Tuesday, 31 August 2010

South Vietnam

Motobikes in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Reunification Palace - this was the site that signalled the end of the Vietnam war during the fall of Saigon in 1975 when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates

Vietnam - synonymous with Communism and a nation that singlehandedly defeated two of the most dominant countries in the world, first France shortly followed by, of course, the US - our final country in SE Asia. Our crossing from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon took us through the heart of the Mekong Delta. We stopped for lunch in Ha Tien, just beyond the border crossing on the south coast and experienced our first taste of delicious Vietnamese food.

Living the 'high life' - rooftop bar in HCMC

Arriving in HCMC little did we know that this would be our home for far longer than expected, thanks to the rigmarole applying for visas to China (ridiculous bureaucracy enforced by the Chinese government), but aside from our numerous embassy visits, including a chat with the British consulate, we did start to learn all about the American War... First stop, War Museum, complete with tanks, helicopters and howitzers all emblazoned with “US Army”. The museum is a really informative place, lots of newspaper cuttings and demonstration photos taken around the world in the ‘60s and ‘70s. One thing that struck us in particular is how the US flouted so many of the UN’s international war laws and the use of Agent Orange sprayed across the Vietnamese land and people had a devastating effect that is still being experienced by the thousands of people, particularly children, now living with horrific deformities and serious health conditions.

Tom at the war museum

HCMC at night - the opera house

The Cu Chi tunnels about an hour north of the city were almost inconceivable. It is a network of approx 200km of underground tunnels in parts dug as deep down as 9m, home to hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese hiding from the American carpet bomb attacks. We were shown some of the original tunnels – absolutely tiny in size, I could barely squeeze into the trap door - where people lived for months on end, cooking, sleeping, even giving birth but never going above ground until it was safe. The tunnel network is immense and even when the US Army became aware of its existence there was little they could do as they were a) so well camouflaged in the ground b) far too small for any American soldier to climb into. Whatever our opinions beforehand, seeing these kinds of conditions gave us a deep respect for the Vietnamese, the sheer courage and bravery they must have had to persevere and live in such conditions is unimaginable.

Disappearing Vietcong-style into one of the tunnels. We were told "the fat Americans couldn't fit": 
Tom firing an AK-47

HCMC is also home to more than 3 million motorbikes and is insanely busy. Crossing the road feels like you're taking your life into your own hands. The advice is to walk slowly across and never run. Motorbikes whizz past never stopping or even slowing but just swerving out the way last minute - very scary! HCMC is also quite afluent in parts with one area of the city home to various fashion boutiques, designer watch and handbag shops and 5* hotels. Communism indeed!

Following HCMC we headed up the coast to Nha Trang. The beach town of Nha Trang is reported to be the best beach in Vietnam – we agree! The beach itself is pretty darn picturesque and we found the cheapest, tastiest food for a long time being barbequed by the side of the road – yum.

 The beach at Nha Trang

Heading further up the coast to Hoi An, famed for its Chinese and Japanese influences from the days when it was a thriving sea port. I’d say a fair comparison is to Laos’ Luang Prabang, though swap the mustard coloured colonial French villas for Chinese styled wooden houses. We soon forgot about the constant hassle from the town’s tailors and dress makers although our trip inside one tailors’ shop lead us upstairs to look at silk worms weaving their magic.

 Silk worms in action

The finished products - Hoi An is filled with hundreds of clothing shops and tailors

Japanese bridge in Hoi An

Hoi An is picture perfect at night

Street scenes in Hoi An

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Sihanoukville – Kampot – Kep

Our whistle-stop along the south coast of Cambodia began in the beachside town of Sihanoukville. The beach itself wasn’t the most stunning we’ve seen (we’re spoilt, we know) and comparisons to the Thai islands seem to stretch the imagination (or so I’m told from someone in the know – Tom). But a beach is a beach and we spent a couple of days topping up our fading tans and celebrating the engagement of an English couple we’d previously met in Laos (congrats again Lucy and Ben!)

 Ok, so it wasn't too bad...

Kampot, a relaxed riverside town popular with elite French colonists, was our base for the next few nights and we checked into one of the nicest, albeit totally accidental, places of our travels.

All in all we had a stroll, restocked our depleted library selection and hunted down some delicious fruit smoothies - its tough being a traveller. We also hired a tuk-tuk for a day and sped our way along the coast to Kep checking out a pepper plantation (yes the Kampot pepper for those in the know), a cave which we were chaperoned around on hands and knees by a group of local boys keen to practice their English, and on our way back after our fill of freshly-caught Kep crab (you’ve got to love the French and their foodie influences) we had a quick stop at a small Muslim fishing village. This completed our time in Cambodia which as whistle-stopping goes felt pretty comprehensive!

Tom and the guys

He got the hump waiting for the office to open (oh no I sound like my Dad!)
Cambodia's rural countryside
A train track to nowhere

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The mighty Angkor Wat

To be honest, from a traveller’s point of view, Cambodia has a bit of an unfair reputation. The guide book writers cheerily remind you from behind their publishing desks how you’ll repeatedly be scammed and just how aggressive the local touts are. Ok so our entry from across the Laos border may have ticked both boxes – first a couple of uniformed men standing next to a “Quarantine check-point” sign, complete with prop surgical masks, charging tourists for health checks (I politely showed them our injection booklets which immediately made them falter and we passed through with dollars still in hand). The actual and official visa check-point was operated by six extremely aggressive officers again with a home-made sign overcharging the tourists but on this occasion they had the last word as I didn’t fancy a god knows how many km trip back to Vientiane. This said we have just spent the last two days in Siem Reap (ok so we got ripped off by the bus company to Siem Reap but bear with me) and are now en route to Phnom Penh with a rejuvenated belief in Cambodia and its people. The free (and delicious) breakfast at our guesthouse has probably softened us up but despite the pre-conceived notion that Siem Reap is 100% a tourist trap for westerners to the nearby world-famous and architecturally impressive Angkor Wat, we actually feel like we got to see a real city at work. I should also mention our arrival into Siem Reap - the rain was torrential so we ran to a local restaurant near our guesthouse. We were greeted by the son of the restaurant owner, about eight years old, at one o'clock in the morning, stark naked, a baby's bottle in hand, dancing to the Cambodian version of MTV. It was absolutely hilarious - what a welcome to a country!

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

Of course we did crawl out of bed at 4.30am one morning to see the sunrise over the above-mentioned Khmer temple, along with a hundred other tripod-wielding tourists, but we also found ourselves eating and chatting to locals eager to practice their English and keen to find out where we were from and where we were going which seemed far more genuine than the obligatory Thai schoolgirls with clipboards and camera phones...

The temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are awesome. Dating back to the same period as Hadrian’s Wall they are well preserved (although the Japanese-funded renovations will take some time for wear and tear to blend in). One thing that does burst the glossy tourist bubble is the number of extremely poor and often disfigured local people selling cheap books, postcards and handmade flutes. We also turned around the corner in one temple in sweltering heat to find three little boys who must’ve been around the ages of four to nine but the size of two to five year olds, sat in a small patch of shade looking seriously desperate. We weren't really sure what the best thing to do was as they were clearly malnourished but unlike the other children around the temples’ car parks they weren’t asking for anything. We gave them our chilled bottles of water to drink as a small token of help. Later that day we were approached by a ten year old boy on crutches as he’d lost one of his legs in an accident, when initially we said “Sorry no” to his offer of postcards for just a couple of dollars he replied “Sorry doesn’t work today mister” which was spot on. Seeing children and adults totally dependent on the generosity of others is pretty hard to ignore and I think it was a reality check that we needed.

The temples used for the "Lara Croft" film set

Whilst in Siem Reap we visited the city’s children’s hospital – one of a kind offering totally free medical care - it was established and is run by a Japanese-American charity called “Friends without a border” (www.fwab.org). We were told how every single day more than 400 children and their parents make their way to the hospital from all over Cambodia, often having to borrow money for their bus tickets, with the hope of being treated mainly for malnutrition, diarrhoea and respiratory infections, which children in UK would easily recover from but can be life-threatening here if not dealt with, as well as treatment for AIDs. Again it was another very informative and inspiring place to learn about.

Back to Angkor Wat and its importance to the Cambodians. Not only is it clearly vital for generating revenue for the country’s economy but bearing in mind the recent brutal history that Cambodia has been faced with (details to follow), the magnificence of Angkor Wat helps to unite a country which 30 years ago was under the unimaginable rule of the Khmer Rouge and its barbaric regime.

We travelled by bus south from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I remember when I first came to South East Asia quite a few years ago I was told by expats in Thailand that Phnom Penh was a “no go zone” with muggings and serious scams as common occurrences. Nowadays the city is anything but that and although the streets are frantically busy with motorcycles, taxis and market stalls, we found it to be an exciting and bustling place with lots to see and do (and completely safe).

I doubt they have many issues with shop-lifters!

Apart from lots of markets and a very pleasant river front where we had a drink watching the world go by from the roof at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (made infamous during the American war), the main tourist “sights” are related to the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia during the 70s. We first went to Choung Ek known as the ‘killing fields’ where tens of thousands of Cambodians were sent to be executed under Pol Pot’s extreme regime. Later in the day we went to S-21, an incomprehensibly brutal facility formerly a residential high school turned into torture prison where hundreds of people were taken to be executed. For those who want a short history lesson and a bit of context of what happened in Cambodia I will summarise briefly below:

The Khmer Rouge was a radical political group that seized power in Cambodia in 1975 following a civil war and utilising the turmoil left by the US bombing campaign which obliterated most of the country (the US illegally bombed Cambodia as well as Laos in the so-called “secret war” as part of their war with Vietnam). This caused so much anger in the village populations that the Khmer Rouge was able to successfully recruit members and stir up hatred. The Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh and took power in 1975 immediately forcing the entire city, some 3 million people including hospital patients still on their beds, to leave their urban and “Westernised” lives (deemed to be traitors to the “real” or “base” people of Cambodia) and were forced to walk for days on end into the countryside to huge slave camps. The entire city like other urban areas stood empty for the next three years. People were forced at gunpoint and the KR lied saying the Americans were planning to bomb the city to get them to leave. As part of the extreme communist doctrine followed by the KR things like money and ownership of anything private ranging from property to colourful clothing was banned and therefore totally worthless. The KR set-up forced labour camps for the entire population of Cambodia, practically the whole population being forced to work in back-breaking rice paddies as part of an insane plan by the leaders of the Khmer Rouge to create an agrarian based, self sustained economy.

The plan failed dramatically and as a result 1.5-2 million people, approx 20% of the population – nobody knows exact figures, died as a result of starvation, disease and execution. Peasants were seen as pure whereas anyone with previous wealth or an academic background was seen as a threat and executed - wearing glasses was enough to get you killed. This is hugely hypocritical since most of the Khmer Rouge leaders were well educated in Europe and from wealthy backgrounds. It was communism at its most extreme and implemented with ruthless barbarism. The Khmer Rouge forced people to abandon family ties and friendships, at times having children execute their parents. The leaders were also exceptionally paranoid believing there were people in the population continuously working and plotting against them (in reality the people were so frightened of the KR soldiers and weakened by lack of food that this was at best a rare occurrence) but as a result they sent over 14,000 people to S-21, a former high school turned prison for severe interrogation and execution. The prisoners were immediately assumed to be guilty on arrival and tortured until they “confessed” to something. Often these “confessions” were fabricated stories with the terrified prisoners just saying whatever they thought their interrogators wanted to hear. All prisoners were executed and in the whole time of S-21 there were only seven survivors who were freed when the Vietnamese invaded. The horrific reign of terror went on for three years from 1975-78 until the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and defeated the Khmer Rouge, liberating the Cambodian people. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the world that sat back and watched without doing anything. To add insult to injury the US forced the UN to give the Khmer Rouge a seat at the UN General Assembly until 1991 because the Khmer Rouge were anti-Vietnamese and anti-Russian. Therefore the murderers represented their victims for 12 years at the UN.

Just some of the photographs of female prisoners taken to S-21

We went to both the prison and the killing fields where the executions took place. I won’t go into too much detail here as its not exactly happy reading and to be honest I don’t really know how to put it all into words. Suffice to say it’s one of the most horrific things we have ever been confronted with and some of the stories of what went on there are unimaginable. Even scarier still is how recently it all happened.

Anyway, on a happier note we really enjoyed the rest of our time in the capital especially eating and drinking at various roadside cafes after sundown, drinking beer (constantly being topped up with ice cubes) and being amused by the Cambodian food tastes - “Large beef penis with big red ant”?! I asked for beef at one restaurant when I was served white meat I assumed it must be pork and happily munched on. I then saw the animal being spit-roasted and went for a closer inspection. Although I was assured otherwise, this animal looked very much like a dog and a lot less like a cow. In fact it looked nothing like a cow... I felt a little queasy, the short charred tail was the confirmatory give-away!

Motorbikes are everywhere in SE Asia

Two friendly street-kids

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Two sides of a traveller’s tale

A 25-seater minibus all to ourselves - very unusual compared to the cramped "chicken buses"!
Next stop in Laos, Vang Vieng. A small, rural town very much on the farang (tourist) trail all because of three things – large tyres’ inner tubes, a fast flowing river and an even faster flow of beer. “I tubed the Vang Vieng” vests are standard attire for any 18 year old on a gap year in Asia. We hopped into our tubes in gorgeous sunshine, which literally turned to torrential rain after three minutes in the river (the rainy season has well and truly arrived in Asia). We jumped out at the second of about 15 bars along the short stretch of river to let the rain pass and of course have our first beer of the day. Clearly some take more of a devoted approach to the beer keg than others and by bar two there were already plenty of people who probably couldn’t remember the rest of the day.

One day in Vang Vieng was enough and we continued to the capital Vientiane. By far the smallest capital city we’ve encountered so far, our one day in the “city” was ample and we spent the afternoon at the COPE centre on the outskirts of town. COPE Laos is an organisation which helps treat and provide training for the 12,000+ victims of UXO (unexploded bombs) as a result of the American war with Vietnam. According to information at the centre around 78 million(!) of the 260 million(!!!) bombs which were dropped across Laos by the Americans, trying to destroy the vital Ho Chi Minh trail, failed to explode and therefore have left the Laos countryside literally littered with millions upon millions of lethal devices.
A mother and child statue made from fragments of bombs
A close-up of a "bombie" filled with ball bearings

It was an extremely moving afternoon, not only because we learnt about something which both felt very ignorant to despite it still having a huge effect on the people of Laos, particularly children playing in fields around their villages, decades after a war which their country shouldn't even have been a part of. The work which the charity carries out is both incredibly sad yet very inspiring at the same time. I was reduced to tears after watching a documentary shown, reading about and listening to some of the real horrors which local people have faced, and will continue to face. Not only do the UXO spread across the countryside mean that people remain poor and unable to farm the land but it is estimated that if the clearance of UXO continues at the rate it is currently going it will take another 100 years before Laos is safe. Horribly ironically one way in which villagers are now trying to make a living is through the scrap metal trade which means that children are actually quite excited to find the metre-long shells of bomb carriers as these will provide money for their impoverished families - albeit less than a pound a shell - and obviously the bomb carriers aren’t always empty. We’ve added the YouTube links below for the two parts of the documentary that we watched so if you are reading this and have time to spare then definitely have a look.

Heading further south we, along with a couple of Dutch guys, rented a motorbike to get off the beaten track and explore the Bolaven Plateau which is predominantly a farming region with a couple of tea and coffee plantations. With this in mind, South East Asia to me will be remembered as a place with rolling countryside (though not in the British sense!), humble villages dotted along the roadsides definitely giving a new meaning to the term “free-range” with pigs and piglets, cows, chickens and ducks all taking part in the daily going-ons. The friendliness of the locals is again and again witnessed here with children at every house grinning at us and waving madly shouting “Saba-dee” meaning hello.
 Tropical gardens at the coffee plantation

 Our bedroom on wheels

An example of how recovered bomb carriers are used in villages

Back in the main town of Pakse we treated ourselves at an Indian restaurant with a very amiable owner who clearly knew an English person when he saw one – he pre-empted my order of chicken tikka massala and garlic naan - and for the first time in what feels like a very long time we felt happily full!

From Pakse we bussed it to the southern tip of the country bordering Cambodia and spent a couple of days chilling and doing nothing on one of the “Four Thousand Islands”. All this whistle-stopping, with Cambodia and Vietnam still to come, had taken it out of us!