Archive for the ‘South East Asia’ Category

We had a day to kill in Vientiane and the weather was cold as ice. It instilled lethargy in us that I’ve not felt since my last winter in England. You know that listless apathy that prevents you from making decisions and for doing anything with energy. After a fat boy breakfast at the Scandinavian Bakery, where I polished a breakfast platter for 2, I persuaded Muneeza that the weather was going to hold to give us time to scooter down to the Buddha Park about 30km outside the town.

I’d read about The Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) in a local guide and it sounded intriguing. The park sits in a grassy field alongside the Mekong River and is full of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, most in plain stone. It was designed and built in 1958 thanks to the eccentricity of Luang Pu (translates as ‘Venerable Grandfather’) Bunleua Sulilat, a yogi/shaman who merged Hindu and Buddhist philosophies together. I was hooked on the story – I love the impact that one person can have by bringing to life their vision.

We hired a moped for a bargain 50,000kip ($6) and headed south. The journey itself was part of the experience. We passed through small towns on the periphery of Vientiane, with rice fields on both sides. As we neared the Friendship Bridge, the bridge built to provide a land border between Thailand and Laos, the Mekong River emerged on our right hand side. After the bridge the road deteriorated into a pothole ridden dirt track. The old moped limped across the bumpy road, sounding rather dejected and forlorn. It was hard to keep the bike upright as the wheels slipped badly in the muddy tracks. At junctions, the engine wouldn’t idle; it simply cut out. It was hit and miss if it would start again. It meant I had to keep the rear break lever pressed whilst revving the engine – not the safest option.

Muneeza on scooter by Mekong River

After about 45 mins, thinking we had taken a wrong turn, the Buddha Park emerged through the trees. It was an incredible sight. Huge stone effigies loomed from the treetops. Inside the park, the beauty of the intricate stone masonry on show pleasantly surprised us. The statues come from all across the South East Asia region and from as far back as the 4th century. It’s like walking across a giant slice of history, both cultural and religious.

One strange edifice offered a path to a rooftop vantage point from which we could look across the whole park. You entered through the mouth of a large gargoyle and inside we found a narrow passage way. It looked like something from a GCSE pottery class and smelt like the pottery workshop at school. Beyoind the passageway lay an inner chamber, visible through small windows cut in the wall. Inside this chamber was a bizarre collection of clay and stone figurines, some as tall as us, others small statues that didn’t even reach the knee. We couldn’t find any explanation as to what this symbolised or what it has been originally used for.

From the passageway, we found a series of narrow, steep steps that led up successive levels to the rooftop. On each level the same inner chamber could be found, though the figurines in each were different. Still the same smell of the pottery class.

We emerged on the roof from the narrowest of windows. The view was spectacular. In front of us was a panorama of huge Buddhist and Hindu iconography dating back centuries, beyond which was the serene Mekong. At the far end stood a tall tower that resembles the Temple of Inscriptions at the Mayan City of Tikal in Guatemala. It looked like the Mekong had surged and planted hundreds of statues neatly in the park for a higher purpose. The giant Reclining Buddha is the largest we’ve seen throughout our travels and it was great to sit back and admire the art of the multitude of craftsmen who created these images.

Rooftop view at Buddha Park

We hopped back on the moped deeply satisfied that we had made the effort to come and see this place. If you ever find yourself in Vientiane, hire a moped from ViaVia restaurant, fill it up for $2, hit the road and head for Xieng Khuan. You won’t be disappointed.

love jamer & muneeza x

 

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The phrase “there’s no place on earth quite like it” is often used by travel writers to bestow praise on beautiful places. With Vang Vieng the phrase means something completely different; it’s a place where crowds of bright young things come and lose all sense of reason and trash their bodies with no concern for other people. Seeing is believing and it feels like the past 4 days have been partly spent in a moral and spiritual vacuum, inside a bubble of pikey chaos.

Carnage city

First I’ll give you a summary of the hedonistic urges in this place.  The main zone for carnage is down by the Namsong river where hundreds of makeshift bars on wooden platforms adorn both banks. The bars are crowded during the day by the young ones drinking themselves into a delirious stupor. Q Bar is the main hangout and is rammed full of college boys and girls in swimming costumes covered in hand drawn body painting, usually crude phrases. It’s like reading the tourettes dictionary. Some drink to remember, some drink to forget. The testosterone is pumping and casual sex is clearly on the agenda for many.

The daily routine is for people to turn up and go tubing, hiring inflated inner tubes that they use to float down the river. Along the way they stop off at the bars and get wrecked. The day descends into chaos as boys and girls try to out do each other for bragging rights. Many of the bars have water slides and swings, crude inventions that involve perching on precarious platforms high above the water, surrounded by rocks, then hurling yourself forwards and letting go when the water seems deep enough.

By the early afternoon most of the crowd are battered. Some of the bars also sell happy drinks and food, laced with marijuana and mushrooms. The heady concoction of booze and drugs turns the party people into lunatics. The antics are often insane and it’s a common sight to see blood stained victims staggering down the road after pushing the limits too far. An Aussie chap we met told us of one girl who smashed her head on rocks as she jumped in the water and surfaced unconscious. Some of the boys had to jump in and rescue her before she drowned.

Most people here do this day in, day out. Everyday is the same. Everyday involves downing as much cheap battery acid as the body can handle, and sometimes more. They all wind up staggering back into town from the late night bars about 3am and then wake everyone else up by slamming doors, screaming and having all-night parties until they come down and the buzz has gone. It’s Groundhog Day and we had 2 nights without any sleep because of the noisy bastards. Yes, that is bitterness. And yes, no doubt at some point in my life I’ve annoyed people in a similar way. Karma.

We met one girl at a breakfast joint whose foot had ballooned like an elephant’s. She had stumbled drunk into a flight of wooden steps and twisted it badly. The swelling suggested a break but despite our recommendation to seek medical advice, she insisted she was going to head to the river for a day’s tubing and see what happened. I was too hung-over to deal with the crap she was talking and people like her are too stupid to reason with. She’ll be the next statistic.

I tried the swings from one of the more serene bars but I was sober so could exercise caution and judgment. You fall from at least 20 feet above the water and you need to keep your wits about you because there are patches of rock and shallow water, so timing is everything. To do this drunk and high as a kite is extremely dangerous and explains the high number of injuries and annual death count. Yep, tourists die here every year, too dumb to realise that drink, drugs, water and rocks aren’t the best bedfellows.

River water slide on Namsung, Laos

Beyond the Groundhog Day set

Babysitting incoherent 18 year-old college kids is no longer my thing, so we booked a few trips out to see the local area. Away from the Khao San Road and its satellite lanes, Vang Vieng is actually a beautiful place. The town is nestled between incredible mountains that rise sharply and look like the rippled back of a huge dragon.  The climate is generally warm and sunny, though the mountains sometimes throw in a rash of clouds that makes it pleasingly temperate.

On Friday 25th we went on a day’s tubing/caving/kayaking with a group of 10 people. Luckily our local guides were really cool and most of them spoke good English so we could find out more about the area.

The caving/tubing consisted of sitting on a tube in a natural water system and pulling ourselves through a dark and narrow cave using a series of ropes. The cave entrance was just high enough to fit under without having to duck. Inside was dark and endless. The cave was about 10ft wide and 6ft high above the water level. After a few minutes I decided enough was enough. I’m claustrophobic and don’t like being under ground for extended periods. It was going to take 1hr to get through the cave system and back out into the light, so I opted to stay back and wait. Muneeza isn’t as much of a girl as me, so she went on and came back having had an enjoyable experience.

After a huge lunch (surprisingly good for a tour company) we took a brief trip to Elephant Cave, a huge cave where some of the limestone formations resemble elephant trunks and heads. It’s now a Buddhist shrine where the local villagers come to worship every day.

The main activity of the day was a half-day’s kayaking along the river back to Vang Vieng.  Muneeza and I shared our own double kayak and we all set off in the afternoon sun. The journey down the river was amazing and incredibly tranquil – no teenage drunks in sight. The river was quite gentle so the kayaking wasn’t too demanding. However, at the only major rapids we encountered, I managed to get my oar stuck in the rocks so it pinged out my hand and I couldn’t paddle to keep us away from the bank. We got dragged quickly into the trees and towards the rocks and the kayak flipped. I shouted to Muneeza to jump but she didn’t hear and instead was dragged under. Luckily she was wearing a life jacket (I hadn’t bothered) so was ok but came out of it rather shaken. Still, we had a good laugh at our malco efforts.

Muneeza getting to grips with something large and hard

We got back to Vang Vieng satisfied at a day well spent and for $12 per person, it was great value. If you ever come to Vang Vieng we can recommend TCK Amazing Travels.

Trekking in the mountains

Having been impressed by our tour company, we decided to book another day’s trip instead of hang around town and listen to the frat boys. This time we opted for the mountain trekking and left early on Monday morning. It is low season here and there was only one other person on the trip, a lovely English girl called Maddy from Farringdon. Our guide, Sipsong, spoke good English and led us off down a narrow path towards the mountains.

The first part of the trek saw us climb sharply upwards on perilous rocks and slippery mud. It wasn’t technically difficult but it certainly wasn’t easy. After 40mins we hit the plateau and were rewarded with beautiful views through the valleys. We strode on through farmer’s rice paddies and vegetable fields towards the lunch stopover at the Namsung Waterfall. Though slightly smaller than we had anticipated, the waterfall was in a secluded place and was miles from the sounds of modern life. We had the place to ourselves and after a few minutes sizing up the rocks, I dived in to the rather fresh water. The water cascaded down from 20m above and it was a serene spot at which to cool down after the morning’s hike. Sipsong whipped us up a BBQ and we stuffed ourselves on chicken kebabs and fried rice.

Somewhat reluctantly we headed off to make the return leg of the trip. Instead of climbing over the mountains, this time we went straight through them. It was time for me to face my nemesis, the enclosed space of an underground cave. The Hoy Cave runs right through the mountain. The entrance is huge but it soon tapers down to a narrow corridor that is eerily quiet. Sipsong led the way with a huge flaming bamboo stick. It reminded me of the scene from Lord of the Rings where Gandalf uses his staff to illuminate the underground passage. I was clearly nervous and had to focus my mind on happy thoughts so I didn’t start to imagine what it would be like if the cave collapsed and we were crushed under the rock, or worse still, trapped underground. Thankfully we emerged 10mins later unscathed and I breathed a huge sigh of relief and wiped away the nervous sweat.

Gandalf's Cave Vang Vieng

The rest of the hike involved walking through farmers’ fields, saying the occasional hello to local workers. The scenery here is stunning, it’s like being immersed in wilderness. On one side you have huge valley floors dominated by farming land and intersected by the rushing river. On the other side, immense mountains whose inverse cliff faces loom over you as a stark reminder of your insignificance. We met the truck on the far side of the river and had to pass by the start of the bars where all the crazy things are.

The contrast between the serene day’s hiking and the booming bass of the bar, with its cacophony of drunkards, was poignant. It was the difference between a world I love and a world that I no longer relate to. That’s not to say I don’t like a good session, I just can’t handle drunken teenagers out of control. Been there, got the t-shirt!

Vang Vieng is a fun place, no doubt about it. You can really have a good time here. However, there are too many idiots who will test the patience. If you can switch off to all the bullshit you hear and ignore the loud, whining voices of the US and UK College kids, you’ll find a friendly town with a good soul. The Laos people are wonderful; shame they have to put up with some many rude tourists but that’s the price you pay for the falang dollar.

We headed back to Vientiane on Tuesday 29th by bus with 1 day left to enjoy Laos before moving on to KL enroute to Sumatra, Indonesia.

Love jamer & Muneeza x

 

With admittedly a little stubborn reluctance on my part of leave Vietnam and fit Laos into our schedule, I acquiesced to Muneeza’s steadfast desire to spend some time here.  We flew from Saigon on Tuesday 22nd and after a brief stop over in Pakse to get the visa, landed in the capital city of Vientiane early afternoon.

A concise and slightly edited history

Laos is land-locked and sits between Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam with China dominating its Northern borders. It is South East Asia’s poor cousin. Laos dallied with nationhood first in the 14th century when warlord Fa Ngum, backed by the Khmer, conquered Wieng Chan (modern day Vientiane). Fa Ngum gave his kingdom the romantic title of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants) and adopted Theravada Buddhism as the state religion, which is still the dominant religion today.

As with its neighbours, Laos has suffered from foreign interference, especially from France and the US. During the 1950s the US fought the ‘Secret War’ on the pretext of addressing the risk from Communists freedom fighters in Northern Vietnam. They trained anti-Communist Hmong fighters and then carpet-bombed huge swathes of the Laos/Vietnam border, killing thousands of innocent people and displacing millions of others. God bless the US foreign policy. After the US withdrew in 1973, the newly founded Laos PDR suppressed the previously CIA funded opponents, often brutally in re-education camps.

Laos entered ASEAN in 1997 and in 2004 the US finally promoted Laos to normal trade relations after years of embargo. Create a problem, and then punish people for it! Laos is still heavily dependent on foreign aid but has taken steps to generate its own income and tourism, especially eco-tourism, is playing a key roll. The challenge it faces is to encourage economic expansion without damaging the beautiful country that for years has remained blissfully immune to the march of machinery.

Exploring Vientiane – a brief affair

Vientiane is a tiny capital city and a welcome break from the hectic traffic congestion of Saigon. At just over 200,000 people, the streets are noticeably empty and background noise is a murmur rather than a full-blown assault on the senses.

We spent the first afternoon walking along the banks of the Mekong, watching the sunset and taking in the beat of a new city. After a few beers and some noodles at the local shack, we retired early to watch a film, The Lovely Bones. As expected, it didn’t do the book justice and that’s another Peter Jackson film that’s left me disappointed.

We woke early on Wednesday and had breakfast at a Laos-run French café – the French influence is still clearly evident in the capital. We then embarked on our usual city walking tour to take in the main sights.

Luckily, the main sights of Vientiane are geographically concentrated and much closer than we had expected. We walked along the riverfront, stopping to use the free exercise machines and lighting a candle at a statue of Fa Ngum. In the hope of some good karma.

Our first main stop was Haw Pha Kaew, an ancient Wat (temple) that sits to the east of the Presidential Palace.  It was the one place we decided we’d stump up an entry fee for and the money was well spent. The temple has the classic steeply elevated roof pitch with ornate corners and an array of Buddha statues sheltered beneath its overhang. The concrete Buddhas guarding the entrance were in superb condition and looked impressive.

We moved on and saw the other key Wats around the city centre before heading for Pha That Luang via Victory Monument. Patuxai, The Victory Monument, is unmissable as you walk down Tha Lan Xang, It is an Arc de Triomphe replica and commemorates the Lao who died in prerevolutionary wars. Ironically it was built in 1969 with cement donated by the US for construction of a new airport.

Pha That Luang is the primary sight in the capital, a stunning golden stuppa that sits behind the Statue of the Unknown Soldier, at which I stopped to light a candle and make a donation. Karma points are mounting. The Pha is apparently the most important monument in Laos, a symbol of Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty. An image of the main stuppa appears in the national seal. Legend has it that Ashokan missionaries erected a stupa here in the 3rd century, enclosing a piece of Buddha’s breastbone.

Golden stupa Vientiane

As the heat drew in and the sun beat down on our backs, we gladly made our way back to the backpacker centre and headed for Le Croissant D’Or, a cool café that knows how to make sandwiches.

We spent the rest of the day indulging in pure laziness. First of all we did our Pilates session to iron out the vertebrae. A few beers in a local bar were then followed by an hour long traditional Laos massage. After dinner we went to a bar that advertised live music, expecting it to be the place for a happy atmosphere. Alas the live music drew a crowd of 6 people (probably a rush for laid back Laos) and consisted of a vaguely enthused local lady doing reasonable cover versions. We didn’t stay long and opted to sup the local Laos beer in Via Via bar near our hotel instead.

On Thursday we hopped on the bus to Vang Vieng, the destination for adrenalin junkies in Laos looking to empty their wallets in the pursuit of excitement on the rivers.

Love jamer & Muneeza x

 

On Monday afternoon we took a stroll to the War Remnants Museum on Duong Le Qui Dong, a museum that documents the effects of the Vietnam War from 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30th April 1975. Our perspective on the war has long been influenced by an array of films, from documentaries through to classics such as Apocalypse Now (for the Pompey boys – Apocalypse Today, Apocalypse Tomorrow etc) and the not-so spectacular Hamburger Hill. What we hadn’t fully appreciated was the extent and impact of the war and just how long Viet Nam had to endure foreign aggression. We also never understood that this war lasted so long and followed the First Indochina War fought between Northern Vietnam and its Communist allies and Souther Vietnam, supported by the US and other anti-communist countries.

The museum is set over three floors and contains a wealth of information in written and visual form. There is also an incredible photography exhibition, called Requiem, that represents the work of wartime photojournalists from all countries. It was the brainchild of a US photojournalist who was determined to collate the efforts of those who were willing to put their lives on the line to photograph the realities of war, regardless of nationality and without no consideration of politics.

The brutal reality of Western aggression

If the first floor is a testament to the propaganda machine churning out anti-US posters, as well as evidence of the global protests against the war, the 2nd and 3rd floors display often-brutal images of the impact of the war. No punches are pulled and walking through the displays pulls at your heartstrings. What blew my mind was the fact that protests, sometimes millions strong, took place all over the world yet nobody brought the US to account. How the hell does that happen? Look at Libya today and see the fuss the Western world is making. Why didn’t they proclaim moral outrage and do something proactive when the US was murdering millions of Vietnamese? Was it because Vietnam had no oil to offer?

London Protests against Vietnam War

Amidst the emotional barrage, one photo saddened me more than others. It was of Senator Bob Kerrey who had been a Lieutenant in the Special Forces during the war. He and his troops were responsible for the massacre of innocent women and children. They stabbed to death two young boys and disemboweled another. They killed a pregnant woman. They systematically hunted down and brutally killed entire families. All this is the name of liberation. The disgraced Senator finally admitted his guilt sometime in the 90s but as far as I can tell, he was never held to account and made to atone for his crimes. Welcome to justice US style. So much for the international law courts that are meant to prevent such atrocities or at least punish the perpetrators.

By the end of the war in the 1975, it is estimated that between 2 and 3m Vietnamese had lost their lives, not to mention the large number of American GIs killed or missing in action. The war had also extended to Cambodia and Laos (the so-called ‘Secret War’ that comprised indiscriminate carpet bombings that created waves of refugees) which resulted in a further 400k – 500k deaths.  One section of the display provides stats of the volume of materials used by the US during the war, year-by-year, including the bombs dropped. It amounts to millions of tons of destruction and millions of litres of chemical agents.

The dirty bombs the scientists contributed

During the war the US leadership (under the successive administrations of JFK and Lyndon B Johnson) approved the use of chemical weapons, contravening international law and the Geneva Conventions of 1954, conventions that the US was a signatory to.

The most heavily used of all the chemical agents was Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a dioxin and intended as a defoliant, destroying the pristine jungle and mangrove swaps in which the Viet Cong (VC) resistance fighters hid. The US army believed that the only way to oust the VC was to strip away their camouflage and give the US soldiers a chance of wiping them out.

The US air force ran spraying raids, covering vast areas of fields and jungle with the dioxins. The result was the destruction of the land. One photo showed the before and after from a mangrove swap; the after was a barren expanse of cracked mud. The chemical weapons destroyed the livelihood of the peasant framers who lived in the countryside, killing their crops and plunging their lives into chaos and worsening poverty.

The effects of this chemical attack are being felt still today. Many people were horribly disfigured with brutal burns and in extreme cases, whole bodies torn to shreds. Napalm stripped people to the bone. Generations later, children are being born with deformities and the photos of twisted bodies unable to walk upright took our breath away. We were too upset to cry. These words aren’t an adequate account of the emotional impact of absorbing the facts this museum presents. This war was an act of savage aggression, a genocide disguised as a war of liberation.

Vietnamese children damaged by chemical weapons

The legacy: failing to hold the US to account

A tidal wave of resentment spread through the US in the 80s and 90s and pressure groups arose to hold the Government accountable for the damage its wartime policies inflicted on its people. Many servicemen suffered terribly form the effects of chemical agents; some suffered physical complaints such as severe headaches and skin rashes, others developed malignant cancers, others still witnessed the birth of disabled children, some badly deformed and unable to function properly.

After years of legal pressure through the US courts, the companies that supplied the chemicals to the Government, making $billions in the process, admitted liability and established a compensation fund of more than $200m. Small changes but at least it represented a legal and moral victory for those affected.

However, the litany of damage was far greater amongst the Vietnamese people. Proceedings were started in the 90s by a group of Vietnamese victims, both 1st and 2nd generation, and taken to the US courts demanding financial recompense for their suffering and the cost of dealing with severe illness and disability. The US Supreme Court rejected the case against the US chemical companies and continues with this stance.

It’s appalling that the legal system can recognise the US victims but deny the Vietnamese victims. It’s morally bankrupt to adopt such an insidious attitude. I personally believe that until the US Court faces up to its obligation to the Vietnamese people, the ugly stain of the war will continue to taint the reputation of the US in South East Asia. Most people can dissociate the people from the US administration but the leadership has an enormous debt to pay.

A poignant letter is displayed in the museum from one of the Vietnamese victims who is leading the legal battle. She wrote to President Barack Obama after he had published his letter to his daughters in which he dreamt of a fair and just world for his daughter to grow up in. The letter asks the President to extend this fairness to the people of every country in the world, not just his own family. Whether or not he chooses to act on this beseeching request remains to be seen and perhaps will be a true test of his character. Can a man awarded the Nobel Peace Prize dare to ignore it?

Will the world ever learn?

You could accuse the museum of verging towards nationalistic propaganda because the entire display is staunchly anti-US. However, that would be a churlish accusation. The museum handles the history and aftermath of the war in a delicate and sensitive manner, documenting the devastating impact on all victims regardless of nationality.

The facts are clear; the US illegally invaded Viet Nam to execute its violent foreign policy on the pretext of defending the liberties of the Southern Vietnamese people. Following JFK, Johnson and McNamara presided over an administration that flouted international laws, the same laws that the US just loves to invoke when criticising other regimes. There is no justification for murder and perhaps the US ‘war’ should be relabeled in history as state sponsored terrorism. The Viet people lived in fear and terror for decades and the impact is still being felt.

That the US has never been held accountable for its crimes saddens us deeply and indicates that justice is served based on economic and political influence. Perhaps in the future as other economies emerge, the US will find itself isolated and brutal interference abroad will no longer be tolerated. Yes, that is idealism at its most adventurous but in the words of John Lennon, “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”.

Love jamer & Muneeza x

 

After a few days mooching around Saigon, we took a short trip out to the largest island in Vietnam, Phu Quoc, that sits 15km south of the Vietnam/Cambodia border. The tear-shaped island is also claimed by Cambodia; its Khmer name is Koh Tral. At least this tug of war over a small patch of land hasn’t led to bloodshed. The day we arrived, Phu Quoc was shrouded in cloud and the weather forecast was for 5 days of scattered showers. Everywhere we go, we always bring the weather with us.

Relaxing beachside

We had booked a garden bungalow at Viet Thanh Bungalows at the southern tip of Long Beach, which runs down the western side of the island beyond the tiny airstrip.

Viet Thanh is at the end of a narrow dirt track and first appearances weren’t sparkling. The main building looks like it was abandoned years ago and reception is a concrete box with a rotten wooden desk. There was nobody anywhere near reception either, so we started to think we’d booked the ghost hotel. After a few minutes of saying “Xin jow” hopefully into thin air, a young chap popped his head round the corner and checked us in. His English was as good as my Vietnamese, so the check-in was amusing.

As we walked to or bungalow, the picture improved. The garden area is basic but really chilled. The central garden is more sand than plants but the bungalows are dotted amongst the trees and inside are really spacious. For $25 in tourist town we were happy enough and settled in. It was only a few days later that Muneeza started to notice the smell of stale urine coming from the still uncleaned bathroom.

From our bungalow it was a short 10m walk to the beach. With a beachfront bar and restaurant, it was a cool place to lie low and cut down spending. The beach was beautiful golden sand though it was rather narrow. We spent our first afternoon cooling in the calm waters and tucked into a hearty seafood BBQ in the evening, washed down with a couple of ice-cold Saigon beers.

Long Beach Phu Quoc

I chose to push on with my work project whilst Muneeza pushed on with Shantaram, her reading nemesis, so Friday morning was spent on the bungalow porch typing away. Viet Thanh advertised free wifi but that’s a tenuous claim; first the wifi signal is weaker than someone on hunger strike and second, the power supply never worked in the morning so the wireless router wasn’t on. Oh well, at least it was free!

After a late lunch we took a stroll up Long Beach to check out the competition. What’s nice about Phu Quoc is that you get a large crowd of local holiday visitors as well as foreign tourists, so you don’t feel like you’re in Europe. Walking on the beach is novocain for the soul and after a few hours we were ready to hit the bungalow and take a power nap.

A grand day out – snorkeling around the An Thoi islands

It sounds much grander than it was, much to our disappointment. Even the Lonely Planet described the An Thoi Islands as “a fine area for swimming, snorkeling and fishing”. Fine area my arse.

The southern archipelago is indeed a beautiful sight – a series of small islands dominated by tropical forests, white sandy beaches and dramatic cliff faces. Sailing around the islands is a serene experience and it does make you feel like you’ve found a slice of paradise. However, and this is a big however, we booked a snorkeling trip for Saturday, not a “see the beautiful islands” trip. And good for snorkeling it definitely isn’t. The reef is as dead as Jesus (post resurrection). It’s the most depressing sight for someone who has seen beautiful, vibrant reefs in many places around the world. It was like looking down at a marine morgue. I though the first island snorkeling was an aberration and the next would reveal a pristine marine environment. Not a chance. Even worse. We both got out the water immediately in protest at the scandalous con of taking people to places where there is nothing to see. I’m not even exaggerating; at the first ‘snorkel’ spot, in 10 mins (I gave it time to find living, breathing coral systems) I saw 2 tiny fish. Even they looked bored. They probably only came over to look at us, reverse snorkeling.

Fishing on An Thoi Islands

The snorkeling was matched by the awful attempt at allowing us to fish. Fishing had also been one of the USPs of the trip and we were told we’d get at least 30mins fishing time before starting the snorkeling. ‘Quality fishing equipment’ was included in the price; the reality was a small plastic reel with line wound around it and a metal hook and small weight at the end. Fishing involved throwing the line out and then trying to wind the line back in manually by wrapping it round the reel without lacerating your hands. After 10mins and zero catches from anyone, we were told to pull the lines in and stop. Complete waste of time. Our Captain was so unenthused that he sailed over the lines of another tourist boat as we pulled away, snapping most of them and scaring any fish away. Now that’s consideration for you.

Despite the poverty of activities, the trip was a lot of fun. The group got on well and we met some cool people and arranged to hook up with them in the evening for a few beers and football (much to Muni’s delight!).

Working the hangover off

I awoke on Sunday to do my planned half-day’s work with a slightly numb head and a large slice of grumpiness. Luckily for Muneeza she could stay in bed and let me get on with it.  We spent the afternoon at the beachside bar researching plans for Indonesia and realised that we would need to shell out another few £hundred on flights if we didn’t want to spend the whole time on a bus. Don’t listen to anyone when they say flights in South East Asia are cheap; you’re lucky if you can get one of the cheap flights and so far our luck has been out.

We waved goodbye to Phu Quoc on Monday and flew back to Saigon to soak up the history of the Vietnam War in the War Remnants Museum before leaving for Laos. Phu Quoc was fun and the island is beautiful but if you’re looking for incredible snorkeling and diving, don’t even bother. As a place to kick back and unwind, it’s perfect.

Love jamer & Muneeza x

Well we’re finally in Vietnam, ready to say hello to Uncle Ho. Tuan, if you’re reading, I’ve just discovered how common you are mate – every shop has your name on it.  The bus journey from Phnom Penh was relatively painless and for once the border crossing passed without a con artist in sight. The passage from the Cambodian to Vietnamese side was as chaotic as most land borders with a random process that makes life more confusing. Our bus guide took our passports and told us to proceed to immigration and wait there until he called us. Immigration consisted of a huge scrum of tourists and locals bustling for space, waiting to be called through. When they called names, you couldn’t really hear properly so people mistakenly went through, then had to back up with their big bags and it caused mayhem. Eventually we all got through after much amusement and stepped foot into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Note how the word Communist is not in sight just in case the West gets paranoid.

Tuan is common

Say hello to Saigon

Saigon is a city of much folklore. The base for the American GIs during the Vietnam War, its reputation is of a place of bustling intensity with glitzy neon and an army of motorbikes on the go 24×7. It’s the scene for the legendary “$10 me love you long time” scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It may not have the same intensity nowadays but the energy is there and if you head to the Pham Ngu Lao area as we did, the night scene is certainly fun. Just don’t try the cocktails in Eden, it’s like sipping from the drip tray at the end of student night.

We had made loose plans to hook up with some cool Aussie chaps at Eden with the agreement that there was no commitment. After 1hr there was no sight of them (how could we not be a bog enough draw?) so we moved on to a rooftop bar. There we bumped into an English couple we had met on the bus and they said they would join us after dinner. Dinner gone, we hit the booze. Roger and Kerry were excellent company with a twisted sense of humour and dark side to match our own. Copious JDs later, the boys went back to the hotel to pick up more cash, leaving the girls back at Eden as it was the only place we knew how to find easily. Now, I’ve got a large bottle of Jack in my room so you can guess how easily the two of us were sidetracked. I seem to be a magnet for people telling me quite intimate details of their lives and over a huge straight JD, Roger proceeded to tell me about his family and how his sister had been abused by his stepfather. That kind of revelation really hits you but after so much booze, it’s hard to maintain a coherent and sensitive response. We met up with the girls at Eden to find them headfirst in the biggest bowl of Vodka/lemonade I’ve ever seen. Muneeza’s reasoning was that it worked out cheaper than buying individual shots. Nevermind that they were both already battered and had no hope in hell of coping with the behemoth. Mind you, she’s always wanted something huge in her hands so I didn’t want to spoil her moment.

Whilst I was at the bar talking slurred French to a dude from Lyon, our friends had a little altercation. Kerry, worse for wear, got a little bit heated and Roger in his wisdom opted for acquiescence and gently guiding her home. We hit the hotel and I don’t even remember passing out.

We were up early on Wednesday 16th for our day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels and the temple. My JD fuelled hangover was more virulent than Russell Brand in a virgin colony, so I managed to persuade my jani to swap the tour for the shorter half day Cu Chi trip. On the coach I was sweating like a fat man on a treadmill and I was so happy we’d shortened the trip. Annoyingly and not on script, we stopped at a handicraft factory outside town. It seems that any organised tour fits in a pointless shopping stopover to rinse as much tourist dollar as possible in commissions. Most people were non-plussed and sat outside waiting for the bus.

Cu Chi, Cu Chi Cu

Finally we arrived at Cu Chi. During the Vietnam war in the 70s, this area was a hotbed of resistance against the US based out of Saigon. The US had the military intelligence, the money and the weapons yet the Viet Cong (VC) successfully out thought and out maneuvered them for years. The tunnels were one of the main reasons, as well as typical US military arrogance thinking they could just outmuscle the peasant resistance.

In the course of a few years, the VC carved out tunnels stretching from Saigon to the Cambodian border. At Cu Chi alone the tunnels cover more than 200km. The underground labyrinth is stunning and intimidating. The tunnels were carved by hand using farming tools. The soil was dragged out in wicker baskets. Each tunnel was high enough for the Vietnamese to crawl along and wide enough to just fit one person. At intervals there are trapdoors at surface level. By foot you wouldn’t notice them but as we were walking around, a uniformed officer suddenly appeared from the ground. The trapdoor is so small you have to squeeze into it. It was like watching the witch doctor rise from the ground in Live and Let Die.

The US tried everything to destroy the tunnel system that was ruining their war. Soldiers would enter the tunnels but be shot. They flooded some of the tunnels but didn’t know that the VC were shrewd and had foreseen this event; the tunnels had multiple levels, eventually leading down to the river so any flood water simply drained away effectively. It may have left them wet and miserable but their lives were never threatened.

It’s not exactly a wet dream for claustrophobics. I have a healthy fear of dark, confined spaces. We had the chance to walk through part of the restored tunnel system and after much deliberation, we decided to go for it. You descend into the darkness with only partial light to guide the way. Through the entrance you descend to the first level about 3m below ground, then carry on down to about 6m. I was starting to feel a bit twitchy when the Canadian in front had a panic attack and tried to back up. He was convinced there was no exit ahead, and in the heat and darkness his nerves blocked rational thinking. Luckily we were able to gently persuade him to continue, that the quickest exit lay ahead. After about 1min, which seemed an eternity, we emerged at one of the exits, hot, sweaty and a whiter shade of pale. I’m glad I had the balls to confront my abject loathing of underground tunnels but I will never, ever do that again!

Cu Chi Tunnels

The VC were expert at surviving in a hostile environment, using the land to defeat the US army. With meager resources they created a series of brutal but creative traps. The most loathed by the US soldiers was a front door trap that swung down with sharp nails. The soldier would instinctively grab the wooden pole to protect their face and the lower portion, hinged to give it free movement, would then ram sharp nails into the soldier’s stomach and groin. Nice. The see-saw trap was nasty as well – a pit is dug and sharpened bamboo spikes are impaled in the ground. A revolving roof is added, so when the soldier walks over it he falls down and is speared.

I consider the Vietnam War, albeit based on a limited perspective, as one of unjustified aggression by the US against Vietnam through fear of the spread of Communism, the same reason they condemned the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to defeat the Khmer Rouge. I have no sympathy for the US leadership but I have a lot of compassion for your everyday soldier who was forced to fight in a country they didn’t understand, in a hostile climate and with gruesome deaths awaiting. It must have been complete hell fighting on both sides.  After our visit we had an immense respect for the resilience of the Vietnamese. They went through hell but refused to back down and demonstrated incredible sacrifice and bravery to endure years of violence.

love jamer & muneeza x

It’s the morning after the night before and I’m feeling contemplative. Yesterday, Sunday 13th March, we arrived in Phnom Penh and headed straight to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, approximately 15km southwest of the city.  With limited time left in Cambodia we wanted to pay our respects at one of the most prominent of the execution centres used by the Khmer Rouge during their regime.

We came to Cambodia with a limited perspective on the genocide. Yes, we knew it had happened and a man named Pol Pot orchestrated the atrocities that cost more than 2m lives. But further detail was missing. The visit to Choeung Ek added layers of understanding in a refreshingly honest and sensitive way.

A brief background on the Khmer Rouge

Having declared independence in 1953 under the rule of King Sihanouk, Cambodia was dragged back into the dark ages of civil war when the King was overthrown by General Lon Nol. Sihanouk took up residence in Beijing and formed an in-exile government that allied itself with an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement called the Khmer Rouge. Violence ensued.

Upon the capture of Phnom Penh in 1975 the Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most brutal social restructurings ever seen. Their goal was to revert Cambodia, now the Democratic Kampuchea, into a giant peasant dominated agrarian economy. Huge swathes of city dwellers were ripped from their homes, marched into surrounding countryside and forced to work in labour camps for up to 15hrs per day with little food and protection. Disease spread and the death rate was huge.

The leader of the Khmer Rouge was Saloth Sar, more popularly known as Pol Pot. Born to prosperous landowners, he won a scholarship to Paris where he became embroiled in the Communist movement and started to develop radical Marxist philosophies. Upon his return to Cambodia this molded to a ruthless Maoism and Pol Pot led the enslaving of the people. Intellectuals, foreigners and the leading lights of the day were rounded up and executed, a threat to the peasant revolution. It is documented that simply wearing glasses was reason enough to be murdered.

Understanding the extent of brutality

Choeung Ek was the transit point for prisoners from S-21, better known as Tuol Sleng Prison (which interestingly, now the Genocide Museum, is opposite our guest house and I can see the barbed wire fencing as I type).  It is believed that S-21 processed over 20,000 prisoners in the 3 years of Khmer Rouge rule, sending the vast majority out to the killing fields for mass execution.

Under the management of a Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, S-21 was responsible for extreme brutality. Amongst his heinous crimes is the vicious murder of children whereby guards swung them by their legs against trees until their skulls were crushed. In the now barren garden at Choeung Ek you can see the trees that served as battering posts. It’s a haunting experience. That Duch was a former math teacher makes his disdain for the abuse of children even viler.

Walking around the killing fields is strangely peaceful though deeply emotional. You walk through the main gate towards a giant stupa erected in the 1990s. Inside the stupa is a huge glass cabinet that contains the skulls of all the bodies recovered during excavations of mass graves. Some skulls are cracked, others have jaws missing, testament to the violence imparted on the victims. The stupa is a beautiful building and we stopped to light incense sticks and lay flowers as a mark of respect. Muneeza moved on quickly as she found it very hard to look at the skulls.

A path is then laid out navigating you through the killing fields with major points of interest signposted with information boards. At one point we stood on the spot where the detention centre was housed. From here the prisoners, crammed in to a dark and dingy cell, were dragged in shackles and summarily executed in the fields. There is a huge tree in the middle, called the Magic Tree, and the Khmer Rouge hung speakers on it to drown out the sounds of the tortured prisoners so people in nearby villages wouldn’t know what was happening. That was the creepiest part of the visit, knowing that people had been so callous in hiding the reality of their violence.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields

We stopped and took stock of our surroundings. In every direction you can see shallow pits. Each pit is a mass grave, some containing over 400 bodies. In one grave 150 naked bodies of women and children were found., their clothes casually discarded during the blood letting, some of them killed by having their throats sliced with blunt farming knives.

The Museum is highly informative and contains pictures of the Khmer Rouge leaders as well as some of their victims. It provides an objective account of what happened. Inside we read information on how the prisoners were killed. As the number of daily executions mounted (at its height more than 300 people were killed each day), the murderers struggled to keep up with the bloodlust. They resorted to burying people alive and covering the bodies with horrific chemicals such as DDT to speed-up the process. It’s impossible to imagine the fear and excruciating pain that these poor people endured in their final moments. It really does bring tears to your eyes.

A case of mixed emotions

We left the killing fields in somber mood. It’s important that visitors to Cambodia try and understand the impact the Khmer Rouge had both on the country’s economy and the people’s psyche. The destruction of society to create a peasant economy sent Cambodia back to the dark ages economically; the Khmer Rouge bulldozed buildings, cancelled schooling, killed intellectuals and ripped apart social services such as hospitals. It has taken decades for the seeds of growth to return.

Emotionally, the genocide still weighs heavy on Cambodians. Many people were directly affected, losing loved ones. We heard a guide at the museum telling his tour group that his Dad disappeared never to return but he managed to escape and his Mum cried with joy when he was reunited with his family. The brutality of Pol Pot and his gang of murderers is in stark contrast with the beauty of Khmer people. They are kind and friendly, gentle by nature. We’ve become extremely fond of Cambodia even in the few days we have been here. How anyone could treat his own people with such ferocity is beyond our comprehension and that is a good thing.

Whilst we sympathise deeply with the people and our hearts go out to the fallen, it is impossible to empathise with something so thankfully alien to our lives. How can you understand what it would have been like as a prisoner surrounded by agony and death? We just hope that the world learns something from this and it helps prevent a repeat, though our confidence is low because history is littered with other examples such as Rwanda.

The end of the revolution

The Vietnamese brought an end to Khmer Rouge rule, starting with the liberation of Phnom Penh in 1979 after 3 years of bloody murder. The Khmer Rouge retreated quickly into the far reaches of the country along the Thai border and its brutal leadership went into exile. Pol Pot shamelessly died in his own home in 1998 before he could be brought to justice. How long does it take the world to find justice? For nearly 20 years he lived in freedom as the world carried on. Perhaps if he had been a threat to Western oil supplies it might have been a different outcome.

In 2007 the Cambodian Government approached the UN to establish a special court to bring the former leaders to justice. In 2009 the court (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) was convened and a number of high profile Khmer Rouge leaders were finally on trial. It wasn’t until 2010 that a verdict was reached. The largest sentence was handed out to Duch – 35 years. A poignant placard hangs on the wall as you leave the museum at Choeung Ek, asking, “Is this really justice?”

Inside Tuol Sleng Prison

We have just returned from a self-guided morning tour of the Tuol Sleng Museum. Originally a centre for learning, it was converted into the notorious torture centre S-21 during Khmer Rouge rule. It’s a twisted irony that a school should be the heart of darkness in an era where education was banned and institutions torn down.

I will not dwell on the details, you really need to visit to understand the overwhelming sadness this place. The prison compound has been preserved as it was following the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge. In each block you can see the detention cells and items of torture used on prisoners. In one block there are boards containing photos of all the prisoners, taken from Khmer Rouge archives. It’s a chilling confrontation to be face-to-face with the poor souls who lost their lives in such tragic circumstances. We left with a profound sense of loss, a genuine regret that the world lets this happen.

What angered me the most was learning that the UN General Assembly still kept a seat for the Khmer Rouge until 1990 despite what they did and refused to recognise the Government of Cambodia because they decreed the Vietnamese intervention as illegal. So it’s ok for Pol Pot to wipe out millions, including ethnic Vietnamese, with torture and extreme violence but it’s not acceptable for Vietnam to fight back and defeat the regime. Therein lies the insidious nature of Western influence. I wonder sometimes whether the UN is little more than a political vehicle for the US.

Love jamer & muneeza x