Archive | February, 2013

Cu Chi Tunnels

27 Feb

An elderly Polish woman leans forward to see better. “They are so simple…” She looks down at an array of booby traps aimed at wounding or killing American soldiers. “Terrible”, she says slowly, looking down at a folding chair lowered into the ground, ready to snap together and pierce spikes into its victim when stepped on. “And effective!” Our guide grins.

We are at the site of one of the most famous battlegrounds of the Vietnam war. The Cu Chi tunnel network was crucial to the Viet Cong, allowing soldiers and villagers to hide and move underground as well as launch surprise attacks. 10,000 people lost their lives in the tunnels. The damage they inflicted above ground is not included in the leaflet tourists are given.

The film with footage of the Vietnam War sets the tone early on in our visit. While the rest of the guided tour resembles a visit in a theme park, the “documentary film” shows a glimpse into wartime propaganda.

“Cu Chi, the land of many gardens, peaceful all year round under shady trees … Then mercilessly American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside … Like crazy animals they fired into women and children … The Americans wanted to turn Cu Chi into a dead land, but Cu Chi will never die.”

The Chinese family in our group push their way past other tourists down the narrow trail, leading the way towards the firing range. As elsewhere in the woods, a souvenir shop appears. The sounds of the automatic weapons – M16s and AK47s – make tourists jump as we look at the items on sale. Toy cars made from bullets, necklaces with bullets, planes made of Coca Cola cans, ice cream and “Cu Chi Tunnel” T-Shirts. “You now have 20 minutes to shoot or relax!”, our guide shouts.

Though only two dollars a bullet, we pass on the shooting and save our energy for the tunnels. Of the 250 km maze, a pitch-dark 30 metre stretch is open for tourists to crawl through. Those not inclined to get down on all fours or prone to claustrophobia, may opt for the XL-tunnel, specifically enlarged for tourists and with lights installed.


From Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City

26 Feb

Phnom Penh

…which we left on Sunday.


Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is six hours away in a bus and a world apart from Phnom Penh.

We would have made it there sooner if we, as many others, had stuck a few notes inside our passports and bribed our way past the queue at immigration. As a Scottish man pointed out as the tenth chubby Vietnamese pushed and shoved his way past, there is no incentive to improve. Efficiency would mean that no one would pay bribes.

Anyways. Once you finally make it across the border, the change of scenery is striking. Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City is not a fair comparison, but we will do it nonetheless.

Vietnam's GDP is ten times that of Cambodia, so that bamboo is changed to brick, tuktuks swapped for buses, and the number of people on motorbikes reduced from four to two are actually not that surprising. But, what made us gawk out the window was the colour green. If you need any proof of the efficiency of irrigation, take a bus during the dry season from grey and beige Cambodia to extraordinarily green Vietnam.

After Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City – once Saigon – is easy to visit. Streets and boulevards are lined with trees, there are pavements you can walk on, and the air feels fine to breath. The city centre is largely made up of low and mid-rise buildings and the entire place gives off more of a village vibe than that of a bustling city of eight million people. That every second middle-aged woman sports a pyjama adds to that feeling.

Backpackers have also reemerged, as have the kind of hip shops, bars and restaurants that you find in Bangkok. I must admit, I am happy to be back in “cool Asia”. It never fails to impress and in Ho Chi Minh City, the French legacy also ensures easy access to lovely flakey, buttery croissants for breakfast.

Traffic may be calmer than Phnom Penh, but motorbikes still dash from everywhere. Our first night here, an assertive local woman came to our rescue as we wondered how on earth we would survive an attempt to cross the street. “Want to cross? Come with me!” Following her like scared sheep eying the 20 motorbikes coming directly at us, I asked optimistically, “So..they always stop?” But no. She laughed! “They NEVER stop!”

The trick to survive is to forget about traffic laws and traffic lights (everyone else has). Simply start walking slowly, so that the motorbikes can still whizz around you, and make sure to keep a somewhat predictable pace. Stopping (read: paralysing) is not advisable, as this leaves everyone confused as to your next move.

Although the city itself does not readily remind you that you are in a one-party state, several of the museums serve as stark reminders. More about that later. For now, here are some photos of Ho Chi Minh City.



'Tous les Jours'. At least every day we are in town.

A French bakery and a heavenly escape from travelling.

'N2 Heaven' on Ba Huyen Thanh Quan

Choose your tropical fruits, add some cream and watch it transform to ice cream with a burst of liquid nitrogen. Owner and inventor Tony Khuy said it took him two years and 10 pounds to work it out. Best mango ice cream I have ever had. And first and worst brown rice ice cream for my more adventurous boyfriend.


Dirty toilets & genocide

25 Feb

I've always been a big fan of guest books. You can perhaps tell more about society by the comments left in such books than in an entire sociology text-book. Many are dull, many are clichés, but if you're lucky sometimes you may just find a gem of a comment that can bring a tear to the eye in profundity, or even better, utter pedantry.

The two guest books I have seen in Cambodia didn't fail to disappoint.

First, from the “impressions” book of the Choeung Ek – the country's most famous 'killing field'.

Not usually a place for laughter I couldn't help but smile at the first (English-language comment) in the book.

“The rest room is so dirty”

There are actually two comments made by the same person. The first is made in their native language. Perhaps they talk about the sheer awfulness, the emotional anguish and how the visit will change them into a better person. But for some reason – perhaps reflective of a very unpleasant visit – they have switched to English to make their complaint (or is it a warning to other tourists – why else the change of language?).

The second comment made directly below makes a reference to the comment above. A Vietnamese called Mi ends his entry:

“P.S. The person above me is indeed a fool.”


Randy from the USA also caught my eye.

“Worse, in some ways, to Dachau and Auschwitz, which I visited some time ago.”

He doesn't elaborate on how it is worse “in some ways”, but perhaps he shares the sentiment of “RS” from Japan making the comparison with the Holocaust.

“This case is very different to that of Germany in the sense of killing their own citizens.”

Brushing aside the historical inaccuracy, the moral implications are worrying to say the least. You often see the same moral reasoning in press articles when a murder victim was an “innocent man”. The murder of a “guilty man” is surely no less morally reprehensible.

Jensen from the USA uses the opportunity to complain about the imbalance in the site's stories (you get an audio guide including a number of short stories of survivors' tales of the horrors of the regime).

“I want more stories about the Cambodians that fought back against Pol Pot. 'Poor me Poor me' stories are important but the brave & heroic Cambodians is what would give me hope.”

My favourite comment is by Morzal Saber from the Netherlands.

“It made me more human.”

Well put Mr Saber.


Phnom Penh. A tough place to love.

24 Feb

Phnom Penh is a bumbling chaos. Motorbikes outnumber cars fifty to one. The only traffic rule seems to be that the largest vehicle has the right of way. The dust and pollution are best appreciated from the back of a tuktuk. Soaked in sweat from the 35 degrees heat, motorbikes and cars whizzing past, and being absolutely mortified and newly appreciative of how useful it would have been if your driver had any mirrors at all.

Lonely Planet should provide a translation service. What the Prozac nation of guidebook authors mean to say with “undiscovered gem of Asia” and “never fails to captivate” is that few people stick around long enough to experience Phnom Penh in all its glory. Most travellers we met said they hurried out after the second day.

This is the capital of one of the world's poorest countries. Cambodia is poorer than Sudan and Nigeria. Of course, there is beauty as well as grime. The temples, pagodas and saffron-robed monks are all there. French colonial-era buildings are found throughout the city. But so are the street children, limb less beggars and brothels. And they make a stronger impression.


Battambang – bamboo train, bats and Mr. Boren

21 Feb

Arriving in dusty and dingy Battambang, we started to long for the beaten track. By the time we had finished our small tour of the city at night, we were both thinking “what have we done?!”. But daylight came, we met Mr. Boren and Battambang turned out to be the highlight of our stay in Cambodia so far.

Mr. Boren – our tuktuk driver, guide and ex-monk

Taking us around a pagoda, our guide seemed exceptionally knowledgable. Honestly, it seemed like he was making it all up. It became less surprising that he knew the ins and outs of the monastery when he revealed that he used to be a monk. Coming from a poor family and “with no money for school, my father sent me to the monastery to become grateful.” Having learnt both English and Thai from his fellow monks, and thus able to work as a tour guide today, Mr. Boren said he is definitely grateful to his father.

It should have been his speech about the life lessons of humility, compassion and politeness that I remember the best in retrospect. But no. It’s rather how he showed us sleeping fruit bats, agreed they resembled obese fruit just hanging there in the trees, and thereupon placed a few firecrackers at the foot of the tree. (“Want to see them fly?!!”)

Oh, and also his monk anecdotes. For those of you who have not watched serious monks collect alms for their small vegetarian meal once a day (“I became very thin. Very little food”), this is how it goes down:

“You know, we walk barefoot”, Mr. Boren said, chuckling a bit as he pointed down at the pavement. “And the ground? Hot, hot, HOT! So you focus. And not smile. Smile internally to everyone”.

He also made both himself and us laugh when he summed up his life as a monk – sleeping, meditating, all in all not doing a whole lot. In his words: “REALLY BORING!!”

Battambang bamboo train

High speed fun on a bamboo shack on rails! The bamboo train will only exist for another three months; then it is replaced by a road.

Wine tasting at Cambodia´s only winery

A glass of locally produced red in Cambodia? Obviously we had to try that! Cambodia´s only winery came about when a Cambodian living in France sent his younger brother a guide on how to make wine. Grapes were imported from Australia, et voila, 2000 bottles are produced every year. That is probably enough.

Cambodia is the only Asian country that only produces one rice crop a year (hardly any of the land is irrigated), though the country´s wine producer has managed to put those statistics on their head. While French winemakers produce only one crop a year, the heat here enables the Cambodian winemaker to grow three.

Killing caves of Phnom Sampeu and killing fields

During its three and a half years in power (1975-1979), Pol Pot´s Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a giant concentration camp. One quarter of Cambodia´s population at the time – 2 million people – were killed.The Khmer Rouge horrors seem barely comprehensible when reading about them. Standing next to piles of cracked skulls and bones in a stupa makes the hellish crimes still difficult to fathom, but at least you get an idea of what a machete may do to a person´s head.

Perhaps because the brutal killings are hard to take in, what made me the quesiest was the story of how victims were transported to mass executions:

The bat cave

A sweaty and dusty 20 minute walk from the killing caves, about the time when you have a thick layer of grime on your face, you find one of the most spectacular nature sights in Cambodia. At sunset, over a million bats come streaming out of a cave through an opening in the cliff side to hunt for food.

They keep on coming out of the cave in a thick, seemingly choreographed, trail of black for 45 minutes. But, mind you, not too low. “They don´t fly too close to the ground. Because people toss spears. You may catch 20 in one throw. Or they put up nets between trees.”

And the obvious question that begged to be asked: Now, how do you eat a bat? “You steam. Then remove the skin.”

Fish market

Crocodile farm

Angkor Wat era temples / ruins

Wat Banan was my favourite, and I´ll readily admit it was all in the name. The temples around Battambang however resemble IKEA projects gone wrong. No, really – they do. I even checked it online afterwards and found this entertaining blog post by an archaeologist:


Oddly enough though, among an otherwise ruined landscape, full towers will rise, solid and looking almost as good as those at Angkor Wat. The different though, if you look closely, is that these ruins were not painstakingly rebuilt by history lovers and archaeologists looking to restore a bit of the past. No, these ruins were pieces back together by the hands of farmers and day laborers here in the countryside of Battambang.

Battambang is not a huge tourist destination but the locals know the value of the tourist dollar. And when your “must-see” site is a pile of rocks, the tourist don’t tend to stick around long. BUT, if you take that pile of rocks and stones and rebuild them, suddenly you have a “temple” that you can charge tourists to visit. “If you rebuild it, they will come.”

Siem Reap to Battambang

18 Feb

The 9+ hour boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang. Oh joy…



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