Sal’s Travelogue #3 – Detours

June 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Exotic South East

After traversing the Mekong Delta with new found friends, our writer Sal had to say goodbye to the Norwegians, and head north to meet up with two other travelers he befriended in his past journey. Follow him here on his detours towards the North!

Revisiting Cambodia. Photo credit - Sal Sim.

Revisiting Cambodia. Photo credit - Sal Sim.

“Sorry we didn’t send you a message sooner – the nearest internet café has been down for the past couple of days. We’ve been here three days now – you really have to see this place: it’s amazing! Come quickly to paradise, because Antoine is bored and wants to start cycling up North!”

It may have been my first solo journey, but part of it included heading up north to meet Valerie and Antoine, a pair of Canadians that I befriended on my last visit to Cambodia. The challenge wasn’t catching up with travelers on bicycles – but shortening my second visit to the wonderful kingdom of Cambodia, so I could arrive on time in Southern Laos.

Goodbyes have always been hard on me, but goodbyes had to be said nonetheless, as I parted ways with the Norwegians. Off they were, up the Vietnam coast – while I ventured west into Cambodia. Having already been to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, I was more interested in revisiting Cambodian moto riders than revisiting landmarks such as Angkor Wat and The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek).

The Killing Fields. Photo credit - Sal Sim.

The Killing Fields. Photo credit - Sal Sim.

A torture chamber. Photo credit - Mozzer502.

A torture chamber. Photo credit - Mozzer502.

Fortunately, all I had to do was show up at the very same guesthouses I stayed at previously, to share good laughs once more with Jaa from Phmom Penh, and Ratha and Tirra from Siem Reap. Since I was only in Phnom Penh for a day, I set out to see Choeung Ek again – this time, with a digital SLR that I brought as a lesson learnt from previously losing film to the airport’s x-ray machines.

The visit felt like a reiteration of my experience at Saigon’s War Remnants Museum. The memorial tower itself, with its central column of genocide skulls, presents a surreal example of how mankind’s worst demons are bred from within the human race itself.

On my way back on Jaa’s moto, I felt pretty good about bringing the DSLR – especially because of how photogenic the Cambodian countryside is, with children running after kites and the evening sunlight setting the vast fields ablaze with colour and contrast.

A day in Phnom Penh, and I was off on a five-hour bus to Siem Reap. I wasn’t there just to visit Ratha and Tirra, but also to find out if they knew anything about an overland route I could take to Laos from Siem Reap. It was already the 16th, and I was trying to make it to Si Phan Don (The 4,000 islands, Laos) by the 18th to meet Valerie and Antoine. Arriving at Siem Reap in the evening reminded me of how romantic the streets of Psar Chaa can be – especially for tourists seeking a welcoming platform from which to take in the country’s rich culture and scenery.

However, I wasn’t really that interested in all that was rustic and rich. After making contact with Ratha and Tirra from the Popular Guesthouse near Psar Chaa, we made a beeline for their favourite watering hole – which was an eight minute ride away from Psar Chaa. If Saigon Green was the beer to mark my earlier experiences in South Vietnam, then Angkor beer was the recreational icon for my short stay in Cambodia.

The beer and company was good – but news that I had to take a bus around the mountains to Laos, wasn’t. Apparently, the journey would probably take three days; with stopovers at Kompong Cham and Kratie.

Don Det. Serene and Tranquil. Photo credit - Sal Sim.

Don Det. Serene and Tranquil. Photo credit - Sal Sim.

I guess being able to hold your liquor around Cambodians is a good thing – especially since getting chummy with the big group of locals at the bar resulted in the entire bar entering a huge discussion about the fastest way for me to get to Si Phan Don. Being in touch with the locals obviously has its advantages – because I made it in the end, to the island of Don Det on the morning of the 18th – only having to spend the previous night nestled in a guesthouse in rustic Kratie.

If motorcycles represented Saigon, and Angkor Wat was the icon of Siem Reap – then Don Det would easily find co-relation to the hammock. Walking through the island’s humble pathways, it seemed like all the other travelers had found themselves new definitions of comfort through combinations of hammock, a good book and novelty ‘happy’ shakes that were an understandable favourite among the younger travelers.

‘Perhaps rushing through Cambodia was worth it’; I thought, as my eyes laid rest upon a picture perfect view of the lake, and finally, upon the sight of a very comfortable hammock hanging in the balcony of a room that the Canadians had reserved on my behalf. Don Det was when my journey truly began.

About the Author. Sal S-S. A writer by profession, a free spirit by nature – Sal believes that his life’s one purpose is to see it all, learn it all and do it all. Currently based as a freelance copywriter in Singapore, it is for life’s many unknowns and uncertainties that he sets his sights beyond borders and into new discoveries. Living and working for the journey itself and nothing less, it is with pen in hand and passion at heart that he contributes to Unearthing Asia.

Sal’s Travelogue #2 – Saigon Green

May 26, 2009 by  
Filed under Exotic South East

Last week, our writer shared with us about the start of his adventure – a month of backpacking through South East Asia on a limited budget, US$700! Here he goes to share about reaching his first destination, meeting new friends and exploring new sights!

So there I was, at the Go2 bar in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) by myself – with nothing but a pack of smokes and a bottle of the very popular Saigon Green to keep me company. After polishing off two of these, the loneliness kicked in and I found myself muttering: “I hope this trip isn’t a mistake.”

Saigon Green, very popular with the locals. Photo credit - Thalling55.

Saigon Green, very popular with the locals. Photo credit - Thalling55.

As if in response to my comment, three cute girls entered the bar, and we occasionally make eye contact. The minute the table next to theirs cleared up, I moved over and motioned for the waitress to come over, so I could order my new friends a round of Saigon Greens. Before she could take down my order, however – the girls were already waving at me to come and join them.

“You look really lonely!” said the one on my right. And that I was.

Saigon city. Photo credit – Sal Sim.

Saigon city. Photo credit – Sal Sim.

It was my first time in Vietnam, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of reminiscence – Saigon reminded me a lot of Bangkok. Upon arrival, I got on board the local bus service 152 heading towards the Pham Ngu Lao district – a district well known for hosting endless streams of travelers.

What I observed along the journey confirmed my suspicion that this city wasn’t very different compared to the Thai capital – streets bustling with traffic and hordes of its inhabitants caught up in a never-ending rush to make the most out of the workday.

My first excursion found me going on a motorcycle cruise around town, to see the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants museum. Typical tourist spots, I thought – with straightforward visits that could only leave a vague impression of all that the Vietnamese have endured during their darkest years. Hiring a guide might have provided a bit more insight – but then again, I had my budget to watch, and I was not about to part so easily with my funds; especially not on my first day.

Unfortunately, what I thought would be a good start to the day only lasted three hours, and my lack of sleep from the night before prompted me to take an afternoon nap before heading to the Go2 bar.

Saigon's War Remnants Museum. Photo credit - Sal Sim.

Saigon's War Remnants Museum. Photo credit - Sal Sim.

Agnes, Cecilie and Stina, from Norway. Truthfully, it didn’t matter so much where they were from – I’m just glad I finally had people to talk to. Drinks and chatter arrived effortlessly, and in no time at all, they invited me to join them on their DIY tour of the Mekong Delta. It didn’t take a lot to convince me, since I was alone and had nothing planned.

The next morning, we got on the mini bus for a three hour ride heading south towards the township of Ben Tre. We had some trouble locating our guesthouse, the Thao Nhi – none of the locals knew about it. By some stroke of luck, the owner himself rode by on his bike and quickly rounded up a posse of three other riders to fetch us to his very welcoming establishment, which was a good seven kilometers away from the town center.

mekong-delta-2-by-sal

Mekong Delta. Photo credit - Sal Sim.

Mekong Delta. Photo credit - Sal Sim.

After checking in, we immediately took up the owner’s offer to tour the Delta for no more than US$15 per person. That sounded a little steep in the beginning, but by the end of it we realized we definitely got our money’s worth.

I’ve always been told that if I ever got to Vietnam, the Mekong Delta would be something I would have to see. Truth be told, I never understood what the big deal was, until now. As we cruised along the river and its smaller canals, it seemed somewhat polite that the boatman would cut the motor every now and then, to allow us to fully take in the serenity offered by this well-known river. With the occasional passing boat, makeshift jetties and floating fishing houses flanking both banks on the river, there was no way either of us could resist the urge to whip out our cameras and enter a photo-taking frenzy.

This was how we spent the day: a private boat for the four of us, a tour of the various coconut-based riverside industries and a trek through lush orchards and bee farms, ending with a firefly catching session in the evening. Value for money indeed.

Sunset by the Mekong Delta. Photo credit - Sal Sim.

Sunset by the Mekong Delta. Photo credit - Sal Sim.

We were keen on keeping our stay in Ben Tre as short as possible, but not without touring the town on bicycles on our own. The girls truly enjoyed the riverside marketplace, located at the heart of town – but for me, it hardly differed from the wet markets of any Singaporean neighborhood. The exercise was good though, and nothing beats a good song coming on as you cruise the streets with locals smiling and waving as you go by.

As the evening crept up on this quiet haven away from the hustle and bustle of Saigon, we pondered about the next leg of our trip. By five thirty, we were already on a local bus headed straight for Saigon. Tomorrow, the girls would be off towards the North of Vietnam, and I would be by myself once more. My next destination? Phnom Penh, Cambodia – a city I have been longing to revisit. I’ve spent less than US$40 for an amazing three days at Saigon and Ben Tre, and decided that I could not ask for a more solid prelude to my first solo experience.

About the Author. Sal S-S. A writer by profession, a free spirit by nature – Sal believes that his life’s one purpose is to see it all, learn it all and do it all. Currently based as a freelance copywriter in Singapore, it is for life’s many unknowns and uncertainties that he sets his sights beyond borders and into new discoveries. Living and working for the journey itself and nothing less, it is with pen in hand and passion at heart that he contributes to Unearthing Asia.