phnom Penh...
So, obviously, Cambodia is famous for the Khmer Rouge and the resulting killing fields all over Cambodia. In 1975, an army called the Khmer Rouge took over the country after defeating the government army. They immedietely began to convert the entirte country into a communist agrarian society. Therefore, if you had an education or could speak another language, or wore glasses (all indicating that you are educated) - you were in trouble. An estimated 2 million people were killed in the next four or so years, either because they were seen as an educated threat to communism or because they didn't work hard enough in the fields (aptly named the killing fields).
So there are tours now to the Killing Fields outside the city. There are still bones and clothes sticking out of the ground. Everywhere. It is a very humbling experience.
S21 was a prison used by the Khmer Rouge for torture and interrogation and holding onto specific prisoners. It is also a very sombre experience, as only about a dozen of the nearly 20,000 prisoners survived the prison.
In fact, during my short stay in Cambodia, virtually every Cambodian I met had lost someone during the 4 years of the Khmer Rouge. So, that was a pretty melancholic end to Cambodia ;(
I crossed Vietnam once again on water, and upon entry (I was the only person on the boat besides the skipper, so I could stretch out nicely) I was greeted by a bunch of smashed boatmen, who handed me my first Saigon beer and started yelling "Bottom's up! Bottom's up!"... what's a man to do? I was damn thirsty after that trip and downed that bad boy in record time (for me that's about a minute!) The Vietnamese guys weren't looking all that impressed but they offered me another. I declined. My first night was Chuc Doc - not much of a tourist mecca either, but it was awesome sitting under a big umbrella in a local town market later that evening, getting out of the rain, and soaking up some local Vietnamese cuisines with another cold Saigon.
Saigon is a terrific city. No one calls it Ho Chi Minh city, unless you're from north Vietnam. I can honestly admit that I would have no problem living there. It's modern, busy, and everyone seems to speak decent English. It's very Western, which is probably a result of all the American and French influence. Wandering around the city centre is a great night out, dropping into good coffee shops along the way, and sampling excellent local foods. The highlight of the night though, was coming to my hotel and finding one of the sports channels playing Super 14 rugby! What a pleasure!! AND it was the Stormers, my favourites! The Incredible Schalk took the team to victory and 3rd on the log! Yes, I have missed the weekend rugby matches...
So Vietam had to be a highlights package tour, due to my poor planning and flight schedule. The Cu Chi tunnels were next on the list. These were the tunnels that the Vietcong built back in the 60's, right outside Saigon, and they are well worth a visit. Russell Fish... thanks for the tip, it was a good day out!
Yes, that is an AK47...! (Cu Chi tunnels still have the sound of gunfire everywhere as this touristy firing range is right next to the main cafe. Leaves a bit of ringing sound in your ears for a while though...)
The highlight for me in Vietnam though, has been hooking up with a bunch of guys called the Easy Riders. These local guys head off into Vietnam's Central Highlands on their motorbikes, and with their excellent English, show you what Vietnam is really all about. I visited minority villages, matriarchal villages (women run the tribe, their husbands sitting quietly and meekly in the background), hill tribe villages, ex-Vietcong villages, rice paddies, coffee plantations, silk factories, incense workshops, wandered along the Ho Chi Minh trail, saw vast bomb craters, old battlefields, houses that decorate their garden gates with giant bombshells, all sorts. Seeing the Ho Chi Minh trail was fascinating. The most alarming thing about the trail is the complete devastation of the land on either side of the trail, perhaps 2 km's wide at some point. This is a result of the South Vietnamese and American air forces trying to destroy the jungle. Initially it began with normal bombs, and then progressed to chemical warfare - Agent Orange and DDT (banned now) were used, amongst other things. The effect is a complete wasteland in some areas of the trail - there is no more jungle or forest... 40 years later.
Everywhere you go, people greet you, and children wave non-stop. Everyone wants to know your name. I felt like a hero! It's totally incorrect to say that there is much animosity in southern Vietnam towards foreigners. It was the best money I've spent in three months of travel. The website for the Easy Riders is: http://dalat-easyrider.com.vn/
Check it out if you are heading to Vietnam. Not cheap at $60 pd, but well worth it, as I have heard from all of the other travellers who have done it.
I have spent the last two days in Hoi An, on the coast in the centre of the country. Its an old town with huge influences from the French, Chinese and Japanese. Not as great as its made out to be I think. The highlight for me here was the Marble Mountains - giant caverns which have been turned into a Buddhist temple.
- missing Laos
- missing the crater lake at Boeng Yeak Laom in Cambodia (but since its mentioned in Lonely Planet, its probably very touristy now anyway)
- not seeing Ha Long Bay, the place I most wanted to see in Vietnam.
Soon I will be off to see Dr Juan "Dup" du Plessis in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for about a week. Dup - please don't go on and on again about your glory days in the U12A rugby team back in 1973, and that time you broke some lame swimming record, and that time you were nominated for Mr Dale 1994 either. See you soon boet!
(Yes, Colm that's "The Hand!!")