Wednesday, November 22, 2006

On the rails again...

Yes, it's time for another one of these occasional updates. Again I've left it for a while before writing, so buckle up and prepare for another long one.

Looking back, last time I wrote was in Mui Ne, just before going on a sight-seeing trip with a local moto driver. The sights in this case centring largely around the local sand dunes, many of them a rather fetching dark-reddish colour. Good for the colourful pictures, bad for my calf muscles (I hate climbing up dunes) and laundry.

That evening I met up with an Irish girl and an English girl who were staying in the same resort as me, and who had been on the same bus up. After wandering up and down part of the beachfront strip (which goes for kms in Mui Ne) we found a place we all liked the look of and settled in for some munchies. After this, Debbie (the English girl) was feeling knackered and headed home, while Suzanne (Irish lass) and I headed on for another beer or so, ending up in a bar called Wax. Being right down by the beach, this offered the possibility of chilling out on beanbags, drinking beer and looking up at the stars, which is far from the worst way to spend some time.

Our contemplation of the heavens was disturbed somewhat, however, by the occupants of the neighbouring table, who were engaged in that backpacker staple drinking game, Ring of Fire. I'm sure I've covered this before, so I won't go over the rules now (for one thing, they're rather malleable). The upshot was that I was explaining to Suzanne how the game worked, and the players invited us to join them. Well, it would have been rude to decline, wouldn't it? End result, a certain amount of dumb hilarity and accidentally staying up until 3:30am. When I had to leave on the bus at 7:30am. Yes, the curse of Last Night in Town (and my own stupidity) struck again.

As might be imagined, my mood the next morning was less than entirely sunny, and deteriorated significantly once it became clear that I was once again to be treated to the joys of a SE Asian minibus. You've all heard the bitching before about this, so I won't go over it again, but just say that I spent several very uncomfortable hours trying to sleep while scrunched up in my allotted space. And then, joy of joys, we rendez-vous-d with a larger bus coming down from Nha Trang, were transferred to a comfortable, properly air-conditioned coach with space to spread out a little further, and the morning began to improve somewhat.

This was due in part to the greater level of comfort, and also to the fact that we started up the truly spectacular road up to Da Lat. Now, for those unfamiliar with Vietnamese geography, Da Lat was the first "hill-station" the French built in Indochina (as their colony incorporating Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was called) - similar to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia and once again notable for the high altitude (~1500m - so about a mile) and the cooler climate. In this case, that translated to "Pat doesn't sweat the whole damned time, and actually has to dig out a long-sleeved top".

For this reason, I was quite predisposed to like Da Lat. The gorgeous mountain scenery (especially on the road up the pass to the plateau) and the relative lack of heavy touting from the local merchants etc were definite points in its favour. The fact that it is known as the Vietnamese "capital of kitsch" perhaps wouldn't be such a good selling point. As it was, I arrived there fairly knackered, sorted out some stuff on the internet, attempted to back up my camera to CD before giving up in disgust, had a pleasant dinner at one of the restaurants on the hill overlooking the market and then took an early night.

The next day I had signed up to do a tour around the sights of Da Lat and the surrounding countryside with Quyen, one of the town's famous Easy Riders. These are an originally impromptu (now rather more organised) group of local motorbike driver/guides, all of them capable of speaking decent-to-good English, and all well-versed in the local history and other information. This makes them significantly more expensive than your average moto driver, but much better able to convey what you're seeing, rather than just driving around and muttering monosyllabic responses.

As it was, I had really quite a fun day with Quyen, taking in views over the valleys, the old railway station (the oldest in Indochina, but now sadly connected to pretty much nowhere), ana amazing pagoda with a giant dragon sculpture made out of old beer bottle fragments ("the drunken Dragon", Quyen proudly informed me, sealing my love for the beastie), a local ethnic-minority village known universally as the Chicken Village (due to the presence of a giant concrete chicken in the middle of it - as with many things in Vietnam, there is a local legend surrounding the meaning of this, which is rather vague on the subject of chickens but involves star-crossed lovers doing a bit of a Romeo & Juliet), some waterfalls, the Summer Palace of the last Emperor of Viet Nam (Bao Dai) and the ever-so-aptly-named Crazy House. This latter was designed by the ever-so-hippy daughter of Viet Nam's second President, who studied architecture in Moscow and, I can only assume, consumed some very strange substances whilst there, as the place is like something out of Disney on an acid trip.

After all this, I was hoping to have a chilled-out evening watching the Premier League matches on Saturday night, only to find that hardly anywhere in town was showing the football (an almost-unheard-of state of affairs in SE Asia). Eventually I found a place, where I was the only white face present and many of the occupants were drinking tea and playing backgammon or some version of Chess or Go or something - despite which, the commentary was on in English, and the proprietress was very loudly welcoming "Hey you! You come in! You sit here! What beer you want?", meaning that I got to see at least one game with quite a good atmosphere. After that, I went in search of some food, and then discovered that, even on a Saturday night, pretty much everywhere in Da Lat closed down around 10pm. Muttering at this ridiculous state of affairs, I went back to my room, caught what I could of the following game on the TV (unfortunately with Thai commentary - don't ask) and then crashed out, ahead of yet another early start.

Yes, the usual pattern here of buses leaving at 7:30am was alive and well and I was, as ever, cordially hating it. I dozed through a fair bit of the trip up to Nha Trang, keeping myself awake for the spectacular descent back down the pass but crashing out across the back seat once we were back on level ground again. Though, Vietnamese roads being what they are, this meant I came perilously close several times to levitating bodily off the seat - things aren't helped by a lack of damping in the suspension on most buses here either, or by my tendency to sit at the back, where there's slightly more legroom but any motion of the bus gets exaggerated by a see-saw effect.

Nha Trang is the beach-and-party capital of Vietnam, certainly as far as the tourist scene is concerned. Principal activites include lying on the beach, eating, drinking, swimming, SCUBA diving and taking boat trips to the surrounding islands which range from the fairly serious to the near-enough out-and-out booze cruises. Me being me, I obviously went for one of the latter, where a bunch of Aussies and Kiwis had their usual bad influence on me and got me started drinking around 10am, from where it all went in the predictable way. Highlights, if such they can be called, included the performance by the boat crew as an impromptu band, the "floating bar" (drifting along on a life-ring in the South China Sea, drinking dodgy Da Lat wine dispensed by one of the crew on a big float) and the heartfelt sing-song on the way home.

In and around this, I have briefly sampled the delights of the beach and made more new friends crawling between the various bars in town. I won't got into all the sodden details, but you can safely assume I've had quite a fun time. But now it's time to move on. I get the train (having decided that I really can't face another overnight bus journey) in a few hours up from here to Da Nang, the main port of central Viet Nam, from where I backtrack briefly to reach Hoi An, a UNESCO World-Heritage listed town (it was a prominent medieval seaport) and the home of Viet Nam's most famous tailoring industry. Yes, I get to go shopping. Which is all to the good, as I am now in desperate need of (amongst other things) new shoes, my latest pair of sandals having had an accident and now being held together only by the wonders of gaffer-tape.

All fun, fun, fun. And I'm about out of news here (plus even I've got bored getting all this written down, so I don't want to make it any worse for you lot when reading it!). And I need to get some food before getting the train.

So, it's adieu once again. Until next I commit crimes against the English language via keyboard, take care and have fun!


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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Good Morning Vietnam

Hello once more,

Hopefully I won't get as carried away on this mail as I did on the last, but you never can tell. [So much for good intentions...]

As the overtly cheesey subject line will tell you, I'm now in Viet Nam ("home of the Viet people in the South" would be a rough translation). I've actually been here for a week, but I never quite got around to writing until now, mostly because I've been having quite a good time.

Specifically, I had a good time in Saigon, which is probably currently my favourite of the various major cities in Asia I've been to - okay, the traffic is mad, and the street-vendors and moto-drivers touting for business can be a little irritating, but (at least those areas I've seen) it's kept clean, it's got quite a bit of greenery around, it's in a decent state of repair and it just has that little bit of a feeling of grandeur. And Pham Ngu Lau (the local backpacker ghetto) is a million miles nicer than the Banglamphu area around Khao San Rd in Bangkok, and light-years ahead of the Boeng Kak lake area in Phnom Penh. And for those who are wondering, the province it sits in is officially called Ho Chi Minh City, while the central district (District 1 of 22) is still called Sai Gon, and it is this which appears on all buses and trains etc. And I prefer Saigon to HCMC as a name, so that's what I'm using.

My first day or so there were basically spent acclimatising, doing necessary things like laundry, working out my next steps travelling, chilling out and, of course, sampling the local beers. Oh yes, that's another reason I like Viet Nam - the beer here is generally pretty good, and about as cheap as Laos (although I haven't encountered the famed bia hoi shops yet, I managed to get Can Tho beer for about 20p a bottle when I popped down to the Mekhong delta). Yes, that's another thing I did while there, I popped down to see a little more of the great river that I've been bumping into on and off for the last 6 weeks or so - in this case, the Mekhong is damned wide this far down its length, and has plenty of islands in it, so lots of boat trips and taking in various local industries (coconut candy factory, rice paper factory, etc - note that these are family-scale factories, not big industrial things). And almost getting locked out of my hotel in Can Tho, but I still maintain that it was not unreasonable of me to expect the door still to be open at 11pm when I returned from the internet cafe I was at...

The only real downside of the whole Mekhong trip was that, as in much of SE Asia, although all the tour cafes in Saigon sell these trips, there's only a few who operate them, so you tend to get farmed around and shuttled between all manner of minibuses as you go along, and the fact that you booked one good trip through a company does not in the slightest indicate anything else you book there will be the same level of quality. In this case, it partly worked in our favour, as the guy in the bus I got switched to halfway through the tour was a much more interesting guide with better language skills. It is all a bit disconcerting, though, and a pain if you're carrying your main pack with you and keep having to lug it on and off vehicles.

Whilst in town, I also took in the most popular sites which, in the case of Saigon itself, are the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The former was known as Independence Palace, and was the home and office of the Presidents of the Republic of Vietnam (aka South Vietnam or The Lackey Government of the American Imperialists) up until April 30 1975, when it fell to the National Liberation Front for Southern Vietnam (the NLF, more commonly known to history as the Viet Cong or VC). It's been preserved pretty much as it was then (which is to say, an extraordinary example of decent 60s architecture!), give or take the odd exhibition detailing the crimes of the South Vietnamese government and the American Interference in Vietnam (oh yes, and the tanks out the front, which are supposed to be the ones that broke in on that fateful day). As you may have gathered, most tourist sites here are fairly aggressive in following the Party line, which can be helpful for some people in providing an alternative view to the overwhelmingly American-centric one which we have been fed in the West, but which is also often extraordinarily one-eyed.

The latter trend is also visible in the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes Against the Vietnamese People. There is plenty here on the horrors of what the southern government and the Americans did, especially the use of Agent Orange and the like, and one of their key exhibits is about the treatment of VC prisoners in the prison on Cao Son island, yet there is (surprise, surprise) no mention of any atrocities carried out by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) or the VC. Still, there's also some fantastic war photography, which is made more poignant as it's almost all from photographers who died in the course of reporting the war. And to top off a fun day, after walking through town to get to the museums, I braced myself and took a moto ride back to Pham Nga Lau, which was just as much fun (and as occasionally terrifying) as I had expected - Vietnamese drivers go quite a bit faster than Cambodian ones, though there are at least more traffic lights in Saigon than in Phnom Penh.

My final day in Saigon was another one on tour, in this case the obligatory visit to the Vietnam-war era Cu Chi tunnels (or what's left of them). This extraordinary feat of human endeavour and engineering consisted of up to 220km of tunnels, running from the mountains where the supply lines of the Ho Chi Minh trail came to an end, through the villages of the staunchly Communist Cu Chi district, down to within about 30km of Saigon itself. However, not much of them survived the war, as the Americans and South Vietnamese, having failed to get rid of the tunnels any other way, turned the area into a "free fire zone" and lobbed artillery shells and dropped bombs all over the area to try and collapse as much of the tunnels as possible. Apparently, any aircraft returning to Saigon from bombing missions with ordnance left over were under instructions to drop it in the Cu Chi area.

What remains now has mostly been re-excavated for tourists (primarily domestic), and hence is not fully authentic. The bunkers are not underground but are shown dug into the ground, with thatched roofs over the top, and the tunnels that have been cleared are about twice the size they originally were - I'm not sure of the dynamics on this, but apparently thinner tunnels were much less likely to collapse than wider ones, so much of the original network was only 80cm by 60cm. Having nearly had a claustrophobia attack just from going 30m or so through the extra-large-for-tourists section they have there, I don't know how on earth the VC fighters put up with doing that for years. By the time the war ended, most of the surface villages and much of the ground cover were gone (victims of explosives and defoliants) and the inhabitants were pretty much all living in these tunnels below the ground. And it was a bloody struggle - of around 16,000 combatants in the Cu Chi area, apparently only about 4,000 survived to see the end of the war. As well as the tunnels, there were also demonstrations of various of the traps that the VC used to slow down and hurt Americans pursuing them in the area, and a shooting gallery, where visitors get the chance to try firing an AK-47 or M-16 rifle, or even an M-60 machine-gun. I chose not to do so, partly because I couldn't really justify the cost, but mostly because even from a distance away it was absolutely deafening. It makes me so glad we don't have conscription in the UK, as I'd have been an utter mess (and probably deaf) if I'd had to learn to use a gun.

As an aside, the day trip to Cu Chi also included a visit to the Holy See of the Cao Dai religion, an extraordinary mix of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Catholicism, which is indigenous to Viet Nam, was started in the 1920s, and whose central tenets were apparently revealed in seances. Sounds wacky? Well, it is, just a bit. Particularly when the three principal "saints" are proclaimed to be a Vietnamese medieval poet, the Chinese revolutionary nationalist Dr Sun Yat Sen, and the French author Victor Hugo. And the temples are possibly the most garish places of worship I've ever seen (even more so than Hindu ones). Oh, and the symbol of the religion is the "All-Seeing Eye", except that in this case it appears to have an eyebrow as well. Really quite bizarre, but it was interesting to see some of the ceremonies of a comparatively "young" religion.

Anyways, after 5 nights in Saigon (and one down in Can Tho), it was time to move on, so yesterday I came up to Mui Ne beach, about 4 or 5 hours from Saigon, which is stunningly beautiful and apparently one of the best spots for wind- and kite-surfing in SE Asia. Having experienced the gusts yesterday afternoon down on the beach, and seen the resident wind-junkies doing their thing out on the waves, I can believe it. I'm off to see some sand dunes this arvo (and possibly slide down them as well), and then tomorrow I head on up to the old French hill-station of Dalat, the capital of kitsch in Viet Nam. I can scarcely wait.

So, until next I write, I hope you are all well. Take care and have fun,


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Monday, November 06, 2006

Temples, fireworks and an awful lot of people...

[Warning! Pat has got carried away again writing this entry, so don't start reading it unless you have a while on your hands]
Hello again. Time for another instalment of "What I Did On My Holidays". The topic for this session is Cambodia.
So, I last wrote from Sihanoukville, where I had been busily doing bugger-all on the beach. Suffice to say that I continued that trend pretty much up to the point I left there last Wednesday - the only thing I did that didn't revolve around doing not very much was getting my visa for Vietnam, which I am still amazed that the consulate there processed in about 10 minutes flat. Other than that, much time was spent with my semi-regular drinking buddies there at the Dolphin Shack, and a most amusing night was had on Hallowe'en. Certain amount of ingenuity went into some of the costumes (and others were really scary, just not in a Hallowe'en-y way...), the beer was flowing and a dumb, fun night was had by all and sundry.
As a result of this, a less fun day was had by yours truly the following day when I headed up to Siem Reap. This involved a four-hour bus trip to Phnom Penh, 20 minutes sitting around being offered bottles of water, baguettes, fake watches and people's first-born children to buy (actually, I may have made the last one up), and then 6 more hours on the road up to Siem Reap, a trip enlivened by the poor Khmer (Cambodian) kid next to me getting travel-sick and throwing up on the floor. Which was another first for me on this trip, albeit one I could happily have lived without.
In Siem Reap, I negotiated my way through the usual throng of motorbike touts (enlivened in Cambodia by the addition of a little trailer/chariot behind many of them, causing them to call themselves "tuk-tuks", in homage to the infamous Thai transport), differentiated this time by the fact that they weren't trying to fob you off on some guesthouse that paid high commission, but were instead trying to get you to sign up with them as your transport up to the temples of Angkor the next day. Yes, Siem Reap, for those who didn't already know, is the base town for visiting the incredible complex of temples and other monumental buildings that were for many centuries the capital of the Khmer Empire. Adopting what is fast becoming my standard practice, I went with one of the guys who harassed and yelled at me the least, taking great pleasure at the looks of anguish on the noisiest ones' faces as they whined that "they talked to me first".
As a result of this, I ended up with a driver named Taea, who was to be my means of transport for the next couple of days. My first night in Siem Reap being pretty uneventul (nice if slightly expensive Khmer food, couple of drinks at Angkor What? bar, early night), the next day I started out on the exploration of Angkor. Slightly surprisingly, Taea suggested skipping Angkor Wat itself that first day and going around the so-called "Little Tour" of some of the other temples, so I took in the delights of the Bayon and Angkor Thom, Thommanon, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Srah Srong and Pravat Sashan. Let's just say that by the end of that day I was far more familiar with Hindu religious architectural features and sculptures than I had been before.
This day also introduced me to the phenomenon of the local inhabitants of the area around Angkor, who run little stalls outside every single temple and will greet any new foreigner arriving with "Hey mistaaaaah, you wan' col' drink?/T-shirt?/guide-book?/souvenir?". In areas with a large concentration of stalls, this can result in an awful symphony of squawking the minute a westerner appears. In the case of many of the little kids the equivalent phrase is "Mistaah, you buy pos'card? 10 for 1 dollaaah. You buy?", any refusal to purchase usually followed by displays of an ability to count up to 10 in about 6 different languages and further entreaties of "You buy?". Further refusals will then occasion "Hey mistaah, where you from?". Providing the response "England" will then lead to being informed that the capital city is London, possibly followed by further trivia facts (one kid by Angkor Wat was a veritable walking geography lesson), and then by the exclamation of "Luvverly-jubberly! Top Banana!". The kids are adorable, but after a while you do start to wish they understood that "No thankyou" does not mean "Please continue to attempt to get me to buy your wares". Anyways, rant over.
The heavy haze (apparently due partly to forest fires) meant that the sunset was looking set to be utter shite, so we headed back into town soon after five, whereupon I had a pleasant early dinner at a place called Tell (the first German/Austrian/Swiss restaurant I can remember ever going to, and certainly the first one on this trip!) and then an extraordinarily early night, ahead of one of the Must-Dos of Angkor: sunrise at Angkor Wat itself. The only downside of this being that it entails awakening at the unfeasibly early hour of 5am, which, as most of you know, is something I am not normally predisposed to do (you're more likely to see me still OUT at 5am than getting up then).
I did it, though, and, even in spite of the hordes of tourists (mostly Asian package tourists from Japan/Korea/China etc) it was a truly majestic sight (and good for a few photos). Angkor Wat was also by far the most interesting of the temples to look around, seeing as how it has been maintained in much better form due to its continued use down the years - climbing around an extant building is much more satisfying for me than scrambling around a ruin trying to imagine what it's supposed to look like. This point was reinforced by the remaining ruins I saw that day, which were interesting enough but something of an anticlimax after The Big One, and by the end of the day I was pretty much "templed-out" (this appears to be far from an uncommon complaint), so I paid off my disappointed driver Taea (who had been hoping for another day's work out of me) and headed out for a celebratory dinner and a few beers.
Again, true to form, this evolved into "rather a lot of beers" thanks to a couple of American lads from my guesthouse, a couple of English girls we met in the Dead Fish restaurant (undeniably the weirdest place I have ever eaten - crossing a crocodile pit to get to the toilets, for pity's sake?) and, to top it all off, bumping into Marieke and Caroline again, my two Dutch friends from northern Laos. Cue me wandering home at some silly hour of the morning (patiently responding to every hail from a street-corner that No, I did not in fact want a tuk-tuk, nor did I want ganja, boom-boom or a ride tomorrow if these were offered), then sleeping in until around lunchtime.
That brings us onto Saturday, which was the first day of the 3-day Water Festival here in Cambodia. Now, I had read a little about this in my guidebooks etc, but had not realised quite what a big deal it is. Which is to say, it's a major national holiday involving everyone heading down to the rivers to watch dragon-boat racing, eat, drink, watch fireworks, eat some more, drink some more, etc. In Siem Reap this took the form of half the town crowded along the eponymous river while pairs of boats faced off in races. Here was one time when being a six-foot barang (foreigner - literally a Frenchman, but used for most foreigners) came in rather handy, as I could happily peer straight over the heads of several rows of people in front of me and, indeed, get photos from nearly the back of the crowd. So far so good. The intimation that the Water Festival might not be unalloyed good news for me was, however, broached that night by some of the ex-pats I met in town when I mentioned that I was heading to Phnom Penh the next day (= Sunday, yesterday) - namely, that everyone and their dog from all over Cambodia would similarly be heading for the capital and it might be a wee bit crowded.
Confident as ever (and having already invested in my bus ticket), I ploughed on with my original plan, meaning I staggered out of bed late morning and got my stuff ready in time for the 1230 bus. This necessitated being picked up by a shuttle bus in town at 1130, and then spending the best part of an hour weaving through crazy traffic in Siem Reap as it made more pickups for the trip. This maybe could have warned me. The idea that it might not be entirely my day could then have been reinforced by the blown tire suffered by the bus (although this had the mitigating factor of watching a bunch of Cambodians doing their best pit-crew impressions whilst changing the wheel at the next mechanic's we got to). Despite this, my reaction on arrival at our final destination was fairly happy - it was earlier than I'd expected, given our tire problems.
This good feeling evaporated somewhat upon finding that we were not, in fact, in Phnom Penh. Due to the Water Festival, buses aren't allowed into the city at the moment. So we were still umpteen kilometres out of town, as one of the more polite, restrained and helpful tuk-tuk drivers I've encountered explained to us. I ended up sharing a tuk-tuk with a fellow Englishman, a doctor named Robert who was on temporary locum with a clinic in town, and we got the benefits of seeing the fireworks (which both of us found amusingly appropriate on November 5th) as we chugged our way along through the traffic in towards town. Apart from the worrying noises made by the gear-chain of the tuk-tuk any time it encountered such difficulties as a mild slope or patch of sand, all seemed to be going well until we made it to the bridge over the Tonle Sap river into town. And then we hit the crowds.
These were big crowds. Hundreds of thousands of people down by the waterfront in Phnom Penh. Many of them having come via moto (as you may be aware, balancing anything up to an entire extended family on a single 110cc motorbike is something of an art-form in SE Asia), and most of whom were now starting to head back to the rest of town after the fireworks. Meaning lots of motos and lots of people trying to get to motos. Oh yes, and Phnom Penh has hardly any traffic-lights. The traffic at junctions works largely on the basis of sounding your horn loudly and then making your way across as swiftly as you feel confident in doing, weaving around anything that gets in your way, and giving way to whatever happens to be bigger than you.
This is mad enough in normal circumstances, but when dealing with the Water Festival crowds it can get ridiculous. Hence, we made okay time getting down from the bridge to the clinic where Robert got dropped off, and were still doing alright until we reached the boulevard across which lay my guesthouse. Unfortunately, like any other major road, this had become a major exit point for anyone walking, driving or riding their way away from the river. Even more unfortunately, there were also numerous little food/drink carts still set up by the side of this road down which a tide of humanity was flowing. To cap it off, though, at the junction of Pasteur Rd and Sihanouk Boulevard, there were solid tides of people attempting to get through on foot, on bike, on motorbike and in vehicles from ALL FOUR directions AT ONCE.
The result? Gridlock. Nothing on more than 2 wheels was moving at all, and those were barely inching their way through the crowd. In the end, I abandoned my tuk-tuk steed there and set off to walk the approximately 100-150m which separated me from my destination. The crowd was still moving at this point, so I figured it would maybe take me 5 or at most 10 minutes. This would prove to be a bad estimate of timing right up there with "Don't worry, chaps, the war will all be over by Christmas". As I inched closer to the junction, the press of humanity went from tight to solid, exacerbated by the presence of numerous bikes and motos whose handle-bars (and, in the latter case, uncomfortably warm exhausts) had to be negotiated by the crowd and which, along with the food stalls and various stuck cars, led the whole crowd through ridiculously narrow choke-points. All of this while burdened with my main pack on my back and my day pack on my front, in temperatures which, despite being after dark, were probably still in the high 20s. Hence, the Khmers around me started off grinning, yelling "Hello" (especially the kids) and asking me how I was enjoying this, and finished up very worried at the presence of an enormous, obviously distressed foreigner who appeared to be sweating in quantities fit to float a dragon-boat. In the end, it took me half an hour to reach my guesthouse. And that's one half hour of my life I could do without ever experiencing again.
Given that the entire neighbourhood was log-jammed, I took the decision to stay and eat and drink in the Top Banana guesthouse (the kids at Angkor would probably have approved of that name), getting to know my new fellow guests. And yes, again this somehow conspired to have me staggering off to bed around 3am, hence today I have managed to back up my camera, walk down to the river to see up close the madness that is the Water Festival (and end up accidentally right next to the security cordon near the main pavilion, such that I was treated to seeing the arrival of the ambassadors from Germany, Japan, Brunei and North Korea among others, along with various bigwigs from the local government - I couldn't help noting that the Cambodian equivalent of the Secret Service appear to have quite natty taste in ties...), head back to my guesthouse while the streets are still passable, eat a ridiculous quantity of Indian food and write this utter monster of an e-mail.
So, there we are. I'm off to Vietnam on Thursday if all goes to plan, my last country en route back to dear, soggy old Blighty. 32 more days on the road and counting.
Hope all's well with all of you, wherever you are! Take care and have fun,

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