Six weeks is a long time to be a way. It’s along time to be away from your family, from your business and from your regular life. It’s a long time but a good time. Long enough to break the habits and routines. Good enough to really unwind and reset. That was the plan when I decided in September to backpack through Vietnam and Cambodia. That was the plan with a free trip to Asia (flying on points), with the promise of cheap countries with good weather and food, budget hotel rooms and train berths. And that turned out to be the reality. There are lots of backpackers in Vietnam. There are a lot of people a lot older than me, in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, in Chau Doc and Siem Reap. My story is not unique. But here it is.
Getting ready to take off for a couple of months has two parts:
1) Taking your current life apart and
2) Building the next.
Taking this life apart is really all about putting it on hold. They say that before a vacation, you are never as well organized work-wise. You have cleaned up your client list, filed all of your paperwork. Cleaned up all the files on your computer, sending the important ones to the office and to the cloud, sending the other ones to the trash. You have told your boss or broker that you will be away for a few weeks and have arranged with a colleague to handle your incoming work, should it be incoming.
You have gotten the car winterized early.
You have cancelled your subscription to Spotify.
Building up to the next life involves applying for the visas, buying the travel books, thinking about what to pack. Thinking about taking your laptop or just your iPad, Do you need a cellphone plan? Is texting cheap?
I suppose I should get some shots. I don’t want to get hepatitis.
Malaria pill? Check.
Immunization record. Check.
Money belt. Little shaving cream, tooth paste and shampoo. Check, check, check.
Travel book, research, notes, what to pack. Planning, planning, planning. Go over the maps and the travel blogs, apply for the visas…
Don’t take too much.
Don’t try to see too much.
Boat and train travel is preferable to bus travel.
Briefly in Istambul
Airports are full of foreigners, but guess what? You’re a foreigner now. Traveling is no big deal anymore; everyone is doing it. You can book everything online – planes, trains and hotel rooms. Money? Just use the local ATMs.
Try to get some sleep on the flight. Don’t drink wine or coffee. Wear comfortable clothing. Don’t forget your earbuds, whatever you do, DO NOT FORGET YOUR EARBUDS.
So I wake up a little worse for wear in Istanbul. I’m flying on points so there is a four hour layover here. That’s ok. I kill the time, wandering the terminal, people watching, reading, writing. I’m not used to having so much down time.
I drink peppermint tea.
Istanbul airport is nowhere near as nice as Pearson. It’s is crowded and disorganized. You have to pay for wifi. The toilets don’t flush. The gates are not announced until boarding time. A big crowd is in front of the big board announcing flights. On this trip, Pearson will be the best airport. That’s something.
I see a couple of Turkish-looking guys drinking coffee. They have thick moustaches and wear suit jackets over sweaters. I wonder idly where they are going.
Before the sun goes down, I can see Turkey from the terminal windows. I see roads and cars, a housing complex and the top of a minaret. It would have been nice to see Turkey again. I’m sure the Hotel Mola is no longer there. And if it is, it’s not still playing the Blues Brothers movie every third night.
Airports are like little lego lands with their funny little vehicles, busy driving baggage, people, food and equipment around. The pace is as fast as the little engines will go. It is Bob, the builder land.
Discombobulated in Bangkok
Mostly by luck, I find my hotel, from the subway, then along the busy, busy Silom Road, down an alley, then a laneway, then there it is.
A chorus of angels.
A ray of sunlight.
I wake up and have absolutely no idea where I am. I am completely lost for a few moments. That is a weird sensation.
I wander around the Patpong neighbourhood, get something to eat, go to bed early and end up awake again at 3:30am, 4:30am the next day, getting better. I lounge around reading until the sun comes up and I go out and get barbecued toast and hot sweet soy milk from the sidewalk stall.
There are a lot of foreigners in Bangkok, and all kinds too: young backpackers, old backpackers, white people with families who appear to live here, Japanese businessmen, British expats. The old foreigners certainly outnumber the young ones. For me, travel is about struggle and hardship and Bangkok is just too easy. The subway system is fabulously advanced. The Thais are modern. They speak English, go to Starbucks and drive nice cars. They exercise in the park in the mornings and evenings.
I shop, buy a couple of travel books at a sidewalk stall, buy beer and mystery buns at 7-11, get some money out of an ATM, eat in open air restaurants, rice and chicken, noodles and chicken, barbecued chicken.
The two-day rule is hard to maintain. I can hardly wait for a clean shirt. 33 degrees.
When it rains, I think, “the first chance I get, I’m downloading Bladerunner”.
Hanoi – hot and chaotic
The first thing I notice about Hanoi is the heat. It is unseasonable hot they tell me, but 34 degrees? Really? WTF?
The second thing is the traffic. You can tell a lot about a country by how you get from the airport to the city centre. Shanghai had a maglev. Bangkok and Vancouver have skytrains, even Taipei has a super high flyover and a dubious connection to the high speed rail but Hanoi has a super expensive taxi and a super slow bus.
I get the taxi.
What is the difference between chaos and mayhem? That, I guess, is a rhetorical question because Vietnam traffic is unbelievable. It is worse than that of Taipei back in the 1980’s when the whole country went nuts and bought cars and motor scooters and still drove like they were on bicycles. Vietnam is nuts now. It has likely traveled along the same economic/transportation curve.
I will notice this later, because I am keeping notes, that my first impressions of destinations is never good. I almost always feel in the first day in a new place that I have made a BIG mistake and that I don’t like the place at all. Bangkok was like this, (too many foreigners, too much traffic) and Hanoi is like this too (too hot and chaotic, too assaulting to my sense of wellbeing).
I’m jet lagged, discombobulated, hot, lost on the narrow and busy streets and just in town an hour, out for a walk. A guy points to my shoe and then rushes up with a little white squeeze bottle. I say, “Hey man, what are you doing? These are new shoes.” I get around him and start off down the street again. I shake my head and laugh, look back. He’s laughing too. It is a shoe fixing scam. I will see it a few more times in Hanoi.
Second impressions are more important when you are traveling. I think you have to settle in, learn the local geography, get a feel for the places and the people.
The hotel staff are very helpful and nice. They have lots of time to chat and I ask about their families and their lives. Breakfast is included. I have Pho, which is very simple and light. I learn an important lesson. DO NOT TOUCH A HOT PEPPER AND THEN TOUCH YOUR FACE.
Hanoi has a lake in the centre of town and everyone walks around it (in a counter-clockwise direction). It is the focal point for this part of town. People exercise, dance, take wedding pictures and hang around at the lake. It is a little hard to get to as you have to cross the street to get there, but once across it is relatively calm (except for all the honking and music).
I do a lot of walking when I travel. I walked over half of Bangkok for three days and now I do the same in Hanoi. But everything is close, within walking distance – everything is within walking distance if you have enough time. The history museum. The prison museum. The jazz club. Shopping. Restaurants, lots of restaurants and lots of coffee.
As for the shopping, everything is together, so if you are looking for shoes, you go to shoe street. If you are looking for a little light because your hotel room is too dim to read, you go to electronic appliance street. One of the streets near my hotel is motorcycle seat street. If you need a new motorcycle seat, I can tell you how to get there, no problem.
When I’m travelling I like to do one thing everyday. I might do more, but I don’t want to overdo it. Traveling, for me is mostly about hanging around and trying to take it all in. It’s like John Lennon said, “It is not the destination, but the journey that matters.”
Well, maybe it wasn’t John Lennon who said that but he is top of mind as the music in this country is so retro and eclectic. In coffee shops I hear everything from CCR to Kylie Mingue, Neil Young followed by Culture Club, from Norwegian Wood to Uptown Funk.
I’m on my way south after this, traveling down the coast, sleeping in a berth on the overnight train to Hue, an old capital and cultural centre. Before I go, here are some quick impressions and observations.
1) The fruit is fresh and the food is simple asian faire. Beer is cheap and comes in big bottles and is necessary to combat the heat. Fruit shakes are good too.
2) English is commonly spoken. The server girl who wants to flip through my travel book. I ask where she learned English. She says, “In the club.” I wonder later if she meant English club or night club.
3) Vietnam is rough around the edges, but it is changing fast. It has gone through a lot: two wars, and an austerity program will put you a little behind.
4) Deliveries come in the front door
5) The tourists all carry maps. Those who don’t have maps have been here a while or are probably lost.
6) Hanoi rolls up it’s sidewalks at night. It is crazy busy from about 4pm to 6pm, after and before that it is just crazy, but at about 11pm it is suddenly peaceful. Someone told me that the city has a curfew. Seems true.
7) The coffee is strong, muddy and sweet. The bread is crispy on the outside and so soft on the inside.
8) There are a lot of tourists. All kinds. Boisterous Americans. A German guy comes into a restaurant and orders a Sprite. He sends the glass of ice back and drinks out of the can. He’s not taking any chances. A family of Asians (I think they are Koreans) go by on an electric open air tourist minibus. They are all wearing masks. Europeans. French Canadians. Australians.
9) One afternoon, I’m walking through an alley and I see what looks like a very clean rat walking ahead of me (same direction, thankfully). A school girl sees it and shrieks. I laugh out loud at her reaction and then see another girl parking her motorcycle enjoying the scene.
10) The girls on motorcycles wear red lipstick. Their motorcycle helmets have a grove in the back for their ponytails.
Hue and the rhythm of traveling
The night train is as I expected. Hot and cold, rhythmic and jolting, dodgy bathrooms, everything looking a little grimy. We sometimes get a good speed going, but mostly it is just slow. You can go from Beijing to Shanghai in about six hours now but, Hanoi to Saigon, a somewhat longer distance, takes 33 altogether.
I berth with a young Belgium couple and a snoring Vietnamese guy. I enjoy talking with the Belgians. I get the feeling that they are a generation behind us in Canada. They are tied to the land, they have big families. They are cohesive. They are old style western Europeans. This couple had just bought a house. They were very conservative in their thoughts. No tattoos, just jobs and mortgages and seniority.
The other occupant of our car, the snoring Vietnamese guy. It must be weird for him to be on this train that is 80% foreigners. Do the locals not travel? Not by train?
When the sun comes up at 6am, we are still three hours to destination. Out in the fields are oxen and birds with their symbiotic relationship. There is not much else.
From the station, I am the only one of a train full of foreigners who elects to walk to his hotel. It’s the last time I walk. What am I crazy, saving $2 by walking 2km in the hot sun, with a 20 pound backpack.
My first impression of Hue is not good. It is pretty obvious that this town depends on tourism. First a motorcyclist follows me, telling me over and over that he will take me to my hotel for $2. Then I am approached by a guy who asks where I am from. He says his niece is going to Canada to study and he is having a hard time changing money, finding small bills. Would I like to change money. This is a low level scam, I can just tell. I get rid of him. I get the feeling that I am in a low-level lawless land.
In Hanoi, there are these ladies standing on many of the street corners. As you pass, they reach out and try to hand you a donut. “Free”, they say. They are very annoying, especially when you pass the 7th or 8th one on a short walk.
Here in Hue, it is the ‘taxi/tour service’ that irritate. Motorcycle drivers are on every corner and as you pass they will try to engage you. ‘Where you from?’, ‘one hour, two dollars’, ‘where you going? they bark out. If you actually get trapped into talking with them, you get ‘how much you want to pay?’, ‘tomorrow, too hot. You go today.’
They will simply not leave you alone. My first clue of this was the second one who approached me and followed me a full kilometre as I waked to my hotel.
‘Hey listen, get lost’, I tell him, and later ’I’m getting pretty close to my hotel now, shouldn’t your price be going down?’
The hotel room is bright and simply furnished. I go for a walk around town and then lunch.
‘Hoda Beer, established in 1990’. In terms of the modern world Vietnam is not very old. I noticed this in Shanghai too. When I was there, they were having there 2nd annual this and their 4th annual trade show that. With Vietnam, the war and what followed wiped out the old colonial culture and only now (in 1990) it is coming back.
I order chicken stir fry and spring rolls.
The rice delivery comes in the front door. A couple of Canadian girls linger over lunch and talk about their families. A foursome of older Europeans, arrive and sit at a table out front. They are soon bothered by a guy selling sunglasses. A little truck arrives out front. The pop delivery comes in the front door. Coke, Sprite, Orange Crush.
Blogging is like laundry. You are never quite finished. On this trip, I sit in coffee shops and hotel restaurants and take notes, (like above) about what is happening around me. I am only casually interested in the historic sites and the city’s museums and other tourist destinations. I listen to other traveler’s conversations, but only for entertainment. I watch the traffic go by. I lounge around in my hotel rooms, reading, watching movies on TV and listening to podcasts. I linger in coffeeshops, lots of coffeeshops. And, I stroll around towns with destinations in mind, but with no purpose. That, for me is traveling. Everything takes a long time and happens in slow motion. It’s a dog’s life. I sleep. I eat. I wander around.
Except for the touts, Hue is a nice and peaceful little town. The river has lots of boat traffic. The night market is not at all like a traditional asian night market – it has a permanence about it and is focussed on art instead of t-shirts or fruit and veggies.
The next day, I rent a bicycle and visit the purple palace and citadel. It is in bad shape, mostly not restored.
The day after that, I rent a motorcycle and head for the coast. I get lost, of course, several times and sunburned. I drop by a resort hotel and pay $5 to sit by the pool. The price includes one cold beer. On the way back into town, I discover where I made my wrong turn, the one that added 45 minutes to my 15 kilometre drive to the coast. It was one of the first turns. It set me off in a direction parallel to the coast, but hey, I got to see a wedding and how the country cousins live. Cows, fields, construction, villages. I pass a duck farm where I witness half the baby ducks leaving the pond and the other half entering the pond and getting completely tangled up in the middle. It looked just like local traffic.
The day after that, I visit a huge market and through negotiations learn what things are worth – about 1/3rd of the first quoted price. I buy a bar of Lifebouy, as hotel soap is either not supplied or breaks into several pieces the first time you try to use it. The weather is hot and and humid; I shower two or three times a day.
I get caught in heavy afternoon or evening downpours a couple of times. Usually there is a restaurant or coffeeshop nearby. Once, I took refuge under a bridge with a big group of high school kids. Soaked, I just pull my hair back with my fingers.
I have beer and a recommended pork noodle dish, which is really good. I catch a group of french ladies looking at me. I’m sure my hair is going in every direction. Beer, pho, spring rolls, rice, beef with peppers, an excellent Indian meal, coffee, a hamburger and fries in a backpacker place, breakfast. The food is excellent.
On the forth night, I shower at the hotel and then take a taxi to the train station.
Beach town – Nha Trang
Arriving in a new town is alway hard, especially a tourist town. But recent experience has taught me just to give a town some time and I will learn to love it.
I make a mistake of going with a tout in an unmetered taxi. I know I shouldn’t have done it, but once in a while you forget and let your guard down. Hassles are ubiquitous and make the best stories. When we get to the hotel I ask how much and am not too surprised when he says 400,000 Dong. I say you’ve got to be kidding; it should be 10% of that. I didn’t just arrive in Vietnam yesterday…and on and on for a bit knowing from our conversation so far that they won’t understand any of it. So I fish out 40,000 Dong and throw it on the front seat and leave. Nice try, but no, that trick doesn’t work on me.
The train ride is a little rougher than the first one. This time I have six in my berth and there are a couple of stops during the night and morning where some of my fellow travellers get on and others get off. I sleep fitfully.
The most interesting thing about Nha Trang is that it is full of Russians. I wasn’t expecting that and it is a little weird. Nevertheless, Nha Trang is for the Russians like Varadero, Porta Plata or Mazatlan is for Canadians. They fly in, they drink, they eat, they lay on the beach, they drink. The real difference is that the men wear speedos and the women wear handkerchiefs in their hair. And, they smoke and wander around, drinking bottles of wine and big bottles of beer.
At breakfast, the waitress says good morning to me in Russian and then realizes her mistake. She goes back to the counter and brings me an English menu.
Being a beach town, Nha Trang has book exchanges and I notice many counterfeit books for sale and trade. Many look like they were mimeographed back in the 1980’s. There are tons of spelling mistakes.
Being a beach town, Nha Trang caters to tourists. The food is Russian and western: borsch, hamburgers, barbecue, pizza, shawarma. I have a humongous Greek meal, ginormous.
Being a beach town, I hang around the beach, reading mostly and listening to podcasts for four days and three nights. I walk the beach and sit on the sea wall and watch others walk the beach. I buy a couple of t-shirts.
I have a romantic notion about travel, about immersing myself in different cultures and struggling through them. Traveling, I think, used to be much harder and more charming and innocent. Travel used to be a night sky with a few shining points of light. But that’s all changed. It’s been updated. Everyone is traveling, booking online, printing out maps, planning itineraries. And I’m no different. I check my email every morning and every night. I have Skype phone calls back home. I read the news from my iPad. I’m not immersed.
So I don’t really like this town, but I take full advantage of the beach beds, restaurants and coffee houses. I like the pace, which is a general laziness. And I like the convenience. When in Rome, do as the Romans.
Another overnight train ride. They get worse as I go south. Too many early morning telephone calls. Too much volume. Too many conversations. Vietnamese is a harsh sounding language. Is that ok to say? Is it ok to say that at six o’clock in the morning?
I am a pro now at the Vietnamese railway system. I find my bunk, no problem. A family of newbies, tried to tell me otherwise, but I showed them where the numbers were and I showed them my ticket. But they did not believe me. They wouldn’t trust this guy until someone else in my berth told them they were wrong and told them to take off.
The Saigon Railway Station is a relic. I guess the other ones were too. I hadn’t noticed.
I spoke with a couple of Australian girls at the station before I left. They were heading north. They hadn’t booked ahead. They were old style backpackers. They hadn’t liked Nha Trang. Too many Russians. Too rude. The art of travelling is to learn the local geography and find a good place to chill out. I didn’t tell them this. Who am I to pontificate?
Saigon is like Hanoi and like Taipei two generations ago, except the touts are trying to sell crap to tourists: lighters, postcards, fans, sunglasses, motorcycle rides, cheap plastic toys, bread…Did I mention how many tourists there are in Vietnam? I’m unique, just like everybody else. Travel here is easy. Everything can be arranged through your hotel: sim card, bus travel, motorcycle rental, even books can be exchanged. Down the street, there are restaurants and fruit stalls. You need sunglasses, new flip-flops, a new bag or backpack, socks, underwear…you name it, if it is not within 100 meters, it certainly is within walking distance.
Like every new town I arrive in, I arrive tired and disoriented. I spend the first day learning the geography. Waking around, sitting around, hanging around. In Vietnam, the restaurants and coffee shops point the seats out to the street so you can keep your eye on the traffic and the passersby. I drink coffee, juice, fruit shakes and beer and occasionally water or tea.
At breakfast, I talk with a couple of German girls. I ask what they did yesterday. ‘Nothing’, they say, ‘just walked around, drank coffee and ate croissants. There is not too much to do here and after the experience of travel, you just want to do nothing’. I couldn’t agree more. But, I try to do one thing every day. That’s it. One destination. Yesterday it was a trip to the bookstore. Today, a visit to the war museum. Museums are just collections of items and photographs, somewhat related to each other. Items like, an old wagon, an old car that somebody rode in to some important event, old pictures, old maps of the city…the staff is so bored. The old post office was nice. The temples were old and smoky with incense.
Mid-morning and Saigon slowly comes awake. I drink coffee at Starbucks. Check my email, surf around a bit.
At this point of the trip, I’m joined by the missus. This changes the dynamic. There are things that she wants to do. I’ve become lazy. She is ready for adventure. I’ve seen what Vietnam is like (and I like it). She want to see things. We eat better. I’ve never been that interested in food. That’s a good thing. But I have my routines and we pretty much follow them.
We talk to hotel guests at breakfast. We go for coffee. We ‘plan our day’. We hang around on the rooftop seating area of a Starbucks. We have the whole place to ourselves, but down on the street it is as busy as a hornet’s nest. One day we rent a motorcycle and drive out to District 7 for a little look at how the expats live. I love this. I love to see how others live. And the drive was fabulous, over bridges, through tunnels, through undeveloped parts of Ho Chi Minh City where there are lots of trucks. We have lunch in a very modern shopping mall food court. But we don’t see many expats. There are certainly more tourists that expats in this country. All the expats live in Bangkok.
The bus ride into the Mekong Delta is a lot better once we discovered that there is wifi. I listen to iTunes music Frank Zappa, The Doors (this is the end). The roadway is, as predicted, not that crowded, except through towns, but bumpy. They haven’t quite worked out how to join bridges to roadways and this being the delta, there are a lot of rivers and thus a lot of bridges.
Can Tho is a nice little town, population only 1 million. It is a regional capital and the place where a lot of different provinces meet.
We get up early the next day and take a trip to the floating market.It is really interesting and authentic, a wholesale cash and carry on the mighty Mekong. Jack fruit. I buy half a kilo.
Brunch is Pho and coffee. That is breakfast in Vietnam. We sit around, me reading about Cambodia, looking forward to getting there. Until the late 90’s it was a pretty rough and lawless place. We will see if it is still a place for petty crime, warm beer, beggars and tourist touts.
The touts bother me the most. They are so annoying and presumptuous.
In Can Tho, you can cross the intersection without too much worry of getting hit by a motorcycle. The locals drive around the night market and the food night market making the letter w, down and up down and up. After that they go home and go to bed. They get up early in this town. We were up at 5am and on the boat before sunrise at the floating market. We had coffee on the boat and then came back the long way little canals, seeing how the locals live.
As we sit in so many coffee shops something suddenly dawns on me. In Canada, people appear to be working in Coffee shops. They are often dressed for business and/or have laptops open. Here, even the illusion of any work being done is unnecessary. In fact, in most places you sit side by side facing the street and simply watch the day go by.
About Cambodia. I’m reading ahead as we head for the border. Cambodia hit it’s peak in about the year 1300 and it’s been downhill from there ever since. As late as 1998, it wasn’t safe to be a tourist. There were a couple of incidences of tourist getting pulled out of taxis and trains and shot. Bang. Bang. Take that, hippie. I read the recent history, but with the shifting of alliances, cold war politics, and a monarchy, it is hard to figure who the good guys are or were and what was really going on. It is safe to say though that a lot of people died . At one point the government abolished money. How can you run a country without money? Needless to say, a lot of people starved during these fiascos. But that was more than 30 years ago. The ones that starved had survived civil war, a war with Vietnam and a government or two that seemed to want to kill them. It is too simple to say that they should not have taken sides against the Americans, but that decision certainly had something to do with the following 30 years of decline and ruin. I guess it is a good thing that the cold war ended and relative peace could be allowed to break out. Cambodia was a victim of the cold war, regional politics, failed colonialism as well as their own corrupt government. That is how I understand it.
It is good to have a resort day once in a while, so in Can Tho we pay $6 and sit by a nice pool in a five star hotel. It is a lovely place, backing onto a river of course. The beer and food unfortunately is too dear for us. But taxi’s aren’t and it is just a short taxi ride from our two star hotel.
The pool is like a bathtub, but it is a little refreshing. I listen to music, read and even fall asleep briefly. Besides the floating market, there is nothing really to do in this town, but that is fine with us. The next town is Chau Doc, the last town before the Cambodian Border.
Chau Doc on the Cambodian Border
The bus ride is uneventful. For a while the driver seemed to be in a big hurry, honking his horn and passing everybody. Then he calmed down. The road to Chau Doc is not a highway. It is a wide road, punctuated with dusty villages, like commas and semicolons in a long run-on sentence that really isn’t very interesting, except for its length.
Chau Doc, a little town on a river, the place where we catch a boat into the heart of darkness. It is flat country, the delta and there are lots of little bridges to cross. Sometimes this trip reminds me of the trip along the Ghost Coast we took last August, flat with a lot of water.
The travel book says that Chau Doc is a boring little town. It is but I like it. Population 160,000. The market is in the middle.The town is on a grid of about 4 blocks by 6 blocks. That is it. The waterfront is nice. It has the exercise equipment and great views of life on the riverbank.
The delta-living Vietnamese are a healthy bunch. They like to take exercise and sports. They eat not a lot and it is fresh and they go to bed early. Simple folk who appear to be content to live this sort of life.
We figured out the whole bus thing. When you arrive at a town, the bus company will put you on a free shuttle to your hotel (or where ever else you are going). They pick you up too, so it is door to door service. You have to like that.
The bus to Chau Doc was 80% foreigners. I guess there isn’t much other reason to come to this town but to leave it. It’s too bad, ’cause its nice.
The hotel room we had in Chau Doc was the most beautiful and modern one yet. But the hotel in Phnom Penh is massive. You could fit a regular hotel room in the bathroom alone it is so big. So, we have discovered a secret. Book a cheap hotel (2 star) but get the best room. This place is like a small apartment.
First impressions of the Cambodians is that they are very very different than the Vietnamese. They are darker and look almost Indian. Many wear moustaches, maybe thats why. They aren’t as open and friendly as the Vietnamese either. After three weeks traveling there, you just expect that the hotel will be able to answer all your questions, provide you with everything you need and basically become your surrogate family. Not here.
Though the traffic is just as crazy, the transportation is different. In Phnom Penh, they have these motorcycle rickshaws, where they have bolted a carriage onto the back of a 100 cc motorcycle.
The food is different. The beer is the same and thats a good sign. It is funny how two countries that have always been right next to each other can be so different. But then if you think about Europe and say Germany and France, that is the way things work out.
The boat ride boarder crossing was nice and easy and comfortable. We sat near the front and the breeze kept us cool. It was six hours altogether so there was lots of time to read and look out the window.
One thing that keeps bothering me on this trip is the behaviour of the other tourists. Every time we are crammed together on boats or busses, at boarder crossing line ups and kiosks, there are line cutters, out of control children, those who speak too loud, blow smoke in your face, drink too much. Sure they are fat and sweating and wear funny clothes. Sure they are rich and cheap and uninformed and unimaginative. Sure they are primal, privileged and pompous and boring. But I don’t know why they bother me so much. Maybe I’m just tired. But they are not all bad. There are some good ones too; sometimes you get into a nice conversation about travel experiences and home countries.
Have you ever noticed that used book stores always play 1950’s jazz? I trade in a book and get $2 and buy another for $7.
Having a kettle in a hotel room is essential. We laze around in the morning drinking coffee, checking the email that came in over night. We are 11 time zones away, which is pretty convenient in terms of staying in touch. Of course now, I’ve been away for about a month and it is December, so the volume of emails has dried up. It reinforces what I thought before – that I could go away every year for December and not miss anything business-wise.
I’ve learned other things on this trip too:
Don’t bring six pairs of socks. I have not worn socks in more than three weeks.
Do bring a family size bar of soap. When you shower three times a day, you will need it.
Bring books. Travelling means there is lots of time and often internet connection is poor.
Buy a reading light.
Bring more shirts. It is hard to maintain two day rule.
Bargain always. Ask is there a discount or just say too expensive. If asked what you want to pay say 1/3 the quoted price. When getting off a bus or boat, split up and negotiate separately and then compare.
Follow other travellers lead.
Watch and learn.
Be direct and assertive.
When you think about it, these are good rules for life, not just travelling.
Phnom Penh is kind of a sprawling low-rise city, but I guess you can say we were in downtown when we see Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. We are within 20 feet of them. They are just out shopping. No kids, no car, no body guards, just a couple of regular people out doing supposedly some Christmas shopping. We are shocked, frozen, not knowing what to do. I think about following them into the shop. I think about waiting outside and at least getting a picture, but in the end we respected their privacy and wandered away.
I was really looking forward to Phnom Penh. I thought it exotic and mysterious. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I’m a little disappointed. (I think Vietnam spoiled me). Phnom Penh is not as convenient. You cannot rent a bike or a motorcycle at your hotel. And it won’t be $1.50 at the rental shop. It will be $8 (oh, look at me, complaining about $8). There are more beggars in Phnom Penh and we been cautioned about bag snatchers. There are certainly some seedy parts of town where you see old men with bar girls and with children. That is just sick.
But Cambodia is not all bad, just different. We go to Sam Doo’s a well-known Chinese Khmer place for some really good food. We get lost walking back to our hotel and happen upon a huge shopping mall, where I notice that there are a lot of shoppers but no one seems to be buying anything. We hang out at the Blue Pumpkin – a coffee place. They have a couch that runs the length of the place. We visit the local Palace (yawn) and walk along the riverfront. I have this thought about living here and opening a used book store. I’d play jazz and serve coffee all day and expensive whiskey at night. Like Death Valley’s Little Brother, I’d call it The Salmon of Doubt, or Peter Cat’s Jazz Victory or Art Takes a Fall or something silly but thought provoking like that. Then, I think, ‘that’s a terrible idea. I don’t even like this town’.
It’s a short stay in a hot place. We arrange the bus to Siem Reap.
Siem Reap is like a beach town, but without the beach and without the town. It is a sanitized, Disney-fied, tourist dominated destination with the manmade wonder of the Angkor Wat within easy reach. We came overland by bus from Phnom Penh, a dusty and bumpy ride. About an hour outside of Phnom Penh, the paved road comes to an end and is replaced by a dusty red dirt road. In places the dust is so thick on the plants and umbrellas at the side of the road, you can not tell what colour they are. The people too are covered in a layer of dust. The towns are urban eyesores, just jumbles.
Eight hours of this on the bus and then we arrive, Siem Reap, party town. Tourists fly in, spend a few days and say they’ve seen Cambodia. They haven’t. Siem Reap is a dusty donut around a soft centre of the fake town, the mother of tourist towns. They actually block off the streets to traffic so tourist can stroll in relative comfort and ease without having to dodge tuktuks and motorcycles and vendors selling stuff, the same stuff that no one else wants but someone must buy, sometimes, maybe.
We rent ebikes from a french expatriate and head off to see eight to ten wats. The ebikes are quiet except for the signals which are overly loud, the ebike are made not for speed or for comfort. They are made for those who want to travel at the speed of a regular road bike, but don’t want to pedel. Perfect for us. When there is no traffic around, we glide over the countryside taking it all in. The dirt, the cows, the monkeys, the birds, the trees, the villages, the ancient wats.
The wats come in three sizes: big, large and enormous. Crumbling stones cut and put together and overtime, taken apart again by tree roots, trunks and branches, weather and just time. They are old about 1000 years old give or take 200 years either way. They were build over about 300 years by different kings worshiping Hindu and Buddhist gods, in fact the history of the region is basically this – the warring of the kings believing in different gods. Life in Cambodia has always been cruelly short and shortly cruel.
Some wats attract large crowds, others there is just us. On the roads around the wats, bus loads of Taiwanese and South Koreans. A troupe of mountain bikers in spandex clothing and slicked back hairdos, lots of travellers with their hired tuktuks for the day, cyclists, and us on our ebikes.
Lots of walking, lots of climbing, lots of pictures. Lots of tourists. Lots of touts. We learn about politics and recent history at our lunchtime restaurant owned by an Australian guy. After we ate he came over and we talked about politics in Cambodia and the recent history. He argued that one of the reasons Cambodia is so slow to develop, compared to it’s neighbours is, besides having a corrupt government, the education standard is very low. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge wiped out the educated class back in the late 1970’s. It will take two generations to get back to where they were. We must look like space aliens to them with our thick books, our expensive shoes, exercise and photography equipment and electronics. We must appear as a master race. No wonder they are so shy of us.
The next day, we see the real side of Siem Reap when we get lost on bikes looking for the war history museum. We ride through what is basically a giant slum. Dogs laying in the dirt, laundry on the line, kids, lots of kids.
The war museum was all about the 1970’s till about 1999 when the war finally ended. It was good to get some insight, true or not into how Pol Pot and Non Nol got everyone out of the cities. They, according to our guide, told the residents that the US was going to start bombing the cities. They were after all already bombing the countryside. They flew a Chinese fighter over the city. People were so scared and misinformed, they took off for the country.
They got rid of the intellectuals by asking them to identify themselves so that they could be given good jobs in the new government. Once they did identified themselves, they were lead away and killed. You could get killed just for wearing glasses (because they thought you must be smart).
A month ago I left Canada. Since then I have travelled by bus, by bicycle rickshaw, tuktuk, speed boat, slow boat, place, train, motorcycle, ebike, minivan and taxi. Today we get on a big bus to Bangkok.
We had a nice two full days in Siem Reap. This town is easy. There are lots and lots of restaurants. There are book stores and pharmacies. It is a good idea to rent a bike at your hotel if only to discourage every tuk tuk driver not to solicit for rides. But all in all, Cambodia has been a disappointment and that is disappointing. Maybe I’m just tired of traveling already.
In Siem Reap the directions to get to the bus company’s office was on X street near the KFC. No street number. Maybe street numbers were outlawed by the Khmer Rouge too. I only mention the KFC because I ended up clicking on the review link. This poor guy came into Siem Reap and decided to make KFC his first meal in Cambodia. He was very unhappy because the fries were cold and the service was slow. There was a book about this guy once. It used to be famous. The Ugly American. Most people don’t remember the book or the term Ugly American or what it refers to but luckily we have a modern term that works just as well. It is ‘asshole’. First world problems in a third world country. Grow up. This is the kind of tourist that loves Siem Reap.
The bus ride including one of the strangest boarder crossings is about 8 hours. It is a long time to sit on a bus, but we are ready with junk food, water, books, work to do and podcasts. I actually fall asleep for about five minutes too, which is a weird amount of time to fall asleep but sometime that happens, cap nap, power nap, my life as a dog.
Thirty years ago I walked out of Bangladesh, after waiting at a hut with a straw roof and a red flag sticking out of it for the guard who arrived from up the hill, still chewing on his breakfast. I was walking out along where there were once railway tracks. But those had been torn up either during or after the war with India in 1972. The guard wanted to search through my luggage which was meagre – two t-shirts, one novel (The Diceman, with the cover torn off), a toothbrush — on a scale of tourist to homeless, I was approaching homeless, a wandering monk kind of existence. Anyway, that boarder was strange, the guard found about $30 worth of Indian Rupees and asked for backsheesh, when I argued that I needed all of it, he must of believed me because he stamped my passport with an exit visa and I walked on into India.
The Cambodia Thailand boarder crossing is equally strange, but nowhere near as mellow. The bus pulls up and we are told to grab our belongings and go through customs. We walk around a traffic circle, past other busses, and past trucks, cars, carts, beggars, lots of beggars, and a host of other visual insults. Line up, four lines, shuffle to the front, give over your passport, have your picture taken, fingerprints scanned…we are like cattle going to slaughter. It is all so impersonal and cold, but it always is. It just normally isn’t outdoors. We follow the ones I front of us to the next stop. We have to cross the traffic waiting to get across the border. It is inching forward. The time is about 11am. We have made good time to the boarder but this town, or two towns jammed together really stinks and it is hot. The children begging and selling to the truck drivers are bare footed though, so I don’t complain out loud about it.
The next stop is a building with a luggage scanner. There is a bit of a back up but we get through that too. Across a small bridge with a river filled with old water bottles and pop cans, plastic bags and food wrappers, then upstairs into a building and we are at Thailand Customs and Immigration, passport stamped, downstairs and out into the sun and he mayhem, we are in the Kingdom of Thailand. Standing on the sidewalk. A girl on a motorcycle hits a large oil slick on the pavement and the bike goes down, ruining her pants and damaging her ego. She quickly gets up and gets back on the bike, but now her tires are slick with oil and she fishtails and almost goes down again. The traffic into Cambodia looks worse than the traffic coming out. There are donkey carts and modified shopping carts going in, the people pulling them in shabby and soiled clothing.
A herd can only travel as fast as the slowest member. Some of the people from the bus get held up or lost between boarders and we wait and wait, first by the side of the road and then in the bus. Then suddenly we are off, away from this mess and on our way to the most modern and westernized city I’ve been to on this trip – Bangkok.
Arriving in any place is always a bit of a nightmare. The carrier, dumps you and your luggage off and is done with you. Goodbye.
We are near MoChit BTS/MTS station but too far to walk so we get a taxi, forget to tell him to turn his meter on and pay double what the girl at information told us we would pay. Damn. I suck it up. It is only $4 but it still hurts. I kick myself for letting my guard down.
The MTS has a long line to buy tokens, but when the train arrives we get seats which is nice, we are riding this sucker to the other side of town. What we don’t know is that today is the day that the city is having it’s Bike for Dad Day. They have closed off 25KM of streets 3:00-10:00. Somehow thousands upon thousands of people riding their bike around the city is suppose to celebrate the Kings 88th birthday. One of the closed off streets is the one our hotel is on. There are so many people on the sidewalk that it takes us a full15 minutes to get out of the station. It is a twenty minute walk to the hotel, according to google, but the crowded cheering on the sidewalk turn it into a 35 minute walk. Finally as the sun is setting, we arrive at our hotel. We have been travelling all day. The air conditioner in the last hotel was on too strong and I have a sore throat and a runny nose. Yep, 32 degrees and I have a cold.
So Bangkok is about visiting the palace, riding the BTS and the MTS, visiting Koh San Road, a trip to the spa for a massage, good food, boat rides, shopping at the weekend market. Back in the day, you could get knock offs of Levi’s jackets and shirts, tapes and books, shoes and dvd’s and cd’s, which were a brand new technology back then.
We sat down with an American teacher (retired lawyer) having a hot dog. I have an iced coffee, my ‘go to’ drink twice or thrice a day. He wants to act as a tour guide telling us where to go, but I tell him that I have been in coming to Bangkok since 1988 so I’ve seen what I want to see. I’m just passing through.
Anyway talking with this teacher is a great chance to find out what it’s like to be a resident foreigner and I continue to bring the conversation back to what I want to talk about?
How much do you make?
Is that enough to live on?
Yes, comfortably. You can live on less than $800/month.
How many hours do you work?
About 60 hours a week?
I only teach about 30, less than 30. But I am at the school 7:30-3:30 Monday to Friday and I teach little kids on the weekend too.
I found out about visa runs to the Cambodia border and we talked briefly about Cambodia and Vietnam although I spent a lot more time in those two than he did. Apparently an English Teacher can make more money in Vietnam than in Thailand; three times as much. I wouldn’t dream of teaching English again. Been there. Done that. And sounds like it is pretty much the same now as it was then.
Back in Taipei
It’s been 15 years and six months and although we arrived just as the daylight ended, Taipei from the window of the car seems cleaner. The traffic is more orderly. The buses don’t belch black smoke and there seems to be fewer motorcycles. Taipei is no longer the dystopian future Bladerunner land that it once was. It seems quieter, and cleaner and certainly more modern.
It actually, from the backseat of a car seems a lot like Toronto. Taipei has moved to Saigon, Saigon moved to Phnom Penh and perhaps Phnom Penh moved to Dhaka. Who knows? This is the future baby. Get with the program.
I enjoyed most of the time I lived in Taiwan. Almost ten years altogether, about four of those in Taipei. When we left, I had a good job at an international advertising company. I was teaching at a University in the evenings too. We had a special place to live – a townhouse. Whereas most people had to deal with elevators and communal parking issues, we were self contained. The kids went to the daycare at the end of the alley. That was Panchaio. I rode the train into Taipei and then transferred to the subway. I didn’t want to leave and I swore that I would never come back. Been there. Done that. And that was that.
But here I am, back and I like it.
- The traffic is certainly lighter. The street are quieter both in terms of the amount of traffic (type of traffic) and sound of traffic. From the MRT station, I look down on what in 1989 would have been a crush of motorcycles, buses and taxis and now it is not that heavy. Five o’clock on a Friday night. Hard to believe. If I go back 25 years, I doubt I would find the same in Toronto. TO is getting worse, TPE is getting better.
- It doesn’t smell. The factories made it stink in Taiwan. Now they are all gone and Taiwan does not stink.
- Seeing the mountains. You could only see the mountains (which mostly surround Taipei) after a typhoon in the old days. No pollution = better views. I suppose I was here during what was Taiwan’s golden age in terms of business but also its darkest days in terms of pollution.
- Shopping is still a national pastime. We go into a bookstore and it is packed with people reading. We see all kinds of shoppers buying all kinds of things. People are quite fashionable here. When we were in Phnom Penh, we stumbled upon a high-end mall which was very busy. But people weren’t buying anything. They were just browsing and enjoying the air conditioning. In Taipei people shop and buy.
- Things change. We dropped by my old place of work. It is just around the corner from the air bnb. It’s gone. O&M moved out and maybe away. The job I loved is gone. (I later found out that it moved over near Taipei 101. That made me happy. I loved that job)
- Maturity. Taiwan has grown up. It was the Wild West of the east when I was here, but now it has matured into early middle age. People are calmer. Traffic is politer. The streets are cleaner.
- Garbage. We actually saw people sorting their garbage at the garbage truck last night. In the early days there would be big piles of garbage here and there. Those attracted cats and rats and wild dogs. And stank. In the old days there was always litter here and there.
- ICRT is still here but now it is the 4th most popular station and is not located up on Yamingshan. Gone, I suspect are the old DJs. I listened to it through my iPad for a little while and then I lost my connection.
- I like Taiwan. I guess I knew I would. It is not as hot and chaotic as Vietnam. It has fewer foreigners now than it had then. Bangkok is full of foreigners. I hate that. Taiwan is more remote now than it ever was. It is pretty much forgotten or never known by the rest of the world. It is not on the tourist circuit. Not a Chinese business hub. It’s funny. Taiwan is now much better and more modern but less important and less relevant than it was 20 years ago. I guess China will (re)claim Taiwan someday by simply absorbing it slowly like rust, or moss or an ameba, or periwinkle…
I think next year… Myanmar and Bangladesh.