Beaches and Seams

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The road was perilous. It writhed and undulated around mountains as though the pavement itself was trying to shake us from its spine. The irony is that out the window, this vengeful road is nowhere to be seen. Only the earth falling away below is visible, ever waiting to swallow you whole. Dalat is situated 1500m above sea level and as any physicist will tell you, that's a long way to fall. Almost 5000 ft for the metrically challenged and for those who've been up flying with me, about 5 times the height I generally fly around the city. The driver would let the bus accumulate speed to the maximum possible turning speed, holding down the brake just enough to keep us on the road. An hour and a half of this and there was more of the brake pad in the air than on the wheels, so acrid that even the driver couldn't ignore it and pulled over. 15 miuntes overlooking the abyss while they dumped cool water from a mountain stream onto the brakes and then we were back on the bus, still not using the engine to slow our mad rush to the bottom. It was only a matter of time, I knew, before our brakes would fail entirely. I just hoped that it would be somewhere near a runaway lane or where we wouldn't have too far to fall.

Although I'd brought a book to read and was quite tired due to a lack of sleep there was no closing my eyes. The valley floor materialized in the distance and the brake pads were vapourizing once more and I watched intently in the hope we would reach it. As fast as we seemed to be moving, the valley seemed agonizingly far but finally we turned one last corner and there was no longer a dizzying drop out the window. I was going to make it to Nha Trang, a city on the coast of Vietnam, after all. I arrived with Nathan, the Kiwi I'd met up in Dalat and a couple other girls we'd met on the bus and began the hunt for a place to stay. The first thing we noticed were how aggressive the touts are here. Where others would take a "no" or two, they'd eventually leave you alone. Here, short of ripping them off their bikes and introducing them to a left and right, they will stalk you no matter how much you ask, demand, and yell. After all, they want to claim the commission for herding you in to a hotel even if you did your level best to shake them and ignore and do the opposite of everything they said.

Nathan and I checked into a place called Sunflower Guesthouse, quite central and $4/night each. We had the worst meal I'd had in some time at a place that had relatively decent and cheap beer, explored the city, and I booked myself on a SCUBA dive for the next day. Nha Trang is pretty well known as the place to dive in Vietnam, and while not comparing with other dives, it was well worth the price. For $45, I had lunch and three dive sites and saw my first octopus! Finally!! I have been wanting to see an octopus since I first started diving and there, where I least expected it, an octopus left the shelter of the rock and swam off, quite a big one. We dove off an island not far from land at three sites, Madonna Rock (my favourite site), Pipe Beach (home of many many pipe fish, relatives of the seahorse), and Moray Beach (famous for Frog Fish and where I saw my octopus). On the dive I met a nice couple from Melbourne and after dinner they invited me back to their five star hotel for a swim. I didn't turn them down.

One more day wandering the beaches and relaxing around Nha Trang and we were off on a night bus to Hoi An twelve hours north. Hoi An is also a beach town, but more importantly it's famous for the sheer number of world renowned tailors at quite reasonable prices. So after getting off the bus at 7:30 in the morning, checking into the Grassland Hotel (equally far from everything, but beautiful rooms and free bike rental) I was tailor shopping. The hotel gave me a free ride into town, or rather, the tailor "Blue" did, and I checked them out. My first inclination was to simply get prices and start shopping around, but I quickly realized this was more complicated than a simple "a suit costs x" and moreover, I had no idea what I wanted. What colour? Black? Gray? Brown? Stripes? Even if different fabric cost different amounts, how could I compare prices when I didn't even know what fabric to look at. And so I spent over an hour looking through magazines and realizing that I definitely wanted a gray suit as well as a black one. And I thought a brown one would be nice too after seeing them in the catalogue.

Finally, I'd decided on three suits and styles and therefore fabrics after a lot of comparison and gleaning what knowledge I could from Ms. Yum Yum, who ran the store with a sister and a few other friendly girls. I got a price from her, quite reluctantly, and then went on the town. I got a really good price from Nhu Trang - the owner came to see me personally. I didn't feel so confident there, although I had no reason not to. She certainly told me of some things to be wary of with other tailors, and then I went comparing some more. Another tailor seemed quite good and I'm somewhat convinced I could've gotten a great gray suit from. It gave me some confidence that after our chat and picking out some materials to price out, and when I was about to leave, she wanted to assure me of the quality and brought a suit jacket out. It was one she'd done for her husband, in gray, and - I quietly noticed - the same material that she'd picked out for me. As well, there was an Australian couple in the store who swore by her and said this was their fourth time here. And she offered, reluctantly, to match the price I'd gotten from the other tailor. I probably would've stayed there, truth be told, but for two things: 1) I really didn't think her black fabric was anywhere near as good as at Blue. 2) I couldn't remember the design for the black suit I liked - quite unique.

So back to Blue, where not only could she not match the price, but she realized she'd made a mistake in her math and couldn't give me the price she'd quoted. Perhaps a wiser man would've left at this point and gone to the tailor with a much better price who was either honest enough to pick me out a suit the same as her husband's or devious enough to let me fill in the blanks on my own. But Blue had the design, it had better material for the black and brown suits, it had people who I could communicate with a bit better, and she had the design for the black suit I wanted. I don't want to get an average suit, I want a nice, quality, tailored one. So I stayed with Blue and while it took a few days and fittings (the Aussies I'd met, who admittedly didn't look that savvy, said the other woman always got it right the first time), in the end everything turned out exactly as I'd hoped it would and I'm very excited to wear these clothes at home in a not-so-sweaty environment. And more importantly, I'm pretty sure the extra I paid was worth the extra attention to detail, the quality, and the experience.

Enough about suits and clothes, though. While my tailoring was never far from my mind the whole time and while I was in and out time and again throughout my stay, there is much much more to Hoi An than tailors. The old town is exceptional, authentic, and alive today as ever. Towards the end of the year, it is transformed and more specifically submerged as the water level rises 3m and motorbikes are kept in attics while boats become the primary mode of transport. Families move upstairs and the entire town bears only the vaguest resemblance to what it is. The famous Japanese An Hoi footbridge, rather than being a simple decorative piece or a backdrop to a really bad band, actually crosses water. Obviously I never had the opportunity to see it this way, but you can imagine the magic of such a place that people have been living in for many years, moving up and down as the river floods and ebbs.

The food of Hoi An also gives the city its charm. In addition to many places for great Vietnamese food, it has some delicious specialties that would probably be world famous were their recipes not closely guarded secrets. Cao Lao, for example, a delicious noodle dish that I call the Vietnamese Phad Thai. All I was able to find out about its creation is that water comes from a certain well, they take certain types of wood and leave it in the water around sunrise, mix in 'some ingredients' later in the day, strain the broth, heat it and then moisten the noodles which are mixed with some greens, pork, fried croutons of a sort, and enjoyed. Fried wonton, with a homemade sweet and sour. Special 'Quang' noodles. In addition to finding a great restaurant with cheap beer and delicious Cao Lao and a restaurant called Co Dam that Nathan discovered with amazing dishes the owner made us that don't even have a name I decided to take a cooking course here. I'd met a couple having some street food the night prior and joined their cooking course at Hong Phuc the next evening. We stuffed a fish with some fresh ingredients we chopped, diced, and sauteed, wrapped it in banana leaves and barbecued it. We shredded, wrapped, and booked our own spring rolls. We sliced, diced, and fried up some squid with lemon grass, garlic, and chili. And we brewed up our own sweet and sour sauce and smothered some fried wonton in it. Yes, Hoi An has some of the best and most unique food in Asia and I definitely took advantage.

Nearby are some ruins called Me Soon (spelled My Son) that are 1800 years old. Unfortunately, the Viet Cong took to hiding here during what they call the American War over here and naturally the Americans dropped bombs and leveled many of the ancient towers including the crown jewel, a once 24m high tower now 2-3m high. Some of the buildings were still intact, however, or listing into a bomb crater, and the red brick seemed to age the buildings all the more against a fresh blue sky and green landscape. We took the boat back, a mistake as there's little to see except a small village that is essentially a tourist trap. And the old town is filled with historical buildings and sites worth a visit. But if that's not what you're in the mood for, you can always head to the nearby beach, which is nice and hawker free compared to Nha Trang. I spent my last evening there and maybe stayed a little too late as it was getting pretty dark on the way home. But a local guy pulled up beside me and drove alongside or behind to light the way. And, eventually, pulled alongside again and basically pulled me home. Yes, it will be a hard place to leave, but tomorrow morning I'm off once more to Hue a few hours north.

Nha Trang and Hoi An Photos

Dalat-ful Hills

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Dalat is a small city tucked peacefully away in the southern hills of Vietnam. Four hours from Mui Ne, four hours from Nha Trang, it was an effective way of taking two sides of a triangle and leaving the hypotenuse to those more hurried in much the same way as this metaphor is an effective way of demonstrating I'm still as much a geek as ever. I arrived late afternoon, just in time to stroll and view a stunning sunset over the city as Nathan (a kiwi I'd met in the lobby) explored the town and looked for dinner. He's a vegetarian, which made the hunt for dinner a lot more difficult than usual - I never really appreciated how much freedom is afforded by just being able to eat anywhere without worrying what it is, exactly, you're having. Perhaps if you like it, hate it, or it looks a bit suspect, you remember the name or inquire further, otherwise my philosophy is, if they're eating it it probably won't kill me. How wrong I was...

Alright, so once again I had no interesting way to entice you and add enough suspense to keep you reading. I clearly haven't died and in fact have had nothing but great eating experiences here in Vietnam. The first real day in Dalat I spent wandering around the streets on foot. It's been a while since I've done this properly. That is to say, without a map or any clear agenda and with a tendancy to chance small side streets in the hope of overturning a hidden gem. I suppose I do this continually when seeking a meal, but hunting food is certainly an agenda and so this was a different and liberating feeling. A person tires of this after some time as I had, and forgets about doing it after a long 'break'. After that long exposition, you might expect that I found some amazing gem indeed, but the truth is that what I found was something more important - everyday life. I got away from the touts and tourists (of which there are few up here), and just watched people interacting, snapping shots from time to time. Two kids coming up the street shading themselves from an umbrella. An old woman pedaling a bike loaded with Durian to a food stall to have a chatty lunch with the ladies there. Couples sitting on their motorbikes in the park. A man and his two sons (illegally) fishing on the lake.

The latter I actually walked by without seeing as they were far down the slope of the lake shore, but they called out to me and waved me down. Curious what they wanted, I walked down the hill and soon had a glass of whiskey in my hand and a pair of chopsticks with various local foods being shoved in my face from the plastic bag of lunch they'd brought along. We talked as best we could for about a half hour or so with his daughters showing up a little later and eventually I made my leave and continued on to the markets. Markets are markets are markets, it seems, but this one had a sizeable candy markets of dried and sugared fruits and plenty of snake and eel to go around. I grabbed an early dinner at one of the upstairs stalls overlooking the market and my day of exploring the town ended quite happily.

Another day of exploration awaited the following morning when I got a driver to tour me around the countryside for about $10. We visited and passed some coffee plantations (and I ate a handful of beans which were pretty tasteless in the same way that peas can be). The coffee here is not as famous or tasty (so I hear) as that of Laos, but the plantations did look gorgeous on the red hillsides as we wound our way down past vegetable greenhouses towards a big temple. It's situated on the top of a waterfall, which I scrambled to the bottom of first, and then into the temple where there were several Buddhas and two many-armed Vishnus looking down on the polished tile floor and me, alone in the building. Around the back of this minority temple is a pretty large laughing Buddha, though his elevated dais means he could be laughing at just about anything.

Following that, we drove to a silk factory which was almost worth the trip alone. They take the cocoons that the worms they raise spin and soak them in hot water. They're cleaned somewhat there and a bit more before given to another woman who, while keeping them in hot water, collects them and bunches them together onto a winding spool where they slowly are unwound from the cocoon, wound to a thicker thread, and spooled. These spools are dried and tied by a woman with incredibly fast hands and then either sold or fed into a machine that weaves patterned sheets based on a punch card system. From start to finish it was an enlightening and interesting process. From there back up to Dalat and the Flower Garden, which was not worth the price of admission, around the lake, and to the railway station. It was built by the French a hundred and some years back and is Vietnam's oldest station, with a similarly old steam engine parked on one of the platforms. Grandpa, I thought, would love this. And finally, back to my hotel and past what has to be the largest collection of kites flying on a Sunday afternoon that I have ever witnessed. There was no occasion, no festival, just every kid and their dog had a kite and was running around the park somehow managing to remain untangled. I was in danger of becoming quite tangled in Dalat however, and so I had my dinner that night and booked passage to the coastal city of Nha Trang four hours downhill for the next morning.

Dalat Photos

Mui Ne is Money

Friday, June 20, 2008

Somewhere, five hours north of Saigon lies a quiet town tucked between giant sand dunes and an endless sandy coastline. Somewhere in that small stretch of green surrounded by blue and red, a young Canadian fellow by the name of Dean has disembarked from a bus and is speeding on the back of a motorbike towards a cheap hotel. He has arrived here rather randomly, after seeing a few pretty photos, and doesn’t have long in his time budget to stay. He is prepared to ignore this budget, should it prove necessary, as all good travelers must, but after finding cheap $5 accommodation on the beach at the Saigon Café, he has lunch, rents a motorbike for $4, and endeavours to explore the blue and red regions surrounding him.

The first stop is what he believes to be the white dunes. It looks rather unlikely – yes, the sand is white, but there’s scarcely more than a single set of prints going up the slope and a 1.5m retaining wall to scale. It’s hard to believe this is the place, but some locals assure him it is, and he trudges up. It later was revealed that no, the white dunes are twenty some kilometers away, but the view up here is probably far superior to what he might have seen there anyway. The rolling sand dunes are untouched and drop off into a blue sea littered with a hundred fishing boats. Small as ants, motorbikes silently crawl their way up the coastal road and the white waves disappear into the coastline in a peaceful rhythm.

On the way back from a drive into the countryside and the white dunes towards red, Dean’s bike coughs once and goes silent. Aside from the road arching up over a hill, there is no sign of civilization as he maneuvers the bike onto the shoulder and attempts to restart it fail. A young boy biking by stops to lend a hand to this hopelessly incompetent tourist and discovers that, contrary to the bike renter’s assurances, there is NOT enough gas to see everything there is to see in Mui Ne. The bike is without fuel, the sun is without mercy, and Dean is without a hat pushing the bike up the hill and making sounds he hopes are curses in Vietnamese – or, failing that, some language. Thankfully, it’s not more than a kilometre back to town and what goes up can roll down with minimal effort. The bike-turned-scooter is half rolled and half pedaled to a small restaurant where they see him coming and bring out a 1litre bottle of gasoline that they can sell at 25% more than the going rate. A pretty fair deal, when they know that he has no choice but to refuel.

A litre of fuel for the bike and a litre of water for Dean and he pays the 25,000 dong. The mother of the family running the restaurant nudges her 7-year old son and he ashamedly holds out his hand and says, “Mister, money?” There are a lot of things Dean would like to say about their corruption of their son and about work and money, but he finished his water, sets it down, and trudges up the red dunes. A young boy doggedly follows him up into the hot sun and the desert, ignoring protests that no, Dean would really rather not ride a crazy carpet down the sand dunes. They go slow, stop, and you end up full of sand with little to show for it, he knows, but the kid presses on. Thinking back to the other child sitting back and holding out his hand, it’s hard not to admire – if not feel pity for – this young boy working so doggedly for a bit of cash. So Dean gets to the top and pays for the ride, slowly slides down the giant dune and winds up at a standstill halfway down and covered in sand.

The final major stop is the Fairy Stream. The hour is now 4:30 and the sun will set in an hour or two, so this should allow just enough time to travel up to the waterfall at the stream end. More children attempt to follow and serve as ‘guides’ but give up eventually. Dean is glad for this, as he can quite capably walk up a stream on his own and the kids were just getting in his photos anyway. The stream is another example of colourful Mui Ne, walled as it is by green palms catching the late afternoon sun while the stream itself is mostly shaded by a massive wall of hardened red and white sand. At the end, he manages to find the waterfall and a way to the top but discovers there is little else to see and turns back as the entire stream is now covered in the hillside shadow. Back in town, there is very little by way of people as well, and so after a nice barbecue dinner of some of the fishermen’s bounty, he informs his guesthouse he will be leaving the next day and books a ticket for Dalat, a town high in Vietnam’s mountains.

After having paid for the ticket at a travel agent, the agent calls his guesthouse to inform him that there is not a 7:30 bus as promised but only a 1:00 bus. Quite a nice scam, because there is no way he’d book a bus in the middle of the afternoon for a short trip up the mountains (4 hours) losing an entire day. But an opportunity was provided to spend the next morning on the beach and exploring the blue side of Mui Ne. And at 1:00, a bus spirits him away to the next unscheduled stop on the itinerary, somewhere he knows nothing about but hopes will be worth the trek. It’s not exactly on the way or out of the way, but the short trip to Mui Ne turned out to be well worth the day and a half and he has hopes for more inadvertent adventure on the road ahead. And, somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he hopes you will join him there.

Mui Ne Photos

Don't Miss Saigon

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The small plane flew over the flood plains of central Cambodia, the green rice paddies of its western borders, and down to the sprawling city that was Saigon, Ho Chi Minh. From above, it was an interesting study in organic urban design. Streets sprawled along paths of least resistance between commons and the rest, it seemed, sprouted from those in random directions as the buildings alongside grew fat on the traffic of the more successful roads. I was in jeans so that I wouldn’t have to pack my large shoes in my backpack and a long sleeved thermal top to protect against the air conditioning. At 31 degrees in Vietnam’s largest city, both would prove a bit warm. Waiting at customs, an English girl came up to me asking if I was Dean. It turned out I had met her when I was hanging out with James in Siem Reap, however briefly, though I not only didn’t remember that her name was Sanna (short for Susannah) but I couldn’t recall her face. Having quickly admitted this, we passed easily through customs, grabbed our packs, and headed out to negotiate our way into the city’s heart.

We grabbed a taxi for $3 and he drove about 20m before stopping and asking for the money up front. We refused and were about to leave the cab when he grunted and started driving forward. Then we got to the gate and he wanted $5 from each of us to pass through. This hadn’t been negotiated and I felt pretty certain that was steep so we did exit the cab and walk out of the airport roads on foot. On the other side, two motorcycles were waiting and I managed to get them down to 40000/bike ($2.50) but Sanna wasn’t interested in hauling her stuff on a bike so we went in a metered cab. After all our work to avoid being scammed, we went in a metered cab. Of course there’s nothing legitimate about these meters. The second you’re not looking they jump from 60000 to 90000 dong, when the whole ride is supposed to cost about 50000 in the first place. So, our taxi cost $14 in the end which isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things, but we were charged almost five times the real price and the jerk had the audacity to insist we were short changing him on the currency exchange.

I parted ways with Sanna pretty quickly as she is traveling on vacation money and so is quite happy to stay in places well outside my budget – nevermind transport. I found a place for $8/night right off Pham Nga Lao in the backpacker district, one of the cheapest I could find though quite expensive by my standards. It was at Godmother’s and I liked the staff and the godmother as well. Then I met with Sanna for a late lunch and we began our explorations right away. It’s interesting seeing how other people travel. She had her guidebook in hand, something I almost never do, and it made for a pretty efficient walk to our destination, the Temple of the Jade Emperor. We kind of did a combination of getting the general direction and landmarks en route with choosing streets by feel and rough general direction. It was a good mix and we crossed some interesting shops and other temples en route. The Jade temple itself wasn’t remarkable from without, but inside was great. Incense clouds gave the temple a smoky mystique as most of the light was from candles or streaking through the haze to shed a soft light to the rooms. Everywhere, some very human-looking papier-mâché figures watched with a decidedly sinister gaze.

Making our way back without the map was entertaining. It occurred to me that Saigon might have an English cinema in which I could finally see the new Indiana Jones movie, the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so after taking a look at Notre Dame cathedral – yes, the French influence is quite strong here – we saw the movie at Diamond Plaza. And I don’t know what the reviews have been, but I really enjoyed it. I admit that it seemed a little more formulaic than the others as well as more unpredictably unrealistic, but overall it was good fun, full of archaeological lore, and action. Did I think Indy should get married? No. Am I glad the hat didn’t end up in Junior’s hands? Yes. Not that I’m so against expanding on the franchise, but there’ll only ever be one Indiana Jones. Perhaps this is how people felt about Bond once upon a time?

The next day was another early one as we headed out to the Mekong Delta. I had been following the Mekong River all the way from the Myanmar-Thailand-Laos border where the mountains of China can be seen in the distance. I spent two days on it from the border of Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos and ate fish from it while in Vientiane. I slept on an island in Si Pha Don in the south of Laos where the Mekong swelled to 14 km across and crashed on all sides and I sat and watched the sunset on its banks in Phnom Penh. And now here I was at last, where the river meets the sea, where the path of my journey opens and spreads around the world on oceanic currents. But I will not be leaving Asia on these currents, at least not yet. A trip north through Vietnam and China (two countries that I suspect have a lot more in common with each other than anywhere else I’ve been) begins. We took a boat from Saigon down to the Mekong Delta which was the perfect way to conclude it, and then wandered around in that very vast area. In truth I could’ve spent days crisscrossing the delta but we had one and spent it take a little gondola ride among some of the islands, seeing coconut candy, cream, and milk being made, riding bike through the villages, and wandering the markets.

Back in Saigon, I went for dinner with several of the people from the tour at my guesthouse and then for bia huoi (fresh/cheap/draught beer) on one of the small streets nearby. Some of us made plans to investigate the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong had really harried the US troops and found ourselves watching a propaganda film the next morning. Cu Chi; A land of peace, love, and the friendliest people on the planet. Cu Chi; A land where honey soaks the valleys and the sun basks local cherries to plump perfection. The picture is painted, rather without subtlety, and then come the satanic Americans and lay the whole thing to waste, throwing out their backs in hearty maniacal laughter as bombs fall from B-52s and childrens’ tears leave craters in the barren earth. After 15 minutes on the unmitigated evil of the US and heroism of the Viet Cong, the show is over and it’s time to go look at some of the horrendous traps that were hidden in the ground for Americans coming through the forest. Spike traps and rolling wheels that pierce groin and belly. I’m not meaning to take sides in this at all; even after all the museums I’ve visited I still don’t feel I know enough of the story. I just hate propaganda, whatever the source.

Reaction aside, the tunnels, like the traps laid for the Americans (and I should add Australians, New Zealanders, Thai, and French) were ingenious. They had systems and levels to keep the water out. They had clever designs to disguise the entrances. And they were designed to make traversing them simple for Vietnamese and difficult for Americans. The latter is a nice way of saying they were built small. I wandered through some of the tunnels and was bent half over trying to cross them – and I wasn’t carrying a backpack or any military gear. Then out of the tunnels and up for a quick drink at the café while AK-47 rounds were being fired nearby with incredible loudness and back to Saigon. I jumped off the bus home at the War Remnants museum and took a sobering look around there. The propaganda here was more subtle, but that didn’t stop scores of scathing anti-American comments in the guestbook, which I perused while waiting out the pouring rain. I was admiring a tank immediately after entering and three English ladies were talking nearby. One of them was venting at Americans quite vehemently on the Vietnam war and then, when asked by her friend why the US even came to Vietnam, admitted she had no idea.

For me, the point of these war museums is to see one side of the war. Ideally, you’d see an unbiased look at both sides, but such a thing doesn’t exist anywhere I’m sure. Certainly we know that there were plenty of people in the US who were against it and in other countries too, but if you’re only reacting to the propaganda, surely you have a bit more education before you weigh in with your opinions? The museum was enlightening for me in that sense, and I thought about England’s colonial times and wondered how ashamed this woman was of the various horrible things that England had done here in Asia in the name of colonialism. This probably wouldn’t have crossed my mind except that I’m reading a novel called The Glass House about that very topic, following a young Indian boy living in Burma through to his children, grand-children, and beyond. It seems as unfair to write or speak scathing remarks about the Americans – many of whom the museum itself documents as being against the war – as it does to hold modern English responsible for things that happened 200 years ago.

But I digress. A visit to the war museum which was enlightening in an unexpected way and then a completely unguided wander first to Diamond Plaza for a trip to Narnia left me exhausted. And so I returned to my guesthouse and then went to the markets for dinner. Food in Vietnam: I’m still figuring out what’s what, but I’ll say right now that they have some exceptional spring rolls. I know, it’s nothing exotic or amazing, but whether it’s the oil or the ingredients or what they’re wrapped in, they are exquisite. Pho, a noodle soup, is typical fare for breakfast and popular everywhere. At the markets, I had some scallops (which were more like oysters than what I know as scallops) in butter, garlic, and chives; I had spring rolls; I had fried morning glory, and I had two drinks. A veritable feast at a total cost of $6. It is my intent to take a cooking course as soon as I find a fairly reasonably priced one to better appreciate what is going into the food and what makes the really good stuff good.

My final day in Saigon I spent wandering the streets, which is a very dangerous thing to do here. Not that you’ll get mugged or anything, no no. You might get pick-pocketed if you’re really unlucky but generally the worst you have to deal with are kids insisting that you need chewing gum from them or sketchy people (all of whom work for the tuk tuk mafia) trying to sell books, carting around portable scales, and you name it. I even saw someone with a virtual aquarium’s worth of live fish making a sale. But these aren’t the dangers either. The danger is crossing. You have never seen such ordered chaos. Motorcycles, cars, busses, all vying for a clear path on the road, weaving in and out, across oncoming traffic and through it, onto sidewalks, you name it. And there is rarely a break in the traffic. What this means is when you want to cross, you must steal a page from the Old Testament and attempt to part the sea. The trick is to cross slowly, making eye contact and looking in the direction of oncoming traffic, and be consistent, predictable, and unswerving. You have to have faith that nobody is going against the flow of traffic where you cross, and you have to know when to turn your head to look in the opposite direction. It is generally before you think, as there is no real dividing line (there is, but traffic’s too heavy to see it and even if you could they still wouldn’t abide by it). Do this well, and you will cross the road. Fail, and a massive bus which stops for no man nothing may be scraping you off the grille.

Saigon was an interesting stop and an exciting change from the rest of Southeast Asia. I had been getting a little tired of the inherent sameness of Cambodia, Laos, and the Thai influence there. Coming to Vietnam is a new experience and has recharged my travel batteries. The people so far have been quite friendly, contrary to popular reports, and the city has offered up plenty of interesting activities. My last day found me in the Post Office admiring the train-station type architecture, and at the Reunification Palace taking a guided tour through the three floors of meeting rooms, suites, ballrooms, and bunkers. Mui Ne was next on the agenda, an impromptu addition inspired by a photo I saw in a travel agency and a realization that I had plenty of time to explore Vietnam so I might as well not rush from highlight to highlight. And so I leave you for now, heading north to the beach and beyond.

Ho Chi Minh Photos

Angkor Wat's What

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Ten hours of uneventful but leg-numbing bus ride from Shianouk Ville is the north western town of Siem Reap, a city famed for its proximity to one of the marvels of the world: Angkor Wat. I had hoped to escape the rain but arrived in the middle of a deluge that had flooded streets everywhere in ankle to knee deep water. The poor soul who drove me in his tuk tuk from the bus station was shivering in the rain and soaked and, wouldn’t you know it, we broke down in the middle of a giant puddle. He jumped in the dirty water and fiddled and played with his bike as the rain fell from the blackness above and traffic swerved and honked around us, but finally got it going again and drove me to the Garden Village Guesthouse. It was recommended to me and indeed, wasn’t too bad, but as I didn’t make any friends there or even use their restaurant/bar, I think I would’ve been better off at my first stop, Green Inn, paying $1 for a beautiful room not much further distant from town. I arranged to meet my tuk tuk driver in the morning to check out Angkor Wat after finally settling and sheltering from the rain.

It had been a long journey, and I was hungry. I was also hoping to meet some people, so I wandered back in to town (a tuk tuk driver heading that way gave me a free lift to the ATM) and found a cheap restaurant with some friendly staff to grab a bite. While there, I ran across Beth, an English girl I’d run across any number of times as far back as the slow boat to Laos, and two other guys and joined them. The four of us went out for a beer or two at some of the pubs on Pub Street, the Khao San Road of Siem Reap, and called it a night – or so I thought. Walking back towards the guesthouse I heard “Katsiris!”. Well, it’s pretty rare I know someone well enough to have them know my last name, and I turned and looked and there was James walking towards me. James is a friend I’d met in Vang Vieng, Laos, rock climbing and we’d talked about doing a rather adventurous kayak journey down the Mekong. So another few beer and he told me all about his journey and that he had indeed done the boat trip about a week after I continued on. And it sounded amazing. He talked about being taken into villages and fed and sheltered, some rough spots on the river, and it all sounded rather epic. If only he’d been willing to leave sooner, I would’ve been on that trip, too, but I have to say that even knowing I wouldn’t have wanted to wait a week to depart I still regret that I missed that.

The next morning came all too early but I was speeding off to Angkor Wat with my tuk tuk friend by 8:30 that morning. I’d checked the weather forecast the day prior and today was the only day with a low probability of rain, so I took it. The sky was overcast but it wasn’t too hot nor raining so I was thankful even if I knew my pictures wouldn’t be too fascinating. A good excuse to use black and white, I decided, though I kept colour where I liked it. Angkor Wat is just one temple among many around Siem Reap, most famous because of its size, or perhaps for its art surrounding the outer walls. Or rather, the outer inner walls. The complex is a giant moat with a stone bridge crossing to the temple and then some gates and walls – some sized for elephants others just for people. It was originally a Hindu temple, and thus reminded me a lot of Prambanan in Indonesia, but had been converted for Buddhist usage years later (16th century), so there was evidence of both religions all over. And though it was indeed impressive, and I spent a lot of time admiring the building, frescos, ruins, and spires from inside and out, it was not my favourite temple.

Rather, I found myself drawn to the others more so. I really liked the hundreds of faces carved into stone at Angkor Thom, and the promenade up top around the central spire. And best of all was a fairly ruinous temple called Ta Phrom, which had mixes of volcanic stone, green moss, vine, and tree overrunning everything, and white rock. The ruin added something indescribable to the temple’s mystique; you felt like you were uncovering something rather than visiting a tourist site. And there is a beauty in nature’s slow reclamation of mighty ancient human efforts, of seeing a building of stone, so solid and immovable, being infiltrated by an army of tree roots seeping into its pores. Or perhaps it’s that the two, man and nature, are coexisting at the moment. In either case, the temples around Siem Reap offered many rewards and far surpassed my own rather skeptical expectations. I returned home mid-afternoon with my legs absolutely exhausted. It was not so much the walking that got to me as the stiffness from the previous day’s cramped bus ride. I even contemplated a massage and in retrospect it would’ve been the perfect time to get one but instead I relaxed for a while.

Later that evening, I went out and had dinner at the noodle markets. I was sitting next to some Americans and wound up joining them for drinks afterwards and having a great night out. I showed them some of the local bars, we got a deck of cards and had a good night of it. One – Nick - was a Navy SEAL, Evan an ex-Canadian (from Winnipeg) living in California, Gabe a Californian through and through, and Kerri, yup, another Californian. They had come from Vietnam and gave me some pointers and I am pretty sure I sold them on Laos but aside from that it was a pretty travel-free conversation for the bulk of the night and that is a very nice thing when travel plans and history have replaced the weather as primary topics for small talk. My final day in Siem Reap was rainy so I didn’t go out to the Floating Market. I think this was probably a mistake as I have since heard people raving about it, but I didn’t make it. To be honest, I think I needed a change of scenery. While I’d love Angkor Wat, I just wasn’t excited about Cambodia. I think I was still trying to work out how to fit the Philippines into my itinerary, and so I did the only logical thing. I went and booked a ticket to Vietnam for the next morning. Once I entered Vietnam on my visa I would be forced to see the country before I could go elsewhere and that meant it would be too late for the Philippines. That meant I wouldn’t have this nagging “every day wasted is a day I could be in the Philippines” feeling. And so, with a few last Khmer dishes under my belt and, finally, a quiet night, I was off to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) on a plane the next morning.

Siem Reap Photos

The Land of Rain and Ghosts

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Shianouk Ville, on the southern coast of Cambodia and near to the Vietnamese border was all of these things. The rainy season was definitely in swing, with lightning storms blowing across the water to soak the small resort town three times daily. I had hoped to get a little beach in, having been in city, town, or wilderness for the past two months traveling inland Asia, but instead, just relaxation and a respite from touring. The first two days of this were spent with a mild food poisoning from our food stop en route, and coincidentally, those were the only two days with fair beach-going weather. As for the ghosts, well, as a result of the inclement weather, there were not many travelers around to be found, and what few there were, at least in GST Guesthouse, seemed discouraged enough at the lack to take solace in HBO. But it was a quiet and relaxing time, I recharged my batteries and wreaked havoc upon my laptop’s. Eating was an outing and a way to pass the time, and I would sit at a beachside restaurant eating BBQ Baracuda or some equally delicious snack and watching the evening thunderstorm blow in from the sea. I took no photos; it was a camera vacation. I’d’ve loved to have gone to Otres Beach and spent the day, but there was no traveling; it was an inadvertent touring vacation too. And in sharp contrast to other locales, there are no stories; it was a blog vacation. Normal programming will return in Siem Reap.

Phnom Penh Expedition

Friday, June 06, 2008

The trip from Laos to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh was a disaster. Oh, it could’ve been worse. Nobody was hurt, arrested, or even in peril. But, for the price we paid, it should’ve been so much better. First of all, let me put into perspective that an overnight trip on a bus with my own bed from Vientiane to Pakse cost about $20. My own bed! The shorter trip from Don Det, on the Laos-Cambodia border to Phnom Penh cost $30, which in Asia is a massive difference. The start of the trip says it all: we were ferried off the island to wait for a minibus on the shore at 8 AM. This start time in spite of the fact that the minibus didn’t arrive until almost 9:30, which meant a one hour and fifteen minute wait. Why not leave at 9? It’s no wonder the trip was (supposed) to take 8 hours. In fact, it would be much longer than that, but by the end we were thankful to have made it at all.

The next stop was the border crossing. The Laos officials wanted a dollar to stamp my passport, which is ludicrous. I already paid over $40 to get my visa and enter the country and these guys are paid to stamp my passport. This $1 was to their beer fund, and while it’s really not much, it’s the principle. And really, I don’t need an exit stamp from them, so I quite unequivocally told them “No”. I was first off the bus to the immigration booth and others likewise refused. We stood there and they had nowhere to be so they held our passports and started blankly. Then the others started cracking and soon we had all paid our bribe to get our passports stamped. Next stop was getting a Cambodian visa, a $30 proposition. Again, these are exorbitant amounts by local standards already. $30 is two days accommodation, food, drink, and transport. In Canadian terms, it would be like paying about $350 to enter the country. And again, after buying my visa, another $1 to have it stamped and actually make it valid. And then to the border crossing, where it was, yup, another $1 to get the stamp to actually enter the country. Bribes, bribes, and bribes. Imagine coming home and the customs official saying that everything seems in order, but you’d better slip him $20 under the table or you weren’t getting anywhere. He’d just hold on to your passport and you’d be stuck in limbo.

On the other side of the border, after a 30 minute wait, we got into another minibus. And we were crammed in. The bus had a double bench and then a fold up third captain’s seat spaced about 20cm from the other two. In these three seats they squeezed four of us. So it was that I sat half on my seat half in the air gap next to an Asian guy (he didn’t pay a cent for the trip, incidentally) who fell asleep on me for the next couple hours. Then a stop, again, in Strung Treng, where we again sat around waiting for another hour. So far we’d spent more time waiting than driving, and it was getting pretty annoying. Finally we left. I tried to sit in the front, thinking that if we were going to suffer because they oversold their seats, then the staff of the company should be the first to get sardined. I had a bit of an argument with the ‘guide?’ that sat there which spilled into the whole van venting their anger at the minivan company. But it was getting us nowhere and we all knew it, so I went to the back and thankfully ended up in the only row with the correct number of people, having traded our extra space for some backpacks.

I don’t remember how many times we stopped, exactly, but one stop around eight at night was at the side of the road in front of a small shop. We all needed a good stretch at this point and piled out while, I presumed, the driver took a leak and his fat copilot some snacks. There was a terrific lightning storm in the distance and I got on the roof to watch it and get some photos. We’d stopped plenty and I definitely didn’t need a snack (though I did sneak off into the bushes). Then I realized the engine hood was up and went to have a look but was soon distracted by the local kids who were wanting photos. So I knew we had a radiator problem, but what exactly they did to fix it, no idea. Apparently, they had no idea either, for we were back at the side of the road with a smoking and smelly engine around 9:30. This time, there were no signs of civilization aside from the road we were on, although the blackness was thick enough to have hidden a city 20m in any direction. The radiator again. We were at the side of the road for almost two hours this time and I was helping as best I could. I managed to diagnose that the radiator was plugged and got a safety pin to clean the pressure valve. And then the driver mashed the end into the radiator block without mercy, then wondered why it didn’t fit. He’d splayed the end horribly. I had just about made it round again when he repeated this gesture. It was completely destroyed and I thought it would be a long night crammed in that minivan. Then someone came by on a bicycle with proper tools and managed to chop the old end and peel back the valve to make a new end. Then, with some saran wrap to improve the seal, some water from the ditch to fill the radiator, we were back on the road again.

It was two minutes to midnight when we arrived, 16 hours after we’d set out on an 8 hour trip. We were grumpy, exhausted, and all settled for the place they dumped us – and never mind the commission they definitely didn’t deserve. One beer to celebrate an end to the journey and we were out like lights. The next morning I discovered just how disgusting my room was. The floor had not been swept in a long time and there were, well, lets just say that evidence of a good time was laying right on the floor by the headboard. As well, the windows didn’t quite lock, and I didn’t feel safe leaving my stuff in there. So I went guesthouse hunting and wound up at the Green Lake guesthouse, which seemed nicer and more social. Certainly the rooms were better, though they were $3/night instead of $2. And if you’re wondering about these prices being in dollars, yes, Cambodia does have a currency (ryet) but it uses it as coins for US currency which is what everyone uses for most transactions. Even the ATMs issue dollars and not ryet. Anyway, both guesthouses were right on a nice lake with the city on the horizon and it seemed like it would be a good place to lay back and read if a person got bored touring around.

I met a fairly nice tuk tuk driver and arranged a trip with two of the girls from the van ride to head out and see the killing fields and S-21, the high school turned detention/interrogation centre for the brutal Khmer Rouge at 2:00 when they reopened. I also arranged with a travel agent to get my Vietnam visa, which meant I would be in Phnom Penh until at least Friday, three days away. Then, off with Mah, our tuk tuk driver, to the killing fields. The Khmer Rouge was something like the Nazis, they imprisoned and killed millions in their efforts to wipe the country of people Cambodians, foreigners, people wearing glassed, and of course so-called ‘enemies of the state’. They were in power from 1975-79 and in that time millions were dead, brought to the countryside and murdered. The lucky ones were shot, but when ammunition became rarer and expensive, they turned to bludgeoning, swords, knives, and anything else that could be lethal. Soon, the executioners were unable to kill enough people per day (300 is a lot of sword swinging) and detention areas were built. The killing fields where they died are now largely exhumed, leaving pits scarring the land and a monument filled with skulls in the middle.

If the Khmer Rouge is the Nazis, then Pol Pot (born Saloth Sar) is their Hitler. The atrocities he committed, especially as his manic paranoia set in should never be forgotten, but I find it sad that even though he lived more recently than Hitler, I had never heard the name until reading up on Cambodia for my trip. What’s more, he didn’t find a quiet bunker and a gun, he fled to Thailand where he lived in exile for almost 20 years. 20 years! Imagine Hitler being alive and well twenty years after World War 2. Unthinkable, but the Cambodians had to endure him living next door. He was finally brought to trial in 1998 but died before anything came of it. Not only that, but when the KR was ousted by the Vietnamese military in 1979, the UN granted the Cambodian seat to KR representatives and the US, Thailand, and China supported the Khmer in their guerilla war against the new government. When people ask me why they need to know about what’s where in the world, why that is so important, I am dumbfounded. First of all, why do you want to be ignorant? And secondly, it’s not so much knowing, say, the capital city as trying to understand the country and where it fits into the world that I think is important. How ANYONE, much less an entire government could back a murderous regime like this, so soon in the wake of Hitler especially, testifies either to unmitigated evil or complete ignorance of the country. Perhaps if something was known of these countries and the people that inhabit them, it would be harder not only to dismiss deaths as casualties of war but maybe, just maybe, the US would back a regime that had the good of its people at heart. Instead of people like Saddam, the Taliban, and so forth.

It is coincidental that I was at the killing fields on World Peace Day and a large ceremony with hundreds of monks was underway. If only peace were so easy as walking around a building three times chanting or clasping hands and praying. But I hope they got through all the same. Our next stop was S-21, Security Area 21, a high school converted into a detention and interrogation centre. It is a building of barbed wire and Spartan rooms, many with a single bed, a stained floor, and a somber black and white photo of a prisoner either dead or beaten and tortured severely. I don’t know why people come to see this, I don’t know why I was there, but I guess it’s a bit of a slap in the face. A reminder to be good because look at the horrible things that we are capable of. There were rooms full of faces, people checked in and never checking out. One woman holding a baby in her arms, looking with sad determination straight at the camera, her eyes shining. And then detention cells by the hundreds, private and public. Yes, I hope those monks pull it off alright.

The next day we got an early start and headed off to first to the Royal Palace. It is the royal residence and understandably large parts are unavailable to the public, but the throne room where coronations take place was visible and impressive, as was the silver pagoda. Here’s a place where the entire floor is solid silver, there is a Baccarat crystal Buddha sitting on a small throne of his own, and a life-sized solid gold Buddha studded with over 2000 diamonds, some weighing up to 25 karats. Our next stop, The National Museum of Antiquities, had a hard act to follow and scarcely tried. The antiquities themselves were nothing to write home about: assorted coins, pottery, clothing, and statues from a long ago age. But the building itself was quite beautiful with its red walls and central courtyard, presumably to escape antiquity overload. No, it wasn’t solid gold or adorned in diamonds, but it was beautiful in its way.

It was midday and hot, shirt-drenchingly hot. Back to the guesthouse for lunch in the shade and the cool breeze off the lake, and then I thought I’d escape the heat and maybe catch the new Indiana Jones movie in a theatre. After a lot of driving around, the joke was on me. There is no English theatre in Phnom Penh, nor even theatres showing Hollywood movies. Those are pirated and watched in the guesthouse. If you want to have a cinema experience, you’d better be fluent in Khmer. It turned out I wasn’t, so I wandered around despite the heat, looking at landmarks, making my way up to a modern (air conditioned) shopping centre, then the central market for a pair of aviators that look so cheesy (gold rims) that my last pair look absolutely classy. Sophisticated even. I can’t wait to show you. I continued my 5 km walk back to the guesthouse and stopped for some street food and sugar cane juice, which didn’t look like much but was surprisingly good – especially the sausage! And finally, home again for dinner, internet, and visiting with others travelers. I had my Vietnamese visa the next day and decided I needed to see a beach before doing Angkor Wat properly, so I slipped my bus ticket to Shianouk Ville in between my Vietnamese and Chinese visas and spent my final night happy that my next two months were now set and tomorrow would be spent on the beaches of Cambodia.

Phnom Penh Photos

Don Det, 4000 Islands, Laos

Monday, June 02, 2008

A blinding flash of lightning off to starboard lit all but the furious clouds from which it sprang. They seemed to gather more darkness from the exchange and spilled higher into the sky as, less than a second later, an explosion of thunder drowned even the sound of the struggling motor. What probably saved us was that the rain had not yet broke; it was as though, like us, the storm was battling to get upstream on the Mekong River, perhaps surrounding us completely before unleashing its army of droplets upon us. I sat in the front of a small wooden boat that threatened to capsize if I so much as leaned my head to either side, a boat that seemed unequal to the task of navigating so mighty a river much less in the midst of nature’s fury. I was alone save the driver, whose expression said that even the double fare he had taken to bring me out was not worth it. And then the wind struck from nowhere and our boat teetered precariously as I grabbed my backpack to save it from tumbling overboard. Wind whipping, motor whining, and thunder roaring, we neared the river island of Don Det. Sitting at the front of the boat like a seasoned veteran with no trace of civilization, I was definitely on an adventure. We arrived without incident on Don Det, where there are plenty of traces of travelers come, gone, and presently dining, an island among 4000 in a place where the Mekong River sprawls some 15km wide. I stepped onto land, looked up the muddy slopes broken by fallen logs, and smiled.

It had been a bit of an effort to arrive here, even discounting the boat trip. I left Tadlo and the Bolaven Plateau at about 10:30 in the morning after some backpack zipper difficulties and breakfast with a local who couldn’t speak any English but kept grabbing my arm and smiling. Then, on the public bus down to Pakse, which I shared with some chickens, five other falang (foreigners), and locals, which arrived at noon. I wanted to kayak down the Mekong in three days and then just bring the kayak back, but I found nobody willing to rent me one. I also wanted to get to Si Pha Don (4000 Islands) and specifically Don Det in the south of Laos that afternoon, but there were no busses. I did discover that there was a songtiow (pickup truck with two benches along the back) leaving at 1:00, so I grabbed a quick lunch of Indian food and then went to get myself a tuk tuk. They were asking about 6 times what it was worth and hardly budging at all, so as time ticked I eventually found someone to take me for 20000 and sped there. We were about 6 minutes late and I worried that I would be stranded in Pakse overnight, but it turned out the last trip was at 1:30, so I had no problems.

I shared the truck ride with a pregnant woman, an elderly Cambodian woman who had moved to Laos, about five other locals, some small trees, two bags of fish, fruits (including durian), plants, and a week’s worth of supplies. It turned out to be the way to go; not only did we make good time, but it was cheap, and I had a bit of a conversation with the Cambodian woman in French. I alone was going to the islands at this hour and I took a motorcycle the last few kilometers to shore where I boarded the boat as the storm brewed. Then, finally, Don Det. I hunted quickly for a guesthouse as it was only a matter of time before the relentless rain started, finally settling on one for 20,000 as the rain started to pour. There’s no electricity here, either. They run generators from about 6:00 to 10:30 and that’s pretty much it. The island is a mixture of farmland, villages, and then the tourist village in the northeast corner, which itself is a mixture of guesthouses and restaurants – and two internet cafes. This is where I was and I went for dinner and had a quiet evening.

The next day, I would discover how little there is here. It’s pretty much a relaxation place, though there are hikes and bikes to explore the island and the larger neighbouring island of Don Khon. I just explored the town for a while and then took a walk down the Sunset path. I just wanted to go a short way and see what was there but I found myself just walking and walking until I was in the farmland and then I came across a freshly fallen tree across the path. The villagers were gathered around as a man with a machete cut it to pieces and distributed them among the children. The coconuts I could understand, but the spear-like palm leaves? I watched for a time and pressed on, until a little hello from beside me altered me to a companion. A young boy was walking along with me and I said hello, sa bai dee, back, and then he asked my name. His English was pretty good and we talked a little bit – though I think that he was just repeating what I said more often than not – and I tried to glean the purpose of the palm leaves. We walked along and encountered two of his friends, where we stopped. They had cut open their coconuts and one of the palm leaves, which apparently was food too.

And just then a woman came silently up the path right for us. Silently is not the right word, though. It implies stealth, which I doubt she had the calm to muster; we weer just too preoccupied to hear her. This woman did not sneak, she stormed up the path every bit as furious as the tempest of last evening, and with her tree branch in hand, whipped the young boy who’d followed me up the path along the back. There the silence was broken. She began screaming at him and whipping his with the branch and I sat there feeling helpless and guilty. Perhaps it was for talking to a foreigner, perhaps it was for running off and abandoning duty, perhaps it was for taking two coconuts. I wasn’t sure and could do nothing but watch as this woman with a pulsing red welt below her own eye chased the boy as he ducked under the fence. She would not look at me, but I could see in her face she wanted me and every other foreigner hung from the nearest tree. Not quite sure what my part in this was, but thinking that in some way I was responsible for this poor boy’s punishment, it put a damper on the walk and indeed the whole island. To put it mildly.

A little further on, the river was pooled with garbage, and my growing anger fed upon it. Normally I’m not one to photograph such things, but it seemed to represent all the things that were not good about these places. I’ve heard the excuse that since only a few generations ago, everything they had was from the land and decomposed, they treat plastics the same way. It’s westerners fault for introducing it to them. I think this is pandering nonsense. Any idiot looking at the spectacle of riverborne rubbish ought to be able to put two and two together and recognize that idly discarding things does not make them disappear. Yet, they continue. I had the locals cracking up on the truck here because I placed my empty Coke can under my seat rather than throw it over the side. It boggles my mind. Yet somehow, as I walked on, it helped me forget what was really bothering me, that angry woman and the little boy who’d only been friendly. Back to looking at fields being turned by ox and plough, water buffalo wading in rice paddies, and the perpetual storm always on the horizon here.

I made it around the island in a couple hours on foot and stopped my last stop at a small bakery run by an Aussie and with some pretty delicious fare. I spent a bit of time on the internet and even more time trying to help the proprietor restore the Language Bar on his computers – easy normally but there was something awfully glitchy going on. Then, out for Indian with Shamus and Willy and friends and, after the power died, to their bungalows with a Chilean guy that was hilarious and had a guitar for a bit of a singalong. The next day was much like this. I rented a bike and cycled Don Det up to a waterfall where I ran into some monks and all of us watched some crazy locals braving the raging rapids to fish. One misstep meant certain death with the full weight of the Mekong against the stubborn and unyielding rocks. I got caught in a thunderstorm along with two Korean girls and we had some fruit shakes and a chat while the storm continued and then back home. I booked my ticket to Cambodia. Although much closer to Siem Reap, the roads in Cambodia all go through Phnom Penh, the capital. Which is where I’ll be tomorrow, barring any unforeseen disaster (which did indeed befall us).

Don Det Photos