OR: 'The High Life'
30.06.2011 - 11.07.2011 31 °C
On the first morning of July, I woke from my dorm bed in Melaka to a strange sound. It was a bit like snoring, but every three breaths or so, the fat man in the bed next to me would choke, spluttering and coughing but yet still somehow remaining dormant. At the end of this routine, he'd let out an exasperated 'UUHHHRRRRRRRRrrrrrrr....' and remain quiet for the next few seconds, before starting the whole process again. For about 2 whole hours, this man was the primary reason I couldn't sleep. But then to his rescue came a large group of schoolchildren, inexplicably checking into the hostel at 6am. Each of the beds in the dorm were separated by a single curtain and when it was discovered that a Western person was sleeping behind one of them, a group of small girls took great delight in giggling and trying to take photos. The noisy fat man was irritating, but at least he wasn't staring at me while he made those ridiculous sounds.
After swiftly changing my lodging arrangement, I later met up with Dan, Helen, Dan's grandmother, Dan's grandmother's maid and Dan's grandmother's chauffeur and we were treated to a delicious meal of rice, veg and a number of varieties of pork. After leaving Dan's grandmother and her entourage behind, we took a boat tour up the river and were lucky to see a monitor lizard who looked rather peeved by this boat load of humans disturbing its down time.
As evening fell, the busiest street in Melaka was transformed into a magnificent night market, complete with music, performances, food stalls and people. Lots and lots of people in fact.
After a thankfully uninterrupted night's sleep I caught a bus back to Kuala Lumpur. On Sunday, I had heard that there was to be a series of races at the Sepang International Circuit, located between the two terminals of KL Airport, which were actually about 15km apart. It was the Malaysian Super Series, and with such a catchy title which included the word 'Super', it would have to be good right? It didn't bode well that there was no official transport to the circuit; an airport shuttle bus driver had agreed to drop me at the circuit (before promptly forgetting, and forcing me to do the round trip again). As I walked up the road from the highway to the circuit, there was not a single soul to be seen. But at last the drone of the motorway faded and was replaced by the roar of the engines from the racetrack.
As it was, only the iconic grandstand was open, one side facing the back straight and the other, after a tight hairpin turn, facing the pits and the start/finish line. There can't have been more than fifty spectators in the entire complex. I wasn't expecting much with such a poor turnout (entry was free, so no excuses there!), but as it turned out, the races were fantastic. A classic car series with Minis and Ford GTs sharing the track was followed by a supercar race with Porsches and Audis doing their best to burst the eardrums of the handful of fans. Following this was a bike race with no less than 40 competitors lining up on the grid. Of course I had no idea who anyone was, but a crash on the last lap gave my personal favourite, the Audi R8, second place in the main event.
After some solid entertainment on the track, I was starting to get peckish and checked my watch. 3pm and I hadn't yet had lunch. As I wandered around the main entrance, it became clear that the prospect of 50 potential customers was not enough to convince the food stalls to open today, and it soon dawned on me that there was not a single place for miles around that would feed me. After failing to overcome the language barrier with the only visible members of staff around, and with no sign of a bus stop or taxi service, I began what would become a 7km sun-drenched trek on the hard shoulder of the motorway to the airport. Standing in the queue for McDonalds an hour and half later (it was that or Dunkin' Donuts, mum!) I was just about ready to murder the woman in front of me who couldn't decide which drink to have. After just a few more minutes of agony, I think I startled the woman behind the counter with how enthusiastically I ordered 'WATER!'.
As if the world wanted to make up for my crappy afternoon, I returned to my hostel to find that the owner had decided to throw an impromptu barbecue. With the room cheap enough already, Jeff was winning over his guests with a free feast of corn on the cob, ribs, steaks and chicken drumsticks. And as a bonus, no salad either! This man knew how to barbecue.
With the party just getting started, I reluctantly headed to bed with the prospect of an early morning flight the next day. I woke at 4.30am, and climbed to the rooftop of the hostel for a coffee and some toast. I politely humoured the three drunken revellers that remained from the night before, before starting the short walk to the central bus station. I hopped on a busy bus adorned with AirAsia's livery (just like virtually everything else in Malaysia) and made the flight in good time. Less than two hours later and we were descending into Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. As we flew over the Mekong Delta, the vista was mindblowing. All the towns and farms were built by the water, faithfully following the snaking rivers' courses inland.
After stepping off the plane and into the terminal, I was greeted by an unexpected but very familiar face. Mr. Bean, again. I don't know what the fascination is in this part of the world, but Mr. Bean and his antics were being played on every television in the airport. One painful visa-on-arrival process later and I stepped out into Vietnam, a country where they seem to have lots and lots of everything. The doors opened and I was greeted by many hundreds of people, separated from the airport by a series of barriers. Some were jostling for my attention, offering taxis and I-don't-know-what-else but most just seemed to be waiting. For what I have no idea; there must have been three or four time as many people in this crowd than actually inside the terminal.
Once I'd escaped the huddle and found an ATM, I attempted some rough maths, trying to work out how much money I'd need to withdraw. As it was, I became a millionaire for the first time in my life, acquiring 2.5 million Vietnamese Dong, the world's second least valuable currency unit. The novelty of having 500,000 dong bills mixed with 50,000s and 5,000s soon wore off, as even the smallest transactions resulted in having to stare blankly at each note, making sure to meticulously count the zeroes before handing over the cash.
As I hopped on a bus and hit the road, I was reminded again of India. While the horns were used slightly less, there was one very noticeable difference: scooters. Scooters, scooters everywhere. Where scooters seemed to rule the road and trundle along at their maximum speed, larger vehicles were forced to go much slower, because of the sheer number of scooters. As we rolled along at no more than 15mph, scooters would appear as if from nowhere, with scooters overtaking, scooters cutting in front of the bus, scooters diving down the side. Their numbers were so great and with potential hazards at every angle at all times, cars and buses had no choice but to edge forward as slowly and carefully as the dominant scooters would allow.
With my bags dumped at a local guesthouse, I headed to the iconic Reunification Palace, where the Vietnam war was infamously ended as a North Vietnamese tank burst through the gates and forced a surrender and the end of the 20 year war. Most of the Palace is accessible, with much of it left as it was on that day in 1975 (bar some spring cleaning). The conference rooms, war rooms and private residences were all open to view. The library was particularly interesting, with a 1974 issue of 'World Tennis' poking from the top of one of the shelves.
That evening, I met a couple of guys from my hostel, a German named Gustav and a Belgian named Joaquin who were itching for a touch of luxury. And so we headed for a night out, of all places, to the Sheraton Hotel, one of the few skyscrapers that dot the city. As the beautiful Maybach pulled up outside the front steps of the hotel, the chauffeur swiftly jumped out and opened the rear doors of the glorious vehicle. Three of the most smartly dressed gentlemen you'll ever see coolly stepped out and were ushered inside the luxurious lobby. As Gustav, Joaquin and I strolled round the corner in our shorts and flip flops, its fair to say we weren't offered the same treatment as we walked in behind them.
Moving quickly so as not to avert the eyes of the elegantly dressed staff, we headed to the nearest lift. Our destination: the rooftop bar on the 25th floor. As we stepped forth from the lift, we were looked up and down by a decidedly sour-faced concierge. 'Can I help you... gentlemen?'. 'We'd like a beer please!' was the enthusiastic reply.
With a tip that Gustav had overhead, we had sought this bar which supposedly offered the best views of the city. And in this, we were not disappointed! What few sights there were in the city were easily visible, and it was almost as if every street and building in the whole of Ho Chi Minh had just slightly turned towards the hotel, giving the impression that we were standing right in the centre of everything. And to think it was free entry as well! As we were soon to find out, this was not entirely true.
Our smiles sank as we received the menu. With sunset still an hour away, we agreed that we would just have to suck it up and buy a drink. A bottle of beer was 130,000 dong (about 4 pounds), more than ten times the price of those at the hostel. Luckily, we'd arrived at 'Happy Hour', though even the well-dressed people didn't look too happy about it. So after shelling out 180,000 dong, I was provided with two gin and tonics which, I'll be honest, I struggled to make last an hour. When you've grown up trying to keep up with a step-dad such as mine, you learn to enjoy your alcohol quickly (And that's a compliment, Jonny!)! With the sun set, it was time to split the bill. Add two generous helpings of spirits to three very tired travellers, sprinkle in a few six digit numbers, a poorly lit bar and indistinguishable banknotes and you have the recipe for one of the most difficult settling-ups in the history of the world. Somehow we got there, and made our way somewhere decidedly cheaper for dinner. We paid separately.
After an eye-opening few days in Ho Chi Minh, I caught a bus to Can Tho, the transport hub of the Mekong Delta. After struggling for an hour in Internet cafes, reading shop signs and trying to understand locals, I finally worked out where I was on a map. Another hour's walk later and I was in the central backpacker's district and checked into a clean, cheap guest house. I was offered a tour of the floating markets the next day by the hotel owner but told him that I'd shop around a bit first before committing.
As I was walking the streets trying to find somewhere for dinner, the same hotel owner approached me on a motorbike. I very rudely denied him twice before even realising who he was, and apologetically accepted his offer of a half price tour the next morning. I took it easy that night and woke up at 5am ready for the boat trip. A softly spoken local woman named Mai was to be my guide for the day, navigating the rivers with skill and grace. Sat in the middle of a small boat by myself, Mai stood at the back and controlled a propeller, which was attached to the end of a 5m-long pole, with her foot. When a larger, faster boat whizzed by, she navigated from side to side over each individual wave so as to not let a single drop of water splash over the side of the boat!
An hour or so down the river, we came to the first floating market. Long cargo boats had moored up here, each selling their individual speciality. We meandered past the onion boat, the durian boat, the potato boat and even the carrot boat. I still can't get my head around why someone would harvest all these foods on land, then load them onto a boat to sell them. Why not just have a regular market that doesn't take a couple of minutes to move between each stall? Still, it was a wonderful sight to behold and I greatly appreciated a stop at the coffee boat. As we departed the market, Mai had purchased a pineapple from (yep, you've guessed it!) the pineapple boat and while steering with her foot, had begun carving up the fruit. A few minutes later and she handed over to me a beautiful pineapple lollipop, breakfast, with the stalk as the handle and the flesh cut into an upwards spiral pattern.
The second floating market was much the same as the first, and after admiring the wares that each boat was offering, we turned down a small canal. As we had sailed for two hours downstream and in one straight line, it took a further four hours to travel up the winding waterways that were the way back. The scenery was great, with local children delighting in waving and swimming over to the boat. A few hours in however, and we hit a snag. The propeller had hit something hard and completely shattered. We were in the middle of nowhere, shaded by overhanging palm trees and the mosquitoes were circling like vultures. Luckily, Mai had come prepared with a few spares, and after some quick handiwork, we were on our way back to the town of Can Tho.
The next day, I caught a series of buses to Ha Tien, a small town on the south-western edge of Vietnam. With not much to do except cross the border to Cambodia or take an expensive ferry to an expensive sandy island, I only stayed for a night in the town. As much as I enjoy being laughed at trying to order my dinner, time was pressing and it was with great regret that I only saw the very south of Vietnam.
The next morning, as I stepped out of the hotel, a motorbike driver approached me. This was the first time I'd ever been willing to listen or talk to one of them. This chap, Tay, offered to take me to Kep, a small seaside town in Cambodia for $7. This was exactly where I wanted to go and was significantly less than what the guidebooks had recommended it would cost, so I immediately took him up on the offer. It was a short ride to the Cambodian border, but the visa on arrival service, while quick and easy, was rife with corruption. It is a well known scam at this border crossing that once approving your visa, the guard would demand $25, when actually the price of the visa was only $20. When the began to hand back the passport and explain the costs, I handed him a $20 note. He accepted it, turned to the other guard next to him and muttered something before grudgingly waving me on.
The next checkpoint was to fill out a health declaration, and the guard demanded a further $1 charge. I denied this and walked off, hearing little protest from behind me. Almost as soon as I had crossed the border, the first signs of rain began to fall. A few kilometers of absolutely awful roads meant I was bouncing up and down on the back of the motorbike for about 15 minutes, certain to result in a couple of days of lower back pain. We soon reached some nicely paved tarmac, but the worst of the journey was still to come. The heavens truly opened and combined with a fearsome wind, meant that it was no longer safe to carry on. We stopped for a little while at a Cambodian Roadchef (it was actually someone's house, but they had a shelf of food for sale in the bedroom) until the rain let up slightly.
On our way again, and it wasn't long before we were forced to stop for a second time; the crosswinds were so severe and always changing direction. Half an hour later and we were back on the road. As we neared Kep, the weather turned even nastier. I was unable to open my eyes, even sitting behind the driver and the hail-like rain was stinging every piece of uncovered skin. The crosswinds were so vicious that when they changed direction, the bike was diverted two whole lanes across before the driver could compensate. Being now only a few kilometres away, I think Tay was reluctant to stop a third time, so a few heart-in-mouth moments later, we were there.
As I admired the town and looked forward to a couple of nights here, I casually enquired to a restaurant owner where the nearest ATM was. 'No ATM' was the response. I received similar responses from other locals, and it was with a slight air of panic that I realised I had three US dollars to my name. I returned to Tay who was drinking a cup of tea before returning to Vietnam and asked about Kampot, the next town on my list. His price was $3, perfect. As we headed the 25km further down the road, the rain grew thicker but the wind began to calm. The journey was less harrowing but I was completely soaked from head to toe. Not 5km from the town, the motorbike had had enough of the water, and spluttered to a halt. After dismantling some wires and blowing through them, Tay had somehow got the bike up and running again, and we finally reached the town of Kampot.
This quiet riverside town is vastly different from anywhere I've been to so far. Everyone here is smiling, and even the moto drivers don't mind if you refuse their advances the first time. After somewhat rushing through Vietnam, Cambodia has a decidedly slower pace to it. With fantastic food, cheap drinks and a hell of a lot to see I get the feeling that Southern Cambodia might require an extended visit..