Archive for May, 2007


Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

I arrived in Dalat not really knowing what to expect, only that I was leaving the crowded streets of Saigon for what the guide book describes as the jewel of the central highlands. I was not disappointed when the bus let me off in a mountain town that could easily sit somewhere in the Swiss alps. The cooler air was a respite from the stupidly humid heat I’d experienced of late, and combined with hilly streets brought memories of SF, whose cold summers I’ve been pining for.

After showing me a few hotels and guest houses in the rain, a local easy rider convinced me to take a tour of the area with him the following day. The Vietnamese easy riders are a network of motorcycle guides who offer tours of the country, primarily in the central highlands, that can span anywhere from one day to two weeks. Having already purchased tickets on the touristy open-bus circuit, I settled on a one day excursion.

Our first stop was the Hang Nga Gallery and Guesthouse, possibly the coolest looking, though at times creepy, place to crash I’ve seen to date. Designed by Mrs. Dang Viet Nga, who studied architecture in Moscow, it is a counter-cultural maze-like complex of rooms that borrows freely from some amalgam of Disneyland and Alice in Wonderland. The rooms look like dens in a hollowed tree, with irregular wooden furniture and large animal carvings. Five-foot tall eagles, bears and other creatures maintain guard and fake shiny stalactites line the hall to the dining area. I’m not sure I would want to stay here alone at night, but certainly makes for an entertaining visit that wakes up the kid in you. Maybe that is one reason the place hasn’t been torn down by the government as anti-socialist or counter-revolutionary.

Next I visited one of the palaces of Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam. Like the Reunification Palace in Saigon, this palace has been left largely unchanged since it was last used, in this case the mid-forties. This was his summer palace, a peaceful getaway overlooking the valley, and a perfect vacation spot.

Dalat seems to be a vacation destination for many people these days, and the great number of classy mini-hotels and attractions here point to domestic tourism, something I hadn’t seen much of in Cambodia. In fact, Dalat’s attractions are highly polished for visitors. I visited a modern pagoda, finished within the last ten years, whose neatly manicured grounds and beautiful interiors are on par with those I’ve seen in Japan. It overlooks a pristine artificial lake whose dam controls the flow of water to, among other places, a waterfall I would visit next. In addition to the normal half-mile hike down to the cascade, one has the option to take a single-car roller coaster, replete with hand brakes. The tracks guide you quickly through lush gardens down to the picture-perfect water, giving what is usually a nature-oriented excursion an amusement park feel. Likewise, a local makeout spot called the Valley of Love now charges admission to its lake, souvenir shops and costumed cowboys.

Ouf.. I managed to escape the tackiness and find a little local character at a small coffee and tea plantation, local vegetarian restaurants and the windy alleyways in town. But the main attractions are cheesy, seemingly for the honeymoon set.

It’s too bad, really, because between the tourist traps are the beautiful and lush fields, the region being famous for its artichokes, strawberries and wineries. Now that I think about it, it sounds a lot like northern California, which may explain why I enjoyed it so much. I was pretty tempted to take the Easy Riders up on a ride through the Central Highlands to my next destination, but for some reason I was feeling less than adventurous and decided to stick to the tourist bus, where everyone reads the same guidebook between naps.

With a sigh, I’ve promised myself to do it right the next time around.


Friday, May 25th, 2007

The bus ride from Phnom Penh to Saigon was the worst I’ve ever taken. Feeling a little out of sorts to begin with, I took my place in the back of the bus, which was overstuffed with scruffy backpackers. Apparently, the Koreans at one point decided to design buses with no storage space, as I was crammed in the back seat, trapped by two dozen backpacks which lined the narrow aisle running down the vehicle. If having barely an inch to move wasn’t bad enough, I was in the middle seat, essentially sitting with my back to the massive diesel engine, which would heat my seat for the next several hours. The air conditioning, barely functional, failed to reach me, and so I sat, doubled over, dozing in and out of sleep, sweating my entire body weight into the nylon seat and fellow passengers. We stopped over for lunch at the border with Vietnam, where we had to walk several hundred meters under an unforgiving sun, from the Cambodian building, a shiny modern Khmer thing, to the impressively communist looking Vietnamese edifice to be processed.

By the time I got to Saigon, the headache I had started the day with had turned into some horrible migraine. For the next four days I would be mostly stuck in my hotel room, prisoner of some god-awful combination of dehydration, overheating and viral infection. When I found enough energy, I managed to walk a small radius around mini-hotel alley where I was staying. Most of the time, however, I had barely enough energy to walk a block, the pain behind my eyes making it hard to focus and concentrate. It was my first bad case of travel illness, and though it may sound like I’m over exaggerating, there were hours-long periods when I wished I’d had something as simple as terrible diarrhea. It was boring (how many cable movies can you half watch in a day?), frustrating (all I really wanted to do was walk around, and here I was wasting time) and lonely (I’d just spent the past week traveling with friendly folk, and here I was, moaning into a pillow in the middle of the night.) I eventually went to a clinic for some blood tests. I was already feeling better, but wanted to confirm it wasn’t Dengue or Malaria (it wasn’t, but was likely due to some other viral infection.)

After a very frustrating and painful start, I was more than ready to go exploring. Luckily, my new friends Scott and Zoe had decided to spend a couple of weeks in Vietnam before heading to Laos, so we spent a couple of days wandering the streets, taking photos. We visited the Reunification Palace, once known as the Presidential Palace, and the seat of the South Vietnamese Government. A giant postmodern concrete building, it has evidently been left exactly as it was in the mid-seventies, when the communists crashed the gates and took power. Well, they’ve since fixed the gate, but visiting the interior is something out of old spy movies: extravagantly decorated meeting rooms, a gambling hall, movie theater, bedrooms, all decked out in the finest decorations and furniture the seventies had to offer. Beneath it all, in the basement, one can walk the long, narrow hallways that connect the various offices and war rooms, underground reinforced bedrooms and perfectly preserved then-state-of-the-art communication equipment. It is actually really cool. Large maps of Saigon’s tunnels; strategic plans showing the whole of the country; old desks with multiple colored telephones, and, of course, big red buttons.

Next up was the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government), which features a great photo gallery from the Vietnam War in addition to loads of American warplanes and helicopters, guns, prisoner cell recreations and the like. All in all, it’s pretty much as you expect, a reminder of the horrors of war; not as poignant as the Holocaust museum in DC, but worth a visit. [My one complaint is not seeing Monsanto’s name mentioned in the gallery of Agent Orange victims. In case you didn’t know, agri-business giant Monsanto, today proponents of genetically-modified, “roundup-ready” crops, provided the US government with Agent Orange (along with Dow and other companies.) So, before they started suing hapless farmers, whose crops have inadvertently cross-pollinated with patented Monsanto corn from down the road, they were busy making defoliants that ravaged forests and caused a generation’s worth of birth defects. So, there. Fuck them.]

We wandered the streets of Saigon, eventually finding everything from alleyway noodles and vegetarian pho (yum) to entire streets devoted to manufacturing street vendor carts. What was striking about Saigon is the much better preserved (or reconstructed?) French-style buildings and cathedrals, sitting right next to communist-style plazas. Colonial-era buildings have been converted into government buildings, flanked by statues of Uncle Ho. Surprisingly, there is little disconnect between it all. It works. It’s a large city, in some places modern, others ancient and grand, and others yet grey and sprawling like any other metropolis.

I hit the tourist path some more and visited the nearby Cao Dai Great Temple, the largest temple of Cao Daism, a modern religion that merges Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, native spiritualism, Christianity and Islam. Trying to describe the site doesn’t do justice to its very colorful mix of symbolism, from the Eye of Providence (which you may recognize from such currency as the one dollar bill) to Buddhist imagery, Sun Yat Sen and Victor Hugo. Worshipers hold four prayer sessions per day, which tourists are allowed to watch. After fifteen minutes of watching and listening to their beguiling chants it felt like more of an intrusion, but thankfully our tour moved on to another major tourist attraction: the Cu Chi Tunnels.

The tunnels are part of the extensive underground network started by the Viet Cong in the forties, and later finished and used Viet Minh during the American/Vietnamese war. The tunnels allowed the Viet Minh to travel right under the Americans’ noses, and even exited in one place at a noodle shop frequented by US soldiers. The vast network let the Vietnamese not only hide from and ambush US forces, but were designed for extended residency to survive chemical attacks from above. Today, tourists can crawl through small sections of the tunnel, which have been widened but remain cramped. On the grounds are also examples of different gory traps and makeshift weapons employed by resourceful Viet Cong. Tourists can shoot AK47s, hide in underground holes and pretend to live in the humid jungle under constant threat, all of which I did with some glee, abandoning my general reservations about tourists traps. After being bed-ridden for a few days, this was pretty fun.

Coming from Cambodia one notices that nothing in Vietnam has been left to crumble idly. From urban construction projects in already dense cities to rice paddies and agricultural fields in rural areas, not an inch is left unused in Vietnam. The miles upon miles of unused (or underused) land in Cambodia are made laughable by sheer necessity here. With about six times the population in less than twice the space of Cambodia, the difference in development and efficiency is felt as soon as you cross the border. It makes me wonder what Vietnam looked like just twenty years ago, before the massive economic and infrastructure investments. I can’t help but wonder what Cambodia will be like twenty years from now.

After a week in Saigon I’d seen about half of what I had wished to see. However, feeling stressed for time, it was time to say goodbye to Scott and Zoe and the south and hit the road. My next stop, the mountain town of Dalat, near the Central Highlands.

Snuol, Sen Monorom, and a farewell to Cambodia

Monday, May 21st, 2007

Coming from Kratie, we waited for a while in dusty Snuol for a new bus to arrive and take us the rest of the way to Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri province. We met Scott and Zoe, who had just been on the bus that would have originally done the job, but had broken down on the way up from Phnom Penh. Evidently the workhorse buses fare worse than I do in the Cambodian heat, and mechanical breakdowns are a common occurrence when dozens of passengers are expecting some measure of air conditioning inside. We waited for an hour and a half, snacking on local avocados and walking around town. The buildings here are all caked in rust-colored dust, and the unpaved roads gladly tattoo any sandal, shoe or tire the same color. Behind the shiny new cell phone merchant counters, ubiquitous throughout Cambodia, the familiar stench of the local market, cheap chinese goods competing for attention with poultry, live hens bound together at the feet. This is a crossroads town, not more than a pit-stop for most vehicles, locals busily fix up large wheels, tires, and axles for passers-through.

Mercifully, a bus arrived at last and was only half-full once we were all onboard. The road was packed dirt, apparently finished in 2002, and though wide enough for a few vehicles, cars tended to snake wildly within its borders, avoiding the deep pits and crevasses caused by the recent rains. We trudged along at a brisk enough pace, occasionally slowing to clearheadedly navigate the obstacle course.

The hot and dusty climate changed gradually, but definitively. Upon sighting the first conifer I’d seen in months I grinned; the guide book wasn’t wrong in saying that the area is ‘a different Cambodia'; not sure, however, about its resemblance to Switzerland. Unlike the flat, hot country I’d seen thus far, Sen Monorom sits high up in Mondulkiri’s rolling hills, its cooler climate a welcome change of pace.

Our bus finally arrived in the afternoon, and for once I was not swarmed with motodops and touts while getting my bags. I liked this town already. Its two main roads mostly free of traffic, save the occasional moto or pickup, I was reminded of a Cicely, Alaska, from TV’s Northern Exposure, where life is simple, people are friendly and helpful. The young proprietor of Green House, between organizing transportation for us, would serve us fresh jackfruit from his yard and was all too happy get drunk on Coke and Mekong and practice his near-perfect English. Likewise, our guest house packed us lunches with free bananas and avocados for snacks. It was quickly apparent that this is the sort of place where people treat foreigners like friends, and not just another way to make money. Most of the foreigners in these parts work for demining NGOs, and the couple of night spots that catered to us were casual, quiet and pleasant.

Our first full day in Sen Monorom, Scott, Zoe, Céline and I decided to change guest houses, but after walking a kilometer into town we were caught in a torrential deluge that managed to turn town’s roads into the chocolate river from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We took shelter under an awning and just watched. Luckily I’d surrounded myself with photographers, so there were no complaints, as were all to happy to spend the afternoon taking photos in the downpour and the muddy mess that was left when the rains subsided. I was liking this trip more and more.

At the local roundabout, a big statue of water buffaloes mid-stride, and next to the local airstrip (which looks just like any other road in town, only flatter), we ran into Sven, the Belgian guy from Kratie. He’d gotten in a night before we did, with delays. His bus had gotten stuck in the mud and half the passengers helped push it out. I guess we were lucky 😉 He was busy planning a motorcycle ride up to Ratanakiri province, explaining that taking the same road he’d taken to get here was against his philosophy. The start of the rainy season meant, however, that he would eventually have to cancel his trip due to impassable flooded terrain.

We hired a pickup truck to take us around the area. Our driver deftly managed the muddy roads, unlike a 4×4 we passed, that tried time and again to get up the road to no avail. The drive to the impressive Bou Sra waterfalls, some 40km away, was an enjoyable way to take it all in, the least populated province in the country.

In the afternoon we stopped by a local village and visited a traditional thatched-roof house. It was a very awkward moment. Here we were, a bunch of western bozos, gawking at the very basic accommodations and the handful of children who had lined up inside for a photo opportunity. I would like to think that they were somewhat shy, but they’d clearly done this before, and their unsmiling faces showed it. The father of the household, on the other hand, was all smiles despite our language barrier, and all too happy to accept the small change we gave him as payment. I tried to make the best of it, putting aside any guilty exploitative feelings, and tried to understand living here; a whole family under one thatched roof; long, raised wooden floors providing living, sleeping, and sleeping space; glowing embers in the middle, most likely for cooking, providing unnecessary heat and little light… It was a glimpse into these peoples’ lives, and we all felt like tourist schmucks for being there. Oh well; I guess such is the nature of this sort of travel. At the very least it was something concrete to take in, a real contrast to the lifestyles we are accustomed to.

That morning we had been woken up by Buddhist monks, who’d begun funerary chants at 6 in the morning, lasting well into the evening. The bus that we were supposed to take back to Phnom Penh the next day had lost control on the way to Sen Monorom, speeding backwards down a muddy road at a fast clip before swerving into a ditch in an emergency stop. A girl who had been on board apparently jumped out for one reason or another, and was struck dead by the vehicle. A Canadian guy who had been on the bus told us the story, calm but visibly in shock. Somber, it was a reminder that despite the serenely beautiful landscape, we were in a place where weather can spell ruin, and that local medical care is something to avoid.

The bus unavailable, we hired a share taxi to take us back to Phnom Penh. Imagine seven people crammed into Toyota Corolla, facing the same treacherous mud roads. I closed my eyes, resigned to whatever fate that awaited us. We made it back in one piece, and I was left forever impressed by the mechanical godliness of not only the Corolla, but the countless Honda Dream scooters we passed. Over the past month I’d seen these 125cc bikes haul everything from multiple live pigs to entire families precariously balanced on the seat. However, seeing two bikes balancing a full furniture set (armoire, table, etc.), miraculously maintaining traction in a foot of mud, topped it all.

My last night in Cambodia. I tagged along to Céline’s going-away party at a bowling alley in Phnom Penh, where I had little opportunity to reflect on my time here. I’ve had time since.

A month is little time to get to know a place, and I don’t pretend to understand it with any intimacy or real depth. But I knew that I would miss it here. This place is rough around the edges. Really rough compared to its wealthier neighbors. I’ve met many people who were disappointed by Cambodia, having expected sites and attractions on par with Thailand. It’s a pity, because this country offers so much depth with little gloss; the people here are, in a way, more earnest, not yet ruined by tourism; they smile genuine smiles. They are slowly rebuilding, toughened by decades of war and corruption, yet remain forced to seize whatever chance they can to eke out a living, good or bad. The air is rife with opportunity — for business, aid, more corruption, escapism. Westerners used to come here to escape demons and create new ones, assume new identities. But you can sense that despite the “anything goes” existence things are changing, that lawlessness is slowly fading, that progress is happening. So much of the country feels in physical limbo, and between dilapidated, crumbling buildings and war-ravaged infrastructure, first impressions can be depressing. Despite this, I am left with the sense that there is so much potential here, that the people are eager to move forward. NGOs are providing children with second chances; massive Chinese investment, a double-edged sword, is developing infrastructure and commerce; and if the images in shiny Khmer karaoke videos offer anything into national psyche, this youthful country has already projected itself into a new middle class and is trying to grow into those shoes.

But what do I know.

I am left charmed, humbled, hopeful and eager to come back soon.


Tuesday, May 15th, 2007

Boarding yet another bus specializing in the torture of its passengers with early-morning karaoke, I headed to Kratie, a small town on the Mekong that is reportedly the best area to spot the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. The bus took its second rest stop in the very dusty town of Snuol, its unpaved red-dirt roads dusting my feet in a small taste of what would be in store just a few days later.

It was here that I met Céline, who was busy inspecting small square leaf-wrapped bundles of what appeared to be a fish cake of some sort. Hailing from France, she’d spent some five months working in photo and video in Cambodia, and was taking a quick two week trip in her last two weeks here. Having had her camera stolen on a bus days before, she was a photographer without a camera, so I lent her one of mine as we became travel buddies for the next five days.

The usual crowd of moto touts descended upon us in Kratie; an amusing phenomenon this time, as all the hotels were within a one-block walking distance. There was one who made a point of not trying to yell louder than the others, so I took his recommendation for lodging after finding my original pick less than thrilling.

Kratie is a small town, yet its center crowds around a busy market, creating an incongruously dense web of shops, restaurants and various merchants around its perimeter. Up the street the city museum rarely opens, and the riverfront nightlife consists of a handful of noodle stands and a couple of underlit restaurants. If you somehow landed next to the market, you might expect a grand city with winding, dirty alleys. But stroll just five minutes in the evening and you are in the boonies, crickets chirping, dogs barking threateningly.

With some commotion, Céline and I managed to hop a couple of motos for the twenty kilometer ride to see the dolphins, and boarded a boat with Belgian Sven. Riding out on the Mekong was relaxing, especially when our boat captain, who couldn’t have been more than fifteen, cut the engine and rowed by hand; this is for the safety and comfort of the dolphins, whose numbers are staggeringly low in every region they inhabit. They don’t breach and bellyflop or jump through hoops for the tourist. Rather, an alert eye and attentive ear helps to spot their dark silhouette, barely above water, or the faint puff of air as they breathe out before refilling their lungs. That day I only saw brief shapes, the occasional fin, but from pictures I know that they have a round, bulbous appearance, more Airbus than bottlenose.

In the end, we saw several, and I managed to capture practically nothing with my camera. It is just as well, as they were but part of a nice ride out on the river. Serene, with only a couple of boats around, one could hear the sound of rapids up ahead, interrupted occasionally by the sound of the dolphins. Atmospheric. We stopped on a sandy jetty where a woman grew watermelons, and sold them out of a shack. Who knew that watermelons grew on a beach in the middle of the Mekong river?

On the way back we stopped by Phnom Sombok, a hill-top temple up a couple of steep sets of stairs. One pavilion showcased the hell that awaits those who do not lead a clean Buddhist lifestyle; shit, I thought this stuff only came out of the bible. Dogs ripping flesh off of women’s buttocks, men being sewn in half, devils prodding, ripping….. Further up, was the temple itself, where a painter was half-way into the more holy images of monks following the proper precepts. Eerie, they did not yet have faces. Ghostlike monks in lotus positions, waiting for an identity. Maybe they should leave them faceless. Contemporary Buddhist art…

Back in Kratie, with everything having closed early, Céline and I shared beers on the balcony, watching the motodop down below napping, artfully balancing himself on his bike without falling off. We counted the geckos’ croaks (6 is bad luck, 7 good?), discussed briefly Sarkozy’s election that day, and managed to mostly avoid the cockroach-crickets approaching our feet. Such is the nightlife in Kratie.

That morning I was woken up at 4:30 by the sounds of the market getting ready for the day. Haggling, screeching metal, motorbikes, commotion. All those people that were missing the night before had suddenly congregated full-force, jolting me awake.

I managed to sleep a couple hours more, and that day we followed a similar routine, hopping a moto and riding a bit further to the small town of Sambor, to see its famed temple of 100+ columns. Though reconstructed, it is indeed impressive, but not exactly what I’d expected. The exterior, though having said number of columns, looked like any other temple in Cambodia. The inside, however, was a lot more spectacular. Once inside, a couple of locals, who I assume live on the grounds, let us peruse an illustrated book on the life of Buddha, and attempted a broken conversation in French. The images in the book are standard, and each large Buddhist temple generally has Buddha’s life story illustrated on its walls. This one did not disappoint, with mile-high ceilings and bright, elaborate paintings.

On the way back to Kratie we stopped by a local hangout, a bamboo pier jutting out into the Mekong “rapids”. These weren’t the grand whitewater rapids I’d thought I’d heard the other day, from what might have been miles away. But no matter, the best part by far were the handful of boys catapulting themselves into the water in all matter of somersault, hamming it up for the camera both in air and in superhero kick-boxer poses. Their reaction to seeing themselves on the digital cameras was priceless. This definitely made the two-hour, three-person motorbike ride worth it.

After another night of imitating geckos, we would head back to Snuol in the morning, a stopover before veering East to Mondolkiri.


Monday, May 14th, 2007

Well, I’m more than a week behind in my updates, but will post soon. I’m actually in Saigon already, but the Worst Bus Ride Ever turned what was a headache in Phnom Penh into a full-blown migraine. I’ve been more or less bed-ridden for the last three days. I’ve seen nothing beyond a three-block radius. I feel bored, lonely, frustrated and in terrible pain most of the time. My sleep schedule is broken, my appetite not happy with what i’ve found to eat so far. There are only so many cable tv movies one can half-watch in a day. If the pills the pharmacists have given me don’t work I’ll have to go see a doctor; thankfully, it seems to be getting better. Knock on wood.

All I want to do is walk around this crazy, huge, glossy, rainy town. I guess that will have to wait.

Anyways, stay tuned for entries about quaint Kratie, fresh-water dolphins, and the muddiest roads ever in Mondolkiri, a part of Cambodia unlike the rest.

Went to the clinic and got some blood work done. It’s not Malaria or Dengue, which is a good thing. I’m to keep doing what I’ve been doing. Thankfully, today has been better than before (the codeine sure helps.)