Saturday, July 21, 2007

Back to Texas

Got back home to Austin last night shortly after midnight. Will catch up on stories and pictures soon, but for now I need to lie on the couch and watch some golf.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Adventures in train travel

Took the night train back from Sapa to Hanoi last night and was so grateful to have kept my hotel room here while I was gone. While other people were staggering around tired and grimy waiting to be able to check-in somewhere, I went straight to my room where all my stuff was intact, opened a cold diet coke and drew a bath. Ahhh...

This relief was particularly sweet considering the adventure of the train. In Sapa I got on the train and claimed my expensive reserved sleeper berth, this time one of the lower ones, and waited to see who else would be sharing the compartment, expecting a similar group to the genial Finns and the woman from Singapore. This was not to be. First, a young (Vietnamese, I think) couple comes in and perches on the other lower bunk. They stow some luggage and then leave. Then only he comes back, followed by two grinning men in matching tan shirts and two tarted-up, gum-smacking, giggling apparent prostitutes -- oops, I mean sex workers. I'm completely claiming my space and lying down on my bed, but the men decide to sit on it anyway so they can face the girls and have a chat. I'm having none of this, and make an unmistakable "get off" gesture, which just makes them move to the opposite bunk, so that now four people are staring at me like I'm crashing the party. I'm thinking, yes, I am well aware of the legendary and often heroic patience and forbearance of the Vietnamese people, but y'all ain't winning this one. Eventually the tan-shirt dudes leave, and the girls ratchet-up the gum smacking and cell-phone yacking while I turn my back and pretend to try to sleep. After a while they start playing a game by clapping suddenly and giggling to see if I'm still awake, but I am in no mood to be mean-girled by a couple of seat-scamming sex workers. They're still sitting up and making a racket when it seems the right time to lock the compartment door for the night, which just escalates the battle, of course. I lock. One grabs my arm and shakes her head to say, no lock. I nod, point to my chest, glare, and lock. This happens a few more times. Then there comes a loud knock on the door and one of the girls opens it. Here we go, I think. But, no, it's the conductor. He looks at the two of them in one berth, says something, points, looks at their ticket (?), then just laughs and shuts the door. Thanks a heap. But I lock the door after him and put on the chain so that even he can't get in, flash another dirty look, turn on my side, wrap my arm around my bag, and actually go to sleep. Victorious.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sapa and Hill Tribe Villages, Day One

Arrived here in Sa Pa around 6:30 this morning by night train from Hanoi, and after breakfast I headed out into the steep, mist-covered hills terraced with rice fields in a steady rain with my guide. I am the only one on this particular tour, so it was just the two of us making our way along the muddy track among, meeting the occasional water buffalo and hill-tribe villager along the way. It was magical and wondrous -- and very, very wet, a welcome respite from Hanoi's heat, I might add. In an hour or so I'm going back out with my guide Thanh on his motorbike to go see some off-itinerary sights (we made a little side deal). We walked through villages of both the Black Hmong and Red Dzao people, both of whom dress in elaborately layered and embroidered outfits. I saw women hand dyeing the cloth from the indigo planted in their fields (Thanh thought the dye smelled worse than the water buffalo dung. I disagreed). I also saw two women spinning and weaving the cloth by hand and foot treadle. Will try to get some pictures up soon.

Hue to Hanoi & Hanoi to Sapa

Flew from Hue to Hanoi early this afternoon, and am resting for an hour or so before I leave on the night train to Sapa for a short trekking trip with Handspan Adventures. Don't think I'll have any access while up there among the hill tribes, but I'll post a note as soon as I get back very early Weds morning, which will be Tues evening in the US.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Hue to Hanoi

Now that I've left behind the CIEE group (with the exception of Tom Huminski of Portland Community College, who happens to be following a similar itinerary for a few days) I have a little bit of time to reflect and catch-up on the writing. It's about 3:30 on Saturday afternoon in Hue, and I'm taking a break to cool off and rest after walking around the citadel and other sights in this beautiful city.

There's so much to process even with almost a week to go in my trip, from the dusty, frontier feel of Siem Reap, to the seductive and faintly dangerous vibe of Phnom Penh, to HCMC's manic energy and profusion of stuff and people, to Hue's elegance (and heat!). I've been down the Mekong River and into the jungle to visit a former VC special forces camp in the jungle, to the floating villages on the largest lake in SE Asia, the Tonle Sap. I've taken my life in my hands (or found the zen of it, depending on your point of view) and crossed the street in Ho Chi Minh City, and learned to act cool on the back of a motorbike as it weaves through traffic, often by driving on the wrong side of the road or the sidewalk.

It's now Sunday morning in Hue, as I pick up where I left off yesterday. I leave in a few hours for Hanoi. One of the things that's been so striking about this trip is the contrasts between the two countries as well as among the places I've been with them. It was striking, for example, to see how much more wealth there is in the Vietnamese countryside around Hue between the coast and the Lao border than there is outside the cities in Cambodia. And wealth is a relative term here, of course, but I'm talking about houses with doors and windows. They're still one-room structures with a lot of people in them -- Vietnam has a lot of people -- but they are much better off than rural Cambodians. You'll see rows of these simple houses, often with stalls selling a jumble of wares spilling out the front of them, and then suddenly a huge Frenchified plaster monstrosity will hove into view. You don't really need your guide or driver to tell you it's the home of the local Party official. There were a number of houses like this in the town closest to the Lao border, where I suppose business is brisk in border management.

There are also big differences in the national narratives you hear from people, which I'll write more about after I am out of Vietnam, and it's often difficult to figure out how much they believe in the story they tell you or are aware of its contradictions. This interplay of narratives is especially evident at the official sites, though of course these are exactly the kind of places where the dominant discourse is intended to drown out the other voices and erase the contradictions. Here's a relatively benign example: At the Independence Palace, which was formerly known as the Presidential Palace, you are required to tour the place with an official guide, in our case, a polished multilingual young woman dressed in the traditional ao dai. Her explanations of the building were fluent and well-rehearsed, and she used the adjective "puppet" over and over in her characterization of the regime that once governed from the building and its relationship to the US. At the same time, however, she pointed out with apparent pride that luxurious furnishings favored by the puppets. She suggested we take photographs of the preposterous platformed, silk-uphosltered chair framed by six-foot tall elephant tusks in which the puppet would sit to receive official visitors. I accidentally stepped on the edge of a huge and elaborate rug in the atrium, and she reacted as if I'd trampled a holy relic. I suppose visitors would say the same thing about these types of ossified historical sites in the US. They might wonder, for example, why we revere Thomas Jefferson and dutifully haul school children to his home without seriously engaging his troubling and complicated relationship to slavery. They might also wonder about things like the Johnson Ranch and the Nixon Library.

Have to pack up my ever-expanding stuff and get to the airport. I should mention that for some reason I can't open my own blog, so I can see from the inside that someone's left a comment or two, but at least for now, I can't read them. So, I'm posting this anyway, but I can't see if or when it actually appears. Thanks for reading!

Bunker entrance at special forces camp in Sac Forest

Friday, July 13, 2007

Street in Ho Chi Minh City

After the rain in Phnom Penh with US Embassy in background

Festive night in Phnom Penh

Hue and the DMZ, briefly

Now in Hue, in central Vietnam, a beautiful former imperial city located between the ocean and the mountains. It is very, very hot , however, and the rains won't begin here for several more weeks. Yesterday we toured sites in the DMZ and saw much of the landscape, both mountain and ocean. We went as far west as we could toward the Lao border and walked around Khe Sanh, where I was stunned and saddened to think of what it would have been like to both be under siege there and to try to attack on that hilltop. We also toured the amazing tunnel complex at Vinh Moc, walking about 2 kilometers of its total of 7. Luckily, we were the only three people in the tunnels so we were able to keep the claustrophobia at bay. Hard to complain about that, however, when you remember that people lived in those things for 20 months, eating cold and dried food, giving birth to and raising their children underground. Unbelievable.

Today, it's the Citadel (also the site of fierce fighting), some pagodas and tombs, and maybe some shopping and drinking of cool local beer, Huda.

Will try to get pictures up soon.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Saigon Update

Last day in Ho Chi Minh City. Wow, what a place. We have a full schedule today, so I won't get to catch up yet, but will work on it. I leave at 7 am tomorrow on a flight to Hue to begin the independent travel portion on the trip. Yesterday turned out to be a really eventful day that included a monkey attack on one member of the group (no real harm done -- she had a banana in her backpack), another member of the group falling ill (still pretty serious, unfortunately), and a ferocious thunderstorm on the Mekong River while we were returning to the city by boat. Oh, yeah, and later a visit to an after-hours bar in an alley, which isn't as daring as it sounds since all the bars are required to close by midnight. Details forthcoming, I promise.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Quick Notes from Ho Chi Minh City

We're in Ho Chi Minh City now, and I'm sitting at a Gloria Jean's Coffee shop that could be in Cleveland Heights or Plano. That is, until I look out the glass wall of the shop and watch an old woman shield herself from the rain with her conical straw hat and see a skinny guy scoot past in the fast walk people use when they're carrying something too heavy. He's got a single pole slung across one shoulder with an ice chest hanging from one end balanced with a basket of green coconuts. He'll chop them open with a cleaver and sell the cold juice to tourists.

Walking is pretty hazardous in this city, with or without the heavy load. The sidewalks are jumbled with the merchandise coming from all the make-shift stalls on street level; people sitting or squatting and eating, drinking, smoking, and playing cards; and more motorbikes and even cars parked on than you'd think belong on a sidewalk. I temporarily one of these people this morning when I spent about 45 minutes perched on a tiny yellow plastic chair like the one we'd have in preschool in front of a stall that sold SIM chips for cell phones and a wide selection of pirated video and music. I was sort of like the human security deposit while my friend Tom took both our phones and went off on the back of the motorbike with the son of the woman who ran the stall. We still couldn't get the phones to work, but I loved just sitting there and watching Saigon by a startling variety of conveyances.

The traffic here is legendary, and for very good reasons. There seems to be more consensus on what side of the street to drive on than there is in Cambodia, but the first law of driving any vehicle here must be, "do not stop, ever." As a pedestrian you have to cross the street by playing a real-life game of Froggy, plotting and timing a zizagging course between motorbikes, cars, and buses, often getting stuck between "lanes" until another small opening appears. It's hard to concentrate on the task sometimes because the visual display of the moving traffic is so fascinating. To protect themselves from at least some of the dust and dirt, many of the women here wear face-masks while driving their motorbikes. They also tend to wear hats and sunglasses and these very odd-looking gloves that cover almost the entire arm to protect their skin from the sun. You look down the street and see a fleet of them coming and think the city is under siege from an army of 95-pound train-robbing bandits in high-heeled sandals. But my favorite sight of the morning was the woman driving the moto with her baby on her lap. This isn't unusual in itself, but this woman apparently wanted to protect the baby from the dust as well, so she pretty much just put it in a large orange fine-meshed bag, as far as I could tell. Pretty ingenious.

What we've done so far in Saigon: drinks on the roof of the Rex Hotel, where American officials used to gather during the war, a delicious meal at a restaurant where they throw rice across the room, and this morning a tour of the former Presidential palace, instantly recognizable as the building with the gates through with the north Vietnamese forces drove (and got stuck) in April 1975 when they liberated the city. This afternoon it's the War Remnants Museum.

I'll try to get back to this soon and catch-you up on everything that's happened. Okay, well not everything. This coffee shop is now completely packed with locals and visitors escaping the rain, so I'm going to vacate my table.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Angkor Wat

If you scroll down past the smiling face of Haley on the rooftop terrace of the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Phnom Penh, you'll find some pictures from Angkor Wat, the granddaddy of them all. The post I wrote about the pictures somehow never made it to this site, but if it does turn up, please forgive the redundancy. As I had a camera mishap on Angkor day (a brain, mishap, really), I'm posting the work of Stacy Kowtko of Spokane Community College. There's no doubt that my pictures would not have been anywhere near this good.

Angkor Wat is huge, but it's hard to grasp its scale. Notice the towers in the distance in the shot with me, Haley (in red), and Stacy Sewell (yellow) walking up the main causeway to the temple. They appear to be modest in size. But then you see the size of the individual tower in the middle shot, with the tiny people at its base. And that shot is taken from high up in the temple itself, which you have to reach by a truly hair-raising long flight of stone steps about as steep as a ladder. Going up hand and foot was bad enough, but coming down was another thing altogether. I was hugging the side of the stairs so closely that I skinned my knee by grazing it on the stone on each long, blind step down.

Among the fascinating things about Angkor Wat, is that despite its massive scale, it doesn't really dwarf you in the way you'd think it would. It's the largest religious monument in the world, but it contains intimate shrines like the one below. It also has over 600 meters of narrative bas relief which is scaled and paced perfectly for walking and reading. It's still very much a functioning temple and a powerful symbol for the Khmer people. Somehow it seems to take history in stride, outlasting tourists, soldiers, looters both ancient and modern, religious zealots, secularists, kings (including the one who began its construction in the 12th century) and a multinational, century and a half long, co-dependent relationship with human waves of scholars and researchers.

For Helen and Scott -- Here's Haley

Angkor -- Ta Prohm

I'm now in Phnom Penh, and have been here a few days, but it's just today that I have time to get caught up in reporting what's been going on. The last day or so in Siem Reap was marked ever-multiplying internet problems, so I lapsed into radio silence for while. I've got reliable (mostly) access here in Phom Penh, but have been too busy.

So... where was I? Ah, yes, Angkor. We spent the entire day of July 3 at the temples at Angkor, departing from our hotel as eager and curious little faculty tourists, bubbling with questions about history and religion, environmental justice, the politics of preservation and restoration, and determined to somehow experience the sights in some way that would distinguish us from the mass of other tourists collecting their photo of Angkor Wat like a merit badge. We returned to the hotel a collection of limp, sweaty, itchy heaps, each of us probably privately thinking that if we could live a long time without trudging through the heat and humidity to another pile of stone in the jungle. After a shower and a beer, however, I was much keener on the whole Angkor experience, though I did not use my free day to go see more of them.

Built from about the 8th to the 14th century, the temples at Angkor all draw from the same lexicon of religious symbols and architectural features. And yet, there is surprising variety among them as well. They are, like Cambodians say, "same-same, different," which means, according to the astonishing 12 year-old girls peddling books we talked to last night, have the same generic features, but differing in details. Two American women, for example, one tall and one short, are same-same, different.

Here's the first temple we visited, Ta Prohm (begun in 1186). The hook on this site is that it's supposed been left to look like it did when the French "discovered" it in the jungle in the 1860s, so it has collapsed galleries and these huge trees with root systems all entwined with the stones (it's the one in the "teaser" picture.) French archeologists called this particular tree the "fromage," supposedly because it looks like a soft cheese melting. At least that's what our very smart Cambodian guide told us. I think they were just hallucinating in the heat.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Pictures from Siem Reap Old Market and town

Yum...tasty baskets of insects

Cambodia 101: Siem Reap

Finally, a few free minutes to report on what’s been going on for the past few days. When I told people I was going to Cambodia, I often heard about what a great country it is to visit, mostly from people who had never been there. It’s very popular destination on the Lonely Planet-crowd and the wealthy retiree circuits. And Siem Reap is the place everyone has to come to in order to see Angkor, so it’s a town that caters to tourists of both stripes: huge new luxury hotels built with South Korean money and blocks of ramshackle guest houses and backpacker hotels, cheap Indian restaurants and gussied up French cafes. But this Cambodia is apparently a complete mirage. Yes, it is an extraordinary place, but also a much more complicated one. It is great, if by “great” you mean an incredibly cheap, indescribably poor country where tourists can get anything they want – legal or not, but ordinary Cambodians often live without running water, electricity, health care, and higher education. Where the streets fill with water after a rain because the sewers don’t work and, thanks to the Khmer Rouge, there aren’t any trained engineers left who know how to repair them. It’s a county where all social services are provided by NGOs, and where basic ideas of public safety are so retrograde that today, on my fifth day here, I still couldn’t tell you with any degree of certainty what side of the road Cambodians drive on. Still, what is great about Cambodia, is its extraordinary resilience and the progress, incremental though it is, in rebuilding every institution in the country that was absolutely decimated by the Khmer Rouge between 1970-1975, barely 15 years after gaining independence from the colonial occupation. Despite the weight and tragedy of the last 50 years of Cambodian history, however, it’s an amazing place, and I’m barely able to process its wonders and frustrations.

Our hotel is just across the street from the muddy river, and all day long the street hosts a procession of motorbikes with any number of people and piles of goods on them; monks in saffron robes walking to and from the monastery, smoking and shading themselves from the sun with umbrellas; tuk-tuks, the covered motorized rickshaw contraption that takes visitors from one place to another for a dollar or two; school children on bicycles; and a variety of cars, trucks, and buses, some with the steering wheel on the right and some with it on the left. I had been amazed that I hadn’t seen any terrible crashes, and then I found out when we visited the Belgian NGO Handicap International, that as many injuries and dismemberments that landmines and UXOs (unexploded ordnance) cause, as of 2006, road accidents have become the leading cause. I’m not at all surprised. Yesterday, on the road back from the floating villages of Tonle Sap, I saw a whole family moving their straw-stilt house (they move their houses to higher ground during the rainy season) on the back of an ancient pickup, and when I turned to watch them after they passed, I saw a boy no older than 6, barefoot, straddling what looked to be the trailer hitch. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit.

It’s easy for us to walk or tuk-tuk our way across one of the bridges to town and browse – well, that’s not really the correct word for the sensory overload and cramped jostling – the old market, a covered, dark, hot, smelly, claustrophobic hallucination of a square block souk-like place full of textiles, jewelry, dried eel, lotus pods, pirated books and CDs, sausage, hot bowls of fish amok (the local Khmer dish), with children hectoring you to buy their wares, old women sleeping on their piles of produce, and young men driving their Honda Dream motorbikes straight through the aisles. Today, our last day in this town, was the first time I was able to negotiate the market’s stimuli and seductions well enough to make choices and buy a few things to take home with me. And still, I’m not entirely sure what I bought.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

In Siem Reap, Cambodia

After nearly 40 hours of travel, I've made it to my hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia. No mishaps along the way, I'm pleased to report. And boy, howdy, is it ever hot and humid here.

More later when I can figure out how to connect to the internet in my room.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Lone Star State of Mind

Here is where I live in Austin, Texas.

Angkor Wat

I wish I could take credit for these pictures of the temples, but I had a major camera mishap that day. Truthfully, it was a brain mishap, but I'll blame it on the camera. These photographs were takes by Stacy Kowtko (Spokane Community College). She's a much better photographer than I could hope to be, but still, these don't come close to capturing the magnificent scale of the building.


Early tomorrow morning I'll get on the plane and start this adventure. After a 12-hour layover in Bangkok, I'll arrive in Siem Reap, Cambodia at 1:00 Sunday afternoon. I'm just about finished packing and worrying about packing so I'll take a few minutes to give you a preview of my itinerary. I think I've got everything: passport, visa, malaria pills, uncharacteristically demure long skirts, insect repellent, money belt, camera, ibuprofen, traveler's checks, and a big stack of crisp American one and five dollar bills because that's apparently the preferred currency in Cambodia.

I'll be meeting the other people in my seminar (13 of them) in Seam Reap, which means, according to the Lonely Planet, "Siamese Defeated," certainly a less than tactful name for a city so close to Thailand. In the northwestern quadrant of Cambodia, it's the nearest city to the temples at Angkor, which we'll spend a couple of days touring. We'll also visit the floating villages on the Tonle Sap. On July 5 we'll fly to Phnom Penh, which is apparently a lovely city with lots of French architecture and very good food. There, however, our activities take a more somber turn as we have lectures and films on the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, and then visit the notorious Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields themselves.

On July 9, we leave Cambodia behind and fly to Ho Chi Minh City, where we'll be for the next 5 days. I'm particularly thrilled about cocktails on the roof of the Rex Hotel, where it'll be hard not to succumb to the dreamy idylls of "Indochine" or "Nam-stalgia," as British journalist Robert Templer calls the two most common misperceptions of Vietnam. Other highlights include visits to the former National Liberation Front guerrilla base in Sac Forest and a wildlife preserve.

The last phase of the trip begins when the seminar ends on the morning of July 13. I'll fly to the old imperial capital of Hue and will stay there for a couple of days. I've arranged a guide and driver to take me to military sites in and around the DMZ, and I may also take a trip to the town of Hoi An, which is famous for its textiles and its cooking. On Jul7 15 I'll continue north to Hanoi by plane. Why not take the train? Because despite its glorious name, The Reunification Express, the thing travels at an average speed of 48 mph! I'm all for authenticity and traveling like a local, but that's just too much to ask. I have a side trip planned from Hanoi to the village of Sapa, close to the Chinese border and Vietnam's highest peak, the 10,000 ft. hilariously named Mt. Fan Si Pan(ts). Okay, so I added those last two letters. I'll get to visit small villages of at least three different hill tribes, the peoples that the French lumped into one category and called Montegnards.

My trip wraps up with a day tour of Ha Long Bay, a place we've seen in countless movies, no doubt, with its limestone karsts rising out of the ocean and topped with mist. I wish I had time to do a kayak trip, but I don't think I will. I'll be back in Austin late on 20th of July.

So, that's the outline. I have no idea how closely things will hew to this plan, but that's the whole point of travel, after all. Next post will be from Cambodia.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Welcome to my new blog. Here's where I'll write about my trip to Cambodia and Vietnam. The first adventure comes next week with a visit to the travel clinic where I suspect I will have to endure some ghastly innoculations.