01/28/13

Hoi Polloi

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I am a sheep.

I planned my Vietnam itinerary by figuring out where everyone else goes, and following suit.

Therefore, my next stop after Ho Chi Minh was Hoi An, a large coastal town in central Vietnam known for its beautifully-preserved historical downtown and its highly skilled tailors. (A lot of people go to Nha Trang before Hoi An, but I’m more interested in history than beach. And clothes. Because did I mention that the highly skilled tailors can make whatever you want for very cheap? I have a whole Pinterest page devoted to dresses I want to have made for me while I’m in Asia, and Hoi An seemed like a great place to start.)

On my first day I checked into my hotel (yes, this time I stayed at a real hotel, with a restaurant and a swimming pool and families staying there. But I stayed in one of its two dorm rooms with five other backpackers. Luckily for me, everyone in our room was very nice and welcoming. I spent the first day hanging out with Lydia, a German girl who currently lives in Australia. We started by going out to lunch—which is when I realized that Hoi An is significantly more expensive than the rest of Vietnam. Our lunch cost what two meals would have cost in Ho Chi Minh. I felt like I was being cheated—but then I realized I had paid $6, so I needed to chill out a little. But it was the principle of the thing! The next two days I was very careful to go out of the city center for lunch.

After we ate we walked around the old quarter. It was adorable—a river flowed through the center, and colorful boats bobbed at the banks. The buildings were clearly hundreds of years old and oozed charm. And it seemed like every other storefront was a tailor with beautiful dresses on display in the window.

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My brother is getting married in September, and since I’m in the wedding party I knew that I needed a navy blue cocktail dress. Before I left I had scoured the internet, trying to find the perfect design for a tailor to copy, but nothing jumped out at me. Walking through Hoi An, however, I saw lots of dresses that I liked quite a bit. And finally, after we had walked through the stalls of the city market and admired the view from two different bridges, I saw The One. Already the perfect shade of blue, it was a strapless chiffon with a high fitted waist and a flowing skirt. The staff saw me admiring it and rushed out to urge me to try it on. How could I resist?

The dress in the window

The dress in the window

Inside, there were stacks and stacks of bolts of fabric on every wall. Once I had changed, we discussed how the dress could be modified (I don’t like strapless dresses—I’m always afraid they will fall to the floor—so I asked them to add a halter). I asked what the final cost would be, prepared to negotiate them down.

“Thirty dollars.”

I forgot about negotiating.

We agreed that I would return the following morning for my first fitting.

Lydia and I ended up joining two of our roommates—Katie and Katie, an engaged couple from London, and their friends Julie and Neil, a married couple from Belfast, for dinner at Morning Glory, a fancy (at least, it felt that way to me after the places I’ve been eating lately) place in the city center. Neil was apparently very keen to try it as it was supposed to use the best ingredients, etc. Because it was so nice, almost all of us ended up ordering the cheapest thing on the menu, cau lau (a pork and noodle dish that is a Hoi An specialty). I enjoyed it, but others who had had cau lau before felt that it was just as good for a lot less money elsewhere.

I told everyone about my plans to go to Laos and Julie volunteered that she had once taken the 24-hour bus from Hanoi to Vientiane. I asked her what she had thought of it. “We called it the hell bus. It was horrible. There were lots of bugs, it smelled terrible, we were swerving on mountain roads all night, and the row behind me was filled with luggage that local people were sitting on, which meant that I had their dirty feet on either side of my head. But it makes a great story! You absolutely should do it!”

I bought a plane ticket the next day.

Speaking of the next day, I found my way back to my tailor in one try and was very pleased with myself—which turned about to be hubris because it was the last time I was able to find anything in Hoi An in one go. (The streets just look so similar! Fortunately, it is not very large so there is a limit to how much walking back and forth and back and forth you go do.) They had basically finished the dress—I could have taken it home then and there. But I thought it was a little loose in the bodice (at first they argued that it only felt loose because I wasn’t wearing a bra, but then one of them felt it and instantly changed her tune), and I didn’t like the location of the halter straps, so I asked them to move them. They told me to come back in a few hours.

The final draft

The final draft

I decided to use the time to get some pencil skirts made. I could have used the same tailor, but none of the dresses on display in the shop had complicated skirts, and since pencil skirts have to fit exactly right or look incredibly cheap, I decided to go to what Trip Advisor claimed was the best tailor in town: Yaly.

Even from across the street I could tell that Yaly was on a whole other level from my first tailor. A staff member was waiting right inside the door to welcome you. Instead of one room, there were two floors, a courtyard, an area with changing rooms and mirrors, a shoe section, and catalogues and laptops to help you figure out what you wanted. I pulled up my Pinterest page for my consultant, Nga, and showed her a picture of a J. Crew pencil skirt. She told me it would be $35, which seemed like a lot when I had just gotten a whole cocktail dress for $30, but I knew that the skirt would probably be more work than the dress, since it would have to be tailored so precisely. We went upstairs to look at fabric. She pointed me towards a stretchy blend, and I picked out four colors: kelly green, aqua, cobalt blue, and red. (I know what you’re thinking, but I am unrepentant. Except for one t-shirt, which I bought because everything else I owned was filthy, I hadn’t bought anything for myself for the entire trip. And I had been coveting these skirts forever).

Deciding to get pencil skirts was easy; answering all Nga’s questions about every little detail of the skirts was not. How wide did I want the waistband? What fabric did I want to use for the lining? How narrow did I want it at the knee? How long did I want it? Fortunately, most of the choices I could put off until the following morning at my first fitting.

I sat on a bench by the water and read my Vietnam War book (and deflected people’s offers of boat rides) until it was time to pick up my dress. This time, it was perfect (if a little tight—I was alarmed to find that I could not zip it up all the way, but the tailor was able to very quickly… I just hope that someone, anyone can zip it for me in September). She thanked me for the business and told me to give her best wishes to my brother, which I thought was very nice.

Back at the hotel, Lydia, the Katies, and Leonart (a medical student from Germany), all admired my purchase. I amused myself by writing to my future sister-in-law and telling her that the dress is a style that is very popular in Vietnam that I haven’t seen anywhere else yet—a corset with a sheer skirt over hot pants.

The five of us decided to be lazy and have dinner at the restaurant next to the hotel. It was exclusively populated by white tourists, and it was open to the outdoors , resulting in a seemingly never-ending parade of vendors popping through, offering you everything from bracelets to toys. Saying no over and over again to very hopeful people wears you down a bit after a while.

I began to worry that ordering my pencil skirts was a huge mistake. What if the fabric was wrong and they looked terrible?

But the first skirt looked absolutely fantastic. Even though the bottom seam wasn’t even basted, it looked so good that I was ready to jump up and down. This skirt looked so fabulous that it made up for all the weeks of dowdy gray t-shirts.

Draft one of skirt one

Draft one of skirt one

In between fittings, I decided to explore the other side of the river. I walked far enough (maybe 10 minutes) that I found restaurants where only Vietnamese people were eating. Picture a carport: concrete floor, roof, open walls. Now add some plastic, child-sized furniture (I don’t understand why the Vietnamese use this tiny furniture. Yes, they are short, but they are not kindergarten short. And yet, you can tell a restaurant is really for the locals because the seats are 1 foot off the ground.) I decided that it was time for lunch, and I chose a place at random (there were several in a row because a branch of the river flowed by the back). Later I noticed that there was a monkey on a chain in a tree in the front yard.

When I walked in, there were about three tables of Vietnamese diners. Nobody approached me until I had stood in the center of the room for close to a minute.  Finally, a woman came up to me and said, “Drink or food?” I replied, “Food and drink.” She replied, “Cola?” Which I thought was a little odd, but maybe she only had cola, so I said, “Sure.” Then I sat down at a table next to the river. She returned with a bowl of noodles. I started at it for a moment before realizing that she hadn’t said cola—she’d said cau lau! Whoops! Fortunately, cau lau was fine with me. (I ended up having some cola too. She brought me a glass with ice cubes, which I was pretty sure were made with tap water. After several seconds of indecision I decided to discreetly dump them over the railing onto the embankment. I figured that that’s what the Vietnamese would do in that situation.)

While I was eating, my waitress turned on a TV in the corner to reveal a Korean soap opera. She was absolutely engrossed in it—the whole family gathered in front of it in tiny plastic chairs–and it took a long time for me to get her attention when I needed to pay. Since there hadn’t been a menu, I was a little nervous that she would try to tell me a ridiculous price, but in the end, my noodles and Pepsi cost me a very reasonable $2.

Back in town, I went to my second fitting, where I got to try on all the skirts, which were more or less finished, minus the bottom hem. Some fit much better than others and needed a lot of adjusting. It was a bit strange to have all these women, who came up to my shoulder, poking and prodding me. I felt giant. (I am 5’5”.)

With Nga, who made me feel like a giant

With Nga, who made me feel like a giant

Other things I did to kill time between fittings (I had three for my skirts): look at eyeglass frames (Phuong in Ho Chi Minh City had told me her glasses were very expensive–$35!); visit a temple (this was a very disappointing experience. An old man waited by the front gate to sell tickets for $1, which seemed wrong since I’d never had to pay to go into a temple before, but I thought I might as well do something cultural in Hoi An. Then he insisted on taking my picture (“you take me picture!”)  in pre-ordained places around the (incredibly uninteresting) grounds. Then he would demand that I look at the picture and give my approval. He couldn’t answer even basic questions–I tried to ask what kind of temple it was, and all I could get out of him was “no Buddha.”)

The old man told me to stand there

The old man told me to stand there

Sadly, the Katies (who had rapidly become some of my favorite people from the trip) and Lydia all left on my second day, so my third and last night in Hoi An Leonart and I walked into the city for our final fittings together (he had several suits made at two different tailors). I think he was amazed by how lost I was able to get on my way to a place I had already been to three times. He dropped me off at Yaly and went on to his tailor. Most of my skirts still needed minor adjusting; the lining needed to be tacked down on a couple. But one of them had bigger problems; it just wasn’t falling straight. I was trying to think of a tactful way to say it when the supervisor said it for me, in rapid Vietnamese that I could only understand because the hand motion she used mirrored the angle of the skirt. I was glad I had paid extra to go somewhere where they care enough to make it perfect, without my having to ask. (Leonart was not so lucky; he had commissioned the tailor to make two shirts. One had been perfect at the last fitting, one too loose. They had somehow managed to tighten the perfect one and leave the loose one alone!)

All in all, my time in Hoi An was very pleasant. I never made it to the beach, but that seemed just as well since Lydia and the Katies got badly burned there and they said that it was not that attractive a place anyway. I feel slightly guilty that all I did was buy clothes, but, hey, I supported the traditional local economy. (And I’m going to look so good in my skirts, you are going to hate me.)

 

 

01/23/13

Tunnel Vision

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I am not an adventure traveler. Show me something that provides an adrenaline rush, and I will show you me, running the other way.

So when I heard that it was possible to go down in the tunnels that the Vietcong had dug many meters underground, I was instantly turned off. It sounded both unpleasant and almost tacky, making a sort of adventure out of the war. But then I met Birgitta in Phnom Penh, who told me that it was a really educational experience that I should not miss. She reminded me that people lived underground for 20 years–largely because of American bombing. After that I felt that it was my duty as an American to try to understand what had happened.

Travelers from other countries keep asking me what we learn when we study the Vietnam War in the United States. I tell them that we really don’t study it—at least when I was growing up, it always came up at the very end of the school year, since it was such recent history, so we rushed through it in the last week or two before summer vacation. It was no more than a page or two in our history books.

So I have been trying to fill in the blanks in my education. I’ve been reading an absolutely terrific book, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, by Christian Appy, which is an oral history of the war culled from dozens and dozens of interviews that he did with people from all sides of the conflict.  I can’t help but be most fascinated by the Vietcong accounts, which often have my jaw on the floor. One Vietcong woman said that she was scared before her first battle against the Americans—they were so big and had such advanced weapons—but when she shot her first one the others started to cry and run over to the one she had shot so it turned out to be very easy. She once volunteered for a mission so dangerous that her comrades held a funeral for her before she went. She sat there while they listed all the awards she had won and talked about her just as if she were dead. She spoke a lot about the tunnels they lived in to withstand the bombings and hide from the Americans. She said there were very few places where you could even sit up, let alone stand. Once bombings shut all the openings and they were trapped for a week until they could dig themselves out with bayonets.

It was to those tunnels that I went on my last day in Ho Chi Minh City. (Our guide (whose name was Phu but who told us that if we couldn’t pronounce that, we could use his English name—Puppy) was very adamant that the city should be called Ho Chi Minh and not Saigon, directly contradicting my guide from the day before.)

The Cu Chi Tunnels are about a two-hour drive from the city. We stopped halfway there at a rest stop that doubles as a workshop where victims of Agent Orange make lacquer pieces. It felt a bit odd to walk by them and snap pictures, but apparently that’s what they wanted us to do, as they did not seem to be selling their wares and I couldn’t figure out why else they had brought us there.

When we finally arrived at the entrance gate it was packed with tourists. I’m amazed that our group (of about 15) didn’t get separated—Phu (no, I am not going to call him “Puppy”) was always racing off in a new direction, leaving me scrambling to catch up.

We began by walking into the forest. The trees in it seemed young, as you’d expect given that the whole area was bombed to pieces 40 years ago. Our destination was a thatched-roof-covered room where a video informed us about the war in a narrative so biased it was at times rather humorous (the Americans were referred to as “devils”). Unfortunately, there was another group there as well so we were at the back and I was unable to see/hear everything. After the video the other group left and Phu had us move up the front, where he showed us a diorama of the three levels of tunnels. The top level was only 3 meters underground, and that’s where the Vietcong did most of their living. The other two levels were for escaping. (I just read an account in my book that said that there were always helicopters or airplanes overhead, so much so that when the skies were quiet they knew a big attack was coming and moved to the lower level tunnels. As such they rarely got hurt.) Phu showed us how they diffused the smoke from cooking (by not having a chimney that went straight up, but a horizontal space that pushed the smoke farther away from their living space).

The room where we watched the video.

The room where we watched the video.

Then he took us on a walk through the forest, stopping at various points to show us different things. First stop was one of the original tunnel entrances. It was an unbelievably tiny rectangle—maybe a foot by six inches—with a lid camouflaged by dirt and leaves. Here’s video. Phu asked for volunteers and a number of people climbed in. I was waiting for my turn when he rushed off to the next location and I had to race to catch up. Oh, well!

One of the most fascinating stops was the trap they invented to kill the German shepherds the Americans used to try to find the tunnels. It was a sort of seesaw that flipped over when the dogs stepped on it (they coated them in fish oil to attract the dogs). On the other side were sharpened bamboo spikes. Once they killed the dog, they ate it. Here’s video.

Phu showed us a mannequin dressed in typical Vietcong attire. He said the giveaway was their shoes—they wore distinctive crisscrossed sandals. When they went into villages in normal clothes, the tan lines on their feet would give them away.

Phu explaining VIetcong clothing

Phu explaining VIetcong clothing

He took us to an exhibit showing an underground workshop with mannequins demonstrating how the Vietcong made tools—but I was too distracted by some obnoxious Chinese(?) teenagers to pay attention. They were taking lots of goofy photos with the mannequins out of his sightline. I was this close to telling them that millions of people died in this war; show some respect, when it was time to move along.

The next stop was the shooting range. Yes, the only shooting range in Vietnam is right next to the tunnels. I can’t decide how I feel about this; on the one hand, it seems tacky as hell; on the other, it really helps with the atmosphere to hear guns going off in the distance. When we got closer to the range the noise from the AK47s was actually making me jump—it helped me imagine how much worse it would be if those guns were trying to kill me.

One of many traps for humans. They were designed to maim, not kill, since it slows the enemy down if they have to carry wounded.

One of many traps for humans. They were designed to maim, not kill, since it slows the enemy down if they have to carry wounded.

After that, it was finally time to go down in the tunnels. (They had been slightly enlarged for westerners—according to the Danish girl, the average Vietnamese man weighs something like 48 kilos! Which is about 105 pounds!) When we arrived at the entrance (stairs covered by a thatched roof), people from the group ahead of us were already coming out, having turned back because they couldn’t cope with the claustrophobia. That was not an auspicious beginning. I nearly gave up right then. But then I reminded myself that the whole point of my coming was to experience the claustrophobia and try to understand what the Vietnamese people went through during the war, so I inserted myself into the middle of the line (I had no intention of being stuck next to the Chinese teens), and walked down the stairs.

The stairs led to a slightly lower level where there was an actual hole (probably close to 3 feet in diameter) that you had to lower yourself into to get to the tunnel itself. That was a bit scary. The tunnel I found myself in was about 4 feet high—I was able to walk doubled over. There were dim lights every few feet. I followed the guy in front of me as closely as I could. More than once another hole appeared and we had to go down another level. That always involved a deep breath. There were twists and turns. We were often backed up when the people in front of us would stop to take photos (I could usually only see one or two people ahead of me, but they would report back what was going on). During one of these traffic jams the guy behind me asked me to take his photo and as far as I was concerned, he immediately became my best friend, since I needed someone to talk to and encourage to keep myself distracted. Especially since the tunnel kept getting smaller. By the end we were in a sort of crouched position, scooching along. Here’s (very poor quality) video. But all in all I was surprised at how little it bothered me. It actually reminded me a bit of a feature at the Boston Children’s Museum, where as a kid I crawled around in a rather claustrophobic jungle gym that spanned two floors. I just told myself I was in a museum exhibit and was fine.

When I emerged from the tunnel (up more stairs and out of another thatched roofed area) I was absurdly proud of myself. I had seen cocky 20-year-old guys seriously consider giving up, and I had done the whole thing without breaking a sweat. Metaphorically. Because literally, I was bathed in it. It was so hot down there that I was sopping. But I had kept a cool head.

Someone is very proud of herself!

Someone is very proud of herself!

Just when I was getting cocky, our guide told us that he was giving us the rare opportunity to go through an original (read: not enlarged) tunnel. The idea of going through an even smaller space made me nervous, but there was no way I was not going to try. This time I decided to leave my purse with one of the wusses people who decided not to go down in the tunnels and just carry my camera. Our guide (who never came down in the tunnels with us) told the girl who was at the front to keep turning right and never turn left (which was quite scary to think that we could go off in the wrong direction and get lost!) There would be no lights in this one, but she had a small one on her cell phone (which is how she ended up in front).

The experience was much the same as the first, only with more nervous laughter, more darkness, and more crawling, since the ceiling was too low to do anything else. Since I was holding my camera, I had to crawl on the back of one hand, and I still have a cut there a few days later. I used my camera to create some light for the people behind me (I could see a little bit up ahead of me, but they were in darkness.) I took dozens of forced flash pictures of nothing. We were always telling each other what was happening to keep our nerves calm. At one point I went down a level and the angle was steep and the ground slippery, so I made sure to call back and warn the people behind me. Eventually, I came to a hole in the ceiling and had to use all my upper body strength to pull myself into what turned out to be an underground room. That turned out to be the end of the tunnel. Once again, I was giddy with pride and drenched in sweat. I kept apologizing to people who had to stand near me—but, of course, they were in just as bad shape.

Unfortunately, I didn’t spend much time in the tunnels reflecting on the war. I think if I had thought things like, “imagine spending 20 years down here with the most powerful army in the world bombing you,” it would have been too scary and I wouldn’t have been able to do it. But I have been reading my book every chance I get–each time I eat a meal alone or when I have a few minutes to sit on a bench–so I have definitely been thinking about it a lot. I feel like I finally understand it–as much as someone can who wasn’t there, of course.

On the bus on the way back I decided to be polite and introduce myself to the guy in the seat next to me (whom I had ignored on the way there in favor of my book). He turned out to be Ludo, a French-speaking Swiss math teacher, and an instant friend. We chatted all the way back to the Ho Chi Minh, then had lunch together near the War Remnants Museum (which I was determined to see more of than what I could during the 50 minutes I had gotten during my city tour).

That night I fulfilled my promise to the woman at the first restaurant I ate at in HCMC by coming back to see her before I went. Alas, she wasn’t there, but since I brought a large group of people (a mix of friends I had made in the city and people from Couch Surfing I had invited sight unseen) to her restaurant, I felt like I had done my part to repay her kindness.

(One of the people I brought to dinner was Tara, an American who is teaching English in Korea. Tara had just arrived in HCMC, and I asked her if she had crossed the street yet. She said no, so I told her to just stand right beside me and walk at the same speed I did, and I would put myself between her and the traffic. When we crossed, a couple of older Vietnamese women were crossing as well, but I was the closest to the cars/motorbikes. Halfway through, I felt Tara take my hand. I thought it was kind of adorable that she was that scared and felt she could trust me even though we had just met. But when I stepped onto the curb and turned my head, I saw that it wasn’t Tara at all—one of the older Vietnamese women had taken my hand to protect me! I was so touched. She didn’t even try to speak to me—just walked away quietly.)

Our dinner was lovely. The group was very diverse (Ludo, Ludo’s French friend Rashid, Tom (Hong Kong/Australia) from the Mekong trip, Tara, an American who was staying in the same dorm as I was, and two people from Couch Surfing, Glen from Yorkshire and Phuong, from, of all places, Ho Chi Minh City). I peppered Phuong with questions about herself, Vietnam, and local etiquette. She is 25 and works in market research. She loves to travel but she says it’s very difficult to save for it since the dong is worth so little compared to other countries’ currencies. She said she thinks it’s fine for me to wear tops that expose my shoulders, so so much for that worry.

Our merry, blurry dinner group. L-R Phuong, Glen, Ludo, Rashid, Tom, me, Tara

Our merry, blurry dinner group. L-R Phuong, Glen, Ludo, Rashid, Tom, me, Tara

After dinner Phuong took us to a couple of bars back in the Backpacker district. She met us there since she had brought her motorbike to the restaurant. As the rest of us walked we ran into some Vietnamese teens who started speaking to us (I assume because they wanted to practice their English). One young man gestured to the traffic and said, “We drive like fishes, but if you step into traffic blindfolded you won’t get hurt.” I loved the image of them driving like fish—it’s so true. The motorbikes move like schools of fish with almost no rhyme or reason to it.

When we got close to Saigon Buffalo, the bar where we were to meet Phuong, a whole team of its staff swooped in on us, urging us to go in. I assured them that we were going to. They continued to insist. I pointed to Phuong and said, “Look! My friend is right there! You don’t have to try so hard.” But they still did everything short of pushing us onto the patio. It was really annoying. But I was still very happy to be there–since I had stayed in every night Skyping and writing, it was great fun to sit at an outside table and watch the world go by. Later we moved across the street to a roof deck where we could see the lights of the tallest building in the city (it’s only 40-odd stories high, which seems plenty). When we left one of the employees actually grabbed my arm and tried to drag me into the nightclub section of the bar. I yanked my arm away, pretty pissed off. I guess they must get in trouble if people leave. Or maybe they make money per person they bring in? Either way, it’s too much pressure. (Incidentally, Ludo and I could not agree on which country’s people pressures you more, Cambodia or Vietnam. I said no contest, Cambodia, and he said the opposite. I could not believe he thought Vietnam was as bad as Cambodia, let alone worse, and he was equally disbelieving of my reaction.)

I had to get up very early the following morning to fly to Da Nang, so Tara and I said goodbye at midnight and walked back to our hostel. Once again, I found myself sad to leave a city where I had met so many nice people. I could only hope that my next stop, Hoi An, would be just as fun.

01/20/13

Big River


537139_10152415519235277_1041764245_nWhat to say about my two-day trip to the Mekong Delta…

The river is huge. Huge! I think it must be wider than the Mississippi (it’s hard to tell, because it has so many town-sized islands in it that you can’t see the whole thing at once). The wide parts of the river aren’t terribly attractive, since the water is brown and there’s not much to see except rundown buildings far away at the shore. But the narrow parts are magical. We took a small boat (our guide called it a canoe but it was more like a punt or a gondola, since it is pushed with a long pole) down what our guide called a creek (it was probably 15 feet wide). Here’s video. The foliage is so thick and so tall that it creates a sort of wall around you, and with just the sound of the water lapping at the boat it is very peaceful. (I had the somewhat surreal experience of being in a boat with a Spanish couple and their Vietnamese guide—I got so confused when this Vietnamese guy started speaking to me in Spanish! But I decided to take advantage of his expertise. I asked him if it’s true that there were crocodiles in the river (our guide had warned us just before we got into the boats, and while I took him seriously in the moment, later I began to wonder if he were pulling my leg). He said he didn’t think there were so many anymore. I asked if it were possible to swim in the river. He said something like, “Look at the water! It is so brown. And the mud is very deep.”(At least I think that’s what he said–my Spanish vocabulary does not extend to analyzing mud.)) The “canoeing” was definitely the highlight of the boating, since riding in a big boat with 40 people in a river a mile wide does not feel nearly as special.

The rice noodle workshop

The rice noodle workshop

In addition to boating down the river, over the course of the two days we visited a cocoanut candy workshop, a rice noodle workshop, a fruit farm, a Buddhist pagoda, and a village where they performed traditional music for us. I assume that  our guide got paid by all these businesses (save the pagoda) for bringing us there, since we were all encouraged to buy candy, food, fruit, and crafts wherever we went.  Most of these stops were pretty dull, but I quite liked the fruit farm. I had never seen pineapple plants before. They are surprisingly inefficient—a very large plant for a single piece of fruit. The farm was crisscrossed with man-made canals for irrigation. Our guide said that the water goes in and out with the tides; just before the tide goes out, they put a net at the end of the canal to catch all the fish that were pushed in with the water. One of the highlights of the farm was a bridge the owner had built in the traditional Mekong style over a small pond. It consisted of a series of extremely narrow logs (about as wide as my foot) which allowed you to walk as though on an extremely arched balance beam. They only inauthentic part was the railings, which they had put up for us tourists. I certainly could not have done it without them. (There were some extremely hungry-looking carp in that pond…)

A pineapple plant

A pineapple plant

I became fast friends with a French girl named Stephanie who was also traveling alone. She has just quit her job and sold all her furniture to start a new life in Scotland—where she has never been! I was very impressed by her bravery.

Our guide, Thanh, was at first very funny and entertaining. He told us Thanh is a very popular name in Vietnam—for girls. (He was the 11th son in a row and his father was so desperate for a daughter that he named him before he was born.) He had lots of interesting anecdotes about the history and culture of Vietnam. He said that originally only the north was Vietnam. But the king had a beautiful daughter, whom he married off to the king of the neighboring kingdom (what is now central Vietnam). As soon as the wedding was over the king of Vietnam sent his army into his son-in-law’s territory. Thanh said that his father used this story to warn him to stay away from beautiful women. (Thanh’s father also warned him to stay away from women from the Mekong Delta, because it’s such a prosperous area thanks to the rich soil that people from the area are not good at saving money and they are a bit lazy compared to the rest of the country.) Thanh also explained how the Mekong Delta came to be part of Vietnam (it was part of Cambodia and virtually empty, but then word of its excellent farming conditions spread and it was settled by so many Vietnamese that it became part of the country).

I say Thanh was funny and entertaining at first because halfway through the first day there was a dramatic switch in his personality. I first noticed after Stephanie told me that she was scheduled for a home stay that night. I asked Thanh if I could switch to one as well, since that sounded much more interesting than spending the night in a hotel, and he said I could but it would be $8 more. I asked if the $5 I had had to pay as a single supplement fee could be applied towards the $8. He became very huffy and said no. I asked why not and at first he wouldn’t even answer me, but after I pressed  he said that he had to pay for the hotel room whether I stayed there or not because it was too late to cancel. Which seemed very reasonable to me, and I said so, but he was still in a terrible mood from my question and said, “Clearly, you don’t want to pay more. You should just stay at the hotel.” The people around us looked at me in puzzlement, like “what’s wrong with him?!” I said no, I was perfectly willing to pay more; I had simply wanted to understand why. When he went away I remarked to Stephanie that I couldn’t understand why he was so defensive—he had seemed so nice and funny earlier. She said that when she had first arrived he had taken her ticket and she had asked if he would be giving her a receipt and he had said, “Don’t you trust the Vietnamese?!”

Later, when we were driving on the bus, Thanh asked if we wanted to hear about what we were doing later that evening now or after the rest stop. (He often gave us choices like that.) Somebody said they’d like to hear now, which was apparently the wrong answer, because Thanh looked deeply affronted and then launched into a rambling speech (using a microphone!) about how he had never had a complaint or a problem with a group before, but clearly we didn’t trust him. He went on in a martyred tone for several minutes. The Australian teenager across the aisle from me and I spent the pity party making “WTF?!” faces at each other. I can’t imagine an American service industry professional freaking out like that over anything short of rioting. It’s a shame because I really liked him at the beginning, when he was telling funny stories and encouraging us to correct his English, but after that I was tempted to offer to teach him the English word “tantrum.” (Later, at the pagoda, he was talking to us about Buddhism, and he started talking about the day when everyone goes and prays for their parents. He started talking about the importance of family in Vietnam, which evolved into the importance of not neglecting your parents, which somehow evolved into an angry rant about how those of us who have parents—his are dead—don’t appreciate them.)

Anyway, I don’t want to make it sound like our guide’s crazy mood swings ruined the trip. Not at all—if anything, it gave all of us something to bond over.

At the end of the first day, after four hours of driving in a bus broken up by many boat trips, we arrived in the city of Can Tho (pronounced, to my ears at least, like Gun Ter). It looked very much like Ho Chi Minh City (which Thanh, incidentally, told us to call Saigon, because “Ho Chi Minh City is just too long”), only much, much smaller, of course, and without the same energy. Most of the people staying in the city were staying at an establishment Thanh repeatedly informed us was a “seven-star hotel.” Stephanie and I giggled to each other about how disappointed we were to be missing our big opportunity to stay at the world’s best hotel. (A quick glance at the spare lobby had us concluding at the rooms must be gold-plated.)

Those of us doing a homestay were sent in a minivan out of the city. Before we left Thanh, in a moment of good humor, told us to take a walk after dinner and try to catch a firefly so we could make a wish as we released it.

Outside the city center, in a no-man’s-land of big box stores, we drove around a rotary with a construction site in the middle. Sitting beside the central island, in the lane itself, was a man playing an acoustic guitar and singing. In the dark, surrounded by cars and motorbikes. I couldn’t figure out if he were playing for the construction workers or the motorbike riders.

We left the main road and drove down a dark one-lane street with small, square white houses (picture garages in southern California) on either side, close to the street. Most of them had wide doors that were open to let in the cool night air. All of them—every single one—had a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in the living room. (Later I asked a Vietnamese girl I became friendly with if that were compulsory; she said no, she doesn’t have one.) None of us knew what to expect—would all six of us be staying with the same family? Anya and Jan, a German couple going with us, told us that when they were in Halong Bay they did a homestay where the family gave them their beds and slept on the floor! I fervently hoped that wouldn’t happen for us.

I needn’t have worried; when the cab finally stopped, it was to pull up next to a large, professionally-produced sign: “Welcome to Hung ‘Homestay.’” At the end of the driveway were a number of round tables where westerners sat, eating dinner. Stephanie and I looked at each other. “W’re at a guest house!”P1040583

Naturally, we were disappointed (especially when it became clear that the Vietnamese family that ran the place couldn’t really speak English so our interactions with them were by necessity very limited), but once we got over that, it was a really lovely place. Our rooms were  behind the house, and felt like they were practically in the jungle due to all the plants and loud animal noises. They were little cabins made out of some sort of woven leaves. They faced a small canal (about six feet wide) which you had to cross via a bridge that was one-foot wide. (The first time, I wasn’t brave enough to try it and went farther  along to a bigger bridge; after that, I got over it.) Stephanie and I were put in the same one; it had two queen-sized beds under mosquito netting and a very primitive bathroom.

After we dropped off our things we joined two couples from our tour in the dining area (which felt like a carport.) Soon a woman from the family appeared with a bowl full of brown spring roll filling and some rice wrappers. She demonstrated how we should roll them, and then left us to prepare a bowl full. Once they were ready, she led us into the kitchen to fry them on the stove. (It looked more or less like a western kitchen, with some very nice wooden cabinets.) We took turns lifting the rolls into the wok with chopsticks. When they were all ready we returned to our table to find it piled high with food, including the ingredients for fresh spring rolls (vermicelli, lettuce, mint, etc.) We were shown how to put them together and left to our own devices.

After dinner we decided to take the walk Thanh had suggested. We took a right turn out of the driveway and headed in the opposite direction from the city. It was a warm night and it was fun to stroll down the street, peering into houses. Most people were sitting right inside the open door, looking right back at us. We got a lot of hellos. One entire family came out to the street to talk to us (they pushed their shy little girl to say hello, which she refused to do until I said it first), but unfortunately they didn’t know any other words. (We tried French and Spanish as well to no avail.) Through some cute pantomime they were able to convey that the flowers on the tree beside us were asleep for the night. Eventually we just smiled a lot at each other. It was a little frustrating, but it was also one of my favorite moments of the trip. How can you not be touched by people crossing the street just to smile at you? Here’s some video of our walk.

Eventually we spotted our first firefly. It was on the same side of the street as the river, and when Anya headed down a path in pursuit I had a horrible vision of her being eaten by one of the (alleged) crocodiles. Fortunately, we soon spotted some on the other side of the street. To my amazement, I was the first to catch one. I held it in my cupped hands for a second before releasing it, and my wish, into the side yard of a Vietnamese family who probably would have been astonished had they looked out their window.

Even when we were walking where there were no human noises—no televisions, no music, no voices—it was far from silent. The insects alone made quite an impressive racket. Then there was the wind in the trees, and the water. Stephanie and I stood and listened for a moment and thought about what it must have been like to be a soldier listening to the same noises, wondering if one of them was trying to kill him.

When we got back to our cabin we were very glad to have the mosquito net. We had quite a menagerie of bugs in there (including, at one point, fireflies) as well as the lizards that are ubiquitous in this part of the world. All night I could hear what sounded like burrowing beneath me—I just prayed that if whatever it was emerged from under the bed, I would be asleep when it happened.

Our cabin. This photo doesn't capture how pretty the area was.

Our cabin. This photo doesn’t capture how pretty the area was.

We got up at 5:30 to see the sun rise over the river (at least, that was the theory—it was already up by the time we headed with the man of the house to his small boat at 5:50. He took us down a small branch of the river to the spot where we would be meeting up with Thanh and the rest of our group. Here’s some video. As we headed down the river he somehow managed to serve us breakfast (rolls with jam), complete with tea! When we arrived at the meeting place a middle-aged woman pulled up beside us in a small wooden boat filled with bottles of soda and beer and made him an iced coffee right in the boat. She served it to him in a small plastic bag with a straw sticking out of the top.76916_10152415520620277_665862059_n

Thanh and the others appeared in a large boat and we climbed aboard. Then we sailed down the river to see the floating market. It consists of dozens of boats ranging from the very small (like the four-seater canoes we took the day before) to the medium-sized selling everything from pineapples to cabbages to the boats themselves. They advertise their wares by hanging a sample from a tall bamboo pole. That way, from a distance you can see who has watermelons and who has mangos. Many of the boats pulled up beside ours to sell coffee and fruit to us tourists.

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Most of the women were wearing the iconic conical hats. (Thanh explained that there are many purposes for these hats. First, to keep out the sun. Second, they can be used as measuring devices since they each contain sixteen rings. So if you use the hat to borrow rice from a neighbor, you can remember that you owe them four rings worth, for example. Third, if you have to use the bathroom out in a field and someone surprises you, you can use the hat to cover—your face.)

All in all, it was a very pleasant experience that I will always remember fondly. While I neglect my parents and distrust the Vietnamese, of course

 

 

01/16/13

Miss Saigon

 

One of the tanks that helped "liberate" the Reunification Palace and end the war

One of the tanks that helped “liberate” the Reunification Palace and end the war

Greetings from Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon! I arrived yesterday afternoon after a very pleasant 6-hour bus trip from Phnom Penh. The view was scenic—lots of rice paddies and tropical plants in Cambodia, and busy-looking towns in Vietnam. (You can check it out on my Youtube page, where I have also added short videos from the rest of my trip, just to give people a feel for what everything looks like). The border crossing was a piece of cake—easier than going to Canada.

The one hitch was that when I arrived in HCMC and found myself on a street corner/construction site with cabbies demanding to know where I was going, I didn’t know. I couldn’t find the confirmation email for my hotel booking on my ipod, and I didn’t have the faintest idea how to pronounce its very Vietnamese name, so I wrote down what I thought was the name of the guesthouse and showed it hopefully to the closest cab driver. He assured me that he knew where it was (I was dubious, fearing that I might have just written down a random combination of “ng” and “th,” but I figured that I didn’t have much to lose—going anywhere would be better than staying where I was.) I asked him how much the ride would cost and he told me he’d use the meter.

As we drove he told me that HCMC had a population of 10,000,000. “What’s the population of New York?” he asked. “Eight million,” I replied. He smirked, clearly pleased at HCMC’s superior size. “How old are you?” I told him. “Are you married?” I told him I wasn’t. He was contemptuous. “In Vietnam, women are married at 24, 25.” He was beginning to annoy me. “I’m lucky,” I told him. “I can do whatever I want. I’ve been to 30 countries.” He continued as if he hadn’t heard me. “I’m 34 and have two children.” I decided to let it drop and not get into a pissing contest with a cab driver from a developing country.

But if I had known how much he was going to overcharge me, I wouldn’t have been so restrained.

I had somehow managed to misunderstand the exchange rate when I had looked it up the day before—I thought it was over 100,000 dong to $1 when in fact it’s about 20,000 dong to the dollar. So when he charged me over 400,000 dong for a 10-minute cab ride I didn’t think twice about it. It was only later that day that I realized I had spent over $20! (To give you some perspective as to what $20 is worth here: tomorrow I am going on a 2-day excursion to the Mekong Delta that includes a 2-3 hour bus trip, numerous stops, two meals, and overnight accommodation for $24.) Ugh! Thinking about that smug little man with his superior attitude AND his dishonesty makes me wish I had told him off. Oh, well! Hopefully karma will get him someday.

My guesthouse turned out to be down a very busy little alley off a very busy street (are there other kinds in HCMC?) The man and woman at the front desk could not have been sweeter—they practically begged me to have some complimentary tea and made sure I had a map of the city and anything else I might need. The room I’m staying in is on the 6th floor (yes, it’s a walk-up), and the toilets and showers are off the balcony, which means you feel like you’re showering outside. I brushed my teeth this morning while looking down over the neighborhood rooftops. (And up—there are plenty of taller buildings around here.)

After I got settled I decided to take a walk. HCMC feels much busier than Phnom Penh (which felt pretty busy). I thought PP had a lot of motorbikes but HCMC is just crazy—if you are outdoors, you are probably in the path of someone’s moto. Even if you’re on the sidewalk. The parks actually have metal bars suspended about 6 inches off the ground to prevent people from riding through them.

I had heard before I got to Asia that crossing the street in Vietnam was scary, but since it was scary at first in Phnom Penh I thought it would be about the same. (Nobody will stop for you in either city unless you are physically blocking their path. This means that you have to start crossing the street while there are a dozen motorbikes speeding towards you. You just have to make a judgment about when to start going (to give the drivers enough warning), and be sure to walk at a consistent speed so they can decide whether to go in front of you or behind you (they’re not going to come to a complete stop unless they absolutely have to—and believe me, nothing you do is going to make them think they absolutely have to.) And remember to look both ways! Nobody follows the rules. Nobody.) It is almost the same as PP in HCMC, but there are so many more motos that it is definitely scarier at busy intersections. A couple of times good Samaritans have actually walked me across the street because I was hesitating (sometimes simply because I forgot that waiting at a corner for traffic to stop is a useless exercise here).

Being me, I was famished (my bus got in at 2:00pm), but I didn’t want to eat just anywhere—which meant that it was close to 4:00 when I finally spotted a restaurant that looked like a good place for lunch. It was an absolutely gorgeous space, with carved wooden tables and chairs, black ceramic bowls that looked handmade, and very elegant decorations. Normally I wouldn’t dream of eating at such an expensive-looking place, but I’d seen the menu outside and it was ridiculously cheap. (I had an enormous bowl of noodles and shrimp and a coconut shake for $5.) Since it was so late (or so early, depending on your point of view), the place was deserted. At first the staff left me alone, but when I asked for my check the owner, who had seemed very quiet and businesslike, became very bubbly and as sweet as the cab driver was rude. When she heard it was my first day in Vietnam she insisting on treating me to a traditional dessert made of bananas and chocolate (delicious). She sat down with me and told me all about herself (she saved for years to open the restaurant, which she had finally been able to do the year before. Her husband is a landlord—she explained that it’s very hard to buy a house in Vietnam because you have to pay cash, so people need to rent.) She kept apologizing for her English—and I kept reminding her that I didn’t know how to say a thing in Vietnamese. (She then taught me thank you, hello, and sorry—the three most important words in any language.) She was very interested in my life—she had me write down the names of the TV shows I used to work on so she could look them up—and she immediately friended me on Facebook. She begged me to be careful walking around the city, warning me that close to the Lunar New Year (Tet) there is a lot of petty theft. She kept saying, “This neighborhood not safe.” I had trouble believing her—it seemed extremely safe (Chanel was around the corner), but since she was so insistent I decided to take a guided tour the next day instead of walking around on my own. She told me that my hotel was too far to walk to, and was amazed when I told her I had already walked from it. “Vietnamese don’t walk anywhere! We [she acted out riding on a motorbike.]” She was slightly concerned that I was going to walk back, but I told her that if it got dark, I would take a taxi. She spent a lot of time carefully augmenting the map my guesthouse had given me, adding her restaurant and carefully drawing a line showing the route I should take. As I left she made me promise to come back and see her before I go.

Is that the sweetest thing you have ever heard or what?

(For the record, the restaurant is called Co Tam Kitchen and it’s located at 71 Ho Tung Mau Street in District 1.)

I walked back as the sun set, and for the first time I began to regret the absence of the ubiquitous Phnom Penh tuk-tuk drivers. It was getting dark, I wasn’t 100% sure where I was going, and there was no cheap, easy way to get a ride there, since I didn’t really trust the taxis after my experience and I had no intention of riding on the back of a moto. But the flip side of almost no one offering me a ride was that I felt comfortable asking for directions (in PP I never wanted to ask because why would they tell me when they wanted to drive me there?) I pulled out my map a few times and people very helpfully pointed the way. It was rush hour on a Monday, and I couldn’t believe how many motos were on the street. There was a point when I was literally trapped—surrounded on all sides–and I was on the sidewalk!

Eventually I made it back to the hostel, where the staff helped me arrange my city tour, as well as excursions to the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi tunnels. Most impressively, they also found me a flight to Da Nang for $30 less than I was seeing online. Now I know never to book anything myself!

This morning I got up bright and early for my 8:30am city tour. One of the downsides of staying in a dorm is that you can’t just leave your things strewn all over the room (well, you could, but that might not be the smartest thing to do), so you have to allow time not just to get dressed, but to repack your clothes and lock up your valuables.

There ended up being 12 of us on the tour—two Brits, one German, two Belgians, a few Brazilians, and me. We drove from attraction to attraction in a van while our guide, Tran, explained the upcoming destination in broken English.

The stop I was most excited about was the War Remnants Museum. It’s dedicated to what they call the American War, and it was fascinating to read about it from their perspective. Fascinating and horrifying. Granted, it was totally one-sided, but I couldn’t point to anything in the exhibit of the “U.S. aggressive war in Vietnam” and say, “that’s a lie!” (But then, of course, I’m no expert. We hardly studied it in school, and as I think I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t able to finish the book that I started about it. I just downloaded another to my kindle, though, so hopefully soon I’ll be better informed.)

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They have a whole room full of photographs of Agent Orange victims—babies born with no legs, no arms, etc., along with quotes from international figures condemning the use of the chemical as criminal and immoral. I had a really hard time looking at the photos–there are so many of them and they are merciless. But what really got to me was the next room—after showing you all that, you are then greeted with this sign:

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I had to fight back tears.

My favorite exhibit was of photographs by photographers killed in the war. It featured images by journalists of all political stripes, and many of them were from the last roll of film they ever shot. They were pictures of everything from medics in the field to Vietnamese families running to escape bombs. A sign said it was a gift from the people of Kentucky to the people of Vietnam. That made me feel slightly better.

I should say that a number of Vietnamese people have asked me where I’m from and nobody has had a negative reaction. Usually they tell me they have a cousin in California. I just met a very sweet 63-year-old moto driver who, when I smilingly refused his offer of a ride, engaged me in conversation. When he heard where I’m from he told me he loves American movies. “Indiana Jones! Harrison Ford!” He listed the cities he has met people from. When I told him my brother lives in Chicago, he said “I know Chicago! Al Capone!”

After the museum I asked our guide what had happened to his parents during the war. He said that his father worked for the Americans and so after the fall of Saigon he had gone to prison for two years. He also had two uncles who had worked for the CIA and they had also gone to jail.

The next stop was the city’s main market. He gave us 50 minutes to explore—as much time as we had had at the museum—which was about 40 minutes too many. As Rob, one of the Brits, put it, it is the most chaotic place any of us had ever been. You are literally always in someone’s way, inside or outside of the building. The passages between the stalls are about eighteen inches wide, so you are always squeezing past someone. Standing still for even a minute is impossible. Not virtually impossible. Impossible. There were some interesting things for sale—particularly in the food section—but I couldn’t wait to leave.

I ate our (barely edible) lunch with the British couple, Rob and Lou. Lou is a social worker and I was fascinated to hear about her work in child protective services (she said it’s not nearly as bad as I imagined—it’s mostly telling immigrants that hitting children with a belt is illegal in Britain and they should not do it again. And they don’t.)

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Other memorable stops included the Reunification Palace, which was the site of the end of the war, and the city’s very cute French colonial post office.

Ultimately the tour was a pretty unsatisfying experience—we rushed through the one thing I cared out (we had less than an hour at the War Remnants Museum) and spent far too long at things I didn’t (we went through every room of the Reunification Palace). But at least I won’t have to leave the city thinking, “gee, I wish I had gone to a lacquer factory.”

I ended up having dinner at 5:00pm (I was starving due to the rock-hard spring rolls I’d had for lunch) at a pho place recommended by the ever-smiling receptionist at my hostel. I asked the waiter what the best pho was, and he suggested a beef variation that was slightly more expensive than the others (it was almost $3!) I consumed the (delicious) dish while sipping my first Vietnamese iced coffee (which is now my favorite food!) and watching the motos whiz by as the sun went down. Here’s the view:

A perfect end to a very nice day. Which I think was a Tuesday. But I’m not sure. Which makes it a spectacular day.

01/15/13

Unexplained Phnomena

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It’s time for a little detour, folks. We’re going to talk about beauty.

I care about my appearance. I try to look good if I possibly can. And I know enough about fashion that people pay me to write about it.

But I also try to dress appropriately for wherever I am. In Southeast Asia, that means keeping your shoulders and thighs covered. Which sounds easy, but in practice I can’t find a way to do it that doesn’t result in my looking (or at least feeling) like a missionary.

It is almost impossible to find an attractive dress that is not stifling in tropical heat which meets those qualifications. Which is why I have now appeared in public numerous times in a dress covered with elephants. I hope my future teenage children will understand why I did it, and try to show me a little mercy, but I realize that’s a lot to ask.

The worst part is that I seem to be the only westerner here who even tries, so I look like the one sad old maid in a sea of Ke$has.

Another beauty-related topic that’s been on my mind a lot these days is skin color. I saw my first tube of skin-whitening cream my first day in Chiang Mai at the 7-Eleven (I was disgusted to see that big international brands like Ponds make them as well as local brands I’d never heard of). Since then, I’ve seen numerous billboards showing a man with a line down the middle of his face. On one side, he’s darker. On the other, he’s pale. Jacey, our tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, told us that he wishes he were fairer. We told him that everyone in America wants to be tan, but it didn’t make an impression. (A slightly related aside: in Cambodia, they use US dollars for everything, but they won’t take bills that have even a tiny tear in them. I told them that nobody in the US would care—they would probably even take a bill that was torn completely in half—but they remained firm.) Anyway, it makes me so angry that these corporations are encouraging so many people to hate their appearance.

Now for a beauty tale that will leave your hair standing on end (which is a lot better than what it did to my hair while it was happening. But I’m getting ahead of myself).

I spent yesterday morning on my laptop in the hostel’s lounge, updating my blog, and booking my bus to Ho Chi Minh City and accommodations there. But I didn’t want to completely waste my last day in Cambodia, so at 1:30pm I decided I had better go out and see some sights.

I was slightly nervous that Andy (my tuk-tuk driver from the day before) might be waiting for me outside—he had stepped inside and waved at me earlier, and the thought that he might be counting on me to provide him with a good-paying tuk-tuk job (when I really felt like walking) was making me a little anxious. Fortunately, when I exited the hostel not only was he nowhere to be seen, there were no tuk-tuks there at all. (As I mentioned, Andy has tuk-tuk number seventeen for my hostel—so there are at least seventeen tuk-tuks that could be waiting there at any given time.)

I decided to make the most of my freedom and walk around the city. I was really starting to get the feel of it. Instead of avoiding eye contact with people, I looked at everyone and smiled. I still shook my head when they offered me rides, food, clothes, etc., but I did it with a positive attitude.

I saw some street signs pointing towards the Independence Monument—Phnom Penh’s equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe, only, somewhat ironically, it celebrates Cambodia’s freedom from France—and decided to walk there. I found myself humming “Aux Champs-Elysees” as I walked, because it really did feel a bit like walking towards the Arc de Triomphe. There were government buildings on either side (including the busy folks at the Ministry of Corruption).

I was struck by the number of portraits of the king. There are a lot of pictures of the royal family in Thailand, but they are not usually three feet high and on the outside of buildings. Some of them were wreathed in black, which made me wonder if something had happened to the king, but then I remembered that black isn’t a funereal color in China, so maybe the black was just to show that he is a serious man. (I later asked a Cambodian who told me that the king had died in October. I felt really bad for not knowing that. Normally I would make sure to know that sort of thing before visiting a country—when I was in Argentina former president/first gent Nestor Kirchner had just died and I made a point to photograph the graffiti commemorating his life. I’m not sure if I even got a photo of the many images of the king (I wasn’t sure how the guards at all these buildings would feel about my taking one). The same Cambodian told me that king was loved by everyone.)

By the time I made it to the Independence Monument (which evokes Angkor Wat’s towers, only on a bigger scale) I was starving. I walked up and down streets looking for a restaurant that wasn’t totally empty (it was about 3:00pm), or of dubious cleanliness. When I was approaching desperate, I rounded a corner and found myself face to face with BB World, “Cambodia’s most well-known burger and fast food chain.” This, I had to try.

BB World was a large, welcoming space with high ceilings and an attractive spiral staircase leading to the second floor. The dominant color was red—red booths, red chairs, etc. It looked very much like an American fast food chain—only cleaner and with much better service. At the front were pictures of the various options (the burgers come with a tiny Cambodian flag stuck in them!). After they took my order and I paid, I was told to go wait at a table. Next to my table were sinks, soap, and paper towels for washing your hands. I was very impressed! (Unfortunately, the food was not so great. The fries were not tasty at all—and I don’t know what my burger was made of, but it definitely wasn’t beef.)

After I ate I wandered down one of the streets that flowed out from the Independence Monument. It was the nicest I had seen in Phnom Penh—it had several attractive stores (including a “Face Shop,” which I suspect is being sued for copyright infringement as we speak since it looks exactly like a Body Shop). There was even a Mango (international Spanish chain that I love but can’t afford in the US).

After I passed the Mango I noticed a sign for a salon that advertised waxing. I was immediately interested, since I learned long ago that I am hopeless at shaping my own eyebrows, which are probably my most prominent feature.

I was slightly nervous about letting people who couldn’t understand me change my appearance (I had a bad experience with a beauty school in Quebec ten years ago that left me with my first bob), but I figured with eyebrows, how bad could it really be? The worst thing they could do would be to make me look like Claudette Colbert, right?

Wrong! (This is an example of a literary technique known as “foreshadowing.”)

I walked into this place (called Hong Kong something-or-other), and an old man sitting next to the door greeted me and had me sit down in a chair in front of a mirror while he brought a young woman over. I explained (with some pointing) that I wanted my eyebrows waxed. There was conferring. Finally, she led me into a back corridor and up a dimly lit staircase into an even dimmer room with several narrow gurney-like things. A woman was lying on one having her face covered in some sort of goo by a very confident-looking woman. A much less confident woman was given me.

She indicated that I should lie down and relax while the wax heated up (I inferred most of this—nobody there could speak very good English), which I did. Eventually she came over and began touching my eyebrows in a way that felt reassuring—like she had done this before. Then she began pressing my right eyebrow so hard that it was painful. I actually wondered if she were using wax at all or some technique I wasn’t familiar with it. Then I felt her add a strip of cloth and pull it off. (You know something’s different when actually pulling the hair off doesn’t hurt nearly as much as putting the wax on. It felt as though she were trying to insert the wax into my skull.)

Then, all of a sudden, she was asking me a question. Did I want (points to top of eyebrow) and (points to bottom). I was confused. Was she asking if I wanted her to wax both the top and the bottom? It felt like she had already done both. I decided to look in a mirror to confirm.

I should pause for a moment to tell you that I don’t scare easily.

I looked like an alien. Or the victim of some type of horrific accident. Half of my right eyebrow was completely gone. A thin sliver that began halfway past my eye remained (and it wasn’t even neatly done). Photos don’t do it justice—you really have to see it in 3-D to see how bad it is (it made a grown man who had never seen me before shout “Holy shit!”)—but here you go anyway:

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You’d be proud of me—I didn’t yell. I didn’t cry. I just said: “That’s really bad.” They indicated I should lie down again and I shook my head. I made them remove the remaining wax from my face while I stood up (towering over them, of course). I asked the woman who had done it if this was her first time, but she didn’t understand me. Then I politely walked out of the building, artfully arranging my bangs and wondering if I should get a haircut like Zooey Deschanel’s.

I decided not to let it break my stride. I wanted to see at least one more site in Phnom Penh. I followed signs to the Russian Market, but I found it to be too much for me (trash, chaos), so I decided to get a tuk-tuk and see something else. I had read in my guidebook that the silver pagoda with its emerald Buddha was the city’s top attraction (even though I had yet to find anyone who had heard of it), so I decided to try one more tuk-tuk driver. I found one who claimed to know what it was, but when we got to the right neighborhood (I was able to tell him it was near the royal palace) it became clear that he didn’t actually know. Then, when we discussed it more (“A wat with a big green Buddha?”), he realized that it was actually inside the palace grounds—which had just closed for the day. Since we had just driven through a beautiful neighborhood with some very attractive shops (which was quite unusual for Phnom Penh), I told him to let me out and I started walking, trying to find the streets we had walked down.

(Spoiler alert: I failed.)

Not that there was anything wrong with the neighborhoods I did walk through—they were more of what I was already used to. And walking is a slog in Phnom Penh because there are hardly any sidewalks; cars are parked on them, and motorbikes and tuk-tuks are whizzing by in the streets, so you have to hug the curb and pay close attention to what’s going on around you. Which I did for blocks and blocks and blocks. All with the handicap of being a one-browed freak.

Finally I headed back to the hostel to meet Stuart (who very nicely claimed that my eyebrow wasn’t that bad. I suggested he get his eyes checked) and go out to dinner with people from Couch Surfing. “People from Couch Surfing” turned out to be Dan, a Cambodian American guy from L.A. We ate at Chinese House, a gorgeous tapas place that I would never have been able to afford in the US (in Cambodia it was about $6-8 a dish and $5 a cocktail). We ended up shutting the place down. We got the waitresses’ life stories (one wants to go to fashion school but it’s very expensive. The other’s father lives in Lowell, MA—I promised to go eat at his restaurant when I go home. She immediately friended me on Facebook so we can keep in touch.) The waitresses asked where else I was going in Cambodia and I had to confess I was going to Vietnam the following day. It made me sad, actually. I wished I could tell them that I were going somewhere else in the country that they were obviously very proud of. Especially since I was really starting to feel at home in Phnom Penh.

Tomorrow: Vietnam!

 

01/14/13

The Penh is Mightier than the Sword

398081_10152403106045277_1243058106_nI decided to spend my first day on my own at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.

As a World War II historian, I always start learning about a tragedy thinking that they can’t possibly throw any new atrocities at me that I haven’t already read about—and I’m always wrong. The Dirty War in Argentina, the Cultural Revolution in China, and of course the Cambodian genocide all involved depravity that easily rivaled the Nazis.

It’s depressing, of course, but there’s also something uplifting about feeling like you’re honoring the memory of the people who died by learning their stories and thinking about them.

I stepped out the hostel door and was immediately greeted by an eager tuk-tuk driver. The first price he quoted me for the two stops was $18, which to me seemed laughably high. (I had just read a travel blog post that said rides to the Killing Fields should cost $6-$8, and rides in town $1-$2. Which hasn’t been close to my experience—only my ride the day before had been that little.) I got him down to $15 but he didn’t seem willing to go any lower. “The Killing Fields are really far away. This good price for you.” I began to wonder when the blog post I had read was written. I certainly didn’t want to nickel and dime poor people in a Third World country. Finally I gave in, but I didn’t feel good about it. I hate feeling like I’m being taken for a fool. Later, when we were driving to the Killing Fields and he saw me cover my nose and mouth with my hat to keep out the fumes and immediately pulled over and bought me a surgical mask, I felt much better about overpaying. (And yes, I wore the mask and felt very Asian.)

I decided to go to the genocide museum first because it was the prison that people were kept at before they were brought to the Killing Fields. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the most poorly designed museums I have ever been to. When you get there, the first building you go to is virtually empty—there is no text at all, just empty rooms containing a single bed (if that) and an image of a tortured person lying on that bed. Since the photos are grainy and there is no explanation of what you are looking at, it’s hard to stir up the proper emotion.

The second building contains headshots of the people who were killed, which is more affecting, but still doesn’t pack the emotional punch that it could if there were more information. Like if they clearly explained that almost everyone was totally innocent of any wrongdoing. That they were murdered by teenagers. That these teenagers murdered children and babies to avoid someday dealing with adults bent on getting revenge for the deaths of their parents.

It is only when you get to the third floor of the second building that there is even an attempt to explain who Pol Pot was and what happened (and it is not a very successful one. I could make it twice as good in one day). So that was disappointing.

But the Killing Fields were the opposite. When you get there you walk through a gate into an attractive, grassy area with trees, pathways, and a tall, wat-like building which is the memorial stupa, the centerpiece of the museum and the resting place of thousands of skulls unearthed at the site. Then they give you a tape recorder so you can take an audio tour at your own pace. A Cambodian voice explains every detail of what happened to people there, from their arrival to their execution (usually via blunt force by farm implements, since bullets were expensive). The voice warns you not to step off the paths and not to pick up any cloth or bone fragments that you might see (they still come to the surface when it rains). It’s very, very moving.

I don’t know how long I stayed—probably hours. Afterwards I was very hungry and asked Andy (the name my tuk-tuk driver tells English speakers to call him) if there was anywhere around there to eat. He took me to a little café (I hesitate to use that word lest you picture Paris; instead, picture a car port). I told him to come in and have a drink with me. I asked him what I should order and he suggested amok. I told him I had already had it but would be happy to eat it again if he thought I should. At this point the owner came over and they conferred. They settled on some sort of fish curry that may indeed have been amok. Andy had something different; both he and the owner tried to act out the animal he was consuming; it took me a minute to get it, but it turned out to be frog. I had a bite of it; it did indeed taste a bit little chicken.

I asked Andy all about his life. (It was not easy since his English is really not that great. I seemed good at first, but negotiating price is what he does best.) He said that is driver #17 at my hostel, which means that he has to wait for 16 tuk-tuks to pick up people before he gets a chance. Some days he only gets one customer, going somewhere close like the market. He also has to give the hostel a percentage of what he makes. He lives in his own place (I suspect it’s a room) for $40 a month. He says he needs about $250 total to live on, and he doesn’t always earn it so sometimes he has to borrow. His parents are farmers about an hour from the city. His sisters work six days a week, from 6am-7pm in a clothing factory. He doesn’t know how much money they make. His brother, on the other hand, writes for a weekly magazine about local news. I asked Andy if there were any possibility of making more money or getting a better job. He shook his head. Even though education in Cambodia is free up to 12th grade, Andy only finished 8th. I asked what the best jobs were in Cambodia. He said government jobs. I asked about what happened to his parents under the Khmer Rouge, but he had trouble understanding me. He did assure me that they were not killed (which I had already figured out since he was born years after the fall of the regime!)

Lest you think I was asking Andy inappropriately personal questions, he knows how old I am (one month older than he is) and how much I weigh (more than he does!)

After the Killing Fields I went back to the hostel. It was 6pm and I remembered that earlier in the day I had posted on Couch Surfing asking if anyone wanted to have dinner with me. I had a number of responses but I couldn’t write back to them because for some reason I wasn’t able to sign onto the website. I felt terrible for leaving people hanging like that, but eventually I signed on and arranged to meet people the following night.

I ended up falling into conversation with Stuart, a Scottish guy who designs bars and clubs all over Asia. We discussed Scottish independence (he is firmly against), the royal family (he is pro), and life in general until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

When I got up to the dorm a new guy asked me what time the bar started quieting down. I told him never. But then I decided to be assertive, and I marched back downstairs and asked them to turn off the sound on the TV. And they did! It’s the little things in life.

Then I spoke to my parents and my father sobered me up slightly by pointing out that maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing to take strange men who know where I’m staying out to lunch and tell them that I’m traveling alone. He’s probably right… I should be more careful.

Starting tomorrow.

01/13/13

Without a Chaperone… For Real This Time

P1030619

Cambodia is in-your-face.

Lying in bed we were treated to regular 10 minute bursts of extremely loud music and speeches via loudspeaker—starting before 8am. I still have no idea what was going on, but there was a tent set up in the (busy city) street beside our hotel. Khalid thought it was for a wedding the night before. But, who knows, maybe Cambodian weddings continue the following morning.

By the time we were ready to leave the hotel Khalid and Isaure only had about three and a half hours before they had to go to the airport. We ended up going for breakfast at a non-profit restaurant that raised money for an orphanage established by the owner. It was also in the busy riverfront neighborhood we had eaten in the night before. My preferred breakfast these days is muesli, yogurt, and fruit—they give you everything from bananas and watermelon and mango to lychee and passion fruit.

After breakfast we decided to take tuk-tuks to some of the city’s top attractions. First we went to Wat Phnom, a temple on a hill built by the city’s founder, a woman named Penh. (Phnom means hill.) The hill is very green, in the middle of an elegant traffic circle not far from the river. We paid a small fee, climbed the stairs (nothing after Chiang Mai and Angkor), declined a man’s offer to allow us to free sparrows from a cage he had for good luck (I saw another woman do so, but all I could think was: bird flu), took our shoes off, and entered the temple. It was very pretty, but when you’ve seen a dozen wats, you start to feel like you’ve seen them all. One thing that did seem different was that each little statue had some money under it (usually riel), and a cut-off lotus blossom in front of it. I hope someone is getting a lot of good luck.

Afterwards we half walked, half slid down a very narrow stone staircase that was so treacherous we began to wonder whether it was a staircase at all, or some sort of water drainage system. (Fortunately nobody seemed to notice.) At the bottom of the hill we found another tuk-tuk to take us to the central market.

The central market is in a big yellow building that reminded me of the buildings at the Minnesota State Fair. Unlike the market in Siem Reap where every vendor was selling the same t-shirts and other touristy trinkets, this market had everything from diamonds to dental floss, from ipads to baby clothes. After browsing for a bit we realized we had just enough time to see one more place (and maybe not get out of the tuk-tuk). Isaure tried to pick an English-speaking driver out of the crowd, but apparently there is an order you have to go in, so instead the English-speaking driver told the first driver in line where to take us. We picked the genocide museum because on the map it looked like it was across town, and we figured that would allow us to see a bit more of the city.

The city didn’t exactly look prosperous, but it sure looked busy. The sheer volume of motorbikes, cars, and tuk-tuks was impressive. Every store front was filled. There are some very attractive boulevards with well-kept grass and palm trees.

When we arrived at the museum our driver couldn’t understand why we wanted to turn and go—we had to enlist the help of an English-speaking tuk-tuk driver to explain it to him, and even then it took a while.

When we got back to the hotel we got our luggage and climbed into the pick-up truck-like taxi the hotel had arranged to take Isaure and Khalid to the airport and me to my hostel.

The driver had some trouble finding my hostel, because the street it’s on is cut in half by some sort of important building. That was fine with me—the longer I was with my friends, the better. But after three phone calls to the hostel, he finally found it. I was relieved to see that it was by far the most attractive place we’ve stayed at so far—it has a large white verandah with lots of green leafy plants, a swimming pool, a bar, and numerous booths, tables, and hammocks for relaxing.

Seeing that reassured me that everything was going to be okay and gave me the courage to say goodbye to Khalid and Isaure.

I dropped my things off in the dorm. Unfortunately, they don’t have any lockers (“Yet!” they told me optimistically), so I gave them my passport to put in their safe and locked my backpack to my bed.

I figured that it was important to go out in the city on my own as soon as possible so it wouldn’t build up to a big deal in my head. I began to walk briskly towards the river, and to my surprise, virtually nobody bothered me. I made it all the way to the neighborhood where we had eaten with only three drivers asking me if I needed a tuk-tuk. Clearly, my East Coast don’t-bug-me face was working! I felt very proud of myself.

I took myself out to a late lunch at an attractive restaurant near the river with flowers on every table. I decided it was time to try fish amok, an iconic Cambodian dish. I hadn’t tried it so far because I’m not really a fish person, but I figured that now that I was alone, it was time to be a big girl.

And it was absolutely delicious. The best thing I’ve had since I came to Asia. So there’s a lesson for you.

After lunch I wandered (purposefully!) up and down busy streets, and followed one of the green boulevards until it left me at a massive intersection with no hint of what might be in either direction. Since the sun was getting a bit low, I decided to call it quits. When a man on the corner asked if I needed a ride I nodded. He gestured to his motorbike. I laughed, and walked over to the nearest tuk-tuk. Feeling like a powerful woman to be reckoned with, I told them where I needed to go (he had to pull out a map for me to show him, and I was so proud that I could find my hostel on the map). For once he suggested a reasonable price ($2) so I didn’t even have to negotiate. I arrived back at the hostel feeling quite proud of myself.

I spent the early part of the evening writing blog entries and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes in a corner of the courtyard. Once I had made some progress I decided it was time to meet some people. Everyone seemed very engaged by their laptops, cell phones, or significant others, but I figured if I stood by the bar for long enough, someone would talk to me.

Eventually.

I pretended to be absolutely fascinated by the soccer game on the TV (even though I could not figure out who either of the teams were.)

And eventually, a voice said, “Either you are a huge soccer fan or you are just as lost as I am.” It belonged to a Canadian guy named Blake who, believe it or not, lives 40 minutes away from where I’ll be living in China. So I already have my first friend!

After Blake and his friend went to a different bar, I chatted with Birgitta, a Danish woman staying in the same dorm. She was on her way to Angkor so I gave her advice about that (and Jacey’s phone number), and she had just come from Vietnam, so she gave me tips about what to do and what to skip. She convinced me that, despite my claustrophobia, I have to visit the Vietcong tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City. I’m still a little nervous about it, but her description and her photos were really compelling.

We went to bed around 11:30—I say “went to bed” because we did not “go to sleep.” The dorm’s windows face the terrace, and there was LOUD music all night. Ear plugs did not really help. Eventually I managed to nod off out of sheer exhaustion.

Half a day alone down, and about 35 more to go before China.

01/13/13

Siem’s Fine To Me

P1030395On our last day in Siem Reap we decided to see more of the town. We went out to breakfast at a beautiful restaurant with exposed brick that could have been in Soho. (Which may explain why we’ve been spending so much money…)

We walked a little around the old market (which is a lot prettier lit up in neon at night) and down the river a ways, but we soon ran out of things to see. (We were astonished, however, when after we left the market area people started saying hello to us just to say hello and not to sell us anything. That hadn’t happened since Thailand.) It was also getting intolerably hot (Ra had told us that it’s usually coolest at this time of year but for some reason this year is different. The hottest is in April, when it’s between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius!), and it was exhausting turning down the countless offers of tuk-tuk rides. We decided it would be much more agreeable to go back to Angkor.

Rather than call Jacey and have to wait for him to come get us, we decided to pick a driver who didn’t seem as aggressive as the others. We saw a guy lounging in his tuk-tuk, ignoring passersby, and asked him if he would take us. But he turned out to be waiting for a client (that explains the lounging!) and so he gave us to his friend, Yol.

Yol turned out to be a very sweet guy. While Isaure and Khalid were in the bathroom he told me he was from Siem Reap, married, and had a five-month-old son. Out came his iPhone, and he showed me lots of adorable photos.

The temples we visited on the last day were not as exciting as the ones we had already seen—one had virtually no decorations, and all of them gave us the feeling of “haven’t we been here before…?” But I was so glad that we had gone back. It was so nice to be out in nature, feeling a part of such amazing history.

Our car to Phnom Penh was picking us up at 3:00 so we headed back to the city for a quick lunch at 2:00. Unfortunately, the concept of “quick” was lost on our restaurant. It took about 40 minutes for us to be served. Jacey joined us at the end and helped speed things up by telling our waiter in Cambodian that we were in a rush.

We said goodbye to him regretfully and began our long drive to Phnom Penh. Our driver did not speak any English at all, which made for an interesting ride. Explaining that we wanted the air conditioner turned down was not easy, and about four hours in he turned on the Cambodian equivalent of NPR, which was of course utterly incomprehensible to us. (I did understand “Phnom Penh,” which they said a few times.)

The countryside was pretty—flat with tall grass punctuated by palm trees and water. We saw lots of white cows (or were they water buffalo?) Isaure said it reminded her of Tanzania—banana trees, animals walking everywhere, one main road with no side streets, and red soil contrasting with a green landscape. The houses were all on stilts; I’m not sure why (to avoid flooding? to keep snakes out?) A few hours in the road was being repaired, which meant that the asphalt was all gone, and our driver, who was already determined to pass every car on the road, now started swerving to avoid every pothole. Imagine swerving on a dirt road for two hours, while honking every few minutes to alert motorbikes to your presence, and you will understand why we were very grateful to tumble out of the car in Phnom Penh.

Our hotel was a cheap affair in a very lively neighborhood. Our room, which we had booked the day before, was a triple straight out of 1975—wooden headboards, wood paneling, etc. We decided it would be the perfect set for a ‘70s TV show starring the three of us as an unlikely crime-solving trio.

I was starving, so we walked a couple blocks to the river and had dinner at an attractive café on the patio. While we ate several (small) children tried to sell us things, and a young woman with a baby came begging. We also watched a tuk-tuk driver follow passersby in either direction, browbeating them into taking a ride.

By this point we were totally exhausted, so we went back to the ‘70s. I tried not to think about the fact that Isaure and Khalid would be leaving me the following day—and I would finally be without a chaperone, in a city I’ve seen described as the “wild west” where the only word I know how to say is “thank you.”  I decided, like Scarlett O’Hara, to worry about that tomorrow.

01/12/13

Angkors Aweigh

P1030254The first thing we did on our first morning in Cambodia was switch hotels. Our first hotel had very nicely found us comparable rooms somewhere else, which meant that for the first time we would each have our own rooms and bathrooms. The very idea was so decadent!

Jacey picked us up at 9:00am and we drove our bags to the new hotel (where I insisted on seeing the rooms before paying. The rooms contained two beds, a desk, and TVs—so they seemed absolutely palatial to me after our last room, where we could barely move around the two giant bunks. And for $7 each, you really couldn’t go wrong.)

Once our things were safely locked up in our new quarters, Jacey drove us out of the city. Riding in a tuk-tuk is one of my new favorite things. You get a breeze, a terrific view, lots of honking (tuk-tuks, cars, and motorbikes are forever blasting the horn to warn each other that they are approaching—often from the wrong side). It’s just dangerous enough to be fun but not scary.

Our first stop was the ticket booths for Angkor Wat. It’s $20 for one day, or $40 for three. We got three-day passes. They take a digital photo of you, then immediately print a pass with your image on it, which you then have to present at every temple. It is so much more efficient than the border, it’s not even funny.

Once we were through the ticket booths, we drove along what looked like a large river but was actually the moat surrounding Angkor Wat (the temple; Angkor Wat is what the entire complex of temples (which Wikipedia tells me is the largest religious monument in the world) is collectively known as. It is also the name of the complex’s best-known and best-preserved temple. You might recognize it from the Cambodian flag.) As we rounded the bend in the moat and the temple came into view we all gasped. (I don’t gasp a lot, or say, “Wow!” when I look at things much, but over our three days at Angkor, all of us did, repeatedly.)

It seems like something out of another world (which, of course, it is). The scale is enormous, the design both completely alien and totally beautiful.

Isaure talked to some people and arranged for us to have a guide for the first temple. His name was Ra and he did an absolutely incredible job of rattling off information. He remembered so much data—years, size, the number of elephants involved in the construction. He showed us bullet holes in the walls from when the Vietnamese liberated the people who had been held prisoner at Angkor Wat during the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge. He explained that there were 32 steps up to the temple symbolizing the 32 levels of Hindu hell (all the temples were originally Hindu; now they are used to worship Buddha. Khalid dryly remarked that he wonders how long it will be before the Buddhas have been replaced with the Virgin Mary.) There is also a tower with 37 steps, symbolizing the 37 levels of Hindu heaven. (We spent a lot of time at Angkor temples climbing stairways to heaven.) There were ancient swimming pools for Hindu purification rituals (alas, they are now empty. It was so hot that if they filled them, they could make a fortune charging admission.) Ra also pointed out holes in the stone that he said some Cambodians thought were from devils’ fingers but were actually used to help move the stone from the mountains to the site. He explained that for years no education was available under the Khmer Rouge.

When I asked Ra how he had learned all this he admitted that he had followed other tour guides repeatedly, sometimes recording what they said and studying it at home until he had memorized it. He wanted to be an officially certified guide, but the cost was $4500(!) so he had to settle for being unofficial. (He remarked sadly that nobody cared if you knew all the history—all you had to have was the money and you got a badge.) In the meantime, he was studying Spanish and Russian so he could give tours in more languages. He said you could make a lot of money from big Russian tour buses—as much as $180 a day when you take into account the kickbacks you get when you bring your tour bus to a restaurant or a store.

By this point we were hungry, so we headed in the direction of some booths inside the temple’s front garden (for lack of a better term—the area inside the front gate where there are two lily ponds. (One of which locals had waded into and were fishing with a net while we were there.)) As soon as we approached women came running out of the booths, asking us if we wanted to buy books, t-shirts, fruit, lunch—you name it. This was the one negative about Angkor—and it was never-ending. If you stood still long enough, you’d be surrounded by a crowd of people trying to sell you everything under the sun. And it was exhausting. Plus, a lot of them were children. The children sold everything from postcards (“ten for a dollar!”) to bracelets and books. The majority of them were about five or six. We bought postcards from one little girl because we really did need them. It was really hard to see children working—and hard to ignore them. But eventually we learned to do both. Especially after we read a brochure that said that giving them money only encouraged adults to exploit them and keep them out of school (which is free in Cambodia).

We agreed to eat lunch at a stall (all of the food places had tables lined up next to each other, and did the cooking behind a wall using battery power. At one point they unplugged a fan that was fanning us from the battery it was plugged into in order to use that battery to make my pineapple shake.)

After lunch we met up with Jacey and drove to the next temple. Along the way we drove down a long forest road where a large family of monkeys was congregating, much to the delight of tourists. (Over the next few days we learned that those monkeys are always there—why would they move when people feed them?)

I was afraid that after Angkor Wat the other temples would be a letdown but if anything the opposite was true. The smaller, emptier temples felt like our own discovery. Climbing in and out of doorways, up and down stairs, and wandering through forested grounds never got old.

But after two more temples we were exhausted. We gave in to the pleas of another aggressive woman and had more cold drinks in the shade (I was rapidly becoming addicted to pineapple shakes), but at that point we were getting tired and the sun looked like it was going to set soon. We asked Jacey where we should go watch the sun set and he told us Phnom Bakheng. We climbed the enormous hill in the boiling heat. The temple itself was the least interesting we had seen, and the crowds waiting to see the sun set made it a rather tiresome experience. But as we told each other, if we hadn’t done it, we would have wondered if we were missing out.

Jacey dropped us off at our hotel with plans to pick us up the following at 5:00am to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat (we feared it might be a repeat of the sunset, but it was definitely one of those experiences we felt we’d regret missing). After we had showered some of the red dust of the temples off, we decided to walk to a restaurant Isaure had read about in her guidebook. But we couldn’t find it, and you can only ignore men harassing you to ride in their tuk-tuks for so long when you are hungry. We ended up taking one to the center of town where we ended up eating at Khmer Kitchen, a Cambodian place also recommended in the guide. The restaurant was beautiful and the food was very good (as were the pineapple shakes!), but our meal was constantly interrupted by people trying to sell us things—or just flat-out begging. (We were sitting outside.) The most memorable was a little boy who said to Isaure, “You know how I can tell you’re American? Because you’re with Obama!” (He pointed to Khalid.) Then he said to me, “You know, if you had black skin you could be Michelle Obama.”

After dinner we walked down Pub Street. The restaurants and stores were very chic—very different from what we’d seen in Chiang Mai and Koh Chang. We got breakfast pastries for the following morning at Blue Pumpkin, another recommendation from Isaure’s book.

We went back to the hotel and I was so excited to finally sleep in my own room.

So of course I couldn’t sleep at all.

Every sound that I wouldn’t have worried about if I were with someone was magnified. (It didn’t help that the acoustics were such that it sounded as though everything happening outside the building were happening in my room. When they dumped water in the alley beside the hotel I was surprised to find that I wasn’t wet.) I finally got up at 3:30 and got dressed.

When we got to Angkor Wat it was still pitch black. (I could finally see the Big Dipper!) We used the flashlight on Isaure’s iPhone to cross the moat. According to Ra, half the bridge had been restored by the French in the ‘70s, but they stopped with the Americans began bombing Cambodia, so the other half was rough.

As soon as we entered the gate we were bombarded by the same women from the day before, this time trying to sell us coffee. Isaure spotted the same little girl we had bought the postcards from, up at 5:30am and already selling. We found spots near one of the lily ponds (that’s where the crowd is really thick, because you can see the sunset reflected in the pond). When the sun finally started to rise (which it seemed like it would never do) it was bedlam. We wondered if someone would fall into the pond. (I suggested that the whole thing would be more fun if each day a pond creature would rise from the depths and eat someone.) I decided that when I’m 90 I will come back, go over to the side of the pond that everyone is photographing and take off all my clothes.

After the sunrise (which none of us managed to get any good photos of), we continued our temple tour with more quiet, wooded ones. They were practically empty and I really, really enjoyed them. (Even though they were practically empty, they still had persistent vendors. When Isaure would tell someone that she already had the book he was trying to sell her, he would reply, “Same same but different!” Once she tried speaking to the vendor in French, and explained she would need the book in French. He replied in excellent French—and produced the book.

One of the temples I was most looking forward to was Ta Prohm (the one with the trees growing out of it that was featured in the movie Tomb Raider.) Unfortunately, large parts of it were being repaired and were therefore inaccessible, and the rest of it was crawling with so many tourists that it was rather unpleasant. If you go, I recommend going immediately after sunrise.

We took Jacey out to lunch at one of the restaurants inside Angkor. We asked him about himself–he said he’s not married because getting married costs $2000. (We got the impression that was some sort of dowry.) He owns his own moto but he has to rent the tuk-tuk attachment from a friend. He would like to buy his own but they are very expensive–a used one is $500.

At this point it was about 2:00pm, and since we’d been there since 5:00 we were ready for a nap. Jacey took us home and we passed out for a few hours.

Then it was time to figure out how we were going to get Phnom Penh, my next destination and Isaure and Khalid’s final. Our original plan had been to take a boat from Siem Reap, which sounded very picturesque, but Jacey told us that it was the dry season and boats probably weren’t running. We called the boat company and they confirmed it. After the long trip from Thailand Isaure and Khalid really weren’t looking forward to another bus trip (I didn’t care—I have a lot of long bus trips planned), so they hit upon the idea of taking a taxi. It would be faster without all the planned stops, and we could control the temperature, stop when we wanted, etc. We called Jacey and asked if he knew anyone who would do it and how much it would cost. He responded that he did and it would be $80. $26 per person didn’t seem so bad for such a long trip (it’s a 6-hour bus trip) so we agreed to leave the following afternoon.

We went out to dinner in Pub Street (once again, delicious), then walked over to the Night Market. The vendors there were just as pushy as at Angkor. Khalid got so impatient that he declared that he would buy something from the first person who left him alone. (It took a long time, but it did happen eventually.) Isaure found lots of things she liked, including a couple of opium pipes. She hopes U.S. customs will understand that they are purely for decoration.