A Travellerspoint blog


By Lis

View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

Sunday, November 21st, 2010 - Arrival in Phnom Penh

On day three of a three day tour of the Mekong Delta out of Vietnam, we boarded a slow boat in Chau Doc to take us across the border to Cambodia. The three day tour from Saigon was not the most thrilling adventure of our trip, but perhaps it was because I was suffering from a chest cold and looked forward to a comfortable bed at the end of each day.

The customs office teetered over the water as we disembarked for a game of hurry up and wait. A helpful “guide” had our paperwork, passports and money, and all we had to do was sit and hopefully buy food and drink at the office. Prices were high, so we passed.

With stamps from both sides in our passports, the group of 10 tourists claimed their space in the cramped quarters on our new boat. Some lay on the floor, others sat at the bow, while others spread out on the hard wooden benches. I chose to sit in the lotus position with my current novel resting in my lap, but my eyes focused on the scenery before me.

Stilt houses were clustered at the side of the river. At the sight, or sound, of our motor, children of all ages came running to the shore to wave enthusiastically at our vessel. Huge smiles spread across their faces. Mothers waved baby's hands for them, and children in boats paused their work to give us their full attention. Why the enthusiasm? I wondered. Surely these boats full of tourists pass every day. Perhaps the fact that travellers from other countries chose their country to visit gives them a sense of pride and waving is their way of welcoming us to their home.

A few hours into the journey our boat stopped abruptly. Ahead of us was a tall pedestrian bridge, and growing in the water under the bridge was a mass collection of water plants. Our boat’s driver couldn’t find a path through the plants, which would surely catch in his motor, wreaking havoc on the engine. Out of nowhere appeared a lean, tanned boy of about 10 years old. He, along with some older men, jumped into the water with machetes, to hack at the plants and send the small clumps floating downstream. The boy climbed a pole to hold the rope of our boat while the elders worked with full vigour. Our boat’s driver indicated that maybe we should collect money to tip the men. Is this a scam? a Kiwi wondered out loud. He quickly decided that the plants were knotted together too tightly, and that the men seemed too disorganized to be scam artists. We put some dollars in a pile and the men beamed with gratitude. The boy threw our rope back on board, and pounced back onto the remaining floating plants.

Hours later our boat slowed at a narrow plank which would serve as our dock. We walked past someone’s home where a van was waiting by the road. Our new driver settled our bags in the front seat. The Kiwi took out a mango to peel with a knife and the driver quickly handed him tissues and a plastic bag. We took this van into the city of Phnom Penh. We stopped once, before taking a major bridge into the city centre. The driver got out of the van to talk to a man. We waited with the inside lights on, then after feeling like we were on display, I turned them off. When the driver returned to the van he promptly flicked the inside lights back on.

We were dropped off at a guesthouse, which is typical in SE Asia. We asked about rates and found they were ridiculously high at $30 a room. It turns out the annual Water Festival was in full swing which meant holiday pricing and budget guesthouses at full occupancy. A group of seven of us started to walk in search of accommodations. Lacking a clear leader, we suggested routes and places but mostly wandered without a goal in mind.

We turned down Sihanouk Boulevard, a major road in Phnom Penh and were slowly enveloped into a crowd of thousands. The crowd grew as we neared the river, and soon we were trapped in a web of pedestrians, motorbikes and cars. The mood was light and people were friendly, so I tried to make the best of it. It took us over an hour to move one block and suddenly things took a turn for the worse. The Kiwi was burnt by the exhaust pipe of a motorbike, someone tried to pickpocket Toby, and I felt wandering hands on my backside. We decided to turn around and walk against traffic back to where we started, as we couldn’t even see the river yet. It took some effort to stay positive, keep smiling, and politely ask people to go in front of them.

We took two tuk tuks around the city, and noticed they only stopped at guesthouses where they knew they would get a commission. Everyone was full. Exhausted and ready to pay any amount for a shower and a bed, we found Silver River Hotel. Brand new, fancy-looking and lacking regular customers, they were nearly empty and offering great deals. We collapsed in a deluxe room for $20.

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Comfortable in our room with a flat-screen TV, we decided to take a sick day from travelling. We went out to eat at restaurants on our street, but spent the rest of the day in our room catching up on sleep and medicating our ailments.

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Checking our emails first thing in the morning, we knew something was wrong. “Are you in Phnom Penh?” colleagues, friends and family asked via Facebook and hotmail. A quick Google search confirmed the news: the night before, a stampede in the city killed over 350 people celebrating the Water Festival. The city was quiet and the country was in mourning. We decided that since it was such a sombre day, we would start our visit with the Killing Fields and S-21.

From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia. They wanted a pure, agricultural, communist society. To meet this goal, they tried to get rid of the “impure” people; those who were educated, had foreign influences, lived in cities, worked for the previous government or were against the Khmer Rouge regime. In Phnom Penh, these people were taken to S-21, a school converted into a prison. They were tortured, interrogated, and documented. Then they were taken to the Killing Fields where their bodies filled mass graves. To save bullets, they were murdered with farming tools or palm branches.

At S-21, the building now stands nearly empty. Solitary bed frames and a single graphic photograph filled each of the first floor rooms. In the section converted into a museum, faces of the 17 000 victims stared back at each visitor. At the Killing Fields, unearthed mass graves created divots in the ground, while the skulls of over 9000 people were respectfully on display in a white, towering pagoda. Sign posts shared the horror stories of each pit, tree, and former building. After each rainy season, new scraps of clothing, teeth and bones continue to be revealed, saying, “Don’t forget about us.”

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Outside of the National Museum sat a man with a crippling physical deformity and a sign; “I do not want to beg. I want to work.” A basket of books hung around his neck. I bought First, They Killed My Father, a true story of a child’s survival during the four year Khmer Rouge genocide. Reading this I learned that the 1.7 million death toll was largely a result of starvation, disease and treatable ailments. The people were forced to toil in rice paddies, only to export most of the rice to China to fund the soldiers while rations were reduced at home.

This man is not alone. The idea that working is a better option than begging is prevalent in this needy country. Bands of landmine and UXO victims play music for tips in tourist areas. Massage parlours run by people who are blind can be found in every major city. In Kampot there was Epic Arts, a cafe run by people who are hard of hearing. In Phnom Penh, the Friends group of restaurants train street kids to be chefs. Daughters of Cambodia gives employment to former sex workers. Rehab Craft sells products made by people with disabilities. While the need is still great, people are working together to create new opportunities, and to fill gaps left unfilled by the government.

We ended the day with a visit to the bridge where the police were still investigating the stampede. Monks gathered, people chatted, flowers were laid and vendors sold snacks.

* * *

Sunday, December 5th, 2010 – Siem Reap

I was momentarily breathless as I gazed at Angkor Wat before me. Behind me, a marathon was taking place; a fundraiser for victims of landmines and UXOs (unexploded ordnace). Toby and I walked through the crowds of runners, Cambodian families and tour groups to explore the source of Cambodian pride and identity. We spent hours discovering the massive temple, then days touring the other temples nearby.

The past week was spent enjoying the other sights of Cambodia. In Kampot we took a day trip to Bokor National Park where a trek in the jungle revealed a deserted French hill station and a waterfall. In Sihanoukville we soaked up the sun by the beach after a day of snorkelling and boating. In Battambang we took a tuk tuk through the villages to see wats and a bamboo train. Our next stop was Kratie, home of the wild Irrawaddy dolphins.

But here in Siem Reap we saw why the image of Angkor Wat is everywhere in Cambodia – on beer bottles, currency and the national flag. It is an enduring reminder that their ancestors were a magnificent civilization, and that same magnificence is in them today.

In Cambodia, kids wave hello with sincere joy, tuk tuk drivers accept a “no, thanks” with a smile, and people are friendly, helpful and kind. More than the food, cities or attractions, the Cambodian people make this country what it is: the heart and soul of Asia.


Posted by Lis.L 03:51 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Vietnam Continued

By Lis

View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

Walking down Hoi An's cobble-stone streets, eating at the many fantastic restaurants to sample local dishes, exploring Cham ruins in nearby My Son and escaping the rain in our comfortable hotel room made Hoi An one of our favourite places in Vietnam. We took a cooking course to teach us how to make Vietnamese specialties, visited temples on our Old Town Ticket, and ate at cafes, street stalls, local family-run places, you name it! The one thing we DIDN'T do, is take advantage of the many talented tailors in town and have custom-made clothing made for rock-bottom prices. We just can't fit anything else in our backpacks!

We visited Nha Trang in the wrong season. It was rainy, cool and the beach was all but deserted. Recent flooding had washed away some of the sidewalks at the beach. Nha Trang is the place to cruise the islands, snorkel, and party. We did none of the above, and left after one night. We walked the city streets and visited the giant Buddha, then took an early morning bus to Dalat the next day.

Dalat was home to the Easy Riders, a group of experienced motorcycle drivers who can give you the inside scoop on the area. We hired them for a day to see the sights closest to Dalat, then were convinced that this was the way we wanted to get to Mui Ne. We took 2 more days on the back of their bikes and really enjoyed the scenery, village tours, and personalized itinerary. While it was a budget buster, it was such a memorable experience that we would definitely recommend it.

In Mui Ne we thought we were settling for a hotel far from the centre of town, but in fact it was the perfect, private getaway. We had a pool and a beach to ourselves, and a great restaurant across the street, so that was where we could be found for a few days. We are not used to this kind of vacation, but I can get used to it pretty quickly!

Next stop was Saigon, now called Ho Chi Min City. In the backpacker ghetto we found our hotel and booked a tour of the Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi tunnels. There was much to see in the city, and we took several days just exploring on our own. We booked a three day boat trip in the Mekong Delta to our next destination: Cambodia.

Posted by Lis.L 22:02 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Hué and the DMZ

By Lis

View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

The ancient town of Hué boasts some of the oldest attractions in Vietnam; the ancient citadel and palace within the city walls, as well as Emperors’ tombs outside of the city. We saw both during a day tour, as the heavy rain made walking around seem very unappealing. While I enjoyed learning about the historical features of the town, there was another reason to visit this area.


I refused to leave Vietnam as ignorant as I entered. Hué is a city just south of the DMZ, so Toby and I signed up for a day tour to explore the locations that played a part in the American War. While the sights themselves were not visually striking, hearing the history and imagining the gamut of emotions felt on both sides was something we felt we needed to do.

The DMZ is the de-militarized zone that surrounded the border between North and South Vietnam. Naturally, it saw a lot of action during the conflict. The Communist North (the Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh, and Viet Cong, the Southern guerrilla soldiers) dominated the South (led by Catholic Diem and joined by the US troops) despite advances in technology and weaponry. We saw locations of US bases, significant bridges and trails, a complex tunnel system built by locals for protection from bombs, a museum and several monuments.


While in Hanoi at the Ho Chi Minh museum, I noted that the Southern soldiers were referred to as brave and strong. The general feeling about the American soldiers seems to be positive, and the current generation see that they were fighting for what they believed in – “to prevent the spread of communism across Asia”. It sounds as though Clinton's visit in the 90's did a lot to mend the relationship between Vietnam and the US, and the US continues to financially support programs to rebuild or establish infrastructure in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people we have spoken to see the event at My Lai (the sight of a brutal mass-execution of locals by US troops) as exceptions to the typical style of American fighting. However, when watching Hollywood movies about the Vietnam war (e.g. Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter), I noticed that the feelings were not mutual. North Vietnamese fighters were portrayed as vicious and inhuman. I understand that this is a strategy of war – the enemy is often called cockroaches, vermin or other names to imply less-than-human status.

I realized with a shock that anyone in Vietnam over the age of 40 experienced the war in some way, and others continue to live with the effects of buried bombs, Agent Orange poisoning and lost loved ones. The Vietnamese people’s strength, optimism and courage are to be admired, and I feel fortunate that I was able to learn firsthand about a monumental time in Vietnamese history.

Posted by Lis.L 01:52 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hanoi and Halong Bay

By Lis

sunny 25 °C
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The capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi, is a perfect mix of French architecture and Vietnamese energy! Walking the streets at any time other than early morning is a feast for the senses. Motorbikes zip by in large groups, street stalls sell bun, com and nem, and narrow buildings of various sizes and colours house shops or cafes for every desire. Chinese-inspired temples stand with colonial-era mansions, Catholic cathedrals and Communist-style government buildings. Brides in every colour of gown pose by the Hoan Kiem Lake for their nuptial photos while locals and tourists walk by. Full of character and friendly people, we really enjoyed Hanoi, but we were looking for a place where we could relax and unwind.


Only a few hours away from the noise and congestion of Hanoi, Halong Bay was a perfect escape for a few days. While we were certainly not on our own at the jam-packed pier, once we were on our boat of 12 tourists, the real fun began.

The bay itself is striking – peaks emerge from the water in varying sizes, creating an out-of-this-world environment. We sailed through the bay to the largest cave in the area, which we explored on foot. After, kayaks were waiting for us and provided the best way to explore the area at our own pace. We watched the local fishermen return from a day of fishing to their floating homes. Once back on our boat, we sailed for a bit to anchor for the night. This was the perfect time to do some swimming! The guys in our group jumped from the highest deck while the girls frolicked in the water below. Once the sun went down a group of us gathered on the deck to play cards, drink alcohol bought from the floating minimart (a lady on a smaller boat) and even sing a bit.


The next day we sailed to Cat Ba Island, which is a national park. We took bicycles along the long path to Hospital Cave, the location of a US Military Hospital during the war in – you guessed it – a cave. Next stop was Monkey Island, where we were able to spend time on the beach sunbathing, playing beach volleyball and swimming. We trekked for a bit to the other side of the Island where our experienced guide fed the monkeys as we watched from a distance. We listened to music on the patio until the sun went down, and then retired to our private bungalows.


The last day was mainly a travel day by boat, then bus, back to Hanoi. We were snapped back into reality when we drove by a fatal motorbike/truck accident and watched the insane traffic that followed. We were told that the gorgeous weather we had at Halong Bay was unusual for this season, so we are so thankful that the sun shone for us on our perfect getaway.

Posted by Lis.L 03:40 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Sapa, Vietnam

by Lis

overcast 20 °C
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Her grasp on my hand was firm and confident. Though she was younger and significantly smaller than me, I held on as we navigated the slippery slope of the mountain in Sapa, Vietnam. The thick fog concealed my surroundings. I was left to imagine the waterfall I was hearing, and envision the base of the rice terraces extending up into the sky. I was left to focus on my footing, secure that when my feet slid - which they did - her hold would keep me upright.

I didn't know what she looked like. Striding ahead of me, her only distinguishable feature was her green rubber boots. Though I had on designer hiking boots, her expertise outperformed my gear. When she jumped, I jumped. When she pointed to a rock with her toe, I stepped there. We danced for several hours.

When we stopped to rest, I scanned the group of local women, all alike in their tribal clothing, for the one with the green rubber boots. She smiled at me, and I could see a gold tooth in front of her smile. A pink scarf was wrapped around her head and her basket was covered with a clear plastic bag.


When we stopped for lunch, we learned that the ladies wouldn't be continuing with our group. The swarm of ladies drew near, and I knew what to do. When they revealed their goods for sale, I looked for my lady with the green rubber boots. While I am certain that her kindness is genuine, I knew that the next step of the dance was to repay her kindness with a purchase.


Posted by Lis.L 21:54 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

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