Friday, November 28, 2008

polarity in cambodia

Cambodia is the Ecuador of Southeast Asia. In its capital, Phnom Penh, there is trash strewn on every street corner, roaming dogs with bellies full of swollen nipples, and beggars with another sympathetic story to hawk. I know you’re poor, Cambodia, but you’re not letting me enjoy you!

Phnom Penh was gross, frankly. With little to offer besides garish overpriced palaces funded by the French colonists and a former high school turned prison camp in the Khmer Rouge era. We did find a delightful little restaurant, Mama’s, around the corner from our hotel where we thoroughly enjoyed our three squares a day with the precious tiny daughter of Mama taking our order and meringue blaring on the stereo. Sick of modern Cambodia, we travelled back in time to visit ancient Khmer culture.

The Angkor temple complex is one of the most spectacular places I have been in my (fairly short) life.

It has huge repetitive tower-faces jutting up into the jungle trees, monkeys relaxing in the grass and giant trees spouting on top of temple walls, maneuvering their roots in through the ancient brickwork. To get between temples and back to town, we hired a tuk tuk (a motorcycle with a four seat Remarque attached to the back). In the middle of the second day, with the sun peaking through the thick canopy, soft, warm wind cooling my rosy cheeks, and beautiful rounded temple towers peeking through the forest, I felt real elation. Cambodia, you have redeemed yourself.

speed in south vietnam

Southern Vietnam boasts most of the same draws as the North: colonial architecture, women in markets with conical hats, and fresh baguettes. But the South feels more tropical, lowland, and lush.

In Hue we stayed in a perfectly adequate seven dollar room and saw the citadel complex of the former monarchy and, subsequently, the Communist Party as a base to fight against the Americans. We only had a few hours to see the entire complex, but feeling rushed we resolved to take our time and finish what we couldn’t tomorrow. We strolled around the romantic fallen structures set amongst green fields and statues spotted with moss. Even with all this loveliness, we finished seeing the palace in ninety minutes.

Surprised at the quickness of our pace, I sat in the promenade in front of the former royal residence and re-evaluated. Are we lingering in these places too long? Should we be moving faster? Yes, I decided at that moment that we should speed through only the most spectacular places in Southeast Asia (you don’t visit the US and go to Piedmont, ND, do you?) and make some time for INDIA!

I threw my haphazardly conjured idea at Alex and, always a good sport, said he’d look into making it happen. Two days later, in Hoi An, we bought the Lonely Planet INDIA guide for eleven dollars, now there was no going back.

Hoi An was wet, drowned by a tropical storm that flooded the streets. Almost ruined by the rain, we still managed to see the wonderful Chinese, ancient Vietnamese and freshly-painted French colonial architecture on offer. Scouring our India Lonely Planet in a café on our last night, we decided we needed to move quickly if we were going to get to India. Skipping Dalat and Quy Nhon, we bought a $37 flight to Saigon that night.

Which was stiflingly, pore-openingly hot. We saw the little there was to see, including an enlightening War Crimes Museum and spent most of the rest of our time hiding from the heat in our air-conditioned room.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

whimsy in hanoi and ha long bay

Stumbling off the night train from Sapa, we fend our way through a maze of rip-off taxis and whizzing motor bikes. We find a safe ride and honk and speed our way through the decaying colonial decadence of Hanoi's Old Quarter.  We move through a quiet alleyway -- with old women sitting on stoops in silk pajamas slurping up a morning bowl of Pho Bo -- to our hotel.  

The next few days we spent soaking up the tropical and putrid regality: mold growing on painted french mansions, hundreds of wires strung overhead through broad-leafed tropical trees, fresh baguettes and pain au chocolat waiting for us every morning.

Then to Ha Long Bay where former mountaintops jutted out of the sea filling us with whimsy. We kayaked through bat-filled caves and onto abandoned white sand beaches hidden in coves we pretended we discovered. We jumped from the top of our boat two stories down iunto the salty bay and watched the orange ball sun throw a pink glow behind the misty grey peaks at sunset.

Back to Hanoi where we forget we even left, returning to our old haunts: Pepperoni's for the endless lunch buffet, St. Joseph's Cathedral for decrepit colonial grandeur and Fanny's for mouth-watering milky ice cream which we always enjoy while walking alongside the promenade on the lake.  We got back on a Saturday, when all the lights strung over the streets turn on and the city is cast with a blue or white glow, adding to its already uncanny fanciful nature.  

An hour before we left, we met an American guy who tells us we can make the same amount in Hanoi as Taipei and how he is living in a two-bedroom three-storey furnished townhouse for $300/month. Now I don't want to leave.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

sincerity in sapa

After our last Chinese bus ride (from hell) -- with the road washing away by massive rainfall and us waiting while the authorities blew another one into the mountainside -- we stumbled into Vietnam bleary-eyed and with grumbling tummies. Our English and Isreali friends were relieved of their guidebooks in China for political reasons, but we lied and kept ours. As we walked through the border station it was into a different world. Hundreds of motorbikes and people shouting English at me, decaying colonial architecture and crispy french bread. Oh, good morning Vietnam! I think I'm going to like you.

We got into Sapa in the dark and had an adequate (but due to the deprivation percieved as delicious) french meal with conversation on life and holidays in our respective countires. As the morning sun rose the next day, we found ourselves surrounded by verdant mountains and a cosmopolitan mix of once-insular people. Red Dzou and Flower Hmong filled the streets and the marketplace.  I met a Hmong girl named Sa, eleven years old, who stuck around me for the weekend. I learned through the grapevine that both of her parents died within the past year and that she had no where to stay in the village so she couldn't go to school. I felt guilt for teasing her earlier about not wearing Hmong traditional clothing, her mother's not around to make any for her.  She gave me a bracelet she made and wouldn't take the money I treid to sneak to her for it, so I bought her a chocolate tart and apples and oranges which she gobbled up into her tiny frame.

Leaving, a hot tear fell onto my skin as she took my hand and whispered, "If your friends come here, will you tell them about me?" Alone and yearning for love, I felt her pain once from across the world. The tear that fell was mine.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

the wild west in yunnan

China's wild west, Yunnan Province is the final frontier. We started in Dali, a walled city with canals streaming alongside the cobbled streets and the Jade Mountains loomed in the distance. There we took a chairlift to the top of said mountains and looked down at the clouds from a warm Taoist temple at the top.

Next, Lijiang. A bigger and better Dali, with even larger snow-capped peaks on the horizon. We sat in European cafes and watched the rain patter on the blurry panes. On our last night we went to see the Naxi orchestra - a group of ancient musicians playing on even older instruments pieces from the Middle Ages. There was even a solo from one of the oldest members called "heartless love" about how his money left him and his woman followed suit. ouch.

Oh, then to Shangri-la, where we expected so little so the return was even greater. We met with the first foreigner allowed into town in 1987, and she told us of how she got around town on horseback. We drank yak butter tea and were invited into the dormitory of an orange-robed Tibetan buddhist monk. I watched the sunset from beside the largest prayer wheel in the world, looking over Old Town Shangri-la with prayer flags rustling in the wind overhead and bells tinkling in the temple and I realize that looking for Shangri-la is a fruitless endeavor, it can only be realized in passing moments like this.

Finally, Shaxi shocked me. The most intact and least touristed village yet, we saw an ancient Buddhist temple, trudged along the old Tea Horse Caravan Road through the fields of harvesting Bai people, and ate locally-grown organic potatoes, roasted red bell peppers, snow peas, chives and goat cheese washed down with thick red tea for two dollars and twenty five cents. We laid to rest under the roof of a structure built during the Tang Dynasty. Look it up - it's more amazing than you think.