A Travellerspoint blog

Ho Chi Minh City

We arrive in Ho Chi Minh City to be greeted with a down pour that had us wishing for Noah Minh's Arc

storm 28 °C

“Mate, that’s getting bigger” I say to Milo and everyone agrees with a concerned nod. “It must have been in his food” someone else comments as Milo holds up the culprit. Milo’s face starts to look like a boxer after 4 rounds. Some kind of wasp had bitten or stung his lips and his face is slowly but surely reacting. We hop back on the bus after ‘not’ enjoying a lunch at a restaurant geared for tourists, feeling like I was in Disneyland’s Epcot. Our concern for Milo grows along with the swelling as we think it might spread to his throat and affect his breathing. I think to myself he’ll be OK, and try to pay no attention to it to avoid adding to anymore anxiety than he already has. It’s only another 2 hours to Ho Chi Minh City and he can see a doctor when we get there.

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It’s late in the afternoon and grey when we arrive in Vietnam’s Southern Capital. Not just because of the weather, but also from the run down grey buildings that line the main highway into the city. Once named Saigon, the Communists renamed it in honour of their great leader Ho Chi Minh, after the fall of Saigon following the withdrawal of American troops at the end of the Vietnam War. There is nothing in HCMC I’m really looking forward to as we are only here for one night and unfortunately there isn’t enough time to pay homage to the Australian Soldiers who fought and died in the Battle of Long Tan, just outside of HCMC. It’s just another big city.

My raincoat doesn’t do much except to...well it doesn’t do much

Our afternoon walk around the city is cancelled as Rod and Fabian take Milo to the hospital to get some treatment for the sting. He’s in the 12th round but at least the swelling had stopped by the 9th. Sam, Jenny, Toula and I decide to check out the Benh Thanh markets just across the way from the hotel... When I say across the way, there is a huge round-about in between with around 8 exits. There is a science, tempered with some blind courage to crossing streets in Vietnam which I will explain some other time. We make it to the markets alive, with a sense of achievement of someone who has cheated death.

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The market is disappointing as the heavens open up with a torrential afternoon storm common in the tropical climates. Most of the market stalls are packed up as the locals obviously knew that there would be a storm. We wander around aimlessly as we wait for the downpour to stop, or at least ease, but it doesn’t. We are scheduled to meet up in the foyer of our hotel to go out to dinner in less than an hour so we decide to brave it. Remember that 8 exit round-about? We are about to cross that in torrential rain with less than 50ft of visibility. We try and find an exit that is not flooded but they are all pretty much almost knee deep. We put on our rain jackets (I offer Toula mine but she refuses), and we take the plunge, almost literally. We step out and are instantly drenched. My raincoat doesn’t do much except to...well it doesn’t do much. Luckily there aren’t as many scooters around but there are still the suicidal taxis and did I forget to mention the busses?! We wade our way through the round-about as we cross the flooded streets, obviously disregarding any pedestrian lights.

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We get to the hotel, absolutely drenched, but at least it’s not cold. I find it amusing, until I find my wallet swimming in my raincoat pocket. We quickly get changed and meet the others in the lobby, in which time the rain has stopped but the streets are still flooded. Rod takes us to backpacker road, a part of HCMC where backpackers hang out and do what backpackers do, but not before getting lost. We take the wrong turn and realise we’ve been walking for longer than we should. The water is almost up to our knees in some sections and there’s no other way than through it. I don’t even try and think what’s floating (or submerged) in the water when suddenly I see Sam is stopped ahead. She has cut her toe after a little stumble and with the questionable flood waters, I piggy back her to the nearest chemist and get some antiseptic and bandages. With that drama over, we arrive at our destination and sit down to our last meal together as a group. We would be parting ways the next day. The German guys, Milo and Fabian will continue onto Singapore and Bali. Fabian in particular is looking forward to a bit of luxury after the last ten days of hotels, bungalows, public buses and Tuk Tuks. Nick and Amber head down towards Australia and New Zealand for another two months of travelling and Jenny is heading the same way for almost the same amount of time. Yes I am jealous. Toula heads back to Switzerland to rejoin the rat race and Rod is still deciding between leading another tour and calling it quits to travel himself. We head to a bar after dinner to have a couple rounds of drinks but everyone is too exhausted to pull off a big farewell night and so we head back to the hotel. I think everyone is ready to part ways with travelling on a schedule.

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The next morning, Nick, Amber, Toula, Sam and I decide to catch a taxi to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of HCMC. We haggle, trying to find the cheapest way to get there and manage to arrange a flat rate with a taxi. The trip is long, almost 3 hours. At some points, we look at each other, thinking we might be lost but with the driver’s lack of English, we decide the only thing we can do is sit back and enjoy the suicidal driving. It’s not like he’s trying to rip us off as we are paying a flat rate and I’m sure he’d rather be doing something else other than giving us a mute tour of the Vietnam countryside.

At least it’s a break from the heat outside; too bad it feels like I’m buried alive

We finally arrive at Cu Chi tunnels and after some calculation, we figure we have less than an hour to get through the tour of the Tunnels. Nick and Amber have a bus to catch and with the notorious HCMC traffic, we have to leave enough time to get back. To add to this, Nick realises he has left his camera in the Taxi but there’s no time to go back and get it as we push our guide to power through the tour. “Here is a typical Viet Cong booby trap”...”Oh that’s nice and sadistic...Next!” He gives us a history of the tunnels, pointing out how large and elaborate they were, stretching for miles underground. There are bomb craters still clearly visible and I can only imagine the fear and noise experienced by those who lived in the tunnels as the US B-52 bombers carpet bombed. Nick and I try and go down a VC hole in the ground which is less than shoulder width. You basically have to lift your arms straight up in the air and slowly submerge, holding the cover above your head. Even I struggled with my small frame but Nick somehow managed to do it too.

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We approach the part of the tour where you actually go into the tunnels. We have an option of 30 or 100 foot tunnel. With not much time left, we choose the shorter option. We climb down maybe 10 feet into a hole where it drops into a dimly lit tunnel, just enough for me to squat and walk hunched over. As I slowly move forward, I slowly hunch down a little more and I look back to see that Nick is already on his hands and knees. Another 10 feet and I’m on my hands and knees and we get to a point where even I struggle to get through. I turn my head as much as possible to make sure Nick gets through, and I can’t even see Amber who is behind him. It’s cold and damp down here. At least it’s a break from the heat outside; too bad it feels like I’m buried alive. If you are claustrophobic in the slightest, I suggest you skip this part of the tour. I really don’t know how the VC lived in these conditions, sometimes for months on end. I see the light coming from above and I’m back on my feet at least, even if I’m walking like a baboon that’s just done fifty squats. We end up coming out of a hole in the floor of a hut. I see Amber is quite shaken by the experience and we all agree that we took the best ‘shorter’ option. The guide tells us how scary it can get when a person starts to panic in the middle of tunnel and there are people in front and behind. Panic spreads and that’s when people can get injured, trying to push forward or backwards in such enclosed spaces. Is it just me or are Asian guides trained to tell you about the dangers of doing something AFTER just doing it?

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We estimate that we should be able to make it back in time for Nick and Amber’s bus but it’s bad news for Nick’s camera as it is nowhere in the taxi. We have our suspicions about the taxi driver but there’s nothing we can really do as he is our only option back. The ride back seems to go by so much quicker but in the end, we have spent almost 6 hours in a taxi today. We farewell Nick and Amber in the hotel foyer, ensuring we all have each other’s contact details. Jen, Sam and I decide to grab some lunch and have a wander around in the same market we went to last night. All the stalls are open and we have some time to kill before Sam and I catch a flight to Da Nang tonight. I’d had my eye on these satchel bags made of old Rice Bags. These things would go for over $40 back in the US just for the novelty and at less than $5 here, I was a winner before I bargained it down to $3.

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It’s 4pm and almost time to catch our taxi to the airport. Once again, we say farewell to Jenny and Toula as we throw our backpacks into a taxi. I have mixed emotions as we negotiate peak hour traffic to the airport. As much as I’ve enjoyed making new friends and sharing experiences with them I’ll never forget, I’m looking forward to travelling alone with my favourite travel partner, Sam. The airport is old and disorganised and to add to that, our flight is cancelled and we are moved to a later flight. While I sit sulking and cursing, Sam weaves her magic as an ex-travel agent and somehow manages to get us onto an earlier flight. Unfortunately that flight is also delayed and to add to THIS, I find out a little too late already having paid for one, that if your flight is late by over an hour, the airport provides you a free meal! The airport may be old but at least it knows how to keep flyers happy. There are TVs everywhere playing (old) movies and shows and even free internet booths (although a carrier pigeon is quicker). It’s the effort and thought that counts right? We finally board and the flight is uneventful. We arrive late at night in Da Nang after flying for a little over an hour. We would only be here for a night as we head straight to the old city of Hoi An first thing in the morning.

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Posted by Al Jam 13:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged market city vietnam tunnel cu chi ho minh hcmc thanh benh Comments (0)

Gooooood Mooorning Vietnaaaaam!

Going in Country

sunny 34 °C

He is walking towards me as if wanting to take my picture, but as he draws closer, it's becoming clear his out stretched hand isn’t there to offer assistance, but more to confiscate. His lips are moving and i can barely hear him but I quickly realise this border guard wants my camera. I hold up both hands up in the air as if to surrender, with the camera pointing up in a non-threatening position, as if it were a weapon. “Yes, sorry I won’t take pictures” I say, as I slowly put the camera away. The guard seems to slow his advance and then shout something in Vietnamese, sounding more annoyed, than authoritative as he was a second ago. He heads back to the other side of the road where he sits down and rests his rifle between his legs.

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I am now in Vietnam. In Country. I decide to avoid anymore trouble and head back to the Vietnamese immigration office, where the others were. We had just walked half a mile with our backpacks from the Cambodian border of Phnom Den, through no man’s land and into Vietnam’s Tien Bien. Relations between Vietnam and Cambodia are still icy and so the distance between the two borders is still a safe distance. After a stinking hot wait in the shade and playing a round of "Guess what's in the Fish Tank", we collect our stamped passports with our Vietnamese Visas and walk another short distance to a bus waiting for us. Luckily it’s a private bus and we pile on to get some relief from the heat and make our way to Chau Doc, a town situated on the Mekong River. It will basically be a stopover on the way to Ho Chi Minh City.

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We had already been on the bus for over 5 hours before crossing the border but luckily for us, it was only another hour to Chau Doc. I look around at tired faces, some asleep, some with the 1000 mile stare (a popular saying used in the Vietnam War describing tired soldiers). I myself am feeling very excited to be in Vietnam. That and the fact I could have been shot by a Vietnamese Border Guard because I thought it would make a cool Facebook Profile Photo. I wonder if anyone has been nominated for a Darwin award for a Facebook related death? Yeah, not to keen on that title.

we are greeted with some kind of weird arrangement of furniture

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Looking out the window, I notice the change straight away as we go through our first Vietnamese village. Unlike Cambodia, even the small villages have some semblance of modern life with brick shops and children with shoes. The ever present red flag, synonymous with communism is hung proudly everywhere with the yellow star signifying the Vietnamese Flag. School children are dressed in uniform, usually white with blue shorts and occasionally, I see women dressed in the famed Vietnamese National Dress. Named the Ao Dai, it is a tight fitting tunic, made of silk and usually white. I had seen it many times in Vietnam War films but it’s only now, in a different context, I see how beautiful the dress is on the slender Vietnamese female figure. I feel kind of sad to have associated such a thing of beauty with such horrible events all these years. I dare not try and take any photos.

You never know when you’ll get another good tub to do washing

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There’s nothing charming about Chau Doc. Just another city as our bus weaves through the crowded streets and towards our hotel. I don’t know anything about Chau Doc except that it sits on the Mekong River. Stepping into our room, we are greeted with some kind of weird arrangement of furniture, as if the last guest was a poltergeist. If you could imagine a room with a bend, but not at right-angles, more like 45 degrees. Now imagine two queen size beds, with one bed up against one end of the room, and the other queen bed ‘in front’ of the that bed, situated at the bend. I’m not sure why there were two beds in there but the room was barely big enough to fit one. One good feature about the room is the new bathtub, which I quickly convert to a human powered washing machine. You never know when you’ll get another good tub to do washing. Welcome to my Chinese Laundry.

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these women sounding like birds squawking in Vietnamese

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The plan for the afternoon was to have a boat ride down the Mekong River and check out village life on the River. After a much needed shower and a quick sanity check of photography gear (camera, lens, SD Cards, batteries), I am ready to take in my very first Vietnamese experience. Our guide takes us on foot through a local market and the noise and smells hit your senses like wet fish pulled from the Chicago River (or Cook River for all you Sydney siders). The mix of spices, rotten vegetables, fresh poultry, dried fish along with the sounds of Vietnamese women trying to sell you all these, shouting at you, and then one another and then to no one in particular. It’s like walking through a bird menagerie, they sound like birds squawking in Vietnamese. We were warned that the local Vietnamese could come across as quite rude and abrupt but not to take it personally. It may seem like they are to a westerner but to them, it is normal, especially in the market place. We stop at a box full of bright yellow chicks, and one of the girls comment, “Aw so cute”. I suddenly have a craving for Buffalo wings.

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We exit the market and follow the riverside where the boat is waiting for us. Before we board, the guide explains to us a bit about life on the Mekong River. There are houses floating on the river and are held to the banks to stop them from floating. Apparently, if you live in a ‘River House’, you do not have to pay government taxes and utilities. Communism ain’t all that bad. We hop into the boat and make our way down the river as we take in the scenery. There are all kinds of floating houses and boats selling goods on the river and even a floating gas station. We pull up next to one of the houses and the guide tells us he’s going to take us for a tour around a river house. We are greeted by some playful children, I guess they are use to having visitors around. He shows us the Fish farm underneath the house by opening a trap door on the porch. We look down to see all the fish swimming in there as he proceeds to throw in fish food. This sets off a feeding frenzy and the violent thrashing sets the pet dog barking like crazy. I’m tempted to put my feet in as my soles are quite dry and cracked and need some nibbling on...NOT. We are then led to the Pig Pen. Yes, a floating Pig Pen. The pigs are huge and there are over half a dozen of them in there. We feed them some of the river plants which grow abundantly. How convenient. They seem to be happy as pig in shit.

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I move into the house as I take some photos of the children. They pose and do silly things as children do. Some of the guys are quite surprised at how modern and clean the River House is, as the exterior does not reflect this. The furniture is fine solid wood and the floor boards are polished fit for a king. I move into the lounge and there it is, in all its crowning glory, a karaoke machine that would make my aunty proud. I almost burst out laughing as move to study the photos on the wall. The woman who greeted us, I assume the lady of the house pulls up beside me and points to the photos. “Is that you?” I ask pointing at her and then to the photo. She nods with a reminiscing smile. It is a photo of her, much younger, with what I can only assume is her husband. It is a beautiful photo of her, as she still is now, although much older, maybe in her fifties. She then points to another photo of, her sons? She then motions to certificates on another wall and points back to the photos. A quick study of them suggests they are certificates of some kind of academic achievement. I smile at her knowingly, as I’m quickly reminded of the times my mum would take my awards to show off proudly to her work workmates when I was a kid. A proud mum is a proud mum, anywhere in the world.

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some of them pack on three kids to a scooter

We say our goodbyes and take the boat towards the other side of the river where we spend the rest of the afternoon walking through the small village of Chau Phong. The locals wave to us and the children laugh and point at us with curiosity as they whiz home on thier bikes after a hard day at school.

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It’s a quiet relaxing boat ride back as the sun slowly makes its way to the horizon. We walk back to the hotel, past a school where the street is five scooters deep with parents waiting to pick up their kids. As they come out, some of them pack on three kids to a scooter, with some even driven by old grandmothers. Ridiculous!

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The night is spent eating at the small restaurant in the hotel as the nightlife in Chau Doc is non-existent. In any case it’s been a long day as I spend the time sorting out my hundreds of photos (so far) and making sure they’re backed up whilst the others play some kind of card game. It’s probably a good thing as we head into Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow.

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Posted by Al Jam 22:08 Archived in Vietnam Tagged cambodia river vietnam mekong doc tien bien chau Comments (0)

R & R from our Holiday

Because travelling is hard work

semi-overcast 31 °C

“Must be high-tide” I think to myself as I sit down on the patio floor of the bar, my feet hanging over the edge so it’s submerged in the water. The water is still warm this time of the night but it is cool enough to take the edge off the hot night air. I move my feet around in the water and smile as I remember Dr Fish, the skin exfoliating, feet softening fish in Siem Reap.

It had been a nice relaxing afternoon and continued into a nice relaxing dinner on the beach. We had dined on some fresh BBQ Seafood and at $5 for a whole fish, I decided to go all out and order two main dishes. I had finally figured out that although traditional Cambodian dishes were tasty, it was usually in small portions. I guess it’s just a carry on from the days when food was scarce, or maybe I’ve just been living in the US too long? Nick and I had shared a mixed ‘Bucket’, an alcoholic cocktail of god knows what. All we knew was that it was the cheapest option and it came in a bucket. SOLD! The girls had ordered a bottle of white wine, which came out already uncorked and looked like a urine sample of a person who had spent 2 days in the desert without water. One taste and they sent it back and stuck to the beer. I guess learning the finer side of wine and dining was low priority for Cambodians. The little kids that we ever present had convinced Nick to buy a hand-held fireworks launcher and Nick in turn convinced me. So we lit our fireworks like little kids and drank beer like irresponsible adults. What do they say about fireworks and alcohol? You can put out fireworks with beer, but hard liquor is only good for taking away the burning pain?

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So now here I sit on a patio looking out towards the Gulf of Thailand. We had decided to check out one of the bars on the beach and there were only a couple that actually had patrons. It was definitely not peak season and so it wasn’t very lively. The bar is full of backpackers and had learnt that those working behind the bar were working purely for accommodation, very common for backpackers. I start reminiscing about my early days of backpacking. Back then, you’d probably find me on the dance floor doing the caterpillar rather than sitting down being all reflective. Mind you, I’d already had quite a few tonight so the caterpillar wasn't out of the question. It just took the right kinda music and some misguided confidence. I guess it’s part of, dare I say it, Peter Pan growing up.

Sam named our pet dog Presley, after her first love ‘Elvis’. I therefore have the naming rights to our first born, 'Guinness', after MY first love...

Sam thinks I’ll never grow up. I always tell her, unconvincingly, I will do so when the circumstances call for it. We had moved from the 1 bedroom apartment to a 2 bedroom house earlier in the year with the plan to start a family. The conversation would always go something like this:
Sam: You’ll never grow up Al. You realise you won’t be able to do this anymore when we have a baby.
Al (Peter Pan): Urrgghh, I need Ibuprofen and coffee...and don’t worry, I know things will change when that happens. I’m just enjoying it while we still can. I think I left my card behind the bar?! *WHACK*

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Sam doesn’t really beat me up but I bet sometimes she wishes she did. Obviously, the circumstance I refer to to is having a baby (Sam named our pet dog Presley, after her first love ‘Elvis’. I therefore have the naming rights to our first born, 'Guinness', after MY first love...). The Chicago summer was fast approaching at that point and we were told by everyone that summer in Chicago was simply awesome and Sam loved good times with good friends as much as me. We had always lived every day as it came but we both know at some point, both of us had to grown up, right Mrs Pan?

snorkeling in overcast conditions is like watching a black and white movie on a small laptop in car with bad suspension

I am now comfortably cool and so I shift my thoughts. I sometimes think about what it would be like to live the simpler life, to 'Down Shift'. Sell up all my worldly possessions and move away from the city, away from the crowds, away from the pollution...away from the Rat Race. “The problem with the Rat Race is that even if you win, you’re still a Rat”. I love that quote. “I could do it” I hear myself saying, but it’s probably the alcohol talking. It’s so much easier to think about doing something like that when you’re on holidays but why is that such a bad thing? I could do it. Sometimes it's situations like this that bring up those inate feelings and thoughts that get lost in all the debris left over from life's mundane...crap.

“There you are”, I turn around there’s Sam followed by the others. “I sent Rod into the bathroom to see if you were sick or something!” She was probably thinking another Peter Pan moment. “No I’m all good. Come and jump in the water and cool down”. We all do and start walking down along the beach and back to our rooms. “So, did the bar staff go naked?” I ask Nick, referring to a rumour that they would do so at midnight. He shakes his head with disappointment. These younger Backpackers are getting soft.

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The next day we are off on a small boat for some snorkeling and more R&R on a small secluded island called 'Bamboo Island'. I'm really hoping to see some Pandas. More than likely not. The day isn’t starting off well with clouds slowly eating up the sunlight. It's actually getting quite chilly and by the time we get to our first snorkeling site, I am in no mood to jump in the water. I had done enough of it to know that snorkeling in overcast conditions is like watching Finding Nemo in black and white on a small laptop in car with bad suspension. After a while, the rocking of the boat is too much and go in just for a bit of a swim just to escape the boat. There is more enjoyment at making fun of the European guy on our boat who is swimming in his boxer briefs. You’d think that you’d pack some board shorts or even Budgie Smugglers (Banana Hammocks, Speedos) at a beach resort but this guy came only with his hole infested boxer briefs. I guess his suspiciously young Asian lady friend doesn’t mind. On another boat, we notice an old guy wearing leopard skin budge smugglers. There’s always gotta be that one shameless guy on a boat.

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The sun is finally out when we arrive on the island and we grab the volleyball to have a bit of a ‘volley-about’ on the beach. The beach is relatively empty as we enjoy a freshly cooked BBQ fish lunch. Our guide leads us to the other side of the island through a short jungle walk and we are greeted with absolute bliss. There is a small tiki bar but it is empty and there are half a dozen small huts dotted along the beach front. The water is crystal clear and the beach is lined with palm trees. There is no one else here except for us and I’m thinking I could stay here forever. We find a place with a bit of shade and once again, relax. We spend the next couple of hours just doing that, as we work on our tans and move into the water when it gets too hot. Now THIS is a holiday.

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On our way back, the clouds start rolling in again but roll by just as quickly. It’s late afternoon when we arrive back in the village and I head straight for the beach chairs to order a beer and some BBQ pork skewers. I leave the coleslaw as I’m not a big fan of eating salads when travelling to poorer countries. I have an iron stomach but salad is just too risky. The children come around again begging for money but instead I give them my coleslaw. The older one takes it and shares it with his younger partner in crime as they both move down the beach to the next table. The younger one looks back at me with coleslaw all over his face. Most people would be saddened by this but instead I smile. These kids are not poor but to us they are. It’s all relative. They probably get 3 square meals a day but not the kind of 3 ‘square foot’ meals you and I are accustomed to.

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So we spend our last night in Sihanoukville just chilling out (surprise) on the patio of a restaurant with a beautiful view of the beach and pier. We did have two casualties today as Nick fell to some kind of food poisoning. It’s almost impossible to identify what may have caused it when travelling through countries like Cambodia. I have never been a victim of food poisoning whilst travelling and I didn’t want to start now. The other casualty was Sam’s thongs (Flip Flops), again. Lucky I packed a spare.

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Posted by Al Jam 22:16 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia island bamboo sihanoukville Comments (0)

Sihanoukville

From Capital to Coast

semi-overcast 29 °C

It was beginning to occur to me that Cambodia is what Thailand would have been like 20 years ago, before tourism had taken away all the exotic charms of unspoilt beaches, and locals would treat visitors with friendly fascination rather than a way to make a quick buck (or to be fair, to make a living). We are on a bus out of Phnom Penh and heading to the beach village of Sihanoukville, on the south coast of Cambodia. This was our one and only coastal stop on the way to Ho Chi Minh City. I had heard stories of the poverty in the village and how children would beg for money and food. In most places where tourism was the town’s main revenue earner, there is a large element of poverty as the revenue is not evenly distributed to the local population. I always believed the best thing to do in this case was to use local hotels and services and leave as little footprint as possible. That’s why Sam and I had chosen to use GAP adventures during this part of our trip, exercising Eco-Tourism in most, if not all aspects of their trips.

Suddenly, and as if using my sub-conscious heightened awareness off traffic due to years as a motorcyclist

It was sunny when we left Phnom Penh but spotting the coast, the clouds begin to quickly roll in and before I knew it, rain drops start to spatter the bus window. I can sense the disappointment in the air as it’s anyone’s guess on what the weather will be like during our two night stay at Sihanoukville. I try not to let the weather get me down and I bury myself in my book. Poor old Winston Smith, after succumbing to his biggest fear of being eaten by rats, realising that he had lost the fight to Big Brother. I feel uneasy reading Nineteen Eighty-Four after learning of Cambodia’s history. The frightening similarities between Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Big Brother state control and the evil regime of the Khmer Rouge gives the book something tangible to relate to. I had the same thing happen ten years earlier when I was in Taunton, Somerset. I was living in England when 9/11 happened and I was in the middle of reading Tom Clancy’s novel ‘Executive Decision’. It was only two days after the planes had flown into the Twin Towers when in the book, a terrorist flies a plane into the White House, killing the President and almost all White House Representatives. It was quite disturbing at the time.

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I start to see the first sign of western tourists as we approach our destination. A tuk-tuk with four American good ole boys, shirts off and probably enjoying a holiday after graduating college, ride beside us, probably heading for the same beach side destination. Suddenly, and as if using my sub-conscious heightened awareness off traffic due to years as a motorcyclist, I catch a situation where a collision is imminent. I look that way and everything appears in slow motion, even though I am in a moving bus. A scooter pulls out recklessly into traffic as another scooter heading from the other direction rams straight into him and both go flying off their respective scooters. I don’t see the end result as the bus keeps moving but it was a low speed collision and they’ll probably dust themselves off and continue their day as if nothing happened. I’m surprised it’s taken this long to see a collision with the way they ride and drive around here

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We’re in our board shorts and swimmers and heading straight for the beach as soon as we check into our rooms. We have all been looking forward to 2 days of 'Rest & Recration' after the last week of being constantly on the go. The beach is relatively small and is lined with restaurants and bars and the shoreline is dotted with colourful boats. We find some vacant beach chairs and
head straight for the water, but not before I do my obligatory (or whenever I remember) ‘Cartwheel Photo’ that I do whenever I visit a new beach. That done, I jump into the water and for the first time since leaving Bangkok, relax...

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Posted by Al Jam 19:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia sihanoukville Comments (0)

It tastes better than it looks

...Bollocks!

sunny 28 °C

The FCC is what I had imagined it to be. Although it had only recently opened in 1993, the decor is what you would you would imagine foreign diplomats, journalist, explorers and entertainer sipping on their cocktails and smoking their cigarettes as they exchange exploits of lands far and away. Adding to the effect are the dark wooden chairs and the purposely placed palm tree plants (say that 10 times). The hanging fans turn slowly and a cool subtle breeze flows through the open air bar.

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We chill out and unwind after an emotionally charged morning at the Killing Fields. I take a sip of my Angkor Beer as I take a minute to take stock of this morning’s activities. We had decided to grab some lunch after a quick rest returning from the Killing Fields. We mapped out our afternoon and had headed to the Russian Markets for some Souvenir Shopping. I’m not the biggest fan of Souvenir shopping and I’m even less of a fan of bargaining. Probably because I suck at it and so I leave it to Sam to do all the bargaining. I knew at some point we had to do some shopping so I didn’t mind getting it over and done with. After a while, all the souvenirs look the same and the bargaining just becomes a pain.

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Our good friend Kate had suggested visiting the FCC so we convinced the other to spend the afternoon there as it was right by the river and we would have an excellent view of the boat races. So after making our way through the crowds of locals and tourists, we find ourselves chilling out at the FCC, with a great view of the river and the Festival revellers below. We spend the afternoon watching the boat races and just basically chilling out.

as the fireworks start, everyone stops to turn their heads toward the sky above the river

As the sun goes down, the shadows get longer and the colours in the crowds and on the boats become saturated. Someone has ordered fries and I realise that I’m getting pretty hungry, but it’s not another couple of hours before we head down to the restaurant. I start thinking of the local fare we had all agreed we would sample tonight. I don’t feel so hungry anymore but I eat some fries just to hold me over.

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The lights come on in the bar and the last rays of sun disappear from the horizon. "The fireworks are going to start soon" I hear someone say. I grab my camera and as if on queue, everyone moves to the open balcony to find a vantage point for the fireworks. The crowds on the waterfront are milling around but as soon as the fireworks start, everyone stops to turn their heads toward the sky above the river. Boats lit up with huge lighting design float down the river and create beautiful shimmering reflections on the water. “Ooohh...Aaahh”, the international reaction to fireworks that transcends all language barriers.

I put the unidentified insect in my mouth, chew, and swallow

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We decide to leave shortly after the fireworks as it’s almost time to meet up for dinner at a restaurant nearby. Nick and I are pretty pumped about checking out the street stalls selling the local cuisine. We head straight for the nearest one as soon as we exit the FCC. The girls aren’t so keen and stay back and observe from a distance, with their cameras at the ready. Nick and I eye off the bowls of various goodies. “What’s this one?” I ask the stall owner. “Locust” she says, picking one up and skilfully de-shelling it before casually popping it into her mouth. I point to something else and she picks it up and says something I don’t understand. “Beetle” I think it was. She hands it to me and motions me to try. I go into some kind of ‘Thumb in Bum, Mind in Neutral’ trance and like some kind of bug eating robot, I put the unidentified bug in my mouth, chew, and swallow. I snap out of the trance and Nick is looking at me, searching for a reaction. I catch the reaction of the small girl behind the stall who had been observing me, her face screwed up with disgust. “Hold on a sec” I think to myself. “You’re selling this stuff”. Are these stalls a scam played on tourist by the amusement of the locals? I quickly stop caring and Nick and I buy a mixed bag full of creepy crawly goodies.

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Rod, Milo and Fabian are waiting for us at the restaurant when we arrive. It’s alfresco dining tonight as we watch the throngs of people walk by. I take a bit of to partake in one of my favourite activities, people watch. That's cut short when we're quickly surrounded by children trying to flog fake DVD’s, Lonely Planet Books and anything else a foreign sucker would be willing to buy. I’m surprised at good their English is but thinking about it, these kids would talk to English speaking foreigner almost every night. Not only do they make money with their photocopies of Lonely Planet books, but they also get free English lessons, although some of the slang is questionable. One even shoots me a ‘G’day Mate’ after telling him I am Aussie.

quickly follow up with huge gulp of coke as I fear the beer will react badly

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We have dinner and have a few laughs over a couple of beers. After the final plate is cleared, I untie the bag of crunchy protein and start off our final course with a small cricket. Easy. There is some nervous laughter from the others, knowing that their turn will come. With some kind of ghastly timing, I notice the restaurant slogan, “It tastes better than it looks”. So, so wrong. Nick chimes in and starts snacking on the snake-on-a-stick. I take out the tasty tarantula, the appetizing arachnid, the Piece de Resistance. This eight legged monster is around 3 inches long with a body almost an inch in Diameter. I try and take the edge off what I’m about to do with a bit of devil-may-care bravado. Once again I go into my bug-eating trance and before I know it, I’m chewing on the head and leg of a tarantula. I thought it was going to be crispy and crunchy and would be able to swallow quickly. Instead it is oily and chewy and I find myself chewing more than I really want to. It has the consistency of beef jerky and tastes like after dipping it in some kind of engine oil salsa. I quickly follow up with huge gulp of coke as I fear the beer will react badly. I pass the tarantula, sans head and one leg, around the group and each person takes a leg and shares the delight. Once again, I see the local children react with fascinating disgust. No one is brave enough to try the tarantula body as it looks like something that will burst open with some kind of green ooze with the consistency of guacamole. Must have been a Mexican Tarantula. The snake is like some kind of bony fishy chicken. Tasty.

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...I’m sitting in bed because I’m finding it hard to digest my Insect Collection. It feels like when the corn shells of popcorn sit on your throat after eating a jumbo combo at the cinemas. Except this time it’s the wings, legs and body shells of beetles, locusts, tarantulas and crickets. The oily slime haunts the walls of my mouth and I start regretting my bug-eating bravado. Well, when in Rome, stick to pasta.

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On a serious note, thoughts and Prayers to all the the friends and families of those that died on the Diamond Island bridge tradegy during the Cambodia Water Festival. We were lucky to have left Phnom Penh the morning it happend

Posted by Al Jam 20:08 Archived in Cambodia Tagged water cambodia festival snake tarantula phnom penh crickets fcc locusts Comments (0)

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