First Impressions: Phnom Penh

I was a little nervous as I climbed off the boat and onto the dock at Phnom Penh. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodia. I was under the impression that it was a relatively poor country, but so far on my tour through South East Asian countries I’d been surprised by the diversity of living conditions and levels of development within single cities, let alone entire nations. Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, but in the back of my mind I was quite certain it wasn’t going to be anything like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, and most definitely not like Singapore. And I wasn’t wrong.

It’s hard to describe. It wasn’t a city in the way that Bangkok was a city, it with networks of public transport and numerous towering skyscrapers.There was certainly some parts of the city that were more built up and developed, with busy roads and crazy traffic, but there were also smaller streets with a slightly suburban feeling, though not without busy roads and crazy traffic. As I would later learn during my stay in Phnom Penn, while most of the time the locals make it seem like a fine tuned art from, driving in pretty much any major South East Asian city is a perilous affair.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

Ultimately, what made Phnom Penh different was the not-so-seamless integration of tourist attractions, middle class living, and extreme street poverty. In Bangkok, the city is almost separated into layers like a rainforest, with the wealth in the canopy descending down to the poverty on the forest floor, and Saigon has a tourist-focused centre which sprawls outward to the more authentic and local experience. From what I could gather, there was no method to the madness with was the design of Phnom Penh. The official currency is the Khmer riel, although US dollars are so widely accepted that menus and price lists of everything are shown in dollars, and even the ATM machines dispense dollars rather than riel. The use of the dollar, however, meant that I found Cambodia a little more expensive than Vietnam. I’m no economist so I can’t even try to explain the way it works, but that’s just a little something that did surprise me.

***

I decided to spend my first day in Phnom Penh seeing all the major tourist attractions, so I enlisted the help of a tuk tuk driver who would take me from place to place and wait for me while I visited each destination. We came to an agreement, though only after several minutes of myself insisting that I did not want to visit the shooting range and fire a bazooka. The driver seemed disappointed, but nevertheless took me around for my day tour of the city. The first stop was the Grand Palace, the home of the current king of Cambodia which doubles as a beautiful tourist attraction. As I wandered through the various temples and buildings that the public was allowed to visit, I noticed that a lot of the architecture was similar to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. They even had murals on the inner surface of the walls that surrounded the silver pagoda – named for its floors of solid silver – which depicted the same epic poem from Hindu religion. However, unlike the murals in Bangkok, these ones were not so maintained, and there was fadedpaints and cracks in the walls, and the whole thing had more of an ancient wonder appeal to it, rather than the glittering magnificence of the palace in Bangkok. There was also an Emerald Buddha in the silver pagoda, and like the one in Bangkok, it was actually made of jade, and I wondered how many more trends there could have been between two such temples in completely different countries.

The silver pagoda.

The silver pagoda.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

In front of the main temple.

In front of the main temple.

After the palace was the Killing Fields, which was about a half an hour drive out of town. The trip there was an experience in itself, as it had rained heavily the night before, and some of the dirt roads had turned to mud and were littered with puddles and pot holes. We had definitely reached the outer limits of the city, and there were no pubs, hostels our other tourist attractions. “Definitely not in Kansas anymore”, I muttered to myself, watching the mud fly and cursing myself for not wearing ruby slippers – or at least more appropriate footwear.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The fields themselves weren’t so muddy though, so my canvas slip-ons would live to see another day. The 3 million Cambodians who were brought here by the Khmer Rouge during the rise of Communism, however, did not. As I entered the complex and purchased my ticket, I found myself surrounded by the group of Americans who I had met the day before on the boat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh. I had a quick chat with Mike, one of the guys I’d spoken to at length during the boat ride, discussing how our first nights in the city had gone down. They were just on their way out as I was arriving, so when it came time for us to part ways again, Mike looked around gloomily and said, “Well, I’d tell you to enjoy… but that’s not really the right word for this place. But go and soak it in, it’s pretty intense.” He bid me farewell, along with the rest of the group, and I set off to see the fields.

Mike has been spot on when he had described the place as intense. It was such a harrowing experience, to walk through the site and learn of the atrocious acts of genocide that occurred here, all because the victims didn’t want to subscribe to the Khmer Rouge Communist regime. It’s a little frightening to realise how unknown these tragic events are on an international level, with I myself only truly learning about the history of this genocide for the first time. Even worse is that it happened just over 30 years ago – worse that we still don’t know more about it, and even worse that these kind of things were still happening in such recent history. There is a real emphasis in this place on remembering the tragedies and the stories, so that future generations will learn, and not make the same mistakes of the past.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

There is also a torture museum back in the city of Phnom Penh, but after spending so long at the Killing Fields I was feeling quite exhausted, both emotionally and physically, so I spent a short while looking around the school-turned-prison and house of torture. It was the place where many people were tortured, interrogated, and made to sign false confessions before being sent to the Killing Fields to be thrown into a mass grave. In the end it was too much for me, and I ended up heading back to the hostel to debrief myself.

***

My time in Phnom Penh provided me with a handful of peculiar tales that deserve posts of their own, but one thing that defined my time in the city in general was the acquisition of a new friend, Laura. On my second night in the Phnom Penh hostel, I stumbled into the dorm after a few beers – in order to change my outfit before going out again – to discover that someone new had checked into the hostel. She was sitting down on the bunk next to mine, unpacking her things, so I said hello and gave her a smile as I rummaged through my bag. Rather than the passing “Hey” mumbled under herbreath before returning to what she was doing, something not uncommon in these situations, this woman was very receptive to my greeting. We briefly introduced ourselves and had a quick chat before I had to head out again. It was nice to have met and got along with someone so quickly and so easily, though the fact that I had been drunk, and thus prone to random babbling at strangers, wasn’t lost on me.

I saw Laura again the next day, and we properly introduced ourselves and had a bit of a chat. She was a backpacker from Newcastle in England, and had been travelling around South East Asia for a few months now, in the similar unplanned method that I had been employing. She was also travelling alone, and so while we spent our days separately, doing our own sight seeing at our own paces, each night we would catch up for a few drinks, sharing our stories and experiences of both Cambodia and the greater region of South East Asia, and one night we even hit up the night club across the road from the hostel, which had been surprisingly busy for a Wednesday night.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

On my last night in Phnom Penh, we had gone to a nearby restaurant that was run by disadvantaged youth and street children who were receiving training in hospitality, and was also known for serving some interesting foods that were considered Cambodian specialities. I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first, but I found the crispy fried tarantulas to be delicious! The legs were my favourite bit, tasting like crispy fries with chicken salt. The thorax was also nice and crunchy, but the abdomen was a little chewy for my liking, though still tasted fine.

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

***

Further into my travels through Cambodia, I met people who had not spent any time in Phnom Penh. After a girl had insisted that she couldn’t visit the Killing Fields because she knew she could not handle it emotionally, I had to agree with her assertion that she hasn’t missed much by simply passing through. Yet I feel as though I definitely grew as a person during my time in Phnom Penh. I was faced with quite a few challenges that I doubt I would have come across many other places in the world (which will appear in forthcoming blogs). So in the end I’m glad I made it a destination on my travels – it definitely ranks up high with the rest of my memorable cities.

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Searching For My Comfort Zone: A Trivial Pursuit

The week I’d spent in Vietnam was a bit of a mixed bag when it came to experiences. I’d been confronted by the local culture, I’d experienced some of the tourist nightlife, and I’d seen most of the iconic sights. The one thing I hadn’t done is meet many people or make many friends, so I decided that once the weekend had passed I would continue on my travels. So naturally, my last night is Saigon ended up being incredibly fun, and one of the best experiences on my journey so far.

***

For those of you who aren’t aware, the are a host of social networking websites and smartphone applications that are designed specifically for men in the gay community. They’re marketed in a number of different angles, but the main idea is that they use GSP technology to find other gay guys nearby to meet up with, whether its for a casual coffee or casual sex. The reality is that most people use these apps for the latter, but as a traveller I recognised its possibility to put me in touch with local people who might be able to show me around the area. That is, if I can find the people who aren’t just looking for sex.

But luck was smiling upon me that Saturday afternoon. I got a friendly message from a guy named Allistair, an expat from New Zealand who had been living in Ho Chi Minh City for about a year, just saying hello and hoping my travels were going well. Pleased that it wasn’t another solicitation from a faceless torso, and his comments indicated that he’d read my profile and not just looked at my picture, so I continued chatting to Allistair, and before long we had decided to meet up and continue the conversation over a few afternoon beers. I was slightly hungover from the night before, but I figured I could use a little hair of the dog.

Allistair and I hit it off straight away. We had eerily similar tastes in music, we both loved the same kind of books, we talked about our tattoos and our lives, and ended up having very similar philosophies about life. He told me how he’d ended up coming to live in Vietnam, and I told him all about the long journey I had ahead of me, as well as a few of the interesting tales that I already had to tell.

After a couple of hours and a few beers each, Allistair asked me if I had any plans for the evening.
“Well… You know, I actually have absolutely nothing planned. I guess I was doing the whole ‘play it by ear’ thing and hoping something would turn up.”

“Okay, well… I’m having dinner with a group of my best friends later. It’s not too far from where I live, which is about 20 minutes from here. I don’t normally do this – in fact, I never do this – but you seem like a really cool guy, so if you wanted to, you’re totally welcome to join us. I’ve even got a spare room at my place, you know, if you wanted to get away from the hostel for a little while.”
I told him that that sounded fantastic, and was only sorry that I hadn’t met him sooner, given that I was only in Saigon for one more night. I know I’d had an uneasy experience earlier in the week, but things definitely felt more relaxed and less awkward this time. So we went back to my hostel, gathered my things, bought some beers and jumped in a taxi to District 2.

***

Allistair lived in a nice apartment in what could be considered the expat district, and we spent the rest of the afternoon in his rooftop pool, drinking more beer, listening to music, and watching the sunset. He told me that tonight would be a pretty similar affair, very easy-going and chilled out, with about six other people.
“That sounds really awesome”, I said to him between swigs of Saigon Green. “Back at home, I used to go out partying all the time because I lived so close to Oxford Street. It sort of became a bad habit – maybe even an addiction. Even when we tried to have nights in, my friends and I would just end up drinking enough to be tempted to go out and party. I don’t remember the last time that I had a chilled night in like that.”
It was a little strange to be opening up like that to someone I’d just met, though we’d been having similar conversations all afternoon, and the beer probably helped. It made me realise what I was looking for on this journey of mine. I’d gone out partying the night before, and while it had been fun, in the end it had just felt like another night out. There has to be more to life, and that’s the kind of thing I was trying to discover, even if it was just hanging with the locals of the city, as opposed to other partying backpackers. I told Allistair that, and he smiled, and said he’d try to show me the best of what his little corner of Saigon had to offer.

When we arrived at Allistair’s friends house, we were greeted by a British guy wearing a sarong. That pretty much set the tone for the whole evening – chilled, casual, and a little bit kooky. There were a few Americans, the British guy and an Australian girl, and we sat around eating and drinking and talking about all sorts of things. I sat back and listened for a while, but my tongue loosened up with each sequential beer, and in the end I found myself chatting with them as easily as I had when I first met Allistair this afternoon.

And then someone pulled out Trivial Pursuits. This might require some background knowledge: as a child, I played this board game with my family quite a lot. However, we had a fairly old version of the game, and as a young children my sister and I often got frustrated because we never knew any of the answers, and the game very quickly lost its appeal when it turned into the adults arguing over whether the answers on the cards were still even correct in the current era. Now, as an adult with a little more knowledge under my belt, I get incredibly enthusiastic when it comes to Trivial Pursuits, and get quite excited when I know the answers. This, combined with a solid afternoon of drinking, turned me into a great big ball of quivering excitement. Knowing the answers to questions such as ‘Which a British pop group had 5 number one hits in 1997?’ (Answer: The Spice Girls) and ‘In which film did Jack Twist tell his lover “I wish I knew how to quit you.”?’ (Answer: … Seriously if you don’t know… I don’t even…) caused me exclaim “I love being gay!” at several points throughout the game (Another answer I knew was Madonna, though I can’t for the life of me remember the question).

My enthusiasm must have paid off because in the end my team won, and my team praised me as being a key contributor to the win, something that has never been said about me in a game of Trivial Pursuits before. The night was full of more jokes and laughter until the early hours of the morning, when Allistair and I called it a night and retired back to his apartment to crash.

***

The following evening, when it came time for me to leave and head to the border, I felt a little wave of sadness wash over me. After a week of relative loneliness, I had had such an awesome time on my last night in Saigon, meeting new people and actually making a bit of a connection. I felt really comfortable, and now I felt a little angry that that was going to be ripped away from me. Allistair had offered a place to stay if I had decided to stay longer, but I had already booked my bus ticket and didn’t want to stray from the plans I’d already made. Which, in retrospect, seems incredibly foolish. The whole point of travelling by myself was that I could make the rules up as I went along, making decisions on a whim and tailoring the experience so that I was going to have the most fun. But when the opportunity came to make such a decision, I stuck so rigidly to my plan, a bus ticket that cost me less than $10. I said my goodbyes to Allistair, feeling oddly emotional for someone I’d only known a little over 24 hours, and thanked him for inviting me along for such a fun evening, promising to stay in contact.

I had a lot of time to think, as I sped towards Phnom Penh on the speedboat, and I had mixed feelings about the situation. On one hand, I had packed up and walked away from one of the best experiences I’d had on this trip, and I couldn’t help feeling like that was a mistake, that I was compromising my enjoyment for reliability and planning, something that I thought I had despised. But then I also realised that I’d enjoyed my time with Allistair and his friends because it had felt so comfortable, and while I’m thankful for that feeling, this journey that I’m on has also been extremely challenging. If I stayed for too long and got too comfortable in one place, I may be more reluctant and go out on a whim such as the one that led me to that evening in the first place. In a way, that search of my comfort zone ends up being a trivial pursuit in itself – because what do you do when you find it? You think it’s what you want, but all you end up doing is pushing yourself further from it in the thirst for more adventure.

So it was probably for the best that I left. I ended my time in Vietnam on an all time high, listening to our favourite band All Time Low, and I still had plenty of South East Asia left to explore in what was quickly becoming a short amount of time. But I’ll always remember my last night on Saigon as a lesson, a reminder to always go beyond what you know or what feels comfortable, because you never know the amazing things that could be waiting around the corner.

Rollin’ On A River

During my stay in Ho Chi Minh City, I thought it was only appropriate that I explore a little more of Vietnam before heading off to the Cambodian border. After sussing out the logistics of my various options, I decided that heading south to the Mekong River delta would be the most interesting and diverse experience. The day trip involved a two hour bus ride out of the city, so I rose uncharacteristically early that morning and trudged onto the bus still half asleep, yet curious to see what the wider country of Vietnam would have in store for me.

***

The Mekong River is the largest river in Asia, starting in Tibet, and flowing through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it divides into 9 tributaries that all flow out separately into the South China Sea. The south of Vietnam is known as the ‘Rice Bowl’ due to the established crops and farms throughout the region. The real tour started at a riverside town called My Tho, and from there we walked through the jungle on a small undergrowth trail until we reached the river.

From there we got into small wooden row boats that took us down a narrow river system that was surround by thick vegetation on each side. We weren’t too far from the main roads, but we were well and truly out of the city now, and floating down the river in the long rowboat really gave me an idea of Vietnamese culture that was probably a little more traditional then either of the living situations I had experienced so far. The short trip took us to a modest little business that turned out to be a factory for making coconut candy. We were able to taste some of the sweet substance right as it came out from melting and thickening over the fire – it tasted a bit like fudge – and were given the opportunity to buy some. That was the first inkling that I was on a tour that I’d heard been referred to as a “tourist trap”, where the initial cost of the tour is cheap, but all the extras come at an additional cost, and almost every stop along the way tries to sell you something.

The smaller, secluded sections of the Mekong River.

The smaller, secluded sections of the Mekong River.

After we had concluded business at the candy factory, our tour guide fetched a hessian bag, reached inside and produced a snake from within the depths of the sack, immediately offering it to individuals in the group to pose with it and take photos. Luckily I had faced and conquered my fear of snakes back in Bangkok, otherwise my reaction to the surprise might have been extremely embarrassing. On the contrary, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the reptile – or to be more accurate, to get the reptile around my shoulders. I thought back to the fearless little ten-year-old boy I had been when I visited the Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo in Queensland, itching to get my photo taken with the huge python, and realised that I’d come full circle again. I didn’t even flinch as the tour guide draped the snake over my shoulders and looped it around my neck.

Getting friendly with the locals.

Getting friendly with the locals.

After the reptilian meet-and-greet, we jumped on another larger boat and headed down and across the river to another town named Ben Tre. We had lunch at an elephant fish ear farm – large flat fish that resemble their namesake. However, that particular delicacy was another tourist trap that wasn’t included in the price of the tour, though I’m not a huge fan of fish and was able to settle with tour included beef and rice dish. I sat at a table with two couples – a pair of British 27-year-olds taking their annual holiday, and another retired British couple who now lived on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. They were all very nice and interesting to talk to, although I’d been hoping I might meet some more people like myself, solo travellers or backpackers. Groups and couples tend to already have their itineraries firmly set out, so I just had to enjoy their company for the day before writing them off as what Tyler Durden would call “single serving friends”.

Photo on the larger boat, taken by my new temporary friends.

Photo on the larger boat, taken by my new temporary friends.

View of the wider part of the river from our larger boat.

View of the wider part of the river from our larger boat.

Pool of elephant ear fish at the farm.

Pool of elephant ear fish at the farm.

The last stop of the tour was the centre of the town, where there was a temple complex with several pagodas and statues of Buddha. I hadn’t gotten around to visiting a similar site in Saigon, so I was glad to be able to make up for it here instead, though the more I saw of South East Asia, the more similarities I began to see in all these temples and monuments. Which doesn’t make them any less holy or worthy of reverence – it just means you can’t spend quite as long marvelling in awe at them when you saw that temples bigger cousin in a different city. Overall, my day tour on the Mekong River was pretty average. I guess being a day tour it was obviously going to feel a little rushed, but there was nothing particularly amazing or breathtaking about it. Although it was nice to get out of the city and see some more the of the country of Vietnam, no matter how briefly.

Happy Buddha!

Happy Buddha!

One of the more solemn shrines at the temple.

One of the more solemn shrines at the temple.

***

That trip happened during the middle of my week in Vietnam. To stick to my river theme and spare you from any more river references in my blog titles, I’m going to throw chronology to the wind even further and tell the short story of my departure from Ho Chi Minh City…

After a slow day of recovery from my last night in Saigon, I hopped on an overnight bus towards the riverside town of Chau Doc. Not wanting to travel all the way to Cambodia via bus, I had decided to split the trip up by traveling to a border town on the Mekong River, staying there for a night or two, and then catching a boat up the river to Phnom Penh. It wasn’t as cheap as a bus, but I figured it would be a great way to see some more of the countryside, as well as being one of those rare opportunities to listen to Lonely Island’s I’m On A Boat and giggle smugly to yourself at the accuracy of the content.

Though for all the research I had put into transportation, I hadn’t bothered to investigate too much into the town of Chau Doc itself. Crawling off the bus at 5:30am, I was unimpressed (mainly with myself) to find myself alone in a tiny riverside town, where hardly anyone spoke English, at a time where hardly anything was open. “Cheap hostel,” I managed to convey to a motorbike taxi, and we roamed the streets for about 20 minutes, moving from closed hotel to closed hotel. Eventually I gave up and repeated “boat” while pointing at an address in the Lonely Planet guide, and my taxi driver seemed to figure out what I wanted. I found myself sitting at a dock on the river, half asleep while I waited for the world itself to wake.

The town of Chau Doc in the grey light of dawn.

The town of Chau Doc in the grey light of dawn.

Despite the dull light of the dawn, my short ride around the city had proved to be very illuminating. There didn’t appear to be any major tourist attractions here, and the level of English speaking locals seemed to be at a concerning low. I could see things going very wrong very quickly in a place like this, and after the bus ride I had just had, it was something I did not want to deal with. In a split second decision I changed my mind, and my stopover in Chau Doc went from a couple of days to a couple of hours, in a couple of seconds.

Setting out as the sun rises.

Setting out as the sun rises.

Luckily there was room on that mornings boat, so after only a couple of hours of being in Chau Doc, I was speeding up the Mekong River to the Cambodian border. My companions for this voyage turned about to be a bunch of Americans from Philadelphia who were doing a tour through South East Asia as part of a masters program. They were all extremely friendly, and they took me under their wing when we went through the border crossing process, which I was thankful for, since this was the first overland border crossing I’d ever done. It’s a feeling of sheer terror handing your passport over and one check point and then not getting it back until the next one. Once we got back on the boat from the Vietnamese exit point, the rest of the Americans had their passports returned, but mine didn’t come back. I knew it must have been because I still had to get my visa, while the others had obtained theirs in advance, but all the same, it’s still an uneasy feeling.

The boat provided some scenic views of rural Cambodia I might not have otherwise seen.

The boat provided some scenic views of rural Cambodia I might not have otherwise seen.

But it all went up without a hitch, and I spent rest of the 6 hour boat ride to Phnom Penh chatting to my new American friends, admiring the rural scenery and nodding in and out of consciousness – to say the least, it had been a very long morning.

Getting to Know You: Miss Saigon

My first impression of Ho Chi Minh City was that it seemed like a baby version of Bangkok. It has the backpacker district with the flashing lights and street hawkers, it has the numerous food carts selling a variety of local cuisines, and it has a lot of busy traffic. However, it’s almost as if the vehicles are in baby form, with the motorcycles being to cars what tadpoles are to frogs, and the motorcycles are everywhere. I know I’ve said it before, but literally everywhere – they put the gangs of Central Coast NSW to shame. So the city may feel a little smaller than Bangkok, but in no way does that make it feel any less busy, at least in District 1 in the central part of the city.

So. Many. Motorbikes.

So. Many. Motorbikes.

Vietnamese flag out the front of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Vietnamese flag out the front of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

There is also a confusing aspect in that this city has two names – something that puzzled me to no end in the early stages of planning my side-step detour to Vietnam. Pretty much all the native locals call it Saigon, even a lot of the travel agencies do too. Ho Chi Minh City, taken from the name of the Vietnamese leader during the wartime period, is the name used by the government and officials and anyone else of relative importance. As a traveller, I don’t really have a preference, and will use both interchangeably throughout this blog, just to keep y’all on your toes.

***

My first few full days in Saigon were spent doing some sight seeing. I decided to tackle the city on foot – after letting my guard down and being scammed into paying an exorbitant amount of money for a brief ride in a cyclo, which is basically a bike with an oversized basket for passengers, I became a little mistrusting of all the locals who approached me, offering rides on their various street vehicles. I also found myself slightly terrified of the traffic, although I quickly learnt that in Saigon, being a pedestrian is just as hazardous as being behind the wheel of a car or on a motorbike. Which is not necessarily saying that it’s risky – you simply need to really keep your wits about you at all times… although, it is risky. I’ve had a number of extremely close encounters where my attention lapsed for just a moment, and I came this close to being far too acquainted with the front end of a motorbike. Look both ways, amnd look all four ways at intersections. Sometimes it’s easier to just slowly wander out onto the road and let the bikes move around you. This is particularly terrifying though and by no means safe – sometimes I just got impatient waiting for a legitimate gap in traffic.

Outside the Ho Chi Minh City People's Council People's Committee Building .

Outside the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Council People’s Committee Building .

French-designed Cathedral in the city centre.

French-designed Cathedral in the city centre.

Reunification Palace.

Reunification Palace.

Another thing Ho Chi Minh City seems to have a lot of is museums. As well as the War Remnants Museum, I visited the Fine Arts Museum and the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. I took some refuge from the bustling city outside to observe some of the paintings and sculptures in the Fine Arts Museum, almost all of which are created by Vietnamese artists. I’m no art critic, and I don’t know the first thing about techniques or designs or any of the fine details when it comes to the fine arts, but the museum did have a huge variety of works on display, much of which represented lots of aspects of Vietnamese culture. As I wandered through the halls, I noticed that many of the paintings depicted soldiers and other wartime themes. Despite being beautiful works, that saddened me a little bit, and I was beginning to understand just how much the war has affected the mindset of so many local people here, and had branded their cultural history with a very distinct and conspicuous mark. It was a mark of remembrance and mourning, but also hope for the future.

Then I came across a piece called ‘Agent Orange’, where the oil painting had been textured so that it recreated the horrific deformities of the victims of the harsh poison, to a point where the art was almost three dimensional, and the suffering reached out from within canvas to force you to feel the emotions it depicted. I both loved and hated the painting, because it was so confronting, and because it filled me with the similar feelings I felt at the War Remnants Museum. I took a few photos, which I think I probably was not supposed to do, so I won’t upload them. I also feel like these works are best experienced in their true medium, and not from within a computer screen.

The other museum was also interesting, learning about the history of the the city. I don’t really care to regurgitate everything I read though, so make sure you check it out if you’re ever in Saigon. The building did, however, have a nice view.

View of city from the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

View of city from the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

***

My first evening in the hostel was when I began to experience the tourist nightlife. As people began slowly arriving home from their days activities and trawling into the dorm room, one of the guys made an open invitation to anyone who was interested in joining him and a few other guys in getting some dinner. Having no plans and nothing to lose, I tagged along and found myself with four guys, respectively originating from Germany, Wales, America and New Zealand, and a Hungarian girl. Our small international party set out looking for cheap street food. I’d always been a bit of a fan on Vietnamese food back home, so it was kind of a novel thrill to sit on a tiny plastic chair on the side of the road, like all the local people did in District 1, and eat my pho noodle soup. After that we were joined by two Argentinians and headed to a bar to drink some beer. I say “bar”, but in reality it was a little hole-in-the-wall joint with tiny plastic chairs (and slightly bigger plastic chairs that were used as tables) littering the footpath out front, sprawling out onto the road when it got busy enough. Later in the week, when I explained this scene to a New Zealander expat now residing in Ho Chi Minh City, he merely chuckled and said, “Yep, we call that a bar here.”

However, what the place lacked in bells and whistles, it made up with value for money. Draught beer was 7000 Vietnamese dong per glass. That converts into approximately 35 Australian cents. It seemed criminal to drink anything else when you could drink for so ridiculously cheap, and not for the first time on this trip I found myself succumbing to peer pressure and going in for a round of beers, only to be surprised that I actually quite enjoyed the taste of it. I didn’t love it, but for a few quiet drinks on a Tuesday night it doesn’t get much better than three beers for a buck.

The weekend was a different story though – I met a bunch of Australians who had been in Vietnam for the last month or so for work, and they took me out to some of the nearby nightclubs. The bars were a little more sophisticated then plastic stools on the pavement, and the drinks were more than 35c, but they were still exponentially cheaper than back home and the cocktails were lethal. Two Long Island Ice Teas later and I have to confess that I couldn’t tell you much about the difference between the clubs in Saigon and the clubs back home. Except that in one of them I ran into a Tasmanian couple casually smoking a hukka, and I’m pretty sure the flavour was “blue”. And security guards loved to pose for photos, something I have never seen in Australia.

In an e-mail to my father about my trip down to Krabi, I had mentioned how good it had been to get out of the city for a while and see the rest of the country. His response triggered something in me that I’d never really considered before: “Yes, cities tend to all feel the same after a while. It’s best to get out and see the real country”. While I could see comparable differences in each city I had visited, I promised myself that I would make my best effort to see a little more than just the major cities in each country went to, wherever I could.

Because at the end of the night, whether its beer or spirits, Sydney or Saigon, hangovers are generally all the same too.

Riding Solo

After four weeks on the road, it’s safe to say I’ve seen quite a bit and had some new worldly experiences. However, something I never expected was that travelling by myself would play such a crucial part in the way that my journey unfolded. At the time of planning all I envisioned was complete, unbridled freedom. While that still might be true, travelling alone isn’t without its drawbacks, a few of which I am slowly learning to navigate.

***

Perhaps the first time the realities of traveling solo really hit me was when I was waiting for my train south to Krabi, sitting at a table on the elevated café level of Hua Lamphong Railway Station in Bangkok. All around me, I saw so many travellers in pairs: whether they were partners or friends, or sometimes even groups of three or four, almost everybody had somebody. And that started to make me feel a little lonely.

And I don’t necessarily mean the ‘longing for human contact’ kind of loneliness. It’s the practical advantages of having a travelling partner that I really began to notice when I was finally by myself. For example, I had an hour and a half wait at the train station. There was no table service in the area I was sitting in – if I wanted to order food, I would have to pick up my bags and take them to the counter with me. If I wanted to go to the bathroom… well, I couldn’t. Unless I either hiked in there with all my bags or left them out in the open when I went, completely unattended.

Luckily I didn’t need to use the bathroom, but it just made me realise how much easier some things are when you have a traveling partner. Initially I was quite drawn the freedom of being able to do exactly what I wanted and travelling whenever I wanted, but when you’re making these grandiose plans, those little details are often the first thing you lose sight of. They say that solo travelling can be much cheaper, but even that freedom still comes with a different kind of cost.

***

When I was on the beach at Ao Nuang beach at Krabi, I had no choice but to leave my bag unattended. It probably probably says something more about my paranoia or anxiety that I pretty much backed into the ocean, facing the beach, so that I could keep an eye on my belongings. But you loosen up eventually, for better or worse, and in the end you just have to calculate the risk and do your best to enjoy whatever it is you’re doing. And I did, eventually. Train stations are very different settings to beaches, and there was just the right amount of people present on the sand for me to feel more comfortable about walking away from my bag – enough people to be witnesses to a theft, but not enough for a thief to be lost in the crowd.

When I was at Rai Leh, I was able to ask Sam and Sarah to watch my bag while I went into the ocean. But eventually they wanted to swim as well, so we all just had to leave our bags in a cluster on the beach and keep an eye on them every now and then. Although again, maybe that’s my paranoia talking. As we walked out of the warm Thai water, Sarah peered out onto the vast expanse of sand and asked “Where are our bags?” We’d floated a little way down the beach, but I was immediately able to point out the location of our belongings. Seems not everyone is so highly strung as me when it comes to the location of their valuables.

***

Then there is the freedom of travelling solo – both a blessing and a curse. For starters, I know that had I not been travelling alone, I probably wouldn’t be on this mammoth nine month journey. Most people don’t have the time, or have too many commitments to take such a long term vacation from their real lives. But I did, so I set out with the intention of not letting anyone get in the way of doing exactly what I wanted to do.

But I felt it was impossible to plan an entire nine month holiday completely in advance, so I left a lot of the fine details up to chance and circumstance. Booking hostels and overland transport as I go, seeing wherever the wind takes me – it sounds like the ultimate travellers dream. I know for a fact I wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done so far if I’d brought a travelling companion from home – beers with the British boys in Thailand, Couchsurfing in the Vietnamese slums, being sexually harassed by a monk, or even the SCUBA diving tour that I booked myself into on a last minute whim.

Then there’s even the freedom to do nothing. Those days or nights when you’re just too exhausted, and all you want to do is sit in the hostel and read a book or make a Skype call. You don’t have to make excuses to anyone or apologise for not going out and having fun. I accept the reality that out of my 275 days of travel, not every single one is going to be jam-packed with activities.

Yet this does run the risk of complacency. In a brand new city with so much to explore, after a few a days you can easily become overwhelmed. With a travelling partner, you always have someone else’s energy to bounce off and keep ideas coming, always planning something to keep the ball rolling. By yourself, it’s easy to feel at a loss, and waste days trying to decide what to do. I thought that hostels would help with this – it certainly did while I was in Krabi – but of the three nights I’ve spent in my hostel at Ho Chi Minh City, for two of them I’ve been one of two people staying in a 9 bedroom dorm. The other guy hardly speaks, and has spent the entirely of his time in the room editing videos and photos on his laptop. So it’s really up to me, and me alone, to get out there and explore this big city.

River Tour on the Mekong Delta - you get used to taking tourist selfies when travelling on your own

River Tour on the Mekong Delta – you get used to taking tourist selfies when travelling on your own

***

Being alone gives you a lot of time to think, which is also a problem. You end up thinking about home, and things and people that you miss in that state of loneliness, when you know you should be out there having fun and exploring the world. But I hope that writing about this will be cathartic in some way, so I might be able to let go of these difficulties in travelling solo and to fully appreciate the experiences that I’m having.

The weekends coming up, so I’ll probably hit the nightclubs and use alcohol as a social lubricant and find some new people to hang out with. No matter where you are in the world, some things never change.

Suburban Hikes on Motorbikes: My first 24 hours in Vietnam

The warm air of the night was countered by the wind that billowed against my t-shirt, as we sped down the highway on a motorbike. All around us were the chirps and toots from the traffic, horns and indicators blaring out into the night. There was the odd car or bus, but the majority of vehicles on the road were other motorcycles. In Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as its known to the locals, motorcycles rein supreme. They fill the streets, they clutter the sidewalks, and you can’t walk fifty metres without an old man waving his hands lividly in the air at you, screaming “Motorbike! Motorbike!” in an attempt to attract your patronage so they can drive you to your destination for a fee. It really was a strange moment for me, whose mother has such a vehement opposition to motorcycles that I’d probably get cut off from the family should I ever attempt purchase my own, to see hordes of them flooding the streets in a way that just seems so normal and commonplace.

“You want to ride the motorbike?” my driver had shouted to me over the roar of the wind in my ears. I let out a short, sarcastic “Ha!” at the very idea.
“Come on, it’s easy,” he tried persuading me again. Driving a motorbike was one thing, but the traffic in this city was just as reckless as the streets of Bangkok – in the “You have to know the city extremely well to avoid certain death” kind of way – and I don’t think even the most expensive insurance premium would cover the driving of someone like me in a place like this. So I just laughed again, a little more genuinely this time, and shook my head.

Motorbikes in close proximity.

Motorbikes in close proximity.

My first 24 hours in Vietnam would prove to be a ‘rinse and repeat’ in the culture shock process, but to explain it properly, I have to take it back to the beginning…

***

After landing in Ho Chi Minh City airport and dealing with the various visa and customs issues, I exited the airport into a heat that closely rivalled Thailand, and made my way to the bus terminal. My stay in Vietnam was to mark another of my many ‘firsts’ on this adventure – my first experience of being a Couchsurfer. For those not in the know, Couchsurfing is an online community that connects travellers from all over the world with people in cities all over the world that are able to host them, and provide a place for the travellers to stay while they’re in their city. The philosophy behind it is cheap accommodation when seeing the world, and at the same time creating global connections and friendships. Vietnam was to be the first country I was staying in where I didn’t have any contacts at all, let alone friends to stay with, so I figured it might be a good opportunity to take part in the Couchsurfing phenomenon that is taking on the travelling world. While I was in Bangkok I’d put a message into a subgroup created specifically for queer Couchsurfers – because sometimes it’s just nice to be around fellow friends of Dorothy – and after a few days I had a reply from a 22-year-old Vietnamese guy living in Ho Chi Minh City. We discussed the issue some, and he offered me a place on his couch.

However, he wasn’t able to meet me at the airport, and so gave me instructions on which bus to catch, and a time and place for us to meet. This involved me catching a public bus – something I was yet to do in South East Asia. As the bus rattled out of the airport and towards the city, I noticed a group of three girls sitting across the aisle of the bus from me, looking at me and whispering among themselves. Well… I assume they were talking, but I couldn’t see their mouths since they were covered by face masks. They’re the kind that doctors and medical professionals wear during operations, or that people in the street wear when they’re afraid of bird or swine flu – and suddenly I thought I may have missed some vital health information. I was later told there wasn’t too much to worry about, and that a lot of girls were just shy and wore them to hide their faces… Okay then.

I didn’t think much of it, until one of the girls reached out and passed me her phone. It was an iPhone opened to compose a new message, and in the typing section she had written ‘Where you from?, I smiled, passed the phone back and said I was from Australia. After a few moments she passed it back ‘What you do?’. I smiled again, amused by the exchange, and replied “I’m travelling.” The girl looked at me, perplexed, then back at her friends. Then back to me. Then back to her friends. Maybe I had overestimated their English? I took the phone from her and wrote ‘travelling’. She took the phone back, and I noticed the girls regrouping around another phone, perhaps for translation purposes. This exchange continued for the remainder of the trip, where they asked me where I was going, if I was alone, what I studied back home, and finally: ‘do you play facebook?’. I said I did, and gave them my Facebook name. ‘See you in facebook!’ was the last message I read. I hopped off the bus at the final stop, equal parts amused and confused.

Motorbikes take up every spare inch of the road.

Motorbikes take up every spare inch of the road.

***

The place where I was meeting my host was close by and I found it easily enough, and soon we were getting to know each other and chatting away. My host had previously spent time studying in Sydney – at the same university that I attended, as it would happen – and so we had a surprisingly large amount of common ground to cover. Then it came time to travel to my hosts house – knowing I had a large bag, he hadn’t brought his motorbike, so we caught another bus. Where I had stayed while I was in Bangkok was rather close to the major parts of the city, but after 45 minutes on this bus, watching the city scenery pass and eventually dwindle into the suburbs, I realised that my location in Ho Chi Minh City wouldn’t be quite so central. As we descended into the outer suburbs, out of the tourists areas and into the domain of the locals, it became clear I was going to get a very authentic Vietnamese experience.

I didn’t really have any definite expectations, but it was certainly a bit of a shock when we alighted from the bus. The city was well and truly gone, and all around us were either stretching roads full of buses and bikes, or narrow roads that forked off in twisting alleys and concrete walkways. We travelled through the dingy labyrinth until we got to my hosts house, where I made a few other unexpected discoveries: my host still lived with his parents, so I was staying with a family, and the ‘couch’ was actually a mattress, which I would be sharing with my host, in a room he told me he shared with his brother. The bedroom didn’t have a door, something that my host told me his parents did not allow. As we got chatting about it more, I learnt a whole heap of other things about Asian culture that were considered quite strange by my standards, but were completely normal for him. Though he had been to Australia before and understood the common practices and standards of living there, so I think he understood some of my confusion. They were quite middle-class living conditions for Vietnam, but that’s still very different from middle-class Sydney.

After I’d settled in, my host took me around the city on his motorbike, pointing out various attractions in the city centre, showing me his university where he studied, and took me to some truly local places to eat – the menus were entirely in Vietnamese, and had I come alone, I would not have had the faintest idea what anything on the menu was (besides ‘soda’, ‘Coke’ and ‘Sprite’). It was a great way to see the city from a locals point of view, and I am truly thankful for the experience and for the generosity of my host. However, the living arrangements weren’t exactly ideal. Sharing a bed is tough for me at the best of times, and the distance to and from the city meant it wouldn’t exactly be easy for me to get around without relying on someone else and their motorbike (I was not going to accept the offer to ride it by myself). So in the morning I headed off into the city, with a hand drawn map by my host, and found a hostel in the backpacker district to stay at for the remainder of my time in Saigon.

Motorbikes maintain the majority in the minor metropolis of Saigon.

Motorbikes maintain the majority in the minor metropolis of Saigon.

***

The rest of my afternoon was to be taken up by a highly recommended and fairly popular tourist attraction – the War Remnants Museum. My knowledge of the Vietnam War basically comprised of pop culture references and the part of the Australian History syllabus that addressed the topic and Australia’s involvement in it. I knew about the stigma attached to the soldiers and the war crimes they were accused of committing, but as a 15-year-old reading a slide from an overhead projector, the true meanings behind all of this never really sunk in.

The War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum

So I wasn’t expecting my trip to the museum to be so mentally and emotionally exhausting. The exhibit that particularly broke my heart was the galley titled ‘Victims of Agent Orange’. Agent Orange was a powerful dioxin that was used by the USA in biochemical warfare during the Vietnam War. It poisoned millions of Vietnamese people, but some of the most devastating impacts come from second-hand contamination – babies born with all sorts of horrific birth defects as a result of their parents being infected by Agent Orange. Seeing these images and reading their stories was such an intense experience – it took everything I had to blink back tears and not have a moment in the middle of the museum. The fact that many of these people do their best to live ordinary lives despite their crippling deformities just makes their stories even more amazing and inspiring. I thought about taking some photos of these powerful images, but I decided my poor photography would not do them justice to the incredible way that they affected me. But I urge anyone who visits Ho Chi Minh City to take the time to see this museum – it gave me a thorough schooling on what it’s like to feel compassion and empathy, and to be thankful for what you have. After viewing more galleries about war crimes, historical truths, and a photographic history of the Vietnam War, I left the museum feeling a little overwhelmed. I’ve long considered myself a pacifist, and seeing such shocking displays of the horrors of what seemed to be such a pointless war firmly re-cemented my position.

USA war plane outside the museum.

USA war plane outside the museum.

***

My first 24 hours really forced me to reevaluate some of the priorities in my life, both past and present – my future is just a big messy ball of ‘unknown’ that I’m not prepared to tackle right now. But I feel a little bad about the way I reacted to the Couchsurfing experience, simply because it hadn’t been what I had expected or of a standard I was used to. People make do with a lot less, and here I am complaining about not having my own room and/or bed. And to think that I ever felt that my life back in Australia was lacking or incomplete in any sort of way just seems completely laughable now. You really don’t realise that kind of thing until you step outside of your comfort zone and experience something that you would have otherwise never come into contact with. I know that no ones life is ever “perfect” or “complete”, and that you can always strive to do better, but this kind of experience really highlights how pointless and deconstructive complaining about it can be.

I don’t want to get all preachy or anything though, so I’ll just settle for saying that each and every day of this adventure is opening my eyes wider and wider to the incredible, immense, diverse and ever-changing world world around me.

Happy New Year! Songkran Water Festival

The end of my time in Thailand was rapidly approaching. It had only been three weeks since I first departed from Sydney, yet already I had experienced so much, seen some incredible things, and met some amazing new people. Yet there was one final event I was to attend in my final weekend in Bangkok – the Theravada Buddhist New Year festival celebrations, better known by its traditional name, Songkran.

Songkran is celebrated throughout South East Asia in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. It’s traditional origins as a water festival come from a practice where the younger generation pours water on the hands and feet of the older generations, symbolic of a recognition of the knowledge and wisdom of their elders, and as a sign of respect. While I’m sure these traditional values are still upheld, the modern translation of Songkran is a huge water fight, where major roads in the city are closed off and people flood into the streets with hoses, buckets, water pistols and super soakers, and anybody on the streets becomes fair game for a hearty drenching. All throughout my time in Bangkok, people would repeatedly ask me, “Wait, when are you leaving? Are you gonna be here for Songkran?” Truth be told, the timing was a complete coincidence, but my flight out of Thailand was to be on the Monday after this wet and wild long weekend. As the weeks passed by I saw many of the corner shops stocking up and selling small waterproof pouches for money and valuables, and water guns of virtually every shape and size, and I began to think I was underestimating the significance of this festival.

“The whole city basically turns into a mosh pit”, Brendon had told me. “The Saturday afternoon of Songkran, this road will just be completely full of people. You’ll barely be able to move.” We were in a taxi going down Silom Road, and I peered out the window. The traffic was a blurry rush of taxis and tuk-tuks, cars and buses, the blaring of horns all around us. This was a major road in this area of Bangkok, and it was then that it really hit me that Songkran meant business.

***

As fate would have it, Silom Road was to be the destination of my very first Songkran. Nervous, excited, and not knowing what to expect, I set out with Rathana and his friends and caught the BTS to Sala Daeng. When we exited the platform and descended the steps down to Silom, I realised that Brendon’s description had not been an exaggeration in the slightest.

Silom Road packed with people celebrating Songkran.

Silom Road packed with people celebrating Songkran.

The road was packed. In place of the regular traffic was a steady flow of humans, almost like herds of cattle, being pushed along the street by the momentum of the crowd. Every man, woman and child was armed with a water pistol of some description. As we merged into the congregation, I could already feel the splashes of water coming from basically every direction. It was basically a free for all – I shot a random passerby with my super soaker, and he immediately whirled around and returned fire. But it was the normal thing to do – people were expecting to get wet, so no one seemed to get upset or annoyed. I’d been a little terrified at the though of entering such a massive crowd in a relatively unfamiliar city, but the whole vibe of the festival was one of complete, unabashed fun, indulging in the simple pleasures of a mass water fight in the streets. Even when I was copping a water pistol to the face, nothing could wipe the enormous, goofy grin off my face.

Except for maybe the flour. The were lots of people running around with buckets of (what I hope was) flour mixed with water, painting the faces of passers by with their hands. While I’m not afraid of getting a little dirty, some of the attackers weren’t as gentle with their application of the white paste, and a couple of times I got a stinging eyeful of floury finger. After that, I viciously defended my face, giving anyone who approached me with a bucket of flour a heaving dousing to the face from my super soaker.

We took to the streets with our own arsenal of water guns.

We took to the streets with our own arsenal of water guns.

The streets were wild. At various points there were what appeared to be fire trucks, or at least huge tanks of water with huge hoses attached. They rained down on the streets, and everyone cheered and screamed as we all got absolutely drenched. On the sides of the streets, people were selling more water guns, bottles of water for refills, beer and food, but their were joining in with the drenching just as much as the rest of the soggy mass of people.

We moved up and down through the packed street a couple of times before taking a turn down Silom Soi 4 – because obviously the gays really know how to throw a party. As we walked down the narrow street, people in the bars on either side assaulted us with an onslaught on water. We ran through, screaming and laughing, attempting to squirt them back. We ran into more of Rathana’s friends, and soon we were part of the mobs of people squirting water at the passers by, and engaging in water warfare with the groups on the other side of the street. While the only water refills available out on Silom Road came from bottles that we had to buy, the bars at Soi 4 had big buckets for us to refill our water guns, so the water fights continued long into the afternoon.

The water fights were raging in Silom Soi 4.

The water fights were raging in Silom Soi 4.

At one point there was a lull in the madness, and a parade emerged from the throng of people. Boys, and a few girls, in matching outfits and shiny black thigh-high high heeled boots marched down the strip, and they were showered with lots of cheering and even more water.

The parade marching down the drenched Soi 4.

The parade marching down the drenched Soi 4.

But after the procession passed, it was back to the water fight. As the sun begin to go down, some of us decided to leave Silom, go get dry and celebrate with dinner somewhere else. We ran back through the torrential rains that were the water guns of Soi 4 and back out onto the main road. If I’d thought that the streets were packed when I first arrived in the early afternoon, I really got the shock of my life on our return trip back to the BTS station. Earlier, we’d been able to move with relative ease in the mass of people, as long as we followed the flow of the crowd. However, now the flow of people had practically come to a standstill. Moving in either direction was difficult, and numerous times we found ourselves trapped, surrounded by either people who were going the wrong way, or walls, carts, and other stationary obstacles. There was a mild hysteria brewing in some of the crowd, as we were forced to move in the wrong directions, or simply stand still in a crush of people while waiting for the chance to move at all.

As the day progressed the crowd of people only grew bigger and bigger.

As the day progressed the crowd of people only grew bigger and bigger.

Deaths at these kind of festivals aren’t unheard of – tourists that got trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time, and other travelling horror stories. Luckily we all made it out alive, only slightly traumatised, and I commented to my companions that despite being an absolute logistical nightmare, the vibe and mood within the crowd of people never strayed from that of lighthearted fun and enjoyment. Had a similar thing happened at an Australian event, I have no doubt there would have been aggressive vibes, pushing and shoving, and inevitably break outs of violence and fights. So despite being packed into such a throng of people, and there not being any security guards or crowd control to speak of, I never at any point really felt unsafe.

***

Songkran traditionally lasts the whole weekend, but I needed to spend the Sunday getting my things together and finalising plans for my next destination. But I was also exhausted from the celebrating that I did do – the water festival was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and it’s always pretty amazing to see how another culture reinterprets historical events in their own fun modern ways. I had so much fun in my first Songkran, and somehow I have a feeling it’s not going to be my last.