Beaches. Monkeys. Jungle.

 

Railay Beach, Thailand

From Koh Phi Phi we took a ferry (about an hour longer than told) to the port in Krabi where we found a small 12-person boat that took another hour to the beaches of Railay.

Our boat stopped next to a submerged cement path and we took off our shoes and walked in the 50cm deep water with our backpacks for nearly 50 metres.

From here in soggy shoes we hiked uphill past rocky cliffs with mountain climbers hanging and stopped on the edge of a hot and humid jungle where we laid our bags at an empty reception desk. After a brief search we find a pretty laid back fellow with long dreids who takes us to our bungalow.

The first thing we notice in this humble wooden structure is the extremelly precarious steps – each thin narrow boards on a terrible angle with a handrail long gone replaced with a dozen nails pointed upwards (tip: always make sure you’ve had your tetanus shot before travel). Reaching the summit and removing the small padlock reveals a bare room with a small bathroom at the back with just a shower head, toilet and faucet hanging over the floor. No sink. Thankfully, there is a mosquito net as I see large spaces between the floorboards and a large window with no glass in the bathroom. No AC or hot water of course.

We would spend three nights here.

The beaches of Thailand are beautiful and the beaches at Railay are even more so. Indeed, I felt like I had stepped into a postcard. I envied myself for being in such a gorgeous place and being allowed to swim in its warm sparkling turquoise. This was probably my favourite place in Thailand.

Beyond the beaches there were some really neat hikes into the jungle up steep muddy slopes and under trees full of strange cackling monkeys (see above) as large lizards scurried away.

Railay was far more laid back than the more touristy Koh Phi Phi. Many of the bars and restaurants would pump Bob Marley and encourage you to take your shoes off, put your feet up and enjoy a cocktail or Chang beer. Which, of course, I did.

Hello lazy beach

We only spent one night in Phuket before taking off on a ferry. It was a tad stressful as we almost missed the boat. However, our taxi arrived just in time and we hustled through Phuket only to arrive late, but with a boat nowhere near ready to depart.

Two points to be mentioned here about Thailand. #1 When I say taxi, don’t say taxi in the yellow car sense. Think pick up truck with a cover over the back (usually). These were our cabs across Thailand.

#2 – and this is an important rule to keep in mind when travelling all of Southeast Asia – Nothing is ever on time. This means both estimated departure and arrival times. If you start late, don’t expect the boat to take an hour like you were told. It will probably take 1.5 or two hours. Plan for this and you will not be disappointed. Just pull out a book and wait and drink that giant water bottle you brought for such an occassion. In Cambodia we had a bus break down for 45 minutes. In Thailand, it was two hours. Je digress.

Our ferry turned around some strikingly beautiful cliffs to reveal even more next to a pleasent, albeit highly touristy town.

Koh Phi Phi is a small island southeast of Phuket in the Andaman Sea. It is too tiny for cars, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of room down the small pedestrian walkways for motorbikes.

We decide after a couple months hovering around the $10-12 range per night to splurge and we rent a nice bungalow beside the beach with AC and hot water.

We would only have AC for a total of two nights over the next three and a half weeks and we wouldn’t enjoy a hot shower again until we left Thailand. I’m hoping to enjoy both comforts together at last when we reach Oz.

Koh Phi Phi is beautiful, but her beauty has been taken advantage of. The island has restaurants and numerous luxury resorts geared to Western tourists. It’s paradise yes, but some authenticity is lost.

With that aside, the people of Koh Phi Phi deserve tremendous respect for essentially rebuilding this island after it was pummelled by the 2004 tsunami. The only reminder of this are photos displayed and a “tsunami evacuation route” sign posted near my hotel.

We had a great time here getting introduced to the lazy beach lifestyle spending our time swimming in clear turquiose water, enjoying fresh fruit juice, and fresher seafood.

Probably the highlight of our visit to Phi Phi was a morning snorkling trip where we saw an assortment of colourful fish and coral along with a few sea turtles. Sara saw a moray eel, but I saw a reef shark quickly swim past me.

I win.

Pattaya: A sidetrip to Thailand’s sex capital

We arrived in Phuket Town tired and happy to lay down our bags. Our room would be a couple modest bunk beds, a wall fan and a giant standalone fan sitting by the window. Cheap, comfortable, one night. Meh.

A nice feature to the place was the fact it was atop a good Irish pub called O’Malley’s with great draft Tiger beer on tap. After settling in, we came down to enjoy said beer and chat with a pleasant couple from England, Jo and Mike methinks.

They told us they had been to the beach in Patong and were pretty disgusted with the sex industry revealing itself there – something our guidebook noted one had to be wary of.

Not wanting to top stories, but rather commiserate, we started to talk about our recent trip to Pattaya. At this point the bartender inserted himself in our conversation. “You wanna know what Pattaya is like?” he said to the couple in a thick Irish accent. “Take Patong and times it by a million.”

Through my travels in Thailand I had been reading Alex Garland’s famous backpacker novel “The Beach.” The only mention of Pattaya was to say it “was a hellhole.”

And, well, although I wouldn’t go so far, it is a pretty miserable place. Unless, of course, your forte is sex tourism, then it may be the highlight of your trip. Otherwise, it’s pretty dirty.

Now that’s not to say there aren’t nice things about Pattaya. It actually is a pretty good base for some decent day trips – to some nearby islands, a tiger zoo, a really cool looking ziplining outdoor adventure somethingorother. It also has a beach and a pretty temple a little further down. Unfortunately, my stomach wasn’t feeling so great, so we didn’t enjoy any of these.

Instead, we hung close to the downtown watching the sights – mainly old white men walking around with much younger Thai girls – and sounds – girls propositioning for such services. There’s also a pretty wild bar scene that seemed only amplified for Halloween.

Definitely not a family destination. And yet we saw parents with kids walking right down “Walking Street,” the heart or, perhaps, the libido of Pattaya.

It must be said that we did have some fun and enjoyed more than a few laughs over this ridiculous place. However, I certainly didn’t appreciate the disgusting men ogling my modestly dressed wife.

But why would I take her here in the first place?

Well, we were following the headlines about Bangkok from Cambodia and the situation looked grim. Floodwaters rising, relief efforts, sandbagging – it didn’t seem like a worthwhile tourist destination, nor did we want to travel through a city that it seemed everyone wanted to get out of.

Yet, the problem with Bangkok is that if you want to drive to the south of Thailand, you pretty much have to go through it (there are also many fascinating places in Northern Thailand, but we needed to go south to make onward travel easier and it was time we found a beach). We looked at a lot of options from Siem Reap, Cambodia, ruling out most based on cost and complications.

Eventually, I discovered a really cheap flight from Pattaya to Phuket. And so we took a six, seven, eight-hour (I really don’t know) extremely cramped minibus from the Cambodian border to Pattaya, where we were dropped off at a random street off our map. The driver shrugged his shoulders and left. One hour hike later, we were set in a dreadfully dull fan room with windows looking out to the hallway.

Three days later, a quick flight dropped us off in Phuket. We decided to head to Phuket Town for the night to get our bearings and determine where to go next. One thing we quickly agreed on was that after Pattaya we didn’t want to go to Patong.

Cambodia

At the Banyon Temple of Angkor Thom, part of Cambodia's Angkor temples in Siem Reap.

There’s a certain formula that seems to work best when writing a review or an assessment. Start with the good. Then the negative. Then throw a little sugar at the end to smooth things over. Neat and clean, but you always remember the negative.

While sitting in intense heat covered in sweat or driving down country roads on the back of a tuk-tuk, I’ve thought for a long time about how to write about Cambodia.

I was there for only eight days, following the tourist trail from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. But of all the spots I visited on our trip, I feel this place has stuck with me the most.

Entering Cambodia was probably one of the best introductions I’ve ever had to a country. We took a ferry all afternoon up the Mekong River after a three day tour through Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. A large empty boat with only 10-15 other travellers all heading to Phnom Penh.

It was warm inside so we bought a couple Angkor beers and climbed on the roof with a friendly Israeli couple. From here, we enjoyed the hot sun as our boat floated up a river drowning rice fields, banana leaves and dilapidated shacks completely flooded to their thatch roofs. Yet, it appeared life was continuing as normal and people were busy along the shore.

As we enjoyed this glimpse of daily life, we started to hear shouts from deep in the trees,

“Hello! Helloooo!”

Children frantically waving. Enormous smiles that only seemed to get bigger when we waved back.

This was our introduction to Cambodia. An afternoon of scenery and excited, smiling faces.

I would suppose it was one of the best parts of this country and what makes me wish I was back sitting on a plastic stool, drinking Angkor beer and eating pistachios: The people.

Genuine. Friendly. A warmth that seemed to glow.

But the thing about Cambodia is that it breaks your heart.

I flip through pages of a Phnom Penh English newspaper and two stories catch me. First, several workers at a garment factory have to be hospitalized after a dangerous pesticide was used inside. The major Western retailer who subcontracts the factory doesn’t comment. You probably own their clothes. I know I do.

Second, and this is just a brief, a man responsible for an NGO dedicated to helping the poor has been charged for sex crimes related to children as young as seven. A truly hideous industry in this country. Organizations have ads everywhere calling on tourists to protect the children and report suspicious behaviour. The sheer magnitude of the campaign says something about the size of the problem.

Cambodia is a shattered country and it’s clear that years of war have left many parts behind. Infrastructure is rough and many in the country live in poorly constructed shacks made of wood, bamboo or sheet metal.

Poverty is on full display in the capital. Perhaps tourist dollars draw more beggars, but it’s hard walking past a mother with baby sitting on the street asking for change. Or the little girl who tugs on my wife’s shirt asking for money or food in Siem Reap late at night. Or the man with a burned face I try hard to forget. Missing limbs. Deformities. Makeshift crutches or wheeled contraptions used to pull oneself across the street.

It was our second night in Phnom Penh and we went out for a drink and sat outside enjoying the warm weather. It was nearly midnight on a Tuesday or Wednesday and across the street on a walkway along the Mekong were children who clearly appeared like they had no home to go to. Or didn’t want to.

It’s not that hard to determine why the country is in such a state. A simple review of the recent history lays it out pretty clear. Although the bigger why – why this could actually happen, why could humanity act in such a horrendous way – that Why hangs in the air like a foul smell that frequently overwhelms your senses.

In brief, (according to my general understanding): Under the background of a war going wrong in Vietnam, U.S. backs a puppet to take over rule of Cambodia. U.S. military begins campaign of intense bombardment to attack Vietcong bases inside Cambodia. Cambodian communists (Khmer Rouge) gain strength and local support. Fighting across the country heats up. U.S. leaves. KR take over the capital and government collapses.

The Khmer Rouge then seek to transform the country according to their wild communist ideology. Cities including Phnom Penh (pop. one million +) are emptied including the sick and injured (hospitals were cleared out). Peasant life is seen as the ultimate standard in their warped communist vision and everyone is sent to work on collective farms.

Supposed elite intellectuals are subversive and rounded up to be tortured and killed. Anyone with a university education or glasses or soft hands. All brutally murdered along with their families.

After nearly four years of Khmer Rouge rule, Vietnam invades Cambodia and swiftly takes the capital sending the KR into the jungle and starting a guerrilla war that would last until 1998.

As noted, the war and genocide left the country years behind along with an assortment of grim reminders that continue to kill more than 200 people a year. Millions of deadly munitions – be it unexploded American bombs or landmines both sides laid in years of conflict – are scattered across the country.

We visited a museum documenting the ravages of landmines and cleanup efforts. I feel proud and a little smug about Canada’s efforts to eliminate these weapons, which are specifically designed to maim, not kill (The convention to end the use of landmines is named after Ottawa after all). Our guide then tells me at the end of our tour that the Harper government has reduced its funding of international landmine action by 57%. Disappointment.

Sometimes when chatting with Cambodians I would feel a little uncomfortable asking about their families and where they grew up. Between 1975-79 the Khmer Rouge killed nearly one third of this country of eight million people.

On our first full day in Phnom Penh we saw this legacy first hand. We began with a tour of the S-21 prison, a former school converted into a prison and torture chamber for supposed subversives.

The rules for prisoners at the Khmer Rouge's S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. After facing torture and unbelieveable hardship, most prisoners would be executed.

This is a disturbing place. At first, the cells appear nearly abandoned. Stained cement floor, stained walls with frayed yellow paint. A simple iron bed sits empty in the middle.

On the wall is a large picture showing that same room, that same bed, with a dead or nearly dead body lying on the floor shackled to the bed post. Tortured spirits follow you out of the cell.

The KR took headshots of everyone who entered the prison. Walls and walls of photos of men, women and children of all ages. Some stare blankly, others look scared, some even smile. Defiance I hope, but it could be that they think the photo is for a sunny purpose. Or sheer madness.

After touring the prison for a couple hours, we go to the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh. This is where the prisoners would be taken for execution. Such massacre sights can be found all across the country. It is believed that many more have not been found or the risk of landmines is too great to search at this time.

A pagoda filled with bones stands at the centre to honour the victims. Visitors are also guided through the area with one of the most detailed and respectful audio tours I have ever heard.

The only thing I can compare this site to is the concentration camp I once visited near Munich. Both places fill you with utter despair. However, these killing fields are raw and even more grotesque.

As mud comes up from the ground after a heavy rain, it brings with it pieces of clothing, bones and teeth from bodies still buried. As you walk along the paths, you really need to watch your step, feeling that accidentally stepping on a shirt or what looks like a spine fragment only disrespects these poor souls further.

I see these items in the ground near a children’s mass burial site with a truly sinister tree beside it and feel tears roll down my cheek.

Sunrise at the Angkor Wat temple near Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Given such horror, it’s refreshing to know that Cambodia has a place that instills deep pride. Its image is on the country’s flag along with their favourite beer.

And they’re damn right to be proud.

The temples of Angkor Wat are one of the largest religious temple sites in the world. These ancient shrines with statues of Hindu gods, animals and faces are glorious.

They look even more ancient with the roots of giant trees twisted throughout along with vines and giant green foliage. The cackle of the jungle provides the soundtrack with its squeaks and squawks from birds, monkeys, frogs and cicadas.

Walking along the temples you envision yourself as the first to discover them.

You’re reminded of the beauty of this country and, perhaps why, despite all the tragedy, Cambodians still seem to smile so bright.

The war in Vietnam

We wake up early again and eat noodle soup for breakfast just before leaving for the Cu Chi tunnels north of Saigon (stopping at another handcrafts workshop on the way).

Our guide is a funny former English teacher from the Mekong Delta nicknamed “Slim Jim.” The name suits him as he is indeed quite slim mainly because, as he says, he “drinks too much and smokes too much.”

Slim Jim is a great storyteller, going into the history of the “American War.” He was a member of the South Vietnamese army for a year (he didn’t see combat) before leaving to become a teacher. When the North took control of the country, he had to go off and learn communism and party politics before he could teach again. Others from the South army were sent to more intensive re-education camps, escaped the country (the boat people) or earned safe passage to America.

Throughout our travels in Vietnam I’ve often wondered how the French and U.S. troops could fight in the mountainous terrain and dense jungle. In the end, they couldn’t. This is why the Americans horribly polluted the country with toxic Agent Orange.

Beyond the terrain, exploring the Cu Chi tunnels certainly reveals an ingenius foe in touch with the locals and committed to their cause, using whatever means were at their disposal to fight the war. Sandals were made from tire rubber. Bamboo sharpened and used for deadly spears in horrific hidden booby traps. Unexploded American munitions carefully taken apart and used to make new landmines.

And the earth. Tunnels 60 x 80 cm, two or three levels deep. Perfected over 20 years of warfare. Brutal, petrifying.

I imagine hiding in these dark tunnels as B-52s flying above turn the land as dimpled as a golf ball.

Beyond the tunnels, there’s a destroyed U.S. tank that hit a Vietcong antitank mine. Escaping U.S. troops were shot and killed. Smiling people pose in front for pictures.

There’s also a rifle range with a machine gun, M-16 and AK-47. And, yes, Sara and I fire a few rounds of the AK.

When we’re dropped off in Saigon we return to the War Remnants Museum. One-sided, yes, but still an interesting collection of photojournalism from the French and American wars. Images of the destruction from the previous cities we visited – Hanoi, Hue in particular.

And the remnants of Agent Orange. It really does break your heart.

Throughout my travels in Vietnam I read the novel “Going After Cacciato” by Tim O’Brien. Clearly written by a Vietnam veteran, this story details a stream-of-consciousness Vietnam using vivid descriptions I can picture from my own trip and ugly anecdotes of this ugly war through the eyes of a grunt.

Dirty on all sides, but in Vietnam the scars are more obvious and still healing.

Taking Saigon

The hotel in Mui Ne, Vietnam was bad, but the AC worked great and the owner put us on a cheap and comfortable bus to Saigon. To our complete disbelief, this bus stopped less than a block from our downtown hotel (made even better by the fact that it was raining when we arrived).

They say there are nine million people and five million motorbikes in the city formerly known and still commonly referred to as Saigon. Faster, taller, brighter than Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City buzzes with energy. A capitalist hub in this communist country.

Day 1:

– Relax in our beautiful (and clean!) room

– Pho at nearby Pho Quyen based on the recommendation of a friend (one of many great suggestions, thanks Stephen!). The spicy pho bo ke (?) is some of the best of our trip.

– Make all arrangements for the next day then hang out at a bia hoi with a group of Vietnamese teachers who make me cheer in Vietnamese with every toast.

Day 2:

– Up early. Breakfast of eggs and bread. I just eat the bread because, well, I cannot eat eggs.

– We take a city tour with the company Delta Adventures. We hit the main sights – War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace, Chinatown market, a beautiful Chinese pagoda and temple – along with shopping stops that are interesting for only a few minutes. I sample weasel coffee (called this because this highly coveted coffee is harvested after the weasel digests it). I see rows and rows of disabled people making eggshell paintings and vases. But I’ve done all my souvenir shopping. No more room.

Overall, the tour is an overview of the city, but I’m left wanting more. Many times our bus would pass by large monuments and our guide would say nothing. In other occasions, I asked her about a part of the Reunification Palace and she responded, “I don’t know, I wasn’t born then.”

Day 3: The Cu Chi Tunnels. To be discussed in my next post.

Day 4:

Hot and sunny in Saigon, we walk around the city then sit in a coffee shop drinking iced coffee and eating beef stew and carrot cake.

Siesta.

I wake with a craving for Western food. A burger to be exact. We run into a place called Café Zoom literally seconds before a quick tropical downpour hits and I order a delicious bacon cheeseburger. I haven’t eaten anything this rich and meaty for a while. I feel a little rough after.

We hang out in our room for the evening eating popcorn and coconut-flavoured peanuts (a fantastic discovery in Vietnam).

We prepare for our retreat from Saigon.

Mui Ne: Dirty hotel, fish sauce, and moonlight bike ride

We end our motorcycle tour at the beach town of Mui Ne at a hotel our guides recommend. I’m cold and drenched. The room is warm and cheap. We later regret this decision.

On closer inspection the hotel is pretty dirty. Although it is close to the beach as we are told, the beach is more of a dirty stretch of sand far from the main restaurants and ATMs, which we discover after a lengthy walk.

But this lengthy walk discovers a bar with hammocks next to the water. Quite nice.

Dinner at a restaurant highly recommended by Lonely Planet. The grilled fish is bland and the service is poor. Let the review go to their heads it appears.

The next morning an early walk alone to take a few pictures. Cows sleep underneath the coconut trees in the field between our hotel and the beach. The sand gets much cleaner further down and I walk through a resort, which I think would be a nice place to stay should I ever return.

We rent a moto for the day – a 100-125cc bike – my first time ever driving one of these. A little trouble at the start, but it makes for a nice day. We drive past streets of drying fish – Mui Ne is apparently famous for its fish sauce – and stop at the region’s giant sand dunes where two kids take us off sledding.

With shirts, shorts, arms, legs and shoes covered with fine red sand, we drive along the coast stopping at the previous day’s mudslide on one end and a pretty major roundabout on the other (which I handle with very little trouble might I add).

Upon returning to our hotel, I discover that my right arm from the end of my t-shirt sleeve to my knuckle is a bright red along with two one-inch squares just above my knees. After walking along the dirty beach, we stop at the resort I visited that morning and sit in unused lounge chairs and read books for about an hour.

Grilled meat for supper at a nice family restaurant with cute kids and a cute puppy, pineapple pancakes with chocolate at a cool beach bar named Pogo (?).

A bike ride with a full moon shining down as waves of the South China Sea hit the shore.

Motorcycle Diary

When I was a kid I went for a ride on my neighbour’s motorcycle. As I got off, I put my ankle down on the side of the muffler. My leg sizzled. Searing pain.

This has forever clouded my view of motorcycles.

Despite this, on our second day in Nha Trang, Vietnam Sara and I signed up for a motorcycle tour into the central highlands. For two days we would drive from the beach city of Nha Trang up into the mountains nearly 2,000m high to Dalat where we would stay for the night and down through jungle roads to the beach at Mui Ne.

Sara would be on the back of our tour guide Si’s bike. I would drive my own.

I do not own a motorbike license let alone have I ever driven one or even a scooter. I could count on one hand the amount of times that I had ever been on a moto (including that listed in the introduction).

So what did I do? That night I typed into Google, “How to drive a motorcycle.” The YouTube videos didn’t seem to work, so I was left with reading a 10-part series in About.com.

Perhaps I was a bit over my head. At least that’s what I thought in a night of uneven sleep.

However, all this worrying was for naught.

We arrived with our bags at 8:30 a.m. and didn’t hit the road until 9:30. As we sat around, I was told that late the night before five Irish guys also signed up for our trip and a second guide was needed. If I wanted, I was told I could ride with this guide for no extra charge. It seemed like a good idea.

Our motorcycle trip was by far the best way to see Vietnam. I would say it was a turning point in our travels in this country.

Getting away into the countryside and seeing its sheer beauty certainly instills a deep appreciation and understanding why so many foreign soldiers – be it Chinese, Khmer, French or American – turned their backs and went home.

As mentioned, the first day was high into the mountains to Dalat. The weather began with hot sun near the beach followed by cooling and a downpour during our “com ga” (chicken rice) lunch. More sun, cloud and heavy, heavy rain as we entered Dalat cold and wet.

Ask a Vietnamese (at least the ones I talked to) and they’ll tell you Dalat is such a beautiful, romantic place perfect for honeymooners. But, in the black rain, it really didn’t impress much ¬– although we had some tasty spaghetti (I have found the noodles in Vietnam are good if not better than most Italian places) and a strawberry pancake.

Day 2: Dalat to Mui Ne.

Up bright and early, pack up, coffee, baguettes and jam, and on the bikes. Stop briefly at what everyone calls the “Crazy House” in Dalat, a strange hotel that looks like it was designed by someone inspired by Gaudi.

From here, we start our descent heading down past mushroom farms and coffee plantations. Apparently Vietnam is the #2 exporter of coffee in the world behind Brazil. Impressive.

The view heading down through the jungle is stunning.

The weather is a mix of cloud then rain then hot, humid sun, then intense tropical downpour with drops the size of cherries, then hot humidity, then another downpour to make us thoroughly soaked as we enter Mui Ne.

We repeatedly stop to put on and take off rain gear. We also stop because of a mud slide across the road where a car gets stuck. One guy helping to dig out the car stops, looks up and frantically starts to run. His large truck has started rolling backwards about 50m away. He catches it just in time, jumps in and puts on the brake.

We walk through the mud and get on our bikes at the other side then drive to Mui Ne. I get off at the hotel. My ankle is fine.