This Is The End

Writing to you from the taxi on the way to the airport to board our long flight home, I don’t even know where to begin as I try to sum up this trip… our cab has a Buddha bobble-head, it’s dodging scooters piled high with sacks of rice and children, the appalling Vietnamese love song playing is punctuated by car horns every few seconds, I can see at least 6 Vietnamese flags from the window, I’m not wearing a seatbelt. I can experience none of this in Sydney and I really don’t want to go back to predictable days, routine, and educated decisions rather than interesting guesses. Fans, friends, family, I love and miss you all but Asia has stolen my heart!

1 continent, 6 countries, 34 cities, 11 flights, countless trains and buses, only a couple of mystery diseases (including the tonsillitis Liv and I have managed to pick up on our last day), barely any disappointing meals, several more kilos of shopping stuffed into my backpack, only one road accident, so few showers, exactly 100 days of adventure.

I’m really struggling with what to write because everything I say is going to be an enormous cliché, but it’s all true: I’ve met so many amazing people, been to heaps of places that I need to come back to, even on the shit days when you’re stuck in a bus with a smelly snorer and no gluten-free food for hours and hours, you can look around you and realize you’re in Asia, and that is so exciting that even the worst days travelling are the best.

While we were in Laos my dear sis told me about a little character she and some gals had come up with in Taiwan called the Naïve Traveller. Throughout the trip she and some other types of travellers emerged: the Naïve Traveller always carries a huge backpack, pays the first stated price for tuktuk rides, is always trying to use the wrong adaptor and can never get her head around time difference or exchange rates. The Wanky ‘I’ve Travelled’ Traveller has always been there, done that, is always saying things like ‘I just like to sit back and soak it in’, is constantly showing off his ‘local’ knowledge, and has to be the one travelling the longest. The Useless Traveller has lost her bag at every single airport and her friends have to carry her passport and wallet for her because she’s a menace, is often found going commando due to lack of clean underwear, is known to sleep anywhere but her own bed including balled up on kitchen tables and in showers, and has never successfully navigated anywhere on her own. We realized by the end of the trip that there is a little bit of all of these travellers in all of us, and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. I think we’ll be returning to Sydney as the annoying people who never stop talking about their travels… sorry in advance, everyone!

Gotta run and catch our flight, but thanks to everyone who was bothered to read my rambling for this last little leg of adventure, and can’t wait to reunite with you all as soon as possible whenever my next trip begins.

Passports and planes,

PT

the naive travellers

the naive travellers

Asia.

Asia.

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Halong Bay

Apologies in advance for the spelling and grammar errors you’re surely about to encounter, I write to you with significantly less brain cells than the last post. We have just returned from three days in the beautiful Halong Bay, where we cruised on a little boat and shacked up on a private island with a bunch of absolute loons.

I have been lusting after photos of Halong Bay for years now; I think I’ve found myself gazing at National Geographic snaps of the huge, looming rocks rising from the green water at least half a dozen times during moments of wanderlust in lectures. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site (we’ve now seen all three in Vietnam, yay!), it’s seriously like nothing else in the world. I kept having that amazing moment of “Oh my god, I’m really here” whenever I looked out of the window at the ridiculous scenery around us. 2,487 islands of sheer cliffs and greenery jut upwards from water that is a crazy turquoise colour because of the limestone in the water. Unfortunately we were pretty unlucky with the weather, and it was cold and misty and rained on us a bit, but the fog kind of made it creepy and special, and even without sun it was amazing anyway.

We had signed ourselves up for the infamous ‘Castaways’ tour run by our hostel, having heard about it from just about every traveller we’ve met along the way. Three days and two nights of madness in a setting as stunning as Halong Bay was definitely an experience. We spent a night on a boat and woke up surrounded by nothing but misty water and enormous islands… it was so beautiful I was actually happy to be woken up at 7am. The second night we spent on a private island where there was glowing plankton at night and a shell-spangled beach during the day. There were normal activities like kayaking through caves and into little coves, cliff-climbing (really hard, I failed but Liv nailed it), tubing and beach volleyball… and there were a LOT of drinking games. I have never done so many push-ups in my life, I have never appreciated Red Bull like I did on tour, I don’t think I’ll ever drink with my right hand again lest I get buffalo’d, I have never seen so many people shotgun a beer at 8am… there area lot of ‘I nevers’ that could apply to the last three days.

Best quotes:
“I had thirty valium and a bottle of whiskey once.”
“Jesus turned water into wine, he was a fucking legend.”
“I lost my virginity in a threesome on a ski lift.”

Highlights included setting a Welsh dude’s ass on fire and rippin up the DF with the Vietnamese staff, some of whom seriously liked to party. We met some more seriously weird people and some absolute champions as well. I think my body is still in shock, but it was a really amazing way to end our trip.

Only two more days left in Hanoi trying to spend all our money (far too easy) before we jet home on Thursday!

Rum and also rum,

PT

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Captain Liv

Captain Liv

"I'm Welsh"

“I’m Welsh”

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Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

In the wise words of the adorable kid from UP, “ADVENTURE IS OUT THERE!” and we have definitely found it. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a totally stunning section of Northern-Central Vietnam, home to a complex of caves including the largest cave in the world.

We had 2 nights and 1 day here, which, as usual, wasn’t enough. Staying at a homestay run by an adorable Vietnamese/Australian couple, we spent our nights huddled around a campfire swapping stories with British bikie boys, Danish cavers and American journalists. I learned that there are weird people everywhere and because you can’t escape them, sometimes you just have to take them as they are.

On our only whole day in Phong Nha, we had a full on adventure into the Tu Lan cave complex. After driving through a beautiful mountain pass – the scenery here doesn’t stop stunning you out of your seat – we were dropped off at a local ethnic minority village called Tan Hoa and began the trek. After a few kilometres of peanut and corn fields, we hit jungle and began to clamber rather than walk. As usual we were reminded of the war, and we all felt sorry for everyone – American and Vietnamese – who had to hide in the labyrinth of twisty vines, mossy rocks, and mud during the violence.

After an hour or two of fighting through the jungle, El-Dorado style, and wading across a couple of ridiculously blue rivers, we reached the Rat Cave. Headlights were affixed to helmets and we descended into the gaping mouth of the cavern. I had never seen a cave before, so to me it looked completely enormous, but our guide Duc assured us that it was just a baby one. We saw some sick stalactites and stalagmites, but no rodents of unusual size. It was seriously impressive though, 5 million years old and it apparently takes 10,000 years to form 1 square centimeter of space in there… the caves are so dark and cold and ancient you feel like you have to whisper out of respect.

Another hop, slip and jump (but mainly slip) through the jungle and we arrived at the mouth of the big mumma: the Hung Ton Cave. We wolfed down some food, strapped on life jackets and set off. After a dodgy descent down a rickety ladder in complete darkness, we went for a wander and found ‘cave pearls’, spiders bigger than our hands, and total, overbearing darkness. For a minute we were all told to switch off our headlights, and the blackness was tangible. It would have been hand-in-front-of-your-face darkness if I hadn’t been clutching Liv’s so hard!

The next part was the real challenge of the day: lower yourself into the coldest water you can imagine, and swim for fifteen minutes to the exit of the cave. I think I’ve mentioned before how much I hate cold water (I struggle to swim at Bondi at the best of times) so this was nothing short of torture… the cold attacks you like ten million steel toothpicks dipped in dry ice, and the best bit was when you went numb all over because it stopped hurting! It’s actually a good thing that Liv’s waterproof GoPro case is broken and we couldn’t film it, because it would have just been us whimpering for our mummies. Quite embarrassing.

After the swimming ordeal we had another trek in front of us – this time over a mountain for a couple of hours, and in wet clothes, before heading home. Now I know at this point that our day doesn’t sound very fun, but I don’t mean to sound whingey, we were having the best time and now I’m really into adventure!

To sum up: caving rocks (pun intended – thanks Liv), would do it again in a heartbeat. If I had a spare $3000 I would totally book in to see the largest cave in the world (I don’t). Phong Nha is crazy beautiful, and they’ve only explored 10% of that jungle… there’s still 90% left to go so maybe there’s another, even more impressive set of caves in there!

Off to Hanoi for our last leg of the journey. Thanks for stopping by.

Rocks and rats,

PT
DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

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Hue

Hue (pronounced ‘hway’) is an ancient capital city of Vietnam, famous for its architecturally marvellous Citadel and also for its unfortunate position during the American war – the city was almost completely destroyed during the Tet Offensive by US troops attempting to free the city from the occupying Viet Cong.

Our journey here was pretty eventful in itself… instead of slumming it in a bus we surrendered our enormous backpacks to an excitable lady who managed to load all of them, and herself, onto a tiny scooter and zoom off into the distance. Then we mounted our own valiant steed, Samantha the motorbike, and (after attracting the attention of a suitable number of over-helpful Vietnamese guys to help us get the thing started) we were off! Fortunately for our health Liv was driving, so I could sit back, take photos, and scream for help when necessary. The ride there was completely beautiful, we were really lucky with the weather and we sped down the highway under blue skies in shorts and singlets. Even next to main roads in Vietnam, the rice fields are abundant, spreading out from either side of the road like a perfectly green, wet, gluten-free blanket.

We had a difficult run-in with some official-looking people who spoke no English, and through a series of mimes and some pointing we managed to establish that we weren’t allowed to ride through a tunnel because the danger of accidents was too high, that instead we could either load our bikes onto a truck for transit or we would have to go round the long way to get to Hue. Try acting that out in charades! Eventually it was all sorted though, and we skipped the tunnel and rode over a mountain pass that Top Gear had previously covered, and you could see why: in Liv’s words it is Vietnam’s Amalfi Coast. The water is Gatorade blue, the beaches are as white as my tan lines, it is so stunning we felt like we were in a Bond movie.

For our lunch break we had a picnic at Elephant Springs, a gorgeous little lagoon surrounded by boulders shaped like elephants – we swam through the freezing water and slid down a waterfall before heading onwards. Everything was going swimmingly until, 14km outside of Hue, disaster struck and our bike pooped itself. The whole way it had been making very confusing popping noises and emitting a rather concerning burny smell, but we hadn’t really taken any notice of it… and now we were stranded on the side of Highway 1 with the sun going down. We debated hitchhiking (and were offered a ride into town by two dudes in a van – not creepy at all I’m sure) but in the end managed to flag down a rare taxi and got ourselves into the city, leaving Samantha abandoned by the road. Inevitably this ended in a huge fight with the motorbike dude, who also spoke no English, but we got our bags back and escaped unscathed so ALL GOOD.

Hue itself doesn’t have a huge amount going for it. For one thing the weather is miserable at the moment, and after weeks of heat and sunshine Liv and I were decidedly grumpier in the rain and the cold. We only had one full day here and spent it exploring the Citadel, the seat of the old capital of Vietnam before French occupation. It was pretty impressive, huge and sprawling with lots of gilded golden buildings and spacious gardens – even horses! – but the rest of the town didn’t have a huge amount to see. We were told that the nightlife was non-existent since almost everything closes at 11pm but teamed up with some new Dutch and British buddies we proved that theory wrong and partied probably too hard both nights we were here. We peer pressured our new friends into the ‘time bomb’ challenge – shotgun a beer and then do a shot of any liquor and a jagerbomb in less than a minute – and took over the only club open in town, where locals and backpackers alike were dancing really embarrassingly to the Grease soundtrack and 50 Cent.

Even though I didn’t love Hue as much as I loved Hoi An, it was fun to hang out with other travellers and meet new people. I have to say that waking up to an eyeful of some dude’s hairy ass on the bunk next to me was probably a bit much, and way too many people had sex in our dorm, but once again us Senior Adventurers took it in our stride and lived to tell the tale!

Off to Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park to do some caving… hopefully it’s not too freezing but I hear swimming through an underground lake is no hot tub.

Tequila and turtles,

PT

Driver Liv

Driver Liv

The view from the road

The view from the road

Thelma & Louise

Thelma & Louise

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Hoi An

Being in Hoi An for the past few days has made me so sad that I’m leaving Vietnam in less than two weeks. It’s probably my favourite place so far and I want to stay here forever! As is becoming typical with us, we extended our stay in Hoi An by a couple of days, eating into our time in Hanoi. I’m sure I’ll regret that later on but for now, I’m lucky to have spent enough time here to flatten my bank account and stretch my stomach lining.

There is a lot to see in Hoi An, and although we did get a few of the beautiful sights in – the Tran Family Chapel and a few temples were standouts – to be honest, we spent most of our time shopping. The whole town is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site so it’s been preserved in its cuteness and glorious tourist-oriented authenticity. Colourful lanterns hang across the eeny weeny lanes, street vendors selling Vietnamese donuts and coconuts line the scooterful roads, the river calmly glides along the market front, carrying gondolas and floating restaurants with it. It’s legit paradise.

On our second day here we hired bicycles and went on an ADVENTURE! We successfully navigated to a beautiful beach where fishermen float around in what look like enormous coconuts, and then went for the most picturesque cycle you could imagine. Think rice paddies from a postcard and children waving at you frantically every three metres. We did not find the pottery village we were looking for, but we made friends with a family whose only English word was ‘hello’, and managed to conduct a conversation including ‘we are lost’, ‘would you like some coconut candy?’ ‘yes please give me all the coconut candy’, ‘could you take a photo of us?’, ‘not over there we have to protect our skin from the sun’, ‘wow your polaroid camera is hilarious’, and ‘check out that duck, it is a duck!’.

For our final night in Hoi An we did a cooking class, helped out by our translator Vinh who walked us through the market literally at a snail’s pace. It was fine because afterwards we got to cook banh xeo, green papaya salad with shrimp and a claypot pork which was all DELICIOUS. We had an absolute feast, such a romantic dinner including riverside views and candlelight. A perfect end to a perfect few days.

I think one of the reasons Hoi An is so wonderful is that for the first time in a couple of weeks, I haven’t been assaulted with devastating statistics about genocide or war. Hoi An was almost completely untouched by the Vietnam War, used instead as a communications base, and so it’s a lot wealthier than the other areas of Vietnam we have been to thus far. It makes me wonder whether the rest of the country would be this phenomenal if the war hadn’t happened… just another reason why war sux.

In the spirit of adventure we are hopping on a motorbike to ride to meet our luggage in our next destination, Hue. If there isn’t another blog in the next week it’s because we’ve fallen off the bike and died… please come looking for me.

Lanterns and lychees,

PT

Coconut boats on the beach!

Coconut boats on the beach!

Liv in some temple we stumbled upon

Liv in some temple we stumbled upon

Cooking!

Cooking!

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Mekong Delta

Just a few weeks ago I was canoeing across the top of the Mekong in chilly Luang Prabang, and for the past two days I’ve been hanging out at the river’s last legs: the Mekong Delta. A few hours south of Ho Chi Minh city lies a collection of towns and villages centered around the nine branches of the Mekong as it trickles into the South China Sea.

We sailed along the Mekong and checked out some small floating markets in the morning, stopping at a factory where we observed locals making coconut candy (deeeeelish), rice paper (I tried cooking one and had the lady cackle at my absolute failure of an attempt) and ‘happy water’ – super strong rice wine that is the Vietnamese alcohol of choice. After eye-watering shots of rice wine and snake wine – same thing but with a snake or two pickled inside, apparently ‘very good for the back’, we had a peaceful ride through the jungle in tiny wooden gondolas.

That night I was lucky enough to stay with a local Mekong family which was the highlight of the two day trip. The adults of the family didn’t speak any English at all, so the kids ran the joint. I was ordered where to sleep and what to eat by a tiny 8 year old boy called Alvin, who then proceeded to ‘steal’ my money (I got it back after an almost-serious chase around the house) and hijack my iPhone to play candy crush. He was absolutely adorable. We observed and tried our hand at cooking banh xeo, Vietnamese pancake/omelets filled with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp, and rolled our own rice paper rolls and fried spring rolls which were totally delicious. Dinner was interesting as well, we shared a meal with some German journalists and a bunch of American Peace Corps volunteers who were teaching English in China and had come to Vietnam on their holiday.

We were besieged by insects during the night – bed bugs, lice, mosquitoes, you name it – so after a very sleepless sleep we got up at 5:30am to go and see the biggest floating market in the Mekong. Big boats displaying their fruity wares on tall bamboo poles floated down the huge river, with smaller merchants sidling up beside them to bargain and load up on stock for the day. The amount of tropical fruits in this area is incredible, I think I’ve tried a new fruit for every day I’ve been here. I couldn’t name any of them but they’ve all be delicious.

That day we also got to see how rice noodles are made and cut, and then were given 2.5 hours to kill in the boring town of Can Tho. I went and got myself a $3 massage in a 1.5 star hotel which turned out to be a bad idea… the chick walked in wearing a tube top for a skirt, a plunging V-neck, push-up bra and stilettos. Forty five very awkward minutes later I emerged oiled up and intact, but I think I’ll stick to more high class places from now on…

Observations on Vietnam so far:
• There are people everywhere. I didn’t realize but it has the 13th highest population in the world at the moment… driving for hours between cities there isn’t a stretch of uninhabited countryside but people and markets all over the place.
• These people can get anything done on a scooter. In Vietnam there are more scooters than the population of Australia. Absolutely anything, from your entire family to a furniture collection, can be transported on the back of these buzzing two-wheelers, it’s actually super impressive
• The. Food. Is. So. Good.
• I haven’t done any research on it at all, but to my uneducated eyes it seems like women are doing alright here compared to other countries I’ve visited on this trip. Unlike India, the women here work and aren’t afraid to speak to you and wear what they like, and dads are seen looking after the kids as well as mums. As a true SCEGGS feminist I’m impressed!

Anyway, off to Hoi An for a few days. Keen to check out a new place but sad to leave the South… I’ll be back!

Spring rolls and snake wine,

PT

Making rice paper

Making rice paper

Locals on the Mekong?

Locals on the Mekong?

Floating market

Floating market

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Ho Chi Minh City

Good morning Vietnam!

It has been a crazy few days in Vietnam’s biggest city, and Saigon and me have gotten along really well. If the rest of Vietnam is this good then I’m seriously going to regret only having 3 weeks to spend here, we only had a limited time in Ho Chi Minh City and already I think it might be one of my favourite places!

After our overlong bus ride – six hours longer than the promised 13 hour trip – from Cambodia, we spent our first night in Ho Chi Minh clean and asleep in back alley near Phan Ngu Lao, the backpacker district of the city. Unfortunately the next morning disaster struck as my steadfast travel buddy Liv was struck down by the ultimate traveller’s woe: ILLNESS. We fought our way into an ear, nose and throat hospital accidentally before finally finding our way to a private clinic with pretty good English-speaking doctors, where she discovered a kidney stone! Obviously that sucked more than the third Shrek movie, but like the trooper she is Liv kicked on and we managed to have a productive afternoon being tourists.

We slurped up the first of many pho to refuel and then attacked the Reunification Palace, a kind of weird tourist attraction where former South Vietnamese Presidents used to live. It’s in a sort of airport-like 1960s building, surrounded by a pretty park and full of Lonely Planet-clutching tourists like ourselves. The coolest part of the palace were two enormous tanks standing just inside the grounds, which had famously been driven by the North Vietnamese communists through the iron gates in 1975.

We dragged ourselves through the stifling Saigon heat to attraction number two of the afternoon, the War Remnants Museum. Having covered the Vietnam War only briefly in school as part of our Cold War subject, I wasn’t fully aware of the horrific consequences of the war until I visited this museum… as in Cambodia regarding the Khmer Rouge, I was appalled at my own ignorance about this terrible period of history. There were so many devastating photographs and personal accounts of war crimes committed by predominantly American soldiers, I wanted to scream at every person in the museum that I wasn’t American and that I was so so sorry that they could have inflicted this on a country as beautiful as Vietnam. The worst part of the tour was definitely the room documenting the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical weapons used during the war… according to the museum 75g of the poisonous chemical dioxin could wipe out a city of 8 million people. During the Vietnam War the USA used 340kg of dioxin against Vietnam’s landscape and people. Three generations later, babies are still being born with debilitating defects because of Agent Orange and still no compensation has been provided by the states. The photos and preserved deformed fetuses made me disgusted with humanity’s capacity to be vicious and cruel.

After replenishing our depressed tummies with Vietnamese coffee (absolutely my favourite kind of coffee ever, never have I ever been so addicted), we reunited with some more galpals from back home and headed out for a few luxurious and luminescent cocktails at the rooftop bar of HCMC’s tallest building. The view was definitely worth the waaaaay over-budget bill at the end of the evening… this city is huge! It’s lit up at night like Times Square and makes me want to spend days and weeks and months here exploring.

Day two in Vietnam’s big apple began with poor Liv fighting her way through some really rough times, including an emergency Skype to a Sydney doctor and a few trips to the drug store. Leaving her with a pile of painkillers and a few episodes of gossip girl, I ventured out on foot to check out the Notre Dame Cathedral (it doesn’t look like the one in Paris), the post office which is in an awesome old colonial train station, and the biggest mosque in Saigon. Maybe because I’ve just spent time being awestruck by enormous mosques in India, but the mosque here was a bit of a let-down… the minarets were obsolete and it was hidden away behind a barbed wire fence. The best part about the day was taking in the smells and sounds of the city. Everyone here rides scooters, and if you want to keep your limbs you have to learn to be an active participant in the traffic. Every second step is someone selling cuts of dead chicken, or cups of iced coffee, or banh mi, or cigarettes or sunglasses or anything you can think of. There are SO many people shouting and running and talking at you, it’s overwhelming and exhilarating and I love it!

Finally to finish off in Ho Chi Minh, I went on an expedition to the Cu Chi tunnel network just outside the city. An immense network of over 200km of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war, the Americans went to ridiculous measures to try to ‘pacify’ the area. After tens of thousands of troops and accompanying sniffer dogs failed to locate the tunnels on ground, they sprayed chemical defoliants, gasoline and napalm serially… to no avail. There were massive US casualties from ‘tunnel rats’ sent down into the network, and then Cu Chi was declared a ‘free strike’ zone and pilots were told to drop unused bombs/chemicals on the area before returning to base. Still, the Viet Cong stayed put. It was only after a massive blanket bombing of B-52s that completely razed the area to the ground that the network was abandoned, two-thirds of its Vietnamese inhabitants dead. It was pretty incredible to see some of the real tunnels, only about as wide as a chessboard, where Vietnamese soldiers had lived for months on end. We were able to climb through 200m of real tunnel and I’ve never been so glad to not be obese, it was terrifying! Ten minutes in there was too long. I could write so much more about Cu Chi but no time unfortunately, wifi is precious!

Sorry for the whale of an update! HCMC has been super awesome, we’re hitting up the Mekong Delta tomorrow for a couple of days staying with a local family homestay – see you on the other side.

Tunnels and tanks,

PT

Vietnamese coffee

Vietnamese coffee

Cocktails on the rooftop

Cocktails on the rooftop

Tank outside the War Remnants Museum

Tank outside the War Remnants Museum

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Phnom Penh & Siem Reap

FAAAAANS (quote trilbs). So sorry it has been so long, the past week has been action-packed and now I’m going to have to combine two lengthy posts – both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – into one waste of your time. Enjoy..?

PHNOM PENH

Cambodia’s capital was undeniably a change from the laid-back, ‘anything goes’ lifestyle of Sihanoukville’s beaches, but to be honest I was excited to be thrown back into the rat race of city life.

First, we were reunited with an extra four members of the dream team: Zac, Liv, Harry and Angus. Us Super Seven (including Sal and Will) spent our first day in Phnom Penh having our eyes opened and hearts broken at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Before Pol Pot’s regime the imposing grey buildings we explored were a high school for aspiring young Cambodians. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge converted it into a prison for employees of the former government, intellectuals, or any potential enemies of the state. The desolate cells we walked through were furnished with menacing metal beds, and terrible pictures depicted the detention, atrocious torture and inhumane living conditions inflicted on the prisoners there between 1975 and 1979.

There were several shocking aspects of the museum. Some rooms were lined with mugshots of inmates, all with the same hopeless and starved expression on their face. The fact that we could look at the eyes of thousands of people who had died right there less than forty years ago was chilling. There were some more disturbing photos of people who had died during torture, or after a beating, or from starvation. The fact that the Khmer Rouge soldiers took the time to photograph and record these terrible deaths, and not the time to feed, clothe or wash these people, made us all feel sick. But one of the most shocking things was that before I started googling Cambodia in preparation for this trip, I had virtually no idea who or what Pol Pot was. A genocide of similar atrocity and scale (in terms of percentage of population killed) to the Holocaust, occurring during our parents’ lifetimes on Australia’s doorstep, and our school syllabus doesn’t even touch on it? I cannot comprehend how learning about each Australian Prime Minister is more important than acknowledging the millions of people who died in Cambodia in the 1970s. Throughout the regime, 17,000 men, women and children were kept in Prison S-21, where the museum was located. By the time Phnom Penh was liberated in 1979, seven were still alive.

The next day we tackled an even more depressing and wretched site, the Killing Fields of Chong Euk. This is where many of those tortured in Prison S-21 were sent for execution. An all-too-realistic audioguide walks you around the deceptively beautiful orchard, ending at a tall stupa filled with 9000 skulls and other bones. I don’t need to write any more to describe how devastating that was.

In between wandering markets, sampling street food and getting manhandled by club owners who were grumpy at us for stealing the VIP vodka, that was basically it for Phnom Penh. We hopped on a long bus to Siem Reap for chapter two of this long post…

SIEM REAP

Siem Reap is to Phnom Penh as Luang Prabang is to Vientiane: smaller, quieter, cuter. The main attraction of the town is, of course, Angkor Wat, so two out of the three days we had here were spent there.

A 20 minute tuktuk ride away from the city centre is a complex of ancient temples that look like something out of a video game. The famous Angkor Wat is just the tip of the iceberg; surrounding it are a whole bunch of equally (if not more) impressive stone temples. There are so many amazing things about the whole experience, it’s hard to describe it here so all I can say is get on a plane to Cambodia and get out here yourself. I think I could have spent even longer just wandering around the immense, abandoned sites and admiring the ornate carvings, intricate stonework, and sheer scale of the whole thing. Highlights were Ta Prohm, into which the forest had advanced a little more than the other temples and where Tomb Raider was filmed; Bat Chum, where we watched the sun set with cans of beer and not too many other tourists, and of course the postcard-worthy Angkor Wat – I came at sunrise and later in the day and it was perfect both times. I think my favourite temple would have to be the Bayon, where 216 serene and colossal carvings of faces stare down at pilgrims.

Siem Reap is pretty cool apart from Angkor Wat as well. We had a really fun night out having a dance party in the street between two clubs, swaying with the crowd to the side of the road that played the best music as each song changed. We ate fried cockroaches and some really good amok, and balanced buckets of vodka redbulls on our heads while telling German dudes we were Swedish.

I’m sad to leave Cambodia but super keen for the last three weeks of my trip in Vietnam! About to board a 13 hour bus to Ho Chi Minh… given the amount of sleep we’ve had in the past couple of days, I’m hoping I’ll just pass out but Cambodian road quality isn’t too helpful for a smooth ride.

This is getting a bit too incoherent so I’m going to let my struggling braincells rest up, but hola to you all and stay classy.

Wats and wodka,

PT

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

da boiz

da boiz

Bayon

Bayon

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Sihanoukville

On the southern coast of Cambodia, a bundle of boozy beaches clustered around a small town called Sihanoukville lays in wait for tired travellers after cheap drugs and a tan. To kill time over the busy Chinese New Year period, when internal travel in Southeast Asia is difficult, we spent five days bumming around here working on our melanin levels and gaining weight.

Notable moments: Taking a boat out to snorkel around empty islands, even though we didn’t see any fish it was really pretty and fun to spend a day at sea. Exploring surrounding beaches where we found night markets selling Mexican turquoise tarot readings and, (as always), cocktails. Eating really really well – women on the beach wander past with baskets of fruit on their heads or buckets of fresh baby squid to roast over their shoulders, and we even found decent Japanese food! Being mistaken for a Swede ten times a day was better than having ‘g’day mate’ shouted at you from across the road. And because of the heat, we spent one lazy day lying on couches in an air-conditioned room watching movies and chewing Haribo which was just what we needed.

We also spent a night at a cushioned bar chatting to the owner, who’s a character I won’t be forgetting in a hurry: Momo owns an absinthe bar and is so rich he’s almost definitely a drug lord. Included in his collection of cars is a Ford truck the size of a house (literally… the tyres are my height), a sports car with green sparkly stripes and a very loud motorbike. And those were just the ones that we saw! Definitely an interesting guy, but we were careful to stay away from ‘Momo’s special sheesha’ which included month-long marinated marijuana and other mysterious ingredients. The absinthe, supposedly an ‘experience’, could more accurately be described as ‘painful’… hopefully the closest I’ll ever get to pan-galactic gargle blasters and we definitely paid for it in the morning. Worth it for a fun night out with some new friends, but I am kind of glad it’s not legal in Oz.

It was also pretty hilarious observing the chaos that occurs around Chinese New Year. For a few days around the end of January and the beginning of February, conversations are frequently punctuated by the loud popping of firecrackers. People stop working and flock to the beach, and everyone swims in their clothes and a lifejacket. Serendipity Beach defied its name and was full to the brim with thousands of Cambodians swimming in jeans and shirts (?), floating in black rubber tubes, and consuming piles of prawns, crabs, squid, and whiskey. It made me really jealous! Compared to our one night celebration on NYE, which is always a let down anyway, Chinese New Year seems like a way better way to do it. Why stop the party after day one?

Sihanoukville has been a relaxed introduction to Cambodia but I think I’m ready to move on to the ‘real deal’… up next is Phnom Penh and then Siem Reap. While I’ve liked the laid back lifestyle and pharmacies where you can buy literally any drug you desire, from antibiotics to Ridolin and more (don’t worry mum we stuck to coconut oil and Beroccas), it’s time to dive back into travelling and stop holidaying.

Coconuts and conch shells,

PT

The beginnings of the Chinese New Year festivities on the beach

The beginnings of the Chinese New Year festivities on the beach

Pedicure on the sand... life's rough

Pedicure on the sand… life’s rough

SQUIDS

SQUIDS

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The Rest of Laos

We only had two short days in the small town of Vang Vieng, but I’m glad we made time for the stop. Reviews of this riverside community of bungalows and Australians are polarized: some call it paradise found, some reckon it’s a black hole of tourists and a waste of time. It’s hard to label Vang Vieng as either category in the time we were here, but I can see both perspectives.

It’s definitely less ‘authentic’ than Luang Prabang – everything is in English and falang roam the streets in hippy gear clutching nutella baguettes sold from dozens of roadside kiosks. But it has an even more beautiful setting. Luang Prabang was neatly framed between two rivers, but Vang Vieng has both the exquisite rivers and also some really weirdly stunning mountains. The riverside restaurants had 10/10 views and we woke up to a panorama skyline of lush mountains and a twisting river, which was pretty tops.

Activities for Vang Vieng included sitting in a field for six hours and discovering the meaning of life after some fungus-flavoured shakes, and escaping the city limits at high speed on dune buggys to admire a cobalt blue lagoon past a mountain village.

Another cramped six hour journey in a minivan delivered us to the Laos capital of Vientiane, where we had just over 24 hours. We’d been told that Vientiane wasn’t really worth seeing, so apart from an early morning stroll to a couple of wats, we didn’t do any sightseeing. Instead we took over the stereo of a rooftop bar, streamed the triple j hottest 100 and got slizzard by 2pm, Australia Day style. The slowest game of pool ever ensued, and after some failed bargaining over wallets in the night market and a little too much fried food we were in bed by 9pm ready for our flight the next day. Really you could say we were acting responsibly..?

Our stay in Laos has been too short; it’s definitely somewhere I’ll be coming back to. There is so much more to explore than the three short stops we made, and there’s also a lot to learn about the country. The tonal language looks and sounds cool, there was a lot of food I didn’t get to try, and the history is fascinating. Before I started looking into Laos I had no idea about the ‘Secret War’ waged by the USA during the 1960s-1970s. Laos is the single most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare. Between 1964 and 1973, 250-260 million bombs were dropped: a plane-load every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. It’s completely ridiculous that a piece of history this traumatic hadn’t even crossed my privileged Australian mind, but this is something that I’m learning more and more every country we go to: there is so much that I don’t know yet, there is so much more to learn. My family telling me stories about the atrocities committed in Ethiopia, and hearing more about Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, are all things that I had such minimal knowledge about before this trip. And that’s just two countries. There are hundreds of other histories and ideologies and events and tales of humanity that I probably will never know… it’s scary that thirteen years of a really good education could leave me so ill-equipped with world knowledge. Sure, I could probably solve a trigonometry problem if you asked me to, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the culture of Guatemala.

Anyway, about to board a flight to Phnom Penh and then we’re hopping straight on another bus to Sihanoukville for a few days of sand and sun. Cambodia here we come!

Beer and billiards,

PT

The 'blue lagoon'

The ‘blue lagoon’

Will and Alex on STRAYA day

Will and Alex on STRAYA day

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