Well, here I am, just hours from jumping on a plane back to cold ass Korea, and I’m soaking up the night for all it’s worth—or at least soaking up the cheap beer—which is in blissful abundance in these here parts. While heading back to Busan and seeing my friends and getting in the swing of things doesn’t sound unattractive, per se, I am not cherishing thoughts of cold weather, drab brown hills, and 8 dollar imported beer. Yes, beer if obviously on my mind.
This particular trip has been a good one, though a departure from my regular travel style in that I did a lot of doing nothing, most notably at the beach. This was to be expected as it IS our honeymoon—or was—so I promised my wife no harried schedules, no punishing, malarial jungle treks, and only a minimum of twelve hour plus bus hellish bus jaunts.
I have been to SE Asia many times over the last eight years now, so little new ground was covered, but it was interesting to come back to a few places after a prolonged absence. So I figured that I’d jot down my loose impressions of the locales we did hit.
Okay, Vietnam is a big country, a very long one at least, and despite originally intending to see much more of the fabled land, it turns out that we saw very little, relatively. We stuck to a couple places in the south out of a pathological fear of cold temperatures, but in that time I got a renewed taste of the place.
The place is still buzzing, with friendly people who don’t go out of their way to kiss your ass. Their pride remains, and the country is transforming quickly. What I can say is that the Vietnamese I dealt with seemed a lot less scammy than years past. Yeah, I was quoted a few astronomical prices and had to haggle here or there, but on more than one occasion a vendor corrected me when I handed them the wrong note (in their favor). Transactions were upfront and the hawks less aggressive than before. Poverty is still widespread, but most folks seem to be getting by, with more than a few visibly prospering. The desperation for the dollar was less pronounced this time around, and I can walk away from the place thinking that just perhaps the Vietnamese are among the more honest in Asia. Or maybe I’m older and just don’t care. Who knows?
Yeah, I know the city’s is officially named after Ho Chi Minh, but almost nobody who lives there refers to it as such. Apart from Communist Party hardliners, the only people who say “Ho Chi Minh City” tend to be politically correct backpackers and tourists. But I quibble. Call it what you will, the town is booming and thriving, almost too much so. It was a decidedly grubbier place eight years ago, and I fear that economic success is bringing gentrification and too much a of a desire for high-end goods, all of which are still totally unobtainable for, say, 99 percent of the people who even live here. Case in point: The main downtown area—the neighborhood near the Opera House and the famed Rex Hotel, has been transformed into a hideous outdoor mall for the rich. The lap of luxury has shat shop after shop selling all of those awful, familiar brands in brightly lit stores painted white: Prada. Gucci. Versace. Dolce and Gabbana… the list goes on, but the entire little core of the city center has metastasized into one evil little district of material porn.
The loathing I have for such shit will surely turn my own cells to cancer. Italians, you have given the world so much good, but why must you also infect so many people with the criminal idea that a 4,000 dollar handbag is something to be desired? This psychosis has taken deepest root in Asia, it seems, and can only be explained away by the nouveau riche phenomenon. I can hear Uncle Ho’s corpse dry heaving in his Hanoi mausoleum as I type…
That said, we’ve dug our time here. The rest of the city—while now peppered with KFCs, Lotterias, Tous Le Jours, and even Starbucks (in coffee rich Vietnam, it explodes the head, yes)—still serves up delicious, cheap food, armies of motorbikes, leafy, Parisian-inspired side streets, and real people going about their daily business in the shade of the town’s many alleys. The charm remains.
I wrote about this already, how the little seaside destination is currently MOBBED with Russians. They’ve taken the place over, but hey, why shouldn’t they enjoy the fruits of their newfound wealth? Mui Ne has grown massively, but is still a lovely stretch of beach and maybe worth a visit, if only to get a taste of the quasi-desert environment that envelopes the town.
A strange new development in Mui Ne is the endless string of seaside barbecue places, all of which geek out on exotic cuisine. Yeah, you can get your fish and clam on, but each joint also offers up crocodile, turtle, snake, frog, and disturbingly huge sea eels. Yeah, there were a fair amount of Chinese visitors, but I still scratch my head at the preponderance of reptilian menu items. Years ago I would have been all about ordering up some weird stuff and photographing it for all of the internets to see, but having been there and done that, we stuck to the more reasonable offerings.
Phu Quoc Island
This was one of the few real new places for me this time around, and both of us really dug it. While luxury development is hard at work, the island still has that great backwater feel that I have come to love in this part of the world. Aside from the main strip of resorts on aptly-named Long Beach, the rest of the island is made up of red dirt roads, fishing villages, and mile after mile of empty beach. Exploring the place on the back of a scooter is a must, and it doesn’t take too long to get out of the mix.
We spent the first two nights up in the sticks, at a strange place called the Ut Phuong Ecological Resort. While I’m not so sure how “ecological” the place was, it was definitely well out of the way, up in the countryside surrounded by bush and pepper farms. The bungalow was made of dark wood and contained a massive covered area, where at night I’d sit, read, work a crossword, and listen to the cries of millions of insects. It’s a family run establishment that also doubles as a fish farm, and the owners seemed to spend much of their time crashed out in hammocks, while kittens and puppies frolicked about freely. Rustic and cool, though not everyone’s bag, to be sure.
We passed the rest of our days lounging on the beach and swimming. I was tempted to go diving, but gave both that and snorkeling and skip after reading online accounts of their mediocrity, at best. The Vietnamese could do with establishing a few marine reserves in the waters surrounding the island; they could rehabilitate the reefs and make more in tourist cash that they do in fishing, for a few select spots at least.
Cambodia is still nasty. It’s grubby, full of flies, run down, and tattered. I get sick and shit water every time I visit, but I’ve been three times now, if that tells you anything. The roads are horrible, corruption rampant, but tourism is alive and well, and most places are well worth the visit. We didn’t get crazily off the path this time around, but saw enough to know. And booze took the edge off, because Cambodia, with a HUGE bottle of great hooch only setting you back ten bucks, has to have the cheapest alcohol prices in the world.
The capital city has changed very little since my last visit some five years back, other than the backpacker center (where I never stayed) next to the typhoidal lake has been razed and everything has migrated near the riverside. You don’t get much bang for your buck as far as rooms are concerned, and the whole place still has the feel tropical despair.
This time was different because we rolled into town just in time for King Sihanouk’s official state funeral. The streets were shut down, along with a lot of the nightlife and attractions. I managed to take in the procession and even kowtow with the rest of the plebs as the Royal Ashes trundled by, and even got a few shots on the outdated camera I still carry around. But other than that we did not soak in the sites. One visit to the putrid market was enough for Minhee, who is no stranger to third world squalor at this point in our travels. We spent one night and then got the fuck out.
Siem Reap is like a crusty town injected with growth hormones. It’s next to the Angkor Temples and is now a recipient of the complexes dazzling success. One only really goes there to see the temples, otherwise, aside from a parade of amputee book sellers and beggars, there’s little to see.
But the temples are still awesome, in the real, awe-inspiring sense of the world. Yes, they probably let too many tourists tromp all over the ancient artifacts, but some new restrictions are in place that actually improve the experience: most notable is the brilliant decision to no longer allow tourists buses packed with Chinese and Korean tourist herd groups. This cuts down on immediate mobbing of a site and my visit to the temples—my third now—was my best so far.
See the temples and go. Otherwise Siem Reap is a dusty, overgrown town with five times the amount of traffic desirable. Everyone’s in your pocket, and you can’t walk anywhere in town without being constantly pestered by touts and desperate tuk-tuk drivers. And this time I got so ill that I thought I just may crap out my lower intestinal tract.
Cambodia’s beach destination is hopping as never before. We had a nearly week stretch that can only be described as enchanting. But here’s the deal: Stay away from everywhere except Otres Beach, which, as the name implies, is that outer beach in town. Otres 1 has plenty of action, combined with enough isolation and laziness for most folks’ pleasure. Otres 2—where we hung our hats—is, as my Kiwi friends would say, “the duck’s nuts.” It’s farthest out, but if it’s isolation and quiet you crave, this is the business.
Stay away from Serendipity Beach unless you crave constant loud music and an MTV Spring Break shitshow.
Ah, Kampot! Perhaps my favorite gem of this little adventure. Nestled on a lazy river under the shadow of nearby Bokor Mountain, Kampot is quiet, cheap, and scenic. We (regrettably) passed only two nights in the place, but rented a 250 bike for a day of exploring the nearby countryside, which included a trip up to nearby Kep (great place!), Bokor and the old French hill station. Bokor is getting too developed, with a casino and “high-end” resort polluting the top, but Kampot is simply lovely, and I WILL be back.
That’s it really. Thanks if you made it this far.