Christmas Wishes

Current Location: Unknown, Viet Nam

A quick note to wish everyone a merry christmas, I’m not sure where I’ll be when this posts so I’ll leave it up to your imagination.

I’ll be in the middle of doing a 6 day motorcycle tour from Da Lat to Hoi An through the central highlands of Viet Nam.

Last thing, I posted the remainder of the Cambodia pictures.

Temple Guy

edit: So I thought I could be fancy and schedule when this would post, but that didn’t work as planned… oh well.

Good Morning Viet Nam

Current Location: Saigon, Viet Nam

I’ve been thinking a lot about Cambodia since I left there, it left quite an impression on me in a few different ways. I would say that the most compelling feeling is the sense of hopelessness for the poor there. Every facet of any form of government is influenced by corruption, a frequent topic by Martyn and I. Cambodia is probably one of the greatest examples I’ve ever seen of the have’s and have-not’s, we would often see huge Mercedes or BMW’s cruising around the streets and at the very same time we could see the rest of the people just trying to get by on their bicycles. Because the corruption is so pervasive we couldn’t see a way out of the struggle, I certainly left with a sense of despair for whats to happen to Cambodia.

The second thing I did a lot of reflecting on is the history of Cambodia, namely the figure of Pol Pot and his influence on the history of Cambodia. I’m ashamed to say I had only heard the name Pol Pot before getting to Cambodia, I honestly didn’t know what he was responsible for. On my last day in Phnom Penh I visited S21, the site where he had thousands of educated Cambodians tortured and killed. It was a place that held a lot of gravity and many stories were told that shed a light on what happened there less than 30 years ago. The records kept included pictures of a lot of the inmates killed there, one in particular showed a woman holding her baby with her head slightly tilted, it rocked me to my core. The expression on her face is very powerful, that combined with the rest of S21 made for a very heavy last day in Cambodia.

I then caught a ferry to Chau Doc, a small border crossing on the Mekong river. The crossing was fairly uneventful and Chau Doc turned out to be a nice little intro into Viet Nam. I spent my day and half there walking around just wandering. First thing I noticed is that the women in high school wear the outfits seen in ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ it’s amazing they keep the dresses pure white with all the dirt and grime around, along with the cycling they do. It’s stunning in effect with the white dresses and the black hair. Other than that I got stopped a few times by random people on the street to have conversations about this and that and one guy had me write down a few words and phrases in English.

I now find myself in Saigon for the last few days wandering around once again. It’s pretty unremarkable except for the sheer amount of mopeds running around. One statistic I’ve heard is that there are 4 million people in Saigon and there are 3 million mopeds running around on the streets. The only advice I was given by other travelers is to close your eyes and cross the street, praying as you go. I haven’t tried this tactic yet as the traffic hasn’t been that awful yet, I do think that Hanoi will get worse.

Running around to the different museums in town it’s quite easy to get depressed about being American. The museums are quite well done with lots of photographs and stories told. Otherwise there are more temples or pagodas to visit or just people watch. I’m moving on to Dalat tomorrow, hopefully for a little colder climate.

Pictures to post when I get a chance.

Stuck in Cambodia

Current Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

After spending a few days in Battenbong trying to get a glimpse of rural Cambodia I find myself in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.  Rolling into town on a bus I was caught off guard at how different this place is from Siem Reap and Battenbong.  It could almost be mistaken for Bangkok or a moderately sized asian city.  This mistaken idea comes from the idea that all the other towns I passed through and visited don’t even come close to the modern feel this place has.  I find myself staying the backpacker district which makes life pretty simple, $4usd gets me my own room with a bathroom attached which is quite a luxury from the dorm I was staying in Bangkok.

Battenbong is the second largest city in Cambodia yet it doesn’t get touristy like the rest of Cambodia due to the fact that there is not a whole lot there to see.  I found myself renting a tuktuk for a day to just take me around the country side to see what is out there, probably the most common thing to do in Battenbong.  It was a neat day riding around, quite charming to have kids run to the road to wave and shout hello at the passing tourist.  That was certainly the highlight of the days ride along with seeing yet more temples and completely random things like fruit bats, absolutely massive, and a jars full of snakes.

It’s strange to say that I’m staying in the backpacker quarter of the city, just seeing it seems quite contrary to the idea of backpacking, it almost takes out all of the challenge.  Though I must say that the benefit of staying in a place like that is the ability to meet other backpackers quite easily since we are all grouped together.  It’s certainly one of the joys to be able to meet so many different people, it’s sort of like college again except without the homework.

I spent the last few days running around with the folks I met at the guesthouse, first to an orphanage that an Aussie girl was teaching at for the last month.  The kids are absolutely adorable and really appreciate being taught.  It was fun just chilling out playing with toys with the kids for an hour.  After that I tagged along with a Kiwi who is playing at being a photojournalist.  He was headed to the municipal dump to see if he could visit with a community that lives on the fringes there.  We all spent a few hours wandering around meeting the people.  Not much was said that either could understand but the kids laughed a lot and the parents smiled.  It’s a fairly voyeuristic concept to do something like that but I guess that comes with being a traveler.  Derek admonished me last year for not taking more photos of people and that’s a concept I’m still not fully comfortable with.  It’s the idea that treating these people as if they were part of a human zoo is quite demeaning to them.  I try anyway, treating them as people instead of the background is what I try to focus on.

I’ll not get self-righteous and say that what we have as Americans is shameful compared to what some of the Cambodians live in.  But I will say that it certainly gives you a new perspective with which to look at life and what is important to have.  The kids living in there are quick to smile and laugh with us, an infectious behavior for all those involved.  I can’t say I know how the parents feel about living there, it would be quite presumptuous of me to say that they would want to be elsewhere, for all I know they could be quite content.  For a people who have been downtrodden on as much as the Cambodians they are surprisingly good matured.  They probably have every right to hate the falang but they treat travelers quite well.

I can see why some travelers have a hard time leaving Cambodia, it’s got a lot of charms without the chaos of Thailand and from what I hear Viet Nam can also be a challenge.  I delayed in getting my visa for Viet Nam by a few days and that has almost set me back a week due to a holiday and the weekend sneaking up on me, but I honestly can’t complain.  Phnom Penh is a nice place to get stuck.

Crossing Borders

Current Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Crossing the border into Cambodia for the second time wasn’t any easier than the first, probably due to the fact that this time I was part of a group and got wrangled into paying an extra fee for getting my visa done with them instead of handling it on my own as I did the first time. Other than that little hiccup it was an uneventful ride through to Siam Reap, although I did see a couple of cycling tourists on the Thailand side which made me miss the cycle again.

Walking around town the first night to get my bearing I was astonished to find the downtown area so flash. I’m staying at the Happy Guesthouse in the backpacker district and it’s still on a dirt road, the guesthouse itself is very nice, 3 story hotel-ish building, while the downtown area could be mistaken for anywhere USA with all the trendy bars and restaurants all packed to the gills with falang tourists. It certainly feels like a tale of two cities because once you leave this district things immediately become evident that this sort of opulence doesn’t belong here.

I knew coming into Cambodia that the economy runs on the greenback but it’s still strange to go to an atm and pull out a wad of Jacksons. Officially the currency is the Rhiel, conversion 1usd = 4000rhiel, which instantly makes me a millionaire! Technically the currency might be the Rheil everything is quoted in USD. Foolish me I was swayed at the border to change what Baht I had left into Rheil after being called unpatriotic, I must learn to trust my instincts. Now I have 300,000 Rhiel to spend somehow.

I spent the entire day yesterday in the Angkor Wat area. I rented a cycle, a very ill-suited one I might add, for $1 and hit the road at 7am. Angkor Wat is as grand as I could have imagined and then some, and it’s not hard to see why it’s considered a wonder of the world. I’m not entirely sure people should have the kind of access they have to the area as lots of people touch the sandstone carvings, the sandstone can’t stand up to being groped all the time.

It did have the level of authenticity I was looking for in the Thailand temples, everything looks and feels untouched for the last 1000 years. I could take 1,000 pictures and still not capture 1% of the grandeur of the area. The level of detail is constantly astounding.

I think I managed to fit in 7 temples yesterday in the 10 hours I was wandering around the area, didn’t even bother stopping for lunch of a bathroom break (it’s so hot I drank 6 litres of water), cycling from temple to temple. I’ll not suffer you but maybe 20 pictures out of the hundreds I took yesterday. It’s something that needs to be experienced, pictures do it little justice.

For the amount of tourists in the area it was still possible to find quiet moments rest at some of the lesser travelled temples. Notably I got a 30 minute siesta at the top of Ta Keo, 50meter vertical climb that many people weren’t keen on doing, listening to the insects thrum and wondering how long it took to construct these temples.

The last temple to visit I heard was at the top of a hill that overlooks Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat is a particular temple, not the area, to catch the sunset. I got there a little bit early and there was already a massive amount of people. After a while I decided it wasn’t worth the chaos of crowds there and decided to hike it back and head into town where I’d treat myself to a pizza and beer after a long day. On the way down I met several more bus loads of people, good luck to them… I hope they got to see something after the long hike and vertical climb up to the top of the tower.

It was a fun day especially since I got to ride again, though it made me miss my saddle and I know now why I spent as much as I did on a Brooks. Lots of climbing vertical steps and walking, fending off touts.

Great day.

By All Means

Getting around in Thailand hasn’t proved to be as much of a challenge as one would think it could be.  Since arriving here I’ve managed to take every conceivable mode of transport available.  I’ve taken trains, cabs, moto-taxis, bicycles, boats, buses, canal boats*, tuk-tuk, elephants, and my favorite bi-ped.

This will be my last post from Thailand for at least a month and a half, the plan at the moment is to spend about a week or a week and half in Cambodia and a month in Vietnam followed by a few weeks in Laos (gotta see the plain of jars.)

My impression of Thailand has changed since first blush quite considerably.  I enjoy Bangkok now that I know how to deal with it appropriately and I tend to take it in small bites otherwise it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all.  It was fairly naive to have the impression that the smiles given here have nothing behind them, what I didn’t think about is that capitalism lies behind the smiles.  Everything here revolves around money in some form or another.  It is still a developing country so this attitude has to be understood to make it bearable, otherwise I’d feel taken advantage of at every corner. That being said I still plan on coming back here for a few more weeks at the tail end of SE. Asia and give the wwoofing here a shot to see how that goes.

*canal boats are a frenetic little boats that fly along the canal that crosses through the middle of Bangkok.  Used mostly by the locals I’m typically the only falang (foreigner) on the boat. They stop for fractions of a second at each pier where people disembark and embark at a pace rarely seen.  I stood confused the first time I got to the pier until the attendant hastily pointed a finger at a spot on the boat.  After that it’s an invaluable  resource for me to get around the city, since 99% of the rest of the time gridlock grinds the city to a halt.

I added 5 pictures a few days ago, notably of a me and a tiger.

Nice Smile