Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ruins and red dust

SIEM REAP: The old man called out to me from inner sanctum of the temple "come sit down here". I knew that he would just be wanting me to make a "donation", but he intrigued me nonetheless. We were out at an isolated Angkor temple, Banteay Samre, and for the first time there was almost no one else here. Rob was off walking around taking pictures so it was just me and the old guy and a statue of Buddha. I was compelled to sit down, he was certainly different from the women I had seen wanting “donations” for Buddha at other sites.

So I sat and he handed me a burning incense stick. I put it between my palms and he proceeded to recant his good luck chant. Here I was, almost alone with 800 year old walls surrounding me, being blessed in Khmer whilst sitting cross legged. and I was feeling positive. The chanting stopped after a minute and we stuck our incense sticks in the pot under Buddha. Then he tied some red wool around my wrist. I felt good, and for once and didn't mind handing over a small donation.

The Angkor temples have been special. Even when you add in the kids asking “cold drink, you buy, one dollar, when you come back you buy from me” in a strange American accent every time you try to enter one. Or the tour buses full of Japanese or Taiwanese tourists who strangely seemed to turn up just at the same time as you get to a different site. Wandering around the temples, in many places without barriers, is a fantastic experience. There are certainly older sites to visit in the world, and I have seen some, but the sheer scale of the structures and added ambiance which the harsh climate here has brought means Angkor, for me, is right up things to behold.

Now when most people think of Angkor, it is always of Angkor Wat. But that is just the start. So far for me the pick of the bunch has been Bayon. With many towers of huge faces peering down at you from all angles it really is amazing. What seems like just a jumble of rock from a distance is in fact a maze of galleries, steep stairs, alcoves and towers when you get inside.

Angkorian temple, just as imagined

So the last part of the week has been clambering over ruined temples, down dark ancient corridors, around tree root encased stone walls, past glorious carvings, but originally we landed in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. I was a tad dismissive of PP before. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so hasty. After all I had been in the country less than 24 hours. The capital has its charms, you just have to look past some of the, literally, poorer aspects – rubbish, shanty lined streets, traffic congestion. Once you do you realise and remember what this city has been through, there is much more to be gained from it.

There are a whole bunch of great people there. Whether they be in restaurants employing former street kids and giving them a chance or our fantastic tuk tuk driver Mr Lim with his own difficult past losing, like most people, family members. (Tuk tuk's here by the way are a little different than the Bangkok ones, they are just a motorbike with a trailer attached to the back. I call them chariots).

The positive progress that can be seen in PP now stems obviously from the horrors of the past when the Khmer Rouge ran the place in maniacal way from 1975 to 1979. As with any place that seems to have a torturous time a museum pops up to highlight it. Sometimes I feel I am just touring places with grisly ghosts in the cupboard (Auschwitz, Bosnia, East Timor before and now Saigon and PP here). But it is important to see these places of atrocities so we can hope this sort of thing never happens again.

First there was the Genocide Museum in the former interrogation prison, where you can walk around the actual beds used to strap people down and torture them with electric whips. Just in case you don't get the raw meaning, there are picture on the wall taken when the place was liberated showing decomposing bodies still strapped down. Wandering through the rooms full of photos of the prisoners when only 7 people survived or rows of cells not even big enough to lay down in was in the end just too much. But to top it off we visited the pock marked field outside of town where over 10,000 prisoners were brought, forced to kneel and then clubbed into a pit to save bullets before having their throats slit and buried.

Torture chamber
A torture cell at the Genocide Museum

It hasn't been all such a doom and gloom trip though. After leaving PP and heading 300km west to the country's second city, Battambang, we had a fantastic afternoon giving our time to converse in English at a village school. We met Narath by chance on a corner and he told us about his project and asked if we would like to volunteer our time. The idea is if the village children can speak English they are more likely to be employable. I am not sure how much the kids gained from it as our conversations in the end mostly involved “How are you?”, “What is your name?”, “Do you have brothers or sisters?”, but it was still a great experience for us at least.

To get out to some of the sites near Battambang we had to get covered in what the locals call Cambodian snow. The fine red dust this country seems built on. Who would have thought that Cambodia is so flat? I didn't know what to expect but nothing like driving through countryside similar to western New South Wales. And yet they have really bad roads. PNG bad.

We bounced through on these to reach the treasures the Khmers left the world. Angkorian temples. Firstly there was our afternoon getting a motorbike tour to visit two hilltop temples south of Battambang. By the time we had made it back to our cheap hotel, we were covered in the ochre and had sea legs from rolling up and down the Luna landscape roads. To reach Siam Reap, we had what should be a 3 hour trip become a 5 hour bounce-a-thon. But it has been worth it.

Next up, like the wool around tied around my wrist we are looping back to Phnom Penh. I would ideally like to get up to some of the places to the north of here, but it is just too difficult without being on some serious (read: expensive) 4WD tour. So Phnom Penh is next and then we are unsure. Like the Buddhist say, live in the moment.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Mekong Meandering

PHNOM PENH: I caused a small ruckus on the international border yesterday. A major tension between rival parties. A couple of primary school aged siblings raging over who would sell me a bottle of water.

Originally the boy would not drop his price for a can of soft drink from 15000 dong, even though I continued to offer 10000 for it. A price for which you could buy one anywhere else in Vietnam. I kept offering, even showing him the note. He wouldn't budge. His sister was cluey. She offered me a large bottle of water for 10000. Water was fine and we needed it, so off she raced to get one. The brother saw and raced off as well. The brother was quicker returning, and without thinking I gave him the note and took the bottle. The sister was furious as she caught up, bottle in hand, and screamed obscenities at me and then her brother.

We had made it to the border via a fibreglass river boat. The six hour fast boat was more than twice as expensive as the 10 hour slow boat, but at least it didn't involve a change of boat at the border and then a bus, or a lifetime on those hard wooden benches. The fast boat was for us, and we zoomed up the mighty Mekong calling in at the Vietnamese border checkpoint and soon after the Cambodian equivalent to formally enter the country.

Welcome to Cambodia. That was yesterday and in the meantime we have been wandering around this hard to love capital. On first glance the city is not quite up to Vietnamese cleanliness, but perhaps the country is yet to fully warm to us. Not like the weather though. From noon to about 4, escape from the suffocating heat is needed. Dry season still. Although back in the delta there were signs of it breaking.

Can Tho was the first instance when the heavens opened. Having just sat down to an evening meal the rain started to sheet down with a force I haven't seen since living in Lae. We watched the locals scatter to any sort of shelter available and a poor street vendor try and sit through it with the cover of a tiny umbrella while the gutter in front of her overflowed. Cracks of lightning filled the sky and massive claps of thunder boomed close by and the vendor eventually left her post drenched. More of these sights will no doubt occur as the wet begins over the next few months.

We had come south to Can Tho from HCMC as part of our Mekong Delta meanderings. Floating markets were a hot ticket item and so they proved to be. We had signed up for an early, 5.30am departure, for a long day touring the canals and waterways around the city.

The wizened boatman
Our old man river

Come morning we were met at the guesthouse by our wizened old boatman. He set off in the half light leading us towards the wharf, through an amazingly already bustling city, at a pace which deceived his bent frame. His little boat was on par with its owner - possibly on the way out. It was just wide enough to seat both of us and long enough to lay down in. If only it deceived in speed as well. Old man river knew how to handle it though, and with his stoop, he stood on the small stern and guided us down the river. Putt putt went the adapted lawnmower motor ... for the next 7 hours.

After coursing down the river, guiding up and down wakes of larger craft, the small size of the boat did benefit getting up close and personal with the floating markets. One in particular was full of similar sized boats. So with the lawnmower silent we bumped and squeezed our way through conical hat donned women haggling over the price of a bag of mangoes or buying noodle dishes off vendors. The vendors targeted us as well. A drink seller rocking up next to us with the gift of the gab was quite amusing, he made me buy a coffee and can of drink for our driver.

The water world of the Mekong Delta hasn't all been floating around. There have been sights to see on land as well. For a change from footing it we hired bikes in the border town of Chau Doc to see a local holy mountain (I am guessing it is holy because it is only bump in the flat landscape for miles around) called Mount Sam. Vietnamese bikes are something different. Mine had forgoed the chain and instead had something akin to a fan belt.

With much a-squeaking our bikes did do the trick and we made it out to the bottom of the mountain at around breakfast time, aka 6.30. I should have had some food, but instead we parked the bikes in the Vietnamese equivalent of a valet service and wandered off past the motorbike riders offering a lift (for a price) to the top.

The start of the track led through a Buddhist cemetery. It wasn't long after the graves before it was huff and puff time as we climbed past numerous places to stop and rest. Not for us, as it was only a small mountain (200 odd metres) and eventually it took only half an hour or so to reach the top. But the sweat glands had worked profusely in the early tropical humidity and I was wetter than kids at a Wet'n'Wild themepark. The breakfast situation wasn't that great either and I was feeling mildly faint. This was easily remedied on top after a hearty meal of packet noodle soup from a kiosk.

Hammock adorned rest stops on Mount Sam

Overall the food had been excellent in Vietnam. I am a big fan of cheap eats anywhere, but especially so when it is really cheap and extremely tasty like Vietnam is (the delta is by the way the origin of fish sauce). So far Phnom Penh has been more expensive than across the border but hopefully once we escape to rural Cambodia it will be similar. As long as I am more careful not to cause any more international incidents between rival siblings.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Back in the drift

HO CHI MINH CITY: Time to revamp this byline. It has been in hiatus for quite long enough. The reason to bring it out of its slumber is that I am actually currently somewhere different.

Saigon, or as the Communist leaders like to call it Ho Chi Minh, after the country's favourite son, is as far remove from Melbourne in feel and lifestyle as almost possible. Living on the street takes new meaning across Asia and Saigon is a perfect example. Little pots cook at your footsteps while washing swings above your head.

Into this city me and Rob stepped the other day. Day 1 on possibly my longest trip yet. There is no fixed return ticket. So far it is just been the cheap flight from Sydney with JetScar International .. you'll remember the boredom (actually it was ok .. take your own entertainment and pack sandwiches like the tight arses we are).

So what to make of my first few days in Vietnam. So far a couple of things leap out at you like a Saigon motorbike. Firstly there's .. well .. those bloody motorbikes. Apparently 3 million are in the city, but it seems they are all on the road you are trying to cross. Just be brave, wait for some sort of a gap, step out and walk in a steady manner, no lurches or lunges, make sure no unexpected cars or buses approach and those two-wheelers should all flow around you like detritus in the Saigon river.

Canal boating
Up a natural canal

Speaking of the river, I was keen to take a boat trip on it. But here is a tip for any prospective tourists. Don't bother. Previously you were able to travel up a major canal of the old part of the city. Nowadays it is currently a massive construction site as it is being filled in. The little boats will still take you on a trip. To the far more boring otherside of the river and up a "natural" canal, as far as natural goes on a filthy looking river.

Secondly, the other thing that hits you is the heat and humidity. The sluice gates have opened up on the sweat glands. We took the obligatory trip out to the war tunnels to see what life was like for the VC fighting the yanks, and after 5 minutes and roughly 90 metres down in the tunnels, crawling and crouching through until your thighs think you are a sadist, you pop out exhausted and drenched. The guerrillas lived down in them for up to a month. Respect.

Down the barrel
A busted yank tank at the Cu Chi tunnels

The war certainly was a horrible event and it is hard to escape .. from a tourist's point of view. Checking out the War Remnants Museum made your stomach turn at the graffic images displayed. It is hard to shake the mental image of a GI picking up what was left of a boy blown apart by a grenade. It makes me angry and sad at the same time that war is still being justified. Images from 1965 Vietnam could just as easily read 2005 Iraq.

Tomorrow we escape the traffic, the war, the noise, the big city and drift on south to hopefully quieter realms of the Mekong Delta. We go our own way and are avoiding the numerous 2, 3 or 4 day tours being touted, and see where and when we end up. We do know that Cambodia will be there to drift into after we navigate the delta waterways. See you in a while.