Monday, March 28, 2011

March 23 Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi (3 H club)

March 23, 24  Hoi An

Travelling here is smooth as long as you relax and trust people. That's easy if you're not on a tight budget like many of the 'real' backpackers are. (We met a young man from Ontario in MuiNe who told us he had $100 left and he was going to work at a disco to pay his way.)

The second we walked out of the train station in Danang a man approached us to ask if we wanted a taxi. "Yes, to Hoi An."  "Ten dolla in ten minute. sir. You wai hia." We told him we would wait at the coffee joint across the street. "Oh sir, too esspensih coffee. Go otta cona."

The other corner sidewalk was thronged with young men sitting on low plastic stools drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. VN pop music was blasting from the many speakers. We had ice coffee and in minutes a driver pulled up and whisked us away from the smoke and din.

We went to the An Huy Hotel where we had made a booking. No booking. "Maybe An Hui Hotel, sir?" We went there. No booking but they took us anyway.
I've made no effort whatsoever to learn Vietnamese, with the exception of 'thank you'. I know it's jingoistic or racist or whatever but it seems to me that there are too few words in the language.

Reading the signs everything looks the same to me! Huy, Hui, Hu, Hi. I guess if every word can have five tones and five meanings it's an economical language.

I have a new appreciation of how difficult it must be for VN to learn English with its hard consonants. "Fre mi" (fresh milk); "Co bia" (cold beer); "Toe" (toast); "Massa" (massage).

Hoi An is charming - lanterns, small shops, ancient temples, old wooden houses and a lovely river. It also has more tailoring shops than Kellogg's has corn flakes! Nancy and I had fun getting stuff made only to be disappointed with the stuff at home.

I'd been wearing the same wrap-around skirt for weeks so decided to have another made. (The weather was so hot in Cambodia, Saigon, Muine and Nha Trang that I couldn't wear some of the things I have with me.) Ian ordered two shirts. That afternoon the temperature dropped by many degrees and it started to rain. I guess I didn't need the skirt!

An ATM kept Ian's card. There were three phone numbers listed to contact. At the first number a man told him to phone another number. At that number Ian got a live person who hung up on him twice. It was Friday about 11:55 a.m. and being the pessimistic alarmists we are we figured we'd have to stay in Hoi An until Monday.

We decided to go to a real bank to talk to someone in person. The bank was about three meters wide (not just the entrance, the whole bank) and had a metal accordion grill across the entrance with a small opening to enter the bank. Inside, the lights were out. Two young men were at a desk near the entrance. One was lying on the desk and the other sat staring at us with a glum face (the phone hanger upper?)

Ian launched into his sad tale with the ATM ID#, the address, the time of the loss etc. The young man continued to stare. Finally, "Luntye. Come ba laita." (In my mind I was thinking, Monday?) He said "One o'clock."

And sure enough, at one o'clock there he was with Ian's card in his hand smiling, polite, almost chatty!! I guess the customer service mode is reserved for business hours.

March 25, 26 Hue

Me on the right in my new jacket and plastic poncho... brrrr

Be careful what you wish for - you may get it! I have been so hot. I didn't intentionally wish for cooler weather but it must have been in the back of my mind. We took a car to Hue through cold drizzle and fog.

South to North the towns are: Hoi An, Danang, over the mountain to Hue. In 2008 the strip of beach from Hoi An to Danang (China Beach of Vietnam war and American TV fame) was pretty much undeveloped. Now there are big resorts and casinos and a lot of construction of more. The driver told us that some of the development is Chinese. Meridien, Sheraton and the like.

It was Friday afternoon around 2:30 when we drove through Danang. It felt like early Sunday morning. The traffic was almost non-existent and we hardly saw a soul. Eerie.

Internet booking is not all it's cracked up to be in this neck of the world. We got to 'our' hotel and "No booky." It seems that one VN company might have several hotels but use one internet booking service, one address, one phone number. The hotel we booked was actually across the street but the guy said "You tay hea, I gi you sa pry." Why not?

Hue Palace - looking into an ancient urn

Hue was so cold and wet we decided to go to Hanoi the next evening. We had to pay cash for our tix at the travel agent. I said "The ATM will only give us 2,000,000 Dong ($100)." The agent said (more or less) "Do 2,000,000 then 2,000,000 then 2,000,000 etc" Doh! Why didn't we think of that?! The service charges might be big but ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

We took cyclos over to the market to buy jackets - genuine knock-off The North Face for $25 each - and socks for me. Then we were off to the Imperial Palace of the Nguyen dynasty. It's shabby but dignified. It's been bombed and restored many times.
There were many school children on outings. Some children were posing for a group shot for their teacher. I overheard a French tourist who was taking advantage of the pose say to them "Souriez pour la France!" I winced. It was France who bombed the palace in '47.

We went to La Residence Hotel (VN/Swiss) for lunch - sort of a birthday treat. The best part was that the hotel had heat!

March 27, 28  Hanoi
'Same Same but Different' is a common saying here. (I think it might refer to all the knock-offs that SE Asia is known for. Rolex anyone?) We had that experience with our hotel booking in Hanoi. The driver who picked us up said he was taking us to Hanoi View Hotel. We said we booked Prince Hanoi Hotel. "Same, same." ???

A traffic officer - a thankless job
The driver did not seem to be drunk (the driver in Hue smelled like Dean Martin on New Year's eve) but he drove on the white line between the lanes. Eventually he chose a lane and then accelerated to 110 kph. That doesn't sound very fast by Cdn standards but here!? I asked him to slow down. Within minutes we passed the first accident we've seen here. A motor scooter was crumpled in the middle of the lane. The driver looked at me like I had ESP!]

It turns out Hanoi View and Prince Hanoi are side by side and owned by the same company. They didn't have a room for us at the Prince so put us in the View for the night then moved us in the a.m. Egad!

We walked around the Old Quarter and went to the fancy-shmancy part of town. I found the IHT at the Metropole (paid for it this time!). Better luck with the puzzle, too. We had coffee and a sweet in a shop that made me think of Sweet Obsession - up-market with lots of women with their children.

All the old French colonial buildings - elegant, yellow with white trim, tall green shutters - have been taken over by the VN government. They are still yellow and white but now have utilitarian red signage with yellow writing and huge VN flags - red with a yellow star.
 Ian negotiating a crowded sidewalk

The French Quarter is only a small enclave serviced by wide boulevards.  The rest of downtown is a maze of narrow streets with motorbikes crowding both the road and sidewalks.

Look up and signs of an elegant past peek through the shabby storefronts and snake-pits of electrical wiring. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 15 Saigon

The only interesting thing about the bus ride to Saigon was the border crossing and even that was pretty smooth. The bus concierge or conductor or whatever the title handled everything. He collected everyone's passport. That was difficult for some farangs who've probably been told never to let their passport out of their sight. I could hear him patiently (with a minor bit of exasperation) explaining that it would be a lot easier for them if they let him handle things.

We were sitting beside a 60-65 ish American with motorcycle boots and a thin grey ponytail. At the border crossing he was pulled aside and held us up for about 15 minutes. When he finally got back on he seemed peevish and said "They know me here." Now what could that mean?

We arrived in Saigon on exactly the same street that Nancy and I stayed on in 2008 - Pham Ngu Lau. It's the 'backpacker area'. That means taxis, rickshaw's, travel agents, tour companies, cheap restaurants, bars, sidewalk vendors, massage joints/spas chock-a-block. Every bar and restaurant has one or more touts standing outside luring you into their place. Tense.

We are travel weary because neither of us really wanted to see a thing in Saigon! I told Ian about the War Remnants Museum but we both thought it was too grim. We walked to the old post office which I think is a very beautiful building - French Colonial.

We strolled around a nice park, had coffee and a crepe, watched the brides having their wedding photos taken. I couldn't bear the idea of going back to PNL street again. I saw a beauty salon and decided to get my hair cut. Ian left.

Before I could even sit down he was back and we each had shampoo, massage and hair cut. It certainly improved our collective mood. We actually hadn't realized we'd asked for the massage bit - in fact, I'm pretty sure we hadn't! But, oh what a treat. Shampoo, facial scrub, facial massage, head massage. Move to the vibrating tables and more massage. About an hour in all.

Then the hair cuts. The man who cut our hair, Mr. Vinh, is immigrating to Fredericton NB!! He loves Canada - "clean, green, quiet". I almost wept.

Mr. Vinh told us he has to have $300,000 to buy a business in NB whereas a business in BC would be $800,000. We talked about Cdn immigration. He was well-informed.

We ate at a Pakistani place that night. My few words of Urdu came in handy not for any practical reason but for diplomacy. The owner is from Pakistan as were a few other diners. He was thrilled we'd been there and could chat about this and that. He is actually from Kashmir ... "the Pakistani part." I realized that I feel more affection for South Asian culture that I do for SE Asian. I'll have to ponder that.

We left Saigon early in the morning. Well, not so early - 7:30 bus that left at 8:45!

March 17 - St Patrick’s day To Mui Ne

It must have been the luck of the Irish that kept us alive! I tried to keep my head down and focus on knitting (I’m on my second sock – not a match for the first sock). Every now and then Ian would look at the road and I usually heard a deep intake of breath and then “Oh fuck! That was too close.” It seems that passing another big bus and forcing oncoming cars onto the shoulder is SOP. Or, the other manouevre I marveled at was the car passing us on the right just as our bus driver pulled out to pass the big vehicle in front of us. I wondered how we’d merge in front.

We got off in a small beach town called Mui Ne. It’s very close to Phan Thiet where Reece went with his father. It’s a very long arcing strip of pale sand with lots of high end and low end ‘resorts’ along the shore and working class Vietnamese trying to make a living off of fishing and tourism.

The music in the open air restaurants was very annoying – but it seemed only to us! I can just see Frank rolling his eyes! Sometimes it was trance music and other times high-pitched Asian bubblegum pop.

We went to a little bar run by a French couple. They favored the trance music or improv jazz. But they were sweet and trying hard to make a go of it. Ian had some red wine which as usual came ice cold. He thought French people would be more ‘in the know’ about wine but when he asked she shrugged and said “I know, I know but ...?” I guess it has to be either too warm or too cold.

March 19, 20, 21   Nha Trang      

Ian described Nha Trang as the Acapulco of Vietnam. Well it is a city on a beautiful beach and it is a holiday destination for Vietnamese as well as foreigners. I’ve never been to Acapulco but from photos of it I’d say Nha Trang is way better. Maybe not for much longer as there is a fair bit of BIG hotel construction going on along the road in front of the beach. Thankfully the beach side of the road is being spared any construction.

It’s a beautiful city oceanside. There are frangipani trees, poinsettias, trees clipped into pyramid and cube shapes, coloured paving stones, sculptures and lots of happy people. There are a few cafĂ©/bar places along the beach – but low key places.

In the evenings around five o’clock the air cools considerably and people come out to stroll along the front. We saw people, mostly in their 50’s and 60’s doing exercise – qigong, calesthenics and jogging.

The Cruciverbalist Caper: On our first day in Nha Trang Ian went skin diving. Since it was Sunday I thought I’d try to find an International Herald Tribune Sat-Sun edition (for the NYT crossword). I knew from past experience that it can usually be found at hotels like the Crowne Plaza, Marriott etc. I walked all over town for the right kind of hotel with no joy. By 11:30 a.m. I was overheated and worn out.

Later I was telling Ian about my efforts and the lack of the right kind of hotel. He pointed and said “What about the Sheraton?” Gobsmacked I was! I didn’t feel optimistc but I could leave no stone unturned.

The Sheraton is on a corner with the main door on a side street and another on the beach road. We went in the main door. What austere, elegant emptiness. The lobby was enormous soaring three stories above us and with a tiny reception counter and an even tinier concierge counter. Both counters seemed to be suspended cream-coloured stone slabs. Behind the concierge desk was a beautiful smiling female VN automaton. A woman actually but rigid. I askd if there were any newspapers available. I tried French too (remember the good ol’ colonial days?). Her eyes darted back and forth – English, Vietmanese, French, Vietnamese. Finally, smile intact, she pointed far across the lobby to a woman in a black suit.

As we made the long journey across the lobby the black-suited woman walked out of sight. As we neared the spot where she had been we saw that it was the entrance to an austere, elegant bar. I thought the stuff on the counter was menus.  No! Be still my beating heart – the IHT!!

I picked it up thinking I’d ask to buy it or tear out the xword. Ian, in a complete departure from his usual ‘do the right thing’ stance said “Put it in your purse!” We snuck into a little alcove, I stuffed it in my purse and we scampered out the second door without seeing another soul! It’s true – addiction leads to property crime!

The puzzle was a difficult one (or I’m out of practice) and after three days I threw it out.


I’d made up my mind that I wasn’t taking anymore buses. The night train to Danang was full on Monday night so we had more time in Nha Trang. We went to the hotsprings for a mudbath a mineral soak and a foot massage. They tried to sell us a VIP private room with full body massage etc for $155. I can only imagine what hanky panky goes on in the VIP rooms.

We opted for a non-private deal. I wasn’t crazy about the mud part. They ran a tub for two with muddy water (or very watery mud) and we were supposed to sit in it for 30 minutes and then sit in the sun and dry out. I lasted about 20 minutes mudding and drying.

The we went to a mineral tub for two. The woman had a gallon thermos jug with her and when our tub was full she emptied the thermos which had boiled water and two softball sized herbal pouches. I sniffed and sniffed but I couldn’t tell what the herbs were.

She left us with instructions to sty there 45 minutes and then get up and put on the flimsy shorts and tank tops she left behind. She also left us some tangerines and water.

The tub was in a jungle environment, ficus, ferns eucalyptus, hibiscus. There was a bird or lizard that started out with a chirpy kind of sound that then turned into a creaking door sound.

The two women who showed up to do our feet were great fun. As Ian’s ‘therapist’ moved her hand up his thigh he gave me a furtive glance. The women didn’t miss a beat and in sign language with lots of hoots they made jokes about the male anatomy! Ian was very calm and cool about it. Then it was my turn. My gal reached over and rubbed my nipples. If I’m not mistaken she called them mosquito bites!

They asked if we wanted a full massage, not just feet. We hadn’t paid for that. “No worry madame. You pay us. But ssshhhh, no tell.” Then she dragged her finger across her throat like she’d get axed for taking our money.

This was the deal. The spa charges $6 for a full massage of which the masseur gets less than $1. Being one with the people we snuck the bills to them directly for a clandestine massage.

                                                                           * * *
An Asian pleasure I’ve always enjoyed is toothpicks. They’re on every table. Yesterday I noticed I was picking my teeth to the trance music! I have no idea how long I’d been at it when I ‘came to’.


Motorcycles and scooters are the primary means of transport. We stood on a corner looking at all the scooters going by with little children on them. I once saw a woman driving with one hand and holding an infant close to her chest.

Some people use a seat like a baby bar stool. The legs fit on the ‘floor’ of the scooter and the seat of the stool is about even with the seat of the scooter. The babies seem to have great balance and they know intuitively? not to move around. I guess they get nine months in utero training.

                                                                         * * *
Night train to Hoi An. A much better way to go especially with a little blue pill. We bedded down about 11:00 in a compartment with four berths – two up, two down. Our compartment mates were a VN woman going to a gender issues workshop and an older man.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March 7 Phenom Penh & Volunteer Work

Bus to PP. These places are set up for lazy tourists like us. We asked the guesthouse in Siem Reap to get us tix to PP. They did, the bus came and picked us up and off we went. Easy Peasy. Another unremarkable bus trip. Ear plugs of course to take the edge off the ‘entertainment’. Flat, dry, brown fields with the occasional small lake and rice paddies.

We arrived at a depot – another tourist convenience right on the quay near all the tourist hotels, restaurants and pastry shops! Immediately upon debarking we were approached by a tuk-tuk driver saying “Killing fields. Killing fields?” We put that particular site on hold and asked him to take us to the Silver River Hotel.

The SH had been recommended by some Canadians we met in Siem Reap. It has the most comfortable bed we’ve slept in since we left Kamloops St. About 10:00 on our first night there our room started vibrating to the beat from a disco two blocks away! We called the front desk and moved to the other side of the hall toward the front of the hotel.

The next day we met Sowathey (so-wa-TAY). She’s the marketing person from CMAC, the Cambodian Mine Action Centre. Ian contacted them to do some volunteer photography. He thought it was an NGO. It turns out that it is a national, public institution that employs 2000+ people to do landmine clearance and humanitarian development.

Sowathey picked us up in her Lexus SUV and took us to a riverside place for coffee. She had set up a three-day junket that entailed a five-hour trip back to Battambang! Battambang is the province close to the Thai border and is the most landmine-contaminated area of Cambodia. The plan was to set off at 7:00a.m. the next day.

Ten o’clock the next morning we were still waiting in the lobby! The driver had to get petrol authorization etc etc.. Finally we were off on a very hair-raising drive. A two lane road, no central markings, no shoulder markings, sometimes no shoulders, bicycles, motorcycles, tractors, bullock carts, tuk-tuks, motorcycles hauling all manner of wheeled thing, cattle on the loose, dogs, huge trucks, chickens, some cars and lots of suv’s. There are no traffic rules as we know them so people drive either way on both sides of the road, enter traffic whenever the spirit moves them, stop on the road to chat to another driver.

At one point Ian asked the driver to stop so he could take a picture. He stepped about 3 metres off the road and then someone said “Don't go any further. We don't know if it's safe.” 

When we got to B’bang we went immediately to the mechanical maintenance and repair place. CMAC has some big equipment – de-miners, brush cutters, diggers, trucks etc – that need to be maintained. Ian clicked away and I tried to look useful. 

We were put up at the swankiest hotel in B’bang, owned by the governor. We had a bed big enough to sleep a small village.

Seven o’clock the next day we set off for the field.  After about an hour of hell on wheels we pulled onto a quiet dirt road and I gave a sigh of relief. Too soon.

The dirt road skirted the top of a lake. It had rained recently and the huge potholes were filled with water. Other parts of the road were washboard-like. It was a very slow, rough ride. I was sitting in the middle of the back seat and I hit the roof a few times.

First stop – mine risk education session with some villagers, all in Khmer, of course.  I thought the teacher was very good. He engaged the people, had them participating and laughing. He was holding a poster showing several types of landmines and UXO’s (that’s unexploded ordnance). “Some of them are long, some short, some small, some big but they’ll all hurt you.” The older women called out and there was a lot of tittering from the young women. 

Then interviews with landmine victims, Mr. Chann and Mr. Chor. They spoke about being unable to use the land. I thought of that line ‘Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.’ The land is unsafe to cultivate.

It took Ian awhile to set up for Mr. Chann – in the shade, good background etc. Finally he started the interview. After he started I noticed that he'd set up right beside a small mesh enclosure that was cheep-cheep-cheeping away. There were about 30 tiny chicks or ducklings penned up. I groaned to myself thinking we'd have to start all over. (Doing everything in 2 or 3 languages with many opinions and suggestions is tiring.)The cheeps didn't register on the recording at all.

Ian took a lot of pix after the video shoot. At one point he said “I'll just shoot Mr. Chann's mother.” I thought “I hope she's not his wife!” A good thing about a language barrier.

Next up was Mr. Chor a farmer who lost his lower leg to a landmine when he was in his twenties, gathering wood in the forest. He has the most peaceful, happy face. 

It took awhile to get the right shirt for him to wear. Ian was shooting against a weathered wooden barn and Mr. Chor was wearing a weathered grey shirt. Finally his son donated his shirt to the production.

The afternoon was spent at a minefield. Actually it was a cleared minefield that the de-mining platoon set up as a demo for Ian to shoot. The best part for me was seeing Casey and Jenny, MDD's. That's Mine Detection Dog. They are Alsatians that have been bred for mine detection.

Actually, the dogs were the second best part. The best part was that I got to blow up an anti-tank mine! Grrrr!!

The platoon had found and excavated the mine the week before. They 'planted' it 300 metres from the platoon station and fed a wire from the mine to the detonator at the station. The platoon leader made a fuss about honoring me and asking me to blow it up. Very weird. I didn't know what to expect despite many Hollywood movies. Even at 300 metres it was very loud and reverberated in my belly. Huge plumes of black smoke shot about 20 metres into the air.

The de-miners cheered and the platoon leader thanked me. He said “You did a very good thing today. You saved many people's lives.”  I thought that was gracious because they did all the work, that day and everyday.
I forgot to mention lunch that day. The inevitable sour fish soup and rice and then an added treat – chicken innards, gag. We both passed on the innards.

On the life-and-death car ride back to Phnom Penh Ian said in passing that it would be good to get more shots of landmine victims – people with visible disabilities. (It seems almost everyone in the landmine affected areas is a victim in one way or another.) In a flash, Sowathey made a few phone calls and we were off to a rehabilitation centre. We had about 30 minutes to spare before we had to go interview Sowathey's boss!

A lot of the people who work at the centre are amputees. They make prostheses and wheelchairs.

We saw one young woman who was having a special leg prosthesis made so she could wear high heels at her wedding next year! That was an eye opener for Sowathey who is also getting married soon. She said “I never thought about disability and fashion before.” That lead to some discussion about the psychology of disability, blah, blah, blah.

We were 'fractured' when we got back to the Silver River that night. I was so fractured I needed a 3 hour massage the next day!! It was actually a body scrub (black sesame seed and orange), an oil massage and a facial. I also felt a strong retail urge and bought a beautiful silk blouse for home. It's too beautiful for the hot, steamy tropics.

The next day, Sunday, we were off on another volunteer job. Ian was shooting stills for the Cambodia Save the Children. This time we really did leave at 7a.m.

Ian shot a meeting of the women's collective, the children's club and then some income-generating projects. We were in Takeo province, 2 hours south of PP. There are no landmines in Takeo, or so they say. It seems more prosperous,

There are huge cultivated rice fields and lots of livestock. (I thought of a line Pat's songwriter friend Kate could probably use '...the dykes between the paddies').

The StC projects are coordinated by committees located in the local pagodas. Of course there is a monk or two on each committee. We stopped to pick up a couple of monks to ease our way into the people's homes. (We had a StC person with us, of course, but she isn't 'local' enough.)

Both monks had long, delicate fingernails – Diana-Ross-long (now that dates me!!). I couldn't stop looking at them! I asked one of the monks “You study the dhamma?' He said “Everyday.” Then he added with a tired sigh and a sweet laugh “Every night.” Maybe he's not long for the sangha!

Our last day in PP was spent having lunch with Sowathey at the Metro. Our dishes – Peking duck pancakes, seafood fettucine and salade Nicoise. With Australian wine of course. There are a lot of upscale places in PP.

The saddest for last – the killing fields. A quiet park-like memorial to the many people who were tortured and executed by the Khmer Rouge. Cheong Ek is the name of the place and the memorial.

The rags of the victims still litter the grave sites.
It is a focal point for the ghosts of Cambodia but I felt their presence everywhere we went. I thought about them every time I saw a Khmer over the age of 50.

Monday, March 7, 2011

February 26: Bangkok to Cambodia

Bangkok again

The rigamarole with MAI caused us to forget to book a room in BKK. We called the place where our excess baggage was stored (yes, we brought too much stuff with us – no surprise!) was full. I said to Ian, “Let’s just go to the old TT Guest House.”  I stayed there in 1989. A step down is an understatement! For $8 you get a clean room, freshly painted, a fluorescent ceiling light, a fan, two beds with one clean sheet each, shared bathroom with squatters. A budget traveler’s delight.

We met an Australian woman on the bus into the city from the airport. She told us she was staying at the Check Inn in Chinatown. One night in TT was enough so we headed over here. It’s a great improvement and considering that I have another intestinal upset it’s good that the toilet is only 15 feet from the bed! A Lomotil day!

The woman on the bus – Mardi – is a force to be reckoned with. Intense, expansive, voluble, effusive, an eternal traveler. Her husband works in Kathmandu where she spent the winter with him. She’s just taking a time-out to get warm on a beach somewhere.

We spent a bit of time walking around Chinatown - a completely different experience of Bangkok from our previous stop there.

Beauty treatment on the street

Chicken strips?

Mangling squid

Jewelry seller

Keeping in touch with customers?
Real Gems anyone?

What am I reading?

Thanks to Robert and Cari who recommended some geographically correct novels. We’ve read Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo – contemporary Bangkok detective stories. Humour, mystery, social and political commentary. A nice antidote to all the temples and chanting etc.

Two novels set in Vientiane by Colin Cotterill – Thirty-three Teeth and Anarchy and Old Dogs. Again detective stories with a comic spiritual twist.

Burmese Days by George Orwell – the good ol’ British colonial days in the country formerly known as Burma.

The Heir to the Glimmering World  by Cynthia Ozick. I didn’t finish it – it’s a ‘book of ideas’ whatever that means. It required more attention than I was able to give it. But I’m curious about the author – a Jewish scholar. I don’t know if she would call herself that. She’s written tons, lots of nominations and awards. Someone to keep in mind.

The Other Side of You  by Sally Vickers of Miss Garnet’s Angel fame. Love, death, suicide, psychotherapy, art history, Caravaggio, Rome. Fabulous!

Side-Tracked by Henning Mankell – a grisly murder mystery.

Bangkok to Siem Reap by train and boat

The train left BKK at 5:55 a.m.! It was a pretty unmemorable train ride. Flat, dry, rural landscape. I think after the rainy season it would be green and lush.

The border crossing was interesting! The train arrived in Aranyaprathat at 11:30 a.m. and was met by a bevy of tuk-tuk drivers eager to take foreigners to the border. We got a woman driver – the first I’ve seen here.

We’d read a bit in the guidebooks about Thais trying to make a little profit from the border. In its usual alarmist way, Lonely Planet sets up paranoia in the minds of travelers. “Beware, beware, they’re after your money!” It worked! When our tuk-tuk driver stopped at a shabby, little roadside stand to buy our visas we were on guard! No way! Take us to a ‘real’ visa office. So we drove 50 metres down the road to a big, white, building with a gold sign saying ‘Cambodian blah, blah, blah” and we were happy. I think we still paid $10 extra for our visas but we liked the shiny building!

Visas in hand, we approached the border. We disembarked from the tuk-tuk and started walking in the direction she pointed. It seemed a long way. There were lots of people going in both directions – Thais, Cambodians and all manner of white folk. Eventually we got to a relatively ‘official’-looking building. It was the Thai exit point. Line up, passports stamped, and on we went. Then it was the health ‘inspection’ which consisted of us completing a smaller-than-postcard-size pink questionnaire. No, no, no, tick, tick, tick. (I know, I lied about the Lomotil day). In exchange for the pink slip a man gave us a yellow slip telling us we might encounter unfamiliar infectious agents in Cambodia. Doh!

Another longish walk and finally we reached a place where we were shunted through a narrow corridor arriving in front of a wicket with four very serious, uniformed men armed with rubber stamps! At last, the Immigration, Border Services, whatever they’re called. We’re in!

A Cambodian ‘welcomer’ befriended us and helped us with the next step – finding transport to our first Cambodian destination – Battambang. We thought he was just another driver or hotel tout but in fact he was legit. I guess so many tourists enter Cambodia there on the way to Angkor that Cambodia has created this job. He got us onto a free shuttle bus (along with a group of six or seven Americans with surf boards!) to the bus station where we got a bus to Battambang.


We followed up on Juanita and Ron’s tip about cooking lessons at the Smokin’ Pot, a restaurant /cooking school operation. There were 2 Australians, 2 Czechs, 2 Icelanders, 1 Spaniard and us. Vannak is the owner/cook/teacher. 

The lesson started at 8:30 a.m. with a trip to the market. I was still feeling queasy so I averted my eyes a lot.

We made three dishes – chicken Amok, a coconut-based dry dish; beef Lok Lak, a peppery stir-fry; and hot and sour soup.

Chop! Chop! Chop!
Ian worked away at making a video for Vannak...

The boat to Siem Reap

There were about thirty of us aboard, mostly foreigners but a few Cambodians. There were two Cambodian women with very young children. I was amazed at how happy and well-behaved the babies were – no crying or fussing.

The river is very shallow this time of year and we were pushing through the mud often. Ian checked out the back end of the boat and said there is some kind of ‘plough’ in front of the propeller. I’m not sure I have that quite right. There are a lot of water hyacinths growing in the water and they clog up the waterway as well.

As we chugged along the man and woman in front of us suddenly started yelling. The man was jumping out of his seat like his ass was on fire. A catfish, caught up in the waves the boat was making, leaped out of the river right into the French man's lap! The seats were small and he had very long legs so he was having a time getting onto his feet and getting the catfish out of his lap. Once it was on the floor one of the Cambodian women calmly and skillfully picked it up and tossed it overboard.

During the voyage we passed many floating villages. Some were just a small number of shacky dwellings but others were more substantial with shops, schools and even Cambodian People’s Party ‘offices’. At times the skipper would slow down and one of the Cambodians would disembark onto a tiny, narrow, flat boat being paddled by someone squatting on the stern. Usually the disembarkee also took two or three large, heavy, plastic mesh bags. I was holding my breath waiting for one of the little boats to capsize!

The last leg of the trip was going upstream against a fast current. The skipper had to gun the engine to keep control of the boat. I was looking toward the side of the boat when I saw this tiny plank-like boat with a woman and child aiming straight for the side of our boat. The child was standing up! Just as they were about to collide the girl leaped onto our boat with a basket over her arm and her mother veered off!! “Col bia, two dolla!” We bought a couple as did the big guy from Boulder and then she was off again as fast as she came. Her Mom sped toward our boat and the beer seller leaped back onto the plank as it veered away!

At the boat dock, before we could get off the boat, we were accosted by a motor-mouth tuk-tuk driver with a high-pitched Cambodian-Australian accent. But, Buddha knows how, he won us over and he’s our-man-in-Siem-Reap. He drove us to our guesthouse and we made a deal for him to drive us around the sites while we’re here.

The ancient Kingdom of Angkor

We spent three days visiting the ancient sites of Angkor. We were least impressed with Angkor Wat, surprisingly. More on that later.

Ta Prohm stands out. It is an old monastery that has been left in the ruined, jungle-ravaged state in which the French ‘discovered’ it in the 19th century. Ravaged is not entirely true because there is a lot of conservation work being done in coop ventures - currently with India and Cambodia. So I guess the jungle-ravaged state is being conserved!

We went early in the morning when the light is soft and enhances the colours in the old stone. We met an American man who was setting himself up on a piece of rubble to do a drawing. We talked about the light and the jungle growth mingling with the old stone.

Fairly soon, by 8:30, the place was crawling with people. It is a joy to see such a sacred site but I think within a few years Cambodia will need to impose some limits to the amount of tourism. Ian was shooting with a tripod and he said he could feel considerable vibration as people walked by on the raised wooden walkways.

I tried to keep all the facts clear in my mind – what century, which king, which religion, what style. After a while I gave up and simply gazed and admired.

Bayon was another big hit with us. The various kings just built monument after monument cheek-by-jowl. It was easier than demolishing the previous ones. The books refer to ‘temple mountains’ – simply tall narrow religious monuments that represent Mount Meru (centre of the universe, home of the gods in Hindu mythology). 

The cardinal directions and the natural elements play a big role. All the temple mountains have faces carved in them looking in all four directions. All the faces look the same and were modeled on the king of the time. We saw many Cambodians who looked just like the carvings.

This young woman was working at a food stall near one of the ruins. She says she wears long sleeve tops so her skin won't get more brown. "When I am a rich woman I will make my skin white."

I told her she was beautiful and smart. (She has learned to speak English simply by listening to tourists.) She had a hard time believing it. She said she'd never heard anyone say anything like that to her before.

Modern living in ancient Angkor

On our first day we went to a landmine museum. It was very sobering and profoundly sad. I had been feeling glum since the day before after witnessing the squalor and extreme poverty along the river. I could hardly speak without getting a hard lump in my throat and welling up with tears.

The man who started the museum was a child soldier from the time he was about ten (he doesn’t know his age, birth date, parents). He laid countless mines and killed many people in his struggle to survive. He is in his forties now and is working hard to ‘rebalance his karma’. That’s my take on it. He doesn’t use those words. He has become an expert in defusing mines, He and his wife have an orphanage for landmine victims. The museum has a Canadian connection – Paul Martin, Donica Pottie, Cdn Ambassador to Cambodia and a Cdn photojournalist whose name I’ve forgotten (Richard Fotussi?) were listed as supporters and champions for the anti-landmine cause.

Something we saw each of the three days we visited ruins were bands of musicians playing traditional Khmer music. The musicians were all landmine victims – some amputees, some blind, some burned. They had CD’s for sale. We bought one on Day 1, one on Day 2 and on Day 3 we said “Enough is enough!”  Because of Ian’s ‘job’ with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre he did a lot of videoing of the bands.

Our tuk-tuk driver turned out to be a blessing. He was reliable, punctual, helpful, intuitive. His story is heart-breaking. I know I’m a sucker for a sad story and I’m aware that this might not all be true. But if it’s not his story I’m sure it’s someone’s. Ponlouk has three of his own children and he and his wife take care of her sister’s five boys. She died of HIV and her youngest son who is five is HIV+.

What was the problem with Angkor Wat? It’s magnitude and location are impressive, not only the temple but also the imagined city that existed around it. The moat is huge and the approach to the temple is grand. But the overall experience for us wasn’t as intriguing as the other sites.

The exterior walls of the temple are covered in bas relief depicting stories from Hindu mythology. We had fun, with the aid of our guidebook, picking out the various scenes and gods. There are 1200 square metres of carving!

We had a nice meal at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) – not a club at all, just an upscale expat and foreign tourist place. There’s one in Phnom Penh also. A couple of martinis, good food, a bottle of wine. Of course we got into a discussion about the disparity between rich and poor, the role of NGO’s, ethical tourism, ethical journalism. It’s hard to get away from the hard issues here – much as I’d like to try once in awhile.

We took a bus to Phnom Penh yesterday and now we await the next adventure!