A Travellerspoint blog

Coasting North

overcast 99 °F

After a final few days in Saigon we finally knew it was time to move on. We spent the days mostly with our friends Glenn and Julia, experimenting all levels of gastronomical treats, sweating through the overcrowded markets, and renewing the never ending search for the cheapest and coldest beer. We had dinner one night at an insanely local restaurant, in fact we were the only foreigners, and with no English menu, and no prices, I was assisted by the only English speaker in the house, a small eight year old girl who took me across a bustling street, to where the kitchen is, and through animal noises and pointing, I whittled down a menu of greasy, but oh so good dishes for us. Watching the server weave through moto-chaos to get the food to our table was half the fun! All in all we loved Saigon, in fact we still love it, and it will now be the basis to which all big cities in SE Asia, and maybe even Europe will be measured, although the combination of unending fun, ridiculously cheap food, and the feel and smell of life will take a lot to match up to.

Once we left town and boarded our night bus, the struggle to get a good deal began again. I’ve taken many overnight buses before, but these buses are strictly built for Vietnamese people, and I simply laughed when the hostess pointed to the back of the empty bus, expecting me to squeeze into the wall-less coffin that was five across the back of the bus, with only enough head room to half sit up before hitting the row of seats above. I argued vehemently to get our seats changed, employing the begging method, the refusal to sit method, the fine, we’ll just take these ones method, before the “Take me back to the hotel and give me a refund” method finally gave her the heart to give us seats that would allow us air and a bit of room. I have really kind of given up on the kindness idea when dealing with business here, it is apparent that you need to make a firm stance before step one or they will run over you and leave you wondering how you lost that easiest of debates.

After a good, errr nearly decent, night of sleep we arrived in Nha Trang, and sauntered down the beach with our backpacks on just after the early morning sunrise to avoid the annoying swarm of moto-taxis that greet you the second you hit the bottom step on the way out of the bus after a wretched night of bouncing, tossing and turning, and frequent stops to pick up people who sleep in the aisles of the bus. We found a hotel with a cheap room and ac and crashed, then explored the beach nearby. It was nice to be back on the beach, although the constant “you wan buy sunglass”, or “hello, you buy mango” does get annoying after a few hours. Fortunately for me, a game on a nearby beach soccer field allowed me to run around and get a bit of exercise, something I have definitely been neglecting due to the beer, heat, and a bit of laziness. After the game I sat with some other travelers and watched the “pros” play while Flavia read nearby and swatted away the constant bombardment of salespeople. After two days, we’d had enough, and shipped north on a terrible bus ride in which neither of us slept more than a few hours until they dropped us just outside the city of Hoi An.

Hoi An is wonderful, although today’s heat makes it a little less enjoyable than yesterdays cool river breeze. This town was spared the bombardment of the “American War”, as it’s known here, and the historical town has a beautiful ancient Chinese feel, with red lanterns on every building, contrasting beautifully with the light yellow paint and dark stained woodwork of the buildings. The narrow streets are thankfully closed to traffic, and although the normal salespeople chirp at every corner, it’s easy and beautiful to walk around, especially at night. Another thing that Hoi An is known for is it’s clothes. Here, you can get a cotton or wool suit custom made from a picture, tailored to your liking, and delivered overnight to your hotel for under $100, although the idea of buying a suit for me is like having a hot bath under the Vietnam sun at midday. Instead I got a pair of tailored shorts, and Flavia happily picked out a dress and a skirt, perfect for traveling. I have noticed that in SE Asia, travelers are cleaner and better dressed than they were in South America, and that’s due to the predominance of shops selling $2 tank tops, $4 dresses, and just the cheapest clothes you can find anywhere. Last night we had maybe the best meal we’ve had so far on our trip, eating at a gourmet street food fusion restaurant, enjoying the local delicacy Cao Loa, a soup that’s made with local well water, thick homemade noodles, a few pieces of pork, and just the right amount of fresh herbs and spices, and results in a true delight for the mouth, nose and tummy. Flavia ordered a roasted duck thigh, sliced and served with a salad of 1000 textures and flavors, and I haven’t seen her enjoy a meal like that for a long time. My broiled pork leg with red rice risotto and pickled veggies was wonderful, although a bottle of Oregon Pinot would have made me the happiest man in Vietnam. To top it off for dessert, we had a warm, fresh, fluffy cinnamon waffle with a scoop of melting homemade ice cream, and if that meal doesn’t get your mouth watering, just think that we splurged and got a bill of $17 for the whole thing!

Watching Flavia’s transition throughout this trip has been truly delightful. I have seen her become accustomed to the unknown and her newly found ability to really not worry about situations that would have been alarming to her just a few months ago shows me that this trip has so far been truly worth it. From happily enjoying chili laden street food to using the squat toilet at the dirtiest of dirty bus stops (I went behind a truck), to crossing the busiest street in Saigon, to throwing a dirty shirt on, because it’s just gonna get dirty again when you step outside, she has really grown into a traveler and the perfect companion (not that she wasn’t that before). The rest of this trip can only enhance her mental fortitude and persona, and I can’t wait to see what’s next, perhaps still beating cobra heart of some of those tasty street bugs!

Unfortunately for us we spent too much time in the south, and now we are rushing a bit, with a 17 hour bus ride looming tomorrow, and just a few days to spend in Hanoi and Ha Long bay before we skip the 24 hour hell bus ride to Laos and splurge on the one hour flight. I know what you are thinking, that I’ve changed since my Bolivia 38 hour bus ride days, but I don’t really care! Tonight should be an interesting celebration as Vietnam celebrates the 35th anniversary of their “National liberation, their defeat of the Americans and ‘puppet regime’ of the south, and victory of the ‘American War’”. Although I feel absolutely no anti-Americanism here, in fact, quite the opposite, I know that this is important for the communist government and the people as an end to a terrible period of their history, and a reunification that seems to have healed all wounds, both internally and internationally.

Posted by JonathanU 10:48 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Sem medo de experimentar

sunny 98 °F
View RTW - 2010 on flaviaU's travel map.

O Vietnam é um país cheio de sabores, doce, amargo, salgado, apimentado! O Vietnam é um país cheio de sons, imagens, tudo parece ter vida, as ruas de Saigon tem vida própria, uma cidade que não dorme, o caos das avenidas tomadas por motocicletas, 2 milhões delas, buzinando, atravessando as calçadas lotadas de turistas, cruzando sinais vermelhos, os postes de luz cercados por milhares de cabos de eletricidade, os sinais de neon iluminando as avenidas. O maior obstáculo, o maior risco que qualquer um pode correr em Saigon é atravessar a rua, não existe ordem, não existe respeito, é cada por si mesmo, é preciso bastante coragem, não há tempo para hesitação.

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O maior propósito da nossa visita ao Vietnam, mais especificamente a Saigon, foi de exercitar o nosso paladar, de provar o sabor da culinária local. Não existe hora para comer, não existe uma ordem do que comer e quando, o café da manhã consiste em um prato de “pho”, sopa típica do Vietnam, massa fina, parecida com espaguete, pedaços de carne cortados no estilo carpacio, legumes e ervas frescas, com um caldo elaborado, a combinação do calor intenso e o vapor da sopa, fazia o suor pingar da nossa testa já de manhã cedo. Para o almoço, algo mais leve, o típico sanduíche das ruas do Vietnam chamado “Banh Mi”, pão francês com patê, folhas de coentro, carne assada cortada em pedaços finos e um molho de vinagre com cenoura, rabanete e pepino cortados em tiras, huummm...que delícia! Para o jantar, algo mais sofisticado, com um cardápio escrito inteiramente em Vietnamita, em um restaurante onde a única pessoa que falava um pouquinho de Inglês era a filha de um dos garçons, uma menina de 8 anos, que pegou o Jonathan pela mão, atravessou a rua em frente ao restaurante, onde estava localiza a cozinha e traduziu os ingredientes de alguns dos milhares de pratos que consistiam o cardápio, sendo os únicos ocidentais sentados no restaurante, nós também viramos atração turística, todos assistindo a nossa reação depois de cada mordida, curiosos para saber a nossa opinião. Passamos os dias buscando novos lugares para comer, nas feiras, nas calçadas e nas ruas sem saída, sem medo de experimentar, keeping an open mind, como diz o Jonathan.

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Saigon tem uma mistura de moderno e antigo, prédios de arquitetura francesa ao lado de edifícios construídos com alta tecnologia, barracas de artesanato ao lado de boutiques de alta costura, mulheres pedalando bicicletas em trajes típicos e chapéus de palha ao lado de garotas Vietnamitas pilotando suas motocicletas com designer jeans e capacetes brilhantes. Todos esses contrates fazem parte dessa cidade, tudo isso contribui para a sua excentricidade. Sem deixar de mencionar que o Vietnam é um pais comunista, com todas as heranças deixadas pelo seu líder político, Ho Chi Min e com muitas cicatrizes deixadas pela guerra do Vietnam, com propagandas comunistas estampadas em cada esquina, relembrando o país da sua vitoria contra os americanos imperialistas. Mas mesmo depois do massacre da guerra que durou 17 anos, sem esquecer da dor, a população não guarda ressentimentos contra os americanos, eles já foram perdoados.

De Saigon nos vamos para o norte do Vietnam, em direção a Hanoi, com algumas paradas no litoral, não vejo a hora de ver o que mais o Vietnam tem para nos oferecer.

Posted by flaviaU 17:48 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

South Vietnam

sunny 99 °F

What a busy last few days we’ve had, moving from the peaceful beaches of Phu Quoc up to Saigon with a stop in Can Tho along the way. Phu Quoc was relaxing but the days went quickly and we enjoyed sitting on the vacant and clean beach, a nice change after Cambodia. We spent most of the time with two couples, and Glenn and Julia stayed next door to us, and we had no problem melding our schedules and finding something to do. One night we loaded up into a taxi and ate incredibly fresh seafood in a downtown food market, with stall after stall displaying live lobsters, crabs, squid, shrimp, and other delectable treats fished out that morning. The idea of fresh seafood is everywhere, and a few nights we didn’t make it past beer and grilled snapper on the beach. The nights were more than relaxing here, as the nice ocean breeze would pick up a bit, and we would sit and relax on the beach chairs watching the stars and the lightning off the coast, which would flash all night until finally striking land while we slept. Breakfast was always a treat as well, Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk and a small bowl of Pho, which is Vietnamese noodle soup, traditionally served for breakfast. Our last day we rented motorbikes and cruised around the island, stopping along the way at Sao beach, a beautiful white sand beach with warm blue water, lined with palm trees. Flavia and I really enjoyed cruising around the island and seeing the faces, speeding (cautiously with a helmet, mom) through the small fishing towns, and seeking cover at a random house alongside the road when the skies opened for a quick shower. Phu Quoc turned out to be a great start to Vietnam, relaxing and inviting, and we were very eager to head north and explore the country.

After a boat ride that was calmer that the ride over to the island, we ended up grouping up with the other five westerners on the boat as we were all headed to the small city of Can Tho, a short four hour ride towards Saigon, along the Mekong river. We were hustled into a van and told that the ride would stop in Can Tho, although it seemed all of us had our apprehensions about what exactly was going on. We paid a higher price than we would have for one of the non AC buses, stopped a few times then took off, although I was too apprehensive to sleep. Once on the highway, we approached a bus that bumped along in front of us, and the sign in the rear window said Can Tho. The driver and the worker started to talk to each other and flag down the bus, honking and waving their hands out of the window. I knew immediately what was going to happen, and we both pulled over and they tried to usher us out of the comfortable van and into the bus, which we knew was cheaper, and would stop in each town along the way. I demanded that they give us some money back, communicating by writing numbers down, and them by waving money in the air to signify the original price. I knew that there was no way we were going to get the difference in prices from them, and I made it clear that we were not getting off the van unless compensated. Later I was told that the other westerners in the van had no hope that I would win this confrontation, but I was determined. This stalemate dragged into a few minutes of back and forth, I was still unwilling to give in, until finally, the worker told us we were going all the way to Saigon and that the bus wouldn’t stop in Can Tho. I glared with my meanest look, puffed up my chest, and instructed them that there would be consequences if they didn’t stop, and I think that was what really worked because they reluctantly stopped a few hours later in Can Tho. This left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth and I began to get a bit worried due to some other stories that I’d heard about Vietnam and the local businesses taking advantage of backpackers. Determined not to let it bother me, Flavia and I set out in the early evening to eat some local street food, with the Vietnamese supposedly making the best in SE Asia. Through pointing at other people’s and a bit a knowledge from friends back home, we were able to get the local specialty, Bahn Xeo, a pancake with a bit of sweetness filled with shrimp, pork, and veggies, as well as a plate of seafood stir-fry. Sitting there with the locals teaching us how to eat it with two beers and a total bill of $3 made me feel a lot better about things!

The next morning we set out before sunrise for the floating markets, a mix of a tourist trap excursion, a bit of local flavor, and too much damn time in a slow boat floating around the Mekong delta area. Although the sunrise over the river was beautiful, the day was too hot and the boat was too slow for us to enjoy the whole experience, but the market, full of boats buying and selling local fruit and vegetables was a nice experience. Exhausted, we showered and boarded a bus to Saigon in the early afternoon. Arriving around 7, Flavia and I were amazed at the chaos on the streets. There are literally thousands of motorcycles on every street, zooming every way, making Phnom Penh seem like a walk on the beach. The intensity of the traffic felt like a death squad of killer bees, and we reached the hotel and stood in awe at what was going on around us.

So far I have to say that Saigon is up there with Rio, Buenos Aires, and NYC as one of the coolest and liveliest cities that I have ever visited. It is impossible to get bored here, there is excitement simply in looking up at the telephone poles that have millions of wires shooting out in the craziest spider web of illegal wiring in the world. Sitting and enjoying $1 beers and watching the action, the prostitutes and tourists, the moto drivers, the mix of young and old, beautiful and decrepit, the smells and the sounds, and just enjoying the moment with friends is what this is all about. Glen and Julia met up with us and we have spent some time with an American couple here on a quick holiday, and there are no dull moments, or any sort of inability to find something to do. Now, the best part, the food; WOW, is all I can say. We had a true Anthony Bourdain day yesterday, visiting his favorite Soup Lady for lunch, enjoying fresh spring rolls, 2 big bowls of lemongrass beef soup that she boiled all day on the her little street corner, a beer and a fresh juice for under $5. She is notorious for the freshness of her ingredients and her no nonsense, one dish per day, come and find me in my hidden spot in a random street corner in the city, and of course for never receiving any complaints. In fact, we have already decided that we will stay one extra day here just because the Monday dish sounds so damn good! For dinner we went to Bourdain’s favorite restaurant Com Nieu, a Vietnamese Gastronomy restaurant, with a group of 5, a place notorious for its rice cooked in a clay pot, shattered with a hammer, then heaved across the room at full speed, then caught on a plate by an acrobat who flips the rice in the air, somersaults to catch it, throws it behind his back, then slams it down on the table. Inundated by a 32 page menu, we fortunately received help from the manager, and after selecting clams cooked in a hotpot, crab cakes on Chinese mushrooms with a flaked fish sauce (not “fish sauce”), fried leg of pork (heaven), and some other dishes, we easily enjoyed the best meal we’d had in a long time. In fact, a unanimous decision was made that the clams were the best clams that anyone had ever had.

This city is all about art, whether it be food, cheap t-shirts, silk, music, or the individuality of every helmet and accessory for a motorbike. We feel like locals, we have mastered crossing the street, basically just go, don’t speed up, don’t slow down, don’t be scared even with the swarm flying at you. Saigon has taken us into its arms and I don’t feel the grip loosening on us. We love this city, we can’t wait to see more, and I can’t wait for my next meal.

Posted by JonathanU 17:48 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Xin Chao Vietnam!

sunny 99 °F
View RTW - 2010 on flaviaU's travel map.

Pegamos um ônibus do Camboja para cruzar a fronteira com o Vietnam, os planos eram de pegar um barco no lado Vietnamita e seguir de barco para uma ilha chamada Phu Quoc, no sul do Vietnam, mas obviamente os planos nunca funcionam do jeito que nos planejamos, sempre tem uma surpresa. O ônibus atrasou uma hora para sair do Camboja, a estrada coberta de buracos, quando chegamos na fronteira descobrimos que o nosso ônibus não poderia cruzar a fronteira devido a falta de documentação, então eu e o Jonathan juntamente com outros 2 casais tivemos que por a mochila nas costas e atravessar a fronteira a pé, o sol do meio-dia queimava os nossos ombros, chegamos no posto da policia federal e tivemos que esperar 40 minutos, sentados no chão ate que o único guarda que trabalhava lá voltasse do almoço. O problema não foi só a espera, mas o fato de que o ultimo barco que partia para a Ilha saia a uma hora da tarde, embarcamos em um micro ônibus as pressas, mas não chegamos ao cais com tempo de embarcar, o barco havia partido 5 minutos antes da nossa chegada. Todos estavam cansados e mesmo depois de muita discucao com a agencia de viagem que havia organizado o trajeto, acabamos tendo que passar a nossa primeira noite no Vietnam em uma cidadezinha de fronteira ate o próximo dia, acabamos nos tornando a atração turística na cidade, todo mundo parava para ver os gringos passando, muito engraçado, afinal não é sempre que eles vêem tanta gente diferente ao mesmo tempo.

De manhã cedo, pegamos o barco em direção a ilha Phu Quoc, o barco foi uma experiência aparte, o mar não estava dos mais calmos, eu e o resto do barco estávamos passando mal, de tanto balançar de lá pra cá ao som de musica pop Vietnamita a todo o volume, 3 horas depois surdos e pálidos, enfim chegamos sãos e salvos a terra firme. A ilha foi um sossego, o mar azul, a água morna e a companhia de um casal da Inglaterra (Julia e Glenn), também viajando pelo mundo. Todo mundo possui motos e vespas nesse país, o trânsito é caótico mesmo na Ilha, mas mesmo assim alugamos uma moto pequena e exploramos a Ilha, encontramos praias maravilhosas e dirigimos por varias estradas de chão, engolindo poeira o dia todo, buzinando para todos o carros, motos, bicicletas e pedestres que passavam, aqui a buzina é a única maneira de informar os outros veículos que você esta atrás deles ou que vai ultrapassar-los, é a única maneira de por um pouquinho de ordem no caos do trânsito.

O Vietnam é conhecido pela sua culinária, tanto Vietnamita quanto Francesa, eu e o Jonathan freqüentamos um restaurante Vietnamita nos Estados Unidos e nós amamos a comida,então queremos comer muito por aqui.

Na ilha comemos muitos frutos do mar, tudo muito fresco, mas nada muito delicioso, mas temos esperança de que a comida do norte vai ser muito boa. Depois de 3 dias partimos da Ilha e fomos em direção a uma cidade chamada Can Tho, localizada na base do Delta do rio Mekong, onde estão localizados vários mercados ao ar livre, sendo somente acessíveis de barco. Claro que eu não poderia deixar de mencionar a nossa jornada em direção a Can Tho, do cais onde desembarcamos saiam vários ônibus em direção as diversas cidades da região, um grupo de nativos nos ofereceram uma van com ar condicionado para viajar até Can Tho, 7 gringos e alguns nativos, o preço era um pouco mais elevado que os ônibus coletivos, mas pelo menos iria ser mais rápido e mais fresco. Mas como sempre, nada é o que parece, tudo estava indo muito bem até que o motorista parou a van fora da cidade e mando a gente descer e pegar um ônibus local, porque ele estava indo para uma outra cidade no norte, claro que a essas horas nos já havíamos pago pela passagem. O outro ônibus carregava tudo que você possa imaginar, comida, animais, gente...ninguém queria desembarcar e o motorista estava quase jogando as nossas malas na estrada, foi ai que o meu esposo corajoso decidiu que ele não iria deixar nada de mal acontecer, enfrentou o motorista e colocou o pé no chão, ou eles nos davam o dinheiro de volta ou eles teriam que nos levar ate o nosso destino, o cara não pensou duas vezes ao ver os braços do Jonathan, maiores que as duas pernas dele juntas e então ele resolveu que seria melhor fazer o que nos mandamos do que levar uma surra dos 4 meninos estrangeiros que estavam na van. Depois de tudo, chegamos em Can Tho, fizemos um tour de barco pelos canais do rio Mekong, onde a população vende tudo que você possa imaginar, frutas, verduras, café com leite, carne de rato, cobras...uma delícia!

A história do Vietnam está documentada há mais de 2500 anos. Durante mil anos, esta região foi dominada por sucessivas dinastias do império chinês, mas obteve a independência em 938 e estabeleceu a dinastia Ngô. O período dinástico terminou no século XIX, quando o país foi colonizado pela França em 1858. Durante a Segunda Guerra Mundial, com a derrota da França na primeira fase da Guerra, o Vietnam foi ocupado pelo Japão e estabeleceram no trono o Imperador Bao Dai. Quando a guerra terminou, a França tentou restabelecer o controle, mas não conseguiu. Os franceses foram derrotados na Batalha de Dien Bien Phu, após oito anos de luta armada, comandada por Giap em 1954 na primeira guerra da Indochina, mesmo com ajuda dos EUA, mas na Conferência de Genebra o Vietnam foi dividido em dois países separados, conhecidos como Vietnam do Norte e Vietnam do Sul. Durante a Guerra Fria, o norte comunista tinha o apoio da China e da União Soviética, enquanto o sul anti-comunista era apoiado pelos EUA, o que deu lugar à Guerra do Vietname em que os americanos foram obrigados a abandonar em Março de 1973; a cidade de Saigon que foi tomada pelo Vietcong - frente de libertação do sul em Abril de 1975. Em Julho de 1976, a República do Vietname do Sul e a República Democrática do Vietnam (Vietnam do Norte) uniram-se na República Socialista do Vietnam.

A próxima parada: Saigon, a maior cidade do Vietnam, uma cidade que não dorme, de dia o caos do transito, de noite as luzes e a musica em todos os bares e restaurantes. Saigon também oferece a melhor culinária do Vietnam, com certeza vamos encontrar muita comida boa por aqui e deixar todos com água na boca.

Posted by flaviaU 17:40 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

SE Asia Map

Updated


View RTW - 2010 on flaviaU's travel map.

Posted by flaviaU 10:16 Comments (0)

Into Vietnam

sunny 90 °F

Right now Flavia and I are on a speed boat hauling ass through the South China Sea on the way to Pho Quoc Island. We’ve been in Vietnam for one day and I have two hypotheses about this country, first that it will is the loudest place that I have ever been and two, that I think this will be my favorite country in SE Asia. Yesterday was the predictable mess, bus left an hour late, border guards were at lunch, they wouldn’t let the bus through the border because the documents were messed up, and then we arrived in Ha Tien 10 minutes after the boat left and we were stuck there for the night. We began to argue with the woman at the tourist office, as she knew we were late, and that it was the bus company’s fault, and as voices began to raise I walked away remembering advice that I had received about SE Asian countries, that if you “lose face” in any business dealings, you will accomplish nothing. Although it bothered us, Flavia and I made the best of it, wandering the streets with everyone smiling, waving, and saying hello. We didn’t find many people who spoke English though, and we have seen that we most certainly have to learn a bit of Vietnamese to get around. Last night we went out with two other western couples and I happily disregarded advice about street food and ate an amazing fried then grilled duck leg that made me oh so happy.


Now to the noise! Right now on this boat I have my Iphone in my ears at full volume, Muse screaming their new album into my brain, anything to block out the Vietnamese play on the TV with the volume blasting out of the speakers all around us. I swear that the tone of this language cuts straight through, through earplugs, through walls, through headphones, especially the shrill woman’s voices. At our hotel, Flavia and I were pleased to find that a family of 10 who occupied the other three rooms on the floor decided that it would be best if they just spent the whole day in the hallway, screaming, banging plates and silverware, screaming more, and playing all sorts of games that involved, of course, screaming and banging. Fortunately, they went to sleep early, and unfortunately they awoke at 3:30 to get the day started. Throughout the night, the power in town was in and out, so the growl of generators from all over the city competed with the hoards of dogs barking, trucks horns howling on the streets, and the fire alarm of the hotel going off every time the power disconnected and reconnected. We don’t mind though, you have to laugh at this, I mean here we are, in a place that may have made Cambodia seem western influenced. In the last few moments the sea has become very rough and is rocking our riverboat like a hammock in the wind. Flavia is beginning to look a bit pale and isn’t feeling well; the boy across the aisle just threw up in his mother’s hand. The play is over and the volume has just been turned to max as Vietnamese pop begins to bombard our brains. Oh my God, why does it have to be so loud, is anyone enjoying this? We still have an hour to go, how many pop DVD’s do they have? My friend Glenn is sitting next to me, he has just traveled four months in India and he concurs that this is the worst ride he has ever been on!

Now on to what I really like, friendly people and great food! As Flavia and I wandered it was apparent that we are not in a tourist town. Armed with our phrase book we stumbled through ordering food and asking directions with a smile, and hoping that we were getting through to people. At night the temperature was low enough along the water that it was more comfortable than I had been since Australia, and I enjoyed my first Vietnamese iced-coffee, a wonderfully refreshing drip espresso that slowly fills a glass containing a bit of condensed milk, then poured over ice to create a sweet and tasty treat, I will have about four a day while I’m here. As we walked through the food market that had spontaneously sprung up on the main street, I enjoyed duck and perused the shellfish at each stall, all wonderfully alive and open and the smell of every personal touch wafted from each stall, hinting at their family recipe, their spectacular soup, or their spice coated grilled chicken or duck.


I will keep this short, mostly because I just wrote, but I had to write about our first day here, a perfect example of everything going terribly wrong resulting in everything ending horrifically right! Now if I could just figure out how to get though the slowest Vietnamese play in history that continues to scream through my headphones and make it through the sea, which is getting a rougher by the second, I’m sure I will have plenty to add about Pho Quoc Island, which will come later. What a welcome to Vietnam!

Posted by JonathanU 10:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Camboja - Terra de contrastes

sunny
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Passamos alguns dias em Sihanoukville, litoral do Camboja, eu sempre imaginei esse lugar como sendo um paraíso, águas cristalinas e areia branca, mas quando chegamos na praia a decepção foi imensa. Havia lixo em toda praia, tudo que você possa imaginar e ninguém se preocupando em limpar, nenhuma conscientização. O lugar poderia ser lindo, tinha tudo pra ser um paraíso, mas nenhuma educação dos nativos em conservar o meio ambiente, nenhuma preocupação com o futuro. Depois de algumas horas acabamos encontrando uma praia mais afastada da civilização,ainda com alguns vestígios de poluição, mas muito melhor que as praias da cidade.

Depois de dois dias resolvemos pegar um barco em direção a uma das ilhas do Camboja, o barco era pequeno e a ilha estava localizada a três horas de Sihanoukville, mas pelo menos nos não fomos os únicos a nos aventurar no barco, uma casal de Ingleses da nossa idade nos acompanhou. O barco saiu cedo e nos estávamos exaustos por causa do calor e das poucas horas de sono, pouco a pouco todos acharam um cantinho no barco e dormiram ate chegar na ilha. Quando eu abri os meus olhos, ate achei que eu estava sonhando, finalmente havíamos encontrado um pedaço de paraíso, águas cristalinas e areia branca, e ao fundo os nossos bangalôs, feitos de madeira e cobertos de palha, tudo muito rústico, incluindo o chuveiro, que consistia em um barril de água com um balde, tudo pra entrar em um clima de ilha deserta. Assim que chegamos já fizemos amizade com dois casais, Ingleses e Australianos, sentamos debaixo da sombra, de frente para o mar e ali mesmo ficamos, o resto do dia, com alguns intervalos para um banho de mar de vez em quando, essa é a vida que eu pedi a Deus. Mas como tudo tem um fim, tivemos que voltar a civilização, e a volta não foi das melhores, o mar estava muito agitado e o barco balançava de um lado para o outro, com uma tempestade se aproximando, mas enfim chegamos à terra firme. O problema foi que quando chegamos, o barco nos deixou em uma área extremamente pobre próxima ao porto, com a maior concentração de lixo da cidade, não da pra imaginar como as pessoas vivem nesse lugar. O lugar era afastado da cidade e não havia nenhum taxi ou meio de transporte, devido ao feriado de ano novo do Camboja, que dura 3 dias, e o vento soprava toda a poeira acumulada no solo depois de vários dias sem chover, quando a chuva começou, nós não tínhamos abrigo, mas as crianças que brincavam na rua nos deram abrigo debaixo do teto da pequena casa com chão de barro, depois de uma hora esperando a chuva passar, finalmente encontramos um taxi que nos levou de volta a pousada, sãos e salvos.Já estava na hora de dizer adeus ao Camboja e partir em direção ao Vietnam, com a esperança de que o país prospere, esperança que a vida da população melhore e que a desigualdade diminua.

A próxima parada promete, quando eu penso no Vietnam, eu penso no caos das ruas cercadas por motos e bicicletas, na culinária local e na herança culinária deixada pelos Franceses e finalmente nas suas belezas naturais. Um novo país, uma nova aventura...

Posted by flaviaU 09:49 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Khmer Beach Adventure

sunny 100 °F

Cambodia never seems to stop, even when we get as far from civilization as possible. We have just returned to the mainland after spending three days on Koh Rong Island, three hours off the coast of Cambodia. The island was about as rustic as it could have been, wooden shacks, electricity for four hours in the evening, and a bucket of water for showers. The beach was beautiful, but as we have seen so far in Cambodia, there is no sense of proper disposal of garbage, so everything that is thrown away here in the south seems to end up in the water. The island was great though, it was about the most relaxing three days we have had in a while, which was necessary because the heat at night without a fan caused everyone there to be absolutely exhausted during the scorching days. We were fortunate enough to meet two couples our age there, which is about two more than we have met the whole rest of the time we have been on the road, and our time with Harley, Anny, Anthony, and Emily really made the trip great, just sitting under our thatched roof hut on the beach chatting, throwing a football around (not sure why there was a football there), and just relaxing and reading. The Khmer New Year’s celebration has been going on for the past three days, and we felt pretty much excluded until yesterday when I was invited by some locals while I passed through the small village to come watch them play the traditional New Year’s games. The children had so much fun playing, and they laughed and ran through the dusty streets, dressed in ragged and dirty clothes, their smiles on their brown faces and their innocence hiding the severe poverty that, along with everywhere else in Cambodia, is heart wrenching and takes me back to the Children’s Fund infomercials that I used to watch when I was an insomniac teenager.

Later that night after dinner, we headed back to the village where there was a dance, and we danced a sort of circular line dance, drank homemade rice wine, and marveled in the friendliness and welcoming attitude that they showed towards us, as we were the only foreigners there. The music was all Cambodian, and like in South America, each song had a particular dance that went along with it. The boat ride back was rough, and we docked far away from the tourist spots, and near the port, where housed built on stilts over garbage sat, littered in waste, with hundreds of children’s faces lining the short walk from the boat over the split and broken boards that seemed to be one second away from breaking someone’s leg.

The previous two nights were spent in Sihanoukville, an overnight bus ride from Siem Reap, and as with all bus rides, this was quite an experience. The damn air conditioning kept switching off and on, and I just figured it was broken only to learn later that they switch it off to conserve gas, and then when the bus stops, they siphon out a few gallons which are sold at every roadside stand in old soda bottles. We slept pretty well though, and woke up as we entered Sihanoukville, where we made our way to the beach and had a nice breakfast listening to the small waves on the beach. The beach here is pretty trashed, and it’s a bit sad that no one seems to care about the line of empty plastic bottles and bags, Styrofoam, and every other discarded item washing up on their shore. We headed for a cleaner beach nearby where we had the best meal that we’d had so far in Cambodia, surprisingly great shrimp burritos with homemade pico de gallo and tortillas. The place was opened by a Californian ex-pat, and we even nice enough to import some Pacifico. Overall we had a great time in Sihanoukville, met some wonderful travelers and ex-pats, including a Brit and his Cambodian girlfriend who were traveling with their two children. Hearing the family stories and the struggle that seems evident in every Khmer that we meet has shown that every person in this country has had to fight to survive, but their ability to tell the stories of families torn apart and dead relatives shows that these people have grown nearly impervious to the obstacles that they have faced.

Overall, Cambodia has been an amazing experience. I think it would be impossible to say we had a “great” time here, because being amongst this level of poverty and pain takes its toll on the psyche. It was also difficult here because of the constant attempts to nickel and dime, people adding items to bills, changing prices half way through, “forgetting” about the price quoted on the phone, or just trying their hardest to take advantage of backpackers, and I understand that a few dollars is much more important to them than to us, but it leaves a bad taste in our mouths, and it would have to come up whenever anyone asks us about this country, because it’s constant and every person that we met has had this experience. Another disappointment here was the food, which let us down severely. Khmer food was at best bad Thai food, greasy, overcooked, bare minimum of meat, and not nearly as good as we’d hoped. We did have some good meals though, finding fresh pasta and Suki Soup, a sort of build your own soup (see photos), in Siem Reap. Here on the beach we had wonderfully fresh seafood, as the sea here is packed with Red Snapper (ahhhh, the Red Snapper), squid, small lobsters, and more. It does always seem to taste better when the beer is 50 cents a draught and your toes are in the sand. Another interesting experience at the beach is the Khmer beachwear, which is pretty much whatever you have on: jeans, sweatshirts, t-shirts, and naturally, pajamas, which are the new craze in Cambodia. Matching pant and long sleeve shirt pajamas are everywhere, probably because they are all made here, but also because they are cool (temperature wise), and cheap. It does look extremely uncomfortable to swim in jeans though!

We leave tomorrow morning for Vietnam, where we are hoping for cleaner beaches, incredible food, floating markets, and oh yah, the food! Cambodia has been one of the greatest experiences of my traveling life, and I wish so much that I could help people here. The heat and the culture seems to put everyone on the side of the road near whatever breeze is strongest, whether in the city or on the highway, and every face looks like they could tell 1000 stories more sorrowful than any you’ve ever heard. I just think that if there was some way to curb the corruption this country could succeed, that if a bit more foresight was utilized here, whether it be how to pack a bus with luggage to unpack with the first stop’s baggage in the front, or how to not try to get that extra dollar off of a backpacker who will tell everyone how you ripped him off, or why the main road in Sihanoukville is the only one that is not paved in the area because the money went into pockets instead of to the infrastructure, that this country could be the hottest new SE Asia destination. I’m so glad that I came here though, to see these people, live with them, sweat with them, and learn through eyes, smiles, frowns, and faces about this country of Buddhists, Tuk Tuk drivers, and survivors. Cambodia is not only to be seen, it must be smelled and heard as well, it will make you laugh, cry, and scream. This is unlike any place I have ever been.

Posted by JonathanU 18:31 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Os templos de Angkor Wat

sunny

Deixamos a capital do Camboja e fomos em direção a Siem Riep, onde estão localizadas as ruínas de Angkor Wat, uma das maravilhas do mundo, um lugar mágico. A cidade de Siem Riep é muito menor que Phnom Phen, a capital, é uma cidade mais focada para o turismo. Mas o calor não deixa de ser intenso e o número de crianças vendendo coisas e pedindo esmola é muito grande.

Para quem nunca houviu falar dos templos, aqui vai um pouquinho da historia deles. Abrindo caminho através da selva no Camboja, Henri Mouhot, explorador frânces do século 19, chegou a um templo cercado por um largo fosso onde encontrou o Angkor Wat, o maior monumento religioso do planeta.Foi construído pelo rei Suryavarman II, no começo do século XII, como o seu templo central e capital do Estado. É o maior e mais bem preservado templo no local e também o único que restou com importante significado religioso - inicialmente hindu, e depois Budista - desde a sua fundação. O templo é o ponto máximo do estilo clássico da arquitetura Khmer. Foi desenhado para representar o Monte Meru, casa dos deuses da mitologia Hindu.

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Para explorar as ruínas de Angkor Wat é necessário no mínimo 2 dias, são muitos templos espalhados por quilômetros fora da cidade, então nos resolvemos alugar um motorista por 3 dias, que nos levou em um Tuk Tuk (uma charrete puxada por uma moto ao invés de um cavalo). No primeiro dia fomos visitar o complexo de Angkor Thom, um dos maiores e mais fotogênicos dos templos, passamos 8 horas debaixo de um sol de 42 graus, bebendo muita água, mas valeu a pena.

O segundo dia começou bem cedo, acordamos as 4:00 horas da manhã para assistir o nascer do sol em Angkor Wat, nós e todos os turistas da cidade, o sol nasce atrás do templo, que faz com que as cores do céu se contrastem com as ruínas do templo . Como o sol é muito forte já de manhã cedo, a melhor hora de caminhar pelas ruínas é antes das 9 horas da manhã e depois das 4 horas da tarde, o calor é muito intenso. Depois de explorar Angkor Wat, resolvemos visitar alguns templos menores e mais afastados, cercados por comunidades budistas. Conhecemos um monge, 20 anos de idade, que ensina Inglês de graça para os meninos carentes da comunidade, todos estudando para se tornarem monges no futuro. A escolhinha estava localizada no porão de uma casa, somente algumas mesas e bancos e um quadro negro, doado por um turista. O mais impressionante foi a força de vontade desse menino, mesmo enfrentando dificuldades ele ainda tentava ajudar, nós doamos o que pudemos para ele comprar livros para os alunos, mas gostaríamos de ajudar mais, quem sabe no futuro.

No terceiro dia já exaustos de tanto andar e consumidos pelo calor, ainda resolvemos fazer uma visita rápida a alguns templos que havíamos deixado para trás, depois do segundo templo eu já podia mais caminhar, o suor já cobria o meu rosto, então resolvemos voltar para o hotel e aproveitar a piscina, a final, nos merecemos. Pela noite pegamos um ônibus, uma viagem de 10 horas, em direção ao sul do país, em direção as praias de Sihanoukville, a nossa ultima parada no Camboja. Sihanoukville é cercada por pequenas ilhas, das quais nos vamos conhecer nos próximos dias.

Posted by flaviaU 13:34 Archived in Cambodia Comments (3)

Astonishing & Unbearable

sunny 100 °F

Cambodia continues to amaze me. This is by far the hottest and toughest country I have ever been to. A trip to the Russian Market on our last day in Phnom Penh was the hottest hour of my life, and with both of us drenched in sweat, nauseous from the musk of the unrefrigerated fish throughout, and too uncomfortable to purchase anything, we made the quick decision to head north to Siem Reap to explore the temples of Angkor Wat for three days. Cambodia has been so cheap, on average $10 for a meal with drinks, beer costs only 60 cents, $25 for our current room with AC, a pool, wifi, and free breakfast, and the normal souvenirs cost no more than a buck or two.

After the 6 hour bumpy bus ride north along the best road in Cambodia, we arrived to a hoard of tuk tuks, and we zipped to our hotel where we relaxed, had a few beers, and plotted our adventure to the nearby temples. We reserved a tuk tuk for three days for $35, ate dinner and went to sleep early, both of us exhausted by the heat and eager to get out the next day. We awoke early, hoping to get there before the sun was too hot, which we have now learned is not a possibility at any time of the day, or even seemingly at night, even without the sun. Our tuk tuk driver picked us up right on time and we set out.

Angkor Wat is not just one temple, or even one complex of temples. Instead it is a huge complex of temples, shrines, monasteries, and palaces, spread out for miles throughout the countryside built about 800 years ago or so. Originally, the surrounding area was filled with water, with many small temples on islands throughout the land, but now, it is just baron earth in some parts, and overwhelming heat and dust make exploration both astonishing and unbearable, a theme that we have thought many times so far in Cambodia. We started our exploration at Angkor Tom, just north of the Angkor Wat temple, and this huge complex is a 3 square km walled and moated city built in 12-13 A.D. and was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. Inside the first structure that we explored was the Baphon temple, a ruin with 37 towers with four faces carved on the sides of the towers. This beautiful temple gave us such a good introduction to what we would see, as the reoccurrence of reliefs carved into all the walls showed the detail and skill of the builders. The surrounding temples took hours to explore, and we both were drenched with sweat as we made our way from temple to temple, climbing the steep and narrow steps, along with the other tourists here. At each entrance we were offered everything from the small children: postcards, bracelets, water, beer, coke, anything and everything that they could get their hands on. As we wandered through the rest of the Angkor Thom complex we saw the huge Buddha at Phimeanakas, the elephants carved along the walls at the aptly named Terrace of the Elephants and the thousands of demons and mythological beings from top to bottom at the Terrace of the Leper. Back in the tuk tuk we drove east through the victory gate and on to the lesser visited Ta Keo, Thommanom and Chau Say Thevoda temples. I will spare all the details of the temples, but I can say that we did not get bored at all with what we were seeing and we were continually amazed by the detail, the level of preservation, and the ability to actually get away from the crowds that seemed to be everywhere, except where we were. We read our guidebook for information about each place, and saved the money for a guide, and felt that we would get an overdose of information if we did spring for one. The highlight for me of this area was the climb up the steps of Ta Keo, which most visitors skip, as the climb in the midday sun was so rough on me that my legs began to cramp as Flavia stood below in the shade of the trees, waiting to snap a picture of me at the top. I stood at the summit, sweating, begging for a bit of a breeze, a cool stone, something to make the slow descent easier, and made my way back down and declared us ready for lunch.

Lunch was a bit more than we expected, as we slowly nourished ourselves, tried to have some sugar to reenergize, drank more water, although we had been drinking bottle after bottle all day and still neither of us had gone to the bathroom, a troubling sign in the 100 degree heat and 90% humidity. After lunch I asked the owner if she had hammocks, as I had read that some restaurants had huts where tourists could relax for a bit away from the scorching sun, but she said that the police wouldn’t allow her to put them up. As we got up to leave she hurried over to us and told us that her father has set up two hammocks just off the dining room, where we should go to rest. She then brought us icy cold napkins to put around our necks and we rested for a while. When we awoke we chatted with Nam, the owner, and she was the first Cambodian to really open up to us about the situation there. Although she had only 3 years of education and was forced to go sell drinks at the temples at age 12, her English was better than anyone’s whom we had met so far, and she explained the poverty situation when she was younger, and how her family was forced to eat only rice soup because they didn’t even have enough rice to go around. Her grandmother sat nearby, an 80 year old toothless woman, with a shaved head, and a weathered face, who looked up and smiled at us. Nam told us how the police force payments from everyone, from the children selling postcards, from the Tuk Tuk drivers, from all the poor, making it impossible for anyone to rise above the poverty line and how the rich just continue to get richer. Flavia and I were truly dismayed, as there is nothing we can do, and we thanked her and went on our way, promising never to forget this heartfelt chat, a bit depressed, and a bit more aware of the situation around us.

Back on the road we visited a few more temples, the highlight being Ta Prohm, a complex with many rooms and trees growing out of the walls of the monastery. It was amazing to see the way that nature had mingled with the temples here, and with endless photo opportunities, we thought we would never leave. Back at the tuk tuk, we began to feel extreme fatigue and dehydration and decided that we were almost done, as we had spent almost nine hours in the deadly heat, which seemed to only get worse as the day continued. Back at the hotel, the cool pool and the AC of the room provided a well deserved escape from the heat, and that night we paid a bit more for a restaurant nearby with AC! We went to sleep early, as the next morning we planned to awaken at 4:30 am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, the most famous and beautiful of all of the temples.

Well before dawn, we went out in the almost bearable heat where our driver was waiting. Our cooler was filled with cold bottles of water in ice, as he had done the day before as well, and we set out, meeting loads of tuk tuks and buses along the way, everyone heading for the same place. We drank a coffee sweetened with condensed milk and took a seat along a reflecting pool as we watched the sky begin to color as the sun rose. This was so amazing, and if it weren’t for the voices of the Japanese tourists, seemingly the only noise around us, it was perfect. Once it was light we headed inside and as most large groups head back to town for breakfast, we munched on a ham and cheese sandwich and wandered the empty halls, amazed at the carvings on every single wall in the long hallways, showing battle scenes, religious reliefs and ceremonies. Nearby we stood silently at the hall of headless Buddha statues, and marveled at the 65 meter towers that soar into the sky. If the Gods were not happy with this place, there was no way they would ever be pleased!

After Angkor Wat we went to a few temples outside of town. Although visually uninspiring compared to what we had seen before this, we were able to chat with a young monk who took us around his monastery, show us his school, which was nothing more than a few benches and tables underneath their elevated sleeping area, and tell us about the struggle that the Cambodians live through every day. We gave him $10, he hadn’t even asked, we just knew that this small amount would go a long way to buy books and supplies for the children. We would have loved to give him more, everything we had, and we promised him that we would try to get him more once our trip ended. At the next temple, we saw an amazing graduation procession for a school of monks, a long line of burnt orange clad, tan skinned monks that stretched over the moat and up into the temples. We then headed back to the hotel, just as the noon sun began to boil our brains, where we slept and escaped from the heat, if only for a few hours.

Our final day here we were feeling a bit sluggish, the sun had definitely taken its toll. We decided to just explore a bit, and get a few more pictures of Angkor Wat in the afternoon hours as that is when the sun illuminates it better. We lounged by the pool and packed, reserved our room for the next destination, and searched far and wide for an internet café with the capability of uploading our pictures from the first day of exploring (more photos to come soon). We set out in the heat of the afternoon and were soon wiped out. We did manage to do a bit of exploring, but after three days our feet and legs ached, and our bodies were craving a break. Tonight we are taking an overnight bus to Sihanoukville, on the south coast, for a bit of time on the beach to relax and eat some cheap and tasty seafood. This Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are the Cambodian or Khmer new years, based on the Buddhist calendar, so we imagine that it will be pretty crowded and very crazy down there, hopefully we can get some rest before we venture into Vietnam. Sorry for the extended blog entry, I hope I have managed to keep your attention!

Posted by JonathanU 18:13 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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