Phnom Penh then home again

Phnom Penh, the name conjures up something quite exotic, but sadly fails to fill that expectation. It is big, busy, built up but somehow lacks the same buzz that Saigon exuded or the crazy, faded French charm of Hanoi. It maybe it’s recent turbulent history that has failed to give it the spark or personality to take it to people’s hearts. Phnom Penh sits on not one, but two large rivers, both the Mekong and the Tonle Sap meet in the centre of the city and flow on into Vietnam and the Mekong Delta. The busy riverfront area is popular with tourists and ex-pats and full of good establishments to cater for food, drink, massage and even the odd brightly painted coffin. Amongst the cities jewels are the National Museum, which is a stunning traditional terracotta building with a stunning and serene courtyard that houses some of the best examples of Khmer sculptures and treasures from the Angkor region. The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda sit close to where the two rivers meet on the riverfront and include many other ceremonial buildings set in lush, immaculate gardens (they do seem to like their formal gardens). The 5,000 silver tiles that clad the roof of the pagoda shelter priceless Buddhas, one made of Baccarat crystal and another in solid gold studded with over 9,000 diamonds. What trip to a South East Asian country is complete without a trip to a market? We ventured by tuk tuk to the Central Market, which is a stunning sand coloured Art Deco structure that is equally impressive from the inside. Natural light is cast...

Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields

Warning – some of the content in this entry has very graphic content and will upset. While the world’s attention was on the end of Vietnam War, just over the border in Cambodia the Khmer Rouge came to power and embarked on a radical and brutal restructuring of the country’s social structure that would become one of the greatest acts against humanity since WW2. To bring ‘equality’ across the population, cities were emptied of their people to work the land to create a self sufficient nation. Phnom Penh was reduced to a ghost town as it’s people were sent to the four corners of the country, including the elderly, the sick and infirm. It was rumoured that the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge warned the population of an imminent American assault on the capital to encourage people to flee the city. People were forced to work 12 to 15 hours a day. Disobedience of any sort often brought immediate execution. Systematic wiping out of intellectuals took place (sometimes for just wearing glasses) and anyone thought of being too closely linked to potential enemies of the state, even it’s own officers were not safe from suspicion. Schools in Phnom Penh were transformed into prisons to process people through torture on trumped up charges to being enemies of the regime and move them on to be slaughtered. Tuol Svay Prey High School was converted into the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) and now serves as a reminder of the genocide that took place. The classrooms became torture chambers, some still house equipment used to inflict water torture and body part extractions. Outside...

Siem Reap

Siem Reap meaning ‘defeat of Siam’, now Thailand, is the gateway to the Angkor region and sits on the edge of Tonle Sap Lake, the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia and quite a quirky one at that. It’s flow changes direction a couple of times a year. During the dry season, November to April, it empties into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh and shrinks down until it is just a metre deep and 2700 square kilometers in size. During the wet season it backs up from Mekong to increase it’s area five fold and it’s depth moves up to 9 metres in places. For this reason, a lot of houses in the area are built on stilts and appear to ‘float’. So who could resist a visit to a floating village, especially as we were a bit Angkor’d out now and were looking to see what else this area could offer with our extra day. We wandered up to and then along the river to the main market to watch everyday life unfold. We visited an artisan workshop that gave skills and security to disabled and disadvantaged people from the area. They skillfully worked silk, wood and even stone is produced into a wide range of beautiful gifts to reflect Cambodia’s heritage. After a spot of lunch, we negotiated a tuk tuk to take us to the Tonle Sap lake side which was about 10 kms away. The journey was a right treasure trove for the eyeballs, it is one long village with the river lapping at the road side and the raised homes of...

Cambodia – where, why and Wat!

Seim Reap airport looks like a temple, a temple to the iron bird maybe. We were probably the only flight for a while so it was very serene and peaceful, a far cry from the Saigon circus we left behind. A Cambodian visa is required on entry to the country, a long queue of officials sit behind an equally long curved desk waiting for a game of pass the passport ensues. For $US20 you watch your documents shuffle alone one by one; first name, check; surname, check; middle name, check; other middle name, check; cats name, check. All passed without incident and we were free to roam this country. After a quick lunch, hotel check in and quick freshen up we were off to explore the Angkor region. According the Lonely Planet there is no greater concentration of architectural riches anywhere on earth. Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious building; the Bayon is one of the weirdest; Ta Prohm still has a jungle growing from it. All are global icons that have put Cambodia on the map as the temple capital of the world. Still used for religious purposes by the Khmer (people of Cambodia or Kampuchea) and a must see for all travellers in South East Asia. First stop was Ta Prohm, built over 850 years ago, it is a real Indiana Jones set and used in Tomb Raider allowing Lara Croft to kick some butt in this unique part in the jungle. There was a wonderful light filtering through the elegantly tall trees spotlighting the coloured lichen that covers the temple. Roots push through the structure...

Puppets, markets and snakebite

Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, is the largest in Vietnam with over nine million people, half of whom own motorbikes of which 80% seem to on the road at any one point in time. It is more open and feels less polluted than Hanoi with more modern shops and office blocks. It has a more western outlook and is very popular with backpackers and travellers who occupy some of the busy streets in District One. In contrast to our ‘sobering day’ we had the opportunity to take a rickshaw ride around the city’s sites. Vietnamese rickshaws are bicycle powered with the passenger seat for full observation at the front, which makes this the equivalent to an Alton Towers experience. There was a safety in numbers element to this venture as the 17 shiny steel bikes snaked off down the main street from the hotel guided by our fearless guardians of the pedal. To hear, see, smell and almost touch the traffic around you is quite an experience. Girls in skirts riding pinion side saddle, business men on their way home from a day at the office, families of four going god knows where and of course bikes laden with boxes, beer crates, 40″ flat screen TVs and everything in between. Bulges of motorbikes collected around us like we were in the same gang at traffic lights, on green an increased hum of engines saw them all swim off up the street like fish disturbed by a predator leaving us to fend for ourselves. I don’t think any of us thought that the convoy would be tackling the busiest...

A sobering day

In Saigon we visited the Reunification Palace, built in the 60’s for the president, it became a symbol for the triumphant North Vietnamese forces when their tanks broke through the gates in April 1975. This signified the end of the Vietnam War and the building has been left as a bit of a time capsule for that momentous day in Vietnamese history, 1960’s furniture, decorations, dial phones and the tactical war rooms used by the American led forces. In the Cu Chi district of Saigon is an immense network of tunnels on numerous levels and totalling over 75 miles carved out of the compact clay soil that could apparently withstand the weight of an American tank. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. A short introduction to the Cu Chi tunnels was conducted in a bamboo hut with some ageing war footage and constant references to the evil American aggressor. The thick vegetation set the scene and you could imagine what it would be like to be weighed down in combat gear in this draining humid heat with an almost invisible enemy hiding right below your feet. We wandered a well trod path that took us passed various displays of weaponry, tanks, bombs and some chilling displays of booby traps. Mostly set underground and constructed of bamboo and long metal spikes, they were built to inflict fatal injuries that were both simple and vulgar. Being a long time claustrophobe I purposely didn’t...

Hoi An

Hoi An sits half way down the Vietnamese coast about an hours flight from Hanoi. It was clear as we were coming into land  that the recent typhoon had flooded fields and taken down trees, but clearing up was underway for life to go on. We stopped at Marble Mountains, a collection of five mountains near Danang that are home to several buddist temples and a tunnel and cave network used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War (American War to the locals) or as history will record it, the Second Indochina War. Hoi An sits on the river a few kilometres from the coast and China Beach, its tight streets are full of shops and restaurants. Lanterns swinging in the breeze compete with North Face jackets to offer the brightest flashes of colour against the subdued weathered yellow walls dressed in green vegetation. The pace is far more relaxed than Hanoi, but your wits still needed to be as sharp as a bamboo toothpick as the vietnamese ‘rules’ of the road still apply. A ‘must do’ in Hoi An is to take advantage of their tailoring excellence and as my shape isn’t one that Marks and Spencer cater very well for, it seemed a good idea to have a couple of shirts knocked up. Phuong suggested a reliable establishment and within seconds of entering the threshold, a young assistant started working her charming banter on me. Before I knew it I was wrapped in tape measures, covered in materials and swamped with compliments about the choices I was making. On my return to our hotel I informed...

Hanoi, Halong Bay and having Phoung

We have been in Hanoi for a few days now and have found it an easy city to be in and explore. We are staying in the Old Quarter which is a mix of tired colonial charm and busy modern day commerce, held together with a friendly, industrious people. Every where you look is a photo opportunity, from women laden down with their daily trading goods to hawkers selling conical hats, fans and ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ t-shirts. Beautiful displays of fresh vegetables laid out on the road side to inordinate amounts of telephone wires and electricity cables running up and down the streets culminating in extraordinary aerial heaps hanging inches above your head. For sightseeing then Ho Chi Minh’s (Uncle Ho’s) Mausoleum is inevitable, although we didn’t view his cigarette holding embalmed body, just the large imposing building that houses him. Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French to suppress any signs of Vietnamese independence brewing and more recently used to hold US POWs during the Vietnam war, where it was ironically known as the Hanoi Hilton. Other places of note are the One Pillar Pagoda, Botanical Gardens, Temple of Literature and the wonderful Tran Quoc Pagoda where the air was full of incense and the sound of chanting. For the science fiction fans out there, we left our restaurant on our last evening in Hanoi, it was hot, humid and looking up the tropical rain was cascading from the high rooves and hoardings. All that was needed now was some large floating advertisements and Harrison Ford running purposely through the crowds in search of missing replicants. Anyone...

Time, traffic and typhoons

It was close to twenty four hours door to door from Abbey Avenue to our hotel in Hanoi, made more bearable by Singapore Airlines Trekkie section on it’s in-flight entertainment system. However, i think it was one of those rare flights where I managed to get some kip, albeit with a stiff neck and some drool. We arrived in Hanoi on a ‘quiet’ Sunday afternoon and after more sleep and a shower so hot you could make a cup of tea with it, we set off for something to eat. The Lonely Planet had set us a few potential eateries, all we had to do was find them. The traffic had intensified from the afternoon and the pavements were full of traders and parked motorbikes, so weaving in and out of gutters and shopfronts was the only way to get around. Crossing the road was another matter, so I will take a quote from the ‘Insight Guide to Vietnam’ which says “As long as you don’t make any sudden or abrupt movements when crossing the roads, the traffic will flow around you like water. Be mindful but bold when crossing the streets and never dash across to the other side.” There is something very empowering about negotiating your first street with a calm exterior, and only you knowing what is really going on with your interior. Further observations were that if a one way road is not going ‘your’ way, then make that one way, ‘your’ way, even use the pavement to help your cause. If there isn’t enough traffic on the other side of the road then drive...