Saturday, February 27, 2010

February 26th – Ho Chi Minh City – Day 2

This morning, we got a taxi (again on the meter – we're getting good at this), to the Botanical and Zoological Gardens. Again, these had been laid out by the French – even if the French colonial times were pretty brutal, their legacy of architecture and town planning is pretty good.

As it was a Saturday, there were lots of locals enjoying the day with their families. There was a stage which had constant shows of varying quality, by acrobats, jugglers, fire eaters, and singers – all blasted out over a PA system that had been turned up to number 11. Not a very restful environment for the poor animals incarcerated here. We went to see the elephants, where the sight of a poor bull elephant, chains round his legs and with his tusks sawn off, pacing around mindlessly, was enough for the animal lover in Tracy, and she refused to see any more animals. I carried on, and saw some beautiful white tigers who looked as bored out of their minds as the go-go girls in Patpong, hippos, rhinos, lions and orang-u-tans. It left you feeling pretty sorry for the animals, although the enclosures were generally of a decent size and they seemed in fairly good physical, if not mental, health.

We then did a bit of a walking tour, through the backstreets of the town, again hopping into air-conditioned shops to escape the sapping heat, and having a typical Vietnamese lunch of French baguette and brioche – again, those French weren't all bad!

February 26th – Ho Chi Minh City – Day One

For the first time ever, we managed to get a taxi from the port to put the journey on his meter – this reduced the price by about 50% (in spite of him trying to go the long way – we stopped him pretty quickly).

We got him to take us to the city's Fine Arts Museum. The Museum had been built by the French in art nouveau style, as an attempt to impose the "civilising" ways and culture of the west on the locals. The beautiful museum is now decaying away gracefully, and all the art from colonial times has gone, so it's now filled with art from after the end of the war and reunification in 1975. It's amazing, but probably not surprising, how much of the art features men and women in uniform holding guns – even in restful rural scenes, you can make out people with guns in the distance. Considering that this country had pretty much been at war from before the Second World War to the 1980s, then it's not surprising that guns and war have embedded themselves in the national psyche.

Not that you'd have guessed that from the tumultuous action on the seething streets, which carries on at 100 mph, without a hint of what the country's gone through. The constant traffic of the city's 5 million motorbikes, and the 95F degree heat (35C), meant that we had to keep finding air conditioned cafes or shops to rest in, and bring our core temperatures down below boiling point. We found shelter in a big mall which was stuffed full of fake clothing – higher quality than the market, where I bought my high quality Rolex last week (it loses about 5 minutes every day), and then we found a nice bar overlooking the street, to watch the rush hour action. Every hour seems to be rush hour, but at about 6pm, the streets totally fill up with traffic.

For our evening meal, we found a fabulous restaurant, in an old Colonial building, that served delicious street food, in a safe and clean environment. Apparently the owner went round the city to find all the best street food practioners, and invited them to work in his restaurant. The place was absolutely packed with locals, which was a good sign, and we sat with a nice Australian couple who were doing a two week tour of Vietnam. Seeing as we were all pretty clueless when it came to ordering, the waitress took us around each of the stalls and showed us what their specialities were. Even so, ordering was complete guesswork, but what came out was fantastic – we had lots of beers and loads of food, and it came out at £5 a head. A great find!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

February 23rd – Adventures in Bangkok

The ship got into Bangkok at 2pm, so we rushed off the ship as early as possible and got a taxi into town. As we've now seen all the "main sights", we're now into exploring some of the less famous attractions in Bangkok. We first went to see the Golden Buddha – an enormous solid gold statue of the Buddha from the 15th century, that weighs in at 5 tonnes. Up until the 1950s, the Buddha had been encased in a gilded clay surround, so they had no idea that it was solid gold underneath (they think it got covered when the temple came under attack in the 18th century). It was only when they tried to move the Buddha, and it fell over (because it was more heavy than they thought), that the clay cracked, revealing the solid golden Buddha image underneath.

That must have been quite a surprise for the monks, to realise that they'd been sitting around the religious artefact with the highest intrinsic value in the world (according to the Guinness Book of Records) – in 2003, the gold was valued at $33 Million.

The Buddha stands on the edge of Bangkok's Chinatown, so we went to the Museum of Chinese Culture, which was housed in the Golden Buddha complex. The Chinese have been coming to Thailand to settle for centuries now, in their hundreds of thousands every year, and so Chinese culture has become a significant part of Thai life. Right from the early days, the Chinese have dominated business and trade in Thailand, and they make up the richest section of Thai society. The Museum tried to paint a picture of integration and harmony between the two cultures, with everyone uniting behind the figure of the King, but it's difficult to assess the true relationship between the two communities.

We then went to see Chinese culture in action, by visiting Bangkok's large Chinatown – narrow alleyways lined with stalls selling some odd-smelling food, the usual mass-produced tat, as well as some interesting stuff as well. The teeming alleys were full of people (and a few cockroaches scuttling past), but this didn't seem to deter people on motorbikes barging us out of the way on a regular basis.

After this, we went on the hunt for a restaurant that we'd seen recommended on the internet – the road didn't appear on any map, and no-one had heard of it, so after much traipsing around, getting increasingly hot and bothered, we gave up, and went for an old favourite, The Mango Tree, on the edge of Patpong (the Red Light District). As we were searching, we found a street stall selling roasted cockroaches, grubs and insects, so we were happy to go for a more conservative satay and green curry combo in the restaurant The meal was delicious, and we ate far too much, and then we staggered out into the chaos of Patpong, where we received countless offers to sample the delights of Ping Pong shows, Banana shows, Balloon shows (we dread to think what they involved), and just your standard pole dancing. We peered into a couple of these bars, to see countless bored-looking skinny girls, their faces looking pinched from drugs, in skimpy bikinis, standing on their podiums going through the motions – I couldn't think of anything less sexy.

So, we dragged ourselves from the sleaze, and went to the open-air Sky Bar on the 65th Floor of the State Tower. Here, we were in another world, of trendily conspicuous consumption, feeling incredibly exposed on a platform overlooking a 65 floor straight drop down to ground level. Tracy started to feel a little unsafe, given that the ledge round the edge of the platform was only at chest height, so we enjoyed the views, and made our way gingerly to terra firma.

Monday, February 22, 2010

February 20th –Singapore

Seeing as normally all we do in Singapore is eat, drink and shop, we decided to get a bit of culture, by visiting the Singapore Art Museum. The Museum is housed in a beautiful old school from Colonial Times, which does give it a difficult to follow lay out, but it has lots of interesting artwork from all around South East Asia.

There was some very interesting stuff from Indonesia, which attacked the government for corruption in some very clever and thought-provoking ways, and some good stuff from the Philippines which explored the interesting cultural mix between the Spanish and the Filipino influences.

After all that culture, we walked around the historic civic area passing all the impressive colonial buildings, and as the heat and humidity threatened to knock us out, we had to shelter in the air-conditioned cool of one of the big shopping malls, where Tracy sought out a few bargains.

In the evening, we went to a famous dumpling restaurant on Orchard Road, where we gorged on incredibly filling dumplings, and then went to a hawker centre for some cheap alfresco drinks.

February 19th – The Singapore Hawker Centre

Another good audience today for the final lecture of this cruise – although for some reason, halfway through I started to muse on what it would be like if a mermaid and a lion were to mate. Tracy's look of astonishment quickly got me back on track! At the end of my lecture, one passenger told me that I reminded him of a Jesuit priest in my delivery of my sermon – is this a good thing?

We didn't get into Singapore until 6.30pm, so tonight we concentrated on the two definitive Singapore cultural experiences – shopping and eating.

We docked right next to an enormous shopping mall, so we had a quick nose around, before getting onto the more important activity – food. We took the efficient MRT (subway) to Newton, to go to the fabulous Newton Hawker Centre, an open-air centre with about 50 different delicious food stalls around the edge, and seating in the middle.

Having found the place selling the cheapest Tiger beer, we did a circuit of the various food stalls, ranging from Chinese noodles, bbqs or seafood, Indian curries, and Arab-style dishes too – the smells were gorgeous, and we were salivating like starving dogs after just a couple of minutes. I started with a lorry load of chicken satay, while Tracy had a "fried carrot cake", which appeared to be a kind of seafood omelette, without a carrot in sight.

As the Tigers flowed, we moved onto a Muslim Malay dish called Murtabak – spicy vegetables in a kind of batter/panacake, and a hot curry sauce to dip it in. Delicious, but it got so cumulatively spicy that many more Tigers needed to be consumed, to water it all down.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

February 17th – The Floating Market

Today we had the chance to see a Bangkok experience that we hadn't done before – pay a visit to one of its colourful floating markets. There aren't any floating markets in the city any more, so we had to get up at the crack of dawn (5am!) to make the 110km trip out of town to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.

We started with an exhilarating ride on a long tail boat, down the canals towards the town – the long tail boat contains a noisy car engine that powers a high-speed rotor that can propel you at speeds up to 80 mph. As we powered along the canals through the coconut farms and jungle, you could see that this was a way of life made for living on the water – all the houses and shops opened up to the canals, and we passed lots of ordinary people paddling themselves into town in their canoes.

Whilst there are still a few genuine elements to the Floating Market, it was obvious that most things had been taken over by the tourist trade; but it was still an incredibly colourful and picturesque sight to see the market people selling their exotic fruit and veg from their boats, even if most of the customers these days were tourists. As ever, I was thinking if only I'd been here 20 years ago, before this place had been "discovered" – however, I was talking to one passenger who'd actually come to this same market 30 years ago, and she said that it was exactly the same then.

Yet another fascinating day.

February 16th – Vertigo in Bangkok

Today we ventured into Bangkok on our own. From the pier, you can either get a fixed price cab for a well over-the-top $20 to central Bangkok, or get to the gate and get a local cab who'll charge you on the meter – a much more reasonable 100 Baht ($3).

We went to Siam Square to walk around the enormous air-conditioned shopping malls. As you walk around these ultra modern complexes filled with wealthy Thais spending their baht with abandon, it's easy to forget that the taxi ride here, took us past overcrowded and scruffy shanty towns, just minutes away.

From here, we walked to visit Jim Thompson's House – a museum of folk and traditional arts and crafts, that's been made out of the American adventurer's former home. Thompson, who disappeared in the Malaysian jungle in 1967, reconstructed 6 historic wooden houses here after the war, and they're now a haven of calm in the chaos of the modern city surrounding them.

Having crept barefoot along the creaking teak floorboards, and explored the collection of traditional furniture, we braced ourselves for another onslaught on the mean streets of Bangkok.

Bangkok isn't really a pedestrian friendly place – it's so hot, and the traffic so relentlessly busy, but we decided to walk across town, past more gleaming shopping malls, smoke-filled temples, and so many food stalls that it made us wonder if anyone can ever cook at home. On our way, we passed through the infamous Patpong district – a very different prospect in daylight than it is at night. Most of the go-go bars were shut, although their graphic names gave a good hint of what nefarious activities go on in them after dark.

We were heading for a sundown drink at the Vertigo Bar – an open-air roof top bar on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel. Unfortunately, we weren't quite prepared for the dress code – no shorts or flip flops – but they very kindly leant me a pair of trousers that would have fitted John Goodman, while Roseanne Barr had carefully donated a skirt that fitted twice around Tracy, and a tiny pair of shoes from the 70s, which scarcely covered two thirds of her feet.

So, we might not have won the fashion parade, but we'd got there early enough to get the best seats for the sunset, as Bangkok's infinitely-more-fashionable beautiful people trailed in behind us. It was amazing to be up at the top of one of the world's most spectacular skylines, as the bright orange sun began to set behind the smog on the horizon, and the skyline seemed to metamorphose as we moved from daylight, to twilight, to night time. If we lived here, we'd do this every night.

Night One in Bangkok

We didn't get into to Bangkok till 4pm, so we had a nice, but extremely hot, afternoon sail in up the Chao Phraya River, up to the city. Most ships can't get as close in to the city centre as we do (they normally dock 3 hours away on the coast), so we're lucky to be just a 20-30 minute taxi ride into the centre of town.

We went on a lovely river cruise on a rice barge, past the palace and the major monuments, all lit up beautifully. Dinner was on the boat, and there was an "unlimited" bar for the duration of the cruise. Normally the words "unlimited" and "bar" going together, are manna from heaven from me, but the after-effects of my cold, meant that I wasn't able to challenge the true limits of unlimited!

It was a hot, hot night, but fortunately the river breezes kept it cool, although the temperature went up a few degrees at the night market after the meal. As we explored we saw a few stalls where the tourists rest their weary feet in a tank full of tiny fish who nibble away at their dead skin - not sure that they've found a fish that could survive 5 minutes with my feet! In amongst all the knock-offs and standard tourist fare, there were a few original clothes stalls which took Tracy's fancy - we will be back!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Feb 14th – St Valentines in Sihanoukville

There probably aren't many less romantic places to spend a Valentines Day than Sihanoukville – the sheer poverty on show in Cambodia, would weaken even Casanova's ardour.

We did a tour around Sihanoukville, starting first with a trip to the colourful pagoda on the hill above town – here, we were constantly accompanied by some grubby but sweet-looking children who had learnt the essential English phrase, "Hello – one dollar", said in a pleadingly plaintive tone.

Then we went to the incredibly busy beach, which would have been really beautiful if only it wasn't so full of people – at least it's a good sign for the Cambodian economy, that so many people are coming to enjoy its white sandy beaches.

Next we went to Sihanoukville's market – the bit at the front for the tourists, full of fake clothes; and towards the back, the part for the locals, vegetables, meat and fish. Walking around and smelling the stench of the fish market, with its wares mostly covered in flies, would be enough to make most people full vegetarians.

Next we went to a little fishing village near the port – seeing where these fish had been brought ashore didn't make you feel much better about the health of the food either. The whole place was pretty scruffy and looked fairly rough, but you got the impression that people were happy and well fed.

Cambodia clearly has a lot of work to do before it can even begin to catch up with its South East Asian neighbours, but you get the impression that it's going in the right direction – as long as the corrupt politicians don't ruin things.