Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Breaking your heart Cambodian style

Phnom Penh is a city of illusions. I arrived at night after an interesting trip down the Mekong and was enormously surprised to find a city with impressive colonial architecture and wide avenues teaming with cars and motorbikes alike. The pavements looked clean lit by the moonlight and large neons- this couldn't really be the city I had heard so may people dislike let a lone a city that was brutalized under an atrocious regime only 25 years prior.

In the morning light the city told me a different story; the glow of the neons faded by sunshine, the city began to come alive the way my imaginings promised.

I was greeted for breakfast at the hilariously named 'Okay Guesthouse' by my waiter Ruben- he was 25 years old and learning English and delighted to be speaking with an Aussie. Ruben also moonlighted as a motto driver and promised to be my driver for the bargain price of 6 USD for the day. We drove quickly out of the city and within a few minutes I saw the real Phnom Penh. The streets were muddied and comprised mainly of dirt tracks riddled with pot holes and the journey to the Killing Fields begun in earnest.

At one point along the way, we had to pull over and I had to walk as the road was completely unpassable, slipping in puddles, Ruben suggested I walk barefoot and I laughed vigorously as the mud squelched between my toes. Rice paddies surrounded me- and ducks roamed. Cows were in abundance too, an unusual variety that look extremely malnourished, their bones protruding through their white coats.

On arrival at the infamous fields, I was struck by the beauty of the place, the grass green; there was an inviting selection of flowers in bloom. It was easy to imagine the place as an orchid in the years before the Khmer Rouge.

In the centre of the fields stands an impressive tower (maybe 10 meters high), it is gold and Buddhist in design. From a distance if it were unknown you might think this was another regional pagoda built as a place of worship. On closer inspection you see that the centre of the building which is approximately a 10 meter square design is filled with skulls. Welcome to Cambodia!

The sight is littered with bones and cloths still partially remain underneath the wet soil, there are teeth sticking out of the ground and the horrific atrocities carried out at the sight do nothing for the imagination or the heart.

After spending some time in solace and deciding there was nothing to take pictures of- the memory of towering frangipani trees next to mass graves is etched within.

On the way to the brutal S21 prison/museum my motto driver asked if we could stop at his cousins place as he needed to drive her to the market to pick up some pineapples- obliging as ever and trusting we drove down some winding alleys until we got to the place where the factory workers lived- The units were like airport hangers painted white with blue trim and dived into single person occupancies with a narrow lane down the centre. I was greeted by 6 Cambodian men- they offered me shots of some brown alcohol- I refused but let the bitter taste touch my lips after I dipped my finger in to taste the spoils- Ruben's cousin was tall, beautiful and incredibly thin. She hopped on the bike and the three of us weaved our way back though the alleys till we got to the prison.

The museum used to be a high school and it was built in the 1960's- reminiscent of your typical American high school you see on TV except for the barb wire covering the fence.

I stepped of the bike and was hounded by amputees, burns victims and beggars and rushed inside for the relief that was not to come. The museum is a disgrace- the events that took place within the walls made me speechless. Kept as it was when the Vietnamese liberated the prisoners in 1980 it leaves one numb.

After wondering through grim cell blocks, torture chambers and a gallery that is a testament to the millions of people that lost their lives, the images of the victims haunted me. On arrival at the prison each inmate was photographed and the walls are lined with enlarged passport photos of thousands of people. Their eyes follow you- and then you realize that the skulls described earlier belonged to these poor souls.

Next stop the famous Russian market, a labyrinth of stalls crammed into tiny spaces over piled with t-shirts, lacquer wear and jewelry- I purchased only a couple of paintings and some post cards from some amputees.

Afterwards I decided to walk thought he city back to my hotel- feeling like a cross between Forrest Gump and Dora the Explorer my ramblings took up the better part of the afternoon. I really enjoyed the humidity and rain and the contradictions this place. Phnom Penh is a mix of everything beautiful and everything repugnant in one. The Cambodian people smiled as I walked past and the hassle that is Vietnam is erased by the warmth and kindness that the people optimize.

My driver met me back at the hotel and suggested that we visit an orphanage- he explained that there are 140 children and that they get no funding except from tourists. We stopped on the way and brought 20 USD worth of rice to contribute. Feeling like Angelina Jolly, I was unsure what to expect on arrival. The orphanage was extremely run down, consisting of building made from left over materials- it is ramshackle by design, muddy and grey. The children smiled at me warmly, the operator quickly grabbed me and made me some tea- thanking me for the rice and he then took me on a tour so I could distribute the lollies I brought with me.

After visiting the classrooms, tears crawled up my throat- each child graciously thanked me and posed for photos and sung out ‘thank you Miss Kathryn- goodbye’ the way only children can and I fear my life won’t be the same. I am humbled and heartbroken. On our way back to the hotel- my driver asked if we could visit his parents, and I was warmly hugged on arrival and taken to the kitchen for tea and a chat in my very broken French. Hospitable is this country.

Cambodia is an experience for the soul- and I feel a better person for visiting. Tomorrow I am going to Angkor Wat one of the true wonders on the world.

The Mekong Delta

Kids on the Mekong, originally uploaded by kathrynparry41.

Deciding to leave HCMC for Cambodia was a rushed decision that saw me book everything in a hurry and head for a boat trip down the Mekong Delta. After scrambling to organise a Visa for Cambodia and a re entry Visa for Vietnam I left with much haste.

I organised a 3 day tour to Cambodi through Madam Coc (pronounced Cock) hotel (yes I laughed too when i found out what MC stood for). Organised tourxs are not my preferred option but to navigate a complex network of rivers it is efficent and easier to coordinate and it allows one to relax a little knowing that asll you have to do is turn up.

The trip was to occur mainly by boat and take in some of the best scenery that southern Vietnam has to offer. It didn't disappoint.

On the way our tour guide told us that the 20 million people of the Mekong are amongst the friendliest in the whole country, how right he was. I was over joyed to watch the children wave and blow kisses from the shore their joy and happiness was catching. The river ride felt like the right way to leave Vietnam erasing the memories of Hanoi completly.

The tour winded it's way up to the Cambodian boarder where I purchased a visa and joined another boat.

The ride into Cambodia was long and treacherous, the rainy season showered us with mother natures delights and I took some magnificent photos of the storm on the red river.

Friday, September 22, 2006

HCMC - the neon city

When somewhere is called a city- you expect it is going to be big- think NYC, Mexico City et al and in many ways Ho Chi Minh City has not disappointed in terms of size. It feels massive and makes Hanoi seem provincial. The buildings here are quite tall and there is even the odd mini sky scrappers lurking in the skyline. On arrival I was greeted not by the usual 1 million horns I had come to expect but perhaps 1 billion, this place is loud! The traffic here is dense and like Hanoi you feel lucky to simply survive crossing the road.

HCMC is also very rich- there are up market stores, with proper street fronts and display cabinets that make Hanoi's rambling old quarter look quite quaint. In my mind I have named HCMC the neon city, lights are everywhere and despite not being an obvious beauty of a city HCMC feels sophisticated, western and global.

I arrived yesterday after a grueling 20 hour train trip from Hoi An. My guidebook lists riding the Re- Unification express (train) as the 26th best thing to do in South East Asia...let me be upfront and honest, I can think of at least 1 thousand better things... who ever wrote the rough guide should be shot! I booked a first class soft sleeper cabin and whilst this ensured relative luxury- I was sharing the compartment with my 2 new rodent friends- I could have died!

Today I am being lazy (I am feeling a little under the whether and have come down with something very unpleasant), to make matters worse I am also very hung over as after watching the Swans cane the Dockers. I was feeling quite proud and certainly found my fill. I managed to find a great little aussie bar called the Blue Gecko- they had a big screen and whilst I was the only person decked out in my colours (I had to represent)it was a fantastic atmosphere- can't wait to next Saturday when the Swans go back to back!

Tomorrow, I am going to visit the Cu Chi tunnels 40 kilometers out of the city where the Viet Kong waged war on the Americans.

It is so exciting to be living a dream and I feel really happy to be alive, independent and free to experience the wonders the world throws at me.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

KP's Birthday Hoi An style

Someone told me today that the best thing about traveling by yourself is the fact you are never really alone and they are 100% right. Since my trip begun I have made so many friends that there has never been a dull moment.

I arrived in Hue some time ago (funny how the days now merge into one) and was delighted to be given the name of a hotel that the Irish girls had scouted the day before.

The hotel was down a little alley in down town backpacker’s ville. The room was particularly nice and even had a bath tub and HBO movies all for the bargain price of 6USD.<br>
After arriving late and desperate for something to eat I wandered all of 10 meters before bumping into two German guys from Cologne I had met a week earlier, quick to exchange the last weeks adventures I informed them of the highway robbery and showed them a picture of the guy. At once I noticed their faces change, part alarmed and another part surprised they looked at the photo and in unison exclaimed ‘that's the guy who approached us’ what a small town Hanoi was proving to be.

The following morning I planned to go on my own little adventure tour but given the nauseating heat, my inability to even work out which direction to walk I only managed to find a fairly large market that smelt like every bad smell I have ever smelt before merged together, silently I wished that I had not gotten rid of my cold and that my nose was still blocked.

On arrival back at the cafe across from my hotel, I remembered a friends wise advice and booked a motorcycle tour around the city. The ride was amazing and safe because it was pre booked with a tour company. Minh my driver was fantastic, ducking and weaving out of the endless traffic like a pro.

We went and visited some pagoda's, temple's and war trenches and before long my 5 hours were up. That night, I joined up with the Germans and we went to a night club named 'Brown Eyes' where I met a guy I nicknamed the beaver, given his penchant for carrying around a soft beaver toy around the South East Asia and photographing it in various costumes and in the arms of a variety of pretty girls.

The music was terrible- Asian techno is a sound better heard than explained but soon I was on my feet and dancing to the music like no one was watching me.

Safe in the custody of the Germans (both martial arts enthusiasts- we decided to get a cyclo home) and giggled all the way to slumber.

The next morning I departed Hue for a delightful 4 hour mini bus trip to Hoi Ann. The road was horrible at times air borne in my seat I felt the previous nights drinks reach the back of my throat a few times and I was sure there was a gymnast in my tummy doing somersaults.

Hoi An is beautiful I booked into a plush hotel (10USD) and ate dinner quickly and prepared for a quiet night to save my energy for my big birthday party the following day.

I awoke on my birthday to the delightful song of my 2 1/2 year old god daughter singing me happy birthday and the day only got better.

Hoi An is any girls heaven, they have shops there that tailor make cloths by request. I was fortunate enough to gea couple of dresses made (for fun) and 4 new suits (for not so fun). Hoi An is also a foodies favorite; it is filled with gourmet restaurants and I was lucky enough to have dinner at Cafe de Amis, a great find, where Mr. Kim the owner treats you to a delicious Vietnamese 5 course dinner for 4USD.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hanoi-The red river city

Women in Hanoi, originally uploaded by kathrynparry41.

I arrived safe and sound in Hanoi last night and was struck by the peacefulness of the airport, you could hear my foot steps staccato on the marble tiles.

I was picked up at the airport by Ngoc a young karaoke loving driver, he sung Vietnamese songs all the way to the hotel and spoke of his dream to speak English better so he can sing more American pop songs. Ngoc told me that Hanoi literally means city inside a river which is a direct translation from Chinese.

I was amazed in the car watching so many motor cycles go past carrying 1, 2 and 3 passengers, I have since scene them carrying up to 4 people, a ladder, all types of foodstuffs, babies and livestock.

The hotel in my humble opinion is the best value in the city, I have my own; room; bathroom (with hot water); TV (with BBC) and; AC, all for the bargain price of $8 US a night.

Last night I went out for a walk around the city and was absorbed by the entire goings on in the street, people sitting and cooking, eating, making things, talking, smoking all to the sound of the millions of horns honking in unison.

Stepping out from the hotel felt incredibly risky, there seems to be NO road rules at all, traffic lights appear to be for show only and pedestrian crossings whilst they exist don't seem to mean anything. At first I crossed the road staying as close to a Vietnamese person as possible, now I feel more adventurous and cross at my leisure and enjoy the adrenalin that pumps through my veins when I do. There are no footpaths to speak of, so are always walking a very fine line.

The tempetreture is hot but compared to Bangkok it is mild- although I seem to be permanently covered in sweat, it feels like a balmy 30 with 100% humidity.

I have fallen prey to a few scammers and I have only been here 1 day. At first I was incredibly angry at my own stupidity and was ripped off about 3 US dollars by a motto taxi and I was ripped off 30 cents by someone who made me a sandwich on week old bread. Now I realize that I should be thankful I am only out of pocket 4 dollars.

I still have not learnt the art of bargaining. I feel terrible when I seem to be surrounded by so much poverty. As my trip continues and my bank balance decreases perhaps I will become more vocal and utilise my negotiation training that my legal training equipped me with.

My flu like symptoms seems to be persisting and even though it is only 12 noon here now I am going to have a siesta after a 5 hour walk around the city. It really is a labyrinth like no other, the streets are dedicated to common wares, there is a backpack street, wedding street, funeral street, mirror street, bamboo street, metal working street, lantern street, teddy bear street and card street etc

I met a boy called Hue by the Hoan KiemoaHo Hoa Lake this morning who wanted to practice his English with me. He was very cute and had a list of 20 questions written out, ‘what country are you from?’, ‘Do you like TV?’, ‘Do you want a big house or lots of money?’.

I have not been able to work out the translation for lawyer here so instead I have said I am like a police man at home, both Hue and Ngoc were impressed and said they were scarred I would use my kung fu on them. Which is an added protection when you are a single girl on the move.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

One night in Bangkok

In the tradition of Murray West I have spent the last 16 hours in Bangkok. I am not sure if I am more humble for the experience but I certainly feel alive.

After a relaxing 9 hour flight in the care of the very hospitable Thai airlines staff I touched down in Bangkok not sure what to expect. On arrival, I felt a little apprehensive but after figuring out how to locate my bags (all by myself) I started to feel a little more in control.

On exiting the airport I was struck by the heat, the place is sweltering. The heat feels like it swims around inside you gently making your insides boil.....the only escape is the feeling of AC on the back of your neck. I feel like I am in a hot air dryer. The temp must be about 35 and the humidity is at 110% which I didn’t even know was possible.

I am certain that there is not as much oxygen in the air, the city is very polluted and people wear oxygen masks just to walk down the street. It is exhausting being outside in the hustle and bustle but it is very interesting to watch a city of 12 million people go by.

I went for a walk this morning and found some local markets, there was an eclectic array of foodstuffs, home wares, crafts and of course burnt CD's and fake T-shirts for sale. I was most interested in the fish that looked like they were cut in half and filled with something white like beans?

My limited experience has seen so many people be friendly and welcoming and I am keen to let the adventures really begin.