Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Xin Chao from Ho Chih Mihn City (Saigon)!!!

Unfortunately only limited pictures are yet available for this section as the government of Vietnam has blocked access to our website from within their country!!!

Hi Everyone!
When we last left you SGK and I were about to depart Penang Malaysia with a 2 day old hangover for Thailand and a change of diet (FINALLY AN END TO 4 MONTHS OF NASI GORENG!!!!)

Well, leaving Malaysia via train is not quite as easy as it should be. For one thing, KTM (The Malaysian rail company) does not run any trains north of Butterworth, but the Thais, who’s trains run into Butterworth will not sell you a ticket in Ringitts (or probably Bhat for that matter but as we didn't have any the point there was moot anyways) so what you end up having to do is buy a 4th class ticket to Pedang Besar (The border town - padang means market in Bahasa and besar means big) on the only KTM car attached to the Thai train - this is hard seat class and incredibly filthy then try and buy a ticket on the Thai train (all first class air-conditioned sleeper - You would figure it to be the other way around as Malaysia is a richer and more advanced country than Thailand, but hey - who can figure out Asia anyway???)

To further complicate matters the Malays never chopped us into Malaysia - we were here without an entry stamp - a potential time waster at the border.

Things went smoother than expected, and we were soon on our way to Hat Yai.
Our companions on this train were an acerbic retired American returning from a Visa run and 4 Malay Hajji's on their way to Burma - we know they were Hajji's because they made a point of telling us about their trip to Mecca 1 year ago.

The Malays were fascinated with my chewing tobacco (I was down to my last can of a Swedish brand that I had found in Bali) and wanted to give me some of their Betelnut. Well, having done the Betelnut thing before (and ending up with the trots) I wasn't too keen, but didn't want to be rude (It might have been the food on Flores that gave me the runs after all and not the Betelnut) I was soon spitting the red with the rest of the guys and on the listening end of a lecture about my beard - they loved it (because it emphasized the difference between Men and Women according to the eldest of the quarto). then the train conductor started to come down and make me change seats - He wanted to put the bed down in the seat that SGK and I were occupying as the man who had the lower berth there wished to go to sleep - at 7:30 in the evening.

As they did not give us a choice of lower or upper bunks SGK and I both ended up on uppers - and completely at the Mercy of the guy paying for the lower - we had to climb into bed even though we were only on the train until 12:30am - a word of advice when traveling in Thailand - GET A BOTTOM BUNK!!!!

Anyways, we arrive in Surathani just after the night boat for Samui has left - so we need accommodation. The Thais in their infinite skill in planning public transportation systems have placed the train station some 20ks out of town and away from the ferry dock (even though the tracks go right past it) so we also had to arrange for transport to town. This is one of those instances where you want to have 20 touts all clambering for your business. It's the middle of the night, you are far from town having just arrived for the very first time in a country with no local currency. But were there hundreds of filthy little boys with business cards from backpacker hotels at the train station???? No, there was one guy from one hotel, and he even made us pay for the songtha ride to town!!! (usually the hotel pays for this)

When we arrive at the hotel, we allowed us to be sold a ticket on the next mornings ferry at 100Bhat over the going rate. The next morning they forget to wake us for the ferry at 6:00 like they promised, but that's OK because we ended up waiting at the agents office for an hour anyways just to be told that we were sold the wrong ticket and had to pay an additional 100Bhat for the proper one. We'd been had, but fuck it, it was only $2.50US and we were in Thailand! (No more Mei Goreng! we were in Green Curry heaven)

After 5 hours on the ferry (and another hidden 40Baht fee each) we arrived on Koh Phan Ngan. Once on the Island we quickly hopped in the back of a truck headed for Hat Yao and bliss.
Hat Yao (long beach in Thai) is an extremely peaceful place and while we had expected to spend only a couple of nights there, the company (Col, Michael, and the girls (Moms, Kids, Lee and Clare) - you know who you are) was so good that we spent a week there before heading off to Bottle beach. Well, the Songtha driver to Bottle Beach made us wait for 2 hours before heading off at a bazillion miles an hour down Phan Ngan's treacherous dirt roads, and then got into an altercation with SGK when she asked him to slow down, culminating with us standing on the roadside as the Moms and Kids continue speed on to Bottle beach not knowing what happened to us. Fortunately, another Songtha driver happened along, so we hopped in not really caring where he was going. He was headed to Hat Rin as it turned out, so we were off to Rave central.
Hat Rin is the home of the world famous Full Moon Party's (as seen in The Beach)-and as it turn's out SGK's friends Bill and Jane. Jane had been coming to Hat Rin for close to 20 years and finally her and Bill settled down and built the most spectacular bungalow on Sunrise beach. We spent a few days (and sleepless nights - Hat Rin starts ROCKING at 3:00am) idling there with them and ran into Garry and Julie (coincidences!)

After too much Israeli rave music, we finally boarded a boat to catch the train to Bangbangduck (Pratchet fans will get the Reference)- and meet Cathy and my fraternity brother Boltin Bill Knowlton.

Bill has been living in Thailand for 8 years now, first with the peace corps out in the boonies and now in Bangkok where he works for the embassy (and has access to the PX so he can get his friend (me) CHEWING TOBACCO!!!!) and consequently speaks fluent Thai. Everyone who knows him (Especially you Chad Norton)will be glad to know that he's the same old Bill - lots of fun and extremely good natured. He lives in expat luxury in a HUGE apartment behind the embassy (and has a maid of course) and was generous enough to let us stay with him and show us around.

After a few days in Bangkok (waiting for Vietnamese visa's) we were off to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat.
Cambodia is a weird place - no infrastructure AT ALL exists in the entire country - The Khmer Rouge and American B52's took care of any that the French had built previously, and its a place where up until only a couple of years ago the entire country lived in absolute terror. Pol Pot and Ieng Saery's insanity of the Khmer Rouge caused EVERY SINGLE person in the country out of their homes at gun point to work in forced labour camps - killing as many as 1/3 of the population in the bargain. Land mines abound, as well as stacks of skulls in every village. Despite this history, every person we met was as happy as the day they were born. Not the plastic smiles that you get from the Balinese or Thais (or at McDonalds back home) but genuine happiness.

Angkor Wat

Yes the world famous Angkor Wat - the largest religious structure ever built. Despite it's name (a Wat is a Buddhist Monastery) Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple - images of Shiva, Krishna, Ganesh, Lingams, Garuda's, Naga's, and Galah's abound. The carvings are superb. Every square inch of the ruins (which cover an area not much smaller than Rhode Island) are superb. Arjuna on his chariot from the Bghavad Gita comes alive. Way cool. From Angkor we headed on down the Tonle Sap River (which flows backwards this time of year) to the Mekong and Phnom Pehn where we were greeted by Dr. WAK's old colleague Wolfgang and once again stayed in complete luxury with yet another expat. Wolfgang showed us the town, giving us the use of his driver and personal secretary for the stay. Thanks for everything Wolfgang!!!!!!

From Phnom Penh we were off to Saigon - by a very strange routing - we had to fly through Bangkok (it was cheaper that way). Upon arriving in Saigon we checked out the orphanage where Kevin and John spent their last few days in Vietnam - it's an import export business now, took a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, and the Mekong delta. Our guide for the Tunnels was an ex SVA officer, and it was strange watching him. The Tunnels are currently a park run by the Army - all of whom are loyal party members from the North, and while they were around our Guide was proffering huge amounts of anti-American propaganda - but as soon as they left he fired in on the NVA's treatment of the South Vietnamese. Our guide for the Mekong trip was also former SVA - and a fantastic guide. If you are coming to Vietnam and need a guide I would recommend him - His name is Sanh and his email address is
While on the Mekong trip we stopped for the night in Can Tho - the birthplace of both John and Kevin. We left the tour that morning (rejoining it in the afternoon) to visit the Orphanage where they spent most of their time before coming to America. After some initial difficulties in finding it (it wasn't where Rosemary said it would be) we met the woman who changed Kevin's Diapers for the first part of his life. - She has run the Nursery here since 1972. It was extremely emotional. The kids currently there are all mentally or physically handicapped - one without arms, and two without lips. All of them abandoned. Shivers.
Anyway, after that we headed back to Saigon where we are now.

Where do we go from here??? Well we booked what's called an open ticket, and tomorrow we head to Dalat in the highlands, then on to the beach at Na Trang then to the ancient city of Hoi An, Hue and then a flight to Hanoi before returning to Bangkok.

Cheers everyone!!!

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