Thursday, January 19, 2006

Ankor Wat - I Have Become a Walking $

Here's the happy couple in front of Ankor Wat...we hired a guide for a few days who not only gave us some historical perspective, but knew where all the "money shots" were. Guides make great photography companions.

If you can't tell, Cambodia was hot...much of the water was evaporating right before our eyes.

This is what happens if you don't clean your room for 1,000 years...

This is Jenny and I in front of Ankor Wat, a very interesting place in Cambodia to explore the ruins of the ancient Ankor civilization. After hearing from many people that this is an amazing place to explore, I was expecting a let-down. This happenend when I was the last one of my friends to see the first Batman the time I saw it, I had heard how great it was...only to be let down. Both Ankor Wat and the Taj Mahal are two places that were amazing and neither could be further from an over-hyped "let down". Ankor Wat is only one temple (Wat means temple for those of you actually paying attention) that makes up the entire area known as Ankor Wat and there are many other ruins scattered about around the 40 square mile area. We visited the region for 3 days and say the sun rise and set several times over the temples, truly a tranquil experience.

Regardless of how cool this place is, what this picture doesn't show is that we had become walking "dollar signs" at this point in our vacation. In all reality, this phenomenon started the day we arrived in India several months ago, but I think that I was just in a state of denial. Everywhere we go people approach us asking us the standard opener, "Where you from?". You see, they ask you the open to get your attention and to size you to see how big your wallet might be. People all over the world's impression of America comes from movies and TV...they think our country is entirely like Desperate Housewives. Well, I suppose that is true in some areas. However, all foreigners know that Ausies don't tip, Brits are cheap and Americans use dollar bills for toilet paper...we are truly walking $ signs. Well, after changing between New York or America, I decided to switch it up and use Canada (especially in Vietnam) for my response. Australia was helpful since all the Asians think they're cheap. My personal favorite became "our hotel"...this shut them up. When I was really bored, I just answered "No Engrish". No matter what our response was everyone wanted to sell us was hard to escape since we quite simply stuck out like sore thumbs.

For those of you needing a visual, think back to the Bugs Bunny episode where two friends were stuck on a deserted island only to find Bugs as the only source of food. However, after many failed attempts at catching my fuzzy hero to make tasty rabbit stew, the two guys had given up. By the end, the two friends began to drool and the tall skinny guy looked like a hot-dog to the other and the stockier guy became the hamurger to the skinny guy. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, please move on.

Regardless of our new slogan, I grew increasingly tired of everyone trying to suck more money out of me and was becoming a bit impatient. Everywhere we went, things were grossly inflated given our tourist status and I had to bargain for everything. You have to realize that due to extensive inflation over the past 20 years, the exchange rates for most of Southeast Asia is absurd. Thailand was the best at only 4,000 Baht to the dollar, but Laos was the craziest at 40,000 Kip (prounounced keep) to the dollar...yes, a Coke is roughly 30,000 Kip if you properly bargain, otherwise, you're talking about 80,000 Kip. I was finding myself arguing over several thousand Dong (Vietnam) only to have to put things back into perspective.

I was a bit disappointed to find out that the entrance fee to Ankor Wat was $25 per person for a three day pass. Now, it was well worth it and it's still a hell of alot cheaper than a day at Disney World (you hear that Bob Iger), but I'd be surprised if the Cambodian government actually spends 1% of the fee for the upkeep of the site or to the people that live there. Unfortunately, the governments in Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam for that matter are extremely corrupt. I can write this since I am typing this in the free republic of Australia...I am proud to say that there is NO corruption in the United States (in case U.S. immigration gets a hold of this -- we plan to come home some day!). And as such, much of the entrance fees for many of the state controlled tourist sites go directly to someone's pocket. You have to remember that the $25 entrance fee for Ankor Wat is more than a month's salary for the average Cambodian (this is not an exaggeration). Most of the upkeep costs are almost purely labor costs...of which are very low. Even more strange is that many other countries have taken certain temples within the Ankor Wat complex and "adopted" them in good faith for restoration and maintenance which includes both money and manpower. So where does the money go? You get the idea. Same Same, But Different!

So, I mentioned that I had gotten a bit irratated and have to admit that I got in a few fights that I wasn't actually proud of. The first was in Northern Thailand with a Tuk-Tuk driver (motorized rick-shaw) that was trying to charge me $5 for waiting time as Jenny and I took our time at a store. Now, this trip of ours cost 30 cents for the 20 minutes to get there...but to have him wait a half hour was $5?? Not to mention that the shortage of tourists meant that they were begging for our business. This became a nice little fight..but I have to admit, I am bigger than most people in Asia. I can't that this is the case everywhere, but in Asia, I can safely say that I can kick some major ass (I'm still not sure what happened to Gene). Another time, I got in a fight with a laundry person that was charging us double than what we discussed since the clothes was ironed. It's the silly things like this that was really starting to get on my nerves. Oh, one more involved

Regardless, bargaining became a sport and a way of life for our time in Southeast Asia. Sometimes I would start bargaining with someone just to see how low I can get them just for the pure entertainment value. If someone caught me looking at something and offered me a price, off I went to play my game -- my goal was to get half price. Even if I had no intention of walking off with the marble chess set, the mother of pearl chopstick set or the bamboo hat, it became a contest. Most of the time I was able to get the half price or better bogey. If I really wanted to win the battle, the key is just to simply walk away. That is the key...always be willing to walk away. As soon as you do, the price drops to the floor. Anyway, while arguing over a few dollars doesn't sound like much, it is a matter of principal given how far the money actually goes. Tourists are taken advantage of and overcharged for everything and you have to be aggressive no matter what you buy. I used to think that my dad was the king of bargaining, but after spending the past few months in India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos an Cambodia, sorry Dad, I'm the new king!

After Cambodia, we spent a few days in Koh Samui, an island off of Thailand where we simply relaxed. I got my PADI Open Water Scuba Diver certification and had a few nice dives while there. This will come in handy at the Great Barrier Reef in a few weeks...also Fiji and Jamaica for that matter. I really enjoyed the peace and quiet and the feeling of flying under the water and staring at all sorts of cool things. I've always had a fish tank growing up, but now I can swim in the tank. This was also to be our last few days in Southeast Asia. I have to admit that the region was truly an amazing experience and we really had a wonderful time. The food was great (I am an addict), the people were nice (despite my prior comments) and the scenary was spectacular. I can't say that any one place was better than the other since tehy were all so much different. My one regret is our decision to skip China on this trip since it was much colder that far north (although Hanoi was a bit frosty). We decided to leave it for another time....hopefully soon.

So long for now...we're heading Down Under.


PS - I'm up 7 games on Jenny in our Backgammon tournament...I don't think she has what it takes to recover.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Chuc Muong Nam Moi -- Happy New Year!!

We got to Hanoi in Northern Vietnam just a day before New Year's Eve and boy was I ready to celebrate! I was finally feeling better after some "stomach problems" that had been nagging me since India. The first thing that we had to do was learn how to cross the street in this country. You see, the entire culture that had grown up on bicycles has been converted to motorbikes. I wouldn't call them much more than a moped since they carry a whopping 125 cc's (compares to my 1200 cc bike). Anyway, they still ride them like they would a bicycle, but faster. What do i mean? They are everywhere and no one abides by any real sort of traffic rules. Red lights are merely a fashion statement, so watching a busy intersection reminds me of the ant episode of the Discovery Channel. Do you wanna know the best way to cross the street in Vietnam...just go and assume people will avoid you. It is kind of scary at first, but then you can get used to it by avoiding the single most important thing my mother taught me as a child. The key is to not look either way before crossing a street. It works here. And beside this was nothing compared to India we wouldn't dare even try to cross the street.So, we spent a few days in Hanoi checking out the city and had an Aussie New Year since the country is full of Aussie tourists. We have mulitple offers for people to take us around Australia once we get there in a few weeks. The entire government and culture is fixated on the life on Ho Chi Minh (aka Uncle Ho). Every town has a Uncle Ho Museum, but nothing was as strange as visiting his mauseleum. We walked into this large building with no windows that had the air conditioning on full blast. Many Vietnamese soldiers were present and kept the crowd moving in an orderly 2x2 fashion. Hands out of pockets and at your side. Once we came around the corner we see Uncle Ho live and in the flesh. They embalmed his body after he died (almost 30 years ago or something) and have it on display for all to see. Apparently, they feel that young Vietnamese that did not live during Ho's lifetime must be able to see his dead body to be able to respect his achievement. I guess putting his picture on every coin, bill and billboard wasn't enough. I'm not sure if hte people love the man, or the governmentt wants the people to...either way, seeing this dead man's lifeless body was a bit over hte top. Lenin doesn't even have his "plasticized"body on display, but then again, Lenin wasn't able to re-unite a country that had been under foreign occupation since the dawn of time (China, French, Japan, French and they would add the U.S. in this list).

After a few days in Hanoi, we spent a few days on a Chinese "junk" boat tooling around Halong Bay, about 3 hours from Hanoi. It was very relaxing and just amazing scenery (see above). We had great weather and wished that we could spend a few more days of sunshine and pampering. Unfortunately, we had to leave the North for a few dreary and dark days in Hue, the site of the Tet Offensive and a good place to tour the DMZ Zone and the rest of the American War (as they call it). There wasn’t too much left to see from the war since the government attempted to erase all history shortly after reunification in 1973. However, over the Vietnamese government has recently realized they are dollars to be made from tourist looking for a bit of history. There were some newly constructed museums and monuments, but really takes a bit of the ’ole imagination to really understand. We spent a day visiting sights like Khe San, Quan Tri, the DMZ Zone and Voc Minh tunnel systems used by the North on the other side of the DMZ. We also spent some time on the Ho Chi Minh Trail as we visited some out of the way military cemetery that went on for miles. The area is still littered with craters left from the massive bombings that took place here and much of the area is still contaminated with land mines and nasty chemicals that stunts vegetation growth.

It was interesting to get the other perspective of the war, but it was too over the top and the propaganda was so skewed that it was almost comical. Not that I agree with the Vietnam War and our meddling (or today’s Iraqi version), but in our history books, we skipped over the part where the U.S. invaded Vietnam to begin a massive colonization of Indo-China (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam). This in turn would lead next to the colonization of China…and so on. An example of some text would start like this: “The Imperialist U.S. government, in an attempt to enslave and colonize the Vietnamese people, landed in our great nation just as the reunification of our glorious comrades was to take place…” I really can’t do it justice, but after spending some time in the country, you really get a sense that the anti-American propaganda was used to re-unite the people (North and South) using some evil scapegoat. There were so many historical sites that were also destroyed in the war and many times were heard “this too was destroyed by the Americans”. No doubt we had some big guns blowing shit up everywhere…

Interestingly, there were many places that we saw downed U.S. aircraft (helicopters, planes, etc) as well as rusting military gear (guns, uniforms, shovels, packs, etc). There were also some people selling old war junk that included some old medals and even some American dog-tags. I read a few and almost wanted to take them home with me to reunite them with the fallen soldier’s family. It was tough enough to see the rusted junk, but seeing people’s names, hometown, religion, etc etched into the metal, it really made the event much more personal. Regardless, it was good to see all the war time stuff and get a sense of what the soldiers went through during the dark years of our country. Much of the heaviest fighting took place along the Ho Chi Minh trail that is basically thick jungle and relatively mountainous. I can’t imagine that our troops were even remotely prepared to fight this type of battle. The Vietnamese clearly used this to their advantage.

After a depressing few days, we went to Hoi An, a charming French colonial village that is well known for the tailors. They can make and copy anything from scratch and have it ready in a few hours. Luckily I was able to get a few pairs of boxers made since I lost a few in Hanoi. All I did was pick out the fabric and after some careful measuring, new underwear. This was comforting since the only replacement I was able to find at this point wasn’t exactly comfortable…who the hell still wear’s tight underwear? And to boot, Asians are small people…am I really an XXL? Don’t answer that. Since it was raining, we got creative and bought a few things. Jenny picked up a beautiful dress and a few tops while I was able to get a couple of shirts and pants made up. They can make anything as long as they have the right fabric. Hoi An was a good change of pace and we really enjoyed the town’s people, food and French colonial architecture. Lastly, we visited the hustle and bustle of Saigon, the largest city in Vietnam. It was pretty much as expected and took in a tour of the Mekong Delta. While the tour wasn’t too exciting we met some a couple from New York that recently graduated from college that are doing a similar tour to ours. After a night out with them at the local bowling alley (bowling is HUGE in Vietnam), I was feeling a bit old.

Anyway, after seeing so many images (albeit, one sided) I still can’t help to somewhat sympathize with the people of Vietnam who fought for so many years against the Chinese, French, the Americans and in their own civil war to re-unite its people in the eyes of Ho Chi Minh. Seeing the many places around the country (Danang, Saigon, Mekong Delta, Hoi An, etc) I realized the extent of the war was so far-stretched across the country and extremely brutal (on both ends).
Again all this made me think many times of what is going on in today’s Iraq situation…I guess history repeats itself.