Thursday, 21 November 2013

Vietnam: lesson in "train stuffing"

I capped off my wonderful stay in Siem Reap with a final day of contemplative Temple touring by myself.  I started near the north part of the main temples at Preah Khan, one of my favorite temples, and took my time thoroughly exploring the site, guidebook in hand.  It was an overcast and slightly cooler day so I braved the heat and humidity to walk from site to site which was a really nice way to spend a day.  The ruins are in a lovely forested area with shady roads connecting them and monkeys playing beside the roads.  Moats around the temples with water Lilly and Lotus blossoms near the edges make for a lovely nature walk.  I walked roughly 5km between the temples and at least that many more again wandering through the temples of Angkor Thom and ending the day with a lookout as the sun set from the top of Bakheng (another temple).
normal monkey face
Back the "F" off monkey face

row of tuk tuks
That evening I joined four others from the hotel (Olaf, Kirsten, John, and Graham) to go to Pub Street for dinner, drinks, and great conversation.  I tried some grilled frog and it was quite delicious!  It tasted like the most tender, delicious chicken breast meat I have ever had.  It was a nice way to wrap up the trip.  I also tried tarantula on the bus on the way to Vietnam.  There's no way I would eat the abdomen but one big hairy leg was actually pretty tasty and the texture wasn't as bad as I thought it would be... kinda like soft shelled crab.

BBQ frogs


 Graham and John on the left, Olaf, Kirsten, and me on the right.  This was a swinging lounge chair.  I want one.
Phnom Penh
The killing fields are an emotionally powerful and well presented monument to the between 1.4-2.2 million Cambodians tortured and/or killed by other Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975-1979.  There are apparently 20,000 similar mass graves across the country.  The tour was done by walking around the site guided by an audio tour.  The site itself is where a huge number of mass graves were found after the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979.  Remains of nearly 9000 people were recovered from the graves they exhumed.  It is unbelievable that this ended less than 35 years ago.  A poignant reminder of how recently this occurred is that small bits of bone, teeth, and scraps of clothing still make their way up out of the ground when it rains.  The site staff pick up these fragments monthly to add to the display.  I also toured the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Museum) where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and imprisoned.  It was an emotionally draining day but some girls (Rebecca and Katie) from the Mad Monkey Hostel ($8/night dorm room), where I stayed helped lighten the mood by joining me for dinner to see the palace beautifully lit up at night and a huge crowd of locals celebrating Bon Om Touk (Cambodian Water Festival) which marks the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River at the end of rainy season.
visitors bracelets left tied on a fence surrounding one of the exhumed mass graves as a sign of respect

the hollows are where mass graves were prior to exhumation

collection of bones, teeth, and fragments which have surfaced after rains

memorial stupa

stacks of shelves containing skulls and large bones inside the memorial stupa

 row of cells in the S21 prison

photos of some of the prisoners at the S21 prison
eerily some of the torture rooms were left in their original state at the S21 museum

celebratory atmosphere at the palace
me, Katie, and Rebecca in front of the palace in Phnom Penh

Katie teaching me to play beer pong at our hostel

Impressions of Ho Chi Minh City (HCM)
I went to the Chu Chi tunnels where the Vietnam Cong created a network of 250km of tunnels in the jungles to hide from "the American Enemy" who "like a pack of crazy devils" bombed this rural area where "the people only wanted to be happy and farm, and pick fruit and live in peace".  It was a good thing that there was an abundance of "American-killer war heroes" to seek revenge.  In quotes are actual verbatim phrases from the propoganda film we watched.  It was really great and shockingly worded!  The tour was excellent, we even got to crawl on hands and knees through 20m of the original tunnel which was pitch black, barely large enough to crawl through on hands and knees, filthy, carpeted with dried leaves, tiny bats which you could feel fluttering near your face, and even one dead end.  I came out of that hole filthy and never so happy to see the "light at the end of the tunnel".  I made a couple travel buddies on the tour (Mary and Luis) and after the tour we went to the American War Crimes Museum which has a bunch of other names but that one is most fitting.  The museum had an excellent collection of newspaper clippings from all over the world protesting the US involvement in Vietnam War, a very good collection of photos (some very upsetting) and the most upsetting being a display documenting the legacy of effects caused by the defoliant agent orange used to strip the jungles of all vegetation to allow the US to flush out the Vietnam Cong.  There were reallydisturbing stories about and photographs of children and adults with a whole range of health disorders caused by directly contacting, inherited from parents, or injesting tainted food including birth defects, cerebral palsy, downs syndrome, skin disorders, cancers, vision problems, and developmental problems.  Agent Orange has had a very long-lasting and horrible legacy in Vietnam.

I don't think my hips will fit down this hole!

Ok, my hips fit... what about my shoulders?

yup, I fit... barely

20m crawling like the Viet Cong makes me a very dirty tourist (check out my knees)

Cessna photo for you Trevor

part of the Agent Orange display

I got my 20 minute transfer to the bus station on the back of a scooter in HCM driven by a sweet, soft spoken, local guy named Thun, who booked my train ticket for me the night before at a booking agency.  This was no small feat and may be the bravest thing I have ever done because the motorcycle traffic in HCM Is BANANAS.  I had my big backpack on my back, I was on the back of the bike, Thun had my small pack containing train snacks on his chest, and my small bag between his knees as we wove in and out of traffic in a light rain in the dark.  I did wear a helmet.  Thun was really friendly, he set me up with a local SIM and Internet plan the night I arrived and he was so nice I decided to go back to his office and book my train ticket there too.  When I gave him a small (really small) tip for his help he insisted that I didn't need to and then he told me that in one whole year he hadn't received any tips (bless him!  He really was so nice).  Everyone I met in HCM was friendly, the hostel staff, Thun, and people at restaurants always warned me to keep an eye on my bag because the touristy area of district 1 has a reputation for pickpockets and purse snatchers. I felt safe during my stay but I did try to be aware of anything out of the ordinary and kept my wits about me.  My hostel, Phan Anh Backpackers Hostel ($8/night dorm room), was great too, they let my store my bag on my last day (after I checked out at noon) and even let me have a shower before heading off for the sleeper train at 5:30pm.
Motorcycle traffic is MENTAL in Ho Chi Minh City

Mary and Luis who I met on the Chu Chi tunnel tour

Now here's a strange activity!  Rows and rows of little plastic chairs all facing the street so you can sit and have a beer and watch the world go by

Live frogs tied up in the market in HCM

Lady shelling live crabs
Presidential Palace grounds in HCM
Trophy/Souvenir room in presidential palace.  The tour guide told us that these are real elephant feet from a whole family (father, mother, baby).  Isn't that awful?

Train stuffing
The first class soft sleeper train berth is ridiculously small.  There are 4 smallish beds just under 6' long and maybe 3' wide lined up as two lower bunks two upper bunks on either side of and a narrow space in the middle.  I don't know how ticket sales work here but there are supposed to be 4 people in the berth, umm there were 5 grown Vietnamese men, one Vietnamese woman, and me in our berth!  That's 7!  Two in each bottom bunk, one on each top bunk (at least I didn't have to share my bunk!) and one on the floor in the middle!  It was ridiculous!  I put this on my list of weird asian shit that you have to experience once but don't need to ever repeat.  You can only laugh.  They all seemed very nice and smiley, and one of the guys spoke English.  I think it's was a family, plus the English speaker and his friend/bunkmate.  They also all made a seemingly complex meal with 3 pots of food earlier and ate it on their bed.  I guess it's part of the experience but I will opt for a plane or the bus next time.  Although, I don't know if the bus is much better since the little old Cambodian lady I sat next to on the last bus I took from Phnom Penh to HCM stretched her legs over so far into my seat area that even though I was sitting on her left, she had her left leg snaked so far under my right leg that her left foot was touching my left foot... Take a minute to picture that!
The view down from my top bunk.  There are two below my bunk also.
I had the berth to myself for about an hour after all the others got off a few stops ahead of me
I had my first bad Vietnamese experience too.  A lady jumped on the train at one of the stops and was selling coffee so I agreed to buy one.  When she came back she gestured the cost by holding up 4 fingers.  I passed her 4000 dong (20 cents) and she threw it back at me with a look of disgust and said "forty".  40,000 dong is $2... Pricey in Vietnam but fine, I gave her 100,000d ($5) but she didn't have change.  While I was getting out the right change she reached into my wallet and grabbed more (maybe she saw the correct amount, who knows!) and left.  She took my 100,000d with her too.  Basically, I estimate that shitty coffee cost my at least $7 and my innocence.  Live and learn.

I arrived in Hoi An in central Vietnam after a 14 hour train ride and checked into the Sunshine Hotel which is really posh and a step up from a lot of spots I've stayed.  At $30 a night it is nearly a luxury hotel (3 star) with a room safe, swimming pool, private balcony, cable tv, aircon, king size bed, fridge, bike rental and breakfast are included, and the room even has a bathtub!  Yup, livin' large!  I needed a little space and normalcy after that crazy train!  Hoi An is very civilized, friendly, and beautiful.  It is like Disney land or Banff in that it is so pretty and clean it seems staged.  At night paper lanterns in red yellow and green light up the old town on either side of the river and pretty girls in traditional dress as well as older women sell floating paper lanterns to send out on the river.  It looks beautiful but I didn't buy any because all that paper in the river can't be good for the environment :(. I had a lovely evening pedalling my bicycle all around town while sight-seeing, having dinner at a little street stall, and stopping for a beer at a pub.  I also got measured and selected fabric today at one of the many tailors in town (Yaly) to have a wool winter coat and a basic black sheath dress made.  If these items turn out well, I may have a bit of a shopping spree tomorrow...FUN!

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