The trip down Vietnam with intrepid travel was awesome, totally recommend it. Our guide Bee was so super organised that I could completely relax and switch off from “teacher mode” which I was tempted to go into when we were losing people in the thai jungle!
However, we unfortunately got a rather stressed out australian guide to go across Cambodia. The other guides up until now had been all locals and could easily get passed any problems. That’s something I would definately recommend checking on before you travel with a tour group, whether the guide has lived (or better still grew up) in that area.
Here’s the group email I sent around at the time…
“I think the last time i wrote to everyone i was half way down Vietnam, well i’m now back in Bangkok, having gone through Saigon and then Cambodia! Our luck with the weather ran out on the flight to Saigon (or Hoi Chi Ming City-not used so much as it’s a bit of a mouthful!). Just as we were about to land there was a sudden storm. Instead of circling around or landing elsewhere, our pilot decided to fly all the way back to Danang! Once we got back there, he thought we’d try the whole flight again! We were starving at the time, but Pacific airlines only serve cups of water (they seem to be the vietnamese equivalent of Ryanair)-we did get 2 though because we did the flight twice!
Saigon is a busy city and the traffic is just as crazy as in Hanoi. Had another tour in a cyclo, then stopped at the war remnants musuem (previously called the war crimes musuem, and that’s what it was really). Saw some really horrific, saddening and sickening things that happened in the Vietnam war. It basically told us in detail of the war crimes commited by America in the vietnam war. If I wasn’t already anti-american this would have convinced me. It was sad, sickening and made me really angry. Particularly the fact that the american soliders who used agent orange have been compensated for any side effects they have since suffered, but the people they sprayed it on in their thousands from helicopters and whose lives have been totally destroyed have received nothing! We had met 3rd generations affected, born blind and without limbs, so it brought it home that much more. Then as a ‘balance’ perhaps, went to see the tunnels that Viet Cong used to escape and hide from the US. One of the tunnels could be visited, and despite it having been enlarged for western tourists it was really claustrophic, we had to scramble through on hands and knees.
On the last day of the vietnam tour, our tour leader Dzung took us out to his favourite bar! It had a phillipino band, in eighties costumes, playing rock ballards! His other music of choice is Celine Dion, so i think we got off lightly. When we got back to the hotel, we decided to get a few drinks in and get over the shock of the bar. So we bought some from the little lady on the street outside. She got out some tiny plastic chairs (surely only safe for very young children) and we joined her on the street for a drink, we called Dzung down from his room (i think at first he was a bit disappointed that we’d left his bar for this, but was pleased to see we wanted a more vietnamese experience). Had a real laugh and didn’t leave until the early hours. The next day, I went to see the palace, the guide there kept talking about how beautiful it was, but actually it was from the 1970s style, complete with mini bar, dance floor and helipad!
Next was Cambodia, long journeys on bus and boat before arriving at Phnomn Penh. Totally different feel to it in comparison to Vietnam, the people are poorer, prices however are higher because they round it all up to dollars, and I didn’t feel as safe walking on the streets. They do have a very impressive Royal Palace, with lots of bling, but the poverty of this country is evident everywhere, lots of beggars, mainly small children. 50% of the population is under 17 years old!
Went to the Genocide museum, an old school that had been used by the Khymer Rouge in the 70s, were shown around by a local guide who had a lot of very distressing information, he knew some people who had actually escaped (only 7 managed it) so had a good insight into what it was like and he himself had been taken from his family at the age of 5 and put into a training school to become a solider for Pol Pot (but as he was only 9 when it closed he didn’t actually work as a solider-you started action when you were 10!). We learnt all about the horrific tortures and killings between 1975 and 1979, when Pol Pot tried to (pretty successfully) wipe out all the educated people so that he could rule a strict communist peasant state. It was all very sad. Also the fact that his soliders who did these terrible things were aged between 10 and 20 was depressing. It was a very distressing and emotional day, as we then went to see the killing fields afterwards, with all the mass graves. Awful. And our government supported Pol Pot when Vietnam then invaded in the 80s. We gave him a seat in the UN until 1991, even though he had brutally killed 3 million of his own people (often buried while still alive). For some reason the western world thought that his brand of communism was preferable to the vietnamese version! Can’t really understand that. Felt quite emotionally drained that day and not up for bargaining at the markets, so went for a full body massage by a blind man! It was great, really relaxing.
Next we went to Siam Reap and saw all the beautiful temples. Saw lots of different ones, all stunning. One temple dedicated to ladies, that glowed pink in the dusky light (Cambodians believe that the first being on earth was female), and one that was covered in trees and jungle. Got up early one day and watched the sun rise over the huge Angkor Wat, then for my birthday, climbed up a hill and then up another temple to watch the sun set. Brilliant! They were preparing for the water festival, so the town was covered with little fairy lights and I could pretend that it was all for my benefit while looking out and sipping on my bucket of cocktail!
Am now back in Bangkok, having taken the easy option to fly from Siam Reap, thanks to advice from Jon about how crappy the road was. Most of the rest of the group chose the road trip, and unfortunately we’ve heard they got into some dispute with a nasty cop and 2 had to go to hospital-haven’t heard any more yet. Am staying right near the backpacker road so there’s plenty to do, but i might go somewhere else as i have seen some of the sights of Bangkok already.”