Sunday, April 21, 2013

Motorcycle diaries

Have you seen it, the movie? ''Motorcycle diaries'', about the 23-year old Ernesto Guevara, travelling through various countries with his friend, on a motorbike. I thought a lot about this one, since the movie I am currently in is quite similar, I am 23 years of age as well, also travelling on a motorbike through unknown territories. However, my title could also be ''Motorcycle diarrhea''. 
The last two days have been extremely packed with unique adventures, none of my writing will ever allow you to really imagine what we are experiencing here. One thing is for sure, if you go to Vietnam, you have to travel the country by motorbike, its the only true way to fully arrive in the Vietnamese culture.

Flo and I had little to zero knowledge about motorbikes, still we bought two and decided to bring them from Saigon to Ha Noi. Starting off in Ho Chi Minh City as total rookies is definitely not the easiest start you can think of. We planned to leave in the early morning hours, when ''fewer'' of the 3 million bikes are on the streets yet. Our plan failed, as a first stop at the mechanic next door delayed our trip by almost two hours. We joined the traffic at 8 am, rush hour. Surrounded by a concert of horns, we headed north-east. I easily felt home in the horn-concert and happily joined with my signal. We both agreed that our mothers would immediately faint if they had seen us. Plus they would never let us back on the bikes again... Its really hard to describe how we survived, but we did.
Between scooters loaded with various materials, goats, pics, other scooters, chickens and even humans, we fought our way to Bao Loc, where I developed another exit plan for my life; plan 'F' (in case A-E would fail): I become a winemaker in the Vietnamese highlands. 
For hours we were chugging through huge fields of either flowers, bananas or avocados. The ground seems to be extremely fertile up here, plus its rusty red due to big share of iron in it. Mixed with swarms of butterflies and vintage cars, we sometimes felt like being on Cuba...

The second day on bike brought us via Da Lat to Nha Trang. We were going deeper and deeper into the mountains of Vietnam. In remote villages, all the children ran to the street in order to greet those westerners on bikes. For some we might have been the first white guys they saw... Later we climbed a mountain pass on   route 'DT723'. From our side it looked just foggy on top, so we did not think any worse and drove on. What we did not know was that we would get into some of the heaviest rain I ever experienced on the other side of the pass. Immediately the sky was not just ''foggy-grey'' anymore, it was ''the-earth-is-about-to-collapse-dark'' around us. Harsh street conditions did not make the situation easier. As we were far from any house or shelter, we drove on. When we were about two thirds down the pass, the rain came to a brief halt and I managed to take this shot, which is showing the view to the coast, towards Nha Trang, our goal of the day:
To make matters worse, the engine of my bike broke down short after. As long as it was still going down, I was able to roll by myself, for other parts, Flo had to pull me with his bike. It really was a baptism of fire, those two first days on a motorbike...
A stop by the guy on the left was necessary to make my ''Cloudette'' (name given to my bike by previous owners) working again. It turned out that all the rain has caused a short-circuit somewhere in the jungle of wires. With the help of body language we came to an agreement about what to fix and what to pay.
In complete darkness we drove the last kilometers to Nha Trang, where we were very happy to finally relieve our (attention bad word!) asses from all these vibrations.
Nha Trang is a strange place, people call it the 'beach capital of Vietnam'. Its true, it does have a beach right in front and it does look a bit like Copacabana. I am not sure though if the true Copacabana is also that packed with Russians... An estimated 90% of all the tourists here are from Russia which leads to signs and menus written in Vietnamese, English and Russian.

Today we spent some good times at Vinpearl, a funpark located on one of the islands around Nha Trang. The cable car in the picture took us to this barely visited but actually well made park. For some 450'000.- VND we had a great time not only on the scooters, also by observing the Vietnamese and Chinese tourists. Somehow they were not at all used to attractions like this, many could not express their joy, others lost total control over their emotions and again others had to puke already after a trip on a very easy-going swing. All in all the place was quite surreal, lots of fun and impressive all together. On the way back, we parked our bikes in front of a seafood restaurant. I had an entire grouper which I could select by myself from the fish tank. Again, we ate like Kings for the price of a Happy Meal.
Oh and we did not yet taste a cat... We were looking for it in various places, but we could not get one so far. We will keep searching. Meanwhile another animal made it onto our dishes; snake.
Snake is somewhat crispy, somewhat chewy and tastes a bit like nothing or chicken. Its not the best food we had so far, but its definitely worth a try.

Tomorrow morning we will enjoy a mud-bath before hitting the streets again. Next stations are planned to be Quy Nhon, Quang Ngai and Hoi An. There just must be a cat somewhere...

stay tuned, GH.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

xin chao

Yes, I know, it has been a while since the last post - thank you for your patience. Here is a new one, another desperate effort, trying to summarize the countless experiences of the past days... I shall start with a nice picture, to make you all jealous:
What you can see is Ostres Beach, close to Sihanoukville, Cambodia and our boat, on which we left soon after to a island and snorkeling tour. Sihanoukville was our last stop in Cambodia, before heading to Vietnamese boarder. To sum it up in brief; don't stay there. If you want to see beaches and enjoy remote sandbanks, you should rather go directly on one of the islands (e.g. Koh Rong). Sihanoukville left an unsympathic impression on us, weird people from all over the world come here to party, although nothing really makes you feel like party. As the weather was not solely delightful either, we soon decided to take a Bus towards Ha Tien, Vietnam.
The border-crossing procedure was quite an event as well, we were measured our temperature and then had to pay 1 Dollar each (of corse its one dollaa), as our temparatures (both 36.5 degrees celcius) were apparently too high for Vietnamese standards. Once in Ha Tien, funny hotel names like the one in the picture remembered us of delicious food experiences during Khmer New Year festives in Sihanoukville. Yes, dog does taste very good, I can only recommend it. Its best with a Cambodian curry like the ''a mok''.
Back to Vietnam; Ha Tien is a very untouristic destination, kids and other people of all age came to us in order to greet us and because they wanted to compare their height with mine. It was very sympathic to have people around who just wanted to talk, and who did not offer you something disturbing for one dollaa.
We had dinner with two old ladies who did not talk a word of english - still, we had a great time and loughed a lot.

The day after we travelled from Ha Tien to Vinh Long, on the Mekong Delta. The bus driver forgot about us and only let us out after we somehow realized that we must have passed Vinh Long. So we ended up once again on the back of two scooters who took us back to Vinh Long downtown. For some 100'000.- Dong they rushed with us to the riverside, where we found a contact for a home stay on the Mekong Delta. By ferry we reached the home of a local family, who rents out some of their rooms as a kind of guesthouse to travellers. Here is what they prepared for us as dinner:

Mmmmh, fishy fishy fresh from the incredibly busy and more or less dirty Mekong.
The next day began for us at 5 am. when we were driven by a ferry to a floating market on the Mekong. To see the river and the surrounding villages awakening in the early morning sun was a remarkable experience of its very own kind. All of this was accompanied by the ''beatiful'' sound of the two-cycle boat engines.

Now we have arrived in scooter-town, Ho Chi Minh City. The town has its very own and special rhythm; its incredibly busy in mornings, days and evenings, but almost dead silent at night. Communism does not allow you to party all night long, unless you pay a fortune to get in one of the newly opened and hyper fancy roof-top clubs. Since we can get plenty of posh-clubbing back home, we preferred to have some Saigon beers on the Bui Vien street, the place where the action happens. Fire-spitting kids, ruthless drivers of any kind of vehicle, grilled-on-the-spot calamaris and angry old women - you have it all, in Bui Vien street. What you can also find there are quite a bunch of backpackers, some of them also willing to sell their motorbike. We talked to many guys and tested quite a number of bikes and could in the end make a good deal (we think). We managed to buy two Honda Win 110cc bikes for a total cost of $600. We will hit the road tomorrow and try to make our way up to Ha Noi within some 2-3 weeks. Biggest challenge will be to get out of Ho Chi Minh... here the streets are full of the typical South-East-Asian scooter madness and almost no street and direction labels can be found. Per day, 40 people die on Vietnamese streets, we will do our best to ride save.

Today we visited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. After what we saw in the Khmer Rouge Museum in Phnom Penh, we were once more shocked by what we got to see. We both knew more or less what happened in the Vietnam War (1957-1975), but what you get to see in western documentaries and school books is unfortunately a varnished reality. The war crimes conducted here by the French and US Army were of indescribable brutality. Especially the effects of the toxic attacks conducted by the US Air Force, are beyond any measure. Some American visitors were fist posing like roosters outside of the museum, in front of various tanks and airplanes. Once those guys were inside the museum, their false pride subtly gave way to mere feelings of guilt. When we were still in Vinh Long, we saw a second-generation victim of Agent Orange attacks, collecting money for his charity organization - his head was about twice to three times the size of a 'normal' head. Also in the museum, I found the girl in the picture below. She obviously had no clue where she was going, otherwise she surely would have changed her dress code. I think she thought I liked her beauty, when I took the picture. Instead, I liked her dullness.

Now, evening is breaking in and our stomachs are grumbling for some cat. We will see what Saigon has to offer...

Until then, stay tuned, GH.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Happy Khmer New Year!

As sort of a dessert for our stay in Cambodia, we came to experience some crazy nights while celebrating the Khmer New Year (officially 13th to 15th April) with local and true Khmer people. Basically everyone goes crazy, people eat and drink a lot, dress well and then throw white powder at each other. It feels like being in this new Sony commercial, showing the colour festival in India. As Cambodia cannot afford colours, its just white here. But its good, for once we were not the only white guys anymore and we can say that we truly arrived in Cambodia.

The last days in brief: We left Battambang and headed south. Stopped in Krakor (literally in the middle of no-where) and hired some local guys to bring us on the back of their scooters to the floating village of Kompong Luong. Unlike other ''floating villages'', Kompong Luong is really floating. Depending on the season (dry or wet) the village is 39 to 45 km away from Pursat, the next bigger town. Kompong Luong is consisting out of a Cambodian and Vietnamese part, overall approximately 200 houses, tied together and floating freely on the Tonle Sap lake. A local guy took us on the  boat through this incredible place. We saw the school, post office, police station and a crocodile farm - everything floating. Many inhabitants of Kompong Luong were happy to see us, probably not many tourists make it to this very remote and impressive place.
The above picture shows parts of Kompong Luong and me, sitting on a crocodile cage. 
After visiting the floating village, another crazy mini-bus ride took us to Phnom Penh, where we spent some remarkable days of lots of good food, impressive history and legendary nights. I shall at this point come back to my earlier promise and post a picture of some classical Cambodian-style electric installation:

Some of these also make scary noises and are used as high-lines by  monkeys
We did not only taste eel, ants, beetles, raw-eggs and crickets in Phnom Penh; we also searched for some cultural experiences of a sad kind and therefore visited and ancient Khmer Rouge prison and a killing field. It is terrible what happened at those places only some 30 year ago. Only seven prisoners survived the horrible torture at ''Station 21'' (out of some 20'000), one of them was present that day and we could talk to him with the help of a translator. He survived only due to his skills as a mechanic, the Khmer Rouge needed him to fix their typewriters... We had a deep and telling conversation with him and drove back in our TukTuk, without speaking much.
Later that day we were disappointed by humanity once more; we met two typical Australians who told us about ''their best experience ever'' - they payed $700 to shoot on a cow with a bazooka! There is no moral philosophy that justifies this behavior in any way. We were offered the same programme by drivers as well, but we declined gratefully without regret. There is much to do and lots to experience when you travel, but some things are just wrong and you should simply not do them - even when you can afford it and think you are a bad-ass back in Australia.

Now, we are in Sihanoukville, south coast of Cambodia. For the first time we have not 35 to 40 degrees anymore, its raining cats and dogs - a refreshing change.  What did not change are the inappropriate offerings, the littering issue, the disgustingly old sex tourists and the fact that everything is available for ''one dollaa''.

Next destination Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh - where the cats taste delicious, we were told, I will keep you posted ;)

stay horny, GH

Saturday, April 6, 2013

One dollaa

Siem Reap has been the destination where we spent our last 4 days. Probably the most touristic place in whole Cambodia - due to the world famous Angkor Wat which is situated there. While Flo and I cruised through the impressive temple scenery, tourist swarms from South Korea, Taiwan or China found it more comfortable to rush through the main attractions by bus (with A/C of course). Still, you definitely get to see more on bicycle, even if its 41 degrees Celsius... 
While talking to locals, we not only learned a lot about Angkor Wat, we also acquired a significant Khmer vocabulary - which is of big use when it comes to negotiating with TukTuk drivers or waving off ladyboys or other inappropriate offerings.
Siem Reap itself is very pleasant, in spite of the many tourists. The town offers huge and beautiful local markets, frequent power cuts, delicious grilled fish from the near by Tonle Lake and ANYTHING you can think of for 1 Dollar. In the local dialect, people pronounce ''one dollaa''. So where ever you are, sooner or later someone will come up to you and say something like: "Sir, hello Sir. Two for one, buy from me, one dollaa, just one dollaa Sir.'' Then you will have to look again to figure out what exactly they are selling as it might be Mangos, Postcards, Marihuana, their Sister, a Massage or a simple TukTuk ride.

This morning we arrived in Battambang (ca. 300km north west from Phnom Penh), where the two locals on the picture introduced us to the ''Bamboo train''. Since the railway system is in a very bad shape (constructed by the French centuries ago, untouched since), no official trains are running any longer. Since a couple of years now, the locals started to build their own vehicles in order to use the rails. These platforms that resemble a flying carpet, make up to 50km/h and are used to transport rice, people and tourists here and there. A ride on such a ''train'' takes you through remote areas, bush fires, local villages and is at times bumpy and slightly scary. Overall however, it is a legendary experience, something you will not do somewhere else that fast.
 Later today we witnessed the flight of 2 billion (honest figure, not our estimation) bats, while leaving a cage in order to get some food. Plus, we visited a former killing cage of the Khmer Rouge Regime. These places and experiences are sometimes tough to digest and fill the day with ease.
It is also interesting to see backpackers and tourists with an ''I can change the world'' attitude here, they mostly have little knowledge about the Khmer Rouge and then wonder why their Che Guevara t-shirt with the red star does not really call for positive feedback.

Tomorrow or the day after we will head south, try to spend the night in some remote fisher village around the Tonle Lake and then continue further south, direction Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville.

I will keep you posted about how many one-dollaa-opportunities we realized...

cheers, GH

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ashton Kutcher in Cambodia

So it begins - finally all the preparations have come to an end. I wish all this would be much easier, I wish the thinking of country boarders would more and more come to a halt, but Southeast Asia (and many other parts of the world) prove something different. Anyhow, I had to foul the Chinese authorities for a first time and book various flights in order to get my desired visas and permits. All this sums up in reduced flexibility in regard to my itinerary.

Monday 1st April
Boarding an Airbus A380 is nice, you feel like going on a cruise ship, being one of 471 ants, a board of SQ345 ZRHSIN. The head steward looked an approximate meter up to me and said after taking a deep breath: ''You Ashton Kutcher!?'' Since I get this a lot, I played the game: ''No, Matthew, his brother.'' (I have no clue whether Ashton has a brother). Anyways, the Chief Steward was ''very honored to have me on board'' - so was I.
A great flight with perfect service and lots of comfort in economy class ended 12h later in SIN Changi Airport. Shortly after Silkair operated the connecting flight to Phnom Penh. There, a foreign feeling struck me, I felt exactly as a farmer from Lauenen (remote CH village) who would go to Zweisimmen (another remote CH village) - I felt, that I was never that far from home. Old record holder Muscat was outplayed significantly.
From Phnom Penh, a Bus took me towards Siem Reap, northern Cambodia. The ride was about 6hrs long and provided a great introduction to the country. We came across places and scenes from a different world.
We had several full-break wake up ''calls'', due to near-fatal accidents with either cows, children, TukTuks or monks. Later, when back in Phnom Penh, I will try to post a picture of the electrical installations down town - it will be hard to digest for all the Swiss...

Night and myself have arrived in Siem Reap. I will now try to grab some bowl of rice and later meet my former fellow student and friend Florian. Flo will spend the next ca. 4 weeks with me, this being the end of his trip, which he started some when in January...

In a sweaty and dirty hostel lobby - GH