Stories from a Tour of Asia: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia

All,

I haven’t sat down for nearly four weeks but finally here’s an update. I’ll write one more note before I go home which I’ll reach on September 9th. I’m trying to take the train to Delhi from Bombay tomorrow to see the Taj Mahal but with the Indian train system, booking tickets is always an adventure and we shall see how it goes. I’ve spent the past week in Bombay, saying hi to friends and helping out a little with orienting the next class of IMBA students. No crocodiles have eaten my passport. As always, thanks for reading. Be in touch.

Love,
Mike


Jim and Mike’s Little Adventure in Thailand

To begin my three week sojourn through SE Asia, I met one of my classmates Jim in Bangkok and we immediately hopped a ten-hour overnight bus to Koh Toa, a small island off the coast of Thailand.

It’s mostly a divers’ hangout so we were afraid we’d be second class citizens considering that at the most we’d be snorkeling. As it turned out, we had nothing to worry about. We stayed at a beach hut resort and did almost absolutely nothing for three and a half days. I started a nice tan. Off the beach of our little resort, it was possible to snorkel although the water although it was really too shallow to swim. The first day in the water I thought that I saw a fish that looked like the gourami in my fish tank when I was in seventh grade.

The great event of our stay was a half day snorkeling trip. We signed up and pulled away from the dock one afternoon. Immediately, a two-hour onslaught of pouring rain ensured. For the first fifteen minutes of the rain, we were in a speed boat and I think that it went the fastest I have ever gone in a boat as it took us out to some sort of cross between a tug boat and a house boat from which we would dive. After the rain abated, Jim and I went snorkeling. I lasted just over an hour and saw at least a couple hundred species of fish and untold thousands considering that there were schools everywhere. The coral and sea anemones were incredible. As it turned out, I think we had a least as good a day as the divers had and we paid a heck of a lot less. The water was at most thirty feet deep where we snorkeled and we could see just about all the way to the bottom not to mention all the spots were it was even shallower. I especially liked these three or four-inch fish that swam right up to my mask. In retrospect, we picked a good day to go snorkeling since with all the rain it would have been a miserable beach day. My nice tan became a mild sun burn.

Jim and I also hiked the mile and a half from out beach hut to the main town several times. Along the way, you could look at the rocks along the coast and the aqua marine waters. You could also navigate several wooden-plank walk way death traps. The last night of our stay, a couple got married and the beach hut resort had a grilled shrimp and chicken menu special that anyone could order. Jim and I uncomplainingly partook of the barbeque shrimp kabobs. The next day we split and I left for Vietnam for ten days while Jim stayed to continue the hard living on the island beaches of Thailand.

In other notes, Bangkok is perhaps the least pedestrian friendly city I have even been in with large boulevards for streets, crowded sidewalks and hell bent drivers. The bus to the beach was probably the nicest long distance bus I have ever ridden, even better than the ones in Peru not to mention Ecuadorian school buses.

They are big on their motorbikes

I loved Vietnam from the moment I could see it from the air. Even flying into Hanoi, you can see gorgeous green rice paddies in every direction. On the way from the airport to town, you get to see the rice paddies up close. The other thing that is apparent as soon as you get on the road is that everybody in Vietnam has a motorbike. At first I thought the ratio of cars to motorbikes was 1 to 35. I later raised my estimate to 1 to 50. I later learned that there are 3 million motorbikes in Saigon (although I have no idea how many people there are) and that five years ago there were none. Someone told a joke that the World Bank gave the Vietnam government money and it was immediately spent on motorbikes for everybody. The underlying story was that everyone got their motorbikes on credit and if the economy crashes, there is going to be a lot of scrap metal available.

I went on two two-day tours. First, I visited Ha Long Bay in the north, with its hundreds of rock islands. The cool thing about the trip was that I slept on a boat overnight. I also visited Sapa, a ten-hour train ride from Hanoi to the rural mountains up north. This entire second trip was a fiasco beginning with my tour company not giving me my train ticket, getting picked up by the wrong driver at the train station in Sapa and waiting two hours in the hotel for my guide to pick me up. I ended up playing UNO in the hotel lobby for two hours with a bunch of the village children which was more fun than a tour would have been. Of course, they were so cute that at the end of the two hours I had to buy bracelets and postcards from every single one of them. The kids spoke marvelous English that they’d taught themselves from listening to tourists. Maybe all the classes with the gringos in Quito should be in English then the kids would have no choice but to learn a few words and could probably have a conversation after a year of girls’ program. I also went on a hike through one of the valleys where rice, hemp and indigo were cultivated. All of the clothing that the village people made was from hemp and I got to see various steps of the process. It was quite awesome.

Hanoi is a big dusty and noisy place but rather quaint. Mostly, I think that the French occupation left the inhabitants with a touch of aesthetics. Half of the buildings are concrete cinder block and half are French colonial but that’s an improvement over the usual 100 percent cement. I went to see Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum. He is laid in state and all fixed up. It’s very creepy. The line to see him was several thousand long and I probably had wait an hour to see him even in the short tourist line. Clearly, he is a national hero for his opposition to the French and later the US.

After five days in the North, I headed to Saigon. The city was nothing likely I imagined it would be. I had heard that it was just another city that was developing quickly and very westernized but I found that Saigon (like Hanoi) before it felt like a small city and not at all westernized even if its touristy. It possessed none of the skyscrapers or the crowds of Tokyo, Shanghai or Bombay but of course size is always relative and both of Vietnam’s hubs are sizable enough. Saigon is not as quaint and charming a place as would be suggested by songs such as Billy Joel’s Good Night Saigon. I guess more so than any place I’ve ever been, even more so than Southern Peru, SE Asia is really the world’s backpacking capital. The touristy part of town was filled with all the usual hostels and restaurants catering to foreigners. They even had fake Lonely Planet guides that were very cheap.

From Saigon, I went on tours to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta. The tunnels were amazing. They were hundreds of kilometers long, built by hand and allowed the Vietnamese guerrillas to live right under the Americans. The Viet Cong’s tactics were beyond creative. They used metal from American bombs to make mines and weapons. One of their techniques was to place mines with bamboo shafts in the Delta. American boats would search the river banks during raids but at low tide, they’d get punctured by the Vietnamese traps. Then the crocodiles would finish off any unfortunate Americans. The Delta was nothing like the jungle I was picturing it would be and the devastation wrought by Americans during the Vietnam War became quickly apparent during my stay. The forest around the Delta is young, consisting of thirty year old palm trees, signs of a place that is only beginning to recover from Napalm and all the other chemicals that Americans used in bombing the place. In America, the war has all sorts of rationales. Visiting Vietnam first hand, however, makes it abundantly clear that we were an invading and occupying army. I visited the War Remnants museum in Saigon, formerly called the American War Crimes museum and remained sadden for hours: 3 million Vietnamese dead, 4 million wounded, hundreds of thousands of after effects. The bitterness that was evident in the Vietnamese people’s memories of the war was strong and well deserved by all accounts. I can only imagine what they will remember in Iraq some day.

It Doesn’t Rain in the Brochures

I visited Siem Reap in Cambodia for three days and spent a day wandering the temples of Ankor. Siem Reap is pure hinterlands with only 80,000 inhabitants. I didn’t have time to stray far off the beaten track but the poverty in Cambodia was intensely apparent in a way that it was not in Vietnam. My hotel room was $3 a night and for the tourist season, it appears that many people try to create some income whether by selling trinkets or giving motorbike rides. Ankor Wat and its surroundings are just incredible. Pictures do it some justice so I cannot wait to show them off. In the middle of the day, it poured rain but I just kept walking in my Poncho since I wasn’t coming back any time soon and explored a few of the various temples. I think my favorite ruin was one that was being eaten by the jungle. It had trees growing on top of six feet high stone block walls that was two hundred feet tall and eight feet in diameter. The root systems of some of the trees were the size of what would normally be considered big tree branches, with roots easily as big as the bottom branches of the Maple with swings on it in my backyard. At the end of the day I went back to Ankor Wat to spend a few more hours there. The sun came out and I got a last few good pictures with clear blue skies. That night before I left for Bangkok to go to Bombay for a couple of weeks, I got bit by about 100 mosquitoes but there are no apparent ill affects other than the numerous welts from bites.

Lasting Impressions

So after covering these three countries, Vietnam wins the award for my favorite place, the one to which I would return in a second. Even with Thailand’s beautiful beaches and Cambodia’s wonders of the world, the people from the tour guides to the hotel receptionists, the hairdressers to the random people on the street in Vietnam were warm and awesome. I was sad to leave each step of my journey knowing I wouldn’t see many of them again. One of the great things about traveling, however, is that far off places are no longer abstractions but places where friends with faces reside. I’ve had a great trip and I’ve still got almost two weeks to go.

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~ by Admin on August 27, 2004.

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