Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ha Long Bay

Halong Bay

After a few days in Hanoi, Cindy and I took a bus out to Ha Long Bay for a 3 day boat tour. This was our last destination together and it blew away our expectations. Ha Long Bay is an enormous body of water containing over 1,900 islands. These islands shoot straight out of the water, barely any with beaches or walkable access, and no land inhabitants. The beauty is on a different scale than most places I've been - it reminded me of seeing the enormous glaciers in Alaska.

Halong BayHalong Bay
Cindy - Halong BayOur tour guide - Halong Bay

Thanks to a recommendation from Steve McAdoo, we found ourselves on a great boat, with only about 6 other passengers, and wonderful tour guides, food, and cabins. This is a huge business in Vietnam - the harbor where we took off must of had over 50 "junks" for touring the bay.

Halong BayHalong Bay

We didn't know what the actual tour was going to be like and pictured just cruising around among the islands for a couple of days and getting shown floating gift shops or something. The first day out, we spent a few hours chugging out to what turned out to be the main tourist area of the bay. First stop was an enormous cave, complete with theme-colored lighting, that was truly spectacular (it didn't hurt that this was also our first encounter with Oreos on the trip).

Halong BayCindy and Me - Halong Bay
Halong BayHalong Bay

Across the harbor from the cave is one of the few islands that you could actually walk on, with a man-made beach and a pagoda on top that you could climb to. The views from the top were I think the highlight of the trip for me - 360 degrees of gorgeous. Of course where there are tourists, there are hawkers, and here they followed us around in rowboats (we started calling them the "Oreo Ladies"). We dropped anchor at a nearby cove for the night, ate a fantastic dinner and turned in early (after trying some squid fishing off the back of the boat).

Halong BayThe Scary Cave - Halong Bay
Halong BayCindy - Halong Bay
Halong BayHalong Bay

The next day was completely different. We went a couple more hours into the bay, leaving the other tour boats behind, and took of on kayaks for a few hours. Nearby was the largest floating village in the bay, and a number of aquatic caves. The caves ranges from simple passageways to one called the "scary cave" that was something straight out of Scooby Doo - long, windy and at points almost a low as the kayak. I was getting to the limits of how much I could scruntch my body down towards the end of that cave. On the other side of the caves were often completely enclosed lagoons - it was so amazing to be inside of them, usually the only people there, with no sounds of the outside world.

Cha Ca La Vong Restaurant - HanoiThe Stuff - Cha Ca La Vong Restaurant
HanoiCindy saying goodbye - Hanoi

The last day we went for one last kayak to another lagoon, and then cruised slowly back to the harbor. Feeling completely satisfied with our Ha Long experience, we headed back to Hanoi for one last night before Cindy headed back to Bangkok, and I went on to Laos. We had one of the best meals that night at this Hanoi institution called Cha Ca La Vong. This place only serves one meal and has been doing it for almost 100 years. It's fish fried in oil at your table with basil, scallions, chilies and peanuts. Served over noodles with a stinky fish sauce. The whole thing together is unbelievably tasty! (I had to go back for seconds the next day for lunch before I flew out.) Cindy and I said good bye, sad to see her go after so many adventures of the past few weeks!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


After our great night hanging out with Cambodian breakdancers and a sobering morning learning about the Khmer Rouge regime, Cindy and I bid fairwell to Phnom Penh. We took a flight to Hanoi, which was a shock to the system on a number of levels. We had strange mojo with the taxi driver from the airport, our hotel didn't have enough rooms for us, and it was cold - much colder than we expected. Evidentally central heating is an Imperialist concept because our hotel was actually colder inside than out.

HanoiHanoiCindy - Hanoi

The city itself is very crowded and chaotic. Vietnam has about 10 times as many people as Cambodia and it shows. For traffic lovers, it's a bonanza. There are so many motorcycles whizzing by at any given time that just crossing the street is a major accomplishment. After a while you learn to just start walking and keep going.

I had such a fond impression of the southern Vienamese from an earlier trip ten years ago, remembering them to be some of the loveliest people I'd ever met. So I was pretty shocked by those in Hanoi. A crass commercialism, combined with a seeming lack of social skills, made them seem obnoxious and annoying. The vendors on the street wouldn't smile at you, but just yell: "You buy from me?! You buy from me?!" The worst were the pineapple ladies, who would follow you around relentlessly, putting their balancing pole on your shoulders and trying to get you to pay for a photo op. And everyone in the city with a motorbike (all 3 million or so), had gotten the same idea that they could be an impromptu taxi for tourists. Which is awfully convenient and the best way to get around, but overwhelming when you have literally the entire city yelling "Motorbike?! Motorbike?!" at you.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum - HanoiHanoi

These were our first impressions, and of course after a we became acclimatized and bought some more appropriate clothing, we um...warmed up to the city. Hanoi is quite beautiful and walkable, with a compact, largely preserved old town core, many picturesque lakes, great restaurants and amenities. The residents have a certain kind of big city, Communist chic going on. Women wear high heels and drive motorbikes, with their fur-lined jackets and face masks. I found a sweet, excellent tailor to get some suits made, a friend of a friend of Cindy's ran an alternative movie house where we saw a great documentary on Saigon, and our hotel did have its chilly charms (mainly delicious pho for breakfast and the internet in every room). The cinema owner gave us directions for an awesome walking tour: we ended up going to see Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum (from the outside, it was closed), the lake where John McCain was shot down (he's actually very popular in Vietnam and was a favorite here for the election), and on a fairly posh island of apartment buildings on the lake, a cockfighting ring (okay not awesome but interesting). Aside from it being pretty awful, the location was so weird - it was as if someone had decided cockfighting would be a good addition to the Kirkland waterfront back in Seattle.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Phnom Penh

Boddhi Tree Guesthouse - Phnom PenhPhnom Penh
Phnom PenhPhnom Penh
After four days, we finally tore ourselves away from lush Kep and made our way back to Phnom Penh. We found the city to be quite charming - bustling but not too chaotic, tourist savvy but not too in-your-face, and offering great food. Our hotel, the Boddhi Tree, was a converted colonial mansion and super pleasant. We had about a day and a half here, having stayed longer in Kep, and could have easily stayed longer.

Phnom Penh

We had an wonderful and unexected experience at Wat Ounalom, which is the traditional home of the head of Cambodian Buddhism. It was here that the Patriarch of Buddhism at the time was taken away and murdered by the Khmer Rouge. We were looking around the grounds when an old man gestured for us to follow him, and he led us into the central stupa of the temple. He said it was as old as Angkor Wat, and the stones had a similar character. The man blessed us with some holy water and then we all three fell into meditation for a few minutes - the energy in the stupa was quite intense!

Phnom PenhPhnom Penh
Phnom PenhPhnom Penh

The majority of the sights in the city are concentrated around the river, with the royal palace, Silver Pagoda, and the main tourist area situated there. We spent an afternoon touring the palace/Pagoda complex, which is quite large and full of examples of those swoopy Cambodia rooftops. One of the more unusual buildings is the Napolean III Pavilion that Napolean had built for Empress Eugenie near the Suez Canal. She then proceeded (after a fight?) to ship it to Phnom Penh as a gift to the king.

Inside Tiny Toons Studio - Phnom PenhKK, founder of Tiny Toons - Phnom Penh

At night, with a bit of detective work, we tracked down Tiny Toones Combodia, which is a breakdancing school for at risk kids. Kay Kay, the founder of the school, is such a great guy with a huge passion for helping kids. He is a former gang member and breakdancer in Long Beach, CA, who got into some trouble and was deported to Cambodia. Through his programs he has reached over 3,000 kids, and now has a few touring dance troupes that perform all over the world. Kay Kay welcomed us into his studio and his home, and then took us out for a night on the town at a local club where his kids were performing. We were all treated like royalty at the club, with waiters constantly refilling our cokes, and Kay Kay being presented with an enormous bottle of Johnny Walker Red. Cindy and I had a great time watching the local Cambodians strike a pose, and are determined to help Kay Kay with his non-profit in some concrete way (we've got a few ideas).

The next day, we dove into the horrific history of the Khmer Rouge, going to see the nearby S-21 prison and taking a journey out to the Killing Fields. Not going to try to rehash what happened back then, but suffice to say that the experience was extremely sad and sobering (Cindy brought an excellent book on this period called "Stay Alive, My Son", by Pin Yathay, that we both read. I'd recommend that for a first-hand account of the tragedy). Estimates range from 1.5 million to 3 million people that were killed by Pol Pot's murderous regime. One thing we learned was that many more people died from the ineptitude of the regime to provide adequate food or medical aid to the people than from executions. However, it is still thought that at least 500,000 people were killed directly by the Khmer Rouge.

Toulsleng Genocide Museum ("S21") - Phnom PenhKilling Fields Mass Burial Pits - Phnom Penh

S-21 was the prison inside of Phnom Penh where enemies of the state were tortured and frequently forced to write fake confessions implicating family members in crimes so they could also be arrested. Nearly all of the residents of this prison were eventually sent to the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh for execution. The Killing Fields was particularly disturbing, with its contrast of a peaceful, natural surrounding and the presence of numerous mass graves. The sole monument is stark and powerful: a glass tower full of skulls of the victims. Many of the senior Khmer Rouge leaders have never been brought to justice (though there are some trials going on in Cambodia now), leaving a sense of lack of resolution to this genocidal period.


Luckily for my ankle, next stop on our trip was the chilled out and relaxed beach resort of Kep. We shared a taxi down to Phnom Penh with two friendly middle-aged Australians, Tony and Wendy, who schooled us on the many ways that you could die violent deaths in their home country (shark attack of course won). This was on Cambodia's only real highway, and the entire way was lovely - with rice paddies, rivers, lakes and mountains. Picturesque now, but chilling to think that these were the fields where the residents of Phnom Penh were forced into labor camps by the Khmer Rouge, many dying from hunger, disease or execution. There is that constant memory lingering over much of Cambodia, contrasting with the natural beauty and friendly people.

From Phnom Penh, we took one of the more frightening taxi rides I've had the remaining distance to Kep. By now I'm used to near misses with passing trucks and motorbikes, but this guy was going so fast we barely made it through turns on the road without flying out onto the fields.

Kep - CambodiaCindy - Kep
Veranda Hotel - KepKep

We stayed at the Veranda Resort in Kep, which consisted of a bunch of sweet bungalows connected by raised wooden walkways. And a delicious restaurant that had ice cream. We were pretty much in heaven. I spent the next four days moving as little as possible, never leaving the resort, reading, relaxing and recovering. Cindy took a day trip to the nearby Rabbit Island for a little beach action, but I was very content to be immobile. This was the "vacation" part of our vacation.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tonle Sap Boat and Battambang

Tonle Sap Boat to BattambangTonle Sap Boat to Battambang
Tonle Sap Boat to BattambangTonle Sap Boat to Battambang
Tonle Sap Boat to BattambangTonle Sap Boat to Battambang
Next we took a scenic boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang. The boat goes along the Tonle Sap Lake and then a river, mostly via narrow passageways through the reeds. Along the way we saw floating villages and the traditional fishing methods (including the giant Chinese-style fishing nets). Passing a boat in the narrow lanes was always an adventure, and when we took corners the entire boat leaned like it was going to tip over. Cindy and I were continually planning our escape routes in case the boat sank, while I fantasized about the tasty fish dinner our floating village rescuers would cook as as we dried our cloths in their huts.
BattambangWedding - Battambang
We didn't know exactly what to expect in Battambang. Cambodia's second city, it's much smaller than you would think, with a charming mix of French colonial architecture and a Wild West feel. It's a good town to wander around for a day and take in the atmosphere - I felt that we were able to start to see much more authentic Cambodian life here. Like every place we went to in the country, it was very clean and had many new modern buildings. There were also a surprising number of ritzy houses along the river and in the countryside, mixed up with the basic huts. And of course weddings weddings everywhere! Always in a big colorfully decorated tent along the road.
Mr. Soon and Cindy - BattambangCircus School - Battambang
Circus School - BattambangHigh School Musical - Battambang
We took an outing in the afternoon on motorbikes, with a wonderful guide, Mr. Soon. First stop was the circus school at the edge of town that Cindy had heard about. This is a free school that kids can come and learn both their normal coursework as well as circus act skillz. At first it looked like a bust because it was Saturday and many kids were gone, but turns out there were some classes in session that we peeked into (though no circus practice). We were able to hang out with friendly art students who showed us around, as well as see some cool animation work that had been created in their computer lab (the topics were on public service messages such as drinking safe water and child sex workers). The highlight was seeing a practice of a high school musical about the dangers of heroin use. It was good to see that drama nerds were the same the world over!
Village encounter - BattambangVillage encounter - Battambang
Next we took a *gravelly* road out to a nearby Muslim village to meet some of the locals. Boy, did we meet them! As we were stopping in the village, the bike I was driving skidded on the gravel and slid out from under us, falling on top of Cindy and I. Luckily: a) we had helmets on and b) Cindy escaped with just a minor scrape on her knee. But I did end up with a bloody gouge on my ankle. The entire village came out to watch the tall American bleed all over their road, and in my state the overriding goal was not to throw up in front of all them due to the shock. Mr. Soon disappeared, and as I was trying to fashion some sort of bandage out of Kleenex and hand sanitizer, he reappeared with the local village medic. They quickly had me drenched in iodine and bandaged up with cotton balls. Needless to say, the bike trip was cut short!

On the way into town we bought a ton of medical supplies, and Cindy did a professional job getting my wound disinfected and dressed. That night we went out to a restaurant/cooking school, the "Smoking Pot", and sampled the local Amok (Cindy had some chicken dish that defied the "not so spicy" rule).