Saigon

So, I arranged my Viet Nam visa through a travel agency in Kep, Cambodia. Don’t do this. Arrange it in Phnom Penh, or Sihanoukville, but not in a backwater ‘burb. It’ll take three times as long, and cost twice as much. I meant to leave on Tuesday, but the travel agency called in the morning telling me my visa hadn’t arrived yet and that we would go tomorrow. Wednesday morning arrived, and I set off on my journey. Easy enough, though cramped, in the minivan I took to Ha Tien–the border city of Viet Nam and Cambodia. The border crossing itself was a breeze, and I felt the $65 I’d paid for the visa might have been worth it, although it’s supposed to be $30.

Electrical Box.

The worst part of the border crossing was when I was shuttled from the first bus drop-off to the second bus pick-up, and there wasn’t enough room in the car, so my backpack was placed, PLACED, on the roof. And so it traveled to the bus station, with me praying the entire time for restraint and control on the part of the driver.

The bus itself was quite unusual–passengers were required to remove their shoes after climbing the stairs, and were assigned either an upper or a lower berth in a Space Age-type recliner chaise longue. It was rather too short for my legs, but not horribly uncomfortable.

Bus Ride.

I arrived in Sai Gon around 9 in the evening, and then was shuttled to the center of the city in a free bus nearby. The middle of the city meant nothing to me, as I hadn’t pre-booked a hostel, assuming the bus got in earlier so I could scout for a hostel on my own. I wandered the streets, looking for the tell-tale “Nha Nghi” sign that signified a guesthouse. None to be found, spotted pounding the pavement by an old Vietnamese man,  I was coerced onto the back of his motorbike and led from hotel to hotel until one was found with vacancy. I told him I had no money, and he gave the (I now know) ubiquitous Vietnamese sideways hand flutter.

The Vietnamese Hand Flutter: This means anything from “It doesn’t matter” to “I don’t know/understand what you’re trying to tell me” to “Don’t have it”. It’s essentially “Jazz Hands” with just one hand. Practice accordingly. It saves time and energy in staving off taxi drivers and street hawkers.

I ended up in a pay-by-the-hour hotel, at VND 240,000, about $12. It was clean, tidy, came with free soaps and combs, hot water, fast wi-fi, and A/C. Completely worth it. By the way, the D in VND stands for Dong (pronounced “dawm”), the Vietnamese currency standard. It’s roughly 21,000 VND to the dollar, but I usually just cover the last four zeroes in any price and divide by two.

The next day, after some strenuous research, I headed over to the Budget Hostel–about a mile or so away. Naturally, I walked, to save on cash. Naturally, I got lost. I staggered into a cafe to ask for directions, and immediately a young woman stood up, left her friend sitting at the table, and offered to escort me via motorbike to my hostel. I was also offered a seat and a place to put my pack by the security guard outside, and a cold glass of tea by the waiter. Of course I accepted her offer with alacrity.

Park Street.

It turns out I’d taken the wrong Cong Quynh. It’s broken (irritatingly similar to many streets in Long Beach) into two segments, and I’d taken the first one I came to. Arriving at the Budget Hostel at last, I was somewhat dismayed. It was literally a door in the wall of an alley, and stepping inside was like stepping into a closet after someone had a steamy 7 minutes in it. The cost was ~$5 per night and included free breakfast (of baguette and margarine). Miraculously, the dorm room was air-conditioned to a pleasingly frigid temperature, and each bed was replete with one electric fan. Ahhhh heaven, in high-90’s Saigon.

Coffee Snacks!

I had heard from many travelers that Viet Nam was the least favorite part of their trip, that the people weren’t friendly, that the country wasn’t beautiful; all of that is complete tripe. People are constantly trying to talk to you and to help you, or just to smile at you and show you how their baby can say “Hello”. Children, and adults, call to you day and night, with grins and waves. The country is beautiful–I don’t know how anyone could say it isn’t: fresh, green, and watery. Saigon is crammed with beautiful, old trees; it’s like the Stockholm of South East Asia.

Even the architecture is soothing. Almost every edifice is painted in a hue of blue or green, ranging from citron to sage to jade to sea foam to turquoise to true blue. The doors and windows are barred with metal, but metal of such fanciful design I’ve never seen elsewhere. Dainty patterns, birds, and starbursts cover windows and bar gateways. Airy bamboo birdcages hang everywhere, and the twittering of birds is omnipresent.

Alley Way.

I didn’t feel secure transporting myself via motorbike, and I couldn’t find a bike rental, so I walked everywhere. From my hostel, I could easily reach the Notre Dame, the Ben Thanh market, a small local market, and plenty of food, food, food. I ate every Vietnamese dish I knew from home, and found others I loved even more, such as Banh Bot Chien–thick, stir-fried chunks of rice dumpling in an omelette, with pickled daikon and carrot slaw, and no’u’c cha’m on the side. 20,000 VND. As usual, I had to face that some meals are only available at certain times, such as the above, which came out after the market closed, and the doughnut man, who rolled up after the fruit lady left in the morning (get out of here, healthy!).

Independence Palace.

My friend and savior, Nga, escorted me to the Independence Palace of an afternoon via motorbike; with an admission price of just 30,000 VND, it was well worth it. I thought the place looked ugly on the outside, just like some of our post-Modern architectural eyesores at home, but on the inside it was delightfully Chinoise. My favorite part was actually the interior of an architectural detail I thought ugly from outside–the huge, stylized bamboo, concrete window shades. Across from the palace is a French-influenced park, with soaring trees (sycamores? do those grow here?), and well-tended, geometric walkways and well-placed benches.

Hall of Light.

In this park, an old man sits with his violin, a microphone, and an amp. He plays popular songs and traditional Vietnamese songs, and young people cluster around him to sing into his microphone. It’s charming that the youth, instead of skulking around smoking, come to sit beside this aged performer, who speaks English as well as Vietnamese, and knows songs from both cultures.

Old Man.

One thing I absolutely love about Viet Nam is the lack of trash. Here, trash is collected. Regularly. If you put something down for a second, you’d better keep an eye on it if it looks like you’re done with it, or it’ll be gone before you know it! The streets are free of green debris, as well as trash of any kind, and the sidewalks and walkways are well-swept by hoards of women bundled in what look like parti-colored HazMat uniforms. Throughout the city, these (almost always) women can be seen sweeping, and grabbing trash to place into rolling mini-dumpsters they push in front of themselves. They also care not a whit for your personal needs, so don’t expect them to stay their sweeping if you want to get by.

Alley Gate.

Just like in Cambodia, the streets here are terrifying. Crossing the street feels like a Leap of Faith, like the one Indiana Jones had to make in I forget which movie, that ended up being glass or something, but he thought he had to step out onto nothingness. Only here, the assumption is not that you won’t fall into a bottomless chasm, but that you won’t be run down by the myriad of motorbikes, trucks, taxis, and cyclists. Press on slowly, but determinedly, and you’ll make it. The press of traffic parts around you in a way that encourages the idea of a forcefield that you half believe in. Honking is continuous, and like the Peace-cry of the women in Flatland (yes, I just finished that book) signals to others that you exist in space.

Inside the House.

The Ben Thanh market is unexceptional, just like every other market I’ve seen, so don’t waste time going there. Also, the shoes won’t fit you. Just to let you know. They say 39, but they mean 34.

Hair Care?

I was dying for another massage, so I went to one that said it was 100,000 VND. It was in an alley, but what else is new in Saigon? The best coffee I had was at a child-sized table behind some ladies’ house in an alley. Anyhow, the massage was good, but not great, and at the end the price was quoted at 120,000; an extra dollar. Then, I was presented with a tip card. Whoa, whoa, whoa, girls–high prices, and then a tip?! But I tipped 50,000 VND, making my grand total about $9. I know it isn’t much, but similar to how I feel in America (and everywhere else), it’s annoying when hidden costs arise. Also, the girl chatted with me the whole time, which made me feel like she was just trying to cadge a higher tip (duh, Kate). I thought she really liked my dorky tour hair!

Imperial Atrium.

Coffee here is easy to find and every present. Ca Phe Su’a Da is iced coffee with condensed milk. It costs between 10 and 15,000 VND. It’s easy to order, even I can’t mess it up.

Canker Sore.

It is exceptionally hard to make myself understood here, but I try my hardest. Six tones, with three of them interrupted somehow, make it nigh on impossible for a random foreigner to pick up the tongue in a few weeks. Ordering and money aren’t too hard, except for certain inconsistancies, such as how the word for “fifteen” instead of being mu’o’i nam is instead mu’o’i lam; I believe for phonetic reasons. Other words are met with a blank stare, no matter how I many ways I try to say them, like the word for train station. It should be simple! Ga + City You Are In. It just never works.

Door handle.

Koh Pha Ngan

Getting to Koh Pha Ngan, or Koh Phangan (pronounced by most people as “koh pang-gan”, probably closer to “koh pah-ngahn”), was as easy as hopping on a songthaew to Big Buddha Pier and buying a ticket on the Haad Rin Queen for 200 b. The Haad Rin Queen runs four times per day, and the tickets are a set price. Don’t be tricked into buying a speedboat or any other type of conveyance, the Queen runs daily, without fail! Travel agencies will try to psych you out over getting to Haad Rin near the Full Moon time, saying you won’t find a way over if you don’t book in advance with them, etc. etc. Don’t listen.

Have Queen Will Travel

Arriving at Haad Rin Pier after a brisk hour spent clinging to the foremost railing, you disembark to find yourself in tourist central. And a different kind of tourism than Bangkok. Koh Phangan caters to those moneyed youths who consider themselves experimental or “hippy” and the place is chockablock with neon tanks, tees, swimsuits, fake-flower headbands. A popular emblazoning is “Same Same” on the front of the shirt, with “But Different” on the back. I finally accosted a young man about what his shirt meant. If you took it to mean, things are the same, but different, you were right! Although I still don’t understand why that’s a Koh Phangan thing. However, a few of the international crowd I met used it continuously, so maybe you have to be an ESL person to get it.

Rasta Bar

Continuing on, the whole feel of the place is psychedelic-neon vomit, and it’s a mass of international bros and girls; stumbling against traffic, breaking flip-flops, looking horribly sun-ravaged… Haad Rin is considered a must-see for the tourist crowd, as it’s here that the Full Moon Party happens, once a month. Haad Rin Nai is where you land, it means Sunset Beach, but it’s on Haad Rin Nok (Sunrise Beach) that the party’s at–the beach on the other side of the town. It’s walking, eg. stumbling distance from any venue in Haad Rin, and at night the streets are lined with bucket vendors, selling 200 b buckets of mixed drinks. Each vendor has his own name, scrawled on the front of his little box lined with sandcastle buckets and two-gulp bottles of Smirnoff. Oddly, some of these impromptu baristas also hold signs, declaiming things like, “I fuck midget retards”, and something equally offensive on the other.

Spirits

The beach itself is a warring blast of top-40 hits, with bigger bars offering bigger sound systems and consequently attracting more people. There are also amateur Thai male fire dancers strewn up and down the beach, attempting to twirl and toss flaming batons, and later in the night you can see flaming jump ropes. My favorite place on the beach is the perched on the far left, hugging the cliff. It’s known as the Mellow Mountain. The music is Psy-Trance, and the walls are painted in an actually well-done psychedelic mural. You can buy mushroom shakes here, but I’ve heard from most people that you should save your money and try elsewhere on the island.

Mellow Mountain

Speaking of drugs, this island is a weird haven for all kinds of them. You can buy mushroom shakes all over the island, with varying degrees of strength. I heard that the White Rabbit in Ban Tai offers an all right shake for 500-700 b. You can also find drugs at Stone Bar, in Haad Yuan–apparently sketchy–and at Eden (no good link), also in Haad Yuan, where they’re supposed to be “safe”. It seemed like everyone on the island had weed, and tons of it, so it must be easy to come by. Acid is 400 b per drop, supposedly strong, and MDMA is 700-800 b per tab, but don’t buy it from the locals because it’s “not clean”. If you’re after drugs, you’ll be able to find someone who knows where to get them, is the upshot of all of this. Foreigners come to sell; there was a tiny Japanese raver dude selling drugs where I was staying.

Speaking of where to stay, don’t stay in Haad Rin. I spent one night there, in a dormitory called The Gallery. That place was the pits. Downstairs, it was a cafe/bistro with WiFi, upstairs, it was a bunch of beds jammed together and a closet toilet. The AC only worked until you went to sleep, then it stopped working and you sweated to death. Honestly, the place looked like a slave galley. I booked at 150 b per night, but others there were paying 350 b for the privilege. The proprietress was overdrawn and scatter-brained, she upbraided her help and then tried to kiss your butt. Don’t come here.

Sincerity Water

Then, I camped by the ocean in a copse of trees between someone’s summer house and a clutch of bungalows. There was no one in the summer house, or this probably wouldn’t have been ok. I stayed one night, driving into town for food and WiFi on me ol’ motorbike (120 b per day–Kung Bikes [kung means shrimp]). I’d actually hooked up with a cool group from the Gallery, through our shared misery. We were all trying to find a better place to stay, and the Italians hit on it first. Someone had clued them into an excellent bungalow situation, and they had to rush out to make sure it was still available. I said I’d look for it later. Trying to find Mac Backpacker in the dark proved to be a challenge. But when I found it, I was blown away.

Low Tide

The place was at the end of a tiny unnamed road, findable only by the landmarks on my Koh Phangan tourist map (right before the gas station, after the 7/11 on the left). At the end of this road, on the right, sat a cozy little open-air reception area, replete with hammocks and a bookcase. Walking back, the main walk is lined with bungalows on two sides. Each bungalow is screened by an overgrowth of bougainvillea, plumeria, and some Thai creeper. Each bungalow has a hammock strung outside on the porch. Each bungalow is lifted on stilts, and features one big bed, with mosquito net, small shelf, and fan. No WiFi, no TV, no running water unless you walk up to the common bathrooms. The place was crammed with backpackers, the cool kind. I found my Italians, and begged leave to sleep in their hammock.

Mac Backpacker

Speaking of common bathrooms, have I mentioned squat toilets yet? This type of toilet is a feature of Thailand, especially the more rural areas. It looks like a bidet, or a urinal mounted in the floor. You stand with a foot on either grooved side and let it fly. Then, if you’re lucky enough to carry your own toilet paper, you dry yourself and throw the paper in the trash. If not, you shake dry and curse your own misfortune. If you have refuse of a more solid nature, there is a lightly pressurized hose mounted on the wall for your enjoyment. Once you’ve finished these ablutions, you fill a bowl from the tank or bucket standing by and dump bowl after bowl of water until the mass is gone. It’s polite to refill said bucket via the spigot placed above. You just turn it on and wait. Otherwise, for some soothing background noise, turn it on low and hear it gurgle as you work out that extra spicy green curry.

Cats on deck.

Squat toilets aren’t really so bad though, in my opinion. It’s tidier and better than wiping and re-wiping, and you don’t blow through toilet paper so fast. What I don’t like are literal “squat toilets”–toilets in which the lid and tank have been removed, leaving only a basin. You know you don’t want to sit on it, because there’s no real accountability concerning aim, as the entire bathroom can just be hosed down. This seat is usually wet, accordingly, and you have to yank your pants down far enough to get your legs a bit around the basin, so in the end you’re awkwardly poised, trying to push your pants out of the way, not touch the rim, not pee down your thigh, or back-spatter on yourself from not being far enough over the bowl, and actually go. The bathroom is humid, and smelly depending on where you are. You’re probably also trying not to breathe. And you forgot your toilet paper. And you’re sweating. You want to put your hand on the wall behind or beside you for stability, but you fear the worst. These are the worst kind of toilets.

So back to the awesome bungalows. They’re located at a place called Mac Backpacker, across the street from Mac Bay. You can’t book in advance, your only chance of securing a spot in this highly sought after community is to show up and be at the top of the list. After sleeping on the porch, I decided this was the place for me. The price is 150 b for the bungalow, regardless of how many people stay. If you have five people staying, you’re paying $1 a night for this oasis. I waited for an hour at the reception desk, in front of a sign proclaiming, “FULL. We have NO idea where you can find a room. No booking here. Good luck.” As luck would have it, after about five minutes, a man came up to the desk asking if I’d seen the owener, and one-two-three he tells me he’s checking out today and that I can have his bungalow! I thought it was a done deal. I sat around to wait until he decided to check out, whilst several other parties meandered through, each one making me more nervous than the last.

Mac Backpacker Jungle

Eventually he did leave, at which point I approached the proprietress, Melanie, and asked about his room. She seemed surprised, and told me she had two people in line ahead of me, but perhaps the sight of my crumbling face convinced her otherwise, and she gave me the “1 minute” index finger. She wandered around a bit, checking outside, talking on the phone, then she came back and told me that she couldn’t get ahold of the girls who had been waiting, and the guys had just left, so it was mine if I could make it look like I hadn’t just rolled up. SCORE! I jumped right on it. Number 5 was more perfect than I could have imagined, a literal bower, with a heavy screen of foliage in front, and the only point of access through a hedge down the way. I had also taken the opportunity while waiting to begin a book from the lending library.

So begin my time on the Island of the Lotus Eaters. Because that’s what Mac Backpacker is. A haven for like-minded travelers, expats, and chillsters to just hang out. During the day, I’d get up, ride my motorbike or walk over the half mile to the restaurant that served Khao Tom (you know I gots to have my rice porridge. Daily.), wander back, read my book, do some yoga, hang out with friends, talk about lunch, have coffee, read more, sit in the hammock, talk about going to the beach, read more, decide to go to Thongsala–5 km down the road–to my favorite internet spot, Khunpen Restaurant (hot coffee, 30 b, tastes like espresso, comes with milk), walk around Panthip Market (just an empty square), bad time to come, no good food carts, motorbike back, stop by the old lady on the side of the road’s tarp shack of miscellaneous goods, buy a big knife, headphones, and some hair pretties for a couple bucks, stop by the fried chicken stand conveniently located in front of where I buy my morning porridge, wheedle as much fried chicken, sticky rice, and deep fried garlic as I can out of the stern countenanced man who works there, back to the bungalow, eat the chicken, keep it away from the hoards of friendly kitties, meet up with friends, go to the beach, read more, sun goes down, walk home, do I need more water?, motorbike to Big C, buy the daily pastries that have gone on sale (corn puff, anyone? 6 b), come home, read more, apply bug spray, apply more bugspray, light anti-mosquito incense coil, put down mosquito net, read more, sleep before 10.

Mismatched Shrines

This is what I did, every day. Sometimes I’d mix it up, go to Thongsala in the morning for some Patongo–fried dough xs for my Khao Tom. Then I’d have to get some Khanom Krok from the old lady in front of the mechanic’s shop. And a snowcone. Sometimes I’d go to other beaches, on the other side of the island. The best beach, in my opinion, is Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai, on the east side of the island. The water is so clear, no coral or seaweed, just a few tiny stinging jellies. You can reach it by motorbike or car, but the road is under construction and some is unpaved. I managed to pop a tire with a screw on the way back, and had to beg a ride to the repair shop. I thought the driver of the truck quite gallant, even going so far as to tie down the bike, until we reached Ban Tai and he said, “Don’t say thank you; pay me!” I only had 100 b, so that’s what he got. He wanted 300. And it turned out his truck was already full of people, Westerners and locals alike. I’m really not sure what I stumbled into, but at least I got into town.

Then I had to deal with the repair shop, who spoke English as well as I spoke Thai. No, it was not possible to just patch the hole, it required a new tire. It would cost 800 b. Well, I didn’t know if it would be cheaper to call the rental company and tell them the tire was busted and see what happened, or to just pay the bill and see if I could get some money knocked off at the end from ol’ Kung. I decided to pay, and shop was generous enough to lend me a bike so I could go get money from an ATM. I also scored a 50 b discount (woo, woo). I’m not sure what kind of deal I got, but in the end it didn’t help me much. When I tried to return the bike before I left the island, the guy started pointing to some dings and scratches, but I showed him the rear tire and we figured it was cool.

Dead Dog

But, back to best beaches, the best beach of all was definitely Haad Yuan. It’s reachable only by taxi boat or by a 4-wheel Indiana Jones ride. I walked over from Haad Thian, where I had been enjoying Guy’s Bar, and it was perfect. It has a deep, heavy surf, unlike most of the island, but the floor is still sandy, instead of cut-your-feet coral. The only people there are either staying at the Eden bungalows, or at the yoga camp at Haad Thian. Speaking of Guy’s Bar, that place is dope! It’s spoken of more as a thing than as a location, for example, Guy’s Bar is happening tonight! Guy’s Bar starts Friday night, pumping out Big Beat House all night long. It’s free to go, disregarding the 300 b taxi fare (one way, ugh). This goes until the afternoon of the next day, at which point everyone who doesn’t want to go home straggles down the hill to Eden, which begins it’s own thing at Saturday noon.

Candy.

A group of us decided to wake up at 3:30AM to take one of the last taxis to Guy’s Bar around 4, for a friend’s birthday. It is extremely hard to wake up in the early morning and go dance, even if it’s the coolest party/bar/thing you’ve ever been to. No coffee, no nothing. By mid-morning, I was ready for sleep. I staggered down to the beach, past the yoga retreat, up a stone staircase, down a stone staircase, past Eden, past Stone Bar, had breakfast at the Bamboo Hut (not bad prices, good food, and amazing scenery–right on the ocean), and eventually slumped into a sun chair on the beach at Big Blue and fell asleep. Until it started raining. Then I switched out clothes for swimsuit and had an amazing time getting bowled over by the waves.

A not-so-amazing time I had was at the Full Moon Party. My expectations were low to begin with, seeing the crowd it drew, but it was even duller than I imagined. We showed up around 12 midnight. It’s supposedly free, but I had to pay 100 b to get onto the beach–ostensibly the money goes to pay the people who pick up afterwards. I can support that. There were several different stages, each offering a raised platform for dancing. The one we gravitated towards was playing Industrial Techno, and it wasn’t bad, but the place was full of drunk people (which I wasn’t) and drugged people (also not) and so without even caffeine to aid me I felt, well, tired. I didn’t have a crazy rave outfit and I wasn’t out of my head, so it was just another party at that point. A party filled with lost shoes and worrying about where you’re putting your feet.

Haad Rin

The entire shoreline was dudes peeing in the water. I felt better walking through the break than on land, but with every warm wave I knew I was being laved with urine. I trudged back and forth, back and forth; determined to remain until sunrise. I had left my German friend at the Mellow Mountain, I returned to find him standing outside with a glazed expression. When I asked him a question, he answered in German, and when I laughingly told him so, he said, also in German, “Ahhh *face palm* I’m speaking in German! Why am I speaking in German?” and continued to try to talk to me in German. I assumed he was just tired, and was having trouble remembering his English, but I kept an eye on him, as for the rest of the night he simply stood wherever we were standing, and when addressed, turned silently to the speaker, then turned back to stare at the sea.

He.

Early in the morning, a huge scaffolding was lit on fire, spelling out, “Full Moon Party Koh Phangan”. Soon after the flames were out, people began scaling the construction, clinging shakily to the greasy bars. I myself had a go, until I was nailed with sand balls by the Thais telling me to get down. There were vendors selling cut fruit and meat sticks at exorbitant prices; for some reason a kindly Thai man with such kept giving me free BBQ pork sticks. Who was I to decline? I love pork sticks!

Finally, the sun rose. As the giant orange ball drifted up from the grey sea, a scene of devastation was revealed. The shore was littered with broken flip flops, discarded buckets, clothing, and cigarettes. People feeling the dregs of their drugs were frolicking with blown-out pupils in the sea, tripping over their own garb.

Anti.

At this point, I was ready for breakfast. I dragged everyone to my favorite local joint, a place I call Green Awning. It’s on a dirt road that shortcuts the longer main road into Haad Rin. It’s covered by a green tarp awning. I wish I could give better directions, as this is my favorite place to eat on the island, besides the fried chicken man. If you go before 9:30AM, you can get Joke (Chinese style khao tom), with chicken, egg, and toppings. The only thing missing is patongo, but it’s only 40 b for the whole shebang and the lady is super nice. I went every day when I was near Haad Rin, and she always laughed at me and asked if I’d come for the Khao Tom. You can also get a variety of local dishes, should you miss the joke cut-off, and I can assure you that the Thai Curry (pronounced Gang Pet) and the Green Curry (Gang Kee-Ew-Wan) are exceptionally good. It usually comes out to 80 b for curry and rice, but you get a heaping bowl and plate of same, and you won’t want to eat again for awhile.

Bird.

Anyways, back to my friend, it turned out he got rufied by a beer seller. Apparently that’s a common scam–rufie a tourist and then follow him or her discreetly and wait until they’re dazed and alone, then jack ’em. He says the last thing he remembers is buying a beer and the woman refusing to sell him a large, unopened beer, instead offering him a smaller, pre-opened one. The rest of the night is gone, with a brief memory of the sunrise. When he woke at home in the afternoon, he had no memory of how he got there (on the back of another friend’s motorbike, mumbling in German the whole way), and had rediscovered his English vocabulary. A situation that could have gone so much worse for someone solo, and one to be aware of if you plan to buy drinks on the scene!

Kep

Have I told you that Cambodia is the country of gateways? That every temple, school, hamlet, alley, will have it’s own beautiful, ornate gate? If any one thing doesn’t have a gate, it’s not worth seeing.

Temple Gateway.

Kep is no different. This tiny, dusty, old resort town is pretty much demarcated by the gates of country schools. Some are even in the same dated style as much of the rest of the town’s architecture–60’s modernism. Kep is a strange and wonderful place. It is chock full of abandoned houses, just sitting amongst the acreage of their old lands, inside walls still standing with stripped metal gates. It doesn’t help that I was reading Tolstoy’s obloquy on the landed gentry and their eventual demise.

Gate to nowhere.

These lonely remnants of a spectacular bourgeoisie were like candy to me. There is almost nothing I love more than exploring old houses. While in many cases only the concrete of the original dwelling remained, one could still get a good sense of the house that used to be. This activity remained exceedingly pleasant to me, until one day when I stumbled upon a house missing it’s second-story floors. That was creepy, but not the creepiest part. On the wall of the house, there was a painted chalkboard, with the words, “Wednesday 22 September 1995,” written upon it, and the patchy sentence, “May be we can’t to met for today.” It gave me the horrifying realization that a family had lived here, and one day, lived there no longer, leaving only a hastily abandoned blackboard and missing floors. What had happened to that family? Were they all brutally murdered? Was the domicile now jammed full with angry, hungry ghosts? Had one attached to me by my thoughtless intrusion? Was it hovering, unseen, by my bed this very moment?

Missing Floor.

These, and other thoughts, are what kept me awake three nights in a row. Luckily, the beneficent owner of the guest house I was at, the illustrious Arun Rass, had taken me under the aegis of her care. Chantoeurn assured me that her guest house was built in a good place to prevent ghosts, and that her young children had never cried the whole time they had lived there (a good sign, as it’s the young that see ghosts). She also informed me that the bracelet I had received from a silent nun (more on that later) protected against ghosts. Then she told me about how in Cambodia the pomegranate tree is seen as protection against ghosts, and she left a potted sapling on my veranda that I dragged into my room, to her amusement. Then her husband took pity on me, asked which house I’d gone into, and said that the stripped houses all occurred after the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese War killings, and that the poverty of the Khmer people required them to strip their house of all salable items (read: tiles, metal fittings, etc.) and sell them in Viet Nam for rice–the border being just 30km away. Then I felt better. I still slept with a tree in my room.

Blue skies.And now, I’ll start at the beginning. I arrived at Kep via bus from Phnom Penh, an unremarkable journey. We pulled into Kep sometime in the afternoon, and I chartered a tuk-tuk to take me to the bungalows which I’d investigated ahead of time, Tree Top. When I arrived, I was informed that there wasn’t any more $5 bungalows, and that they only had $8. I agreed to this heist, and spent the night in a not unpleasant, but not $8-worth shack on a hill.

Arun Rass.

I ate at the notorious Crab Market of Kep. I bought a fried fish from a stand on the pier, not at any of the restaurants, as well as two little bags of “sides” and some rice. The fish was fine, certainly very fishy, and too much for one person to eat. The sides were so salty as to be inedible. It tasted like sea water with extra salt dumped on vegetables. Even the rice was slightly salted. I felt a bit ill the next day.

Sky view.

On the way back from the Crab Market, I stopped in front of an edifice that looked like a new apartment complex. I hearkened back to advice I heard from some other trekkers whilst having fish eat the scum off my feet, “When you go to Kep, stay at Kep Arun Rass. It looks like a half-finished set of flats.” And so it did, or rather more than half-finished. So I walked over to check the rates. The proprietress and her family were at dinner, but she and her husband hastily stood up and told me they had a room to rent. $12 a night. Did I want to see it? I said I’d look tomorrow. They looked concerned, surely I wanted to see it now? So I went to see the room. It was beautiful–spacious, with a beautiful green wall, and a giant bathroom. Hot water, even, the first in 2 months! I said I’d be back in the morning. They still looked worried. Did I have a place to stay tonight? I said I did. Their faces cleared. Ok, see you tomorrow morning!

Wildflowers.

So, I headed down the hill to Arun Rass. It was lovely. I immediately took a hot shower. I scratched all my itches with almost scalding water. Did I tell you I had a massive case of heat rash? Around 1:30PM, the tuk-tuk driver showed up to escort me to the nearby caves, as agreed upon yesterday. We set off and soon arrived. Scaling the massive staircase, I was approached by a scholarly young man who began the tour. We first passed a magnificently beautiful temple, much better than the caves, in my opinion.

White Elephant Cave Temple.

Coming into the caves, I saw the White Elephant stalactite, and was proceeding deeper into the cave with my guide when another guide came up. He took me by the hand, and said he would show me the Bat Cave. He hustled me up, down, outside, inside; until I was steaming hot and highly confused, not to mention skeptical.

Bat Cave

He finally stopped, and pulled me into a small cranny. “Do you know the Batman?” he said. I explained that I did, and he shone his flashlight overhead into the tower filled with flitting bats. Ok, great, bat cave. After a few minutes of polite viewing, with his hands around my waist, supposedly pulling me into proper position, I tried to walk away. He pulled me back again. “Do you know the Batman? Do you want to see the Bat Cave?” He wouldn’t leave me alone, and pressed uncomfortably close, closer, way too close. Finally I yanked free and walked off. But the rascal had no shame. He tried to drag me to another bat cave. Luckily, my original guide had caught up and escorted me out. However, as I was trying to peer through the slats of a stupa further along the tour, Creep Alert came up behind me, grabbed me, and hoarsely croaked his query about the Batman into my ear. As I rushed down the steps, he tried to call me back multiple times. Never, in all of Cambodia, have I felt so uncomfortable and put-upon by a local as I did in that place.

Golden Stupa.

After that harrowing tour, I headed along to Kampot. Unfortunately, I had not done any research on what to do there, so the trip was largely wasted, besides my visiting a Canadia Bank ATM, where one can withdraw without fees. However, I got to see much of the surrounding countryside! The next day, I elected to go to Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island.

Pier on Rabbit Island.

To get to this illustrious island, one must charter a boat. Mine was chartered through my tuk-tuk driver at $10 round-trip. I think I could have gotten it for less, but I was itchier than anything and didn’t care so much. Arriving on the island, one can see the entirety of available sleeping quarters in one eye-full. There is a strip of beach where the boats land–that’s where all the housing is located. Dotted along this beach are separate locations for eating and lounging, each affiliated with it’s parent bungalow vender. I didn’t know it before, but there is no electricity on the island, besides one time per day, between 6 and 10PM. You are cooled by the ocean breeze, if there is one, and you have to unplug your lights to charge your camera.

Boatride.

My bungalow was $8 per night, and came with hammock, mosquito net, and en-suite hovel bathroom that I was constantly banging my head in. I think Rabbit Island is more of a day-trip type place, unless you’re old, then it’s probably heaven. You sit, eating moderately (expensive for Cambodia, cheap for U.S.) priced meals, drinking coconut milk, enjoying the warm ocean, and the stingless jellyfish. I read a lot in the sun. I ate once per day, to save on food costs. The meals hover around $4, and it gets you a lot of food, but it feels so expensive after a month of fifty cent dining.

Koh Tunsay.

I stayed two nights, and then I was ready to go home. Unfortunately, the boats only come three times per day: 7AM, 9AM, and 4PM. I had missed the morning run, but met another couple whose bungalow owners had called for a boat. They had been waiting half an hour. No boat was in sight. I went to have breakfast. As I was waiting for breakfast, the boat arrived. I gulped it down, paid up, and ran towards the boat. It had to come back to the shore, but I made it!

Beachfront.

I was happy to return to Arun Rass. I had a new room, but the owners were happy to see me back. I felt as though I had been welcomed into the family. Staying there was more like a homestay than anywhere else I’d found. Daily, I was invited to Khmer meals. Daily, I borrowed a bike. Daily, the proprietress came to sit on my front porch and talk to me about Cambodia, Cambodian peoples, and Khmer.

Rice workers.

I’d come upon a $3 hot water maker in Phnom Penh, and had since been using it to both actually heat water for coffee and tea, and to cook one-pot meals in. I’ve become quite adept at making fried noodles with vegetable stir-fries, noodle soups, and curries. I went to the market almost daily, buying fresh vegetables for discount prices, like my twelve cent pumpkin. Along the way, I pushed my bike up the monster hill to Veranda, a swank resort nearby. They had an in-house bakery, where you could by meter long baguettes for $1. They also offer a completely orgasmic passionfruit panna cotta, and an $8 breakfast buffet. The buffet is completely worth it. I went once, but I would have gone every day.

The Nudest Khmer Woman.

Kep also offers a National Park. I went once. I’m not one for National Parks. It was fair. It cost me $1 to get in. It’s a giant forest. It does have butterflies, but it’s also mostly uphill. The way down is great, brakes squealing the entire way, as you whizz down the cyclist version of the Indiana Jones ride.

Cloud Nothings.

So, about the nun! I took a back path home from the market, and I was stopped by the beauty of a golden-roofed temple and the tinkling of bells emanating therein. I pushed my bike through the gate, to take a closer look, when all at once a diminutive nun was at my elbow. Nuns in Asia generally have shaved heads. If you see a woman with a shaved head, she’s either a nun, or a widow. If she’s wearing all white, or a particularly wrapped white and black outfit, she’s a nun. This nun had a friendly brown face like a wizened apple. She signaled that I should pull up my skirt–I tried to tell her I’d come back tomorrow, in better garb–and led me towards the temple. She showed me how they were doing renovations on the temple, and the formation of new statuettes, and paintings. She then offered me a plain red braided bracelet. I offered her a dollar, but she wouldn’t keep it, and changed me 2,000 riel back. She had to go through her entire (about 15) selection of bracelets before she came upon one which would tie around my wrist. The entire time, she spoke not a word. I wondered if she had undertaken a vow of silence. Her complete quietude, the surrounding chiming of fluttering golden bells, the chirruping of birds, the setting sun gilding every blossom and tile…it was an otherworldly experience.

Under Construction.

And then I got food poisoning! Actually, it was after I discovered my favorite dessert. Remember when I told you about how you can buy desserts on the street in Cambodia? Well, it is the same in the countryside. My favorite is one composed of jelly slivers, fake pomegranate seeds, coconut milk, condensed milk, and ice. It’s pink, pink, pink. It tastes like happiness. Then, later that night, you’re losing all the pumpkin curry you ate for dinner out of both ends. You can’t even keep down water, even though you’re dying of thirst. You lie curled in the fetal position in a towel, because you keep showering off, because you’ve run out of toilet paper. At least this toilet is Western style, so you can sit down and hold the trashcan at the same time.

Krop Toteum.

Chanteourn said my favorite dessert gave me food poisoning. She said part of it isn’t cooked. It seemed so innocuous, I even had it two days in a row! At two different places though. For 2 days thereafter, Chanteourn brought me plain borbor with a little salt–what she said Khmer people ate when they were sick–for each meal. She also sat on the bed and chatted with me while I lay there feeling half-dead. It was in this way that I learned much about Cambodian ways.

Baray District

Eventually, I got tired of being mosquito bitten and having toilets that were always packed with poo because people clogged them and bailed. I decided to look into a homestay, to get a better taste of the Cambodian life. I looked up a few online, but they were all very expensive, at $30 or more per night. I emailed one that looked promising and didn’t have the price listed. I hoped it was a work exchange homestay, as that’s how it appeared online, named Khmer Homestay. Unfortunately, when I heard back, the price was quoted at $25 per night. I asked if there was a way to do more volunteering and pay less, and was told that the lowest price per night was $15, without breakfast. I agreed to come, and took the Seila Angkor Khmer Express minibus for $10, which probably would have been less if I had requested my stop in Baray before I paid for the ticket. Ah well, live and learn.

The minibus company sent a tuk-tuk to pick me up from the hostel in the morning, and when I arrived, I, as well as 11 others crammed into the van, with our baggage mortaring us in place. There was AC, but the seats were so old the padding was worn to nothing right where your backbone connects with the horizontal inner-seat support. Not only that, but the main road is barely a road at all, consisting of almost pavement, potholes, gravel, dirt road, and construction. The van flew down this path, jouncing at every dip, almost bouncing us all out of our seats, and honking each time it overtook someone on the road, which was often. As I climbed back into my seat after our one stop, I noticed small beetles scurrying into the crevice between my seat and the next. This transit is quick, but it is harrowing.

Rainbow style.

The van pulled over to the side of the road–it was dirt–in between a couple buildings, looking like a pioneer town in the 19th century. I had arrived! I took a motorcycle taxi the few hundred meters to Khmer Homestay, and overpaid by about 250%. I was allowed to select a bungalow to sleep in, and chose the one lodged in a tree, with no back wall, just an insubstantial driftwood banister.

Front Gate.

I was given the full tour of the facilities by a friendly young Khmer woman named Pollam. The homestay property was quite extensive, consisting of several stilted bungalows located in a walled garden, as well as a wing of separate bathrooms, and the main house. Behind the property lay a less used dirt road and a few meters down that road was another area. This, Pollam informed me, was a hostel for youths from far out areas who wouldn’t normally be able to attend school. They lived here, worked around the main house, or paid, I suppose, and went to school. If I needed to borrow a bike, motorbike, or practice my Khmer, I could come here.

Khmer Shutter.

That night the meal was brought to the house in a series of small, interconnected, round tins. It featured rice and some other entrees. Another girl was also staying at the homestay, from Malaysia, Yee-Pei. In Malaysia, they are taught three languages: English, Mandarin, and Malay. The owners of the homestay all spoke Mandarin as well, being either Chinese, or from a Chinese-speaking nation. The grandfather figure of the ranch had already adopted Yee-Pei, and was constantly pushing more food on her, and, she said, lecturing her on business, economics, and other things, for what reason she wasn’t sure. Neither Yee-Pei nor I knew his real name, so we called him “Grandpa”. We were assigned to help Grandpa finish his chicken coop.

I’d been hooked on pork and rice breakfast (bai sach chroup) in Siem Reap, so I asked one of the owners whether I could find this dish nearby. She made a sharp left hand motion and said I could find it in the morning. After dinner, one of the owners said we would have a meeting at 9 to discuss the job. When I woke up at 8:30AM, I walked about a half mile down the road, without finding any bai sach chroup. Arriving home, I couldn’t find the Grandpa, Yee-Pei, or any of the owners. I went to look for one of them, and walked down the aforementioned back dirt road. It came out in the middle of a small village, i.e. in between some houses.

The Veldt.

There was a group of people standing near one of the houses, and I approached, asking if they’d seen any of the women. They didn’t understand, but immediately began dimpling their cheeks with their fingers and pushing their noses around, talking and laughing to each other. One woman tried multiple times to communicate with me, but all I could do was smile and nod. Eventually, I was led across the street to an old man sitting with some others. He, too, tried to speak to me, and spoke some numbers in French. I tried French, but it was clear he only had numbers left him. They wanted to know how old I was. Then they wanted to know if I was married. No? Ah yoiee!

Ah yoiee! is the Khmer equivalent to Ai-yah! or Ai-yoh! as heard in Chinese speaking nations, or Chinatowns all over the world. Sort of a negative exclamation.

Arriving back at the pad, there was finally someone available to take me to Grandpa’s chicken coop. Apparently the 9 o’clock meeting had been the night before, and work had started at 8:30AM this morning. Whoops! I twined chicken wire onto fence posts for a few hours, then it was lunch break! After lunch, we went to see an orphanage.

Writing Postcards.

I have never seen, or even heard of an orphanage nearby at home. We arrived to a single building, looking like a gymnasium, with a covered porch out front. On the porch were several tables, and some sweaty children. Trying out my Khmer on them didn’t seem to generate any interest, so I wandered away. There was an unattached bathroom, a well, a half-broken clothes drying rack, and a kitchen. It is very common for Khmer kitchens to be outside, or at least apart from the main house. Cooking is done en plein aire, and served at the table.

Chatting.

It turns out we were going to be building a duck coop for the orphans, so they could sell the eggs and eat the ducks. After sizing up the site, we drove into town to a hardware store, then to another hardware store, then to a wood (bamboo) store that also sold charcoal. At dinner, there was an elderly Malaysian couple who had come to teach Cambodian teachers how to teach English. Said the woman, “Cambodian schools don’t begin teaching English until Secondary School (sounds familiar). By this point, the children’s mouths can’t make the necessary sounds. They can’t say fish! They say ‘fis!’ It’s shocking.” To me, I felt these trilingual Malaysians were going a bit hard on the Khmer, as many Cambodians do reach a passable level of English, whilst how many of us ended up with good, unaccented Spanish, French, German, or Japanese?

Temple School.

The next day, I got up at 6:30AM to make sure I got my breakfast. Then we went to the orphanage. We were building the coop from scratch. Grandpa, who spoke basically no English, was in charge of construction. He laid pieces on the ground, and somehow communicated what we should do with them. First, we had to nail 20 ft lengths of bamboo to 4 – 5 one meter bamboo posts. Bamboo is exceedingly springy, if you didn’t know, and the normal method of nailing doesn’t work. You must deliver as much force as you can in a single, accurate hit.

The orphans gathered around to watch us attempt this feat. Calling to them, asking their names, and trying to introduce ourselves fared better today. Soon, we were being handed nails. Then after being given the opportunity to pound nails, they began to do it themselves. I’m not sure if they enjoyed the diversion, or if they wanted to help, or if they felt they must help; the only way to stop them once they started was to take away the hammer. Then they stood watching you, or handing you more nails.

Youth Group.

Midmorning, the children braved up enough to take some of the long bamboo rails and hit the cashew fruit out of the tree towering above us. In case you didn’t know, cashews are not nuts, but are the seed of the cashew fruit, growing on the bottom of it. The fruit has a most unusual mouthfeel–effectively depriving you of all moisture as you chew the stringy flesh. Not sweet, not bitter…very strange.

Sunset Village.

For lunch, the children had rice, soup, an egg omelette, and another dish. We had the same, and I was pleased that the children ate first. There was no running water–clean water was poured over a hunk of fabricated ice in a cooler and drank by a communal cup. The well was used for washing dishes. After lunch, we were allowed a siesta, and passed out on one of the four wooden beds, covered with a slim padded mat. Awakened by my own temperature, feeling hotter after sleeping than I had before, I stumbled out to the back porch where there was a small clutch of seated children.

The Good, The Bad.

Feeling horrible because I had nothing to offer them, I brought out a stack of postcards. The girls drew some pictures and showed off their smarts. Then we drew in my sketchbook, and I learned a lot of Khmer. The girls knew the English and Khmer for many words, and the boys chased Yee-Pei around trying to tickle her. When we left, we tried to give hugs. The Cambodians are normally very physically affectionate and touchy, but the children did not seem overly comfortable with the demonstration.

Learning Khmer.

The next day was Sunday, so we got to hang around. I’d been plucking and ripening mangoes from the many trees on the property, so I sat in a hammock reading and peeling mangoes. Yee-Pei and I went to the youth session of church. A friendly girl named Ruth, the pastor’s daughter, sat by me and translated. She was very well-versed, and very helpful. After the service was over, Yee-Pei brought out her Polaroid camera and made snaps for everyone. The Cambodians were so pleased, and many, many photos were taken.

Cross.

Later in the week, we went to tour some schools, giving tiny English lessons, and seeing how things were done. I thought the method of teaching letters was quite well done. The classes are polite, and the children are clever and willing to participate. Overall, it seemed that it was almost always a girl with the right answer, and the boys who were messing around, but it could have simply been the age. At one of the schools, we saw again the children from the orphanage. They performed very well in class, and I was so happy to see them again.

The Letter P.

Did I mention that everyone calls you “sister” in Cambodia, if they don’t know your name? Bawng-srei is big sister, and boon-srei is little sister. I think it’s lovely.

Koh Pha Ngan

Getting to Koh Pha Ngan, or Koh Phangan (pronounced by most people as “koh pang-gan”, probably closer to “koh pah-ngahn”), was as easy as hopping on a songthaew to Big Buddha Pier and buying a ticket on the Haad Rin Queen for 200 b. The Haad Rin Queen runs four times per day, and the tickets are a set price. Don’t be tricked into buying a speedboat or any other type of conveyance, the Queen runs daily, without fail! Travel agencies will try to psych you out over getting to Haad Rin near the Full Moon time, saying you won’t find a way over if you don’t book in advance with them, etc. etc. Don’t listen.

Have Queen Will Travel

Arriving at Haad Rin Pier after a brisk hour spent clinging to the foremost railing, you disembark to find yourself in tourist central. And a different kind of tourism than Bangkok. Koh Phangan caters to those moneyed youths who consider themselves experimental or “hippy” and the place is chockablock with neon tanks, tees, swimsuits, fake-flower headbands. A popular emblazoning is “Same Same” on the front of the shirt, with “But Different” on the back. I finally accosted a young man about what his shirt meant. If you took it to mean, things are the same, but different, you were right! Although I still don’t understand why that’s a Koh Phangan thing. However, a few of the international crowd I met used it continuously, so maybe you have to be an ESL person to get it.

Rasta Bar

Continuing on, the whole feel of the place is psychedelic-neon vomit, and it’s a mass of international bros and girls; stumbling against traffic, breaking flip-flops, looking horribly sun-ravaged… Haad Rin is considered a must-see for the tourist crowd, as it’s here that the Full Moon Party happens, once a month. Haad Rin Nai is where you land, it means Sunset Beach, but it’s on Haad Rin Nok (Sunrise Beach) that the party’s at–the beach on the other side of the town. It’s walking, eg. stumbling distance from any venue in Haad Rin, and at night the streets are lined with bucket vendors, selling 200 b buckets of mixed drinks. Each vendor has his own name, scrawled on the front of his little box lined with sandcastle buckets and two-gulp bottles of Smirnoff. Oddly, some of these impromptu baristas also hold signs, declaiming things like, “I fuck midget retards”, and something equally offensive on the other.

Spirits

The beach itself is a warring blast of top-40 hits, with bigger bars offering bigger sound systems and consequently attracting more people. There are also amateur Thai male fire dancers strewn up and down the beach, attempting to twirl and toss flaming batons, and later in the night you can see flaming jump ropes. My favorite place on the beach is the perched on the far left, hugging the cliff. It’s known as the Mellow Mountain. The music is Psy-Trance, and the walls are painted in an actually well-done psychedelic mural. You can buy mushroom shakes here, but I’ve heard from most people that you should save your money and try elsewhere on the island.

Mellow Mountain

Speaking of drugs, this island is a weird haven for all kinds of them. You can buy mushroom shakes all over the island, with varying degrees of strength. I heard that the White Rabbit in Ban Tai offers an all right shake for 500-700 b. You can also find drugs at Stone Bar, in Haad Yuan–apparently sketchy–and at Eden (no good link), also in Haad Yuan, where they’re supposed to be “safe”. It seemed like everyone on the island had weed, and tons of it, so it must be easy to come by. Acid is 400 b per drop, supposedly strong, and MDMA is 700-800 b per tab, but don’t buy it from the locals because it’s “not clean”. If you’re after drugs, you’ll be able to find someone who knows where to get them, is the upshot of all of this. Foreigners come to sell; there was a tiny Japanese raver dude selling drugs where I was staying.

Speaking of where to stay, don’t stay in Haad Rin. I spent one night there, in a dormitory called The Gallery. That place was the pits. Downstairs, it was a cafe/bistro with WiFi, upstairs, it was a bunch of beds jammed together and a closet toilet. The AC only worked until you went to sleep, then it stopped working and you sweated to death. Honestly, the place looked like a slave galley. I booked at 150 b per night, but others there were paying 350 b for the privilege. The proprietress was overdrawn and scatter-brained, she upbraided her help and then tried to kiss your butt. Don’t come here.

Sincerity Water

Then, I camped by the ocean in a copse of trees between someone’s summer house and a clutch of bungalows. There was no one in the summer house, or this probably wouldn’t have been ok. I stayed one night, driving into town for food and WiFi on me ol’ motorbike (120 b per day–Kung Bikes [kung means shrimp]). I’d actually hooked up with a cool group from the Gallery, through our shared misery. We were all trying to find a better place to stay, and the Italians hit on it first. Someone had clued them into an excellent bungalow situation, and they had to rush out to make sure it was still available. I said I’d look for it later. Trying to find Mac Backpacker in the dark proved to be a challenge. But when I found it, I was blown away.

Low Tide

The place was at the end of a tiny unnamed road, findable only by the landmarks on my Koh Phangan tourist map (right before the gas station, after the 7/11 on the left). At the end of this road, on the right, sat a cozy little open-air reception area, replete with hammocks and a bookcase. Walking back, the main walk is lined with bungalows on two sides. Each bungalow is screened by an overgrowth of bougainvillea, plumeria, and some Thai creeper. Each bungalow has a hammock strung outside on the porch. Each bungalow is lifted on stilts, and features one big bed, with mosquito net, small shelf, and fan. No WiFi, no TV, no running water unless you walk up to the common bathrooms. The place was crammed with backpackers, the cool kind. I found my Italians, and begged leave to sleep in their hammock.

Mac Backpacker

Speaking of common bathrooms, have I mentioned squat toilets yet? This type of toilet is a feature of Thailand, especially the more rural areas. It looks like a bidet, or a urinal mounted in the floor. You stand with a foot on either grooved side and let it fly. Then, if you’re lucky enough to carry your own toilet paper, you dry yourself and throw the paper in the trash. If not, you shake dry and curse your own misfortune. If you have refuse of a more solid nature, there is a lightly pressurized hose mounted on the wall for your enjoyment. Once you’ve finished these ablutions, you fill a bowl from the tank or bucket standing by and dump bowl after bowl of water until the mass is gone. It’s polite to refill said bucket via the spigot placed above. You just turn it on and wait. Otherwise, for some soothing background noise, turn it on low and hear it gurgle as you work out that extra spicy green curry.

Cats on deck.

Squat toilets aren’t really so bad though, in my opinion. It’s tidier and better than wiping and re-wiping, and you don’t blow through toilet paper so fast. What I don’t like are literal “squat toilets”–toilets in which the lid and tank have been removed, leaving only a basin. You know you don’t want to sit on it, because there’s no real accountability concerning aim, as the entire bathroom can just be hosed down. This seat is usually wet, accordingly, and you have to yank your pants down far enough to get your legs a bit around the basin, so in the end you’re awkwardly poised, trying to push your pants out of the way, not touch the rim, not pee down your thigh, or back-spatter on yourself from not being far enough over the bowl, and actually go. The bathroom is humid, and smelly depending on where you are. You’re probably also trying not to breathe. And you forgot your toilet paper. And you’re sweating. You want to put your hand on the wall behind or beside you for stability, but you fear the worst. These are the worst kind of toilets.

So back to the awesome bungalows. They’re located at a place called Mac Backpacker, across the street from Mac Bay. You can’t book in advance, your only chance of securing a spot in this highly sought after community is to show up and be at the top of the list. After sleeping on the porch, I decided this was the place for me. The price is 150 b for the bungalow, regardless of how many people stay. If you have five people staying, you’re paying $1 a night for this oasis. I waited for an hour at the reception desk, in front of a sign proclaiming, “FULL. We have NO idea where you can find a room. No booking here. Good luck.” As luck would have it, after about five minutes, a man came up to the desk asking if I’d seen the owener, and one-two-three he tells me he’s checking out today and that I can have his bungalow! I thought it was a done deal. I sat around to wait until he decided to check out, whilst several other parties meandered through, each one making me more nervous than the last.

Mac Backpacker Jungle

Eventually he did leave, at which point I approached the proprietress, Melanie, and asked about his room. She seemed surprised, and told me she had two people in line ahead of me, but perhaps the sight of my crumbling face convinced her otherwise, and she gave me the “1 minute” index finger. She wandered around a bit, checking outside, talking on the phone, then she came back and told me that she couldn’t get ahold of the girls who had been waiting, and the guys had just left, so it was mine if I could make it look like I hadn’t just rolled up. SCORE! I jumped right on it. Number 5 was more perfect than I could have imagined, a literal bower, with a heavy screen of foliage in front, and the only point of access through a hedge down the way. I had also taken the opportunity while waiting to begin a book from the lending library.

So begin my time on the Island of the Lotus Eaters. Because that’s what Mac Backpacker is. A haven for like-minded travelers, expats, and chillsters to just hang out. During the day, I’d get up, ride my motorbike or walk over the half mile to the restaurant that served Khao Tom (you know I gots to have my rice porridge. Daily.), wander back, read my book, do some yoga, hang out with friends, talk about lunch, have coffee, read more, sit in the hammock, talk about going to the beach, read more, decide to go to Thongsala–5 km down the road–to my favorite internet spot, Khunpen Restaurant (hot coffee, 30 b, tastes like espresso, comes with milk), walk around Panthip Market (just an empty square), bad time to come, no good food carts, motorbike back, stop by the old lady on the side of the road’s tarp shack of miscellaneous goods, buy a big knife, headphones, and some hair pretties for a couple bucks, stop by the fried chicken stand conveniently located in front of where I buy my morning porridge, wheedle as much fried chicken, sticky rice, and deep fried garlic as I can out of the stern countenanced man who works there, back to the bungalow, eat the chicken, keep it away from the hoards of friendly kitties, meet up with friends, go to the beach, read more, sun goes down, walk home, do I need more water?, motorbike to Big C, buy the daily pastries that have gone on sale (corn puff, anyone? 6 b), come home, read more, apply bug spray, apply more bugspray, light anti-mosquito incense coil, put down mosquito net, read more, sleep before 10.

Mismatched Shrines

This is what I did, every day. Sometimes I’d mix it up, go to Thongsala in the morning for some Patongo–fried dough xs for my Khao Tom. Then I’d have to get some Khanom Krok from the old lady in front of the mechanic’s shop. And a snowcone. Sometimes I’d go to other beaches, on the other side of the island. The best beach, in my opinion, is Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai, on the east side of the island. The water is so clear, no coral or seaweed, just a few tiny stinging jellies. You can reach it by motorbike or car, but the road is under construction and some is unpaved. I managed to pop a tire with a screw on the way back, and had to beg a ride to the repair shop. I thought the driver of the truck quite gallant, even going so far as to tie down the bike, until we reached Ban Tai and he said, “Don’t say thank you; pay me!” I only had 100 b, so that’s what he got. He wanted 300. And it turned out his truck was already full of people, Westerners and locals alike. I’m really not sure what I stumbled into, but at least I got into town.

Then I had to deal with the repair shop, who spoke English as well as I spoke Thai. No, it was not possible to just patch the hole, it required a new tire. It would cost 800 b. Well, I didn’t know if it would be cheaper to call the rental company and tell them the tire was busted and see what happened, or to just pay the bill and see if I could get some money knocked off at the end from ol’ Kung. I decided to pay, and shop was generous enough to lend me a bike so I could go get money from an ATM. I also scored a 50 b discount (woo, woo). I’m not sure what kind of deal I got, but in the end it didn’t help me much. When I tried to return the bike before I left the island, the guy started pointing to some dings and scratches, but I showed him the rear tire and we figured it was cool.

Dead Dog

But, back to best beaches, the best beach of all was definitely Haad Yuan. It’s reachable only by taxi boat or by a 4-wheel Indiana Jones ride. I walked over from Haad Thian, where I had been enjoying Guy’s Bar, and it was perfect. It has a deep, heavy surf, unlike most of the island, but the floor is still sandy, instead of cut-your-feet coral. The only people there are either staying at the Eden bungalows, or at the yoga camp at Haad Thian. Speaking of Guy’s Bar, that place is dope! It’s spoken of more as a thing than as a location, for example, Guy’s Bar is happening tonight! Guy’s Bar starts Friday night, pumping out Big Beat House all night long. It’s free to go, disregarding the 300 b taxi fare (one way, ugh). This goes until the afternoon of the next day, at which point everyone who doesn’t want to go home straggles down the hill to Eden, which begins it’s own thing at Saturday noon.

Candy.

A group of us decided to wake up at 3:30AM to take one of the last taxis to Guy’s Bar around 4, for a friend’s birthday. It is extremely hard to wake up in the early morning and go dance, even if it’s the coolest party/bar/thing you’ve ever been to. No coffee, no nothing. By mid-morning, I was ready for sleep. I staggered down to the beach, past the yoga retreat, up a stone staircase, down a stone staircase, past Eden, past Stone Bar, had breakfast at the Bamboo Hut (not bad prices, good food, and amazing scenery–right on the ocean), and eventually slumped into a sun chair on the beach at Big Blue and fell asleep. Until it started raining. Then I switched out clothes for swimsuit and had an amazing time getting bowled over by the waves.

A not-so-amazing time I had was at the Full Moon Party. My expectations were low to begin with, seeing the crowd it drew, but it was even duller than I imagined. We showed up around 12 midnight. It’s supposedly free, but I had to pay 100 b to get onto the beach–ostensibly the money goes to pay the people who pick up afterwards. I can support that. There were several different stages, each offering a raised platform for dancing. The one we gravitated towards was playing Industrial Techno, and it wasn’t bad, but the place was full of drunk people (which I wasn’t) and drugged people (also not) and so without even caffeine to aid me I felt, well, tired. I didn’t have a crazy rave outfit and I wasn’t out of my head, so it was just another party at that point. A party filled with lost shoes and worrying about where you’re putting your feet.

Haad Rin

The entire shoreline was dudes peeing in the water. I felt better walking through the break than on land, but with every warm wave I knew I was being laved with urine. I trudged back and forth, back and forth; determined to remain until sunrise. I had left my German friend at the Mellow Mountain, I returned to find him standing outside with a glazed expression. When I asked him a question, he answered in German, and when I laughingly told him so, he said, also in German, “Ahhh *face palm* I’m speaking in German! Why am I speaking in German?” and continued to try to talk to me in German. I assumed he was just tired, and was having trouble remembering his English, but I kept an eye on him, as for the rest of the night he simply stood wherever we were standing, and when addressed, turned silently to the speaker, then turned back to stare at the sea.

He.

Early in the morning, a huge scaffolding was lit on fire, spelling out, “Full Moon Party Koh Phangan”. Soon after the flames were out, people began scaling the construction, clinging shakily to the greasy bars. I myself had a go, until I was nailed with sand balls by the Thais telling me to get down. There were vendors selling cut fruit and meat sticks at exorbitant prices; for some reason a kindly Thai man with such kept giving me free BBQ pork sticks. Who was I to decline? I love pork sticks!

Finally, the sun rose. As the giant orange ball drifted up from the grey sea, a scene of devastation was revealed. The shore was littered with broken flip flops, discarded buckets, clothing, and cigarettes. People feeling the dregs of their drugs were frolicking with blown-out pupils in the sea, tripping over their own garb.

Anti.

At this point, I was ready for breakfast. I dragged everyone to my favorite local joint, a place I call Green Awning. It’s on a dirt road that shortcuts the longer main road into Haad Rin. It’s covered by a green tarp awning. I wish I could give better directions, as this is my favorite place to eat on the island, besides the fried chicken man. If you go before 9:30AM, you can get Joke (Chinese style khao tom), with chicken, egg, and toppings. The only thing missing is patongo, but it’s only 40 b for the whole shebang and the lady is super nice. I went every day when I was near Haad Rin, and she always laughed at me and asked if I’d come for the Khao Tom. You can also get a variety of local dishes, should you miss the joke cut-off, and I can assure you that the Thai Curry (pronounced Gang Pet) and the Green Curry (Gang Kee-Ew-Wan) are exceptionally good. It usually comes out to 80 b for curry and rice, but you get a heaping bowl and plate of same, and you won’t want to eat again for awhile.

Bird.

Anyways, back to my friend, it turned out he got rufied by a beer seller. Apparently that’s a common scam–rufie a tourist and then follow him or her discreetly and wait until they’re dazed and alone, then jack ’em. He says the last thing he remembers is buying a beer and the woman refusing to sell him a large, unopened beer, instead offering him a smaller, pre-opened one. The rest of the night is gone, with a brief memory of the sunrise. When he woke at home in the afternoon, he had no memory of how he got there (on the back of another friend’s motorbike, mumbling in German the whole way), and had rediscovered his English vocabulary. A situation that could have gone so much worse for someone solo, and one to be aware of if you plan to buy drinks on the scene!

Siem Reap

So, upon the realization that my Thai visa was about to expire, I rushed for the Cambodian border, upon the instructions of this site. It’s quite accurate, but the timing was very close. Turning in the motorbike in time to catch the ferry at 11:30AM was a close shave, but manageable. Upon reaching the mainland, however, I began encountering difficulties in locating a songthaew to take me to the ferry pier in Na Thon. I’d mapped it prior, it was about 15km, so I knew if worst came to worst I could walk, but as I staggered down the side of the road in the blazing sun, hailing each songthaew that passed, and being greeted with a friendly (and mocking?) wave as they flew by began to grow wearisome. To this day, I’m still not sure why not one songthaew would stop on the stretch of Hwy 3170 between the Big Buddha pier and the pier at Bo Phut. Eventually, I trudged out to Hwy 3169 and a songthaew grabbed me there. Even then, I had to wait about 20 minutes for one to show up. That’s like an anti-miracle. Those dang songthaews are usually two per minute at any other time.

Giant Mantis

So, I made it to the bus station. But, I hadn’t pre-printed my ticket, as I wanted to see whether I could simply show my e-version of the bus ticket to the driver. So i whipped out (ha, as if, more like dredged up) my laptop and the driver whipped out the ticket that had been sent from Bangkok in my name. Woohoo, good to go. In other news, the bathroom at the bus station is excellent–clean, and offering showers, toilets, several sinks and a long mirror. Got on the bus, bus went to the ferry pier, got off the bus, bought a ferry ticket, got on the ferry, landed on the other side (Don Sak), got back on the bus, and passed out. Woke up for some spicy noodle soup at a bus stop eatery–no problems this time. Woke in the morning to the bus driver barking, “Hey, you; leave!” and was promptly shunted from the vehicle. Staggered into the bus terminal at 6:30AM and excised my laptop once again to check how to get to the Chaloklum metro station. It looked walkable–just through some park. Totally doable! Repack, and set out.

Kids on Motorcycles.

Crossing under the freeway, I came upon a joke seller amongst a group of construction workers, and in the spirit of breakfast we supped together. I then realized the fence directly in front of me encircled the very park I was meant to cross. It looked huge. I circumambulated the perimeter for a bit without seeing an entrance, then gave it up and hauled myself over it–backpack and all. A cute young couple on a motorbike sped by laughing and pointing. I’m sure I deserved it. Trekking through the gardens of the park, I wished I was in a place to better enjoy it. The foliage was neatly labeled in Thai, English, and Latin, but I couldn’t be bothered to note it. My backpack was weighing ever more heavily upon my sweaty back, and I needed a restroom.

Handy Bathroom Information:

Bathroom in Thai is “Hong Nam”. To ask whether there is a bathroom, say, “Mee hong nam mai?”. To ask where the bathrooms are, say, “Hong nam you tee nai?”.

After the helpful ministrations of a young military man, I was ready to continue my journey. I had to cross through one more park, and then walk along the fence line for a bit before I stumbled upon the Chaloklum metro stop, conveniently located inside the park. Inside it was cool and clean, and I sat in the corner on the floor for a while to collect my wits. Onlookers glanced quickly, then looked away. I eventually hopped the train, and came out at the Hua Lamphong train station. Recognizing that the train to Aranyaprathet (the closest Thai town to Cambodia) runs at 6AM, I had planned to simply squat in the train station overnight. As I looked around me, this seemed to be a less feasible reality. I asked the lady at the information desk which bus I could take to get to Tesco (so I could use the fee-free Aeon ATM), and she told me 113. I waited at what I hoped was the bus station, ardently turning away tuk-tuks, and eagerly hopped on the bus when it arrived.

Stone Fishing.

The ticket collector came around after a time, and I asked how much the ticket was. At this point, communication devolved. I could not for the life of me understand what he was saying. I offered him 20b, it seemed fair for a bus ride, but he kept repeating “20b, 20b”. I didn’t have another 20b. Then strangers became involved. A man who had been repeatedly asking me at the bus station, “Where you from? Lady! Where you from?” moved into the seat across from me and took up the call again. Passengers began asking where I was going. “Tesco,” I cried, “I’m going to Tesco!”. At the climax of that situation, the bus stopped, I looked out the window and, blessings be, saw Tesco across the street. I hurriedly left, and determined to walk back if it killed me.

Cave of Wonders.

As it turned out, the Aeon ATM in this Tesco did charge a service fee, which really ground me up, considering the trial it had been to come. I did get some more V-Fit 7-rice milk, which is what I pretty much live for, and some fried chicken and sticky rice (Tesco makes great food). Having regathered my strength, I set off for home, wandering here, wandering there, asking always the way to Hua Lamphong. It seemed much further on foot, but at least the sun had dropped below the buildings. I finally came back to the station, and put up at a coffee shop across the street. The girls asked where I was going, where I was staying, and when they heard I was planning on staying the night in Hua Lamphong, put their foot down. I had searched nearby hostels, etc. online, but had found only upscale results, running much higher than I wanted to pay. The girls told me about a cheap place right behind that very location, for $2 per night. Sold.

Rococo.

I had to pay when I checked in (it ended up being $3), but there was an elevator, and clean towels, and an ensuite bathroom. It was cool and clean and had a fan. Much nicer than other hostels I’ve been in. It’s called The Station Hotel and I recommend it to any traveler coming to or going from BKK by train.

Got some khaotom to-go for the ride, got on the train, and fell asleep in a variety of yoga-istic positions. When I awoke around 11:30AM, we were about an hour out, and my hair was coated with train smoke and travel dust. The train has glass windows the slide up or down, slatted wooden shutters, and fans. You’re going to want that window open. Arriving in Aranyaprathet, I was approached by a tuk-tuk driver and actually wanted a ride. He took me to the bank (didn’t get enough money out of the ATM, dumb), and then to Poipet, leaving me near the border for 40b.

Siesta.

Getting into Cambodia is like trying to get into the U.S. from Mexico. You have to pass through a variety of stations, wait in lines, be sweaty, and pay fees, plus everyone is in uniform and means business. I had read online ahead of time that a common scam is to get tourists to buy visas before the border, claiming that it must be purchased before, or that you have to get them at such-and-such a place, so I proceeded to the border, heedless of the calls. I met two other tourist sets who had been scammed in such a way, once I got to Siem Reap, one set for $30 and one for $50! Be on your guard, everything you need can be purchased AT THE BORDER for $20. You should also be traveling with some mini photos of yourself, as many visas request those. I don’t have any yet, so I paid a 100b fine. Then lines, lines, lines. Finally, I got to the other side.

Anti.

A helpful young man escorted me to the tourist shuttle going to the bus station, then, upon arriving, showed me which bus to buy a ticket for, and where to change money. Then he asked for “a little something” for the help. I only had $2, but he didn’t seem displeased. Then I was on the bus again. I fell asleep until we jounced into the bus station outside of Siem Reap. From this potholed dirt road you take a tuk-tuk to your final destination in Siem Reap. My tuk-tuk driver was very helpful, and drove me first to the well-regarded hostel The Garden Village Guest House. Being quite popular, as I’ve mentioned, it was full up. He then directed me to another hostel, this one in the heart of Siem Reap, I Win Hostel. I only had large bills, and he couldn’t break a $10, so he said he would come back to take me to the Floating Village on Thonle Sap at 3:30PM the next day, and that I could pay him then.

I was grateful then to climb the 3 flights of stairs to the sweaty garret filled with bunkbeds. I took a shower, felt revived, and went out to see the town.

Meats.

Directly behind my hostel was a small market, comprised of very overpriced tourist items, etc. Passing through there, and across a canal, one comes to the Siem Reap “Night Market” : a city block of tourist stuff, encircling an inner food market patroned by locals; flanked on one side by the infamous Pub Street and on the other by tuk-tuk drivers and snack cart pushers. This market undergoes a radical change between day and night time purveyors. During the day, the perimeter of the market sells household supplies–literally, anything anyone would need for their house, including building supplies. There are a few tourist shops, but mostly jewelry and things that remain in cases or displayed in a certain way. After about 6PM, these household shops have all disappeared, to be replaced by shops selling the same Khmer dresses, pashminas, kramas, “Aladdin” pants, shorts, at prices dependent on the proprietors individual aims.

Did I mention the dress code in Cambodia? As whimsical and lax as Thailand is, so, oppositely, is Cambodia conservative and incongruous. 98% of Cambodians wear long sleeves and pants, all the time. There are varying styles to this. I could actually discourse long on the nature of Khmer fashion–it’s very iconic! In general, young men are much more neatly dressed than anywhere else I’ve seen–IN THE WORLD. They wear nattily fitted jeans, or dark khaki culottes, and button downs, with flip-flops. Young females have two apparel options : the long-sleeved, skinny jean style, or the “pajama” style. This entails a matching top and bottom set, usually in a bright floral pattern, with narrow legs and a buttoning front. It looks just like a pair of funky pajamas. This is also paired with flip-flops. Women of an age wear a Khmer skirt–a wrap skirt with a Cambodian print–and a 3/4 button down or long-sleeved shirt. All school children wear uniforms; the most common being a navy bottom and light button-down top. The girls all look like something out of a Hiyao Miyazaki film : bell-shaped skirts, doubled up on the back of bicycles or motorbikes.

Anyhow, you look like a boob if you go out in anything shorter-sleeved than a t-shirt, or shorter than knee-length. So I elected to grab a couple baggy pants. $3 a pop, I figured I could leave them somewhere if they didn’t work out. The girl I bought them from was vivacious and friendly, like most Cambodians I’ve met. She also taught me how to say, “No bean sprouts!” Or literally, “I have no need for those bean sprouts”. This unfortunate phrase was occasioned by my finding the perfect breakfast place just meters away from my hostel. It served borbor, the Khmer equivalent of khaotom, and even had those little doughnut things I like. But! Khmer-style borbor has bean sprouts in it! And I didn’t know! And I hate beansprouts in soup, glug.

Speaking of new gustatory experiences, Cambodians put other mysterious things in the otherwise unassuming rice porridge, such as offal. Buying some borbor on the street, I arrived home to find some exciting kidneys? veins? liver? in my bowl. I’m not sure how to decline these things, but the taste sort of blends when it’s all together and sliced thin.

Market.

Siem Reap is a funny place, kind of a big-little town. The streets are dusty and poorly paved, and a few hundred meters outside of the city center you will find yourself on a dirt road surrounded by stilt houses and children laughing, calling, “Hello! Hi! What’s your name!”. A canal runs through town, and along it are mansions that look like they’ve survived French colonialism. Classical parks grace the sides of the canal, and frangipani drops blossoms along the street.

Temple Road.

Then there’s the shantytown aspect. Corrugated tin houses, stirred only by the wings of flies; pregnant dogs panting in the heat, skeletally thin; begging children (always girls), naked kids dredging the canal for miniature clams and waterweeds to sell, shaved-headed old women with eyes that don’t see straight, hands held in front of them; land mine victims. Children playing in a construction site while their fathers work behind them. Men pulling carts taller than themselves in lieu of a cow or horse. Young girls asking if you want a massage. Women trying desperately to sell you a pair of pants, or some cut pineapple. “What you pay?” they call, as you try to run away, “How much you pay?”. Don’t look interested in anything, or the proprietress will try her hardest to sell it to you. If you get out once, don’t go back that way, or they’ll remember you and get you again.

Sleepy.

Aside from that sadness, there are excellent, fun aspects of Siem Reap; not limited to $1 a day bicycle rentals, the Angkor temples, how nice everybody is, the excellent Khmer taste in music, the delicious food, and the free tea at meals. Street food and lodging are cheaper here than in Thailand, and people everywhere will approach you to meet you, just because they’re interested in you. Expect to be treated with extreme frankness; Cambodians don’t pull any punches when it comes to personal appearance or any embarrassing thing you might do. They’ll openly ask you if your piercings hurt, or if you have any injury, they want to know what happened. They’ll also tell you that your nose is big (every nose is big compared to Khmer noses), that such-and-such a size won’t fit you; and if you’re near a group of Khmer women, you can be sure they’re talking about you, and yes, laughing at you. Sometimes they even laugh at you for being too polite. But it’s not just you! They often laugh at each other, and regularly play tricks and tease one another. Cambodians are always smiling, and usually laughing. Don’t be fooled by that smile though, sometimes it serves to hide their true feelings of fear, embarrassment, or uncertainty–Cambodia is a face-saving culture.

Lucky.

I generally make a little wai to each person I meet (in Khmer these are called Som Pas) or see. Most people seem to think it’s cute, or nice, but I’ve had women tell me that I shouldn’t som pas to them, they are “too low”, so there’s more to the story, but I don’t know it yet.

Indie 2.

I know you’re all wondering about Angkor Wat. Well, to me, this is just one part of the experience, not the whole reason for visiting. You can get a day pass to the Angkor temples for twenty bones, or you can pop $40 for a three-day pass. If you have the time, I’d recommend the latter. I got up before sunrise to ride my bike to the temples–my favorite borbor place wasn’t even open yet–and was passed the whole way by like-minded tourists in tuktuks. Everyone crowded around the first pool at the temple to watch the sunrise, but I went on to find the highest point–the Bayon. Unfortunately, you can’t get into this until 7:50AM. Shucks. But the sunrises and sunsets here are nothing to get excited about: a gradual coloration of a grey haze.

Predawn.

Yes, the stonework and sheer immensity were breathtaking; yes, it’s impossible to believe the length of time necessary to complete such a work; yes, it’s very, very hot and you didn’t bring any water and you’re on a bike, trudging from temple to temple (there are a gang of them); yes, there are at least three steep staircases per temple; yes, some of the temples are crammed with tourists.

Ta Prohm.

There are so many temples, you will certainly enjoy yourself more if you only take on a select few per day. The ride isn’t bad from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat–about 5 miles. Then you can ride the short circuit or the long one, don’t ask me the distance. The short one is less than 10 miles I’d say, the long one is supposed to be 32 km. If you’re not getting off and on your bike every five minutes to look at temples, you’ll enjoy the ride, the temples you do choose to see, and the day. My favorite temple was definitely Ta Prohm, or the Tree Complex. It has been majorly reconstructed, but is not yet complete. The trees growing all over and around give the temple an additional otherwordly/anime feel, like Laputa of Castle in the Sky.

Compelled.

The good news is, you can probably lurk onto a tour group in your language, if you don’t want to pay for one, as I heard Cambodian guides speaking Russian, German, Mandarin, Japanese, and French, not to mention English. You will also see a ton of monkeys! They are relatively fearless, and you can get quite close, but watch your food! They will snatch it right up, be it a health bar or a bag of sliced pineapple.

Sorry I skimped on the Angkor descriptions, but what I remember most is being hot and thirsty. To make up for this, I have included a selection of the kadgillion photos I took. Enjoy!

Đà Nẵng

I had read previously on Seat61 that trains in Viet Nam are plentiful and cheap. I love trains, and decided to investigate. There are varying degrees of luxury on Vietnamese trains, ranging from slatted wooden seats, with open windows and fans, to air-conditioned “soft sleepers”. There are mid-range seats as well, air-conditioned hard seats, and soft seats, but the price jumps up accordingly. I figured I could tough out a hard seat; after all, I’d been 6 hours on a (to my mind) hard-seated train in Thailand to the Cambodian border. I checked the train charts: the train to Da Nang left Saigon at 12:20, and reached Da Nang at 7. I can handle 7 hard hours, I thought.

Hard Seats.

I should mention that I’d collected a fellow traveler by this time: Olivier, a French-Canadian on his first tour abroad. We met at the ill-starred Budget Hostel, and he declared his desire to adjourn to Da Nang as well, and so we went. We purchased our tickets, and boarded the train. Around 7PM, I thought I heard the conductor say, “Da Nang!”, so we prepared to disembark. However, when the train stopped, the station was discovered not to be Da Nang at all. For a few hours, I’d had a sick feeling growing in the pit of my stomach due to my laissez-faire attitude towards train times. I recalled belatedly that times in Asia are almost without fail in what we call military time. After our attempted flight from the train, and upon hearing that we were heading for Da Nang, the conductor broke into laughter, and told us we would reach Da Nang at 7…in the morning. Whoops!

Pond.

Olivier, looking at me with a horrified face: “You mean…we have to stay on this train all night?” Our butts were already sore from seven hours of travel, we had exhausted our food stores, drank our water; in short, we were screwed. The benches are about a meter long, short-bodied Viets can lie in an almost comfortable fetal position on them without poking their heads into the aisle. I cannot. In the end, I ended up sleeping upright, with my legs extended under the next seat. Olivier laid on his back, with his crossed legs propped against the wall. His torso alone took up the entire length of the seat.

Dragonfruit.

In Viet Nam, I’ve noticed any foreigner exudes a peculiar attractant to the Vietnamese peoples. Not long after my embarrassing revelation on the train, a young man approached Olivier, seated himself beside him, and began speaking companionably with him. This young man, Trung, spoke with him for several hours, and when he left to sleep, said he would find us again in the morning. When we rolled into Da Nang, he escorted us from the train, and said he would take us to a cheap guesthouse nearby. I offered to carry a taped styrofoam box he was struggling with, and noticed, over the course of the journey to the guesthouse, that it felt as though something was trying to climb out of it. “Are there crabs in here?” I asked Trung. He looked confused. “Lobster?”. Nothing. “Animals?” His face brightened. “Yes, animals!” I felt like I was holding the box that held the monster cat in Mousehunt; every so often it lurched fore or aft and the skittering of crustacean appendages could be detected along the inside of the box walls.

Morning Light.

The guesthouse he brought us to was down an alley, where else, but it was clean, and offered two beds, a bathroom, a T.V. and a fan at 150,000 VND/night. It was called Ha Chau Nha Nghi–good luck finding it. Even in the city, no one knew it. At night, a dessert vendor encamped near the entrance; in the morning, a woman selling Bahn Mi Loc sat in the alley itself. The alley connected with numerous other alleys, and one could travel the city without ever putting foot on a major street (a smart move, if one knew one’s way).

Alley.

I didn’t do much during my stay in Da Nang; a lot of wandering the city and eating. I could tell you all the tasty things to try, though! There’s a delicious bakery on Ly Thai To Rd that I bought tartlets from every single day. I’ll give you the name when the internet works better. Updated: I hope this is the right one. There is a horrible one on the opposite side. They speak no English, but like I said, I’m pretty good at food ordering and paying. The options are passion fruit, chocolate, lemon brie (not sure on this one, just going by taste), pineapple, strawberry cream (not good), and egg. There is also a rude and not delicious bakery on the same road, beware! However, it’s on the left side, as one walks towards the beach, and the good bakery is on the right a little further.

Da Nang Traffic.

Try some new fruits. Dragonfruit is a large, ovoid, pink fruit, with green tipped tentacles. Inside the fruit is sweet, white, with a mealy texture and small black seeds. Rambutan is a small coral-shelled fruit, covered in inch-long bright green hairs. Inside, the fruit is similar in texture to lychee, with a taste similar to herbal tea. Guavas are green like Granny Smith apples when unripe, and gradually shade to a light green, perhaps with a touch of pink when ready to be eaten. They are bumpy, and about the size of a grapefruit. The flesh is milky, with the soft, slippery texture of ripe mango. Not a strong taste, but the rind is reminiscent of eucalyptus. Longans come in little brown spheres, with a thin, hard case. Inside, the flesh is translucent and hard, just like rambutans and lychees. The taste is similar to rambutans, but with a much stronger flavor. Sweet and herbal. Rose apples are shaped like pears, but with deep grooves in their sides, and ruby-shaded. The flesh is light, with almost no flavor, and crisp. Passionfruit looks like a small rugby ball, hard, and must be cut open. Inside, the edible portion looks like snot. It is a brilliant acid green, filled with small seeds much like tomato seeds. It is delightfully sour, and lends its flavor to many enjoyable snacks in Viet Nam.

Dragonfruit.

I tried Chè of various flavors. Chè, says my little phrasebook, is sweetened gruel. Well, it’s not just that. Nobody just eats chè plain, as far as I can tell. One eats Chè Xoa Xoa , sweet gruel, coconut milk, ice, and various gelatins and chewies. This can be had for 7,000 dong, or 20,000, if you get stiffed on a main road. There’s a delicious yogurt made from condensed milk, but I’ll have to double-check the name. Update: It’s Sữa chua. Bún is simply rice noodles, and you can get an assortment of toppings, such as grilled meat (Thịt Nướng), fish (Cá), pork sausage (Chả), and fried spring rolls (I forget this one, maybe chả nem?). It will come with greens, usually including the dreaded Fish Mint (rau giấp cá) so tell them you don’t want it, if it offends you. When I order almost anything, it’s with the added request, “không rau giấp cá va giá đỗ”–no Fish Mint and beansprouts. It’s pronounced “Kum Rao Yee-ap Kha vah Yee-ah Dao”, if you take your meals as I do.

Offering.

One day, I decided to go to the historic city of Hội An. This is the one day it has rained in Viet Nam. We hailed a bus–they go all day long from Da Nang to Hội An and back–and got on. The female bus conductor told us the fare was 50,000 dong. This isn’t true. She even got the other bus passengers to agree with her. The true passage is 20,000 dong, but as a foreigner you’ll almost certainly be charged 30,000. Just hand them 30,000 dong and be done with it. So the day started off on a bad foot. It was pouring rain when we reached Hoi An an hour later. I bought a poncho, and we set off to find the center of town. It’s about a half-mile walk from the bus station to the center of town, or maybe a bit more. Don’t take a motorcycle taxi unless you’re in a hurry; they won’t take you for less than 10,000 VND, but it’s not worth even that.

River View.

Walking down Hai Ba Trung, we came upon a bike renter. There was something of a kerfuffle when it was discovered we weren’t boarding in town, but it was overcome by our rapid proffer of 20,000 dong. $1 per day for a nice bike is, as I’ve mentioned before, highly equitable. On the bus we had made the acquaintance of a young Swedish woman. How pleased we both were, to find semi-kindred in the diaspora! She joined our gang, and we peddled away towards the Ancient City.

Lanterns.

You have to buy a pass to go into any historical area; 120,000 VND gives you entry to five places, or more if you’re not caught going in. I was always caught. The others made it out with a score of unused tickets. I had read a guide to Hoi An the morning of, in which a woman offered her opinion on the available attractions, and had decided to go to the Tan Ky House, the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, the Museum of Folk Culture, the Phung Hung House, and the “Evening Art Performance”. Unfortunately, the rain made all of us a little slow-moving, and two of us reached only three of these places. The Phuc Kien Assembly Hall is definitely worth a visit, it’s beautiful and relatively unpopulated. The Tan Ky House is a waste of a ticket, you see only the reception room. The Museum of Folk Culture is great to see, you can get in and away without losing a ticket, and there’s not a sole inside besides you. Outside this building, there are what look like weaving demonstrations–surely during drier weather.

Moving Statue.

We never made it to the Evening Art Performance, although I’m told it takes place “to the right of the An Hoi bridge, near the cao lầu stands” at 7:30PM. Speaking of cao lầu, it is great. That statement seems feeble in describing the immense pleasure I have in eating it. The noodles are similar in form to fettucine, but thick, and made of some other grain. The broth is rich, and it is topped with pork, deep-fried pork skins, and greens. Even the greens are delicious!

Temple Ceiling.

Nearby the Central Market, where we had lunch, is a warehouse of smaller shops. It was here I attempted to have an Ao Dai made. Don’t do this. I was rushed through the choosing of a pattern, of cloth colors, and then rapidly fitted and told to return the next afternoon. I forgot to haggle, and agreed to a $45 outfit (NO NO NO). When I went to pay, I was sure I handed the lady a 500,000 dong bill I had been keeping at the bottom of my coin purse, but she ran out after us and caught us on the steps, claiming I had only handed her a 20. To this day, I don’t know what happened to my 500,000 dong. The woman swore up and down she didn’t have it, and the owner of the shop also, stating their Buddhist inclinations as proof of her honesty. Anyhow, I should have given it up then, but I didn’t.

Metal Grate.

Upon returning the next day, I was shown my new Ao Dai. Where’s the collar I wanted? Then the tailor woman became defensive. “You say, 1-color! I make 1-color. I ask you, you say, no 2-color, 1-color; cheaper!” Where I had assumed the part that was shown in the picture to be two colors would simply be made in one color, she had removed the part altogether, leaving a plain V-Neck color. The Ao Dai fit imperfectly, and I was crushed. The owner came up to me as I drifted sadly out, telling me that she had spoken to the seamstress, and telling her that she must fix it if I was unhappy, but the seamstress was adamant, claiming I had told her it was to be made this way. She extended sincere apologies on behalf of the outcome, of both the dress and the lost money. She seemed truly unhappy, but then so was I.

Door.

Reaching Da Nang again, after an hour bus ride in the opposite direction, I went for a walk to see if I could find a seamstress to append a collar to my sadly-lacking Ao Dai. I was led by a silk seller to a tailor in an alley, but through a young woman neighbor I was told she was unable to change it, but could make a new one for 400,000 VND, and have it ready in two days. I agreed, still cherishing a hope of the perfect Ao Dai. Instead of choosing from the book of patterns, having previously drawn an account of what I wanted the appended collar to look like on the Ao Dai I had, the young girl told me the seamstress claimed she could make my new Ao Dai with such a collar. So I acquiesced to the second attempt on my fancy-collared Ao Dai, and signified the colors I would like. It seemed shady to not come back for a second fitting, but they assured me everything would be perfect.

Empty Lot.

The next day, I found an Ao Dai maker who agreed to take in my first Ao Dai, at least giving it a proper fit. Everywhere I wore it, people smiled, said, “Dep, dep!” and “Ao Dai Viet Nam”. Even our young friend from the train, Trung, said it made him so happy to see a foreigner wearing traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai, and that he thought it was beautiful. However, in my heart of hearts, I was unsatisfied, and eagerly awaited my new one.

Baby Deer.

I returned the evening we were to leave for Dong Hoi to collect my new Ao Dai. When they brought it over, my smile fell off. There was no collar whatever! The seamstress hadn’t understood my injunction, it appeared, and had made the Ao Dai off-the-shoulder. It was in a brazen gold, with bright tangerine pants–not the demure sand and soft coral combo I had envisioned. Even beyond that, it was almost intolerably tight. It was well-made, but wore like a second skin. I felt like a prostitute.

Portal.

The owner of the shop, looked at the Ao Dai, looked at me, and asked what I thought of it. “It’s beautiful,” I said, “but it’s not what I wanted”. She and the other seamstress had a rapid back-and-forth, and the owner turned back to me and said, “She did not understand what you wanted, and she says she’ll make you the Ao Dai you want for free”. Alas, I was leaving! But what a generous offer! I would try again there, if I but had the time. Trinh is the name: 332/1 Le Duan, Da Nang. I wore it home, and again compliments flew from every quarter, but under my genial smile, my heart was breaking. What a fool!

Look Right.

When you order an Ao Dai, just take it exactly as it looks in the pattern book.

One night we went to karaoke with Trung and some of his friends. The karaoke house offered some English selections, and we had a great time belting old favorites, and mangling new ones. The room came with an assortment of drinks, sort of like the mini-bar in a hotel–you drink, you buy. How much could it possibly be, we wondered. The answer is: a lot. We each ended up paying about $12, because all of Trung’s friends left early, and we didn’t want him to pay. I had one Red Bull and a lychee soda. It was horrifying. But the karaoke memories will remain unscathed. It was an hilarious night. The French-Canadian rendition of “Roxanne” had me crying with laughter, and Emilie and I can really duet an ABBA song. To our very great surprise, Trung had the voice of an angel, or a J-Pop star. I have never heard anyone karaoke like that.

Karaoke.

Odds and Ends: you can buy a new set of prescription glasses here, ready in half an hour, for $18. I wanted some, but I’d hemorrhaged enough cash. The beach is beautiful, but you’re only allowed to enter the water at specific points, demarcated by floating flag lines, and if you go in other places, you’ll be chased down by a life guard. Don’t try to send a package here, the rates are disgusting. On Saturday and Sunday, the Dragon Bridge (you can’t miss it) shoots flame and water vapor at 9PM. Also, almost every bridge in Da Nang is decorated in some way with rainbow lights. Truly a beautiful sight at night.

Dragon Bridge.

There is a gorgeous temple, called a pagoda by our friend Trung, dedicated to Guanyin, with an enormous statue to the same overlooking the city. There are statues of the Chinese Zodiac in the facing garden, and the entire thing is perched atop a high hill. We went by night, and the soft sound of the shore and the crickets drifted on the breeze with the dark smell of incense and closing flowers. It would be hard not to be quiet and respectful in such a place.

Hidden Statue.

Đồng Hới

We reached Đồng Hới by night-train. I slept on the floor, on a tarp. It worked perfectly, it was only a six hour ride. Pulling into the station, we elected to simply look for housing in the surrounding area. Well, it didn’t work too great, but eventually we ended up in a 150,000 VND per night room. The entire place STANK of mildew. I can handle a lot of things, but an overpowering aroma of mildew makes it nigh on impossible to sleep, even when you’re completely worn out. After a refreshing nap, I was ready to high-tail it to another place, but we’d booked the room for one day, so it seemed skeezy to just up and out.

Empty Street.

Instead, we decided to walk around the town. From the train station out, the city seems very small. It devolves almost instantly into suburban straights with gardens and houses. We passed one funeral, one wedding, and a bride and groom on a motorbike. Everyone was friendly, and smiled at us, except the funeral goers, obviously. Everyone in that party was wearing a white robe made of either ultra-light cotton, or paper. They also had white strips tied around their foreheads. After they had left, we went to investigate the graveyard.

Tomb.

I probably haven’t mentioned it before, but Sino cemeteries are rather unlike ours. Each family has a plot, and this area is designated by a brightly painted containment wall with a high back. There are many styles, but the main difference is the use of color. Everywhere, chrysanthemums are left for the dead, along with incense, and sometimes small offerings of bright candy or other treats. The wall around the plot is low, and there is a break in it directly across from the high end. However, about a foot in front of this break is a small wall standing alone, with a character written on it. This wall is to keep the spirits from leaving, or any evil creature from entering. In Asian mythologies, spirits can only walk in a straight line–thus, the wall, which necessitates a 90 degree turn, keeps all spirits safely penned inside. This method is also used in many temples.

Fenced Garden.

That night, we ate dinner along the main road (we thought). The price was excessive, 30,000 VND for mien (cellophane noodle soup) and 40,000 VND for chao (rice porridge) and pho (rice noodle soup). However, the proprietor was passing out cup after cup of what I took to be moonshine. It was served from an old gallon oil jug. They called it wine, and it was only offered to the men. Eventually I got a cup of my own; the taste was pure alcohol. Two cups is more than enough for a good time. Then he wanted us to go to karaoke, but his daughter, who was interpreting, told us there would only be Vietnamese songs. I was still down, but after the bill came, I changed my mind.

Edifice.

We were happy to leave the stinky place the next day, and took a taxi down to the water’s edge, where we had found a room for 200,000 VND per night. The room faced the ocean, the windows opened out, and we had a small balcony. Hot showers (if you found the breaker for the water heater), and walking distance from the beach and downtown.

Well, the beach was a pretty far walk, but it was completely worth it. The water was clear teal, with a clean, white sand beach. Olivier found two posts to finally put his hammock up between, with the help of some locals to reset the posts after he began. He was an instant success with many of the young people on the beach, and I left him surrounded by eager friends wanting pictures. I spotted a deserted beach lounger and laid out until storm clouds threatened and I began to feel sporadic rain drops. As we started to leave, we were approached by a boy and girl. They asked for money. For what? Apparently, using the posts for a hammock, and laying in the chair. How much? 200,000 VND. We don’t have any money. They called over a girl from a nearby picnicking party. She began again. You need to pay them, she said, 200,000 VND. We. Don’t. Have. Any. Money. we said again. And anyhow, that’s way too expensive! Eventually, they let us go, with the parting admonition, beaches in Viet Nam are not beaches in America!

Medicine.

Lately, it seems like everybody is out to squeeze some cash out of me. It’s frustrating, because I know I’m being overcharged, but I feel mean to dispute it. Usually, it doesn’t even make a difference. I guess I just always need to ask the price ahead of time, although that feels incredibly petty.

We looked up and down the streets for somewhere to rent a motorbike to go to the Phong Nha National Park the next day. We tried each guesthouse, but they wanted $10 per day for a motorbike; well outside my budget. Finally, we ended up back at the smelly guesthouse we’d started at, where the woman had offered us a motorbike for $6. Unfortunately, this guesthouse was across town–5 km away–right next to the train station. Plan accordingly! You can rent motorbikes more cheaply away from the center of town. Just don’t stay there.

Cows!

The next day, we set out for the Phong Nha National Park. It’s about 30 km from Đồng Hới, but it’s an excellent drive by motorbike. The countryside is beautiful, all green fields, enclosing hills, and little jungle patches. Take a lunch, don’t try to buy anything there. It’s now a UNESCO recognized site, and they’re prepared to charge you through the nose for anything you might need or want.

Phong Nha National Park.

You need to buy your tickets at the Tourist Center. It’s currently undergoing renovation, but is still open. It costs $11.50 to get a ticket to the Phong Nha and Ha Tien Caves, including the boat ride there. The boats are long, narrow “dragon boats”. The river ride is smooth and pleasant–one can see both sides of the shore, and find villagers out dredging the river bottom for water weed (I’m not sure why. Fuel? Food?) in tiny skiffs, and naked children splashing and clambering over sand bars.

Bathing Nudies.

When you arrive at the mouth of the cave, the motor is cut, the roof is rolled back, and someone poles you through the cave. As you enter the first cathedral-esque cavern, bats screech and wheel overhead to the solemn sound of the lapping waves on the boat. The light bouncing off the river illumines the cracks and colors of the ancient ceiling, but as you pass through a narrower aperture, Nature is replaced by Art, and the magnificent formations are handsomely lighted by winking electrical bulbs. There are drooping rock curtains and mushrooming rock growths. The rocks all have a plastic nature that seems in motion, rather than millenia old.

Jade Crystal.

The park certainly does an excellent job with stage lighting; some formations are acid green, others are icy blue. In the depths of the cave, the mirror of the black river doubles and trebles the watery replicas of the awesome pilasters and piles into an unearthly multidimensional labyrinth.

Hidden Lights.

Eventually, you disembark on a sandy bank and are allowed to clamber back to daylight in your own time. Upon reaching the exit of the cave, you are presented with a steep staircase. Going to the Heavenly Cave? Prepare to go through Hell. The stair is long and steep, although the view at all times is a welcome respite if you care to cool your heels. All along the way are small stands selling drinks and snacks. Near the top, you begin to feel a flow of refrigerated air. I believe the path to the second cave lies over the apex of the first, and that the chilled air is issuing through cracks in the ceiling of the first onto the steps of the second. However it happens, it’s certainly a pleasure.

Ugh.

Finally, you reach the second cave. The flood of cold air instantly makes the trek worth it. You descend into the rock mansion via a sturdy industrial staircase, and a path guides you through the belly of the basalt (I don’t know if it’s really basalt). The colors are fantastic, you wouldn’t believe they exist below ground. If there are blind fish in the bottom of the sea, what sees the colors in a midnight cave?

Uprisings.

The trip back is a welcome break, but you’re starving, and all the food is ridiculously expensive. Eat on the road on the way home, you’re better off. But you better be able to order in Vietnamese, or at least name a dish.

View.

All in all, my favorite thing in Đồng Hới was the discovery of Kem Xoi, which is sticky rice with ice cream on it. So good. We departed Đồng Hới to attend the Huế Cultural Festival.

Huế

So, we decided to take a bus to Huế, on the recommendation of a friend of Olivier’s. She was also going, for the festival, and knew a cheap place to stay. Oh wait, it isn’t cheap anymore. Oh wait, it’s full. No, I can’t meet you at the station, I’m doing something with my friends. I’m not sure at what end the miscommunication lay, but either way, it was exceptionally frustrating. The bus ride was 4 hours of hell: packed into the rear of the bus, mosquitos coming out of the seat cushions, poor A/C, an in-flight movie of a bunch of half-nude chicks at raves set to horrible, horrible Vietnamese(?) techno. Then, disembarkation and a bunch of motorbike drivers, “You want motorbike? You want motorbike?” No, for God’s sake, no! I will walk my legs off, so help me!

stiltists

Ended up taking a taxi to a street recommended by the “friend” for it’s abundance of guesthouses. Oh, they’re all full? What a surprise! It’s really too bad we relied on the word of a flakey young miss rather than booking in advance. (It’s weeks later, as I write this, and I’m still mad, as you can see.) We had a disconsolate cold-coffee conference, and booked at a cheapish hostel, Stay Hostel. It appeared to be just a hop, skip, and jump from where we were located, directly across from the Imperial Palace walls.
An exasperating 45 minutes later, we rolled up on foot. Room was $12 per night, but at $6 each it didn’t even out so bad. It had hot water and A/C, so I was happy. We had wanted to be back to the festival grounds (about 20 feet from where we started) by 8PM, but at 7:45 gave it up as a bad job. We asked at the front desk for motorbikes or bicycles to rent. Don’t have ’em, was the reply, try next door. Next door had a great time being completely rude about my attempts to use Vietnamese, as none of them spoke English, and we ended up not renting there either. Straggled over to a restaurant, where it took 5 minutes for me to get my dish (noodles), and 35 for Olivier to get his (fried rice). Maybe they had to cook more rice?

Hidden.

Luck was with us, and we located a bakery on the way home. I bought one of those delicious sweet rolls lined with pork floss that always come in twos. Then blissful sleep.

The next day, we got up early to try to find a means of transportation. Walked the whole way back to the center of town without finding anything, after a huge breakfast of co’m binh danh (broken rice). Also, found a xoi seller I could not for the life of me find again. Delicious and cheap! Oh, it so happened that our hostel was outside the walls of ancient Huế, which means that we had to pass through a narrow, twenty-foot tunnel, and across two bridges. It was pretty cool, unless it was directly after the festival proceedings ended, in which case it was a terrifying nightmare.

TUNNEL OF DEATH

Ended up back at No. 64 on what I’m pretty sure is Trần Huy Liệu, but I’ll try to verify, for some more cold coffee from a woman like my grandmother. The coffee was so strong, it looked like black oil, and you had to drink it with a spoon, or be overcome by it’s poignancy. She asked each time, “More sugar? I’ll bring more sugar.” It was a cool $0.75 for each mini-tumbler, but she had a spot right on the moat, and it was peaceful for contemplating where one was going to retain vehicular services. After that pleasing interlude, we walked on and on, following the directions of one person after another, thinking all the while of how far we’d have to walk home after we returned whatever we rented.

Coffee Here.

After arriving at what appeared to be a hostelry for bikes, we were rudely informed that it was for tourists, but not us. I suppose everyone is fed up with tourists in Huế at this time, but there’s no need to be so nasty. We ended up walking to Nguyễn Tri Phương and renting a motorbike from a woman on the corner. Haggled her down to $6 per day, quite reasonable considering the other rates around town. Such a relief to be motile!

No Birds.

On the way, I had dragged Olivier through a street market, buying two dragonfruits and a selection of mangos. Markets are the best. I wish I could have spent more time in this one.

“Market” in Vietnamese is Chợ, and they are generally all marked, so if you’re wondering what that mass of people and stalls is, it’s a market. Go!

I also saw: 1 dragon dance, 1 Polish marching orchestra, a kite exhibition, 12 stiltwalkers (stiltists?), and an open-air calligraphy show-down. The Huế festival attracts multicultural entertainers.

Hot in Here.

We were determined to attend the nocturnal festivities that night, so I quickly showered and donned my “half-off” ai dai. It didn’t look half-bad (ar, ar, ar) with my new nón lá. Then we skedaddled via xe may, hooting at Next Door. We paid the 100,000 VND at the gates of the Imperial Palace and then we were in!

Buddhist Imaginings.

The place was lit up like Disneyland on Halloween. Brilliant lights doused everything in surreal color, while lanterns glimmered and gleamed across lawns and pools. We had arrived just in time for the fashion show! Each Asiatic country was represented either in traditional garb, or in some avant-garde confection. Thailand and Viet Nam were the most daring, with China’s being the most beautiful overall, in my opinion.

Wall of Light.

It was packed to the gills, so I quickly mounted a nearby plumeria for a better vantage. Whether it was the charmant effect of the green light focused upon the tree, or whether it was because a huge foreigner in a skanky ao dai in a tree is a talking point for Viets everywhere, I was soon the source of no small photographic activity. My feet got tired of standing in the notch before the flashes stopped twinkling in the green haze, and after I descended, I was approached by first one, and then another, news network for an interview.

Green Tree.

After the show, I was approached by dozens of people asking for photos, and passing me babies and children. It was certainly an experience to swell the head. And I felt somewhat relieved about my ao dai after two venerable grandmas gently patted my arms and said, “Dep, dep”. I gave my interviews, perfunctory as they were, and we rushed to the next spot. There we saw some wonderful folk dancing. I didn’t know there were multiple events occurring at one time, or I would have ditched the end of the fashion show.

Night Lights.

The dancing included male gymnasts and fake(?) martial maneuvers. There were female fan dancers, as well as “long-sleeve” dancers, the which were thrown out and hastily gathered into the hands whilst in the air. Then we hurried through the ancient gallery, which looked as wondrous as ever, still deep red with gold detailing, somber and majestic, past fairy-lighted gazebos filled with laughing men. We came upon a silent garden full of huge metal lotuses and empty, flower-framed stages. For the fashion beauties before the catwalk? I wondered, but did not discover. We strove through a field high with dewy grass to an amphitheater featuring some European band who seemed to like jokes, which we quickly abandoned. And that was that!

Single Light.

On the way home, I begged to stop by my new favorite haunt, the fresh yaourt seller. This tiny family business operates by making and selling yogurt in little cups kept cold and semi-solid in a popsicle-type freezer. They also sell flan. I’m not lying to you when I tell you, each bite of this yogurt (it’s called yaourt here) is a bite of Nirvana. It’s sweet, creamy, and ever-so-slightly tart. It’s got umami for sure. They probably do put MSG in it. Alls I know is, it’s 5,000 dong a go, and I need at least a dollar’s worth for premium satisfaction. That means 4. It’s towards the end of Yet Kieu, near the aforementioned tunnel. The exterior is teal, and features one small freezer with a faded mountain on it. You will see people eating at small red tables and looking blissful. Please do go.

Yogurt yogurt yogurt!

The next day was an absolute runaround. Don’t do it. By the way, there’s a Big C in Huế, if you’re planning on getting food for your last-minute train ride. Then, night train to Hanoi.

Hà Nội

I arrived in Ha Noi by an overnight sleeper from Hue. I took a soft seat, with air-conditioning. Don’t do this; it’s not worth the extra money. Either take a hard seat and sleep on the floor, or book a hard sleeping berth. The soft seats are like being on an airplane, but with less room and more instability. Anyhow, so I came to Ha Noi.

Holy Items.

The train came in during the early afternoon, and I hustled to the Lotteria next door to find out how to get to the Kangaroo Hostel–where I’d booked a few nights. Google told me I could take a bus; but we all know how well that works. I think I got off too soon, and began wandering through the Old Quarter. Everything looked Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working, but I was too tired, dirty, and stressed to notice. I eventually hailed a taxi and paid him fifty cents to take me to the hostel.

Non Profit.

The Kangaroo Hostel is a really cool place. It’s situated in a prime place near the Old Quarter, and consists of one very tall, narrow building full of ancient furniture, AND a bathtub! The bedding is deliciously light, soft blankets and pillows, and there’s air conditioning, too. The staff is very friendly, and speaks excellent English, and there’s free breakfast.

Secret door.

The other hostel I stayed in and frequented was the Hanoi Non Profit Hostel. This hostel was also excellent, though with slightly less flair. They offer motorbike rental services at VND 100,000 per day, which is a good rate, and also arrange visas, book travel, etc. Essentially every hostel will do this for you, however. I only stayed a few nights in both of these hostels. Then I was lucky enough to move into a homestay with a local family. I’ll try to tell you all about it.

Streetwalker.

In this homestay, I slept mainly on the 5th floor of the home, which is to say the roof. This roof is covered, and features a front and back area which wraps around the central staircase. The back area is used for laundry and horticulture, and the front is an open space left for setting up the children’s pool, sitting out at night, or any other “yard-type” activity. It is constrained on all sides, in the front by another building, on the sides by two other similar roofs. Luckily, the walls are only grated by a sort of open-lattice, so there is plenty of air flow.

More Hearth Gods.

I slept in a hammock, although there was a cot offered. I like hammocks. The mosquitos were the Vaguely Unpleasant part, and as I couldn’t get the net to work under any circumstances, I just regularly burned anti-mosquito coils. These are quite cheap, and efficacious, but also apparently toxic. I only burned them alone, as there were two young children in the household I didn’t want to poison.

Lozenge.

Staying with a family allowed me to learn much about the ins and outs of Vietnamese culture. All the oddities I encountered day-to-day I could come home and ask about. I could also ask words, phrases, and practice them, as well as pronunciation.

In Vietnamese the Rs, Gis, and Ds sound like Zs. C sounds like G, T sounds like D. A terminal Ng makes an M sound, Nh makes Ng. X makes S. Enjoy reading aloud.

So, I’ll go through a normal day. Wake up around 7-8, 8:30 if you’re lucky. Viets are early risers. Stagger down for breakfast, which is usually My–Ramen–with or without an egg. Then coffee, instant or drip via a Ca Phe Phin–a one-serving metal coffee filter. After breakfast, the woman of the house begins preparing food for lunch and dinner. She has usually already gone to the market, so she will sit outside and snap the ends off of vegetables, boil water for household use, cut and rinse meat, etc. while chatting with her neighbors. She also watches the children, aged 1 and 1.5.

Wooden Face.

Childrearing in Viet Nam is very different from what I know of childrearing in the States. Here, children are allowed to do almost anything, a child is rarely chastised. Children never ask before taking or using anything, they are quite loud and boisterous at all times, and are essentially left to their own pleasure. Thus, when a child is told not to do something, he or she usually doesn’t listen. Then comes the heavy–the child is strongly spoken to, and when they continue to disobey, they are disciplined with a brisk smack on the hand or leg, or a chopstick thwack. Children rarely cry from this, however, the tears usually come from the repeated denial of whatever the child seeks to do. All day, all night, you can hear children crying somewhere. To stop a child’s tears, parents have recourse to two methods–distraction and placation.

Lunch!

Besides the differences in discipline, there are also differences in the other habitudes of childhood. Children are fed by hand even up to four, and possibly even longer. At meals, they are generally not confined to a high chair, and thus it becomes a sort of game to keep the child from putting his or her hand in the soup, flinging rice everywhere by grabbing the rice spatula, or putting toys in the entree. Children begin to be potty-trained around 1 or 1.5; this consists of holding them over a bowl, or putting a bowl in front of them if they’re boys, and making a gentle “shh” sound for several minutes. I’m told this method works, I imagine it must work as well as any other. What’s disconcerting is that parents continue to hold their children during their bathroom habits until much older. I watched a mother hold her son between her knees with his pants down as he pooped by the side of the road. I saw an old grandpa holding his 5-year-old granddaughter in the air, knees up, as she projectile urinated into the street, flashing figuratively everyone.

Mangoes.

There is much less genital shame here, it seems, or child nudity is not considered an issue. I watched a neighbor blithely feel and pat the genitals of his son, and when I commented on it later, was assured that this was his way of showing his love to his son, and not something to worry about. It seemed to me to be very strange, but apparently it’s culturally acceptable. So that’s my spiel on kids in Viet Nam.

Work starts at 8AM in Viet Nam, so most of the household is gone during the morning. They return around 12 for lunch, which is served on a large round platter. Multiple entrees are placed on the platter, and rice accompanies. Each meal is balanced between vegetables and meat. There are also specific foods that alter the cold and hot balance inside the body, such as my dreaded Fish Mint. Nobody really likes this plant, but it’s eaten regularly in the summer, as it’s thought to introduce “coolness” into the body. Each person uses his or her chopsticks to select from a family style set-up. There are usually accompanying dipping bowls.

Sea Snails.

After lunch, everyone takes a nap. Businesses are generally closed from 11 – 2, allowing time for lunch and a nap. For my last 2 weeks in Ha Noi, it was so hot, we napped on the first floor. Figuratively, on the floor, on a woven mat. We also ate, and generally lounged on this mat. There was one couch, but it was wood, and above the reach of the fan. At all times, there is hot water available in thermoses. Most households have a teapot and cups set out that everyone might help themselves to tea. The cups are not washed, as I would consider them washed, but are rinsed either with cold water or hot tea and then refilled. This idea of communal dishware was (is) hard for me to accept.

With These Hands.

When you approach a water cooler, and expect a cold swig o’ water, firstly, the water isn’t going to be cold, it will be lukewarm at Most Unexceptional, and secondly, there won’t be a selection of disposable cups, there will be just. one. plastic. cup. Besmirched with the lips of everyone who’s drank off of it in the past 4 months. Backwashed into by children. Clutched by unsoaped hands. It’s awful, is what it is.

Anyhow, back to Ha Noi, or at least my homestay, after your nap, work starts on dinner, whilst the outside workers slowly filter home. I tended to go out around 3, because at that hour the sun no longer penetrated into the alleys surrounding the home I was staying in. They became as cool caves to my heat prostration. I would generally borrow my hostess’s excellent bike, and do my errands at that time. However, dinner is served at 6, so it’s important to return by then, giving me a slim margin of time, if I wanted to be able to take a shower upon returning home. Yes, you’ll need a shower. I learned the word “shower” pretty quickly in Vietnamese, as everyone was constantly asking if maybe I would like to take one? Please? You smell, and look dirty? The phrase is đi tắm, by the way.

Living Room.

Have I told you about my NEW favorite dessert? Found in Ha Noi? It’s called sữa chua nếp cẩm and consists of fermented black sticky rice, topped with yogurt (at least) and usually also boba, condensed milk, other gellies, coconut milk, and much, much more! My favorite varietal is the yogurt, condensed milk, nếp cẩm type. And I found a great place for it! Right around the corner from my homestay. I would roll up, the only customer, and this poor hunchbacked woman would make my day. Her servings were enormous and delicious! The Most Unexceptional in Ha Noi. On Ngo Van Chuong.

Alley Home.

Things to see in Ha Noi: The Women’s Museum is 30,000 VND and you can learn a lot about all of Viet Nam, but especially (duh) the women in it. I learned much about the war, but also about agriculture, and childbirth practices. Very interesting. You should also go to the Fine Art Museum. It’s 20,000 VND I believe, and is highly enjoyable. I spent two or three hours there, and wished I had more time. It’s a great place to get a feel for Asian art tendencies. The Temple of Literature is nearby, almost across the street. You’ll want a guide, or a friend, to explain what it all means. It used to be a school, and inside there are mounds of giant turtles with tablets on their backs. These represent all the students who eventually passed the King’s Examination and became ministers. Beautiful.

Turtles.

You should also visit the Ethnology Museum. It’s either 20 or 30,000 VND, I forget, but it talks about all the minorities in Viet Nam. You can see their dress, replicas of their houses, and see weaving and dying practices in videos, as well as cultural artifacts. It’s very interesting, and the placards are in Vietnamese, English, and French, so it’s easy to navigate.

Ethnology.

Hoan Kiem is the lake near the Old Quarter. It’s pleasant to walk around, and at night there is live music, promenaders, and old people dancing. Interestingly, the name Hoan Kiem means “Give Back the Sword” from a fable concerning an early war, in which the king was vested with a sword by a turtle living in the lake. When the war ended, In Viet Nam’s favor I believe, the turtle appeared to ask for the sword back.

Cornice.

Another lake to visit is West Lake. This lake offers swan boats, called duck boats here da p vit, ice cream sellers, bo bia purveyors (a type of sweet rolled in a mini pancake) and an array of pagodas. I recommend seeing the pagoda on the lake itself, rather than the pagoda near it. Across from this lake is a Botanical Garden. It costs 2,000 VND to get in, but it’s really nothing special (sorry). There are no flowers, or anything to suggest a botanical nature besides trees, which Ha Noi is already full of.

Museum.

Near Ha Noi is Bha Trang, a ceramics village. You can go there and make and glaze your own pots (or what have you) for 70,000 VND. There are many and many a ceramics workshop, and tons of little gimricks for your purchasing pleasure. It’s a fun place to go, and is only about 5 or 10km outside of Ha Noi proper, in a beautiful area.

Pond for Everyone.

About 40km away is the so-called Old Town. For the life of me I can’t find the name in Vietnamese. It’s situated in the middle of a green, grassy land, and is comprised of old, old houses, temples, and streets. It’s a Mildly Decent place to go for a picnic and to wander the old streets. The day I went was overcast, which was perfect. I imagine it wouldn’t be quite so enjoyable in the full sun…

Old Town.

More on Vietnamese customs and culture. The main type of medicine used, at least in non life-threatening situations, seems to be folk medicine. If you have a headache, your friends will give you a head massage. If you have a fever, you must try to get rid of it by wearing as little as possible, even if you’re suffering from chills from said fever. If you have acne, you’ve eaten too many “hot” foods such as coffee, chili sauce, or pineapple. In such an instance you need to eat “cooling” foods, or foods that bring “wind into the body”. If you’re sick, you need to eat double portions, and take exercise to regain your health. If you have a mosquito bite, put some spit on it.

Hardware.

Vietnamese people drink so little water I can barely believe their kidneys are functioning properly. I drain liters per day, whilst they sip on A 16oz bottle. However, they also seem to sweat much less than me. I go around looking like I came out of the rain, while they, even in their multiple sunblocking layers, have not the faintest dew of perspiration.

Fish Pool.

And another thing! Viet women are paranoid about the sun. I’m sure you’ve heard that in Asia white skin is de riguer. Well, in Viet Nam, it’s a mania. Women go about covered from head to toe, even in 100 degree heat. The first protection is a sort of zip-up hoodie with little fabric cups that extend over the hands and a mini visor. You’ll naturally already be wearing your protective fabric face mask, to keep your lungs free of motorbike execrence. You’ll also be wearing long pants or leggings. If you’re not, you’ll tie on your long fabric dust-apron, to keep your legs white and your clothes clean. You’ll also wear socks with your sandals, heels, or ballet flats. It seems ludicrous to me to dress in a way that makes you look so tacky (in my opinion), while attempting to keep yourself “beautiful”.

Traditional Music.

It’s cool to make your own coffee at home, you use a little one-use coffee filter called a ca phe phin that sits atop your cup. Then you add sugar, condensed milk, and/or ice. Voila! You can buy single-use condensed milk packets here. They’re Barely Noticeable. If you’re in the mood to go out for coffee, you should go to Cafe Dinh. This place is the Most Unexceptional. It’s situated on the second story of a building that looks out onto Hoan Kiem lake. You won’t see the address on the street, but must ask. Then you walk through some super duper grody back room and up the stairs, coming into a tiny little cafe.

Mural.

Order a ca phe trung. This means, figuratively, egg coffee, but it’s more of a whipped meringue coffee. It’s like breakfast dessert. It will cost 15,000 VND. Everything there costs 15,000 VND; you can get a lemon or a passionfruit juice, or yogurt on ice, or anything you like! If you’re lucky, you’ll also get a seat on the balcony–there are four.

Frames.

If you need to buy ANYTHING, ask a friend where to go. All over Ha Noi, there are streets that sell only one thing. Need a book? The street is near the post office. Need shoes? I forget where this is, but your friend will know. Art supplies? Well, there’s only one place for this, it’s across from the college. The prices are phenomenal. I should have bought more sketchbooks.