After buying a gazillion pirated CDs for 70 cents each, I bought a 30$ fake Sony CD walkman, that immeditely went wrong on the bus to Dalat--the center of French "culture" in Vietnam but now an adventure sport center. More on hanging around (literally) with Geordies, Israelis, Dutch and Americans in the next episode!
Catching up on past history. So I left the Hello guesthouse ($4 a night) and after a nice early journey on top of a fast boat past lots of floating houses on the huge Tone Slap lake, I arrived in Phnom Phen to be greated by more hotel touts than I've ever seen in my life! There after some screwing around I arived at the seedy and smelly series of guesthouses by the nice but small lake. I should have stayed by the river, but $3 a night one of the guesthouses was cheap enough, although the stench was sufficient that copious alchohol was required for sleep. Luckily the "Heart of Darkness" bar provided that and along with several Canadians and some other random ex-pats I achieved that state on my one night out in Phnom Phen.
The rest of the day in Phnom Phen was a little grisly. The major attractions in town are the Royal Palace (including the Silver Pagoda, of which the floor is silver but sadly mostly covered and no photos allowed, although I sneaked this one), the National Museum (in pretty good shape considering what happened from 1970 to 1993 in Cambodia, here's Heidi in the cafe), and then to remind you of the Khmer Rouge's little experiment, the Toul Sleng prison and the Killing Fields. Believe it or not, the Killing Fields are rather peaceful; strange to think that 18,000 people were shot or clubbed to death there in little over 3 years. The prison is not. It has plenty of art of the various tortures conducted there from an artist who was one of the seven survivors found in the prison by the Vietnamese when they took over in early 1979, and photos that the Khmer Rouge took of their victims (mostly other Khmer Rouge by the way), who were forced to "confess" in a fashion similar to Stalinist Russia. When my PDA shows up (soon I hope) I will soon write a little essay about Cambodia sumarizing an excellent book I read puttng the whole 1970-1979 experience in context. However, any way you dress it up, roughly 1 million people were evacuated from Phnom Phen in under 2 days and forced to work in the fields for the next 4 years, and although the killing was not totally sytematic, and the worst mass murders appear to be factional power struggles withing the Khmer Rouge, a combination of starvation and executions put paid to over 1 million people in under 4 years. And because the Vietnamese (rather humanely) stepped in and drove the Khmer Rouge to the border, the Chinese, the CIA and British secret service helped them run a guerrilla war for the next 12 years. Not a pretty part of western history.
The full set of photos (sorry, you'll have to sign in) are here
Leaving Phnom Phen was a good deal more amusing. We thought we'd bought tickets for a boat ride, so obviously we drove for an hour in a mini-bus next to the river instead of just going to the dock. Then it was chaos. All traffic stopped because a section of a bridge had collapsed. Eventually a guy from our boat company appeared and told us that we could walk around the bridge and get motos- a moto is a guy riding a bike, you ride behind, and it's the standard form of transport in SE Asia -- to the boat. So we put on our packs and walked to the bridge, then into the mud. I was doing OK, but Canadian starlet Vicki lost her shoe and, being the gallant gentleman that I am, I went to retrieve it. Soon I was knee-deep in mud and sinking fast. I thought it was quite funny, but I only got out by digging a clear space about my feet with my hands and then being hauled out by two locals!
The other amusing part was at the border. First we all got very grumpy when we had to go to the health department where an official demanded 2000 Vietnamese Dong from each of us. After a minute I asked the guide how much 2000 dong was. When we found out that it was 14 cents US, we decided to pay up. Then we went to lunch while the guide went to customs. The guide then told us that 2 out of the 6 of us had to talk to customs and bring our bags, which were sitting on the boat which was never searched. When we went to customs the very chatty officer didn't even bother to search our bags--and he wouldn't even let me bribe him with cigarrettes!
Soon enough we were in the Vietnamese border town of Chau Doc. (Here's a map of southern Vietnam, look bottom left!) There ain't many tourists in Chau Doc (in fact that river border crossing only just opened) and we were quite an attraction. Every Vietnamese kid knows "Hallo", and my "Chau Bans" were flying forth. The only confusing thing is that despite Chau Doc being on the Mekong and just down the river from Can Tho our next destination the only boat that would take us there belonged to a posh Hotel chain, would cost $50 and didnt go for three days. However, I did do a quick tour of the floating houses, fish pens, and floating pig pens (I kid you not!), all rowed past by my driver, a very aggressive 16 year old girl. Outside a Cham mosque (center of the very small muslim community in Vietnam) a kid kept on throwing what I thought was a badminton shuttle-cock at my feet. I had kow idea what it was until 5am a couple of mornings later when I was awakend by a steady clicking. The shuttle cock has a spring in it, and it's the local version of hacky sack. So it clicks when kicked, and the clicking was 4 Viet kids keeping it up in a metronome-like fashion on the deserted street!
That night we wondered around and eventually got snookeered into a drinking contest with 3 policemen. Their English was a little limited, but we got very into the whole "Cheers and 50%" phenomenon. Cheers in Vietnam is "Zo!", or at least that's what they said. All the other southern Viets we met say it's Yo! in the south and Zo! in the north. But the police claimed to be southerners...
Later we went out for a great meal, and were introduced to the new way of "pizza delivery". This we found out is the least of things moved around on a scooter in Vietnam. I've seen huge bags of fertilizer and several washing machines! The next day Vicki and I got up and went to CanTho, first stopping at Sam Mountain to look at the great view. We dumbly thought there was a road to the top, but our mini-bus dropped us off at a path that led to 1 million steps straight up, and I discovered that my much vaunted fitness campaign had stalled! Luckily we had some keen guides, but I was a little miffed to get to the top and find that there was a road from the other side! Also at the top was a house with a man watching two replayed English soccer games on two TVs at the same time, and a pair of unhappy caged monkeys! (In fact motley semi-Zoos with unhappy animals are standard in Vietnam). However the greatest cultural find was a poster of Andy Gibb (the one NOT in the Bee Gees) randomly stuck to an outside wall!
Ok. Sorry but there is no way that you can see the albums I've put up so far without registering with Ofoto. They changed their policy and wont budge. It REALLY only takes 20 seconds (ony 4 fields to fill in) and you can give a false name and email address. I will move all future albums to a different service but it would take forever to move the ones up there now....
You can still see the INDIVIDUAL photos I've linked to without registering though.
I've just been informed by ego surfing Canadian Vicky that she couldnt see her photos. Yup, Ofoto has changed their policy. You can still click on individual photos, but to be able to see whole albums the way I currently have it set up, you now you have to register with Ofoto. I will be changing the way I present the whole albums in the next day or so. So to see the whole albums either register (it takes 20 secs) or wait a day or so! Thanks. The next written section will be about Phnom Phen and the Mekong Delta....I'm in Nha Trang, which is a little north of Saigon in S. Vietnam (as it was pre-1975) so I'm slowly getting the Blog and me into the same country!
I've also been having a lot of trouble with my email service provider, Webbox. I'm not sure if it's their fault or mine but I have received virtually no emails in the last week, and I know some of you love me a little more than that. So I'm likely switching providers. Please make sure that you SEND EMAIL TO "firstname.lastname@example.org" and you should be able to get email to me as usual. If you have sent me something in the last week please send it again!
So when I last left you I was getting off the back of a pick-up truck after a hellish 9 hour journey on what passes for a road in Cambodia. I promised my self many times the next few days that I will now pay up for the plane tickets if the road is that bad! After getting jarred half to death we got to Siem Reap. At one point in the journey the "road" is totally flooded. Stuck truckers waiting for the water to go down have built ramps for the pickups. To guarantee renumeration they have put stakes into the middle of the entrance to the ramps. So your pickup drives into a lake, the driver then stops at the edge of the wooden ramp and argues with the guy who's job it is to extract money before he moves the stake and lets the pick-up by. All the while the truck is sinking...
However, in Siem Reap the whole town has been quasi-Disneyfied for visiting Ankor. Not bad considering the place was the center of a war zone from 1970-1993. The temples are mysterious and wonderful. I spent three days buzzing around seeing the temples and the countryside on a rented scooter. I went to Ankor Wat (the most famous), Ankor Thom (a whole city with four fabulous gates), and my favorites, the jungle temples of Phon Sreay and Ta Prohm There were also lots and lots more. The whole place was built between the 9th Century and the 14th. So it slightly precedes medieval Europe, although Ankor Wat was built the same time as Notre Dame in Paris. Of course after that Cambodian civilization "declined" whereas Europe's "didn't". And they are just reviving the dancing if not the slavery The other notable thing about Ankor is the noise. The local "crickets" make the noise ear-splitting, especially in the jungle temples. It drowns out everything including the motos and the French!
I've made a decent attempt to catelogue the photos from Ankor. Here's the full set. (Be warned, there are a lot of them)
Otherwise Siem Reap was full of French people and Quebecois (or at least my pick-up was). I had also lost half my digital camera equipment (including the wire from the camera to the computer!) in Bangkok, but was rescued by a Canadian Australian called Charlie who had brought the equivalent of a digital photo studio with him and was able to download my pics from the disc I had. Charles of course has a website of his own trip, well worth a look. I spent an entertaining evening with him and random Dutch people in the Red Piano Bar, which claims to be Lara Croft's HQ from the movie Tomb Raider -- well it has photos of Angelina Jolie all over the wall. I also met Cristina, a Spanish reservations agent for British Midland Airlines who claimed that she had more hair than me. My other claim to fame was being recruited as a moto driver to give a lift in the pouring rain to Claudia a German girl who's own driver had deserted her--She didn't pay me the $1 US fee, though, so my future career may be limited.
So I'm supposed to get to this as often as I can but yet again it's been weeks. And then I'm delayed. So for instance I wrote the Bangkok section in Phnom Phen, but hadn't yet got to the Cambodia section, and yet now I've been in Vietnam for a week or so.
I will be writing a whole piece about where the hell I've been in the last couple of weeks and what I've seen and done, but not tonight (cos it's late and there's footy on the telly!). However, the really big news is that it was so damn hot I've had my hair cut...yes really! It was like this, and now it's not
Bangkok – Quite a place Bangkok. I was due to meet two friends from California in BK. One was Joel Tornatore, who I'd seen recently before leaving. The other was longhaired Irish git Dave Russell who had flown in from Nepal specially to see us. Or at least he thought he would, then Maoist rebels in Nepal trapped him, then all of a sudden I was at the airport in Bangkok looking hopelessly for Joel in one of the 3 exits from International Arrivals. In desperation I went to get my email, and found an email from Joel telling me that he was at the taxi stand ready to go meet Dave, who had escaped by claiming to be a buddy of Che (or something). I ran down to the taxi stand and finally saw Joel, and soon Dave, who seemed to have gone bald remarkably quickly, was leading us on an odyssey of seedy bars, seedier bar girls, cheaper beer and ping-pong balls flying in all directions. In fact the amount of foreigners in BangKok almost exceeds the locals and it took us a few days to escape the Ko Sahn road syndrome. (Ko Sahn is a street that exclusively serves backpackers and is a 24 hour party).
Over the course of the next few days Dave, Joel and I consumed copious amounts of beer and banana shakes (not in the same glass). Discussed our luck with women and the work (both miserable, but Dave's luck with the former showed glimmers of hope), and made zero progress out of Bangkok. Bangkok is very polluted and has incredibly bad traffic—the average ONE-way commute is 2 hours! After getting up suitably late we went to Jim Thompson's house; an ex-OSS guy who built the Thai silk industry and built a huge house in Bangkok to celebrate before disappearing in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands in mysterious circumstances. Later that day we went to see the Thai boxing. Although everyone gets very enthused about the ceremonial prancing before the bout and the awfully loud music being played on some mangled oboe, the fights mostly consisted of one guy kneeing the other continuously in the ribs. However, by the main event and the 135 pound heavyweights, we got the knockout we'd come for. (Ok, I was out for the count)
Next day after yet another 5 am stop followed by a 7 am start to the building work at the hotel next door, we staggered out of bed and took the ferry boat north up the river (including passing under the flash new bridge). We soon found ourselves as absolutely the only white guys at an incredible food market, where the fish were wriggling if not flying. Of course that meant that we had to celebrate, and Dave invited most of the backpackers on Ko Sahn road to a party he was throwing at a nightclub at 4 am. I ended up chatting with an English lad called Brian, who was one of the least likely new-age Rieki healers you'll ever meet. Having him faith heal my knee in a nightclub was one of the most surreal experiences I've had for some time! Some where around then Joel headed off to the airport.
The first Bangkok album with many pics of the Royal Palace is here
Life got slightly calmer for the next few days. Dave and I started meeting some locals. We had a great time with our guide, Tor, at the Timanek mansion. This is an all-teak mansion in the middle of Bangkok that is incredibly beautiful inside and out. Dave and I agreed that if we were the King (and the Thai's love their King Buhmiphol, and love even more his granddad Rama V) we'd kick the tourists out and move back in. We also met some other Thais, Nan and Lucky who were showing a Canadian friend, Charleen, around. They had been Charleen's pupils when she was teaching English in Australia (I think!). They invited us out the next day to a floating market. But before I get ahead of myself, back to Tor and her friend Pom (pronounced Bomb, as in "You are the Bomb, Baby!") Tor gave us a great tour of the mansion, managing her group in three languages (Thai, English and the odd bit of mandarin) and having jokes for all nationalities. We had tea with her and then dragged her and Pom out to dinner. Tor was taking the exam to be a government tour guide and wanted to show us a practice tour of Bangkok. She got us as far as the new Skytrain, and was navigating us to Patong (the girlie-bar area for westerners). We tried to tell her that we didn't really want to go there, but it was clear that a) she did and b) she had never been there before. It was more surprising that after Dave and I bought and gave Tor and Pom a Skytrain ticket, c) they didn't know what they were or how they worked and had never been on it before! We found out later that they spend 2 hours each way on the bus to work and tend to stay near their homes in the 'burbs on weekends. Anyway, after a fun visit to a weird Hindu temple awaiting her friend and mentor Pui (being Senior and Junior matters a great deal to Thais). We had a quick drink with Pui after Hindu prayers had been said (with Tor, a Buddhist, wondering around assisting Pui). Then of course Tor took us back to Ko Sahn Road for dinner. She and Pom were the only Thais in sight. We did mention that this tour guiding practice may not have been as successful as all that for those seeking a real "Thailand"experience, but we did have a great time! The photos are here
Early the next day (7am) I met Nan, Lucky and Charleen by the school Nan where teaches. We drove for 2 hours into the countryside, past salt flats with strange windmills, and got to a fun floating market in Danasouek. Lucky was a little peeved that I described the goods on offer as ""junk". But we had a great time floating around seeing the sights and looking at the amazing things you can do in a narrow boat. We ate noodles, chicken, sticky rice—all prepared and sold on the water. Then we went to a local park where King Rama V grew up. I tried my hand at making desert flowers. Nan and Lucky threatened to leave me there and I promised that by the time they came back in 2014 (their last visit to the market had been 12 years ago!) I would be an expert flower maker, like this lady. After they kindly agreed to bring me back, we had a wonderful 6 course lunch on the river. I paid. Easy to be a big shot when its $15 for four! However, Nan and Lucky's tour-guiding was just getting going. We came back to town, dropped of Charleen with another of her pupils from Australia and went to a) the longest name in the world (BangKok's real name written out here), which is a new monument that wasn't even open!, b) kite flying by the palace, c) aerobics by the bridge, and d) and an ice factory run by Nan's niece's husband. That was a full 14 hour tourist day, and Nan and Lucky were such great lovely people. Lucky should be in Atlanta soon where her sister lives and Nan says she's coming too! I'm not sure I have the energy to entertain them in the style to which they are accustomed!
All that was left was to find Dave again, drink my way onto the train to the border, and get in the back of a pick-up truck with thousands of Dutch and French people going to Siem Reap near Ankor Wat in Cambodia. If you want to know why they invented airplanes, take that trip. My body will never forgive me. I'll tell you more about Ankor in the next installment!
So it's been a while--Sorry to those of you waiting urgently by the computer for the next gripping installment. Mostly I've been lying on the beach and drinking at night. So not as gripping a story as some of what's been going on in the past. A few nice day trips here and there, a few days with JB, Rebecca and Clova from Singapore in Phuket (bottom left of this map) and a few wild nights out with my friends Dave Russel and Joel Tornatore in BangKok, but not the cultural blowout that the previous several weeks has been. However, this is all changing as I just got to Ankor Wat in Cambodia, plus the blowouts continue, as Carter who was going to come and join me for the next few weeks is now not coming. (Read into that what you will...but I'm here and alone!). Anyway, let me give you a quick recap.
As those of you following at home should know I was on the island of PhaNgan )middle right on this map). I stayed on a lovely bungalow on the beach in Ban Tai (middle of south beach) for 150 baht a night (about $3.50!), hung out with a bunch of random backpackers including some stoner Californians, wild Aussies, some serious German girls and several Brits including Mark the east end Pharmacist and Rachel and Vicky from up north (well Birmingham) who will probably get miffed if they are not mentioned here. As I mentioned I went on a nice Dive at Sailrock in the morning. The big party spot is a beach called Hat Rin, and the big party night is the full moon. At about midnight, after some local firedancing at our own beach, on the full moon night we all headed over there clambering into a big jeep taxi (and passing a nasty accident and several police roadblocks, none of which bothered searching for the drugs that were on several people somewhere on the taxi!). It's a little like Burning Man on the beach. Everyone is taking wierd drugs and even if you're not but you're drinking instead, you end up really, really awake, due to the speed they put in the booze! So you get bodypainted, you go from party to party to rave all the way down and up the beach, you ogle beautiful girls with great bodypaint, and suddenly it's dawn!
I spent a couple of days riding around on a scooter. It's a tropical paradise, so I had to leave! I went on ferry and bus to RaiLai beach (about 100 miles south and on the East coast) as reccomended by Aga Cena. It is a headland made up of 3 incredibly beautiful beaches with famous cliffs. I went rock climbing with a half-assed instructor called Pet who left the instruction mostly to my climbing partner Dave, who is a stuntman at Universal Studios in Florida. It was really hard especailly as I can't really push off on my left knee (plus I'm fat!) but I made it up a 5 (the easiest grade), and halfway up a couple of 6a's before falling off all the time. The next morning my hands hurt so much I couldn't open a sugar packet! I resisted the suggestion to go again! Instead I lay around on the beach and went to a few more parties, meeting lots of friendly people (like these and these and these ones), trying disgusting Swedish tabacco called Snoot, and ogling lots of gorgeous young backpackers! Leaving RaiLay was tough, not least because of the fantastic food, but JB awaited me in Phuket, so I hoped on the ferry there where I met Dave again and a couple of nice Finnish teachers.
In Phuket JB and Rebecca were staying in Club Med. Clova was a little surprised to see me, given that I'd just left Singapore and my hair was now very different! Yes I had it braided in RaiLai. I broke into Club Med for a couple of dinners, but Phuket was notable for the morning I both broke up with Carter and watched San Francisco lose the World Series on the same day!. Even the rally cap I made out of newspaper (with help from the lovely Kung in the Bamboo bar) didn't help Barry and the boys come back. Clova, JB's daughter had a lot of fun with the elelphants that one resturant has to entertain the punters every night (and so did I!) We also took a great one day canoe trip with Seacanoe Thailand. There was just me, JB and Clova and one American couple Lydia and Greg from LA. (Lydia is the real deal, blonde and leggy and went to both USC and UCLA , and now works for Taco Bell!) We canoed around three amazing islands and canoed right inside one (called a Hong, a cave who's roof has collapsed, leaving the island "hollow"). We also saw this amazing jelly fish. I also met Nina and Vic in Phuket, two Danish nurses who I'd danced with in Ralai. They hadn't seen any elephants so back we went to the Dino resturant to see more.
Given that I didn't fancy a 24 hour bus ride, I splashed out $60 on a plane ticket, said goodbye to the touts all wanting me to buy a suit in Phuket and jetted on the new (and totally empty) Bangkok airways flight to BangKok. Did I mention how good the food is in Thailand? Even on the plane lunch was amazing!
More about my adventures in BangKok will follow, but I've just made it to Siem Reap, Cambodia (near Ankor Wat) and it was the worst journey I've ever had!