Monday, July 31, 2017

July 31 – The Drive to Dalat



It was wheels up at 7:15am and we were back on a bus – this time one with seats, which was quite the novelty. Our destination was the mountain town of Dalat, known for its high elevation, cool temperatures, kitschy romance themes and cool weather vegetables that are not available elsewhere in Vietnam.

The regular seats allowed me to do some writing, so for much of the four hour trip I had my head down, pecking away, looking up only when Ana pointed out something interesting to see (such as fields of aloe vera plants, banana plantations, herb farms and even the odd pasture full of cows) or when Magnus started heaving and I had to find a Ziplock bag (fortunately, without holes) for him to barf into after the rattling bus and twists and turns soured his stomach. Another passenger on the bus did some vomiting into a plastic bag and her husband tied it up and chucked it out the window of the moving bus. I hope he didn’t hit anybody on a scooter.

As we entered the city, we were a little surprised to see some people wearing full winter jackets, gloves, hats and even scarves. I didn’t even bring along a single long sleeve shirts so I started having horrible visions of Ana dragging me through markets, making me try on clothes. To my great relief, as we walked off the bus the temperature was absolutely lovely, probably 21 or 22 degrees and it was a refreshing change from the tropical humidity.

We hired a taxi and he drove us to our hotel – the Himalaya Phoenix, which seemed to be on the fringe of town as it was well away from the action. The girl at reception had a beautiful, huge, smile and was very cute, in the way that it was impossible to tell how old she was. She could have been 18 or 48. Our room was very large, with great beds, but we were back to the all in one bathroom with the shower directly beside the toilet and one large floor drain.

We set out for an initial exploratory walk and to find someplace for lunch. We found a number of local pho places, but the kids weren’t really up for that so we continued walking the hilly streets and adjusted our course towards a popular tourist attraction called the “Crazy House”, hoping there would be a restaurant nearby. And indeed there was, right across the street so we sat down, enjoyed a great lunch and met a very nice English family seated next to us. I also tried a glass of the local Dalat red wine and it was…drinkable.

The English family had a great story. They took a bus from Nha Trang to Dalat and after their bags were all loaded in the cargo compartment they saw the driver load in several boxes of cargo. After a while on the road they started smelling fish sauce and weren’t sure where it was coming from, but assumed somebody was eating something laced with the magical mixture. Fish sauce is truly powerful stuff. It is made by filling a vat with anchovies and salt and then letting it ferment and liquefy for a couple of months. The juice is then pressed out and packaged up into jars or buckets, ready for the market. Now the highest quality fish sauce should have very little odour, but the garden variety can really pack a punch. Well, when our English friends got to their destination they discovered that the cargo had indeed been fish sauce, of a particularly low quality, and the dad’s backpack was right in the low spot so soaked up a deadly amount of it. We all groaned and grimaced when we heard the punch line. But then I told him there was indeed a way to get the fish smell out, without having to physically cut out parts of his bag. He was intrigued, and looked at me anxiously, waiting for me to divulge the secret. I told him all he had to do was to find some overripe durian and mash liberal amounts of into the bag and he would hardly notice the fish smell anymore.

The Crazy House is so weird it almost defies description. It is equal parts carnival funhouse, hotel, and architectural showpiece. If Doctor Seuss and Anthony Gaudi got together and dropped acid, this is probably what they would have come up with. We spent over an hour there exploring the rooms, walking the curved bridges, climbing to the top of the towers, ducking through winding tunnels, and trying to squeeze past tourists in the narrow staircases. It was very neat and we’ve never seen anything quite like it. The folks on Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls would drool over this quirky monstrosity.

We walked into the city centre and found a gigantic market selling everything from pastries to fish heads to fidget spinners. Stella found herself a pair of flashy sneakers and Magnus talked me into buying a credit card knife, after his mother told him he really shouldn’t be buying any more knives. It looks like a credit card, and fits in your wallet, but folds into a small knife, perfect for cutting baguettes or slicing tomatoes or fighting off rabid monkeys – an excellent backpacker tool.

The town was indeed hilly, but the temperature was perfect for walking so we explored many streets of Dalat. At one point we found a scooter that had a mobile pet store loaded on it. There must have been twenty bird cages, full of birds of all varieties. There didn’t seem to be much tourist infrastructure here, and we did not see many Westerners at all, although I suspect there were probably many Vietnamese tourists here. We started looking for a place to grab a snack and had to walk for quite some time to find something suitable. At times it felt like we were missing something, like maybe going in endless circles around the true town centre, but never finding it. We did finally find one street that had a series of interesting places – art galleries, adventure tourist shops, bars and restaurants, so perhaps that was the street we were looking for. The restaurant we ate at was very good and the server was incredibly friendly.

Although it was not even 7, we decided to take a taxi back to the hotel to book a day trip for tomorrow and our onward bus tickets. As usual, the friendly man at reception was extremely helpful, and within a few minutes we had our day trip booked, bus tickets and seats reserved, breakfast ordered for the following morning, and the entire lot including our hotel room paid for. He also asked if we had any Canadian coins as he was a coin collector, so Ana dug through her wallet and found a single toonie ($2 Canadian coin) and gave it to him, despite his protests to pay for it.

So after our first day in Dalat…we’re not entirely sure about this place. Let’s see how it goes tomorrow.

July 30 – Sand Dunes and the Fairy River



For our full day in Mui Ne we decided to do an organized tour of the nearby sites of interest. We hired a private jeep for US$30 that would take us on a four hour trip, and our driver arrived promptly at 8:30 in a rugged, beat-up, but perfectly functional jeep. He was the strong, silent type and didn’t say much beyond…actually, he didn’t really say anything.
We drove all the way through Mui Ne, which is pretty much a single road town, and it runs for a very long way, maybe 15 kilometres and is populated on both sides by restaurants, hotels, bars, travel companies, and basic shops. We finally got to a break in the buildings where we could see beach and ocean and it didn’t look particularly appealing – the water was mucky grey and the beach was strewn with litter, so we didn’t feel too sad missing out on beach time. Further on we passed into an area where sand dunes started to appear, and in one spot there was a head land covered with sand, full of tall, strong pine trees, only a few houses and a lovely beach overlooking a nearby emerald green island. Just beyond here I noticed the strangest thing. It was a cemetery and many of the grave markers (which are built above ground) were stamped with swastika symbols. I don’t know if that symbol has a different meaning here, but I assume it must. Between and around the graves, small white goats munched the green grass and weeds with gusto.
After at least a 30 minute drive we peaked a hill, and before us was a large lake walled in by a never ending blanket of white sand dunes in the background, covered in little trails of ants (people) – an impressive sight. Our driver pulled the jeep into a compound that had a number of other parked jeeps, and dozens of ATVs, got out and walked away, leaving us standing there scratching our heads as it wasn’t obvious what our next move was supposed to be. We waited a bit and another guy came over and started giving us the hard sell on renting two of the 90’s era quads to go ripping around in the sand. It was very expensive so we decided instead to walk and we head off in the direction of the sand dunes.
We trekked across the sand, thankful that we had some cloud cover, which prevented the sand from heating up too much and allowed us to walk barefoot. Stella started to complain a bit, as she is not the greatest fan of long walks, which is strange considering she has the strongest legs of the lot of us. But once I pointed out her extraordinary leg strength, she took off running up the sand dune, happy to beat us all and full of newfound energy. On the dunes were many people, jeeps and a few ATVs. There looked to be a resort nearby that was hauling people up the dunes but, despite being offered a ride from an empty jeep, the Olsons persisted on, driven by human power and thrift. Any other way just seemed like cheating.
We made it up to the top of one of the smaller peaks and snapped a few pictures. A rather large American man and his wife came along on their underpowered ATV and got completely stuck in the sand, with him giving it full throttle while the back wheels sunk deeper and deeper into the sand. I motioned for him to get off and then Magnus and I lifted the bike out for him and got it on stable ground. As they took off, the wife’s hat was blown off by the wind, so Magnus ran across the sand and retrieved it for her. We should have asked for a tip.
By then we were quite thoroughly sandblasted, which felt pretty spectacular on the skin but less soothing on the pupils and whites of the eyeballs so we began our descent, along the way scavenging two hideous tourist ball caps emblazoned with the Chinese tourist company name,  logo, phone numbers, address, email, Twitter handle and UPC codes.
Our guide was napping in a hammock so we gave him a push, tossed the two hats on the table, and we all got into the jeep and started back the way we came. Our next stop was the red sand dunes, a similar area to that which we just visited, but smaller, packed with more people and featured a hundred Vietnamese sand people renting waxed up Krazy Karpets for doing sand sliding. We rented one, climbed a large dune and let the kids go screaming down the red dune, at great velocity, leaving a wake of sand spatter and delicious cries of joy. Actually, the damn thing hardly moved at all, so it seems that sandboarding really doesn’t stack up to the classic Canadian tobogganing experience where speed is real and black eyes, fat lips and sprained joints are inevitable. The only advantage of sandboarding? No toques, snowmobile suits, or gloves required.
The third stop was to explore a small fishing village, located just a mile or two away from the sand dunes. In the bay were anchored hundreds of boats - all identical, small, blue fishing trawlers. The jeep pulled up to the village entrance where there was a dozen kids and adults sorting through large trays of minnows drying in the sun. The smell was…penetrating. Imagine wearing a sardine moustache, sitting in a hot tub of fish sauce, holding a mug of pike slime. That’s what it smelled like. We wandered down the beach and saw everybody hard at work sorting through fish, cleaning nets, loading buckets, crates and bags into the waiting fish vans, and also a number of vendors selling stuff from small beach stands. The entire beach was covered in garbage and there were village kids frolicking around in it, having fun, probably having finished their chores for the day. A very different reality, and one that did not go unnoticed by our children.
The final stop on the tour was the Fairy Stream, but when our driver pulled into this grubby, roadside truck stop, it looked anything but fairy-like. He walked us over to the edge of the parking lot and pointed to a path marked by a crude, wooden sign hand painted “Fairy Stream”. I felt like I could have been walking into a B rate horror movie, except that we were surrounded by a huge Chinese tour group, and that never happens in horror movies, so I felt much safer.
I’m not going to describe our walk up the Fairy Stream, except that at one point I said to Ana, “If we were here, walking alone, this place would be absolutely magical. So I will skip to the walk back.
At the end of the walkable part of the stream was a small, shady, outdoor café that boasted a mini zoo and fishing pond. It sounded horrible, but since we were surrounded by tourists in the stream, we decided to give it a try and see if the crowd dispersed a bit. We sat down on two of the giant, carved, wooden royalty seats and ordered drinks. The setting was surprisingly lovely – there was indeed a small fishing pond, shade trees overhead and the min zoo that held monkeys, porcupines, many birds, a python and an extended family of rabbits. It was all very serene until we heard the tortured screams of a young girl, and watched her mother run in a panic to get her. Our kids witnessed the whole thing. The girl walked up to the monkey cage, right beneath the “Monkeys bite” sign written in several languages. She offered the monkey her half eaten cup of ice cream and then pressed her face against the wire mesh cage to get a real good look. The monkey grabbed it, sucked out the ice cream, chewed on the cup, and then walked over and bit her on the nose. Fortunately, it did not bite off her nose – just gave it a little nip and probably taught her a valuable lesson about monkey behavior.
We stepped out of the café back into the stream and nearly all of the people were gone, leaving it just to us. The stream was about ten to fifteen feet wide, had a perfectly sandy bottom with only the occasional rocks, and just a few inches of water flowing through it, making for an easy walk along the stream bed. On one side of the stream was a wall of stunning red rock and small caves. Some parts were less steep and had red sand that you could scramble up. We continued walking downstream, taking photos as we went, and soon came to another section where the rock wall looked like something out of a cave and had stalactite shapings running down the length of it. We passed a few people as we went, but not toomany. We continued walking and the stream began to narrow and the vegetation alongside began to thicken and soon it was like we were walking through a tunnel. Very cool and a little bit eerie.
We ate a reasonably good lunch back at the hotel and then spent a couple of hours at the pool and chill-out time in the room. Later in the afternoon we racked up the balls on the pool table in the lobby and played a game of doubles, which was slow, excruciating and painful to watch, as none of us seemed able to sink anything but the white ball. It’s funny how many pool tables we have seen here – nearly every hotel and bar seems to have one – some are in pretty dreadful condition while others, like the one we were playing on, were fantastic.
We decided it was time to try out the Vietnamese version of the foot massage, so we wandered down the street, checking out several of them, and then came to Dream Salon and were enticed inside by the owner who was smiley and eager. The kids and I went for the 30 minute foot and leg massage while Ana decided on the 45 minute facial. By now, Stella was a pro but this was to be Magnus’s first massage and he was a wee bit apprehensive. But once he laid back in the comfy chair and the girl started kneaded his legs and feet, he knew he was into a good thing. In fact, he enjoyed it so much he nodded off a few times, but Stella and I stayed awake to enjoy every minute. The bill for all four of us was about $22. I don’t think you could find a spa in Canada willing to crack your toe knuckles for that price.
We returned to the hotel in time for happy hour and a game of Magic the Gathering. Magnus is constantly asking us to play this game with him so we have to relent once in a while as he really does enjoy it so much. Ironically, Magnus was the first one eliminated, and Ana’s strategy was to get killed off as soon as possible so Stella and I ganged up on her and finished her off. I was enjoying my two for one Saigon green beers so was pretty happy playing, especially when I drew a great card and was able to kill off Stella making me the grand champion. I think I will be the only one playing from now on because Magnus noticed his mom and Stella bending the cards and getting drops of water on them so he has banned them from touching them.
We decided on a backpacker dinner so Ana went and got us some soups , baguettes, crackers and cheese from the mini-mart and we ate those around the pool and then retired to our room to watch an animated  film called The Red Turtle. The half that I managed to stay awake for was terrific.

July 29 – Mui Ne



Today, after we had arrived in Mui Ne and booked a day trip and onward bus ticket at one of the many small travel shops lined up along the main highway, Ana said “It’s never dopey hour in Southeast Asia.” Within five minutes of walking up to the shop, the smiling young man had explained the options available, booked us tickets, provided change from the large bill we gave him, and we left knowing with confidence that all was properly booked, everything would run on time and we weren’t getting ripped off. This has been our experience throughout the trip (except for the first taxi ride you take in a new place, that is). Most of the people we have met here are very competent at what they do and the surprises you do receive are nearly always of the positive variety. It makes travel so incredibly easy, especially when compared to other parts of the world we have visited. For example, getting the basic things done (finding bus schedules, boking tickets, booking hotels, getting directions) in Central or South America is twice as hard and half as reliable. The same goes for the Caribbean. For a first time traveler I just don’t think there are any countries in the world that offers such a great balance of cost versus ease of travel.

This extends to Canada too. People in the service industry can be so damn miserable. Imagine yourself as a non-English speaker, walking up to a Greyhound bus ticket counter and trying to get information using the best English you can muster. You will get a cranky old man or lady, looking down their glasses as you, shaking their head as they slide over the incomprehensible brochure of schedules and prices. They will sit there, silently watching you struggle, waiting for you to tell them what ticket you want. If you take too long they will wave you away. I think that as a country, we can be pretty bad hosts at times. Much of this is probably because of the average citizen’s limited exposure to foreign tourists, and their lack of empathy for the struggles they face, but I think another reason is just a lack of simple kindness. A smile will take you a long way in any situation, and it is a much better way to start a communication than with a grimace.

Our day began with a morning taxi ride to a nearby bus station to catch a bus to the coastal town of Mui Ne. We arrived early and they immediately shuffled us onto the earlier bus, which was running late. The bus was a sleeper variety, but much different than the last one we took. This one had three separate rows of fully reclined chairs, with an upper and lower level. It was such a cool, but strange design, and I had to wonder if this sort of thing could work in Canada. Our seats were right at the back so we wiggled our way through the skinny aisle and then had to boost ourselves up into the rear, upper level, which Ana managed to do wearing a skirt, without flashing our fellow passengers, but I may have sneaked a quick peek of a cheek. I settled in, stretched out, and was just getting comfortable when the bus made a sharp turn, and half a litre of what I assume was air conditioner condensate, spilled through the overhead speaker and AC vent right onto my crotch. Yikes! Cleanup on aisle five! I mopped it up with the bus curtain and then Ana and I rigged up a solution using the duct tape she had picked up in the market the previous day for random bus system failings like this one. We took a bunch of tissue and wet wipes, packed them into the vent and around the speaker and then duct taped the whole mess onto the ceiling. It worked perfectly. Hopefully the long trip would give my shorts time to dry so I wouldn’t look like Mister Pissy Pants when we arrived in Mui Ne.

My plan for the 5 hour trip was to finish reading Moby Dick. I bought a copy of this classic, monstrous novel about ten years ago and have been reading it ever since. I would read a chapter here and a chapter there, and then put it down for months, and then pick it up again but couldn’t remember where I left off so would end up re-reading chapters until they seem vaguely familiar. The book is incredibly dense, with complicated sentence structures, vague historical references, impenetrable vocabulary, odd punctuation, shifting points of view, and 19 century language that just makes no sense in parts. So it is far from an easy read, but it is one of those books that just must be read – especially for people who love to sail and slaughter whales. It has been a fixture on my bedside table the entire time we’ve lived in Paris, always on the bottom of the pile. But I brought it along for the trip, determined to finally get through it. Well, I finished it. I took a picture of the book and would end up leaving it at the book exchange of the hotel, making room for at least two new beer tshirts.

The trip was uneventful (besides the surprise showers – each time the bus would lurch, turn or brake, somebody else on the bus would get a load of water dumped on them)and we were dropped off on the main Mui Ne highway a few hundred meters past our hotel, the Xin Chao, so we strapped on our packs and walked back. The place looked great, with a groovy bar and restaurant out front, large lobby with comfy chairs, a pool table and a book exchange. It was on the non-ocean side of the road, which explained the great rates, but they didn’t have any family rooms, so we booked a separate room for the kids, which they were overjoyed with. They were even happier when they discovered that their room was larger and nicer than ours. But we too were satisfied with the temporary bifurcation of Team Olson, and the potential for alone time.

We went for a walk down the main (and only) street to find a good place for lunch. The road was busy, and congested with huge tourist busses, full of people, many of which pulled into the fancy resorts in Mui Ne. We checked out a few menus, all of which were decent, and finally decided on a oceanside resort restaurant called Sailing Club. Well the food was terrible. It was actually the first bad meal we have eaten on the trip. So we made it quick, paid the bill, and walked back hotel for a leisurely swim.

Ana and I went out to the bar at 5pm for happy hour and ordered up 2 for 1 Singapore Slings, followed up with 2 for 1 Saigon Green 441ml bottles of beer, to bring the fancy level down a notch or two. I grabbed of the cigars Tony had left for me and had a wonderful puff while Ana and I enjoyed our drinks, talked, made plans, and enjoyed our time just like a newlywed couple. I felt like we could have been the subject of a Jack Johnson song at that particular moment.

We decided on a backpacker dinner so we all went down to the mini-mart and picked out our favourite soup bowls, along with some day old baguettes and a package of Smiling Cow creamy white cheese. The backpacker dinners are always a nice break from the restaurant routine so we enjoy them immensely. After eating we were all feeling rather tired so we retired to our respective rooms and agreed to reconvene in the AM.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

July 28 – Museum Day in Saigon



We originally considered visiting the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Saigon, but after looking at the tour options and the cheeseball photos we decided against it. Another reason was that it was going to take up nearly the entire day and this was to be our only full day in the city, and we still had so much left to explore. Instead, we started off with a walk to the War Remnants Museum. Along the way we experienced a real master at work. As we were walking we came upon a man carrying a large stick with two baskets hanging off each end, resembling a human scale. In the baskets were skinned coconuts that he sells as a coconut water drink. He didn’t initially pay us much attention, but after walking alongside use for a bit he says, “Where are you walking to?”

I said, “We’re just going for a walk.” Anytime a local strikes up a conversation in a tourist area, they want to sell you something. I know this from experience, and this knowledge has not come cheap.

“You going to war museum, turn left up there.”

“Ok, thanks.”

He then motioned to the stick he was carrying and before I knew it he had placed it on my shoulder so that I was carrying it. Then Ana took a picture of me. Then he had the kids hold it for more pictures. Then we tried to walk away, but he handed me one of the coconuts. I handed it back, saying no thanks, just ate. He took his machete, chopped the top off, popped in a straw and handed it back to me. He had me. I asked how much and he told me 30,000 dong. I offered him 20,000 and he was happy with that. Yes, that is only worth just over a dollar, but that was an unbelievably good deal to see such a master in action.

The War Remnants museum was shocking, illuminating, nauseating, and intense. It was a visual exploration of the Vietnam war, focusing on the atrocities the US and its allies committed on the Vietnamese people during this horrible span of 18 years. Was the information one sided? Of course. But it was good to see it from the perspective of the Vietnamese people as opposed to the Western slant on things. The most shocking thing to me was the long term effects of the chemical weapons (Agent Orange) they showered over the country and how there are still children being born with birth defects. By the end of the war they had completely decimated the country, deforesting huge parts of it, destroying entire villages and poisoning the people and the wildlife. And in the end, what did they have to show for it? The communists won, millions of people died and many more have lived with the mental and physical scars of those horrible years. The whole conflict just seems so pointless, and so similar to the conflicts we see in the world today.

The kids looked through most of the images (though there were some so bad that Ana pulled them away) and got an idea of what had happened, but it’s very hard for them to understand how people could be capable of doing such cruel things. It’s hard for me to understand it too, especially after meeting so many locals in these countries and experiencing first hand their gentle, kind, and empathetic nature. But it has happened for all of history, is happening today, and will continue to happen, as long as humans remain human and we don’t keep our greed and arrogance in check. I think this museum affected me just as much as the genocide museum in Phnom Penh. Especially when I noticed the group of young men working at the gift shop, all affected by birth defects caused by chemical weapons. One of the lads was born without eyes, and sat there eating a bowl of rice, listening to the sounds of the people moving around him.

We spotted a nice looking lunch place called Modern Meets Culture, right across the street from the museum. Now 95% of the time, the restaurant across from the busy tourist museum is the second worst lunch choice you could ever make (the worst is the café within the museum). But this place was phenomenal – modern, clean, trendy architecture and furnishings, delicious food and prices that made you scratch your head and say, “It can’t be that cheap.” We ordered pho, mushroom curry, and a ham and cheese baguette, as well as artichoke tea and fresh watermelon juice. The tab? Ten bucks.

The next stop was the Reunification Palace, but by this time Ana and the kids were more interested in hitting the market than another hot building so I went on a solo mission. I am very ignorant of the history of Vietnam, but I am learning more each day, and what I see astounds me. Any country that can bounce back from a devastating war to become a cultural and touristic hotspot is something special. They seem to have a pretty good social and political structure – communist government, but light on the communism, light on the religion and heavy on the free market economics. They are, sadly, light on the environment, but such is the case in all of the developing or recently-developed countries we have visited, so I think that will come in time, once more people are raised out of poverty.

The Reunification Palace reminded me of the Darwin-Martin house in Buffalo, USA. It was built in the 60’s to serve as a replacement for the presidential palace that was bombed out during the Vietnam War. A very modernistic design from a Vietnamese architect was chosen and it was built in about four years. The palace was only used for about ten years, after which the North Vietnamese communists ended the Vietnam War by driving two tanks through the front gates, sending a soldier up to the top floor to remove the South Vietnam flag and replace it with their own, and declaring Saigon fallen. Since then it has not been permanently occupied, and is only used for the occasional official government event and, of course, for tourism.

The palace itself was incredible – many huge rooms, straight lines, open spaces, and everything has been left just as it was in 1975 so it is like stepping back in time. I was thinking of my brother Curtis as I wandered through the enormous building, knowing that he would appreciate the architecture of this magnificent building. It was outfitted with all the bells and whistles of the time including a reinforced, underground concrete bunker, high tech communications equipment, a helicopter pad on the roof, a meditation/study area that was immediately converted into a ballroom and party floor, a games room, a theatre for 150 people, and a state of the art commercial kitchen.

We met back at the room for a little chill-out session and then we headed back out for our final dinner in Saigon. Our plan was to visit a restaurant my uncle Michael and aunt Anna had highly recommended, called Quan Bui, but once we got outside and realized just how many interesting restaurants we had within a two block radius, versus a 25 minute walk, we decided to stay local. We checked out the menus of several places and then decided on one that was very busy and had a long charcoal grill full of sizzling meats out front. We sat down, ordered drinks, and were handed an inch thick menu that we started flipping through and found many interesting dishes, such as snakehead fish gruel, duck tongue, jellied eel with tofu, curried frog with porridge, braised lamb heart, grilled salmon head, ostrich steak, and boiled pig intestines. The kids made an executive decision to move onto another place. We remembered a roti shop that had caught our eye earlier in the day, so we went there, and it turned out to be a Muslim restaurant, which was perfect. We ordered chicken curry, peanut encrusted shrimp, curry roti, banana roti, chocolate roti and a roti boom, which was filled with coconut milk, honey and sugar. It was all delicious and arrived in such quantities that we left with stomachs past the breaking point and food remaining on the table. And, amazingly, the cost of that meal was about twenty bucks. The value here is just incredible and continues to astound with every meal.

Friday, July 28, 2017

July 27 – Meet Saigon



At around midnight the driver stopped and ordered everybody off the bus as we had to change to the one headed for Vietnam. We piled out and found a place to dump our bags under the canopy of the seating area of the small bus depot. There were a lot of dazed, dopey looking travelers there, and we didn’t know how long it would take for the bus to arrive, but in the end it took around 90 minutes, during which time we wandered around, moving as required to avoid the cigarette smoke being blown on us by people lighting up under the canopy. That cigarette smoke is something you never get used to, and it’s especially bad for those of us from countries that have pretty much banned smoking in all public places. There was one particular Frenchman who must have chain smoked his way through a full pack during that time, pity that dude’s lungs.

Our second bus arrived and we were assigned to two downstairs beds, right across from each other, and this bus had longer berths allowing me to completely stretch out. We got underway, I zipped up the curtains and we were back in our hypersleep pods. It was very cozy and romantic and I had the idea that that this would be a great opportunity for hidden, sneaky, public sex. But since I’m not 18, and didn’t want to be thrown out of the country for an indecent act, and didn’t want to inflict a lifetime worth of embarrassment on our children, and also didn’t want to get punched in the face by my wife, I kept my illicit thoughts within the realm of fantasy and read a Stephen King novel for a while instead.

At some point light overtook the darkness and the bus ground to a halt at the border. Here’s what happened next:

1. Get off bus, take all of your carry-on bags
2. Wait in line at empty Cambodian departure checkpoint booth
3. Immigration man arrives. He moves extra slow.
4. Get passports stamped, somehow takes 5 minutes per person.
5. Walk 100 metres to another checkpoint, get yelled at by bus driver.
6. Wait for all others to get processed.
7. Bus driver pulls up bus and tells us to walk “that way”.
8. We walk the wrong way and get yelled at, and more precise direction are given.
9. Get back on bus, handing over passports to some guy who demands them. Drive for a while.
10. Get off bus, take carry-on luggage, retrieve backpacks from luggage hold.
11. Walk to immigration building. Wait. And wait.
12. Passport collector man starts handing back stamped passports, one at a time.
13. Collect passport, go through immigration, put bags on xray machine that nobody’s looking at.
14. Retrieve bags, immigration officer checks passports on your way out of the building.
15. Reload bags into the bus, get back on and settled in bed.
16. Driver pulls over to repair one of the bus tires. 45 minutes later we are finally on our way to Ho Chi Minh City.

By the time we were dumped off in HCMC (Ho Chi Mihn City, also known as Saigon) it was a 16 hour elapsed ride. But overall, those beds were a lifesaver, and the trip wasn’t too bad beside the shenanigans at the border.

Because these busses drop you off in some undisclosed location, you really have no idea where in the city you are and you have no local currency, so you know that first taxi ride is going to be a total rip off as the drivers know you are lost and they have no pity. We gave our driver the hotel address and he said it would be at least $35. Man, this guy was ambitious. I offered him ten bucks and he took it, which was a sure sign I was being hosed. We loaded our gear into the taxi and he drove for about four blocks and stopped in front of our place – the Polygon Hotel, an eight story, incredibly scrawny building that held only three rooms per floor and was indeed polygon shaped. The first taxi rip-off in any country is what I called the “tourist tax”. It should only happen once per country.

Our first order of business was to find something to eat as all we’d eaten for breakfast on the bus was Mr. Potato chips, seaweed flavoured peanuts, and bottled water. This was not difficult as there were dozens of restaurants all around the hotel, and the large Ben Thanh Food Market that we settled on, as there were at least two dozen different food vendors inside. So for our first big meal in Saigon the kids decided on…Mexican. I could only shake my head. I, of course, was determined to have pho (legendary Vietnamese beef soup) so I found a vendor that served me up a bowl and it was a good start to our culinary explorations. The kids loved their tacos.

From here we walked half a block down to the covered Ben Thanh market and had a look around. The first thing we noticed was that it was much, much cleaner than the markets in Cambodia. Secondly, the vendors were more aggressive and nearly physically blocked you when you tried to pass their stalls, and God help you if you actually expressed a casual interest in something hanging from one of their racks, which I did, at a belt vendor. I left wearing a $7 leatherish belt that is going to work oh so well for holding my shorts up. I also discovered a brand new user for durian. We were standing at one of the fruit stalls and the vendor started giving his best banana sales pitch to a tourist. As he was talking, he took his cigarette and stuck it into one of the spines of a durian, much like Eddie Van Halen would jam his smoke into the tuning pegs of his guitar before winding up a magnificent guitar solo. This only increased my love for the incredible durian fruit.

Magnus had been looking for chess sets and found a nice one with carved stone figures for about $17 so he was very happy, and I can imagine a lot of chess games coming my way during our many upcoming bus rides around the country. He was so eager to try it out we went and found a lady with a sidewalk cart, cooler, a few plastic chairs and a table, and ordered a can of Saigon beer and a Sprite and cracked out the chess set while the ladies continued roaming the market.

Our next move was to go for a big walk to get our bearings. We grabbed a map and headed east. The first think we noticed is that the scooter is definitely king in this city and they seem to be allowed to do anything. Drive the wrong way up the street against traffic? No problem. Skip the street entirely to beat the traffic and drive on the sidewalk instead, dodging pedestrians? Sure. Carry your entire family, a television, a stack of plumbing pipes, and a chicken on a 50 cc scooter? You bet. The only limit to how you drive your scooter is your imagination and a relatively flat surface.

We walked for several blocks and came across a fancy shopping mall, so I took my position outside sitting on a ledge, people-watching, while the rest of my posse went inside to look around. I sat, mesmerized by the scooter traffic – it really was incredible. All at once, the skies opened and the rain started to pour out of the clouds. The scooter traffic ground to a halt and all of the scooter riders and passengers whipped out rain ponchos, tossed them over their heads, and were immediately back in the scrum. I could tell they were used to this weather.

Once the rain subsided, we continued our walk and meandered for many blocks, looking at the shops, watching how the pedestrians handled the traffic, and getting a feel for the layout of the city. We liked the city right away. It seemed clean, well-organized, well signed, and was quite walkable as nearly all of the streets had wide sidewalks – you just had to watch for those damn scooters whizzing by. In fact, there was a definite strategy you had to follow while walking, and it didn’t take long to figure it out. The basic rule is – No Sudden Movements. Have you ever noticed that when kids (and dogs) are walking down a sidewalk, they never go in a straight line? They wander from side to side, and lurch forwards and back, as certain sidewalk features like bugs, sticks and signs draw their gaze and then their feet. They are totally unpredictable, and if you try to pass by them, you often end up running into them as they jerk in front of you. Well that bad habit could lead to disaster in Ho Chi Minh City (which may be why we haven’t seen a single stray dog yet). When you walk, you walk in a straight, slow, predictable line and keep your damn eyes open. This rule holds even when crossing a busy street and you nearly have to see it to believe it. To cross a busy street (they all are) simply step out into the chaotic traffic with your hand out. Walk slowly, in a straight line, keeping your eyes open. The thousands of scooters, motorbikes and vehicles will simply go around you, like a chunk of soap floating through an oil slick. They will not stop, but they will adjust their course slightly so as not to hit you directly, although you will probably get grazed on your way across. At first, this is terrifying, but then you soon realize that this is simply the way it works, and I can tell you it works well. I am sure that the average busy street in Ho Chi Minh City pushes through three times the volume of street and sidewalk traffic than a western city like Toronto, and all without the help of overbearing traffic lights, cops, speed limits, turn signals, brake lights, and traffic cameras. Watching busy streets in Ho Chi Minh City is poetry in motion. It is like an elaborate, choreographed dance. It’s like watching a colony of ants or bees as they go about their frenzied work, navigating their way around each other in getting where they need to go. It is letting nature take care of the rules.

During the walk back to the hotel we found the first McDonalds of the trip and felt compelled to stop for an ice cream, which was well received by the kiddies. We realized then that we hadn’t see a single McDonalds in Cambodia, or any other fast food chains, besides a couple of KFCs and I think one Burger King. Maybe that’s why everybody looks so fit.

We had a chill out session in the room and washed off the Saigon grease that had accumulated on our bodies during the walk. We also did some trip planning, booking a bus and rooms for our next destination. Vietnam is an extremely long country – I think close to 2,000 kilometres – so we need to plan out which places we want to visit and how long we can stay at each one if we want to make it all the way up to Hanoi in three weeks. Our general routine on these trips is to spend two nights at each place, and then if we really like it, book one additional night. In Vietnam the distances are quite long so we’re going to be spending a fair bit of time on busses and maybe trains.

We went back out into the electric night for a late dinner at a Japanese restaurant that we found not too far from our hotel. The design of the restaurant was interesting – it had a curvy rock garden, ponds, live trees and plants, and raised seating areas where you had to remove your shoes and sit on the floor at the lowered tables. The menu was enormous and we picked out a number of items for us to share – sushi, gyoza, sashimi. Everything was delicious and we fed like royalty, but after the meal we were simply out of gas after a very busy day so we walked back to the hotel and settled in for a great sleep.

July 26 – Last Day in Cambodia



It was a dark and stormy morning and mirrored what was going on in my head. But to be honest, the hangover wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. I don’t often drink shots, but when I do, it’s usually the worst shots in the world so I’m surprised cheap bar tequila did not make an appearance last night – maybe that is what saved me.

After another great breakfast at Dune (the restaurant down the road), Ana and I went for a long, slow beach walk while the kids hung out in the room watching Family Guy (Magnus) and Reality Dance Shows (Stella). We walked south along the beach, thinking we’d go all the way to Otres 2, which is another strip of beach restaurants and guest houses, but it just seemed to go on forever so we turned around, made a short stop at the village mini-mart for water and then walked back. The rest of the day we simply hung around, moving from reading on the balcony, to sitting by the pool (for the brief glimpses of sunshine), over to the restaurant/lobby for a game of pool, back to the room, out for lunch, back to the lobby, played Uno, more reading, then finally showers and our final dinner in Otres at Mushroom Point, where Ana ate a schnitzel baguette that was so magically delicious she thought she was stuck in a happy dream, and I had a mug of draft beer that cleaned up the rest of the Jagerbomb hangover.

Our bus arrived promptly at 6pm. We said our goodbyes to Joey, Meegan, and baby Mia, feeling like we’d known them for years which I think is the trademark of an incredibly well run establishment. This is one of my favourite parts of travel – establishing these short, intense relationships with people you may never see again, but maybe you will. In any case, a friend for life can be made in a day – that really is all it takes sometimes.

The collector bus bounced us back to Snooky where we transferred to what’s referred to as a “sleeper bus”. Now I have never seen one of these in my life, but was awesome. Imagine a regular, long distance bus, but rip out all the seats and replace them with two levels of beds. The walking platform through the centre of the bus was extremely narrow, really only enough room for one person to pass at a time, giving more room for the beds, which were meant for two people. Ana and I hopped in our assigned upstairs bed and the kids were across from us, also in the upstairs bed, but one row back. There was a set of two curtains that you could pull shut and completely enclose yourself in your pod, which was just large enough for two people to squeeze into, and was nearly long enough for me to fully stretch out. It felt like we were getting prepped for going into hypersleep.

As we were lying there I said to Ana, “Well this is cozy, but I wonder what happens if you are traveling on your own and just bought a single ticket?” A guy across from us in the downstairs bed, looked up and said, “I know what happens. I bought a single ticket once and had to sleep face to face with a strange dude. It was weird.” Fortunately team Olson came in pairs so we were spared that sort of intimate contact with anybody outside of the team.

The bus took off and, after reading for a while, I went straight to sleep, only waking up periodically to change positions. As expected the bus was freezing cold as they always crank the AC up to maximum on these sorts of trips, making we wish we had brought along a roll of duct tape to completely close off the vents above us. But they did provide thin blankets which helped.

July 25 – The Holriques Disband



Last night the rain fell in buckets, making a monstrous noise on our tin roof and when we woke up it was still raining and showed no signs of stopping. I snuck out of the room early with my laptop and went down to the lobby to do some writing. Every night the pool table in the lobby is transformed into a bed of sorts, and today there looked to be 2 people sleeping there instead of the regular 1. Lucky night at the bar, perhaps?

T
he Henriques had hired the same driver that brought us here to take them to the airport this morning and he arrived earlier than expected, so by 8:30am they were loaded up and ready to go. As we were saying goodbye, a cow came lazily walking up the middle of the road, looked over at us, shrugged, and kept on walking. Morning rush hour in Otres.

The Henriques drove away, waving at us through the window, and with that concluded the first phase of our trip. The Holriques were officially disbanded and now we were down to a team of four. It was a remarkable three weeks we spent together and we had some unforgettable moments. Moving around in a pack of 8 was actually easier than I was expecting – we rarely had trouble finding space in restaurants, hotels or busses and we also managed not to kill each other after spending so much time together in close proximity. They are great travelers.

It was Joey’s birthday today and the invitation to join him in the evening was still open so we confirmed we would certainly be tagging along. But until then we had no plans, and since the rain just kept coming it turned into our first down day of the trip. So we read, we wrote, we lounged and we even had a little nap, and the day passed quickly.

At 7pm Joey loaded us up in tuk tuks and we took off for Backpacker Heaven, which is in Sihanoukville. I think I may have been a little hard on Snooky in my journal yesterday - nobody looks good in the morning – even cities. But in the evening she looked pretty nice, with many restaurants, lots of people walking around, many lights and lighted decorations, beautifully warm but with a nice ocean breeze, and drinking establishments everywhere. All the ingredients for a great night…and a lousy morning.

The South African owners of the hotel, Mitchell and Clarissa joined us as well. Backpacker Heaven is in a strange location – right on a busy commercial road in Snooky, with neither a beach nor ocean in sight, but Joey tells us he is friends with the owner and it is extremely popular with travelers and always busy. As we approached the building it looked much more like a big hotel than a backpackers. Lying by the front entrance were a hundred pairs of flip flops (they must have a barefoot policy) so we flipped ours into the pile and went inside. We followed Joey through this strange labyrinth of narrow hallways, dark staircases, wet and slippery floors, and eventually popped out in a beautiful pool area, beside the bar, which was lively and full of people. The owner Thomas greets us at the door and we found seating for seven on the comfy couches and chairs. The kids, as usual, were the only minors in there but, as usual, they make themselves comfortable and settle in.

We have a great conversation with Joey, Mitchell and Clarissa, accompanied by cocktails, draft beers and Joey’s frequent request for rounds of Jager bombs (shot of Jagermeister in a mug of beer, consumed in one go please). Mitchell had recently inherited the Otres Lodge from his father who had sadly passed away, so he was there taking care of all the administration involved in such an event. He and Clarissa actually worked as yacht crew on big yachts, either in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, so we quizzed them endlessly on the process of qualifying for this work, finding work, what the daily routine was like, how the shift rotations functioned, work visas, shore leave and so on and so forth. As this is one of the most interesting retirement job possibilities for us, we were mesmerized by every word they said. Their most recent jobs had been on one of the Russian oligarch’s monster sailing yachts, which was over 100 metres long and worth hundreds of millions.

Joey entertained us with stories of his travels, which seemed to be centered on some of the most dangerous places in the world! It wasn’t clear if he planned it that way, but he certainly isn’t scared of adventure. And those Yager bombs just kept coming. A live band set up and started rocking the place, and they were surprisingly good, but by 11 both Stella and Magnus had fallen asleep so we decide it was time to head back. We tuk tuk’d it back to Otres Lodge and found Party Round Two well underway. We put the kiddies to bed and joined the action, meeting so many new people, all of whom had an interesting story. That is one of the best parts of traveling in these less frequented parts of the world – the people you meet inevitably have a story. Why they came here, how they got here, where they have been previously, and how they have adjusted to living away from their home country. It is always very easy for us to connect with people we meet, as we’ve similarly lived away from Canada for years, but also we have been so lucky to have visited so many places that we can usually find a lot of things in common to talk about.

Joey and gang arrived shortly after us so it turned into a real frenzy then, with more Jagermeister poured, more cold beer, and fleeting thoughts of how severe tomorrow’s hangover was going to be. At some point, the bar seemed to immediately go from full capacity, to me standing there by myself looking at the last remaining bartender and him looking at me. It was like a showdown. He was waiting for me to draw my hand, signaling “One…..more…..beer” and I was watching for him to either wave me away, reach for another frosted mug, or perhaps collapse completely as his eyes were so glassy I could see my own sad reflection in them. In the end, I broke first as my body hit drunk man autopilot and my feet started moving me back to the room, but not before I could give the barkeep the Olson nod, signaling we were square and had made it to the end of the night in one piece. Ana tells me it was 2:30 when I returned, but I was already sleeping as I passed through the door.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

July 24 – Sihanoukville



Our hotel was owned by a couple of French guys, or at least we assumed they were the owners as they were hanging around the restaurant and bar all the time, smoking and drinking. So we thought it would be a good bet for food. We saddled up for a breakfast that could only be described as...sad. The American breakfast consisted of two small pieces of white bread toasted just enough to hide their stale nature, a couple of pale fried eggs and one piece of greyish, fatty bacon. It was startling to a stomach used to full spread Asian breakfast buffets, but we made the most of it and, besides, lunch is never too far away.


We decided to stay one more night in Otres so had three jobs to do today: get a load of laundry done, get our Vietnamese visa from the consulate in Sihanoukville (which we learned is sometimes referred to as “Snooky”), and find a place to stay for our final night. One of the tour vendors had a sign out front advertising laundry service for a buck a kilo so we dropped off 7.5 kilos of very used backpacker clothes and then started negotiating with a tuk tuk man for a ride to Snooky. This was a strange sort of vehicle as it looked like a small pickup but with tuk tuk like seating in the back, meant for six but we were pretty sure could fit eight close friends. We weren’t even sure what to call it, but as soon as Magnus stepped outside, he said excitedly, “All right! A truck tuk!”


We bounced, swerved and jerked our way to Snooky, which was about 10 kilometres away. As we approached we got into the familiar dirty, gritty string of roads packed with motorcycles and scooters and lined by small commercial businesses such as welders, machine shops and mechanics. We dropped the Henriques on the main street near the beach area and continued on to the consulate. We arrived there, went in, and were the only ones there so filled out the minor paperwork, handed over US$160 and were told to return at 4:30. That was quite the deal, considering that the Vietnamese embassy in Ottawa was going to charge north of $500 for processing the exact same one month, single entry visa.


The truck tuk took us back downtown and dropped us off in the middle of crazyville. I immediately disliked this place. It smelled bad, looked ugly and felt just…gross, somehow. We walked down the hill to the beach where there was a large ferry terminal for boats coming and going from the many nearby islands. It was called “Serendipity Beach” and looked quite nice at first glance, and stretched for at least a mile to the south so we started on a beach stroll. But we soon discovered that there was an uninterrupted row of scummy bars running the whole stretch of the beach, and thousands of worn out and puked on beach chairs. There was a shabby boardwalk and signs everywhere advertising beer and food specials. Garbage littered the entire area and it stunk. I nearly stepped on a broken bottle in the sand.


Have you ever heard of somebody described as “Nice from afar, but far from nice”? It is often used to refer to a woman your drunken buddy picked up in the bar the night before against everybody’s advice, and then the next morning crawls out of the basement like a swamp monster and everyone just gets out of the way and lets her slither out the door. The lyrical genius Willie Nelson would say, “Last night I came in at 2 with a 10 but at 10 woke up with a 2. Well that’s Serendipity Beach, and it’s a damn shame they used up that lovely name on this mess, because it’s far from a serendipitous discovery.  She was a morning hag. Cheap, smeared makeup. A complexion resembling potted, mucky Cambodian roads. Flammable breath, born of tequila and cheap smokes. A gargled razor blade voice that croaked out obscenities and demands for instant coffee. A hill donkey, ridden hard and put away wet. I’m sure you get the picture.


We ran into the Henriques, who were also exploring the worn out beach, and we played a game of foot birdie with the awesome Cambodian hacky sack Magnus bought in Phnom Penh. It was difficult as hell and I don’t think we achieved any more 4 or 5 consecutive hits. As we played, Angela was mobbed by vendors and before she knew what was happening she was propped up on a beach chair having both legs threaded; by which I mean two retail beach gypsies each muckled onto a leg and were using their fingers and a piece of thread to yank stubble out of her legs, one excruciating strand at a time. The whole thing looked horrifying and painful. Tony too fell victim, but he was just getting a leg massage, although the entire time she was kneading his calves she was also trying to recruit us and passers-by for our own massages. Sensing more sales, a whole crowd of beach gypsies began to scrum around, some carrying backpacker bracelets, some grilled octopus, some inflatable toys and God knows what else. The whole gang wisely bolted, but I stayed behind to offer some moral support, and possibly physical support too if it came down to that. Fortunately, they finished up, returned Angela and Tony’s legs, and we exited stage left, dodging the beggars, vendors and broken bottles on our way out.


We tuk tuk’d it back to Otres and Ana and I went for a walk down the street to find a new place for our final night. We stopped at a tour centre that was in front of a hotel to check on bus tickets to Ho Chi Min City, which was being run by a French/Russian girl who lived in Singapore but worked in Otres. Everybody you meet has a story, and I’m sure she had a great one, but didn’t get down to the nitty gritty; instead we just had her book bus tickets for us and then show us to the lobby of the hotel, called Otres Lodge. There, one of the Cambodian staff showed us a family room bungalow, which we immediately liked, so we booked it and then stopped at the bar for an ice cold beer, where we met the managers Joey and Meegan and their beautiful little one year old girl baby Mia. Within ten minutes we knew their story and had been invited to Joey’s birthday party the following night, which we happily accepted. Joey also recommended a place for lunch – Mushroom Point, which we took him up on.


We gathered the troops (except Tony, who had gone for his Russian massage) and walked down the beach to Mushroom Point for our final lunch on our final day and got seated. If there was a more perfect beach setting in the world, I couldn’t imagine it – 8 comfy beach loungers, the crashing surf steps away, the shade of tall, swaying palm trees, and cold beers at the ready. Ana kicked off the conversation by asking what everybody missed from home. It was a very, very short list indeed, limited to one person missing their bed and one person missing their girlfriend. In general, we were all quite satisfied with our current position in life.


At 4pm I decided to go back to Sihanoukville to retrieve our passports so I negotiated a five dollar rate with a local dude on a motorcycle, which included an awesome pink helmet for me. I was back within the hour, passports in hand, and went for a swim with the kids, and then we all sat down in the room for a reading and chill out session. It was soon time to feed the beast again so we gathered Holriques for our final dinner together, and settled on a hippie joint we noticed earlier in the day that was full of people. We talked about our trip. We talked about what we liked and what we didn’t in the countries we had visited. We talked about the value of travel. We talked about our kids and how they seemed to be enjoying the trip. Before long eyelids began drooping so we called it a night and walked back to the hotel, on our last night together at the Holriques.

July 23 – Sundowner in Otres



We hired a mini-bus to take us to the southern coast of Cambodia to get some beach time in before the Henriques had to return to the homeland. Our driver was a funny chap, and very chatty, but you couldn’t make heads nor tails of the majority of what he was saying. Once we got out of the congested traffic mess of Phnom Penh, the ride was quite enjoyable as the traffic thinned and we passed through some interesting Cambodian countryside. At least it was enjoyable for everybody except for Tony, who got the hot seat up front with the driver, and was witness to every dangerous pass, near miss, sketchy curve, oversized load, scattered road debris, and every other sort of potential road disaster you can imagine. But yet, we made it to Otres in one piece.


“Sihanoukville?” Olly asked back in Baddambang when we mentioned that we were headed to the south coast and were thinking of staying there. “I wouldn’t recommend staying there. Go to Otres instead, it’s just a short drive away from there and is much nicer.” We took his advice.


We made our final turn onto this sticky, orange, potholed road that had a string of guest houses, restaurants, shops and bars on both sides, and ran parallel to a spectacular beach. It immediately felt like a perfect backpacker town. We watched out the window, scanning for our hotel as the van bounced from side to side, navigating through the muck and the holes, and soon came to rest in front of the Eolia Beach Resort, which was flanked by two lifelike statues doing the hands together in prayer greeting that is common in this part of the world. Maddy actually returned the gesture to one of them, after nearly bumping into it and thinking it was a real person. The Eolia had an inviting, open air bar, lobby and restaurant area, complete with a pool table and comfy gazebo. One of the staff checked us in and showed us to our bungalows. Ours was located right beside the pool, and was very small compared to some of the luxurious rooms we’ve been staying in recently, but at 26 bucks a night it was going to work just fine. Our first order of business was to have a swim, so we got changed and jumped into the surprisingly chilly water, which felt great as the day had heated up nicely.


We started with a beach walk with the kids, to begin to get our bearings. The beach was simply beautiful, and somehow was not completely littered with garbage as many of the other ones are, although there was still some rubbish floated in by the tide – plastic bottles, glass bottles, Styrofoam, chunks of plastic. There was a steady string of guest houses along the beach, some busy and vibrant, and others that appeared closed, or nearly closed. There were many Cambodian families there, and two large groups of people wearing company t-shirts, some of whom were swimming in the ocean fully clothed. Perhaps a staff picnic? We realized that it was Sunday, so maybe that’s the day Cambodians hit the beach with family and friends. Besides the locals, there were quite a number of foreigners lounging in the beach chairs of many of the guest houses we passed.


We settled on one of the restaurants that had a few people milling around and walked up to the bar. Tony taps me, points to the pool table and says, “Hey, I think that guy is looking for somebody to play pool with.” I look over to see a 3 year old Cambodian boy, naked as the day he was born, strutting around on top of the pool table, amongst the balls, brandishing a pool cue like a broad sword, taking pain-force swipes at his brother when he tried to approach the table. When we wasn’t trying to brain his brother, he was using the stick to spear the balls, like river carp.


“I don’t know man - he looks a little unpredictable,” I replied, after assessing the naked little pool shark.


We seated ourselves and ordered up a round of drinks and food. It felt good, damn good to be beside the ocean again after all the city days we had done. The warm breeze flowed from the water and washed over us, keeping it cool and comfortable.  Beside the restaurant tables was a line of no frills, bamboo bungalows with thatched roofing and furniture that consisted of one bed, one mosquito net and one small table, for the low, low price of five bucks per person. I could see that Angela was taking note, as earlier in the trip she had said she’d love to find a simple beach hut to stay in for a night or two. But once you actually see the beachfront backpacker bungalows, staying in a nice, air conditioned room may offer the greater appeal. But it sure was fun drinking beer on the beach beside them.


After lunch we wandered down the beach and Tony and Angela struck up a deal with a beachside masseuse – the only employee of a Russian couple who owned and ran the tiny shack located within a beach bar and restaurant. They bought an hour long massage, but were going to do half an hour each. Angela was up first so we ordered some drinks from the bar and got settled into the beachside comfy chairs while the kids played a game of pool. We realized this was the perfect place for our first sundowner so we settled in for the long haul. After about 45 minutes Tony snuck over to see if it was his turn but the masseuse was hard at work on Angela and she didn’t seem to be going anywhere. After over an hour she finally emerged and pleaded innocence, but I’m pretty sure that once she got going she told the lady her husband didn’t really like massages.


We watched the bold, red sun slowly drop behind a far-away island in a fiery denouement to the day, made more enjoyable by the one dollar draft beers served up by the staff. We remained there for quite some time, witnessing the dusk overtaking the day and watching Magnus and Stella playing around on the wide, wooden beach swing hanging from a huge pine tree. At times like these, there seems to be nothing wrong with the world.


One the way back we stopped at the mini-mart and bought a bottle of red wine and a couple of Chang beers. We had the others join us outside our room, and we set up around the pool and sat for a long while talking, drinking and Tony and I enjoyed an excellent cigar.


A fine end to a fine day.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

July 22 – Disaster(s)



Sometimes a day goes so wrong it makes you think the universe is conspiring against you. Or maybe it’s just a dose of bad luck to balance out the months of heaping good luck. In any case, here’s what happened.


The morning started out fine. We all met for breakfast at the 7th floor rooftop restaurant and had loaded up our plates with all sorts of interesting options from the buffet. Besides the regular breakfast items such as waffles, toast, croissants, bacon, fresh fruit, cereal, sausages and pastries, many of the Asian buffets include more dinner like items. For example, today we had vegetable fried rice, wontons, fried tofu, boiled cabbage, chicken curry and pork stir fry. I was happily munching away on one or more of the above items, when something got stuck in my throat and I could not breathe. I frantically pushed back from the table, clutching at my throat and trying to cough it out, but whatever was lodged in there would not budge. Ana whacked my upper back, trying to dislodge it, but wasn’t working and I think I was starting to black out. Everybody was stunned and paralyzed, not knowing exactly what to do, and from what I remember there was no staff around either. Tony ran behind me, put his arms around my chest and started heaving, going for that Heimlick maneuver that you see on television but never actually see anybody do. And guess what? It worked! Otherwise I might not be writing this. I don’t know if the guilty food item went up or down, but there was no comedic moment of a half chewed sausage launching out of my mouth and landing in somebody’s coffee, although that would have made for a better story. I sucked in wind and brought myself back to life. I was embarrassed, as there were quite a number of people in the restaurant, all looking at me sitting there turning from blue back to white, but happy to be breathing and that my main man Tony was there to give me the big squeeze. I owe him one. But, sadly, the day did not get any better after that.


We gathered up our things and left the hotel, on the way to visit a nearby temple. All of us were walking along the roadside boulevard when we came to a section that had a whole bunch of broken up sidewalk chunks scattered around. As we were tip-toeing through it, Maddy completely lost her footing, tripped, and landed on a piece of rubble, yelling in pain. We went to help her up and she screamed, “NO!” and then rolled over on one side and we could see that her arm was twisted at a very odd angle. She had broken it. Shit. While the ladies were sitting with her Tony and I ran across the street to the closest hotel – I forget which one it was – and told the front desk what had happened and asked them what to do. They were very helpful and said it was better to call an ambulance instead of taking a tuk tuk to the hospital, so they called one while we waited and then told us to just say with her until it arrived. So we went out, crossed the street and told them that a ride was on the way. By now the sun was higher in the sky and extremely hot so we all stood there in a line trying to shadow Maddy as she was in pain and just wanted to stay where she was on the ground. It only took about 15 minutes for the ambulance to arrive, and we decided that since there wasn’t too much space, the Henriques would all go together to the hospital and we’d stay within range of wifi and keep in touch via text (assuming they could get wifi at the hospital). The paramedics helped Maddy up, and by this time she seemed to be doing better, and was able to walk by herself to the ambulance.


We watched the ambulance drive away into the frenzy of traffic and then looked at each other and just said, “Wow.” On the bright side, it was not a compound fracture, and the one paramedic thought it looked like a very simple break, so told everybody not to worry. But we were all pretty rattled by this point.


Ana, the kids and I spent the rest of the morning at the hotel just texting back and forth with Angela as they had Maddy x-ray’d and checked out by the doctors. Things were sounding okay, except that Maddy was definitely going to need a cast so wasn’t going to be as mobile as usual for the last few days of their trip. The other problem was that there looked to be some sort of issue with the travel insurance they had purchased (or thought they had purchased?) and none of the hospital expenses were going to be covered. They estimated the bill was going to be around ten thousand US dollars and, if you can believe this, it had to be paid in cash. Considering we’d only been able to withdraw US$250 per day from the ATMs I had no idea how we were going to get that much cash. But we told them we’d start checking into options.


So in the early afternoon we decided that in addition to checking into the money issue, it was probably a good opportunity to take our passports down to the Vietnamese embassy to get our visas processed, as we planned to go to Vietnam once we parted ways with the Henriques. So we went outside and began walking to the busy tourist area where all the tuk tuks hang out. We have a day bag we use for carrying stuff around, but whenever we carry our passports we always put them into the travel belts that we wear hidden around the waist beneath your clothes. Except that we had recently had all of our passports renewed, and the new Canadian passports have many more pages and a much harder front and back cover, so they are uncomfortable as hell to wear on your body, and they barely fit into it. So we decided to just put them in the day bag and be extra careful. As we were walking along I was carrying the bag on my shoulder and a motorcycle came up from behind us at high speed and ripped the bag from my grasp. And as I was pulled off balance, I smashed into Magnus and knocked him to the ground, where he hit his face right on the pavement, breaking his glasses and getting a big cut across his nose. It was total chaos. Ana, Stella and I stood there, dumbfounded as we watch the two guys on the motorcycle driving away with our bag and poor Magnus with blood dripping down his face. Some of the Cambodians standing nearby had seen everything happen and one of them took off on his motorcycle to try and catch them. We helped Magnus up and he seemed okay except for the cut, but he was more upset about his glasses, as he didn’t have another pair and he really likes wearing them.


One of the Cambodians must have called the police because a single man on a police bike arrived and started talking to the people who had witnessed it and, I assume, was getting a description of the thieves. Ana and I started trying to remember what was in there and our hearts sunk when we realized the bag contained not only our passports, but also her wallet, two of our three phones, and a folder with a bunch of other important travel documents. Considering we are seasoned travelers and have been robbed twice in the past, I just do not know how we could have been so stupid.


Actually, none of the above happened. I recently read a book on Stoicism and one of the things Stoics practice is a mental exercise whereby you imagine bad things happening to you, or losing people or things that are important to you, or any other sort of misfortune you can conjure. The idea is that by imagining such misfortunes, you are much better prepared to deal with them when they invariably do happen. Also, your sense of loss is less, because you have already imagined and muted your reaction to this misfortune many times, but in your mind, so you are better prepared for it. After I read that book I realized I probably am a Stoic, because this mental exercise is something I’ve been doing for years.


I will apologize to Angela’s mom, because I know she has been following these journals and probably suffered a major panic attack while she was reading this! Rest assured, your babies are all safe and sound.


Today we did visit a nearby temple, and then we tuk tuk’d to the genocide museum and got a very sad tour of a school the Kymer Rouge used as a prison and torture facility, killing many thousands of innocent Cambodians here, and taking photos of each prisoner, which now haunt the walls of the cursed buildings. We then took a hot walk to the Russian Market where we all did some shopping. Ana got a purse, I got an Angkor beer tshirt, Magnus got a switchblade and a tuk tuk tshirt and Stella got exactly what she needed to complete her backpacker look – M.C. Hammer pants. I even played her the “You Can’t Touch Dis” video that evening so she could learn the dance move she needs to rock the pants.


After all of that there was some top level hot tubbing, beer drinking, a walk around an extremely filthy local market, another unavoidable stroll through the red light area to see the hoochies and perverts, and finally a huge dinner at an Indian restaurant.


In other words, an excellent day for this Stoic bastard.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

July 21 – Let’s Go To Phnom Penh




The trip to Phnom Penh was a snap. Fancy mini-bus picked us up at 8:00 and five hours later we were dumped in some unknown location in a commercial district of the capital city Phnom Penh. Of course there was a small throng of tuk-tuks so after gathering up our things we grabbed two of them for an extravagant five bucks each and set off into the concrete jungle. The traffic was a mad frenzy. The people here are masters at finding that extra inch on the road that lets you sneak past somebody else. It’s funny – the drivers are constantly cutting each other off, blatantly, but they all do it with a smile and nobody ever seems to get mad at each other. Don’t be trying that in Brantford, otherwise some big bellied, ham fisted hockey dad will get out of his F150 and punch you in the face.


Our hotel, the Ohana, was located right in the heart of all the action, overlooking the mighty Mekong river. We exploded our stuff all over the room and then went for a swim in the chilly pool on the ground floor. The kids and Ana went to the top of the hotel to explore the spa, and when I went up there I found the three of them sitting in a giant hot tub with an infinity edge spilling over the entire city. Cha-ching!


hey had also made a new friend in the hot tub – John from Barry, Ontario and his lovely family. He had met a Cambodian lady six years previously and had spent that entire time trying to get her and her daughter to Canada, as he had a child from a previous relationship. So far his wife and the baby daughter they had together in Canada were living in Barrie, but her 11 year old daughter was still living in Phnom Penh with relatives, awaiting a visa. He told us much of the administration had been on the Cambodian side, as they have tight controls on allowing children to leave here, to prevent child trafficking. The whole experience sounded very stressful, but he had made 11 trips to Cambodia in recent years to spend with his adopted daughter and his wife’s family.


We went for a walk to see if we could find a place to eat. We seemed to be located in the heart of the red light district, evidenced by the abnormally large number of single, white, 60 year old dudes hanging around bars. And, of course, the bars themselves, with packs of provocatively dressed ladies hanging out front, eyeing up dudes as they passed, beckoning them inside. Our hotel was just off the waterfront so we walked across the street to the giant boulevard, which was similar to the one in Baddambang – exercise equipment and many people, but somehow not quite as nice. We saw a large group of people playing some sort of footbag game, but the thing they were kicking around looked more like a giant badminton birdie. Interesting, must keep an eye open for one of those.


After a bit of wandering we found the Lemongrass restaurant so went in for a nice Thai meal. The prices were a bit higher than what we had become used to, but still very cheap. After eating, the girls and kids wanted to check out the local market so Tony and I found a riverside/trafficside restaurant that offered 75 cent drafts and settled in for drinks and a cigar. We were down to the last two smokes we had bought in the Manila airport, so that would probably be our next big purchase.


The ladies and kids eventually joined us and by this time it was dark and so I introduced them and Phnom Penh to a game I invented a few years ago. It’s called “Gecko Spitballing” and here’s how it works. Find a restaurant with a large, backlight neon sign and request a table directly beneath it. Order at least one fancy cocktail that comes with a straw. Pull out a napkin from the tabletop napkin dispenser. And then you watch…and wait. Soon, geckos will appear on the sign. Slowly reach for your napkin, hold it up to your mouth and take a small bite out of the corner. Chew it well to get it fully moistened and into a cannonball shape. Lift straw to your mouth. Use your tongue to load the projectile into the straw. Now aim the straw at the closest gecko. Inhale deeply. Stay calm and focused. And then blow as hard as you can. The spitball projectile will blast from the straw, and if your aim is straight and true, you will strike the gecko and cause him to lose his sticky foot suction and fall from the sign, hopefully into somebody’s beer or, better yet, in their hair or down their shirt. And then let the frenzy unfold around you.


Sadly, my aim was neither true nor straight, and I just couldn’t hit one. The spitballs came close enough to graze a few of them, but sadly no direct hit. When the waitress caught me doing it, instead of throwing me out, she actually stood nearby cheering and laughing, hoping for me to hit one. Magnus got in on the action too, but he aim was just as sucky as mine so we left the waitress and ourselves disappointed, and with nothing to show for it besides a bunch of spitballs stuck all over the tables, chairs, and ground.

We finished up the evening with a visit to the rooftop hot tub. John from Barrie was up there so we sat and chat with him for a long time and he told us all about his Cambodian family and experiences here with the language, customs and so on. It was also two for one hour so he asked me for help in drinking his second giant jug of Angkor beer. I’m always willing to help out a fellow traveler in need so we polished off the beer, which provided for a lovely headache the next morning.

Friday, July 21, 2017

July 20 – Day Tripping Around Baddambang



Yesterday we hired Mr. Blue and Mr. Sam to tour us around the Battambang countryside for the day. They arrived promptly at 9:30, which gave us plenty of time in the morning to lounge around a bit and have a big breakfast at the hotel. It turned out that Mr. Sam couldn’t make it, so he sent his uncle (let’s call him Uncle Sam), who would be the Olson’s guide and driver for the day.


After zipping through the streets of Baddambang the level of roadside development started to thin slightly, and soon we were in the countryside. Our first stop was in front of a large temple complex, but before entering Mr. Blue introduced us to a roadside vendor who was selling these thick bamboo rods full of…something. He picked one up and showed us that inside was a dessert item of sticky rice, beans and coconut milk. We purchased one to share and peeled back strips of the bamboo to expose the firm rice mixture. It was good – chewy, not too sweet, nice morning snack.


The temple turned out to be a memorial site for the thousands of Cambodians that were killed here during the four years of Kymer Rouge rule in the 70’s. Around the memorial were depictions of some of the atrocities that were committed by the Khymer Rouge during this time – throats being slashed with palm leaves, decapitations, women being raped, babies being killed, cannibalism, torture. It was worthy of a horror novel but, sadly, very real. Also in the memorial was a collection of skulls and bones that were reclaimed from a nearby well where they used to throw in the murder victims. Mr. Blue was born just after this era, but he told us a story about his father, who was a monk at the time, and monks, along with educated people and the elite, such as doctors, teachers, administrators, artists, musicians, property owners and business people, were systematically executed or worked and starved to death. Mr. Blue’s father nearly died of starvation at his lowest point, and was only able to survive by eating the arm of one of the dead.


From this sobering start we continued onto a crocodile farm. Upon entering we were shown a large paid that had a dozen freshly hatched crocodiles and we were invited to pick them up and hold them. Most of us dove in and grabbed a small handful of lizard – it was pretty neat. We also held a larger one, but not before the owner used an elastic to hold its mouth shut. With the compound were something in the neighbourhood of 700 crocodiles, all raised commercially to be turned into purses, boots, jackets or pizza toppings. There were at least a dozen separate concrete enclosures and we were able to walk across the top of them and look down to see the mostly still crocs, many with their mouths permanently hung open, showing off their sharp teeth. At one point a dopey chicken somehow got on top of the enclosure and dropped into the cage and was snapped up by one of the crocs in an instant. A croc fight nearly ensured, but the successful croc slithered off and found a nice quiet place in the corner of the space to gloat over his good fortune.


The next stop along the way was a fish processing facility. We could smell it well before we got there. There were hundreds of butterflied fish lying out on drying racks in the hot sun. A chicken stood atop of one of the racks and pecked away at the fish, unmolested. There was a covered fish processing area that had many workers in an assembly line fashion, bringing in buckets of fish, using cleavers to hack off gills and fins, and then fins, remove guts and then butterfly them into the required shape for drying. There was also a large vat of slowly putrifying fish, which would be used as the base for a fish sauce, though the entire process takes several months. A Toyota Camry  pulled up across the street and they started unloading fish. But not just from the trunk. All the seats had been removed, except for the drivers seat, and the fish were literally piled up to the windows. The lads pulled the fish out of the car and heaved them into buckets to await processing. Most of them were in leaky bags, but many were loose in the car so it took a while to get them all. Towards the end, we could see a steady stream of fish slime and guts oozing out of the doors of the car onto the ground and slowly puddling up, but likely evaporating quickly in the hot sun. “Hey, the good news with your new position in the company, is that you get a company car? The bad news? Well, it’s the fish car.” Mr. Blue told us that the fish actually had to be driven from a fish farm that was about two hours away. Just imagine.


Our next stop was the rice wine maker. A family had set up a small processing facility for making rice wine. It was nothing fancy – some wood burning ovens, evaporators and small vats with rice wine dripping out into buckets. There were two jars to sample from; one with rice wind soaked in grapefruits and one with rice wine soaked in cobra snakes. I tried both. The fruit wine was boozy, but drinkable. The snake wine was strong, harsh and gave me an instant erection, just like Mr. Blue said it would. We got the hell out of there.


The final stop for the morning was the rice paper maker. Again, a small, family run facility where they husked rice and then turned the grains into a powder that was made into a floury paste and then cooled crepe-style on a hot pan. These were extremely thin and put out on bamboo racks to dry. After drying they become hard, so to use them for making spring rolls you have to dip it into water for a brief moment, which instantly softens it and allows you to roll it up. When we arrived there were at least two dozen bicyclists there, so we had to wait a while for our tour, and while we waited we sampled the raw and fried spring rolls, along with their fish sauce. Delicious.


By now it was around 1:00 so our drivers took us back into town and dropped us off at a restaurant, with the agreement that they would pick us up at our hotel at 3:30 for the second part of our trip – to see the killing caves and great nightly bat exodus. The restaurant they dropped us at was one that we hadn’t previously seen, and the food was cheap and decent. It’s still hard to get over how inexpensive things are here – lunch for 8 including a few beers was less than thirty bucks.


After lunch we walked over to one of the busy streets to get tuk tuks and Magnus the scavenger found a ten thousand dollar riel note (about $2.50 US) so with his windfall he treated us to the tuk tuk ride back to the hotel. We had an afternoon chill out there and were back on the road at 3:30 sharp with our fine drivers.


In the morning all of our stops were north of the city, but in the afternoon we headed south. It took about 30 minutes in the tuk tuk to reach our destination, and along the way we pulled over at a roadside stall to check out the grilled rats. I won’t even say I was tempted – if I ate a grilled rat Ana wouldn’t touch me for weeks, or perhaps ever.


The Killing Caves are a place where the Kymer Rouge used to execute people and dump their bodies. There were three caves; one in which they threw the dead babies and children, one in which they tossed the older people and one for the adults. Years after those dark days had past, the government exhumed thousands of skulls and bones and put some of them into a small pagoda as a memorial to all of the people who died there. It was a chilling site, sad, and unbelievable. But it is good they keep these places available to the public as a reminder of the terrible things that happened there. We had hired a guide to take us up the mountain and show us around the sites and he did a great job explaining everything.


After the caves we moved a little bit further up the mountain to see a grouping of large, golden temples. There were also a lot of tourists, monks, and monkeys, and one of the monkeys was looking for a bit of afternoon delight (a.k.a – Monkey Bang Bang) so got to work on his tree-mate in full view of us lucky visitors. Ana videotaped the whole thing - she is such a pervy.


At last, the time came to see the bats. We finished up our tour of the caves and temple and drove back down the hill and got seated at one of the dozens of tables set up for the evening bat spectacle. We were all seated at a roadside across from a sheer cliff with a big cave opening. We were told the bats usually come out around 6pm, and at exactly 6pm we saw a few bats starting to flutter out of the cave, which was the start of the tsunami. For the twenty minutes that we stayed, a steady stream of bats exploded out of the cave. Although it is pretty hard to estimate, I’m thinking there must have been at least hundred bats per second coming out. So for twenty minutes that makes 120,000 bats, and they were still pouring out when we left. The bats would split off into groups, creating contorting, dancing clouds of batness over the nearby fields and forests. It was extraordinary, and unlike anything I have ever seen. Our tuk tuk driver told us that the bats leave at this time to go out into the forest to feed, and then they all stream back into the cave at around 4am. But we would not be coming back to witness their triumphant return.


We drove back into town and were dropped off near Olly’s Pomme restaurant, and our host Olly once again greeted us warmly. We went in, got seated (on the floor) at a table and got the games out and started playing. Right away we noticed the French girl Veronica  we had met at Madison’s the day before, was in the restaurant with a guy, so we sat near them and struck up a conversation. He was an American named David, on a souls-searching, worldwide mission after quitting his job in California three months previous. We learned that Veronica was a teacher and had worked at many French schools around the world, and was on a short break before starting her new contract in Laos.


We had a few drinks, ordered a bit of food, and played a game or two, while chatting with our new friends. By 9pm Stella was sleeping on the floor, so we decided to call it a night and hired a tuk-tuk to give us a ride home. I believe he may have been the slowest tuk-tuk in Baddambang as his little motorbike could barely pull the two person tuk-tuk that the four of us were packed into, and the rest of the vehicles were whizzing by us as we crawled down the busy road. But I was glad we had chosen this particular underdog tuk-tuk, because who doesn’t like cheering for the underdog?