« October 2009 | Main | December 2009 »

November 26, 2009

Camping In The Outback Of Australia

We have been having quite a good time in Australia. Prior to taking this long trip, I think our favorite countries were arguably Chile and China; Australia is putting up a good competetive spirit.

We arrived in Melbourne from Singapore, a bit fatigued. For one thing, we stopped over in Darwin, at 4 am, and didn't board our flight for Melbourne until 7:30 am; also, there is a four hour time difference between Melbourne and most of SE Asia. Our trip was quite nice regardless, and a testament to how good Jetstar Airlines is, even though it is a low-fare airline. Our adventure of the day was only beginning, we had rented a car, and so we picked up our little Hyundai Getz from the terminal. I guess I'd been aware that people drive on the wrong (left) side of the road here in Oz, a practice taken from the Brits, who've spread their bad habits worldwide. I'd prepared myself for it, but there is nothing like the real thing, especially when the first couple of hours trying out something is on a very busy freeway. To make it all more interesting, of course the Getz had to be a manual, so I got to practice shifting with my left hand. It's a good thing that I knew how to drive a stick shift prior to this trip, otherwise it would have been too much.

We managed to figure it out fairly quickly, and as it turns out, driving on the freeway is actually easier than driving on city streets; at least on the freeway, everyone is driving in the same direction, even if they are on the left side of the road. We got a bit lost, heading west for about 40 km before realizing that we needed to be going east. Eventually, we arrived at the home of an Aussie couple we'd met in Granada, Spain, named Doug and Monique. They were really nice and welcoming, and there is nothing quite as grand as coming into a country and being met by local people. We stayed in their house for two nights, and both nights they took us out to tour different parts of Melbourne. Again, if you are exploring a city by yourself, there are many parts that will be missed compared to being in the company of locals who know the good neighborhoods, streets, restaurants and bars. Doug and Monique had just finished an 18-month world trip a few weeks before we arrived, so they were acutely aware of our needs - a laundry machine, cheap eats, those sorts of things, and they were very accomodating. I only hope they can visit us in the US so that we'll be able to return the (huge) favor.

From Melbourne, we set out west to the Great Ocean Road, which runs down along the coast southwest of Melbourne. It passes through little towns like Apollo Bay, and passes through several national parks like Otway National Park and the Twelve Apostles Nat'l Park. We spent our first night in a little campground just outside of Apollo Bay where koala bears made their distinct grunts above our tents, and several species of parrots flew around, tame enough to land on my shoulder. The drive there was really beautiful, the sun was shining brightly, and the waters were brilliantly turquoise along the rocky shoreline. There were many beaches along the road, most of them deserted, all of them with golden-white sand and very inviting. The next day we continued south to reach as far as the Twelve Apostles, which highlights rock outcroppings away from the high cliffs; it was rainy and foggy, which made the outcroppings very mysterious and beautiful. We found a free campsite in the national park, and we ended up staying there for three nights. A river ran next to the campground, and I fished a bit, though quite unsuccessfully. We had kangaroos and koala bears right next to our tent, and our little Getz served as a shelter on the days that it rained so that we could cook our meals on our little stove. It was very basic, but we enjoyed it thoroughly.

We spent the days there exploring the area around Apollo Bay. We found a winery, where we roused the owners from their home to give us a wine-tasting and ended up chatting with them for 45 minutes. We even found a brewery, with the best beer we've had since leaving Europe. We found a forest that looked as though it was from prehistoric time, its huge myrtle beech trees and low, green eucalypts trees very primeval in the mists and light rain. We hiked through beautiful hills to find a lake that had a healthy population of duck-billed platypus, the most primitive mammals on earth, and although we didn't see any, it was interesting to find a lake where they at least lived. We had koalas running across the road in front of us, and wallabies allowing us to get within ten feet for photos. It was a spectacular area, and I'm sure that few Americans bother to find it, a real shame.

From there, we passed again through Melbourne and came to Wilsons Promontory, one of the best national parks in Australia and a very wild place, even with the moderate crowd there. The wildlife there was simply astonishing. One beautiful evening we went out into a broad field where we were told that animals came out to feed; there we found huge mobs of kangaroos, many with little joeys running hopping about. Fat wombats waddled around, scratching themselves and scarfing down plantlife. Wallabies came out to peer at us, and birds of all sorts flew overhead - parrots, cockatoos, and many others. We even saw a flock of emus, ambling through the tall grasses. With the wildlife, it almost felt like being in Africa again. We ended up camping there in Wilsons for three nights, in a little grassy site with shore trees sheltering overhead and an occasional kangaroo or wombat skirting its periphery. We made several hikes in the surrounding park, especially to look for snakes, and found four of them, three of them being Tiger Snakes, the fourth most venomous snake in the world, and the last one lighter than the others but likely still a Tiger. We also spent a lot of time in the ocean, wading, walking the beach, and fishing (I even caught a fish, though very small). The water is freezing this far south, so being in the water long isn't really an option.

At any rate, we've had a great time so far in Australia. It's interesting being here, we feel like we learn something about Oz all the time. We've found Oz to be very expensive, especially for food and fuel, which was surprising. We have picked up some of the lingo and promptly forgotten it, though it obvious that Aussies love to cut of the ends of words and put a vowel there, and they have nicknames for literally everything. People in Oz love to stop and chat, and they are usually interested to find that we are Americans; they know more about our TV shows and our politics than Jess and I do. This is a fun country, and it seems as though people here do love to have fun.

Our next stop is the Croajingalong Nat'l Park, assuming we get out of this library in time to reach it today. We are getting quite used to sleeping on the hard ground, although I wish we hadn't chosen to leave behind our foam sleeping pads. Camping here is great, a real treat, and it's hard to believe that we are half-way through our three weeks in Australia; also of note is that as of today, we have been on the road for three months.

I can't say when the next update will be. Internet is scarce in these parts, we were fortunate to find a library with free net, though I've gotten a few hard looks for being on as long as I have. It's possible that the next entry I'm able to post will be in Sydney, in a week and a half. On the other hand, it's so beautiful and peaceful here, I'm not sure that I care. It just means we're having a great time here in the bush of Oz.

Until next time, be safe.

Getting Out Of Asia

It has been quite awhile since I've posted anything. Apologies for that.

Looking at the blog, apparently the last time I posted anything about the trip, we were in Bangkok. So, I'll start from there. There isn't much to say about our travels south to Singapore. We passed through Malaysia on two overnight bus rides. Our first ride took us down to the south end of Thailand, to the town of Ao Nang. That ended up being a ridiculous trip, as we were told that we'd be on the beach by 10 am. There were a number of circumstances and side events that bumped up the arrival time to about 2 pm. Ao Nang was very expensive in terms of accomodation, and it took another good half hour or 45 minutes of walking around to find a place that was only 500 baht, which was about $17, each night. The town itself was beautiful, really nice beaches, and we were able to eat cheap by shopping in the little roadside stands. We snorkeled and swam, and enjoyed the beautiful sunsets. We ended up staying for two nights, as we really enjoyed the town.

Our only stop in Malaysia was a two-night pause in on the island of Penang. To be fair, we saw very little of Malaysia, we were on a little island, and our passage through the country itself was at night, so we didn't see any of that. We weren't terribly fond of Penang, partly because of an unfortunate decision to stay in the guesthouse of the rudest man in SE Asia (for two nights), which really made us feel bad about the area, since he was the person we spent the most time with in Malaysia. There wasn't too much to do in Penang, it is very touristy, very built up, and very expensive. We did enjoy a few hours at a beach watching crabs, and we went for a nice hike on Penang Hill, which is a rainforest covered hill overlooking the island's city. Other than that, I was quite ready to leave; I wouldn't mind giving Malaysia another try, but I'll never go back to Penang.

Singapore really was nice, in comparison. We stayed in a great hostel, and we spent a couple of hours talking with the owner about all sorts of aspects of Singaporean life and world events. The city is very clean, though not as clean as they'd have you think. It also has a large number of strict laws, which is why it's called a "fine" city (for two reasons), according to the hostel owner. Still, it's tropical and lush, which can be seen when walking through the urban park called the Southern Ridges. We saw some of the best birds that we've seen in SE Asia in this park. There are also distinct neighborhoods full of distinct ethnicities, such as Little India, Chinatown, and others. These areas were really intersting, and the foods cheap and delicious. We had our last few Asian meals in Singapore, in the 30 hours that we spent there. Of course, Singapore is a developed city-state, and prices here are like prices in the US, so a long stay would cost a lot of money.

So, Asia was a fascinating part of our trip. We wish that we'd had more than five weeks to explore, but on the other hand, SE Asia is an exhausting place to visit. There is constant stimulation, whether you're walking around in the busy cities, or riding in any sort of transportation, or arranging any part of your trip. There is a huge range of cultures there, all of which are so different from Western culture that by the end of a month or so, I almost felt like I was in culture-shock overload. As much as we enjoyed visiting the six SE Asian countries, it was a bit of a relief to arrive in Australia, to return to a culture that in many respects is quite like that of the US. It's like a little mini-vacation from our trip, though we don't plan on sitting around much in Oz.

Until next time, be safe.

November 20, 2009


I haven't updated in awhile. This isn't because we are lazy or have forgotten about the blog. It is because we are now in Australia, where prices for the net often are as high as $8 an hour. Plus, besides the two nights that we spent with friends we met on the road, we are planning on camping the majority of our stay in Australia, which makes updating the blog rather difficult.

We'll update as soon as possible. No worries, mate.

Until next time, be safe.

November 09, 2009

Pictures From Angkor Temples

Here are some pictures from the Angkor temples, outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Jess & Aaron In Phenom Penh

Monk At Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat In Morning Light

Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom

Stone Face, Bayon Temple

Faces In Columns, Bayon Temple

Relief Of Woman In Temple

Bayon Temple In Angkor Thom

Preah Khan Temple

Roots Through Buildings, Ta Prohm

Vivid Colors, Banteay Kdei

Temple Wall, Banteay Kdei

Tree and Tower, Banteay Kdei

Wall Relief, Bangeay Kdei

Until next time, be safe.


November 08, 2009

Thoughts On Cambodia

We are now in Bangkok, for just a day, as we head south into Malaysia. We'll need to be in Singapore in the next week to catch our flight to Australia on the 16th of November.

I last wrote from Phenom Penh. We left early from PP to reach Siem Reap on a busy, bumpy minibus ride. For a short distance, it took a long time, which is pretty much the norm for SE Asia. We ended up in Siem Reap around 5 pm, which was good in that it was light enough to walk around looking at guesthouses. Of course, it wasn't as easy as that; we'd agreed in PP at our guesthouse to have a tuktuk pick us up in Siem Reap, knowing that we'd end up having to go to some GH of that driver's choice. Sure enough, we had a driver waiting for us, which was nice in that it saved us a couple of dollars since their "bus stop" was about 2 km from town. Yet we ended up far away from any of the attractions of Siem Reap (i.e. restaurants, shops, the riverfront) and we were a 15 minute walk along a dusty, busy road that would be rough after dark. So, against the protests of our tuktuk driver and the manager of the GH that we'd ended up at, I headed out to find another place. I didn't have much luck, the large numbers of wealthy visitors to Siem Reap (to visit the nearby Angkor temple sites) had jacked up prices far above what we'd pay anywhere else in Cambodia. So I headed back, reluctantly. In my absence, the manager confided in Jess that he had another GH, in the center, for the same price; he'd been very nervous that I'd found something else. Before I could tell them I'd found nothing, we found ourselves being whisked down to the center via the tuktuk to the other hotel, which was much nicer, much newer, and directly in the center. And, it was the same price. Those shady characters, trying to get us to stay in their other crappy GH.

Anyhow, there is remarkably little to do in Siem Reap besides the temple sites. We arranged a tuktuk to take us to the temples in the early morning and relaxed in our room, which even had TV. We were up at 4:45 in next morning to go to the temples. We started in Angkor Wat, the largest, best preserved, and most famous temple in the area (most people don't realize that there are dozens of temples spread out in a large area). The sunrise didn't happen, as it was too cloudy, but while all the crowds waited expectedly, Jess and I headed into the temple itself as soon as it was ligth enough to see, which gave us unexpected solitude from the infamous crowds and time to examine the temple. We'd heard a lot about Angkor Wat from other travelers and had sort of developed a feeling that it was not only very crowded but probably overrated. Actually walking around the temple, seeing its beauty and intricacies up close, in relative quietness, showed that you can't take other people's opinion or experience for anything more than what it is. We found Angkor Wat to be really amazing, a place that is far more incredible in person than in print. Our experiences in the other temples continued to follow this trend throughout the day.

We visited probably six or seven temples, each unique and beautiful in its own way. We'd purchased a book on Angkor in Phenom Penh, so we were able to read about the temples a little as we walked through them. We had a bit of an issue with our guide, who wanted to finish our tour at 1 pm; we demanded that we stay there the rest of the day at least, as we paid $20 each in entrance fees. We even felt that we should stay to see the sunset, which the tuktuk driver was very against until we offered him more money. In the end, we were too tired to stay out past 3 pm anyhow, so it was a moot point about the sunset; we did get to stay past 1 pm, after we insisted. 

 The Angkor temples are difficult to describe, better represented in pictures than words. We did feel at times like explorers, when we found a certain temple more deserted than others, or were wandering through a temple more dilapidated than others. It was amazing to see the carved reliefs on the walls, images of people and animals, battles and villages, that had been carved between 800 and 1000 years ago. We really enjoyed our day there; I'll try to put up pictures of some of the temples.

That's not to say that our day was entirely relaxing. Being budget backpackers, the prices we had to pay for just one day was a big issue to us. We paid $40 for entrance fees (for a single day pass), we paid the driver $13 ($1 because he had a traffic fine/bribe that somehow we ended up paying), and $20 for the overpriced food out at the temples (for breakfast and lunch). The cost was the reason that we only went to see the temples one day, though they deserve at least two. Besides, we weren't so happy with the tuktuk driver; besides the stress and hard feelings about what we were getting for our money, he took us to his friends' restaurants, and we had to pay for his lunch. What has happened in Siem Reap is that a lot of people have gone there, with loads of money to toss around because it is so cheap (at least if you're on a two-week vacation), and so the prices go up and up. Apparantly, they've more than doubled in the last five years, because people know that they can get money from tourists. So budget travelers find themselves worried about the costs or not even visiting these beautiful temples, which is a shame. 

Also, we experienced the worst of Cambodian people around the temples, as one might expect in such a touristy spot. There were loads of touts, everytime we left a temple we could hear their high-pitched calls about water, food, and souvenirs as soon as they sighted us. Having only experienced those types of people, and the folks in Siem Reap (the hotel hustler, the tuktuk drivers), we really didn't get a good perspective on Cambodian people. This was my big complaint about how we traveled through Cambodia. We rushed through, since our time in SE Asia is running short, and we didn't get to meet the real Cambodians. We also didn't get to see any cities or villages off the beaten path, which in Cambodia is pretty much anywhere besides Siem Reap and Phenom Penh.

We met a German couple and had a good conversation with them here in Bangkok. In Siem Reap, somehow they found an opportunity to visit an orphanage, where they were able to buy some jackets and blankets for the kids, as well as spend a full day with them. That experience seems like it would have been just as rewarding as visiting the temples, especially since it would have given us the chance to sit down and spend time with Cambodians that weren't interested in helping us part with our money. Looking back, I think at least a week, maybe even two, would have been great to have to spend in Cambodia, I'm a little sad that we had to rush through so fast. That is the nature of this trip, to keep on the move. Our next week, passing through southern Thailand and Malaysia, will be no less busy and fast-paced. 

One last thought on Cambodia. Everything that travelers experience in Cambodia should be considered in relativity to the Khmer Rouge era. Cambodia has had a long, painful path of recovery in the last 30 years, they've had to rebuild everything in their society from their government to the tourist infrastructure from scratch. Traveling in Cambodia isn't easy, it's frequently stressful, and often travelers either feel like they are being scammed or they actually are being scammed. There's also a large communication issue, which impedes many encounters with Cambodians. Still, you have to respect the Cambodian people for what they have accomplished; reading online descriptions of travel even five years ago makes it sound like there have been vast improvements to infrastructure and ease of travel. Again, spending more time in Cambodia would definitely improve our perspective of the people there, and of how difficult their lives must be.

Until next time, be safe.


November 05, 2009

Arrival In Phenom Penh

We're sitting in the backpacker district of Phenom Penh, a dodgy-at-best street in the Boeng Kak lake area, the kind of place that you can sit in a restaurant called I (heart) Fish & Chips, eating Indian curried chicken, watching the Nat'l Geographic Wild Channel, and listening to Bob Dylan's Christmas album overhead; if you are so inclined, there are Happy Shakes to be had, and even Herbal Pizza. Such are the characteristics of a good backpacker's neighborhood.

Arriving in Cambodia was an experience in itself. We had a great time in Can Tho, Vietnam, spending three nights there, more than we'd planned. It was a good city, not too crazy but with a vibrant feel to it, especially on its riverfront. Reluctantly we kept going, to the border town of Chau Doc. I'm not usually so final about a decision on a place, but frankly we just didn't like the place at all. It might have been the minibus ride, where we were crammed into a minibus so small that we had to put our bags in front of us and spent the three hour trip with our legs on top. It might have been the fact that they dropped us off 3.5 km out of town at a grungy bus station where the tuktuk drivers waited like vultures, demanding $2 for a 5000 dong ($.25) trip, or the busy road we had to walk along when we refused to pay so much. It could also have been the oppressive heat, the shady hotel manager who bumped up the price for AC in our room from $1 to $4 after we'd already settled in, or the ATM that ate our debit card and sent us running in a panic to the bank before we realized it was only an old, expired card, or the fact that the entire city shut down at 9 pm (literally; even the hotel manager was waiting for us to get back from dinner so he could roll down the doors). Whatever it was, or maybe a combination of all factors, we simply did not like Chau Doc.

Anyhow, it was a good thing we left early the next morning. We caught a slow boat that was to take us over the Cambodian border to Phenom Penh (henceforth referred to as PP). It truly was a slow boat, taking nearly 11 hours to reach PP, though a couple of those hours were spent waiting at the border for our visas. Even though 11 hours is just too much for any boat ride, this one was quite nice. It took us along several rivers from Chau Doc, eventually ending up in the mighty Mekong. By this point, the Mekong had gone from a large river to simply massive, its brown waters spread further apart than most lakes I've seen. Amazingly, despite how wide the river was, its flow was so fast, it was a little intimidating, in our relatively tiny boat (roughly 12-seater).  I can't imagine the volume of water that passes down the river. It's the end of the monsoon season in SE Asia, so many of the fields we passed were covered in lakes of the brown waters, and the homes that normally were over dry ground were long distances from the shore. Plying these waters, it was amazing to see the poverty that lines those rivers, for although these folks were well prepared for the floods with their boats and homes on stilts, they led a simple lifestyle, without electricity, without plumbing or running water, without any of the creature-comforts we take for granted. It was a view into the lifestyle of that huge percentage of humanity that lives on$1 or less a day; we figured these people probably lived more on a barter system than any monetary system. It was very interesting.

Leaving the boat, we had a 1.25 hr van ride waiting for us before we actually reached PP. Somehow, they crammed the 10 of us from the boat into a smallish van - including all of our backpacks - which might have seemed excessive, until we saw a tuktuk that had 13 people crammed onto it. We felt fortunate then, for we all had our own seats. Then we even saw a similarly sized van so crammed with people that three of them rode on top, and the backend was so packed that they couldn't even close the doors, using rope instead; I was surprised that the van was able to roll at all, as it flew past us. We'd been told that we'd be dropped off at the tour company's headquarters in PP, but we've been in SE Asia long enough you'd think I wouldn't be surprised when we ended up in some crap neighborhood at a hostel, "$5 each for room, cheap, cheap!" We declined, and with two Dutch girls we jumped onto a tuktuk that brought us directly to our neighborhood; our hotel, the #11 Happy Hotel, first showed us a room for $4, but we wanted AC, and that room cost us a whopping $8 (a change from Europe, where we paid $15 each for a bunk room). It was a decent room, there were good restaurants across the street (more of an alley, really), and I was too tired to bargain or keep looking, so at the #11 Happy Hotel we stayed. Actually, I was even happy to have had the LP guide, it was how we knew about our neighborhood; we've been lugging it around for a reason after all.

We got up this morning late, we didn't even bother to set the alarm clock, and had a huge breakfast of pancakes, muesli, and REAL coffee, then bartered a tuktuk driver down to $6 to take us on the 36 km round trip to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) museum and then to the Tuol Sleng Museum (the notorious S21 detention center of the Khmer Rouge). I won't go much into details, I don't want to give the wrong impression that we just seek out the most depressing places we can find on our travels. Really, though, unlike similar sites in other countries, these two sites are memorials to an event that goes beyond being part of Cambodia's history, it has defined the past 35 years of it, and continues to do so even today. The events that occurred in Cambodia in the late 1970s, the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge, happened in my lifetime, not my grandfather's. That is a shocking thought, that history was being wrought here when I was crawling around in my crib, that mass graves were being excavated while I was learning to read, that the KR still held a seat in the UN General Council and that the Cambodian government that rose from the ashes of the KR was still considered illegitimate by our mighty UN while I was preparing to enter high school. That, to me, is mind-boggling. Maybe that isn't enough of a statement. With all of our power, all of our communication and satellites and technology and wisdom, we couldn't stop 3 million people from being massacred; that is an atrocity in itself.

Something happened that shook Jess and I awake at the Killing Fields, one of those events that you later wonder which stars aligned to allow it, or which circumstances occurred to provide for it. We walked around the place, a shocking enough experience. We started at the stupa there, a tall tower filled with the skulls and bones of victims, a sight that takes your breath away. Then we walked behind it, where the pits still remain from the excavations of the mass graves. Clothing still lies strewn around, in small piles that have emerged as erosion has done its work. In the pathway between the pits, there are bone fragments that have emerged from the footsteps of visitors. It was one such torn shirt and bone fragments that I was trying to avoid stepping on when I heard a man say to me, "They are real. They haven't put any fakes here." I looked up to see a well-dressed Cambodian man, a video camera in his hand, speaking to me.

We struck up a conversation, casual at first as I commented about the place. Then he stunned us both when he said that he was visiting his father, who had been a victim of the KR and had been killed there in that unholy place. The story then emerged that he came from a well-off family, as his father owned a coconut farm and worked in an embassy. When the KR emerged as victors in the civil war, they took his father, who was one of the 17,000 who died at Choeung Ek; the rest of his family went into hiding in the countryside, staying alive by pretending to be peasants. In January of 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded and destroyed the KR, they fled across the border into Thailand, and two years later were able to immigrate to California. He has returned now three times, although he says he is the only one; when others in his family see his videos, they all sob, and his mother can't bear the idea of returning. He comes back to pray, and to see his father, for as a Buddhist this man believes still remains at the grounds and is happy to see a son come visiting.

Sunglasses are a good thing, in a situation like this.

That is what I mean when I say that to visit Cambodia, and to truly understand its existance and its people today, you must have a knowledge of what happened just three decades ago. We just read The Killing Fields, which was enormously informative, I'd highly recommend it. This man and his family had a similar experience to the character in the book. Beyond that, visiting Choeng Ek and Tuol Sleng, and by reading such books, you realize that the KR murdered all of the intellectuals, the doctors, the teachers, the businessmen, the bourgeois as they were called. In the process, they destroyed the intellect of the nation, as well as its culture, its potential, and its history. In that, they partially succeeded in achieving their goal of going back to Year One, the Stone Age. They also succeeded in dumbing down their nation, setting it back to the degree that it will take generations to begin to reach the potential of what it might have been had there never been a Khmer Rouge. We wondered that today: what would Cambodia be like today if that atrocity had never happened?

I can tell you what we have seen here in PP, the capital. On the way back from the Killing Fields, the driver took us through many backroads to avoid the heavy traffic of the main roads. We went through neighborhoods that at first, we said to each other, "This seems like a slum." Then it was clear that it was a slum. Poverty is rampant here, that much makes itself very clear, very quickly. In a country like Laos, people don't have much, but they seem to lack the desperation that usually accompanies abject poverty, they seem to have a peace about them. Here, the poverty has much more of an edge, which is a good way of describing Cambodia in general. My experience in Cambodia is very, very limited, since I've only been in PP, for a single day; still, there didn't seem to be the peace, the general happiness, that we saw in Laos and Vietnam.

Another striking feature of PP is its cars. First, there are many more of them than we've seen in the big cities of Laos and Vietnam. More importantly, they aren't just Ford Pintos and VW Bugs. The vast majority of them seem to be Lexus, Mercedes, or at least high-end Toyotas vehicles, with a hulking, shiny Hummer thrown in every once in awhile. We've read that Cambodia is a country where the rich get rapidly richer, and the poor get rapidly poorer; if these cars are any indication of that, then its's clear the upper crust's complete disdain of the multitudes of poor is rampant. We've had a wild conversation about it, about how there is so much money in this country, obvious from the fancy cars and even fancier shops lining the main drags, and yet there doesn't seem to be any concern for the welfare of those less fortunate. Yet communism is obviously not the answer; we keep finding the results of communism run amok on this trip. Somehow, it seems so hopeless.

Yet, it isn't so bad. We wanted to walk back from the museum, which took us about 1.5 miles through the heart of PP. We came across a large compound, with multitudes of students hurrying out of the gates on foot and on motorbikes, as it was around 5 pm. We then saw that this impressive building, with its equally impressive students, was a huge School of Human Sciences - a med school. When a country begins to educate its people, when it throws off the cloak of darkness that is ignorance and ideology, and when its people begin to care for their fellow countrymen, whether financially or physically, there is hope.

Until next time, be safe.

November 02, 2009

To Saigon And Beyond

We're moving right through Vietnam, and it hasn't failed to fascinate us. Unbelievably, we are almost finished here in Vietnam, as we are getting ready to cross the border into Cambodia in two days. We've been here longer than other countries in SE Asia, but that hasn't made it seem like it's been a longer time.

Saigon was a very interesting city, I think we might have liked it more than even Hanoi. I think that in Hanoi, there was more to do, more museums and such, and the city itself was more beautiful, with lakes and tree-lined streets, but there was more of a vibe in Saigon. It was more welcoming for backpackers, I thought, with a whole neighborhood that felt like a haven from the hordes of motorbikes that filled all of the streets outside its three streets. Getting into the center was much easier than in Hanoi as well. In Hanoi, to reach the airport, we had to find the minibus stop on Google maps, then walk the half-hour trek with our packs to catch the hourlong minibus ride. It went quite smoothly, despite briefly getting lost trying to find the right street, and the flight itself was great as well. The best part, though, was getting on an air-conditioned bus at the Saigon airport, and being able to follow our route as we moved through the crowded streets of Saigon, using the map provided by our LP guide (the first time it has been useful in SE Asia). Of course, once we jumped off the bus, we were surrounded by pushy ladies trying to get us into their guesthouses. We resisted them, though we looked at a few of their selections; invariably, they always made us walk to the top of their five story building to discourage us from continuing our search for a good guesthouse.

We were briefly considering taking a tour into the Mekong Delta, which is an area southwest of Saigon known as the "rice-basket" of Vietnam, as well as a beautiful area to see the famous ricefields and lush, tropical landscape of a massive river delta. Of course, you can take a fairly cheap, convenient tour out, but I drove Jess nuts going from one tour agency to the next, looking at what they offered, and they all had days filled with visiting the tourist traps like the coconut candy factory and the rice-paper coop, the Carpet Shop Schemes of Vietnam. In between being pressured to buy crap, we'd be stuffed into minibuses and boats filled with other tourists; it just didn't seem like much fun. So, we decided to go out into the Delta by ourselves, and to take the local transportation, to book the boat rides in the rivers and canals ourselves from the docks.

First, though, we needed to get our Cambodian visas at the consulate in Saigon, which we hoped would prevent the kind of nightmare situations like we had getting into Laos. So, we split our last day into our two objectives for Saigon, getting the visas, and going to the War Remnants Museum there in Saigon. The museum and the Cambodian consulate weren't far apart, so we set off, though we didn't start until about 10:30, which was a big mistake. Everything in Saigon such as museums and government building close for at least two hours, so I was worried we would miss the cutoff. Sure enough, we arrived at the consulate at about 11:40, ten minutes after they closed, and they wouldn't reopen until 2 pm. So, we went off to find a little lunch, and we were outside the museum when it opened back up at 1:30. I'm going to post a full entry about the museum, by itself.

After we visited the museum, we headed back to the consulate. This time they were open, though we arrived as a couple of guys on a motorbike arrived to change out the gate-guard's AK-47 while holding a bundle of the guns, being rather carefree where the barrels would drift off to point at (as I ducked). Again, we had hoped to avoid any issues with the visa, that was the purpose of coming to the consulate rather than waiting to get one at the border. That wasn't to be the case, as it immediately became apparent. The agent inside handed us an application and pointed at a sign that stated that only Vietnam dong would be accepted. Fair enough, as we were in Vietnam. He then told us that the price was 500,000 dong (about $28). We asked him why the price was so high, and he replied that it was because we'd come in the afternoon, so we had to pay for the express cost. We pointed out that it was a simple sticker he needed to put in the passports, that it had taken 10 minutes for our Vietnam visas, and there were no other customers in line. Besides, every website (including Cambodia's) we'd seen had stated the price would be $20, with no fees mentioned, which we pointed out, and our guide booke even noted that these guys like to invent fees and charges to put into their pockets. I kept my cool very nicely, unlike at the border of Laos, but I politely pointed out that it was obvious that he was cheating us, and that I'd like to see his manager. At this point, he began to lose his English skills, until by the time that I was asking for his name to report him, he couldn't understand a word of English, despite his skill at the beginning of the conversation. He even went back to his desk to nervously straighten out the paper in the printer, by that point unable to even hear us. Needless to say, we didn't pay his cost for the visa.

The rest of our time in Saigon was really nice, as long as we were able to dodge the motorbikes. Jess developed a method of getting rid of the touts trying to sell junk in the streets, by starting her bargaining at "free" or "zero" and refusing to go up. This worked until some lady trying to sell a book of old currency bills thought she said "three" (as in $3), and then it was twice as hard to get her to leave us alone. We spent the entire day walking through Saigon, and although we didn't come even close to seeing much of it, it felt like we did. The next morning we checked out and jumped on a city bus that took us out to the bus station, where we were the only foreigners around. The Vietnamese found this a little shocking, and officials at the station took the initiative to help us buy our tickets. All I said was Can Tho, and they snatched the money from my hand, guided us to a booth, and got us onto a VIP bus with AC. That sounds great, and it was, but it still only cost 70,000 dong ($4) for the 4hr trip. The bus company even gave us a lift to the only hotel under $40 in our LP guide (a mixed bag of usefulness; most people using a LP guide want a budget place, which is badly lacking in the guide, but at least they threw in one that we could refer to). Before we knew it, we were settled into the city of Can Tho, and taken under the wing of the hotel's owner, a bossy but helpful lady who would have had our itinerary set (so long as we used her various services) if we'd so wanted.

One of the highlights of coming to the Mekong Delta, and Can Tho in particular, is taking a boat out to the floating markets. We looked on the dock for someone to take us, but being too late in the evening for that, we reluctantly used our hotel lady, and paid a bit more than needed. Still, the trip was a full day of fun. Starting at 5:30 in the morning (they provided coffee), we headed up in a little two-seater motor boat along the river. After about an hour, we reached the first market, Cai Rang, which was really nice in the morning sun. Even better, we'd left early enough to miss the multitude of boats full of tourists (the kind we avoided taking from Saigon) and saw only a few other boats with independent travelers there. We continued on, marveling at the locals going about their business on the riverfront. It is a different existence there, one of boats and fish and homes built on stilts over the water, likely both peaceful and difficult. We came to another, smaller market, this one with less motorized boats. Here we just sat for awhile in the middle, watching the river commerce going on around us, as vegetables, fruits, animals, chickens, and all sorts of other produce exchanged hands, or rather changed boats. We bought a grapefruit to eat, and then we headed back down the river, heading off on a long route through the many canals of the surrounding area. Here we passed even more peaceful villages and homes, a quiet, simple existence, far removed and away from the hectic streets of even a small city like Can Tho. Our driver stopped at a lousy, expensive cafe for tourists, but we forgave him, since he did take us on a seven hour trip.

Today, we had even more adventure and excitement, by renting a moped to check out the surrounding areas. Turns out it's more scary than fun, so we have mostly stuck around the city and its sidestreets to avoid the trucks and buses haunting the roads out of the city. We definitely feel like we are getting a Vietnamese experience, making our way through the streets on a moped, though not nearly as fast as the locals. I even found a sidestreet, and Jess tried out driving it around, though she wasn't comfortable with me on the back. It's all about the experience.

Until next time, be safe.

War Remnants Museum, Saigon

This museum was one that we'd heard about and wanted to see. I originally put this in a post about our travels through Vietnam, but it is too large, and deserves a posting of its own. 

Now, I'd heard things about the museum, that it is very biased against the US, which is understandable, considering the Commies won. I was expecting this to some degree. I was surprised by how biased it truly was, though. The museum was actually fairly small, the first floor had a couple of galleries, and the second had a couple exhibitions, including one about US photographers who took iconic pictures of the battels. The first floor was divided between an exhibition of photos showing various graphic scenes, from dead bodies to people being "interrogated" or beaten, and then a section dedicated to the people whose lives and future children were dramatically altered by the usage of Agent Orange, a defoliant used to destroy the forest so that American forces could see what was shooting at them. The use of Agent Orange was unacceptable, as it used dioxins that are highly lethal against humans in even tiny amounts. The photos had less of an impact on me, though. They were terrible and graphic, but the accompanying captions never failed to place the blame squarely on US forces, despite the lack of a single picture that had a US soldier pointing a gun at someone. The captions referred to the US as "fascists" and "imperialists," and talked about how they murdered women and children on a frequent basis. Propaganda is propaganda, even when used in a situation such as a Vietnam War museum. For me, the war speaks enough for itself; it was a terrible waste, a stain on America's standing in the global community as well as its morals. It was the definition of excessive force, as we dropped more tonnage of explosives than any other war, including WWII. It was an undefined slaughter, of both American lives (58,000 killed) as well as Vietnamese (3 million died, over the 11 year period of the civil war, from both sides). America wasn't responsible for nearly that total of carnage on the Vietamese side, as the "democratic" southern government and the Communist north inflicted massive casualties on each other. Still, it was a war that we shouldn't have been involved in, nor should we have gone anywhere near Cambodia, where our bombings led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and one of the century's most horrendous genocides. Some might argue that Vietnam was a proxy war, that we were indirectly fighting the Chinese and Russians (which we were), but that was no excuse for our involvement, which did nothing to prevent Communism and only caused death and destruction; Communism was quite capable itself to bring about its end.

While I don't defend our actions in Vietnam, it was still interesting to see how the war is portrayed in Vietnam today. As I mentioned, there were lots of pictures of dead bodies, there were stories of massacres where one person miraculously survived, and of course it was the US that pulled the trigger in all such situations. What was lacking was any evidence these were victims of US actions. Even more glaringly absent were any pictures or even mention of the atrocities that were committed not only against US POWs and soldiers, but against their fellow Vietnamese, by the Viet Cong. There was a replication of the prison used to keep VC POWs, and it looked dark and dank (though not so much when compared to those of Germany), but there was no mention of the Hanoi Hilton or other VC camps where torture and murder of inmates is well-documented. All of this was convienently missing. Another aspect I found interesting was the exhibition of gestures of support by other nations, namely Communist countries and European countries. There were plenty of quotes from European officials condemning what was going on, and what stood out, glaringly, were quotes from French officials. This seemed rather hypocritical, considering that for the better part of a century, France had subjugated, often cruelly, Vietnam as one of it colonies, taking its riches and leaving a huge vacuum of power when they left. That set the stage for the civil war to start, leading later to the Vietnam war. Seems like there should be times when people should consider their own past before they speak out against someone else. You know what they say, check for that plank in your own eye...

So, the museum really was important to visit, to gain a perspective we hadn't had before. Besides, there was a lot of history, much of which that was honestly presented, that showed just how terrible and tragic this war was. Regardless of its politics, of the motives of the various powers involved, and of the fact that no awards for decency and humanity were handed out, the people that suffered were the young and the innocent, the soldiers of both sides, the civilians of Vietnam. I'm reading a book now from the perspective of a VC soldier, and as he reflects after the war, when again Vietnam is about to be thrust into war with China, that it is the old guys, the politicians, the ones in power with no personal connection to the carnage of war, who agitate for it. The soldiers, on all sides, just want to survive.

Until next time, be safe.

November 01, 2009

Videos From Vietnam

It takes forever, but I finally got some videos up from Can Tho.

Riding The Boat On The Mekong Video

Floating Market Near Can Tho Video

Until next time, be safe.

Pictures From Vietnam & Laos

Here are some photos, starting with ones from Laos, then on our way down Vietnam.

 Sunset Over Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos

 Dusk Over Mekong, Luang Prabang

 Boats At Dusk, Luang Prabang

 Intersection In Hanoi, Vietnam

 Jess & Our Friend Ngan, Hanoi

 Halong Bay Entrance, Vietnam

 Sunset, Halong Bay

 Sunset Over Karst, Halong Bay

 Cat Ba Island Peaks, Vietnam

 Beach Near Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

 Sunset Over Cat Ba Island Bay, Vietnam

 Karst Formations, Halong Bay, Vietnam

 Saigon Street, Vietnam

 Motorbikes Whizzing, Saigon, Vietnam

 Nighttime In The Streets, Saigon

 Tossing Pineapple In Floating Market, Can Tho, Vietnam

 Floating Market Boat, Can Tho

 Lady Rowing Her Boat, Can Tho

 Watchdog, Floating Market, Can Tho

 Trawling For Fish, Can Tho

 Floating Market Scene, Can Tho

 Women In Floating Market, Can Tho

 Selling Grapefruit, Can Tho

 Aaron In The Floating Market, Can Tho

 Child In Floating Market, Can Tho

 Jess With Our Boatman's Creation, Can Tho

 One Last Shot Of Floating Market, Can Tho

 Lady Rowing In Canal Near Can Tho

Until next time, be safe.

Hosting by Yahoo!