Saturday, January 31, 2009

My Son

Besides shopping today (I couldn’t resist getting an outfit made to order and some silk slippers), I went out to My Son (50k away), billed as the most important Cham site in Vietnam. I have to say that it was a little disappointing, given what I have seen so recently in Cambodia. Unfortunately, the site was hit by a few bombs during the American war and several towers are beyond repair.

Tomorrow I head to Non Nuoc beach, just south of China Beach outside of Da Nang. This is the one spot that it may be possible to surf on my trip. There is a surf shop that reports that they expect it to be 3-5 feet, but who knows what that means here. I am not sure what my internet situation will be, since I will be at a pretty basic place. If you don’t hear from me for a few days, you will know that we are getting some swell (otherwise I will be moving on pretty quickly to Hue).

I vacillate between being pleased and being disappointed. An old woman in the market rips me off and then 2 friendly kids on bikes stop me just to practice their English (whispering to themselves, trying to get the phrases right). The incessant catcalls are countered by the graciousness of the shop owner/seamstress where I ordered my ao dai (traditional Vietnamese outfit of long tunic, slit up the side paired with long silk pants). I try to keep positive, but sometimes I feel down to think that I will always be cheated unless I am extra diligent and firm.

Friday, January 30, 2009

City of Lights

The morning light revealed Hoi An to be an architectural gem – the Vietnam of picture books, containing streets lined with 18th and 19th century wood shop houses and laced with colorful silk lanterns. I confess: I thought much of Vietnam looked like Hoi An (from those same picture books or maybe from tourism ads), but in reality Hoi An is unique (from what I have seen so far), and in 1999 was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cars are banned from much of the center (but apparently motorbikes are still allowed, since they swarm like flies, as elsewhere). Hoi An (formerly known as Faifo) was an important trading port and brought European as well as Chinese and Japanese merchants to its shores and into its population. There are many Chinese “assembly halls” that were used by the large Chinese population for meetings, worship and schools, and these have been preserved (as have many of the shop houses). Needless to say, there is a tremendous Chinese influence in the town. Of course, all of this quaintness has attracted the notice of tourists, and there are plenty (including a lot of Vietnamese tourists, it seems). I wouldn’t mind so much except that the local merchants do pester any foreign looking person incessantly, with the cry of “Hey! You buy something?!” Sometimes it is just “Hey!” Or “Hey you!” Or sometimes, more gracious: “Madame, you buy something?” I have also been offered a $1 manicure from numerous ladies who try to drag me off, wondering how I can resist such an offer. There have been more cries of “Motobike??” than I can count, but none overly persistent, unlike the guy at the bus station in Quy Nhon who kept yelling at me and waiving money in my face to show how little it would cost to ride with him, despite my repeated replies of NO (in Vietnamese nonetheless). Oh, if they just knew how I despise the legions of motorbikes and their shrill horns! Ironically, there is a new model of motorbike out named “Elizabeth”!! (Thao, the girl on the bus, told me).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rested Up

After 3 nights in Quy Nhon, I again braved the MaiLinh minibus, this time to Hoi An. The driver was much more sane, and actually knew how to remove his foot from the gas pedal and apply the brake. Still, we had one close call as we came up right behind a motorcycle, which braked suddenly, sending us careening into oncoming traffic to avoid it. The driver quickly corrected and we all re-took our seats. Everyone was quiet for a while after that. We stopped after 4 hours (!) in Tam Ky, to have dinner, at which point I was befriended by a very nice Vietnamese girl who had been sitting behind me on the minibus, Thao, who was anxious to practice her English. She studies on her own, at night, and she has made great progress. Her goal is to go to America, get a Master’s Degree, and return to Vietnam. She was very insistent on buying me dinner (and I was glad to have her advise me as to what was put in front of me!) She also interpreted for me with the driver and found another person going to my destination (about 30k from where the bus let off) to share the expense of a taxi. I have to say that this is the most outright kindness I have encountered since Saigon (and there wasn’t much before that), and it is welcome at this point in my travels, as I am feeling a bit of the aloneness (despite spending the last 24 hours in Quy Nhon in the company of a very talkative Australian lady).

Even though it was dark when I arrived in Hoi An, it appears to me to be more peaceful. My second floor room looks out over some tiled-roof houses below, and instead of the incessant beeping and exhaust of motorbikes (which are, indeed, the bane of my existence), I hear the sounds of people making dinner and smell the wafting incense from Buddhist altars.

Note: the photos above show the bamboo boats I mentioned in my prior post. You can see that the ocean is much calmed and the weather has improved tremendously!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Happy New Year!

I arrived today in Quy Nhon, up the coast from Nha Trang a couple hundred kilometers. Of course, the day I leave, the sun came out, but it stayed sunny the whole way and I am enjoying fine weather. On the way I noticed a couple left points that were surfable, and there is swell in the water (see photo from last night in Nha Trang showing the pounding shore break!) The minivan in which I was riding was careening way too fast down the road to get any photos, and as it was, I could barely stay sitting vertically as we slammed back and forth on the twisty road. In the small bay where I am staying there is another left point with treacherous rocks (I would not recommend it for surfing). Tonight I watched a man in one of the round bamboo boats paddling out to reach a fishing boat off shore, timing his paddling like we surfers do to avoid the crush of that whomping left, but without the ability to duck dive. I felt for him! Especially since the mode of paddling seems horribly ineffective. There is but one oar fastened to the front center of the boat, and the boater works it back and forth across the front of the boat. I have no idea how this even works.

On the beach I saw a little sandpiper, the same as we have in Encinitas and I told him I knew his brother (talking to myself, I must be getting lonely!). I then saw a plastic wrapper and said I knew its brother too (actually, the plastic bags and wrappers far outnumbered the birds and shells on the beach).

Last night, I got out of bed shortly before midnight (as I had been advised by the locals to do), and went out to the street to see everyone. Yes, everyone was out. Motorbike helmets as far as the eye could see. Motorbikes were just parked in the street and on the sidewalks, and people just waited for the strike of midnight and for the fireworks to start (people tend to just wear their helmets around instead of worrying about stashing them somewhere, and I have become so accustomed to the accessory, that it took me awhile to recognize how odd the crowd was, all helmeted up). Promptly at midnight, a spectacular 20 minute fireworks show started, and people rang in the new year with ooh’s and aw’s. As soon as it was over, I sprinted to my hotel, since lingering would surely mean being run over by a motorbike. The photo shows lit-up cartoon like oxen in front of a hotel. 2009 is the year of the Ox.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Plastic Revisited

Today I set out for the islands around Nha Trang with a boat and a guide. The goal was snorkeling, but the weather was foul and I didn’t last too long in the 65 degree-water (it is colder by the outer islands). The photo shows a local fisherman in a round bamboo boat - something unique to Vietnam I think - used for getting to and from shore.

After my brief dip in the ocean, my guide took me to a floating fishing village where people live in huts lashed to fish pens out on the water. It was very pleasant until I saw a woman toss a plastic ramen soup wrapper and an empty can of condensed milk straight into the ocean. Apparently, she has been disposing of her trash this way for 30 years. I am afraid this attitude – “so long as it goes away from ME” – is far too common here, based on what the locals tell me and what I have seen (see prior blog entry “A Plastic World”). So we do our beach cleanups and ban plastic bags in California, and nitpick every piece of litter, and on the other side of the world, people are deliberately adding plastic to the ocean. I nearly feel silly as carefully peel the plastic cellophane from the cap of my water bottle and find a trash bin for it, since everyone just discards things like that onto the ground. But how do I come to a country and preach environmental principles to people who are eking out a living anyway they can?

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Land of Contrasts

Hmmmm, what can I say about Nha Trang? It is a city of contrasts: in front of the Novotel, a street vendor sells corn on the cob and sweet potatoes baked on a wood fired brazier; in the budget hotel quarter, where a decent room is under $10 USD per night, meals are 3x the price as elsewhere in the city; running alongside the azure South China Sea, the main road of Tran Phu buzzes with motorbikes, taxis and trucks, horns blaring. A wrinkled old man in pale yellow cotton pajamas and a pink motorbike helmet shuffles down the street. Curiously, no one goes into the sea. I have gathered that this is the off-season (it is winter after all), and the legendary hordes of Vietnamese tourists won’t materialize for another couple months when the scorching heat of summer (the last hot, dry blast before the monsoon) finally arrives. I myself have only dunked my feet in the ocean, being put off by the choppy waters and pounding shorebreak.

I had a quick look at the Po Nagar Cham towers – a temple complex built by the Cham people between the seventh and twelfth centuries. Simply put, the Cham people occupied much of what is now central Vietnam, the north being occupied by the Chinese (for over 1,000 years), and the south belonging to the Khmer empire. The Cham people were of Indian heritage and brought Hinduism with them, as they did in Cambodia. You can see the similarities in the temples.
I had first tried to get to the towers by bicycle, but got lost in the maze of streets around the city center and ended up terrified as I pedaled around, trying not to get run over. I don’t think I can adequately describe the way people drive here in Vietnam. I think it is best summed up as a free-for-all: just try to avoid anything in front of you, but don’t bother looking out for anything behind you (this includes when pulling onto a busy street, or turning abruptly in front of someone). Go in any direction you want; stop for a traffic light if you feel like it. I have taken to riding in taxis – not the most economical mode of transport, but the easiest on my nerves.

I am staying in Nha Trang through Tet (January 26), in the hope of seeing a traditional celebration. There seems to be a lot of preparation, with thousands of meter-high pots of yellow chrysanthemums gracing the streets, public buildings and hotel entrances. But the most important aspect of the beginning of the new year (as relayed to me by a local), is the opportunity for new beginnings; a new round of luck is dealt. People clean their houses and their clothes and make special foods. It is thought that the first person you see (or who comes into your house) in the new year will determine your luck – a happy person means good luck, a sad or unhappy person brings with them bad luck for the year.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

South China Sea

After 3 days on the back of motorcycle, taking in the beautiful countryside of the south and central highlands, I landed in Nha Trang, on the coast and had my first look at the South China Sea. Nha Trang is a hugely popular resort town, catering to both Vietnamese and foreign tourists. I imagine this is what Waikiki looked like 50 years ago. Some mid-rise hotels, but no glitz. The weather feels like Hawaii – mid-70’s and a nice breeze. I plan to stay for a few days here and celebrate Tet (New Year). I have been on the move since Siem Reap, and it will be good to rest.

Easy Rider

While Da Lat is certainly smaller than Saigon, it has its fair share of motorbikes plaguing the city, which beep incessantly as they careen down the narrow streets and through the markets. It is not a peaceful city by any means. So it was nice to discover that on Sunday nights, the streets around the city center are closed to all motor traffic and the area turned into a pedestrian friendly zone. Families were out strolling, eating from the many food vendors and generally enjoying the blessed quiet.

The next morning I saddled up and hit the road with Mr. Hiep, my guide, for a 3 day tour ending in Nha Trang, at the coast. At first it seemed ridiculous to get my big bag on the back of a 125 cc motorcycle, but when you see what kind of loads people here carry on their motorbikes (which are just mopeds), it does not look unusual at all. It was a little cramped, but it sure beats a bus from hell. We were able to visit a K’ho (minority people) village along the way that is known as the Chicken Village. The best my guide could explain was that they built a big rooster to emulate the roosters seen on the top of churches (which I take to have been weather vanes). Within this Christian village, a lone Buddhist nun keeps a small temple and makes incense for sale, the proceeds of which she uses to provide medical care to the village children. I liked that she had 2 fluffy little dogs, which she treated like children.

I am staying the night in Lak Lake, a small and very quiet town (empty streets!!!). Not many tourists stay there, and it looks like few people eat out. The dinner was perhaps the worst meal I have had on my journey so far, and I just hope I don’t get sick. Despite this, I like that I have landed in a less touristed area of Vietnam, so perhaps can get a better picture of the real deal.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Where is Buddha?

Today I toured the area around Da Lat on the back of a motorcycle, which is definitely the way to enjoy the gorgeous countryside. A group of motorcycle driving guides called the “Easy Riders” do one day tours, and I was connected with one named Mr. Hiep. He took me over rolling hills to a coffee plantation, a flower farm, strawberry fields, a tea plantation, a silk factory (where they grow the cocoons and spin the thread), a somewhat disturbing large “Smiling Buddha” (there he is!), the “Crazy House”, and to the village of the Lat people, one of the minority tribes in the area. An elderly man in the village told us a brief history of his tribe, and then sang and played a couple traditional musical instruments for us. It wasn’t as awkward as it sounds. He invited us to try a sip of the rice wine they make in the earthenware jars; it tasted a lot like sake.

Interestingly, the Lat people were all animists until Catholic and Christian missionaries showed up in the late 1940’s and converted every last one of them. I learned also that only about 50-60% of Vietnamese are Buddhist (compared with around 90% in Cambodia, Thailand and Burma). The rest are Christian, Catholic, Muslim and “other.” This is explains the dearth of temples and pagodas which are so prominent in the other countries. It also explains why the churches are so noticeable and why shops are selling coffins (Buddhists cremate; Christians bury).

Sampling the food from street vendors has been fun in Da Lat, since there are different delicacies on offer than in Saigon. However, I did sniff out the lady in the market selling the same type of sticky rice topped with coconut and sesame. I hope that dish is available all over Vietnam or I will go through withdrawals! The going rate for items from a stand seems to be 5,000 VND, about 30 cents. Tonight I had dinner for less than $1 USD.

Let me briefly mention the coffee. Forget cappuccino (which is not readily available, unlike Thailand, and is very pricey anyway). The super strong, thicker than espresso, Vietnamese coffee is served everywhere and costs about 50 cents. Put in a dollop of sweetened condensed milk, stir and pour over ice, and it is a nice little treat. If you have had it before, you know that it is served still “percolating” in a tin mini filter and sometimes you have to wait for it to finish. For this reason, you are always served a glass of green tea too, to drink while you wait. I love it! Even though coffee is grown here, the epicenter is a couple hundred kilometers to the north. I will be there in a couple days. So much for kicking the caffeine habit.

P.S. I have 6 photo albums up so far on Facebook. I am doing about one per week, with more photos and explanatory captions, if you are interested in seeing more.

Now For Something Completely Different

I arrived in Da Lat late on an overcast and cool afternoon. Da Lat was a hill station for the French colonialists in the 1930’s who sought to escape the heat and humidity of Saigon. Many say that it looks like Switzerland with its French-built chalets and mansions set among pine forests at 4500 feet elevation. It couldn’t be more different than the Vietnam I saw in Saigon. And it was downright cold at night! The warm clothes I felt so silly carrying around for the last 6 weeks were finally unpacked.

Getting there was not so nice. It was the bus ride from hell: an ancient shell of a bus with no suspension that crawled along for 9 hours while the chain-smoking bus driver cruised for local fares. Luckily, I had the magic acupressure wristbands that prevented any ounce of motion sickness. I highly recommend these for anyone traveling in a bus or minivan!

The surprising bit about the countryside was the lack of pagodas or other evidence Buddhism. What I saw were a lot of Christian churches and statues of Christ, some graveyards, and, disturbingly, coffin shops. But thing that is clear, is the communist message - hailing from banners bearing the flag and from colorful signs in every town and city showing scenes of national pride.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


The most popular place to visit in Saigon apparently is the War Remnants Museum, which details the "American War" through photographs and leftover weaponry. After seeing endless photographs of dead children, killed at the hands of American soldiers, I was feeling worse than after the visit to S-21, like I had been kicked in the gut. There were also numerous photos showing the long term effects of Agent Orange on the population, and injuries and deaths from landmines that still plague the country. I feel bad; I want to apologize to everyone for the war, for the actions of so many. I don't know how the Vietnamese people can welcome Americans to their country. But I guess they know that many of the American people outside of the government vehemently opposed the war. Displayed prominently was the report of the three different Americans who set themselves on fire in front of the White House in protest. I don't remember any of the war being part of my history curriculum in school. Why is that?

After a couple museums I was ready for some noodle soup and browsing the markets. I was happy to find myself on the other side of town in a market little frequented by tourists. However, I felt I was in the way, since everyone there was on a shopping mission, with lists and agendas. Most carried away their goods on their mopeds. The guy in the photo below has a light load compared to most!

Tomorrow I am off to Da Lat, a "mountain" hamlet north of Saigon. Can't say I am sad to leave.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Good Morning Vietnam!

Sorry, that blog title is a cop-out. It is slogan plastered on t-shirts at the market aimed at tourists. I feel I arrived all of a sudden and find myself in a brighter version of Phnom Penh. It is madness here, as there, but you can see it better.

On the six hour bus ride, we passed through mainly rural areas of rice fields and coconut palms. In one area, the simple wooden houses were all adorned with a brilliant gold face of Rama-Shiva or someone (something) else under the eaves. I couldn’t figure this out, and it was too late to ask anyone in Cambodia, and impossible to take a photo as we honking along at over 100kph on a 2 lane road towards the border. Literally honking – telling the mopeds and ox-carts to get out of the way. The fields were occasionally interrupted by massive communications towers, required to deal with the influx of mobile phone users (there is phone shop on every corner in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh).

I am housed in a tidy little guest house on a quiet alley away from the pervasive noise and dust. On the dust, I note that Saigon ladies are a bit more fashionable about their dust masks (look like surgical masks), and vendors sell them in a range of colors and patterns.

The photo above shows Khmer women wrapped in headscarves to protect from dust (and sun). They are selling their wares as buses wait for the ferry. It is fascinating to see the many ways the women (and the men) use their checked scarves (called krama). They are dust blockers, hats, sun protection, and fashion too from what I have seen!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Moto-Bike Rules

Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia, is frenetic, like many Asian cities. As elsewhere in Cambodia, there are no rules of the road other than the biggest vehicle has the right of way. Pedestrians are the smallest, and risk life and limb walking the streets. The constant queries of “tuk tuk?” or “hey laaaaady, moto-bike?” seem justified in trying to keep tourists from walking anywhere, since walking is most unpleasant in this city. Perhaps the biggest scofflaws are the legions of moped (moto-bike) riders, who turn without looking, race down the wrong side of the street, drive on sidewalks and generally do whatever will get them from Point A to Point B the fastest.

The most popular thing to do in Phnom Penh (some would argue it’s the only thing to do), is go to the infamous S-21 security prison of the Khmer Rouge, since turned into a museum and memorial to the thousands of prisoners held and tortured there, and the 3 million other people who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge (many as a result of starvation). I also went to the outskirts of town to see the “Killing Fields” where the prisoners of S-21 were taken to be killed and buried in mass graves. The shrine erected there (shown in the photo above) houses more than 9,000 human skulls excavated at the site.

After the morning, I felt a bit emotionally drained. The Khmer Rouge documented with photographs the prisoners at S-21, and the photos are on display. Fear is evident in the eyes of many, and one silently wishes that time has brought them peace (Buddhists believe that without cremation, the soul is not released. No prisoners were cremated).

Tomorrow I take the bus to Ho Chi Minh City, fka Saigon. I hope that even after leaving Cambodia I continue to learn about this fascinating country and return someday. (Indeed, I purchased a book on the history of the Khmer Rouge regime, and hope to read it while I am still traveling).

Monday, January 12, 2009

Dreaming of Dust

The trip to Battambang was a familiar one…. Just in the sense that it was a slow boat on a small river (9 hours winding our way through backwaters). I think I have had all the boat trips I need for this journey, sorry Mekong. Along the way we had a great chance to observe river life and many floating villages set on stilts above the water or houseboats tied together. Most are made out our bamboo and thatch, but some are made of one of the many tropical hardwoods that grow in the jungle. Shocking was seeing a bamboo and thatch hut, hovering above the water, with only 2 solid walls but with a television and stereo featured prominently inside! The electronics are run from car batteries, as there is no electricity (and there are no generators either).

Battambang is much more quiet than Siem Reap, and less affected by tourism, giving me more of a glimpse into typical Khmer life. I immediately signed up for a cooking class at the one cooking school in town, at a fantastic restaurant called Smokin’ Pot (not kidding!) Our small class of 5 (2 Aussie couples and me) learned to make the famous amok fish, lok lak and Khmer chicken soup. We got a tour of the market and an education in the fresh herbs of the region, including lemongrass, Chinese coriander and fresh turmeric root. After that I latched onto the Aussies and shared a dusty tuk tuk ride out into the country to climb the biggest hill around and visit another temple (yawn) and the “Killing Caves” used by the Khmer Rouge. At this site on top of a mountain the Khmer Rouge soldiers bludgeoned people to death and pushed them into the caves in mass burial. There is a small shrine and some of the bones found are on display.

Any venture off a sealed road involves inhaling a fair amount of dust, and you see why the locals wear surgical masks on their bicycles, mopeds and other open vehicles. They call the fine red dust “Cambodian Snow” since it coats everything. Even on pavement in the middle of town, the air seems to bear a fine silt leaving you feeling always just a bit dirty.
While I didn’t meet anyone in Siem Reap, in Battambang I met many people, a lot of them, like me, traveling for several months. It’s been interesting to share travel and life stories with people from all over the globe. I read 12 books (not including the guide books for Burma, Thailand and Vietnam, which I read thoroughly as well) during my first 5 weeks of travel, but meeting people puts a damper on solo reading and for the last several days I have been stuck on the first third of “Pride and Prejudice”!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Sticky Rice in Bamboo

Why can't we have sticky rice cooked in bamboo back in San Diego?? I guess we would need a fire and a supply of the right kind of bamboo... It's great take out food, just pull over to the side of the road and pick up two sections for $1. Keeps for a couple days and is convenient for eating on trains and boats since it come out of the bamboo (cracked with a machete or mallet) in tubes (with the inner layer of bamboo, your fingers don't get sticky). I had first had bamboo sticky rice in Burma, where they cook it plain and it takes on the slightly nutty flavor of the bamboo. In Thailand they cook it with coconut milk and sugar (of course). Here in Cambodia they cook it with coconut, a few sweet beans and some salt - very nice! I got some for the boat trip tomorrow.

Not All About Surfing

Perhaps I should clarify something. My journey and this blog (as a journal thereof) are not necessarily about surfing. I used the term surfer girl because my friend John who came up with the term “Kicking Out” calls me that. I surf every day at home, but when I travel, there is so much to see, experience and learn that is not near surf that there is no way I would so confine myself. Very little of my travel over the last few years has been for surfing. That being said, I am hoping to surf in central Vietnam, but the other places on my itinerary don’t get surf this time of year.

So back to Cambodia. Today I went to Beng Melea, a tumble down temple from the 12th century about an hour outside of Siem Reap. It was real Tomb Raider stuff, from the same era as Angkor Wat, but at this site the jungle won.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cambodia Safe

I can’t believe I had any trepidation about coming to Cambodia; in planning, it was the one place that I felt uncomfortable coming by myself. But so far I have felt very safe and comfortable (unlike some other places I have been!)

Interestingly, U.S. dollars are used here in place of the local currency (the riel). Prices are quoted in dollars and the ATMs dispense only dollars. The only other place I have experienced this was in Peru.

Today I played Tomb Raider and visited the famous temple of Ta Phrom, which has large viney trees growing on top of temple walls and in between stone blocks. I heard that some scenes from Tomb Raider (the movie) were filmed there. I asked someone to take my photo at the famous spot, but it didn’t some out that great – I have more luck using my tripod and self-timer (all of the other photos of me in Cambodia so far are taken that way!)

Outside most of the temples, locals have set up tents and tables and offer lunch made in a one wok “kitchen”. They send their kids out to pull in the tourists exiting tuk-tuks and the temples. This is great option since there are no package tour groups, and it supports the locals. It is mostly basic rice and noodle dishes and the occasional amok fish (cooked in coconut milk and ginger). I have ben warily avoiding some of the local specialties, such as duck fetus, still in the shell.

I am in Siem Reap one more day, then I take a boat down the river to Battambang before heading to Phnom Penh. Stay tuned!

Right: I forgot my tripod for this one

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Jungle Invades

Even though my hotel is a nice one, I still find a variety of different types of bugs in my room every day as my room opens to an outdoor corridor. Geckos dart in to feast on the small black crickets that know no boundaries. Smoke from adjacent property seeps through the cracks in the old wood door, and I have one coughing fit a night, brought on by a combination of dust and smoke. I don’t really mind, just have to remember to keep my bag zipped but I appreciate the mosquito net provided, keeps all the critters off me at night!

At the temples, kids selling postcards, scarves, water and books keep their eyes peeled for foreigners and assault the tuk-tuks as soon as they pull up. Yesterday I succumbed to a tiny girl selling bracelets woven from bamboo. She gave me a big smile and made me a deal, in English.

I have noticed that a lot more people here in Cambodia speak English than in Thailand, using tourist areas as comparison. Like Burma, people seem to like to practice their English; in Thailand, Ed said that given the option, Thais would rather speak Thai.

Another day of looking at ruins and temples, appreciating the art and architecture. Mr. Mean, tuk-tuk driver (yes, that’s his name but he is very nice and it is pronounced “min”), suggested that I visit the Cambodian Cultural Village, which turned out to be a flop. Stage shows and fake rocks, miniature replicas of temples and a wax museum. Not my thing.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The REAL Ancient City

Siem Reap is a charming little city. The name means “Siam (Thailand) defeated” and is a swipe at the Thais, who ransacked the kingdom in the 1400’s. So far I have learned that the Mongols defeated the Burmese and forced them to abandon their ancient kingdom (Bagan), the Burmese sacked Ayuthaya, the ancient capital of Siam, and the Thais sacked Angkor, the ancient capital of Cambodia. Not in that order, but the animosity between the countries runs deep to this day. The ancient kingdom of Angkor started around 612 A.D. by a ruler from India and continued until the 15th century when the Siamese (Thais) invaded. That is 800 years (!!) of amazing architecture that starts as primarily Hindu and later includes the concepts of Buddhism.

Cambodia is certainly the third world, Asia “full-on” as my sister would say, but there are pockets of Asia “light” here in Siem Reap brought on by the number of tourists from all over the world. It is clear how much tourism helps people, and I think of Burma being penalized by the tourism boycott. There are a lot of Americans here, something I notice because I recognized but a few in Thailand (we Americans are easily scared by unrest, and I believe the political protests of December are keeping many away from there).

Today I saw some temples (surprise!), going around the countryside by tuk-tuk. By the end of the day I was covered in the fine red dust which coats just about everything. I then visited the landmine museum, which documents the removal of landmines from the Cambodian countryside. There are an estimated 3-6 million of them still out there, and they still kill and maim thousands of people every year. I also bought a couple of books on the Khmer Rouge to learn more about the atrocities that affected every person in this beautiful country, a genocide that happened in my lifetime.

A few people have asked me what my purpose is for traveling these several months, and I always replied “do some writing” which seemed to satisfy them. While I am writing (hey, does a blog count?), I have realized what is more important is for me to learn, to understand, and to appreciate.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Whole Shoe

After a 11 hour journey from Ko Chang to Siem Reap (Cambodia), where I was crammed in a mini-bus with 7 Norwegians, 2 Russians and 2 Germans, we circled Siem Reap for an hour looking for my hotel, leading to much frustration on my tired part. Just when I was about to give up, I was handsomely rewarded with Pavillon D’Orient, a fine old French colonial mansion turned boutique hotel. So while I purchased and am using “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” from Lonely Planet, this hotel is not shoestring, but the whole shoe – well, a whole pair at least! I ended up here because the hotel I wanted (one my friend Belinda stayed at last January) was booked and they referred me here.

Siem Reap is home to Angkor Wat, the 8th Wonder of the World, and the finest temple complex in all of Southeast Asia. This incredible place was one of the primary reasons I made this trip, and I plan to spend 5 or 6 days here to give it justice.

Yesterday, I said goodbye to the Hings, Ed and Kim. We had spent the day on a hike into the jungle interior of Ko Chang, which culminated in a freshwater plunge at the base of a small waterfall. Little 10 year old Julika showed all of the grownups how it was done, scrambling up the cliff after me and leaping off. Her father couldn’t be coaxed to do that same!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Plastic World

I have to confess something. Starting with the first day in Burma. I have been using plastic bags. At first, I was realizing too late that I was getting one. The shopkeepers and street vendors put EVERYTHING in them, little flimsy plastic bags of all colors. You want a pomelo? Here’s an individual plastic bag to carry it! Some coconut milk pastries? They go straight into a plastic bag as the only packaging. And you see where they end up. They are strewn about the roadside and the countryside is covered with them. How do you fight it when the locals have incorporated it so much into their culture (even more than ours)? After a few days I realized that I had brought a reusable shopping bag full of gifts for the school kids and it was now empty. Bingo! I started being on the alert to stop people from giving me plastic bags and started chucking everything into my bag. That has worked well for the most part, although fruit sometimes gets messy! However, for the last 10 days I have cringed so many times, since we travel as a group and my companions are not hesitant about taking a plastic bag with every purchase. Banning plastic bags in California is great idea, but between Burma and Thailand, they probably 10x more person than we do. A lot end up in the ocean. Paul witnessed an older person living along the Chao Praya river in Bangkok throw her household trash right into the river. When Paul questioned Ed about it, he said that a lot of people do it, especially older people, and they won’t change no matter what you say to them.

Today we took a tourist oriented snorkeling trip to some small islands south of Ko Chang. Even though the visibility was not great, we saw lots of fish, an impressive array of coral, some giant clams, long-spined sea urchins and purple sea cucumbers. We also saw the plastic. Little bits here and there. A plastic bag. At lunch, our boat and several others pulled up to a small, white sanded island where the boats go every day with their loads of tourists. We, like the other tourists, were fed fried rice from polystyrene containers – 1 each. I watched a couple (Russian I think), finish theirs off and throw their containers into the bushes by the beach! I was getting ready to yell at them, when I looked further and founds over 100 of such containers here and there on the beach, just tossed carelessly away. I could only conclude that the boat drivers started this, not wanting to deal with taking the trash back (and in fact, the beaches on Ko Chang are not much better – littered with plastic and beer bottles). So they let it sit on the beach until a storm comes along and blows it into the ocean. So short sighted! No one is going to want to come to a beach full of trash, or the Gulf of Siam as it becomes more and more polluted.

When I was snorkeling later, I saw a big yellow fish spit out something that looked suspiciously like a large chunk of polystyrene foam.

Of course, all of this has made me a bit depressed. I spent the last year working so hard to educate people in California, who for the most part don’t litter (other than smokers). And on the other side of the world, they are countering – times 10- all of the work we are doing. After all, the oceans are all one.

On the brighter side, the fish and seafood here are amazing. The local specialty is white sea bass, deep fried whole and glazed in chili sauce. Incredibly fresh and tender calamari, covered with fried shredded garlic.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Dawn on Ko Chang (translation: Elephant Island) showed me an island of lush jungle, gently swaying palm trees, quiet blue ocean and …. hordes of tourists. I had an indication last night when I went down to the beach to await the turn of the new year, and found two throbbing discos on either side of my hotel and lots of tottering drunks milling about, waiting for the fireworks. Like most of Thailand’s islands and beaches, there is a lot of development, catering to the demands of tourists, both foreign and Thai. It makes me appreciate Burma just a bit more, where foreigners were such a novelty that I really felt that I was seeing the real culture, untainted by the tourist trade.

Luckily, we have Ed and his friend Kim (also Thai) to guide us towards the local aspects of this leg of the trip. And today, Ed’s friend Toon (Thai), and his wife Tat (Cambodian) joined us, for a total group of 9. We have been eating really well, and really cheap, avoiding the restaurants catering to foreigners, where the food is twice the price and watered down. At each new place after we eat I quiz Ed as to whether the food was “real Thai.” The meals are rowdy affairs, with Ed telling endless stories of his fishing adventures, which all take place in the middle of the night (that’s when the fishing is best here). I say “rowdy” but it is all good natured, and no alcohol is involved. The only one to have an occasional beer is Paul, Birgit’s husband. I am so glad to have Ed and his friends along to teach us about Thai culture and food. I fell I would be so clueless without them, and would be just another typical farang (foreigner).

The sugar immersion continues. Tonight we had banana roti (a kind of fried bread/pancake thing), something you get at a street stall. We were actually on the hunt for mango sticky rice – my new favorite food, but got distracted by this new dessert we had to try. Sugar sugar everywhere… in the soup, the curry, the sauces, the many sticky rice and coconut concoctions we get at street stalls (Ed is making sure we try everything!). Then there is ice cream, iced coffee (which comes with sweetened condensed milk), and shave ice. Diabetics would have a hard time here!