Friday, December 24, 2004

christmas in cambodia

season's greetings from the frigidly cold 82 degree weather here in phnom penh, cambodia. thanks to all who wrote me back. i'll try to answer all your questions, but being that i'm on the other side of the world i'm trying not to spend too much time in front of a computer screen. hopefully this is blatantly obvious and doesn't require further explanation. i know these travel diaries can be long winded, and if you don't want to receive any more updates, the delete function works wonders.

anyway, i arrived in cambodia yesterday after a long dusty overland bus across the border from saigon. so far, cambodia is good. the hotel i'm staying at is on a lake, away from the noise of the city. the eating and lounging area is on the lake and has a pool table and a monkey, all for 3 bucks a nite. at first the monkey was cute and nice to have around, but then i saw it was chained at it's leg, and it made me feel sad. i want to set him free, but last nite he tried to bite me. you're on your own little monkey....i've already noticed that the people here are incredibly friendly and are always smiling. the people in vietnam were nice too, but it always seemed that they had an uneasy edge to them. i think the tourist trade is a constant work in progress, learning experience for them. both the good and bad aspects of tourism. overall, the people i met were extremely nice, but some of them, especially the older ones still have the horrors of war in them. they're trying to forget the past, and move forward. i've heard some incredible stories regarding being in the army, to having entire villages bombed and walking past dead bodies in the street. it's scary to think that iraq is becoming the second vietnam.....i'm not sure exactly how vietnam is a socialist country. the kids have to pay for school, i don't think they have universal health care, and the typical capitalist theory of buy low - sell high takes place with every purchase i've made.

it was nice to get a good nite sleep last nite. i had one of those 'part of the adventure' episodes over the two previous days. on the 3 hour bus ride back to saigon on thursday, from the beautiful white sand beaches of mui ne, the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere at 5:30 pm. the bus driver walked out of the bus, crossed the street, and got these two little barefoot guys who i think were mechanics, judging from the grease on their shirts. they proceeded to squat in front of the dashboard and systematically tore it apart. these guys were yelling in vietnamese and squatting and throwing various bus parts around. they looked like the hobbit trolls in lord of the rings, squatting and digging and yelling in some weird language. the bus made this hissing 5 minute sound of releasing air, before one final belch at 7 pm. the only kid who could speak both english and vietnamese told us the bus was broke. no shit. he told us that they were sending a bus from nha trang to pick us up. the tough part was nha trang is a good 4-5 hours away, and wouldn't get there till midnite. great. by this time the half of the people on the bus who were vietnamese jumped on other smaller busses that came by. apparently, these other busses drop you off wherever they please, so the rest of the bus of us westerners opted to stay with the hyundai, aero space ls luxury liner. this would have been a real shitty experience, but off of this road across the street, there was this, for lack of a better word, cafe/restaurant. it was a family joint with about 3 tiny, children size tables outside with tiny chairs to match. we were treated like the second coming of jesus. they fed us (two menu items, noodles, or noodles with meat), and we drank saigon beer all nite to pass the time. eventually, i think the whole village of about 15 people, mostly mothers and kids, came out and smiled and watched us eat. i think they made more money that nite than they did the entire 2004 fiscal year. they took pictures with us, tried to learn some english, and gave their babies to us to carry around. i think for the right price, they would have sold them to us. eventually though, there were just 2 or 3 of them left, and at 11pm they had the look of 'when are these foreigners going to leave'. eventually at midnite we crossed back over to the bus to let them sleep. at 12:30, another bus came by, and a new driver went underneath the bus, fixed a leak, and aero space was good to go. you've got to be kidding me. they just needed to duct tape a hose and the bus would have been fixed. what the hell were those trolls doing. when the bus got going, the radio started blasting vietnamese music, which is the shrieking pitch violently close to losing all control of your bodily orifices. i think the trolls spent an hour and a half fixing the radio. we finally got in at 4am and the bus dropped us in the middle of nowhere. about 15 of us were like vampires knocking on all the guesthouses looking for a room. we eventually got one, and i shared a place with this aussie guy. i got 2 hours of sleep since i had to get up early for the bus ride to cambodia.

congratulations if you made it through the bitching part of the program.

regarding the places i've visited in vietnam, i did the north-south route from hanoi to ho chi minh city (or saigon). i stopped in hue, the old capital of the nguyen dynasty, with a great citadel in the middle surrounded by a moat. impressive structure. to bad half of it was destroyed by bombs, first by the french in the 40's, then by uncle sam in the american war. took a motorbike tour out to the tombs of tu doc, and out to a pagoda in pine trees with monks living there. as they're praying and chanting, the guides are encouraging you to take pictures of them, and suggesting proper camera locations and angles. weird. it felt like i was brutally raping a sacred event. no light meter or camera lens suggestions from the guides though.

next place visited was hoi an, a charming little port town along a river. a bit touristy, actually very touristy, this town of small streets and quaint french colonial buildings known for their seafood, craftsmen and artisans, and last but not least their tailors. custom made clothing for dirt cheap. and not junk by the way. silk dresses, fine linens and i saw armani cloth from italy and so on. i had 3 shirts made in half a day. this one guy i met bought a suit since it was so cheap 40-65 usd. he had no use for them, but he bought them anyway. i almost bought one, but the thought of carrying dead weight in my backpack stopped me. plus, really, when do i wear suits?

i went to saigon after that and did the cu chi tunnel tour (the tunnels were the vietcong hid underneath the american forces and basically wreaked havoc). had a great guide named mr. bihn who fought in the war as an american officer. he shared some sad stories of combat, and showed us how the americans, and westerners in general, couldn't fit through the narrow tunnels because they, according to him, have a 'big ass'. he said big ass about 15 times on the tour. the first time he told us why we couldn't fit through the entry doors into the tunnels because of our big asses, 75% of the women all sort of looked around at each other with the look of, i hope no one's looking at my bottom half right now. i never realized women were conscious of their weight or shape. anyway, the weirdist part of the tour is that you have the option of shooting a machine gun from the war. sick. you can choose an m-16, m-3, m-1, ak-47, colt 45, etc. and it's super loud around the firing range. even though i'm adamantly for gun control, i couldn't resist the chance to fire a machine gun. i bought 6 bullets at a buck a piece, and choose the m3 lightweight machine gun. still thuggin'. it was actually a power trip. the guy in front of me bought a whole weapons cache of bullets for 6 various weapons, while his girlfriend took action shots of him firing. i think he spent like 50 bucks. that guy was sick. also in saigon, i visited the war remnants museum which was one of the saddest set of photos i've ever seen. the napalm and chemical weapons photos were the worst to digest. their were also, tanks, planes, bombs all left behind by the americans when they fled in '73.

after dealing with the smog and heat of the cities, i had to flee for the beaches of mui ne. great coastal town known for fish sauce, great seafood, and windsurfing. the place was starting to become resorty, and in two years time, i'm sure it'll be a full blown resort town. i'm glad i saw it before while it's still somewhat pure. rented motorbikes for a couple of days, and once you drive past the main part of town, you're rewarded with white sand beaches with absolutely no one around. this village kid named nhe latched onto me and became my guide for a day. he showed me the red canyon, red sand dunes and white sand dunes. beautiful stuff. really good kid who taught me some slang, and i taught him some ebonics.

i'll remember the vietnamese as being very warm people, somewhat still haunted by the memories of war, and the fact that they love to sing. and they are all, every single one of them, terrible singers. they all sing in this high pitched falsetto that makes your hairs singe. i think they are all tone deaf or fully deaf in general.

anyway, i'm heading to angkor wat next (something i am so incredibly excited about) before finishing off in northern thailand.

if you made it this far, thanks for staying tuned in to the program and last but not least, thanks to all of you helping out with jessie sitting. your help is so so greatly greatly appreciated.

till the next travel installment --- rj

Thursday, December 16, 2004

good morning from vietnam

hello all -

i'm in the town of hue, about halfway down the coast of vietnam. got in here this morning after a long overnite train from hanoi. got woken up this morning at around 6 to blaring vietnamese musak. it was played on some sort of xylophone instrument, and one of the songs was a version of 'black magic woman' by santana. bad song as it is, worse as the vietnamese version. although the next song was even worse... a high pitched vietnamese lady shrieking untranslatable words that sounded like a hyena making love to a goose. anyway, hue is a neat little town along the perfume river that has been bombed pretty hard by the french in the 40's and the uncle sam back in the 60's. amazing palaces and gardens that are only half the size of what they used to be.

started out this trip last week with a 13hr flight from sfo to seoul korea.

one hour layover, and then a 5.5hr flight to singapore.

9hour layover, and then a 3.5hr flight to hanoi.

by the time i got there i was jello.

stepping out into hanoi streets is like stepping into a video game. crossing the street is like 'frogger'. everyone is on these 100cc motorcycles, and there's nonstop beeping from every direction. apparently the way to cross the street is to just walk into traffic at a steady pace, and trust that they will avoid you. it's actually quite a religious experience. when walking, make sure to look both ways, because apparently driving up a one way street is ok too. took a ride on one of the cyclos, and that experience is like the video game 'asteroids'. everything's coming at you at all directions. bicycles, motos, taxis, pedestrians, old ladies carrying food stuff. it's scary, after a couple of days, it all makes sense. it actually seemed like a lot of fun, and i might rent one in a more rural area.

so far i've taken a few day trips to perfume pagoda and tam coc (both tourist traps, but pretty nonetheless). also spent a couple of days in halong bay aboard a restored chinese junk ship - visited a couple of caves, and then they let us jump off the top deck into the bay to go swimming. incredibly calm waters, with over 3000 sheer rock islands all around. really neat.

anyway, i'm getting hungry. the food is really good here, and really cheap, although, after 7 days of nothing but vietnamese food, i'm starting to crave anything else.

till the next installment ---- rj