Thursday, November 30, 2006

Classical Vietnamese music and dance performance in Imperial City

The lady in the middle spoke impeccable English and French as she introduced her fellow artists at the Royal Theatre within the Forbidden Purple City.


The Forbidden Purple City

Hue - The Imperial City, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

We are now in Hue, just 120 kms north of Hoi An, but a more than four hour drive in the bus, stopping along the way to pick up passengers, cross the mountain range, stop for half an hour lunch break at 10.00 followed immediately by another 30 minute stop for pumping up the tyres. We had had the choice of going by bus or by motorbikl and chose the former after our long day yesterday. This gave us time to visit the sights of Hue this afternoon, whereby tomorrow we can take motorbikes (with Mr Tuu) out into the surrounding countryside for half a day before catching the Reunification Express to Ha Noi overnight, sleeping in a soft berth!

Hue is the Imperial capital of Vietnam of the Nguyen Emperors who took over in about 1802. They built a walled citadel of about three kms across with three concentric enclosures, known as the Imperial City, in the middle of which was the Forbidden Purple City. This contains the imperial palaces, a palace for the Queen Mum, palaces for the royal concubines and pleasure pavilions, all set amongst beautifully laid out gardens. Unfortunately much was destroyed in the American War, but what remains is very impressive.

It is odd to think of Vietnam, a country for so long associated with the American War and subsequent re-unification, as having once been an Empire, and not all that long ago. Indeed, the last Emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, only died (in exile) in 1997.

The place seemed to be very Chinese and sometimes we almost think we are in China. However, we have been told that people here in Vietnam tend to be friendlier and more approachable than their Chinese cousins.

Anyway, the Imperial City managed to keep us busy for all of the afternoon, meaning that we missed out on lunch. A highlight was a music and dance performance in the Royal Theatre. There were thirty performers and tehy were willing to put on a thirty minute performance just for us, but fortunately a group of French people appeared at the same time so they, too, could appreciate the show. Again, very Chinese in appearance and sound (to my untrained ears), but then again, in the dances and the foot movements one could see echoes of Thailand and Cambodia.

Hue sees itself as being slightly above the other cities of Vietnam and, not coincidentally, in my view, iit clings on more to various French customs than anywhere else. For instance, we heard the word Merci many times during the day. There is even a patisserie (ooh la la!) near our hotel. However, it is fair to say that apart from baguettes and the occasional bottle of wine, and the names of various public institutions, there is very little remaining of French culture here in day-to-day life in Vietnam. Still, we see more French people than we normally see, although it must be said that, again, there are more British than anyone else, some Aussies, many Irish and various other Europeans. Dutch people are generally noticeable by the fact that they lug their bicycles onto all sorts of public transport while so-called cycling around Vietnam (or am I being too cynical).

Here we meet people going up and others going down the country, Hue and Hoi An, being approximately half way being excellent stop-off points. Hue may not be as pretty as Hoi An, impressive is more the word. If I was harsh on Hoi An the other day, I am sorry, it is a delightful town in a beautiful natural spot and the people are very friendly. I think I was reacting to the early evening crowds we had just sen and the proliferation of shops selling things which, in fact, had nothing to do with Hoi An and its traditions.It is definitely a place we could have stayed another two or three days, if we had had the time.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Hoi An beach

Hoi An - the beach, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

And the lady running the beach concession had the cheek to call me 'Happy Buddha' when I took my T shirt off, ready for a swim in the warm, clear blue waters of the South China Sea!



Hoi An - woman with betelnut, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

As mentioned in the blog below, these old women are just so photogenic. It is sometimes like they walk around town in the hope of being photographed.


My Son temple complex

My Son temple complex, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.


Black-eyed pig

Hoi An - black-eyed pig, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

As seen at the pig market, young piglet in the basket made for transporting (and keeping/) the pigs. Just too cute, or not?


Two buffalos and an old lady

Two buffalos and an old lady, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.


To My Son and back

Hoi An - boat women, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

An excellent day today, out with Bon and Binh on their motorbikes, to the old Cham ruins in My Son, there and back through lovely countryside with lots of stops along the way, finishing off with a few hours on a lovely white sandy beach, with clear waters and splashy waves.

It was an early start for us,as we were met outside at 6, just in time for the lad in the hotel to make us a delicious coffee (one of the main and total surprises of Vietnam) before we set off West towards the mountains. We passed beautiful landscapes of the river estuary, rice paddies, with cows and water buffalo and farmers in peaked caps, through a number of ribbon development towns, across a couple of long bridges and then up into the hills to the My Son site.

This was set in a wooded valley, a little reminiscent of Angkor Wat, with beautiful views over to the green clad mountain tops, notably teh wonderfully names Cat's Tooth Mountain. The buildings were very much in the Angkor Hindu style and were built around from 400 to 1400 AD. A smallish site, which being still early in the morning was almost deserted, this was the religious and cultural centre of the Champa Kingdom, an Indian based civilisation, which covered parts oif what is now Cambodia, Thailand and, of course Vietnam.

On the way back we stopped off at a pig market, as we had shown such an interest in the pigs being transported in baskets onm the back of motorbikes. We had seen a number of these in Cambodia, but this morning there were lots of them. The baskets were of varying sizes and held a number of pigs or piglets, based on what could be crammed in. They looked verty sweet with their pink nostrils poking out through the holes and it was best not to think what was about to happen to them. While we were there a bus on its way down Highway 1 to Saigon stopped off and had to be virtually unloaded to fit a number of these baskets into the hold, under where the passengers sit and we saw them being loaded up. Apparently, the prices down south are better than around here so someone was onto a quick buck.

Earlier in the day,.we had stopped a couple of times to photograph a buffalo barbecue. A spit roasted buffalo slwoly revolving on a spit, its whitsih meat getting every more tender while its fatty layer on the outside burned. By the size of them, they were just young buffalo and it was good later in the day to take some characteristic photos of buffalos inthe fields, one even being ridden by an old lady who would later pose for photos.

The old ladies here are just so photogenic with their wrinkled faces and blood red lips, dripping with betelnut juice, topped with a peaked hat. Photogenic, or what?

The afternoon ended on the white sandy beach just outside Hoi An. It is supposed to be the wet season here in mid-Vietnam, but this year there has not been any rain. Upsetting for the farmers, but excellent for tourists ourselves. It was a very long sandy beach, hardly any tourists. The government had planted coconut trees along teh side of the beach, knowing very well how tourists like their beaches to be fringed. The beach hut concessions were small simple places, with grass roofs, colourful deck chairs, straw parasols, and a family restaurant. All very relaxed. Not even many sellers of beads or massages, although to shut the couple of them who did turn up, Richard had a footr massage and I am the owner of a lucky year of the buffalo (fittingly enough) onyx medallion, promising me a long and happy life.. longer than the poor buffalos we had seen earlier in the day!


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

In the jaws of a lion

Fooling around again.


Policeman in Hoi An

Hoi An - Policeman, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

The uniforms of most policemen, traffic wardens, soldiers and security men are this very fetching bright olive green with red. Here is one in Hoi An from this afternoon.


Dragons are everywhere in Hoi An


Hoi An

We arrived in Hoi An about lunchtime, after an extended flight which landed first in hill country at Plei Ku and then Da Nang. There was a direst flight to Da Nang leaving HCMC at the same time as ours, so I think that the girl at Sinh Cafe must have made some mistake. Anyway, when we arrived, it was lovely! Da Nang is situated near the sea and the air was clear, the sky was blue and everything smelt fresh, as it often does by the sea.

It was a short drive down to Hoi An, with a stop at Marble Mountain, which in fact turned out to be a shoip which sold very large marble and jade statues of the Happy Budha, the Mountain Mother, Pan and other deities. I was offered the lion which almost but my head off for 6,000 dollars, including shipping anywhere in the world (so the lady said). I am sure Fred would be very happy.

The driver brought us past paddy fields and a low lying river to Hoi An and dropped us off at the Thanh Xuan Hotel. It is a lovely place, upmarket, with large rooms, traditional furniture and fittings and a balcony with views down and across a wet field of water spinach, across which wandered a small herd of cows, a little stream, with herons, bamboo plants and paddy fields. A place to stay and unwind, but we had business to do in terms of having a look around town.

We had seen paintings and sketches in Saigon of quaint old houses and streets and found that they were of Hoi An, so we were looking forward to having a look around to find such scenes. Well, Hoi An can be added to the list of places like San Gimignano, Elburg, Mont St Michel, Bourton-on-the-Water where the presence of tourists is so overwhelming that you can hardly see the place you had come to visit. Certainly, the place has its charms and it IS high season for tourists, but the number of shops, art galleries, bars and tailors is absolutely astounding and at times there were quite large groups of tourists ambling around.

Still, the weather was fantastic and the colours were wonderful and it was hard not to fall in love with the place.

At the end of the day came the time to look for who would take us out on motorbikes into the countryside and across to the Cham ruins in My Son. We found a couple of likely lads - Bon and Binh (I think) and they took us down to the beach (in the dark) so we could eat some cheap seafood down there. We meet them again at 6 tomorrow morning and hopefully we can enjoy a day like those days we had around Battambang in Cambodia. If that works, we will probably ask them to make a day of driving us up the coast to Hue, as there are some mountains and waterfalls and nice beaches along the way there.


What a tummy!

Saigon - what a tummy!, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

As with many cultures, a fat tummy is a sign of prosperity and our friend here seemed to be very happy to let the world know just how prosperous he is!


One of Saigon's many characters - a cyclo driver with horns


A quiet moment in Saigon

Saigon - birdcage, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.


Farewell Saigon

Saigon - heavily loaded, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

This blog is brought to you by FPT Telecom who have provided a couple of free internet stations at Saigon airport. Thanks!

So, we are on our way to Da Nang, the country's largest port, slightly more than half way up this very very long and thin country. From there we will go to Hoi An, which promises to have many old charming houses, has a beach and is quite near some Cham ruins at My Son. We will spend 2-3 days based here and then go briefly to Hue, just north of Da Nang, which has an old citadel, which was badly bombed during the war.

We are flying because this takes just three hours,a s opposed to 23 hours by train. We will take a 12 hour night train - the Reunification Express when we go up from Hue to Hanoi.

We have enjoyed our couple opf days in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, even though we have not really given it enough time. We did make it finally to Dong Khoi area last night after a suggestionn from our uncle. A very smart district, with some beautifully floodlit white colonial buildings built in the French tropical style, together with some expensive hotels and smart shops, including couple of art galleries selling some original and colourful paintings. Not too expensive either, and in Holland one would be patying as much for the frame as for the painting with tyhe frame here. However, Fred can breath a sigh of relief as we did not buy any.

Nor did we manage to get any dinner there, the restaurants all closing some time before 10 pm. Plenty of massage and women on offer, but no food, despite someone offering us a woman with whom to have dinner. I understand that the people up north are more prudish and we should not expect to be so much pestered with all these offers of women. I am not sure why in particular Richard and I should be so much the target for people offering to bring us to have sex with young women because we have spoken to other travellers and they have not been as hassled as we have. Maybe because we are two males, of a certain age?

Earlier in the afternoon, we paid a visit to Chinatown, which we had glimpsed on our way into the city as we arrived from My Tho. Hustly and bustly as expected, the place was full of markets, temples, street food vendors and the inevitable motorbikes. We also encountered a number of barber shops which were curiously full of very beautiful looking young women!


Monday, November 27, 2006

American Killer Heroes

Here we are at the Cu Chi tunnels, just outside Saigon, where the Viet Cong built tunnels to hide in and shoot the American enemy. It is another memorial to mark the war and is a fascinating place to visit, starting off with a black and white film being shown about the heroic efforts of the Vietnamese against the Americans and their allies. A lot was said about American Killer Heroes, these being Vietnamese who killed many American enemies.

You are allowed to go down and crawl along the tunnels which are very narrow for westerners and they were burrowed at depths of 3 and 4 and 5 and 8 meters. From the tunnels they used to be able to shoot the enemy and also lay tyraps for them, usualy involving a hidden hole and some very sharp spikes.

You can also shoot machine guns and Ak-47's for one dollar a bullet (ironic now that they are pricing the attraction in the currency of the old enemy). We declined.

Again,as with yesterday we were shown images of the result of the Americans spraying the countryside with DDT (Agent Orange) to clear away the vegetation and make it difficult for the Viet Cong to hide. The deformities shown were utterly gruesome and, again, one comes back to the theme of clean, fair wars as opposed to weapons of mass destruction and chemical warfare, both of which are used by the West to further its interests. Shameful, utterly shameful. I noticed that the cyclo drivers advertise the museum which we visited yesterday, the War Remnants Museum, officially, as the American War Crimes Museum.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Ho Chi Minh City - Saigon

Yes, we are in Saigon, having arrived yesterday afternoon. A big, bustling city where the roads are constantly full of motorbikes and cyclos, a few cars and more motorbikes. This is the first impression which the city gives.

We were droppped off in the backpacker area, and we had to groan when we saw all the white faces sitting outside the western-style bars, with their Tiger beer and contraband T shirts, but relaxed soon enough when we found a quite guesthouse (airco, fridge and sattelite TV) in an alley off the main road, run by some nice Vietnamese women.

I am afraid the first evening ended later than expected after I bumped into the three Irish lads and English girl who had been on the tour with us from Phnom Penh in the street and they asked me top join them for a beer (or two or three....).

So, a nice quite day today, mostly spent organising the rest of the trip with the efficient people of Sihn Cafe (thank you Uncle Malcolm, we found them to be very efficient) such that our plans are now as follows:

tomorrow - the Cu Chi tunnels
Tuesday - flight to Da Nang, transfer to Hoi An
Friday - night train to Hanoi
Thursday - night train to Sa Pa, for three days trekking in the mountains
Monday (11th) - back in Hanoi
Tuesday (12th) - late-ish flight to Kuala Lumpur
Saturday (16th) - late-ish flight to Bangkok
Tuesday (19th) - late-ish flight back to Amsterdam

We met some lads - English, Irish and Scottish (!) who had been in the north and were raving about it, particularly the old quater of Hanoi, which seems to be a better tourist proposition than Saigon, with the added bonus of the rock formations of Ha Long Bay in the vicinity, so we are glad we are giving ourselves the time up there.

We would have liked to have gone up to Da Lat, in the mountains here in the south, but we do not really have that much time to make a proper job of it, so we decided on the flight to Hoi An/Hue.

This afternoon, we visited the War Remnants Museum, which had many exhibits showing the horrors of the American War, here in Vietnam. A lot of it was very shocking and was all-in-all an excellent monument to the fallen, albeit in need to moderisation.

In the meantime, Chelsea have equalised against Man U.


Being rude with snake and cucumber!

Yes, indeed, very rude. For some reason I was carrying a cucumber in my pocket (why? that's another story), whilst also holding a python. This python had moved her tail under my T shirt and started to tickle my tummy, which, I can tell you, gave me quite a scare. Anyway, I shrieked and got a lot of attention from all the other tourists and for some reason I decided to take the cucumber out of my pocket, which for some very strange reason got me an awful lot of laughs! Terrible, eh?


Heavy duty tourism

Mekong Delta - making incense, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Our last day on the Mekong was very intense but made extremely enjoyable by Hom, our very enthusiastic, very camp, singing guide who constatly did his best to entertain yus, while getting us to board one boat, disembark, re-embark, visit a bee farm, have a snake dangling from our necks, be treated to fruit from the local orchards, be rowed down a small canal on flat wooden canoes by islanders earning 5,000 dong a day (25 euro cents), visit a ricve-paper making village and a coconut sweet making family before stopping off for lunch and a last boat trip. There were hundreds of other tourists making similar tours with a large number of groups, on what was, in fact two quite small islands. The narrow canal was impossibly busy, with canoes passing backwarsd and forwards, but in a way, it all worked out fine and it didn't seems as tacky as it might have seemed from a distance.

We were also treated to the story of the coconut monk, a man from the island who was sent to be eductade in France. When he came back, he did not feel like entering the family business so he decided to start a new religion - the coconut cult. It caught on among the islanders mainly due to the promise of nine virgins awaiting for adherents in heaven! He became a little bit rich on the offerings made by the islanders. Sounds quiite familiar.... and another perfect example of the origins of religion.

Much like the fact that when we landed for lunch, I spotted some fish walking along the mud, just like our ancestors did when they left the sea and became land dwellers. Evolution in motion!

I would just like to mention thatw e had an excellent group, including an ex-vet from St Malo who was continually making videos and forgetting his camera case, along with his charming wife, also a couple of Swedish women, ex-radicals in their time, one a Lutheran, the other a Muslim. What interesting conversations we had together!

Finally, as our bus pulled into the bonsai garden for transfers to other buses, just at the minute we had a big downpour, our guide treated us to his rendition of Yellow River Yellow River, she's on my mind, she's on my mind (from the 1960's), substituting the word Yellow for Mekong. Excellent!


Friday, November 24, 2006

Adventures in My Tho

My Tho - Richard on trishaw, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

After a morning at the floating markets around Can Tho and stops off at noodle factory and incense factory and a lunch of fried snake meat and noodles, we made it down the delta to My Tho. A crumbling hotel with high celings, a slow fan, a tiny bathroom and no airco awaited us.

We had part of the afternoon still free, so we got this chap to take us on his trishaw to the Cao Dai Cathedral. Cao Dai is a made up religion, a bit like them all actually, only this one is not so old. The Cathedral was a mixtrure of Catholic Cathedral and Chinese temple and Jesus could be seen as one of the Gods. Apparently Winston Churchill was one of the heroes of this religion, along with Napoleon Bonaparte. As I said to Ruichard, people will believe anything, given the right circumstances. Anyway, not so much time now, so I imagine more can be found about this religion on some internet search engine. We enjoyed our trip around town until it came to paying when our driver asked for double what the women had asked yesterday for the one hour trip on the river. Still, not so much money, so not worth having too much of an argument in the middle of the street with him. And, I am a bit of a soft touch anyway.

Later, after finding some excellent dinner in the form of fresh noodles and prawns, we were on the look out for beer. Nothing to be had in the park in front of the hotel, nor in the side streets nearby, so when a copuple of motorbike drivers called us over, we called back beer and made a gesture with our hands of knocking back a glass of cold beer. They seemed to understand, so we were off. Off past the beer garden we had seen earlier on, off along another road and then out into the country across a copuple of bridges, past some more beer gardens to a quiet looking house in the countryside. Quiet until we pulled up that is because we hardly had time to jump off before a number of (very prtetty) young girls came out to greet us. When we protested, the ugly toothless driver lai\ughed and poointed to the advertising sign outside showing that beer was served here as well! Well, we managed to persuade them to take us back.... but not back to where we had come from but to another place in town not altogether near the hotel, to a restaurant on the verge of closing which looked suspiciously like it was going to serve us warm beer on ice!

We wandered back a bit puzzled at the lack of beer and wondered if those Malaysian methodists had managed to make their inroads into the local council. We have no idea but we passed cafe after cafe on teh way back selling nothing more harmful than some bright green liquid in jugs and the usual cola. A nice lady asked us to sit with her and ger family and treated us to a gl;ass of mango and apple juice as we did our best to converse with the hands and the feet.

One thing about My Tho though is how very very friendly everyone seems to be... it is like Diyarbakir all over again, with us hardly being able to walk 20 yards without being called out to and asked to sit down for a drink or a bite or whatever.

Tomorrow Saigon and some thinking about how we want to spend our last two weeks here in Vietnam. Good night, all.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

On to Can Tho

Life along the Mekong Delta, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Well, it seems as if the election results in Holland have turned out to be just as complicated, if not more so, than expected. It was very lazy of the BBC to go round telling the world last week that the centre-right coalition looked like it was going to win the election as that was never on the cards. And so it proved, with all three of the coalition parties losing seats. The parties winning were the Socialist Party (9 to 26), anti-Muslim party (for the want of a better word) )(1 to 9 - a real surprise there as the polls had them down for just 3 or 4) and an Animal Rights party (0 to 2). It looks as if a centre-left coaltion will have to form, with more or less a Christian tint - Roman Red, they are calling it, it seems, so not too bad, and a lot better than the alternative.

Today, we continued with our tour of the Mekong Delta, getting up early to take a boat out onot the river for two brief stops at a Chan Minority village (mainly to buy scarves and se a couple of young girls with a loom) and a fish-farm, which turned out to be a typical wooden house on stilts, built over the water, with a big hole in the middle in which lots of fish were being fattened on polluting fish food.

Then it was three hours in the bus to Can Thoa where we were dropped off already before mid-day, after which we have had tehg day to ourselves. So the tour itself is maybe not such a great success so far, but it is very nice to have all the free time. Last night we stayed in the hottest room in the hotel, at the top, under the roof with windows facing the sun, and no air-conditioning. We did not get a very good night's sleep, so on arriving in Can Tho, we paid the 5 dollars extra for airco, although the room was not so hot this time, and had a snooze.

Can Tho is the largest city on the Delta and the fifth largest in Vietnam, a country which has a staggering 84 million inhabitants. There are large factories upstream, making beer and assembling cars and the waterfront is very neat, with a promenade and neat gardens, and some swish hotels. We ahd a walk around the front before making off to the very quaint backstreets, walking almost into people's front rooms. Again, everyone was very friendly. We ended up in the market, full of greens and strange fruit as well as fish, squid, prawns and crab. I must say that I have never been much of a fan of river fish and seeing them in the market they look very grey and dirty and, well, unappetising, especially when one sees the muddy state of the water (not forgetting all the chemical outflows from the factories all the way up the Mekong). Much ebtter to be eating fish on a tropical beah and clear water, even if the fish on one's plate was never caught there. It just seems better. Prawns, which I find delicious, thrive off eating the mud and the sludge in all the dirtiest parts of the river bed, so I am not being exactly consistent here. Another dubious sight is the grey cockles and snails which one regularly sees for sale.

Anyway, we had an excellent end to the day when a couple of amrket women saw us on the quay outside the market and offered us an hours' ride on the river in their rickety old boat. We had a lovely time going past all the river people, people washing and playing about in the water, many shouting ' Hello' and waving, past fishermen bringing their catch home or cleaning their boats and so on. We finally ended up in a little stream, going past the tropical vegetation, again, going past right outside people's houses. It was good to be paying money directly into people's hands rather than to an organisation or a specific tourist outfit and we paid a good deal more than what we agreed. Now to find a local restaurant serving all the delicious stuff we saw in the market.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Very RED, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Chau Doc - Buddhist temple, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

But which colour will The Netherlands turn today in the elections?
Seems like the Christian Democrats will win the greatest number of seats but will the Socialist Party of the RED tomatoes become the second largest party for the first time evere? And will D66 be obliterated? We'll see. Whatever, I think it will be a great shame on the Netherlands if J-P Balk-ellende (the Harry Potter look-a-like) leads the country again, as in my view, he is no leader.


Hello Vietnam!

Chau Doc - Market scene, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

We are now over the border in the busy town of Chau Doc, perched on and over the Mekong River, about two hours by boat from the Cambodian border. We are on the tour I mentioned yesterday - four days and three nights for 44 dollars, including all boat trips, bus rides, hotel rooms, day trips and so on. We groaned a bit when we saw the state of the buses and the first boat we were put in, but the whole thing is working out very well so far. The hotel is good, the guide very pleasant, no delays and one extra good thing is that in the early afternoons we check into our hotels and have the rest of the day to ourselves. Excellent. It is hot here, hot for the time of year, it seems, but it is mostly not too uncomforatble, except that my chest has come ouyt in red spots as a reaction to the humidity.

It is always exciting coming to a country for the first time and Vietnam is no exception.

We arrived by boat motoring through past paddy fields and immediately we started to notice the Vietnamese women wearing their peaked straw hats (there are a couple in this photo). We then veered off from the mighty river to a smaller canal where we came right past the houses preched on stilts over thge river, the newly planted rice, planted to within a metre of the water level, coming down the river bank. We received friendly smiels and waves from everyone, which bodes well, as I have been led to believe from some that maybe the people in Vietnam are not quite as nice as those in Cambodia. Well, this was a good start.

Calling in at Chau Doc quayside, it was the usual Asian hustle and bustle and soon we were walking down crowded streets, trishaws, motorbikes and so on just as we had left behind in Phnom Penh, but the houses looked different, the smells were different and for a complete surprise all the women were walking around in their colourful pyjamas! Very pretty pyjamas they were too, mainly floral designs.

We had some hard bargaining to do to get motorbikes to the Sam Mountain, 5 km out of town where there are a lot of very gaudy temples. It is easy to see why the Vietnamese were open to being converted to Catholicism, with their obvious love of kitsch. Fortunately, Christianity has not proven so popular in Cambodia, where there is a life embracing form of Buddhism, less over the top here. Of course, the misisonaries have had some success, as we noticed in a couple of places in Phnom Penh, where they were hanging Jesus Loves Me silks on the walls. I asked one chap why he was a Christian and he said it was a free country and he could chose whatever religion he liked, fair enough, but he also mentioned being a member of the United Methodist Church, or something similar, a church he said which was based in Malaysia. When I mentioned this to my Uncle Malcolm, he laughed and said that as they were probably having such little success in Malaysia they are now trying their hand in Cambodia!

I also received a message from Fred who mentions that it was HIS idea to go to Cambodia, not Richard's. I am not entirely sure, but Fred did encouarge me to stay in South East Asia as opposed to rushing around the world, so thanks to you Fred!


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Having fun in Kompong Som

Yes, we had great fun in Kompong Som, mainly down at the Sandy Beach Bar with our new friends Oun and Chheng, with whom we spent the last two evenings, ending up at the Angkor Tech Disco last night until about 2' ish. Great fun! (More pics on flickr).

Less fun was getting up this morning at 6.20 in readiness for the bus back to Phnom Penh at 7.45, but we managed to get some sleep on the bus and have taken it easily today. We found a much better place to stay for just 10 dollars a night, but will leave tomorrow, catching a boat to Chau Doc in Vietnam. We have committed ourselves to a four day tour of the Mekong Delta, first taking a bus to a port a little further down the river, then taking a boat to the border. After that it is messing about on boats and coaches, visiting many of the more famous sites on the Delta. The tour is very cheap - just 44 dollars, including transport and hotel accommodation. We will see how we get on. If we do not like it, I am sure we would be at liberty to catch the next bus on to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City.

We will be very sad to leave Cambodia, as we have met and had to say goodbye to, many lovely people, but that is the lot of travellers, I suppose.

Will maybe write more later, but I had better go and see how Richard is doing back at the Garden Bar, where we share a special friend. Her boss allows her to drink with us so long as the drink costs more than 3 dollars and provided she does not sit down with us. This is really quite good, as we are a bit tired of the girlie bars (not that we have spent much time in them, but we do not much care for that sort of scene).

Fred and I can make for difficult travellers at times and Richard and I are the same in some ways, one of our things being that we rather frequesnt places which play Cambodian or Thai music rather than Western rubbish and indeed this evening we refused to sit in a restaurant as they told us the CAN NOT change the music to Khmer, because so-called other Western tourists don't seem to like it. Why they bother travelling when they are either with their i-pods or in bars drinking beer, I do not know.

Anyway, before we leave Cambodia, just a few lasting impressions:

1 The rice paddies with the sugar palms
2 The white cows everywhere in the countryside
3 The monk's houses, with their saffron robes draped out for drying, having been washed
4 The tuk tuk drivers always asking if we want women, nice women, young women
5 The smiles and waves of the children in the countryside
6 The exclamation "Wow!"
7 Everyone guessing that Richard is older then me (he he)!
8 The serious efforts being made to educate the population about sex tourism and AIDS
9 The never ending stream of children leaving school on their bicycles, dressed in white shirts and blue socks
10 The good friends we have made here

Odd to think that in all probability we are unlikely to come back here, together or individually, but I am very glad that we did.. and a good choice of Richard to choose Cambodia.

Labels: ,

Kompong Som - boat

Kompong Som - boat, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Clear blue skies, clear blue sea and a colourful boat - a typicla scene from Kompong Som

Labels: ,

Monday, November 20, 2006

Having fun

Kompong Som - happy hawkers, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Having so much fun here on the beach in Sihanoukville/Kpmpong Som. We could easily spend a week here, no trouble. only that we want to go to Vietnam which has so much to offer, and now it seems as if we do not have so much time left after all.

Pics to be uploaded later, of our trip around Kompong Som o0n the motorbikes and also our new friends at the sandy beach bar here on the Ochheteal Beach.

Tomorrow we catch the bus back to PP, and book a trip down the Mekong to Chau Doc in Vietnam for a few days on the Delta.

Labels: ,

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A shy girl

Kompong Som - beach hawker, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

She is carrying a tray load of fried breaded scampi. Mmmmm.....

Labels: ,

Different beach, different sea, same idea

Kompong Som - sunset, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Here was the sunset we had today, looking out across the Gulf of Siam. A well deserved rest day, spent lounging around on comfortable chairs on the beach, out of the sun. No rain today.

The sea was lovely and warm and quite clear but full of jellyfish which was a bit off-putting as regards swimming.

We went back to the beach for dinner and chose a lovely spot, lit by fairy lights, with delicious and cheap fresh seafood (prawns and squid) and great local company with Cambodian music (specially requested) in the background. Last night (just to make you very envious, Mum) we had a delicious plate of fried crabmeat with vegetables. Completely fresh and separated from the crab, a generous helping too. Delicious.

We plan to have the same sort of day tomorrow, after which we will try to make for Vietnam and the charms of the Mekong Delta there. We might have gone there earlier were it not for the fact that we have been having such a lovely time with the Cambodians. We will miss them when we have gone.

Labels: ,

Evening fun, Kendwa Rocks beach - 2005

Here we were a year ago, on the beach in Zanzibar, Fred and myself. Today, a year later, Richard and me spent the day on the beach here in Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) on the coast of Cambodia.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Gone South

Phnom Penh - Buddhas, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

We have made it down to Sihanoukville, on the coast south of Phnom Penh, named after the former King who was so prominent in Cambodian politics for so long. Its real name, Kompong Chon sounds a lot nicer.
It is a large-ish place with a container terminal tucked up in the northerly part and about seven white sandy beaches to choose from.
It rained when we entered the place and it rained again just now, but we are only a couple of minutes from a long thin beach, staying in a guesthouse owned by the bus company and full of people who had come down here on their buses.
We asked the motorcyclists to take us to a different place, but they, earning commission, no doubt, brought us here first. It looked nice enough, but we made a point of looking for/at the other place - Serenity. As it happened, this place was on top of a hill, along a bumpy dirt track and was locked behind a large and tough looking gate, so we came back here.
Visiting beaches in thrid world countries can be a bit trying and here we came across touts for parties,. motorbikes, tours and the like, beggars who were missing limbs, the massage women and so on. All this whilst spolit Westerners like ourselves can lounge around drinking beer and eating cheap food and listening to their dreadful pop music, which thay can download onto their i-pods at a place called the Boom Boom Room, at the entrance to the beach, next to the internet cafe. Boom Boom means Bang Bang and it is what most of teh motorcycle riders offer you once it starts getting dark. As a variation they might offer Yum Yum, which is a variant of the former. If not interested they will telll you that they are beautiful girls and then, if still not interested, that they are beautiful young girls. In the meantime there are Western NGO subsidised adverts warning that child sex is illegal and that one can be prosecuted both here and abroad, urging people "not to turn away but to turn them in". I suppose I half expected to see middle aged Western men sitting on the beach with their young friends, but it seems as if they have to be a lot more subtle than that nowdays (thank goodness).
Anyway, we have a our shack, complete with (virtual) airco, some fans and a sattalite TV where we can follow the Premier League, the Masters Tennis (good news about Henin-Gardienne last week)and the news that the Dutch Parliament again seems to want to ban the burqa. The strange thing is that they also say that the centre right are due to win the elections next week.. that's was not the case when I left, so what changed, I wonder? And how can so many people feel comfortable voting for Balk-ellende?
It is teeming with rain here, causing some flooding and a nasrty smell to appear - I am hoping that the sewage system is not over-flowing. But how incredible to be here, at the end of Cambodia, next to the see, in the middle of a tropical storm, writing away on internet? Amazing.

Labels: ,

Friday, November 17, 2006


Phnom Penh - sleeping, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

This is what we could have done with more of, during the past couple of days.... an afternoon nap.

Labels: ,

Phnom Penh - local transport

Phnom Penh - local transport, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

The photo is a bit dark, maybe I can touch it up later by brightening it, but this shows quite well the difference between the' haves' with their Toyota Land Cruisers (I think, if not this one then the one before) and the 'have-nots' with the type of transport used by the bulk of people here.

Labels: ,

Phnom Penh - Royal Palace complex

Looking like a miniature, maybe because of the trees in the foreground.

Labels: ,

No photo

No photo, as it appears almost impossible to upload from flickr to blog. Maybe it is to do with changes in software or to the connections here. Anyway, I finally managed to uplaod the Phnom Penh photos, after a lot of trying. We have decided to leave PP tomorrow and make for the coast at Sihanhoukville as we were not having the best of fun here. Main problam has been our grotty room whereby we have no incentive to be there anyt longer than necessary. This means leaving in the morning and staying out all day and evening until bedtime, leaving the both of us quite tired, today, at least. Maybe a nicer place with sea breezes will revive us before we make it across to Vietnam or decide to go up country to Banlung and the Province of Rattankiri, as suggested by Uncle Malcolm. It seem sas if there is a direct bus, just started two days ago, making this journey and two chaps we met were very enthusiastic about their time up there in the jungle clad mountains. We'll see.

Labels: ,

Beautiful silks

Phnom Penh - beautiful silks, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Taking orders from anyone who likes what they see here. About 6 or 8 dollars for the finest silk you could imagine.

Labels: ,

Tuol Sleng - murdered young boys

Tuol Sleng, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

A blog will follow, when I have the time and some clear internet access.

But just to think that if these young boys were not slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, they would probably be in their early 30's, and who knows, maybe with young children of their own?

Labels: ,

A visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng - bed in room, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Today we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a place where about 20,000 inmates were imprisoned, tortured and sent for killing in the killing fields just outside the city (a place we will visit during our time here). The victims were all accused of opposing the regime, Democratic Kampuchea, known as Khmer Rouge. When the regime fell, the liberators only managed to find seven survivors.

The DK regime took over this high school, in September 1975, just 5 months after they 'liberated' Phnom Penh. It had a very curious name, Tuol Sleng meaning both a poisonous hill or a place to keep those who bear a supply of guilt. The centre became known as S 21.

More later.

The prisoners

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The two brothers

Pig on the track!

Pig on the track!
This blog is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, as the connections are so bad. I cannot upload photos and yet again I have written a nice chatty blog which has disappeared.

Anyway, I will try again...

This is the rail track for the main line between Battambang and Phnom Penh, where a train runs up or down once a day, the rest of the time the track being put into use for local transport with the bamboo trains, as described earlier.

We decided to take the bus down as it would take half teh amount of time, six hours instead of twelve. We were advised to take GST, as they had the best safety record and we were told we would be travelling in air conditioned comfort. Well, at least we left reasonably on time and had a safe but noisy journey, the driver blaring his very loud and shrill horn at any poor sod also wishing to use the road. We passed through another very flat landscape of rice paddies and sugar palms, punctuated by villages and occasional towns, with their co.ourful pagodas, petrol stations, dusty markets, hoards of school children on bicycles, the odd water buffalo walking through the streets and so on. The nearer we came ot the capital, the more town we saw, the less countryside, the amount of traffic (mostly motorbikes) increased, as did the amount of fumes. This showed very clearly how economic progress and development leads ot environmental degredation and lack of sustainability, something I might write about later.

Anyway, we arrived in the capital, where the streets were totally overcrowded with motorbikes and many people wore face masks to protect themselves from the fumes. We went off with a French chap we had met on teh bus to the backpackers area near a lake at the back of the railway station, a little off the beaten track, and a real backpackerts haunt. There was no place at the guest hosue we first tried which was just a swell as it was run by a rather distateful looking Frenchman with a pigtail and a bad attitude, who served his guests croque monsieur. Instead we tried the placve next door and obtained a smelly shack with a fan for four dollars a night onm the promise that we could move into one of the lakeside bungalows the next day. Still not too sure about the place.... espcially as when we arrived at the bar area, a dfeck built over the lake with a lovely cool breeze our fellow young guests were watching an MTV-type yoof programme full of expletives at full blast. Hmmmm....

We left for a walk around town after a drink of tea, so begining our adventures in Phnom Penh. Strange to finally be ina place one has heard so much about since the American war in the early 1970's, a place infdeed wjhich was almost emptied of all of its inhabitants by the evil Pol Pot, less than thirty years ago. A visit to the genocide museum at Toul Sleng is a must.

Labels: ,

Our Cambodian brother, Tee

Tee with a coconut
Today we left Battambang behind and have arrived in the hustly-bustly city of Phnom Penh, which is taking a bit of getting used to, after the quiet provincial town of Battambang. We have been here for four hours already and not taken a single photo.

Anyway, this chap, Tee was waiting for us as we got off the boat from Siem Reap to Battambang and recommnded to us that we go and stay in the Teo Hotel, as opposed to the Chhaya Hotel, where about ten aggressive touts were trying to load us into one of their three minibuses and telling us not to believe this Tee and that the hotel was going to be 3.5 kms out of town. Well, it all sounded very improbable so we went along with Tee, as he was a lot quiter, unassuming and more seemingly honest than the others. It was a good choice as the Teo Hotel had large rooms, excellent beds, good airco, a warm shower, clean towels everyday and it was as near to the centre as you would have wanted. The Chhaya on the other hand was right in the (noisy) centre and didn't look half as gfood as the Teo.

So, we would spend the next two days and evenings with Tee and his side-kick Nye and what a great time they gave us, motoring along through the beautiful countryside, stopping whenever we wanted and Tee telling us about life in Cambodia and his own life in particular.

He is the only son and has two sisters, of a farming family near Pursat, south of Battambang. He learnt English at school and had various jobs as he does not want to follow his father and elder sister into farming, as despite it looking so idylklic, he said that life is very hard on the farm. His father supplements his income by giving Bible lessons to various young people, paid for by some church. He is not Christian himself but welcomes the 30 dollars a month this job provides. Tee himself is an atheist and does not have much time for religion himself although he is quite happy for others to be religious as long as they don't try their religion out on him. Excellent!

He bought himslef a motorbike and uses this to transport tourists like ourselves around Battambang, in his nice unassuming way. He could buy his motorbike in Thailand for 300 dollars (illegally) thereby saving himself 900 dollars from the Cambodian price (due to heavy import duties). He uses his income to help pay for his younger sister go to high school and hopes to save money for himself to get some formal education as a passport to a 'proper' job.

Only when he has his proper jon will he have time for a girlfriend, girlfriends being an expensive luxury, it seems.

Anyway, he said that it is Cambodian custom that if you do not have many brothers or sisters, to nominate one or more of your good friends as brother or sister, which I think is a very nice idea, so in this way he became our Cambodian brother. If you are reading this, Tee, thanks again for giving us such an excellent time in Battambang.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Another night on the town

Bamboo train, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Here is a photo of the bamboo train which I was trying to explain last night, with the two motorcycles on top, Richard, iour two drivers and the train personnel.

After we arrived back at the hotel, there was time for a shower, some very slow internet and so on before we were picked up by Tea for another night out on the town. He brought us to K.O. Beer Garden, which was the same concept as the ASEAN Beer Garden we had been to the night before only worse... on every count. The singers sang out of tune and did not bother to dance even a little bit, the beer was warm, giving us teh choice of warm beer or cold beer in a glass of ice, which very soon turned to water. Seeing how terrible warm beer is, I went for the latter, Richard for the former. The menu was an incredible selection of things like boiled eel with glass noodles, fried intestines and bits of frog (no bat though). We plumped for the safe bet of fried rice with pork, always fried rice. And to top it all I did not get my massage when going for a pee, the boy being obviously too shy. Anyway, Tea treated us to a song, a very sad one which explainmed how just because he does not cry, it does not mean he doesn't have problems.

So, off we went to Sky 'Restaurant', which turned out to be a massive high-tech night club with loud music, flashing lights and laser beams. All Cambodian music, in a hard house, techno, hip-hop style, which was agauin excellent to listen to. The place was full of young people, including some very young people, like so young they would be going to primarry school the next day rather than secondary school. It was a Monday night, but it was packed with people dancing enthusiasticaly, and even us old bods had a go. One excellent aspect of the night life here is that it takes place quite early, no doubt to give the children some time to sleep before going to school the next day, So, at midnight, when most discos in Europe will not have even started to get going, the place was emptying, such that a half hour later we were almost the last to leave. It was a great night out and I can happily report that I eventually did get my massage!

Labels: ,

Monday, November 13, 2006

Cattle cart

Just wanted to thank my cousin, Bruce, for the word ' bucolic'. How's this for bucolic?


Not all country bumpkins around here

Top class act, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Not at all... last night we crossed the river to the bright lights of the Beer Garden, where we were able to sit outside and have an excellent dinner and beer to the accompaniment of wonderful entertainment, from the professionals and amateurs alike. I must say, that I am really loving Cambodian music and I coulkd have stayed all night listening, though I don't think Richard was quite so keen.... he was busy flirting with the waitresses. This couple, for me, were the stars of the evening, and he was outrageously camp, singing a very funny duet with this lady. They are very good at these male/female duets and he gave it a delicious twist.

Funny moment of teh evening though was when I went for a pee in the gents and had the attendantcome up behind me and give me an excellent neck massage. Of course, it is not so easy to pee in such a state so I stuck around and enjoyed the massage whilst I could. Tea tells us that this is quite normal in Cambodia. He is coming round at 8.30 to take us to a karaoke place, looking forward to it.

Labels: ,

The bucolic countryside

River maidens, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

No luck today uploading any photos, despite being here for more than an hour, so will use one of yesterday's.

We had a great day here around Battambang, being driven around on the back of a couple of motorbikes through the bucolic landscape of western Cambodia, passing through villages of wooden houses on stilts, under which you'd find the family, at least the ones not working such as the old people, mothers and young children manily, sitting around, in the shade, with the pigs or cattle of chickens running around, Rice would be bdrying in the sun, and if there was no-one ot keep an eye on them the piglets woudl start nibbling at the golden rice kernels. We stopped once and counted twelve newly born pink piglets and a 120 kg plus mother, exhuated by her recent labours.

In the fields the rice was ripening in the fields some of of it already being harvested. Buffalos would wallow in the mud whilst men would be tending their nets in the larger pools of muddy water. Occasionally there would pass a cart heavily laden with freshly cut rice, pulled by two white cattle and there would be groups of schoolchildren cycling back home dressed in their uniform of white shirts and navy blue shorts or skirts.

We were off to visit some temples and a killing cave, where the Khmer Rouge dropped people from a height to their certain death below, but we missed out on most of the sites, preferring to chat with the friendly and smiling locals and our drivers, the very entertaining Tea and his sidekick Pye.

We also spent time chatting to the local monks and were again asked to explain the meaning of some very obscure English words some of which we had not heard of and others we had, like Hobbiton, but wondering how they came across such words. No lessons given today althouigh I was shown a project which involved building an extension to soime monks' quarters to provide yet more space for people to learn English. It is very clear that Cambodians really want to learn English, much more, Richard notes, than the Thais would, for example.

A highlight of the day came at the end when we went onto the bamboo train, a very interesting and enterprising way of using the single track railway line bewteen Phnom Penh and Battambang. They would load a platform of bamboo onto some wheels and attach a motor at the back which provided the traction to turn the wheels on the track and get the platform, now loaded with motorbikes, tourists and guides, or more commonly timber, rice and vegetables up and down the line.

It was exhilerating to be travelling on the tarck with the cool afteroon air in your face, passing the green rice paddies with a hazy sun setting behind the trees and hills in the west. The only issue was that it is a one track line and things are tranbsported backwarsda nd frowards which entails a lot of loading and unloading and leap-frogging, or simple waiting to get through. Still, an excellent system all round.

Despite not having much idea of what to do in Battambang, we have decided to spend another day here, visiting the Museum in the morning and meeting up with Tea again in the afternmoon for another trip to the countryside and temples, so we now have a bus ticket to Phnom Penh early on Wednesday morning. (Thank you Uncle Malcolm, for you helpful information about onward transport from PP to HCM City: I quite fancied a trip through the Mekong).

Labels: ,

Forza Palermo!

Palermo pink and black, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

I could not resist the temptation to congratulate Palermo Football Club for getting to the top of Serie "A", this weekend, after vtheir fifth win in a row and a good win which gave them the advantage of goal difference. A long season to go, but after 11 games, they are doing very well.

We were in Palermo in thye summer after they had qualified (2004) and the whole centre of thye city was daubed in pink and black, whilst they were also celebrating the Feast of Santa Rosalia for an unforgettable experience!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

With the monks in Battambang

These monks were very interested to practice their English with us. We were even invited into a school classroom to speak some English by one of the monks, who was giving the lesson. We did our best. He was teaching them strange expressions like dead-lock, dead-show and dead-mind. We were asked to explain in front of the class what they meant but I had only heard of the first. It was a bit embarrasssing. Anyone with any ideas?

Further you may notice that this monk has one of my moo visiting cards, printed from my flickr collection... these cards are proving to be quite popular as they get scattered around South East Asia. I wonder ifd/when I will hear from anyone.

Time to go back to find Richard who I left on the pavemnet an hour or so ago.

Labels: ,

Boat through the Tonle Sap

Boat through the Tonle Sap, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

We spent six hours on this boat on ther Tonle Sap lake and the river going from Siem Reap to Battambang. A fascinating insight into life on the water and to the water birds.

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Goodbye Siem Reap

Angkor Wat sunrise, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Here is how we started the day. Ending up now in town, eating fish amok, listening to loud Western music and watching Premier League football live, while drinking cheap draft Tiger Beer. Excellent! Just came back to internet to see if I could post a couple of blogs before leaving Siem Reap, and made it, just about.

Queen seems to be very popular here and we have heard Bohemian Rhapsody, Bicycle Race and now We Will Rock You on successive evenings. Poignant to think that at the time Bicycle Race was released in 1978 that the terror regime of Pol Pot was in full swing. Likewise Boney M's Rivers of Babylon.

Earlier in the evening we chanced upon a bar with exotic looking waiters which turned out to be a gay bar, here in Siem Reap, celebrating its 2nd anniversary. I had a caprinha, Richard a beer, while we chatted to a Singaporean chap, now living in the US, such are the wonders of globalisation!


Serpent motif

Ta Promh - Serpent motif, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Here is an example of the serpent motifs one finds all around the Angkor temples. In the book Footprints of the Gods, Graham Hancock describes how he thinks that the whole Angkor complex layout is based on a reflection of the Snake constellation as it was to be seen in the skies 12,000 years ago, way before the temples were built. An interesting theory and something I should have read up on before I came out here. Good to finally arrive and see the serpents for myself.

Also the numbers 72 and 54 (3/4 of 72) seem to be very important in the layout, but I was not counting.

Just checked here on internet and Take The Stand was pulled up and even my second favourite horse, Lacdoudal did not make the frame.

Labels: ,

Ta Promh - jungle temple

Ta Promh - jungle temple, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Here is a photo of the jungle temple showing the damage wrought by the mighty trees to the thousand year old temple. It is here that Angelina Jolie starred as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider film, a more poerfect setting there could not be. She is famous here for having also adopted a Cambodian baby, srtarting a trend in celebrity adoptions.

A more perfect filmset there could not be, a pity Angkor was off-limits when they made the Indiana Jones films.

Labels: ,

Locations of visitors to this page