Wading through Vietnam and Cambodia
08.09.2011 - 30.09.2011 33 °C
Yeah, did it! Swimming in the rough sea without wetsuit, riding a (too small) rented mountainbike, running in my (relatively) light trecking shoes, ... The heat and humidity added to the experience:
I loved it!
As a side note: the event nearly had to be cancelled, as an important former politician had died a few days ago. In the end, the race could take place, without traffic control by local police (they had this day of national mourning off) and without music at the finish...
Now, the triathlon had been the reason - or deciding factor - to reroute our trip: Three weeks travelling through Vietnam and Cambodia, instead of lazing and exploring at Thai beaches. Luckily Nicole had brought us the flyer of the event! Unexpectedly we found ourselves travelling through some of the most interesting, bloody and very sad parts of the later 20th century's history.
In the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the shadows of the 20 years of war are still visible.
The worst impact on the Vietnamese was probably the extensive use of di- and trichlorophenoxyacetic acid. "Agent Orange" was sprayed from airplanes for defoliation of aereas, in which Vietcong fighters where suspected to be in hiding.
The pictures of deformed children, on display at the war museum in Saigon tell a sad story of the Agent's side effects.
US soldiers were fighting in South Vietnam (to protect it from the Commies) for 20 years. Throughout this time, the USA never declared war on North Vietnam. In 1973 the US signed the Paris peace treaty, in which they pledged "...to contribute to healing the wounds of war and to postwar reconstruction...". The US never payed reparations of any kind.
Well, when we arrived in Hoi An for the triathlon, we hadn't heard too much of these things and this nice river side town did not show us any of its wounds. We arrived during the Tết Trung Thu autumn festival. In the evenings, groups of kids would move from house to house and perform a colourful (and noisy) spectacle. Two of the kids, wearing a dragon costume, would dance to incessible drum beats, trying to pic up banknotes handed out by spectators with the dragons mouth. A third kid, wearing a grim mask is joining the dance, eventually driving the dragon away with a ceremonial paddle. These groups could be seen all over town, some of them drawing huge crowds of spectators, blocking of street traffic in many places. The river and the town itself are beautifully decorated in colourful lampions, basking the pictouresce houses in soft red and yellow light. We'd love to show some pictures, but somewhere between Hoi An and Hanoi our memory card crashed...
In Hoi An we also had our first contact with Vietnamese food. Less spicey than Thai food, fried rice features strongly. Hoi An itself has some delicious local specialities. Among others light, nonfried spring rolls and an equally light delicious soup with tasty crunchy pork(?) chips in it.
From Hoi An (and after recovering from the Triathlon) we took a rather fancy Sleeping Bus to Hanoi, the former Comunist capitol. Unfortunately the space for the legs is not designed for German feet, otherwise the ride could have been quite comfortable (yes, still no pics...).
We liked Hanois atmosphere. Bustling with energy and chaotic moto traffic, but still with some of the good old communist dust. In the middle of the city lies a tranquil lake with a temple on a small island. Here we could also witness the Asians obsession with wedding pictures. Newly wed couples and their photographers seemed to spend hours on and around the lake, posing, shooting, posing, shooting... We were told that this can go on for several months before the actual wedding.
In Hanoi we booked a boat trip to Halong Bay, a must for every tourist visiting Vietnams north. The only downer on this two day trip was a very nice, but slightly overmotivated tour guide, who kept ushering us on. "Ladiesss and Gentlmennn, hurry pliess..."
After returning to Hanoi we took the next flight to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly -and much shorter- known as Saigon). Saigon is very different from Hanoi. Where Hanoi is dusty, old and claustrophobic, Saigon is clean, modern and with lots of wide Avenues, glittering below Advertisements for western brands. Where Hanoi is reminiscent of Beijings old town, Saigon is more like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. These differences reflect the different pasts of the old communist capital and her southern sister, that has been under French and American influence for many years.
Still we prefered the flair of Hanoi over the franchise look of Saigon. We didn't stay too long, but enjoyed a few days of very American luxury, to celebrate Myriams birthday. After four month of rice, it was great to have a place with free wine and cheese...
From Saigon we took a bus south and, after staying on night in ???, we took a fast boat up the Mekong across the border to Phnom Penh, the capital of another Country with a very bloody recent past.
In 1975 Cambodia turned from your average Sotheast Asian Kingdom into the probably most horrible mutation of communism in human history.
After the Khmer Rouge had taken over control of the capital and with it the control over Cambodia, they tried to turn it into the perfect communist agricultural state. Millions died within the four years of their regime. Many of those who weren't killed because of their capitalistic background (e.g. beeing educated or rich, like doctors, engineers, shopkeepers or anyone wearing glasses) died in the ensuiing famine, of hunger or illness (which couldnt be treated as there were no more doctors...). When finally the Cambodians arch enemies from Vietnam came and conquered the country, they were celebrated as saviours. The Khmer Rouge had managed to kill nearly a third of their own people. No family is without victims. We realized, how close this "history" still is, when talking to Cambodians of our age, who had been kids at the time. All of them had lost parents or siblings.
In Phnom Phen we visited a death prison of the Khmer Rhouge. Of the several thousand prisoners brought there only twenty survived. The rest were hanged, shot or died during torture. The atmosphere was oppressing, the organized murderous inhumanity reminds of Auschwiz, if on a smaller scale.
We left Phnom Phen to see another side of Cambodia. Battambang has not much to offer, but the friendliness of its inhabitants and the beauty of the surroundings made us stay for three or four days. The highlight was a day trip with a very nice and knowledgable local, who not only took us to the temples of the region, but also to the rural backstreets, where we could witness the everyday life of the local rice farmers. As so often in rural parts of Asia, we were baffled by the stark contrast between the poverty of the locals (several generations of a family live in an open one room hut, electricity is luxus, tab water inexistent) and their apparent happiness. From the open laughter of the kids running after us to the toothless grin of the old women, sitting in front a hut.
And then the view of a teenager who lost his legs to a mine reminds us yet again of the horrors, that are not long enough past to be called history.
Another visible (and nicer) part of history is Battambangs famous Bamboo Train. Small platforms, made of bamboo and propelled by an old twostroke engine <<<whizz>>> along a decomissioned rail. When two of these micro trains meet, the one with less passengers is lifted off the track to let the other pass...
In Battambang we had heard the news of the floods in Cambodias north. Several tourists had been air lifted from a flooded temple near Angkor Wat. Well, this couldn't stop us! Angkor Wat was planned as the last big high light of our Asian travels. It should not disapoint us.
Siem Reap, gateway to one of the most amazing temples of the world was under water. Our guest house luckyly was not in the city centre. So the waters stood only about 20cm high at our door step. We visited the center twice during our stay. Cycling through knee deep water is fun, but it's also hard work.
On our first day we rented two bicycles and made our first trip to Angkor Wat. The main temple is amazing, but sitting in the middle of a manicured park (like Mexico's Chichen Itza) it is hard to really get in touch with this huge construction.
The temples of Angkor Thom with hundreds of stone faces looking into the distance and Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple, overgrown by huge trees, where much more atmosperic. Especially in slowly crumblig Ta Prohm the age and the magic of the place become palpable.
Ta Prohm: Temple ruin, huge trees and jungle sounds. Beautiful.
After one day spent in our fantastic guest house (too much rain for leaving the house) we had another day to explore the more remote temples of the region. The sheer (???) number of realy amazing places in such a small area is unique (well, maybe Myanmar's Bagan can compete...).
We left Angkor Wat in awe. Whoever has the chance to visit this magical place: DO IT! It's an experience not easily forgot.
From Siam Reep we took a bus to Bangkok for a last visit at beloved Suk 11 and our flights to Hong Kong and then Singapore, were we commenced our trip through Asia.
Yeah, well... to avoid confusion: we left Asia about two month ago and have been travelling through Australia since. Right now we are heading down the east coast in a camper van. We wrote above text shortly after we left Singapore, but somehow we didn't find the time to upload the pictures and finalize it... (Australia seems to be the the real internet outback).
So, hopefully, there will be more on our travels here in Australia soon!
Hugs, besos und ganz liebe Grüsse to all of you out there!