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Tales from a Rolling Stone

Riding Bikes and Crashing Bikes

CAMBODIA | Friday, 30 January 2009 | Views [719] | Comments [1]

Alright, so I have ages to catch up on which means that what I write about Hong Kong is going to be brief.  Both because a) this entry is going to be painfully long, and b) because HK can pretty much be described as 5th Avenue meets China Town plus the lights of Times Square...on steroids.   Otherwise, all that you really need to know is that the city has everything from ancient Chinese temples, to more markets than I could count on both hands, enough high-end shopping to make NYC or London look pathetic in comparison, and of course, beaches. And that the metal bunk bed I was sleeping on at HK's version of a hostel was the same bunk I saw at an exhibit on Chinese tenament houses from the 1950s. (Oh, and the "hostel" itself? A room behind a shower curtain on the 13th floor of a 20 story building with six tenament style bunk beds and kids running in and out from 6am on and a paper sign over the door.  Lovely.)

 But moving on.

Deciding HK would be much too expensive to have a proper New Years Eve, I hopped a plane to Bangkok for the celebration and treated myself to a more backpacker friendly hostel, which instead of children, had free NYE beer and snacks.  Meeting a wild group made up of Peace Corps volunteers and English teachers on a much needed holiday from China and Kazakhstan, we made our way to the Times Square of Thailand for live music, a miniaure ball drop, and parties late into the night, ending American style with some late night macaroni and cheese at Hard Rock Cafe before taking a traditional tuk tuk death ride back to the hostel.

Less than a day later, I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, known for the largest religious site in the world, Angkor Wat, which was built by Hindu and Buddhist royalty nearly 1000 years ago. Now if I was stunned by Machu Picchu, I was just as impressed by the beauty of Angkor Wat, as it looked like it came straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. (One of the temples was actually a site for the movie Tomb Raider.) Unfortunately, the young girls pulling at the heart strings with the "Lady, lady I don't go to school, buy from me, buy from me!" was a sad twist to the experience, although my sympathy waned as one yelled at us to leave her country when we wouldn't buy a postcard from her even though we'd just paid her $6 for three drinks (an astronomical price when the average per capita yearly income is $260). Ready to get off of the tourist track, I found a lesser known quad-biking tour and spent the rest of my time in Siem Reap exploring the countryside that way, loving the houses on stilts, endless rice paddies, and dozens of children waving and yelling "Hello! Hello!"

My next stop was Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia although seldom visited by tourists. Deciding the best way to get out of town was to rent a motorcycle and driver, I spent two days as a spectator to "real" Cambodian life, seeing everything from a fish paste making plant to a visit to an orphanage. Now I understand why people go to foreign countries and end up with a child.  Talking to the kids and spending my morning playing a game of soccer with them was a phenomenal experience, and easily one of the highlights of my travels so far.

Sihanoukville was next and nothing more needs to be said aside from $2 for a room on the beach, $2 crab on the beach, $.25 happy hours, casinos, miniature golf, and $3 pedicures on the sand.  Oh, and if you wanted it, you could also enhance the experience by making your pizza or milkshake "happy" or "very happy" for an extra buck.  Seemingly a haven for bad decision making, I made one of my own and decided it would be a good place to rent a motorcycle and teach myself how to ride - a manual nonetheless. I crashed right in front of the guy who rented it to me, but after that was pretty good to go. Not one of my smartest ideas, but definitely one of the more exciting.

My last stop in Cambodia was Phnom Penh. If HK was organized chaos, Phnom Penh was entropic. I cannot tell you how many times a tuk tuk driver tried to sell me his services while I still had one foot in another one. Their favorite offer aside from offering drugs was to take you to the shooting range to shoot AK-47s and rocket launchers, and had the rocket launchers not been $200, there would have been some pretty respectable destruction curtosy of yours truly.  Good thing it was $200, because instead, I spent my time touring the killing fields and war museum, documenting the bruatal reign of Pol Pot and genocide that took the lives of a quarter of the Cambodian population during the 1970s.

To get to my next destination, I decided to take a boat ride down the Mekong Delta. It seemed like a cool way to get to Vietnam, until it ended up being a 16 hour journey to cover a mere 220km (less than 150 miles). Not my best use of time, and I was punished sorely when the six hour bus ride from the dock had a barfing dog cuddled near my feet.

Luckily, the 16 hour ride from hell was not in vain, as that is how I met Erica, an American living in Perth and the girl who ended up being my saving grace in Vietnam for the next two weeks.

Knowing that we were already cutting Vietnam short by only giving it 14 days, we only spent one day in Saigon, which is where we met Joey.  Now Joey was our local guide through the Cu Chi Tunnels, and didn't quite have the sensor that most organized tour guides have, for it only took minutes on the bus for him to start spouting out his response when men ask him for sex, how he doesn't mind homosexuals but minds the lady-boys (insert his impression of a lady-boy), what he felt about the Catholics who supposedly eat cat and dog (righht), the Taiwanese who eat monkey, and Barak Obama the chocolate baby.  And did we know what a chocolate baby was?  His absurdity was hilarious and I honestly didn't know if I should get him fired or give him a standing ovation. 

Anyhow, although the amount of tourists at the Cu Chi Tunels made it feel like I was getting shuffled through Disneyland, it illuminated the booby trapping genius of the Vietcong and left me quite clear on why the US left defeated.  Joey especially liked to highlight the fact that the Americans' marijuana habits gave them asses that couln't fit into the tunnels like their petite enemies.

Our next stop was Dalat, where Erica and I immediately hired two men on motorcycles to take us on a five day journey up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Hoi An on the central east coast of Vietnam.  The five days on the back of the bikes were brilliant, as we became one of very few tourists with the privilege of witnessing daily Vietnamese life outside the cities.  Each day we stopped to interact with the people, and by the time the excursion was up, had learned how they make silk, curry, bricks, two kinds of noodles, rice paper, rice wine, pepper, coffee, and sugar.  We were also invited to a Vietnamese wedding and learned useful phrases such as "Happy New Year," "Have good health" and "You are a banana (and you are a pomelo)."

Having heard great things about Hoi An, our arrival was quite a shock to the system as we went from the only white people for days to one of dozens.  Uneasy with the touristy scene, Erica and I left immediately and found ourselves in Da Nang.  There, we spent the day walking around with locals and making friends with our moto-taxi drivers who ended up taking us out to coffee and giving us free rides, contingent on us telling them "Em yu am," or "I love you" in Vietnamese.  My vocabulary was improving vastly.

With our time in Vietnam nearing an end, we spent our last few days in Sa Pa, a mountainous town bordering China and easily my favorite place there.  For three days we trekked around the hills, rice paddies, and traditional villages, escorted by village girls who would tell us about their families and lives - buying trinkets for their services and doing our best to politely shoo away all of their friends who would appear saying "Buy from me too!  You promised you would buy from me!"  (No I didn't!)

Needing to get back to Hanoi to catch our flights, Erica and I went local and took the hard seats on the train since that was all that was available.  Not quite the comfortable sleeper cars we took there, the hard seat section (see: wooden benches) was full of women selling hardboiled eggs into the wee hours, people sleeping on the floor on newspaper, children sitting on my bag, and grates on the windows to give the appearance that we were caged in.  Good night sleep?  I think not, but a worthwhile experience nonetheless.

Having gotten close in our two weeks together, saying goodbye to Erica was tough, but she had to get going to Laos and I had plans to visit my friend Anish in Singapore to ring in the Chinese New Year.

Now, if I mentioned shock to the system before, Singapore was that - ten fold.  Asia-light, as Anish calls it, Singapore is very modern and hosts a large expat community, so with the Starbucks every few blocks and shopping malls with the Gap, it felt like I'd been transported home.  I sure as hell wasn't in Vietnam anymore.  In any case, much was closed down for the New Year, so aside from a traditional dinner at a friend's place and an open house a the Prime Minister's house, we had a pretty low-key week of exploring and catching up on movies.

Thailand was next and I now understand why it's such the tourist destination that it is: while I've seen some beautiful beaches in my life, I've never seen any that look quite like this.  I spent one week between two islands, one known as the location for the film, "The Beach," and the other notorious for its Full Moon Parties and $5 buckets of vodka-redbull.  Expecting a wild time after a pretty mellow few weeks, everyone I met was a moron so I ended up spending most of the time reading and ultimately passing on the big party for a $6 massage and movie in a bar.  (It's really common for bars in Thailand and Cambodia to play new movies or Friends reruns to sucker you in, which toally works.)

That was last week, and I have since spent another few days in Bangkok with some friends I met in Cambodia and arrived in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand this morning.  Here, I plan on getting some trekking in before heading off to another town or two in Thailand, and then off to Laos and Australia.  Australia's a recent addition to the trip, but for $400 r/t from Malaysia I just couldn't resist.  Otherwise, it looks like Africa's set for the last week of March or first week of April, but of course, I'm ever waiting for more details.

All my love, and I'll do my best to write more frequently :)



Man, now I know what I don't read your blogs because they make me so insanely jealous! Lol, but enough about me, it sounds like you are having the adventure of a lifetime. Joey seemed pretty cool for having horny dudes trying to get at his junk all the time, I bet one guy on the tour in the back, was just like "ooooooh, damnit." But seriously, I have no idea what I am typing about. Anyway, in a slight transition from transvestites and gay jokes, happy Valentines day! The best thing I can hope for you is that you don't end up behind my shower or something... :-)


  Chew Feb 15, 2009 4:35 AM

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