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The Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk

25 Jun

The best way to see Angkor Wat is from the backseat of Siem Reap’s only Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk!

We found Borei, the creator and driver of the Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk, chilling on Siem Reap’s famous Pub Street as the soulful sounds of Bob Marley rang out from his sexed-up vehicle. Lots of tuk tuk drivers work this street trying to sell their services to tourists visiting the Angkor complex, but Borei shined amongst them.

We got chatting to the Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk driver. He was very keen to show us the complete sound system in the back of his machine. He demonstrated that the system was hooked up to an MP3 player that riders are free to control from the backseat, which also reclines. If you don’t like Borei’s eclectic collection of English and Khmer music, you arevery welcome to plug in your own ipod and listen to whatever you feel like. The Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk was also equipped with a DVD player in the back so that riders could watch short documentaries on the history of Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge.

We were impressed by the Tuk Tuk and even more so by the creative effort that had gone in to making it unique. We quickly agreed for Borei to be our driver for the three days we spent at Angkor.

The ruins are amazing, but it was Borei who made our visit special. Over the three days we spent exploring the ruins Borei told us about his life and his impressions of Cambodia and its people. I was surprised to learn that, like many naughty Cambodian boys, Borei was sent to live in the temple for a time when he was a teenager. In this country the temple is something of a reform school for some young men. Living with his family nowadays, Borei maintains his Bhuddist beliefs and sets aside a small portion of food at each meal as an offering to God.

The Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk driver is well known in the Ankor complex amongst the hundreds of people who live and work there. When we returned to the Tuk Tuk after climbing up one pyramid or around the collapsed walls of another, we would find a number of small smiling children gathered to watch movies in the back of the Tuk Tuk. Borei preferred to show them the animated Life of Bhudda and the kids loved it. He also played music and ran kareoke competitions which were also popular with the adults and children working in the temples. We had the chance to watch this film too – Borei gave an English commentary to the Khmer-language program so we could follow the story.

Rock'n'Roll Tuk Tuk driver Borei with a family of hawkers working at Angkor Wat

Ironically at the end of this presentation Borei told us that he also had some porn on file as some of his customers liked to draw the curtains around the Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk and indulge in some X-Rated action! I guess with Borei you will never get bored?!

Borei will go to great lengths keep his customers happy. The Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk and its charming driver come highly recommended. Look for him on Pub Street.

Like everything in Cambodia, the cost of Borei’s tour service is negotiable. We agreed to pay the first price that Borei named, which meant that we could have asked for a lower price. The cost to us was very low by Western standards.

Please consider that your Cambodian Tuk Tuk driver’s daily fee will include him picking you up from your hotel (at 5am if you want to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat) and driving you around the huge Ankgor complex for as many hours as you like, before taking you back to your accommodation. Agree to a price that is fair and allows for some income on top of his payments for vehicle rental and petrol.

*** Update ***

Borei now has a website!

Australian Union Aid Abroad Creates Bright Futures in Vietnam

17 Jun

In 2009 Alex and I were active members of the Canberra and Region Union Aid Abroad Activist Group. We are proud of the great work we did to raise funds to support APHEDA projects and to increase awareness about the struggles overseas workers face in our region.

In May this year we had the privilege of visiting APHEDA Projects in Vietnam that we raised money to support. We were both blown away by the great work that APHEDA is doing to support workers, including women workers, in Vietnam and inspired to continue our efforts to support APHEDA projects.

The Bright Future Club that we visited in Hai Duong Province has been functioning since April 2006. The Club aims to provide a range of support to sufferers of HIV / AIDS and their families.

Monthly meetings held at the Terri Daktyl Club House answer questions Club members, which include suffers and their families, have about the disease. This helps to reduce the stigma attached to the HIV / AIDS sufferers in Vietnam and helps sufferers to be accepted by their families and communities. The Club also provides advice to members about how they can limit further infection, including specific training for women about avoiding the infection of their children.

We were lucky to have the chance to talk to the Director of this Club and two Club members newly-diagnosed as HIV Positive. They told us that the friendship and emotional support the Club provides them with is very important to them. The Club also provides HIV / AIDS sufferers with information about medicines that will increase their quality of life and life expectancy, which is currently on average only two years after diagnosis.

There are 500 of these Clubs in Vietnam, of which APHEDA supports three in Hai Duong Province and five in the Bac Kan Province. International aid organisations are also partners in this projec t.

In addition to this grass roots level work, the Project also produces propaganda about HIV / AIDS to address the misconceptions about the disease that exist in Vietnam and reduce its transmission. Alex and I both thought that the materials we saw, with its bright colours and cartoons, were very accessible to young people.

We asked the Club Director and APHEDA Project Officers what they would do if they had additional resources available. They told us that even small amounts of additional funding could be used to by petrol to transport members to meetings at the Club and provide them with lunch to increase access to this service. Additional funding would also make it possible for representatives from the Club to conduct community outreach work.

We also visited the Hai Duong Women’s Union’s March 8 Employment Centre, which has hosted other Australian friends of APHEDA in recent years. The Centre is named for International Women’s Day and administers a number of projects to help women workers through its Women’s Union networks which extend right down to the village level. One such Project rehabilitates local women who were trafficed to China into sex work and forced marriages. The Centre helps these women in a number of ways, including providing them with vocational training so they find work and be able to support themselves and their children.

We had the pleasure of meeting the President of the Womens Union, who was surprised that we don’t have a women’s union in Australia! We discussed the Unions work to increase the participation of Women in the Political system, which incorporates supporting women candidates in Provincial and National Government elections and encouraging women to vote for these women candidates. This work reminded me of the valuable efforts of Emily’s List in Australia. The Union’s pursuit of equality for women and the grass roots level and at the level of government is sure to improve the rights enjoyed by women workers in Vietnam. I think that we feminists in Australia have a lot to learn from their great work.

We were humbled by the hospitality that our hosts showed us. The APHEDA Hanoi staff provided us with a lovely lunch when we first visited the office, and the March 8 Centre also invited us to a very tasty meal at a local restaurant. I hope that we can show you our hosts the same hospitality if you ever visit Australia.

Mahouts for a day

3 May

Big Hug!

The opportunity to be mahouts for a day in Luang Prabang was irresistable.

Alex and I were both a little disappointed that we couldn’t ride elephants in Tad Lo because the elephant keepers were celebrating Lao New Year. Our experience in Luang Prabang more than compensated for this and was surely one of the best days we’ve had on our trip.

Our day at the elephant park began with Alex and I taking an hour long elephant ride. We were carried on a chair strapped to the elephant Mae Pua’s back as the mahout, named Lan (which means singing), sat on the huge creature’s neck to guide it along the trail. Twenty minutes into the ride Lan asked Alex if he wanted to swap places and take a turn driving the elephant. Alex nervously agreed and did a great job but reported that it was difficult to balance on the elephant, especially as it made an awkward decent to the river.

I then had a chance to sit on Mae Pua’s neck. It was hard to balance in this position; her huge shoulders shifted under me as the huge animal swayed as she walked, lumbering slowly along. Placing my hands on to her giant head for balance I learned that elephants have hair (really!) which is sparse and spikey. And their grey skin is dry and saggy as I expected. Back at base camp we fed Mae Pua a snack of bananas to say thankyou for the short trip.

Alex feeding Mae Pua

We then had a lesson on elephant instruction and had the opportunity to ride the elephants unassisted. Like a dog, elephants can be trained to obey simple commands like ‘walk’, ‘stop’ and ‘sit’.

After a yummy lunch we again climbed on top of the elephants and with a mahout and rode them down to the river for a bath. Both the elephants seemed to love the water. Alex’s elephant took to submerging itself completely in the river leaving only its trunk in the air to breathe. Mine splashed about and blew water into the air. Lucky we weren’t wearing our best clothes as we were completely soaked at the end of this exercise.

After a quick boat trip on the river we went back to town, still glowing from all the contact with elephants.

There are several operators managing elephant parks in Luang Prabang, but it seems that most tourists and the mahouts we met agree that Tiger Trails, which we used, is the best in town. In addition to creating many local jobs, Tiger Trails is a fair trade operator and gives a significant portion of its profits to the village in which the elephant camp is located. This fair trade status is verified by the Laos Government.

Importantly the elephants at this park have all been rescued from logging. We were very happy to learn that many of the elephants have come to the park with their original mahouts – their owner, carer and friend. Tiger Trails also reports to employ a full-time vet to care for the elephants.

A full day with the elephants cost just under $70 USD per person. This might break the budget of backpackers in Laos, but when you consider an elephant costs at least $15,000 USD, and that they eat between 180kg to 200kg a day, you can see that the cost is reasonable. Surely it is worth paying the few extra dollars that Tiger Trails charges and know that it treats its animals and employees well.

A side note:

A Playschool counting song leaps to mind whenever someone mentions elephants.

I can’t remember the second (a key) word of the song but I do recollect the rest;

One (keen?) elephant balancing
step by step on a piece of string
He thought it was such a wonderful stunt
that he called for another (-pause-) elephant

Two (missing word) elephants balancing…

And so on, until the string breaks.

This track was playing in my mind on repeat for most of the day at the elephant park.

Pi Mai Lao

25 Apr

[Excerpt from Vientiane Mai Daily, 21 April 2010]

‘Mixed Report Card from Lao New Year’

Though most people had a wonderful Lao New Year holiday, some incidences of inappropriate behaviour were reported, damaging the Country’s traditional fine image.

Many people used the three day festival for traditional events such as a baci ceremony or visiting temples to bathe Buddha images. This kind of behaviour sets a good image for Lao culture.

But there were still some young people who broke from tradition and celebrated in inappropriate ways. They used hoses and plastic bags containing coloured water to soak road users, despite numerous government warnings to the contrary, and many drank alcohol in excessive quantities.

These issues have been occurring for many years. To resolve the problem, everyone needs to pay more attention to celebrating the new year within the bounds of tradition.

[End article].

On our journey from Hue to Savannakhet, Alex and I adopted two new travel-buddies from Brisvegas – Julia and Caitlan. We four Australians spent the next week or so together in the South of Laos.

When we arrived in Laos its people were partying hard to welcome in the new year. Footprint contained a few words about Bi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) to the effect that festivities involved local people going to wats and wetting statues of Buddha. The Guidebook also suggested these activities were especially spectacular to witness in the historical northern centre of Luang Prabang. But Footprint said nothing about this extended celebration incorporating local people drinking themselves silly and drenching each other with water, which is what we found in the south of Laos.

As we entered the Country from Vietnam we were ignorant as to what Bi Mai Lao involved. We were attacked by multiple gangs of small children with supersoakers when we walked from the Border to the bus station and were very confused as to what was happening. Do people here really dislike Farangs? Or is this some kind of ritual? The kids were cute, and it was bloody hot, so we didn’t really mind walking around wet.

Soon we boarded a songathiew bound for Savannakhet, where we planned to spend the night, and quickly realised that we tourists were not the target of the water attacks (an arrogant assumption?).

We saw that large groups of local people established road blocks at numerous points along the dirt highway to Savannakhet, from where they attacked passing vehicles with water pistols and water bombs. As most vehicles are open – motorbikes or songathiews – this meant a lot of people copping direct hits. As the Vientiane Daily accurately reported, some of these water bombs contained red and blue coloured water (don’t worry Mum, it washed out easily).

We also passed numerous utes that had been converted to mobile water-fight stations. With at least ten people, a huge sound-system and one big barrel of water crammed snuggly into the tray, these cruised around the countryside searching for road blockades and rival ute parties to drench.

It struck me that this was all in good spirit. While the Vientiane Daily portrayed these water fights as dangerous stunts led by insolent youths, we found that everyone – young and old – participated in the action. The two older women who sat opposite me on the trip to Savannakhet attempted to duck from the water attacks and squealed when they got wet, but heartily laughed it off every time. I didn’t see anyone visibly angry or upset about the newer Bi Mai Lao traditions that have a grip on the Country.

We were all buggered when we finally arrived in Savannakhet 15 hours after leaving Hue in Vietnam (the journey should have taken 9 hours, but this is another story). We checked into the first Guesthouse we found and then went hunting for food. Our Guesthouse manager and the few people we passed in the street on our expedition for dinner advised us that the only place to get food in Savannakhet at ten pm was the bus station. We headed there and found big plates of BBQ chicken and sticky rice for $2, and big bottles of beer Laos to wash it down. Then we retired to bed.

At seven am the following morning we returned to the bus station to find a ride to Pakse, the regional transport hub from where we wanted to travel to Tad Lo. We didn’t have to wait long to catch another songathiew to Pakse. It quickly became clear that Bi Mai Lao celebrations were continuing on our second day in the Country. Again our little bus was attacked with water by roadside drenching blockades and mobile party utes.

We were first invited to join in the festivities after arriving in Pakse. The tuk tuk that we chartered from the bus station to the city centre (only a five minute ride) pulled in to a petrol station on route. Here a small party was in full swing. Tipsy Lao people wearing powdered faces and lipstick drawings on their heads and arms, including one man with a dick and balls sketched on his left cheek, ran up to our tuktuk and with glasses of ice which they promptly filled with beer for each one of us to drink. They proceeded to hose us down as the tuktuk drove away and invited us to return. We were assured the party would kick on until late and we were welcome to come back at any time.

After checking in to our hotel, showering and eating lunch, we decided to explore Pakse. We had only strolled 200 metres before we found another street party. We were quickly given glasses of beer and soaked. We bought a few long necks to contribute to the merry-making and proceeded to drink and dance the night away to bad Lao and Thai pop music, and of course attempted to soak every passer-by when the opportunity arose.

One local woman at this party was a high school teacher and could speak some English, and an English woman who participated could speak Lao, so we were able to exchange information about where we were from, how old we were, our marital status, and how many children we all had.

The following morning I was surprised to find that I made it home with my camera, purse, all my money (which dried quickly enough), and had only lost one sock…

A national water fight to mark the start of a new year! What a great idea hey? The Australians discussed why we didn’t mimic the Lao. After all, the first of January tends to be oppressively hot at home, people would love to be soaked to cool down! We concluded that with the drought and all it wouldn’t really be a responsible way to have fun down under and we’d have to continue to be content with the beach.

The next morning we left Pakse for Tad Lo, a village of 500 permanent residents is known for its waterfalls and elephants. When we arrived in town we found that the Bi Mai Lao party were still underway. You’re getting sick of this story now aren’t you. Enough happy new year. Right? Well that’s exactly how we felt; how long can this party possibly last?

A man from Holland (his name has Heins – we called him Beans) who had made Tad Lo his home for a fortnight told us that 4000 people from the surrounding villages and beyond had flooded the city for a big Bi Mai Lao party, which was wrapping up. Other locals backed up the estimated crowd size. The small main street of the village was full of stalls and strewn with rubbish and led to a huge stage and a wall of subwoofers that would not be out of place at the Big Day Out. A walk around the village gave us the impression that the party was one that had gone on too long. People were wasted, with bags under their eyes. But still very willing to throw an arm warmly around your shoulder, crack open a cold Beer Laos, and pour you a glass, and we reciprocated.

The following night, our second in Tad Lo if you a loosing track, the party moved to the Wat. That’s right – the monks threw a party for the people of Tad Lo. We went along for a few hours to check it out – more beer, water, and dancing. A table of young people adopted we four Australians – amongst them were a few transvestites. One of them lent in close to my ear to tell me who in the group were ladies and who were lady boys. I feigned surprise – really!? I wouldn’t have known!

A farmer approached Alex and told him ‘I am a farmer and I am poor’. He then introduced us to his wife and children, who we danced with for a while. We bought him a beer too. Share the love.

I've never been so popular...

We retired from the Wat party early enough, long before midnight, and went to sleep. I couldn’t believe when I woke up at three am needing to go to the loo that the party was still going! The Wat party had become a rave!

In regards to the external WC: some people hate having to make the dunny run in the middle of the night. Granted it’s not something that I would want to become a permanent feature of my life but I actually enjoyed the novelty of it and felt like I was camping. I also liked to spend time with all the animals that live in Tad Lo – dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, and huge pigs suckling piglets. Alex and I even saw a dog suckling its puppies and piglets at the same time! Not something you see everyday, at least not in Sydney or Canberra.

And the music didn’t stop at any point that day. As the sun came up the music only got louder and louder. The following night we played cards outside our bungalow and joked that it must be open mike night at the Wat as the quality of singing deteriorated.

The next day, the third day of the Wat rave, was the last. Our guesthouse manager and friend Pap invited us to participate in the end of Bi Mai Lao ceremony. This involved a small parade of people visiting each house and business in the village to collect donations to the Wat, and then delivering the proceeds to the monks. There was a drum, singing and more Beer Lao. It was fun to join in. The little girls all wanted to hold my hand, and the little boys wanted to climb on Alex’s back. Their parents were happy that we wanted to play with their children and introduced themselves to us, pointing out which kids and spouses were theirs.

Finally that night silence fell over the village.

Tad Lo

I almost drowned myself trying to swim under it...

Tad Lo is a beautiful spot. A river runs through the village and a small waterfall, a big waterfall, and a huge waterfall are all in walking distance. All but the later are ideal spots for swimming, fully clothed like the locals. The upstream water is clean and cool enough to be refreshing but not cold. We were warned that at irregular intervals the dam north of Tad Lo dumps a huge volume of water into the river which can make swimming dangerous. If you stay to the little waterfall you should be fine, at least in the dry season.

We took a four hour guided walk to four small villages. It wasn’t possible to do longer treks because the guides were partying, or recovering from partying. Likewise we got to see the elephants Tad Lo known for, but elephant treks were also not running during the celebrations.

We stayed in Mama Pap’s bungalows in Tad Lo. These were simple affairs constructed from bamboo. Each of Pap’s five bungalows cost 20,000 kip a night and sleep two. They have windows, mosquito nets, a light and a fan. The shared toilet was clean but the shower had zero water pressure. But who needs to shower when you can bathe in the river? Pap’s incredible kindness to local kids who she feeds, as well as to travelers was the highlight of this place. She is also a good cook and whips up huge portions of fried rice, noodles, soup, and larb at very low prices.

Alex with Pap outside our bungalow

Phnom Penh

10 Apr

With its poor population and rubbish-strewn streets, Phnom Penh is a hard city to love, but crucial to visit if you want to understand Cambodia.

The poverty of Cambodia relative to neighbouring Vietnam is apparent almost as soon as you cross the Bavet / Moc Bai Border that separates these countries. The caramel-coloured cows and grey water buffalo visible from the bus window are noticeably thinner on the Cambodian side of the Border. Piles of household and other waste gathers on the sides of unsealed roads, waiting to be burned. In rural areas Cambodian houses are small, often simple thatch structures on stilts, which I doubt are connected to running water or electricity. It is sad but not surprising that Cambodia has the highest infant and under-five mortality rates in the region.

Two of Phnom Penh’s most famous tourist attractions give some insight into the origins of this Nation’s poverty. Security Prison 21 operated as a high school until 17 April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh victorious in Civil War and emptied the City of people. S-21 then became a gaol where thousands of Cambodians, mainly from the middle and upper classes of society, were starved and tortured. The buildings at the site and the evidence of genocide they contain have been preserved as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Most haunting are the photographs of former prisoners that line the walls of former classrooms, telling us that many victims of the Khmer Rouge were only babies or young children.

The infamous ‘Killing Fields’ at Choeung Ek are roughly 15km from the centre of Phnom Penh. Over 20,000 people were killed here by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-79, mostly prisoners from S-21. When we visited our guide explained that before the War this site was a private Chinese cemetery located on the City outskirts behind a rice field; a perfect place to kill and then bury the dead away from prying eyes. The guide also told us that the killing was done at night as music blared to muffle the victim’s screams.

As you wander across the Killing Field you cannot ignore the tattered remains of the victims’ clothing that is gradually being rejected from the earth, as if the land does not want to hold on to the Khmer Rouge’s dirty secrets. Treading on these shreds of cloth forces you to recognise the grisly reality of what happened here not so long ago.

In the 1980s a Stupa was erected to house the skulls and bones of some of the people murdered here. From some distance, seeing so many skulls lying together can make them seem less human, like a sanitised exhibit at a museum, or a photograph in a textbook. But visitors may come so close to these remains that they can see how each individual they belonged to was killed; themajority had their skulls smashed with heavy bamboo poles or rocks in order to conserve expensive bullets. The Stupa is a place to respectfully remember that each skull on display belonged to a person who had a family and friends that loved them. At such an intimate distance you can feel the victims’ collective horror, woe, and deep sense on injustice at at having lived and died as they did.

Tragically Choeung Ek is only one of over four hundred execution and mass grave sites that has been discovered across Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge were removed from power. It is believed that between 1.5 million and 2 million Cambodians died under this Regime. Wealthy and educated citizens were targeted as the Khmer Rouge sought to abolish the elite so that all Cambodians would be equal. Understanding that Cambodia lost an entire generation of professionals; doctors, teachers, government workers, and business leaders, helps the foreigner to comprehend Cambodia’s current poverty.

You do wonder how such a regime comes to and manages to sustain power, and how individuals can be capable of acting without humanity. Surely the heavy bombing that the USA subjected Cambodia to at the end of the Vietnam War, and the great inequality that persisted between rich and poor last Century which is still apparent today, had a lot to do with this twisted outcome.

The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda offer visitors insight into a very different Cambodia. This official residence of the Cambodian Monarch was built late in the nineteenth century. These beautiful buildings demonstrate the lasting cultural influence of Indian Hinduism on Khmer architecture and traditions of faith. Here the large mythical bird-like creature Garuda supports the roofs, and representations of Naga the Serpent God of Agriculture are prominent. Elaborate murals decorate the inner walls of the silver pagoda complex depicting Hindu legends. The gardens are also beautiful and peaceful.

I wondered if it is right for the Cambodian Government to spend monies maintaining such impressive but unproductive structures when outside the Palace’s grand gates its poor citizens are struggling to survive? I figure at a cost of $USD 8 a pop, entry tickets sold to foreigners could fund the ongoing restoration and maintenance works carried out here. Perhaps such beautiful national buildings may also give the local people something to be collectively proud of and give hope that if Cambodia can build such amazing structures that attract tourists from all over the world, the Country has a bright future.

Dining in Phnom Penh

The FCC was our favourite bar in Phnom Penh. The building has a rich history and views over the River front from its second and third floor balconies are impressive. With draft beer sold for 50 cents and cocktails half price during daily happy hours (5pm – 7pm), the FCC is hard to beat as a venue for a pre-dinner drink.

The cosy Paris Bistro, also on the River front, was our favourite restaurant in Phnom Penh. While the large photographs of the Eiffel tour on the Restaurant’s walls were a little on the tacky side, the wooden furniture was comfortable and attractive. Soft lighting and French music gently played in the background give the Paris Bistro a romantic ambience. The service was outstanding and the salads here are very good, especially the Banana Leaf salad with just enough chilli to give it punch.

We also enjoyed eating at Friends restaurant which trains local street children in hospitality. The food and drinks served here were of a high quality. Although the prices are a little steep for the tightarse traveler, it is good to support the positive work carried out here. The NGO that manages the training restaurant also supports a beauty parlor next door.

We found that food served in cafes and restaurants was generally cheap and of a decent quality. Unlike in Vietnam it didn’t prove any cheaper to eat at local street set-ups in Phnom Penh where prices are inflated for foreigners (really on one occasion a waitress told us that she reviewed the prices on the menu everyday and made them up as we ordered!).


Where to stay in Phnom Penh is largely a question of riverside or lakeside.

Wanting to conserve travel funds we chose to stay lakeside at the Grandview Guesthouse on our first visit to Phnom Penh as the alleys bordering the Boeung Kak Lake are home to the City’s cheapest budget rooms. Our tiny $5 room on the hotel’s third floor was very basic featuring two large single beds, a ceiling fan, an ensuite with a cold water shower and views of the Lake. The restaurant and chillout space on the Grandview’s rooftop was this hotel’s redeeming feature. Being the tallest building in the area, views from the roof extend across the Lake to one side and over the crowded side streets and rooftops to the other. The Khmer food served in the restaurant was also cheap and tasty; we enjoyed curries and rice for $2USD, and great fresh lemon ice teas for 75 cents. The other small bars and restaurants located in the lake area were similarly cheap, making Lakeside a good option for the budget traveller. I think some travelers’ critical assessments of the Lakeside are unfair and inaccurate.

Sadly the Boeung Kak Lake is gradually being filled in to make way for new development. It may not be so pleasant to stay Lakeside when lake views are no longer involved and you wake each morning to the sound of jack hammers. Also we quickly realised that Phnom Penh is not a small city, and in the extreme heat and humidity of Phnom Penh late in the dry season, Lakeside is more than a walk away from the action closer to the action. Tuk tuks are cheap at roughly $1.00 from anywhere in the City to anywhere else, though a few trips back and forth from your Lakeside room to the main tourist attractions and popular bars and restaurants, all located Riverside, soon add up.

After visiting Siem Reap we spent one last night in Phnom Penh before traveling to Ho Chi Minh City. This time we stayed Riverside at the Mekong Palace Hotel, the second hotel we looked at after arriving in the City. We paid $15 for a medium-sized air-conditioned room, with an en suite, hot water shower, and cable TV. It seems that air-conditioning adds between $3 and $5 to the price of a room as energy is relatively expensive in Cambodia.

Was aircon worth the extra $5? It was nice to relax with a movie (Juno was playing) in a cool room, but I still believe it is always healthier to sleep under a fan. I woke with a sniffle after sleeping under the aircon all night.

Was it better staying Riverside? You are certainly closer to the main tourist attractions (National Museum, Silver Pagoda and S-21) here. We enjoyed walking along the slightly stinky River front, eating ice cream and watching the world pass by. Yet we discovered the Riverside with its beautiful people and five star restaurants has an ugly underbelly. Numerous bars and nightclubs clearly doubled as brothels. As we lunched at a pub in the afternoon we had the pleasure of watching two young local hookers make themselves up for the evening, and a policeman drop in to make a collection Soprano style. The Phnom Penh indi news bulletin that I was reading at the time reported the Government was cracking down on prostitution, closing down a number of red light karaoke joints like the one we were apparently sitting in in recent weeks. The journalist correctly predicted that those that could afford the bribes would stay in business. Riverside is no less a slum then Lakeside.

We’ve posted some photos from Phnom Penh here.

Getting here and away

Bus to PP from HCMC will cost you about $10 for a ‘VIP’ bus; ie one with aircon, a toilet on board, and free water and a snack included. Tickets should be cheaper on a local bus. Your inner-child will be happy to know that the journey includes riding on a ferry across the Mekong.

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 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..


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.


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.

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.


21 more sleeps…

27 Feb

South East Asia route

Now that our apartment is half empty, our big adventure feels more real. Only 21 more sleeps in Australia. Only 506 hours until our we fly away into the big blue.

Unlike my last sojourn overseas, which started only days after handing in my honours thesis, I’ve devoted significant time to planning this trip.

I’ve been reading about the cities and towns I plan to visit. My attention always comes to focus on their restaurants and street-food stalls, the language and craft classes they deliver, and the museums they boast.

Alex seems always more interested in their ancient and recent history. The wars they have fought. Their political struggles. I’ve often pondered the irony of this given I am the historian.

I’m certain that our combined research efforts will make for a great adventure.

The first South East Asian leg of our journey is shown in the map above. We are committed to flexibility and have made sure that if we arrive in a place we love we can spend more time there, and quickly abandon the charmless sites we come across. (‘Committed to flexibility’? Is it just me or has public-service speak warped how I communicate? Hopefully weeks on beaches buried in books will reverses this malady. I once wrote well, with heart!)

The purpose of this Blog is to share our experiences with our families and friends, and others interested in learning from our encounters. We intend to post stories, photos and links here and welcome you to do to same. Of course we will have some access to our gmail while we are overseas, and we would love you to send updates on your lives, even though for the next twelve months they won’t be as exciting as ours 😉