Trip Start Feb 08, 2010
7Trip End Aug 12, 2010
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Our first stop was Siem Reap to see the ruins of Angkor, an enormous complex of temples from the days of the Khmer Empire. It's the Disneyworld of archaeology, both in terms of size and admission price. We spent three solid days there, cycling from site to site in the evil 40 degree heat, visiting dozens of temples but still not seeing a quarter of the place. The ruins are mindblowingly cool but seeing them will pretty much wreck templegoing forever, as nothing compares. My favorite was Bayon, covered in giant heads officially depicting a god but carved in the likeness of the king (with a vaguely perverted grin). Gwen and I even dragged ourselves out of bed to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat, a spectacular sight despite the legions of bleary-eyed tourists all taking the exact same photos.
But templin' isn't all one can do at Angkor. You can, for example, gawk at the morbidly obese monkeys. Now before coming to Cambodia I wouldn't have believed that the monkey, perhaps nature's more spry and athletic animal, could become so hideously bloated. How did this come to pass? By their being constantly fed lotus seeds by billions of people who, presumably, get a kick out of slowly murdering an animal.
You can also enjoy the ministrations of the many trinket peddling children who haunt the temple stoops. Organized by middle-aged matrons, Fagan-types who sit on their asses and collect profts on the bracelets and postcards they sell, the continuing exploitation of these kids is financed by foreigners stupid enough to buy their crap. Based on extensive observation, these children can be categorized into three types:
First are the "Professors." They invariably open with "Where are you from?", and being supplied with this information, will do their rote-learned best to summarize your country ("Canada! Capital Ottawa, speak both English and French, very cold...") A fellow Canadian told me that one of these types even named Stephen Harper as our PM. I guess the "Professors" hope that you'll be so impressed with their erudition that you'll buy a pack of overpriced postcards, but I was only inspired to tell them I was from a nonexistant country to see what they came up with. More amusing are the "Comedians," whose shticks include going to shake your hand and pulling away at the last moment to slick back their hair, doing an impression of your language (English is "Shhh tffff pfffshhhh," all soft consonants), or dancing a funny dance. Cute, but I'm not paying for it, kid. Worst of all are the "Terrorists" who, with watery doe eyes, beg tragically for your business. Failing that, it's not unknown for them to scream and shriek and generally try to scare your riel out of you.
After thousands of Angkor's temples and plates of fish amoc (Cambodia's other towering cultural achievement, a heartbreakingly delicious coconut curry dish made from pure angel songs), we left Siem Reap for Battambang, a riverside town whose chief attraction is its "bamboo train," a train whose cars are made of, as the name suggests, bamboo. These little wooden carts tear past the rice paddies at upwards of 15 km/hr, cooking along until they encounter another bamboo train, whereupon the sissier of the two trains pulls over, dismantles itself and lets the other pass. The one Gwen and I took was very sissy indeed, yeilding to every two-bit conductor that got in our way.
By now it was Khmer New Year, so we went down to the coastal city of Sihanoukville to take in the festivities. Unfortunately partying in Cambodia consists mostly of picnicing on the beach and letting your children blow themselves up with fireworks, so our time there was more relaxing than insane. But we did enjoy the disgusting, garbage-strewn beach, and the scuba diving. Cambodia's coast is apparently famous for its nudibranchs, more evocatively known as "wart slugs," technicoloured invertabrates about half the size of your pinky. They're interesting, but some divers have an obsession with them that borders on an unhealthy fetish. Maybe I'm an oceanic philistine but I prefer the huge turtles and sharks and shit.
One afternoon in the next town, Kampot, we rented a scooter and took off on the road with no particular destination in mind. We came across a pig, and not just any pig-- this may have been the biggest pig I've ever seen, a huge lumbering behemoth. Gwen, her helmet still on, jumped off to get a picture with the gargantuan beast. Then the farmer and his wife, understandably proud of their huge pig, went to drag the animal into the shot, but it spooked, bolted, and totally clotheslined Gwen with its tether. For a solid minute everyone, me on the bike, Gwen on the ground, the Cambodian couple by the fence, was helpless with laughter. It just goes to show that no matter what cultural or linguistic barriers divide us, everyone can laugh at a woman getting run over by a pig.
So we feasted on crab, rode home in a rather impressive lightening storm, and went to Phnom Phenh. During the Khmer Rouge P.P. everyone was forced out of the city, and it still has that abandoned look, but the town's vibrancy shows through the dinginess. We enjoyed the great midnight riverside dance sessions, dancing like the locals do, with (more or less) coordinated steps in a big line.
But in contrast to this lively atompshere are all of the relics of the Pol Pot years, extremely disturbing places like the S-21 prison camp, where dissidents were tortured to death, and the killing fields. Strangely, though, the mountains of skulls left as memorials hardly seem real-- they're almost too halloweenish to have an emotional impact, even though you know, intellectually, that they all belonged to murdered human beings. What really hit home were the bones still buried underground, half revealed by recent rainstorms. So many people were interred under the killing fields that they haven't even been able to dig them all up, you have to step over their remains.
One night, looking for some entertainment, Gwen and I came across a bar with a live band. Thinking it would be fun to take in a little music, we sat down, ordered some beers, and noticed something strange: the place was filled with white men, but Gwen was the only white woman, but there were plenty of Cambodian women, and they were all with a white man... Suddenly, the bar's name, "The Black Cat," and the presence of "girl drinks" on the menu made sense. But hey, the band wasn't bad! (On another note, the official game of Western men and their Asian prostitutes seems to be Connect Four. And the prostitutes usually win.)
Sadly, Gwen had to return to Canada to resume her important job, while I, without even an unimportant job, continued on the road. The best of dumb chance brought us together, and it was damn lucky to find such an awesome travel buddy.
On the way to Vietnam, my bus stopped at a small cafe for lunch. Absorbed in my meal, I was startled to see the bus take off down the road. I grabbed my bag, ran out the door and was yelling "Hey! HEY!" when a Cambodian guy on a scooter creeched to a halt beside me. I jumped on and we roared off, chasing down the bus at breakneck speeds. We finally caught up and I ran on-- only to discover that the bus was full of monks. My bus did not feature monks. The guy gave me a lift back to the station, having a good-natured chuckle at my expense. Apparently, my ride had switched parking spots with the monk-filled bus.
The most striking thing about Saigon (or, lamely but more correctly, Ho Chi Minh City) are its motorcycles. The streets are choked with them, thousand and thousands swarming with insect-logic, weaving in and out, lanes be damned. If you want to cross the street you have to take a leap of faith. Step out and pray as the neverending torrent of motorcycles miss you by inches. You become the eye of a Honda xe om storm.
I was alone in the city but enjoying it, spending many hours at sidewalk cafés watching the city go by at its phrenetic pace. During one such sit, a vendor, one of many, came by and offered to sell me some stuff. I didn't buy anything. Two hours later she returned, furious, screaming "You no buy, now I have NO LUCKY, NO LUCKY!" There's a superstition in Vietnam that if your first potential customer doesn't buy anything, you'll have bad luck for the rest of the day. So in her mind I was to blame for her unfortunate lack of "lucky". I still didn't buy anything.
As a white guy in South-East Asia, I have been offered sex (commercially) in pretty well every conceivable way. They'll jump out of rafters to proposition you. But never have I seen a more enterprising method than the one they use in Saigon: a pimp will ride right up beside you, a lady on the back of his moto, and say "You want this girl?" Herpes on wheels, gonorrhea to go! This sort of thing is typical of the entreprenurial spirit that characterizes communist Vietnam.
Speaking of capitalism, I encountered a strange deal one morning over a steaming bowl of pho. A moto driver promised to take me around the city and out to see the Viet Cong tunnels for whatever I deigned to pay him, just so long as afterwards I went to some hotel and pretended to consider staying there. He'd get his kickback, I'd see some stuff, fair deal. His book of testimonials was strong and he had a licence, so I though hey, why not, and took him up on his offer. We had a good day, especially crawling through the old war tunnels, checking out the ghastly traps the Viet Cong used to lay. The day ended and I proposed that we go to the hotel. Instead, he pulled over, the "hotel" forgotten, and his demanded 1,700,000 dong. That's just under a hundred dollars, an absurd amount. I told him no, that wasn't the deal, and he became rather upset. Thinking it would be unwise and cruel to stiff him completely, but not wanting to reward his attempt at extortion, I offered him $15, on the lower end of a fair Vietnamese wage for seven hours as a moto guide. I was planning on giving him more but I guess he dug his own grave there. An absurd scene followed where I kept shoving the money toward him, yelling "Take it, take it!" and he kept jumping back, arms in the air, shrieking "NO! NO!" After a while I got fed up and asked him how me was planning on getting more money out of me. He paused, looked glum, and took the money.
After Saigon I went up to Nha Trang, something of a Vietnamese resort town. I went for the diving, which was spectacular. On one trip I saw three frogfish, red, green, and yellow. These elusive little guys blend in so perfectly with the surrounding coral that even though my guide was pointing right at the damn things, I couldn't see them until they moved. Even more exicting was the good scare I got when, swimming through a cave, a huge current picked up and shot me out like a cannonball. A rare moment of adrenaline in the otherwise relaxed sport of scuba diving.
I signed up for a day on a Vietnamese "party boat," an experience I had been told was too insane to be missed. It was. I was one of three Westerners on this ship packed with Vietnamese people drinking heavily and stuffing their faces, and even though I never really knew what was going on I had a great time. At one point the crew dropped what they were doing, picked up instruments, and turned into a band! They started playing, dragging various partygoers onstage to sing Vietnamese songs. They grabbed me and clamoured for "English song!" I belted out a salty rendition of the only one they knew, "Yellow Submarine". But they weren't done with me yet. After another round of Vietnamese songs, they dragged me up again and asked for "another English song!" No other tunes coming to mind, I did what comes naturally-- started to freestyle. The Vietnamese went nuts-- I spat lyrics for a screaming crowd of forty people who didn't understand a word of it. If I may say so myself, my rhymes were decidedly ill.
I left town, though a Phillipino guy tried earnestly to involve me in a crooked card game I was sure would result in my throat getting slit, and went to a series of towns starting with the letter H: Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi. Hoi An is a charming place, famous for both its winding streets lined with beautifully preserved buildings from hundreds of years ago, and its unbelievable number of tailors. Honestly, half the city must be in the tailoring business. But believe it or not, some of them actually do pretty good work. I got three suits and two shirts made for $250! Luckily I had an older British man there to help me, a veteran of suit-wearing, who threw bolts of fabric over my shoulder and passed judgement on their appearance. "This one," he said in reference to a deep navy with pinstripes, "is battle armor." Sold. Hue I visited mostly for its history, to see the huge 19th-century fortress that circles the old town and the Demilitarized Zone from the Vietnam War. The latter was especially interesting because I happened to be there on Reunification Day, the anniversary of the day that the Communists captured Saigon, so the place was filled with veterans of the North Vietnamese Army.
Hanoi is slower paced than Saigon, and has that more rundown commie feel, but it was a good laucnh point to see the northern Vietnam. I took a boat trip out to Halong Bay, the beauty of the huge limestone karsts not diminished by the quantities of alcohol consumed. I also went on a "trek" in Sapa. It wasn't too exhausting and the area is really touristy, but the terraced hillsides of the region are something to be seen-- the mountains look like layered cakes. Enjoying an amazing feast prepared at the house of our Dzay hosts, I was entertained by my Vietnamese guide getting head-on-table, face-beet-red drunk as the father of the family poured shot after shot of rice whisky. I mentioned to my inebriated guide that I enjoyed fried crickets, and he erupted in joy, slapping me on the back, related many tales of his cricket-hunting youth. He didn't look so hot the next day.
On my last day in Vietnam I went to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. Everything was Very Serious as I walked down the long hall lined with white-clad ceremonial guards, standing at rigid attention with their bayonets. His body is downright spooky, lying creepily waxified at the centre of the tomb, his coffin draped with the hammer and sickle. The room is pretty cold, presumably to better refridgerate the corpse. But it was a good ending to my weeks in Vietnam, the sight of a stone-dead geurilla leader to carry with me as a souvenir as I hopped my plane to Hong Kong.