Wonderful South East Asia – Part III

I enjoyed my short stay in Siem Reap but I think that if one is to come this far, then one must go to Phnom Penh, the capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia. I was fortunate enough to share the 3 hour cab ride with a woman from Ireland going to Langkawi in Malaysia, via
Cambodia?  She was stopping over in Phnom Penh for 1 day and we spent the day seeing some of the sights – Silver Pagoda, Royal palace and the museum, before rounding off the day with an evening at the FCC and a restaurant off the Sisowath Quay. I was prepared for Phnom Penh, knowing something about the history of Cambodia in the second half of the 20th century and having read up on the capital of today – Gordon Sharpless being a very good recommendation. But I was still a little unsure of what to expect, given the poverty. Anyway, to the uninformed, Phnom Penh will come as a bit of a shock, with very obvious problems throughout the city. Despite this, the people are remarkably friendly and will not get in your face. There are also some top end hotels near the river – my temporary travel companion stayed in one at $120 per night. I opted for something much much cheaper. The most memorable sights, in my opinion, are Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and Psar Thmei, the big central market. I would also recommend hiring a motodup to take you around the city in the early evening, just to get a feel for the city at night. It is probably not a good idea to walk around the city at night though as holds ups in the street do happen, and usually it is other Khmers that are the victims. But I know I would not like a gun pointed at me in any situation. Psar Thmei is an art deco building functioning as a central market place and is really quite a bizarre sight in the city and well worth a look. The genocide museum is an upsetting experience and almost surreal given its proximity in the middle of the city. I would recommend using a guide there too as it is more than likely that they have lost family to the Pol Pot regime and can give you a better idea of the situation in
Cambodia during the 70’s.

There was a rather spooky moment when the guide and I walked into one of the rooms with the beds. I think it was A block, each room having a single bed in the middle, the room depressingly bare with a large photo picture on the wall showing the dead prisoner, as found at the time by the Vietnamese. There is a window facing and one can make out the lush green life outside. I was looking at the bed and the shackles resting on it when the door to the room slammed shut with an almighty bang. I instinctively looked at the guide and she had an expression in her eyes that made me think she was thinking what I was thinking. But it is just for a moment.

I found the photo rooms pretty upsetting to the point were I had to compose myself a few times at risk of looking like an idiot. Face up on face with ranges of expressions. But one realizes that out of the madness of the Pol Pot regime that the Khmer Rouge kadres themselves were victims, living in the climate of fear and suspicion that was all pervasive. Children were indoctrinated and brainwashed to hate and dehumanize their fellow Khmers and their own parents, as older generations harboured memories and ideas that were not compatible with the new Cambodia. I can’t imagine living in constant fear of my own thoughts.

I decided before going to Cambodia that I would not see the killing fields. Simply because I do not want to see displays of human skulls if I can help it. In my humble opinion I believe that the skull cabinets of Choung Ekh and Toul sleng represent a final and enduring indignity to those that died under Pol Pot rule. While it is argued that it is necessary to drive home the horror and bring in much need tourism revenue, it goes against the traditional laying to rest of people of the land, which to my understanding is in accordance with Buddhist traditions, that of cremation. There are a lot of wandering souls in
Cambodia today I would think.

At the same time, Toul sleng is a necessary reminder of the horror, and needs to be preserved, much like Auschwitz is today. Unfortunately, it is struggling for funding.

Coming out of Toul Sleng one will be accosted by many beggars, missing limbs and some with horrible disfigurements – a poignant reminder and legacy of the mayhem of the 70’s. To a privileged outsider Cambodia can be a grounding country, it reconciles your soul and spirit and reminds you of what it really means to be a human being, revealing strength and ugliness and also reminds you of your privilege. It is this that you take away with you when you leave Cambodia. It is not about feeling sorry for people or indulging in pity, it is about seeing the strength and resilience of human beings and how they come out at the other end, despite the horror, and usually smiling.

I am not sure about the nightlife in Phnom Penh. The first night I stayed in the Boddhi tree guesthouse, which closes at 9 pm. Having left the young lady I spent the day with I returned quite late, but the staff sleep in hammocks out in the courtyard and let me in. I found this to be the case in Siem Reap too.

The next night was spent at an Irish guesthouse, and an excellent choice, a kind of oasis for the expat community. The owner ended up taking me to some bars with his wife after he shut up bar. But the Irish whiskey we had been drinking at his bar only gave me a hazy recollection of being, at one point, in Howies bar and a very late rise the next day. There are some popular bars dotted about but I am not brave enough to visit these on my own and besides, I am not sure it is wise to do so anyway. I read in a Cambodian news paper, Phnom Penh Post I think, an online English version with a story headline ‘man shot with rifle during snooker game’??? Only in Cambodia!

Next stop Vietnam…

Vietnam is an 8 hour bus ride taking you into Ho Chi Minh City. The bus ride itself reveals beautiful rural Cambodia and I had the good fortune of sitting near an American couple, who struck me as very hippie. I could imagine these two protesting in the late 60’s against the US occupation of Vietnam. It is funny because I have spoken to Americans that would not dream of visiting Vietnam because they have this entrenched notion of hostile, subterranean, almost inhuman people that hate Americans. I think they have been watching too much Oliver Stone stuff. They need to get their arses over there and experience the country and the people – they won’t forget it and won’t regret it. Neither did this couple, who had been all over and go every year. They gave me some good hints on what to do in Saigon, and when we were saying our farewells, I was given a very motherly ‘be safe’ parting shot from the good lady.

I was only in Saigon for 4 days and loved every minute. I stayed in a hotel near the Benh Thanh market and had only been in the city for an hour before I summoned a cyclo to take me to the war museum and reunification palace. The war museum is definitely worth a look, and it is obvious that the Vietnamese are very proud, and quite rightly so, and yet do not lord it over anybody. Time and time again you will see examples of Vietnamese ingenuity and practical mindedness. The people work hard and work long into old age. The cyclo driver is approaching his seventies and when I come out the war museum I find him asleep, and boy did I have a time waking him. Other cyclo drivers were laughing, it was highly amusing.

Off to reunification palace, a grand building that seems frozen in the Thieu/Nixon era of the late 60’s and early 70’s. It is luxurious and there are guides that will take you all around through the kitchens and the various entertaining rooms. The most interesting part is the lower levels, the bunkers and the war offices. It is very cheap to visit and a must do.

Getting around Saigon is easy as pie, and I did most of it on foot, at least the central districts, of 1 and 3. Just get hold of a simple map from your hotel. I went a bit further across the Saigon River which reveals a more local Vietnam – at least that is how it appeared to me.

Le Duan Boulevard

is like one long lovers lane at night with many young couples kissing and hugging under the shade of the trees, with motorbike parked up close. I felt like a bit of a voyeur as I made my way up the long central part of the avenue. At the end of it I seemed to stumble into some sort of commemoration, young men with red t-shirts emblazoned with gold star baring torches that were yet to be lit. A t.v crew was poised to film them walking into a ground with a stage. People were seated waiting and people were also queing. I walked passed them and was not stopped. But I was only curiously observing.

A young chap passes me and thrusts a flyer into my hand advertising a burger joint. I ask him what is going on and he tells me he doesn’t know. 10 minutes later the same guy turns up with a girl, she is also dressed in a red t-shirt and is part of the commemoration I guess. She attempts to explain what is going on but it is difficult to hear now, as the music has started and people are taking position on stage. I was happy that the guy had taken the trouble to help me out and it made me feel a welcome guest.

Before I went to Vietnam I never would have associated with it coffee. I always associated coffee with Brazil but coffee is one of Vietnam’s biggest exports. Another merit of travel is that is blows away the cobwebs of ignorance. Anyway…Vietnamese coffee…what can I say…except wow!  Once you have it there is no going back….and if you do go back it is only because you cannot get the Vietnamese stuff!

The food in Vietnam is also excellent, the noodle soup in particular. It is simple and kept me going for hours, I guess it is another indication of the Vietnamese way of doing things, with simplicity and effect. This brings me to the restaurants off the Ben Thanh market. These restaurants are literally thrown up, when the main market closes, complete with lighting, fans and mobile kitchens and dismantled just as easily. It is an experience that I would recommend and one can eat a delicious meal and drink a cold beer while watching the street market traders and throngs of tourists passing by. The restaurant packs out quickly and the food is good and cheap.

I avoided the main city bars, and went to drink outside in the local pavement bars, drinking locally brewed beer while sitting on tiny plastic stools that stand at a mere foot in height. I guess this is for stealth drinking and one gets the feeling that he shouldn’t really be doing it in the street. I would walk down the street and be beckoned over by a couple of old men offering a shot glass of banana wine. I did not understand them and they did not understand me but we understood each other as we raised and clinked glasses. I though to myself I bet these guys could tell me a few stories, before making my way to a street bar situated not far from my hotel. I killed some time drinking with a couple of local Vietnamese before hitting the hotel. I wanted to go on the
Mekong river cruise the next day.

If you do anything when in Saigon, do the Mekong Delta tour. It is a cheap and a excellent day out and the Delta is wonderful. The boat trips through the mangrove swamps give you a feel of the more familiar more stereotypical vision of Vietnam that we see on our screens. The tour includes a lunch menu of snake, eel and elephants ear fish and these are sold in kg or half kg portions. Be warned, the lunch is very expensive in relation to the cost of the tour and will most likely cost 3 or 4 times the cost of the tour itself, so avoid any embarrassment and bring enough cash to cover it. It is worth the experience over all. Chances are you will be with a small group and you can share dishes across all four main dishes.

See how coconut candy is made, wear a live snake around your neck, stick your finger into a beehive without being stung…do it all! Actually I bottled it when it come to doing some of these things and just watched others do it. It just didn’t seem sensible to put a 5 foot long living rope of solid muscle around my neck. And I am not particularly fond of Bees or Wasps either.

The highlight of my stay in Vietnam was Cu Chi tunnels. There are tour operators that organise trips to the tunnels but I decided to take a moto. By the way, you will very quickly notice in Vietnam and Cambodia that many of the moto, tuk tuk and taxi drivers do not have any more of an idea as to where things are than you do. If this is the case, do not use them. Make sure that the person knows where the place is before you get in, if they seem unsure, forget it.

I was amazed at how many of the moto guys I spoke to didn’t have a clue as to where Cu Chi was and in some cases what it was. But I did eventually find someone who did know, there was a knowing on his face when I mentioned the Cu Chi. But be prepared for a bum numbing ride if you are taking a moto, it is not for the feint hearted. It takes about one and half hours and your life will flash before your eyes as you pass by cement trucks within a cat’s whisker coming in the opposite direction. No helmet, you are at the mercy of God. But it is fun and don’t forget your shades and makes sure you got a comprehensive insurance policy if you are going to travel to Cambodia and Vietnam!

Cu Chi tunnel complex is awesome and epitomises the ingenuity, strength, will and resilience of the Vietnamese during that turbulent time in history we refer to as the Vietnam War, what historians refer to as the Second Indochina War and what the Vietnamese refer to as the American War. The tunnel complex is impressive with underground operating theatres, kitchens, war rooms, fitting rooms and weapons factories were Vietnamese guerrillas used bomb shell fragments to make lethal traps and unexploded ordnance to make mines. Everything was utilised including Bridgestone and Goodyear tyres for sandals. There is a shooting range, but in my opinion I think enough bullets have flown across this land already. In fact I copped for a hot shell of a spent round from an AK47 being let loose by some guy I think was from Essex in England…..those Essex boys I don’t know. Perhaps I was a little too close to shooting range. There is also an area were rice wine is made and rice paper is made, but as the guy attempted to explain the process it began to sound like a hot war was erupting a few yards away.

When one is doing the tour and seeing the horrendous traps that were set for the American ‘neo-colonialists’ as they were seen to be, you kind of feel for the GIs that stumbled into them. The human element is not lost here and you see it from both sides, admiration on the one hand for a people fighting for independence and against rampant US technology, and on the other, compassion for the suffering of many young Americans fighting a war that really shouldn’t have happened and for reasons that many of them didn’t even understand. In fact I think that is one of the more remarkable things about Vietnam, that despite the recent history, you don’t feel an angry vibe or any hostility at all. The Vietnamese are out there making money and keeping the wheels of local commerce spinning. I don’t think they have time for anger or resentment.

I decided to hire the same moto driver to take me around Saigon at night and it seems that this is when things really liven up in the streets. Many young Vietnamese take to the roads and ride around the city. Beautiful Vietnamese women with long black flowing hair pair up with friends and cruise leisurely along the wide neon lit roads. God, they are gorgeous!

I seized the opportunity to visit the post office, which is very impressive. The first thing ones eyes are drawn to is a portrait of Ho Chi Minh taking pride of place inside the huge opulent open space as soon as you walk in. Ho Chi Minh (often cited as meaning ‘he who aspires to light) actually spent time in England training under the tutelage of a famous French chef. He also is attributed to co-founding the French Communist Party, the Vietminh and the Indochinese Communist Party.

At the end of the tour the moto guy, Nguyen, says to me that I have helped him out greatly by using his services for the day and that he has three small children. I thanked him in return. What a nice chap!

On my last night in Saigon I am beginning to look forward to the wonderful beaches of Phuket but not before an interlude in Phnom Penh enroute to Bangkok. The good thing about the Mekong express bus is that you can buy your return ticket if you know the date you want to return. You also get the satisfaction of seeing Cambodian immigration squirm when they have to accept your $20 for your Visa, under the watchful eye of a Mekong express operator. Sweeet.

Back in Phnom Penh I realise that I have miscalculated on my dates and that I should have stayed another day in Vietnam. I am leaving for Phuket in three days as opposed to two days – which gives me two days in Phnom Penh and a day in Bangkok. I go to Boddhi tree café for the wonderful noodle soup and to say hello to the guys working on the motodups and tuk tuks, young men around my age. I kind of got the impression that they were a bit of a crew and look after one another. I was also surprised to learn that most of them were living in the S21 compound – Toul Sleng, across the street.

Speaking to people that work in the NGOs and people who run bars in the city one quickly realises that there are dangers in running a business in the city if one does not pay for proper round the clock security. Security is an important feature of doing business in
Cambodia and can mean the difference between life and death for the proprietor and anyone else who happens to be around at the time. It is strange though, that throughout my stay in Vietnam, the far flung corners of Thailand and Cambodia, I never felt unsafe. In fact I felt safer than I do walking the streets of Britain where people can seem so angry and pent up. Ironic really, as they, my British counterparts, have so much to be happy about and probably the least to be angry about! Go figure.

Anyway, I digress. Phnom Penh at night is great, particularly cruising on the back of a moto or tuk tuk and seeing the city. I like the billboard portraits of King Sihamoni and his mum and dad, Queen Monineath and Norodom Sihanouk. I sadly observe that King Sihamoni takes the first four letters of his father’s and then his mother’s name and the portrait of Queen Monineath makes her highness look curiously similar to our own queen in some ways, at least as she looked 30 years ago anyway. On my last night I enjoy a drink at the FCC, which is a great place to while away the evening and watch the people sitting off along the esplanade that borders the river, talking and eating, families enjoying the evening.

A pleasant ride to the airport…

After a fairly relaxed night in the Irish bar and saying my farewells to the proprietor and the wonderful staff over a few drinks, I am up at crack of dawn the following morning and handing my suitcase to the tuk tuk driver at 7 a.m. prompt. At 7.05 the tuk tuk driver is weaving in an out of Phnom Penh traffic and I feel a sense of confidence in getting to my destination in the rickety old tuk tuk with plenty of time to spare.

What was that? Well, after less than 5 minutes of purposeful manoeuvring through the early rush hour traffic, the tuk tuk driver pulls over. It quickly dawns on me that I have been here before, this is a familiar situation – he doesn’t know how to get to the airport. Lo and behold, he gets out and walks over to a guy parked up on a moto and I can only assume he is asking him how to get to the airport.

I am now shaking my head in despair and thinking, you are having a laugh aren’t you? I see some gesticulating between the two, but the moto guy providing the direction then tries to poach me. Only problem is, I have a suitcase, and as crazy as I have been, I draw the line at sitting on the back of a motorbike holding a suitcase, IN CAMBODIA! However, my tuk tuk driver, seeing what is going on makes haste and hits the road again. I notice that familiar anxious shifting of the drivers head from left to right, scanning the streets for signs. All the while I am thinking, please let this be the right way to the airport, as I consult my watch.

I start to see signs for Pochentong and I feel better, as the airport used to be called
Pochentong Airport but is now Phnom Penh International Airport. At least now we are in the right area I think to myself, and the airport cannot be far now. My confidence gradually recovers amid the awful traffic situation which can only be described as utter bedlam. I then see a sign for the Airport, but the resurgence of confidence I feel is short-lived when the tuk tuk driver, going at full throttle, misjudges his braking distance as he approaches a tailback, and crashes into the back of a minibus full of workers. Fortunately, he had slowed down sufficiently that I didn’t become air born with my luggage, but he did do some damage to the minibus. Well, what can I say? In fact all I could do was mutter to myself words to the effect of ‘I don’t believe this’, as the two parties pulled over to the side of the road. The driver of the minibus jumps out and lethargically ambles on over to the rear to inspect the damage. The tuk tuk driver sheepishly utters some words to him. Then silence as the bus driver manages to look very calm and pissed off at the same time. I glance over the dashboard of the tuk tuk and my view reveals a damaged rear light and a bit of a dent on the minibus. Negotiations resume, God only knows what they are saying and I don’t see any documents being presented but it all seems very calm. I think Khmer’s are acutely aware of how quickly things can escalate if there is aggression and hostility, hence the calmness. By now a crowd is gathering around us and I am sat in the back of the tuk tuk with a small college back pack on my lap and gripping my suitcase by the handle. I am beginning to feel a little worried, and expect that both drivers are going to turn to me and demand money from me to cover it.  I was ready for that one, a firm but polite NO! I am also worried that we are going to be there for a long time and I anxiously look at my watch as time is getting on.

I had seen an accident before on Sisowath Quay from the splendid vantage point afforded by the FCC and they can turn into a spectator sport of Ben Hurr epic proportions – remember the endless chariot race? However, as I realize my worse fears there seems to be a breakthrough in the deadlock, probably aided by the fact that the people in the bus need to get to work! Some more words are exchanged, the tuk tuk driver pulls some money out of his pocket, not sure how much, and the driver accepts it. He then jumps back in his bus and is off like a bat out of hell. My tuk tuk driver inspects the front of his tuk tuk, nods his head and then resumes what is turning out to be a stressful journey – I would prefer a simple one, which is what it should be.

More signs for the airport begin to appear and we are now close but we have to cross over to the other side, to what appears to be an entrance off the main road. The tuk tuk driver turns into oncoming traffic passing in the opposite direction and just stops short of clipping the back end of a minibus, the very same one he crashed into only minutes earlier.

I really do not have confidence in this guy at all and the agony is prolonged when the security man at the ‘entrance’ tells us that it is in fact not the entrance and that we need to go back on the main road and continue down it, we will see the entrance then.   Eventually, we arrive at the airport in one piece and I say a big adios to the driver, I hope I never clap eyes on him again! There should be mugshot photos of this young man pinned to various posts in Phnom Penh advising travellers never to board a tuk tuk with him driving it. I am also of the opinion that Khmer’s cannot drive, period.

In the next part…a diversion to the old capital, Ayutthaya…Phuket beckons…