Archive for the ‘cambodia’ Category

the great asian shirt drought

September 15, 2009
It’s time for a rant. I’ve had one brewing for a while now. At first, my ire was directed towards WordPress and its formatting idiosyncracies. I even went so far to draft an angry post about it but, thankfully for you, I lost it in cyberspace. However, a bigger issue has been making my blood boil throughout this trip and it’s high time I got it off my (shirt-clad) chest. This rant has the added bonus of making me feel especially righteous. And it’s far more satisfying bitching about real people than about a computer program.
 
It’s other travellers. Not all, not even most, but a highly noticeable minority. The sort that quibble over paying 18,000 dong for a beer in a restaurant when they paid 12,000 for one at a shop (a difference of about 35 cents) and then happily go and blow five times that amount on a crappy Zinger burger at KFC. Or those who are continuously wanting to know if they can have their noodles with vegetable stock instead of chicken stock, when it’s clear that all the noodles come out of one pot that has chicken bits bobbing about in it, all the while barking their demand at the vendor in English when it’s clear that the vendor doesn’t speak a word.
 
But those who get my goat most of all appear to be victims of a strange phenomenon known as “the Great Asian Shirt Drought.”* Would you walk down the high street of whatever godforsaken coal-mining backwater that you’re from without a shirt on? No. Would you even wait for a bus on the side of a highway or dine in a restaurant in the aforementioned backwater without a shirt on, exposing your flabby gut and bogan tattoos to all and sundry? No. Then why is it suddenly appropriate to do all of these things and more without a shirt on as soon as you touch down in SE Asia?
 
Clearly, there is some sort of acute shirt shortage! Somebody call the UN! Tell them to send urgent shirt aid!
 
PUT A SHIRT ON, YOU CHUMP.
 
 
*Nobody but Linds and me actually recognises this phenomenon. Yet. I’m hoping it will catch on.
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on the move in vietnam

September 7, 2009

After spending a fair bit of languid time waiting around for things in places we’d already been, it was time to get a wriggle on and get some serious Vietnamese kilometres under our belt.

A few days back in Phnom Penh saw us collect our visas, both Vietnamese and Chinese, and head on our merry way. The visa application process, or lack thereof, perfectly embodies how things “work” in Cambodia. No forms; no details; no signature – just pay the fee to the right person (in this case, chihuahua-lover and hands-down winner of the Asia’s Most Efficient Man Award, Sem, at Exotissimo Travel) and it somehow magically happens. The other way things work is that people are incredibly kind, from the four generations of family that lived in the lobby of our hotel to the delightful Veary, who kept us well fed and watered at Aw’-Kun.

 

A few more days back in Saigon saw us welcome newly-arrived expat and “Business Development Manager”, James Kirton. After sending him to work hungover a few times and bestowing upon him our limited culinary expertise on the city, it was time to move on again and revisit that which we swore we’d never do again: the long-haul sleeper bus. Thankfully, it was “only” 23 hours this time and catching a magnificent blood-red sunrise over verdant rice paddies almost made it worth the trauma. Dodd decided to put the rest of the time to good use and listen to Captain Beefheart on a continuous loop.  Bat Chain Puller. Puller, puller.

 

 

Hoi An, where the livin’ is easy. To cope with the Luciferian heat, we decided it was only prudent to adopt a Spanish lifestyle – wake on the later side of early; stagger around in the heat until midday; snooze away the afternoon and rouse ourselves in the evening for cocktail hour. Our last couple of days saw us enjoy what has been our first and will likely be our last bit of beach for quite some time, and it was glorious. Deckchair, swim. Deckchair, swim. Repeat. Sorry Kizza and Janeo. At the risk of copping huge amounts of abuse from our gainfully employed readers, and perfectly timed to coincide with my own decision to resign from work, I’ll mention that the most taxing task of those couple of days was deciding whether or not to order a second serving of crunchy squid from the friendly beachside seafood vendors.

 

Hue: We felt we had a bit of unfinished business in Hue, it having been our first stop in Vietnam many weeks ago and the embarkation point of the original bus ride from hell. Imperial history, more blazing heat, more bikes. Cue lots of raised eyebrows and chuckling at the outlandish antics of two Hue personalities: the lady touts on motorbikes who see fit to slowly putt alongside of you while you’re wheezing your way up a hill on a bike with no gears; and the pint-sized Emperor Tu Duc, who was taller than some things, including chairs and women on their sides, and who pre-emptively ordered the execution of all 200 workers involved in his burial so as to forever conceal the location of his tomb.

The 13-hour train journey to Hanoi was a walk in the park, albeit a highly populated one, replete with endless people-watching opportunities – communist-clad septuagenarians with wispy beards; young, urbane Mac-toters; and toddlers who wandered the aisles sitting on strangers’ laps and helping themselves to their drinks and snacks. We had been quite proud of our own collection of snacks which included a box of sugar-free digestive biscuits – that was until we noticed the warning that “excess consumption may have a laxative effect.” After we’d munched down about 10 each. Woops. Thankfully, that doesn’t fall into the category of excess consumption, but it certainly had us worried for a while.
 
Hanoi is a city in love with the open flame. Although technically prohibited, the streets are usually filled with smoke of one kind or another – grilling meat; burning rubbish; or ceremonial fires where photocopied US dollars are burned as spiritual offerings (honestly, do they really think the spirits are that gullible?). We found our spiritual home in a four-storey BBQ barn where every kind of goat is ceremonially barbecued and devoured. Call us weak, but we bypassed the goat testicle and goat blood liquor for the more sedate offerings of goat fillet and goat “breast”, or udder. Although we were the only foreigners in the whole barn, we suspect they must have had a few problems with others setting things on fire as we were highly supervised throughout the whole goaty experience. I’ll just say “goat” a few more times for good measure: goat, goat, goat.
 
After the sweeping boulevards of Saigon, there is a definite charm to the narrow winding streets of Hanoi’s old quarter, which are named according to the goods traditionally sold there – silk street; pickled fish; coffins. It is also a city dominated by the personality cult of Ho Chi Minh and we paid a visit to his mausoleum and the sort of Uncle Ho theme park that surrounds it, which includes a Soviet-funded museum with psychedelic exhibits explaining the factors influencing the rise of communism. Despite the thronging crowds, the mausoleum and surrounding park complex are quite serene. People even manage to queue in an uncharacteristically orderly fashion, such is the power of Uncle Ho (and the bayonet-wielding military guards).
 
We recently tallied up the number of hostelries we’ve stayed in since we left home – quite a rogue’s gallery of the good, the bad and the ugly. Check out the wild climb to #55, our current digs, which thankfully fall into the “good” category.

tropical beer notes #13

August 21, 2009

Black Panther Stout 8% Cambodia.

Not so sure what Huey Newton or Stokely Carmichael would have made of this – don’t you think that cat is very, very similar to the jaguar which can be found on the bonnet of Danny Clark’s car? There is a serious clash of ideologies going on here.

Sadly, that’s where the complexity ends. This is strong and weak all at the same time, sweet malts and a touch ‘roasty’. I’ll give it 11/20. Buy it so you can bore your wife with tales of 60s radicalism.

kampottering

August 18, 2009

This tiny town sure gave us a lot to talk about.

We spent a fair proportion of our time in Kampot indulging in two of the less frequented meats of our diet – pork and crab. It’s not that we don’t enjoy these meats – quite to the contrary, in fact – but too much of the former has, at times, been known to upset the Dodd guts and as for the latter, expense, lack of education and can’t-be-arsedness (edible meat of most crab is estimated at only 15% of the total weight) has limited our consumption. In these parts, there ain’t no picked-for-your-convenience crab meat or purpose-designed crab wrangling tools – it’s you, the whole beast and a spoon: a little intimidating.

But with a little bit of internet-enabled help, we’ve broken through the crab barrier. As it was, the crab came out already portioned but our new skills still enabled us to extract every skerrick of edible goodness. Sweet flesh with fresh green peppercorns, another local specialty, it was perfectly accompanied by a grilled and seasoned fishy friend and a few icy Angkors. Yum.

As for the pork, the baby back ribs at The Rusty Keyhole are justifiably famous in these parts. The affable Brit that runs the place must single-handedly keep the local piggery afloat. Double yum.

Meat aside, most people come to Kampot to visit Bokor, a former French hill station and “national park”. But it’s a strange sort of national park where the government accepts the paltry sum of US$100m in exchange for a 99-year lease to Cambodia’s largest business conglomerate with plans afoot for a golf resort and casino. But that just seems to be how things work here – check out this article from the Guardian which details how the Cambodian government has happily sold off other large chunks of land in a similar fashion.

And now for the “physical challenge” part.* Control of the site by Sokhimex explains why the cost of visiting Bokor has skyrocketed, as local tourism operators now have to pay considerable bribes to be allowed to lead visitors onto the site. And it also explains why we had to hike halfway up the mountain, which was previously accessible by road, led by a young guy toting a rusty AK47.

Its worth noting at this point just how many tourists in this part of the world are French. They seemingly still hold some sort of colonial fondness for Indochina and they’re everywhere. Notably, their government seems to pour a lot of money into funding archaeological digs and French cultural centres, while the Australians and Kiwis waste their time with more frivolous matters such as targeting child sex tourism and public health campaigns, but I digress…

Most of our hiking group was French and, as became obvious, fairly urbane. When we enquired about the tour, we were specifically told it would involve 2.5 hours of hiking each way and thus, we should be suitably attired. If you’re French, “suitably attired” means dainty sandals, a long flowing skirt and a silk scarf. “But zere will be mud? Quelle horreur!” Thankfully, the girls managed to rustle up some other clothes and footwear, but the guys persisted with Birkenstock slip-ons/thongs which were quickly discarded in favour of bare feet. Hmm, does anyone know the French word for “hookworm”? At least the trip back down the muddy embankment in bare feet may have resembled an activity more familiar to them: downhill skiing. All this, of course, only enhanced their stereotypically grumpy demeanour as they sulkily puffed away on their fags at each rest stop.

But enough French-bashing. At just over 1000m above sea level, Bokor is refreshingly cold and usually shrouded in mist, which gives a suitably eerie feeling to the abandoned buildings – a church, post office and hotel, which would have been particularly grand in its day. No pics, as it was raining and we’re still treating the camera with kid gloves but there’s heaps online.

The final word must go to our guide Cheung Try who, at 51 and with 5 children, looks barely a day over 35. We had heard him stick the boot into the government in an earlier monologue about Bokor’s history and wanted to ask him some questions about the sale of the national park, which then progressed into a telling of his own history. Cheung Try was 18 when his family were murdered by the Khmer Rouge; their crime was that his father had once been an officer in the Republican army. He managed to escape his captors and fled to the jungle where he hid for many months. Eventually he made his way to the border and joined the Vietnamese-backed resistance. He fought to take that very hill station from the KR who used it as a command post and his leg is scarred from the injuries he sustained. After the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia, he stayed in the army and continued to fight against the KR in the north until 1991. He then worked for the UN for seven years, clearing mines in the Kampot region. He learned English while working alongside Australian soldiers, who sent him money long after they left so he could educate his kids. Despite nearly 20 years of active service, he receives no pension and now contracts his services as a guide to local tourism operators.

As Cheung Try sat on a pile of gravel, talking and noshing on his lunch, we were both reminded of our days in East Timor where everyone we met had a story of loss to tell. There’s not a lot you can do or say in response, except be humbled.

*Hilarious reference to late 80s/early 90s children’s game show Double Dare – “Dare! Double Dare! Physical challenge!!” – “Yum! Double yum! Physical challenge!!” Get it? Never mind…

tropical beer notes #12

August 17, 2009

Khmer Palm Beer  4.5% Cambodia


Here at Beyond Bagot we look at quite a few “Captain Bland” typical-of-the-region beers. They’re not good but not exactly bad either. They are what they are brewed to be: utterly inoffensive. But finally, a beer so bad that it had to be tipped in the sink.

On the nose it smells remarkably like that red super sweet jam found in doughnuts. Taste can only be described as chemical sweetness which then fades into sheer awfulness. Yikes.

To be fair, this isn’t really beer – it’s fermented palm sap. I can remember something like this, but much stronger, in East Timor.  Memory is of acrid, burning white stuff and Catie shoving her cup at me to drink when none of the locals were looking.

Awful, cheap, very sweet drink? There has to be a mass market for this in Australia. With K-Bot trying to kill the “wendy” (aka “alcopop”), this could slip under the tax radar and be marketed as a beer or wine. The punters would love it. “Khmer Palm Beer” might need to change, but how about “Taste of the Tropics”, “Palm Pop” or “Indochine Elixir”? The possibilities are endless. A whole new generation of teenagers could have have their formative drunken experiences on this stuff. Could even fill doughnuts with it.

tour d’angkor

August 16, 2009
It’s the grand poo-bah; the big cheese; the main enchilada. Angkor Wat or, more accurately, Angkor Archeological Park – one of the rare breed of attractions that actually lives up to the enormous hype surrounding it.
A sort of ruinous theme park of vast proportions, we were chauffeured for our first day of touring some of the farther flung temples and thereafter took to a pair of daggy but comfortable mountain bikes –  a happy and sweaty peloton of two. The main circuits around the temples are actually very beautiful to ride through in themselves. The road there from Siem Reap is less so, but we amused ourselves no end roleplaying the highlights of this year’s Tour.
Bayon
Bayon
Ta Keo

Ta Keo

There’s no denying the majesty of Angkor Wat itself, but some of our favourites included Bayon; Ta Keo; Pre Rup and we never got tired of gazing at the gates of the walled city of Angkor Thom.
Pre Rup
Pre Rup
Angkor Thom north gate

Angkor Thom north gate

We took heed of some useful advice on how to avoid temple fatigue and it worked. Don’t see all (or any) of the big hitters on your first day and don’t rush it. We forked out for a 7-day pass, which meant we could afford to see fewer temples each day and have a couple of temple-free days to relax (read: eat a lot) in town. We were almost a little sad when it was all over.

tropical beer notes #11

August 7, 2009

Angkor Beer Cambodia 5%

Angkor Extra Stout Cambodia 8%

Angkor Beer and Stout cans both have the old-fashioned ring pull. Didn’t these things get banned everywhere moments after cans were invented?  I can’t even remember one on dad’s America’s Cup-sponsoring Swan Gold. The ring pull does have its advantages. There is no “safety release” like on these new fangled cans so if you open after shaking, it’ll spout like Old Faithful. For further study I urge you to seek out The Adventures of Barry Mckenzie, possibly a high watermark in Australian beer-explosion-related humour. Check the pivotal clip here.

The ubiquitous Angkor Beer is a bog standard, thin, soda-waterish SE Asian thirst quencher. Weirdly, its main rival has a virtually identical name – Anchor Smooth. It’s similarly average too. There is virtually nothing in this country not named “Angkor”, so perhaps Anchor thought they would just go as close as they could.
 
The stout is good. I’m putting this out there: best beer since Guinness Foreign Extra back in Malaysia. Hides the high alcohol pretty well and has flavours of coffee and chocolate. 13/20.
 
For more on Cambodian beers, check out Phnomenon and say goodbye to your workday.

And in other news: beer has finally taken its rightful place at the most powerful outdoor setting in the world. For a proper analysis, have a peep at The Pour.

phnomenal penh

August 4, 2009

Our introduction to Cambodia came at the end of a beautiful and fun, but long and tiring day floating slowly up the Mekong. Our reaction to the enormity of the river and the colossal amount of water flowing in it was akin to when kids from the sticks go to the big city – they don’t make rivers like that in Australia…

We’ve previously commented that Thailand was a land of contradictions and indeed, most places aren’t without them. Cambodia’s contradictions are, like its history, more brutal and perplexing. As we drove into Phnom Penh, we both found ourselves humming lines from Springsteen’s song Atlantic City –  “down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.”

The dusty highway teemed with vehicles – swarms of motorbikes and mini vans, laden with cargo and young guys suicidally hitching a ride on the roof or atop precarious piles of gas cylinders. Meanwhile, dozens of sleek luxury cars speed past, no doubt containing military brass and senior officials of the long ruling People’s Party. Lexus 4WDs, Range Rovers, Mercedes, Hummers: the juxtapositon was grotesque.

It doesn’t end there. In the shadows of the Royal Palace and massive redevelopments, an estimated 20,000 kids and at least as many adults eke out a living on the city streets. Corruption is rife – we paid our first bribe of the trip at the border crossing (a $2 “administration fee” – although maybe this was just because Linds spilt chilli sauce on his arrival card?) and the traffic police seem to exist for no other reason than extorting cash from the passing motorists.

It is trite to say that Cambodia’s recent history is horrific and tragic. The one thing we feel compelled to say is that the banality is chilling. The S-21 prison, a former school, sits squarely in the suburbs and bears a striking similarity to your own high school. The Killing Fields site was formerly a longan orchard and has now returned to its previously peaceful state, with music and playground noises floating across from the school next door.

And yet, Cambodia is also the first country where we’ve been able to buy newspapers and books that are critical of the regime and deal meaningfully with the country’s history. People have a ready sense of humour, we were met with some humbling warmth and despite having caught a lot of bad breaks, most seem to just be trying to get on as best they can.

And so, it wasn’t so much that Phnom Penh revealed its charms to us, but more that we got used to it. Kind of. As much as one can get used to lawlessness. And I don’t ever want to get used to begging children.