Ok, so this is embarrassing - I have a blog that has not yet been updated...oops. I've been a tad busier than I thought I would be, and internet access has been limited and/or slow. I think it's also down to sheer laziness, but that's forgiveable since we've been on the move such a lot and getting used to new countries (3 in the space of a week!).
I am currently in Nha Trang in Vietnam, which is a lovely beach town. It's quite modern and touristy, and there is a gorgeous backdrop of verdant mountains in the distance. Unfortunately I've been ill with the runs (ahem) so haven't seen much of this place, and as we're moving on again tonight it's only been a whistle stop tour.
Ok, so a bit of backtracking...I arrived in Bangkok on day 1, after numerous delays of up to 3 and a half hours :( thankfully I got myself safely from the airport to Ben and Rose's (my mum's friends who I was staying with for three nights). They were lovely and so accommodating. We went for a Vietnamese meal the first night, which was delish - lots of fresh herbs and rice spring rolls, mmm. They have a little girl called Tara who is a sweetie, although she didn't warm to me all that easily: she kept frowning at me whenever I tried to make her laugh. Rose says it's because she's wary of new men, but I think she just knows how little I like kids...and this is coming from someone who's volunteering in a bloody orphanage in a week or so!!
So, after arriving in Bangkok I had a few days to explore. Got lost on the second day and felt a bit overwhelmed with everything (to be fair, the maps my guidebook are pretty dismal, and everyone in my tour group will attest to this!). So it wasn't so much my lack of map reading skills (for once!). I did manage tio find my way again though, and felt pretty triumphant in the end. It's amazing how much more confident I'm becoming - because you have to be, I suppose. In Vietnam the roads are MAD - you just get to a crossing and start walking, and the many bikes and cars kind of swerve around you. Surprisingly, I seem to be getting the hang of it pretty quickly (will be a god send when I'm in Ho Chi Minh City for over two weeks).
Anyway, after the three days on my own in Bangkok I met up with my tour group at a hotel, for the Cambodia/Vietnam part of my journey. They are a nice group, mostly 19 year olds, so a bit more rowdy than I'm used to, but very friendly. There's an older lady called Charlotte (33) who's from Wales, and we both get on really well. Susie, 23, and Sarah, 22, are also really lovely. We've lost a couple of people as they were only doing the Cambodia part of the trip with us, and we picked up some newbies in Ho Chi Minh on Friday so the group dynamic has changed slightly. Lots of group 'politics' though - 'so and so' sleeping with 'so and so' etc...and 5 of them knew each other before they came away, so it's sometimes felt a little difficult to gel with them (they're all really rich aswell; from private school!). Having said that, a couple of them I really like, and I'm sharing with one of them, Matt, who is pretty down to earth. My main objective for coming on this whole trip wasn't neccessarily to make friends though, it's more about me 'finding myself' if you will, so any friends I pick up along the way will be a bonus. I'm in no way desperate to make new friends for the sake of it - I have too many good ones at home, there isn't really room for anymore!
So, from there we ventured into Cambodia. We stayed in a small town called Siem Reap which was very friendly but felt a little dingey somehow. On the first night we were taken to a local village to have a traditional khmer meal prepared by a cambodian family. It was so lovely. We were taken on tuk tuks to a raised platform with a wooden roof and ate on the floor (on cushions) under the light of the setting sun. The khmer people build their houses on stilts to avoid floods during the rainy season, so they were interesting to see. Some of them looked really quite nice; I could see myself in one!
The next day we went to Angkor Wat - an AMAZING temple complex that spans thousands (can't remember how many off the top of my head) kilometers. The main temple was incredible - so humbling. We also went to the Ta Prohm temple where they filmed Tomb Raider in 2002 (they now refer to it locally as the tomb raider temple, which I actually thought was quite sad). It was SUCH a hot day though - around 36/37 deg C! My back was a river - I kept singing Justin Timberlake's 'Cry Me a River' and wiping my back with my travel towel...ewww. Definitely one of my favourite days so far though!
The next day we got on a bus and travelled to Phnom Penh, which I wasn't that keen on - it seemed more dingey, and even though it was a larger city it felt rougher somehow. Anyway, we went the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison Museum when were there, which depicted in horrific detail the Cambodian genocide that happened between 1974 and 1979. I have to admit I didn't really know that much about it before I came, and I didn't realise the extent of the brutality that occured there. The people were treated like animals - tortured to the point of blackout, then roused back into consciousness and subjected to repeated acts of violence. And all because of fear. The politics behind it all is very complicated - for me, anyway - but the gist of it is that, after WWII, the French moved into Cambodia to keep the peace. Order was restored to the country, but the people didn't feel free like they used to. So a group called the Khmer Rouge began to form a resistance and eventually overthrew the French Rule. But the Khmer Rouge had warped ideals and wanted everyone to be docile and pliant and conform to their new order. So they made everyone work on the farms and endure hard manual labour. They made examples of intellectuals, Buddhist monks, and artists etc by rounding them up, putting them in prisons and torturing them. They were in a sort of Catch 22 situation: if, when asked if they were part of the CIA of KGB, they denied all knowledge, they were tortured until they confessed; if they said they were a member of either party they were immediately lined up, taken to the killing fields and were either shot or had their throats cut, then were thrown in mass graves. The Vietnamese finally overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and stormed the S-21 Prison. They took photos of everything they found there, as evidence. Some of these photos were displayed on the walls, and the few survivors who remain had painted murals depicting torture methods that were used on them and their friends. There were pictures of babies being smashed against trees, and people having their throats cut with the serrated edges of coconut palm leaves. It was horrendous. At one point, when were shown blood stains on the floor of the makeshift cells, I had to swallow hard to stop myself crying. I'm so glad I saw it though. It's one of those things that should be remembered as an important but tragic relic of Cambodia's ugly past.
Anyway, on a lighter note, we moved on to Sihanoukville the next day, which was a small beach town. Not a stunningly beautiful place in itself, but the beach was nice, and it was such a welcome change from the stagnant heat of Angkor Wat and inland Cambodia. The sea breeze was fantastic! And the seafood was gorge - I had a seafood bbq that included squid (cooked perfectly) and barracuda!
We stayed in Sihanoukville for two full days before heading over the Vietnamese border at Chau Doc - bit of a strange place, but we did a motorbike tour up Sam Mountain which gave us an incredible panorama of the rice paddies and lush hills in the distance. My camera batt died around here, and since I left my chargera at home - the only thing i left by the way! - there aren't any pics of this place. Other people on the tour have taken a few of me though, so when we're all friends on Facebook you'll get to see them.
After Chau Doc we travelled to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's capital city, and the place I'll be staying on my own for around 17 days. I LOVED it! Can't wait to go back! Some of the others thought it was too busy, and to be fair the roads are MENTAL with traffic. But despite the mania of the many motorbikes and taxis, it's less hustle and bustle than Bangkok, and it has some other charm about it that I can't quite put my finger on. It's not as commercial as Bangkok, although it does have some rather more upmarket establishments (I EVENTUALLY, after much searching, found myself a yoga mat which I have yet to use!). I'm getting used to the attitudes of the local drivers, and the people there can speak very good english, which is reassuring. There's also a botanical gardens, so I'm hoping to spend a whole day there, if not two, doing a bit of 'research' for my project and hopefully getting some serious writing done (have been doing bits, but's it's not always that easy when you've got someone planning your day for you). I just hope the orphanage will be ok...that's what I'm worrying about the most to be honest. I forgot to mention that in Phnom Penh we visited an orphanage for an hour, as the restaurant we had eaten at was affiliated with it, and a percentage of their profits were donated to help the orphans. It was a great experience to meet the kids. They're must have been about 20 of them, ranging from 14-17. They were all so friendly and inquisitive, and I did enjoy myself. If I managed to survive that (even if only an hour) I think I should be ok at Allambie in Ho Chi Minh City - there are less kids, and I think it will be a bit more relaxed. Check it out if you like - www.allambie.co.uk. The lady's story is pretty inspiring; that's what drew me to it. Originially, I wasn't thinking I'd neccessarily volunteer in an orphanage (my friends know how much I joke about hating kids). But, by chance, I found Suzanne's story in the Manchester Evening News newspaper and it struck a cord with me. Maybe I'm meant to go there...who knows?
Anyway, I think we might just be up to date. I have unfortunately had diorrhea for the past couple of days, and have felt rather unwell. Not just diorrhea, but headache, hot and cold sweats, dizziness etc. I've taken some loperamide though and haven't been in a good 6 hours, and I feel a heck of a lot better than I did on Friday night: we got a sleeper train from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang at 8pm and my stomach was going crazy the whole time. NOT a nice experience. We've got another sleeper train tonight as we venture on to Da Nang (then we drive to Hoi An where we stay for two whole days), so hopefully I'll be more settled this time round. Oh the joys of travelling! It's all the fresh fruit and 'daring' things I've been trying. The mango over here is divine! And the Vietnamese fresh spring rolls (made from rice 'paper' and steamed, not friend) are exquisite - lots of fresh mint and coriander. MMM. Anyway, the thought of food is actually a little nauseating at the moment; i did have a chicken burger and fries for lunch though! Staying on the western food for a while till my stomach calms down.
Ok, so I will sign off now. Sorry it has taken so long for my first post. I would promise that it won't be so long till my next one, but I don't dare...love to everyone who has bothered to read this far, and to everyone else on this vast and beautiful planet. x