Archive for September, 2008

Beautiful, Laid-Back Laos

Laos is a little-known country but it played a big role in the Vietnam War. Laos has the unenviable title as the most bombed country by the US in the World (don’t know about now with the Iraq War and all). According to my Laos book- more bombs were dropped on Laos than in all of World War II- it’s the equivalent of one bomb every eight seconds for nine years!  (The North Vietnamese used Laos to create the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail and the US was trying to find it.) But, in true Laos style, they turned lemons into lemonade by taking the shells of the bombs to create canoes.

Laos is unlike any other country in SE Asia and is definitely a highlight. It’s calm, laid-back, and the people super friendly. And best of all you are not looked at like a walking ATM. You’re not followed around the store when all you want to do is browse. You’re not hounded in the markets. And beggars? What beggars?? All in all, it’s a great way to end my journey. And unbelievably, I’m only going to spend about $200 in the nine days I’m spending in the country- including tourist attractions, food, and spending the extra Kip in Luang Prabang’s Night Market. The worst part is the wad of money the ATM’s dispense. We were told to get enough money in the capital, Vientiane, to last for the rest of Laos because ATM’s are iffy in the rest of the country. So, imagine my surprise to get $1 million Kip in 20,000 notes- that’s like a 1/2 inch stack of money!

The three major tourist towns are Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Luang Prabang. There’s not much to the capital city, so I’ll skip writing about that. Vang Vieng is one of those legendary backpacker towns and in order to earn your badge for Vang Vieng you have to do two things – tube down the Nam Song river and lounging around all night watch episodes of ‘Friends’. Check and check. Luckily, it was easy for us to decide what to do. It rained the first day so we vegged out and watched TV all day. And the second day was sunny and gorgeous so we all went tubing which involves also being roped into riverside “bars”. Vang Vieng is way more Western than Laotian but it’s just the fix needed for people who need a little bit of home.

Luang Prabang is a place to just sit back and watch the world go by. There are the waterfalls and caves to explore- which I did get swim in the nice, freezing waterfall water. But, the marquee event in Luang Prabang is the Night Market which is unlike anything else. No pressure, no hassle, and good prices that are not inflated (well not too much) for tourists. In fact, it’s the quietest market I’ve even been to. Pure bliss to shop in peace. I realized yesterday that I have way more Kip than I need so I went on a little shopping spree and luckily since I’m nearing the end of my trip I won’t have to lug the loot around for long. I’m still blown away by $200 for nine days including my shopping spree (but not including hotel because that’s part of the tour cost).

Tomorrow we will be starting our two-day boat journey to northern Thailand. Until next time…

Welcome to Hanoi…

Welcome to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam… here’s your 20 cent beer!  Hanoi is the home of the world’s cheapest beer.  I got through about a third of it before I gave up.  Horrific stuff!  But, it’s mind blowing that five people can have one beer each and the total bill is just under a dollar.  If fact, Vietnam is a relatively inexpensive country for Westerners (but don’t tell that to the locals- it’s expensive to them).  I’ve been able to eat lunch/dinner including a soda for around $5.

I find Hanoi to be what I had imagined Vietnam to be like.  The Old Quarter is a maze of narrow streets, restaurants, loads of people and of course honking horns.  In fact, the traffic is just as crazy as Saigon.  Intersections are a free for all and I’m shocked that there are not more collisions.  Even where there are traffic signals, many just view those as merely a “suggestion.”

Yesterday we got back from the amazing Halong Bay.  It was a great day and half.  It included a boat ride through the islands, a delicious lunch, kayaking, and swimming on a deserted beach on Monkey island where it was just us and the monkeys.  Pure bliss! (Well except for the stinging sunburn I’m sporting today.)

Today, I went to the “Hanoi Hilton” as it is called by the American POW’s.  But, in reality it is known as the Hoa Lo Prison.  The prison’s history extends beyond the American prisoners and is a symbol of Vietnam’s struggle for independence from foreign occupation namely the French.  What stuck me most was the amount of Vietnamese women patriots imprisoned there.  I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere in the world where women played such an important and large role in a country’s struggle for independence.

Another part I found interesting was the American POW section.  While the rest of the prison showcased the brutality of the Vietnamese by the French, the American section showed a much different story.  There were pictures of the American pilots cooking and enjoying Christmas dinner, decorating the prison in Christmas decorations, and playing basketball, cards, soccer, billiards.  There were no signs that the American POW’s were ill-treated.  In Cambodia, I caught a little bit of the Republican National Convention where a speaker (I can’t remember who) recalled Senator John McCain’s time spent at the prison.  I was particularly moved by the details and his triumphs while imprisoned there.  It is interesting to learn about both sides and makes me want to learn more about the different perspectives.

Tonight is the official start of the last tour of my trip.  I’ll be in Laos (if you want to impress your friends- the “s” is silent) starting on Tuesday and will be flying home on October 11th.

Seas of Scooters

There are about 9 million people in the city of Saigon and about 3 millions scooters.  You do the math!!  That’s a lot of scooters.  Now, try crossing the street in this sea of scooters where pedestrians are the lowest part of the totem pole in Vietnam traffic.  Real-life frogger!!

Ho Chi Minh City is the official name but everyone calls the city Saigon.  We said good-bye to our Cambodian tour leader, Poleak, and picked up a new Vietnamese tour leader, Son, and two tour-leaders-in-training, Phat and Dung (pronounced Doond and not how you think!!).  The highlights of Saigon were outside the actual city- the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta.  My dad would like the Cu Chi Tunnels visit because it had a lot of war history.  Learning about the “American War” from a Vietnamese perspective has been interesting.  The Vietnamese are very proud that they beat the “imperialist Americans and their lackeys.”  Vietnam has been fighting for it’s independence for many years beginning with the French.

The Mekong Delta was a highlight as well.  We got to don pointy hats while being rowed in a rowboat, taste tasty coconut candy, and ride through country-side villages.  It wouldn’t be the quintessential Vietnam experience without rain!  And it did not disappoint.  Luckily, the tour company had ponchos for us.

Prepare to be jealous ladies!!  I’m now in Hoi An… the custom-made clothes capital of Vietnam, where since I’m doing really good with my budget in SE Asia I decided to splurge a little.  I got a tailored-made wool-cashmere suit made in less than 24 hours for $105!  It fits perfectly!  And because I couldn’t resist the incredible coats, I went to another store and got 3 wool coats custom-made for $120 total (for all 3!!).  It’s so hard to find coats that will button up on me properly.  I also got a pair of custom leather shoes for $20.  It’s a shoppers paradise!  There are around 400 custom shops in a one square kilometer area and everything can be made is less than 24 hours.  Hoi An is a highlight of Vietnam and is a stop on the cruise ship circuit (and you can tell when the cruise ships come in).  All this shopping and fittings has made me want to get pampered at the spa.  One hour facial including scalp, hand, and shoulder massage for $15- yep, that’s what I’m doing next.

Tomorrow, we leave for the imperial city of Hue (pronounced “way”) and then after that… Hanoi and Halong Bay.  I’m really looking forward to Halong Bay.  It’s a good thing we’re leaving Hoi An tomorrow because I’m might be tempted to get more clothes made.

Until next time…

17 April 1975

April 17th, 1975 is a date every Cambodian knows.  It is the day Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge took over the country and forced everyone out of the cities and into the countryside and forced to work long hours as farmers.   Pot’s goal was to make Cambodia a class-less society- a strict Communist society.  Food was rationed, people starved and what little food that was harvested was shipped to China to buy more guns and ammunition.  Those who stole food were murdered on the spot.  Those who were too weak to work were no longer useful and killed.  Whole families were murdered as well because the Khmer Rouge were afraid if the surviving families members were to seek revenge.  Many died of disease and starvation.

In addition to moving city people to the countryside, the Pol Pot tortured and executed former government workers, anyone who was considered educated (including those who were simply wearing glasses), and anyone who had foreign contacts were also considered tainted.  Money, postal mail, gasoline, and vehicles were abolished.  Hospitals were closed down if favor of more traditional medicine.

We went to the S-21 Prison which was a former high school in the heart of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.  The prison was used as a torture facility and once the soldiers were done with the victims they were shipped out to the Killing Fields and executed on arrival.  The Khmer Rouge took photos of all the prisoners, men, women and children, which are on display.  The beds and restraints are still in the cells.  Some days up to 100 people died at S-21.  The rest were killed at the Killing Fields.  Of the 20,000 that walked through the gates at S-21, seven survived and of those seven three are still alive today.

Next, we went to the Killings Fields.  The site is actually quite beautiful and it’s hard to imagine what atrocities went on here.  But, when you walk around the site you start to see beneath the peaceful surface.  The clothes of the victims still litter the ground.  You can even see bones sticking up from the walking path and you can’t help but walk right on them.  But, perhaps the most chilling part was the “Childen’s Tree” where children were murdered.  The soldiers held the children by their legs and swung around to hit the tree like a baseball bat.  How can someone do that to someone else?!?

Three years, eight months, and twenty days- that’s how long Pol Pot’s reign of terror lasted.  All Cambodians know that as well.  But, the dying did not end right away.  Hundreds of thousands more people died of famine and starvation after Cambodia was liberated by the Vietnamese.

Out of 7 million  – 2 million died.  Just over 25% of the population wiped out.  Today there are close to 13 million in which about half are under the age of 30.  Our Tour Leader, Poleak (pronounced Pollock), has brothers and sisters he’s never met because they died during the Khmer Rouge.  Poleak just found out an uncle is alive and well after his whole family thought he was dead.  His uncle escaped to California and has been living there ever since.  The uncle has been scared about coming back to visit Cambodia but has finally has the courage to do so.  He arrived in Cambodia sometime during our tour, and hopefully Poleak will get to meet him.

The trials for the Khmer Rouge started this year.  Don’t ask me why it takes so long??  To the fury of many surviving victims- Pol Pot died in the late 90’s of natural causes – no trial, no conviction, no justice for the victims.  It is also interesting to note that people blame Pol Pot for the deaths of so many people and not the Khmer Rouge.  Our guide for the S-21 Prison and Killing Fields as well as the book I’m reading about it all refer to the Khmer Rouge as one man and not as the many soldiers that carried out his orders.  “Pol Pot killed my family”  “Pol Pot tortured the inmates”  “I hate Pol Pot” “I want to kill Pol Pot”.

If you want to learn more pick up a copy of the movie “The Killing Fields” or the book “First They Killed My Father”.  Or do a Google search.  Or better yet come to Cambodia and see it first hand.

We left Phnom Penh this morning and headed to Vietnam.  I’ll be in Saigon for the next couple of days where I will learn very quickly how to cross the street in a sea of scooters.  Scooters are a family vehicle here.  I sometimes see a family of 4 or sometimes 5 on one scooter!!  Until next time…

US Dollars in Cambodia

From Bangkok, we made our way to the Cambodian border.  Once across the border it is immediately evident that this is Cambodia.  The road from the border to Siem Reap is the worst I have ever traveled on.  Big holes, unpaved and loads of scooters, people and animals.  My butt took a beating.  It took as twice as long to go half the distance we traveled in Thailand (if that makes sense?).

One of the first things you notice is the use of the US Dollar as the preferred currency.  Everything is listed in US dollars and paid in US dollars- even the ATM’s dispense US dollars, but to confuse newly-arrived tourists- any change under a dollar is given in Cambodian Riel which is 4000 Riel to $1.  Also, by crossing into Cambodia I’ve become a millionaire in Riels.

Our first stop was the small town of Siem Reap which is next to one of the biggest tourist destinations in the region – Angkor Wat.  We spent a sweat-inducing day at the temples climbing steep, vertigo-inducing stairs, fending off children selling crap (laaaady, you buy!!), and generally going from one shaded area to another.  I have never sweat so much.  But, it’s interesting because the air didn’t feel particulary hot to me and the humidity didn’t feel thick, but something in the air causes sweat to literally pour out of me.

The next day we went to an orphanage to cook lunch and play with the kids.  It was a fun experience.  The children were all happy and helped each other out around the center.  Some of the older boys were quite impressed with my volleyball skills.  We then took the kids out to Tonle Sap lake to see the floating village and to get some fresh air.  It was their first time there and it’s heartbreaking because it’s only a 20 minute ride and they’ve never been.  We crammed about 50 people into a bus built for 35 and the kids sang songs to and from including one in Khmer (the language of Cambodia) about missing their parents.  One girl cried on a tour member’s shoulder.  It was a great day and the first day in a long time I only thought of that day and not the days ahead.

Last night, we had a homestay in a rural village.  I slept on a thin mattress on the floor under a mosquito net- not something I would like to do again.  It was a bit like camping and I don’t like camping.  We didn’t spend much time with the family because our meals were prepared and eaten at the community center.  We basically used the family home as a place to sleep because that’s all we did- we arrived back at the house right before we went to sleep and left right after we woke up.

Right now, we’re in the port town of Sihanoukville (Sin-nook-ville) for three nights.  It’s Cambodia’s premier beach town.  So, a little R&R for me.

Next, we go to the capital, Phnom Penh where we will learn about the evil Khmer Rouge which murdered millions of Cambodians in the late 70’s.  Stay tuned it’s absolutely heartbreaking…

Phnom Penh is our last stop in Cambodia before we head off to Vietnam!  The tour group is great because everyone of us (there’s 12) came on our own and most are either just starting or just finishing a round-the-world trip.  And nearly all of us are going all the way to Chiang Mai like me.  (Hmmm, I wonder if I’ll like each other after 40 days?!)  And, yes, once again I am the only American.

(Also, it looks like it’s going to be interesting come November for the American elections- either the first black president or the first female vice-president.  How exciting!!  It’s big news everywhere in the world, of course, some people are confused because they thought it was between Hillary and Barack and now all of the sudden McCain’s name pops up.)


Where’s Stacy?

Stacy is in West Virginia and totally amazed by the power of Math. (Nerd, I know!)

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