Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Friday 17th September 2004

On Wednesday I renewed my acquaintance with the Mekong, arriving in Phnom Penh. That evening I strolled along the river front, a neat, well-kept strip. Flags and elaborate lamp posts line the water, while on the other side of the road, shops offer the usual services - 'Khmer Food Served Here', 'Phone/Internet Access', 'Welcome, Please Check Our Menu', along with the odd incongruity: 'We Make All Kinds of Coffin'. As well as the men lounging over motorbikes I had grown used to in Hanoi, there is also a proliferation of beggars and hawkers plying their trade - the majority of them children, or the physically disabled (or both).

Other parts of the city offer the same odd marriage between the grand and the destitute. Wide boulevards run the length of Phnom Penh, containing lofty neo-colonial facades and pleasantly landscaped pavements, while directly off these sprout small dirt tracks, cluttered with wooden shacks, cows and chickens.

Yesterday I rejected scooting around the city on a back of a motorbike, in favour of a taxi, which I commandeered for the day. The driver, Vannah, drove me 15km out of the city to the site of the killing fields at Cheoung Ek, the Khmer Rouge extermination camp closest to Phnom Penh - there are other killing fields dotted throughout the country. On walking into the site the visitor is immediately presented with the Memorial Stupa, a tall pagoda-like structure which contains a small glass box full of clothes and over 8,000 skulls. A path then leads to the site of the mass graves. Here, the track meanders around the edges of dozens of large holes, pits which have so far offered up the remains of nearly 9,000 people. Next to many of the graves are pots, into which newly unearthed bones are placed, some of them full. Half-buried pieces of coloured cloth liberally scatter the site, embedded in the earth, the remnants of the victims' clothes. And around the killing field children play and beg, offering to take tourists' photos ("Picture for money...1,2,3 smile, yes?") and cattle lazily chew the cud. As I was to realise later in the day, the real horror of Democratic Kampuchea can't be found here, despite the thousands bludgeoned to death. As another tourist I spoke to said, "Cheoung Ek is easy on the eye." He meant comparatively.

Vannah then suggested I should go and shoot some guns. I had read the Lonely Planet's disapproving lecture on the shooting ranges of Phnom Penh, which suggested these are underground organisations, where, for $100 tourists can machine gun a cow. That book is going straight in the bin. Although I felt a little uncomfortable given the morning's sight-seeing, I agreed with no reluctance and I was driven to a range near the airport on a military training base. I was unable to use the indoor range, as a delegation from the American embassy had booked it for the entire day, so, along with a Danish couple also there, I was to blaze away on a strip of land under the glaring sun, a long stretch of burnt grass leading up to a target depicting a swarthy looking gentleman advancing with a gun.

A man wearing the range's t-shirt, bearing the legend 'Mess With the Best, Die Like the Rest' handed me a K54 handgun. 8 shots later and the swarthy gentleman, apart from a wound in his shoulder, was looking a bit too healthy. The sights must have been off...

Then I was handed the AK-47 Kalashnikov, and with it 30 rounds. I lifted the gun to my shoulder - the metal was hot from the sun, and I felt the rawness as I lodged the butt into my still sunburnt shoulder. I lined up the sights and started shooting. Each time I pulled the trigger, a wisp of smoke rose from the weapon and I was greeted with the smell of cordite. The gun kicked back a bit, but not as much as I had expected, although when I took my t-shirt off later in the day, a small blotch of broken blood vessels showed where the gun had jolted back. After 10 or so rounds, I was having trouble - sweat poured into my eyes, and my right arm supporting the length of the AK was beginning to shake. The AK-47 is a lot heavier than any of the SA-80s or shotguns I have fired in the past, and eventually I decided to go down on one knee to shoot the remaining rounds, in order to support my weak arm. I have to admit that I wondered how the small child soldiers in the Congo handle such weapons. This time I was satisfied to get back a more impressively holed target, with some tight grouping around the chest area.

Later in the day I visited Tuol Sleng, the former high school the Khmer Rouge turned into S-21 Prison. It was from here that the dead at Cheoung Ek started their journey, although many never got that far, and after 1979 hundreds of bodies were exhumed from the grounds around the prison. From the outside the prison looks like a grim inner-city school, except more so, its walls dull and stained, the paint peeling. Once through the gates I was offered an English speaking guide to accompany me around part of the place. I'm glad I accepted as, although many of the rooms and pictures speak for themselves, the captions are in Khmer only and my guide explained them and gave extra information about S-21 and that time, including that her father and brother had been executed by Angkar.

The first classroom we entered set the tone for the whole compound. In it is a bare metal bed and resting on it some shackles and a jerry can. Above the bed on the wall is a large photo, taken by the invading Vietnamese forces in 1979 when they discovered the prison. It depicts the same bed, identifiable from unique bends in the metalwork. On the bed is the twisted corpse of a man, and on the man two birds peck away at his insides. In the other classrooms in this wing there are similar beds and similar images. By 1979 Khmer Rouge had started killing Khmer Rouge, the natural conclusion to four years of auto-genocide. The 14 bodies the Vietnamese found were the last inhabitants of the jail, and all Khmer Rouge.

Other buildings in Tuol Sleng contain instruments and descriptions of torture, including water barrels, scorpion and centipede cages and electric cables. Elsewhere remain the tiny cells the prisoners were kept in, shackled to the floor. One block remains exactly as it was, the front of the building covered in barbed wire, a crudely made wooden gate for entry - the wire was to stop prisoners jumping from the upper terraces to kill themselves. On the third floor of one building I watched a documentary about the prison and the rule of Angkar. As well as featuring an interview with one of the only 9 survivors of the prison and a former guard, it focused on a couple of inmates there, a husband and wife, and interviewed their ancient relatives in remote parts of the country, who until the making of the film were never certain what happened to their son and daughter.

But perhaps the most terrifying indication of the brutality and horror of S-21 and the Khmer Rouge's years in power are the photographs of the prisoners. Over 10,000 people were incarcerated here, and their photos are arranged in part by gender and age. The faces stare at the camera, some in open terror, others confusion. A few squint into the light, their blindfolds obviously just having been removed. Many appear to puff their chest out to the camera. Closer examination reveals this is because their hands are tied tightly behind their backs, while their heads are pushed forward, kept upright with a special adapted contraption. A woman, the wife of a former minister, cradles her baby, and looks morosely into the lens. If you look closely you can see a tear trickling down her face. In one section are the pictures of children, heart-rending photos of scared or oblivious faces; all the little girls, like the women, have their hair cut at shoulder length, in accordance with Angkar's instructions - Pol Pot was an ardent supporter of Mao's China and ordered the women to cut their hair as the Chinese communists did. The regime killed whole families, including children, so no one could seek revenge.

On other walls there are pictures of the foreigners tortured here, mostly businessmen caught out by the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. Other foreigners include Vietnamese soldiers captured towards the end of the Khmer Rouge's reign - a beautiful Vietnamese soldier looks defiantly at her photographer. She is distinguishable as Vietnamese on account of her long hair.

I went to Auschwitz a few years ago, a chilling place, despite the sunshine and the singing birds. But somehow here is more immediately horrifying. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it is because with unshaved heads, the Tuol Sleng victims are less dehumanised. Or maybe because this all happened so recently, or perhaps because this holocaust seems more base and earthy - most of the victims were bludgeoned to death with rifles or spades, sometimes sticks. This was to save ammunition.

In the evening, feeling sombre and also slightly chastened for my Rambo antics earlier in the day, I quietly ate a Khmer dish of fried rice and a pork sauce, which I had to eat with my hands. I chatted to the waitress as lightning silently flashed over the river.

63 - posted at 05:17:50

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Tuesday 14th September 2004

Another early start on Sunday morning, to wait around for the minibus to take me on the three hour journey to Ha Long Bay City. It turned up just after 8:00am, and then jostled through the city picking up a few other tourists. I was kept in suspense over who my companions on the boat would be - the bus picked up a couple of Australian girls and a handful of young English men (now I realise that Alan Partridge quotes are only funny when they come from my friends and how we must irritate those around us), but only a few minutes after they were picked up, the bus dropped them off at another bus onto which they were transferred. As it turned out, I was fortunate - the tour was to be a very small one, with only me and a young couple called Li-An and Wilde travelling together. They were not, as the latter's name may suggest, a couple of vacationing performers in the adult movie industry, but two residents of Hong Kong, so we had lots in common and they proved to be friendly and easy company.

Our tour guide was a young Vietnamese woman called Huong. She was chatty and informative and told us that she was actively looking for an Italian boyfriend, since she had seen Italian men on television and thought them very handsome. She was even taking lessons in Italian.

We had a huge boat to ourselves - there were more in the crew than tourists. The boat chugged off to Ha Long Bay, stopping at some caves full of the usual stalagmites and stalactites. Here Huong asked the first of many questions prefaced with the phrase, 'In your country...'.

'In your country do you have caves like this?' Before I could answer, in a mocking tone, she sang out 'Noooo!'

After a couple of hours the boat stopped in a huge natural amphitheatre, the surroundings formed by the various giant limestone karsts rising out of the water, each one wearing a scraping of foliage up the sides and on top. Despite the popularity of the place with tourists, it is large enough to mean that the boat weighed anchor in a place of relative isolation, with only two or three other boats sitting in the distance.

I jumped into the warm water and splashed around for a while, always with the slight fear that some creature from the deep would awaken, grab my ankle and pull me under. But in fact the only jaws I needed to fear were those of the young dog on board. I suffer from something that I have christened 'Stella Syndrome'. This consists of the ability to wind-up dogs to the extent that after my good-natured taunting of them, they won't leave me alone, and constantly pester me to play with them. I had wound-up the dog on the boat, and he mucked around with me, jumping up and grabbing my hands with his mouth. Then I went for a swim, and each time I climbed back on board he was waiting for me and followed me, gently biting my legs and pulling at my shorts.

After swimming I went kayaking, paddling off behind distant rocks and through the various floating villages. In the early evening I stopped paddling and drifted for a while, and watched the sun set behind a clump of rock. As I did a flock of exotic white birds with long yellow beaks flew in front of me and the moment was perfect.

We had dinner on board the boat. As we sat down at the table a huge insect careered around the light bulb and the food. The dog leapt at it, twisting his body to catch it in his jaws. He was dragged away by one of the crew, and for some reason soundly thrashed, while another member of the crew simply stretched out his hand and caught the flying menace. The dinner was pleasant, but we were vaguely disturbed by the cockroaches scuttling around the benches. Wilde said that previously she hadn't been sure what a cockroach was, which surprised me since she came from Hong Kong.

Later I headed to my cabin, a cosy little wooden box, with a poster of Britney Spears on the wall. I doused myself in Jungle Juice as earlier I had seen bugs scurrying off under the beds when I entered, and identified red ants and what I thought was a bed bug on the bed I didn't sleep on. The next morning I was thankfully bite free, but ruined this good fortune later by reading on the deck in my shorts and getting burnt by the hazy morning sun. It was still pretty painful as I went to bed back in Hanoi that evening, and I felt a bit like the English Patient, except not quite as pretentious and without a beautiful French nurse to look after me.

This evening I'm still a little sensitive. Earlier I went to see the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre, a popular tourist diversion. The stage is flooded with water and puppets act out typical agricultural Vietnamese scenes and legends, while musicians play traditional tunes. Although a remembered quote 'farcical aquatic ceremony' floated into my head, it is far from this - instead it's an amusingly surreal and colourful spectacle. Apparently the art form developed hundreds of years ago in the water paddy fields of the Red River Delta. I bet in those days the peasants watching weren't disturbed by their mobile phones going off.

62 - posted at 13:42:15

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Saturday 11th September 2004

I got up early this morning and hopped on a motorbike, which weaved its way across town to Ba Dinh Square, a large exapanse, on the side of which the squat grey mausoleum that holds Ho Chi Minh sits. I joined the queue of chattering weekend pilgrims and tourists, which, although long, moved at a steady pace alongside the square. After surrendering my bag at a reception point, and passing through a metal detector, I climbed the marble stairs just inside the mausoleum, thinking how odd it was that I was going to see the body of someone who had died before I was born.

In the main room, where the lights were dimmed, a solemn silence descended. The line moved wordlessly around the slightly raised platform, framing the black gilded glass case. At each corner of the case a soldier stood to attention, rifle by his side - they were dressed in an all white uniform, including pristine caps. Although this almost gave them the appearance of stewards on a cruise ship, a respectful degree of decorum was maintained.

Inside the box lies Uncle Ho, his pale head resting on a pillow, the ends of his beard tickling the top button of his jacket. His lower half is covered by a thin black sheet, his spidery hands lying tranquilly on top.

Outside, I couldn't help think that it was all rather sad. Firstly, because Ho died before the end of the Vietnam War and never got to see the unified independent Vietnam that he had dedicated his life to creating. And secondly because all this - the mausoleum, the soldiers, the muted pomp - was against his express wishes. In his will Ho Chi Minh directed that he was to be cremated and his ashes interred in the north, centre and south of the country, each site marked only by a small shelter - rather than be pumped full of formaldehyde and gawped at by capitalist Westerners like me.

After the mausoleum a path led me past the presidential palace, and the wooden house on stilts where Ho supposedly spent his last years pottering around the garden, and I suppose running the country. The house, with its varnished wood, comfortable furnishings and electricity supply looked very cosy to me. I started to get a little frustrated with the tourists seeing everything with a camcorder or camera stuck to their eyes, hindering my movement in case I got in shot, and in one case asking me to move with shooing motions, so a Japanese man could stand in my place to have his picture taken. I told him to wait, slightly impolitely...very impolitely.

I took a quick turn around the polished Ho Chi Minh museum and headed up to the Museum OF Military History, full of patriots and accounts of victories against the French and Americans, as well as some more ancient battles. The courtyard in front of the museum is scattered with the wreckage of planes and other weapons brought down or captured by the Viet Cong during 'The American War of Destruction'. But by the time I left the place I had grown weary of the endless energy of the Ho Chi Minh hagiography - and also of the endless solicitations of motorcycle taxis, cyclos and pirated guide book sellers.

I found refuge in the Temple of Literature, a spacious and placid Confucian temple and former centre of learning. It contains, amongst other things, around 80 large stone stelae, some almost 500 years old. Dating from the 15th Century, they are inscribed in Chinese with the results of examinations taken at the National Academy (part of the temple) each standing on a sculpted stone tortoise - more impressive to have than any diploma or degree certificate. The temple also allowed me to pass through doorways with names like 'The Gate of Great Success' with impunity. When I'm travelling alone it doesn't seem to take much to entertain myself.

It was hot, I was tired and had walked all day. I took a cyclo back to the Old Quarter. Cyclos differ to rick-shaws in that the bicycle part of the contraption is at the back. Propelled along the streets, sitting back in the comfortable beaded covered seat at the front of the cyclo, I regretted a Moore era Bond movie hadn't been set in Hanoi, as this was exactly the kind of vehicle Roger would travel around in, probably to a Vietnamese rendition of the theme tune.

61 - posted at 14:21:41

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Friday 10th September 2004

The next morning I headed out of the Old Quarter towards the offices of Vietnam Airlines. I walked down the edge of Hoam Kiem Lake, a placid body of water surrounded by a narrow strip of park. The streets outside the Old Quarter are wider and less tumultous, but the roads are still seething with motorbikes and other traffic, and I had to learn, fairly quickly, the knack to crossing them. If I were to wait by the side of the road, waiting for a gap in the traffic I would get nowhere - the gap could never materialise. Instead, against my basic survival instincts, I had to mimic Hanoians - the key is to walk very slowly into the mass of traffic and rely on your own and the bikers' spatial awareness. The bikes rush past on either side of the crosser's vulnerable body, but finally the other side is reached. At first, it is a terrifying business, but after practice I managed to banish the impending sense of dread when approaching road sides.

I stopped off on the way at the general post office to buy stamps, and bought some unnecessary postcards from a genial hawker with a soft spot for Thierry Henry. At Vietnam Airlines I was sent to Thai Airlines, and thus entered dialogue with a third company. But they were extremely helpful and endorsed the change in my ticket, meaning (hopefully) all is now well. They also laid the blame squarely at the feet of Trailfinders, from whom I had bought the tickets.

I then skirted the other side of the lake, gathered my thoughts in Den Ngoc Son, a Taoist/Buddhist/Confucianist temple on an island in Hoam Kiem, and dived back into the Old Quarter, where I spent most of the day walking, looking at the faded shopfronts and time-stained buildings and the life that teems below them. On some of the streets, the leaves from the trees stretch over the road, mingling with those from the other side, creating tunnels and adding to the intense, almost claustrophobic, feel of the area. I walked north through a busy covered market, out of the quarter and onto the Long Bien bridge, a rusting iron lattice-work rail and road crossing. I stopped halfway across and watched the Red River for a while. Up here, Hanoi as a city stops dead at its banks - on the other side, there are only half-hearted suburbs, countryside and small villages.

Back in the Old Quarter, I found myself alone in the Museum of Independence, situated in the house Ho Chi Minh lived for a while while drafting the Declaration of Independence, which led to the country's first brief spell as an independent Vietnam in 1945. Ho Chi Minh fascinates me - seemingly an unassuming and egalitarian intellectual, he led many lives before eventually leading Vietnam, including working as a docker in Brooklyn and as a chef in London.

And today I struck out into the French Quarter, a place of elegant boulevards and villa lined avenues. Walking west, I sought out Cho 19-12, three very narrow covered alleys in which a market thrives, mainly selling food. Although each alley is no more than six feet wide and crowded with people, motorbikes still trundle up and down. One of the alleyways contains snails, fish and other water based creatures, as well as cages full of rabbits, chickens and other assorted live animals. The other streets sell noodles, vegetables and dead, sometimes cooked, animals. The dog I saw back in Guilin was hanging in a restaurant window, roasted an appetising golden brown. Here though, the stalls selling dogs are very different (as I assume the dogs for sale other than in restaurants in China also are). Piles of skinned and cooked canine carcasses (boiled I think) were piled on tables, some chopped into smaller portions, others whole, with their rigid tales sticking out onto the street and their teeth bared in a final snarl. Although dog meat is meant to be warming and bring good luck, I don't think, in normal circumstances, I could ever knowingly eat it. Call it Western hypocrisy if you wish, but for a start I could never look Archie in the face again.

I then visited Hoa Loa Prison (or what's left of it) and Chua Quan Su, the Abassadors' pagoda. The former houses an exhibition which focusses on the grim incarnation of the place as a prison where the French colonialists kept 'patriots and revolutionary fighters' and contains two guillotines used to execute prisoners. A small part of the exhibition deals with the Americans who were kept here during the Vietnam War. They dubbed it the 'Hanoi Hilton'. Those Americans...

The pagoda is a quiet oasis, where monks live and learn. It also contains one of the most elaborate centre pieces in any Buddhist temple I have yet been to - a feast of red and gold, it is preceded by a large lantern, up the sides of which slender dragons climb towards a gold effigy of a young Buddha standing on top, two of his fingers pointing to the earth and two to the sky. Although images of Saturday Night Fever impulsively entered my head, frustratingly I have no idea what this gesture means. Behind the lantern at least eight tall gold figures stand and sit, surrounded by an enlarged collection of the usual trimmings.

Then a ramble back to the hotel. At one point I stopped for a pot of tea, and was disturbed by the jabber of small children. I looked onto the street and crowds of them were passing by, in white shirts with red scarves tied around their necks, and school bags fastened to their backs. 10 minutes later I finished my tea and they were still streaming past. I joined them on the pavement. Suddenly, other similarly attired chidren were also coming from the opposite direction. Shopkeepers were closing their doors for safety, and as the chattering surrounded me I was momentarily reminded of the insects at Pak Ou Caves. Then I turned a corner, and it was just me again - and the thousands of horn-happy motorists.

60 - posted at 13:20:57

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Thursday 9th September 2004

After lazily lying in on Tuesday I visited Wat Xieng Thang, the largest Wat in Luang Prabang. Steps lead to its entrance from the river, but I entered halfway up, at the level of the road, where the steps are flanked by two effigies of giant white cats, with sharp, fierce looking teeth. On reflection, perhaps they are meant to be tigers. The Wat is an enjoyable assembly of ornate buildings covered in mosaics of coloured glass, between which children run and shout, monks look pensive and chickens roost in trees.

Later on in the day, after pacing the streets once more (I felt I could do it forever) I wound up back at L'Estranger and drank tea and read again. Suddenly the shrill accent of an American announced she had been given a clutch of DVDs and the few of us sitting around had to choose which film we wanted to watch, and 21 Grams was duly played. After the film I briefly popped next door to The Hive, Luang Prabang's 'trendiest' bar and eventually wound up having a late supper in a restaurant, chatting to the waiter, who had come from the countryside after his studies to earn money so he could go back and marry his girlfriend.

The next morning I had a pleasant final breakfast by the river, and then got on a tuk-tuk to the tiny airport. And there the problems began. At the check-in desk, they had a record that said my flight to Vientiane had been cancelled, back on the 2nd September. As this was long before any required re-confirmation date, I could only assume that a mistake had been made somewhere. However, they also added that my connecting flight from Vientiane to Hanoi, did not technically exist. Neither did my flight in a week's time to Cambodia. Luckily there was space on the plane and I made it to Vientiane, where, with three hours to spare I had difficult conversations with Lao Aviation and Vietnam Airlines. I summoned my Hong Kong training, remembering that getting angry and openly frustrated is akin to losing face, and it helped me get some answers, and also, again with luck, onto the plane to Hanoi. They told me at Vientiane airport that my ticket was wrong - it said I was flying to Vietnam and Cambodia by Lao Aviation. They made no such flights on the date concerned - my ticket should have had me on flights with Vietnam Airlines, and I was told to try and change my ticket in Hanoi. Having sorted things out to some extent, I sat outside the quiet airport waiting for my flight, composing in my head an angry letter to whoever was responsible.

As the plane flew out of Laos, I looked down on the endless paddy fields, forest and villages and thought about the country. From the mere 6 days I spent there I found the people overwhelmingly friendly, and the atmosphere beautifully laid back and gentle. But most of the country is crippingly poor, nowadays partly because Laos tragically carries the mantle of The Most Bombed Country in the World (by the US Government, naturally). Many of the bombs failed to detonate, making over a quarter of the land unworkable. I tried to imagine the bombed villages, full of people not knowing who was bombing them or why, but of course, for me it is almost inconceivable.

The plane arrived in Hanoi and almost immediately I was whisked into a taxi, which, despite my instructions, took me to a random hotel, although it was, luckily in the Old Quarter where I was planning to stay. The driver was obviously working on a commission from the owner, who greeted me as I emerged from the car. He tried to tell me that the hotel we were at was in fact the one I had asked to go to. But I was already orientated enough to know that it wasn't even on the same street. I pointed out to him that the name on the door was completely different. He sneered and said that that was the Vietnamese name, a brazen lie given that, on top of the difference of streets, Vietnam adopted a Romanized script over a hundred years ago, and the names as written in guidebooks are the same as in the country. The hotel may have been good, but on principle I walked away. The owner looked very disappointed. I walked a hundred or so metres up the road and checked into another hotel.

Later in the evening I went for a walk around some of the streets of the Old Quarter, which after the calm of Luang Prabang seemed like some mad visceral hell. The narrow streets are crowded with a constant stream of motorbikes, cyclos and the odd car, but the pavements are also crammed with motorbikes, meaning the pedestrian has to deftly weave through the traffic. The buildings are multi-coloured and noisy, hordes of people walk, sit and eat on the streets and motorbike taxis and restaurants continually hawk for trade.

I collapsed into bed, exhausted but excited - although also a little daunted by the prospect of having to sort out my ticket troubles.

59 - posted at 14:49:48

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