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 them, we complain to staff before going out for breakfast. Returning to the room, Christine opens the bathroom door and lets out a blood curling scream. Eight cockroaches big 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 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. We are amply awed by a multitude of enormous stone faces serenely smiling down at us from atop the temple’s towers, plus the bonus of having the surreal experience of climbing about this crumbling paradise all alone. Dating back to 1190 AD, the temple is known as the ‘Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia’ due to the 216 mysteriously serene stone faces, silently harboring 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. 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.
Buried in jungle vegetation for 400 years, French archaeologists finally uncovered this 9th century temple in 1947, and 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. The thirsty roots spreading up to a hundred meters from the tree trunk 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 following us like a little duckling long after her friends have gone on, still pleading for us to buy something. In our pack is a brand new teddy bear 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 a contagious 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 largest religious monument ever built, the awe inspiring Angkor Wat, with something like 1,300 candles on its birthday cake! We’re gaping like a couple of goldfish with lockjaw, learning that sprawling Angkor, discovered buried in the jungle in 1860, contains more stone than in all the pyramids of Egypt combined. In a truly bamboozling feat, the massive stones weighing up to 1.5 tons each were floated to the site on bamboo rafts from quarries at the base of Mt.Kulen, some 37 km away!
Climbing the dauntingly steep and skinny steps, we escape the assault of a baking Angkorian sun by slipping inside the temple, joining several monks draped in bright orange robes which 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, and it’s a toss-up who gets the biggest kick out of it, the child or grandma! This templishious day is forever etched into our mental hard drives; not dissimilar from the stories etched into the temple’s stone.
Wandering the streets of Siem Reap is a gut-wrenching task, constantly being hit on by a shocking number of 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 the countryside, we pass bacon-to-be all trussed up with their trotters in the air on the back of motorcycles, tiny tykes leading enormous water buffalo about from 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 tea-colored multipurpose river functioning as a motorcycle wash, swimming hole, public bath, dishwasher, laundry, municipal sewer, transportation route, and buffalo drinking trough. Locking up our bikes on the lakeshore, we boat out to an uncommon floating village that’s a self-contained community; complete with schools, police station, market, restaurants, and even a church!
Another colorful cycling highlight is the stunning lotus fields spreading as far as the eye can see, and while taking a photo, a guy 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 soothe the sun’s pain!
After our dazzling sojourn in the Kingdom of Cambodia, we hop across the border into Thailand. A bus takes us 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 bellows back an immediate response. I’m not sure if Christine is jealous or thinks I should be committed, but judging by the smirk on her face, methinks it would be the latter!
Terminating my monkey malarkey, Christine and her ‘upright ape’ travel by boat to the Kha Sam Roi Yot National Park. At Laem Sala Beach we wade ashore to sand edged with an emerald necklace of jungle, then trudge up a steep pockmarked path dodging a giant Asian centipede that locals here call ‘the train’. Seeing the rock wall yawning open, we enter and climb down to witness 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 opening and stalactites and stalagmites frame a striking temple with its top crowned in images of rearing cobras bathed in the in-flowing sunlight. The ambience is serene, with a dramatic contrast of sunlight and darkness delivering a mystical sensation.
Next up is big bad Bangkok, whose bizarre letter-jammed 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 of Bangkok 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. 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 the plate to help mitigate the city’s distasteful pest control issues!
Bangkok’s bumpered traffic is more or less a 24 hour gridlock, infested with motorbikes facing off against each other at the 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 ‘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; making you forget you’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 the Buddha statues as a way of demonstrating their power. Inexplicitly, one of the Buddha heads survived at Wat Mahathat near a sprouting Banyon tree, 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 ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya.
Back in the buzz of big bad Bangkok, we get a chuckle from our most enthusiastic cab driver, who, despite his English impediment, is eager to try and make conversation. Turning towards us he takes both hands off the wheel, gesturing like a boxer and yells ‘Boxing Sadam’, then ‘Bagdad Kaboom’; referring of course 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, you put on you zooms’. Hard to find any fault with that one!
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; in 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 that 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 quickly put an end to the numb-nuttery; rejoicing 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 as we’re anxious to check out certain areas we missed on our last Vietnam trip back in 2000.
Aware of Hanoi’s airport chaos we’ve arranged for a driver; enabling us to cut a swath through a scrum of parasitic touts all trying to attach themselves to us. In Hanoi’s ‘Old Quarter’, we become ingested by a maze of claustrophobic streets spreading out like thirsty bamboo roots in the thousand year old city.
Paddy-hatted women shuffle by as mobile markets, toting heavy baskets balanced on a strip of durable bamboo slung over a shoulder, while boys act as mobile menus, using rhythmic thwacks on bicycle handlebars to advertise what’s on offer at nearby soup stalls. Old ladies function as mobile gas stations, balanced on their haunches on street corners 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 amusing drink 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 Merlot or Zinfandel right about now!
Any time of the day or night the roads without rules are a risk with the 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 ‘cyclos’ for transport. This spooky contraption is like sitting in a mobile lawn chair, while some poor bastard in a pea-green pith helmet pedals his guts out behind you, 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 end up wearing the ‘wooden overcoat’. Yes, it’s never a bad idea to bring along extra underwear when traveling in Vietnam!
Bicycles and motorbikes ludicrously laden with mind-boggling cargo piled beyond belief, including building supplies, furniture, plate glass, livestock, four or five extra passengers, and other paraphernalia seemingly impossible to move. I have respect 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 performing daily Tai Chi rituals, 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 a 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, for some trekking in mountains around Sapa. The train 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 to a minibus for a final 2 ½ hour trip through the steep mountains to misty Sapa. Calling it ‘City in the Clouds’ is quite the stretch, as even at its busiest, it could not possibly rate more than a village. Our funky Cat Cat guesthouse features a busted bed, a broken sink spewing water on the floor, and a cheek-pinching toilet seat with one crack too many; but despite its ‘character’, we adore the little place due to its location.
Dining on the attached café’s terrace jutting out over the cliffs, a mystical mist often creates a curtain between us. 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 make their dresses, leggings, and sashes; and from inside their huts we hear the sound of wooden looms clacking and whirring beneath their attendant.
Trekking to Lao Chai today, Christine nearly passes out, leaving her lifelessly draped over a large rock and looking much like a puppet whose strings have been cut. As we abandon our hike so I can get her back to Sapa, I’m thinking a trip to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without one of us having some sort of mishap!
Fortunately Christine’s health seems back to normal today, so we’re off to explore the village of Taphin; home of the Red Dao. The tribe’s distinctive women wear vivid red hats of folded cloth laced with silver coins, and shave off both their eyebrows and the first few centimeters of hair above the foreheads. Sporting many bright gold teeth and dangling silver earrings, the colorful Dao are quite 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. We learn these peculiar edibles, looking somewhat like a cross between a guinea pig and a groundhog, are called Bamboo Rats.
The frothing rodents, perhaps sensing their demise, aggressively try sinking their oversized teeth into anything within range; including me as I’m taking their photo. A Red Dao woman inspects one of the rabid rats by cruelly poking and 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 run in the mountains with a grey tsunami of clouds caressing the road, when I meet several curious munchkins walking to school. Clearly, they’re not used to seeing many runners up at this altitude, and we enjoy a few giggles as they try running along with me. As the day treads past, it’s time for us to train back to Hanoi; an event for which we have all the enthusiasm of a tree stump.
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. It’s not exactly a bullet train, and sadly, it possesses all the enjoyment of a barium enema.
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 once the train finally chugs into Hanoi Station; where, chasing sanity, we race away with speed that would make a blur look lethargic!
Eating our breakfast meals during our flight home, the plane suddenly drops alarmingly after hitting unexpected air turbulence; an activity simultaneously testing 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 with its best impression of a pissed-off rodeo bull, thoughts of us 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 overtop of the food trays and place our heads on top of them. We comply, painting our pillows in a collage of egg and accouterments; at the same time hoping something unpleasant has taken residence beneath our pants!
As we pray 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 fierce turbulence finally diminishes; along with our enthusiasm for flying. After what seems an eternity, we gratefully land safely on the runway, wondering if our stomachs will soon be joining us!
Mark Colegrave 2003