Saturday, May 29, 2010

Back to HCMC, Vietnam

Through my hotel I arranged for a bus to pick me up and take me back to Ho Chi Minh City, about a 5 hour drive away. For the first few hours on the bus I kept to myself, just listening to my iPod. I finally gave in, however, and began speaking with the girl next to me--and I'm glad that I did. Her name was Laura, from England, who had been traveling for the past 4.5 months. Laura, who used England's poor economy to her advantage, got her job to allow her to take a leave of absence for 6 months. Nice.

Once we made it to HCMC we began searching for a place to sleep. Attempting to find cheap accommodation we found ourselves walking through the district's dark, windy back allies. Laura expressed that she wouldn't have felt comfortable walking through these allies by herself.

We checked out some of the rooms along these streets which were located, literally, in the upstairs of people's homes. As neither of us wanted to pass judgment on our newly discovered rooms, we hoped for the other to express their dissatisfaction first.

"So, what do you think?"

"Ummm, I don't know, what do YOU think?"

We laughed once we left, as the both of us wanted to take pictures but felt that it'd be insulting to the homeowners. We eventually agreed on a dormitory room located on the 100th floor of a hostel that we found. Seriously, I don't think I'm exaggerating either. I don't think I've ever climbed so many flights of stairs in my life.

Since my fight wasn't scheduled to leave until midnight the following evening, I decided that I would join Laura and show her around HCMC, as this was her first time to the city.

After our walking tour of the city and on our way back to our hotel, we stopped for some ice cream at Fenny's, a place that Laura had heard came highly recommended. And good-Lord-in-heaven was it good. Savoring every bite, we took our time eating our delicious ice cream. It was also nice to escape the heat and enjoy the confinements of the air-con restaurant.

While Laura went in search for a reasonably priced plane ticket for Hong Kong, I went to the barbershop for a shave. This barbershop may have been the greatest barbershop that I've ever been to in my life. What an experience, I must say. I got my head shaved, my face shaved (with a straight edge razor; plus, I didn't get cut once! Yay.) a facial, a massage and, here's the real kicker, I received an earwax cleansing. That's right... an earwax cleansing. Okay, so it was a bit disconcerting when he initially began the procedure but it was well worth it. I couldn't believe the amount of wax he removed. It was disgusting, really. I don't think the people at the barbershop could believe it either, as I saw one woman tap her friend's shoulder and pointed to all the wax that had been just removed. I was hoping that this would help enable my ears to pop when I got on the plane later that evening.

After I made it back to our dormitory I excitedly told Laura--after I took a minute to catch my breath, as I had just climbed 100 flights of stairs--about my amazing experience at the barbershop.

Afterwards we had some delicious street food. I made sure to get two plates as I had a long night in front of me. For dessert we had fruit shakes located outside of An An Hotel. While drinking our shakes I was approached by the woman who I had shared a few hours conversing with the last time I was here. I was surprised that she recognized me without the goatee. She told me how much more handsome and younger I looked without it, a common sentiment shared by all Asian woman. The men loved it though, as they would tug it or give me a thumbs up. However, the Asian women associate facial hair with being old. I commonly heard, "You look like you're 30 years old with facial hair!" an age that I'll be in less than 16 months, but is continually perceived otherwise. Everyone seems to think I'm much younger than I appear, which, I guess, is a good thing.

"Oh, so is this your new girlfriend?" she began prying. Then she began speaking to Laura about me.

"When he was here a few weeks ago, he sat here every night just drinking fruit shakes. He never went to any bars--doesn't drink, doesn't smoke. He a good man."

Flattered by her compliments I asked Laura to take a picture of us. Such a sweet woman.

Since it was beginning to get late, I decided that it was time to head to the airport. Laura walked with me as I found a taxi. I was really happy that I'd met her, and was sorry that we couldn't have hung out longer. That's the problem with long-term traveling. It's a bit of a double edged sword sometimes. Traveling has allowed me to generate so many friends, but eventually you have to part ways. And it's sad not knowing whether or not you'll ever see them again.

However, with that said, I was about to reunite with some friends that I had met a few months ago while traveling through Malaysia. I was very anxious to see them and their country, the Philippines.


Next Stop: Manila, Philippines

Friday, May 28, 2010

Hue, Hoi An, & Mui Ne, Vietnam

The overnight bus ride from Tom Coc to Hue was long and uneventful. However, I did get to enjoy a stunning sunrise peaking out over the the ocean as the bus drove along Vietnam's coastline. The bad thing about taking overnight buses is that I miss out on the country's pretty countryside. But if I don't want to arrive in an unfamiliar city at 2am, it's best to take an overnighter.

The city of Hue is most notably known for its history, as the city "served as the political capital from 1802 to 1945 under the 13 Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty." I only intended to stay in the city for one day before continuing south, so I hired a motorbike driver for the day, costing $7. Not too shabby.

Our first stop was the Tomb of Tu Duc, one of the main Tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty. There are several sites to view the tombs, but one site was enough for me. I was a bit bored, really. And the steep admission fee turned me off.

Next, my driver took me to see some military sites where U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers fought during the Vietnam War. Most of the sites he took me were... well, not too exciting. I enjoyed the views of the city from the motorbike the most, actually. I did, however, enjoy the Thien Mu Pagoda which was the home pagoda of Thich Quang Due, the Buddhist monk who lit himself on fire in protest of the policies of the President of Vietnam. The car that he drove to reach the intersection where he eventually burned himself alive was present at the pagoda. That was pretty neat.

Eventually we made it to the Citadel, the imperial city during the Nguyen Dynasty. I just walked and viewed it from the outside. I saw it. I got it. I didn't feel the need to pay an admission fee to view it from the inside. Same, same.

Next it was time to hit the beach, which was located about 20 kms outside of the city. The driver, coincidentally, had friends and family at the beach that early evening and asked if I wanted to join them. While impersonating Krammer from the television show "Seinfeld" I responded, "Oh, you better believe it!" The next thing I knew I was under a gazebo being offered a plethora of food and downing an uncountable amount of beers. I saw a few women from Norway looking back at me from their beach chairs, probably thinking, "How in the hell did he get in with THOSE locals?" I mentioned to my new Vietnamese friends how pretty I thought the women were.

"Oh, yeah?" my driver said, as he threw back another glass of beer and walked over to the pretty ladies.

"Oh, gawd," I said, throwing back another glass as well.

The next thing I knew, both of the women were sitting with me sharing drinks and taking pictures with me and the gang.

The next morning I enjoyed a scenic drive from Hue to Hoi An.

When I arrived in Hoi An, I immediately began looking for a hotel. It's definitely difficult to find cheap accommodation in Vietnam if you're traveling solo, something I'm not accustomed to as I rarely travel alone.

I only had time to spend one day in Hoi An so I quickly began walking the streets.

Hoi An is a pleasantly quaint town. And because it had been an international trading port since the early 1600s, much of its architecture has been influenced by China, Japan, and Europe which, I gotta say, makes out for a pleasantly aesthetic stroll through the city's narrow streets. The town is full of charming boutique and taylor-made clothing shops, as well. If I ever come back to Vietnam I'll definitely spend more time in this laid back city.

The next evening I decided to take an overnight sleeper bus to Mui Ne and bypass the city of Nha Trang, as I was cut short on time. I was hoping the sleeper bus was going to be as nice and comfortable as the one I had had in Laos. WRONG! I was way too big for my sleeper. It was frustrating to watch everyone fit O-so-ever-comfortably in theirs. I layed on my back and, without any room for my legs to go, I had to bend them as if I was in position to perform some sit-ups. We stopped in Nha Trang for an hour before transferring buses for Mui Ne, now only 4-5 hours away.

Mui Ne is located in southern Vietnam, about 5 hours east of Ho Chi Minh City. I thought it would be a nice town to lay low and write, which it was...and I did. I did absolutely nothing in Mui Ne for the next few days but write. I devoted my last day, however, for sightseeing and hired a motorbike driver for $6. I checked out the nearby sand dunes, fishing villages, and the Fairy Spring.

Excited to leave for the Philippines in a few days, there was only one thing left I had to do before departing: shave. Yes, shave.

My friend, Sheila, who I'd met in a hostel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, kindly offered me a free place to stay for when I visited the Philippines. But with one tiny caveat: that I shave my burly goatee.

Next Stop: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


Monday, May 24, 2010

Ha Long Bay & Tom Coc, Vietnam

After spending a few days doing nothing but writing and uploading pictures, I found myself on a bus heading to Ha Long Bay. With over 3,000 islands surrounded by the turquoise water of the Gulf of Tonkin, Ha Long Bay is a must see Unesco World Heritage site. People from all over the globe flock here to see this natural phenomena. I purchased a 2 day, 1 night tour and chose the option of sleeping on the junket (boat).

Ha Long Bay tours operate in a chaotic manner, as they herd you on and off the buses like cattle and randomly select you into groups. It was also a bit disconcerting the way they handle your passports. Before boarding the junkets you must hand over your passport which you get back the day you leave.

What was just moments earlier a cloudy, gloomy day suddenly became brightened with sunshine as the clouds magically dispersed. After all the backpackers boarded, we climbed the upper level of the ship we sought after our newly found sunshine and the cool refreshing breeze that was being produced by the start of our ship's engine as we began heading out to sea.

Here we come, Ha long Bay!

We had a good group of people on our ship: 3 Americans, 2 Portuguese, 1 French, 1 Danish, and 1 Serbian. After lunch, we all kicked back and enjoyed one another's company and the magnificent scenery that surrounded us. Sadly though, 5 of the 8 passengers were getting off at Cat Ba Island in exchange for 14 people that were leaving Cat Ba. I made sure to exchange emails with everyone that left. Luckily our new crew were also pretty cool. Everyone got along great and, surprisingly, there was not even one loud, obnoxious person on the entire ship. I surely thought that there would be at least one on a ship full of young backpackers. Nope! Nodda! Zippo! This made out for a lovely, relaxing evening on the bay.

As I was about to call it a night, me and a few people I was conversing with noticed something floating in the water. All of the junkets in the bay were disposing their rubbish into the sea. Again, the utter disregard for the environment in Southeast Asia is unreal. Very disturbing.

Having spent a week in and around Hanoi, it was time for me to head south. The next morning I arranged a tour to Tom Coc, located a few hours south of Hanoi. Tom Coc is known as 'Ha Long Bay on Land' or 'Ha Long Bay on Rice Paddies'. And that's exactly what it looked like, with enormous green limestone peaks scattered throughout the countryside. The tour consisted of a lovely group of people which included 2 Thais, 2 Koreans, 2 French, 2 Japanese, and 2 elderly Vietnamese. I was the youngest in the group.

The best way to see Tom Coc is by a rowboat on the Ngo Dong River. I shared my rowboat with the two Japanese women. The rowing ladies work extremely hard, and I definitely made sure to tip them. The boat ride, quite surprisingly, lasted a few hours. I was also surprised that there wasn't an entrance fee, so make sure to use that money to tip your rowing lady. The boat ride was stunning as we slivered our way along the river in between the mountains and its caves. Later, my tour bus dropped me off at a hotel where I waited for an overnight bus that would take me to the city of Hue.

Next Stop: Hue


Hanoi, Vietnam: Part II

After experiencing a near meltdown, I slowly started to pull myself together. I took one deep breath and focused on the floor, as not to let my thoughts wander. I meditated on what had just transpired and looked for the signs. And just then a feeling came over me like a warm blanket, and I started to feel calm and at peace.

What I was experiencing was just a bit of an inconvenience. Plan and simple. Everything that I'd lost, besides a small amount of cash, was salvageable. This was the first time during my 6 months of traveling in Southeast Asia that I had been a victim of theft. That's pretty good if you ask me. Plus, I bare partial responsibility as I had become a bit careless. I shouldn't have exposed my wallet the way I did, and I SHOULD have zipped my pockets.

Once we made it to Bat Trang I called my mother with Jesse's cell phone (how convenient).

"Hello?" said my mother, sounding tired.

"Mom. Hey, it's me, Adam."

"Adam?!" Oh, hi! How are you?! And where are...." sounding ecstatic, before I cut her off.

"Mom, calm down. I'm fine, but I've experienced a bit of an inconvenience. I need you to do something for me, okay?" Everyone in the room began to laugh, as she was on speaker phone. After my mother cancelled my debit card I was able to completely relax and enjoy my time in Bat Trang.

When we returned to Hanoi, Li walked us to the police station to file a report of the incident, something I hope I'll be able to present to my travel insurance. I was glad Li was with us as I wouldn't have been able to find it without her. Plus, no one at the police station spoke any English. Their system was, let's say, a bit archaic. The reports had to be hand written, and since there wasn't a xerox machine, it had to be written about about 6 times (3 in English and 3 in Vietnamese). It took forever! I was so grateful though to have had Li with me, who was, I must say, extraordinarily patient.

The next morning we went to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, hoping to get a better understanding as to why this man is so revered in Vietnam. We left the museum without gaining any new insight about Uncle Ho: the man, the myth...the legend. I still don't even know when the freakin' dude died. The museum is full of obnoxious abstract symbolism, i.e. propaganda. Just reading the brochure for the museum makes me wanna gag. Here are a few lines from it:

"The Ho Chi Minh Museum has been built in accordance with the desire of the Vietnamese people. It is designed to show their deep gratitude to the President's great merits and to express their determination to study and follow His thought, morality and style, to make joint efforts to build Viet Nam into a country of peace, unity, independence, democracy and prosperity, which is friendly to the world's peoples"

"....when the centenary of Ho Chi Minh was celebrated according to the UNESCO Resolution which recognized him as 'a hero of national liberation and a great man of culture'"

"The whole building evokes a stylized white lotus."

"The section on Ho Chi Minh's life and revolutionary cause, an the Vietnamese people's implementation of His Testament..."

I bet the reason why we couldn't find out when Ho Chi Minh died is because the government wants to give the impression that he's not. I mean his image appears everywhere throughout the country. And for Lord's sake, the government has embalmed his body despite that, in his will, he requested that he'd be cremated. Jesse, Sabine and I weren't able to view his body due to the holiday. But I've heard that his body is very well preserved and looks as if he just went to sleep. Very strange.

That night I had dinner with Jesse and Sabine. It was our final night together as they were flying to Thailand the following morning. Tear. It'll probably be the last time I see them on our travels. However, I did tell them I was flirting with the idea in traveling to Europe. If so, I'll definitely see them in Holland (the Netherlands). So, until next time...

Next Stop: Ha Long Bay & Tom Coc, Vietnam


Friday, May 21, 2010

Hanoi, Vietnam: Part I

The flight from HCMC to Hanoi didn't go so well. My left ear gave me a lot of problems. I tried everything that I could to pop my ear, but nothing worked. Eventually the pain in my ear subsided; however, I was left almost completely deaf in my ear due to its inability to pop.

I'd heard that the airport was pretty far from Hanoi's city center, so after I retrieved my luggage I immediately began looking for some westerners to share a taxi with, thus reducing the cost. I spotted a European couple and asked them if they would like to share a taxi. It was pretty obvious they had no intentions sharing one, as they suggested I share a taxi with another western looking guy who was getting into the cab adjacent to theirs. Luckily this guy had no problems with it. His name was Ben, a 38-year-old American from NYC. I was impressed with how well traveled he was. Working for Pfizer Pharmaceutical as an independent consultant has allowed him to travel all around the world. All he needs is his laptop and a good Internet connection and he can work in the comforts of any country he wishes. He seems to be pretty content, however, working out of his apartment located near Grand Central Station in downtown Manhattan. Nice.

When we arrived in downtown Hanoi the city was at a standstill, as today was Vietnam's big holiday, its Liberation Day. And the streets were a parking lot as everyone was enjoying the firework celebration. "Celebrate good times, c'mon!"

Ben already had a reservation for a hotel so I said I'd walk with him there and check it out. Our taxi driver, due to the crazy traffic, dropped us off a few blocks away from the hotel, so we had to make our way by foot with our backpacks strapped on through Hanoi's crowded streets, avoiding collisions with motorbikes. Ben's hotel was--to no surprise--a bit too steep for my liking. So I headed back into the mass of humanity in search for a room. I had a difficult time finding a hotel with ANY rooms available, much less a cheap one. Because of the holiday I found myself searching for a room in Vietnam, in one of its most populated city's, and on the worst possible night. I eventually found one, but it set me back a whopping $12 per night. Oh, well. At least it was a nice, clean room with air-con.

The next morning I headed out to explore the streets of Hanoi. I wasn't walking but 5 minutes before I ran into Ben. Odd. And as both of us were hungry we went to a restaurant that Ben said came highly recommended, called Little Hanoi. And boy-O-boy, was it good. Ben and I exchanged travel stories over delicious crispy deep fried spring rolls, sauteed green beans, and fried rice with veggies. Mmmm, good.

Later, we took a stroll through Hanoi's old quarter. I found the temperature in Hanoi to be a little cooler than in HCMC which was refreshing. I also found Hanoi more aesthetically attractive. Though Hanoi is a modern city with millions upon millions of motorbikes, it still had a sort of old-time feeling and charm to it as I walked through its narrow French Colonial streets. Once Ben and I made it to Hoan Kiem Lake we parted ways. I continued around the lake enjoying the pleasant views. It definitely appeared to be the spot to take your loved ones. Ah, yes, romance was definitely in the air.

Eventually I found my way to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, also known as the 'Hanoi Hilton' where American POWs were tortured during the Vietnam War, this included former US Presidential Candidate and current Senator from Arizona, John McCain. Inside, there were pictures of Sen. McCain being pulled out of the water by the Vietnamese after his plane crashed. They even had the pilot uniform he was wearing from the day he was captured. It was pretty neat to see.

That night I met up with Jesse and Sabine, a Dutch couple who I'd met and traveled with in Laos. It was great seeing them again as I really enjoy their company. We ate at a fairly cheap restaurant with an excellent balcony view of overlooking the street. Over dinner we exchanged travel stories (a common thing to do amongst backpackers) and reminisced about good times in Laos. Jesse knew a local Vietnamese woman from Hanoi (I forgot her name, so let's just call her...Li) who was going to show them around a nearby city, called Bat Trang, and asked if I was interested in joining them. Sounded great.

It was pouring down raining the following morning, and I debated whether or not I should meet them. However, the rain lightened up just enough, allowing me to escape the compounds of my hotel. With my rain jacket on, I threw the hood over my head and quickly made my way to their hotel, the meeting point before walking together to the bus station.

While waiting for our bus I pulled out my wallet to retrieve some money for the bus fare.

"Put that wallet away," said Li, in a loud whisper. "You'll attract thieves."

I was pretty hungry at that point as I hadn't eaten any breakfast yet, so I pulled out my wallet again to buy some food that was being sold.

"Put that wallet away, Adam, I'll buy it for you," Li persisted.

"Really, you don't have to do that," I pleaded.

"Oh, please! Oh, please!" she repeated.

The bus suddenly arrived as I was placing my wallet into my jacket. And due to the unexpected and sudden arrival of the bus I forgot to zip my pocket. Everyone rushed to the bus, pushing and pulling one another. After we boarded the bus and drove away, I noticed a Vietnamese couple saying something to Li.

"Adam, this couple says that they saw a man suspiciously lingering around you, and that you should check to see if you have all your belongings."

"Oh, okay. Thanks." So I began checking my pockets and discovered that...MY WALLET WAS MISSING.

"My wallet is missing!" I yelled.

"What?!" said Li. "I told you not to show your wallet."

I thought now is REALLY not the time for the 'I told you so' speech.

Panicking, I checked my pockets a million times. I thought to myself, why didn't the couple say something to me outside when they saw the man around me? Why would they wait until AFTER I boarded the bus and drove away?! "Stupid!" I screamed in my head, working myself up.

I felt the rage inside of me growing stronger by the second, something that had been dormant since I quit my job and began traveling. I sat down and tucked my hands under my thighs, as my hands had begun to shake due to the excessive adrenaline flowing through my veins.

"What am I doing?" I thought. "What the hell am I doing in Vietnam?"

To be continued...


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): Part II

After Sunny's departure and back by myself once again, I was looking forward to getting the day started.

First things first, I walked directly to the U.S. Consulate to get extra pages inserted into my passport. I was running out of blank pages for visas and, if I wanted to continue traveling after Vietnam, it was vital to get that taken care of first. The process took about an hour and was easy as 1, 2, 3.

Next I stopped for some brunch where I had some delicious and cheap street food. The lady who cooked my food was sweet enough to give me extra spring rolls without me even asking! So nice.

Later, I walked to the Reunification Palace which served as South Vietnam's Presidential Palace from 1966 to 1975. In fact, the city was preparing for the 35th Anniversary of the country's Liberation Day which occurred on 30 April 1975. The Reunification Palace has been left exactly how it looked on the day that the palace was overtaken by the communists from the north. All in all the palace wasn't that exciting, but I did enjoy standing on the palace's front steps overlooking its lawn imagining what it must have been like to have been there 35 years ago. As I exited the premises of the palace I was stopped by a pretty Vietnamese woman with a microphone. She said that she was a news reporter and asked if I wouldn't mind being interviewed. I was a bit hesitant which I repeatedly told the reporter, only to have it fall on deaf ears.

"Okay, roll it!" she ordered, as her cameraman lifted his obnoxiously large camera to my face.

The interview, I think, went pretty smooth. She inquired about my travels and whether or not I was going to attend any of the festivities on Liberation Day. She told me the interview would be played the following morning on the 6 o'clock news.

I walked back to the hotel and took a much needed nap for a few hours. Later, I went to the War Remnants Museum via motorbike. I thought it would be an interestingly, fun way albeit a risky one to see the city. And what can I say about the museum? I mean, man, it was harrowing walking through it. The museum contained nothing but images of one horrify atrocity after the next--photographs of children born with birth defects and deformities caused by my country's use of defoliants such as Agent Orange; photographs of Vietnamese victims with graphically written captions; as well as displays of artillery and inhumane cages that POWs were forced into. Again, it was just heart-wrenching. I only took a few pictures from the outside and quickly browsed through it. I got the point.

The next morning I took a guided tour to the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels, a tunnel system that remarkably stretched for miles throughout the district of Cu Chi. These tunnels, however, were used not only in Cu Chi but throughout the entire country by the Viet Cong. On the bus ride to Cu Chi I met a Dutch-American named Peter. Peter, whose retired, was traveling for a few weeks through Vietnam and Laos. He was an interesting, friendly guy who became my traveling buddy for the day.

It was fascinating to watch how the Vietnamese enter and exited the tunnels. When standing over the tunnels it didn't look humanly possible that anyone could fit in such a small, rectangular hole in the ground. There were other tunnels that had been widened for westerners. And even crawling through those tunnels I felt a bit claustrophobic.

On the tour you're given the option to shoot a firearm. All the guns that were available were guns used in the war. You simply choose the weapon of your choice and the amount of bullets you wish to fire. My weapon of choice? You best believe it was an AK-47. Up to that point I'd never used a firearm, and I damn sure didn't think my first time would be with an AK. Even though I wore hearing protection (ear muffs), my ears felt as if they were bleeding for the next hour. I now understand why my uncle Bob's hearing isn't so good. I can't imagine being exposed to such noise everyday.

Ironically Peter and I were both flying to Hanoi the following day. He kindly offered me a free ride to the airport; I graciously accepted. Before he exited the bus we exchanged emails and he instructed me to meet him at his hotel the following morning if I still wished to accompany him to the airport.

While walking the streets near my hotel I ran into Daan and his girlfriend, a Dutch couple who I've already ran into twice during my travels. It was nice seeing them again and we all agreed to meet later for dinner. The plan was to meet at their hotel, then walk and find a restaurant together. Unfortunately I wasn't able to find their hotel and no one else seemed to know where it was either. I sat outside on the bottom step of my hotel hoping to spot them walking by, but to no avail. I sat there for the next few hours talking to a friendly local Vietnamese woman while eating street food and drinking delicious fruit shakes. As I was about to call it a night, I noticed the woman had a large stack of books. Astonished that the woman hadn't attempted to sell me any books I inquired if I could take a look at her selection. The first book on top of the stack? The Alchemist. Weird.

I had a good day I must say, even though I had to use my AK.

The following morning I checked out of my hotel and walked under the blazing hot sun to Peter's hotel. We had one of the employees from the hotel take a picture of us, then off to the airport we went. I was happy to have met Peter. I really enjoyed his company.

Next Stop: Hanoi, Vietnam


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): Part I

After some rest and relaxation on Phu Quoc Island, Sunny and I were ready for the busy, bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly Saigon. When we arrived in HCMC we split a taxi into town with a friendly Spanish/German couple. It wasn't but one minute after our female driver started the engine that she began demanding the money we all agreed upon for the ride.

"Hey, give me money!" she shouted.

We all pretended that we didn't hear her and continued our conversation.

"Money, Money! Give me money!" she continually demanded. This type of behavior from our driver was a foreshadow of more to come from the Vietnamese people.

As we approached the heart of the city, our taxi was quickly swarmed by a sea of motorbikes. I've never seen so many motorbikes in my life. It was quite astonishing.

Sunny had booked a room for us in advance at An An Hotel, located in Pham Ngu Lao (District 1). Backpackers flock to Pham Ngu Lao for cheap accommodation, food, and tours. It just so happens that our hotel was NOT one of the cheap accommodations. Shocker. However, it just so happens that we had one of the best views from our hotel room. Our room was located on the highest floor and had an AMAZING view of the city and the busy intersection below.

After we pulled ourselves away from our room we hit the streets of HCMC. First we decided to get some food. At the restaurant we experienced the full force of the city's infinite amount of touts. Seriously, every other minute we were pestered by someone trying to sell us sunglasses, postcards, or to have my shoes shined. Word of advice: DO NOT sit near the entrance of any restaurant, as you'll be the target of every tout walking the street. A poor couple experienced this first hand as they sat a few tables closer to the entrance, thus diverting all the attention from us to them. I got a kick seeing how incapable the couple was in dealing with the relentless bombardment.

"Okay, Adam, let's go," Sunny pleaded, after seeing how much pleasure I was getting from the couple's frustration.

"Let's just wait for one more tout to bother them," I begged. "The guy is gonna snap after the next one, I know it. I have to see it."

I laugh about it even now thinking back on it. There was something humorous about the man's inability to handle such aggravation.

Since Sunny only had one day in HCMC we decided it would be best to see downtown HCMC by foot. With our map in hand and no specific plans, we began walking. We found ourselves paralyzed at every intersection in amazement of the city's traffic. Initially, the thought of crossing such traffic was daunting; however, with a bit of practice and confidence, I began to feel like Moses as I parted HCMC's streets - the sea of motorbikes - as if it was the Red Sea.

While on our way to see the Notre Dame Cathedral, I noticed a UPS store. I worked for UPS for nearly 10 years before I decided to begin my travels and was a bit flabbergasted to find it here, out of all places, in HCMC, Vietnam. UPS really is a global company.

What can Brown do for you? (UPS slogan)

As we approached the store I noticed a bunch of UPS drivers sitting around inside, sprawled out all along the floor (no comment). So I handed my camera to Sunny and walked in.

"Hey, I worked for UPS in the USA" I hollered, startling a few of them. "Alright, everybody outside now," I continued, speaking to them as if I was still in management on the job. They all shared a look of bewilderment.

"I want to take a picture of you guys," I said, clearing up the confusion. And instantly they began smiling and laughing as they followed me outside in toe. Sunny snapped a few pictures of us as I momentarily relished the reunion. I'm glad they were all such good sports about it. Good 'ol UPS.

Later, we continued on foot to the nearby zoo and botanical gardens. It looked pleasant enough from the outside to take a stroll through, so we went on ahead and paid the small admission fee. Disappointingly, the botanical gardens was a bit deceiving and didn't continue much further past the entrance.

And the zoo: Well, it had to be the worst zoo on the planet. It had goats, pigs, and deer. Oh, my!

To be fair, there were a few elephants present. But seriously, it was quite lame-o. The locals even seemed to have found it dull, as some of them found me more intriguing than the animals - who, instead of taking pictures of the animals, began taking pictures of me and WITH me. Sunny and I were more of a novelty to the locals than the animals were, that's how lame it was there. You're not as novel, however, once you're around the Pham Ngu Lao area. But if you walk a few blocks outside of backpackerland you'll begin to find the locals looking at you in a different way, as if you were something new and unusual. That's one of the vantages of seeing a city on foot. Plus, you won't be bothered by any touts.

Since it was our last night together, Sunny and I thought we would go somewhere nice to eat. I told her about an interesting restaurant I saw on Anthony Bourdain's hit television show called "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" on the Travel Channel, where he "uncovers the best in culinary cuisine across the world." In the episode that I saw, he covered a restaurant in HCMC called Com Nieu Saigon. I told Sunny that, according to the show, the restaurant served Vietnamese cuisine and baked their rice in clay pots which would entertainingly be smashed open before it was served to you. Sunny found the idea intriguing, so we went.

Unfortunately, the restaurant looked nothing like how it was portrayed on television. It was apparent that major renovation had occurred, thus, losing its gimmicky appeal. On top of that, the food wasn't good either. The changes to the restaurant may be due to the recent passing of the restaurant's owner, Madame Ngoc. Sunny and I made the best out of it, as we had a lovely balcony view overlooking the street and played a few competitive games of '20 Questions'.

The following morning was a sad one. The moment had arrived in which I was dreading: Sunny was leaving. She had her eyes set on Bali, Indonesia before traveling back home to Maui, Hawaii. I had an amazing three weeks traveling with Sunny and was sad to see her leave. I'm amazed with the amount of positive people I continually seem to attract during my travels. I'm certain that Sunny and I didn't meet by mere coincidence, but through synchronicity and the Laws of Attraction - a common theme throughout my travels.

As Sunny climbed into the taxi and drove off, I thought about our last night on Phu Quoc Island. While we were walking along the beach on that cool breezy night, we both concurred that life had been good and that we couldn't wait to see what the next chapter of our lives had in store for us.


Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

Good morning, Vietnam!

I swear that will be the last time I say that. To reach Phu Quoc Island we took a ferry called the Superdong. That's right... the Superdong. The ride took about 2-3 hours. I spent my time on the ferry, as everyone else did, watching the movie XXX: State of the Union which, annoyingly as hell, was interpreted by a sole woman's voice; she was the voice-over for every single character in the film, man or woman. Good Lord, that was painful.

It had been raining the entire time we were on the ferry, but as soon as we made it to the island the clouds parted and rays of sunshine brightened our day, literally and figuratively. Sunny and I weren't too sure where we wanted to stay on the island. In the end though, we decided to stay at a hotel that we had read about, located in a secluded area in the northwest of the island. To reach our hotel we had to hire motorbike drivers to take us there. Before we embarked on our journey to our hotel, we inquired about the roads and if they were paved or not.

"Yes, yes," on of the drivers quickly responded.

I've should have known better as every question asked in Southeast Asia is answered with the word 'yes.'

"Excuse me, can you tell me where the toilet is?"

"Which way is the toilet?"

"Is the toilet this way?"

"Or is it that way?"

"So you're saying I'm surrounded by toilets?"

You get the idea.

I guess sometimes I just want to believe (sorry I just finished watching the movie X-Files: I Want to Believe). Sure the road was paved for about a kilometer or so, but the rest of the 20 semi-odd kilometers were muddy roads as it had recently rained. All good fun, right? Naw, it was pretty bloody awful. I mean how much fun can it be riding on a back of a motorbike with your luggage, driving through 20 kilometers on slick, muddy roads.

Our hotel was pretty nice. The staff were very friendly and there was a restaurant with a great view of the beach. The beach, however, wasn't much of a swimming beach due to the coral and rocks. It was pretty though. The owner kindly told us about another beach where we could swim, just a short walk north of our hotel. The only qualm we had with our hotel was with how hot our room was. There wasn't any air-con, and only a fan. However, at night the power would go out, thus, no fan, which was the only thing making our room somewhat bearable to sleep in. Sunny and I would alternate taking showers throughout the day in order to keep cool.

What we really enjoyed about the hotel was its proximity to the neighboring beach that the owner recommended. Everyday I looked forward to our evenings at the beach for sunset. Despite the amount of rubbish we had to walk through to reach it, there was a nice breeze coming off its shores, the ocean was clear and warm, the sand was soft and squeaky, and the sunset was immaculate. I'm talking about the most spectacular sunset I've ever seen in my life. It was as if the sky was God's freshly painted canvass and the myriad of colors he used to paint it dripped and fell into the ocean giving it a beautiful, shiny multi-colored reflection.

After another restless night due to the heat, we decided to leave. However, Sunny and I didn't know where we wanted to go, and wasn't looking forward to the motorbike ride back into town. I could see that Sunny was a bit stressed or nervous about it. I told her not to worry and that we'd already let the universe know what we wanted and that it would sort it out for us. I really wasn't worried about it. I knew it would work out; it always does. The next morning we asked one of the employees from our hotel to call for some motorbike drivers to pick us up. The sky was getting dark and it looked like it was about to rain. Not good. Just then, a van pulled up to the hotel with a middle aged Australian man and his driver that he had hired for the day. Sunny and I exchanged looks and she quickly walked over to the Aussie and asked if we could ride with him back into town.

"No problem," said our new Aussie friend. "I'll have the driver take you to my hotel and you can have a look there, if you like? It's pretty nice, and it's right on the beach."

Again, the universe continually conspires in my favor during my travels. It always works out.

After we checked into our new hotel, with air-con I might add, we continued our tour with our new friend in his van around the southern part of the island. Along the way we stopped at Sao Beach. Besides Maya Bay, located in southern Thailand, Sao Beach ranks up there as one of the most beautiful beaches I've seen. It had clean, soft white sand, crystal clear blue water, and lush green mountains surrounding it. Paradise, indeed. Sunny and I immediately penciled in Sao Beach in our itinerary for the following day. That night we enjoyed yet another unbelievable sunset on the beach behind our hotel. It's just one amazing sunset after another here on Phu Quoc Island.

One day Sunny and I decided to embark on an epic journey on motorbike around the northern half of the island. We rented and shared one motorbike. Because Sunny had more experience driving them, she drove. Yes, I'm secure enough with my manhood to sit behind a woman on a motorbike. We drove across the middle of the island then up the island's east coast. I think we may have only seen one other tourist along the way. And we could tell by the expressions on the locals' faces that they didn't see tourists often. It was a fairly pretty drive with the blue ocean on our right, the green mountains on our left, and red colored dirt which covered its landscape in front of us, giving the island an interesting color contrast.

After driving over a few shady looking bridges, Sunny refused to drive over anymore. She would get off the bike and let me walk it across. The bridges definitely didn't look too sturdy, and if the bridge collapsed the result could easily have been fatal. We took a break at Than Beach, adjacent to the small town of Bai Thom, and weren't too impressed. We stuck around only long enough to refuel and rehydrate before continuing on with our journey.

As we circled around Bai Thom, now heading back south, I could tell that Sunny was getting quite comfortable with me on the back of the motorbike, as I noticed the kilometers per hour on the speedometer steadily increasing. It wasn't too long after, that I heard the most horrifying thing on can hear while cruising along on the back of a motorbike:

"Oh, shit!" yelled Sunny.

Out of nowhere an enormous gap in the road, both wide and deep, appeared just ahead of us. Not enough time to break, Sunny continued at the same speed and went for it....

"Zoom!'' the sound of our motorbike made as we went airborne.

I had one hand tightly grasping the back of my seat and the other firmly around Sunny's waist.

I'm glad our guardian angels hadn't gone on break that afternoon yet, because we definitely needed the strength of two to safely carry us over to the other side. Not to be a complainer, but they could have provided a softer landing. I seriously thought that I broke my wrist when we landed. Man, I thought for sure we were going down. We couldn't believe we cleared it.

Feeling physically and mentally drained, we made it back into town craving a cold banana shake. Sunny took a picture of us in the restaurant. We were both caked in dirt, giving us that fake tan appearance. Sunny laughed and commented how I looked like a soldier for Blackwater, a private military company. Man, what a day.

Sunny had a scheduled flight departing from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Bali, Indonesia in a few days, so we began discussing how and when we should depart the island. In the end, we decided to fly to Ho Chi Minh City, which wasn't that more expensive than if we traveled overland. I think the plane ticket cost $50. Plus, we wouldn't lose an entire day due to traveling. I also went on ahead and purchased another plane ticket from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. It just made sense from a time standpoint, as I had a scheduled flight to the Philippines from Ho Chi Minh City for May 18th.

We spent our last day on the island at Sao Beach. It's just so lovely there. I spent my time relaxing under the shade, enjoying the view while writing and reading a little Jack Kerouac. Sunny spent her time swimming and taking a nap. I couldn't think of a better way to spend my day.

That evening we ate dinner where we ate EVERY evening for the past week, called the Ganesh Indian Restaurant. The staff there are so welcoming and accommodating, and the food--which is delicious and served in large proportions--is served in a timely fashion. Our last night there Sunny walked to the back of the restaurant and gave our compliments to the chef. So Sunny.

Later, we walked along the beach behind our hotel, savoring our last night on the island. We couldn't believe that we've just spent a full week here. Enjoying the view of the stars under the clear skies and the feeling of my clothes flapping in the wind, I expressed how my travels continue to feel like a dream. She expressed the same sentiment.

Next Stop: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)


Monday, May 17, 2010

Border Crossing Into Vietnam

Good morning, Vietnam!

Okay, I've been waiting to say that for awhile now. Yes, I'm proud to say I've been to Nam, a country known for its bloody history, beautiful landscape, and conical shaped hats. It's a country that's caused much distress for my family, as my uncle Bob was deployed there during the Vietnam War. My grandma, being the devout Catholic that she was, prayed daily for my uncle's safety and swift return home. Though his return may not have been as swift as my grandmother would've liked, my uncle, I'm happy and proud to say, did safely return home. And now, just 35 years later, I returned to the country--albeit, a changed one--that I assume caused many sleepless nights for my grandmother. I can just hear my grandma now (rest her soul) if she was alive today:

"Adam, you're not going to Vietnam. You're not going to Vietnam, are you?!"

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!"

"I just can't believe it. I just CAN NOT believe it!"

Man, I loved that woman. I miss ya, grams.

Getting to Vietnam was an adventure in itself. After Phnom Penh, Sunny and I went to Sihanoukville where we picked up our Vietnam visas. It literally took 5 minutes to receive our visas at the Vietnamese Embassy. In our opinion there isn't any other reason to visit the city, as all the beaches are completely contaminated with rubbish. It's a shame, really. And it's beginning to get a bit old, seeing how the people in Southeast Asia treat the environment. Since the beaches were a let down in southern Cambodia, we decided to go to Phu Quoc Island, located off the southern coast of Vietnam. According to our map the best route to enter Vietnam from Sihanoukville was at the Ha Tien crossing, a border that recently opened for tourists.

Once our minivan reached the border, our driver, more or less, said to have a nice day and proceeded to point in the direction of Vietnam. As we exited the minivan, hordes of motorbike drivers surrounded us who were eager to make a buck. Our driver said there would be motorbike drivers waiting for us on the Vietnamese border who would take us to Ha Tien. As one can imagine, many of the passengers were displeased as we were told that the minivan would take us into Vietnam. Some of the passengers were carrying a lot of luggage and began to voice their dissatisfaction.

"How am I going to carry my luggage on a motorbike?" one disgruntled man began complain. "Answer me! How am I and my belongings going to be transported on a motorbike!"

I didn't want to stick around for the fireworks, so, with our bags in hand, Sunny and I proceeded to walk towards the distant Vietnamese border under the hot, baking tropical sun. The border crossing went fairly smooth and, just as our minivan driver said, there were motorbike drivers waiting for us on the other side. Sunny snapped a picture of me as I was about to board the motorbike, then off we went to Ha Tien. While cruising along on the back of the motorbike, the differences between Cambodia and Vietnam were discernibly noticeable, e.g. the landscape, the looks of the people, and the language, both audibly and visually.

Once we made it to Ha Tien, to our dismay, we were told that the ferries for Phu Quoc Island were not operating at the moment and that we needed to travel to Rach Gia, a city located 3 hours away. So, again, we quickly hired a few motorbike drivers to take us to the bus stop. And since we didn't have any Vietnamese currency, the drivers took us to a local money changer where we didn't receive a fair exchange rate, something we found out later. It wasn't but 10 minutes after we arrived at the bus stop that the minivan came hauling around the corner. The driver and his accomplices quickly and forcibly boarded us into the vehicle. It happened all so fast that it wasn't until after we paid the driver and boarded that we realized we had been totally ripped off. I obviously take partial responsibility, as I should have known the official exchange rate before entering a new country.

Sunny and I, sweating profusely by this time, sat in the very back of the jammed packed minivan. Feeling a bit dazed and confused, we sat in silence thinking about what had just transpired. Our driver never lifted his foot off the accelerator and relentlessly continued to honk his horn as he swerved around cars, motorbikes, and pedestrians.

Annoyed from the perpetual sound of the horn, the rattling of the minivan, boys offering me smelly, dried fish, and women who, unabashedly, continued to stare at me, I began to think to myself, 'what the hell have I gotten ourselves into?'

After we arrived in Rach Gia, we bought our ferry tickets and found a hotel room. Later that night, Sunny expressed that she didn't know if she could have made it without me that day. The feeling was mutual. Here's a word that best describes the day we had just experienced: Pandemonium. It always makes things easier to be able to lean on someone in times of chaos and craziness. We both looked forward to the following day and making it to Phu Quoc Island.

Next Stop: Phu Quoc Island


Friday, May 14, 2010

Guest Blog: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

[She's back! Guest blog #2, written by Sunny. Enjoy. -Adam]

Making our way in the air-conditioned bus filled with local families and adventurous travelers, we sped along the dusty highway, through scanty villages, and past dormant pastureland. Cambodians went about their day carrying baskets of vegetables, sweeping storefronts, piling bags of rice high on the backs of motorbikes, and lounging in hammocks. Piles of filthy trash littered the roadside with debris comprised mostly of Asia’s favored disposable, non-biodegradable container, the plastic bag. The mostly barren terrain appeared ready for the monsoonal rains that would soon arrive to quench the thirsty earth. Houses perched atop high stilts spoke of the looming season and its tendency towards flooding.

The bus cruised along with the driver making use of the horn every few seconds to insure our safety, but not our sanity. Adam drifted off to dreamland, while I gazed out the window, taking photos and listening to my ipod. After about an hour the bus stopped in a little shanty village allowing passengers to stretch their weary limbs and satisfy nicotine habits. The landscape remained unchanging in its arid expanse and provided the backdrop for vendors selling fresh fruit, fried meats, and cold drinks. No doubt their livelihood depended on the business of these daily stops. I opted to stay within the confines of the bus, avoiding the potential olfactory repulsion resulting from the commonplace stench of rubbish, raw sewage and sweltering heat. Adam bravely stepped out and took a look around, returning a few minutes later with sliced green mango to snack on. Fifteen minutes later we were on the road again.

After the 3-hour drive through the flat countryside we finally approached Cambodia’s capital city. Riding parallel to the Tongle Sap River we passed the dirty, ramshackle outskirts of town before arriving at the polished center. Green lawns surrounded the stately royal palace, while shining tiles defined the riverside promenade. We negotiated an acceptable price with one of the many tuk tuk drivers that loomed like hungry vultures at the bus stop, and made our way to the hotel I’d found online.

Our room was simple, with two single beds, cable T.V., air-conditioning and a spacious, but grimy bathroom. Unfortunately sanitation is not always one of Asia’s strong suits. I find the ubiquitous, toilet-side crotch sprayers particularly foul. But alas, budget travelers must learn to adapt or be continually exasperated by such conditions. It certainly wasn’t the posh room we’d enjoyed in Battambang, but the bottom line was that the sheets were clean, the water was hot and the toilet flushed.

That evening we ventured into the busy tourist area to have dinner. Walking the wild streets we were greeted with the usual bombardment of begging young mother’s carrying babies, tuk tuk drivers and persistent, hungry children. Looking around I’d noticed billboards and offices for children’s advocacy organizations and wondered what progress was being made since just outside their doors children were sitting naked in the streets. It made no sense to me that the lavish palace lawns, stunning skyscrapers and impressive monuments would exist side by side with such deprivation. Avoiding judgment was challenging, but I had to acknowledge the paradox in an attempt to make sense of it. As well, I kept in mind that even the United States, a country of endless wealth, suffers from such contradictions.

“Hey you want some weed,” a random guy said to Adam as we turned a corner. “Uh, no thanks,” he replied without stopping. “How ‘bout a girl?” the guy whispered, following close behind. “No thanks,” I firmly stated with urban attitude. Adam and I were both well aware of Phnom Penh’s reputation for trafficking young girls, and as a woman I certainly didn’t appreciate the offer. The guy stepped back and away. Adam and I both laughed before finding a restaurant along the main drag. We sat outside in the balmy night air, opposite the river and ordered dinner.

The popular area was obviously a haven for pint-sized hustlers and as soon as we arrived we became their prey. Children circled in search of a buck. “You buy one book?” implored a young boy, strapped with a flat box of tourist friendly editions. “No thank you,” we both responded. We repeated this phrase several times before being served.

BOOM! Fireworks illuminated the night sky and the children ran to see the show of shimmering lights. We’d arrived on the first day of Songkram, the southeast Asian new year. The holiday takes place according to the lunar calendar, with special attention placed on honoring parents and grandparents. Festivities, performances and social events would go on throughout the city over the next three days. BOOM! The last of the fireworks went off and the brief spectacle was finished as swiftly as it had begun. The hungry little children returned in full force.

Dressed in trendy blue jeans and a stylish long sleeve button up shirt, one of the young boys began showing off some dance moves on the sidewalk. He was obviously confident and had the skills to impress; back flips, break dancing, and krumping were all part of his repertoire. His infectious smile and inner glow were a refreshing change from the distressed and despondent expressions we’d become used to seeing on the faces of Cambodian children.

I stood up from the table and walked over to the boys. “Hey, try this?” I said and began a pop-locking wave from arm to arm. The gifted boy did his best, and we all laughed together. But, I wasn’t through with this talented fellow. After teaching dance to thousands of children for the past ten years, I knew just what would impress them. “Okay,” I said, getting their attention again. With flip-flops tightly clenched between my toes, I did the best moonwalk I could on the bumpy sidewalk. “Whoa!” was the response. He gave it his best attempt and we all cracked up laughing. “I can’t believe you just did the moonwalk,” Adam said as I sat down with a big smile on my face.

Next, the kids came over and tried selling their books to us. I gave them some cash to show us more moves instead. Another little boy wanted to get in on the prospect and approached us. Since Adam planned to spend a few weeks in Vietnam he told the boy he’d take a look at his books. When Adam didn’t buy anything the boy became livid. “You said you buy a book,” he nearly shouted. “I said I would look and see if there was something I wanted,” Adam tried to reason, but it was futile. “You bad man!” the boy accused. We tried to reason with him and even gave him a bit of money. “You gave them more! This is not enough to eat!” he angrily pleaded. “They did dance moves,” I said. But he wasn’t hearing it. Frustration spread over his face as he stood fuming. Feeling his distress I leaned down and looked him in the eye and said, “I know…it’s not fair that you have to work to eat, you’re only a child.” He walked away in a huff.

In all honesty, visiting Phnom Penh hadn’t been on my to-do list. I wasn’t particularly interested in it’s violent past. Adam and I both had been expecting a dark and seedy metropolis ripe with rampant prostitution and corruption. We were surprised to see how modern and stylish, parts of the city are. And since I’d agreed to accompany Adam to the historical sites, we set out the next morning to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The former high school had been converted and used as a prison and interrogation center by the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1979 an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned, tortured, and eventually killed within the confines of the prison walls. Intellectuals, scholars, artists, doctors, monks, engineers and even children were amongst its victims.

Agreed upon by historians to have been one of the most lethal regimes of the 20th century, the Khmer Rouge, under the reign of the sadistic Pol Pot, subjected Cambodian citizens to a radical social reform process aimed at creating a purely agrarian-based Communist society. City-dwellers were deported to the countryside, where they were combined with the local people in forced labor projects. Over 1.2 million people died. Perhaps the cruelest was what the children were subjected to; believing parents to be tainted with capitalism, children were separated, brainwashed and taught torture methods on animals.

The air was heavy and haunted by the chilly history as Adam climbed the worn stairs of the three-story buildings in the prison complex. He carefully photographed the instruments of torture used to exact confessions from prisoners. Outside, chain linked fence and barbed wire covered the buildings like sheaths preventing prisoners from ending their suffering by jumping to their deaths. Chalkboards covered in photographs put faces to the nameless souls; their eyes full of anguish and pain.

But I didn’t need to take photos, or witness the details of the bloody crimes…I needed to breathe. Stepping out into the mid-day sunshine I found a place to sit beneath the blooming branches of a fragrant frangipani tree. Closing my eyes, I contemplated the events that had transformed this institution of education into a place of terror. Again, as in Siem Reap, I found myself filled with a deep compassion and an overwhelming impetus to pray for the healing of Cambodia’s horrific legacy.

We continued our tour with a visit to the killing fields, where the Khmer Rouge had buried hundreds of victims in dirt ditches. Still stunned by what we had just witnessed, the ride over was quiet. We pulled into the grassy area as a lovely warm breeze rustled the branches of verdant trees. The garden setting nearly disguised the gruesomeness that had taken place there, if not for the skinny little sullen children that loitered with hands outstretched. We walked around and Adam took photos. One of the most horrific sites was a large tree against which guards would bash and crack the skulls of children. I remained concentrated on thoughts of forgiveness as we continued around the perimeter of the now empty burial pits. “Wow,” was all I could say as we drove away. Adam echoed this sentiment as the driver slowly made his way back to our hotel.

At the front desk we stopped to inquire about obtaining a Vietnamese visa. The manager cheerily shared information, and then began lightly stroking Adam’s resting hand. Adam and I quickly exchanged, surprised glances. The manager gave a few taps to the top of Adam’s hand and I almost burst out with laughter. Back in our room, I let Adam have it. “I believe there’s a bro-mance budding between you two,” I teased. “Yeah, what is up with that?” Adam asked, in good humor. Clearly this guy really felt a bond and couldn’t keep his hands off of Adam. On later occasions he would lean over Adam’s shoulders and comment on e-mails Adam was reading. This affection was the funniest thing I’d seen in a long time and brought needed comic relieve to our Phnom Penh experience. This short, smiley, touchy-feely Cambodian had a fondness for anything Daigle. He was lucky Adam is so chill, because Adam could’ve easily picked him up and dribbled him down to the Tongle Sap.

The next few days we mostly just hung out and waited for the New Year to pass, and the Vietnamese consulate to open. I indulged in a full body massage while Adam found a barbershop to have his head shaved. Around the corner from our hotel we dined at a beautiful Khmer restaurant resplendent in colorful d├ęcor, tropical plants and attentive service. The food was satisfying and the ensuing conversations were stimulating. Adam and I continued getting to know each other, discussing what we’d seen, where we’d been, and what was to come. I was pleased with my decision to accompany my new friend on his journey, entrusting my destiny to his guidance. I’d listened to my intuition and was reaping the rewards.

All in all Phnom Penh hadn’t been a bad place at all, it just happened to be a place with a very bad past.

Up next: Sihanoukville & Vietnam


Monday, May 3, 2010

Battambang, Cambodia

After visiting the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor, Sunny and I began discussing plans for our next upcoming adventure. I mentioned that I had interests in traveling to the city of Battambang.

"Battam-what?" Sunny said, with a hint of skepticism present within the tone of her voice.

"Battambang," I reiterated. "It's a city just southwest of Siem Reap.

"Okay, well, what do you know or have heard about Battambang?" Sunny inquired.

" really don't know too much about it, actually," I said, knowing that I wasn't selling the idea to well.

"Uh, huh. Well..." said Sunny, before I quickly interjected.

"I just know that it's Cambodia's second largest city, that there's suppose to be a scenic boat ride from Siem Reap, and that there's a old, decrepit train that travels slowly from Battambang to Phnom Penh where we can sit on top of the roof."

Even after Sunny and I were informed that the river was too shallow to travel by boat, Sunny, in her 'infinite, open-minded wisdom' trusted me and agreed to go.

"I can't believe I'm going to Battambang," Sunny repeated. "I definitely didn't think I would be traveling to Battambang on this trip. Where are you taking me, Daigle?"

I laughed.

Sunny had a list of names when referring to me: Daigle, highwayman, earthwalker, etc; however, my first name rarely, if ever, managed to make it onto that list.

Since it wasn't possible to take the scenic boat ride, we settled for the bus. The bus ride from Siem Reap to Battambang was quick and painless. Well, I should say it was 'relatively' painless. After taking a picture of Sunny in Siem Reap while asleep, with her bottom lip slightly ajar, she secretly awaited for her revenge--which she would soon receive. During our bus ride to Battambang, she took a picture of me asleep with my mouth wide open. There's an old proverb that goes, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." And Sunny served it to me ice cold! Damn, she got me good.

After we arrived in Battambang we decided to hire a tuk tuk driver to take us to our hotel, as we didn't have a clue as to where we were. It was a quick ride, to say the least. Our hotel was located literally around the corner from where the bus dropped us off. Tuk tuk drivers are so scandalous.

We stayed at Seng Hout Hotel, which Sunny booked in advance. Our room was by far the nicest room I had stayed in during my travels. I have to admit, Sunny traveled a bit more posh than I was accustomed to. I'm a pretty frugal backpacker who typically stays in the cheapest accommodations and doesn't deviate from the 'cheap bastard' backpacker budget often. It's safe to assume that I made some slight adjustments while traveling with Sunny.

After was got established in our room we hit the streets of Battambang. The city had a certain intangible aura, or vibe, that was alluring. What stood out to me about the city though, wasn't its French colonial architecture, the lack of westerners, or the mere impression that the locals were looking at us as novelties. Nope. What stood out to me about the city was its... cars. Yes, it's cars. Everyone was driving what I drove back in the states: a Toyota Camry. Most of them even looked like the same year and model that I have. It was really strange to witness, at least to me as I have a personal connection with the automobile.

While in search for food to quiet the rumbling in our stomachs, I randomly bumped into someone who I'd met a few months back on a bus ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I even mentioned her in my Pai blog, who I referred to as 'the cool girl' that I sat next to on the bus.

Still on the prowl for some food, I found myself trailing behind Sunny who was quickly and eagerly in pursuit for a proper restaurant.

"This way," said Sunny, pointing down a random street, as I continued to lag behind. Sunny was entrusting her intuition to lead us to a perfect place to eat, which it inevitably did. The name of the restaurant was the White Rose and, man, was it good! Besides the begging bystanders who lurked around, the White Rose had a refreshing aesthetic appeal with green shrubbery and an enticing colorful fruit stand. The White Rose makes THE BEST fruit shakes, not only in Cambodia, but in all of Southeast Asia. Period. The shakes were simply... (spoken in a high pitch while singing) TO..DIE..FOR! Sunny and I highly recommend the coconut shake. Like the slogan for Nike: Just Do It! Trust me, you won't regret it.

One of the main reasons why I wanted to visit Battambang was because of its train. Before I began my travels I saw a YouTube video about Cambodia's last remaining train which appeared to be on its last leg. It was a slow, decrepit looking train that traveled between Battambang and Phnom Penh. It appeared to be an amazing way to see the real Cambodia, as one could ride the roof of the train and take in Cambodia's pretty countryside. And because of that YouTube video, to ride a roof of a train has made it on my list--bucket list, if you will--of things I wish to do during my lifetime. So when we made it to Battambang, I couldn't wait to ride it. Sadly, however, I will have to continue to wait as Sunny and I were informed that the train recently shut down... indefinitely.

So Sunny and I had to settle for the next best thing: the bamboo train. Ah yes, the bamboo train. The bamboo train is constructed out of... well, you guessed it... bamboo. They just throw that bad boy on some wheels and a motor on its rear and... Battambang, Badda Bamboo!... it's ready to roll. It's not just for tourists either; it actually does serve a purpose. The locals use it to transport their goods, as well as themselves, between towns. Sunny and I decided to ride it for sunset--a half hour in one direction, then a half hour back--and it was a hoot. We both really enjoyed ourselves. The bamboo train moved pretty fast, too. I heard that it actually traveled faster than the train... when it was still operating.

All in all, the few nights we spent in Battambang was well worth the visit. Two thumbs up! And one of those thumbs represents Sunny's. Yes, I'm happy to report that Sunny, even though she was a bit skeptical about traveling there, enjoyed herself too. You know I wouldn't lead you astray, Sunny. C'mon, now!!

Next Stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia


[Video of Cambodia's train]