Thursday, 1 July 2010

South East Asia - The Mekong Delta - Part I

I have not been fortunate enough to have had a gap year so my independent travel has been more perfunctory than I would have preferred. Most trips have been of the order of 3-4 weeks’ backpacking at a time. That rather enforced ‘blueprint’ started in Canada in 2003 when I toured some of Canada, including Toronto and Vancouver, with two friends and continued in 2007, when my partner and I travelled across Northern India and into Nepal over the course of 3 weeks. In 2008, we then stormed round New Zealand in a diminutive campervan stopping off in Los Angeles and Hong Kong each way to break up the flights. These last two, I’ll chronicle in separate posts. Additionally, this year, we’ll spend three weeks touring Europe in our own ‘Van.

However, in January 2009, we also ambled around the Mekong Delta region of South East Asia for 4 weeks. We chose, because of our limited time frame, to mix local (land-based) transport with short-haul flights for the longer journeys between countries. Thus, when we flew into Bangkok, one of my first tasks would be to book an Air Asia flight to Phnom Penh. God bless internet cafés! We had looked at the Discovery Airpass whilst still in the UK, which gives access to cheap internal flights, but given the relatively small number of flights we wanted to take, it seemed unnecessarily restrictive. We had hardly planned anything before we left as we wanted as much flexibility as possible within the region.

We did not want to spend more than a few days in each place as we knew we could see a great deal in that time and it would maximize the number of places we would be able to see in the short time we had available. We’d set ourselves a target of $50 a day between us for every expense and took some, perhaps rather quirky, delight in totting up our daily expenses to see where we were financially as we sat in local hostelries and watched the local life drift by us.

The most profitable resource I found for researching South East Asia was, and remains, 
Travelfish. An independent website, so far as I can tell, stocked with reviews from the creators of the website as well as forums for the exchange of information, advice and opinions, it was extremely comprehensive and up-to-date. I commend it to anyone planning on visiting the region. It also disparages a well-known guidebook's approach to endorsement which, given the hypocritical commercialisation of guidebooks these days, fills me with a certain guilty warmth.

Bangkok, Thailand
There is little that can be said about Bangkok that has not already been said and we returned to it at the end of the trip so I'll deal with it there as it personifies much of that which is wrong with South East Asia. It’s one of those inescapable stops on the traditional and well-trodden backpacker trail that it seems now to be rather a cliché. In its own way, a place like that is worth visiting even though the experience is marred by the droves of juvenile, gap-year, pre-University teens overdosing on beer and narcotics. Or perhaps
because of it - after all, travel is about experience and that is what much of parts of Bangkok are about now. In fact, so much of South East Asia is driven by tourism that the backpackers themselves have become part of the furniture.

We arrived mid-afternoon, taking an early flight as usual and stayed at a Scandinavian Youth Hostel (the New Road Guesthouse) that my partner had resided in some years before, trying to stay as far away from the traditional backpacker districts as possible. The hostel was, with the exception of our room, very pleasant indeed - well located, a delightful foyer, busy, helpful and informed staff and reasonably priced. Sadly, our room was somewhat less appealing. We’re not used to luxury and we do not tend to care much about our room quality, but this one was really quite bad. It was unfeasibly dirty and in dire need of a lick of paint, the bathroom had broken tiles on the floor and the whole room was besieged by mosquitos (I had thought, to get that level of infestation, you’d actually need to
attract them to the room to breed). Had we sought out a $4 flophouse in Khao San Road, I would have been less inclined to mention this (except with some pride, in fact) but there you go. We got the mosquito net up and rarely left its protective confines when we were in the room (which was, thankfully, very little) even though the resourceful little blighters realised that if a leg brushed against the netting, they could get a shot in through the holes in the net, even though they couldn't get through themselves. Outsmarting mossies becomes something of a sport in South East Asia. Other rooms, oddly, seemed so much nicer and perhaps this one was last on the list for refurbishment. The outside, as you can see, is misleading...

That said, backpacking almost necessitates staying in places that have a certain character and we rarely care about such things. We're there to immerse ourselves in the places we visit not the inside of hotel rooms so, gripped by excitement as we always are on day one of a Big Trip, we ventured out into the street and began to walk. It was night by now and we wanted something to eat. The plethora of choices in Bangkok is staggering - it is as cosmopolitan a place as you could hope to find and western commercialism has taken a strong foothold. Indeed, this being 2009, the global recession was in full swing, but as we know now, Asia markets were far less affected - certainly this seemed to be the case in Bangkok. 

However, I have always been one for street food so we headed for the nearest open-air market. There are always street food vendors as well as small open bistro-type affairs spilling onto the sides of markets and one of life's true joys is sitting with a bowl steaming noodle soup at a night market, watching locals haggle westerners out of dollars with oscar-worthy performances. I say that, not from a position of superiority, but having been repeatedly scammed myself by these masters of chicanery, but it's a thing of beauty if you are not on the receiving end. It was of course here that I bought a pair of Billabong shorts that fell apart with moments of swimming in them. My modesty was saved only by the fact that we were on a secluded beach...

The next day, in the blistering heat, we visited the usual suspects and were suitably impressed by each - the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha Temple (whereupon we were warned not to trust “wily strangers”, a fact which made me chuckle for hours, sad really) are simply majestic collections of cultural iconography in scintillating gold and delightful, harlequin gem-stone encrusting mosaic artwork, all within the context of bewitching architectural and historical treasures. Were Thailand ever to suffer an economic crash, as they avoided in 2009, they could liquidate the Grand Palace and rule the world. It is worth taking your time over places like this and really staring at the delicate and ornate mosaic murals and trying to understand what they depict. Had we thought to, we would have grabbed a local guide by the arm and dragged him round with us, but the searing heat fried our brains. So it was, instead of contributing to the local economy (not that it needed it) whilst getting someone interesting to tell you what is important about what you are seeing, we dawdled round ourselves.

In the afternoon, in an effort to get out of the rampant sun, we took a long-boat tour of the city, marveling at the seemingly contradictory disparity between the impossibly slim hull and the huge engine thrusting it through the waves. Of course, it was at this point that the sun packed its bags and visited some other place and the wind picked up. Nevertheless, we hopped out with glee at the various spots our local guide took us to - an orchid farm, a snake pit and various floating villages and temples, whilst he, inevitably, slept. It's one of the best ways to see this side of Bangkok, the river villages, and heartily recommended. We were flying to Phnom Penh the next day so we would return to Bangkok later in the trip. As I said, our boat driver was not the most energetic of individuals...

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Cambodia is one of those places that was hitherto known to me only as a consequence of a major, historical event. To be aware of a country as a consequence of one event alone, or a single isolated period in its history, has always been something I have abhorred thus I was keen to remedy that. Perhaps it was part of my decision to go there. In the case of Cambodia, that historical event or period was the reign of Pol Pot.

Saloth Sar (May 19, 1928-April 15, 1998), known to the world as Pol Pot, was the leader of the Cambodian communist movement, the Khmer Rouge, and was Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea between 1976 and 1979. His reign of terror (the hyperbole is singularly justified), in which he attempted to (ethnically) "cleanse" the country, resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 to 2.5 million people. That is half the population of Denmark. It also saddens me that the world is justifiably acutely aware of the genocide of the Jews in 1930's and 40's but hardly seems to have batted an eyelid when, in more modern times, the same thing has happened to a much poorer country. I am then put reminded of Rwanda, Sudan, Liberia and realise that this is no rare thing - at least now the United Nations will have something to say about it.

While in power, Pol Pot imposed an authoritarian regime compelling the city dwellers, and in particular, the educated classes from Phnom Penh, as well as the rest of the country, to migrate to the countryside to work in farms and forced labour projects, toward a goal of "restarting civilization" beginning with what he called "Year Zero". The combined effects of slave labour, malnutrition, poor medical care, and horrific torture and executions resulted in the deaths of approximately 20% of the Cambodian population. Given the educated were a significant number of those who were murdered, this set back the cultural and economic progression of Cambodia by generations.

It was in 1979, after the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam during the Cambodia–Vietnam War, that Pol Pot fled into the jungles of southwest Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge government collapsed. He then operated, with a fragment of the old Khmer Rouge, from the border region of Cambodia and Thailand, for another 20 years while an impotent United Nations still recognised the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia. Pol Pot died in 1998 while held under house-arrest by the Ta Mok faction of the Khmer Rouge. The current Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, former Khmer Rouge himself, fled in 1979 and called upon the Vietnamese to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. He was then (shockingly) selected by the Vietnamese for a role within the leadership Cambodia and, following a period as Foreign Minster, has done so ever since notwithstanding resoundingly losing a bitterly fought (arson, bombings and murder purportedly committed by Hun Sen's supporters) election in 1993 which the UN then failed to enforce, despite the UN appointed prosecution team uncovering evidence to bring high-ranking members of Hun Sen's party to trial. The UN, of course, did nothing and the Australian Special Prosecutor resigned.

Consequently, any visit to Phnom Penh was always going to have that history, and that present, at its heart. We were not going to spend a great deal of time in Phnom Penh to begin with and would come back to it later - we’d, in fact, be taking the bus to Sihanoukville the very next day. We both fancied a chance to see this renowned area, visited by both Cambodians and independent western travellers alike, and take some time relaxing on a beach before taking the bus up to Angkor and Siem Reap which we hoped would be one of the highlights of the trip. 

Securing a visa at Phnom Penh airport was a gleefully chaotic experience. We queued alongside every other tourist, filling in the requisite forms, placed them in the requisite bureau window and then joined the cattle market of international bedlam as we desperately tried to listen out for a uniformed individual shout out our names in incomprehensible Khmer. Each time, a possible pronunciation of a given name would result in numerous backpackers surging forward and grabbing whatever was thrust into their hands, whether it be their own passport or that of someone entirely different. It was at this moment, we understood, that $20 was to be handed over per visa. We attempted several times to do so, until the official to whom we offered that money, in fact offered $40 in return to us. Confused we took it, shook our heads vehemently and gave it back. He then gave us our passports and we left, as swiftly as decorum would permit us. We were in possession of visas and utterly mystified.

We had no hotel booked for Phnom Penh until our arrival in the city as it was Chinese New Year and finding a hotel that was not fully booked was a distinct challenge. Chinese New Year - Cambodia? Who knew. But, of course, the Chinese have had an enormous impact on the whole region and, in Laos, their influence is extremely prevalent even now. We did find one eventually and consequently arrived quite late at the Mekong Palace Hotel ($20 per night). By this time, it was getting dark which only added to the faintly nervous excitement. We’d grabbed a taxi from the airport and, upon arriving at our hotel, were happy to see after our Bangkok experience, it seemed clean, well-located and the room was big enough for us. We changed quickly, showered (again, no hot water, but it was hot outside so, no matter) and headed out into the night. 

Phnom Penh is an aberrant mix of Dehli, Kathmandu and Bangkok. The main street running along the waterside is Preah Sisovath which is replete with bars on each corner and places to grab all sorts of food as well as the ubiquitous internet cafes. Many of the side streets are what you might say held the more ribald taprooms and various fragments of the red-light district. There are inevitably, as there are across the Mekong Region, tuk-tuk drivers, motorbike taxis and the like, all vying for business and they habitually stalk backpackers for half the length of Sisovath in order to secure business. Verbal refusal tends to be an invitation to treat, soliciting only further negotiation, so we’ve adopted the policy of a wry smile and continuing on walking whilst talking to each other - this seems the least offensive and the most effective way of indicating polite demurral. 

The bars lining Preah Sisovath, as with much of the equivalent areas in the main cities of South East Asia, are dominated by western tourists and you really do need to look for areas with locals drinking or eating. Sometimes, getting your bearings is easier when you just sit and watch the local life go by and this is often best done in an environment where you’re able to comfortably do so. We grabbed the bar which looked like it had the best view of the roads around us and, ordering a local ale, we sat and watched (next to the laptop wielding glitterati of the flashpacking world). 

It is amazing just how frenetic life is in the South East Asian cities - the roads are jammed with the a huge variety and number of vehicles, including the utterly omni-present and inescapable motorbikes - not quite a moped but more an undersized Yamaha. Everyone seems to have one of these ramshackle death-traps and they weave in and out of the traffic in the most haphazard and seemingly perilous way. Being on the road, or the pavement next to it, is a faintly disquieting endeavour but watching this occurring from the relative sanctuary of a bar (albeit only yards away) whilst nursing a cool beer is a far more sanguine way to study it. The noise is deafening and continues throughout the night but the hustle and bustle is addictive. The sad thing is that we saw a little too much of middle-aged western men with young Cambodian girls - by young, I mean pubescent. It's galling and enough to make you walk over and enquire, politely of course, as to their morals. Instead, we found a local supermarket and bought some food for the bus the next day.

We caught the bus to Sihanoukville, the favoured beach hotspot for the playboy King Norodom Sihanouk, from whom the town took its name in 1955. We do this often as we both tend to enjoy being on ground-level for journeys rather than the anonymous interior of the fuselage of an aircraft. Whilst it was a long journey, it was cheap (around $11 each) and it enabled us to really see Cambodia as we travelled along the main arterial routes. The buses are in fact coaches, gaudily painted and showing either Cambodian karaoke TV shows or heavily dubbed and highly inappropriate films like Rambo. Alarmingly kitsch, the former has the advantage of being entertainingly comic. We made stops at road-side cafes with a diverse choice of local delicacies, some of which were still moving and clearly perturbed to have been covered in chilies and local spices. Sanitary facilities in Cambodia are places of simplicity - none of this flushing malarky required here, thank you very much. Just lift the lid, sit, complete, stand up, don’t look back...

We had booked, via a Phnom Penh internet cafe, a relatively pleasantly described room near to a less crowded beach (Independence Beach) and, when we arrived, we secured a tuk-tuk to our destination. It's always nice to negotiate with a tuk-tuk driver as it breaks the ice, especially if you have absolutely no other options - to be laughed at by a tuk-tuk driver who knows you have to use his service is one of life's real treats. Thus we took his details and promised to use him to get to the bus station again.

Improbably, we walked into a staggeringly gorgeous building only minutes from an almost empty beach and a room with green marble floor and capacious enough to fit the most exacting of tastes (for a meagre $20). As we entered, we sniggered conspiratorially, assuming this to be some sort of administrative error. It is one of those joys of independent travel when you walk into a hostel or hotel and realise you've been amazingly fortunate to stumble across something extraordinary. We loved the Aussie-run Seabreeze and had numerous conversations, and games of pool, with one of the Cambodian lads working there - Ban. Somewhat alarmingly, Hun Sen's government, run as it is by a former member of the Khmer Rouge I remind you, dictates that no Khmer may leave Cambodia without official permission which is extremely difficult to secure for ordinary people and thus Ban, who would love to travel, may never get the chance. I am of course appalled by this but it is likely that little will ever change, given the current government is still the darling of international aid. 

Showering again, we meandered into Sihanoukville itself - a 5km trek, given Independence Beach where we were staying was actually some way out of town but we fancied dinner in the main town itself that night. Sihanoukville is rather like many well-trodden backpacker trails - a plethora of westerners in rucksacks, t-shirts with obnoxious (but usually droll) slogans and Ray-Bans darting into small shops offering all manner of trips and services. It reminded me greatly of Pokhara, Nepal, the original backpacker cliché. However, when you get down to the main beaches, Serendipity and Ocheteaul, there are a multitude of holidaying Cambodians too. We’d decided that we’d grab a coke and then go and book the various things we wanted to do over the next day or two. We’d made no other hostel bookings so would need to find a place to stay the next night but that was fine and, after a quick jaunt along the road just behind the beach, we found a place reasonably cheaply - the Chinese New Year was at an end and, suddenly, the prices plummeted and availability rocketed. We also booked a boat tour out to some remote islands for the day after next and went back to the beach for a jolly in the sea. We then sat on blankets and cushions drinking Angkor beer and watching the sun go down as locals and westerners alike enjoyed the amazing weather and the crystal blue sea. Some time after night fell, our heads befuddled by a multitude of Angkor Beer, we pesuaded a tuk-tuk driver to take us back to our hotel, taking our lives in our hands as ever, whereupon we sat on the veranda with a nice meal and another Angkor beer (before watching Ban sink ball after ball whilst I sat, forlornly, holding an underused cue).

The next morning, we sauntered down to our own beach, which was gloriously unoccupied, and soothed our aching limbs in the translucent azure water before heading back into Sihanoukville itself to check into our new hostel. A world away from the Seabreeze, it was compact and gloomy but serviceable (and inexpensive). We'd, thus far, managed to keep to our $50 per day average and a cheaper room was assisting that objective. A far less pleasant owner greeted us and insisted on money up-front. I hate paying for things up front as the control is then removed if things go awry but, sometimes, events conspire against you. Without much grumbling, I assented, handing over some dollars which she grabbed with a celerity I would have reserved for an olympic athlete.

Again we sat on the beach, this time enjoying smoothies whilst watching the locals enjoying the surf before taking a walk around the various bars and eateries lining the coastline. As we headed into town for something to eat that evening, I began to feel febrile and light-headed. I made for the facilities and experienced what I knew would be a rather serious problem. After emptying the contents of my stomach from entirely the wrong end of my digestive system, I went back to the table, unable to eat and not feeling much better. I was just about capable of drinking water. The smoothie, I had thought at the time, was a schoolboy error - containing milk as it inevitably would. I continued to divest myself of anything remaining in my body and sweated myself into oblivion. When we finally got back to our hotel, I just slept, de-hydrated and without energy. The next morning, the morning of our much vaunted boat trip, I was too ill to go. We kissed goodbye to $36 and I rested. It’s a salutary lesson about keeping an eye on the nature of what you’re eating. Certain things are simply taboo - milk, re-heated rice, meat that has been sitting in the sun all day - it’s very much common sense which I ignored to our cost.

After a bit more time in Sihanoukville, we procured another bus back to Phnom Penh. I must, at this stage, commend to you one of the best guesthouses I have ever stayed in - the Boddhi Tree Del Gusto - it is rather in the back of beyond and requires a tuk-tuk to get there (unlike the guidebook map we had which suggested, placing the hotel in entirely the wrong region of the city, that walking was feasible) but it is breathtakingly wonderful and for the bargain price of $18. It is in a French colonial villa on a diminutive side-street, in a walled area, themed (it appeared to me) on the a buddhist-influenced Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Each room is finished in a luxurious dark wood, and four-poster beds draped with a seeming impossibility - a romantic mosquito-net! Outside, the balcony area was dotted with several small tables and comfy chairs overlooking the gardens and the main communal area, resplendent in dark wood floors, is a haven of calmness and tranquility. Everyone is invited to take their shoes off, enforcing relaxation. The food is divine, the staff extremely pleasant and accommodating and the atmosphere, in a city of frenetic and never-ending bustle, is a complete juxtaposition. This, remember, is a guesthouse, not a four-star hotel. I commend it unreservedly.

I was also able to engage in some keepie-up with the kitchen staff...

Perhaps the most emotional experience of Phnom Penh is Tuol Sleng or S-21, a museum to the years the Khmer Rouge dominated Cambodia. A former high school, it was used by the Khmer Rouge to house in excess of 17,000 Cambodians although perhaps the most terrifying thing is that no one really knows how many innocent people it housed - some suggest upwards of 20,000. Most of these were tortured and exterminated having lived for days, weeks, months or even years in this heinous institution. Visitors can walk around almost all of former prison and it is a wretched, unsettling and shocking expedition through a monstrous period in Cambodia's history. I stared, dumbfounded, and iron beds sitting in the middle of huge tiled rooms, standing next to implements that, at one stage during the time I was born, had actually been used to inflict untold cruelty to other human beings. In other rooms, crude brick cells had been constructed to keep people in such cramped, confined conditions as to be utterly without pity. On the windows, wire mesh was nailed in place to prevent people from committing suicide. Skulls of bodies found buried line the walls in glass cabinets. Lists of the slain, by region, cover one of the back walls of the largest room. Finally, photographs - can you believe it, the Khmer Rouge took photographs - of the people murdered. It is a harrowing experience that brings even the hardest individual close to tears when fully comprehending the brutality man can inflict on others. This picture is perhaps worth more than any of my words - can you understand - someone actually took this photograph before this woman was killed. 

I don't know whether a blog or journal is ever the place for political commentary but sometimes, you can but stare in bewildered disbelief and horrified frustration at the western world's desire to pick the economically expedient battles to fight. We cannot fight them all, of course, but if it does not involve oil or Al Qaeda, we seem uninterested. I watched with interest, when we returned, when various members of the Khmer Rouge were arrested and one of them tried. The Cambodians I found to be a lovely people and I hope this bitter memory of its bloody past one day fades and the pain assuages. We took some time to visit the National Museum as well and, while the building is rather beautiful, the exhibits are somewhat less so.

We then headed on to Siem Reap and the Temples at Angkor (this latter, deserving as it is of an entirely separate post of its own, is perhaps one of the true ancient wonders of the world). Of course, the bus broke down and we were treated to the opportunity to stroll around a village area that we would have seen from the window of the bus. It was quickly fixed, but we had long enough to explore. Oddly, our tuk-tuk also broke down when we reached Siem Reap. I was beginning to get paranoid!

Siem Reap
Although Siem Reap is really the gateway to Angkor, it is a booming and interesting place in its own right. We had booked a hostel owned by a schizophrenic, pot-smoking European - Dutch, if I recall - and secured a tuk-tuk part of the way there. Replete with 5 star hotels and dingy hostels and flophouses, it shared the hectic and frenetic mania of other Cambodian towns. We walked along the pavement, such as it was, avoiding motorbikes hopping from the road, onto the pavement and back again and dropped down a side street to our hostel. It is ducked back behind some trees and fencing, and upon entry, you are greeted by a dusty courtyard and a canopied breakfast area, usually with westerners sitting chatting. The owner, eccentric but loveably helpful in his way, holding court in the most dictatorial way possible, strides around the place barking orders. It is amusing to watch but slightly disconcerting to be on the receiving end of. We were ordered not to take certain roads as they were "not the right ones" and a map thrust into our hands with hastily but deliberately scrawled diagrams and instructions scribed in front of us. So forceful were his Gestapo instructions, we hardly felt able to disagree!

We headed for a guidebook and Travelfish recommended eatery, the Soup Dragon, Near Old Market Street, and feasted on noodle soup, high above the street, watching the life of Siem Reap bustle beneath us. This area of Siem Reap is largely tourist-occupied but is still a vibrant people-watching locale. That said, locals eat here too and the staff are keen to improve the little English they have by conversing with anyone who will take the time to respond. We did, of course, and it was a rewarding experience to discuss the Khmer Rouge in the international language of hand movements and high/low pitched noises to indicate assent or dissent. The better bars can be found on, oddly, Bar Street and it's worth going from one to another to experience a few of them.

Apart from Angkor, detailed elsewhere, we stayed awhile in Siem Reap and perused the Old Market and explored the town and riverside. Our next stop was Hanoi, Vietnam and, to save time, we booked an internal flight with one of the tour operators on Sivatha Road, opposite the ridiculously opulent De La Paix hotel. It was not cheap, around $170 for both of us, but necessary in the circumstances. We'd done some more Travelfish research, which I'll detail in Post II but it was to be an interesting next phase. We tuk-tuk'ed all the way to the airport, securing the wry admission that the $4 we paid (haggled down from $5) was at least double what he'd have charged a local, and off we went with Vietnam Airlines - this time, by some quirk of fate, getting the emergency exit seats (i.e. nothing in front of us) and extra food (i.e. breakfast for the next day). Within a short time, we landed in Hanoi and were greeted by a very unexpected experience.


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