Vietnam and Cambodia

Siem Reap Travel Blog

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The Vietnamese have some very strange dietary habits. I was informed by an unnamed individual in no uncertain terms that I would not be rewarded for eating dog, so declined the opportunity when Huang, our tour "leader" (a facilitator, not a guide, according to the buzz language of Intrepid Travel) walked down the market with BBQ canine on a tray. I don't think that I could have stomached a Lassie kebab in any event, so Suze needn't have worried. I recall a Peter Ustinov quip about asking his father what dog tasted like, to be met with the reply "a bit like rat". None of the people who tried it gave that answer (and we did have someone from Texas - I know that they eat tinned water rat in parts of Louisiana). Cheap beef seemed to be the general consensus.

I knew that the Vietnamese ate dog, so it didn't come as a massive surprise when it was presented on a plate in front of me. What I didn't know about was Couli Coffee. If ever offered Vietnamese coffee, check that you aren't getting this stuff. Some genious decided that it would be a good idea to sort through weasel waste to see whether partially digested coffee beans could be roasted and made into a palatable beverage. Why, I've no idea, but it does mean that I get the cheap joke that Vietnamese coffee is crap! Actually, it is generally very good, but that would rather spoil the gist of my anecdote. I hope that I'm not making you lose your taste for your Starbucks.

Since I last wrote, we have completed our tour of Vietnam, and we are currently in Siem Reap in Cambodia, looking at temples. After leaving Hoi An, home of the cheap tailored suit, we took the "reunification express" (max speed 60mph) to Nha Trang, the self-styled "Cannes of the Orient". I think that "Skegness of the Orient" would be more apt, but I see why the marketing gurus favoured the Cote dÁzur over Lincolnshire. The beach was very nice, and there were a couple of relatively expensive but very chic bars that also served western food. Our day in Nha Trang was R&R-focussed, although somehow I ended up with painted toenails on one foot. They're gone now (well the paint has, but my toenails are still in situ).

Dalat was our next stop - a former hill station commissioned by the French governor in the 1860s, and modelled on an Alpine village. It is very pretty, being centred around a large man-made lake. We stopped off at the King's Summer Palace, which would have suited Suze and I just fine, although some of the art deco furniture was a little jaded, and the kitchen would need updating. Sadly, we don't have enough servants to staff such a property, so we will put that idea on the backburner for a while. We also enjoyed a cooking class at the Sofitel hotel. Probably the nicest kitchen that I have ever seen, with triple aspect windows affording views over the manicured gardens. Sadly, either the food at the cooking class (unlikely) or a mango fruitshake from a street vendor (very probable) gave Suze and I our first dose of S E Asian stomach, wiping out the following day. Still, it was a beautiful place to recuperate. And it took Suze's focus of the Malaria that she has twice declared she has contracted (why do all illnesses have the same woolly symptoms?). You will be glad to hear that we are both fine now.

Dalat airport is probably the smallest that I have ever seen in my life, and certainly the smallest from which I have flown. I was anticipating a rubber-band assisted takeoff a la aircraft carrier, and was pleasantly surprised by the relatively smooth take off on our prop plane. We landed in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) after only one kangaroo bounce on landing. I was disappointed to discover that the traffic is not as bad in HCMC as in Hanoi, despite assurances to the contrary. There may have been more motorbikes and cars on the road, but the roads were much wider, making them far easier to cross. Just walk out and pray - seemed to work, as we are both still alive and kicking.

We both liked HCMC a lot. It is not the prettiest of cities, being only 300 years old and the centre of much military action in the 20th century. But it is a thriving commercial hub, very green, and has some fascinating monuments. The Reunification Palace was formerly the home of the  President of S Vietnam, and is a 60s concrete structure that is actually quite pleasant. The War Remnants Museum was disturbing - I still can't quite fathom how the Americans failed to win given the vast firepower at their disposal. It was also interesting to watch the video about the war, which referred to the US in rather disparaging terms. The pickled foetuses showing deformities contracted as a result of agent orange were rather more disturbing, which was probably the intention behind displaying them.

Our final stop in Vietnam was the border town of Chau Doc, where we took a motorbike tour to the top of a mountain for a sundowner in a hammock. Very relaxing, but Suze was not desperately impressed with the geckos in the bedroom. She now accepts that they don't bite, but she took some pursuading.

A five hour boat ride took us to Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. This is a pleasant city with a hideous recent history. It's current population is 1m, but was only 15,000 during the height of Pol Pot's reign, a result of his policy of clearing the towns to make people work in the fields. The day we spent at S21 and the Killing Fields was without doubt the most moving experience that we have had. I won't recite all of the facts, but the main prison was an ex-school and had tiny, badly constructed cells. The remnants of torture were all too apparent. Pre-Pot, the population of Cambodia was 7m. 3m died in the 3.5 years that he ran the country. He killed everyone who wore spectacles, and trained thousands of teenagers to become torturers. Most of the torture methods are too unbearable to repeat here. While Phnom Penh is pretty, there are large numbers of maimed beggars loitering the streets. Very sad. As is the fact that the landmines which litter the Cambodia/Thai border all have "made in Britain" stamped on them.

And so we are now in Siem Reap, which translates as "chasing away the Thais". The town itself has had the soul ripped out of it, but it does have some nice hotels and restaurants. The temples that we have seen thus far are fantastic (including the Angelina Jolie "Tomb Raider" jungle temple), and we have a 5am start tomorrow to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat.

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Siem Reap
photo by: genetravelling