Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Good morning Vietnam

Saigon is a mad, chaotic but mysteriously magical place swarming with motorbikes, people and constant beeping of vehicles like wild buzz of insects in a jungle. You balance on the thin line every time you cross the road. Everything wants to get you, run you over or just maliciously scare your tourist absent mindedness to test your wits. Cars and bikes come from every direction. If there is no more room on the road they will drive on the pavement - your senses are on the alert mode all the time. Crazy but secretly orchestrated municipal dance in full swing.

You get real flavor once weird mixture of ancient western pop-culture hits in the radio, american TV-shows from 80's and Christmas rush finds a way into your head. What else would you expect in the capital of Socialist Republic of Vietnam?:)) History is still present (not only in media). Old name Saigon still functions in relation to the core of the city, despite official line of nomenclature paying respect to the hero who unified the nation: Ho Chi Minh. War Museum screams with propaganda and twisted version of history, showing pictures of disfigured victims of Agent Orange and Napalm bombings to play on emotions of westerners fed with Hollywood version of Vietnam war. It's footsteps are like a track for the train of the future and build cultural kaleidoscope of this contradictory Asian Moloch. Vietnamese seem to not notice all the intrusive reminders of their difficult past though. All you encounter is smile, inquisitiveness and friendly approach, which leads to business or sales propositions but without hassle or aggressiveness I have encountered in Phnom Penh. Red flags, kitsch communist posters and green police uniforms are the only hints you barely notice indicating that this is a Big Brother's playground. It looks like a facade made for tourists though.

Main backpackers quarter located around Bui Vien/De Tham junction is mainly equivalent of Red Lights District where sugar daddys hunt for smooth and fresh bodies of local geishas with their thick wallets. Entire area is decorated with flashing neons of countless bars and restaurants like a giant Christmas tree. It's an Asian Pandora's Box squeezed to the size of two streets, loud, vibrant and without moral barriers.

Just north from this timeless zone is a park where evenings bring exercise freaks practicing tai-chi, volleyball (nearly as popular as in Cambodia) and đá cầu - Vietnamese equivalent of jianzi (or foot badminton) - highly acrobatic, spectacular and fun to watch national sport without Olympic certificate. Atmosphere is relaxed and interactive, people talk (and they love to talk just like Chinese), laugh and enjoy their time. It's another social asylum, decompression chamber from a chaotic world around. You feel like being in NYC rather than Vietnam only everybody speaks in a different language.

You see yet another dimension once you move out from Saigon and visit Mekong Delta. Over 20ml people live here, 25% of the entire country, mainly in run down, wooden shacks. Now you get boat traffic instead of motorbikes but it's equally crazy. Fishing villages still exist despite industrialization but they live off tourist and floating markets mainly.

First impression makes you confused. Highly developed city with traffic without rules where you can't afford to buy your own apartment (there is no mortgage institution in Vietnam, you pay cash within a month for every property that happen to be available, prices are insane even in European standards but you own it for generations), backward western pop-culture spiced with exotic mentality, democratic society in a socialist country and food that reflects it all. What is going on?! Welcome to Vietnam!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Angkor what?

You  just need one glance at the Angkor map to understand its scale. Major temple Angkor Wat and capital: Angkor Thom where build in 12th century. Entire complex covers over 1000 square miles and could allegedly host million inhabitants. Architectural structure and design (Angkor Wat was build from the top down) makes Gothic cathedrals of Reims and Amiens look like carton models. Not even because it has such an exotic appearance but for the sole reason of grand scale. You need some imagination to depict it now though. All buildings are in ruins, mostly loosely scattered stones like re-assembled jigsaw puzzles. Like in many other examples, Angkor was build in decline in hope to turn people's fate but didn't last long. Abandoned city decayed in silence. Nature reclaimed it's possession covering entire area with forest. Sandstone ruins look like infected with trees, mutating together to form strange structures, especially in Ta Phrom (Tomb Raider temple). By equally common irony of history only French invaders discovered the site and recognized its importance but couldn't save it from wheel of time. Ancient civilization is usually on a mercy of modern history - the same ideology which made people build such an impressive structure wiped collective memory like there was rather regress than progress in human development. Khmer Rouge regime which lasted only 4 years had it contribution not only in killing memory of the past but also physically destroying its remnants.

Angkor in the time of glory must have looked amazing. It's still like an alien spacecraft that landed in the middle of Asia. Murals depicting Hindu mythology cover every possible surface making it a huge book carved in stone. Europe was crawling in mud and feces when Khmer were building extensive irrigation systems and forming artificial lakes. One think remains common though - only religious ideology could afford technology that lasts for ages.

Great way to see the complex is to rent a bike, which comes free in some hotels and guesthouses. Average price for good mountain bike is $3 per day so it's almost free anyway. Distance between main archaeological sites is significant though - you can see them in one day if it's only about ticking the list but respect yourself and invest in three days pass - it's worth it.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013


Cambodia sounds in my mind as a poor cousin of Thailand. It impacts even Polish language - Cambodia means chaos, disorder. Stereotypes are like traits of a distant knowledge mixed with prejudices and personal beliefs - they must mean something but nobody knows how they got into the common knowledge. This one is being confirmed once you cross the border. It's like entering invisible time portal - quick decompression in no man's land between two custom offices and you're in another dimension. Same same but completely different.

Dirt, beggars and overloaded vehicles - this is what strikes you first. Than comes right-side driving, language and exchange rate. You have just managed to extract some useful phrases in Thai to show off at the market or make the locals smile even more and all your effort is suddenly irrelevant.  Khmer seems random and stranger than anything you've heard before although comes from Sanskrit too and influence between Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have been multidimensional throughout history. It sounds a bit like minions quaking to each other in Despicable Me.

Siem Reap is a vibrant and busy town, tuned with nice touristy restaurants and markets but also scattered with slums like land mine craters in entire Cambodia. You don't have to go far to see devastating poverty and scenes that will melt your heart. Angkor complex is the vantage point for the whole area of course, regulating population density and monthly income of all local households but Siem Reap seems to be detached from its gravitational pull at nights.

Everything is named after Khmer or Angkor which gives a bit of hope for lazy tourists in the jungle of a local nomenclature. You have Angkor beer, every second hotel has it in its name in different configuration or order and all local dishes are Khmer this or Khmer that (fried rice, curry or noodles - add whatever you like). Food is good although not as orgasmic as on the street markets in Koh Chang. My favorite - Khmer curry soup and coffee Tarik. Fruits are less fruity as well but still in the higher league than anywhere in Europe (apart from Spain and Portugal as a noble exceptions).

If it ever crosses your mind to hire a car, take a bus from the border to Siem Reap and you will be cured from this ridiculous idea straight away. Nothing I've seen so far comes closer to insanity and traffic chaos - guess where another prejudice comes from? There is only one rule: make yourself visible, horn if you want to turn, overtake or stop and prey other drivers understand your intentions. If you add condition of national roads (main motorway that cuts the country in half along Tonle Sap lake from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was most likely build for crash tests not transport) you get a recipe for disaster. Needless to say: distance of 160km from Poipet to Siem Reap takes at least 4h (add 1 or 2h to official calculations in travel agencies) and sometimes it's better to drive on the side.

People are nice and polite, even more than Thai (which seems impossible if you experience Thailand first) but it comes with higher level of servility towards foreigners which I honestly hate. White man's burden or rather colonial complex which is still deeply rooted in Asian mentality has its extreme version here. French may be long gone but their shadow still looms over Cambodia like Damocles sword and there is another conquistador knocking to the door already. Not the country but company this time. Samsung swallowed local electronic market like Jonas' whale ready to bring salvation or slavery to the permissive nation of Khmer which forgot their pride.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013


Aberdeen used to be a small fishermen village which predictably lost against fishing industry and now turned into tourism and sale of properties to preserve ashes of it's pride. Small, rough harbor filled with random boats and surrounded by wall of huge apartment buildings like towers guarding newly conquered land look ridiculous and strange. It's worth visiting to see Jumbo restaurant, eclectic tourist magnet floating in the middle of the lagoon resembling carcass of some Chinese sea dragon which got stuck on the shallows. You can also get to the Ocean Park which apparently is a super attraction (I haven't been).I recommend climbing to the top of the water supply station - view is amazing. I did it completely randomly out of need for an exercise in the park and this was the best memory I will hold.

Macau claims to be an Asian Las Vegas. Well... Catamaran cruise is quick (50 min) and comfortable and you get free shuttle buses to every hotel and casino in town, but this is about it in terms of resemblance. Grand Lisbon Casino looks like a light house and is the only building noticeable from every part of town. Portuguese traits are everywhere, especially in street names and tarts but not in the architecture (or rather it's remnants). Great vantage point of the former Portuguese (of course) fortress can't compensate the view - most buildings look like favelas with kitsch hotels scattered around, glittering randomly like mad Christmas trees. Maybe it is a City of Dream like in forcibly present ads, but Las Vegas? Dream on. It's not there yet... 

Few more words about Hong Kong. I strongly recommend visiting Wong Tai Sin (Diamond Hill) temple - absolutely amazing. Sha Tin monastery of 10.000 Buddhas is fine as well, just make sure you don't climb through the main portal to the cemetery (as I did) and watch for motorized scam monks offering you rambling blessing and religious artifacts... for a price of course.

Still my favorite place: Hong Kong Park and surrounding it skyscrapers like giants guarding their garden/oasis in the middle of the concrete desert, implanted there to supply them with carbon dioxide.

Despite all it's stunning ultra- modernity and recognizable familiarity I've seen few exotic things. I would open my list with karaoke contest in tents located along Temple Street Market. 20 separate stages, one next to another, exploding every single night with high-pitched sounding unplugged instruments and (mostly unfortunately) equally squeaky voices of old Chinese contestants. Imagine all these sounds mixed together on one street, reinforcing each other like they were trying to scare off  daemons in a public, mass music exorcism... Unforgettable experience! Another curiosity is a bamboo scaffolding used in even the highest constructions - you should see how they raise it to understand what I'm implying here. Next thing, rather amazing is Chinese predictive text on a touch screen - I haven't seen ability to draw on our European smartphones which I would love to see!

Just to summarize my experience. Hong Kong seems like extremely friendly and easy place to live, with all modern amenities and municipal incubators making it accessible and not overwhelming like other aggressive metropolises. Asian modesty melted with cult of glamour make it just more interesting, especially for us Europeans used to narcissistic laziness and spoiled by blind consumerism. There seems to be some mystery calling you to be discovered here which could change you forever or at least cure you from arrogance of a Western culture and infect you with the same kind of thoughts astronomers get when looking at the distant galaxies and realizing how diversify and humbling known Universe is. If you can get over with crowds you will love it (karaoke is only a local aberration). I have confirmed my suspicion: Europe is in the blind alley, stagnant and decadent spasm of former glory it will never resurrect and Asia (if Hong Kong represents it) is speeding silently and relentlessly like a maglev train toward the future.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Alchemy of cultures

Touch screen gizmos and gadgets are like technological parasites, attached to all people and taking over their lives. Cultural selection will definitely reinforce fingers, not even human hands as some evolutionists predict. We don't mind touching other objects as long as they're not alive - proximity of living organisms make us uncomfortable and triggers some kind of psychological awareness. This may be one of the reasons that we hardly notice other people around and distance to other human bodies becomes impossible to cross for some of us. It's a reversely proportionate correlation. Hong Kong is probably half way to what I've seen on Japanese movies. Human detachment in progress.

I think for some people cruising around city center is equivalent of a therapeutic exercise, municipal cardio-walk. My favourite is a mob run (seen ofthen in Dublin also). In this insanely shrink space competition is just too high, parks are packed so morning jogging becomes a social event, apart from showing off new sporty gear. There is another benefit... Shopping! Like in all new-rich cities with glamour complex shopping is the ultimate outdoor sport and the way to establish your social self-confidence. How sad that even such historically rich and matured cultures get homogenized and go through the same stages of narrowing down their values.

And it's not the only trace of westernization. TV, radio and all possible media are contaminated with the same dull and brainless messages. They may be mixed with more exotic aesthetic or concealed under specific visual taste, but lack of meaning is exactly the same. Quite ridiculous is a Christmas Esperanza and constant buzz of songs like "Let it snow, let is snow..." but I guess it just requires a bit of imagination and Christmas spirit:)) It looks like they're more clever though sucking breasts from both mothers. Strategic geographical location between East and West make them produce more diversified version of a pop-culture matrix.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Chicago on steroids

I can't get rest in my own cage. Not sure if it's claustrophobia or excitement. Guesthouse is clearly re-adapted from former flats and it's echoing all strange industrial noises which seem to crawl inside at night like cockroaches to look for a shelter. It's free of any insect infestation despite my initial fears and general warnings and quite clean though. TV is almost as annoying as karaoke. Feeling tired and low on energy? Turn random station, works better than double espresso:)) [my personal favorite is voyeurism friendly live stream from cameras in elevators though. My tolerance ends with silent Chinese movies apparently]

Few practical recommendations: don't bother queuing to get a peak tram. Take bus no.1 from IFC for fraction of the price. It takes 25 minutes (as oppose to 10 min by tram) but you will be rewarded with spectacular views on the way. Sky deck is also overrated - you have the same view from the lower terrace and even better from the peak trail. Other touristy stuff like Star Ferry cruise, Symphony of lights  - fine, Avenue of the Stars - boring. Crazy busy markets in Wan Chai give you proper perspective on the social contrasts in this ultra modern metropolis.

Transport system is being complemented in every guide and for a reason. It's cheap and efficient, everything is clearly marked. MTR, buses, taxis, boats come in all variety and price range putting most cities I've visited into shame (clear advantage of a "new" developments). Suspended pavements are common and create true web above ground level streets-great idea to tackle traffic challenges, never conceived( and afforded) by Irish designers (with additional possible benefit of rain shelter:))

Food comes in all variety and price range as well. It can be very cheap if you know where to go. Kowloon seems to be especially pocket friendly-I had a lovely breakfast in Japanese restaurant for $38 (less than 4 EUR) and Yaki Udon with coffee for lunch for $48 (the same dish costs 16 EUR in Yamamori!). I'm not saying I got it right from the first time - I paid 3 times more for similar lunch the day before in Wang Chai. You can hardly go wrong considering Ireland and its non-existing culinary tradition but food is seriously good here.

Hong Kong resembles Chicago a bit with it's vast collection of skyscrapers (officially 293 buildings over 150m tall, first place in the world ranking and they're still building more). Panorama is mutilated with construction sites like craters on Java. It's just more crazy and overcrowded turning at night in Blade Runner scenery (also because some people look like androids). It's so well organized that you can hardly experience any situations you really want to share later on. I expected something more European I have to say but it seems Hong Kong has digested its British heritage already.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Hong King

So here I am. After long but comfortable flight with Cathay Pacific, not having proper sleep for 48h I have finally put my ignorant feet on an Asian continent... and this is the way to start!

What is my first impression? Crazy, restless, mind-boggling... It's a municipal orgy after Chinese tuning. Some skyscrapers are more like scary-crapers, almost floating in the air, packed with inhabitants desperately filling any living space.You can imagine condition inside these capsules.Kowloon Walled City has been demolished in 1992 but there are still stories of people living in the cages, literally!

Streets swarm with pedestrians. How do 6 mln inhabitants fit on the 2 relatively small islands? All your senses are being tested and raped. Nathan Road in Kowloon and Hennesy/Queensway on the Central Island are like permanent Christmas sale in London but still Chinese love walking and god how they walk! Street resemble motorways but they treat them like promenades where you can have a random chat, swing in every direction like there is nobody else or just cut through the crowd like a buldozer. Glued to their phones like it's their beacon connecting physical avatars with the stream of life, not really present but painfully material, friendly, curious and aggresive - is this the future of humanity or just cul de sac of civilisation?

Despite brutal rush and aggresive architecture there is plenty of green oasis, asylums from the city pressure. Kowloon Park gives refreshing shade to tai chi practitioners and Hong Kong Park grows like a weed in the middle of the concrete jungle. If Dubai echoes muezzin's calls for prays, Hong Kong buzzes with karaoke attacking you from every corner like people have no shame here... 

If I had any presumptions or expectations Hong Kong is jeering at my imagination. It's a Gotham City, growing vertically in bold attempt to outsmart gravity. It's like a King Kong standing on Empire Building, seemingly prehistoric and primitive creature willing to destroy and kill, frightening all civilised New Yorkers but unexpectedly sensitive and fragile, embarassing us in our self-esteem and making us think who is the real beast here. We Europeans in our laziness and arogance should be afraid now. The wind of change blows from the East. Judgment day is coming, and it's coming fast!