29 October 2010


The word Vietnam conjures up one word in most people’s mind; War.  This is a country whose recent history is deeply entwined with it, but that is one that seems to be moving on from it.  The country was at war, one way or another, for 39 of the 49 years between 1940 and 1989 (never mind what went on beforehand in the French colonial period), and there is much that indicates their recent history, but also much that shows how resilient the place is in making a comeback from that turbulent past.

The journey into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) seemed to take for ages, with streets packed with mopeds and motorbikes crawling along slowly, but constantly.  Fortunately for us, the bus stop happened to be about 3 minutes from our hostel.

Audrey had three days in the town, and I had five, again partially due to time lost in Thailand.  She needed to fly back to Hong Kong to pick up her new passport, and then onto Kathmandu, while I’d fly to Nepal’s capital via Bangkok and Delhi.

We took a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, which were about a two hour drive out of Saigon.  This tunnel system, which covered large parts of the country, and stretched to hundreds of kilometres was one of the reasons why the Vietcong could sustain such a long offensive again the Americans.   We were allowed to crawl through a small part of the tunnel system, the largest part, and it was damn difficult (the rest are too small for westerners).  It was less than 50 metres, and I was sweltered by the end of it.  Some Vietcong survived for years down there, only coming out at night to tend to their farms.

While there, the tour guide pointed out that the jungle all around the area was very young; all of it had been wiped out by the Americans use of agent orange.  Still, like the country, it was making a strong comeback.

Vietnam feels like China a number of years ago, and seems to be following the same path (including the obligatory one-party state and censorship; facebook is also blocked here).  It also feels like Cambodia, in the fact that everyone (of a certain age) has a story to tell about the country’s troublesome past.  We had two guides while at the tunnels, one had been on the side of the Vietcong, and one had been one the side of South Vietnam/America.  The later ended up in a ‘re-education’ camp for a number of years, and was told, when leaving, that his government assigned job would be a tour guide, and nothing else.

I dropped Audrey off at the airport for her flight back to HK, and returned a couple of days later to fly to Bangkok.


(I feel guilty about the next few blogs, as I cover so much in so little, but I've got quite far behind, and don't have the time, or internet connections, to do them justice.)

The train to the Cambodian border from Bangkok was basic but functional.  It cost a grand total of 99p for the six hour journey for each of us.  Prices for trains in Thailand are weird.  We took a day trip to the ancient capital of the Thais, Ayutthaya, and price for the journey there was about £6.5 each for a two hour trip.  Bit expensive, we thought, but we wanted to go, and by western standards it wasn’t too bad.  We had a seat number and air-con.

That evening, for the return trip, we bought two tickets, and had to ask the ticket booth attendant if they’d got it right.  We would be paying 63p for both of us, about 20 times less than the other train.  No seat reservation or air-con, but the train did essentially the same thing (and we got a seat anyway).  What price air-con in Thailand?

At the border, we realised I’d out-stayed my visa by 3 days, due to my illness.  Without looking at my passport, I had a feeling that I might have only got a two week allowance (whereas Audrey got a month for some reason), but I read the penalties some time before, and knew it wasn’t punitive (some countries charge well over £100 a day, Laos I think is one of them).  It was a tenner a day, which probably worked out about the same as an extension, but with less hassle.

Bus journeys in Cambodia were pretty good.  We arrived in Siam Reap, location of the famous Angkor temples and city, by the late afternoon after a three hour bus journey.  The road had only recently been finished, otherwise we’d have had a gruelling 6 hour bumpy journey to contend with.  The next morning, we were up at 4:30 so that we could get to Angkor Wat for sunrise.  Clouds wrecked that plan, making it a huge disappointment.  We spent most of the day there; I won’t go into details, plenty of people have written about them, but I have to say they were incredible.

I do have to say that we loved the Ta Prohm temple, one of the ones that has been intentionally left to nature:

Audrey had her first taste of Pong Tea Khon here.  Basically it is fertilised duck eggs.  Remember the scares stories of people who buy eggs, then crack them open only to find that instead of egg white and a yolk, they have a not-yet-fully-formed bird.  Here they do it on purpose to eat.  Tasty!

They also had a rip-off version of 7-11, called Seven Elephants:

We got out of there after one full day, as my illness in Bangkok had meant we needed to squeeze Angkor, Phnom Penh and Saigon into less than 7 full days, which didn’t do any of them justice.  Flights had been booked a few weeks earlier, which put a fixed deadline into our plans, something we hadn’t had for nearly six months.

Next up was Phnom Penh, a city that had been emptied just over 35 years ago, when the Khmer Rouge evacuated everyone to the countryside to farm.  In the mis-guided model Pol Pot had conceived, he wanted to emulate the great Khmer empire, which had been mainly based on agriculture (since it was a pre-industrial society).  Considering what he’d been responsible for putting the country through, he was not universally despised.  The locals felt that Vietnam had just a big a debilitating effect on the country.  Ultimately, though, it was the US (allied by that time with China) and Russia once again acting out wars with each other by proxy.

Considering what it had been through, it was in good shape, a thriving city of about two million.  Cambodia still has a lot of catch-up to do on neighbours Vietnam and Thailand, but it seems in much better shape than Laos (which hasn’t had nearly as tumultuous a time).  We visited Tuol Sleng prison, where many acts of gruesome torture were carried out.  It was a sobering experience, not quite on the level of Auschwitz, but still disturbing.  Human skulls with huge cracks down their head painted a graphic picture of a regime that didn’t shoot people, as bullets were precious, rather using a bamboo cane to crack open the ‘offenders’ head.

Talking to tour guides and tuk-tuk drivers, you realised everyone of a certain age had a harrowing story to tell.  It still strikes deep into the psyche of anyone over the age of 30.  Our guide at Angkor lost his older brother in Tuol Sleng (he identified him in meticulously documented photos years later) amongst others.  Our Tuol Sleng guide was in her early teens when Phnom Penh was evacuated; she marched for a month to get to her designated farm and lost her parents and some siblings, and spent years living on the streets, depressed.  Our tuk-tuk driver fought the Vietnamese against his wishes, and seen many of his close friends slaughtered.  Scarred people in a scarred country.

The other depressing thing that I noticed in Cambodia was lots of poster with slogans akin to “Protect our children, report sexual exploitation” everywhere we went.  It’s a shame that sick people from the western world seek out impoverished countries, with little rule of law, to ruin people lives.  I think we’d seen a poster to two to this effect in Thailand, and would see them again in Vietnam and Nepal.

We left at 1pm for Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

04 October 2010

Illness in Bangkok

As soon as we got into Bangkok, Audrey headed to bed, and Scott and I headed out.  We got nailed immediately by a restaurant/tuk-tuk scam.  It didn't really cost us anything, as we didn’t bother eating at the restaurant we were brought to, and it got us to an area where there were a few bars for a 60p journey, so it wasn’t bad.

The next day started in similar fashion, as we jumped in a tuk-tuk, who took us to a temple, which was distinctly average.  The driver disappeared for a ‘toilet break’, and the owner of a Toyota Landcruiser, which was parked beside us appeared, and started chatting with us.  He talk a lot about much good value blue sapphires were, and how much money he had made out of them recently, and the fact that the government had a tax holiday on them currently etc.  After recommending a good company, he drove off, and handily the tuk-tuk driver appeared again, and took us straight there without prompting.

We demanded to be taken to the centre of town, where the Royal Palace and a few temples were, but he insisted (in his limited English) they were closed.  By this point we were getting pissed off, so we paid him his fee, and set off on foot.  I felt a bit sorry for him, as he does these ‘trips’ to make a few quid, as the shops give him commission if we stay there for more than 10 minutes.  At least we paid him what he asked for, even though we were still hadn’t been taken anywhere useful yet.

Thailand is famous for a few things, most notably Ladyboys (known as Kathoey to the locals).  While we were in Ko Chang Island, an elderly German lady confided in us that she was most fascinated by them (which we didn’t expect to hear).

It’s a peculiar situation.  Thailand (and most of SE-Asia) is in many ways quite a traditional society, based mainly on the principles of Buddhism.  Yet Ladyboys are everywhere (I was served regularly at the 7-11 near our hotel by one), and not only tolerated, but actively accepted by the people.  And it’s not just a big-liberal-city thing in Bangkok, even in rural village, when there is a beauty contest, often they hold two, one for the ladies and one for the effeminate men.  Men in general in Thailand seemed much more in touch with their feminine side than elsewhere in SE-Asia.  None of the other Se Asian countries, although very much similar to the Thais in culture, have a similar tradition.  Most of those countries have had a harder time than the Thais though (Cambodian and the Khmer Rouge, Laos and communism and Vietnam and, well, the Vietnam war, as well as French colonialism for all three of them), and perhaps have not yet had the possibility to express themselves just yet.  Or else Thailand is just a unique place in this matter.

A couple of days sightseeing plus visiting a few of the markets ensued, before Scott headed off to the airport and back to the hard-grind.  Audrey and I were to spend another two days in the city, before departing for Cambodia, but our best plans were interrupted by possibly the worst fever I’ve experienced in my life.

The main concern was it being either malaria or dengue fever.  We headed to the hospital (like a hotel combined with a posh bank, see above photo) the day after it first struck.  One blood test later, the doctor told us it was too early to tell what it was, but indications were pointing towards a virus.  We went back after three days of convalescing, and the doctor took one look at my hands (which were somewhat red, but I didn’t think it was a rash), and happily exclaimed that it was Dengue fever, which was one of the worst outcomes we could have expected, as it meant our trip may need to be cut short.

On our journey from Laos to Bangkok, an English bloke had explained that the Thais had no idea of how to deliver bad news:

‘They try to make up for it with delivering it with a happy demeanour.  You could arrive in work on Monday morning, and be greeting by a colleague smiling profusely while telling you, “John, the guy who sits opposite us, died in a car crash at the weekend”.  They feel that they can help mitigate the circumstances of the problem by being happy.’

Cheers doc!  After another blood test, it was confirmed to be a virus, so we did the dengue fever test next.  After another three days, we were back to get the results.  The doctor again cheerily explained that it was not dengue fever, and that I would just have to ride it out.  It had been a week now, and most of the symptoms were receding.

The hotel we were in was possibly the best (cheap option) place I could have been for the week of illness.  Wifi was everywhere, so I could get online when I wasn’t suffering too much.  They had a theatre room, with huge beanbags, which were perfectly suited to lounging around in my dilapidated state, with all the sports channels, so I got to enjoy a weekend of premier league football, grand prix and some tennis without having to move much.  And for lunch one day, Audrey got me the following:

They tasted better than they looked, although I didn't try the beetles, after seeing Audrey's face while eating one.

They also had a channel dedicated to watching Lin Bing, a panda in a zoo in north Thailand.  Seriously, 24/7, you can tune in at anytime to see what one instance of the laziest animals in the world is doing, Big Brother style.  While having a quick read about giant pandas on the internet, I found out that Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of the 26th president of the US, and his brother Kermit (this gets better all the time) were the first known westerners to shoot a giant panda!

I loved the place, and everything worked perfectly.  Lub*d was a great hostel.  Weird as it is to say for a bloke, the soap smelt great, and reminded me of something like Maine Cloudy Limeade.  And in Thailand, green Fanta tasted just like it.

We got back on the road, leaving on the 5.55am train out of Bangkok (6 hour trip for about a pound, best value trip so far) to the Cambodian border.