Showing posts from December, 2004

The ubiquitous HCM

Vietnam lacks a royal family. As a proudly socialist republic is egalitarian enough to understand the folly of royals and their assorted paraphenalia. Thailand and Cambodia make portraits of their king unavoidable in a stroll around the main street, and the respective monarchs seem to have a calming influence on a hectic population. Indeed, the royals seem to be social gelatine, holding together otherwise disperate ethic and social groups with a common identity and figure of admiration. In the absense of royalty, however, Vietnam has created its own. Ho Chi Minh is unavoidable on the streets of Vietnam, with his face of wisdom peering out over restaurants, cafes and government buildings, whilst his statue liberally dots boulevards and intersections. HCM is Vietnam, and Vietnam ceases to exist as it is without HCM. Politically, HCM represents the father of the nation and its socialist ideology. His role, however, is much greater, in that he acts as a unifying force, much i

Hoi An

Hoi An is renowned for its old world charm, its charming little village, the charming merchants at the market, the charming antiquated museums, the charming traditional music performances... in other words, the place is supposedly chockers with charm. After spending twenty-four hours in this UNESCO-listed Charmapalooza, I am willing to say that it is nothing special. Vendors hawk their wares with little concern for the lack of use for much of what is being sold. Tailors try to measure you up for a suit even as you persist in walking down the street. The fish and meats sits in a seemingly-inedible form at the market, as locals purchase some as they lick their lips. And moto drivers cruise the streets, desperate to score a ride even though the town is a simple grid of half a dozen streets, easily navigable (except in a few cases, see below). On one occassion I was desperate to buy a replacement for my waterlogged beach/bath towel, which has endured much punishment in the past mon

Christmas in Vietnam

Vietnam is about 90% Buddhist, but you wouldn't know it judging from the omnipresence of all things Christmas. A walk through the main streets of Saigon will leave you drenched in a sea (the metaphor seemed okay when I thought of it) of red, green and white tinsel, and your ears polluted by the sounds of tacky Christmas carols being blared out of shop fronts. According to some who had been here a while, major public Christmas celebrations have only started in Vietnam in the past couple of years. Based on that, I'd suggest that Vietnam is like the little boy who has just discovered his genitals, and now can't stop playing with them. The Christmas paraphenalia is so much more in-your-face then anything experienced back home. Given that Catholics are only a small part of the population, it seems clear that any notion of the spiritual side of Christmas is minimal. Instead, this is naked commercial opportunism, and the Vietnamese have taken to it with gusto. The spread

Someone's up to no good...

Sunday night was a big one in Nha Trang. It was a full moon, you see, and so that was the convenient excuse for half of the travellers to NT to head to the local Sailing Club ('ello Sailor!) and drink the local specialty - bucket cocktails, drunk out of an oversized jam-jar and liberally doused with alcohol. By 3am, the folks at the Sailor's Club were calling it stumps (my term, not theirs) and so I decided to call it a night and head home. Whilst walking the three kilometres or so from the Sailor's Club to my hotel, I came across the Manchester Hotel, or more specicially the monkey-man who was scaling the wall and thrust himself on to the balcony of a first-floor room. Monkey-man and I stared at each other for a moment, before he swatted in my general direction, mosquito style. There was no doubt at all in my mind about his intentions, particularly given the fact that theft in a seaside town such as this is very high. In my drunken state, I considered my options

I didn't do it.

Hello all. I've just logged on for the first time in two days and heard the horrible news. I was completely oblivious to it all, with only a few murmers from other tourists about something dangerous happening in Sri Lanka. I had no idea of the scale. I'm stuck in Vietnam at the moment, a fascinating place but not the place to be when big news is breaking. The little TV that I have seen has all been on the three government-owned channels, which have marked the natural disaster by screening wall-to-wall aging American movies with bad dubbing. Just like they honour every other day. Personally, I was completely unaffected by it. At the time when the earthquake hit I was in Nha Trang, a beachside resort on the east coast of Vietnam. Thankfully we were far enough from the site of the quake to be unaffected by it. No tsunami. No tremors. Clearly, we were the lucky ones.

The boring stuff

Greetings from Mue Ne, a sleepy little beachside town that goes off at night. Think of it like the Lorne of Vietnam, except without the Schoolies. Nothing much to report about Vietnam itself from this particular vantage point. There are lots of Russians. Tourists can be arseholes. The sun is hot. Stuff happens. A few quick bits and pieces about whatever: - Sorry to those of you who got my little email, and when you clicked through on the link which was supposed to take you to the blog found yourself on the Mega site of bible studies and information . My bad. Hopefully with a bit of deft enginuity you would have spotted my typo and clicked through to the correct site. If not, then you won't be reading this and the message is largely irrelevant. - The itinerary on the right keeps chopping and changing. I've recently decided to abandon my plans to visit Laos on the grounds that (a) it's too far (b) it's too boring and (c) I still can't work out how

To the victors go the spoils...

It's an old but true cliche that history is told by the winners. In the still-Communist People's Republic of Vietnam, that is remarkably true. There are several major sights throughout Siagon (the capital of the former South Vietnam, and losers of the war... a fate they won't forget too easily) dedicated to commemorating the American War, and each of them act as a stake through the heart of the Americans and South Vietnamese. Yesterday I ventured to the War Musuem, which was formerly called something like the American War Crimes Memorial until they realised it was scaring off visitors. It serves as a comprehensive assessment of the war, through the eyes of the communist North Vietnam. There's no tact or subtlety to the message - the evil imperialist Americans and their puppets in the south committed heinous offences, and the world should never forget. The horrors of life in non-Communist South Vietnam are shared, as are the cruel and barbaric tactic used by the

Fat kids in Vietnam

There are fat kids in Vietnam. It's incredible. Surrounded by a sea of countries with poor, malnourished and poorly medicated kids, Vietnam has fat, chubby children walking around enjoying their parents love and ice-cream. It's a great thing to see, not because I can identify with them (as a minority group, us generously girthed people need to look out for each other) but because it shows the affluence that Vietnam is starting to experience. Thirty years ago, this place was dirt poor. By the end of the war it was a horrible, unhealthy place to live. Agent Orange created a large pool of new-borns with serious deformities, and health care was third world. Nowadays, Vietnam (or at least Saigon, which is all I have had a chance to see so far) is a place that is thriving economically, and opportunities abound for someone with the right attitude. The combination of western lifestyles, decent health care, and a trend toward parents having fewer children and paying them more

Seeing Saigon's surrounds in style

Meet Thong - alias Slim Jim. A man with a long story to tell, having fought on the losing side in the American War (as the Vietnamese logically call it) and did a stint in a Vietnamese prison, as well as as a teacher in a Mekong Delta which might be just as painful. Nowadays he spends his time in more placid surroundings, as a tour guide from Saigon to the surrounding districts, and a darn good job too. Like many in his generation, T (aka SJ) learnt his English from American GIs during the war, and liberally dots his speech with kitsch, dated cliches. It sounds odd at first: the Vietnamese accent, the perfect English, and then the occassional reference to 'having a butchers' (go on, work it out, we all did). Then it turned really strange. A group of Israeli visitors on the trip jumped on board the bus, and were greeting with a big 'Shalom Chaverim' from SJ, and then a decent level of conversational Hebrew followed. Not many Vietnamese-Hebrew speakers out there, b

Traffic in Asia

Through I'm not a driver, either at home or on the wild roads of Asia, it seems clear that there is a very different approach to driving in south east Asia compared to more sanguine western roads. Without wishing to get too philosphical and earnest about a topic that is actually a lot of fun, I wish to compare approaches to driving to differing political systems. The roads of the west are communism in practice: each driver sacrifices their individual wishes for the good of the collective, the traffic moves at a pace which is almost identical to all, vehicles of all ages, makes and quality share the road as perfect equals with all being indentical before the traffic gods. The roads of Asia, however, are pure unadulterated capitalism. Rather than having a common speed, vehicles move at vastly different speeds and are constantly overtaking in an effort to reorginise the road hierarchy. Faster, newer vehicles happily kick dust in the eyes of older vehicles. Every driver fight

You mean they don't take Israeli Shekels?

A quick one I was going to write a couple of days ago but never got around to it... Crossing the border from Thailand into Cambodia is a hectic affair, with five moto drivers for everyone one passenger who might actually need their services, coupled with some strange currency swaps which inevitably go on. After negotiating a fair of 350 Baht for the trip from the border to Siem Reap in Cambodia, I realised that I didn't actually have 350 Baht. So instead, I paid 200 baht, plus 5 US dollars, which totals about 400 baht. And my change? 5000 Cambodian Rials, which equals about $US1.25. A typical border transaction.

Homelessness in Phnom Penh

By day Phnom Penh is alive and pumping with people on every street corner, sitting, talking, eating, gambling, smoking, drinking and just generally enjoying life. By night, the streets are full as well, but in the form of a tent city of homeless people taking care of themselves. To call them tents would perhaps be a tad generous. Instead they are mosquito nets, set up to protect the occupants from the numerous buzzing city-dwellers who spread malaria and it's viral friends. PP has a major problem with poverty and homelessness that is impossible to ignore. Many of the moto drivers who dart through the streets during the day sleep on their bike at night, since it represents one of their few possessions and they have little else to turn to. The begging is also noticable, partly amongst the many thousands who have lost and limb or their mobility to land mines, but also amongst young, fit and presumably able people. It is worrying that a city with so much commerce and activity

...and a present for your family?

Cambodia oozes corruption. Every encounter with law and order or anyone with a link to the government has their hand out and asks for more. Routine transaction (for example, a visa purchase at the border with Thailand) require just a little more grease than would be expected to turns the wheel of bureaucracy. There is a fascinating little case playing itself out in the Cambodian English language media that shows the depths to which official corruption has sunk. Everything at this stage is simply 'alleged', and there's not a lot of point in me testing out the finer points of Cambodian libel law, so presume this all to be mere alleged. Got that. Alleged. Brothels in Phnom Penh run rife through the city, most of them doubling as hotels or low level guest houses. The give away sign is that the rent out rooms by the half-hour and the staff are amazingly attentive. Last week as part of a crackdown on the illegal practice, a government minstry, the Ministry of the Inter

Phnom Penh - the place to be

Just days after he came to power in 1975, Pol Pot ordered the depopulation on Phnom Penh. He and his henchmen forced the cities hundreds of thousands (the people, not the sugary topping of the same name) to leave their homes and head for the countryside. His cover story? The Americans were about the bomb the city, and in order to be safe people must leave it. Pol Pot assured them they'd be able to return within a couple of days. And how's this for trusting? He demanded that everyone leave their doors unlocked, and that he and his men would keep an eye on everything. They sure did. 29 years later on Phnom Penh is a bustling metropolis. The city is home to one and a half million people, and there's a palpable energy in the air. Typically Asian commerce takes place on the streets, with every imaginable commodity - both legal and illegal - available widely and at a fair price. It's hard to imagine anyone going hungary in PP, but plenty do. There's also a s

The wild wild far west

I was sitting in my guest house room on Tuesday morning in Siem Reap after a rather nasty bout of gastro the night before (it's the best way to test out the local plumbing system, and thankfully it works pretty well). On the TV we could pick up channels from Cambodia, Thailand, China, Malaysia and CNN. Watching a news bulletin from Malaysia, they were covering international news and introduced the next item as coming from the "Far West". The major participants were Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas. Cute, isn't it?

The Temples of Angkor

Since the 10th century Angkor Wat has stood in the north of Cambodia as a testament to glory, king, country, slavery and religion. The Angkor Wat is simply stunning, a finely details labarynth of a building which has been standing for a millennium but still gives the impression that you might be the first to discover some part of it. The walls are lined with exquisite engravings, the Bayeaux Tapestry of Cambodia, if you will. For those with plenty of patience and no aversion at all to heights can scale the steep central tower, and reward themselves with a stunning sunset spoiled only by the persistant 'wows' and 'isn't is just loooooooovely' from American and British tourists respectively. Angkor Wat is merely one of dozens of temples that dot the countryside in northern Cambodia, in what are known rather uncreatively as the Temples of Angkor. Amongst them are the wierd and the wonderful, in completely random and unpredictable order. One temple has several h

The road to Siem Reap

Am in Siem Reap at the moment. The tourist city in the north of Cambodia which is a short jump from Angkor Wat, the gobsmackingly incredibly thousand year old temples that I'm frankly bored with one day into my stay. The roadtrip from Bangkok was great fun, if a little tiring and resulting in me needing a change of spine and hair. The Thailand side of the journey was remarkably easy, heading out to the bus terminal in Bangkok and then the peaceful four hour journey to Aranya Prathet, the border town. Then the fun begins. A short tuk-tuk ride later, I'm departing Thailand across the friendship bridge (which should probably be renamed the Opium Overpass, but the local authorities don't seem to have a sense of humour with those things). Thai immigration was easy, Cambodian immigration a tad more trying, but before long I was in Poipet. Think of Wentworth in NSW before gambling was legal in Victoria. All the wealthy Thais head to Poipet to spend their excess Baht on

Thursday night at the Traders Bar

Yangon is a city of over 5 million people, but the number of westerners living in Yangon is estimated at being not many more than a thousand. A long standing Thursday night tradition for a large chunk of those thousand is drinks at the Traders Hotel Bar. The Traders is as luxurious as one can imagine a hotel to be, with the swishest lobby in town, scarily attentive staff, and a refined air that usually scares away backpackers. All this in the centre of one of the dirtiest, most chaotic and poverty-stricken cities in the world. On the second floor of the Traders Hotel stands the Bar. Ever the curious traveller I was keen to meet some of the expats and find out what brought them to Yangon. Even in the confines of a very western venue like that, discretion was still required when discussing politics (or "the P" as my friend from earlier that day referred to it). First I met a couple who had moved out from Calgary in Canada. The lady (no, the lady in the couple, not T

Cinema in Bago

Tuesday night I was in Bago, a small town a couple of hours north in Yangon. In the midst of a rather boring, uneventful stroll down the main street (that's Mandalay-Yangon street. I think it connects Mandalay and Yangon) I came across aa movie theatre with hordes of young families heading in. With no other plans for the night, and the Myanmar heat causing a glow and a stench, I decided to head inside to see what was on offer. Myanmar has quite a rich cinematic tradition. For many years the country has tried to reject English language media, and has instead tried to tell its own stories in its own language. Very few whitefella obviously go to the movies on a Tuesday night in Bago. As I walked into the cinema, which was full of excitable kids sitting on wooden bucket seats, there was a murmer than went through the throng. Kids in Myanmar have no inhibitions about pointing and staring, particularly with something as unusual as a foreigner at the movies. Plenty of hellos

Channukah in Yangon

In its hayday, there were 2,500 Jews in Yangon. Now, though, it's numbers have thinned and there are just 8 Jewish families who call Yangon home. Still, that's more than enough for a functioning Syngague, and thanks to the tireless efforts of the volunteer Trustee, Moshe Samuels, a beautiful shule stands in the heart of Yangon. The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue was built in the 1860s, when British rule of Burma meant there were plenty of Jews who needed a spiritual outlet. The site is remarkably central, just a few streets away from the Buddhist holy sight of Sule Pagoda, and in an area that is now a bustling street market. I was lucky enough to visit the shule for a Shabbat service during Channukah. Most of the locals are not observant, and so the shule only draws a crowd during the high holy-days and during Rosh Hodesh, when there is a special effort to run a service. Unfortunately there were no locals in attendance other than Mr Samuels, the trustee who takes a rather rel

Meet the Lady

After having a meal at one of the street-side stalls, a group of teenaged kids sat down and decided they wanted to talk. After going through the nicities of life in Myanmar and in Australia, I took the conversation toward discussing politics, a risky subject and the best of times and potentially dangerous in a place like this. In trying to provoke a response, I quietly mentioned the name of a particular democracy leader under house arrest , and before completing the second syllable had been given the fiercest Shhhhhhhhhhhh I had experienced outside a classroom with Mrs Soccio. All of them turned to me and put their finger to their lips, librarian style, and stared without blinking. Even amongst kids who have lived all their lives under the current regime, the political importance of that one figure is fully known. In Yangon, that name is not one to mention. Instead, apparently, the local euphemism is The Lady. The Lady is almost universally admired and respected amongst Myanmar

Just another day in downtown Yangon

Life in Yangon shows the effects of the lethal combination of corruption and incompetence. If it were merely a zealous regime driven by a desperate desire to please God or Marx or some other fictional being, then it would in a strange way be understandable and explainable. As it is, however, its only goal is the perpetuation of its own power. No doubt those in senior positions have looked beyond the edge of the cliff and seen what their own lives would be like if they were to ever lose their grip on power, and have decided to hold on extra hard. There are some things that are hard not to notice when walking down the street in Yangon, all of them symptomatic of the problems afflicting the country: -Buses. Buses are not simply crowded, but are permanently overcrowded. Most of the vehicles servicing the sprawling suburbs of Yangon are ancient, 1970s era vehicles whose only requirement is that the engine can start. All other safety features (closing doors, adequate seating, bra

Media in Myanmar

Here in Myanmar people get a very limited view of the outside world. The only images and media which can flow in freely are of English soccer, a national obsession here that makes even the most hardened United fan look like a softy. The rest of the media is heavily controlled and regulated, to the point of intellectually isolating this place from the rest of the world. There are 2 TV channels which are broadcast here are both government owned and run, and it is no surprise that they are as boring as the ABC would be if it was Gardening Australia 24/7. Looking at the listings for the two channels in the New Light of Myanmar (more on that later), it is rather unappetising viewing. On the two occassions I have had a chance to watch Myanmar TV, it has almost lived up to those low expectations. The first show I saw featured a middle aged woman singing traditional songs, with a single, fixed camera angle and no set to speak of. Just singing. Lustily. For an hour. The next sho

Myanmar people

There is something unassuming and friendly about Myanmar people. Relatively few visitors from the rest of the world come here, and so there is a yet-to-be-satisfied curiousity that every encounter inevitably begins with. For most people, there is no hostility at all, but simply a desire to find out about life in the outside world. Many people are keen to practice their English, and they perceive it as their ticket to a better life, and most people have a decent grasp of the intricacies of the language. An Australian accent on my part doesn't help things, though. Most conversations that I have with people include a few vital pieces of information. After establishing that I am an Australian (ah, Australia... Melbourne or Sydney?....ah Melbourne... kangaroo...Harry Kewell) they then ask if I'm alone (you are one?). This is meant purely out of curiousity, with no hint that they might be taking advantage of the fact. Then things turn a little strange, when they tell me tha

Logging on in downtown Yangon

Well waddayaknow? After a week in Myanmar, I decided to check out the internet situation for myself. And disappointingly, web-based email can't be accessed, blogging has been given free reign (not quite true about the web-based email - most of the major and minor sites have been barred, but it is impossible to catch them all, so my uni email account is okay, and plenty of Myanmaris have found themselves ridiculously obscure email addresses, which have yet to be barred. Or you could use a .mm address, and have everyone in the Ministry of Communications reading your email.) I'm on my last day in Myanmar at the moment, and will be heading back to Bangkok on Saturday afternoon. I'll be putting some thoughts about this place on line over the next hour or two, and probably over the next couple of days. And on non-Myanmar news, I just found this today: Code Semester Year Description Mark Grade 166021 2 2004 International Relations and its Others 072 H2B


I'm bound for Myanmar later today, a place largely secluded from the rest of the world. Unfortunately internet access will be out for the week (well, almost, you can check your email... well, not your email, but a government created email account... oh the joy) so the blog will probably sit idle for that time. There'll be a full report back when I get back to Bangkok next Saturday, but until then sit back, relax, watch the cricket, and most a comment. The comments have been a bit scarcer than I was hoping for recently!

Breathing in Bangkok

Bangkok is a beautiful city. At least it probably is, but it's a bit hard to tell. Visability is so poor here, that the horizon simply disappears into a haze of smoke and dust and fumes. Thankfully this is a phenomena that all five senses can enjoy. There's plenty of haze to see, taste, hear and smell, and if the layer of grey greasy sweat at the end of the day is any guide, there's plenty to feel as well. There is nothing inevitable about this state of affairs, though. It is the product of a city and a lifestyle which has quickly grown beyond what it can sustain. The city has sprawled quickly before proper public transport could be put in place, so that large parts of the metropolis can only be accessed by one of the aging buses, car or tuk-tuk (the open-aired mini-taxis, apparently named as they are due to the sound of the motor, but more probably so that tourists can joke with each other that they were tuk-tukken for a ride, usually in more ways than one.) The

Thai-Burma Railway, Hellfire Pass

Kanchanaburi is an unremarkable town with an incredible history. It lies as the capital of the local province, 2 hours west of Bangkok. Nowadays, it's a quietish middle sized Thai town with a history of mining and hooning on the streets (not as yet a recognised industry). It is, however, also the home of the bridge over the River Kwai, one of the most remarkably engineering feats of World War 2. The bridge is a part of the Thai-Burma railway, built by Allied PoWs and well as unwilling local Thais, Malays and Burmese, under the instructions of their Japanese masters. The initial estimations said it would take 5 years to constract the 415km railway, but with slave labour and torturous techniques, the railway was completed in 16 months. Thousands of soldiers died in the process, mostly through malnutrition, disease and construction accidents. The legacy of the railway is everywhere in Kanchanaburi. In the centre of town lies a graveyard, where 6,782 allied soldiers (Dutch,

Thai Royalty, and some quick karaoke

The Thais love their Royals. Deeply, utterly and unquestioningly. It is hard to travel more than a few hundred metres down the street in Bangkok without seeing a photo of the king or his wife, usually a flattering portrait of the king being king-like, with the photo surrounded by lights, a fancy frame and various bric-a-brac intended as a small sacrifice to him. In a nation where most of its citizens observe Buddhism, it seems that there is a second revenential figure that rivals Buddha's rotund figure. They also love the national anthem, something I saw demonstrated in full voice on Monday. After misreading the Lonely Planet guide which indicated that the most incredible market, complete with live animals for sale, took place in the northern part of Bangkok. Saturday and Sunday only. Do'h. So instead, I retreated to a nearby park, with a nice pond - including live animals, though not for sale, sadly - and some Thai people hanging around being Thai. In complete seren