A Travellerspoint blog

Big, Old Temples

An update of a regular Wednesday and Thursday spent in Siem Reap

sunny 30 °C

On Wednesday morning Matt and I woke up pretty early and had some breakfast at the hostel before popping into a tuk-tuk with Sun Lee (my lovely driver from the day before!) and heading to the temples. We had to pay $40 for a three day temple pass, as everyone said there's too much to see in just one day, although now in hindsight I think if we'd planned it better I may have rathered just doing them in one day. Cia had mentioned that it was best to have a look at the smaller temples before Angkor Wat itself, so we decided to first do the 'big route', which shows most of the surrounding temples in the outer area of Angkor.

Our first stop was through the 'South Gate', which is at a large bridge over a large moat. *Warning, I believe the word large and its adjectives will be employed annoyingly often throughout this post, as there's really no way to describe just how enormous this site is. Anyway, we walked through the gate and Sun Lee drove us into the Angkor Thom region, which is home to a number of different temples - most significantly the Bayon section. They were nice (and big of course) but I think they'd had a fair bit of damage, and didn't really live up to the hype some people had mentioned about the Bayon temple. We moved on to Prasat Khan and Neak Poan - which was actually pretty cool, Neak Poan was sectioned off but it was based on the water and was really pretty. Though on the way across the bridge one young girl selling bracelets really targeted me and hassled me relentlessly on my way in and out which was partially sad but mostly amusing due to her relentlessness; her persistence was incredible. We went on to a few more temples including East Mebon and my favourite for the day, Pre Rup. The climb up to the very top was a bit of a mental test as the angle of elevation should not constitute a stairway for human given general laws of gravity, but hey, I made it both up and down. At the top was a shrine and one man working inside the small area asked me where I was from, then saying 'Gday Mate, Cheers Mate, A dingo stole my baby'. I found it way funnier than it probably was but at the time it was really hilarious. Anyway, I took some cool panorama photos and off I went.

That afternoon I went for a bit of a walk around the town, and up to the main tourist drag near Pub Street which is about a 10-15 minute walk from my guesthouse. It's pretty cool but very touristy, as is the whole town, which is fun in a way, though I haven't really been in a 'party mood' the last couple of weeks. One lady with an adorable little boy (I am a total sucker) came up to me desperately and said that she did not want any money but just some milk for her baby and she led me to a pharmacy. It was $5.50 for the small tin, and although I've really been spending too much money in Cambodia, I can't help thinking about the things that I simply take for granted and the fact that I could easily spend $6 in Sydney just on a drink or something. Comparing the significance what that money could do for her to the uses I would have for it, it's a bit of a reality check. Plus I got to score an adorable photo of the beautiful little boy - just another for my collection of so many beautiful South East Asian kids. However, about 10 minutes later and around another corner, a small boy was begging, and although I've been told many times not to give beggars money (you never know where it goes) he had mentioned in broken English that he was hungry. I suggested taking him to a meal as they're generally about $2-3 around here, but instead he insisted that he lead me to the closest convenience store and pointed to milk powder also. I couldn't afford to buy another $6 tub, but also this raised some alarm bells in my head, and I feel that this may be part of one of the many local scams going on targeting tourists.

I ran into Matt on the street and we decided to try the fish foot pedicure thing that line the streets - basically you put your feet in these ponds and let fish nibble at your dirt and dead skin! It was a very very strange feeling, and pretty ticklish, but given the fact that Rachel nearly kicks pedicurists in the head during foot scrubs in Sydney I do not recommend this treatment to her in fear for the poor fish. Anyway, after the long walks I'd done in dusty Angkor temples, those fish were certainly well-fed.

That night Matt and I met up again and got some dinner at a great place around the corner (which I've frequented far too often), it's called Star something - I want to remember that before I go so I can recommend it! We then went for a walk to Pub Street and the night markets and then got a cocktail somewhere by the street. The area really comes alive at night for tourists and looks quite fun, but as I mentioned before, I really haven't been in a party mood. I've been enjoying travelling solo and meeting like-minded (and diverse) travellers from all over the globe, but I haven't been able to shrug off everything I've seen and just get drunk on $1 shots as easily as everyone else does. I kind of regret that as I'm sure they're having a blast, but at the moment I feel that I'd be very obnoxious and disrespectful if I was just spending all my money on hedonistic activities while millions of Cambodian people around me were suffering. In part I think this is a reasonable viewpoint, but at the same time I worry that this perspective may make me become one of those well-hated pretentious do-good travellers, but I certainly don't want to appear judgemental, so for now I'm just trying to find a balance between having a good time in a way that I can feel comfortable about it.
(As wise ole Big Deb says, 'have as much fun as possible while doing as much good as possible.')

Anyway, enough of that. The next day I had a pretty relaxing morning and in the afternoon got a tuk-tuk with Matt again to the Landmine Museum, which I'd heard of from a French guy staying in my room. It's about 25km out of town past Angkor Wat, and on the way we stopped at the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre, which is a community development program where the revenue from tourist admission is used to pay families in remote villages who are farming butterflies for the exhibit. The enclosure was beautiful and had literally hundreds of butterflies flying around. I also saw a brown snake! A guy who worked there showed us around, and I found the destination a lot more interesting than I had originally thought it would be as we learnt so much. We were shown a huge variety of coccoons at different stages of development, including a couple who had released themselves from the coccoon but had not taken their first flight yet. One such butterfly crawled onto my hand and took its first flight straight from my wrist! It was a pretty cool thing to see. We were also shown various stage of their growth, from eggs to lava to caterpillers to coccoons. I learnt that one of the butterflies which is poisonous to eat (so that birds won't hassle it) eats mercury from plants. This means that the mercury it absorbs is what is poisonous for whoever consumes it. We also saw some enormous, and I mean enormous, stick insects, as well as a few butterflies mating. Their cycle is pretty quick though, some species only living a day and others 5 months, though on average about two weeks.

After this we got back into the tuk-tuk and headed 3km down the road to the Landmine Museum, which is organised and run by a Khmer man named Aki Ra. He has quite an interesting story as when he was a young boy (about 10), he was forced to work for the Khmer Rouge. He and his young friends would handle machine guns and grenades as if they were toys and were made to kill people. From what I understand, at one point he defected to fight for the Vietnamese side. At night the youngest soldiers were sent to the fields to find food, and Aki Ra would often run into his old friends who were fighting for the Khmer Rouge. They would search for food together, then play together for hours, and then go back to their bases and try to kill each other the next day. He also tells of a story where he spotted his uncle across the field in battle, and had to continue to 'accidentally' miss his shot. Years later after all fighting ceased, Aki Ra told his uncle this story and they now laugh about it. I can't even comprehend having a childhood like this.

Aki Ra has become renowned for his dedication to locating and disarming landmines throughout Cambodia, which of course is dangerous work. His plight has been sponsored by many organisations internationally, and the museum displays various types of landmines, information about them, and information about his life and experiences both with the Khmer Rouge and the aftermath for Cambodia (particularly related to landmines). He has also set up a home for children who have suffered injuries due to landmines, which is apparently set up behind the museum (though I didn't see this). There is a wall full of stories they've written about their experiences, and a room with artworks they've made for sales, though they were ranging upwards from about $100. It was quite cool, but unfortuantely another reminder to me about the horror that the US has blindly caused for people across the world. I'm certainly not racist against the US and its citizens, just some of their previous men in power are absolute idiots and it cools my blood to think about how much terror could have been saved if they hadn't been involved.

On the drive back I took notice of all the small villages by the side of the road and saw many children playing volleyball which was pretty cool. After that I just chilled out at the hostel, got some food and watched movies as I have to be up bright and early tomorrow for the sunrise at Angkor Wat! I don't think there's much else to report as I've really just enjoyed hanging out. PS - uploading photos is a bit of a pain on this so I've been putting some on Facebook, so check them out, and hopefully I'll upload more both onto here and onto Facebook when I have some better internet and more patience.

x

Posted by georgiaellen 03:26 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Next stop: Siem Reap

Details of my last day in Phnom Penh, visiting the Killing Fields and S21, and my trip to Siem Reap.

sunny 33 °C

I've just arrived safe and sound from my six hour bus journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and figured it's about time I update my travel blog. The past two days have been reasonably relaxed as I haven't been packing out my days as much as I did in Saigon, but I'm glad to have left Phnom Penh and to have a change of scenery.

Yesterday I visited the Killing Fields and S-21, which was pretty much just as surreal as you could imagine. Matt organised a tuk-tuk for $15 which we split, and after a nice bowl of chicken noodle soup for breakfast he picked me up around 9 with a lovely driver named Andy. Our first stop was the Killing Fields, which cost $5 entry, entitling you to an incredibly useful audio tour which was available in many languages. The audio tour was matched with labeled stops and went into each area in depth, and offering options of listening to more information about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the horrors that occurred at the site on which we stood. The audio tape also had snippets of testimony given by survivors of the events, as well as guards and officers of the Killing Fields, which offered incredibly moving insight.

It was amazing to actually see the space where over ten thousand people were murdered. Basically anyone who was educated, had soft hands, wore glasses, or rose against the Khmer Rouge were murdered. Often people were told in prison that they were being relocated to a farm or workhouse and then arrive at the Choueng-Ek (the Killing Fields) to be murdered. Bullets were too expensive so people were generally killed by being beaten with regular garden tools, such as hoes, axes, shovels etc.

The fields themselves were actually incredibly beautiful, until you realise that the grooves and small mounds along the fields are actually the site of mass graves, where bodies were once piled upon each other and you can still find bone fragments, teeth and cloth. There is a lake that you can walk to which apparently still contains remains as those who discovered the site believed it was best to let the dead rest. From the lake there is a beautiful view across more fields, which from what I understand from the map still contain many bodies, however the land is used by the people now. Small children ran up to the fence to talk to us and as soon as they saw our cameras it was clear that they had rehearsed many times '1...2...3..smile! Money please?'. It was almost hilariously practised at how in sync all of the children were.

As you continue to walk along the audio tour route there are a few sites of interest, such as containers full of collected cloth from victims clothes, upon which people had placed a thong (flip flop) they'd found, some rags, half a human jaw and several teeth. I hadn't realised what I was looking at for a few minutes, and it took a while for the horror to really sink in. There was a similar container full just of bone fragments and a large tupperware container of teeth which people had found. The fact that these belonged to real people whos lives were spared with such little care is truly disturbing. Right next to this was a small alter to the dead.

Next was perhaps the most awful part of the entire site, a grave which was dedicated primarily to women and children. I can't remember exactly, but the remains of something like 86 women and children were found in this one spot, right next to one large tree. This tree, named the 'Chinkari Tree' or 'Killing Tree' was used to kill children - soldiers would hold small infants and children by their feet and slam them against the tree until they were dead, then throw them into the pit next to it. Apparently when the site was found, blood, skin and hair remained on the tree. Pol Pot would say something along the lines of 'to kill grass you must also remove the roots', meaning that children should be killed so that they could not grow up and take revenge on the Khmer Rouge. 'To lose you is no loss, to keep you is no gain'.

After this was a magnificent tree; the 'Magic Tree'. This tree really was beautiful, however it was apparently used to hang loudspeakers off it, which the Khmer Rouge would loudly play patriotic music from to create the illusion of a Khmer Rouge meeting occurring. Combined with turning on a car engine, this sound was designed to muffle the moans and screams of the victims being killed. The audio tape played this, which created a very moving and surreal feeling of verisimilitude.

At the end of the tour (which was also the beginning) was a stupa, designed to commemorate the dead, and where visitors could pay their respects. This stupa was made from glass, which had 17 (or 19, I forget) levels filled with skulls, as well as a few of jaws, bones, and leftover clothing. It was a very sad site to be reminded that these were all once living, breathing, thinking, feeling and loving human beings who died for a ridiculous cause. Over 3 million people of the then-8 million Cambodian population were murdered at the hands of Pol Pot. And what's worse is that the international community failed to respond until 20-30 years later - the Khmer Rouge were included as part of the UN for many years after these horrendous events! The environment for these events to occur was fostered by the international community, which is truly frightening. As much as I wish it won't, I have little hope that this sort of thing won't happen again as history dictates so.

There was also a small museum at the Killing Fields which had some interesting information and images too.

Next Andy took us to the S-21 or the Tuol-Sleng Prison, which is back closer to the city of Phnom Penh. The prison was very interesting and had been set up well as a museum, however I did not find it as moving as the Killing Fields. The prison itself actually used to be a high school, but as Pol Pot was completely against educated people (despite the fact that he himself moved to Paris to attend university and the head honcho of S-21, Duch, was a teacher himself). The site contains four blocks which are each three stories high.

When S-21 was discovered, 7 bodies remained in the prison, one being a female. The first block was set up with furniture just as they had found it, with the photos of the sites as they had been found up on the wall, which emulated the horrendous ways in which these people had been murdered. Some of these rooms also had writing on the walls, some mathematical equations, some in Khmer, but it’s difficult to know which existed then and which are graffiti from visitors. In this building there was also information about a class that the museum has begun to set up on Wednesday's and Friday's, where you can attend to learn about and discuss the Khmer Rouge and the events that occurred during that period.

In the courtyard was a small graveyard which contained the bodies of these victims that had been found, as well as a large structure that had once been the schools exercise bars. However once the school became a prison, these bars were used for torture. Prisoners would be hung from the bars upside down until they fell unconcious, and when they did the guards would then dip their heads in sewerage and waste water to wake them up, and then continue questioning. Basically, the Khmer Rouge would used various methods of torture to force prisoners to admit to crimes that they were accused of, which would thus enable them to kill them. E.g, a painter who had initially worked for the Khmer Rouge as an artist was accused of being a member of the KGB and pushed to admit that he was spying on the Khmer Rouge. If he was pushed to admit this, his testimony would be taken and he would be killed.

The next building was virtually full of photographs of the 15,000 (estimated) people who were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. When walking into the first room it's amazing to see so many photos of these beautiful people, however then this continues to the next room, and the next, and the next.

The third building contains cells in which the victims were imprisoned, with the bottom level being brick cells, the middle being wooden cells, and the top being mass communal cells. Each level was accessed by a wide balcony, however after many prisoners had attempted to commit suicide from the top levels, they were covered with barbed wire. On the bottom level there was also an empty room where many visitors had inscribed messages – some were dumb like ‘Bazza woz here 2011’ but others were quite sweet…although regardless I really don’t think it’s appropriate to deface an historic site.

The last building contained more photos and artistic visual representations, as well as a room with an altar where you could light some incense and pay your respects. The upper levels had more information about the time period, particularly information about and testimonies from guards of the S-21. Some were sad, as they themselves would be killed if they did not support the regime, but regardless it was still terrible. There was also a room that focused on the outcome now and the guards that have been punished internationally, such as Duch, who was the main leader of S-21. After these killings stopped, Duch actually went back to teaching (despite the fact that many people he killed were murdered for being educators or even wearing glasses, which indicate knowledge). By chance, a journalist discovered who he was and he was sentenced in international court.

After we left Tuol Sleng, Andy was waiting outside and Matt and I decided to get some food. There are a few restaurants and shops in Phnom Penh that are run by an organisation which supports street kids and gives them skills and jobs. Matt had been to one of them, Romdeng, the night before, and we decided to say goodbye to Andy and get some lunch there. They had a set lunch of beef and cherry tomato stir-fry, eggplant salad, rice and these amazing fried banana dumpling desserts for $6.50. It was a bit pricier than other places because it’s very touristy, but it was delish.

That afternoon I just walked back to the hostel and did not much I think. There were a few new girls in my room who were nice but I wasn’t in a hugely social mood, and was more just worried about booking a bus to Siem Reap for today, as I’ve heard many many horror stories about buses in Cambodia, with bags typically being stolen or gone through. I had heard that Mekong Express was a reputable company, but my hostel did not book them, so I walked to their agency on Sisowath Quay (the main road by the river) and booked a ticket for $11. I then got some dinner at a restaurant which served Chicken Amok – a meal I’d been recommended, and I got a pineapple coconut shake – possibly the single most delicious drink I’ve ever consumed. I walked back to my hostel and spoke a bit more with the bar boys, particularly Visal, as they want to practice their English more. Unfortunately I didn’t get to say goodbye to him as I was falling asleep, but maybe I’ll see him again one day!

Today I had a very lazy morning, just getting some lemongrass chicken for breakfast which is apparently a Khmer dish (I never knew that) and packing up all my stuff, triple-checking that I hadn’t left anything and I’d locked everything up. At around 12 I headed to the Mekong Express bus stop, bought some bus snacks, and boarded the bus effortlessly.

The company lived up to its reputation, and although nothing overly exceptional I would definitely recommend it for $11 as it was air conditioned, reasonably comfortable and you were given a free snack. I took a few photos out the window – particularly as we just left the city I saw many Islamic people. I’d been told Islam was the main religion of Cambodia, but hadn’t really seen any Muslim women, so that was kind of interesting.

After about three hours we stopped in Khong Chomp (I will have to check that name – definitely wrong) for a food break, and I had a brief chat to a monk I had seen on my bus. There were children sitting outside our bus begging for food or money. I had an almost full packet of biscuits that I was about to throw out to prevent myself from eating them all, but quickly grabbed them and gave them to the boys. It’s kind of overwhelming to think how much I take all these things for granted – that entire packet cost me $1.40, yet they were so excited about it.
The journey went on fairly uneventfully and I watched Vicki Cristina Barcelona until finally arriving in Siem Reap at around 6.30, where a smiling tuk-tuk driver was waiting with a Bun Kao Guesthouse sign that said ‘Georgia Ellen’. His name is Sun Lee and he seemed very excited about speaking to me; I think he was trying to practise his English. When I arrived at the hostel I sorted some stuff out and then went for a short walk up the street in search of food.

On the corner I found a street vendor cooking something delicious and asked him to make me one for $1 – it was like mi goreng on steroids with beef. Delish. But more interestingly was a tuk-tuk driver named Sivarn (pronounced Siobhan) who came to talk to me while I was ordering, who said ‘I want to take you to pub street and buy you a flower’ haha. He was really just trying to sell me a tuk-tuk ride but instead he came and sat with me while I ate and we had a really interesting conversation about Cambodian politics – a conversation that many other Cambodians haven’t spoken to me about. I found the conversation quite enlightening, though at times a little hard to understand, though all in all I got the general gist, and he hopes that one day Cambodia can be a proper functioning democracy like Australia. Sivarn doesn’t want to be a tuk-tuk driver but wants to work in agriculture, but doesn’t currently have the money to invest, so I wish him the best with that. I’m lucky to have grown up in a situation where not only nothing is impossible, but everything is actually quite easy to achieve as I have squillions of resources available to me.

And here we are! Tomorrow Matt and I are waking bright and early to go see the Angkor temples, so I guess I’ll fill you in on that a bit later.
x

Posted by georgiaellen 11:07 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Fnom Fen

Goodbye Vietnam!

sunny 28 °C

Hello hello, and welcome to Cambodia! I arrived safe and sound in Phnom Penh yesterday afternoon after a nice but long day of boat travel. In the morning Cat, Em and I had planned to wake up early to see the sunrise, but unfortunately slept too late and just missed it. Regardless, I still got a few nice photos from the deck outside our room on the floating hotel. We quickly packed and went down to the restaurant and had a quick eggs and baguette as we had to say goodbye quite early.

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At 7am we all got on to a beautiful long boat and went across to what appeared to be a floating residential area on the Mekong, with lots of buildings on stilts. We got off at a fish farm and Dien explained to us the fishing industry on the Mekong as well as feeding some crazy fish in front of us. It didn’t catch my fancy all that much, but it was interesting that apparently they keep a boat running near the fish compartments to vibrate the water and keep them active and swim around.

Soon enough we were all back on the boat again and got off at a small village in the An Giang province. This province has a large Islamic community, and we visited a mosque where Dien explained the history of Vietnamese migration and the different cultures and races that have inhabited the land. We had noticed that many of the children looked different to Vietnamese children that we’d seen in Saigon, with darker skin and eyes, and we learnt that this was because in that particular region many people had moved there from Malaysia and Indonesia. The children were beautiful and would run out to you to say hello and chase you around a little bit, with some knowing how to hi-5 too! The village also backed onto enormous rice paddies, just like what you see on postcards of Vietnam, and as we went down to take a photo Em slipped getting up and got sexy green muck all over her legs. It was a pretty decent stack but she handled it well haha.
We’d kind of separated from the group (I was taking too much time stealing photos of children) and had to quickly catch up, where everyone was waiting near the gift shop. In the shop were mainly local handicrafts, as we had seen fabric being made and there were typical little purses and bracelets and knick-knacks, but I didn’t buy anything. We then went back to the boats but got onto a new smaller speed boat which was to take us to Cambodia. Off we went and only stopped off to sort out our visas ($23 – 20 for the visa and 3 as a typical bribe) where I bought some peanut-butter/chocolate oreos that I’ve been so fond of and flavoured iced tea, as I still had plenty of dong to use up. The stop off to the Cambodian border wasn’t much further up, and we just had to get our passports stamped and checked so it wasn’t too long of a process.
We got back in the speedboat and at one point stopped on the side of the river where a large boat was waiting. We were to switch boats with people that were going to Chau Doc, so we got into the big one and they got into the small one – I did pity them as they had far more people than us and it looked quite cramped. Lots of children had come down to the hill and were sitting near the boats, but contrary to what many people had told me about Cambodian children, they didn’t seem very happy to see tourists. Some were, some weren’t, but they were very beautiful.
This boat was super nice and had an outdoor area out the back where I sat for a while, and then went inside for a while too. It was a pretty long journey, but we finally got in at about 3.30. Kat and Em were planning to stay at Top Banana so I got a tuk-tuk with them, but Top Banana was full so we went to the Eighty8 Guesthouse. No regrets there, this place is really nice – almost like a small resort! And I think I have a crush on one of the little Cambodian bar boys, maybe I’ll be able to fulfil my dream of a Eurasian baby after all! (Don’t worry mum, not any time soon). We got some cash out and I tried the beef loc lac (I think) from the bar, which is a traditional Khmer meal I’d heard about. It was pretty good. We also had a number of cocktails – watermelon mai tai, long island iced tea, mojitos and something I’m not sure about the name of – capioskia I think? They were all pretty good. We met some people and Cat and Em wanted to go out but I wasn’t really in the mood, so after they left I just spoke with some of the bar staff, Vinas and Red, because I was hoping to find a small village nearby so that I could get out of Phnom Penh. For some reason I wasn’t enjoying it (in the few hours I’d been there), probably just because I really liked the small villages we’d visited on the Mekong and the fact that everyone I was meeting seemed more interested in getting drunk and partying with other foreigners. That’s fun and all but just doesn’t seem to be what I want out of this trip, not yet at least.
At around midnight I was starving and a bit bored but the kitchen was closed so I went out onto the street and had a walk around. A few people were out just sitting at tables by street restaurants and were interested in why I was wandering around pointlessly. Some of them were friendly, some of them were just strange, and I’m still not sure whether they were being rude or if I just couldn’t understand their behaviour, but regardless I felt a bit uncomfortable and moved on. I did meet one guy who knew a bit of English and invited me to play chess with him. Unfortunately, I don’t remember how to play chess, but we had a beer and a chat and it was nice to hear a bit about his experiences in the change in Cambodian life over the past three decades. He was also interested a lot in my life as a Westerner, but after a while I felt a bit uncomfortable again and I went back to the hostel, which is just across the road. I just listened to music and fell asleep…
Today was a pretty lazy day – I do feel like I should have done more and ‘cease the moment’ but it was nice just to relax and get a feel for the city. I slept in a fair bit but at around 10.30 the girls told me that they were going to Sihanoukville, so we got up and had some breakfast. They left around 11.30-12ish and I just lazed around the lobby for a while, trying to think of places to go next as I wasn’t very excited about spending too much time in PP – for some reason I just wasn’t feeling it. I also got to catch up on Facebook which was good (as pathetic as that sounds), as it’s banned in Vietnam.
I remember a point I’d read on wikitravel about a local community cinema called ‘The Flicks’. It’s about an hour walk away from my hostel but I firstly went to the Wat Pagoda, which is right near my place. It was quite beautiful, and I saw an old lady feeding five cats (stray I assume) leftovers by the temple which was sweet. I kept walking and somehow ended up at the Central Market (I think..) and had a very quick look around. I found some sunglasses I really liked and got two pairs for $7.65 or so. I probably could’ve kept haggling down a bit more but frankly I was happy with the price.
I continued to walk and finally arrived at 95th street for the Flicks Cinema. I waited outside for a while until the first session at 4pm. The place is pretty cool, it has a good bar and lots of interesting posters on the walls, as well as a big stock of Fair Trade t-shirts which is good. Inside the cinema rooms are a range of mattress/pillows/couches to rest on – it reminded me a bit of the cinema Kirk runs in the Gilmore Girls. You pay $3.50 for a days worth of validity (you can watch as many as you please for whatever is playing that day). The movies I watched were ‘Life in A Day’ (DEFINITELY recommend), ‘A Joyeux Eventment’ (A Happy Event – I think I wrote the French verison wrong), which is a French movie about a pregnant woman. Lastly was The Rum Diaries, about a journalist (Johnny Depp) in Puerto Rico. They were all really interesting, except the last one, but still it was nice to relax for a while and I met a few people, including an American girl, Iliana, who has been living here for 6 months and I might catch up with her tomorrow night.
After that I walked for a while and my stomach was eating itself so I got some beef stirfry at a street-side restaurant. I was a little worried about the hygiene of my meal and drinking the ice in the iced tea but whatever, I was too hungry. I got a tuk-tuk home and here we are!

Tomorrow I’m meeting up with Matt (from the boat) in the morning and we’re going to S-21 and the Killing Fields which I’m really excited about but building myself up for. Might catch up with Iliana in the evening.

x

Posted by georgiaellen 17:07 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Cu-chi cu-chi coo

My last couple of days in Vietnam, doing some touristy stuffs.

sunny 30 °C

I'm up to the final day of my short stay in Vietnam, and I'm sad to leave but excited to see what Cambodia has waiting.
I'm currently sitting outside of the Floating Hotel in Chau Doc, which is just that - a hotel that floats. I'm stopping here on my way over to Phnom Penh, but I'll go into a bit more detail about that journey a bit later on.

Firstly, I'll start off with updating what I did yesterday - the Cu Chi tunnels! These are a series of tunnels that were built by the Vietcong in the early 20th century, initially in defence from the French, which I actually didn't know as I'd only known it for its use in the Vietnam/American War. I booked a tour from Miss Long which cost about $4 or so, and left bright and early on Thursday morning. Our tour guide was awesome, I think his name was Nam, and kept making silly jokes about us ending up in Cambodia etc etc.

Before actually getting to the Cu Chi tunnels we visited a handicapped handicrafts factory a little bit out of Saigon. It's basically a factory where those who have been born with defects from Agent Orange can work to make unique Vietnamese handicrafts. They were quite beautiful, and it was pretty amazing what they could do with egg shells and a paint brush. However, it was clearly just a ploy to spend money and wasn't all that fascinating, with tour buses being shipped through every two minutes. Anyway, it was over quickly and we were shipped back onto the bus. I made friends with an English girl named Elena on my tour too and we stuck together a fair bit.

Soon enough we were at the Cu Chi tunnels and started walking around. Nam started by showing us one of the small holes that the soldiers would climb into and hide in, pulling a lid on top which you cover with leaves for ultimate sneakiness. He offered for us all to have a turn, and though I was sceptical that my ghetto booty would fit in the tiny hole I gave it a try. I got in fine, but getting out gave me a bit of a fright cos the angle I was at made it a bit tight. Anyway, I'm out. It was dark and pretty uneventful down there as I'm sure you can imagine.

Next we went to look at booby traps which, considering the time period, was pretty amazing technology. I've got a video showing the mechanisms of the various booby traps. We also went to look at these mounds which had small holes in them - they were actually air holes that provided air to the three levels of tunnel below. The Americans were often so frustrated by the fact that they couldn't find the Vietcong underground that they came with trained dogs, but the Vietcong would put chilli flakes and the uniforms of dead American soldiers near the holes to disguise the scent of the Vietnamese.

All the while, there was a constant sound of gunshots in the background which somewhat added a sense of authenticity to the scene of once vicious attacks (depsite the flocks of tourists). These sounds came from the shooting range on-site, and by the time we got to the range Elena and I decided to split a set of bullets. Elena wanted to try the AK-47 so I gave it a try. Not that amazing, but hey, at least now I can say I've done it!

We had a look at a few more underground sites that were set up like the rooms they had initially been (nurses station,conference rooms, some areas with tanks etc) as well as a mechanically operated model of the Vietcong creating land mines. Kind of creepy but whatever, good effort I suppose. We then headed to the 'main event' - crawling through the tunnels themselves! I think the tunnel was about 17 metres all up, and was kind of fun and reminded me of the notorious wombat hole from year 9 camp, though you were basically just squat-walking ass-to-face the whole time.

We ended the tour with a look at the kitchen and dining areas and tried tapioca, which is what the soldiers typically ate. My previous experience with tapioca had been quite pleasant, as I thought it was the sweet rice pudding-style dessert that Clancy once gave me, but rather what we were given was the actually vegetable itself with some peanut dipping mixture. It basically just tasted like a strange potato and wasn't very nice.

After we left Nam took us to a tea house in Saigon (just another stop where they wanted us to buy stuff - this time a bit annoyingly obvious). They had heaps of random stuff and gave us some nice lotus tea, but what really interested me was the weasel poop coffee. I assume that's not it's scientific name, but I forget what it's called. Basically, there are these special type of weasels (often found in Indonesia too I believe) who are good at deciphering the best type of coffee beans. They eat them, poop them, and then the coffee farmers clean them (I assume and hope dearly) and use them like normal coffee. I got an iced coffee with milk made from these beans, and it was DELICIOUS. Another note, when you get coffee with milk here in Vietnam they use sweetened condensed milk, and it is super yummo. Sinh To, which I think I mentioned in my last post, it like a smoothie made with the sweetened condensed milk which is super yum, the best one I've had was last night at a street stall where I got a mixture of pineapple and strawberry which is then blended with sugar, ice and condensed milk. Nom nom nom.

Elena and I decided to get dropped off at the War Remnants Museum and walked down to the Reunification Palace as neither of us had been. We got a free guide to show us around, which definitely helped, but regardless it was still pretty boring. The architecture and design was wonderful - just gorgeous 60s art deco with some Eastern influence. There were some nice artworks too, and a great view from the roof terrace, but I didn't find it all that enlightening. Regardless, it was one of those 'must-sees' of Saigon and I don't regret going.

Elena and I then walked to find some food, and I got my delicious clay pot pork! Also, we had Banh Mi for breakfast - though I still want it from a street stall. We also shared some rice paper rolls, though they weren't great. At least they're off the list. And I had delectable pho for dinner! So I'll probably get Banh Mi for breakfast tomorrow if I can. But yeah last night I didn't do much at all, just got some pho and sinh to with Alicia and sit and watch the night go by. Got some new roomies and packed and yeah that was it.
I'm up to the final day of my short stay in Vietnam, and I'm sad to leave but excited to see what Cambodia has waiting.
I'm currently sitting outside of the Floating Hotel in Chau Doc, which is just that - a hotel that floats. I'm stopping here on my way over to Phnom Penh, but I'll go into a bit more detail about that journey a bit later on.

Firstly, I'll start off with updating what I did yesterday - the Cu Chi tunnels! These are a series of tunnels that were built by the Vietcong in the early 20th century, initially in defence from the French, which I actually didn't know as I'd only known it for its use in the Vietnam/American War. I booked a tour from Miss Long which cost about $4 or so (plus $4 for entry), and left bright and early on Thursday morning. Our tour guide was awesome, I think his name was Nam, and kept making silly jokes about us ending up in Cambodia etc etc. But at the same time, he was full of useful information and clearly enjoyed his job.

Before actually getting to the Cu Chi tunnels we visited a handicapped handicrafts factory a little bit out of Saigon. It's basically a factory where those who have been born with defects from Agent Orange can work to make unique Vietnamese handicrafts. They were quite beautiful, and it was pretty amazing what they could do with egg shells and a paint brush. However, it was clearly just a ploy to spend money and wasn't all that fascinating, with tour buses being shipped through every two minutes. Anyway, it was over quickly and we were shipped back onto the bus. I made friends with an English girl named Elena on my tour too and we stuck together a fair bit.

Soon enough we were at the Cu Chi tunnels and started walking around. Nam started by showing us one of the small holes that the soldiers would climb into and hide in, pulling a lid on top which you cover with leaves for ultimate sneakiness. He offered for us all to have a turn, and though I was sceptical that my ghetto booty would fit in the tiny hole I gave it a try. I got in fine, but getting out gave me a bit of a fright cos the angle I was at made it a bit tight. Anyway, I'm out. It was dark and pretty uneventful down there as I'm sure you can imagine.

Next we went to look at booby traps which, considering the time period, was pretty amazing technology. I've got a video showing the mechanisms of the various booby traps. We also went to look at these mounds which had small holes in them - they were actually air holes that provided air to the three levels of tunnel below. The Americans were often so frustrated by the fact that they couldn't find the Vietcong underground that they came with trained dogs, but the Vietcong would put chilli flakes and the uniforms of dead American soldiers near the holes to disguise the scent of the Vietnamese.

All the while, there was a constant sound of gunshots in the background which somewhat added a sense of authenticity to the scene of once vicious attacks (depsite the flocks of tourists). These sounds came from the shooting range on-site, and by the time we got to the range Elena and I decided to split a set of bullets. Elena wanted to try the AK-47 so I gave it a try. Not that amazing, but hey, at least now I can say I've done it!

We had a look at a few more underground sites that were set up like the rooms they had initially been (nurses station,conference rooms, some areas with tanks etc) as well as a mechanically operated model of the Vietcong creating land mines. Kind of creepy but whatever, good effort I suppose. We then headed to the 'main event' - crawling through the tunnels themselves! I think the tunnel was about 17 metres all up, and was kind of fun and reminded me of the notorious wombat hole from year 9 camp, though you were basically just squat-walking ass-to-face the whole time.

We ended the tour with a look at the kitchen and dining areas and tried tapioca, which is what the soldiers typically ate. My previous experience with tapioca had been quite pleasant, as I thought it was the sweet rice pudding-style dessert that Clancy once gave me, but rather what we were given was the actually vegetable itself with some peanut dipping mixture. It basically just tasted like a strange potato and wasn't very nice.

After we left Nam took us to a tea house in Saigon (just another stop where they wanted us to buy stuff - this time a bit annoyingly obvious). They had heaps of random stuff and gave us some nice lotus tea, but what really interested me was the weasel poop coffee. I assume that's not it's scientific name, but I forget what it's called. Basically, there are these special type of weasels (often found in Indonesia too I believe) who are good at deciphering the best type of coffee beans. They eat them, poop them, and then the coffee farmers clean them (I assume and hope dearly) and use them like normal coffee. I got an iced coffee with milk made from these beans, and it was DELICIOUS. Another note, when you get coffee with milk here in Vietnam they use sweetened condensed milk, and it is super yummo. Sinh To, which I think I mentioned in my last post, it like a smoothie made with the sweetened condensed milk which is super yum, the best one I've had was last night at a street stall where I got a mixture of pineapple and strawberry which is then blended with sugar, ice and condensed milk. Nom nom nom.

Elena and I decided to get dropped off at the War Remnants Museum and walked down to the Reunification Palace as neither of us had been. We got a free guide to show us around, which definitely helped, but regardless it was still pretty boring. The architecture and design was wonderful - just gorgeous 60s art deco with some Eastern influence. There were some nice artworks too, and a great view from the roof terrace, but I didn't find it all that enlightening. Regardless, it was one of those 'must-sees' of Saigon and I don't regret going.

Elena and I then walked to find some food, and I got my delicious clay pot pork! Also, we had Banh Mi for breakfast - though I still want it from a street stall. We also shared some rice paper rolls, though they weren't great. At least they're off the list. And I had delectable pho for dinner! So I'll probably get Banh Mi for breakfast tomorrow if I can. But yeah last night I didn't do much at all, just got some pho and sinh to with Alicia and sit and watch the night go by. Got some new roomies and packed and yeah that was it.

This morning I was up early, had chicken pho for breakfast this time. I signed up for a boat ticket to take me to Phnom Penh along the Mekong but the brochure didn't have too much information so I didn't know what to expect. So far, I've been super impressed. We were on the bus for a while but it went pretty quickly and arrived in ..actually I better look the name up cos I forget. We went through the floating markets, however the markets on the Mekong are nothing like the Thailand floating markets. Rather, these are for bulk buying commercial purchases, and not small tourist souvenirs. It was really beautiful, though the water is of a questionable shade of brown, but it was so interesting to see how people live their lives on the river.

We stopped off at a riverside rice wine factory and saw a number of things being produced. Firstly, we saw rice paper being made, and got to try a type that had been mixed with coconut before it dried and crispened, then fried like bread - very unique but delicious. We then saw pop-rice being made, which is like popcorn but with rice husks. It is fried with sand so it doesn't get too hot which was cool, and then they put this peanut/caramel mixture on it which was pretty yum…think organic LCM. Next, we had rice wine which is made by fermenting steamed rice. Now, I’m not sure if anyone knows, but I tend to have a pretty decent tolerance for ‘disgusting’ liquor (goon, kraznov, absynth, moonshine etc), but this was really something else. It didn’t make me puke or anything, but it wasn’t very pleasant, and I can’t really think of any mixers that could possibly save it. Lastly, we saw coconut candy being made. Alicia had seen the same thing a few days earlier and given me some of her peanut-coconut lollies which were yummo, so this time I tried the dried banana things, which were also great. Something which is particularly cool is that these lollies, which are like a soft-toffee style, are wrapped in rice paper rather than plastic (and then in a wrapper). This is because in Vietnamese heat, the sticky lollies are difficult to separate from the paper – so they use edible paper!

We got back on the boat and sailed through the river for a while longer which was really nice, and got to get a few pictures of life on the Mekong (of course more of children that I am obsessed with!). After a fair bit of pleasant sailing we stopped off at one of the jetties of one of the river side houses and arrived in a small rural-looking area, which was basically just a long, narrow quiet road surrounded by greenery and houses…of course with lots of motorbikes on the road too. We got some bikes and rode along the road for a while, which I was a bit concerned about considering quality of the bike and the length of time it’s been since I was last on one, but hey whaddaya know, it’s just like riding a bike... After a short ride around we stopped off at a local restaurant/guesthouse and had some pork, rice and beans for lunch, and I tried a 333 beer (not great), and I spoke a bit with two Aussie girls I met, Em and Kat (from Sydney!) and an English guy I’ve been speaking to quite a bit named Matt. They’re all lovely and I’m sharing a room with the girls tonight.

After lunch we rode back and hopped back on the boat for a final cruise along the Mekong Delta before getting back on the bus. The next time we stopped was to get on the ferry across to the next province, were we had to get off the bus and meet it on the other side. When I was sitting three older Vietnamese ladies were looking at me and as I smiled they point at their noses saying things in Vietnamese. I was a bit confused, but a boy near them translated that as them telling me I have a beautiful nose and eyes. I’ve found that a lot of the older Vietnamese ladies tend to love telling you you’re beautiful as soon as you smile at them.

We drove a bit more before stopping briefly at a crocodile farm, which I wasn’t all that excited about from what I’ve heard about the treatment of animals in other parts of Asia. It was pretty much what you’d expect…a ridiculous amount of crocodiles in proportion to the tiny amount of space there was. But soon I noticed the pile of small live yellow chickies in one of the pens… I got a video of it, but my phone died and it didn’t save. But hey, that was probably for the best to be honest.

Thankfully we didn’t stay too long, and then we piled in the bus once again for our hour and a half journey to Chau Doc. The city itself is much bigger and more bustling than I’d expected, but I guess given that this small amount of land contains 86 million people, even the more remote areas are likely to be heavily populated. As I mentioned, the place we are staying at tonight is a floating hotel, and as I am here in bed typing I can hear the large industrial boats directing themselves in and out along the bank. It’s really quite a nice hotel, and we had dinner at the restaurant here. Though it was pricey, we’d had trouble finding anywhere decent to eat on the main street. Although interestingly, while we were walking along the road I witnessed a motorbike crash, and also saw a small prang somewhere earlier today – yet I didn’t see a single one in Saigon where the traffic is absolutely bonkers. Em did tell me that 13,000 people die from motorbike accidents in Hanoi per year though, so it is pretty scary.

Anyway, I think that’s it. I’m up early again tomorrow as we’ve got to leave at 7 and the girls and I want to see the sunset from the upstairs balcony and get some banh mi thit! Pretty excited to be able to actually access Facebook tomorrow in Cambodia…woo. Then I’ll add some more Vietnam photos!

x

Posted by georgiaellen 15:44 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Pho-get your troubles

Recounting my first two crazy days in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

sunny 32 °C

So! Here we are - in the crazy land of Vietnam. On Monday afternoon after rushing to pack up my apartment I popped over to Sydney Domestic Airport to board flight JQ73 to Darwin, and then joining flight JQ77 to Ho Chi Minh City. Nothing all that interesting happened on the flights, though after about 3 hours (they were 5 hours each) I was ready to jump out the plane. Customs and baggage collection and all that jazz went much more smoothly than I'd feared for my first lonesome international flight, and soon enough I was in an $8 cab to my hostel.

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Virtually immediately it was pretty obvious that this city is absolutely bonkers, and I had to keep jotting down my first impressions of the city before my mind imploded. Predominantly, the way that the traffic system works is mind blowing - cars and motorbikes (so many motorbikes!) swerve in and out of each other, constantly beeping, which I was told by a hostelmate is basically how they tell other motorists they're coming and that they designate themselves right of way. It also appears that traffic lights serve a mostly decorative purpose, and what determines the right or wrong side of the road may be subjective - to my taxi driver at least.

To my surprise, I survived the taxi drive - but my next task was to actually cross the road without getting hit as, like many road rules, pedestrian crossings are apparently insignificant. The best advice I've been told is to walk slowly and confidently, as they don't want to hit you in the likely event that you could mess up their motorbike.

At about 10pm I got into my hostel - which I cannot recommend enough. I'm staying at Long Hostel right near Pham Ngu Lao, which is one of the main backpacker areas right in District 1. Miss Long gave me some Ice Tea and in the reception were a few other travellers, who happened to all be sharing my dorm. Surprisingly, since I've been here I've mainly met Americans, and the 5 dorm mates I've had have all been from the US. I didn't really expect this as I've been told it's always the Aussies, Kiwis and Europeans that have enough expendable income to travel, but it's been really great, as the girls in my room tonight are really nice and I've learnt a great amount about the US political system and social structures (which sound kinda sucky...health care mostly).

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On the first night I didn't really do anything except haul my backpack up the five flights of stairs (hell) and chat with my roomies (Alicia, Miles, Tamara and Mary Anne..tonight Tamara and Miles have gone and Mary Anne's friend Ailien is here instead). On Tuesday I decided I just wanted to walk around and explore to get a bit of a feel for the city, so Miss Long gave me a map and sat me down to explain it all to me, which was so useful. I got very lost a lot, which was actually pretty fun. Eventually I was able to recognise a few streets on the map and decided I'd try to head towards the War Remnants Museum, which is one of the more touristy things to do. However, I was starving and desperate to have my first bowl of pho. I'd been a bit nervous to order it in case I sounded like a total wanker and ordered the wrong thing etc (there were a few places on the street that I'd been keen to try something mysterious looking but couldn't because of the language barrier). Finally I stumbled upon a pretty swanky looking place that had free WiFi and beef pho on the menu so I thought I'd give it a try. Yet, when it came out it didn't taste like the delicious pho I was used to... and there was something very mysterious looking lurking in the side of the soup. When I asked the waitress she confirmed that this was actually 'pork belly blood jelly', which is created when the blood from a pigs stomach congeals. YUM. Although it smelt and looked disgusting, I thought 'hey, I'm in Vietnam...' and tried to take a bite, but quickly learned that I'm not as adventurous as I thought and quickly spat it out. Luckily, the whole meal cost about $2.50 so I wasn't all that phased.

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The kind staff gave me some directions to the War Remnants Museum, which cost 15,000VND to visit (about 75cents) - and was absolutely incredible. I studied a bit of Indochina and the Vietnam War in high school, but this museum really put everything into its horrific context. Probably what I found most disturbing was the Agent Orange exhibition, which had some terribly sad pictures, a letter that a second generation Agent Orange victim wrote to Obama, and preserved foetuses of Agent Orange affected babies on display. Downstairs when I entered there were a group of Vietnamese students (I assume) singing to a small group of children who had clearly been born with birth defects because of Agent Orange. The children belong to a group to support these victims, and had a table selling all sorts of handicrafts they'd made to raise funds. I bought a cute little bracelet for about 50 cents. All in all the museum was incredibly disturbing, but I think that seeing things like this are necessary sometimes as there is no point denying the horror of humanity.

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After that I decided to walk back to a park I'd visited briefly earlier (where I attempted to communicate with some old ladies exercising in the park but the only way they could reciprocate was by squeezing my arms and saying 'you beautiful'). I sat for a little while relaxing in the heat and a lady came to sit with me. She is a beautiful lady named Tanh, but her story was quite sad. Her husband and her entire family were killed in the war 37 years ago, and she had been alone since. She said she doesn't have any friends because she is too poor and spends her time walking through the parks selling manicures and pedicures. She gave me a manicure for $2 and I am now typing with some perfectly painted, vibrant blue nails.

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After Tanh left I walked around a bit more, meandering back to the hostel as I was quite tired and my knee hurt (it's infected from a skilful stack I performed at Laneway on Sunday). I bought some coconut milk and went into an empty temple - well it wasn't quite a temple but it was clearly some sort of religious site). I eventually made it to September 23 Park, where I'd heard that sometimes students will come and sit with you to practise their English. Surely enough, within about five minutes of sitting down, a young girl named Tuyen came and asked to speak English with me. We had a long chat about friends, family, work, studying, etc, which gave me a bit more of a unique insight into the cultural differences between Australia and Vietnam. We then went to the supermarket (incredible) so I could get something for my knee and I went back to the hostel for a rest.

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I was getting peckish and decided to try a hot pot place I'd heard about near my hostel. Back in Sydney I used to have this delicious Vietnamese dish called clay pot pork, and thought it was the same thing, but rather it's this spicy shrimpy soup type thing that you're given over a flame, and then you're given beef (or whatever you order) and noodles and vegetables. A Chinese girl walked past and asked if it was any good, and decided to sit with me while we ate. Her name is Lan, from Beijing, (apparently her French name is Sonia) and she was in Vietnam on a four-week holiday. we spoke for a while and I showed her the supermarket, where I got some Peanut Butter/Chocolate oreos (!!!) and yoghurt, and then we parted ways.

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The next day (today), I also wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. Tamara had a free day before she left and wanted to go to the markets, so I went for a walk with her. Just outside the alley in which our hostel resides are some groceries markets in the morning, which I had only smelt but not seen yesterday. Incredible! Of course there was the standard fish, but also incredible frogs, crabs, eels, snakes etc - all ALIVE! The market was very lively but also disgusting for someone who isn't a big fan of seafood (let alone frogs). There was also a lot of dried fish, fruit, vegetables, and a number of things that I simply couldn't tell you what they are.

(insert video)

After this we walked to Ben Tanh market, which I had only briefly visited the day earlier, and like everything here it is amazing. I've seen a few wallets and handbags I have my eye on but I really don't want to buy much crap or go over budget so I'm a little torn. Tamara on the other hand appears to be a shopaholic and couldn't stop herself!

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We walked up towards the Reunification Palace (but didn't go in - I'm still deciding if I will tomorrow), which is conveniently right near a branch of my Australian bank, so I got a bit more money out. We went to Notre Dame and tried to find the Central Post Office, which is apparently a converted train station, but the map was misleading, so we just wandered around for a bit. We went to a few more markets (of course) before going to Pho 2000, which from what I understand is like fast-food pho. But hey, it was air conditioned. I got a delicious beef stew thingo and a pineapple shake...nom nom. I then tried to get back to the hostel but ended up near the supermarket so I looked around for a while, and then rested at the hostel for a couple of hours. The other girls returned from the tours they'd been on and Alicia showed us to the night markets. They were cool, and we got some dinner at a street restaurant at the markets (delicious beef noodle fried thingo) and I had my first Saigon Beer! We looked around the markets a bit more and then I was convinced to try Sinh To, which is like a fruit smoothie but made with condensed milk. I tried a bit of Alicia's avocado one - which was surprisingly good for a condensed milk/avocado combo, but I stuck it safe with mango.

And that was pretty much my day...

Tomorrow I'm up bright and early to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, and then on Friday I leave early to get the boat to Phnom Penh! So I have very little time left here. I still need to get decent pho, banh mit, rice paper rolls and ideally caramel clay pot pork - but I doubt I'll be able to fit that much food into one day. I guess we'll see how we go! I'm also kind of interested in seeing the Reunification Palace still, so I might go tomorrow after Cu Chi - I guess we'll see!

Hope all is well in all your various parts of the world :) xx

PS I'm definitely adopted a Vietnamese child.

Posted by georgiaellen 08:06 Archived in Vietnam Tagged saigon ho_chi_minh_city Comments (0)

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