Obviously our thirst for the east has not yet ceased, as once again we find ourselves exploring behind the bamboo curtain of Asia. Starting off our travels in Cambodia, it becomes quickly apparent that while Canada & Cambodia may start and end with the same letters; undoubtedly this is where similarities end!
Culture and chaos co-exist in Cambodia, reminding us with a jolt that so many here still fight for survival daily. Being one of the most war-torn places on earth, its people are still trying to recover from the poisonous past of Pol Pot, whose murderous Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for the 1975-1979 genocide of almost one quarter of the country’s population.
Our joyless no-star hotel room’s air conditioner is asthmatic, and we’re under siege by vampirish mosquitos bent on sucking our veins dry; so after a night trying to unleash violence upon the pests, we complain to staff before going out for breakfast. Returning to the room, Christine opens the bathroom door and lets out a squeal with zeal. Eight cockroaches large enough to trip over are doing the backstroke; with antenna and legs flailing in the air during their death throes! Staff ‘sprayed’ with what must be lethal chemicals; potent enough to eradicate the entire cockroach clan! With an aversion to any residue from the determination of their extermination, we bolt from the roach-ridden wretchedness and head to the nearby Socheata Hotel.
The 12th century Bayon Temple beckons, and after cycling out to it in the dark while the streets are still lean, we wait as daylight stealthily creeps across the forest. Our patience is rewarded, as the first light reveals a multitude of enormous stone faces serenely smiling down at us from atop the temple’s towers. The other bonus is having the delight of climbing about this crumbling paradise with nobody else around. Dating back to 1190 AD, the temple is known as the ‘Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia’ due to the 216 calm stone faces that silently harbor a cache of events witnessed over the past centuries.
Our next stop is Ta Phrom, the jungle temple of ‘Tomb Raider’ fame. Clambering about these jungle ruins, spectacular in their decay, we’re privy to a citation-worthy ear crime courtesy of obsessively chirruping cicadas. Suddenly out of nowhere two entrepreneurial little kids appear, and for a few Cambodian Riel, lead us to several intriguing spots camouflaged by vegetation that we may never have found on our own.
French archaeologists uncovered this 9th century temple in 1947 after it was buried in jungle vegetation for 400 years. What makes it so unique are the 600 year old kapok trees and strangler figs, whose muscular roots have been silently stalking the temple ruins with the patience of centuries. Spreading up to a hundred meters from the tree trunk, the thirsty roots have patiently encroached, entwined, entrapped, embraced, ensnarled, and entombed the temple like the wrinkled arthritic tentacles of a giant petrified octopus devouring its prey. The awesomeness is absolutely spellbinding; even without Angelina Jolie.
Leaving Ta Phrom we’re spotted by a scruffy sprinkle of kids selling souvenirs, and trying to avoid them is like trying to walk on our ears; it’s just not going to happen. Tugging at our heartstrings, as well as our shirts, they cling to us like hair on a bar of soap, with one forlorn looking little girl trailing behind us like a little duckling, still imploring us to buy something long after her friends have gone on. In our pack is a new teddy bear we acquired in Singapore, and by mutual nod, Christine and I agree it should belong to her.
An amazing transformation happens to somebody’s destitute daughter, as we pull the bear out of our bag and give it to her. The sorrowful frown vanishes, and her face illuminates with an adoring smile branded into our brains forever. Hundreds of languages exist in the world, but a smile speaks them all. After a couple of photos together, she excitedly runs off down the dirt path, tightly clutching her new best friend.
Next stop is the architectural wonder of Angkor Wat; the largest religious monument ever built, and having something like 1,300 candles on its birthday cake! We’re gaping like a couple of goldfish with lockjaw to learn that sprawling Angkor, discovered buried in the jungle in 1860, contains more stone than in all the pyramids of Egypt combined; and in a truly bamboozling feat, the massive stones weighing up to 1.5 tons each were floated on bamboo rafts to the site from quarries at the base of Mt.Kulen, some 37 km away!
Climbing the temple’s skinny and near vertical steps, we escape the assault of the baking Angkorian sun by slipping inside, joining monks draped in bright orange robes that contrast dramatically with the somber grey of the ancient stones. An old woman is sitting on the floor with a cute little girl, so I reach into my bag for one of the little finger puppets I’ve brought along as gifts. It’s a toss-up who gets the biggest kick out of it, the child or grandma! The ancientness of this templishious day has been forever etched into our mental hard drives; not dissimilar from the country’s stories etched into the temple’s stones.
Wandering the streets of Siem Reap is a gut-wrenching task as we’re constantly hit on by begging amputees sniffing a payout from the pity of tourists. Cambodia is known as one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, with some 40,000 people having lost limbs in landmine explosions.
Cycling about in the countryside, we pass by bacon-to-be, all trussed up with their trotters in the air on the back of motorcycles. There are also oodles of temples, tiny tykes leading huge water buffalo about by a nose ring, and little school squirts shouting out ‘hallo-goodbye’ and giggling into their hands at their boldness.
Cycling on to Tonle Sap Lake, we follow a muddied multipurpose river functioning as a motorcycle wash, swimming hole, public bath, dishwasher, laundry, municipal sewer, transportation route, and buffalo drinking trough. We lock up our bikes on the lakeshore and boat out to an uncommon floating village; a self-contained community complete with schools, police station, market, restaurants, and even a church!
Another colorful cycling highlight are stunning lotus fields spreading as far as the eye can see, and an old fellow wanders by selling us some of the dried lotus seeds to nibble on. The heat is hotter than a goat’s butt in a pepper patch, and even an old sun-vulture like myself is getting somewhat ‘crispified’. Fortunately I’ve brought along a healthy dose of medicinal rum to help nurse away the sun’s pain!
After our dazzling sojourn in the Kingdom of Cambodia, we hop across the border by bus into Thailand and on to the relaxing seaside town of Hua Hin, noted for its many restaurants on what used to be squid drying piers back when it was still just a small fishing village. Masticating our way through the culinary delights, I quickly learn the phrase ‘mai ped’, which means ‘easy on the spice buddy’, or something like that; a crucial phrase for my vocabulary since I tend to take a walk on the mild side when it comes to my vittles!
Sitting on our hotel balcony bonding with the sun, I find myself engaged in some shenanigans with a monkey somewhere up in the trees next to us. Every time I start aping it, my simian sidekick barks back an immediate response. Christine is simply shaking her head as if she thinks I should be committed.
Terminating my monkey malarkey, Christine and her ‘upright ape’ travel by boat to Kha Sam Roi Yot National Park. After boating to Laem Sala Beach, edged with an emerald necklace of jungle, we wade ashore and trudge up a steep pockmarked path; dodging a giant Asian centipede that locals call ‘the train’. Where the rock wall is yawning open, we slide inside and climb down into the astounding Phraya Nakon Cave.
Deep within the earth, this jaw-dropping limestone cave has stripes of sunlight flooding in through a large opening where the roof has collapsed. A mini forest reaches for the sky, and stalactites and stalagmites frame a striking temple that, crowned with images of rearing cobras, bathes in the in-flowing sunlight. The ambience is serene, with the dramatic contrast of sunlight and darkness delivering a mystical vibe.
Next up is big bad Bangkok, whose bizarre jaw-crunching full name happens to be the longest in the world; KrungthepMahanakhonAmonRattanakosinMahintharAyutthayaMahadilokPhopNoppharatRatchathaniBuriromUdomratchaniwetMahasathanAmonPimanAwatanSathitSakkathattiyaWitsanukamPrasit. (Translation: Great city of angels, the supreme repository of divine jewels, the great land unconquerable, the grand and prominent realm, the royal and delightful capital city full of nine noble gems, the highest royal dwelling and grand palace, the divine shelter and living place of reincarnated spirits). Whew!
While the sprawling no-holds-barred city is not for the fainthearted, it does guarantee a serious buzz for those who enjoy feeling the pulse of a city injected directly through the jugular. The city brings to mind a line in the lyrics of a Murray Head song; ‘One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble’.
Sauntering along the streets of Chinatown, our sensitive nose hairs are quickly acquainted with scents of chilies, jasmine, roses, diesel, tea, garlic, sewer, incense, coconut, fish, urine, and an assortment of other UFO’s (unidentifiable foul odors). The worst smell of all, however, is that of the dreaded durian; an evil porcupine-like fruit with a stench worse than a sack of threatened skunks. For all those with a nose, there is a very good chance that one good whiff of this botanical wonder is likely to put your lunch on your shoes!
Other dubious edibles on hand include crickets, chicken feet, beetles, bulbous grubs, scorpions, and fried cockroaches. With the repugnant assortment of the creepy, crawly, and crunchy, it certainly seems locals are stepping up to help mitigate the city’s distasteful pest control issues!
The coagulation of Bangkok’s traffic is more or less a 24 hour gridlock, and infested with motorbikes facing off against each other at traffic lights like opposing armies in battle. At the merest hint of the lights turning green, in what looks much like a rehearsed dance sequence, they somehow manage to avoid each other while pirouetting around pedestrians, street vendors, cars, and other rival motorbikes.
While Christine is off throwing money at the merch, I’m on a lone wolf excursion to a bar to drain lunch. Doing my ‘12 ounce curls’ and eyeballing seductive toffee colored dancers twerking hard for their money, I realize that if the gale of erotic energy from these flesh-flaunters’ frenzied fannies could somehow connect to electrodes, it could likely unleash enough power to provide air conditioning for the entire sultry city!
As most already know, prostitution and HIV infection here are at epidemic proportions, so it’s imperative that rubbers be used on every conceivable occasion. In fact, you are silly enough to take the bald-headed gnome for a stroll in the misty forest, you might want to seriously consider wearing a full on wet suit! While on the subject of condoms, we’ve found a most interesting restaurant called ‘Cabbages & Condoms’; which believe it or not, it is appropriately located on a side street between the Planning & Community Development Center and the Non Scalpel Vasectomy Clinic. Implausible; but true!
The romantic courtyard setting under the leafy canopy of a 60 year old tree just oozes ambiance. With chickens strutting about and subtle fairy lights wrapped around towering trees and vines, it makes us temporarily forget we’re in the city. The decor throughout consists of art made from thousands upon thousands of condoms; and fittingly, the name of the bar in the restaurant is ‘The Vasectomy Bar’!
Apparently the owner is seriously focused on family planning, and believing birth control must be as easy as buying vegetables in the market, each meal’s bill is accompanied by two free condoms. In foreign countries our preference is always places that provide a ‘safe’ eating experience, but this ridiculously rubberized restaurant takes things to a whole new level!
Today’s agenda is a visit to Ayutthaya, and its dazzling selection of ancient temples. Sadly, many were ransacked by Burmese armies who beheaded Buddha statues as a way of demonstrating their power. Inexplicitly, one of the Buddha heads survived near a sprouting Banyon tree at Wat Mahathat, and over centuries the tree grew up, safely entwining the fallen Buddha head. Now, held so perfectly among the roots of the massive tree, the iconic image is one of nature’s miracles in the former Thai capital.
Back in the buzz of big bad Bangkok we chuckle at our taxi driver who, despite a slight English impediment, is eager to fill the air with words. Turning towards us, he takes both hands off the wheel and gesturing like a boxer, yells ‘Boxing Sadam’, followed by ‘Bagdad Kaboom’; referring to the current war in Iraq. Donning my glasses so my elder eyes can inspect our map, his head nods up and down like a dashboard bobblehead and he says ‘Ahh, put on you zooms’. Hard to find fault with that one either!
On the way back from dinner, a grubby little snot-dribbler tries to pick my pocket. Luckily, I spot it going down and the twerp scurries away after tasting the back of my hand. Almost being ‘clipped’ on the street I decide it’s time for a legitimate clip. Visiting a barbershop, my hair is cut using scissors and a straight razor, but the girl does a stellar job and I’m flooded with joy to report both my ears and jugular are still intact.
In the World Trade Centre we’re surprised to notice that on the eighth floor they have of all things, an ice-skating rink. We give it a go, but the pathetic rental skates don’t fit, and the blades are about as sharp as a beach ball. Wobbling across the squidish white ice is about as much fun as gnawing on a woolly mammoth, so we put an end to the numb-nuttery and rejoice at the opportunity of stepping back into our Tevas! Hemming and hawing over continuing on to Vietnam, due to their recent SARS outbreak, we finally decide to press on; anxious to check out certain areas missed on our last Vietnam trip back in 2000.
Aware of Hanoi’s airport chaos we’ve arranged for a driver, which enables us to cut a swath through a scrum of parasitic touts trying to attach themselves to us. We end up in a maze of claustrophobic streets in the ‘Old Quarter’ of the thousand year old city that spread out like thirsty bamboo roots.
Paddy-hatted women shuffle by acting as mobile markets, toting heavy baskets balanced on a strip of durable bamboo slung over a shoulder, while boys acting as mobile menus use rhythmic thwacks on their bicycle handlebars to advertise what’s on offer at nearby soup stalls. Old ladies sit on their haunches on street corners functioning as mobile gas stations, holding a funnel and small bottles filled with petrol.
Some of the many streets we visit include; Hang Ma – paper products, including Ghost money to burn for the dead; Hang Mam – fish sauce street; Hang Gai – silk street; Hang Bac – gravestones street; Hang Dao – clothing street; Lo Su – Hat street; Hang Quat – funeral flags and religious objects; Hang Ruoi – Clam Worm street; Don Xuan Street – grubby Wet Foods market with frogs, crabs, eels, snails, etc; and the mysterious Pho Lan Ong – Street of Medicine, with outlandish ingredients including scorpion wine, and the famous snake wine infused with ginseng roots and a large-necked cobra holding a smaller green snake in its mouth. The label on this bottle reads: ‘Real Speciality of Vietnam, Snake Wine. Usage: Rheumatism, Lumbago, and Sweat of Limbs.’ So, if any of you suffer from ‘Sweat of Limbs’, be sure and let me know!
Another place good for a chuckle is the Highway 4 Bar on Hang Tre Street, selling a further array of bizarre Vietnamese moonshine to cure any and all ailments. Below (other than bracketed comments) are samples of the evil potions descriptions copied directly from the menu, incorrect spelling and all:
GOAT’S BALLS – Dam Duong Hoac strengthens your virility and is also used against backache. People discovered its property by watching frolicking mountain goats who regularly dine on the leaves of this bush. Hence, goat testicles are added to the potion. (BEEN THERE DONE THAT ON THE LAST TRIP!)
GHEKKO – a precious blend of ghekko and indigenous flower stem. Natural antibiotic and stimulant effecting the male body parts, the respitory system, and your nerves. Its properties are further catalyzed by a precious medicinal plant. (I PREFER MY GHEKKOS ON THE ROOM WALL RATHER THAN MY STOMACHE WALL!)
CROW – a pair of black coucal birds (one male and one female) give this potion a strong meaty flavour, strengthening, and cures backace. (THEY DON’T EVEN REMOVE THE FRIGGIN’ FEATHERS!)
FIVE SNAKES – five different poisonous snakes makes this potion invigorating and strengthening. (OH GREAT, SCALY VIAGRA IN A BOTTLE!)
GHEKKO, SEAHORSE, STARFISH & GINSENG – This liquor is a sublime combination of the invigorating characteristics of various marine creatures (seahorse and starfish) and the reptilian ghekko. This liquor is the ultimate thrust for men. (DONTCHA JUST LOVE A GOOD THRUSTING GROG!)
Oh Lord, how I’m missing a nice mellow bottle of Pinot Noir or Zinfandel right about now!
Any time of the day or night these roads without rules are a risk, with the endless traffic a mean melee of movement resembling an ant’s nest in full panic. In Canada we drive on the right, while in Europe they drive on the left; here in Vietnam they respect both customs!
This is especially concerning when using a spooky contraption called a ‘cyclo’ for transport. It’s like sitting in a mobile lawn chair with some poor bastard in a pea-green pith helmet pedaling his guts out behind you, while pointing you directly at the oncoming traffic. Its only shock absorbers are called passengers, who at any given moment have reasonably good odds of becoming somebody’s grille ornament and wearing the ‘wooden overcoat’. Yes, it’s never a bad idea to bring along extra underwear when traveling in Vietnam!
Bicycles and motorbikes are ludicrously laden with mind-boggling cargo piled beyond belief; including building supplies, furniture, plate glass, livestock, entire families, as well as a host of other paraphernalia implausible to move. I have admiration fathoms deep for this ‘nation of innovation’, and when it comes to the ‘Outrageous Two Wheeled Cargo Options’ event in the next All Asian Transport Olympics, look for the Vietnamese to be the clear winners; sweeping gold medals in both the artistic and technical categories!
Hoan Kiem Lake is Hanoi’s centerpiece, and a hive of early activity. By 4 a.m., badminton, running, and volleyball are all underway. Alongside, sprightly seniors perform their daily Tai Chi ritual, which is quite admirable, given many are more wrinkled than an elephant’s scrotum and have fewer teeth than fingers!
While we enjoy the sun, women here to do their best to avoid it, as pale skin is most desirable in Vietnam. Before hopping on her motorbike a woman will often pull on gloves reaching her shoulders, don her conical hat, wrap a scarf over her nose and mouth, and then add a pair of sunglasses to complete the disguise. Sun protected indeed, and as an extra bonus, fully prepared should they acquire the urge to knock over a bank!
Seeking a break from hectic Hanoi, we catch a scruffy night train north to do some trekking around the small mountain town of Sapa. The train trip involves enduring eleven long hours, listening to the juddering rat-a-tat rhythm of the rails that sounds like a couple of skeletons making love atop a metal roof!
Only 2 km shy of the Chinese border at Lao Cai, we switch over to a minibus for a final 2 ½ hour trip through the steep mountains to misty Sapa. The funky ‘Cat Cat Guesthouse’ is basic, and features a busted bed, a broken sink spewing water on the floor, and a cheek-pinching toilet seat with one crack too many. However, despite its ‘character’, we adore the little place due to its location and rugged scenery.
Dining on the attached café’s terrace jutting out over the cliffs, a mystical mist often creates a curtain between us when sitting at a table. However, when the weather clears we’re treated to an inspiring view of Mt. Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam and in all of Indochina.
Sapa is home to many intriguing hill tribe villages all reachable within a few hours, and to check them out, we rent an old army jeep literally taped and wired together. With skin stretched taut over our knuckles, we drive over malnourished dirt roads so outrageously steep they would make even the Dali Lama tense!
One of the prevalent tribes is the Black H’mong, whose women are easily distinguishable by their indigo-dyed, hand woven clothes and pillbox hats. They seem to be continuously hand spinning large balls of hemp, from which they create their dresses, leggings, and sashes; and from inside their huts we hear the sound of wooden looms clacking and whirring beneath their attendants.
Trekking to Lao Chai today Christine nearly passes out, leaving her lifelessly draped over a large rock like a puppet whose strings have been cut. As we abandon our hike so I can get her back to Sapa, I’m beginning to think that a trip to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without one of us having some sort of medical mishap!
Christine’s health seems back to normal today, so we’re off to explore the village of Taphin; home of the Red Dao. The distinctive women wear nicely embroidered clothing and vivid red hats made of folded cloth. They also shave off both their eyebrows and the first inches of hair above the foreheads, and with many sporting bright gold teeth and dangling silver earrings, the colorful Dao are indeed an eye-popping sight.
While I’m in the rice fields taking a picture of a little girl sitting atop a water buffalo, a Black Hmong woman wanders by dragging along a couple of odd looking critters attached to a wire leash. These peculiar edibles, looking somewhat like a cross between a guinea pig and a groundhog, are apparently called Bamboo Rats.
The frothing rodents, perhaps sensing their demise, aggressively try sinking their oversized teeth into anything within range; including me as I try to take their photo. A Red Dao woman inspects one of the rotund rats by cruelly prodding it with a stick before finally making her decision to purchase. After consummating the deal she drags the snarly subject off to her cooking pot. Oh yum – Kentucky Fried Rat!
On our last day I’m enjoying a respectable gallop in the mountains with a grey tsunami of clouds caressing the road, when I meet some curious munchkins walking to school. Clearly, they’re not used to seeing many runners up at this altitude, and I enjoy a few giggles as they try to run along with me. As the day treads past, it’s time for a train back to Hanoi; an event for which we have all the enthusiasm of a barium enema.
Boarding the train we’re given a bread roll in the advanced stage of rigor mortis and a small plastic bottle of water. I can’t help but chuckle at the appropriateness, as the bug-infested train becomes our ‘prison’ for the next 10 hours. Christine, with an aversion to intimacy with insects, is busily smearing them into an omelet before pulling a sheet over her head for a few fitful hours of sleep. Our grumble-fest ends at Hanoi Station, where, chasing sanity, we race away from the train with speed that would make a blur look lethargic.
After a few more hays in Hanoi it’s time for us to return to Canada. While eating breakfast during our flight home, out of the blue our plane drops alarmingly after hitting the mother of air potholes. The unexpected turbulent air simultaneously tests our bowels, bladders, and cardiac functions! The captain makes a stern announcement for everybody, including attendants, to immediately take a seat and buckle in. As the plane shudders and shakes doing its best impression of a pissed-off rodeo bull, thoughts of ending up as a crimson splotch begin to creep in.
Unattended cart trolleys careen down the plane isles, spilling an assortment of items while looking for an unsuspecting knee-cap to decapitate. The captain instructs passengers to put pillows on top of the food trays and place our heads on them. As we quickly comply, painting our pillows in a collage of egg and accouterments; we are hoping something unseemly has not taken residence beneath our pants!
Praying that at 35,000 feet in the air, our potential winged coffin will avoid becoming cringe-worthy airline news and make it safely back to ground, the violent air finally diminishes; along with our enthusiasm for flying. After what seems an eternity we are elated to land safely on the runway; wondering if our stomachs will soon be joining us!
Mark Colegrave 2003