Monday, 23 March 2009


On my first day in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC), I decided to go for a walk around to orientate myself. I thought I'd head over and check out the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace (where the North Vietnamese tanks rammed through the gates in 1975, ending the war).

Waiting to cross the road not far from my hotel, a well-dressed Asian man next to me said hello and asked my name and where I was from (it's standard here, you get used to it, or have fun making up answers). Once he found out I lived in Melbourne he exclaimed that his sister was just about to move there to work as a nurse. We chatted for a minute, and he asked if I would come back to his place and meet her, and so she could find out more about the city. I didn't really want to, and said I was on the way to the War Museum, but that was fine, he lived right near there, so we organised to meet there when it closed at 5pm.

As I walked away, not five metres up the street, a motorcycle taxi driver who'd watched us chat (but not overheard), asked what we were talking about. He warned that I need to look out for Filipinos who say that they have a brother or sister moving to your city, and invite you back to their place. There, he said, they'll convince you to play a game and basically scam you out of your money. Since he'd pretty much guessed exactly what the guy had said, I thanked him and vowed to be long gone from the museum by closing time.

The museum itself was interesting, mainly just a collection of US Military vehicles, aircraft and weapons. There was also a large display on the horrific effects of the experimental Agent Orange defoliant, which the US dumped 80 million litres of on Vietnam.

On the way back, I stopped to rest and check out my photos in one of the nice parks around the city. Within minutes I was approached by a girl who wanted to practice her English, so we chatted for a while, and she told me she was Cambodian and worked for Amway. I feigned ignorance, and she told me all about how great it was, and to check it out when I get home (sure). She gave me her number and then invited me for coffee, but had to call a friend to meet us first. It was starting to look pretty dubious so I bailed on her too.

Stopping in another park on the way back, I was again accosted, this time by two uni girls wanting to practice English. We were eventually joined by a few guys who drifted over to show off how well they could speak it too. That encounter ended after half an hour without any suspicious propositions, but the lesson is if you ever want to meet any local girls, just go and sit in a park for two minutes and look white.

The next day I took a tour out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is an enormous network of tiny underground passages where the locals lived and fought against the Americans. The visit started with a brilliantly biased old propaganda video about the "crazy American devils" slaughtering the innocent locals, who wanted nothing but to live in peace but were forced to become "American-killing heroes".

There were a few displays of the nasty booby traps used in the tunnels - pits with spikes in the designed to trap your leg, tripwires with mines, etc - plus we got to crawl an uncomfortable 20 metres through a recreated tunnel (no doubt widened for westerners).

The best part of the tour was the shooting range, where you could fire off an M-16, AK-47 or M-60 machine gun, for the low, low price of US$1.50 per round (minimum 10). Waiting for your turn, you not only get deafened because of a shortage of earmuffs, but you also get hot shell casings ejected at you because there's nowhere else to stand. Once you do actually get some earmuffs, you realise they are actually just cheap headphones with the cord cut off, and accordingly do absolutely nothing to protect your hearing.

I tried to squeeze off one shot at a time for accuracy, but the dodgy buggers had it set on full auto even though the selector dial said semi auto. So in the fastest way to burn cash ever, your 15 bucks have disappeared downrange before you even notice.

An guy from Michigan who I'd been chatting with decided to shoot the M-60 belt-fed machine gun (think Animal Mother from Full Metal Jacket, although his glasses made him look more like Private Cowboy). To complete the image, he stripped off his T-shirt and slung an ammunition belt across his chest, Rambo style. He asked me to film him, but his ammo was gone before I could even hit record. Even so, he had the time of his life. At least I think he did, I couldn't actually hear anything he said for the next half an hour.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Vietnam, first impressions

Other backpackers have been telling me that Vietnam is a beautiful country, but were tired of getting hassled and ripped off by the locals. Well it didn't take me long to confirm that, I got scammed before I'd even gotten through the Vietnamese checkpoint at the border.

I was going from Kampot on the south coast of Cambodia into Vietnam via a recently-opened and very out of the way crossing near Ha Tien. I organised a minibus to the border, but after being told that Ha Tien city was a few miles past that, I agreed on an extra couple of dollars to get all the way to town. After we dropped off two Canadian Matts at Kep, I continued on by myself. They were actually the last foreigners I'd see for the next 24 hours.

About 15km before the border, they transferred me onto a motorbike taxi because the rest of the way was a rough dirt road. Amazing scenery though, with big salt fields (looks just like rice paddies with no rice), but I was too busy hanging on to take photos.

I passed through the basic tin-shed Cambodian checkpoint with no problems, and crossed the few hundred metres to the Vietnamese side. In comparison, this one was a nice shiny modern building. Before I went in, the bike guy points at the sign over the checkpoint says "OK, this Ha Tien, I leave you here". Err, what? I paid to get to town, not to a building in the middle of nowhere that happens to say Ha Tien. He said he'd take me for just a few more dollars, which I had already paid to his friend with the minibus.

After arguing for a few minutes, saying that the minibus guy was keeping his money and ripping us both off, I told him to call his friend and sort it out. He pretended to dial and held it up so I could hear a supposed busy message, but who knows what it was saying. He repeated this charade a few minutes later but eventually I gave up and went through immigration. On the other side he told me he couldn't cross into Vietnam (even though he already had, and had already offered to take me further), but had organised with his friend to take me for just one extra dollar. Since this was apparently the only place in Asia not swarming with motorbike taxis, I didn't have much choice.

This next motorbike guy didn't speak any English, but I'd made sure he knew I wanted to go to the bus terminal in town. We crossed through the city and over a large bridge, but I started to get suspect after we turned off that down a dirt road. Surely just a shortcut? My suspicions were confirmed when we stopped at the oddest bus terminal I'd seen - there were no hawkers, food stands, ticket booths, or... buses. In fact it was a vacant lot.

Then another friend comes over and tries to explain to me that the bus station moved last year from here to a place half an hour from the city (what the hell did you bring me here for then?!). However this new guy would take me there, for a small fee of course. I was sick of getting scammed by now but was stranded in an empty part of some town that wasn't even in the guide book. I talked the guy down to five bucks (it's a lot here!) and we got going again. On the way we passed a few groups of camouflaged soldiers with assault rifles and rocket launchers on exercises just by the road, that was pretty cool.

We ended up in the next town, Kien Luong, where he took me not to a bus station, but to a small place that had one minibus that was doing the 8-hour trip to Saigon at 6pm. I was too tired to argue at this point. After a very negative impression of Vietnam so far, it was redeemed by a really nice girl called Hom who lived at the minibus place (it was a family-run thing) and who wanted to make sure I was comfortable. She spoke no English but showed me where I could wash up and got me a cold drink. Later she noticed me falling asleep, and took me out the back of the workshop where they had a bamboo mat I could crash on, and she'd even made up a pile of delicious rice paper rolls which she insisted I keep eating every time I looked like stopping for breath. They have this really potent fish sauce they use for dipping here too, not the sissy stuff we get at home.

Anyway we tried to have a conversation from the basic Vietnamese in the back of the guide book, which was fairly successful, considering. Mostly it was just her cracking up at my terrible pronunciation. Apparently one short word in Vietnamese can have up to half a dozen different meanings just based on the tonal inflection.

Once the bus finally got going, I was almost hopeful of having the whole thing to myself, but that was short-lived as it was soon packed with picked-up locals. One woman got very irate when her bag was dropped which contained a bottle of the aforementioned toxic fish sauce, which ended up all over the floor of the bus. The rest of the trip, and now my backpack which was sitting in it, smelled like an Asian fish market.

I met another nice local girl on the bus who spoke a tiny bit of English, but the bus was dark and I couldn't even use the Lonely Planet to translate this time. She gave me a few of her tamarinds and even bought me a bottle of green tea when we stopped, and was disappointed I didn't have a Vietnamese number yet. Though I'm not sure what she expected to do with it, since we could barely converse in person, let alone on the phone.

Anyway after far too long I was unceremoniously dumped near the backpacker area of Saigon at 2am with nowhere to stay. A cyclo driver offered to find me somewhere cheap, and drove me 100m up the road to a place that was shut, and then back again to where we started. Eventually I got a room and he wanted his money. I didn't have change, but he assured me he would get some as he ran off with twice what I owed him.

He never came back. I think I would have been more surprised if he did.

Thursday, 19 March 2009


Hands up those who knew that Cambodia has some great beaches? Yeah, me neither. Turns out it does, in the southwest corner from Koh Kong on the Gulf of Thailand, around to Kep near the Vietnamese border. I spent a few days in Sihanoukville which is about halfway between the two.

Apart from being thankfully much cooler than the rest of Cambodia, there are some really nice beaches around the area, and the further out of town you go the better they get. The southernmost beach, Otres, can only be reached by a dirt road and so is practically empty. There are small bars set up all along the sand where you can chill out with a drink but there's still hardly anyone there.

I met a few Swedish and Canadian guys who were staying at my guest house, the Green Gecko (best room you'll get for 4 bucks). They had fully adjusted to the hectic lifestyle of hanging out at the local bars, watching lightning storms while playing guitar on the beach, and drinking plenty of cheap booze. Speaking of which, the first night I was amazed to see on the menu a bucket of alcohol - a full bottle of whiskey, with red bull and coke - for US$6. Turns out even that's too much, because as the guys had discovered (several times), a 700ml local whiskey is only $1.50 and the mixers are about 50c each. Crazy.

So, given the circumstances, it's not surprising I came home three nights in a row after sunrise. Unfortunately, in the middle there I had a full day of scuba diving, so had to sit on a rolling boat for two hours after only two hours of sleep. Actually once I got in the water I felt pretty good. I thought I'd crash as soon as I got home, but the bucket came out again and it was all over for that idea.

On Tuesday, Canadian Matt and I hired a motorbike to go into town and get our Vietnamese visas. A few hundred metres up the road I realised the guy hadn't given me a helmet, and it was about that time that a cop jumped out and pulled us over. They'd set up a little checkpoint and were pulling over everyone without helmets, which is only just recently required by law. I had my Australian license on me but my international one was back in the hotel. The cop checked the number plate and shook his head, saying that the plates didn't match the bike and that this was a big problem. We asked if there was any "fine" we needed to pay but surprisingly he insisted that I walk back to the guest house for the registration papers while Matt waited there with the bike.

Well after walking the five minutes back to the guest house, the guy wouldn't give me the papers (or didn't have any), but handed me his card so the cop could call him. I also remembered to grab the helmet this time. As I walked back to the checkpoint, I saw several other tourists on bikes getting pulled over, and plenty of locals doing quick U-turns and speeding off as soon as they spotted it.

All this time Matt had been asking the cop if there was any way we could take care of this now, but was repeatedly refused. When I handed the policeman the business card and said I didn't have the papers, he didn't even call the number but told us again that this was a "big problem" and we could pay him now to take care of it. Considering the missing helmet, supposed wrong registration and incorrect license, we were both apprehensive about what figure he'd ask for.

One dollar.

Not believing our luck, we paid him and got the hell out of there as quick as we could, this time wearing the helmet.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Packing light

After travelling for six months with a regular-sized, 65 litre pack, I realised I didn't actually use half the stuff that I was lugging around. Ben had already moved to using a smaller pack, and kept on about how much better it was, but I didn't have another one to use. Before I set off alone to Cambodia though, I got myself a new one about half the size to see how it went. Turns out he's right, it's way better.

Firstly, you can carry it on anywhere, you no longer have to stick it under a bus or check it in on a plane, and it never has to leave your sight. Secondly, since it's not much bigger than a school bag, you don't feel like a backpacker, and don't stick out as much (well, no more than your average tall, blond, white guy in Asia). Plus you get envious looks from other backpackers as they come in from the heat, exhausted and sweaty from carrying their huge packs.

It's not like I only have the bare essentials either - I have two cameras (a compact and my new SLR-like) and two iPods on me (the Shuffle and the iPhone) plus the piles of cables, chargers and spare batteries that they require.

The first thing is to ditch the shoes. For someone with feet my size they seem to take up half my pack, and weigh far too much. Since you can wear thongs everywhere in Asia (even on treks and flights), they just aren't needed. Although I did bring a pair of socks for those air-conditioned overnight buses.

As for clothes, I've only got two pairs of shorts, one of which are also boardshorts, and the other are those zip-off khaki cargoes for when I need long pants. I've only got 3 t-shirts but you can buy more anywhere along the way. The biggest item is my microfleece jumper which you can't risk going without.

I've got a travel towel which I haven't needed much, and a silk sleep sheet which I haven't used on this part of the trip, but that's because I've been in guest houses most of the time. My rain jacket I swapped for a small plastic poncho but I haven't needed it yet. I left behind three-quarters of my toiletries, which you can buy anywhere along the way, and only took a minimal first aid kit.

I've got my small LED torch, which comes in handy for finding your way out of Indonesian jungles at night, climbing volcanoes before dawn or just looking through your pack on a dark bus. Although, if you pack your pack the same way every time, you can pretty much find anything you need in it by feel anyway. Little combination locks on the zips are essential, especially when traveling by yourself (thanks Claire, they're great!). Semi-hard cases for cameras, iPods and the like are needed so you don't cry when your bag gets dropped or crushed.

Sorry to sound like an Apple ad, but one of the best things I brought on this trip was the iPhone. You can get wireless in so many places now, and local SIM cards with data plans are so cheap, that you can access email and internet pretty much anywhere. The browser is great for checking timetables or Wikitravel, and the built-in Google Maps with location finder is a lifesaver. Not to mention the music, movies and games for long bus trips. Ben's been carrying a small laptop with him, but I can get most of the same stuff from something that weighs ten times less. The only problem with being online everywhere, is that people at home expect you to reply to emails even when you're somewhere in the Sumatran jungle!

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


Not much to say about Angkor Wat, the temples are pretty amazing and that, but I probably would have been more impressed if I hadn't seen the big temples in Java and the thousands of them in Burma. There's pictures here but they all kind of look a bit samey: Angkor Wat photos. Although hot, Siem Reap is a nice place, especially the Warehouse Bar where I spent half my time - hi Josh, Sony and Soda!

From Siem Reap I caught the boat across the enormous Tonle Sap flood lake, and up the river to Battambang, past miles of floating villages. In the wet season, this supposedly takes four hours, which would have been perfect. Being the dry season, and being that our boat broke down a dozen times, it took eleven hours.

Yesterday I hired a motorbike to explore the area around Battambang, firstly heading up north to see Wat Ek Phnom, a Buddhist temple and ancient ruins older than Angkor Wat. On the way back on a dirt road about half an hour from town, I got flat tire. I was out in the middle of nowhere with a broken bike, and probably no-one within ten miles that could speak English.

As I slowly rode my crippled bike towards town, the locals that I passed saw my predicament and all pointed further down the road. Eventually I arrived at a "garage", marked by a bicycle tire hanging from a post.

The guy took my bike, and removed the inner tube without taking the back wheel off. He found the hole was an old split that had been badly patched. He ripped off the old patch and actually stitched the split with thread, then put it under a clamp with a hole in the middle. In this he lit a small fire to melt the new patch on. After about 20 minutes, he tested the new patch, but wasn't happy with it and ended up just swapping the whole inner tube.

During this time, his daughters arrived home from school, and were amazed to see a white guy at their house. They sat there the whole time with the rest of the family, watching me, gesturing about how I barely fit under the roof, and giggling to themselves. The only English that one of them knew was "what is your name".

All up, the guy spent the best part of an hour working on this tire, and I was worried how much it would be, since I didn't have much cash on me. I didn't have a lot to worry about, in the end he only asked for 3000 riel... 75 cents. Less than a dollar for an hour's work plus a new inner tube. I gave the guy two bucks and still felt like I ripped him off.

Later that afternoon, I rode southwest on a dusty dirt road to Phnom Sampeu, where there was a monastery, and some killing caves of the Khmer Rouge. I was met by the head monk who showed me around the temple, and the classrooms where they taught English to poor or orphaned kids. He even dragged me in front of a class to talk about myself with the students for 15 minutes. I donated a few bucks to the school, which I would later regret.

By now it was too late to climb up to the caves, but at dusk the many bats which inhabit them came out to feed. They streamed out of the cave by their thousands for almost an hour, and the monk told me the caves on the other side had even more bats.

As I went to head home, I discovered the headlight of my scooter didn't work, so I had to slowly make my way back along the unfinished dirt highway in the dark. To make things worse, every time a truck roared past it kicked up a thick cloud of dust which made seeing anything even more impossible. To top it off, I had barely any petrol left and was worried about running dry at any second.

Yet somehow I managed to make it back to the guesthouse for a well deserved beer (only 60 cents!) and a game of poker with a few of the ex-pats. I mentioned that I'd been out to see the monastery, and the owner of the bar, an Aussie, says "you didn't give any money to that head monk did you? He's a scammer, it's funded by the government and he keeps all the donations himself. How many monks have a $300 mobile phone?". Teach me for being altruistic.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Into Cambodia

Today I crossed the border into Cambodia at Poipet, about 5 hours east of Bangkok. The first weird thing was that it was hot and sunny on the Thai side, but after passing through immigration and emerging on to the Cambodian side, it had become dusty, dark and windy. Five minutes later it was raining hard. It felt like I'd just stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia.

Before you even get to the Cambodian post there are a few big casinos right on the border, the Thais love to come over for day trips just to gamble away their baht. Apparently they are even allowed to pop back over the border without having to go through immigration, just so they can get to the ATMs.

I split a cab with an Estonian couple I'd met from the bus - they only had one pack between them, and it was even smaller than mine! Anyway the taxi was only a few bucks more and it beat spending another five hours on a coach.

Stepping out of immigration, the road was unsealed and rough, which did not bode well for the long trip to Siem Reap. However past this, it turned into a nice sealed road, which looked like it had just been built. The road was dead straight almost the whole way, with the occasional kink every 50km or so, and with a modern concrete-post power line running alongside it (very nice compared to the tangled cable fire hazards in Thailand).

White Camry sedans seemed to be the weapon of choice, and we had a whole convoy of them going for a while there. More than once we had to brake hard to avoid hitting a bullock running across the road, usually with a flustered woman chasing after it waving a stick. The style of driving reminded me of Indonesia - fast, constantly on the horn, and usually on the wrong side of the road. Seemed he could have wired up his horn backwards so he'd only have to hit it when he didn't want to honk, to save some time.

After an hour and a half we came to a construction zone which went on for 20km, where they were still building the new road. Instead of blocking off half the road while they work on it, the Cambodians seem to just like building the whole thing at once, while traffic dodged in between the lumbering steamrollers, graders and trucks. It doesn't seem to slow them down though; our guy was doing 80 on the wrong side of the wet dirt road, swerving to avoid the bigger rocks. We passed a truck which had tipped over too, but unfortunately I was too busy scoffing wasabi peas to get my camera out.

Quicker than expected, we arrived in Siem Reap (only two and half hours instead of five! It was worth those extra few bucks), where we were met by dozens of big, very expensive-looking hotels. I guess the Angkor Wat package tourists have to sleep somewhere too. By the way, who was it at Lonely Planet who had the bright idea of marking the US$750-a-night hotel as "Our Pick"? Is this why their guide books are so expensive??