Saturday, July 30, 2011

Stone faces and blindfolded skulls

Siem Reap, Battanbang, Phnom Penh, CAMBODIA: 22 - 30 July 2011.

In terms of history, Cambodia has the full range, from glorious ancient temples to tragic modern graves.After hearing so many great things about Angkor Wat and the dozens of temples around the touristy but enjoyable town of Siem Reap, I bought a three-day pass and headed off (one day in a shared tuk-tuk, one riding a bicycle and one on the back of a motorbike) hoping not to be disappointed. And I wasn't. The temples really are very impressive.But the tragic side of Cambodia was ever-present. Groups of children spend their days trying to make sales to temple-visiting tourists and I spent my time in Cambodia reading about its brutal past, specifically the books "First They Killed my Father" and "The Killing Fields" (tourist spots in South-East Asia are full of people selling cheap, photocopied books, which is great for avid readers with limited backpack space like me). In Phnom Penh I visited the Killing Fields and S21 Genocide museums, which I found very moving. Unbelievably, there I saw a group of Asian tourists laughing while posing for group photos; I know lots of people comment on the annoying photo-taking habits of tourists from Asia, but that group really got to me because I had just been staring at a photograph of skulls that still had blindfolds on before seeing those tourists.

I had a lot of fun in Cambodia too, like at the fish massage in Siem Reap and riding the bamboo train in Battanbang, so I was glad that I made it there to round off my time in South-East Asia.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Suits you, sir

Hue, Hoi An, Mui Ne, Dalat, Ban Me Thout, Saigon, Can Tho, Chou Doc, VIETNAM: 5 - 21 July 2011.

Riding on the back of a motorbike became one my main modes of transport in central and southern Vietnam. As that was a new experience for me, it is one of the reasons that my time there will stand out in my memory.

After driving in and around the old imperial capital of Hue,
I hit south along the scenic coastal road to Hoi An. My driver stopped at all the places that tourists usually photograph and with a smile he would say to me "Take photos!". He was perplexed that I wasn't constantly snapping away. I tried to explain using hand gestures that I prefer trying to take in a view by looking at it rather than simply photograph it. But, as he was a nice guy, I took more photos than I normally would to make him happy. My time in Hoi An, the tailor-made clothes capital of South-East Asia, was spent getting suits fitted in between cycling to and from the beach. After the hard work of trying on suits in 30 degree heat, I really hope that the postal system works and that my package containing two suits, one shirt and two ties (which cost US$300) arrives safely in Ireland (and I hope that I will remember how to tie a tie by the time I get back!).
After more beach time in Mui Ne, where I was surrounded by speedo-wearing Russians, I headed inland to Dalat which was the starting point for a memorable two-day motorbike tour of the Central Highlands. Those two days were a highlight of my time in South-East Asia. It was a great way to see the countryside, although sitting on the back of a motorbike proved more tiring than I imagined. After three days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), a fun city, I ended my time in Vietnam with three days in the Mekong Delta. Having spent two days on the Mekong a month earlier traveling from north Thailand to Laos, I was happy to see its impressive delta, complete with its floating markets. I had wanted to see Vietnam for years, and I wasn't disappointed. I can't quite put my finger on it, but Vietnam proved to be a perfect fit for me. I left Vietnam by boat, crossing into Cambodia, my final South-East Asian country.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Vietnam: First Contact

Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay, VIETNAM: 28 June - 5 July 2011

My first impression of Hanoi was of a city in chaotic perpetual motion. I loved the energy of the place. Guidebooks often describe places as being a city or country "on the move". After experiencing Hanoi's streets, both wide and narrow, buzzing with darting motorbikes, I finally understood that description. But I managed to find some respite from the madness. First at the banks of the city centre lake, where I had a nice chat with a young Vietnamese guy who approached me armed with his "First Contact" English notes looking to practice. And then outside the Temple of Literature, where I got my beard shaved off by an old man who had set up a makeshift barbershop by hanging a mirror off a nail on the temple wall.

From Hanoi I took the night train north to Sapa. There are two main reasons that bring tourists to Sapa: the first is something that I usually enjoy, i.e. trekking; the second is something that often makes me feel uncomfortable, i.e. visiting minority/indigenous/ethnic groups. On several occasions over the years I have been on tours where the itinerary includes something like "visit an indigenous village and see how traditional food is made". At best in these situations I feel like I'm stuck in a tourist trap where buying a multi-coloured bracelet appears to be the only way out. At worst I feel terrible as the local peoples' homes are invaded by us gawking tourists, taking photos like at animals in a zoo. Therefore, when I signed up for a two-day trek through the rice paddy fields of Vietnam's "hill tribes" where we would sleep and eat at a homestay, I was hoping it would work out well.

Alas, this hope appeared to be dashed upon first contact with some hill tribe people. As the minivan bringing us eight trekkers pulled up in Sapa, a group of ten women dressed in all the hill tribe regalia was waiting for us. They followed us to the trekking office and then to the restaurant, standing outside as we ate our breakfast. They proceeded to walk with us as we started out trek, continuing for four hours until lunch. At which point they demanded that the people whom they had helped down the muddy paths and across rivers buy various bags, belts and bracelets that the women had been carrying in baskets on their backs. Unlike everyone else in the group I had avoided needing such help, so I wasn't forced into buying things I didn't want. A different group of women came up to us later as we finished dinner, with more waiting next to our breakfast table the following morning. This type of interaction between the hill tribe women and us tourists took some of the enjoyment out of the experience for me. Still though, the homestay worked out well (it was with a nice family and it didn't feel fake or forced; it was like staying in a basic B&B) and the trek was through some beautiful and unique countryside, so overall I was glad that I visited this area.
From the homestay in Sapa I headed to Halong Bay, where there wasn't anything indigenous about my two-day boat cruise, as my boat was full of backpackers with the majority being Irish. It was a stunning place, best appreciated from a kayak at sunset.My first impression from my week in north Vietnam was very positive. There was a lot I liked about it, including: the chaos of motorbikes, which often are laden down with people, pigs and/or other random things, like an aquarium; the fact that the tasty street food could come wrapped in anything, like someone's maths homework; the markets where raw meat and underwear are sold at adjacent stalls; and the inexplicable way some restaurants are decorated.