Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Temple of Doom

     Chaos struck on the bus on our way to the famous Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it was called 30 years ago.  Waiting for the bus to start, Nima came down with the sickness I had just gotten over, and she came down with it fast.  I'll spare you the gruesome details, but lets just say it was not one of the best bus experiences of our lives.  For a couple of days we let Nima recover and kicked it in the famous city.  One day I went to the War history museum, which was both shocking and mind opening.  Growing up in the US, I of course had no knowledge of the Vietnam war, other than what I have seen in movies and attempted to pry out of the brains of my teachers, but it seems to me that the whole conflict has been conveniently swept under the rug.  Since I have been in Vietnam I have read much about it and this war museum really seemed to put it all into perspective, with a play by play, date to date  description of the quarter century the US was in Vietnam.  This was their fight for freedom, and though the museum felt a bit like propaganda, there were plenty of pictures of the protests of the americans; burning their draft cards, the Ken State shootings, the marches on Washington, the museum was not anti american, just anti american government. 
  When Nima felt better we made our way to the Cu Chi tunnels, another reminder of what a people pushed to the brink will do for freedom.  There are over 200 km of under ground tunnels the Viet Com built to survive in, a few hours down the road from Saigon.  During the war the US dumped agent orange and burned the forrest and farm lands above these tunnels, driving the people under ground and many of them lived there the length of the war.  Their survival methods were amazing, floating food down the river to be brought under ground, hiding the smoke from the underground kitchens.  Their gorilla fighting techniques were horrendous, booby traps that sent chills down your spine, there is no doubt in my mind why boys came back from that war in the state they did.  It was explained to us by our tour guide, Jackie Survivor, as he was called by the american GIs, how they were able to fight and kill without being seen.  We crawled through these tunnels, and made it despite the overwhelming claustrophobic feeling pulsing through your nerves, and how these people lived like this for years I may never know.  Nima and I were some of the only people on Jackies tour that have ever made it through all the way, but I'm not surprised seeing as how my shoulders barely made it through in a couple of places.  We didn't come traveling to dwell on the sufferings of others, but being that this is one conflict we as americans and the Vietnam people share, I think we owe it to future generations to at least remember what happened.
  After our days in Saigon it was time to to enter the Land of 10,000 elephants, but most people know it by its smaller title, Cambodia.  My passport is now full, after this last border crossing, which brings a feeling of accomplishment as well as uncertainty.  It is my hope that future border guard gods will look upon me with sympathy and convince the guards to simply squeeze the stamp in there 'somewhere.'  Anyways, to the capital, Phnom Penh, then away as soon as possible, which was the next morning.  We should have given the place more of a chance, but after Nam, we didn't want to go to the Killing Fields, which is as depressing as the name implies, and though I wanted to shoot an AK 47, I didn't want to do it at a place you could pay to shoot a cow with a rocket launcher; yea you can do that, plus we are running from the heat, which at 80% humidity and 100 degrees is pretty sweltering.  The money here is also interesting.  They use the US dollar, but instead of change, they use their own currency, 1,000 riel is 25 cents.  We ran all the way to Siam Reap, the home of the Temples of Angkor.  Built for the god kings that united what is modern day Cambodia about 800 AD, these looming tower like stone temples are a most excellent place to spend the day exploring.  The place is expensive for backpacking travelers, at $20 per day, but I must say it's worth it.  We awoke at five am and headed to the most famous Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise, but unlike the hordes of other tourists there, we explored the temple by ourselves, in the dark which added to its creepiness.  The sun wasn't up till 7 so we still got to see it above the temple, the best of both worlds.  All the temples were awe inspiring, but our next favorite was featured in the movie Tomb Raider.  It had ancient trees, who's roots were dripping through the stones that held the place together.  There were signs with warnings like 'climb stairs at own risk' or my favorite, 'unsafe area,'  which is usually proceeded by a 'do not enter,' sign, but not here in Cambodia, your warned and I guess thats enough.  I had my hat, but I really could have used a whip, but there's always next time.
  That afternoon in Siam Reap we treated ourselves to two different much needed delicacy's.  First we had chocolate shakes for the first time in over a year, then we found Mexican food in Cambodia!  And I had a burrito and saw that it was good, and on the second day I had another burrito, and saw that that was good too, and Nima had a Chicken Chimichunga, and on the third day we came again.  God we needed that.  We left that town reluctantly and made our way to Battambang, not to be confused with Katmandu, where there isn't much to see, but it's a nice town none the less.  Yesterday we took a tuk tuk around to see a few of the sites in the neighboring area, the first of which is the bamboo train, which Nima pointed out would be a great alternative to walking in the post apocalyptic world.  What they do is take rail rode axels and wheels, throw them on a track, then top it with a bamboo platform and an engine.  They connect the engine to the back axel with a fan belt, and you are off down the tracks.  When you meet another oncoming trolly, you judge which is liter, and deconstruct the chosen cart, a very unique travel experience.  We also witnessed another famed temple, and a place called the killing caves, which we didn't know were on the agenda, but went along with it anyways.  Now I am sitting here in my Family Guy underwear sweeting, and hiding from the heat that's waiting for me just outside.  Well I hope the tsunami didn't affect Cali to much, we are quite far enough away from all the catastrophe.  Hope all is well back home and I'll leave you with some great advise I got from a drunk Ausi one time; Don't stand on Jellyfish.  I guess its better with a drunk Australian accent.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Viet Nam

I am writing you now for Saigon, Vietnam; the rising red dragon of Asia.

Leaving Lao Matt and me took a local over night bus from Savannakhet Lao, to Hue, a city on the coast of Vietnam. This meant that we found ourselves half asleep at 4 in the morning in no mans land, the border. I will let you know that we had become more and more suspicious as to the business of the bus we were on... It was carrying about 10 people along with 100rds of burlap sacks full of cole. It began to be a questionable subject... why was this bus carrying cole across the border? Did they not have cole in Vietnam? The only answer we found plausible was that cole is a great way to hid something that you don't want the border control to find. It's dirty, no one's gonna want to dig around in it; and it just so happens to be a ideal way to clog up a drug dogs nose. Of course we were a little less relaxed about our bus journey than we had began feeling. By the time we made it to the border our nerves were buzzing back and forth, so much so that we (the travelers that we are now) let ourselves get coned into giving some random man on a motor cycle our passports to get them stamped. Luckily the $3 that we were paying him was enough to draw him back but we both spent a good half hour on the verge of hysteria. We got our passports back and of course the middle man was not necessary, we had to walk passed the stamping office regardless. Our next hurtle was getting though the bureaucracy before our bus left without us, the bus driver seemed to have no problem with that. In the end I had to chase them down the road yelling as matt collected his last stamps, they had our bags you see. Unfortunately the excitement doesn't end here, it's about 9 in the morning now and we're dew to arrive in Hue at 11. There's always the lingering question when your on a bus 'where are they going to drop you off.' Now we've been dropped off in some fairly strange places all of which were totally manageable but not this time. The bus driver beckoned to us to put on our massive back packs and make our way to the front, they tried to convince me to get off while the bus was still moving, i refused. So they had the decency to stop for 30 seconds and chuck us and our stuff our the door on the side of the road. So here we are in Vietnam, no currency, a foreigner on the the side of the high way  only to find that we're 15 km out side of the Hue. It takes the cake for bad bus experiences for sure.

Now there were no Taxi's or Tuk Tuk, only motorcyclist who are trying to convince us that they would take me into the city for $5 and then come back and get Matt. Not a good plan we thought. Just as we gave up, with us and our bags in a heap on the road side trying to catch a car to take us together into Hue, Lady luck came to our rescue at last. A little mini bus (local) pulled over and beckoned us in, we had just enough money to pay for a ticket and figured that where ever it was going was better than where we were. It actually took us within walking distance of our hotel, a bit of a walk with our bags but we weren't complaining.
So that's day 1 in Vietnam.

In Hue we went to see the old Imperial City and the forbidden Purple City where the Emperor Gia Long and the Nguyen Family would lounge around in their fortress surrounded by concubines. It was really nice, not completely restored which gave you the feeling that you were discovering it yourself. I think that because this is a Communist state (awful way to use the word communist but...) they haven't put much energy into preserving it. They have tried so hard to get rid of the monarchy and religion that keeping the palace in good condition is not one of their priorities i guess.

After Hue we found ourselves wondering around Hoi An, another beautiful Unesco World Heritage Site. It's a city full of scenic streets dotted with ancient teak houses and adorned with with little red lanterns. It really does look like something out of a fairy tale. Apart from it's appearance there is nothing to do. We've found on our travels that Unesco World Heritage site are generally quaint, beautiful, boring, and completely over run with uptight (usually french) tourists. So we moved on fairly quickly to Qui Nhon. Qui Nhon is quite little beach town, similar to Hoi An in the way that it's beautiful and boring... but it is much more enjoyable because it's almost completely void of tourists. We had a good few days there, but there is really nothing to do besides swim and even that left you wondering why you never saw any one else doing it. We gave up in the end when Matt decided that this bay was home to the 'Vietnamese Man o' War' which our imaginations let us believe was some kind of sting ray or jelly fish or creature from the deep that you really didn't want to meet.

From Qui Nhon we went to the next beach town along the way, Nha Trang. Nha Trang has got a lot to offer, a lot of restaurants, water sports, islands, you name it; it is also a major tourist destination but not only for westerners, even other Vietnamese people find them selves vacationing there. We spent our days here laying on the beach (we soon forgot about the Man o' War) and dinning on cheep beer and crab. Matt got a new hair-do here from a road side barber... it's basically a mohawk with a little something else going on.  The 'Do' brought a crowd of locals all flabbergasted at this strange haircut, I don't think they'd ever seen anything like it. He debuted his mohawk at a fabulous drag show that night. With out any effort at all we found ourselves in the midst of some outrageous Drag Bar where we played pool till the wee hours of the morn.

Nha Trang is also home to the famous 'VinPearl' which is like something out of a movie. An Island resort which along with a Spa on the other side of the Island is a massive Amusement Park. Of course we went right! We payed 360 Dong ($18) to take the gondola over to the island and then every thing was free. They had Water Slides, Monkey acrobatics, Roller Coasters, an Arcade, a beautiful beach, and even an Aquarium. It was a good day, running around like little chillies. Matt was Water Sliding until the sun went down.

Nha Trang brought us to Dalat, a beautiful mountain town. But we did absolutely nothing here because Matt was running a fever of 102. Exciting really, having a fever in the land of Dengue. But he's recovered nicely, really only a 2 day bug, and now we're here in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the rest of the stories will wait until next time.

XXX ~Nima