Monday, 27 July 2009

Saigon: Worth Many Thousand Words

On arrival in Vienam it became apparent that we were really going to be up against it it terms of time. Having entered from the very deep south and leaving (in four days) from the north there has been a lot of ground to cover, and a huge amount to see on that ground. As we have been on a bus every two or three days the blogging has been falling to pieces, so I figure that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then uploading a buch of pictures should adequately cover my shortcomings in the writing department. That, coupled with the fact that we stumbled upon Bia Hoi Hanoi last night and a glass of fresh draught beer cost about 6000 Dhong -or 20 pence. The locals love to shout "100 percent" as a toast. This translates as "Finish you glass now." Juvenile? Maybe. Fun? Hell Yeah! Writing would be an insurmountable task today so have some pictures instead.

First up is a sculpture from the Museum of American War Crimes in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is mostly referred
to. Saigon was fantastic. The city was constantly alive and had all the sophistication of a modern, first world city combined with all
the bizarre things that you see in Asia. It had highways and alleyways, fine dining and stalls on the road serving dog and weasel coffee. But back to the museum, it is chilling. I cannot say that it is entirely un-prejudiced, but it does showcase the brutality of the Americans in Vietnam. There are photos of grinning goons holding up decapidated heads and horrific pictures and preserved foetuses of Agent Orange victims. It is sombre to say the least. It also offers a timeline of the Vietnam War and a remarkable photography exhibition dedicated to the photojournalists that were killed in the Indochinese Conflict and Vientam War. I got to see photos by some of my heroes including Robert Capa, Nick Ut, Larry Burrows and too many others to mention. Pictures that I have only seen in books until now were hanging from the walls in abundance. They had to kick me out at closing time, and I vowed to return the next day but time was against us and we ended up in the Cu Chi underground tunnels, the underground networks of tunnels that the Vietnamese used to defeat the Americans. There is more here:
I found them horribly claustrophobic and they had me gagging for fresh air, but then again if the other options was Napalm exploding overhead then I think I could have been persuaded to stay down there a little longer.

Ok, this is really two pictures but I make the rules here and I am counting it as one. Not the best diptych in the world but down and dirty and quick, which is what we need at the moment. Saigon, as mentioned, has all the contradictions you can think of. Traffic is just one of these, and if the joke was to be re-written it would go something like "How did the chicken cross the road." And then, just five minutes away from all the congestion and chaos you have alleyways with markets, locals scurrying through narrow walkways carrying coffee pots and the occassional motorbike barging its way through, hooting and erratically accelerating.

Quite by chance we ended up at the Hindu temple in Saigon. We were on our way to a museum when our cyclo rider asked Nipun if she was from India. She affirmed this and he pointed across the road at a colourful building which is Saigon's which he explained was the only temple for Hindu's in Saigon. We ventured inside and soon got talking to the priest, a Vietnamese of Indian descent. He was such an aimiable man, gregarious and yet also sage and full of warnings about Saigon for us. Among these was do not buy anything until you have been given a definite price, and not let anyone put something into your hand or over your shoulder, because if you do, you will have to pay for it. We spent a good half hour with him nattering away before he bestowed a small gift of fruit (prashad) on us and we were on our way again. The temple was beautiful and his friendliness completed the experience. What was most interesting is that a lot of Budhists were present in the Hindu temple and praying to Hindu deities, which I thought was kinda cool. They embraced a different religion and looked for similarities instead of differences. And in turn they were welcomed inand let to go about their prayers without any chiding or proselytsing. I found that acceptance and common respect of each other a breath of fresh air. If only there was more of that.

We paid a visit to the Ho Chi Minh city museum during our time in this great city. The museum traces the history of Saigon right back to when it was a primitive port town that produced pottery and eartherware and traces the places development over town. The museum was not the best that we have seen, it seemed a bit random in places. However the building that houses the museum is stunning and worth the visit for this alone. What we did not know though is that several newly weds use the place as a location for their wedding
pictures. There were about twenty couples in outfits that ranged from traditional brightly coloured clothes (she in red and he in blue) to white suits and dresses. Restless photogrpahers patrolled the museum waiting for their turn to use a desirable location. I skulked in the back ground and bounced a flash off the ceiling whilst no one was paying attention!

The Saigon Central Post Office is just across the road from the city's very own Notre Dame Cathedral. This was a bit of a find for us really, we saw it from across the road and had no idea how beautiful it was. The curved roof with its skylights are magnificent and fill the post office with soft, beautiful light that wraps around every surface. Without a tripod I was reduced to having to use a narrow table top for a support, so this picture could be sharper, but hey, it gets the message across!!! More to follow soon, we are about to be thrown out of our hotel room so gotta run!

Saturday, 25 July 2009


The Lonely Planet edition for Vietnam dedicates roughly ten pages to dangers, scams, annoyances and thefts. Spread throughout the book these methods range from petty acts of criminality to more, shall we say, in your face methods of appropriating your goods. On page 468 they make some attempt at reassurance with the words “In spite of all of this, don’t be overly paranoid.” Which is almost like saying “Yup, you’re gonna get done so don’t worry be happy.” Paranoid I was. By the time we entered Vietnam my camera bag was attached to the belt loops of my jeans by a length of chain and a steel clip. “Let’s hope they don’t take your pants with them too” my Vietnamese friend Huy, back in the UK, commented. The bag itself is padlocked closed and our rucksacks are chained together and locked. Happily we are three weeks into Vietnam now and nothing has gone missing, in fact we have not run into any trouble whatsoever and the Vietnamese have been superbly friendly. Of course we are not out of the woods just yet, but we are well over half way through and Vietnam has been the best place we have been to, if it is possible to make such fickle comparisons that is.

We entered Vietnam from Cambodia and arrived in the riverside and coastal town of Ha Tien. Ha Tien is a border town and during the 1970’s was heavily attacked by the marauding Khmer Rouge army. Thousands of civilians were murdered and tens of thousands residents fled their homes until the Khmer Rouge was toppled by the Vietnamese in 1979. In an unkempt, rural way Ha Tien possessed a charming character with blue and red fishing boats docked along the river and one horse motorbike streets. A new modern bridge crosses the river and to the right as you head away from town the gulf of Thailand glistens below. We rode into town on the back of motorcycles, rucksacks balanced at the front of the bikes, followed by the driver followed by one of us followed, in my case, by a camera bag and a tripod. It was an ungainly entrance, but a method of travel we were soon to master as there are no tuk-tuks in Vietnam. A couple of things became quickly apparent in Ha Tien, firstly that next to nobody speaks English and secondly, that the budget guest houses are like something out of the Hammer House of Horror. The first place we looked at had our local motorbike riders shaking their heads and muttering about the massages and ‘boom boom’ - that would be a happy ending to your massage and not an all night party as you could be forgiven for thinking. We looked at a couple more places, each grimmer than the one before until eventually our motorbike drivers convinced us that our best bet would be the beach, situated 8km away. It has to be said that the motorbike driver who spoke (some) English was a bit of a sly old dog and maybe there were better places in Ha Tien that he decided not to show us. He was quite keen on getting some cash out of us for the running us out of town meant that he could do this. In any event it was a fortuitous decision as the beach in Ha Tien was completely un-Westernised and consisted of fully dressed Vietnamese people in their jeans and golf shirts wading into the ocean and frolicking in the waves.

An intrepid photographer darted in after them snapping pictures and then holding his camera and flash head high before the approaching waves drenched his equipment. The beach in Ha Tien was also memorable for it’s seaside restaurant whose menu, boasted “Blind Gobi Orange Fever,” or “Steamed Swimming with Beer.” We never did ascertain what these delicacies were but my mirth was short lived when I got to “Grilled Dog.” To add to this startling revelation, three pooches mooched around the porch and panted by our feet. Were they livestock…? Pets…? I don’t want to know. One way or another the staff found us to be an amusing spectacle as we attempted to decipher the menu and they attempted to decipher us. We left town the next day, making our way to the bus step where we had breakfast with the locals and a grinning elderly gentleman offered me a wife swap, his for mine. The locals howled with laughter and Nipun seemed up for it but I figure better the devil you know.

We caught a minibus inland to a town called Rach Gia before getting a second bus to Can Tho. The Vietnamese are not too shy when it comes to personal space and it was not too long before the man next to me fell asleep on my shoulder. I woke him up a couple of times by jabbing my shoulder into his face as we bounced along the road, not hard enough to hurt but hard enough to make my point. He was unabashed though and within minutes he was drooling and softly snoring again, his cheek pressed to my shoulder and his body at a jaunty 45 degree angle. The journey itself was beautiful and as we travelled through the Mekong Delta with the sun setting we traversed several rivers and canals, all crammed with markets and boats and buzzing with activity. We arrived in Can Tho at about eight o’clock that night and after months in Laos and Cambodia it was an eye-opener, the town hummed with life. Ubiquitous neon signs for bars, coffee houses and hotels lit up the night and motorcycles came at you from every plausible angle. The town was truly alive with life and light and was the most frenetic city we had seen in about three months. It felt like being a yokel from the county. Situated in the Mekong Delta Can Tho is the largest city in the region and serves as the transportation and economic backbone for the region. Our explorations took us through town where we had KFC and found a shops that sell high street fashions, new laptops and phones and sound systems. On the other side of the town is the river front, which during the evening makes for a refreshing retreat from the city and also has some very fine restaurants.

Our main reason for stopping in Can Tho was to see the floating market and we arranged this down at the waterfront with a lovely lady who spoke broken English and served as our guide for the boat trip into the market at 5.00 AM the next day. The floating market was, for me, a fairly unique experience and really enjoyable. As you get into the market you can order good quality hot black coffee from one of the boats next to you, or should you fancy a nibble then a bowl of noodle soup. Most of the boats sell fruit and fresh veg, the produce being easily identified from afar by a length of bamboo that, like an aerial, protrudes into the air. At the top of this bamboo there will be a melon, or a bunch of rambutan fruit. It is exotic and thoroughly enjoyable. Like many of the Vietnamese towns we have been in Can Tho also has myriad small alley ways to discover and explore, with markets selling anything from boat propellers stacked high to clothing to a man who has set up a barbers chair and cuts hair and cleans out ears. And then were back to the bus station again negotiating our fare out of Can Tho by minibus, headed for Saigon.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Vietnam: The Route so Far

We are way behind schedule with posting our journey so far and I will sit down and get more on paper soon. This posting is a journey planner entry for anyone doing our trip in the future - the photos and superlative nonsense will follow soon. And "Hi mum, we are alive!" Just thought I would let you know!
We are currently in the very quaint and tranquil Hoi An, Vietnam. I say tranquil but maybe this is not altogether true, there are over three hundred tailors all wanting to make me a suit and the same number of motorbike taxis all wanting to ferry me to the marble mountains. But I like Hoi An, a lot. It is rustic and romantic, and very alive.
The route that we have taken so far is as follows:
Kep (Cambodia) to Ha Tien (Vietnam), a small city where not many people speak English and we actually had to actively look for a man on a motor bike to take us anywhere. Accommodation was dire in the budget range, based on the handful of places that we looked at. The place we did stay in seemed to double up as a brothel, not that I checked that is. It is close to the sea and quite refreshing in its complete lack of Western tourists. The sea was populated with modest Vietnamese swimming fully dressed, complete with jeans and polo neck shirts.
From Ha Tien we took a bus to Rach Gia (two hours) before getting a connecting bus to Can Tho (apprx two hours again from memory) the same afternoon. As opposed to what the touts may tell you, you can get your connecting tickets with in the bus station and there is no need to jump on a motorbike to go anywhere else. Rach Gia seemed to be a bustling, commercial town and may have been worth a night or two, but the thirty visa is a pain in the proverbial. Rach Gia does not seem like a tourist town and there in will lie it's attraction for some.
Can Tho is beautiful and combines a busy centre with a charming water front. The main reason for our stay here was the floating market. I went twice, leaving at 4.45am each morning to catch first light and then sunrise. It is beautiful, but it gets very hot. Early is your best bet! Later in the day you can catch up on your sleep. It is too hot to do anything else.
Our next leg took us from Can Tho to Saigon. A lot of people we have spoken to hated the big city, I found it fascinating. It's museums are great and me eyes were roved like a chameleon's with all the sights. I was there for close on a week which has seriously messed up my schedule.
After the bustle of Saigon it was time to hit the beach at Mui Ne, a beach with real waves and a slight chill to the water. Sundowners in the evening are fantastic and the cocktails are on special so it is difficult to go too far wrong. Mui Ne is also famous for it's red and white sand dunes, get there for dawn and watch the sun come up. The jeep driver may try and bully you into spending a but few minutes there but it is all part of the game. There is also a brilliant fishing village and the fairy spring, both worth investigating.
From Mui Ne we moved on to mountainous Dalat, a vertiginous drive through stunning mountains capped with clouds and a melody passengers throwing up into blue plastic bags from the serpentine bends. No trip to Dalat would be complete without getting a Easy Rider (steady on, that is the name of a company of professional guides who take you through the country by motorbike) for at least a day (US$20.00 for a day trip). They are expensive, but in terms of value for money they are worth every cent of that twenty dollars. A longer trip (eg the three day trip with them from Dalat to Nha Trang) would set you back $65.00 a day, if time was on our side we may have done this. The guides are excellent and from a photographic point of view you have all the freedom that a bus deprives you of. And the scenery is stunning. In fact if time was on our side I WOULD have done this. Next time.
We took the bus from Dalat to Nha Trang, again rich with the sound of travel sick passenger and verdant, heady scenery. Nha Trang is famous for it'sturquoise ocean and 8km beach, it also has some very cool pagodas and photographic galleries. The final leg was the eleven hour bus slog from Nha Trang to Hoi An. Next stop Hue!

Friday, 10 July 2009

You said "HOW MUCH!!!!"

Or alternatively somewhere to lay your sleepy head.

I am working on this at the moment and it will be posted right at the beginning of the blog as the first entry. Update: It is the only entry in Feb 09!

This will be down and dirty, functional information without the pretty pictures, aimed at those who need indicative prices and possibly the name of a place to stay. Some of it is Lonely Planet and Rough Guide recommendations, much of it is from people we have met along the way, but the benefit of this post will be that we have actually stayed a night in a bed here so hopefully the information will be accurate. The accommodation has varied from the pristine and clean to blood on the walls and bugs in the bed, but hey, that is all part of the adventure.

Included in this post will be accomodation costs, visa information as we found it and transport routes. This is all likey to change over time so none of this is gospel. And of course, being Asia, prices are usually negotiable. Obviously this post is aimed at people doing similar trips to us or anyone who wants to get a snap shop of prices. We will endevour to update this regularly but should you need any other information then ping me an email. Happy days.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

South Cambodia

There is a funeral going on outside our window. It is ten o’clock at night; an amplified voice penetrates the evening and is accompanied by frenetic, syncopated drumming. To this caterwaul add an Indian sounding piper playing a crazed melody that erratically cuts into the song. To one side of this devilish carnival there stands a small applauding crowd and a bald, hunch backed monk who taps away at a small coconut shaped drum with the precision of a metronome. To be fair, it feels and sounds nothing like a funeral. Whilst the dirge is melancholy in places, the drumming and the crowd is almost celebratory and we would not have known that this was an occasion of mourning it we had not asked what was going on. From our balcony we overlook the gathering, which is located down one of the small, labyrinth like alleyways in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. We have been in Vietnam for about a week now, which means I have some catching up to do. So let us rewind to Phnom Penh, and the journey into southern Cambodia where the beaches glisten in the evening sun, a barbeque of fresh fish and lobster costsabout U$2.00 and the beer at happy hour (2pm to 7pm) is considerably cheaper than a bottle of coca-cola.



Our journey from Phnom Penh was typical of most of our trips in Cambodia. The roads were good, the drivers sensible and the bus was new, air conditioned and punctual. The attention to the customers needs and desires went so far as to include a TV, which played karaoke songs such as Wham’s Careless Whispers and loved up numbers by Enrique Iglasias. Seldom have I been so happy about having an iPod with me. Personally I preferred the crazy departure from Laos where we were treated to Linkin Park featuring Jay Z at an eardrum shattering level. Jay Z cussed, Linkin Park hollered. It was far more agreeable, but then taste is subjective. Having clocked the entertainment on offer on the bus and consequently turned up my ipod to balance out the hapless couple that were Wham, reading proved difficult. Staring out the window greater Phnom Penh shot past. Again I was struck by how vast the city was, it sprawled. And then we were into rural Cambodia again. The countryside as we travelled South towards the coast was stunning and I would love to do this route again by ourselves, in our own transport. This would not be merely in an effort to escape Wham, (though of course this is motivation in itself ) but rather because the countryside is remarkable in it’s beauty and bus drivers are not always very understanding when you want to get out a camera, some filters and a tripod. As you get closer to the coast you ascend into a mountain range and then, suddenly, as you round a corner the sea sparkles between hills to the right. The sea is shades of dazzling green and blue capped with iridescent diamonds. The bus crosses over numerous rivers and then runs parallel to the coast before you enter the less picturesque town and bus station of Sihanoukville. The town itself seems quite industrial and to be fair, prosperous as Nipun observed; welders (naturally unafraid of arc eye and enthusiastically welding without masks) go about their business in pokey garages, tradesmen bustle and the new, busy market is a constant source of activity and movement.

On arrival at the bus station, over helpful hands made grabs at our bags in an attempt to chuck them onto tuk-tuks before a price could be negotiated. After a few minor and amiable fracases we got our bags on our backs and walked onto the main road. We have found that it is easier to negotiate a sensible, fair price for transport away from the station and it is certainly less stressful than being surrounded by a handful of eager drivers, cajoling and pushing each other in order to gain your favour. The attention in these situations can be a little overwhelming and stressful and my asperity has surprised me from time to time - after all these guys are just earning their daily living. But sometimes it can just be too much, the jovial joking side of me wilts and I get snappy. Then about half an hour later when I have calmed down I feel guilty and, I admit, like a complete prat for being such an irascible fiend.

At our guesthouse Nipun got chatting to the manager as she checked in. A couple of young British guys staying at the guest house were causing him some grief, aggressively asking him to remove a Vietnamese girl from their room (reading between the lines a call girl who for one reason or another who was going nowhere - go figure). Through gritted teeth he went on to tell Nipun how, when they had checked in, they had given him a sum of money for looking after. They told him it was US$800.00. When he counted it in front of them it was only $500.00. “And when they checked out, they would have accused me of stealing the money and I would have been responsible for paying them back” he concluded. In a similar incident he had been defrauded of about $500.00 last year, and held accountable for the loss. This time it was by an English guy who said he was off to the bank so he could settle his food and drink tab before leaving town. The man never came back. He had smuggled his luggage out and was off like a shot to Thailand. Needless to say the manager was somewhat contemptuous of the English. He eyeballed our passports and us we tried to convince him that we were nice people - really! But it is shameful that people with so much can steal from people with so little. I reckon that the manager of that hotel probably makes between $100 to $150 per month and is no position to pay back someone else’s bar bill.

We got changed and went down to the beach with as little delay as possible. Sihanouville is beautiful. We stayed next to Serendipity Beach which boasts soft, white sands and a sea (the Gulf of Thailand) that is warm and clear and dotted with vibrantly painted, wooden fishing boats. Paradise here is a shallow illusion though. On our walk along the beach on the first day I almost kicked a used syringe complete with hypodermic needle. One of the local ladies that offers massages on the beach shook her head in disgust and acted out a junky shooting up. Drugs, it seems are a big problem, both with the foreigners (surprise, surprise) and the local youth. Young kids of about ten also patrol the beach selling bracelets and trinkets and can get a little shirty when you refuse to buy anything from them. Sensibly the powers that be have forbidden any children from hawking goods after seven o’clock at night, a rule which we saw being enforced. We took a day trip the next day to three islands in the area which was well worth the money. We got to do some snorkelling, got burnt to a crisp and played some atrocious volleyball. That evening as we dined al fresco at a local Indian restaurant a huge commotion erupted across the dirt road at us. Locals leapt up, hollered, a table went flying. The table was then picked up and hurled repeatedly at the ground before a seven foot snake was triumphantly held up in the air. It was bad luck for the snake really, it was non-venomous. As Russell Hoban put it in the brilliant book Riddley Walker “Your turn now, my turn later.” Continuing this theme the next morning as we had breakfast CNN caught our attention. Something about Michael Jackson was going on and they were mentioning his upcoming concert. Ten minutes on and this was still going on until we clicked, he was dead.


Our next stop was the somnambulistic town of Kampot. Rather than catch the tourist bus we took a shared minivan. Not only was the journey an adventure but the process too proved memorable. The first driver we found took our luggage and put in the boot of his car and then told us that we had to wait for more passengers before we could leave. In the interim Nipun found a minivan that was leaving immediately and was also cheaper. Our first driver however would not return our luggage for love or money. He became petulant, aggressive and hostile, refusing to budge. So I tried to wrest his keys from his pocket whereupon his surliness increased. Threats of the police were the only thing that made him laugh. Eventually, after the threats of physical force had joined the empty threats of the police action he relented and sulkily returned our baggage and we were on our way. The shared minivan was shared with about two tons of mephitic barley, picked up from a depot in town before we set off. Bags of fifty kilograms were hoisted into the van until the rear view mirror was transmogrified into a useless accessory, six old ladies also on their way to Kampot were bundled into the remaining row of seats and then we on our very smelly way. As we continued down the coast towards Kampot the scenery got better and better, the rivers increase in size and swell into the ocean, littered with villages and smiling kids that wave from the side of the road. I really regret the fact that we spent so little time in South Cambodia.

Kampot seemed almost like it had been picked up out of Laos and dropped into Cambodia. It is a small, lethargic town, set by the river and populated with dilapidated but graceful French colonial buildings. The restaurants and riverside bars are fantastic and the town has a relaxed and cheerful feel to it. It’s old bridge is worth the visit to the town alone. The bridge was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years and has been rebuilt by throwing together a bewildering combination of materials. The main section of the bridge is covered by steel chequer plates that clank like a train track as motorbikes and tractors traverse it. Kampot prison is nearby, and alarmingly close to the guesthouses in town. The prison is as beautiful as a prison can be, after all it was built by the French and is painted in a soft saffron colour that catches the evening sun and glows with warmth. The inside, I have just read, is not so grand… “A surge in inmates in Kampot prison has led to severe overcrowding and mounting health problems, including malnutrition, prison and provincial health officials said Thursday. In particular, several prisoners suffer from tuberculosis, skin infections and hypertension, said Lim Kaing Eang, chief of Kampot's provincial health department.” There are two other reasons that Kampot enjoys some fame, one is for Kampot Pepper, some of the finest in the world (trust me on this one, we had a Kampot pepper sauce and it was practically enough to get me filling in an emigration request) and the second is the nearby Bokor National Park and Bokor Hill Station.


The main reason that we wanted to see Kampot was it’s proximity to Bokor Hill Station, a visit that cost us US$50.00 to do but which was worth every penny. Access to the Hill Station is now sporadic as the government builds a monstrosity of a new hotel nearby, from the drawing being displayed an anachronistic eyesore that hails back to the flamboyant but tacky hotel architecture of the seventies. The irony is that the environs are stunning and that the new hotel will be entirely unsympathetic to the landscape in which it will be set. Furthermore the impact on the Hill Station and its historic grandeur will be awful unless it is micromanaged, and this is unlikely to happen.

The original hotel was built atop Phnom Bokor by the French as a retreat from the heat and humidity of the main cities. At an altitude of over 1000 metres the hotel grounds overlook a vertical drop into the ocean below. The view can be mesmerising. I say “can be” because the hotel is so high up that clouds often sweep across the building and render them into an obscure fog. As you push along the road you suddenly see the hulking structure of the hotel or its outbuildings manifest before you, much like a ghost ship appearing from the mist. The overall effect is positively eerie, and then as suddenly as the clouds rolled in they are gone again. In the sun the Hill Station and the nearby cathedral glow amber in the sun, the walls being covered in an orange lichen. To add to the overall uneasiness the place inspires the walls are pocked with bullet holes from conflicts between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese.


It was time to ago again, the few days that we spent in Kampot with it’s rusted corrugated roofs and ubiquitous volleyball games was too short. But we only a few days left in Cambodia before the visas ran out and so we moved onto the seaside of Kep, forty minutes down the road. The first thing that strikes you about Kep are the Hindu statues that line the road as you drive into town. Indeed Kep seems to be populated by statues in a variety of styles and quality. As you stroll down the main beach for example, the alabaster white Naked Fisher Man’s wife stares at you from across the beach, eight feet high and ensconced upon the end of the pier. It is refreshing that there is so much sculpture in Kep though. Owing to the seaside town’s bourgeois heritage (it was a quintessential seaside resort, the French loved it and the former King had a palace here) the Khmer Rouge decimated the town and as you walk along the seafront the old ruins of burnt out houses and villas. As such the town has an undiscovered feel to it in places, particularly in the early mornings. Local rumour has it that some of the burnt old buildings house ghosts, and at this time of the day it is easy to imagine why.

The beach in Kep was not as picturesque or the sea as inviting as it was at Sihanoukville and the nearby islands. However the crab market more than makes up for this. At dawn each day the grainy shore in front of the market is filled with women wading into the water to check crab traps, they return with baskets stuffed to bursting point with crabs and lobster. These are put onto scales, chucked into baskets and off they are taken. The quantity of crab that tumbles from trap to baskets made our jaws drop. Is this sustainable? Who knows. There are thousands of crabs being fished, weighed, put on ice and dispatched. Some of this crab stays put though and is served up at the twenty or so quaint shacks that line the beach. We had a sea fish lunch one day, more crab than we could eat, bursting with flavour and fist sized prawns caught that morning. From memory it cost us about US$10.00, which for this neck of the woods is expensive. But the quality and freshness of the food, coupled with the view of the ocean and rounded off with a Kampot Pepper sauce was worth every penny. It was our last day in Kep and the following morning we had an early breakfast at the Star Hotel (which was housing the president at the time) before getting a tuk-tuk (that we had pre-arranged) to the relatively new Vietnamese border post at Ha Tien. After about half an hour of driving through verdant rice fields with the smell of fish drying out in the sun hanging thickly in the air, our tuk tuk driver handed us over to some motorbike drivers who got us across the border and into town.

We had heard that crossing into Vietnam could be a bureaucratic nightmare, made more difficult by antagonistic and rude officials. Nothing could have been further from the truth at Ha Tien and the process was entirely painless. We were into Vietnam and Cambodia, sadly, was behind us.

We loved Cambodia, the people were generally friendly and good fun, the culture rich and the landscape beautiful. Of course everywhere has its problems though. It was a land of those who had plenty and of others who had very little. We saw shocking injuries on men and women whose lives had been shattered by landmines, children working the streets late at night and then the plain old homeless and destitute. A recent survey by Transparency International ranked Cambodia as the 14th most corrupt country in the world. Nepotism is alive and well a select few seem sure to prosper. And yet on the other hand for a country where monetary currency was only re-introduced in 1979 (after the Khmer Rouge declared Year Zero and effectively abolished money in Cambodia) the Khmer people have come along a very long road in a very short time. I was apprehensive when I entered Cambodia because the history was so brutal, so bloody and so recent. And yet our time here revealed that this is just one small aspect of a land where people are getting on with their daily lives and making a go of it. Cambodia was wonderful.

It is about 3.00 AM now and the funeral is still going strong. We have gone from the live band to karaoke to Buddhist chants and now it is time to go to bed. What a time they have had tonight, we should have joined them!

Friday, 3 July 2009

Kings and Beggars ~ Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh could be one of the truly great drinking cities of the world, I am sure of it. The ubiquitous bars and pubs range from the sleek and slick to the raw and crowded, the punters from the gregarious and affluent to the blotchy, desperate drunk of near destitution. In one river front bar we were in, pseudo trendy pop art posters decorated chocolate brown and textured walls, quoting Hunter S Thomson. A couple of blocks down the only colour in the room came from a television set screening a Khmer Boxing match where two men kicked, elbowed and kneed each other around the ring. I have always looked at drinking as an indulgent and carefree past time; the carefree aspect becomes difficult in Phnom Penh. It is a city of contrasts, and the drinking culture is a very base way of illustrating this. As you sit in one of the cafes or open street bars that shimmer with mood lights and bright tables and indulge in a glass of beer (or whatever your poison of choice may be, even absinth is on offer), it will not be long before a young child, cap in hand approaches to beg for food or money. Or to sell you a black market photocopied book or a hand woven bracelet. And then shortly afterwards a landmine victim, on crutches if he or she is lucky enough to still have legs, will approach. And then a young woman with a child on her back. Around this point we look at our drinks in despair and they seem a wanton, frivolous thing. A pleasure-less guilty pleasure. Of course you can retreat into one of the roof top bars or hide behind closed doors, but you know all too well what is waiting outside. Phnom Penh could be one of the truly great drinking cities of the world, but it fails because it is difficult to really enjoy a drink whilst desperation beats on the back door. In the annual poll of the best and worst cities to live in (based on many factors varying from political freedom and economics to culture and quality of life), Phnom Penn came in towards the bottom of the list. My dear Sunshine City, Harare, came in at last.

Phnom Penh is located at the confluence of four rivers, the Lower and Upper Mekong Rivers, the Tonle Sap and the Tonle Bassac. As you look out towards the great body of water where the mud coloured rivers swell and mix it is hard not to imagine that you are near some great coastal port. In fact the sea is still a couple of hundred kilometres south where the Gulf of Thailand extends to meet Cambodia’s shoreline. Arriving by bus in Phnom Penh takes you through the myriad streets and mazes that make up the city, past ultra modern looking office blocks and a swanky stadium and then, conversely, through streets where the garbage lies out in the streets and the smells that greet your nostrils make them flare and your stomach churn. From the moment you step off the bus the cries of “Tuk-tuk,” “Moto” and “Cyclo” are ineluctable. We needed to get towards the river front and within minutes had reduced the price down from $10.00 (extortionate for the distance) to $2.00 (a lot more realistic). And then we were into the traffic of Phnom Penh, swimming upstream against the cars and bikes that came from all sides and then darting across the road into the right lane and in search of accommodation. We eventually found a room that was huge and clean, though the air conditioning beeped incessantly and the free wi-fi proved to be a myth. “When will it be fixed?” Nipun enquired.“Maybe three days” said the pretty girl behind reception.“Maybe three months” her colleague snorted derisively. Our accommodation was comfortable though, with a room the size of a football pitch and air conditioning that beeped irritably throughout the night until I silenced it at about three in the morning, fuzzy headed and cursing silently.

No visit to Phnpm Penh is really complete without a visit to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, or S-21 (The “S” standing for Security Prison) as it was known. It is a grim way to spend time but I think an important journey to make, as it forms a chillingly real part of Cambodia’s troubled and recent history. The history of S-21 is well known and well documented. It was here that
about 17 000 “prisoners” were bought to be tortured and then executed. They were bought to the prison predominantly because they were suspected to be enemies of the state, or intellectuals who might challenge the Draconian rule of Pol Pot and his grinning gang of idiot thugs. The reality of it is that most of these terrified men, women and children had no idea why they had been bought here. And of these 17 000 prisoners only seven survived. It has been said that the prison was much like the nightmare that Kafka wrote about in “The Trial,” in other words once a prisoner had been arrested they were guilty, otherwise why would they have been arrested. Once arrested life became a hell of incarceration in tiny cells, brutality from guards and torture. It was not uncommon for prisoners to die whilst being interrogated - beaten, shocked, drowned or suffocated until there was no life left in their bloodied bodies. Every prisoner entering S-21 was photographed and their details were recorded, the men, women and most eerily, the children. As part of a photography course I did some time ago I had written about Tuol Sleng and the photographs (or negatives at least) that been discovered shortly after the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh from the Khmer Rouge. When the Vietnamese arrived they found the 14 mutilated bodies of the last prisoners to have been hastily murdered at the prison, the bodies being too far decomposed for identification. These victims are interred in the grounds of the museum now, which seems a shame. I would rather be buried any other place than the place where I had been tortured, humiliated and callously killed. The greatest irony of the prison though is that it had formerly been a school, populated by happy children and a place of enlightenment.

Walking through the museum you are taken through the torture cells (formerly classrooms) where the steel beds that were used to chain the prisoners too are still in situ. In each of these rooms a picture of the corpses that were found by the Vietnamese hangs from one of the walls. The body, still chained to the bed, displays a puddle of gore and blood beneath the metal slats it rests upon. Outside, what looks like a giant gallows, marks the place where prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs and were then hoisted (by their freshly bound arms) into the air. The pressure on their arms pinned behind their backs would dislocate their shoulders and when they passed out from the pain they were dunked head first into giant urns filled with fetid water, until, gagging, they regained consciousness. And then there are the thousands of black and white photographs that show the prisoners who were bought into this hell. Some are mere children, some look terrified and some defiant. Most just look scared and resigned. They were mostly told that they had been bought to this place to be “re-educated,” but I suspect that they mostly knew the truth. Once they had spent their allotted amount of time in the facility they were taken to the Choueng Ek killing fields where they were executed by being beaten across the back of the head or neck and then had their throats slit. There are stories of people being buried in the mass graves before they were fully dead. And at the killing fields itself flourishes the tree where several babies were killed, they were swung by their ankles into the tree trunk. 43 of the mass graves (of which there are 129) have still not been excavated, whilst 8000 skulls from those that have are now placed in the memorial on the grounds of Choueng Ek, The skulls are arranged according to sex and age and placed behind a glass partition.

After a day spent between Tuol Sleng and Choueng Ek a return to buoyant spirits seemed unlikely. We had dinner that night and I seem to remember it was a very early night. In total we spent about six days in Phnom Penn, the other highlight of this time being a trip to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. The Silver Pagoda was a bit of a let down, it’s name being derived from the fact that the floor is made up of 5000 silver tiles. The tiles are however mostly covered by a protective carpet and the ones that you can see looked to me like a raised access floor in an office, waiting to receive carpet tiles. The palace itself is amazing though, ornate and graceful and home to the King. The Khmer style of architecture (not dissimilar to the Thai it must be said) has an imposing grandeur, with high towers and brightly tiled roofs that reflect a dazzling array of colour in every direction. Next to the Royal Palace is the National Museum, and across from this a perfectly kept park where, at dawn and dusk, the Khmers come to play football, badminton and to relax. During the day when the temperature soars the park is completely deserted, but as the temperature drops the park fills up with life.

We enjoyed the buzz of Phnom Penh. It can be exhausting with the constant beckoning of tuk-tuk drivers and kids trying to sell you bracelets and books you already have, but generally once we spoke to these people and had a joke with them, they were lovely. And there was always some distraction, be it kids break dancing on the streets to earn some pocket money or the ubiquitous bars and coffee houses and clubs. And happily there are many community projects on the go in Phnom Penh, such as Friends, the restaurant that recruits former street children and trains them up in the hospitality industry and whose profits are put back into the community. As with so many of the places that we have been to I would like to go back to Phnom Penh. We really only scratched the surface there. So it goes.

Bamboo Trains and Crazy Markets

The town of Battambang in North Western Cambodia in the country’s second largest city. Nestled in the province by the same name the region has a reputation for it’s fecundity, growing (at least according to the guide books and locals) the best rice, sweetest fruit and boasting the friendliest people; an apparent all round Utopia. Like London, Budapest, Paris and countless other cities it is divided by a river, the East bank being the newer up and coming area, whilst the West bank remains more historic with it’s colonial French dwellings and the central market, Psar Nat. Battambang was once Cambodia’s richest province and still retains a sense of that affluence, even the tuk-tuks are larger and grander, their colours seemingly more vibrant. The streets are frenetic with motorbikes converging on the streets from all angles and tuk-tuk drivers call out from all directions, “Hey, where you go tomorrow? See the train? The Killing Caves? Nice Temples!” The abundance of Moto-drivers and tuk-tuks can be accounted for by the fact that Battambang is the fourth most popular city with tourists coming into Cambodia, many drawn by the “Bamboo Train” that runs just outside of the town. Battambang is not all wealth and riches though, and it is a city of contrasts.
We arrived just outside the town by boat at about three o‘clock in the afternoon, having started off in Siam Reap at about 7 AM. The trip to Battambang by boat is a remarkable experience and worth every cent of the $19.00 ticket. Compared to the bus it is expensive - almost four times the price - and the journey time is longer too. But as is so often the way it is the journey and not the destination that makes the experience remarkable and this could not be truer than with this particular stretch of water. The boat departs from the floating village of Chong Kneas (abundant with life and colour) and makes its way South until it reaches main body of the Tonle Sap Lake. Here the sky touches the water at the horizon and the sun strikes the lake invigorating the water with glittering jewels. Interestingly the docking port at Chong Kneas and the village move with the level of the river as the seasons change. Lining the river are domestic dwellings and schools full of raucous children that float upon the river. In contrast to this happy cacophony, elderly ladies row by, water splashing from their oars and hawkers make their way from floating house to floating house, selling steaming food and fresh produce. Motorised boats with families aboard cruise past and the occasional long tail boat shoots past, churning the water into white foam. The whole experience is fascinating, but I suspect the fascination in somewhat one-sided. The Chong Kneas village has become a must on the itineraries of most travellers to Siem Reap, and as such the village is bombarded with tourists (no doubt all complaining that the experience is “over touristy“). We were fortunate enough to see the village early in the morning when it hummed with predominantly local life and it was a glorious start to a glorious journey. There are a few more floating villages along the way until finally, after having cut West across a small part of Tonle Sap Lake, you come to the canals that will lead you into Battambang. These back waters are reminiscent of the canals that we travelled in Kerala, India. On both banks the verdant countryside stretches back as far as the eye can see, with occasional rustic dwellings springing up from time to time. Along the way some of the land is given over to agriculture, whilst much of the area is a protected wetland and supports a wealth of bird life. As we made our trip westwards the sky gradually darkened and became more sullen until, at about two o’clock, the drizzle turned to rain and the remainder of the journey was undertaken behind thick canvas blinds. I was not too unhappy about this though; I had just finished reading an extremely depressing and erudite book on the Khmer Rouge’s “S-21” prison (S-21 by Michael Chandler) and had just commenced “The Great Railway Bazaar” by Paul Theroux. My second-hand copy of the paperback is held together by cello tape and creased and folded. The front page wishes “Robert” a happy birthday back in 1977. It is a wonderful read though, a travelogue that is relevant to us as it takes in parts of India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan and then countless other countries that we will not get to.

The serenity of the journey was shattered upon arrival at Battambang where a desperate gang of tuk-tuk and minivan drivers met the ferry, braying for customers who they could take to the various guesthouses in town. The competition is fierce and the drivers will take you into town for free in the hope that you might use their services the next day to visit the local sights. We suspected that the hotels pay them a commission for bringing in guests, but allegedly this is not the case. Rather they are touting for prospective customers as the low season kicks in and trade begins to dissipate. Times are pretty tough for these guys, but they are by no means the worst off. We checked into the Hotel Royal (US$7.00), close to the central market and had a meal before falling asleep at about nine o’clock. It seems that sometimes on the days that you do the least the weariness is most profound.

The following morning we were sitting in a café having breakfast and an alarmingly sugary cinnamon bun when a couple from the boat approached us and asked us if we had left a book on the boat. We had, I had left the S21 book behind in a no doubt sub-conscious effort to forget about the brutality of the pages contained within. After shooting the breeze the couple, called Patrick and Barbara from Switzerland, decided to join us on a tuk-tuk ride to the Killing Caves and the Bamboo train. Patrick pulled out but Barbara came along and we made our way to The Killing Caves, about fifteen miles outside Battambang. The caves were a Khmer Rouge killing ground back in those most horribly benighted times. The sick and elderly who had outlived their use to the regime, along with any perceived enemies of the state (intellectuals, people who wore glasses or anyone that just grumbled too much) would be marched up a steep hill and made to kneel at the top. They were then beaten across the back of the head and neck with an iron ox cart axle, hopefully killing them. To be sure of the deed though, their throats were then slit and the corpses thrown into the limestone cavern below. This was of course the Khmer Rouge and bullets were deemed to expensive for the extermination of supposed enemies. It is not a very cheery journey to make but we went into the cave which now houses a reclining Buddha and some Buddhist Nuns. Above is the skylight where the bodies were thrown into and in the cave itself is a memorial of about 200 skulls, nestled behind thick glass. Our intrepid guide on this occasion was a high spirited twelve year old boy who claimed to speak English at the base of the hill, but whose repertoire of English rapidly dried up as we ascended the hill. He was a very sweet child, and it felt a little eerie to hear a twelve year old laugh and joke about death and murder. It was a happy irony that was wasted upon him that if he been born a generation earlier then it could have been his bones that lined the glass casings. It is a sad thought, but in Cambodia, whenever I see an effervescent young, pig tailed girl or smiling, curious eyed boy on the back of a motorbike for example, I wonder about the children killed in those brutal years. And when I look at the men and women my age and older I shudder when I think of things that their eyes must have witnessed.

The next part of our trip took us to happier grounds, the legendary Bamboo Train. The bamboo train runs along two warped steel rails that are in no way parallel to each other. Although there is only one set of tracks trains runs in both directions. So when another train approaches from the opposite direction there is a Robin Hood and Friar Tuck type scenario whilst the drivers of the trains decide what to do. The genius of the system is that each “train” consists of two axles, a small petrol (?) engine and a three metre long bamboo mat that rests upon a wooden frame. As such the train can be quickly dismantled to and taken off the tracks to allow the other train to pass. The ride jolts along at what feels to be breakneck speed, traversing bridges and cutting through rice fields on either side. The journey is about half an hour in total is an absolute blast! And the best part is that it cost us just $2.00 each, though local scams can see some people paying triple this.

For the remainder of our time in Battambang I explored the town mostly. The market was just one of the examples of the contradictions that I saw. Outside the market on its perimeter walls, vendors sell fresh fish, hauling it from buckets of water and filleting them there and then. Wooden carts attached to motorbikes and full of hunks of meat line the front entrance. The meat is sliced and diced on the wooden mud guards above the cart wheels and flies buzz lazily from fish to meat to freshly skinned hanging chicken in the background. To the right side of the market are the fruit vendors where about two kilos of fruit cost us $1.50. And inside the market, to my huge surprise, were rows of orderly glass cases, filled with gold chains and bracelets and staffed by bored looking Cambodian beauties. The chaos and carnage outside is replaced by shimmering jewellery.

Again, more contrasts: On the East Bank of the river are the new developments and plush new houses; a grand new fountain (filled with plastic bags and rubbish) commemorates the public Garden of SAR Kheng and two emaciated labourers trim the grass of the side walks with antiquated lawn mowers whilst three children play Piggy-In-the-Middle nearby. The promenade is ordered and maintained and pleasant in the late afternoon sun. And then I pass a landmine victim slumbering shirtless, face down on a stone bench, his legs terminating abruptly beneath each knee. Further down a mad woman shrieks at me and beats her chest and another man who does not seem to be all there follows me closely before seizing my hand and shaking it manically and disappears (laughing wildly) into a crowd. At dinner that night at a side walk cafe Nipun and I watched as a couple of beggars pilfered the left over food from the table next to us. They approached us and we gave them some fruit which they gratefully received. And yet overall most people in Battambang seemed to be doing ok. In a country where there is no social support systems there was a generosity that was obvious to see between so many of the Cambodians, giving out food to beggars and money to those who had lost limbs to mines. Battambang was an interesting town, and as I reflect, maybe we should have stayed longer.

The Angkor Ramble!

Built between 800 AD and the mid 1400’s the splendour of the Angkor Kingdom was every bit as impressive as we had hoped. Constructed at a time when the Khmer Empire was one of the most powerful forces in South East Asia the temples grew over a 600 year period as each devaraja (word of the day - that means god-king!) tried to better his predecessors. Whilst the immediate association of Angkor (and probably, for many, Cambodia) is of Angkor Wat this was not our favourite of the ruins. True, Angkor Wat is undeniably majestic and is cited as the largest religious structure in the world. It is huge, the moat surrounding it alone is 190 metres wide. The walls are detailed with bas-reliefs and the sandstone blocks that the temple was made from were quarried about 50 kilometres away. In this day and age of sophisticated quarrying methods and heavy duty transporters that is no great achievement, but to put it in perspective the Lonely Planet points out that this was around about the time that London was a town that numbered 50 000 people. Nipun and I visited Angkor Wat twice. The first time was a sweltering afternoon and the place was besieged with people scurrying all around, mopping the sweat from their foreheads, lapping from water bottles and posing for photos in a variety of positions. The second time we went the sky was foreboding and grey, we nearly cancelled our trip out suspecting an antediluvian deluge. At the last moment though (neither of us wanting to back down and admit it would probably be more sensible staying in town) we decided to go out and were rewarded by having Angkor Wat more or less to ourselves, well comparatively speaking anyway. The upper level of Angkor Wat (which rises 55 metres above the ground) is currently closed to the public as a wider and safer staircase is made. Again on our second visit, a gaggle of sly security guards surreptitiously suggested that I might go up to the top and admire the view that is currently forbidden to the masses. No doubt a small fee would have been involved and I was sorely tempted, it was only the ominous sky (by now the colour of black granite) that put me off. In retrospect I should have gone, the rain when it came was nowhere as dramatic as the skies had promised. But for all it’s imposing splendour and elegant Asparas and Asuras (heavenly nymphs and devils respectively) it was not Angkor Wat that won us over. Rather it was the towers, corridors and 216 massive carved stone heads of Bayon, the root riddled ruins of Ta Prohm and myriad corridors of Preah Khan that were for us, the most enchanting of the ancient city. There is so much literature available on the ruins that it would be pointless to regurgitate it all and indulge in gratuitous plagiarism (“For there’s someone, somewhere / With a big nose, who knows / Who‘ll trip you up and laugh when you fall”). Rather I’ll slap in a few photographs that do these places little or no justice and enough text to cover what we liked about these places.

Bayon: Think Laura Croft in Tomb Raider and you are along the right lines. Constructed during the rule of Jayavaram VII and VIII respectively, Bayon was possibly our favourite place, but I stress the possibly! Entry can be from the North, South, East or West and from the perimeter a multitude (over fifty) of stone towers ascend in front of you on varying levels. Throughout the complex and on the top of each tower, facing each cardinal point, are four imposing, stoic stone faces. Each face is massive and at any given time, as you ascend the complex towards the centre, you can see several, watching you with a detached interest. Bayon, it has been established, is unique, even among the other ruins of Angkor. It is not just the inexorable sense of history that makes the place so compelling, it is also the other-worldly atmosphere as numerous carved eyes watch you from every direction. Occasionally you round a corner and one of the massive heads, level with your own, austerely confronts you. If the corridors and heads are not enough to captivate your imagination there is over 1.2 kilometres of bas relief carvings that depict aspects of daily Khmer life and of course, war. Annoyingly Nipun and I got up at 4.45 am to photograph Bayon as the sun came up and breathed it’s life into the stone faces. Sunrise that day was of the British winter variety and I ended up trying to use a tiny speed light, angled from the side with a warming gel, in an attempt to replicate the colour and soft light of dawn.

Ta Prohm: Of all the places in the Angkor Ruins Ta Prohm was (again for us) one of the most atmospheric places that we saw. The temple was dedicated to the King Jayavaram VII’s mother (it makes a Mothers Day card look a bit lame) and when it was discovered the decision was made (by Ecole Francais d’ Extreme Orient ) to leave the ruins in a “natural state.” In other words, whilst the jungle was trimmed back, prominent features like the massive tree roots and tree trunks that sprawl across the walls and corridors of the structure remained in place. In places the ruins had to be reinforced in order to make them safe, but it has been done so sympathetically that, to the untrained eye (i.e. mine), it is impossible to tell where these remedial works have been carried out. The effect is fantastic. It is like being Indiana Jones in a lost city as you clamber through the ruins and stumble upon silk cotton trees and strangler figs with roots and trunks like giant tentacles that form mazes across the ruins of Ta Prohm.

Preah Khan: We visited Preah Khan shortly after dawn on our second day at the Agkor complex. As is often the case we saw a spectacular dawn from the seat of our tuk tuk - we had emerged from our room twenty minutes to late to catch it at the temple. Whilst disappointing the tuk tuk ride in the balmy morning air and resplendent colours of the early morning was immensely enjoyable anyway. And two hours later at 7 am the temperature must have been close to 30 degrees Celsius! It was really worth waking up at five and getting a couple of hours in before it became prohibitively warm. Preah Khan (meaning Sacred Sword) is a sprawling ruin that is suspected to have been a large city and a Buddhist University. It is similar to Ta Prohm in that there are numerous places where the temple still looks like it has just recently been discovered, with trees resting atop walls and boulders strewn across impenetrable corridors. The similarities do not end there either; whilst Ta Prohm was dedicated to the King’s mother, Preah Khan was built some years later and dedicated to his Father. Like Ta Prohm many of the stone blocks are covered in green lichen and with the early morning light this was again an immensely atmospheric place that we could easily have revisited.

Whilst we could have fitted in far more during our time at the ruins, the three days was exhausting. As the end of our ticket’s validity approached I have to admit that I began to feel massively relieved. It is not that the temples became boring, rather it was that after three days with temperatures that must have been in the mid thirties we felt completely drained of all energy. We were constantly buying bottles of water and trying to negotiate our way through throngs of overly eager vendors, which was amusing initially but could become tiresome. It would have been fool hardy to do just the one day though. If I did it again I think I would take the extra twenty dollars on the chin pay for a weeks ticket, then do three or four days at a leisurely pace.