A Travellerspoint blog

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

days 92-94

rain 32 °C


The first sight to greet us upon docking in Phnom Penh were 10 tuk-tuk drivers all vying for our business. I'm calling them tuk-tuks but they were really no more than a motorbike pulling a trailer that had been customised into a carriage. They are actually quite a romantic way to travel around and a third of the price of a taxi so a good way to save money. After a couple of the drivers quoted us 5 dollars to get to our hostel, another guy offered to take us for 1 dollar. After making sure this was the total price and not the price per person, or per limb, or some other elaborate scam, we jumped aboard our carriage and were whisked off to the 'mad monkey' hostel a few kilometres down the road. Upon arriving at the hostel our driver, Peter, explained about the tours he offered and then pointed out that as he had taken us to our hotel for 1 dollar, that if we were going to book a tour then would we consider using him. It was a fair enough point and the cheap fair made a bit more sense. Usually we don't book any tours until we've settled in and shopped around a bit, but he quoted us a price of 15 dollars for a 6 hour tour the next day taking in the S-21 prison and the killing fields which seemed reasonable enough, so we agreed to let him pick us up at 9:30 the next morning.

The 'mad monkey' hostel was considerably better than the name suggests it might be. The room was basic, but passable, but the real selling point of the hostel was the restaurant/bar area on the ground floor. The food was tasty and plentiful, the beer was cheap, the atmosphere good and the service excellent. Upon arrival we were given a 'welcome leaflet' that explained the hostels philosophy was to employ young, disadvantaged kids and asked for guests to be patient with them if necessary. In the end there was really no need as the waiters, waitresses and bar people were all so friendly and helpful that if anything you felt a bit over-fussed about but it was all done with a smile and a joke and was a real selling point of the hostel.

After trying to get into the royal palace, one of the only pre-Khmer rouge buildings left in Phnom Penh with any grandeur, but being unable to as Lou was under-dressed (no shorts above the knees), we headed to the national museum just around the corner which proudly displays Khmer art work on the inside, and ancient Buddha statues around the central courtyard area. As was becoming customary, at 3pm the heavens opened and it chucked it down for an hour or two. When it finished we waded through knee-deep water to the street outside to find a tuk-tuk back to the hotel.

The next day, as planned, Peter picked us up at 9:30 to take us to the Tuol Sleng museum (S-21 prison). Formerly a school, the Khmer Rouge converted the classrooms into torture chambers and from 1975 some 17,000 prisoners came through the gates. When the prison was finally liberated in 1979 there were 7 prisoners remaining, the rest had been taken by bus, sometimes up to a hundred a day, to the nearby Choeung Ek fields (the killing fields) to be executed and dumped into mass graves. Most of the prisoners were 'political prisoners', which for the Khmer rouge includedwas anybody who may pose an immediate or future threat to their totalitarian rule and their vision of a peasant-based society. These included employees of the previous government, anybody who could speak a foreign language and anybody who was intelligent – indeed apparently wearing glasses was enough to get you killed.

Walking through the former classrooms turned torture chambers is a truly haunting experience – the metal beds and torture equipment have been left as they were as a stark reminder of the relatively little amount of time that has passed since these events occurred. Some of the other rooms have been turned into exhibitions – several of which contain wall after wall of prisoner mugshots. The Khmer Rouge photographed everybody who was detained at S-21 and less than 30 years later you can walk through the same dark concrete rooms where such evil took place and the faces of the 17,000 victims are staring straight back at you. One of the rooms has also been turned into a video room where you can watch a 1 hour long documentary which includes interviews with the few survivors of the torture as well as the torturers. Its an experience that isn't for the faint-hearted and one that can't fail to move you but as a lesson to what human beings are capable of under the correct conditions its really worthwhile.

14km away from the S-21 prison lie the 'killing fields'. Trucks picked the prisoners up from S-21 and drove them to the former orchard turned mass-graves site where they would be bludgeoned to death using whatever apparatus was handy. The site now has birds chirping away and as everybody is wearing headsets explaining the importance of various parts of the site, the fields have an eerie silence to them. The memorial stupa displays the recovered skulls of more than 8000 victims and during the wet season (we'd had torrential rain the day before), small fragments of bone and old clothes find their way to the surface of the now-exposed graves. The 3 and a half years of genocide went un-noticed by the world.

I'm no historian and am only repeating what I learned on the tours, but if you want to know more about the Khmer Rouge regime, a short but excellent account of life during that period is 'First They Killed my Father' by Loung Ung.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 02:25 Archived in Cambodia Tagged fields cambodia killing s-21 phnom penh Comments (0)

Chau Doc, Vietnam

days 91-92

storm 31 °C

Rather than go all the way from Saigon to Phnom Penh (in Cambodia) in 1 day, we decided to break the trip up and stay right by the border at Chau Doc. The town had a nice market, and although offered little in the way of tourist attractions, was a pleasant enough place to spend an evening, despite the torrential rain that hit while we were browsing the market and forced us to shelter in a hairdressers for an hour.

The next morning we headed to the harbour for our 'fast boat' down the Mekong and into our first stop in Cambodia – Phnom Penh. The boat left Chau Doc around 8am and although we were under the impression it went straight to Phnom Penh, when the guide told us we would be visiting a fish-farm and a local village we weren't too fussed. 2 hours after setting off from Chau Doc and taking in the fish-farm and the local village, we were back exactly the point where we had set off from, feeling highly confused and a bit miffed that we had paid a bit for a 'fast-boat' that had just gone round in a huge circle. When we finally did set off in the right direction the boat was a really pleasant way to spend an afternoon and made a nice change from the bus.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 23:40 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Saigon, Vietnam

days 87-91

semi-overcast 34 °C


Having taken 2 buses for our 2 long trips so far in Vietnam, we opted for the train for the 6 hour journey from Nha Trang to Saigon. Aside from the suspect looking and pretty foul smelling food that wafted past on a trolley every 20 minutes or so, the journey was eminently more comfortable than either of the bus rides. The train was clean, the seats were comfy and I had enough battery left on my iPod so that I didn't have to listen to the films being shown at far too high a volume for the weak speakers they were blurting out from.

We arrived in Saigon late in the afternoon and made our way to the 'My My Arthouse' hostel, located 50 metres or so behind the main backpacker strip down a windy alley that was barely wide enough to fit a motorbike down. It had come highly recommended by people that we had met along the way for its proximity to the heart of the action but quietness at night. The hostel was full but the outrageously camp and highly friendly proprietor Kim informed us they had a new hostel located a further 5 minutes walk into the bowels of the back-alleys of the Pham Ngu Lao district and although they only had 1 room left which consisted of 4 bunk-beds and no windows, it was cheap, it had A/C and it was spotlessly clean so it was more than passable for our four days in the city.

After an early start I was knackered and fancied an hours sleep so I arranged to meet Lou and Bettina in a bar 10 minutes walk away a bit later on. By the time I got out it was dark and the street that had looked pretty respectable by day had acquired a certain sin-city edge to it by night. Within a couple of minutes of leaving the hostel I was accosted by 2 pretty girls asking “do you want some?”. Without really looking at the girls, I politely enquired what kind of product or service they might be offering. When I did turn around to look at them, their sultry glances, short skirts, low cut tops, over-the-top makeup and the fact they were blowing kisses at me gave the game away and I carried on walking. I was then offered the usual medley of things that you get offered on the streets of large Asian cities; unidentifiable food-stuffs, massages, drugs, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Despite the definite edge to the city, it didn't feel dangerous at all and the low crime figures against tourists (minus the infamous drive-by bag snatchings performed by motorbike gangs) backs that up.

On our second day we walked the 15 minutes or so from the backpacker area to the war remnants museum which is a must-see no matter how short a time you have in the city. As you walk in to the complex there is a display of American tanks, planes, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft turrets. Getting so close to these killing machines sets the tone for the inside part of the tour which although has a slightly propagandist slant to it, is nonetheless haunting, harrowing and upsetting in equal measure. Spread over 3 floors, there are thousands of photos of terrified civilians, a section on the almost unified world-opinion against the war, and an interesting section on the second and third generation effects of agent orange which include disfigurement and much shorter life expectancy.

Just around the corner from the war remnants museum lies the reunification palace. Originally built as a palace to serve the Southern Vietnamese government, it became a symbol of reunification after the communist tanks smashed through the front entrance on 30 April 1975 which signalled the end of the war and victory for the North. The palace has been left in the same condition it was in that day and a free 30 minute tour takes in several rooms that although look dated, have been well-kept, maintain their splendour and look befitting of a grand palace. The tour also takes in the underground war-rooms where the American/South Vietnamese strategy came directly from. Built to withstand the strongest bombs the North Vietnamese possessed, the passage ways and rooms have been left in the same condition they were in in 1975, with desks, phones, typo-graphs and other various instruments lying in their original positions.

Another essential trip as long as you can cope with the vast hoards of other tourists are the Cu Chi tunnels. The 'secret weapon' of the Viet Cong, the tunnels baffled the Americans and provided the Viet Cong with a base of operations a mere 30km away from American-held Saigon. At their peak, they totalled 200km in length, stretched all the way to Cambodia and had a complex network that included protection against deliberate flooding and many 'dead ends' to confuse any American soldiers small enough to be able to fit in. As part of the tour we were offered the opportunity to try and lower ourselves down into one of the original tunnels. I just about managed to fit my arse in but my shoulders were too wide. Later on in the tour you can descend into the ground and travel 100 metres along the tunnels and although these tunnels were widened to twice the original size, I still struggled to make it through and although the widened tunnels are air-conditioned, I still got out the other end feeling claustrophobic and dripping with sweat. Imagine living down there for 8 years.

Although Lou and I were staying until Monday, Saturday was to be Bettina's last night of her trip before flying back to Sydney on Sunday, so we had the obligatory night out with the obligatory Welsh guy with the colonial hat and sang the obligatory abysmal karaoke that had become a theme of South East Asia. After Bettina left on Sunday, Kim had told us he wasn't very busy that night and so we could probably have the room to ourselves, although if they got full then we would have to share. As we were feeling a bit hungover, and wanted an early night, we were dreading 2 young English or Australian beer louts coming in. So we were pretty relieved when at about 7pm 2 young Chinese girls came in, made themselves comfortable and watched Wolves – Everton with me.

If you can bear the ridiculously busy roads then Saigon is a city you could easily spend a week looking around. You can haggle in the market, people-watch in the park, stroll along the river and generally mix in with the locals. We managed to squeeze in the highlights during our 4 days but a week would really do the place justice.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 23:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tunnels vietnam co saigon chi ho min Comments (0)

Nha Trang, Vietnam

days 84–86

sunny 33 °C


Having no train station, our only choice for transport to Nha Trang was another night bus. The experience was almost exactly the same as the last one, except there were a few more pot-holes this time and so less sleep.

We arrived in Nha Trang, predominantly a beach town, at around 6am. The hotel told us we could check into our room as soon as the current occupants checked out and they had cleaned it, but this could be any time from 7 to 12. With a few hours to kill, we walked the 5 minutes down to the beach and were more than a little bit surprised to see the beach was almost full, and the beach cafes were all pretty busy. I supposed it was because Vietnamese people like having light skin and so were using the beach when it wasn't so warm, but we never found out for sure.

After perusing the beach for a while and deeming it satisfactory, we sat down at one of the cafes and ordered some fresh baguettes and coffee for breakfast. One of the best things about Vietnam so far has been the quality of the coffee; served black and either hot or over ice, its as nice as any coffee I've had and is very strong.

Finally able to check in at 10am, we freshened up and headed down to the beach where we spent a few hours swimming, sunbathing and generally relaxing. Whilst at the beach we saw an Island a mile or so away with a mock-Hollywood sign that read 'Vin Pearl'. After we'd finished at the beach we asked around in some of the travel agencies and it turns out it is a theme and water park, and the next day was a good day to go as the 2-day annual Vietnamese reunification/labour day holiday was finishing that day. My protestations that we could do something a bit more cultural and interesting than go to a water park were roundly rejected with murmurings of being “templed-out”, and I did consider finding something better to do, but the inner-kid inside me couldn't bare the thought of other people having fun while I took pictures of old buildings, and so we bought our tickets for the next day.

We spent 8 hours at Vin Pearl the next day, accessed by a 20 minute cable-car ride from the shore, at the end of which I was forced to admit that it was half decent after-all. The theme park half of it had one really good ride – you are sat in a small toboggan and are pulled for 10 minutes up to the top of the hill. Once there you free-fall back down the hill (the toboggan attached to the tracks), weaving around the mountain on the way. There are brakes, and there are signs warning you to brake before sharp corners, but only losers brake on a roller-coaster, right?

The water park half of the resort had 10 slides ranging from a 'death slide' type sheer drop whilst sat in a rubber ring, to a lazy river where you can just drift round and round, to a wave pool, to a few fast steep drop ones to my personal favourite – you climb up to the top of the steps about 50 feet in the air and then set off into a tunnel. The tunnel is pretty much pitch black and you are thrown around sharp corners for 30 seconds or so. You then reach the steepest and straightest section at the bottom of which is an upside down lampshade-shaped structure which you are thrown into at quite some speed and the momentum takes you round and round it a good few times. At this point my head didn't know where my arse was, and I looked down and realised there was a hole in the bottom of the lampshade. After spinning around for 20 seconds or so you are ceremoniously dumped out of it and fall into a deep lagoon, the best analogy would be that you had been in the bowels and then... well that one can be left to the imagination.

After going on our favourite rides a few more times we headed back to the theme park via the free arcade, where my inner child could barely contain his excitement at having a plethora of 90's arcade games to play... for free! I shot balloons with the Taj Mahal as a back-drop in 'pang', raced cars on 'SEGA rally', kept losing at 'ISS' football, couldn't get past level 5 of 'streets of rage' and got competitive with the girl next to me trying to get as many baskets in the hoop in 60 seconds as possible.

As the toboggan ride was on the way back to the cable-car we decided to stop for one more go. It was busier this time so they stopped us at the top whilst the person in front had an opportunity to get 25 metres ahead. There were then various signs warning you to stay 25m behind the toboggan in front, which would have been possible if the guy in front of didn't have the brakes on and had been doing any more than 5k/hour. Last time I must have been going 30k/hour+, and so this time I was feeling very unsatisfied by the lack of thrill and I went on again immediately, only for the same thing to happen again! This time I was in no mood to have my childish thrill-seeking ruined and started softly bumping the person in front's toboggan. The Chinese guy was in no mood to take his breaks off and so he and I were bumper to bumper the whole way down me shouting “faster” and him shouting “slower”.

On our second and last night in Nha Trang we decided to try out the widely lauded 'blind massage' which is exactly as it sounds – a massage provided by a blind person. Bettina had been in the day before to have massage and had a thoroughly good experience, so the 3 of us decided to go in for a half hour foot massage before dinner. When Bettina had been in the previous day the receptionist had been of good-sight and managed the logistics of things – directing her to the room, taking money for payment etc, but when we went the next evening she wasn't there. In spite of her absence, 5 minutes after we walked in and asked for what we wanted, we were being directed upstairs to a room with 3 beds next to each other. The room must have been new to the 3 masseuses/masseurs as it took 3 of them to open the door, and they kept walking into each other while doing their preparations. Without a stick for guidance it was no surprise in such a small room but before long my massage and Bettina's massages were under way. It took a little longer for Lou's to start as the masseuse got stuck in the curtain and the more she tried to fight her way out of it, the more she got tangled in it. Not knowing whether to help or not, we sat there while the other 2 fought with the curtain until eventually she popped out of the other side and soon after all 3 massages were under way. The massages themselves were ok – certainly not as good as some we'd had but for 1/3rd of the price you really couldn't argue. You just felt that with a little more guidance and perhaps somebody fully sighted there to help them they could really excel, but in a country that provides little state welfare help to the disabled, its a good way to get a cheap massage and help the disadvantaged become self-sufficient.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 06:41 Archived in Vietnam Tagged water park beach pearl nha trang vin Comments (2)

Raining cats and dogs

market in Chao Doc

storm 33 °C

which incidentally sold some skinned and cooked animals that looked suspiciously like cats and dogs...

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 06:38 Archived in Vietnam Tagged rain market down dogs cats pissing Comments (0)

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