8th Wonder of the World
10.07.2009 - 14.07.2009 23 °C
Not all those who wander are lost........
8th Wonder of the World
10.07.2009 - 14.07.2009 23 °C
Capital of the Khmer Empire
09.07.2009 - 14.07.2009 26 °C
Welcome to Cambodia!!!
I arrived in Phnom Penh after a rather bumpy bus journey from Vietnam and a rather long border crossing. When I disembarked from the bus I had to run the usual gauntlet of Tuk Tuk and moto drivers all offering to bring me to various guesthouses. You have to admire the enterprising spirit of these guys, as soon as my driver heard I was Irish out he comes with “Conas ata tu”! I answered him and the fecker was able to reply to my question as to how he was! They don't miss a trick out here!
On my first day I wandered around the city to get a feel for the place and visited a few of the city sights. I visited the Royal Palace which was the ancient residence of various Khmer Kings in the 1800s. It had some beautiful gardens and some impressive stumas but nothing overly spectacular.
I also visited the National history museum which housed some exquisite pieces of Angkorian statues and reliefs. It's a bit they weren't left in their original temples in the jungle. I also trekked up the hill to see the Phnom Wat temple which didn't afford a great few of the city. It is obviously popular with the locals as the place was mobbed with people playing in the park and plenty of people praying to various statutes in the temple itself.
My guesthouse was situated right on the lake in the city – so much so that the communal area and bar were actually on stilts over the water. On my first evening in the guesthouse there was a spectacular thunderstorm which must have been right above us due to the deafening noise with each peal of thunder. It was one of the most impressive thunderstorms I've ever seen with huge forked lightening and torrential rain which beat mercilessly on the tin roof making for a cacophony of noise when coupled with the thunder. It was fantastic to be able to sit on the deck with a beer in hand and watch nature at its most spectacular. What was the pinnacle of the nature show was when the storm and died and the sky was awash with amazing colours. The sky was ablaze with various hues of red. It was amazing – so much so that I didn't want to raise myself to get my camera and take photos. Sometimes you just have to capture the moment in your mind's eye!
The next day in Phnom Pehn was quite depressing and I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum (infamously known during the Khmer Rouge as S21) and the notorious Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Tuol Sleng was orignally a high school so it is quite eerie to enter a interrogation and torture camp in the heart of a suburb.
Lots of the classrooms where converted into detention cells and torture chambers filled with various instruments of death.
Lots of these tools are still in their original locations along with graphic photos of the victims as they lay dying. There are long corridors of photographs of many of the victims that suffered in this gruesome place, their faces staring back at you eerily from the past and you wander through the school trying to grasp the true horror of the place. My guide for the museum was 13 during the Khmer Rouge era and her mother and brother were murdered by the Khemer Rouge. She herself was deported from Phnom Pehn to work in the fields during this period. When the regime fell she began the long walk back to Phnom Pehn, it took her three months and she says she remembers walking past dead bodies along the walk as people fell victim to exhaustion, disease and hunger. You often see lines of refugees walking from various trouble spots around the globe (the most recent probably being Darfur in Sudan) and while shocking and appalling you (or I do at least) often have forgotten the images after the next news segment. You can't fully grasp that the snapshot you saw barely captures the true daily horror of existence for thousands of peoples. Speaking to someone who has endured such horrors first hand brings the reality to home in a much more visceral way.
From one circle of hell I headed 17km outside the city to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
This is where the prisoners of S21 were sent when they had been deemed to have no more information and were to be exterminated. Over 20,000 people perished in this area. It's hard to reconcile the vile actions that occurred here as you walk through the peaceful orchard grounds with it shady trees and butterflies giving a veneer of tranquility. What brings the past back to sent your mind reeling with revulsion is the large stuma filled with human skulls.
The large tower which dominates the area holds over 8000 skulls from the victims of this particular Killing Field. Even as you walk through the grounds through the various mass graves you will actually be walking on human remains which various bone fragments peeping up from the red sandy soil.
As if the horrors of the place wasn't enough to blow your mind the thought that during the Khmer rouge era the Killing Field of Choeung Ek was only 1 of thousands of killing fields that helped exterminate the 2 million plus Cambodians during the terrible 4 year period of Democratic Kampuchea.
Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City - you choose
06.07.2009 - 09.07.2009 28 °C
Well I'm nearing the end of my Vietnam adventure from North to South. I entered the capital Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it's officially known) on a bus from Dalat. Saigon is by far the largest and busiest city in Vietnam. It has a population of 12 million people and approximately 5 million motobikes which make its streets even more manic that Hanoi (who knew that was possible!). To be honest I didn't really warm to the place as I did to some of the other Vietnamese towns and cities. It was too much of an urban sprawl to have any real character – which is typical of most capital cities I suppose. Also I felt the hawkers and merchants on the street were more persistent that anywhere else. They certainly were offering a broader (and more illegal) set of services once you refused the books/bracelets or whatever souvenirs they were selling. I'm not exactly a naive traveller but even I was shocked by what I was offered by two lady boys after I turned down their offer of a “massage”. There are many many strange individuals in this world!
No visit to Saigon is complete without learning about the vicious Vietnam War. I headed out to the infamous Cu Chi tunnels which are location about 30kms outside the city. Despite Saigon being firmly
Saigon being firmly in the control of the US army during the war several thoussand guerrillas had total control of the area outside of the city. This was due to a network of near 200km worth of interconnected tunnels that surrounded the city and linked the guerrillas to Cambodia and the Ho Chi Minh supply trail. These tunnels were amazing, they were so well hidden in the jungles that despite severe American bombing and intense fighting in the area the tunnels were never discovered or destroyed.
This was in part due to the tiny size of the tunnels and to the number of vicious booby traps that protected them.
The tunnels themselves were tiny. I went down and to say the experience was claustrophobic would totally under describe how tiny these tunnels are. I was on my hands and knees at various points trying to shimmer through the thick darkness praying to god that the next turn would reveal the exit. I was quite the relieved man when I reemerged into the sunshine after crawling through those tiny tunnels.
You really have to admire the Vietnamese for what they endured in those tunnels surviving constant bombings nad battles and just the general horror of living in such tight confines for extended periods. It also illustrated how terrifying it must have been for the average Marine traipsing through the dense jungles knowing that at any moment a swarm of guerrillas could emerge from literally anyway and they disappear again. Couple that knowledge with the fear of setting off some gruesome booby trap and having to deal with the heat and mosquitoes means you gain some understanding of how horrible that war was for the combatants on the ground.
The second part of my Vietnam war experience was a visit to the War Renmants museum. This museum gave various exhibitions on the brutalities of war. It had large collections of war journalists photographs
which were fascinating (a lot of the photos were taken from the photographers last reel – the survival rate was not high for journalists in the war). The collection like all Vietnam museums regarding the war was very biased,
no punches are spared and the photos are very graphic in illustrate the barbaric acts that were carried out during the war. Indeed this museum was opened just 5 months after the ware ended was was for a long time named “The American War Crimes Museum” - subtle!
After such an intense day dealing with the horrors of war we decided to cleanse (quite literally) our souls by heading to a war park the next day. There is nothing like a sllide with water to reduce yourself back to a child like state. It was fantastic fun and obviously not geared towards tourists as there was only about 8 other Westerners there. The park was quite good and had some excellent slides with one or two terrifying ones. I defy anyone not to enjoy a visit to a water park. Saigon is also a bit of party town so there were a good few wild nights out. One night started with a tasting of the infamous snake wine - not the most pleasant drink in the world but it gets you where you want to go (and quickly :-) )
My next destination was Cambodia and I was going to make the trip overland via a trip up the famous Mekong Delta. On this trip I travelled up th delta on various sizes boats and visited some of the various villages spotted along the way. I learnt about their way of life on the river and how they made their livilhood from various industries such as fishing, making candy from the various fruits, fruit picking and of course rice production. I also got to cycle around one of the large islands in the delta
Next stop Cambodia!
Beaches, Bikes and brushes with death (struggled to continue the alliteration there)
29.06.2009 - 03.07.2009 25 °C
Well I arrived in Nha Trang with only one thing on my mind and that was to relax on the beach for a few days and recharge the batteries. Nha Trang is a pretty much a beach resort and the sole objective was to work on the tan (well remove the farmer tan lines at the very least – red all over is better than two patches of brown isn't it??). Nha Trang really doesn't have a lot to offer in many ways – it was at hard at times to distinguish it from a Spanish beach resort. That said the beaches were empty during the day as the Vietnamese only hit the beach in the very early morning and the late afternoon. Only the foolish Westerners head out in the midday sun :-). All told though I enjoyed my time in Nha Trang as I was able to relax and enjoy the sun and there were some fun nights out too.
I actually spent less time in Nha Trang than I had intended as on an impulse one night out I decided to head away on a 3 day “Easy Rider” trip to Dalat. The term “Easy Rider” is a local term for a local guide you can hire to drive you on his (have never heard of or seen a female Easy Rider) motorbike.
It was one of the best decisions I've made in Vietnam. Once again I got to veer off the beaten track and experience the country from a different viewpoint than the standard tourist one. This trip took me north of Nha Trang and into the central highlands, we then headed towards the Laos border before heading south towards the town of Dalat. As we headed out of Nha Trang up the coast road and towards the hills we were blessed with some breath taking scenery.
It was the type of scenery that you didn't even bother taking the camera out as no digital representation would be able to capture the epic vistas infront of you never mind the capturing the sense of serenity and contentment you feel as you gaze at the scenery. The only thing that kept me in the real world was the rising numbness from my saddle sore ass. As romantic as the picture of flying through the Vietnamese countryside on a motorbike with the wind in your hair is – it neglects to capture the numbness your ass and legs must endure – especially as the majority of the roads in Vietnam are not exactly smooth, hell a lot of them in the mountains aren't even paved. Totally worth it though :-).
On the trip I got to see things that you normally wouldn't on the standard tourist trail. We stopped off and a local orphanage where I spent an enjoyable time playing with the kids.
We visited a local brick factory which was interesting to see the locals made all the bricks for their houses. Another interesting factory we visited was the silk factory. Here we got to see how the silk worms were raised, how the silk was extracted from them and finally how the extracted silk was treated and woven into various garments. We also visited some great waterfalls in some of the national parks which made for great places for swimming to cool off from the intense sun.
A visit to some minority villages gave some fascinating insights into the traditions and culture of a ethnically different people to the Vietnamese.
I diced with death as I posed for a photo beside what I thought was a “tame” elephant. Apparently I was too close for comfort for the elephant and a swipe of his trunk warned me off. Somehow despite having my back to the beast of burden some sixth sense of self preservation kicked in and I threw myself to the ground! Only the gust of air by head as I dived for the ground indicated to me how close I'd come to the mother of all head aches.
I also diced with a 15 foot python but honestly it was harmless and very playful. We stopped at this plantation owners house and after enjoying some of his bananas he asked me did I want to hold his pet snake that he had captured in the mountains a few years back. There really was only one answer to that question!
The trip was an amazing adventure, it was fantastic to pass through towns that never get tourists. We also ate in the real local spots. I've eaten nothing but Vietnamese food since I've gotten here - from the street vendors to the tiny local eateries but on this trip I got to eat in spots I wouldn't even have guessed at being restaurants if I walked by on my own. The trip really was an experience of the “real” Vietnam.
Dalat is a pretty cool town. It's high in the mountains which makes it's climate quite cool which was a welcome respite from the intense heat I had endured through the rest of Vietnam. It's a popular holiday destination for the Vietnamese. I hear that it takes 800,000 Vietnamese visitors every year and only 80,000 Westerners every year. It was also a cool place to just rent a bike and head out into the countryside. We found some hidden gems like the roller coaster through the jungle that brought you down to a rather picturesque waterfall. We were aiming to see the waterfall but the roller coaster descent was and unexpected bonus. We also took a cable car trip over a valley to visit a lake. Nothing particularly unique about that but what made that trip interesting was the tropical storm which hit during our return journey. We were suspended high about the ground in a tiny cable car which was being thrown around every which way by the high winds and barely keeping the torrential rain off our heads. The lightening gave the trip an added fricssonce and element of suspense. It was particularly amusing when the cable car stopped for several minutes and one of the guys who was particularly afraid of heights nearly broke one of the handles of the door such was the intensity of his death grip!
DMZ and fine tailoring............
23.06.2009 - 26.06.2009 32 °C
An overnight sleeper bus found me arriving in Hue in the early morning after a not altogether restful sleep. The bus was better than I thought it would be but obviously the Vietnamese have different views on what qualifies as personal space -there were four of us packed like sardines into the very back of the bus (which meant I felt every bump on the road (and believe me there are alot of bumps on the roads of Vietnam))!
Hue is quite a nice city. It was quite laid back and there was a pleasant atmosphere about the place. Apart from the citadel in the centre of the city we didn't do a huge amount of sightseeing in the city itself. Although the citadel was quite large and took a large proportion of the day to get around! The other major sightseeing trip was a day long journey north to visit the DMZ (De miliartised Zone) along the 17th parallel which used to mark the division between North and South Vietnam. I visited some major battle grounds from the Vietname war and also visited the museum at the ienfamous Kaneh Sehn combat base (the exhibition was about as fair and balanced as a Fox news report!) which was quite interesting. The highlight of the tour was a trip deep underground to see the Viet Cong's tunnel network along the DMZ. This vast network baffled the US army during the war and gave the Viet Cong a tactical advantage over the US marines. It was fascinating to visit these claustrophobic tunnels and you had to marvel at the Vietnamese people's ability to construct such networks(at one point I was 23 metres below the surface in a tiny dimly lit tunnel and I wasn't alone as the a flash from a camera showed up this fellow just behind me)
and their perseverance to live down there for years during heavy bombing and constant warfare. It was difficult to imagine how people essentially lived 24/7 down there for the best part of a decade! 17 children were actually born down in the tunnels!
My next port of call was Hoi An further south along the coast. This town is mainly famous in the modern times for its tailoring and I ensured I took full advantage. I was measured and fitted and had a few suits and shirts made for myself. They are currently navigating the globe on their journey to Ireland. Let's hope they still fit me when I get home :-)! It was a fascinating and bewildering process really and you had to know what you wanted or you would be lost. You picked out the fabrics, the inner lining, cut and style of the suit and even down to the buttons. Everything is made to measure and to your exact specifications! To be honest if I had more time here and I really would have let loose. I had to restrain myself from going too crazy!
Hoi An itself is a very picturesque place. Indeed the entire old town is a UNESCO heritage site. No cars are allowed through it (motorbike still weave through it though) which keeps the character of the town quite quaint. The old architecture coupled with the myriad of tailor shops and markets makes for a very pleasant place to pass an afternoon wandering through the narrow streets and admiring the buildings and merchandise.
I also took a trip into the mountains close by to see the ruins from the ancient civilisation of the Cham People. This race of people originated from Indonesia and ruled alot of central Vietnam about a thousand years ago. They left some magnificent structures and temples that survived remarkedly well into present times due to their sophisticated brick work techniques. Indeed modern scientists are unable to replicate their system and any modern restoration work in the 1900s is now falling down while the orginal brick work is still in place. Unfortunately the buildings are in total ruins now after American bombing during the early 1970s but the place really has an Indiana Jones relics feel about the place as its high in the mountains and all the ruins are overgrown and wild. It's a taster for what I imagine the temples of the Khemer people are like in Cambodia!