The following are short posts and extracts that I have typed directly from my travel journal. Some are observations, some are reflections, some (let’s be honest now) are whinging. Many were written during my travels, though some were written on the flight back or shortly after I arrived home. In typing them, I haven’t changed the tense (present / past) in which they were written. Which may bug the grammar fiend in you, but it felt more authentic to me not to change the posts just for the blog, so you’ll just have to deal with it. :p
1. People in Vietnam and Cambodia drive motos (motorbikes and scooters) everywhere. It’s not uncommon to see a whole family – parents and multiple kids – piled onto a single scooter. What was a little shocking to me, however, were the ways in which parents let their very young children ride on motos. I saw babies clutched in one arm (not terribly securely) while the mother hung onto the scooter with the other arm; I saw toddlers who could not have been older than two standing - standing - on the bar part of the bike between the seat and the handlebars (what is that called?). Nothing to hold them in, nothing to catch them if they fell, no helmets. I would look at these kids and all I could think about was the precious vulnerability of life and how little it would take – a small, unexpected jerk – for the child to lose their footing. The parents, however, seemed completely unconcerned. I’m sure it’s not that they don’t want to protect their kids as much as any other parent. I guess it’s just that when you’ve grown up standing on moving motorcycles and when you’ve spent your whole life dodging the traffic that is in Saigon, you have a different sense of the risks involved.
2. Some instructions on how to cross the road (esp. in Ho Chi Minh city): (1) Step out into the traffic (yes, the crazy, going-every-which-direction-it-pleases traffic). (2) Walk slowly and steadily across the road. The traffic will move around you (as Nic says: like Moses parting the sea). The key is to be slow and predictable. Stifle that urge to run the last couple of metres. (3) If you hear someone beep, pause, let them go past, and continue on your way. (4) Revel in the fact that you are still alive on the other side.
3. When I first arrived in Asia, I’d feel a stab of concern every time I saw a really skinny person or really skinny cow. But it is so common, that after only three weeks I am becoming used to it.
4. My physical feature that I dislike the most is my nose. It is too big; too rounded; awkwardly prominent. I’m always jealous of people with lovely little delicate noses. The strange thing was that while in Asia, I was complimented a few times on that very feature. The first time it happened was when we were on a boat, moving around the floating markets near Can Tho in Vietnam. An old woman, one of the market sellers, saw us and rowed her boat of produce to us. She crouched down, looked at me, touched her nose and said something in Vietnamese. We had a guide on our boat: Wing, a young girl from a nearby village who had studied tourism and English at university in Can Tho. Wing laughed and said to me, “She said she likes your nose.” Surely not. I suspected she’d said something more along the lines of: “this white girl has a funny nose”, and Wing was just being polite in her translation. I felt embarrassed. But then, twice more during our trip, someone stopped me to say that I had a nice nose. Fancy that! Isn’t it strange how cultural standards of beauty differ? I won’t lie – it made me want to move there, just a little bit.
5. It’s really easy to eat vegetarian in Vietnam and Cambodia, largely because there are so many Buddhists here. At least, it’s easy if you are happy to eat stir fried vegetables and steamed rice most days. I am. Give me that and a fresh coconut juice and I’m happy as can be. Nic had more difficulty. Isn’t it funny how people’s stomachs are so different? At times, Nic struggled with the Asian food, whereas I have more trouble with western food, which to me is much heavier. Hint: For vegetarian food in Vietnam, look for restaurants with “chay” in the title (pronounced more like “chai”).
6. The Cambodian landscape in the dry season is remarkably similar to Australia – flat, dry, dusty, brown. All the same colours. I wasn’t expecting that.
8. When we first arrived in Phnom Penh, we’d come from all the craziness of Vietnam, particularly Ho Chi Minh City, where every few steps you have someone asking you: “Moto? Moto?” and you get used to saying “no” constantly and sometimes rather forcefully. When we got to Phnom Penh, we walked past two old men sitting side by side in their tuk tuks. One of them asked us, “Tuk tuk?”, and Nic shook his head and said, “No” as we walked by. The old man called after us: “No, thank you”. We turned back, apologised and said,”No thank you”. The two men were laughing their heads off; they were so please to have taught the Western tourists their manners. From then on we always made sure to say, “No, thank you”, kindly but firmly, and we rarely got hassled. A little manners goes a long way.
9. All around Cambodia are restaurants that also help the local community, mostly by training former street children and orphans in skills in hospitality (whether in cooking or service) and then helping them to find employment after their period of training. Many also provide housing and education for the children during their training. These are great initiatives and we made an effort to seek them out as we moved around. The quality of the food was truly excellent. My recommendations would be Romdeng in Phnom Penh and Green Star and Haven in Siem Reap.
10. About three-quarters of the way through our trip, Nic got some travellers’ sickness. So we decided to forgo the cramped, uncomfortable bus from Battambang to Phnom Penh and fork out the cash for a private taxi instead. The journey would take 4 hours by car instead of 6 by bus and we could stop if we needed to. Except – drivers here have no fear of death. Normal practice is to overtake by moving onto the other side of the road and then to duck back to your side just in time to narrowly avoid running head on into the car hurtling towards you from the opposite direction. It was like a 4 hour game of chicken. For the first hour, I was terrified. Now, I’m writing this entry from our second taxi, from Phnom Penh to Kep. I’m not even looking out the window anymore. I’m getting used to careening down the highway towards oncoming traffic. This car doesn’t have seatbelts either. Don’t tell my Mum.
11. The travel meds I have to take and the constant application of mosquito repellent is wrecking my skin. I feel dry. Dusty and dry, like the landscape.
13. I’m fascinated by Buddhist monks. They have such an aura of peace, with their orange robes and their yellow umbrellas. I’d planned to come home from Cambodia with countless photos of serene monks. But when I got here, I saw how it was for the monks with western tourists – especially around Siem Reap and the Angkor temples. People would point and rush over when they saw them, shoving cameras in their faces and clicking away. It felt so disrespectful. I couldn’t bring myself to be another one of those tourists. So I put my camera away and just nodded at the monks, in a way that I hope was polite and respectful. The only decent photo I got of a monk was one in Can Tho in South Vietnam, a city not so used to tourists, where I didn’t feel like I was intruding. I asked if I could take the photo and he agreed, and it is the one good photo I have.
15. It was a disjointed feeling being at the temples, actually. I simultaneously understood how old these buildings were, and what they conveyed, and the massive amount of work that went into constructing them at a time when everything was done by hand – those huge, heavy blocks were lifted by men alone – and yet, my brain could not truly comprehend that either.
16. There is corruption in Cambodia. Not everywhere, but it is here. On our first day at the Angkor temples, we stayed for sunset. We were wandering around the second level of Angkor Wat, looking for a good vantage point. A man approached us. He was wearing khaki pants and a black t-shirt. He had gold in his teeth. He looked slimy – that was the word that popped into my brain. He told us that the view would be better from the third (top) level. Yes, we agreed, but the top level was closed. Apparently someone had fallen down the steps a year or so ago (I could see how: the steps are steep, tiny, slippery and treacherous) and so now the top level was only open between strict hours and, I suppose, under supervision. The man said that “for a fee” he would show us where we could go up. About this point I realised that he was a police officer – the khaki pants were one half of his uniform; he’d removed his uniform shirt. I glanced over to two fully-uniformed policemen who were loitering nearby. Were they in on this, or was this guy a lone ranger? They nodded enthusiastically at us and encouraged us to go up, to pay the bribe. We declined. I actually felt furious. It may seem like such a little thing, paying a few dollars to go to a higher level in the temple. No one gets hurt. I’m sure other tourists do it all the time. But to me it reeked of what is wrong in countries like Cambodia. I believe that there are two main things that keep countries like Cambodia from getting ahead, that keep the poor poor and helpless. The first is a lack of education (this, at least, seems to be changing in Cambodia) and the second is corruption. When you can’t trust your government or your police, because they are too busy doing the wrong thing and soliciting bribes to help you or care about you, then how can you move forward? Every small act of corruption adds up to a larger, more insidious problem. That’s what made me angry.
17. It can be easy to feel a little bit peeved, when you’ve made such an effort to be respectful when visiting the temples and pagodas by covering up, by wearing long skirts and carrying scarves to wrap around your arms, to see what other tourists deem appropriate for the same places. Girls in their tiny hot pants; boys in those over-stretched, fluro festival tanks where they always seem to have one nipple hanging out the side. Really, it makes you want to go all sassy grandma on their ass and smack them over the head with an etiquette book and give them a few choice words about respect. But in the end, all you can really do is try to learn from the monks – take a deep breath and just be zen about it. (None of your usual ranting, please!!)
19. I travelled for 3 weeks with a 40L backpack, and though I’ve had trouble travelling light in the past, this was definitely, absolutely the way to go. I will never travel heavy again.
20. The people in Cambodia are so warm and open. They are always smiling and go out of their way to help. I was half-expecting this before I got there, because I’d heard many stories about how wonderful the people are. It really struck me anew when I was there, though, because all that they have suffered is such recent history and still very clear in their collective memory. First, Cambodia was bombed numerous time during the Vietnam War, when the US thought that the Viet Cong had escaped into the jungles of Cambodia. Then, there was the Khmer Rouge. The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge happened in the second half of the 1970s. It was sobering to realise that almost everyone we met over the age of 40 had likely suffered horrendously in their life. Finally, the landmines. We saw several beggars with only one leg or with severe burns from accidental encounters with landmines. And yet despite all this, the people are not angry or bitter, they are not distrustful, they do not keep to themselves to stay protected. They are amongst the most friendly people I have ever met. And that really says something about their strength, resilience and spirit.
21. One of my favourite things about travelling (or when I’m not travelling, even) is seeking out unusual, interesting things to do that take you away from other tourists for a little while. (Though you cannot physically go off the beaten track in Cambodia due to the risk of land mines). While in Battambang, we went along to a philosophy club that Nic read about online. The club meets one night per week at a coffee shop and, as the name suggests, talks philosophy. It is open to anyone. It is run by an Aussie ex pat and is in English, so we could understand what was said, and it was great to meet and talk with some of the local philosophy students.
22. Travel really warps your sense of time and space. I never know what day it is, but that’s normal on holidays, I guess. Sometimes it feels as though we’ve been away from home forever; the trip goes slow and fast at different times. Sometimes I think: has it only been one week? Other times: gosh, we’ll be home soon! More disorientating, though, is losing track of where I am. Most times, we are undoubtedly in Asia. But there are times when we go to a more touristy place that is full of white people or a western style bar and we could be anywhere, really. In buses, I find myself watching the scenery go by, the all too familiar scenery of dry paddocks and grazing cattle, and I forget that I am not, in fact, in Australia. I have also been reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, an excellent book about the slums of India. Sometimes I become immersed in the story and then I look up, out the window, and I see the shanty houses that the Vietnamese construct from sheets of corrugated iron, and it takes me a full minute to figure out where I am, that this is SE Asia, not India.