Archive for June, 2008

Downriver and Upbeat – The Mekong Delta of Vietnam – Part 1

As promised, here is a piece I wrote for a magazine many years ago about my trip down the Mekong Delta in Vietnam in 1995. Unfortunately the Magazine folded before they could publish this. It’s pretty long, so I will post this in parts. I wasn’t shooting digital back then, so I only have a few images from this trip scanned right now.

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It’s at least 90 degrees outside and the streets of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) are teeming and seething with all kinds of life, from prostitutes, war maimed beggars and rickshaw drivers who fought on the wrong side, to the reborn capitalists who cut joint venture deals with the legions of foreign businessmen. The pulse of this city has returned after so many years of isolation. Bright lights and bright futures, young men and women cruise the night on their new motorbikes imported from Japan. The seedy and the greedy walk the streets arm in arm towards a high-tech tomorrow of the New World Order. On this steamy night I have decided to make a trip to the decidedly less urban labyrinth of the Mekong River Delta. Known as the “breadbasket” of Vietnam, it is a rich agricultural region, crisscrossed by the mighty Mekong river and its tributaries and numerous canals. Originating high in the Tibetan plateau, the Mekong (known as the Song Cuu Long to the Vietnamese or “River of the Nine Dragons”) flows some 2800 miles to the South China Sea.

But I am still in Saigon deciding on the best way to explore the delta. I inquire to those in the know about catching a boat and working my way up the river, but I am told that this is not possible or practical given the week I have allotted. This forces me to reluctantly let go of my “Apocalypse Now” romanticism I have been holding on to for so long. Another option is the popular Minibus excursion into the delta offered by the budget hotels in town. But this is definitely out of the question for me; I have learned my lesson with group excursions on safari in Africa. Being a photographer, I cannot be constrained by group travel. Besides, being on my own gives me great opportunity to interact with the Vietnamese people. The only option left that I can afford is to get around like most everybody else in Vietnam, on motorbike. Not having much experience with motorbikes, let alone Vietnamese traffic “etiquette”, to put it nicely, madness to be more exact, this option is not without risk. But hey, I didn’t come half way around the world to see things from a mini van. So I make arrangements to rent a motorbike from a man at the shop next door to my hotel.

First thing in the morning, after haggling with the man on the price of the rental ($6/day) and who will keep my passport (I keep it, he gets my drivers license) I am ready to go. But wait, I forgot one more thing. I go back to the man and ask him for a helmet, gesturing towards my head. He laughs and says “no”. Silly me, they don’t use helmets around here, so the risk may be a little greater, well…ok, a lot greater.

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Helmetless if not brainless, I get on my little Honda 100cc Dream II and am off. The streets are a dense mass of bicycles, motorbikes, cyclo rickshaws, pedestrians and a few cars, trucks and buses. As best as I can I go with the flow heading southwest towards my first stop, the river town of Mytho on the northern edge of the delta. Senses numb, body tense, and more than a little nervous, I make my way out of Saigon. Traffic becomes less dense and soon it’s me and the open road, and… what’s that up ahead? A truck passing a bus in the other lane, coming right at me with no regard for the oncoming traffic, which in this case means me! It doesn’t take me long to learn that the rule of the road here is the bigger vehicle has the right of way. But in time I get used to this and stay as far right as I possibly can. Horns are another hazard in Vietnam. Horns can be so abused that one becomes immune to the noise. It’s very important not to flinch when a large truck or bus quickly comes up from behind and suddenly lets the horn blow to signal that he is passing. My outlook on life back home begins to change some as I realize traffic in New York City is actually quite civilized.

But it’s all worth it, if just for the freedom, if not the wild stares of the Vietnamese.

I arrive in Mytho in time for lunch. A quiet place on the northern most tributary of the Mekong, I stay long enough to have something to eat and to notice a weather beaten billboard that dominates the center of town depicting the workers of Vietnam uniting in Socialist bliss. Although Vietnam is experimenting with economic reform towards a looser, market driven economy, it is still a one-party state where the Communist party rules and no one asks questions.

Back on the bike it’s off to Vinh Long, where I plan to spend the night. Along the way the road has numerous small bridges that span small tributaries or canals. These intersections are often small centers of activity with boats and commerce on or near the water. They are also spots where the temptation to look along the water as I pass on the motorbike is strong. Safety usually loses out to curiosity.

Before arriving in Vinh Long one must cross the upper Mekong by ferry, at which point it is a short ride into town. Still in one piece, I park the bike and finally get on my feet to have a look around. Naturally I head for the river. Before I get there a woman approaches me asking, in reasonable English, if I want a boat ride to the islands across the river. Since this is exactly what I had in mind I say “I don’t know.” She tells me it’s a nice boat ride to An Binh Island. We negotiate a price, about $3 an hour, and I find myself in a small motorized boat crossing the mighty Mekong river. The river is wide here so the boat traffic is not too dense. I soon realize that, unlike the woman who approached me, the driver of the boat speaks almost no English, which is, of course, perfectly reasonable in Vietnam. So we communicate the fun way, with hand gestures and simple words.

The point of the boat trip is to meander through the small channels that crisscross the island. Along the way there are small bamboo and thatch houses on stilts next to the water interspersed with small agricultural plots growing a variety of tropical fruits and rice. Many “monkey bridges”, narrow foot bridges over the channels, connect people together. Some of these “bridges” are just bamboo logs set high over the water to allow boats to pass underneath while the Vietnamese walk over these bridges without pause.

These simple bridges are a testament to the industriousness of the Vietnamese people. All over the country there seems to be not only hope but an assumption that life will not just get better in the future, but that it will get quite good. Alongside with busy-bee industriousness I found the people in the Mekong Delta to be quite friendly and genuinely interested about me, especially being an American.

Back on dry land this friendliness played itself out one evening in Vinh Long. Finishing up a meal in a small outdoor restaurant I notice a group of young women looking at me curiously from the shop next door. I admit I may be a bit curious looking, but so curious as to draw a crowd? And a crowd that is willing to just stare at me as I eat. But there they are, just looking at me. I do my best not to let this upset me or go to my head. I have been getting used to being the object of people’s stares here in Vietnam. I look at them and give out a “sin chau” (hello and goodbye in Vietnamese). They giggle and reply, but mostly giggle. Finished with my meal I move over to them. I am asked “What your name?” I reply and then am told each one of their names. And then almost as if it had been rehearsed, came the questions: “Where you from?”, “How old are you?”, and “You Married?” This is how it always happened since arriving in Vietnam. Then I would tell them I was from “My” (pronounced me ee, Vietnamese for the USA), was 33 and was happily not married, thank you. Then I would get questioned “Why you not married?” “Uh…well…I don’t know,” I mutter. Too late! Usually the prettiest single girl of the bunch is presented. In this case it was Khanh, who turned out to be the owner of the tailor shop. “You like her?” “No” doesn’t seem to be an option, so foolishly I utter “yes”. Khanh puts up token resistance, but she knows the game. We are now a pair. Khanh’s friends try to push the point with innocent haste – “You like to marry her?” Being a man, I gracefully resist the commitment. We use a Vietnamese phrase book I am carrying to try and communicate beyond this standard set of questions. I find that repeating what they say in Vietnamese results in boisterous laughter from my new lady friends. I lament, If only it were this easy in the states. By the end of the night Khanh is singing me a sweet version of Que Sera, Sera in rehearsed English. In Vietnam, karioke is king . . . and at this point, it seems so am I.

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Home Is Where the Heart Is

So now I am back home safe and sound. Unfortunately, my car is still missing from the driveway.

Though who am I to complain, life is pretty easy here in North Carolina, maybe too easy. But for now it’s goodbye to the overburdened motorbikes.

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The bizarre food.

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The ever-present people who were somehow always just out of reach.

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The grand temples.

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And of course, the mysterious monks.

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And if you enjoyed this foray into Asia, keep an eye here for a story about my previous trip to Vietnam.

Phnom Penh – To Hell And Back

So here I am near the end of my trip, at the infamous killing fields of Cambodia, looking at the 9000 skulls that are enshrined in the Choeung Ek pagoda just south of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. This was the handiwork of the dictator Pol Pot, whose murderous regime resulted in the killing of some one and a half million Cambodians in the mid to late 70s. Basically the educated and the well to do were arrested in this city and sent to labor and “re-education” camps or just plain slaughtered under the Khmer Rough.

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It was 13 years before I found myself near the end of a trip not too far from here, on the other side of the border in Vietnam, looking at more of Pol Pot’s destruction.

I got myself here in the same manner I got myself to that place in Vietnam many years ago – I rented a motorbike. The traffic rules seem to be the same, the bigger vehicle rules the road. It’s yield or peel – yourself off the pavement that is. Of course, on the positive side, there is the freedom of the road, which allowed me to stop here and have a roadside corn on the cob.

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And poke on the neighboring barber shop:

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But beyond the horrors of the past, there is a city on the move here in Phnom Penh. It’s dirt poor and plain dirty in most parts. But for some reason, I have never seen more Toyota Land Cruisers and Lexus SUVs in one place. Of course most people who are lucky enough to have powered transportation use motorbikes.

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No matter how poor a place may be, commerce is everywhere, from people fixing motorbikes, to chickens being killed in the food markets, or furniture being made. It’s all usually visible from the street or in the bustling markets.

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And there is always food nearby, even if the chairs are a bit small.

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This is really a city of contrasts, even though much of it is very poor, the area near center of the city is quite nice and pleasant, with families and couples strolling along wide public spaces.

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In many ways I found this city far more charming than Bangkok, even though Bangkok is much more developed. Similar to Bangkok, there is a very impressive complex of buildings and temples called the Royal Palace.

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Which are all lit up at night, with people strolling by and along the river.

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And you can see the monks walking about barefoot with umbrellas (for shade from the sun) going from place to place, offering their blessings for a small donation.

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Oh, and I could not resist just one more Buddha!

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So now it is back to Bangkok, and then back to Tokyo for the flight home. So what have I learned? What new insights can I offer?

Everywhere you go, there you are.

Ok, it’s not really new and it’s not really mine, but really what ever is?

And now I think I have earned a good Thai Massage!

This Little Place Called Angkor Wat

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It’s hard to grasp the scope of this place on the first visit. At first it seems like just a bunch of stone piles in the jungle and rice fields.

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But after a few days of seeing so many immense stone structures in various states of ruin spread out across a wide area, and to realize this was all done some 1000 to 800 years ago, the size and scope of this place begins to sink in.

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It was quite an experience to wander through countless doorways and passages that lead further into the heart of these walled city-temples.

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There is something haunting and mysterious in hearing the high pitch squeal of the insects all around after stepping back out into the light from the many interior spaces and chambers, many with strange ancient and current alters.

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And there are always figures, and faces staring back at you.

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Of course there are many interesting sights along the way from one temple to another, which may be miles away.

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And the children are always eager to pose and look at a funny looking photographer.

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There so many temple complexes, usually within huge stone walls that sometimes have given way to immense trees that are slowly reclaiming the stone back to the earth.

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Any one of the many sites here would be a major historical site anywhere else. The Angkor Wat site itself (just one of many) is considered to be the largest religious structure in the world. Of course with so many temples spread across the landscape, even it can get lost in the forest. And when one tries to imagine how all this was built so long ago, it may just be easier to sit back, have a cold one, and just enjoy the view.

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Holiday in Cambodia

Real travelers go overland! And that’s what I did to get to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Of course I could have flown from Bangkok, but where’s the adventure in that? No this was a full day affair, with a bus to the border, a walk across the border, and then a short bus to the “bus station”, then me and 3 other travelers (a Slovakian couple and a German guy) crammed into a taxi for the 3 1/2 hour drive (to go 75 miles) along a muddy and then dusty, poor excuse for a road.

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In Cambodia they drive on the right (unlike in Thailand) but this car has the driver on the right. With the way driving is over here, it took me a while to realize we actually were driving on the right.

I have crossed some pretty sketchy borders in my travels, but this one might have been the oddest. I was greeted with a plethora of gaudy casinos in Cambodia even before I got to the immigration post. In fact, as I walked into Cambodia I was worried I had missed it, but it eventually came – never mind that I could have passed right by and never even gotten stamped. But one thing was very clear, I was not in Thailand anymore, let alone Kansas! I was definitely going from second world to third with a capital T. That was clear when we stopped for gas here:

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Yes, that’s gasoline in those glass coke bottles.

It was a long bumpy road, but I was glad to be back in a place where I was greeted with stares and smiles – even if it’s a little dirty. And no, that’s not gasoline in that bottle.

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We stopped for a bite to eat, and while the others dutifully went into the open air restaurant, I wandered off to have a look around this new country. That’s where the above picture came from. The same was true at Angkor Wat. While everyone was wandering the great temple complex, no foreigners could be found just a stone’s throw away where I heard this gamalon kind of music. I had to have a look. Apparently some boys were becoming men and there was some kind of celebration going on in this little village right next to the great temple.

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This is a bit more than a sprinkle of holy water, but hey, it was something like 95F.

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Oh yea, that’s why I came here in the first place – the great temples and ruins of Angkor Wat. I did get to see some of the many temples in this sprawling ancient city of ruins today.

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There are laterally hundreds of sites around Angkor Wat. In some cases the sites have been well preserved with incredible relief carvings in stone everywhere.

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In others, nature continues to take its course:

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And now nature will take it’s course with me getting some much needed sleep. I have two more days poking around these temples before taking a peak at the capitol city of Phnom Penh and the killing fields of Cambodia.

Zen Meditations in Chiang Mai

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So really, what is this place I am in? Not Chiang Mai up in the north of Thailand, or even Thailand itself, but Asia as a whole. What do I really know about the place after three weeks here? Very little, and what I think I know is probably wrong. Sure they are primarily Buddhist, that much is clear from all the temples and Buddhas I have seen. But what is that? Many scholars of religion and many American Buddhists don’t even consider it a religion proper.

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To my eyes, it as religious (and superstitious) as good old fashioned Catholicism. There are the incense filled halls of worship, money given with prayers, candles, praying hands, striking images, and moving from station to station. So really what do I know? I know it looks cool and so I take pictures of it. It says something about us, and I want to crack the code. To me, it seems odd that anyone would take it seriously – like any religion – But just like Christians, Muslims, Hindus and even New Agers, they most certainly do.

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This city is pretty mellow and laid back compared to Bangkok. It’s got a reputation as a cultured city with a university and a big medical center and all. So here I am in this Internet cafe in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Of course it’s not a cafe at all, just a bunch of old computers along a wall with mostly western travelers at them. It doubles as a travel agency, with the walls plastered with posters for tours on offer and other things that might attract my money. Lets see: white water rafting, bungee jumping, elephant rides and “safari”, massage school, a Thai boxing show, hill tribe treks where I can go and pretend I am really seeing indigenous people living in their villages, including the “longnecks”. You’ve seen pictures of them, with the many rings around the woman’s necks stretching them out over time.

But it all seams a little like a circus. More likely they pose for the cameras, try to sell some goods and then go back to their modern homes and shake their heads.

Oh, and there he is, the king up on the wall as well. And right next to him up there above the back door is a small Buddhist shrine with incense and flowers as offerings. What do I really know?

Of course the good folks here are just trying to to get by and make a living. And hey, they do have fun on their motorbikes on the way to the Thai Dream. I had my chance to ride one of my own yesterday.

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So when someone like me comes here with Bhat that came from dollars, euro, or yen (it’s easy to spend a hundred here and and a hundred there – 3 dollars) they are just trying to get a piece of the American pie. Of course, this woman selling all kinds of cooked bugs (beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, even roach-like waterbugs) had no chance of getting any of my apple pie!

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But of course I can’t blame them, even though I have long ago learned to ignore the calls to me as I walk the streets of “taxi”, “Tuk-Tuk” (small open air three wheeled taxis), “where you go?”, “hello”. They are just doing their job. And when I go home and do mine, it’s incredible to think what I get in one hour – plenty here for a whole day living like a king – well not THE king.

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And I guess I will keep trying to do my job here – pictures of temples, monks, and worshipers and seeing what it all means – if anything.

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Now it’s time to leave Chiang Mai and get to the ultimate sacred site in all of Asia – Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

God Save the Queen

You might think Bangkok is a city filled of temples, monks and the like form my pictures, but nothing could be farther than the truth. In fact, it seems to be a city more of modernity and, well sex.

And have I mentioned they do love their king. He is always looking at you. Even in this downtown mall.

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They have a very modern subway and this thing they call the Sky Train. Basically an elevated subway. Pretty cool. This is truly a city both in the first world and in the third world.

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And of course it also has a robust Chinatown. Every self respecting city must have one. We’re still waiting in Durham.

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Bangkok is not the prettiest thing in Asia, but apparently the women are, as this is a big destination for “sex tourists”. Basically scummy white, usually older, guys from Europe, Australia, and of course the good ol’e USA that take advantage of the poor and exploited women and kids. This woman and her kids were sitting at one of the many “go go” bars in town that cater to this white trash. She probably was getting ready to go in to work for the night. And no, along with the octopus, I didn’t try this either.

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Of course, while near Chinatown I could not help poking into one of the Buddhist temples. And to my surprise I found this procession of monks.

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And I also could not keep myself from popping into the local Buddha store as well.

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And now I am in the northern city of Chiang Mai – so look out for more monks.