A Day in Yangon

View of Shwedagon Pagoda from Taunggyi Lake

I came to Myanmar largely in the dark about the country. Before deciding to travel there, I knew vaguely of the country’s authoritarian military junta, which had been exposed to the world during 2008’s Cyclone Nargis; of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and election into parliament during a recent liberalization of government; and finally that the country was opening its borders due to the removal of sanctions and that the big ad agencies were already swooping into the city. I knew it was a place that was on the brink of change, and I always like to travel to dynamic places to observe this energy. I read up a bit about the country’s violence and human rights issues, related to a rather cacophonous ethnic situation in which Bamars comprise 68% but not all of the population, about heroic stories during the China Burma India Theatre of World War II, and a bit about the Burmese empires of old.

Yet my first dealings with the country were with the embassy in Canberra while acquiring my visa. To illustrate this country’s “backwardness” and isolation, the embassy did not even have a functioning website and I had to find the PDF visa application from a random unofficial host. The embassy in Australia was inundated with visa applications (we’re talking high hundreds at a time), which it can only process by mail, and it was a real nail-biter trying to get my passport back in time. After one tense phone call with an administrator who yelled at me for not allowing 8-12 weeks for processing and a few weeks wait, I received my passport with Myanmar sticker in it exactly one business day before I was set to fly to Malaysia. Meanwhile, I was in charge of booking hotels and airfare in this country.

The hotel situation was dire. Despite being a country of such low development, the hotels were in such short supply that they were actually quite expensive, while any cheaper options just looked a bit too Third World for me. I also had to get my sister to bring fresh crisp American money because allegedly Burma has no ATMs accepting international cards. After these headaches, I barely even wanted to go.

But I got my visa and passport, made the bookings successfully and after two days traveling overland from Phnom Penh via Battambang, I was flying from Bangkok to Yangon! I was so glad I did, because Yangon turned out to be one of my favorite cities that I visited in Southeast Asia.


Arriving in Yangon was nothing out of the ordinary and there were in fact some ATMs dispensing kyat. Ladies at a taxi booth wrote out instructions, specifying the price, and a driver in a green checkered longyi retrieved us with a toothy smile. What is a longyi? Everyone in Burma, man and woman, wears a wrap skirt called a longyi. Yes, Burma is a land where men wear wrap skirts, chew betel leaves and drive right-hand driving cars on the right side of the road.

We exited to find a rosy sunset over a forested area and a small village of restaurants. The road was dusty but paved and containing only cars (no motorbikes!). After 45 minutes or so of driving through increasingly dense suburbs of Yangon we arrived at MK Hotel, which turned out to be clean and featuring a brand-new German elevator and Chinese appliances. I peered out the small window to notice a crowd of people gathering around a barbecue and steamers outside.

On the hunt for some street food, we ventured into the slightly dusty streets illuminated by yellow street lights. We walked along the elevated sidewalk of Bogyoke Aung San Rd and saw for the first time that everyone was wearing longyi, the men wearing button-downs to accompany their longyi, the women an assortment of shirts. And another unique tradition: the women and children painted their faces with circles of a yellowish plant substance called thanaka, thought to be a natural sunscreen. On this Sunday night, the urbanites were all out on plastic furniture on the sidewalk, gathered around plates of meat and veggies with rice. Some food was made fresh, some sat out in vats. Men were swigging draft Myanmar beer while watching a SEA Games soccer match on TVs (Burma was hosting the SEA Games during this time). We wandered down an alley where women were sitting with produce for sale in the dark. Young men filled up the nearby gaming parlors, which had TV screens and X-Boxes.

Pork skewers with broth for sale on the street

We settled at a little cart where a girl had a grill and meat skewers lined up in a semi-circle around a bubbling vat of broth. She handed us a little bit of broth and a sauce for dipping. We didn’t know the protocol but then a man, wife and child sat down next to us, started taking skewers and immersing them in the gravy-like broth, so we did the same. At another cart, we had a pancake topped with a layer of sweet egg mix, and then made our way to the popular BBQ stand serving a host of young people all chattering on the chairs. We picked out three pieces of fried crab and three fried shrimp rolls, which together cost 1000 kyat, just over $1. We mainly ordered with pantomiming and pointing, and to my surprise, people seemed to know how to count in English.

Trying to sleep downtown on this Sunday night I heard some males chanting by mic and also a female vocalist blasting tunes from a party tuk tuk brigade.

For our full day of exploring Yangon, first we broke our fast with watermelon, banana, coffee and mohinga. The hotel’s version of the popular local dish featured medium-thickness egg noodles in a coconut fish broth with chicken and topped with crunchy fried pounded rice. Love crunchy toppings on my noodles! I wish I could eat this amazing dish more often.

Mohinga for breakfast

We headed out down Bogyoke Aung San Road, a major thoroughfare. After the other occasionally inscrutable cities I visted in Southeast Asia, Yangon was a treat as it has a modern grid for a city plan! The downtown actually resembles Melbourne or any British colonial city, a wide rectangle on top of a river, but it further benefits from numbered north-south streets. Also, traffic lights! However, street signs were scarce, and the ones that did exist were sponsored by Seiko.

We passed an old brick church and soon turned toward central Yangon, observing its British colonial architecture. Yangon is a bit lighter on shophouses compared to say, Vietnam or Malaysia, but it contains many large apartment buildings, often with balustered balconies, usually painted sea foam or white but dirtying quickly. Everything is a bit taller than in other colonial cities, with most apartment buildings at least six stories.

Apartment buildings Yangon

We easily found Sule Pagoda, a large elevated stupa in a roundabout right at the center of town–a helpful landmark–but I couldn’t enter wearing shorts and clothing shops weren’t open yet. So we started wandering west. We entered Little India, marked by ladies with bindis or hijabs, a few bulbous mosques and tons of fried street eats like samosas and dosas, in addition to the noodle stands all over the place. I had a terrific samosa for about 10 cents. We wandered up and down the smaller numbered streets passing by stores displaying sewing machines or blue PVC pipe out front on the street, or even cutting commercial signage. We ventured through Chinatown as well.

So far Yangon was quite walkable, which I really enjoyed. Because of a longstanding ban on motorbikes, everyone either walks or is in a car or bus, and obviously most cannot afford a car and who likes taking the bus anyway. So the streets are nicely bustling with people. We encountered long ribbons of novice monks traveling; the young ones are marked by pale pink robes with an orange sash as opposed to the adults’ burgundy. Plus, the streets are all turned into a giant market. Besides the stores displaying their wares, people have colonized most spare sidewalk space to sell jeans, wallets, electronics, rubber stamps, you name it. Even a pedestrian overpass was covered in clothing for sale.

Market time

At one point we discovered a large open-air market, where sellers blanketed the street with produce, butchered meat, still-moving fish and cages full of chickens. A few vendors were serving up fresh snacks and dishes as well. Next door was the big market hall. Inside this tall, mid-sized hall with wooden rafters, vendors were setting up, stacking heaps and heaps of folded textiles. I decided to look for a potential longyi, and came away with a white floral cloth. The girls laughed their asses off trying to tie it for me, and I got a lot of amused stares and finger pointing when walking on the street wearing it, tied basically incorrectly (because most female longyis actually include a hidden tie inside), exposing too much leg and accentuating too much waist for a modest Buddhist female.

We returned to Sule Pagoda, a gold stupa in full use, with locals sitting before the many images of Buddha, meditating and praying. We saw our first of what my sister called “psychedelic Buddhas”, which have flashing LED lights surrounding Buddha’s head. After Sule we cut across the street to Mahavandula Gardens, a big pleasant park with an obelisk across from Sule, City Hall and other administrative buildings. Many of these neoclassical government buildings could have been in any British colonial city, except they were often in disrepair, peeling, dirty, eroded.

Man meditating at Sule Pagoda

We would see more of these grand old buildings on our way to the river. Some were crawling with vines. I even saw one restaurant in a gutted old building where only the Corinthian columns remained. We also walked down Pandosan, where vendors sell photocopied and second-hand books, ranging from ancient Reader’s Digests to textbooks on data structures to Burmese popular fiction. This street is known as a sort-of open-air library; allegedly the Burmese love to read. On the way I also munched on a deep-fried banana and a deep-fried bunch of onions.

Books for sale on Pandosan Road

Rooms of gold in Botahtaung Pagoda

We marched all the way to Botahtaung Pagoda. The stupa itself was under construction but you could walk inside through triangular room after triangular room of gold! The grounds were quite large, good for a wander, with many rectangular pavilions housing Buddhas plus a large pond full of terrapin turtles.

We hailed a side-car cyclo back down Strand Road, Keala in the front and me in the back, kind of precariously hanging out there passing by cars and buses. We stopped in for cocktails at the Strand Hotel, a historic hotel from the days of old Rangoon that once saw the likes of Kipling and Orwell. Nestling into a pair of leather chairs in the dark wood and marble bar, we enjoyed some rum and gin cocktails, pricey at $7 but well-mixed. I flipped through the hotel’s large old History of Rangoon, bound in green leather and illustrated with full-page etchings, in which I learned such facts as:

  • Burma used to be a big exporter of ponies.
  • The British found the conditions difficult because they had no bread and butter.
  • Any merchant could set up shop in Rangoon due to an absence of competition from the East India Company.
  • The city plan was drawn up in 1854 after the old city centers had faded/been destroyed, designed by a surgeon who had served as magistrate performing similar duties under Stamford Raffles in Singapore. City planning not only involved drawing up plans for building but also the outlining of rules and regulations and the set-up of a postal service, sewers, etc.

Cocktails at the colonial classic, the Strand Hotel

We hiked back to Little India looking for Nilar Biryani House, which due to Yangon’s simple numbered grid was a breeze to find. Enjoyed some mutton biryani which cost maybe $1, and the staff understood English–at least food words.

We hopped in a cab where the driver was playing Akon and we finally arrived at the crown jewel of Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda (also known as Shwe Dagon Paya; the Rangoon book called it the Great Dagon). Built by the Mons back in the 9th or 10th century, this massive monument to Buddhism has endured for a millennium, through many changes of national leadership. At one point the monarchs started gilding the stupa so that now Shwedagon is one of the shiniest structures in the world. The pagoda is majestically sited up 120m so you must enter through one of the four grand covered staircase halls. We spent a while wandering the grounds barefoot on the white marble floor. The big gold stupa is surrounded by countless little rectangular pavilions, and has some big images of Buddha on the corners. More, larger pavilions are scattered throughout the complex, and there’s also a smaller, subordinate gold stupa, the spire wrapped with some bells which chime magically in the wind. The place has a few tourists but these are equally matched by locals coming to pray and monks in burgundy robes. Amazingly only about 10 white people were visiting at this time. Another thing I like about Yangon: no Western backpackers in hideous elephant harem pants.

Me in my makeshift longyi at Shwedagon Pagoda

After a brief nap we headed over to Taunggyi Lake, a big lake/park where young couples come to canoodle on benches. We strolled around, taking a bench break, until near-sunset, when the great stupa was reflecting on the water.

Back outside MK Hotel, we took a seat at a tea house where we had a plate of mini samosas and a puffy fresh naan-like bread, which was amazing though lacking the usual lentils for dipping. K asked for tea and a guy brought us cups of light-colored tea full of condensed milk in addition to the black tea in a pitcher. I like the Yangon tea house experience–drinks and snacks and chatting–though I noticed the majority of the patrons are men.

Yangon tea house


So that was my whirlwind 24 hours in Yangon, one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia next to Bangkok and Hanoi. Dilapidated but interesting buildings. A burgeoning energy. A great place to walk. Not at all touristy. Full of unique Buddhist and colonial sites. Yummy street food. Men in skirts in the city.

As they say in SEA, same same but different. VERY different.

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Reflections on Cambodia

On my way out of Cambodia the first time around I exited by land, crammed in a bus with ten others out of Battambang. We slowly jolted our way through another unpaved path of potholes, following a caravan of other unfortunate driving souls, past ramshackle houses and half-naked children. I breezed across the border to Poipet, Thailand but our next van did not show up, so we were left waiting in 95-degree heat literally next to a pile of garbage for over an hour.

Once in Thailand, however, a weight lifted from my soul, as we were moving at a reasonable pace! I never thought how much I would appreciate paved roads! Moreover, instead of passing a series of depressing subsistence plots, I got to witness Thailand the agricultural powerhouse, with varied crops grown at large scale, including rubber, sugarcane and Eucalyptus-type trees used for making paper. The road was busy busy with trucks toting the crops and I could observe in-progress construction work on expanding this highway (though doubted it would get finished in a timely manner in the event of a coup). Soon enough we were on giant mega-highways in Bangkok passing by white high rises. The first thing I did after the nine-hour journey was pop into a random garage and order noodle soup. I enjoyed that there was no romanization on the menu (because they don’t give a fuck about foreigners in Thonburi, Thailand) and the flavors were so complex, so much better than Cambodia! I concluded quickly that Thailand was going to be awesome. If post-Khmer Indochina has been a story of Thailand and Vietnam (and to a lesser extent the Burmese), with Cambodia and Laos mere nothings, saved only by the French and Americans, then I could certainly see why.

I spent over two weeks in Cambodia, the longest I spent in any nation during my nine-week Southeast Asia tour. To be honest I regret spending so much time there when I could have spent more time in Vietnam and Thailand. I had most of my negative experiences in Cambodia: unpleasant bus and boat rides, cheating dishonest drivers, annoying tuk tuk guys and peddlers, frosty people, gross sex tourists and mostly lame food. Despite my pretty pictures, I will not be going back and I will not be recommending it to anyone.

The thing is, I agree with my sister that Cambodia is a culturally weak country. The people there seem deeply unhappy in their poverty, unlike the optimistic, happy Burmese (who are poorer), unlike the villagers I’ve seen in many other dusty corners of the world. In Cambodia, children were always begging with long faces, the whole country was rife with unhappy kids, some of them even brought out on working nights with prostitute mothers. Also, out of twenty countries I’ve visited, Cambodia had one of the worst food cultures. All the good Khmer food was actually a pale imitation of Thai or Vietnamese dishes. Whereas life in other Asian countries pretty much centers eating with family and friends, it seems the Khmers barely know the meaning of love spread through food.

Of course I don’t mean to say their sadness is unfounded, and that I am somehow offended by a lack of cheeriness in a poverty-stricken nation. But I think part of the misery stems from the disturbing combination of poverty and dependence on tourism, and I felt uncomfortable being a part of that tourism. Imagine having to wake up every morning either toiling at subsistence agriculture or practically begging foreigners for money, foreigners on a vacation that you can never have! At the waterfall by the Cardamoms, we had some leftover grains of rice from our lunch. We found amusement in a school of small fish who would dart fiercely, mouths open, at any single grain of rice thrown into the water, some even flipping painfully out of the water in their cutthroat race for the food. Basically, a microcosm of life for the common man in Cambodia, especially one in the tourism industry. I couldn’t walk down any block in Phnom Penh without being hounded by ten tuk-tuk drivers! This situation breeds bad blood on the side of both visitors and locals, creating interactions that are false, difficult, pathetic, depressing.

Meanwhile, the government does nothing. In fact, Cambodia’s leaders have done nothing for the entire history of Khmer culture*, as I learned reading David Chandler’s A History of Cambodia throughout my trip. The country has always been a place of lowly peasants who never expected anything from their leaders and rulers except “protection”, this once resulting in an episode where the people were murdered in mass instead of protected. And today it seems to me the women are not being protected from foreign sexual predators, unscrupulous sex traffickers and a culture that seems to see them as servant-dirt (see previous post on Sihanoukville). Essentially, in Cambodia there has never been a precedent for rulers who bring progress and happiness to their society.

Meanwhile, the unforgiving climate translates to “farm rice or die”, so Cambodia has never had much of a history of technological experimentation or valuing education (long ago, the Vietnamese thought the Khmers barbarians because they did not know how to store rice or irrigate crops). As a result, the country has still not developed much productive agriculture, manufacturing or professional services. With a do-nothing government, no social safety net and an undeveloped economy, the people have no choice but to subsist or face starvation.

So… Cambodia was not the most interesting or enriching place (bus rides through all tropical/subsistence farming land are not very interesting), just a stagnant jungle of poverty without pride, without much to share besides temples from 900 years ago.

I’m not so cold-hearted to think that an impoverished country should be ignored because it is culturally weak. Still, why did I spend so much time there rather than just making a quick stop?

I guess I just didn’t know; people never say “you’re better off spending more time in Vietnam.” I’d heard good things from my parents and others, and never heard any bad reports or even tales of Angkor annoyance. Lonely Planet really talked it up, obviously overrating just about everything and not talking frankly enough about its uglier aspects. Since the country is small, it seemed easy to cover a lot of different ground (and I did!) without sitting on the bus for toooo long. Plus, I was enticed by the cheap prices. I was excited to check out the beaches at Sihanoukville, stay at a bungalow resort for just $10/night, see the wonders of Angkor, see what is the fuss about the old “Pearl of Asia.”

Looking back, I enjoyed many things about my time in Cambodia: wandering around mysterious Bayon and Ta Prohm, exploring the graceful and whimsical architecture of Vann Molyvann, discovering hidden bars in Tonle Bassac, eating Blue Pumpkin ice cream, hiking in jungles, swimming by a refreshing waterfall in the remote, deserted Cardamoms, watching Beyoncé on the bus, watching movies and TV at night with loved ones, windy but calm mornings at Oasis Bungalow Resort, hearing old-school Cambodian rock n roll music, a cold Anchor draft beer, white-sand beaches on perfectly sunny days (no rain or clouds ever!), finding serenity in a neon Ferris wheel after ingesting “happy” spring rolls, the light shimmering on the water in the late afternoon, bright orange sunsets. I had tons of fun.

But I’m still not going back and if you’re going to Southeast Asia you are better off spending your precious time and money in Thailand and Vietnam.

*Flippancy and uselessness includes Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled 1953-1970 and left a lasting legacy despite very low expectations for the young king. While Sihanouk is beloved by his country and lauded for the lovely-fication of Phnom Penh, in my economist opinion he spent too much time hobnobbing with celebrities, personally designing dining rooms and making short films (seriously) and not enough time actually guiding and bringing about real economic development and poverty reduction. While limited progress was made in encouraging education and building some fixed capital during the Sihanouk era, the fact is Cambodia never even came close to modernization. One decent road does not a modern infrastructure make. Many would point to Sihanouk’s role in the renaissance in building that occurred during this time, but construction alone does not necessarily raise worker productivity. Projects like copious sports arenas are not transformative infrastructure; in fact you could argue that they are a waste of public money which could have been spent on other development needs. Sihanouk did not set a precedence of poverty reduction or build viable export industries. He never addressed the reality that most Khmers continued to generate their livelihood through back-breaking subsistence farming, and so they remain in a society of poverty and corruption today.

Koh Kong and Sihanoukville

cardamom mountains
Tranquility

After a week in Burma, I returned to Phnom Penh with Keala, where we met up with Alicia, my BFF from Cal. I had enjoyed my recent visit to PP with Daniel and was excited to show my sister and bestie the sweet bars I had found, ideal for a hangout and a drink! Riding in the cab down the Russian Boulevard felt comfortingly familiar. This time we would stay right on Sisowath Quay.

Unfortunately, we arrived with terrible stomach illnesses acquired in Burma. We trudged up to our fourth floor walkup and I endured another sleepless night of vomiting and diarrhea, then was awoken by the screams of children at the school outside our guesthouse in the morning. I had to walk to the US Embassy to get more pages added to my passport, and was harassed by about 50 drivers on the way. I finally acquired some Immodium and goddamn antibiotics but still could not properly eat or drink without vomiting and diarrhea for our day and a half in Phnom Penh. We noshed on some yummy banh xeo-style spring rolls (with vermicelli!) at the Central Market and visited the stadium, but my hopes to show Keala and Alicia a good time were dashed: Gastrobar Botanico was closed, the block housing Public House and Bar Sito had no power and the FCC was full of gross old white men with tiny prostitutes that night. Keala was so sick she could scarcely do more than sit all day. The owner of the hostel was a creepy fat Kiwi who fancied himself a job-creating savior to these poor unwashed Khmers. He took us to a creepy Christmas party at an Irish pub full of boorish Anglos crowding around a laptop to play pop music videos on YouTube and Khmer girls wearing clothes that would definitely get them barred from any Buddhist temple.

We took the bus from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong. I had now been on three harrowing bus rides in Cambodia already (Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh to Battambang, Battambang to Poipet) and this one brought no improvement. Though this road was touted as being paved and in good condition, in fact once we passed the junction to Koh Kong we spent a lengthy amount of time carving in and out of potholes, going about 5 squiggly miles per hour. They blasted shitty Khmer karaoke pop and country almost the whole time, though at one point we got all excited when the conductor put in a Michael Jackson DVD. But after “Billie Jean” it started to skip, so he eventually abandoned the thing to our great disappointment. Luckily, Alicia let me watch all the Beyonce videos on her iPad during this journey. What a good friend! Once in Koh Kong our data stopped working and the scenery became lush mountain jungle.

After finally arriving in Koh Kong City, only two or three hours late, a few dirt roads brought us to Oasis Bungalow Resort, run by the jolly blond Jason. He quickly learned our names and showed us his book that served as our “tab”, saying we could take any drink out of the fridge and write it down if he weren’t there. We discovered that Jason built the resort (“I’m a civil engineer!”) but was leaving soon after nine years to go to Sri Lanka. He had been all over the world but spent his time in Cambodia exploring on his own, traveling to undiscovered islands, carving new paths for those eco-inclined. He said we’d never get malaria, and warned us of the nighttime winds. He told stories of summers so wet that one’s clothes never dry and local Khmers getting electrocuted and knocking out the power on the block. He usually wore some form of pajamas and could be seen watching Animal Planet.

koh kong island
Christmas on Koh Kong Island

Our stay in Koh Kong turned out for the most part a pleasant Christmas vacation, save for some onerous infrastructural constraints. After crowded Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, I particularly enjoyed relaxing at Oasis Bungalow Resort, a collection of maybe five or six bungalows scattered around a lumpy blue pool on the outskirts of small seaside Koh Kong City. There we enjoyed morning poolside lounges, afternoon swims and DVDs from Jason’s collection before bed (Tropic Thunder on Christmas Eve and Only God Forgives on Christmas). Nights we spent in “town” at Cafe Laurent, a leafy restaurant perched on stilts over the ocean. The place has strong drinks and decent WiFi, which we needed sorely since our data plans disappeared and our hotel had none – a perfect place for Christmas Instagramming.

I came to Koh Kong to get a taste of Cambodia’s natural beauty, having seen its historical and cultural sites in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. This western province sits on the ocean near Thailand and is home to miles of undeveloped jungle. Of course with jungle allegedly comes malaria; I took Malarone though I probably threw it up each morning with a wave of Malarone-induced nausea.

On our first day with Ritthy at Koh Kong Eco Tours took us to Koh Rong Island. Of course, this was Cambodia, the land of slow boats, so this involved a 2.5 hour boat ride going 10 mph over choppy waves. Unfortunately in my morning delirium I forgot both my iPod and a book and ended up having to pass the time by drinking Angkor beer and singing to myself (though Alicia came to the rescue again with her iPhone and Aaliyah). But when we finally got there we were treated to a strip of private white sand against a backdrop of dense forest, and everyone in our party of about twenty was smiling. The day consisted of many Christmas selfies, lots of lounging, a group lunch of grilled prawns, chicken, veggies and fruit with rice, kayaking and snorkeling around a bit. We also stopped by a mangrove forest on the way home and caught another whiz-bang Cambodian sunset on the water.

On our second day Rithy picked us up for our jungle tour, first pioneered by none other than Jason. To my dismay we ended up sitting in a goddamn boat for an hour, first paddling through a still estuary and then using the motor but still slowly over the open ocean. Finally we ended up on a grassy bank at the foot of the Cardamom Mountains. After walking through some tall grasses, we hiked uphill to a vista of the vast green mountains. The rest of the day we spent hiking through fairly easy terrain through thick bamboo forest, our guide often stopping for several minutes to hack at the drooping trees with a machete. We stopped at a waterfall with clean fresh water, where you could slide down the mossy rocks to swim in the refreshing pools. With no one around, I sat there sunning, enjoying the tranquil scenery of trees, boulders and forest and later did a little swimming. Our guides gave us a lunch of tasty pork fried rice, and led us to walk all over the waterfalls. We did some more hiking through bamboo and yes a little cardamom, and took another waterfall break. Unfortunately the Khmers had hunted all the animals, so the only creatures left in the forest seemed to be giant spiders.

cardamom

All in all, except for the sand flies on the beach, one prolonged power outage and painfully slow boat rides, Koh Kong proved a fairly relaxing stop. I had been running around for a month on my trip already at this point and I was happy to take a moment to relax and enjoy Christmas with loved ones.

Sihanoukville, however, alternated between relaxing beach time and hot mess. It started with a hot mess:

I booked a later bus with a change of “lines” so we could enjoy one last morning at lovely Oasis Bungalow Resort. Jason said the bus would be waiting for us and we could transfer easily. Of course, our bus was most certainly not there and we were let out to sit at a random junction in the middle of nowhere waiting for it! It was 3:45 and the men sitting in the dusty triangle with us said the bus wouldn’t come until 5. What??? I had nothing to do, I could not take out my electronics at the junction and I had no phone service still. I was just stuck there with a bunch of guys muttering to each other in Khmer (I did learn the proper pronunciation of Phnom Penh and Kampuchea at this time). This was one of the only times during this leg of the trip that I could not fight back fear and a bit of anger. All kinds of minibuses crammed with Khmers and the occasional unfortunate whitey came by, the mototaxi drivers swarming them whenever one stopped. One or two big buses blew by, ignoring us. I feared our bus would never come!

Luckily it came at about 4:15, and the ride was relatively quick. I sat next to a displeased-looking Argentinian (my guess) and in front of a gross obese young white guy with his Khmer girlfriend. Jason had warned us that Sihanoukville was creepy sex tourist central and this was just the beginning. Why don’t the guidebooks warn you about these things??

displeased after bus ride
The facial expressions say it all after that bus ride

Sihanoukville is resort town built in the 1960s-70s overrun by many Cambodians, loud Russians (my first experience with them on my SEA tour), Chinese, backpackers and did I mention old white men accompanied by maid-girlfriends and/or prostitutes? There, we argued with drivers, gave said old white men dirty looks at every occasion possible and were basically ignored by all female staff at foreign-targeted restaurants (who would then light up with doting smiles for male patrons). We visited many bizarre places, both colorful and seedy: a sunset beach full of Khmer families launching paper lanterns into the sky, and also full of elderly men with prostitutes. A bright carnival, ferris wheel turning. A “happy pizza” place on a dusty but crowded street where a guy with a distant cart played Gangnam Style on repeat.

What we enjoyed was cheap barbecue washed down with Anchor draft and lovely Otres Beach, where you can lounge with mostly normal people on big bright chaises, sip a cocktail and even eat panini while soaking in the sun. We escaped there each afternoon.

otres beach
Lounging at Otres Beach

Wandering Phnom Penh

buddha workshop
Finished Buddhas at an all-Buddha workshop, Tonle Bassac

The sun was lowering in the sky, now about 4 PM outside the White Building. We were supposed to be meeting our driver, who was shifting around restlessly by his tuk-tuk, perhaps displeased to be standing outside a housing project. After all, this dude had the guanxi to be a top-choice tuk-tuk driver for the Intercontinental Hotel Group, and yet he still ended up here? Tough break.

We had wandered around the whole complex, taking shots from all sides. Somehow I ended up across the street and wandered into a quaint store that could have been in Brunswick Street Fitzroy or Portland. The place was full of “found” objects ranging from clay vases to miniature plastic chairs to screen-printed linen posters advertising the different Cambodian attractions in each cities. The one for Phnom Penh advertised “Vann Molyvann!” and “Evening cocktails!” The one for Siem Reap: “Pub Street!” and Battambang: “Circus!” The middle-aged Australian lady who ran the place was chatting casually with some other white folk.

hipster store tonle bassac
Store of found objects, Phnom Penh

Now it occurred to me that this neighborhood, despite its crumbling cesspool housing project, was actually the primo gentrification zone. The hipster store and the BMW dealership on the other side of the White Building had clued me in. Turns out many embassies are nearby. This was my first encounter with the area known as Tonle Bassac.

The next day was Daniel’s last day in Asia before heading back to the New York winter. Besides a visit to the Royal Palace, where we mainly enjoyed watching a pair of monkeys grooming each other on a temple roof, we had run out of things to visit, as we did not have much interested in the Killing Fields, genocide museum or shooting range (the attractions which often showed up on the backs of tuk-tuks advertising to tourists). Lonely Planet mentioned a handful of cafes around Tonle Bassac so I went hunting for one of them looking for a place to chill and have a coffee.

I couldn’t find the cafe but soon discovered that I was walking around a nice area, full of villas fronted by leafy gardens and tall gates. We passed a couple of cafes, an Italian restaurant and a tiny but intriguing-looking cocktail bar called Seibur. Only one or two people asked if we wanted a tuk-tuk the whole time! We also wandered into a nameless narrow alley hidden among the affluence, which brought us into a small cramped maze full of little kids running around and locals hanging out doing nothing in particular. On an alley exiting to the avenue, men were working in workshops carving and sanding, making Buddhas and other typical Angkorean scultpres that would presumably end up in hotel lobbies. Back in the leafy posh streets, we found Gastrobar Botanico, behind a gate, down a little path and in a pleasant terrace full of plants. On this 90 degree day I loved taking a break in this peaceful oasis, enjoying some espresso, juice, patatas bravas and WiFi. What an awesome find!

Through a series of Internet hops, the day would bring more great finds around Tonle Bassac. I was lucky enough to find the 240 1/2 Alleyway, a “hidden” street near the International School boasting some cool expat joints. We had $5 cocktails and a burger with fries at Public House, which despite its low-brow name has a  sort-of Modern Rangoon feel, a soothing color palette on wooden walls with clean-edged wooden tables. We also visited Bar Sito (same owners), a dark, leather-bound speakeasy also hawking $5 cocktails.

public house
Public House on 240 1/2 Alley

After so much running around on our trip, Daniel and I relished the chance to just wander and discover things not in guidebooks, sip cocktails and eat some decent fries. I had a whirlwind couple days in Phnom Penh with Daniel. After Angkor’s touristiness, we loved seeing the 60s architecture, chancing upon hidden expat gems and strolling alongside the locals at the riverside.

I said goodbye to Daniel and then made a slow 2-day overland journey to Battambang and Bangkok.

Architecture Tour in Phnom Penh

stadium
Vann Molyvann’s “Olympic Stadium”/National Sports Complex

Phnom Penh, formerly the “Pearl of Asia”, was supposedly once one of the loveliest cities in the Eastern Hemisphere. The French envisioned large tree-lined boulevards for strolling and brought a host of European influences, and from the country’s independence in 1953 until 1970 the young king Norodom Sihanouk helmed the city’s planning, prompting a blossoming of building and development.

I arrived in the city via a six-hour bus ride on a route that should have taken two hours. The bus’s choice of music videos was an endless parade of videos from a show I call “Cambodian Bandstand”, where one or two people sing live and the rest dance very tamely to 50s-style rock-n-roll, a genre which Cambodia adapted to its liking mid-century and remains popular to this day. I liked hearing the old-school licks along with the exotic singing but it got pretty tiresome for six hours.

The city these days cannot really be considered lovely. In fact Phnom Penh is ranked as one of the least livable cities in the entire world. It has no public transit of any kind, the rather small place is packed with a near-gridlock of autos and motorbikes and tuk-tuks going about five miles per hour. The sidewalks envisioned as lovely by the French are used as motorbike parking. But I was excited to enter an urban place, as I always am. Blue onion-domed mosques dotted the outskirts, Chinese characters began to pop up on the signage and people buzzed away at little workshops in shophouses or sold arrays of tires or metal parts. The place immediately seemed more diversified economically than Siem Reap, and the people happier for it.

We stayed at the Intercontinental, where the concierge called a tuk-tuk driver for us. A beady-eyed man in a teal windbreaker and white baseball cap drove us to the riverside, a central and popular area on the west bank of the Tonle Sap river. We first had some cocktails, spring rolls and snacks at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a former actual press club now frequented by tourists in a three-story colonial building where geckos crawl all over the walls. The place overlooks the river and has a good happy hour deal, with $2.50 cocktails, though is certainly not the coolest place in town.

riverside at night
Nighttime gathering at Sisowath Quay

The riverside turned out to be a pretty happening public space. Though I would later conclude that nobody in Phnom Penh walks when they could take a slow-moving tuk-tuk or moto, here we saw all sorts of local families, groups of teenage boys, couples strolling. We passed an outlet of the Photo Phnom Penh exhibition, displaying photo series from local and international artists around town. Under a small pavilion, men were playing xylophone and gamelan-like instruments while families all crowded into a small, brightly illuminated temple to light incense and tealights and pray. Now about two weeks into my trip I was excited to observe a slice of another life in yet another culture.

That night we flipped through the channels watching weird Hindu music videos and Chinese dramas dubbed hilariously in Khmer and the news which indicated protests outside the US Embassy/Wat Phnom against the Hun Sen government. Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power since 1985.

For our full day in Phnom Penh we traversed the city on an architecture tour which I cobbled together with a bit of Wikipedia. Most of our stops were to see the work of Vann Molyvann, who studied architecture in France and was at one point Cambodia’s only registered architect. His work, which appears all over Phnom Penh, typifies the Sihanouk-backed “New Khmer Architecture,” modernist in style and idea but adapted to the local climate and employing elements of traditional Khmer buildings.

Stops on our tour:

stadium
The National Sports Complex, or “Olympic Stadium”. Built in 1964 for a SEA Games that never happened, the pyramid sitting atop a mound of earth evokes an ancient history, while modern concrete and engineering are delightfully mid-century. A cantilevered press box seems to float precariously over the seating. One of the most graceful stadiums I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately falling into disrepair under current Chinese management, while squatters live in the bathrooms.

RUPP
Royal University of Phnom Penh. This university contains all sorts of work by the New Khmer architects. A causeway, complete with nagas in the front, forms a grand entrance, reminding you directly of Angkor. At the whimsical Foreign Language Faculty you see adaptations to the climate like a double roof to prevent the building from heating too much and buildings on stilts. The Science building also offered a large meeting space below the building. The whole campus, though mostly blazing hot (and yet the girls were forced to wear long skirts as uniforms), utilizes shaded walkways and lots of water, which has always been important to Khmer life. We also stopped in the parabolic conference/theater center on campus where Photo Phnom Penh had a few more series on display. The guy in there guarding the place seemed thrilled to talk to us–one of the only friendly locals I encountered in Cambodia. He was a computer science student and lived in the White Building (see below).

institute of technology
Institute of Technology of Cambodia. While not as exotic and whimsical as the Molyvann buildings, the Soviet builders made the place cool down with the use of sunscreens and amply shaded walkways. A lovely modern place filled with boys studying tech.

chaktomuk conference hall
Chaktomuk Conference Hall. We could not go in because the military was meeting in there, but were able to glimpse this yellow crown of a building from the outside. Here we observed the steeply pitched roofs of the Khmer house, which are woven into the building’s form of a fan.

the white building
The White Building. Originally part of a whole raft of development projects along the Tonle Bassac river, this public housing project is a series of concrete apartments down a whole block. While nicknamed the “White Building” the facade is nearly blackened and the whole place is crumbling; I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s razed to the ground someday. But the place is so vibrant! The concrete is dotted with people’s plants and clothes hanging out to dry. A couple of the stairwells have been painted sea foam. They put little shops and eateries in the bottom and the people seem a tight-knit community.

I found all of these buildings just as interesting, if not more so, than the ancient ruins at Angkor — maybe because these structures are not empty shells but currently in use. The university was alive with students sitting by its reflecting pools, gathering under the shade. The residents of the White Building have done their best to adapt the 60s building to their contemporary lives, and built a community out of it. I don’t think Norodom Sihanouk was a very good leader, not in the least, but his encouragement of New Khmer Architecture was a significant contribution. While I believe he spent way too much time involved with individual buildings at the expense of bringing the country progress in more important non-cultural forms (what I deduced after reading Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture by Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins), the works are beautiful, significant and worth something.

We also stopped at the Art Deco-style Central Market, building 1937. The spaces formed by the giant X-shaped building have all been filled in and covered so that things are cramped and hot, but there we were able to finally find some good local food! Though I suspect much of the good Khmer food was influenced by Thai, Vietnamese or even Chinese food (rather than original) we enjoyed some yummy soups and also fresh barbecued squid!

Angkor, the Good Stuff

angkor wat sunrise Money shot, Angkor Wat.

Landing at the Siem Reap airport we got our first glimpse of some Khmer architecture, the building featured steeply pitched roofs and the curved serpentine projections poking out that you’d see in temples all over Southeast Asia. Despite the 90 degree heat it felt cool due to the roof and the airport at once graceful and modern. Driving toward Tonle Sap that afternoon we would see more of the vernacular. While Vietnam had been largely an experience in burgeoning urbanization, here in Cambodia we found ourselves driving on unpaved roads through thick jungle, passing by one-room wooden houses on stilts. The stilts create extra space under the house and protect from flooding. The houses also have steeply pitched roofs.

We visited Kampong Phluok, a floating village on Tonle Sap where the school and the local government office and every colorful house sits on stilts. I believe Lonely Planet called it “straight out of a movie set” and indeed the place was otherworldly. Children were paddling around to each other’s houses, mothers held naked infants and old ladies peddled fruit by boat. We also took a paddle through the nearby “floating forest”, where the trees reach for the sky from deep in the water.

kampong phluok Nearly sunset at Kampong Phulok

On Tonle Sap, we would also experience our first Cambodian sunset. It probably stems from particulates in the air but every sunset in Cambodia, at least during the dry season when I visited, was BANG! dramatic beauty. Even leading up to it, the waters of the lakes and ocean all over the country would begin to glint with a unique shimmer, the kind of sight that always made me so happy to be abroad. When the sunset occurred it would always be bright-orange, and the sky would be brushed in the kind of pinks and purples you don’t see very often in North America.

As for sunrise, we woke up at 4:30 AM to the day break at Angkor Wat. Gathered in with a whole lot of Asian tourists we all gathered before the reflecting pond to see the sun rise over the complex, the majestic spires seeming even more majestic as silhouettes. The place became progressively busier but I’m glad I visited Angkor Wat in the morning. The light gleaming on the sandstone and laterite was such a special sight, and we were glad to enjoy some hours of not too much heat. We walked through the temple’s rigid order by many Hindu bas-reliefs and got a sense of the Khmers’ style with their balustered windows, serpentine naga statues and intricately carved spires.

angkor wat
Exploring Angkor Wat

Predictably, I enjoyed many of the other commonly touted highlights of the Angkor area. You can buy a three-day temple pass for $20 and most people at some point go on a “small circuit”. From Angkor Wat you go just a stone’s throw away to the ancient city of Angkor Thom with its massive Victory Gate. Here you see Baphuon with its giant pyramid and causeway, the Terrasse des Elephants (exactly what it sounds like) and a handful of other smaller temples.

bayon

The “enigmatic” Bayon

My favorite was the famous Bayon. This later temple is seen as being constructed hastily and reflecting experimental rather than established tastes, and is often described in the guidebooks as “enigmatic.” Here the big stone temple features a series of giant towers with faces carved into them. As with many others, the temple is composed of stacked levels, with many corridors and altar rooms on the lowest floors, as well as subordinate libraries and other small edifices detached out front. But unlike Angkor with its rigid order, the whole place is an inviting maze, with lots of surfaces and steps to climb on, spaces to wander down. I liked this disorder as I could easily lose myself just wandering and exploring, and had fun with Daniel peeking around corners and finding new spots, new views. The giant faces smiling down from the sandstone towers seem to encourage this “mystic playground” atmosphere.

ta prohm
Ta Prohm

And after Angkor Wat and Bayon, the third “biggie” is Ta Prohm, nicknamed “Tomb Raider” after Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft once skipped around the place. Ta Prohm demonstrates what Angkor actually looked like when the French discovered it in the early twentieth century–that is, overgrown and wild, the fragile grandeur of Man easily swallowed by Nature. Here you bear witness to the power of the jungle–the roofs have caved in, the walls cracked, stone mangled, roots and plants everywhere, whole walls being strangled by giant trees. Yet, the “nature” parts are carefully maintained, as if the greened ruins are a landscaped garden; in fact, the French specifically chose the site to capture the image of Angkor as it stood. The complex is quite large, maze-like, and even more maze-like with the addition of fallen stone blocks strewn about in a seemingly desultory fashion. I loved exploring the nooks and crannies here too.

The second day we saw another sunrise at the enormous reflecting pond Sra Srang, watching the sun come up behind silhouetted trees, and observed the delicate carvings of Banteay Srei, a bit further afield from the small circuit. After an annoying ordeal with our driver shirking on us for a few hours, we also ventured over to Kbal Spean. This brought us on an uphill hike of about a kilometer through the jungle, a nice chance to experience wild Cambodia (read: humid! …also, land mines). The hike culminates at a river where the Khmers had carved various Hindu symbols including 1000 circular lingas right into the brown riverbed.

walk to kbal spean

Hiking to Kbal Spean

sugar palm
Din-din at the Sugar Palm

The food situation was no Vietnam, that’s for sure (either in price or quality), but we enjoyed some yummy curries, num pang (which after enjoying the New York fast-casual restaurant for a few years I found means baguette) and some decent barbecue.

After two and a half days of discovery in the Siem Reap area, we were excited to bus over to see some urban life in Phnom Penh!

Angkor, the Bad Stuff

Mainly criticizing and development economist-ing

In the thick heat, our bodies were becoming sapped again, so nestled inside the small temple complex of Banteay Kdei we sat for a break on one of the centuries-old pieces of eroded, pocked sandstone. Our eyes widened as a small girl of about ten (though in the OECD she might be assumed seven) approached us. She was carrying woven bracelets, factory scarves in traditional checkers and tourist gold-and-elephant-accents and some plastic Christmas ornaments.

Small girl: Hello! Where you from?
Us: New York.
Small girl: New York… capital is Al-ba-ny. Do you want bracelet? I give you cheap priiiiii!
Us: No thank you, we’re not interested.
Small girl: I have bracelet very nice!
She proceeds to show how you can loosen and tighten her bracelets on your wrist.
Small girl: If you very small you can go like this! Oh but if you very big and bracelet too small you go like this.
Us: …
Small girl: I give you very cheap priiiiii!
Us: No thank you, we don’t need a bracelet.
Small girl: Please help me I want open my own business.
Us: …
Small girl: Need money so I can go to school!
Us: …
Small girl: Today not very good business.
Us: Sorry but we don’t want to buy anything.
Small girl: I think you do want to buy! You just want to buy from someone else!
Us: No that’s not true we really don’t want to buy anything.
Small girl: Do you have any foreign money? Any American money? Any Euro? Any Thai money?
Me: No I don’t have any. (I really had no American, European or Thai money; all I had in my wallet was about twenty Australian dollars at the moment.)
Small girl: I think you lying. You have money and you want to buy from another child.

This was probably the saddest of my exchanges with the locals in the Siem Reap area, but we had grown used to it already. We were about nine or ten hours into our day on the “small circuit” of the temples of Angkor. Besides at Angkor Wat at dawn, which had been heavy on Japanese tourists but not child touts, the day in Siem Reap had been a cacophony of:
(shrill female) HEY LADY! YOU WANT PINEAPPLE?
YOU WANT BANANA?
HEY LADY! YOU WANT SCARF?
(or, whining child who is doggedly following you) YOU WANT POSTCARD ONLY TEN FOR A DOLLAH

And in the city of Siem Reap, as we would encounter that night:
HELLO! YOU WANT MASSAGE?
HELLO! YOU NEED TUK-TUK?

Unfortunately, relentless peddlers and drivers were a large part of the Angkor experience for me. Poor Cambodia, a country under the dominion of foreigners (Thai, Vietnamese, French and subtly Americans) for most of the past millenium; a country where progress for the masses is nearly unheard of and the common man is typically left to farm or starve; a country wracked by genocide and now, just plain-old poverty and corruption. In 2013 Cambodia generated an estimated $15.6 billion, less than the purchase price of Whatsapp. Tourism is one of the only avenues for people to escape a life of back-breaking farm labor or garment factory work. Rather than ensure that their children go to school, parents send out kids to sell tchotchkes from China in the hopes of making a few dollars for the family here and there. Men stand outside like begging dogs hoping hoping hoping to win a lucrative three-minute tuk-tuk ride from a foreigner.

We arranged a driver named Seng Seila beforehand (on recommendation from my parents and others, actually), and he was dishonest and flippant. He did not meet us at the airport as promised, sending a random guy over about an hour later. He then sent out his brother to drive us instead, and his brother brought us to an expensive attraction with no guidance or warning. On our first temple-visiting day, he lacked the foresight to tell me that several of the temples had a strictly enforced dress code. He brought us to overpriced tourist canteens for our meals. He flatly ignored some of my requests; for instance when I told him I wanted to visit a hilltop for sunset viewing and not another temple he went ahead and brought me to another temple. Worst of all, on the third day he mysteriously drove 45 minutes back to town without asking us, making phone calls as if to arrange something important, and then proposed/forced a five hour break from our pre-arranged itinerary. When I called him to protest and request to return to the original itinerary, he said he did not even have the car! He had clearly double-booked his time, and made no apologies.

Besides the incessant touts, this was another negative experience of Siem Reap. I don’t like being lied to and when I pay a driver to follow an itinerary I expect him to do his best to deliver on that promised itinerary. I also expect someone providing a service to at least pretend to care about a customer’s satisfaction. We came from thousands of miles away to visit this place for three days, but that did not seem to mean anything to him.

People dream of visiting famous Angkor Wat, one of the enduring achievements of the ancient Khmer empire, a vast and powerful civilization that encompassed a huge swath of Southeast Asia from the 9th to 13th centuries. We see it perhaps as some mix of cultural enrichment and recreation, this trip of exotic discovery–as if it is you charging your way through the jungle discovering secrets of the past.

The temples don’t fail to impress but the fact is, this is Tourism Town. With the locals depending on your income, tourism is not so much about hospitality or cultural exchange for them but rather extracting every last cent out of you, as their alternative is miserable poverty. For this reason, I’m not sure Siem Reap is a great place to visit. The struggle of the locals for survival is palpable, the lack of government care and good policy apparent (more on that later). NGOs seem to have come in and taught all of these children English, but why not teach them math or computer science? Why make them continue to depend on the income of visiting foreigners? I can’t imagine that waking up each day to beg strange-looking people for money, strangers on a vacation you can never have, would promote a happy society. What Cambodia needs is structural and institutional change, not your tourism dollars implicitly approving this path of development.

The first day we visited the village Kampong Phluok on Tonle Sap, the massive lake in the middle of the country whose fish and floodwaters provides life to much of Cambodia. We rode for more than an hour on a boat crawling at less than five miles and hour. The engine was blaring and sputtering and the driver had to check it a couple times, letting everyone pass us, leaving us rocking in their wake. The floating village, a collection of colorful boxes on stilts, looked just as otherworldly as described, and downright magical in the orange light of sunset, but I felt uncomfortable with the whole situation.

As we passed the naked toddlers toppling over stressed-out mothers and the older children paddling in tiny boats, I wondered how strange it would be to spend your youth having foreigners gawk at you from boats, as if you were part of the attraction in It’s a Small World. But the local government encouraged it, for they would do anything for thirty fucking US dollars per person. They claimed our fees went to the community, but I questioned that anyone was doing much to better the lives of these children. Wasn’t it in the leaders’ interest to keep the children there paddling around in boats so as to maintain the income-generating attraction, after all?

In economics we call that rent-seeking. Rent-seeking behavior may explain the “resource curse”, in which countries blessed with natural resources have no incentive to ignite the structural and institutional change for productive development as they can merely sit back and let the petro(or whatever)dollars roll in. I think Cambodia, a country that is notoriously corrupt and largely un-livable for the masses, may exhibit rent-seeking behavior by “enjoying” foreign aid and tourism income. In Siem Reap I saw a whole town begging tourists, I saw roads donated by Korea and homes donated by random American families, I saw temples under restoration by the Chinese. There is a need for foreign exchange receipts, there is a need for knowledge transfer, yes, but I don’t see how depending so sorely on foreigners will ever lead to transformational change in Cambodia.

kampong phulok
A kid’s life at Kampong Phluok

Saigon

uncle ho
Portrait of Uncle Ho in the colonial post office

After two days in Hoi An we got on the soft sleeper train from Danang to Saigon which was definitely a “learning experience” in that I learned not to take trains in Vietnam. The soft sleeper was a tiny cramped compartment which we shared with two Parisian old ladies, the mattresses only a bit thicker and the same width as a Chinese hard sleeper, the sheets dirty, the whole compartment generally filthy. The train was only going like 20 mph and running on a single track, often stopping to let other trains pass. The result was a 17 hour journey and you couldn’t see much out the window as it was covered in metal grating. The Parisians were happy to escape at the beach destination Mui Ne. Except for Mui Ne with its sand dunes the environment was generally quite tropical, with little towns here and there. But I wasn’t too bored, I slept on and off, lulled by the mechanical gallop of the train which reminded me of a Russian symphony.

We finally arrived in Saigon where we stayed at the Intercontinental, finally there for two nights instead of our usual one. Here it was 90 degrees and yet people had their winter coats on. We wandered around the area, District 1. Immediately I was struck by the skyscrapers, large Parisian buildings wrapping around corners, scores of international restaurants esp. Japanese and the relative order to the traffic – here the motorbikes were matched by cars and stuck to the side of the lanes. And people were not wearing conical hats! Street food was there as usual but in less density than Hanoi, though we did enjoy an amazing banh mi with chargrilled chicken and bun bo hue, a fiery noodle soup with fried tofu and sausage, which we ate at a stall in a lot on a cornet. At night we went to a few bars, most of them pretty dead even though it was Thursday at 10, and found drinks costing $7.50! After Hoi An that seemed outrageous.

making chicken banh mi
Chicken banh mi
making bun bo hue
Bun bo hue

museum of fine arts
War-era art in the Museum of Fine Arts Saigon

The next day we explored Saigon, visiting the Museum of Fine Arts and the Presidential Palace. The Museum had all sorts of artifacts but I was most interested by the Revolution-era art. Propagandist yes but I enjoyed the honoring of peasants, workers and women. I remember a bronze statue of a wrinkled old lady – not your usual majestic or cerebral subject for a statue, but someone who deserves more honor and dignity. The Museum was housed in an old colonial building which was very French and lovely, though I think most recently owned by a rich Chinese.

presidential palace
Beautiful ’60s architecture at the former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace

The Presidential Palace however was a pretty nice modern building, erected in 1966 with lots of open spaces, flat in shape but with generous cross ventilation. Here we saw various meeting rooms of the South Vietnamese government, the president’s living quarters and game room, the underground bunker. There’s a Huey helicopter on the roof next to the spot where the palace had been bombed and a tank in the courtyard. I didn’t do too much “war stuff” in Vietnam but got some interesting glimpses in Saigon.

On Saturday we would get on a plane to Siem Reap!

Hoi An

temples
Learning about Chinese influence in central Vietnam

Now a few days into our trip we flew to Danang, a big industrial city in the middle of Vietnam. The airport used to be an air base of the South Vietnamese; its capture was a major turning point in the war and some hangars were still lying around. We got in a cab to Hoi An, about 45 minutes from the Da Nang airport.

ha an breakfast
Amazing breakfast at the Ha An Hotel

We stayed at the Ha An Hotel which was in a beautiful colonial-style setting, the rooms, lobby building and restaurant surrounding a courtyard. This hotel was maybe one of the nicest I’ve ever stayed at, for like $40/night. On arrival we enjoyed free welcome ginger tea and fruit on the terrace of the lovely restaurant. The room was elegant, cool, high-ceilinged, with an in-room computer, sliding door opening up to the courtyard-facing verandah and nice and authentic-looking pottery and lamps–excellent attention to detail. And the breakfast was an amazing buffet of Asian and Western food and pastries with made-to-order pho, omelet, other noodles and banh mi.

We spent the morning and afternoon in Hoi An wandering around and into old buildings in the Old Town. Besides the local Vietnamese who fished and made silk, Chinese and Japanese traders came to Hoi An long ago, leaving traces in the city’s architecture. Many buildings, including historic temples which served as congregation halls for Canto and Fujianese migrants, are Chinese in style, usually two stories with courtyards and shrines inside. The Japanese also built a covered bridge over the river. Despite all my time spent in China, the temples didn’t bore me, they involved different colors and details versus their Northern and Shanghai counterparts.

shrine
Old Town Hoi An

Hoi An is quite touristy. The place has lots of women inviting you into their stores or restaurants or offering banana pancakes but they aren’t persistent. One perk about the tourism factor there is a street full of tailors who will make a suit or dress for you same-day. The styles weren’t fobby, either! Unfortunately I didn’t have space in my bag to shop but if I were to come back I’d save room–the place also had some decent shoes hot out of the factory, and custom leather places that would make sandals or bags. Yet, Hoi An was not 100% touristy. You still have your schools, wet markets and locals strolling about in the evenings, and some cheap restaurants when you get away from the tourist strips.

paper lanterns
Floating lanterns for sale

We also biked to the beach at sunset; it was a cloudy day and not too warm but a nice walk. In the evening we enjoyed the Hoi An riverfront, all aglow with the illumination and reflections of lanterns everywhere and some paper candles floating on the water. It looked so brightly Asian it seemed fake, like an attraction at Epcot. We had $3.50 drinks at our pleasant hotel first. Other places were selling cocktails for $2 in their low season desperation.

In Hoi An we enjoyed a couple banh mi from carts (much better than US versions!), cao lau – chewy yellow noodle with fatty pork and a broth on the bottom, mi quang – chewy yellow noodles with shrimp, shrimp chips, shrimp paste, pork, peanuts and broth, banh bao – little pork and shrimp dumplings with big soft wrappers and hoanh tanh, fried wontons topped with fresh tomato etc.

cao lau
Cao lau
mi quang
Mi quang

We also did a half day trip to the My Son ruins, built by the Cham empire in the 8th to 11th centuries. Most of this Hindu temple complex in the jungle had been destroyed by American bombers, and the French had absconded with the statuary heads to display in the Louvre, but some bits still remained, made of rust-colored bricks.

my son
Hindu carvings at the Champa ruins of My Son

On a Boat off Cat Ba


The Lonely Island has changed life as we know it.

On Friday night my boyfriend Daniel arrived and we slept a few short hours at the Hilton Hanoi Opera, just a few steps from the Grand Palais Theatre-styled opera house. We would wake up at 5 to go to Cat Ba island. With an unclear idea of what we were doing, we took one bus, one speeding cab (with a driver singing boy bands and J.Lo), one speedboat and one minibus to arrive at Cat Ba town to meet up with our tour operator Cat Ba Ventures. We were late but we had a private tour booked so they were forgiving. After some street coffee from a tiny metal dripper, we got into our boat, the Dolphin junk. For $163 pp we had a guide, chef and captain, a big bedroom for ourselves and above that a roof deck with a double chaise for lounging.

Our guide was a young guy named Hang who wore a puffy winter jacket and in the water, a turquoise pith helmet. He used to be an office worker in Hanoi but moved out to Cat Ba to be a tour guide, talking to foreigners by day and playing soccer by night. He was very friendly but gave us privacy and spoke good English. He was always singing pop ballads – he says the Vietnamese have a saying, it doesn’t matter how well you sing, only how much you sing. 🙂

We headed out of Cat Ba town, first passing a large floating fishing village. This would be our first glimpse of the aquaculture that is integral to economic life in the archipelago. Everywhere we’d see floating houses, lone little boats on the hunt for today’s catch, women scooting around rocks like crabs looking for oysters, squid boats with their hanging lights and in the floating villages grids of underwater tanks housing all the sea creature goodies. Fishermen in the area catch fish big and small, squid, octopus, cuttlefish, shrimp, oysters, blue crab, lobster, etc. It goes to market and ends up in Hanoi and other inland cities.

boats Local boat going by

Then off into the karsts! We spent the morning cruising Lan Ha bay, much less crowded than famous Halong bay. We sat on our roof deck looking at every strange karst island, each weathered differently by wind and water and covered in trees. We came at low tide which exposed the striated limestone being steadily worn by the ocean. We loved the striking landscape dotted by the fishermen and women in boats.

striated
Exposed bottoms of the limestone karts

lunch
Lunch on the boat

All of our meals were amazing spreads prepared by our personal chef. Over our four meals on deck we enjoyed fried fish, squid with fruits and vegetables, shrimp and tofu scallion fritters, fresh fried dough pancakes (for breakfast) and much more. I felt like royalty! The food was all amazingly fresh (they got the fish flopping out of the water from a floating market) and I loved all the flavors. The tomatoes were so umami-rich and the dishes were often made zesty with the addition of starfruit and pineapple. Yum!

inspecting today's catch
Our crew inspecting a fresh catch. They procured some little fishes for their own lunch.

kayaking
Kayaking around tranquil lagoons

Both afternoons we went kayaking through little caves in and out of secluded lagoons. We saw a group of big monkeys rumbling through the trees in one! With barely anyone around it felt so tranquil to kayak through the turquoise waters together, the only sounds being the splash of our paddles and the occasional rustling of an animal. We also did some swimming the second day when it was sunny – the water is quite peaceful everywhere – and snorkeling to see some very interesting coral. Both Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long bay also had little beaches at the base of the karsts but we didn’t have much time for a beach stop.

sunset
Sunset just outside Ha Long Bay

cat ba morning
Morning at one of Cat Ba island’s beaches

We were sad to leave our boat when we returned to Cat Ba at sunset. We strolled around the town, which has a nice waterfront walking areas around a bay of little colorful fishing boats and a strip of hotels facing this bay. We hunted for crab in the darker more local areas but were eventually told that in Vietnam you can only order crab in the morning. At one point walked through a little alley where families were all eating rice in front of the TVs in their shophouse ground floors which had been converted to living rooms (meaning you could see right into them, as they had no front walls). In the morning we also walked to Cat Ba town’s three beaches, deserted and beautiful, though colonized by resorts. If I were to do this trip again I’d spend a week in Cat Ba, which in addition to those karsty beaches has a huge national park, kayaks and motorbikes for rent and not many people at this time of year.

We endured another bus-boat-bus combo to Hanoi where we stayed at the Hilton again. I took Daniel around the streets and the lake. We enjoyed banh xeo, these savory coconut milk pork pancakes which you wrap up with lettuce and rice paper and dip in a broth, and bun cha, a rich soup with vermicelli noodles topped with BBQ pork, pork or crab patties wrapped in leaves and topped with the usual cilantro etc. Also some great, flaky fries cha gio, or spring rolls – the best I’ve had this trip.

Banh Xeo
Banh xeo
bun cha and cha gio
Bun cha and cha gio