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Monthly Archives: April 2014

Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey.

-Babs Hoffman

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Over the Cambodian New Year holiday a friend and I took a trip from Phnom Penh to Hoi An (a city almost smack bang in the middle of Vietnam) and back again. We travelled completely by bus. Over 9 days and 8 nights we completed 7 separate bus journeys, spending about 72 hours on the road and travelling just under 2,500 kilometres. Needless to say, we learned a few lessons in the process.

Lesson 1: “Nothing is certain, but everything is possible”[i]

Every bus experience in Vietnam is different – even when travelling with the same company. You might get a big bus, or you might get a minivan. You might be picked up from your hotel, or you might have to walk to a different hotel halfway across town. You might get water, or you might not. Your bus might be clean and quiet, or it might reek of urine and cigarettes. And if you travel from Cambodia to Saigon during Khmer New Year, you might get stuck in traffic for five hours, resulting in the border being closed before you reach it, resulting in sleeping on the hot, mosquito-ridden bus until the border opens again, resulting in a trip that should take 6 hours taking 18. In short, expect nothing, and…

Lesson 2: Be prepared

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABring a good, long book that’s easy to get into (and don’t leave it in your backpack under the bus). I started out with Lord of the Flies but quickly realised I’d read it so many times before that it wasn’t going to hold my attention on a bumpy 7 hour journey. In Nha Trang I picked up a copy of Mark Haddon’s The Red House – perfect bus reading. Bring something to listen to, as well, for those overnight trips where your little light doesn’t work (podcasts are great – I sustained myself on Stuff You Should Know and Sunday Night Safran until my mp3 player died). Other sleeping-bus essentials include water and snacks (particularly if you’re diabetic!), socks (good for warmth and for keeping the creepy-crawlies at bay), and Valium. I’ll just write that last one again. Valium. That’s V-A-L…

Lesson 3: Consult Trip Advisor

Wi-Fi is everywhere in Vietnam (even on some buses) and this – coupled with my friend’s Smartphone – gave us fairly uninterrupted access to Trip Advisor. I’ve never really used this website before, but on this trip I found it to be an invaluable resource. Through Trip Advisor we were able to find really good hotels and restaurants in each city we visited, which saved us time once we arrived. It was largely thanks to Trip Advisor that we had very good sleeping and dining experiences across South Vietnam. Click these links to see reviews of the hotels we stayed at in Saigon, Hoi An, and Dalat.

Lesson 4: Be wary of scams

There are an astounding number of bus companies in Vietnam that offer “open-tour” (pre-paid tickets along various routes) services throughout the country. Tickets are cheap and the variety of destinations makes planning your own itinerary fairly easy. However, the abundance of companies – all with slightly different departure and arrival times – sometimes makes it difficult to find the information you’re looking for (and there is not much available online). It also makes it easy for morally questionable tour operators to convince you that the bus you’ve booked isn’t going to make your other connection, and that you need to take their bus (read: shit bus) instead. Long story short, we were scammed out of about US $20, and discovered that the tour operator for the Tam Hanh bus company in Hoi An (Minh Phuc Travel, 54 Thai Phien St., Hoi An City) is running something of a dodgy business and that Tj Le in Nha Trang (who helped us figure everything out at the other end, and even paid for our breakfast out of his own money) is awesome. Lesson learned.

Lesson 5: Vietnamese coffee cures the sleeping-bus blues

As does a big steaming bowl of breakfast pho and the fact that hotels seem to have no problem with sleepy, smelly backpackers checking in at seven in the morning. All of the hotels we stayed at (see Lesson 3 for links) let us check in early at no extra charge, which meant we could have much needed showers before seeing the sights. More often than not we were greeted with breakfast and coffee (also included in the room charge). I couldn’t have spent nearly as many nights on the sleeping bus were it not for the promise of a hotel room and numerous cups of strong, rich coffee in the morning.

Lesson 6: Walk when you can

When you find yourself (finally!) not on a bus, walk as much as you can. This not only helps you avoid swollen ankles, but also saves money on motorbikes and taxis. We found that most of the sights in each city we visited were in walking distance of our hotels, and that helpful maps were readily available. The heat can get a bit overwhelming at times, so wear sunscreen and seek out air-conditioned coffee stops along the way!

Lesson 7: Appreciate your bus-free evenings

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Four of our eight nights in Vietnam were spent on sleeping-buses, so we made the most of our ‘in town’ evenings. We did a lot of slow wandering, took extra showers, and slept really well! Spending so much time travelling meant we saved quite a lot of money on accommodation, so we were able to treat ourselves to cocktails and good meals (thanks also to Trip Advisor) when we had the time. Click these links to see reviews of the best restaurants we ate at in Saigon, Hoi An, and Dalat.

Lesson 8: Get a massage!

Sleeping buses in Vietnam may be friendly to your wallet, but they are not so to your back and neck. I’ve never felt (and heard!) my body crack as much as it did during a post-bus massage in Saigon. There are plenty of spas throughout the country that offer affordable massages, as well as facials, waxing, and manicures and pedicures. Both of the spas we visited (in Saigon and Nha Trang) were wonderfully cool and quiet, and offered lovely extras like tea, ginger-coconut lollies, and aloe vera yogurt (surprisingly yummy and refreshing).

Lesson 9: Go to Hoi AnOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It may take two 11 hour bus rides to reach from Saigon (with a stop in Nha Trang), but this Unesco World Heritage site is definitely worth the travel time. Both my friend and I agreed that Hoi An was the highlight of our trip – the old port city has been beautifully preserved, and we spent two full days wandering the streets here. Hoi An is particularly stunning at night, when what must be thousands of coloured lanterns light the city. In Hoi An time seems to stop – for a while we forgot where we were going next and completely enjoyed being where we were. A wonderfully slow-paced, enchanting experience.

Lesson 10: Make the last bus a good one

By the time we made it back to Saigon we were almost bussed out, and decided to pay a little extra for our final trip to Phnom Penh. The Giant Ibis Bus (a Cambodian based company) is $18 per person, but well worth it. The staff spoke English well, and were really helpful when it came to organising visas at the border (I’ve never crossed between Vietnam and Cambodia so quickly and smoothly before). They also provided water and bakery snacks, as well as Wi-Fi (although the connection was a little iffy at times). We arrived in Phnom Penh tired, but very happy.

There were certainly uncomfortable moments on this trip (bus-bugs and unmentionable toilet stops, to name just a couple) but these only made us appreciate the wonderful moments more (sunny beaches, hot showers, long lazy breakfasts). Adventure, beautiful sights, and great company: a perfect holiday.

[i] Moroccan saying that came to my attention via this story from the BBC.

Who killed Laura Palmer?

It’s hard to write about a show like Twin Peaks. After finally making it through both seasons and the film (Fire Walk with Me) I was left feeling disturbed, fascinated, exhausted, and (most of all) bewildered. My mind was a haze of characters, plotlines, and motifs; I had seen so much, and yet at the same time I felt like so little had happened, and so very slowly. When I looked to the Internet for clarification, I found only more confusion. In the end, I gave up on understanding this series. Watching Twin Peaks is like dreaming: at the time you are caught up, hypnotized by moments and images. But upon waking the experience is difficult to recall, and what remains is a feeling – vaguely nostalgic, vaguely haunting.

Twin Peaks is an American television series that first aired in 1990. Much of the show’s appeal at the time came from the fact that it defied categorization: part supernatural mystery (Twin Peaks set the stage for later paranormal successes such as The X-Files), part crime drama, part self-conscious melodramatic soap opera. Set in a fictional town in Washington State, Twin Peaks begins with the discovery of a dead body – a young girl named Laura Palmer, played by Sheryl Lee (the image of Lee’s pale face in the rain, along with the show’s tagline ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’, became an iconic moment in television history). Laura Palmer’s death leads to a murder investigation headed by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). The story quickly expands to include an enormous cast of characters and plotlines, and by the beginning of the second season the death of Laura Palmer becomes almost secondary to the lives of the inhabitants of Twin Peaks. A drop in ratings and subsequent pressure from the network forced creators David Lynch and Mark Frost to reveal the identity of Laura’s killer midway through season two. Many fans of Twin Peaks felt that this decision changed the nature of the show and led to its cancellation.

Twin Peaks was popular, it seems, largely because it was unlike anything else on television at the time (I’m struggling to think of any shows since that can really be compared to it). The series is at once surreal, creepy, sexy, romantic, cheesy, dramatic, and funny. The inciting incident of Laura Palmer’s death is used as an entry point into endless other stories. Mark Frost admits in this interview that he was interested in telling “a sort of Dickensian story about multiple lives in a contained area that could sort of go on perpetually”, and David Lynch (who went on to direct Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway) never intended to solve the murder at all. For Frost and Lynch, it seems, plot came second to character and theme. The strength of Twin Peaks lies in its images and ideas, in creepy visions in mirrors, cryptic clues, and dream sequences. At its core this series is investigating much more than a murder; inherent in the tone of Twin Peaks are universal questions about good and evil, sanity and madness, the nature of reality and our own minds. I’m not sure, however, if a TV series can sustain itself on questions alone, without any resolutions. Twin Peaks, at least, could not.

For me, Twin Peaks became too convoluted early in season two. I found myself feeling dragged through unnecessarily long scenes and storylines. Something about the series, however, has stayed with me: an impression of something unifying and indescribable running beneath the surface, a sense of mystery that piqued my curiosity. Twin Peaks has been compared to the recent series True Detective because of its similar surreal and sinister elements. While True Detective was criticised for tying things up too neatly at the end, Twin Peaks was ultimately cancelled for being too vague. I wonder which is better, and if – in the future of television – there will come a show that achieves the perfect balance of existential weirdness and narrative clarity.

Twin Peaks was created in 1990 by Mark Frost and David Lynch. The film Fire Walk with Me – a prequel to the series – was released in 1992.

Taking a break from reviews this week. Below is a snippet of life in Cambodia.

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I’ve had my red bike for about six months now, and she’s dusty. Her bell jangles a bit when I ride over potholes and sections of inexplicably lumpy cement, and her brakes are squeaky. But (most of the time) she gets me where I need to go.

Riding home from work in the hot-season sun I take the back street instead of the main road. I’m thinking of lunch and listening to a playlist of angst-y 1990s rock music. Then slap! A sound like a balloon bursting whacks me through my headphones. My front wheel starts to wobble. I stop to look. My tyre is squashed against the road like melted rubber. I humph, get off, and wheel my bike along the street; past half-smiling side-of-the-road-men with (so it seems) nothing better to do than watch me go by. Garbage is playing in my ears and I am grumpy. At the nail/tack/piece-of-glass. At the sun. At my delayed lunch. And at myself, for still – at 29 years old – not being mature enough to laugh at my small misfortune. I humph some more and continue wheeling and peering into side-shops, looking for a man with an air pump and inner tubes.

When I find him he appears ancient, lying back in his recliner on the pavement. His skin is tree-trunk-brown and sun-spotted, and it hangs with age. His hair is white. He doesn’t wear a shirt, just faded Puma shorts (I think of Puma’s questionable factory conditions in this country) that overlap his knees, and plastic slip-on sandals. A woman rouses him at the sight of me and my sad bike. At first he seems grumpy, too – upset maybe to be awakened from his midday siesta. Part of me groans inside. I’m dreading the language barrier, lazy now in the heat to speak Khmer. He wants to put air in my tyre at first, but then I show him the jagged tear in the rubber. He takes hold of the bike, and pokes uncertainly at its fancy leather basket pouch (I feel suddenly embarrassed by my extravagant expat anti-theft precaution). He lays the bike down and gets to work. Staring at my bike from this angle I notice for the first time that it has a quote on the side, above the pedals:

Those who are sticky about their way of life are nevertheless wonderful!

I stand on the side of the road awkwardly holding my backpack.The man pulls out my inner tube and shows me the numerous holes. I still can’t tell how he feels about me, and this situation. He shows me the little valve on my tyre, and I manage to understand that whoever put this one in did it wrong.

This moto, the man says in Khmer, shaking his head. He points to another – this bike (gong).

I nod, not sure whether I’m being told off or commiserated with. I want to tell him I didn’t know. I want to say in Khmer crazy (chguat) about my previous mechanic, but I’m scared this man will think I mean him. I want to please him, this old man bike-fixer. His approval is suddenly very important to me.

I stand and crouch and stand and crouch and try to avoid the smoke coming from his blackened tube-patching kit. He motions for me to sit in his recliner, and I start to think maybe he doesn’t hate me. I sit for a while, watching. But the smoke finds me again.

The man waves me over to look at the holes.

So big! He says, and smiles a wide smile.

I smile, too. He drags a red plastic chair around so I can sit closer to the bike and observe. A sleek Mercedes pulls onto the sidewalk and I have to shift a little. The driver nods to me in thanks when he gets out. I wonder how this old man in his Puma shorts and this Mercedes driver feel about each other. I wonder if they even think about each other at all.

Behind me – in this little pavement world – a middle aged woman with colourful pyjamas and a very short haircut (the kind people often have here after someone close to them has died) plays with three small white dogs. One is curly and scruffy. Another is very fluffy, with sharp over-biting teeth. The smallest has a red collar with a bell. It is so tiny and cute I almost lean down to pat it. The man is struggling with my bike’s valve. He tightens it, but underwater – the tube half inflated so it looks like a curved black snake – bubbles still rise. The man fights with it. He wins. He goes to get another washer from the shop and on his way he hits the cute white dog with the back of his hand. Hard enough to make it yelp.

The holes are patched. My sticky bike stands. The man asks for 5,000 riel (about $1.25) and I give him $2 – it is all I have in my wallet. He has spent over half an hour with my bike and wants so little. He grins. He asks me in Khmer where I’m going. I say home. He asks me where. I tell him. I say not far. He smiles and says finished. I ride. And I’m not grumpy. I feel good. Better than I did before the dogs, and his smile. Better than before the smoke, and the sun. Better than before my sticky bike went slap!