Monthly Archives: April 2008

the awe-inspiring architecture of the Angkorian Empire

There are very things in life that are worth waking up at 5am to see especially if you’re not a morning person which I’m most definitely not. It’s not my fault, all down to the genetics, my cell’s circadian rhythms are primed for the twilight hours and not the dawn. It was still very dark outside when my phone vibrated itself off the bed and we had to crawl up, get dressed and stumble down the guest house steps to meet our tuktuk driver for the day, Mr Bross, outside. Half an hour later we were walking along the causeway that leads up to the temples at Angkor Wat, the most iconic and famous of all the ruins.

A little history

Khmer ladies at Angkor WatQuick smattering of history before I get into any lyrical waxing. The great Khmer civilisation that built the temples around Angkor arose in the last 1st century and flourished for the next 600 years stretching at times from Burma to Vietnam. They built huge temples, irrigation systems, canals, hospitals and libraries and at the peak governed around one million people. Sadly their success was probably instrumental in their decline. Over population and deforestation led to the silting up of their farming and agricultural irrigation systems and the empire suffered from the extensive and hugely ambitious building projects. What I found most intriguing was the echoes of the temples at Hampi and Maharashtra in India in the buildings around Siem Reap. Indianisation had occurred in Cambodia prior to the Khmer empire at the turn of the 1st century via trading ports along the coast. It was strange to come across Ganesh, Shiva, Yama and Vishnu as well as statues of the Buddha and even engravings in Sanskrit on the walls of doorways.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat at sunriseThere were clouds gathered across the horizon so it was a while longer before a hazy yellow sun rose into view in the sky between two palms next to the towers of Angkor Wat. We were standing by the edge of a large lily pond inside the walls and caught the perfect early morning reflection of the whole structure. It is pretty damn cool! Angkor Wat is believed to be a funerary temple built for King Suryavarman I to honour Vishnu, it faces West, a direction usually associated with death. After the sun was up nearly everyone vanished to our surprise and the three of us were among only a handful of tourists that went inside to explore. There are long columned corridors, beautiful intricate carvings of stories and battles along the sides, engraved heavenly nymphs called Aspara and the mighty towers in the centre.

Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm
Stone faces at BayonAfter Angkor Wat, and pancakes, Mr Bross drove us onto the large enclosure at Angkor Thom which was known as the great city. The central temple is called Bayon and it is not for the paranoid, each of the towers and entrances are adorned with over 200 huge stone faces with slightly cruel blank eyes and wide smiling lips gazing down on you. From here we visited a few other temples and a wide long terrace known as the terrace of elephants with huge stone trunks and tusks carved draped down the front and fighting elephants running along the sides. By now the wonderful coolness of the morning had begun to mature into the usual sweat-inducing humid Cambodian midday heat so we decamped to a stall for spicy sour Khmer soup and rice for an early lunch. Overgrown trees in Ta ProhmMy favourite temples of the day were those of the buddhist monastery at Ta Prohm, and not just because they were featured in Tomb Raider. The jungle had done a remarkable job of reclaiming back these Angkor temples and whilst they are being excavated the largest trees have been left to show how nature has run amok amongst the stones. Huge roots of Chann and Sprung trees have grown down, into and through the huge stone, splitting them apart in places and in others winding along and around the columns and walls like huge sandstone snakes. The walls and doorways seem to be buckling to withstand the pressure.

A few more temples including the dizzying vertigo inducing climb at Ta Keo and the lake stretching out from Sra Srang and we’d been temp-ling for almost eight hours. Our wonderfully stoic driver took us back to the guest house just as the clear day broke and the rain began to fall.

The long bike ride and the Roluos Group temples
Doorway in the Rolous templesIt may have been one of those days where Rob and Mika regretted me being in charge of the plan. I thought it would be a great idea to hire bicycles for the day (they don’t hire motorbikes to tourists in Siem Reap sadly) and ride out to a few temples around 13km from Siem Reap. The road was flat and smooth but the bikes were a little rusty, the brakes dubious and the day was a scorcher. The ride out was fine as we left just after 9am and huge trees once we got outside the town provided some welcome shade. We had to take the National Highway but the word Highway is really being used in the loosest possible way. In Cambodia that means it’s paved, relatively smooth reasonably straight. We got overtaken by shared taxis with people literally stuffed into the back, motorbikes carrying wicker cages of pink pigs, buses, trucks and tuktuks. All along the road were small wooden houses on stilts, more expensive cement multistory villas brightly painted, palm trees, skinny white cows and tiny roadside stalls selling cigarettes, drinks and fruit.

Bakong monastry ruinsWe arrived at the first temple just off the main road called Preah Ko, built in the late 9th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. There were six elegant stone halls, now sprouting tufts of earth and grass from they steeped towers but having kept much of the beautiful engravings around and above the doorways and the extensive Sanskrit passages on the inside. In front of the three front halls a small Nandi (sacred oxen) sat squatting looking up to the doors, just like the ones I’d seen all over India. After drinking our own body weights in water we cycled a little further on to what turned out to be the impressive temple of Bakong. We had to cycle along a red dirt track around two sides of the outer wall that enclose a green moat, another inner set of walls and within those the large central temple of Bakong also built for Lord Shiva. Rob’s sandal had mutinied once we arrived and broken so we had a brief interlude of buying chewing gum, threading the thong bit back through and sticking it together with the chewed gum. A brilliant brain wave of Rob’s that lasted long enough to walk around the temple but sadly gave up the gum half way home. By the time we got back to Siem Reap this afternoon Rob was cycling in bare feet and Mika was very red in the face. I suggested popping in to see the local miniature replicas of the Angkor temples and got two very exasperated looks in return so I swung by on my own and let the other two got back to sleep off the sweat!

Banteay Srei and beyond
Rob and I in Banteay SreiFor our final day of temples we wisely left the rickety bikes and employed the services of Mr Bross again for the hour drive through small local roadside villages out to a beautiful temple called Banteay Srei. It’s small and has the most beautiful carvings around the doorways and archways, they look as if they are made from wood as it seems improbable that so much detail could be fashioned from stone. After lunch in the baking heat we also stopped by a temple called Banteay Samre of which we’d heard nothing but proved to be pretty cool. Delicate carvings in Banteay SreiInside the structure steps lead down from the main towers into what would have been an inner moat, now dry, surrounded by engraved windows. A really lovely spot and more importantly some very nice shade! We came back into the main fold of temples to visit ancient pools, more towers, vaulted walkways and gateways overgrown with tree trunks, battle through the never-ending supply of women, children and boys selling guide books, scarves, water and postcards. Eventually by 3pm we were well and truly templed out, there is only so much stunning ancient architectural masterpieces the brain and the eye can take. They are amazing but after three days of Angkor glory I can definitely leave Cambodia with my historical needs well and truly sated!

More temple photos here…

Farewell to Team Token
Claire RobMika
I am flying to Kuala Lumpar tomorrow while Mika and Rob head on up to Laos so finally the token black, the token boy and the token American are parting ways. Well I have left them with a full itinerary for Laos so I’m sure they’ll be fine without me…

sweat and pepper

Kampot RiverCambodia is getting hotter and hotter. The locals have a remarkably simple way of dealing with this. They get up at the crack of dawn, eat and fuss about until about 10am when they disappear into shaded hammocks and enter a partially comatose state until 4 or 5pm in the afternoon when things begin to cool down. The three of us have not quite managed to emulate this skill. Generally by the time we are awake, up and breakfasted it has become the hottest part of the day so there has been much sweating and Rob’s arm got so burnt the other day that if he rolls up his sleeve it looks like a nepolitan ice cream!

Looking through the ruins at Bokor HillWe left Snookville and got a very small minibus to the riverside town of Kampot which is a very sleepy town with wide streets, palm trees along the river front, small restaurants and cafes, prowling night dogs, a militant ant population and absolutely no street lighting after dark. Standing overlooking Kampot ProvinceThere were some lovely old colonial buildings below the centre and a fascinating bridge in three mismatched parts (one French, one Vietnamese and one Cambodian) and two different heights. On our second day we took a trip up to Bokor Hill Station, a former retreat during French colonial times and used as a major strategic stronghold for the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge in more recent decades. The view from the top was pretty impressive, the station stands at 1080m and drops straight back down to sea level, we could see the coastline stretching out in front of us. All that remains now are burnt out decaying ruins including the former palace, casino, church and water tower. Walking through the abandoned buildings with the clouds rolling over the hill top outside the whole place was a little spooky, shades of The Shining and the water tower looked like a stage prop from War of the Worlds. After lunch we had a short,rather uneventful walk through the jungle on our way back to sea level and then hopped on a wobbly wooden boat which took us the scenic one hour route back down the Kampot river into town.

The three country bridge in Kampot

And as for the pepper, Kampot is known for its pepper, and I have to say, it is probably the best pepper I have ever tasted.

dirt bikes and dirty dancing

Happy New Year! Phnom PenhCurrently chilling out in Sihanoukville, which has been a lot of fun, but is beginning to burn a hole in both my liver and my wallet! Our last night in Phnom Penh we ended up being covered in talcum powder and wished a Happy Khmer New Year by the staff in the restaurant – for some reason we were the only westerners they felt the need to talc…Turns out I look pretty scary with a white face!

Big Night out in SnoopVilleThe next day due to some late night Cuba Libres in an Irish Pub chatting to a fascinating old American guy called Bob, we were all fast asleep for the whole of the four hour journey down to the coast. About 15 minutes after arriving we found ourselves in a $7 bungalow in a place called the Monkey Republic. Kids in Ream National ParkSihanoukville is a weird place, everything seems to be owned and largely run by westerners, there are bars, restaurants, beach loungers a go-go and the place is more full of backpackers than our bathroom is of ants. And still, it’s a nice place, the beach is cute and chatting to the kids there is very amusing even though we refused to buy anything from them (many reasons not too, namely trying to encourage them to go to school). Beach Kids in SihanoukvilleThey have Camembert, Monterrey Jack and Feta cheese in the restaurants which, after two months of Dairy Lea and plastic cheese, is heaven. The music is good, the rum is dark and the weather is hot, so really it’s a fun place to hang out. Thursday night proved rather messy although it started out so peacefully having post-sunset Cuba Libres in a little beach bar with Squid and chicken skewers for dinner. How it descended into a bar crawling, gin-fuelled, dance fest is beyond me – maybe the addition of two new friends, Tara (Camden) and James (Glasgow) tipped us over the edge. Well it was fun, but sweaty, and at least this time I didn’t break the beds! We all wisely decided to have the next day off and concentrated on eating food, drinking water and sitting in the TV room with the fans on full blats watching DVDs.

The pink scooter girlsToday Rob, Mika and I hired bikes to head out to Ream National Park abut 20km from town. Mika and I have very cute, but speedy automatic scooters in hot and baby pink. Rob, being a boy, and being Rob, hired a 250cc Dirt Bike! Thankfully apart from a broken brake handle both he and the bike made it back in one piece – actually it was pretty cool although I didn’t quite feel confident enough to have a go as my feet couldn’t reach the ground from the seat! We drove out to Ream National Park and rode through the edges of the jungle along the coastline dotted with palms and small local wooden houses on stilts. shells in Ream National ParkThe narrow strip of beach was deserted apart from ourselves, strewn with drift wood, shell fragments and tiny white crabs scuttling into the surf. There was a good few kilometres on really rough, bumpy track which Mika and I carefully navigated on our hers and hers scooters whilst Rob went flying along at full speed and grinning like he’d just found the true meaning of happiness! Bless! Well I am off to meet Rob, Mika, Tara and James in the bar for a few drinks and a quiet meal…and if you believe that, you’ll believe anything!

troubled past and the hedonistic present

In thought at Wat PhnomThe journey to Cambodia I think will go down in my memories as the hottest, sweatiest day of my life. Two cramped boat rides down the humid, sun soaked Mekong, a very efficient border check and then another boat ride and a final 90 minutes by bus to deliver us into the centre of Phnom Penh. I fell asleep on the bus with my forearm stretched out across my leg. When I lifted it up there was a wide sweaty damp streak underneath. Tasty!

The Nightlife of Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh reminds me a lot of Bangkok without the the huge shopping malls and Skytrain. It’s really quite at the moment as most places as closed over the Cambodian New Year, although despite that we’ve managed to find some excellent restaurants (how can I describe the wonders of deep-fried Mozzarella after months of Dairylea slices and plastic cheese) and some very entertaining late night bars. Yesterday we spent the day wandering around the centre, visiting a small sleepy temple called Wat Phnom at the top of a small hill and vegging out in a lakeside bar. We’d had dinner and a few drinks along the riverside strip and Rob refused to go home until we’d had one more for the road so we asked our tuk-tuk driver to take us one somewhere else. I think we ended up in what must surely be the only lesbian run bar in all of Cambodia. Seriously! I had my boobs poked by our very friendly bar woman who told us she slept with her girlfriends and didn’t like men. Needless to say it was a rather entertaining evening! Mika in the broken bed!We got back to the guest house about 3am and Rob and Mika both collapsed on their beds. I was marching over the three beds complaining that they were being boring whilst “Pretty Fly for a White Guy”was playing on the speakers. As I stomped my foot onto Mika’s bed the whole end of it crashed through onto the ground! I laughed until there were tears! We sort of fixed it but it will no longer support anyone’s weight. Oops. This, boys and girls, is why your mother tells you never to jump up and down on the bed.

The Killing Fields
Skulls at the Killing FieldsThis afternoon we went to visit the Killing Fields and S-21. These two sights represent the horrific regime of genocide that was implemented by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between 1974 and 1979 in his attempt to create a Maoist-peasant dominated agrarian co-operative. The entire population of Phnom Penh was driven out of the capital to work on forced labour camps in the countryside, hundreds of thousands were executed and still more died of famine and disease. S-21, formerly a school was converted into the main torture and detention camp, also called ‘Tuol Sleng’ which means a posionous hill to keep those who bear or supply guilt. Photo of a girl at S-21About 27,000 men, women and children were detained at S-21 and then taken out to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek outside the city (the Killing Fields) and machete’d to death (they didn’t want to waste precious bullets by shooting the victims). Choeung Ek is now a rural, peaceful area, with bright flowers and the sounds of birdsong. There is a large stupa which houses 8000 skulls exhumed from mass graves around the area. Even so, it is hard to imagine the atrocities that took place.

S-21 I found far more upsetting. It still looks like a school with a leafy courtyard, white flowering trees, checkered floor classrooms and balconies; but the exercise bar was used to torture detainees and the classrooms were the cells for holding thousands of prisoners, administering lashes, electricity and other torture methods to extract confessions. The prisoners were mainly Cambodian, from all over the country and from all walks of life. It was not only the individual who was guilty, their whole families from the elderly to babies would be taken for extermination. Cells at S21The rooms now show the blank expressions of the men, women and children taken there. Some show the bloodied faces and emaciated bodies in horrific detail. There were rooms in which narrow brick cells had been built within the classrooms to keep certain prisoners in isolation. It was a very thought-provoking and very harrowing afternoon. All three of us were very quiet in the tuk tuk driving back.  As we passed through the streets we could see families lying around their porches in the shade, children running around on their bicycles, young guys posing by their motorbikes, girls with hilights and heels chatting on new mobile phones and groups of men laughing and playing cards. As we paid our driver he smiled and said “Happy New Year” before driving off. Whatever horrors lie in the recent past Cambodia seems, at any rate, to be positively rushing forward into the future.

more messing about on the Mekong

Facebook Photos: click here

Having had our fill of the big Vietnamese tourist excursions, Mika and I decided that there was no amount of money that would induce us to take a 30-person trip into the Mekong Delta. So we decided to go to the bus station, hop on a minibus and see what happened and for good measure, and so someone could laugh at his quotes from ‘The Rock,’ we took Rob with us for the ride. It was a good decision, although to be fair we may have missed the floating markets, the popcorn making factory and the traditional Vietnamese dancing, I almost felt like I was scratching the surface of the country for the first time and actually getting a feel for the life here which is surprisingly difficult in Vietnam. We took a tiny minibus down to the town of Vinh Long on the banks of one of the widest sections of river and managed to get a wooden boat with a propeller out the back to take us up the river, at sunset, to a little guest house on the edge of one of the canals owned by ex-VC soliders. We had two tiny wooden bungalows set in a garden of green trees, flowers, giant butterflies and hammocks. Despite a lack on English on their part and a total absence of Vietnamese on our part we got some dinner and some beers and then set up the speakers by the hammocks near the edge of the water and drank in the hammocks listening to the sounds of the night boats motor past. Every so often the owner would come up to see how we were, sit down for a while chuckling to himself before patting Rob on the shoulder and wandering off again!

Mekong Delta, VietnamThe next morning after breakfast we walked down the path running alongside the canal past wooden houses and boats hemmed in by floating weeds. The local dogs growled at us on the way past and lots of locals laughed at us, presumably because we were walking about in the near midday heat when every other sensible person was napping in a hammock. An hour later we were back in the hammocks waiting for the boat to take us into town. From Vinh Long it was a 10km motorbike ride to a random bus stop, a two hour extended afternoon snack and chat with the local friendly security guys before we got a minibus up what may loosely be described as a road to Chau Doc. Sadly the driver had cranked up some local pop music through the loud speakers at ipod defying volume. I think I may have dis-associated for part of the trip in an attempt to keep myself sane. Amazingly it was 10pm by the time we arrived, very hot, very sweaty and dying for some food. The hotel we found had an enormous room, three huge double beds and after some excellent rice and beef washed down with Saigon beer from the street vendors, and luke-cold showers we slept like princes. Chau Doc is a really relaxed riverside town with a kind of French meets Asian communism feel to it. There are endless numbers of girls cycling around in their immaculate white traditional dresses with perfect posture and the usual ridiculous thousand and one things being ferried around on the back of motorbikes. The main street runs along the side of the river where the Mekong fans out into sections of floating houses on huge barrels, tug boats, clumps of weed and rowing boats. We are currently seeking refuge from the heat which has landed us in the only luxurious hotel in the town where we are drinking overpriced beers by the pool and eating all their free peanuts. Tomorrow we are off to Cambodia!

the vietnamese prostitutes of Apocalypse Now

We finally had to leave the idyllic beaches of Phu Quoc and head back to the big bad city of Saigon. Mary had to get moving into Cambodia so Mika and I met up with an English guy, Rob, and some of the guys he was travelling with and with the influence of that many Brits together in a city, the next two days involved many, many beers, a thoroughly strange pub quiz, games of pool, hanging out in the Guns ‘n’ Roses bar and a visit to a terrible club called Apocalypse Now. Well actually the club was quite funny but it was full of aged white-haired men dancing to cheesy pop music with tiny Vietnamese prostitutes…nice!

We did manage to make it out to the Cu Chi tunnels outside the city which are fascinating but the tour bus we went on was the final straw for both of us. By the time the guide had introduced himself with a patter of terrible jokes, told us all we could call him John Wayne and put stickers on each of us, we decided this was the very last organised tour we were taking in the country. The tunnels themselves are interesting though; the were first constructed by the Vietnamese in resistance to the French rule in Vietnam and then during the war they were extended to cover about 250km underground, three levels, ranging from 80cm to 70cm in width and 1.2 metres high. They enabled the Viet Cong to hide, move supplies and people from the Ho Chi Minh trails in Cambodia and throughout the south of Vietnam. We got to crawl and scramble through about 100 metres of original tunnel which was very dark and very cramped. Clearly a career in subterranean communism is not for me. The strangest thing was the propaganda video that we watched afterwards, which did it’s best to glamorise the VC resistance showing them tirelessly working in the fields, digging more tunnels and enjoying relaxed games of cards. The commentator proudly announced that whatever happened they were always coming up with new ways to kill American soldiers. Military spin, it seems, never made it as far as SE Asia.

the easy island life

Phu Quoc Island, VietnamWhat is it about islands? It doesn’t matter which part of the world you are in but when you put any kind of civilisation on an island small enough to drive around in a day, with hot weather and palm trees the whole pace of life just slows down and any urgency to do things kinds of drifts away with the tide. Getting to Phu Quoc island was probably the most I have actually had to work at transport in Vietnam. This country makes you supremely lazy, tourists buses have booking cafes a go-go offering you easy, inexpensive fares to everywhere you want to go, they pick you up from the door of your hotel, drop you off slap bang in the middle of all the hotels of your destination, in fact a trained monkey could probably travel around Vietnam with ease. Long Beach, Phu QuocThere are no tourist buses that go to Phu Quoc as sensible people fly directly there. We decided to take the hard route and besides, the flights were all booked out. So we had to get a taxi and a minivan to the bus station and then get a local minivan bus six hours across the bumpy roads of the Mekong Delta to Rach Gia. There were two tiny old women on the back seat with Mary and I and quite frankly they were mean. They were at least half our size and took up all the space, refusing to budge and then sprawling against and over the seats with their wrinkly arms and legs. Nice! It was a long ride to Rach Gia. We spent the night in a little hotel and then caught the morning ferry over to the island where a local bus ride and 30 minutes of phaffing up and down the guest houses on the back of three motorbikes eventually brought us to somewhere to stay!

Mary getting suited up on the boat, Phu QuocWe’d picked a small place with a series of spacious but simple bungalows with balconies and hammocks in a long garden that lead down to the beach and beautiful views of the island. All the places to stay are along the west coast in an area called Long Beach. Our section of beach was covered in white sand, a few shaded sun loungers, a few small rocks lay in the impossibly clear waters that led out into the warm turquoise sea. Blue sky, white puffy clouds, restaurant right on the edge of the beach and cheap, ice cold beer. What more do you need. Well rum actually. Mika and I brought a litre of cheap dark rum and cans of Diet coke thinking we’d never drink the whole lot. Then after dinner Mary went to bed and somehow the two of us were up chatting watching a seriously impressive thunder storm rage outside and bizarrely, by 4am, we’d finished all the rum!

Bat Fish, Nudibranch gardens, Phu QuocThe next day we managed to do nothing but swim, eat, read and lie dozing in the hammocks. I’m not usually a beach person but it’s been a long time since I switched off and properly relaxed, so it felt wonderful. The next day we went out diving in the northern area of Phu Quoc. I hadn’t done any diving for two years so although the visibility wasn’t great it felt really good to be under the water again and it has got me seriously excited about diving in Malaysia. Me Scuba Diving, Phu Quoc, VietnamWe did see the most incredible jellyfish on the first dive, a huge pulsating pink and red translucent animal with dozens of tiny white fish swimming around beneath the umbrella of it’s body. I was torn between trying not to get too close and trying to get a good picture with my new underwater disposable camera! Between the low visibility and infrequent sunshine the photos are, interesting, but I’ve put some on anyway, they kind of have an blurred, exploration of unknown depths kind of quality to them! Mika and Mary, Phu QuocThe second dive was at a place called Nudibranch gardens and apart from the beautiful branch corals everywhere it is known for the Nudibranches which are small slug-like creatures in psychedelic purples, yellows and blues. They look a little like those weird lighters they sell at festivals with fluorescent spikes sticking out of the sides! There were also bat fish, which were far larger than I’d realised from the photos, and when I turned around to spot one I was somewhat startled to see something the size of my head peering straight into my goggles. I backed up a little hurriedly and managed to take out a chunk of dead coral reef behind me… I’m so graceful!

a city on two wheels

The crazy wiring in SaigonFinally arrived in the far south of Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City, practically everyone still calls it Saigon and it is not the large, polluted, overwhelming Asian mayhem that everyone makes it out to be. Or maybe that’s me coming from a post Mumbai/Delhi/Kolkata perspective. Still the tourist area is a collection of small, easily navigable streets with plenty of cute street side cafes, bars, travel agents and guest houses and a million shops selling photocopied Lonely Planets, Nick Hornby novels, fake DVDs and Good Morning Vietnam t-shirts. For our last day together before he headed to Cambodia I dragged James into town to see the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum.

James and the motorbikes, SaigonOnce we got into the centre of the city the traffic did get noticeably crazier, there are just so many motorbikes, it is as if the whole place moves, breathes and pulses on two wheels and they carry anything and everything on the back of those wheels. James decided it was time for some comedy photos in front of the rows of waiting cyclists at the traffic lights. Comedy photo but it did very nearly end in tears!

reunification palace, saigonReunification Palace is like stepping back in time. It was built in the 1960s and was home and administration centre for the somewhat short-lived presidents of the Southern Republic of Vietnam before in 1975 the Communist troops from the North famously rode down the gates in two tanks and took control of the country. Now the rooms are immaculately preserved (and still sometimes used for visiting dignitaries) in a kind of 1970s time warp with their retro furniture, old fashioned bars, conference rooms and banquet halls. There are also two floors of bunkers beneath the palace with the old maps showing the allied and VC unit positions during the Vietnam war and rows of round dialed beige plastic telephones.

Saigon motorbikesThe War Remnants Museum is interesting but harrowing in places. It basically portrays a heavily Vietnamese sided account (obviously) of the Vietnam War in photographs and war relics, but mainly told through the pictures and interestingly most of the pictures were taken by American War Photographers. More Motorbikes, SaigonIt definitely manages to show a no holds barred, warts-and-all portrayal of war, from the pictures of the American soldiers crawling through mud in the torrential rain, pictures of women screaming as rifle butts are pressed up against their cheeks, a solider holding up the remains of a farmer who has stood on a mine; his head, shoulder and arm hanging down while the rest of his body lies in parts around the ground. I sometimes think that anyone who ever comes into a position where they have huge political or military power should have to sit through photos like these to understand the possible ramification of their decisions.

This evening we met up with Mika and Mary who were on our Halong Bay trip and who James was hanging out with in Nha Trang. Tomorrow James heads to Phnom Pehn and the three of us are going to try and get ourselves across to Phu Quoc island by local transport, a something they try very hard to keep you away from in Vietnam, could be interesting!

easy riders and the crazy house

Swan Pedalos in DalatWell having gone our separate ways James and I ended up arriving in Dalat in the Central Highlands of Vietnam on the same afternoon which was a good enough excuse for me to book us into a slightly nicer hotel with a jacuzzi shower. How have I managed thus far without one, they are the most wonderful inventions. That and the hotel had a truly enormous breakfast spread of passion fruit, pineapple, dragon fruit, baguettes, peanut butter and eggs, definitely worth $10 each for the night.

Me and Thai, DalatDalat is Vietnam’s no. 1 honeymoon spot and looks very different to the rest of the country. It has a cool climate and is set up in pine forest mountains and feels bizarrely like stumbling on a mini Asian-influenced region of the Alps. The centre of town surrounds a peaceful lake about 2km along with locals fishing and jogging and Vietnamese tourists out in pedalos shaped like giant swans or taking horse drawn carriage rides along the road alongside the golf course. Dalat countrysideIn the evening we went to find the Easy Riders of Dalat, a ever-growing group of freelance motorbike drivers who take Western tourists (apparently the local tourists like to do things in big tour buses only) zooming around the area on their bikes for a handsome amount of US dollars. They hang out drinking beer in the Peace Cafe in their bright blue Easy Rider jackets and fairly soon we had sorted a trip for both of us for the following day. The trip was a lot of fun and both our drivers were really nice guys, I was one the back of Thai’s bike and James on Renee’s. Most of the bikes in Vietnam seem to be Honda dreams, they are in Thai’s words “pieces of shit but cheap and easy to buy!” We began the day by visiting the most bubblegum coloured theme park like Buddhist temple I’ve seen yet in Asia, the Vietnamese do love their kitsch and there is no such think as overdoing the decoration. Silk worm cocoons, DalatThe gardens to the side of the temple housed a huge brightly coloured dragon that wouldn’t have looked out of place with a slide down it’s back in a children’s playground. It was kind of cool. We saw a lot of the countryside with pine forests on the slopes above the road, a thicker denser jungle forest below. Elephant waterfalls, DalatWe stopped off to see vegetable gardens, strawberry fields, flower farms in huge glasshouses, a mushroom farm (weirdly looked like a scene from ‘Alien’ with suspended lines of round pod sacks hanging in a damp room from which they cultivate the fungi), silkworms and a silkworm factory. Also to James’ delight found our first impressively beautiful waterfall in SE Asia, not easy in the dry season. The walk down to Elephant falls was muddy, slippery and involved plenty of scrambling but was worth it for the view of the falls framed by the trees. 

Passion Fruit flower, DalatWe had a very cheap and very good lunch on a balcony restaurant overlooking the valley and the coffee plantations and chatting to our Easy Riders. Thai was very impressed we were both travelling on our own funds and not our parent’s. “Vietnamese children are different, they are always asking their parents for money,” he commented darkly. We finished the day off at the Crazy House in town. To be honest I think crazy is an understatement, imagine Gaudi extremely high on acid, overdosed on Vietnamese kitsch and inspired by a combination of gothic architecture and the Brothers Grimm,Crazy House, Dalat let his imagination loose in wire and plaster in the middle of Dalat. There are winding walkways in yellow and grey, giant giraffe heads, huge wire spider webs, low ceilings, melted turrets and everywhere twists and turns that connect the strangely themed rooms. Hang Viet Nga is the woman who designed and built the Crazy House and who is still building it, she has managed to avoid any political criticism and discouragement as her father was helpfully ‘Uncle Ho’s’ successor, so she has been allowed free reigns for her creative ambitions. You can actually stay in there, in rooms with strange globular shaped beds in corners, mirrored ceilings and giant kangaroos or bears with red light bulb eyes to keep you company. In the designers words: “Living in the Da Lat, the surrounding wilderness inspired me to focus on nature.” Well maybe those giant swan pedalos on the lake were a little strange but seriously? All very cool, but you wouldn’t want to sleep there!

Easy riders, Renee and Thai, Dalat