Cambodia and Vietnam

There was too much unfinished business after the end of the Big Trip.

I returned to Cambodia in 2010. Not on my own this time - after a drama or two at the end of the long trip I needed to show my daughters that I was taking my health seriously.

And while I was there - well, why not drop into Vietnam while I was in the area?


Sareka House

Sareka House is home to seventeen children - all of them with parents scavenging on the dumpsite.

Sokha, who once ran the Cambodian Children's Painting Project, has moved on. A small trust fund in the UK has helped pay for materials; a group of volunteers has constructed this building; a school in East Anglia has paid for a working toilet.

The children who live here all have parents who continue to sift through rubbish on the dumpsite, in the hope of finding anything to sell. Sokha offers not only a more sanitary place for the children to stay. It is also a condition of residence that they go to school.

Serendipity Beach at sunset

It is just one small example of the resilience of the people of Cambodia. The horrors of the Khmer Rouge feel millenia away from the beach at Sihanoukeville. Shack's line the shore. Tourists lounge by the sea, sipping coconut ice.

Behind them, the town is growing exponentially. It is Cambodia's Blackpool: brash and exploitative. Fun.

And, on New Year's Eve, as many as can afford the bus fare from Phnom Penh come here with picnic and fireworks. For once the tourists, with their much-needed money, are sidelined. It is a celebration of survival.

You can't visit Cambodia without thinking about the holocaust here.

For it is impossible to visit Cambodia without trying to think about the horrors that took place here - less than forty years ago.

There are memorials, with little heaps of skulls like this, througout the country.

I can't absorb the horror of it all. Three million people died. But if I can bear to look into just one set of eye-sockets and know that this woman, or this man, lived and loved and died here - that is a nanodrop of understanding.

It is the best I can do.

Young monks looking our at the Mekong

It is, maybe, a simplistic, western, assumption that Buddhism has played a significant part in Cambodia's survival. There is a fine line between pacivity and acceptance. But the lack of rage is astonishing.

As well as religious example, monasteries provide food and education for young monks. Becoming a monk is not a lifetime commitment; rather it is seen as part of a spiritual journey. With obvious advantages for parents needing help to feed their sons.

Yet even the youngest monks have an air of serenity. These three had been joshing together - then seemed to notice the magic of the Mekong as it settles into evening; they sat, meditatively; their robes almost flourescent in the fading light.

The bamboo train

The Bamboo Train, in Battambang, was first built by the French to connect that city with Phonm Penh, enabling local farmers to take produce to more distant markets.

The track is completely straight (though the rails have warped a little in the heat, and some of the sleepers have rotted).

The 'train' is simply a fence panel on its side, on top of sets of wheels at the front and back. The engine would run a lawn mower.

It is, as you can see, single track. And so, if you meet another train coming the other way, the one with the least luggage is simply lifted off the track; the other trundles through and then it is all reassembled.

The two cushions at the front are a sop to tourist bottoms. Our fare is significantly more than any local would pay.

For this is still used. Our return trip included a crate of chickens and a man with a motorbike. Shh - don't tell the health and safety police.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat. For many tourists this is the only part of Cambodia they see. And even then, they only tramp through the tiniest corner of it.

The main site takes four days to explore. The most distance temple that is easily accessible, though has not yet been restored, is seventy kilometres away.

Archway to a temple at Angkor Wat

Even statistics like that can't begin to give you a sense of how astonishing this is.

There is, here, a fine line between 'temple' and 'citadel'. Many of these were built by emperors trying to outdo predecessors. Which explains the increasing complexity of scupltures, the extravagance of design, the sheer scale of the buildings.

Ancient stories are depicted on walls stretching around the limits of temple. And they are complete. With no squashed up bit at the edge where they ran out of space. How did they do that?

This is what the faces look like close to.

Some temples are well-organised; it is clear which route tourists are expected to take. Others are almost anarchic: I had to remind myself that, just because I was allowed to climb on every crumbling wall, didn't mean I had to. And the clambering I allowed myself included a closer encounter with a cobra than was entirely comfortable.

Yet, even here, it is impossible to forget recent history. The more distant sites are still littered with landmines. Each temple has its little troup of disabled players, hoping for money.

Our tuk tuk driver still has nightmares. He believes there is something wrong with his brain. But can remember, as a four-year old, running across a field with bullets flying above his head.


A temple at the pagoda above Dalat.

In Vietman we travelled north from Saigon to Hanoi.

Our first stop was Dalat. High above the city - reached by a cable car, is the Linh Phuoc Pagoda. It is a meandering place, with a garden full of peaceful surprises.

And, as I strolled past a line of little rooms, a monk called to me. It was one of those conversations you want to go on forever. And afterwards I couldn't remember a word. Only an image of a man totally absorbed in living each moment as if is the most important moment of his life.

Preparing for New Year in HoiAn.

Travelling north from Dalat was less easy than we had anticipated - we had failed to take account of everyone going home for the Chinese New Year.

But the other side of that challenge was the joy of seeing towns dress themselves for the celebrations.

This photo was taking in HoiAn. Every street was decorated with lamps and lanterns. It felt gloriously joyful. (And should you ever yearn for Vietnamese silk, HoiAn is the place to go.)

A wooden bridge in Hue's Old City.

We were in Hue for the celebrations themselves. My attempts to photograph the fireworks were a dismal failure. We were gathered in the Old City, with thousands of others, while the sky crackled and air smelled of smoke.

It was a different picture when we went walking the next day. Most local people were still abed; we wandered into the back streets of the Old City, and came across this bridge, leading to a small island.

Did we cross it? Of course we did. It's what bridges are for.

Our boat in Halong Bay.

A visit to Halong Bay is the highlight of any trip to Hanoi. There was some confusion as we joined a tour group, and I was beginning to suspect a scam - having read so many account of leaky boats and thoughtless staff on these trips.

But - by some miracle I never quite understood - we had this boat, the White Dolphin to ourselves. And our own cook. Our own bathrooms with jacuzzis. Huge beds with silk sheets. And a wonderful guide.

Boats gathering in Halong Bay.

So we chugged into Halong Bay in total luxury. The bay itself is littered with huge limestone island. There is a wonderful Vietnamese story concerning a vengeful goddess living in the bay to explain its existence. But even that is not explanation of its astonishing beauty.

A floating village in Halong Bay.

And it is not just a haven for tourists. Villagers still live on the water here, on platforms linked roughly together. Of course tourism supplements their meagre income, but it is still a way of life on the water has been largely unchanged for centuries.