Happy Halloween To You

Happy Halloween!
Yesterday was a mixed bag. First I went to the backpacker ghetto, Khao San Road, to check it out. Had a great Spinach and cheese omelet at a place recommended by Nancy Chandler’s guide (I strongly recommend the guide if you go to Bangkok), though the service was lackadaisical. Sidewalks were crammed with cheap T-shirts and other hippie garb, and this was the first place tuk tuk drivers offered ridiculously low prices to give a tour (which means they take you to overpriced places to shop). Had enough of this so I went to the opposite extreme–in the middle of Downpour #1– and took the ferry back to the sky train, en route seeing a 12 foot long bloated snake corpse in the water.
I then went to Siam Paragon mall–air con and some very swanky shops, including a car dealership (jaguar, of course), and Siam Sea World, the largest aquarium in SE Asia, which was pricey but cool. What I loved best was having lunch that featured specials by the renowned gourmet Thai cooking school, the Blue Elephant. Had the best vegetarian green curry ever! Paid about $9 total, which is more expensive by Thai standards but cheaper than eating at the Blue Elephant restaurant. I have long suspected that guidebook writers keep a few secrets to themselves and I happened on one–a gourmet foods marketplace at the bottom of the mall! Went to another popular mall, MBK, to check it out but all I saw was cheap junk. On the way back to the hotel, a thunderstorm hit, and despite my umbrella (which works better to keep you shaded from the sun, not rain), got pretty wet. I think my nice Sketchers were ruined in the process. At that point I called it a day and settled to watch the news.
Now I’m off to ship some stuff back, then onward to Kathmandu.

Random Musings

Hi All,
The last couple of days has been low-key, which I’ve needed for rest, reflection, and shopping. I’ve gotten some uninterrupted sleep, and I think I’m kicking this cold. The first night I was in Bangkok I was awakened by periodic booms. At first I thought it was fireworks, but then it occurred to me it could be gunfire (there are political protests currently in Thailand and Bangkok, but not near where I’m staying or hanging around). I peeked out my curtains and saw the people next to me were looking out over their balcony (not likely to be hit when you are 54 floors up). I didn’t hear anything on the news, so I’m not sure what it was.
Interestingly, three days after we crossed into Cambodia, a border dispute erupted again between Thailand and Cambodia (stemming from where Preah Vihear, an ancient temple sitting on the border that is considered an UNESCO World Heritage Site), in which I think 2 soldiers were killed and hostages were taken. I was far away in Phnom Pehn when it happened, although we passed a military convoy that day.
The Lebua at State Tower is very nice, a bit precious though. Had a drink at Skybar and dinner at the Sirocco (both at Lebua) which has incredible view of Bangkok. Both charged obscene prices, even by Western standards, for the privilege. If you get to Bangkok, I would recommend the drink at Skybar. The food is that typical overwrought frou-frou stuff that tastes fine, but is portioned for a small child.
On being an American: As an American, I am sensitive to the reputation we somehow acquired abroad for behaving badly. And while I’ve seen a few examples of it when I have traveled, I’ve seen plenty of examples of boorish behavior from other nationals. For example, in a hotel, a woman at the counter was raising her voice and having a mini-meltdown. My co-travelers commented that she was “not American”. At the One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi, which has stood since 1074, a Japanese tourist shoved and elbowed her way to the top of the incline and took over the worship spot. That she behaved such in the presence of a being perceived to be god-like didn’t occur to her. One of my co-travelers on the Vietnam leg of the journey was a spoiled British girl who threw a fit when the hotel laundry service “ruined” her nice white skirt. Why you would bring your nice things on a trip and expect no problems with laundering that is not associated with a 5-star accommodation is beyond me. And two travelers, the aforementioned Brit and an Irish woman, often wore mini-skirts and skimpy “singlets” (camisole tops), which is considered big time slut-wear in SE Asia (and complain that they are seen/treated as sex objects). When do these other nations own up to their behavior?
BTW, when I was asked wehre I was from in both Cambodia and Vietnam, few knew where Seattle was.
“Happy-ness” in SE Asia: If you are asked how happy would you like your food, it means how much marijuana would you like in it. Personally I prefer my food unhappy, thank you very much. A “Happy house” in Vietnam is a toilet. Sometimes it’s a squatty potty and not happy at all.
What I dislike about traveling: Not being with my husband, loneliness, racking up dirty laundry, heat/humidity and the perpetual sour smell of sweat, a lack of TP in most places (I carry my own), being treated like a walking ATM, distrust of shopkeepers/taxi driver-types.
I’m off to Nepal in a few days, will give you more updates then.

Hue, Above, and Beyond

Xinchao/Sawadee ka,
I’m back in Bangkok, having concluded my Cambodian/Vietnamese adventures. I can hardly believe how fast it has gone. I’ve done just about every mode of transportation and saw all sorts of stuff. Most of the time, the experiences were fabulous. Made a few new friends to boot. Let me bring ya’ll up to speed on the last week:
The last week has been very fast-paced, and that’s why I’ve been so quiet. Spent a few days in Hoi An, formerly known as Faifo. Lovely quaint town with tailor shops galore and tourists to boot. Spent almost 2 days in Hue, the former capital of Nam. The highlight of that was a motorcycle ride, driven by “Minh the Merciless” through alley ways and countryside. Also took a brief cruise on the Perfume River. From there took the Reunification Express to Hanoi, a 13 hour trip. Spent the night with some folks I didn’t care much for, but at least they weren’t smoking and chatting all night like two of my fellow travelers experienced. Hanoi has broad tree lined boulevards, designed by the French, but the Soviet influence of propaganda billboards is noted.
The absolute highlight was an overnight cruise on Halong Bay, which, in spite of the droves of tourist boats, manages to maintain an otherworldly beauty–limestone karsts in an emerald sea. I kayaked (my first time) around about an hour, and there were places you could hear nothing but birds, almost as if time didn’t exist. Didn’t get pictures since I didn’t bring an underwater camera. The food was great, although much of it was fried. Had my own cabin, which was great, except it was right by the kitchen. At Midnight was awakened by a weird creaking, when I went to investigate, I heard scurrying of rats on top of and behind the wall of my cabin. None were in the room, thank goodness.
I’m in Bangkok for a few days, recuperating at the Lebua at State Tower (check it out on line). This place is more luxurious than anticipated, and it feels like the Ritz–the price I’m paying would easily be double in the US or Europe. I am going to enjoy a drink at the renowned Sky Bar and then a Mediterranean dinner at the World’s highest al fresco restaurant.
More reflections will follow. Hope all is well with you–Aimee

The foods of SE Asia

Onto a lighter and tastier topic: The interesting/good foods I’ve had occasion to enjoy during my trip.
Fruits are in season, including mangoes, pineapples, dragonfruit,watermelon, and all are delectably sweet. The fruit shakes made here with Mango and Pineapple are particularly good, though the hotel served me a fruit shake this am that looked like papaya and tasted like cucumber. Locals also eat unripened guavas or mangoes with a chili salt for dipping–rather like a jicama or granny smith apple with chili salt, but a good way to break a sweat and get you to drink more water.
Veggies and herbs are plentiful and fresh–a local favorite is Morning Glory, which is great stir-fried with garlic and sesame oil. Pumpkin is used as a dessert, caramelized and very sweet.
The French influence is still present in Cambodia and Vietnam, where the baguettes are just as crusty on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside as you’d find in Paris.
Had a wonderful BBQ pork sandwich in a baguette–pork grilled right in front of you, so no flies get on it. Served in a crusty baguette with mint, cucumber, carrot, onion.
Soups are a speciality here–the best meal of the cooking class was sweet and sour soup, which featured fresh pineapple, pepper, and chicken. Tom Yum Soup with luscious coconut milk and mushrooms. The Vietnamese soup here is Pho (“fer”), which is beef noodle soup–had a bowl at a restaurant where Bill Clinton had a bowl (that wasn’t why I stopped there, but it figures if a VIP eats somewhere, the food must be good). Had a rich beef broth scented with star anise. At the same place had one of the best chicken curries I’ve ever had, with a crunchy baguette.
Banana pancakes are ever present, and I enjoyed some one day that were served with chocolate sauce. Who says you can’t have chocolate for breakfast (or “Brekkie”, as the Australians call it)? Also have enjoyed stir-fried noodles with veggies for brekkie, and have sampled rice porridge, or congee as well (tho that’s more Chinese than Viet or Cambodian specialty).
The coffees here are strong and flavorful, typically served with condensed milk (hopefully not from China). Lotus tea is a licorice-flavored refreshing drink, as is fresh lime juice (great in the heat!). I’ve tried a few local beers on my travels as well–I particularly liked Anchor (pronounced “Ann-Chore”), but Saigon Beer is OK. I hear Biere Larue is good, so I’ll have to have some, too.
I think I need to eat now.

Vietnam happenings

Second day in Saigon we went to the Cu Chi tunnels, an extensive network used by the VC that at one point went to the Cambodian border and out to the Mekong River. Went into the tunnels–there was a point you could go 1200 feet, but I could only do about 600–imagine being bent way over (and I’m 5’1.5″) going through a dark, airless, humid, and hot passageway. I’m not normally claustrophobic, but I felt it this time. There were people who stayed in the tunnels for weeks during bombings. The area around Cu Chi is jungle-like, with the heat/humidity to boot. Tourists can also buy bullets to fire at targets, so the sound of gunfire added to the “atmosphere”. The area also featured a few craters made by B-52 bombs. They had a small section on “normal life” activities, such as making rice wrappers and rice wine–I tried the latter and spit it out–tasted like vaguely rice-flavored grain alcohol with a splash of gasoline.
Afterwards we had an official cyclo tour of Saigon, which was better than the “psycho” tour of the previous day. We then stopped at the War Remnants museum for about an hour. Two cliches come to mind about the nature of the exhibits: 1. History is written by the conquerors, and 2. Truth is the first casualty of war. The Vietnamese government painted the war as mainly Americans versus Vietnamese, instead of showing it as a civil war. No mention of how the Vietnamese hurt each other or how unpopular the war was in the US. They had an exhibit by war photographers, which was interesting. The best exhibit were drawings of kids on war consequences and hopes for peace. The next paragraph might be hard for some of you to read.
Many of the exhibits were no less intense than those featured at Tuol Sleng. Also included were very graphic pictures of women/children huddling together before they were executed, people who were burned/blasted beyond recognition of individual features, or in some cases of whether they were human at one point. An exhibit on kids who were exposed to Agent Orange and their various disabilities/disfigurements was also presented. One American woman commented to me offhandedly that our government told its citizens that Agent Orange was virtually harmless to people. A few people were crying. I just couldn’t look anymore. No question our side committed some atrocities, but we suffered too. During the visit, there was a downpour, which was apt (“A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”).
The day ended on an up note–had a drink on the 23rd floor of the Sheraton, and watched the sunset. Next day flew to Danang and made our way to Hoi An, a.k.a. Faifo in the days of the Portuguese. Hoi An is much less frantic than Saigon, and very cute, but touristy. You can get some deals here, but maybe not as great as you’d think. Took a cooking class last night–the food wasn’t as spicy/tasty as I had hoped, but I learned a few tricks and have a few ideas to try out at home ;
Today went to the My Son ruins, a World heritage site, built in the 7th century. Some were damaged during bombings, but the remaining ones are still spectacular. Tomorrow we’re off to Hue for a couple days, then on to Hanoi.
The heat and humidity persist despite moving North–I wonder if I will ever be totally dry again.
Hope all is well with you–Aimee

Cambodia and onward

We spent two nights in Phnom Pehn, and that was enough for me. Siem Reap, although touristy, was less impoverished and desparate. Although I was at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek for a few hours, I have been slowly digesting what I saw and learned that day. Had a “discussion” with a couple of my travel compatriots over the guilt/innocence of the soldiers who implemented Pol Pot’s orders. As I mentioned before, people were sent to the fields to work long hours to grow rice and other crops, which were sent to the Chinese. The workers typically were allowed a few grains of rice a day in a watery gruel. If you wanted to eat better, you snuck in some grasshoppers and other insects (which could not be cooked, or it would garner unwanted attention from the guards). If you took a piece of fruit or vegetable, you could be killed. If you wanted to eat well, you joined the KR. Many kids were also separated from their parents. Combine the abolishment of Buddhism and Christianity (the only religion allowed was “Angkar” the name of Pol Pot’s government) with the loss of family structure and upbringing, hormones, and desire to impress their peers and those higher up on the food chain, and the killing machines were in place. And yet, I’m not convinced that those who did terrible things to people that went above and beyond orders should just be labelled as victims and let off the hook. Religion or not, there are universal codes of conduct. Tell someone whose mother was “raped for fun” by one of these soldiers that he was a victim, and see how they react. My compatriots and I do agree that the bulk of the blame goes to Pol Pot and his gang.
As for Cambodia itself, the people were very warm and friendly and many had a good sense of humor, in spite of what they had been through (almost half the population of Cambodia died of execution, torture, disease, and/or starvation). There isn’t one Cambodian alive who didn’t lose a relative to the genocide. The presence of many NGOs and such has helped improve the lives of many Cambodians, but overpopulation, disease, and rampant poverty aren’t going away any time soon. Vietnam helped “liberate” Cambodia from the KR regime, but they are profitting from Cambodia’s tourism (they run it) and run a lot of operations behind the scenes. Despite the depressing aspects of Cambodia, I was glad I came here.
Now to Vietnam: we took a speedboat down the Tonle Sap River to the Mekong, all of which was flooded due to heavy rainfall. The border crossing was a bit of a trip–they had a tough time mooring the boat and I thought some of the baggage was going to end up in the water! The checkpoint is in a rural area, so there are dogs and chickens, and a few water buffalo nearby. We then went to Chau Doc, and took a motorcycle ride to Mount Sam, where we saw awesome views of Vietnm and Cambodia. Had a tasty Chicken in lemongrass dinner at the riverfront, where a family of black cats lived.
Yesterday we took a bus to Saigon–took us about 6.5 hours, due to congestion from a traffic accident. Most people in Saigon use motorbikes to get around–they are small, fuel efficient, and manuever well around the traffic. That said, when you cross the street you are playing chicken. Saw Notre Dame Cathedral and the Reunification Palace. Today we took cyclos to the Jade Pagoda and another temple in Chinatown. Vietnamese practice a different form of Buddhism than the Cambodians and Thais do. The temples wre beautiful and atmospheric. The cyclo tour was fine, but like taxi drivers everywhere we were screwed way over in the price, which cast a damper on the rest of the morning. It is hotter than hell outside, so I’m taking a break in an internet cafe, since the hotel employees were busy with the one at the hotel. Tomorrow am off to see the War Remnants museum, but first some lunch and a bit of shopping.
All for now–Aimee

Notes on Tuol Sleng

We got to Phnom Pehn on Wednesday afternoon after a six hour bus trip from Siem Reap. Originally, we were to take a plane, but the tour group decided–without telling us directly before the tour started–that it changed the transport to public bus. At least the bus was air considitioned, no one sat on my lap, and no kids or farm animals roamed the aisles. The seats were a step up in comfort from those on a plane. To boot, the bus ahd a DVD player, which played pop tunes in Khmer (which are just as shitty as their western counterparts). Hotel overlooks the Tonle Sap River, which moves quickly due to the heavy rains in the region.
Phnom Pehn is a bit like India lite–chaotic traffic (lots of motorbikes, because gas is so expensive), beggars, and tuk tuk(motorcycles that tote 2-4 people in a canopied cab) drivers everywhere. You barely step out of a tuk tuk when someone approahces, “Tuk tuk?” You have to have a sense of humor about it because the poverty and desperation is awful. China has a lot of sweatshops here. And the exploitation of children for selling items, including sex, is all over. One of the first signs you see at the border entering Cambodia is one warning visitors that it is a crime to have sex with children.
Yesterday am we toured Tuol Sleng prison, one of many in the country where enemies of the Khmer Rouge were tortured and executed. Our tour guide, a man a year younger than I am, has the perpetual look of sorrowful resignation. He was one of 8 kids, who lost a few siblings and a father to malaria and starvation. His mother is remarried and has a new family. When the KR took over, they separated kids from their parents. He and his sibs were told to tell KR soldiers that his parents were dead.
Some history: Within hours of takeover, the KR evacuated the citizens of Phnom Pehn, who were subsequently sent into the fields to work or were killed.They lured educated people by initially offering jobs, then sending them for execution. They executed anyone who would challenge Pol Pot’s ideas. Pol Pot, who had been a monk for 2 years before he rose to lead the KR, abolished Buddhism, convenently killing another group that would speak out about his atrocities. 1.7 million died from executions, and it included Americans, Thais, Australians, Laos, Vietnamese–they weren’t allowed to leave because they knew too much. In Pol Pot’s vision of returning to Year Zero, he abolished religion and the family unit. Anyone who spoke out or crossed him was killed, along with their families. People were sent into the fields to work, and the food was sent to China in exchange for arms. Starvation was rampant. Only soldiers received decent rations, so many young men joined up in order to eat.
When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, after KR killed some Vietnamese, the KR executed 14 remaining prisoners–7 others survived, including a painter named Vann Nath, who later returned to paint images of what he remembered as a prisoner (he is also featured in a documentatry called S-21, where he confronts his captors). Tuol Sleng features some of these gruesome works.
We then went to Choeng Ek, one of thousands of killing fields across Cambodia, which is 20-30 minute drive from PP. Choeng Ek used to be a Chinese cemetary. It features a stupa with over 8000 skulls that were retrieved in the many mass graves in this area. The rains washed up more pieces of clothing and bones on the paths, which I saw, including a piece of jawbone and human teeth. Our guide didn’t blink an eye.
Pol Pot and his goons went unpunished for their crimes, with many former high ranking KR defecting to the government that overthrew KR. Pol Pot kept a seat on the UN for years afterwards, and was supported by multiple Western nations (including US) because its enemies were Vietnam, Soviet Union, and China at the time.
After that morning, we went to eat lunch at Friends, a restaurant that supports street youth and trains them for the hospitality industry. I ahd the best curried pumpkin soup ever. Then went to the National Museum, located on beautiful grounds, and the Royal Palace. The wealthof the palace was otherwordly when there is so much poverty outside. Gold everwhere, silver tiles in one part, and a couple diamond encrusted Buddhas–not exactly the “Middle Path”.
Today we are taking a cruise on teh Tonle Sap River, which will turn into the Mekong–will end up in Chau Doc, Vietnam, tonight.
Peace Out–Aimee

Angkor W(h)at!

Hi All,
These last two days we’ve been exploring the Angkor Wat complex in NW Cambodia near Siem Reap (BTW, Dith Pran of The Killing Fields was born here); I think there are over 40 temples, but we saw about 4-5. This am saw the sun rise over the main temple, which was pretty awesome. Other temples included Ta Prohm (the “Tomb Raider temple”, which was gorgeous), Bantey Srei (sandstone has carvings from diamonds), and Preah Khan (“sacred Sword”). The temples were started under King Jayanarama; The initial religion here in Cambodia was Hinduism, but temples had ëvolved” to reflect Buddhist influence. Got some great shots.
Have enjoyed trying Khmer food, which is influenced by Indian and Thai, but not nearly as spicy or flavorful. However, I did try a dish that featured Cambodian ants (yes, ants)(crunchy, but tasty). Have enjoyed drinking juice right from a young coconut, as well as a fish curry. Last night we had dinner at a Cambodian family’s home, and enjoyed the home cooked feast of potato curry, chicken with lemongrass, tom yum soup, stir fried veggies, and pork with noodles. We were entertained by the kids, who are the same everywhere. 25% of Cambodia’s population is under 10.
Tonight we are going to have dinner and watch traditional Apsara dancing, then are oof to Phnom Pehn in the am. I’m going to shower, swim, and do laundry first.
Things I’m glad I brought: Ultrathon 12 hour sweat-proof insect cream, (no insect has even tried a nibble!), respiratory masks (for polluted/dusty streets), DEET spray (yes, it’s nasty but a great precaution against creepy crawlies),TP roll.
Things I wish I had brought: a functional hand held fan, a journal, a toothbrush (fortunately the hotel had one).
Take care and more later–Aimee

A few notes on my fellow travellers

I am travelling with a group of 11 other people on my journey through Cambodia and Vietnam. Most are in their 20-30s, and are from Australia, though one woman is from Ireland and a young couple are from Sweden. I am the “token”American. There are two other nurses, two MDs, a paramedic, a nursing assistant, a journalist, a child care worker, a shopkeeper are among those in our group. They are nice people and quite a few of them are much more well traveled than I am or probably will be. Not surprisingly, most are very well-informed on the history/politics of the region, though I am holding my own, thank you. I’ve noticed on this trip and others I encounter far more Europeans and Australians than Americans. Some of that I think is that Americans generally have less vacation time, but we are also spoiled with a beautiful, diverse country. There are more than a few that feel it is unnecessary to venture beyond our borders. But travelling to other places is important–it opens your eyes into how others live in a way no book or TV show can explain. Although the ügly American” (don’t know how an umlaut was substituted for a parens) does exist (I’ve seen it in person), travellers from other countries are just as guilty of being ignorant or disrespectful of local customs and traditions. If you do travel, you are essentially an ambassador for your country, and should conduct yourself accordingly.
Enough of the speeches–I’m off for breakfast, then Angkor Wat.