Archive | March, 2010

Stupid White Men…

29 Mar

I would like to believe that traveling the world provides one with knowledge and understanding of diverse peoples, cultures and politics that cannot be gained from merely reading books (armchair tourists). This theory of travel = intelligence helps me to justify spending so many unproductive months on the road.

Yesterday I met a couple of travelers who proved this notion wrong.

I shouldn’t use names because you never know who may stumble across this blog. The internet has few secrets, right?

Anyhow, yesterday, late on a Sunday afternoon in Siem Reap, Alex and I were sitting in a cheap restaurant lunching on cheap noodles and loklak (a Khmer specialty of beef and egg in a peppery gravy). I first noticed the two middle-aged Canadian women sitting next to us when they were audibly rude to the small troupe of Cambodian kids who were trying to sell postcards and photocopied books to the tourists in the restaurant.

One of the pair of women, lets call her Idiot A, argued with a small child who was maybe ten years old. She told him that if he was really hungry he should ask the restaurant owner for food because surely the manager would feed him if he were starving (yeah right lady!). She proceeded to offer the little boy her dirty leftovers – an uneaten prawn or two – from her plate. When the embarrassed child declined her invitation to finish her lunch Idiot A loudly observed to the child and everyone else in ear shot ‘if you were really hungry you would have eaten what I offered’. Idiot A clearly isn’t aware that in Cambodian culture it is rude to eat directly from another person’s plate. And I don’t think anyone, including children, (in any culture), appreciate being publicly humiliated. When the kid moved on to try and sell his wares at the next table Idiot A proceeded to inform this group of tourists that the kids weren’t really hungry and she knew this because they wouldn’t eat her scraps. I wonder if they were thinking the same as we were?

After this incident the other Canadian woman (Idiot B) started taking to us across the room (okay we were only a metre or so away). First she enquired about what we were eating. The Idiots were interested in the Khmer food we were eating as they explained for the past three months in their travels around South East Asia, they had only eaten green beans stirfried with garlic (a dish called Morning Glory) with rice.

Idiot B continued to share with us. She and her partner / friend had come to South East Asia to find peace. Neither had completed a great deal of research before they left Canada, she told. Both had imagined South East Asia to be a sea of serenity – rice paddies, simple people, small villages, clean mountain air, gentle smiles and conical hats. Boy were they shocked when they disembarked from their Airbus at Bangkok Airport!!! Who would have thought Asia was so densely populated!!! So shocked was Idiot B at this revelation that she had to spend several days in her hotel room recovering from the news that Asia was in fact crowded, crazy, buzzing, dirty, hungry, loud and very much alive.

How did Idiot B move on from this catastrophe? She meditated for a few days asking for guidance, and the universe answered. The pair soon met an old German couple who directed them to a peaceful volcanic lake in Sumatra. They went and found what they were looking for. See how the universe provides? We nodded (laughing on the inside).

How the hell could anyone living in a western country in 2010 believe Asia to be a quiet and calm world? What we would have paid to see the Idiots in Bangkok.

Finally, I asked the women whether they had quit their jobs in Canada before they started their six month long search for peace in Asia? Idiot B told us that in fact, they hadn’t worked for two years before leaving North America. This pisssed me off even more. How can two adults, who haven’t lifted a finger for more than 24 months, be so nasty to kids in a developing country trying to make a buck to support their families?

Over dinner last night we recounted this story to our new Chinese friend New Moon Zhang. He laughed with us and concluded that some naieve people live in incredibly resilient bubbles.

Exploring Angkor

28 Mar

We left our hotel at 5am to arrive at Angkor Wat in time to watch the sun rise over the ruins, as recommended by Lonely Planet and every travel agency in Siem Reap.

As cliché as it sounds, Angkor Wat is a breathtaking sight in the misty light of early dawn.

This ancient Temple is surprisingly intact. So much so that legends of entire cities turned to stone came to mind as I wandered through Angkor Wat’s corridors with their life-size carvings of warriors, gods and dancing angels. Still largely empty of people at first light, it was easy to imagine the life that once flourished here had long ago been frozen under the curse of a powerful enemy depicted on the Temple’s walls. I flirted with the idea that at any moment the cruel spell could be broken and Angkor’s soldier-slaves would leap from the Temple’s intricate carvings with life once again pumping through their veins.

For me these intricate carvings were the highlight of the Angkor complex. Almost every possible space in Angkor Wat has been decorated. Hundreds of meters of carvings tell of Hindu legends and the histories of Khmer Kings and the bloody battles they fought. Framing the visual narratives are beautiful stone braidings and floral patterns. How many hours would it have taken so many hands to complete these complex works of art? I marveled at the thought.

Exploing Angkor is also fun. Climbing up and over the falling-down walls of the Khmer palaces of long ago reminded me of ‘exploring’ rockpools and caves on childhood excursions to the beach. After scaling the very tall pyramid-like temples in the Preah Pithu group I was very proud of myself. This sense of pride was to be short-lived. Taking a quiet moment to catch my breath and drink some water after the exertion a group of older (maybe in their 60s?) wandered past smiling and chattering and clearly non-plussed by the steep climb. Guess I need to incorporate morre exercise into this trip.

Everywhere in the Angkor complex are small Cambodian children and their mothers selling water, postcards and other souvenirs to tourists. The chorus of children ask tourists where they are from. When we reply ‘Australia’ they rattle off a series of rote-learned facts about our home Country; “Australia population 22 million, Capital Canberra, PM Kevin Rudd” or alternatively “Gday mate crikey a dingo stole my baby!”. Most kids will know similar statistics for a handful of other countries and in other languages.

One entrepreneurial young girl challenged Alex to a game of Noughts and Crosses or Tik Tak Toe. She said that Alex should buy a pack of postcards (ten for one dollar) if she won. She did, and we bought the postcards. (We now have about 5 packs of these…)

The youngest children selling to tourists at Angkor are only babies, and hard to resist. The baby boys (under three years old?) are often stark naked. I worried that families working at Angkor couldn’t afford to buy their children clothes. Boray, our tuk tuk driver, explained that this wasn’t the case. The toddlers merely dont like wearing clothes in the hot weather, and take them off. Given that all the other children were dressed this seems plausible.

At least there are several schools in the Angkor complex and most kids we spoke to told us that they either go to school in the morning or the afternoon, spending the rest of the day selling their wares. It’s not an easy life.

Couchsurfing Part 2

28 Mar

‘Big Blue’ as it is fondly called by its permanant inhabitants and vistors is Ho Chi Minh City’s Couchsurfing HQ. We are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit.

DJ AJAM (Adam) from the UK, Steve from Cananda, Annie from the US and Mai from the North of Vietnam have made Big Blue their home in Vietnam. For several months now this family of friends have opened their home to travellers like Alex and I. Showing how much trust this household places in strangers, Steve gave us a key to Big Blue for the duration of our stay. Once again I will take a moment to romanticise about couchsurfing; if everyone was so generous and trusting, and acted in ways that would not jeapodise such trust, the world would surely be a safer and happier place.

The expat residents of Big Blue make a living in HCMC by teaching English to Vietnamese people. Paying native speakers between $USD15 and $USD25 an hour makes this a lucrative gig as the cost of living in Vietnam is so low. Having opportunities to write for native speakers of English living in Vietnam.

Staying with Adam, Steve, Annie and Mai gave us an insight into the lives of young expats in HCMC. They have a lot of fun! On our first night in town, Steve and Annie took Alex and I to play laser tag and then bowling with their other North American mates. Much to our distress, we discovered that bowling was without bumpers. Apparently adults are not permitted to bowl with the aid of bumpers in Vietnam. Consequently we both performed miserably (my score was considerably worse than any one elses, including Alex) But we had fun regardless. I believe the $1 bottles of large beer compensated for our lack of sportsmanship.

Mai invited Alex and I to dine with her and her Filipino couchsurfing friends at a Vietnamese restaurant on the second night we stayed at Big Blue.

The food was wonderful. Our banquet which Mai ordered included small glutinous rice cakes sprinkled with dry prawns, eaten with a sweet chili and fish sauce. This food was unlike anything I have enjoyed before – prepared and served in a small dish like a jelly. See the picture below.

We also shared clams with and lemongrass cooked in a clay pot. A really interesting dish was a warm salad made of tiny mussles eaten on a crunchy poppy-seed bread, which I have seen before but never appreciated how it was best eaten.

This was one of the best restaurants I have dined in so far on this journey. I will try and find the name and address of the restaurant when I am back in HCMC later in the week so you might visit too when you are in Vietnam.

Love, War and Coffee in Saigon

25 Mar

I thought I should try and finish at least one hurried blog entry before our first week in South East Asia comes to an end, and I begin to forget all the wonderful and interesting things I have seen and learned so far.

A potted summary of the trip so far: We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City late on Saturday night after flying for 9 hours and spending two hours in Darwin Airport’s International Departure lounge. We spent the next few days exploring the City, getting around on the back of motorbikes (so much fun!) and eating Pho and Bun Bo Hue on the street (not sick yet!). Couchsurfing was great and I will write about it in another post soon. On Tuesday morning we left Saigon on a bus bound for Phnom Penh. I will also have to write about Cambodia in a separate post to give this Country the attention it deserves.

Love

Love is all around. The secret teenage groping-in-the-park sort of love is the first thing you notice on the short trip from Ho Chi Minh City’s international airport to Phamn Ngu Lao, the backpacker district where we spent our first night in Vietnam. The parks that line the City’s wide boulevards are full of young people and not so young people making out on park benches, or while sitting on or close to the motorbikes that are ubiquitous in Saigon. Perhaps it is the tropical weather that brings love outside into the public realm?

The ugly old white man exploiting young local women kind of love is the second we encountered in Vietnam. Prostitution is apparently rampant in Pham Ngu Lao. I expect that every city on the backpacker trail has its share of red light bars and clubs, but it was much less subtle in Saigon than I imagined it would be. We’re not sure about the laws regulating prostitution in Vietnam. The Government seems to be responding to all this romance by erecting huge billboards around the City drawing citizens and traveler’s attention to the risk of HIV.

On our Sunday afternoon visit to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum we were also lucky to see at least five couples taking wedding photos against the backdrop of this French colonial building’s grand spiral staircases and beautiful gardens. Most brides wore big white western-style dresses, with the exception of one who wore traditional Vietnamese wedding costume. I sneaked a couple of photos..

War

Like love, memories of war seem everywhere in Vietnam. Most of the tourist attractions in Ho Chi Minh City are inspired by the American war and the Vietnamese people’s previous struggle for independence against the French.

The War Remnants Museum has an impressive display of American bombers and fighter planes that bombed Vietnam back to the stone age. Alex is pretty impressed by these. I think once I have seen a tank, I have seen every tank. A highlight of the Museum for both of us was a war photography exhibition focusing on the work of those journalists who tragically died in the conflict.

After visiting the War Remants Museum we discovered that the two tanks that ran down the gates of Saigon’s Independence Palace in 1979 to end the American War are appropriately housed in the grounds of this building. Surprisingly war remnants can also be found where they don’t seem to belong. For example, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum which is largely dedicated to the development of local industry in the region (yes, equipped with giant graphs showing growth in production and exports) boasts a few fighter jets in its beautiful gardens. The rusted bodies of US helicopters can be seen on the grounds of some Government buildings dotted around the City, for no apparent reason.

Coffee

The coffee in Saigon is served strong and black, in large glasses filled with ice. I may go so far as saying that it’s the best coffee I have ever had.

We’ve already enjoyed several amazing meals here that deserve more attention. Maybe a top-five meals post will come shortly.

Couchsurfing

15 Mar

I am a big fan of couchsurfing – a worldwide network that facilitates new connections between travellers and the local communities they visit.

Couchsurfing as I know it is based upon a free social-networking page http://www.couchsurfing.org/index.html

On this site people willing to host travellers in their homes advertise the fact. Hosts write about their cities, their communities, their homes, themselves, and what they can share with and teach travellers. Travellers or ‘couchsurfers’ are able to search host profiles to find couches that suit their needs and preferences. Travellers may contact hosts and request to visit for a few days or longer through the website.

For the reason that tourists pay big bucks to participate in ‘homestays’ in developing countries, couchsurfing makes for a better holiday; it allows travellers to see parts of cities and gain an understanding of their populations that wouldn’t normally be accessible to tourists.

The beauty of couchsurfing is that it is free. No money is exchanged. As is the case when family and friends come to visit, couchsurfers don’t pay their hosts for a bed and breakfast. Though it is generally good form to give your host a gift – giving something from your home country or cooking and sharing a traditional meal with your host seems a kind way to show thanks for their hospitality.

Unlike most institutions in modern society, this entire system is built on trust. Couchsurfers and hosts trust each other with their personal safety. Hosts trust that one day the hospitality they showed to strangers will be shown to them in some place far from home. Surely the world would be a better place if people held the attitudes they do towards couchsurfing to every activity they engage in.

Over the past 15 months or so Alex and I hosted couchsurfers from Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand and the USA. Every experience was a positive one. Through this netword we established many new friendships, some of which may last a lifetime.

We are looking forward to being hosted through the network for the first time in Ho Chi Minh City. We are to stay with Adam, a couchsurfing ambassador in Ho Chi Minh City. We will write all about it.

Check out our CS Profile here!

The agony of selecting books for a holiday

10 Mar

On every short holiday I have enjoyed, I have made the stupid mistake of packing more books than I could ever hope to read in the duration of my vacation.

I appreciate that this trip is different; it’s not a long weekend. I will have hours and hours to read in the months and months that I’ll be traveling.

I dream of spending part of every day curled up with a good book and strong coffee in a cosy café. And yes, this is in addition to the time I will have to read as buses and trains carry me across continents.

Unfortunately my library will be limited to what I can lug around on the world on my back. One of my greatest pre-journey concerns is that I will run out of books to read on the road. Or find myself hauling books that I don’t feel like reading – stories or dissertations that somehow just aren’t right for the place and the moment.

The agony of choosing which books to pack is exaggerated by the sad fact that for the past two years I have been shelving books with the intention of reading them in some exotic place, when I have the time to savor each glorious word. I have cultivated such a real and imagined pile of books to consume in 2010 that culling the list is agony.

Nonetheless, I have been guided by two principals in compiling a shortlist of big trip reads;

i) that books should be relevant to the places I plan to visit and
ii) the collection should achieve a healthy balance of fiction and non-fiction

After all this blah – here is the list (so far):

Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America
This popular history of Latin America is loved and hated by many. A hit when it was first published in 1971, it recently became a best seller again after Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez presented a copy to Barack Obama when the US President visited the oil rich country. Evidently the book meets my first selection criteria, and as one would expect from a good popular history, Galeano also manages to combine serious and critical with engaging and entertaining on the other. It’s as easy to read as a good novel. Top of my suitcase.

Oliver Bach’s Viva South America!: A Journey Through a Restless Continent
Like Galeano, Bach is a journalist, and so his book promises that same easy but informative style of Open Veins. In fact, the front cover looks a lot like that of the most recent paperback edition of Open Veins… I sense a bit of cross-marketing going on by a clever publisher? The book was a well-chosen gift; since I share the author’s desire to understand if the dream that inspired Simon Bolivar’s revolution lives on in Latin America, I’m keen to read it.

Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera
Because I loved 100 years of solitude. Magic Realism is a great genre to escape into on vacation

Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Because I loved Kafka on the Shore.

Jared Diamond’s Collapse
Because I liked Guns Germs and Steel, and I think Alex might also enjoy this. Mr Diamond is very serious – strictly non-fiction.

Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet
Strictly fiction. I picked up a second-hand copy for seven dollars at the bookshop next to Tilley’s while waiting for a friend last week. As the only Australian citizen who hasn’t read Cloudstreet – I feel should. All my friends have read it. All rave about it. I hope I do to.

So that’s the list for now. Stay tuned for updates. Further suggestions much appreciated.

Kristie