This is a sort of travelogue, experiences and observations combined with random contemplations,
of a trip through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in Jan-March 2011. This blog is now closed.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Vinh Xuong

This was going to be the perfect border crossing. Having weighted all the options carefully, we had selected a “slow boat”, a large metal boat with the ideal deck terrace, comfortable chairs, sun roof. Bar onboard, with soft drinks, beer – of course – and coffee and tea, a spacious toilet, and in case it gets too hot outside, plenty of room under-deck, on comfortable benches. No need for our pillows here! Six hours, not that much more than the fast boat, which was a much smaller, closed plastic contraption, with limited view from inside seats only. Departure 8.30 am, perfect timing, and all the way through to Chau Doc. As it turned out, we had the whole boat practically for ourselves, with only four other passengers. Perfect it was!
Until we moored somewhere half way, well before the border, and were told to change into… indeed, one of those claustrophobic plastic contraptions. The slow boat wasn’t going any further. Apparently, the slow boat never goes any further, is not allowed into Vietnam. Hard to believe that the tour company representative didn’t know this, so we can only conclude that the travel industry is made up of cheating and lying bastards. But we knew that already, of course – our previous border crossing wasn’t exactly as we were made to believe, either -, just being confronted with this time and again remains frustrating.
(1) The slow boat and the plastic contraption next to each other: now you understand why we were so upset that we had to change.
(2) We were not the only ones comfortable in our original boat.
As it happened, the actual border crossing was extremely efficient, five minutes on the Cambodian side, a little longer, including lunch, at the Vietnamese side, and no uncertain additional charges, this time.
But back to the trip, which was a whole new experience. We boarded our boat at the jetty in Phnom Penh, in the Tonle Sap River, which joins the Mekong a little further downstream. The Mekong is a lot bigger here, and supports much bigger vessels – but still the small fishing canoes, as well. Most transport goes downstream, so whatever goes that direction is low, extremely low, in the water. Rice, mainly, in open boats, which have been heightened with sacks – also filled with rice – to allow a bigger pay load. It is a miracle that this rice doesn’t flush away with the first waves from other passing ships.  But for the rest this part of the river isn’t particularly interesting. Yet I all the time have to think of the story told by Jon Swain, in his book Rivers of Time about the 1970s in Indochina. He traveled from Saigon to Phnom Penh early 1975, when Phnom Penh was under siege from the Khmer Rouge and the only life line for the city was food imports from an American air bridge, and daredevil boat captains who sailed up the Mekong. Jon was on one of those boats, and describes the shelling of his boat by Khmer Rouge artillery from the protection of the jungle, just before reaching Phnom Penh. As he tells it, you really feel vulnerable, but I reckon, as long as you stick to the middle, you should be pretty safe, given the width of the river here. But I am not an artillery expert, of course. And I wasn’t there at the time.

(3, 4) Fishing canoes in a sea of water.

(5, 6) Larger boats empty…..

(7, 8) and this is how they look when filled with rice.
As soon as we get into Vietnam, the scenery changes. The river comes alive again, there is a lot happening, much to see. The irritation from changing boats is quickly forgotten. It is busier, and greener: unlike most of Laos and Cambodia, the Vietnamese run rice paddies in the dry season, too, through irrigation, and it shows, from the endless green stretches, occasionally interrupted by a conical hat. Indeed, it seems almost all Vietnamese wear these things, and when crouched low in the fields, the only thing the boat passenger sees is a hat sticking out of the rice fields.
The delta becomes what you expect from a real delta, with an ever increasing number of bigger and smaller river channels networking towards the sea. And with so many people here, all these channels are busy with boats of all sizes, from freighters to fishing canoes. And ferries, big and small. We switch to the Bassac River, another sizeable delta channel, and we get to Chau Doc, the first larger city inside Vietnam, in, what?, something like six hours. It really doesn’t make any difference taking a slow or a fast boat. Except for the comfy deck chairs.
(9) Border villages – this one is just inside Vietnam – don’t have satellite TV yet, obviously.
(10) Conical hat sticking out of a rice paddy – I know, not a brilliant photo, but just to give you an idea.
(11) Ferry boat crossing one of the smaller channels.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Angkor Wat

(No we haven't had an accident, we were just too busy traveling....)

(And I got complaints about letter-size; if this post looks longer, it isn't, just bigger letters!)

If people say they have been to Angkor Wat, they have usually been to much more than that. Angkor Wat itself is just the largest, and most elaborate temple in a truly overwhelming complex which contains many, many more buildings, from the well restored exquisitely carved temples and towers to crumbling ruins overgrown by jungle. Wandering around this complex is a fabulous experience.
The complex was built around the 11th-12th Century, at the height of the Khmer Empire, which stretched well beyond current Cambodian borders. Hindu initially being the state religion, there are many similarities with Indian culture, and many of the bas-reliefs derive from the Ramayana, the Hindu legends – as well as depicting the many heroic deeds of the ruling kings, of course. However, at around this time the Khmer kings were also experimenting with Buddhism, which soon dominated. As all great civilizations – and quite a few lesser ones – the Khmer empire eventually declined, although there is much debate why. The Siamese – the Thai – became stronger, and ransacked the place in the 15th Century. As was common throughout SE Asia, which used to be thinly populated, the victor’s prize was not only raping the women, but also carting of much of the population as slaves, which will have diminished the numbers in Angkor. At the same time sea trade was on the increase, especially with China, whose seafaring fleets started to reach the Mekong around this time, prompting the Khmers to move to a more strategic and opportunistic location, like Phnom Penh – conveniently also further away from those nasty Thais. Whatever the reason, or reasons, Angkor was left to the monks, and to the jungle, only for Henri Mouhot to bring the complex under the attention of the West some 400 years later. And the rest is history.
Of course, these days one doesn’t wander alone, anymore, one needs to share the experience with thousands and thousands of other tourists, but by careful planning we still managed to avoid many of the largest crowds. Being used to early rising (...) we started the first day at Angkor Wat itself, at 7 am, and managed to have parts of the place entirely for ourselves, for a little while; other areas we shared with only some of the cleaning staff. Magical, until you want to take that picture of a beautifully carved window high up one of the buildings, and just when you press the shutter a bright blue T-shirt and white sun hat pokes out. Henri Mouhot had it a lot easier, I bet. By visiting temples around lunch time we also avoided most of the tour groups, it being pretty hot – which is why most sensible people had left, no doubt –, but this way you did occasionally have a little of that Indiana Jones-feeling.
Anyhow, suffice to say that we have thoroughly enjoyed this incredible mass of grey stones, some stacked, others carved in endless bas-reliefs, yet others carved into figures, mostly bare-breasted and well-endowed women or nimble dancing girls, but also the occasional sword-wielding guard at a door, or a priest, a mythical snake or a lion, and whole series of elephants. And not to forget – but how could you? – the face of Jayavarman VII, the egocentric king who constructed most of the buildings and had his face carved on each of the four sides of each of the 54 towers of another temple building, the Bayon, and for good measure also on a couple of entrance gates. Present-day rulers - well, as far as they survive in the current climate -, could learn a thing or two from Jaya. Much, much more to see, but not for me to describe. Let me just post a few photos, to give you an idea.
(1 to 12) Pretty boring, I know, but I cannot NOT show Angkor Wat and surroundings in a blog about traveling in Indochina, no? So there we go.
(1)    The Angkor Wat temple – cannot do without this one, of course.

(2)    and (3) Bare-breasted women and nimble dancing girls – the apsaras.
(4) Jayavarman VII himself, in one of the 216 tower faces.

(5, 6) Some of the reliefs, a clearly recognizable horse, and hell (really, sinners being carried away to hell – now you know what it looks like!)

(7, 8) And there are many of those, attractive see-through gates, occasionally with a surprise at the end (in this case a statue, more often it is a colourful tourist).
(9) Apart from the animals in relief-form, there are also some real animals, taking a rest, and bringing some natural colour to the whole thing.

(10) And then finally, that Indiana Jones-feeling, which (11) we could have enhanced by taking the elephant-express up the hill (at least some more colour in between all the stones).
(12) And spotted in the same place, some further colour.
 Of course, such fabulous place comes at a cost, the cost of tourist development and its associated annoyances. I am not sure what was worse, the tuk-tuk drivers relentlessly pressing their trade onto every foreigner in town, or the sales women in the complex who start calling out to you from at least 200 meters distance, invariably with high pitch squeaky voices. Everywhere else in Cambodia, and also in Laos, people would take no for an answer, but here they don’t, they just keep pestering you as long as they can. What is sad, is the large number of children selling stuff, books, souvenirs, worthless trinkets, or other unnecessary items. They should be in school, really, and although they claim they go, I somehow doubt that. A law banning children – working children - from the complex should be easily enforceable. But of course, as one of the boys told us, in order to sell, he needs to pay off the police, as no doubt everybody else was doing, too. Indeed, I had been wondering what all those uniformed people in hammocks were doing there the whole day.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Prek Toal

The boat trip from Battambang to Siem Reap is, reportedly, the most enchanting boat trip you can make in Cambodia. It also takes anything between 6 and 10 hours, or more – usually the boat is faster in the wet season, when the river, the Stung Sangker, is deeper. It is the dry season, now. Obviously, with so much uncertainty, there is only one boat per day and it leaves at 7 am. Sharp.
(1) Having seen so many sunsets already, let me throw in a sunrise instead. There won’t be many more….
(2) Our boat, the one in the middle, for the next 6 to 10 hours or more. It has a toilet, a coolbox with drinks - pay one dollar now -, and a sun roof, where you burn to death after 9 am.
We took nine hours, not too bad considering the many times we scraped through the mud and almost got stuck, the many times we ploughed through weeds, and the many times we picked up and dropped off passengers in the villages along the way; this is a public ferry, after all, even though more than half of the people on board were foreigners. Those villages are mostly floating, especially the further downstream we got. This river ends in the Tonle Sap lake, which is a reservoir at the upper reaches of the Tonle Sap river, the one that reverses flow in the wet season – resulting in the lake area expanding up to five times its normal size (and up to no less than 70 times its volume!), which somewhat explains the idea of a floating village. Further upstream houses are on stilts, and judging from the height of these, the water level does come up quite a lot indeed.
Anyhow, the nine hours turned out to be very entertaining indeed, initially, around Battambang, through observing village life along the river, people getting on with the day. Mostly fishing communities in what I think are Vietnamese boats, flat boats with a bamboo cover, or sometimes a tarpaulin, which, it seems, contain the entire household. People are often up to their neck in the water, either to reach the fishing gear, or to wash – themselves, or cloths. Why wash, you wonder, the water is so filthy: first of all brown from the mud, but also, downstream from Cambodia’s second-largest town... imagine. Plus all the plastic and other rubbish floating, not a very healthy environment, I should think. Further along the river the population density is less, the settlements look more temporary, perhaps because this is, officially, a nature reserve of sorts, the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary. How strong this is being enforced is questionable, but we did see a lot more birds – I am not a specialist, but there was quite some variety, in size and colours.
(3) What I think is a “Vietnamese” boat.

(4, 5, 6) Early morning river life, centered on fishing.
(7) Fishing gear drying.
(8) People also keep ducks, in pens on the river side (and pigs, and cows, and water buffalos, but there is a limit to the number of photos I can post, no?)

(9) The bird sanctuary, with some scared white herons, and (10) another colourful bird (not vey sharp, I know).
Closer towards the lake we start seeing the truly floating villages, where almost all structures, including the police station, and, curiously, also a church, are built to go up and down with the water level - or being towed around to another location if that suits the owners better. The landscape becomes flatter, and less overgrown; most of this probably inundates every year between April and October, or so. What a life! Economic driver is still fishing, and fish processing, like cleaning, drying etc., and, boy, it smells, every time we go past the platforms where women are working the catch. By now, some 8 hours after our departure, the trip becomes a bit monotonous - how many floating villages do you need to see before you have seen enough -, and reaching the Tonle Sap lake is therefore something of a relief, for everybody. And, remember from earlier boat trips, we are privileged, we still have our pillows, the other passengers are all sitting on hard wooden benches. Best investment ever, those pillows.

(11) Floating village, and (12, 13) Fish processing activities.
(14) Lunch on the river.
(15) And one of our co-passengers.

(16) More fishing gear, including  (17) what is known as the Chinese fishing nets, the ones we know from India (but, curiously, not from China).
(18) Tonle Sap lake.
Finally we reach Chong Kneas, where we disembark for a short tuk-tuk drive to Siem Reap. Ready for Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, and ready for Cambodia’s preeminent tourist trap.

(Perhaps the “enchanting” nature of this trip is best expressed by the number of pictures accompanying this posting. There are tons more from where this comes from, don’t you worry…)

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Battambang (2)

On four hectares of land, soon to be expanded to eight, Chan Thai Chhoeung grows grape vines; according to his wife, with whom I managed to communicate somewhat, Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah, imported from California. Just let this one sink in – we are talking about a winery in Cambodia. The Chhoeungs started growing grapes in 1999, for the local market, but it transpired that Cambodians don’t like grapes. So they bought some books – Mrs Chhoeung narrating, now – on how to make wine. They had no external help, and both she and her husband don’t speak a lot of English, yet they managed to establish a production line, complete with oak barrels for the red and stainless steel for the rose. They have no less than three harvests a year, and currently produce some 10,000 bottles from that, red and rose, and also a sweet brandy. At US$ 15 a bottle, the Phnom Banan red doesn’t come cheap, in fact it is considerably more expensive than many imported wines, but that didn’t bother Mrs Chhoeung. And the business must be booming, because she also told me she was now experimenting with white wine, too, a Chardonnay. Beats me, especially because Cambodians don’t only dislike grapes, they are also no great wine drinkers. The tasting – please pay one dollar now, only red wine and brandy, rose is finished –, well, wasn’t impressive, and the bottle we had found earlier in a local shop was off, we had to flush it through the sink.
(1) Those on the left are Cabernet Sauvignon, on the right Syrah… but are these grapes or are these grapes? And that three times a year!

(2) The vines, with netting to protect the grapes from birds cherry picking, and (3) the new plants are carefully being nurtured, might well be the forthcoming Banan Chardonnay.
(4) Mrs. Chhoeung explains it all, in front of her Banan Red and Brandy. She certainly oozes success, although she admitted that she doesn’t drink a lot of wine herself – she doesn’t really like it much.
(5) A bottle of Banan Red, just to convince the last unbelievers…..
Enough about all this adult wine stuff, back to the child in us! Another truly interesting site around Battambang is the Bamboo train, or norri as it is locally called. With the demise of the railway network in Cambodia, story has it that local people initially started to use the single track railway themselves, in the 1980s, to bring goods to the market. They created lightweight bamboo platforms attached to two axels, four wheels, and propelled by manpower, pushing a pole like you punt a boat. The pole was later replaced by a 6 HP engine, a flywheel and a rubber belt, the simplest of mechanics. To overcome the obvious limitation of a single track, the convention is that if two norris meet, the one with the lightest freight is quickly disassembled and taken off the rails, to allow the heavier one to proceed. I have seen it happen, it is really a matter of less than a minute – at least with passengers, real freight will be another story, of course. At one stage more than 1000 norris were in operation on over 600 km of track, but as so often, this mode of transport is in decline. Unless you are a shrewd business man with eye for opportunity: the owner of the Battambang Bamboo railway happily charges every foreigner US$5. He must be make a killing, even if Battambang is not to most touristy place; when we visited, there were at least 30-40 other foreigners using the 6 km track to travel from the village of O Dambang to that of O Sralau and back. Business model: minimal costs for rolling stock, free use of the tracks, and operating costs limited to a couple of norri drivers, a jerrycan of petrol and paying off the tourist policeman who rigorously reinforces the charging structure. But it was worth every cent! An exhilarating experience, racing down the track with what feels like MACH 1, but is probably not more than some 20 km/hour, and a major attack on the body every time the train hits a track connection – the connections are not especially smooth, neither is the track particularly straight.
Unfortunately, it seems that this adventure will soon cease to exist. An Australian company has bought the lease for the rail tracks, and plans to upgrade in order to send real trains down the line, with a speed that doesn’t leave much time for disassembling norris anymore. The price of progress, I presume, but it will make it ever so difficult again to promote Battambang as a tourist location.
(6) These are the building blocks of a norri, simple and effective.

(7, 8, 9) The track, not particularly straight, with railway bridge, with unprotected railway crossing, and with two norris at the platform at the O Sralau railway station (Right!).
(10) And a bunch of excited passengers, trusting their lives to an experienced norri operator.