Phenom Phen, Siem Reap, Vientiane, Vang Vieng

Cambodia was really very interesting. We spent just over a day in Phenom Phen, doing the main attractions: the royal palace, the museum and the so called “killing fields”. I knew very little about the Khmer Rouge and its bloody history before I came to Cambodia and that made it a disturbing and illuminating learning experience.

The extermination camp, code named “S-21”, is a short tuk-tuk ride from the center of Phenom Phen. It’s surrounded by the same green farmland we’ve seen everywhere in Cambodia. Upon entering, a large structure – about 15 m tall, with a traditional looking Cambodian roof is the first thing to catch the eye. Approaching it along a path reveals that it houses shelves, from floor to ceiling, laden with human skulls. Each shelf has a plastic sign saying what the approximate age, and gender of the skulls’ original owners: “50-60 year old females”, “20-30 year old males” and so on. It’s an eerie sight.

Going around the camp, the stories are reminiscent of every holocaust story. The banality of evil strikes again. I won’t try to repeat any of them, but I do want to read more about the surrounding history. Pol Pot and his minions seem to have earned their place with the worst of humanity’s scum.

We took a minivan out of PP and on to Siem Reap. The road there was interesting in revealing a completely rural environment. Nothing bud mud huts. I’m sure it would have looked the same if we took it 200 years ago.

Siem Reap is a nice little city, but its raison-d’etre is another city altogether, and one that hasn’t been in active duty since the 14th century- Angkor.

Angkor was the jewel in the Khmer kingdom’s crown and it’s still very impressive. At it’s peak it was a town of one-million people, and as all the guide books claim, this was at a time when London only had several tens of thousands (Having that said, I don’t know how credible Lonely-Planet historians are).

The city is huge, it’s impossible to see it without a vehicle of some sort as the structures can be several kilometers apart. We rented a tuk-tuk (and driver) for 3 days and moved between the main temple complexes: Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat and several others. It all just looks like something out of a Indiana Jones film, especially the places where the jungle was not completely cleared away from the structures. This was done intentionally and I think it’s really great. Seeing century old trees growing on top of the temples really gives everything a sense of temporal scale.

Our next destination was Vientiane, but looking at the map, and realizing how long it would take to get there from within Cambodia, we decided to get there via Bangkok.

We’ve been to Bangkok before, but never as backpackers. We didn’t actually see much of the city and this was a welcomed opportunity. We had a quick look at some of the major attractions – temples, markets and the like. But two unexpected ones were the Bangkok art museum and Jim Thompsons’ house.

At the art museum, there was one noteworthy exhibit – a 10 m x 5 m (or thereabouts) area on the floor is covered by different kinds of fabrics and threads. Somewhere, in the whole of this 5 gold necklaces are hidden. The visitors are invited to look for the necklaces. If a necklace is found, it can be kept.  It was really cool, and a good opportunity to jump around and lay down on the soft fabric.

The next stop was Vientiane, Laos. But as soon as we got there, we realized this Mekong side city is not a place we are interested in staying in. There’s nothing to do, even though the falafel shop we found sells top-notch feed! We took a minivan to Vang Vieng the same day.

Vang Vieng is a bit of an experiment in the end of the world. It’s very pretty, with a nice karst backdrop, reminiscent of Halong Bay. But the human scenery is very different. The average age is about 22, the blood alcohol content is borderline toxic, and the two favorite activities are either watching “Family-Guy” in cheap restaurants or floating from bar to bar on the Mekong and drinking heavily.

The “Tubing” experience is really lots of fun. You rent a large inner tube, take a tuk-tuk upstream, and try not to drown as you drink your way back to town. Many of the bars have some attraction: a concrete slide, mud tug-of-war, mud volley ball, and all of them have local kids (some as young as 10) fishing the drunken tourists from the strong current using a fish hook made of a long rope with a 1.5 liter plastic bottle at its end. It’s like nothing I’ve experienced before.

We went tubing two days in a row. Some of the people we’ve met have been there for over a month. Having had enough of Vang Vieng, we moved on to Luang Prabang.

The journey to was truly horrid. Swiss cheese for a road, 20 km/h bumpiness and mud slides that blocked our advance. It took 9 hours to go 250 kilometers (give or take). Upon getting there, we were greeted by the torrential rain that triggered the mudslides. And were carrying our wet backpacks that endured much of the same rain over 9 hours on the roof of the minivan.

This post is getting too long as it is, so i’ll continue with tales of Luang Pranag, and probably Chiang May (Thailand), on another occasion.

Gal

 

 

Central Vietnam, Southern Vietnam and Phnom Phen

Continuing our journey south, we moved along the coast from Moi Ne to the so called “beach capital of Vietnam” – Nah Trang. It is indeed a modern coastal city, with a long and well developed beach stretch, housing the requisite bars, clubs and all the rest. We took a tourist-trap of a cruise between the islands of the coast. Was OK, but nothing to write home about. Just as we came back from the cruise, torrential rain started to pour, sending us running for cover. We waited for it to subside but realized after 30 minutes that we would be waiting there for a while. As it was Danit’s birthday that day, we decided to make a run for the nearest massage place, guessing a 60 minute rub down will be a good way to wait for the storm to pass. That was a good call. After a nice hot stone message, we walked out to a mere trickle, but a completely flooded street, water reaching our shins…

The following day, we took the bus down to Mui Ne. A town built for one thing: sun bathing. We met up with Tanja and Maya, the swiss girls we met in Halong bay and checked in to the hotel they were in. Beach side pool, across the road from a nice little restaurant, the next three days were dedicated to Mango shakes and sun. I finished a book and a half. We did a bit of the local sight seeing though, going to see the sun rise at the local sand dune, but that wasn’t a highlight by any means.

We finally made our way to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) , Saigon. Last stop of the open bus tour. We were still traveling with Tanja and Maya but they only had two more days (Maya was on her way to Shanghai, Tanja going back to Bazel). HCMC is a lot nicer than Hanoi in our opinion, a lot more interesting too. We saw the main historical sights: Reunifcation Palace, Cu Chi tunnels and the war museum. I’ve been there before but i feel my knowledge of the local history is a lot better this time around and that makes the visit that much more interesting. The  museum was particularly interesting, with a good exhibition of pictures taken by photojournalists (Vietnamese and foreign) who died in the war. Another interesting exhibition displayed American war crimes, including a massacre in a village called My Lai. What I found most interesting in the Vietnamese depiction of the atrocities in My Lai, as well as the whole narrative they display in the war museum and elsewhere (Cu Chi tunnels for example) is the demonizing way they describe the Americans. They are still the “Capitalist Aggressors”. I’d expect the government would instruct a toning down of language with tourism being as important as it is for the Vietnamese economy. But I guess if you consider the way they treat all tourist, why should Americans be treated any differently.

We said goodbye to the Swiss girls, promising to meet them again sometime and inviting both to Israel. We then took a 2 day tour to the Mekong delta region south east of HCMC. The tour took us to a floating wholesale fruit and veg market, some floating villages and then up the Mekong to Cambodia. The trip up the Mekong was said to take 4 hours, but the Vietnamese lied without shame. As usual. 8 hours after leaving Chao Doc, Vietnam we were greeted by a very rainy Phnom Phen.

We are about to be picked up by a bus to Siem Reap, so i guess i’ll post the next update, including our last few days, from there.
Gal

 

 

 

 

Hanoi

Last few days in China were a hectic attempt to get everything in order. The main problem was that every time we thought we have everything figured out, another problem reared its head.

First, it was my passport which was held with the Chinese authorities until the very last moment. Then,  understanding my last salary isn’t going to come into my account until… well until now. After that, we learned that RMB is not that easy to convert to USD and feared that will be a problem (turns out it really wasn’t. Not for small amounts at least) It was all quite stressful.

It wasn’t all bad, to be honest. Had a few goodbye events, all were really good. It’s sad to make friends and them leave them behind. It’s a very old story for any expat though. A veritable cornerstone of the lifestyle.

We are now in Hanoi. We’ve been here since yesterday morning and have been walking about, not too impressed. Maybe it’s the sticky weather, or maybe just that we are tired. We should have started all this Asian wandering roasting on a beach, moving for no one but the pineapple salesperson. Travelling is a learning experience, we are bound to get the hang of it as we go along. We’ll just have to wait and see. Next destination: Sapa.

On the trailing edge of China

Last days of work, last days of life here, and it’s getting to the point where i really want to leave it behind me.

I don’t like these periods in life, when you are just waiting for something to end. I’d much rather get it over with quick and clean: like removing a band-aid. But i guess I will have to endure.

It’s not that I don’t like SH. Quite the opposite! But it would be good to just disappear tomorrow morning. Especially as this is the time of year when people are starting to float away anyway – traveling, visiting home and the like. And Rugby is pretty much done too, so that’s another focal point of my life that isn’t really there.

In the mean while, shipping our stuff is almost over. The post office branch near my office agreed to send suitcases instead of boxes. They just pop each suitcase into a mailbag. Hope our stuff reaches Israel…

Two more weeks, to the day, until we land in Hanoi. Two more weeks of Shanghai. And, undoubtedly, a few more hangovers lurking in my immediate future.