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Archived Posts for August 2005

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31
Aug 05
Wed

Travel snippets

An issue of nationality
We were eating in a restaurant in Luang Prabang when this elderly man started to make conversation with us. His opening line was: “Are you … konichiwa?”

Later on, in a Bangkok food court, I was browsing through all the stalls and paused by one selling Japanese ramen. A man turned around and looked me over before giving me a double thumbs up: “Japanese ramen! Very good!” I just smiled and nodded. He didn’t stop there, he was determined to unload his entire stock of Japanese vocabulary on me, each word bursting from him like some revelatory profundity. So I let him. “KONICHIWA!” Pause. “Uh… SUGOI! Mmm… OISHI!”

“Sorry, I’m not Japanese.” I said in as broad an Aussie accent as I could muster, and he turned slightly red. “Oh… you’re from Singapore?”

Locals in heavily touristed countries pride themselves on being able to pick what country a tourist comes from. It’s all part of a game really – especially with people selling stuff – to figure out how much money they can extract from you and to figure out what you might have a tendency to buy (not in all cases, but often). When we went to Angkor, our driver Jack had an impressive knack of being able to pick out who was Korean and who was Japanese with uncanny 100% accuracy. He’d point out someone to us and label them, then approach them to confirm. However, Asian tourists born in Western countries always mess with people.

Even after speaking in English, I have never been identified as being Australian, except by other Australians (and one Irishman in Chiang Mai). The overwhelming majority of people pick me out as Japanese, and running gauntlets of moto, tuk-tuk and cyclo drivers inevitably ends up with me creating a stream of konichiwas and ohios. In marketplaces, deft salespeople jabber off a stream of Japanese at me before quickly switching to English when I shoot back with a, “What?”

Cheryl places the blame on my hair, which is now long overdue for a cut. However, when it comes to her, people really don’t know what to make of her genetic heritage. An inordinately large number of Vietnamese thought that she was Vietnamese, and in Laos she could occasionally pass for a Laotian. Otherwise, she’s either Japanese or Korean like me.

Whenever someone asks us where we’re from, we have several choices: Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. We could easily masquerade as Japanese, but that would be asking for trouble, because some people can string together a few sentences in Japanese and I can’t. Saying Australia always raises eyebrows, and makes us have to explain where our parents come from. Saying Malaysia is a lie, but makes us less prone to being ripped off while bargaining (since it is known in the region that Malaysia is not as affluent as Singapore). Normally, we just say Singapore, and that has satisfied everyone.

It’s a small world
Over the past few weeks we’ve repeatedly run into people we’ve met earlier in the trip. However, none as often as a German, Hans, and his family whom we first met in Ha Long Bay. It’s not altogether surprising since most people in this region follow similar itineraries, but it is still quite amusing. We ran into them again while crossing a bridge in Hué and again the following day while visiting some tombs. We bumped into them again in Hoi An – Hans literally almost fell off his bike when he saw us. And just when we thought we’d seen the last of them, we ran into them after the Beatocello concert in Siem Reap.

Hotel to airport in ten minutes
The taxi drivers sure drive quickly in Bangkok. There is an “elevated expressway” that goes from central Bangkok to the international airport. Our driver was determined to break the expressway’s land speed record, posting a top speed of 180km/h and cruising at 150km/h for the rest of the way (despite a 90km/h speed limit). I think he would have gone faster if his car was able to take it. It turns out there was a cop with a speed gun standing at the expressway exit, but by that time our driver had deftly slowed down to a more pedestrian 80km/h.

Let me phrase that another way

On trying not to fall sick in Bangkok: “Yes, you wouldn’t want to get bid-ridden in Bangkok, although the beds in the Baiyoke Hotel would be nice ones to get ridden in. Uh, wait… that didn’t come out right.”

28
Aug 05
Sun
25
Aug 05
Thu

The Kingdom of Cambodia

Throughout South-East Asia, vendors sell attractive lacquered wooden boards with prints of Tintin covers on them. A few days ago in Siem Reap, I spotted one entitled, “Tintin au Cambodge”. I thought that was strange, since I don’t ever remember Tintin visiting Cambodia. I looked closer and realised that, with Angkor Wat in the background, some joker had drawn Tintin hobbling around on crutches with a peg-leg, followed closely by Snowy, also missing a limb. A sign in the corner read “Danger! Landmines!”

Cambodia is perhaps most well known for the turmoil which engulfed the country at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and the notorious Pol Pot, especially for the three and a bit years they came to power from 1975 (some believe this was in part caused by the “secret bombing campaign” the US had undertaken on Cambodian soil in the antecedent years). During that time, they attempted to radically restructure Khmer society, abolishing currency, religion, families and, by some estimates, 3 million lives. Even after Vietnam “liberated” the country from Khmer Rouge rule, they continued their aggression against the government, engaging in campaign aimed at “demoralising” it. One of the ways they did this was to heavily mine areas of Cambodia, causing death to many civilians in the process. Today, the Khmer Rouge is thankfully now only a presence in history books. Although much of Cambodia is still plagued by undetonated landmines, the danger to tourists who stay on marked paths is negligible.

A visit to Angkor is expensive. A one-day pass costs US$20, and a three-day pass costs US$40. Passes bought after 4.00pm begin the next day, so most people buy after this time and catch a free sunset. We rode into Phnom Bakheng, a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside, and waited for the sun to go down. Our driver, “Jack”, came up with us and explained he couldn’t tell us about the site because he was not a licenced tour guide. He told us that the government sold licences for US$1000 (which, to the average Cambodian is about three to four years’ worth of salary) and he was saving up for one. Until then, if he talked about the temples, the police walking around would fine him.

On our first full day in Siem Reap, we hired two motos to take us around the main temple sites of Angkor, visiting Angkor Wat, the structures of Angkor Thom, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm and Banthay Kdei. Angkor was an old Khmer city, home to some one million residents and part of the six century old Angkor empire which extended significantly beyond the borders of current day Cambodia. It left behind a legacy of innumerable temples, citadels and other structures which are all roughly 1000 years old.

Everyone is familiar with the silhouette of Angkor Wat’s inner temple. The Thai Royal Palace in Bangkok even has a miniature replica of it. However, nothing quite prepares you for its sheer size. Angkor Wat covers almost 2 square kilometres and is surrounded by a very wide moat which I initially mistook for a river. In a region of the world where wats are everywhere, it is easy to see why this one is regarded as a clear standout. We woke up at 5.00am to catch the dawn at Angkor Wat, and it is quite an experience to walk up the main walkway in the pre-dawn gloom and see the temple spires loom ahead, getting larger and larger.

Unfortunately, Angkor is an extremely touristed site, and even at that hour, the temple grounds were swarming with people hoping to catch a sunrise. However, by 7.00am, most of the Japanese and Korean tourists had departed by the busload, disappointed that overcast weather had obscured the view of the sun. Luckily for us, it meant that we were able to explore the temple without the hassle of human traffic.

Originally a Hindu temple, there is an extraordinary series of stone bas-relief carvings around the outer wall of the temple esplanade that stretches on for 800 metres. While the construction of a structure of Angkor Wat’s size is not too problematic with today’s technology, the intricacy of the carvings around the temple are as complex today as they were a thousand years ago. They are not something that can be mass produced by a machine, but have to be designed and chiseled inch by inch by painstaking human labour. (Although I suspect that CAD/CAM techniques today could probably do the chiselling a lot quicker, but still, art without a human touch is often not the same.)

Angkor Thom contains several structures. We first saw the Bayon – a structure replete with spires adorned on four sides with an enigmatic smiling face. The Bathuon is a structure currently undergoing restoration, but tourists are allowed to walk around it. A local who claimed to be a university student of Khmer history approached us and, unsolicited, started talking about the temple as a tour guide would. We thought he was just using the opportunity to practise his English, but our naive assumptions of his altruism were quickly banished when, at the end of the impromptu tour, he demanded money from us to help fund his education. As far as scams go, this one was fortunately very minor.

Ta Keo is an undecorated, unfinished temple, which stands above the treeline. By the time we had reached its summit, we were well and truly tired with grabbling with Angkorian steps. Temple steps, especially near temple summits were narrow, very steep and quite treacherous. You have to turn your feet sideways in order to climb them. This was not the result of bad design, but rather symbolised the metaphorical difficulty of reaching the heavens.

It is with relief, then, we came to Ta Prohm which is pretty much a ground floor only temple. Ta Prohm has a great deal of character, stemming from the encroachment of the surrounding jungle on it. Over the centuries, large trees have wrapped their roots around and through blocks of stone. Many are now only removable at the risk of destroying sections of stonework which the roots now ironically support. This is also the location where the front cover of the Cambodia Lonely Planet was photographed. After some wandering around, we discovered the Khmer man on the LP cover sitting down under a tree, selling some miscellania. A shrink wrapped copy of the LP with him on it lay nearby, and a curator gestured to us that he was indeed the man on the cover.

On another day we hired a remorque-moto – basically a two-person carriage attached to the back of a moto – to take us to the more remote structure of Banthay Srei. It took us 90 minutes to drive out there, over some incredibly bumpy roads, but it was a nice journey overall. The remorque-moto seats are very well padded, and you get a good opportunity to see the surrounding landscape and peasants. Banthay Srei is small, but holds some very intricate bas-relief carvings. They are so intricate that it is thought that only women could have done them (though I don’t know whether this is said in jest or not). On the way back we visited Preah Khan, which has a lot of information about how restoration work was conducted on the temples. Finally, as a favour to our driver, we spent ten minutes in a large, expensive souvenir store, which entitled him to a litre of petrol.

As great as Angkor is, it is quite tiring, and after you visit the major temples, things unfortunately do become repetitive. “All watted out” is a common expression used by tourists there.

Much of Angkor has luckily survived, and in most cases the only evidence of the touch of the Khmer Rouge in the area are the multitude of statues missing their heads (they sold them off for money). Back in Phnom Penh, however, the memory of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime are preserved in several locations, and are an essential part of a visit to Cambodia’s capital.

Two main sites high on the “must visit” list are the Choeng Ek “Killing Fields” and the Tuol Sleng Museum. The former is situated about 15km out of the city, and is the site of many mass graves, from which around 9000 Khmer corpses were exhumed after being slaughtered by Khmer Rouge soldiers. A stupa filled with skulls commemorates the dead. One of the startling things is how close the actual graves were to the area in which prisoners were held when waiting to die. They were clearly within eyesight distance, and earshot. Most were bludgeoned to death (children against a tree) in order to save bullets.

Tuol Sleng is the site of where prisoners were held in Phnom Penh. The prison was originally a high school, converted with the construction of small cells with irons bars in classrooms and barbed wire draping the concrete walls. In the interrogation and torture rooms, fairly gruesome photos (thankfully in black and white) show the results of Khmer Rouge handiwork. Another cell block shows hundreds upon hundreds of photos of the victims of prison, all taken by the Khmer Rouge who had an obsession with record keeping. It all makes for sombre viewing, but a necessary one.

24
Aug 05
Wed
21
Aug 05
Sun

The Road to Cambodia

I’m currently sitting in a cafe called The Blue Pumpkin. They make a great fruit shake. They also provide free WiFi net access, so I’ve availed myself of this freebie and am typing out this post on my laptop which miraculously survived the bus trip up from Ho Chi Minh City. Siem Reap is a rich city by Cambodian standards, fueled by tourist dollars stemming from Angkor and overpriced food, so the availability of wireless net access should be not all that surprising, but it is somewhat bizarre to log on to World of Warcraft for five minutes just to be able to say “I played WoW in Cambodia”.

The journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh was a tiring one. Getting to Bavet, the border crossing town, was fine, but once we cleared Vietnamese immigration, things went downhill from there. Things are chaotic on the Cambodian side. It appeared that we had arrived a few months too early to make use of the new immigration facility Cambodia was in the process of building. Instead, there were a few wood huts off the side of a dirt pathway in which immigration officials check off visas. As we were wondering where to line up, we were told just to stick our passports on a large pile of them and they would be processed momentarily. There were no border guards, police or security of any sort. No one asked to check my passport. In fact, it would have been quite simple to walk straight through and illegally enter the country. It wasn’t even clear at which point we had actually entered the Kingdom of Cambodia. The road to Phnom Penh is in fairly bad shape. It’s filled with potholes and bumps, which our minibus driver took at speed. Every few seconds the minibus would fly over a bump, go airborne for a split second and then return to earth with a spine-jarring jolt.

The primary reason for visiting Siem Reap for tourists is, of course, to see Angkor Wat and the other myriad of temples in the Angkor region. Impressions in a later post.

17
Aug 05
Wed

History lessons in Saigon

If you ask any Vietnamese person from outside of Ho Chi Minh City what they think of it, they will inevitably mention three things: “lots of people”, “busy”, and most often of all, “noisy”. After spending a tiring few days in the stifling Old Quarter streets of Hanoi, the fact that even the residents of Hanoi – Vietnam’s second largest city – were complaining that HCMC was too crowded and noisy caused me some concern. This, combined with numerous stories of drive-by bag snatchers, pickpocketing beggars and other security concerns, did not give me a very good impression of the city before we arrived.

Three days in, and these impressions happily proved to be untrue. HCMC has a population of around 7 to 8 million, about double that of Hanoi. Luckily, the city is significantly more spacious, with the streets being a great deal wider than in Hanoi. There is far less noise than you would expect from the thousands of motorbikes, cyclos, bikes, cars and buses that rumble past every minute, horning included. Sure, it’s chaotic and crossing the road is always somewhat hazardous, but it’s not all that bad.

HCMC used to be called Saigon in the old days, and many Vietnamese, both from the North and South, still call it that. The renaming of the city is one product of Vietnam’s incredibly tumultuous history, a history which I was, regretfully, almost entirely ignorant of up until a day or two ago. (The extent of my knowledge up until then was that the Americans had waged a war there which they may or may not have lost. That and memories of Full Metal Jacket and various other Hollywood films.) Although I came across bits and pieces of information about Vietnam’s past before HCMC, it was only here that I had my first real history lesson. The interesting thing is that being the first time I heard about the Vietnam war in full (known here as “the war in Vietnam” or “the American war”), I heard it from a Vietnamese perspective.

We went on a half-day tour to the Củ Chi tunnels (where Viet Cong used to hide out near Saigon) and had the fortune of getting a fantastic tour guide. Mr Binh was a war veteran with a Filipino father and Vietnamese mother who had served in the US Navy as a 2nd Lieutenant, apparently under John Kerry. He had lived for several years in New York and California before returning permanently during the war in Vietnam. He had been shot two times during it, and he was justifiably embittered by the whole experience. The great thing about him was that he pulled no punches in talking about things. This pissed off more than a few tourists on the bus, but I liked the guy almost immediately.

After welcoming us to Vietnam, he immediately began a patriotic spiel about how great his country was, boasting about its 8% GDP growth and it being one of the largest agricultural exporters in the world (second in rice, third in coffee). He proclaimed Vietnamese cuisine as excellent and denounced American cuisine as terrible. While this may not seem out of the ordinary for a developing Asian country, it is quite significant when you consider that Vietnam has been embroiled in some sort of conflict for the greater part of the 20th century. “Because of all of you,” Mr Binh paused, eyeing everyone on the bus, “Vietnam has suffered aggression up until about 25 years ago.” An Israeli lawyer up the front of the bus puffed up his chest and vigourously shook his head. “Not all of us! Not me!”

Mr Binh ignored him and ploughed on, talking about all sorts of topic at random, including the branding of all caucasians as Big Assed Tourists (“Do you know why you don’t ride motorbikes? Because you have big asses! But don’t worry, we say in Vietnamese so you don’t know.”) Although he initially refused to talk about the war because it was upsetting for him, enough interest had been generated to persuade him otherwise. What followed was a colourful and engrossing thirty minute talk, on the bus, about how Vietnam had been effectively screwed over by one country after another: French colonialism, Japanese invasion during WW2, the splitting of the country into North and South Vietnam which led to American involvement in the Vietnam war, incursions by the Khmer Rouge and a small attack by the Chinese. In a nutshell, the Vietnam war arose when communist North Vietnam (called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) attempted to reunify with South Vietnam (called the Republic of Vietnam) which was under the control of a nepotistic government, which was really a puppet government controlled by America. Because of the fear of Communism and the Domino Effect theory floating about at the time, America saw fit to get involved and stop the Pinkos from claiming another country. America failed, and after losing tens of thousands of troops and generating significant international dissent, withdrew its forces. Today Vietnam is one of five socialist countries left in the world.

As the day progressed, Mr Binh softened a little and acknowledged that Americans weren’t that bad. He had befriended many Americans in his time in the navy and the general sentiment was that most of them were only there because they had no real choice. During the day we got to crawl through some 100 metres of a tunnel dug 8 metres into the clay ground, and some tourists coughed up cash (US$1.20 per bullet) to fire M-16s, AK-47s and a whole other array of rifles, machines guns and shotguns at the shooting range.

Visiting the War Remnants museum in HCMC was a chilling and intense experience. It used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes (or something similar) before it was decided this was not good for tourism. However, the latter title is probably more accurate. The museum exhibits the nitty-gritty of the war, and the reality is incredibly gritty. The museum is well maintained, and is split into several sections which surround a main courtyard filled with American jets, tanks, artillery and ordnance. One section is a tribute to wartime photographers, who risked life and limb to capture the truth (most of them were killed at some point on the battlefield). Another section shows the effects of the American use of dioxins (such as the infamous Agent Orange, used to defoliate large areas of Vietnam’s land), napalm, nail bombs and other nasties on the civilian population: rows and rows of photos of deformed children and disfigured victims line the wall. Another section is dedicated to imprisonment and torture. I found the pictures of torture victims and exhibits of torture methods overwhelmingly disturbing, a graphic reinforcement in my mind that there can be no justification for allowing the legal use of torture. One Viet Cong soldier was beaten and tortured for several days, before being moved – ironically to a hospital – for further torture. Four amputations, presumably without anaesthetic, were carried out on him over several weeks. Ultimately, he did not reveal any information, quite probably because he did not have any to begin with. The final section remembers the anti-war protests and efforts which occurred around the world in opposition to American involvement.

Also worth a visit is the Reunification Palace – the old seat of South Vietnam’s government, which was then called the Independence Palace and was preserved after the unconditional surrender by South Vietnam’s government to the North. (Take the free guided tour.)

Given that Vietnam has only enjoyed peace for a little over two decades, it becomes clear how much the Vietnamese are now enjoying life. The environment that the Americans devastated is now largely regrown, and Vietnamese farmers are among the wealthier people in the country. The majority of the population is now composed of youth, who have had the benefit of growing up in peacetime.

We passed by a park near central HCMC. During the evening, it is filled with people, young and old, playing badmington, chinese chess, riding skateboards, and kicking around shuttlecocks in a game similar to hackeysack. It’s not quite hackeysack (the rubber base is slightly spring loaded), but the players were the most skilful I have ever seen. Groups of two or four would kick around a shuttlecock – both feet, many times they would kick the shuttlecock as it fell behind them, without looking. As we sat down to watch, a young Vietnamese man (also called Binh) came over to talk to us. He thought we wanted to buy a shuttlecock, but in the end we just had a conversation. He explained that the players we were watching were practising for competitions. They all wore a special leather shoe, with a sole made from car tyre rubber (incidentally, the Viet Cong used to wear sandals made from tyre rubber as well). It turned out he was a recently graduated mechanical engineer taking a short break before looking for a job. He hoped to be able to get some overseas work. In socialist Vietnam, salaries are still largely moderated – teachers, doctors, lawyers, tour guides and social workers alike, all earn from US$100-500 a month. A friend of his in the IT industry got to travel to Finland for some work, but was paid at Vietnamese rates. His friend would finish work, then get a job as a waiter in the evening (which quadrupled his earnings), before returning to Vietnam six months later. Nonetheless, despite the constant flow of tourists splashing around huge amounts of Dong, Binh was quite happy with life.

“Yes, I like it here. I hope to be able to save enough to travel to Cambodia soon.” And that, not so surprisingly, seems to be the attitude of most Vietnamese these days.

13
Aug 05
Sat

Big and small?

By 1.00pm I was already exhausted. A tailor brandishing a measuring tape shuffled around me as I held my arms outstretched. She paused, gestured at my chest and then at my hips before pointedly inquiring, “Big and small?”

I was lost, so I just returned the question with a blank stare, hoping she’d elaborate.

“Big and small?” she said again. Despite the English, she was still speaking a language I didn’t understand, so I looked helplessly over to Cheryl and asked for a translation. Cheryl thought for a moment, then matter-of-factly stated, “Oh, she’s asking if you want the sides straight or fitted.”

Clearly, I’m not a clothes shopper.

Welcome to Hoi An, a town on the World Heritage List. However, its old buildings are perhaps overshadowed by what most tourists end up doing here – getting clothes tailored. There are literally hundreds of tailors (or “cloth shops”) in Hoi An, and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say it is a town full of master tailors. They can make anything and everything.

The process goes like this. You find yourself ushered into one of the myriad of cloth shops. Inside they’ll have a stack of fashion magazines and the latest British mail order catalogues. It’s simply a matter of flicking through the books and pointing out a design you like. You can come prepared too, by bringing along a favourite item of your own clothing you’d like replicated, or a picture clipped out from some magazine. If they can see it, they can sew it. And even if you orally describe something and draw a rough sketch, they can do a pretty good job of things too. After you pick the design, you spend time looking through walls full of fabric – silks, cotton, wool, cashmere, synthetics and so on. Pick a fabric and pattern, negotiate a price, get measured, pay the deposit (about 50%) and your clothing will be ready for review normally within 12 hours.

As good as they are, it is quite likely you will need time to make adjustments. Although my business shirts were fine the first time I got them, I had to send a coat back for adjustments three times because the right shoulder of it wasn’t sitting correctly. Don’t be afraid to ask for adjustments. No doubt when you complain that something’s too tight they will say, “Not too tight! It looks good!” But if you insist, they will oblige without (too much) complaint.

Perhaps the biggest issue is choosing a tailor. I don’t believe this is too big a problem. People who have been to Hoi An will have found tailors they swear by, and many tailors have billboards outside displaying testimonials written in all manner of languages from satisfied customers who have bought an excessive amount of garments. Virtually any tailor you go to will do a good job. That said, there are probably two good ways to ensure you don’t end up buying from the rare bad tailor. One indicator is if there are any other tourists buying from the shop. The second way you can judge is to get one small item of clothing made – a shirt or similar – and check the quality.

We got clothing made at four tailors. We got a couple business shirts made at Mai Cloth Shop (Stall 7, Hoi An Cloth Market). Mai’s is located in the cloth market, a group of stalls in a warehouse where you can watch tailors sewing. Mai’s stall is extremely busy. A little too busy for my liking. Especially in the evening, there can be over ten people crammed around her tiny stall. With everyone talking at once, staff are easily distracted. One lady there was taking Cheryl’s measurements when she got sidetracked half-way by another customer and didn’t come back for five minutes. They have a dodgy fitting room in an alleyway which you’ll have to share with some of the fattest rats in Hoi An. Nonetheless, despite the chaos, Mai does a good job with the tailoring.


Cloth Market

Hanh Hung (39 Phan Dinh Phung St, on the corner) was the store we got most of the clothing made at. The atmosphere was a lot more relaxed and pleasant, and if you look like you’re serious about buying, they’ll give you a complimentary bottle of water (we received about 6 litres of water between us through our visits there). The store is very clean and well kept, and the staff give you a bit of breathing room (although they will still ask “you want something more?” every ten minutes or so). Workmanship was generally very good. I suspect that Hanh Hung is more expensive than other stores, but by western standards, the clothes they produce are still very well priced. Business shirts are from US$5-10 depending on material, and suits start from US$40 or so upwards. I got a suit made out of cashmere/wool for about US$85. They accept credit card (3% surcharge, but you can try and factor this in when you are negotiating price). In case you thought all tailors were women, Hanh Hung also uses male tailors.

In the end I got eight shirts, one suit and a pair of shorts for just over A$200. Cheryl made five shirts, two suits (coat, pants, skirt), one dress, and one trenchcoat for around A$320. We were also given four complimentary silk ties… though probably not so complimentary given what we paid for the other stuff. (A$1 = US$0.76 = 11000 Vietnamese Dong.)

The main problem you will have is buying too much. Weight and space are issues you must consider beforehand. Shopping for clothing here can be addictive, and it is all too easy to get much more than you initially planned.

12
Aug 05
Fri

Gallery is screwed

It’s never a good idea trying to upgrade Gallery while travelling… The photo gallery will probably be down until I get back to Singapore.

Update: I sort of got it working again. It’ll just have to look ugly for awhile!

Restaurant les Trois Nagas, Luang Prabang

I didn’t expect to do a restaurant review for Laos and even less expected to associated “fine dining” with it. Nonetheless, there’s a reasonable facsimile of the concept in Luang Prabang. Restaurant les Trois Nagas is attached to the expensive Auberge les Trois Nagas hotel in a quiet part of town, just up the road from the night markets. It seems quite out of place because it manages to pass itself off as an upmarket western restaurants. Trilingual waiters (speaking Lao, English and French) pull out chairs for customers, the menu is typo-free (also in English, French and transliterated Lao) and tables are double tableclothed. It’s the small details that count.

On offer is a seven course set menu. Complimentary rice cakes arrive soon after you sit down, and then two entrees kick off the meal – either an egg omelette with dill or a Lao salad, and an egg sausage soup. Very tasty. The main meal comes with three dishes – generous servings of a beef, steamed chicken, and vegetables which includes some local yellow mushrooms. The beef, although still quite tough, is a little more tender than the beef elsewhere in town (I wouldn’t recommend the beef anywhere in the town). The rice is also soft, fluffy, and without the strong floury smell given off by the other restaurants. Finally, a tropical fruit salad (rambutans, longans, mango, nashi pears, etc) comes served in a Martini glass. They also have a well stocked wine list.

At US$12 per person, it’s about four times as expensive as an ordinary meal for tourists, but in terms of western dollars, it’s a real bargain. (Although the 330ml bottle of Perrier water selling for US$3 is not.) Very much recommended.

11
Aug 05
Thu

And in the news…

What do a cigarette lighter, Fur Elise, and Saddam Hussein have in common? Well, you can buy a cigarette lighter with Saddam’s face on it, and which plays Fur Elise when you flick it open in Hoi An. This is just one of the strange knick knacks which hawkers offer here, accompanied by the universal cry of, “You buy something!”. There are more mundane things for sale, such as English and French copies of the Vietnam News, thrust in front of tourists’ faces who are trying to enjoy their breakfast.

I haven’t felt the need to buy a copy yet, because, strangely enough, I’ve been reasonably in touch with world affairs on this trip. Not from news web sites, but through satellite TV. We had ABC Asia Pacific in Hanoi, BBC World in Hué (complete with a simultaneous audio translation in Japanese running over the top of the English which was distracting to say the least) and now CNN in Hoi An. Was disappointed to hear the result of the second Ashes test, saw the terrible pollution in Kuala Lumpur, and even managed to catch the landing of the Discovery shuttle live. And there is too much coverage on Iran’s resumption of nuclear materials conversion. For domestic affairs, e-mails from friends have kept me up to date, including the juicy Crikey scoop on Alexander Downer’s daughter’s controversial award of a Chevening scholarship even though she only obtained third class honours.

10
Aug 05
Wed

Cuts, rips and commissions

Underlying everything to do with tourism, it seems, is an intricate, multi-layered system of commissions. Today’s attempt at commission grabbing was the most blatant. We took an Open Tour bus from Hué into Hoi An – a four hour air-conditioned coach ride for US$2. When we got into Hoi An, the bus stopped at the local Camel Travel office, which was fair enough, since that was the company that was running the bus service. However, before anyone could get off, the Vietnamese dude up the front said, “But first, we take you to a great hotel! Only 7 minutes from city centre. You go, look, and if you don’t like it, you can walk elsewhere.” And before anyone could object, the bus was off again, hurtling down the road and incidentally, taking us away from the hotel we’d already booked when back in Hanoi.

Eventually we arrived at the Green Field Hotel. I looked up the trust Lonely Planet. “Green Field… Green Field… ah, here it is… ‘Green Field Hotel is the furthest hotel from the city centre.’ Ah. Oh, it’s not even on the main map.” A British girl in the seat behind who had been reading over my shoulder yelled out, “This guy says the hotel’s off the map!”

Mass confusion ensued on the bus as a tired mob of caucasian backpackers complained that they already had booked at another hotel and that they wanted to get back to the city centre. The Vietnamese dude just kept repeating, “Don’t worry! Stay 10 minutes, check out the place! Don’t worry!” In the meantime, a horde of hotel staff had boarded the bus trying to get all of us to check out their new pool (“We don’t need a stinking pool!” an American was heard shouting, more than a little miffed). Some people disembarked and took motorbikes back in. The rest of us refused to disembark, and eventually they figured out we weren’t going anywhere unless they brought us back into town. As the doors shut, the Vietnamese dude tried again.

“Hey! You all must be hungry… I know a great restaurant—“

The cry of dismay on the bus was unanimous and instantaneous. Evidently, we looked like we were about to riot, because he quickly shut up about the restaurant and drove us back into town… to yet another hotel. However, in a twist of fate, it was the very hotel we had made reservations at, so it had worked out quite well for us.

Hoi An is lovely. Small, quiet, walkable and the shopping looks to be excellent. Especially if you’re after clothes, for tailoring is the town’s profession. But more on that later.

DIY laundry

Hué doesn’t seem to have guesthouses, and most accommodation is in the form of hotels. We ended up in the Binh Minh 2 Hotel. The “2” signifies that their first hotel was successful enough to open up a second branch, about five minutes down the street. Some hotel “chains” even have three hotels in the same town.

Binh Minh 2 is relatively expensive, at US$15 for a twin share room (which comes with one double and one single bed), but it’s well worth it. Service is excellent. Reception was staffed by this diminuitive, yet highly energetic lady called Tu, whose smiles were so big that she had to close her eyes to fit them on her face. The room was not merely clean, it was spotless – more so than some of the 4-star hotels I’ve stayed at.

Anyway, having a bathtub at our disposal for the first time on this trip, we decided to forego the costly in-house laundry service and do it ourselves. So we pushed down on the plug, filled the bathtub up with water and mixed in some laundry powder we’d brought along. We dumped the clothes in and gave them a good scrub. The water turned an ugly shade of grey and we decided it was time to begin rinsing them. The only problem was, we couldn’t unplug the plug. It was stuck, and the grey water wasn’t going anywhere. I scampered downstairs to reception to see if we were doing anything wrong, only to be reassured, “Push plug to open, push again to close”.

Since doing our own laundry in the bathroom was in violation of the hotel’s guest regulations, we were in a bit of a fix. We couldn’t get them into our room, or they’d see the washing. So we moved the wet, soapy clothes into a basket, and decided to empty out the bathtub via the toilet. Manually. With a couple of empty water bottles.

Many, many minutes later, we’d siphoned tens of litres of water into the toilet and sink, by which time it was nearly midnight. We called a guy up who came to fix the plug. Moral of the story: make sure you can take the plug out before you fill up the tub.

8
Aug 05
Mon
6
Aug 05
Sat

Apple’s Mighty Mouse

The biggest embarrasment about owning a Powerbook is that it only has one mouse button. I’ve never understood the proponents for a single mouse button. The traditional argument is about complexity, and that somehow, adding a second mouse button on the right will confuse users too much.

This reasoning, if it had any merit to begin with, is rapidly becoming an anachronism in an age where computer literacy has extended to grandparents in video chats with grandchildren. “Ryaaan! Where is your nose?!”* Just as a scroll wheel is intuitive, a second mouse button does not take an extensive amount of “training” to get used to… The keyboard and its 100+ keys is a far more imposing input device, with its illogical key positioning, mysteriously labelled keys (“Sys Rq”? “Enter”? “Ctrl”?). People seem to be doing just fine with that.

Anyway, I realise that Apple has come out with their Mighty Mouse, which I don’t find all that thrilling. It maintains Apple’s slick design, but it’s not even obvious that it’s a two button mouse. The little ball in the middle seems to be merely integrating a trackball into a mouse in order to (needlessly) differentiate it from Microsoft’s tilt/scroll wheel. I’d need to use it before I say anything more, but the Ars Technica review doesn’t make it sound all that interesting.

I wonder if Apple will manage to push this one out the door on brand power alone? Call me cynical, but I reckon Apple fanatics will buy this just to avoid “contaminating” their gear with Microsoft or Logitech branded products, and that will be enough to sustain the market.

* In Kuala Lumpur, after a late night out, we were jarringly awakened at 9am by Dave’s parents and aunt in the next room, virtually screaming this out to their toddler grandson in San Francisco via webcam.

In the North of Vietnam

We stayed in the Old Quarter in Hanoi, like most tourists. It’s a pretty full on place that really assaults the senses. The streets are narrow, and the metre-wide footpaths, spilling with squatting Vietnamese, merchandise and refuse are often unnavigable. The roads aren’t that much better, with a constant flow of traffic making it essential to concentrate when you’re walking about. Everyone talks about how crossing the roads is an art. There are no pedestrian crossings (even when they are marked). However, since the majority of traffic is composed of motorbikes which are fairly adept at weaving sideways, all a pedestrian has to do is walk slowly across the road and the bikes will swerve to avoid. You could almost do it blindfolded and not get hit. However, it’s the cars and the buses which pose the hazard – if they were to weave to dodge a pedestrian, they would instead end up taking out the herd of motorbikes passing alongside them. At first the experience is a bit of a novelty – it almost feels like there’s this invisible shield repelling the traffic away – but it starts to wear thin very quickly.

Like in many developing countries, the horn is used as a convenient method of signalling “I’m here!” rather than one of annoyance, which ensures a constant barrage of noise. Finally, even though the streets of the Old Quarter are narrow, the buildings are often three or more storeys high, giving the streets an even more cramped feeling. It also traps the air, which is more often than not filled with some very… peculiar, odours.

In the middle of the Old Quarter is a large lake, Hoan Kiem, where it is rumoured large turtles reside, according to traditional legend (read here). It’s only slightly less hectic around the lake, and the bright, opaque, green colour of it doesn’t lend it any large amount of attractiveness. However, by twilight it does get better. Fading light masks the algae in the water, the stifling humidity begins to cool, and the Vietnamese come out to exercise by the lakeside.

One day outside of the Old Quarter, we visited Ho Chi Minh’s masoleum complex. After he died, the revered Vietnamese leader, as with Mao, Lenin and Stalin, was preserved and placed in a glass box. The complex covers a large area, thankfully fenced off from traffic, containing the old Presidential Palace, a museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh’s life, a few buildings where Uncle Ho used to live and of course, the masoleum itself. As with my visit to Beijing, photography was strictly forbidden. Through an intricate series of checkpoints and metal detectors, I was gradually stripped of bag, camera, and mobile phone (and not all at once) and given a few numbered tags in return. I had no other option but to surrender everything and hope that I would be seeing my gear on the other side.

The masoleum is chilly. Uncle Ho’s body is kept airconditioned, surrounded by four guards in full uniform staring straight ahead (and no doubt thankful that they weren’t on duty outside in the heat). The experience was similar to Mao’s masoleum. It’s deathly quiet inside as the procession of tourists and locals meander through the corridors and around the ghostly body of Ho Chi Minh.

On Thursday we took a 2-day tour to Ha Long Bay, with one night spent on board a boat. Although the bay was fairly crowded (we counted over twenty other ships moored around where we were for the night), and the water was polluted – the translucent shape floating through the water was a plastic bag as often as it was a jellyfish – it was a very welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of the city. We took a kayak out and rowed under a one metre high tunnel and into a small body of water encircled by limestone cliffs. There, for the first time in days, it was perfectly silent. The caves in Ha Long Bay, with their stalactites and stalagmites are a world heritage area, but to be honest, they only reminded me of Jenolan caves.

The people we have met on the trip have been somewhat varied, but mostly European, with a disturbingly high proportion of lawyers… three British lawyers who would be starting work with A&O and Eversheds in September, a Kiwi barrister reading for his second Masters at Oxford, a Dutch law student who had no intention of practising and a retired couple from Melbourne who complained that their family had “too many bloody lawyers”.

The staff at all the guesthouses we have stayed at have been terrific. The Thu Giang guesthouse in Hanoi is family-run, but most of the day-to-day operations are handled by an amazingly resourceful 21-year old lady. Unfortunately on the first night, a storm meant that tours to Ha Long Bay had been cancelled and some guests were forced to stay an extra night. Consequently, Thu Giang was still full, and we were diverted to the Wing Cafe Guesthouse. Staying at the latter guesthouse was an ordeal. Something surely must have died in there because the bathroom was filled with this unearthly stench. Fortunately, we only had to put up with it for one night.

Today we arrived in Hué on a comfortable overnight train. Hué’s much more relaxed and I can’t say that I’m going to miss Hanoi.

Note concerning e-mail

E-mail to me has apparently been bouncing… but only to my POP3 account. E-mail is still successfully getting through to me via Gmail. (Incoming mail goes to both accounts.)

3
Aug 05
Wed

Backbench

Issue 16 is now out. A lot of content in this one.



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