Thursday, 30 April 2009

Vietnam: Saigon and Phu Quoc Island

After a pleasant 6 hour bus journey from Phnom Penh, I cross the border into Vietnam and arrive in Saigon. The bus guide tells us over the microphone that Saigon has some of the “worst traffic in Asia“, he isn’t wrong. Within moments of him saying that very sentence the driver is forced to jam on the brakes to avoid hitting a car that has just pulled out in front of us. The guide who was standing at the time, takes a heavy fall onto the floor of the aisle, microphone still in hand. Flustered and embarrassed he stands up to reveal a huge rip in his trousers, left buttock exposed. Stifled laugher ripples throughout the bus.

Everything I’d heard about the crazy traffic in Saigon was true. Tens of thousands of motorbikes zig zag precariously through the streets, carrying anything from 1 to 6 people. Sometimes you will see an entire family on one bike, other times you will see people transporting refrigerators, water tanks, chickens or pigs.

Never before have I seen such a brazen disregard for road safety. The makers of the “Police Camera Stop” TV program could get an entire series worth of footage after spending just one day in Saigon. Everywhere you look there is something unusual or comical.

Remember kids, a puppy is not just for Christmas, its for life. Unless of course, its for Christmas Dinner.

This shot is for you Mum! (I know how you love those hats).

First stop is the Vietnam War Remnants Museum which provides a graphic and gruesome photographic account of the Vietnam war and some of the horrific acts committed by the Americans on the Vietnamese People.

As I arrive the heavens open and a heavy storm consumes Saigon. The torrential rain, thunder and lightening provides an even more foreboding atmosphere within the museum. The museum is essentially an anti American propaganda vehicle and it shows the conflict from only one side. However it’s a powerful and disturbing display and as I look over the photographs of GI’s shooting, beheading, burning, beating and blowing up Vietnamese families and villages I’m left with a feeling of shock and repulsion. The Agent Orange Dioxin used to destroy crops and cause famine was truly an evil invention. Even today there are thousands who still suffer hideous deformities from direct or hereditary exposure to Agent Orange. When you hear the US talk about weapons of mass destruction and how they want to protect the world from chemical and biological warfare its easy to see how hatred can by roused by some nations. The hypocrisy is startling, no-one has caused more pain and suffering with such devastating weapons as the Americans themselves.

This now iconic photo shows a young girl badly burned on the back by Napalm running and screaming through the streets. Its been a depressing afternoon, I head back to my hotel in search of a distraction.

That evening I meet another single traveller staying at my hotel. Greg is a 31 year old graduate from Cambridge, on a 10 week break from his small business selling coffee from a mobile coffee shop. He is funny and intelligent and has a similar itinerary to me. We connect immediately and go off into the night looking for some fun.

After a 5 game unbeaten run playing doubles at a nearby pool hall we head off to the inappropriately named “Apocalypse Now” nightclub. Like most Asian Nightclubs, its rubbish. The most exciting part of the evening was our motorbike taxi journey around Saigon. Despite the chaos I didn’t see one single collision. There is a system of avoidance, and somehow the bikes never come into contact, its like a kind of bizarre inverse polarity like when two magnets repel each other. There must have been dozens of near misses on that journey, but after you’ve been riding around for a while its becomes quite good fun. A couple of beers and the usual and unavoidable banter with the local prostitutes later and we call it a night.

Following morning and I’m collected from my hotel at 8am by a coach to take us to the Cu Chi tunnels, 2 hours drive away from Saigon. Throughout the war the Viet Cong fighters used an elaborate and ingenious network of underground tunnels to hide from the Americans and transport themselves and equipment around the jungles. The network stretches over 250km and are formed off three layers of tunnels, 3, 6 and 10 meters underground. The tunnel networks lead to various underground bunkers, containing weapons, hospitals, sleeping quarters, and importantly they all lead to the river. The Americans never discovered the tunnels and they are still regarded as the best and most cunning tunnel network in the world. Even the South Vietnamese army who were fighting with the Americans have a deep respect and pride in what the Viet Cong had constructed. Our tour guide is a Vietnam veteran called Mr Bin. He showed us the jungle area and the booby traps used to trap and maim the GI’s., usually consisting of grass covered trap doors with sharpened bamboo spikes underneath.

The tunnels themselves have now been widened to allow western tourists to visit them. Here is the western entrance.

The original Vietnamese entrances where far smaller and barley big enough for a small western child to fit into.

Its easy to see how the tunnel network was never found.

Our guide told us of the ingenious ways the Viet Cong evaded discovery. The Americans brought in dogs at one point to try and sniff out the scent of the Viet Cong. The VC simply waited until they found Marlborough cigarette ends butts smoked by the Americans, nearby they would be able to find toilet paper the US used to wipe their asses. They smeared themselves in the excrement when they heard the dogs to disguise their own scent. Disgusting, but effective. Some of the tunnels actually led inside American Army bases. Unable to attack the bases due to being severely outnumbered, the VC would simply slip into the bases at night and steal guns and ammunition.

I walked through a section of tunnel that was around 150meters long. I don’t mind telling you it was bloody horrible down there. Pitch black, disgustingly hot and sweaty, full of insects and really, really uncomfortable. I was crawling on my hands and knees for about 10mins, I couldn’t wait to get out. God knows how they managed to stay down there for so long.

I emerged from the tunnel dirty, sweaty and covered in bugs.

A German lady wiped this giant centipede from my shoulder, and I proceeded to flap around like a flightless bird patting myself and wiping all the cobwebs off myself shrieking like a girl.

I stayed in Saigon for a couple more days, but this was largely due the fun I was having with Greg. During one of our many conversations over several beers he told me of a small island off the coast of Vietnam called Phu Quoc. “Its paradise” Greg explained, “an undiscovered gem of white sandy beaches with turquoise waters, hardly any western tourists and not yet ruined by major development”. It was all the persuasion I needed. I headed to the airport the very next day and took a 40minute flight south in search of the first beach of my expedition.

Phu Quoc must be similar to what Thailand was like 30 years ago. There are no proper roads, the electricity only comes on from 6pm till 2am, there are no major hotels, no big resorts, just miles and miles of beautiful untouched beaches with the occasional guesthouse.

I meet a Welsh chap called Ashley, we hire some motorbikes and we go off exploring this beautiful island in the glorious sunshine.

Yes I know… give me a handlebar moustache and I could be in the Village People.

Ever seen cows on the beach before?

The clay roads where difficult to navigate, especially with the added obstacles.

We found a small resort called Mai Pheung. Myself, Ashley and a German lady called Katrina where the only guests. We had this beautiful beach entirely to ourselves for 4 days.

The obligatory sunset shots.

Its was my first beach in two and a half years,. After a long and often tiring expedition of China, Cambodia and Saigon I took no shame in spending 4 whole days in a hammock reading, listening to music, swimming and even skinny dipping. Midnight swims under the stars every night. It was heaven.

Of course with the smooth also comes the rough. Here are just some of the bugs that I found in my room during my nightly bug patrol room sweep.

One night I found a spider with the leg span the size of the palm of your hand. Look at your hand stretched out and then imagine a spider sitting in the palm of it, that’s how big it was. Thankfully I was able to utilise my heavy South East Asia Lonely Planet book to disable the oversized arachnid and dispense of him down the toilet. I was slightly concerned that he might attempt a revenge attack the following morning whilst I was “taking care of business”, thankfully I immerged unscathed.

Next stop…. Nha Trang where I will take the Mama Hahn boat trip, dance the night away under the stars and begin a 4 day magical motorbike trek of the central highland mountains and discover “the real” Vietnam.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Cambodia. Phnom Penh, The Killing Fields and Khmer New Year

I reluctantly say my goodbyes to the new friends I made on the Chinese tour and head for Beijing Airport. The comfort blanket of the tour group has so far shielded me from loneliness but now its time to continue my journey alone. I’m throwing myself in at the deep end and heading for Cambodia, a country once so dangerous it would make Afghanistan seem like Chessington World of Adventures.

My plane journey was in two 3 hour segments, the plane will make a brief stop in Southern China before continuing on to Cambodia. During the first part of the flight a smiling China Airways stewardess came past me with the drinks trolley and offered me some refreshment. “Peijo?” I enquired using one of the limited (but important) Chinese words I’ve learned. She smiled at me politely and without hesitation reached down and produced a cold can of beer. “You wan glass for your beer sir?”, “No thank you“, I said. I drank the beer and had a snooze. Some hours later, once I had boarded the same plane following a brief stop, the same flight attendant came past with the trolley again asking if I’d like a drink. “Peijo” I said again with a beaming smile. This time both the flight attendant and the two Chinese businessmen sitting next to me gave me a look of utter contempt and incredulity. “Peijo” I repeated. She handed me a water and shook her head tutting with a look of absolute disgust as if I’d just suggested I was going to execute her entire family. The Chinese businessmen muttered between themselves in disbelief at my request and I was left sat there completely baffled with my tail between my legs. Perhaps my pronunciation was incorrect and I had in fact requested some weapons grade plutonium.

I have two contacts in Cambodia. Sue, an expat who lives permanently in Phnom Penh and who was a great resource and drinking buddy on my last visit two years ago, and Phy a Cambodian tuk tuk driver who acted as our driver, guide, bodyguard, translator and general all round fixer during my last visit.

“The only honest tuk tuk driver in Cambodia” Sue had once explained. I’m greeted at the airport by a smiling Phy who shook my hand like an old friend. It was good to see a familiar face. Sue had arranged transport and a guesthouse for me, but I soon discovered that she will not be in Phnom Penh during my stay, she has travelled to the provinces with her boyfriend for a romantic celebration of Khmer New Year. Looks like I really am alone this time. The first thing I notice is the intense heat. Its 35 degrees and humid. I’m sweating so much there is a small pool forming under my seat, I need a shower. Phy takes my to my guesthouse and leaves me his number so that I can use him during my stay. Its 11pm, I shower and take to the streets for a wander. I obviously stick out like a sore thumb as the minute I hit the street I am pounced upon by a multitude of locals offering me women, drugs or…. “something else..?”. God only knows what the “something else” could be after women and drugs are out of the equation.
The following morning I find a restaurant by the river for some breakfast. A young girl of no more than 14 or 15 sits down next to me and starts talking. Her name is Irina (I think), and she is a Cambodian local. Her English is excellent and chat to her for about 10mins trying to learn a few basic words. Then she asks me if I’d like to have sex with her. Shocked, I immediately but politely refuse, she then tells me that she has to work very hard on the streets to feed her family and that she is very poor, (although her clothing and well spoken accent suggest otherwise). I’m not sure if I’m being scammed or not and my defences are up. I contemplate giving her some money but decide against is as I already have 3 or 4 young kids selling dvds pulling at my sleeves. I know that the minute I give to one, they will be around me like flies. I make my excuses and leave. Being a thirysomething single traveller in Cambodia is difficult, I must look like a sex tourist. I decide its time to move to a less salubrious but busier area around the lakeside and try to make some new friends.

My guesthouse is Simons II and was recommended by the lonely planet. Its set in the ramshackle squalor of the Lakeside but somehow my room is ridiculously opulent.
Not bad for $10 a night.

I take to the streets for an explore and I’m immediately hit by the contrast of Cambodia from China. Whist China is a developing country, Cambodia is still very much undeveloped. It also has many contradictions. Extreme poverty with entire families sleeping on the streets on one side, and beautifully manicured boulevards and tree lined streets on the other.

Everyone smiles at you and even though you are pestered a lot by the locals, its in a friendly, non-abrasive manner and refusal is generally taken well. I wander through the markets and stroll the boulevards and take it all in.

At one point a small monkey appeared out of nowhere and stared at me menacingly,. He seemed to be reaching behind for something as if he was going to pull out a gun.

Thankfully it was only a banana which he proceeded to unpeel and eat in front of me like a cliché from a cartoon.
During my last visit to Cambodia I visited the breathtaking temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and the gruesome S21 prison were thousands of Cambodians were tortured and executed during the Khmer Rouge regime. I did not however visit the infamous mass graves of the Killing Fields, I decide its time to get the more macabre side of Cambodian history over and done with. I call Phy and head off to the Killing Fields some 15km outside Phnom Penh.

In the late 1960’s Cambodia was drawn into the Vietnam war. The Americans began carpet bombing suspected communist camps in Cambodia which acted only to push them and their Vietnamese allies deeper into Cambodia’s interior. Brutal fighting then ensued all over Cambodia, which finally ended only when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge then attempted to implement a revolution and turn Cambodia into a peasant dominated agrarian co-operative. During 4 bloody years over a million Cambodians would be tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge with a further 2 million dying of famine, disease and starvation. It is estimated that Pol Pots Khmer Rouge was responsive for the deaths of over 3 million people, a third of the entire population. There is not one Cambodian alive today who hasn’t suffered in some way by the regime. Almost everyone has lost a father, an uncle a child or a friend to this brutal and horrific period in Cambodia’s history. The Killing Fields is the site at which the Khmer Rouge would kill and bury their victims. So far over 18000 bodies have been uncovered in the mass graves of the Killing Fields.

When I arrived at the site I was surprised by the serenity of the place, this beautiful white pagoda stands as the centrepiece of the site. However a closer look inside tells a different story.

The pagoda is the home to thousands of skulls that were uncovered and serves as a permanent reminder of the horrors of genocide. Most of the skulls contain fractures and holes from where the victims were bludgeoned to death with iron bars. Bullets were deemed too expensive to waste and most people were horrifically beaten until dead.

Next to this mass grave (one of many) where over 190 bodies were found stands a tree.

Its named the Killing Tree as it is the tree that thousands of children and babies were killed against. The Khmer Rouge would pick the babies up by the feet and smash their heads against this tree until dead, before throwing them into the mass graves.
This plaque says it all.
It was a sombre and sobering experience, 30 minutes was all I needed before heading out of there and heading back to my room for some reflection.

Thankfully the mood was lifted when I arrived back at my room. I opened my door and was greeted by a cheeky little puppy called Lilly. God knows how she got into my room but she played with my shorts for about 10 minutes and put a smile back on my face. I even forgave her the small pool of warm yellow puppy piss that she left outside my door that I later stepped in.

Later that evening I took a tuk tuk over the river to a bar I visited last time owned by an Australian expat called Snow. The bar is beautifully decorated with all kinds of trinkets and has an almost Moroccan feel with a warm ambiance provided by soft lighting and a spectacular view of Phnom Penh out over the Mekong River.

I also found a rather humorous sign above the urinals.

The following day and it was Khmer New Year. A lovely lady from my guesthouse suggested I walk to Wat Phnom the cities highest point consisting of a small circular park and a temple on a hill in the centre of it. This was the scene for the days festivities. When I arrived I was greeted by a colourful and vibrant display of people in bright clothes and costumes playing and partying with their friends and family and enjoying the New Year. I was the only westerner that I saw but I didn’t mind. I took a seat on the grass and people watched for an hour or so. There was a really pleasant atmosphere and all the kids were running about the place smiling and giggling it was very uplifting and enjoyed it immensely.

Later it was back to the Lakeside for some beers and some chilling.

I met a few people in the 5 days I spent in Phnom Penh, had some drinks and food and played pool, but no-one I wanted to exchange numbers with or meet again. I guess there will be a lot of disposable friends on this trip. I’m know I will have to get used to being alone a lot of the time, and my Cambodian experience has taught me that I’m really not that bad company and can get along quite happily on my own. I get out my Lonely Planet and start planning my trip to Vietnam.

Next Stop…… Saigon… where I will walk through the famous Cu Chi tunnels and finally make a new friend…. Stay tuned.