The day I flew back from Cambodia I went to my friend Vaykhoun’s wedding. I went straight from teaching to the wedding. This was my 2nd Lao wedding, and very enjoyable.
Lao wedding season is in full-swing. I went to the morning market shopping mall the other day, and where they normally have people selling motorcyles or shoes or something in the centre, they have now devoted the entire atrium to wedding paraphanalia.
The first Lao wedding I went to was a friend of Vaykhouns, pictures below. When I went to his wedding, he invited me to come to the bassi ceremony during the day, at his wife’s house. He described to me how to go there, and gave me a map. On the day of the wedding, I was riding my bike down the street where he had indicated. I saw a big party, and lots of people arriving at a house. I parked my bike, went into the garden, and said hello to a few people. I ate a few nacsk, and was standing around for a few minutes, and then deicded to go inside and see the ceremony. As I was about to take my shoes off and go inside, I looked at the doorway. Next to it, there was a large portrait of the married couple. I realized, “I don’t know those people.”.
I was at the wrong wedding.
I felt mortified, but at the same time, realized how fucking funny it was that I was actually at the wrong wedding. Only in Laos.
I tried to discreetly sneak away, at which point I rode my bike another 200 or so meters, and found the correct wedding.
I apologize for having been neglectful in my blogging duties. So, the fast book from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh was fully booked for that day by a group of grumpy german tourists, so my only other option was the slow boat. And, boy, it was slow. After leaving Chau Doc around 9 am on a big barge-like ship, we finally arrived at the border around noon. The boat captain took us to a restaurant where we got ripped off and I paid $3 for some broth with some beans in it. Even as I was waiting for the boat at 8:30 that morning, all I could think about was how much I wanted to get some beer and just lounge on the boat drinking a beer, because that’s what you do when you ride boats. So finally at the border I had the opportunity to buy some beer, and after going through the border check, crossing into Cambodia, and then we all boarded a new, smaller boat, and continued on our way up the Mekong towards Phnom Phen. I enjoyed my beer, while the riveside went slowly past my eyes and I considered how Cambodia really didn’t look much different from Vietnam, or Laos, for that matter.
At around 6 pm we finally disboarded the boat, where we then got into a mini-van, which took us for another hour into Phnom Penh. As we approached the city we noticed fireworks, and general drunken revelry. It turns out it was the Cambodian National Holiday. Finally a little after 7 it dropped us off at a hotel. The streets were full of people, the whole city was complete chaos. I was bewildered. The hotel was fulled booked so I had to seek lodging elsewhere. I ended up in the shadiest part of Phnom Penh where the drug dealers and crack whores spend most of their time, in a guesthouse where I paid $4 a night for a room with a fan and no hot water. But it was fine. I ended up spending 3 nights there, during which time I explored the Tuol Sleng Museum:
This was a former school that was turned into a political prison during the Khmer Rouge/Pulpot era. It was definately a very interesting if quite grim, place to visit. The museum also works with the Documentation Center and Archives of Cambodia, on preserving important records of this period in Cambodia history. It’s all quite interesting and I would have liked to be able to visit the Documentation center, however it was closed during the time I was in PP for the national Holiday, and Water Festival.
Speaking of the Water Festival… well. That was intense.
PP is normally 2 million people ( I think?), but during this festival it doubles in size. And there are people everywhere. They have boat racing, and at night, a kind of light-up boat parade similar to Venetian Night in Chicago, but with about a million more people packed along the river. During my stay in Phnom Penh I also visited some wats, and the National Museum, and had dinner with the librarian from the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Some pictures from the water festival in Phnom Penh:
If you visit Cambodia, I really recommend eating the national dish – Amok, with fish. It’s cooked in a coconut soup, and really really lovely.
After the intense crowds of PP, I was looking forward to getting out of the city, seeing Siem Reap and Angkor, and relaxing a little. I booked a very early morning bus to Siem Reap, and when I arrived at the bus station, mind you a good 1/2 hour early, it wasn’t until just as the bus was leaving I discovered I was at the wrong bus station. I ran over to the place where I had booked my ticket, but I was too late, the bus had already left. i ran back to the other station, and nded up having to buy a 2nd ticket for the bus. Both buststaions were called “Angkor Express”, however one had (Cambodia) in parenthesis after the name. I think they do that on purpose to confuse people. Of course, no refun was offered by the other bus company. They did offer to let me wait and take the next bus, at 9 am. I didn’t feel like waiting around another 2 hours, and in the end, the extra $8 I had to pay for a second ticket was probably worth it.
So, travellers, beware, make sure you are at the right bus station if you buy your ticket from a travel agent, and ask as soon as you arrive at the station.
I arrived in Siem Reap about 6 hours later, found a guesthouse, and rented a bicycle. I stopped to buy some film for my camera, and was off for the 8km ride to Angkor Wat to see the sunset.
Here is another handy travel tip – tickets to visit Angkor are $20 a day, or you can get a 3-day pass for $40. If you only can afford a 1-day pass, you can go to the ticket booth the afternoon before you plan to visit, and buy your ticket, and then you can go to visit Angkor Wat for free that evening.
The evening I arrived at Angkor it was the height of the water festival, and even Siem Reap, a dusty backwater, was jammed with people. It was the full moon, and buddhist ceremonies were taking place everywhere.
I was very pleased to be invited as an observer to the 5th annual AUNILO (ASEAN University Network Inter-Library Online) meeting, hosted by the Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City.
The topic of the conference was Institutional Repositories and AUNILO Integration. I helped Mr. Chansy write his report on methos for improving integration and knowledge sharing among ASEAN region University Librarians. The keynote speaker was Dr. Patricia Oyler of Simmons College, in Boston. She is also somehow affiliated with IFLA, though I forget her exact title!
During the conference I got to know quite a few really lovely people, including 2 librarians from VNU Hanoi, Mrs. Yen and Miss Ly, who were staying at the same hotel as me. Participants at the conference included librarians from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, the Phillipines, Thailand, Brunei, and Indonesia.
I also had the opportunity to visit the Ho Chi Minh City Public Library, on a visit arranged by a woman I met at the conference. It’s a very nice library. One interesting feature I noticed in a lot of the public buildings in HCMC was that they had been built specifically to stay cool in hot weather, so they don’t need air conditioning, except in computer labs. This saves quite a bit of money on electricity costs, and is better for the environment.
We had a nice dinner at the Majestic Hotel, and I managed to get a group picture:
In Vietnam the national costume is an Ai O (sp?) for women, which is basically long silk trousers and a shirt dress worn over the top. This means women in Vietnam wear trousers much more often than in any other non-western country I have ever visisted. In Cambodia they seem to wear a lot of Pajamas, matching tops and bottoms, all day? In laos the national costume for women is the Sin, or Lao skirt, so you don’t see many women in pants.
After the conference all of the participants went on a visit to the Mekong Delta, where we had a lovely day of sight-seeing and shopping, and eating excessively.
Then I began my trip from HELL.
So, Miss Ly and Mrs. Yen had counselled me that it would be better for me to leave for Chau Doc, where one takes a boat to Phnom Penh, from My Tho, the city in the Mekong Delta where the AUNILO group had planned to visit on Saturday, rather than go with the group back to Ho Chi Minh City, and leave from there, since My Tho would be closer for me. I spoke with one of the ladies from VNU HCMC and arranged to go to the My Tho bus station directly once our visit was over, while everyone else took the tour group bus back to HCMC. After a lovely day visiting some islands in the Mekong Delta and eating excessively, we returned to the place where we had left the tour group bus that morning, and everyone, but me, got on. The tour guide said he would find me a taxi to take me to the bus station. A few moments later, a taxi pulled up. After some rapid conversation in Vietnamese, I was told that the bus to Chau Doc had just left, and if I went to the bus station I would have to wait over an hour for the next one. Then I was told that the taxi driver would take me to a place where I could get a minivan to Chau Doc more quickly. It sounded good to me, so I said goodbye to everybody and got in the taxi. A few minutes later the taxi dropped me off on the side of the road, at a gas station. Before I could realize where I was, some man approached me and I told him “Chau Doc”. He took my bag, and waved me into a corner, where he gave me a tiny chair, and then spent 5 minutes trying to use a calculator to get it to say “150,000”. Finally he got it to work and showed me, and I, knowing this wasn’t the dude to deal with, said “No.” He mistook my “no” for a “i’m stupid”and then took 150,000 dong in currency out of wallet and waved it in front of my face, like I can’t read a calculator screen. I tried to tell him it should be less than 84,000, since that was the price from Ho Chi Minh. After a few minutes of him mumbling at me in Vietnamese, I just got up and walked away. A car pulled up and I said “Chau doc?” and at that moment the dude comes running out and starts speaking in Vietnamese to the driver of the car. The next thing I know they are saying “150,000”. I say “No”. More rapid Vietnamese with the dude, the car drives away. This happens about 3 times, and then finally I just decide to walk as far away from this guy as possible, feeling frustrated. I get about 20 meters, mind you at 3:00 pm on a hot Saturday afternoon in southern Vietnam, and see a shop that is shady and will definitely have iced coffee. I look ahead and see more bleak, dusty, sunny road. I decide to sit down, have a coffee, and relax a minute after having to deal with the asshole, and think about my current predicament.
I am about to sit down, and a car pulls up, and stops, and some one says “Chau Doc?” I should have known something was fishy, but I just want to go at this point. I say “how much?” and they say “150” and I say “no.” and then they say “100”, and finally I just say ok and get in the car. As soon as I do this, I see the asshole dude running up, and the driver of the car slipping him some money. At first I just felt irritated, but only later I would realize the true extent to the horror and evils of this man.
It’s really hot and sweaty inside this van. I manage to doze off, and an hour later we get out at another gas station. Everyone disappears to eat some pho, but i’m not feeling hungry so I just wait by the van. A ½ hour passes, and the drivers and passengers finally come back from eating their pho. The driver comes up to me, points some guy out to me, and says “ok, you get out here. This guy will help you.”, while some one takes my bag out of the van. Now I realize I am going to have to wait here for another hour for another van, that this one was never going to chau doc on the first place, and just picked me up and took my money and spilt it with the asshole dude. I see the driver hand the guy he pointed to some money, and then in 10 seconds everyone is gone.
The guy who is supposed to help me disappears for 10 minutes, while the security guards try to ask me my name and how old I am and play silly games with each other. Finally the guy comes back. I tell him to give me the money back that the guy gave him. I was pretty sure I had seen that it was 60,000. he takes 30,000 out of his pocket, and I say “no, 60,000” and he makes me understand that the 60,000 was for me and some other guy. So I take the 30,000, and say “ok, go away.” thinking I will find a van on my own, and I didn’t trust anybody I thought was holding my money, and feeling irritated hat I had just paid 70,000 dong to go about 30 km. So I wait a few minutes, just flagging down any van that passes. None stop. Finally one that says “chau doc” in the window stops, and some lady gets out. I say, desperately “chau doc?” and there is some hesitation, but I am already clamouring to get away from these assholes and so they put me on the van and we take off down the road. At this point, I am happy to be away from the people who conspired to take me money unfairly, and moving. This driver asks for 60,000. I give him the money, and tuck into my novel.
3 hours later, it’s pitch black out, and the van stops for gas. The driver tosses out me and my bag, points at a lady, and says “chau doc”.
I look around. I am in the middle of no where, at a Vietnamese gas station. There are no lights to be seen. I’m pretty sure it’s not chau doc, so the only thing I can do is try to figure out where I am and how to get to chau doc. I go up to the lady working at the desk, and say “chau doc?”. She has absolutely no comprehension of what I have just said to her. I repeat myself, several times. Finally she takes out a pencil and a piece of paper. Thank god Vietnamese uses roman characters! If I had ben in thailand, I would have been fucked. I wrote “chau doc” on the paper, she said “chau doc”, and I said “yeah, that’s what I said!” she said something, and wrote on the paper “19’30”, about an hour from the current time. I try to ask “how far?” but she does not understand, so I wirte “Km ?” on the paper, and she writes “70 km”. So I am still 70 km from Chau Doc, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by people who I cannot at all communicate with. I sat down and tried to relax for a minute, and resign myself to the situation. I read for a while, being miserably bitten by mosquitos. At 19’20, I start anxiously watching the road. Nothing. At 19’45 I start looking with pleading eyes at the lady who runs the gas station. I am thinking to myself “Am I going to have to spend the night here on this bench being bitten by mosquitos?”, and on the verge of crying. The lady takes sympathy on me, and I see her get on her phone. A few moments later she waves to me, and again, on the little paper, writes “ ’30”. I look at the clock, and I write “ 20’20 ? ” . She nods her head yes. I say thank you, and want to believe it, but am skeptical. I picture my night on the bench and try to prepare myself to deal with that situation. 15 minutes later, a van that says “Chau Doc” in the window pulls up, and I am filled with joy. I get in, and vigourously thank the lady at the gas station and wave good bye.
And, I am off on the 4th leg of the journey so far that day, or 6th, if you count taxis. We drive for a while, and soon are stopped at some kind of toll booth. This takes a while, and I have absolutely not idea where we are. Finally, we are moving again, and this time up a ramp, and onto a ferry! I wasn’t expecting a boat ride on the trip, so it was a little exciting. It reminded me a lot of the scene in “The Lover” where Marguerite Duras is crossing the Mekong on the ferry with her fedora and high heels and the rich chinese man chats her up. I get out of the van and look around for any potential sugar daddies, but don’t see any. I stand at the railing while we cross the delta. It’s dark, and serene, and slow. Finally we arrive on the other side, which I guess from my map is a large town, still about 40 km from Chau Doc. I get back in the van, and we continue our voyage. I doze off for a minute, and then, the next thing I know, I am being thrown out of the van. “Chau Doc” says somebody. Its 10:30 pm. It has taken me 7.5 hours to get to go about 150 km. I am so filthy when I touch my skin the dirt actually rolls up in little balls under my fingers.
I get a motorcycle to take me to the nearest cheap guest house, eat a bowl of pho, shower, and pass out.
And that was the trip from hell.
I tried to remain in good humour for most of it, and my technique for doing so was thus: I thought about all of the horrific, awful, terrible taxi/transit situations I had to deal with in Benin, and as bad as things were, I knew it could be infinitely worse. At least I wasn’t being held against my will by 5 marché mamans in a tiny car full of buckets of live catfish.
The next morning, bright an early at 7 am, I am on my way again, this time to the boat dock to catch a fast boat to Phnom Pehn, which leaves at 8, and arrives at 1pm.
If only things could be that simple…
Holy shit. Ho Chi Minh City is a chaotic frenzied mass of motorcycles, all perpetually honking.
Anyway, I shall write more about Vietnam later. First a quick summary of my travels for far:
After a grumpy start at the Vientiane Talat Sao bus station, when at 9 in the morning the lady told me I couldn’t buy a ticket for the 4 pm bus to Udon Thani, and I missed my bus to the University. After waiting an hour for the next bus to the University, which never showed up, at 10:15 I called my boss and told him “I give up on the bus. See you in Vietnam!”, then I went home and sulked. At 12 pm I rode my bike back to the bus station and bought the ticket for the 4 pm bus, 22,000 kip (about $3). Then at 3:30 I went back again to actually get back on the bus.
At 4:00 we left Vientiane, about 30 minutes later we arrived at the Friendship Bridge. After 2 HOURS of standing in lines, we were finally in Thailand, and then another 45 minutes to Udon Thani. In Udon Thani I went to the “Ruangsoupraeth” VIP Bus company and bought a ticket for the 9:30 pm bus to Bangkok, 443 Thai Baht (about 15 dollars). Then I went to the mall and ate KFC, 100 baht ($3), which was really exciting. At 9:00 I went back to the bus station, got on the bus, and while some science-fiction horror movie starring The Rock dubbed in Thai played, I tried to sleep. Actually the bus was quite comfortable, but I always have nightmares the driver is falling asleep and we are about to careen off the highway so sleeping on night busses is alwasy a challenge for me. Anyway, at 6:00 am we rolled into Bangkok. This was the first time I had ever been to Bangkok, even though it’s only a $15 bus ride away…
I argued with a tuk-tuk driver for about 10 minutes and convinced him to take me to a guesthouse my friend Dani recommended for 140 Baht (about $4). Bangkok traffic, even at 6 in the morning, is also pretty horrendous.
I went to this guesthouse, and asked if I could have a room for 6 hours. Anyway, to make a long story short, the woman was an asshole, she ripped me off, and I highly do not recommend Tavee guesthouse in Thewet, Bangkok. Anyway, after paying too much because I was exhausted, I fell asleep for 2 hours, then found a tuk-tuk who I told to take me to “Pratunam market”, where I have heard all the cheap shit is. An hour later (yes, Bangkok traffic is horrendous) we pulled up in front of PLATINUM shopping center. At that point I didn’t want to be on the road or in a tuk-tuk any longer so I got out. It turned out Platinum is like heaven, actually. Shoe and handbag and clothing heaven, all reasonably priced, and no need to bargain for 20 minutes per item!
After dropping a few thousand baht, I went back to the guesthouse to get a bite to eat and grab my bag before heading to the airport for my flight to HCMC. As I was walking past a cafe around noon (11pm Chicago time), I noticed a bunch of people with their eyes glued to CNN. Obama was giving a speech. Until that point I had completely forgotten about the election, since I sent in my absentee ballot months ago. As I stumbled to take off my shoes to walk into the cafe I said “Did he win !??! Did he win !??!”. I got a very bland “Yes.” in response. “Hooray!! Hooray!” I shouted. Then everyone looked at me strangely. I guess they had had more time to digest the news and we’re as excitable as me. Anyway I just put my shoes back on and ran away from all the un-excited people.
I got my bag, and after listening to the lady at the gueshouse try and convince me for 10 minutes to take a taxi to the aiport for 450 baht ($15), and refusing to tell me where to take a bus from, I finally just left and decided to take a tuk-tuk to Khao San rd where I was pretty sure some bus or van to the airport must leave from. I arrived, bought my ticket at a little kiosk for 130 baht, plus 20 for the tuk tuk ($5), and arrived at the aiport around 2:15, checked in for my 3:55 flight, and then hit the duty free shops. I probably should have just spent the $400 to fly directly from Vientiane to HCMC, considering the loads of cash I am dropping on the way, but at least I get more than crappy airline food as a souvenir.
I arrived in HCMC around 5:30, and a lovely young lady from the University of Vietnam was waiting for me to escort me to my hotel. However, due to the aforementioned chaotic frenzied traffic in this city, it actually took over 1 hour of mostly stop-and-go traffic to get to the hotel from the airport.
This hotel has more than it’s fare share of funny anecdotes, mostly due to the extreme lack of English comprehension of any staff member here, and my zero knowledge of the vietnamese language. I have to write a paper right now but I will share them later.