who ... moi?

a social butterfly: scared of much, but not of many. never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. not a fan of acronyms, snakes and angelina jolie. a HUGE fan of Fathead.

this blog is black for ENERGY-SAVING reasons.

thanks for your understanding.
if it's too dark, put your glasses on old one.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

this time for africa

finding a fellow saffa out here is about as likely as finding black pepper or hot water. not very.

when we have stumbled upon one of our countrymen, it's usually followed by squeals of glee and jubilation (from Fathead, of course … not me, I'm way to calm and collected for that kind of public outburst).

we all know why saffas don't really get out much, globally speaking. for one, there's the rand. for another, we're at the tip of africa on the way to and from nowhere. it's tough for us to take a break from our careers, filled with fear that there won't be an income source awaiting us, on our return. we live good lives, but save little… you know the drill.

so when we do meet said souls, it's great to reminisce about the land we miss and love. it's wonderful to have your ear buds comforted by that familiar accent. and for some reason, no matter where we're from, we slip as much Afrikaans as we can into our conversation.

of course we meet tons of other nationalities. all of which are enthusiastically fascinated when they hear where we're from. the europeans' eyes twinkle with excitement at the possibility that they might one day visit the south of africa, the american's nod knowingly, pretending to know where that is, and the locals automatically blurt out "waka-waka eh-eh" like it's some kind of universally understood greeting … which, i suppose it has become.

naturally we rave about how awesome our country is, because it is awesome. but often we're told that they've met other south african's who've told them horror stories about home. in this fictional land you can't leave your house after 6pm. there is hatred on the streets. everyone is under constant attack. we live in self-imposed prisons behind heavily-armed gates. no one has a job.

now before you all go banging on about "yes, but…" please understand that i'm not saying we are without our share of problems.


of the travellers we've met:

98% of those from the UK are on their way to live and work in australia, because they can't find jobs back home and the nanny-state mentality of their society has become so intense they've chosen to try and make a life for themselves half way across the world.

in denmark, the xenophobic government is so controlling that they've even put an age restriction of 26 yrs onto being married in an effort to drive out the turkish immigrants who follow a different culture of young, arranged marriages. we spoke to a danish couple who said "we're embarrassed to be danish"

a french girl we met is wandering the world trying to find a home, because she cannot afford to live in her own country

the current leader of italy is apparently a madman dictator who controls all press and makes changes to the constitution and laws without any input from the people

this is to name but a few of the many stories we've heard, from all over the world.

all i'm saying is take off your malema-tinted glasses and see the things that we do have going for us. look at your situation in a global perspective and understand it relative to the world as a whole.

when you go overseas, you are an ambassador for our country. please behave appropriately.

i'm not sure why some of us leave our wonderful home and choose to over embellish the troubles we face. people will believe anything, so be careful with your words.

encourage foreigners to visit us, meet us, break bread with us, crack open a castle with us.

we are awesume. don't you forget that.

Monday, December 6, 2010

making the most of it

right … so we were on our own. no help from the locals then … this was going to be interesting.

we eventually managed to hire motorbikes, and set off back up the only road in tat lo in search of, well, anything really. the exploration took us down muddy inclines and slushy paths. 

in parts, i was all "hell no" and got off the bike, preferring to walk while Fathead negotiated the dangerous gauntlets.

we discovered a small village where the children, unclothed, ran amok amongst pigs and chickens, and the elders lay propped up in doorways escaping heat-induced exhaustion. a few of the locals waved us over, pointing into the heart of a forest "waterfall, waterfall".

we clambered off the bikes and followed them down a muddy trail, and then around a small bend we saw a beautifully high and narrow waterfall tumbling down into the river, on the banks of which we stood.

" I recon we could get to the top" someone said.

so back onto the bikes we went, and chased the river's course deeper into the mountains. eventually we reached an end point, where the road curled up on itself at the top of a forested hill. a small path lead us down into the thick of the trees, and at the end we stepped out at the source of the waterfall.

there's something very exhilarating about standing the edge of a sheer drop-off, spring water chasing itself through your legs, like lemmings off a cliff face. we'd not realized the height we'd gained riding up, but the enormous boulders we'd seen from the bottom now appeared to be pebbles.

one thing i can tell you with certainty is that when you stand somewhere that human beings seem out of place you inherit memories that don't fade.

if you've never stood at the lip of a waterfall, put it on your bucket list.


tat lo

i'd never really been to a "one horse town" until i got to tat lo. it was a necessary stop to break the epic distance between the southern border of laos, and it's centrally located capital, vientiane. it also sounded kind of interesting – set in the middle of the bolaven plateau, there was promise of amazing landscapes,waterfalls and exquisite coffee plantations.

the bus we'd caught from the mainland choked along what the laotians would define as a "road" : a path worn into the bush, which you and i might call "an over-grown trail".

somewhere between bumhole alabama and the middle of nowhere, it came to a stop and we were ordered to disembark.

on the left hand side of the dusty path, a forest sprawled over what must have once been a wooden street stall. to the right, a broken down truck which had been dismembered of all its essential parts, and judging by the coating of rust, this dissection had happened quite some time ago.

behind the motorized ruin, one lonely hotel sat at the foot of a swing bridge. this was as far as the bus could go. we, apparently, had arrived in the bustling metropolis of tat lo.

while i was trying to contain my rage aimed at the driver, who by this stage had unpacked our luggage and in the process, dragged my backpack through a trough of clay, some of the residents of tat lo (of which there must be a total of 23) approached … hands held flat and open.


"pay what?"

"you must pay"

"what must I pay?"

"24,000 kip each"

"three dollars? each? for what?"

"you in tat lo now ... must pay for here"

welcome to the south of laos, people.

there was a whole lot of repetition of the above conversation, while some of the foreigners just stormed off across the rickety bridge in a rage.

hands were flung.

voices were raised.

eyes were rolled.

bargains were made.

in the end, we decided to dump our bags in the lonely hotel, while two of us could suss out the town and find a home for the night. shortly thereafter we realized that we were in the only hotel in town, and that the "toll" had been a tourist scam – leading you to believe that there was an entrance fee to cross the bridge and "enter" tat lo … when in fact, this tiny, dirty road strip with the ghost truck, the wooden shack, hotel california and the swing bridge was, in fact, tat lo.

but the hotel was clean with big rooms and flushing, western toilets. the rooms led onto a communal balcony, which overlooked a beautifully peaceful grassy river bank, with white water splashing from the belly of a loud and jovial waterfall.

it wasn't friendly and our welcome hadn't exactly been warm. but it was quiet, and we had the whole place to ourselves. so we did what any respectable backpackers would do when they're abandoned on the side of a trail that leads to nowhere : ordered several icy cold beer lao's and joined the sun as it wound down its exhaustively hot day.

 click HERE to view full FB album of Tat Lo


Sunday, December 5, 2010

natural wonders

for the remainder of our time on the island, we decided to move to cheaper accommodation – which actually had far more character than our previous place. we checked into a sweet little bungalow, rustically nailed together on the river's bed. in the mornings we lazed on hammocks as the river rushed beneath our deck. when evenings came, fellow travellers gathered on our balcony for sundowners. it was a very special place.


don det lacks many things … flushing toilets, hot water, electricity to name a few. what is certainly does not lack is raw, natural beauty. the immense delta of the river swells and tumbles on relentlessly. birds animate the skies. the sunsets blaze, unobstructed by little more than a few mangrove trees.

this part of the mekong that joins cambodia to laos, is also home to a very special, extremely rare and endangered creature – the fresh water Irrawaddy dolphin. the chance of spotting an irrawaddy in one's lifetime is close to none, so when we were offered a boat ride to possibly glimpse a dorsal fin, we obviously took it.

the locals try their best to keep track of the small pod, and we were told that they were last seen on the other side of the cambodian border. we would need to cross over, back into the country we'd just come from. the small wooden dug-out chugged along slowly, fighting the power of the current, for what seemed like several very uncomfortable hours. eventually we reached cambodia and then suddenly, the deafening engine was killed and we floated ashore of one of the many smaller islands.

we climbed off the boat, walked up the bank and there we sat, slightly confused as to what we were meant to be doing there. then as the silence settled, a school of about 10 irrawaddies appeared. they seemed less playful than their bottlenosed cousins, shyly breaking the surface with their stubby snouts and timid fins. and while their less-than-flamboyant natures didn't allow for any amazing photos, it was so special to be there viewing something that few people of our modern times have ever seen.

leaving the island, we floated away for as long as the current would allow us before starting up the engine again. i really appreciated the locals' apparent respect for these animals, and their awareness of keeping distant and quiet. the dolphins appeared to share in my appreciation, and swam right up and around our little wooden vessel as we left.

crossing back into laos, we followed the river's flow until we stopped at another island – on the other side of which, we were told, rumbled the largest waterfall in asia.

khone phapheng waterfall is not high, nor does the water cascade down into a bottomless mist.

what makes this waterfall the largest in asia is its frightening volume of water. the falls are a low wide landscape of deadly rapids.

the spray coming off them travels for hundreds of meters across.

the noise is deafening.

it's like no other waterfall i've ever seen.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

‘scuse me waiter, there’s a sparrow in my whiskey

the next day we woke to a better and brighter life.  the river that gushed around us was magnificent.  the palms were green, the birds were harmonic.  the wooden shutters from our room opened to reveal a lovingly manicured garden of flowers.  all was right with the world again.

goodness, don det was just too beautiful  and we were itching to explore it.  grabbing our day packs and cameras Fathead and I “hit the road” and decided we could circumnavigate the island in a matter of hours.  as soon as we left the tiny strip of bean-bagged riverside decks and cafes the island’s landscape opened up to reveal endless fields of fluffy green rice paddies. 

the locals lived in simple reed and bamboo huts scattered in between palm trees and fields of water buffalo.  the children ran along the dust tracks with homemade wood and wire wheely toys, their adorable toothless smiles greeting us as they scuttled past.

it was gorgeously hot as we wondered further and further along the loop round.   we’d been walking for about 2,5 hrs and it was then that, as if to notify us of the halfway mark, an enormous pregnant cloud settled above us, and promptly delivered the monsoon that it’d been carrying.

we ducked under the menial cover of a coconut tree and frantically wrapped our bags in poncho’s.  should we wait? we were in the middle of nowhere.  nah, we’re going to get wet anyway …
so forward we marched.

the thing about dust roads is that when the rains come, they transform into slippery, shoe-sucking gauntlets of mini rivers and mud.  each step had to be slow, so as not to break our only pairs of flip flops. and so we embraced the torrential shower, had leaping competitions of the enormous pools that swelled in the road and basically got soaked to the core.

about 1,5hrs later the cloud was empty and dissolved as fast as it had appeared.  the blue skies returned and as we laughed about the ridiculousness of our situation, the sound of giddy singing voices and drumming approached us from behind.

the voices were carried by a local truck – much like the kind we use for open-air game drives, back home.  the singing grew louder and as they splashed past us we saw about ten don detans banging empty containers against the poles of the canopy, hands clapping and the happiest mouths wide with song.

100m down the road, the truck stumbled to a slippery halt and arms from all directions waved out of the sides of the truck.

oh yes please!  we’ve been saved!

hurriedly we made our way to our knights in rusty armor, who help us clamber up .   the truck bounced on, the singing commenced and we were thrust our own instruments of percussion – an upturned bucket and an empty coke bottle.

no one spoke english but we chatted away in laughs and gestures and pats on the back.  and then, an old lady flashed us her most menacing smile and handed us a bottle.

“lao-lao” she said, gesturing for us to drink.  lao lao is the local whiskey – usually flavoured with some poisonous creature.  up until now, we’d seen snakes, scorpions, spiders and bumble bees  decaying in knarly bottles of this brownish liquid.  but this … what is that?  a sparrow?!

Fathead took the first swig and I watched his face to gauge the damage I was about to inflict on my liver.  it’d be insulting not to accept this local gift of hospitality … but the smell, and the bouncing roads … and the sparrow …

i took a deep breath and swallowed.  it burned. it tasted like ethanol. the truck continued to jiggle us about, and the burning continued its path of destruction down my esophagus.

i don’t remember much more of that ride, but suddenly we were standing outside out hostel, drenched and feeling slightly toxic.  we slipped and slid up the stairs to our room, where we found brody and dan – dry and amused at the state we’d arrived in.

laos was off to an interesting start.

click to view FB album

4000 islands

as the mekong river exits laos, it splits around an enormous network of outrops and islands … 4000 of them, to be precise.  some of these are little more than a clump of mangrove trees, other much larger ones are homes to fisherman villages.

it was  the second largest of these, don det, that we had decided to make our first destination in laos.
don det is little more than 500m squared.  it’s rustic and about as “back to basics” as you can get.  one muddy loop road circles the entire island, linking the central rice paddies to a small strip of eateries, chill out bars and river-side bungalows. 

by the time we arrived, the sun had set and taken with it all guiding light to the island.  Fathead and dan - the gentlemen-, decided that, as they needed a beer after their harrowing bus experience, the ladies should traipse out into the darkness, in search of accommodation.

sans torch and packing a serious fear of snakes I reluctantly accompanied brody on a mission that would lead us down ankle-deep trails of mud and slush.  in parts, the grass felt knee-high and the sounds of slithery creatures rose from each icky step we took.

we followed distance lights, scaled wooden cattle gates, knocked on doors and eventually checked into a home for the night.  relieved to be getting back to where the boys were now enjoying their 4th frosties, we hot-footed back towards the “main road”.

it was eery enough in the dark, mother nature singing her creepy song that she does when you’re scared and alone and in the middle of nowhere.  something shifted across the path, blocking what little moonlight we had. it was big.  and then, that big something let out a grunt … the kind of flatulent, guttural noise that only a fak-off big-assed pointy-horned half-ton water buffalo can make.

i may not have been much of a sprinter in high school, but that night usain bolt would have eaten my dust.

crossing kitty

an early hung-over start was probably the highlight of our day of depature from cambodia.  we arrived at the bus station, mentally gearing ourselves for the upcoming 12hr journey into laos, and stared in disbelief at the vehicle before us.

really?... that’s a bus?... for humans?

the ramshackle yellow tin balancing precariously on four wheels, was indeed what we had paid $34 for.  so on we climbed.

apparently we were the only westerners who’d been duped into buying these death-wish tickets, so thankfully we were able to stretch out across several empty seats and catch up on some much needed shut eye.
and this is exactly what we did for the first 4 hours of the journey.

it was around minute 247 that my dreams of sirloin steak were shattered by the sound of a bomb blast, somewhere in the region of my right inner ear canal.  before my eyes could open, my terrified body had launched itself across seven seats and the aisle where it landed on Fathead’s lap.

heart racing, adrenalin surging, i screamed  knowing with all my heart that this was probably the last sound i would make in my life.

the explosion must have been a landmine. or maybe a nuclear war head.  i knew this, because my ear drums were still ringing with deafness.

and then i noticed dan and brody groggy and puzzled as to why i’d woken them with the soundtrack to a hitchcock movie.  and then Fathead … that stupid, “douglas, what are you up to?” teasing smile that he gets when he thinks I’m the silliest girl in the whole world.

“a tyre blew” he said in that tone that boys get then they know more about cars and are  cool and brave and you’re being a wuss cry-baby girl.

“i know … i was just worried about you”, i lied. and of course everybody knew i was lying … it was a good effort mind you, but I think the shaking voice and tears were a bit of a give away.

the bus kept going at the same speed.  no attempt to pull over, no need really.  why would you if you don’t have a spare tyre in the first place, right?  so the journey continued - the ruptured flaps of the burst rubber whacking the underside of the bus with every revolution.

fear turned to distress turned to slight paranoia and eventually, hysterical laughter.
roads turned to dust, and dust to mud.
12 hours turned to 16.

and when we finally reached the port which would take us to our first destination in laos, our “all inclusive” tickets turned to “excluding ferry fees”.
the day turned from bad to worse.

a little on edge … okay, quite fakken livid … I confronted the scam operator, who kindly told me to shut it – yes, I was being ripped off, but I was "european and could afford it".

kitty turned into psycho-crazed deliverer of verbal abuse.


Monday, November 22, 2010

highlights of cambodge

our tour through this oft overlooked land was like a shot of stroh rum: quick and powerful with long lasting effects.

if pushed to list the snapshots in my memory bank, I’d recite the following (to name, but a few):

phnom pehn’s happy backpackers hostel – chilled out, dreadlocked creatures of the backpacking underworld, sporting “tubing in vang vieng” vests, chugging down klang beers as they slipped from hammock to river-side lounger.

highway hephalumps – asia at it’s best … elephants walking down four-laned roads, perfectly assimilated with the bustle of regular traffic.

happy-ness – a sprinkle of joy on anything you like … cheerful  burgers, jovial fruit shakes, delighted desserts, giggling sauces and just the happiest pizza’s around.

shooting ranges“may I see the menu please?”  … “yes, I’d like two bazooka’s, one hand grenade and … what the hell, 30 rounds with that Ak-47 over there on the wall”

“sorry, just a question – what are those served with? … ear plugs, combat gear and goggles … right, thanks”.

“excuse me? … did you say ‘would I like a cow with that?’ … oh really? you can have a side order of a whole, live cow with your bazooka? … umm, no no thanks – that’ll be all for now”.

well hello there, ladies – sharing a few beers outside a 24hr convenience store with a bouquet of lady-boys … dressed to kill and intent on taking one of our boys for a little “tour” of their city.

fish massage
– being bribed by Fathead to experience a “fish massage” …  where your legs are submerged in an enormous aquarium whilst hundreds of tiny, carnivorous fish nibble the dead skin from between your toes.

ankor what? – one of the many drinking holes to be discovered along (the aptly-named) Bar Street.  Beer towers, graffiti, “waka-waka eh-eh” blaring out on repeat, consistently losing  a dreadfully complicated card game introduced to us by dan and brody, and a unrelenting urge to adopt a cockney accent and repeat the phrase “anka? anka wauh?”.

so if you find yourself out in south east asia and fancy a little touch of madness, go for a potent shot of cambodia … neat.

Monday, November 15, 2010

the temples of angkor

just outside of siem reap lies the world’s largest religious site, and one of the most awe-inspiring ruins of human history . 

the temples of angkor.

what remains of  “the city” (or angkor) hides in the depths of forested hills and tangles of vine. 

the entire collection of temples has now been sectioned off – a sanctuary in which no modern day life is allowed to aid the decay and inevitable disintegration of these incredible structures.

within this UNESCO world heritage site, rests more than 1000 points of worship – the scale of which varies from a humble shrine of stone, to the largest individual religious monument  on earth (angkor wat).

it’s modern history is as fascinating as it’s ancient one:

right up until end of the 19th century, the giant beauty lay hid, deep beneath the cover of lush forest.  only in 1907 did a team of french archaeologists begin the restoration which would last right up to 1970.

thankfully, during cambodia’s civil war, the temples of angkor were of the very few parts of cambodian heritage that was spared from the khmer rouge’s destruction.

restoration resumed post the end of this devastating time, and has continued ever since with an international collaboration of roleplayers – thanks to whom, we are now able to visit, explore, worship and be inspired by one of man’s greatest structural homages.

only a few years ago, researchers found that angkor was the biggest city in the world (prior to the industrial revolution) occupying an intricately structured space of 1000 square kilometers. 

the only other historical site that can come close to measuring up to angkor is tikal (the mayan city in guatemala) and that only measures in at 150 square kilometers. 

comparatively in today’s world, angkor is said to approach the size of los angeles and dwarf the island of manhattan seventeen times over.

while the sheer enormity of the site is impressive, it’s the magical, mystical magnificence of the architecture that draws more than 2 million people to the temples of angkor, every year.

how long one chooses to spend here, depends entirely on time, budget and a personal interest in the detail and history behind each site.  the permits range from 1, 3 or 7 days and some visitors have been known to utilize the full week, and then renew their pass.  

for us,  1 day was plenty of time and allowed us a leisurely exploration through the main temples we’d selected.

we used the 1 days pass across two dates, watching the sun set on the first evening, and then entering the temples at 5am in order to catch it rise again, the following day.  before the sun brought colour to the day, we waded blindly through a dense darkness – the surrounding forests soundly asleep.

like pilgrims we waited for that moment of “enlightenment” as the sun began to light up a land beyond the horizon.  slowly, steadily the morning came – and before us, emerging first in silhouetted shapes and then suddenly in intricate detail – angkor wat appeared. 

being there in the flesh is quite a surreal experience.  the silence of eons passed is thick in the air.  modern visitors keep humbly quiet as a sign of respect to a civilization who knew so much, who fought without fear, who conquered and thrived and finally, were destroyed.

i felt a great sense of abandonment inside the hollow hallways, empty chambers and staircases that no longer led to anywhere.  yet,  exploring the intricacies of enormous stone carvings with my  fingertips, i imagined  a connection to these people, an understanding of their lives.

three highlights of our visit were the famous angkor wat, the bayon and ta prohm.

while it pains me to make this tacky connection, it does help to gain a mental image of these spaces – so those of you born pre 90’s may recall that an indiana jones and lara croft: tomb raider were both filmed at some of these sites.

ta prohm – by far my favorite.
a place of utter wonderment and mystery.

to fathom how such ancient trees managed to sprout on top of these enormous walls, their bulbous roots spilling down the sides, is damn near impossible.

but if you could get close to it, you’d grasp an understanding of how old the ruin is  – you’d imagine a whole lifetime prior to these trees which now sprawl like hungry creeper vines along the temple walls.
you’d imagine a world alive – when these walls were filled with worshippers, not ghosts and moss.
you’d imagine a falling seed, and the rains and winds and warmth that would have colluded to germinate the seed to a tree.
and then you’d imagine a centuries of growth – of stretching higher, swelling wider, reaching further, weighing down and down and down onto this already crumbling mass of stone.
and if you got to that point to imagining – you’d understand just why I will worship this temple, forever.

click here to view FB album

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

a regal couple

we continued north to siem riep, following the well-trodden backpacker path through cambodia.

it felt like the two cities (siem riep and phnom penh) were cambodia's royal couple:

phnom penh was the gentleman, wizened by experience.
he was contemplative and deliberate.
he determined the laws of his land, protected his people and managed the finances.
phnom penh was proud and well-groomed.
he naturally commanded your respect when in his presence.

his partner, siem riep was a graceful beauty. she too had seen the hardships, but had taken on a more supportive role.
she was the maternal pillar, the womb of cambodia's angkorian civilisation.
despite her age she was gorgeous, her streets aglow with a youthful, positive, progressive energy.
she nurtured her people and inspired the nation to look forward.

 i respected phnom penh, but i loved siem riep.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

the story of a genocide

you can't escape the past - especially in a place like cambodia where everything about it has been directly shaped and informed but its troubled and violent past.  so, that said - herewith, a brief post-angkorian, modern history lesson: 

cambodia has a monarch, called king norodom sihanouk.  you'll see on the map i posted a while ago, that the coastal strip is named "sihanoukville", after him.

indochina was given independence from the french, and when this happened, cambodia lost it's hold over the mekong delta, which was given to the vietnamese.

as the vietnam war flourished, king sihanouk declared his position as fence-sitter (although he was considered a communist sympathizer).  anyway, he's in beijing on a visit, and a military coup (with the backup of the USA) hop onto his throne and over-throw his rule. 

the king appeals to his followers to assist in overthrowing the overthrowers - and this ignited the first sparks of civil war.  shortly thereafter, a rebel group called the khmer rouge began to use the king and his cause to gain the support of the people.

unfortunately, the khmer rouge were a bunch of racist, power-hungry madmen - which gave the US a fantastic excuse to get involved, as they do, and bomb the shit out of the country, as they do, in order to flush out the anti-american communists, as they put it. 

cambodia was now to suffer relentless bombings and invasions from the vietnamese and US forces, from 1969 - '73.  around 2million cambodians became refugees as they fled their home, phnom penh.  the attacks created a rebellion / unintentional recruitment drive for the khmer rouge.  so ironically, the very movement that the US were so aggressively trying to quash was infact spurned in momentum and supporters, by the US.

when the war came to an end, in 1975, the country was in famine.  75% of it's livestock had been destroyed and any agricultural repair and renewal was left to be done by a nation too malnourished and physically disable to labour. 

 in a US aid report:
"without large-scale external food and equipment assistance there will be widespread starvation between now and next february ... slave labour and starvation rations for half the nation's people (probably heaviest among those who supported the republic) will be a cruel necessity for this year, and general deprivation and suffering will stretch over the next two or three years before cambodia can get back to rice self-sufficiency".
the capital at its weakest, the khmer rouge pounced on phnom penh and took full power.  they changed the country's name to "democratic kampuchea" and invaded all major cities, driving every last person out to the rural areas for forced labour.  this is when the crazies really started to come out:

as they attempted to rebuild the agriculture, they based in on the model and practices of the 11th century - discarding any modern knowledge or technologies that had been tried and perfected since then.  they refused western medicine and aid - and any other artifact that resembled the west..  they torched every collection of literature, historical records and archives.  they pulled the temples to the ground.

of the 8 million cambodians that were left after the war, around 2million were killed during this rule of the khmer rouge - through disease, malnutrition, torture, punishments, executions and exhaustion from forced labour.

during this genocide, the killing fields were named - a cite that we visited during out stay in phnom penh - several mass graves which were filled to the brim with broken bodies - of men, of the elderly, of women and of children.  no one could escape the brutality of this ruthless regime.  a source of this slaughter was the tuol sleng prison (now a museum, which we also visited).  the prison is notorious for its mass executions and one of the most disturbing parts of the museum's exhibition was the millions and millions of mug-shot photographs on display.  these were the faces of the victims - a sadistically pedantic system the khmer rouge used to document those they put to death.

further examples of the craziness can be seen in the types of people they were targeting.  firstly all minority groups - vietnamese, chinese, muslims.
then all of those really useless public servants - you know, like all the doctors, lawyers, teachers, trained professionals and anyone with a tertiary education.

i found this quote, made by a man called robert d. kaplan and thought it very fitting:  
"eyeglasses were as deadly as the yellow star, as they were seen as a sign of intellectualism."

anyway, in '78 cambodia was invaded by the vietnamese and this pushed the khmer rouge to establish their own state of pro-soviet crazies, called the people's republic of kampuchea.

after three years of invasion, cambodia was further split into three divisions:  the khmer rouge, the group still led by king sihanouk, and the khmer people's national liberation front.

in the years that followed, the US controlled certain areas, as did the UK.  there were major economic sanctions, which crippled the country's recovery even further.  the result: a badly wounded, exhausted, diseased nation, crippled and weak, defenseless and senseless, poor, impoverished and uneducated.

by 1989 the world assisted in peace efforts, which took two years.  finally a settlement was reached in '91 and the crazies were disarmed by the UN.

old king sihanouk had his throne returned, and has been ruling cambodia since '93. there've been a few hiccups since then, but ultimately this country has made incredible stride to full recovery.

knowing this history puts an incredible perspective on a visit to cambodia.  and understanding the kind of torment and genocide it has seen, only makes the progress, the growth and the people's temperament all the more awe-inspiring.

what an incredible country.

all factual information sourced via www.wikipedia.com

more happiness in PP

we decided the next morning that it was time for some culture, which led us to the royal palace in the middle of this cool city.

phnom penh is a colourful fabric made from the grandeur of an ancient kingdom, interwoven with the modernity of a world city. it's not your sky-scraper landscape either, but rather has an olden-day charm much like cape town's.

the wats (buddhist temples) and palaces have been immaculately preserved, the grounds manicured and kept pristinely clean. it was such a pleasure to view such ancient monuments that had been cared for with such respect and appreciation.

the entrance fees were a little steep and after viewing the royal palace (including the silver pagoda which we so unimpressive that i had no idea we had already been inside it, by the time we left) we decided to give the wallets and culture dose a rest for the day.

back in town, we stopped at the pink elephant for some happy pizza and watched cambodia go about its day. the street that followed the river bank was bustling with happy herb street cafes, hawkers and food vendors kept the sales soundtrack on repeat and then out of nowhere, a mahout and his elephant strolled down in the slow lane.

it's not that cambodia wasn't as poor as people had said, or that the country's scars from the khmer rouge genocide were not still very fresh. they were all there.

but then so were the breathtaking sights and the cheap beer and great food and the amazingly friendly people, and the electric energy and the exoticism of it all with its wats and highway hephalumps.

and of course, there was happy.

and all this together meant that instead of the depression and anxiety we had been told to expect, we felt nothing but utterly happy, really.

happy in phnom penh

after an hour and a half on the floating customs house of the cambodian border, we finally docked in the river port of phnom penh.

a short tuk-tuk drive later and we were in the heart of the city's backpacking district.

it was here that one of our traveling traditions would be born, one that remains in practice even today:
one person from each couple would stay with the bags, while the remaining two would split up and go forth in search of our new home. this began with dan and i winning the rock-paper-scissors competition, meaning we got to sit back in the fat elephant pub and enjoy an ice cold klang beer, while Fathead and brodes were sent out into the night.

a pretty splendid setup, we both agreed.

(from this point forth, dan and i engineered it so that we were continuously useless at our investigations, and eventually had this authority revoked from our hands, which again, we both agreed, was a pretty splendid setup).

(back in phnom penh): a few beers later and dan and i had bonded over our similarities and become charmed with out differences.

i learnt that they were newly weds and had been together for over 5 years.
he learnt that we were not-yet-weds and had been together for over 6.
they too had done vietnam, and were planning the same route through cambodia and laos as we were.
they liked temples as little as we did, liked beer as much as we did, liked sheesha more than any sane people probably should, and were as daft and batty as we were.

it was a match made in heaven.

i discovered that dan is a fireman (that's right kids, we're that cool: we made friends with someone from the london fire brigade!) and brodie the driving force behind one of london's most successful pubs, Fathead got to know brodes in much the same way.

a few beers down and the room-scouts returned with triumphant news of their accomodation find. just across the road, down a small alley was a backpackers with a large wooden deck afloat on the river. a pool table and internet station occupied the one corner, while the rest was filled with lounge pockets, a big screen tv, hammocks, more hammocks and one long, cheap bar.

happy hostel thus became our new home away from home, and as the name suggested, we were soon to discover just how happy cambodia would make us.

that night we settled down to a few dozen games of cards, shared happy pizza's and mint sheesha, laughed harder than i can ever remember doing and eventually fell into bed with pure contentment: we had met the most fun and entertaining couple, had shared a really good evening with them, had done the kind of laughing that left us gasping in pain and all-in-all were about as happy as we'd ever been. yup, this was the sign of things to come ... cambodia was a truly happy experience for us, in deed.

Thursday, August 19, 2010



blogposts will be updated with pics as soon as possible

cambodels, baby!

we followed the delta up into the greater mekong river, which took us across the border of cambodia, into the capital city, phenom penh. this would be our starting point for the journey up this wonderful place.

more on that in a mo - but herewith a map to orientate yourselves with our path.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

mekong meanders

so i know that technically speaking the mekong delta is still in vietnam - but i like to separate the two (mainly because it justifies the jewelry i bought in "both" places as reminders of "both" separate places).

anyway, we left saigon on a bus, which took us to a boat, which took us to another boat which took us up the mekong river, starting in the delta at the south of vietnam, travelling through fishing villages and floating markets for two days. 

there was an overnight stop-over in the border town of chau doc, which was so boring and drab and souless that i will neither admit it is part of my beloved vietnam, nor bore you with any more details.

you can't really escape the mekong river.  it's enormous and it is the "rice bowl" of south east asia. its banks touch vietnam, cambodia, thailand, laos and china - so if you're in south east asia, you will at some stage be near it, see it, get on it, get in it or go over it to get into another country.

the nations of south east asia have a long history of battles and alliances - but it's thought that the next major conflict will be fought over the mekong.  china (as only china can) don't really care about what happens down stream - and are furiously damming up their section of the enormous waterbody.  they are also blasting rapids, which is where the mekong catfish is thought to breed.  as a result, the numbers of this unique river monster (300kg's of man-eating terror, but also a local delicacy) have drastically dropped in recent years, and now the countries in the south are breeding them in farms and introducing them back into the system.

the effects of china's dams are extensive and far-reaching.  they are impacting thousands of communities further down-stream - and although no one out here is too concerned with environmental issues and animal rights, there are obviously huge implications from an ecological point of view too.

as far as rivers go, it's impressive.  enormous, deep, slow and powerful.  it's like an elephant.  you just automatically respect it.

the highlights of this tour up the mekong were:
seeing how the local villagers raise fish in floating farms,
feeding the 100 000 fish as they thrashed about violently trying to eat,
watching them make coconut-candy, rice paper, rice crackers and silk weaves.

number one thing about the mekong river though, was meeting an english couple (brodie and dan).  we met them as we crosssed the vietnam/cambodia border and played a game of shithead (cardgame ... get your mind out of the gutter!)

they seemed fun and friendly at the time, and were a welcome distraction from the fact that we'd not been on land for what felt like days.  little did we know then, that we were about to make two very special friends - with whom we would spend every waking hour for the rest of our cambodia and laos journeys.

remembering 'nam

vietnam had an intoxicating effect on us.  in short, we loved it. 
you have to go, and you have to stay for at least a month.

it's a country of the senses - and for each there are specific things that you will only hear, smell, feel, taste and see in vietnam.

when i remember 'nam, i will recall the never-ending soundtrack of buzzing engines, "hello - you want a cyclo?", "hello - you want to buy something?", the polite beep-beep i'm coming so get the fak out of the way.

if i close my eyes and imagine i'm there, it's about 50 degrees and i'm covered from head to toe in sweat. 

i've got a bowl of pho (noodle soup) in front of me, and an ice cold bia hoi in my hand.

there's a woman somewhere under a conical hat across the street and she's carrying a basket of that strange fruit that looks like wallpaper glue and smells like dribbly bum. 

as she calmly strolls into the swarming streets, a thousand motorbikes glide around her.  she stops to chat to a friend who is asleep next to his baguette stand.

the streets are lit with a kaleidescope of paper lanterns, and i feel like i'm in a giant christmas tree.

i've spent the day surrounded by rice paddies and tomorrow i'll take a dip in the warmth of the ocean.

i'm fascinated with the markets and the people and the pure genius that i can see all around me. out of pure necessity, they have devised the most creative solutions and it inspires me. 

i'm hot, and i'm safe, and i'm excited, and i'm relaxed ... and most of all, i'm just utterly happy.

good morning saigon

travelers will tell you that if you start in the north of vietnam you'll love hanoi and hate saigon, and if you start in the south - vice versa. i think that because we'd mentally prepared outselves to be disappointed, we were not.  it turns out that ho chi minh city (saigon's formal name, according to nobody other than the vietnamese government) is more modern, clean, pretty and open than we had expected.

it's very similar to hanoi, but in the kind of way that your older, cooler, smarter, stronger brother is "very similar" to you. the throngs of motorbikes and cyclos are there.  as are the book vendors with their shamelessly photocopied replica's.  the conical hats have diminished in their numbers, as have the narrowed streets and tightly packed buildings. 

in saigon, there were enormous intersections and wide, green, peaceful parks.  here the buildings were not as charming as they were in little bro hanoi - but they were more modern and it felt like we'd suddenly stepped back into the real world, where they have the interwebs, and petrol stations and BBC world news.

and holy moly, do they have the most jaw dropping electrical wiring system in the world.  you have never (and i do mean, never) in your life seen so many millions and trillions of black wire nests tangled atop every lamp post.

because saigon's a little more 1st world, it's also a little more pricey.  nothing earth-shattering, but it did mean we had to spend more time than usual looking for good rates and cheap eats.  one of these spots was in a small alley off the main backpackers district - a characterless hole in the wall called "punjabi" and rrrun by a rrreal hindian, eh!  hey men, i tell you wat - it was a hellova ting 'n all  (if you're not reading this in an indian accent, go back and read it again).  by far the best indian we've ever had - and i remind you all here that Fathead and i both worked in a spice-shop for several years.

one of the days we spent in the war remnants museum (previously named "the museum of american war crimes").  it's not what you'd call objectively representative of both sides - but it is a harrowing, distrubing, eye-opening exhibition of what the war did to this beautiful country.  of the many museums i've found myself standing in, no other has effected me with it's exhibitions quite like this one did. it should be compulsory for every visitor to vietnam to spend a day in this place.

the parks are enormous and in the afternoons the locals gather for champion-style tournaments of hakkie sack.  well, i say "hakkie sack" only because i have no idea what the real name for it is.  but it's basically a few plastic disks which are loosely connnected like a ring of keys, with a few colourful feathers poking out the middle.  you then kick the disks to one another, in exactly the same way you would play with a hakkie sack.  anyway, these guys are incredible and we spent several hours watching in amazement as they pelted these things for miles across the park.

the people in the south are a lot more ready and eager to join the rest of the world.  they wear brandname clothes.  they get around on 4 wheels.  they have read the latest dan brown novel and are desperate to improve their english so that they can get out there and explore the world.  this means that they are also a lot more friendly and willing to talk to you, and we found ourselves on several occasions with a group of students who'd corner us in the park and wanted to chat for as long as we'd let them.  it was a really cool way to meet the locals and get a better feel for the flavour of the vietnamese.

admittedly, most of the conversations were spent convincing them that we were definately from south africa, yes we sure were born there, no we are not from america, definately africa, yes the place with the world cup, yes we watched the soccer, yes we know that they only saw black people on the tv, but there were white people in our country - and we were two of them.

we were several days in this vibrant city, and then suddenly we had all but completed our journey through vietnam. what a shame to have to leave this incredible country, but saigon was an appropriately warm, fuzzy and energetic send-off.

the pink panther

our next destination was a town called da lat.  for some unknown reason the name got stuck on "repeat" in my brain, and conjured up the tune to the pink panther - so that whenever i said or read "da lat" i was then left singing "da lat-da lat, da lat ... da lat, da lat, da lat, da lat, da-laaaat duh duh duh duh dum".

and now, i suspect, so will you.  a moo-ha ha.

but i digress:  da lat.  right.  not much happening in this place.  our first day there was also the first day of rain that we've experienced in this so-called "monsoon season" - so happily, i spent most of it on the interwebs uploading photos to facebook.

the town was pretty small, pretty busy, pretty average and rather unpretty.  baffled as to why we had chosen to trek all the way there, we adjourned to our guidebooks for some insight and discovered that just beyond the centre of the town, there were indeed several rad things to see.  given the distanced between everything, we also realised that short of hiring a taxi for the day (something our budget simply would not allow) we had no other choice but to rent a motorbike to get to all the places we wanted to.

my dad always made me swear that i would never take drugs or get onto a motorbike - but fortunately he doesn't read this blog ... so if you don't tell him, he won't kill me.  also, maybe don't mention this to my mom either ... she likes to worry.  a lot.

anyway, turns out that Fathead is very good behind the handlebars of a bike, and after a few hair-raising intersections we had left the chaos of town behind us, and were heading for "the crazy house".

if tim burton was asked to build the house of his dreams, this would be it:   a weird, fantasy-inspired maze of twisted staircases and twirling towers.  bridges swell and narrow as they cross an enchanting garden, and lead into several different sections of what is now a functioning guesthouse: you can stay in goldylocks and 3 beers room, or in the mush-room.

it felt like we were walking through a salvador dali landscape - only i half expected to find myself following a fluffy white tail down a hole.
originally, hang nga guesthouse (but more aptly named, "the crazy house") was conceptualised by the excentric madam dang viet nga.  today it remains in a constant state of construction - an ever-evolving orb of weirdness.  it's also earned a very deserved place on the list of the top 10 most bizarre buildings in the world.
from the weirdest place i've ever been, we took a beautiful ride around their central lake and then followed a 5km stretch out to the datanla waterfall.  though it was quite small - we still loved it.  let's face it:  a waterfall is rad no matter it's scale.  the mist, the sound, the endless volume ... just really leaves you silenced in awe.

the best part of this particular trek into the country had to have been the self-controlled rollercoaster that we rode through the jungle down to the waterfall.  Fathead "drove" (or rather, Fathead did not brake)- and i shattered the tranquility of our jungled surrounds with shrieks of terror.  

we spent the rest of the day just enjoying the bike - a new and i must admit, rather thrilling experience.  we popped into the emperor bo dai's summer palace which was by far the most drab buliding i've ever seen.  well - that's not true.  the home affairs office in paarl is probably the drabbest.  but the "palace" of brown 70's yukness is a very close second.

nonetheless, da lat (strike up the band) turned out to be a rather enjoyable experience.  we had the most divine meals at a restaurant called Tu Ahn's, run by a wonderfully charming (read "off her rocker") woman who would cook you absoutely anything you wanted.  we checked out the thoroughly entertaining night market.  we even managed to be coaxed into a spot of clubbing in the world's loudest club.

so all in all, "the city of eternal spring" was rather festive - and definately worth checking out as a stop over, before you hit the very south of 'nam running.

vin pearl

because Fathead had been on such good behaviour i decided that a day on vin pearl amusement island would be a nice treat for him.  vin pearl is still part of nha trang city, and is connected to the mainland via a cable-car track that is the largest over-sea system in the world.  it spans 3,3km's across the water and the views from up there are just incredible.

the island itself is entirely dedicated to 6 year olds and people of a fathead-persuasion. the usual rollercoasters and bumpercar emporiums occupy a third of the island, another third is dedicated to a beach strip and the remainder is an enormous waterpark - which is where we spent most of the day.

Fathead went down, around, under and over just about every terrifying, death-defying, adrenalin-pumping, heart-stopping ride he could. 

i took pictures.

Monday, August 16, 2010

not-so-kak nha trang

if you had to liken nha trang to anywhere back home, i suppose you could say it was nam's version of plett:  not as pretty, as say, knysna with little more than a beach to offer and deprived of it's soul thanks to the throngs of local and foreign tourists - but still a holiday hotspot with all the amenities that this affords.

two upmarket resorts have demarcated their strips of beach, and kitted these areas out with palm-roofed beach sandbars and shaded sun-loungers. a coconut cocktail is a flip of the hand away, as is a tasty (but pricey) meal.

just beyond the tanning bodies, both the sailing club and the louisiana brew house have set up lounge-style restaurants, swimming pools, bars, pool tables and dance floors.
don't get me wrong - i was far happier to be there working on my bronze than sitting at a desk sending an email to a client who neither appreciated the work i was doing, nor the email they were about to receive ... it was just so not what we had come to love about this country.

so we suffered through - sipping fruit shakes, taking dips in the surf, reading our novels, eating crabs steamed on the sand right in front of you (having only been plucked from the seabed minutes before), meeting fellow travellers and losing a few brain cells (only the strongest survive anyway) to consuming a multitude of cocktail buckets - whose potency only became apparent the follow morning.
a few days in, and with a headache that can only be described as atomic, we decided to catch a ferry out into the bay to see some of the surrounding islands, visit an aquarium and dive off the deck into the middle of ocean for some dodgy fruit wine served off a floating bar.

the rough seas exiting the bay were not as therapeutic as i had hoped, so I duly gave lunch a skip as i fought my first bout of "sea sickness" at the bow of the boat. but a brave leap of desperation  into the deep blue quickly sorted me out, and the rest of the day/evening was spent with new-found friends chasing yet more deceptively tasty buckets of potency.

on to nha trang

the food in hoi an was some of the best we found throughout vietnam, and the remainder of our stay was largely spent flitting from feast to swimming pool back to feast, with a spot of night markets and window shopping before finding a pleasant bar on the river bank to finish the day off with a few ice cold larue beers.

several days passed and it was time to continue down the coast, in an overnight sleeper bus, to the coastal town of nha trang.
the transport in vietnam is pretty impressive: far exceeding what you'd expect from a country still clearly licking it's war wounds.
we've since found ourselves on several sleeper busses - which have aircon and comfy chairs that recline all but 180 degrees into an almost flat bed.
with a good book and a charged ipod the 14hr journeys are doable - so long as you don't look ahead at the driver's lack of adherence to anything resembling road safety.
much like the motorbikes, the rules of a 'nam road say,
"you can drive anywhere you want to, in any direction as long as you let everyone know you're there by constantly honking your horn."

for overnight busses this rule can be extended to overtaking three trucks on a blind corner of a mountain pass with your headlights off ("to save petrol").
thankfully the angels, st christopher, my gran and my mom's ring that I wear for good luck all ensured that we made it to nha trang (and every other destination to date), in one piece.

they say that if you travel with your partner it'll "make or break" your relationship. luckily for us, it's doing neither - as i figure we're already "made" and our good times far outweigh the bad ones.

can tell you this, though - the occasional bad times are as predictable as the tides:

when you spend 14 sleepless hours being jiggled about on a bus, and arrive in a new town at 6am with a desperation for the bathroom that causes blindness, and the driver chucks your expensive backpack into the road mud, and as you battle to maneuver your arms into the day back on your chest and your big bag on your back, ten men surround you with their guesthouse flyers and another seven hound you to get onto their cyclo and all you want is a cup of coffee and a wee ... you will have one if those bad times.
but post-caffeine, and with some guidebook time-out, invariably we orientate ourselves and send one person out to scout for our new home.

this, like many more, was how we spent our first morning in nha trang.

the happiness of hoi an

hoa arranged for a taxi (his brother took us in his beat up skadonk) to our next stop along the coast, hoi an. this was by far our favorite place in the whole of 'nam.

it's hard to pin point the best thing about this place... i guess because there is just so much to love:
filled with the french charm of an era long since passed, the town has retained all of it's (remaining unbombed) exquisite architecture - whilst still progressing into the 21st century.

one thing we've noticed about south east asia is that wherever you go there are certain things that are synonymous with each place.
you cannot miss them, they will find you.
you cannot escape them because were it not for their existence the town would cease to exist.

for hoi an it's tailors.

i'm not exaggerating when i say that the vast majority of the traders are tailors. they line the streets packed shoulder to shoulder, each spilling onto the pavements with an exhibition of the most exquisite silk dresses, three-piece suits, gorgeous winter coats (worth a look despite the relentless heat) and leather boots and bags in every style and colour.

for a westerner it is shopping heaven.
for any shoestring budget backpacker, however, it is a never-ending torture trip.

there was one dress in particular that kept haunting me, whispering sentiments of bad influence and poor judgement in my ears. I had to have it and were it not for the constant support and guidance of my Fathead, i would.

as a compromise, we decided that we had to at least experience having a garment tailored, so the boy was measured up for two pairs of boardies and I for two small summer dresses. not quite the oscar-red-carpet-show-stopper silk number, i'll admit - but having it done was a super cool experience.
apart from the estimated 500 tailors in the small town, hoi an's charm can be largely attributed to the dinky river that runs through it. by day fisherman go about their family trade, by night the water provides the most picturesque setting for the bar and restaurant strip. with every balcony aglow with paper lanterns, the river reflections at night turn this part of town into the most romantic setting ever.
eiffel tower se moer.

we were to meet up with our friends from hoa's place for dinner on the first night. this also happened to be the night of the SWC final between spain and holland.

while my heart was gunning for Spain, we'd become mates with a loopy dutch couple (who had provided us with hours of entertainment), so agreed to gather for dinner and watch the game from a dutch-perspective, with them instead.

it was 1am by the time the match started.
we were drunk, lost and looking for somewhere with a big screen.
somehow i'd met a group of drunk, lost randoms and been coaxed into having our faces painted orange. then the randoms informed us of a big screen on the beach. so there we went, and shortly thereafter, there we all slept through the first half of the final.

i never saw the actual final but watched the highlights (in the silence of our speaker-less tv) the following morning. i gathered the result, seeing as all the red people looked stoked and all the orange okes, quite bummed. we consoled the dutch duo over breakfast and then began our day.

Fathead made me rent a bicycle (which I have only just learnt to ride, "shocking" - I know - I blame my parents).

he then tricked me by taking a leisurely peddle along the quite and scenic river. to throw off my senses even more, he took me for a peaceful lunch overlooking the water. then, when my guard was sufficiently down, lead me down a back street which spat my gearless, chainless, brakeless mobile out into a throbbing artery of extreme rush hour traffic.

so traumatic was the experience that i've had to file most of the memories into a cabinet hidden deep in the recesses of my brain. i can recall my yelps of pure terror, polite honks of a thousand horns swerving to miss me, sweat pouring down my panicked, furrowed brow and an exchange of words - most of them mine, all of them too impolite to repeat here.

marble mountain

it took us four days to finally leave hoa's. we'd spent everyday in a state of lethargy on the beach and every night gathered around that table after dinner, playing drinking games and depleting the beers in the "honesty bar".

by the time we left we were so relaxed i feared another day there would leave us comatosed.

on the last night a group of us decided to climb marble mountain for sundowners. the whole mountainside area is a marble quarry which sustains an entire community of local sculptors. as we scaled the highest hill in danang we passed enormous marble buddha's that had been carved out of the mountainside.

the view from the top wasn't half bad - so we took a few shots, cheers-ed ours new friends and watched the sun slip under the horizon.

hoa's place

our journey down the coast of 'nam continued towards the fourth largest city, danang. as the bus drove through we were astounded by the amount of developments being constructed along the coastline of china beach.

it seemed that everyone from greg norman to donald-fake-do-trump had jumped on the "let's-build-a-resort" bandwagon.

heaven alone knows where all the people, required to fill the endless strip, are going to come from.

the beach is now almost completely colonized by glitzy hotels and overly luxurious seaview villas - each more glamourous and grotesque than the next. my guess is danang's vision for the future is: be the next phuket.

this place was not for us.

okay - so change of plans:
give this tourist trap a wide birth, stay on the bus and get them to drop us off further down the road, somewhere beyond the theme park accommodation ... preferably in the middle of nowhere.

so with bribe money in hand, Fathead went to have a little chat with the driver.

the bus headed on to the middle of nowhere, as requested, and at the foot of marble mountain along a dusty highway, left us standing looking at each other with "now what?" expressions.

we'd read about a place not far from this point of desertion, where a man named hoa ran a backpackers on the beach. it was reportedly rustic but homely, with double rooms for $9 a night. with very little clue as to where we actually were we managed to hail a taxi and request he take us there.  bemused, he politely refused - shaking his head and pointing to a small dirt road on the other side of the highway.

so with backpacks strapped to our bodies we wondered down the path. nothing but a local sleeping in a hammock and a few chickens awaited us.

but then, as we neared a dead end with china beach ahead of us, hoa's place came into view.

on the ground floor an open air bar with one large dining table and a few fridges - promising a refreshing beer -greeted us.  that and a chatty group of tanned and chilled out travelers who were gathered around the table, awaiting their lunch which was being barbequed under a palm tree outside.

hoa refused to let us check in, "take it easy man" as he thrust ice cold larue beers into our sweaty hands. the afternoon continued in this manner, with each of our requests to check in being answered with another beer.

we soon learned that hoa's world moves to a different rhythm: this man had been on holiday since 1994. our fellow travelers had already adjusted their internal clocks to hoa-time, and a few beers later, so did we.

everyone staying there looked really happy, bronzed with a glow that said "i'm on holiday".  we spent the rest of the afternoon hearing how wonderfully empty the beach was, how clear the waters were, how white the sand was.

after our barbecue lunch we sat with hoa, listening to stories of travelers gone by and how he left the real world over a decade ago to start his humble half-way-house on this secluded piece of paradise.

tipsy and overcome by the warmth of his hospitality, Fathead and i exchanged a glance and i knew we weren't leaving this place anytime soon.

Friday, July 23, 2010

finding our hue

on the sixth of july we arrived in a small town called hue (pronounced "hway"). quite the opposite from hanoi's bustling streets and peddler-filled pavements, this town was more graceful, greener and calmer - a very welcome and much-needed "woo-sa" from the chaos we'd just left.

while Fathead doesn't rate hue as a favourite, it was an absolute hit with me.  much older and stooped in ancient history, the lush beauty and understated stature of the architecture just drew me in.

hue was the imperial capital of the nguyen dynasty, until  1945 (when it lost it's rule to a communist government, established in hanoi) and as a result exists as a enormous collection of monuments, palaces and a royal legacy lost through war and time. 

divided by a river, the small city thrives in modernity on the one bank, and tip-toes around an abandoned kingdom on the other.

on the day we arrived, we set out to tred the rich historical path that hue is famed for.  boasting several of unesco's world heritage sites, we simply had to see what all the fuss was about.  in hindsight - taking a few more moments to examine the map with care, however, would have been far more beneficial to our quest.

as a result, we crossed the river on the wrong footbridge, found the giant wall that protects the emperial citadel and turned right - spending the next hour walking in 45 degree heat attempting to find a way in.  the entrance, we were to discover a good 4km's later having walked the entire circumference, was actually just to the left of where we had begun.

inside the citadel, the ruined remains of a massive forbidden city - where only the highest of emperors, concubines and royalty were permitted to enter.  a few decades ago, trespassers like ourselves would have been put to death as a penalty. 

while there are clearly areas that are constantly being restored - the crumbling of the city makes this place a truly incredible one to be. 

it was fascinatingly enormous, with gardens and walkways that stretched whole suburbs.  the palaces and temples within the forbidden city hint at a time long since passed, where opulence and decadence reigned.

thoroughly exhausted from what must have been a total of 10km's on foot (the flip-flop fitness being tested to the max), we decided to catch a cyclo back across the river to the new (yet equally as charming) part of town.

Fathead (ever keen to practice his haggling skills) managed to bargain the cyclo down to 20,000 dong ($1) and on we hopped to enjoy a scenic cycle through the tree-lined streets.

it was our second ride on a cyclo, and as we perched in the front basket - the dear driver peddling away in the schvitzing heat - Fathead grinned, rather chuffed with himself for striking such a sweet deal, and we remarked how street-smart we were to have avoided being ripped off throughout our time in hanoi.

then we hopped off the cyclo, and Fathead, thrown somewhat by the new and foreign currency, happily handed over a 200,000 dong note (the equivalent of $20).

needless to say, i had the pleasure of enduring our river-side lunch with the uplifting company of one sulky-sue.

never before has so much been paid to one cyclo, for such a short distance.

that night, we strolled through the restaurant-lined streets and picked a beautiful little garden courtyard filled with tanks of tropical fish and faerie-lit trees.  the music was enchanting, as were the smells from the kitchen ... and in an attempt to cheer my Fatlip up i suggested we treat ourselves - and at 30,000 dong ($1,5) each why the hell not, right?!

"a seared tuna steak for me, and a chateaubraind for my wounded partner over here"

well i tell you, by the time mine arrived (on a piece of lettuce and a side plate) Fathead had all but devoured his three french fries and was about four minutes into chewing the first mouthful of his match-stick piece of rubber.  the "tuna"  "steak" was neither tuna nor steak - but rather the lopped-off tail-end of a far smaller common-variety bait fish (you know the kind you catch when you're actually trying to catch something you're willing to eat?) 

never before has so much been paid to one restaurant, for such a small meal.

map-reading fail.
money-handling fail.
food-envy fail.

it seemed we were losing our hue ...    *da-dum-dish*

but by that stage the giggles had set in, so a few tiger beers and another dinner at another restaurant - and all was well with the world.  we bar-hopped for a while, played some pool with the locals and then challenged eachother to a mamoth jenga championship which was so entertaining it had all the bar staff and a few of the lookers-on cheering around us.

i did not win, and as my penalty, was forced to speak in an australian accent for the remainder of the night.  at least half of us thought this was hilarious. no prizes for guessing which half.

the following day we trekked through the dong ba market ...

(the usual patchwork madness of strange-smelling fruits, wickerworks and knock-offs)

... where Fathead was cornered by a murder of vietnamese seamstresses, and forced to try on several pairs of shorts as they flapped and squawked about him.

truth be told, he did look a little distressed and i suppose i could have come to the rescue, but then who would have taken the photos?

dinner at a little place (called "ushi") on the backpackers strip restored our faith in 'nam food - and in a jovial spirit we returned to "why not? bar" for round two of the ultimate-extreme-jenga-off.

once again, i did not win - and this time was forced to stand on the street corner and sing "you've lost that loving feeling" to the mortified audience of fellow pavement sippers.

thankfully there are no photo's to prove this catastrophe ever took place.

unfortunately there is a video.