We visited Thailand once before; over chuseok in 2003, from Korea. We weren't here for long enough to do much more than learn to say 'sawatdee' and visit an angkorean temple up near the Cambodian border.
Bangkok is much as I remember it - big, noisy, dirty, full of fast and dirty livin'.
We managed without too much trouble to find Ben and Jen and Ossie and promptly went out for beer sna dinner to catch up.
Cut to the morning; Ossie and Deb and I have almost decided to abort our trip in mid-July to return to Korea for a month or so - summer camps in korea will earn us enough money to actually make it to Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, as is the Official Plan. Jojo, put the kettle on. Tim, you'd better be gone by the time we get there; we'll catch you in England towards the end of the year. We're all entirely resolved that it will only be for the summer camp period; come mid-august we'll head back to China and onwards west. We're now waiting on Lao visas and on a reply from Sarah, who (and whose Thai family) we're supposed to go and visit while we're here. We'll wait another week or so in Thailand and then head out to Laos, after which we'll return to Thailand to fly out. Or so goes the plan.
This afternoon we (excluding Deb, who seems to have a crook guts) went to Panthip Plaza - six huge floors chock-full of electronic gear and computers and such. Ossie bought a laptop here the other day; I bought some speakers for my iKillah, a headlamp to replace the one I gave Khoa in Sai Gon, and - best invention ever - an electric tennis racquet for killing mosquitoes and other noisome insects. It's awesome. Turn it on and hold the button, and if it hits anything, it crackles and arcs blue. Haven't tried it on Ossie yet; looks like it might hurt. Have great plans for electro-tennis-racquet fights.
Ben and Jen had to go to the Sony shop to replace a lead which was in Jen's pack; apparently it was just around the corner so we waited for them. Got talking to an old Thai geezer who lived in Patong, on Phuket island, before and during the tsunami, talked at some length about the effects of the economy and such. He's betting 30,000 baht - about $1000 - on Brazil winning the World Cup, which I think is a good bet. Last time he bet on Argentina, who were knocked out in the group stages, and his wife forbade him from betting on football again. This time he's going to make it all better, he reckons. Also talked to a tuktuk driver who claims to be from Laos - he explained the way tuktuk prices work in bangkok, and why tuktuks always seem more expensive than meter taxis - if you don't play the game, the tuktuk drivers charge you the 'not playing the game' price. What game, you ask? Tuktuks work almost entirely on kickbacks - they run you by an associated shop - gems, jewelry, clothes, etc - and you look around. They get a 5 litre fuel voucher worth about 150b just for bringing you in, whether you buy or not. If you don't stop and look, you get charged full rate. If you do, you get charged some minimal amount like 10b. Yes; from 100 down to 10b just by going and looking at some silk.
Ben and Jen didn't turn up, so we agreed to go with Mr Lao to his gem shop on the way back. It's a curious circumstance; in Vietnam or China or back home you'd be charged to take a tour of a gemstone and jewelry workshop, but here they basically pay you to do so. It was indeed interesting; we feigned interest and asked lots of silly questions, watched the jewelers at work, and left without buying anything. Mr Lao was happy because he got his fuel ticket, we got a look around the shop - the only people not happy were the ones selling overpriced costume jewelry. On the ride back to the hotel, another tuktuk driver, while we were stopped at a light, offered us a small bag of ganja for 1000b - about $25. Bollocks to that, we said. He shrugged and rolled himself a spliff then and there, and asked if we wanted any heroin, only 5000b. Not this life-cycle, thanks anyway. About 5 minutes later we saw him stopped on the side of the road, still smoking his spliff, explaining to a police officer why he was smoking a spliff while driving his tuktuk. Mr Lao reckons he'd be fined about 5000b.
Nothing much else to report from the day. Tomorrow evening we should get our Lao visas, hopefully a response from Sarah, and then we'll know what we're up to.
Anlong Veng and Prasat Preah Vihear
The last two places the Khmer Rouge ruled in Cambodia. Until 1997 or so, there was apparently no road into Anlong Veng - it was a border town in a malarial jungle swamp, backed up against a rugged range of mountains which form the border with Thailand. In 1997, Pol Pot, who'd lived thereabouts since 1979 or so, did one last deed which turned even his own men against him, ordering the assassination of Son Sen (formerly in charge of Tuol Sleng) and everyone with him - fourteen people in all. This was the last straw, and Pol Pot's successor (he'd retired from the Central Committee Secretariat in 1989 or so) Ta Mok ordered him to be arrested and tried by the Khmer Rouge. If that wasn't enough, Hun Sen (also a former KR cadre; then and now Prime Minister of Cambodia) ordered government troops to take Anlong Veng, and build a road to it to prevent it falling back into KR hands. The remaining Khmer Rouge militia peppered the area liberally with booby traps and landmines and faded into the jungle, eventually fleeing 100km East to the Angkor-era mountain temple at Prasat Preah Vihear, on the Thai border, where they made their last stand.
Anlong Veng is an awful place. It's still a filthy border town in a malarial jungle swamp, even though there's an average-quality dirt road in there nowadays. It's still under siege from landmines; only areas within 30 metres of a road have been (mostly) cleared. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge apparently still have some influence here. There are a few stone or brick buildings, but mostly it's a dusty street with sagging wooden stilt-houses on either side. The water table is so low that when holes were dug for the stilts, water flowed up, creating a stagnant pool of water which the house's inhabitants immediately proceeded to fill up with polystyrene food containers, plastic bags, food scraps (nothing in this world, <>i>nothing, smells as bad as a scum-filled ditch full of durian rind. Really. Nothing.), shit and piss (I saw people pissing out their windows), anything. The people are cagey and hard-looking; there's only one restaurant which seems safe to eat at, etc. We arrived just before dusk on the 26th, on the only bus, which leaves Anlong Veng early in the morning and returns from Siem Reap in the evening, and were besieged by moto drivers. We worked our normal strategy, which is to immediately sit down somewhere and have a beer, waiting for the eejits and hangers-on to leave, while the serious people stay around. We checked into the most expensive guesthouse in town ($6 per night, woo) because it had cable TV and the super 14 final between the Hurricanes and Canterbury was on the next day - sadly, it wasn't shown, and the Hurricanes lost. Bollocks.
Te 27th was spent arsing around and trying to stay out of the heat - by the time we got opur cat together and negotiated a sane price for a treip to Preah Vihear, it was too late to go, so we called it for 0500 the following day. The plan was ambitious - six hours on bikes, an ancient temple, Pol Pot's house and grave and the border crossing into Thailand, all in one day.
We bought an alarm clock, which failed to wake us up, so we didn't leave until 0530. At about 0630 it started to rain torrentially. The road turned to red slush and we took shelter in the grounds of a school. At about 0800 the rain was mostly over, so we carried on; breakfast in Sa Em at 0945; we reached the town at the base of the mountain at about 1020. At this point we switched to souped-up bikes for the climb - 125cc honda dream, with a home-made water-cooling system added. Apparently bikes without this kit don't make it up the mountain, and I believe it. Much of the road is on a 35% gradient - 35% is about 30 degrees. These parts are relatively good, concrete slab with rebar, but the rest is rocks and mud and holes - not really even a road, just a place which isn't jungle. The trip is 5km, and takes about 30 minutes on a bike. For those foolish enough to walk, it takes about three hours if you can do it without stopping - it would have taken us all day. The real kicker is that this temple is utterly trivial to reach from Thailand - the Thais, in violation of territorial boundaries, bulldozed a sealed road up to the temple stairs from their northern side; the Cambodians accepted it on the grounds that Thais have to pay $10 entry, whereas visitors from the Cambodian side pay $2.50. This is a good earner - aircon buses full of tourists come from Thailand all through the busy season - one bus nets between $500 and $800 in revenue for the temple.
The temple itself is spectacular mostly because of its commanding location at the top of the highest mountain in the range. It's built on three layers, each connected by a rough flight of stairs. On the southastern face of the third (top) layer, you have a commanding view of all of Cambodia - pancake-flat and jungly, excepting a few hazy massifs on the horizon; a rocky outcrop allows control of all the roads and rivers of the region. One man with a mortar could defend this position from a far superior force. The northeastern face is even more interesting; on it is the site of the Khmer Rouge's last stand in the middle of 1998. There's a bunker containing a lot of chalked writing in Khmer, left untouched, and a smaller bunker - a sentry post - which now contains an urn with ashes, incense, and a few dry bones. Outside the main bunker is an artillery piece - the wheels and levers have been hacksawed through and welded shut, but it's otherwise intact, and it points down the three-layered staircase which is the only entry point to the temple complex; and directly at the Thai border control buildings which have been set up at the end of the road at the bottom. Some parts of the temple have been demined, but not all. There are signs at the edges of most paths warning people not to stray, and not to pick up strange objects.
Back down the hill, and back to Anlong Veng, leaving at about 1300. We made better time on the way back, getting in at 1500 or so. We abandoned our planned visits to Pol Pot and Ta Mok's houses (apparently there's not much there anyway) and headed up the mountain to the border town, where Pol Pot's show trial for Son Sen's murder was held, where his sentence of life in KR custody was pronounced, and where he was ignominiously cremated in 1998. According to the account in David Chandler's Brother Number One: A political Biography of Pol Pot, he recieved word from Ta Mok that Hun Sen's government was convening a tribunal to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. He took ill, went to rest, and died quietly less than three hours later. On April 17th 1998, the 23rd anniversary of the Khmer Rouge's 'liberation' of Phnom Penh, his body was taken up the mountain and cremated on a pile of rubbish and old tyres. Nobody close to him was present. We visited the site; there's a bed of ashes with a four-post corrugated iron roof over it, the edges trimmed by empty soda bottles. A sign, erected by the Ministry of Tourism, is all that marks whose remains these are; nobody else seems to care.
The border town is much like Anlong Veng, but it does share a direct border with Thailand. We changed $20 into baht because the rate was extortionate. Because it was late in the day, there were no buses. Sareth, speaking english even though he's lived 14km from the thai border his whole life, organised us a gratis ride to Srisaket with a thai medical aid organisation, which we happily accepted. Thus ended our holiday in Cambodia. It's tough, kid, but it's life.
They dropped us off at a hotel not far from the railway station in Srisaket, where we had our first hot shower since ... Hoi An, I think. Sunday is market day in Srisaket, and we wandered down the market, bought tickets, ate chicken on a stick and fed the bones to the cats and dogs which hang around. Thailand is several continents away from Cambodia - people are relaxed and happy, they wear stylish clothes and go out for walks in the market just to be there; fathers and sons sit and eat dinner and joke together, people smile at you for no reason - not trying to sell you anything, just because they're happy. After China and Vietnam and Cambodia, Thailand really is the Kingdom of Smiles. Life is easy here, even in this poorest part of the kingdom. They were fortunate; the French decided to leave Thailand as a buffer between their Indochinese empire and the British empire in Burma, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia which hasn't in recent history been invaded, colonised or annexed by a foreign power, and it shows.
Our major problem in Srisaket was lack of money. We had enough for the train tickets (second class, which gets you a seat and an openable window for the 12 hours to Bangkok), the hotel, dinner, two beers and a roll of toilet paper. When we got on the train at 0800 the next morning, we had 30 baht left - three quarters of a dollar. That, coincidentally, is how much a punnet of rice and meat and egg and chillies costs on the train, and that was what we ate that day. The trip was just as I remember - hurtling on a narrow track through the flat northeast, then up into jungly mountains before descending back into the floodplais of the Chao Praya river. In the mountains we ran through an incredible lightning storm - twice, objects on either side of the train were struck - the sound is deafening and the smell of ozone was in the air. I wasn't sure if the train itself had been hit. Still, we made it.
Aki Ra - One Man Bomb Squad
Aki Ra doesn't know exactly when he was born - he doesn't remember anything before 1978, when the Khmer Rouge killed his parents and made him, as a kid of about five, walk through minefields in front of their military patrols. After the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, he ended up attached to a Vietnamese army group still fighting the KR, and that's where he got the training to do what he does today - locate and disarm landmines.
He reckons he's found at least 30,000 mines, with somewhere between three and six million remaining in Cambodia. The land his house and the orphanage for landmine victims and the landmine museum he runs was itself a minefield in 1994 - he was one of the people who worked with the UN in 1994-95 to clear landmines out of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Aki Ra's methods are simple, fast and dangerous. He clears mines, mortar and cluster bombs, tripwires, and mechanical traps and snares using a humble bamboo stick, sharpened, and disarms them using such complex tools as pliers and screwdrivers. He does it all voluntarily, recieving no payment - indeed, the places now most affcted by landmines are so rural and impoverished that they couldn't afford to pay even a small fraction of his costs, which run to thousands of dollars per month, mostly in fuel and vehicle rental. He runs the Landmine Museum and Gallery in Siem Reap, which attracts donations, and it seems like he is sponsored by anti-landmine campaign groups and a few foreign donors, but there's certainly no surfeit of money.
Today (in about half an hour) we're going to Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge; the town where Pol Pot gave his final interview in 1997, where he died in 1998 and was buried. Anlong Veng and the surrounding area is one of the most heavily mined areas in the world. I promise we'll be careful.
To Khmers, and more or less to foreigners as well, Angkor is Cambodia and Cambodia is Angkor. Every Cambodian flag since the French annexed the place in 1863 has featured Angkor Wat - including the gold-towers-on-red flag of the Khmer Rouge, who did what they could to destroy and deface the Angkor temples. The national beer (slogan: My Country, My Beer) is called Angkor. The flashest hotels in Siem Reap are the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Le Meridien Angkor, La Residence d'Angkor, the Victoria Angkor, FCC Angkor, Sofitel Royal Angkor, Angkor Century Hotel, DayInn Angkor Resort, Angkoriana Hotel, Angkor Village, Angkor Palace Spa Resort, La Maison d'Angkor, Lotus Angkor Hotel, and the Royal Angkor Resort. That's not counting any number of smaller places, or restuarants, shops, tour companies, travel agents, taxis and whatall else. You aren't worth a damn in this town unless you've got the mark of Angkor.
The entrance fee to Angkor Archaeological Park is about the most expensive attraction in Southeast Asia - $20 for a day, $40 for three days, $60 for five days. That gets you into the main complex containing most of the more famous Angkor temples and ruins, but unfortunately doesn't protect you from the madding crowds of Korean herd-tourists or the touts and hawkers. We visited on May 23, and we were there by 0630, leaving Jen and Ben and Ossie in bed for another couple hours. There's a lot to see: something like thirty full-size temples in varying stages of ruin and repair, and many smaller monuments and features. The big daddy, of course, is Angkor Wat itself, more like a castle than a temple.
So much has already been written about Angkor Wat that I'll keep my account brief. We visited the four-faced sandstone towers of Bayon (also a Cambodian beer) first, then went on to the Elephant Terrace and climbed the tower of Phimeanakas nearby. Preah Khan, the monastery of the sacred sword, is very extensive and partially ruined, still - it's peaceful and set away from the road in the jungle, and there was only one Chinese tour group. Neak Pean is an island in the middle of a small lake, which is currently a lawn since it's the dry season. This seems to be the place to come and sit around in the shade, watching dragonflies and butterflies. Ta Som is another small temple, notable in that the apsaras (female air and water spirits of Hindu legend) are each carved to represent individual women; true enough, they have very distinct features, shapes and postures. East Mebonn, formerly in the Eastern Reservoir but now in the Eastern Rice Paddies, has complete, undamaged elephants and backs onto a section of jungle; I saw a snake. Pre Rup is a tall templewith a grand view from the top, from which you can see the tall central tower of Angkor Wat itself. The last, and best, temple we visited before Angkor Wat was Ta Prohm - famous now as the temple in which they filmed most of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider; a massive, sprawling complex still left partially overgrown and mostly in ruins, though they are currently building more walkways. It's the sort of place you need to climb through holes in the wall and over piles of laterite blocks to get around, a wonderful, cool, quiet place of spiders and birds and jungle and old musty stone cracked by tree roots.
Angkor Wat is, of course, the most popular and heavily touristed of the temple ruins, and also the largest - not in the complex, but apparently the largest religious building in the world. It is indeed huge - across the bridge and through the first gate you come into grounds containing smaller temples, lakes, and enough flat ground for many football fields. The main structure is itself vast, as well, and is the only truly multi-leveled building in the group. It also bore the brunt of early looting, and extensive destruction by the Khmer Rouge and who knows who else. The quality of the construction is notably superior to the other temples: the stone of the side corridors still sits square and flush, and the destruction is mostly cosmetic rather than structural. What this all means is that Angkor awes you for reasons of scale and solidity, rather than because of its decorations and carvings. This was the only really crowded temple we visited. Apparently the season is in full swing now, and Angkor is pretty full of Korean and Chinese and Japanese and Thai and, to a lesser degree, European package tourists. The central building of the wat is a four-sided tower complex with the three (originally five) towers which are so well-known in silhouette; it's reached by the simple means of Climbing The Stairs. You'd be amazed how much of a rigmarole this is, however. It's a fairly high staircase - perhaps ten or fifteen metres - but the horizontal depth of the staircase is no more than three or five metres. When it comes to staircases, there are two important measurements: the 'lift', or the vertical size of the stair - how much you go up with each step; and the 'going', or horizontal depth of the stair - how much you go forward with each step. In the case of the stairways here, the lift is normally three or more times the going, which is my very roundabout way of saying that it's an incredibly steep staircase. One staircase (the South) has been doctored for the thousands of fat, aged americans and soft korean ajummas who want to climb to the top every day; a set of sturdy square stone stairs and a handrail, one person wide, have been installed. The funniest thing is seeing the incredible queueof people at the top, stranded but for the until it's their turn to descend, when anyone who's got full use of both their legs can simply walk down any of the other staircases, if they're careful.
The Done Thing is to take in a glorious Angkor Sunset on Phnom Bakheng, but since the rainy season has now started, evenings tend to be overcast and the sunsets are less than memorable, so we walked back out to the bridge and sat there with a beer until dusk, and home time.
We considered buying a second pass and returning to see some more temples, and the River of a Thousand Lingas, and Phnom Kulen, Cambodia's most sacred site, but have decided instead to go north to Anlong Veng on the Thai border, and then East to Preah Vihear, a temple on the mountain range separating Thailand and Cambodia, which historically the Thai keep trying to claim as their own, and to which they've built a superhighway and allow tourists from thailand into Cambodia on a day pass. On the Cambodian side it's apparently not so easy - combinations of share taxi, pick-up and moto are required to get there. We'll see. We should be leaving tomorrow.
A week in the jungle
Actually, only three days really in the jungle, but this part of Cambodia is so damn rural we weren't far from it the whole week.
We left Phnom Penh early on the morning of May 11, I think. I'm pretty sure it was the day of the UEFA Cup final, because that afternoon in Kratie, we saw a few minutes of it. Kratie is about the halfway point between everywhere and Cambodia's mountainous Eastern Provinces of Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri, basically the only places in the country which aren't as flat as a pancake. It's a fairly sleepy town which is home to a bunch of aid workers and most of the world's 80 or so remaining irrawaddy dolphins, which we didn't go and see. It's also home to a slightly spaced-out computer programmer from North London, who works from here because his job allows him to work anywhere he has an internet connection - he's in his 50s and says he spends more time here and in Bangkok international airport than anywhere else.
The following day we got a share taxi to Ban Lung, the eventual destination - a provincial capital of 6,000 people near the national park which covers most of the province's border with Laos. The trip is supposed to take 6-7 hours, but we did it in three and a half hours, including a flat tyre and lunch. Badass driving was indeed the order of the day - our man threw his camry around those dirt roads, potholes, wood-plank bridges and what the Khmer call 'saw roads'- dirt roads with the washboard effect - with remarkable alacrity. We didn't feel close to dying too often.
At the Tribal Hotel I dropped the name of one of the waiters in Kratie who'd recommending it, saying that the owner, Ms Kim, was his second mother - and promptly got our room rate cut from $10 to $5 per night. Not bad. We sat and talked with a bloke called Sitha, a trekking guide who wanted to take us around the place, and said we'd meet him again that evening. We wandered the town a bit trying to get a feel for a sane price and a sensible itinerary, but didn't turn up much, so we agreed to go with Sitha - three days and two nights in the bush.
The next day (13th, I think) was a day of planning, so we went to the market in Ban Lung for supplies and gifts for the villagers, and off to Yeak Luom crater lake. This lake isn't far from Ban Lung - you can walk there in an hour, but we got a moto and did many return trips because we were lazy. The lake itself is so round that many people don't think it was actually a volcanic crater at all, but a meteor crater - the volcano cone itself is long gone. It's 48 metres deep in the centre, and drops off very quickly, and I believe the ear infection I now have was caused by diving too deep into it, clogging my ears with space mud. Leaving the crater lake I had another of those bizarre asian experiences - a very drunk old woman offered me a cup of - you guessed it, the same old rice-turps as in Viet Nam. There must be something about me which just makes people want to get me drunk. I drank a little, but since I had to go back on the moto in the dark, I figured it a bad time to get toasted, and she wasn't very pleased. Nevertheless, she drank it herself, and then beckoned towards her house, just down the way. Another guy who was there spoke english, and said she wanted me to go with her to say goodnight. I politely declined on the basis that my friends would be back any moment. Very bizarre.
Deb's and my daypacks weren't big enough for a three-day trip, and our main packs were too big and too full of gear, so we bought a North Farce and a Lowe Apine bag from the market, which were shit, but did the job. Carrying water and hammocks and mosquito nets - not much, really, but bulky. We met Mr Ngai, our local local guide - Sitha is a local from Ban Lung, but Ngai is one of the tribespeople of the area, who's lived in the jungle all his life. He's a short guy, stocky and lean, who wears jandals and carries all his gear in a bamboo pack. Some well-meaning tourists once gave him a pair of hiking boots, but he worse them once and found them uncomfortable and heavy, so back to jandals it was - wet and dry, snakes or no snakes.
We set off through slashed and burnt fields, and virtually the first thing we did was cclimb a bloody great hill to Ngai's farm. Climbing and moving in mid-30s temperatures is a hell of a lot more pain than at NZ temperatures, and the first climb more or less did me in, and the rest of the day's walking I was more or less a zombie. I was a lot fitter last time I did this. We were allsweating out water as fast as we could drink it.The jungle up here is different from at Bokor, which was much like NZ bush - here there are fewer ferns and less undergrowth, the trees are tall and straight and white-trunked. Insects are everywhere - yellow and black ants which sting, millipedes which can bite but aren't dangerous, centipedes which are very dangerous.
Night 1 we camped by a stream where there's a rather withered swimming hole. Ngai and Sitha had used the camp before, and it's a good size for a tarp, seven hammocks and a fire. Ngai cooked sticky rice inside green bamboo - apparently the reason the jungle people and the Lao are smaller than Khmers is because they eat sticky rice in preference to proper rice. The key to cooking rice and whatnot else in bamboo is to get the bamboo where the wall is thick, but the diameter of the empty space inside is not - if the bamboo wall isn't thick enough it'll burn through in the fire; if the space is too thick, the food inside won't cook evenly. Sticky rice cooked in bamboo is something else - it forms a sort of skin, and is chewy, a little like the korean rice cake ddeok, but fragrant.
The next morning we set out for the village where we'd spend our second night - this time heading through dense, trackless jungle. The second day wasn't as bad as the first, but only by virtua of the fact that the biggest hill was towards the end, rather than at the start, of the day's movement. I'd seriously underestimated how much fluid I needed, and had to drink a couple litres salty, sugary water with limes in just to have a game of football with the locals. Ngai ad Sitha had picked some small, spiky red fruits during the day which are just the ticket to keep you moving - like lychees, except incredibly sour and slightly sweet.
The night before we'd arrived, the Chief of Swai (mango, because it has a very old mango tree) village had had a nightmare about a young couple killing and eating their baby. There had also been some sickness in the village, and one of the houses and some banana trees were cordoned off, surrounded by a string fence with dead branches tied to it. In order to combat these evil happenings, he'd ordered the sacrifice of a pig, and when we arrived a big party was being held in the aftermath of said sacrifice - dancing, noisy khmer tekno on a battery-powered ghetto-blaster, and very much drinking. The sacrifice had clearly been a success, and chief and the deputy chief were drunk enough that they joined in the game of kick-around, despite being of advanced age and clearly never having kicked a football in their lives before. Crowds gathered around to watch our every move, but the kids weren't friendly or smiling - afraid, maybe a little curious. Perhaps the strangest piece of cultural difference I've come across: these people (either the Krung or the Jarai, I forget which) have no word in their language, or conception of any need for, 'hello' or 'thank you' - they greet each other with some specific and meaningful enquiry about how you are; whether you've eaten or where you're going, or such, and when you hand them something they take it without a word, or any acknowledgement. So much for certain things being universal.
After dark and after dinner, most of the village gradually gathered in the meeting house, and a tall clay jar of rice wine was brought in, with a bucket of water and a long bamboo straw. The deal is that the jar, which is still full of husks and rice as well as wine, starts out brim-full. They ram the straw in (there's a lot of solid, so it's not easy), and you drink through the straw. As you drink, they top the jar up with water. Before you drink, you agree on a certain quantity - usually one cupful, and if you don't drink the full amount, the rice wine spirit will get angry. It's a pretty ingenious system - at the start of a session, the wine is very strong, but asmore water gets added it gets weaker. To make it temporarily stronger again, you can sink the straw in a different place. The villagersslowly came in and sat around, watching whitey drink rice wine and laughing at us when we didn't know what to do with the cup. Sitha dished out the pressies, but there was a bit of bureaucratic interference as the deputy chief wanted a toy bb gun for himself, and soon enough all the other men did too. Ossie reckoned he was setting up a drunken armed coup. The night wore on and everyone went to bed; it was uneventful apart from the very loud cow noises from beneath us.
The morning was, however, far from uneventful. Ben got up and put on his trousers from where they'd been hanging outside, to dry. He put his hand in his pocket and started swearing about how something had bitten him. We, just waking up, looked on in bemusement, and a fter a short pause to make sure he wasn't going to faint and swallow his tongue, off came the pants again. The wound was weeping and pussing, so I figured I'd get a stick and have a look in the pocket, where I found a little scorpion, a couple inches long, had made itself a nest. Sitha squashed it with a jandal as soon as I let it out and told Ben he wasn't going to die - every time you go collecting bamboo you apparently get stung by scorpions, and it hurts for half an hour and then goes away. The funny part about this was that this day - May 16th - was Jen and Ben's 5th anniversary. Jen is a scorpio.
The rest of the day was spent on the Tonle San river - shallow, partly because of the dry season, and partly because the Vietnamese dammed its headwaters outside Cambodia's jurisdiction and there's bugger all water left. We went upriver to visit a bizarre cemetery at Vern Sai and then back to town after a swim. Coming out of the bush is always a much more exhilarating feeling than going into it, for me. After a few days surviving on very little I get used to is, and upon return to civilisation I feel as if I can do more or less anything, that I'm the master of my surrounds, because civilisation is so much easier than the bush. I found this not quite so much the case in the Cambodian jungle. Partly because of the heat, partly the bugs, but mostly because I don't know it as well as NZ bush, I found it a much less forgiving environment, and came out feeling more relieved than anything else. We have become very firm friends with Sitha - I've told him if he ever makes it to NZ we'll go out into the bush there, and we (mostly Deb) agreed to make him a website to encourage travellers to support him. Again, we've been lucky enough to find one of the good ones. You can see the site at http://jungletrek.blogspot.com.
The 17th, our first day back in Ban Lung, was another reserve day during which we did nothing but make Sitha's site and bum around waiting for washing to be dry. In the afternoon we visited a waterfall, the first genuinely cool water I've experienced since swimming in Xiamen. That night was the Champion's League Final, but power supply and sattelite connection to Ban Lung is so flakey there was no danger of watching it. On the 18th, we left Ban Lung for Kratie, on the road to Siem Reap and thence Thailand.
But things don't always work out as planned. Our five packs didn't all fit in the boot of the camry, so I tied it down using a length of what I considered to be tough chain, which I'd used before for fastening overfull boots closed. It turned out not to be tough enough for the roads, and Jen's pack, which was on top, had fallen out when the chain had snapped at some point. We retraced our tracks as it started raining, but to no avail - we spent an extra day in Ban Lung as they filed claims with their insurance agents, got a police report and as Jen went about trying to buy a few clothes and so on. She lost everything except her money and her passport and the clothes on her back - her least-favorite clothes, since we'd be spending the whole day cooped up in a hot car. The insurance claim is somewhere around 2200 pounds.
On the 20th, we left again for Kratie, and this time arrived with no real hassles. The bus trip the next day to Siem Reap was 10 hours, and we stopped at Skoun - the place in Cambodia most famous for such delicacies as fried tarantulas and crickets. Tarantulas are good eats - like crab, but the skin is a bit oily and odd. Like crab, they set off my allergy , so I have re-stated its bounds to 'anything with more than four legs'. Works for me.
Siem Reap is squarely back on the tourist trail, but also a good time to get things sorted out - for Jen to get some clothes and a new pack, and for me to get my ear - which packed up after the waterfall seen to. These things we did today. I went to the Cambodia - China Friendship Hospital here, and a young guy about 20, with long hair and a little asian goatee and cargo pants asked me what the matter was, then translated for a doctor who looked rather more stupid than I'm accustomed to doctors looking. The young guy was a just-qualified nurse, and was working to become a doctor; he was one of those people who you know instantly are intelligent and capable, and spoke almost perfect english. They tell me I have an ear infection, and have given me vitamins and antibiotics and ear drops. Seems to be working, too - after the consultation my hearing improved somewhat.
Now it's time for grilled chickens and beer for dinner. Tomorrow is probably Angkor Wat.
Prison Camp at Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek
I suppose the Killing Fields have the distinction of being Cambodia's second-best known place - I won't say 'attraction' - after Angkor Wat. Visiting places of significance - historic places, important museums and art galleries, ruins, palaces, cemeteries, battlefields, fortresses - tend to make me moody and sullen, partly because of the history and atmosphere of the places themselves, and partly because of the attitude of what seems like every other motherfucker there. People who bring their kids and let them run wild, or who travel in colour-coordinated herds with tour guides bearing loudspeakers and flags, who point at exhibits and say "ooh, doesn't it look funny" or who compulsively take photographs and video of every little thing they see, as if they don't trust their eyes and ears and nose to remember it.
The Genocide Museum at Toul Sleng in Phnom Penh was initially built as an elementary school, similar in every way to the schools I've taught in in Korea the past three years, with big classrooms and a courtyard with a flagpole, lots of windows and high ceilings. When Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975, they changed the name to Toul Sleng, meaning something along the lines of Poisoned Hill, and gave it the codename S-21, Security Prison 21. Nobody outside Cambodia heard of it until the Vietnamese army recaptured the city in 1979, but in the intervening four years, somewhere between 14 and 20,000 Cambodians were incarcerated there for crimes which will sound familiar to anyone who's studied Stalinist or Maoist communism, or has read Cancer Ward or The Gulag Archipelago; effectively nothing. Of these, seven people survived. Tuol Sleng was a torture prison, designed to extract confessions of crimes meriting execution from its prisoners.
The ground level of A Block remains individual rooms, each containing an iron bed and various apparatus of torture; these were the confession rooms, better called torture rooms. Not execution rooms, since actually killing prisoners here was discovered - dead men make no confessions of counter-revolutionary guilt. Blocks B and D have mostly been cleaned and repainted, and now house a huge collection of photographs; mugshots of the prisoners as they checked in, and in a few cases photos of them during or after torture. These photos are probably the most remarkable part of the whole thing - the Khmer Rouge was very thorough indeed, and kept dossiers on all its prisoners. The faces in the photos are no different from the Khmers of today. One old man, perhaps a monk in a traditional robe, has a bodhisattva-like half-smile as his photo is being taken, but the rest of the thousands of photos are just frightened, shocked, surprised, sad, angry, confused, defiant, crushed, half-dead.
I took great pains to avoid the tour groups, the amateur photographers and the clingy young Thai couples. It's not that I think I'm any different - I'm a tourist and a ghoulish sightseer just the same - but strong experiences like this are not a group activity for me, and the less noise and bustle I have intruding upon my thoughts the better. By the time I got to C block I was mostly alone, and C Block is itself the hardest bit of the prison - electrified barbed wire covers the balconies, and the interior is mostly unaltered, definitely uncleaned, cells built twenty to a classroom out of red bricks and mortar, and on the upper levels, from wooden planking like pigsties. I say uncleaned, because even thirty years on, there remain bloodstains on the floor, walls, cielings. The place smells musty and quite literally leaves a bad flavour. Having left it this way may well be lack of labour - one of the record rooms on the third level of B Block is in an utter shambles, with potentially valuable genealogical and photographic records piled into corners, shoved in boxes under tables, everything covered in dust and bat shit, but I think there's value in seeing the prison as it was, rather than some tarted-up reconstruction.
The trip to the Killing Field at Choeung Ek, 15km southwest of the city, was strangely more of the same bleakness: crippling poverty, foully polluted water and a rough dirt road, even though it gets a million tourists every year. Choeung Ek isn't THE Killing Fields - just the most accessible from Phnom Penh. Only 9,00 or so bodies have been disinterred here, of a total somewhere between 1 and 3 million out of Cambodia's 8 million population who died under the Khmer Rouge, which they refer to as the Pol Pot Clique. Like in Russia and China, and I suppose we'll find in North Korea eventually, most of those executed were minorities of some kind - ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Lao, ethnic Cham, Christians, buddhist monks, and most of the millions weren't executed, but died of starvation, disease or exhaustion. The Killing Field at Choeung Ek is quite small in size - you can easily walk arounbd it in fifteen minutes and unlikeToul Sleng there's very little to see here. Come here without having gone to the museum first and you wouldn't really have a grasp on what you were looking at. It's just holes in the ground, partly filled with repugnant slimy green-grey water. The bones have been cleared away and mostly housed in a great white stone stupa in the centre of the grounds, but a large proportion of the area is still unexcavated.
It feels like a cemetery, but on the other hand, the locals don't really seem to treat it so. A few cows were grazing on the edges of one of the larger graves - now ponds; kids hassle you for money and coca-cola and photos and trinkets, there were a couple of old men sleeping in hammocks along one fence, it's all quite relaxed. On the way back to Phnom Penh,our tuk-tuk driver took us to a local place to eat - not half a kilometre from Choeung Ek - where we had lovely duck soup and rice and warm coke, as much as we could eat for $1 per person. Not even a restaurant per se, just a home who sold food for people if they wanted to stop by. Happy, relaxed Khmers living and getting on with life so close to the Killing Field helped lift the mood a bit.
Back in Phnom Penh the mood was lifted yet more; a family of grey monkeys playing and larking around with the locals on top of a banboo roof. People would hold their arms up and run towards the baby monkey, who'd be oblivious, then the mother monkey would jump up and down and snarl, then the baby monkey would go and play in the power lines, and the whole thing would start again. The father monkey just sat back and watched it all happen. Why can't we all just get along, maan?
Now I'm practically up to date. We got back to Phnom Penh from Kampot, six people in a toyota Camry (Toyota own Cambodia: landcruisers for the hard stuff, hiaces for hauling many people, camrys for normal car duties). The main road between Phnom Penh and Kampot is sponsored by a Japanese govrnment aid grant, and it makes perverse sense for the Japanese to be funding the construction and maintenance of roads, so Japanese corporations can then sell Khmers their cars at immense (for your average Khmer) prices. This kind of car is generally agreed to take seven people in Cambodia - driver, two in the front seat, four in the back seat - and there was some confusion when Ben and Jen ncomplained that there weren't enough seats for all five of us and the driver, on account of the fact that we all outweigh even a fairly hefty khmer by about 30kg. Eventually they sucked it up and sat in the front together. We rather foolishly got dropped off in the middle of the seedy tourist district, on the shores of Boeng Kak, a lake which Ronery Pranet says is a "horrifically polluted body of water that nobody should swim in, no matter how many beers they've drunk". We're staying at the Lazy Fish guesthouse, where $3 gets you a shack on stilts above said body of water, a fan, and a bathroom - perfectly serviceable. The place has a big deck and a bar and a free pool table with several cthulhian angles and only one cue, and the staff constantly try to sell you mariuana, even though it's actually illegal. This is a very strange place.
In any case, since I've now spent five and a half hours writing this up, I'm going to have a beer and a game of pool. Tomorrow we're probably going to the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.
Kampot and Bokor Hill Station
So now I'm only a few days behind time. After arriving in Phnom Penh on the evening of May 1, we decided the trick was to hire a jeep and head south to Kampot, on the coast, apparently only two hours away. Our efforts came more or less to nothing; nobody in PP would hire us a 4wd for anything less than $100 per day, and a minivan was over $50. But we did find a guesthouse in Kampot who had a 4wd pickup truck we could hire for $45/day, inclusive of fuel, driver and all driver's expenses. We arrived late in the day after another eye-boggling bus trip through rural Asia and proceeded to drink far, far too much beer over a game of cards - our first blow out since ... Hue, I guess, on Ossie's birthday. The next day was a write-off - I was ready to get up at 0800 as agreed, but nobody else was even awake, so I had a shower and decided to go back to sleep.
The main bag with Kampot is that it's near Bokor Hill Station, formerly a luxury resort for French Imperialists, then a battlefield for the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese People's Army, now a national park struggling to stave off the effects of illegal logging and poaching. This is one area in Cambodia where landmines aren't a problem - neither the KR or the VPA used them here, since they wanted to retain control of the land for civilian use, or so I'm told.
We argued over the best way to tackle the road from Kampot up to Bokor Hill Station - 30km of ruined rouad which I guess hasn't been maintained or repaired since the French fled in 1954. I was in favour of motorcycles, thinking that the half-day we had available to get used to the bikes would be enough, and reasoning that since there were no landmines, we wouldn't need a guide. Jen was particularly unhappy with this idea, and I suppose it's fair enough, given that I'd only just strarted riding bikes again after not doing it since I was a kid, Deb and Ben had ridden them for the first time in Hoi An, and Ossie can't even ride a pushbike. So we got the pickup at 0900 the next morning (May 4) and went to market, bought a kilo of beef, a kilo of pork, some mushrooms and aubergine and limes and garlic and onions and green peppers and chillies, some bread and bananas, a slab of beers, a case of water and a lot of ice, and headed on up the mountain.
The road really is in very bad repair - 30km takes at least two hours. It is, however, a very safe road, because it's impossible to go fast without breaking bits of your vehicle, and we had a grand old time on narrow seats in the back of the ute. The first buildings command an incredible view from more than a kilometre's altitude over the coast not much more than a kilometre away. The main group of buildings, about ten kilometres further on, are spread over a wide swampy plateau. On a small hill at the north (inland) end of the plateau is the shell of a small chapel; on the larger hill at the southern, coastal end of the plateau is the hotel and casino which was the centrepiece of the resort which was here. These two buildings, less than a kilometre apart, were held by the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese, respectively, and a bitter battle was fought for control of these highlands here. The buildings here are all very heavily graffitied, but one particular piece in the chapel stands out:
"This Church" we are the Protectors: TEP-SARY, VANNOL, NOB-VONARA
These are Khmer names, not Vietnamese names.
The rocky headland above the chapel is wreathed in cloud and drops sheer down into a jungly wilderness stretching to the sea, which you can sometimes see if the cloud clears for a moment. There are the remains of an artillery emplacement here. It is truly a majestic place, and I can see why an army would defend it to their last man.
The hotel itself is more creepy but altogether less inspiring than the chapel; it sees many more people, and there's a refreshment stop and a huge amount of rubbish here. The drive, on a joke, let me drive the ute down a couple of KM to the ranger station, in the middle of the plateau; upon doing so, I found that the thing had virtually no brakes. To get any sort of brake action, you have to pump the brakes, and on the third or fourth pump they kick in. There was nothing much for it - we would have to come down the mountain in the thing tomorrow. After checking in at the ranger station, we took off to the Popokvil Falls, a double-tiered waterfall which turned out to be much less impressive in the dry season (now) than we'd been led to believe. There was no swimming, but the falls still provided a good cold shower and water massage. Upon return to the vehicle, our driver had made busy collecting firewood for dinner.
The ranger station is another of the old french buildings, being redecorated and refitted to train more rangers and act as a research facility for the national park. Two more buildings have been put up either side of it for classrooms and accomodation. Dinner was a bit of a trip. The driver, whose english was insufficient to swap names, got a fire going in about fifteen seconds, and the rangers, laughing at our pitiful woodchopping technique, began to give beginner's classes in woodcraft. As it began to get dusky, we realised that the faint rumblings we'd heard all day were lightning, which had been crackling and fizzing around all day. I went into the kitchen to make prep for grillings, and like bush kitchens which are used every day, this one was utterly spotless. An hour later, we were all prepped and the generator was giving a bit of light,the fire had burned down to good coals and we'd fashioned a grill station out of some masonry, but an amazing lightning storm was riolling in fast, and we barely got though one grill's worth before we had to give up and use the woks in the kitchen. The torrential rain lasted only an hour or so, and by 2000 all was calm again and the fire was still going. The lightshow continued all night, moving closer and further away, all around us and over the sea.
Next day we took it easy, mooching around camp then visiting the temple on the same cliff as, but about a kilometre from the chapel. A small boy, probably a monk-in-training, played with his best friend, a blind monkey. For being blind, the monkey seemd to have no problems getting around and doing monkey business, and the affection and partnership between the two of them was really genuine. The kid was still small enough to not be treating the monkey like a pet - they were partners in malarkey. A very old monk and a younger man looked on indulgently.
The trip down the hill was, if possible, worse than the trip up. The brakes gave us no problems, so I guess the driver was used to it. Once back in Kampot, we stopped for a quick drink before heading out to Kep - another former french resort, famous now for its seafood. To go between Kampot and Kep, you need to pass over a long, flimsy wooden bridge. No problem, right? people do it every day. We had an excellent meal in Kep; I ordered 'full chicken' expecting some bizarre thing or other, but in fact I did recieve an entire chicken, roasted in Khmer style and presented on a bed of sauteed vegetables. Good eats. I rate Cambodian food far above Vietnamese food. Jen and I swam in bath-temperature water. On the way back, we were told we'd have to take a detour, as the bridge had collapsed in the intervening three hours. The driver reckoned the detour would take two clocks, but it was only about one clock in reality. The whole drive, lightning rumbled and flashed all around us - coming to Cambodia has almost been worth it just for the lightning.
That night we were exhausted, but we tried to teach Retti, the young dogsbody type dude at the hostel, to play cards anyway. i reckon he would have gotten it, too, but he was called off to do some work and stop slacking.
The Road To Phnom Penh
We took the 28th as a reserve day, to collect wits and rest our bruised arses. It was simply too hot to do anything, accustomed as we had become to the cooler temperatures of the highlands. I bought a copy of General Vo Nguyen Giap's People's War, People's Army; Giap was the commander in chief of the North Vietnamese Army which routed the French at Dien Bien Phu, and later held out against the American and ARVN forces until 1975, when the americans left, then immediately prosecuted another war against the Khmer Rouge to defend against China's pincer movement - the Khmer Rouge, backed by China, in the Southwest, and the Chinese advancing directly from the North. It's not really a book as much as a collection of papers, and this 1968 English edition has a foreword by an american military historian who still talks as if the Vietnam War is winnable for the Americans. The book is subtitled The Viet Cong Insurrection Manual For Underdeveloped Countries. I haven't really had much time to read it yet.
Because independent travel in Viet Nam is such a pain in the arse, and so expensive, we signed onto a tour which would take us, by bus and by boat, to Chau Doc on the Cambodian border and thence to Phnom Penh up the Me Kong river. While in the tour office, it began to rain like I never have seen it rain before. I've experienced three years of monsoons in Korea, and gotten caught in a thunderstorm at an extinct volcano in Thailand, but this is just something else - fat, warm drops of rain falling in a thick stream which saturates everything in seconds. An umbrella is no defence; a raincoat is next to worthless, the only thing for it is to submit to the rain and seek the inside of a building where you can sit and marvel at a year's worth of rain coming down in an hour. I stupidly did not realise this, and tried to make a break for the hotel - two minutes fast walking. No part of me remained dry when I arrived, and by the time I'd gotten changed and gone outside again, the streets were ankle-deep in water. We sat in a corner cafe with beers watching the streets flood deeper, even the floor of the restaurant was under a few inches of water. Saigonese went on about their business, driving their little bikes as hard as they could through the lake, to keep the water out of their exhaust, usually to no avail. Kids went bodysurfing on bits of cardboard, old women came around with baskets of wet fruit, prissy princesses tottered on through in high heels; life just went on as if nothing had happened. Ossie found a small water snake in the restaurant, and repatriated it to the deeper water of the road. Eventually the water subsided, and within three or four hours all was dry again.
At this time I found out that my laptop was broken. Much swearing and frustration ensued as I tried to take off the back of the case with a boning knife and a screwdriver, but eventually I discovered a crack in the connection from the power input to the greenboard, probably caused by impact on that corner of the laptop while the power cable was in. I'd foolishly left the machine sitting on a desk in Nha Trang with the power cable in, and I guess the maid must have knocked it off or something. Beyond my power to repair, and leaving Sai Gon in 14 hours, I took the hard drive out and abandoned it. At least my pack is now a few kilos lighter. This is the reason I'm playing catchup now.
The tour left an hour or so late the next day, which was fortunate since the laundry which claimed to open at 0700, didn't until 0800. The first stop, after two hours, was My Tho, and upon arrival we queried our guide about some changes which had been made to the itinerary. Lo and behold, we were on the wrong tour, which basically spent the whole day faffing about going to bee farms and such, before going by bus to Chau Doc. We caused a ruckus, and ended up calling the office we'd booked through, and discovered that the tour we'd been sold didn't exist any more. So we got in a taxi, then on a bus, then on another bus back to the fucking cafe we'd booked through, and were very promptly and without any hassle given our money back in full. In Asia, being there is nine tenths of the task. That night we went and watched Chelsea thrash Manchester United with Mr Betty, who was going to have the laptop repaired once he figured out what was wrong with it. It was now the 29th, and Ben and Jen's visas expired on May 1st, so we had two days to get to and cross the border.
The next day we made our way by cab to Sai Gon's West bus station, and were all set up on a chicken bus to Chau Doc (5 hours, $5) when I realised I'd left my damn passport at the hotel. Hotels in Viet Nam have to take the passports of all foreign guests for registration with the police, so on reflex I'd handed over mine when checking in the night before. However, this particular hotel didn't take passports as a rule (no idea why), so when Deb had paid the bill in the morning, she hadn't gotten the passports back. The Traveller's Creed, kids, with apologies to the USMC:
This is my passport. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My passport without me is useless. Without my passport, I am useless. It is my own responsibility and nobody else's.
Deb and I got off the bus, I got on a moto back to the hotel, where the hotelier was utterly mortified that his staff hadn't checked and given it back, and I got back on my moto to the bus station again. While travelling, we were passed by two lads on a motorcycle, one carrying a very large, live fish by the tail. The fish was not amused.
I arrived back at the bus depot to find that Deb had been taken in and looked after by the bunch of old men whose job it appears to be making sure everything runs smoothly - she'd been sat down in the shade and given a cold drink, and shielded from the pushy moto mafia. There was one further problem; Ossie had the ticket stubs, without which we couldn't demonstrate that we'd paid for the tickets, even though the station master, who spoke English and was very helpful, had seen us buy them, and the ticket-checking lady, with a face like a smacked arse, had personally taken them from me. A bus was about to leave, and it was decided that we had to buy two more tickets. By now I could see the game here: to get on THIS bus and only be an hour behind our friends, we would have to buy another ticket each, because they presumed we were in a hurry, and people in hurry will do what they have to do. The worth thing you can be in in Asia is a hurry; you are at the mercy of anyone who is capable of speeding things up for you. So we stood and calmly reasoned with the smacked-arse lady and the station master until the bus left - and then, as if by magic, a new handwritten ticket appeared for us, on the next bus. Once again: being there is nine tenths of the job - if you just stand your ground quietly and remain calm, if you're prepared to let things take as long as they have to take, you will eventually find yourself in a position of greater strength than those who are trying to hinder you. You will eventually not be worth their hassle, and they will give you what you want just to get you out of their way.
The bus did eventually leave, and I think it was the best and the worst five dollars I've ever spent on transport. The best, because the bus through the country roads of the Me Kong delta is an astounding, intimate, complicated journey which puts you in very close proximity with this Vietnamese heartland; the smells and the the sights and the sounds, the colours and rickety old buildings, people doing their business and preparing for Independence Day celebrations, it really is the best damn bus journey I've ever done. The worst $5 though, because for $50 I could have gone with Binh through the country he grew up in, where his family lives and in which he played and worked and learned as a kid, and it would have been yet better.
I get the feeling that life in the Me Kong delta hasn't really changed much in principle for thousands of years. It is very densely populated, but there are no cities of any consequence down here. Most of Viet Nam's rice is grown here, and the largest numbers of cattle and fish. The houses are set side by side along the many roads and rivers which wind through the area, some on permanent land, others of which move as the waters do. Individual families grow rice and bananas, farm fish and raise chickens and ducks and cattle and goats, some make bricks and others make fish sauce - everything seems to be done by hand, and in such proximity to everything else, it's impossible to survive without cooperating. But, the fact of the matter is that it HAS changed; until a few hundred years ago, most of the Me Kong in Viet Nam was Kampuchea Krom - lower Cambodia. In exchange for military assistance against the Thai, who were trying to claim the lands around Angkor Wat, the Vietnamese were allowerd to settle the Me Kong, and a small city north of it, which is now called Ho Chi Minh City, or Sai Gon. The industrious Vietnamese had coveted the Me Kong for centuries, thinking that the Khmer were letting it go to waste by not settling and utilising its massive area and fertility. The French had a saying about Indochina which runs along the lines of: The Chinese sell the rice seed to the Vietnamese, who plant it. The Khmer watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it rustle in the wind. The implication is along the lines of the Chinese are astute businessmen, the Vietnamese are hardworking, the Khmer are lazy and the Lao are just backwards, which is more or less still the attitude today.
The further up the MeKong we went, the more it separated out into individual rivers, until at sunset we crossed what I guess is the main branch, miles wide, by ferry at Long Xuyen. Just after nightfall we made Chau Doc,which was buzzing with Independence Day celebrations and thousands of people. We somehow managed to find the only hotel which wasn't full, and by pure chance met Ben and Jen and Ossie, whose had had a blowout and had arrived in Chau Doc only a short while before us, despite leaving almost three hours earlier.
Just at closing time, Deb booked us on the boat to Vinh Xuong on the Vietnamese side, where we'd have lunch and change boats after the border crossing. The boat trip on the heavily-populated Vietnamese side was, if possible, even more far out than the bus trip had been - seeing the river from river level, as the people who live there see it. We were joined on the boat by a brit called Gareth, a retired Japanese man who now teaches Japanese in Thailand, a young Hong Kong cancer surgeon, a couple of gals from Christchurch, four young Korean women and two obnoxious Russian couples. The men were reasonable enough, didn't say much and kept to themselves, but the two stroppy braless tarts were precisely the kind of people who give Russians a bad name - complaining about everything, insisting that people on the bus be moved so they can sit with their boyfriends, basically just being boorish. Ben and Jen, having just spent a month or so in Russia, made the observation that the only Russians who can afford to travel for leisure are the very rich, and these pair certainly acted like princesses of privilege.
All that said, the trip was slow and easy, and we had a long stop for lunch at the border, where we played a bit of ball and teased the kids. The tour guide had taken our passportsto border control for visas, and when we got them back, there was a Cambodian visa and a receipt for $20 each - she'd said it would cost $22 - and we presumed we'd be asked to cough up the $20 at some point or other. But it was not to be - we were waved through customs and stamped into Cambodia without so much as a speck of silver crossing anyone's palm. $60 richer might not seem like a lot, but in this part of the world it's a shitload of money and after the hassles of the earlier part of the Viet Nam leg, we were glad to have clawed a little back.
Cambodia on the Me Kong is as different from Viet Nam as it's possible to get on essentially the same terrain. Gone are the stilt houses, the paddies and banana plantations, the fish farms and little boats and water buffalo wallowing - it's a wide, flat river with low, flat banks covered in jungle or grass or nothing. Occasionally we'd see villages of naked brown-skinned children, which is almost unheard of in Viet Nam, and a few times people were washing their cattle or fishing or bathing, but it was like going from a country of 77 million people to a country of nine million with land to spare. The people were very friendly, though - waving out and shouting hello and jumping up and down if you waved back, all those sorts of things. It must be a good life being a bare-arsed little kid on the Me Kong - river and jungle and animals and your family. Until you get old enough to work, and until you realise that other people get to eat things other than rice and fish and bananas.
Neak Luong is a scruffy port town, and we were quickly shuffled onto buses. Cambodia's roads are famously bad, and if this was an indication of a main highway (I've since discovered it is) then it really doesn't leave much hope for the minor roads. On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the bus broke down (air compressors for the drum brakes, they said) and we were immediately transferred without hassle to another bus. The russian tarts caused no end of trouble over this, despite it being a matter of getting off one bus and onto another. We were dropped off outside a guesthouse, but we hauled our packs across the road to a bar with booming reggae, cheap beer, and a joint-smoking proprietor called Phillipe to plan our next move.
The Road to Sai Gon, part 3
We'd decided on the strength of the first day to extend our trip from two days to three, going to Gia Nghia in the Southern Central Highlands tonight (April 26) and thence to Sai Gon on the 27th. This second day was rather more travel and less sightseeing than the first, though it was livened up some when Ossie's bike blew a tyre at about 1000. It takes these guys about 10 minutes to repair a puncture and re-inflate the tyre using a hand-pump in the burning sun. Our first stop was at Buon Ma Thuot, the other major city in the highlands, home to Asia'sbest and most famous coffee; the raw berries are fed to a civet cat, thenthe coffee beans are collected from its shit, then roasted and so on. Enzymes in the cat's digestion alter the coffee, giving it a smoother and richer flavour and raising the price of its production astronomically. A young medical student called Trung Nguyen made a fortune growing and marketing this coffee; he's apparently one of the Socialist Republic's richest men, and his coffee is everywhere. Buon Ma Thuot is his home base; this town is ruled by coffee. Buon Ma Thuot also has the distinction of being the first city in South Viet Nam to have been liberated by the Viet Cong, and the only city other than Hue to have been held by them for any real length of time. on what is now the centre of town a famous battle was fought. The VC had dismantled and carried by hand along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, by night, an entire tank, then had dug a great pit and reassembled the tank, by night and by hand, then had used it to ambush the hapless ARVN defenders of Buon Ma Thuot. The tank (probably not the same tank, but still) now takes pride of place in a memorial monument in the central roundabout of the city.
In Buon Ma Thuot, we stopped at a bakery, then on to Virgin Falls, probably so named because of a romantic suicide or somesuch. Fearsomely hot, we lunched by the water, across the river from a group opf young, tough-looking guys. They invited us over, but we stayed where we were, so they came over to us - four lads about eighteen and one of fourteen or so, fit and shirtless, clearly wagging school or something. They were unfailingly polite and despite us not sharing a common language we got on fine; they offered us beer and cigarettes and shots of ruou, we gave them bakery food which they seemed entirely intrigued by. All the stories we'd heard about gangs of young ne'er-do-wells in Viet Nam appear to have been unfounded. These guys looked tough; one had a row of what looked like cigarette burns up the outside of his left arm, another had a big scar on his right shoulder; but they were entirely genuine, just lads wanting to meet us and share their lunch and enquire where we were going. They gave us a bag of tiny, sour apricots s we left, and insisted on a dozen photos.
Later in the afternoon we stopped for yet more agricultural outings - pepper, rubber, more coffee, sugar, tapioca (VC food, they call it), and around 1600 it rained - just lightly, but enough to drop the temperature down into the 30s for a while. It seems like rain in the mid-afternoon is how it plays down here, and once it rains the temperature doesn't seem to come back up until nightfall, which makes even the smallest amount of rain an unmitigated blessing. On the motorbikes, with the wind (VC Aircon) we were actually COLD for a glorious few minutes.
This stretch of road, from Buon Ma Thuot to Gia Nghia and beyond, runs more or les along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and parallel to the Cambodian border. As such it's the site of much history, many monuments and also a great deal of military presence. Apparently the Ho Chi Minh trail is still maintained to a certain degree, or some parts of it are still under military use, so there are restricted areas, warning signs and checkpoints all along the north and west side of the road. The war against the Khmer Rouge is still a fairly recent memory, and this ancient border area is heavily guarded. As we stopped at the Ho Chi Minh Trail Monument; the place where the trail builders from north and south met when creating the trail itself, a little bare-bum kid went by with a pineapple and a stick. As a big truck passed by, he hunkered down in the ditch, making himself small and protecting himself from stones and dust. Khoa pointed to him and said "look, little VC". This is Viet Cong heartland, and the Viet Cong are still remembered as heroes here; it retains the feel of a frontier area through the peoples' simple solutions to problems using available materials and technology, and through its remoteness from the big cities. We stopped at a roadside cafe in a rubber plantation, and drank coffee lying in hammocks in the cool damp after-rain air - VC bed, they call it.
The hotel we stayed at in Gia Nghia was brand new and very snazzy, quite un-VC. Apparently it was owned by a traffic policeman. How, you might ask, can a lowly traffic policeman on a rural civil servant's salary of a few hundred dollars a month, afford to open a twenty-room hotel? The answer lies in Viet Nam's lack of traffic regulation - what is and is not an offense, and the precise nature and severity of said offense, is left largely up to the discretion of the officer. So traffic policemen just stop vehicles now and again, on flimsy pretexts liek having your lights on during the day, or having too many people on board, or not having your load correctly covered. If the driver and policeman can agree on a reasonable fine, the driver pays it and goes on his way; if not, the driver normally has to go and explain himself to the policeman's superiors down at the station - in this case he almost certainly won't pay a fine, but he might well be tied up in red tape for four hours, during which time his passengers and cargo go nowhere. And next time he comes by, the fine will be larger, and the wait longer. Like in Korea, foreigners are almost never stopped, because the policemen are ashamed of the fact that they can't speak english.
Dinner in Gia Nghia was another fantastic feast of local food: Lau Bo, Vietnamese beef hot pot. The first place we went to, which had huge freshwater crayfish and odd-looking bent-necked eels was full of drunken party members and cronies; apparently the progression of dinner -> drinking -> karaoke -> whorehouse is the same in Viet Nam as in Kore and Japan and China. The hot-pot place was quieter, just local families and the hosts eating. Binh is a very demanding customer, particularly when he's entertaining honoured guests like us, and we got nothing but the best in service and food - big slabs of boiled beef, huge plates of cress and licoricey leaves and mint and coriander, noodles and mushrooms and so on. At one point Ossie and I were talking with Khoa about various entrails and offal. Ossie mentioned tripe, and Binh overheard; before Ossie could explain that he doesn't like the stuff, there were big lumps of chewy tripe in the stew.
The biggest day's riding was the next, to Sai Gon, and it also entailed getting back down to sea level and the sticky heat of the Me Kong delta. We had breakfast in the Viet Nam - Cambodian border town of Dong Xoai; apparently poor migrant workers and traders come from Cambodia on day-passes to work and sell goods here; it's a rough town but one I wish I could have stayed longer in, just looking around the market. After an hour or so, Thien's tyre went again; this time they dismantled the wheel and changed the tube, which was still done in remarkable time.
The other big industry we hadn't yet seen is cashew nuts, which is probably the most interesting bit of it all. You might think the reason cashew nuts are so expensive is because they're quite hard to grow, and require incredible amounts of work to harvest and prepare for eating. This is true, but the fact remains that prepared cashew nuts from Viet Nam only sell for about US$1 per kilo, and then can be bought at retail in the west for ten or more times that price. The cashew nut is actually attached to a fruit which looks a little bit like a quince - the fruit is apparently worthless, but the fact remains that there is only one nut per fruit, and the nut and fruit have to be separated. The nut is then enclosed in a leathery, oily husk, which must be dried out and split open - one nut at a time. The oil from the husk is pungent-smelling, very sticky, like tar, and irritates the skin and eyes. Once out of the husk, there is yet another layer of thin skin, a little like peanut skin, but with this same oily tarriness, which must be cut and scraped off, by hand. Only once all this preparation is done can the nuts be dried and roasted. All that work is done for $1 per kilo; it appears the real winners are the people who charge the other $9 per kilo for the privilege of shipping, salting and bagging them. From there it was plain sailing all the way through to the plywood factory, where lathes made from truck engines peel strips off rubberwood trees for layering and glueing and steaming into packing cases and so on. Nothing goes to waste, again - the offcuts of this industry, like the cashew husks, go into brick and tile factories as fuel.
As we came down through the hills back onto the arid plains, the temperature rose again, and we didn't stop until we were quite close to Sai Gon, at the site of a bombed-out bridge. Unlike most of the bridges further north, this bridge was blown on purpose by the retreating ARVN and American soldiers in April 1975, as they were pursued by the Viet Cong. Now, a new bridge is being built next to it, which means three bridges within 100m over the same river - the old bridge is now unusable, but will remain as a symbol of VC Triumph over the American Interventionists and their Republican Running Dogs.
Two more stops - a ceramic factory where everything has a backup in case the power goes out; potter's wheels driven by bicycle, etc. The other stop was the place where they make pallets and wire spools - the sort which adorn children's playgrounds all over New Zealand - out of ruibber wood. These are assembled by hand by children, some handicapped - one we saw had permanently cocked eyes, and had to turn his head to the side to see anything, and yet was banging in a four-inch nail in three strokes, time after time. The Socialist Republic doesn't have time for the disabled, or children deformed by agent orange, or for people maimed in industrial accidents, so they tend to work in places like this; dangerous, hard labour, with no rewards and virtually no pay. Khoa doesn't like sawmills - in 1992 he was working as an engineer in a mill sharpening and cleaning bandsaw blades, when one spun into life and sheared off half his right index finger. He got a few hundred dollars from his employer.
Coming into Sai Gon itself was really more of a big deal than I'd thought. It's a big city, almost 10 million people, and spread over a fairly large, flat area with many rivers and swamps and lakes and canals. The one overriding aspect of the city is the traffic - it's famously bad, and we got caught amongst the very worst of it, on April 27th at about 1700 - rush hour. Motorcycles - the scooters I've already described - outnumber other vehicles at least 100 to 1. They're small and agile, the drivers are fearless to the point of insanity, and there is simply no space too small for one to fit through. In Sai Gon, if you swerve half a metre to avoid a collision, you're a bad driver - a good driver would swerve ten centimetres, and leave the rest of the space for another moto. The trip of ten or so kilometres into Pham Ngu Lao, the heart of the tourist district, took about an hour. The Easy Riders' 125cc bikes - proper bikes, with a clutch and gears, rather than step-through, with fat foreigners and a big pack on the back, are sluggish and easy to stall under these conditions - where, strangely, a 70cc super cub with five people on it is still as nippy as you like. These are driving conditions which have to be experienced, they can't be described. The motos are like water in a river, flowing around any object slower or larger than them, which is everything. Yet more proof of the madness which makes these motos the all-purpose all-terrain vehicles of Viet Nam: two men on a moto, carrying a 30-inch plasma TV worth something like $5000. For fuck's sakes, spend $5 on a taxi! But if it's good enough for the people, I suppose it's good enough for their gear, no matter how expensive: Viet Nam's annual road toll is about 50,000 people - the population of Wellington city from Thorndon to the top of Brooklyn hill, to Mount Cook and Mount Victoria, and the bulk of those deaths occur in Sai Gon.
But we survived, and with very sore arses checked into Hotel Betty, run by a French teacher who'd worked in France and Belgium, and who also spoke fluent English. We met up with Ben and Jen; the day we'd left them in Nha Trang, Jen had come down with gastroenteritis and had been laid up in bed for most of the intervening four days; they'd arrived in Sai Gon about the same time as us. Out to dinner one last time with the Easy Riders, who by now were like old friends. Parting in Shakespeare's Verona may be sweet sorrow, but in Viet Nam it's just weirdness with money changing hands, much shuffling of feet and avowals to remain in touch. The mood was lightened somewhat by Thien, who had apparently never eaten anything other than noodles and rice, at the age of 46. He when the whole hog in Sai Gon, and ordered a large Mexican Pizza, which he proceeded to eat very gingerly, but not before giving pieces away to everyone else at the table. I gave Khoa my LED headlamp, which he coveted for nighttime motorcycle repairs. Binh was uncharacteristically quiet and serious. The whole fee for our four days was $170 per person - a very large sum given our individual budgets, and a very large sum in Vietnamese terms as well, but again it didn't seem enough. That said, the Easy Riders aren't rich - they might earn $50 per day, but it's only when they can find work, which certainly isn't all the time. Khoa works as an Easy Rider when he can; otherwise he drives the Chicken Bus between Sai Gon, Da Lat and Ha Noi; he also runs an engineering and construction workshop, and his wife is a receptionist at the 5-star Sofitel Da Lat. Between them, they seem to be able to get by, and both their daughters are at school, which is quite a rarity. I get the feeling Binh does the Easy Rider thing full-time. He's one of the originals (number 007, right), and he has a fat black book full of handwritten recommendations and photos of his previous guests. Binh speaks English pretty fluently, and also claims to speak French, German, Dutch and Danish, and some others which I forget - maybe Japanese or Chinese? We didn't believe him, but he did manage to ask Martin, in Danish, what his name was. Thien is a strange one - he looks older than Binh, but is ten years younger. He looks as if he's had a hard life or spent a long time in prison (or perhaps re-education camps), but he's calm and friendly and plays a superb game of football. He definitely is the junior partner in this enterprise, and doesn't speak much English. Ossie's report in Thien's book was the second entry. Trung, my guide from the first day, is a self-avowed Country Bumpkin - never went to high school or university, and learned all his English for being a tour guide. He claims that the reason country bumpkin families (not his, though) have so many children is because they have no power, no TV, no radio - so once it gets dark there's nothing to do but hanky-panky, as he says.
And that's the trip. I haven't gone into half the detail I could have, and haven't show a quarter of the kinds of people these guys are. This, so far, has been the only must-do activity of the journey.
The Road To Sai Gon, Part 2
After lunch on day 1, we caught our first sight of the Ho Chi Minh trail; now a narrow path not rerally fit for 4wds to run along, but along which used to flow food, arms, artillery pieces, even tanks dismantled into parts and drawn by oxen and people. Apparently we could have walked back to Da Lat in 10 hours; it would have been a good trek, too. The other way, the road lead out to the coast south of Nha Trang, connecting by sea with the bunkers we'd visited at Vinh Moc.
The rest of the day we barely stopped. We passed a new highway-grade road which had been carved out of a cliff face - until six months ago, the villages at the end of that road took a day on foot to get to town by perilous cliffside jungle trails - now it takes 15 minutes by motorbike. The village elders closed the villages up; apparently when the road finally went through, the first thig to happen was tour operators bringing in busloads of tourists, bpoth foreign and Vietnamese, to see how an authentic hill tribe village looked. Schrodinger would be rolling in his grave.
That night we met up again with Trung at Lak Village - another such village, only the road had been put through some years before. A vigorour game of football ensued with Trung and Khoa and a random vietnamese dude, and a Danish man called Fleming and his two sons Martin and Kasper, 14 and 9, in which I was penalised for trying to keep goal with my hands (honestly ... I can't train my goalie's reflexes out). It was 5-5 when we decided the light was too bad to play on. A grand night was had in the floating restaurant, surrounded by frogs and geckos and lilypads.
Tomorrow I'm taking a reserve day to come and write the rest of the trip up, including crazy days in and out of Sai Gon, bus and boats up the Me Kong to Phnom Penh, and four days down on the south coast in which time my arse got unmercifully pounded by bad roads. I promise, really I am.
The Road to Sai Gon, part 1
You already heard most of what there is to hear about Nha Trang, except that due to a ticketing fuckup we had to get the Chicken Bus to Da Lat, instead of the tourist bus, which wasn't so bad.
When people imagine Viet Nam, they imagine thick, lush, wet rainforest, dark soil and water everywhere. I've come to the conclusion that this is because most Vietnam War movies are actually filmed in the rainforest of the Phillipines, where it really is like that. In fact Central and Southern Viet Nam from Da Nang south to Sai Gon - the area where the bulk of the fighting took place - is quite arid, with red and yellow volcanic soil, and the populated areas tend to be very flat. Much of this is to do with defoliation, though Agnet Orange and napalm were used more commonly in the highlands where jungle cover had not already been cleared away by a thousand years of extensive agriculture. Da Lat is in these highlands, the second-highest region of the country, which shared a long border with Cambodia, and was mostly uninhabited by Vietnamese until the French arrived and made it into a mountain resort. The city itself was largely unscarred bvy the war - it served as an unofficial truce point where commanders from either side could cool their heels in the fresh mountain air - but the countryside around Da Lat was almost completely destroyed. More than 75% of the jungle is gone, and has since been replaced with gardens and pine forests. Apparently this changed the climate quite radically - Da Lat women were famous for their pale skin, red lips and pink cheeks, because of the city's cold alpine climate. Now, it';s only 10 or so degrees colder than the rest of Southern Viet Nam. Which still makes it a wonderful place to be. A place cool enough to walk around - up and down hills - without getting hot and stinky. Da Lat is also famous for the Easy Riders, a group of professional motorcycle tour guides, most of whom served or worked with the american army during the war, and so a) speak excellent english and b) were re-educated and marginalised in the new Socialist Republic, and have had trouble getting other work. I can't say enough about how good these guys are - they're the best; polite and professional, careful and sensible drivers, considerate, respectful, knowledgeable, funny, honest, etc - and this is their country and they know it like the back of their hands.
We took up with Binh, Easy Rider #007, who unofficially used to fly helicopters for the americans during the war. He's 56, from the Me Kong delta, but married a pretty Da Lat girl and has lived there since, and now can't stand the heat and hustle of Sai Gon and the lowlands. He and Trung and Thien took us about Da Lat for a day more or less free of sightseeing and tourist hassle; we dropped in to see local stuff happening, like people making bamboo trays for silk worms, a silk factory, mushroom farm, coffee plantations, a spectacular waterfall where you get your own personal rainbow if you climb through a small hole in the rock, a village with an enormous cement chicken (known as the Chicken Village) where we were invited in to do a bit of teaching at the local school, and that sort of thing. Basically, just seeing the country at work, and getting a history lesson about the war, reconstruction, liberalisation of socialist laws, and so on which has seen Da Lat flourish. On the strength of this, after deliberating for ages at the cost ($50 per person per day, no negotiation, all inclusive - these guys are professionals and charge like professionals) we agreed on a two-day trip about half of the way to Sai Gon.
The next day Trung wasn't there; he was doing the same route of our first day with a Danish family in a Landcruiser, so we had Khoa, AKA David, instead. We visited a family who made rice paper for spring rolls, and rice crackers and rice dough and rice wine, which isn't actually wine at all. This stuff is called ruou, and is what I was fed to drink in Dong Hoi after the chilly bin incident. They make it by taking broken rice, the cheap stuff which won't sell for export, boiling and soaking it to release the sugar, adding yeast and allowing it to ferment (vietnamese temperatures make for easy fermentation), then distilling the resultant beer. The rice mush which is left over doesn't go to waste - nothing does, out here. It gets fed to pigs. It's very high in energy because the fermentation is incomplete,but as an added bonus it makes the pigs drunk and lazy, so they spend all their time sleeping rather than running around wasting energy. Consequently the pigs are more docile, easier to handle and put on weight faster than sober pigs, and everyone prospers. Except the pigs. I hate to think what happens to the pig who doesn't get his fix of rice beer mush. Or rather, the pig farmer who tries to handle said pig.
We also visited a Koho village - the Koho are one of Viet Nam's 50-odd minorities, and the Koho are the same people as live in the Chicken Village. These people have been more marginalised than most by pre-liberation Viet Nam, but have been looke after, after a fashion, by the socialists. Mostly this seems to be because they are a liability and a barrier to progress if not assimilated. The Koho and most other minorities have historically been nomadic slash-and-burn jungle agriculturalists, which works fine if a) there aren't very many of you and b) you have lots of jungle. Since the American War b) is no longer true, and the socialists, in order to better control these people, make them learn Vietnamese and so on, gave each family a cow. Having a cow eis immense wealth to a culture of jungle nomads, but it does require them to settle down - cows don't like jungle very much. Now, most of these minority families have several cows, and very little else now that they're prevented from making a living in their old ways. It's a clever ploy, and surprisingly farsighted for communists - carrot, rather than stick, to get people to do your bidding.
Off to dinner now, more to come.
Exit Hoi An
Our last day in Hoi An, we rented motorbnikes from the hotel and drove about the place, heading out to the beach and then down the unfinished coast road for half an hour or so before going back into Hoi An for lunch.
We left Hoi An that night, April 20, on the 12-hour overnight bus. A 12 hour bus trip is never fun, and this one wasn't. At about 01:45, we hit something on the road, with a bang and a crunch, something hard which bounced under the bus and made it lurch upwards. Everyone woke up, but we didn't stop until about 5km later, when the crew got out and looked at the damage, had a smoke, then we carried on. I still have no idea what it was - could have been a rock or a motorbike or a milestone or one of the ancestral shrines which Vietnamese set up next to fields to bring a good harvest. I've decided that ther only way to stay sane in Asia is to think like the locals - if they aren't worried, why should I be? Bus Travel in Viet Nam, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Chaos.
The trip from Nha Trang to Sai Gon, and thence to my current location in Phnom Penh, is a long story, so I'll tell it in a few parts as I get time; my laptop died in Sai Gon, so I'm 100% internet room now.