A corner of Far East communism

Trip Start Dec 28, 2010
Trip End Jul 15, 2011

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I wanted to visit South East Asia because I knew it would provide such a huge contrast to Western culture and lifestyle. As I've passed through picturesque and troubled Cambodia by public bus, and moved eastward into Vietnam, up along the South China Sea coastline by train, then moved westward again into Laos, I have not been disappointed.

This corner of the developing world really makes you appreciate what you have at home too. Hardship and poverty exists at nearly every turn in these countries. Add to these issues, an incredibly hot and oppressively humid climate, and I realise living in the UK is a privilege really. Yet despite the economic and health inadequacies, and the war torn legacies, the people here appear to be hardy, entrepreneurial (verging on scamming sometimes!) and optimistic.

The penultimate leg of my travels began with a seven hour bus trip from Bangkok in Thailand, across into Cambodia and to the town of Siem Reap. Although people in Thailand's countryside can't be called affluent in any way, the quality of housing decreases and the level of hardship increases moving further into the heart of Cambodia. It is beautiful though - pineapple, mango and dragon fruit plantations cover the land.

Cambodia is probably best known for its period of history between 1975 and 1979. During this time the notorious Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, overthrew the government and subjected Cambodians to a period of genocide that would cause world uproar today. In less than four years it is believed that Pol Pot directly and indirectly ordered the systematic murder of 1,700,000 of his fellow country people.

During Pol Pot's reign most of Cambodia's temples and important buildings were destroyed. But just outside of Siem Reap, the Angkor Wat temple, built in the 8th century, was left untouched. Some have called Angkor Wat the eighth wonder of the world, and apparently this spiritual place is now a source of national pride and inspiration. The Angkor symbol is everywhere, from being found on the national flag to being on the Angkor beer bottle (not bad actually, and only 30p a go!).

Travelling south into Cambodia's interior, I stopped for a few days in the capital, Phnom Penn. A wander around the huge Russian market here reveals a mass of knock off products! A theme for this part of the world! A copyright lawyer could spend ten years here and still not make a dent in the business of selling fake brands!

The most interesting and emotive element of Phnom Penn lies a few miles outside of the city. Here I visited the 'Killing Fields'. When the Khmer Rouge had finished torturing people at the infamous S-21 prison in Phnom Penn, they were blindfolded and transported to the countryside. They were then made to walk to the edge of huge open graves. To save ammunition, Khmer Rouge soldiers used to hit these people around the back of the head with pieces of wood, before throwing them into the graves. Over the last thirty years, many burial sites have been excavated, revealing mass graves and hundreds of bodies piled up, including children and babies.

After visiting the beaches along the south coast of Cambodia it was time to cross the border into Communist Vietnam. Through miles of paddy rice fields with people in straw, conical hats working the land is Vietnamīs most populated city of Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh City).

Around 8 million Vietnamese live here, with about 6 million scooters zooming around the streets. This historic place is truly chaotic. Crossing the road is taking your life in your hands with all the crazy scooters tooting constantly. When crossing, you need to remember that the traffic doesnīt stop. You basically have to just step out in front of the hundreds of motorbikes and cars and follow three rules. Never stop, never run and never turn back. You just pray the crazy Vietnamese can weave and dive around you!

Saigon is a super high energy city, and was occupied by US troops during the Vietnam War. Just outside of the outer ring of Saigon are the Cu Chi tunnels. This is an area that was inhabited by the Viet Cong during the war, and is a huge network of tiny, underground tunnels where the Vietnamese would live and hide to avoid American bombing. A couple of tunnels are open to crawl down into, and after being down there for only about five minutes you realise just how resilient the Vietnamese were - utterly determined not to be defeated by a force greater than them, and totally committed to survive.

I got the chance to fire a live gun here! Now in the UK, to fire a gun I would imagine you'd have to undertake a two hour Health & Safety briefing, followed by signing a disclaimer waiver in case you broke a nail. Not so in Vietnam. To fire a Russian made AK47 assault rifle (often called a Kalashnikov), my little smiling Army guy led me straight down to the shooting range. My detailed instruction then begun. 'Put gun in shoulder', 'Pull trigger', 'Go'. Cool, I think I got that! Three things then happened - first an incredible noise when I squeezed the trigger, secondly a violent kick back into the shoulder, and thirdly I missed the target by miles! Excellent though!

In the centre of Saigon, which still has some buildings with French colonial history, is the War Remnants museum. I think it has to be the most harrowing museum in the world. A one sided depiction of the Vietnam War with some very sickening images showing the effects of war; and particularly the effects on the people from the chemical bombs dropped by the US Air Force. Whether you're Vietnamese, American or any other nationality, this museum tells you one thing loud and clear - that there is nothing glamorous about war. It just destroys human life. I couldn't actually look at some of the photographs closely because they showed dead and disfigured bodies, and I felt a little sick. Maybe if world leaders were forced to visit this place and take in the images, there might be less world conflicts.

On a brighter note I also brushed up on my negotiation skills whilst in Saigon's central market. As a Westerner in Vietnam you tend to stick out a little! I'm a good foot taller than any Vietnamese person for a start. I entered the market looking for a t-shirt and the second I did so, I knew I was in for some retail warfare! It's mostly women who work the stalls and they grab you by the hand and arm to make you look at what they're selling.

I found a stall with a t-shirt I liked and opened up with the usual 'How much' question. 'Good price for you' is the reply. Smile and ask again what the price is, and I was met with the start of a game of cat and mouse! The Vietnamese woman opens with an unrealistically high price. Cue me to make a face like she's just insulted my family! I reply with an equally silly price, at the other end of the scale - unrealistically low. Her turn - a facial expression like she's been shot in the ankle! I edge away and the famous Vietnamese determination kicks in. To give in is not the Vietnamese way. She grabs my arm and introduces a new tactic - employ some flattery! 'You big man, you handsome man'. She holds up the t-shirt against me - 'Good price for you, good price for me'. Cue a smile from her and we're friends again! 'Ok, what price you pay?' she asks. I play along and edge my price up a little. She looks hurt again, like I've stolen her rice bowl and handed her back a Big Mac. She drops her price a tad in response to my movement upward. I exhale like a plumber pricing up a job that he knows is only half an hour's work, but intends to charge two hours for. I edge up my price once again as she puts on a hopeful gaze and a toothy smile. That's my final price I say. 'Nooooo, too low, too low' is her response. Time to employ one of my tactics now. Time to show her the money! Tangible Vietnamese dong right there that could be hers. Her eyes narrow as the smell of money fills her nostrils. I try to move away and at this point her price plummets. And I think we're there at last! She's got money that will go a very long way in Vietnam, and I get a t-shirt that we both know that will look good for a while, until it shrinks to half the size on its first wash!

Along the east coast of Vietnam I visited a variety of towns from the less impressive Hue to the beautifully preserved Hoi An and the stunning Halong Bay. It was in Halong Bay where I met my official fan club - a bunch of crazy Japanese teenagers that simply went mad upon seeing me sitting on a bench. And I mean mad - screaming and jumping around with hysteria!  I had no idea what was going on, but I had to sit for photographs with them and when I tried to leave they screamed like girls at a Justin Bieber concert! Ah the fame - or perhaps it was because they'd never seen someone as pale as me before?! The Japanese are nuts!
In the more strongly Communist north of the country I discovered the capital, Hanoi. In this hectic (and dirty) city I experienced traditional Vietnamese life, enjoying a water puppet show before paying homage to the mausoleum of the founder of modern Vietnam - Ho Chi Minh himself.

From Hanoi I embarked on an arduous and bum numbing twelve hour bus journey into neighbouring Laos. Another Communist run country, but just like Vietnam, it's more socialist now with a mix of state owned industry and transport, with capitalist shops, businesses and restaurants co-existing.

Laos is a mountainous and largely unspoilt country with terrible roads! However, it was a pleasant step change in pace from Vietnam. Laos people are like Cambodians - humble and welcoming and life is slower. That's not to say that the Vietnamese aren't nice - I'd just say they were more savvy, a little more money hungry and if a scooter driver, possessed by a desire to run over foreigners wherever possible!

The food in Laos and SE Asia generally has been healthy and tasty if you ignore the questionable hygiene standards! God knows what I've unwittingly eaten too - I can only hope that it didn't once woof or meow. I've skipped the pig intestine dishes, the jellyfish soup and the satayed chicken feet that I've seen on streets across the region. I guess the most enjoyable 'unusual' food that I've eaten has been water buffalo. A lean, red meat that is prepared with herbs and spices and eaten with a sweet chilli sauce.

Moving in a general westerly direction across Laos, my favourite places have been Vientiane, the capital, and Luang Prabang in the heart of the country.

Vientiane is quite a well developed but small city, and very different to other towns in this land locked state. It seems to have some European influence with Scandinavian bakeries scattered around and is the true hub of one of the world's top twenty poorest nations.

It was also the place that my life flashed in front of me! Riding what I can only describe as a 'piece of junk' bike one day, I was hit full force by a scooter. It was a weird experience in that it seemed to happen in slow motion. As I was riding along, I spotted my assassin steaming toward me oblivious to the fact that she had a red light. As she hit me I instinctively I jumped off the bike backwards, executing a perfect (and lucky) standing landing, whilst simultaneously managing to push my bike into the speeding scooter. It was dragged away and I felt relief and adrenaline in equal measures! As I turned around there was a policeman standing right next to me. Panic set in as I tried to imagine how I'd chat my way out of a Laotian prison sentence! As luck would have it though, he just patted me down and checked I was okay. I was perfectly fine and since my bike had non-existent brakes and buckled wheels to begin with, the collision made little impact to that rust bucket.

The high point of Laos came in the remote town of Luang Prabang. Here I visited an elephant conservation and rescue centre. These amazing creatures are taken to this place if people development impinges on their land or when they are saved from mistreatment. Conditions in the sanctuary appear to be very good and the elephants are free to wander around and munch on sugar cane. Their food and keep is paid for by visiting foreigners. One of my coolest experiences was to be allowed to bath with the elephants! They love being rubbed with giant scrubbing brushes and have buckets of water thrown over them. In return they spray you with trunk full's of river water. Sounds almost romantic and playful until you realise that all around you are rugby ball sized elephant poos floating about! Industrial strength shower gel was required later that day!

The culture shocking South East Asian tour is almost up, and for the first time I'm not going on to somewhere entirely new. However, I am going to one of my favourite countries. Next up and my last stop before home, it's the Land of the Free - the untouchable USA.

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