Sunday, 11 January 2015

A Backpack and the Lonely Planet

For me, one of the most exciting things about moving to Asia was the opportunity to travel and explore the plethora of countries and cultures in the region. Over the past couple of years I have spent a vast amount of time trawling the internet and planning holidays, the majority of which I haven't followed through with yet. My hit list includes various locations in Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, China, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bhutan.... the list goes on. One of the reasons David and I chose to stay in Hong Kong this Christmas was to explore some of these destinations during the Christmas break.

Inevitably, the holiday plan had to be a compromise. After tricking David into holidaying in a dog and cat rescue centre in Langkawi, I wasn't completely trusted to plan the holiday without his input! Once we had settled on Cambodia and South Vietnam as destinations, we debated exactly where we would go and what we would see. We both felt we should go to Angkor Wat, a complex of temples and one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. David made it clear that he wanted to visit the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh and the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh. "How cheerful!" I thought. My suggestion of staying with a local family in Battamberg was immediately vetoed. "I don't really want to stay in someone else's house. Would you like a strange Cambodian family staying in our tiny apartment?". However, when we read about boat trips exploring the Mekong Delta, we both leapt at the idea. Me, because I'd be on the water and could see daily rural life passing me by while getting a tan, David because he could reenact Apocolypse Now. So, with our trip finally agreed upon, off we set, weighed down by back packs and armed with the Lonely Planet, like a pair of ageing gap yah students.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

First stop, Siem Reap, a low rise colonial style city nestled on the banks of a river with a friendly, laid-back feel, and the gateway to Angkor Wat. We were collected from our hotel early on our first morning by our driver and our tiny and very cheerful guide for our day at Angkor Wat. David looked like Gulliver with a Lilliputian beside him. Unfortunately our jolly guide's English was quite hard to decipher and he did not gauge that David and I are not desperately interested in ancient history and we didn't need to know every single intricate detail of the vast sculpted mural surrounding Bayon, the first temple we were taken to. David kept wandering off, leaving me nodding, smiling, feigning interest and desperately trying to work out what jolly guide was saying, while shooting daggers at my husband's disappearing back.

Angkor Wat

After Bayon I silently prayed there were no more sculpted murals to look at as the day was starting to drag and I didn't know how long I could maintain my 'fascinated' facade for. Fortunately the next temple was the Lara Croft one - Ta Promh - and I think jolly guide was slowly picking up on the fact that David and I were not culture vultures and liked to move through the ancient ruins at pace. The day picked up and we started to tick off temples at speed. I know, it's sacrilege, we were at one of the most beautiful historical sites on earth and we weren't lapping up every second. However, we had no problem lapping up our delicious set meal at a restaurant nestled among the ancient ruins, while jolly guide had a power nap and a welcome break from his philistine guests.

The afternoon was spent wandering around the stunning Angkor Wat. On arrival my heart sank to see it was surrounded by an enormous fresco. Visions of hours being lectured on each minute detail while David drifted off into the distance, flashed before my eyes. Jolly guide had definitely got the measure of us though and we enjoyed a pacey and educational tour around Angkor Wat and David managed to remain by my side throughout.

One of the sad things about the modern world is that there are few surprises when visiting a new place. With the glossy pictures in guide books, travel programmes, films, Trip Advisor, social media etc, it is hard to go anywhere without experiencing a sense of having seen it before. This is how I felt at Angkor Wat. While it was amazing to witness it in the flesh, part of me felt a slight disappointment that I wasn't able to see it with fresh eyes, untainted by the accessible images in the media.

Following a day at Angkor Wat, David and I had built up a thirst, so after a swim we were ready to hit Siem Reap. Jumping into a tuk-tuk we weaved through the motorbikes towards the brightly lit river and the night market. Living in Hong Kong with it's many markets and being so close to Shenzhen with the best fake gear market in the region, it was hard to get excited by Siem Reap's tourist market. So, despite being backpackers, we bypassed the baggy elephant trousers, tie dye t-shirts and Chiang beer wife-beaters and headed straight for drinks and dinner.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Another early start for a 7 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Once we had left the city boundaries of Siem Reap, the scenery remained the same until reaching the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Dusty red roads lined with lush padi fields and huts housing hammocks for weary motorcyclists, along with the occasional village with dimly lit shacks selling soft drinks and snacks. Most villages would feature a roadside hut with battered beach style chairs set up cinema style in front of a television. A clear indication that television ownership is not as ubiquitous in Cambodia as elsewhere.

Phnom Penh itself was a pleasant surprise. This was somewhere I hadn't seen endless pictures of and I knew very little about the city itself besides the fact it was home to the notorious S-21 prison and it's boundaries housed the Killing Fields dating back to its brutal civil war in the 70s. I wrongly assumed it would therefore be rather austere and imposing. Instead it had the same friendly laid-back feel as Siem Reap and it was hard not to fall instantly in love with the place. Nestled on the banks of Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong river, it is dotted with historical colonial buildings and monuments, grand boulevards, and interlaced with narrow streets lined with caf├ęs, bars, restaurants, spas and shops. Everywhere we went we were greeted by genuinely warm, smiley, welcoming Cambodian people.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Our first full day was spent with our driver and guide taking us around all the major sites of Phnom Penh. Our guide was amazing, a woman in her mid forties who had experienced the civil war first hand and still bore the scars emotionally and physically. She had been living in Phnom Penh with her parents when the Khmer Rouge entered the city and within 3 days they fled to the countryside to stay in one of the rural villages with relatives. Over the next few years she was separated from her parents and forced to work in one of the many agricultural communities. Even as a very young girl she was forced to work on padi fields. She spoke of suffering from malnutrition from a diet of only rice and water and being so thin that the wind would blow her over. She was made to empty the 'long drop' toilet with her hands and carry the human excrement to fertilise the padi fields. She vividly remembers the humiliation of not being allowed to wash her hands before eating.

I found her fascinating and remarkably frank about her experiences of life under the Khmer Rouge, as well as extremely willing to respond to our barrage of questions. Being a similar age to her I also felt a strange connection and she confided in me about experiences and memories when David was out of ear shot. It was traumatic listening to her terrible childhood compared to mine. I clearly remember Blue Peter's appeal in 1978, raising money to buy lorries, fuel, rice, fertiliser, vaccines and other equipment for the starving survivors of Pol Pot's regime - she would have been one of them.

Our visit to the killing fields and S-21 was a stark reminder of the horrors that man can inflict on each other and the futility of it all. And while the torture and tragic genocide is part of Cambodia's not so distant past, it is agonising that similar atrocities continue throughout the world nowadays. What is even worse is that the US and UK governments are complicit and have blood on their hands today.

After our thought-provoking day, we felt it was only right that we should treat ourselves to a massage - particularly at the enticingly low prices offered. There was no mistaking the fact that David and I had sourced a classy establishment. As we were ushered to our shared massage room we were each given a pair of loose fitting hippy trousers and top to wear - they wanted to keep our modesty well hidden. Beside each bed was a large sign stating ‘NO SEX’. There could be no confusion, this was somewhere people came for a massage with no extras, so I could close my eyes and relax, safe in the knowledge that my husband wasn’t getting a crafty happy ending beside me.

Emerging from the spa feeling blissfully chilled, we hunted down a bar playing 90's UK indie music and made the most of the bargain Happy Hour cocktails – US$2.50 each. It seemed rude to just have one so we sat watching the world go by, Dave necking lager and me passion fruit martinis. Before we lost the use of our limbs we went to find the restaurant we’d been recommended by our guide. It was an old teak colonial style building with a stream running through it awash with carp. I chose steamed fish, thinking I would get a small fish sitting on a bed of veg on a plate. Instead a large fish balanced over a wood fire was ceremoniously placed in the centre of our table. While David, a fish-hater, blocked his nose and made subtle retching noises for the next 30 minutes, I put in a sterling effort devouring the entire fish.

Chau Doc

The following day our Mekong Delta expedition began. At 1pm we arrived to find the boat which was to transport us down the Mekong from Phnom Penh across the border to Chau Doc in Vietnam. When planning the trip, I had had romantic visions of David and I being whisked down the river on a private long tail, hand in hand, watching the sunset. I hadn’t quite envisaged a narrow, ugly fibre glass barge crammed full of other tourists. Our ‘companions’ for the 5 hour cruise down the Mekong were a couple of socially inept French families with literally screaming toddlers, and a selection of men and women who had cloned into ‘travellers’ somewhere in South East Asia. It remains a mystery to me as to why people morph into stereotypes when travelling, with dreadlocks, rainbow coloured hair, tie-dye T shirts, loose fitting elephant trousers and sandals, being the uniform of choice.

Once I managed to divert my attention from the interior to the exterior of the boat, I had a wonderful 5 hours watching everyday life on the Mekong go by on the endless padi fields. Once we crossed the border to Vietnam floating villages housing fish farms, and small communities sprung up along the river banks. As the sun started to set we watched children swimming in the river while the women cooked the evening meal and the men chilled out in hammocks.

Cruising down the Mekong

On arrival in Chau Doc we were met by our smiley guide for the next few days who led us to our car. She proudly announced that we were VIPs as she pointed out the large Ford Silver Warrior mini van that was going to be David and my transport for our time in Vietnam. Once we had been dropped off at our fairly average hotel, smiley guide disappeared off into the night, leaving us to explore the wonders of Chau Doc.

As it was New Year's Eve, David and I were keen to find ourselves a lively bar to see in the New Year from. When we asked the hotel receptionist to direct us to a good bar, we weren't expecting the response to be "There are no bars in this town". David and my jaws dropped and we looked at each other wondering if it was April Fool's Day in Vietnam. Leaving the hotel, David adopted the persona of 'tracker' and set off with purpose along the dusty road riddled with motorbikes, on a mission to sniff out anywhere that sold booze. During 'Operation Find Booze' it quickly become apparent that Chau Doc was a bit of a shit hole. Although the people were incredibly friendly and we were greeted by choruses of 'Hello! Happy New Year!' from adults and children alike, it was a grubby, working market town that was not geared up for tourists. Eventually David's canine sniffing skills led us to a strip-light lit coffee shop which could have passed as a car mechanics workshop, selling beer, on the busy junction of a road. We spent the next 15 minutes, sitting on grimy beach chairs practically on the road, with motorbikes roaring past us. Even David couldn't be persuaded to stay for a second one and we went in search of a restaurant.

The restaurant was a slight upgrade from the coffee shop, as at least it was set back from the road. However, the food was decidedly average and the florescent strip-lighting attracted every insect known to man. After being repeatedly dive-bombed by vicious mosquitoes, it was time to call it a night. David and I were in bed by 9pm!

Waking up feeling abnormally bright and breezy for New Year's Day, we were glad to be picked up by smiley guide in our Silver Warrior and whisked off to the gorgeous Tra Su cajuput forest and bird sanctuary. The nature reserve is home to many unique water birds, colonies of bats and various rare animal, and Dave and I were going to be exploring it by both long-tail and rowing boat. As we were rowed through mangroves housing nesting tropical birds and their babies, and fluttering Kingfishers, all you could hear was the swish of the oar hitting the water and bird song. It really was the perfect way to see in the New Year and made up for a disappointing New Year's Eve.

Tra Su cajuput forest and bird sanctuary

During the morning we were taken up onto a viewing platform that looked down upon the 845 hectares of forest and waterways. As I was taking in the stunning view, I was spotted by a group of local Vietnamese girls. Although they spoke no English, they gesticulated that they would like to have their picture taken with me. One by one each of the girls lined up to have their photo taken while I pretended to be a celebrity. This has happened to me every now and again in Hong Kong. Being a cynical Brit I do wonder whether they are taking photos to laugh about later because I am freakishly large and odd looking compared to them. However I'd like to believe it is because with my blonde-ish hair and blue-ish eyes they think I'm Scarlett Johansson - after all I've been told that all Westerners look the same to Asians.

After a couple of hours David and I were driven on to a crocodile farm for lunch where we were served barbecue crocodile which David sulkily refused point-blank to try. Had I blind tasted both barbecue chicken and crocodile I don't think I could have tasted the difference.

The Crocodile Farm

Can Tho

Late afternoon we reached Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta Region, sitting on a wide section of the river. In contrast to gloomy Chau Doc, Can Tho was bright and buzzing and had a vast array of restaurants, bars, coffee shops and nightclubs. With our hotel located right next door to a lively bar, it was not a mission to find somewhere selling alcohol. Following a few days of a strict diet of Asian food, David was craving a steak and we easily hunted down a French restaurant by the river. David looked ecstatic as he tucked into a huge steak with dauphinois potatoes, washed down with a bottle of red.

The following morning we walked down to the river where we joined a narrow wooden boat to take us to Can Tho floating market - the largest floating market in the area. This was the destination for people to come to from across the Mekong Delta to sell their produce. Reaching the market you could see boat after boat laden with jack fruit, durian, pineapples, mangoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, bitter melon, casava etc. Each boat had a long pole reaching into the sky, onto which examples of its wares were hung, so customers on the water knew which boat was selling which tropical fruit or vegetables.

Can Tho Floating Market

Once we had experienced the floating market, we were taken to the covered market on the banks of the river where people were selling fresh fish, still flipping around in polystyrene boxes, and fresh meat and poultry. We watched with fascination as customers selected live fish which were put into bags and weighed, then bashed on the floor to kill them, before being descaled and gutted.

The indoor market at Can Tho

After a couple of hours it was time to get back into the Silver Warrior for our 5 hour drive to Ho Chi Minh city, our final destination.

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon, is the capital of Vietnam with a population of 9 million people. David and I had been warned about the volume of motorbikes clogging up the roads of Ho Chi Minh and as we drove towards the city centre, it appeared that the majority of the city's 9 million inhabitants were riding motorbikes. If they weren't on motorbikes, they were sitting by the side of the roads on low stools selling coffee, ice-cream, noodle soup, tropical fruit etc. Despite the traffic, we quickly warmed to the city with its wide elegant boulevards and french colonial architecture.

Our first full day in Ho Chi Minh was to be David's 'Man Day'. David is very interested in military history, fuelled by his love of war documentaries on the History Channel, so he had been adamant that we explored the main sights of the Vietnam war. Top of the list were the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is an immense network of tunnels just outside Ho Chi Minh, used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters during the war. David had his perfect morning, shoe horning himself into the tunnels, crawling around underground and firing AK-47s on the shooting range.

David squeezing into the Cu Chi Tunnels

David shooting an AK-47

Once we had finished at the tunnels, we were taken back to Ho Chi Minh where it was time for us to say goodbye to our smiley guide and the Silver Warrior. Over the past 4 days, our guide had given us a real insider's view on life on the Mekong Delta which we wouldn't have benefitted from had we been travelling alone. We had enjoyed spending time with her and were impressed with her ability to keep smiling even though there must have been times when David and I irritated her!

We had a further couple of days on our own in Ho Chi Minh before returning to Hong Kong and the following day David wanted to visit the War Remnants Museum. Had I not been travelling with David, this would not have been high on my list of 'must-see' sights, however I am really glad I went. Having visited the Killing Fields and S-21 in Cambodia, I thought I had seen the worst of what people could do to each other in wartime. The War Remnants Museum proved otherwise.

The museum is spread across three floors with each floor housing three or four rooms displaying harrowing photographs from the Vietnam war, showing both sides of the conflict. The most shocking rooms for me, were those displaying the devastating affects of Agent Orange. Being fairly ignorant to the history and details of the Vietnam war, besides what I have seen in the endless American 'Nam movies, I am ashamed to admit that I knew nothing about Agent Orange. For those as ignorant as me, Agent Orange is a herbicide used during Operation Ranch Hand in the Vietnam War, employed to destroy crops, bushes and trees. The goal was to defoliate rural forested land and deprive guerrillas of food and cover. The chemicals used by the Americans contained dioxin, which is highly toxic and dangerous. Among the illnesses contracted by people exposed to dioxin are non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, cancer, type 2 diabetes, soft tissue sarcoma, birth defects in children, spina bifida and reproductive abnormalites. I found it hard to fight back the tears looking at photograph after photograph of children and adults suffering from horrendous physical deformities and mental disorders as a direct result of Agent Orange. What I found most shocking is that even today, over 45 years on, people are giving birth to babies with terrible birth defects as a result of exposure to dioxin. According to the Vietnam Red Cross, about 1 million Vietnamese have been affected by Agent Orange, including 150,000 children suffering from birth defects. This has to be one of the most heinous war crimes in recent times.

Once we had finished our morning at the War Remnants Museum our sight-seeing list was complete. Our final day was spent exploring the coffee shops, foot massage spas, bars, restaurants and boutique shops. We discovered a wonderful shop selling original communist propaganda posters dating back to the sixties and we bought a selection to decorate our apartment's bare walls. We also stocked up on the rocket-fuel strength Vietnamese coffee which I love.

Weighed down by our stuffed rucksacks it was time for David and I to head home to Hong Kong. We had the most amazing trip to Cambodia and Vietnam but we were looking forward to unpacking our bags and staying put in one place for more than a couple of nights. I totally fell in love with Cambodia and south Vietnam and the greatest thing I took from our holiday was a huge amount of admiration and respect for the people of these two countries who made us feel so welcome and helped to fill our stay with happy memories.

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