A Travellerspoint blog

The Faces of Vietnam

I had just enough time for another pork chop lunch at my favourite little café before rushing to board the bus out of Dalat, where the restaurant owner- whom I always thought looked oddly hip in jeans and a v-neck t-shirt- said goodbye to me for the second time in two days. 'I thought you left Dalat already,' he said while wiping tables, which as far as I could figure out was his most favourite pastime in that place.

At the petrol station I loitered around the hefty bus, not knowing if the lady at the makeshift table would eventually issue me a ticket, when I noticed a man fiddling with a bag a few feet away. Inside the plastic weave-effect bag was a dog. The man employed a disturbing smile on his moustached-face as he seemed to be loosening some of the plastic binding which held the canine inside its little prison; all four legs folded at awkward angles. My face gawked unapologetically and met the eye of several onlookers, leaving disapproving traces in their interpretation of me. The dog's head poked out permanently from the corner of the bag and breathed a deep sigh as the strapping became looser around his throat. I found myself breathing deeply and in unison with the dog in those first few breaths. With one swift motion the man lifted the bag by the handles and loaded it, with the dog inside, onto the underside luggage section of the coach. The dog's face looked disconsolate as if to be saying, why am I being loaded on like a suitcase? Man's best friend, stored like a sack of potatoes. I couldn't take it anymore. I walked up to the dog and pointed out to the four men standing nearby that as the large doors of the luggage section would be closed soon, the two adjacent pneumatic arms of the two doors would lower and close within millimetres of the dog's face, possibly crushing his head. They hadn't even considered it. I didn't speak their language, and they didn't speak mine, but I made it clear. I walked away with a shake of the head, trying not to be pretentious, just simply making a point, and making no more eye-contact with anyone standing by, keeping my point just what it was. The attitude towards animals here and in so many parts of Asia in particular seemed so Neanderthal-like. I was seeing it everywhere. After three or four minutes I heard one of the men call out to me, 'Hey.' I looked and saw that the owner had laid the dog down away from the swing-arms of the doors, but still bound inside the bag. I scrunched up the corner of my mouth to acknowledge the gesture; it was after all his dog, and he didn't have to listen to me. I didn't smile once during that trip, all I could think about was the poor animal, hot from the lack of air, exposed to the engine noise and in danger of falling bags underneath us all as we sat in sleeper berths for fourteen hours. The most I managed was a neutral expression of relief when at the meal stop I saw that the owner had unloaded the dog to allow it to walk around on a lead. He seemed cheery enough, and the animal appeared thankful, as was I.

I felt like my attitude towards animal treatment was becoming something of importance. I faired perfectly well in India having not touched an ounce of meat. But since then I had eaten meat, and always wondered what kind of conditions they were kept in, and what kind of merciless death they faced. I thought that soon enough I'd probably be a vegetarian on a permanent basis. It was beginning to make less and less sense that we should be able to farm other beings for their flesh.

Along the bus journey, the shape and colour of Vietnam changed by the hour. My name Adam literally means red earth, and Vietnam had plenty of that, along with tufts of sharply-coloured green grasses, tall trees and distant mountains holding onto a thick duvet of fog. Streams of colour flew past the window as we drove from one small village to another through winding open roads. Cerise and cartoon-yellow, although striking, couldn't match the ubiquitous and dazzling chlorophyll-green. These were the colours of a healthy Vietnam, a productive Vietnam, and they made for a nice visual while inside these borders.

Another sleepless night on another plodding sleeper bus. As the fourteen hours came to an end, the attendant approached me, 'Hoi An?'
'Hoi An,' I reply, nodding and gathering my things sharply for a quick exit. Comparing the transport assistance you get on Asian networks with that of Eastern Europe is like comparing a ring-tailed lemur with a hedgehog; completely different animals altogether. The signless stations of Hungary and the bigoted expression of Bulgarian ticket clerks came to mind as I thanked the assistant for letting me know my stop and stepping off the bus.
Ah... this is just an intersection of God-knows-where. I stood with my bag like dangling bait in front of the waiting piranha motorbike taxi drivers. 'Where you go?' asked the first man. 'Ah, urgh, umm,' I replied with a screwed up face, heaving my bag towards the kerb as the sound and sight of the bus disappeared into the distance. 'Where you go?'
'Uh, Phan Boi Chau,' I murmured. 'Huh?'
'Phan Boi Chau?' I repeated. 'Huh?'
'Ahem, Hoi Huang Hotel?'
'Oh, OK. Hoi Huang one or Hoi Huang two?'
'Dammit, I didn't know there were two with the same name. Mmm...one,' I added at a guess. My judgement was that if the guidebook didn't say there was a second hotel by the same name, then the one I wanted was probably the original. 'How much?' I asked the driver. He gave that little look which indicated he was trying to judge how badly to over-inflate his price. 'Seventy thousand.' I closed off, moving myself away from him. 'No, too much.'
'OK, how much you pay?' Because of my slightly vulnerable position it took me longer to convince myself I should give him a much lower offer. But out it came. 'Forty thousand.'
'OK, fifty thousand, bus station ten kilometre,' he replied, justifying the cost. In this little situation my judiciousness on how much things like this should cost left me all of a sudden, I was experiencing fade-in, fade-out judgement, as if I'd just arrived on the first day, trying to figure out the angles. 'Phan Boi Chau, fifty thousand, OK,' I confirmed to seal the deal. He heaved my backpack onto the front of the bike between his legs and I hopped onto the back.

As the bike zipped on down the road, the warm morning air filled me with a fresh feeling of adventure. He was right, the bus drop-off point was not that close to the actual town of Hoi-An. Fifty thousand was beginning to feel a bit like a bargain; glad I didn't try to walk this as I'd threatened. If he understood me when I said it, they'd have had a little laugh at me for sure. I'd paid thirty thousand for a 2 km cyclo ride in Nha Trang, so this wasn't bad. We passed by old women wearing conical hats and pushing bicycles, men loading and unloading small trucks. Baskets of fish hung from bamboo rods appeared on every forth or fifth shoulder. I was beginning to like the feel of this place.
Almost ten minutes later, there I was banging on the door window of Hoi Huang Hotel 1, where the guy on the morning shift awoke from the safety of his mosquito net and let me in. 'Cam ung,' I said to the driver who steadied off with a slight nod. I checked into a room that at once made me believe in feng shui, it was so awfully laid-out. Keen to get out of the room I took to the first floor balcony which directly overlooked Thu Bon river. I sat peacefully and watched as the small fishing boats came in and old ladies bailed out with luminous plastic cups; keeping the business afloat, literally. Baskets of small silvery fish were being scooped from one metal bowl and into another. The sun rose in the sky, silhouetting the bonsai tree perched on the balcony edge to my left. I started to warm like a lizard on a rock as the sun continued to rise and its hue changed from morning orange to daytime butter-yellow. I suddenly realised that the ice-tea I thought I was drinking was actually an energy drink. I thought that tea tasted a bit funky, I thought; no chance of grabbing a couple of hours kip now then.

Meandering through the market, which began its sprawl a stone's throw from the hotel, I saw that hundreds of people plied the tiny crowded lanes where the smell of fish was dominant above all else. The river lay directly behind the stalls on my left. It was an easy arrangement to build the market along the riverside to allow easy unloading of seafood straight on to the stalls for selling. Women seemed to make up ninety per cent of the activity underneath the plastic tarpaulins. The way in which the chickens were handled and traded was both practised and gloomy; each pair of feet grasped between two fingers, with four or five juveniles hanging upside-down in one hand. Fish of all varieties sat in deathly displays, foiled by their fellow earthlings. The conical hat was now in charge of this space as the majority of women seemed to own one and wore it proudly despite the shade offered by the tarpaulin roof. All around was the chatter of trade in the usual South-East Asian tone of high vocal peaks and lingering lows. If this were a competition of vocal expression, these women would be leading at the front and at the same time causing everyone else to plug their fingers in their ears.

I emerged into the sun again and after thirty seconds decided to sit in a café, away from the direct heat. I was already sweating from the enclosure of the market, I could feel the sun was going to try its best to bake me alive. Café de Amis was a small, humble establishment with green and white tiled floors and two men playing draughts at the table by the open-fronted entrance. Mr. Kim, the café owner, fired up the old stack system. The sound of piano and guitar jazz flowed smoothly and combined sublimely well with the sounds of outboards and market trading. I sat quite happily just watching the glistening water shine a dancing pattern of silver light upon the hull of a wooden fishing boat by the river's edge. The occasional slam of draught pieces on the tile board startled me time after time as the two men became excited and restrained in equal measures when the game progressed towards the crowning of a winner. An unfortunate turn of music occurred when When you say nothing at all came through the café speakers, I knew then that it was time for me to step back out into the sun, away from Ronan and his mates.

The streets and architecture of Hoi An were absolutely one of its best features. French colonial shop fronts had been tastefully kept and improved upon with solid woods and a refreshing lack of neon, instead favouring wood-carved signs which held both tradition and style in a delicate balance. Clothes tailoring was a speciality here, and for a relatively modest sum one could have an entire wardrobe made to measure. Slightly worried about my sexuality I found the women's clothes to be so much more appealing and of great taste. Floral designs and modern tropical colours were used expertly with earthy shades to create some stunning apparel which hung curvaceously from headless mannequins. Rustic old cafés with modern touches dotted each street, on which there was a peaceful lack of motor vehicles; bicycle seemed to be the way to go in this town, and it matched the old-world China feel that hung in the air. Ancient Chinese style bridges and temple roofs made up the rest of the character. With one ticket, you could visit the several temples and sites of interest which popped up with every two minutes of walking, protected behind gates, adjacent to a clothes shop or café. There was a wonderful unity about this town which spoke wonders of the way in which the modern purpose of business had been muted with natural style and combinations of colours so as not to encroach on its natural charm.

Stepping out that evening it was plainly obvious by the long strips of darkness on the street that businesses close early here. It was so normal to see all businesses open late at night in Asia that I'd become used to the luxury of late-night purchasing. But as I suspected there's always one converted home/noodle shop restaurant (with flimsy tables and the all-too-popular miniature plastic chairs, small enough for a five year-old) which has its lights on and a pot of noodle soup warming on the stove. With a filled stomach I began the walk back to the guesthouse and noticed the incense sticks placed in the cracks in the pavement. Ahead of me, on the left-hand-side of the street a woman bent to place another one outside her place of business. She took two steps back from the incense and clasped her hands together, bowing slightly and swaying her hands forward three times in prayer. She turned to the right, repeating the gesture, before finishing with the same prayer offering to the left. I got the feeling that blessings were being bestowed left and right as the town seemed to have a good thing going on.

I woke the next morning, bleary-eyed from all the bad feng shui energy, probably, only to find a scorpion waiting in the bathroom. At the corner of the bath tub, there he was, looking all innocent, not moving a muscle. At only two inches long, the little brown and black devil wouldn't normally have concerned me, only I'd constantly heard from wildlife programmes such as Nature's Killers or Extreme (a title which always amused me, extreme what?) that the smaller the scorpion the more flipped-out you should get about it. Playing by that rule, I should be delirious at the sight of this little monster. Saving the drama in an oh, by the way, kind of approach, I nonchalantly mentioned the presence of the murderous beast to the Lilliputian at reception, whereupon she notified the similarly dinky Vietnamese man standing beside her. So as not to look like a pansy, I made sure I walked at the front of the Scorpion Removal Gang, which consisted of myself and the aforementioned, as we marched, or rather, casually swayed down the hotel's long and narrow ground floor corridor. But it was no use, my humiliation came as the gentleman strolled into the bathroom, placed a single finger on the scorpion's back and swept it away without a second breath. Oh, right, yeah, I mean, I didn't want to hurt the poor thing with my manly hands or anything, I could've handled it, it's just I don't know where he lives, so I thought you might have been able to take him home, but that's cool. I continued to offer myself consoling thoughts of the creature's well-being, when what I felt more than anything was relief not to have risked a sting on the finger and instant death. Little did I know that tomorrow morning the scorpion would be replaced- in exactly the same spot- by a fat cockroach. Had I stayed another day, who knows, it might have been a spider; collect the whole set.

Here in Hoi An, I felt content with just strolling the streets and observing the labyrinth of lines on faces, faces perched atop frail, sauntering bodies, which as they came closer appeared less and less human and more like that of a grazing bear; mind in tow. What have those eyes seen and those ears heard that goes beyond my feeble experiences? I wondered to myself. What did they think at the first sign of foreign visitors? Would they smile or stare if I tried to talk to those deeply-chiselled shields? Would they bat me away? But I had no words for them, I felt inadequately qualified and removed; looking on was my only duty on this occasion. The Vietnamese were beautiful people, but I couldn't help staring at the weathered rocks in this river bed of smoothly rounded features, the craggy outcrops that told silent stories of steadiness under a battering wind.

I enjoyed Hoi An, and so it was with some displeasure that I arrived in Hanoi the next day. Seven hours sleep on the bus was a record though; the wonders of Diazepam. I bunched into a taxi with three other English travellers and enjoyed a free ride to the accommodation. As we leaked out onto the pavement and into Hanoi Guesthouse- for whom the driver was working- to look at their rooms, I pulled a cheeky little number and wandered off, not checking in, but instead I checked-into the City Gate Guesthouse, my own choice; cleaner rooms, nicer staff and an actual lift. Such luxury.

Walking around Hanoi, two things became very clear: it wasn't quite as presentable as Ho Chi Minh City, and they sold a lot of bags, belts, boots and t-shirts. Despite these initial impressions, as time went on I felt good about the general vibe of the capital. As usual the offer of 'motorbike' was as forthcoming as ever; I adopted my usual tactic of smiling, saying 'No, thank you,' and walking on. Hanoi had some interesting building fronts, but as usual the narrow shops at street-level stole the focus with a visual shout. I tried to imagine the hypothetical atmosphere were Hanoi devoid of shops. Like Kathmandu, I'm sure it would have been a very different entity.

Between the many buildings of Hanoi were a series of narrow alleyways. Dark and foreboding. Despite the paths being public space they led to private residences that were buried deeply, away from the sun's penetrative rays. If I was brave enough to have a look I'd have to duck my head and carry a torch, but I got the feeling the locals wouldn't take too well to a camera-toting foreigner making a path for their residence blocks. These alleys used to be prime location for late-night deals, now they were just vital arteries for locals to make their way back from the street and into a chasm of lightless homecoming.

It was time to shift on. Hanoi to Halong bay took three hours and with grey skies overhead I arrived anticipating a few days of natural beauty in this UNESCO world heritage site. Halong bay was home to roughly three thousand limestone karsts (peaks) that rose up from the sea bed and up out into the dry world. Similar peaks can be seen in China and Laos where they climb from the land towards the sky, but only in Vietnam do they sit in the sumptuous setting of a marine panorama. Once aboard the junk, we were told this would be our home for the night, and as the only single traveller in this group of holidaying tourists and backpackers I would be the lucky one with a luxurious cabin all to myself; next door to the engine room. Bitter-sweet might sum this up. The dining room on the junk was exemplary. The elegant place settings and white high-back chairs with purple ribbons tied to them gave the ambience a touch of class. Outside, the limestone karsts sprung up from the seabed as if to touch the sky with sturdy form, and stood, each one like a majestic and wind-whipped gravestone; grey and green, life clinging to lifelessness.

Halong translates to Where the Dragon descends into the Sea, and as legend has it this mythical beast during one particular hissy-fit tore a new a-hole for the land and dunked his sulking self into the sea, whereupon the area filled with water and only the peaks were left visible. For those who have their head stuck firmly in the realm of conceptual reality, the karst peaks were just the consequence of a once-whole limestone plateau which gradually fell apart over the course of twenty million years. The groundwater shaped the land from beneath, creating caves, cliffs, grottos and sink-holes, eventually weakening the overall landscape and allowing the sea flood waters to do the rest about two million years ago. This left behind a shattered remnant of what once was, but still life clings to these shores and we humans now have playground in which to gawk and drop beer cans; inevitably.
During a visit to some surprisingly vacuous caves, lit by shades of green and purple bulbs, we were unfortunate enough to have to listen to Vietnamese guides describing every stalagmite as vague look-alikes of something random and unexciting. 'This one we call the happy Buddha; look at his belly.' Or 'This one we call the dragon; you can see his wiggly tail,' and my personal favourite, 'This is finger rock, if you look closely you can see it resembles a pointing finger,' when clearly it looked just like an erect cock and balls, and everybody knew it.

Kayaking around the deep water bay was one of the best things I could have done; conquering a fear that saw me fearful of the unseen contents of the deep blue. I glided through the calm waters from cave to karst, marvelling at the giants surrounding me; focussing my brain to take in the memory and allowing myself to remain in the moment for as long as possible. To be here, to be free, to be floating through nature's twenty million year project, well I was lucky.

The junk floated in the middle of the bay, surrounded by a few other moored boats which seemed like cockroaches in a night shadow, their shiny decks and twinkly lights beaming sparkly reflections of moonlight and electricity our way. The mighty karst peaks disappeared with the sun's last rays, patiently awaiting their reappearance in morning splendour upon its inevitable revival. We swayed gently with the rise and fall of the tidal current. I woke suddenly with the sensation of cold rain falling upon my face and realised I had fallen asleep on the top deck, it was one o'clock in the morning and a relaxing lay-down had obviously turned into a fully-fledged sleep. I dragged myself downstairs with the comfort of thought that I had a luxury cabin in which to rest my head, and with the engine switched off had myself a luxury sleep till dawn.

The next day, this extravagance I shared with the middle-aged Aussie holiday-makers ended abruptly when I was dropped off at a distinctly average-looking hotel on Cat Bo island. I knew this type of hotel. I had stayed in this type of hotel. 'OK, you,' our guide said to me with a pointed finger. 'Come.' I disembarked from the minibus and followed him inside. This would be my barracks for tonight, and as I rested on that thought, the others were whisked away to a five-star resort, pretending to feel sorry for me, but secretly awaiting the feel of soft towels and crisp bedsheets, living the high-life.
So, the room. Stained walls, broken lights, hard bed, loose taps, blocked sink, gaffer-taped mirror, broken fan (wired with bare copper-wire wrapped around the 2 pins of the extension lead plug) and a musty smell that topped the whole thing off with an impressive level of neglect. Tour over.

On the boat back to Halong City the next day I laughed to myself at how polarised the two nights were in comparison. Promised the world, and delivered the dark side of the moon. My arrival in Hanoi brought back a sense of the familiar. The same bustling streets, where I found it inexplicably easy to get lost if I took more than two turnings while out and about, where you'd slip on the pavement and jar your back a dozen times a day with only a hint of rain forecast, and where you'd perpetually be given the offer of motorbike at junctions, a distraction most unwelcome, as these junctions in Hanoi are the most important place to keep your wits about you as you have to look in four directions before crossing. It seemed a bad choice of location to try and distract people with something they probably didn't want only to risk seeing them step into oncoming traffic.

Two more nights in Hanoi due to a delay at the Chinese embassy. I was waiting for the return of my passport, with the addition of a visa inside. And on the morning of its arrival I left City Gate Hotel in a storm that seemed intent on drowning us all with thick, fat rain which fell in heavy gushes which drenched anyone in less than five seconds of exposure. I stood under the awning across from the hotel where an old lady in a cone-shaped hat picked out copper-coloured cockerels from a metal box on the floor. Their legs and wings bound, held upside-down between the old lady's practised fingers before being shoved into a weave basket.

On the bus journey, cows stood lazily in waterlogged fields of green grass and brown pools while lightning struck the sky around them. Parked cars were already half a wheel deep in rainwater. I had a rough and slightly outdated idea of the currency conversion and the transport system in China. But here I was about to cross the border into one of the world's most untranslatable countries only knowing that I had to get from Nanning to either Guangzhou or Shenzhen, and then from there to Kowloon in Hong Kong. No currency, no timetable, no guidebook, no hotel names and no background reading on China as an entity for the foreigner.
I noticed the Chinese characters that were embossed onto the headrest covers, it felt like a glimpse into the incomprehensible, and it made me nervous at the thought of being surrounded by such historic code. Modern sounds of Vietnamese love songs came through the coach speakers. The soaking I'd received was now cold on my skin and failing to dry under the air-conditioning, the lightning forked out from the sky every five or ten seconds and thunderous claps belched out from the grey heavens as if to warn me of something. Every bolt touched the ground, unlike the pacifistic, horizontal lightning I was used to seeing back home, and in the strangest of symphonies of sound and light we bowled on towards China proper through a beautiful landscape of more tree-covered limestone karsts thick with cloud and deep-green rice paddies barely hiding the conical hats and sturdy, grey oxen in their midst.

Posted by kookie888 22:58 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Southern Vietnam

I left Phnom Penh and Cambodia behind, physically, if not mentally. I would always be mindful of the atrocities of the seventies and at the same time encouraged by the last thirty years of proud and strong-willed people, true to their Khmer roots. You cannot really sum up what this knowledge does to you, it's one of those things that exposes language as the inadequate tool that it is, failing to truly express the pure feeling of one's spirit.

The six hour bus across the Cambodian/Vietnamese border proved to be both comfortable and efficient; transporting me to a world that nothing could have prepared me for. As the bus edged into Saigon- which is now known as Ho Chi Minh City- the sheer scale of its roads and buildings mesmerised, as did the density of its road traffic. I have seen the chaos of India's big cities and I have been to some of America's largest and most impressive state capitals. But I have seen nothing quite like this before. The combination of modern infrastructure, tall skinny buildings, wide roads that disappeared into the distance as far as the eye could see and motorbike traffic which fills those roads to the brim was something that has to be seen to be believed. The traffic waits patiently at the lights, growing denser by the second, a road made for three or four cars side-by-side would have ten motorcycles, two-hundred deep, and looking like one gigantic bellowing snake of metal and bones it moves like a needle through flesh, before coming to a stop at the next red light. Where there are no lights the feeling of suicide is significant and I'll never forget my first experience riding pillion, approaching that oncoming flow of bikes. As our motorbike reached the head of that snake, it seemed to swallow us whole and pass us out the other side, without collision or scrape. It was disgustingly fascinating.
The same went for pedestrians. I watched from the coach window as a woman in baggy trousers nonchalantly walked through a steady stream of heavy bikes, making it through with hardly a look at any of the impending deaths she could have faced. If you didn't show hesitation then the traffic would simply move around you. The vision skills of Asian drivers in general has to be top-notch to stay alive. Often their downfall when driving in Western countries is thinking that people will move out of the way for them when they emerge into traffic unexpectedly. The other formidable quality of Saigon was the inescapable heat which cooked those who dare stand in its presence for too long. Despite the stifling heat and humidity, the streets were always full with Vietnamese and the odd foreigner walking somewhere or other. Those conical hats were starting to look like a good idea, but escaping the hot air would have required an air-conditioned space-suit; something I fantasised about on more than one occasion while delirious from the heat.

Taking heed to the warnings of coach staff concerning pick-pockets, I tied my wallet to the pull-string on my shorts and stuffed it into the waistband, and in a pool of sweat I set off to find a guesthouse in the Pham Ngu Lao district; as a backpacker area I knew I could find a good deal there. Despite the nature of the oven that I had arrived in I managed to sway myself from the extra few dollars of an air-con room. Sooner or later I'd shell out, but for now I was taking the punishment. My days in Saigon passed by with only a few attempts to get out there and see the city. It was simply too hot and I hadn't the energy to push myself into this vast metropolis, only to refuse to go on at some midway point, and so on day three I made for the small seaside town of Mui Ne to catch that offshore breeze.

Known for fish sauce and sand dunes, Mui Ne sat on the coast of the South China Sea, with beaches that look somewhere between attractive and littered, and where the strong coastal wind made it an ideal destination for kite and windsurfing. The best, most happy moment in Mui Ne however was the end result of this little conversation:
'Hello, you looking for room? said the man perched on the edge of his chair.
'Mmmm...maybe,' I replied, weighed down in the street with a twenty-odd kilo backpack and a very dark sky above. 'Come, follow me, come.'
'I need something for no more than ten or twelve dollars.' He walked me to a nearby hotel on the main road, which felt like the only road in this little town. I could hear the sound of the sea crashing just fifty feet away. 'Forty dollars,' he said after consulting with the proprietor at reception. 'Err, no that's way too much, ten dollars.' I offered in a bizarre contrast of financial fortitude. They talked for a few more moments. 'OK, twelve dollars,' he said. 'That's with hot water, satellite TV and air-con.' Magic. All I heard was air-con, and I immediately accepted. The walk through the night time garden revealed a cosy little paradise and up the stairs was my solidly-tiled and slightly-too-warm but nevertheless impressive room. Twelve dollars for this was a steal. If there's one thing that constant travelling teaches you it's value-for-money. The bonus in the deal was when the air-con refused to work and I got upgraded to an even bigger room, a room that not even two double beds could make feel small.

On the second evening, while walking around the main strip, I walked past an area of roadside set aside for daily seafood trading. A group of Russian tourists gathered around the large shallow tanks filled with a smorgasbord of exotic sea life: eels, huge shrimp, baby sharks and some unusual shellfish. People pointed at the unexpected variety like children at a zoo. A Russian man dictated what he'd like to eat for his next meal when the owner of the stall picked up what looked like a baby lemon shark by the tail and then slammed the two-foot long creature on the ground to stun it, just so that he could weigh it on the scales without it writhing away. I looked into the shark's eyes, the already dark pupils seemed to be crying out in agony and shock, not knowing where it was, its body convulsed in short, sharp jerks and all around us the people let out amused laughs. I hated every one of them in that moment but all I could do was walk away in disgust.

I was quite content to just relax in Mui Ne and not do much else, besides one thing: the most super fandango activity of sand boarding. Plastic sheet, sand dune, gravity, that's all I knew about it. There were red dunes and white ones accessible by motorbike, and so the next morning I jumped on my hired ride and made for the sand.
The route took me through a continuing scene of Vietnamese villages, where the elderly sat out on porches and the houses themselves carried so much character that I had to keep stopping to take in the atmosphere. It looked like the back and beyond of an old Mexican parish, the red earth filled in the gaps between the houses, road, green bushes and flowering trees of peppy colours. The houses had pastel colours painted on their fronts, but with their flat, grey sides they looked like they were once part of a terraced line-up. This was just the style in Vietnam, saving paint, maybe? The flair in their design seemed most out of character, although I don't quite know why; Vietnamese architecture brought a confident and unapologetic look that was missing in both Laos and Cambodian buildings. Even the most average or slightly destitute townships built their houses with bright colours and long, white pillars out front. Children on bicycles and adults in hammocks on wooden verandahs made up the present population and of course they stared appropriately at the stranger passing through.

The vista opened up and made me wow at the sight in front of me. A grand sea view filled with more than a hundred yellow and blue fishing boats sat lulling on the wash of the rippling waves, each with a bright red flag and a gold star; the flag of Vietnam. It was a flag you would often see coupled in the streets with another which looked like its perfect partner, the red and gold of the former Soviet Union; hammer and sickle representing the hard-working ideal of communism, an image which roused recent feelings of sadness for the Cambodians that went through this system like meat in a grinder. If only they reaped the benefits of all the crops they harvested during that time, it all went to China in exchange for munitions. It's sadly ironic how they worked hard to produce life in the ground, only for their enemy to kill them faster with the end result, sending them back to the dust.

I arrived at the red dunes of Mui Ne, slightly less impressed due to the dunes I had seen and climbed in the Thar desert of India. But, I put my fun hat on and paid the kid a hundred thousand dong ($5) to rent his sorry sheet of plastic to ride down the slope. We walked for five minutes up to the crest of the dune whereupon the lad scooped handfuls of sand onto the plastic sheet and instructed me to sit on it and to brace my feet into the rudimentary straps. Leaning back, he pulled me over the edge and sent me sliding down towards the vacuous bowl of emptiness inside the dune's mouth. Now, if this sounds like fun to you, I can assure you it wasn't. Sweating in the afternoon sun, sliding at pedestrian speeds on something you thought would be so much cooler, getting sand in every pocket, in both ear holes, in your mouth, under your fingernails, down your shorts and all over your skin as the desert sirocco whipped the sand across your sunburned exterior, not fun at all. At the bottom of the ride, I stood up, disappointed that the run was slow, short and boring, but most of all that I would now have to walk back to the top in deep, sun baked sand, leaving me breathless and unenthusiastic to do it all again. But, I paid $5 for this torturous hell, I may as well light my indignation up properly. After an even slower second run I winced in sourness and began walking back up the slope for a third and final slide. It occurred to me, as the desert beat my skin with tiny grains of sand and attempted to suffocate me in a bowl of dry empty hellishness that the desert is without doubt the most depressing and hopeless place in which to be lost. There is no comfort in the desert, there is no shade from the sun, there is barely a drop of water, add to that the danger of wildlife and dehydration from breathing and merely existing and you have a shitty open grave of a place that kills people in hours, not days. It makes all the difference when the wind stops, and when you have a camel carrying supplies of food and water for you. But enough of this nonsense, it was the worst $5 I ever departed with. If I'd have paid for someone to punch me repeatedly in the testicles, it would have been better spent.

Mui Ne to Nha Trang took six hours on the bus. I was moving North towards China. I did however have time to see a few places in Vietnam before crossing the border, and on that six hour journey I experienced a slide show of Vietnam's verdant landscape and lush nature set slip past the window.
I arrived in Nha Trang attentively following the street signs through the bus window to the exact position on the map I was holding, this way when the bus stopped I'd know precisely which direction to walk in to find my selected hotel. And I wasted no time, straight off the bus, collecting my bag and getting my no thanks replies ready for the touts. Actually, that part usually comes first as they begin to hound you on the bus' stairs, virtually blocking your exit. The warm evening was complimented directly by an enlivening sea breeze, brushing through the palm trees fringing the promenade and hoisting several dozen kites in the softly-lit azure sky; a sense of ease was about this place and that was always welcome.
My days in Nha Trang were passing like the sea breeze, besides the hot and sweaty afternoons, the weather was fine and the seafront a pleasant place to be, since my guesthouse was brilliantly located down an alley which came directly out onto the promenade, I could cross the road and be on the beach in less than a minute; the twelve dollar room rate was another bargain in the bag.
Using the South China Sea as a backyard swimming pool and floating in its warm blue waters out at sea one afternoon, I thanked my lucky stars that I was able to be in such a tremendous location. The boat that took us there was another bargain at seven dollars for the whole day, including a huge spread of local food, some free drink on a floating bar and visits to four islands offshore. I cast aside my irrational fear of sharks and bobbed up and down with the water's gentle motion and diving from the top deck into the deep blue expanse, only to learn days later that Vietnam is prime territory for the box jellyfish. I might not have been so relaxed had I known that at the time.

On the last night before leaving Nha Trang I went out for drinks with a group of scuba divers. I met two of the girls in the group in a bar earlier that day; they played a particularly horrific game of pool whereupon all the balls were pocketed exclusively by fluke. Quite an astonishing feat when you think about it. One challenge on the pool table and voilà! I was invited out. It didn't take much in these situations to become part of a social gathering, and this was one where the beer was the equivalent of 11p a pint. Beer at this price is dangerous. For instance, afterwards you might end up at a sailor's club, pretending to be an employee, drunkenly dancing with an attractive girl whom you didn't realise was a hooker, and then end up sitting at a table drinking more alcohol with three Yakuza gangsters, before wandering down the roads with an Englishman from Chelmsford, and sitting down on the street corner to eat two portions of the most amazing sautéed beef with egg, only to have to dissuade the Englishman from fighting with a fat Mancunian, and then wander home at six in the morning with an hour to spare before your bus leaves, only to fall asleep and wake an hour and a half later to the sound of frantic banging on the hotel door and having to throw your things indiscriminately into your bulging rucksack and emerge back out into the street, eyes squinting, and then to have to sit through a rolling six hour bus ride to Dalat, a mountainous inland town in central Vietnam.
Thank God that didn't happen.

So there I was, in Dalat...ahem, grey skies, falling rain and mushy head. Come on Adam, suck it up. I jumped off the bus, collected my bag and stared at the map, droplets of rain caused the page to crinkle lightly. A dozen or so tourists had taken the easy route and walked straight into the hotel that the bus had pulled up to; definitely a syndicate going on there. But I, wholly disappointed that the peaceful mountain town I thought I'd be arriving into, was actually a town like any other: noisy, polluted, jam-packed with traffic and honking horns, walked the route through the town's hilly streets towards Hotel Bin Yen. I had to get away from this noise.
Nestled down a small gravel road, Hotel Bin Yen was a sanctuary of peacefulness. The clean lobby had large chunks of ornamental marble resting on loosely carved and highly-glossed log furniture, statues of jade Buddhas, flowering plants, wood-carved Buddhist figures, classic paintings and a porcelain dog with a super glued-on head. The receptionist greeted me with a big, genuine smile. 'Ah, sorry, but the price, it is expensive.' I knew the prices were higher today; Vietnam was celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary of independence and reunification of the North and South, so hotel prices were doubled or tripled for these three days as the Vietnamese travelled around their country for a little break. 'It's OK, I know about it. Do you have a room?'
'Ah, yes, we have only a family room, but it is the same price, twenty five dollars.' The room was huge, three double beds, big floorspace and a spacious bathroom. 'Ah, yep, OK.' I bargained for a little discount and began to breathe a sigh of relief in the capacious air of the comfy room. As a first in Asia there was no air-conditioner, not even a fan. This was all down to the year-round cool weather of Dalat. My whole body felt extreme ease with the temperature, detecting something familiar from its home environment. While out walking in Dalat, if the sun was behind the grey clouds, it was like a temperate autumn's day, and when the sun shone through, a mild spring appeared in the air; perfect.

On day four in Dalat, I was disappointed to see it had rained everyday, and for the whole of each afternoon. The river, which ran through the town, gushed a light, but solidly opaque mud-orange colour through the concrete channel, and when it rained it thundered, and when it thundered you knew about it. At one point, a clap of thunder sent me into a shocked leap from inside my hotel room. Bombs dropping on the town would have been quieter than this. I'd never spend so long in a place and seen so little, only coming out of my hotel room to eat at some restaurant or other; avoiding the puddles and scooters. Beef noodle soup started to become a staple breakfast or lunch and I was no longer craving for toast in the morning in Asia, and costing just 55p it was pleasing my wallet too. When you are served a bowl of noodle soup in Vietnam the waitress brings over the bowl and contents, next to that she places a small side plate of lettuce leaves with a stalk of mint leaves on top, which you are to tear off and place in the soup. A small dish of lime slices is placed next to that, which they incessantly call lemon, and you squeeze the juice over the lettuce or into the soup. Another small dish with sliced red chillies is there for you to squirt some fish sauce into it, letting the heat of the chillies infuse with the sauce, you can then pour this into the bowl as well. Fish sauce is always used as a seasoning in place of salt. You will never see salt on an Asian restaurant table. The thick crushed chilli sauce on the table should always be used sparingly, if at all, or you will end up crying your way through your meal. Maybe some sweet chilli sauce to top it off and you're ready to go, spoon and chopsticks. Delicious.
Every restaurant in Dalat served a warm orange-coloured tea which was always free. It tasted vaguely of vanilla, but was actually artichoke. I never saw the fascination in it, but partook anyway, it was free after all, and you should always accept that kind of offer.

I sat in the hotel lobby, working on some editing, when the receptionist, Yen, turned and asked me a question. 'Would you like to go out with me later to a coffee shop to see Dalat Nights? Me and my friend and you can go.' I was surprised and humbled that someone who could be selling me a tour or renting me a motorbike and taking commission wanted to invite me out personally. 'Of course, that would be great, thank you,' I replied, smiling back in thanks. 'OK, after I finish work, I go to school [university], when I finish I come here and meet you, then you, me and my friend we go to café near cable car and maybe go to French village also.' Yen (pronounced: Ing) always smiled while talking to me, and appeared all the better for it. She was of the normal Vietnamese stature, wore Gucci spectacles which sat well on her kind face; and never hesitated in being helpful. Her friend, the second hotel receptionist named Thu (pronounced Too,) which meant Autumn season, had an adorable and elegant poise that kept your eyes firmly on hers, and the two of them made excellent company. There was a noticeable change in faces from Cambodia to Vietnam. The Khmers of Cambodia had darker skin, wider, flatter noses and fuller lips. The Vietnamese definitely had something of the Chinese about them and were very attractive people, often with beautifully well-balance facial features.
At Dalat Nights that evening the luminous eyes of the city lit up in their many thousands but struggled to penetrate the dark-skied and foggy vista. We three sat in the dimly-lit lounge bar on deceptively uncomfortable sofas with paper lanterns of every colour of the rainbow hanging above our heads. I never thought it a probable combination but the fresh orange juice mixed with milk and honey was a treat too. 'I'm gonna try this at home,' I said, pleased that each taste was not the gruesome mismatch that I thought it would be.

As uneventful as it sounds, today was the first day that while eating noodles I wished I'd had chopsticks; this was progress. Something that was awkward and foreign to my culture now made sense to me; the noodles just slipped off the fork and splashed back down into the soup, splashing me in the process. The correct use of chopsticks is akin to having a pair of fingers in your food, and as my dear Mother will testify, I surely liked to do that as a kid; squishing mash potato between my fingers was a personal habit of mine; my Mother watching on and mentally clasping her fingers around my neck.
As if I was being encouraged not to venture far from Hotel Bin Yen, my favourite little restaurant in this scene of mine in Dalat sat less than a stone's throw from the hotel front door. The small café/restaurant was a simple tiled floorspace with a clean, white wooden ceiling sloping from front to back, where the kitchen stood behind an over-sized window. Tiny, square contemporary paintings grouped in twos and fours hung on the white walls. Folding wood deckchairs and plain dark wooden tables with clean, minimalist white crockery laid on top. The two main dishes: pork chop and chicken, each served with rice and salad, free soup and free artichoke tea, were both equally delicious and without doubt the best taste to value ratio anywhere so far, at a thrifty $1, which as we know = happy mind and body. I scoffed that meal like there was no time for courtesies.

My best day in Dalat followed as Yen invited me out for the day; showing me the best sights; saving me the bother of forward planning. With Yen riding pillion, we rode to Truc Lam Temple and meditation area. A peaceful space overlooking Benhuit mountain and Tuyền Lâm Lake. The spacious Buddhist temple grounds felt new and pristine, it was true they weren't ancient, but I like to think the attendants wearing the cone-shaped hats just clipped those bushes to within a millimetre of perfection.

Exotic flowers abounded, double-layered rooftops typified the Buddhist nature of the structures, and all around modern and traditionally-styled materials defined the architecture into a Feng-Shui Monthly catalogue page. 'Do you want to pray?' asked Yen. I shook my head unconvincingly, following Yen into the temple. She picked up two incense sticks and handed me one. Walking around the people inside that were already praying, so as not to come between them and the Buddha image, Yen stopped and closed her eyes, hands clasped together in the Gassho style, holding the smoking incense. I watched her, partly knowing the routine, but paying attention in case something had changed in the last few weeks from the two and a half thousand year-old religion. Updates in periodicals were probably not a thing within this circle. After a few moments I closed my eyes, hands together, and bowed three times with my cynicism of organised religion preventing a full lean forward. I placed the incense in the large sand bowl and joined Yen outside.

Walking down towards the lake I began to realise how much I was enjoying the day. It was a satisfaction that this kind of platonic benevolence brought between two people that owed nothing to each other, but had time to share. The subsequent visits to the Cathedral, which Yen was constantly impressed by with its French-style cockerel on top of the rooftop cross. 'Look, a chicken!' she exclaimed in glee every time it came into sight. Rainy's café with its twinkly-lit night time garden and lastly the roadside viewpoint which looked down onto Dalat's black landscape with dozens of long plastic greenhouses cultivating rice and flowers lit up like candles in a midnight ocean of nothingness, all cemented a good day into the memory album. She was a good girl, and the funny thing was, she knew it.

All in all, Dalat had to be worked to be enjoyed, but as always, with the aid of good people, any place can delight, and it was.

Posted by kookie888 14:26 Archived in Vietnam Comments (6)

The Killing Fields and S-21

A Story of Cambodia: Part 2

I arrived in the city of Phnom Penh, finally knowing how to pronounce it I said it over and over again to myself, amused by its awkward sound. Phnom Penh struck me as a considerable city, filled with slightly different areas of individualistic character. Depending on what part of town you were staying in depended on what sort of experience you would take from it. The city was built on a network of grid streets, and from above would have looked like a cascade of spiralling octopus legs and spider webs, with many streets taking numbers instead of names. I jumped aboard a dollar-fifty motorbike taxi and headed straight for the area of Boeng Kak, a lakeside spot in central Phnom Penh. Not as relaxing as it sounds, but full of character nonetheless.

One of the major things that I wanted to see here in the capital was the site of the killing fields. When I came to South-East Asia, I'd only heard of the name Pol Pot, but didn't really know details of the story of Cambodia's years of genocide and political unrest. I felt I should fill in the gaps to better understand the country and her people, and so I visited.
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79, Pol Pot, who was himself from a Cambodian/Chinese family, wanted to rid Cambodia of any trace of Western influence. Those that had received an academic education were sent to villages to become poor workers of the land- if they were lucky; the hope was to wipe their minds clean of the dirt of intelligence. And if they were not so fortunate they were segregated and rounded up for one of two major destinations: Tuol Sleng prison, a large holding in the city otherwise known as S-21, or to the killing fields just outside Phnom Penh.
Two or three times a month a truck with twenty or thirty prisoners would arrive here at the killing fields, hands bound behind their backs, blindfolded and terrified, the prisoners were led to the mass graves and executed right there and then. When the number of executions became too frequent- up to 300 per day- the new arrivals were offloaded and dragged away to the tiny, festering prison on-site, and held until they could see to their demise. We've all seen footage of the Nazi exterminations, a gunshot to the head, mass graves. These prisoners had no such mercy, if you can call it that. Bullets were to be spared. As far as the regime was concerned the country would be no better off with these people and no worse off without them, they were nothing but indispensable individuals who had been corrupted by mankind's thirst for knowledge, or by the grace of privilege. Spades, hoes, lengths of bamboo, axes, anything was used to club these people to death. A blow to the head was not always enough to finish them off, and in many cases the piles of victims were spread with D.D.T and other chemicals to both cure the stench and keep suspicion at bay, and secondly to kill off those who were buried alive.

A warm breeze drifted along the dirt path, lifting the leaves from the ground. Behind me stood the beautiful, pure white Khmer stupa, which was built in commemoration for the dead. Beautiful on the outside, macabre within. All the bones and skulls recovered had been sorted and stacked on large shelves inside, filling the tall structure with mankind's evil. It was a resting place, in keeping with Theraveda Buddhism, which returned to Cambodia as its official religion after the dark days of the Khmer Rouge. I walked on, and paused at the mass grave which had previously held 450 victims. There were places along the path where the rain had washed away some of the soil to reveal bone and teeth fragments, where this occurred a small fence was erected around it to keep the memory. A mass grave of 166 victims, all of which, when found, had no heads. It seems the Khmer Rouge reserved some types of killing for certain people. Clear boxes, locked and secure held piles of clothes from people who were buried without them. In villages around the country people were made to dispose of their clothes and dress in plain black so as to rid them of the difference of appearance. According to the policies of the Khmer Rouge all people were supposed to be equal. Everyone. But it was clear that during these times there were definitive classes among these societies: the people running the show were at the top, then there were the model citizens who had been villagers and farmers all their lives and who helped keep the new city arrivals in check. Even among the new arrivals different levels of disgust were reserved for them depending on if they were morally corrupt by profession, or ethnically corrupt by race.
Walking on, I passed a mass grave of over 100 victims of women and children, most of whom were found naked. And then as I continued down the winding path, there came a place that chilled me to the bone and showed me a new, incisive level of inhumanity: a tree, the killing tree. This was an old and solid tree that was used as a post on which to beat the heads of young children. Held by the ankles, these poor, innocent babies were thrashed head-first into the tree bark, splitting skulls and destroying a generation of possible revenge, spurred on by the loss of their parents and relatives. For Pol Pot, it was the safest thing to do, he didn't want to receive the very justice he deserved and be killed by an aggrieved soul who had learned of what had become of his Father and Mother in this place. The heart and mind of the person doing these terrible acts had been wrenched from innocence and forced into bowing to the will of the Angkar (Kampuchea Communist party,) and with these actions bury their own soul in the blood of the dead and dying which they themselves led to the gates of unflinching brutality.
On a tree stump, lay a few teeth which had been recovered from the earth, next to the teeth was something so simple, something that represented such virtue that it took me aback: a marble. Whether it was placed there as a gift by a passing child or whether it had been found in the same spot as the teeth fragments, the presence of this one item brought home the despicable barbarity of those involved; a beautiful innocence, annihilated.

I left the killing fields, inwardly pensive and reflective on my fortunes. I placed a five-thousand riel note in the hands of a landmine victim on the way out. Having been forcibly involved in the Vietnam conflict and through decades of civil unrest Cambodia was still littered with these indiscriminate killers, which have taken so many innocent lives that it's a wonder so many countries are still using them. So easy to lay, so difficult to clear. I greeted the motorbike driver, who had been waiting for me. 'So, how did you feel?' he asked. My mind was still with the children and I could only express a very simple answer as we rode off towards Tuol Sleng prison, 'Sad,' I replied, disappointed that I could not voice a more comprehensive sentiment.

Five minutes later I walked inside the entrance to S-21 prison where the driver said he'd wait for me. The grey and depressing tones of the concrete structure seemed to be fighting against the insistent trunks of palm trees which had sprung up all over the site, giving the prison an exotic look which belied its dreadful purpose. Thousands of Cambodian men, women and children had been brought here for one main exercise: to extract information. I walked towards the left of the site and approached the building, which as I drew closer, stopped appearing like the layout of a school, and became the cold, harsh prison for which it was; simple structures and lines, devoid of any artistic appearance. It truly shows that the evil within us is directly countered by our creative side.
The open corridors looked out onto the tree-strewn courtyard, and the rooms inside the building were square and simple, and filled with the emptiness which hatred leaves behind. All that was left inside most of these rooms was the decaying iron bed on which its occupant(s) were tortured and/or left to die. On the wall, a canvas print of a helpless creature, torn with pain and inadequate reason. Each room the same, tiled floor, inexorably stained walls bearing a photo of a victim twisted with cruelty and a bare, rusty bed, all held behind iron bars and pitiless enmity.
Outside, a gallows, not used as a hanging stage, but the pole with cables tied to it was used to tie prisoners upside down, with their hands tied behind their backs until they lost consciousness, at which point the Khmer Rouge would dip them head-first into a jar of rancid water which they normally used as fertiliser. Around some of the larger rooms were displays of paintings, which showed the methods of torture the Khmer Rouge utilised for its prisoners. Fingernails being pulled away with pliers, wooden baths with wrist clamps which drowned the poor soul inside to within an inch of his or her life, and ritual thrashings with whips.
And photographs. Hundreds and hundreds of photographs of the prisoners as they were brought in and registered. The soulless faces ranged from disconsolate, to enraged, to retracted and vacant. I didn't want to comprehend what those eyes were telling me, I felt it quite clearly. I just wish there was something that could have been done sooner for the people of Cambodia.

I got onto the motorbike and once again the driver, whose unfortunate name was Demon, but with a different pronunciation, asked me again how I felt. I tried to explain the angst, but instead asked him of his own experience as we sped down the busy road. 'Do you remember anything from when the Khmer Rouge captured the city?' He turned his head slightly as he replied, keeping one eye on the road ahead. 'I was only four years-old but I remember everything. I remember the sound of bombs dropping. My family were told to relocate, so we moved all the way close to the Thai border; one-hundred and eighty kilometres away. It took us four days of walking. There were dead people all along the road,' he said, pointing towards the centre of the carriageway. 'We had no rain at that time, the season was very dry. When we were thirsty we drank water we found on the street, it was mixed with blood, but we had to drink.' Hearing those words I immediately felt blessed for the gift of life and saddened by the fear of its disappearance, all at once. I set out to learn something about what this country and these people had been through, and I'd received a vivid interpretation of the events of its civil war and acts of genocide. One of the biggest injustices is that Pol Pot died while under arrest in 1998 and never received a trial. A trial which the survivors and the deceased deserved. I praise Cambodia for showing the ugly side to its recent past. It was a land of smiling faces and hardy people, they knew full well that this was a blot on their history, but the story of the Khmer people goes on, resilient till the end.

Posted by kookie888 19:45 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Temples, Temples, Temples...

A story of Cambodia: Part 1

The dark of night had set in on Siem Reap bus station, which was essentially a gravelled compound a few kilometres out of town. I was beginning to suspect that bus stations in general were often chosen to be out of town so as to provide a job for taxi drivers. With each bus arrival a delivery of lost tourists just fall into their lap, job creation, done. 'To the centre, how much?' we asked the most prominent tuk-tuk driver to our group of gathering congealment of clueless faces. 'Err, umm $15.'
'$15?! You must be kidding.' Now the strange thing about travelling internationals is that basically, they trust no one. But there's a little bit goodness we all keep for special situations as these. If you think you're getting ripped off, you probably are, but to confirm this, you sidle on up to the nearest backpacker and ask if he knows the real price. Whatever they tell you, whether it's based on actually knowing or not, will be like the gospel itself. 'I think it's probably like...I dunno about $3.'
Right, that's it, I'm not paying any more than $3 for this or any other tuk-tuk ride while I'm in this country. You now have a marker. To cut a short story even shorter, I found myself on this tuk-tuk with three Swedes and a German, zipping down the road towards the town centre. The driver, who let us ride for $3 each (down from $15) worried one Swedish guy immensely. 'Ger has getrinken,' the Swede said to the rest of us before jumping aboard, speaking in German as a kind of code. 'Keine wasser,' he continued. I'd understood him to be saying that the driver has been drinking, but not water. In other words perhaps we should take another tuk-tuk since this dude that's trying to rip us off is also drunk. But in one of those moments which go against your better judgements we got aboard anyway.
Fortunately all was well and we arrived safely at our chosen destinations. 'I take you to one guesthouse, nice rooms, cheap, very good place,' the driver said to me as the last person aboard the rather sharply designed tuk-tuk. 'No, no, it's OK... I already have one booked,' I said and I directed him, surprisingly well having never been here before, from the map in my book. I didn't have anything booked of course, but you know when the driver starts recommending places it's because he's being paid commission, not because it's any good, and this was the only ploy that worked against it. I stepped off and approached the guy outside the guesthouse I'd randomly chosen. 'Do you have reservation?' he prompted. The driver was still lurking by the tuk-tuk. 'No,' I implied with eye-language so as not to contradict myself, I think in reality my expression was more like please take me, don't leave me at the mercy of this drunk driver. 'I'm sorry sir, we don't have room.' Crap.
'I thought you made reservation?' said the driver. 'I called, but erm... yeah I just called,' I said, hoping not to see my defence plan foiled. 'Oh so you just called but you didn't pay a deposit,' he replied, wafting some alcohol stained breath in my direction. 'Something like that.'
'So, we go, I show you guesthouse, if you don't like, you don't stay. It's nice room,' he said again. An involuntary thought said, just do it, so I resigned early. 'OK, fine, I'll have a look first,' and off we went.
Aside from the mould up the wall, the room was fine. What stood out as more impressive was the speed at which I was offered the opportunity of drugs and guns. The driver, a middle-aged Cambodian who went by the name Mr T, took off his jacket, revealing a pair of impressive biceps, more youthful than his face would suggest. He sat down and offered me a beer. I got the impression that this guy had been through a lot, but he smiled an accommodating smile and made sure I was happy with the guesthouse hospitality. I wanted to get to the details and learn something, so I engaged him in conversation about his experience of war.
Cambodia was subjected to one of the worst atrocities to humanity the world has seen in the last hundred years. I had arrived in a country that was still recovering from the events that took place here thirty-five years ago. I am talking of the Khmer Rouge and the merciless political regime of the infamous dictator Pol Pot. Cambodia had previously been a colony controlled by France, who saved much of Cambodia's land by protecting its borders from neighbouring countries, neighbouring countries (Thailand and Vietnam) who had been eating away at Cambodia's territory, nearly forcing it out of existence. But in 1953 when King Sihanouk led Cambodia toward its independence, this emancipated nation became the boiling pot from which a bloody civil war erupted, but not before fifteen years of repressive imperial rule. Both the left and the right were in disagreement with Sihanouk's policies, despite this being Cambodia's golden years of prosperity, and in 1970 he was overthrown by the army, and by his own General no less- Lon Nol. This American-backed General didn't last beyond five years, a combination of corruption and strong opposition saw his faction easily defeated by the Khmer Rouge (French for Red Khmer). The Khmer Rouge, a group of communist rebels, captured the capital Phnom Penh in 1975 and began a bloody campaign to rid Cambodia of anyone and anything they deemed a threat to the system, anyone who might be an ally to the West, intellectually or literally. Watches were taken from their owners, money was phased out, entire towns and cities were evacuated and the people relocated to countryside dwellings, forced into slave labour, which was seen by the Khmer Rouge to be the humble foundation on which his new nation should be built. This was the idealism of Pol Pot's socialist dream, this was year zero.
The country became Democratic Kampuchea, a name and a constitution which dozens of the world's nations recognised as legitimate. Educated persons were rounded up, intellectuals, rival politicians, even people who wore glasses, anyone who didn't fit their mould of peasantry and ignorance to progression and technology. And over the next four years as a result of mistreatment, poor health care, malnutrition and systematic executions roughly two million of Cambodia's people died. At the time, this was about a fifth of the country's population. Twenty per cent, dead.
The invasion by Vietnamese forces in 1979 effectively ended the Khmer Rouge's rule, despite the US still recognising them as the rightful government, probably not surprising since Vietnam had only rid itself of its American aggressor only four years prior. The Khmer Rouge were on the run and dispersed into the jungle bordering Thailand, leaving Cambodia to pull itself out of the grave.
Here I was, thirty years later, talking to a man involved in the remnants of violence that simmered in the country's hot and humid jungle during the aftermath; chasing Khmer Rouge soldiers that were still unaccounted for. 'I was in army from 1992-95. I had Rambo gun, I had rocket launcher, so Khmer Rouge man, they not come to my place...I don't want to shoot Khmer man, Khmer Buddah is my Buddah.' The sentiment took me aback. Although I didn't doubt his moral code, the natural appearance of Mr T's face had the look of deceit about it, it was the kind of face that screamed gangster, maybe it was the gold teeth, but he smiled liberally and never hinted at violence being part of his nature. 'So you lived in the jungle?' I asked, keeping my vocabulary simple enough to understand. 'Yes, in jungle I had time to smoke cigarette, to sleep, maybe eat or drink something, but I was so...[weak] in jungle no strong muscle.' He waved away his biceps in gesture. 'So, you want to shoot AK47?' he asked me and changing the subject. It was something I did want to do, but I held back my enthusiasm partly so as not to seem too keen and see the price go up accordingly and secondly I didn't want to seem like a gun-crazy Westerner with no consideration for the shit this country had been through. 'Maybe, one day.' I offered. 'Erm, it's $40 for one magazine. Thirty-one bullets.' OK, that'll last about five seconds, I thought, but kept it in mind because let's face it, AK's are bad-ass. 'How about Cambodia girl? You want girl?' Well that was it, the big three. Drugs, guns and girls. Someone could be very happy here. 'No, no thanks, I'll be just fine, no need for the ol' hookers just yet,' I said, 'thanks all the same.'

After walking around Siem Reap the next day, my initial conception of Cambodia was realised. What was I expecting? Skeletons in the gutter? Gun-toting children? I don't really know exactly, but whatever my preconception was, Siem Reap was very well put-together, and tore at my ideas as folly. It appeared modern in places I expected to see disparity and brassy when perhaps I envisioned suppression.

Seeing as I didn't have a chance in hell of starting my three days seeing temples with a sunrise, I woke up appropriately late and decided to shoot a machine gun instead. If you were of a nervous disposition, the lonely dirt road which led to the gun range might have made you feel a bit flighty, the complete lack of humankind when you got there would have set your mind racing with possibilities, only the guy in charge of the guns greeted us when the tuk-tuk pulled up outside the modest building. I walked inside the covered entrance to see a wall-full of what look like militarily used guns, rifles and rocket launchers. Kid in a candy shop. I wanted to fire them all. But if this was to be my only experience firing a fully-automatic weapon, it had to be the AK. It was the cheapest to fire, at $40, and for good reason. The Russian-made Kalashnikov AK47 is such a durable and cheaply made weapon that it is estimated to have been manufactured to the figure of more than three-hundred million units throughout its sixty-year history, and is said to have been responsible for more loss of human life than any other firearm. It took a large round: 7.62mm and the wooden and metal construction gave it the real old-school image that the weapon had built-up over the years. Virtually anyone who watches TV will have seen an African kid or Iraqi soldier with a Kalash over his shoulder. You could fully submerse this gun in water and cover it in mud and it would still work. This made it universally appealing on all continents and in all types of wars. The construction and design, however, didn't make it particularly accurate. The design in particular was prone to throwing up another little problem. When fired on automatic, the gun had a tendency to become so hot that the bullet in the chamber was susceptible to exploding in your face. I'll keep it to short bursts then. There were so many Chinese-made copies and other versions made in so many different countries of the world that the sturdiness of the original was now tainted. I would be firing a copy, but this probably represented a good portion of attainable guns out there so I wasn't too bothered.
I stood at the end of the range, the gun sat on the table with the stand folded out, the attendant went out to fetch the live bullets. He returned and loaded the magazine and cocked the gun with the sound of sliding metal chilling my senses, that was the part that I wanted to do, but I wasn't about to argue; although I did now have a loaded machine gun at my disposal. I waited momentarily for the safety briefing, but when he told me to put on the glasses and ear defenders I knew I wasn't going to get one. So I stepped up, took the machine gun in hand, lined up the sight, breathed in and steadied my feet, and as I breathed out calmly I squeezed the trigger, firing one shot at the distant paper target. The thump on my shoulder was both expected and really quite something. My blood began to flow that much more quickly as my heart turned up the tempo in response to the muffled sound of pure destructive power. I wasn't a violent person and I abhorred war, but the sensation was irresistible. I squeezed the trigger again and fired off two shots before the gun jammed and the smoking case of the last bullet had to be encouraged out of the chamber before it would fire again. If I was in the battlefield with this weapon, I'd have been spotted and shot before I would have any chance of clearing the jam, now I had an idea of how British soldiers felt in the Gulf with the previous incarnation of the SA80, which jammed as a result of getting tiny amounts of sand into the internals. And so it went. With every burst, the scorching empty shells kept failing to exit the chamber and I never really got going. Otherwise I would have been tempted to fire off a twenty round burst and scream like Rambo. It might have been for the best. Tempted to have a go at the American M16 for $50, I quashed that idea very quickly. You could do a thousand dollars here quite easily. The Rambo gun sat on the wall waiting for an over-eager foreigner to pay the $120 to fire a hundred rounds. But that was my little splurge over. Besides, I drew the line at shooting a bazooka at a cow; also something you could do in Cambodia.

In a bizarre coincidence I found myself at another guesthouse bar up town, drinking beer and shooting some pool with Mr T, when I looked behind to see a familiar face. It was Katleen. I'd met her on the Bangkok train as it rolled up to Chiang Mai almost two months and two countries ago, and we'd both stayed at the beautiful Green Tulip Guesthouse that I liked so much. We greeted, surprised after all the futile attempts to meet again along the backpacker trail had failed, and that here we were not looking for each other, in the same room. Katleen was from Belgium. Her face spoke of a friendly disposition, and I always liked the way she smiled during our conversations. It seemed to be a base expression for her, rarely changing, even if it was just lingering in her eyes. I sensed she was a girl looking out for herself. She knew what she wanted, and I appreciated the time we spent together in Chiang Mai, walking around the night market between paper lamps and fake watches, because I felt like she had a lot ahead of her, a lot to achieve and a lot to look forward to. She had all the hallmarks of someone that liked to be in control, and for that I expected to be ousted- which said more about me, than it did about her- so when she was was willing to spend time with me, I was happy to spend time with her. I liked that fact, and just enjoyed getting to know how she felt about life; and perhaps trying to uncover a darker side to her personality; never did manage it.

Waking in the dark I fumbled for my watch to switch off the alarm. Today my eyes would see the sun rise over one of the world's greatest man-made achievements: Angkor Wat. From 802-1220 A.D, during the days of the great Khmer Empire this vast Kingdom set about building over one-hundred stone temples to honour the Hindu gods, in particular Vishnu who is represented at Angkor Wat as the symbol of Hindu cosmology. At that time the Khmer empire stretched from China to the Bay of Bengal and it seems much was known by these people about the movement of the stars, and in particular a phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes. Consequently much of the positioning of these great temples and details about their North/South orientation was considered in conjunction with the stars in the sky.
Only the Gods were deemed worthy enough to live in a stone building, and so the rest of this once large metropolis was made of wood, the houses, palaces and political structures. And anything made of wood in this tropical climate is unlikely to stand the test of time. Hence the strange appearance of this land, all temples and jungle. As if the hands that built it were but morning dew on a jasmine flower, by the afternoon of their legacy, all trace of human dwelling was gone. Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, on a scale that would make most medieval or modern day complexes seem a tad underdone, manages not to intimidate the visitor. The grace of its proportions hides a behemoth of architectural grandeur. And the visual outline of its central tower no less calming than the closed lotus bud from which is is styled.
The rush of pre-dawn tuk-tuks plied the roads of Siem Reap like migrating salmon, I'd negotiated my ride with Mr T and would spend the majority of the day moving from one temple to another in searing heat and humidity; a Russian with nearly no English tagged along. The cool of the morning prepared the ingredients for a long hot day ahead. I walked across the stone bridge leading to Angkor Wat. Crossing the water took some time, the square moat is 600 feet wide and from the air must have looked most impressive. Once inside the grounds and past the walls of this magisterial creation the sense of scale doesn't occur to you as you stroll around, it's an amazing deception that could have only been achieved with forethought and expertise. One thing that does strike you is the realisation that there is hardly a stone left uncarved. Depictions of religious tales, decorative outlines, statues of supernatural apsaras the Kingdom's most beautiful and gifted dancers. It was all carved into the building by hand. The years gone by and the looters have taken their toll, but the restoration of these temples has been approached with a soft touch and by highly-trained artisans. Angkor Wat is as mysterious as it is impressive. I was still struggling to picture the events that would have taken place here. I wanted so much to feel a sense of activity, a sense of what was. But as usual I could only look on and admire the remnants of what was left.
Probably the second-most recognisable temple in this region is that of Bayon. Its unique feature is a collection of towers, each with a carving of a huge face on each of its four sides. As you enter the temple the niggling sense that someone's watching you is utterly inescapable. There isn't a place you can stand to hide from at least one of the 216 identical lightly-smiling faces. The expression is the unmistakable look of a person in total meditational bliss. Each face is clearly of the same person or being and it is thought to be a compound image of Jayavarman VII who was the greatest King of the Khmers, and of the Buddah himself.
The day was warming and at almost every opportunity a seat and a drink was a welcome sight. They knew it too, the people who traded here. You couldn't walk for ten minutes without being offered a bottle of water, not a problem in itself, but when 'No thanks,' means nothing, it gets slightly tedious.
'You want fridge magnet?' asked the little girl at my table. She was holding a basket around her neck filled with souvenirs. 'No thanks,' I replied. 'You can put it in your house.'
'No thanks, I don't have a house.'
'You can give to your girlfriend.'
'I don't have a girlfriend.'
'You want to know why you don't have a girlfriend?'
'Why's that?'
'Because you don't buy magnet.' I should have seen that one coming. She then proceeded to try to impress me into a sale, 'The capital of England is London, the Prime Minister is Gordon Brown, the population is sixty million.' I looked at her feeling wretched that I was going to turn her away again. 'Well done, thanks, but I don't need a fridge magnet kid.' She moved on to another table where an English couple sat. 'You want to buy fridge magnet?' I thought about telling her the wonders of open questions, she was setting herself up for a one word answer. 'No thanks,' replied the man predictably. 'You know the capital of Mongolia?' she asked. He saw his opportunity, 'If I know it?' asked the man. 'Then I go away,' she admitted. 'Ulan Batar,' he declared. 'Another one,' she said shaking off the loss. The kids were so unabashed that you had to admire their spirit, and I reminded myself that when you are born into something, it's not your choice. That thought went a long way to developing some patience.

My day around the ancient city of Angkor was enough to drop even the fittest individuals into a late afternoon comatose siesta. But that evening I sat at a bar restaurant in town for some tasty Cambodian food and got talking to a girl from Holland. She sat next to me. I was loosened up from the beer and began talking with her about our surroundings. 'So you went for sunrise at Angkor Wat this morning?' I asked. 'Yeah, you know, I think maybe, I might have seen you. Walking around, big camera.'
'Yep, that's me.' I couldn't believe that she recognised me amongst the several hundreds of people that flocked to that place this morning. 'By the way do you mind me asking how much you paid for your ride there?'
'It was $12 all together, for the whole day.'
'Damnit, you know what my driver charged us, two people, $32 in total for the day.'
'No, that's too much, that's not right.'
'And I bought him drinks throughout the day as well.'
'Well, we're actually staying at the same guesthouse. If you want, tomorrow we can go with my guy, he's really nice and it'll be a lot cheaper for you.'
'Oh, we're in the same guesthouse? I didn't see you at all, but you seem to be spotting me... stalker.' Nanine had a way about her that told me she'd be easy company, she liked to have a joke, and it was easy enough to oblige thanks to her excellent grasp of English.

I woke in the morning to a knock on my door. I crawled out of bed and yanked at the door, it was Mr T. 'Morning Adam, are you ready?'
'Oh erm, no, I'll be going around today with someone I met, she has a driver and we'll go together, sorry.'
'How much is he charging you?'
'Twelve dollars.' His face looked surprised. He must have known the going rate, I'd been assured that this was a normal amount. 'But how does he afford gasoline? What does he eat or drink?'
'I don't know, but I think it's the normal amount for a day on a tuk-tuk, right?' He had no answer. 'I can't work for that much, I'll have nothing left after.'
'Sorry, OK, see you later.' And with that he left, leaving me feeling slightly guilty.

The day began and I was pleased to see that despite her attractive appearance Nanine was a sweater. I wouldn't be the only one perspiring today. So here we were roving around the small roads of Angkor, with the breeze drying our wet faces, people and villages passed by our gaze and every time we stopped to see a temple the sweating and lethargy began all over again. As a result of this, what should have been an day of exploration and appreciation for one of the world's great sites turned into a little bit of appreciation and a lot of deep exhalation of breath before crawling out from the shade of the tuk-tuk. The driver pulled up outside one of the historic marvels, 'Shit, we're there,' exclaimed Nanine. We had to laugh as we realised how lucky we were to be seeing these excerpts from a notable historic empire. 'Did you just say “Shit, we're there?”' and we both had a little giggle.
It was the French that undertook such extensive restoration on the temples here at Angkor. They were only discovered by the West a hundred and fifty years ago, and when they were, it was clear how supremely the jungle had gotten on top of the complex for the last six-hundred years. The French led a restoration project to clear the creeping vines and roots of trees which had taken hold of the stone, above and below ground, and crushed it in its vice-like grip. Some temples were left in their original state, others were partially cleared so as not to lose their mystifying charm. Such as Ta Prohm. This temple became recognisable when the movie Tomb Raider was filmed here, creating an iconic image in its wake. The wild tentacles of nature's slowest growers leans on and grapples with a creation of mankind so sizeable that the two were bound to meet, in a thousand years, the union would never have stopped, the stranglehold tighter with every decade. Has a plant ever known more about the shapes of the human mind? And has tree life ever taken such equitable retribution over mankind's need to build?

The third day passed by in similar hot and hazy-headed fashion. Ending with the setting sun casting its last rays on us at a temple I can't remember the name of, we went to so many. The people gathered, the cameras clicked and the sound of a thousand perspiring, bedraggled individuals herding like animals muttered the silence from the air. The Hindu and Chinese new year was turning. Siem Reap was celebrating. And with the end of these three days in an ancient wonderland Nanine and I went exploring the charismatic markets amidst a thousand neon and well-wishing lights for another year on the Chinese calendar. Another year in which the temples of Angkor will have to be protected from the wandering roots of its environment, so that others can enjoy the magnificence of their bewildering ancient glory.

Posted by kookie888 23:46 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Tubing, Prostitutes, and Mekong nights

I couldn't very well leave Vang Vieng without going tubing. The town was famous for plonking tourists inside a tractor inner-tube and allowing them to float downstream for a few hours; feeding them with beer and brownies along the way. No wonder there'd been a few drownings over the past couple of years, but everyone was at it.
I turned up with my over-sized tube, pulled the shirt from my back and stood at the water's edge where it seemed mountains of decking had bar after bar there, blaring out music and bawling about the availability of free shots. Shameless Westerners in ill-fitting bikinis walked up to the newcomers and spouted the evening's deals. 'All right? Wanna come 'ere tonight? There's free shots, if you come between eight and ten it's 'appy hour 'n' we've got a promotion on where every time you 'ere a Beatles track, yer come to the bar and you'll get a free bucket [of cocktail].' My face must have looked disgusted as I said nothing. 'So, will we see you 'ere tonight?' Her fat paunch poked out between the two pieces of her black bikini. 'Maybe' I said, with every vocal emphasis on don't count on it. I mean, I loved the Beatles with a passion, I just didn't want to feel like I was on an 18-30's cruise of Southend.
I took to the water and began drifting with the current down river. The river's width was maybe thirty or forty metres, the current was slow and the bars were lively with a younger generation. Free shots, Free cocktail for ladies, Special brownies 50,000 kip, Fish & chips. And every bar called out to you, trying to get you to come and have a drink. If you said no, the rope would come hurtling in your direction anyway, a bottle half-full with water attached to its end flying through the air and landing in a splash next to your tube so you could grab a hold and let them pull you in. In contrast to this, the second half of the course was serenely idyllic and had some shallow sections where the low river rushed across rounded rocks beneath which allowed you to pick up some speed, the feeling of nature taking you wherever it dictates is a special one, surrendering to free and peaceful energy was my idea of a relaxing afternoon, and the limestone karsts looked as impressive as ever.

That evening I walked into town from my riverside hut. I was meeting some people I'd gotten talking to at one of the tubing bars. They never showed. Maybe it was something to do with the fact that the girl in the group had been touched-up by five local guys on the last section of river. During that time we all thought she was safe in the company of three German girls, but she'd separated herself and mistakenly floated down the most quiet run alone, with the dark of the night closing in; she could only scream as they grabbed at her.
At the Rising Sun-an unusual name for an Irish bar- I saw another two people I'd met while tubing. The night drew on as the pool table and Beerlao mixed together to produce a very long and terribly played game of 8-ball. Another couple were playing along with us. A Frenchman, who spoke six languages- who, I'm sure would have come across as an impressive individual if not for his his forlorn drunkenness. The kind of drunkenness that had obviously been practised throughout his fifty-odd years, the dampened smile on his face seemed to be behind the rest of us in sober reality. He was living in Laos and spoke of how he was getting away from it all in the capital. And his date? A Lao girl, twenty-five to thirty years his younger. Her name was Mimi, and she'd come with him to Vang Vieng from Vientiane for a few days. He paid for everything of course. That was the way with these interracial couplings. And I bet he paid a pretty penny too because she was totally gorgeous. Even if she was with him for the money, even if she had a comfortable life under his wing and kissed him (and what-not) out of nothing other than having to, condone it or not- you couldn't take anything away from her looks. She stood a good few inches shorter than the rest of us, perfectly crafted and painted toenails lead up to slender and shapely calves of silky, unblemished skin, and thighs that finished at the hem of roughly-torn and well-filled denim shorts. A top of sparse material covered with semi-transparent black lace peaked at a perfectly shaped cleavage. Her face could and should have been doing something more self-respecting, as her features made up a face so beautiful and appealing that you wondered if this was her only choice in life. Looking like this should surely have opened up other avenues, but as it stood, there she was...bending over the pool table, making the game very difficult. The first thing she said to me was 'where did you get that from?' while stretching her delicate hand out and fingering the Goan necklace I was wearing. Between shots she asked my name, then my age and then established that tomorrow I would be going to Vientiane and that so was she. But what she had in visual appeal, she lacked in tolerable personality. Her childish temper and spoilt demeanour saw her slap the table every time she missed a shot, and then glare at any one of us with steely frustration. She wasn't shy. Some time into the evening she walked over to me from the pool table and sat at the stool to my right. 'My number, five-five-nine-nine-one-seven' she said quietly, but loud enough for me to hear, 'OK?' she asked. But I said nothing as I was mentally storing the number out of a combination of politeness and shock rather than an intention to call. She repeated it and then looked at me without a smile so as not to give anything away to her boyfriend a few feet away, 'OK?' she asked again.
'OK' I said, reluctantly. There was no way my frugal budget could afford this I thought, and I put it out of my mind. Being honest with myself, it never appealed to me to have someone like you because you have money, you see this game being played too much in South-East Asia and it's hardly complimentary to either party involved. If you wanted to lose a lot of cash very quickly, this would be the way to do it.

Vientiane, Laos' capital, was a small city and the centre easily walkable, with not much to appeal to the tourist but a few modern and interesting cafés and the prospect of watching the odd pimped-up vehicle cruise by. It seemed most out of character to see this in Laos. There was money in the capital, but as every local agreed, it was in the hands of too few. This was a liberally communist country, but when has communism ever kept differential advantage at bay? Government officials certainly liked to flash the cash with smart new bikes and SUVs. The rest of Vientiane stuck more closely to Laos' more modest personal spending habits.
Over the three days I was in Vientiane I spent a lot of that time in JoMa bakery café, watching life pass by its one-way glass windows and with my feet up in a lovely big leather chair complete with ice-coffee and chocolate muffin. A man in his fifties came to sit down opposite and over the course of the next two hours asked me questions about photography and suggested I should do everything I could to document the slashing and burning of the fields in Laos, and to approach any publication to pay me for the privilege. I thought hard about the idea, God knows I was running out of money, and it was topical. As he spoke, he didn't allow for the smooth roll and fade of his Irish brogue and I found myself leaning in to catch the main points from the things he was saying. I could at least piece it together if I got the odd word here and there. It always made me nervous nodding at unheard dialogue. 'You should go for it' he'd say, 'what have you got to lose?' I thanked him as he left, and realised I never did get his name.

That evening I walked the streets of Vientiane for no other reason than to get out of my steaming hot room, mental note: must pay for air-con one of these days. Although it was illegal for a foreigner to sleep with a Lao girl, there were plenty of waiting prostitutes on the road of my guesthouse. All dressed beautifully with figure-hugging dresses and light-golden hair, but it could never fully detract from the square mannish faces and man-sized hands that nature had given them. Today was April first, that really would have been an April fool's surprise had you spent out for boom-boom or sucky as they so eloquently put it, only to be greeted by Mr Winky.
One of them attached him/herself to my arm. 'Where you go?' was always the first question. I was generally very polite and didn't mind speaking a few words in jest, 'this way' I'd say with a pointed finger in the obvious direction I was going in. He/she pulled me gently to one side with a mischievous smile. 'What are you doing? I'm not stopping.'
'I like you.'
'Oh!?' I said in a laughing question. 'I think you can find someone else.'
'No' he/she said in a tone that resembled a cheeky kid who didn't get his sweets that day. 'But I like you.'
'Keep looking, I think you'll like anybody, tonight me, tomorrow another man.' I said more honestly. 'But tonight I like you.' he/she reiterated. Then after a few more bouts of the same point being made, and in a swift move he/she stretched out his/her arm and grabbed something he/she shouldn't be grabbing. 'Right, I'm definitely going now. Have a nice evening.' I said pulling my arm away and walking off with a non-sighted wave. The people here in Vientiane really did have some balls. I didn't stick around to find out if that was true in the literal sense.

I found myself at a bar on the main road, unsure of what to do with myself I walked into its open courtyard and ordered a beer. I sat at the square central bar, which had four supporting posts covered in a light brown dimpled bronze-effect wood. I sipped at my Tiger beer and within two minutes felt its effect ease my mind. It was ten o'clock at night, a bead of sweat ran down my back and joined the gathering moisture at the base of my spine. It was becoming hotter the further South I went, and even at night wearing shorts and a vest top was not inappropriate for the conditions. I stayed for another beer, the conversations around me hung like notes on the air and soft acoustic guitar music spread like butter on warm toast and expanded to fill the ambience of the evening. A young American-looking man sat at the adjacent side of the bar to me, peeking out at the world from beneath his military cap. A large tattoo of a spider covered a significant portion of his right elbow, another indistinguishable tattoo graced the right-side of his neck. The staff walked about in red polo t-shirts and poured juice or popped the caps off beer tops as the twang of the acoustic guitar continued all the more skilfully, tempting me inside, only the hunger in my stomach dictated otherwise. The man with the tattoos got up and left, smiling at the most attractive waitress on the way out. The gentle tan of Lao skin and their smiling nature never felt so appealing, I was mentally settling down in this country and began to imagine a life for myself here. Laos had all the charming attributes of Thailand but almost none of its hard and fast ways. It was an appealing prospect.
A man with only his rolling tobacco and Beerlao as companions gazed out among the twenty or so tables that made up the courtyard; with most of them full, he placed his elbows on the bar, contemplating his presence, this was as much as I could tell, apart from the fact that he looked very English. His polo shirt had a distinctly Primark flavour to it, although I couldn't say why. It was a look that Primark managed so well. Mass fashion for the thrifty and imprudent shopper. A ginger lad with pale skin and a straw-coloured fedora hat followed two slightly-portly Lao girls up the stairs, pretending not to look at their short skirts along the way. Mr Primark rolled another cigarette. A woman carrying a green basket from the street approached the dining tourists on the street-side tables, no doubt selling roses and trying with all her might to instil a little guilt in the man's face for not buying one for his dinner companion. A large Western man left the dining area with his two Lao girls following behind like subservient pets, sticking together, a good two paces behind their paying master.

I left the bar for some kao pat kai (fried rice with chicken), which was the easiest thing to eat in South East Asia, damn yummy too, and on Thannon Setthathirat- the main street of downtown Vientiane passed the same prostitute that had been trying to get me onto his/her scooter all night; that's not a euphemism. When a large burly man in a vest top and blanket of sweaty chest hair grabbed my arm. 'Oi, right, where's the best bar round 'ere?'
'They're all closing mate.'
'Oi Dave, he says they're all closed.' he called out to his equally inebriated friend. 'Come on, just get in the bloody tuk-tuk, let's just go somewhere.' he slurred. And then they were gone. Representing England with all their eleven years of education, combined. Damn shame.
I walked on to a street I'd never been on before and stopped at a small hotel bar, where polyphonic ringtone karaoke was just starting up. I felt neither rushed nor stimulated, just content to wander. I ordered a dark Beerlao and sat for the next hour tearing at the label as a young girl in a royal-blue dinner dress sang Lao songs from a still-maturing set of vocal chords.
And so ended my time in Vientiane. Nothing significant seemed to be going on here. But in some ways that made it an easy place to be. There was enough to keep you going, without making you feel as though you were missing out on the other side of town. Secretly, I kinda liked it.

Oh good, I thought as I stepped onto the sleeper bus at Vientiane station, these sleeping berths are almost big enough for two, I'll be very comfortable tonight. Sleeper buses were common in Southern Laos due to the the straighter roads, whereas Northern Laos was a network of several thousand hairpin bends and would never allow such a luxury as sleep. I squeezed down the aisle, my shoulders were wider than the gangway and as a result I was forced to turn and side-step my way down, my crotch passing by the people in the lower berths like sushi in one of those modern conveyor-belt restaurants. For God's sake! I thought, as I came to the realisation that these beds were almost big enough for two, and that was exactly how it was gonna go down. I'd be sleeping next to a stranger tonight. What was looking like a good situation was now an annoying one.

I couldn't help but notice that the other buses in the station were of the most unusual breed. The gargantuan vehicles had been pimped, just like the boy-racer hatchbacks that sped down Vientiane's main street. One bus had so many vents in the rear, you could see the massive engine turning over, illuminated like a caged monster by several neon-green lights. The paint jobs took on a style of graffiti-art depicting mythical beings and spray-painted ethereal nature, and KING OF BUS seemed to be painted on all the biggest examples. They were significantly larger than even the most impressive coach I'd been on in Turkey- a country that knows a thing or two about bus travel. This was most unusual.
It was unfortunate that despite Southern Laos being flatter than anywhere in the North, it was still a problem trying to fall asleep in such close proximity to a stranger. Lay on your side and even the slightest of corners would send you one of two ways- into a five foot drop from the rail-less edge, or into a spooning position with the guy to my left. I didn't fancy either, so I stayed awake. Laying on my back was giving me tremendous back-ache from the hard surface. Mattresses didn't seem to exist in Asia, at least not when you're on a shoe-string. The Diazepam in my bag was looking pretty good by morning.

I arrived in Pakse very early the next morning, but as Pakse didn't have anything of interest going on I left the next day for Si Phan Don, or as the tourist board likes to call it- Four Thousand Islands. A network of jungle-ified islands that dot the Mekong delta in Southern Laos. It was getting hot already in Laos, the mercury was pushing thirty-eight. I'd even heard Cambodia was hitting forty-four with a suffocating humidity. It was the kind of heat that my Father would literally evaporate in, never to be seen again.
Three hours on a sawngthaew (a multicoloured pick-up truck with benches in the back) didn't prove too much fun. I sat on that bench, feeling every bump, the local guy next to me asleep on my shoulder and the Laos women tucking into snacks of small insects, and eggs- that when cracked open revealed a hard-boiled yoke and a soggy bird foetus. The wrinkled lady ate and enjoyed that fertilised egg with handfuls of sticky rice and a smile. It was utterly disgusting.
I hopped off the sawngthaew with two new travelling companions- Alex and Liz, a couple travelling from Devon. We walked South expecting to find the guesthouse from our guidebook. No luck. This was such a remote destination that a proper map didn't occur to the folks at Lonely Planet, and consequently we walked in the blazing hot late-afternoon sun for over an hour in the wrong direction. The problem was that the river crossing-our only point of reference- must have been moved, due to the low river levels, this threw us off completely. I was almost ready to collapse and declare myself road kill by the time my shirt had changed several shades darker with sweat.

This was the biggest island of the supposed four-thousand, Don Khong. It surprised me that this was the island that had had electricity for the longest time, getting on for twelve years now, it struck me as strange just how incredibly quiet an unhurried it was. Besides a few waterfront hotels, it looked like the real back and beyond, the kind of place that off the beaten track backpackers would love, and where village life flowed sedately.
The two days spent on Don Khong with Alex and Liz were a mixture of good conversation, communal sweating, dusty roads and utter, utter laziness; on my part. Five months into the trip now and I was feeling more unrushed, less likely to plan my itinerary and less enthused about doing the tourist thing; the latter induced by a lack of adequate funding. There was just no drive in me to rent an aged bicycle and trundle down rocky paths pummelling my arse on the hard seat and baking my receding scalp in near forty degree heat. I mean, what was wrong with me? Seeing Liz return like a wet lobster from a stewing pot made me realise- sometimes there is an advantage to sloth. 'So, how was it on the other side of the island?' I asked rhetorically. 'The same as here' she said. I smiled, inside and out, and mentally licked my finger to draw a 1 in the air in victory for the lazy.

The boat trip to Don Det saw us pass by many of the palm-fringed islands for which the area was famous for. Locals in their own burbling longboats waved or stared as we made our way South through the expanse of the Mekong, expertly avoiding the hiding rock structures beneath the morning shimmer of the water's surface. The houses that dotted the shorelines were all made from wood and stood on long bandy stilts where the bank dipped sharply towards the river to allow for its seasonal rise and fall.
Still in the company of Alex and Liz we disembarked on the sandy bank and walked in the general direction of the most signs. It's a subconscious instruction which you acknowledge on one level, but never really attribute your decisions to directly. 'I have roooom...' came the calls from the sides of the dirt path as the hawk-eyes of proprietors spotted the tell-tale sign of a new arrival- the large backpack. We walked a little longer. 'I have roooom...' came another offer. We walked past a monkey on a string, tied to a tree he couldn't make it any further than the fence by the pathway and just ran around in maniacal circles. Alex stopped and drew closer, the monkey leapt at him and landed less than an arm's length from his face, on top of the fence post. Needless to say, we all jumped. I was half expecting the little primate to offer us a room.
We turned back as soon as we made it to a point that no longer looked commercial, and where 'Hello... I have roooom' stopped occurring. Now, I wouldn't normally say that, after all, I wasn't keen on staying in the busier areas, except that this part of the world was a million miles away from anything you might normally consider over-run. And finding a shack which stood vertical on its stilts and occupied the budget end of the market required a little prudishness. Once we'd satisfied ourselves that we found the right compromise at thirty-thousand kip per night (£2.30), we settled on the offer of 'Hello, I have roooom...' I don't know, it just had a ring to it.

The days that followed drifted past like the Mekong's current, in deceptively persuasive fashion. The sun-blessed mornings crystallised from hazy sleeps, induced by late-night do-nothingness. Chillin' by the Mekong the sponsored phrase of Preston- the dreadlocked New Yorker with an impossibly pacifistic character. He occupied one of the four huts in this spot. And as the afternoon sun baked everyone and everything around it we took solace in the river's cooling embrace, swimming to an outcrop of small rocks, and trying not to encounter any of the Mekong's exotic and oversized marine life long the way. Best not to think too much about what could be lurking in these waters, I reasoned with myself. I'd heard tales of the endangered giant Mekong catfish, which was in fact, the biggest fresh-water fish in the world. It was somewhere out there, but gladly, I neither saw nor felt any of its ten-foot heft drift past in these murky depths. I knew that the Amazonian catfish had mistakenly gnawed at the odd leg or two. Imagine seeing something the size of a grizzly bear swimming beneath you. The Mekong was second only to the Amazon in bio-diversity, and the temperature of those waters somewhere between refreshingly cool and a sunned luke-warm; small families of fish swam about the clear surface around your floating fingers and toes. I even had time to take a trip out to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins peak in the distance, their finned backs arching out of the water revealing a creature so critically endangered in these parts that less than a dozen remain in these waters, and only seven thousand are left in other locations around the world. A real privilege for me to have seen them before the inevitability of their demise.

Before this place quiescently and wholly swallowed me up into one of those time voids I so often found myself facing, I left for Cambodia. It lie only a few miles from here and the Temples of Angkor were the only thing I knew I wanted to see. They were so iconic to that country that their name seems to appear in commercial guise in almost every Cambodian industry. Their image even graces the flag of this Buddhist nation in proud decree of the former great Khmer Empire which ruled these parts and many other portions of surrounding countries in South-East Asia a thousand years ago.

Along the way, the bus pulled over for a meal stop. In Asia, it appears that no one cooks for themselves, and cheap street side eateries cater for their own as much as for tourists, and as much for an everyday feed as a special evening out. It would be a good chance to have a look at the delights of Cambodian food. So I sat down, on my own, and picked up the menu. Item one: Fried mushroom with mixed stomach. It wasn't going well so far. It seemed that stomach was a particular speciality of this little establishment. 'I'll have the fried rice with chicken please' I said, slightly concerned which part of the chicken that might be. But I have to say, the warm and friendly service and a wave at the bus as we departed hinted that Cambodia would be OK. It's funny how the positive action of one person can be so influential on the imprint you take away. Perhaps even more so for a negative one.

Siem Reap was the town which served as a base for the tourists who came to see the temples of Angkor. At the crossroads for Siem Reap a few of us stepped off the coach for a change of vehicle, this bus would be going on to the capital of Phnom Penh. A place I never did know how to pronounce before setting foot on its soil. Before I put one step in front of the other I found myself clattered by a verbal assault from a porky ten year-old. 'You want banana?!' I was caught between senses and at that moment couldn't comprehend what a banana was, as my mind was elsewhere, but I knew I didn't want it. A simple 'no' popped out of my mouth as I began walking around to the other side of the bus. The little podge followed me. 'OK, but if you buuuy, you buuuy fwom me okaaay?' he squeaked. At first I laughed at the attempt at a verbally binding contract. Then it just became annoying. He added a 'don't forget me' for sympathetic types. The second, smaller kid repeated the obviously practised phrase 'OK, but if you buuuy you buuuy fwom me okaaay?' Each trying to build up a list of potential banana-hungry stomachs. I pitied the kids, they were only doing what their parents had told them to do, but where possible I tried not to encourage child traders by buying from them. 'Where are you from?' the skinny child asked me as I sat waiting for my fried rice with egg. 'England.'
'No.' I said again, he was naming capitals and football teams.
'New York?'
'New York?'
'Erm, that's in America.'
The portly kid barged in, for fear of losing a banana customer. 'You say you don't forget me' he accused, 'if you buuuy, you buuuy fwom me okaaay?'
God help me.

I would soon be arriving in Siem Reap. The ancient temples of Angkor awaited my footstep. And all I could think about was how I'd make the most of this special region of the world. An empire once great, now fallen, a country once in turmoil, now recovering; Cambodia was a story of greatness, a tale of wickedness and a land of charm, and I would do well to tell it in anything like its true guise.

Posted by kookie888 19:26 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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