Hong Kong-Bangkok-Phnom Penh-Siem Reap-Phnom Penh-Saigon-Phnom Penh-Bangkok-Hong Kong
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Brief background: In summer 2005 my son, David and my best friend, Jeff and I went to Southeast Asia for two months. On our return, David started working through his university on a Wagoner Fellowship application. He received the fellowship, which funds (at about Peace Corps level) a year in Cambodia. So, Leslie and I began planning to visit David over Christmas 2006 break … What follows is copied, with a very few editorial changes, from the travelogue we maintained at www.travelpod.com. Photos taken this time and in 2005 on Worldisround (Hong Kong, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Battambang, Siem Reap/Angkor, Phnom Penh, Saigon, Mekong, Hoi An, Hue). 2005 travelogue is here. Click photos below to see larger.
Just one thing: if you read this travelogue, please don't send any news.
When I push the "any key" to send this it means that it's 12/6/2006 and in just a little while we are walking out the door, getting into Chris' car (thanks, Chris), and heading for the airport ... Photo: Flying in to HK
From my journal 9/26/2006: 28 years ago, the first time Leslie and I went to Asia together our flight left DFW early in the morning. Leslie's father, Brooke was driving us to the airport. It was dark and raining and we were going through a construction area on the freeway that loops around downtown. There were lane changes and lights flashing and it was a scary ride and at some point in the confusing drive, Leslie's Mom, Jean says, "Faster, Brooke, faster!" Leslie and I looked at one another and cracked up - we knew then that the trip really had begun - and we were going to just ride it out, whatever came our way. What a great RTW journey that was: HK, Thailand, Burma, Nepal, India, and at the end, Vermont - clean, cold Vermont. So today (we're still on 9/26/06 entry taking David to airport for DFW-LAX-TPE-BKK-Phnom Penh) we're merging across too many lanes in the fast, fierce take-no-prisoners traffic on Stemmons Freeway (What is wrong with those people!?!?) with giant trucks all around and all jammed up together and I'm grouching about it and Leslie reaches over and gives me a wet willy! She's 61 years old and she's never done that before. Good grief! We all fell out laughing. What a great wife. Photo: Ah Shan (Dragon) Hostel - this is a triple room - hahaha
... just a few hours ... until we leave ... until we fumble through the stressful check-in & security process (Mr. Brain Dead at your service - that's what one of the security people in Houston called me summer 2005, except she left off the Mr. part) ... until we're sitting in the DFW airport - still in Dallas, but already totally gone ... until we're on that big 747 headed across the Pacific, walking around the cabin, checking out the other people, eating, reading, legs getting kind of heavy, napping for a few minutes at a time - stiff neck, walking around the cabin, reading, eating (some pretty good food this time - we're flying Cathay Pacific) ... it's a long flight and who cares about comfort - there's no place I'd rather be, except arriving in Hong Kong, of course. Cruising through security/immigration in HK, changing a few dollars and getting a public transpo card ... walking out of the terminal down the long ramp to the right ... getting on the A21 bus and the great ride into the great city - day or night, always a great ride deeper and deeper into the city ... Getting off in Mong Kok ... heading to the Dragon Hostel ...
How does this sound as a plan? We'll eat as often as possible in places that have chairs with backs. Taking a line from Noodle Pie (on bun cha at Bun Cha Hang Manh Hanoi in Saigon): "The bun cha is a triumph. Plastic blue chairs and tables have never shone so brightly." Okay, Leslie, here we go. Photo: Star Ferry stairs
The plan is to fly DFW-LAX-HK. We're scheduled to arrive in Hong Kong at 0540. Will stay 5 days/4 nights and on to Bangkok for 2-3 days. Our time in HK is a little longer than we had originally planned - funny how things sometimes work out! From Bangkok fly to Phnom Penh and either on to Saigon and Mekong and then back to PP and thence to Siem Reap/Angkor OR from PP to SR/Angkor, back to PP and on to Saigon and the Mekong Delta (I am completely committed to swimming in the Mekong), then PP -BK or BK and elsewhere and fly to BK. We'll see how all this evolves.
We'll know more about the end of the trip when we get closer to the end. We may spend time in Phnom Penh or maybe Battambang or Chiang Mai or possibly Luang Prabang. Ending the Cambodia trip in Battambang is an idea, except getting from BB to BK is pretty much an all-day affair and even with Camry BB to Poipet is not an easy journey. Chiang Mai very easy, relaxing.
I'll try to post every 3-4 days. If you were along for the ride in 2005: I think this one will be different. No first time to a motherland, no battlefield returns. But, first time in >20 years for Leslie and me together in Asia, excitement in being with David. Ahhhh ...
(We are having some difficulty with regular internet access, so I'm writing this as I can - not editing to the extent I would like)
We got through security at DFW okay (if confused) and found the gate and settled in for a long wait. I walked back to the bank of monitors to check our flight and a thrill shot through my body. We are on the way! Photo: Breakfast on Cathay Pacific (we brought our own Tabasco)
American from DFW to LAX, full plane. Leslie brought a "tripnic" - chicken salad, potatoe (here's to you to DQ) salad, slaw, sandwich, nuts - all very nice. Sat next to a large, intrusive guy sitting with his legs splayed, way into my space. After about five minutes I asked him to move and he did, but still, very much there. Leslie and I had aisle seats across from each other - excellent.
Song of the day: Eurotrash Girl.
Smooth move from domestic to international terminal at LAX. Wait an hour and onto that big Cathay Pacific 747. When Leslie made reservations for the flights we used a website that has seating charts of the planes flown by all the major airlines. Our seats were great on this 95% full flight. All the rows have 3 or four seats except for 6 rows of 2 seats each and we got the best of these - it was like having an extra 3/4 seats-worth of space. The trip got better and better. I was walking around and so was Leslie, except she spent a lot of time hanging out in the back talking with people.
I was standing in the back of the plane and saw a mother loving on her ~3 year old child - really dedicated - so sweet and beautiful. It was like when I was at the monitors in the airport - the trip intensifying.
We ended up sleeping almost none. It's just too exciting. Leslie is a great travel buddy. Down the dusty road again.
Story in the South China Morning Post about AIDS activists in India helping Burmese people get treatment and a place to stay in India - showing, once again the possibility of being ... beautiful, beyond your dreams ...
Got into Hong Kong about 5am. Caught the bus to Mong Kok, found the Sincere House and up the elevator to the Ah Shan Hostel. Nice place except the shared bath is shared with a turtle. Our room (HK $260/night), on the other hand is not shared and is nice - about 85 square feet, including our private bath. Very clean, quiet, refrigerator to keep food, etc. in and make ice(!) and hot water for coffee or tea down the hall in a common area. As happens on every trip, something went wrong to remind us to PAY ATTENTION - the room key disappeared for about 30 minutes and then resurfaced under a piece of paper. Photo above: The turtle at Ah Shan
Long ago we were in HK and found an unusual hotel called The Ritz - not ritzy, but still, nicest place we've ever stayed in HK. A few doors down was a restaurant where they served macaroni in a kind of soup with ham on top. Today (it's Saturday) for breakfast we went to a small place around the corner from our GH where we ordered omelette and toast and got macaroni in a kind of soup with ham on top and two fried eggs on the side - hmmm. Not bad - not especially good, but not bad. The thing is, when traveling on a budget, you don't always get what you expect, but usually it's okay. Photo: What you see when you walk out of the building where our guest was - early morning
Next stop, Ferry to Lamma Island. It's about a 30 minute ride to a small pier, then walk into a small town that arcs around the small bay. Lamma is very quiet as there are no cars - just small lanes though small hills. Lots of dogs wandering around, which is another change from HK. Many expats living the quiet life. Had bun with pork and shrimp dumplings - none of those anemic American shrimp here. Photo: Lamma
Missed ferry we'd planned on taking, then back to Tsim Sha Tsui and Chungking Mansions for a late lunch at Taj Mahal: chicken chilli, chiken tika masala, raita, nan, rice. Great food. Chungking is one of the most interesting places in the world - we interacted at one time or another with people from Bagladesh, India, Pakistan, Somalia, Phillipines, China, Australia, and who knows where from sub-Sahara Africa. Took the famous CKM stairs - in Leslie's word, "gritty."
One huge difference between traveling now and in the past is that now we are in touch with people in the U.S., Cambodia, and Thailand. In the former times, traveling put us out of touch and out of time. The up side of this is that we are in touch and the down side is that we are in touch and somehow a little more in time. Photo: Street food
At last - David. A happy day to be with our son again.
Got into new Bangkok airport at 1100. A nice note re flight: One of the stewardesses said to Leslie, "I remember you. You flew from LA to Hong Kong." The story was that Leslie talked with her at the HK airport early in the the morning while we were waiting for the bus five days ago (inhaling the the magical smells of HK arrival - aviation fuel/exhaust & indefinable smells - that later, once we were in the city, became the fragrances of food, exhaust, incense, & indefinable) and yeah, Leslie had said earlier in the airport, that was the woman I talked with when we got here. Easy flight HK -BK.
David and Stephane (David's friend from BK) picked us up and we went straight to Stephane's flat in the Japanese area of BK - walking into his flat was like walking into an upscale CK/LK house. Photo: Stephane's condo
Hit the streets and discovered BK is, in fact, "same-same, but different" - traffic is brutal, air and noise pollution extreme, people generally nice (even, in some cases when behind the wheel - maybe because of our age). Got an okay snack and back to flat. Leslie slept & DK and I worked on computer together. Good and easy to be back with Dave, sitting side by side, kind of mashed together, happy as clams. Lots to be happy about here!
We went to dinner at a small Thai restaurant: green curry, tom kha gai (piquant coconut soup with chicken), beef with crispy fried basil leaves on top, laarb (chicken, lime, onions, etc.), some kind of omelet, rice, and of course prik nam pla (chillis & fish sauce). On the way back to the flat, stopped and got some sticky rice with coconut milk and mangoes on top - WooHoo! Thanks, Stephane. I pretty much passed out around 9:30 and awoke in the middle of the night with Thai version of Delhi belly (from snack earlier in the day).
In the morning felt fine except very tired. Leslie and David off to change money and shop. I dozed into the early afternoon and Stephane and I had lunch at the Ho Ho Hong Kong Cafe.
In most respects, this s a relaxing time. Good for us all to be together. Stephane's home is beautiful - spacious, polished teak floors, objets everywhere (from Burma, Thailand, China, Bhutan, Cambodia), airconditioning that really works, etc., etc. He is a wonderful host - fixing breakfast in the morning, taking us out or fixing dinner - very gracious in every respect.
Am going to fix this when we return: piece of shrimp or crab on top of thin sliced lemon grass, basil or other herb, cut up lime with rind, Indonesian soy - all in a cone made of betel leaf. Photo: From Bangkok taxi
In final analysis, BK just a very relaxing stopover for Leslie and me. Time to be with David, eat well, talk, hang out ... relaxing until Friday morning.
Phnom Penh: The Trip Accelerates
We saddle up and headed out for 0700 flight. Got there in in good time, checked in (no overweight bags) and then there was a huge bottleneck at passport control. The clock ticking, British woman behind us saying over and over gain, "Oh. this is very stressful, very stressful (like we needed a reminder). Finally another station opened next to ours and we dashed up for instant clearing (except one of the British woman's sons tried to cut in between Leslie and me). We end up literally running for the flight and were the last people on. Man next to me was passed out - oh, so that's why this seat is empty. Otherwise a good flight.
Immigration at Phnom Penh very confusing, but so much easier than Poipet (the land entry BK - Cambodia). Hang Philinda (David's friend in Phnom Penh) and her Dad were there to pick us up and away we went ...
So Linda and her father picked us up and took us first to a big Chinese restaurant for a breakfast of omelet, soup, and whatnot; then on to David's apartment a block from Psar Tuol Tom Pong ("Russian Market"). The market is in what appears to be in some respects a pretty radical neighborhood (in summer 2005 it was at this market that we saw a man lying face down in the mud and a man whose face was completely burned off). On the other hand, there are some nice houses there. Photo: Outside Russian market
We walked up the three flights of stairs to DK's apartment and into the aircon bedroom room where a St. Mark's hanging was on the wall - Leslie touched it and kind of whimpered - it all still felt pretty radical. We hung out for awhile and then while Leslie and David took a nap I walked over to the market for some coffee and to see a lady I met last trip - Khai Sreang, who looks like she's been sick.
That night we went to Linda's house for dinner. Up another three flights of some very dark stairs and on to a balcony where a charcoal fire was going. We met a lot of people and then sat down to a dinner of curry, baguettes, beef/green tomato salad, Angkor beer, cokes. It was a good time with good-looking people and good food. Actually got to rocking pretty good (except I no rockin' no more). Then off down the street to David's apartment accompanied by a woman named Pak. Once in the apartment we moved another bed into the bedroom and the three of us slept in aircon/fan-cooled splendor. Photo: Dinner at Linda's
Awoke in the middle of the night and sat on balcony for awhile. The city still, faint smell of wood and charcoal smoke, jasmine (in pots on the balcony) fragrance, occasional dog barking. In the morning birds singing, more wood/charcoal smoke, dogs barking, motos, children on bikes. Across the way a servant girl sweeps the dust, slowly. Photo: From inside David's apartment
Got out on the streets around market before market opens, except side streets are also markets - fish, meat, vegetables, household goods, etc. By the time I got back around 0900 I was feeling that old dragged out feeling and by the time we got to a restaurant there were waves of abdominal pain.
We continued on though, to the hospital for a wonderful visit with a man named Rithy, A PA (and MPH) who runs the telemed program as well as seeing patients in primary care. The telemed program connects the main hospital with outreach teams and clinics in rural areas. About 10 minutes into the visit I had to lie down on the floor - which, this being Cambodia, was unremarkable. Many parallels Rithy and us: on David's end, Rithy is Khmer who grew up in the US and so is not completely Cambodian. He had some wisdom to share with David. On Leslie and my end, he has, since 1998 served the poor and has been an innovator. We stayed at Rithy's office for a couple of hours and his uncle took me on his moto to David's apartment - Leslie, David, Rithy, and his uncle went to lunch while I dozed the afternoon away.
Song of the day: Beethoven String Quartet, opus 130. Photo: Outside David's apartment
Sunday: we piled into a car - actually there were two cars full of people (and over the next few hours, families on motos trickling in) - for a visit to Sang Van's house. The house is is in a semi-rural area outside of Phnom Penh: stucco, three rooms with two inside bathrooms. No aircon, but the rooms are fairly cool and there are many windows. Outside is a cooking area and a bathroom and shower. There are at least two mango trees (that, for you mango lovers, produce huge numbers of mangos), coconut palms, sugar palms, papayas, etc. As soon as we arrived we were given young coconuts to drink the milk, jack fruit, cokes and then someone put on a DVD of Linda's wedding with Sang Van's son. The volume was high, kind of warm in the house, we're relaxing on a teak platform that Cambodians use instead of chairs, watching the DVD. After awhile I leave to walk out on the dirt lane in front of the house.
The lane runs along side a small river. On Sang Van's side of the road the houses are mostly traditional wood on stilts with a social area underneath for sitting, lying on the platform or hammock, cooking and so on. SV's house is one of the only new stucco ones we saw. Between the road and the river poor people live in small mostly stilted houses on plots maybe 15x15 feet. No electric going to these homes. Photo: Cooking at Sang Van's
So I'm walking up the road to take some photos. A few children gather around (who ever saw such a thing as me). They got closer and closer and there was that wonderful smell of smoky bodies, sweat, fish. So we're standing outside a house all in a clump and someone hands me a photograph of an Anglo child and on the back is written, "Hi, I'm Tiffany. I'm 5 1/2 years old. I live in Modesto, California in the U.S.A. I hope you like the gift box I sent you." IN CASE ANYONE WAS THINKING YOUR CARE PACKAGES DON'T MATTER.
There is a girl with drops of sweat, like beads, on her nose and upper lip - just there the whole time I was there - just there like her life lived 10 feet from this dusty road sleeping on a cast away bamboo mat on the bamboo floor of this dusty, dirty house that never saw a fan; that would be a whole lot better house if it had a pig living under it like the neighbor's house; and she's looking at me. Maybe the smell isn't so wonderful to her - like she can even smell it. She's looking at me.
Song of the day: Mr. Jones "We all want something beautiful ... I wish I was beautiful"
Linda's dad comes out to get me for lunch: whole steamed fish, fried eel or snakefish with ginger, fried ribs, beef salad, soup, something else, rice, water, cokes, beer. After lunch I sleep on the platform with the wedding DVD blaring like a Blue Cheer "wall of sound" - I awake, sweating, but just from the heat, not the fever I've had since yesterday.
Why are we at this house? I'll just lay it out for the more dedicated readers to put together. Sang Van's first husband was killed by the Khmer Rouge early on. She kept most of her children alive through the bad years and escaped to Thailand around 1979. Meanwhile, her second husband, Khuon Voeuth, was in a Khmer Rouge forced marriage that resulted in one daughter. SV and KV met at Khao-I-Dang refugee camp, married, and came to the U.S. with her three boys and a boy she picked up on the way out of Cambodia. Leslie and I sponsored this family in 1981-82 and were very close for a good while. Another part to the story is that I fought in Vietnam. My 13 months of combat does not compare to the years of suffering, but it wasn't nothing. Fast-forward 25 years: SV built this house, where KV's former wife, daughter, and granddaughter now live. This is the house where David lived his first few weeks in Cambodia. So now, here we are ...
Monday: David took us to the hospital where he works: the Sihanouk Hospital of Hope (operated by Hope International). We walk through the crowds of people sitting on benches out front, waiting, hoping to be seen. A woman named Gerlinda takes Leslie and me on a tour through the hospital - urgent/primary care (200+ patients/day), emergency, tuberculosis (by now, hard for me to speak as the tears are just ready), pharmacy, medicine, surgery, library (books dating 1982-2001), and now back to the car and on to HIV/AIDS (lots of cachectic, jaundiced people) and finish at the AIDS hospice. Photo: Hope Hospital
Gerlinda is 34, from a poor family in the Philippines. She left home when she was 16 to study medicine in the USSR. I don't remember how long she said it was when the USSR ceased to exist and they told her to go home. She would not (so much for submissive Asian women) and was able to finish medical school in Russia. She has worked in Russia, Afghanistan, and Cambodia She works for Hope. She works for Hope. She works for Hope. I know I'm a lot more hopeful thanks to her presence in the world.
Back about 1982 the Dalai Lama reached out to me and took my hands in his and said, "Keep doing this work." Today Leslie says something about the need for people who do the work to be reincarnated. I didn't say anything, but thought, yeah, that's what we're trying to do through faith/works, through schools, through song, art, prayer, living.
I'll sing your song the best I can. I'll sing mine the best I can. Oh, I wish I could live a 1000 years. The smell of sweat, smoke, bodies, sweat standing on her nose ... Keep doing this work. Sure, nothing better to do, that's for sure. Photo: TB unit at Hope
The Road to Angkor
We are on the bus to Siem Reap. Cambodian dream passing through the bus window ... teak houses painted blue, unpainted, on stilts. Shuttered windows, tin roofs, tile roofs, thatch roofs. Rice growing green, green green. Banana trees, mango trees, coconut, sugar palms, bamboo. Farmers working long long row to hoe. Groups of people sitting by the road - dark clothes, dark skin. Gasoline sold in recycled bottles - liter for 1000-3000 Riels. Children, chickens, pigs, brahma cattle, water buffalo, haystacks, stacks of bricks.
Clotheslines, clothes, bougainvillea cascading over doors, over gates. Water lilies - wats - monks, orange robes swirling. Woman pushing a bicycle through the water across a shallow pond.
Morning glory, glory, glory glory. Women with bright sarongs, swirling - laughing women, black hair, kramar (head-scarf, neck scarf) - walking, grace, beauty - children running. How can I be seeing this?
Dikes/padi/farmers bending, plowing, planting, fishing, fish-traps, walking down that dusty road. Big clay water jars, hammocks under the houses, chickens everywhere. Store with 20 different things for sale. Store with 50 different things for sale!
Field full of trash, plastic bottles, sacks, whatever. Kilns, house with many bags of rice beneath.Bags of charcoal, children running, playing, girls playing quiet, careful, standing, watching the bus go by. In the padi, cows and buffalo, many with birds on their back. Egrets in the rice, egrets flying. I understand about 10% of what I'm seeing. Photo: We're on the bus
Most of the schools in Cambodia are painted yellow and in the countryside are usuallu built in a U with the open end facing the road and a fence across that end. The roofs hang over the fronts, so there is a veranda around the inner courtyard/commons where children play, white shirts, navy shorts or dresses, black hair, brown skin, what joy.
I wish I was a sacrifice but somehow still lived on.
I wish I was a messenger and all the news was good.
On the road, motos, bikes, trucks, buses, cars cows, chickens, dogs, people, carts pulled by people, oxen, motos. Now off to the left out of nowhere a 40 foot high pile of boulders rises out of the flat land. Across the countryside, tall sugar palms stand in the classic picture of Cambodia. Cambodia!
Passing through a small town with streets full, markets busy and quickly back into the countryside. Thatched houses, rice drying on mats in the dirt yards. People by the road selling small stacks of fruit on small tables. Dusty road, dusty people.
On the TV - of course there is a TV, this is an Asian bus - one of the Chinese kung fu movies shows endless loops of the baddest dude in the dojo kicking some serious bad-guy butt - untill the final fight with an equally bad dude - and in the end, our guy wins!
Cows walking across the road and honking has no effect, so we stop and children standing by the road wave and I wave back. Photo: From the bus
Clumps of bamboo growing, bamboo fences, bambo plaited for house walls, split bamboo platforms under the houses, bamboo trellises for vines growing with long beans and bitter melons, gourds hanging down, stacks of wood, spirit houses, altars, incense burning smoke rising in the light, in the shade. Yonder stands your orphan with his gun.
We didn't go to Tuol Sleng, the torture facility in Phnom Penh, nor to Chhoen Ek, the Khmer Rouge execution site where the mass graves stand open. David and I went last time and Leslie is too tender-hearted. Ohhh, but you really have to go so you'll understand - blah blah blah - whatever, my wife has spent the last 40 years dealing with such things. I remember so many times sitting with Leslie in mean, crowded little apartments on Carroll Street, Annex, San Jacinto, etc. listening to people try to expain/ explain the bad times, sweat running down their faces, hands trembling ... to lay me down, to lay me down, to lay me down ... one - last - time.
Leslie and Bunny to Angkor
In Siem Reap and staying at Sydney Guesthouse - aircon triple with hot water for $20. Not much happening in streets around GH. Went to open air restaurant across the street for amok curry, beef with chillies, fried vegetables, noodles, and rice for dinner. As with so many of the other places we've eaten, the chairs had backs - nothing but the best for you, baby.
Found a tuk-tuk driver (or rather he found us) and arranged to visit Angkor Wat for sunset and then the next day as well ($15). Sunset beautiful. Quite a few tourists, but as before, walking around to the side of the temples and nearly all the tourists are gone (certainly all the Japanese and Korean tour groups) - just a few backpackers around.
Up at 0400 and out the door at 0500 for a cold ride in the dark. The long walkway to the main temple is paved with uneven blocks, but fortunately, boy scout me has a little LED flashlight in his camera fanny pack (bum pack for the Brits out there), so we bopping on up the walkway, no problemo. When we got close Leslie and David went left (the more popular direction) and I went right to what Leslie calls the frog pond where there were only 2-3 other people. I sat on the ground and watched the sun come up and listened to the pond awaken. When the sky was light I walked into the edge of the forest to listen to another awakening.
When it was fully light we met at our "Big Tex" and back to the tuk-tuk bound for Angkor Thom and Bayon.
The decision to take our own tuk-tuk vs. the bus pushed by the GH is clearly a good one: we are on our own at our own speed and can pass on by the place with 20 tour buses clustered at the entrance.
Bayon is a huge pile of stones with faces set in stone. It is a labyrinth of dark passageways, shrine rooms and breaking into the light, pathways set high among the towers and faces.
At Ta Keo we all take a relaxing quiet walk around the outside wall - level, no steps or stairs up or down. When we get to the south side David takes off for the top and Leslie and I sit on the steps below. On to the Terrace of the Leper King and then stop for breakfast at one of the open-air cafes. Photo: Bunny at Bayon
Ta Prohm has more tourists, but is still good. The outer edge is cool and quiet, without people. It is so much cooler in December than in June, but we are getting tired. Next is Banteay Kdei and Siah Sreng, two adjoining small structures that were very quiet. Little up and down walking, which we all appreciated. The whole time at these temples we saw 6-8 other people, other that the omnipresent children selling this and that.
Back at the GH we all fell out - a tiring, very good day (except we only saw one monkey). Photo: Bantay Kdei
Notes on Angkor for CB:
- By mid-morning everyone looks pretty dusty and hot, so forget about dressing anything but comfortable.
- Shoes or sandals must be comfortable for walking and climbing long distances - some of the steps are amazing: 14" risers and 4" steps. Wear socks.
- No white pants. Have to sit on stones.
- I think a day pack for water and a small guidebook is a good idea. Some of the climbs require hands - if not going up, then certainly going down.
Back in Phnom Penh
Back to Phnom Penh about 1pm and took tuk-tuk to apartment. David went to hospital to work and for Christmas party. About 5 I went out looking for food. First I found a woman selling corn-on-the-cob and bought two. Then around the corner was a street food area with carts along the street and an area behind them to sit. Got two baguettes and some Chinese BBQ pork with cucumbers on the side. The BBQ as good as I’ve ever had. Meal total = $1.75.
Leslie and I up before sunrise …
Rooster crowing, we’re sitting on the balcony,
Watching the sun come up over Phnom Penh,
Market setting up down the street,
People walking up the dusty lane.
Days into days. Cool season in Cambodia and still, lassitude is the way of here.
Days into days,
Dusty days warm,
I’m here, I’m gone,
Gone 40 years, gone,
Long gone, down the line.
Song of the day: Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past (our hope for years to come)
Photo: Pak and David
Walked over to the big market, Psar Tuol Tom Pong … “Hello saaa … Hello madam … What you want? You like? Hello saa, have a look …” And back on the street through people selling vegetables , fruit, vegetables, fish, meat (whew, we’re almost past the meat) and more meat, neat piles of entrails (glad it ain’t hot), woman with a basket 10 or 12 inches deep in eels squirming, sliding around and she’s fishing out the best ones (I guess) for a customer. Back to David’s apartment and the three of us go to breakfast at a place that sells grilled beef and an egg on a hot iron skillet (like fajitas) with a baguette for 2500 Riels(~.65 USD). Hot tea is free. David walks back to his apartment and Leslie and I walk to Wat Tuol Tom Pong.
We can’t get inside, so we sit and watch children play outside the school on the temple grounds. The bell rings for recess and the children go slowly back inside except for one boy who runs over to a tree to urinate and then he’s gone too. Four country women walk slowly across the school yard, faded/bright sarongs, kramar like turbans. A young man engages us in conversation – In Lay is his name. He’s come from a province to Phnom Penh to go to school and work – living free at the wat with other young men seeking a new life. Wants to be a teacher.
I’m here, I’m gone
40 years gone
Living like a ghost in the world
40 years down the line
My mate, Jeff, on patrol
For 40 long years
I’d be careful around him if I were you
Leslie said once,
“I always feel safe around you and Jeff.”
Back at the apartment … Woman from downstairs just brought us a pot of rice, an onion omelet, and a small pot of vegetables with pork and shrimp. Alright!
Another day … the girl from a few houses over showed up with her Grandmother next to our balcony (all the houses are connected side by side). Chanmony is 9 years old and speaking excellent English. In school taking French and Thai as well. Really a scholar. Later we met her Grandfather. Nice people. Chanmony wants to be a doctor – it seems very likely for her.
Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, we’re headed to Saigon.
Christmas in Saigon
Flew to Saigon Christmas Eve (many people still call it Saigon, e.g., the people who named the hotel where we ended up staying). Bus from Phnom Penh isn’t bad, but we only have a month this time around and the bus ride takes 8 hours each way. We took a taxi from airport to Happy Tours, the place that helped us in summer 2005. Happy Tours is on Bui Vien Street in the Pham Ngo Lao (backpacker) area. We left Leslie in the tour office hanging out on the internet and talking with the pretty women in the office while David and I walked around looking for a place to stay. The Ly Ly was full and we ended up in the Saigon Comfort Hotel, which really is a hotel with all the amenities, like an elevator, hot water, refrigerator, the works – the bidet even has warmish water!
Everything in Saigon is fast – especially the traffic – oh man, the traffic (book says 7 million people here and 4 million motorcycles) – the mind-boggling traffic.
(Don't we ever see sights? Is travel just one market, street scene after scene - and the food, do we ever quit talking about the food? Well, we have seen some sights, but streets, markets, food, and people are the best part for us.)
Went back to the Zoom Café for shrimp with lemon grass, chillies, onions – as good as I remembered. Pineapple shake good, too. Photo: Breakfast on the street
Many, many more prostitutes around this time around (song of the day: Ramones: I Don’t Wanna Grow Up). Guys sitting in open-air bars along the street with bored and astonishingly pretty women. Almost all the men drinking Tiger beer and eating peanuts (“little salty pellets of loneliness” – Jack), maybe wondering, is this it? And the answer is, yeah, man, this (whatever this is) is it.
For breakfast Christmas morning went back to the charcoal pork chop place in an alley off Bui Vien. I guess the cops have forced all the charcoal grills off the sidewalks, because where many were before, none are now. But the food is great wherever the chops are cooked – a plate of rice with pork chop and fried egg on top, with a little salad in nuoc mam on the side for 12,000 dong. Woman in the next stand fixed me a café sua da (strong coffee and sweet condensed milk over ice) for 5000 dong. One USD = 16,000 dong. Walking along the street, into a lane, into an alley, deeper, and all of a sudden click deep into Vietnam – people looking at me, dark-eyed, hey white boy, what you doing down here. I’m just trying to make it, man – long gone on down the line circling back and every block is a world all itself.
What a night. The bar across the street was rocking like some kind of Australian winter break and late into the night drunk guys singing Christmas carols and after O Holy Night, they broke into, For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. Leslie woke up in the middle of the night with a deep chill, feeling bad. Took ibuprofen – feeling better in the morning, but dragging. Photo: Where many of the guesthouses are in Saigon
Leslie had some breakfast and came back to the room to sleep through the morning. She awoke feeling, “I’m fine.” Uh-huh. So, anyway we started off walking for Ben Thanh Market. Got some nice silk bags in the tourist area, and in the daily life area, some stainless steel coffee filters for café sua da. Then to the center of the market for an unparalleled food court experience. There are 50-60 stands selling every good thing, and as you walk through, women try very aggressively to guide you to their stand – pushing menus in front of you, calling out their specialties, blocking the way, pulling at your arm. At one stand the woman reached over and plucked the menu out of a seated customers hands! We ended up at exactly the same stand and with the same woman as once before and eating the same thing (bun thit nuong – charcoaled lemon grass pork on noodles and lettuce, cilantro, etc.) + café sua da. Onward to the shake stand for mango shakes. Leslie dragging now, so we head back to the hotel through the park with young lovers on benches, old people, young people, school having a field day with two by two sprints on two sidewalks.
Across the insane traffic with Leslie holding hands with David and me – whatever you do, do not hesitate or change speed or course once your course is chosen. Do not even look at the motorcycles, cars, trucks, bikes bearing down on you – the only way to do this is to put your life in the hands of 300-400 anonymous motorcyclists. Then we’re back in the hotel – even in the cool season Saigon is tiring qand exhilarating.
It’s good being in Vietnam for Christmas with my family. I wish Leslie felt better, but she’s not too bad and if you’ll think about it, Saigon is not a bad place to be ill. Tough little customer, trucking feverishly up the street. That’s my wife.
Pork chop and rice with café sua da x 2 again for breakfast. It is a well-known fact that eating a lot of pork chops and related when in Vietnam is actually good for your health – and I’m all about good health. Photo: Food court at Ben Thanh
After breakfast we went to the US Consulate to get more pages for David’s passport. Talked with a Vietnamese man from Arizona – home for the first time since he left in 1979 at age 10 years. His parents stayed in VN and since his father worked for the Americans his Dad surely went to prison and the family likely very poor. So the Viet-American man is about 37 years old and is having difficulty understanding his father and relatives (his Mom died about 5 years ago). He teared up (me too) as we talked about his family’s hard life. He says his father is proud of him and (unlike many Vietnamese parents) is able to say so.
Next day we took a short (day-long) tour of a tiny part of the Mekong delta area. Bus half full which was nice. Went to My Tho and got on a boat to Ben Tre. Pretty comfortable. Visited a coconut candy factory, place where they grow a lot of fruit, and so on, but I slipped away and checked out the daily life scenes next door. It was really good to be on the Mekong River; and really good to be in the green of Vietnam – again. Photo: Mekong canal
The best part was at the end when we got on small boats (5 tourists and 2 women paddling) to slip down some of the narrow canals. My mate, Ron was on river boats when he fought in Vietnam. Pretty tense, I reckon.
Leslie had not realized we were going on these little boats and she gave me the evil eye when she realized what was about to happen. I made some clever remark and my sweet little wife said, “Shut the f___ up!” By the end, though, she liked it. Getting from boat to boat was pretty amazing. This is not your litigious avoid all risk or I’ll sue you for my own careless stupidity American-style setup. Anyway, no doubt about it, Leslie continued her tradition of keepin’ on truckin’.
Impressions of Vietnam (Saigon and Mekong, only) this time around: People were very friendly. Nobody ever tried to short-change us. You have to pay attention all the time because merchants, shoe-shiners, etc. will get what they can. Many, many people very persistently selling everything imaginable on the streets. Very persistently. Saigon amazingly crowded and the number of motorcycles beggars the imagination. Photo: It's Magic!
Foot and street traffic all about accommodation – if you hesitate people will push past you, but nobody is aggressive (though often insistent). If you do not hesitate, people will accommodate you. Things work, which is not always the case in SE Asia. In the sense of valuing work, cleanliness, and politeness, I felt culturally close. Overall, I experienced the Vietnamese as extraordinarily polite. I hope to return.
Phnom Penh to Bangkok
Song of the day: As Long as I’m in This World (I am the light of this world)
From Saigon back to Phnom Penh for a few days, gathering our things and mainly to have dinner with Gary and Karen and their sons (Gary is the hospital director for Hope International in Phnom Penh). Dinner on the terrace – fajitas and salad – nice (serious) people, nice dinner, nice evening.
Hope International is different from the religious organizations I’ve encountered. (The past 6-7 years lead me to despise the term, “faith-based” – to the extent that I never say it or write it except now – “faith-based” in my experience is a faddish term to describe a perversion of faith and religion – but that’s just me – offended at the idea of using patients (not to mention Jesus) as a means to an end, i.e., personal, organizational, or religious gain VS. patients as the bottom line – but that’s just me.)
Anyway, everyone we’ve met at Hope (Gerlinda, Rithy, Gary, Karen, Ian) seems strong – stand up guys – in the words of Jeff, who went to one of the toughest schools in the world (Leavenworth). The way I understand Hope is that it is that serving (loving) the poor and suffering is the mission. Period. In other words, agape. Oh, there’s that word again! I was happy to be there. Photo: I'm gone
That night we packed for an early morning departure. Right before we left at 0600 the woman from a couple of doors down (Chanmony’s Grandmother) brought us each a silk kramar and ceremoniously put them around our necks and off to Bangkok.
An odd note: The Air Asia flight had the most aggressive, pushing, line-butting collection of Asians, Anglos and whatnot we’d seen in Asia. There was even a group of 10-12 very aggressive Thai nuns. When we landed in Bangkok I finally blocked the aisle and said, He’s next, then she, then me, then you.” Sheesh. Now we’re back in Stephane’s beautiful apartment – aircon, teak floors, hot water, ice, espresso, everything.
We’re leaving early in the morning for Hong Kong. Hopefully I’ll post from there. We’ll see.
And now ... we're home ... and thinking of the next ...