Monday, November 27, 2006

Of Cabbages and Kings*

Albums for this blog can be found at:

And Now on with the Story

I spent the few days following my motorcycle trip in a nice town called Hoi An. Hoi An used to be the major port of southern Vietnam for about 1000 years and has a nice old town you can walk around in. Most houses are about 300 years old (hurricanes come by and destroy the town every few hundred years). Merchants from China, Japan, India and even Portugal used to come to Hoi An, trade for silk, spices and other goods and sail back.

Today most of the houses are used as restaurants or tourist shops though the structures are well maintained.

The ferry crossing in Hoi An also lets you take your bicycle across. This is especially important for the kids.

I also finally caught a good picture of school girls in the traditional Vietnamese garb. Notice the face masks. There are two reasons for them. First of all, they help keep the smog and dirt out. But most importantly, in a country that considers whiter skin as more beautiful, girls keep their faces hidden from the Sun to keep them paler.

The Chams

Hoi An also serves as a jumping point for a day trip to My Son. My Son is the historical holy city of a minority called the Chams. The buildings are from 1000 years ago when the Chams were the growing empire in the area. In their heyday their kingdom reached all the way into Cambodia and they fought the Khmers, builders of Angkor Wat.

The buildings are built of bricks and carvings were made into the bricks after they were placed. To this day, no one knows how they glued the bricks together but they hold quite well.

The Chams were Hindu and the statues and decorations in the ruins reflect that. According to the tour guide, the head of this statue was either cut away by the Chams when they deserted the area or else carved off by the French as an archaeological treasure.

During the Vietnam war, there was a small VC base in the ruins. The US responded by bombing most of the buldings that were still standing so unfortunately not that much survived.

When I got back, my feet hurt enough that I figured I'd try a foot massage. I remembered seeing a sign next to the hotel and so I went in search of the place. There was a large picture of a foot with reflexology-style markings on it. The sign said "Hair and Nails Salon" but I did the typical westerner's all-asians-know-about-good-massage-so-what-if-its-a-salon thing and went in. $7 for 45 minutes of massage. I said fine.

Imagine my disappointment when the girl brought over one of those automatic foot massage buckets and had me place my feet in it. She turned it on and I tried to figure out if I need to sit there for 45 minutes before I pay the fine and leave.

But 5 minutes later it turned out that all-asians-know-about-good-massage-so-what-if-its-a-salon and the bucket was just to clean my feet. She proceeded to rub them dry, then had me move to the massage room where she and a guy that took over later did amazing things to my feet. Amazing! If you're ever there, I have the card.

Home of the Kings

My next stop was Hue. Hue, a city on the Vietnam coast, was home to the last chain of kings to rule Vietnam. This is where the Nguyen emperors set up camp, built their capital and their palaces. The old city is an amazing 2.5km by 2.5 km surrounded by a wall. Today it is inside the modern city. Inside the old city is the forbidden purple city, home to the emperor himself. The city was badly damaged during the fight with the French and later the locals took bricks and wood from it to build houses. Few of the buildings survived and some of the palace grounds were used to grow food.

When I got back home (to the US) from the trip, the number one question on my mind was: are my fish still alive?

I left my aquarium with somewhere between 20-30 guppies swimming in it and left for five weeks. The light turns on and off automatically, the filter is strong and will take care of the water quality but food was a question mark. I use an automatic fish feeder and I made sure it was full before I left, but was that enough food?

I came up the elevator with all the bags, opened the door and looked. There they were:

But the feeder was empty!

I have two theories about this:

1) In the time honored Hollywood tradition, I came home just in time. The last day they had food was day-before yesterday and any additional day delay would have killed them all.

2) In the time honored Hollywood tradition of copying film plots, my fish acted out the script of Alive, feeding off their dead until I arrived.

Whichever it was, there still about the same number of fish in the tank, plus a few newly born ones which are usually snacks for the older fish so I'm going to go with option 1.

In the forbidden city, tourists can pay a bit of money to feed the schools of Koi fish that swim in the ponds. It's a nice system :)

Hue has a few other attractions like this 7-story pagoda

or this old covered bridge outside of town,

but the main event is a ride up the perfume river to see the palaces / tombs built by the emperors. The boat makes its way up the river stopping from time to time to let us off to see one or another of these tombs. Some of them are on the river bank, some are a couple of kilometers inland.

Leaving Hue

I then took a night bus to my next destination. 13 hours and you can try and sleep as many of them as you can. I actually did pretty well considering. I had an interesting experience getting the ticket. The hotel I was staying at in Hue was selling tickets for $9. The bus left at 6p and so I wanted the room until then. But they wouldn't let me keep the room so late without paying the $4 half a day rate.

And the store across the alley was selling tickets to Hanoi for $6.5. So I went back to the hotel and said I'll buy their ticket for $9 if they let me keep the room. They politely explained that was not possible. When I threatened to buy the ticket across the street instead, their ticket price started going down. We stopped at $7, at which point I said I'll buy it from them only if they'll give me the room till 6p for $2. They said yes.

Now I think math in Vietnam works the same as in the rest of the world. So why does ticket + room till 6p for $9 different from ticket for $7 plus room till 6p for $2?

The Towers of...

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. It has a different atmosphere from Saigon. It feels more raw even though the tourist industry is going strong. I got a room at a hotel in the market and had to suffer through all the fishwives (really, they were) pointing at me and discussing me whenever I passed through. I don't think they were using terms like "Lucky Buddha" to describe me up in Hanoi. Much more raw.

I went to see the first university in Vietnam, the Temple of Literature. Established in 1070, it was a place for high learning for Mandarins of the king's court.

In 1484, the emperor decided to publicly recognize the students passing their doctorate tests. The idea was to create a large stone stelae and carve the names of students and their home towns onto it.

There are four animals the Vietnamese consider long lived and therefore suitable for carrying the stone tablets on their backs. The Phoenix, the Unicorn, the Dragon, and the Turtle. For extra credit, can you pick the one that is not exactly like the rest?

I wonder if they chose turtles because they had live examples to copy from or because they have all the qualities of a table - flat backed on four short sturdy legs.

Walking around the Temple of Literature trying to find the entrance I saw this guy who took a break from it all. He strung a hammock between the street light and the wall and went to sleep.

Another of Hanoi's interesting spots was the one-pillar pagoda. The original was destroyed by the French when they left Vietnam but was rebuilt by the Vietnamese.

Near the one-pillar pagoda was a larger temple where I caught this monk ringing the bell.

* Of Cabbages and Kings is a line from Lewis Carrol's nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Land of the Artichokes

Means of Locomotion

It's 4:30a in the morning when I sleepily climb into Ly's tuktuk. In Thailand and India, a tuktuk is a 3-wheeled, smog-spouting vehicle with the driver sitting up front and a wide, covered seat for passengers in the back. Here in Cambodia, the design has been improved on. Since the invention of the wheel, Man has been harnessing the power of non-wheeled things to pull carts, carriages and anything else that could carry things. From man to buffalo to horse, anything with the power to move has been hitched to a cart and told to pull.

In Cambodia, they took the idea to the next step. They've hitched the motorcycle. Ly's tuktuk is a small, run-of-the-mill motorcycle with the back seat converted to a harness. That harness is connected to a two-wheeled covered "wagon" with a large, almost regal, seat. This is a much more comfortable and much cleaner ride than the original tuktuk. For the princely some of $35, Ly is my personal driver for the next 3 days.

I climbed into the seat with my camera bag and off we went through the dark streets of Siem Reap. We weren't alone. Many other taxis, motorcycles and tuktuks where going the same route. We stopped for a few minutes to get me a ticket and off we were to our first site.

Artichoke City

Once we left Siem Reap, we traveled through a dark forest. The first glimpse of our target was a large river. The sky was starting to lighten and we could see its reflection in the water. Our river of traffic followed the real one, angling around a 90 degree bend and continuing on.

The sky is turning reddish-blue, promising a wonderful sunrise. The sun will rise from beyond the river, hence the sky is bright but the jungle across the river looks completely black. It looks like the Hollywood set for an old Tarzan movie. The black-silhouetted trees extending into the bright sky seems to be painted onto a huge canvas serving as the backdrop for a cannibal cooking feast scene.

I can see the palm trees sticking out of the canopy and being reflected in the river, some 200 meters (600 feet wide). As Ly keeps gunning the motor and the tourist stream keeps moving at a slow but steady pace, I suddenly notice some strange trees sticking out against the backdrop. Could these be huge artichokes? Artichokes?

Artichokes do not grow on trees nor reach this size. What can this be?

That's when it hit me. We've arrived. This is majestic Angkor Wat! And that river is no river - it's a moat surrounding all of Angkor Wat.

Angkor Background

Angkor Wat (Holy Temple) is only one of a staggering number of temples, palaces and structures in the Siem Reap area. Siem Reap means "Siam Defeated" even though the city was eventually conquered by the Thais. Today it is back in Cambodian hands and serves the tourist population that comes by to see Angkor.

Angkor Wat itself was built during the reign of Suryavarman II, 1112-1152. It sits a kilometer outside of Angkor Thom, the walled city of Angkor. While the temple is huge (1km by 800m or 0.5 mile by 0.6 mile), the city is even bigger. At 10 sq km, it contains a number of temples and palaces, as well as jungle and the ever-present rice fields where locals continue to grow their food to this day.

The structures in the Angkor area were built from 875 AD to 1230 AD by a succession of kings, at an unknown cost of human lives. The most common building material is red or black limestone that was quarried 40km away from the site then floated on barges down the river to the construction area.

You can see my Angkor Wat photo album at:

Mount Meru and Churned Milk

Cambodia at the time was a Hindu nation, transitioning into Buddhism. The king decided on the religion and the rest followed. The country flip-flopped a couple of times before finally settling on Buddhism as its main religion.

The construction of most of the temples reflected the Hindu mythology. Mount Meru, tallest mountain and home of the gods (does this sound like Olympus in any way?) served as the blueprint for the buildings. Mount Meru is surrounded by 4 lower mountains and by oceans. Angkor Wat is built with 4 towers surrounding a higher 5th. Artificial lakes and the moat surround the towers. Other buildings in the area follow the same plan.

The walls are decorated with endless bas-reliefs. Most are variations of celestial dancers.

The building of the Angkor Temple has stories carved into the walls all around it. This corridor, for example, talks about the king that built Angkor and of life in Cambodia at the time.

A story that repeats itself both in bas-relief and through statues in other structures is the Churning of the Sea of Milk. The gods and demons both sought after the elixir of mortality. In order to get it, they used the serpent Vasuki, the gods holding on to his head and the demons to his tail and pulled back and forth in order to churn the sea of milk. Out of the sea arose both the elixir (which the gods then nabbed and became immortal) but also the celestial dancers that abound all over the walls in Angkor.

The scene was recreated in statues at the entrance to Angkor Thom and Preah Kahn, another temple in the are.

Right next to the statues I found this fiddler crab that looked at me very suspiciously and turned wherever I went so that it could keep me in its sights.

Mount Meru is difficult to climb and the temple is built to reflect that. The stairs leading to the platform where the 5 towers seat look regular from far away.

Until you approach them and realize the steps are very high and very narrow. It's almost like climbing a ladder except some of the steps are broken so watch out.

The view from the top is nice though and definitely worth the climb.

Other Structures and Sights

As I mentioned, the area is vast with many temples and places, and two barrays. A barray is a huge, artificial body of water used both for political reasons as well as agricultural ones. The ones in Angkor are 2km x 8km wide.

Ta Phrom is the famous crumbled temple. While Angkor Wat was inhabited the entire time since it was built and thus relatively well preserved, Ta Phrom was abandoned. Birds flying over it dropped seeds that eventually grew into trees on top of the Ta Phrom structures. The site is the famous one from Tomb Raider II, where Angelina Jolie enters a long lost temple. Angelina seems to be as famous here as the temples, with tourist guides claiming they have pictures with her and showing you where the scenes were shot.

Other interesting sites include the mysterious smiling faces at the Bayon temple, looking down on you from on high.

There's also the Hindu temple delicately carved from red stone.


Near each site and sometimes even inside are locals selling drinks and souvenirs. The most common practice is to let kids, the littler the better, be the ones selling or at least the ones bringing you into the store. They are less resistible.

Walking around, I was approached by a small girl (probably 6-7) who tried to sell me a flute. She kept saying "you buy flute from me" and "only one dollar" and so one. She kept asking where I was from, trying to make conversation while I practiced my meditation mantra "no, no, no" without achieving enlightenment or even inner peace. Suddenly, a boy approached us from the other side. He too had flutes with him and held one up for me to see. I kept walking towards the temple I've come to see while the girl furiously whispered something to the boy in Cambodian. He didn't seem to get it though even I could understand the "go away I'm already selling to this bozo" instructions. The girl kept saying "one flute one dollar" at which point the boy said "two flutes, one dollar". I remained unconcerned - I can play on two flutes as well as I can on one - not at all. The girl, upping the ante, said "three flutes, one dollar" and the whole scene deteriorated into a price war.

Kids are also there to be adorable. I don't mean that in an existential way, I mean in the cold, calculating, hard cash way of the tourist paying to take a picture. In strategic locations around the sites you'll see cute kids sitting around doing nothing. As you approach, they'll jump into a pose and ask you if you want a picture. I saw a small kid hug his baby sister when I arrived, as well as another who held up a tiny puppy when she saw me approaching. These were way too artificial for my taste. The only one I shot was a candid of this girl who was sitting waiting for tourists to arrive.

Walking into one of the temples, a very small girl approached me. She was barely out of toddlerhood and was walking with that unstable amble of little kids. She held up a set of postcards and asked me something. I asked her what her name was to which she replied "Bandolla".

Bandolla? That didn't sound Cambodian.

"Bandolla?" I asked. She just looked at me, showed me the postcards again and said "One Dollar". I walked on.

Very Similar but not Quite

In Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the phrase "Same-Same" seems to have been adopted by the locals when speaking to tourists. I'm not sure if it's a morphing of "the same" or how it came about but the usage is "is same same" when you want to say something is similar to something else.

For example "our tour is same-same other company" or "our rooms near the river, same-same other hotel", etc.

Of course having "same-same" in the language quickly leads to the creation of "but it's not exactly equivalent". The appropriate phrase - "same-same but different" can be found on T-shirts sold throughout the region.

Shooting it Out

Coming back to town on the second day, Ly asked me if I wanted to shoot a gun. We came up on an intersection where the sign pointed left to a dirt road and said "4th army regiment training ground". We took that turn and after a few minutes rough driving arrived at the shooting range "just next" to the army base.

You can choose your poison, from M-16s, AK-47 or older guns and shoot 35 bullets for $35. I declined. There was nothing there we didn't do at basic training.

The Last Artichoke

I started the second day early again, though this time I went to places where the tourists weren't. Walking between the faces of Bayon, seeing the elephant terrace and other palaces while the Sun is just starting its climb and sound of the jungle surround you is magical. Walking along the forest paths, you see tiny things jump away. I thought they were insects at first, but a closer examination showed they were tiny frogs, no bigger than the nail of my smallest finger. You can see the frog in this picture smack in the middle. Look how well it blends in with the color of the ground.

There are a few spots in Angkor famous for their sunset-ability. These are locations where everyone congregates to watch the sunset. One such was a hilltop temple near Angkor Thom. We arrived early so that I'd have time to climb it and catch a good place to sit. You can shell out $15 and be carried by an elephant to the top of the hill. I declined and took the path climbing up the hill. The path is not steep but it is long and takes a while to navigate. By this point in the trip I was in a better physical shape and took the whole hill in one go. I arrived huffing and puffing to the top where cresting the rise I was greeted by another one of those damn artichokes.

This one had a flat top and looked to be crawling with tourists.

I climbed the high and narrow stairs (you've got to work at getting to Mt. Meru) and at the top walked around trying to find a good vantage point. I was sorely disappointed. The trees all around the hill obscure a lot of the view and the landscape is nothing special.

Angkor Wat itself was too far and required the full magnification of my camera to catch a lame shot of it.

I climbed down while the sun set, leaving the tourists hoards and the television crew on top of the temple to watch it go down. The following day I took myself to Angkor Wat, sat myself down on one of the surrounding buildings and took this time-lapse movie of the tourists leaving as the day ends on Angkor.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Saigon Stories

Oct 10-11

I'm finally back home and can access my main blog site. I can also access that post I started writing in the first week, so here's back to the beginning of the trip. I've still got quite a few stories so you'll see more and more throughout the next few weeks.

Making Friends

There I was, second day in Saigon, trying to figure out what to do. I woke up in the morning and saw the rain pouring out of the gray sky and reminded myself that this IS the rainy season. I walked out of the hotel with an umbrella, though it seems only tourists (and a small number at that) use umbrellas. Considering the everyone-has-a-motorcycle culture, umbrellas are not really relevant. Everyone has a rain parka made out of plastic. There are single-use ones to buy for very cheap. These are made of the same material as a convenience store plastic bag. Others have more permanent ones. The only exceptions to the rule were some women that were walking around with the canonical hats so specific to Vietnam.

Once I started walking it took me exactly 60 seconds to understand I'd much rather wait out the rain. This was two store fronts away from the hotel, right next to a tourist restaurant that had both European and Vietnamese food. The waitress flagged me and I decided the rain has had enough of me for now.

I sat there and read the menu while the waitresses discussed me in detail and took my picture on their camera phone. Then one of the older ones asked if I was married and told the others in Vietnamese that they should take care of me. Then I was invited to go out on the town with one of the younger girls (Toui - see picture) once she's off work at 3p.

The Rickshaw Driver

While sitting in that restaurant, a rickshaw driver had me in his sights. A driver is a misnomer since these rickshaws are like extended bicycles with a seat in the front. The driver sits in the back and drives you by pedaling.
I kept insisting that I'm too heavy, but he was determined. He got me into the rickshaw (an experience in itself) and we valiantly set out to site-see Saigon. Check out the driver and rickshaw in this picture:

To his credit, he even smoked from time to time while pedaling me across the city.
We saw a number of pagodas, a lot of traffic and the electronics market (since I needed earphones). Most striking though was the Notre Dame cathedral in Saigon.

Pay close attention to the close-up of the statue and what the woman is holding in her hands.

Yes! It's the Holly Hand Grenade of Antioch from Monthy Python's Quest for the Holy Grail!

The trip was about 2 hours, though we made stops every 15 minutes or so for me to see something or walk around some site. At the end, I asked him to drop me in the fine arts museum. They had some really nice photos though some atrocious paintings. Apparently state-controled...

Glimpsing Vietnam through A Karaoke Machine

In the afternoon I went on my date with the waitress. After a brief lunch and some walking around town, we decided to go for Karaoke. We got into a cab where she proceeded to have a long ("unrelated topic") conversation with the driver, then told him we're looking for a karaoke bar. He said he'll take us to a cheap one and my suggestion of going to a good one instead was lost in translation.

He dropped us off in some neighborhood away from the center, where only locals go and so the prices are lower. The building we entered was a kind of community center for the local youth. The corridor started off with a kiosk on the right hand side, then on our left was a gym were boys and young men were pumping iron. The windows of the gym were open into the corridor to allow for some air circulation and the smell of sweat permeated everything. Then on our right was a small bar with a single waitress and no clients and an internet cafe were some boys were killing each other over the network and some girls were chatting.

I was back in Saigon. Toui and I went to that same Karaoke once more and I got the entrance pointlessly videoed for you.

Toui asked the waitress to open the Karaoke room for us. It turned out to be a room at the end of the corridor, about 2x5 meters (6x15 feet). On one side was a rounded couch with a place for 6 people and a broken table at the center. On the other side of the room was a television with a karaoke machine. We were the only ones there. They got the microphones out for us and asked what we wanted to drink.

We proceeded to butcher songs left and right, me in English, she in Vietnamese. For those of you who haven't used this style karaoke machine before, this is a machine where if you sneeze next to the microphone the sound goes through filtration to remove noise, then echo and reverb effects are added and tone corrections are applied to add volume and presence to your sneeze. What comes out is a very professional Achoo, worthy of the best performers out there. While I don't know how well Toui was singing, the machine tried to rate us after every song. Her numbers started low and climbed while I started high with beginner's luck and never managed to replicate it.

The machine would also tell us how well we did in words, from "wonderful singing!" and "Great!" to the somewhat ambiguous "You are a singer". Aren't we all?

While we were singing, the TV would show scenes from all over vietnam. For me it was a great way to see the islands of Halong Bay and the sampans of the Mekong Delta while singing "New York New York". Once in a while, an ad for the local phone company would fly by near the stalactites of a famous cave.

While I left the next day to go to Dalat (motorcycle blogs), I kept receiving SMS messages from Toui. Mostly: Are you eating? What did you do today? Wake up! and so on.

Buying Threads

Back in Saigon after a few weeks, I re-enacted (search for "thread") a scene I’ve done in other countries – buying embroidery threads for my mother (Hi mom!). Armed with an interpreter, since I can say thread in Hebrew, English and Spanish but for the life of me wouldn’t be able to explain what it is to a Vietnamese vendor at the market, I went shopping.

It took a bit to explain to Toui what it was I was looking for but once she understood, she took charge. We went to the more-touristy market but could only find a few threads – they only had blue, red, green, and yellow. I was looking for many more colors than that.

We found it at our next stop – the central market in China Town. You can find anything you need here and indeed we found threads. It took a while to explain that I want all the colors they have and three from each color, but at least they weren’t as unbelieving as their Guatemalan counterparts (you’d have to read that story in my old blog here). There was also no issue doing the math for how much it costs.

Here’s the seller with all the 81 colors she was able to find:

That’s it for now. Next time, stories of what happened after the motorcycle blog.

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