Date Saturday, November 02, 2002

Tales from the Mekong Delta, Cambodia and Bangkok 2 November 2002

We're now in Chiang Mai, North East Thailand, waiting for a bit of cooking, massage and trekking...

First things first - I have to say 'congratulations' to Lizzie Finn and Johnny Weir who became engaged last week.... I'll be seeing some of you sooner than planned when I come home to help them celebrate the big day next summer!!!

Mekong Delta

About two weeks ago, we set off for a trip through the Mekong Delta to reach Cambodia. This area is known as the rice bowl of Vietnam. It's incredible to see how people make their living along the many waterways in this area. People are fishing, washing, cleaning, cooking and playing around their shacks in the water.

Cooking and fishing on the river

A riverside home

What was most memorable about our trip along the Mekong River (which runs from Nepal) was all the children along the way. They were so excited to see us pass and all shouted their 'hellos' and waved madly. It's a real shame for those towards the end of the journey as people get bored of waving back - but I made sure I kept waving all the way!

A group wave at the passing boat

Something else that we'll remember about our trip down from Ho Chi Minh to the Cambodia border was an incredible sunset - the sky turned from pink, through orange into red and then to black...

Sunset over the Mekong River

This was the end of our time in Vietnam and we were sorry to leave, but excited about Cambodia. The colours, sounds and smells will stay with us for a long time.

An old man wearing the traditional conical hat

Cambodia 23 October 2002

Cambodia, a country half the size of Vietnam, has a population of around 12 million. Famous for its temples and infamous for the terrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, tourism has started to pick up over the last five years or so.

Phnom Penh

We arrived in the capital, Phnom Penh, by speed boat from Chau Doc, Vietnam. Our first impressions of the country were very positive as the border guards were very efficient and friendly.

Phnom Penh is a lovely city, with some stylish colonial architecture and a very friendly feel.

The centre for Buddhist study in Phnom Penh

From Phnom Penh it's possible to visit two sites which remember the attrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot. We visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek - the site of the mass murder of more than 9,000 people. It is almost impossible to imagine that this took place in our lifetime. (It is believed that about 2 million of the then 11 million population were killed between 1975 and 1979.)

The memorial Stupa erected in memory of those found at Choeung Ek contains 8,000 skulls and remnants of the victims clothing

Another site dedicated to the memory of Pol Pot's victims is Tuol Sleng Museum. This former schol was taken over by Pol Pot's security forces in 1975 to become the largest centre of detention and torture in the country - known as S-21. People ended up here for wearing glasses, speaking a foreign language or being considered intellectual. Sadly, almost all of the people who came to S-21 ended up at Choeung Ek.

The school building - literally in the centre of the city

A detention room

Prior to Pol Pot's regime, Cambodia was one of the richest countries in South East Asia. Very much like Vietnam, the people are extremely positive despite such recent horrors. We were saddened to learn, however, that apparently much of the foreign aid doesn't get to where it's intended due to alleged widespread corruption. Young people are starting to question the value of getting well educated as they don't seem to be able to find good jobs despite their qualifications.

Some of the many friendly faces in Cambodia

Siem Reap - the Angkor temples

We moved on, up the Mekong River, to Siem Reap the site of the famous Angkor temples, built between the 9th and 13th centuries. At this time, the height of Khmer civilisation, the Khmer kings rules over a vast empire from what is now southern Vietnam to Yunnan, China and westward to the Bay of Bengal.

The most famous and one of the seven wonders of the world is Angkor Wat. Those not keen on this kind of culture may be interested to know that Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed at Ta Prohm.

The buildings are incredible human feats, but as Mark told a group of 'culture vultures': "Once you've seen one, you've seen them all...".. Although he was trying to shock, we did manage to whizz around an itinerary that should have taken three days between 7am and 1pm!

Angkor Wat - built in the first half of the 12th century to honour the god-king Vishnu

Monks at Angkor Wat

Another famous Wat (temple) is Angkor Thom, the Bayon is a temple made out of more than 200 carved faces of the goddess Avalokitesvara.

Bayon at Angkor Thom in black and white

Our favourite temple was Ta Prohm - it has been left just as it was discovered a century ago, by French explorers. The other monuments have been preserved and restored. Here the beauty of the jungle mingles with the incredible man-made temple.

Nature sits alongside the Ta Prohm temple

At the end of the day, Mark waits for sunset at Prohm Bahkeng

What we hadn't planned for was the danger of elephants - along the path down from Bahkeng we passed about five elephants...

You never know when you'll bump into an elephant!

We set off for the Thai border from Siem Reap.... well we tried. The moment I realised that we're not really roughing it on this trip was when the transport due to take us from Siem Reap to the Cambodian/Thai border turned up. We knew it was a pick up truck, we knew we'd be travelling on the back of it and we even knew that it's a terrible road.... What we hadn't planned for was to share the back of the pick up with seven full rucksacks and another 14 people!!!! We did get on and we did intend to go (albeit warily), but when the truck stopped around the corner to pick up more passengers I had a vision of me splatted on a very muddy road having fallen off the side.... We were defeated... we got off after a distance of about 200 metres and went back to our guesthouse and then we made our way to the border the following day by boat to Battambang and then a better road in a taxi (with just four passengers)!

Thailand - Bangkok 29 October 2002

Getting a mini-bus from the Cambodian border to Bangkok, we experienced what it is like when you first go to America... at a petrol station we asked for two coffees and were temporarily stunned when asked - black or white; weak, medium or strong; filter or regular... We knew that Thailand is more developed, but we were overwhelmed with how commercialised it is.

With people we met in Vietnam we'd joked about the Khoa San Road in Bangkok it is really funny to see how a perfectly normal person can step off a plane and within an hour be completely tranformed into a 'traveller'... Sadly Mark's hair's too short for the dreadlock extensions, but he was tempted with the idea of piercings and tattoos (???!!!) - he did ask that I call him Tarquil while there though... and he looks very good in fisherman's trousers!

Travellers' 'Mecca' the Khoa San Road

We spent a day exploring the main sites of Bangkok. There are some incredible buildings, but otherwise it's like any other big city and after all the friendly, welcoming people of Vietnam and Cambodia I felt a bit put out at the retisence - which I suppose anyone would feel in they visited the UK.

Images of Wat Phra Kaew - the temple of the Emerald Buddha

The Grand Palace

After a bit of culture, we snuck off to see some shops and for some British pub grub...

Mark's face lit up at the sight of a full English!