Bangkok taxi drivers make bid for world’s worst.

After a last taste of the relative tranquility of Siem Reap by the pool in the morning, it was time to head to the buzz of Bangkok.

I’ll say it up front, Bangkok is not my favourite city in the world. It is massive, not that clean or organized, and i find it lacks much redeeming charm. Still, it’s worth a visit all the same.

Our first day in Bangkok wasn’t a busy one. After our flight and transfer to the hotel we were somewhat tired, due in part I think to the heat and humidity (35 C). After checking-in we had a drink by the pool on the roof of the hotel. I went the safe route and had a beer. Maggi and Mary were a little more adventurous putting unwarranted faith in the hotel staff. Apparently a Pims No. 1 in Thailand is just a shot of Pims and a Campari was similarly botched. Not exactly the refreshing fruit-filled drinks they were hoping for.

We went to dinner at a restaurant on the river, the name of which I never did figure out, as it was only in Thai. The food was good and it was pleasant to sit by the river on such a hot evening.

Getting there, however, was another matter. There we five us going to dinner, Russell and Trisha, Katy and me, and Shane. We decided to take a taxi to get to the restaurant rather than the train and boat. This seemed like reasonable idea. Shane estimated that it would cost us about 85 baht (around $3) per taxi on the meter and that we would need two taxis for the five of us. So, just over $1 per person and we’d be there in 30 minutes.

Russell and Trisha got in the first taxi to come along and all seemed to be going according to plan. Then we ran into a problem. It turns out that taxi drivers in Bangkok are assholes. When we stopped a taxi for the three of us to follow, as soon as we told him where we wanted to go, he waved his hand and said he wouldn’t take us. Despite the fact that this is actually illegal, let alone a bit rude, this was repeated about ten more times over the next 20 minutes. Shane explained that the problem was their ability to get a fare coming back out of the area we were going to. While somewhat understandable, it didn’t do much to reduce the frustration.

Eventually, fearing that Russell and Trisha would be left standing alone in front of the restaurant, we agreed to pay a taxi driver 200 baht off meter for the trip, more than double what it should cost. A bit ironic as Shane told us all when we arrived in Bangkok to make sure the meter was always on if we got in a taxi.

Once in the taxi we we’re immediately caught in traffic, at one point sitting still for 15 minutes. For his part our taxi driver did little to inspire confidence, repeatedly banging his forehead as if punishing himself for agreeing to take us. Then, when we did find some open road, he flew through downtown Bangkok at 100 km/hr.

Meanwhile, Russell and Trisha were having their own adventures. Their driver didn’t really seem to know the way. Despite their 20 minute head start they caught us from behind at one point.

In the end we all made it to the restaurant safely. (Russell and Trisha arrived 15 minutes after us.)

The unknown restaurant.

For the taxi ride home, we decided it was best not to split up and crammed into one taxi. The cost, 85 baht.

The lesson: If you want a Bangkok experience, take a taxi. If you want to reach your destination quickly and without hassle, stick to the sky train and boats.

A humbling day with Rady.

Fortunately, our last full day in Siem Reap started a little later than the previous day, giving us a chance to sleep in just a bit and have a nice big breakfast.

We spent the morning visiting a few more temples: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Pre Rup, and East Mebon. At Neak Pean we met a little girl who was very happy with the bananas our local guide Kerry gave her.

The joy of a banana.

While all interesting, I have to admit that we just didn’t know enough to appreciate the smaller differences. We get things like transitions from brick to sandstone, but eventually a bit of temple fatigue set in and we were ready for lunch.

In the afternoon we had the opportunity to visit one of the floating villages, Kongpong Pluk, and to see a more “authentic” side of Cambodia, away from the tourists and their money. We were particularly fortunate to have been taken on our journey by Rady Rure in his tuk tuk. We were connected with Rady by Neil H., a Gap Adventures employee we had met in Toronto at the Ignite the Night fundraiser for a Cambodian eye centre that Gap held in the fall.

On the road with Rady.

Rady’s story is a great one that illustrates the huge impact that one act of kindness can have. I won’t do it justice here so please watch the video below that Neil put together. My short version is that while traveling in Siem Reap, Neil and his wife were taken aback by all of the poverty. When they met Rady, the decided to do something. Initially this was helping to pay his tuition fees for university and eventually raising money among their friends back in Toronto to help Rady by a tuk tuk so he could be self-sustaining.

Today, Rady not only drives his tuk tuk, he also teaches English at a school and even started his own School of English for the disadvantaged that currently has 160 students enrolled and four Australian volunteers on staff to help.

The village he took us to is a little further away, about an hour by tuk tuk. One thing that caught us off guard on the ride out was when Rady pulled over to the side of the road. We had seen stands with old bottles of Johnnie Walker, mostly red label, with what I thought was moonshine in them. When Rady pulled over we found out that they were actually filled with petrol. For those thinking about going into the business, a tuk tuk takes about two Johnnie Walker bottles of petrol to fill.

A JW top up for the tuk tuk.

Because the village was a little further away from town there weren’t a lot of tourists, I think we saw four all afternoon, so it felt like we were getting a glimpse into real life in rural Cambodia.

The first thing that struck me was that with water levels at a historic low, the floating village was actually more of a village in the sky with houses towering over us on stilts as we went down the river to the lake and back. As we went down the river there were men, all usually up to their necks in water, fishing. Rady told us they were fishing primarily for catfish. They would throw the large weighted nets into the water and then swim in and pull them back to shore. the fishermen are all farmers who fish during the dry season to feed their families.

Getting an early start on fishing.

Rady himself is an incredibly kind and warm person, so we were really lucky to have him show us around. He said that he came from a village a lot like the one we visited, though even further from Siem Reap. He said that without the help from Neil and his family, he would be one of these fisherman. He would be working with his body rather than his mind, the thing he likes most about his life today.

As we came back down the river, we hopped off the boat to walk through the village. With no water there was a main “street” running between two rows of houses, all with long ladders where we have walkways. The village children were very hospitable, greeting us with a chorus of “bye”s both coming and going.

The bye bye gang.

As luck had it, we were in town on a wedding day. There was a massive tent running down a large section of the central street and as we passed through a loud speaker was calling members of the grooms family to come out. As we were getting ready to get back on our boat, the groom and what I think were his groomsmen, were walking down the street in bright pink. Unfortunately they weren’t that close so I didn’t get a better picture.

Wedding Day Kongpong Pluk.
Wedding day in Kongpong Pluk.

It was really eye opening to walk through the village and reminded us how much stuff we have and how much we take for granted. The afternoon was a great experience, if a little overwhelming. It felt a bit wrong as we said our goodbyes to Rady only to go sit by the pool at our hotel and venture into town for dinner.

Rady may not be tall, but he’s doing big things.

We finished the day feeling that we need to follow Neil’s example and look for ways that we can be more than just observers when we travel. Personally, having seen what a difference a little money (relatively speaking) can make, I want to take a closer look at things like Kiva micro financing.

Becoming fish food

Our first full day in Siem Reap started early with a 4:30 am wake up so we could get to Angor Wat in time to see the sunrise. Sadly, this came just at the point in the trip where we were learning to sleep past 4:00 in the morning.

Everything went according to plan and we were in prime seats on one of the smaller buildings long before the sun came up, watching the crowds gather. It was very civilized as were able to buy coffee and tea while we waited. The only flaw in the plan proved to be our inability to control the weather. The cloudy morning made the sunrise a bit of a non-event, but a good experience nonetheless.

Angora Wat in the early morning cloud. Shame about the scaffolding.

After the sun was up, we started our temple marathon with a tour of Angor Wat. Our local guide, Kerry, was good, if a bit excitable for a group of people that had woken up at 4:30 in the morning. She did provide a couple of numbers that I find a bit hard to believe, i.e. that 1 million people worked on the construction and that 300 hundred billion tons of stone were used. I just might need to double check these through the magic of Google some day.

The second temple, Banyon, with hundreds of faces on the stone towers, was probably my favourite. After a few more temple sites including Ta Prohm, of Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones fame, the early morning was starting to catch up with us impacting our ability to pay attention, so it was back to the hotel for some pool time.

Katy coming face to face with a Ta Banyon statue.

Ta Prohm

As an aside, after Ta Prohm on this trip (Temple of Doom) and Petra (Last Crusade) in Jordan in the fall we’re on an Indiana Jones run. If you know of a famous location from the Lost Arc, let me know so we can plan our next trip around it.

In the evening we took another tuk tuk into town for dinner and some shopping. Katy and I were joined by Eddie, another traveller from our group from England. We ate at Temple Restaurant. The food was good and the restaurant had traditional Aspara dancing.

As we walked around the night market after dinner, we decided to visit Dr. Fish for a foot massage. Now, this was not just a $1 foot massage like the many others on offer. No, this was $3, included a drink and consisted of sticking your feet in a small pool of fish who then eat the dead flesh off your feet. It’s every bit as strange as it sounds.

Now, Eddie is lovely company so it was great to have him join us for dinner, but I was particularly happy when we stuck our feet in with the fish. Eddie’s reaction was priceless. You can almost tell in the picture below, but I’ll have a video linked here shortly so you can see what I mean.

Our appointment with Dr. Fish.

How do you top having fish pleasantly eat away at your feet? You don’t. So, after a little more shopping we got some ice cream and went back to the hotel for a much deserved rest.

The Adventures of Pickpocket Pam and Driver Dan

So, it turns out that when your Gap Adventures guide warns you that there is a risk of people trying to rob you while driving by on a scooter, they aren’t kidding. To prove this point our fearless leader Shane subjected himself to just such an incident.

At about 10:30 in the evening, while walking home from dinner to the hotel, Shane met two new Vietnamese friends, we’ll call them Pickpocket Pam and Driver Dan. While driving past, Pam tried to stick her hand in Shane’s pocket to grab his wallet. Fortunately Shane not only realized what was happening, he actually did something. Where I would have, judging by past history, curled up to protect my pizza (ok, there was no pizza, but it’s my only frame of reference), Shane protected his wallet while grabbing the back of the scooter. The sudden drag on the scooter sent driver Dan and his quick fingered sidekick flying. Apparently not able to recognize a lost cause when they saw one, the less than dynamic duo continued their attack rather than making a run for it. The result? Shane’s foot through the engine, rendering the scooter scrap, and both Dan and Pam spending time in headlocks. Unfortunately Shane wasn’t without injury as Pam bit him, that’s right, I said bit him, while in the headlock.

Adding to the evidence that our new anti-heroes aren’t going to be winning Nobel prizes anytime soon, the whole incident took place in front of a police station. Shane was able to call them just by yelling and both were arrested. While my limited understanding of the Vietnamese justice system suggests a small bribe will leave Pam and Dan free to try again, some solace can be found in that they are out the cost of a bribe, need a new bike, and suffered a minor ass whooping at the hands of a vertically challenged Irishman.

Despite all that, and a three hour stay at the hospital to get shots for the bite, Shane was only a few minutes late meeting us for the transfer to the airport for our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The hotel in Siem Reap was only 15 minutes from the airport and it was quite the shock when we arrived. It’s gorgeous! All of our other hotels up until this point have been great but this one definitely stands out. We normally save a nice hotel stay for the end of the trip but I suspect our hotel on the beach in Thailand will look like a hovel in comparison.

Tara Angkor Hotel, Siem Reap

With no planned activities, we spent the afternoon by the saltwater pool before going into town for dinner at Moksha. With a 4:30 am start coming, to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, bed followed shortly after.

Two lessons today. For the criminals out there, think twice before messing with an Irishman. For us travelers, tight shorts are our another example of fashion protection. Just imagine what tight shiny shorts could do!

Ôi Chúa ơi the Cu Chi tunnels are tight.

The focal point of our second day in Saigon was a trip to see the Cu Chi tunnels. Dug between 1948 and 1968 the tunnels were used by the Vietcong while fighting the Americans.

The site seems to be very well preserved and set up to give you a taste of what it must have been like, both to live in them and to try and attack them, neither of which I would have enjoyed in the least. It’s not hard to see how difficult life would have been living there or how terrifying it would have been for the Americans.

The tunnel exits seem to be everywhere, there are 200 km worth, and though they have been widened for tourists, they’re still very, very small. This is especially true for those of us over 6 ft., as two of us in our group are. The tunnels were made as small as possible to make it harder for the larger American GIs to fit. As you may know, I may be tall but I’m far from “big”, and this is even more true for Russell, our other six foot plus guy on tour, but it was definitely a squeeze for me to try and fit through the little entrance. Once inside, it was very dark, stuffy and claustrophobic. Only three in our group made the full little tourist journey, the rest dropped out at various intervals. I can’t imagine living down there for days on end.

Now you see her…

Now you don’t.

The tour highlighted some of the ingenious, and gruesome, inventions that the Vietcong made. One I had wondered about before our visit was, if they cook down there, how do they avoid having the smoke give them away. The answer is a 15 ft chimney that leaks the smoke out so it blends into the fog. The other inventions were less constructive: various booby traps. Most of them, ironically made with metal scavenged from US bombs, involved spearing those unlucky enough to find one.

The one aspect of the site that I found a bit inappropriate was the gun range where you can fire war era, and scale, weapons, e.g. M16 rifles and bigger things. With the tunnels underfoot and the guns pounding in the background, it’s not hard to understand why some visiting vets find it to be too much. I can’t imagine that the locals living nearby appreciate hearing the weapons that killed so many on a daily basis.

Along the route between the tunnels and Saigon we stopped to see how rice paper for spring rolls is made. Turns out, it’s harder than it looks. Apparently the women teaching us can do 500 an hour. Katy gave it a try. She struggled to get one done, as did everyone who tried.

Katy explores the mysteries of rice paper making.

Back in Saigon, we walked over to have lunch at Pho 2000, the same restaurant Clinton ate at when he was in Vietnam in 1995 after the US embargo was lifted. The Pho was really good and cheap to boot.

Presidential Pho.

The afternoon saw us strolling around town window shopping. We also stopped at the Majestic Hotel to have a drink at the rooftop patio overlooking the river. The patio was great and offered a great view of the city. It definitely wasn’t cheap, my beer cost four times the one I had at lunch, though still much cheaper than it would have cost at home.

Roof top drink in Saigon at the Majestic.

We planned to have dinner in the market but, having been there the night before, we decided to check out the backpacker district instead. Not surprisingly, the area was full of young travelers and cheap places to eat and drink. We picked one that looked good and watched the people flow by. All in all, a perfect way to finish another great day.

No real lessons learned today, but if your Vietnamese is a little rusty, you may be wondering about the title of this post. Well, “Ôi Chúa ơi” (pronounced oi-choi-oi) means “oh my god”.

Saigon at night. Not bad for the backpacker district.

One goes down, the other six million keep on rolling.

After a short flight from Hoi An, via Danag airport, we arrived in Saigon, a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City.

So, the name thing. Let’s deal with that first. I think we can all agree, Saigon is a much better name than Ho Chi Minh City. I know the communists won, but they don’t exactly show a flare for naming. As exhibit B I give you the “American Killer Hero” award given out during the war.

After a quick check-in at the hotel, we headed over to the War Remnants Museum, another marvel of communist naming. I can only imagine that it happened something like this:

– Comrade 1: “hmm, what do we do with all this left over stuff from the war?”
– Comrade 2: “we shall put it in a museum that tells the story of this glorious victory. The Museum of Left Over Stuff.”
– Comrade 1: “I don’t know, that’s kind of boring.”
– Comrade 2: “ok, what about the War Remnants Museum?”
– Comrade 1: “nice, now we’re talking”

Despite the boring name, the museum was actually quite interesting, remnants and all. I was expecting it to be pretty biased, which it was, but not nearly to the degree I expected. In fact, I suspect that many of the facts quoted, many very disturbing, were accurate. What was missing was context. As with most history, I’m sure the truth lies somewhere between the American version and that of the Vietnamese.

Close up with a Huey.

After the museum we regrouped with our traveling companions and went off on a Cyclo tour. As was the case in Hanoi, the Cyclos were a great way to see the city at a pace that lets you digest things, but with someone else worrying about getting you through the traffic. We saw most of the highlights of Saigon, once known as the “Paris of the Orient”, from the Cyclo and then ended our tour with a nice dinner in the heart of the city.

Cyclos… Kind of like glorified wheelchairs.

Saigon is a very nice city. I like the mix of new and old; it was very evident that this is the commercial centre of the country. I find that the look can be best imagined by combining Toronto’s Chinatown with some of the architecture of a European city.

I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the traffic. In a city of eight million, there are six million scooters. At times it feels like all six million are trying to get though one intersection, at one time… in all four directions. In short, it’s crazy. The craziest I’ve seen so far, it even makes the Middle East seem relatively tame.

That said, I think another good word for it is “organic”; it’s kind of like a river or school of fish. Therein lies the secret to being a pedestrian in Saigon. Before, I would have described it as a life size game of frogger, but really it’s more like wadding into a river or swimming with a school of fish. The trick is to move in slowly, at a consistent pace and with a sense of purpose. If you do that, the traffic will adapt and flow around you. Well, except for the taxis. Some of those guys are just bastards looking to take people out!

A typical medium sized intersection.

With that many scooters flying around, there are bound to be some accidents. It didn’t take long before we saw one. Here we saw the other organic side of the traffic, survival of the fittest. He went down mid-pack and anyone who wasn’t directly impeded just kept moving along. Fortunately he wasn’t badly hurt and was up on his scooter chasing the pack pretty quickly once again. The secret to his safety? Shiny pants. With pants that shiny he just slid safely along on a cushion of shimmer until he had come to a stop.

Today’s lesson: Shiny pants aren’t just for looking good.

Amazing who you meet on the street in Hoi An

There’s more to Hoi An than shopping. While we definitely took advantage of the opportunity to have clothes custom made, we also made time to enjoy the town. With everything moving at a much slower pace, and the Old Town district closed to scooters, it was a great place to just walk around and explore.

Our first full day in Hoi An started early with a trip to see the fish come into the market at 5:30 in the morning. While the streets between the hotel and the market were largely empty, the market was buzzing under the tarps. Of course, the tarps were set up to keep the locals dry which meant I had to walk around bent in half or stand with my head through a hole. It was great to be the only non locals walking around the market, though a few other morning tourists joined us eventually.

Early morning at the Hoi An market

After the market, believe it or not, we decided to go for a run. Conveniently, we were told that the beach was about 4 km from the hotel. It may just have the time off. It could have been the early morning. Maybe the humidity we weren’t used to, or the rough roads and traffic dodging, but it was a long 4 km. My guess is that our round trip was 10 km. Whatever the distance, it was good to get out for some exercise. While it was cloudy, the beach was nice and we had an opportunity to see the fishermen coming in on their round boats; they look like giant soup bowls. It’s pretty impressive that they can stand up in the surf, let alone steer them into shore.

Coracle landing on Hoi An beach.

After some much needed rest, a shower and a second breakfast (the fruit before the run had long since been expended), we headed back into town. As we rounded a corner near the market, we bumped into Kevin and Vanessa. While we knew before we came to SE Asia that we would see them, and had even confirmed by email that we would potentially cross paths in Hoi An, it was still odd to turn the corner and find them walking towards us. We had a chance to catch up quickly in the street and more over dinner that night at Mango Rooms. It was great to see them, and their two month trip definitely makes our 2.5 weeks seem far too short. They also gave us plenty of reasons to come back to this area to visit Lao.

Dinner at Mango Rooms.

Our two evenings in Hoi An also gave us a chance to see the lanterns that light up the town at night.

Stimulating the Vietnamese Economy

Hoi An has been our favourite stop so far. It’s smaller with a pedestrian friendly old town that you can wander around comfortably. It doesn’t hurt that it was warmer. We were in shorts and t-shirts pretty much the whole time.

Our drive from Hue to Hoi An included a quick stop at the Marble Mountain in Da Nang. Actually, we never really stopped in Da Nang, but you can see just from driving through how different it is going to be in a few years. All along the coast massive hotels are being built by the likes of Le Meridien. A little further down the road Colin Montgomery has just designed a new golf course. I only hope that some of the guests of these resorts actually get a chance to see Vietnam, that they don’t become gated communities with little outside contact.

Sculpture in one of the Marble Mountain caves.

Maybe it was seeing all this foreign investment in Vietnam, or just Katy’s love of a good deal, but once we arrived in Hoi An, it didn’t take us long to start doing a little economic stimulating of our own.

We knew before arriving that Hoi An is the place for buying clothing and it didn’t disappoint. I was able to get two made-to-measure suits and two shirts, all for what you would pay for just the shirts in Toronto. Katy did even better with a range of items from dresses, to skirts to jackets. A few of the items she had made had the women sitting at the table next to us quite impressed and asking for directions.

The trick now is getting it all home. We’ve managed to get everything in our luggage. Now we just have to hope it all irons out well when we get home.

Peeing in the corner – The importance of reading the fine print

Some downtime at the airport means a chance to catch up on these posts; we’ve been busy.

Hue, a town in central Vietnam, is the centre of Buddhism in Vietnam. Once the seat of Vietnam’s royal family it’s also full of history.

We were only there for two days and one night, but managed to see a fair bit in that time. Our visit started with a tour of the Tu Duc Royal Tomb. Just outside of town and very picturesque, the tomb complex was beautiful and one of Katy’s favorite stops. Though Hue was founded in the 17th century, I was surprised to find that the Tombs date from the 19th century (1802-1945). This seems to be a bit of a common theme in Vietnam, everything being from more recent history than I anticipated.

Statues at the Royal Tomb

Man made Ponds at Royal Tomb

After the Royal Tomb we toured the Citadel. Again from the 19th Century, the design is a mix of Chinese design principles and French military design. Though there has been a bunch of restoration, you can see some of the damage left by fighting during the Tet Offensive from the American War.

After a quick stop for lunch at a restaurant called Lac Thien for some delicious Banh Khoi, we went to the Thien Mu Pagoda. The Pagoda provided three things: great pictures, as usual, a moral dilemma, and the title of this post. The picture below illustrates the moral dilemma, is it appropriate to take pictures of people participating in religious acts? In this case, the ceremony was open to the public, which is how I justified this picture, but I’m always a bit unsure.

Monk at Thien Mu Pagoda

Now for the post headline. As we were walking around the grounds of the Pagoda, Maggi, a member of our group from Britain, decided to visit the toilet. She saw the WC sign and a monk coming out of a door. As he left, in she went.

About 10 minutes later, I decided to take advantage of the toilet before our boat ride down the Perfume River back to our hotel. I headed off in the in the same direction as Maggi had gone earlier. However, when I got closer I noticed that beneath the WC on the sign it said “20 m” with an arrow. With this additional information, I walked past the building Maggi had entered and found a full public toilet. Needless to say, this left me wondering where Maggi had gone.

As we sat on the boat, I asked Maggi how her trip to the toilet had gone. She looked at me somewhat oddly before explaining how there had been a small hole in the corner and a bucket of water with a ladle of some sort that she used to pour water down the hole when she was finished. I smiled and watched her face get increasingly red as I told her of my discovery 20 meters down the path. The best we can figure, with some input from our guide, is that she used the monks’ shower as her toilet. It could have been worse, a monk could have walked in on her.

The moral of the story, don’t blindly follow religious figures. They might not be leading you where you think. Oh, and always read the fine print.

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