Monday, 31 January 2011

Phnom Penh

We crossed the border into Cambodia in one the most pleasant ways imaginable: a leisurely boat ride up the Mekong from the Vietnamese Mekong Delta region that took us to the very heart of Phnom Penh. The city’s romantic position on the confluence of the Mekong and Ton Le Sap rivers combined with the beautiful old French colonial buildings, glittering pagodas, ornate Khmer architecture, wide boulevards and open green spaces and largely traffic free roads (at least by Asian standards) make Phnom Penh one of the most appealing cities we’ve been to. We visited it twice: when we arrived in Cambodia and again when we returned from the north-east of the country.

As with the other land borders we’ve crossed, we were struck on entering Cambodia by how immediately it differed from Vietnam. There are of course many similarities between the two: the landscape, the French colonial influence, the bustling street life and profusion of people. Yet as apparent were the differences: the conical hats that were so ubiquitous in Vietnam changed to kramas, (the checked scarves Cambodians use to keep the sun and dust off their heads); poverty is more evident in Cambodia, with more beggars than we’ve seen elsewhere on this trip; yet despite feeling generally poorer there are far more cars and 4x4s in Cambodia and motorbikes no longer dominate the roads as they did in Vietnam; and life seems to operate at a slower and more relaxed pace.

Phnom Penh is remarkably low rise for a capital city, with most buildings only one to three storeys high and only one high rise tower in the city (though this appears to be changing with large construction projects underway). Architecturally the city is a happy mix of French colonial, neo-classical, traditional Khmer and modern concrete buildings. The heart of Phnom Penh is the bustling riverfront area, where one bank of the Ton Le Sap is lined with hotels, bars, restaurants, tuk-tuks (motorbike towed carriages), beggars and amputee book sellers. Luckily the opposite bank of the river has not yet been developed and we spent several evenings watching sunset over the river and open countryside beyond from the terrace of the Foreign Correspondents Club, a fabulous art deco bar where we could almost pretend we were travelling in the “golden age” of tourism in Indochina. While the colonial era may have ended there seems a lingering expat population comprising numerous UN, NGO and aid agency workers.

The most spectacular structure on the riverfront is the Royal Palace, comprised of numerous richly decorated buildings set in immense ornamental gardens. The buildings are designed in the distinctive Khmer style, with high, steeply pitched and curling roofs supported by slender columns and topped by tall thin spires. The roofs are tiled in bright orange and green, with the tips lavishly decorated in gold. Like the temples we’ve seen around the country, the Royal buildings are all comprised of a single large room lifted above the ground on an enormous solid platform. Built in 1866 it has been occupied almost continuously by the Kings of Cambodia, and much of the complex remains the Royal residence.

The National Museum housed one of the most beautiful collections of art we’ve visited. While the Museum itself is built in the same modern Khmer style as the nearby Royal Palace, the fabulous collection of Hindu and Buddhist sculpture it holds was produced during the Angkor era and is evidence of the great ancient Khmer civilisation which dominated South East Asia between the 9th and 14th Centuries. Although Buddhism came to Cambodia with Hinduism in the early Angkorian Period it was initially subordinate to it, and only became the official religion of Cambodia during the 13th Century. Since then all Cambodian men, including the King, have traditionally spent a year of their life as a monk. Most monks were disrobed during the Khmer Rouge period (1975-79) and many of the temples were destroyed, but today Buddhism is again the state religion and plays a large part in daily life. Wat Ounalom, the centre of Cambodian Buddhism, is just behind the Royal Palace and we frequently saw young monks clothed in bright yellow or orange robes wandering the streets of the capital.

Looking at Phnom Penh now it’s hard to imagine the horrors the people of Cambodia experienced just over 30 years ago under the extreme communist Khmer Rouge regime, when an estimated two million Cambodians (over one in four of the population) were killed. The Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975 after five years of civil war and embarked on a process of social restructuring, more radical than the world had ever seen. Their aim was to take the country back to “Year Zero” by creating a peasant dominated agrarian society with no money, mechanisation or intellectual life. In a bid to destroy the old ‘exploitive society’ of the towns and cities, they evacuated Phnom Penh within just five days of seizing power. This led to an exodus of two million people into the countryside leaving the capital looted, destroyed and empty for the entirety of the Khmer Rouge’s 3 year and 8 month rule. Video footage we saw of the evacuation and the empty city left behind was heartbreaking.

Tuol Sleng, or S21, is the most harrowing reminder we saw of the suffering unleashed by the Khmer Rouge. This former high school turned prison (photo above) became the largest detention and torture centre in Cambodia and held over 17,000 people of whom only seven were still alive when the Vietnamese liberated the city in 1979. The prison is all the more chilling as on the surface it seems so ordinary and peaceful and simply like the school it once was: there are still blackboards on some of the classroom walls, gardens with exercise frames and shady palm trees. However once inside you see the classrooms are divided into solitary confinement cells, or into interrogation rooms equipped with iron beds and iron shackles. Outside the play frames were used as gallows to suspend prisoners by their feet and torture them. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of those held in the camp and classroom after classroom contains hundreds of devastating pictures of those who were detained and later killed, often taken both before and after torture. The museum’s final display focused on the long overdue trial that has now started of four former Khmer Rouge leaders, who’d lived freely for many years – at great anger to many Cambodians. Whilst stopping short of the sort of “truth and reconciliation process” seen in South Africa and Liberia, the trials represent an effort to reconcile the country and its recent past, although it remains to be seen whether the process will keep up with the ageing Khmer Rouge leaders, two of whom have already died in custody.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

North-East Cambodia: Ratanakiri and Kratie

Ratanakiri is Cambodia’s most remote province, wedged into the far north-east of the country between the Laos and Vietnamese borders and left isolated from the rest of the country by bad unsurfaced roads. It’s a beautiful region of thick (though sadly rapidly shrinking) jungle, rivers and waterfalls, and of bright red soil that now – in the dry season – left everything coated in a layer of red dust. It took us a slow, bumpy ten hour bus journey to get there from Phnom Penh, but once there we had a fantastic time exploring some of rural Cambodia.

A short bicycle ride outside Ban Lung, the sleepy provincial capital, is Boeng Yeak Lom, a secluded and perfectly circular bright blue lake set inside an extinct volcanic crater. The area is managed by the local community who’ve thankfully refused to allow any buildings within site of the lake so it remains wonderfully quiet, with the upper slopes of the crater densely covered in trees that run all the way to the water. A handful of wooden piers jut out into the lake, providing easy access to the water and lovely sunbathing spots, and we spent two lovely afternoons going for long swims in the warm and crystal clear water, enjoying the tranquillity of the setting.

Another day we set out by bicycle to explore some of the countryside around town. All the way we followed dusty tracks and so came back happy, tired, and entirely covered in the red dust. We ate a picnic lunch and swam at a secluded pool beneath a pretty waterfall, before going for an elephant ride through the jungle. We sat on a small platform on the elephant’s back while the mahout sat on its neck and signalled which way it should walk by pushing on the backs of its ears (though it seemed that the elephant very much dictated our route!). The elephant itself was just as they appear in cartoons, with wonderful floppy ears, coarse wrinkled skin and amazingly long black eye-lashes, and with its slow gait we were rocked on our platform much like being on a small boat.

For four days we went trekking into the jungle north of Ban Lung. We were accompanied by Sarith, our English speaking guide, Sap, a local Kachok man who knew the forest, and Sap’s 19-year old brother-in-law Sara who was hoping to train to become a guide. (It was slightly unsettling to realise that we were closer in age to Sap, a father of eight and grandfather or two who’d served as a child soldier under the Khmer Rouge, than we were to Sara who seemed so much more of our generation.) All three were unfailingly friendly and good company, and spending a few days with them helped give us a small insight into what life must be life amongst the indigenous minorities in this area of Cambodia.

The trek took us from Sap’s village (itself a couple of hours by road and boat from Ban Lung) first through dry paddy fields and scrubby secondary forest used by villagers for their shifting cultivation and then on into the more beautiful primary forest. The vegetation varied from dense thickets that looked (and sometimes felt) completely impenetrable, to more open areas of large, smooth trunked trees. We walked for about six hours a day, with Sap picking, and at times hacking, a route for us through the vegetation. It was enjoyable but tough going and we quickly became coated in sweat and covered in plant debris and small insects that dropped onto us.

Each night we camped near a river, providing water for cooking and a place for us to swim and wash off the sweat and dirt of the day. Our food was a diet of rice and vegetables supplemented by fish that Sarith and Sara caught, and by various fruit and leaves collected along the way. We were continually impressed by the speed all three of our companions could get a fire going, and by Sap’s skill at fashioning implements from bamboo: a pestel and mortar to prepare food, a pot to cook it in, a rack to grill fish, a spatula to stir food, chopsticks to eat with, as well as playthings like a working toy gun. At night we slept in hammocks, which proved far more comfortable than we’d feared, and from where we could listen to the frogs croaking and other sounds of the jungle and watch the stars and moon above us.

The final night we stayed in Sap’s village. There, as elsewhere in Ratanakiri, all the houses were entirely built of wood set on stilts to protect them from snakes, insects and the wet season rains, as well as providing a shady storage area underneath the house. The village was set in a beautiful clearing surrounded on three sides by jungle and on the fourth by a wide river. That evening we were privileged to be invited to a celebration at the house of one of Sap’s sons, who was shortly going to move back to Sap’s house. We arrived to find about 20 children sitting watching karaoke videos in mesmerised silence – perhaps we wondered, because almost no one in the village spoke or read Khmer and so were unable to read or sing the lyrics. Shortly after the generator was switched off, the children sent to bed, and the adults gathered around a large ceramic jar of weak rice. To bless the occasion it was necessary for them to summon the spirits of their ancestors, and to do this they held bamboo straws and chanted for several minutes, after which people took turns to drink in pairs from the jar using long bamboo straws, while the others present talked quietly sitting in the semi-darkness.

We broke our journey back to Phnom Penh by stopping for a couple of days in Kratie, a small town on the banks of the Mekong. Famous within Cambodia for producing krolan (sticky rice and beans, served inside bamboo) and nehm (raw spiced river fish) which are sold around the country, the town’s main draw for tourists are the fresh water Irrawaddy dolphins which can often be spotted nearby. The dolphins live in four deep water pools between Kratie and the Laos border, but in the past decade as a consequence of pollution, fishing and loss of habitat, numbers have fallen from around 1000 to just 70, making them one of the most endangered mammals on Earth. We spent several enjoyable hours cycling some of the quiet roads along the banks of the Mekong, including exploring an island still without cars where the main form of transport seemed to be ox-cart, and took a small rowing boat out into the river to look for the dolphins, and felt very fortunate and privileged to spend an hour watching several of these beautiful animals in their natural habitat.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Saigon and the Mekong Delta

There are two distinct and very different sides to central Saigon. (Only Government officials and a few people in Hanoi seem to call the city by its official name: Ho Chi Minh City). The old colonial centre is the glitziest and most westernised place we’ve seen in Vietnam, with wide boulevards, an imposing cathedral, opera house and other grand French-built buildings, interspersed with shopping centres and trendy restaurants. At times, strolling amongst the designer boutiques and smart hotels we could have imagined ourselves in Knightsbridge rather than South East Asia if it hadn’t been for the constant torrent of motorbikes on the roads and the 30 degree sunshine.

In smart, modern Saigon there’s no sign of the ancestor worship that we saw further north – where all houses had shrines prominently displayed, and shop owners burned incense and made offerings every night outside their premises. Life is much more hidden from view here than it was elsewhere in the country, with fewer street traders and street-side cafes, and swanky wine bars rather than road-side fresh beer.

This side of the city reflects Saigon’s long-held position as the economic powerhouse of the country. French colonialism was established much earlier in Saigon than elsewhere in the country, and the history of the city and its surrounds have been heavily influenced by foreign trade and engagement, in contrast to the more isolationist North. Also, unlike the North, it has only been Communist only since 1975, and with economic liberalisation starting less than 15 years later, the city was well placed to take advantage and re-establish its thriving economy.

Just a 20 minute walk away though, in the area now dominated by backpacker cafes and tour agencies is a much more familiar Vietnam which, while certainly shabbier than the colonial area was also – to our eyes – much more appealing. Here, amongst the narrow, labyrinthine alleyways we found small cafes, tailors, laundrettes and other “mom and pop” businesses operating out of the front room (complete with ancestral shrine), and living quarters above.

Steve and Janet left us in Saigon after a fantastic two weeks. We are so glad and grateful that both sets of our parents have joined us for parts of our journey, and have loved seeing them and being able to share some of this year with them.

The “American” War seems much more prevalent in Saigon than elsewhere, perhaps because it was here that the Americans and other foreign forces were stationed, with museums dedicated to the war, and war-memorabilia (pens and knick-knacks fashioned from old bullets, flak jackets, and zippo lighters bearing US Army insignia) on sale at market stalls. The War Remnants Museum was one of the more interesting we’ve been to, containing harrowing accounts and photographs. Although an understandably one-sided presentation of the conflict, the museum succeeded in making plain some of the horrors inflicted upon the country and the civilian population.

A particularly poignant section of the museum focused on the damage caused by Agent Orange – the chemical sprayed from the air by the US Army in order to reveal Communist supply lines and deny cover to potential ambushers. Almost 80 million litres were sprayed over 2.6 million hectares, leaving much of Central Vietnam deforested and contaminated. Yet the impacts were not just environmental or immediate: people who lived or fought in affected areas have since given birth to tens of thousands of children born with serious birth defects, often without eyes, limbs or organs, or with oversized heads or serious mental disabilities. We subsequently learnt that shockingly, while compensation has belatedly been paid to US servicemen whose families have been affected, no compensation has yet been paid to any Vietnamese victims.

As the other museums we’ve visited, it was disappointing to see no reference in Saigon made to the Vietnamese who served in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, the army of South Vietnam). Instead, as elsewhere, the museum presented the “official history” that the North saved the South from its imperialist masters, and gives the impression that the ARVN was entirely made up of foreigners. In fact, throughout the war, there were more than twice as many South Vietnamese fighting as Americans, Koreans, New Zealanders, and Australians combined. After the war, tens of thousands of them fled the country, while many of those who remained were placed in “re-education camps,” and they – and their children – allegedly continue to face discrimination from the ruling Communist Party.

While in Saigon we also visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, an incredible 250 kilometre network just 60 kilometres outside Saigon that formed a key site of resistance against first the French and then the Americans. The tunnels served not just as escape routes and ambush points for the guerrilla fighters, but also as dwellings for up to 10,000 people, with additional rooms for use as small factories, kitchens and classrooms. The original tunnels were tiny, designed to be too narrow for Westerners to enter and must have been extremely claustrophobic. For the benefit of tourists, several sections have now been enlarged, so we could take turns squeezing ourselves into the earth and crawling along sections of the network. After hearing more about the horrors inflicted during the War, we were somewhat surprised to be offered the opportunity to have a go firing M16 and AK47 assault rifles. While we found this slightly distasteful and gave the opportunity a miss it was clear that for many of our fellow tourists this was the highlight of the trip.

We’ve spent a very peaceful final few days in Vietnam exploring visiting a small part of the enormous Mekong Delta. In contrast to so many of the places we’ve seen, the Mekong feels incredibly lush and fertile, with bright green paddy fields, and wooded areas of bananas and palms separated by large rivers and countless small waterways. Yesterday we spent the morning on the water, setting off while it was still dark to watch the sunrise over the river before visiting a couple of floating markets where enormous quantities of vegetables and fruit were traded between boats (which advertised their wares by tying them to the tops of tall bamboo canes). Other small boats sold meat or served as small floating cafes serving cooked noodles and other snacks.

In the afternoon we hired rickety bikes and cycled through tiny lanes alongside some of the narrow canals, over wobbly bridges and past small villages. It was a landscape both beautiful and tranquil yet as elsewhere marred by constant littering in the waterways and alongside them. With heavy traffic on the main roads and large scale construction going on across the Delta we worry about the environmental damage being wrought on the area by this rapid change and the long-term impact it will have on the area and its inhabitants. Tomorrow, after a fascinating and very enjoyable four weeks, we’ll leave Vietnam, travelling by boat further up the Mekong to Cambodia.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Central Vietnam: Hoi An and Nha Trang

We’ve spent the last few days in the central provinces of Vietnam, one of the most beautiful but poorest areas of the country, which consist of a narrow strip of a sandy coastline caught between the South China Sea and the Troung Son mountains, which form Vietnam’s border with Laos.

From Hanoi we travelled south on the overnight Reunification Express to Hoi An, the prettiest town we’ve visited in Vietnam. Hoi An, which was then situated at the mouth of the Thu Bon River, developed as a prosperous trading port in the 1600s with quarters dominated by Chinese, Japanese and European merchants. In the late eighteenth century however silt began to clog up the river leaving Hoi An stranded a few miles in land and the town went into decline as trade moved elsewhere.

The decline in trade meant that many of Hoi An’s older buildings were preserved, and then luckily escaped major damage in the French and American Wars, leaving a largely pedestrianised old town and riverfront that retains an antiquated charm and was a wonderful place to spend a few days. The old town streets are an appealing mix of original wooden merchant houses, French colonial buildings, and Chinese assembly halls. Many of the buildings now house a myriad of tailoring and shoe making shops, restaurants and street food stalls selling traditional Vietnamese noodle soup and bia hoi (the fresh beer which was even cheaper here than Hanoi at only 10p a glass!), all of which we collectively made the most of.

Many of the waterfront merchant houses in the town have been restored and were fascinating to wander around. Typically as narrow as only 10 foot wide but up to 150 foot deep (a style which is still evident in many modern Vietnamese buildings), these long thin buildings provided a family home, a shop space at the front, a small outside courtyard in the centre and direct access to the river at the back so merchandise could be hauled upstairs safe above the annual floods that still blight the town. As recently as November 2010 the three streets closest to the river were submerged and we saw several buildings still evidently flood damaged, and even now in the dry season the river still over ran its banks most evenings. Our concerns for the future of this pretty town – and for Vietnam as a whole – were reinforced when we learnt that a 2007 report for the World Bank had concluded that Vietnam will be one of the five countries worst affected by rising sea level, with any rise over a metre “potentially catastrophic,” flooding over 5% of the country, including some of the most populated and economically useful areas, directly affecting over 6 million people.

Forty kilometres outside Hoi An, in an isolated rural setting, are the ruined Hindu temples of My Son, the religious and spiritual centre of the Champa Kingdom which covered much of central Vietnam from the 4th to 11th Century AD. We arrived early in the morning to miss the tour groups and spent a fascinating few hours alone wandering around the temples. Many are relatively well preserved and you can easily climb into their chimney like interiors. The external walls have elaborate carvings of the Hindu god Shiva, elephants, monkeys and coconut trees intertwined with real tree roots and vegetation. Sadly, although sections of the temple complex are well preserved, a number of temples were bombed by the Americans during their carpet bomb campaign which affected much of central and northern Vietnam, leaving only piles of crumbling bricks.

After spending a couple of afternoons on the quiet Cui Da beach outside Hoi An, we moved on to Nha Trang, the beach capital of Vietnam. After a cramped and uncomfortable overnight bus journey we felt in definite need of some rest and relaxation and thankfully luck was on our side, and we spent a very pleasant three days enjoying lots of sun from the loungers at a luxurious beach club with its own micro brewery.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Hanoi and Halong Bay

Even experience of Mongolia’s eratic driving and two months in China hadn’t prepared us for the unique chaos of Hanoi’s roads: a constant tide of motorbikes and scooters weaving in amongst each other, with no apparent traffic rules other than a seeming requirement to beep almost constantly. Crossing the road involves taking a leap of faith – stepping off the curb and just walking slowly and steadily and trusting that the bikes would flow round you. Motorbikes, which amazingly make up 98% of the traffic on the road, are used to carry anything and everything from a family of five to a large kitchen table, a new flat screen TV or even a live water buffalo. It’s got to the point where it looks odd seeing a bike with just one rider on it.

Kieran had been to Vietnam and Hanoi almost 10 years ago, and the city was largely as I remembered it, although with more traffic, but with fewer pushbikes and more motorbikes. Crash helmets have also arrived, required by law since 2007, before which over 30 people a day had been killed on the city roads. There are more western tourists too, and the cycle rickshaws which used to be commonly used as cheap taxis now seem reserved only for tourist use and are available for hire by the hour. But the feel and the atmosphere of the city have remained much as I remember them.

Despite the unnerving traffic we enjoyed our time in Hanoi and found it a fun and vibrant city: the pavements crowded with streetside cafes with tiny plastic chairs and tables selling fried dough, noodles, snails, and fresh beer (at only 13 pence a glass much the cheapest drinks we’ve had on this trip and a great way to start the evening); lively covered markets; and the busy old town with streets wholly devoted to selling one product or another, with one street selling just sunglasses, and another just shoes or fabrics, engraved headstones or motorbike parts.

We were met in Hanoi by Steve and Janet, Rachael’s parents who have joined us for the two week journey from Hanoi to Saigon. Together we spent a very enjoyable 4 days exploring the old town and the French quarter. Unlike in China, which seems to be intent on demolishing or hiding much of its history, Hanoi’s history is well preserved and documented. The French influence on the city is immediately apparent from the beautiful –if now dilapidated – colonial buildings, complete with balconies, verandas and wooden shutters. The city houses several interesting museums including the old French prison later used by the North Vietnamese to hold captured Americans including John McCain, which helped us learn more about the Vietnamese take on their struggles for independence over the last century against the French, Japanese and Americans. And then there’s Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, where Ho (like Lenin) remains on public display against his last wishes.

From Hanoi we travelled to Halong Bay, a spectacular marine landscape of thousands of limestone islets that rise out of the calm turquoise sea, concealing wonderfully secluded lagoons and coves. We spent a day on board an old fashioned Chinese junk, sailing amongst the islands and going swimming off the boat before seeing the New Year in in style on board.

The next day we explored more of the Bay by kayak, visiting quiet beaches and shallow areas the larger boats couldn’t reach and also some of the many tiny fish and mussel farms that are dotted around the Bay and where whole families and communities live permanently, eking out a living from their floating bamboo platforms.