Friday, May 25, 2018

Visa Ping Pong

Cambodia has been excellent, but as travel goes it is time to explore new places. Next up, Vietnam. The first thing to remember is that Vietnam is an incredible country with a rich and diverse history, it is not a war. As with so many countries today, I need a tourist visa to enter. My situation is not complicated but it could get tricky if I am not careful. Let me explain.

I entered Cambodia, as I did with India and Nepal, on an E-Visa. You register for your travel visa ahead of time on a government or government approved website. The questions are for all standard information plus you must upload a scanned passport style photo. India was a bit different. They needed information going back to my mother and fathers details. They wanted no history or trace of any connection to Pakistan heritage. Visa's are usually approved within 24 hours and entry into the country is a breeze. That being said, using an e-visa usually requires entry into the country in a designated port, usually an airport or seaport. Land entry is not accepted so be careful and do your research first.

Now my Cambodian dilemma. I entered the country using my e-visa without issue. You need to print out a second copy, which contains a bar code, to leave the country. I don't ask why, I just do what I am told, a rarity for me. My first thought for Vietnam was using an E-visa but that meant flying into Ho Chi Minh. From Phnom Penh it is only a 45 minute flight but that sounded dumb to me. The most common mode of transport between capitals is the 6 - 7 hour bus ride. That being a land border so now leaving Cambodia could be an issue. Shit, I do not want to fly.

In Phnom Penh you can go to the Vietnam Embassy to fill out the paperwork, including a photo, to apply for your visa. It can take 2 to 3 days. However, there is another option if you are going to use a land crossing. Following recommendations from various travel blogs I used Cine Travel. I went in at 10 am on Wednesday, gave them my passport and departure date, paid the $42 and picked up my passport with my new visa the next day at 5:30. With that I discovered that the land border being used by most major bus companies on this route accept the e-visa to leave Cambodia. The Governments are evolving for the sake of tourism, nice.

Now, add to the mix is my requirement for a Bangladesh working visa. I sent all the required documents to my school and they will send me a letter of invitation, very much like China. One of their requirements is that I sent them a scan of every "used" page in my passport. Like India the Bangladesh government wants to see where you have been. I found this odd but it's a political thing so I don't ask why. When they send me my letter I have one week, 5 working days, in which I have to find an embassy or consulate to get my visa. No pressure thanks guys. In Vietnam its Hanoi, In Malaysia its Kuala Lumpur, Indonesia would be Jakarta or else Singapore, all stops on this trip. The Bangladesh visa will be an epic adventure when that time comes. Bangladesh, what the hell am I thinking?

Think about long term budget travel for a minute. Let me try to explain why I did not take the easiest or most convenient way to Vietnam, the 45 minute flight. Budget travel is exactly that, budget. Don't get me wrong, I am not on a GAP year using my parents credit card or a recent university graduate wanting to do things as cheap as possible including sleeping in $4 a night dorms but drinking $30 a night worth of booze. I miss those dumb days. Anyways, I work when I travel so doing things "as cheap as possible" is an option not my mantra.

* transportation costs can slightly vary.*

Option 1
Getting an e-visa to Vietnam - $25
Flight to Vietnam - $75
Tuk Tuk to airport in Phnom Penh - $10
Tuk Tuk/Taxi to my hotel in Ho Chi Minh - $15
Total travel time including getting to and from the airport, being at the airport a few hours early and flying time estimated to be 5 - 6 hours
Total cost:$125

Option 2
Visa to Vietnam using Cine Travel - $42
Bus to Ho Chi Minh - $18
I get a hotel pickup in the morning and I can walk to my hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh
Total travel time including being at the bus station 15 minutes early and land border processing time estimated to be 8 to 9 hours
Total cost $60

The first thing you might say is take option 1. It's more expensive and what's $65 but it is faster and more convenient. I hate the word convenient but more on that later. Sure that would be a good option but if I save the $65 that pays for my hotel in Ho Chi Minh for 5 nights. Now, I know your probably thinking, "My god, $13 a night for a room, what kind of drug infested flea bag place are you staying in?" That's pretty funny. First I am actually splurging at $13. With a bit of effort I could have found a single room for $10. If I wanted to go to a dorm they run about $4 - $5 a night but at my age when I enter a dorm it crushes the sensibilities of anyone under the age of 25. I am staying at the Thien Phu in District 1, right in the heart of downtown. Click here to have a look. You have to understand that travel and living in SE Asia is "Cheap as Chips"

Second, lets face it, flying sucks, even a short haul flight. As I have said before I like taking the bus when traveling. You can not see the countryside from 25,000 feet. I am taking Giant Ibus and the bus is new, air conditioned and includes Wifi and power outlets for each seat. So taking the bus is a bit longer but the trip is more enjoyable, my E-Visa works at the land border to leave Cambodia and savings pays for my room in Vietnam. It was an easy choice.

Now, back to convenient. I do not know if this word makes me angry, makes me sick or just aggravates me. We have accepted it and  have become co - dependent on it. Therefore we do not question when we are charged for it. Wasn't that just good customer service not so long ago? Convenience fees at banks, when buying sporting event or concert tickets online or the convenience of using your credit card to make purchases.  How often do you go to the convenience store knowing you will pay more for milk or break when the grocery store is just a bit further away. It makes us unbelievably lazy and complicit. As with entitled, I think these are a few of the most dangerous words in the English language. For the record, Selfie is the saddest.

As for travel, it can be a bit tricky but you need to keep you long term goals in mind when on budget travel. Sure it can take a bit of work. At it's most frustration you must ask yourself the following questions. What do I want to do? Where do I want to go? What do I want to experience? How long do I want to travel?. For the record, on any trip my last day I usually book myself into a really nice airport hotel with a pool. I drink overpriced drinks, eat over priced food and have a workout in the gym. I sleep in a big comfy bed, probably order room service and arrive for my flight rested and ready to go...because flying sucks.

In the West I think we tend to toss money at a situation hoping to make it easier or convenient. We don't want the hassle but will complain about it later. For me being On The Road (I am reading Big Sur by Jack Kerouac so I had to toss in a Kerouac reference ) it's a luxury I seldom use. I am in no rush to get anywhere or do anything and in your daily lives neither are you. It's so easy to use  "I am so busy"  in today's world  when asked "how are you" I need things to be more convenient or easier. Next time someone says they are "so busy" ask them why and ask for details. You may be surprised by the silence or the angry defensive rhetoric that comes back at you. We are all so busy being busy.

Wow, where did that rant come from?. I better go for a $5 message...and no, she will "not love me long time"..maybe. Get your mind out of the gutter.

Monday, May 21, 2018


What are the two best words to describe Sihanoukville?  Under Construction.  From everything I read and from what fellow travelers mentioned, one of three things were going to happen to me if I went to Sihanoukville. First I was going to have a a fantastic time. I could party like a madman or chill by the beach. Second, I was going to be over run by the hoards of Chinese tourists that come here as an alternative to Macau. Third, I was going to get killed by the Russian Mob. Well I immediately bought a bus ticket and off I went. Good times, rude people or death, what's not to like about those three destination options.

I booked a ride through my hotel for $11 on a 16 seat, very comfortable bus. I had ticket number 1 which was the front seat beside the drive. Score! The ride was an uneventful 4.5 hours but it did give me a interesting glimpse of the Cambodian countryside, one of the main reasons I like taking a bus when I travel outside of North America. I have been going strong since March 26th. Xian, Chengdu, Kathmandu, EBC, India, and now Cambodia. As I have mentioned before, traveling can be hard work and I am tired. My own beach hut, sunshine, the Bay of Thailand, beach chairs, palm trees and happy hour beer will do the trick.

The beaches in Sihanoukville are considered some of the best in SE Asia without all the people and development. That being said, Chinese investment has arrived and this place will not be the same in a couple of years. Get in while the going is good.

There are three main beaches,  Ocheteaul, Otres 1 and Otres 2. Ocheteaul is near the town and is considered the "party beach" with young back packers doing what they do best. Otres is about 3 km east and a bit tamer while Otres 2 is still being developed but quieter still. I chose Otres as partying like a rock star every night was not even closer to being on my agenda. Still, I could walk to Sihanoukville in about 40 minutes or take a 15 minute moto to the centre of town.

Sihanoukville is a typical growing port town that has had its share of interesting history. The hotels were used as target practice during the war from 75 to 79. When the war ended the Russian mafia arrived to control the town and the beaches. They were forced out, if that was actually possible, by the government in the mid 90s.  Now the Chinese have arrived in a very big way. Needed an alternative to Macau there are new casinos springing up all over the town giving it a bizarre look. Every day, plane loads of Chinese arrive to gamble and hit the beach so much so that signage all over town is in Chinese. Construction, mounds of stinking trash, dazed backpackers and cheap restaurants. It may not be an ideal place but it isn't boring.

Chez Paou in Otres 1 was going to be my home for a week. At $7 a night for my own bungalow and 10 steps from the beach I knew I would get comfortable pretty quick. An open concept restaurant with a great menu and meals running about $4, free pool tables and a nice bar facing the beach. It also had Chez in the name so it must be fancy. It was an easy walk to Otres 2 and in between was a little street village just to mix it up a bit. This is exactly what I needed. I got a street side haircut for $2 then found a damn good Greek restaurant and devoured souvlaki like a mad man. It was not all paradise. There were roosters and lots of them and I hate roosters as much as barking dogs. 5:30 am was the standard wake up call but they screeching poultry tired quickly in the morning heat allowing both the roosters and myself to go back to sell. It did allow for a few incredible sun rises over the Bay of Thailand.

I could walk to the far end of the beach and back in about 90 minutes and did so every morning. There were great people hanging around my hotel and nightly beers and pool games with Andy and Jenny were great. The intrepid Andy is a chef and has been riding his bike through Asia for the last 3 months with 3 to go. One of his goals is to learn the foods and flavors of Asia so he can write a book. he is also a bit of a doppelganger for a former colleague of mine in Mexico, Tom Webster. The free spirit Jenny is a message therapist and has been traveling Asia doing volunteer work where she can. She also looks 20 younger than he actual age. Good spirit, good health, good body.You meet great people on the road when you take the time to say hello.

Ladies would come by and offer manicures, pedicures and messages on the beach so I said yes, yes and yes. The beach dogs became friendly and the nightly lightning storms fantastic. Dude selling sunglasses and boat trips would stop and just chat knowing you were not going to buy anything. One guy would come by every morning selling boat trips for $15. It included a hotel pickup, breakfast, lunch, snorkeling, swimming and cliff jumping if that was your thing. Sign me up for that.

When I got on the boat there were smiling faces greeting me. "You want a beer mate" was the first thing that was said to me by a group of young Aussies. The fact it was 9 am had no bearing on anything at all so a quick "absolutely" and I had new friends for a day. Its a crap shoot when you sign up for these types of day trips. Often everyone is coupled off and the conversations are limited or people just do not mix. I hit the jackpot today.

The snorkeling was not great as the water was murky but who cares. We climbed up some rock faces that were 7 metres where I took one look down and thought "nope" and walked back down. I was quickly followed by a few others to shy to go first and feeling a bit of peer pressure. We dove into the water off a rock at sea level and cheered each other for our amazing feat. This brought cheers from our more daring friends standing 7 meters above us. It was by far the best day I have had in Cambodia, it not on this trip so far.

Now not all is great in paradise. The beaches were full of plastic coming in from the ocean. There were intrepid travelers who would walk the beach with garbage bags (plastic) to pick up the trash. "Be the change you want to see". It did not stop the daily deluge of plastics coming a shore but they were doing their part. Yes, I partook one day with 4 others. We each collected 2 large bags of garbage in about 4 hours.

Locals burn their trash, including all plastics, on the side of the road as they do not know any better. Recycling education and the infrastructure to support it does not exist. There are some great people doing innovative things when it comes to cleaning our oceans from the plastics that are destroying it. Cities in the USA and Canada are banning items such as plastic drinking straws, single serve water bottles and plastic bags and I applaud everyone. However unless the situation is dealt with on a global grassroots level it is only going to get worse no matter the efforts being put forth. The plastic issue in the oceans and on the planet is very real and very dangerous and I feel it is beyond the critical stage. "Be the change you want to see" is all that needs to be said about this topic.

Cambodia has been everything I imagined and more and I only scratched the surface. I will certainly come back here again and it has moved into the top 5 places that I would settle down and live in. Here is my updated list.
1. Mexico
2. Nicaragua
3. Ecuador
4. Cambodia
5. Canada

So it's off to Vietnam. I can only imagine whats going to happen.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Killing Fields

Last night I watched the 1984 move The Killing Fields. Today I had my reality shattered by visiting one of the many killing fields plus the notorious S21 torture and execution centre. When you come to Cambodia you can not avoid taking a hard look at Cambodia's dark history and understanding how the world knowingly ignored it. The world knowingly ignored the brutality here as it had in many places before and after. Armenia, Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Serbia, Darfur, Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, North Korea and now Myanmar. The list grows, millions die and the world remains silent. "Never Again" my ass.

I thought I was mentally ready for this. Man was I naive. I hired the same Tuk Tuk driver who picked me up at the bus station. He would stay with me for the day and was a reasonable $18.

Our first stop would be Choeung Ek, One of the hundreds of Killing Fields scattered throughout Cambodia. My driver got a bit lost as there was road construction on the back roads to the site. He looked more worried than me, which got me worried. "It's ok", he kept telling me. Once we arrived he parked his beast machine, took out a hammock and told me to "take my time and learn.". That statement by a 25 year old caught my attention.

With your entrance fee you receive an audio guide and a map with "stop and listen" stations. Each station gives you intense detail about what you are looking at. Even the first station which was a bare patch of earth was "The place where trucks stopped to drop off prisoners". You will wander through areas that describe, sometimes in great detail the horror and fear that took place here. It was not uncommon for everyone in the truck to be dead within 24 hours.

Bullets were not an option as they were expensive. Clubs, ox cart axles or knives were the weapons of choice. Death was not easy. You looked over mass graves and torture sites. One place that stands out in everyone's mind is the Child's Killing Tree. Kids were taken from their parents and as the parents were being tortured the kids heads were smashed against this tree, swung usually by the feet.

At the rear of the memorial park is a walking path. Here you chose a classical music selection from the audio tape and reflect what you have just been a part of. Walk the path, sit on a bench or do both. I was hoping to find a copy of the music but no luck. What I find was a transcription of the audio tour. Please Click here to read a copy. If the link does not work let me know and I will send you a copy I downloaded. Just reading it will give you a shocking sense of the reality that was.

I spent about 3 hours here with a final stop at the huge memorial that has stacked bones, skulls and remains of the victims of Choeung Ek. It also had a color coded system that shows how each person died.The reality of neck cutting, killing by ax, killing by hoe, by hood knife.

I thought I had my senses shocked. I had no idea what was to come next.

The second stop was the notorious and Savage S-21 torture and execution prison. It started as a peaceful walk through a welcoming gate. Then I put on my audio tour cassette headphones and the horrors became instantaneous. As with all historical site I visit there is much better and detailed information about S-21 if you Click Here

This former school was turned into a prison where torture, suffering and death was a top priority. Listening to the details as you walk through the first building creates a sense of sadness unless your a robot. Bars on all windows, metal bed frames where prisoners where chained and tortured and dirty barren walls gave you a sense of complete hopelessness.

Building number 2 was covered with wire mess? One prisoner had jumped from the third floor to commit suicide. Since suicide was not an option for the Khmer Rouge screening was put up to prevent it. Even hope for a quick death was averted by these motherfu**ers.

Buildings 3 and 4 is where it really hits you. Walls of pictures of each prisoner with knowing terrified looks on their faces. Men, woman and kids. Rows of teenagers, both boys and girls whose only crime was to be the children of parents accused of some meaningless crime against the country, so they had to suffer and die as well.

There was the stories and photos of the 9 foreign victims including John Dawson and David Scott, Christopher DeLance, Their crime, accidentally sailing into Cambodia waters and were immediately accused of being American CIA agents. They suffered the same fate as most prisoners however all western bodies were burned so as to not be identified.

I was struggling to get through building number 3. Hundreds if not thousands of horrified faces staring at me as read story after story of individual life stories and the supposed crimes they had committed. Remember I am listening to audio as well as reading and viewing everything around me. I left building 3 and sat in the open courtyard mentally exhausted, and I was not alone. I sat in the sun for the better part of 15 minutes trying to regroup. I took one step inside building 4, looked around and said "nope". I had had enough. No shame in that.

Later that day I took to the city streets and markets. I was really wandering aimlessly lost in thought of what I had experienced during the day. I watched the people and recognized there were very few of the older generation because most had  been killed.

Cambodia is young but nobody has not forgotten. The museum's are filled with locals and school groups learning about and being reminded of their history as everyone was effected. Learning about grandparents, aunt's, uncle's, and cousins is a part of the fabric of this country. Scars are everywhere. Blind message parlors, vendors missing arms or legs and older survivors begging on the street with mindless stares.

Through it all Cambodia has move forward. They have embraced the future without ignoring their history. Kindness is genuine. We should not have to live through a genocide to be kind to each other.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Siem Reap

Cambodia has been on my radar for as long as I can remember. Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and South Africa have also been at the top of the travel list. I have had a keen interest in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since they were a part of the old Soviet Union. All places I will get to but now it's Cambodia's turn to strut her stuff.

First stop Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat.  I am beyond staying in dorms any longer but at $3 a night I did pop up from my gopher hole to have a peek. If this was one night, no problem.  I needed to wash off 3 weeks of India so a large single room with private bathroom for $11 a night would do just fine, plus they offered free airport pickup.

The Hi Siem Reap is a part of the old Hosteling International, which is all we had at one time for organized budget travel. There was a great outside common area with a clean pool, a bar that was always having "happy hour", a pool table and an excellent 360 view of the town. Most of my fellow travelers were friendly enough and it was exactly what I needed.

It was not all beer drinking lazy times by the pool. The hotel arranged a Tuk Tuk for two days. The first day I explored the War Memorial Museum, The National Museum and the Land mine Museum.
The National Museum was interesting enough. Filled with Khmer history dating back thousands of years it also had a mixture of Buddhist, Hindu artifacts. There were 6 massive rooms with quite a bit of multimedia to keep a person engaged. I was not one of those people. I try my best when I enter a museum that contains things I know nothing about, I really do. Sadly I am good for about an hour. I also had two other stops that I was eager to get to.

The War Memorial Museum was about 20 minutes outside of town. The Tuk Tuk gave me a great moving view of the Cambodian countryside as we left the pavement and headed down dusty roads.  The museum is outdoors and filled with all aspects of war. Old rusting soviet tanks, personal carriers and even the hull of a MIG fighter.  There were the other weapons of a 30 year war that destroyed the country and killed over 2 million people.

The Museum offers a free English speaking guide and you are free to donate a small sum afterward. * From the Museum Website. *
There are 4 guides working in the museum, they are always ready to personally lead you around and answer all your questions.

Each of the guides has his own unique background: war veterans, eye witnesses of the war and landmine victims. Therefore, not only they could tell you e.g. about the last 3 decades of the 20th century history of Cambodia and about the collection of the museum, but also about their personal experiences during the defined period of time.

There was a small group of 8 of us that walked quietly and listened intently as our guide Chres Sanh spoke about his experiences. His grandparents were killed by the Khmer Rouge and as he briefly spoke of it you could see his memory drift just a bit but he never lost his composure. He spoke in great deal of he weapons we were viewing while adding more and more elements of his and his families experiences during the American Bombing Campaign, the Civil War and the reign of terror that was the Khmer Rouge.

A long ride across town brought us to a small but incredibly important Museum. The Cambodian Land Mine Museum. Created by Aki Ra, a former conscripted child soldier of the Khmer Rouge who eventually returned to the villages that he had planted thousands of mines and started removing hand. Take a few minutes and visit the Cambodian Land Mine Museum website. It is scary, informative, inspiring and humbling. There are over 3 million landmines buried in Cambodia. Upwards of 50 people get killed every year by landmines in Cambodia, many of the children. Another sobering reality of our world.

The next day it was all about Temples and I was greeted with a big morning smile by Shituk, Tuk Tuk driver extraordinaire. We were going to have a long hot day and this boy was prepared. There are 72 temples at Angkor, we were going to visit 5 with the highlight being Angkor Wat. Shituk would drop me off at one of the temples, point towards the entrance, smile and say "take your time and enjoy". After the first temple and about 90 minutes I came back to find him relaxing in a hammock he had slung inside the Tuk Tuk. This was not his first tour. He immediately provided cold water and a frozen hand towel to cool down. This routine was repeated all day long.

Angkor was everything I had expected and more. Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei, and Ta Phrom were all a bit different and blended into the complex as you would expect them to. As with the Mayan Temples and Pyramids, I let my mind and imagination wander as I walked in, on and around the complex. How brilliant was this society during it's time. It's complexity only working because of it's simplicity.

The Elephant Temple was an unexpected gem. It was hidden well back off the road, behind a series of low walls and along trails deep in the forest. When I came upon it I instantly thought of all the ruins I had seen throughout Central America. Not so much for their style, as they are very different, but for location. Isolated and surrounded by deep forests.

I followed young monks as they climbed and wandered the Temple. They were taking pictures, "young tourist monks". One asked to take my picture so in return I asked to take his. This game played out with all 5 of them until what appeared to be their "handler" for lack of a better word put a stop to it. I think I may have corrupted them at the Elephant Temple. They were smiling as we headed down so it could not be all that bad.

My last day it was time to enjoy the .50 mugs of cold beer on Bar Street. How much trouble could that possibly lead to? Bar street is a multi-block tourist area of bars, restaurants and massage parlors. No, not the happy ending kind, get your mind out of the gutter. That option exists at any bar that has "bar girls" hanging about, and most do. It should be called "Happy Hour, Happy Ending".

Constantly hearing “you want boom boom” from an assortment of young girls just became a part of the environment. Sure, you could ignore them but they were all cute and way to much fun to talk to. I was offered "boom boom" for $14. I am not sure what was stranger, how cheap it was or the random number of $14. A girls got to make a living.

All bars have happy hour and .50 beer so Bar Street could be as fun as it could be dangerous. I stuck with fun but I will tell you what happened. First the .50 beers started going down real easy and...***********

Next Stop, The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh