Monday, February 27, 2006

The killing fields

Deciding to push on to Cambodia, we bought a ticket to Phnom Penh. Our bus dropped us off at the border, and we lugged our bags in the mid-day heat from one border post to another, sweat dripping from our faces onto our paperwork. Fortunately, buying the Cambodian visa on arrival all went smoothly, and then it was just a matter of finding the right bus waiting for us on the other side.

This proved to be more difficult than expected, and after assuming the worst (that our bus had left half of us behind and we would now have to buy a new ticket on another bus), a bus driver magically produced a name list with us on it, and we jumped on board. Unfortunately, the air-conditioning was no match for the heat and my key-ring thermometer peaked at 37'C (103'F) with all the windows closed.

We sat in a dazed stupor all the way to Phnom Penh, only getting out once when the bus caught a ferry across a river.

Phnom Penh is a city of 1 million. The street of our guest house was lined with 4 storey buildings but the road was dirt and rubble.

Unlike Vietnam, where most of the hostilities ended in the mid-seventies, in Cambodia the strife continued intermittently for another 15 years. Even as an outsider, I felt the shadow of it all around me.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge ousted the U.S. backed government and began what they thought of as an accelerated communist conversion program, that essentially involved emptying the cities and instituing forced labor in the country. Vast numbers of the middle-class, that were considered idealogically out of place in the new regime, and anyone else with reservations about the Khmer Rouge were quickly liquidated. As time went on the leaders got more and more paranoid and the killings increased while the country spiralled into chaos and people started starving to death. Finally, in 1978, Vietnam responded to Khmer Rouge aggression on the border and invaded in full force. The Khmer Rouge leadership retreated to the mountains near Thailand along with hundreds of thousands of refugees. It is estimated that about 3 million people died during 3 years of Khmer Rouge rule.

Unfortunately, it proved difficult to eliminate the Khmer Rouge as a guerrilla force in the mountains as they could disappear into the refugee camps in Thailand when pressed. Thailand (and the international community) had a vested interested in maintaining this status quo, since it provided a buffer against the communist Vietnamese who were now at their border.

In Phnom Penh, we visited the S-21 security prison used by the Khmer Rouge for torturing and interrogating over 20,000 people.

It is now a museum, and I should warn readers that the following photos and descriptions are truly horrific. I was almost physically sick while I was there.

Prisoners were kept for 2-6 months, repeatedly interrogated. Of the 20,000 prisoners that arrived at S-21 only 7 survived.

The Khmer Rouge kept detailed records. The most horrific photo was this tableau. On the right of each row are 6 photos of prisoners when they arrived. On the left, are the same six prisoners after they had been tortured to death.

Those that survived their interrogation were trucked out to what are now called the Killing Fields, about 15km out of town. There, they were clubbed to death and thrown into mass graves. The site is now a museum, and 8000 of the bodies have been disinterred to try to understand what happened.

The skulls of men, women and children from the graves form an enormous column in a memorial shrine.

With a very heavy heart we returned to our guest-house, and the next day we caught a bus up to Siem Reap where we hoped to revive our spirits by visiting Angkor Wat.

New clothes

Hoi An is chock full of souvenir shops, restaurants and tailors, crowding against each other in attractivly delapidated colonial buildings.

The competition between tailors is fierce and it has become a well known destination for having tailored clothing made at bargain prices. Katie had a suit, a dress and some blouses made. I got some striped linen trousers, a pair of swim-shorts and three shirts made for $39. Some of this is for the trip and the rest we shipped home.

I also found out that I couldn't mail a CD anywhere in Vietnam except Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi (each 800km away) because those are the only post offices in the country where customs is equipped to check CDs and DVDs (I suppose to ensure you are not sending pirated DVDs), which was a bit frustrating.

In general, being as touristy as it is, the restaurant options are relatively good, but Katie had a string of unlucky restaurant experiences (including one place where there were cockroaches and a rat scurrying around our feet). Many restaurants boast menus full of western dishes that they clearly have never tasted, and their approximations can be disappointing. However, one does not have to accept any imitations for CocaCola, which is present in full force in Vietnam, sporting a pretty design for Chinese New Year.

Another thing we noticed here is that, because so much of the traffic is on motorbike and space is tight, there are very few gas stations in Vietnam. Instead, vendors sell it to motorbikes from little stands by the side of the road that look like they might be selling some kind of juice. They pump it by hand, a few litres at a time.

Knowing how tight our time in southern Thailand and Malaysia will be, we began to think about moving on to Cambodia a little earlier than expected.

After a 10 hour bus ride along the coast (Katie took advantage of the empty back seats to stretch out), we stopped in Nha Trang, which has a beautiful stretch of beach - in fact almost the entire coastline of southern Vietnam is one beautiful beach after another. The landscape reminded me a bit of Brazil. It was humid and the mid-day sun was scorching.

We spent a day on an island tour doing a little snorkeling (visibility was poor and I was disappointed with the coral) and swimming with a merry crew that not only ran the boat and prepared our lunch, but afterwards whipped together a rudimentary rock and roll band and sang us some songs (see Katie's blog for the photos). By the end of the tour, most of the crew were pretty tipsy.

We spent one relaxing day at the beach under a thatch umbrella and then it was on to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

In Nha Trang there was at least a sea-breeze, but in Saigon it's just hot. At 1pm it was 35'C (100'F) in the shade and very humid. We found a place to stay down a series of tiny alleyways and then went in search of a place to exchange some books.

Vietnam has a thriving business in pirated books - usually just photocopies bound together. The same 100 or so titles appear in each town on the backpacker trail. At night vendors walk around the tourist restaurants and cafes with a box or a tall stack of books selling them for about the price of a used book. In South America, one could keep oneself in books by exchanging them at hostels, but this not-for-profit concept is not embraced here in Asia.

Lonely Planet books command a premium, and the good quality reproductions are barely distinguishable from the originals. Since our South East Asia guide is from 2003 and a bit thin on detail in parts, we have picked up cheap copies of the latest editions for Vietnam and Cambodia which are worth it for the town maps alone.

We visited the War Remnants Museum where we got to see the Vietnamese perspective on the Vietnam War. They had some interesting pieces of American artillery and aircraft parked outside, but the photo exhibit inside showing the effects of the napalm and cluster bombings on civilians was tough to get through.

There was also a memorial section for photo journalists (mostly American) that died during the war, showing some of their work (many famous Time covers). It was all a grim reminder that there are no victors in war, but it turned out to just be the warm up for Cambodia.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Not wanting to relive the memories of our bad minibus experience between Vinh and Hanoi, we opted for the luxury of an overnight sleeper train to Hue, which is in central Vietnam, just below the 17th parallel - the former boundary between North and South Vietnam.

Hue has an illustrious role in the history of Vietnam and is the site of many old palaces, temples and tombs that have stood in some neglect until very recently (the Vietnamese Communist Party held a dim view of Vietnam's feudal past).

As a result, some of the sites have quite a lost-world air. Others have been restored in the last decade as the country has fostered a burgeoning tourism industry.

We did a day-tour on the back of motorbikes with two drivers from our hotel, which included a stop at the infamous Bunker Hill (nice view) and a visit to a local restaurant where we braved an authentic seafood hot-pot (which was fine apart from the cubes of solidified pork blood).

Our guides were friendly, but there was a constant hustle to relieve of us of more of our money (strangely expensive food bills, incorrect change, agreed upon prices creepingng up later, etc) and a relentless hard-sell to convince us to postpone our departure one day so we could do another tour with them to the DMZ. We eventually decided to do this instead of the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh (which only have a small portion open to visitors).

The DMZ is 100km to the north (a butt-numbing 2.5 hour motorbike ride). The primary attraction is the Vinh Moc tunnels. The whole area was heavily bombed during the Vietnam war to disrupt the movement of supplies to the South. After their villages were flattened the locals started digging deeper and deeper into the clay until they had a whole village living protected underground in a tunnel system extending over 2km, on three levels, up to 30m below the surface.

This was home for several hundred people for 5 years, each family occupying a tiny alcove, with common areas for supplies, meetings, bathing, and a maternity ward.

The next day we took a quick bus ride to Hoi An, just 3 hours to the South, but noticeably warmer and stickier. Hoi An is an old trading port and famous now for its tailors who can whip together almost any outfit for you in a matter of hours. I'm thinking of getting a pair of nice linen trousers made.

Dragon in the sea

We joined a tour group that took a three hour minibus ride from Hanoi to the harbour of Hai Phong where a flotilla of graceful wooden junks waited for the daily tide of tourists to arrive.

Since the boats were all packed in together with just a few next to the dock, we reached our chosen vessel by hopping from boat to boat, walking along the gunnels, trying not to lose our balance with our big packs on and fall into the muddy water below. When a boat was ready to leave it would break free from the huddle with an angry roar of its engine pushing its neigbours in all directions until it escaped.

We cruised out into Halong Bay, enjoying the view from the rooftop deck chairs, admiring the approaching limestone islands and the small armada of other junks heading the same way. The legend says the archipelago was formed when a dragon ran into the sea, breaking up the mountains with its tail leaving the eerie-looking islands that poke vertically up out of the water.

We stopped to traipse around an artificially lit cave - known locally as the Suprising Cave, as it is suprisingly beautiful, or suprisingly big, I can't remember which.

In painful silence, I endured our guide's explanation of how stalactites are formed, which Katie smartly avoided by walking on ahead. Just when I thought he had finished and I could make a run for it, he started on about stalagmites and it just seemed too rude to turn away mid-flow.

However, the view from the mouth of the cave made it all worthwhile, and back on the boat again we dropped anchor in the middle of the bay and the crew went below to prepare dinner while we enjoyed the sunset from the roof.

I looked out again before bedtime and we were floating in a big ball of darkness with just a few lights from other boats bobbing in the distance revealing our neighbours. We spent the night in our cozy wood-paneled cabin and we woke to the call of vendors in small boats around us trying to sell us snacks.

We were dropped off on-shore on Cat Ba island, where we went for a short, steep hike up to a watchtower with a great view and a few more insights from our guide in cryptic English.

We went kayaking in the afternoon where we saw some little floating fishing villages and then spent the night in a hotel on the island. The next day we rejoined our boat and made the return journey, arriving tired but content in Hanoi where we treated ourselves to a big bowl of spaghetti.

I'm a little disappointed with the food in Vietnam after all the buildup. The main problem for me is the issue of having to remove things (bones, grizzle, cartilage, sand) from my mouth - in my book, once it gets to your mouth you shouldn't have to be worrying about which parts you swallow. Maybe it will get better as we go South again.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


We had originally planned on taking the most direct route north towards Hanoi, with a crossing into Vietnam near Sam Neua. But there is no regular transport yet on this route, so one has to rely on catching a ride on a truck or motorbike for the final stretch on each side of the border, and their were discouraging reports of unhelpful drivers on the Vietnamese side (and we didn't manage to get any Vietnamese currency while we were in Vientiane).

The alternative was a bus that leaves Phonsavan twice a week which goes east across the border at Nong Haet and all the way to Vinh. Although, this wasn't the most direct route, it seemed an easier option logistically. The bus left at 6:30am.

I woke up and checked the time at 6:26am - I had set my alarm for 5:20pm by accident. It was Friday, and the next bus was Tuesday and this was the last day of our visas in Laos. But all was not lost - the guest-house called the bus-station and persuaded them to hold the bus and we scrambled to get going, considering ourselves lucky to jump on without buying snacks and get two seats together near the back.

Since we had missed breakfast, by the time we stopped in a town in Vietnam 4 hours later we were ready for some lunch. Unfortunately, it turns out that the entire week after the New Year (Tet) many restaurants, bakeries and shops are closed and we
weren't able to find anywhere selling anything to eat for the whole 13 hour bus ride (although some friendly Laos students behind us took pity and offered us some sticky rice and some bread).

Arriving in Vinh we managed to find a reasonable hotel and after an underwhelming dinner we went straight to bed, thinking that the mini-bus to Hanoi that we booked for the next day would be a more comfortable trip.

Unfortunately, it was not to be, and we found ourselves jammed into the back seat of a public bus with our knees practically at our chins, watching successive passengers stepping on Katie's poor backpack that was lying in the aisle. We survived the 5 hour ride to Hanoi and after nosing around the old quarter a bit we installed ourselves in a comfy hotel with a sparklingly clean bathroom and indulged ourselves with the free internet and later, a thoroughly western dinner.

The old quarter caters heavily to tourists, but retains just enough of its local business to be interesting. It's a bit of a culture shock after the tranquility of Laos though.

The streets are jammed with scooters generating a steady cacophony of honking and the bikes not on the streets are busy blocking the sidewalks. Shops and kitchens overflow out onto the sidewalk, which serves as garage, living room, porch, kitchen and garbage disposal.

Faced with the impassable sidewalk and the density of the road traffic, the path of least resistance ends up being by the gutter trying to avoid the worst of the mud, slime, oil and sewage. It's so filthy, the novelty of it is almost an attraction.

We're looking forward to spending the next few days on a boat crusing around Halong Bay.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Golf and cluster bombs

We were staying in Phonsavan at the Kong Keo guest-house, which is away from the main street, on one end of the old town airstrip.

The garden is full of lamps and flower boxes made out of bomb casings and a shed in the corner has an impressive collection of old armaments.

In the morning, while we ate our breakfast, we would watch local boys practicing to parallel park in a huge old Russian truck on the asphalt outside. Since private cars are almost unheard of in Laos, everyone learns to ride a motorbike or scooter at an early age, and you would only need a driving license to drive a bus or a truck - so that is what you learned to drive in.

Mr. Kong is crazy about golf, so there is a one-hole pitch and putt in the front garden. At night, sitting around the bonfire in the half-shell of a cluster-bomb, he told us how he got started in life after he randomly caught a rare butterfly for a Japanese collector that turned out to be worth $10,000. He had subsequently managed to find a scholarship to study in France and had traveled abroad at a time when the Laos government had only issued a few hundred passports. Most of the other locals we met during our visit had never left the province. He regaled us for a long time with stories of political intrigue, golf, his visits to jail, and his two previous marriages.

Laos has grown on me over the last two weeks. Initially, I was taken aback by the disorganisation and the sleepy pace of everything. It's true that the food and the general level of hygiene leave something to be desired, but ultimately I have been won over by the friendliness and the relaxed nature of the Laos people.

How pleasant to have a brief conversation with the post-mistress this morning about our travel plans while she worked out the postage for our package. Or to be invited to share dinner (however inedible) by our kind guest-house host.

This generosity of spirit towards westerners is doubly impressive when you consider that, in addition to the general poverty here, the lives of these people were horrendously affected by massive carpet bombing by the United States (because of the Viet Cong presence) during the Vietnam War. This bombing was conducted 'in secret', illegally, without the knowledge or authorization of the U.S. Congress (or the U.S. public). Since the objective was to undermine all support infrastructure for the Viet Cong, civilian communities were targeted in addition to military sites, and it was one of he heaviest bombardments in history - an average of 5000 missions per day between 1963 and 1970, dropping over 500lbs of explosive per man, woman and child in Laos.

Phonsavan was heavily hit. On a tour from our guest-house we met the uncle of our guide, who was wearing a worn old beret but still looked distinguished in his mid-70s. He told me in French about how they were bombed at first during the day and they would work the fields at night, and then the Americans dropped flares so they could continue bombing at night. They hid in caves or dug holes. He said his village was completely obliterated.

He had a 250lb bomb casing propping up his storefront and a shelf of disarmed cluster bombs next to his drinking glasses and the egg cartons.

The biggest fallout from the bombings was that as much as 30% of the explosives failed to detonate immediately, turning the country into a minefield and a living nightmare that continues 30 years after the bombs stopped falling.

We visited a field full of bomb craters and were shown an unexploded 'bombie' - a cluster bomblet the size of a baseball - that would send shards of metal in a 150 yard radius were it to detonate. These were released in clusters of 300 from a large shell casing that splits in half during its descent.

The presence of these and other unexploded ordinance across the country makes it very difficult for the Laos people to make full use of their land still today. We were told that only the villages and roads had been cleared methodically. In the last few decades, bombs in most working farmland have been found (with over 11,000 accidents), but as the population grows villagers are being tempted to cultivate new terrain, and accidents continue today.

We visited the home village of our guide, where they make the most of the bomb casings they have collected, turning them into structural supports in their houses, flower-boxes, BBQs, and reforging the metal into machetes and other metal implements.

Afterwards, we walked to a nearby waterfall for lunch with a couple of other villagers that wanted to practice their English, and we sat down to a traditional Laos picnic lunch of sticky rice and assorted vegetable and meat dishes, each in their own plastic bag (this is all finger food).

We ended the day with a visit to the nearby Plain of Jars.

Some of these are up to 4000 years old, and it's thought that they were used to hold the bodies of the dead while they decomposed, allowing the spirit time to leave the body and enter the spirit world (or next life), after which the remains were cremated and interred nearby.

I thought they looked quite cozy, especially the one with a lid.