Saturday, 28 July 2007

Good night Saigon

It's my last day in Saigon, and the rains have finally come. Unfortunately I decided to leave in my laundry this morning, so theres a good chance I'll be heading to Dalat in the morning with a bag full of damp clothes. Oops.
Saigon's been a lot of fun actually, nicer than expected. Last night was a late one (6am) spent in the Go2 bar with Dillon, a Californian who worked as assistant editor on the Pirates movies and is taking time off after the mad schedule, and John, from Meath, who was taking time out recovering from the repeated traumatic experiences of Irish girls.

The couple of days before, I decided to take a more in depth look at trhe Mekong delta, as I'd pretty much breezed through it before. The main draw is the floating market near Can Tho, which was pretty impressive, and although there were a fair amount of tourists, at least the market itself seemed pretty genuine, with loads of colorful fruit and veg, and nothing in the way of tourist tat other than a few kids selling coke and such.

But for me the best bit of the trip was the afternoon spent cruising through the narrow canals near My Tho on a mixture of power and rowing boats. We did also have to indulge in some touristy gimmicks like posing with pythons and trips to various factories involved in the different elements of rice production, which were reasonably interesting, but the local people, markets and waterways were far more evocative.

A visit to Vietnam wouldn't be complete without playing as a Vier Cong in one of the tunnel systems. The nearest to Saigon is Cu Chi, where you get to run through reconstructed and slightly larger western size versions of the originals (the old ones are mostly falling in there, and too small anyway). It still felt really hot, humid and claustrophobic (and I'm not really claustrophobic) but I managed to get to the other end intact, less a few kilos of sweat.

In Cambodia I had passed up on the chance to vaporise a cow with a bazooka, but I did take the more bovine friendly chance here to pop off a few rounds on an ak47, which packed a bit of a punch. A .22 it sure ain't. Our guide definitely added to the experience, having worked as a translator for the US 101 airborne he had a lot of inciteful commentary, and was actually a bit of a philosopher on many subjects, so the day passed really quickly.
SO thats it for Saigon - I'm off to the cool mountain air of Delat next, a bit of a respite from the never changing mid 30s and high humidity.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007


After a longer than expected stay in Phnom Penh, I've finally made it to Vietnam.
Apart from ubiquitous comical conical hats, theres not such a huge change from Cambodia - a little more chaotic traffic (in Saigon at least), slightly more persistent peddlers of goods (and bikes) and a slightly sillier currency (16000 Dong instead of 4000 real to the us dollar). In general, the people are probably a tad less friendly than the Cambodians, but having said that, many are really nice and helpful.

I'm staying in the backpacker ghetto of Pham Ngu Lao, though even here it's still easy to access real Vietnam, with tons of cheap authentic Vietnamese food stalls around a street or 2 away - a bit reminiscent of Kao San Rd in Bangkok.
Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City to give it it's correct commie name) is a bit of a mad place, pretty chaotic (mental traffic), but charming enough in it's own way. So far I've been sampling the food, the local beers and one or 2 museums - the war remnants one was pretty cool - it used to be called the museum of Chinese and American war crimes - which didn't endear it to well to all the tourists:) I've also been playing a lot of pool, as every bar seems to have a table. I've even become a bit of a shark at 9 ball.

To take a break from the city I also visited the beach of Mui Ne - a really lovely laid back place to spend a couple of days, with nice almost empty beaches, palm trees and cute restaurants. It also boasts fairly impressive sand dunes where the local kids pretty much force you to slide down on their homemade sleds for small tips. And its a good place to cruise around on a rented motorbike without taking your life in your hands, with some nice fishing villages to stop off in.

Exiting Cambodia I decided to plump for the fast boat along the Mekong, which made a nice way to enter Vietnam - with almost no border delays or hassles. Instead of going straight to HCMC, I stayed in the town of Chau Doc, a nice little place with good views from the little Sam mountain outside of town, and some great little food stalls, even if the street lamps attracted insects in unimaginable numbers outside of a swarm of locusts. Ordering food was a bit of a challenge as the vendors hadn't a word of English, but its amazing what some sign language and animal sounds can convey.

The onward bus trip through the Mekong delta towards HCMC was memorable for the number of bridges crossed en route spanning the various tributaries of the great river, and for the repeated pucking of several of the passengers, despite the road not being all that winding at all. I think my flip flops are still sticky from the results of their expulsions, I might have to relent to one of the ever present shoe shine kids calls.


Sunday, 15 July 2007

Heart or darkness

No I'm not in deepest Africa with Pat or anything, rather a fairly notorious nightclub in Phnom Pehn. The Book is particularly wary of the place but it turned out to be a pretty good laugh - and I was there with a bunch of Cambodians so I was safe enough. I'm liking the Cambodian capital - it's a bit more hectic than the rest of the country, and the sellers and beggars are more persistent (and the moto drivers more rip-off-ish) but I imagine it's pretty mellow compared with Saigon, my next destination. And some of the architecture is lovely - the royal palace and a couple of the wats are visually stunning, and the riverfront area is more Paris than SE Asia.

It also helps that I've met a couple of locals including Pich who are really nice and helpful in showing me around. She even took me to some Khmer dancing, which is vaguely reminiscent of Irish ballroom dancing - lots of silly moves that I don't know and don't look too cool, and lots of camp hand flapping, but a good laugh nonetheless.

As well as showing me around, she was able to keep me safe from the hordes to beer girls/taxi girls that frequent the bars here. Most of them are fairly impoverished girls trying to earn a semi decent living to help out their families. Wages in Cambodia are ridiculously low with many people earning $100 a month or (a lot) less.

We also dined at the Foreign Correspondence Club, the height of poshness in Phnom Pehn. To be honest though, the food was only OK, though nicely presented, and the setting was suitable grand and colonial.

Less fun but a must do was the Tuol Sleng (s21) museum where Pol Pot's regime tortured some 20,000 of their own people before sending them to the Killing Fields - which seems pretty peaceful now and not as harrowing as the prison.

Well, apart from the 80,000 skulls on display. And the clothes and bones peeping out from the odd spot. But walking around the cells of S21 and looking at the documented photos of the doomed victims was certainly enough to drive me to drink, and the bars along the riverfront for the evening.

En route from Battambang, I stopped off in the town of Kompong Chhnang, a pretty place with beautiful countryside.

Its a fair sized town - about 40,000, but I was pretty much the only tourist in the place, apart from a couple of Americans travelling with their dad and his new Cambodian wife.

There were some lovely small villages around, and also a pretty large community of Vietnamese boast dwellers, not to well liked by the locals by all accounts. All very pretty to see though. And a nice pause before hitting the capital.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007


I'm in the sleepy provincial town of Battambang. Much of the reason I came was the modes of transport involved in getting here, away and around. From Siem Reap you can get here by road in a few hours, but it's much more fun to take the very scenic boat trip which passes through numerous cute villages (some if which are basically a collection of floating pontoons) and small narrow waterways with tons of birdlife.

Seated on the roof, watching the world go by (slowly), the hot sun was just tempered enough by the breezes, though one girl sporting an "everyone loves an Irish girl" T-shirt didn't look in too great a shape by the end of the 9 1/2 hours. A tad longer than the 3-8 estimate mentioned in The Book.

I had been hoping to catch one of the worlds slowest trains out of here towards Phnom Penh, but unfortunately it's only running now once a week and I've just missed it, so will have to settle for a bus on the newly tarmacked road. How dull.

I did get a chance to go on the Norry train, a weird contraption made up of wheels from old army tanks, a petrol engine and some bamboo (giving it it's western moniker of bamboo train). It was a great laugh, especially when meeting one coming the other way, when whoever is deemed to be the lighter load has to disassemble their "train" and remove it - they can be back on the track again in a couple of minutes. Impressive. Especially when the other train is actually the real train...

The countryside around Battambang was very rural and pretty - workers in the rice paddies framed by wats, making for picturesque touring on the back of a moto. The drivers, like most Cambodians, are exceptionally nice and friendly and it's cute the way the kids run after you shouting hello/goodbye, tourism here is still pretty sparse. There were also some more grisly reminders of the recent past, with the "killing caves" complete with a collection of human skulls and bones.

Before leaving Siem Reap, I spent some time sampling the nightlife and ended up out till dawn playing pool (with a prowess I didn't realise I had) with some Canadians, Americans and a bunch of Dubs. A great night out, especially when we hit the seedier bars later and got chatting to some of the long term residents.

Having "mastered" the cuisine of Thailand, I gave the Khmer cooking a try also. It was a good laugh getting the ingredients in the market, the dishes themselves were pretty involved - I'm not sure how well I could recreate my fish Amok and spring noodles if I had to. Still, they certainly tasted pretty good at the time.

Thursday, 5 July 2007


Having moved countries, I've had to switch to Angkor the local brew, which isnt bad.
Coincedentally, it's also the name for a fairly famous group of temples close to Siem Reap, and the main reason people come to Cambodia.

For the last 3 days I've been whizzing round on the back of a Moto from one to the other, and though there are too many to mention, Angkor Wat itself for the sheer scale, Banteay Srei for the intricate details and Ta Phrom for the enclosing jungle (and getting to see where Angelina Jolie stood) were all pretty amazing. The banter with the local kids, in equal parts endearing and annoying, was as much a part of the experience as the high speed chases and the temples.

Hello. Where u from?
Capital Dublin. Conas ata tu.
Very good.
I have T-shirts.
It's ok, I don't want one.
If you don't want one, maybe you want two?!
U want bracelet?
Have already.
U buy one for your girlfriend?
I don't have one.
You don't have? I can get u one.

And they probably can too.

The other thing Cambodia is associated with is Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge killing spree in the 70's and 80's. I've just finished reading this book from a survivor, and although I couldnt put it down, at times I wish I had as it's pretty harrowing. Most people here I talk to lost parents or siblings to the war, so it's still pretty fresh. But the people here are very spirited and they are very definitely looking to the future.

Crossing the Thai border the first thing I noticed was the number of expectant Moto drivers looking for fares - they were everywhere. The border town could almost have passed for an Indian crossing, with the dust, noise, dodgy money changers, cows chomping on the litter and a few hindu statues in sight. Many of the houses were pretty basic thatched affairs, build on stilts to cope with the worst of the flodding during the wet season. The road to Siem Reap lived up to The Book's label as boulevard of broken backsides, with a fair portion of the journey spent in mid air. Still I was a bit dissapointed to be on a reasonably comfortable (by 3rd world standards) bus instead of the pick up truck i was expecting.

Siem Reap has some fairly trendy parts to it though, with bar street a fairly obvious target for a session tonight, now that I've moved from the burbs to downtown. Foods pretty good so far - being kind of less tasty thai/chinese ish, but unlike in Thailand I've actually resorted to the odd western dish here for dinner.
Speaking of which, I feel the urgent need for a nice cheese baguette and coffee - Vive La France.