Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Mekong Boat Tour - Chau Doc

The Mekong boat tour was about the same as all the other boat tours I've been on so far: 20 people crammed on to a slow, puttering vessel observing the scenery, reading, etc. The first half (the Cambodian side) was pretty standard, then we stopped for lunch and immigration and a quick meal before getting on another boat on the Vietnam side. This boat had a really nice and friendly guide named San. Clint started chatting with her and by the end of the boat trip and arrival in Chau Doc San had invited us out for Karaoke later that night.

We checked into a great, clean, comfortable room that was included in our 'tour package' but otherwise $6/night...probably the best room I'd stayed in during my time in SE Asia up to that point, certainly for $6. We caught a rickshaw driver to take us to a local Pho noodle soup place, where for $1 each we got a big bowl of beef noodle soup(it would turn out to be one of the best I had in Vietnam) plus a Coke. Not too shabby.

After dinner we hooked up with San and a Danish couple also from the boat and we went to the house of two kids that San is tutoring in English and we all practiced English together. From there we headed to Karaoke. We got a private room with our own Karaoke system and San and her brother lead off with Vietnamese song. It took me a while to get up the nerve but I finally decided to give 'Benny and the Jets' a shot...what a mistake. I quickly realized that I knew little more than the chorus and totally butchered the rest, trying to rapidly speak them as they flashed on the screen. At least Clint got some good video of it and I still managed to score an 83! We spent a couple of hours at the karaoke and all really got into it by the end of the night. The Danish girl turned out to have a great voice and I was really surprised at how San and her brother knew the words to many American songs that I had never even heard of. I also noticed that the Vietnamese love the echo effect on the microphone.

The following day we concluded our 'tour' with a visit to a local 'cham minority village' where they weave and sell things, a swing by the local mosque, and a stop at a floating fish farm, and then it was back on the bus to head up to Saigon.

Photos: Chau Doc


After dinner and the New Years celebration we were walking back to our guest house along the main riverside street and chatting when all of a sudden I felt my camera being pulled from my shoulder. I turned around immediately and started running and yelling after the thief. First I followed him through traffic and to the other side of the street and almost as soon as we'd crossed he dashed back into the traffic and to the first side, again Clint and I followed with little to no look in either direction. Clint and I must have been gaining because suddenly I saw my camera case fly up and hit the ground in front of me and send my camera bouncing along the sidewalk. Luckily, everything was still there and aside from a few new dents and scratches the camera wasn't damaged. The experience certainly got the adrenaline pumping.

We spent the rest of the night cooling down and playing cards and the following morning caught the Mekong boat that we'd meant to take the day before.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Penom Penh Redux

Clint and I got back to Penom Penh and got a room at the 'Okay' guest house, spent the day seeing the inner-city sites, the palace and national museum, both of which were what you might expect. I ended up spending most of the museum time sitting on a bench in the garden observing museum goers and the lotus ponds. The palace was somewhat interesting, with lots of buddha statues that had been taken and buried in the forest during the Khmer Rouge, as well as a 'silver pagoda' whose floor consisted of 3000+ tiles made entirely of silver, each weighing ~1-2kgs.

We had planned to catch a boat down the Mekong River the following day but I woke with a start that morning, just 30mins before departure, with the realization that my Vietnam visa wasn't valid for another day. So instead we stayed another day in Penom Penh mostly lazing about, and had planned to spend all day that way but were convinced by an enterprising young rickshaw driver to go down to the Wat Penom to celebrate the Cambodian New Year. We had been aware that it was 'new year' weekend but had been surprised at how quiet things were, and had decided it was more of a family time.

From the driver's description it sounded like the only people that would be down at the wat were the small group of loners that didn't have any family in town that they could visit, so we were a bit surprised when we arrived and the park was packed with people, young, old and everyone in between. Similar to other Asian and Indian celebrations, for New Years the Cambodians throw baby powder and water on each other as part of the celebrations; needless to say it only took about 5 minutes for Clint and Ito get our first dousing of powder. Our rickshaw driver had come into the park with us to show us around and he quickly had us buy two bottles of powder to join in on the dispensing.

At first I was a bit skittish about getting powdered and doing any powdering but that soon wore off and before long we were both fairly well covered in powder and doing our fair bit of dispensing. Apparently this powdering has been a tradition for a long time but this year the government was trying to discourage it, we never found out why exactly. At one point a police officer came up with a sour look and snatched the bottle of powder out of my hand and threw it in the garbage; it was at this point that our driver decided to tell us that the powdering was 'not allowed' this year.

During our walking around Clint braved to try a friend cricket and I decided to give cockroach a shot, I have to say that it was better than the cricket, more crunchy but not as salty.

Photos: Penom Penh

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Angkor Wat

The day after Clint's arrival we caught the 6hr bus up to Siem Reap to see the renowned Angkor Wat temples, spending most of the day in transit. The next day we were up at 4:30am to make it to main temple in time for sunrise, which was anticlimactic thanks to a few rain clouds but worth it none-the-less. As the sky lightened and the rain began to fall we ducked into the and spent a couple of hours wandering the corridors, exploring the various rooms, climbing stairs, and staying dry. Despite the large number of tourists the temple was so large that it was fairly easy to find secluded spots away from the masses.

At such an early hour we hadn't really thought about the possibility of rain and so were without rain jackets when the downpour started. It was a bit prohibitive to our site seeing at first but we were thankful for it later as it kept the heat of the day at bay. Of the 20 or so temples (a number I vaguely remember and could be making up) in the area we managed to squeeze in a good 5 or so. The temples were absolutely amazing with the standouts being the Bayon temple (my favorite), with over 100 giant heads carved into the temple and the 'Tomb Raider' temple (where the movie was filmed apparently)which has been largely been overrun with large trees growing from the walls. We had planned to spend sunrise to sunset temple viewing but by 2pm were fairly well exhausted and headed back into town.

Feeling tired and achy Clint suggested we get a massage, so we found a small place and each threw down $6 for an hour long massage. I have to say that after my massage in India I was a bit disappointed; the massage felt as if hundreds of crabs were clawing at me and all I could think was 'how can people think this is enjoyable? surely no one does'... of course afterward Clint's first words were of how amazingly good that massage felt.

Photos: Angkor Wat

Penom Penh

After heading back from the island to Penom Penh I rendezvoused with my buddy Clint. We hit the ground running and on the first day spent the afternoon sightseeing . First we drove to the 'killing fields', a morbid site but one that I admit I felt fairly desensitized to. At one point our guide showed us a tree where soldiers of the Khmer Rouge would smash babies head's to kill them; it's a strange experience going as a 'tourist' to a place where people were killed en masse, one gets caught between wondering if being there and being aware of what happened is of importance and that I 'should know' by seeing it or if it's commercializing and in so doing trivializing the tragedy.

From the killing fields we stopped at the Stung Treng aka S-21, an old school turned prison that was notorious during the genocide for torture and killings and from which a lot of people were transferred to the killing fields. Another depressing site, mostly of rooms containing old rusted beds where prisoners were held or photographs of what went on there. We tried watching a documentary about the site but heat and fatigue caught up with us, so we called it a day.

Photos: Penom Penh

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Cambodian Coast - Bamboo Island

Before Clint showed up I decided I needed to rest up a bit for the flurry of tourist activity that he was going to want to do. To that end I decided to head straight out of Penom Penh the day after my arrival and down to the southern coast and ended up at the small coastal town of Sihounakville. I stayed in my $8 oceanside bungalow for two days but decided that even this wasn't relaxed enough for me and so I caught a boat to Bamboo Island, an hours ride away. Bamboo island turned out to be just what I needed; there are only two sets of 10 bungalows each, one on each side of the island...nice and remote/rustic but still with a great restaurant serving good food.

I was planning on doing nothing but resting in a hammock for a few days but my second day there I was surprised by Vered and Chris who I'd traveled through Laos with but had separated from a few days before when they headed up to Angkor Wat. Our time was pretty simple, for the next few days all we did was lay on the beach, snorkel (I finally got to test out my underwater camera case), chat, and eat. By the time I headed back to Penom Penh to pick up Clint from the airport I was energized and ready for tourism.

Photos: Bamboo Island

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Latest books

I have managed to make my way through a few more books, but will confess I'm unmotivated to write any half-hearted reviews, but I will say that they were all entertaining and worth the read. Click the links for more details:

Pakse, the Four Thousand Islands, and in to Cambodia

After five days in Vang Vieng we decided to head south, skipping Vientienne (the capital) and heading straight down to Pakse, a 14+hr bus ride that included a 4hr breakdown in the middle of the night. Pakse wasn't much to speak of, besides hot. When we finally arrived it was boiling and we stopped at the first guest house we came to. Half of the group quickly decided to head out the next morning for the 'Four Thousand Islands' further south. Chris, Vered, and I decided to stick out one full day in Paske and spent the day exploring two nearby waterfalls that were amazing. No one else was there and we hiked and swam the day away.

The day after our waterfall adventure we followed the others down to the 'Four Thousand Islands' which are literally thousands of big and small islands near the Cambodian border in the widest part of the Mekong river. I had been planning to stay in the islands for for several days but the heat was stifling. The first day was spent swimming in the river, which felt like a warm bath, getting fried by the sun and laying in a hammock. Again, the others decided to quickly move on. Not to to be undone Chris and I decided to stay another full day and spent it cruising heavy, vintage bikes around the island and taking a boat ride out to a rock in the middle of the scorching heat in an attempt to catch a sight of the rare fresh water irrawady dolphins that inhabit that part of the Mekong. I can say that we caught glimpses of far off sprays of water but might have been looking at the Loch Ness monster. Despite the oppressive heat we made a full day of it, but early the next day hopped another 14hr bus into Cambodia. After three fun filled weeks of traveling together we split in Penom Penh; Chris heading up to see the magnificent Angkor Wat and I heading down to the coast to spend a few days at the beach before my buddy Clint arrives and he and I hit the Cambodia tourist circuit.

Photos: Pakse, Four Thousand Islands