Posts Tagged ‘travel’

On yer bike

Monday, June 6th, 2011

I’ve been lazing around in Siem Reap for a couple of days. This morning before my bum put down roots again in a comfy chair I hopped on a bicycle, picked a direction and started cycling. The direction was south and after an hour or so I reached Chong Kneas at Tonle Sap lake. It’s a village of houses on stilts on the edge of the lake. At this time of year the lake is very low and the houses clear the water by a few metres. There are several floating school buildings which are currently below the level of the road. There’s no obvious explanation for why the schools are floating and the houses are built on stilts.

On the road past the schools there is a new construction which looks like a toll plaza or the entrance gates to a private community. It looks rather incongruous with the poor houses so I stopped to take another photo. A guy wearing a uniform proclaiming him to be a security guard appeared and launched into the usual pre-scam spiel.

“Hello. Where you going? Where you from? How long you in Cambodia?”

After exchanging a few pleasantries he told me I could buy a ticket there to take a boat to one of the floating villages. I wasn’t interested in a boat ride, I planned just to cycle down the road a bit further and see what I found. So I said goodbye and continued on my way – for about 50 metres until another “security guard” jumped into the road and tried to charge me an “admission fee”. He wanted two dollars. For cycling down the road? On yer bike! He had about as much chance of getting it as the monk who wanted me to donate him my Kindle or the guy who wanted 20,000 kip to cross the bridge between Don Dhet and Don Khong.

I dodged round him and carried on down the road. But it got me thinking again about ethical tourism. In my previous life two dollars was neither here nor there. Now it’s about five percent of my daily budget. Five percent here, five percent there quickly adds up. It’s probably  as much as his daily wage. But would he spend it in the village? He was the best dressed person I saw all morning and didn’t look like he would. Spending the money myself in the village would surely be more beneficial.

The road quickly turned from tarmac to dirt and the houses became much poorer, simple one room wooden or bamboo and straw shacks. No mains electricity. A generator charges car batteries during the day. Water is pumped from wells by hand. At least they’re not (all) drinking directly from the lake. The water looks a long way from clean although they take 400,000 tonnes of fish from the lake annually. My thoughts turned to photography. This is where the ethics really kicks in. Photos with people are often more interesting than those without. But how exploitative is it when I shoot photos of the locals? I’m not planning to sell the photos. More interesting photos might persuade more people to click through to my albums on Flickr or on facebook though. Is that exploitation? Is it more or less so if I ask their permission first (there go the candids, hello portraits)? I want to share the places and things I’m seeing with friends and anyone else who’s interested and I want mementos for myself. Should I offer everyone a dollar for taking their photo? I’d be broke before lunchtime.

What about photos of children versus adults? The kids running around in the street remind me of those in Laos; smiley and happy and so innocent. Cute and inquisitive. These ones are not out on the streets of Phnom Penh in the evening, or around the Angkor Wat temples, sent out by their parents to sell books or bracelets or tat for a dollar. Lots of them are running around naked. Now there’s another complication. Especially in a part of the world where middle aged men often are, or are often seen as sex tourists.

I mostly avoid the issues and don’t take people shots. If you want to see and know the people come here yourself. If you’re happy to just see some of the places my photos are at Flickr.

A slightly chilled coke and a bag of crisps cost two dollars at one of the shack-front stalls. After a couple hundred more metres the dirt road shrunk to a very bumpy footpath. Seven kilometres to the next village. On a bike with no gel saddle and no suspension? No thanks. It was time to head home.

Vietnam gets better

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Vietnam did not create a good first impression. Immigration at Moc Bai was a complete shambles. It was tempting to go to the airport in Ho Chi Minh/Saigon and get on the first plane to anywhere else.

The temptation wasn’t eased by the chaos that is the Ho Chi Minh traffic. In a city of 10 million people there are about 6 million motorbikes, only 90% of them are on the road. The rest are all over the pavements (sidewalks for the Americans); being driven on them or parked on them. Walking down the road often means literally doing that because the pavements are impassable on foot.

Next day we visited the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Vietcong and local resistance fighters in the guerrilla war with the American army. The “information” film about the heroic locals fighting off the evil American aggressors was hugely amusing – hardly biased at all. OK, it was hardcore propaganda. In the interests of balance I’d have to say the traps they used to maim the American soldiers were every bit as evil. On the way back to Ho Chi Minh we visited the War Remnants museum covering the physical, social and human effects of the Vietnam war. The human cost of the Agent Orange defoliant used by the American forces was truly horrific.

Hannah was keen to get back to Bangkok to do another massage course so we went our separate ways; she to Hanoi by plane and me to Hoi An by bus. Twenty four hours and two buses later I reached the pretty little seaside town. It’s the ideal location for anyone in the market for a new suit or seafood dinners. A much nicer place than Ho Chi Minh. I spent a day here but could have easily stayed two or three more and just chilled out.

Another two buses and nineteen hours later I reached Hanoi. As they say in SE Asia “same same but different” – smaller than Ho Chi Minh and with slightly less manic traffic. There were still motorbikes everywhere and billboards covered in propaganda posters for the elections held on 22 May. I arrived on a Friday and pretty much all the museums and tourist attractions were closed. It was grey and raining too so not a great day for sightseeing. All the tour booking offices were open though so I booked a three day two night trip to Ha Long bay leaving the next morning.

Cruising around Ha Long bay on a junk was lovely, the cave visit and kayaking not bad either. Overnight on the junk was nice and Cat Ba island was good too. The trekking was rather hazardous but no-one broke any bones on the slippery and uneven path or the jagged limestone and fortunately it wasn’t a stupidly hot day. The view from the hill we trekked up wasn’t really worth the effort and it was no better from the top of the precarious looking rusty iron tower which occupied the summit. Cat Ba town is another seaside town full of hotels and restaurants and a seafood aficionados delight. Outside all of the restaurants tanks of fish, crabs and shrimps waited for pointing fingers and “I’ll have that one” to condemn them to the cooking pot. In the harbour floating restaurants serviced by the waterborne equivalents of tuk-tuks looked rather sad during the day time. At night they were brilliantly lit and easily won the competition with the neon signs on the land based restaurants. It reminded me a lot of Blackpool.

In Vietnam the constant barrage of “tuk-tuk sir?” calls while walking around has been replaced by “motorbike sir?”. Polite, but every bit as irritating after the first few dozen  (ie: about two minutes) refusals. Despite this, after a few days the place is growing on me.

Heart of darkness

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Just three nights in Phnom Penh for us after a six hour bus ride from Siem Reap. First impression was totally manic traffic; mopeds and motorbikes everywhere – literally. And shiny new 4x4s, many of them pimped up. Opposite the anti-corruption police department HQ a string of three pimp-/Mafia-mobile dealers including Range Rover.

We met up with Joe and Phoebe on the first night and bumped into them again the next afternoon at the National Museum and Royal Palace.

We hired a tuk-tuk for our final day for the princely sum of US$10. First stop was the S-21 museum, one of the detention centres used by the Khmer Rouge for interrogating and torturing their victims. Harrowing is a pretty good way of describing it. It seems people are never so creative as when they’re inventing ways of hurting and killing each other. It’s also a damning indictment of the utterly stupid and unsustainable socialist and communist ideals. The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek were all the more haunting for having seen S-21 first. Having spent three months or so in S-21 being abused and tortured about 20,000 people were brought here over a period of three years to be clubbed to death and thrown into mass graves. Clubbing them to death was cheaper than shooting them. Estimates for the total number of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge range from 800,000 to 3,000,000. So much suffering and death, so incomprehensible.

The road to Choeung Ek was about the dustiest and smelliest I’ve encountered so far on this trip. Lorries, cars and bikes threw up the dust for the wind to blow in our faces. How the tuk-tuk driver managed to see where he was going I don’t know. We passed a building site employing the tried and trusted brick moving technique of a bloke on the ground lobbing them one at a time to his mate on the second floor. His mate was catching them one handed. We also passed a large hangar-like building which may have been called “Rock” with unlit neon signs saying “Tango” and “Cha cha”. Unfortunately I didn’t get to find out if it really was a dance hall, and if there really was tango to be danced there. Our final stop with our tuk-tuk driver was the Russian market. I sat in the air conditioned comfort of a nearby KFC. Hannah went on a gift shopping spree in the baking heat under the tin roof and bought up half the market.

After dinner and drinks that night we tried Phnom Penh’s most infamous club. The blurb I’d read described “Heart of darkness” as just about the seediest, sleaziest place imaginable. It’s also supposed to be the playground for the city’s spoilt young rich things. Six bouncers on the door made sure no-one took in anything they shouldn’t. Inside there was a smallish bar with punters, hookers and curious tourists. To the right a half full pokey little dance floor. Cheesy old dance music from not the world’s greatest DJ gave people something to move to and we joined in. The DJ changed at midnight, the mixing became smoother and the floor filled up. I spent three out of the four hours we were there dancing with a pretty Cambodian woman. I assume she was a she, and not a lady boy. It wasn’t tango, it wasn’t west coast swing, nor even modern jive; just clubbing. But it was dancing and I loved it. A nice antidote to the horrors of what we’d seen in the morning. If “Heart of Darkness” really is the sleaziest club in town then the others must be filled with nuns and choirboys. We left just after 3am for a couple of hours sleep before catching the bus to Ho Chi Minh.

As usual, there are photos at Flickr.