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.