Sunday, May 30, 2004

In accordance with the fundamentally cyclical nature of travellers everywhere I travelled to the south coast of Cambodia last week and a town entitled Sihanoukville. I went there expecting sun, surf, white sandy beaches and interesting people.

What I saw was: MONSOON!

In a way it was a blessed relief. Phnom Penh has a kind of permanent cushion of humidity surrounding it. Every night I've spent in Cambodia's capital has featured a thunderstorm on the horizon but never above my head. So to travel to underneath the storms was nice in that I could sit, in one place, and not find myself drenched in my own sweat. In Sihanoukville I soaked up the weather like a person used to the cold might soak up the sun. I had gone to the coast and I was rain bathing. It was not what I had expected but that was just fine.

I do like Cambodia; the people here are so chilled out. As you might know if you have been following my travels, I have come here via Vietnam. In Vietnam, if a local approaches a tourist (us Westerners stick out somewhat) with goods or a service to sell and receives the answer "no", that salesperson would continue to follow you. I get the impression that "no" is seen as a bartering step, meaning "yes, but not at tht price". Here in Cambodia, "no" means "no" - which as a tourist is much more pleasant. While Vietnam could feel seedy and with a few dodgy characters, Cambodia has none of that. Even the chaps at the shooting range - where you might expect it to be a bit dodgy - were the salt of the Earth. I'll be sad to leave here as the pace of life is so relaxed and the people so happy, even despite the poverty here and the recent history of this country.

Seventy five per cent of the Cambodian population is under 25. The future of this country will rest almost entirly with this generation of kids; and it looks to my untrained eye like the future will be alright. There appears to be no adolescent revolution against the older generation, the teenagers are savvy, clever and friendly; and the society is increasingly liberal and content (although some parts of the culture is conservative, like attitudes towards couples kissing in public, or nudity - definitely both frowned upon, I know this due to books rather than any bad experiences).

Tomorrow I leave Phnom Penh (again) to travel north to Siem Reap and the site of the most furious period of temple construction anywhere. This includes Angkor Wat, the biggest religious building in the world. Angkor Beer meanwhile is the most cheap and delicious beer in the world. 28 pence per glass? Yes please...

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Here I am in possibly the world's hugest adult adventure playground. Not that that is necessarily a good thing. Somewhere in this land resides Gary Glitter including his desire for young children - and I bet he can get them here too. Not that I've seen any of that sort of thing, but the law here is just a word - actually I don't even know if there is a Khmer word for 'law'. Anyway, should one drive down the wrong side of the road at night with your headlights switched off and a huge reefer billowing pungent smoke everywhere, you might solicit a smiling wave from the police - but probably not any hassle. The pizza restaurants here serve "happy" pizzas. Pizzas are inanimate so as such aren't happy, but the consumers of them certainly will be after half-an-hour or so...

Now most politicians might have you believe that such a situation is a recipe for crime, murder and general mayhem; however Phnom Penh is a laid back and friendly city where the locals smile and say hello but occasionally try to dislodge monkeys from the trees around Wat Phnom by shaking the trees and laughing. Which isn't very nice. But at least they aren't shooting each other which is pretty good news for any philosophical anarchists as the sheer amount of weaponry left over from the years of the Khmer Rouge is huge (so I'm told).

Phnom Penh in all its sprawling glory

The average wage here for many is $20 a month so some creative military types have used that military surplus to their advantage by setting up shooting ranges for tourists to try hand guns, M15s, Rocket Propelled Grenades, and various other miscellaneous weaponry. I can't remember the prices but one chap who has already visited it told me that RPGs are $200 and that the cow is an extra $50... Shocking. I've yet to meet anyone who thinks that murdering a cow or chicken for a laugh is actually funny or fun - but I don't speak to the hunting types who populate Britain's countryside. The most visited range is near the Killing Fields - and anyone who's seen that cannot possibly relish the idea of bloodlust. I will take in this horrible scene of human suffering on Monday or Tuesday.

Backed by the Chinese and the Thais, the Khmer Rouge murdered two million Cambodians in a period of radical Communism starting from 1975 until 1978. In Cambodia in 1975, Pol Pot declared the calendar should start again at year zero. If one spoke a foreign language or even wore glasses you would be for the chop. Which is almost literally true as the cost of the bullets was beginning to get too costly. Babies would frequently get bludgeoned to death because they were not born into a peasant family. Thankfully the Vietnamese invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge at the end of 1978. And so bitter were the Americans towards the Vietnamese that they actually helped the most extreme Communists in world history maintain a guerilla war through the eighties merely because it was Vietnam who had brought it all down. The British backed the Americans through all this of course, and the Chinese as usual were throwing money towards the cause of evil as well.

Elections did not return to Cambodia until 1993 and the Khmer Rouge did not disappear until as recently as 1998 with the death of Pol Pot. Murders from the years of Pol Pot are estimated to be as high as three-and-a-half million. Cambodia is now an up and coming country, which is youth dominated and which wears a smile. It is really uplifting to see the people getting back onto their feet and enjoying life. That is why Phnom Penh is one of the most exciting places I have ever been to.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

There is a definite cycle to this traveling malarky. It goes: city, mountains, beach, city, mountains, beach, and so on. And so it came to be that after descending from the peaks of north-west Vietnam we should head for the near-coast town of Hoi An and all its associated tailors.

Halong Bay was both beautiful and enjoyable. Firstly because it consists of thousands of separate island and caves and secondly because Vietnamese people trying to hawk me stuff don't generally get out to sea much. Halong bay is a World Heritage Site, which means it gets all sorts of special protection; but that doesn't stop ships captains' tossing their plastic bags of rubbish into the water. We went as part of a tour with six other travelers - I would definitely recommend such a thing as it is a great way to meet like-minded individuals from across the world.

Halong Bay in some of its glory...

And meeting such people in the days since Halong have caused me to realise how ridiculously expensive my home city of London really is. During my only day back in Hanoi I got chatting to a local who was studying English at university. Now remember folks, to work out a price in Vietnamese dong one must multiply the British pound by 27,000. 27 is a bastardly awkward number to work with. Also bear in mind that a long distant bus takes 12 hours might cost about 50,000 dong. And furthermore I ask you to consider that I am not doing the patronising phonetic representation of my Vietnamese chum's attempts at English; although it was rather good anyway.

"How much does it cost you to get to work in the morning?"

"Er.... *insert many seconds of furious thinking here* about 150,000 dong."

*makes face of surprise and concern* "How much do cigarettes cost?"

Ah. This was easy - it's the same price: "150,000 dong." I reply speedily looking smug as if I had just done the maths again but in super quick time.



A packet of Marlboro Lights here in Vietnam cost about 17,000 dong I am told by those who buy such things. Which is a mixed blessing for them I guess. I also guess that with no regulations on what the evil tobacco manufacturers can stick (get it? Weak pun there) into their product, ciggies here probably contain something nasty and highly addictive like heroin or the like.

"How much does a house cost in London?"

I baulk.

How much is the average London house price? I ask my friend Rob. "300,000 pounds" he reckons.

I baulk more - adding to the previous baulk - at the mathematics ahead of me. I decide to estimate a rough approximation. It's a billion dong I believe.

I put on my best Ren and Stimpy voice:

"A biiiilleeon dong!" I exclaim. It turns out I was wrong; the actual figure is more like 8,100,000,000 dong but he gets the message anyway: study English but don't visit England. Not unless you're prepared to be bank rolled by a Vietnamese tobacco company.

Yesterday I met a Japanese chap called Yoshio. After the initial and mandatory conversation about Manga and the marvelous Takeshi Kitano and his new film Zatoichi we move onto prices. Or rather I move the conversation on to it. I always thought that Tokyo, from where Yoshio hails,
was possibly the only city more expensive than London, but oh no. I won't bother with more details, but now I'm more pissed off than ever about the ridiculous expense us Londoners' are put through on a regular basis. Yoshio pays $100 a month for his Tokyo apartment.


Today I paid $35 to get a tailor made tuxedo. It is very nice thankyouverymuch. Such an item would cost me double this to rent one for a weekend - although to be fair it would probably cost double anywhere else. I'm still baulking.

Finally here is a very sad man indeed. Or is it just a spoof website? Don't send your answers to me.

Fruits in Vietnam.Try the Sapodilla. Yummy.