Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving on a Cambodian Boat

Waiting for the taxi

The boat trip along various waterways between Siem Reap and Battambang (third syllable pronounced "bong") is touted as Cambodia's premier river voyage, and indeed, it was an unforgettable experience, with many opportunities to be thankful.  We were thankful when the taxi to the boat finally arrived at 6:30 a.m., after we had been waiting for half an hour.  We were also thankful to finally reach the boat, after several mysterious stops, nearly an hour later, and even more thankful when the boat finally departed, nearly a hour after that and its scheduled departure time, as an endless stream of people, mostly backpackers, but a few Cambodians and a few tourists with enormous suitcases crowded onto the boat, which had seats for perhaps half the passengers. Extra passengers sprawled on the roof of the boat, and some napped on top of the luggage.  Seated on the narrow board seat in front of us, was a sweet Cambodian mother with a small baby with two bottom teeth (is that a 4-month or six-month-old?).  Of course he was adorable, and of course he wore no diapers.  The first time he peed a puddle onto the floor, the mother motioned to us to move our backpack, and it was a good thing we did.  She took his wet pants, wiped him and the seat off with a towel, and soon put him in dry pants, until the whole scenario was repeated in what seemed like less than an hour later.  He was a good baby, and slept for much of the trip.  Mother and babe departed somewhat less than half-way, at one of the larger floating villages, where they were met by a handsome young man (perhaps her husband) in a smaller boat, onto which she and baby and considerable baggage, including a yellow electric fan, departed.  The empty seat was eagerly grabbed by a young French couple.  We were not eager to move up to the now dry seat, but who knows what had been on our seat during previous trips?

Sounding its horn as it approached, the boat would stop at floating docks or be joined by other boats in the floating villages, and passengers and/or freight would be loaded or unloaded.  All this slowed us down, but it was fascinating to watch.  About 3 or 4 hours into the trip we tied up at a floating restaurant/shop for 20 minutes.  There was nowhere to go, just a 30x30 foot raft, no restroom, an ice chest with cold drinks (also available on the boat, $1 a can whether beer or Coke), and a glass case with potato chips, cookies, and crackers.  Some hungry passengers ordered food ladled out of huge pots or sizzling on a fire, but it didn't look that inviting to us.

This little guy was in charge of the boat that ferried the passenger out to our boat.

It was after this stop that the boat turned into a narrow passage that became narrower and narrower.  Soon those of us on the starboard side were getting whipped by branches like the Whomping Willow.  Soon no one was seated on that side, causing the boat to keel even more precariously to the left than it had been doing all along.  Then, crunch.  The boat came to a standstill, stuck, completely surrounded by trees.  A man with a paddle pushed from the prow and grabbed branches to pull us along.  The engine chugged and groaned.  Big thunderclouds formed overhead, and I hoped a rain might raise the water level.  It was hot, especially since we were no longer moving.  I had expected this boat to be a bit like The African Queen, but I had no idea how closely our journey would resemble that of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

I envisioned a night on that miserable boat.  Or waiting for hours for a replacement boat.  Or all of us leaping overboard to wade and push and pull the boat.  Finally, after a lot of chugging and groaning, and a few loud bangs, the boat began to edge forward.  We could see open water to our left, but it was separated from our channel by a large expanse of mud. Eventually we moved forward into open, but shallow water.  Something had broken.  So, there was no collective sigh of relief, no cheering yet.  The driver killed the engine and disappeared to the back of the boat.  Another long wait.  We could see small floating houses ahead, but they certainly couldn't offer us much in the way of sustenance or shelter.  The crowd on the boat would sink them.  Finally, after a few loud bangs, the driver came forward.  Another driver took over, the engine roared to life again, and the boat slowly moved out of the shallows, and eventually into a real river, the Sangker, which flows from Battambang.  When the engine finally started again and we moved forward, there was a feeble cheer from the passengers.

The trip became more scenic again along the river.  The floating houses gave way to houses on stilts and and houses along the riverbanks.  Many fishing people, both men and women, were setting nets and fish traps   from their small long boats, and our big boat had to steer around the nets kept afloat by plastic bottles.  We saw a tractor on the bank, then motorcycles, so we knew we'd come to dry land.

Among my favorite memories of the trip were the children who greeted us by waving enthusiastically as the boat passed. Unlike the children in Siem Reap,  these were not begging or hawking, but just genuinely excited to have a boatload of people floating by.  Even babies, held by mothers or fathers waved, and some children engaged in antics, leaping into the water or sliding down muddy banks as we passed.  One little boy on the deck of a boat was chopping something with an enormous cleaver.  Women washed dishes and clothes in the muddy river.

As we grew closer to Battambang, cargo and people began to unload at small spots along the bank.  One month after the end of the rainy season in October, the banks were already high above the water, and in places completely covered in trash.  At one point we let off a woman with three children and many very heavy sacks of stuff.  The little children dragged the heavy sacks to the front of the boat, and got some help lifting them up the steps and off the boat.  Soon the whole family and all the heavy load, with the help of a greeting husband, were on the bank, and as we floated away they were struggling up the bank with the goods, the little children determined to do their part in hauling up the bags that were larger and heavier than they were.

Even though these stops lengthened the trip, they added much to the experience.  This was not just a tourist boat, but a lifeline and link to the outside world for people living in isolated small communities, living a traditional way of life, leaving a very small footprint.  No electricity, no cars, no heat, but wood for cooking.  No air conditioning.  No household appliances or fancy furniture.  Some had boats with motors, many had boats they paddled. No Black Friday shopping sprees for these folks.  I was thankful for the glimpse into their lives that this river trip gave me.  I am still trying to comprehend what lives and communities like this could be like.  Perhaps I can find some books that will tell me more.  I did not see expressions of anger or frustration.  I did not see or hear children crying or complaining.

I am thankful to have had the experience of this river trip, and I was even more thankful when the trip was over.   Shouldering our packs, we staggered up the steep and rickety steps (at least we had step) to the top of the bank, not knowing what we'd find.  We were greeted by a sea of faces and cards with hotel names and people names.  I had reserved a hotel room, but I didn't remember specifying that I wanted to be met, but there was a sign reading "Linnea Hendrickson"!  Weary and grateful we seated ourselves in the tuk-tuk for the short ride to the hotel.  No air conditioning in the lobby, where I had to go through all the formalities, then we were lead up to our room on the 5th floor, a deluxe room with air conditioning, a bathroom and shower, massive carved wooden furniture, views over the city and a terrace.  We were very thankful to have arrived in this room, and to not be spending Thanksgiving night in a crowded boat stuck in a swamp, although that might have made a better story.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Two days and nights in Phnom Penh

1.  It is hot, day and night, with occasional respite from breezes off the river

2.  The river is mesmerizing, constantly flowing, boats of all kinds and sizes going upstream and down, flags of all nations flying brightly along Sisowath Quay, full of walkers, tourists, local
folks, vendors with water and soft drinks in ice chests, fishermen and women, whole families with children playing, lovers, old folks, tut-tuk drivers wanting to take you to all the sights, and unfortunately far too many beggars, some missing limbs, some badly deformed.  Cambodia is a poor country, probably the poorest we have visited.

3.  Staying right on the Quay at the historic FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) was fun, with two floors of an open air bar and restaurant filled with a lively international crowd of people of all ages in the evening.  Barstools along the balustrades were prime spots for watching the river at sunset during the two-for-one three-hour happy hour.  Unfortunately, after two or three two-for-one specials and a light dinner, these two old travelers were ready for bed about the time things really got into full swing around 8 p.m.  Who knows what tales we would have to tell had we been able to stay awake (and keep drinking?) longer.

4.  We couldn't walk out the door without being hailed by half a dozen tuk-tuk drivers, many treating us as though we were old friends, all wanting our business.  It was hard to disappoint them, and in retrospect we should have taken a tour around the central part of town, because pretty much all we saw was the waterfront and the Royal Palace, whose magnificence rivaled that of Bangkok, although on a smaller, less lavish scale.

5. On our first evening we encountered some kind of religious event at a small temple by the water.  Crowds queued to enter with offerings of lotus buds and blossoms arranged in coconut shells, and traditional musicians played nearby.  A platform, also covered with offerings of flowers provided additional space for people to kneel and pray.  The location was in front of the Royal Palace, which was fronted by a huge billboard with a portrait of the king, celebrating 10 years of his reign.  "Sixty-one years old, and no children," we were told by the well-educated, very talkative tuk-tuk driver we met the next day.  

6.  The FCC was also famous for its food.  Among the delicious things I ate there were prawn shooters in a lemon and chili sauce, a Caesar salad, a Portuguese salad with yogurt dressing and piriperi chicken, and a floating island dessert.  Kent stuck with the marguerita pizza, which he loved, and for breakfast there were warm croissants and Eggs Benedict!

7.  There is a picture book I loved, but can't remember author or illustrator, with lovely watercolor illustrations, called "The Caged Birds of Phnom Penh" about a little girl who saves her money to free the birds. I paid $1 to free two birds which I held in my hand for a minute, and made a quick prayer for peace and freedom for all creatures, but the tiny birds were weak.  I suspect they were easily caught again, or lured back to cages with food.  I need to find that story again.

8.  Bathrooms, napkins, and temperature.  This doesn't fit in anywhere, but while there were public toilets everywhere in China, they almost never had toilet paper or any way to wipe your hands.  Vietnam and Cambodia, despite being poorer countries, tend to have clean toilets with toilet paper, Muslim showers, and even paper towels!  I think I used only one public toilet in Myanmar, a hole in the ground with in a wooden shed with a dipper of water --less said about that one the better.  China also had toilets at bus stops (on tourist routes and connected to restaurants) that had a series of squat toilets all in a row, open doors, and separated one from the other by perhaps a 3-foot wall, an open trench, really, with water flowing through it.  A bush to squat behind would have been better and less odiferous, had there been any bushes.  Also, in all but the fanciest, most expensive Chinese restaurants, forget about paper napkins.  If you could get something, it would be a thin sheet of paper from a toilet paper holder set on the table, or sometimes they would pass a Kleenex packet.  My bandana has come in very handy, and come to think of it it is due for another wash, as I've been mopping a lot of sweat lately, and I don't think there is any relief in sight.  The weather forecast for Siem Reap is mid thirties, which translates to mid 90s, with a "feels like" rating in mid-afternoon of 103!  I don't know how much trekking amidst the ruins, or bicycling to them we'll be able to take. Stay tuned.

All I could think of was Maurice Sendak when I saw this image in the decaying murals of the Royal Palace.

9.  We could have done more in Phnom Penh, but I spent most of one morning arranging most of the rest of our trip, which as of now goes:

November 23. depart for Siem Reap, 12:40 pm Cambodia Angkor Air K6109, arr, 1:20 pm.  Pick up by Alliance Boutique Villas  Bus 8 hrs. $15 ea., flight 45 min. $100 plus each.  We chose to fly, based on recommendations from people who had done both.  I know we are wimps, and while sitting in this clean, pleasant air-conditioned airport, at which we arrived by a rather exciting half-hour tuk-tuk ride, I've had time to write these notes.

November 23-24-25-26, Siem Reap.  Alliance Villas.  Breakfast included.  Angkor Wat, buy three day ticket

November 27 small river boat to Battambang, Cambodia, 7-10 hours

November 27-30 Battambang.  Seng Hout Hotel, near Psar Market.
Call ahead to reconfirm Lazy Beach.

November 30.  bus, taxi or mini van to Sihanoukville.
Need to book room for one night.

December 1-5 Cambodian island Koh Rong Samloem near Sihanoukville, 2 hours by boat.  May have to swim to shore.  Bungalow on island.  No electricity,  no internet 4 days.

December 5. Return to Phnom Penh by bus.  Need to reserve room for one night.

 December 6. Air Asia AK 537, 8:35 a.m., to Kuala Lumpur ($80 each) 

KL and around. Nothing booked yet Dec. 6 to 10

December 11.  Singapore. L Residence 

December 12 evening to San Francisco

December 14 afternoon to Albuquerque

Friday, November 21, 2014

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

After two days exploring the backwaters of the Mekong Delta with a guide from Handspan Travel (with whom we'd gone to Halong Bay), we have made it up the river and across the border to Cambodia.  The first part of the boat trip was 0.K., but then we went through an exit from Vietnam stop, which took quite awhile, and then a few miles further on, we exited again, to enter Cambodia.  The passports were collected on the boat, and the visas cost us $34 each although official information says $25.  We watched the officials sitting at a big table on the riverbank under a roof, scrutinizing all the passports, writing notes, stamping, checking on us by tablets and phone.  Finally we were each called by name, one by one,to retrieve our passports and then walk to a window where we again relinquished the passports to be stamped at least 4 times,before they were handed back to us.  We were able to get on the boat, after an officer checked the passports again, of course.  But now 3 boatloads of people had been combined into one, and there were almost no seats left, so Kent and I had to split up, and no one would switch seats because they all claimed they had long legs, and the seats left were over the curve of the hull.  So, Kent, who is not exactly short-legged, and I, who am more so, squeezed into the short-legged seats for what we thought would be another hour, but which turned out to be two.  The arrival time of 12:30 p.m. had now become 2 p.m.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed visiting with a young German man next to me, and when we got here tuk-tuk drivers fought to take us the six or 7 blocks to the hotel, after the enormous pile of luggage had been unloaded.

The Foreign Correspondents Club where we are staying, is indeed a fascinating,historic place, a little rough around the edges, but that story will have to be told later as I can't stay awake any more.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

We watched a hazy Sunday sunrise from our hotel window, ate a standard hotel buffet breakfast, then ventured  out along what turned out to be a very busy chaotic market street, until we reached a bigger street, and eventually a lovely park, full of young people playing games, singing and playing guitars.  Of course, there was one handsome university student who introduced himself and wanted to practice his English.  I always think afterwards of questions I should have asked, and Vietnamese phrases we could have asked for help with.

Through another park also full of families and young people practicing sports (some doing amazing kicks to hit a paddle high above their heads), we eventually reached the War Remnants Museum, where were greeted by a man with no arms above the elbows, a victim of a land mine in 1977.  We ended up buying a book from him, I think we were kind of in shock at the moment of meeting him.  I can now see that the book was a pirated copy, and we paid way too much.  But, our guilt at meeting him!

The War Remnants Museum was very powerful.  A lot of it was devoted to victims of Agent Orange and dioxin, part of it a special exhibit for November.  I was most moved by a large exhibit devoted to the photographers who documented the war, most of whom died doing so.  The exhibit included many very famous photos, some of them taken from cameras after the photographers had died.  It was a memorial to photographers from many countries, many of them very famous, some of them women, including many from North Vietnam, going as far back as the French war.

Outside were American tanks, bulldozers (the thought of those monsters being airlifted to remote mountains and rice paddies was mind-boggling), planes, and helicopters.  There was also an exhibit of torture and prisons, some of it so awful I had to stop looking, including a guillotine (not sure I'd ever actually seen one before).  Tiger cages made of barbed wire in which prisoners were confined, sometimes several in one cage on hot sand.  They couldn't sit up inside them.  Looking at all this in the heat, which didn't even approach what those confined in the cages endured, made the horror of it all even more real.  The museum closed from noon to 1:30, perhaps a borrowing from the French sacred lunch hour or two when all shops close, at least in rural France.

We found our way to a nearby Mexican (!) restaurant listed in our Lonely Planet guide.  The food was good, probably not real close to what you would find in Mexico, and actually maybe more like you'd find in an American Mexican Restaurant --  burritos, enchiladas.  The "Mexican rice" which I didn't eat, looked more like something Asian.  It was yellow.  The food was too much too eat -- we should have ordered one dish for two of us.  A bizarre aspect of the restaurant was that in the air conditioned inside room where we chose to sit, they were showing what were supposed to be Spanish language films, and the first one was a cartoon in Spanish, but the second one some kind of Templar movie with Jon Voight and Nicholas Cage -- we'd never heard of this, but I just looked it up and see it was National Treasure.  We didn't stay past a wild car chase through London, although a section with clues to Cibola was beginning.  Maybe that was going to be the Mexican connection!

Then on to the Reunification Palace, also called the Independence Palace the fancy White House, all in very sixties/seventies style that was built during the war and where Thieu (I think) gave his two- hour resignation speech) and where the North came in, apparently without a fight and took over.  Big, elegant rooms.  I gave back the little brochure, or I would be more accurate. It was very lavish and beautiful, and still used for official function, set in the midst of a big park with tall trees, and replaced an older French building.

Here is a scene from right near our hotel, which is so typical.  Women selling vegetables and clothes, a woman working on a sewing machine, and older woman smoking, squatting on the side walk with cups of tea in front of her.

We were quite exhausted after our hours of walking in humid 90 degree temperatures, and came back to our hotel room from which we didn't stir again!

This hotel (Sunland) is rather odd, a tall tower with quite posh rooms, and a huge Las Vegas type sign shedding its light over the rooftop bar and restaurant (where the food is rather mediocre), but the views along the Saigon River and of the city lights are spectacular.  There is also a quite pretty rooftop pool on a level just below the restaurant.

There is a big bathtub in our bathroom, which is divided from the room by a translucent panel painted with mountains and oceans.  I'll try to capture a photo of Kent bathing behind it ( :-). However, the tub has a flimsy plastic shower curtain, and is surrounded by flat slate tiles that collects the water from the shower, which eventually runs onto the floor, no matter how careful we try to be.

I booked the hotel rather hastily, based on a good price (Saigon is more expensive than Hanoi or Hoi An), great reviews and several comments that it was easy to walk to major sights. The major sights are not that far away, but the streets are not easy to walk, filled with street-side markets and motorcycles that leave almost no room for walking.  There are no charming little restaurants nearby, although there are many little holes in the wall, which after walking through the displays of fly-covered meat, flopping fish, and struggling frogs somehow don't have much appeal for us.

We followed a suggested walking tour through Old Saigon this morning, and went to the top of Saigon's premier flashy skyscraper, The Bitexco Financial a Tower, built to resemble a lotus bud.  We and ended up at the wonderful Gustave Eiffel-designed post office, still in use, no air conditioning, fans whirring, air circulating through a raised  section of vaulted roof and louvered ends.  Nearby, Notre Dame Cathedral across the street, and Dunkin a Donuts to one side!  iced coffee and donuts in cool air conditioning hit the spot, incongruous though it seemed in the heart of "old Saigon."

Post Office

On our walk up the posh Dong Khoi Street ( which was walkable), where I should have booked our hotel (and almost did), we stopped at the Opera House, now known as the Municipal Theatre, and got two of the few remaining tickets to what promises to be an interesting classical music concert tomorrow night.  The theme is classic movie music, and features an award-winning young Vietnamese flutist.

detail from needlework display in Bitexco Tower

Flowers on bare branches in the park

I am still having trouble coming to grips with the horror of the Vietnam War, or the American War, as it is called here, and the beauty of the country and the people I see before me.  There is so much poverty, yet such energy and optimism.  So many people are working very hard for very little.  So many people died during the war, and also in its aftermath when opponents of the communist Hanoi government were punished, and so many chose to flee.  The lives of so many Americans were also lost, ruined, and the whole nature of American society changed in painful ways during those years. 1954-1973, are the dates they give here for the American War, but most of us didn't even know about it until the mid 1960s.