Phnom Penh

Compared to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh seems much less developed (I’m trying not to say ‘it feels like a third-world city’ – but it does, with its dirty broken-up pavements/sidewalks and lack of garbage collections), but there are quite a few tourists and expats there now and it’s beginning to feel more mainstream. The airport certainly has a pretty modern terminal, and is being expanded. However it’s worrying that Hun Sen,  the former Khmer Rouge cadre chosen by Vietnam to become prime minister when they overthrew the KR, is still in power three decades later and is currently in the process of closing down opposition parties and any democratic alternative to rule by him and his increasingly corrupt cronies.

The one unmissable sight, of course, is the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes (also known as School S-21), just southwest of the centre on the corner of Streets 113 & 350 (daily 7am-5.30pm, US$3) – you should definitely take an audioguide (US$3) or a guide (US$6). It’s very well presented, with lots of photos – like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge took records of everyone, even if there was next to no chance of their not being killed. You may even meet one of the very few survivors – see below (some say just seven prisoners were left alive when Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese, some say that up to 200 survived in one way or another – but there’s no doubt that between 12,000 and 20,000 took the one-way journey from here to the Killing Fields). Yes, it’s harrowing, but if you do it properly you can then allow yourself not to go out to the Killing Fields as well.

The National Museum is worth visiting for US$5, mainly displaying Khmer sculpture from the 6th century on, as well as some ceramics. Next door, the Royal Palace (including the Silver Pagoda) keeps slightly erratic opening hours – we found it closed for some royal event or other. Just north of the centre, Wat Phou (daily 7am-6pm, US$1) is not particularly interesting, but it’s near some French colonial buildings which will be very attractive when they’ve been refurbished – on the post office square there’s also the Hôtel de la Poste (1890s) and, at the north end of the square, the former police station (c.1910), which may reopen as a boutique hotel at some point. There are some lively bars in this area too! Khmer Architecture Tours offer tours on Saturdays and Sundays – it’s also worth seeing some of the buildings designed by Cambodia’s best-known architect, Vann Molyvann, (born in 1926) such as the National (or Olympic) Stadium and the National Theatre.

For sale – potential boutique hotel

Genocide Museum

I was very grateful to be able to meet Chum Mey, one of only seven known survivors of the S-21 Tuol Sleng Camp, who has written about his experiences there in the book SURVIVOR which raises funds for those in poverty.

Cur-tailed Cats

As we wandered thru’ Laos and Cambodia we noticed more and more cats and kittens without tails or with stumpy tails or tails with a kink. Was there some strange cruel tradition of tail deformation at birth and if so, why? As it turns out, after a fair bit of googling I discovered that this phenomenom is due to a recessive gene! There is a short-tail gene which is carried by Japanese Bobtail cats and Siamese cats whose naturally short, kinked tails have been bred out in Western countries, but has spread all over Asia helped by in-breeding between stray cats.

Some practicalities – where we slept and ate

You Khin House is a peaceful and comfortable place to stay away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets of Phnom Penh. It provides the best of any B&B with many additional advantages, not least that the whole operation exists to support disadvantaged children. It was created in 1990 by Mrs Muoy You and her late artist husband who designed the building, which also houses a collection of his paintings.

Funds generated support underprivileged families who are offered a quality education for their children to help break the cycle of poverty. By staying at You Khin House you are supporting the running of a Montessori nursery and a primary school 30km south of Phnom Penh.

Rooms are behind the courtyard so very quiet apart from the squawk of a resident cage-bird! There is a small pool in the internal courtyard where a cafe serves fresh food all day, and in the evening, prepared by three local women. The breakfasts are delicious and varied and included fruit and pancakes. There is a second street-side building which is currently in development and will provide affordable apartments for people staying longer than the average tourist. A lovely home from home. There’s also at least one tuk-tuk driver usually just outside the front door for convenience!

There are a couple of very special restaurants in Phnom Penh, run by Mith Samlanh, the Cambodian branch of Friends International, which was set up here to help the 10,000 or 20,000 children left living on the streets after the Khmer Rouge nightmare. The restaurants both raise money and provide training for youngsters wanting to work in the hospitality business. We ate at Romdeng, serving fascinating Cambodian dishes (with plenty of vegetarian options); it’s an attractive villa with tables on the patio and by the swimming pool, and food and service are both great. It would be wise to book in advance. They also have their original, less fancy, restaurant, Friends, which produces food for their training centre, and more recently they’ve opened Marum in Siem Reap and Makphet in Vientiane, which like Romdeng are aimed at tourists and expats. However in March 2017 it was announced that Makphet had to close temporarily due to the expiry of its lease.

Although Thai- and Vietnamese-style food was all that was available when the founders of Friends International first came here, and it’s easy to assume that Cambodian cuisine is something in between the two, it’s actually distinct from them. Many dishes are based on prahok (fermented fish paste), but otherwise meat and fish play a minor rôle. Chillies are usually served on the side, so it’s not too hot. Tamarind is important, as well as galangal (part of the ginger family), banana flowers, unripe mango, amok leaves, morning glory (water spinach), winter melon, and lotus root. I learnt this from the Romdeng cookery books, which are fabulously produced but very heavy – luckily they can be bought online when you get home. Incidentally, there are stalls in a few locations across town that offer delicacies such as grilled beetles, spiders and even snakes.

We also stumbled across the Himawari Microbrewery, in a big new hotel right on the attractive promenade by the Mekong – just like the Siem Reap Brewpub, they produce a range of golden, IPA and stouts, with a US$4 flight of samplers available, and they also do pizza. The beers were perfectly acceptable but to my mind they seemed just slightly blander than the Siem Reap offering.

Vang Vieng and Vientiane

Vang Vieng, about two-thirds of the way from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, is the outdoor activities centre of Laos, but is also as known as the place where rather too many young backpackers have died after hitting their heads on rocks or drowning while rafting on the Nam Song river. So much so that Lao people began to think the town had been cursed. It’s cleaned up its act a lot, but there are still plenty of bars

Vibrant Night Life at Vang Vieng

and we were happy to be staying in the tranquil village of Ban Huay Yae immediately across the river to the west (see below). There’s a toll (west-bound only) on the bridge, but you can avoid this by using the footbridge from the centre of town, just north. Incidentally the town itself did not really exist before the CIA built an airstrip for covert operations during the Vietnam War; this is now unused but still exists as a bizarre gaping hole in the centre of the town.

Rafting is very popular, and you can rent bikes, scooters, off-road buggies (very popular with Koreans, it seems), and even some three-wheeled Segwayish things (why?); you can also go rock-climbing and hot-air ballooning. However, our chosen outdoor activity was to cycle a 28 km loop to the west, through dramatic karst scenery with plenty of caves to visit. Beware! Health and Safety is still not a big deal here, so be prepared to climb on rough rocks and flimsy wooden ladders, and it’s best to bring your own head-torch if possible – there’s someone to rent you one at most caves (for 10,000 kip – about £1) but you can’t rely on it. En route we stopped at a small cafe in a wonderful location and had a very connecting chat with the husband and wife as we were the only guests.  They managed to rustle up Twinings tea and fresh milk to revive us for the rest of the journey, which was rather bumpy at times and tiring in the heat but well worth it for seeing how life is lived in this rural area.  

Tea for two
Accommodation

We discovered Villa Boa Lao and it was my favourite place! It is in the heart of the village, has stunning views and has all the comforts one hopes for including a private raised wooden terrace with the use of an outside kitchen below, and is run by a French-Lao couple, Philippe and Boa. He is a chatterbox and a font of information. They also run the ‘Lotus restaurant’ where Boa graciously offers Lao cuisine as well as some simple French fusion dishes. They speak mainly French, with a smattering of

Lotus restaurant

English.  We ate our breakfast there and discussed our plans with Philippe before heading off for the day.

Nearby is a laundry service and motorbike and bike rental.

 

Vientiane

Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is in some ways a featureless sprawl, but it’s seeing some development at the moment, with international hotel chains finally setting up shop here. There’s not a lot to see, but the city is worth a brief stopover. The National Museum was not shown on our city map (it’s on Samsenthai, opposite the Lao National Cultural Hall), but is worth finding. The archeological displays show that there’s a huge amount still to be discovered here, mostly offshoots of the Khmer Empire in present-day Cambodia. The last section consists of huge numbers of grainy black and white photos of guerrilla leaders (and the English captions take a turn for the worse, with bizarre transliterations of names such as Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat). The city’s temples are a mixed bunch – Wat Sisaket (daily 8am-5pm, 10,000 kip), the only temple in the city not destroyed by Thai invaders in 1828, is a lovely serene haven, with

Wat Si Muang

excellent murals (painted for King Anouvong in 1819-24) on the life of the future Buddha now being restored. Wat Ho Phra Ko (daily 8am-5pm, 10,000 kip) seems grander but the sanctuary actually has a bare barn-like interior with old pot shards and Buddhas in museum cases. Wat Si Muang (daily 6am-7pm, free) is hilariously gaudy, not to say kitsch, but the remains of an ancient Khmer stupa can be seen at the rear of the sanctuary.

A horrid custom which is still prevalent in Laos is the selling of small birds outside the temples. The idea is that people earn ‘merit’ from the gods when they release them into the wild. (Presumably only to be threatened with being recaught in due course). We saw the distressing sight of dozens all squashed together in cages in the searing heat outside many temples. 

A great restaurant in Vientiane

Various NGOs in Laos and Cambodia, helping landmine victims and street children, for instance, have opened restaurants both to raise money and to train people to work in restaurants. This website gives details. Opened in 2006, Makphet (meaning chili in Lao) is firmly established as one of the best places in Vientiane for creative but authentically Lao cuisine. The setting, indoors and outside in the lovely gardens, is beautiful, and there’s also a small gift shop, selling craft items made by families to help keep their children in education. However in March 2017 it was announced that Makphet had to close temporarily due to the expiry of its lease.

We didn’t know about this when we were in Luang Prabang, but the same NGO has recently opened a restaurant there called Khaiphaen (named after a popular snack of crispy Mekong river-weed), at 100 Sisavang Vatana Road, Ban Wat Nong, between the French Institute and the Mekong; it’s open Monday to Saturday 11am-10:30pm.

Hectic times in Ho Chi Minh City

We found Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) a hectic noisy place without a great deal to see or do. Yes, it has a high energy level, reminiscent of Bangkok and mostly felt through the swarms of scooters buzzing around which make every road crossing perilous, and it does have some nice colonial buildings, although the only one of real interest is the General Post Office (1891), with its roof supplied in prefab form by the Eiffel company.

I found it particularly interesting to find a Public Letter Writer working there! Duong Van Ngo was born in 1930 and started work at the Post Office at the age of eighteen, reputedly without ever taking a day off. He writes by hand using a fountain pen. Not sure how much writing he does these days as he seemed to be more of a tourist attraction, but am told he is up for a conversation about his experience if you have time!

Other colonial piles now house museums – we found the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, in the former palace of the governor of Cochinchina (1886), not very good and poorly presented (although the displays upstairs on ‘the American war’ are better), while the History Museum had a good collection of sculpture, including some of the oldest wooden Buddhas in Southeast Asia (from the 7th and 8th centuries). The Fine Arts Museum was definitely better than expected; it’s housed in the very grand mansion of a Chinese businessman (1934) and two adjacent buildings of much the same period (the main building still has its original little lift, the oldest on Southeast Asia and still in working order), and displays a varied and interesting range of work.

Lacquer painting

The paintings in lacquer on wood were particularly effective, and not something we’d seen in adjoining countries. Nor is there a lot of cheap revolutionary cliché, although military scenes are certainly well represented. The third building also displays Champa sculpture from the 7th century on, the precursor of the wonderful Khmer sculpture of the Angkor temples and very fine in its own right.

The city’s busiest, and best presented, museum is the War Remnants Museum, which does display plenty of weapons, from bullets up to tanks and a Chinook helicopter, but is more an indictment of the crimes of the imperialist invaders (start on the top floor with the French, then the rest of the museum is of course concerned with the Americans) and their South Vietnamese proxies. The photos of the effects of Agent Orange (a defoliant containing lethal amounts of dioxin) are particularly appalling, but there’s also balancing coverage of worldwide protests against the war and support for the Vietnamese. There’s also a gallery of striking photos by war correspondents, including the last photos taken by the great Robert Capa before he stepped on a landmine in 1954. Alongside the museum is a display on the island prisons of the South Vietnamese regime, which shows disturbing similarities with Phnom Penh’s Genocide Museum. The lunchtime closure is a bit annoying, although there’s still access to the café (with wifi and power sockets).

Some practicalities

The visa on arrival system works far less well than in Laos and Cambodia – having paid US$17 online and received pre-approval for my visa, I still had to wait an hour at Ho Chi Minh City airport, with scores of others milling around, and paid another US$25, to actually receive the precious stamp (full-page, of course) in my passport. Typically communist bureaucracy. It’s only available arriving by air, which does give some confidence that you probably won’t be turned back. You only need one photo, not two as stated online, and they’ll take one if you don’t have any.

When I changed money I instantly became a millionaire, due to the three excess zeroes on the currency. On the other hand there are no coins, as in Laos and Cambodia, and banknotes are now made of polymer.

A metro is under construction, and due to open in 2019, with luck; there’s also a decent bus network (not much used by tourists, it seems, although it does serve the railway station and the airport). Taxis are everywhere and can easily be flagged down; they use meters and you shouldn’t pay much more than 160,000 Dong (£6) to get from the airport to the centre (District 1) or 60,000 Dong to cross the centre. The most reliable companies are Mailinh (green) and Vinasun (white). I do believe that no driver elsewhere in the world knows the width of his vehicle as accurately as a Ho Chi Minh City taxi driver, weaving through the traffic with pinpoint accuracy. However most locals get around on scooters, and it’s astonishing how much space is given over to storing them, both public (on sidewalks etc) and private (in the front rooms of houses, for instance).

Trains can now be booked online at www.baolau.com – you’ll have to show the booking on your phone or other digital device at the information counter and a boarding pass will be printed out. Even the four-berth soft sleeper carriages are old and communist in feel (and Katy spotted a cockroach), although they have been upgraded with air-conditioning and electric sockets, and the track is still pretty rough; it’s a long two-night haul from HCMC to Hanoi, but the shorter runs from HCMC up to Danang (17 hours) or from Hué to Hanoi (13 hours) are worth considering for their views of Vietnamese life, both on the train and in the countryside outside.

Food

We happened across two excellent places to eat. The Hoa Khai vegetarian restaurant at 124 Nguyen Cu Trinh was reassuringly busy, with lots of locals coming and going; there’s no fancy décor but the atmosphere is totally authentic. There’s lots of ‘pork’ and ‘chicken’ on the menu, but it’s all fake (made with synthetic protein); there are plenty of mushroom dishes too and it’s all tasty.

It’s well worth making the effort to find the Secret Garden at 158 Pasteur. Walk into the alley – on the left is a doorway to a dilapidated apartment building above which is a small restaurant sign. Go up the stairs and five grotty/smelly flights later (keep going – it’s worth it!) you’ll emerge onto a charming leafy roof terrace which would be particularly lovely at sunset. We ate a delicious traditional Vietnamese lunch alongside fellow locals and a handful of other tourists and benefitted from the cooling fans overhead.  The veggie options were good and the décor was lovely too!

Accommodation 

We use AirB&B fairly frequently and I like to research quirky and cheap places to stay. We discovered a gem! Tucked away behind a small alley, but conveniently located, is a bookshop previously called Kafka. They have three rooms upstairs. Ours was ensuite and simple, clean and quiet with air con and a fan. We paid £10 each for the night. You can relax in  the common lounge and drink Vietnamese coffee whilst using their wifi. Tim prefers tea and they gave us access to the kitchen to make his own. The very helpful James looked after us and provided us with a rudimentary map. (Access help pictures below!)

The entrance from the street
Walk thru’ the alley/turn right at end!

Populism and corruption – an update to the Rough Guide to Romania

There are two kinds of populism stalking the earth at the moment, both equally nasty (though the Trump version is far more dangerous), although they both depend on an ill-informed electorate. The traditional kind involves a corrupt pyramid of patronage, in which a mayor doles out contracts for vote-winning public works to contractors who pay him a generous backhander, and he pays off the guy above him who brings out the votes for him, and so on right to the top. In Romania this is how it’s been most of the time since the end of communism, with the former ruling party transformed into the party of patronage and power. When the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Romania went to print last year (mid-2016), the situation was that there had been massive public protests after a nightclub fire on 30 October 2015 that killed 63 due to corruption in the Bucharest fire inspection service; the prime minister stood down and was replaced by a technocrat. But by the time a general election came around in December 2016 this had changed to apathy and an absurdly low turn-out, which allowed the same old gang of crooks to turn out the vote in their rural strongholds and get back in to power. The PSD used the traditional populist promises: tax cuts for pensioners, a higher minimum wage, and free public transport; but they’ve also been emboldened by the successes of populist parties and movements elsewhere.

Almost at once the new government announced that it would decriminalize corruption (yes, you read that right, essentially), supposedly to reduce prison overcrowding but in fact because so many of its politicians are being dragged through the courts by the commendably dogged DNA or Anti-Corruption Agency. Cue more outrage and mass demonstrations (at least 150,000 in Bucharest, and as many again across the nation), and tut-tutting from the European Union and the like. As we pointed out in the Rough Guide, Romania’s justice system never met the standards for accession to the EU, and it is the EU taxpayer who has paid the price, with billions of euros plundered from EU funds. Thankfully, the president is on the right side and is taking a stand, and even the Orthodox church, usually a slavish follower of power, has come out against the government.

On 30 January 2017 the government swore that it would not force through the mass pardon it was giving itself, then the next day it did just that with an emergency government order (shades of Trumpism there), then after more massive street protests, withdrew it on 4 February. The government won a vote of confidence in parliament and tabled a parliamentary bill along the same lines as the emergency order. One of the strange things about the December 2016 general election was that the former opposition parties largely vanished and the third largest party (after the PSD and PNL, forming the ruling coalition) is now the Save Romania Union (Uniunea Salvați România), formed only in 2016 following the success of the Save Bucharest Union in local elections. It now has 30 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 13 in the Senate; it seems promising but is still far too small and inexperienced to stop the government coalition from doing what it wants. The effective opposition comes from President Johannis, who told parliament that he respected the election results, but that now the government has to govern in the national interest; parliament did pass his proposal for a referendum (with a question to be decided by him), so now we’ll see what happens next. The corrupt politicians have far too much to lose, so no-one imagines they’re just giving up. And they genuinely can’t understand that there’s another way to do politics.

That other form of populism? That’s what happens when people who’ve been told that they’re growing up in a developed country and that they are ‘educated’ actually believe that and start to think that they can read rags like the Sun and the Daily Mail and alt.right sources like Breitbart and that this counts as news – and of course again they’re being lied to and believe the liars and elect the liars.

Argentina always used to favour the Romanian model of populist corruption – they voted for pieces of shit and got the government they deserved, alas, but the mantra was always ‘yes, but he’s my piece of shit’. Whereas of course the voters were being conned. Now, with Mauricio Macri as president there’s a chance they can turn it round – which would be nice, as I enjoy visiting, and writing about, Chile and Uruguay (I’ll post something about Uruguay in a few months, when the new edition of the Bradt Guide is published).

And I haven’t even mentioned Putin! Or Brexit. Or Viktor Orbán across the border in Hungary. But I can say that all this global nonsense makes the dirigiste style of government of Singapore (where I was a month ago) and Taiwan (where I’m writing this) seem far more attractive than it would have done a year ago.

No photos of beautiful Romanian mountains, sorry, it’s not that kind of post. Oh ok then, here’s one showing how they teach people to be nice in Singapore.

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#StandUpStacey

Luang Prabang

While Vientiane is now the capital of Laos, it’s the lovely old capital of Luang Prabang, about 8 hours north by road, that is its main touristic centre. As in the rest of the country, the tourist industry is growing fast, but the centre of town, with the royal palace and several famous wats (temples), and many less famous ones, has been designated as a World Heritage Zone by UNESCO, and so development has been restrained and fairly tasteful, with boutique hotels opening in restored French colonial buildings, and no multi-storey blocks.

There is much talk of not allowing Luang Prabang to go the way of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, which is now a busy noisy city of 400,000, with nearly a million in its metropolitan area, and so far the signs are good. The powers that be in Luang Prabang seem to have made an effort to provide proper pavements/sidewalks and to keep the place looking good – but garbage collection needs sorting out next.

The most exciting new development is the opening in November 2016 of the Pha Tad Ke Botanic Garden, the first in Laos. This was a royal retreat, where they went to unravel(!) and to hunt bear, boar and deer; there’s little trace of that now, but it’s been beautifully laid out in seven main areas, of which the centrepiece is the Ethno-botanic Garden, with fenced plots displaying just some of the thousand species used in Laos used for medicine, poisons, clothing and religious purposes. The Hmong people, in the north, grow Cannabis sativa (hemp) for their clothing, but this is not on display here… There’s good information in English and Lao in this section, but the rest of the gardens just have binomial tags on the trees. Other areas include the Arboretum, Ginger Garden, Palm Garden, Bamboo Garden and an orchid nursery, where they are cultivating 268 of the 483 species of orchid currently known in Laos (of about 1,400 in the whole of Indochina). There’s also a wilder area of limestone habitat (including tree ferns) on the mountainside, with a half-hour hike to the Buddha cave of Pha Tad Ke. The gardens were planted eight years ago, and are still a work in progress; as soon as funding is available they’ll build the Mist House, a damper environment for orchids, ferns and carnivorous plants. It’s already lovely to walk around, and the shop and café will top off your visit in style.

A visit costs US$25, including a 15-minute boat ride from their reception office on the Luang Prabang waterfront (and back) which is an enjoyable part of the outing (road access can be arranged for the disabled).

 Some practicalities

We flew into Luang Prabang separately, Katy from Chiang Mai and Tim from Hanoi. We both flew with Lao Airlines, and they’re clearly not a lao-cost (geddit?) operation – you get a snack, free changes of date, and free baggage check-in (their ATR-72 prop planes are great but have minimal locker space overhead). The airport is small and efficient and the visa on arrival process is fast – in addition to the quoted cost (eg US$35 for British passport-holders, US$42 for Canadians) you’ll pay a US$1 fee, plus US$1 if you didn’t bring a passport photo and they have to scan your passport photo (never mind the fact that they take a digital photo anyway plus fingerprints at the next stage of the immigration process). If you don’t have the dollars they’ll let you go through to the arrivals hall to an ATM or exchange counter and come back the wrong way through customs to pay, and retrieve your passport. Actually they’re more interested in selling you a SIM at the airport than in changing money or renting cars. It’s a half-hour walk from the airport to the town, or you can share a songthaew pick-up truck (50,000 kip for the first few passengers, then with luck proportionately less).

You should also be sure to get out on the Mekong at some point – foreigners pay 5,000 kip (50p) to take the car ferry from Luang Prabang to the west bank, where you can walk north to some nice temples – the first is free and in the heart of its village, the second is up a steep flight of steps and has little to offer apart from a great view across the river to Luang Prabang, but the third, Wat Longkhoun, has some charming 18th-century murals. From here you can continue and then loop inland to return to the ferry. Otherwise there are lots of boat tours to caves and waterfalls, and we also took a delightful two-hour trip in a long-tail boat from Champasak to Pakse in the south of Laos.

While Tim is of the ilk that enjoys power-walking around the sights, I on the other hand need a rest from time to time and also a smattering of comfort! There are two locations in town that provide a cheap and entertaining way to cover both these bases. The Sanctuary Hotel and the Victoria Xiengthong Palace Hotel at 6:30pm & 7:00pm, respectively and daily, screen a charming film about a Lao family living in the jungle. It’s called CHANG and is billed as one of the first documentaries in the history of cinema, and certainly the first film to document life in the Southeast Asian jungle. Shot in 1925, the film makers went on to make King Kong!  
Entry is free and one sits in a delightful garden with the only requirement of ordering a drink. It came with crisps too! Elephants are few and far between these days, but Chang shows how it used to be and how we have destroyed the abundance of wildlife. Salutary.