The day before Nicolet and I were to start an overland trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia the Bangkok headlines were about a rocket fired at Cambodia's new Premier. The rocket missed its target. It landed just 8 kilometers from Siem Reap. Cambodia obviously isn't a safe travel destination but we went anyway. Once we crossed into Cambodia the road conditions got very bad. Many parts of the road and most bridges were being "looked after" by what appeared to be former soldiers now trying to make a new form of living. As the 4-wheel drive vehicles passed these guardians, toll fees were paid. There were two 4-wheel drive vehicles carrying tourists. On one occasion the driver of the other vehicle didn't pay the appropriate fee and a soldier fired a bullet from his rifle into the air in disgust.
The reason I was going to Siem Reap was for another visit to the Temples of Angkor. I had previously visited back in October 1995 and totally loved it. I don't know what it is about these temples but they truly are magical. Maybe it's the jungle setting; maybe it's the history or the superb mix of architectural styles or just the peacefulness of the place. Whatever it is, itís a special place.
We went to Phnom Penn, the capital, again and once again visited the Killing Fields. We also went to Security Prison 21, which was a school that was converted into a prison to torture and kill high-ranking officials. I went again to remind myself of Cambodiaís tragic history. It was as disturbing as the first time. We took a guide around the prison and he explained in detail what happened. The Khmer Rouge was very meticulous and kept records of whom and how many were killed and tortured here. The photos and paintings are further proof. After the tour with the guide I went around a second time to let it sink in more deeply. Nicolet waited outside for me. She didn't feel too good and said that she found herself feeling sick as we walked inside. I could relate to that. It must be one of the most disturbing places that one can visit. It certainly makes you think twice about the value of human life. It also drives home the fact that mankind is so easily mislead. I read a book about some of the horrors that happened there called Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields - Memoirs by Survivors, which has been compiled by Dith Pran, the journalist who was portrayed in the film The Killing Fields. It's a shocking book of short stories. If anybody is interested in knowing about what happened in Cambodia, get this book.
Here's an extract to give you a taste:
"Before they were butchered, some innocent people were coerced to dig small pits for themselves. None of us had the energy to fight back because we didn't have enough food to eat. After the new pit was ready, the young soldiers tied the arms of their victims and ordered them to kneel near the edge of the pits. Then the young soldiers began to hit them with heavy hoes, thick bamboo sticks or axes.
During the killings there were shouts of pain and moaning. Blood ran from their nostrils, ears and mouths as the objects crushed the backs of their heads. Some victims were not yet dead when the soldiers pushed earth over them. Throughout the country, large pits had been dug by the labourers. Then trucks carried the blindfolded prisoners to be dragged to the edge of the pits. One by one the prisoners fell into the pits after being hit.
The Khmer Rouge killed teenagers. They held their arms up, disemboweled them, and cut out their livers and gall bladder and put them into sacks. Some of the Khmer Rouge soldiers ate the livers of their victims. The young boys moaned and shouted out in pain. They disfigured the bodies and slashed the throats of young children and babies. The Khmer Rouge tore the babies into pieces.
Some people who accidentally broke the knives, hoes, axes and plows they were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge. Generators were used to electrocute some men. Others were beheaded with machetes. The Khmer Rouge used pincers to cut off the nipples of women and they took their fingernails out."
By Sarom Prak.
The above is just a part of one story. You can choose to ignore what happened while you were alive but this is reality, not fiction,
From Phnom Penn we moved into Vietnam and into the most well known of Vietnamese cities, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I had previously visited Vietnam in October 1995 and was keen to see how it had changed. It was good to be in a country where the national headdress is a lampshade. In Saigon Nicolet and I stayed with my friend David Fay. David is an Aussie civil engineer, who I met there in 1995. He is doing some work on the main port in Saigon. It was really good seeing Saigon from an ex-pat point of view. David even took us to see a classical concert...now there's culture for you. It was a concert to celebrate Australian and Vietnamese relations. We lived well at David's apartment. It was almost like a little holiday away from backpacking. He spoilt us and we loved it. He's a true gentleman! I never thought I'd say that about an Aussie...just kidding. I falsely assumed David was out there in hot pursuit of Vietnamese women and was surprised to discover how difficult it is to score out there. It was funny seeing all the ex-pats chasing the locals and not really getting anywhere with them. It seems that the only types of girlfriends you have in Vietnam are the ones you pay to have sex with and the ones you don't get any with.
The route that we took in Vietnam was similar to that I did back in 1995. This time I also went to the Mekong Delta in the extreme south of the country and to Dalat and Kontum in the Central Highlands. In Kontum we went to a few minority villages. At one village there was a wedding and as we entered the house premises the village elder greeted us. He was a very old man and he was wearing nothing but what appeared to be some form of underpants. He took a drink from a container and then offered it to us to drink too. He drank first to show us that the drink was not poisonous. Everybody there was trashed. It was pretty funny and also very special to be invited into such a private party. In Kontum we also hooked up with some English teachers and their students. Nicolet and I taught English in separate classrooms and then on the following night went out with one of the teachers and some of the students-- this was a night where I was reminded of how much the Vietnamese love karaoke. One of the other memorable moments in Kontum was a visit we made to an orphanage. Some of the minority people near Kontum believe than when identical twins are born, the second twin is the evil shadow of the first born and they kill the second born. Traditionally, they would take the second born into the jungle and just leave him/her there to die. This orphanage has taken on the responsibility for looking after these "second borns". There were a lot of babies there. Six of them appeared to be less than a month old. One of them was only a few days old. In a world where so many people want kids are places like Vietnam where so many have more or less no future from the moment they are born. What a cruel world we live in.
Heading up north our bus was overtaken by a truck full of barking dogs. No surprises for guessing where the dogs were heading to. It amazes me how cultures can often be so different. They say that Britain is a nation full of dog lovers and out here in Vietnam, their a nation full of dog lovers as well.
I have to mention North Vietnam and the cities of Sapa and Halong Bay again. Walking in the hills of Sapa amongst the wide variety of hill tribe people and cruising by boat through the rock formations of Halong Bay are just the best.
Vietnam has changed. It's changed a lot. There are now tours for everything. Independent travelers generally hate it and leave. It seems to be more geared towards tourists with less time and a bit more money. Vietnam is still cheap. Apart from the tour of the Mekong Delta, which would have been ridiculously expensive to do on our own, Nicolet and I did everything on our own without tours. It was generally more expensive doing it on our own but we don't like tours. It sounds crazy but it's more expensive for a foreigner to travel on an overcrowded crappy bus full of locals than to travel on an air-conditioned luxury bus full of tourists. This is because foreigners have to pay double to travel on public buses. The problem was that we didn't want to stay on the so-called 'tourist trail' all the time and so we had to take local buses. Despite all the tours and the volume of tourists we still loved Vietnam. It's hard to beat Vietnam's attractions. You just have to go with the right attitude and not expect to have a big adventure.
From Vietnam we entered Laos overland near the former DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that separated North and South Vietnam during the war.
It had been a long wait to go to Laos. I didn't go back in 1995 and felt like I had missed out. Without looking at a map, do you know where Laos is? Have you ever even heard of Laos? Don't worry not many people have. How about a quick history lesson on Laos...you'll be surprised:
From 1964 to 1973, Laos received the heaviest aerial bombardment in world history. The reason for this relatively high intensity of bombing is due to it being the main communications line between Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia. From 1964 to 1973 Laos was a battlefield in a war that most of the Western world didn't know about. Both the USA and North Vietnam acted in direct contravention of the Geneva Accord of 1962, which recognized the neutrality of Laos and forbade the presence of all foreign military personnel. To evade the Geneva agreement, the USA placed CIA agents in foreign aid posts and temporarily turned air force officers into civilian pilots. The war was so secret that the name of the country was banished from all official communications; participants simply referred to operations in Laos as 'The Other Theatre'. Pilots were military men who flew into battle in civilian clothes: denim cutoffs, T-shirts, cowboy hats and dark glasses. Each pilot was obliged to carry a small pill of lethal shellfish toxin, especially prepared by the CIA, which he swore to take if he ever fell into the hands of the enemy. To fund much of this, the CIA illegally produced and sold opium, the base for heroin.
In total, the friendly Americans were responsible for flying one and a half times the number of air sorties (operational military flights) flown in all Vietnam. Totaling 580,944 sorties by 1973, the secret air force dropped an average of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years! By the end of the war the bombing amounted to approximately 1.9 million metric tons in all, equaling 10 tons per sq. km., or over a half-tonne for every man, woman and child living in Laos. Defoliants and herbicides were also dropped on Laos laying bare all vegetation; poisoning civilian crops and rendering the water system unusable even for irrigation. Despite the war being over for 25 years, nothing will grow in these areas and on average, one person dies every two days from contact with unexploded bombs.
In Laos, we first headed south to the four thousand islands, formed by the Mekong River there. It was like arriving at paradise - classic Southeast Asian beauty. It was a long journey to get there on bad roads and what appeared to be an even longer journey to go back to the central parts of Laos. The bus journeys were made interesting with the sale of all sorts of strange things when we arrived in villages. You could buy fresh rats, barbecued crickets or even cooked small birds. I stuck with the chicken...even the barbecued chickens looked anorexic.
In Luk Sao, we went to an endangered animals breeding research centre which was being managed by an Englishman called Johnny Johnson. It was amazing seeing so many endangered animals in one location. Feeding time was particularly interesting as live chickens were fed to the wild cats. You could see the fear in the chickens as they simply waited for the wild cats to come and eat them.
We rushed through the south and our visit to the breeding research centre was way too short so we decided to really slow things down and that's exactly what we did in the capital, Vientiane. I liked the capital. It's more like a big town. One of the highlights here was a visit to a steam bath followed by a Lao massage...such was our dedication to slowing things down. If Nicolet had it her way we'd still probably be at the steambaths...she is hooked.
From Vientiane we went to the relaxing Vang Vieng and then onto Luang Prabang which is the only city in South East Asia to have World Heritage Status. It's certainly a great city full of Wats (Buddhist temples and monks' residence) with lots of charm and character. There were even a couple of beautiful waterfalls nearby.
Probably the most memorable thing about Luang Prabang is the 3-day trek we did from there to visit minority villages and hill tribes. We were about the fifth foreigners to ever visit these villages so our presence was quite strong. Basically they stared at us like nobody has ever stared at us before. In the first village where we slept the children were totally afraid of us. They wouldn't go any near us and would just stare from a safe distance. There's no privacy and you have to wash yourself in public...they even stared at us as we washed. We were on the trek with an American couple, Michael and Amy. Amy came back from one of her 'walks' in the village a little disgusted. Apparently she had gone to do a number two and a pig had eaten it almost before she had time to pull her pants back up. Michael needed to go too, so Amy went to protect him and watch out for the pigs. No sooner had Michael done the business when a pig came charging from nowhere in search of fresh food. Apparently it was another close call. Fortunately I didn't need to go.
The village we slept in on the second night was even worse than the first in the sense that the starring just never stopped. They were watching us like they were watching TV. We went to sleep at night with a big crowd motionless, just watching us and woke up with a big crowd still starring at us. I'm assuming they went home during the night to get some sleep. It was a bit uncomfortable in the sense that you sometimes felt that you had to entertain them but I am used to this by now. I think it bothered Nicolet a lot more. It's hard to know whether or not contact with foreigners is a good or bad thing for these people. At the end of the day I guess they have to take responsibility for themselves and not allow foreigners in their villages if that is what they want. It's still a big issue though. They say that tourism in some parts of Northern Thailand has simply taught the people how to beg. I hope this doesn't happen in Laos.
From Luang Prabang we made the beautiful boat journey up the Nam Ou River and then made our way westwards towards Muang Sing. Muang Sing is on the border with China and must have one of the most interesting morning markets I've ever been to. The action starts before sunrise as the hill tribe people start setting up their stalls in the dark. It was fascinating watching the whole place come to life. There was a beautiful mix of hill tribe people in all their traditional outfits. It was awesome.
We wanted to take a boat journey down the Nam Tha river towards the Thailand border but found out that the water level was too low so we ended up on a marathon, full-day road journey through a primary rainforest. What a great way to end our stay in Laos. By the way, 1999 is "Visit Laos year". Many backpackers think it will end up being "Ruin Laos Year". Things are changing there fast. It was still pretty laid back with the locals generally leaving you alone and not trying to extract every dollar possible from you. I still enjoyed myself but wish I'd gone a couple of years ago when it was even more untouched.
We crossed the border into Thailand and headed straight for the beaches for our last week. We stayed at Ko Lanta and did nothing but be lazy for seven days. It was great. I love Thai beaches.
On December 11th at around 6 p.m., I flew to Australia and Nicolet flew to The Netherlands. A plane that left the same airport at almost exactly the same time as both of ours headed south to the island of Ko Samui. It crashed killing many of the passengers. My plane arrived in Sydney and we were then told that there were problems with one of the engines so we ended up being delayed in Sydney for about 3 hours before going to Melbourne. After I heard about the crash in Thailand I was no longer bothered about arriving late.
Nicolet has just gone home for Christmas and the New Year and will return to Sydney on January 28th. She has a one-year visa so we plan on spending at least a year out here. That will give us time to see how we feel about Australia and about how we feel about each other.
I am currently in Sydney looking for a job. It shouldn't be too difficult for me to find something easily. So far I think that Sydney is truly a great city. It's certainly very picturesque and Sydney Harbour has to be one of the most beautiful in the world. I can't think of a city that can compete with Sydney right now when it comes to action. With the Millennium and the Olympics around the corner it's all happening here. The Sydney Festival is currently on and there are all sorts of stuff happening. Tonight (Mon., Jan 17th) is nude surfing at Bondi beach. The Aussies are definitely a strange bunch of people with a great sense of humour. I am sharing an apartment with an Aussie in the town of Mosman. It's a small place, but it's cozy. Mosman has a great location and I think it's one of the best suburbs in Sydney. To get to the centre is a 10-15 minute bus journey over Sydney Harbour Bridge or the much more scenic ferry ride across Sydney Harbour passing the Opera House with Sydney Harbour Bridge up ahead. The shops are minutes away and the nearest beach is about a 5-10 minute walk.
This will probably be my last newsletter as this particular stretch of travelling comes to an end. I can't believe that anybody has actually read any of them. Thanks to anyone who did.