Thursday, August 30, 2007

Tasting Menu

The moment I saw a McDonald's on Nathan Road in Hong Kong I knew that I'd arrived. It's not that I was craving a Big Mac (Happy B'day Mac!) - I haven't eaten at a McDonald's in years - it was that it had been two months since I'd seen the Golden Arches. The last time I'd set eyes on the familiar red and yellow logo was in Northern Thailand, in Chiang Mai, somewhere near the night market. All through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, I lived a McDonald's-free existence, a life without virtually every Western logo and brand name in the catalog of my brain.

Part of the allure of travel is getting away from the familiar. After a time, though, enough is enough. I was thrilled to be back in a city where McDonald's is part of the landscape. In Hong Kong, in fact, everything you can get in the West is part of the landscape. The stores are filled with consumer goods, the choices mind-boggling after a few months surrounding by the crumbling infrastructures and limited choices of Southeast Asia. I may have arrived in a city called Hong Kong, but in a way I'd come home. At the bottom of everything, I'm a first-world, developed nation kind of guy. I assume this could qualify as one of those eye-opening discoveries of "self" gleaned from the open road.

Now for the bad news. I'd arrived in Hong Kong feeling worse then I'd felt in years. Other than a minor cold in Bali, I'd managed to travel for close to seven months free of bugs, viruses or infection (hangovers don't count). I don't know what I picked up, or where, but the last few weeks have been a struggle. I thought it was a sinus infection, and took a course of antibiotics, but that didn't help. I now suspect it was a combination of sinus infection, cold, exhaustion and depression.

I spent the first few days in Hong Kong impersonating a tourist, visiting sights and taking a few photos, but my heart wasn't in it. I would find myself in a drippy-nosed daze, wandering unfamiliar streets and unaware of the people around me. I've spent the last few days doing absolutely nothing other than reading, watching DVDs, sleeping, drinking lots of juice and eating noodle soups (fat noodles, skinny noodles, Chinese noodles, Japanese noodles - it's a good thing I like noodles).

I'm feeling better today, enough to post some images to Flickr and present you with a short photo essay on Hong Kong. It's a magnificent city, a photographer's dream. I hope to get out again once I'm back to health and really document my visit. For now, enjoy these snaps.

Hong Kong Skyline

Hong Kong Cultural Center

Spitting Spreads Germs


IFC Mall

Chinese Flag at Jardine House

Something Abstract to Match My Mind

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Monday, August 27, 2007

The Dissolution of a Soluble Layer

Karst. Now there's a word I don't think I'd ever heard before arriving in Southeast Asia. It's a word that kept coming up as I traveled through the region. And in Northeastern Vietnam, at a UNESCO World Heritage site called Halong Bay, the experience is all about the karsts.

A karst, according to Wikipedia, is a geological term for a "three-dimensional landscape shaped by the dissolution of a soluble layer or layers of bedrock, usually carbonate rock such as limestone or dolomite." In layman's terms this means a natural feature such as a cave or a spire that's been whittled into shape over long years of erosion.

In Halong Bay, which is situated in the Gulf of Tonkin just south of mainland China, erosion has carved out a spectacular landscape in which nearly 2,000 small islands (more than 3,000 if you believe Lonely Planet) dot an emerald sea. Within some of these islands are extensive cave systems featuring massive stalactites. Halong Bay is one of those places that must be experienced; pictures cannot convey the majesty of the place. It is also said, at least in the tourism industry, that you cannot visit Vietnam without a night on a junk in Halong Bay.

Junks in Halong Bay

I had arrived in Hanoi tired and disgruntled, weary of the hassles that seem unavoidable in parts of Southeast Asia. I'd heard that Hanoi was a gem, a city to get lost in, the Paris of the East. When I arrived, however, it was the same old same old. "Same same," as the saying goes here.

Here's a short story to back up my position. I met an Australian on the flight from Hue to Hanoi. Terry - who so resembled Terry O'Quinn that I thought for a moment I was about to fly with a "Lost" castaway - and I chatted on the plane and then shared a taxi to the city's old quarter. We were quoted a price for the ride at the airport, but the driver doubled the figure as soon as we were on the highway (we paid the initial, fair price). We gave him a specific hotel, chosen at random from Lonely Planet, but he still took us to a hotel owned by someone he knew. We hadn't even stepped out of the taxi when a tout opened the passenger door, shoved a card into Terry's face and urged him to check out his hotel. We gathered our bags and started to walk down the street. Within 10 seconds three more touts were shoving brochures and color photographs into our faces, urging us to stay at their hotels. I ignored them, but Terry was too polite and kept saying "no, thank you" over and over. One tout was particularly persistent, and the hotel he was peddling looked nice, so we agreed to check it out. Once we arrived, however, the facade looked completely different from the facade in the picture. Terry said it wasn't the same hotel. The tout said they'd changed the name. I grabbed the brochure and checked the printed address against the address on the building. They weren't even close. Et cetera, et cetera.

Terry's time was limited and he booked a Halong Bay trip for the following day. I was still undecided and opted to explore the city instead. Twenty-four hours was all it took for me to decide to flee Hanoi for someplace more peaceful.

Halong Bay

Hanoi is a city overrun by the motorbike. As I understand it, four years ago, most of the population still used bicycles to get around. Now, cheap imports from China (US$500 will buy you a bike) have flooded the market and the streets, especially the narrow lanes of the old quarter, are choked with motorbikes. The noise of the engines, the constant honking of horns, and the din from the city itself combined with the omnipresent touts and hawkers pestering the tourists, not to mention the exhaust from all those motorbikes and the pollution and grim in general, were too much for me. What better than to end my Vietnam adventure, my entire Southeast Asia adventure in fact, than with a trip to Halong Bay?

Hanoi Motorbikes (Photo by Ian Stacey)

I signed up for a three day/two night tour with the Kangaroo Cafe, the only foreign-owned tour operator in Hanoi. (Unfortunately, there are no rules in Vietnam against copyright infringement, and Terry signed up for a Halong Bay tour with the fake Kangaroo Cafe.) The tour promised a night on a junk in Halong Bay and a night on Cat Ba Island, part of Cat Ba National Park. The third day would be spent on the road returning to Hanoi.

I think I was spoiled by my tour guides in Australia. They were personable and knowledgeable. Anything you asked them about the region, whether cultural, historic or scientific, and they had an answer. Time was spent educating their passengers about the regions we passed through. Every tour I took in Australia included information about geology, geography, history, botany, biology, meteorology, myths and legends, cultural trends, economics and other topics I just can't recall at the moment. I now believe all tours should be as much about receiving an education as traveling from point A to point B.

In Southeast Asia, the tune is different. I don't know if it's because of language barriers, cultural difference or a lack education on the part of the local guides. In Cambodia, my guide did the best he could telling us about the culture of modern Cambodia and the ancient culture of Angkor. But he seemed unable to deviate from a script when asked about industry or geography.

The guide for the trip to Halong Bay was Quy, a smiling young mother who'd been taking foreigners on this route for more than three years. Still, she chose to introduce herself and the trip with a lengthy monologue about marriage rituals in Vietnam and the importance of adhering to rituals for preserving and delivering good luck (e.g., women should only marry at 21, 23, 26 and 28).


When we arrived in Halong Bay, everyone in the group seemed overwhelmed by the beauty of the place. Despite gray skies and cloud cover the entire time we were there, we are all impressed by the natural splendor. Our guide never touched on how the bay was formed, on what natural forces were at work to create this magical landscape. Instead she told us about the local legend surrounding its creation. You see, Halong means "where the dragon descends into the sea." So the story is that a dragon flew out of the sky, flicked its tail and carved out the bay. Simple as that.

When we visited Hang Sung Sot cave, a magnificent and extensive limestone grotto, we were told nothing about cave formation, nothing about stalactites and stalagmites, nothing about conservation or preservation in the face of increased tourism. Instead, we were directed to look at different rock formations and imagine them as animals, much like you might spend a lazy summer afternoon staring at clouds in the sky. There was the monkey rock, the elephant, the laughing Buddha, the monkey with the flat head. Quy called the cavern "Surprising Cave" because of a phallus-shaped rock that, she said, we would find surprising. The rock, by the way, was impressive; stark, red porno lighting added to the "surprise." To be fair to Quy, Sung Sot means "surprise" or "awe" in Vietnamese, so she didn't make up the name.

Hang Sung Sot Cave

Monkey With Flat-Top

Cock Rock

The time I spent floating on a first-class junk in Halong Bay was relaxing and peaceful, the antithesis of the hectic streets of Hanoi. The second day of the tour was spent, unfortunately, visiting an unremarkable cave and an unremarkable island. The night was spent in the town of Cat Ba, a resort town stuffed to the gills with hotels, where there's little to do at night other than sing karaoke and avoid the touts offering "boom boom girl." The tour group did band together for a very fun night at the town's only western restaurant (where I ate the most disgusting pizza I've ever encountered), but everyone agreed that another night on the junk would have been better.

Still, the trip was everything I wanted in my final days in Vietnam and I'm glad I made the effort. But something is wrong. I don't quite know how to say this without sounding like a snob, or a judgmental foreigner. So I'm just going to say it.

I feel like the tourism industry in parts of Southeast Asia tries to give tourists what they think tourists want. But tourists want more than a night on a boat and a tour of a cave. They want to be educated about the places they visit. Why is it significant? What happened there? Did the city or town play any part in the war? What are the major industries? How many people live in the region? Is there an educational system? Are there artists? What do those weird things outside of every house?

Fun in Halong Bay

I realize this could all come across as a lecture. It doesn't have to be. Imagine if all the energy expended on haggling with tourists, on trying to extort as much money as possible from them, was spent on a dialog. I was pestered from morning to night by people trying to sell me things. If I had been engaged in conversation by just a fraction of that number and given information about their lives and their country, my impressions would be much different. I felt like i was able to engage in conversation in Malaysia and Laos, in northern Thailand and parts of Cambodia. It didn't happen in Vietnam. Maybe I was just tired of the hassles of Southeast Asia after five months of travel. (By the way, this is also why there is a dearth of photos of Hanoi. I promise a return to photography now that I'm in Hong Kong.)

If you've got any experience or insight on the subject of travel in Vietnam or the developing world, post it here! This is the perfect time to contribute to the Packmonkey experience.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Black Comedy

I'm going to vent now. What follows will make me sound narrow-minded and bitter. I'm willing to accept that. And the pictures have nothing to do with the text. They are just there to add some local color.

I've spent the last week bouncing from one central Vietnamese city to another. The names change but the scenery and the experience remain constant. There's been little to capture my attention and I believe it's time for me to leave Southeast Asia. I've been in here for nearly five months and fatigue is slipping in. What happened? Why do I suddenly have so little patience? Why am I treating the locals like lepers and scowling at children and old ladies?

My foul mood started the first day in Ho Chi Minh City, when the hotel I'd booked online, and for which I'd paid a deposit, was full. I was placed in another hotel, but it was temporarily without electricity -- "because it's Sunday," they said. I shrugged off these hiccups as the idiosyncrasies of a foreign culture. But as the days progressed, hiccups began to mount, leaving me short-tempered and craving a frosty Starbucks Frappaccino and the comfort of a multiplex. I want skyscrapers and neon, fixed prices, public transportation and overpriced accommodation.

Don't take this as an indictment of Vietnam or the Vietnamese, or of any country in Southeast Asia. It is merely my attempt to explain how another culture can provide hours, or days, of frustration.

Muc (Dried Squid)

While in Ho Chi Minh City, I decided to play tourist and booked a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. I was told that a bus would take me to the tunnels and the return trip would be on a boat. When I arrived the next morning, I was told that the trip to the tunnels would be by boat, the return by bus. They told me the boat trip would take about an hour and forty-five minutes. But 90 minutes into the trip we stopped at a dilapidated riverboat cafe for a 15-minute toilet break. The break turned into a 45-minute stopover so our guide, so it seemed to me, could watch television. Because of the delay, and the slow boat, it took nearly three hours to get to the tunnels. We were so late that we missed ninety percent of the introductory presentation. We also learned upon arrival that the entry cost was not included in the tour. I don't mind paying more, just tell me up front what to expect from the tour. The tour was so poorly organized and haphazard I'm surprised it continues to exist. I won't even go into the unscheduled stop at a "crafts factory" on the trip back to HCMC.

My next stop was the beach resort of Nha Trang. The trip from Ho Chi Minh City had taken 12 hours (not eight, as advertised) and I wanted nothing more than a hot shower and a comfortable bed. But that meant navigating through the pack of touts crowded around the door of the bus, then avoiding the motorbike drivers and hawkers who follow tourists as they walk down the street. I found a hotel that promised Wi-Fi in the room and settled in. The Wi-Fi signal was too weak to be of any use. "It works in the daytime," the manager told me. The foul mood invaded my dreams.

A Little TLC

It's tough making a living, especially if you are cyclo or motorbike driver. I've been told that these men, and they are always men, are usually quite poor and working just to survive. They are a constant presence in the tourist ghettos, the refrain of "motorbike" repeating itself every few minutes. The more aggressive drivers will follow you as you walk down the street. They will flash a set of postcards showing local attractions or rattle off a list of popular sights. I understand they need the money, but every time I need a motorbike, I find the nearest driver and tell him I need a ride. I've never walked down the street and suddenly realized I'd rather be on a motorbike.

Motorbike and cyclo drivers are also reliable for two more annoying questions: "Where are you going?" and "Where are you from?" I don't know why they ask the former. The latter is, I think, an attempt at being friendly. I do my best to be polite and say "No, thank you," when approached by these guys. It happens only about 100 times a day, so by the evening I end up being a jerk and just ignoring them. However, once the sun sets, they also start offering prostitutes. I don't want a ride, a one-hour tour or a hooker. No, thank you. I don't know any other way to say it.

Cham Goddess

I'm now in Hue, a city in central Vietnam. everything I experienced in HCMC and Nha Trang is being repeated here. The hotel advertises Wi-Fi in the room, but there is no signal whatsoever. They brought a cable into the room so I could connect to the LAN. It delivers unreliable service. I thought it was my computer until I came to the cafe where I am now writing and the Wi-Fi works as advertised, without interruption or complaint.

TO continue, this morning, Sunday, the staff at the hotel explained that the loud banging from the building next door, the banging that started at 7:15 a.m., was preparations for a festival next year. Really? Why not just tell me they are doing construction? When I used their tour desk to book a flight to Hanoi, the woman helping me turned the transaction into a sales pitch for their sister hotel in Hanoi. She also told me it would cost $8 to take a private car to the airport. Only after I'd pressed her did she admit that I could take a bus for half that price -- but only after telling me it was no good because I would have to leave the hotel two hours before my flight. Huh?

Eye of the Dragon

I will return to Southeast Asia someday. This region is filled with wonderful places and people. I've had adventures and experiences I will never forget, even in the locations I've mentioned in this post. It's not all bad.

I'm off to Hanoi tomorrow, where I will stay for a few days. The travel bug hasn't been beaten out of me yet and I'm not ready to come home. Next stop: Hong Kong.

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Friday, August 17, 2007


I've been unable to view Packmonkey for the past few days. At first I thought the problem was with my browser. Then I thought it must be the network I was working on. But now, after trying multiple browsers on multiple machines on multiple networks, I started to believe that the only answer could be censorship. I'm now convinced, after a quick Google search, that Blogspot is indeed being blocked in Vietnam.

Ironically, I'm able to post to Packmonkey but I can't read it. So I'll continue to post, but if things look screwy or misaligned, remember that I'm posting blind.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Life During Wartime

Any visitor to Vietnam, especially an American visitor to Vietnam, must eventually face this country’s recent history of prolonged and bloody warfare. I wish I could trot out the facts of the Vietnam War, names, dates, places, battles and casualties. But I can't. Most of what I know about the war comes from the movies, and cinema’s the most unreliable source of all. Suffice to say there was a bloody, unjust conflict that lasted much longer than it should have and cost tens of thousands of American lives and many more Vietnamese. It was once the worst conflict of my lifetime, a fiasco of epic proportions that divided the U.S. and remains a smear upon American foreign policy. In the end, as I understand it (from movies, you see), American lost.

My experience in Cambodia led me to believe that I would see few reminders of the Vietnam War in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. I doubt the patriotic billboards bearing Vietnamese text and the face of Ho Chi Minh recall the days of American occupation. There are, as far as I can tell, no memorial statues at crowded city roundabouts or streets bearing the names of war heroes. The war seems something to be forgotten, a remnant of the past best swept aside in favor of a bright capitalist future.

Speeding Past Ho Chi Minh

There are, nevertheless, a few places in HCMC where visitors can learn about the Vietnam War. Whether the War Remnants Museum and the tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels impart practical, impartial lessons about the Vietnam War in particular and war in general is another issue altogether.

The first thing to know about the War Remnants Museum – other than that it is the most popular site in HCMC for Western tourists – is that its original name was “The Museum of American War Crimes.” In a bid for tourist dollars, the name was changed. Yet the content still screams “Imperialist Pigs!”

Exterior of the War Remnants Museum

I’m not saying Americans aren’t capable of committing heinous acts – the last few years alone have shown that when it comes to torture and warfare, America is at the top of its game. It’s just that the War Remnants Museum lays it on thick. I’m not squeamish, but there are better ways to make a point than by displaying photographs of American soldiers with mutilated corpses. (In one display, Senator John Kerry is said to have confessed to massacring civilians. How did I miss that confession during the 2004 campaign?)

The museum emphasizes image over interpretation. The dozens of photos of battlefield casualties, tortured civilians, dead babies and the elderly, and victims of chemical attacks and Agent Orange are gruesome and disturbing. I was given little context in which to understand what happened or why. I wasn't even given a one-sided account of why Americans are Imperialist Pigs who kill babies for sport.

The photos at the War Remnants Museum are powerful records of the conflict. There is truth in photography. With proper labeling and a solid record of events, they might better explain the feelings the Vietnamese people hold toward Americans in regard to the war. Instead, the whole museums comes across as a huge indictment of the men and women who served in the military. I left the museum with no more understanding of the conflict in Vietnam than I had when I entered.

I remind you as I remind myself – it was originally called “The Museum of American War Crimes.”

A strange aspect of the War Remnants Museum is that the most powerful exhibit has nothing to do with the “War Crimes.” The most interesting exhibit, and the most crowded, was devoted to journalists killed during the conflict. Chances are slim that the Vietnamese government believes it’s a war crime to kill journalists. The exhibit most likely exists due to the availability of solid material.

The exhibit is fascinating. Photos by the dead photographers line the walls. There are headshots of each journalist, with names and the dates of their deaths. It is a comprehensive, informative and moving testament to the men and women who lost their lives practicing their craft.

Display on Fallen Journalists

The second tourist attraction related to the war is the Cu Chi Tunnels, a vast network of underground passages controlled by the Vietcong during the 1960’s. The VC used the network of more than 250 kilometers of tunnels to launch attacks on American and South Vietnamese forces as well as elude capture. There is a fascinating history to the tunnels, and the fact that they still exists is a tangible reminder of the lengths to which people will go during times of war. Unfortunately, the tunnels have been turned into a bit of a circus in an attempt (successful attempt) to lure the tourist dollar.

Instead of presenting the complex as an open area and inviting visitors to explore at their leisure, the Cu Chi Tunnels are presented as a group activity. A short film is followed by a short introductory lecture. Then a guide leads a group – in my case, a group of about 50 – through the woods for a tour of sniper holes, booby traps, smoke vents, hidden entrances/exits, bomb craters and recreations of VC camps. Devices used to impale and maim American soldiers are given center stage, complete with a mural depicting the homemade devices in action.

Tunnel Entrance

Mural Detail

A “break” is provided at the halfway point. The guide said it was to gather our strength for when we enter the tunnels themselves. But that doesn’t explain why there’s a firing range next to a souvenir shop, a firing range offering tourists the chance to fire AK-47s, M-16s and other automatic weapons at just over US$1 a bullet. I was parched and bought a Coke (for which the women behind the counter tried to shortchange me). A few gulps later and my brain was knocked askew by a horrendously loud barrage of gunfire. At a buck a bullet, tourists were only buying two, three, five rounds at a time. Still, who puts a firing range, a firing range offering automatic weapons, next to a snack shop?

Weapons Menu

The grand finale of the tour was a group crawl through a 150-meter long tunnel. The Cu Chi tunnels are no more than a meter high and not much wider than an average human. A professional football player would not fit. A few lights have been installed for the tourists, but with a large group they are obscured. Most of my time was spent in pitch-black conditions talking a terrified woman in front of me through the experience. Behind me a group of Chinese teenagers squealed in mock fright, filling the tunnel with an irritating din.

The Cu Chi Tunnels were an important feature of the Vietnam War. I would have like to be able to crawl through them in silence, to pause and consider the reasons for their existence, to imagine myself a VC who is forced into an underground existence. The misery the VC must have endured in these conditions is beyond my comprehension. Any attempt to understand this was lost in the circus that the tunnels have become.


Thursday, August 09, 2007


England, the United States, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and now Vietnam. Ten countries in six months, eleven if you count Borneo as separate from Malaysia (there is a Sabah stamp in my passport). That’s my life in 2007. And every time I’ve entered a new country, the first 24 hours have presented me with challenges delightful and frustrating, exciting and depressing, and always enlightening.

It was with this state of mind that I disembarked from a long-distance bus in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The journey from Phnom Penh in Cambodia started at the crack of dawn and took seven long hours, including an hour to get through immigration. I’d booked a hotel in advance and was looking forward to flopping on a lumpy bed for a few hours of sleep.

More than once I’ve heard travelers refer to Vietnam (rhymes with “ham”) as Viet-scam. I filed this information in the back of my brain, between the names of the islands in the Andaman Sea and remote tracks in the Australian Outback. When I reached HCMC, the information bubbled to the surface, leading me to raise the scam-o-meter to orange.

By coincidence, the bus deposited me on the same block as my hotel. However, the motorbike driver who intercepted my passage across the busy street told me the hotel was too far too walk. Orange Alert! I shrugged him off and 20 seconds later was standing in the hotel’s lobby.

The young woman behind the reception desk, the Redsun Hotel in the backpacker mecca of Pham Ngu Lao, may or may not have received my Internet booking. I established that my name was indeed on her list of reservations, then she told me that she didn’t have a room, that a guest “has sick” and would be staying in the room I reserved. She told me she’d take me to another hotel and then pick me up in the morning and bring me back. The situation reeked of scam, but she was apologizing profusely and looked ashen and ill so I gave in.

She took me to another hotel, on a loud street about five minutes away. I was put in a room on the top floor and was even able to receive a weak Wi-Fi signal. I’d chosen the Redsun because it offered Wi-Fi in the rooms and I wanted to spend some time updating my blog. The night passed without incident, with me busting a gut while watching a bootleg DVD of "Knocked Up," and in the morning I was taken back to the Redsun.

Iced Coffee and Lottery Tickets in Ho Chi Minh City

I'd love to say that everything is hunky-dory at the Redsun. I can’t. Only one of three lights in my room works. The woman who owns the place insisted on sending her 12-year-old son to dismantle the main fixture while I was in the room, despite my pleas that I wasn’t feeling well and would prefer that they fix the light the next day. Also, there is a Wi-Fi signal but it’s extremely weak and craps out every ten minutes. Remember what it was like to use a 56K modem? It’s worse. To top it off, the young woman who checked me in has checked me out and turned creepy – I think she wants to marry her for a green card.

I found another hotel today, just across the lane from the Redsun, and will be checking in tomorrow. The Redsun isn’t the worst place I’ve stayed in – that honor goes to a hostel on the beach in Perth, Australia – but it’s in the running for the top three, certainly the most frustrating in Asia. It makes the hotels in Cambodia look like well-oiled machines.

I am happy to report, however, the rest of my first 24 hours in Vietnam have been fantastic.

I bitched and moaned in Thailand about being lonely on the road, then I went to Laos and Cambodia and made some. The last four weeks brought new friendships and a boatload of hangovers. I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything. Still, when I set out to explore HCMC on my own I was reminded of how much I enjoy the freedom inherent in traveling alone.

I like to sketch an outline of exploration when I arrive in a new city. The route will always take in a public market, a museum and a city square. I always make time to sit at a café and watch people. I will browse for hours in the bookstores. I seek out side streets and neighborhoods where there are no other tourists. In short, I clear my head and open my eyes. It’s the best way I know to orientate myself to new surroundings.

So I set out early for Ben Thanh Market, a vast complex packed to the rafters with merchandise, food and shoppers. Markets tend to look that same the more you visit, like department stores and parks, but I love them and find great pleasure in wandering the aisles. Perhaps it’s because I try to bring a photographer’s eye to each place, looking for colorful, unusual and exotic details. After 20 minutes of shutter-induced euphoria my battery ran out. My spare was dead too! Crap.

Pickled at Ben Thanh Market

My morning at the market cut short I returned to the hotel to plug in the charger for an hour. It was at this point that the woman at the hotel turned creepy. Interesting and enlightening, yes. But also quite uncomfortable. If she were attractive and sane I might give it a chance.

Anyway, I returned to the streets and just started walking. I passed an ice factory, stopping to stare at one man sawing blocks and another loading bags of fist-sized cubes into a truck. They seemed confused by my curiosity and pushed me into the frigid cooler to take some photos. At an intersection near the Fine Arts Museum I was nearly run over by a motorbike while crossing the street. (There are more motorbikes in Vietnam than sheep in New Zealand, I think.) The art, all of it approved by the government, wasn’t worth the fright, but I enjoyed the faded grandeur of the yellow-and-white building. On a street lined with antiques and curios, I paused to watch two men play Xiangqi, or Chinese Chess. The game is baffling and I have no desire to investigate further (I stink at regular chess, so why would I?).

Ice Man

Sculpture at Fine Arts Museum

Sidewalk Xiangqi

The next stop was the outdoor street market at Dong Ton That Dam. This is the real deal, a street-level affair catering to the locals, where butchers fillet on wooden boards, cigarettes are piled to the sky and packages of dried noodles are laid out in patterns rivaling the greatest mosaics in Italy.

It was at this point that my life as a traveling gourmand took a turn. No, I didn’t eat another spider> Or grubs or pig’s trotters. In fact, what I ate was rather pedestrian: vermicelli noodles with barbecued beef (bun bo?). I’ve been in Asia four months and have not suffered one bout of gastroenteritis. I’m as regular as the sun and the moon (too much information, sorry), a condition that I attribute to my healthy intake of spicy chilies. It's a state of affairs that has given me the courage to take some risks.

I wouldn’t eat street food just after getting of the plane. After four months, however, I believe all the the bugs in my stomach are locals. Lest you think I’m crazy, I still wouldn’t drink out of the tap or eat sketchy meat off of a street cart. Some people refuse ice cubes; I’d die without an iced coffee in the afternoon. In the end, I trust my instincts and I'm always thinking about what goes in, lest I'm unhappy about how it comes out.

Okay... moving on. I ate street food and hoped for the best. I've eaten a lot of food of the streets, but it's always been soup or rice, dishes cooked through and through. This was different, with fresh vegetables thrown on top of cooked ingredients. Where were those vegetables washed? That's what worried me. Twenty-four hours later, I’m feel better than I did before the meal. You only live once.

Lunch Counter

The rest of the afternoon, I played tourist. Every guidebook lists the buildings a tourist should visit. Sometimes it seems from reading recommended itineraries that cities are nothing more collections of concrete and stone, sometimes wood. I passed by the Rex Hotel, the Reunification Palace, the Hotel de Ville, the Municipal Theater, and every time there were tourists taking pictures of themselves outside the front door.

I was surprised by one building. The highlight of my architectural tour was the main post office, a grand old building with a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh at the end of a long arched interior. The building was constructed in the late 1880’s in the French style. Someone’s been taking care of it; the interior is spit-polished, bright and extremely beautiful. The last time I saw a functioning building that took my breath away was back in the middle of May in Kuala Lumpur.

Ho Chi Minh (and Ghosts)

The day ended with a steaming bowl of Pho, a noodle and beef soup that could be considered the national dish, but only if there were not so many other delicious dishes clamoring for attention. I’ve just touched the tip of the Vietnamese culinary experience. More to come, I promise.

I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary on my first 24 hours in Vietnam. For me the joy of travel is accepting the unexpected, and if I’m not expecting anything then everything holds the potential for excitement. Drinking fresh coconut juice while squatting on a Ho Chi Minh City sidewalk gives me as much pleasure as seeing great art or watching a sunset. It‘s all new to me these days, and that’s what I love about life on the road.


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Monday, August 06, 2007

Crunch Time, Part II

On every bus ride there are rest stops. There is always food for sale, from cooked meals to prepackaged snacks. On the ride from Kampong Cham to Kampot, in a small town called Skuon in Eastern Cambodia, we were treated to a unique snack, a Cambodia delicacy if you will: the fried spider. I’d already eaten crickets, grasshoppers and termites, and I’d promised someone during a night of drinking that I’d eat a spider, so my time had come. There was no avoiding the inevitable; I was going to eat an arachnid.

Lonely Planet says locals hunt the spiders, a species of tarantula called an "a-ping" in Khmer, in the surrounding hills. According to legend, the villagers started eating the spiders during the Khmer Rouge regime, when food was scarce. The locals have developed a taste for hairy creatures, however, and I’m sure a steady stream of tourists injects a bit of revenue into the economy.

By the time I’d disembarked from the bus, our tour leader, Kevin, had already found a live specimen and was posing for photographs with the creature. He handed it to me and I let it crawl up my arm. It was ugly as sin, but harmless. I then bought one of the cooked spiders, for 500 riel or twelve and a half U.S. cents, and prepared to eat my mid-morning “snack.”

Live Tarantula

Dead Tarantula

The bugs I’d eaten in Phnom Penh were tasteless; any flavor came from the oil they were fried in. The spider, however, was a little meaty. The method for eating a deep-friend spider is to pluck the legs off one by one and pop them into your mouth. Each leg, when separated from the body, includes a tiny piece of white flesh, a morsel with the consistency of crab and the taste of chicken. Just kidding. There is a hint of sweetness to the flesh, but mostly it’s flavorless. The rest of the leg is crunchy and tastes of oil.

Doesn't Taste Like Chicken

When I’d polished off the eight legs (okay, I only ate six, giving two of the legs to some children), I broke the body in half, separating the torso from the abdomen. Kevin told me abdomen is nasty, and Lonely Planet concurred, describing a morsel “which seems to be filled with some pretty nasty-tasting brown sludge, which could be anything from eggs to excrement.” I passed on the abdomen, but ate the rest of the bug, including the head. It was no better than the legs, and took a long time to chew. I should have known that an exoskeleton would require extra effort to get down. Still, I persevered and ended up spitting out only the small bits that got stuck in my teeth.

Postcard Moment

Will I eat another deep-fried spider? I can’t say. All I know is that a week later, at another rest stop during another bus ride, I jumped at the chance to sample a dish of sautéed red ants. This time, unlike the crickets, grasshoppers and spiders, there was a distinct and pleasant flavor. I ate three heaping spoonfuls.

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Crowded House

Okay, so here I am in Cambodia. And no trip to Cambodia is complete without a visit to the country’s main attraction: the Temples of Angkor. In fact, most tourists fly into Siem Reap, tour the temples and leave again without seeing any more of the country. On Intrepid Travel’s tour of Cambodia, my group spent two days exploring the temples and we only skimmed the surface.

I have a theory about the world’s most famous sites. They are spectacular and deserve their fame. However, their fame is also their downfall. Legions of tourists from every corner of the world are coming to Cambodia to see the temples. They line up at Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise, climb the hill at Phnom Bahkeng for sunset, form single-file lines to weave through the narrow paths at the jungle temple of Ta Prohm and past the intricately carved stupas at Banteay Srei. They are loud, sometimes yelling and laughing or talking on cell phones (“I already paid $28 for the buffet!”). And they take a lot of bad pictures (I can tell because they never get close enough to their subjects).

But Matt, you say, you are a tourist too! Yes, I am. I’m here like all the rest to gawk and take photos. But in my mind, I approach the temples and the artwork with a degree of respect and knowledge that I just don’t see from other tourists. Perhaps the company that manages the sites is to blame. Perhaps limiting the number of people who can enter sites at any given time would alleviate the crush. As it stands, the temples have survived for a thousand years against the forces of nature. I fear they might not last another 50 against the forces of tourism.

There’s little I can say that will add to the millions of words already written about Angkor Wat and the other temples in the region. The history, the architecture, the carvings, the bas-reliefs, the intrusion of the jungle on abandoned sites – it’s enough to keep your mind busy for anywhere from an hour to a lifetime. They are piles of old stones, yes, but I felt like Indiana Jones (or Lara Croft, choose your own fantasy) exploring these ancient sites.

So here’s my plan. I’m going to become so rich and famous that I can demand/afford a private tour of the temples. I’ll gather my entourage (if you are reading this, you are invited) and tour each temple in turn, marveling at unobstructed views and soaking up the silence.

Until that day, here, for your enjoyment, are some pictures snapped by your favorite tourist.

Eight-Armed Vishnu, Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Ta Prohm


Banteay Srei Detail

Sunset Crowds at Phnom Bahkeng

Flickr Photoset: Temples of Angkor (102 photos)

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Hello! Bye Bye!

Three hundred kilometers from Phnom Phen is Cambodia’s second-largest city, Battambang. With only about 150,000 inhabitants, Battambang will never be mistaken for a world capital. As it is, one might not even recognize Battambang as a city; it is more like a very large village surrounded by fertile countryside. But no one comes to Battambang for the urban experience; people come here to see rural Cambodia.

If you’ve been following my travels, you’ll know that there have been ups and downs, and that the downs often come from the intermittent periods of loneliness that a long-distance traveler is bound to experience. When the editors of asked if I would write a story about a tour company called Intrepid Travel, I knew it would be a way to see Cambodia, a fairly difficult country to begin with, and a chance to travel in a group again. What I learned early on was that traveling with a group opens up unexpected opportunities.

One of these opportunities came in the form of a day-long motorbike tour of the Battambang countryside. Each member of the group, seven women, our Khmer guide and myself, hired a motorbike with a driver (for safety and, more importantly, to keep the group traveling at the same speed throughout the day). We held on tight as we rolled out of town and into the country.

Battambang by Motorbike

Our first two stops were, to my delight, related to food. At a roadside hut, we were introduced to sticky rice in bamboo. Sticky rice is mixed with coconut juice and packed into foot-long cylinders of bamboo. The bamboo containers are lined up next to hot coals until the mixture inside is thoroughly cooked. The resulting rice is thick, sticky and sweet, and filling enough for an entire meal.

Sticky Rice in Bamboo

At the next stop, a house a few kilometers down the road, a family was engaged in making rice paper, not the kind for writing, but the kind used to make spring rolls. An old woman crouched in a cloud of steam mechanically spreading a mixture of rice and water on a hot plate, then transferring the wet pancake to a horizontal post. A man then snapped up the wrapper and carefully laid it out on a drying rack. We were told that the family works all day long, in shifts, turning out a few thousand wrappers. For their hard work they might earn what you or I would earn in less than an hour in America.

Making Rice Paper

There are moments when I’m on the road when I look around and know I’m in Asia. The peaceful moments fill me with joy and validate my decision to risk my career for a year on the road. (The unpleasant moments are also enlightening, but harder to swallow.) The journey through the backroads of Battambang was filled with happy visions and moments: farmers leading white oxen across a flooded rice paddy; neon-bright fields of green grasses and crops glowing in the sun; the golden spires of a Buddhist temple glowing on the horizon. However, the moments that brought the most happiness on this day, and continued to provide joy throughout the tour, were the encounters with children.

I don’t know how often foreigners appear on in rural Battambang on motorbikes. I’m sure Intrepid takes groups through there on a regular basis. However often it is, the kids were ecstatic when we’d roll by. They’d sprint out of their houses, whether tumbledown wooden shacks or more solid concrete bungalows, grinning from ear to ear and waving, shouting “Hello! Hello! Hello!” Sometimes they’d yell “Hello! Bye Bye!,” or just “Bye Bye!,” and run after the motorbikes. The enthusiasm that radiated from those children was invigorating and made all of us forget that we were a lot of hot, sweaty travelers, choked by the dust and the grime of unpaved country roads.


Unfortunately, Cambodia has the ability to change the mood in a heartbeat. The ultimate destination of the motorbike tour was a mountain (a pimple on the landscape, really) 18 kilometers from the city where the Khmer Rouge used a small temple, Wat Phnom Sampeau, as a prison and a neighboring cave, a killing cave, as a repository for the bodies of their victims. The location is serene today, with beautiful views from the hilltop of the surrounding countryside. In the late 1970’s, however, it was another vision of hell on earth.

Our local guide for the day, Pau, has spent his entire life in Battambang. When he was four years old, the Khmer Rouge regime began it’s reign of terror. Pau, his mother and father and two older siblings were taken from their home and moved to a camp near Phnom Sampeau where about 300 people toiled for the Khmer Rouge. Pau’s father, brother and sister worked in the fields; Pau stayed in the camp with his mother. The whole family suffered from hunger and deprivation, but survived on subterfuge and guile. Pau’s father discovered a store of rice and buried it, cooking in the dark in the middle of the night and feeding his kids handfuls at a time. But that secret stash only lasted for a year.

Eventually, Pau’s brother and sister were taken to another site to build a dam. His father was executed by the Khmer Rouge when someone revealed that he’d once been part of the army. But Pau, his mother and his siblings survived. Hearing his story was a chilling and awful reminder of Cambodia’s recent past. It brought that history to life in a way that our visit to the genocide museum and the killing fields could not.

Pau Tells His Story

Perhaps it was Pau’s story that made those shouts of “Hello! Bye Bye!“ from the rural children so poignant. We’d been told tales of death and misery, but we also witnessed new life and genuine joy. It was an unforgettable day on the road.


Note: If you clicked Battambang link to Wikipedia at the top of this post, you would have seen two photos. One looked very familiar to me and I clicked on it. I discovered that a Wikipedia contributor has used my photo for the page! I allow non-commercial use of my pictures, so it's cool. I am surprised and flattered!

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