Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sneaking out

We're sneaking off for the weekend

(from here)
See you next week

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Seasonal change

Cambodia has a tropical monsoon climate. The humid southwestern monsoon arrives in mid May and lasts to November dumping 80% of Cambodias annual rainfall in short torrential showers often involving thunder and lightning and very often causing flooding. In most places the flooding disappears as soon as it had most places.

The Asian monsoon occurs because of the temperature difference between the land and the Indian Ocean. During the summer, the land gets hotter than the ocean. Hot air over the land rises and cool, moisture rich air from the ocean rushes in to take its place. When this moisture filled air is pushed up by mountains or some other source of lift it cools and condenses into torrential rains. I noticed on the BBC channel this morning the band of monsoon rain inching up the Indian subcontinent is a bit early. Although we have had a few heavy thunder storms in the past few weeks today I realised we had had a little monsoon storm at the almost exactly same time the last three days....the season has begun and right on time.

Can you see the rain?

Maybe you need to look a little closer...

A love a good thunder storm, a decent drop of rain, it usually has the effect of cleaning all the dirt and grime away and I no longer have to worry about standing out in the sun watering wilting browning pot plants. In Phnom Penh though, with very fragile sewerage systems and a significant amount of public urination (I dont even want too think about the other) it has the opposite effect in a lot of places. No playing in the puddles here!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A fine looking bunch

Here's what he looked like before the altercation with the (stationary) tuk tuk....

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A 'formal' night

A night at the formal

An unfortunate encounter with a stationary tuktuk at 1am

A late night visit to the doctor

Half a shaved eyebrow

4 stitches


200USD later

A scar and a story

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cu Chi Tunnels and a bit of a haggle

We were up bright and early on Friday morning to catch our bus to Cu Chi, the infamous site of a huge underground tunnel system built using a wooden handled pick, one or two meters a day, beneath the feet of bamboozled American GIs during the Vietnam War (or the American War if you are Vietnamese). We had bought tickets from the popular Sinhcafe in the backpacker district, before we'd had dinner the night before, at a cheap wee eat a few doors down. A whole 6-25 USD each for the large airconditioned comfortable bus, water, English speaking guide and an outing that lasted nearly 6 hours. The drive, which was about 1 1/2 hours long, took us through the morning traffic then northwest through rural Saigon past brick and plaster farm houses with shiny tiled floors, neatly fenced with trimmed hedges, yards strewn with woven trays of drying rice paper and acres of rows of rubber trees each scored with tattooed armbands and adorned with clay collection cups. From the windows of the bus we caught glimpses of people hard at work making the 101 things the Vietnamese make with rice and it struck me how much better off rural Saigonese are to their Cambodian counterparts who make do with stick and dried palm houses and are lucky to sell their 'inferior' broken rice -grown, picked and dried- for barely enough to feed their families.

Finally arriving at Cu Chi, having not felt a single butt bruising pothole, we piled out to buy tickets (not included in the price) for 65 000dong (about 4 USD) then followed our guide down the brushed tree lined path to one of 4 or 5 sunken dug outs to watch the 'information' video.

The black and white film, supposedly made in 1967, began with idyllic bucolic scenes of life at Cu Chi, 'the land of many gardens, peaceful all year round under shady trees', the sing song female voice-over said, but quickly progressed to scenes of war, '...then mercilessly American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside ... Like a crazy bunch of devils they fired into women and children ... The Americans wanted to turn Chu Chi into a dead land, but Cu Chi will never die', she exclaimed with more excitement in her voice this time. A few people squirmed visibly on the hard wooden benches but most held their vid cams steady. Riddled with anti American sentiment our monochrome introduction to Cu Chi's history had the wind completely taken out of it by the continued honey dripping tone of the unseen narrator. The video coverage, real or otherwise, would have been much better accompanied by actual radio news reports and photos taken at the time as there is no doubt what happened at Cu Chi was an unfair fight of David and Goliath proportions and, like on the walls of the War Museum, pictures are often more powerful than words. It's interesting to note that despite a very obvious anti American-ness in the information at both the tunnels and the War Remnants museum most Vietnamese have moved on and subscribe to the 'let bygones be bygones', 'the past is the past', 'we are all friends' theories the government currently promotes.

As soon as the film ended our guide jumped to the front of the room brandishing a long stick which he used to point to areas on a huge map as he explained the extent of the tunnel system and enemy advancement. There was also a model, lit from the back and encased in glass, like an ant farm (very appropriate considering the industriousness of the endevour) to give an impression of the tunnel structure.

At its peak the Cu Chi tunnel network covered about 250 kilometres from the Cambodian border in the west to the then outskirts of Saigon. The system was actually started during the war with the French but was expanded to include arms caches, hospital rooms, dining rooms, command centres, even theatres where politically motivating plays were staged during the Vietnam (or American) War. Some areas went down three storeys and were barely high enough to crawl through. People lived almost completely underground for years, going to school, getting married, giving birth. To escape detection they lived their days upside down, in the tunnels during the daylight hours and tending their fields to provide food for the masses, at night. Vents were installed to remove stale air and so they could hear the sounds of approaching aircraft and heavy vehicles. Longer vents were dotted with chambers to disperse cooking smoke, their eventual openings hidden in ant hills meters from the system itself. Entrances were hidden and booby trapped using bamboo and nails.

The tour follows a packed dirt path through regenerated bush. The area was rendered completely barren, the video had explained, by the bombs and chemicals used during the war which made the furtiveness of the rural Vietnamese and lack of detection of the tunnels and not to mention their expansiveness even more impressive. The ground, at Cu Chi, is hard clay making the tunnels robust, cool construction possible but also making the task of digging and the removal of dug heavy clay sod hard work.

Of course, the U.S. military knew about the tunnels they just couldn't find them so instead they bombed the area extensively and indescriminently growing more and more frustrated with each surprise attack staged by the tiny Vietnamese.

The tour winds through the trees passing various examples of booby traps made of bamboo and lethal looking sharp ends. There is a hole in the ground topped with a camouflaged wooden lid not much wider than my handspan which we were encouraged to try for size. Those that did had to hold the lid in straight arms directly above their heads in the 'I surrender. Dont shoot' pose and slowly bend their knees till the lid hit the ground. It was dark and smelt earthy- no surprises there!

Further down the path we passed an example of one of the tanks used by the opposition forces, a sandle (made out of tires) and uniform making hut, a sunken weapon creating room with various examples of homemade and modified armory, a rice paper making hut and the so loud it made you nauseous firing range where for a few dollars you could fire an AK47 or lob a grenade. We didnt feel the need, after all for a few dollars less we could do the same at home, should the mood ever take us.

Finally we arrived at the tunnels, widened to fit a considerably larger tourist (and for that matter our Vietnamese guides) frame. Only a small length of tunnel is open to the public. What the American bombs hadn't destroyed they have made unstable and in serious danger of collapse.

The 200 meters that are 'safe' are almost a meter high and about 50 -70 cm wide, give or take a few clicks. I had fully expected to be crawling but we were all able to walk in a stooped duck walk kind of way for the 150 meters or so we managed. There were lights at each of the exits- at 10, 20, 50, 100 etc meters- but in between, especially in the longer distances, we were plunged into complete, utter and absolute darkness. During these stretches we found it necessary to push the backs of our wrists against the wall on either side for stability and direction. The tunnels themselves were surprisingly cool. The effort it took to maintain the duck walk, however, meant that before the first 10 meters sweat had begun to trickle and by the time we emerged we were all dripping like ferns in the rain forest.

We were rewarded with a refreshing cup of tea made out of rice water and some sweetened cooked taro served with a nutty dukka like dip before getting back on the bus.

I came away with admiration for the strength, bravery and ingenuity of Cu Chi's farmers who quite literally dug deep and so obviously weilded a number 8 wire mentality as finely sharpened (albeit it in much a more sinister manner) as a Kiwi farmers, a trait that has no doubt helped in their development since.

Later that afternoon, rested and well watered, we made our way to Ben Thanh market, one of Saigons most famous landmarks for a spot of haggling.

The vendors, unlike vendors in Phnom Penhs markets, were cheerful and friendly as we entered into a comfortable banter that netted us some brilliant bargains. The quality of produce and clothing was much better, we thought, than in Cambodia. We bought fruit (for less than half the market price of the same across the border) , tee shirts and branded sports wear (for a couple of dollars each) and some beautiful red lacquer wear (for a 10th the price of the equivalent in Singapore). The market itself was incredibly clean but then our comparasion is the dusty, rubbish and spit filled aisles of Phnom Penhs Russian and Central markets.

We were impressed by the range and the condition of the produce...

and the care that was taken to keep everything looking attractive and enticing. Sadly I have found the market produce in Cambodia to be so often wilted and so quick to rot that I have completely given up and buy from the supermarkets (at the same price or sometimes even cheaper mind) although admittedly not that much fresher.

I couldn't resist the beautiful looking mangosteen and passionfruit, shiny red tomatoes, capsicum and even firm kiwifruit all for a couple of dollars (once she woke up) plus the extra she threw in with a gap toothed grin.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Incense and smokey prayers

During our Hotpot tour we also went to the Emperor Jade Pagoda (Chua Ngoc Hoang or Phuoc Hai Tu) also known as the tortoise pagoda because of the little terapins that are sold outside its gate for the faithful to 'set free' in the temple fish pool which on the day of our visit was being slowly refilled after being cleaned.

The pagoda was such a treat for the camera I thought it deserved its own post.

Built in 1909 by the Cantonese it features fearsome deities, phantasmagorical wood carvings and an incredible aged patina of foot worn floors and finger weathered doorways.

The atmosphere is heavy with incense and prayer and soft filtered light that plays down in just the right spots.

Although the majority of Vietnamese people classify themselves as non-religious 85% identify with Buddhist ideology and a synthesis of philosophies from Confucianism, Daoism and Mahayana Buddhism which co-exist with centuries old traditions of ancestor worship and the worship of national heros.

Here, in the Jade Pagoda, amongst the smoky joss sticks, the dark, reinforced papier mache statues depict the Taoist Jade Emperor Ngoc Hoang and some of the deities associated with him. Ngoc Hoang, the gate keeper of heaven, the one who makes the decision who to let into the immortal world presides over the main sanctuary but first you must pass the fiersome face of the 4 meter tall statue of a black bearded General, Phuc Ho, who defeated the Green Dragon which is still under his feet. On the other side is the General, Thanh Long, who defeated the White Tiger also shown submissively underfoot.

The Supreme Emperor Jade, Ngoc Hoang, whose court is in the highest of heavens is drapped in elaborate robes and flanked by a bodhisattva, a buddha and a heavily laden altar table. The Jade Emperor made mortal men out of clay and presided over a court balanced by Yin and Yang where good was rewarded and evil punished. The omnipotent and omnipresent Emperor sees and hears everything, even the softest whisper.

Through the left of the main room lies a smaller chamber presided over by Thanh Hoang, the Chief of Hell, his red steed and henchmen.

The carved wooden panels darkened by years of smokey incense tell of the varied torments that await those who slip into the Ten Regions of Hell.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Hotpot tour

We arrived in Saigon, a 40 minute no fuss no frills flight from Phnom Penh, visas already in passports, slightly nervous about being successfully reunited with all our luggage (after our last trip through Phnom Penh airport) but thankfully this time it was there going round and round on the conveyor. Next we had to find a taxi. Just through the big glass double doors, in the foyer of the brand spanking new airport we spotted a sign 'Taxi 8$' on one of the agent booths that line the outside wall. Of course it wasnt going to be 8$ to our hotel so J moved on and was quoted an even worse 13$ at a nearby booth. Incredibly it didnt get any better outside where we were approached by a taxi driver who wanted an audacious 500 000 dong (about 25$) so it was back inside where J finally managed to get the promised 8$ taxi fare right to our hotel door.

We had booked The Metropole ( confusingly and very definately pronounced 'Metrophone' by the taxi drivers) a slow but confident two step shuffle across a busy main road and a 5 minute obstacle dodge down a parked moto (called 'xe om' in Vietnam) and impromptu street cafe inhabitated footpath from Pham Ngu Lao, the backpackers area and we were pleasantly surprised. A modern, sparkly clean and recently renovated room awaited us on the 6th floor away from most of the traffic noise. The next morning breakfast (included in the wotif price) was the usual hotel all you can eat buffet of everything from pho to pastries, eggs and bacon, fruit and cereals.

Although we usually enjoy getting lost in a new city without the help of a guide I had stumbled across Saigon Hotpot an organisation that teams tourists up with a local university student who becomes your guide for a few hours in exchange for good conversation in English. Our guide, who turned out to be an already proficient English speaker having had years of tuition at school, spent the better half of the day with us.

We began at Notre Dame cathedral, a beautiful rose coloured basilica in the heart of District 1. Built, by the French, on the site of an abandoned Vietnamese pagoda this grand old centurian shows no signs of wilting despite being right in the midst of a busy intersection and on the list of most tourists must sees. We were absolutely enchanted the next evening, when we used it as a taxi landmark, to hear it fill with the crystal clear sounds of it's choir during 5 o'clock mass.

Inside the belly of the basilica sit rows of long butt worn wooden pews flanked on either side by grottos, housing statues of saints and the Virgin Mary, behind candle lit altars, their heads lit by soft neon halos.

Although the Vatican does not currently have 'diplomatic relations' with Vietnam, due to government imposed restrictions on Catholic life, things are slowly thawing and Vietnam is proported to have the fourth largest Catholic population in Asia.

The huge granite statue of Mary across the road in Paris Park is reported to have shed a tear down her right check in in 2005 stopping traffic. Despite an official statement denying the event released by the Catholic Church in Vietnam it was still the scene of chaos for days afterward and according to this article in The Union of Catholic Asian News she is still visited by the hopeful, years on.

Across the road is the Central Post Office, another of Saigons distinguished elders, built in the renaissance style favoured by the French at the time. She is still very much in use by locals and tourists alike. Outside, her three storey facade and huge clock remind me of the railway station in central Wellington, scene of many a teenage meet up. Inside she is confident with timeless beauty from her green wrought iron entrance gates to her long generous skylight, she is gracefully and elegantly impressive.

We were especially tickled by the rows of doors topped by world clocks that suggested the presence of operator (wo)maned crank wall phones inside and the beautiful hand painted antique wall maps in the alcoves above.

Many tourists to Saigon pay a visit to the War Remnants museum and this was our next stop. Opened in 1975 and under the operation of the Vietnamese government it does not mince words (it used to be called Saigon's Exhibition House of American War Crimes) and is not for the faint of heart.

Its walls of photographs depict the myriad of incredible horrors inflicted on the Vietnamese people by the American Armed Forces and their allies, including New Zealanders. New Zealands contribution was a very reluctant one, at first sending only civilian medical personel who were joined in 1964 for a year by 25 Army engineers involved in reconstruction projects such as roads and bridge building. Eventually the pressure applied by both America and Australia (using the ANZUS alliance) induced New Zealand to agree to provide a four-gun field artillery battery of 120 men. For the next 7 years Sir Keith Holyoake (NZs Prime Minister at the time) strived to keep New Zealands contribution, to a war we didnt really want to be involved in, to a minimum. While the war dragged horrifyingly on through Vietnam spilling over it's boarders into Cambodia and Laos leaving a devastating legacy still very much in evidence today, especially in the form of unexploded ordinance, scarring both people and land, many at home objected loudly.

The gallery upstairs serves as a memoriam to some of the international photographers who lost their lives while trying to show those back home the stark and brutal realities of the Vietnam War and also gives credit to international demonstrators with walls full of anti war posters and newspaper articles recording the global activities of the Anti War and Peace Movements.

For New Zealand this turbulent time marked a turning point in its foreign and security policies which would no longer be dictated simply by its governments global alliances and by the acceptance of unproven assumptions and generalisations made by its allies, something which has stood us in good stead in recent times. It would be nice to think that lessons were learned about the futility of war, as surely Vietnam must stand out as one of the most futile, and that the abhorrent use of torture and chemical warfare has no place in the world conflicted or otherwise but as Guantanamo and the latest outbreak in Palestine show almost anything still goes.

After lunch of Vietnamese treats at Quan An Ngon, an outdoor eatery similar to a Singapore Hawker Centre but in a picturesque garden right opposite the Reunification Palace, our final stop. The Reunification Palace was the scene of this infamous photo taken by photographer Neil Davis during the fall of Saigon in 1975.

The site has a long history.

The first palace built after the fall of Vietnam (Cochinchina) to the French was begun in 1868. It replaced a wooden palace, built 5 years earlier. Designed by the same architect who designed Hong Kong City Hall, the foundation stone contained French gold and silver coins adorned with Napoleon 3rd's head. It was a huge building covering an amazing 12 hectares which could, should the need arise, accommodate 800 people. Its construction was delayed so the French could fight the Prussians, finished 5 years after it was begun and officially named Norodom Palace after Cambodia's King Norodom (couldn't find out why?). Unofficially, though, it became known as the Governors Palace and was used as residence and office by all the Governor Generals of French Indochina until 1945. After the Japanese won Indochina off the French, in March 1945, Norodom Palace became the office of the Japanese colonial officials stationed in Vietnam, but not for long. By September the same year Japan had surrendered to the allied forces of World War II and the French again took up residence.

In 1954 the French surrendered Vietnam and the Palace was handed to the Prime Minister of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, who, not willing to wait two years for an election to unify the country, as was agreed during the French retreat, ordered a referendum, beat Bao Dai, the head of the Communist North and renamed the palace Independence Hall.

The current building was built after a wing of Independence Palace was destroyed by two aircraft bombers from the Norths Republican Army in 1962 and it was decided an entirely new building was required. Then, at the end of the Vietnam War, the tank in the black and white picture above was driven through the gates and in November 1975, after the 'negotiation convention' between Communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam was successful it was renamed the Reunification Hall, or Palace.

According to our guide the Palace is sometimes colloquially known as Dragons Palace because the twisted bits over the windows look like dragon scales. The guide books says it's because according to the principles of Feng Shui the positioning of the palace on the site is on the dragons head. There is a huge fountain between the buildings entrance and the road, which is a busy intersection, which is a Feng Shui cure stopping all the upsetting and frustrated Qi from the road from disappearing straight through the door.

Only the rooms downstairs were open on the day we visited and they were furnished simply but with a commanding sense of place that seemed appropriate for a Communist government and refreshing when coming from Cambodia where rich and powerful is synonymous with austentatious over-opulent kitsch.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A long weekend

It is a four day public holiday here at the moment and we are off to Saigon for a few days.


There are 26 public holidays in Cambodia but neither J nor M get all of them so except for the major ones- The Water festival, P'chum Ben and Khmer New Year it is rare for them to have time off at the same time. This time round for some reason the school has seen fit to give the kids thursday off (out of a choice of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday- which J gets all of) so M is taking Friday off as well and we are escaping for a long weekend. I am really looking forward to exploring a new city. I'll let you know how we went.

Mangoes galore

Mango Tree by Robin Jones

We have a mango tree on the strip of grass that is our garden. We waited until they began to yellow and finally yesterday we had our first mangoes from our tree. We were ready. The day before we had been to the basket seller near J's office and bought, for the princely sum of 1USD, a mango stick.

A long bamboo pole (that this street seller is carrying, along with feather dusters, on his bicycle)that has had one end split and cut into strips and bent to form a collection basket. There is a gap on one side for the mango you are reaping to slip into. One (hopefully) quick tug gives you an unbruised freed mango.

Cambodian Green Mango Salad by Silly Jilly from Flickr

South East Asians eat green mangoes too so the wait was pretty hard for our driver and guard. By the time they were ready the whole street side (considered the public side) of the tree had already been harvested.

This is not the first time we have had a mango tree in our yard. In samoa the tree was about twice the size of our house and we had to share the mangoes with these guys

Do you need a closer look?

From here

They are actually quite cute with bearlike faces and a shy disposition and of course they are vegetarians. They launched raids on the mangoes as soon as the sun went down flying down from the hills in groups of five or six or more. We used to like lying on our backs in the pool to watch their nightly migration to our garden. We would hear them fight and squabble and then the inevitable thud as the precious cargo was dropped. In the morning the ground was usually littered with mangoes slashed with wolverine claw marks.

Cambodia has fruit bats too but they have yet to discover our tree.