Cambodia & Vietnam

Jan 16, 2011

Before starting school again, my roommates and I decided to volunteer in Cambodia and then tour some of SE Asia. Our landlord in Australia and his family are major supporters of New Hope Cambodia. This organization has a health clinic, school and farm located in one of the poorest slums of Siem Reap. So, we decided to begin our travels through Cambodia and Vietnam by volunteering some of our time teaching to children in the New Hope school. We began on Jan 16th and changed planes in Singapore, but our flight was delayed a couple hours. What a place to kill extra time! The Changi Airport contains everything from a movie theater to a sunflower garden to a Koi pond and an entire mall of very luxury stores like Cartier, Burberry, Prada, etc. Anyway, we made it to Phnom Penh (cheaper to fly there than Siem Reap), checked into a hotel and quickly passed out. The next morning, I really wanted to go to the S-21 Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. It’s a high school that was converted into one of the biggest prisons during the Cambodian Genocide (Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970’s). It was not for the faint of heart, pretty intense stuff. You could still see red blood stains on the floor where Cambodians were imprisoned, starved and tortured. We did not have time to go to the Killing Fields, but maybe we will go back through Phnom Penh on our way to Vietnam.

 

Jan 17-27, 2011

From there, we took a 7 hour bus ride across Cambodia to Siem Reap and so began our volunteering at New Hope. We have rented bicycles to get around Siem Reap, and daily, we ride from our hotel, along the river, past all the 5 star resorts, and into the village of Mondul 3. It’s a little crazy to think that the hotels we pass are thousands of dollars per night and the village we work in live off much less than $25 per month (that’s the average, but many of the families we help cannot even afford food to feed their children!). We were told in our debriefing that some Cambodians have sold children for as little as $15… Anyway, we ride our bikes and teach English and Math to the kids. Young kids come in the morning, older kids and teens study in the afternoon. We teach from 2-6pm. All of the challenges I studied about Volunteer Tourism last semester are exactly right – see Voluntourism post here. It’s hard to train volunteers if they are just staying for 1 week, often the new teachers don’t know where the kids are in the subject matter, the books are inadequate and students are at all different levels, so sometimes the kids are repeating stuff. You only have them for an hour or two a day, sometimes they don’t show up the next day or skip a whole week. It’s kind of a random sampling of what we’re trying to teach. You never know if they are really getting it with the language barrier or not… It’s very hard. But we are doing the best we can and hopefully we can make a small dent in their lives. Definitely rewarding work, we have already developed relationships with many of the kids and volunteers. Cambodians are very friendly and warm people. We have several stories of strangers stopping to help us, fix our bike, etc.

Over the weekend, we partied with other volunteers at night and woke up early for tours. 7 hours of sleep over 2 days, but we toughed it out. On Saturday, we left our hotel at 5am to get to Angkor Wat by sunrise and lined up with all the other photographers to take about a zillion photos of the same scene (the 5 towers of Angkor Wat lit up by a beautiful pink glow). We headed inside and walked around the temple. This is one sight that does not disappoint – it is one of the prettier temples I’ve ever been in and the utter size of it is hard to take in. We even saw a bunch of wild monkeys around, pretty cool. After breakfast, we went to a few other temples in the area – Angkor Thom, Bayon, etc. I think what most people don’t know about this place is that it isn’t just Angkor Wat. There are tons of temples around the area, so many that you cannot see them all. And each one has its own unique characteristics. Fascinating! I would recommend this place as a must-see for the beauty of the temples, the city and the people… Around 2pm, we got a little tired and templed out, so we called it a day, relaxed with some cheap massages and got ready for an epic night of Karaoke. Karaoke here is synonymous with Brothel here and even though we went to a nicer place, we walked down the hall to find young girls waiting… Some no older than the kids I’ve been teaching! Gross…

On Sunday, New Hope had a tour planned for the volunteers to see Beng Mea Lea and the Floating Village. I learned on the bus ride that taking malaria pills without food is a bad idea. I got extremely nauseous until I ate some of my friend’s yogurt. =( The temple Beng Mea Lea was fantastic! It’s a little far from the other temples, but definitely worth the trip out there. Most of it has’t been cleared of rubble and there are vines and trees climbing around it. Local kids run through it as a playground, but the slower tourists climb in and out of windows, over piles of rocks, etc. Some of the surrounding area had been cleared of landmines and others had not, so we stuck pretty close to the path. Then off to the floating village, where some houses are built up on stilts and some are houseboats in the river. These people work incredibly hard, fishing all day and then cooking for their food. It is such a different life here than I’ve ever seen before. The ghettos of America have nothing on these people. And (forgive me for inserting my political opinion here) those that say we should fix our own country before helping other countries have never seen this kind of poverty and people working so hard just to get by. The past few days have been teaching at the New Hope school, bonding with the kids and trying to stay cool as the temperture has heated up quite a bit. Yesterday was our last day and it was so hard to say goodbye. I’m going to miss their beautiful faces, bright eyes and dedication to learning. I have a few favorites whose faces I hope I never forget. We celebrated our last night with the volunteers as it was Australia Day.

 

Our last day in Siem Reap, we went to a few final temples, including Ta Prom (the one made famous by Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider). It had trees climbing through it and roots all around. Very beautiful, but busy with tour groups. Then we went to one that I think was a crematorium and another before calling it a day.

Jan 28-29, 2011

We packed up our stuff and checked out, then went on a night bus headed for Sihanoukville (beach). It was supposed to be a sleeper bus with beds, but they were more like reclined seats (akin to the angle you would see a hospital bed in). It was uncomfortable, the bus jerked back and forth as it raced through the night on crappy roads for the next 12 hours. At least I slept a little. Feeling pretty dirty at 6am in Sihanoukville, we found a boat that took us to Bamboo Island. The boat was taking most people on an island tour, so we had to stop while some people snorkeled, etc. When we got to the island, we hiked with our backpacks through the jungle about 15 minutes to get to the other side, where there was a remote beach with one group of bungalows. To make a long story short, they didn’t have our reservation and no availability, but we ended up lucking out and getting a bungalow anyway. The bungalow consisted of 2 large beds between the 4 of us and about 2 feet around the bed to put our stuff. We put up our own mosquito nets, and the communal bathroom was down the beach. In fact, the ocean (about 40 feet away) was closer than the toilet!! On top of all that, their generator was out, so there was no electricity. I make it sound dire, but it was actually pretty nice not having much to worry about… It’s amazing how fast you get used to beach life and doing absolutely nothing. We sunbathed for the rest of the afternoon and following day!

Jan 30-31, 2011

Having enough of the beach, one friend and I decided to leave on Sunday (a day early) for Phnom Penh. She had a good friend who she wanted to see in the city, and let’s face it. You can only do nothing for so long. We left the other two who joined us a day later and caught a boat and bus back to Phnom Penh. The bus took all day and I suffered the very last seat on the bus next to a family that had some bad flatulence and puked in a baggy for the duration of the 5 hour trip. But, we met up with the friend in Phnom Penh (and a bunch of other native bay area folks that are doing hip hop here in Cambodia). On Monday, we did a bit more sight-seeing in Phnom Penh. Went to the Killing Fields, which was just as depressing as the S-21 Prison that we saw the first day. It’s hard to imagine that the Chief of the Prison was only convicted in Sept 2010 for the crimes he committed, and only sentenced 35 years. Then we went to a market in town. Because a ton of the sweat shops that make American clothes brands (GAP, Abercrombie, H&M, etc.) are here in Cambodia, they sell those clothes for cheap. I got 5 shirts and 2 skirts for $20!! In the states, I wouldn’t have been able to get even one of those things for the same amount!! Ridiculous. I also got a couple Cambodian scarves. Currently, we are relaxing at happy hour at a bar near our hotel and waiting to meet up with the other girls who are on their way back from the beach.
We met up with the girls and to make a long story short, one of my friends fell down a flight of stairs and sprained a ligament in her foot. So, on our final morning in Phnom Penh, two of us went in search of crutches. This should be a challenge in the Amazing Race, because it was incredibly difficult to describe crutches to the tuk tuk driver and then go on a wild goose chase around the city looking for them before trying to make our 12:30pm flight to Vietnam (read more about that misadventure here)! We went to a hospital who refused to give them to us without a patient, then ran around a market trying to describe them and only getting shown $15 canes! We ran out of time and the cane wasn’t going to cut it, so we gave up, picked up the other girls and headed to the airport where we got a wheelchair. I don’t know if any of you have ever gone through an airport with a wheelchair, but it’s like getting VIP treatment! We got to the front of every line, board the plane early and had a guest services host guide us to the other terminal for our transfer in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). We decided to skip Saigon and fly straight to Da Nang. I’m sure many of you will tell me this is a mistake and I wanted to spend at least 1 night seeing Southern Vietnam, but I was out-voted.

Feb 1-5, 2011

So, we took a taxi to Hoi An just in time for the Tet holiday (Chinese New Year) and stayed a few days wandering around the alleys full of tailor shops in Hoi An. Many were closed for the festivities, but enough were open for us to get the idea that they all sell nearly the same patterns of dresses and jackets and suits. One friend bought an overcoat and two bought some shorts (and our handicapped friend got some uncomfortable wooden crutches). I wanted a coat, have always dreamed of a red coat, but couldn’t justify spending money on it. They were asking for $50-75, which isn’t too much cheaper than a jacket you can buy at H&M or somewhere else. The most frightening thing about this city is the traffic. Most people are on mopeds, some cars, some bicycles. But with vendors taking up the majority of the sidewalk, you are forced to walk into the path of traffic. And here in Central Vietnam, people honk as a warning and then tear down the street expecting you to get out of their way. But the second you try to get out of their way, you are in someone else’s path, so it’s a constant dodging game (like the higher levels of Frogger!). Everyone does this, even the bus we took from Hoi An to Hue would honk without slowing, then barrel down the opposite lane and come within seconds of missing oncoming traffic. I couldn’t watch. Our last morning in Hoi An, our friend went to pick up a dress she had made and it was nothing like what she had described. It was awful. So we spent a good hour shouting with the woman trying to get some money back, but the woman was so upset that all she would do was curse at us in Vietnamese!! At one point, my friend grabbed some fabric and I thought I was either going to have to run down the street if she decided to take the fabric and run, or I thought the shopkeeper was going to start a fist fight. She wouldn’t budge even for a reasonable offer, so my friend gave her some good old-fashioned Jewish guilt and cursed her with bad luck for the new year! It was $35 worth of entertainment at the very least…

Feb 6-9, 2011

We bused to Hue and are currently staying in a young backpackers hostel that beats our last hotel filled with old people tour groups. The hostel has free beer from 5-6pm, so can’t complain!! We rented bikes and rode across the river to the Imperial City and Citadel which was home to the Emperor 200 years ago, but much of it has been destroyed during war and it even became a bunker for the Viet Cong. Then I took the afternoon off and napped while two of my friends biked out to some tombs. Our 2nd day, we woke up at the crack of dawn for an all day tour of the DMZ, Ho Chi Minh Trail, ex-American Army base and some tunnels built during the Vietnam-American War. It was interesting to be outside the city and see the countryside. The tunnels were for civilians here and it’s so hard to believe that people lived in them for 6 years, often families had no bigger than a room the size of a twin-bed!! I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in them without seeing daylight for up to 5 days and having the entire tunnel shake when the area was bombed. We tried to schedule a train for today, but apparently all trains are sold out for the next few days, so we found a cheap flight to Hanoi leaving this afternoon. I’m currently watching the Super Bowl at 8am in our hostel and we will probably take it easy today before catching our flight.

Feb 10-11, 2011

After we flew from Hue to Hanoi, we arrived late in the evening and just took it easy. Since the weather was supposed to be nice the next few days, we decided to book a tour for Halong Bay. We booked a tour with a nearby company instead of our hostel because we were afraid it would be a bit too much of a party boat and less sightseeing than we wanted. We were a bit scared that the other tour company would be filled with older people, but were pleasantly surprised to meet mostly our age people. Three guys from Madrid who didn’t speak any English were on our tour and my friend befriended them with her Spanish speaking skills so they kept us company for the rest of the time. It was great fun to practice the little Spanish I knew and I was surprised how much I understood. My friend acted as translator and we spent the two nights telling ghost stories and those pass-it-around stories (you say a line and the next person makes up the next part of the story).

Even though it was overcast, Halong Bay was gorgeous!! A very special place on earth. I think it’s a must-see if you’re ever in this part of the world. We kayaked, explored some of the biggest caves in the world, relaxed on a private beach, hiked up rocky mountains, fought with monkeys, tried to sing bad karaoke in Spanish and soaked up the beautiful view of the islands. If it was more sunny, I could see it being a very romantic place for a private yacht or something! Though, we didn’t walk away unscathed – read warning about wild monkeys here.

Feb 12-13, 2011

We go back to Hanoi and explored the city a bit, walking around the lake and many shopping streets. It’s a pretty nice city, I’m not sure why we had heard that it’s not all that impressive. And so far, we have had the best food during our whole trip! Today, we went to a fabric market, but didn’t find much worth buying, then spent the afternoon at a spa getting pampered. Very relaxing since we are a little tired of traveling. My friend visited the POW prison here and said it was frustrating because it was full of propaganda that they treated the POWs like Kings, which is untrue according to many reports from American Veterans.

It started raining today, so I’m glad we went to Halong Bay when we did. I’ve been fighting off a very minor cold for the past week and today it seems a bit worse, but hopefully I can continue to fight it.

Feb 14-15, 2011

After getting back to Hanoi, we packed for an overnight to Hoa Binh, which is a nearby hill town where my friend’s classmate lives. Our bus ride there was eventful to say the least. My friend went earlier in the day, so she sent an email to warn us that we would be the only white people at the bus station and no one spoke English. We made sure to write down our destination in Vietnamese, but this was the least of our worries. My two friends and I had no problems getting to and finding our bus, but the driver never made us pay when everyone else paid before boarding the bus. After a 2+ hour drive, we arrived in Hoa Binh and noticed that the driver passed our stop. Read more about this misadventure here. Once we got to our hotel, we cleaned ourselves up and learned that they also tried to charge our friend 3x what she was supposed to pay for the bus-ride. We were feeling pretty disappointed with Vietnamese attitude toward foreigners, but luckily my friend’s classmate made up for it. We had an authentic Vietnamese family dinner, sitting on the floor of their living room, eating mysterious traditional dishes with her very nice extended family.

The next day, she took us to a hill tribe, where we toured the village, met locals and were invited for a lunch of sticky rice cooked in bamboo on the fire and hot tea. It was very good and we felt pretty special to share this experience with the natives. The hill tribes live in fairly large open air cabins built on stilts. There is just one big room with no furniture where everything happens on mats laid on the floor – cooking, eating, sleeping, etc. Because it’s the mountains of northern Vietnam, it was very cold, I have no idea how they can stand it. Compared to the living conditions we saw in Cambodia, these places were nice! These people even had electricity for one refrigerator and many of them had a TV and a VCR! How funny to see that they don’t have a toilet, shower, oven or bed, but they’ve got satellite TV!!

Back in Hanoi, we got ripped off by almost every taxi (the meters all run at different speeds, so the price is different every time you travel somewhere) which put us back into a funk about Northern Vietnam. Compared to the people of Cambodia (and even Thailand), Vietnamese seem to be less friendly and more out to get you. I’m not sure if it’s like all big cities where tourists get taken advantage of or if there is some animosity toward tourists from Western countries specifically, but we definitely left Hanoi feeling a little unwelcome. We all got sick (our bodies were just exhausted from so much travel), so we relaxed for a couple days and had a couple meals with the Spanish guys we had met in Halong Bay.

Feb 16-17, 2011

On the 16th, we flew out of Hanoi and stopped in Singapore for a 15 hour lay-over. We taxied into town, found a hostel in Chinatown and then quickly hit the town to see all that we could in one night. At Orchard Road, we window shopped the luxury stores – Prada, Gucci, Fendi, Harry Winston, etc. We didn’t dare walk into any of the stores, looking like traveled-out scrubs, so we just drooled by the windows instead. Then, we headed to the brand new Marina Bay Sands, which is right on the waterfront. It’s a luxury hotel, casino, and huge mall!  We ate at one of the 7 celebrity chef restaurants – Mozza (the other Mozza is in Los Angeles, owned by the woman who started La Brea Bakery). We were lucky to get in without a reservation and dined on exquisite (read: expensive) food! It seems absurd and surreal that we visited one of the poorest countries in the world and were now in one of the richest places. The other half of the dining room was throwing a media event for the grand opening of the 7 celebrity chef restaurants, and we were able to walk by and spy on several very famous chefs (like Wolfgang Puck). Later we learned that many of these celebrities had gathered in our restaurant to break the news that just a few hours earlier, Chef Santi had died of a heart attack at his restaurant in another part of the Marina Bay Sands! After dinner we headed to Clarke Quay, an area open until the early hours of the morning for some drinks. We crashed for a few hours in our hostel before scraping ourselves off the floor for a morning flight back to Brisbane. What a day! I was very impressed with Singapore, but its main attraction seems to be shopping and not the kind you can do lightly. The cheapest store we saw was Banana Republic. It was clean, the city is well organized and everyone seems to be International. We were pretty impressed.