We're Never Coming Back

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Day 291 - Sihanoukville

cambodia Amputees and sex pests everywhere...

Welcome to Sihanoukville. After a 4 hour bus journey (it should be two - the bus was late, then stopped for a 20-minute food stop after just 15 minutes on the road), dropping us off in some remote carpark with no clear direction to go in, we hopped in a cab and headed to the beach. and just after the sun had set, we're wandering the 2 minute walk from our hotel room to the beach, casting our flip-flops aside and wandering along the neon-lit sand as the waves splash our feet. This is Sihanoukville - a bizarre, but rather endearing seaside town in southern cambodia.

And with the daylight we shake Eve out of her slumber, apply the factor 20 suncream to our entire bodies, don our swimmers, grab our towels and before you know it we're slumped on the beach, catching some sun. Its nice. Its EXACTLY like you would imagine a third-world (but second-world priced) country to treat its beach resorts. The beach is dirty - plastic bags half-sunken in the sand line the shore. There's restaurants and cafes and bars stretching across the entire 3-mile strip of beach, complete with sunloungers covering half the sand. Aside the hoards of kids and women selling jewellery and fruit, an equal hoard are selling lobster caught that day. And there's cambodian kids everywhere.

We spent the day relaxing in the sun. Sam, as she always does, used her factor 0 tanning oil on her lilly white skin, burning so bad she had to get out of the sun earlier than me or eve. We all played in the sea with these 6 cambodian boys who were intent on catching a cheeky feel of eve's chest every now and then. And I bronzed myself with my new factor 4 suncream - seriously - i'm so brown these days.

And aside from the usual walks along the sand at sunset, drinking cocktails in the sweltering heat with only a sea-breeze to keep you cool, and hopping into the jellyfish-infested waters every 20 minutes to cool down, we did nothing for 2 whole days.

In fact, the most salient moment for me was probably the most embarassing moment in recent memory for me. Cambodia has its fair share of amputees - not least from the hideous quantity of landmines used in the wars here. But also from diseases, which whilst the government claims is not a problem and is fully under control, one glance at the child polio sufferers begging for money on the beach makes you realise its not the case.

anyway, pretty much every hour on the beach sees an amputee waddle, crutch, hop, slide, drag or crawl along towards you, smile politely, attempt some english greeting, wait for 30 seconds for you to fully acknowledge them, then they'll wave half a limb (fingerless hand/dead leg/glass eye) at you before heading off to the next table/lounger/beach towel. Its pretty grim, and the last thing you want to do is stare, but its so hard not to.

Anyway, one dude comes over (I WISH I had a photo of him, he was so cool). He's got two half-arms. So no hands. No lower arms. Just badly healed stumps at his elbow. He's smiling and happy and waves a stump at me. I wave back. And when he comes and sits down with us, I put my arm around him to show my support (he's like 45 or 50-something) and he's pretty good at english, so I ask him what happened. It seems he was in the army, as a teenager, and lost his arms to a landmine. Since then he hasn't been able to work.

Right, I'm not one to be overly sentimental. But that stuff sucks. He's lost both his hands. I had to tuck the 50cents I wanted to give him into his pocket for him. He couldn't do it himself. THAT SUCKS. so much.

Anway, onto the embarassment. So, a bit later, eve and I are walking back, and he's there, by the beach with all his family and his two stumpy arms. And he waves one at me. and his family all look. And I say "Nice to meet you mate" in my most jovial and sincere tone (I was sincere - this is a fact). And, I'm not expecting it, but he reaches out one of his stumps, as if to shake my hand.

What the hell are you supposed to do? Do I shake the stump or do I not shake the stump? I pause. He waves it a little more in my direction - half-armed waves are short and pronounced. I don't know what to do. I'm walking towards the outstretched stump, no idea what to do, knowing I have to make a decision. And so I did it - I lightly punched his stump arm ON THE STUMP BIT, ghetto style. Punch punch. Its mortifying. He laughs. His family roll around laughing. Eve's even pissing herself. I'm mortified. And I walk away red-faced with embarassment.

I still don't know what I should have done. Do you shake a stump? Is that what people do? I dunno. But he was amazing. As are the kids that spend all morning painting pictures to sell to tourists (sam bought two). As are the polio kids that spend all day on crutches trying to earn some money to support their familes. Although perhaps not the little brat girl who told eve she was 'evil' because she didn't buy a necklace, or the little boy who told sam she should 'die' because she didn't buy one of his paintings. Nasty.

There's another side to Sihanoukville which is equally unsavoury. And we seemed to be in the thick of it. Sex tourists. Right, I really don't want to dwell on these guys because it depresses me and I don't really know enough to make any fair judgements. But on Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville, there is more than enough dad-look-a-likes, sitting their 40+ year old bodies up against 18-25 year old cambodian girls, promising them a better life back home, stroking their thighs, buying them presents and leering at their slender figures. These guys aren't sick or offensive or gross. But they're here. In hoards. And the girls laugh and play and stroke their grey chest hairs and you don't know what's going on. Are they being taken advantage of? are the guys being ripped off? who's winning and who's losing? is anyone losing? I dunno - but it doesn't make for pleasant beach company, and left a sickly bad taste in my mouth.

I wasn't hugely impressed with Sihanoukville. I mean, it was nice. Don't get me wrong. But the beach was SO FILTHY. For a town SO dependant on tourism, you'd think the message would filter down into the families that a filthy beach puts off tourists? But it doesn't. I actually told a kid off for dropping a straw on the beach - A STRAW? I'm such a hard-arse. And then there's jellyfish - which I hate. One stung sam on the boob - gutted. And then the sex pests. All in all - I've had much better beaches. But then, I sit on beaches FOR MY JOB. I mean, its all i do. of course I'm gonna have a bad day ever now and then.

that said - the sunsets were nice. Onto Kampot, 2 hours east and the promise of a derelict khmer rouge stronghold and views out over cambodia and vietnam.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Day 289 - Volunteers Cambodia

cambodia No wonder angelina jolie bought a cambodian kid...


OK, so since the killing fields we've busied ourselves spending our dollars on tuk-tuk rides across town, wandering the squalling, maze-like marketplace in town, drinking watermelon shakes everywhere, watching the sunset over the lake and reading fake books. It seems se asia is a hotspot for forgeries of everything including the latest bestsellers - hideously photocopied but bound together well. Unfortunately, my copy of 'Everything is Illuminated' is missing about 10 pages, which annoys me greatly, but i'm nearly finished so I can live with missing key elements of the story (why DID she marry the guy who raped her? anyone?)

anyway, when we're not doing all of the above, Sam was coming up with a brave new idea. To do some volunteer work. We always said, right from the start, that we wanted to do some while we were travelling. 2 weeks of church building, school building, teaching english, whatever. 2 weeks of helping someone else. to justify our hundreds of flights' carbon emmissions. But we never got round to it. Too much to do in south america, no poor people in new zealand and australia, and too little planning for the rest of the trip.

But here we are, outside a cafe in Phnom Penh, surrounded by street kids, stray dogs and rubbish everywhere. And sam points this out...


A quick enquiry inside and we're due back at 3pm, dressed appropriately because we're doing the work outside a mosque. Which we are. nervous. not sure what to expect. sam seems fearless. I'm ready to quit. and we sit down for our briefing, and its all ok. There's about 15 volunteers, all crowded into the cafe, waiting to be marched off to do something worthwhile. Ariella sits us down, and for 15 minutes explains to us what KLC is. Set up in June 2006, 4 backpackers crossed paths on their travels in Phnom Penh, saw all these dirty kids littering the streets, and decided to do something to help them out. They've been here since.


So, we're prepped on what songs we're gonna sing ("this is how we wash our hands..."), what games we're gonna play (british bulldog) and what words we're gonna learn (body parts, colours). Ariella goes on to explain that this whole area of the capital is stuffed full of kids - some go to school, some can't afford to. some sell books to tourists, some clear rubbish and collect bottles and cans for small change. some speak english, and some don't even speak.


Never knowing how many volunteers they'll get, or how many kids they'll get (usually between 20 and 60), we're hoping for lots because there's a huge surplus of backpackers to help out - there's normally only 3 or 4. So our army of 15 march down the road, expectant, ready.


and before we're even got into the uneven, grassy, rubbly scratch of land that's been chosen for the activities, one shirtless 5-year-old has launched himself onto my back and another is being dragged along behind me, hanging off my legs. And before we know, every one of us backpackers is stood in a circle with two cambodian children holding each of our hands. we sing some songs, mouthing the words for the kids, helping them to pronounce the words correctly. We stand around for 5 minutes while the translator explains a new game to the kids, then we're running around, playing bulldog, still clutching their hands as if we're their only lifeline, and cheering with them whether we win or lose.


and an exhausting hour later, we finish the activities, listen as the cambodian kids sing a song in Khmer (the cambodian language) then we have 10 minutes to play with the kids and use up our camera batteries. Before we've even acknowledged the start of the playtime, these kids (some of which don't have any proper 'play' time in their own homes) are crawling on me, dancing around sam, posing for photos and yelling because they want to go on my shoulders again. They're light, and their bones feel fragile and breakable. I'm cautious not to throw them around too much in case they break on me, but they bounce around with a care.


And then before we know it, its time to leave, and through the jeers of kids that don't want us to leave, we wander away, waving goodbye and blowing kisses to the ones who seemed touched to have met us. When I think we're all just as touched to have met them.


It was amazing. I'm sweating from the running around, and down a can of sprite, and sit under a fan for the debreif, before promising to do this again when we come back to Phnom Penh. Its an awesome idea. Its simple and constructive and potent. These kids are learning and developing and have an environment, for one hour, where they can play and laugh and learn and enjoy themselves without having to worry about selling or collecting or wasting away. These kids are some of the most endearing people I've met on the planet. It was amazing. And after we've hit the beach for a few days, we're coming back and doing it all again. I'm sure.


[if you're interested in doing this stuff, check out their website, www.volunteerscambodia.com, which has all the info you'll need. or email me and I'll fill you in on anything you need to know. seriously, if you're in Phnom Penh, and have 2 hours free one evening, do it. you won't regret it.]

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Day 288 - S-21 and the Killing Fields

cambodia So, I've said this before, but I didn't really have any background knowledge of SE Asia before I came here. As we arrive in a country, most of us backpackers read the lonely planet's 3-page history of a country and then spout about it like we studied it at university. We then go to the museums, maybe read the books the kids sell on the streets, sometimes talk to locals, so that by the time we leave a country, we maybe know a 5-page account of the history.

Unfortunately, when it comes to SE Asia, I'm one of these rubbish travellers. Except for one important thing - I didn't bother to read up before we arrived. So we're here in Cambodia. We arrived last night and we want to do the classic city tour today in a tuk-tuk. Of course, I know Cambodia's had a hard time. And I'm not stupid when I jovially ask a tuk-tuk driver how much to take us to the "killing fields" on the outskirts of town. Its $5, and we hop in.

Today turned out to be one of the grimmest days of my travels so far. It was affecting. and poignant. I'm embarrassed that I'm 27 years old and have never bothered to ask about these things. And I was completely unprepared for what I was going to see and spent the next few hours running the details through my head. This stuff is heavy.

Ok, so on with the day. We hop into the tuk-tuk - probably the most run-down rusty piece of shit I've ever seen. But Sam, Eve and myself are so excited to be out on the road doing stuff that we're giggling and laughing and pointing at other better-looking tuk-tuks as we drive the 30minutes to the outskirts of Phnom Penh - through the bustling market place, down paved streets, onto gravel, onto dirt and finally onto dust. We're offered the chance to shoot some machine guns for $30 (it seems there's an excess of ammunition which needs to be used up) but we all refuse (some more than others, Eve...).

And minutes later we're heading into Choeung Ek - site of a buddhist memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge's genocide. We're still happy and laughing at this point as we pass a man with no legs, some other dude with crutches and a hoard of children begging. We've read the lonely planet spiel on this place (about 30 words). we know what to expect. But the words "hundreds of skulls" never means much until you see it right before you.

But when you DO see it, its pretty haunting. The memorial is packed with shelves upon shelves of skulls found in the surrounding fields. They've all been ordered by age and sex, with tiny little skulls in one place belonging to under 5-year-olds. They're all damaged skulls - some damaged by time but loads by sledgehammer wounds across the skulls. We're blasted into silence as we wander around the tiny room stacked 30ft high with skulls.

And if that wasn't bad enough, the lowest shelf is covered in hundreds of items of clothing, all recovered from the mass graves, cleaned up and left there. Its grim. The sun is shining and its a beautiful day, but something about this place is seriously creepy.

I didn't know this - but the Khmer Rouge is responsible for killing more people than Hitler was. That's nuts. That's so nuts guys. Hitler did SO MUCH DAMAGE. That's confirmed. And here comes a statistic I had no idea about. I was standing in the memorial to 1.5million (although estimates range right up to 3million) Cambodian victims. That's almost a quater of the country's population! This stuff is heavy.

Right, without referring to ANYTHING the lonely planet says, here's what I've learnt about Cambodia after being here for a week. Apologies if you know this already. Occupied by france until the 1950s, Cambodia gained its independance and for 20 years managed to maintain a policy of independance. That was, however, until King Sihanouk was overthrown in a military coup by communist rebels, under the name of the Khmer Rouge. These dudes were on a serious mission - they wanted an extreme form of communism in cambodia. They wanted a classless society, where everyone was involved in agricultural labour. To do this involved moving EVERYBODY out of the cities, confiscating all their private property and relocating them to the countryside into forced labour camps.

But the Khmer Rouge had another agenda. In order to carry out these plans, the new government needed to isolate the country from any foreign influence, abolishing all forms of capitalism (banking, finance, currency) and closing schools, hospitals and factories. Whilst evacuating the populations from the cities was easy (citing the threat of american bombings), the true threat laid in the capabilities of the intellectuals.

It was believed that certain members of the cambodian people were enemies of the khmer rouge. These mainly formed anyone with any governmental ties, or foreign ties; religious cambodians, ethnic foreigners, and almost anybody with any form of education, therefore giving them power to lead a revolt against the khmer rouge. Even weak city dwellers, who didn't know how to farm the land properly, were believed to be enemies because they were not (i.e. COULD not) working hard enough. On top of this, despite the insanity of its logic, they believed people who wore glasses must be enemies, because they must read more than others. Anybody who fell into any of these categories were singled out to be killed. The rest were taken to labour camps and worked (or starved) to death.

Anyway, its not something I would want to encourage, certainly not, but I can understand the logic of removing the intellectual element of the population when attempting to completely revolutionise a country into arable farmers. I can understand it. But to torture and murder them is something completely different.

Ok, so we're still at the site of the murders, the memorial to the dead, but before we go on, we shoud talk about the torturing of the people who were ultimately killed here. Its not my favourite subject, but an apt one. So, jumping ahead about 2 hours, we arrive (on the same shitty tuk-tuk) at our second tourist location of the day in the depths of Phnom Penh's complex road-network (made even more complex by its street numbering system) outside an old disused school. When the Khmer Rouge made it into the capital, they chucked all the kiddies out, and turned this place into a torture prison for its political enemies. The same glasses-wearing, religious intellectuals who probably never did anything wrong, and were probably as caught up in the revolution as everyone else.

Every floor of the school has been turned into prison cells - barbed wire lined balconies, makeshift cells 2ft wide, barred windows locking in torture beds. This place is so grim and heavy you can hear the screams of terror coming out of the walls. The school was dubbed S-21 (Security Prison 21) but is now called the more friendly Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. First stop - 10 cells the size of classrooms with a lone bed in the centre. Attached to to the ends of the bed are manacles for locking the arms and legs of victims in place, and tools for breaking toes, removing fingers, and opening bowels. The cells were used as interogation site for getting political information out of its prisoners. Amazingly some of the highest ranking Khmer Rouge members were brought here on charges of treason, probably ordered by Pol Pot (the creepy looking khmer rouge leader) in a bid to prevent anyone forming a coup against his power.

Next up is a building full of cells where the prisoners were kept. Now, get this for irony. The mens cells were 2ft by 4ft cells made of brick with an open doorway. The women, however, got wooden cells with a closable door - to afford them the luxury of some privacy when they had to wash themselves. mental. However the irony ends there. All this is backdropped with balconies lined with barbwire - not to keep the prisoners inside - but to stop them from committing suicide.

And then came the photographs. I apologise in advance if you find some of this stuff hard to stomach. I know I did. On floor of one of the buildings is dedicated to the display of the photographs of the victims of this place. Rows upon rows - hundreds upon hudreds - of photographs of the cambodian people brought here, tortured, interrogated, and finally murdered. Its believed only 7 people (7 PEOPLE!) out of the 17,000 imprisoned here ever made it out alive. Everyone was photographed and their details meticulously recorded. They were then shackled to the walls of their cells, or shackled to a long iron bar, along with 10 other people, and all forced to sleep on the floor, packed into a classroom with 40 other people. Stripped of their clothes and possessions. They were then subjected to all forms of torture - most notably electric shocking, branding with hot irons and hanging the prisoners for just long enough for them to survive. Many died from the abuse. Many caught skin diseases from lying on the floor for days.

The photographs were shocking. Asian people have a habit of laughing to hide their nervousness - in loads of the photos, taken as they are bought into the compound to face days of torture, these cambodians are smiling. Many look composed. Many look relaxed. Very few show any fear. There are photos of every age, from children just old enough to walk up to great-grand-mothers. Some of the guys have been beaten. One woman is breast-feeding her baby. From the other exhibits at the museum, its shown that anything that enters the prison would later be murdered, regardless of age.

This place is grim. Sam, Eve and I came away silenced and thirsty. Now, jump back 2 hours to the buddhist memorial with all the skulls, and this is where the prisoners of S21 were taken after they had confessed, been totured and were found to be no use to the khmer rouge anymore. It was here they were led to be murdered. Not with guns and bullets - that was too expensive. They were packed into vans, driven to this site along the same road that we had just gone down in a tuk-tuk, then queued up before an executioner to be murdered. usually with axes, hammers, spades or sharpened bamboo sticks. One sign reads that executioners were expected to murder 300 people a day, but were unable to keep up the pace, so were murdered themselves. A total of 8,895 bodies have been found here, although its expected there are more bodies to be found when further excavation commences, not planned for 30-years to give the area a rest period.

Forced to dig their own grave pits, most are shallow because the prisoners were already weak and sick from the interogations. As we wander the pathways between the open pit graves you can see pieces of clothes poking out of the ground. Its so grim. We're here, at the equivalent of a german concentration camp, having laughed our way here just minutes ago and now we are silenced.

Today has been SO hard going. I had no idea, and for that i'm ashamed. And as we leave S21 to catch our tuk-tuk, I buy a can of sprite, start glugging it down. And as we climb in to ride back to the hostel, I'm confronted by a burns victim (landmine?)- head to toe burns. barely walking. no face. I'm unashamedly glugging on my Sprite as he's asking for some small change and all I can do is say no. Eve and Sam feel guilty - I shrug it off as if its nothing. But it was something.

urgh. today was so heavy. It was ended with a quiet meal and a couple of beers before a sleepless night in my uncomfortable bed, accompanied by sitting up til 5am watching tv because I couldn't sleep (I think it was the sprite, not the content of the day, that kept me up). Its so hard to know how to comment on witnessing the effects of genocide. Chances are, anyone over 30 in the city now would have worked in those labour camps. They might have lost their parents, or brothers. They might have killed people themselves. And all this happened by cambodia's OWN PEOPLE. How rank is that. Its not even an outside force having a go at them. Its their own children rising up against them. I dunno. Two weeks on, I still don't know. I'm shocked that just 30 years ago, this stuff was going on. I'm shocked that we can bomb iraq for suspected WMDs, but we didn't get involved when these cambodian people needed us. I'm shocked that I never knew ANY of this stuff.

Anyway, good on the cambodians. because today, my 40-something tuk-tuk driver drove us to the site of so many murders and tortures for just $5, and never once judged our naivety. And he did the lot with a smile (except when he tried to rip us off at the end - the bastard). Perhaps the scars of 30 years ago have healed somewhat, I don't know. But from the hoards of smiling cambodians lining the streets and buses of tourist-friendly Phnom Penh, they seem to be getting on with their lives. Which is the best I think anyone can expect from them.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Day 287 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

cambodia No one told me tuk-tuks were this much fun?

Its 8pm at night and we're dragging our backpacks out of the overcrowded luggage compartment of a bus and onto the dusty pavements of the capital of Cambodia. We're surrounded by 5 motorbike drivers, all calling out for our american dollars (the de facto currency here - its actually Riels). Sam's SO scared of motorbikes, so we need a taxi. But its not gonna happen - apparently, despite being the capital city of a country half the size of Germany, cabs are in serious short supply. EVERYONE takes a motorbike. with whatever size luggage you have, from a backpack to a wardrobe. Unless you're a tourist that is - then you take a tuk-tuk. Its late, we're tired from a 6 hour border-crossing journey, and a motorbike isn't an option. So we climb on board the motorbike-powered carriage, and zoom off through the streets of Phnom Penh. Its exhilarating.

Can I just say, even after just a few hours, that I bloody LOVE cambodia. Its great. And the tuk-tuk isn't the first thing that's exhilirating about Cambodia. In fact, the very first moment we set foot here was exciting. The border crossing was painfully slow, because Eve, who is officially a knob, had overstayed her visa in Vietnam and so had to bribe the guard with a tenner ("for drinks") to get through. But the crossing is decorated with two amazing buildings - a very vietnamese one, and a beautiful, ornate cambodian one on the other side. I couldn't stop staring at it.

And after 2 hours of vietnamese highway, we're suddenly bombing along unsealed roads, dirt tracks across the countryside, passing trucks carrying a hundred squashed-in passengers, stood at the back. The sun is setting and its blood red and cows wander into the street, moving only when the driver honks his horn under their noses. You even see the difference in the people. Its a darker skin colour here - noticable even after just a border crossing - a rich, warm dark brown. Beautiful. Although i'm not really into the dark skin colour - if you know what I mean. Right, No. I'm not racist. I just don't fancy dark skinned guys. Sorry. Or maybe I am racist. shit. maybe I AM racist. anyway.

After boarding a very suspect-looking boat and being barged across the Mekong river (the same one we visited in vietnam) we saw another side of Cambodia. Smiling, amazing, beautiful kids jumping at the bus windows, waving at us, trying to get our attention. Not begging or selling. Just waving. One of them had proper serious physical deformaties on his arms - i think just single fingers in place of his whole hands. Another girl had a missing arm. The others looked pretty normal although we couldn't see their legs. Quick moment of anguish for these dudes was surpassed as we disembark the boat and carry on, dirt-tracking our way to the capital.

And after the tuk-tuk ride to our hostel, set on a some floating platforms perched on the banks of a huge lake, we're having a drink and getting bitten by mosquitoes. Its beautiful and relaxed. Pitched down a filthy, rubbish-laden street with stray dogs everywhere and no street lighting, it really FEELS like the third world. The motorbike driving dudes have already offered me skunk a number of times, and half the hostel residents are spralled out on the sofas semi-comatose. Its nice.

But out bedroom is not. Ok, so I've become pretty hot at bargaining these days. Never was before - in fact, never even attempted it. Nowadays, if you say a price, I'll only pay half it. I drive a hard bargain. Or do i? We're offered the skankiest, sweatiest, most uncomfortable pit of a room ever. No air con, which you need desperately out here. Toilet in the corner of the room which drips noisely all night. And a mattress made out of foam - FOAM! It was so bad. I slept, for 4 nights, SO BADLY. Horrific. But its over now. We're offered it at 4 dollars a night - that's less than one pound each per night. I demand $2. He says no. I threaten to go to another hostel. he says fine. I walk off. He doesn't follow. I try for $3, but he says he can't budge. So I have to pay FULL PRICE for a room I hate. THAT... i hate.

That stuff aside, if you didn't know, Cambodia has been through SO MUCH SHIT in the last 40 years. I didn't know this. I knew there were landmines. and i knew they were involved in some part in the vietnam war. I was totally, completely, overwhelmingly unprepared for what has happened here. If you don't know what I'm talking about, I'll try and shed some light on it in the next couple of posts. But its been rough. Luckily, the people here smile ALL THE TIME. They're amazing. and its a pleasure to be here. But something tells me that this place AFFECTS people, and that maybe I won't come out the other side of it the same. we'll see...

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Day 277 - Tet Festival & Dam Sen Park

vietnam Happy New Year... again.

So whilst china and the rest of Asia (and every chinatown in every city in the world) celebrates 'Chinese New Year', the Vietnamese had to be different. Tonight its 'Tet', their own version of New Year, and its big business. When we left Ho Chi Minh City over a week ago, they were already clearing the streets, decking them with lanterns and flowers. And even back then the town was geared up for new year with flower markets and yellow-blossomed trees on sale everywhere - their very popular equalivalent of christmas trees.

But we come back on the eve of the Tet festival and the town is manic. Soundsystems blare out Vietnamese music, interspersed with 'Happy New Year' by Abba. Whole swathes of streets are blocked off, covered in flowers, gardens and statues of pigs (it is the year of the pig, after all). People are flocking to have their photo taken with anything they can find from decroated trees, huge terracotta piggy banks or displays of hanging flowers. Its carnage, and its still only daytime.

But, as with most new years celebrations these days, I'm ill. so is sam. so at 8pm when we wave off the london guys, we head straight for our cool, air-conditioned bedroom, climb in, and sleep right through til 11pm. We're rough - i'm bugged with the sweats and some weird headache that makes me want to die, and sam's suffering an evil cold that's leaving her bedridden too. BUT, its new year. So we get up.

And within 45 minutes, we've crawled into a cab, through the heaving carnage of moped traffic into town and are stood surrounded by thousands of vietnamese people staring into the sky, as if waiting for God to descend and wish them happy new year personally.

He doesn't. But at the strike of midnight, amidst the usual fanfare of music and hugging and cheering, a 15-minute firework display lights the sky. There's no real focal point in HCMCity. So the fireworks are being let off by the river, and their view is obscured by the town centre's skyscrapers. But it doesn't bother the people here. Every couple of minutes, they burst into applause at the sight of the fireworks. How mental is that? They are applauding explosives. I imagine like people did when fireworks were first invented. But its sweet.

And after walking back home through the equally hectic traffic carnage - people this time, not mopeds, we take our broken bodies and put them to bed. Happy New Year.

The next week is kinda boring. We're stuck in HCMCity, waiting for our Indian visas to be approved. But its Tet festival, so everything is shut. and they take 4 working days. So we actually have to sit around this city, which isn't the most fun-packed city i've been to, for over a week. But its fine. We kept ourselves busy - hours on the internet; a whole day in a cinema (apocalypto - AMAZING. Persuit of happyness - dull); hours browsing the pirate dvd and cd stores (guys - if you want anything for a quid each, let me know), swimming in overpriced hotel pools; introducing tanning oil to my skin - until now its been factor 15 cream and I'm blacker than my mate angie these days - needless to say my sensitive skin isn't ready for the oil. whoops. We also take a walk along the Saigon river. its grim. probably the nastist river I've ever seen. And the comedy tourist boats don't do it any favours either. grim.

But most notably of the weeks uninspiring events was a visit to the Dam Sen park. Not totally sure what to expect, the park is described as quirky in the guide books, and since the city's only other waterpark is shut for maintenance, we decide to go there instead. A confusing attempt to find a local bus takes about an hour, but we make it on board - don't underestimate how difficult getting a foreign bus is when you don't speak the language and have left your phrasebook at home - and 20 minutes later we arrive at this mental, huge theme park in the suberbs of the city.

Its huge, costs less a quid to get in, and is packed with a huge lake, a rickety monorail, an enormous ferris wheel and a waterpark tagged on to the side. We ride the monorail round and whilst fearing for our lives that its gonna collapse, we see the whole park's beauty. People lounge on the grass, soaking up the sun. Kids scream at every corner, riding the basic and very dated fairground rides. Pedalos dart across the lake, decorated with chinese new year... sorry, Tet... displays. Its SO nice.

And after an hour of wandering around, we throw on our swimmers and attack the waterpark.

Now. The main waterpark in closed, so this one is heaving. But its not just heaving. Its full to bursting. You can bearly walk around there is so many people. And they're all staring - we're the only tourists in the whole complex. But its fun. The water is gross - warm and murky from all the kiddies peeing as they play. But we have a swim in the pool, Eve and I ride some slides, we manage to make some friends with vietnamese kids to share out 3-person raft, and Sam and I float down the lazy river giggling like 5-year-olds again. Its nice.

And a couple of days later, we're picking up our Indian visas, repacking our backpacks, and hopping on a bus to Cambodia. I'm SO excited about Cambodia - its the main place I wanna visit in south east asia, and its just a 6 hour bus away. And before we know it, we're having our passports stamped at the the border, and preparing to cross into 11th country in 10 months.

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