Saigon was our last stop in Vietnam, and also the last stop of the entire two-week trip. The weather was far more pleasant than in the capital up north, so walking around the city was nice and the atmosphere and people felt very different. We did a lot of shopping, a lot of eating, and spent a lot of time next to the very much appreciated rooftop pool of the hotel. I had a nice and relaxed birthday and it was generally a good way to end the trip, which had been intense and packed with impressions.
Spent too many days in a cold and gray Hanoi, but we got to see a very random water puppet show, tried Vietnamese food, accidently attended some nice performances in the temple of literature, spent a lot of time walking around, and got to see some serious money supported god worshipping. The temples in Vietnam were filled with money, in the hands of praying people and on plates in front of the god statues. There were even special checks for people who wanted to donate bigger sums and they would come forward to the statues, stroke their feet with these checks, stroke their face and hair with the same piece of paper and then leave it for the teple workers to come with big baskets to pick it all up later and make space for more banknotes. Strange.
Stranger even was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The apparently very humble national hero who in his will wrote that he wanted his ashes to be spread across the country and a school built in his name – got the will changed by the party, and specialized russians flown in to build a very pompous mausoleum in his honour. We went there early in the morning (which is the only time it’s open) and were directed like sheep in long detours around the building to finally enter, in a perfect line and in pairs – dead silent, slowly, ordered.. it was all quite obnoxious honestly, I felt like I was being brainwashed by forced authority and the entire process, the very serious guards took my camera away, treated me coldly, attempting very hard to make me feel small, correcting the way I stand and instructing me to take my hands out of my jacket pockets. (!) And so we finally got in to see the dead man.. and it was a very bizarre experience. It was the corpse of a man who died in 1969, 79 years old.. and it looked as if he was just sleeping in a glass coffin, in a dim room, surrounded by four guards with their eyes closed. We were ushered forward by the guards as we had to walk in a steady pace, not stopping even for a second, around the coffin and out of the room again. We got out, got the daylight in our eyes, looked at each other and agreed that it had all been very weird.. “Yeah, let’s just get out of here.”
Kampong Phluk river village was hands down my favourite spot in Cambodia. A little community reachable only by boat, where people live in wooden houses on high pillars, adjusting their lives and daily activities to the levels of the river. The village is practically unreachable for almost 5 months of the year, which becomes a time when the people who otherwise work as boat captains transporting passengers become full time fishermen. Full of curious little eyes and play, all in complete symbiosis with the surrounding water – the place was as real as real gets. We stayed for sunset, when the few other tourists had already left the place, when the adults started cooking and preparing for prayer, and when the kids came out to play.
Just outside of Siem Reap lies an area packed with absolutely astonishing temples – Angkor Wat, which in Khmer means “Temple City” is the world’s biggest temple complex and Cambodia’s main pride. There are so many temples in the area that one is incapable of visiting them all in two days. My mother and I went for a full day to explore, and started off with sunrise at the main Angkor Wat which was beautiful despite the crowds of people and a young chinese boy who fell into the moat at 5am when it was still pitch black – drenching his Canon 5D Mark III. Ouch!
We then continued to my favourite of the temples, Ta Prohm, also referred to as “The Tomb Raider temple” as some scenes from the first Tomb Raider movie were shot there. Lara Croft from the first 1996 Tomb Raider computer game was my biggest idol when I was 12 years old, and I travelled the world discovering ancient temples and cultures in her company. The Ta Prohm temple felt a lot like a scene from the game – the jungle was eating its way into the 12th century construction, trees literally growing out of the ruins, the birds were chirping and the sun was shining through the leaves. It was beautiful and mystical, and luckily we got there before the crowds did – so I got some quality time with Lara.
We continued on to other temples, and the temple I called the “face temple”, Bayon, was by far the most interesting one after Ta Prohm. We went on, but as with many things – overdoing isn’t the way – so many temples, so little time! So we called it a day and went back to Siem Reap after five temples, which was just enough before getting a temple overdose, and very much worth the USD$20 one-day entry pass.
The Angkor Wat temples made me think a lot of the pyramids in Tikal, which was a very similar experience but still somehow more mystical and authentic. I think the company and amount of people decide how an experience like this turns out – in Tikal I felt like an observing explorer, like I had travelled back in time and was spending time with the Mayans, embracing their energy and taking the time to hang out properly on the pyramids. In Angkor Wat, I felt like a tourist. Walking around, progressing according to a plan, taking pictures. Apart from that brief moment with Lara, of course. That was beyond awesome.
Of the entire Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam trip – Siem Reap and its surroundings turned out to be my favourite – both in terms of the hospitality of the people, the culinary experiences, the colours, and the gereral vibe. I will blog the photos from the great Angkor Wat temples and the Khampong Phluk river village soon, they definitely added up to the experience – until then, here’s Siem Reap city. The dates are February 7th to 11th, 2014.
We are spending the last couple of hours of our trip by the pool, and I’m still overwhelmed by all the positive vibes, sweet messages and phonecalls I received on the occasion of my birthday. Thank you, my dears, for your thoughts and inventive little details – I have immense amounts of love for you.
I know I’ve been neglecting you guys, sorry about that.. but I’ve had very limited access to both internet and time. :) Anyway, we’re in Cambodia now, my mother and I, and we’re leaving for Vietnam in a couple of hours. I won’t be able to upload a proper set of photos for both Malaysia and Cambodia – but here’s a little preview of what we’ve been up to so far.