Sunday, April 29, 2012

Vietnam Vignettes: Second day of Passover in Ho Chi Minh

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City late on the first night of Passover after our own version of 40 days and forty nights on buses, minibuses and taxis from Cambodia to Vietnam (you can read about the epic journey here). In any big city in the world, it is usually possible to find a Chabad House. We could have made arrangements to find a seder to attend but we opted instead to begin our tour of the city. We visited the War Remnants Museum and booked a tour to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels where the Viet Cong ran their military operations during the Vietnam War.

At the specified time the next morning we arrived at the tour office to pick up our promised air-conditioned bus. There we watched air-conditioned bus after air-conditioned bus come and go, until a young man gathered a small group of us together and took us for a long walk down the street and around the block, across traffic several times, continuing to pass air-conditioned bus after air-conditioned bus until he arrived in front of an already crowded HOT minibus (we have given up thinking we would ever be on an air-conditioned bus …). We were instructed to board and find seats. The bus was already so crowded that Marc and I could not sit together. Having found seats as close together as we could, we waited for the bus to start moving.

Behind us, near the back of the bus we heard three young Israelis discussing their plans. Two of them were sitting, each with an empty seat beside them. “Hmmm”, I thought to myself, “I’m sure if we ask them nicely in Hebrew, one of them would surely move so that Marc and I could sit together for the three hour journey to the first stop on the full day tour”. I then sent the message telepathically to Marc (who was sitting closer to them), with a nod in the direction of the back of the bus. When the bus stopped to pick up yet another group of people, Marc turned politely to the boys and in Hebrew asked them if they minded switching seats.

With those few words, the day was transformed. We were now five Israelis at the back of the bus!!

It ended up that the three young men had met the night before at the Chabad organized Passover Seder. All three had recently arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and were missing home and their family Passover meal. We were soon in a very animated conversation about their Passover experience, all of our plans, and all of the experiences we had all had in Southeast Asia. We spent the rest of the day with these young men visiting the Cao Dai temple, as well as the Cu Chi tunnels.

All three of them spoke perfect English so we drifted from English to Hebrew all day. Two Spanish girls sat in the back of the bus with us and were intrigued that we spoke Hebrew. They soon joined the conversation and we literally had a party going at the back of the bus.

I could tell you about the tunnels and the booby traps and the tricky way the Viet Cong wore their sandals to confuse the enemy. But those details would not be the most memorable aspects of that day. What we will remember is the experience we had with these three young men, all on their “after the army” trip before settling down to the adult portion of their lives in Israel. Each one was more interesting than the next. Each was so confident and intelligent and hopeful for a peaceful future. It seemed somehow so appropriate that while all around the world Jewish families were sitting down to retell the historic story of our people’s exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery; we were talking about a brighter future with these twenty something young men, who were so full of optimism and positive energy. It was truly an inspiring day.

Spontaneously, when we returned to the city, we decided to ask the bus driver to let us off the tour bus on the corner of the street where a night market was just setting up. It was one of those things where we made a last minute decision and had little time for proper farewells. We wished each of the boys and the two Spanish girls safe travels and when we looked back, the bus had vanished and with it our new friends. We didn’t even know their names. It was a moment in time that we shared — the kind of moment that happens when you are traveling. We missed them immediately and hoped our paths would cross again. Luckily, as is so often the case when traveling, we did meet again, just a few days later, in Dalat when we bumped into two of the three Israelis, now traveling with one of the Spanish girls!

Reunited again, we ended up having dinner together that night at an outdoor market in downtown Dalat. Eventually we got around to our years living in Israel and life on kibbutz. While eating hot soup and drinking cold beer, we talked about democracy and socialism and kibbutz principles that drove the decisions during our Saturday evening kibbutz meetings. The young Spanish woman learned a lot about Israel and kibbutz life that night and it was an education for the young Israelis as well. They had been born in a different time in Israel. Much of what we had experienced had changed dramatically by the time they were old enough to know what a kibbutz was. The discussion was lively and interesting and time passed quickly. Before we knew it, all the eateries were closing down around us.

The town was completely dark when we finally walked back to our respective accommodations that night. It was almost midnight. As they rang the bell at the entrance to their guesthouse, we all took turns embracing each other tightly and wishing each other well. “Until we meet again!” we all said to each other as we turned towards our hotel and the door to their guesthouse closed behind them.

Only then did I realize that we still did not know any of their names! The Spanish woman was on her way to Nha Tran, and the boys were taking a three-day easy rider trip (a tour on the back of a motorcycle) with a licensed guide, and we were flying to Danang, so the likelihood of us meeting up again was highly unlikely. And I had nothing — no email addresses — not even a photo of them!

What to do?

The only sensible option, to keep this memory alive was to document our time together on these pages. When I reread this post, I am hoping it will bring the experience back to life. I want to remember their kindness towards us, and their eyes so full of excitement about discovering the world and expanding their horizons. And I want to remember their optimism and openness to the people and countries they were visiting. Traveling is not simply about the places and the monuments you visit. It is also about the people you meet and the conversations you have with them over a bowl of soup. Our two encounters with these nameless young men (and their new Spanish companion!) gave us new energy to face the next weeks of travel. As we had predicted, our paths did not cross again, but our time together will not be forgotten.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Vietnam Vignettes

We have been in Vietnam now for more than three weeks. Somehow there hasn't been any time to blog. My plan was to share the best of our experiences here. But there have been so many! I thought I would start at the end and work my way back to the beginning. Here is the first Vietnam Vignette.

I didn’t sleep a wink on the night train to Lai Cai, but incredible as it may seem, I was still very excited about the next three days we had planned. The train pulled into the station at 5:30 am as the town was just waking up to greet the daily crowd of sleep deprived tourists on their way to Sa Pa. We had been given a card with specific instructions to look for a person at the station with our name on their list, and not under any circumstances to go with anyone else. Doing as we were told, we fended off several taxi drivers promising to take us to our hotel and waited patiently for this mysterious person to arrive. Miraculously she soon did arrive and in a few short sentences between yawns she instructed us to wait in the station for the rest of the group to arrive. A short while later, we all piled into a minivan which took us to Sa Pa, a small town in Northern Vietnam where we would spend the next three days trekking through rice paddies to visit tribal villages, eat local food and view local handicrafts.

About an hour later we arrived at the Sa Pa Summit hotel, where a hot breakfast was waiting for us as well as facilities to have a quick shower. A young man at the tour desk gave us an outline of the three-day tour package, which began with a short trek to Cat Cat village right after breakfast.

Sitting outside the hotel were a group of young girls all dressed in traditional costume. They all had shiny long black hair done up in ponytails or wrapped in tight buns held there with combs of all kinds. As they chit chatted amongst themselves, giggling, I noticed that they were also embroidering. We soon found out that these girls would be our guides on our treks to their villages over the next three days.

This is Mang.

There were seven of us that set out with Mang, our tour guide. Very composed and speaking a very easy to understand English, we knew we were in good hands. I asked her if she had made her own clothes as well as the embroidery. Nodding her head enthusiastically, she quickly explained that they all had made their own clothes and that learning the traditional embroidery was something passed on from mother to daughter. I then asked if they all still wear the traditional costume, or if this was for the benefit of the tourists. She smiled and admitted that the young women in the village prefer to wear lighter clothes to work, as the traditional clothing is very heavy and hot. I liked her honesty and knew I would be learning a lot from her as we walked to the first village.

All of the tribal women walking with us through Sa Pa.

Some more of our helpers and guides.

As we walked through the town of Sa Pa on our way to Cat Cat, more and more beautiful young women dressed like Mang, began to join us. They would strike up a conversation with each of us, asking us the usual set of questions; Where are you from? Do you have children? How old are they? What is your name? They were all junior guides in training brushing up on their English and hoping of course that we would buy some small trinket from them at the end of our walk to their village. We started to feel a bit like Pied Pipers. As the tourists walked along, there was a larger and larger group of these girls following behind us.

Cat Cat Village

About three hours later, we arrived in Cat Cat Village. All along the way, were shops with their beautiful embroidery, with magnificent backdrops of terraced rice fields in all directions, as far as the eye can see. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking. And the lunch prepared by yet another group of traditionally dressed young women, was welcomed after several hours of walking. Our first day ended with a visit to a beautiful waterfall, a traditional dance performance and a pleasant walk back to our hotel. Marc, braver than I, took a scooter ride to a local waterfall in the afternoon. I went straight to our hotel room to catch up on missed sleep on the train.

Day two was a full day of trekking to two villages. This time we did not pass touristy shops filled with local embroidery and trinkets. Instead we walked through the rice fields, enjoying the scenery first hand. Mang greeted us after breakfast and let us know that another guide would be looking after us that day. We were truly saddened by the news, but she assured us that we would see her along the route and that Si, our new guide would take good care of us. And she was right.

Si also spoke English very well, and like Mang, was quite an independent young woman of 18. Still unmarried, she told me she was not ready to settle down. I asked her what age girls marry in her village and she said 18-20. But she was not ready to have babies yet. “Do you have a boyfriend?” I asked. She nodded yes. “Is he OK with waiting?” I pushed a bit further. “Yes” she said with confidence. “He is studying, and I am working”. We both smiled and I told her that was a great plan.

While we walked, Si explained that her family and all families in her village, were farmers. Rice and corn were the main crops. She further explained in answer to my endless questions, that each boy in the family would receive a parcel of land when he married. In her family there were four girls and two boys. Wow I thought. That is a big family. She explained that the girls were first to be born, and in all families, having a boy is really important. Among other things, one of the boys will be charged with looking after his parents when they are old. So after each girl was born, her mother kept trying until the first boy was born. “More than two boys and most families stop” she said. “My parents then began to worry that they would not have enough land to give to each son”, she clarified. Talking with her was fascinating. She was extremely open to my questions and I took the opportunity to learn about her culture.

Day two was more physically challenging, and the gaggle of elementary school aged, middle aged and elderly helpers travelling with us, proved invaluable in helping us over slippery and sometimes very steep downhill stretches of the trail. Clad in simple plastic slip on shoes, some with infants strapped to their backs, they managed to almost carry us down to the valley. We never saw any of them slip or fall. Not true for the rest of us! Clouds filled the sky and we were rained on for part of the day, turning the clay path to rivers of mud. Even stuck in a downpour, the scenery was so beautiful, that we were distracted from the difficulties of the journey.

We made it to the village where we would be spending the night in the late afternoon. Our home stay host greeted us with hot tea and Si showed us the two dormitory rooms we would be sharing for the night. Basic accommodations to be sure, but the experience of staying the night with a local family was a very special part of the trip. We were about 12 people plus our guides by the time everyone arrived, each person from a different part of the world. 

French Fries!

The woman of the family and our guides spent the rest of the afternoon chopping vegetables and preparing meats for our dinner which would be prepared over a bamboo burning stove. And what a feast it was! Our first course was a plate of steaming garlic French fries, which went well with the cold Tiger beer that was waiting in the icebox. Later the table was filled with plates of Vietnamese spring rolls, sautéed cabbage, stir-fried vegetables with chicken and Pork, stir-fried tofu and heaps of white rice. 

Good food, and cold beer are great ingredients for making a group of strangers into good friends in an instant. We had two Russians in the group, which always makes for a fun evening. Soon the bottle of rice wine hit the table and the party really got started.

The next morning our hosts served us hot crepes with bananas and honey, hot tea and coffee, before sending us on our way. The skies were really gray, so we all unpacked our rain gear and hoped for the best. Only six kilometers today to get to the last village on our itinerary, where we would have lunch and a bus ride back to the hotel in Sa Pa. It rained hard most of the way and the trail was mostly straight down or straight up. I was very happy I asked for a bamboo walking stick before leaving the home stay. Even with my pole, I still needed the help of two local girls to navigate much of the trail. Not everyone was well prepared for the turn in the weather. Even Marc and I with our good hiking boots and rain gear, were muddy and very wet by the time we hit the village. We were all carrying small packs with our gear and clothes for the home stay, so being wet, meant everything was wet!

We were served hot Pho (Vietnamese traditional noodle soup) for lunch, which was the perfect choice for our bedraggled wet and muddy group. Our helpers turned into trinket hawkers the minute we sat down for lunch, with their quiet voices repeating a simple mantra over and over again, “buy something small from me? You happy, I happy”. The buzz of this melody permeated through the fog over terraced rice fields and the steam rising from our bowls of hot noodle soup. I rolled up some Dong (Vietnamese currency) and placed it in the hands of each of the three helpers that brought Marc and I safely to the end of the trek that day. I told them politely to save the trinkets for someone else. No room in our packs. After a while they accepted and moved on to the next people they may have more luck with, selling their pencil cases and change purses and little bits of ribbon to tie around your wrist.

Our saviours!

Noodle soup

Soon our bus arrived. Tired and wet, we all boarded and sat quietly for the hour ride back to the Sa Pa Summit Hotel, where hot showers and dinner would be provided before our ride back to the train station for the overnight train back to Hanoi. The 4 night 3 day Sa Pa adventure had been, as we expected it would be, one of the highlights of our four weeks in Vietnam. Like our trek in Nepal, the scenery took your breath away. And also like our experience in Nepal, the challenge of the journey and the adrenalin rush of finishing in one piece was exhilarating. We slept rather soundly on the night train back to Hanoi, where another adventure awaited us.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Incredible but true

I know I promised to record this amazing journey, but as the days go by and it seems to get hotter and stickier everywhere we go, the thought of documenting our 20 odd hours of travel from Sihanoukville to Ho Chi Minh City seems like torture, but I will give it a try.

After our disappointing boat trip to Ream National Park, tired and overheated, we stumbled into the same travel agency where we booked the trip, to politely tell our cute young agent that the trip was not what we had expected. She smiled sweetly and sort of apologized and before we knew it, we were discussing our travel plans for the next day. Sihanoukville is kind of like Khao Lak in the sense that it is easy to get to, but not easy to get out of efficiently. We could take a three stop process including the border crossing into Vietnam which sounded awful and really long, or we could (after many phone calls to who knows who) for a slightly more expensive ticket, take a minivan to one town where we would cross the border into Vietnam (with a handy dandy fixer) and then get right on to a big air-conditioned bus all the way to Ho Chi Minh. We presented our usual shpiel about needing to sit at the front of the bus. A few more phone calls and she ‘verified’ that the bus would wait for us at the border, the fixer and minivan would cross the border into Vietnam to take us to the bus and provide us with our tickets. In fact, our adorable travel agent indicated that bus seats 3 and 4 were reserved for us. Surely we had covered all of our bases this time.

The next morning a minivan did pick us up exactly on time and then proceeded to pick up everyone else in town until the minivan was overflowing. We drove the three hours to the border (which really was five hours). Miraculously, we left Cambodia and entered Vietnam without too much trouble. The fixer did accompany all of us and did pay some kind of bribe to get us all through the various border points without problems. But it did take an hour. By the time we got into Vietnam, needless to say, there was no big air-conditioned bus waiting for us. It had left hours before. There was a minivan going, not to Ho Chi Minh City, but to Chau Doc (which was at least four hours away), where there was a second promised big air-conditioned bus that would take us to HCMC.

Our Cambodian fixer ran off in the direction of the ferry to escort other passengers. Marc went running after him. Meanwhile, the Vietnam fixer told me the promised “big” bus had left hours ago. So, there was no bus, only the minivan and I should just get in. Marc and our fixer reappeared and we were told again that there was no bus. The two fixers were by now in a heated argument, and the minivan closed its doors and headed for Chau Doc without us. A second minivan heading back to the Cambodian border arrived and our fixer piled us in mumbling something about finding another way. Marc was insistent that we at least go to the bus station to inquire about other buses.

Before I go any further, you must understand our situation. As with our previous experience crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia, the system appears to transform from initial paper receipts, that transform to stickers, which ultimately relies on blind faith. We had given our receipt to our fixer and were not in possession of any verification that we had paid for a fare all the way to HCMC. We were in Vietnam, in a very small border town, without any local money. (Although we were readily offered a good (not!) exchange rate for our US dollars. And Ho Chi Minh City was at least eleven hours away. Do the math, we would be arriving close to midnight in a strange city with only a tentative hotel reservation. More on that later …

On Marc’s advice, our fixer thought about his predicament and decided to return to the bus station to see if there were any other buses. I had one look at the bus station and knew that big tourist class buses with air-conditioning had never been anywhere near this place. Our fixer left the minivan, had some discussion with a few people in sign language (He spoke no Vietnamese and they spoke no Kampuchean). Some money changed hands and he was back to tell us there was a bus going to Can Tho at 2:00. From there the bus driver would put us on a “big” bus to HCMC. Can Tho was six hours away.

Hmmm …

Someone put our luggage under the bus. We asked our fixer for some kind of ticket/receipt/letter to the bus driver, to be sure we would actually get on a bus in Can Tho. He gladly made out another receipt, but we knew no one in Can Tho would honour a piece of paper that had no value. Still it was a nice to have as a souvenir! He apologized over and over again and promised it would all work out. But, objectively, how could it possibly? We had already decided we would likely find a hotel in Can Tho and find our own air-conditioned bus to HCMC in the morning.

Marc did a quick walk around town and when no official money changer seemed to be available we changed $5 to have at least a bit of money for drinks until we got to, well, wherever we would end up by midnight. Our new best friends were quite disappointed when they could only rip us off $5’s worth and disappeared after we received our 95,000 Dong (should have been 104,000). We waited patiently in the shade until 2:00 and boarded the local red bus headed for Can Tho.

The bus stopped on average every five minutes to let someone on or off. Well almost stopped. This was the kind of bus that slows down and you jump on or off. The whole busload of people seemed to be friends, and there was a lively conversation going on non stop. This would not have been an issue if the bus driver was not as involved as everyone else. One hand on the steering wheel while the other multi-tasked to constantly blow his horn, listen to his cell phone, chain smoke cigarettes, or to drink from a giant coffee canister. All done while dodging cars, buses, trucks and motor bikes while totally involved in all of the many conversations being held throughout the bus.

As all of the seats filled on the bus, small plastic seats appeared to fill the aisle, so that more people could jump on the bus. The last few people sat on the floor beside the driver to distract him just a bit by offering him cigarettes or engage him in more conversation. We literally had front row seats to witness this madness (not to mention inhaling the second hand smoke from the not only the driver, but also from the ticket taker and our fellow passengers.) The temperature in the bus was about 30 degrees.

It was soon dark and we were still on the road with our crazy driver and a lively, bursting at the seams busload of Vietnamese. We rolled into the Can Tho bus station at 8:00 pm, six hours after leaving the border town of Ha Tien.

The next part is nothing short of miraculous.

We got off the bus fully expecting that no one would have any idea who we were, where we were going, or that we had paid for bus tickets to HCMC. We were six hours from where our fixer dropped us off, in a different country from where we had initially purchased our bus tickets. Yet someone WAS waiting for us. Our bus driver rushed us off the bus, helped us get our luggage out of the cargo hold of the bus and motioned us in the direction of another man waiting to take us to — a minivan full of local people going to — you guessed it, Ho Chi Minh City.

I was skeptical. The minivan was full. I couldn’t see any seats for us. But the alternatives were not much better. We piled in after I demanded a toilet break. Admittedly, I was a bit cranky after a six-hour bus ride. Our seats were at the back of the van beside two drunk locals. We had one more tourist with us who somehow squeezed in beside us. It wasn’t pretty, but the driver promised it was only three more hours.

And for once the estimate was true. Three hours later we did in fact arrive in Ho Chi Minh City. So it is now time to relate the hotel booking story.

I have booked every single night of our trip (after leaving India) with Every hotel has been exactly as described and I have been completely over the moon about this service. But when booking for HCMC, I was intrigued by a hotel suggested in the Lonely Planet. Of course, most hotels in the Lonely Planet do not book through Agoda or Expedia. I was forced to book through the hotel directly which only confirms within 24 hours. I had only booked the night before and we had not received confirmation by the time we left Sihanoukville. So when we arrived in HCMC after 11:00 pm, we did not know if we had a reservation or not. I was skeptical again. Most hotels recommended by Lonely Planet are fully booked unless you plan ahead. But our only option at this point was to negotiate a cab ride and make our way to the hotel.

Another miracle. When we walked into the hotel close to midnight the man at the desk said “You must be Naomi?”

What can I say? It all came to pass. Not as advertised, and a hell of a lot longer than expected, but we made it to our destination from one country to another, in one piece, without a bus ticket, or anyone even knowing our names. By the next morning we were Vietnamese Dong ‘millionares’ (the exchange rate is 21,000 Dong to the dollar) and a new city and country to explore.

It is all about expectations. We are in a different world. Things are done differently here. But somehow they get done. But enough cvetching, my next post will tell you all of the great experiences we have had in Vietnam!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sihanoukville, the small beach town you should skip if you are ever in Cambodia.

Cambodia was rated as my favourite country so far until we hit Sihanoukville. I had a bad feeling before we even arrived, but I tried to tell myself it was silly. Looking for a hotel online was frustrating which was my first red flag — many hotels had bad reviews and grumpy travelers complaining about bad service and overpriced accommodations. For me the reviews I read online are better than any guidebook. They are from yesterday, not last year, and they are very frank. The Lonely Planet had recommended diving and snorkeling. I wasn’t buying it. Diving to the bottom of the ocean with a tank of air in Thailand was scary enough for me. Cambodia? Well let’s just say it was not a proven quantity. Being on the water in a boat in Cambodia is problematic enough, never mind under it.

To give us a bit of an advantage, I booked us into a slightly more expensive hotel (we have been getting away with $28. a night these days. This hotel was $40) called the Cambodian Resort. Five minutes from the beach was the claim. Breakfast included.

Nothing is ever as advertised in South East Asia (pick a country, any country and it is the same). It is very consistent. So it is funny that we are always surprised and disappointed when things don’t go as we had anticipated they would.

Getting from A to B around here is usually by bus. There are dozens of bus companies and sometimes there is a proper bus station. But usually, tour companies act as agents and sell you tickets. It is all very easy. You choose a tour company (there is one on every corner and in every budget hotel), purchase the ticket and someone picks you up at your hotel and delivers you to the bus wherever it happens to be leaving from. Usually you have some kind of receipt that gets traded for a sticker or another piece of paper and somehow you get to your destination. But the mode of transportation, length of the ride and where you get dropped off is rarely what you thought you paid for.

Every tourist riding with you has the same puzzled look on his or her face for the whole journey. The crazy part is that every few days you go through the same rigmarole again and are as surprised as you were the first time when things go sideways. That’s because you really believe that the cute travel agent, who really seems to know her stuff (much cuter and more knowledgeable than the last one that screwed you over), this time will certainly be putting you on that big air-conditioned bus she is pointing to in the photo behind her.

After our experience on the smelly bus in Thailand, we always ask for seats at the front of the bus. Our cute (all smiles) travel agent in Phnom Penh assured us that seats 27-28 on the bus heading for Sihanoukville were not by the toilet since the toilet was at the back of the bus, which had 45 seats. Even though there were several other buses leaving at other times of the day that may have had seats closer to the front, we somehow got convinced that we were fine. These girls are very convincing. The tickets were $6 each.

Marc woke up in the middle of the night with a bad stomach ache and things had not improved by the morning. It was supposed to be a four-hour bus ride. The minivan picked us up more or less on time and delivered us to our waiting bus. But of course, I am sure you already surmised, seats 27 and 28 were in fact right in front of the toilet! Marc looked at me and said softly, “Maybe in my condition, this may prove to be a good thing”.

The toilet was just below the screen, down a few stairs.

The road was very bad and we hit a stretch of road construction, so four hours very quickly became six, but we made it to Sihanoukville without need for the toilet or the barf bag. “There is a god!” I said to myself as we left the bus.

Sihanoukville, unfortunately, was as disappointing as I had imagined. The Cambodian Resort was not bad, but it was not worth what we paid and was on a very uninteresting street. I was bummed. I had been on a winning streak with my hotel choices and this was a dud. The walk to the beach was in fact five minutes, but the most uninteresting five minutes imaginable. The beach was very narrow and full of young people getting drunk. Tuk tuk drivers and motos (scooters here are a taxi service serving single passengers). You hop on the back of a scooter with a strange man and put your life in his hands — just my style) are on your back every step of the way to and from the beach and when they are not bothering you, the restaurant and bar people take over.

And then of course there are the travel agents. Marc, feeling quite a bit better went in search of a dive shop and we also looked for a day trip for the next day. To give everyone the benefit of the doubt, it is possible that we spoke to so many agents that we confused some of the details, but maybe that is the way they get you. There were basically two different day trips available. Both of them are on boats and there was a lot of discussion about fast boats and slow boats, big boats and small boats. There is always talk of air-conditioned buses that never really materialize and promises of gear, towels, lunch, water and English speaking guides, which must be taken with a grain of salt. The activities are also explained, but rarely end up being what has been described. It is an adventure every step of the way and this trip was no exception.

We were headed out to Ream National Park the next morning by minivan (I thought by air-conditioned bus) that brought us to the dock where we transferred to a (slats for seating) motorboat (I thought on a big, slow boat with real seats with back rests) covered with a tin roof. We did have an English speaking guide and a Park Ranger with us on the boat, so I was encouraged. There were lifejackets in the boat, but no one was bothering to wear them. Marc kept reminding me that the water was only shoulder deep and we could see both sides of the riverbank so no worries. After we all got seated, our guide loaded the boat with coolers and jute bags with fixings for lunch so there would be food and water. Looking good!

I think we heard three words from our guide during the more than two-hour (very uncomfortable) ride to the park. We were supposed to see wildlife, mangrove forests and learn about the park. I think we managed to see three eagles and were told the rangers are in place to educate the villagers about the reasons why they should not cut down the forest, but that was the extent of the educational part of the trip. We were told that there would be optional swimming or jungle trekking when we arrived at our destination. What they really meant is that you walk through the bush from one side of the island to the other to get to a filthy beach where there is no shade unless you want to pay the restaurant that just happens to be at that particular beach for chairs under their umbrellas. Our English-speaking guide, it ends up was really our cook, and he left us with the ranger once we docked at the Island.

The scenery was quite lovely despite everything.

Marc made an attempt at swimming. Me, I thought it was a really long way to come to swim in dirty water and have to sit for two hours on slatted wooden seats in a wet bathing-suit. I found a more or less clean piece of beach and laid out my sarong and tried, as comfortably as possible, to pass the hour allotted for swimming on our itinerary.

The beach actually looks quite nice in the photos. I guess we were just cranky tourists!

Lunch was the highlight of the day, but only if you try to get the thought of the pack of wild dogs licking the plates out of your mind. A big fish had been barbequed for us and we were served fresh baguettes, rice, salad and cold coca cola with hearty portions of fish. The food was really good and the drinks were ice cold, but after the pack of flea bitten wild dogs appeared and were being fed the scraps as well as being given plate-cleaning duty, I could see Marc’s stomach turning. The dogs were now inside the shack where our food had been prepared and both of us had many frightening thoughts about what went on in there as the food was being prepared.

The park ranger was bailing several pails of water out the boat as we all re-boarded for the next leg of the journey. We were headed for a watchtower that we could climb for a 360-degree view of the protected park. Our guides dropped us off at the beginning of a path that led to the tower. They didn’t accompany us or explain any of the things we would see if we actually made it along the sketchy slatted boardwalk over the bog in the jungle, and up the less than safe or sturdy staircase leading to the top of the disintegrating tower. When we all made it to the top platform, we noticed that someone had apparently built a small fire there at some point and there was a burned out hole a small child could easily fall through right in the middle of the platform. One of the women on the trip with us commented, “I guess they were not really thinking ahead when they built a fire up here!” We all laughed, but at the same time tried to get the hell out of there before it all came tumbling down.

We asked one of the other passengers to take a photo of us through the burned out hole in the platform.

Safely back in our boat we settled in for the rest of the ride back to the dock. Our guide/cook pulled a cold watermelon from the cooler and skillfully cut it up into bite sized pieces and handed it around the boat. Funny isn’t it, how good food and cold juicy watermelon can make almost any situation tolerable?
This young boy was diving for clams instead of going to school!

We saw a lot of fishing boats along the way.

And I haven’t said anything yet about the people on the boat with us. In fact, I could write an entire post about the three Russians sitting in front of us in the boat. I was planning another screenplay about them. It would have been absolutely hysterical. But who has the time. I will just say that voluptuous Natasha (of course I am making the names up!), with her beautiful white skin and thick shiny black hair done up in a bun on top of her head, did not stop receiving calls on her iphone. Boris, with his soft curly head of redish blond hair, wearing Indian pajama trousers, sat cross-legged at the bow of the boat smoking, admiring Natasha and once in a while getting a word in while she snapped photos of him with her iphone, giggling at a high pitch each time she reviewed the photos of her adorable boyfriend. Sleek bronzed Katarina (who must have had a Mediterranean or South American ancestor) seemed to be as attached to Boris as to Natasha. She was much softer spoken, but an integral part of the ongoing Russian rhapsody (or maybe Opera is a better description) playing out on the boat in front of us. For the short intervals that they were not in ongoing conversation, they were sharing earphones from the one mp3 player they had with them (one in Natasha’s ear, one in Katarina’s for a while and then Boris got a turn), gyrating to the music. And when we hit the beach, well let’s just say they did not have the same impression of the beach as we did. Much frolicking, picture taking and sarong readjusting, until they were forced to pack it in to return to the boat.

Natasha checking her photos.
The truth of the matter is that when I look back at the photos, I can see that we were really in a beautiful place and when I think about the laughs we had with the other people on the boat who were as amazed at what was going on around us as we were, it was a very memorable day. More and more as we get deeper into this travel rhythm, it becomes more about the people, than the places. Our guide/cook was a very soft-spoken kind young man, who was trying his best to give us a good day. We both had a fairly long talk with the ranger who is trying very hard to get ahead in a country that has few opportunities. The rest of the tourists on the boat each had their own stories, which we only learned a little about, but it all adds to the richness of the day.
Marc in deep discussion with the Park Ranger.

That evening we decided that based on our experience that day, diving may not be the smartest thing to do in Cambodia. We made plans for an exit to Vietnam the next morning. I hope you are not getting tired of hearing about our crazy travel days, because the next one was the craziest to date.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Phenomenally educational visit to Phnom Penh

The Royal Palace
Phnom Penh has come and gone and we have crossed the border into Vietnam. So many important things have happened and our days and nights have been full of activity. It seems to get harder and harder to find time (and energy) to write about it all. In fact, most of the time, I wish I had a dictaphone to be able to capture it all. But I don’t, so I will try to get at least a bit of Phnom Phnh down tonight.

Royal Palace
We visited our usual number of temples (including the Silver Pagoda – where we kept looking up to look for the silver tiles on the roof, only to embarrassingly discover that the temple is named after its floor tiles), museums, markets and the Royal Palace, had some good meals and really enjoyed the city. It is Cambodia’s Capital and the largest city in the country, but much less daunting than the other large cities we have visited thus far in SE Asia. Maybe this is due to the numbered streets and totally organized city plan. No subways to worry about and all of the sites were walkable from our hotel.

I booked us in to the Silver River Hotel in the River Front area of Phnom Penh. The staff were amazingly friendly and the street the hotel is situated on was chock-a-block with small restaurants and coffee shops. At night it was well lit and perfect for people watching while enjoying dinner and a cold beer.

Delicious coffee, chocolate banana cake with sliced frozen banana on the side!

History Museum

Although the city is bustling with activity now, in 1975 when Pol Pot the leader of the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, all citizens of this city were ordered to leave everything behind and move out to the countryside to become farmers. Within only several days the city became a ghost town. His party’s radical attempt at agricultural reform led to widespread famine and death. But that was not the only way this regime managed to murder their fellow comrades.

Inmates tortured in Tuol Sleng Detention Centre. Like the Germans, the Khmer Rouge documented each person who arrived.

We spent a full day learning the tragic story. First we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is the site of the systematic torture of 20,000 people, forced to sign pages of confessions before being transferred to and later murdered at the Choeung Ek extermination center. The extermination centre, 15k out of Phnom Penh is one of the largest Killing Fields in Cambodia. We hired a tuk tuk driver to take us to the Genocide Museum and later to the Choeung Ek, which is now a memorial to those that were brutally murdered there.

The prison was a converted school. The classrooms were divided into tiny cells.

It would be impossible for me to describe the feelings we both had at these two museums/memorials. After our trip to the sites of the Auschwitz concentration camp and Birkenau death camp this past July, we were shocked to see the eerie similarities in Phnom Penh. The numbers of murders that took place during the short reign of the Khmer Rouge are disputed, but however you look at it, the world chose to ignore the cold blooded murder of two to three million human beings during a period of three years, just 30 years after the end of the second world war.

While large numbers simply died of starvation or disease, those brought to Choeung Ek, where literally hacked to death. The tools of choice were an ax or a spade or a steel pipe. Bullets were expensive, so brute force was used instead. Many were buried alive after having their head’s smashed or neck’s broken in shallow mass graves, and then covered in DDT. There is a memorial now at this site, which houses the skulls and bones of the victims whose graves have been uncovered. Many fragments of their crushed bodies still make their way to the surface of the grave mounds after the rainy season. Volunteers collect them and add them to the memorial.

I know this is tough to read about. Believe me, it was tougher to be there and to see the cells the prisoners were forced to live in, the implements of torture and the rooms filled with their photos. But these stories need to be told. How many of you reading this post even knew this happened? We saw a documentary at the detention centre of a mother telling the story of her son and his wife, both tortured and killed in the two places we visited that day. When you hear the story of just two of the more than two million that died or were murdered, it is hard not to be overwhelmed at the grief this country has had to endure.

The depressions in the ground are mass graves.

At Choeung Ek, there is an audio tour narrated by a young man. One of the first things he says to us is “imagine if one of every four people in your country were killed by a fellow countryman”. That is a very strong statement that is impossible to comprehend, yet that is exactly what happened here. And thirty years later, there is little justice for the victims. Although there is a war crimes tribunal underway, it is fraught with delays and political quagmires.

The bones of the dead are kept in the memorial building. The bracelets on the bamboo fence commemorate all of the children murdered here.

In Israel the 19th of April is Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom ha Shoah). This year I will be remembering not only the six million that perished in the death camps of Nazi Germany, but also the three million who lost their lives in the Cambodian genocide in 1975-79, the approximately one million Tutsis, and moderate Hutus that were murdered in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the 10,000 who died in the genocide in Bosnia in 1995, and the growing number of victims of the ongoing civil war in Darfur that began in 2003. If you are interested in more information about all of these crimes against humanity, I found this very informative website.

We made it finally to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, and the pain does not subside quite yet. But our journey here was too comical to keep from you. So I will be working on that next!