Land Cruise – Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam #125

 Last month Dena and I swam the beaches of a tropical Pangkor Island and visited the Sultan of Selangor before heading north to Thailand to run the Lats & Atts Share the Sail (that story by Bandit in issue #123). But our SE Asia adventuring was not over. Dena had always wanted to see the legendary ruins of Angkor Wat and we intended to have a quick look at Vietnam.

First things first, there was a Lats & Atts Harbor Hangout to check out in Chalong Bay, Thailand. David and his wife run the Harbor Hangout – Coconut Twins. For those not arriving by boat, they also run an Inn. After 7 days on a 44′ boat with 7 people, Dena and I were ready to stretch out a little. Soon as the door to our room closed, it was clothes off and into the giant shower.

Later we headed into the hills on the Inn scooter to check out the giant Buddha. To get there, take the dirt road past the monkey show and the grazing elephants. That night we headed down to the anchorage with David to meet up with our own Mike and Robin from Lats & Atts for a wonderful bay front dinner. On the way back to the Inn we drove by David’s other bar which was full of beautiful local working girls. I suggested we stop off for a coldy. I got the raised brow from Dena.

It was time to make our way to Cambodia. To get there we had to go through Bangkok. At the time there were raging, sometimes violent protests going on in the city. A chance to see history being made, wouldn’t miss it. We took a long bus ride that dumped us a couple blocks from the train to Bangkok. I’m fond of buses but I love the train. This one was ancient. We spent the extra couple dollars and got a sleeper. It seemed like a bargain but then it wasn’t Amtrak. There we were cocooned in our little bunk, separated from 40 other people in the car by a drape, the wheels screeching and scraping as we hobbled along. It was cozy.

We arrived in Bangkok in the morning. Being in a city, we could have gotten a regular cab for our ride across town but we opted for an open air tuk tuk. It’s basically a moped connected to a rickshaw. We figured it would be a better way to experience our first mass protest. Alas, there was a break in the action and so we had to settle for empty, smoky streets. Locals had told us that we were safe because we could not possibly be mistaken for either protestors or cops.

We found our next bus and headed for the border. As we ventured away from the city, the signs stopped having English on them which left us with only the goofy Thai script. Our last tuk-tuk driver dropped us at a Visa scam place near the border to Cambodia – real visas, triple the cost. We walked out. We decided to try to get our visas directly from the border guards.

Dena and I have traveled a lot, separately and together. It sometimes seems like a competition for who travels more efficiently. She trumped me this day when she whipped out a spare passport photo for her visa saying, “Where’s yours?” accompanied by her clever laugh. Luckily for me, the Jedi mind trick (and 6$ to the guard) got me around the photo requirement – cat skinned.

After another long cab ride, with some very nice Kiwi backpackers, we arrived at legendary Anchor Wat. This was Dena’s dream destination more than mine but I did my best, “I’m fascinated by the same architecture repeated for three days” impersonation. The temples really were beautiful and I did like the little town we stayed in, Siem Reap.

We bussed to the capital Phnom Penh. Sometimes we were on dirt roads … on the main route to the capital! But that’s the kind of traveling I like – to see a place before it gets soiled by imports, chain stores and TV. This place was real. It was miles and miles of farms, stick fences, horned cows (buffalo), and moats (mini reservoirs), in front of stilted huts and smiling faces. It was self sufficient people, making their own food and living the way God (Nature) intended.

And then there were the bugs. They eat them as snacks. I prefer natural, local, whole foods but I draw the line just before bugs. And they were at every roadside stand. Nice wicker bins full of marinated and cooked: cockroaches, grasshoppers and spiders. The guy sitting in front of us got off and bought a bag, sat back down and mowed through the little critters like they were popcorn. It was pretty awesome.

And hyper-efficient scooters everywhere. Traffic is not an issue when everyone rides a scooter. Like in Thailand, they had roadside stands that sold gas out of re-used plastic or glass bottles. It was convenient, “I’ll have the coconut icecream and a liter from the Johnny Walker Red”. Most of the scooters were gas but some were electric, and they had charging stations for them. These people understood the importance of evolving in a healthier direction.

We visited the killing fields. The communist Khmer Rouge swept through the country in the 70’s, rounding up and slaughtering thousands of the thinking people: professors, artists and scientists. In the middle of the camp was a big glass tower full of skulls. This place did move me.

We hung out at the coastal town of Sihanoukville and took a longtail to the islands to snorkel. We took our scooter up muddy dirt trails to find we had the entire Kbal Chhay falls park to ourselves for the day. It was beautiful. Most of the rooms we rented in SE Asia were nice, beachfront places. Most were under $20. Mopeds were $5 a day. A trend that I hope catches on at home was the people wearing pajamas in the middle of the day. They match, they’re comfortable, why not?

The nice young lady beach vendors pulled the hair off of Dena’s legs with strings for a couple bucks. That looked like torture so I settled for a foot massage. Down the beach we found us a beach bar. Dena enjoyed her cocktail while the resident monkey swooped down and wrestled me for my hat. Dena tried to play with the monkey too but only got her hair pulled … again. We settled on a nice bungalow bar on the rocky point for some hi end sunset drinks – $2 a piece.

The next morning we visited the Vietnamese embassy for visas. Were we even allowed into Vietnam? It turns out yes. It was the easiest visa I’ve ever gotten. It was there that I learned that Vietnam is still communist, after all we went through. So much for the Domino Theory, WMD’s or whatever ploy the profiteers trick us with next. “Fool me once … er, uh, don’t fool me again”.

The border was one of those classic dusty outpost borders with the rusted fence that the decrepit guard had to lift by hand. I felt like I was on the Universal Studios tour. It was a long travel day but we made it out to the Vietnamese island Dao Phu Quoc. We found another $20 beach bungalow and another $5 scooter.

I misjudged the size of the island. The map we had didn’t have a legend, it was more like a place mat. They were building a road around the island. We decided to see how far we could get. If you are willing to drive over super slippery red clay mud and traverse narrow foot bridges over rivers, then you could take a scooter all the way around. Miraculously we never dropped the scoot in the mud but one time we did a 180 degree slide. Dena didn’t flinch, which is why we didn’t fall. I’m not sure exactly, where her trust in me comes from. The foot bridges were rickity bamboo structures. Again we were back on the studio lot, this time on the Swiss Family Robinson set. We finished the day with a slow easy hammock.

And finally we made it to Saigon. Officially, it is now called Ho Chi Min City but the locals still call it Saigon. It’s a fun city. Dena picked the hotel and did the haggling. She got the poor guy down to a low price and when he couldn’t find the keys to our room, he upgraded us to the suite for free. She got lucky. We hit the open air shops for some family gifts and ate at a different restaurant for every meal, trying to get our final fill of SE Asia and her great food.

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