2003 Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam

2003 Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam

Obviously our thirst for the east has not yet ceased, as once again we find ourselves exploring behind the bamboo curtain of Asia. Starting 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, seeing eight cockroaches big enough to trip over doing the backstroke, with antenna and legs flailing about in their death throes! Staff apparently ‘sprayed’ with what must be lethal chemicals, powerful enough to eradicate the entire cockroach clan! With an aversion to 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 we cycle out to it in the dark while the streets are still lean. Delightfully, we have the stunning temple exclusively to ourselves. With daylight stealthily creeping over the forest, we are amply awed by the multitude of enormous stone faces serenely smiling down at us from atop the many towers during 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 its 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 the obsessive forlornly 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, they cling to us like hair on a bar of soap, with one forlorn looking little girl following behind us like a little duckling long after her friends have gone on, still pleading for us to buy something. In our daypack is a brand new teddy bear acquired in Singapore, and by a mutual nod, Christine and I agree that 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, which leaves us gaping like a couple of goldfish with lockjaw. Sprawling Angkor was discovered buried in the jungle in 1860 and contains more stone than in all the pyramids of Egypt combined. Remarkably 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! Indeed, a truly bamboozling feat.

Climbing the dauntingly steep and skinny steps, we escape the assault of the hot Angkorian sun by slipping inside the temple, joining several monks draped in bright orange robes contrasting 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 on the back of motorcycles all trussed up with their trotters in the air, tiny tykes leading enormous water buffalo about from a nose ring, and little school squirts shouting out ‘hallo-goodbye’ as we ride past and giggling into their hands at their boldness.

On the way 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 the bikes on the lake shore, we boat out to an unusual floating village that is 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 pain!

After our dazzling sojourn in the Kingdom of Cambodia, we hop across the border into Thailand, and bus to the relaxing little 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 enjoying 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 onto 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 limestone cave hosts rays of sunlight flooding in through a large opening where the roof has collapsed. Lush trees reach for the opening and stalactites and stalagmites frame a striking temple with a rooftop crowned in images of rearing cobras bathed in the in-flowing sunlight. The dramatic contrast with the cave’s darkness provides a mystical sensation making for an everlasting memory.

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).

While the sprawling no-holds-barred city of Bangkok is not for the faint-hearted, it does guarantee a serious buzz for those who enjoy feeling the pulse of a city injected directly through the jugular. The city reminds me of a line in the lyrics of a Murray Head song; ‘One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble’.

Sauntering through 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 selection of creepy, crawly, and crunchy, it certainly seems that locals are doing their part in helping out with the city’s pest control!

Bangkok’s traffic is more or less a 24 hr 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 bikes,

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 the 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 are at epidemic proportions, so it’s imperative that rubbers be used on every conceivable occasion. In fact, you are silly enough to indulge any of these little Thai knob polishers, you might want to seriously consider wearing a full on wet suit!

Speaking of condoms, we’ve found a most interesting restaurant called ‘Cabbages & Condoms’. Yes, that is the actual name, and 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!

Set in a courtyard under the leafy canopy of a 60 year old tree, the restaurant oozes ambiance. Chickens strutting about make you forget you’re in the city, and subtle fairy lights wrapped around the towering trees and vines deliver a most romantic setting. The decor throughout consists of art made from thousands upon thousands of condoms; and fittingly, the name of the bar in the restaurants is the ‘Vasectomy Bar’!

Apparently, the owner is seriously focused on family planning, believing that birth control must be as easy as buying vegetables in the market, and after every meal the bill is accompanied by two free condoms.  In foreign countries we always prefer restaurants offering a ‘safe’ eating experience, however, this ridiculously rubberized restaurant takes things to a whole new level!

The city of Ayutthaya is on today’s agenda, and is known for its dazzling selection of ancient temples sadly ransacked by the Burmese armies who beheaded the Buddha statues as a way of demonstrating their power. In-explicitly, one of the Buddha heads survived at Wat Mahathat near where a Banyon tree sprouted, and over the centuries the tree grew up safely encasing the fallen Buddha head in its roots, making it a living part of the tree, and an iconic image associated with 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 yelling ‘Boxing Sadam’, followed by ‘Bagdad Kaboom’; referring of course to the current war in Iraq. Pulling out my glasses to inspect our map, his head nods up and down like a bobble head doll, and he says, ‘Ahh, you put on you zooms’!  A smile forms as it’s hard to argue that one.

Walking to our hotel after dinner, a grubby little snot-dribbler tries to pick my pocket. Fortunately, I spot it going down, and he 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, and we soon put an end to the numb-nuttery; rejoicing at stepping back into our Tevas!

Today we find ourselves thinking long and hard over a decision of whether or not to continue on to Vietnam because of their recent SARS outbreak. After hemming and hawing, we decide to carry on regardless of the risk 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 collect us, enabling us to cut a swath through a scrum of parasitic touts trying to attach themselves to us. Soon, we arrive back in the claustrophobic warren of spaghetti-like streets forming the ‘Old Quarter’ 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. Boys become mobile menus, as a rhythmic thwack on bicycle handlebars advertises 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 plastic bottles full of gas.

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 bizarre ingredients including scorpion wine, and the famous snake wine with ginseng roots and a large-necked cobra holding a smaller green snake in its mouth that on the bottle is a label which 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 an 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 in Vietnam the roads without rules are a risk, with 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, as 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. The 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 can often also be seen laden with mind-boggling cargo piled beyond belief; with furniture, plate glass, building materials, livestock, and anything else 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 the centerpiece of Hanoi 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; 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 the final 2 ½ hour trip through steep mountains to the misty village of Sapa, known as the ‘City in the Clouds’. 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 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, during the mistless moments 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 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 the malnourished dirt roads that are so outrageously steep they’d 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.

On a trek to Lao Chai today Christine nearly passes out is draped over a large rock, looking much like a puppet whose strings have been cut. As a result, our hike is abandoned so I can get her back to Sapa. It seems 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 both their eyebrows and the first few centimeters of hair above their foreheads. Sporting many bright gold teeth and dangling silver earrings, the colorful Dao are quite an eye-popping sight.

While out 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 delicacies that look somewhat like a cross between a guinea pig and a groundhog are called Bamboo Rats.

The rodents have nasty gnashing teeth, and perhaps sensing their demise, aggressively try biting 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, and 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 take a 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, 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 only ends when the train finally chugs into Hanoi Station; where, chasing sanity, we bolt off with speed that would make a blur look lethargic!

During our flight home we are eating our breakfast meals when the plane drops alarmingly after hitting unexpected air turbulence; 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 doing its best impression of a pissed-off rodeo bull, thoughts of ending up as a crimson splotch begin to creep in.

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 the pillows in a collage of egg and accouterments, while hoping something unpleasant has taken residence beneath our pants!

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; along with our luggage if we’re lucky. The turbulence finally diminishes, along with my enthusiasm for flying. After what seems an eternity, we gratefully land safely on the tarmac, wondering if our stomachs will soon be joining us!

Mark Colegrave   2003