Cambodia & Vietnam

28th May 2010

Life is good.

More interesting things have been happening to me than I have any right to expect. No doubt disaster is around the corner. It’s a predictable sequence - I travel about, skipping and jumping, prancing and gamboling, then inevitably tripping, stumbling and falling on my face.

Vietnam doesn’t allow right hand drive vehicles so I have left the car in Phnom Penh. It’s amazing how different things are without the car. Living out of a rucksack presents unfamiliar problems. I seem to have packed for two different people - one of whom changes his clothes twice as often as I do, and another who is stuck in the early 80s.

My day-to-day travel experience has changed dramatically. I figure if I'm going to travel by bus, then I may as well take the sleeper. You don’t see anything traveling on the main highways. In the car, I always took the back roads. And you can’t see through the windows anyway - they are either too dirty or blocked by a frilly curtain that they insist on keeping drawn. Getting from A to B is now just an obstacle to be overcome. The getting from place to place was most of my life before. I wake up and I’m in a new city. And it’s always somewhere significant, with “sights”, never a halfway-to-nowhere craphole like the ones I used to end up in.

The positives are twofold: 1) I meet a lot more people; and 2) I don’t have to concentrate on the road, so my peripheral daydream of rescuing Adriana Lima from a burning building or winning the lottery becomes a full-length feature experience. “No need to kiss me Adriana, anyone would have done the same thing. Check you for hidden injuries? Oh, you are naughty Adriana, heh heh.”

Recent travelling companions have been an odd mix – a guy with no sense of smell, a German frog researcher and three Scottish medical students who were living in Saigon. Medical schools still seem to believe that three months spent hindering third world nurses makes for a better doctor. I also shared a room with a French guy who was so paranoid about security that he tied his money belt to the "old fella" every night.

Jon Glew was with me on-and-off for about 5 weeks. An actor-musician who played Jerry Springer in the opera of the same name, he is travelling to get inspiration for an acoustic ukele album. Yes I know. Don’t ask me. Anyway, I can't play an instrument and those who can should be burned as witches.

What else?

I have been refining my ability to change TV channels with my big toe and have started doing yoga every morning, which I plan to stick to religiously, just as I plan to eat vegetables, do my taxes on time and get better looking.

My last update left off in Vientiane after the crash. I got the car fixed surprisingly quickly and set off towards Cambodia. This was the team for a few weeks:

We did some fun off-road trips in the south, including a tour of the Bolaven plateaux, a stunning region set aside by the French for coffee cultivation, and the Thaket loop, which includes Kong Lor, one of the longest caves in the world. The world’s largest spiders live in Kong Lor.

The end of the line in Laos was the 4000 islands of Si Phan Don, at the southernmost tip of the country. It’s a stunning spot, where the Mekong widens and branches into hundreds of channels. It is hammock heaven. We stayed on Don Kon island for a few days and did virtually nothing. One evening we took a few beers over to one of the smaller islands to watch the sunset, and as we were swimming across, some Irawaddy river dolphins came and circled around us. A lovely place. I could have stayed longer.

“Whatever you do”, says the Lonely Planet, “Don't come in May”. Sound advice. For the past two months I’ve been sweltering in temperatures well into the forties. Getting the smallest thing done is a major effort. The infernal heat makes you too lazy to even eat and you end up taking five cold showers a day. Despite their tragic past, the Cambodians are a friendly and welcoming bunch. The children are super cute and energetic. I can see why celebrities come here to shop when they’re looking to accessorize with an ethnic baby.

  • Ban Lung: On arriving in Cambodia, Jon and I decided to head out on a mission into the jungle to see the burial grounds of the animist tribes that live near Ban Lung. It’s a remote place - on the drive we saw more snakes on the road than we saw cars. This was followed by an Apocalypse Now-style canoe trip into the jungle. We only went a couple of hours upriver, but going further will take you into some of the most remote parts of South East Asia. I heard that in some of the side valleys, the tribes will send the women and children into the forest when you turn up.

  • Battambang: You can do a very scenic boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang, although I wouldn’t recommend doing it in the dry season. The boat takes you across Tonle Sap, Asia’s biggest fresh water lake, past floating villages and then along narrow, meandering channels. You get a great feel for life on the river. We got to the point where the water level was too low to continue, so they chucked us out and herded us onto an ancient pick-up truck. This was one of the bumpiest and least comfortable rides I have ever taken. The area we drove through is actually under the lake in the wet season. A road of sorts has been hacked through the mangroves but the surface is very uneven and you get whipped in the face by branches every few seconds.

    Battambang is one of those places that doesn’t really have any major sights, but I enjoyed the obscure attractions that there were. We broke into a Pepsi factory, frozen in time since it was abandoned in the seventies, and rode the bamboo train, originally built by the French and now used by the locals to transport produce to market. It consists of a bamboo cart on wheels, which is assembled right in front of you and carries you off at break-neck speed along colonial-era tracks that neither run parallel nor level. After about 15 minutes you stop and there is a token visit to a brick making factory that I rather enjoyed. Then the platform is lifted, turned around and you head back. If you encounter another bamboo train, the one with fewer people is dismantled and removed from the track. It’s very good fun, but if you want to do it you have two years left. The government is apparently getting rid of it due to safety concerns.

    The Khmer Rouge
    The Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975. The following day, they marched two million people out of the city and put them to work in the fields. The goal was to create an egalitarian rural society based on collective farming. This meant erasing all traces of civilization - money, books, property and anything linked to modern life.

    This pathetically impractical vision soon began to fall apart and as always in such cases, the leadership began to feed on itself, arresting and executing many of its own members on trumped up charges.

    Tuol Sleng was a school which the regime turned into a centre for the interrogation, torture and extermination of anti-revolutionary elements. I visited twice. The second time I hired a guide, a middle aged man whose family had mostly disappeared in the various purges. He must carry a heavy load of emotional baggage from his past but he carries it lightly, or seems to. I got a good idea of what life in the fields was like and a rather excessive amount of gruesome detail about the tortures that the prisoners were subjected to.

    All new arrivals at the prison were photographed, so there are hundreds of evocative portraits on the walls. Each cell is empty but for a bed, a crude set of shackles and a photo showing the body that the Vietnamese found when they arrived in 1979. The fleeing guards killed all the remaining prisoners.

    It is just another tragic story of misdirected anger and confirms that ideological structures are far more dangerous in their extremes of hypocrisy and lack of conscience than any psychopathic individual. The Germans weren’t evil, Nazis or not. Nor were the Carthaginians, but visit the Tophet and you will see the shelves with 20,000 urns, each containing the ashes of a child burned alive on the altar of Baal-Amon.

    Buddhism was outlawed under Pol Pot, but temples are now springing up all over the place. These are mostly funded by the Thais and are therefore designed in line with their wedding cake school of architecture.

    The Temples of Angkor
    I’m not sure what to say about these that hasn’t been said already. The experience of seeing major sights occasionally suffers from a surfeit of expectation. Not so with Angkor. The temples, built between the 8th and 13th century, are incredible and spread over a huge area. Even if you aren’t much of a temple tourist, there is more than enough here to occupy you for three or four days.

    Angkor Wat itself is in remarkably good shape, largely because it was never abandoned. The other major sights are Banteay Srei, famous for its elaborate carvings and the colossal Bayon temple with its amazing towers, each with four huge carved visages facing the points of the compass. Ta Prohm and Preah Khan have been partially lost to the jungle, which gives them tremendous atmosphere. Giant tree roots wrap around the walls, encircling and supporting them.

    The area is so huge that even though there are tons of tourists, it doesn’t feel crowded. The only sources of irritation are pushy vendors and Korean tour groups. The latter will pose in front of a temple and their guide will laboriously take a photo with every single person’s camera in turn, invariably requiring help with the controls of each one. Gah.

    Vendor girl: “You buy my necklace for your girlfriend.”
    Harry: “I don’t have a girlfriend.”
    Vendor girl: “That’s because you don’t buy my necklace.”

    A word of advice. The book tells you to go at dawn, but that’s when everyone else goes. If you want to lose the crowds, go between 11:30 and 2:30. The heat is crazy, but this is when the tour groups head back into Siem Reap for a break.

    I've been getting sand between my toes on some of the most beautiful beaches on earth. Dawn, a friend from home, was house-sitting in a beautiful apartment on the beach in Phuket, so I went over to see her for a week. We had a great time, hobnobbing with the expats and doing boat trips around the islands.

    Highlights were Phan Nga, a kind of mini Halong Bay, Koh Phi Phi, where The Beach was filmed, and the Similan Islands, a national park with some of the most beautifully clear water I have ever seen. I had no idea that Thailand still had pristine beaches like that.

    A few people have emailed me asking if I think it is safe for them to come on holiday to Thailand, given the recent unrest. I would put it like this: There are times when we must face adversity with unwavering courage and clear-eyed resolution, when we must see problems in context and respond in a calm and rational manner.

    This is not such a time.

    In this case we must abandon all rational perspective in favour of wild rumours and exaggeration, and fly into a hysterical fit, shrieking and soiling our underpants.

    There you have it. Am I really saying that if you come to Thailand you will immediately be killed by rebel bandits? Yes. Yes, I am. Especially during July, when I will be in Koh Tao.

    The Vietnamese have a reputation amongst travelers for being avaricious and rude. They are certainly relentlessly commercial. I was sitting in a roofless toilet outside a restaurant when a lady started swinging handicrafts over the wall for me to peruse while sitting on the can. They do try to rip you off but this isn’t because you’re foreign. There’s no discrimination - they also constantly rip each other off. I like the Vietnamese because they are appealingly cheeky and have good banter. Most travellers prefer the people in Laos, but they are so laid back that they almost seem a bit dim.

    Vietnam is going places. Since the sweeping market reforms implemented in 1986, there is very little socialist flavour to the country. Benefiting from its proximity to China, incomes are rising rapidly, new buildings are going up everywhere and a mind-boggling tangle of wires carries cable TV and broadband connections to every house. The Vietnamese are about a 7 out of 10 in terms of driving craziness, but there are not as many road deaths as you might expect for the simple reason that so few cars are in good enough condition to achieve killing speed.

    Like Thailand, Burma and Laos, Vietnam is shaped like a tadpole. The country effectively has two capitals - Saigon in the South and Hanoi in the North - with a narrow waist in the middle. Saigon is officially called Ho Chi Minh City, but no one uses the new name. Ho Chi Minh is yet another canonized political figure. Yawn. The Vietnamese have deleted the real man and replaced him with an abstract ideal, just like Turks have done with Mustapha Kemal. Clearly, politicians feel that the legend of HCM is a unifying force in the country, but if he can have no faults, then he is no more a real person than Santa or David Hasselhof.

  • Mui Ne: This is the beach destination of choice for Saigon expats. It is a beautiful stretch of coastline, but resort fortresses are springing up all along it, insulating the rich from the horror of contact with the filthy natives and preventing local fishermen from reaching the sea.

  • Natrang: This is the party centre of Vietnam. Nothing to do here but go out drinking. I did visit some very interesting salt farms 40km to the north. I even tried carrying a few baskets up the hill. The less said about that the better. Crazy work in that heat, especially when you consider that they are mostly women and therefore have to cover up completely for fear of getting tanned. I dread to think how little they get paid.

    The supposed “must do” activity in Natrang is the Island Booze Cruise:

    Natrang - A Day in the Life

    I get up at the unholy hour of 8am and head down to the dock. There's a team of Brits already assembled. Like many temporary travel groupings, they are a mismatched crew – there’s a tattooed one, a posh one, a Scottish one, and a gay-looking one with a bad haircut. They are friendly, but still smashed from the night before and I give them a wide berth. There’s also a sixty-year old Australian couple who clearly have no idea what they are getting into and a verminous infestation of Italians dressed in witless "comedy" T-shirts. More promisingly, I see a group of three blonde girls who turn out to be Norwegian.

    We get on the boat and start heading out to sea. The Brits are talking it big about their drinking exploits, but to their lasting shame I am the first to open a beer at about 10 o’clock. It glides down my throat like a gentle rain from heaven.

    At this point, I am looking pretty cool. The white crocs give me a street edge, while my pink hat lends a collared-shirt sophistication to proceedings. I decide to put on the green-rimmed shades I bought in Laos. My coolness is now extreme. The English guys stare over, jealous and impressed.

    I stroll over and chat to one of the Norwegians. Her name is Ingebjorg, a delightful creature with a trim figure and eyes like the fishpools of Hebron. She is surprisingly friendly and says (I’m paraphrasing here) that the hat makes me look like a 1960's James Bond. I light a cigarette to show the extent to which I live by my own rules and hold it stylishly in the same hand as my beer like a French philosopher. I spend the morning being drunk and fascinating, teaching them desert survival techniques and showing nonchalant familiarity with northern Iraq.

    Lunch is served and I do significant damage to a tray of spring rolls. A conversation about travel in Cambodia inevitably turns to shooting cows with a bazooka. This is an “activity” that a great many backpackers have on their agenda in Cambodia. Don’t get me wrong - I want to shoot a bazooka, I just don't want to shoot a bazooka at a cow. Nor do I want to strap a grenade to a pig or tazer a squirrel. Who are these people? Was I this dense when I was twenty? Don’t answer that. It’s quite possible that I was exactly the same, smug public school git that I am.

    One of the unhealthy-looking, flabby and frizzy-haired English girls sits down next to me.

    “What are you reading?” I ask.
    “Twilight. It’s great!”

    I nod and smile glassily. She opens the book and starts reading, lips moving and finger following the text. Too much food and the right amount of booze is a soporific combination - time for a nap. I wake up an hour later from an excellent dream in which I make billions and have my likeness carved into the surface of Mars.

    It turns out the crew have an amp, electric guitar and drums on board, and we are treated to a surreal “show”, which includes a transvestite act by the fat and very drunk cook. He can’t sing so they’ve forced him to wear a grass skirt and fake boobs made from two coconut halves. At one point he lifts his skirt to prove a point that never needed proving. Not exactly sophisticated, but this is an easy crowd and they love it.

    They ask for volunteers to dance and one of the Brits makes a bid for the spotlight. He clambers on stage with his shirt off and jiggles about like an epileptic Billie Elliott, his torso shining with the hideous pallor of West London. Crushed by the weight of social expectation, he soon gives up. By this time, the blessed beer has established a firm foothold in my bloodstream and I glide onto the stage. The smoothness and raw sex appeal of my dancing draws astonished gasps from the crowd. I do a couple of songs and leave them wanting more.

    It’s time for the crew to set up the “free cocktail bar” in the water. This turns out to be a floating aluminium frame that you cling to while they pour industrial solvent mixed with pineapple juice directly into your mouth. After getting over the initial shock, the Australian oldies get right into the spirit of the thing and turn out be excellent value.

    We are left to bob around in the water for half an hour while they clear away the plates from lunch. One of the Italians corners me and launches into a punishingly dull explanation of The Secret, a concept I am extremely familiar with and hate. I idly wonder if I can drown him without anyone noticing.

    We head back into port and I disembark feeling a bit nauseous and a bit disorientated. The ground appears to be moving from side to side. If you dwell too long in the shadow of evil it will infect you. A group of us head straight into a cocktail bar and I start buying rounds of Passion Fruit Leg Openers for the Norwegian girls.

    I shall pass over the rest of the evening with little comment, save to say that it went sharply downill when I switched to Vodka-Redbull buckets at midnight. Things ended shamefully when Ingebjorg had to rescue me after I attempted to slam dunk a beer can into a hanging flower pot and got my neck tangled in a string of fairy lights. It was as pathetic as it sounds.

  • Ninh Binh: I spent a wonderful day cycling around the countryside around Ninh Binh. The scenery is truly amazing. The promotional literature calls it Halong Bay on land. It consist of a huge cluster of irregularly-shaped karst hills, draped with dark green vines, which open out through gateways of sharp crags onto the horizontal expanse of paddy fields. Local boatmen, rowing with their feet, take you down tiny twisting creeks into v-shaped gorges or through cave systems into little fairy harbours.

    In the late afternoon an old man stopped me and beckoned me to follow him. We soon reached a stone staircase criss-crossing the irregular flanks of one of the larger hills. He smiled and pointed up before heading off into the fields. A tough 30 minute slog saw me reach the top. A small temple had been built on the ridge, high above the bustling industry of the Vietnamese countryside, giving spectacular views to both sides. The panorama is great even from ground level, but from here I could see the full expanse of Karst hills falling in sheer, smooth-fronted cliffs to the plain. The evening light was blessing the earth and the rice paddies stretched out into the distance like an immense croquet lawn.
    My most vivid memory of Vietnam.

  • Hoi An is a quaint and beautiful little gem. I was bored to tears. There are three things to do here: 1) Stroll around hand in hand with your girlfriend looking at all the over-restored buildings; 2) Go shopping with your girlfriend at one of the innumerable clothes shops and art galleries; 3) Eat out with your girlfriend at one of the romantic and overpriced restaurants.

    Yes, the place is pretty. Yes, the food is good. But it’s boring. And fake. I had exactly the same feeling of being on a film set that I had in Luang Prabang. In its day Hoi An was a maritime hub on a par with Macau. Now it is just a huge tourist trap where people in search of “culcha” eat ponced-up versions of Vietnamese street food in designer cafes. To be fair, if you can be bothered to get up early enough, there is a very authentic bustling fish market in the mornings.

  • Hue is one of my favourite places in Vietnam. It was the imperial capital and remains the cultural heart of the country. There are plenty of sights - I had a great time taking a serene boat trip along the perfume river to visit the imperial tombs and visiting the huge citadel in the quiet late afternoon when no-one was around. You can easily spend a few days wandering through the winding streets and over the rickety little bridges of the old town and eating street food (in the street with the locals, gasp!).

  • Mu Cang Chai: My time in Vietnam has been more about taking tours and paying money to look at old buildings than any actual activity. As a result, instead of taking the night train from Hanoi to Sapa, I decided to hitch hike up through Mu Cang Chai, a village that I was told has the most beautiful rice terraces in Vietnam. The fact that none of the guide books even mention the province, never mind the village, was an added incentive.

    This detour just confirmed what we all know. Avoid tours of any kind. Just hire a motorbike and head out by yourself. You will get lost, eat at irregular hours and miss half the sights but you’re back to travelling for adventure and discovery, not to tick off lists of temples. Through a great stroke of luck I met a young student who volunteered to guide me around for a day. We rode our motorbikes up some incredibly steep goat tracks through stunning valleys, over passes and past remote villages. A phenomenal day. Perhaps the most rewarding of the entire trip so far.

  • Sapa & Bac Ha: The Mountains of northern Vietnam are the highlight of the country. After securing control, the Vietcong introduced a policy of forced assimilation and relocated many of the hill tribes into lowland villages. In England we live in a post-racial paradise, so this may be difficult for UK readers to fathom. You have to remember that this took place in a crazy and backward part of the world where unheard-of things - like crime and governments curbing civil liberties - still exist.

    Ironically, the government is now reversing the policy in the interests of tourism, and is trying to encourage the tribes to keep their traditional way of life, just when they themselves want economic development and modern amenities.

    Sapa is a touristy place, with hotels rising ever higher in competition for the best views. It has some very good trekking in the surrounding mountains and lots of atmospheric fog. The Vietnamese absolutely love it,

    "Just like Europe, no?"

    The War
    I read a few rather unsatisfying books about the “American War”. One thing I was amazed by is the extent to which the Americans lied to their own population about how the campaign was going. The road to hell is paved with unwarranted extrapolations, but I think you can safely say that either through omission, ignorance or bare-faced lying, we are being misled about the state of play in the Middle East.

    My only real conclusion is that the war achieved precisely nothing. Their current engagements rather suggest that the Americans have still not grasped that the aspirations and priorities of people in other cultures deviate drastically from their own. You simply can’t force freedom on people.

    The Vietnamese retain no apparent animosity toward the Americans. I use a military laptop, so locals often asked me if I am in the American armed forces. I occasionally said yes, just to see if they would react negatively. They never did.

    Worst Moments
  • Getting badly sunburned yet again in Phuket.

  • I put the car on a ferry to cross a remote part of the Mekong. Went to get some water and they left without me. This is a shot of them pulling away:

  • Getting trapped on a bus with an unpublished Dutch “poet” on the way to Natrang. I no longer fear death.

    Quote From Something I’m Reading
    “His sentient nature was intrinsically joyous, and novelty and change were in themselves a delight to him. As they had come to him with a great deal of frequency, his life had been more agreeable than appeared. Never was a nature more perfectly fortunate. It was not a restless, apprehensive, ambitious spirit, running a race with the tyranny of fate, but a temper so unsuspicious as to put Adversity off her guard, dodging and evading her with the easy, natural motion of a wind-shifted flower.”
    (Henry James in The Europeans, read in a travelogue somewhere)

    Best/Worst Food
  • Cambodian food: I needed a break from the endless noodle soup in Laos. Like the Nepalis, the Cambodians have had hordes of tourists coming for decades and have become expert at approximating western food using local ingredients. The two Cambodian dishes that stood out for me were Loc-Lac, a fresh minty salad with stir-fried beef, and Fish Amok, a delicious mild curry made with coconut milk.

    In Skuon they eat deep-fried Tarantulas that they breed in tunnels outside town. You can see them piled high on platters around the place. Hot out of the oil, they are apparently not bad. Anyway, I’m petrified of spiders so it’s not for me.

  • Vietnam has a reputation for great food but it’s actually not that easy to find high quality food made with fresh ingredients. The fast food culture means you eat instant noodles alot of the time. One thing I ate for breakfast all the time is Bun-Cha. This is a cold bowl of noodles with pork meatballs and a hot dipping sauce, usually eaten sitting on a three inch high stool, off a table the size of a beer mat.

    Vietnam is one of the world’s largest coffee producers, but as in Colombia, the best is kept for the export market and the local stuff is pretty average. The tidy rows of coffee bushes and conical hated farmers make for good pictures though. They have a famous brand of coffee that is passed through the digestive tract of a weasel before they grind it. I kid you not. The question is - how much caffeine is left in the coffee? Surely the poor weasel absorbs it. You can imagine they aren't too concerned with the weasel's welfare and feed them nothing but coffee beans. I can only hope that the frenzied weasels don’t escape. It would probably cause a national security issue.

    I had the best banana milkshake of my life in Battambang. Oh my God, nothing I say can match up to the reality. If you ever visit, just go to the night market and find a place called 999, run by a family of local Catholics. Must... have... more...

    I am breaking my promise to write more serious blog posts to report that Nick Clegg smells of wee and prays for the wellbeing of Bin Laden, blast him.

    I see the Tories are back in power, to an extent. I feel largely indifferent. Their primary task – dealing with the country's economic woes - is a daunting one. The problem is that virtually no-one understands economics well enough to make responsible choices as a voter. Policy makers are in a similar position - you constantly get politicians with no understanding of the subject getting angry and disputatious on news programs, exhorting the government to adopt this or that economic policy. Things are becoming even more unintelligible and abstract to the average person, with inconceivably huge sums of money being poured into the giant turbines of the debt market to keep them turning.

    In case you’re looking for a new human interest story since God killed all those people in Haiti, almost a quarter of Mongolia's livestock has died as a result of one of the worst winters in 50 years. They need $18 million in humanitarian aid, which is microscopic compared to recent bailouts. I doubt they’ll get it, so give generously. It also appears both Sarkozi and Carla Bruni have been having affairs. To paraphrase Dumas - the chains of marriage are so heavy that it takes two to carry them and in some cases four.

    In other news, a small bird, species unknown, is hopping about on my windowsill, taking shelter from the rain. I think the technical term amongst bird watchers is an LGB – little grey bird. It’s raining pretty hard. Contrary to what the guidebooks tell you, travelling during the monsoon is not a problem. It usually just rains for an hour in the evening and that’s it.

    A friend has offered to bring some stuff out for me and asked me what I need. The answer is I can't think of much. It never used to be like this. I am no longer the person who has everything but instead the person who needs nothing. That’s not strictly true but you know what I mean. It’s partly because most stuff seems so outrageously expensive to me. The longer you travel, the tighter you get. It’s just one of those things that happens. When I was in North Africa, I spent money like Imelda Marcos at Tiffany's, but after a while I started to realise just how little the locals earn and spend, and adjusted the way I do things. The existence of a shiftless vagabond seems to suit me.

    I’ve left a lot out, but I don’t want this to turn into a list of places I’ve been. I still have no definite idea of where I am going to be in the next 2 months, other than a vague plan to head round China. It's kind of fun not knowing. Oh, and I’ve decided to extend my trip slightly. I will now drive from Patagonia to Alaska next year, instead of stopping in LA.

    Time to head down to the bar. To those of you who are working today - I will sip a chilled Caipirinha to your enterprise.