Monthly Archives: August 2010

Interlude in Indochine

Part two: Cambodia “More than just temples…”

Jungle temple raiders Raiders of the Lost Temples…

As we walked across no-mans land between Vietnam and Cambodia at the Moc Bai – Bavet border crossing, a young woman handed me a leaflet. Thinking it was instructions on how to get through the customs and immigration I stared at it in bewilderment. It was in fact a flyer for the Casino 100 yards down the road into Cambodia.

I had always know Cambodia would be very different to Vietnam, and our trip was certainly one of contrasts – from having fun in the temple where they filmed Tomb Raider to some very emotionally challenging moments.

Our Cambodian minder for the first part of the trip was a rather serious looking lady called Thida. During the course of the bus journey to Phnom Penh, she began tell us some of the dreadful history her country had undergone in the not too distant past. The civil war had raged on in the country until 1998.

Cambodia, like Vietnam, had been occupied by the French until the late fifties, after which the rather ineffectual sounding King Sihanouk reigned until 1970 when Pol Pot’s insane regime took control.

Cambodian political history is particularly complex, and the Pol Pot regime is almost incomprehensible. In Vietnam they had a war (well, a series of wars) which although repugnant is at least understandable. Two groups fighting over a plot of land. Simple (Actually – far from simple, but by comparison so).  In Cambodia, Pol Pot systematically wiped out a fifth of his own population – but to what end? What on earth was in the man’s sick mind?

The rise of the Khmer Rouge can be attributed to the war in Vietnam overflowing into Cambodia – The US dropped thousands of pounds of explosives on Cambodia in an attempt to cut off the supply of weapons coming down the Ho Chi Mihn trail. But why did the Khmer Rouge then take it out on their own people?

Phnom Penh

We arrived at our hotel late in the day, and after dinner in a local Cantonese restaurant (chopped chicken complete with beak…) we retired for an early start the next day. First visit was to the hideously opulent royal palace.

royal palace

Second stop the silver Pagoda – similarly splendid.

silver pagoda

Third stop the S21 prison where the Khmer Rouge incarcerated, tortured and killed thousands of intellectuals, politicians, doctors, actors, teachers and other such ‘dangerous’ characters. This stop brought us back to reality with a very brutal bump!

S21 2 (Rhiannon)

I really wasn’t interested in taking pictures of the cells, the torture equipment, the gallows – the images will stay with me forever. In very sober mood we drove out to one of the killing fields – where the monument to the victims is a glass tower filled with their eyeless, lifeless skulls – I walked around the field in somewhat of a daze until I realised with horror that the white stones under my feet were in fact human bones.

Killing feld memorial

I defy anyone to explain to me how such an atrocity can be allowed to happen in any country in the world.

Thida’s seriousness soon revealed its cause when she told us her father and brother had both been victims of the murderous regime. Each year hundreds of people still traumatised by those evil years, fling themselves to their deaths from the bridge over the Mekong river.

That evening we had to lighten the mood – so decamped to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia – no longer a real press club, but a very pleasant  and trendy hotel bar and restaurant – we had our first western food in two weeks!

I was glad to leave Phnom Penh the following day for the long drive to Siem Reap.

As I stared out of the coach window I felt bitterly for all those we passed whose lives could never be called ‘simple’.

On this leg of the journey we were in the charge of an ex-journalist who had given up reporting as it was proving rather hazardous. It hadn’t stopped him writing a book about the killing time, and speaking to us openly.

Fortunately he still had a good sense of humour and cheered us up by buying us a bag of deep fried tarantulas to eat as a snack.

Stephanie sips spiders

Funny, Stephanie really doesn’t look as if it’s that yummy…

En route to Siem Reap we took a boat along part of the Tonlé Sap lake and saw the conditions of some of the people who spend their lives ekeing out a meagre living from the lake – these people are so poor they do not even have access to clean drinking water.

tonle sap

Cambodia desperately needs western investment, the average wage is about US$5 a week – the main investors are Chinese and Korean garment manufacturers. Child exploitation is rife, with children still being used in the same way that the Khmer Rouge used them.

Unlike Vietnam which has so much thoughout the country to attract the tourists, Cambodia’s only real major tourist attraction is of course the fabulous temples around Siem Reap. It annoyed me that people could fly in, stay at an opulent hotel, visit Angkor Wat and they fly out declaring they had ‘been to Cambodia’.

On this leg of the journey we also visited the land mine museum (our new friend Rathanak had lost his elder brother to a land mine). The museum was run by an ex Khmer Rouge fighter who had defected to the Vietnamese. He has dedicated his life to clearing his country of the menace that still kills hundreds of people every year – mostly children.

His rather crude technique, in the absence of decent mine detectors, is to poke a sharp stick into the ground and probe for the mines. This strikes me as only one step up from covering your ears with your hands and stamping your foot!

I urge everyone to visit the Halo Trust site to see just what a lethal menace landmines are around the world.

Rathanak also gave me a new insight into Bhuddism, which is practised widely in Vietnam and Cambodia. I have an issue with religion – not any one in particular, but the whole concept. I had until now thought of bhuddism as being a relatively harmless and gentle religion. But Nak’s take on it was somewhat different.

“Look at these poor people giving everything they have to the monks to build a new temple in the hope that it will buy them a better life in the hereafter.” he said. “What the people really need are new hospitals and schools, not more temples.”

In true western hypocritical style I arrived at my luxurious hotel with air-conditioning, swimming pool and as much beer as I could drink, and thanked my extreme good fortune.

The last four days of our trip we spent doing the typical tourist round of temples, bars, temples, pool, bars, and more temples.

Angkor Wat was impressive – but my favourites were the Angkor Thom temple and the Ta Prohm or ‘Jungle Temple’ where they filmed Tomb Raider. (I thought Rhiannon made a much more convincing Lara Croft than Angelina Jolie…)

Ri as Lara

Ankor ThomJungle temple

I left Cambodia with very mixed feelings, I was disappointed not to have had time to visit Laos as well, but relieved not to have to face any more unpleasant truths.

At Siem Reap airport I came across just the kind of complete arse who I think should never be allowed to own a passport. He was complaining loudly to the poor girl at the airport tax desk that his travel agent hadn’t told him he would have to pay $25 and he wanted a receipt to claim the money back from the travel agent. I felt like asking him if this was the first time he’d been let out without his nanny…


This trip was both fascinating and emotionally challenging, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And not once did I wish I was back underneath ROJ with a spanner. One week back at work and I can’t wait to get back to the farm…

The mystery of the vanishied classics.

I did actually spot one classic car in Vietnam – in a house in Hoi An I saw what looked to be a 1970’s Toyoata Corolla.

Lonely little Corolla Lonely little Corolla

The reason for the lack of classics in both Vietnam and Cambodia is the high price of scrap metal in China. Any old bits of rust – including war detritus – has been foraged, fragmented and flogged across the northern border.

Our friend Nam told us that in impoverished parts of the country, peasants would collect unexploded ordnance from the fields, take it home and saw it open to remove the explosive. They would sell the shells for scrap and the explosives to the fishermen. What a job!

Interlude in Indochine

Biggles books, Tin-Tin, Rider Haggard, Graham Greene and Hemmingway – my parents discussing the problems the Portuguese had in Mozambique and Angola, the battles the Belgians were having hanging on to the Congo, the Cuban crisis, Aden, Suez and the insurrection the French were facing in Indochina. They all fuelled my childhood imagination and I yearned to visit all those romantic sounding places.

In the early seventies my romanticism had been replaced by fascination, and I would listen to the war reporters in the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondent’s Club discussing events in Saigon, Hanoi and Phnom Penh. And I still yearned to go.

Nearly forty years later I finally got to visit Vietnam and Cambodia.


Part one. Vietnam “A country, not a war…”

Over the past few years we’ve been using a company called Explore  to organise our trips – they specialise in travel aimed at those who have grown out of back-packing, but still crave the adventure.

We had a really excellent small group of fellow explorers – and our Vietnamese guide called Nam was one of the best we’ve had – charming,  enthuastic and very, very knowledgeable.

Before setting off we watched again the Top Gear episode in Vietnam – believe me, the traffic really is that crazy there. One of the first things our guide and minder did was to take us out into the middle of the Hanoi traffic and teach us how to walk (without actually shitting ourselves) through the bedlam of bicycles, trishaws, scooters, mopeds, cars and small trucks.

Hanoi traffic

I really hoped to see a few old classics on the streets – but sadly the only old cars were in museums.

Ho Chi Mhin's Peugeot 404

Ho Chi Mihn’s Peugeot 404

Martyred Monk's Austin

This Austin is now a religious relic as it was used by a protesting monk to drive to Saigon before setting fire to himself.

not so old Jeep

I saw one Jeep on the streets – and I don’t think it was that old…

Presidential Benz

In the Reunification Palace in Saigon they had this lovely old Merc, with rather awful plastic wheel trims…

proper old Jeep

…this Proper old Jeep, and


this on the roof!

Hanoi is a great city – with both French and Chinese influence in the architecture and the cuisine. It is the old capital of North Vietnam and was heavily bombed by the Americans – The Vietnamese are very keen to put the war behind them, and have rebuilt much of the city. Only the odd signs of conflict remain – such as the wreckage of a b52 bomber in a small pond.
B52 in the pond

We stayed in a pleasant little hotel overlooking one of the city’s lakes. On the street below we could watch the traders bringing their wares to market on a variety of vehicles, and very surprisingly, among them two very new looking Bentleys cruised past..

Talking to the locals it is evident that for a socialist state, there is bugger all in the way of social services. They have to pay for health care and education, and the vulnerable have to rely heavily on family support to survive.

Since 1998 the country has undergone a major change, with reforms bringing in a pure market driven economy and yet still with a very closed and socially controlling government. Corruption is rife and there is a very wide gap between the have’s and the have-nots.

Despite this, one gets a strong impression that the people are extremely tough and resilient – they fought the French and won, they fought the Americans and won, they fought each other, and reached a reconciliation and they are determined to rebuild and go forward as a major Tiger economy.

Politics aside, the scenery from Ha Long Bay all the way down to the Mekong Delta  is stunning. With mountains to the west and the South China Sea to the east, Vietnam is a long thin country, and has more rivers than I’ve ever seen in one country.

We took an overnight train from Hanoi to the ancient capital Hue – which was quite an experience and then drove from Hue to the pretty town of Hoi An, where I popped into Yaly Couture where the Top Gear team got their togs tailored and got myself measured for a Cashmere suit. In 24 hours they had made the suit and a blazer, and Stephanie had some shoes made.

personal service

Vietnamese tailors provide a VERY personal service

At China Beach, where the US soldiers used to R&R, the Flight of the Valkyries rather inappropriately came to mind…

China beach (Rhiannon)

US airfield at China beach

US gun post

US observation post in the mountains

Of course we had to do some rubble gazing – so visited the temple ruins at My Son, built by the Cham – an ancient indigenous race in central Vietnam. It was a surprise to see such a huge Hindu influence in the site and the artefacts in the Cham Cultural Museum.

My Son 1My Son 2

From Hoi An we took an internal flight to Ho Chi Mihn city and drove down to the Mekong Delta – which was lovely.

Stephanie adopts the 'Mekong Look'

Stephanie adopts the ‘Mekong Chic’

Annoyingly I developed an inflamed shoulder and spent a very painful couple of days roughing it under mosquito nets and hopping on and off small wooden boats. My good friend Nam insisted that a couple of glasses of snake wine would be an excellent pain-killer, It was actually rather good…

Snake wine painkiller

As soon as we got to Saigon I went the International SOS medical centre, and for US$400  I had a cortisone injection which dramatically reduced the pain and improved my mood no end.

Ho Chi Mhin city is great sprawling place, and I was delighted to discover that there were still large parts of old Saigon still surviving – including the Continental Hotel where Graham Greene stayed and wrote one of my favourite novels The Quiet American.

Continental Hotel

The only remnants of the war we saw in Saigon were in the museum;

Museum pieces

No apocalypse

Our last day in Vietnam was spent at the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Vietcong hid from the Americans.

A mole, a mole!!

going down the tunnel

bat in cave

Bat in the tunnel

For a few dollars one can buy a clip of live rounds and fire the notorious AK47 on a closed range – It went against all my principles But I still had to have a go.

AK47 - every freedom fighter should have one...

Vietnam had been fun – but driving over the border into Cambodia was like driving from South Africa into Zimbabwe…we were very much back in the third world.