Trompe le Monde: A Round the World Tour Diary

An online travel diary so people can keep up to date with what I'm doing and where I'm going.

Name:
Location: Home, United Kingdom

You all know who I am, I assume.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Phnom Penh and Khmer Rouge Prison S-21

Still in Phnom Penh, but since I didn't really have a chance to say what it's like yesterday, having only just arrived, I feel that today I should remedy this. After all, I've now been here for just over 24 hours, more than enpugh time for snap judgements!

So far, PP (as I will hereafter be referring to it) seems pretty damn run down, but also strangely expensive. I don't really understand how food and the like can cost quite a bit more here than it does in Vietnam, yet the roads and so on are generally in a state of disrepair, only main roads being anything more than dirt tracks. The plus side, though, is that there is more variety and better tasting food here than anywhere else in the region. Where before we've survived almost exclusively on a diet of noodle soup, here I've been eating fried shrimp with noodles, spicy eel with rice, and all manner of other weird and wonderful dishes. It's been dead good.

Thusly Phnom Penh is ugly and expensive, but has lots of hidden beauty. Like Wayne Rooney. Perhaps.


Right, on to the next. In case anyone is unaware, from 1975 to 1979 Cambodia was ruled by ultra-Maoist organisation the Khmer Rouge. Under the command of "Brother Number 1" Pol Pot, they instigated a shocking and brutal regime, attempting to transform Cambodia into a Communist Agrarian Collective almost overnight. This involved forcefully transporting millions of people out of cities and putting them to work on farms. It also involved, as these things generally do, mass murder of many innocent people. During the four years they were in charge, it's estimated that the Khmer Rouge butchered somewhere between 750,000 and 3,000,000 people. A large number on it's own, but when you consider the population of Cambodia is only about 13 million today, it must have been a large proportion of people. Many of them were executed by being beaten to death with clubs in the fields just outside of Phnom Penh, their bodies rolled into unmarked mass graves. Most of those victims would have been incarcerated first at Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21 (the S stands for secret) Khmer Rouge prison. Today we went there, to see the museum they have now set up in the grounds (which used to be school grounds before 1975) to remember and honour the dead and attempt to bring those responsible to justice.

When you first arrive at Tuol Sleng, it's very hard to get a sense of the horror of the interrogations and torture that occurred there. All you see in Block A is bare rooms with beds in them, and of course, these items in themselves are not horrific. The horror comes from the actions that took place in the rooms, not the rooms themselves.

Block B, however, starts to bring it all home. This contains hundreds of mugshots of prisoners, taken by the Khmer Rouge before the prisoner was incarcerated, tortured and eventually killed. The photos are in black and white, and feature just the head of the victim, facing the camera, generally expressionless. Every one of the people photographed is now dead, having been tortured and possibly (in the case of the women) raped by the security guards. What is most upsetting about the photographs is the eyes. Looking at a board covered with hundreds of pictures, their faces begin to look alike, they all blur into one mass of humanity. But the eyes speak out clearly, looking straight back into the camera and, thirty or so years later, at the person looking at the photograph. All that now remains of the people in the pictures is the hollow glare of the windows of their soul.

Blocks C and D contained the cells used to hold the prisoners, varying in three types. Brick cells, hastily built in the classrooms, around 1m by 3m in size, on the bottom floor. Wooden cells, slightly smaller than the brick ones, on the middle floor. And, on the top floor, the mass detention cells, just classrooms with iron bars in them, to which up to 20 or so people were manacled. The rules were, basically (there were a lot of them but they tended to repeat themselves) lie still, shut up, do what I say immediately, or suffer the consequences. Prisoners weren't allowed to shift position in order to be able to sleep more comfortably on the bare floors without asking permission of the guards, who themselves were generally children with guns.

The paranoia and fear that cause man's inhumanity to man is a powerful force, and it's a somewhat sobering thought that human rights abuses such as those that took place here still go on in the world today (Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib?). It's places like these that remind me how lucky I am to live (usually, I mean) in the relatively stable environs of Western Europe, while also feeling sorry for the mass of people crushed under the feet of tyranny and opression throughout history, leaving nothing but a pair of eyes staring out accusingly at a world that didn't do enough to protect them.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Holiday in Cambodia

Again, it's been a while, but there wasn't a great deal more to write about in Ho Chi Minh City - a few museums, that's all, and none of them were great. So I didn't bother.

After another bizarre journey, on more of which in a bit, we have arrived safe and sound in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. So far it's a bit strange, primarily because despite having it's own currency, the Riel, each unit of which is considerably more valuable than, say the Vietnamese Dong, many of the prices here are printed in US dollars. To think the good ol' US of A invaded this country not too long ago (secretly, of course) to try to stop the Red Menace. Turns out economic forces are stronger than military ones. Yet again.

Anyway, on to our journey. It was actually pretty straightforward by our standards - just got on a bus and got to the border, then got on another bus after the border and got to Phnom Penh. It was (as usual with these things) the border itself that cause us trouble. The actual stamping of passports and issuing of visas and such was more or less as you'd expect - lots of tourists becoming hot and irritable waiting in a cramped office for a man in a uniform to stamp their documents an alarming number of times. Bureaucracy - don't you just love it. The trouble with borders, and in fact airports, is that they require large amounts of patience, respect for authority figures and specific, seemingly-arbitrary rules, and form-filling and queuing. On none of which, as you probably know, I am particularly strong.

But you just have to suck your guts in and get on with it, smiling in the face of incompetance, arsehole behaviour from fellow tourists, and outrageously blatant attempts to get more money from the Westerners with stamp tax, ink rates, paperclip fees and other such crap. All of which I can take better than perhaps you might think (especially you, Mum!).

What irritated me most this time, though, was the behaviour of two idiots who took our bags off of our bus without asking, and transported them in a cart into no-man's land between the borders without asking, and then tried to charge us a dollar a bag to get our own stuff back from them. "But we carried them all that way", they reasoned. Course, we informed them that since we hadn't asked them to do any carrying, would quite happily have humped our own loads, and they were not uniformed officials, we would be paying them bugger all. Course, they held on to our stuff by force, and while we probably could have got our bags back, there being ten or so of us against two smallish Vietnamese/Cambodian (sorry, didn't ask) guys, it might not have been a good idea. And anyway, I was brought up to not to resort to violence. After about ten minutes of waiting at an impasse in the blazing sunshine between two countries, we eventually settled on a deal. One US dollar for all the bags. We gave them some leftover change in dong that amounted to just over a dollar, and took our rightful property. I fell bad about giving them anything, but we really couldn't get into a fight situation, especially seeing as the ten of us was comprised of seven broads plus me and my two mates. And me and one of my mates are confirmed cowards.

Right, so we're in Cambodia. Today we went to a quite good museum containing lots of old Hindu statues - it's like India all over again. Mind you, I can see why the Cambodian government would want to be bigging up their ancient history. "Ignore the Khmer Rouge! Ignore the Khmer Rouge! Pol Who?" they seemed to be shouting. Tomorrow? Yeah, we're going to a museum dedicated to the Killing Fields. And to think, I went to a urinal today (sorry, too graphic?) and someone had crudely daubed "Stop the commercialistation of horror" on the wall. Which I assume wasn't a protest against big-budget bad horror films on behalf of quality low-budget horror films. Food for thought, anyway...

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Ho Chi Minh City

"Saigon, shit, I'm still only in Saigon. Every time I think I'm gonna wake up back in the jungle..." - Willard, Apocalypse Now.

Yup, I'm now in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, playground of the American GI's during the war. It's all greasy neon, sweaty honkies and hookers out there, so I'm in here, on the computer, like any goods maths student should be.

Yesterday we visited the Reunification Palace. This is a large building built on the same site as the former French Governor's palace. The Frogs had their building knocked down when the Vietnamese kicked them out, and after the dust settled, the South Vietnamese built their Presidential palace there. From here, US-backed bad guy dictator Diem ruled with an iron fist and refused elections and reunity with North Vietnam, leading to the American War. During said war, this building served as official headquarters. You can see all the various offices, meeting rooms and waiting rooms that were attached to the Presidents and Vice Presidents of South Vietnam, periodically assassinated as they were. You can also go under the building, to the basement. Here there were lots and lots of war rooms and such, all of which are still there today. It's pretty cool wandering around there, although they are basically just empty green rooms with desks, old phones and filing cabinets, and Vietnam maps on the walls. Still, you can get a sense of the history of the place.

Talking of a sense of history, today we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This was a vast tunnel network attached to the end of the Ho Chi Minh trail and to Cambodia during the American War. There were so many guerillas and such in the area that the American forces eventually made Cu Chi a free fire zone, and bombed the crap out of it. It looked like the surface of the moon or something by the end of the war, judging from the pictures. A large number of US and South Vietnamese Troops died in the area, and a far larger number of Viet Cong also passed away, as it was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the whole war. As part of the tour, you get to crawl 100m through tunnels twice the size of those actually used, and lit up by electric lighting. And believe me, with my claustrophobia, this was not a fun experience. If we hadn't had the enormous good fortune to be at the front of the line of our tour group going through the tunnels I don't know what I would have done. As it was, it was cramped, horrible and hot as hell down there. The actual tunnels used by the VC were 60cm by 80cm, unlit, and the ground would have course have been shaking from the bombs. The bombardment was the reason the tunnels were so small: any larger and they collapsed. They must have found that out through trial and error. Capable and willing to go through things like that, it's no wonder the VC beat the Septics in the end. Amazing.

Finally, a note of surreality. Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is a saint. Yes, that's right, a saint. Cao Daism is a uniquely Vietnamese religion founded in 1924. It combines elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity and Taoism into one bizarre whole. About 2 million Vietnamese are Cao Daist. The Cao Dai religion has three saints, none of whom would have been aware of it, andtwo of whom died before it was founded. They are: A Vietnamese Poet Laureate, whose name escapes me, Victor Hugo, 19th century French novelist, and Sun Yat-sen, Chinese nationalist revolutionary instrumental in the overthrow of China's last dynasty. Why are they all saints? You may as well ask why Cao Daism is absolutely against killing of any kind and yet used to have its own large private army... These Vietnamese are crazy...

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Island hopping

One of the main attractions of Nha Trang, aside from the beach of course, is that being there affords one the opportunity of going on a boat trip around the islands just off the coast. So that's jsut what we did the other day.

The boat trip basically meant we spent most of the day mooching about on said aquatic transportation device. But it did afford us the opportunity to swim about over a coral reef, seeing lots and lots of brightly coloured tropical fish. It was great. It also meant I could jump off the top of a boat into the sea, just like on a video from MTV. Or something.

Anyway, the other great thing we encountered on the boat trip was the phenomenon of the floating bar. Basically, everyone on the trip leapt off the boat into the water, and got a rubber ring type flotation device. The barman sat in a rubber ring with a crate of bottles of fruit wine (like sangria). Everyone had a cup, and you swam back to the bar for a free refill whenever you wanted. Utterly brilliant...


Okay, congratulations to anyone who's got through my last two smug posts without wanting to stab me. I assure you all that the beach-related self-satisfaction will subside rapidly starting from my next post. We're off to Ho Chi Minh City tonight, you see. Also known as Saigon...

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Nha Trang

Ladies and Gentlemen, get ready to once more be jealous, as I hereby announce that we are finally out of the dull grey English-style weather section of Vietnam, and into the sunshine South. Here in Nha Trang it's hot and sunny, and the South China Sea is cool and blue. How are you doing back home? Cold?

As you may have guessed from the obnoxiously smug tone of the previous paragraph, we're now at the great beach resort of Nha Trang, doubtless mentioned in some Vietnam film or other (Apocalypse Now, perhaps?). It's got ok beaches, though it gets quite windy in the afternoons. Still, that just makes the waves more fun. See that? Breaks both ways...

Film references aside I'm afraid I've not got a lot to actually tell you about. We've basically spent the last few days lounging about on the sand and returning to our room to watch Cartoon Network on TV (Recommended viewing as follows - Codename: Kids Next Door, the new He-Man).

Other than that the most interesting thing was when we went out the other night wearing our new flared suits. We looked sharp as a tack, needless to say, and got a fair amount of comment, as you'd expect. Isn't life great?


Monday, January 17, 2005

Sartorial elegance, 'nam-style

We're currently in Hoi An, though actually we'll be leaving later tonight for Nha Trang, and the beach. Yay! When we leave, though, we'll have to struggle our extremely full bags on to our shoulders. Why are our bags now so full, having not been so full previously? Because we've got new suits, that's why!

You read correctly. It wasn't a misprint. The three of us have all purchased new suits. And not just any suits, either. Tailor-made suits. Two each. One, a conservative, smart work suit. The other a large-lapelled, flared-trouser gangster suit. By this stage you're either thinking I've gone completely crazy, or that I'm taking the piss. Neither are in fact true. Well, at any rate I'm not taking the piss.

Hoi An is a smallish town in Central Vietnam. It is notable for being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Why this is the case is not very clear when you get here. UNESCO World Heritage sites are supposed to be staggeringly beautiful or important historically, and Hoi An doesn't seem to have a lot of lovely architecture or that many great old buildings. It has a few pleasant and quaint temples, old merchant houses, Chinese-style congregation halls and a Japanese covered bridge, but it doesn't have a lot of things of interest, historically or architecturally, as far as I could see. What it does have, are tailors' shops. Lots of them.

When I say lots, I mean lots. We're talking around two hundred. Evey one of which wants you to come in and look every time you walk past. It can get a bit tiresome. However, it is also great. On our first day, having looked in a few such establishments to get the lie of the land, we each decided on our two suit plan, figuring we hadn't done anything particularly crazy for a while, and that if we were buying six suits from somewhere we'd probably be able to get a discount. And so it turned out. We managed to get two lovely-fitting tailored suits each, made from nice material (some sort of Italian silk/polyester mix). The cost? US$28 per suit. That's around fifteen quid a pop. About what you'd pay for an ill-fitting charity shop suit back home.

All of our serious suits are subtley striped dark grey numbers. Our gangster suits are somewhat more flamboyant. Mine is a grey barcode pinstriped number that look slike something from one of Tony Soprano's favourite black and white films, Si's is a stone-coloured number that makes me think of "Chinatown", and Trev's is a delightful black number with fat golden pinstripes. They all have fat jacket lapels, and flares so big that they almost cover my feet. We're going to look quite the part when we get to Nha Trang and go out to beach bars in those suits... To celebrate this achievement, we each came up with new pimp names to go with our gangster outfits. My new moniker is Juan Antonio Fandango, Trev is Mack Jive, and Si shall be known while wearing his as The Pimptacular Mr Fly.

Our plan is to post back the suits when we get to Bangkok, figuring that even with postage and packaging, we'll still have got a real bargain. And to be honest, UNESCO be damned, it's not like there was much else to do in this town...

Friday, January 14, 2005

Hue

Right, well, I know I haven't written for a while, but there's not been a lot to say. We stayed in Hanoi for a couple more days, and it started to get very cold. Went to a series of temples in the hills outside town, called the Perfume Pagoda, which was ok but nothing too great. And saw some more museums that were also ok but not great. So I couldn't be bothered to write about them. Ok?

Anyway, we travelled south on an overnight bus to Hue, in Central Vietnam. Hue used to be the capital of the Nguyen dynasty of Vietnamese emperors, who were in charge from 1802-1945, though during the last few years they were really only puppets, their strings pulled by, at various times, the French, the Japanese and whoever else came that way. Now there's not much left of the former Citadel, containing the Imperial Palace, itself containing the Forbidden City, which in turn contained the emperor, his concubines, and their eunuch guards, because the Septics bombed it flat in the American war, when it was held for twenty-five days or so following the Tet offensive. But what is left is reasonably impressive, and there's a great massive concrete block with a flag in front of it - very Communist!

Another thing to see in Hue is a famous pagoda (temple thing) in front of which a monk famously performed a self-immolation in the 50s (I think) to protest against the rule of President Diem, then in charge of South Vietnam. Said pagoda includes a large octagonal tower, a proud and impressive symbol of Vietnam... er, except today it was surrounded by scaffolding. So that was a disappointment.

The final thing we've seen here is Tu Duc's tomb, another large imperial complex that suffered slightly due to the war. It's a big park type deal containing the final resting places of Tu Duc and many of his wives (he was that sort of an emperor - lucky git!) and family members. It was very pleasant.

So, basically, Hue is ok, but a bit dull, and suffered a lot due to Uncle Sam. But it's not all bad - there is a bar here called DMZ (the former demilitarised zone between South and North Vietnam is not too far away from here) which features cheap beer, free pool, and permanent markers with which to further plaster the already covered walls with bizarre graffiti.

"And so it goes, and so it goes... Si and Taz" - An example of said graffiti, on the bar at DMZ, Hue.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Hanoi

Hanoi is sometimes referred to as the Paris of the East, and it is indeed by far the most romantic place to which I've ever been. We're staying in the Old Quarter, a lovely warren of winding narrow streets, lined with small shops, stalls and street vendors, the roads full of motorbikes and bicycles. The noise is amazing, and from our balcony the people watching is great.

Last night we went to Hoan Kiem Lake, a smallish lake in the middle of said Old Quarter. Legend has it that in the 15th century (I think) Vietnamese Emperor Le Lao(I think) got a magic sword from the gods and used it to drive the Chinese out of the country. When he had accomplished this and once more freed Vietnam from foreign oppression, he went boating on the lake. A giant turtle sent by the same gods came up and took the sword, taking it to the bottom of the lake. And indeed there are giant turtles in the lake, it seems - though they are seen rarely, there are photos of them.

Even without the turtles, the Hoan Kiem lake remains an unbelievably romantic setting at dusk and later. Surrounded on four sides by busy roads, the lake is completely still and calm, the lights of the city reflecting off it, and the slight mist lending it a magical air. Not for no reason is it lined with Vietnamese couples sitting on the stone benches, entwined in each other's arms. It made us all go very Marvin Gaye...

Still, there's only so much romatic setting you can take when you're on a round the world jolly in a three bloke group. In search of something completely different, this morning we got up and went to Ho Cho Minh's mausoleum.

In case anyone doesn't know (and there's no reason why you should) Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the Vietnamese revolution, and the president of North Vietnam during the war with South Vietnam/USA. He claimed to be a Marxist-Leninist by political affiliation, though actually (for all you politics/history/philosophy buffs) I would have said his philosophy was more Maoist, being as Vietnam had very little working class per se pre-revolution, but did have a large peasant population. Anyway, his beliefs about his beliefs may have influenced or been influenced by the fact that Vietnam's ties were always much more with Russia than with it's neighbour China.

Right, politics over with. Uncle Ho (as he's affectionately known to many around these parts) was beloved by the people (as of course all Commie leaders are), and so when he died the Party didn't replace him as President, leaving that position unfilled, and (in direct contradiction to his wish to be cremated) had his body embalmed and put on display in a glass coffin a la Lenin. And this morning we went to see said body. Making it (for those counting) two preserved dead bodies seen so far on this trip.

Uncle Ho's mausoleum is an imposing block of a building, and his coffin room is a very somber, serious affair, as befits a man of his historical stature. Use of embalming agents means that there was rather more to see of Ho's body than there had been of St Francis Xavier's. He looks rather pale, but apart from that it just looks like he's asleep. The whole thing is very eery and pseudo-religious, all the more strange when you consider the Vietnamese Communist Party used to spend a lot of time and effort trying to ban ancestor worship in Vietnam.

The fetishisation of Ho and his revolutionary colleagues and materials was predictably also evident in the Ho Chi Minh museum, which contained exhibits that were more rubbish pseudo-intellectual installation art projects than anything else. There were lots of displays representing the evils of capitalism and fascism and the triumph of the proletariat and so on, and loads of dubious high-falutin words from Uncle Ho and the Party, as well as pictures of the dead man. Not much actual information though.

This afternoon we looked in at the museum built oout of the remaining two thirds of the Hoa Lo Prison, ironically nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by US Prisoners of War who stayed there. Before the Vietnam War (or, as it's known here, the American War) during the French colonial era, the prison was used by the Frogs to capture, hold and torture Vietnamese nationalist revolutionaries, and thus according to the information was very much A Bad Thing. Various torture instruments are displayed and such, including a couple of guillotines. During the American War, it was used to keep US POWs. In strict contrast, according to the information given, they were kept in spartan but fair conditions, and it was A Good Thing. I'd be very interested to hear what one of the prisoners had to say about that, for example Senator John McCain, who stayed in Hoa Lo for around seven and a half years. Bizarrely, the flight suit and gear that he was wearing when he was captured is displayed in the museum.

All told Hanoi is a fantastic place, full of history, romance and beauty, along with Oriental architecture and temples and modern shopping centres. If asked to rank cities I've visited so far, it would currently be number one, beating even Bangkok. So, the Paris of the East: very highly recommended. And much fewer French than that other Paris, too...

Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Odd-yssey

Last time you heard from me I was in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, getting ready to travel to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Here is the account of that epic journey.

It begins on the morning of the 5th December, in Vientiane. We knew our bus to the Vietnamese border left Vientiane bus station that night at 4 in the morning, so we had a day to waste. However, we'd deliberately left some things in Vientiane to do, to fill said day.

So we saw a couple of temples, both of which were nice. One of them is a symbol of Laos independence, a giant golden (painted) Stupa (sort of like a Buddhist spire), and the other was the oldest temple in Vientiane, having been built early in the nineteenth century (Vientiane has been sacked by just about everybody who's ever been in the region so there's very little really old stuff left standing - even that temple has had to be rebuilt since then, as the original was burnt down by the Siamese). I'm afraid, though, that I can't remember the names of either.

We also went back to the Vietnamese Embassy, and collected our visas. While waiting I read a book written by the general of the NVA from teh time of the French and American wars. It was the most biased historical account I've ever read, making such dubious claims as (I'm paraphrasing, but this is the gist): "With the defeat of the Germans and Japanese, Capitalism was clearly falling and the world was entering a new phase". Now, the original had been written in 1974, so from that point of view it could have been seen as fair enough. But I was reading a 2004 revised edition. I think even the nutters from Warwick Uni Students' and Socialist Workers' Party would know to take that out in a revised edition... We also stole another three toilet rolls from the Embassy toilets!

Next up was that most traditional of things to do when wasting time in the capital city of a Communist country: ten pin bowling. Yes, Laos has a bowling alley, so we went along. It was a far cry from the skills displayed as a result of repeated practice in my second year of university, but none of us disgraced ourselves particularly.

All done, we mooched about for the rest of the day, eating dinner very slowly, and then walked to the bus station. It was around 9 o'clock. We had seven hours to kill at a bus station in the middle of the night.

At this point we became aware of the sort-of-hotel nehind us, part of the bus station complex, it would appear. Not that we wanted a room, as we had very little currency left in the Laos kip. But it was of slight concern that this was very much the kind of hotel that rented rooms by the hour, if you get what I mean. And indeed, over the next seven hours, a variety of shady characters and women came and went from the rooms. Classy. I spent most of the time reading books I've bought over the course of my travels so far: "Lord Jim" by Joseph Conrad, which is excellent, and which I got for 50 Rupees from a roadside book vendor in Mumbai, and "The Rock Says", an old autobiography of WWF Wrestler-turned-rubbish-film-actor The Rock, which is also excellent, and which I got for 10 baht from the "everything must go" rack of a second hand bookshop in Chiang Mai. So there you go, literature and wrestling. All to ignore prositution.

Finally, our bus came, and we got on. It left at 4am or so, and I could finally lapse into blessed sleep. And doze I did, notwithstanding the jolting, potholed roads, freezing cold mist streaming in through the open doors, and cramped hard seating. The road we were travelling on? That's right, it was Route 13 Revisited!

Route 13, for those who missed my words about it on my previous post, is a dangerous road on which buses are semi-frequently held up and robbed by armed Hmong tribesmen/bandits. Oh, and they blew up Vientiane bus station in 2003. That's right, the very same bus station at which we'd spent most of the night. Observant readers will also recall that dangerous, dangerous Route 13 was the scene of our bus breaking down for around three quarters of an hour last time I travelled on it, and therefore the scene of many a fatalistic "here come the bandits" type joke.

Back to the present, though, and I was dozing on a bus travelling on the aforementioned deadly transport route.

BANG!

An almighty explosion sound rocked the bus. It skidded slightly, slewed a bit, then the bus driver wrested some measure of control back from the road and bring us to a halt at the side of the road. The smell of burning was thick in the air, and the bus was leaning over to it's back and left, yawing into the centre of the road. Everyone got off, to see one of the pair of back left tyres in shreds. We'd suffered a massive tyre blowout. Once again, we were stranded on dangerous Route 13, waiting for the morons in charge to fix the bus. This time, though, it was a bitterly cold and misty half six in the morning. We stood around hugging ourselves and stamping our feet to keep warm, and, yes, cracking fatalistic jokes about armed rebels. It took them once again around three quarters of an hour to replace the tyre, once they'd found the replacement buried under the sacks of grain being transported at the back of the bus (I have no idea). But fortunately we didn't hear a single AK-47, and we were soon safely on our way again.

We arrived at Lac Sao, a town near the Laos/Vietnam border, at around midday, and were immediately set upon by Vietnamese bus people trying to get us to take their bus to Hanoi. We explained we wanted to go to Vinh (in central Vietnam) to spend the night there, and soon got ourselves transport on what seemed to be a van with seats in it, staffed by three shady looking blokes. Still, for only US$5, the price was right. And it's not like we had any choice - we weren't going to stay in Lac Sao!

Of course, we started regretting the move quite early on in the trip, when our boys began stopping to load goods into the van. And I mean stopping lots. And I walso mean lots of good. Duvets, steam cleaners, rice cookers, the ubiquitous sacks of grain, boxes and boxes of red bull, and (unbelievably) two or three fridges were all loaded into or on top of the bus as we journeyed to the border, through the wettest, mistiest, coldest mountainous jungle terrain I've ever seen. We even stopped at two warehouses high in the mountains. That's right, we seemed to be getting a lift into Vietnam in a smuggler's van!

We got to the border, and had to get off thebus to present our passports to Laos immigration to get them stamped and so on. While doing this we could only take our day bags with us, leaving our other bags on the bus with the smugglers. I'm not going to pretend the whole thing didn't make me nervous. I mean, first of all, tehy could have just driven off with our stuff. And if they didn't do that, they could have put anything in our bags! Needless to say, the officious Lao bureacrat behind the glass took her sweet time performing the requisite multiple stamping on our passports...

When we got out, the bus was still there, so that was a start! We drove on and soon arrived at the Vietnamese immigration point. This was on the top of a steep mountain, an austere concrete Communist block of a building. At this point visibility was down to around 5m due to the mist. What with that and the architecture, I felt like I was in the opening sequence of a Bond film! Again we had to leave our big bags in the van, taking in our day bags. Got our passports stamped, paid the "stamping fee" (yeah, right, there's a stamping fee - blatantly baksheesh, but when it's a Vietnamese border guard and it's only about 50p, you just pay), and had our bags put through customs' X-Ray scanner. Oh, and we got given a free packet of condoms. Yup, that wasn't a typo: condoms. God knows why - some sort of anti-AIDS initiative, perhaps?

Then we went back to the bus again, and were told that they wouldn't carry our bags over the border. We'd have to do that ourselves. Immediately I was edgy. But a quick check and I couldn't see any evidence of anything having been taken out or put in my bag. So I picked it up, put it on my pack, carrying my other bag in my hand, and walked across the border. And that was it. That's right, I didn't have anyone check my big bag. Only my day bag was X-rayed. I simply walked over the border the second time. I could have been carrying guns, crack and porno and gotten completely away with it.

The van got through customs eventually, having seemed to make a lot of presents of goods to various guards along the way (don't know why Vietnam had such a name for corruption), and we were again on our way, in Vietnam.

We got in to Vinh at around six that night, having had to change buses once. We did annoyingly get dropped at the train station rather than the bus station, as they pretended not to understand us while at the same time trying to get us to either stay at their mate's guest house round the corner, or go witht hem to Hanoi there and then (I mean, come on - we'd been on the road for a hell of a long time!). Exhausted, ratty, bewildered, we got a room in another sleazy guesthouse and slept beneath mosquito nets that stank like death shrouds for nearly 12 hours.

Next morning we got up at around 9am, made our way to the bus station, and immediately procured a bus to Hanoi. We arrived in Hanoi at about 5, and our journey was finally over.

First, though, we had to get a room. The first place we went to could do us a triple room for US$10 per night, but we reckoned we could do better. So we went to another guesthouse. They had no room, but while we sat and drank rubbish "flower tea" (what I wouldn't give, at this point, after so many months, for a proper strong cup of tea!) they rang around and found another place that had a triple room for US$9. We figured we'd take this, as we figured we wouldn't find anything cheaper.

When we got to the hotel, we were amazed - I mean, it looked like an actual posh hotel. Fish pool, polished floors, a reception desk, a restaurant. It was small, but boy, did it look out of our league. We were shown up to our room on the third floor, and... well, we had arrived! It had a TV, a sit-down toilet, a shower, a fridge(!) and, best of all, a balcony looking over the busy narrow Old Quarter street we were on. What it didn't have, though, was three beds. It had two single beds. The woman explained that we could just push the two beds together and sleep the three of us like that. Er... That might work with Asians, who tend to be small. But we're northern Europeans, who tend to be larger. And we're none of us small guys. Could you not bring another mattress in, we asked, and put it on the floor. Reluctantly she agreed to this, and then she tried to claim that the room would cost US$12. A quick putting back on of the bags and making as if to leave later, though, and she was back down to US$9.

Twenty or so minutes later, the mattress arrived. Followed by a bed. In front of our very eyes, the guy put together a bed from it's component parts. We were now staying in a super-plush (by our standards) three bed room with satellite, sit-down toilet, hot shower, balcony over the street below and fridge (!) for only US$9. We had arrived.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

A little about a lot

It's been a while since I've posted (as predicted) so I have a lot to write about. Therefore I am having to resort to writing brief unconnected bits about each thing. So bear with me. Or don't - it's not like I get paid for this!


We left Luang Prabang for Vientiane on the second of January, two days ago. On the journey we had to travel along dangerous, dangerous route 13. You might not know about this, as I have been refraining from mentioning it thus far for fear of terrifying you all (well, some of you), but Route 13 is the road that runs from the north of Laos right down to the south, winding through beautiful misty mountainous jungle. It is also the most dangerous road ever.
Well, alright, not quite. But buses travelling on it are sort of semi-regularly held up by armed gunmen and stuff along it's route. This happened several times in 2003 and 2004. And then in 2003 a bomb went off at Vientiane main bus station. It's all the work of... well, no one knows who it's the work of, actually. General consensus is Hmong (it's a tribe) rebels, but the government claims it's just the work of common or garden bandits. Mind you (checks over shoulder nervously for secret police), this is a Communist government that doesn't allow opposition, so they would say that.
Anyway, suffice it to say we survived. Yay. Though I'm not going to claim that when the bus actually broke down right in the middle of the most dangerous but we didn't crack a fair few fatalistic jokes... Thank goodness for spanners, and the mechanical mindedness of the driver!


Vientiane is the capital city of Laos, across the Mekong river from Thailand. It's a sordid, run-down little berg, but having got thoroughly bored of the quiet life after spending just too long in Luang Prabang, the facts that as I speak there is a whore walking the street outside this internet centre ("Hey Baaaaabyyyy" - no joke, no Full Metal Jacket pastiche, that is actually her line), and our guesthouse is a shit heap don't bother me too much. At least there are people here. And things to do (and I don't mean the ho). And without further ado, here are some accounts of the things I've done in since arrival.


Since I gave an account of the bureaucracy involved in getting my Indian visa, I feel I should give an account of what it took for us to go to the Vietnam embassy and get a Vietnamese visa. Actually, that's about it. We went there. It was open, despite it being the first Monday after New Year and thus everything else shut. We filled out a form, gave in our passports and photos, paid our US$55, and were told that the "three working days" it took to process would mean we could collect it on the 5th, when we handed in the application on the 2nd. So that's not like bank-style full working days - yay! Then, on the way out, Si took the risk of causing a diplomatic incident and stole a toilet roll from the Embassy toilets. Have that, Vietnam!


Today we got up (eventually - hey, I'm on holiday), and went to Buddha Park, a collection of scenes from Buddhist and Hindu mytholosy sculpted in cement by a monk. Judging from the sculptures, the man in question was completely insane - his vision of hell was an enormous concrete Giant Peach, into which one could crawl through a bit mouth, wander round the labyrinthine structure looking at bizarre concrete scenes, then eventually end up on the roof. Very highly recommended - it's utterly surreal.


After that we went to the Beer Lao factory. Yeah, I know it's a brewery, not a tourist attraction, but Beer Lao is the nicest beer in the whole wide world (probably), so we turned up at the reception, smiled and asked for a tour. And we got one, as well as free stickers, leaflets and, yes, a free glass of beer each. The bottling plant was fantastic. It was like all those videos in Science on Industrial processes, mixed with the Science Museum, and finally combined with beer. That good.


Finally, tonight I sat in a cheap Chinese in the sort-of-Chinatown here in Vientiane and ate fried pork and rice, then watched an utterly fantastic Chinese film about the perils of gambling. It had everything - the aforementioned gambling, sex, violence, comedy, awesome characters, and more plot twists than anyone could possibly foretell. And what was the name of this great film? I have no idea - the credits were in a Chinese language. Damn.


Right, off to Vietnam in the next couple of days, so again, if you don't hear from me for a while, don't panic and think I've been blown up at Vientiane bus station or somehow stumbled onto one of the many many pieces of unexploded ordinance the yanks left strewn across this still-Communist country when they weren't at all at war here stopping the Red Menace.