Monday 23 July 2012

Days 477 to 479: Mekong Delta Tour

I took a three day organised trip to the Mekong Delta with TLK travel.  It's not the kind of thing I do very often, but it's probably a good way to see the delta.  We were constantly switching between buses and boats, then walking short distances and getting picked up again in a way that would be very hard to organise individually. Cruises in the Mekong are very expensive, but this was a bus tour, and we did spend quite a lot of time on buses.  I realised what a lazy traveller I am usually, because I found the whole thing a bit gruelling, though it did give me the chance to get the hang of the environment. We covered a lot of ground and a lot of different areas: villages accessed by paths a car couldn't get down, or only by boat, larger towns, small businesses, temples and mosques. For some reason there were lots of sweet and snack businesses included, so much that I really lived on 1 meal a day.  The only disadvantage was that we didn't spend a lot of time in any environment.  I did get to hang out with some really fun people from many different countries, which is a big advantage of group travel.

A typical Vietnamese rest stop.

First boat ride
Floating market

The riverfront

Friday 20 July 2012

Day 476: Ho Chi Minh City

This is the bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City at a quite nice cafe stop just before the border.  The border crossing was very smooth and easy with the Mekong Express bus crew having everything well in hand.  Just go where you're told!  So, after seven hours and a lot of listening to music and looking at scenery, I am here in Ho Chi Minh City, probably more often known as Saigon. Wow, this place is really hopping - and I'm right in the middle of it. I can walk pretty much anywhere I need to go, which is great, because the taxi, tuktuk and bike drivers around here have got themselves a wicked reputation. If that were not the case, I might have hired them just to drive me across the roads.  There is a system of sorts to crossing the road but it depends on careful timing and matching of speeds between several people at once.  I'm starting to get used to it.

The alley my hotel is on.  Nice and quiet.
Bui Vien is the back street full of little restaurants.  Not as trafficky as it looks.
The green strip down the main avenue.  Not really as quiet as it looks.
The obligatory phallic skyscraper
The river
I've decided to be really active for the next days, because then I plan to go somewhere quiet and work for at least a week.  I am leaving here tomorrow morning on a Mekong Delta tour I booked through the hotel, then back for a couple of days seeing stuff in HCMC.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Day 473: I spent a week at Angkor and all you're getting are a couple of strange photos

I'm not just being mean.  Angkor Wat is so massive it can really be appreciated in a photograph.  And in so far as it can, a lot of people have done much better jobs than we can.  Also I was so overawed by the whole thing I didn't really think of trying to photograph it.

Antonia on Angkorian ground!  I waited twenty years for this and it didn't disappoint me.  She is only half that age and barely realises how many wonders of the world she's seen already.

Do I look happy?  Or do I look like someone whose attention has been distracted from a wonder of the world, but who is also conscious of the fact that she will be getting in three days of solid, solitary art history later on.

Well, OK then.  Here is just a little bit of the innermost and uppermost part of Angkor Wat.

P.S.  Message to my Mum - This is part of a batch of posts that starts with Bangkok about two and a half weeks ago and aren't being published in order.  So, if you really don't want to miss anything, wait a bit and then scroll down.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Day 470: Siem Reap

Siem Reap, the town that serves Angkor, is a really lovely place to hang out. Obviously, there are enough tourists and money coming in that the place is all bright, freshly painted and filled to the brim with restaurants. And shops and stalls selling tee-shirts and other souvenirs of course.  The funniest, which I didn't buy because I wouldn't really wear it, is a tee-shirt that says NO TUK-TUK, NO MASSAGE, NO POSTCARD. The Cambodians do have a great sense of humour, though I actually wonder who it was who came up with that one!

The Old Market
Restaurants and cafes in the streets around the old market

The rigors of surviving in Australia on a Euro-American budget are still close enough that I know to feel grateful and slightly astonished when I walk into any restaurant I like the look of and order anything I want off the menu (remember when we were surviving on potatoes and whatever fish and seafood came out of the d'Entrecasteaux Channel?). On the other hand there is that sinking feeling that we could get used to this, and then... what is it going to be like going back to London!

Day 470: Crazy things tourists will try

The Cambodians are super nice, but as everyone knows who has tried it, being deluged by tourists has its pros and cons.  I want to talk about some of the more serious cons further down, but in the meantime, here's a few ways they get back at us.

Antonia suffers:

Those are deep-fried tarantulas with a light dipping sauce

Verdict on tarantulas:
Antonia finished what was on her plate and called us mean, cruel parents.
Penny would eat one again.
Mike thought they were delicious, better even than soft-shelled crabs.

Penny suffers:

Those are deep fried crickets, fresh off the stall.

Verdict on crickets:
Antonia seemed indifferent.
Penny got a cricket leg stuck in her teeth for several hours which is something that never happens to her.
Mike was disappointed he couldn't buy more of them.

Mike suffers:

Those are piranhas - well actually, they just feel like piranhas.

Verdict on 'fish massage':
Antonia was disappointed she wasn't with us.
Penny thought it was a blast, but unlike the crickets, she is sure this is 'just for the tourists'.
Mike said it was the most horrible thing that had ever happened to him in his life, bar none.

And now for some of the much more serious ways in which some tourists are annoying the Cambodians, in increasing order of magnitude:

1.  I'm sorry to say that at Angkor, the kind of coalition between parents and tourists that's so common in India is in effect.  There are a lot of very persistent children wandering around trying to sell junk. They are no more 'cute' in the tactics they use than our kids when they're using pester-power to get treats in the supermarket. I'm sure the local adults don't tolerate that kind of behavior in other circumstances. So who's supporting the racket in child labour and fostering of rude behaviour? I think parents AND tourists who have homed in on this as a method for transferring wealth that's working for them.

2. I've run into far too many people lately who are combining some form of aid with Christian missionary activity.  The usefulness of the aid provided may vary, but in combination with the promotion of a religion that by all reasonable measures (believability, ethical value, cultural interest,...) is certainly no better than the local one?  I can hardly say how much I disapprove.

3. I met an Australian woman who drew my attention to a campaign they have had to mount here to discourage tourists from visiting orphanages. As the campaign points out, children are not tourist attractions and in the best of cases, repeated visits of this kind don't contribute much to their development.  The worst of cases is that the only reason they're there is to make money by being tourist attractions and that the 'orphanage' is basically a front for another particularly noxious form of child labour.  Apparently this is happening.

4. Worst of all are the campaigns they have had to mount in Cambodia to protect children from sexual tourism and to make people who work with tourists aware and alert to this possibility.  The mind boggles.

When I think that the worst thing that's ever happened to my baby is being made to eat a perfectly acceptable spider!  It makes me sick to think what some kids lives are like. I was going to link to some of these campaigns individually, but I think this site has it covered.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Days 455 to 457: Train from Singapore to Bangkok

I love travelling by train.  It gives me time to really observe the places I'm travelling through.  We are now retracing our steps up the coast of Malaysia towards Penang, but what a difference.  Last time, on the ship, we saw only the Andaman Sea.  Now we get to see the Malaysian countryside.  There is a lot more of it  I really imagined: plantations of palm-like trees, bananas and what I think is rubber.  In the distance there are hills covered in forest, with plantations climbing up their lower slopes.  The villages and towns are a mixture of 'build-it-yourself' houses with patchwork corrugated rooves, nice low houses with old gardens and brand new blocks of flats.  The train is like the country - a bit worn around the edges, but comfortable enough, and the food is good and cheap.  In the evening, the setting sun turned the sky as purple as it was in a jigsaw picture of Malaysia I had as a kid.  I had thought it was artistic license! We reach Butterworth at 21:20, assuming the train is on time.  This is just a short ferry ride from Georgetown, where we were a mere week ago, and many people use Butterworth as a jumping off point for getting there. 

Traditional style house in Butterworth
Street in Butterworth
We didn't really see Butterworth until the next morning.  Our hotel, the Value Inn, is on a rarity: a quiet street, in an old-fashioned kind of neighbourhood.  I have a feeling the fate of houses like the one I photographed is to get torn down and replaced with skyscrapers.  Apart from a few hotels, Butterworth isn't a tourist town at all.It took us a while to find any place to eat breakfast at all, but when we did it was amazing. It seemed to be the place the local Indian population comes for their weekend brunch. I was totally decadent and had mango lassi and Indian sweets for breakfast, but Mike had something like a masala dosa made with semolina and onions and Antonia had a plain dosa.  I helped them with those as well.  After that, we tried to find a shop selling snacks for the train, but after quite a long walk we ended up with only bananas, mangoustines and some plainish biscuits.  I was tempted to go back and buy more Indian sweets but I ddn't feel like walking so far.

Countryside near the Malay-Thai border
The train from Butterworth to Bangkok would be quite comfortable if there was a bit more luggage storage space in it.  Also, the guy sharing our compartment keeps trying to get the conductors to give him our bottom bunk with the cheerful audacity of someone who doesn't realise that his combination of gestures and language with many English borrowed words are easily understood by the would-be victims.  Cheeky blighter. We don't plan to let him get away with it because the lower bunks are wider, more comfortable and more expensive and we asked and paid for them especially.  Fortunately, the conductors seem discinclined to let him get away with it either.  Eventually, we got out of the train at the Thai border and went through two sets of customs before getting back on again. I had been impressed with Malaysia's multicultural ambiance up till now, but I have to admit it, as soon as we crossed the border, there was a whole lot more street life, lots of people playing football and hanging around outside and it generally looked like a lot more fun. 

Bangkok station

We arrived in Bangkok late but quite well rested and started a long and quite complicated trek across town on the subway and skytrain to get to our hotel.  It was probably still better and faster than taking a taxi, but by the time we arrived, we certainly felt like doing nothing for the rest of the day.