Sunday, July 31, 2005

I love the smell of napalm in the morning

Crossing the border into Cambodia was a complete relief. Vietnam was gone, and there is no way that I will be going back. A certain Israeli quote (not from Ori, I might add - he is far too diplomatic) was "damn Americans didn't finish the job". I can see his point. It was a shit-hole of a country, and for the prime reason of the people. Even before Ori had his bag stolen and had to bribe the police and others to get it back, the people were still horrendous. No matter what deal was struck, they always wanted more. Everything was a scam, and everyone was out to rip you off. Besides that, they were just plain mean, and that's tiring. So, yes, no love for Vietnam from me.

We did meet one guy who did love it. He was an American who claimed to have left the country because of the election. For a start, I have no time for "political exiles" such as this - if you are so disappointed with the state of your country, stay and do something, become politically active, rather than just upping sticks. Of course, the real reason might have had much more to do with economics or personal reasons, and that's fair enough as well. Anyways, he was doing the usual US bashing that people are so quick and happy to take part in, myself included (but I'm allowed to; I have a degree in American Studies - I'm a qualified US basher), when it occured to me: this was a guy who had moved to a country where he wasn't even allowed to express such opinions, or rather, the general population weren't allowed to express such opinions. What was up with that? Ironic, no?

Enough with the Nam bashing. Cambodia is a dream. The people are amazing - strikingly beautiful, as well as generous and lovely. Phnom Penh is a great city - wide boulevards, a river, actual sites such as the Royal Palace, and a nice little backpacker enclave beside the lake. Lodging is cheap, but it is back to Thai guesthouse standards, rather than the fancy hotels we have been used to. Still, we have a great chill out area over looking the lake, and as many movies as we want to watch, which is good, because it rains a lot.

Cambodia has already provided amazing experiences. The Royal Palace was great for monk chat - I got hit on by a group of 6 young monks (not quite monklings though), and then we spent about a half hour talking to a monk who studied international relations and was fascinated by Islamic Fundamentalism, which of course Ori was able to chat on. We also went to S-21, a school that was transformed into a high security prison and torture ground under the Pol Pot regime. It was chilling, eerie, fascinating, gruesome and amazing. After that, we went to the Killing Fields, where the mass graves of over 8,000 victims were found. What is so incredible is that Pol Pot fell in 1979, the Khmer Rouge continued to fight until 1991, and so there has only been peace in the country for 15 years, and yet there is such maturity, such hope, such development. It is incredible. All around you is evidence of the war; Cambodia is a nation of amputees, and everyone over the age of 40 will have had some experience of the civil war, but this is a truly modernizing city. Furthermore, to be able to turn their history into a economic resource, and that's what it is - millions of tourists come to the Killing Fields, and yet to have maintained its dignity, is a testament to the strength of the people here. Where Vietnam is bitter and angry, Cambodia is strong and hopeful. An amazing country.

Talking of peace, I heard about IRA declaration of ceasefire from CNN the other night. It is interesting to learn of such news in a place so far removed - your reaction is almosr more true from having nothing else to bounce off. And in all honesty, my immediate reaction was "what's new?". There has supposed to have been a ceasefire since 1997. I feel a cynic, but until I see something to prove otherwise...

I meet my little sister in 10 days time. I can't wait. It's so exciting to be able to show her another place, and it will be great to see a face from home. I'm at the stage where I fantasize about home things: magazines, foods, radio1. Ha ha.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

mighty mighty mess

What an amazingly tumultous couple of days I have had. I'll go over the immediate, before working backwards though the last week or so.

What started out being a fabulous night turned very sour, very fast. Ori, Sarah and I were celebrating the fact that we had bought tickets to Saigon, enabling us to leave Vietnam asap (its a hell of a country - not the romantic idyll that I had imagined it to be), so we had a fabulous dinner, and then headed to Nha Trang's hippest night spot - the Sailing Club. There, we met up with Casey and the English boys, starting up a fun, fun night of drinking and dancing. All good so far. That is, until Ori's pouch was stolen. In it was his passport, his cash, his credit cards, his flight home: everything important basically. So, from there, things take very much a downward turn. We spent all night looking for it, in the vain hope that someone would have taken the cash and dumped everything else. No such luck. So yesterday, on very little sleep, we tried to get everything organized. Getting a police report was of course impossible, because "only boss can stamp". Where was the boss? Out of town. God bless communism. Ori's working on it today. After a couple of calls to Israel, an office was found in Hanoi that will be able to issue him a new passport, but it means a 36hour bus ride back up the country, and we all know my feelings on Hanoi. So yes, its less than ideal. Some things have come out of it though. I don't keep my mobile on whilst travelling, but I'm damn glad I had it, or else it would have taken forever to get this even close to being sorted out. So anyone just about to head off, do take it with you. I am going to miss going to Cambodia, which is a real shame, because I was incredibly excited about Phnom Phenh and Angkor Wat, but still, such is life. And besides, my parents will be incredibly relieved; they have been sending me a lot of "take care of yourself" emails regarding it. So that's a whole country skipped. I'll be back in Bangkok around the 8th August instead. I guess I'll just have to come back sometime instead. And in the meantime, amuse myself by drinking hot chocolate and reading a lot of books in Hanoi.

Even excluding the last 36hours, I have really not liked Vietnam one little bit. Yes, Hoi An was rather beautiful, but in the way that a small French village is beautiful - hardly breath-taking. And that is how all of Vietnam has been. Nothing has quite lived up to the Lonely Planet's raving about it. Instead, everything has been work, and not really worth it. That is why we were so excited to be leaving for a new country. Still, twas not meant to be.

Hoi An is famous for its tailors, and I did manage to get some things made. This was incredibly challenging. Buying off the shelf is so much easier than tailoring - you can see instantaneously if something doesn't fit or doesn't work. This was particularly true for the evening dresses which I attemped to have made. In the end, the tailors just made a complete mess of both dresses, and I refused to take them. The material was pulled, and they were completely incapable of making them fit properly. This bad experience was counted by the sensible clothes I had made - a fabulous suit copied from a Chloe pattern (I do have champagne tastes after all) and a beautiful cream winter coat. Sweet. Plus, it does mean that I don't have to buy either when I get home - smart thinking, eh? But I have to admit to still being gutted about my lack of evening dresses. Oh, and of course, UNESCO has its mucky paws on Hoi An as well. Typical. Is there anywhere in Vietnam it hasn't marked off as having important education, scientific, or cultural resonance? Nope, and god knows why.

Monday, July 18, 2005

unesco schmesco

Vietnam is littered with UNESCO World Heritage sites, and I am making my way through them. Ha Long Bay is beautiful bay with over 3000 limestone karst islands rising out of emerald water, which is simply breathtaking. What was not quite so breathtaking was our crew on our boat, who were the grumpiest group of guys I've come across, even after they had had their usual 4pm opium toke. That didn't detract at all from the beauty of the landscape, or the usual fun of jumping into the ocean (sorry, the Gulf of Tonkin) from the top deck.

After our wee excursion to Ha Long it was back to Hanoi, whose only redeeming feature is the coffee shop Baguette et Chocolat. It broke the bank every time we went, but the hot chocolate was sheer sex in a cup. Ooooh. But even that couldn't make me love Hanoi, just simply tolerate it. Ori and I did have one of our most Western experiences there though - watching MTV's TRL in our hotel room. Shamefully (or not?), we didn't know any of the songs that were played. None of them were good, that was for sure.

One of the worst features of Hanoi was the rip-off effect. Every meal was a serious dent in the budget, and to come to Ninh Bimh was a relief, just for the fact that dinner was costing 10,000dong ($0.60) rather than 30,000 or 40,000. Granted, we didn't exactly know what we were eating, but it tasted gooood. I had been reliably informed that Vietnamese cuisine is one of the best in the world, but in all honesty, I have yet to come across, this, even in the street food. Still, better keep trying! Nuoc mia however is delicious - its a drink made from ground sugar cane. Soooo yummy - a bit like "granny lemonade" for the family members who are reading. Still, can't drink it too often otherwise it will leave serious holes in my teeth.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

communism in action

Today's activities included going to see a dead dude preserved behind some glass. Before we got to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum though, we had to contend with some serious communist bureaucracy - we could only approach the mausoleum from a certain side, and a very anxious soldier whistled and waved at us until we had walked three sides of a square, and were deemed to be approaching from the correct side. Once there, it was a long but speedy queue - the body is only viewable between 8.30am and 10.30am, so the soldiers kept us moving swiftly on. Actually, the body itself was rather weird, but then again, I'm not much one for preservation like that. Much more for cremations, if you ask me. Formaldehyde just isn't a good look.

After being hustled through the serious one way system that comprises of the Mausoleum and its grounds, we wandered through the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Now this was hilarious. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to any of the exhibits - artists names such as Picasso and Chagall, with no examples of their work, and then random plastic sculptures alongside examples of Uncle Ho's speeches. An extremely Vietnamese experience.

I'm not sure if this is an example of communism in action, but there doesn't seem to be much of an idea of commerical competition here. By this I mean that if there is one paint shop on a street, there are ten. I know that if I was going to open a paint shop, then I wouldn't pick the place where there already were a whole bunch of them - I'd look somewhere else to fill the hole in the market. This hasn't yet occured to the Vietnamese, but like I said, it might be something to do with all that communism.

Monday, July 11, 2005

24hours of hell and more

Riding an aircon bus from Vientiane to Hanoi for 24hours didn't seem too bad an idea at the time. Oh, how I was wrong. No air con, random stops, breaking down at 4am, and then the hilarity of soviet bureaucracy made it the trip to make me swear never to do that trip again. If anyone else is considering it, think long and hard. But then again, it was only 24hours of my life - a measly 1% of my trip so far. And we did make it all the way to Hanoi, something which I really didn't think was going to happen when the bus wasn't able to change gear. At that point, I was wondering if I was going to spend my last minutes in an excruciatingly hot bus plummeting over the edge of a cliff because the driver couldn't switch down to go round a corner.

So Hanoi. Hanoi has always struck images of old colonial French charm in Asia. How wrong was I. The city lacks any form of charm, instead being filled with motorcycles and tiny stores selling the same thing. The Vietnamese are not a people filled with grace, or rather, those living in Hanoi. Tourism seems to be at a point when tourists are no longer seen as a novelty, but they are also not a critical part of the economy, and therefore are pretty much unloved, and seen as cash cows. Buying a bottle of water is a struggle, with touts trying to get as much as 10,000dong for a bottle of water. Yes, that's only $0.60, but its still a rip-off. And that's what the whole city feels like right now. Having said that, I met a Glaswegian in a bar last night who tells me that Saigon is much friendlier.

Ah yes, the bar last night. Well, we managed to find the one bar in the city who was having a birthday - the Spotted Cow. Free Tiger beer was flowing all night, along with the occasional shot of tequila, and birthday cake. Goooood night. We spent it hanging out with some English guys who have been doing the same route as me since Chiang Mai, which is pretty hilarious. Sometimes, Asia just seems very small. Talking of small, Casey also turned up today, and its been a blast to hang out with her again.

Another Hanoi treat has been breakfast. I had the best breakfast I have had in several years - hot chocolate, brioche and pain au chocolat, all with a social conscience. Baguettes and Chocolat is a restaurant a la Fifteen, where disadvantaged kids are given a chance to be trained to work in the service industr. This is an added highlight to the airconditioned respite that it offers from the city. If I don't want to do something, Ori now bribes me with brioche. I am easily bought.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

kop chai lai lai

Yes, I really haven't talked enough about the wonders of Lao. It is an incredibly beautiful and yet strange country. Luang Prabang is a gorgeous town heavy with French influence, right down to the cafes along the Mekong, and yet also resplendent with wats in a similar style to those in Thailand. The most obvious French influences are in the coffee, which is strong and dark, and the baguette that comes with so many meals. After so long without bread in any form, these are a welcome treat. A baguette with fried eggs is a breakfast of champions.

One of the highlights of Lao so far has to be the waterfall about an hour outside Luang Prabang. We took a tuktuk out there, and something I have now learnt is to not look at where you are driving, because the speed at which the driver whips around blind corners is rather scary, to say the least. Still, we surveyed both the journey there and the journey back (although there was an unfortunate accident involving a chicken) and also a great hike up to the top. Of course it turned out there was an easy path up, but we took the veritable scramble which ruined my oh-so-lovely havainas and gave me umpteen bruises. Still once at the top there was a fantastic swimming hole with a couple of different jumping off points - a nice easy one which was about 3m high, and then a more challenging 5m one. I did end up jumping from the 5m, but it took a long time to psyche myself up. I wasn't helped by the crew of Israelis who were chanting "jump jump jump" - it seems I don't perfom well under pressure. Once they left it was easy enough to propel myself into the water.

The bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Vien was a fastastic insight into Lao life. The Lonely (aah - traveller speak - referring to the Lonely Planet as the Lonely) has one of those little boxes warning of the dangers of route 13, but still, what are you going to do? Riding along I saw countless chickens and pigs wandering hamlets, along with groups of kids with few to no clothes on, usually peeing in the road. To top it off, boys aged 14 and up would be walking along the road with AK-47s strapped to their back. There was also a kid on the bus with one, but I was reliably informed that it was missing the vital ammunition holder, and therefore was nothing to really worry about. Great.

And so we have settled in Vang Vien for the next few days. I am still travelling with Ori, and we are trapped here for the next couple of days whilst we wait for our Vietnamese visas. Still, its a nice place to be trapped - plenty of things to do, if you like the great outdoors. The landscape is blow your socks off amazing - wild limestone karsks rear out of the landscape, covered with dense forest. Yesterday we took a caving and kayaking trip. I have found a sport I am fairly confident in saying that I don't want to be doing again - just not a caving kinda gal. Especially since I nearly got swept down river and a Ori had to grab my lifejacket. However, the kayaking was a total blast, and we didn't even tip over. This is a good thing, in that we were being trusted with cameras and wallets.

Vang Vien is also a little bizarre in that there are a couple of places which just show "Friends" back to back for what seems 24hrs a day. Its like living in a strange vortex. Today's going to be a chilling out day, so I'm sure to be sick of the kerazy six by the end of it. Once that happens, it will be time for Ori to watch Star Wars for the first time. How can a 25 year old not have seen Star Wars? A situation that needs to be rectified if ever there was one. Luckily, to help me I have Josh, who travelled through the islands with when I arrived in Thailand, and he is a man dedicated to the cause if ever there was one, even getting soaked up to his knees last night in a vain effort to fix the sound system on a tv. A bar which was partially submerged - quel Lao.