28 July 2008
I decided to conclude my trip in Beijing by spending a few days with the super-awesome Miss Stacy Aldinger. As she puts its, “we’re the same person, only you’re a year older. Oh, and I’m a girl.” Basically, yes.
Upon arriving in Beijing all I could think was how modern everything felt. A real airport. Real roads. Taxis all lined up. Had China become orderly while I was gone, or was Southeast Asia just THAT more “Developing?” Either way, I felt like a space cadet who just landed in Mars. Of course, it didn’t help that we filled our time doing “modern things” like wining, dining and taking in the theater. Stacy had gotten tickets to see Hairspray, which was in the middle of a summer-long China tour that was sweeping the nation with American idioms and social references that were miles over their head but left the two of us in stitches. To top it all off, the show ended with Tracy Turnblad telling the who audience to “stand up and dance with me” IN CHINESE! The crowd went wild! It was fantastic. One of those odd cross-cultural barrier-breaking moments that you can’t quite explain in words.
We finished the night out on the town with some of her equally awesome friends, then slept in and scarfed down an All-American breakfast at “Grandma’s Kitchen,” which could have very well been a Cracker Barrel. Then it was to the park, duck for dinner, a market, a dip in her pool and a close-up (as close as we could get) of the Olympic venues (the games start in 10 days!).
A few things struck me. First, this is not the Beijing I saw eighteen months ago. The highways are lined with roses and potted plants. There is no traffic. People line up to get on the subway. All the street markets have been closed to make the city look more modern. You can’t smoke anywhere. The English is all grammatically correct. It was like they took a big vacuum and sucked all the charm and energy out of the city.
Second, there are hardly any people out and about. The near-insane VISA restrictions have less hotels at 40% capacity in what is usually their business time! Restaurants were empty. Bars and nightclubs were vacant. Even the locals seem to have disappeared. There were hardly any bikes at all crusing the streets!
Third, the pollution is still TERRIBLE! I have no idea how they’re going to clear that up in the next ten days. I woke up Monday and couldn’t see across Stacy’s street not because of rain or clouds, but because of smog. We went to the Olympic venues and the Bird’s Nest, which is the same color as smog, looked “barely there.” You could look DIRECTLY at the sun. How is someone going to run a marathon OUTSIDE in two weeks? You can’t take every car off the road. You can’t turn off every air conditioner or shut down every factory. Or can you?
This is supposed to be China’s big coming out party. Half of me hopes it goes well, because China really is an amazing and captivating place. The other half of me just doesn’t see how it’s going to be possible. I guess we’ll know in 10 days. Tick tock. Tick tock.
Thanks to Kyle’s phenomenal internet searching skills, he was able to land us a two-day all expenses paid cruise of Halong Bay on the “Classic Sail,” Vietnam’s finest junk boat. “We welcome you to our junk,” the email read. In return, Kyle will be reviewing our experience for a travel website. As for me, I will just be blogging about how amazing the shower was.
It was the usual scene to begin with – wake up early, get on a minibus that stops at a tourist trap warehouse shopping center before dropping us at the docks, where we boarded a small boat that took us to our big boat. By us, I mean Kyle, Gayle and Mukti (the life-wise awe-inspiring Australian vagabonds), Fabio (the Swiss homeopathic medicine man), Gabby and her son (the too-cool pierced and tattooed Belgians) and Brad and Brawn (the musically inclined saxophone and obo players who live and jam in Singapore). Quite an eclectic bunch.
It all began with the largest feast of seafood, beef, chicken and vegetables I have ever seen. The nine of us, who became fast friends, all sat around one large table on the second deck of our three-story dreamboat. We dined as the boat pulled anchor and set sail out toward Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of more than one thousand limestone karsts that jut upward out of the sea. It is unlike anything I have ever seen, as it is unlike anything else on earth.
Our magnificent lunch was followed [for me] by a equally divine post-feast nap in our perfect cabin – clean, air-conditioned and equipped with an uber-modern sick, toilet, shower combo. It was one of those rain showers with the massive showerhead that poured straight down from the ceiling, simulating showering in the rain or under a waterfall (two experiences I just happened to have in the two weeks prior to our boarding the ship).
Rejuvenated and recharged, it was time to descend into an enormous cave that nature had carved into one of the karsts. It was huge. Enormous. Otherworldly, really. Then we hit the beach of another karst. That’s when things got interesting. Before taking a dip the younger crowd hiked to the top of the island to get a birds-eye view of the enormous expanse that is Halong – massive limestone peaks emerging from the sea in every direction.
Post-climb we found the rest of our boat-mates standing around some sort of sea creature. Anyone who knows me is definitely aware of the fact that I am deathly afraid of sea life. I’m fairly certain I was attacked by a shark in another life. Well, turns out this beached creature is a big, slimy, iridescent jellyfish! Mind it, it was beached just inches from where I was about to take a dip. I turned to our guide and asked how common such creatures are in the area. “Only a few jellyfish, I think. Or maybe many, I think.” Good answer.
Tough as nails, Kyle still went in. I waded a few feet, dunked my head and kept a watchful eye on the water around me. Just as I was building up the bravery to swim out further (Kyle was now twenty feet from shore) I saw Brad of Brad and Brawn Singapore fame b-lining for land. “Did you get stung,” I yelled. Kyle was shaking his head. “Yeah, all down my arm. Oh my gosh, it hurt so bad. It felt like I was being electrocuted.” I was out of the water before he could finish saying the word “electrocuted.” Our entire group was. Gabby was waving at Fabio and her son to evacuate, which they did, reluctantly. Ten minutes later we were all clothed and back on the boat, taking turns asking Brad if his arm still hurt. “Yep, like hell,” he would reply each time.
Of course, this didn’t stop Gabby’s son from jumping off the top of the boat into the water. “Just be done by dark,” she told him. Naturally, he decided to keep going and just after the sun had set, a jellyfish got him from the base of his spine all the way to his neck. So while we all dined on yet another perfect meal he and Brad sat semi-writhing in pain. I was just surprised that I wasn’t the one injured. I mean, when does that happen? Kyle was surprised as well.
The rest of the voyage was injury free and verged on perfect. Post-dinner we all chit-chatted on the top deck until 10ish, when everyone retired, eager to get a full night’s sleep before our early breakfast, second cave dissent and lagoon hike. We dropped Brad and Brawn for their kayaking adventure, left Fabio, Gabby and her son on a deserted island then cruised back to civilization with the Aussie ladies, Mukti and Gayle. There’s not time to go into it here but basically, they’re awesome. Both have kids and grandkids and decided – in their 50’s – to sell their homes and hit the road, turning the world into their plaything. How cool is that? There’s way more too it, but if you need a personal anecdote on living life to its fullest, these ladies can provide it.
Another four-hour bus ride and we were back in Hanoi, our [free] luxury cruise a distant, yet fond memory. With that, it’s back to China…WHOA.
Four days in Phu Quoc left both Kyle and I in a semi-permanent state of “nothing is all that serious.” That bungalow – combined with amazing food and a significant (but welcome) lack of people left us totally unprepared for the frenetic energy of Hanoi.
After a one-night layover in Rach Gia, where we witnessed the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen (the sky changed about 10 different colors over the course of an hour), we boarded our PROP plane to make our connection in Saigon. The airport - which only sees two flights go in and out per day – consisted of a coffee shop, a security guard and a big door that opened to the runway, where we walked right on to our PROP plane, circa 1949. I think it may have been a DC-9.
2 hours in Saigon and we were on a real plane, kit kats and ritz crackers in-hand. Arriving in Hanoi was slightly overwhelming – so many people, so many gates and so many touts posing the exact same question – “Hello, motorbike?” Our minibus driver couldn’t find our hostel and so just stopped at one and said “yep, this is it.” Fortunately, Kyle had been to Hanoi before, so knew where we were supposed to be. Unfortunately, the guesthouse he really liked had no room. That left us wandering the streets in search of an alternative, which we found in the Prince II Hotel. (Prince I was full, so they motor-biked us and our bags to their satellite hotel a few blocks away). For $17 we had a real bathtub, satellite TV, wireless internet, a full-on duvet and air-conditioning. It was so incredibly luxurious!
Our two and a half days in Hanoi weren’t filled with a whole lot of blog-worthy material. After a solid month of traveling (with 7 consecutive days of bus travel at one point) we were both totally exhausted. We did visit the “Hanoi Hilton” where John McCain was held during the Vietnam War, though two thirds of it was razed to build the “Hanoi Towers,” a massive 5-star hotel. Hmm…Still, it was incredibly interesting and eye-opening. No one really wins in war because, as FDR put so well, war is hell. The battlefield is only one tenth of all that is involved in armed conflict – wounded, dead, prisoners of war, long-term health problems, reconstruction, urban renewal – the list goes on and on.
Beyond this site, we focused on resting (watched the entire season four of The Office), shopping (my sister and brother are rather lucky siblings) and eating (the food is Hanoi is absolutely phenomenal, as are the prices). Oh, and I drank 9 iced coffees in 3 days. Addiction? It’s very likely…
23 July 2008
There’s not a whole lot to say about Phu Quoc Island, as we did very little, and on purpose. We arrived by ferry (one of only two per day) and a tout sold us on a “bungalow on the beach” in about 3 minutes. A short van ride later we were sitting in hammocks on the patio of our $10 a night bungalow that was, quite literally, ON the beach.
Because there are only four flights and two ferrys a day, traffic on and off the island is kept to a minimum, leaving miles and miles of sandy beaches totally deserted. We saw all of about 12 other foreigners in the four days that we were there, and 10 of them were staying at our guesthouse (though their bungalows were not ON the beach). We rented a motorbike and cruised the entire island, from leafy green jungle to white sand beaches lined with palm trees. We swung in hammocks, swam in the pristine water, ate dinner with our toes in the sand and washed the salt water away under a waterfall. No internet, no phone, no contact with the outside world. It was perfect. Nuff said.
The night of doom began at 10pm when we got in the taxi to catch our bus to Rach Gia, the port town where you catch the ferry to Phu Quoc, our deserted island escape. The taxi took us to a mini-mini bus depot, where we got into another little vehicle that took us to the actual bus depot. As it turns out our “night bus” wasn’t really a night bus at all. No, it was a large van crammed with fourteen seats and legroom that wasn’t even sufficient for Kyle Long (whos is 9 inches shorter than me). I should have known we were doomed as the driver proceeded to karate chop and kick and shove my backpack into the three inches of space between the last row and the back doors.
As my luck would have it, we were assigned seats 13 and 14, the back corner. Naturally, this row had the least legroom, the seats didn’t recline and there were four people on our bench seat. Mind you, everyone else on the “bus” was Vietnamese and a good eight to ten inches shorter than me but no, I would remain here.
I didn’t fit in the seat. I don’t mean this sarcastically. I literally didn’t fit in the seat. Sitting straight up my knees were wedged into the row in front of us. If I tried to slide my feet down under the row in front, I was abruptly stopped by my pesky kneecaps, that just refused to bend backwards. If I slip my legs up to my chest and rested my knees on the seat in front of me, I was halted by the stabbing pains in my lower back from the stress of supporting my body. At exactly 11pm we pulled away, all 14 seats full, everyone else talking at the top of their lungs, music BLASTING on the radio. Kyle sort-of dozed off quickly, as did the other smaller people who sort-of fit in their seats. In all honesty, no one really fit in their seats. They were too small. The whole thing was absurd to the point where I thought it was a joke. The stern look on our dirver’s face reassured me that no, this was not a joke.
Two hours later, back sore, nodding in and out of sleep in my overtly upright position, inflatable neck pillow whispering softly in my ears, “this isn’t happening bucko,” we stopped. I pulled up my eye shade to discover that we were – shockingly – at a roadside restaurant! 1am and we’re stopping for food. Most everyone piled out. I laid down to my side, looking forward to a thirty-minute nap while everyone else chowed down.
“BANG BANG BANG!” The driver pounded loudly on the outside of the van. Those three pats were all it took to bring every ounce of rage in my body to the surface. I slowly sat up, lifting my eye shade as I went. “BANG BANG BANG,” once more on the outside of the car. This time it was followed by a stream of words in Vietnamese that I did not understand. Now he was patting his knee, as if calling me to him. I was pissed. “BANG BANG BANG,” again. I pulled the eye shade off my head with one dramatic swoop and slapped my hand on the seat. “WHY? WHY? WHY?” I yelled at him, my voice getting louder and more irritated with each successive “why.” He then proceeded to bang on the car wall again. I countered by banging on the seat. Then he was rambling again and I was shouting the word why. Bang. Slap. Ramble. Shout. Bang. Slap. Ramble. Shout. It was a heated argument and neither of us had any idea what the other one was saying.
By now Kyle was up and attempting to calm me down. “It’s ok. Lets just get out. It’s ok. Calm down.” I was still yelling. A few shouts later I realized my original goal was now pointless, as I was now wide awake. Deflated, I said “ok” and started putting my shoes on. You’d think at this point he would chill out and wait a second while I fumbled for footwear. No. Instead, he started banging on the side of the car again! Now, I’m not an angry person and rarely do I explode in an irrational fury of totally absurd emotions. Still, I firmly believe that on every trip, you are allotted at least one totally insane, culturally insensitive, “foreigner” moment. Needless to say, this was mine. I grabbed my sandal in my hand, raised it in the air, shook it violently and started yelling “SHOE! SHOE! SHOE!” He countered with some additional banging and unintelligible rambling. By now Kyle was thoroughly bewildered, amused, irritated, maybe a little bit of everything? He lowered my hand down, encouraged my actually putting the sandal on my foot and subsequently getting out of the van, which I did, begrudgingly.
We stood there for 40 minutes at 1am while everyone else ate. One of the 20-something Vietnamese guys in our van came up and asked if we’d like to join he and his friends. “They think you are mad because we are all talking a lot and the music is really loud.” I said nothing. We did not join them. Quite honestly, I am not sorry, which might be bad. The whole experience was totally absurd and I was so freaking angry. Had I not exploded then, it would have just continued to bottle up inside, saved for a later date and time. “Wow, I’ve never seen that side of you,” Kyle told me the next day. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that side of anyone.” Don’t mess yo. Don’t mess.
We said farewell to Cambodia in true Kyle (Taylor) form – I thought we left my crutches (that I no longer needed) in our shared taxi from Siem Reap, which put Me, Kyle, Graham, Stacey and her guesthouse receptionist on a good thirty-minute wild goose chase, only to discover that they were in fact leaning against the fence. Super.
Our bus to Vietnam left bright and early the next morning, which meant saying farewell to Stacey (who was heading on to volunteer at an orphanage just south of Phnom Penh) and Graham (who was staying in Phnom Penh to do some incredible NGO work on educating people through national and community radio). Now, this bus had all the bells and whistles – curtains, breakfast, A/C and a host that acted as trilingual tour guide THE ENTIRE RIDE. “We are now entering Blah Blah Province of Cambodia. This province is famous for…” First in Khmer, then English then Vietnamese. It was like a 7-hour book on tape that a parent or grandparent made you listen to in the car when you were a kid.
Per usual, we stopped at a roadside restaurant just before the border. The Cambodia side moved as smooth as butter. The Vietnam side took forever, and they were charging an outrageous $2 for a packet of M&Ms! Anyway, now crutch-less and on the mend, we decided to take Saigon by storm and – for the first time in a few weeks – do it on foot. We found a super-lux hotel for $12 and proceeded immediately to the closest Pho (Vietnamese noodles) shop (We stayed in a non-book hotel, which meant an in-book restaurant, per the arrangement Kyle and I made).
The next morning we went directly the War Remnant’s Museum. I’ve always had mixed emotions when it comes to Vietnam. I know Vietnam Veterans who – to this day – still are not comfortable talking about what happened. I’ve read about public opinion during the war and heard stories of how terrible veterans were treated upon returning to the US. Vietnam has been both demonized and victimized in my mind for the last decade, and I couldn’t help but feel slightly guilty for coming here, much less enjoying myself. At the same time, the past is the past and, as Vietnam is now an emerging market-based economy it seems that in the end, it all came full-circle. Either way, it seemed at the very least, an extremely important place to experience and understand.
The War Remnant’s Museum could not have been more telling of just how terrible war is. The images, video clips and stories were quite honestly, devastating. With so much death, destruction and violence it seems that no one really “won.” One I found most fascinating was the special exhibit – a collection of painting completed by kids from a local elementary school with the prompt of “Peace On Earth – All People, All Places.” There were doves, kids of different colors and backgrounds and places playing, holding hands and smiling. That image set against the backdrop of remnants of war, while seemingly out of place, was a welcome respite to the sadness, death and destruction. Lets hope that attitude carries into adulthood.
We spent the afternoon wandering the market, old town and new town, which was lined with designer stores like Louis Vuitton and upscale hotels like the Sheraton and Mandarin Oriental. From what I can tell, this is a very different Saigon. Before getting our night bus to the coast (yes, another bus – that makes one on Friday to Phnom Penh, one on Monday to Siem Reap, one back to Phnom Penh on Tuesday, another to Vietnam on Wednesday and yet a fifth in six days to Rach Gia from Saigon on Thursday. Can you handle our pace? Woo!) we actually met Graham for dinner! Yes, he was in Saigon with a friend for a little weekend holiday. What are the chances? Thankfully, we hadn’t exhausted all possible political issues to discuss, which made for another lively evening before the night of doom. That’s next…
21 July 2008
According to Lonely Planet, one should allow five to seven days to see all of Angkor, Cambodia's ancient capitol that at one time was home to more than one million people (when London was just a sleepy town of 50,000). Also according to Lonely Planet, it is seemingly the greatest place on earth. As you might expect, my expectations were high.
We decided to let Stacey join us on this part of the trek (though she would probably say - wrongfully so - that she let us tag along). Fortunately, our early-departure four-hour bus ride only took seven hours and made just one stop, which meant we arrived at a super convenient 3pm! We were met at the bus station by Mr. Sow, who was our Phnom Penh Tuk Tuk driver's good friend. He was holding a giant sign with my name typed on it. Mind you, I can't even find computers, much less a laser jet printer, and this guy has managed to construct a big sign to flag us down. We laid low for the afternoon, just eating, shopping and planning our trip to Angkor. It was decided that we'd head out at 4am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, a "life-changing" experience, said the book.
True to form, the whole "early to bed" plan went awry. First we were waxing Kyle's eyebrows, then we got to talking about changing the world (as Melissa Richer at Ashoka once said, "I feel like a one trick pony. Like all I can talk about anymore is social entrepreneurship and changing the world." I feel the EXACT SAME WAY) and our early night ended up meaning going to bed at 1am.
Still, we were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 4 (employing a strict "no talking" rule until we arrived). Fortunately, we were just ahead of the crowds the entire day, which meant a fairly peaceful sunrise that was - quite honestly - truly spectacular. Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure on earth. It's bigger than St. Paul's Cathedral in Vatican City, bigger than the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and bigger than any Buddha on the planet. Just the moat is a massive eighth of a mile wide!
From Angkor Wat it was on to Angkor Thom, the sort-of down town of the entire place. At the center of Angkor Thom was Bayon, which consists of 200 identical faces in the image of the late and great King, all looking over the city with a creepily watchful eye. Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and a number of other lesser known Wats, palaces and sites filled out the rest of our Angkor tour and by 1pm we were ready to head out. Still, a tinge of guilt was looming over us. Lonely Planet said 5-7 days. Other friends said at least 3. Here we were, 9 hours later and heading home. We were just that uncultured? Unrefined? Lame?
It's not that the sites weren't amazing or awe-inspiring or monumental in any way, it is just that - after several hours and literally hundreds of temples, pagodas, churches and wats later, they all start to resemble one another. Ok, let the hate mail pour in now. Still, at least for Kyle and I, we knew what to expect - the largest collection of historic ruins on earth. As Stacey said it best, "it was way worse for me. We go here when it was dark and the sunrise was so gorgeous then it was light and I was like, 'Oh my goodness, it's all ruins. Where is the gold?'" It turns out the Thais stole the gold - all of it - when they plundered the Cambodian Empire in the 15th Century. Then 500 years later they gave Pol Pot asylum. Huh?